It was a fairly quiet day in most corners of Gaia. Like any other day of spring, it was warm, but not too hot for the races of Gaia to enjoy themselves outside. One might consider it just another day. In one part of the world, though, a rumbling sound split the air, causing the various wildlife to start and flee.
A group of five airships flew through the air, each held aloft by a series of propellers. Colored red, the cannons along the top of each airship left little doubt that these were warships. They flew in a 'V' formation, similar to geese or other birds. On board the airships, ponies clad in red chain armor scurried about, making sure nothing was wrong with the propellers or the hulls.
On the lead airship, a solitary pony stood at the base of the main propeller shaft. It was unique because, in stark contrast to the red chain uniforms of the other ponies, this one was clad head-to-hoof in dark blue plate armor. Hardly anything could be seen of the pony's coat beneath the armor, although a slate-blue tail poked out from the rear. The flared helmet had an opening for a lavender horn to poke through. The visor was currently up, showing the unicorn's soft, rounded face and purple eyes. Currently, though, she was gazing at her hooves, a distant look in her eyes.
"Captain!" came the voice of the helmspony. "We'll be arriving at Colton shortly."
"Understood," the armored pony replied listlessly, not looking up. Her response caused a few of the red-clad ponies to pause in their duties.
One stallion turned to his companion. "Captain Twilight's been out of it for a bit, huh?"
The other soldier, a mare, snorted. "After what we did? I don't blame her at all."
Another mare walked up to them, grimacing. "Orders are orders, but this? Killing innocents just to get at the crystals?"
Twilight Sparkle, dark knight and captain of the Kingdom of Colton's Red Wings, sighed. Her thoughts turned back to the events that her subordinates were discussing.
A trio of mages stood between the Elder of Maresidia and the invaders from Colton. The soldiers advanced, as Twilight entered the room. Behind the Elder, she could see the crystal that her king wanted. She gave a curt nod to her soldiers, who drew their weapons. The pair of black mages saw this, and began their arcane chants. Two soldiers leapt at each mage, slaying them before they could finish. The lone white mage looked around, fearful, then broke and tried to run. A pair of blades ended her life quickly.
Now only the Elder stood between the soldiers and the crystal. Twilight stepped forward, as her soldiers cleared a path for her. The Elder tried to stand his ground, but she flung him aside with her telekinesis. When a couple of soldiers raised their blades to end the Elder's life, Twilight stopped them with a raised hoof. She stepped onto the dais that held the crystal, and levitated it into her saddlebags. As she stepped off the dais, she looked at the Elder with sympathy, before leaving.
"The Red Wings are supposed to protect ponies, not harm them!" a crewpony shouted.
The shout roused Twilight from her introspection, and she raised her head, stepping forward. "That's enough!" she barked, silencing the chattering soldiers.
"But, Captain!" one of the original mares protested. "You can't possibly condone what we've done!"
"Listen up, all of you," continued Twilight, ignoring the protest. "His Majesty, King Colton, concluded that the Maresidians' knowledge of the crystal was a threat to our kingdom, and so he ordered this raid. For Colton to flourish, we need the crystals, and we will retrieve them… through any means necessary." Her tone, while strong at the beginning, veered into uncertainty towards the end.
"Captain…" chorused the soldiers nearby. Even the helmspony tossed a glance back towards his commander.
Before anything else could be said, a shout came from the bow of the ship. "MONSTERS! DEAD AHEAD!"
Twilight banished her uncertainties in an instant. "ALL HOOVES, BATTLE STATIONS!" she cried, reaching up to close her visor. Soldiers scurried to the cannons, training them on the oncoming monsters. The air was soon thick with the roar of cannon fire, and the smell of lit gunpowder.
A trio of winged eyeballs, ahrimans, managed to slip past the barrage of cannon fire. Twilight narrowed her eyes, levitating a red-colored fang from her saddlebags. She flung it at the center ahriman, and hit it square in its single eye. When the fang shattered, it burst in a brilliant plume of flame, incinerating all three monsters.
These enchanted items certainly are useful, Twilight thought. Just another reason to regret having to kill as many Maresidians as we did… A pained cry from behind caught her attention, however. Whirling, she saw that one of the cannon operators had been knocked over by another monster. She grimaced, racing over. "Are you alright?" she asked.
Before the injured soldier could answer, another shouted, "There are more incoming!"
"Curses!" Twilight spat, facing the newest threat. It was an enormous bird, a zuu if she recalled correctly. She drew a blue fang from her saddlebags, and flung it. The zuu foolishly snapped the fang up in its beak. Its head was immolated seconds later by an impressive display of lightning, and the great bird fell to the ground far below.
Looking around, Twilight could see no more monsters, not on her ship nor on the others. Raising her visor, she barked out, "HEAD COUNT! Are we missing anypony?"
A few minutes later, after receiving signals from the other ships that everyone was accounted for, her own ship's headcount ended. "We're all here, ma'am," a soldier said. Twilight sighed in relief. Nopony had been lost… good.
One soldier, however, spoke up. "There've been a lot more monsters than normal lately…"
Twilight frowned. "Is this a sign of things to come…?"
The silence was only broken by the sounds of the airships' propellers.
"Captain!" called the helmspony, who hadn't budged during the whole skirmish. "We're now over Colton."
Note to self: give that stallion a raise for bravery under fire, thought Twilight. Out loud, she barked, "Everypony, prepare for landing! Once we're down, return to the barracks! I'll deliver the crystal to the King personally."
The town of Colton lay along a thoroughfare that led directly to the nearby castle. The town’s eastern and western borders did not extend past the lines made by the castle’s eastern and western walls. To some, it may have seemed a silly idea, giving potential invaders a direct line to the castle. But to the founders of Colton, it was ideal; such a castle-and-town design would minimize civilian casualties in the event of invasion.
The castle itself was quite wide, and consisted of a main keep and two large towers, one on the northwestern end of the walls, one on the northeast. The northwest tower belonged to Twilight Sparkle, and she used its topmost room as her sleeping quarters.
The sight of the Red Wings landing was, by this point, commonplace to the ponies of Colton, only a few sparing more than a glance towards the airships as they landed and their crew disembarked, heading for the castle. As her troops filed off towards their barracks, Twilight kept going straight ahead to the stairwell leading to the throne room. Along the way, however, she was intercepted by another pony.
"Well, well, well, if it isn't the triumphant hero!" said the azure unicorn that hailed Twilight. She was clad in the same red armor as the other soldiers of Colton, but she wore a flowing white cape as well, nearly a match for her cornflower blue mane. Her violet eyes, similar in hue to Twilight’s own, had a glint of condescension in them. "At least, I assume you're triumphant! You've yet to fail a mission for the King, after all."
Twilight sighed. "Yes, Captain Trixie, I was successful. The Water Crystal is in our hooves, bought with the blood of Maresidian innocents."
Trixie, Captain of the Royal Guard, narrowed her eyes. "Pity? From a dark knight? Hmph." The azure unicorn turned away from Twilight. "Whatever. Come along, Captain Twilight. His Majesty, King Colton, awaits."
Twilight followed her fellow Captain, carefully concealing her irritation. She and Trixie had never seen eye-to-eye. While she was humble and concerned for her fellow pony, Trixie was always showboating, and cared little for the feelings of others. Twilight sometimes wondered if perhaps Trixie had chosen the wrong profession; if the azure mare should have been a traveling performer rather than a guard captain.
She was brought out of her musings by an armor-clad hoof. Looking up, she realized that they were in front of the doors to the throne room, and that Trixie was holding her back. "My apologies, Captain Twilight, but I need to have a word with the King alone." Not even giving her a chance to answer, Trixie proceeded to step into the throne room, shutting the door behind her.
Twilight frowned. That was another thing that worried her, in addition to the increased number of monsters. Trixie and King Colton had had many private meetings lately. Come to think of it, it was after one of those meetings that we got our orders to attack Maresidia. Hmm… She shook her head violently to dispel those thoughts. No, I can't assume anything. For all I know, I'm being paranoid.
Her musings were interrupted as the door opened. Trixie stood on the other side. "His Majesty will see you now," the azure unicorn said with a smile. As Twilight walked forward, Trixie fell into step beside her. Pausing just before the steps, Twilight offered the King a bow.
King Colton was an earth pony with a white coat and a brilliant red mane. Well, it had been brilliant, earlier in life. Now, he was getting on in years, and streaks of grey could be seen. Nonetheless, his voice was strong as he addressed Twilight. "Welcome home, Captain. I am told that you have the Water Crystal?"
"Yes, your Majesty," Twilight replied. She levitated the crystal out of her saddlebags, and floated it over to the King.
King Colton reached out with his hooves, gripping the crystal between them. Trixie came up next to him, her eyes wide with wonder. "So, this is the Water Crystal?" the unicorn marveled.
"Indeed it is. Quite a sight, isn't it?" As he tucked the crystal away, he waved at Twilight with a hoof. "You are dismissed, Twilight."
Twilight offered another bow, and turned to leave. She hadn't gone more than a few steps before she stopped. She hung her head. I should just leave, but… Raising her head, she spun around, approaching the throne again. Trixie and King Colton were discussing something in hushed whispers. Twilight took a breath. "Your Majesty!"
The two whispering ponies jumped, spinning to face Twilight. "Yes, Twilight?" asked the King, voice placid.
"Is there something wrong?" added Trixie, her voice equally calm.
Twilight took another breath. "Your Majesty, forgive my impertinence, but what exactly are your intentions? My troops are… to put it mildly, displeased after the raid on Maresidia. They feel our orders were too harsh."
Before she could continue, King Colton raised a hoof. "Is yours among the voices that say such things?"
Twilight's eyes widened. "No, Your Majesty! I only wanted – "
"Silence!" The King cut her off. "Dissension leads only to treason, Twilight Sparkle. And that is something I can not and will not tolerate. You are hereby relieved of command of the Red Wings."
Twilight was aghast; this wasn't what she'd meant at all! "Your Majesty!" She tried to step forward, but a gesture from Trixie had two royal guards in front of her, swords drawn.
The King continued as though the interruption hadn't happened. "If you wish to earn back my favor, then slay the phantom beast that lurks within the Cavern of Mist. Afterwards, deliver this Carnelian Signet to the village beyond the cavern." He withdrew the ring from his robes, and flung it at Twilight, who caught it by reflex. "You will depart at dawn tomorrow."
Twilight attempted to protest, but she was forced back a pace by the royal guards. Glancing at Trixie, she saw the guard captain had a very smug look on her face. Grimacing, Twilight tried to come up with a way to reason with the King. Before she could, however, the door to the throne room banged open, and a purple blur zoomed in, a rainbow contrail in its wake. Twilight mentally groaned, knowing that this wouldn't help.
"Now wait just a minute!" A sky-blue pegasus said as the blur resolved into her. Her rainbow-striped tail was the only part of her distinctive traits that wasn’t covered by her purple, draconian-shaped armor. "You're demoting her just for asking a question? That's just unfair!"
"Rainbow…" warned Twilight, but the pegasus ignored her.
"Are you just going to demote anyone who even tries to – "
"ENOUGH!!" roared King Colton, silencing the pegasus. He glared at her, as did Trixie and, to a lesser extent, Twilight. "Rainbow Dash, you know better than to address me in such a way! But if you are so worried for Twilight, then by all means, go with her! And don't come back without delivering the signet!" With a curt nod, the guards forced both Twilight and Rainbow through the door.
Outside, Twilight continued glaring at the pegasus. "You did that on purpose, didn't you?" She had dropped the formal tone that she normally used in the King's presence.
"Eh-heh…" Rainbow Dash, commander of Colton’s dragoon forces, rubbed a hoof behind her head in embarrassment. "Maybe. As if I'd let you go off to that cave all alone." She threw a hoof around Twilight's shoulders, being careful since they were both wearing full-plate armor. "Come on, one monster killing, one little delivery, and you'll be back in the air in no time at all."
Twilight sighed. "I hope it's that easy. I think I need to read up on this 'phantom beast'." She began walking away.
"Oh, get some actual sleep for once, would you?" quipped Rainbow. "I'll do the research this time. Leave everything to me."
Twilight blinked, but then smiled at Rainbow. "Thanks. Sleep sounds good…" She walked away as Rainbow flew off into a nearby room to begin planning.
Twilight retrieved a few items from a storeroom on her way to her tower. I know Rainbow said to leave everything to her, but she's forgetful sometimes, she thought. She continued down the hall, thinking about what other preparations she could make. Before she could get out into the courtyard, however, a voice called out to her.
"Twilight!" Turning around, the dark knight found herself facing another unicorn. Unlike Trixie, however, Twilight felt no irritation speaking to the white mare before her. Even if she did spend forever and a day on her mane and tail.
"There you are, darling, I heard you'd returned!" Rarity, resident white mage and dressmaker, said as she trotted down the stairwell. "I'm rather put out that you didn't tell me you were leaving in the first place, dear. Are you quite alright?"
Twilight sighed. Rarity was a little fussy, but the white mare meant well. "I'm fine, Rarity. Physically, anyway, aside from a little fatigue. Wish I could say the same for the Maresidians…"
Rarity's blue eyes narrowed. "Well, I can see you need your rest, Twilight. I'll visit you in your tower later, okay?"
Twilight was grateful that her helmet covered most of her cheeks, so Rarity couldn't see her blush. "O-okay," she said, cursing the stutter that appeared.
Rarity didn't notice, though, and simply trotted back up the stairwell after giving Twilight one last look. The dark knight sighed. That mare… I wonder why she fell for me?
Twilight was far from blind, or stupid. She knew that the fashionista had feelings for her. The problem was, Twilight wasn't sure if she reciprocated those feelings. As a dark knight, Twilight was trained to harden her heart against emotion. Yet Rarity and, to a lesser extent, Rainbow Dash, had managed to find places in that hardened heart. Rainbow was a good friend, while Rarity… Rarity wanted to be more.
Twilight yawned, breaking her chain of thought. "Bah, I'll worry about it later," she muttered. Looking up, she blinked as she realized she was outside her tower. She paused for a moment, then shrugged as she got ready to open the door.
"Twilight Sparkle, my dear friend! It's been some time, how have you been?" Twilight sighed, turning away from the door to greet another pony in her life. Though, perhaps ‘pony’ wasn’t quite the right word. Her coat was a dusty grey, with a darker grey set of stripes running across her body. Her mane and tail likewise had alternating stripes of white and dark grey in them. She wore blue coveralls that hid most of her body, and a set of saddlebags that carried much of her portable engineering and alchemical equipment.
"I've been better, Zecora," Twilight answered honestly.
Zecora, the lead airship engineer for Colton, blinked at the lacklustre response. "Why, what is wrong, dear Twilight? Your eyes are as dark as your armor tonight." As was her custom, the zebra mare spoke in rhyme. She’d confessed to Twilight once that she did so in homage to the zebra homeland, which had been lost long ago to monsters. The remaining zebra now lived in the village of Mythrein, on an island in the middle of the ocean, co-existing with minotaurs and griffons. Zecora had come to Colton, though, to study new and improved means of transportation. Through working for the King, she had come to know and befriend Twilight, Rainbow, and Rarity.
"Well, I retrieved the crystal from Maresidia, as ordered. But we had to kill several of the mages to do so. When I told King Colton that my troops weren't happy about it, he removed me from command of the Red Wings," Twilight explained in a dull tone.
The zebra's eyes flashed. "Removed from command?! An absurd move! What will the Red Wings do without you?" She sighed, pawing the ground with a hoof. "The King's actions mystify me. I do not know what his intentions could be."
"I'm as confused as you are, Zecora," Twilight said. "I've been asked to slay the phantom beast in the Cavern of Mist, then to deliver this Carnelian Signet to the village beyond."
Zecora nodded. "Swiftly you must do this task. I will rest easy once you come back. Now, I believe it is time for me to go. My roommate has a temper, as you well know." As Twilight chuckled, Zecora turned and trotted off.
Twilight sighed again, then turned around to enter the tower. After greeting her maid, who assured her that her room was spotless, Twilight climbed up to her room. She then took off her helmet, shaking out her mane. Piece by piece, she removed her armor, until she was down to the leather jerkin she wore underneath. Stripping that off, she placed the armor on one ponequin in her room, the jerkin on the other. Her lavender hide was now bare to the world. On her flank, her cutie mark of six stars was revealed.
Twilight climbed into her bed, pulling up the covers. Gazing out of the window, she sighed. "What's come over King Colton, recently?" she wondered aloud. "He's become obsessed with the crystals. And ordering us to kill innocents to retrieve them…" She shook her head violently. "Still, I can't defy him. How could I? He raised Rainbow and I like we were his own foals. This will all turn out right in the end. I'm sure of it." With that reassurance, Twilight closed her eyes to go to sleep.
A few minutes later, just as Twilight was beginning to doze off, she heard hoofsteps on the stairs. Blinking rapidly, she sat up, as Rarity stepped in. The white mare was far from pleased. "Twilight Sparkle, what is the meaning of this?"
"What do you mean?" Twilight asked, suppressing a yawn.
"You know full well what I mean!" snapped Rarity. "Rainbow Dash told me that the two of you are off to kill some phantom beast tomorrow! Why? You only just returned from Maresidia! Can't the King give you some time off?"
Shrugging, Twilight turned away from Rarity. "You know as well as I do that the King's word is law, Rarity."
She could almost hear Rarity's frown. "Twilight, what is wrong with you? You're acting… rather oddly."
"Nothing's wrong, Rarity," Twilight replied, a little quickly.
"That's not what you said earlier," scoffed the white mare. "Twilight, look at me."
For a few moments, Twilight considered just lying down to ignore her. But she knew Rarity wouldn't leave just like that. The lavender unicorn sighed. "I had to kill several Maresidians just to get to the crystal. I'd never turned my blade against another pony before. I guess as a dark knight, I can't avoid this. Soon, I'll probably stop feeling remorse for the lives I take."
Rarity stepped closer, her frown replaced by a look of concern. "You and I both know that will never happen, Twilight Sparkle."
Twilight sighed, flopping back onto her bed. "I wish I was as certain as you. But I can't defy the King. By the Sun, I'm a coward…"
"Twilight Sparkle, you are not a coward!" Rarity exclaimed. "How could you even say such a thing? This isn't the Twilight I love!"
She clapped a hoof to her mouth as she said that, and spun to face away from Twilight, who'd sat up to face her. For a moment, there was an uncomfortable silence between the two.
"You leave for Mist at dawn, yes?" Rarity finally asked, her voice calm.
"That's right," Twilight replied. "But don't worry about me. Rainbow's coming, too. We'll be fine."
Rarity nodded, and began walking to the stairwell. As she reached it, she turned back to face Twilight. "Come back to me in one piece." With that, she trotted down the stairs.
Twilight looked after her for a moment. "Thanks, Rarity. But you know that we can't be together. A dark knight and a white mage… it would never work out between us."
She laid back down, facing the window, as she drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, Twilight met Rainbow in the foyer. Both were fully dressed in their armor. Rainbow gave Twilight a smirk. "Ready for some action, Twi?"
Despite herself, Twilight grinned back. "You know it. Let's kill us some monsters."
Rainbow laughed. "Lead the way, oh mighty slayer of toads."
Chuckling, the two mares departed the castle.
And so, the dark knight Twilight Sparkle was stripped of her command as captain of the Red Wings. She and the dragoon commander Rainbow Dash head toward the dark valley that houses the village of Mist.
With the dawn of the airship came the realization of Colton's dreams, but also the beginning of its militarism.
The Royal Air Force, the Red Wings, soon marked Colton as the leading superpower of the world. Now, with monsters plaguing the land, Colton uses its power to collect the world's crystals. Why?
The crystals silently shed their light…
"Okay, so we have potions, tents, antidotes, phoenix downs, armor and weapons… did we miss anything, Rainbow?"
"For the twentieth time, Twilight, I got everything we needed!"
Twilight Sparkle winced. "Sorry, I just wanted to make sure…"
Rainbow Dash sighed. "I know, I know. I'm sorry for snapping at you. But, you're a little obsessive with being overly prepared for everything, aren't you?"
"I prefer to think of it like this: Would you rather have something, and not need it, than need something and not have it?" Twilight asked with a quirked eyebrow.
Rainbow blinked, taking a moment to puzzle out the sentence. "I… guess that makes sense. I can understand double-checking. It's when you get into checking twenty times that I get irritated. I mean, we should have been on the move an hour ago. I'm getting antsy."
Twilight rolled her eyes, but realized her friend was right. They were wasting valuable time, time they could use to hunt the phantom beast. "You're right. Let's get going."
"Finally!" Rainbow whooped and took off, heading for the path that led out of the town of Colton. Twilight thundered after her. The various townsponies scrambled to get out of the way, not wanting to be run over by the heavily-armored ponies.
Within minutes, they'd left the town proper, and were moving west across the plains of Colton. Rainbow flew, but not too fast for Twilight to keep up. Twilight herself ran along at a brisk pace, eager to complete the mission. The sooner the assignment was done, the sooner she could get back in the King's good graces.
Rainbow, flying a little above Twilight, spotted their first obstacle ahead of them. "Party of three imps, dead ahead!" she called, reaching for the spear that was slung across her back. It was a testament to her training and skill that she didn't slow down to draw the weapon, holding it by the hoofstraps along the pole.
Twilight, hearing Rainbow's warning, unsheathed her blade with her magic. She didn't slow either, not even as the first imp came into view. With a swing of her sword, the hapless monster was decapitated, managing only a guttural squeak as it died.
The other two spun to face Twilight, but one was quickly dispatched by Rainbow's spear impaling it through the torso. The remaining imp looked between the two armored ponies, and decided discretion was the better part of valor. It turned to retreat. But, quick though it was, it only had two legs. Twilight bore down on it, stabbing it through the back. It expired quickly.
"Imps? If that's all we fight between here and the phantom beast, I'll be disappointed," Twilight said with a scoff.
"Heh. A little bloodthirsty, Twilight?" Rainbow asked, smirking. "I guess the dark knights’ reputation for bloodlust has a little basis in fact, eh?"
Twilight shrugged in dismissal. "Given our abilities draw upon our inner darkness, it’s not too surprising. And at least these are mere monsters, not other ponies."
Rainbow nodded slowly. "Yeah, Rarity told me you seemed a bit shaken by what happened at Maresidia. It just seems… alien, to me, turning a weapon on another pony like that."
Twilight sighed. "It was the King’s orders, so I didn’t really have a choice." She shook her head, trying to clear it. "Let’s move on before I have to think about this too much more."
Rainbow nodded in agreement, and the two continued on, albeit at a more sedate pace than before. Eventually, the pegasus asked a question that had been on her mind for a while. "So why don't you ever open up to Rarity?"
Twilight leveled a glare at Rainbow. "You know why, Rainbow. I'm a dark knight. It's forbidden for us to become… attached to anypony else in that way."
"That's an excuse, Twi, and you know it," Rainbow retorted, flying backwards in front of Twilight. "Ignoring the whole dark knight thing, are you interested in her or not?"
Twilight frowned. "I won't deny that there's some attraction there, but I can't act on it. Not while I carry this dark blade."
Rainbow rolled her eyes. "She studied white magic for you, you know. She even dropped her time at her own dress shop just so she could be with you more. Honestly, if I were you, I'd have said 'buck the rules', and gone after her!"
Twilight sighed. "Rainbow, just drop it, please?"
Rainbow shook her head, annoyed at her friend's stubbornness. "You know, it's things like this that make me glad I'm a dragoon, not a dark knight. I mean, sure, you outrank me, but at least I don't have to ignore somepony who's interested in me."
Twilight took the opening for a change in topic. "So, why did you become a dragoon, anyway? You've never really told me."
Rainbow leveled a half-lidded stare on her, but decided to drop the subject. "My mom. She was a legend among the dragoons. I wanted to live up to her name."
Twilight nodded, then skidded to a stop as they came to the foot of a mountain range. "Okay, where to, research girl?" she asked teasingly.
Rainbow stuck her tongue out at Twilight, but cast her gaze around. Finally, she pointed north. "There's a path through the mountains there that leads to the cave."
The pair made their way through the mountains, eventually coming to an opening. Mist issued forth from the cave entrance. "This must be it," Twilight said, stepping through.
Rainbow followed, landing behind her. "Ugh, the low ceiling here's going to put a major crimp in my fighting style," she complained.
"I know, I know, so let me do the heavy lifting," Twilight replied, keeping her sword drawn. A group of imps tried to attack en masse, five of them looming out of the mist in front of them. Twilight's blade glowed purple, however, and a pulsing wave of energy shot forward, killing them all. Twilight panted a little from the exertion.
"That's another reason I don't wanna be a dark knight," Rainbow said, tossing Twilight a potion. "I'd rather not hurt myself to hurt monsters. I mean, that kinda defeats the purpose of killing monsters, doesn't it?"
"Maybe," Twilight answered, throwing back the potion. Instantly, she felt better. "But it's handy to deal with lots of weaklings at once, isn't it?"
"Eh, point taken," Rainbow sighed. "Still, how much damage would you have taken if we'd tried taking them out the long way?"
Twilight paused, then shrugged. "Meh. I didn't want to dignify any of them by letting you kill them. I mean, being slain by Colton's dragoon commander would be something to tell your ancestors, wouldn't it?" she said, stroking Rainbow's ego.
The praise worked, as Rainbow puffed out her chest a little. "Yeah, you do have a good point. They weren't worth my time, let alone my spear's."
Twilight chuckled a little at how easy her friend was to distract. Ah, Rainbow. You're so predictable… but you're also steadfast and loyal.
Suddenly, a booming voice echoed from around them. "TURN BACK!"
The pair jumped, looking back and forth around them. "Who's there?!" called Twilight. There was no reply.
Despite the voice's warning, the two proceeded deeper into the cave. A few more monsters showed themselves, but were cut down remorselessly by the pair of ponies. Their levity had fled the moment they'd heard the voice, and now they were all business.
A few minutes later, they heard it again. "LEAVE AT ONCE!"
Rainbow narrowed her eyes, though it was hard to tell in the gloom. "I'm going to go out on a limb, and say that's our phantom beast."
Twilight nodded, looking around. A faint light caught her attention. "Rainbow, over there! I think that's the exit!"
Looking in the indicated direction, Rainbow smiled. "Good job, Twi! Let's get going."
The two made their way towards the light, climbing a rough-hewn stone staircase. At this point, the low ceiling opened up into a rather large open area. The light issued from an opening in front of them.
"Hey, not bad! I think I could stretch my wings in this little section," Rainbow said, lifting off into a hover.
Before Twilight could comment, the voice came again. "Knights of Colton, leave at once, or suffer my wrath!"
Twilight narrowed her eyes. "We're on a mission to the village of Mist. We aren't turning back now!"
"So be it, fools!"
Rainbow felt the air beginning to move, and blinked. What could that mean? Then she saw that the mist was beginning to clear up in other parts of the cave, and it struck her. "Twilight, the phantom beast IS the mist!"
As she spoke, a shape took form in the mist. It was a large dragon, with glowing green eyes. It glared at the pair of knights, and bellowed.
Twilight grimaced, and readied her sword, while Rainbow drew her spear. "A mist dragon, huh? Let's do this, Rainbow!" the unicorn said, and she struck at the dragon with her blade.
In response, the dragon took a swipe at Twilight, knocking her back a few paces. Rainbow began to flap furiously, gaining altitude in the open area within the cave.
Twilight and the dragon continued to exchange blows. It wasn't clear which of them was coming out on top, because while the dragon had more stamina, Twilight was hitting harder. Still, the dragon's arrogance showed in its next statement. "Hmph. Your friend doesn't seem to be keen on helping you."
Twilight only smirked in response. "You don't know how dragoons fight, do you?"
It blinked, just as Rainbow descended on it from above, burying her spear into its back. It howled in agony, as the pegasus pulled the spear out, and flew back to join Twilight. "That's how it's done!" Rainbow crowed.
Then the dragon began to fade away, its body becoming formless mist again.
"Oh, no you don't!" Rainbow yelled, flying forward to jab it with her spear again.
"Rainbow, wait!" Twilight called, but it was too late, as the spear passed through the mist without any effect. A moment later, both ponies shrieked as the mist began to buffet them with frigid blasts of wind.
"Ow ow ow!" Rainbow yelped. "SO not cool!"
"Rainbow, I read about mist dragons in a book once! We have to wait until it reforms, then we can finish it off!" Twilight explained, pulling a potion out of her saddlebags and downing it.
Rainbow drank her own potion. "And what's to stop it from freezing us to death in the meantime?"
"Mist dragons, in their mist form, will only attack if they are attacked. So, we just need to wait," Twilight explained.
Rainbow shook her head. "None of the stuff I read said anything about that!"
"Well, did you know exactly what the phantom beast was?" Twilight asked.
Rainbow blinked, then sighed. "No."
Before Twilight could comment, the mist began to swirl back together, forming the dragon's shape again. "Now, Rainbow!" Twilight swung her sword again, scoring another hit.
Rainbow took to the air again, reaching her peak height faster this time. She then descended, stabbing the dragon once more, just as Twilight struck again. The two blows finally did it, as the dragon let out a grisly howl, before dispersing into nothingness. Not even the mist remained behind.
"Heh! Looks like it's clear sailing from here to Mist!" Rainbow said with a grin.
"Looks like it," Twilight answered. Together, the pair left through the exit.
About an hour after leaving the cave, the two mares came to a hamlet in the middle of the mountains. "So, this is the village of Mist, huh?" Twilight asked.
"Yep. Kinda small and out of the way, but it looks pretty nice," Rainbow replied.
Twilight fished around in her saddlebags, floating the Carnelian Signet out into view. "I wonder who we're supposed to bring this to?"
"Dunno. Let's just ask around," Rainbow said with a shrug.
Sadly, they never got the chance to do so. As they crossed the threshold into the town, the ring began to glow a fierce red. Twilight, in surprise, dropped it. "What in the world?!"
The ring suddenly shattered, releasing a horde of fiery monsters that swarmed all over the village. Within seconds, every building was aflame. The townsponies were all screaming… those that were still alive after the initial fires, anyway.
Twilight and Rainbow stared, horrorstruck. "What… what is the meaning of this?" Twilight mumbled, barely able to think straight.
"King Colton… he must have known about this. He wanted this village destroyed," Rainbow said flatly.
This was too much for Twilight. She slammed a hoof on the ground, and screamed at the heavens. "WHY?!"
Rainbow looked at her distraught friend, wondering what to do. Suddenly, another sound caught her attention. It was the sound of somepony weeping. Rainbow opened her mouth to tell Twilight, but the unicorn was already moving towards the sound. Rainbow flew after her.
What they saw shocked them even further. A yellow pegasus filly stood crying over the body of an older mare. The filly's pink mane stood out against the thin green cloak she wore.
"Please, Mother! You can't die! Even if your dragon's gone, you don't need to go with him! Please!" the filly sobbed out. Her voice was surprisingly soft, which made the sound of her weeping all the more heart-wrenching.
Rainbow and Twilight exchanged shocked looks. "You don't think…?" the unicorn began, unwilling to finish the sentence.
Rainbow nodded. "Summoners. I've heard about them. Ponies who can call forth special monsters called eidolons to help them out. It's said that if an eidolon is slain while summoned, the backlash can seriously injure, or even kill, the summoner in question."
"Then… that dragon we killed… that was an eidolon?" Twilight asked with a distinct sinking feeling.
The filly choked at that, and spun around, revealing wide aqua-blue eyes. She flicked her gaze from Twilight to Rainbow and back. "You… you two were the ones who killed my mother's dragon?" she asked in that same soft voice, taking a step back.
"I… I'm so sorry," Twilight said, lowering her head. "I never meant for this to happen…"
"I don't believe this," muttered Rainbow. "King Colton wanted to wipe this whole village off the face of the map, just because of the summoners."
"This… this can't be happening," Twilight murmured, horror causing her voice to be almost as soft as the filly before them.
"Ugh, it makes me sick to have been part of this. But, we ought to make a clean job of it," Rainbow said flatly.
Twilight snapped her head around, eyes wide. "You… you can't be serious, Rainbow!"
"Hey, it's her or us, Twilight," Rainbow replied in that same dull tone.
Twilight couldn't believe what she was hearing. "She's a filly! She doesn't even have her cutie mark yet! And you're just going to kill her?"
Rainbow arched an eyebrow. "You're turning traitor to Colton, Twi?"
"Traitor? Nopony who orders things like… THIS," Twilight waved a hoof around, indicating the burning village, "could ever hold my allegiance. I'm washing my hooves of this here and now!"
Rainbow gave her a long look, then began chuckling. "I knew you were going to say that," she said, a familiar cocksure tone replacing her previous flat voice.
"Wha – ?" Twilight began.
"You really thought I'd disgrace my mother's memory, and the honor of the dragoons, by being party to genocide? Buck that!" Rainbow said vehemently.
Twilight nearly collapsed with relief. "So, you're with me?"
"Duh," Rainbow said with another chuckle. She sobered quickly, though. "Still, we're in a pickle, here. Colton's the world superpower right now. If we're going to fight them, we can't do it alone. We need to warn the other nations – tell them what's happened here. And Rarity'll want to join us, too. I guarantee that."
"Thanks, Rainbow," Twilight said, glad that her friend wasn't being heartless.
"No problem. Now let's grab the kid and get out of here," Rainbow replied. "The smoke's going to get to us if we stay here too much longer."
Twilight nodded, and turned back to the filly. "Come on, we need to get out of here!"
"No!" The filly's voice was still soft, but she shook her head as she took another step back.
"Ugh, we don't have time for this, Twi!" groaned Rainbow. "Just snatch her up with your magic, and let's run!"
"Stay back!" Was the filly's voice rising in volume?
Twilight sighed, and began to reach out with her magic to lift the young pegasus up. "Look, we need to leave, and – "
"NO!" This time, the filly's scream was very audible. It was accompanied by a change in her demeanor, as she leveled a massive glare on the two elder mares.
Twilight couldn't explain it. She found herself paralyzed in fear of this pegasus filly! She couldn't move an inch! Beside her, she heard Rainbow whimpering, likely in the same position. Before Twilight could try to think of a way to get around the paralysis, she noticed that the filly was surrounded by a green glow.
"JUST! GO! AWAY!" the young pegasus yelled. Suddenly, the ground between the filly and the elder mares began to rumble. A massive, hairless arm burst from the ground, followed by another. The two arms pushed on the ground, forcing out a proportionally massive head and body. The titanic being then pushed extra hard on the ground, sending itself a few stories into the air, before coming back down.
Oh, horseapp – Twilight's thought was cut off as the earth shook violently. The good news was, she was no longer paralyzed with fear. The bad news was, she still wasn't able to move under her own power. Mostly, that was due to the earth shaking her around like a ragdoll. Before she could even process what was happening, a stray chunk of the earth rose up under her, sending her head-over-hooves to land on her head. Blackness overtook her seconds later.
"Ugh…" moaned Twilight as she slowly came to. "Not… fun…" She slowly rose to her hooves, shaking her head to clear it. As she did so, she noticed a pink blur out of the corner of her eye. Walking over, she noticed that the pegasus filly was unconscious. At least, Twilight hoped she was just unconscious. Taking off her helmet, Twilight put her ear next to the filly's chest. A moment later, she sighed in relief as she heard a heartbeat.
"That's one worry out of the way," Twilight murmured as she put her helmet back on. Then a thought struck her. "Rainbow!" She glanced around, but there was no sign of the prismatic pegasus. "Ugh… I can't just leave her behind! But," she looked back at the filly, "I can't let her stay here either. Argh! What do I do?!"
As she complained, she noticed that the filly's complexion was rather pale, even through her yellow hide. "She must have exhausted herself summoning that massive eidolon. If I don't get care for her soon, she'll be in trouble. Oh, Rainbow, I'm sorry!" She magicked the filly onto her back, and set off through the only path in the mountains around her. A tear fell from her eye as she did so. "I hope you understand."
Twilight Sparkle grimaced as she trudged through the desert. The monsters here were relatively weak, but without a partner, she had to rely on her Dark Wave to dispatch groups of enemies. Since the technique drained her life force with every use, she had to stop to quaff a potion more often than she'd like. Fortunately, her precious cargo of one pegasus filly was unscathed.
"I hope I can find somewhere for her to rest soon," Twilight murmured. "I heard that this desert has a town built around an oasis. I need to head there." A trio of domovois, slightly stronger cousins of the imps, interrupted her, and she blew them away with a Dark Wave. Panting, she pulled out another potion. "I'm beginning to run low on these, too."
After another hour of trudging through the sand, Twilight finally saw a town. "Oh, please don't let this be a mirage," she prayed, as she broke into a full gallop through the dunes, keeping the pegasus secure to her back with her magic. Her prayers were answered, as the image of the town didn't fade as she approached. Instead, it became more solid, and she nearly wept with relief.
Barreling through the gate in the town's wall, Twilight glanced around. "Inn, inn, where's the inn?" she muttered frantically. She spotted the sign quickly, and cantered toward it, making sure to keep her burden on her back. It wouldn't do for the filly to be hurt now that they were out of danger.
The door opened, and a bell jingled, alerting the innkeeper to her presence. "Ah, a traveler! What can I do for – " He trailed off as he noticed Twilight's passenger. "Oh, my. She's rather pale, isn't she? Please, feel free to spend the night, no charge!"
Twilight smiled. "Thank you so much," she said gratefully, and headed to the nearby room. She levitated the filly off her back, and onto one of the beds, tucking her in carefully. She then went back to the front desk, where she found a couple of trays laden with food waiting for her. Giving another grateful smile to the innkeeper, she levitated the trays back to the room. Setting one tray on the table next to the filly's bed, she removed her helmet to eat her own meal.
The smell of the food must have penetrated the cloak of unconsciousness, as the filly began to stir. Blinking her blue eyes, she flicked her gaze around the unfamiliar walls, before she spotted Twilight. With a whimper, she tried to burrow deeper into the bed, away from Twilight.
Twilight looked up. "Are you okay?" She paused, then shook her head. "Dumb question, of course you're not okay. Are you unhurt, is what I meant to ask?"
The filly just stared at her, with those aqua blue eyes filled with fear.
Twilight sighed. "I understand completely if you can't forgive me. I mean, I'm having trouble forgiving myself for doing such a thing. But, at least let me make it up to you. Let me protect you."
The filly just continued staring, not even blinking.
Twilight winced. This was going to be more difficult than she thought. "There's some food and ice water on the table there," she pointed with a hoof. "You should probably eat up. You've been out of it most of the day."
This, at last, seemed to break the spell of fear on the filly. She turned to the tray that sat next to her bed. Slowly, she reached for it, grasping the glass of water in both forehooves. She took a tentative sip, before proceeding to drink the entire glass without pausing. Setting the glass down, she took the sandwich, and began eating, slowly.
"I've never actually seen a summoner before, let alone an Eidolon. You're pretty powerful, especially for somepony so young," Twilight commented, between bites of her own sandwich.
The filly didn't respond, content to slowly work her way through the provided meal. When she was done with the sandwich, she took the wedge of cheese, and carefully ate it, one bite at a time.
The unicorn sighed, and began taking off her armor. "Once you're done eating, try to get some sleep. Being unconscious isn't the same as being asleep, so you need to recover properly." Setting her armor aside, she kept her jerkin on. She crawled into the bed next to the filly's, setting her tray on the other table. She dozed off within moments, a testament to how exhausted she was.
The filly finished her cheese wedge, and looked at Twilight. Her eyes were no longer filled with fear, but curiosity. She settled back down into the bed, following Twilight into dreamland.
The two travelers were awoken by the sound of the inn's door being thrown open forcefully. Twilight sprang to her hooves, standing between the filly and whatever was coming through. What she saw filled her with dread.
A trio of soldiers from Colton entered the room, followed by one that bore the insignia of a captain. "Captain Twilight Sparkle, there you are," the captain said. He was an unfamiliar earth pony.
The filly whimpered, scurrying back into her sheets. Twilight looked back at her, then to the captain. "What are you doing here?" she asked, feeling around for her sword with her magic.
"I believe you know, Captain Twilight," the other captain said simply. "The summoners of Mist are a threat to Colton. All of them must be slain. Including that filly behind you. So sayeth His Majesty, King Colton."
Twilight narrowed her eyes. "The King is clearly not in his right mind, if he orders the deaths of ponies so young. This one doesn't even have her cutie mark."
"That is irrelevant," the captain said with a frown. "Now stand aside, if you're not going to do the deed yourself!"
Finding her sword, Twilight unsheathed it, and held it in front of her. "I'll take a third option: I'll protect her from Colton!"
"Traitor!" bellowed the captain. "Attack!"
The other three soldiers complied with the command, drawing their swords. One of them, however, was struck down as Twilight swung her own blade. She fought down the rising taste of bile in her throat, and parried the blows from the other two soldiers. She swung again, ending another soldier's life. Mentally, she prayed for forgiveness for slaying her own country's ponies.
The captain growled, then turned to look at the filly. She was watching the scene in wide-eyed horror. He grinned. Drawing his own blade, he leapt past the melee, intent on ending the young pony's life. The filly looked up and shrieked as she saw the captain bearing down on her.
Twilight heard the shriek, and broke off her attack on the last soldier. She wasn't wearing her armor, which proved to be a double-edged sword. On one hoof, she could move much faster than the armored captain. On the other, she wasn't as well protected against attacks. Without enough time to bring her sword to parry, she threw herself bodily over the filly, and cried out as the captain's blade cut into her back. Luckily, her leather jerkin took the worst of the blow, but she was still bleeding.
"So, even a dark knight can be brought low by emotion," the captain scoffed. Twilight turned around slowly to face him, her teeth clenched in pain. "Take this lesson to heart as you pass on, traitor."
"How dare you…" a soft voice said. Blinking, Twilight and the captain turned to look at the young pegasus. "How DARE you!" Aqua eyes burned with anger, and the captain found himself frozen in place by the glare. "You attacked her, your own comrade, just because she's doing the right thing?!" The filly began to glow.
Twilight, recognizing this, grimaced. "Oh, please, don't level the town again," she whispered.
This time, however, instead of the creature from before, what was summoned was a larger-than-average chocobo. The yellow bird charged at the captain, bowling him over, before stomping on him repeatedly. When it vanished, the captain was little more than a pony-shaped pile of broken bone and flesh.
The last soldier, seeing this, simply stared in shock. He didn't even notice as Twilight flung her blade at him, until the sword pierced his neck. Then he didn't notice anything.
Twilight panted, pulling her sword out of the soldier's corpse. She winced as she could feel the cut in her back. Ignoring it for now, she turned to look at the filly. "Thanks for the help," she said.
The filly bore a thousand-yard stare. "I… I just… killed somepony," she whispered in horror.
Twilight flinched, but reached over to draw the young pegasus into a hug. "It's okay, don't look. It's never easy, the first time," she assured.
The filly buried her head in Twilight's chest, dry sobbing. "Just… not looking at it… isn't going to make it go away."
Twilight couldn't think of anything to say about that. Before she could ponder further, the innkeeper walked in, shaking his head to clear it from the grogginess of sleep. "What happened in here?" he asked, before looking up. He gasped at the sight of the room.
"Soldiers from Colton," Twilight answered. "There were after this little one. I decided to get in their way."
The innkeeper frowned. "This isn't good. If Colton is sending their soldiers here, it could be construed as an act of war against Clydecyan. Kaipony is part of Clydecyan's territory." He blinked, and looked at Twilight. "But, aren't you a dark knight of Colton?"
"I was," Twilight answered, "but now I'm a renegade. All because I couldn't bring myself to kill this little filly."
The innkeeper smiled. "I'm glad to see a dark knight with a heart. Can you help me throw these corpses out to the desert?"
A few minutes later, Twilight returned to the room, having been given a free potion set from the innkeeper. She'd protested, but he'd been adamant. Eventually, she'd given in. When she walked into the room, she saw the filly looking at her with worry. Trotting over, she asked, "You weren't hurt, were you?"
"Oh, no, I'm okay. But… you were hurt protecting me," the young pegasus said, looking down. "I'm sorry."
Twilight shook her head. "Like I said, I'm going to protect you. Even if that means I get hurt. Besides, you saved me from getting hurt too badly."
The filly continued looking down for a second, then raised her head. "My name's Fluttershy," she said finally.
"Fluttershy…" Twilight repeated, then held out a hoof. "I'm Twilight Sparkle." As she shook hooves with the young pegasus, she flinched as her wound made itself known again.
Fluttershy noticed this. "Oh, you're still hurt! Here, let me," she said, glowing with a soft white light. The light washed over Twilight, and she felt the pain vanish. Looking at her back, she was astonished to see that the wound had disappeared.
"You know white magic? But I thought only unicorns could harness that power!" she said in shock.
"Um, well, it was difficult, but I managed to adapt both white and black magic into a form useable by pegasi," Fluttershy explained. "Well, useable by me, anyway, I haven't found anypony else to teach it to."
Twilight stared. This young filly was a prodigy in the magical arts, if she could do such things! "That's… incredible, Fluttershy!"
"Well, it took a sacrifice on my part," Fluttershy explained. "I can't control the weather like other pegasi can. Also, I needed the help of my eidolons to teach me how to harness the magic."
Twilight shook her head. "Still, you're amazing! I've never met a pegasus who could do such things."
Fluttershy blushed. "Um, well, thanks?"
Twilight sighed. The filly was entirely too pessimistic. Looking up, she saw the first light of dawn creeping through the windows. "Come on, Fluttershy. We need to get ready to go to Clydecyan."
The pegasus blinked. "But why?"
Twilight began to put her armor on. "You heard the innkeeper. If Colton's soldiers are here in Kaipony, it could be a prelude to war with Clydecyan. We need to warn them."
Fluttershy nodded. "Okay, then…"
Twilight paused, looking at her. "If you don't want to travel with me, I completely understand. I mean," she lowered her head, "I did kill your mother's dragon."
Fluttershy shook her head. "I don't think it was your fault. You couldn't have known what your king wanted. I mean, I was angry at the time, and afraid. But, you protected me." She reached out with a hoof, lifting Twilight's head. "And that makes you a good pony."
Twilight smiled. "Thank you, Fluttershy." She continued putting on her armor, finishing with the helmet.
When she was finished, they left the inn. Fluttershy glanced around, watching as the town began to wake up. "So, um, how do we get to Clydecyan?"
"Good question," muttered Twilight. Looking around, she spotted a stallion that seemed to be awake. She trotted over. "Excuse me, sir, do you know the fastest way to get to Clydecyan from here?"
"Going to Clydecyan?" asked the stallion. "Well, your best bet is to go through the Waterfall Cavern to the northeast of here. But when I tried going through there yesterday, some old pony wouldn't let me pass. If he's still there, you're going to have to convince him to let you through."
Twilight bowed her head in thanks, and turned to Fluttershy. "Well, that looks like our destination," she said cheerfully.
As Fluttershy nodded, a pair of mares walked by, talking to each other. "… Poor dear stumbled in, half delirious. Claimed she was from Colton," one said.
"I heard she keeps muttering something about 'Twilight', whatever that means," the other said, shaking her head.
Twilight froze, eyes widening. Then she called out to the mares. "Wait! Where's this mare you were talking about?"
The pair blinked. "Um, she's at the old doctor's house. She's not doing well, from what I've heard. It's over that way," one said, pointing a hoof.
Twilight took off in the indicated direction, Fluttershy doing her best to keep up. She took to the air, flapping hard to stay aloft. It was clear she didn't spend much time flying.
Twilight came across a house that had an aging sign in front of it. It was an old medical symbol. Twilight threw the door open, startling an earth pony mare just inside. "Where's the patient?!" she asked.
"Uh, in the back," the mare squeaked, startled.
Twilight nodded, sprinting to the back room as Fluttershy flitted in, following the panicky unicorn. When Fluttershy came into the back room, she found Twilight sitting on her haunches, staring at a white unicorn mare that lay tucked in the bed. "Twilight? Who is she?" the pegasus asked.
"Rarity," answered Twilight, her voice trembling. "She's a good friend of mine from Colton. But I don't know how she got here, or why she's here."
"Twilight…" murmured Rarity in her troubled sleep, as she tossed and turned on the bed.
The doctor, an aging earth pony, walked to them from the bookshelf. "Whatever the reason, young one, she's come down with desert fever. Only way to cure that is with a sand pearl. That's something only the Clydecyan royal family knows how to get."
Twilight raised her head. "Clydecyan…" She stood suddenly, and bolted out the door. Fluttershy squeaked, and followed.
Twilight ignored the gasps and yells of townsponies as they scrambled to get out of her way. She barreled toward the gate of the town, intent on getting to the castle of Clydecyan as quickly as possible. Behind her, Fluttershy offered apologies to the startled ponies as she passed, flapping hard to try and catch up to the unicorn. By the time she'd gotten to the gate, Twilight was already heading east, presumably to the cave that had been pointed out earlier.
Twilight barely noticed the passage of time, nor how her body reflexively dealt with all of the monsters in her path. She was moving completely without conscious thought. All she could see in her mind was Rarity, stricken with desert fever. All she could think about was finding the cure. All she could feel –
– was pain, as her thought-deprived body failed to account for the boulder that had appeared in front of her. The shock also served to bring her back to reality. Groaning, she clambered to her hooves, and looked around. She had reached the base of a mountain range. Looking around, she saw an opening in the mountains to her east. Sighing, she began to set off for the opening, when a voice called out to her.
"WAIT!" Turning, she saw Fluttershy slowly floating along. The filly's wings were barely beating hard enough to keep her in the air. Indeed, she was dipping lower and lower, until she finally collapsed, sprawling on the ground in front of Twilight. "You… run… too… fast…" she gasped out.
Seeing the pegasus filly exhausted filled Twilight with guilt. She'd been so obsessed with finding a cure for her friend that she'd not paid any attention to her young charge. She walked over, and knelt down in front of Fluttershy. "I'm sorry, Fluttershy. I didn't mean to run off like that. I was just so worried about Rarity."
Lifting her head off the ground slightly, Fluttershy smiled. "Oh, it's no trouble, Twilight. If I were in your position, I might act the same. Only, I'd probably have flown directly here, rather than running all the way…"
Twilight smiled back, and levitated Fluttershy onto her back. "Let me do the walking for now. You've earned a break."
Fluttershy smiled, and nodded. "Still, don't expect me to sit by and be useless while you're busy fighting. I can help."
Twilight returned the nod, heading into the mountain range. Fortunately, there were fewer monsters in this part of the desert, and they got to a cave entrance without incident. "I hope this is the waterfall cavern," Twilight murmured. She stepped inside.
"Well, it certainly has a lot of water," Fluttershy said, looking around. "That's a good sign, right?" The cave was indeed partially flooded.
"Yes, yes it is," Twilight answered.
They trotted through the cave, dispatching the few monsters that came their way with ease. Fluttershy kept Twilight healed, while Twilight dealt with the monsters one by one. When she didn't need healing, the pegasus would fling a Thunder or Blizzard spell at the creatures.
"Oh, I wish there were another way to deal with these things," murmured Fluttershy. They had just finished dealing with a giant crocodile.
"Sadly, monsters don't respond well to talking," Twilight answered.
Before they could continue, a figure stepped into their path. "That blade… could it be?" Stepping closer, the two saw that it was an elderly unicorn stallion, with a magnificent beard. "Ah-hah! I thought so! Dark Knight, I require your assistance!"
Recalling the townspony's words about an 'old pony' blocking the path to Clydecyan, Twilight blinked. "What seems to be the trouble, sir?"
"It's my daughter, Clover! She's been tricked by a bard, and gone with her to Clydecyan Castle. We don't have much time to waste. I sense something sinister ahoof," the old unicorn said, glancing about nervously.
"Wait, Clover?" Twilight said, eyes widening. "Then you're the renowned sage, Starswirl the Bearded!"
Starswirl nodded. "I'm surprised a Dark Knight of Colton knows my name," he said honestly. "But enough about me! I'd have gone after Clover myself, but a monster blocks the path to Clydecyan in the caves beyond. My magic alone isn't enough to slay it, but your dark blade should prove helpful!"
"Oh, my," Fluttershy said, peeking around Twilight's neck. "That sounds awfully dangerous."
"This young one," Starswirl said, focusing on Fluttershy. The pegasus squeaked and hid behind Twilight again. "She's a summoner, isn't she? Fantastic! All the better to help us!"
Twilight coughed. "As it happens, we need to reach Clydecyan ourselves."
"Then the choice is made for us!" Starswirl exclaimed. "I shall accompany you!"
And he did so. The trio made their way through the caverns. Starswirl quickly proved himself worthy of his reputation, dispatching hordes of monsters with an ease that Fluttershy found herself in wonder of. Even Twilight seemed a bit awed by being in the presence of a living legend.
Eventually, they came to a room that held a large arcane circle in the center. Starswirl stepped onto it. "Perfect. This circle emits a field that will repel monsters. We'll be safe enough here." He began unpacking his saddlebags, with one of the items pulled out being a tent. He tossed it over to Twilight, who caught it reflexively. "Be a dear and get that pitched, would you?"
Twilight nodded, and began setting up the tent. Fluttershy merely watched, since she didn't have magic to help set things up. Once the tent was pitched, they turned to see that Starswirl had built a campfire in the center of the circle. A pot of something was being cooked over the fire.
"Mmm… That smells good, Mr. Starswirl. What is it?" asked Fluttershy.
"Just an old family recipe; behemoth stew, guaranteed to fill your belly with just one serving!" the elderly unicorn said with a chuckle.
"Um, it's not made from real behemoths… is it?" the pegasus asked.
"What? Oh, no no no!" Starswirl replied. "It just gets its name because its so filling, more than one serving makes you feel like you ate a behemoth. That's all."
"Oh… okay," Fluttershy said.
When the stew was ready, Starswirl ladled out three servings into ceramic bowls that he carried with him, levitating two of the bowls over to Twilight and Fluttershy. As they began eating, both Twilight and Fluttershy had to admit, it was pretty tasty.
"Wow! This is excellent, Sir Starswirl!" Twilight enthused, taking another chunk out of her portion.
"About that, youngsters, would it be to much to ask if you could just call me 'Starswirl'? Adding 'Sir' or 'Mr.' makes me uncomfortable," the elder unicorn said.
"Oh, sorry, Starswirl," Fluttershy said between bites.
Twilight was less easily swayed. "But a unicorn of your caliber deserves the utmost respect! I could hardly – "
"Now, miss… erm…" Starswirl facehoofed. "Bless me for being an idiot for forgetting proper manners! You two know my name, but I've yet to ask yours!"
"Oh! I'm Twilight. Twilight Sparkle," the younger unicorn said.
"Fluttershy…" whispered the pegasus filly.
"Right. Miss Twilight, I'm old, and I'm entitled to respect. But just because I'm entitled to it, doesn't mean I want it," Starswirl explained. "So you can show me respect by respecting my wish to be addressed informally."
"Well… if you insist, Starswirl," replied Twilight. "But, in return, just call me 'Twilight'. 'Miss' makes me feel like one of those valley fillies who think of nothing but stallions."
Starswirl laughed. "Easily done, Twilight!"
A few minutes later, they were finished eating, and Fluttershy excused herself to the tent. Starswirl checked on her, and smiled.
"The dear's already sleeping," he said, coming back to the fire. "Who exactly is she?"
"She's a summoner, from the village of Mist," Twilight replied. "Maybe the last summoner," she added darkly.
"Sounds like there's a story there," mused Starswirl. "Still, at least I know I wasn't wrong. She has great magical potential, if she was able to harness magic despite being a pegasus. Why, she may one day outstrip me in the field!"
"Surely you're joking, Starswirl! You're a sage, master of countless spells!" exclaimed the younger unicorn.
Starswirl suddenly looked uncomfortable. "Well… to tell the truth, my memory's going in my old age," he admitted. "I can't remember half the spells I used to know." He laughed bitterly. "Even celebrities aren't immune to the ravages of time."
Twilight nodded slowly. "Well, she's certainly talented. She told me she was able to harness magic with only her eidolons for guides."
"Amazing," murmured Starswirl. "Such a talented young filly… almost reminds me of Clover."
"Your daughter?" asked Twilight.
"Not by birth," explained Starswirl. "That's a common misconception. She was an orphaned filly that I took in as a student. One day, she started calling me 'father'. I was startled, but a part of me was overjoyed."
"Fascinating," the younger said. "So why'd she run off with this bard?"
Starswirl's eyes darkened. "Because I wouldn't consent to their union," he replied. "The bard was a mare as well. It isn't natural for two mares to be wed!"
Twilight found herself answering, "Perhaps when you were you were younger that was the case. But times change, ponies change."
Starswirl looked at her for a moment. "Perhaps you're right. All the same, I'd sooner have Clover back by my side." He sighed, then looked back up. "Speaking of motivations, what drives you to Clydecyan?"
"A close friend of mine is suffering from desert fever in Kaipony," Twilight said simply.
"Ah, so you seek a sand pearl, and quickly. Even my magic can't cure that disease," Starswirl nodded.
Twilight was silent for a moment. "So, exactly what sort of monster are we going to face?"
"It's a vicious one, with eight writhing tentacles. We must kill it, and quickly," Starswirl replied. He looked nervous again. "I hope it's just an old stallion's worrying, but I fear something terrible is going to happen. And I likewise fear that we're running out of time."
After another moment of silence, Starswirl excused himself to the tent. Twilight stayed outside a few minutes more. This foreboding I feel, she thought. Is it worry about the monster we need to face? Is it Starswirl's worries rubbing off on me? Or is it something else entirely? After a moment, she got up, and went into the tent. One step at a time, Twilight Sparkle. Everything will be alright. You'll see.
The trio broke camp after another quick serving of Starswirl's behemoth stew. "And don't worry about it spoiling, this stuff is meant to last," the elderly unicorn assured the two younger ponies. Once they were finished, they set off again, making their way deeper through the cavern.
Along the way, Twilight found something remarkable. She had just pulled her sword out of a Sahagin, when she noticed a chest covered in dust. "Huh, what's in here?" she wondered, trotting over. When she opened the chest, she gasped. "Oh, now this will come in handy," she said with a smile as she levitated a sword out of the chest.
"The Shadowblade?" Starswirl asked, coming closer. "That is a worthy find indeed! And before a confrontation with a potent foe, to boot! Fate is truly on our side!"
Twilight carefully unstrapped her old blade before tucking it into her saddlebags. She then proceeded to strap her newfound sword to her back. Looking back, she posed a little. "How do I look?"
Fluttershy cocked her head. "Well, um, to be honest, it kind of clashes with your armor. But, I suppose function is more important than form, right?"
"Well said, young Fluttershy!" Starswirl stated, chuckling. "But enough dawdling! We should press onward!"
They proceeded through the cavern before Twilight spotted daylight filtering through an exit. "Wait, where's the monster?"
"Ah, I forgot to mention. This cavern is divided into two segments," Starswirl explained, walking toward the exit. "The divide occurs here. It is in the second half of the cavern that the monster dwells, at the base of a great waterfall, right at the exit that leads to Clydecyan Castle."
"Oh, my, it lives under a waterfall?" Fluttershy asked in amazement. "That sounds terrifying, and yet amazing at the same time."
Twilight nodded in agreement as they trotted through the valley that lay in between the two cavern segments. Entering the next cave, they found themselves at the top of a huge waterfall. Fluttershy gulped.
"From here, we need to go straight down," Starswirl explained. "Twilight, you do know how to slow your falls using your magic, yes?"
Twilight nodded, and looked at Fluttershy. "Can you fly down the waterfall?"
Fluttershy gulped, but nodded. "I'll… try," she said with a squeak.
The pair of unicorns then stepped into the water, and were promptly drawn by the current to the waterfall's edge. They stood suspended for a moment, then began to fall. Fluttershy gasped, and flew after them, careful to avoid the spray. Wet wings made for difficult flying, after all. However, she needn't have bothered. Twilight and Starswirl floated gently down, wrapped in their distinctive magic auras.
As they touched down, their floatation spells ended. Twilight stepped to dry land quickly, using a spell to dry her armor. "The last thing I need is being paralyzed because my armor rusted together," she said jokingly.
Starswirl laughed, drying himself off. "Ah, yes, I forget how much trouble it must be to be a soldier. I'm just glad I don't have to worry about such things."
Twilight sighed, a wistful look in her eyes. "You know, when I was younger, I read about you. I honestly wanted to grow up to be like you, a sage to teach others what I myself had learned."
"It's not the easiest life," Starswirl explained, "but it has its good points. Why then did you become a dark knight instead?"
Twilight looked down. "King Colton all but raised me. And it was his wish that I be a dark knight. I couldn't turn him down. In fact, until recently, I found myself unable to disobey him at all." As she spoke, she glanced at Fluttershy.
Starswirl looked between the two, then his eyes widened. "Don't tell me… when you said she was the last summoner, did you mean that Colton attacked the village of Mist?!"
Twilight bowed her head. "Indirectly, yes. And I was the pawn the king used. I delivered a ring that contained a horde of bombs to the village. That was when I realized that my blind loyalty to King Colton would only result in destruction."
Fluttershy flew over, and hugged Twilight. "I told you, it wasn't your fault. You couldn't have known what that ring would do."
Starswirl frowned. "Passing bold of Colton… to attack a village of summoners, even indirectly…" He paused, and looked at Twilight with dread in his eyes. "Do you think it's possible that Colton would attack other nations?"
Twilight flinched. "They already have," she said flatly. "I personally led the raid on Maresidia, just before the mission to Mist. I killed dozens of innocents, for no other reason than the fact that I was ordered to take the Water Crystal."
Starswirl grew somber. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to dig up painful memories."
Twilight took a shaky breath. "But that's another reason we need to get to Clydecyan. King Colton said that the crystals were needed to make Colton flourish."
"So he intends to attack the other nations as well?" Starswirl asked. "That's madness!"
Before they could continue, Fluttershy let out a shriek. "What's that?!" she cried, pointing ahead.
Blinking, the two unicorns faced forward. Somehow, while they'd been talking, they had also traveled through the cavern, and were now at the base of another waterfall. An outcropping of rock diverted the water's flow around a passage that led into daylight. In front of the passage was a monstrous pointed head, surrounded by eight writhing tentacles.
"That would be our monster," Starswirl said grimly. "An Octomammoth. Time to test that new blade of yours, Twilight!"
Drawing the Shadowblade, Twilight stood firm in front of the two more frail ponies. "So how will we do this?"
"Fluttershy and I will alternate casting Thunder spells on it, while you focus on hacking off its limbs. We'll cure you whenever you need it," Starswirl explained. "Sound good?"
Twilight nodded, but Fluttershy frowned. "Do we really have to fight it? I mean, maybe it has a reason for being here in this cave?" She paused. "Although, looking at it, it seems like it'd be more at home in saltwater than freshwater…"
Before either Starswirl or Twilight could reply, an orange-colored tentacle emerged behind them, swatting them all in the direction of the main body. All three yelped in pain. "Does that answer your question, Fluttershy?" Twilight deadpanned, as she and the others regained their footing and faced the monster.
The Octomammoth grinned in triumph, leering at what it thought was easy prey. Its grin vanished in a howl of pain as Starswirl lashed out with a Thunder spell, scorching its hide. It reached out with a tentacle, intent on striking the one that dared to hurt it. Twilight, however, was faster, and the Shadowblade cut clean through the oncoming limb. Hissing, it withdrew, waiting for the next move.
Fluttershy charged a spell this time, arcing lightning between her wings. She then jumped into the air and beat her wings once, flinging the lightning at the Octomammoth. It howled again, sending a tentacle at her. Again, Twilight sliced it off before it could get to its target.
The beast, now clearly enraged, sent two tentacles at Twilight. One she slashed at, almost but not quite dismembering it. The other managed to get around her, lifting her into the air, ignoring her protesting yelps. She swung her sword wildly, trying to hit her captor.
Starswirl, who had been charging another Thunder spell, cursed and cut the magic flow. "We can't use lightning on it while she's trapped like that! What now?"
Fluttershy glared at the Octomammoth, and began to glow green. "We make it drop her," she said simply. The chocobo appeared, and pounced on the Octomammoth's head, kicking and pecking at it repeatedly.
Howling, the beast thrashed around, flinging Twilight into the air. Screaming, she was nonetheless careful not to lose her grip on her sword. Before she hit the ground, Starswirl caught her in his green aura, setting her down safely. With a grateful smile, she charged back into the fight, slicing off the tentacle that she'd wounded before.
By this point, the chocobo had run off, and the Octomammoth was madder than ever. With its five remaining limbs, it lashed out at the three ponies. But the chocobo had done its job; the creature was so disoriented that it couldn't aim properly at its attackers. Twilight sliced off two more tentacles before it recovered its equilibrium.
Starswirl and Fluttershy unleashed their Thunder spells at the same time as it launched a new attack. Fluttershy's spell struck the Octomammoth's face, while Starswirl's actually burned a tentacle clean off. In a frenzy, the Octomammoth struck hard at Twilight, knocking her into a wall. Dazed, but not overly hurt, Twilight ran back to stand in front of the two mages.
"Excellent! Keep it up, it's almost down!" Starswirl exclaimed, charging his next spell. He blasted the Octomammoth as it lashed out at Fluttershy. The lightning stunned it long enough for Twilight to slice off the offending tentacle. It only had one left.
However, it wasn't finished yet. Growling, it sent its last tentacle to wrap around Twilight, and flung her into Starswirl. The two unicorns, caught off-guard by the move, were sent sprawling. Winded, they were helpless as the Octomammoth lashed out again, intent on finishing them.
"STOP RIGHT THERE!" Fluttershy screamed, flying right into the creature's face with a deadly glare. The Octomammoth froze, eyes widening as it took in the furious pegasus filly. "Haven't you seen what your aggression has done to you?! Look at yourself! Your mother would be ashamed to see you acting like this when you're so badly hurt! Do you want to worry her?!"
Starswirl and Twilight's jaws dropped as the Octomammoth actually appeared contrite. "What in the world…?" Starswirl muttered.
"Is there anything she can't paralyze with a glare?" Twilight wondered aloud.
"Now, here's what's going to happen. You're going to go back to the ocean, or wherever it is you came from, and you're going to stay there and recover. Your limbs will regrow, given time. After that, you're going to avoid causing anypony problems, okay?" Fluttershy's voice had softened, but it was no less firm.
The Octomammoth nodded its huge head, and slunk off into the cavern, perhaps finding an outlet to the ocean. Fluttershy smiled, and flew back over to the unicorns. "The path's clear," she said, her voice back to its customary soft tone.
The two unicorns just stared at her. Then they looked at each other. "Remind me never to get on her bad side," Starswirl said.
"Trust me, it's not pleasant," Twilight replied with a nod.
The trio left through the passage, stepping out into the sunlight. "From here, it's only an hour to Clydecyan Castle, if we keep up a brisk pace," Starswirl said, setting off.
Twilight followed, matching his pace. Fluttershy opted to ride on Twilight's back, since she couldn't keep up with the older ponies normally. As they rounded a bend in the mountains, they saw the spires of Clydecyan Castle ahead of them. "Wow," murmured Fluttershy. "I've never seen a castle before, let alone gone into one."
The two unicorns slowed a little, looking up at the impressive castle. The main keep was taller than Colton Castle by a fair margin, although the structure had less ground area. Twilight couldn't help but appreciate the difference in style. The spires were more refined-looking than Colton's, and the castle seemed brighter overall. Why, even the airships looked more colorful next to this castle.
Twilight suddenly did a double-take. Waitaminute, Colton's the only country with airships! Those are… "The Red Wings!" she shouted.
Starswirl and Fluttershy looked up, just as the first explosion went off on the castle parapets. Several more explosions followed, as parts of the castle fell into ruin.
Starswirl gasped. "No! CLOVER!" He broke into a full gallop, Twilight right behind him. The bombardment continued, leaving the once proud Clydecyan Castle in ruins, although it remained mostly intact. The two unicorns got to the castle gates just as the barrage ended, and the Red Wings flew off.
The three ponies stared in horror at the destruction before them. "Maresidia was one thing, but this…" Twilight murmured.
"Clover…" Starswirl breathed. "CLOVER!" He darted into the castle, jumping over the ruined gate. Twilight blinked, and followed.
Inside the castle, the destruction was made worse by the presence of bodies. Some were still burning, while others had cooled off. Twilight forced down the bile in her throat, following Starswirl as he cantered up a flight of stairs. Two more flights followed, before Starswirl skidded to a stop. Twilight barely stopped herself from colliding with his rear.
"Oh, no…" Starswirl breathed, taking a few trembling steps forward. Looking past him, Twilight could see a unicorn mare lying on her side in the center of the room. She didn't appear to have been hurt by the explosions, but her back had three arrows sticking out of it. Blood stained her emerald-green coat from the wounds. "My dearest Clover…" the unicorn stallion murmured, kneeling beside the mare.
Twilight stepped forward, but stopped short of the elder unicorn. What could she possibly say or do to comfort him? He'd just lost someone who was as close as a daughter to him. Fluttershy hovered next to her, equally uncertain.
The sound of coughing caught the attention of all three, as another unicorn mare stumbled in from a side chamber. Her mint-green coat was dusty, as was her light cyan mane, but she was otherwise unscathed. Looking up, she gasped, blinking orange eyes. "Sir Starswirl?"
Starswirl sprang to his hooves. "You… You're that bard! The one who brought Clover here!" Snorting heavily, he pawed the ground, looking ready to charge at the young mare.
Twilight, however, quickly put herself between the two. "Now wait just a minute! Clydecyan is lying in ruins around us, and the first thing you want to do is attack somepony who's just survived the destruction? What is the matter with you?!" she yelled at the older unicorn.
"If it wasn't for that bard, Clover would never have been here!" Starswirl yelled back. "It's because of her that my daughter is – "
"She's still breathing!" Fluttershy's soft voice managed to make itself heard over the unicorn's. Starswirl immediately stopped, and kneeled beside Clover again. He felt her neck, and sure enough, he felt a pulse. The touch also served to awaken the wounded mare, as she began coughing a little.
"Oh, Clover, thank goodness you're alive," Starswirl said.
"F-father…?" Clover asked weakly, blinking her red eyes.
"Yes, Clover, I'm here. Don't worry, I'm not leaving," Starswirl assured her. He then glared at the approaching bard. "Stay away from her, you spoony bard!"
"Father, wait," Clover said, catching Starswirl's attention. "There's something… you need to know. Lyra's not just a bard. She's… actually the princess of Clydecyan."
Starswirl's jaw dropped, as he looked again at the bard. She wore a red vest with a yellow cape fluttering behind her. A red tiara adorned her head. At her side hung a harp, its condition rather pristine despite the devastation around them.
"I'm sorry… for not telling you sooner, Father," Clover continued. "Lyra dislikes politics… so she traveled disguised as a bard to escape court intrigue. When we met… we fell in love. It was as simple as that. But… you didn't approve. Because she was both a bard, and another mare."
Starswirl was speechless. He simply stared, alternating between his adoptive daughter and the mare she loved. Finally, he found his voice. "Why did you flee? Why didn't you just tell me?"
Clover smiled sadly. "Because… Lyra didn't want anypony else to know. I went with her, reluctantly. But living together without your blessing… I couldn't do that. I'd finally convinced her to come back with me to explain everything. We were just about to leave…"
"Until Colton attacked," Lyra said flatly. "Their Red Wings flew in, demanding that we surrender the Fire Crystal. But when we complied, they started bombing us. My mother and father perished in the blaze, and Clover shielded me from the arrows of a few spiteful archers."
Starswirl looked down at Clover, his eyes filled with wonder and sadness. "You love her this much? Enough to give your life for her?"
Clover chuckled a little, but it turned into a hacking cough. A few drops of blood dribbled out of her mouth. "Forgive… my selfishness… Father. Lyra… I love… you…" Her eyes closed, and her body went limp. One last breath passed through her mouth. Then she stopped moving entirely.
"Clover!" Lyra and Starswirl's anguished cries caused Twilight to wince. She and Fluttershy exchanged looks. They were intruders on a moment of grief.
"Sir Starswirl," Lyra began, her voice breaking. "Will you help me give her her Last Rites?"
"Of course… Princess," Starswirl said, his voice likewise breaking.
Both of their horns began glowing, as did Clover's body. Fluttershy stared, entranced. "What… what are they doing?" she asked Twilight.
"Last Rites. It's what we unicorns do with our dead. We change their bodies into raw magic, and let it disperse. Such is our way," Twilight answered, her eyes shadowed by her helmet. "Supposedly, it returns the magic to the world, allowing for another unicorn to be born elsewhere."
"That sounds so sad," Fluttershy whispered, "yet so sweet at the same time. I've heard that pegasi cremate their dead, and scatter their ashes to the winds. I don't actually know, since there weren't that many pegasi in Mist."
"That's right. All ponies have their own ways of dealing with their dead. Earth ponies, from what I hear, bury their dead, to feed the good earth. Though we have nations, we're divided even more by our species. Such is the way of ponykind," Twilight said.
By this point, Clover's body had completely faded away, individual sparkles of magic floating off into the air. Starswirl and Lyra's horns ceased glowing, and they both let out breaths.
At this point, Twilight felt it safe to step forward. "I'm terribly sorry for your loss. Both of you. But, Princess Lyra, I need to ask. Who was it that led the Red Wings?"
Lyra looked up. "I didn't see them myself, but I heard some of the Colton soldiers talking about her. It was somepony by the name of Nightmare Moon."
"Nightmare Moon?" Twilight blinked. "I haven't heard of her before."
"From what I heard, she's a newcomer to Colton," Lyra replied. "Supposedly, she's very charismatic and powerful."
"It matters not how powerful she is!" Starswirl thundered, causing the other three to jump. "I will destroy her with my own hooves if need be!" He got to his hooves, and headed for the stairwell.
Twilight intercepted him. "Wait! You can't just go alone!"
Starswirl flung her aside with his magic. "I don't need anypony's help to destroy Clover's killer! Not even yours!" He cantered down the stairwell, out of sight of the others.
"Well, that could have gone better," grumbled Twilight as she clambered to her hooves.
Fluttershy flew over to Lyra, who had silent tears streaming down her cheeks. "It's not easy, losing somepony close to you. Believe me, I know. I lost my mother, and most of the ponies I know. But I don't let it get to me. Not anymore."
Lyra looked up at her, eyes still streaming. "You're right. I know you're right. Clover wouldn't want me to grieve over her." She wiped her eyes with a hoof, and stood. "As Princess – or rather, Queen – of Clydecyan, it's my duty to rebuild my kingdom."
"Your highness, there's a favor I would ask of you first," Twilight said, stepping forward.
Lyra blinked. "A favor? From me?"
"As the last remaining member of the Clydecyan royal family, you're the last pony alive who knows where to find a sand pearl. A dear friend of mine suffers from desert fever in Kaipony. Please, your highness, you must help me. Help her!" Twilight's normally strong voice began to break near the end.
Lyra looked at her. "This friend of yours… what's her name?"
"Rarity," Twilight answered, voice trembling.
"And she means a lot to you, doesn't she?" Lyra asked. "As much as Clover meant to me?"
Twilight hesitated, but then nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
Lyra closed her eyes and let out a breath. "I couldn't turn down such a heartfelt request." She opened her eyes again, and there was a spark in them that hadn't been there before. "Sand pearls are found in the antlion's den to the east of the castle. We'll need to use the royal hovercraft to get there. I'll accompany you to the den, and to Kaipony once we have the pearl."
Twilight nearly collapsed with relief. "Thank you so much, your highness!" she said, bowing.
"Just one thing," the mint-green unicorn said. "Don't call me 'your highness'. As far as I'm concerned, we're friends helping each other. And my friends can call me Lyra."
Twilight blinked, but then nodded. "Alright… Lyra."
Fluttershy looked at both of them. "Um, we haven't really introduced ourselved to you, have we?"
Twilight gasped, but then recovered her composure. "Right. I'm Twilight Sparkle, former commander of Colton's Red Wings, and now a renegade."
"I'm Fluttershy, from the village of Mist. And, possibly, the last of my kind, the summoners," the pegasus said.
Lyra nodded to both of them. "We all have sad tales, it seems. Let's set off, Twilight and Fluttershy. To the antlion's den, then to Kaipony! After that, who knows?"
Twilight knew that Lyra was forcing her enthusiasm in order to cope with Clover's passing, but she didn't comment. It would be tactless of her. So, the three ponies departed, although Lyra stopped to look back for a moment.
"Farewell, my beloved Clover," the reluctant queen said, before leaving.
"So, how exactly does this contraption work?" Twilight asked, marveling at the sight of the Clydecyan royal hovercraft. She, along with Lyra and Fluttershy, had descended the stairs in the ruined castle, and were now in a side building that Twilight had overlooked before. The hovercraft before them had enough room in it to seat five ponies comfortably. There was one seat to the front, one to the back, and three in the middle.
"It's simple. One pony sits in the back, and regulates the engine; meanwhile, another pony sits in the front, steering the hovercraft," Lyra explained, pointing at the back and front seats respectively. "The reason both aren't done by one pony is because it's run on magic. Unicorns – or, I suppose any pony with magic – have to charge their magic through the respective magic circuits for the engine and the steering. And not too many ponies can divide their attention between two rather different tasks."
Twilight nodded. "I see. That's rather ingenious! So, were your parents unicorns, too?"
"Yeah," Lyra said, mood dropping a bit. "My father actually designed the hovercraft. Mom thought it was impractical, until I came down with desert fever. Dad took Mom to the antlion's den with this baby, and was back here to cure me in the hour. She never said another word against it."
"I can imagine," Fluttershy whispered. "But, does this hovercraft actually drain magic from unicorns? Or, whoever's piloting it?"
"Huh? Oh, no no no!" Lyra shook her head. "It's actually got a magical crystal generator inside it. The amount of magic needed to regulate the engine or steer the hovercraft is miniscule. Even I barely felt it when I first tried my hoof at it, and I was just a filly at the time. Granted, Dad wasn't happy when I nearly steered us off a cliff, but then again, I didn't know what I was doing at the time."
Twilight chuckled a little. "Sounds like you've lived an interesting life, Lyra."
"I guess," the green unicorn replied. "So, Twilight, you want to handle the engine? I know where the antlion's den is, so I'll steer."
Twilight nodded, clambering into the back seat. Lyra hopped into the front, while Fluttershy sat in the center of the three middle seats.
"Now, to run the engine, Twilight, all you need to do is channel your magic through that arcane crest on the engine behind you," Lyra instructed.
"Like this?" Twilight asked, her horn lighting up as she directed her magic into the crest. The hovercraft's engine sprang to life, the propeller beginning to spin. "Whoa!"
"Yeah, it's a little intense the first time you do it, isn't it?" Lyra said with a chuckle. "Now, see that radial in the center of the crest? That's the throttle. The more you turn it to the right, the more power the engine takes from the generator, and the faster the hovercraft will go. Take it easy at first. This thing doesn't like abrupt changes in speed."
Nodding, Twilight carefully turned the radial to the right. The hovercraft began to move, inching forward out of the garage. Turning it a little more, Twilight smiled as the hovercraft began to increase in speed. "This is amazing," she said. "Your father must have been a genius inventor, Lyra!"
"Yeah, he was brilliant," Lyra agreed, as the hovercraft left the garage. Channeling her own magic, she began to steer to the east. "Mom sometimes joked that he loved his inventions more than he loved his family. Of course, it was never serious. He always made time for me or Mom whenever we needed him."
"I have to admit, I'm kind of envious," Twilight said. "I never knew my parents. I was raised by the king of Colton."
"Well, things weren't all fun and games. Mom took her duties as Queen very seriously. Sometimes, those duties would interfere with plans she'd made with me and Dad." Lyra sighed. "I know she loved me, but sometimes it didn't feel that way."
"Well, my mother dedicated a lot of her time to me," Fluttershy said, a wistful expression on her face. "She taught me the basics of summoning, and gave me a respect for all living things. I remember the first time I summoned a chocobo in front of her. She was so proud." She bit her lip, a few tears building up in her eyes. "I miss her."
Lyra nodded, her own expression thoughtful. "I miss Mom, too. But, I can't let things get me down. I have a duty to Clydecyan."
Twilight remained silent. She, unlike her companions, had never suffered any sort of loss. She felt like a third wheel, or an intruder on a private moment.
Perhaps sensing her discomfort, Lyra changed the subject. "Hey, Fluttershy, look up ahead."
Fluttershy looked, and gasped. "The ocean! We're… not going to crash into it, are we?"
Lyra chuckled. "No, not really. It's hard to tell, but there are some shallow shoals that connect this continent to the next. That's where the antlion's den is."
"Oh, I see," the pegasus replied.
Twilight decided to chip in. "I've never heard of an antlion before. What exactly is it?"
"Well…" Lyra paused, considering how to answer. "Basically, think of a giant, hairy ant with four legs instead of six. It has a giant, tooth filled mouth with two large pincers, one on either side."
Twilight shuddered. "That sounds… rather vicious," she managed to say.
"Oh, don't worry. Antlions are perfectly harmless. They look fierce, but that's mostly for intimidation," Lyra assured the other unicorn.
At this point, the hovercraft was gliding over the shoals that Lyra had mentioned. She was steering the craft carefully, having been on this route before. Thanks to the modest speed that Twilight had set the craft on, steering came easily. Soon, they were cruising over a beach, heading for a group of mountains.
"Okay, Twilight, time to turn down the throttle a little!" Lyra called. "We're getting close to the antlion's den!"
Twilight nodded, slowly turning the throttle back to the left. The hovercraft slowed, now cruising along at a speed barely faster than a full gallop. Lyra steered the vehicle expertly, heading for a cave entrance in the base of the mountains.
When they were close enough, Lyra called out, "Full stop, please!"
"Roger!" Twilight replied, turning the throttle all the way back down. The hovercraft slowed, and finally stopped just outside the cave entrance.
"Well, you're showing a lot of talent with hovercraft operating," Lyra said with a smile.
Twilight blushed. "All I did was what you told me to do. That's all."
Fluttershy giggled at the interaction between the two, before she looked at the cave. "So, this is where the antlions live?"
Lyra looked up, and nodded. "That's right. There's only one adult antlion at a time, though. Sand pearls are created from the fluid that they secrete while laying their eggs."
Twilight blinked. "But, uh, how do the eggs get fertilized, if there's only one adult antlion?"
Lyra gave her a level look. "Do you really want to know the answer to that question?"
Twilight paused, and grimaced. "On second thought, nevermind. I'm sure I can just read about it somewhere."
Lyra smirked. "That's what I thought."
The trio entered the cavern. It couldn't have been more different from the waterfall cavern if it tried. Where that cave was partially flooded, this cave was full of sand. And not the fine grains of the beach, either. This was desert sand, harsh and grainy.
"How does a partial desert survive underground?" Twilight wondered.
"You're rather curious, aren't you?" asked Lyra in response. Seeing Twilight's blush, she laughed. "I'm teasing, I'm teasing. To tell the truth, no one's really sure. I personally chalk it up to the influence of the antlion. Their dens are built around sand pits, and I wouldn't put it past them to know how to create those lairs."
They continued through the cavern, avoiding monsters when they could, and dispatching them when they could not. Lyra, as it turned out, was capable of playing a melody that could put monsters into a trance, leaving them open to attack from Twilight. When Twilight complimented her on her skills, Lyra demurred, indicating the harp.
"It's all in the strings, really," she said. "All I do is play them."
A little ways into the cavern, they stumbled across a chest that was half-buried in sand. Twilight and Lyra pooled their magic, and managed to pull it free. Opening it, Lyra gasped. "A Lamia's harp! I've wanted to see one of these for so long, and now I finally have one!" She pulled the purple harp out of the chest, setting it in the saddlebag not currently occupied by her old harp.
"Uh, so what's the difference between the two?" Twilight asked.
"Well, my old Dream harp is enchanted to put creatures in a trance, as you've seen. A Lamia's harp…" Lyra trailed off as a pair of Adamantoise lumbered forward to attack the trio. "Well, watch this." She used her magic to play the purple harp, using the same melody that she had used before.
To Twlight's astonishment, one of the Adamantoise paused in its approach, before turning on its brother and attacking. Startled, the second one retaliated, biting the first's leg. The two giant tortoises continued their struggle, moving away from the trio.
Twilight stared. "How… that… HUH?!" she said intelligently.
"That's what a Lamia's harp does," Lyra explained. "It confuses those who hear its melody."
"But, wait. I heard that melody, and I feel just fine," Twilight retorted.
Lyra blinked. "And you're complaining?"
Twilight opened her mouth, but then closed it. "Actually, no. I'm just a little puzzled, I guess." She shook her head. "All of these minor questions I don't have answers to…"
Fluttershy giggled. "Sometimes, Twilight, you just have to accept things as they are. Don't question them."
Twilight blinked repeatedly. "I… guess you're right, Fluttershy." She smiled at Lyra. "Sorry for spazzing out on you."
Lyra chuckled, and led the other two deeper into the cave. Along the way, she picked up another chest item. "Ah-hah! This will be useful!" she said, holding up the small device.
"An Emergency Exit!" Twilight exclaimed. "Those are really rare! It'll save us a trip out of here, at least."
"Um, what does it do?" asked Fluttershy, looking over the small, nondescript cube.
"It basically functions the same as the white magic spell Teleport," Twilight explained. "It will transport you to the surface of the world, no matter how far underground you are."
"Oh, I see," Fluttershy said with a nod.
They continued onward, eventually reaching a part of the cave that descended into a sand pit. Scattered throughout the area were what appeared to be egg sacs. "Um, is this the actual nest of the antlion?" Twilight asked nervously.
Lyra chuckled. "Yep. The antlion lays its eggs here, as you can see. The sand pearl's at the bottom of the pit." She trotted down the slope, followed by Fluttershy and Twilight.
As they neared the bottom, there was a rumble, and out of the sand burst a great creature. Twilight and Fluttershy yelped. It looked just like Lyra had described, but seeing it in person was far more terrifying.
Lyra laughed. "Oh, come on, you silly fillies. I told you, antlions are docile. Watch, I'm just going to get a sand pearl, like so." She trotted confidently toward the antlion, aiming for a glimmering pile behind it.
Twilight, focusing more on the antlion itself, saw it rear its head back, and open its gaping maw. "LOOK OUT!" she yelled, grabbing Lyra in her magic and yanking her backwards. It was just in time, too, as the antlion bit down where the princess had been moments before.
Lyra was shocked. "But, but they've never attacked ponies before! What's going on?!"
Fluttershy, who had been glancing around, suddenly noticed something. "I think I know," she said, flying up to the antlion.
"Wait, Fluttershy!" Twilight yelped, preparing to yank the filly back as she had with Lyra.
"It's okay," Fluttershy said, "we're not going to hurt you." The two unicorns blinked as they realized the pegasus was actually talking to the antlion. "You had some mean visitors lately, didn't you?"
The antlion, which had been ready to bite into this young morsel, blinked its huge eyes, then nodded.
"Whoever it was, they destroyed your eggs. That's why you attacked us, right?" Fluttershy asked.
Looking around, Twilight gasped. The egg sacs, which had looked fine from the entrance, were clearly not fine from this angle. Scorch marks and cuts adorned the eggs, and there wasn't a one that was intact. "She's right," Twilight whispered. "The antlion's just mad about the loss of its children."
Lyra had recovered her equilibrium by this point. "But who would do such a thing?" she asked. "Aside from the sand pearl, there's no reason to come here."
Fluttershy continued talking to the antlion, ignoring the unicorns. "I'm terribly sorry for your suffering, but we're not like your last visitor. You see, a friend of ours is sick, and we need one of those sand pearls behind you. We just came here to help somepony. Please, won't you help us?"
The antlion considered this, then growled a little. It then began burrowing back into the sand pit.
Fluttershy, seeing this, flew over and grabbed one of the shining pearls in her hooves, before flying back over to the unicorns. "Well, that's that," she said. "But I think she wants us to bring the killer of her children to justice."
Lyra stared in astonishment. "You could understand her? Not even my mother could do that, and she visited here every time somepony came down with desert fever!"
Fluttershy blinked. "I guess I could," she said. She tucked the sand pearl into Twilight's saddlebag. "I've always had a way with animals, but this is the first time I've had to comfort one like this."
Twilight shook her head, grinning in bemusement. "That's incredible, Fluttershy," she said honestly. "You're very kind-hearted, to treat even something hostile so well."
"What can I say?" Fluttershy replied with a light blush. "Sometimes, all that's needed to help someone is a little kindness."
Twilight nodded, and then blinked. Looking closer, she smiled. "And I think that's going to be your job, Fluttershy," she said, pointing with a hoof.
Blinking, the young filly looked at her flank, and gasped. A trio of pink butterflies had appeared there. "My cutie mark!" she exclaimed, her voice rising past its normal soft tone. "I finally got my cutie mark!"
"Wow," Lyra said, looking at it herself. "What does it mean?"
"If I had to guess, I'd say Fluttershy has an understanding with nature that most ponies don't," Twilight explained. "She talked down an Octomammoth once before, and now she's tamed a hostile antlion with just a few words. And you said that you had a way with animals before this, Fluttershy?"
The pegasus nodded, grinning from ear to ear. "Sometimes, the animals would gather around me in Mist," she said fondly. "I enjoyed the time I spent with them very much. I'd play games with them, and help them out when they were sick. But I never thought that caring for animals would be my special talent!"
Twilight smiled. "Well, fate works in mysterious ways." She then sobered up. "But enough about that. We've got the sand pearl, so let's head to Kaipony!"
Nodding, Lyra pulled out the Emergency Exit, and cast it to the ground. An arcane circle appeared, and energy swirled around the trio, whipping their manes around. Soon, their surroundings were completely obscured, the maelstrom of energy blocking everything out. A few moments later, it began to disappate. As it faded, they found themselves outside the cave, next to the hovercraft.
"Wow… So that's how Teleport works?" Fluttershy asked.
"Yep," Twilight said. "Though, skilled white magic users can actually teleport to a specific destination rather than just to the surface."
Lyra climbed into the front seat, looking at the other two. "Come on, time's a-wasting!"
Twilight nodded, jumping into the back seat, while Fluttershy settled down into the center. Twilight channeled her magic, bringing the engine to life with a roar. Lyra steered the craft away from the cave, heading back west.
"Will we need to go through the waterfall cavern?" asked Fluttershy.
"No, there's more shoals to the west of the castle. They lead straight into the desert, and Kaipony's just a hop, skip, and jump away," Lyra explained, as Twilight turned the throttle up.
The trip was made in silence, aside from the roar of the engine. Twilight kept the throttle at a higher setting than she had on the way to the antlion's den, and Lyra steered the craft expertly oveer the first set of shoals and past Clydecyan Castle. Fluttershy, sensing the mood, remained quiet as well.
About an hour later, having glided over the second set of shoals and over the desert, Lyra saw the walls of Kaipony ahead. "Twilight, time to ease up on the throttle."
"Roger," Twilight said, beginning to slow the engine. The hovercraft pulled to a stop just outside of the gate, and Twilight cut the magic flow and leapt out, running into the town. Lyra and Fluttershy were quick to follow.
In an odd moment of deja vu, the townsponies of Kaipony found themselves scrambling out of the way of a heavily armored mare barreling through town. Twilight threw the door to the old doctor's home open with her magic, once again startling the earth pony mare.
"Don't you know how to knock?" she griped, as Twilight rushed past her.
Lyra and Fluttershy zipped in after Twilight, following her to the back room. Inside, they could see that Rarity's condition had worsened. She was now sweating profusely, and thrashing constantly in her sleep.
Twilight quickly pulled out the sand pearl. "Please work, please work, please work!" she prayed, as she held the pearl over the white unicorn. It caught the light in the room, and bathed Rarity in an amber glow.
After a few moments, the glow faded, and Rarity's thrashing calmed. Then she slowly opened her eyes. "Oh, my," she groaned. "I feel positively awful."
Twilight smiled. "Well, if it helps any, you still look better when you're messy than I do."
Rarity snapped her eyes over, and gasped. "Twilight!" She tried to sit up, only to be forced back down by the doctor.
"Easy, there," he said. "You're just getting over a case of desert fever. You're lucky your friend her was able to find a sand pearl in time."
"Desert fever," murmured Rarity. "That's right, I did stumble through the desert trying to find you, Twilight."
"But why? Why did you come after me?" asked Twilight. Lyra and Fluttershy stood off to the side, unwilling to interrupt the reunion.
"Because nopony else wanted to check if you were still alive!" Rarity declared. "When Rainbow Dash came back from Mist, the poor dear was all sorts of hurt. She just told the king that the mission was a 'success', before she collapsed from exhaustion. I spent hours fixing her up. And while I was doing that, King Colton declared you dead!"
Twilight wasn't sure how she felt about that. On the one hoof, it meant fewer ponies would come after her for being a renegade. On the other, it meant that showing her face in Colton again wouldn't be feasible for a while. "So you came after me, just to prove him wrong?"
"Oh, I knew he was wrong, dear," Rarity said with a scoff. "But I also knew that you were out here alone, possibly hurt, and you would need somepony to help you." She paused, and giggled a little. "I guess I worry too much about you. You look fine."
Twilight chuckled. "Yeah, I'm peachy." Her lips turned downward, however, as she asked her next question. "Rarity, who exactly is Nightmare Moon?"
Rarity blinked. "Heard of her already, have you?" The white mare sighed. "She came to Colton only recently, the day after Rainbow Dash returned. Within an hour of meeting the King, she was given command of the Red Wings." She looked at Twilight. "Suspicious, isn't it? Some new pony no one has seen before waltzes into Castle Colton, and is leading their most prestigious military arm not even an hour later?"
Twilight narrowed her eyes. "I'm thinking Nightmare Moon might be manipulating the king."
"My thoughts exactly. I believe Nightmare Moon has been influencing the king for some time, and that it's by her will that you were ordered to Maresidia," Rarity explained. "I also believe that the Water Crystal won't be enough for her. She must desire the other three crystals: Clydecyan's Fire Crystal, Stabul's Wind Crystal, and Trotta's Earth Crystal."
At this point, Lyra spoke up, stepping forward. "You're a bit behind the times. The Fire Crystal is already in Nightmare Moon's hooves."
As Rarity blinked at the unfamiliar unicorn, Twilight coughed, waving Fluttershy forward. "Let me introduce them. Lyra here is the princess of Clydecyan, and the only known survivor of the Red Wings' attack on the castle. Fluttershy is a summoner from Mist, who's adapted white and black magic to be used by her, despite being a pegasus."
"Nice to meet you, Rarity," Fluttershy said, ducking her head slightly.
Rarity smiled at the young pegasus. "The pleasure's all mine, Fluttershy," she answered. Looking back at Lyra, she bowed her head. "And I'm terribly sorry for your loss, Princess Lyra."
Lyra waved a hoof. "Just Lyra, please. And I'll be fine. The world hasn't stopped spinning, despite my castle being in ruins."
Rarity nodded, and looked back at Twilight. "If she has the Fire Crystal, the Wind Crystal's sure to be her next target. We need to warn Stabul!"
Lyra sighed. "That could be problematic. The only land route to Stabul from here is over Mt. Hoof, east of Clydecyan. And the path at the base of the mountain is blocked by thick ice."
Rarity looked at Fluttershy. "Fluttershy, you can use black magic, correct? Could you possibly melt the ice with a simple Fire spell?"
Fluttershy seized up. "I… don't think so," she whispered.
"It's an elementary spell, dear, so – " Rarity broke off into a cough.
Twilight frowned. "Rarity, I know what you're implying, and the answer is no. You haven't fully recovered from the desert fever, you're in no condition to hike over a mountain!"
Rarity glared at her. "Darling, I'm feeling better already. Besides, I'm not entirely helpless. I'm a fair shot with a bow. And with a skilled white mage handy, Fluttershy here can conserve her own magic reserves."
As Twilight looked uncertain Lyra spoke up. "Twilight, Rarity just wants to be there for you. You shouldn't push her away."
Twilight looked between the two mares and one filly that were looking at her expectantly. Finally, she sighed. "Alright. We'll set off in the morning for Mt. Hoof, and then to Stabul!"
The other three nodded, as the doctor began pulling out some futons. "You all are welcome to spend the night. Goodness knows, I haven't had so many pretty mares over in a long time!" he chuckled. The earth pony mare, who had walked in with a tray of food, leveled a deadly glare at him. "Er, but you're all I need, dear Redheart," he added quickly.
She smiled in response, setting the tray on the bed in front of Rarity. "Eat up, dear, you've been out of it for a few days. You need to recover your strength."
As Rarity began digging into the meal (while maintaining her dignified poise), Lyra, Twilight, and Fluttershy began to settle down for the night. Twilight's thoughts were troubled. If this Nightmare Moon is manipulating the king, then could she also be behind other things? The Octomammoth, the antlion's eggs… it's hard to swallow, but could one mare cause so many problems for the world? She yawned as she stripped her armor, curling up on one of the futons. Worries for another time, Twilight. Focus on getting to Stabul tomorrow. For now, get some rest. Goodness knows, you've earned it.
With that thought in mind, Twilight drifted off, followed by Lyra, Fluttershy, and Rarity in short order, all four hoping the next day would be better.
"Goodness, this is fast!" Rarity exclaimed the next day. She, Twilight, Fluttershy, and Lyra had departed Kaipony with the hovercraft, and the white unicorn was amazed at the speed. "This might make Rainbow Dash a little envious!"
"Speaking of Rainbow," Twilight began, keeping her focus on the engine, "why didn't she come with you? I mean, it's not like her to leave somepony behind."
"Oh, she wanted to come with me, but she just couldn't leave without giving the king a piece of her mind," Rarity answered, her eyes downcast. "She got herself arrested. When she was being dragged off, she told me to make a break for it. And so I did, though it galled me to do so."
"Well, if I know Rainbow, she's not going to stay in prison long," Twilight said. "She might start an argument with another inmate to get out, or something."
"That sounds like her, alright," Rarity said with a laugh.
"So this Rainbow Dash is another friend of yours?" asked Lyra, keeping her eyes on the terrain ahead. They were nearing the shoals that connected the Kaipony Desert to the plains around Clydecyan Castle.
"Yes, she's the commander of the Colton Dragoons," Rarity explained. "Or rather, she was the commander. I doubt she is anymore, what with her being arrested and all."
"Was she the one that came with you to Mist, Twilight?" asked Fluttershy.
"Yeah," the lavender mare replied. "I was worried about her for a while. But I'm glad she got back to get healed by you, Rarity."
"Think nothing of it, Twilight," Rarity replied. "I'd do the same for any of my friends. After all, what use is white magic if I'm not helping ponies?"
"Not much," Lyra quipped, now steering the craft over the shoals. "I think I've heard of maybe one white magic spell in history that is meant to actually harm. Some ultimate magic or something… now what was it…?"
"Holy," Rarity replied. "Supposedly the most powerful white magic. I've never actually seen it used, but there is documentation supporting its existence. Only truly powerful white mages would be able to cast that spell."
"Speaking of powerful mages, Rarity, you wouldn't believe who I ran into on the way to Clydecyan," Twilight piped up. "Starswirl the Bearded! The legendary sage!"
"Really?!" Rarity exclaimed. "Oh, that must have been inspiring! To see a living legend in the flesh! What was he like?"
"Well, he was pretty impressive, magic-wise," Twilight replied. "But he was a little hung up over his daughter running off to Clydecyan with Lyra. They didn't tell him that Lyra was Clydecyan's princess."
"Oh, dear," Rarity murmured. "And you said earlier that Lyra was the only survivor of the Red Wings' attack…" She turned to the mint-colored unicorn. "I'm so sorry for your loss."
"It's alright, really," Lyra said. "I can't let myself get hung up over it. I mean, sure, I lost my parents, my kingdom, and the mare I loved all in one stroke, but the world won't stop spinning just to let me grieve."
"Even so, you can't just bottle it all up, Lyra," Rarity insisted. "You need to cry sometime."
"When the world is safe from Nightmare Moon," Lyra began sternly, "when there's no threat to the harmony of the nations, then I'll cry. Until then, I'll be strong."
Everypony else was silent at the conviction in the princess's words. Even Twilight decided not to continue her original topic of Starswirl. By this point, they were passing Clydecyan Castle. Rarity looked at it sadly, noting the ruined spires and walls. Still, she said nothing, out of respect for Lyra's privacy. The mint-colored mare had all but closed the discussion of her emotional trauma.
The rest of the trip passed in relative silence, as Lyra steered them over the next set of shoals. Nopony could think of anything to say past what had already been said. Finally, Fluttershy broke the silence. "So how did you get to know Twilight, Rarity?"
Rarity began chuckling as Twilight blushed. "Oh, I remember it like it was yesterday. You see, Twilight was raised by the king of Colton, alongside Rainbow Dash. But Twilight, being the 'teacher's pet' that she is, got a lot of favor from the king. Compare that to Rainbow, who was very blunt, and disrespectful of authority. One day, Rainbow decided to get into a scuffle with Twilight over the issue. I broke them up."
"I'm glad you did," Twilight muttered. "I wasn't training as a Dark Knight back then, and I wasn't as physically inclined as Rainbow was. She'd have cleaned my clock."
"You give yourself too little credit, Twilight," Rarity soothed. "I seem to recall Rainbow sporting a rather nice black eye after that incident."
"Whereas I was… how did your mom say it? Oh, yes, an 'absolute mess that's more bruise than pony'," replied Twilight. Everypony else chuckled at that.
"Suffice to say, they listened to me from then on, and we became very good friends," Rarity continued.
"Wow," Fluttershy breathed in awe.
Before anything else could be said, Lyra called from the front, "Slow down, Twilight, we're coming up on the base of Mt. Hoof."
Twilight began turning back the throttle, and the hovercraft slowed to a stop in front of a path leading up the mountain. Partway up the path, the quartet could see a thick sheet of ice impeding further progress.
Walking up to the ice sheet, Twilight tapped it with a hoof. "This is pretty solid. We're not going to get through this with sheer strength alone. Not in time, at least."
Rarity turned to the lone pegasus of the group. "Fluttershy, Fire is a very basic spell. It should be simplicity itself for you to cast it."
Fluttershy didn't respond, her body having seized up again.
"Won't you at least give it a try, dear?" the white unicorn asked, seemingly unnoticing the filly's discomfort.
Finally, Fluttershy replied, in a quivering voice, "I can't…"
"Hm?" Rarity said with a blink.
"I can't," Fluttershy repeated. "I can't use fire, I just… can't…"
As Rarity blinked confused, understanding dawned on Twilight's face. "The Carnelian Signet contained a multitude of bomb monsters, Rarity. They razed the village of Mist to the ground. And Fluttershy had to see it all."
A look of horror crossed Rarity's face, but it passed quickly, fading into concern. "I'm certain you're traumatized, dear, but think of what could happen if we don't get through here. There are innocent ponies in Stabul that need to be warned of the threat Colton poses. This ice is the only thing in our way, and you're the only pony who has what it takes to get us through it. If you don't try, more ponies are going to suffer, just like your village."
As Rarity spoke, Fluttershy's eyes grew wider and wider. But at her last sentence, something changed. The pegasus looked between all of the unicorns, then back to the ice. Finally, she took a step forward. Rarity moved out of her way, and Fluttershy took a breath. As she did, spirals of flame began swirling around her wings. When they reached her wingtips, she jumped into the air, and beat her wings once, flinging the flames at the ice. Within moments, a large hole had been melted into the ice, easily big enough for anypony.
"Well done, Fluttershy!" Twilight cheered.
"You did it!" Lyra exclaimed.
Fluttershy giggled a little. "It was kind of easy, wasn't it?" she asked.
"And all you needed to do was face your fears," Rarity said soothingly. "You're already turning into a powerful mage."
Twilight nodded in agreement. "Starswirl told me you might one day outstrip him in the realm of magic, and I'm beginning to agree." She looked up the mountain. "Next stop, Stabul!"
With that, the four began to climb the mountain. Fortunately, the mountain path was fairly wide, allowing for a wide range of movement. Unfortunately, it was also chock-full of monsters. Rarity, proving her worth as an archer, managed to shoot down a few annoying enemies before they could reach the rest of the party. She grimaced at the blood.
"Ugh, I'm so glad I don't have to get close to those things," she said. "The blood would simply stain my coat something awful!"
Lyra spared a glance at her. "You're hiking through a mountain. I think it's expected that we'll get a little dirty."
"There is a great difference between 'dirty' and 'coated with blood,' Lyra," the white mare sniffed. "Especially for somepony with a white coat like mine."
Twilight rolled her eyes as Lyra began to object. "Leave it alone, Lyra. Rarity's always been a bit conscious about her cleanliness."
Before anypony else could comment, Fluttershy's ears perked. "Wait, what's that noise?" she asked, flitting over to a crevice. "Oh, my, could somepony give me a hoof? There's something hurt at the bottom of the crevice!"
Twilight trotted over, curious. "What do you mean, Fluttershy?" She looked down, then instantly averted her eyes. "WHOA! Um, Fluttershy, you might want to back up."
"What? Why?" the young pegasus asked, confused.
"That's a cockatrice! They can turn you to stone with little more than a glance!" Twilight explained, taking a few steps away from the crevice.
"But it's hurt!" Fluttershy protested. "I can't just leave something alone if it's hurt!"
"Fluttershy, cockatrices are very dangerous," Twilight said slowly. "You can't seriously expect to – "
Fluttershy cut her off by flying into her face and glaring at her. "Weren't you the one who said that my talent was caring for animals? Well, there's an animal hurt right here, and you're telling me to leave it alone! I'm just taking your words to heart!"
Twilight was dumbstruck. On the one hoof, she knew from personal experience that cockatrices were something to avoid. On the other, Fluttershy was right; she HAD told the young pegasus what her talent was, and now seemed to be contradicting herself.
The unicorn sighed, closing her eyes. "Alright, Fluttershy. But I'm warning you, do not look it in the eye, for any reason." She reached out with her magic, wrapping her aura around the cockatrice below. It chirped weakly, struggling, but it had been badly hurt by something, and its movements were sluggish. She carefully probed it, and determined that it had a broken wing, and several bruises across its side. She slowly lifted it out of the crevice, keeping her eyes closed.
Further back, Rarity winced as she saw the mutated bird's condition. "Goodness, something really did a number on it," she whispered.
"No kidding. I know from experience that cockatrices, while not the strongest of creatures, aren't exactly pushovers," Lyra agreed.
Fluttershy was looking the wounded creature over, studiously avoiding its eyes. "Hm, it's in pretty bad condition," she said. "That wing's going to need to be set before I can properly heal it with my magic."
Lyra blinked at that. "Why? Isn't white magic, like, a cure-all?"
"Not entirely," Rarity cut in. "That's a common misconception. There are limits to what everything, even magic, can accomplish in terms of healing. For example, the most basic white magic can only heal minor wounds or injuries. With the way that wing's broken, a basic Cure spell would only serve to trap the wing in that broken position. The cockatrice would never fly again."
"So… why don't you help it? You're more powerful with white magic than Fluttershy, right?" Lyra pointed out.
"I believe this is something Fluttershy wants to do herself. Besides which, a more personal approach might be what the cockatrice needs to calm down," Rarity explained.
As Fluttershy went about setting the wing in a splint, Twilight kept the cockatrice suspended carefully so as to not put pressure on the injured areas. It tried feebly to snap at either the unicorn or the pegasus, but it was weak from a combination of hunger and pain-induced exhaustion. Eventually, it gave up on its struggles, letting Fluttershy tend to it.
Finally, Fluttershy finished setting the wing, straightening it out. The cockatrice's beak was clenched shut in pain by this point, a few tears falling from its eyes. Fluttershy, noting the tear marks on the ground, cringed. "I'm really sorry that you're hurt, and that I was hurting you more. But, I needed to make sure your wing would properly heal." She glowed a soft white, and white light enveloped the wounded creature. This repeated twice more, and finally its look of pain vanished. Fluttershy then went about unraveling the splint.
"Okay, Twilight, you can set it down, now," the pegasus said when she was done taking the splint off. Twilight set the cockatrice down on its talons. It stretched its wings a little, looking over the previously injured limb. It then looked at Fluttershy, who was now holding out a small white rectangle of… something. "This is something I made for the foxes and other meat-eaters in Mist. It's bland, but it should tide you over until you get some more real food," Fluttershy explained. Hesitantly, the cockatrice pecked at the white substance, before snapping it up in three quick bites.
It flapped its wings a few times, lifting off into a hover above the ponies. It looked at them all, but they all avoided looking back. It then let out a series of chirps and trills.
Fluttershy's ears perked. "Wait, what? Do you… really mean that?"
It nodded, and then vanished into a sphere of light that flew into the young filly. Everypony else blinked.
"Fluttershy? What just happened?" asked Twilight.
"It… it was so touched by my helping it, that it became an eidolon," Fluttershy replied in wonder. "It wanted to repay my kindness."
"Wow," Lyra gasped. "I've never heard about that. Then again, I don't know much about summoners and eidolons, anyway."
"Huh. Well, I guess I underestimated you, Fluttershy," Twilight admitted. "I'm sorry I was being a bit of a flip-flop earlier."
"Oh, it's no trouble, Twilight," Fluttershy replied. "You were just trying to look out for me, and I appreciate that."
The four ponies continued to ascend the mountain, avoiding or dealing with enemies as necessary. They couldn't help but chuckle at one point when a Gargoyle, confused by Lyra's harp, cast a Tornado spell on itself, leaving itself open to a swing from Twilight.
"I wonder why those things don't use that spell normally?" Rarity murmured. "They'd be a lot more threatening if they did."
"Who knows?" Twilight replied.
Their climb continued, until they heard the sounds of combat up ahead. Glancing at each other, they quickened their pace, until they saw what was happening. An orange earth pony mare stood, facing away from the group. She wore nothing save for a red vest, saddlebags, and a small brown hat. Her long blonde mane and tail fluttered in the wind.
Facing her was a cluster of Domovois, with one creature staying out of sight towards the back. Around the mare were the battered and broken bodies of more monsters. Judging by the way the mare was panting, she'd been fighting for some time. Fluttershy whimpered when she saw that some of the corpses belonged to ponies, rather than monsters.
"The hay is going on here?" wondered Twilight.
"I recognize that vest!" Lyra exclaimed. "She's a monk of Stabul!"
No sooner had the princess spoken than the mare sprang into action. Whipping a rope out of her saddlebags, she lassoed one of the Domovois, and pulled it toward her, smashing it into the ground with a forehoof. Another tried to get behind her, only to get bucked with both of the mare's hind legs. It went sailing over the edge, landing with a gut-wrenching splat on the mountainside.
The remaining three Domovois sprang at her as one, only for the mare to jump into the air, letting them land where she had been moments before. Before they could stand, she landed on top of the pile forehooves-first, letting out a loud, "YEE-HAW!"
The creature that had remained behind then hovered forward. It looked like little more than a ball of living flame, floating in the air. Lyra blanched when she saw it. "A bomb! That's tough for any one pony to face!"
Twilight didn't need encouragement. She charged forward, body-checking the bomb before it could ram into the monk. "Need a hoof?" she asked the briefly-startled mare.
"Ah sure won't say no!" the monk replied, an odd accent tinging her voice.
Rarity, Fluttershy, and Lyra joined them as they faced down the bomb. It glared at all of them, trying to decide which of them to attack first. It ruled out the heavily-armored pony that interrupted its first attack. Looking them over, it settled on the small one. Young ponies always made nice snacks.
Rarity, seeing it begin its charge, shot an arrow at it. The arrow struck it between the eyes, and it bellowed in pain. Still, the arrow hadn't gone deep, and so it shifted course, aiming for the archer. A Blizzard spell, thrown from the young pegasus, knocked it back several paces as it cringed from the contrast between its natural heat and the freezing cold of the ice.
"Ah think it's jus' gettin' mad," the monk drawled.
"Well, how about something more substantial?" Twilight asked, swinging her blade. At the same time, the monk charged forward, spinning around to buck the bomb with both hind legs. The two attacks combined sent it flying into a boulder.
"Hoo-ee! That's how we do things 'round here!" the earth pony crowed.
"You okay?" Twilight asked. "That thing was on fire, after all…"
She was waved off. "Pshaw, ain't nothing ah haven't done before," the monk said.
"Um, it's not quite dead yet," Fluttershy cut in, nodding over to where the bomb was now lifting itself off the ground. It then began to swell, becoming bulbous and darker colored. Moreover, it looked angry.
"Uh-oh!" Lyra gulped. "That's a Mom Bomb! When they get close to death, they explode, and release a bunch of smaller bombs! When they're like this, it's next to impossible to stop them!"
Everypony else gulped, backing away from the slowly approaching monster. "Any suggestions?" asked Rarity.
"Throw up whatever spells you have that can mitigate damage," Lyra replied. "And everypony, brace yourself. It's about to blow!"
Rarity acted quickly, throwing up Protect spells around the group. Everypony else dug their hooves into the ground as best they could, hunkering down slightly. The bomb was less than four yards away when it stopped, and exploded.
Even with the Protect spells in place, everypony was knocked back by the blast. Twilight was thrown the shortest distance, owing to her heavy armor. On the other hoof, Fluttershy was almost blown completely off the edge of the summit, and was saved only by Rarity's quick reflexes with her magic. The five ponies regrouped quickly, now facing a group of six bombs. Three were of the same coloring as their parent, while three were a dull gray.
"Okay, Lyra, any suggestions for the kids?" asked Twilight, eyeing the six monsters warily. Rarity cast a mass Cura spell on the group, mending the damage they'd taken from the explosion.
"They're little different from standard bombs, except for the gray ones. They're a bit tougher, but not by much," Lyra replied.
"Good to know," Twilight said, and flung a Dark Wave at the group of bombs. The three standard ones were slain by the attack, while the three gray ones remained, albeit dazed.
Lyra then played her Lamia's harp, causing one of the gray bombs to waver, then crash into one of its brothers before detonating. The blast consumed both bombs, leaving only one behind. It glanced between its attackers and the corpses of its comrades, and decided discretion was the better part of valor. Before it could flee, though, the monk charged forward, and struck it with a forehoof to send it careening into a rock.
"Like ah said, that's how we do things 'round here!" she declared. She turned to look at the other ponies, green eyes twinkling. "Thank ye kindly for yer help there. I'da been monster bait if ya'll hadn't shown up."
Lyra stepped forward, recognition on her face. "Applejack? That is you, isn't it? My goodness, it's been ages!"
Blinking, Applejack looked at Lyra, then grinned. "Well, blow me down! Is that you, Lyra? Boy howdy, it's been a long time, alright!" With a laugh, she drew the mint-green unicorn into a hug.
"I take it you two know each other?" asked Rarity.
Lyra stepped away from Applejack, turning to face the others. "Ah, right, introductions. Everypony, this is Applejack, Grandmaster of the monks of Stabul. I almost didn't recognize you, it's been so long."
Applejack waved her off, chuckling. "S'alright, Lyra. Shoot, you've changed a lot yerself. Now, how about introducin' me to yer new friends?"
Nodding, Lyra indicated each of the other three in turn. "This is Twilight Sparkle, Rarity, and Fluttershy. We were actually on our way to Stabul when we saw what was going on." She glanced around, wincing as she took in the corpses of fallen ponies. "Though it seems we should have gotten here sooner."
Applejack's good humor vanished, and she grimaced. "Woulda been nice, ah'll admit. But, what's done is done. Ah'm not lookin' forward to tellin' the king that most of our top monks are dead. This was supposed to be a simple trainin' exercise!"
Twilight frowned. "Well, like Lyra said, we're on our way to Stabul ourselves. We'll come with you, since we need to talk to your king."
Applejack cocked her head. "And why's that? From yer armor, ah'd say yer a Dark Knight of Colton, right? You on official business from Colton?"
Twilight's expression darkened. "Not really. We actually planned on warning Stabul that Colton's planning to attack."
The earth pony's eyes widened. "Say what?! We ain't done nothin' to Colton worth gettin' upset over! Why would they attack us?!"
"Because you keep a crystal in your kingdom, dear," Rarity explained. "We have reason to believe a mare by the name of Nightmare Moon is using Colton's Red Wings to gather the crystals of the world. Maresidia's Water Crystal and Clydecyan's Fire Crystal are already in her hooves."
Applejack looked startled at that, and glanced at Lyra. "Don't tell me they attacked yer kingdom!"
Lyra looked down. "They did… and I was the only one to survive. It'll be a long time before Clydecyan can be called a kingdom again."
Applejack sighed. "Dang… yer mom and dad were two of the kindest ponies ah knew. Ah'm gonna miss them…" She shook herself, and looked back at Twilight and Rarity. "So yer thinkin' that this Nightmare Moon's gonna go after Stabul next?"
"It's the most logical step," Twilight replied. "Trotta's a little too out of the way, plus it's surrounded by forests. Not exactly a place to land invasion forces."
Applejack frowned. "Boy, is this a pain. If Colton does attack now, we're gonna be at a huge disadvantage. Most of the monks back at the castle are trainees."
Twilight hesitated, but then gave voice to a concern she'd had. "If I may… I think Nightmare Moon might have sent these monsters after your monks."
That earned her a startled look from not only Applejack, but the other three as well. "Wh-what makes you say that?" asked Fluttershy.
"I've been puzzling this over for a while now, and it's the only thing that makes sense," Twilight began to explain. "A few months ago, King Colton's behavior changed, and not for the better. He began pushing for more militaristic uses of the Red Wings. At around the same time, the number of monsters and hostile creatures throughout the world began to increase dramatically."
Rarity frowned. "I see what you're saying, Twilight, and it makes sense. You think Nightmare Moon met with the king that day, and that's when everything began to change."
Twilight nodded, looking at Fluttershy. "The antlion's eggs were destroyed by somepony, and it became hostile. That Octomammoth, from what little I've read about them, isn't native to caves that close to desert. It's entirely possible that Nightmare Moon is influencing the world's natural order to bring chaos."
Applejack's expression was grim. "And the killin' of my friends and colleagues was part of that plan?"
Twilight nodded. "It's a fair assumption."
The earth pony sighed. "This is gonna be a pill for Big Mac to swallow," she muttered.
"Big Mac?" asked Rarity with a blink.
"Mah big brother," Applejack explained. She paused, then added, "And the king of Stabul."
Twilight's jaw fell open. She then sunk into a hasty bow. "O-oh! I'm so sorry, your Highness, I – "
"None o' that, now!" Applejack said, pulling Twilight back to her hooves. "Ah don't like bein' called 'yer highness', 'yer grace', or whatever! Ah'm just a simple earth pony who jus' happens to be related to the king of Stabul. Ah'm just Applejack to mah friends."
Twilight blushed. "Sorry, Applejack. I'm just… well…"
"Nervous around authority figures?" Rarity quipped.
The lavender unicorn's blush deepened. "Yeah, pretty much," she admitted.
The others all giggled at her discomfort, but Lyra quickly sobered. "We don't have time to waste dawdling here! Every second we spend is another second Colton has to attack Stabul!"
Applejack nodded, a look of determination on her face. "Stabul ain't gonna fall today! Not so long as ah have anythin' to say about it!"
With that, she took off down the slope of Mt. Hoof. The other four were hot on her tail, rushing to warn Stabul of the impending attack.
The five ponies galloped across the plains, focusing on their final destination. Well, four ponies galloped; Fluttershy was riding on Applejack's back, since she couldn't fly or run fast enough to keep up with the older mares. The orange mare had insisted on it after seeing Fluttershy falling behind. Fluttershy had at first refused, not wanting to be a burden, but Applejack had been adamant.
As they galloped, they presented such a formidable force that most monsters stayed out of their way. It wasn't often that one heavily-armored unicorn, one well-muscled mare (carrying a pegasus filly), and two other unicorns barreled through the area. Occasionally, a monster or two would try to brave the force, only to be trampled under the hooves of the two lead mares, if they weren't shot down by the archer's keen aim.
A couple of hours later, Twilight saw the towers of a castle rising before them. "Is that Stabul Castle?" she called to Applejack.
"Sure is!" the monk replied. "And it looks like Colton hasn't been here, judgin' by the lack of smoke 'n whatnot."
The five collectively sighed in relief, slowing their pace as they approached the castle. A pair of earth ponies stood guard by the gate, one on either side. They had been looking rather bored, one idly twirling the braid in her mane around a hoof. When they spotted the approaching group, they snapped to attention, then offered a bow to Applejack as she approached.
One of them spoke. "Master Applejack! You've returned! We were getting worried, ma'am!"
Stopping before them, Applejack offered a grin. "Pshaw, you worry too much, Caramel." She then sighed. "Still, tighten up the defenses, will you? Ah've lost too many good ponies already."
The other glanced at the unfamiliar faces that were following Applejack. "Um, ma'am…"
"Don't you worry 'bout these folks none, they're with me," the master monk replied. "C'mon, sugarcubes, let's go talk to the king." She led the others into the castle.
Stabul Castle was wider than Clydecyan Castle had been, though not quite as spacious as Castle Colton. In fact, in terms of both height and width, it lay between the two. The visitors took their time admiring the architectural differences… or critiquing them, in Rarity's case.
"… I'm not saying it's bad per se, but it's lacking the… refinement that Castle Colton has," she was saying. "I mean, even the towers look like little more than blocks somepony piled together into a crude cylindrical structure!"
Applejack rolled her eyes. "That'd be because they are," she said.
Rarity blinked. "But… but how can you live in a place so aesthetically displeasing?!" she exclaimed.
Applejack sighed, and stopped, looking at her. "Because we're good, honest earth ponies for the most part here in Stabul, and we care about how somethin' works more 'n how it looks. All that frou-frou nonsense from Colton don't mean a thing here. If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
It was the first time in living memory that Twilight could recall Rarity being struck speechless in regards to how something looked. The white unicorn simply stared at Applejack, her jaw working but no sounds coming out. Lyra and Fluttershy giggled at the sight.
Finally, Rarity found her voice. "I'd… honestly never thought about it that way. I've been living among the refinement of Colton my whole life, I never thought that the other castles wouldn't be as visually impressive." She actually appeared contrite. "I apologize if I offended you, Applejack."
The orange mare grinned, and waved a hoof in dismissal. "Ain't no need to 'pologize, Rarity," she said. "You ain't done or said nothin' wrong."
Before anything else could be said, a yellow-and-red blur slammed into Applejack, knocking her over. Fluttershy, thrown off the mare by the impact, squeaked and righted herself in midair with a couple of flaps. The blur resolved into a young earth pony filly, a year or two younger than Fluttershy. "AJ! You're back!" the filly exclaimed.
Applejack chuckled. "Hey there, sugarcube," she said. "Ah'd like ya to meet some new friends o' mine." She got up, turning to face the others. "This here's mah little sister, Applebloom. And these are mah friends Twilight Sparkle, Rarity, Fluttershy, and – "
"Lyra! It's been a while, how've you been?" Applebloom interrupted.
Lyra chuckled, reaching down to give the filly a hug. "I've been worse, Applebloom. I hope you're staying out of trouble?"
"Yeah, ah've been good," Applebloom said, then turned to the others. "Nice ta meet ya'll, too!"
Fluttershy hung back, a little intimidated by the more extroverted filly. Twilight and Rarity, however, immediately gushed over how cute Applebloom was, causing the earth pony to blush in indignation.
Before they could get too sidetracked, Applejack coughed. "Applebloom, we need to talk to Big Mac. Ah promise, ah'll come visit later once we're done meetin'." Her voice left no room for argument, and Applebloom reluctantly trotted off to another part of the castle. Applejack sighed. "Ah swear, she's mah kin, but she drives me up the wall sometimes."
Rarity chuckled. "I found her absolutely darling! Oh, sometimes I wish I had a sibling of my own…"
Twilight smirked. "You know, your mom told me once you were quite the nightmare as a filly, and that was why your parents decided not to have another foal."
As Rarity blushed, Applejack coughed. "C'mon now, ya'll. We've dilly-dallied enough right here, let's get a move on!"
She led them up a couple of floors to the throne room. The guards outside the doors offered her a bow as she led them through the doors. Looking around, Twilight noted that the room was possibly even more spacious than the throne room at Colton. Then she got her first look at the king of Stabul, and her jaw nearly fell open.
Applejack had mentioned that his name was Big Macintosh. And he certainly was big. He stood a full head taller than most other stallions that Twilight had met in her life. While Applejack was built with lean muscle, Big Mac was simply built. Muscles rippled across his legs even as he shifted in his throne. His coat was a bright red, and he had a short-cropped orange mane and tail. A simple golden circlet and red robe was all he wore, not even bothering with a crown.
He looked up from where he'd been studying some papers, and broke into a wide grin. "Well, look who's here," he said in a slow but strong voice. "Welcome back, sis."
"Nice ta be back, Big Mac," Applejack replied, offering a short bow. "Wish more of us had made it back with me…"
The king frowned. "Speakin' of, where's the others?"
Applejack took a deep breath. "Dead ta the last pony, Big Mac," she said. "Monsters ambushed us on Mt. Hoof. Hay, if it weren't fer these folks – " she waved Twilight and the others forward at this point " – ah might not have made it back either."
Big Mac bore a look of shock on hearing that most of Stabul's finest were dead. Still, he shook himself, and offered a grateful smile to the others. "Y'all have mah thanks fer bringin' my sister back safe 'n sound."
Twilight and the others bowed in respect, but Applejack sighed. "We got other problems, bro. They came here ta warn us that Colton's plannin' an attack."
The king's eyes widened. "Colton?! Why in tarnation would Colton attack us?!"
Lyra stepped forward. "King Macintosh, you have to believe what we say. Colton will attack, and soon."
Big Mac's eyes widened on seeing her. "Lyra? What're you doin' here? Don't yer parents need you in Clydecyan?"
Lyra's head bowed. "My parents, as well as everypony else in Clydecyan, lie dead at Colton's hooves. They attacked without warning, demanding that we surrender our Fire Crystal. When we did, they rained fire upon us from the Red Wings."
The king bowed his head in sorrow. "That ain't right… they killed everypony in Clydecyan jus' fer the Fire Crystal?"
"That's not all," Twilight added, stepping forward. "Colton also seized Maresidia's Water Crystal days before attacking Clydecyan. And I'm ashamed to admit that I was the one leading the Red Wings at that time."
Big Mac looked her over. "Yer armor marks you as a Dark Knight of Colton. How come yer here, rather than with them?"
"I drew the line when I realized King Colton wished for me to kill an entire village of summoners, including the foals," Twilight replied. "Fluttershy here is the only known survivor of Mist." The pegasus filly bowed her head.
Big Mac's eyes were stormy. "Maresidia and Clydecyan… the Water and Fire Crystals… so Colton's after our Wind Crystal, huh? Well, we'll give 'em a fight they won't soon forget!" He rose to his full height, and bellowed, "Lock down the castle! We are in a state of war! Foals and noncombatants to the shelters!" His powerful voice echoed through the room, and the guards bowed smartly before taking off to inform the rest of the castle.
"My, he certainly doesn't waste time," Rarity gushed. "Now he is a true king. Oh, if my heart weren't already taken by another…" She offered a look to Twilight, who blushed under her helmet.
"He's certainly… um… proactive?" offered Fluttershy.
Lyra nodded. "King Macintosh is well-loved by his people. He sometimes says he's not really worthy of being a king, but that's part of his charm. He's charismatic without being arrogant."
"Thank ye kindly fer those words, Lyra," Big Mac said as he stepped down from the throne. "But we've got a problem. Ah'm sure you know by now that we lost most of our best monks on Mt. Hoof. That in mind, would ya'll be willin' ta…?"
"Say no more, King Macintosh," Twilight cut in with a bow. "We'll be more than happy to assist in the defense of Stabul." The others all nodded.
Big Mac smiled. "Thank ye all." He looked them over. "Hm… Would you two mind helpin' our medics?" he asked, pointing to Fluttershy and Rarity.
Rarity smiled, tossing her mane a little. "But of course, King Macintosh! I'd be more than willing to lend my white magic to aid your own healers!"
Fluttershy nodded as well. "I'd like to help out, any way I can," she said.
"Perfect!" Applejack said. "Ah'll lead you two where ya need to go, then we'll proceed to lock down the castle!"
A few hours later, Applejack, Twilight, and Lyra stood just outside the gates of the castle with a contingent of lesser monks. Twilight took comfort in the fact that Rarity and Fluttershy were relatively safe in the shelters with the medics. The lockdown of the castle had proceeded smoothly, nopony had argued or made a fuss. Well, nopony except Applebloom. The little filly had been upset that she'd been pulled away from cooking dinner for herself and Applejack. Still, she understood the situation. With everything secure, there was nothing to do but wait for the attack.
They weren't disappointed. A mere three hours into their vigil, a shout came from the ramparts. "Colton soldiers spotted!"
"Get ready, everypony!" Applejack declared, settling into a fighting stance.
Twilight drew her sword and Lyra readied her harp. A few moments later, the first wave arrived. Two soldiers stood in front of a lieutenant, who ordered them to attack. As the soldiers charged, Twilight and Applejack struck. Applejack bucked one soldier with both hind legs, dropping him instantly. Twilight swung her blade while offering a silent apology, cutting the other soldier's legs out from under him before finishing him off. The lieutenant turned to flee, but the other monks pony-piled onto him, crushing him with their flailing hooves. Everypony let out a breath. That had been easy.
Their reprieve was short-lived. An explosion went off in the courtyard, causing the gatekeepers to whirl. "The Red Wings!" Twilight gasped, as a few more explosions rocked the castle.
"Grr… it really rubs me the wrong way ta do this!" Applejack said with a growl. "Everypony, pull back into the keep! No use standin' out here just ta get killed!"
The other ponies were quick to comply. They made a dash for the keep's door, avoiding the explosions and shrapnel that were flying every which way. One poor earth pony, though, was hit directly by one of the bombs. He was incinerated instantly, not even getting a chance to scream.
Everypony else made it safely, and Applejack barred the door. She looked apologetically at Lyra and Twilight. "Sorry 'bout this, girls. Ah reckon ah've gone and drug ya into a hopeless fight."
Twilight shook her head as the door rattled from a fierce blow. "We were already involved, and if I can save just one life, it'll be worth it."
"Heh. Ah reckon we'll save more 'n that, Twilight!" Applejack declared.
The door splintered under another blow, then shattered. The next group to enter drew gasps from the guards. "Monsters?! Colton has monsters in its employ?!" one of them exclaimed.
Applejack bucked a fish-man monster, a Sahagin, into oblivion. "This proves that this Nightmare Moon pony is disruptin' the natural order o' things!"
Twilight thrust her sword into a Domovoi. "I hate it when I'm right, sometimes," she griped.
Lyra dodged a swing from another monster, and bucked it. While not as strong as Applejack, she was able to daze it, leaving it open to another pony-pile of monk trainees.
More enemies, soldiers and monsters alike, were pouring in. Despite their valor, the trainees found themselves getting seperated and picked off. Twilight grimaced. "We need to pull back! Force them into a choke point!"
"The staircase leadin' to the throne room's right behind us," Applejack said. "That's where we'll make our stand!" With that, they pulled back into the staircase, including those trainees that had survived. The enemies were quick to follow.
On the staircase, Lyra fretted. "We can't afford to lose here, can we?"
Applejack smirked. "Don't you worry, none. Big Mac's probably givin' those Colton cretins a hay of a time elsewhere. Our job is ta keep the worst of them offa his back…" she paused to buck at a trio of soldiers that ran up the stairs after them, "… and crush whoever we can!"
Despite her bravado, the enemies were pouring in at a steady pace. The chokepoint wasn't effective enough to stall the flood. More trainees fell, one gasping in shock as a Colton soldier heartlessly ran him through.
Lyra panicked at the sight. "We can't stay here! We need to retreat!" She ran up the stairs.
"Lyra!" Twilight called, rushing after her.
With a muttered curse, Applejack and the last standing trainee followed, Applejack slamming and locking the throne room's door behind her. "Hoo-ee, reckon we mighta bit off a bit more 'n we can chew?"
"Maybe," Twilight said. "But we can't afford any more retreats. The crystal's just past this room, isn't it?"
"Sure is," Applejack replied. "Hopefully, that door'll stay locked long enough fer us to catch our second wind."
Without warning, the lone trainee turned to the door, and undid the lock. Lyra gasped. "That's no monk, it's a spy!" As she said this, the trainee's visage distorted and warped, changing into a Gargoyle.
"Low-down dirty…!" cursed Applejack as she bucked the creature into a wall. Twilight struck it down moments later.
But the damage had been done. The door to the throne room burst open, revealing another set of monsters. Despite their weakness, the three mares managed to slay all of them. More were coming through, however.
"Ugh, this is ludicrous!" Twilight moaned. "C'mon, let's go to the crystal's chamber! We'll have to make our last stand there!"
The other two nodded in agreement, and dashed for the door leading to the crystal's chamber. Lyra stumbled for a moment, but quickly recovered and joined them. Applejack took a position directly in front of the Wind Crystal, with Lyra on her right and Twilight on her left. Three soldiers from Colton burst into the room, pausing as they saw the Wind Crystal on the platform behind Applejack.
Two of the soldiers gasped as their third member was cut down from behind. Before they could recover, they two were struck down by a rainbow-colored blur. A blur that resolved into a cyan pegasus, who grinned at Twilight.
"You always seem to get in trouble, don't you, Twilight?" the pegasus asked with a chuckle.
Twilight stared, dumbfounded for a moment. Then she laughed, running forward to wrap her friend in a hug. "Rainbow Dash! You made it!"
"Duh. What, you thought one earthquake would be enough to do me in?" Rainbow snorted, returning the hug with one leg, while her other kept hold of her spear. "Thought you had more faith in me than that."
"Uh, Twilight? Mind doin' some explainin'?" asked Applejack, coming forward.
"Oh, right! Rainbow, this is Applejack, Grandmaster monk of Stabul, and Lyra, princess of Clydecyan," Twilight said, indicating each pony. "Girls, this is my friend Rainbow Dash."
Rainbow smiled and waved with the hoof that wasn't holding her spear. "Nice to meet you!"
Lyra returned the greeting enthusiastically. Applejack, however, wore a skeptical look. "So, one of yer friends jus' happens to show up right when she's needed most? Seems a little convenient."
Twilight rounded on the monk, eyes blazing. "Just what are you suggesting?"
"First off, how'd she know to come here to Stabul?" asked Applejack, unfazed.
"She could have followed the Red Wings!" answered Twilight.
"Second, why'd she wait until now to show up? We coulda used the help before now!" continued the monk.
Rainbow leaned over to Twilight. "Is she always this suspicious of new ponies?"
"She was doing fine until now," replied Twilight. "She didn't act like this at all to me and the others when we saved her on Mt. Hoof."
"Huh. Well, that's a bit of a snag," Rainbow said off-hoovedly.
Blinking, Twilight turned to look at her…
… just in time to take the spear to her shoulder rather than her side. She gasped as pain shot through her, only able to stare into her friend's turquoise eyes. Wait, turquoise? Her thought was interrupted as Rainbow lifted her spear, and Twilight with it. With an expert flick, the pegasus sent the unicorn flying into a wall, causing Twilight to cry out.
"You really ought to listen to your friends, Twilight," Rainbow said coldly.
"You no-good varmint!" Applejack snarled, bounding forward to give the Dragoon a kick. Rainbow flipped over the strike, smacking the orange mare in the skull with the pole of her spear. This dazed Applejack long enough for Rainbow to buck her with both hind legs. She wasn't a monk, but her strength combined with her armor was enough to send the earth pony crashing into the platform that held the Wind Crystal.
Lyra was the only one left standing between Rainbow Dash and the crystal. The mint-green unicorn was paralyzed with shock. She'd heard nothing but good things about this pegasus, and it seemed that not a word of it was true.
Noticing Lyra's panicked look, Rainbow smirked. "Care to test your luck, princess? I'm not exactly afraid to hit royalty."
Lyra took a shuddering step backward. This pegasus had just defeated Twilight and Applejack effortlessly. What chance did she have?
"Thought so," the prismatic mare said with a scoff. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to collect the Wind Crystal." She floated forward, passing the wounded Twilight and the unconscious Applejack. Before she could reach the crystal, however, she was suddenly yanked backward by a blue aura, to stare an angry white unicorn directly in the eyes.
"How dare you, Rainbow Dash! I'd have thought of all ponies, you would be the last to turn your blade on a friend!" Rarity was furious. She'd gone to investigate the crystal's chamber when she heard the sounds of battle tapering off, just in time to hear Rainbow's remark to Lyra. A quick glance around the room had given her all the information she needed. "What do you have to say for yourself?!"
Behind her, Fluttershy flitted past to start tending to Twilight. Rainbow didn't notice, paralyzed by the intensity of Rarity's anger. "Rarity, I…" The normally cocky pegasus was speechless. She hadn't counted on this.
"Hesitating, Rainbow Dash? That's not like you," a new voice said derisively.
Into the chamber walked a midnight-black mare. She stood a head taller than even Big Macintosh, the largest pony Twilight had seen to date. A helmet and chestplate of some turquoise material adorned her head and torso. Her eyes matched the armor, but they weren't normal eyes. They had slitted pupils, similar to a dragon. Her mane and tail were also very unusual, looking like somepony had sewn pulsing, nebulous parts of the night sky onto her head and rear.
But by far the most striking feature about her was the fact that she bore a pair of wings and a horn. Everypony had thought alicorns were the stuff of legends and myths. Even so, Twilight knew at a glance who this pony had to be. "You're… Nightmare Moon!"
Those draconic eyes turned to regard her, as Fluttershy ducked behind Twilight for cover. "So, you're Twilight Sparkle. My predecessor in commanding the Red Wings. I should thank you, they've been quite helpful in retrieving the world's crystals."
"You're a madmare, Nightmare Moon!" Twilight exclaimed, trying to stand up. Her injuries, however, forced her back down. "Do you really think you can get away with this?!"
The alicorn laughed, a cruel, haunting sound. "You deluded foal, I already have gotten away with it! Nopony in the world can stand up to the power I wield!" She laughed again, then turned to regard Rarity, who'd let go of Rainbow Dash in her shock on seeing the huge pony. "As for you, it seems my lieutenant has a soft spot for you. Therefore, you'll be coming with us."
Before Rarity could protest, the starry mane began to swirl around her, hiding her from view for a moment. When it cleared, the white unicorn had vanished. Rainbow, seeing this, stood up and trotted over to the Wind Crystal, grasping it in her mouth before putting it in her saddlebag. She then trotted back to the alicorn. "Ready to go, boss."
Nightmare Moon chuckled. "Indeed. Come along, then. It's time to leave this castle."
As they turned to walk away, Lyra finally found her voice, though it trembled. "Are you planning on raining fire on Stabul, like you did Clydecyan?!"
Nightmare Moon blinked, and looked at her. "Ah, it seems I missed somepony in that den of cowards. You have the luck of Tartarus, apparently." She then waved a hoof in dismissal. "But to answer your question, no. I had Clydecyan destroyed because they didn't have the spine to fight for their crystal. Stabul, though weak, at least put up a fight. Ponies who fight against hopeless odds are intriguing. But I have no need of cowards in the world I plan to make." With that, she left, Rainbow Dash right behind her.
Lyra was left utterly speechless. She didn't react even as Fluttershy healed Twilight and Applejack, bringing the monk back to consciousness.
"Ugh… consarn that feather duster! When ah get mah hooves on that pegasus, I'mma – " She stopped on seeing Lyra. Frowning, she trotted over. "Lyra? You alright, sugarcube? That pegasus didn't rough you up none, did she?"
Lyra didn't respond, but Twilight walked over as well. "We saw Nightmare Moon. She's… even more powerful than I thought. I could feel the power rolling off of her."
Applejack looked unsettled. "Well, can't say ah'm sorry to have missed that," she said after a moment. She turned back to Lyra. "Sugarcube, what's wrong?"
Lyra slowly turned to face her old friend, her eyes brimming with tears. "She… called Clydecyan a den of cowards. She said she ordered my home destroyed just because we didn't fight for our crystal."
Applejack was about to object, but Twilight held up a hoof. "Lyra, I think you've been bottling things up a little too long. It's past time you let everything out. Nopony in this room will think less of you."
Lyra held her composure a few seconds longer before she finally broke down. Flinging herself into Applejack, she began sobbing loudly into the earth pony's shoulder. Applejack, in response, simply wrapped her forelegs around Lyra in a hug, stroking the mint unicorn's mane. Through it all, Lyra babbled out apology after apology. She apologized to her parents, for failing them as a princess; she apologized to Clover, for failing her as a lover. And she apologized to the other three present, for being so weak yet thinking she could stand on her own hooves.
At that, Fluttershy joined in the hug, her own eyes brimming. "You're not weak, Lyra! You're far stronger than I am, by a long shot! I couldn't even show my face to Nightmare Moon, but you kept standing and facing her! And I know for a fact that your parents and Clover don't want you to apologize to them. You've done nothing but try your best, given the circumstances, and they'd be proud of you."
Lyra looked down at the filly, hiccuping slightly. "How can you know?" she choked. "How can you be so sure? You never met them."
"Because you're a good pony, Lyra," Twilight said, joining the hug herself. "You helped us get the sand pearl for Rarity, and you helped us out a lot when we crossed Mt. Hoof. You haven't been a burden on us, Lyra, not at all. Just understand something; all ponies need to cry sometime. You've been through so much in such a short amount of time. Bottling things up will only make things worse when you finally let them out."
Lyra just nodded, letting a fresh wave of tears out. For a time, the four friends just stayed that way, the three comforting the one as she released all of her pent-up emotions.
Then Applejack looked around. "Um, where's Rarity? Ah'd have thought she'd be here with us…"
"Nightmare Moon took her," Twilight said flatly, stepping away. "And I'm going to get her back."
Applejack blinked, then smiled. "Well, shoot. Count me in fer this! I wouldn't miss it fer the world!"
Lyra nodded, finally drying her tears. "I'm in, too," the mint unicorn said. "You've all helped me out, so I want to do the same for you."
Beside her, Fluttershy smiled. "I'll stick with you, Twilight. You did so much for me, so it wouldn't feel right to leave you now."
With that, the four left the chamber, to plan their next move in the plan against Nightmare Moon.
The quartet gathered in the castle's inn. Several of the rooms had been turned into makeshift infirmaries, but there was one room that was set aside for them. The innkeeper had waved off their money, insisting that in the wake of the attack, nopony needed to pay. Twilight, at least, was grateful. With the adrenaline from the events in the crystal's chamber wearing off, she was more than a little tired. Still, she needed to discuss plans with the other three.
"So, how exactly are we goin' about rescuin' Rarity?" asked Applejack, stifling a yawn.
"Well, the first thing we need is an airship," Twilight replied. "The Red Wings are just too mobile. We need to get on even ground with them."
Lyra frowned. "But Colton's the only nation that has airships."
Forcing down her own yawn, Twilight nodded. "Exactly. Which is why we're going to steal one from them."
Fluttershy blinked. "Um, isn't that wrong?" she asked innocently.
"Normally, yes, but we're doing it to help ponies," Twilight explained.
"Oh… okay," the young pegasus replied.
"Now the only question is how we're supposed ta get all the way back to Colton," Applejack said, looking up at the ceiling. "Like Lyra said, we don't have an airship of our own, so we can't fly there. And takin' the land route'll just take way too much time."
Twilight thought about it, then smiled. "Well, since the Red Wings became the predominant military power in Colton, they've slacked off in the naval department."
Applejack nodded. "Ah getcha. Ah'll ask Big Mac to get a boat ready in the mornin'."
"Thanks…" Twilight yawned, stripping off her armor and lying down in one of the beds. She was exhausted, and basic white magic wouldn't fix something like that.
Before the unicorn could nod off, Fluttershy asked a question. "What happened before Rarity and I showed up? That wound in your shoulder was rather deep, Twilight."
It was something Twilight didn't want to think about. Still, before she could say anything, Applejack spoke up, heat in her voice. "Ah'll tell ya what happened! That rainbow-maned feather duster went and stabbed Twilight!"
Lyra rolled her eyes, and clarified. "What she means is that Rainbow Dash, Twilight's old friend, ended up joining Nightmare Moon's side after all."
Fluttershy's eyes widened. "But why? I remember back in Mist that she said she wouldn't disgrace her mother's memory or the honor of the Dragoons, or something like that."
Applejack snorted. "She's a first-class actor, then. Ah mean, Twilight looked geniunely happy ta see her, and got stabbed in the shoulder fer her trouble. And that twig-for-bones filly went and bucked me! When ah get mah hooves on her, I'mma make her beg fer – "
"No!" Twilight snapped, springing to her hooves and whirling around. The others all looked startled at this. "Nopony is laying a hoof on Rainbow Dash. She's not herself."
"Twi, ah understand ya want to protect yer friend, but – "
The unicorn cut Applejack off. "No, I mean she's literally not herself. I noticed it right after she stabbed me. Rainbow's eyes are normally rose-colored. But when I saw them right then, they were turquoise. The same shade as Nightmare Moon's eyes."
Lyra's eyes widened at the implications. "You think she's being controlled?"
"It's the only theory that makes any sense," Twilight said with a nod. "Rainbow would never willingly betray me. She has a little philosophy: 'What good is following the rules when doing so costs me my friends?' She said that after she turned down King Colton's request that she become a Dark Knight like me. She didn't want to cut her heart off from emotion and friendship."
Fluttershy tilted her head. "But, you haven't done that, have you? I mean, if you had, you wouldn't have spared me back at Mist."
Twilight chuckled bitterly. "Oh, I'm far from the ideal Dark Knight. I let my emotions rule me sometimes. King Colton used to get on my case about it, until he realized that it made me a lot more effective than other Dark Knights."
Applejack smiled. "Well, ah'm glad yer not an 'ideal Dark Knight'," she said with a hearty giggle. Then she sobered. "Ah'm sorry fer thinkin' ill of yer friend. Ah thought she'd actually turned on ya."
Twilight shook her head. "It's okay, you'd never met her so you wouldn't know." She laid back down. "C'mon, girls, lets get some sleep. We'll need to talk to the king in the morning."
"I hope King Macintosh is okay," Fluttershy murmured as she settled down herself.
"Don't ya'll worry none," Applejack assured them. "Mah big brother is one o' the toughest ponies on the planet. Ain't nothin' gonna keep him down fer long."
"What the buckin' hay happened to ya?!" Applejack bellowed the next morning.
To be fair, she had her reasons. The four had gotten out of bed to meet with Big Macintosh, only to be told he'd been injured during the fight against Colton. They'd gone up to his private room, Applejack assuring the others that he probably had a cut or two, and the nurses were over-reacting. That wasn't the case.
"It ain't as bad as it looks, sis," Big Mac said. He had a multitude of cuts all across his back, which was why he was lying belly-down on the bed. "Jus' a few o' them Colton ponies got lucky hits, that's all."
"Your Majesty, some of those are pretty deep," Twilight objected. "I mean, look! There's one cut there, I can nearly see bone!"
"Consarnit, Big Mac! Ah told ya not ta go playin' the hero! Ah bet ya got those takin' hits for the rookies that were with ya, right?" Applejack glowered at her brother.
He gave her a cool look in return. "Every pony ah saved last night is one more what can help us rebuild. Ah can take those kinda hits. Some o' those colts and fillies couldn't."
Applejack opened her mouth, but then closed it. "Ah hate it when yer right," she grumbled. Fluttershy, meanwhile, hopped up onto the bed next to the king, and began healing him.
Lyra coughed, cutting in before anything else could be said. "Your Majesty, we have a… I won't say plan, but a course of action we think we should take. Would it be too much trouble to ask for a ship?"
Big Mac looked at her, a small smile of relief coming to his face as Fluttershy continued her work. "Ah think ah can arrange that. But, why d'you need it?"
"We're planning on sneaking into Colton to steal an airship," Twilight answered matter-of-factly.
Had Big Mac been drinking, odds were that he would have done a spit-take into his bed. He stared at Twilight. "Have y'all spit yer bit?! That's suicide if ah've ever heard it! How're ya'll even plannin' on gettin' an airship in the first place?!"
"That'll be the easy part," Twilight said smoothly. "It's getting to Colton that's the issue. Hence, the ship. Like I told Applejack last night, Colton's naval force has been pretty weak since the Red Wings came about."
Big Mac chewed on that for a bit, as Fluttershy finished healing him. Sitting up in the bed, he gave each of the mares a thoughtful look. Finally, he sighed. "Alright. Ah think this is foolish as all get-out, but it's yer decision. Ah'll have a ship ready for ya in a couple hours or so."
Lyra and Twilight bowed in thanks, while Applejack simply smiled. "Thanks, big brother. Means a lot to me that ya trust me."
"Don't mention it," Big Mac replied, giving her a hug. "Jus' don't get yerself killed out there. Applebloom wouldn't forgive ya, fer one thing."
Applejack smirked, returning the hug. "Don't you worry 'bout me none. Ah'll be fine."
"Ah mean it, AJ," the king warned in a serious voice. "Don't do anythin' reckless. You gotta stay alive, 'cause Applebloom ain't old enough ta take over if somethin' happens to me."
The smirk slid from the mare's face, and she nodded. "Ah promise, ah won't die out there."
Satisfied, Big Mac pulled away from his sister. "It'll be a bit 'till the ship's ready. Meantime, Miss Sparkle, ah'd like ya to come with me fer a bit."
Blinking, Twilight followed the king as he made his way down the tower, walking a bit gingerly. The others followed after them, curious as to what Big Mac wanted with Twilight. They eventually came to a storage room, and the stallion began sifting through the boxes and such, looking for something. After a few minutes, Twilight coughed. "Um, do you need any help, your Majesty?"
"Nnnope," he replied. A minute later, he laughed. "Aha! Here's the li'l stinker!" Pulling something out of the corner of the room, he tossed it at Twilight. "There's a fancy blade for ya!"
Twilight caught the object reflexively, and everypony else gasped. The blade was dyed crimson, and it was a fair bit longer than the Shadowblade Twilight was currently using. What was more, the blade had a dark aura around it… and a stench of death.
"That there was left here by another Dark Knight years ago, accordin' ta mah pappy," Big Mac said. "Said ta be nigh-unrivaled in power. Ah reckon it's about time somepony put it to use again."
Uneasy about being given a weapon with such a smell about it, Twilight nevertheless secured it to her back. "Thank you, your Majesty."
"Yer welcome," he replied. "Still, ah can't help but wonder: can a dark sword really defeat somepony like Nightmare Moon? Ah don't rightly know."
Twilight blinked, not expecting the question. "Whether or not it can, I have to try, your Majesty."
Big Mac held up a hoof. "Miss Sparkle, after doin' yer best ta protect this castle, you've more 'n earned the right ta call me Big Mac. Ain't no need to be so formal wit' me all the time."
At that, Lyra and Applejack burst out laughing, while Fluttershy giggled. Twilight flushed at her friends' amusement. "Are you all quite finished?" she asked acidly when the laughter died down.
Applejack wiped a tear from her eye. "Ah'm sorry, sugarcube, that were downright mean of me. But, given yer reaction ta me when ya found out ah was related to Big Mac, ah can only imagine ya tryin' ta be informal wit' a king!" She began chuckling again.
"I seem to recall Starswirl telling you not to call him 'Sir', Twilight," Fluttershy said between giggles.
The lavender unicorn sighed. "Yes, yes, I have a problem. It's called showing respect to authority. Why does everypony in authority I meet these days not like it?!"
Big Mac chuckled a little. "What can ah say, here in Stabul we're like one big family. And ya don't call family 'sir' or 'your majesty'."
Twilight thought about that, then nodded. "Just one thing, your – ahem, Big Mac." When he arched an eyebrow, she smiled. "Just call me Twilight. 'Miss Sparkle' makes me feel older than I am."
He chuckled again, and Fluttershy's giggles renewed as she remembered Twilight telling Starswirl something similar. Lyra and Applejack renewed their laughter as well, and this time Twilight joined in. Everypony was laughing away the stress of the previous day, in preparation for the stress to come.
A couple of hours later, Twilight, Applejack, Lyra, and Fluttershy stood on the docks near Stabul Castle. A ship sat in the harbor before them, looking tall and proud. Applejack was currently bidding Applebloom a fond farewell.
"Ah already promised Big Mac ah'd be fine, okay?" the older earth pony said, hugging her sister.
"It ain't fair that ya gotta go to Colton. Why can't ya stay?" Applebloom complained.
"Because Rarity got foalnapped, and we're fixin' to get her back. Ta do that, we need an airship, and to get one, we need ta get to Colton," Applejack explained. "Twilight helped us out, so it's only fair that we help her, right?"
The filly pouted. "Ah guess so…" She perked up, and bounced over to Twilight. "Ah got somethin' to give ya!" She began rummaging in a saddlebag, coming out with a frying pan.
Twilight blinked. "Um, thanks for the offer, Applebloom, but I'm not exactly the best cook around."
Applebloom rolled her eyes, before hopping onto Twilight's back and stuffing the frying pan into the unicorn's saddlebags. "Ah ain't givin' it to ya fer cookin', though it can be used fer that. Ah'm givin' it to ya so you can keep mah big sister from slackin' off. Give 'er a solid whack on the head if she starts lazin' about."
Applejack grimaced. "Applebloom, ya run yer rear back ta the castle this instant, or ah swear by the Sun, ah'm gonna tell Big Mac to put ya through mah personal obstacle course!"
The filly's eyes nearly bugged out of her head, and before anypony could blink, all that was left of her was a rapidly-retreating cloud of dust. For a moment, nopony spoke. Then Lyra turned to Applejack with a raised eyebrow.
"Exactly what does your 'personal obstacle course' entail that it would cause that kind of reaction?" the mint unicorn asked.
The monk smirked. "Now that'd be tellin', wouldn't it? But ah'll say this much: nopony aside from mahself has ever run the course fully. There's a reason some o' the other monks call it 'The Widowmaker' course."
Twilight was slightly disturbed. "So… you wouldn't actually…?"
Applejack laughed. "Hay no! Ah wouldn't put mah li'l sister through that! Ah jus' wanted ta get her back ta the castle, that's all." She walked up the ramp leading onto the ship. "C'mon now, we're wastin' time!"
After a moment, the other three followed her on board. The captain, an energetic yellow earth pony, greeted them. "Howdy, ya'll! Ah'm Braeburn, captain o' this here vessel. Ah hear yer lookin' fer passage to Colton?"
"Sure are, cousin," Applejack said. "Hope yer ship's up to snuff."
Braeburn laughed. "Don't ya'll worry none, cuz. Ah ain't never failed a mission yet, an' ah don't plan ta start now!" He turned around, addressing the other sailors. "Alright, prepare to sail, ya sea dogs! We're on a mission ta Colton, and we're gonna get there ASAP!"
"AYE, CAP'N!" came the chorus from the sailors. They went about their preparations quickly, raising the ramp and weighing the anchor with surprising swiftness. They set the sails, releasing the great sheets to catch the wind. And with that, they were underway.
About an hour into their voyage, Applejack looked at Twilight. "So, what's the plan when we get to Colton?"
"We need to find Zecora, Colton's lead airship engineer," Twilight answered. "If I know her, she'll have a trick or two to help us out. I just hope she's alright."
"Don't worry, I'm sure she'll be fine," Lyra said.
"Zecora?" asked Fluttershy. "That doesn't sound like a typical pony name…"
Twilight smiled. "That's because she's not a pony. She's a zebra."
"A zebra?" Applejack asked with a blink. "Ain't seen one o' those in a long time. They're from the village of Stalthril, out in the middle o' the ocean, right?"
"Yes, they live there with griffons and a few dragons. An odd community, but it works," Twilight said. "I haven't been out that way in a few years…"
Lyra grinned. "Maybe when we get our airship we should pay that village a visit."
Another hour passed without much incident. The four travelers decided to occupy themselves with a game of Liar's Dice. Fluttershy proved to be rather adept at the game, while Applejack was… bad, to put it kindly.
"Sod this fer a game o' ponies," she grumbled after losing her last die five rounds in. "Ah ain't good at lyin'! Let alone bluffin'!"
"Well, this game does take a bit of practice," Twilight said. She looked under the cup she was using. "Hm… I bid two fours."
"Three fours," Lyra said, checking her own cup.
"Five fives," Fluttershy declared.
"Liar," Twilight said confidently. She herself didn't have a single five, and the odds of Lyra and Fluttershy having five fives between them were low, considering Lyra had bid three fours, and –
Her jaw fell open as Fluttershy revealed five fives under her cup. Grumbling, Twilight removed one of her dice, and set it aside. She tossed her remaining four dice into her cup, as did Lyra and Fluttershy. Before they could roll again, however, the ship suddenly rocked, sending everypony sprawling.
"What the hay was that?!" yelped Applejack, stumbling to the side of the ship. The others quickly followed.
Off the starboard bow, a whirlpool had formed in the ocean. Out of the whirlpool rose a serpentine tail, colored a bluish-grey. The sight of the tail terrified the sailor ponies. Even Braeburn looked rattled, his skin paling even under his yellow coat.
"By the Sun!" he breathed. "Is that what ah think it is?!"
Applejack looked at him, confused. "What're ya goin' on about, cuz?! What the bucking hay is that thing?!"
"Th' lord o' the sea," Braeburn intoned, "Leviathan!"
As he spoke, the tail dipped down into the whirlpool, replaced by a giant head. Unlike the rest of his body, Leviathan's head was colored red, with pupil-less yellow eyes. A high-pitched shriek reverbrated through everypony's body, sending the sailor ponies into a panic.
"EVERYPONY, CALM DOWN!!" bellowed Braeburn. "Don't lose yer heads because o' this!"
Before he could say anything else, a wave crashed into the ship, splashing onto the deck. For most of the ponies, this was little more than an annoyance. But for Fluttershy, the force of the wave knocked her into – and over – the railing. She let out a yelp before landing in the water below.
"Fluttershy!" Applejack yelled. "Hang on!" She leaped over the railing, diving into the water after the filly.
"Fluttershy! Applejack!" Twilight called, before another wave rocked the ship.
This wave had the effect of knocking Lyra's hooves out from under her. She yelped in pain as she landed hard on her side. Twilight ran over to her, trying to help her up. She looked up at Braeburn, who had a despairing look.
"Braeburn, what's going on?!" she cried out.
"We're bein' pulled in," he said tonelessly.
It was then that Twilight saw the ship begin to tilt. She heard the roar of the whirlpool, and then darkness descended upon her as she was thrown from the ship. She knew nothing more.
"Ugh… my head…" Twilight moaned as she came to a while later. "What happened…?" Suddenly the memories came flooding back, and she sprang to her hooves, eyes snapping open. "The ship!"
Glancing around, she saw that she was on the shores of a narrow peninsula. Further down the peninsula was a town, lit up for the night. Speaking of the night, the twin moons were high in the sky. Considering it had been mid-afternoon when the ship had been attacked, she realized she'd been unconscious for quite a while.
Twilight looked around the beach, finding it deserted. "Applejack!" she called out, trotting around. "Fluttershy! Lyra!" She waited a few moments, but she couldn't hear a single response. An uncomfortable silence was broken only by the sound of the waves on the beach. "I'm alone," she mumbled, her irises shrinking.
Twilight hadn't been truly alone in a long time. In fact, she hadn't been alone since the beginning of her adventures. She'd had Rainbow with her until Mist, Fluttershy ever since. Starswirl had aided her until reaching Clydecyan, where Lyra had taken his place. Rarity had joined her in Kaipony, and Applejack on Mt. Hoof not too long after. To be on her own… it frightened her.
Still, after a few moments of panic, Twilight shook her head to banish her fear. "Panicking won't help me here," she said to herself. She looked to the town down the peninsula. "Looks like that's the only place to go from here." She began trotting down the beach, heading for the town. As she approached, however, her heart sank into her hooves. She recognized this town. "Fate, do you enjoy tormenting me?" she moaned out. "I had to wash up here of all places?"
Sighing, she continued forward, not looking forward to her reception. She doubted she'd been forgotten here. After all, this was the scene of her great crime, the first time she had spilled another pony's blood. This was the place where she first began to have doubts about Colton.
With those thoughts, she continued toward Maresidia.
Maresidia was known as the 'Magic Capital' of the world. In other words, anything to do with magic could be found here. Almost anything, that is. Summoning was another kettle of fish that was inherent in bloodlines found only in Mist. Everything else, however, was fair game. The greatest sages and scholars of magic came from Maresidia, including Starswirl himself.
But magic is no almighty, unstoppable force. Little more than a week ago, Maresidia learned this the hard way. The Red Wings of Colton flew to land just outside the town, and invaded in force. Several mages were killed struggling against the invaders. In the end, though, the total losses were less than expected. This was mostly due to the Red Wings's commander being reluctant to kill more than necessary. Her objective, after all, had been the Water Crystal. Once she had that, she pulled her forces out. The elder of Maresidia said that Colton would no longer be a problem for them.
To the rest of the Maresidians, though, even the name of Colton had become anathema. The Road of Tartarus, the magical path that had once connected the two cities, was sealed off with spite. The remaining mages worked hard to move on despite what had been lost to the invasion. But they would never forget that day. And with it barely being a week since the attack, everypony was still tense. So when a lookout let out a warning that the commander was approaching the town, everypony dropped what they were doing, forming a mob just in front of the entrance to the town.
It was this mob that Twilight Sparkle found herself confronting. She grimaced, not looking forward to this. Not a single face in the mass before her lacked anger. She knew that coming back, alone and unwelcome, would not go over well at all.
Still, she was more than a little taken aback when a dark blue unicorn stallion with a white mane stepped forward, eyes blazing. "You dare return here, Dark Knight?! Haven't you done enough to this place?! You've killed our friends and family, you stole our Water Crystal! What more could you possibly want?!"
Twilight took a step back. "I'm not here to hurt you. I – "
She was cut off with a derisive snort from the stallion. "That's a laugh! After last time, did you really think you could return here with impunity?!" Lightning began to crackle around his horn. "Well, let me show you how wrong you were!" A lightning bolt flashed from his horn, striking Twilight and sending her flying into a tree behind her.
She winced, but refused to cry out in pain. Oh, it was painful, alright. This was the first time she could recall being on the receiving end of a spell that wasn't white magic. Still, she stood back up, and stepped forward. "Please, I was in the wrong last time I was here!"
"A little late to admit that, don't you think?!" The incensed stallion flung a large ball of fire at her, nearly baking her within her armor. Still, she refused to make a sound. This seemed to anger him even more, however. "My sister is dead because of you, and I will have my revenge, murderer!" A huge chunk of ice was thrown into her, knocking her down.
The shift from extreme heat to extreme cold nearly caused Twilight to black out from the pain. This time, she didn't get up, instead trying to think. Were there any female mages that her soldiers had killed? Only one came to mind: the white mage that had tried to flee at the last minute. She regretted that she hadn't told her soldiers to let her go. She regretted that entire day. She glanced up at the stallion's rage-filled visage. "If killing me… will bring you peace… then go ahead. I… don't deserve mercy… from this place," she managed to gasp out.
This seemed to give the stallion pause. He hadn't expected such a frank admission of guilt. Behind him, the rest of the Maresidians exchanged glances. Was this really the same pony who'd invaded a week ago? Before anything else could be said, another voice broke in, clear and strong.
"What is going on here?" The crowd parted, making way for the Elder of Maresidia. He glanced at Twilight, then at the stallion, who was now looking nervous. "I trust there's a good explanation for this, Pokey Pierce?"
Pokey gulped. Now that he was thinking more clearly, he knew he was in trouble. "I… we heard that the commander of the forces that attacked us was returning, and we wanted to make sure she didn't cause any more damage. So we – "
"You decided to assault her without provocation?" The Elder glared at Pokey. "Her blade is still in its sheath, Pokey. You can't tell me she made the first move in this confrontation."
"Elder! She's responsible for killing several of our kin! You can't tell me to let that go unanswered!" Pokey exclaimed.
"I can, and I will! We of Maresidia do not use our magic in anger!" the Elder retorted. "Not like this! You were deliberately holding back, just to make her suffer! If you truly thought her a threat, you would have slain her outright with the first spell!" Pokey raised a hoof, but the Elder cut him off. "Enough! Get out of my sight, Pokey! I'll deal with you later. The rest of you, get back to your tasks!" he barked at the crowd. It quickly dispersed, leaving just the Elder, two other unicorns, and Twilight herself. Glancing back down at her, the Elder sighed. "Tenderheart, heal her."
The blue unicorn mare nodded, and her horn flashed brightly. A moment later, Twilight felt all of the pain that Pokey's spells had caused vanish. She slowly got to her hooves, blinking at the Elder. "Why spare me?" she asked.
He gave her a small smile. "Because you spared me, if you recall."
Blinking, Twilight suddenly remembered ordering her soldiers to stand down just before they would have struck the Elder. She bowed her head. "Thank you."
"My debt is repaid, nothing more," he replied. "Do not expect such favors in the future. Now why have you returned to Maresidia? As I'm sure you're aware, soldiers of Colton aren't exactly welcome right now."
Biting back a sarcastic remark, Twilight nodded. "This wasn't exactly my choice. The ship I was on got attacked by Leviathan, and I washed up here."
Blinking, the Elder looked askance at her. "Sounds like you have quite the story to tell…" He considered for a moment, then nodded. "I believe I have some time. Come with me, and share your story. It seems you've changed much in the week since you were last here."
He began trotting off, the other two unicorns flanking him. Twilight followed after a moment, debating on how to share her story. She decided that honesty was the best policy. He had, after all, been honest with her regarding why he helped her.
The Elder and Twilight sat around a small table, the lavender unicorn finishing her tale. "… and when I woke up, I found myself on the shores a little ways down from Maresidia." She gave a wry smile. "Fate, it seems, isn't done tormenting me."
"I can imagine," the older unicorn murmured. "Colton's been busy in the past week. Mist, Clydecyan, and Stabul… and rumors have reached me that even the land of ninjas, Epona, has fallen."
"Epona?!" Twilight gasped. This was news to her. "But Epona never had a crystal! Why would Colton…?"
"It's possible that Colton may not have been involved," the Elder said. "What little I've heard of the attack indicates that the castle was overrun by monsters."
Twilight frowned. "But that doesn't rule Colton out. King Colton's militant stance started a few months ago, the same time that monster attacks began to increase throughout the world…"
"… and also when Nightmare Moon first came to Colton," the Elder interjected. At Twilight's stunned look, he chuckled bitterly. "Yes, I know of her. I've known of her for some time. She's been manipulating Colton from behind the scenes, as you feared. I never imagined she would be brazen enough to have the king order an attack on another country, though. And four other major nations, along with the village of Mist, have paid for my naivety."
Twilight frowned. "You make it sound like it's your fault Nightmare Moon came into being."
"Well, I'm not. I know that much. Still, if only I'd warned one of the other nations, this could have been avoided…" He trailed off.
"Only the Earth Crystal of Trotta remains out of Nightmare Moon's hooves, right?" Twilight asked after a moment.
"Correct. It would be in our best interests that she doesn't get it," the Elder said. "But we'll worry about that later. You said that your friend was foalnapped by Nightmare Moon?"
Twilight nodded. "And without a ship to get to Colton, my chances of rescuing her are next to nothing," she sighed.
The Elder looked at the ceiling for a moment. "Even if you had gotten an airship, and confronted Nightmare Moon, you would have failed." Seeing her about to object, he raised a hoof to silence her. "So long as you wield the dark sword, you haven't a prayer of stopping her."
Twilight sighed again, staring glumly down at the table. "So it's hopeless," she muttered.
"Not quite," the Elder said. "I said that you haven't a prayer so long as you wield the dark sword. But, there is another type of blade you may attempt to wield: the holy blade of a Paladin."
Twilight's eyes shone in wonder. "The legendary white knights? But I've never read of a Paladin in recent times!"
The Elder's grin was wry. "There's a reason for that. In order to become a paladin, one must travel two days to the east of Maresidia. There lies the Mountain of Ordeals, and at its summit is the means to become a Paladin. But the mountain is crawling with all sorts of creatures, and scores of undead roam its slopes."
Twilight sighed once more, dejected. "And my dark sword is next to useless against undead," she muttered. But then she looked up, eyes hard as diamond. "Still, I won't let that stop me! If becoming a paladin gives me a snowball's chance in Tartarus of rescuing Rarity, I won't let anything stand in my way!"
The Elder's smile was genuine this time. "Such passion and determination… you truly aren't an ideal Dark Knight. You may just be able to become a Paladin." He then coughed. "Still, passion and determination will only get you so far. You'll need aid if you are to ascend the Mountain of Ordeals. To that end, I will have a pair of mages escort you." He looked up to the ceiling, tapping his hoof to his chin. "Now, who to ask…?"
Suddenly, the door to the sitting room they were in burst open. In ran a unicorn filly, with a curly, two-tone pink-and-purple mane and matching tail. She was panting hard, as though she'd ran full-tilt from where she'd been. Catching her breath, she produced a book out of her saddlebag. "Here's that copy of 'Intermediate White Magic' I borrowed, Elder! I'm sorry it took me so long to get it back to you!" Her voice, young as it was, had a distinct musical quality about it.
The Elder chuckled, and lifted the book away from the filly with his aura. "My thanks, Sweetie Belle, but I'm currently busy with a guest." He indicated Twilight with a hoof.
Sweetie Belle looked at Twilight, and her eyes widened. "You're… that Dark Knight, right? The one I heard everypony talking about on my way here?"
Twilight grimaced slightly, but turned it into a smile. "Yes, I'm a Dark Knight. My name's Twilight Sparkle." She held out a hoof. "Nice to meet you… Sweetie Belle, was it?"
Sweetie Belle's nervous look faded into a smile as she shook the offered hoof. "That's right. You don't seem as bad as some of the other ponies were saying. So what were you talking about with the Elder?"
The two older unicorns exchanged glances. "Oh, nothing really," Twilight said nervously. "He was just telling me about how to become a Paladin."
Raucous laughter erupted from nowhere, and a cloud of smoke poofed into existence next to Sweetie Belle. Coughing, the unicorn filly glared into the smoke, as an orange pegasus filly materialized there, laughing her flank off. "Scootaloo! What's so funny?!"
Scootaloo managed to get her laughter down a few decibels. "It's her!" she said in a rather brash voice, pointing at Twilight. "She thinks she can become a Paladin!" With a smirk, she looked the lavender mare in the eyes. "Listen up, Dark Knight. You wouldn't last five minutes on Mt. Ordeals! With the number of undead up there, you'd be lucky to last five seconds!"
"Scootaloo!" gasped Sweetie Belle, mortified. "How can you say that in such a mean voice?"
The pegasus filly stopped laughing abruptly, and looked at her unicorn friend. "You're kidding, right? You do know that this is the same Dark Knight that came here a week ago, and killed all those older ponies, right?"
Sweetie Belle frowned. "So what? She wants to become a Paladin to make up for that, right?" she asked, smiling at Twilight.
The older unicorn nodded. "I've grown tired of this dark sword. I'd throw it away in a heartbeat, no question."
Scootaloo snickered. "Well, I'd offer you good luck, except no amount of that will keep you alive on Mt. Ordeals," she said with a scoff.
The Elder, who'd been silent during this exchange, spoke up. "You're completely right, Scootaloo. On her own, Twilight Sparkle hasn't a prayer of making it up the slopes of Mt. Ordeals."
Scootaloo shot Sweetie Belle a smug look. "See? Even the Elder agrees with – "
"That is why the two of you will be accompanying her," he interrupted.
Both fillies' jaws fell open. "HUH?!" they chorused, while Twilight gave the Elder an equally startled look.
"You've been craving some hooves-on experience, right, Scootaloo?" the Elder asked. "Well, now you have the perfect opportunity!"
"W-well, yeah, I was hoping for some, but… really? Help her become a Paladin?" Scootaloo seemed baffled at the request.
Sweetie Belle, on the other hoof, looked excited. "I think it'd be a great opportunity!" she said. "C'mon, Scootaloo!"
The orange filly scoffed, and turned to walk away. "You can join her if you want, Sweetie Belle, but I'm not, and there's nothing you can say that'll make me!"
The Elder decided to smoothly interject. "Did I mention that, if you do this, you'll receive full marks for and won't have to worry about the next month's worth of assignments at the Academy?"
Scootaloo froze mid-step, and was next to Sweetie Belle in an instant, forehoof raised in a salute. "Black Mage Scootaloo, reporting for duty!"
Sweetie Belle grinned, and also saluted. "White Mage Sweetie Belle, also reporting in!"
The two of them then took deep breaths. Twilight noticed that the Elder clapped his hooves over his ears. Looking around, she saw that other ponies in earshot had done the same, dropping whatever else they were doing. She decided to follow suit, and not a moment too soon.
"CUTIE MARK CRUSADER ESCORT MISSION TO MT. ORDEALS! YAAAAAY!!!!" The sheer pressure of the sound nearly bowled Twilight over, and she was almost certain she'd gone deaf despite the hooves over her ears. Before she could comment, the two fillies had vanished.
There was silence for a moment. "Uh… 'Cutie Mark Crusader'?" Twilight finally asked.
The Elder chuckled heartily. "Their little name for themselves. They're obsessed with finding their cutie marks, and will do just about anything to find out what they are."
Twilight blinked. "I see…" She then gave him an odd look. "If you don't mind me asking, why assign them to me? Surely there are more experienced mages around?"
The Elder gave her a dour look. "Yes, plenty of experienced mages with lots of hatred for Colton."
Twilight winced. "Ah, right. I guess I'm lucky I ended up with them rather than, say, that Pokey fellow."
"Pokey Pierce has always been a bit headstrong," the Elder noted. "But Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo are young, and not truly capable of the hatred that has clouded the hearts of the older ponies."
Twilight gave a wan smile. "So, kids are more trusting than adults, huh? Kinda sad, isn't it?"
"A little," the Elder admitted. He then shook himself. "Now, I believe you have a journey to prepare for. I'll have some provisions made up for you. Two days to get to the mountain, however long it takes you to get to the summit and back down, and two days to get back. Just to be safe, I'll have a full week's worth of food set aside."
Twilight nodded. "Thank you, Elder."
The image of Twilight speaking to the Elder vanished into thin air, throwing the crystalline room into semi-darkness. A midnight black alicorn snorted. "Hmph! So, the foal thinks to ascend Mt. Ordeals to become a Paladin? What a laugh!"
Nightmare Moon's mini-rant was interrupted by a cyan pegasus coughing into a hoof. "I wouldn't dismiss her so easily, boss. Twilight may not look like much, but she's very stubborn. When she sets her mind on something, she usually gets it done."
The alicorn considered this, ignoring the struggles of the bound unicorn behind her. "Hm… You may have a point. It might be best to ensure that Twilight Sparkle does not reach the summit of Mt. Ordeals."
Rainbow Dash smirked. "Well, then, if you'll excuse me, I'll go and make sure – "
Nightmare Moon whirled, and shot a bolt of lightning in front of the pegasus, causing a yelp of shock. "You are to remain here. You already had your chance, foal, and you botched it. Perhaps you aren't as loyal to me as you once said?" A crackling in her nebulous mane warned that there was only one right answer.
"Of course I'm loyal to you!" Rainbow exclaimed. "I delivered the Wind Crystal, didn't I?"
"After you had some help from me," the alicorn said acidly. "You aren't living up to your reputation, Rainbow Dash. You failed to kill Twilight Sparkle once, so why should I give you another chance?"
Rainbow bit her lip to keep herself from making a sarcastic response. Another voice chose that moment to speak up. "You know it doesn't matter. Twilight will ascend Mt. Ordeals, one way or another."
Nightmare Moon looked at Rarity, who had temporarily ceased struggling. "You sound so confident. Have you forgotten that that mountain is home to hosts of undead? She won't survive, I guarantee it. She'll die, alone and friendless."
"She's not alone," Rarity countered. "Goodness, are those eyes of yours just for show?"
The alicorn blinked, then began cackling. "You… you actually believe those two foals can make a difference?!" Her cackling turned into howls of mirth. "I've never heard anything so ridiculous! Two little foals will be enough to help her survive Mt. Ordeals! Oh, that's rich!"
Rarity sniffed. "Scoff all you like, Nightmare Moon, but the fact of the matter is, you aren't going to win this round. Twilight will gain the power of a Paladin."
Nightmare Moon paused in her laughter, staring at Rarity. "You're serious. You honestly believe that Twilight Sparkle will ascend to the summit of Mt. Ordeals, gain the power of a Paladin, and swoop in to save you?"
Tossing her mane (which would be more visually impressive were she not bound to a chair), Rarity nodded. "It's a fact. Twilight has never let me down before. Nor I her."
Nightmare Moon scoffed. "Then allow me to shatter your rose-tinted glasses. I will make certain that foal never even gets a glimpse of that power!" She stepped away from Rarity, facing outward. "Chrysalis! Come forth! I have need of you."
A pillar of green flame erupted in the center of the chamber. When it dispersed, a creature stood there. Nearly as tall as Nightmare Moon herself, she resembled a pony at first blush. Four legs, wings, and a horn might have caused her to be mistaken for an alicorn at a distance. But there were significant differences. This creature's legs and wings were riddled with holes, and she bore a pair of sharp fangs in her mouth. Her horn was crooked and bent, giving her an even more sickly appearance. Her coat was a dark, sickly green, and her teal mane hung limp against her.
"You called, ma'am?" the creature asked, in a low voice.
"Indeed, I did," Nightmare Moon said. "The renegade Twilight Sparkle intends to climb Mt. Ordeals to gain the power of a Paladin. I would prefer that she die before accomplishing this task."
Chrysalis bared her teeth in a feral smile. "I've always wondered what a Dark Knight would taste like. I guess I'll find out."
Chuckling darkly, the alicorn stepped aside, allowing Chrysalis to look at Rarity. "This unicorn is very important to Twilight Sparkle. She'll do, I hope?"
Looking Rarity over, Chrysalis's smile grew even wider. "Oh, she'll do nicely." With that, her form began to contort and shrink, her color brightening to white. Within minutes, to Rarity's utter horror, a perfect physical copy of herself stood.
"Wh-what in the world…?!" she exclaimed, as her double began to laugh.
"Never seen a changeling before?" her doppleganger asked through her mirth. "Wearing this form, that pony won't ever suspect me. She'll die thinking that you betrayed her." The changeling took Rarity's bow and arrows, slinging them over her back. "Not my prefered weapons, but they'll do."
"I hope you know at least a degree of white magic," Rarity found herself saying. Her clone paused. "You do know that I'm well-versed in white magic, yes? If you don't have it, you'll find it far more difficult to pose as me than you expected."
The smile she got dashed her hopes. "Anything you can do, I can do, pony. My charade will be flawless."
"I hope so, Chrysalis," Nightmare Moon said. "Twilight has escaped death once already, due to Rainbow Dash's incompetance. I won't accept failure from you."
As a pillar of green flame appeared around her, 'Rarity' smirked. "Don't worry, master. I don't fail." And with that, she was gone, leaving behind a chuckling Nightmare Moon, a pouting Rainbow Dash, and a horrified Rarity.
"Whoever called this sword 'Deathbringer' had the right idea," said Twilight Sparkle, after pulling her sword from the corpse of a Zuu. The huge bird had perished within seconds of being struck by the blade, despite how light the blow was.
The two fillies with her shuddered. "Remind me not to get on your bad side," Scootaloo said. Her wings quit buzzing as she released the magic charge she'd been building up.
"I'd have thought that was self-explanatory," Twilight replied, sheathing her sword. She continued onward, and the fillies followed.
Twilight had at first been dubious of the fillies' ability to keep up with her. Scootaloo, however, put her worries to rest when she unveiled how she and Sweetie Belle would be traveling. She'd taken an old wagon, hooked it to a scooter, and used the wagon to pull Sweetie Belle around. She herself propelled both the scooter and wagon via rapid flaps of her underdeveloped wings. The end result was a method of travel that allowed the fillies to keep pace with the adult unicorn easily.
Sweetie Belle spoke up. "It's been, what, a day and a half since we left Maresidia?"
Twilight nodded. "Now, from what the Elder said, Mt. Ordeals is about half a day away. Which makes that mountain the most likely candidate." She nodded at a peak that loomed ever closer as they continued onward.
Scootaloo smirked. "Yep, that's Mt. Ordeals alright. I've seen it a couple of times in passing, but I never thought I'd be helping some half-wit Dark Knight climb those slopes."
"Scootaloo!" Sweetie Belle admonished. "Why don't you ever let up on her?"
Scootaloo rolled her eyes. "Even with our help, it's not that likely that she'll actually become a Paladin. I mean, you can count the number of Paladins in history on your hooves!"
Twilight interrupted them. "Regardless, I have to try. Nightmare Moon holds somepony very close to me captive, and I need to try to free her. If climbing Mt. Ordeals to try to become a Paladin is the only way to do so, then so be it."
The two fillies were silent. Eventually, Scootaloo mumbled, "She has spirit, I'll give her that."
The trio made good time, and soon found themselves at the base of the mountain. After spending the night in a tent on the plains, they made their way to the path leading up the mountain. It was there that they encountered their first obstacle: a wall of flames that blocked the path.
The three stared at it for a moment. Then Sweetie Belle looked at Scootaloo. "Well? What are you waiting for, genius? An invitation?"
Scootaloo rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah, give me a second." She walked forward, and her wings began to buzz as she charged her spell.
This fascinated Twilight to no end. She'd met only one other pegasus that could use magic, Fluttershy. But the two pegasi had different methods of casting their spells. Fluttershy allowed the magic to build along her wings, gathering at the tips, before flinging the spell in the desired direction. Scootaloo, on the other hoof, buzzed her wings rapidly to build power in her whole body, then forced the spell out with a sharp gesture (usually throwing her forehooves forward). Twilight resolved to ask Scootaloo about it later.
When Scootaloo's spell finished charging, she threw her forehooves forward, and a shower of ice shards descended on the wall of flame. The flames held for a moment, but were snuffed out by the extreme cold. The filly smirked. "Oh, yeah. Who's the best?"
Sweetie Belle lowered her foreleg and stepped away from Scootaloo, as the pegasus massaged her head. Sweetie Belle looked at Twilight. "So, are we ready to climb the mountain?"
Twilight nodded. "Ready as I'll ever be. I'm counting on you two to get me up this mountain in one piece, okay?"
The two fillies nodded. Scootaloo managed a smirk, though. "Don't you worry. Even if I think this is a wild goose chase, I'll make sure you get to the top."
Twilight smiled at the rambunctious filly's confidence. As she turned to start climbing the mountain, however, a voice derailed her train of thought.
"Twilight?" Looking for the voice's owner, the lavender unicorn's eyes widened as she saw a white unicorn mare emerge from the rocks. "Twilight, it is you!"
"Rarity!" Twilight exclaimed, running forward. She hugged the other unicorn close, and the gesture was returned. "I don't… how did you escape from Nightmare Moon?"
Rarity pulled away and smiled. "Well, I managed to sweet-talk the guards into loosening my bonds, and waited until they fell asleep. Then I filched the keys from the guards, got rid of the anti-magic brace on my horn, and used a Teleport spell to get out of there. I set the destination to 'anywhere but here'."
Twilight stared. "That was incredibly dangerous, Rarity," she reprimanded. "You could have landed in all manner of nasty places. You're lucky you landed here."
Rarity nodded. "Lucky indeed. I'd tried to get off the mountain, but that wall of flames barred my progress." She glanced at the two fillies. "But, I see you accounted for that."
Twilight blinked, then looked back at the two. "Ah, right, let me introduce you. These are Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle, a pair of mages from Maresidia. They've been assigned to escort me up Mt. Ordeals. Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, this is Rarity, that somepony I mentioned that Nightmare Moon had taken hostage."
Sweetie Belle trotted up to Rarity. "Nice to meet you, Miss Rarity!"
The older mare smiled back. "The pleasure is mine, Sweetie Belle." She then glanced at Twilight. "But, why do you need to climb this mountain, Twilight?"
Twilight sighed. "I need to give up the dark sword, and a way to do so lies on the summit. At least, so I've heard. I can't defeat Nightmare Moon with the dark sword, so I need to get a different blade."
Rarity nodded. "Well, if it's so important, I believe I'll help you. What are friends for?"
Twilight nodded back, smiling. "Thanks, Rarity."
As the lavender mare turned to start climbing the mountain, and the fillies followed, none of them noticed 'Rarity's' eyes briefly flash green.
The climb up Mt. Ordeals was surprisingly smooth. Between the two white mages keeping everypony healthy (and disintigrating undead), Scootaloo immolating enemies that tried to keep their distance, and Twilight body-checking those that got too close, the group made good time up the mountain. As they ascended, though, Twilight noticed Scootaloo beginning to flag a little. She slowed down to walk next to the orange filly.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
"I'm fine," Scootaloo replied, despite panting a little. "Just not used to going up mountains, that's all."
Twilight frowned, since Sweetie Belle wasn't flagging yet, and the two were roughly the same age. Before she could comment, though, a flaming skeleton flew past the group, smashing against the mountainside.
"What in the world?!" Rarity exclaimed.
Twilight galloped forward, looking for the source of the immolated pile of bones. She didn't have to look long.
A unicorn stallion faced off against a quintet of skeletons. The walking bones didn't seem to care that one of their number had been dealt with in a rather brutal fashion. Still, that was secondary on Twilight's mind, as she recognized the stallion in question. She charged forward, body-checking one of the skeletons as it was about to swing at the unicorn. It was sent sprawling off the path, tumbling down the mountain.
Twilight looked up at the startled stallion. "It's been a while, eh, Starswirl?" she asked with a smile.
Starswirl the Bearded looked down at her, and grinned. "Indeed it has, Twilight! Good to see you again!" He looked at the remaining four skeletons, and narrowed his eyes. "I just wish it were under better circumstances."
Before Twilight could comment, the remaining skeletons were destroyed in a burst of white light. She smirked. "That's why I have friends," she said, as Rarity, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo came forward. "Everypony, meet Starswirl the Bearded. Starswirl, this is Rarity, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo."
Looking them over, Starswirl arched an eyebrow. "Rarity is that young lady that you wanted the sand pearl for, yes? It seems you were successful in getting it to her." Rarity nodded with a smile, as Starswirl looked at the two fillies. "And a pair of Maresidian acolytes, from their looks."
Sweetie Belle nodded, offering a short bow. "I'm Sweetie Belle, Sir Starswirl. This is Scootaloo, my close friend."
Scootaloo simply nodded. "Nice to meet you!"
Starswirl smiled a bit, then turned back to Twilight. "But what happened to Fluttershy? I can't imagine you'd leave her behind anywhere."
Twilight sighed. "That is a long story. A lot's happened since we parted ways in Clydecyan." She then looked at him quizzically. "Speaking of which, I'm surprised your here on Mt. Ordeals rather than trying to take down Nightmare Moon single-hoovedly."
Starswirl coughed, turning away. "Yes, well, soon after we parted ways, I realized that, as I am, I simply don't have the power needed to stop Nightmare Moon. So I came here, seeking the sealed spell, Meteor."
Scootaloo's eyes bugged out of her head. "Meteor?! The legendary spell of unmatched power?!"
Sweetie Belle was equally shocked. "Sir Starswirl, casting such a spell would drain you of your vitality! It's too dangerous at your age!"
Starswirl smiled grimly at the two fillies. "I'd consider it worth it, if it means I can defeat Nightmare Moon and avenge my daughter's death!"
Rarity spoke up. "So, you believe that the seal on Meteor is somewhere on this mountain?"
Starswirl nodded. "I'm certain of it. But, on my own, I have little chance of obtaining it." He looked a bit contrite. "Twilight, I said some rather rude things when we parted ways. But, will you let me travel with you again?"
Twilight smiled, nodding. "I happen to be in search of new power myself. From what the Elder of Maresidia told me, at the summit of this mountain I can throw away the dark blade, and pick up the holy sword of a Paladin."
Starswirl nodded in understanding. "Ah, yes, that old tale. A bit far-fetched, in my opinion, but it's something. Very well, I shall accompany you. Hopefully, at least one of us will find what we seek."
Unseen by the others, 'Rarity' frowned. The dark knight and the two foals would have been easy prey for me. But this sage… he might be trouble. I'd best be on my guard.
Climbing the mountain proved even easier with Starswirl at their side. Soon, though, night was falling. Twilight spotted an arcane circle off the path slightly. "Hey, we can rest up over there!" she said, turning off the path to head to it. The others followed, in various states of fatigue.
Soon, a campfire was crackling merrily in the center of the circle, while a large tent had been set up, easily large enough for all five travelers. The fillies and Rarity were introduced to Starswirl's Behemoth Stew, and it was met with great enthusiasm.
During the meal, Twilight decided to ask something. "Say, Scootaloo, I was curious about your magic."
Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes as Scootaloo smirked. "You mean how I can use magic like a unicorn?" asked the pegasus. "Well, I'm the only pegasus ever to learn how to do it. It's hard work being unique, you know." Her smirk turned into a scowl as both Twilight and Starswirl began laughing. "What's so funny?!"
Twilight got her laughter under control. "I hate to burst your bubble, Scootaloo, but you aren't the only pegasus I've met who could use magic." As Scootaloo nearly fell over in shock, the lavender unicorn continued. "Starswirl, Rarity, and I all know about another one, Fluttershy. Real sweetheart, comes from Mist."
Sweetie Belle blinked. "The summoner village of Mist? Wow! How powerful is she?"
Starswirl chuckled. "Oh, she's still a filly, much like Scootaloo, and so her power is limited."
Scootaloo appeared to be relieved at this. "Okay, that's cool. So another pegasus filly learned how to use magic. I can live with that."
Twilight nodded. "What I actually wanted to ask about was your means of casting spells. You and Fluttershy have completely different methods. You buzz your wings, gathering power in your whole body, and then fling it at the enemy. Fluttershy, on the other hoof, just lets the magic gather in her wings, and launches the spell with a quick flap."
Scootaloo blinked. "That… that sounds way easier than what I do! What gives?"
Starswirl coughed. "If I may offer my expertise?" When the others nodded, he continued. "Both pegasi have the right idea, in that their wings are essential to their own magic. All ponies are magical, to one degree or another. But learning to access that magic actively… that's a rare feat for non-unicorns." He pointed at Scootaloo with a hoof. "You, Scootaloo, use your wings as a sort of pump for your magic, forcibly drawing it out of your magic 'core'. While this method is fast, it also leaves you exhausted after a few castings. Meanwhile, Fluttershy uses her wings as a conduit, letting her magic flow through it like a pipe. It's slower, but produces less strain on the body, at least from what I've noticed."
Rarity spoke up. "Fascinating… I wonder, then, if earth ponies are capable of learning magic?"
Starswirl nodded. "It's entirely possible. However, most earth ponies are more inclined to physical strength rather than magical."
Twilight snorted. "And most unicorns don't become Dark Knights."
"Ah, touché, Twilight!" Starswirl said, tipping his hat to Twilight.
Scootaloo nodded. "Well, I think I'm going to practice that method of casting. Don't wait up for me!" She picked a rock outside the magic circle, and began attempting to cast her spells in an unfamiliar way.
Rarity excused herself to the tent, while Sweetie Belle stayed up to make sure Scootaloo didn't hurt herself. Starswirl and Twilight remained by the fire.
"This brings back memories, doesn't it?" asked the elder unicorn in a low voice.
"It sure does. It wasn't that long ago that the two of us were around another fire, sharing a similar goal," Twilight said with a nod.
"Speaking loosely of which," Starswirl began, looking at Twilight, "what happened to Fluttershy? You haven't told me yet."
Twilight sighed, and related everything that had happened since the two had parted ways at Clydecyan. When she was finished, Starswirl rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
"Leviathan… I never would have thought the Lord of the Oceans would attack an innocent vessel," he murmured. "And you haven't seen Lyra, Fluttershy, or this Applejack since?"
"I haven't," Twilight sighed. "I'm really worried, especially for Fluttershy. She's just a filly, and Leviathan's waves knocked her into the water."
Starswirl placed a reassuring hoof on her shoulder. "Don't worry. I have a feeling we haven't seen the last of that filly. She struck me as surprisingly tough during the time I traveled with you all."
Twilight smiled. "I hope you're right."
Starswirl nodded, then frowned, lowering his voice. "By the by, I don't mean to alarm you, but Rarity's explanation for how she escaped Nightmare Moon is a bit fishy, don't you think?"
Twilight frowned too. "I thought it seemed too easy, especially since Nightmare Moon took her personally." Her eyes narrowed. "What's more, she hasn't quite been acting like herself during this climb."
"Oh? How so?" asked the elder unicorn.
"Well, Rarity is, to put it kindly, frequently worried about her appearance. The slightest amount of dirt on her coat, and she goes into a panic. Yet, she looks like she hasn't bathed in two days, and she's perfectly fine," Twilight explained.
Starswirl's frown deepened. "I see…" he muttered. "Let me tell you a tale of something that happened to me once…"
As Twilight blinked in confusion, Starswirl related his story. Near the end, Twilight's eyes were narrowed to slits. "I see. That was most enlightening, Starswirl." Looking around, she sighed. "Looks like Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo have gone to bed. We should join them."
Nodding, the elder unicorn made his way to the tent, Twilight right behind him. The lavender mare cast a look at the sleeping Rarity, frowning in suspicion.
Dawn came, and the group broke camp, making their way further up the mountain. A short time later, Scootaloo cheered. "Hey, that's it! Over there, across the bridge!" She pointed at a circle of stone pillars, encompassing a larger stone monolith.
Sweetie Belle grinned. "If Meteor or the ability to become a Paladin is anywhere, it'd be there!"
'Rarity' frowned. If I'm ever going to make my move, it's got to be now. She began creeping up on Twilight, trying not to draw attention as she slowly slid an arrow out of her quiver.
Twilight nodded at Sweetie Belle. "Most likely. Still, there's one thing I need to do before we cross."
Both fillies blinked. "What could be more important than getting what you came here for?" asked Scootaloo.
"This." With that, Twilight whirled, ripping her sword from its sheath and laying it against 'Rarity's' throat. The white mare froze, eyes widening. "You may look the part, but you sure can't act it."
'Rarity' sputtered. "What… how? My disguise was flawless!"
Twilight smiled grimly. "One, Rarity is extremely obsessive over her appearance. She absolutely loathes getting dirt or anything else on her pristine white coat. She always carries supplies on her to make sure she looks her best."
"Two," Starswirl continued, as the fillies slid behind him, "you carry a bow and arrows, yet you've hardly used them during the entire climb, much preferring to crush enemies with white magic, if not underhoof. Which, by the way, a true white mage would never do."
"And three, you just admitted you were a fake," Twilight finished. "So how about you drop the charade?"
'Rarity' scowled, stepping back. "Fine, then! I wasn't getting what I needed from you anyway!" A pillar of green flame surrounded her, dispersing moments later into a grotesque figure. "You're so unsure of your own feelings, I was practically starving!"
Starswirl scowled. "Queen Chrysalis, isn't it? It's been some time since we last met. I'm surprised a proud Changeling like yourself is serving Nightmare Moon."
"I remember you, sage," Chrysalis spat. "I remember how you and your daughter injured me with the power of your combined love. That was ten years ago. My one regret at this reunion is that I wasn't the one to kill that blasted mare."
Starswirl's eyes blazed. "Just for that, I'll make sure to make your end as painful as possible!" He looked at Twilight. "Get to the shrine! We'll hold her off here!"
Twilight blinked. "What? I – "
"Don't argue!" Scootaloo said, taking a stance between Chrysalis and Twilight. "We can handle her! Just go!"
Twilight hesitated, but then nodded. "I'll get back as soon as I can," she promised, and bolted across the bridge. The moment she was across, a green bubble appeared around the circle of stone. Twilight looked back, noting that Starswirl's horn was dimming from just casting a spell. Looking at the monolith in the center of the circle, she approached it.
Then a voice emanated from nowhere. Sister… the voice said, startling Twilight.
"Wha?" she muttered intelligently, before she found herself being drawn into the monolith. After a moment or two of blackness, she found herself in a room with a large mirror facing her. In the middle of the room hovered a blade shining with a pure light.
Gazing at the sword, she started when the voice sounded again. I've been waiting for you, sister, it said. The tragedy of your time is one I've anticipated.
"What do you mean?" Twilight asked. "Who are you? Why do you call me 'sister'?"
All shall be revealed in due time, Twilight Sparkle, the voice replied. I will grant you the holy blade before you, though in doing so, I place yet another burden on your soul. But no other choice remains.
Looking at the sword again, Twilight slowly removed her dark armor, piece by piece. Setting it all aside, she unstrapped the Deathbringer, and laid it down next to the armor. Trotting forward clad only in her jerkin, she reached out with her magic to grasp the blade. A flash of light surrounded her, temporarily blinding her. When it cleared, she looked at herself and gasped.
Her jerkin was now covered by a suit of white armor with blue trim. A flowing white cape hung from her shoulders. Feeling her head, she discovered it was bare, save for a tiara. Briefly removing it, she saw it was also colored white, with a ruby in the center. She still held the glimmering sword in her magical grasp.
But more than the physical changes, Twilight could feel the change in herself. All the uncertainty, the inner darkness she remembered from being a Dark Knight had vanished. Now, she was filled with confidence, and she could feel a radiance from within. An instinctual knowledge of basic white magic came with everything else. Twilight knew that she'd been successful. She'd become a Paladin.
All that remains is to cast aside your dark past entirely! The voice startled her, but not as much as what happened next. Seeing movement, she looked toward it only to gasp. Her reflection in the mirror was still a Dark Knight. What was more, it was now moving independent of her. Then it stepped through the mirror and stood before her, soullessly gazing at her as it drew its dark sword.
Twilight narrowed her eyes, and raised her blade. "If casting aside the past means I have to fight myself, so be it! I've come too far to back down now!"
The two looked at each other a moment longer. Then the Dark Knight charged, and the duel began.
Outside, Chrysalis cursed as the shield popped up over her target. "Hmph," she said with a glare at the trio of mages. "No matter. That shield will come down when I break you, old fool."
Starswirl smirked. "I believe I have more than enough power to finish the likes of you," he retorted.
"You're not alone, Sir Starswirl," Sweetie Belle added, sidling up next to the elder unicorn.
"Yeah, we're here, and we're going to rock this witch's world!" Scootaloo exclaimed.
"Such confidence," Chrysalis said, narrowing her eyes. "Then allow me to bring you back to reality!" Her twisted horn began to glow a sickly green. "Come forth, my children!"
A hole opened in midair, and at least two dozen smaller Changelings emerged, surrounding the three mages. The trio went back-to-back, even as the Changelings changed their own forms to match them. Soon, they were facing a small army of themselves.
"Any bright ideas?" asked Starswirl, careful to keep the fillies near him.
"We've got one idea," Scootaloo said, "but we need you to keep them busy in the meantime. Think you can buy us thirty seconds?"
"Easily," Starswirl confirmed, charging his magic as he glared at their doppelgangers. "Now, let me show you whelps why I'm regarded as one of the greatest mages of all time!"
The three mages prepared for the fight against their doubles, even as Chrysalis's voice rang out. "Destroy them!"
The clashing of swords echoed through the chamber. Twilight was getting frustrated with her relentless dark double. Ugh, she's like a machine of some kind, she thought as she barely parried another strike. How in the hay am I supposed to defeat her if she doesn't get tired, and can predict all of my attacks?
Twilight had been fighting only a few seconds, but it felt like several minutes to her. She grimaced as she parried another swing, her doppelganger's face emotionless. Then her eyes widened as she saw the dark energy building along her opponent's blade. "Oh, horseapples!" she cursed, rolling to the side to avoid the worst of the Dark Wave. She winced, and cast a Cure spell subconsciously. "Good thing these powers came with innate instructions, otherwise I'd be up a creek."
A true Paladin would sheathe her sword, came the voice from before.
Twilight blinked, ducking under another swing. "What does that mean?" she asked aloud, puzzled by the odd statement. "How am I supposed to win if my blade's put up?"
Only silence answered her, and she continued to parry. She tried figuring out the voice's statement. A true Paladin would sheathe her sword? That doesn't make much sense. I mean, everypony knows that when you're under attack, you need to defend yourself. Is it telling me not to? That doesn't make any sense! And if I put the sword away, how am I going to beat –
The answer hit her like a ton of bricks. Her eyes widened, then she leapt backwards, away from her dark double. Calming her expression, she placed the holy blade in its sheath on her back. Her doppelganger tilted its head curiously.
"I'm not supposed to beat you," Twilight said. "If I killed you, it would be killing a part of myself. A form of suicide, I guess. And a true Paladin would never commit such an act."
For the first time, her double smiled, and spoke. "You speak like a true Paladin," it said in her own voice. "You know the difference between doing what is easy, and doing what is right. Such is how a Paladin should be." With that, it stepped back into the mirror.
You've proven your worth, my sister, the voice from before said. Twilight wasn't sure, but she could almost hear a smile in the voice. But light and darkness are two sides of the same coin, after all. So while you may wield my light, do not forget your own dark roots.
Twilight blinked, and looked over at her dark equipment. As if on cue, it rose up, and faded into her. Blinking, she narrowed her eyes, and felt the darkness within her once more. Yet, it was dormant, overshadowed by the radiance of the Paladin. However, she felt that if need be, she could tap into that power once more.
Still, she was confused. "I thought the point of me coming here was to throw away the dark sword. Why then can I feel it within me?"
To be a true Paladin, you must accept that there is darkness in everypony. Including yourself. The Paladins that came before you were all determined to ignore their own darkness. However, just because something is dark does not mean it is evil. You, having been a Dark Knight, know this better than anypony. And by being the balance between light and dark, you can restore the natural balance of the world. Stop Nightmare Moon.
There was another brilliant flash of light. Twilight winced, blinking the spots out of her eyes. When she looked up, nothing had changed save for one detail. Her reflection in the mirror was now truly her reflection, imitating her in every way.
Twilight looked around, confused. "Just what was that all about? Why did that voice call me 'sister'?" She thought over what the voice had told her. "Well, I understand one thing out of all this. I can't devote myself fully to light or darkness. I have to have a balance between the two. So I can shift between Dark Knight and Paladin at will."
Nodding, she turned around to leave the area. Before doing so, she cast one more glance around. Still, that voice seemed… familiar, somehow. Shrugging, she left through the opening in the chamber.
Meanwhile, Starswirl faced off against the group of doppelgangers. Behind him, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo were on the bridge, minimizing the chances of them being attacked. That pretty much left him free to cast his spells without worrying about hitting the real fillies. There were a couple of tense seconds, before a Sweetie Belle clone charged at him. He blasted it aside with a quick Thunder spell. As it fell to the ground, twitching, it lost its borrowed appearance, reverting to its true form.
"What's wrong, whelps?" Starswirl asked with a snarl in his voice. "Afraid to face a true master of the arcane?"
His response was a rush from three of the doppelgangers, one each imitating himself, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo. He fired off a split Fire spell, battering the three back and shedding their borrowed forms. Starswirl continued firing off spells, until all of the Changelings had been forced into their true forms. Still, the effort left him exhausted, and helpless as the Changelings closed in.
Before anything else could be said, he heard Scootaloo's voice. "Starswirl, hit the dirt!" He didn't hesitate, dropping to his stomach as he suddenly heard the distinct sound of a large spell being charged. He idly wondered how he'd missed it before.
There was a huge roaring sound, and a wave of heat passed over the prone stallion. Looking up, his jaw dropped. The Changelings were all down, some of them still on fire. The closest Changelings were gone, nothing but ash left of them. He continued staring as Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo walked up next to him.
"Thanks for buying us the time, Sir Starswirl," Sweetie Belle said with a smile.
"Yeah, those freaks were no match for a good ol' Pyro!" Scootaloo crowed.
Starswirl picked his jaw up. "Twincasting? I've only ever read about it! You need a very close rapport with the pony you're Twincasting with in order for it to work properly." He looked at the two fillies with a look of respect. "You two are a formidable force when put together."
"Formidable or no, you've forgotten someone!" thundered Chrysalis, stepping forward. Her eyes blazed. "I will make you suffer for slaying my children, mages!"
Starswirl looked up at her, then at the two fillies. "Don't suppose you can use that again anytime soon?"
Scootaloo winced. "Not unless you can buy us another thirty seconds."
Starswirl grimaced. "Bit of a tall order at this point."
Any further conversation was cut off as Chrysalis blasted them with a beam from her horn. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo were nearly thrown off the cliff, while Starswirl collapsed on the bridge. Scootaloo tried to push herself to her hooves, but Chrysalis stepped toward her, and knocked her onto her back with a forehoof. Then the Changeling Queen began pressing on the filly's neck, causing her to choke.
"Scootaloo!" cried Sweetie Belle. "Stop it! You're killing her!"
"That's the general idea," retorted Chrysalis. "Scream all you want, ponies. There is no one here to save you."
The sound of something flying through the air caught her attention, and she looked up. Her eyes widened considerably as she saw a large boulder flying toward her, too close to do anything but take the hit.
Chrysalis cried out in pain as the boulder knocked her off of Scootaloo. The pegasus filly drew in several gasps of air, coughing a little. Starswirl and Sweetie Belle blinked, confused by what just happened. Before anything else could be said, the sound of hooves on wood came from behind Starswirl, and something jumped over him.
"You really should know better than to tempt Fate, Chrysalis," came Twilight's voice. "Because Fate has a habit of tormenting those who tempt her. Believe me, I'm speaking from experience."
Looking up, the fillies and Starswirl gasped. Gone was Twilight's dark armor, replaced by a resplendant white suit of armor instead. A flowing cape hung from her shoulders, rippling in the winds on the mountain's summit.
Shoving the boulder off of herself, Chrysalis staggered to her hooves. She stared at Twilight for a moment, stupefied. "How…? How did you get the power of a Paladin so quickly?!"
Twilight smirked. "That's for me to know, and you to not find out." She whipped her sword out of its sheath, stabbing into Chrysalis's chest. The Changeling Queen gasped as Twilight glared at her. "Never come before me again, Chrysalis." With that, Twilight tore her gleaming sword out of Chrysalis.
The Changeling Queen toppled over onto her side, drastically weakened. The holy energy of the sword had felt like fire to her. And it didn't help that Twilight had pierced a lung. As she choked and coughed, her hooves and tail began to decay, fading away into dust.
Scootaloo blinked. "Uh, is that normal for your kind?"
Chrysalis let out a mirthless chuckle. "We Changelings, when we die, dissolve and disappear. Look around you. The corpses of my children have long since vanished. It's only my power that's keeping me around long enough to talk."
Twilight narrowed her eyes. "And what could you possibly want to talk about?"
Chrysalis chuckled again, and it turned into a full-blown belly laugh, though it trailed off into a hacking cough seconds later. "I just wanted to tell you, Twilight Sparkle, you've earned my respect. You saw through my disguise, then struck me down when I had one of your friends helpless. Nightmare Moon has sorely underestimated you. I regret that I won't be there when you finally take her down."
Starswirl arched an eyebrow. "So, you truly don't have any loyalty to Nightmare Moon?"
Chrysalis scowled, even as her legs almost completely disintigrated. "She tore me from the one pony that I honestly loved, and kept me starved, weakening me. She kept me strong enough to be useful, but not so strong that I could rise against her."
Starswirl scowled. "How could you love anypony? I thought you fed on such emotions, Chrysalis."
Chrysalis glared at him, but then sighed. "You're correct. My kind does feed on love. However, after you and your daughter blasted me away that one time, I landed near the kingdom of Epona. Their king took me in, and helped nurse me back to health. As it turned out, he'd recently lost his wife, the queen."
Chrysalis smiled, a true smile rather than an evil smirk. "When he learned of my ability to take other ponies' forms, he had me pose as his wife. He hadn't spread the news of her death yet, so it went rather well. As time went on, he fell for me. The true me, not the visage of his wife that I posed as. And I came to love him as well. Him, and his daughter. She never knew the difference between me and her mother."
Her expression darkened. "But then Nightmare Moon trapped some of my children, and lured me out of the castle. She trapped me, and laughed at me. She told me I'd become weak, that I'd become a pony myself. Oh, my heart ached for the stallion I loved. If only I could see him one more time…"
Twilight bit her lip. Should I mention what the Elder told me? After a moment, she decided against it. "I'll give her one for you, Chrysalis. And if I ever go to Epona, I'll let the king know."
Chrysalis blinked, and smiled at Twilight, as her body below the neck had vanished. Soon, the Changeling Queen had completely disintigrated. Twilight and the others stood in silence a moment.
"Was she truly evil?" asked Scootaloo after a moment. "Or was she just misunderstood?"
Starswirl looked uncomfortable. "She was definitely evil when she tried posing as my daughter once before. But she seemed geniunely different in her final moments."
Twilight scowled. "One more life on Nightmare Moon's hooves," she ground out.
Sweetie Belle nodded. "She'll get what's coming to her. But nevermind that, Twilight, look at you! You're a Paladin!"
Twilight blinked, and smiled. "So I am."
Scootaloo shook her head in disbelief. "Man, and here I was, giving you such a hard time." She hung her head. "I'm sorry, Twilight."
The lavender mare waved a hoof. "Don't worry about it. We all make mistakes from time to time."
Starswirl blinked for a moment, staring at Twilight. "I… I remember now! All of my spells! I can use them again!"
Twilight's smile widened. "Really?! That'll be a big help!"
Starswirl nodded, then blinked again. "What? There's more… Me… teor?"
Sweetie Belle's eyes widened. "You learned Meteor? How?!"
"I'm uncertain," Starswirl admitted. "Perhaps witnessing somepony harnessing the power of a Paladin is the trigger. Regardless, I now have what I need to avenge Clover's death!"
Twilight waved a hoof to draw attention. "Hold on, Starswirl. Let's not go flying off the handle here. We should get back to Maresidia, and tell the Elder what's happened."
Starswirl blinked, then nodded. "Very well. Gather round, everypony."
They did so, and Starswirl's horn glowed. An arcane circle appeared beneath them. Twilight recognized it as the Teleport spell. The wind whirled around them, and moments later, there was no sign that they'd been on the mountain at all.
The citizens of Maresidia blinked as a flash of energy heralded the arrival of the four travelers. While Starswirl drew some attention, seeing as how famous he was, Twilight drew more still. With her glimmering white armor, she looked far different than before. Shocked stares and mutters soon surrounded them.
"Her… a Paladin? Impossible…"
"Could she really have survived Mt. Ordeals?"
"Isn't that Sir Starswirl with her? Why would he help her?"
"What about Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo?"
"I heard the Elder ordered them to help her."
The stares and mutterings came to a halt as a familiar dark blue unicorn approached the group. Twilight looked him in the eyes. Pokey Pierce's animosity had not decreased since the last time she'd seen him.
"I suppose you think being a Paladin makes you something special?" he sneered. "That being a white knight washes away your past sins?"
Twilight didn't rise to the bait. "Nothing I do will wash away the blood on my hooves. But I can at least start making up for what I've done. Nothing I do or say will bring your sister, or anyone I killed, back to life. But if I bring the one who ordered the raid to justice…" She left the sentence hanging.
Pokey's sneer softened. "I suppose that's the best I can ask for. At least you acknowledge your own crimes. I won't try to kill you anymore. But don't expect me to help you, either."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Twilight deadpanned, as she turned to walk to the temple in the back of the town.
Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, and Starswirl followed her. The elder unicorn coughed a little. "Dare I ask what that was about?"
Twilight sighed. "I told you before that I led the raid on Maresidia, right? Well, during the raid, that unicorn's sister was killed. So when I showed up at the city gates, alone, he didn't exactly take kindly to my presence."
Starswirl winced. "Ah. Yes, I can see how he might be a little upset."
The four of them walked into the temple. Twilight spotted the Elder in the sitting room off to the side, and trotted over. Her hoofsteps caused him to look up, and his eyes widened. Then he smiled.
"Well done, Twilight Sparkle! I must admit, I had my doubts about you. Thank you for proving me wrong," the Elder said with a smile.
Before Twilight could say anything, Sweetie Belle stepped forward. "She's broken every expectation I had of her."
"Yeah, I'd say she passed with flying colors," Scootaloo added.
Twilight blinked. "Passed?"
The Elder had the good grace to look sheepish. "Apologies, but I assigned them to keep an eye on you, as well as escort you. I had to make sure that you truly weren't a threat. For all I knew, you could have been a first-rate actress."
Twilight looked down. "After what I did, I can't say I blame you."
The Elder looked at the two fillies. "I declare your mission a success, girls."
"YES!" the two cried in unison. They lifted up their robes to look at their flanks… only to find them stubbornly blank. "Aw…" they sighed.
Twilight chuckled. "Cutie Mark Crusaders, huh?"
The Elder smiled and nodded. Then he cocked his head. "Still, you took far less time than I thought to get to Mt. Ordeals and back."
Starswirl stepped forward. "A handy Teleport spell can shave off days of travel, old friend."
"Starswirl?" The Elder blinked. "Whatever are you doing here?"
Sweetie Belle piped up. "We met him on Mt. Ordeals."
"And he learned Meteor, believe it or not!" Scootaloo added.
"Meteor?!" The Elder gasped. "Is the damage to the world's order so bad already that those seals have been released?"
"I don't know, and I don't rightly care," Starswirl said. "All I know is that I have the power needed to avenge Clover!"
"Your adoptive daughter?" The Elder asked. "What happened?"
"She was slain when Clydecyan was attacked," Twilight answered. "I thought I mentioned that when we were talking before."
The Elder nodded. "Ah, of course. Forgive me, old friend. My memory isn't as good as it once was."
Starswirl chuckled. "I know the feeling all too well." He sobered quickly. "Still, using this power I can destroy Nightmare Moon and avenge Clover's death."
The Elder shook his head sadly. "Revenge is a foolhardy course of action, Starswirl. Especially with a power as dangerous as Meteor."
"Say what you will," Starswirl bit out, "but my course of action is clear."
The Elder sighed. "There never was talking you out of anything you wanted to do," he commented.
"Now there's a case of the pot calling the kettle black," Starswirl quipped. "You were just as bad, if I recall."
The Elder and Starswirl shared a laugh at old memories. Twilight coughed. "Ahem. Elder, do you have a means for us to get to Colton and take an airship?"
The Elder nodded. "I'll have the Road of Tartarus unsealed. After the raid, the mages in town sealed it off due to spite. But it's the fastest way to get to Colton. It leads directly into the town." As he spoke, he nodded to a white mage standing nearby. The mage nodded back, and left. The Elder spoke again. "The Road of Tartarus is a dangerous path. But I'm confident that as a Paladin, you can overcome the darkness on such a road."
Twilight blinked. "Ah, right, I need to mention something. I haven't completely given up the powers of a Dark Knight."
That surprised everypony present. "What does that mean?" Scootaloo asked.
"Well, when I gained the powers of a Paladin, a light told me that dedicating myself to pure light would unbalance the world just as much as if I was dedicated to the dark sword." As Twilight spoke, her armor shifted and blurred, until she was once again wearing the dark armor. "By balancing both light and darkness within myself, I can restore the balance of the world."
The Elder slowly nodded. "That makes a certain amount of sense. Strangely, what few records we have of Paladins show that the eras they were in remained peaceful for only a short amount of time. Perhaps it's because previous Paladins were too in favor of light over darkness."
Twilight nodded, shifting back into her Paladin attire. "That's what the light said. It also called me 'sister'." She drew the blade she'd been given. "I still don't know what to make of that."
The Elder gasped on seeing the sword. "That blade! May I look at it?"
Twilight carefully floated it over to him, and he looked it over. "As I thought. There's a Maresidian legend engraved on this blade!"
"A legend?" chorused the other four.
"Yes, it goes like this," answered the Elder.
One born of a dragon
Bearing darkness and light,
Shall rise to the heavens
Over the still land.
The moon's light eternal
Brings a promise to Gaia
With bounty and grace.
"With the existence of this blade, and the fact that you bear both darkness and light within you, I can only conclude that you are the one spoken of in the legend, Twilight Sparkle," the Elder finished.
Twilight's head swam. I'm part of a legend? From Maresidia? That's preposterous! What does half of that legend even mean? Still, there was one thing she couldn't deny. 'Bearing darkness and light' can only refer to me. I mean, there hasn't been anyone else in history that can use both powers!
The Elder continued. "If there is anypony capable of stopping Nightmare Moon, it is you, Twilight Sparkle. You must defeat her, if peace is to return to the world!"
Twilight was silent for a few more moments, then she looked up. "I don't rightly know what this legend entails. But I swore to defeat Nightmare Moon before I learned of this. I'll rescue Rarity, return the crystals to their rightful places, and defeat Nightmare Moon!"
Starswirl stepped up beside her. "You won't do so alone. I will aid you, as best as I can."
"So will we!" Sweetie Belle said, stepping to Twilight's other side.
"Yeah! We're not going to let you have all the fun!" Scootaloo added.
The Elder sighed. "Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, while I'm sure Twilight appreciates your enthusiasm, you do have studies to attend to here in Maresidia."
"Not for another month, Elder!" Scootaloo said pointedly. "You said it yourself! And I'm sure we can wrap everything up in a month!"
Sweetie Belle nodded. "Besides, this is bigger than our studies! This is the fate of the world itself!"
Starswirl chuckled. "They've got you there, old friend. Don't worry, I'll make sure nothing happens to them."
The Elder considered this for a moment, then sighed, chuckling wearily. "Very well. I suppose forcing two talented mages to study while the world is coming apart at the seams is rather pointless." He then clapped his hooves over his ears. Twilight and every other mage within earshot did the same, as did Starswirl after a moment.
He made it just in time. "CUTIE MARK CRUSADER WORLD SAVIORS! YAAAAY!!!!!"
Starswirl groaned as he removed his hooves from his ears. "Dare I ask?"
"They're obsessed with getting their Cutie Marks, old friend," the Elder said.
"Ah. I see," the sage replied.
Twilight coughed. "Everypony, if we're going, we'd better get going soon. The longer we stay here, the more likely it is that Nightmare Moon will do something else to upset the natural order of the world."
The other three nodded, just as the white mage came back. "The Road of Tartarus has been opened, sir," she said.
The four travelers started to leave, but paused as the Elder called back to them. "Good luck, everypony. For the sake of all the world, stop Nightmare Moon!"
With a nod, the four left, heading to the building containing the Road of Tartarus.
The town of Colton had a tense air around it. Ever since the Red Wings had been handed over to Nightmare Moon, the townsponies were more skittish around soldiers. There was just cause for this, as the soldiers of the kingdom had become increasingly aggressive and belligerent to the commoners. Nowadays, nopony dared so much as look at anypony else, for fear of bringing the wrath of the soldiers down on them.
It was this tense atmosphere that a quartet of ponies walked into from the chamber leading to the Road of Tartarus. Twilight Sparkle looked around, eyes narrowed. "Boy, the town sure has gotten quiet since I was last here."
Starswirl nodded, glancing at the few ponies who were out and about. "I was always led to believe that Colton was one of the liveliest towns in the world."
"It usually is," replied Twilight. "Something's changed around here, and not for the better."
Scootaloo coughed, impatient. "Look, we can deal with the town later. We're here at Colton, what's our next move?"
Twilight motioned for the others to follow her. She led them to a door set in the side of a hill. Testing it, she sighed as she found it to be locked, as always. "This door leads into an old waterway that connects to the castle's moat. It'd be an ideal place to sneak into the castle from. Still, we need a specific key to open this door."
"Can't you use magic to pick the lock?" asked Sweetie Belle.
Twilight grimaced. "With most locks, a lock-picking spell would work, but for more ornate locks, like this, we need the key itself. Which means we need to find a captain."
"Isn't that a bad idea, considering you're on bad terms with Colton at the moment?" Starswirl asked.
"Bad idea or no, we need the key, and a captain will be the most likely to know where the key is and how to get it," Twilight replied.
As they walked, intent on heading to the inn, a feminine shriek rang out. Glancing at each other, the four took off in the direction the scream came from. Rounding a corner, they beheld a strange sight.
Three soldiers, one wearing the insignia of a captain, had surrounded a young pegasus mare. The mare in question was gray in color, with blond hair and golden eyes. One eye was focused on the soldiers, the other seemed content to look anywhere but. This gave her a very odd appearance.
She was currently cowering in front of the captain. "Please, I didn't mean to bump into you! I have trouble flying sometimes, that's all! I was practicing a little dance routine!"
"A likely story," snorted the captain. He was a unicorn stallion with a gray coat and dark grey mane and tail. "Clap this mare in irons, men! We'll see if a day or two in the dungeon makes you more talkative about your intentions."
Twilight scowled; she recognized the captain. She drew her sword, intending to step forward and confront him, when she was pre-empted.
A pony in a dark blue catsuit dropped down from the wall nearby. The catsuit included a full-face mask with cyan eye patches, a matching cape, and a purple hat and collar. A stylized letter 'M' was on the chain holding the cape in place.
"Mare-Do-Well!" exclaimed the pegasus mare.
The captain snorted. "Well, well. If it isn't the thieving vigilante. You've made things quite difficult for us these past couple of days. Come to turn yourself in and return what you stole?"
The masked mare simply shook her head, spreading her legs in a fighting stance.
"Very well, then!" The captain motioned to his cronies, who jumped forward, drawing their blades to attack.
The 'Mare-Do-Well', in response, spun on her forehooves to buck one in the chin. He slammed into the wall, and remained suspended on it for a moment due to the sheer force. The other guard swung at her, but she nimbly pivoted on one hindleg, bringing the other around for a roundhouse kick that knocked the guard into a nearby pond with a splash.
The captain ground his teeth, using his magic to draw his blade. "If you want something done right, you need to do it yourself," he snarled, sending his blade at the mare. His expression changed to astonishment as the mare, not even looking at the sword, bucked it hard enough to shatter it.
The Mare-Do-Well turned her head slowly to regard the captain, who began sweating. "Uh, um, well, I'll let you go this time, Mare-Do-Well! But you will face justice if you show yourself before me again!" The catsuit-clad mare simply turned away, helping the pegasus to her hooves.
Unseen by them, the captain started to withdraw the dagger on his belt. Before he could do so, however, a blade appeared at his throat. "Now, now, you've already admitted defeat. Wouldn't do to impugn your honor as a captain, would it, Jet Set?"
Jet Set slowly turned to face the speaker, as did Mare-Do-Well and her rescuee. Twilight held the sword in her aura, a cool look directed at the grey stallion. If Jet Set had been sweating before, he was dripping now. "C-Captain Sparkle!" he sputtered. "Wh-what are you doing here?!"
"Me?" Twilight asked. "I'm just looking for something. And you're going to help me."
"I am?" Jet Set said, confused. As the blade at his throat pushed in a little more, he added, "Oh, yes, I am! Um, what was it you were looking for?"
Twilight smiled. "I'm looking for the key to the old waterway. You know the one."
Jet Set blinked, then frowned. "Ah, yes, that." He pointed a hoof at Mare-Do-Well, who was watching the scene. "That vigilante stole the key from Captain Upper Crust!"
Twilight blinked, then facehooved. "By the Sun… you as a captain was bad enough, but Upper Crust?! She was just a sergeant, last I checked! You were at least a lieutenant!"
Jet Set coughed. "Um, well, the army's fallen on hard times… a lot of older veterans have been laid off, and new blood is being added every day."
Twilight sighed. "I can imagine," she muttered. She glanced at Mare-Do-Well. "So, you have the key?"
Mare-Do-Well nodded, producing a key from a pocket in the catsuit.
Twilight smiled. "Excellent. Then I don't need you anymore, Captain Set." With that, she bashed the side of his head with the pommel of her sword, knocking him straight out.
"That dragged out a little longer than it should have, didn't it?" asked Starswirl, stepping up along with Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo.
Twilight shrugged. "Maybe." She turned to the gray pegasus. "You might want to head home, miss. Best not to irritate the guards too much."
"Yeah, I'll do that," the wall-eyed mare agreed. "Thanks, to you and to Mare-Do-Well!" She trotted off, slowly and carefully, although she managed to bump into the wall a couple of times.
Twilight then glanced at Mare-Do-Well, who cocked her head. "So, have you been in the vigilante business long, Miss Mare-Do-Well?" Her eyes narrowed slightly. "Or should I say… Applejack?"
Reaching up, the masked mare removed the mask, revealing the grinning face of the grandmaster of Stabul. "Couldn't fool ya, huh Twilight?"
"Your fighting style is pretty distinct, you know. How else could I explain why you were using the style native to Stabul?" Twilight said seriously. She then smiled, and wrapped Applejack in a hug. "I'm so glad you're okay! After Leviathan, I feared the worst."
"Pshaw, it'll take more'n an overgrown snake to take me down," the monk replied. "And 'sides, ah promised Big Mac ah wouldn't die. And ah don't make promises ah can't keep."
"That's certainly good to hear," Starswirl said, coming over. "I believe I may have seen you once or twice on trips to Stabul, but I've never actually made your acquaintance. I am Starswirl the Bearded."
"Pleased to meetcha, Starswirl!" Applejack replied, shaking the elder unicorn's hoof. "Ah'm Applejack, grandmaster of the monks of Stabul, and sister to King Macintosh. No bowin' to me, though, or callin' me 'Your Highness', 'Princess', or the like.."
"As you wish," Starswirl chuckled. "And these two young ones are Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, acolytes from Maresidia," he added, motioning to the two fillies.
Applejack shook their hooves as well. "Maresidia, eh? That's quite a ways from here, ain't it?"
"Yeah, across the ocean," Scootaloo said with a nod. "But we used the Road of Tartarus to get here pretty quick."
"Speak for yourself," Sweetie Belle shuddered. "The monsters there were awful. If it weren't for Twilight and Starswirl, we wouldn't have made it."
Twilight giggled. "If it weren't for me, you wouldn't have gone through there in the first place." She sobered quickly. "Still, that's enough wasting time. Let's get to the waterway."
As they made their way back to the locked door, Twilight looked over Applejack's outfit. "Say, Applejack, where did you get that?"
"Oh, the costume?" Applejack asked. "Well, that's a bit of a story. See, ah washed up on the shores near Colton, and naturally, the soldiers were a bit high-strung. They wanted to bring me in for questionin'. So, ah bolted first chance ah got, an' made it to the town. Ah ran into the nearest unlocked building, and shut the door. Turned out to be a dress shop, would ya believe?"
Twilight smiled. "Actually, I would. It was probably Rarity's shop. She ran a very successful business before she started devoting herself to white magic. Even so, she still makes dresses from time to time as another source of income."
"Huh," Applejack mused. "The things ya learn. Anyway, ah found this outfit in there on a ponyquin, an' ah thought it'd be just the thing ta hide mah identity from the guards."
"So, how did this 'Mare-Do-Well' business come up?" asked Starswirl.
Applejack blushed. "Well, when ah left the shop, ah saw some soldiers roughing up a merchant, just cause she actually tried chargin' them like she was supposed to. So, ah knocked them around a bit. And ah kept runnin' into soldiers doin' awful things ta the townsponies, an' ah kept gettin' in their way. A couple ponies started callin' me 'Mare-Do-Well', an' it sorta stuck."
"Sweet," Scootaloo said, grinning. "A mysterious masked vigilante righting the wrongs of the government. Wonder if I could get my cutie mark for writing a story based on that…?"
Applejack looked the filly over. "Ah should let ya meet mah li'l sister, Applebloom. She's rather determined ta find her cutie mark, too."
Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo exchanged glances. "Think she could be a third Crusader?" wondered Sweetie Belle.
"Could be," Scootaloo replied. "But we'll worry about that later."
Arriving at the door, Applejack inserted the key and turned it. The door now swung open easily. "As for the key, well, some dumb captain dropped it, an' when ah picked it up ta return it, she started hollerin' at me, callin' me a thief. Of course, she spent so much time yellin' that ah just ran off."
Twilight shook her head. "If I were still in the military, Jet Set and Upper Crust would never have made captain. I'm definitely going to have a talk with the king… hopefully before the likely accidental regicide."
The phrasing of that caused the other four to pause. "How can you have 'likely accidental' anything, let alone regicide?" asked Starswirl.
Twilight sighed. "Let's just say that while I hope the king proves amenable to reason, from what I've observed, killing him may be the best option. By the Sun, that leaves a bad taste in my mouth."
Applejack coughed. "Well, we should get a move on before that Jet Set guy wakes up an' informs the castle that we're comin'."
The trip through the waterway proved rather uneventful, save for monsters. Along the way, though, Applejack changed back into her standard vest, saying, "It'd be a shame ta ruin this outfit, with how much work Rarity put into it." The Mare-Do-Well outfit was stored in her saddlebags.
Eventually, they emerged from the waterway into the moat of the castle. Working their way along the castle wall, Twilight finally found the entrance. "Ah-ha! Here we go! A pony usually uses this place to send trash and such down the moat into the waterway."
"Ain't that unsanitary?" asked Applejack.
"Not really. The waterway used to be our primary source of water, until we unicorns figured out a way to purify salt water. Now, it's pretty much our garbage disposal. The monsters in the waterway will eat pretty much anything." Twilight had, of course, read about this in great detail at some point in the past.
Starswirl and Applejack nodded at the history lesson. The fillies, however, were looking around. "So this is what a castle's like on the inside," breathed Sweetie Belle. "It's so big… so ornate…"
"So quiet," muttered Scootaloo.
That caught Twilight's attention, and she glanced around. Sure enough, the castle seemed to be devoid of life. She frowned. "That's odd. There ought to at least be guards patrolling the parapets, but I don't see anypony. This isn't right. Everypony, stay ready."
She led them through the castle to the foyer. On the staircase leading down into the foyer, they paused as they heard a voice. "No… please! Why? Why… won't… this… work?!"
Twilight frowned, edging down the stairs to peek around the corner. Her eyes widened at what she saw.
The royal guard captain Trixie was in the middle of the foyer, her sword drawn, and poised at her own throat. Yet, it seemed that something was keeping her from ending her own life. The azure unicorn looked to be straining. "Please… just let it end!" she cried, tears streaming down her face.
Twilight took a step into the foyer. "Trixie?"
Trixie gasped and looked up, her violet eyes fearful. "Wha… Twilight! What are you – no!" She suddenly grasped the sides of her head with her hooves, thrashing around on the ground for a few moments. Applejack, Starswirl, and the fillies came down around Twilight, looking between the two mares in confusion.
The azure unicorn's struggles suddenly ceased, and she rose to her hooves. Looking up, turquoise eyes regarded the group before her, settling on Twilight. "Well, well. Look who had the nerve to return after defying the King's orders."
Twilight, however, wasn't fooled. "Let her go, Nightmare Moon!" she snarled, stepping forward.
Trixie laughed. "Oh, that's rich! You think the great Nightmare Moon would possess me? I'm not even worthy of being in the same room as her for more than a minute!"
"Nightmare Moon's nothin' but a madmare!" exclaimed Applejack. "Ya gotta fight her off!"
"And why should I?" Trixie asked nonchalantly. "Nightmare Moon seeks only to make Colton flourish. Her wishes are Colton's wishes. And those who serve her gain access to untold power." Her body began to glow a sickly purple, growing and twisting. "Behold!"
Twilight felt sick as she gazed on Trixie's new form. It was still equine in its general shape, but it was as if somepony had warped it, like some foal's twisted clay creations. It stood on its hind legs, its forelegs having grown longer. The forelegs also had faces on them, complete with moving mouths. But perhaps the most disturbing thing about this monstrosity was the demented grin on the main head.
Applejack voiced what Twilight was feeling. "That… that is just plain wrong. If this is 'untold power', y'all can keep it!"
With a crazed laugh, Trixie lunged at the party, lashing out with one of the twisted forelegs at Starswirl. With a grace that belied his age, the elderly sage jumped out of the way, as the rest of the group scattered. Starswirl, in response, cut loose with a massive barrage of lightning that played across the warped unicorn's body.
A shining green barrier suddenly sprang into existence around Trixie. Scootaloo, spotting this, moaned and cut the power to the spell she'd been charging. "That's a Reflect screen! Now we can't directly attack her with magic!"
Sweetie Belle smiled. "Most magic, true. But we've got an ace up our sleeve. Can the rest of you buy us thirty seconds?"
Applejack and Twilight blinked, but Starswirl nodded. "There's life in these old bones, yet!" he said. His horn flashed white, and a reddish aura surrounded Applejack.
To the monk, it was as though everything else had slowed down. She grinned, recognizing the effects of a Haste spell. As one of the mutated forelegs lashed out at her, she almost casually sidestepped, then bucked the offending limb clean off. "Hah! Some 'untold power'!" Her grin faded as she saw the limb beginning to regrow. "Aw, horseapples."
The other foreleg tried to attack her in her moment of hesitation, only to be cut off by a gleaming sword. "High-speed regeneration. If it wasn't being used against us, I'd actually be interested in studying this," Twilight mused, as the second limb began to grow back as well. The unicorn was also glowing with a reddish aura.
"Can't say ah share the sentiment," Applejack replied, and bucked Trixie's body away from the group. The mutated unicorn crashed against one of the walls, but stood up with a growl.
She was suddenly battered by small chunks of what appeared to be rocks falling from the ceiling. However, a glance at the ceiling revealed only the emptiness of space for a few seconds, before it vanished, leaving the ceiling intact. "Score one for Twincasting!" crowed Scootaloo, looking at the Comet spell's handiwork. Sweetie Belle smiled as well.
Trixie struggled to her hooves, but with her forelegs gone at the moment, it was hard to stand in her weakened condition. Glancing up, the warped unicorn saw Twilight's armor change from white to dark blue, and her sword from gold to red. The blade itself glowed purple, before a wave of darkness lashed out, and Trixie knew no more.
As the Dark Wave slashed through their opponent, she crumpled to the ground, and her distorted body returned to normal. Curiously, her forelegs returned, although a glance showed that they were broken in multiple places. All in all, the azure unicorn looked like a wreck. She managed to open her eyes briefly, violet irises brimming with pain-filled tears. "Thank you…" she managed to gasp out, before she closed them again.
"Trixie!" Twilight was by the broken mare's body in a heartbeat, exchanging her dark armor for the light. She cast a Cure spell, praying that it wasn't too late. Miraculously, Trixie's breathing, while slow, didn't stop. "Oh, thank goodness!" Twilight gasped. "Starswirl! Sweetie Belle! Care to lend a hoof, here?"
The two other unicorns came over, lending their more powerful healing spells. Between the three of them, Trixie was healed back to consciousness. She slowly opened her eyes. "Why…? Why go to such trouble for me?" Violet irises stared at Twilight's own in confusion.
"We may not have seen eye-to-eye before, Trixie, but nopony deserves such a fate," replied the paladin.
Trixie looked down, and chuckled. "Always the bleeding heart, even as a dark knight," she scoffed, but her tone was anything but mocking. "Always going to such trouble for anypony in need. Why do you do such things, Twilight Sparkle?"
"Because it's the right thing to do. And right now, the right thing to do is helping you, and stopping Nightmare Moon." Twilight helped the azure mare to her hooves.
Trixie's gaze remained on the floor. "I didn't deserve your mercy. I deserved to die for my failure," she said, as tears began to gather in her eyes.
"Now what in the hay are ya talkin' about?" Applejack asked, trotting over. "Twilight, Sweetie, and Starswirl here went to a lotta trouble ta bring ya back from the brink, and yer sayin' ya didn't want that?"
Trixie didn't look up as the tears began to fall. "I failed, don't you understand?! I failed in my duty! My honor as the Captain of the Royal Guard is forever stained, and only death can release me!" To that end, she attempted to use her magic to draw her sword, but she was still weakened from being so severely injured before.
"That sounds stupid," Scootaloo said. "If you're dead, how can you make up for what went wrong?"
Sweetie Belle nodded. "She's right. Killing yourself won't make anypony happy, least of all Twilight. She beat Nightmare Moon's influence out of you, and all because she believes you're worth saving."
Twilight, however, had a sinking feeling. "Trixie… what do you mean you failed in your duty? What happened?"
Trixie sniffled, giving up on her sword for the moment. "Nightmare Moon first came to Colton several months ago. She snuck into the castle, completely undetected, until she reached the throne room. I spotted her despite her spell of invisibility, and alerted the guards. She dropped the spell, and I admit I was… rather intimidated by her appearance."
"Yeah, she has that effect, doesn't she?" Twilight sighed, remembering her own encounter with the midnight-black alicorn.
"At any rate, she struck down all the guards in the room with a single spell, save for me. I barely managed to cling to life, and she actually seemed impressed. The King, on the other hoof, she tried to dominate, as she did with me. The King… he managed to stay in control long enough to impale himself on her horn. She was caught rather off-guard by that."
"I can imagine," murmured Starswirl.
Twilight's expression was unreadable. "So… King Colton…"
"Has been dead for months, and thus my duty has failed," replied Trixie.
There was silence following Trixie's statement. It was finally broken when Scootaloo raised a hoof. "Uh, but if King Colton's been dead for months, who ordered Twilight to steal our Water Crystal?"
Trixie, who'd been trying to magic her sword out of its sheath again, sighed. "Nightmare Moon installed one of her generals in the King's place, a unicorn named Blueblood. He's quite well-versed in water magic, but he's very arrogant and prissy. He also knows a glamour spell, and was able to imponynate the King quite easily. And nopony ever questioned anything."
Sweetie Belle shook her head. "How did nopony hear all that commotion? I mean, with spells flying around and the king skewering himself…"
Trixie looked at the filly. "Nightmare Moon is powerful, little one. A barrier to block sound would be simplicity itself for somepony like her." She shook her head, trying to retrieve her sword once more.
Twilight finally spoke up. "Trixie, you can't just kill yourself. Doing so won't accomplish anything except making Colton weaker."
Trixie looked up at Twilight, startled. "B-but my honor – "
Twilight cut her off with a wave of her hoof. "Honor isn't worth dying for. Nor is duty to the crown. I found that out when I took that Carnelian Signet to Mist. The whole village was destroyed, and for what? Despite how I felt, I decided I had to live, so that I could one day atone for the wrongs I've committed."
Trixie blinked. "Do you… do you think I can atone for my failure?"
Twilight smiled. "The only pony who can truly answer that is you. Do you believe you can atone?"
Trixie was silent for a few moments, before she smiled. "Yes. Yes, I believe I can. And the first step is to cut down that imposter!" she snarled as she started for the doors leading to the throne room. However, she wavered on unsteady legs, only to be caught by Applejack.
"Now sugarcube, ah know yer ready an' willin' ta tear that imposter a new one, but ya ain't in any condition ta do so," the monk said. "Ya need ta lie down, get some rest. Ya've had a tough day already."
"I can't just remain idle!" protested Trixie. "I need to do something!"
"Then you can help us," Twilight said, moving around to Trixie's front. "Find Zecora, and let her know we're here." She smiled grimly. "The rest of us will deal with this Blueblood." She paused, and her tone lightened. "At least this way I no longer have to worry about likely accidental regicide."
Trixie chuckled at that. "Yes, that is a plus to this whole situation, isn't it?"
Starswirl shook his head at the confusing turn of phrase. "Must be a Colton thing," he murmured.
Applejack reached for her saddlebags, and pulled out an apple. "Here," she said, giving it to Trixie. "An apple from the orchards of Stabul will get ya back on yer hooves in no time."
Trixie took the apple, and bit into it carefully. Seconds later, it was devoured down to the core. "Goodness, I'd heard that Stabul's orchards made good fruit, but I never suspected they were this good!" And true to Applejack's claim, Trixie was able to stand on her own without assistance in moments. "I will release Zecora post-haste!" the guard captain declared, and with that, she took off to the eastern portion of the castle.
Twilight sighed. "Well, everypony, let's get this over with," she said, leading her friends through the various sets of doors that stood between them and the throne room. The lavendar unicorn was thankful that none of the guards seemed to be at their posts.
When they got to the throne room, Twilight's eyes were hard as she gazed at the 'king', who stood up to greet them. "Ah, Twilight Sparkle! Welcome back! After all this time, I was beginning to think you weren't - "
The paladin drew her sword in an instant, pointing it at the stallion on the throne. "Enough. I already know you aren't the king! Show yourself, Blueblood!"
The 'king' blinked several times, before growling. "So, Trixie spilled the beans, did she?" As he spoke, his mane began to lighten. Red and grey became a brilliant blonde, and a horn grew on his forehead. His frame shrunk slightly, but became more toned. The unicorn narrowed his eyes. "I suppose I shouldn't have expected more from a mere peasant captain."
"Trixie's more noble than you ever could be," Twilight retorted. "She's free of Nightmare Moon, and she'll never submit again."
"Hmph. That much, we can agree on," Blueblood snarled. As he spoke, a torrent of water appeared around him. "Because neither she nor you shall live another day!" The wall of water grew, twisting and turning with the motions of his forehooves. "I am Blueblood, a general under Nightmare Moon! And by her authority, I shall – !" He was cut off as a titanic lightning bolt flashed and struck his horn.
"It seems 'general under Nightmare Moon' is synonymous with 'pompous bag of wind'," Starswirl said as the water around Blueblood vanished. "At least Chrysalis had the sense to start gloating after she had us at her mercy."
Blueblood coughed a little, smoke emanating from his mouth. "Ow…" was all he could say, as he noticed the others making their own preparations to attack.
Applejack opened the volley of pain as she charged forward, her hooves glowing slightly. "KIAI!" she cried, as she spun around to buck Blueblood into the air, with a sound like a thunderclap accompanying the strike as the glow around her hooves vanished.
Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo held a ball of fire between them. With a nod to each other, they threw the ball toward the pompous unicorn, where it detonated, flinging him higher into the air. The two fillies high-hoofed each other as they admired the results.
As Blueblood began to fall, there was a flash of light above him. Twilight descended on him like an angel of death. "I'm no dragoon, but I learned quite a bit from the best!" she said, running Blueblood through with her blade as their combined weight crashed into the throne, Blueblood's body cushioning Twilight's landing. There were several cracks as his bones shattered under the double impact. The blonde unicorn was dead in moments, fading away without much fanfare.
Everypony stayed tense for a moment, waiting for the other horseshoe to drop. When nothing apparent happened, Twilight relaxed, and sheathed her sword. "Well, that was decidedly anti-climactic."
The doors to the throne room opened, and Trixie strode in. Surveying the room, she sighed. "Don't tell me you all finished the job already?"
"Okay, we won't tell you," snarked Scootaloo. "Seriously, though, he wasn't that tough. Honestly, Chrysalis was more of a threat than he was."
"A wrong has been righted in this room," came a distinct voice as Zecora trotted in. "This day shall sit ill with Nightmare Moon."
"Zecora!" Twilight exclaimed, cantering over to embrace her friend. "Thank goodness you're alright!"
"Of course she is," Trixie said with a roll of her eyes. "She'd actually broken out herself when I came to retrieve her. Believe it or not, she used one of her potions to melt the bars."
"An alchemist?" Starswirl asked as he came up. "I admit that's one area of magic I haven't touched on that much. But then again, it's something of an art for you zebra, from what I've heard."
"You hear correctly, my bearded friend," Zecora replied. "But there is more to do, more aid we must lend."
"That's right," Twilight agreed. "We need to stop Nightmare Moon, and to do that, we need an airship. Zecora, are any of the Red Wings still in service?"
Zecora shook her head. "Nightmare Moon keeps those airships away. She crews them with monsters that she need not pay. The old crews have been 'released from service' she states, because they're still loyal to you, unlike monsters with clean slates."
"That was a bit of a stretch," muttered Scootaloo.
Zecora smirked at the young filly. "If my speech patterns annoy you, you need not listen, I think." She turned back to Twilight, who looked downcast on hearing about the Red Wings. "As for an airship, your hopes aren't yet over the brink. There is one left in Colton that only I can access. One I built personally; of my designs, it's the best."
Twilight smiled widely. "I knew you wouldn't let us down, Zecora!" she exclaimed. "Can you lead us to it?"
The zebra nodded, and beckoned for all the ponies present to follow her. She led them out of the throne room into the hall. But when she pushed on the doors leading to the next hallway, they refused to budge. Zecora blinked at this. "What's this? The doors hold fast. But Trixie and I opened them when we came through last."
There was the sound of a slamming door, and Starswirl, at the back of the group, jumped and spun around. Testing the door to the throne room, he grimaced. "This door won't open either!"
A mocking male laugh echoed through the room. "That's correct, peasants," Blueblood's voice said. "Did you truly think you could best me so easily? I'll wait for your arrival in Tartarus! Enjoy my last laugh!"
As he indeed began laughing maniacally, there was a grinding of stone on stone. Looking around, Trixie spotted the problem first. "The walls are closing in!" she cried.
The group looked around in a panic. The two walls that didn't have doors were indeed closing in on them. Twilight looked at Starswirl. "Can you teleport us out of here?" she asked, trying not to let her hysteria show through.
Starswirl closed his eyes, only to reopen them a moment later. "I can't! Something's blocking my magic! Try yours!"
Twilight, Trixie, and even Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo discovered that their magic was being blocked. "Great, now what?" gulped the pegasus filly, as the walls continued their inexorable march.
Applejack glared at the door leading away from the throne room. "If the doors won't open normally, we'll force 'em open!" She charged, spinning around to buck the wooden door… only to bounce off. "The hay?!" she exclaimed.
"Magical reinforcement," Twilight replied, helping the monk back onto her hooves. "Brute force isn't going to cut it here."
Zecora gave a grim smirk. "Magical reinforcement is all well and good," she said, drawing a flask from her saddlebags. "But in the end, Blueblood, this door is still made of wood!" She motioned everypony away from the door, and threw the flask at it.
On shattering, the door was covered in a greenish liquid for a second, before a loud hissing permeated the room. The door dissolved right before their eyes in a matter of moments. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo stared. "How the hay…?" the unicorn filly began.
"No time!" Starswirl barked, magicking the two into the air. "Go, go, go!" He charged through the door carrying the fillies, followed closely by the mares. Applejack barely got her tail through before the walls snapped together, leaving not even enough room for a sheet of parchment.
"Hoo-wee, that was close!" Applejack exhaled in relief. "Ah thought we might've just bought the farm for sure! Ya done saved our hides, Zecora!"
"A simple task for an acid flask," the zebra replied. "Twilight said brute force would fail, so I placed my hopes on alchemy to prevail."
"And good thing you did," Twilight said. "We're lucky Blueblood didn't consider that you would have something like that. Then again, he didn't strike me as the brightest candle in the room."
Everypony nodded. Zecora took charge again. "Follow me, friends, to my secret ship. We'll surprise Nightmare Moon before she can give us the slip!"
As the others made to follow Zecora, Trixie stayed where she was, looking at her hooves. Seeing this, Twilight slowed her pace. "Coming, Trixie?"
Trixie sighed, then looked up. "Actually, Twilight, I'm not."
"Wha – ?" Everypony paused at that. "Whaddya mean ya ain't comin'?" Applejack asked, coming back. "Ya still ain't thinkin' about offin' yerself, are ya?"
"No, no, nothing like that," Trixie assured the monk. "It's just… I don't feel I can contribute anything significant to the group."
"Trixie, that's not true!" Twilight protested. "Another set of hooves is always welcome!"
Trixie chuckled. "But what could I do? I can't use helpful magic, like the Maresidians and Starswirl. I'm not as physically fit as the monk, here. I don't have the know-how to aid Zecora in either potions-making or piloting an airship. And of the two of us, Twilight, you've always been my better in swordplay, not to mention your own abilities, old and new. Really, I'm better off staying out of this."
"But…" Twilight stuttered, trying to rationalize a reason for taking the guard captain with them.
"In addition to all that, Twilight," continued Trixie, "I have the kingdom to consider. The law clearly states that, in the event of the reigning monarch's death, if there is no heir apparent, the captain of the guard is to assume the title of Regent until such time as another monarch can be chosen. I have to remain here to keep order. Though, for your sake, I'll delay the choosing of the new monarch until you can return from dealing with Nightmare Moon."
Well, can't argue with that, Twilight thought. She gave Trixie a hug. "Well, if you're sure, then I guess we'll part ways for now. Good luck, Trixie."
"The same to you, Twilight," replied the azure mare, walking off to the town.
Twilight sighed, then turned back to face the others. "Let's go."
"Pfagh!" Nightmare Moon dispelled the image as Twilight and the others escaped the deathtrap Blueblood had set. "That incompetant wretch! I can hardly believe I'm agreeing with that filly, but Chrysalis put up more of a fight than he did!"
Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. "To be fair, it wasn't all his fault. I mean, he got unlucky, facing three skilled mages, the grandmaster of Stabul, and Twilight all at the same time."
"Yes, Twilight," sighed the alicorn. "I've underestimated her. Her power is growing at an alarming rate. It has to be curbed before she becomes a real threat to me."
"Things not going according to plan?" mocked Rarity, from where she was tied up. "It's as I said, Nightmare Moon, Twilight will rescue me. Two of your generals have fallen to her already. And I have no doubt that the others, along with you, will follow in rather short order."
"Silence, wench!" howled Nightmare Moon, spinning around and raising a forehoof to smite the mouthy unicorn.
Rainbow Dash quickly interposed herself between the two. "Whoa, whoa, let's not go flying off the handle here, boss. Focus. Twilight's getting a bit big for her armor, but let's concentrate on something else. Like… the crystals!"
Nightmare Moon's anger evaporated, replaced by frustration. "Yes. The Earth Crystal will be no easy matter to acquire. Trotta is surrounded by forests, making landing an invasion force difficult at best, outright impossible at worst. And I dare not bombard the castle, lest I damage the crystal."
"Sounds like you're out of luck on all your problems," Rarity taunted.
Nightmare Moon growled, contemplating just zapping the unicorn despite Rainbow Dash's desires. Really, keeping Twilight Sparkle's former friend appeased was simple, but…
Twilight Sparkle's friend…
Nightmare Moon began to chuckle. "Ah, of course! I've just thought of a solution to both of my problems!"
Rainbow blinked. "Really?"
"Yes," the alicorn replied, smiling evilly. "I just remembered that we have a very important bargaining chip. Twilight would do anything to make sure you were safe, wouldn't she, Rarity?"
"Of course she would!" Rarity declared.
"Including retrieving the Earth Crystal from Trotta?"
Rarity's spirits fell as she realized the verbal trap she'd walked into. Rainbow, on the other hoof, began to chuckle as well. "Ooh, good one, boss. Want me to tell Twilight the deal?"
"Yes, I believe I'll let you handle this," Nightmare Moon replied. "Honestly, if you manage to screw up delivering a message, I'll make sure to rip those proud wings of yours right off your body."
Rainbow gulped, but took off, flying from the top of the tower the alicorn was using as her base for the moment.
There was a grinding of stone on stone, as a wall moved out of place, revealing a secret passage. "Nopony save me knew this was here," Zecora explained, trotting down the passage. "This was to protect my finest work that I hold so dear."
"Ain't never been on an airship before," Applejack mused. "What's it like?"
Twilight smirked. "Well, I could tell you, but you'll be finding out soon enough anyways."
They continued on down the passage, as it turned into a stairwell, leading deep underground. For a moment, Twilight wondered why they were so deep underground, before she mentally slapped herself. Airships aren't something that can be hidden that easily, she told herself. By extension, neither are airship hangars. After several minutes of walking, they emerged into a large open area. Before them stood the most impressive sight many of them had ever seen. Even Twilight was speechless for a moment.
The airship was painted a golden color, a stark contrast to the aptly-named Red Wings. White trim gilded the paint job, so it wasn't blinding in its entirety. It was about the same size as one of the standard airships, but the propellers were half again as large. The wings were more streamlined, as well. But the most impressive difference was the prow. Where the Red Wings had plain, standard-looking prows, this ship had a large model sun on the very tip.
"Fillies and gentlecolt, feast your eyes on my greatest of works; I call it the Sunrise." Zecora sounded very smug as she said this.
"Okay, that's pretty amazing, Zecora," Twilight admitted. "And you say you built this all by yourself?"
Zecora chuckled. "A small exaggeration, to be sure, but my helpers were few, to keep the secret pure. Hiding this from the imposter king was no small feat; when he learned of it, it was already complete. I made sure he could not find it, no matter how hard he looked; after all, I'd sealed access to this particular nook."
"Most impressive," Starswirl mused. "A little gaudy on the paint job, but that's no big deal."
"I can't wait to see how fast this thing is!" Scootaloo exclaimed. "I bet it could outfly any pegasus!"
Zecora smirked. "Would you like to see firsthoof, young one? If so, climb aboard; this journey's barely begun!"
Scootaloo whooped and followed the zebra aboard, with Starswirl close behind. Twilight used her magic to snap Sweetie Belle and Applejack's jaws shut. This shook them out of their awe-inspired stupors, and they too climbed aboard the ramp. Twilight was the last on board, and she retracted the ramp that led to the dock. Turning to Zecora, who stationed herself at the helm, she asked, "Shall we?"
Zecora nodded, and the propellers began to spin as she pulled on a lever near the helm. At the same time, there was a rumbling above them, and a set of doors began to open, allowing sunlight to peek down at them. As the doors fully opened, the ship began to rise out of the hangar. Soon, it was hovering over the town of Colton, various ponies looking up at it in wonder.
Twilight let out a content sigh. "Ah… I've missed this. The feeling of the wood vibrating against my hooves, the wind in my face… gosh, it feels like it's been a lot longer than a week since I've flown."
"The Red Wings were your pride and joy," Zecora said. "Now, to Nightmare Moon, they're just another toy."
"A toy I intend to reclaim," the paladin replied. "But I think I'll make the Sunrise the new flagship."
"No kidding. That's one sweet ride, Twilight."
Everypony looked up at that. Twilight's eyes widened. "Rainbow Dash!"
The dragoon flew down to land on the deck. As she did so, Twilight's aura appeared around her sword's hilt, ready to draw at a moment's notice. Applejack shifted her stance, ready to fight. Even Zecora had a hoof reaching for her saddlebags. Seeing the hostile reactions of their friends, Starswirl, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo took steps away from the newcomer, magic slowly charging.
The reactions of the crew caused Rainbow Dash to sigh. "No hug, Twilight? I'm hurt."
"I know you're not yourself, Rainbow," Twilight retorted. "If I hugged you, you'd probably stab me in the back. Literally."
Rainbow rolled her eyes. "Sheesh, I'm not here to fight. I'm here to propose a deal from Nightmare Moon."
"Buck off, ya tin-can feather duster!" Applejack growled. "Ain't no deal that pony can offer that we'll listen to!"
Rainbow Dash smirked. "Oh, really? My mistake, I thought you all wanted to make sure Rarity was alright."
Applejack's eyes narrowed. "Oh, ya dirty – "
"Applejack!" Twilight cut the monk off. She turned back to Rainbow Dash. "Let me take a wild guess. Nightmare Moon wants us to get the Earth Crystal from Trotta for her."
Rainbow clapped her forehooves together slowly. "Brilliant deduction, Twilight! You're still the brains of Colton, I see."
Twilight rolled her eyes. "Since the forest around Trotta makes invading tricky, she wants to send in a small group. And since she has Rarity, she figures I'll make the perfect patsy." She sighed. "Is that about right?"
"Got it in one, Twilight! Gosh, this delivery went a lot easier than I thought," mused the dragoon. "I didn't even have to say a thing." She shrugged. "Ah, well. We'll contact you once you've gotten the crystal!" With that, she hopped over the side of the airship, and began flying off at high speed.
"Can't we catch her?" asked Applejack.
"A foolish prospect," Zecora replied. "We may be fast – " A thunderous sound and a shockwave of color nearly bowled over most of the ponies on the bridge. Zecora regained her equilibrium. "But there's a reason she is known as Rainbow Dash."
Sweetie Belle stared agog at the visual display. "What in the hay…?"
"A Sonic Rainboom!" exclaimed Scootaloo. "When a pegasus flies fast enough, they can break the spectral barrier, causing a massive display of light, and they can travel faster than the speed of sound! But I thought it was just an old mare's tale!"
"Boy, howdy," Applejack murmured. "That's impressive alright. Still wish ah coulda taken a swing at that feather duster."
"Ladies, please," Starswirl called, ending everypony's train of thought. He turned to Twilight. "Well? What do we do?"
Twilight's bangs covered her face, at least at first. When she lifted her head, though, her eyes were hard with determination. "Zecora, set a course for Trotta."
Trotta was known as 'Nature's Haven'. This was for good reason, as the town and castle were surrounded by forests. The forests stretched for miles in every direction, interspersed with rivers and bordered by mountains. Some ponies theorized that it was the kingdom's ownership of the Earth Crystal that allowed for nature to prosper to such a degree. With the abundance of nature, however, came an abundance of monsters. Even before the monsters of the world starting acting erratically, Trotta had trained a solid guard force to counter the monsters of the surrounding woods.
All of these were factors in why invading Trotta was a tricky prospect at best. After all, an army couldn't land from airships in the dense forests, and the surrounding terrain would make a hike neigh-impossible from any distance. However, there was one patch of clear ground near the town that a single airship could land in.
It was in this clearing that the Sunrise touched down, having been guided by the expert hooves of Zecora. "At Nature's Haven we have arrived. Shall we proceed before local opinion dives?" she asked.
"Let's," Twilight agreed. A gangplank was lowered to the ground, allowing everypony to trot off the airship. Once everypony was down, Twilight called their attention. "Alright, we'll need to visit Castle Trotta in order to ask the High Priestesses to borrow the Earth Crystal. However, it'd also be a good idea to check in the town and see if there are any supplies we can buy here to make things easier on ourselves."
"We can get supplies after going to the castle, right?" Scootaloo asked, bouncing on her hooftips. "I wanna see another castle! And a more lively one at that!"
Twilight chuckled. "Okay, okay, we can go to the castle first." She led the group to the castle that stood north of the town.
Castle Trotta was similar in design to Castle Colton. It was perhaps a little smaller, both in height and in width. But what it lacked in size, it made up for in beauty. Too bad Rarity isn't here, Twilight thought as they approached the castle gates. I bet she'd love this place, especially after Stabul Castle, which she considered too simple.
The guards at the gate stood to block their path. "Halt! What business do you travelers have at the castle?" one asked.
Twilight took the lead. "We come seeking an audience with the High Priestesses. It concerns the future of the world, and the actions of Nightmare Moon."
The guards stiffened at the name, and glanced at each other. Then they stepped aside. One of them nodded. "You may proceed, but be warned. Nightmare Moon's name is loathed among the Priestesses. Her actions have caused no small amount of trouble, even here in Trotta."
Twilight nodded in thanks, and stepped through the gates, followed by the others. Once they were inside, Scootaloo looked askance at Twilight. "Why does Trotta have 'high priestesses' rather than a king or queen?"
"Well," Twilight began, "from what I've read, they used to have a monarch much like Colton, however, the local ponies grew restless and eventually deposed the monarch. They then instated the Priestesses in order to ensure that everypony's opinion could be heard. There are eight Priestesses, seven of which speak for a different part of Trotta society; the nobles, the lower class, the merchants, etc. One Priestess is the 'universal' speaker. They speak together and compromise on issues to make citizens as happy as they can without breaking their backs doing so."
"Huh…" the pegasus filly mused. "Why don't other countries do that? Seems a lot more fair than having one pony decide everything."
"Well, there is a drawback to this system," the paladin explained. "It takes Trotta a while to pass any new laws, because each Priestess has to look over, address, and compromise on each new bill that comes to them. This ensures that the laws are fair to everypony, but at the same time, new laws can take months to get through the system."
"On the other hoof, kingdoms like Colton get new laws through quicker, since only one pony has to address everything; however, this may result in unfair biases to certain classes of pony," Starswirl added. Twilight nodded.
Sweetie Belle looked thoughtful. "So… neither system is better or worse than the other?"
"That's the long and short of it," Applejack said with a nod. "Ta be fair, no system of government is better or worse than any other. It's up ta the individual pony ta determine what they like. Ah mean, how's Maresidia work?"
The two fillies looked thoughtful. "Well, I guess the Elder is the unofficial leader of the town, but we're all pretty much free to do as we please," Sweetie Belle said. "It's nice, but it also allows for…" she trailed off.
"Hot-headed unicorns desiring vengeance?" asked Twilight.
Sweetie Belle nodded with a blush. "Yeah… I do like the freedom, but I can see some bad points."
"Speak for yourself," Scootaloo retorted, bored with the history lesson. "Let's just meet these ladies and get on with this."
The group went further into the castle, where a pair of guards bowed them through a set of double doors. On the other side, a debate was raging between eight mares, all wearing the same robe ensemble. Well, seven mares were arguing; the eighth seemed content to stay in the back, near an iron doorway.
"Colton's actions these past several days have been inexcusable!" a grey earth pony with a black mane was saying. "The attacks upon Maresidia, Clydecyan, and Stabul have resulted in many deaths! We must secure our own borders!"
"You're being paranoid," retorted a yellow earth pony with a dull orange mane. "Nopony in their right mind would try invading Trotta. Our forests and mountains would make any invading army think twice."
"You're being complacent!" argued the first. "I've heard word that Clydecyan was bombarded from above! What's stopping Colton from doing the same to us?!"
"Hey, hey, Octavia, calm down," a white unicorn with an electric-blue mane broke in. "Relax, would ya? I've heard the same thing, and I've commissioned some anti-air defenses in case the Red Wings get any bright ideas." She looked at another priestess. "How's that coming along, Spitfire?"
"I've got the guards working on it," a yellow pegasus with a violent orange mane said. "Gotta say, if it works, we'll be able to deal with the Red Wings, no problem."
"Still, their actions are curious," a blue unicorn with a two-tone blue-and-white mane mused. "What do Maresidia, Clydecyan, and Stabul have in common?"
"What does it matter?" asked a slender white unicorn with a pink mane. "All Colton's proved is that they have a superior military than the other three."
"It matters because we could be next!" Octavia snarled. "Are all you nobles this aloof about something that could affect us directly? Or do you not care about your own husband, Fleur de Lis?"
Before Fleur could retort, a grey pegasus with a light-blue mane interjected. "Girls, calm down. This isn't getting us anywhere. Look, I can ask the weather team to make some cloud cover so that Colton won't know where to hit."
"That would work against us, too," Spitfire said. "If we can't see where we're aiming our defenses, how will we know when to use them?"
"Plus, our crops need sunlight, Flitter," the yellow earth pony added. "How long could you keep that cloud cover up before we'd need to take it down?"
"It was just a thought…" Flitter sighed.
"Ladies, we'll table this discussion for now," the mare in the back said, standing up. "We have visitors." Striding forward, she was revealed to be a tall pink unicorn with a curly purple-and-white mane. She smiled at the group that was standing in the doorway. "I apologize for what you heard. Given the current circumstances, you can understand our mood, I hope."
"I understand completely," Twilight said with a bow. "I'm Twilight Sparkle, and these are my friends: Zecora, Applejack, Starswirl, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo." She indicated each pony in turn.
"A pleasure to meet you all," the priestess replied. "I am Cadence, the spokespony of Trotta's priestesses. So, what brings such a collection of ponies to Trotta?"
Twilight took a breath. "This may seem like a wholly inappropriate request, given the current circumstances, but would it be possible for us to borrow the Earth Crystal for a time?"
The mood in the room dropped instantly. Cadence sighed. "You just had to remind us of our other problem," she muttered.
"Why would a group of perfect strangers want the Earth Crystal?" asked Fleur de Lis, cocking her head.
"Wait, I just thought of something," Flitter said. "Maresidia, Clydecyan, and Stabul had the Water, Fire, and Wind Crystals respectively, didn't they?"
Octavia shot to her hooves. "Then these must be agents of Colton, here to steal our Crystal as well!" She likely would have charged the group, had the white unicorn not grabbed her.
"Sit… DOWN!" grunted the unicorn as she forced Octavia back into her cushion. "You can't just make accusations like that, Octy."
"Vinyl, I've told you repeatedly, don't call me that in meetings," grumbled the black-maned mare.
"Still, it does seem like quite a coincidence," mused Spitfire. "How do we know you all aren't agents of Colton?"
Twilight sighed. "Zecora and I used to be part of Colton, but we've broken away. We can't stand what Nightmare Moon has done to the place. Our King has been dead for months, and one of her lackeys was imponynating him this whole time."
"As for the others, Starswirl is a renowned sage, and he lost his daughter when Clydecyan was attacked." Starswirl bowed his head at that. "Applejack is the Grandmaster of Stabul, and lost many of her best monks to a monster attack that Nightmare Moon orchestrated." The monk scowled at the reminder. "And Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo are acolytes from Maresidia."
"Do you have any proof of any of these claims?" asked Cadence.
"All you have is my word, Lady Cadence," replied Twilight, looking the taller unicorn in the eye.
There were a few moments of silence. Then Cadence sighed. "You were asked to retrieve the Crystal by Nightmare Moon, weren't you?"
Twilight's eyes widened. How did she – ?
Cadence continued, before any of the other priestesses could voice their disapproval. "She holds somepony or something you treasure, and the Crystal is her ransom. I can see it in your eyes."
"H-how…?" stuttered the paladin.
"Love is my special talent," replied Cadence. "I can tell when somepony is pining over somepony else." She sighed again. "Thus, it is with a heavy heart that I must tell you that the Earth Crystal is no longer in Trotta."
That snapped Twilight out of her stupor. "What?!" she yelped. "What do you mean, no longer?! What happened?!"
"Diamond Dogs happened," growled the yellow earth pony. "Burrowed right underneath the castle's floor in the crystal chamber, and stole it right from under our noses."
"We were able to track them to an island to the north," added Spitfire. "Problem is, there's some sort of wonky field in the cave there. Anything metallic just hits the floor, and it's a pain in the rear to get it off the ground again."
Starswirl frowned. "I've heard of Diamond Dogs before. They adore gems, so it makes sense they'd want the Earth Crystal. And they hate metal, at least processed metal; from what I've read, processed metals are dangerously poisonous to them."
"Hence the magnetic field," Twilight added with a nod, coming out of her panic. "It's an inconvenience, but I can make do with other weapons until we get out of there."
"What about your armor?" asked Sweetie Belle.
"I can put it in my saddlebags, along with my sword," replied Twilight.
Scootaloo blinked. "Uh, but won't the magnetic field affect that?"
Twilight smirked. "Normally, yes, but my saddlebags are enchanted with an extra-spacial pocket and a weightlessness charm. Basically, I can carry quite a bit in my saddlebags, and never feel the strain. And with the extra-spacial pocket, a magnetic field won't affect anything inside."
"Pardon me for interrupting, but… are you saying the lot of you are actually willing to retrieve the Earth Crystal?" asked Octavia.
Twilight nodded. "Assuming, that is, that we can borrow it."
Before the others could protest, Cadence held up a hoof. "If you can retrieve the Earth Crystal, and show it to us as proof of your accomplishment, you may borrow it. You have my word as a priestess of Trotta."
Twilight bowed, as did her friends. "Thank you, Lady Cadence."
As the group turned to leave, Vinyl chuckled. "Lots of visitors lately. First that chick with the harp, now this bunch."
Twilight, Applejack, and Starswirl froze. Then the paladin turned around. "Wait… what 'chick with the harp'?"
Vinyl shrugged a hoof. "She washed ashore a couple of days ago. Unicorn mare, carried a harp with her. From what the doctor says, she claims to be Clydecyan's queen."
"Where is she right now?" asked Applejack.
Cadence cocked her head. "She's in the infirmary. Take a right when you leave the chamber, follow the hallway outside and around. You can't miss it. May I ask why you're so concerned?"
Twilight smiled. "She sounds like a friend of ours." With that, she led the group out, and headed for the infirmary.
Lyra grimaced as the brush was pulled through her mane, again. "Really, Miss Bonbon, you don't need to bother yourself with this. The medical staff can take care of me."
Bonbon snorted, the earth pony continuing her work on the unicorn's mane. "No offense to the medical staff, but they don't know how to treat bed-head. Besides, they said I was allowed to visit you, seeing as I'm the one who dragged you here."
"And for that, I thank you, but really, this isn't necessary," Lyra insisted.
"Your Majesty, with all due respect, you're in no condition to protest," said Nurse Sweetheart, a pink earth pony with a striped purple-and-white mane. "Bonbon volunteered to help take care of you, and so that's what she's doing." She turned to the earth pony. "Are you sure you don't want to stay on once Her Majesty is better?"
Bonbon shook her head. "Nah. I'm just helping Her Majesty because I feel responsible, that's all. I dragged her here, I ought to at least take care of her."
Lyra rolled her eyes. "Miss Bonbon, I've told you before, you can just call me – "
All three mares turned to face the door as the speaker came in. Lyra's face split into a wide grin. "Twilight!"
The two unicorns hugged as best they could, since Lyra was still lying down on the bed. Applejack came up on the other side of the bed. "Ya sure had us worried, sugarcube!"
"Applejack, you're here too!" Lyra broke away from Twilight to embrace the orange mare. "We're all here!"
"Not all of us," Twilight sighed. "Fluttershy's not with us." She blinked. "Which reminds me. Applejack, did you see what happened to her after Leviathan attacked?"
The monk sighed. "That overgrown water snake ate her," she said sadly.
Everypony present blanched. "She was EATEN?!" exclaimed Sweetie Belle.
Applejack nodded, her good cheer at finding Lyra having vanished. "Ah did mah best, but ah just couldn't catch up in time."
Twilight sighed heavily. "Not the news I was hoping for…" She then smiled. "But, at least the rest of us are here. By the way, Lyra, these are Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, acolytes from Maresidia."
"Nice to meet you!" Sweetie Belle chirped, while Scootaloo just waved a hoof in greeting.
"Likewise," Lyra replied with a nod. "Anypony else with you, Twilight?"
Lyra's pupils dilated as she heard the male voice. Slowly, she turned, coming face-to-face with Starswirl. The stallion regarded her with an unreadable expression. There was a tense moment of silence. Then Lyra spoke. "S-Sir Starswirl, I'm so – "
Starswirl held up a hoof. "Don't." Lyra's jaw clicked shut, and the elderly unicorn continued. "I've been thinking about everything, and I realized that I was a fool. An old fool, blinded by traditions. I looked at you, and saw a bard and a mare, neither of which I thought were appropriate for my daughter. If I had but given you my blessing, this tragedy would not have happened. Can you forgive an old stallion's mistakes, Lyra?" He bowed his head.
Lyra blinked repeatedly, then sighed. "Sir Starswirl, you've done nothing wrong. You acted in what you thought were the best interests of your adoptive child." She lowered her gaze, even as Starswirl raised his. "Clover was against leaving, you know. She told me to tell you the truth about who I was. But I didn't care for politics, hence the bard disguise. If I had been honest with you from the outset, things might be different."
Starswirl looked ready to protest, but another voice interrupted. "A father, and a lover, both wracked with guilt, but there is little point in crying over the blood that has been spilt." Lyra's astonished gaze turned to the last pony present – except it wasn't a pony, but a zebra. Her voice was kind, but firm, as she continued to speak. "Neither of you should blame yourselves so soon. The one truly responsible is Nightmare Moon."
There was another moment of silence, then Starswirl smiled. "You're right, Zecora. Neither of us is truly to blame. We couldn't have known what that madmare would do." He looked at Lyra. "I think, were circumstances different, I'd be proud to call you my daughter."
"And you, my father-in-law," Lyra agreed. She would have said more, but she broke into a fit of coughs.
Nurse Sweetheart was beside her in an instant, having bowled Applejack out of the way. "Here, drink this," she said, holding out a cup of water.
Lyra took the cup gratefully, holding it between her hooves as she drank. "Mmm… much better." She looked at Twilight. "So what brings you all to Trotta? With Zecora here, I'm guessing we have an airship now?"
"That we do," the paladin replied with a nod. "And I'm afraid it's business that brings us here. We got an ultimatum from Nightmare Moon: Rarity for the Earth Crystal."
Lyra winced. "And the Earth Crystal was taken by Diamond Dogs… I overheard some of the guards talking."
"And with that magnetic field in the cave they retreated to, getting to them is going to be painful," Twilight added.
Lyra nodded, then turned to Bonbon, who had been watching all of this with little more than a raised eyebrow. "Miss Bonbon, in my saddlebags, there should be a sprig of a plant. Can you pass it over here?"
Bonbon arched an eyebrow at the request, but opened the saddlebags to look for the plant in question. A few moments later, she found it, and held it up to Lyra. "If thif it?" she asked.
Lyra nodded, grabbing the sprig in her own mouth. She passed it to Twilight, who took it in her aura, holding it up curiously. "That's Whisperweed," the minty unicorn explained. "It'll let me help you, even though I'm confined to this bed"
"How do you mean?" Twilight asked with a blink.
"You'll see," Lyra said cryptically.
Twilight shrugged, and tucked the plant carefully into her saddlebags. "Well, it was good seeing you again, Lyra. We'll be back for a bit once we have the Earth Crystal."
Bonbon coughed. "Did I hear all that right? You all are going after the Earth Crystal?"
Applejack nodded. "That's right. Lady Cadence gave us her word that if we retrieved it, we could borrow it for a while."
Bonbon sighed. "Getting to the Diamond Dogs' cavern means getting a black chocobo. And just to forewarn you, there are some captive black chocobos in a ranch in town, but captive ones can't fly. You'll need wild black chocobos to get all of you there."
Zecora frowned. "And where in the land of Nature's Haven would one find a chocobo with feathers raven?"
Bonbon shrugged. "I'm not the expert. I just help out now and again at the ranch in town. You'd find more answers there, I'd wager."
Twilight sighed. "Well, it's better than nothing. And we need to restock our supplies, anyway."
The group bid farewell, and left. Lyra sighed. "I hope they'll be okay…"
Bonbon smiled. "Don't worry about it. They looked like a tough bunch. Now, let's get back to your grooming, shall we?"
Lyra rolled her eyes, but didn't protest. In all honesty, being fussed over felt good. In fact, if the bard closed her eyes, it was almost like Clover doting on her again…
"Never again…" moaned Applejack, as she slid off of her chocobo's back, and fairly collapsed onto the grass. "Ah'll never ride one o' these birds again."
"You know we'll need to take them back in order to get back to Trotta, right?" Twilight asked, dismounting her own chocobo with far more grace.
"Don't remind me," the monk growled. "Ah'd like a couple minutes as a breather, thank ya kindly."
"That was fun!" Scootaloo enthused. "Well, the flying part, not so much catching them. That wasn't so fun. Who'd have figured things like these could run so fast?"
"All chocobos are naturally built for speed," Zecora stated, patting her own mount on the head before dismounting. "To escape potential enemies, such a skill they need."
"Still, I was unaware that there were any black chocobos left in the world," Starswirl mused. "Let alone wild ones that retained their power of flight."
"Good thing that rancher knew where to point us!" chirped Sweetie Belle, as she and Scootaloo hopped off the back of the chocobo they'd shared.
Twilight and her friends had gone to the town of Trotta, just south of the castle, in order to stock up on supplies for the journey ahead. They'd gone to the chocobo ranch that Bonbon had mentioned, where they learned that a forest of black chocobos lay about a day's journey to the north. While in town, Twilight had purchased a bow and a set of arrows, in preparation for the Diamond Dogs' cavern.
Getting to the chocobo's forest had been an exercise in keeping on their guard. The monsters around Trotta were nastier than those in other areas the group had explored. Individually, they weren't much to worry about, but the monsters tended to come in packs. The one-day journey had nearly turned into two days, thanks to all the monster attacks.
Then there had been the forest itself. There were standard chocobos there, as well as black chocobos. Catching them had been an adventure, by all accounts. The black chocobos were fast, often running circles around the ponies. Twilight had eventually caught five of them (one for each of the adults, and one for both fillies), resorting to using her magic to trip the large birds up. Once caught, the black chocobos had proven to be reliable, and had flown to the forest covering the island with little fuss.
Twilight approached a cavern entrance at the edge of the forest. "This must be the Diamond Dogs' cave," she mused. She began pulling her armor off, and put it into her saddlebags piece by piece. Despite the added items, the saddlebags showed no sign of additional bulk or weight. The last thing to be put in was her sword. She was now clad only in her leather jerkin. "Here's hoping the monsters in here aren't that dangerous, because I won't be able to weather hits well while we're here."
"Don't worry, Twilight," Applejack replied, getting back to her hooves. "Ah'll take care of all the heavy liftin'. Ya can just sit back an' use that fancy bow ya bought in town, right?"
Twilight coughed. "Well, I admit archery isn't my strong suit. Rarity was the master bowmare, not me. Still, I know enough to get by for the time being." She pulled out the bow and arrows, nocking one. "Let's go. The sooner we get through here, the sooner we can make the trade for Rarity's safety."
"I have to wonder, will Nightmare Moon even live up to her end of the bargain?" Starswirl asked. "I get the distinct impression she's just using you, Twilight."
"I've considered that possibility, and I know it's likely," the paladin replied. "But, I have to take the chance, for Rarity's sake. I don't want to risk losing her."
The elderly unicorn nodded. "Still, be on your guard when we go to meet her. I'd hate to see everything you've done this far amount to nothing due to being careless."
"Oh, don't worry, I know what she's like," Twilight assured him. "Trust me, I have every intention of being careful around her."
The group made their way into the cavern, and almost immediately hit a snag. Scootaloo's front left leg hit the ground, and refused to come back up. "Hey! What gives?!"
Twilight was by the filly's side in an instant, using her magic to pry the stuck limb off the ground. She then slid a silver band of metal off the young pegasus's leg. "This is what gives. Why didn't you say anything about this earlier?" She leveled a slightly annoyed look at the orange pegasus.
"I didn't know silver was magnetic!" Scootaloo protested. Then she looked down. "Besides, that's a memento from my mom. I always keep it on me."
Twilight's annoyed expression evaporated, and she leaned down to give Scootaloo a nuzzle. "Well, I promise, your mother's memento will be safe with me." Scootaloo looked distinctly uncomfortable at the show of affection, but didn't protest further.
The group proceeded through the cavern, defending themselves when attacked. The monsters in the cavern were a bit of a step up from the usual fare around Trotta. Fortunately, the group was more than capable of dealing with them by this point. Starswirl, though, needed to quaff an Ether every now and again to replenish his mana. His excuse was, "I'm not as young as I used to be. I can't cast all of these amazing spells willy-nilly."
On the way down, Twilight examined the rocks. "Well, the rocks here aren't made of lodestone. So there's some comfort in that."
"Whaddya mean?" asked Applejack.
"Lodestone is an inherently magnetic type of rock. I thought that maybe the cave was made of or lined with it to give it the magnetic properties it has, but that's not the case," Twilight explained.
"You are saying that this magnetic field is a product of the dogs with which we must deal?" Zecora clarified with a frown.
"Precisely," the unicorn mare nodded. "Which means that, once we beat them, we can stop the magnetic field and get out of here with a minimum of fuss."
"Sounds good ta me, sugarcube," Applejack smiled. "Less fuss, less muss."
The group stared at the spectacle before them. Applejack summed up their feelings. "Yer kiddin', right?"
The reason for their stupefaction was the elaborate crystalline structure before them. At its heart was the Earth Crystal they'd come for. And milling about the stucture were Diamond Dogs.
Diamond Dogs looked like some sort of crossbreed between household dogs and some form of ape. They could walk on four legs or two, and their forelegs were longer and more dextrous than their hind legs. They were typically dull, earthen colors, which made sense given their nature. While not exactly stupid, they weren't the sharpest swords in the armory, when compared to other sapient races.
Currently, a few of the Diamond Dogs were maintaining the crystalline structure, while three in particular appeared to have supervisory roles. These three wore distinctive vests, rather than the simple armor the other dogs favored.
"So, Twi, care ta explain what's goin' on?" Applejack asked, keeping her voice low.
"It's a crystal matrix," Twilight replied. "Crystal matrices are uncommon, but they're a means of magic that any species can use, if they have the know-how. If I had to guess, I'd say this matrix is responsible for the magnetic field around the cave. And they're using the Earth Crystal to power it."
"So, either we swipe the Crystal, or smash the matrix, and the magnetic field will be gone?" Scootaloo clarified.
"That's what it looks like." The paladin frowned. "Still… this matrix seems a little elaborate for something like a magnetic field."
"We can worry about that later!" Sweetie Belle said. Unfortunately, she said it a bit too loudly.
The three supervisory Diamond Dogs whirled at the filly's voice. "Ponies?! Here?!" a large bluish-grey brute with a grey vest gasped.
"Well, there goes the element of surprise," mumbled Twilight, as she and the others stepped forward. "Yes, we're ponies. We're here to take the Earth Crystal back."
The center supervisor, a gray dog with a red vest and bright green eyes, snorted. "Oh, yeah, ponies are going to take the crystal we stole from them back. Not!" He dashed over to an elevated crystal platform. "Fido, Spot, get into position!"
"Yes, yes, Rover, I'm going!" the third supervisor, a smaller dog with a yellowish coat said. He and the larger supervisor got onto their own crystal platforms.
Starswirl, having the keen sense of magic that he did, was the first to detect something amiss. "Watch out!" he called to the others, but the warning came too late.
The platforms began to glow, as did the three supervisors. The smaller one launched a huge stream of fire at the ponies, while the largest flung giant shards of ice. Everypony screamed in agony at the differing temperatures, but there was no reprieve. Rover, the green-eyed dog, sent a large burst of lightning at the would-be crystal retrievers, flinging them all into the wall. The three Diamond Dogs laughed at the hapless ponies.
"What… the hay… was that?" Applejack gasped out.
Starswirl groaned. "That matrix does more than just keep up the magnetic field. It lets those Diamond Dogs use black magic!"
"We can't win like this…" moaned Twilight.
In Castle Trotta, Lyra, Bonbon, and the doctor listened to what had happened using the Whisperweed. Lyra frowned. "That's not good," she murmured. "They need help."
"But how can we help them?" Bonbon fretted. "If those wretched canines can use the Earth Crystal in such a way…"
"I have an idea," Lyra said, setting the Whisperweed slightly to the side. "Miss Bonbon, could you pass me my harp?"
"No magic," instructed the doctor, as Bonbon complied. "I'm sorry, Your Highness, but in your condition, using magic of any kind is ill-advised."
"Who said anything about using magic?" Lyra replied, taking the harp in her hooves. She held it between her left fore-pastern and barrel, and reached over with her right forehoof…
In the cavern, a melody drifted out of Twilight's saddlebags, causing everypony (and every dog) to blink. "The hay?" wondered the unicorn mare, as she opened the bag to pull out what was making the noise. It was the plant Lyra had given her. "The Whisperweed…"
When the last note played, something unexpected happened. There was a sharp sound, as cracks ran along the crystal matrix. The Diamond Dogs yelped in surprise and fear. "Quick!" Rover exclaimed. "Fix those cracks before - "
There was an audible thrumming noise in the air for a second, before it faded. "Now!" Lyra's voice came from the Whisperweed. "I've weakened the matrix! Use your full strength, and take those Diamond Dogs down!"
Twilight forced herself to her hooves, and pulled out the silver bracelet she had taken from Scootaloo earlier. There was no resistance at all. She grinned. "Thank you, Lyra." Pulling her armor out, she levitated herself and her armor, and floated it all into place before securing it with her magic. The final touch was her sword, which she secured to her back. While this went on, Zecora passed a few of her home-made potions around, restoring everypony's strength. When Twilight was finished, she received a potion as well. "Alright, let's try this again, everypony!" They moved forward again.
Rover spotted them. "Argh, can't they just quit? Fido, Spot, take them down!"
The three launched their magic again… but this time, the spells did virtually nothing. Rover gulped. "This is gonna suck, isn't it?"
"Just a little," Twilight smirked. She swung her sword, and smashed the crystal platform that was holding Rover up. He yelped and fell to the floor. Applejack did the same with the larger dog's platform, shattering it with a well-placed buck. Zecora produced a large wooden hammer, and did likewise for the smaller dog's platform.
The three supervisors whimpered, especially as Twilight came up to them. Finally, Rover broke. "Alright, alright, we're sorry! We no mean to take crystal! We were told to!"
This gave Twilight pause. "Told to? By whom?"
Before they could answer, a gout of flame issued from a tunnel at the back of the room. "You Diamond Dorks. You couldn't even take care of a few ponies."
Out stepped a dragon. He was a teenager, by the looks of him, with red scales on most of his body. His underbelly was a pale golden color, and his wings were a light amber. His spikes were a brilliant orange, and his eyes matched his underbelly. Said eyes were currently glaring at the three Diamond Dogs that lay before the ponies.
"B-boss!" Rover squeaked out, a noise befitting a mouse more than a dog.
"You know, I thought even you morons could use this crystal matrix without screwing up," the dragon grumbled. "Guess I was wrong about that."
"No, boss, it was working!" the smaller dog protested. "But then this music played, and the matrix cracked, and – "
"I couldn't care less about your excuses!" snapped the dragon. "And I can see that the matrix is damaged, you useless mutt!" The dogs opened their mouths, but he cut them off. "You know what? Forget it. I'm sick of looking at you all. Get back in your kennels before I decide to make roast dog for supper!"
All the Diamond Dogs bolted for the back of the room, using the entrance the dragon himself had come out of. He muttered indistinctly, then focused on the ponies.
"I guess if you wanna do something right, you gotta do it yourself." He stepped forward. "Still, I'm surprised a bunch of namby-pamby ponies made it this far with the magnetic field intact."
"You'd be surprised what we're capable of," Twilight retorted, keeping her blade drawn. "Are you in league with Nightmare Moon?"
The dragon snickered, then broke out laughing. "Me?" he gasped out. "Work for some pony?" He laughed again. "No, I ain't working for her. I work for no one but me."
"Then why'd ya order those dogs ta steal the Earth Crystal?" asked Applejack, shifting her stance to be ready for a fight.
"Why?" He seemed surprised by the question. "Ain't it obvious? The Earth Crystal will be the first piece, and crown jewel, of my hoard."
"So you are driven by nothing but simple greed," Zecora said with a look of distaste. "In our case, for the Crystal, we have great need."
"Ask me if I care," the teenager replied. "Actually, don't, I can tell you already: I don't care. You ain't getting the Crystal from me." He walked over to the dais holding the Earth Crystal, and picked it up.
Twilight sighed. "Listen, we don't want to fight if we don't have to. Can't we talk this over?"
"What good would that do?" The dragon snorted. "I'm getting to the age where I need to start making my hoard, or else other dragons are gonna think I'm weak. And that's not gonna happen. So, here's the deal: you ponies get outta my cave, or I'll be having roast pony tonight."
"Big words, but I bet you're all talk," taunted Scootaloo. "I'm not afraid of some teenaged dragon."
Starswirl stepped forward. "You are sorely outmatched, wyrmling. I suggest you give us the Crystal, and then no one has to get hurt."
The dragon arched an eye-ridge. "You ponies are really serious about getting this back, huh?" He looked at the Earth Crystal, as though appraising it. Then he tossed it into the air, straight above him… and opened his mouth wide.
Sweetie Belle's eyes widened. "He's not seriously – "
The dragon's jaws closed around the Crystal as it came back down, and he swallowed. Licking his lips, he grinned. "You want it? Come and take it." He then groaned, as his body began to grow.
The ponies all stepped back, eyes wide, as the teenage dragon grew. His muscles, already well-developed, bulged and thickened. He developed a large set of horns, facing backwards, and his wings grew rapidly. Soon, he had the body of a dragon ten times his age. His eyes lacked pupils, seeming to be nothing more than golden orbs of power. He towered over the ponies, and let out a deafening roar.
Scootaloo gulped. "Um, what did he just do?"
Twilight looked nervous. "I think he's using the magic of the Earth Crystal to artificially advance his age."
"So, how do we get the Crystal back?" Sweetie Belle asked, shaking.
Twilight looked at the others. "Well, if anypony has any ideas, I'm all ears!"
Zecora was fiddling around with her saddlebags. "Three minutes I require, to pull our flanks out of this fire."
"So, we need ta buy ya three minutes?" Applejack set her stance again. "Ah think we can wrangle that."
The others nodded, and prepared themselves. Facing down a full-grown dragon was a prospect that would daunt the average pony. But, then again, the ponies gathered here were far from average. Even Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, young as they were, stood defiant against the menace before them.
Starswirl started the charge, leading off with a Thundaga spell. The huge electrical storm raked across the dragon before them, but when it cleared, there was barely any damage on the red beast. "He's using the Earth Crystal not only to bolster his age, but his endurance!" he called out.
Applejack and Twilight double-teamed the dragon, the monk's hooves and the paladin's blade lashing out. Both attacks rebounded off the steel-like scales. They then nimbly dodged the dragon's fire. "Consarnit, can't anythin' slow this sucker down?"
A few small star chunks fell from the sky, hitting the dragon across his body. Aside from making him roar in frustration, though, the spell didn't do much. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo frowned. "Well, that was a dud," the pegasus grumbled.
"Maybe a Pyro would work better?" the white mage suggested.
Scootaloo looked at her with a deadpan look. "You want us to use a fire-based spell on something that breathes fire."
"Oh, right," Sweetie said with a sheepish look.
Starswirl decided a change of tactics was in order, and flung a Blizzaga spell at the dragon. This seemed to hurt him more than anything else so far, but also enraged him further. He breathed a massive gout of flame at the elderly unicorn, and he was only saved by Twilight pulling him out of the way with her magic.
Applejack, glancing at the dragon's mouth, suddenly got an idea. "Time ta take this dragon fer a ride!" she chuckled, as she pulled out her rope. She dodged a swipe from its claws, and jumped onto its back. Forming the rope into a loop at one end, she threw it around his jaws, just as they closed from snapping at Twilight. She pulled the lasso taut, clamping his mouth shut.
An interesting note about dragons: while their jaws have incredible strength when closing, they are considerably weaker when opening. They are like crocodilians in that respect. So it was that the dragon found himself unable to open his mouth to release his deadly fire breath. One golden eye rolled up to glare at Applejack.
"How do ya like them apples?" chuckled the monk. Her mirth was short-lived, as the dragon simply reached up with a claw and sliced the lasso apart, freeing his mouth. "Oh, ponyfeathers," Applejack muttered, just as the dragon flung his head up and back, hurling her into the air. She would have landed in his jaws, had Starswirl, Sweetie, and Twilight not combined their magic and pulled her to safety.
The dragon roared again, starting forward, when something hit him on the snout. Blinking, he looked for the source. There was Zecora, with something in her forehoof, as she wound up for another toss. The dragon's eyes widened as he saw what she held. It was a huge flawless topaz, nearly as big as her head, that seemed to shimmer from within. It looked… delicious. When Zecora let fly, the dragon simply opened his mouth, and let the jewel sail right in.
Everypony blinked at this. Then Twilight turned to Zecora. "Um, what was the point of that? You know dragons eat gems, right?"
"I am aware, but have a care," Zecora replied. "You all should back away, lest you have a ruined day."
There was another round of blinks, before the dragon roared again. Mid-roar, however, he stopped, making an odd choking sound. One of his hands came up to his mouth, and he made the sound again, his eyes wide.
Starswirl's eyes widened. "We may wish to heed her words. I, for one, don't want to be in the way."
The others, seeing the dragon's increasingly sickly-looking movements, all retreated, and just in time. With a disgusting sound, the dragon vomited, spewing a few gallons of stomach acid onto the floor. Amidst the acid was the Earth Crystal, still in one piece. Twilight acted quickly, levitating it over, and cleaning it off with a quick spell.
"Thank goodness," she sighed in relief. "But, what exactly did you do to him, Zecora?"
"To retrieve the Crystal, I chose a fast track," the zebra replied, pulling out an empty flask. "A hollow jewel filled with syrup of ipecac."
The other adult ponies all cringed. "Well, it was disgusting, but it worked," Applejack admitted. She looked back at the dragon. "Looks like he's lost that age boost."
Her words were true. No longer able to access the power of the Earth Crystal, the dragon had reverted back to his true age. He was still unsteady, probably from the syrup of ipecac still in his system.
"Well, let's get out of here," Scootaloo said. "We've got what we came for, right?"
The others nodded, and began to leave. Before they could, a shout stopped them. "Hold it… right there!" Turning, they saw the dragon had staggered to his feet. "I'm… not gonna… give you my crown jewel!"
Twilight narrowed her eyes, as her armor shifted, becoming darker. "We've already won. Don't overexert yourself. Stay here and recover in peace."
"I… don't take orders… from a namby-pamby pony!" He leapt forward at Twilight, intent on ripping her apart.
He never saw the dark blade flash from its sheath. Nor did he see anything else, ever again.
Twilight sighed as she looked down at the headless dragon. "Why must things be this way?" She sheathed the Deathbringer after cleaning it. Her armor shifted back to her paladin attire. "You had a long and healthy life ahead of you. You didn't need to do this."
"Greed does crazy things ta people, Twilight," Applejack said somberly. "Ya can't blame yerself for what he did."
The others nodded, and they left the chamber. As they did, the Diamond Dogs emerged from their hiding spots. Rover stepped up to the headless dragon's corpse. "They killed him… The ponies killed Garble," he said in disbelief.
"What we do, Rover?" asked the larger supervisor.
Rover looked at where the ponies had left. "We owe ponies… a debt. And Diamond Dogs repay their debts."
The others nodded, and they set about preparing for their reparations.
It was a couple of days later, and the group had arrived back at Trotta. They headed straight into the castle, heading to the chamber where the High Priestesses convened. As they entered, the eight mares looked up. "Well, look who came back," Vinyl said with a smirk, raising her tinted glasses up. "Any luck?"
Twilight smiled, and opened her saddlebag to pull out the Earth Crystal. "I'd say so, wouldn't you?"
The other Priestesses fell silent. Then Cadence began to applaud lightly. The other seven followed her lead, clapping in approval. "Well done," Cadence said, as she stood up. "You've taken a rather large load off of my mind. And, as promised, you may borrow the Earth Crystal for a time."
"Thank you, ma'am," Twilight said with a nod. She turned back to her friends. "Alright. Let's head back to the airship and wait to be contacted."
"That… isn't necessary."
All eyes in the room turned towards the slender white unicorn with the pink mane. "Fleur?" Octavia blinked. "What do you mean?"
Fleur sighed, and her horn glowed. A part of the wall shimmered, and Rainbow Dash was revealed to be standing there, leaning on her spear with a lazy grin on her face.
"Rainbow!" Twilight yelped, as her friends shot glares at the prismatic pegasus.
"Jumpy, aren't we?" the dragoon replied. "Relax. Again, not here to fight."
"An agent of Nightmare Moon, I assume?" Cadence asked archly. She glanced between Fleur and the pegasus. "What's the meaning of this, Fleur?"
Fleur looked contrite. "I'm sorry… I didn't have a choice. She came here yesterday, and forced me to cooperate."
"Thanks for smuggling me into your meetings," Rainbow said flippantly. "And don't worry; your husband's safe, now."
All of the priestesses glared at the interloper. Spitfire in particular snorted. "And what makes you think you'll be leaving alive? Spying on us is a very serious offense, girl."
Rainbow chuckled. "You can try to kill me… but I doubt you'll succeed. I'm the leader of Colton's dragoons, and the highest-ranked member of the Colton military besides Nightmare Moon herself. Think you've got what it takes to restrain me?"
Spitfire looked ready to challenge the dragoon's bravado, but Twilight raised a hoof. "Rainbow, do you know where Rarity is being held?"
"Of course," the pegasus replied.
"Then lead the way."
Rainbow smirked, and left the room, Twilight and her friends close behind. The priestesses looked after them, before the orange-maned yellow pony looked at Cadence. "Is it a good idea to let them go?"
Cadence sighed. "Perhaps, perhaps not. At any rate, the Earth Crystal has been retrieved. If Twilight and her friends ever need our assistance in the future, I for one will be happy to lend aid." The other priestesses all nodded in agreement.