Princess Celestia looked down upon her student in pity as the poor mare shivered in fright. “Are… are you alright, Twilight?”
“I… I’ll be f-fine,” Twilight stuttered out as she shook like a leaf. “It’s just a bad memory now. Nothing more.”
Shining Armor, seeing how distressed his sister was, rushed over and wrapped her in a tight embrace. “Twiley, you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
“Thank you, BBBFF.” Twilight’s tears flowed freely, staining her brother’s white coat. “Really though, I’ll be fine. I thought that I’d gotten over this a while ago. It’s just…”
“Twilight…” Cadence chipped in, “was it as bad as the Changeling Invasion?”
“No. It was worse.”
As soon as the doors blew open, bolts of green plasma shot through the opening. Twilight’s ears instinctively folded down as the humans opened fire, attempting to block out the earsplitting roar of their weapons. The bodies of short, simian-like aliens flopped down onto the deck just inside the doorway; Twilight assumed they were Grunts from George’s description of them. Only a handful made it through the door. An unrelenting wall of lead cut down most before they could get near.
Next through the door were what Twilight believed to be Jackals, though they looked more like lizards than the birds George described them as. Their shields deflected bullets with ease while they fired their own plasma weapons at the Marines, forcing the humans to keep behind cover. This allowed the Covenant forces to gain a foothold into Engineering; more Grunts filed in and opened fire as well.
The only upside was that casualties on the human side were surprisingly light. No fatalities and few burns to show for their efforts. A few brave Marines would occasionally move to take potshots at the Grunts and Jackals, scoring a handful of kills.
Up on the balcony, Twilight struggled to keep her lunch down as the grisly scene registered in her mind and the scent of ozone and burning flesh assaulted her nose. Now she knew exactly why the humans used the weapons they did. She merely got a taste of their capability on Ariel, but now, the absolute carnage they were capable of was plain for her to see. And yet, despite the horror below, she didn’t look away. She couldn’t look away.
“Grenade!” One of the Marines stood up and threw a small, round object, only to be struck by three plasma bolts. His armor melted, and he fell, dead before he hit the ground. The object he threw, however, flew true, and landed right behind the Jackals’ shield wall. It exploded with a loud blast, shredding everything nearby. The Covenant outside the kill radius were staggered by the blast, creating an opening for a counter-attack.
The Marines took advantage of their enemy’s predicament and unleashed hell on the Covenant, killing each and every one that dared to pass through the door. Eventually, the last Jackal was killed, allowing a moment’s respite.
“Attention!” Joy called out over the radio. “There are more Covenant headed for Engineering. I’m diverting a fire team that way to assist.”
Despite her headset, Twilight’s mind didn’t register Joy’s words. Her eyes were glued to the carnage below. A few Marines rushed forward and began piling corpses in front of the doorway. Twilight felt sick as she witnessed how casually they handled death, yet part of her mind knew that it made tactical sense. It was fascinating, in an intellectual and detached way. The pile, though grisly in nature, would act as a makeshift barricade, slowing the Covenant’s advance, and allow a better chance at fighting back.
Before the barricade could be completed, however, more plasma flew through the doorway and slammed into one of the Marines, killing him instantly. He fell onto the corpse pile as a red armored Elite leapt out into the open and fired its weapon. Another Marine burned as the plasma raked across her body. The survivors immediately focused their weapons on the Elite, and its shields crackled to life as bullets impacted. The golden aura shattered as the shields broke, but the Elite dived back behind the pile of corpses before it could suffer permanent harm.
“They’re using our own cover against us!” Tony called out as another Elite, this one wearing gold armor and wielding a sword, jumped out. “Shit, Zealot!”
Before the humans could train their weapons on the new opponent, the Elite leapt over their barricades and impaled a Marine with its sword. The alien then jerked the blade out and swung in one smooth motion, decapitating another Marine. Tony rushed up to hit the Elite with his rifle, only to get smashed with its free hand. He was knocked down, and the Elite stomped on his chest to keep him that way. The alien raised its blade high, ready to add another human to its long list of kills. Tony was saved, however, when a beam of violet energy smashed into the Zealot and sent it flying into the wall above the entrance. It hit with a sickening crunch and fell onto the corpse pile, dead instantly.
Tony looked towards the source of the bolt of energy, only to see Twilight staring down at him from the balcony, horn aglow with magic.
For her part, Twilight was shocked by her actions. She had killed the Elite, something she had never done before. Even during the Changeling Invasion, she had only stunned her attackers. She was horrified, and yet… the Elite was going to kill her friend. Not capture or stun, but kill. She asked herself, if push came to shove, and something tried to kill her friends back in Equestria, would she do the same? It only took a moment for her to find the answer.
The other Elite chose that time to dive out from behind the pile. Unfortunately for the Elite, before it could open fire, its weapon was wrapped within a violet aura and jerked away from its clawed hand. Distracted by the now floating weapon, the Elite didn’t notice a grenade land next to it until it was too late. A third Elite, this one wearing white armor, climbed over the corpse pile and began firing strange pink, crystalline projectiles towards the humans’ defensive line. The Marines tried to dodge, but the projectiles changed direction mid-flight. One unlucky woman was hit by three of them, which shattered moments after impact, leaving gaping holes at the impact points.
Wasting no time, Twilight focused her magic on the white-armored Elite, and hoisted it into the air, much to the alien’s surprise. Giving it no time to recover, she slammed it into the ceiling at high speed, breaking its neck.
“All tangos down,” reported George, as he looked up at the balcony where Twilight stood. “Thanks for the support, Twi.”
Twilight merely nodded, not trusting herself to speak. With her adrenaline levels tapering off, she felt the contents of her stomach once again making an escape attempt. She had killed not once, but twice now, and her actions directly resulted in a third death.
“Twi, you all right?” George asked her, noticing her trembling legs and wide-eyed expression.
“I-I’ll be fine,” she lied.
George made a mental note to have her talk to Helen after this was all said and done. From what she’d told him earlier, Equestria was a relatively peaceful nation, and she had never seen the true horror of war until now. However, they had bigger fish to fry at the moment.
“Heads up, more Covenant inbound,” reported Joy. Before Joy finished speaking, three Jackals dashed through the door, but they were different this time, more avian than saurian. Rather than the sparse quills of their brethren, these Jackals had thick, luxurious manes of black feathers. Instead of a large, round shield over one arm, they had shielded gauntlets on both, allowing for greater mobility. Twilight’s eyepiece identified them as Skirmishers, but whether they were a separate subspecies entirely, she couldn’t tell. They ducked and weaved, dodging incoming fire, all the while firing bolts of green plasma back at the humans. One was unfortunate enough to run into the machine gun’s lane of fire, and thirty caliber rounds tore through its legs. Crippled, the Skirmisher was easy prey, and was finished off in short order.
The other two were proving more problematic. They continued firing plasma at the Marines while on the run, making it next to impossible for the Marines to line up shots on them. Even when the Marines did manage to properly aim, the aliens merely blocked the bullets with their shield-gauntlets. The stalemate ended when Twilight managed to magically lock a knee on one of the raptors. She only held the spell for a second, but that was enough time for it to stumble, and it was cut down soon after.
Without its squad, the last Skirmisher didn’t stick around, and ran back through the door. The Marines were only given a moment’s reprieve, as two black-armored Elites stormed through the door, followed by over a dozen Grunts, as well as the surviving Skirmisher slinking by in the rear. They began firing their weapons immediately, and one Grunt tossed a small, burning object towards the humans.
While she didn’t know what the object was, Twilight knew it wasn’t good. She telekinetically grabbed it in mid-air and hurled it towards one of the Elites. The object hit the surprised alien on its chest and stuck to it. A second later, the object blossomed into a large blue fireball, engulfing the Elite and three Grunts.
Twilight didn’t even have time to register what she’d just done when green plasma flew by her head. Against all odds, the Skirmisher had snuck behind the Marines and made it up to the balcony Twilight was on.
Twilight ducked and weaved around the incoming fire as best she could, wishing she had Rainbow’s agility. One bolt came dangerously close, singing the end of her tail, before she caught on to an idea. In a flash of light, she vanished, leaving the Skirmisher baffled. Its head jerked around like an eagle searching for prey, until it felt a powerful kick connect with its back that knocked it off its feet; it stumbled, and landed face first onto the deck.
Snarling, the avian picked itself up and spun around, spotting the purple equine it aimed to kill. She pawed the deck and snorted, horn blazing with violet light. The Skirmisher fired its weapon at the unicorn, only for the plasma to splash off a domed, violet shield. Screeching in rage, the alien fired its weapon as fast as possible, but was unable to so much as dent the unicorn’s defenses. The futile assault eventually caused the weapon to overheat, and the Skirmisher shook it in an attempt to force it to cool down faster.
Twilight’s shield collapsed, and the energy coalesced in a point right in front of her horn, forming a violet ball. In the blink of an eye, she unleashed her magic, firing it at the raptor in a single stream of powerful energy. Her aim was off, however, and the violet beam merely grazed the Skirmisher’s shoulder, causing it to drop its weapon.
The raptor hissed in pain, and cursed its own stupidity. Its advantage in battle was speed and agility, and in its arrogance it had merely stood in place, allowing an easy shot.
For her part, Twilight was fighting the urge to panic. The Skirmisher was bringing up memories from her battle with Nightmare Moon, only this alien terrified her far more than the Mare in the Moon ever did. Nightmare Moon was still a pony, and therefore herbivorous, while this creature was a virtual unknown to her, except for what she could see, specifically, that it had talons and sharp teeth.
With an earsplitting shriek, the Skirmisher lunged for Twilight, attempting to rip her apart with its claws. It only hit air, as Twilight teleported away once again. As soon as it landed, the raptor spun around, unwilling to be caught off guard again. Expecting the equine to once again try to buck it, the Skirmisher’s eyes widened in shock as it saw its quarry on the other side of the balcony, glowing bright.
Thinking back to the Changeling Invasion, Twilight began rapidly firing beams of violet energy from her horn. Each individual beam was relatively weak and highly inaccurate, but the sheer volume of fire made both factors irrelevant. Although most beams missed her target, destructive energy still raked across the alien’s body. It was the same spell that she used back during the Invasion, but she put more power behind it this time. When used on the changelings, the spell merely stunned, the Skirmisher, however, was nearly disintegrated.
“Holy shit!” Twilight turned to face the source of the curse, and saw that Tony had snuck up on her as well. “Remind me never to piss you off Sparks.”
“When did you get here?”
“Just a second ago,” he replied, cradling a long-barreled rifle in his arms. “Thought you could use some help.” He turned his head to face the Skirmisher’s burnt-out husk. “Guess not.”
For the third time in less than an hour, Twilight felt bile rise up her throat as she looked upon the result of her magic. However, with a quick shake of her head, she managed to keep it down and look away.
“You gonna be alright?”
“No, but I’ll deal with it later,” she growled.
The deck began to shake rhythmically, as if a large monster stalked nearby. Twilight had no idea what could make such a noise, but Tony knew all too well. “Oh shit.”
As the thudding reached a crescendo, the pile of corpses exploded outwards as two hulking monstrosities barged their way through. They were unlike any Covenant species Twilight had seen thus far. Nearly encased in heavy, teal-colored armor, she could only spot a small patch of red-orange, writhing flesh at their necks. One arm carried a large shield, while the other had some sort of cannon attached at the wrist. Long, sharp spines protruded from their backs, completing the fearsome image.
“Hunters!” Tony immediately dropped into a prone position and inched closer to the edge of the balcony. One of the aliens appeared to gather bright green energy around the mouth of its cannon, much like a unicorn would gather magic around their horn, and unleashed it in a destructive stream. The deadly beam connected with one of the metal barricades, sending it and the Marines hiding behind it flying.
The rest of the humans opened fire, but their bullets merely pinged off the Hunters’ armor uselessly. A few lucky shots hit the exposed flesh, spraying orange blood, and what appeared to be small worms, out the other side. Grenades detonated around them as both Hunters fired their cannons. Fortunately, the Marines had abandoned their cover, and most were able to dodge the deadly beams. The unlucky ones were melted into green goo.
Having reached the balcony ledge, Tony fired a shot from his rifle. It scored a direct hit on the exposed flesh, and the bullet hit the inside of the Hunter’s impenetrable armor, ricocheting around its insides. It was a mortal wound for the colossal creature, and it collapsed, red-orange worms flowed from the armor, like maggots from a corpse.
The surviving Hunter emitted a low, rumbling roar, a sound more felt than heard. It was a sound that shook the very core of one’s being, and spoke of untold rage. The Hunter charged the Marines, bashing three aside with its massive shield.
Reacting quickly, Twilight managed to catch them in her telekinetic grasp and set them down gently. Unfortunately, one was dead, and the others, Sam and another woman, were severely injured.
“Light him up!” George barely dodged another swing of the behemoth’s shield as he shouted out the order. ODSTs, Marines, and unicorn all opened fire on the Hunter. The humans adjusted their aim for the exposed neck region, and soon orange blood splattered the deck, while the beast was staggered by repeated impacts of the tiny projectiles.
Opting for power over speed, Twilight took her time and focused her magic into a single, massive beam. It was absorbed by the Hunter’s armor, but the armor began to glow from the heat wherever the violet beam made contact.
The Hunter was the first to make a mistake. Taking another swing at George, it over-extended on the follow-through, exposing a massive gap in its armor’s back. The defenders took advantage, and unleashed hell upon the monster. Bullets and magic ripped through the exposed flesh, and within moments, the Hunter joined its companion in death.
Silence reigned as the survivors took stock of their situation. Many lay dead or injured, but thankfully for Twilight, none of her new friends were part of the former category. Mere moments after the final Hunter fell, Joy’s voice piped in over the PA system.
“Attention all personnel. Covenant forces have been eliminated. I repeat…” Riotous cheers drowned the rest of the announcement out. The enemy had been defeated, the ship was safe, and the survivors would live to see another day.
Even Twilight gave a quick cheer, before once again turning her eyes on the carnage. Her lunch made another assault on her esophagus, and this time she didn’t put up much of a fight. Casting her gaze about, she searched in vain for a wastebasket. Unable to find one, Twilight dashed over to the nearest corner and puked.
“Hehe, if I had a bit for every time I lost my lunch like that…” said Twilight, with a mix of a smile and grimace on her face. She looked up and saw the various reactions her audience had, from the sorrowful looks from Celestia and Luna, to the horror-stricken expression playing out on Shining Armor and Cadence’s faces.
“Oh, here we go,” said Twilight, rolling her eyes. “I was hoping to avoid this little conversation. Yes, I killed Covenant that day. Was it the last time I did? No. Did I enjoy it? Fuck no, I didn’t! I still have nightmares about that day.”
“Twilight, language,” Princess Celestia sternly admonished.
“Sorry, anyways,” Twilight continued, her voice rising in pitch as she glared at her old foalsitter, “what you should keep in mind is that those people were, and still are last time I checked, fighting for their very existence. They can’t surrender, and the Covenant won’t. The Covenant only has one term for peace, and that is extinction. Unfortunately, I was caught in the middle of this conflict, and was forced to defend myself and others. So yes, I did kill, and if I had to again, I would. Without hesitation.”
Twilight’s outburst thoroughly stunned everypony present. Even Princess Celestia was shocked by her student’s behavior; this was not the quiet academic she remembered, this was a battle hardened warrior, more akin to a gryphon than a pony. The guards standing at the door exchanged nervous glances, clearly afraid to intervene. One of them had even been on the receiving end of Twilight Sparkle’s temper long ago, and was not relishing another go.
“Look,” Twilight sighed, seeing how much distress her outburst caused. “Let’s just drop this for now, okay? Last night was the first decent night of sleep I’ve had in days, and I’m tired and cranky as a result. I’m sorry for just flying off the handle like that.”
“It’s all right, Twilight,” Cadence said with a soft smile. “I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge. It’s just… this is all so surprising. I never expected you to change this much so quickly.”
“I’m still the same pony, Cadence. I just have a few more scars now. Both mental and physical.”
Celestia noticed that Twilight unconsciously rubbed her right foreleg at that statement. She had no idea what exactly that meant, but she wasn’t about to broach that subject. One glance aside told her that she was the only one that noticed the gesture.
“Scars?” As she asked this, Luna began leaning over for a closer look. “I don’t see any scars.”
“Human medicine is far and away more advanced than ours,” replied Twilight, giggling to herself. “Seriously though, could we continue this later? I’d like to take a nap right now.”
“Go and rest, my student. You have more than earned it,” replied Celestia. “Afterwards, I feel we should take this discussion elsewhere. Say, Ponyville?”
Twilight’s face brightened enough to rival Celestia’s sun. “You mean it?”
“Of course. Honestly, we should’ve gone to see your friends much sooner. However, rectifying that mistake will be easy enough.” Princess Celestia summoned a quill and a roll of parchment. “I shall summon your friends to the library this afternoon.”
“Wait, ‘Tia,” Luna interrupted. “Why don’t we surprise them? I have an idea.”
In the town of Ponyville, dusk was the signal for the day to end. Not that the villagers went to sleep at that time, oh no. The small farming community actually had a bit of nightlife. It was nothing compared to Canterlot or Manehattan, just a few small taverns and the occasional traveling show, but enough to keep ponies awake well into the night.
For five mares and a young dragon, however, the taverns were not their calling. Rather, none other than Princess Luna herself had summoned them to a small hill outside of town. For what purpose, none of them knew, but the invite clearly said to bring refreshments.
So they did. Pinkie Pie, who had mysteriously gotten back in the groove of things the previous night, supplied a veritable mountain of baked goods, and Applejack had rolled out a large barrel of her best apple cider.
“Ya seem to be in much finer spirits than last time I saw ya, sugarcube,” Applejack remarked to Pinkie.
“I know!” Pinkie was literally bouncing in place, and the rest of her friends felt better seeing her enthusiasm. “My Pinkie Sense went off last night and told me that today was gonna be a good day. I haven’t been this happy since-”
“Woah nelly!” Applejack interrupted. “Let’s not bring that up right now. Ah don’t want to spoil yer good mood, ya hear? Not with the Princess commin’.”
“Yes, darling,” added Rarity, having just arrived with Spike on her back. “It is simply wonderful seeing you in such good spirits after all this time.”
“I agree,” added Fluttershy.
“Aww, thanks girls,” beamed Pinkie. “Group hug!” Before anypony could react, Pinkie grabbed her four friends in a powerful embrace, practically squeezing the breath out of them. It only lasted a moment, however, before she looked around frantically. “Hey, where’s Dashie?”
“Over there,” Spike struggled to say in between gasps of breath, pointing to a nearby patch of grass. The cerulean pegasus was lying down on her back, staring at the rapidly approaching night sky as the sun fell below the horizon, chewing on a stalk of wheat.
“Rainbow! Why ain’t ya in this here group hug?”
“Huh?” The question seemed to shake Rainbow from her thoughts, and she looked up. “Oh, sorry. I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Ya alright there, sugarcube?”
“Yeah, just thinking,” replied Rainbow.
“I thought I smelled something burning,” Spike deadpanned, earning a few giggles. Despite being the butt of the joke, Rainbow Dash couldn’t help but snort out a laugh as well.
“Good one, short stuff,” she retorted. With a sigh, she turned back to face the night sky as the stars began to appear. “It’s something I’ve been doing a lot lately. Especially at night.”
“What do you mean, Rainbow Dash?” Fluttershy fluttered over and landed next to her fillyhood friend.
“Well…you all know how I’ve been looking all over the world for Twilight, right?” Upon receiving nods in return, she continued. “During my search, I would usually find a cloud to sleep on out in the open, rather than pay for a room at some inn. There were a few nights that I just couldn’t sleep, so I just stayed up and stared out into space. It really makes you wonder…”
“Makes you wonder what, exactly?”
“Like, what else is out there,” replied Rainbow. “Have you ever wondered what’s up there?”
“Maybe… someone up there is wondering what it’s like here,”
“Maybe,” agreed Applejack. “Do ya think we’ll ever meet ‘em?”
“I hope so,” replied Rainbow, turning to face her friends. “Don’t…” Her jaw dropped, as she spied the one pony she had not expected to see. “No way.”
Everyone else turned to follow Rainbow Dash’s gaze, and froze. Standing behind them, clad in strange, otherworldly armor, was none other than their long lost friend.
“I really hope none of you meet any aliens,” said Twilight, smirking at her friends’ dumbfounded looks. “Most of the ones I’ve met were not nice at all.”