Twilight sighed contentedly as she tucked her newest book into her saddlebag. She'd been waiting for this volume from her personal library back in Canterlot for over a week. But now it was here, and she could resume her studies in earnest. All she needed to do was return to her house, and--
"Hiya, Twilight! I just saw something totally neato and I had no idea what it was but I knew you would cause you're super smart! Wanna go look? Do you wanna? Huh huh huh?"
That was, if she could get home without getting distracted.
Twilight smiled as she turned to face Pinkie Pie. "Sure, Pinkie. What is it?"
"Oh boy!" Pinkie was being her usual bouncy self. "Come on, it's right over here!" And she was off like a rocket.
Twilight took a moment to securely close the bag with a spell, then began racing after Pinkie. "Wait up! I don't know where you're going!"
"Slowpoke!" teased Pinkie. "Try to catch me!"
Twilight grinned and gave chase. She wasn't the most athletic of ponies -- that would probably go to Applejack, or maybe Rainbow Dash when she was actually focused -- but she considered herself to be decent in an endurance contest. She'd placed fifth in the Running of the Leaves, after all. So she thought that she had a good chance of being able to keep pace with Pinkie, at least as long as she wasn't in one of her hyper moods.
Sure enough, she managed to catch up by the time they approached the forest edge. "So what'd you see?"
"I told you I don't know, silly!" Pinkie giggled. "Weren't you listening?"
"Oh. Right." Twilight chuckled.
They cut through the forest and wound up at a small clearing that Twilight recognized as being one of Fluttershy's favorite haunts. Her other friends were clustered around a smallish animal. Pinkie raced directly over to them. "Guys, I brought Twilight! I bet she can solve this mystery! Cause she's a great pony detective!"
"Howdy, Twilight," called Applejack. "Pinkie said she reckoned ya might know what this here thing is. Ah have ta admit -- ah ain't got a clue."
Fluttershy was crouched so that she was almost on top of the thing. "I don't think it's listening to me." She looked upset that one of her forest friends was ignoring her.
Twilight approached, looking over the animal. It was a four-legged animal, with a bill like a duck's, a tail like a beaver, and feet that reminded Twilight of an otter. She'd never seen one before.
"It's so... strange. Yet oddly elegant," said Rarity, craning her head. "I wonder if I could dress it up? It might look dashing with the proper attire."
"Hey!" yelled Pinkie Pie. "Be quiet, guys! Twilight's thinking!"
Twilight laughed. "Thanks, Pinkie." She returned her gaze to the animal, thinking back to her books. She was confident she'd read of something like this. Duck-billed but not a duck... there weren't many creatures like that. It wasn't in any of her more general books, so she could discount all the animals therein. It was probably in--
"Any luck?" Pinkie asked, having moved directly in front of her to stare right into her eyes.
"Come on, partner, let her think," said an amused Applejack. "Ain't no rush."
Twilight tried to ignore her own amusement and focus. She thought she remembered a similar drawing in one of her books. It was coming back to her.
"I think it's a platypus," she said at last.
"A what?" the others asked.
Twilight laughed. "A platypus. I think they're native to Brismane, down south. Wonder how this little guy got all the way up here."
"What do they eat?" asked Fluttershy, who seemed to be dismayed at the creature's thinness.
"I don't remember exactly, but I've got a book that says what it eats, how it sleeps, what temperatures it likes, and even," she smiled, remembering more now, "How to make friends with them. Platypi are shy by nature, but if you treat them right, they can be really friendly."
"Like somepony we know," said Rainbow Dash, nudging Fluttershy. The yellow horse blushed.
Pinkie cheered. "See? I told you guys Twilight would help us! You're awesome, Twilight!" She jumped in the air. "Let's go to the Sugar Cube to celebrate!"
Twilight grinned, her new book forgotten. "Sure, I'm in."
Later that night, Twilight returned home giggling. Her friends were awesome.
Spike greeted her as she entered. "Hi Twilight! Have a good day?"
"The best," she said. "Pinkie decided to throw an impromptu party at the Sugar Cube." She smiled at the memory. "Never saw Rainbow Dash stuff a whole pie into her face before, but Pinkie's new recipes were awesome."
"Yeah, she's really something, isn't she?" Spike passed her an envelope. "This came for you while you were out. I think it's from Celestia and Luna."
"I didn't screw something up, did I?" said Twilight, immediately seizing the letter with her magic and yanking it open. "Okay, let's see... best wishes, hopes I'm doing well... oh, they want me to come back to Canterlot for a week or so. Not you, just me."
"So you didn't screw up, then," said Spike.
"Unless... what if they just didn't tell me in the letter? What if I screwed up so badly they want to yell at me face to face?" Twilight's smile vanished. "Spike, I've been sending weekly friendship reports, right?"
"Maybe she's unhappy with the latest construction projects. I knew I should have convinced Ivory Scroll to--" She noticed Spike tapping the bottom of the letter. "What?"
"Ahem." Spike took it. "PS: do not worry. You aren't in trouble for anything. We would simply like to see you again."
"I guess she knows you well," said Spike, before collapsing in laughter.
"Har har." Twilight shook her head to clear it. "Well, this is a good opportunity, then. I need to look at the palace library anyway. And it'll be great to see Princess Celestia." She folded up the letter and sent it to her travel saddlebag. "Spike, can you take the '1001 Species Native to Equestria' book over to Flutter's in the morning? She's got a platypus that she needs to take care of."
"A platter of what?"
Twilight smiled as she opened up her dresser and took out her most formal outfit, a glittering dress that Rarity had designed. It would be perfect to wear when visiting Canterlot. "Never mind. Just take her the book, please."
The next task was to write a response to Celestia. 'Dear Princess Celestia, I will return to Canterlot as soon as I possibly can. I am eagerly awaiting seeing you again.' She paused, then sent that paper away and took another. "No, that's not right. It's not formal enough. Dear Princess Celestia, I will return to Canterlot in the morning. I look forward to seeing you again..."
The next morning was warm and sunny.
After doing a quick loop of the town and bidding her friends goodbye, Twilight approached the town square. She smiled when she saw the gleaming chariot. Teleporting to the castle might have been technically feasible, but it would have exhausted her. It was nice for Celestia to send her transportation.
Twilight had to hide her smile as she turned to see Rainbow Dash and Pinkie running towards her.
"Girls, I already said goodbye," she protested as they jumped up and tackled hug. Pinkie embraced her in a big hug.
"What if we never see each other again?" said the pink pony. "Won't you be sad if you didn't have a chance to give your best friend Pinkie Pie a really good goodbye?"
"But... but I'm coming back, Pinkie." Twilight smiled weakly. "The only way I won't see you again if I die in Canterlot or something."
"Then your ghost will be sad!"
Cornered by such 'logic,' Twilight gave Pinkie a big hug. "There. Now my ghost'll be happy."
Rainbow Dash was gagging. "Ugh. If this is what goodbyes are like, count me out of them."
"Aw, so you don't care that I'm leaving?"
Rainbow smiled and shook Twilight's hoof. "Who said that? I just don't need hugs--"
Pinkie gathered the two of them into a big hug. "One last Pinkie hug!"
Twilight eventually managed to extricate herself. "Girls, I promise I'll be back in a week. Now, sorry, but I've really got to get going. Can't be late for the princess..."
She hopped into the chariot, and the two pegasi charioteers began flying away.
"Can we come visit?" called Pinkie.
"I'm only going for a week!" Twilight called back.
"Okay. We'll visit tomorrow to make sure you're doing okay!"
Twilight sat down, unable to stop smiling. Pinkie and Dash could be very stubborn when they wanted to be. Twilight had little doubt that one or both of them would find some way to make it to Canterlot to say hello to her. Well, as long as it didn't interfere with whatever Celestia had in mind for her, that was fine.
The flight was fast, taking only a couple of hours to cover what would have been a week's worth of travel on hoof. And when it was over, Twilight found herself standing in front of the castle that she'd lived at for so much of her life.
It was just as big and majestic as she remembered it.
She'd arrived an hour or so ahead of schedule, so she took advantage of the opportunity to explore the castle. She smiled when she looked in on her old nook in the library, and the little cupboard in the kitchen where Spike could usually be found after pilfering some royal delicacy. A few ponies that she remembered greeted her, and she enjoyed telling them what she'd been up to, and learning how the castle had changed (apparently, Luna had installed an observatory on the grounds). Ponyville was awesome, but sometimes it was nice to visit home.
And then the appointed hour arrived. Twilight smoothed back her mane, made sure that her dress was on straight, and entered the throne room.
Celestia was as radiant and glorious as Twilight remembered, and Twilight had to struggle not to race to her side. Celestia was Twilight's teacher, mentor, and above all, friend. Even being in her presence was a comfort to her. She smiled, feeling at peace, and only barely remembered to bow.
"You don't need to bow," said Celestia, clearly amused. She rose. "Welcome home."
"Thank you, your majesty. I came as quickly as I could once I heard that you wanted to see me." Her voiced tensed slightly. "It's not something bad, is it?"
"Of course not, my student." Celestia seemed to almost glow in the sunlight. "Are you sure you would not wish to simply talk first?"
"If you wish," said Twilight, though it was obvious that she was eager to know why Celestia had summoned her.
Celestia seemed to understand. "Well... I suppose I can tell you now. I wanted you to take a certain test."
Twilight immediately began to panic.
"I -- of course, your majesty, of course, I will, but I -- I haven't studied, and I don't know--"
"Twilight!" Celestia seemed amused. "It is not that kind of test. You need not worry. It is more a test of... character. It is not the kind of exam that can be studied for."
That mollified Twilight a little. Very little. "Alright, your highness. I'm ready."
The next thing she knew, she was on the floor. Her ears were ringing like somepony had struck a gong next to her. "Woah -- what happened?"
"Do not worry, my student." Celestia stepped down from her throne and extended a hoof to help Twilight up. "I had to remove an enchantment from you."
"Two years ago, child, a memory spell was placed on you." Celestia nodded. "I have just removed it. I am sorry for subjecting you to this test again, Twilight, but please know that I have no other choice. The fate of Equestria hangs in the balance."
Twilight paused, having no idea what was going on. What memory charm? Her memories were--
When she tried to remember her past, she found herself looking at two sets of memories. In one, she was reading books in the library. In the other, she was... still reading books, but they were different. Not history books, or literature or science. Magic, and... and tactics.
In an excerpt from her first set of memories, which she'd believed until five minutes ago to be her only ones, she was running around on a field, kicking a ball. In the other, she was practicing with a spear, fending off the attacks from a palace guard.
"Good job, Twi Sword!" the guard had called. The memory of kicking a ball seemed to fade.
"What? Princess, I don't understand," began Twilight.
Celestia said, "You may find it useful to lie down, Twilight Sword. Your room is still where you remember it."
"I -- but -- that's not my name, is it?" And then, more confidently, "I know that's not my name!" But now she was remembering. Celestia had given her that name after she'd excelled in magic and athletics, besting most of the palace guard in an annual training competition. Moments after she'd triumphed over her final opponent by turning him into a chicken, Celestia had said, "My strongest and most loyal student, the greatest of my scholars and soon to be my greatest warrior. Twilight Sword, know that the kingdom has recognized your incredible ability and will always honor you."
"Please, lie down," said Celestia, gently. "The actual test begins tomorrow, and you need to be well rested."
"What is the test?" managed Twilight.
"It is similar to the one you took two years ago. You should remember it now. I will see you then. And, Twilight..."
"Best of luck."
Twilight smiled weakly, fighting her confusion and headache. And then two servants were leading her away.
Her room wasn't, as it turned out, the library where she'd thought she'd practically lived. Rather, she found herself in a luxuriously appointed officer's quarters.
"Cool," she said, as she got onto the bed. It was softer than any she'd ever lain on, and she'd slept over at Rarity's house.
It took some time -- several hours, actually, during which Twilight grabbed dinner from the kitchens and began perusing her old book '1001 Spells for Combat' -- but Twilight thought she'd sorted out her memories. From the time she'd left her parents to the day she went to visit Ponyville, she had two large sets of memories. One set, the ones full of solitary studies and endless research, were what Celestia had implied were faked. The other set, the ones of combat practice, of relentless magical study and training to be strong and mighty, had been declared to be real. And the more she thought about it, the more real they felt.
Thinking of Ponyville caused Twilight to grin. "Oh! I should totally show them my new magic when I get back!" She was starting to remember some of the advanced spells she'd learned too, and they were way beyond the silly tricks she'd used in Ponyville. What would Pinkie think, she wondered, if she levitated the whole bakery? They could have a picnic in the sky, she'd like that.
That said, two questions remained, assuming the new set of memories were true. First, why had Princess Celestia given her a whole new set of memories -- practically, a new personality -- before she'd left for Ponyville? She couldn't see a reason, unless it had something to do with Nightmare Moon. But she trusted Celestia, and so while she was confused, she wasn't worried. Celestia wouldn't do anything to her mind without a good reason. In fact, she seemed to recall giving Celestia permission to do it, although she couldn't quite recall why.
The second question, of course, was what the test was. That was the one thing she still couldn't quite remember. Whenever she thought about it, it felt really important -- like the test had been determining the fate of Equestria or something -- but she couldn't quite recall what it entailed.
But she did know that she'd passed it once before. That she was confident of. So she was sure she could do it again. She could win for Princess Celestia.
Twilight woke at dawn, as was her custom, and quickly ran through her stretches and a few practice spells. She felt rested and ready for whatever the day had to throw at her.
A message had been slipped under her door, directing her to come to the grand ballroom by eight in the morning. She dressed in sensible clothes -- a camouflage outfit, with reinforced padding in case of sudden ambush -- and, almost as an afterthought, tucked the knife from her old weapon set into the sheath. It was really useful for certain spells that she only now remembered, and maybe the test would involve casting some kind of awesome magic.
As she left, she noticed two guards standing on either side of her door. "Uh... do I get an escort?"
They shook their heads. "We just -- we just wanted to walk with you," said one. "I'm Spears."
"I'm Turquoise Lightning," said the other.
Twilight smiled. Spears was a small brown mare, but evidently well trained -- her steps were crisp and precise, and she carried her ceremonial sword with the confidence of somepony who knew how to use it. Turquoise Lightning was a deep blue, and bigger than Spears, but had a sloppy grip on her sword. Lightning seemed to notice her looking at it, and shifted her grip. Twilight couldn't help but smile.
"Sure, no problem. But why?"
"We heard about what you did two years ago, when you won this thing," said Spears, as the two fell into step behind her. "It was really awesome."
Well, that was some confirmation. Unless they were in on some kind of prank, they would indicate that her second set of memories were the real ones.
Spears continued. "Yeah. I -- uh, my family lives down south, right by the Gryphon Lands. Would've been kind'a tough if you hadn't saved the day."
Twilight still couldn't recall exactly what she'd done, but evidently it had been both impressive and memorable. "Thanks."
The guards seemed almost giddy to be walking with her, and when they reached the ballroom, Twilight had an idea. "Don't suppose you girls would want a hoofprint, would you?"
"Would we?!" Their jaws dropped. Twilight magicked up an inkpot and parchment, then dipped her hoof in the ink and pressed it on the parchment. "Wow! Thanks!"
"I can't believe Twilight Sword's giving us a hoofprint!" whispered Spears to Lightning.
Twilight smiled easily. "No trouble at all."
"Knock 'em dead, Miss Sword!" said Lightning.
Twilight laughed and entered the ballroom.
The atmosphere was chilly.
There were two large clumps of ponies and other creatures. At the far end of the room, near the garden exit, Twilight saw a collection of dignitaries and nobles. Baron Trample was among them, and a diplomat she recognized from the Gryphon Lands. A Dog Nation representative too. She frowned. Was this some kind of diplomatic test?
The other group was made up of ponies and other creatures dressed for combat. She saw two massive, armored Diamond Dogs, wearing the colors of the Dog Nation. A tall gryphon was casually flapping in the air as she talked to somepony. Two large, gray ponies that Twilight recognized from guard training -- Stomp and Slam, if she remembered correctly -- towered above the others, and both carried huge maces on their backs.
This did feel familiar. She cast her memories back. Two years ago, she'd entered a ballroom just like this one, and...
The gryphon turned to see her, and her mouth dropped. "Hey, everyone! Reigning champion just showed up!"
The room fell silent as everyone turned to stare at her.
Twilight was lost for words, but then she realized that, while the fake Twilight, the Twilight of Ponyville, might have turned away shyly, that wasn't her. So she put on a brave face. "Yep. Reigning champion. And I don't see much here to threaten that."
Stomp laughed. Twilight didn't recall him ever saying anything besides laughs or grunts. Slam, for his part, smirked. "We'll see about that."
Twilight would have responded, but more of her memories were coming back to her. Yes, two years ago...
The nation had been on the brink of war, she remembered. Nobles in the distant territories were ready to revolt. Foreign nations were preparing to invade. But everyone knew how devastating war would be. Thousands dead, vast casualties even on the winning side. So there had been... there had been a combat-by-champion tournament set up. Each side submitted a few creatures to compete as champions, and the winners were indicative of which side would have won a war.
Twilight frowned. The more she thought about that, the less sense it made. Was she really certain that her current mentality and thoughts were correct? It just sounded so... unlike Celestia to do something like that.
But it didn't matter. It had happened, Twilight had been Celestia's personal champion, and she'd won. Yes, now she remembered. She'd beaten all the other champions and shown how strong Equestria was. One pony, fending off all comers. No one had wanted to wage war after that.
"So I guess we see if that was a fluke, or if you really are that tough," said the gryphon. "Name's Goliath."
"Twilight Sword." She'd go with that, at least provisionally. "I assure you, it's no fluke."
Goliath smiled. "We'll see, I guess."
"Yeah. We will."
Another pony drifted over to her. "Celestia's champion?"
"I'm Luna's. Name's Violet."
The new pony was dressed in a black cloak, and had black fur and eyes as well. She looked like somepony had painted a moonless, starless night sky on her body. "I'm going to beat you," she continued. "No questions asked."
Twilight snorted. "Keep telling yourself that."
At that moment, the clock struck eight, and Princess Celestia entered.
The champions parted, although only Twilight and a few other ponies (including Violet) bowed. The diplomats and nobles also stood aside. Celestia, for her part, calmly walked to the front of the room, turned around, and began to speak.
"I am not accustomed to long speeches," said Celestia. "And I feel that one in this instance would take away from the gravity of what is about to occur. All that needs to be said is this -- we all thank you, champions, for your service. Your battles this week will help prevent a major war that could destroy much of what we hold dear.
Twilight was trying to listen, but her mind was choosing this time to recall details of her other matches. She'd been primarily a magical fighter, only using physical combat when trapped in close-quarters. She'd killed two opponents with fireballs, one with--
Right. This was a deathmatch, if she remembered correctly. Twilight's head swam, and her confidence vanished. How could she kill now? She'd been away for two years, and the last time she'd done this still felt vaguely dreamlike. Taking another pony's life was...
"...again, though we hesitate to ask even one creature to die, we know that this is the only way to prevent a full-scale war..."
Twilight heard her Princess, and froze. If that was true... well, it had to be true. It had been true last time, when she'd taken out the gryphon giant and single-handedly convinced the Queen of Gryphons that invading Equestria was a terrible idea. She couldn't have done that if she'd been afraid to... to kill the enemy.
"...and with that said, we begin."
Celestia's horn glowed a bright white, and Twilight felt a brief tugging sensation before she vanished into nothingness.
Twilight reappeared in a pleasant, idyllic forest.
Right. First things first. Twilight let her instincts and memories take over; consciously, she had little idea of what she should be doing. She sniffed the ground and did a quick perimeter check to verify that nopony had started near her. Then she began planning her strategy.
The first priority was to find the others. The forest was cool, and while it was light out, the sun was partially obscured by clouds. Little ambient heat, then. Perfect conditions for an infravision spell.
Twilight drew her ritual knife with magic and made a small incision in her foreleg. The trivial magic she'd used back in Ponyville didn't require this kind of blood sacrifice, but the real spells, the powerful ones she'd learned while training with the castle guard and while reading Celestia's ancient books, did sometimes require a material component. Fortunately, this one was relatively small -- just a single drop of blood.
She focused, letting the blood drip out of the cut, then gathering it up and weaving it into a tight nest of magic. Then she focused on the magic entering her eyes, expanding outwards -- and she could see heat.
She looked down at herself, noting that she was glowing. Then she looked into the forest. It was very dull, except for two bright spots in the distance. The two dots were far enough apart that the enemies wouldn't be able to aid each other.
"Perfect." Twilight took off.
The first pony she encountered was one of the champions from the United Prosperous Pony Republic, or UPPR. This particular Prosperous Pony citizen was a unicorn named Iron. Iron was of moderate size, with dark-green skin that naturally blended in well with the forest, and was outfitted with chain mail armor and a moderately-sized lance.
Twilight snuck around behind Iron, and felt a little sick at her sudden sense of amusement. Iron was moving so... stupidly. No strategy at all. Her back was unguarded, her flanks were wide open, and she was moving casually along a narrow path that could easily conceal any enemies. She didn't even seem to be aware of Twilight, though any competent unicorn would have constructed a detection spell. Twilight predicted that her victory would be swift and certain.
And it was.
Twilight used one quick spell to yank the lance from the holder on Iron's back. The lance floated up into the air, as Iron looked at it helplessly. The unicorn began to run, but a second spell -- a trivial one, one she'd even used back in Ponyville -- tripped her and sent her sprawling.
Twilight aimed carefully and used the third spell to drive the spear through a chink in Iron's armor. Iron shuddered and screamed, and then died.
And then she bent down, feeling violently ill. Blood was spilling from Iron's body, and Iron's face was frozen in agony. 'I did that,' she thought. 'I just murdered...'
"No, no!" she hissed. She couldn't react like that! She remembered, from last time, Princess Celestia telling her how important it was to look tough and strong. It would intimidate the later opponents and make them easier to psyche out and beat. It was horrible, it was hideous, but she had to act calm. She had to act like killing came naturally to her.
So she forced a smirk and said, "One down." And then she took off again, heading for the next pony, and trying to outrun memories of the first one.
The second pony was a little tougher.
Stone, also from the UPPR, was taller and dressed in a thicker suit of chain mail than Iron. Her skin was an oddly bright gray that seemed almost to shine. She carried a large broadsword.
In a physical competition, Twilight might be outmatched. But she wasn't worried. She had her magic. As she crept to within a few yards of the enemy pony, she began to cast a simple 'pain' spell to harass Stone and distract her.
But she was out of practice. As she rose to cast it, her weight shifted just slightly, and she stepped on a dry twig. The twig broke with a loud 'crack.'
Stone's ears twitched.
Twilight fired the spell, but Stone ducked under it and turned to the forest. "Hah!" she bellowed.
Twilight squeaked and took off at a run.
What followed was a rapid chase through the woods that Twilight quickly saw she would lose. Stone was built for running long distances, and Twilight had been keeping herself ('squandering herself,' her mind told her) cooped up in a library for two years. Rather than stick to a soldier's diet, she'd gobbled up Applejack's apple pies and Pinkie's various delicacies. She couldn't win a race here.
"Okay," she hissed. "Doesn't matter. I'm better at magic than this idiot, and I'm smarter too. I can win this. Hay, I won last year, after all." She began devising her plan.
Within a few minutes, Stone had drawn close enough to Twilight to begin swinging her sword with some hope of actually hitting her. Twilight used one last burst of speed, turned, and raised her hoof as if to hurl her knife at Stone. Stone reacted just like Twilight thought. She skipped to the side to dodge the knife, brought her broadsword up, and swung it before Twilight could actually attack with the knife. The sword was almost as long as Twilight, and the purple pony wouldn't have a hope of blocking it with the knife. If that blow landed, it would cleave right through the magician.
Fortunately, Twilight thought, she didn't need a weapon to block a sword.
Telekinesis was something she used even back in Ponyville. She added a small push to the blow, not enough to grab it away from Stone, but enough to make it miss and cut deep into the tree to her left. As Stone tried to recover, Twilight really did throw her dagger.
Stone tried to dodge, but telekinesis worked offensively too. Twilight noted that Stone's throat was unprotected near the top, due to... well, frankly, due to shoddy design in the armor, where the helmet didn't quite join up with the neckguard. Twilight supposed that the notoriously poor UPPR craftsmanship was to blame for that, but it didn't really matter why the opening was there -- only that it existed. She stabbed the dagger through that hole, scored a direct hit, and that was it for Stone.
Twilight again resisted the urge to hurl, but it wasn't as bad this time. She was getting back into it. And besides, she'd won that battle with her mind. It was like a puzzle, and she loved puzzles.
That thought made her feel ill all over again.
Before she could throw up, she felt herself being pulled back to the ballroom.
Twilight left the castle in a daze.
The closing ceremony for the day had been very fast. Princess Celestia had spoken for ten minutes or so about the sacrifices of the fallen champions, and of the honor and heroism of the living. Then they were told to report back at eight the next morning for the next round.
And that was that.
Twilight tried to talk to the princess, but she couldn't, as the alicorn was quickly taken aside by important-looking officials. She looked around for Luna, but couldn't find that alicorn anywhere. Twilight did wonder why Luna hadn't shown up to cheer on her champion.
Then she wondered why Luna even had a champion. The whole point of this was to forestall war, she knew, so was Luna planning some kind of rebellion? That was... well, unsurprising, given what a monster Luna had once been, but unfortunate.
Reflecting on this, Twilight slowly walked out into the corridor, where she bumped into a few of the palace guards. Spears was among them, and said that they wanted to throw Twilight a little party that night.
"Awesome!" said Twilight, eager for distraction from what she'd just done, before she continued on her way out of the castle. She thought of Pinkie and her legendarily over-the-top parties; this one would surely be more subdued, but that was good too. They could even help her research her opponents. Now that she knew what she was doing and what was required --
A wave of nausea hit her, and she looked around for a bathroom. She just made it inside before she threw up.
"Ugh..." Right. She told herself it was best to not focus on the 'what is required' part. She had to do what she had to do, and it was probably a good thing she didn't enjoy it.
That settled, she made it into town and looked around, wondering what to do for the two hours or so before the guards' party. She could visit her family, she thought, or the magic school, or--
"There she is! Come here, Twi!"
She saw Applejack racing through the crowds, a big grin on her face. Pinkie Pie was bouncing just besides her, and Rainbow Dash was flying above them.
Twilight felt genuine panic.
How could she tell them who she really was? She was their friend, and they liked her, but what if they stopped once they found out what she had to do?
'Unfair of them,' she thought, but then she pushed that thought away. It didn't matter. What mattered was figuring out what to do next.
"Hi girls!" she managed. "What're -- what're you doing here?"
"Oh, we just thought of droppin' in. Pinkie was all worried that ya'd get lonely bein' in Canterlot for a whole week without ya'r friends, and the farm's kinda quiet now, so ah put together a little outin'."
Rainbow Dash grinned. "You're gonna show us the castle, right? And all the good restaurants?"
"And the bakeries!" cried Pinkie Pie, hugging Twilight and bouncing up and down with her. "We're going to have so much fun!"
"Girls, girls, hang on a minute. I'm in... meetings all day." Twilight nodded. "That's why I'm here. I've memorized half the library, so they need me for these really arcane negotiations because I'm the only one who knows what the third subpoint of paragraph one hundred and eighty-two of the Treaty with the UPPR is."
Pinkie froze. "You mean... no party?"
"What? No. Who said that? It just means I can't hang out with you all during the day. But I don't see any reason why we can't have fun tonight." She smiled, calculating times in her head. "In fact, what are you doing now? There's a restaurant I've really been missing, and I'm pretty sure the maretre'd still owes me a favor."
"Wait, they don't just serve hoity-toity fancy food, do they?" asked Rainbow Dash, who appeared to still be at least somewhat distracted by the majestic castle. "Cause I'm starving."
"All you can eat salad buffet, selection of the finest cheeses and breads in Canterlot, and, of course, a full dessert spread." Twilight smiled as her mind came up with a solution to her scheduling problems. This would work -- she could eat with them for a couple hours, excuse herself, then leave and deal with her obligation with the guards. In fact, if she could keep them out of the castle all week, then everything would work out fine. Well, unless she died in the deathmatches, but she'd won last year, so she wasn't too worried about that.
Pinkie's mouth had dropped. "Like, a little spread or a big spread?"
"A spread as big as..." Twilight smiled as she summoned up the memory. It was the restaurant she'd attended on her birthday, taking a few of the guards out with her and swapping spells and combat tactics over crème brulee. "As big as six ponies lined up end to end!"
"WOW!" Pinkie began bouncing even more rapidly. "Come on, girls! Let's go see some dessert!"
Rainbow Dash grinned. "Happy to see us, Twi?"
"Of course." Twilight smiled, and hoped they wouldn't follow her home.
Twilight was pleased to realize that dinner took no longer than she expected.
As they left, Pinkie Pie burped. "Wow. That was so good..."
"Glad you liked it, Pinkie." Twilight nuzzled her friend. "Now, I've gotta get back to the castle. See you guys tomorrow for dinner? I know a little picnic place out by the Grand River."
"Sounds great, partner," said Applejack.
Rainbow Dash paused. "Sure we can't come hang out with you?"
"Yeah, sorry. No unauthorized ponies allowed at the diplomatic meetings." Twilight tried to look apologetic. "But I promise to see you girls for dinner tomorrow!"
She hugged Pinkie goodbye, promised twice more to see them and show them around a little more, and then hurried back to the castle. She made it to the barracks just in time for her second party of the day.
"Where were you?" asked Turquoise Lightning, smiled. "Off on some awesome adventure!"
"Nah, just visiting friends."
"I heard you helped take down Nightmare Moon," said Spears, offering Twilight a glass of wine. Twilight accepted it, though she politely declined the plate of food. "Tell us some awesome stories!"
Twiilight grinned, a shade more genuinely than her smiles earlier that night. She loved her friends, but it did feel good to be appreciated for who she really was. "So, I was in Ponyville, when suddenly..."
Twilight awoke at dawn and smiled. She felt confident and ready. Nothing could stop her.
After talking and drinking with the guards, she'd retreated to her room and stayed up late studying the eighteen or so remaining champions. She formulated strategies for all of them, accounting for variables like terrain, weather, and facing multiple enemies at once. It felt good to be working on the test, and even better as she identified optimal strategies.
It was like she was solving a big puzzle. If she thought of it like that, she found she didn't worry so much that the solutions all inevitably involved killing somepony.
Giddy with strategy, Twilight opted not to wear the camouflage outfit, or any other form of armor. It wasn't like it would protect her from any serious attack, and it was likely to mess with her mobility and agility. Besides, she wanted to look confident, and that was best accomplished by going to the ballroom with her single knife and nothing else.
The one thing that was still bothering her was the whole issue of her memories and her... well, for lack of a better word, her personality. She couldn't quite ignore the fact that, if she was wrong, if the 'studious, bookworm Twilight Sparkle' was real and 'powerful, militaristic Twilight Sword' was the false personality, she was letting herself be controlled by some doppelganger. So she just had to keep telling herself that she was who she thought she was -- Princess Celestia's champion. The other memories had to be false. Celestia had said so, and she would never, ever lie to her.
When Twilight arrived at the ballroom, she saw that the other champions weren't chatting. Twilight shrugged, affected a bored, disdainful look and sat down casually near the edge of the group of champion. Goliath glanced over at her and seemed almost to chuckle, but Twilight ignored her.
Time passed slowly. Eventually, Princess Celestia entered, causing Twilight to get up and then bow. She noticed Violet doing so too, and Stomp and Slam made minute motions that might have approximated a bow, but no one else did. Twilight wondered if most of the local ponies, then, had been eliminated in the first round.
Celestia's opening speech was even shorter than the previous day's. A reminder of what was at stake, a statement of luck, and then...
Twilight found herself in a circular arena.
The walls were rocky, and so was the ground. The air smelled faintly sulfurous. The sky was a reddish-orange, and seemed almost as if the sun had gotten a little too close to the earth.
Twilight winced. It was hot, dry, smelled unpleasant, and was in general not well suited for her. She hoped to win quickly and get out.
The arena was relatively small, and she could just see across the whole room to the wall on the other side. She saw two figures there, and they weren't fighting. A team, then?
"Another two on one fight? Come on," she grumbled, before taking off towards them at a run.
The other two figures began running for the center too. Twilight saw that they were the Diamond Dogs. The big one was named Growler, she thought; she didn't know the name of the slightly-less-big one, only nine inches taller than her instead of a foot.
Growler, she recalled, had been around at the tournament two years ago. He'd been the understudy of the Dog that Twilight had killed in combat. Growler had vowed revenge, actually. At the time, he'd intimidated even Twilight Sword, with his large frame, intense strength, and general air of arrogance.
None of that mattered, though. Twilight had her plan, and while Growler and his companion were strong, she was smart and possessed the Element of Magic. They couldn't win.
Twilight drew her ritual knife with telekinesis and traced a seven-pointed star on her left flank. This was hard to do while running, but she was highly trained and managed it easily. The seven cuts began to drip blood, which she collected as the basis for her next spell.
It was a classic, and very reliable. Best of all, she was confident she could take out at least one Dog with it. Maybe two.
"Hey filly! Gonna rip you to shreds!" roared Growler.
Twilight couldn't help herself. Her old confidence, from two years ago, was coming back. "Bring it, mutt!"
Her horn glowed as she began to funnel magic through it. The blood she'd spilled rose up and coalesced around it, then flashed and vanished. Her horn's brightness only intensified, glowing with a bright, shining light.
And then a fireball appeared in front of Twilight and hurled itself at the Dogs.
Growler, marginally more attentive, jumped back and let his partner take the full blast. The other dog screamed as the fireball hit him and roasted him. His body moved for another couple of steps, but he was dead the moment the fire touched him. His corpse, now mostly bones, collapsed.
Twilight didn't even feel winded. She immediately switched focus to Growler, knowing that if she thought too hard about what she'd just done she might feel ill again. She had to keep her mind in the game, had to keep her focus. She just kept running at Growler, trying to get around him so she could fire off another blast.
Growler pulled out his weapon -- a broadsword, like Stone's, but this one seemed to glow with magical energy.
He swiped it at her. Twilight grinned. She wasn't in range, so he was really stupid to swing it. Unless--
She figured it out a half-second before he released the sword, but it was enough. She leapt as high as she could, clearing it and hearing it sweep under her. "Throwing your sword? Out of ideas already?" she taunted. She knew it was wrong to be joking in these circumstances, but she didn't care -- she was in the moment, in the zone, on the heels of a successful plan and about to implement another.
Growler grinned. He clenched his fist and pulled it back, like he was tugging a particularly stubborn handle.
Twilight flung herself to one side as the sword flew backwards and into Growler's hand. She winced as she banged her legs on some rocks, but otherwise felt okay. "Hey, pro tip," she said as she got to her feet. "If you're going to do magic? Skip the really obvious telegraphing gestures." She grinned. "Cause otherwise, your opponent can see everything you're doing."
Growler roared something and ran at her.
"Like so," continued Twilight. She didn't really want to lecture -- she'd rather just finish the fight -- but the stronger and more arrogant she looked now, the more intimidated her future opponents would be. It was all part of the game. "Watch and learn."
As Growler ran at her, she skipped to one side. Her horn glowed a strange reddish color as made another incision on her flank with the knife. Spell seventy-two, from 'Advanced Spells for Combat,' was complicated, but it was perfectly suited for this situation...
Behind her, the earth suddenly rumbled, and then Growler screamed as it collapsed under him. And then it rumbled again, as it filled back together, crushing its new occupant.
Twilight heard his last scream, surprisingly pained and horrible, and almost snapped then and there, ready to burst into tears and collapse. But she didn't. She had to hold it together. She was a soldier for Equestria and would not be broken.
She looked up at the sky as the flash of light came to take her away.
Twilight reappeared and realized that they were already down to the final eight.
She looked around. Goliath was back, looking none the worse-for-wear. Stomp and Slam, of course. Stomp had bloody feet, and Twilight tried not to think too hard about how that had happened. Violet was there too, although she looked scared, almost traumatized. Maybe she didn't do this kind of thing on a regular basis.
Princess Celestia dismissed them, but held Twilight back for a moment. "Good work, Twilight," she said. "You make me proud, and your service to Equestria will not go unrewarded."
Twilight bowed. "Thank you, your majesty."
Celestia grinned. "Please, no need to be so formal. Now go have fun, Twilight. You are still a young pony, despite your vast abilities. You should have fun before the next round."
Twilight thought to herself as she left the ballroom. Was she getting used to this again too easily? She was already feeling less discomfort at the thought of killing the other ponies. But then again, who was she to feel nausea at following Celestia's order? Surely it was her own weakness that made her pity or feel for the others, nothing else. It was good that she was overcoming it.
Applejack had told her the name of their hotel the previous night, so Twilight hurried over to it. She shook her head upon seeing it -- it was kind of run-down. Maybe she could talk to Celestia about getting them moved somewhere nicer.
She strolled in and walked up a flight of stairs to find the room, but paused before entering. It sounded like there was some kind of argument going on inside.
Well, maybe she could solve it. Wasn't she the expert on studying friendship? So she knocked sharply with a hoof.
There was a long pause, and then the door swung open. Rainbow Dash stared at her. Twilight smiled brightly.
She walked in.
"What's up? I'm all done with meetings and ready to have fun!"
Twilight frowned. Applejack looked kind of... green. Like she'd just been sick.
"What's wrong? We saw."
"You saw... what?"
"Don't bother. We saw. We saw you. They've got these... these screens to show all the fights. We saw yours."
Twilight paled. Applejack was staring at her with hard, accusing eyes. "But, but that's not possible. They don't let anypony in--"
"Luna gave us her seats," said Rainbow Dash. Her voice was softer, not as harsh, but almost... disappointed?
"...why?" said Twilight, who was thinking that perhaps she could run this whole conversation off on a tangent before it got nasty. "She should be watching Violet--"
"Maybe she doesn't want to see her favorite student get killed," said Rainbow Dash.
"Then she shouldn't have--"
"Who cares?" snapped Applejack. "We saw you barbecue that Dog and crush the other one! What in Hay are you doing? They're dead, aren't they? They're really dead! You killed them!"
"Hey! That's not fair!" Twilight frowned. "Look, AJ, I'm sorry, but there's stuff going on here you don't understand!" She knew, intellectually, that it made sense for her friends to be suspicious, but it still hurt. How often had she trusted them? Helped them with their self-imposed problems? And now Applejack was practically accusing her of being a psychotic murderer!
"Then help us," said Rainbow Dash. "Help us get it."
Twilight looked from one of the other. "Where's Pinkie?" she asked, in a low voice.
"She was in town today. She didn't see what ya did," said Applejack.
Twilight let out a breath she hadn't known she'd been holding. "Okay. Look, I'm sorry I didn't tell you girls earlier. I didn't even know."
"Realla? Cause those moves ya used, ah don't think ya just picked 'em up in the last two--"
"Let her finish," snapped Rainbow Dash. "Applejack. We're her friends. We owe it to her to let her provide an explanation."
Applejack frowned, but stopped talking.
"Thanks, Dash." Twilight sighed and began to talk.
Twilight explained the basic idea behind the matches, how they would prevent war by sacrificing only a few ponies and other creatures instead of vast numbers.
"That's insane," was Applejack's first reaction. "Ya'r tellin' ma that either we hafta have war or psychotic death matches? There ain't no other way? Ah ain't buyin' it."
"That's what Princess Celestia says. I trust her, and you should too." Twilight frowned. "She's our ruler, Applejack."
Rainbow Dash raised a hoof. "What about the first part? You really didn't know you could do this until you got here?"
Twilight nodded and explained about her memory. "...I was just as surprised as you girls to learn that my whole past wasn't what I thought it was. I'm still working it out myself. I would have told you once we got back to Ponyville, honest."
"Ya'r mighta at ease given all ya just said," said Applejack. "Mayba ah'm just weird, but if ah learned ah'd been brainwashed? Ah'd be kind of upset."
"I trust the princess. If she felt--"
"She's havin' ya kill ponies an' others, dang it! That ain't right!"
Twilight scowled. "Hey. I haven't done anything to you to deserve that tone, and neither has the princess. If you're just going to insult me while I protect us all from war, I'm leaving." Her eyes flashed. "You do know what war is, right? How would you like it if Ponyville got invaded? How'd your orchards do with gryphons tearing up the land?" Applejack looked away. "How long do you think Apple Bloom would last--"
Twilight paused. Applejack seemed near tears.
"That... that was a low blow, Twi," whispered Applejack. "Ya don't bring ma sister inta this."
"I have to. I'm fighting for her, and all the others in our country who would suffer in the event of war. I don't like it anymore than you do, but somepony has to do it."
Rainbow Dash's voice was hesitant. "Twilight, I want to believe you, really. But... you should have seen yourself. You looked so happy when that fireball hit..."
Twilight blinked. Was that Dash's big concern, then? "That's just for show, Rainbow. Intimidates my future opponents when their coaches and bosses tell them what I was like. That's it. Honestly, I was feeling sick when I did that. But it's gotta get done."
She faced Rainbow Dash squarely. "Please believe me. I'm not doing this for fun, and I wouldn't if there was any other choice."
Rainbow Dash stared at her for a moment, and then nodded. "Alright, Twilight. I trust you."
Twilight smiled. "Awesome."
Applejack looked away. "Ya, well, ah ain't fooled. Tell ma this, Twi. Ya say ya don't have any other choices, right? What if everypony refused ta fight?"
"Then I guess they'd have to call the match, but that's not going to happen. And if only I refused, I'd get killed--"
"Fine. While ya'r doin' ya'r thing, we're gonna convince the others not ta fight." Applejack leapt to her feet. "C'mon, Dash. Let's go."
Dash paused, then smiled. "Great idea! Yeah, we'll take care of this, Twilight!"
"Girls, wait! It's not that--"
"What, ya don't want us doin' it?"
Twilight flushed at Applejack's suspicion. "Not what I said. I'm just worried. The other champions are very strong and can be angry--"
"We'll be fine." Applejack scowled at Twilight. "Have fun in ya'r bloodsports if we don't get back." She left. Rainbow Dash smiled apologetically, then fled after her.
Twilight waited a moment, then kicked the wall. How dare Applejack? After all Twilight had done, for ponies like her, Applejack just abandoned all faith in her! And Rainbow Dash... she hadn't gone that far, but she hadn't objected to Applejack's offensive comments. Ridiculous.
Twilight scowled. She left a quick note on Dash's bed, asking her to just tell Pinkie that she was in meetings or something -- she saw no reason to worry the silliest pony in Ponyville -- and then teleported back. She found a group of guards, larger than before, who were very excited to meet somepony who had so effortlessly obliterated the two massive Dogs. They begged her for strategies and training tips, they insisted she promise to spar with them later, and they almost bowed with appreciation when she gave them her hoofprint or signature. And she smiled as they gave her good food and better drink and dealt her into their poker hand, because now she was among those who understood her.
Twilight almost overslept on the third day. When she finally got up, she realized that she had about two minutes to go before she would embarrass Celestia in front of anyone. Without even washing up, she tore out of her room with a speed rivaling Rainbow Dash's.
" Make way, make way!" she cried.
A few of the passerby laughed as Twilight tore along the corridors and down the stairs to reach the ballroom. Twilight blushed. She'd spent too long playing poker and had neglected her duty. By the time she'd started studying for the remaining battles, the moon was already high in the sky. She'd gotten through her notes and thought she had solid strategies, but it had been a close thing. She made a mental note to party less, provided of course she survived the day's fight.
When she skidded into the ballroom, she was relieved to note that no one was looking at her. Most of the champions were staring off into space with sullen and withdrawn expressions, except for Stomp, who was grinning like an idiot, and Goliath, who was writing something on a scroll.
Twilight frowned, looking at how Goliath was carefully balancing the quill in her claws. "Sending mail home?"
Goliath chuckled. "Hardly. This is for my autobiography. Just recording my impressions of the competition. You know, so I'll be sure to have good notes when I write the whole thing."
"Good idea," said Twilight. "Posthumous works are doing really well these days."
Goliath grinned. There was a lot of tooth in it. "Careful, Twilight. If you annoy me, I might write bad things about you."
"Oh, the horror."
"Alright, that does it. Ahem. My third opponent was one Twilight Sword, a scrappy little pony who, though still wetting her bed..."
Twilight knew she might be asked to kill Goliath momentarily, but she couldn't deny that she felt more kinship with the acerbic gryphon than with her 'friends' from back home. "But Goliath, what if I win? Maybe I'll write a book about a gryphon who couldn't fly straight and whose feathers smelled like... like... like Stomp over there."
"I'll write that your favorite spell is 'turn invisible and hide!'"
"Well, I'll write that you're a chicken in disguise!"
"Would you two SHUT UP?"
Both turned to see Violet. She looked like she hadn't slept in the past two nights.
"Nervous?" teased Goliath.
"Wrong line of work, then," said Twilight.
"I'm glad you two are having fun," sniffed Violet. "This is serious!"
"Yeah," said Twilight. "It is. The fate of Equestria hangs in the balance. That doesn't mean we have to mope around." A part of her told her she was being cruel, but she pushed that thought away. She had to destabilize the competition. What if she fought Violet next? "At least, those of us who think we'll win don't have to."
"Exactly!" said Goliath.
Princess Celestia chose that moment to enter the room, and the competition commenced without delay.
Twilight found herself on a rocky mountain crag.
Between the pouring rain and the dim lighting, Twilight found it difficult to see twenty feet in front of her, let alone the rest of the mountain . Lightning crashed somewhere nearby, and a burst of thunder pealed out over the clouds. Twilight noted ruefully that Rainbow Dash could have been a useful teammate here, thanks to her ability to move rainclouds. But, then again, it wasn't like she knew how to really fight. She'd probably get killed by the enemy in five minutes.
And then she heard flapping nearby. She turned and could just make out Goliath's form. "This is AWESOME!" Goliath was roaring. "Perfect terrain! Whoever you are, I'm taking you down!"
She looked in Twilight's direction and smiled. "Bad luck, eh, Twilight Sword?"
Twilight stared. She was facing a gryphon on what was effectively her home turf. "Before we begin," she said, "I'd just like to make a note that I think this match condition is horribly unfair, and I will write a detailed letter of complaint upon returning to the castle."
Goliath chuckled. "Hey, if this was in some bright grassy field, I wouldn't complain."
"Fair enough." Twilight shook her head to get the rain out of her eyes, then smiled grimly. "So let's not complain then. Bring it, Goliath!"
Goliath screeched and charged at Twilight, who leapt to another rock and swiveled around. She was debating which spell to use. Casting anything would be tough in these conditions, but most thrown weapons or missiles would just get blown off course, so it was the safer bet.
She settled for a simple wind spell. If she could knock Goliath off balance, she might be able to knock her into the mountain and stun her--
Goliath charged at Twilight again. Twilight leapt to a third outcropping, but slipped, almost fell off, and had to hang on by her forelegs. Goliath wheeled around and swept at her again.
Twilight hastily glanced down, saw that she might be able to make the drop if she swung as far as she could, and then went for it. She let go, drawing and striking at the passing Goliath with her ritual knife as she did so.
She scored a minor hit, doing little more than cutting against Goliath's side, and then she was falling. She hit the next crag with a 'whump' and just barely managed to stay on it. Her leg twinged in pain, but she pushed it away. "First blood!" she yelled, as she climbed to her hooves.
Goliath grinned. "Yeah, this fight is totally going your way. Not."
Twilight began to focus as Goliath swept at her again. She cast, and a gust of wind moved to slam at Goliath... but then turned when Goliath gestured at it and then pointed at Twilight.
So Goliath knew wind magic too. That was a problem.
Twilight hastily redirected the gust again, managing to prevent it from hitting her and instead slamming into the mountain wall. She heard a distant rumble as the torrent of wind knocked a few rocks loose.
"Avalanche?" she heard Goliath say in a mocking tone. "Really, that's it?"
The rocks fell. Goliath lazily swept her wings and summoned a gust of wind to blow them in Twilight's direction. Twilight hastily erected a magic barrier to deflect the rocks, and most did bounce off, but a few broke through.
Twilight cursed as one of the rocks grazed her, scraping along her side and lacerating it. Another almost hit her in the head, forcing her to dodge backwards -- almost off the crag. She couldn't help but scream. She'd been within inches of plummeting to a very messy death.
Goliath smirked. "Still so confident?"
"This is just the warm-up!" managed Twilight. "I know enough magic to rip you apart bone by bone!"
"Well? Bring it," said Goliath. "Unless your mouth's promising bits your horn can't provide--"
And then they both heard a distant yell.
"Hey girls! Kinda rainy, isn't it? But I brought you pastries for your meeting! Want some? They're a Pinkie Pie special!"
Twilight stared. She didn't now how Pinkie had snuck into the arena, but it was unmistakably her. She would recognize that bright pink coat and infectious, giggly laughter anywhere.
And now she had gotten involved in a deathmatch competition.
"I hope you do!" Pinkie was yelling. "Cause it was real hard finding the door! I had to follow the guards and be all sneaky! But I got here with your pastries, so you should..."
"What are you doing here?" cried Twilight, still too stunned to move.
"The gryphon told me that you girls got really hungry during the meetings, so I should sneak in through a door to bring you snacks!" Pinkie grinned. "And I did! Weird door, though, I didn't know that the castle had a mountain in a room..."
Twilight managed to collect herself, then took off at a dead run for Pinkie's position. "Pinkie, hide! Get into a cave or something!"
"What?" yelled Pinkie. "I can't hear you! You'll have to come closer and eat pastries before you say anything else!!"
"Pinkie, NOW!" roared Twilight. "RUN!"
Then Goliath casually sideswiped her, sending her careening into the wall and bashing her head. The gryphon's talons just missed taking off her left ear. Cursing, Twilight tried to get to her feet, but she could already see that reaching Pinkie in time was no longer possible.
Pinkie didn't notice Goliath until far too late. "Hi! I'm here, with your blueberry muffin!" she began. And then Goliath seized her in her talons and hefted her up and away from the mountain, over the abyss. Pinkie shrieked, but was of course helpless against Goliath.
"No! Stop! She's not part of this!" Twilight knew, distantly, that this would make her look weak for subsequent matches, but those thoughts seemed unimportant.
Goliath shrugged. "Sure, I'll release her. Right here."
Twilight froze. She could see the next moves as easily as if they'd been written in a book. Goliath would drop Pinkie. Twilight would use a spell to catch her and save her. Goliath would attack her while she was distracted and likely kill her. A single talon across her throat could do it. And then she'd be dead and Equestria would have to give the gryphons whatever they wanted to prevent war...
She thought frantically. There had to be a way out. Well, besides letting Pinkie Pie just fall to her death. Which, frankly, was an option, though not one she wanted to use.
'But if it's my survival and Equestria at stake... how can I sacrifice that for one pony?' she thought. She didn't want to think it, but she knew she had to. If it came down to Pinkie or the country, she had to go with the country...
But she couldn't think of that. She had to come up with another option.
As Goliath began to open her claws, one idea came to Twilight. It was dirty and slapped-together, and stood a notable chance of failure, but it was the only way she could think of to save Pinkie and win the fight.
Goliath dropped Pinkie.
"HELP!" cried the pink horse.
Twilight didn't help. Her horn glowed, but nothing happened to slow Pinkie's fall.
Goliath whistled. "Cold, huh? Heard you liked that one."
Twilight was straining to cast the spell she needed to. She could feel that she was almost there. Meanwhile, Pinkie kept falling, she'd hit the ground in several seconds...
Then a massive blast of wind slammed into the top of the mountain from the other side, and the boulders that Twilight had been hoping for came tumbling down.
Goliath squawked and dove to one side to dodge them. Twilight dove under a thick crag, at the same time reaching down with her telekinesis and hoping she was still in time to save Pinkie. Now, while Goliath was distracted, she might just have the chance to pull it off.
Yes! She was still there, and in range, though very near the ground now. She grabbed on to Pinkie's leg and yanked as hard as she could, trying to stop the pony's descent. Pinkie began to slow--
Goliath seized one of the rocks with her wind magic and hurled it at Twilight.
Distracted by the effort of holding Pinkie, Twilight was unable to dodge in time. The boulder hit her as she reared backwards, slamming her against the wall. She cried out as she felt a cracking sensation in her chest. It sounded like she'd broken some ribs.
But she maintained her grip on Pinkie, and slowed her until the pony was no longer descending. Then she moved Pinkie up against the mountain until the pink pony was on something approximating solid ground.
Goliath was laughing from somewhere nearby. "Did I win?"
"Go... die..." hissed Twilight, crawling out from behind the boulder. Breathing hurt now, as did talking. She wondered how bad she was messed up, and opted not to look down and see. She didn't want to know the answer.
Goliath grinned. "Gotta admit, Twi, that was a pretty good strategy."
Twilight said nothing. She didn't know what to do next. She was at her physical limit, her magic had been basically useless so far, and Pinkie was still alive, meaning that Goliath could just seize her and drop her again. She was outmaneuvered, in bad terrain, and had nothing left to throw at the gryphon. All she had was her anger at Goliath for involving a noncombatant, especially one of Twilight's friends, in the competition.
That thought reminded her of her magic exam, when she'd been totally useless until she'd seen Rainbow Dash's rainbow. Feeling that surge of emotion and energy had enabled her to cast powerful magic, despite feeling completely helpless moments before. She didn't have a rainbow here, but she had emotion. She had her pain, and her hate. Maybe she could try using those.
"I'm supposed to be protecting her," she said, more to herself than to Goliath. "How dare you attack her?"
"All's fair, girl. Speaking of, guess I'll go see if she managed to survive that--"
Twilight's eyes flashed purple as she concentrated on her hate. She no longer cared for Goliath's wit or charm. She just replayed the earlier scene in her mind -- Goliath dropping Pinkie. No, Goliath casting her down, to be bashed upon the rocks.
Twilight's horn glowed, a light bright enough to illuminate the rainy mountains. "How dare you attack her!" Rocks near her began to float, of their own accord.
Goliath looked a little nervous. "I--"
"I'm here, fighting, to protect my friends and the other ponies in Equestria. You don't," and now Twilight's voice was booming through the mountains, "Get to target them!"
She felt the magic leave her in a rush and blast into Goliath, and then she slumped down, completely drained.
'Hope that did it...' she thought. Otherwise, she was about to learn firsthand if ponies went to any sort of afterlife.
And then she heard Goliath landing besides her. "Crap," she breathed. "What did you do?"
Twilight had no idea. But she retained just enough strength to roll over and look.
Goliath was standing there, and looked okay, but oddly... brittle. The pouring rain seemed to be cracking Goliath in a few places. As she watched, one of her feathers floated off and hit the ground, where it shattered.
"Oh," said Goliath. "Oh, oh no..."
Twilight grinned. "Go ahead, Goliath. Try to get me, or her, now. Try to do anything. Or just stand there for the rest of your life. I don't care."
"Take it off." For the first time, Twilight heard terror in Goliath's voice. "I concede. I give up. Remove the spell!"
"No idea how," said Twilight. "Sorry."
Goliath stared, then looked up at the sky. "I said I give up! You can end it now!"
Nothing happened. A heavy drop of rain struck Goliath's beak and cracked a piece off.
"Death match, Goliath," said Twilight. "You know that. We aren't dead, so it's not over." She managed to get to one hoof, then two. "But I bet I can fix that."
Goliath moved a talon back to step away, but as she pressed it on the ground, she slipped slightly and banged it against a rock. It cracked through, then shattered.
Goliath screamed and thrust her wings against the air, but overbalanced anyway and fell heavily. Cracks began spreading through her entire body.
Twilight managed to get to her feet. "No one hurts my friends," she said.
Goliath burst into innumerable pieces, which shattered as they fell. Soon, she was only dust.
Twilight thought she heard Pinkie scream from somewhere, but that was impossible. She was too far away. Besides, Pinkie couldn't be afraid now. Hadn't Twilight just destroyed her enemy? Hadn't she expended all her energy, power, and magic to accomplish this? Hadn't she depleted --
The purple unicorn suddenly noticed how heavy her head felt.
Twilight collapsed as she was teleported away.
Twilight's first conscious thoughts were that the afterlife looked a lot like the Canterlot castle infirmary.
"She's awake!" somepony yelled. And then, suddenly, everyone was crowding around her and asking for her hoofprint.
"That was so amazing!" said one of the doctors. "Truly incredible! To win with that kind of disadvantage!"
Twilight smiled weakly. "What, just because the terrain was favorable to her, the weather was favorable to her, the lighting was favorable to her, and I had to protect both myself and some other pony with no survival abilities at all, you thought I'd have trouble?"
There was laughter.
"Equestria's champion!" cried one of the doctors, and the others echoed it.
They gave her medicine to heal her ribs before the next day's match, and a few nurses wouldn't leave until she'd promised them that she'd come to their gala fundraiser next month and speak on their behalf. "I don't know what good it'll do you," Twilight warned them. "I mean, I'm not a celebrity. Besides you guys, the palace guards, and the nobles and diplomats, no one even knows this thing is happening."
"Some of those nobles will be there," said the nurse. "It'd mean a lot to us."
Then the nurses left too, and Twilight sighed as she lay back. She already felt a little better, but she was still irritated with her friends. Well, she'd at least kept Pinkie alive. That was something. In fact, maybe that would convince them. She'd saved Pinkie's life. They had to see the value in that.
She smiled as she drifted off. They'd be sure to support her now.
"Ah knew you'd gone mad. What the Hay did you do ta that gryphon?"
Twilight blinked at Applejack's fury. "...what? AJ, I just wanted to check on Pinkie--"
"She's half traumatized, thanks ta ya! Ya shattered some gryphon fer her!"
It was later that evening. Twilight had just gotten out of the hospital and had trotted over to see her friends, detouring only to the palace kitchens to obtain a few desserts for the undoubtably hungry Pinkie. She had been merry on the way over, expecting well-wishes and cheer from a now-grateful Applejack and company. Instead, Applejack looked like she was considering bucking her halfway back to Ponyville.
"Some gryphon trying to kill her!" Twilight scowled. "Applejack, this is stupid. Pinkie screwed up by breaking into the arena. I saved her life. You know, normal ponies might consider gratitude to be the appropriate reaction here."
"Not when the only reason she was there was cause ya'r doin' these matches an' ya' shanghaied Dash inta lyin' ta her 'bout them!"
Twilight, getting frustrated with the conversation, telekinetically shoved Applejack aside and began to walk into the hotel room. "Hey Pinkie! Coming to check on you!" she said cheerily. "I brought pie!" She'd grabbed
"No! She don't want visitors!" yelled Applejack.
Twilight didn't believe her at all. "Pinkie? She's probably planning a thank-you-for-saving-me party, AJ." She walked inside.
Pinkie was sitting on her bed, but she had all the blankets in the room piled high on top of her. She was shaking. Twilight wondered if she'd caught a cold in the rainy arena.
"Pinkie!" she said, walking around.
Pinkie squeaked and dug herself even deeper under the blankets. "H-hi, Twilight!"
"Uh, hi. Why are you under the blankets? Are you sick?"
"No!" Pinkie's voice was even higher-pitched than normal, and she spoke with a bizarre and unnatural speed. "I'm fine! Just fine!"
"Then what's wrong?"
"Ya scare her," drawled Applejack.
"I did not--"
But Pinkie was nodding. "You're not going to break me, right?"
"Not going -- Pinkie, of course not!"
"You broke a pony! You killed her!" whimpered Pinkie Pie. "That's horrible!"
"I was saving you!" said Twilight, exasperated.
"I don't want anypony to die for me!" Pinkie shifted a little, knocking one of the blankets a little out of alignment. "I don't like the new Twilight Sword. I want Twilight Sparkle back!"
Twilight lost it.
She levitated the blankets off of Pinkie. "Get up."
Pinkie got up. Twilight froze; Pinkie looked genuinely terrified of Twilight. For a moment, the unicorn hesitated and wondered if she was doing the right thing. But then she recalled breaking her ribs protecting Pinkie, and her hesitation was replaced by anger.
"See this scar?" Twilight gestured to the new scar on her chest. "I got that today. Saving your life from that gryphon, because when you blundered into the arena for no good reason, I knew you'd die unless I did something. So I saved your life, and I didn't even care that the gryphon almost killed me and did shatter half my ribs. And now you're going to tell me you're frightened?" Her eyes blazed. "After I almost die rescuing you from your own stupidity, you're FRIGHTENED of me?"
Pinkie was literally trembling. "I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry! Please don't hurt me!"
"I'm not going to hurt you! Pinkie, we've been friends for two years!"
Pinkie nodded rapidly. She said, in a tone indicating blind agreement to avoid punishment, "Yes, we have, I know, I know that..."
Twilight, for a moment, was almost tempted to violence, but she restrained herself. "I don't believe this. After all I did for you."
She turned her back on Pinkie. "Maybe I'll just stay in Canterlot once this is over. They appreciate me here."
"Maybe that'd be best fer Twilight Sword," agreed Applejack. Twilight saw that she'd gotten out her lasso, presumably in case Twilight really had attacked Pinkie. That annoyed Twilight even more -- both that Applejack thought she'd hurt her friend, and that she thought that she, Applejack, could overpower Twilight.
"By the way, I take it Rainbow Dash's scheme to get everyone to lay down their weapons didn't work," she said.
Applejack shrugged. "She's makin' progress. Now, you got anythin' else ya wanna say? Cause if not, we got a nice evenin' planned. It don't include ya."
"Fine. See if I save your lives next time," snapped Twilight. She stalked out in a huff.
Twilight let out a sigh of relaxation when the guards, upon seeing her enter the barracks, gave her a welcoming cheer and invited her to make herself comfortable.
A few moments later, she was eating a delicious salad and telling, between bites, tales of the previous competition, and also what life was like in Ponyville.
"Yeah, it's a little dull there," she admitted. "But there's interesting events now and then. One time we even had to fight Luna in her Nightmare-Moon form."
"Wow, you took on Princess Luna?" asked one guard.
"Yeah. Me and a few others. Some of them are visiting here now, actually, although they're not... well, you know. They don't really get it."
"Giving you grief about the matches?" asked Turquoise Lightning. She passed Twilight a basket of fresh, hot buttered rolls. Twilight groaned with delight as she bit into one of the rolls; they were fantastic.
"Yeah. I mean, not all of them, Rainbow Dash understands, I think. But the other two..."
One guard frowned. "I hate it when that happens. You're here, risking your life for them. They should be grateful."
Another said, "I bet they'd be horrified if war actually came. Like they could fight against armies, right? They'd probably run right back to you and beg for help."
"Don't I know it. I always have to solve their problems, because I'm the only one in town who knows anything about magic."
"And they take advantage of that?" Spears looked offended. "That's -- that's horrible! They should, like, give you the key to the city or something!"
Twilight laughed. "I wish. But... I mean, I don't mind, you know? Part of the reason I took this route was to protect ponies like them. So they could grow up without worrying about combat. I just wish they appreciated it more."
After the guards assured her that they did appreciate her, and refilled her glass of dandelion wine, Turqoise Lightning said, "I still can't believe that you actually fought Luna herself! And you really won?"
"I'm still here, aren't I?" joked Twilight.
Spears asked, "What advice would you give to us? If we want to be as strong as you?"
"Study hard. Obviously, don't neglect physical exercise, but read a lot. Fighting is a lot like a strategy problem or a puzzle. If you can figure out a good strategy, you can win a lot of fights before you even get on the field." She smiled, warming to the. "Like, take that fight I had with Growler and the other dog. Somepony who didn't know us, who'd only seen our pictures, would probably have given them the advantage, right? There were two of them and they both had a lot more muscle than me, not to mention armor and big weapons. But their attack strategy was just a simple charge. I thought it out and realized that, with all that muscle, they'd have a lot of inertia and couldn't dodge. So I used a fireball, and took out one of them in the first moments of the fight. Then it was just a simple matter of recalling another couple spells that I'd read and applying them at the appropriate time. Honestly, they never stood a chance."
"What books would you recommend?" the guard asked, and Twilight began discussing the pros and cons of various tomes.
"Hey, who're you?" called a guard, grabbing a nearby spear.
Everypony turned to see Rainbow Dash standing awkwardly in the door.
Twilight opened her mouth to tell her to get lost, but she caught herself. She was probably here to apologize. Besides, they were still friends. Dash hadn't been as ungrateful or dismissive as the others had been.
"Everyone, I'd like to introduce Rainbow Dash. She's from Ponyville as well. You might have heard of her when she made a sonic rainboom a few years back," said Twilight. "She's one of the best fliers we have, and I understand she'll be looking to join the Wonderbolts soon."
There were claps, and Twilight was pleased to see that Rainbow blushed a little bit.
"You should endorse her, Twilight," said one of the senior guards. "Ain't nopony that'll say no to Princess Celestia's personal champion."
"I haven't won yet," said Twilight, smiling as somepony refilled her plate. Rainbow was trotting over to stand by her. "Still got two more to go. Not that Stomp, Slam, Violet, or any of the others'll be all that tough, but... well, that's another lesson. Never get ahead of yourself. If you're planning out the battle in the future, don't neglect planning the one in the present."
Rainbow coughed. "Uh... hi."
Twilight began introducing the guards. Rainbow nodded politely and seemed to be making an effort to learn the names.
"Nice to meet you all. Uh, I was hoping to talk to Twilight, if that's okay?"
Twilight took the signal. "Sure. You girls can excuse me for a moment, right?"
The two Ponyville ponies went into a side room with thick, soundproof walls. "What's up?" asked Twilight, leaning against one of them.
"Look. I wanted to tell you... we're worried about you, Twilight." Twilight opened her mouth, and Rainbow hastened to add. "Please, just let me talk, okay?"
Twilight paused, then nodded.
"You're not the same you were a few days ago! The Twilight we know back in Ponyville wasn't afraid to... to get in a fight, if she needed to, or even to hurt somepony. Like when we fought Nightmare Moon and Discord. But it's like you're different now. We're scared that you're enjoying this."
Rainbow looked away. "And we want to help you. If Celestia is making you do these horrible things, then we want to help you find a way out. To convince her that this is crazy, or to get everyone to agree not to fight, or something. But you don't seem to want to do anything like that."
Twilight couldn't help but smile. So it wasn't that she was mad at Twilight for doing her job... she was just concerned. It was sweet. Maybe a little naïve, but sweet.
"Dash... I'm touched." She cautiously approached Dash, and then hugged her. "Really. I appreciate your concern. I know it must look... weird, seeing me like this after having known me for two years."
Twilight considered her words carefully. "I'm sorry if I look overeager, or anything like that. I assure you, I'm not some kind of psychopath. This isn't like when you ate those weird mushrooms in Zecora's garden and thought that Pinkie Pie was going to kill you and bake you into cupcakes." Dash couldn't help but chuckle at the memory of that bizarre hallucination. "But I know that it's necessary. Because if I don't, they'll have some other pony do it. And she might not be as skilled or smart as me, and she might get killed. Or... if they cancel it altogether, then maybe there'll be war. And a whole lot of ponies will die. I don't want that to happen, Dash."
"I know, I understand that, but... if you'd seen yourself, Twilight, you'd understand. You looked so excited to be killing those dogs, or so angry at Goliath..."
"Goliath attacked Pinkie," said Twilight. "Besides, it's a psychological thing. Like I said yesterday."
Dash nodded, but looked pensive.
"I really want you girls to still be my friends," said Twilight. "But if you make me choose between you and serving the country..."
"Like I said earlier. We're still your friends. We won't abandon you." Rainbow smiled a little. "And you just said you only do it 'cause it's necessary, right?"
"And if we found another way, you'd do that instead, right? Like you said?"
"Of course, Dashie. But there isn't one. Princess Celestia assured me that she tried every other option before resorting to this. The others won't back down or refuse to fight--"
"What if all the champions refused to fight?"
"But that won't happen."
"We'll try," said Rainbow, now smiling. "We'll get this thing stopped." She gently took Twilight's hoof. "For all of us. And then you won't have to do this anymore." His smile turned into a grin. "It'll be like we're protecting you, then!"
It was naïve to the point of silliness. It was impossible. But it came from a good thought, and so Twilight smiled a little in response. She hugged Rainbow Dash again, and said, "Thanks, Rainbow. For believing in me. You're a good friend."
"No prob, Twilight. We'll let you know how many of them we convince not to fight."
Rainbow left soon after that, and Twilight shook her head, smiling. Dash, despite his naivety, was standing by her. Maybe Dash could even work on the other two. Help them understand her.
She returned to the guards to finish dinner, and then went to study until she fell asleep.
The next day's opening session had a subdued, shrunken feel to it. After all, Twilight thought, there were only five champions left -- herself, Violet, Stomp, Slam, and a violent-looking manticore that she didn't know.
Most of the diplomats and nobles looked very unhappy. Their champions had lost; the best of their land's soldiers and wizards proven inferior to the remaining competitors. Any diplomatic move they made now would be colored by that, a subtle note that they couldn't resort to force without being completely crushed. But Baron Trample seemed quite satisfied, as did Celestia and the manticore diplomat. Luna was presumably happy with the way things were going too, although Twilight couldn't see her.
Princess Celestia's speech was only a few sentences long. "We once again thank you all for your service. We will remember your sacrifices for the cause of peace. Without further ado, it is time to begin."
But before they could move, Baron Trample coughed. "My princess, we request the use of a packpony for today's match."
Twilight thought back to the rules. A packpony was a pony that could not attack opponents in any way, but could carry weapons or other items. They were generally used by smaller champions for the purpose of hauling large weapons, or by 'kitchen sink' competitors who would take every piece of equipment in existence just in case they needed it.
But Stomp and Slam were already huge. The maces they carried probably weighed more than Twilight. What in the world was there that they couldn't carry?
Fortunately, another competitor's noble or diplomat could veto the suggestion, and while the manticore probably wouldn't, and Luna was absent, she hoped that Celestia would. She turned to the princess expectantly.
But Princess Celestia said, "Accepted. We will use one as well. Guards, please find Saberhoof and inform him that he will be allowed to assist Twilight Sword in her match against Stomp and Slam today."
Twilight's surprise -- at the acceptance of the pony, and at learning that she'd be fighting two enemies again -- must have been evident on her face, because Celestia caught her eye and smiled slightly. "It will take us a few minutes to get Saberhoof outfitted. As per Chapter 6 of the tournament rules, I declare a fifteen minute delay."
The baron shrugged, looking almost surprised that Celestia had actually accepted his proposal. He, Stomp, Slam, and another huge pony retreated to a corner of the room and began to whisper.
Twilight drifted near Celestia, whose gaze was sufficient to make her courtiers and guards stand back. "I don't understand!" whispered Twilight. "Two at once, again? And why the packpony?"
"Twilight, my most faithful student," said Celestia, kneeling down so she was looking directly at Twilight, "I assure you, if I could make it otherwise, I would. But the baron's army is restless, and he wishes to rebel and take the entire southern province with him. The only way to deter him is to show him that his best cannot stand against ours, even if they hold a numerical advantage."
Twilight nodded. "And... the packpony?"
"Oh, I thought that would help you."
"How? I use magic. I don't need a pack of weapons. Stomp and Slam are probably just using theirs for a cannon or something, and I can dodge that."
"Ah, but a packpony is good for much more than just carrying weapons. Especially one such as Saberhoof."
The name had sounded familiar. A memory popped into her head. "Wait... I thought I heard she was arrested for selling state secrets to the UPPR?" It was odd, she thought, that she hadn't remembered his name before now, but then again, perhaps she had just been distracted from the stress of the tournament. It didn't matter. If her recollection disagreed with Celestia's, it was her duty to support the princess over herself.
"Yes." Celestia's gaze grew weary. "I argued so strongly for clemency, but when the full nature of her crimes became known... she was even acting as an agent to convince my nobles to turn against me... there was nothing even I could do. She was convicted and sentenced to die."
"Then... aren't we giving her another chance to betray us? What if she runs off to help the baron?" asked Twilight.
Celestia said, "I think that is unlikely. She has repented, and told me that she would do anything to help me in whatever way she could. Even dying to secure me, or my champion, an advantage." She locked eyes with Twilight. "Do you still know spell 96 of '100 Lethal Combat Spells?'"
Twilight understood, and gulped. She'd never cast something like that before. She wasn't sure she fully wanted to. "I do, I... but... I mean, she's a subject of your country..."
"She would be executed next week in any event. She begged me for this chance to redeem herself, to be a hero for Equestria instead of its greatest villain."
Twilight hesitated. "I... I obey, of course, princess. But my, my friends might be here and they wouldn't understand..."
"Oh, is that all?" Celestia smiled brightly, and Twilight felt a strong sense of relief. "You need not fret. I will have them barred from the chamber today, and will instruct all not to speak of it. You need not fear their misunderstanding."
Twilight smiled. "Thank you, princess."
The fifteen minutes soon passed. The three ponies of the baron entered the center of the room, and Saberhoof -- a wiry and lean gray pony with a shock of yellow hair -- strode in to stand by Twilight. She was carrying saddlebags, presumably to help mask their true intentions from the barons. Saberhoof nodded brusquely to Twilight. "Let's do it."
Twilight nodded in return. She didn't know what to say for something like this.
Celestia announced, "Begin!" and Twilight saw the familiar flash of light.
The arena was the same as on the second day, except that the rubble was bigger and covered more ground. Twilight sighed. Stomp and Slam, being huge, would find it easier to get around or climb over the rubble than she. Why was every arena biased against her?
She looked at Saberhoof, who did indeed look eager to do her duty for Equestria. She smiled at that, thinking of how sweet and magical it was that even a traitor like her could find redemption. "Come on. We just need to go straight and charge them." She picked up her ritual knife from its sheath and held it with her telekinesis.
Saberhoof nodded, saluted, and took off.
The two of them raced across the terrain. The ground grew rougher as they did so, causing Twilight to focus on her hoofsteps so that she didn't trip and break a leg. That would be a really stupid way to die. For a while, all she could see was piles of ruined buildings and old boulders. But soon, as she neared the center of the arena, she swerved around a large pile of debris and saw the baron's ponies.
Stomp and Slam were running in gigantic strides, easily lopping across the ground. In front of them was their packpony, with some kind of thin rectangular material attached to her back. The material stretched high up, higher than Slam's head, and extended out on either side past them. It looked like a thin, transparent film, but Twilight could sense its magical properties from across the room.
"Anti-magic shield, huh?" Twilight said. It looked strong, strong enough to deflect cantrips liker her fireball spell from two days ago. "Not a bad plan, but those won't work against this."
She halted, grabbing Saberhoof, who skidded to a stop as well. Up ahead, Stomp spotted them and roared. The three enemy ponies began charging at them.
Twilight began to focus, summoning strands of magic and weaving them into a tight missile. All that remained was the sacrifice. She nodded at Saberhoof.
Saberhoof blinked and looked puzzled.
Well, maybe she'd forgotten in the heat of combat. It didn't matter. She would be redeemed, and Equestria would be protected.
She slit the traitor's throat with the knife, and even as the pony began to fall over, she grabbed on to the energy leaving his body and channeled that into her spell.
It was like one of Pinkie's rockets. The spell energy, a simple blast of force, was propelled instantly by the entire life energy of a healthy pony. It was less flashy than a fireball, less horrifying than the shattering spell she'd invoked for Goliath, but it would do the job. And it could smash any magical barrier she knew of that wasn't crafted by Princess Celestia herself.
The blast punched through the magic shield as easily as Spike burning parchment. It slammed into Stomp's helmet and head, passed through, and blasted out the other side. Twilight saw the blast continue on until it crashed into a large boulder and splintered it into shards.
Slam swiveled as the back of his partner's head blew off. "Aaah!"
Stomp went down in a heap. The packpony tripped, startled by the blast of force through the shield, and smashed into the ground. Twilight watched long enough to verify that the pony had broken a leg, then turned her attention to Slam. "You and me," she said. "Let's see what you've got!"
Slam looked enraged. "You'll pay for that. That was my brother!"
"I'll make sure you two are reunited real quick." Twilight was smiling fiercely. A perfect strategy, and perfect execution too. She'd done brilliantly. Now just to finish up, and further help Equestria.
Twilight summoned a fireball as Slam leapt at her. He didn't seem to have any more magical protection, so a simple blast was likely to destroy him. She hurled it at him, but, contrary to her expectations, he easily swept out one foreleg and batted it aside.
His leg didn't even look singed.
Cursing, Twilight rolled to one side and sprinted around him. Her smaller size did give her an advantage in dodging, though it caused her to have more difficulty getting around the rubble. She cast another spell, this one a mist of corrosion that would dissolve away his armor. But he smacked it too, with a sweep of his foreleg, and the mist dissipated.
"My armor," he hissed. "Cannot be overcome by a spell such as that."
Twilight realized what was going on. Stomp and Slam had anti-magic armor, which meant that the packpony's shield was just some kind of smokescreen to trick her -- similar to the useless bags on her own packpony. So even though the packpony was out, it didn't mean that Twilight's magic would be more effective, unless she used some spell as powerful as the one she'd used on Stomp. And she had no more sacrifices for that. Well, there was herself, but if she did that, she and Slam would die and Violet or the manticore would win the whole tournament by default. That was not the best option.
She rolled away from Slam as she tried to come up with a new strategy. He'd fooled her, she admitted, with the packpony shield, but she was still smarter. That counted for more than raw strength, and--
She tripped on a piece of rubble.
It was just an instant of wavering, but it made the difference. As she staggered backwards, Slam leapt forward, swept out his massive neck, and seized Twilight with his teeth.
He swept his head up, leaving Twilight to dangle. She saw the ground, and for the first time, she became afraid of losing. Of dying.
"No," she yelled. "No! No, this can't--"
Slam swept his head down and slammed Twilight into the ground Twilight tried bracing herself with a foreleg, only to scream in pain as it snapped.
Slam lifted and then smashed her down again. Twilight's shoulder took the brunt of it, and she felt something shatter. Her head felt numb.
'Think!' she yelled at herself. 'I can't take much more of this!'
The next time he pounded her into the ground, she was ready. She managed to string together a simple earthquake spell, despite the waves of pain threatening to knock her out, and when she hit the ground she cast it. Her face felt like somepony had hit it with a hammer (which would probably do less damage, she thought), but the ground shook just enough to cause Slam to open his mouth in a grunt of surprise. Twilight tugged her leg free and limped away.
Slam laughed. "Run, little filly! Run!"
Twilight couldn't go any faster than a slow trot. Her right front leg and shoulder were completely ruined and dragged uselessly under her. She could barely keep enough mental focus to move forward, much less cast anything with a chance of breaking through Slam's anti-magic armor. She had no ideas. Her perfect strategies seemed like so much wasted time, theoretical novelties with no useful application. She felt doomed, like a dead pony who hadn't yet gotten around to lying down.
She heard a groan, turned, and saw Slam's packpony struggling to her feet.
It was as if a lightbulb went off in her mind.
She staggered to the packpony, as if hoping putting that body between her and Slam would save her. Slam loped after her, clearly wanting to savor the moment. Of course. He undoubtedly wanted to demoralize his opponent in the next match, and so was going to make a long show of torturing Twilight to death.
'If you're planning out the battle in the future, don't neglect planning the one in the present', she thought. She'd told the guards that for good reason -- it was sound advice, and it seemed that Slam hadn't learned it. 'Sorry, Slam, but you're not nearly smart enough for this kind of thing.'
She collapsed almost on top of the packpony, then rolled so that it would be hard to get to her without hitting or at least moving the packpony. Slam hesitated, then smiled. "She won't protect you. I barely know her, anyway!"
Twilight said nothing. She felt exhausted and spent, which helped her a lot with her plan of looking wounded enough to lure Slam in for the kill. She would get only one chance, as she had limited remaining magic with which to fuel her final spell, and so had to minimize the chances of her missing. She had to let him get so close he could almost reach down and crush her with one hoof...
Slam closed the distance between them. He took a huge mace out of the holster on his back with one massive foreleg. "This," he said, grinning, "Is going to hurt you a lot more than it'll hurt me."
'That,' Twilight thought, 'I very much doubt.'
Slam took two more steps. One more and he'd be able to step on and crush both wounded ponies.
Twilight grabbed her knife and cleanly slit the other packpony's throat. She began focusing as hard as she could.
Slam realized what was going on. He roared and lunged, his mace racing forwards... but not in time. With a full life sacrificed to power it, the spell was simplicity itself, and Twilight Sword could fire it even in her weakened state.
The blast ripped into Slam, striking him squarely in the chest. He screamed as the force blasted through him.
Then he collapsed at Twilight's feet.
Twilight grinned weakly. She felt filled with exuberance, or maybe that was just the blood loss from her shattered foreleg. "I win. Hurray!"
She giggled. Winning was fun!
She passed out as Celestia teleported her away.
She found herself conscious in the castle. She saw Violet, sprinting away somewhere -- so she'd beaten the manticore and would be the final opponent -- and then guards were loading her, Twilight, onto a stretcher.
"Get her to the infirmary! NOW!" Celestia roared, and Twilight smiled. Her princess cared so much about her. What other soldier in the princess's army could expect such a heartfelt reaction if they fell in combat?
She heard more screaming. By turning her head slightly, she was able to see a familiar looking pony at one end of the room. Her mind cleared slightly, and she realized that it was Applejack. She frowned. Didn't the princess say that her Ponyville friends would be kept from watching this match?
But the guards were moving to protect her. They surrounded her and cut off Applejack; when the pony tried to get by them, yelling nonsense like, "Ya killed ya'r own partner! Just slaughtered her!", the guards grabbed her and hauled her away. Twilight smiled to see that Spears was one of them; in fact, Spears was the one who was directly dragging Applejack out of the room. She'd known that Spears was loyal and true, and this confirmed it. She could see herself becoming really good friends with Spears, and Turquoise Lightning too. And hadn't she been learning for two years now how important friendship was? (Or was that Twilight Sparkle? It was confusing, and her head hurt to think about it...)
"My favorite student, you must sleep," said Celestia from somewhere. And, with this permission granted, Twilight passed out again. She was smiling brightly, pleased at having won such a resounding victory for her country and her great liege.
Twilight woke up in the hospital again, this time almost buried under baskets of baked goods and bouquets of flowers. Judging by the bright sun outside, it was morning.
"I was out all night?" She groaned. "Hay, Slam hit hard." She shielded her eyes from the light. "Why'd Princess Celestia make the sun so bright today? I should complain to her about that." She smiled a little.
Well, there was nothing gained by just sitting in bed. She should be up, figuring out the time and then getting ready for the match. One more remained: her versus Violet, Celestia's champion versus Luna's. It was too bad that Luna had decided to do... whatever it was she had done... and gone to the extreme of entering a champion in the trial-by-combat matches. Twilight didn't hate Luna, she'd even supported the mare on Nightmare Night, but she would still fight for Celestia. If that meant slaying Violet, so be it.
"Besides," she muttered. "That was in Twilight Sparkle's life. She was a little more naïve than I am." She paused. "Any... affection I still feel for Luna comes from her, not me. It has no place here."
Besides, she had some strategizing to do. With Twilight's luck, the arena would be tilted against her -- maybe it would be pitch-black, or maybe it would take place on the moon. The moon seemed especially likely; beating Luna's champion there would be the ultimate symbolic victory over the princess of night.
"I know a spell to make sure I can breathe, one for heat..." she began to muse. "Violet'll probably be more familiar with moving there than I am, since there's not much gravity, so maybe something that'll increase my mass to the point where it feels normal?" She paused. "No, then she'll be more maneuverable. How about one to increase her mass too?" It was a good idea -- it would get Violet completely out of her element and make her much more vulnerable.
As Twilight began musing how best to set up the spell, she thought she heard a small cough from the side of her bed. She turned to see, peeking out of a basket that had to be half her size, Pinkie Pie.
"Agh!" Twilight jumped a little. Even in the guard, even when studying ancient magic, she'd never heard of anypony that could just appear like Pinkie could. "How'd you get in here?"
"I thought you were scared of me," said Twilight, remembering her bitterness. "Change your mind?"
"I couldn't lie to you, Twilight," she said. Pinkie looked away. "You're too smart. But you're not the same pony I've known for two years... you're so strong and tough and, and really good at fighting..."
Twilight, despite the last four days of intensive combat, forced herself to try to empathize with Pinkie. "I get that it's a sudden shift, me suddenly being some kind of awesome soldier. But..."
"But it's not awesome!" Pinkie said. "You're becoming a mean pony! Applejack told me you looked really happy to burn up that one Dog! And then she said that yesterday, you killed a pony who was on your side!"
Twilight dimly recalled Applejack yelling something about that, although she'd thought that the farmer had been arrested right afterwards, so she wasn’t sure how she'd told Pinkie. But either way, she hoped that she could put at least this one rumor to bed. "AJ's a little confused. I promise you, I'm not becoming a bad pony. I don't like fighting; I just do it because I have to. And that pony on my side was a traitor who tried to destroy the realm. She was scheduled to die anyway... she just wanted to do it meaningfully."
Pinkie looked very sad by Twilight's confirmation that she'd actually killed Saberhoof. "But you won't fight today, right? Dash said she found a way that you wouldn't!"
Twilight guessed that Dash was just lying to make Pinkie feel better, but she saw no reason why she had to be the one to ruin the lie for Pinkie. She just said, "That's awesome, Pinkie. Thanks for telling me."
Then she paused. It seemed to her, suddenly, that the day's match would be at eight in the morning. She wasn't sure why she thought that, but maybe she'd heard somepony say something while she was being healed. "What time is it?"
"Seven--oh no!" She sprang out of bed. At least her body felt fine; Princess Celestia's doctors and nurses had some of the most potent healing magic in the world, and they'd apparently used it to good affect on her foreleg and shoulder. They bore her weight without even a hint of pain. "I have to get going! The match starts in ten minutes! Gotta go Pinkie! Bye!"
She took off at a dead run.
It was just her in the ballroom when she arrived.
Wondering if Dash really had persuaded Violet to run away or something, Twilight paced in a couple circles. The room felt very empty when no one else was there. With even the other nobles and dignitaries gone, it felt almost like a mausoleum.
At precisely eight o'clock, Celestia swept in. She smiled. "Twilight. Congratulations on making it so far in this test. You are doing exemplarily."
"Thank you, princess. If I may ask... where is everyone?"
"According to the rules, the final match is closed to all except for the final two champions and their respective diplomats or nobles."
"But then... where is Princess Luna?"
"As a special exception, she was also refused entry to this match." Celestia sighed. "Twilight... Luna has been moving against me again. Aggressively."
"That is one reason why she sent a champion here. To attempt to show that I am weak and to seize power. But even in other matters... bribing nobles and my advisors, sabotaging works projects under my name... I believe she is seeking to usurp my power again."
"But, after last time, with Nightmare Moon, we--"
"She thinks she can win nevertheless. Twilight, that is why I must urge you -- whatever else happens today, you must win. You must defeat her champion and prove to her that starting a revolution or civil war would end badly for her. Please, my student..."
Twilight smiled, full of pride at what she could honestly promise. "Of course. I think I know how to beat Violet. I don't care if the match is in total darkness or on the moon or in one of Luna's personal buildings, I can take her."
Celestia looked pained. "Your opponent is no longer Violet, Twilight Sword. Princess Luna has invoked an obscure law that allows her to substitute one champion for another."
Twilight had a sick feeling.
And then the door banged open and Rainbow Dash sauntered in. She was wearing a fancy suit of armor that didn't fit right and was carrying a gigantic sword that she clearly had no idea how to use. Her saddlebag was bulging -- with sandwiches and candy.
"Alright, I'm here! Let's start!"
Twilight was still staring dumbly as Princess Celestia sent them to the arena.
Unlike the rainy mountain and the rubble-filled wasteland, this one was nice and pleasant. They were in a beautiful field, with a river to their south and a small hill just ahead. Rainbow, who had started only fifty feet or so from Twilight, grinned. "See you up on the hill!"
Twilight wandered numbly towards it. She didn't know what Dash was thinking, or with what magic Luna had brainwashed her to do this. She didn't know what to do now. To hurt Dash was unthinkable, but to betray Celestia was outright treason.
The hill had a shallow slope and was easy to climb. When she got to the top, she saw that Dash was lying down and sunning herself. "Want a sandwich?" asked Dash. "They're really good."
Twilight ignored this. "What are you doing, Dash?" she whispered. "Do you know what you've done?"
"Yeah! I stopped the match. See, I know I'm not fighting, and you won't fight me. So we just hang out here until they get bored and come up with a better idea!"
"But... Dash, you don't get it. Luna's trying to take over. If I draw with you, it's like saying that she's as powerful as Celestia. She'll be encouraged."
"Maybe they should talk, then, instead of having us fight." Dash chuckled. "Really, you should have a sandwich. They're awesome."
Twilight sat heavily. She didn't say anything.
Dash waved a sandwich under her nose. "Peanut butter and marshmallow," she teased. "And honey too. I got Pinkie to make 'em this morning, and--"
More to shut up Dash than out of hunger, Twilight snapped at the sandwich and took a big bite. It actually was good, if slightly oversized (a hallmark of Pinkie's cuisine). She wondered briefly if it was laced with tranquilizers, or worse, poison, but then she sighed. Neither Rainbow Dash nor Pinkie Pie were the type to do something like that. In a way it was too bad; it would have been easier to do what she had to do if Dash attacked her first.
"Hey, do you know if the library got the latest Daring-Do adventure yet?"
Twilight looked at her. "Rainbow, we're supposed to be killing each other. Why are you so calm?"
"Because I know you'd never kill me." Dash smiled. "We're friends."
Time passed. First one hour, then two. Twilight felt herself growing more and more conflicted. A tie could have been called long ago; that it hadn't been meant they weren't going to get out of this without fighting.
Twilight shifted, but Dash just smiled. "Kind of nice here, isn't it? Like a little vacation."
"I don't think that's the intended purpose of this place."
"Yeah, but who cares? Way I see it, this is a really awesome picnic that Celestia's paying for. Hey, does that cloud look like a bunny?"
Twilight didn't look up. "What happens when they make us fight, Dash?"
"How would they do that?"
"I don't know. By telling us, maybe, or--"
"Well, we won't listen," said Dash, as if honestly puzzled what other answer could exist.
"Or by ordering us, or--"
"Won't listen to that either."
"Okay, what if she sends in guards that'll attack us unless we fight each other?"
"We'll kick their butts from here to Cloudsdale!" Rainbow Dash grinned. "I'll be all, pow! Hiyah!" She fired a few punches off at the sky. "And you'll cast some really cool magic spell that'll send them all flying!"
"Fine. Let's say they send us to the moon or something and won't let us come back until one of us is dead," snapped Twilight.
"We'll escape. We can do anything as long as we stick together, right? Isn't that what you said when we fought Discord?"
"That wasn't me!" Twilight shook her head. "That was some other personality Princess Celestia created. The real me would have led an army against Discord and would have killed him, not just turned him back to stone!"
"Nah. I think that was the real you, and that 'Twilight Sword' is just the new personality. But you know what? I think you're winning over it."
Twilight pushed a hoof against her head. Dash was hopeless.
"You know, AJ was real worried. She was all, 'oh, Twilight'll kill you! She's all crazy!'" But I told her that was ridiculous. I knew you wouldn't hurt me. We're friends!"
"I don't want to hurt you! But I might not have a choice here, Rainbow Dash!"
Dash just smiled.
The time stretched on. The sun didn't seem to be moving, and Twilight wondered how long Princess Celestia would let this drag out. Eventually, Dash gave her another sandwich -- this one with chocolate, peanut butter, and caramel -- but Twilight didn’t eat it.
"I think it's silly," said Dash. The match was entering its third hour. "That Celestia would even try getting us to fight each other. I mean, she had to know you wouldn't do that, right? Just like she had to know I wouldn't hurt you."
Twilight Sparkle frowned. "I take my responsibilities as Princess Celestia's student and champion very seriously."
"Well, yeah, but I mean, you take friendship seriously too, right?" Rainbow smiled dreamily. " Like, the idea of you hurting me for her is just ridiculous. We're friends. What pony cares what Celestia wants compared to that?"
It was a question that would have had a great impact on Twilight Sparkle. But it was exactly the wrong thing to say to Twilight Sword.
"She is our princess! Our ruler!" Twilight's eyes flashed, though Rainbow wasn't looking at her.
"Yeah, and that's why you were working for her so far. That's why you attacked Growler and Goliath and all the others. But I knew that if I got you into a position where you had to pick between Celestia's orders and our friendship, you'd pick the friendship. And that could help us convince you to stop doing these horrible things for her, and..."
Rainbow Dash spoke more, but Twilight wasn't listening. She was rapidly becoming enraged. How dare she? How dare Rainbow Dash try to baldly manipulate her like that? How dare she decide to try to put her, Twilight Sword, into some impossible situation in order to force her to betray her country and her princess?
She could see the whole scheme as if they'd told it to her. They wanted Twilight to quit working for Celestia, especially fighting for her, and return home with them. So to do that, they had Rainbow Dash sign up as her opponent. Twilight, touched by her feelings, would neglect her duty and forfeit or draw with Dash. Celestia would be suitably disappointed in her student and fire her, and then Twilight couldn't do the things that Dash and AJ and Pinkie didn't want her to do. Couldn't defend Equestria.
Of all the selfish gestures Twilight had seen Rainbow Dash make, and she'd seen a lot of them, this was a new low.
"Dash," she hissed.
Dash glanced over and froze. Twilight's eyes were glowing purple and her horn was bright enough to light up a moonless night. "Dash, how could you? You knew how important Princess Celestia is to me. You knew how important what I do here is -- I told you the other night. But you try to manipulate me, abuse our friendship to ruin me..."
"No, no that isn't it. Twilight, wait, I--"
"You knew that I was Princess Celestia's champion first and foremost!" Twilight's voice was rising. "You knew that I'd only have one choice if it came down to it. And you did it anyway. What, just to torture me? To hurt me? So that, once I did what I had to do, I'd be upset?"
"You put yourself between me and protecting the country!" Twilight roared. "What happens from here is on you, not me!"
She grabbed the knife. Dash screamed and tried to fly away, but she was a glorified weather pony. Twilight Sword was a killer.
It only took a few strokes of the knife, and Twilight Sword became the last champion standing.
Twilight was returned, not to the ballroom, but the throne room. No sooner had her hooves touched the ground than she collapsed in tears. She let the knife clatter to the ground, and then kicked it away, as if it might force her to kill somepony else that she cared for.
It was only after a long period of time -- Twilight didn't know just how long, but it had to be close to an hour -- that she became conscious of the world around her. The throne room looked pristine, regal, and strangely empty. The usual gaggle of courtiers and nobles were absent. In fact, there was nopony there but Celestia and herself.
"I am so sorry, Twilight," said Celestia.
And Twilight ran over to her and leaned against Celestia and burst into tears. "Why'd she have to do that?" she cried. "Why did she make me do that? I... she made me kill her! And I..."
Celestia embraced Twilight and nuzzled her. "Child, I know how much you must be grieving right now. But your sacrifice has not been in vain. Believe me when I say that your service for this past week was truly beneficial to the country. We are assured of peace for many years."
Twilight nodded a little.
"Now, child, though I know your sorrow, I would ask one more task of you."
"What... what is it, princess?" She felt spent, unable to do anything but agree. "What do you want me to do?"
Celestia was all she had left now. She couldn't shake the feeling that she'd finally made an irrevocable decision, that she could perhaps have backed out after dealing with the UPPR or the Dogs or Goliath or Trample's forces but no longer could. She'd chosen what was important to her and she had to go with her decision, however much she was regretting it.
'What if Celestia asks me to kill somepony else that I know?' she thought. But it vanished almost as soon as it entered her mind; she knew she didn't have the strength anymore to disobey any order from her princess, however much she hated it.
"First, I will give you time to carry out whatever remaining business you have. And then, after that... you will become the Moon."
Hours later, Twilight was sitting numbly in a cell.
There were three problems, Celestia had told her. The first was that the friends of the dead champions were going to be angry and ready to revolt when they learned that Twilight Sword had killed their neighbors and friends. They would want Twilight's head on a platter. The second was that the nobles and diplomats were starting to hint that Twilight was uniquely talented and skilled, and therefore not really representative of Equestria's military capabilities. "Maybe she can level an army by herself," Baron Trample had grumbled, "But suppose four attacked Equestria from all sides? There's only one of her."
And the third was Luna.
"She was the one who allowed Rainbow Dash to enter the competition. Her scheming necessitated this event in the first place," said Celestia. And Twilight didn't ask for reasons or evidence, but just kept nodding. Celestia, she thought, would protect her and help her. Celestia would do good for her. Celestia was good, after all. That was her only hope: that Celestia was good, and that following Celestia was good, even if it didn't feel like it.
"So what we are going to do is fake your execution..."
The citizens of the border territories and other nations, who of course didn't know anything about the champion matches but only that their friends were suddenly dead, would be placated by the news that the serial killer Twilight Sword had been executed. The nobles and foreign governments would be quietly informed that Celestia was willing to casually have Twilight killed, and would then infer that Twilight must not be anything special -- that there must be more like her capable of her feats. And the third problem would be taken care of by a powerful spell.
"Just before the execution, I will exchange your consciousness with that of my traitorous sister. This is an ancient alicorn spell that may be used once on any pony, even one as strong as Luna."
"Thought you were trying to... to redeem her..." Twilight didn't know what to think anymore. Hadn't she tried befriending Luna? No, that was in her other mind, in Twilight Sparkle's life. It had no place here. For that matter, why was Celestia trying to kill her sister? That was completely unlike her. It was like, she thought for a moment, that Celestia was trying to see exactly how depraved Twilight would act -- shattering a pony, slaying an ally, killing a friend, now regicide...
But it was beyond Twilight to care at this point. She was on a path that she couldn't back down from.
Celestia sighed and shook her head. "I tried, Twilight. I tried as hard as I could, but she is as irredeemably evil as the day she betrayed me. This is the only option. She will be in your, mortal, body, which will be immediately killed -- and her with it. And you will be in hers. The body of the alicorn who rules the moon and the stars. You will have the unlimited magical power you always dreamed of."
Twilight agreed. What else could she do now? And Celestia embraced her, and held her tightly, and assured her that she really was a good pony, one of the best, and that she knew how badly it hurt but that Twilight had made the right choice. She'd saved the country. Every pony who would otherwise have died of war, from combat on the front, or illness in overcrowded field hospitals, or starvation as the farmers were drafted and crops rotted in fields, owed her their lives. But it didn't help. When Twilight left Celestia's presence, she felt worse than ever, despite all of Celestia's reassurances.
She used the time Celestia had given her for taking care of loose ends to deal with a few personal issues. Applejack, for one. She'd found Applejack in a cell, where she'd remained after having been hauled away by the guards for trying to interfere with the competitions. Twilight had informed Applejack that, though she held the farmer partially responsible for Dash's actions, she would still try to help Applejack -- because they were friends, and that was how friends acted. She had then explained that she would appeal to the guards, the courts, and Celestia herself to dismiss the charges against Applejack, that the farmer would be free in no time. Applejack hadn't been grateful, which would have been best, or angry, which might have been acceptable. She'd just stared at Twilight, stone-faced.
"What? I'm trying to get you out of here. Almost anypony else who tried to attack the princess's champion would be charged with treason, but I'll see that you aren't..." Twilight had trailed off. Applejack hadn't reacted in any way. "What now?"
"What do ya want, Twi?" Applejack's voice had, weirdly, lacked any inflection. Twilight had thought it sounded almost... bored. Like Applejack was talking to some stranger she couldn't care less about.
"I don't want anything..." Twilight had turned away, unable to finish the sentence.
"Ya can't make up fer what ya did ba tryin' ta give ma some token favor," Applejack had said, using the same neutral and blank voice. "It don't work like that. Ya killed Dash. Don't try ta get outta that by buyin' ma friendship 'gain."
"Well -- well, then maybe I won't help you get out! Maybe you can rot here!" Twilight had snapped.
Applejack had shrugged, lain down, and shut her eyes. Twilight, unable to provoke any other reaction, had stormed off in a huff. She had felt lower than ever.
There was also the matter of one last party with the guards. They had been informed of what would happen, and they made toasts to her in honor of her upcoming ascension. Spears and Turquoise Lightning had practically hero-worshipped her by this point, falling over each other to keep her glass and plate full, and she had even heard somepony say that it would be a good lesson for future guards -- how Twilight Sword overcame her traitorous urges of friendship to finish off an enemy of the country. Twilight had ignored the speeches as much as she could, and partook of the wine rather more than she usually did.
"You're the greatest ever! We love you, Twi!" yelled a drunken Turquoise Lightning.
"Yeah, I'm awesome!" Twilight had slurred. "Gimme 'nother glass! Gonna be the hoovin' moon!"
It grew foggy after that, but she distinctly remembered promising Spears that she'd give her personal training, then Pinkie Pie showing up and things getting all hazy, and then Pinkie being gone when Twilight began to remember things clearly again. Twilight didn't ask what happened to Pinkie Pie; she distantly recalled the guards chasing her off and telling her that they were Twilight's real friends now, and it wasn't like Twilight was going to correct them. Pinkie was probably on Applejack's side anyway, and had probably just shown up to yell at her and kick her while she was down.
But then it was over. Two guards came to take her to a cell, so that the execution would look legitimate to foreign witnesses and to Luna's faction. The guards deposited her and left, even Spears, who tucked a small candy into Twilight's hoof before scurrying off. And Twilight was alone.
Twilight ate the candy without tasting it, then sat down. She just had to wait to become the Moon, and then she could rest. And think. There was plenty of time to think. Lots of magic to explore and books to read, and she'd have all eternity to do it.
Of course, she had time to think before her 'execution' as well.
She thought she saw Rainbow Dash out of the corner of her eye, though she knew that was obviously impossible. Dash's face didn't even seemed mad -- the mare seemed hurt and betrayed. "I didn't want to do it," she told the vision, first softly and then in a raised, almost yelling, voice. "But I had to. I had to do it to save the country. Celestia wouldn't lie about that. If I'd let you live, Luna would have destroyed everything!" Dash's gaze was unyielding. "I'm being honest! I didn't enjoy it! Dash, you have to believe me!"
The vision vanished... and reappeared a few minutes later. Twilight screamed.
She wondered what Celestia would tell the Ponyville inhabitants. They'd hear about the 'psychotic serial killer Twilight Sword' eventually, and would probably figure out that Twilight Sword and Twilight Sparkle were the same pony. How would they react? Especially her other two friends, who fortunately hadn't tagged along to Canterlot. How would Fluttershy and Rarity respond to the news?
"They wouldn't understand. I'm sure they all hate me now. They're probably burning the library in Ponyville as we speak," she said. The dungeons were cold and her teeth were chattering. "Why did Dash have to do that? Why?" She began to sob. "Dash, you... agh!" She stomped her feet. "Why did you make me kill you!" And then, a few moments later, "And Luna, you caused this too! It was your rebellion that got this whole thing in motion! I tried to help you at Nightmare Night! I'm glad you're about to die! I'm thrilled!"
No one answered. She was alone in the dungeon. Even Applejack seemed to have been moved somewhere else.
"WHY?" she screamed. No one said anything. "Why, Dash? I thought we were friends!" She screamed something else, something inarticulate, before breaking down into tears. "Why?" she repeated, this time in a whisper.
Her rationalizations were crashing down around her. No matter how many times she repeated that Celestia had made her do it, that it was justified, necessary, a required evil, would save lives... they fell apart. She'd killed her friend for some stupid political reason. She'd killed Dash, and Applejack and all the others, and not even her magic could bring them back. It was done.
She cried all night.
In the morning, as she was led out, she considered, briefly, the possibility of saying no. After all, Luna hadn't been convicted of anything. Celestia hadn't given any evidence as to why she had to be executed. But she couldn't summon the energy to deny her princess anything. She was doing all she could to put one hoof in front of the other.
She was led in chains by a rope around her neck to a crude pillar in a courtyard where nothing grew. The guards led her up three flights of stairs to the top of the pillar. She saw that the walls were ringed with guards, and the courtyard was packed with ponies. Everypony wanted to see her.
A voice, Celestia's, sounded in her mind. Twilight didn't know that Celestia could do that, but didn't bother trying to figure out how she had managed it. Nothing else made sense now, so why should this? The voice said that the transfer of consciousness would take place when Luna and Celestia ascended the pillar and passed Twilight. Luna would have to pass within a foot of Twilight, and as soon as she was, Celestia would cast her magic and their minds would be swapped. Then Luna, in Twilight's body, would be hung, and Twilight, as an alicorn, would begin studying how to raise and lower the moon.
Twilight didn't react. She just kept putting one hoof in front of the other.
And then she was at the top of the pillar, and she was wondering when they'd had this thing installed because she didn't remember it at all from any of her previous years in Canterlot. Were public executions more common now?
"There they are!" somepony yelled, and Twilight turned to see the alicorns starting to fly up the pillar. Celestia looked serene and confident; Luna, scared. Like she knew what was coming.
It was almost over, Twilight noted. She was almost done with this whole, horrible journey. But one thing remained; one fact kept poking at her mind. It had been elusive thus far, ducking into and out of her consciousness, but then, as she looked on the hangpony's stand, it popped into focus.
Alicorns lived forever.
Once this happened, Twilight would be in Luna's body for all eternity, waking up each morning knowing what she'd done. Every day, she'd wake up seeing Rainbow Dash's helpless, screaming form. And Applejack too, now feeling only contempt towards Twilight, and also the bodies of Goliath, Growler, Stomp, Slam, Saberhoof... everypony she'd murdered or betrayed. But especially Dash, who had bet her life on Twilight doing the right thing and lost. Every single day, until the sun and moon themselves perished. She couldn't even try to swap her consciousness with some other pony in a mortal body to die that way; hadn't Celestia said that the spell only worked once?
No. She couldn't bear it. Not even for Princess Celestia.
Twilight laughed, a high-pitched and grating noise. "Hey, guys, hold tight, okay?"
"Huh?" asked one of the guards. This one wasn't in on it, to better maintain the illusion. He thought that Twilight was a real killer who was really being executed. Twilight nodded to herself a little -- she could count on him to react in just the right way.
Twilight paused, then tensed and took a flying leap off the edge of the pillar. The rope around her neck tensed as the guards grabbed on tight, then stiffened. Twilight heard a snap and had time to think that it was her neck.
She wondered if there was a place for very bad ponies to go when they died, and figured she was about to find out.
The first thing she heard was somepony saying, "She's coming around!"
"Get the medicine."
"Make sure she's stable! She's been out of it for a really long time!"
Twilight groaned. If this was where bad ponies went, it sounded like... like a hospital. Which might make sense, actually. Bedridden for eternity, in a room far from home, with no one to visit. Throw in an evil nurse or something and it was actually plausible.
"Hurry up! She's almost awake!"
Twilight's eyes flickered open, and she recognized the ceiling of the palace infirmary. "Huh?" she managed.
"Easy." She looked over to see a tall pony with a heart on her flank. "You were out of it for a long time. Take it slow."
"What happened? Where am I?" Had her suicide attempted been stopped, somehow? Was Celestia even now preparing another try at putting Twilight in an immortal body?
"The palace, of course. We'll explain more once you've eaten and rested." The doctor waved over an orderly with a cart, who quickly put a large bowl of salad in front of her.
"Wait -- how long have I been here?"
"Five days," said the doctor. "Ever since you got in, I believe."
It took almost three minutes for Twilight to realize the implications of what the doctor had just said. If she'd been unconscious for five days, then she hadn't actually been killing other ponies. It had just been some deranged hallucination.
Twilight, before giving in to the joy at this realization, forced herself to consider the possibility that she was just hallucinating now instead of then. But she didn't fee like that was the case. The whole competition now seemed almost... dream-like. Like it hadn't happened at all .In fact, all those 'old memories' seemed like that. Thinking back, she was confident that she hadn't been training in combat since the age of six. She'd been the studious bookworm she'd always thought she was.
In fact, the more Twilight thought about it, the more she realized how impossible the 'trained soldier' thing was. Even if Princess Celestia had given her a whole new set of memories, there hadn't been anything about Celestia making her physically weaker. Yet when she went to Ponyville, she was still weaker than, say, Applejack, and therefore not the supersoldier she'd thought she was. Or take Spike. He wasn’t in the soldier memories, yet Spike, while in Ponyville, had known details of her childhood that he could only have known or seen by assisting her back at the castle.
She smiled. It had all been a dream! Then that meant she hadn't killed Rainbow Dash! Or Saberhoof, Slam, or anypony else! She wasn't a murderer after all!
"By the way," the doctor said, "Let me know if you have feel any side effects such as nausea or dizziness. The spell doesn't last nearly as long on most ponies..."
'The spell?' wondered Twilight. And then one additional memory surfaced in her mind, neatly edging out her hazy memories of being a soldier and her thoughts of brutal combat. She saw herself talking Princess Celestia, back in the throne room. She'd just arrived in Canterlot, and she was describing why Twilight had been summoned.
"Well... I suppose I can tell you now. I wanted you to take a certain test."
Twilight immediately began to panic.
"I -- of course, your majesty, of course, I will, but I -- I haven't studied, and I don't know--"
"Twilight!" Celestia seemed amused. "It is not that kind of test. You need not worry. It is more a test of... character. It is not the kind of exam that can be studied for."
That mollified Twilight a little. Very little. "Alright, your highness. I'm ready."
"Wait." Celestia smiled. "You should know this, first. This is a traditional test, one given to every pony who serves the princesses. It measures their ability to balance their duties as a servant of Equestria and their duties to others, such as family and friends. It also tests judgement, wisdom, compassion, and numerous other important traits. While I must warn you that it is a very difficult test, I do not believe you will have any trouble passing."
"What, exactly, does this test involve?" asked Twilight.
"I will put a spell on you," said Celestia. "You won't remember anything after agreeing to the trial, and you will think you're in other circumstances. Then, you'll need to make choices based on your own knowledge and conscience."
Celestia nodded. "It is different for each pony. But one scenario might be deciding between giving the last of your food to a starving member of the royal household, or a hungry family member. Or it might entail choosing whether or not to execute a pony who has committed some horrible wrong. Of course, if you feel like you are not ready--"
"No. I'm always ready for a test." Twilight smiled. "Lead the way."
Twilight's mouth opened. So it hadn't happened... but... it hadn't been a dream either.
It had been a hallucination induced by the test. Of course. Celestia had been evaluating her. If she made her believe that, say, she had to execute her friend and a bunch of others for ill-defined, vaguely political machinations, she wanted to know how she would react.
As it turned out, she'd react by killing absolutely everypony, up to and almost include Luna herself. And even then, she'd held off on that not for Luna, but out of her own guilt.
So she hadn't killed Dash or the others. But she'd certainly wanted to and tried.
The nurses turned as she emitted a strangled scream and began tearing the blankets off of herself. The doctor ran forward. "Wait! You need medicine, you can't get up yet!"
Twilight leapt to her feet, and when the doctor stuck out a hoof to shove her back down, she rammed him aside and fled for the door. She no longer had the vast power that she'd thought she had (and of course she didn't, the magic she knew didn't work that way with blood sacrifices and she should have noticed that), but she was still reasonably fast. She managed to edge past the nurses and escape into the hallway.
The launch pad for the hot-air balloons and chariots wasn't too far away, if Twilight remembered correctly. Good. She could flee the castle without actually having to hear Celestia say how disappointed she was, how depraved Twilight had shown herself to be, and how she was both fired from being Celestia's student and probably exiled to the northern snowcaps. Actually, that would be lenient. Celestia would probably exile her to the moon. Had even Nightmare Moon attempted such wholesale slaughter?
(Twilight rounded a corner, using her magic to form the air into a cushion so that she could bounce off a wall of rather than lose time slowing for the turn.)
No. Nightmare Moon hadn't tried that. Discord hadn't tried that. Twilight had probably set some kind of record for depravity in Equestria lands. Well, there was no reason to stick around, then, and be publically shamed for her own horrible failings. A few minutes and she would reach the balloons and chariots. It didn't even matter which one she chose. She'd go to Brismane, or Neigh Orleans, or Manehatten, or Fillydelphia... anywhere but where she was.
(One, two, three hallways completed, and then only a flight of stairs stood between her and the exit.)
She moved past the inhabitants of the castle in a dash that would probably put Rainbow Dash's records to shame. She almost collided with some old clerk, but jumped up in a magic-assisted leap that let her clear the mare with at least four inches to spare. The clerk yelled something as she fled, as if a minor annoyance like that would even be visible compared with all the things Twilight had imagined herself doing.
(Twilight saw the door to the launch pad and summoned a spell to let her bounce off a wall and shoot out onto the field like a rocket. A few were ready. She could simply hop in and flee).
She almost crashed into Princess Celestia.
Luna, standing a few feet away, looked away and poorly disguised a giggle. Celestia smiled as her horn glowed and she teleported a foot to the left so that Twilight wouldn't run into her. "Twilight, where are you going?" she asked.
Twilight felt like she was about to burst from shame. She resolved that she wouldn't hang around to be torn down. If she was already so evil as to turn against her friends and commit such crimes, what did blowing off a princess or two matter? She continued towards the balloons.
"Twilight, wait!" Celestia's voice was calm. "Please, you are not--"
Luna had floated up and floated over in front of Twilight. "Peace, young Twilight. Thou art not in trouble..."
Twilight heard the words but didn't process them. She couldn't understand why they would lie to her now. But it seemed like the princesses weren't going to let her leave without saying something, so she turned and briefly bowed to them. "Princesses, I regret that I have failed you. I see now that I am not fit to continue as your students or in any other capacity here, and that I have not learned any of the lessons I wrote to you about. I -- I will be leaving immediately. I will not bother you further."
"You have not failed us!" began Celestia, but Twilight knew platitudes when she heard them. Clearly, Celestia didn't have the heart to tell her the truth, but that didn't matter. She could at least do Celestia this one small favor and not force her to explain.
She hopped into one of the balloons, but nothing happened. The control system was completely unfamiliar to her. She recalled distantly that Celestia had wanted to modernize them, and unfortunately, Twilight didn't know the new controls. As for the chariots, she realized that there weren't any pegasi on the launchpad. It was just her and the princesses
She turned back to see Luna almost giggling again. "Dost thou know how to utilize such a vehicle? Wait, and let us explain."
Twilight turned away from her.
Celestia's voice sounded strained. "Twilight, please, listen to me. You aren't in trouble. You didn't fail--"
Twilight thought. How far could she teleport, anyway? Well, if it didn't work and she wounded up stranded in some dimensional rift, or thrown halfway across the world, it served her right.
She attempted to teleport, and a moment later, noted that she hadn't gone anywhere. Also, the world seemed to have rotated ninety degrees.
Celestia did a good job of pretending to sound concerned. "Twilight! Are you all right?"
"After thine ordeal, thou hast little magic. Thou should--" began Luna.
Twilight forced herself to her feet. Fine. She couldn't use the balloons or chariots, and she couldn't use magic, but she could still run.
She scrambled to the edge of the pad. The descent was steep, but not impossible.
"Wait!" called Celestia, and then Twilight was galloping down the hill.
The slope ended at a small walkway that looped back to the main entrance. Twilight zipped down the path and through the gate before the guards could even challenge her.
She only stopped running once she'd made her way to a deserted alley in the middle of Canterlot. She leaned against a wall for support. She felt famished and cold -- it was unusually cold for the season -- and didn't have a single bit. She couldn't even rent a room for the night.
Well, it didn't matter. She didn't plan on staying long anyway.
She paused for a moment, trying to figure out where to go. The events of the past few days had completely messed up her sense of geography (had she really thought there was a Dog Nation? She'd never heard of such a thing!) But she did recall a settlement of ponies far to the west, in a desert region. Like Applelooza, but even more in the middle of nowhere. They were trying to eke out a living there, in order to mine and process the valuable ores and gems in the region, but it was very hard. They were so far from any other settlement that they were on their own in any crisis. Twilight supposed that they could probably use a talented mage.
"Especially if it didn't matter if the mage was swallowed up by the sand," she muttered. She still found it hard to believe that she'd wanted to kill Rainbow Dash, but it had happened.
"Well, let's look on the bright side. I find it out now before it comes up in real life."
Over the next ten minutes, she worked out a plan. First, leave Canterlot, forge in the nearest field for grass and dandelions, and try to get some kind of sleep. When she woke up, ideally, her teleportation magic would return, and she could start making magical 'hops' to the desert. She wasn't strong enough to go all the way there in one go, but it probably wouldn't take more than a few days. Then she could begin her new life.
She began to trot out of Canterlot, hoping that she didn't run into anypony she knew. She didn't want to have to tell them what was going on or why she was fleeing. How did you say to a friend that, as it turned out, you were evil and a menace?
'Oh, hi Dash,' she imagined. Sorry, but I have to leave. Turns out it's really easy to get me to kill you. Yeah, just a few days of telling me it's for a good reason and I'd cut your head off right away. Say hi to Pinkie for me, would you?'
But her friends weren't in Canterlot. She'd left them behind in Ponyville. Well, she'd made one smart decision--
"Hey, Twilight! Twilight! Wait up!"
Twilight swiveled, feeling a jolt of genuine panic. She recognized that voice.
"Twilight! I've been trying to see you for, like, five days! But everypony just said you were busy, and they didn't even care that I took a week off and came all the way from Ponyville!" The cyan pony crossed her arms and looked stern for a moment, but then grinned. "But hey, we've met up now, right? So, what've you been up to? What's going on?"
Twilight could only stare at Rainbow Dash in horror.
"It was taking me forever to find you," Rainbow Dash continued. Twilight hadn't responded yet. She was trying to figure out if it would be better to teleport away from Dash, or just run really fast. Teleporting was normally a no-brainer, but in her state, she wasn't sure she could handle it.
"But then I just ran into Princess Luna, like, five minutes ago. And she was all 'you really need to find Twilight, and she'll be heading for the city exit!' So I went here. Good thing I bumped into her, huh?"
"Luna wanted to find me?" Twilight scowled. So Luna wasn't going to let her off without the lecture, or banishment or punishment. Luna, and Celestia too, had to know that Twilight recognized her own evil; why couldn't they just let her leave?
But then again, they'd only sent Dash, not the police. Maybe she could still get away.
"Yeah! Come on, she looked really upset! You'd better get back there right away. But first, let's catch up!" She grinned. "What've you been up to?"
"Yes, I'm sure they want me back." Twilight turned towards the town exit. "Tell them I'm sorry."
"Wait, what? You're not going back to see them?"
"Nope. Bye, Dash." Twilight began trotting quickly towards the city exit. She wasn't that far away, she thought, so she could get out of town in just a few minutes. Then she'd have a head start on whoever the princesses sent.
Dash sounded completely bewildered. "Hey, don't go! What's wrong?"
"I'm sure the princesses can fill you in." And then, to distract Dash from calling the guards, "What are you even doing here?"
"Spike told me Celestia told him you were taking some test." Dash began hurrying after Twilight. "I decided to take a few days off and go support you. But then they wouldn't let me see you until it was done for some stupid reason."
Twilight mentally cursed Spike. "Tell the others back in Ponyville that I'm sorry too, okay?"
"Sorry for what?" Dash still sounded confused, and Twilight supposed that make sense. Dash didn't yet know the extent of Twilight's depravity. "Why can't you tell them yourself?"
Twilight knew that she should make up a lie -- preferably one that would send Dash somewhere else so she could slip out of town -- but she was so tired from the whole ordeal that she couldn’t bring herself to do it. "I'm not going back to Ponyville."
"For how long?"
"Ever. I'm heading out to the frontier territories."
Dash was silent for a long moment. "But why?"
"The princesses know."
"But -- but you can't do that!" Dash looked horrified. "You can't just leave and not even say goodbye! We're your friends! You can't do that to us!"
"I can and I will. It's for the best. Now will you get out of my way? I'm behind schedule." Twilight turned back and glared at her. "I don't have much time to waste either. Just tell the others that I can't go back to Ponyville, okay?"
"But we're friends! You can't just run off like that!"
Twilight snapped, "I have to! I'm leaving because I can't stay in Ponyville and, and impose on you all anymore. You deserve somepony better."
Dash didn't back down. "Why not?" she demanded. "What do you mean, impose'? You're not imposing!"
Twilight wanted to scream. "Because I'm a terrible pony and I'm leaving before I hurt anypony else!"
"What?! Who told you that?"
"I discovered it for myself."
Rainbow Dash shook her head. "Twilight, that's not true."
"Yes, it is," she said. "That's what I was doing here. The princesses were giving me a test on if I was a good pony and a good friend, and I completely failed. I probably got the worst grade ever."
"They have a test for that?"
"Yes, they do. And I blew it. I proved to everypony that nopony should be close to me, because I'm evil and I'll hurt them and--"
"That's a stupid test," said Rainbow Dash, as if it were trivially obvious. "I mean, that's obviously wrong."
"Princess Celestia came up with it herself."
"It's still a stupid test. You've helped us all so much. If anypony says you're a danger and shouldn't be my friend, I'll buck 'em."
Twilight sighed. She felt very tired. "I appreciate the sentiment, but you weren't there. And now... now I really do have to go. I have a long journey ahead of me."
"Where are you going, anyway?"
"Like I said. The frontier. Somewhere where I can be useful, and where I won't have to worry about hurting my friends."
"But which settlement?" Rainbow Dash frowned.
"I'm not telling. You might try to follow me."
"Well, yeah," said Rainbow, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "Of course I will."
Twilight wondered if she was recharged enough to teleport away and get out of this endless conversation, but decided against it. Screwing up a teleport again could leave her completely exhausted and too in pain to move, and if she couldn't move, she couldn't escape Dash. She again cursed Spike for telling Dash about her trip; she should have been long gone by this point.
"So tell me about this test," said Rainbow Dash, as Twilight resumed her rapid trot out of town.
"I'm leaving now."
"Hey, you can't do that!" Rainbow flew in front of Twilight, but Twilight easily stepped around her. "No! Stop!"
Twilight groaned, feeling completely exasperated. At this rate, Rainbow would make so much of a scene that she'd wake up everypony else, and probably summon the city guards to boot. That could scuttle her escape plans. "Okay, look. If I tell you about the test, will you stop making so much noise?"
Rainbow Dash quickly nodded.
Twilight looked around for a private place. There was a little restaurant that was still open, but of course she had no money.
Rainbow Dash followed her gaze and quickly said, "Hey, let's go there. My treat. I mean, uh, if you're leaving, I want to get you a last meal or something."
Twilight sighed. She couldn't accept her food, but... well, maybe it would be good to tell somepony. She supposed it was only fair that they know the real her. Then they wouldn't miss her as much; they'd hurt less, and even now, she cared about that. "Alright, fine."
Twilight stared at Rainbow Dash blankly. "Well, yeah. After I realized that I... that I would have done something so horrible to you and the others, I decided I had to leave immediately. I can't risk being around--"
Rainbow Dash laughed. "What, really? That's all? C'mon, Twilight, I thought you'd done something really horrible or something."
"...I killed you, Dash."
Rainbow said, "So, if I have this right, Celestia gave you a bunch of false memories telling you that you're this awesome assassin or something. She had you think that if you didn't take part in that deathmatch, thousands of ponies would die horribly and the whole country would be plunged into war. She set up all the matches to give you a huge disadvantage so that you were tired and stressed and mad at us that we didn't know what you were going through. She had you get hurt defending Pinkie, and us not care, to stress you even more and make you madder at us. She messed with your mind by giving you this whole past that we couldn't understand, and the only ponies who got it were the palace guards. She made me sound like a manipulative monster who enjoyed putting you in a horrible position. She--"
"I murdered you, Dash. I killed you because Princess Celestia told me to and I didn't question her."
"But now you're leaving town because Princess Celestia's test told you you're a bad friend, and you're not questioning that?"
Twilight blinked. This was a surprisingly difficult argument. "That's different! I mean, I - I showed her, and myself, that clearly I can't be trusted."
"I trust you."
"Well, you're wrong to do so. Did you miss the part where I killed you?"
"No. You kind of brought it up a few times." Twilight looked down at that, but Rainbow Dash pressed on. "I just know that it isn't the real you. It was some weird hallucination. In real-life, you wouldn't hurt us."
"What if it hadn't been all a dream?" said Twilight. "What if I showed up in Canterlot, and she gave me those memories, but all the rest of it was real? Then I'd have killed you."
"That'd be her fault, for screwing up your head," said Rainbow, matter-of-factly. "The real you, the one I'm talking to right now, would never hurt us."
"Look, right now, you don't actually want to hurt us, right?"
"Of course not!"
Rainbow nodded triumphantly. "That's why you're leaving, right?"
"You don't want to hurt us," said Dash in a triumphant voice. "So much that you're willing to go to some distant city to avoid it. So then you really, really don't want to hurt us! So what're you worried about?"
"I'm worried about getting fooled again and hurting you!" Twilight almost yelled.
"Hey, Twilight, we can take care of ourselves. I think we're all willing to put up with that risk, just like I'm sure you're willing to risk it for our sakes."
"It's, it's different..."
Rainbow Dash reached across the table and took Twilight's front hooves in her own. "We want you around, Twilight. You're a good friend."
Twilight paused for just a moment. It was tempting, she thought. Tempting to forget plans of leaving, to stay and just live like she had before...
"No. No, I'm sorry, Dash, I can't. I can't ask you to take that risk." She hastily got to her hooves. "Alright, I told you what you wanted to know. You promised you'd let me get out of town without making noise."
Dash looked pained. "Come on, Twilight... please don't leave. We'll miss you."
"I know. I wish there was another way, but there isn't." She didn't want to think too much about what Dash was saying; it was starting to almost make sense. "I'm really sorry."
She took off at a run.
It didn't take too long to reach the edge of Canterlot. Twilight found herself slowing as she got there, even though she knew she shouldn't. But she couldn't deny herself one last bit of nostalgia.
She pawed at the ground. Just another step and she'd be out of Canterlot forever. Well... it was what it had to be. She couldn't stay in this town. She didn't deserve it.
Twilight jumped and wheeled around, to see a frantic Rainbow Dash. Again.
"I'm going to follow you!" the cyan pony announced.
"No you aren't."
"Yes, I am." Dash smiled.
Twilight scowled. "Okay, Dash, I appreciate it, but really, enough's enough. You're not coming. Sorry."
She hoped she was up to a round of teleportation, because otherwise, she didn't know how to shake Dash.
Twilight focused, weaving the magic over herself and visualizing her destination. There was a convenient field a few hours out from Canterlot. She'd port there and hope that she retained enough energy to hide from her friends.
With a flash of light, she vanished, and appeared a moment later in a field.
"Woah." She stumbled around, disoriented. Her head was spinning, and she saw stars in places where stars had no business of being. "Yeah, no more magic until I've had a nice nap." Maybe two days worth or so.
Disbelieving, Twilight turned to see Rainbow Dash standing besides her. She smiled cheekily.
"Oh, didn't I mention it? When I bumped into Luna earlier, she gave me this trinket thingie." Dash took a large gemstone out of her saddlebag. It sparkled with magic. "I didn't get all the technical mumbo-jumbo, but it lets me 'follow' anypony around me who's using teleportation magic!"
Twilight's mouth dropped.
Then she teleported four times in rapid succession. She was back in Canterlot, on the castle walls, in the nearby woods, and then in another large field, this one on the opposite end of town. There. That would throw off--
Twilght took two steps and collapsed in exhaustion.
When Twilight woke up, she found that she was in a tent.
At first, she had no idea what was going on. She certainly hadn't had a tent the previous night, and neither had Dash. What had happened now? Was she hallucinating again? Had she had a complete mental breakdown?
Completely confused, she poked her head outside and saw that somepony had set up a portable stove. It smelled like eggs were cooking, and toast too. As she watched, Rainbow Dash flew down and put a few more sticks on the fire.
Twilight could only stare.
Dash saw her and smiled. "Hi, Twilight! Want some eggs! They're almost done! Nothing like a good egg over easy on a nice summer day." One of the eggs was beginning to smoke a little bit. "...eggs over hard are good too, right?"
Twilight just continued to stare. Dash had followed her even with Twilight's teleporting. How could she get away?
"So where now?" asked Dash.
"You're going home. I'm going--"
"I'm coming with," said Dash, matter-of-factly.
"Well, apparently, I can." Dash grinned.
"I mean, you have a job and stuff! Friends! You're trying out for the Wonderbolts soon!"
"You can't turn your whole life upside down for me!"
"Well," said Dash, "I guess you could come back to Ponyville. Then I wouldn't have to leave."
"What -- I -- you can't do that!"
"Sure I can! And there's nothing you can do about it." Dash chuckled.
Twilight paused. "But why..."
"Um, because, you're my friend? I'm not letting you wander off to Western Nowhere by yourself."
"But I killed you!"
"I don't care. We're friends, and I know you would never hurt any of us in real life. So I'm going to follow you until it gets through your head. I don't care if I lose my job with the weather bureau or whatever. I'm not abandoning you."
Twilight looked away, tears in her eyes. "I don't... don't you get it, Dash? I'm not worth this." She paused. "Dash, I don't know how else to say this. Celestia's test showed me that I'd hurt you just because Celestia asked me too. I can't risk hurting you girls by staying near you."
Dash tilted her head. "But when Discord messed with all of us, we almost destroyed the world... and you didn't want us to leave."
"That's different," said Twilight. "He--"
"You've saved the world multiple times, and you're always there for whoever needs it. You're worth it."
Twilight looked away.
When Twilight didn't respond, Dash sat on a rock by the fire. "You know what? When I went back to Canterlot to get the tent stuff, I bumped into Luna again. She and Celestia were searching the whole town for you."
"To throw me in jail or banish me."
"To get you to calm down. Luna told me about that test. She said that you almost set a record."
Twilight frowned. "A record? For what, highest body count?"
"No, I..." Rainbow Dash put a hoof to her head. "Twilight, you're awesome, but sometimes you're more stubborn than Applejack, you know?"
"What do you mean?"
"That test is specifically created to tempt a pony to do horrible things. It was, quote, 'made so that the princesses of the land could see what they needed to watch out for in their most trusted servants, and so those servants would not grow proud and think themselves incorruptible.' Or something like that. Anyway, it's usually really good at it. Luna told me that the average time for a pony to fail and start hurting other ponies is about twelve hours."
"Twelve -- okay, that's obviously not true. Unless everypony else is even more psychotic than I am."
Dash smiled. "The test is designed to tempt ponies into doing horrible things, Twilight. That's the whole purpose -- to show the princesses who can fight it the longest, and to show the ponies taking the test that they aren't perfect and need to make sure not to get corrupted. So, it'll take a pony who thinks she could rule the country better, or more justly, or whatever, and gives them a situation where they could get away with assassinating Luna and Celestia and taking charge. Or it takes a greedy pony, or one who needs money for, I don't know, a doctor or something, and puts them in a position where they can kill a rich friend and take their money. Or it takes somepony like Pinkie, who cares about having a ton of friends, and has all their friends backstab and betray them until they go on a rampage. Everypony else, it's really simple things like that. But not for you.
"For you, Twilight, the spell had to come up with an entire deathmatch tournament, have Princess Celestia herself order you to kill ponies, give you an entirely new past, and invent literally dozens of ponies to manipulate you in the right way. And it still took five days to get you to betray your friends. Twilight, you wrecked the curve. Luna said that ponies only do as well as you once a century. She said that Celestia was so proud of you that she could barely speak. You're probably going to get an award or something." She paused. "Luna told me that Celestia underwent the test once, herself, to prevent herself from going crazy like Nightmare Moon. She made it six days before she anointed herself 'Empress Solar Flare' and tried to 'bathe the world in endless day' and crush everypony who didn't want that. Twilight, you almost did better than Princess Celestia."
"It doesn't matter. There shouldn't be anything that could convince me to kill you girls."
"This is a spell," said Rainbow Dash, still cheery, "Designed by the two most powerful magicians in Equestria specifically to figure out what could make ponies do horrible things. Are you really going to be upset that you couldn't beat a spell designed by Celestia and Luna themselves?"
"No, I... I know that's not reasonable..."
"So stop worrying about it. You did amazing. You're still the same kind, caring pony that you were a week ago. And if anypony tells you different, whether it's Snips in Ponyville or Celestia herself with some stupid test, you tell me and I'll set 'em straight. Twilight, I don't freaking care if 'the test' says that you're dangerous. I know you aren't, and so do the rest of your friends. And if you think we're going to let you wander off on some exile, you've got another thing coming." And she embraced Twilight.
Twilight sat still for a long moment, almost stunned -- she'd never imagined that even Dash would respond this way, with this kind of loyalty.
And then she was crying, and Dash was still hugging her, and she felt like she never wanted the blue pony to let go.
After a few minutes, Dash smiled and helped her get back into the tent and under the blanket. "I'll finish breakfast. Why don't we eat and camp out for a while before going to see the princesses?"
"And no more talk about running away, right?"
She nodded again.
"If you ever want to do something this silly again, you'll talk to me first and give me the chance to pound some sense into you, right?"
Twilight smiled slightly.
"Good." Dash hugged her. "We care about you. If there's something as bad as this, and you want to do something desperate, talk with us first." Her voice grew a little more serious. "Please."
"Alright, I will." She nodded.
Dash got up, but Twilight said, "Um... Dash... can you stay, for a little while?"
Dash smiled. "Sure." She moved into the tent and sat down next to Twilight.
Twilight settled into place. "You're a good friend, Rainbow Dash."
"So are you." She smiled down at her.
Twilight fell silent, and soon fell asleep. The last thing she saw before drifting into slumber was Rainbow Dash, sitting next to her like a bodyguard... or a champion... ready to protect her from anything.
She smiled as she drifted off.