NOTE: This story is listed as Teen, but it's a very close thing. A sizeable scene near the end contains significant amounts of gore, and while it may not be over the line, it's close. Reader discretion is advised.
“I'm sick of this shit!”
Spitfire glanced over to me as I tossed my rifle aside and collapsed onto my bunk, trying to faze out the clamoring of the ponies thronging outside. She came close and opened her mouth to say something, but paused and stormed out the tent flap for a moment.
“GIVE US A FUCKING MOMENT!”
She came back inside, slightly flushed, but smiling, the clamoring significantly reduced.
“Better?” she asked quietly, brushing my mane out of my eyes. I smiled slightly.
She gave me a quick peck, and settled back in her chair.
“We've got a few minutes before those cannibals you call an army demand another speech or something. I can play psychiatrist if you want to vent.”
I laughed, and she understood that it was my 'yes'. Celestia's bones, she could practically read my mind... we'd been together for what felt like forever now.
“So, Rainbow Dash, veteran warrior, revolutionary extraordinaire...” she said with a smile on her face, “What's on your mind?”
It took me a while to get my thoughts together.
“If... you'd asked me what my life would be like three years ago, what would I have said?”
“I was green with envy at the time, but you probably would've said something about joining the Wonderbolts. But then...”
“Then, the war happened,” I finished. We were both quiet for a while.
“It changed me,” I picked up again a moment later, “On a profound level. Sometimes I think it broke me. Either way, I'm not the same pony anymore. The old me hung on like a stubborn bitch, though... even when the princesses were assassinated, I still said things would turn out. When the war broke out, I still said things would turn out. But then I was on the front lines... and with every bullet, every scar, I grew stronger in body, but weaker in spirit. You were there when I died.”
Her smile faded.
“I...” she was quiet for a long time before continuing, “That moment, that decision, is probably the one thing I regret most in my life. Because I wasn't there when you died... I was walking away. Walking away out of jealousy, of all things.”
I cracked a half smile, and gave her a playful shove.
“You've been with me through everything, Spitfire. Everything. It's because I had you to turn to after Twilight's death that I didn't shoot myself right then and there. Anything you've ever done to hurt me, any times you haven't been there... it's nothing in the face of everything you've sacrificed to keep me going.”
I got to my feet and pulled her close, giving her a long and passionate kiss. I winced when I felt the damp tears on her cheeks against my skin.
“I love you, Spitfire,” I whispered in her ear, “And I hate it when you cry.”
“Not crying,” she sniffed, “It's just... my mistakes get to me, and not just the ones I've made with you. It's like I can't forget, even when I want or need to.”
I laughed to myself.
“Who's playing psychiatrist with who, now?”
She smiled in return – that beautiful, radiant smile.
“I'd say we lean on each other about equally, but you,” she gently pushed me away, “Were half-way through your story.”
I nodded, and sat back on my cot.
“The mission. Was I on the mission?” Spitfire nodded, and I continued, “Before, during, and for a long time after the suicide mission into Earth Pony territory, the mission that brought the war to a grinding halt with us, the Pegasi, as the losers, I thought that it was the biggest event in my life. I thought that it was the tale I would tell my prospective children about how I came to be the pony they saw before them – but I suppose I was wrong. That mission may have molded me into what I am now, but it was Twilight's murder that drove me to this: that sent me on the high road to revenge, but now that I'm here, now that it's almost over... so much death, so much suffering caused by this rebellion. Was it worth it? Would Twilight be proud? This, all of this was for her.”
Spitfire gently turned my head to meet her gaze, and kissed me.
“I know I am,” she whispered gently. I just stayed like that for a moment, letting her hold me, soaking in the calm and silence...
“I know what I'm going to say now,” I said, after what felt like an eternity. Spitfire nodded.
“Then go out there and make them ready for the beginning of the end.”
I gave her one last kiss, then got to my feet and stepped outside. The thronging mass of ragged revolutionaries was bubbling with various whispered conversations, tension and anticipation thick in the air. The nearest saw me and saluted as I stepped onto a wooden crate. I took a breath, cleared my throat, and started to speak, loud and clear.
“Over that hill is the last stop: the end of the line. New Canterlot's perimeter defences.”
Ponies stopped talking, and turned towards where we stood.
“Over that hill is the end of a story three years in the making, for better or for worse.”
I now had their complete attention; silence reigned.
“This isn't about revenge for the Pegasi. This isn't about equality for the Earth Ponies. This isn't even about absolution for the Unicorns. This. Is. About. Solidarity. This is about building a future, we can be PROUD to say we helped create! This is about bringing back the Equestria we all knew as fillies and colts, all those years ago!”
Sparse cheers erupted from the crowd, but I wasn't done.
“I'm not going to sugarcoat this for you. They know we're coming. They'll have fortified and reinforced and restocked every last inch of ground, every last patrol, every single weapon, from pistols to cannons. We are walking into HELL, fillies and gentlecolts! It's up to us to see that we walk back out.”
The crowd roared in approval, and started to shuffle out of the camp.
“I'M NOT FINISHED!”
Everypony froze, and some started to turn back towards me.
“Your lives are more important than victory. All of you, every single one of you – are like family to me. Whether we win or lose, I expect each and every one of you to give it your all. STAY ALIVE. Do you hear me? We can come back and try again later, but not if all of us are dead.”
Solemnly, silently, the entire massed group of ponies saluted, and forcing back tears, I saluted in kind.
“That's what I like to see. Move out.”
As the revolutionary army slowly started towards the walls of New Canterlot, I got off my soapbox and headed back into my tent. Spitfire was smiling.
“Damn straight,” she said quietly, and handed me my rifle. The two of us started for the exit... but I paused. Looped around the foot of my cot was Twilight's old scarf. Carefully, reverently, I lifted it into my hooves and wrapped it about my neck. Spitfire nodded as I came back to her, and the two of us stepped outside. Navy Blue was waiting.
“All three of your commanders have reported in,” she said in that half-whisper of hers, “Earth Ponies are ready, Pegasi are raring to go, Unicorns are a little shifty, but solid.”
“Honestly, what do you give our chances?”
Navy glanced away, thinking.
“Sixty-forty, but I haven't seen their fortifications yet. That may go up or down as we progress.”
She glanced to me, confused.
“No. I'm more than confident that my skill will see me through. I fear for the lives of the others, however... they may not understand what they're up against, despite your attempt to prepare them for the worst.”
“You don't think they're ready?”
She met my gaze.
“Think: no. Hope: yes.”
“We all know what we signed up for. Let's get moving.”
An hour's solid marching later, and New Canterlot loomed on the horizon. It had been built at the base of the mountain, rather than perched on its side like the original had: the scarred, blackened ruins still clinging to the wind-blasted rock, a standing warning to anyone who would dare test the might of the Unicorn regime. We stood on the hills overlooking the new city, and in all honesty, it was a grand construct. The upper reaches of the central tower were still under construction – a strangely organic, skeletal framework jutting into the sky above the part that was already sheathed in stone, but the city as a whole was complete. The sizable houses, wide, friendly streets, and fancy shops were open to all – provided you were a Unicorn. It made me proud that so many had refuted that comfort to come and fight alongside us. I let my gaze wander over the outer walls, and it was a worrying proposition. The main gate was a monster, but our magic artillery would make short work of that – what was bothering me was what lingered behind the walls.
“Are those Flak '40s?” I asked Navy. She shook her head.
“No, those are turreted anti-infantry cannons. Similar to flak, but for ground forces.”
She pointed further back.
“Those are Flak '40s.”
I swore under my breath.
“Will we still be able to provide air support for the initial assault?”
Navy shook her head.
“If we took to the air all the way out here, those guns could still hit us. This is going to have to be ground exclusive.”
“Fucking hell, it's going to be a slaughter.”
She met my gaze.
“You've told them what they're up against, and trained them damn well. They're still here, standing behind you, and that's all you can ask for. You've earned their loyalty, Dash. It shouldn't matter what's in front of them.”
Something about the way she said it honestly choked me up.
“Thanks,” I managed to force out. She just nodded.
“I'll update the commanders and bring you their assessments.”
Navy started to make her way back down the hill to where the main force stood in wait, leaving myself and Spitfire on the ridge.
“Do you still want to do this?” she asked. I could only sigh.
“The more time we give them, the more they fortify. It's dangerous now – later, it would be suicide. We need to do this.”
Spitfire smiled grimly.
“Sounds a bit familiar, doesn't it? Once more unto the breach, dear friend, once more. It's not like obscenely dangerous combat runs are new for us, anyway.”
“Don't overestimate yourself,” I said, “I'm not as tough as I was back in the war, and neither are you.”
“That's a mite harsh, don't you think?”
I immediately winced at what I'd said, running a hoof through her mane.
“I'm sorry, I just... I don't know what I'd do if you were hurt. I need you to be careful.”
She smiled, and took my hoof in hers.
“I'll be careful if you will.”
Despite the situation, I smiled too. She knew me so well.
We just spent a few moments together on the ridge, feeling the wind. Despite the army behind us and the fortress before us, it almost felt like one of those afternoons we used to take, just for ourselves. I cherished the moment, because I knew, either way, win or lose: life would be a complete shitstorm for months at the very least. Navy came back up the slope all too soon.
“I informed the commanders, and they made the announcement.”
“How many did we lose?” I asked, bracing myself for the worst. And then, for the first time in the years I'd known her, I saw Navy Blue smile.
“You shouldn't need to ask.”
She turned me around, and gestured to the mass of ponies.
“Do you see anypony walking away? I already told you, Dash. These mares and stallions are yours to the end.”
“Don't act so surprised,” Spitfire commented, putting a hoof on my shoulder, “Loyalty's your big thing, remember?”
I laughed quietly.
“Well, that can be difficult to quantify when all my elemental affinity was doing was... I don't know, banishing ancient evils and some such bullshit. This... this is the first time I really understand.”
Hesitantly, Navy put her hoof on my other shoulder.
“You've done an incredible thing. Now let's do what we set out to do. Equestria's future is riding on us, right now.”
“Alright. It's time to end this.”
Spitfire and Navy let go of me as I took a few steps forward.
“ARE YOU READY!?” I shouted over the packed field, and was met with a roar of approval.
“THEN RAISE THE BANNERS, LOCK AND LOAD, AND TAKE! THAT! CITY!”
And then... they charged. Unicorns first, magic prepared, Earth Ponies second with their mechanized division, ponies piloting mechs and tanks left over from the war, and Pegasi bringing up the rear to provide support fire from low altitude. Rough, homemade banners bearing Twilight's cutie mark were jutting upwards above the thronging mass like a sparse forest. Spitfire, Navy, and myself took to the air, hovering above the attack force as we prepared our weapons. Spitfire checked the chamber of her sniper rifle, Navy tweaked her mechanized blade, and I tested the string of my clockwork bow. Lady MacBeth was about to loose more arrows than she had in the last two months combined.
“Ready?” Spitfire asked. I nodded.
“Let's do this.”
And weapons ready, we followed the attack front down the hill. The leading Unicorns didn't even stop to cast their magic; the main doors were blasted to splinters by a dozen vibrant violet beams of energy mere moments before the first ponies were in. But there... things got messy. A couple of machinegun nests concealed at the base of the walls opened up, catching most of the first wave in a violent crossfire. The few that made it through found themselves scattered and disoriented; easy prey for the heavier guns further back.
“Pull back!” I shouted to the Unicorns, “Let the armor take point!”
But it was too late. The push already had too much momentum; the entire army was forcing itself into that gap, and without air support, it was chaos and bloodshed on the other side. What else was I to do? I sped through the open gate, just above the ground force, and loosed an arrow into the throat of each gunner. The ground forces took the hint and grabbed the machineguns, quickly shifting the facing so that they could be used to fire into the compound. Now we had a foothold... sort of. The Unicorn soldiers manning the anti-infantry cannons downrange had all been shot and blasted with magic by this point... but now the tanks were rolling in.
“Tanks! LET THE ARMOR THROUGH!!” I screamed at the top of my lungs, and finally, they heard me. Some Earth Pony light armor sped through the newly cleared gate and opened fire on the tanks, occupying their attention as the heavy artillery began pounding the wall to brick and mortar, widening the gap and letting more of our men through. At this point, things were looking pretty promising. The wall had been flattened for fifty meters in both directions, the enemy tanks had been boarded and commandeered, Earth Pony armor was rolling in, and we had the entry courtyard secured. One strong foothold. So strong, in fact, that we let our guard down. Spitfire, Navy and I landed in the middle of the captured area as ponies scurried left and right, securing the perimeter, tending to wounded, and reverently sorting out the dead.
“That went better than I expected, honestly,” Spitfire commented as she worked a jammed casing out of her rifle. Navy still appeared wary as she used a white rag to clean the blood from the finer parts of her sword's mechanism.
“It's too early to let our guard down. The Unicorns had a long time to prepare – it's not out of the question that the battle isn't actually over.”
“What are you thinking?” I asked as Spitfire finally managed to get the massive casing free of the chamber. Navy just shrugged.
“I'm not extremely familiar with magic, but I'm worried about traps, hexes, magic mines – underhanded and violent means the Unicorns employed to unleash vengeance on those who had taken their territory during the war. If they were feeling ambitious, the entire fight so far may have simply been a diversion: a tact to lure us into lowering our guard long enough for them to get something else in position.”
“What kind of something?” Spitfire asked as she fed some fresh shells into her magazine. Navy just shook her head.
“The science of magic is a fresh and largely unexplored field, and the Unicorns have been hard at work learning as much as they possibly can, both from tomes looted from Old Canterlot and fresh experiments of their own. It's not out of the question that they've managed to assemble weapons of unspeakable power; weapons they have simply chosen to keep hidden.”
She sighed in frustration, pacing.
“I don't like this. It's too quiet. Where are the reinforcements? Where's the counterattack? Every new moment of silence makes me believe more and more strongly that the Unicorns have an entire hand left to play...”
I was about to order a division of our Unicorns to take up magic-sniffer duty. I was about to reinforce our perimeter, was about to tell everyone that things probably weren't over. But 'about' wasn't fast enough, because it was already too late. A deep 'thump' echoed from somewhere distant, and a blast of tingling energy washed over the battlefield.
“What was that!?” I shouted, weapon ready. For a moment, nopony was sure... then, from one of the tanks, a voice echoed.
“The machines! They aren't starting!”
And that voice turned into an uproar as pilots, mechanics, gunners and engineers from all across the field realized with a slowly spreading horror that the machines, all of the machines, were lifeless.
“Check the guns!” I shouted, “Everypony, scour this field for every single piece of equipment that still works! A counterattack is coming; use the armor for cover, and use their mounted weapons if they still work!”
It quickly became clear that all the weapons were operational – even the main guns on the tanks, it was only the joints in all the legs, linkages, engines, shafts, and gearboxes that had been magically frozen. So if somepony wandered in front of one of the tanks, you could pop a shot off, but past that, there was no aiming the heavier artillery. Fortunately, most of the vehicles and mechs had secondary machineguns mounted at various points, and all of these could be manned and turned into anti-infantry turrets. I grew more and more anxious as ponies rushed to and fro, manning whatever they could find and picking ideal defensive positions, but time continued to wear on without a peep from the enemy. It grew eerily silent after a while – everypony watching and listening, weapons on a hair trigger, but still... nothing. As the seconds grew into minutes, and the minutes stretched into the tens, it only got worse. With every passing second, we thought, we KNEW that the Unicorns would have to attack at any moment... unless they had another card to play first.
The first thing I remember is the ringing; the shrill, all-encompassing scream of my ears. What had just happened? Next came the pain. It was pretty bad – nothing broken, but a myriad of bruises and deep cuts stretched all over my body. I tried to force my eyes open, but the wash of orange light set off a headache for the record books. I tried again, more slowly... and a millimeter at a time, a scene of absolute devastation unfolded. Fire... everywhere. Shattered metal and mangled bodies littered the ground, the flickering of the myriad flames dancing in pools of blood and oil. The smoke was so thick it had nearly blotted out the sun, sealing me in a temporary night. For a moment, I thought I'd died and woken up in hell... turns out that wasn't the case. Whether that was for better or for worse... someone else would have to decide that. After a few minutes of recuperating, I managed to stumble upright. I started to see survivors picking themselves up, leaning against mangled machinery or helping up their fallen comrades.
“What happened?” I coughed at the nearest pony; an Earth Pony stallion. He threw up his hooves.
“Magic, I think.”
“No, in the immediate sense.”
He glanced around.
“Well... I'd say the fuel and the ammunition in all the armor just... went up. Luna's tits, I thought we had this in the bag...”
“You and me both,” I growled, “Have you seen Spitfire or Navy? Or any of the commanders?”
He shook his head.
“I only just woke up. You're probably best off looking around yourself – you're tougher than most of these poor sods.”
“See what you can do to help the severely wounded and gather anyone who can still fight,” I muttered, and fighting back the pain of my myriad injuries, started to wander about the hellscape.
“Spitfire!” I called out hoarsely, “Navy! Please, can you hear me!?”
“Calm down, I'm over here.”
I turned to where the voice had echoed from, and through the smoke, I could faintly see Navy Blue wrench her blade free from where it had become buried in the hull of a shredded walker. As she made her way towards me, I saw that she was moderately injured, but didn't appear to feel the pain at all.
“Good to see you in one piece,” I commented, relieved, “Have you seen Spitfire?”
She shook her head as she sheathed her sword.
“No. I'd say we should focus on rallying our remaining forces, but...”
She sighed, and continued speaking more softly.
“I know how much she means to you. Keep searching – I can handle the organization for now.”
Earnestly, I grasped Navy's hoof between my own.
“Thank you, Navy. You're a good friend.”
She smiled slightly.
“Save your praise until this is over for good. But thank you.”
We parted ways, Navy shouting to the gathering clumps of surviving warriors, me continuing into the flame-ridden, pockmarked and blasted hellscape. She couldn't possibly be that far...
“Dash... is that you?”
“Spitfire! Where are you!?”
“I don't know... I... I can't see...”
My heart plummeted into my boots. I moved in the direction her voice had originated from, carefully peering through the smoke... and eventually, I saw her outline.
“Thank Celestia, there you are!”
But as I ran closer... I began to wish I hadn't found her. She'd been shredded by a devastating, close proximity blast. Half her body was soaked with blood, and it didn't look like she could stand, judging by the way she'd propped herself against one of the few wrecks that wasn't still on fire, and the way her left leg was bending at the knee. But worst of all...
“Your eyes,” I moaned as I fell to my knees next to her, “Oh, Celestia, your eyes...”
I couldn't see the actual damage because there was so much blood... She laughed; weakly, grimly.
“Guess I'm done with the sniping...”
I was in tears. I just... I didn't know what to do. She was hurt; badly. Maybe dying. As a whole, we were in chaos: no way I could find the supplies I needed to stabilize her. If she was going to survive, somepony well versed in medicine would have to be with her at all times. But before I started the messy and painful process of trying to help her, I gave her what she really needed. Slowly, carefully minding her wounds, I took her in my arms and kissed her lovingly.
“I'm sorry, Dash,” she whispered as I let her go, “I'm so sorry...”
“No, no NO! Don't you dare, Spitfire... don't you fucking dare!”
“Don't be naïve, Dash,” she laughed, “I've already bled out half my body weight. I'm blind, I can't walk, and another attack is coming... it's over.”
“You forgot one thing,” I whispered, taking her hooves in mine, “You have me... and I know a thing or two about loyalty.”
Then, before she could protest, I lifted her into my arms, and started back towards where Navy was gathering everypony.
“I need a medic!” I shouted as I approached the throng, “Does anypony know where I can find a medic!?”
“I'm a medic,” a Unicorn said, rushing out of the crowd. Carefully, I set Spitfire on a clear patch of ground.
“Just keep her alive,” I told him, “Save the eyes if you can, save the leg if you can, but her life is top priority.”
He nodded, and started unpacking his things while I whispered one last thing to her:
“Loyalty means not giving up when somepony is relying on you to come back home.”
“I'll try,” she whispered, and I gave her one last, loving kiss, before getting to my feet and approaching Navy.
“I'll take it from here,” I said, focused to a razor point, “You've got some medical expertise. See if you can help Spitfire.”
She nodded wordlessly, and moved back to where Spitfire lay.
“Hey! All of you!”
They stopped talking and nursing their wounds, and turned to me.
“Well, I'm going to be straight with you. They fucked us, and they fucked us good. But we're inside the walls, and we're in a solid defensive position with lots of guns and cover. They're going to hit us again: the only question is when. So suck up the pain, find a rifle, and get ready to make the sons of bitches pay for the lives they've taken!”
“Rules of engagement?” somepony asked from the front. Now was a good time to let out the rage I'd been bottling up since I found Spitfire. Besides; in this situation, 'get mad' was probably the best pep talk these soldiers could receive.
“FUCK the rules, and FUCK morality! You see a way to kill one of those soldiers, you take it! Trip them! Throw dirt in their eyes! Strangle them with their own rifles! Set them on fire! I cared once, but I don't anymore! They took it one step over the line, so do WHATEVER THE FUCK IT TAKES. AVENGE our fallen!”
There were no cheers anymore. Just nods, sadistic grins, and the sound of working chambers. We weren't gung-ho anymore; no, not after what had just happened. But we certainly had a hell of a lot of fight left, as the Unicorns were about to find out. As we prepared; finding the last of the survivors, mounting, shifting, readying what heavy weaponry we had left, scrounging loose bullets and magazines, I again became nervous about the amount of time the Unicorns were taking to counterattack. This time, however, I was convinced they didn't have any other devastating and morally questionable magical weapons to deploy – there really wasn't much more they could do to us besides walk in with rifles and finish the job the way ponies had for millenia. By the time somepony shouted from the perimeter that they'd spotted hostile forces, we were ready. Oh, were we ever.
The mounted machineguns opened up in a chorus of violent death, showering the first waves of Unicorn infantry with lead and scattering their lines instantly. I laughed to myself as I realized we'd probably finished off the last of their well-trained soldiers during our bloody pre-Canterlot campaign; The Unicorns really hadn't actually had that much time to train a new army of soldiers. At this point, we were probably gunning down the greenest of the green. Once, I might've felt some... shadow of regret, but now, after everypony they'd killed with an underhanded trick... I just laughed at their agony. I didn't realize it then, but now, I know... it was about Spitfire. No amount of murder, no amount of bloodshed could possibly justify what they'd done to her. I wanted to kill something, kill something with my hooves, but wading in at this point would just be reckless and stupid given the wall of fire our battered soldiers were ushering forth. I settled for emptying my quiver into their lines; watching with a vicious grin as my arrows ripped through flesh and bone.
I ignored the call, reaching for another arrow... but I was out, at long last, so I turned towards the voice. It was Navy.
“The city's in lockdown, and their entire force will be out here. They're desperate. There will be no better time than now, with all this chaos, to try and enter the city itself.”
“Who do we send?”
“You and me, obviously. There shouldn't be any resistance, and as my father once told me, nothing's more satisfying then getting the job done yourself.”
“We bring her. We'll probably find more effective medical equipment inside the city, and this would be a good time to get her out of harm's way.”
I nodded, with one last wistful glance to where Spitfire lay, bandages now cris-crossing her body.
“Alright. Let's do it.”
I turned to make an announcement to the men, but paused when I felt Navy's hoof on my shoulder.
“It's best we slip out. We don't want our rear guard to collapse because everyone wants a piece of the muffin.”
“Good call. Let's go.”
Hesitantly, almost wistfully, I turned my back on the fight, and made my way back to where the medic stood at Spitfire's side.
“She's as stable as I can manage,” he said grimly, “Unfortunately, that's not saying much. I've stopped most of the bleeding, but unless someone's at her side constantly, administering treatments as problems arise, she's as good as gone.”
Navy nodded, as I knelt down next to my wife and took her hoof in mine.
“We're going to get you out of here,” I whispered, “We've got this. Just hold on a little bit longer, okay?”
She smiled, and rolled her head in my direction, but wound up staring into the distance. My heart broke to see her eyes hidden behind the blood-stained bandage wrapped around her head.
“I have faith, my love... I have always had faith.”
“I'll cover you,” Navy said, lifting Spitfire's prized rifle into her arms, “You carry her.”
Spitfire didn't make any noise as I lifted her into my arms once again – I doubted she could feel much of anything at this point, as her traumatized body collected what blood it had left in her core, but still she curled slightly, trying to come as close to me as she could. The tenderized and lacerated muscles of my back ached and cramped under her weight, but I shrugged off the pain as I started towards the inner wall. She'd done so much for me... carrying her a kilometer or so was the least I could do for her. Navy chambered a round in Spitfire's rifle and tested the sight as we strode up to the inner wall. I'd expected getting through to be a challenge, but it really wasn't – Navy just stepped up to a door, turned the knob, and stepped through. That war-crime defensive gambit really had been their last line, the poor bastards.
The city beyond the inner wall was so very different from anything I'd seen before. It was so... clean. So organized and structured. Unicorns were orderly by nature, but the design of this city was almost fetishistic – streets following a uniform curve, buildings nearly identical and spaced precisely a meter apart, the colours bright enough to have character, but drab enough so as not to distract a driver or cyclist. The intersections and streets were even coded with a set of coordinates, so you only needed a pair of eyes and a brain to figure out exactly where you were in the city at any given moment.
“The city is arranged like a wheel,” Navy commented, “Roads like this one encircle the central tower at varying distance, while other roads intersect these ones at perpendicular angles, like spokes. The leadership should be in the tower, so all we have to do is follow one of the spokes up.”
“Right,” I replied, turning onto one of the spoke roads.
“You keep moving, I'll fly low cover and make sure nothing unpleasant is hiding around any corners.”
I silently acknowledged her intent, and thought nothing more of it. Then I heard the scream – a shriek of sudden and terrible pain. I turned as fast as I could manage with Spitfire in my arms, and saw Navy nearly collapsed on the pavement, propped up on her sword, her right wing spread... but hinging in three too many places.
“During the blast,” she gasped, “It must've been broken... I didn't even notice...”
She halfheartedly tried to fold the wing again, but sucked in a sharp gasp of pain when she lifted it.
“Don't agitate it,” I said as I turned back to the road, “And take it easy, if you can. If you're not careful, you might lose your flight permanently.”
“I am very much aware,” she growled as she started after me, her crippled wing trailing against the cobbled street behind her, blood flowing freely from where jagged bone had torn the flesh. Well... we were one sorry sight indeed. An assassin with a shattered wing, and a battered revolutionary carrying the flying legend who couldn't walk on her own. It was a good thing we didn't hit any resistance between our entry and the tower; there wouldn't have been much we could've done to defend ourselves, given I had my hooves tied and pain can make even the toughest assassin's aim falter. As we approached the monolithic central tower, I let my gaze wander up its perfectly smooth facing... from here, the unfinished upper framework looked even more like a skeleton than it had before: a great, spindly monster, wrapped around the central frame. When we finally made it to the tower's base, I didn't pause to take in the grandeur of the vast doors, I just shouldered them aside and kept moving. The bottom floor was massive and open; a few reception desks arranged around the spiraling central staircase, and chairs and couches scattered randomly for anyone who had to wait. I carried Spitfire to a couch at the very base of the stairs, and gently set her down. I'd have said something to her, but... her will had given out, and she'd fallen unconscious. I didn't blame her.
“I spotted a first aid kit on the wall next to the entrance,” Navy said, coming up next to me, “Can you fetch that so I've got something to work with?”
“Sure it'll have anything useful?” I asked. Navy shrugged.
“Unicorn first aid requirements are more extensive than Pegasus or Earth Pony equivalents, because they need to have treatment for various magic-inflicted wounds on top of the normal salve, suture, splint loadout. But that's irrelevant. Even if the new material isn't useful, having more of the basic equipment would be helpful, both for Spitfire and for myself.”
I nodded, and jogged back to the outer wall. The kit was easy to spot; a large, sturdy box of metal, painted the classic red and white of medicine. Lifting the sizable container from its resting place was more difficult than I'd anticipated, and I quickly found that moving this first aid kit was little improvement over moving Spitfire. 'More extensive requirements' indeed. I let out a relieved breath as I dropped the box next to Navy with an echoing clang, and she nodded tersely, before lifting the lid and examining the contents.
“There aren't many things I need to do before we can move on. For Spitfire, I need to suppress some internal bleeding, close a few major cuts, and set the knee – I expect I'll be about a half hour. After that, I'll need your help setting my wing.”
“Right. I'll stand guard.”
I drew and checked my sidearm, then took a seat while Navy worked. As time passed, pain, despair, and frustration began to creep into the edges of my mind. For the first time since the explosion, I'd had a chance to pause and collect myself... unfortunately, it wasn't helping. The blinding intensity of moving from crisis to crisis kept me focused to a razor point; unaffected by pain, fear, worry... anything, really. But now that I had time to reflect, everything I'd been keeping back started to... leak. I started glancing back to Spitfire more and more frequently – once, twice a minute, as panic buzzed behind my ears. She was hurt bad. What if she didn't make it? What would I do then? What would I do with my miserable, empty life, with my battered body, useful only for war? Without her, I had nothing but the whispering memories of all those I couldn't save to lull me to sleep – without her, I had no purpose, except to hunt down and kill the last few surviving ponies who had wronged me. The panic and the terror wound up and up inside my chest, squeezing my heart like a coil spring until I swore it was going to burst...
“Dash... is that... you?”
“I know that voice,” I whispered to myself, all thoughts of Spitfire gone as my heart simultaneously leaped and sunk further than I thought it could. Turning towards the source, I half dreaded what I knew I would see, praying all the while that it was just coincidence, just a trick of the wind... it wasn't. There, a small half-smile playing across her face, stood Twilight Sparkle.
“Why do you haunt me?” I whispered as tears welled in my eyes, “I came so far, did so much to distance myself from you. I struggled through the grief, buried you and moved on... only to discover, after all this time, that it was for nothing. They told me I'd never really get past your death... guess they were right.”
She shook her head, her smile widening.
“I'm not sure you're understanding. I'm not in your head. I'm real – I'm alive.”
“Possible? Who are you and I to say what's possible and what isn't? Before it happened, would you have said that what the Unicorns did to your army was possible? Neither would I, but apparently, the Unicorns have invested a tremendous amount of time and energy to unlocking the deepest, darkest, most unthinkably powerful aspects of magic... and despite all that, you picked yourself up, stepped through the flames, and kept going. You really are something else, you know that?”
Her smile spread even further.
“I remember why I love you so much.”
I... wasn't sure what to do. What to say. What COULD be said? Her face fell as I continued to stare blankly.
“I suppose I was hoping you'd be happy to see me.”
I looked away.
“I... don't know what to feel right now, Twi. I guess I've already said what I'm thinking: that I moved on, in life and love. I watched you die, and now that you're back... it... hurts. It feels like everything I struggled through for the last few years was for nothing.”
She blushed, and looked away sheepishly.
“I think I understand, and... I'm sorry I make you feel that way. But I need your help, one last time.”
A fragment of a smile snuck back onto my face.
“Things may have changed, Twi, in ways that I have no chance at understanding, but you're still my friend. What do you need?”
She opened her mouth to speak, but paused when another voice entered the narrowed range of my senses.
“I... don't.... I'm afraid I don't understand.”
I turned to where the new voice had come from, and there stood Navy Blue, her back turned to Spitfire for a moment. I opened my mouth to start explaining, but cut myself short when Twilight gasped sharply.
“Oh no... what in the name of Celestia's eternal spirit happened to Spitfire!?”
“Unicorns happened,” I spat bitterly, “It's like every pony I've ever fallen in love with is murdered or crippled.”
“Blinded? Probably. She might walk again, though.”
“Don't apologize,” I snapped, “Nothing it can do to help her now.”
She looked hurt, and as her eyes melted away my frustration, memories of our life together surged through the forefront of my mind.
“I'm sorry,” I said quietly a moment later, “I just... feel so helpless right now. You don't want to know what I'd give to just wake up and find this was all a horrible dream... wake up so I could call off the attack and spare my wife and my men this misery.”
Her face fell even further.
“So, you're... married.”
“I apologize sincerely,” Navy cut in, “But time is of the essence. First, I need to know why you are alive, Twilight, and second, we need to form a plan.”
“Come to think of it,” I said, turning back to Twi, “I'd like to know that too. So the Unicorns have developed resurrection magic, yes, but why resurrect you? It can't be a simple procedure, and the reconstruction of your body after three years would have been...” I shuddered, “Interesting. They must have an endgame.”
She paused for a moment, thinking, then just shook her head.
“I don't have much for you. I woke up further up the tower several hours ago; watched your attack force break down the doors, watched you overcome the ambush... watched the Unicorns unleash that unholy trap. I made my way down when I saw that some ponies had made it through the inner wall – had no idea it was you.”
“Did you see anypony?” I pressed. She shook her head again.
“The tower was quiet as death, at least from a quarter of the way up to here. I'd be willing to bet it's just as empty, from here to the top.”
“Speaking of the top, where do you think Whytemane could possibly be hiding...?” I asked sarcastically, “Alright. Navy, let me know the moment Spitfire can be moved again.”
“How long do you think?” Twilight asked as Navy turned back to where Spitfire lay. As she carefully removed some bloodsoaked bandages, she shrugged.
“Half hour minimum for Spitfire, then maybe twenty minutes to get my wing sorted out. To be safe, assume an hour.”
“That's... a problem.”
Despite the sense of nostalgic calm that Twilight was inspiring in me, that sentence pushed me back into the anger spectrum.
“What the fuck do you mean? What could possibly warrant cutting corners on medical aid to my wife and my third in command?”
“Death,” she said in a very, very small voice. It was a while before she picked up again.
“The spell keeping me alive... isn't permanent. Unless something changes, I've got at most two hours to live.”
“FUCK!” I screamed, viciously kicking a nearby office chair. Why did it seem so often that my life was a series of situations where I was trapped between a rock and a hard place?
“Don't do anything rash, Rainbow,” Navy said urgently, “The work I'm doing can't be rushed, and we need protection. Who knows when remnants of the Unicorn forces will start trickling back into the city? Unless you're willing to sacrifice MY ability to fly, we can't move for another hour. We'll just have to take our chances.”
“But if we wait that long, I'm as good as dead!” Twilight cried, “If anyone knows how to make this spell permanent, it's Whytemane, and climbing this tower to the top will take at LEAST an hour!”
Both their eyes were on me, their gazes intense and their mouths flat, hard lines. Navy's shone blood red with bitter honesty, and Twilight's swam purple with panic and fear. The battle in my head seemed to rage for hours... and even before the choice was made, I regretted it.
“Navy, you and Spitfire knew what you signed on for,” I said quietly, “Twilight did nothing. Nobody here deserves pain or death, but... you two are prepared for it.”
It took me a few moments to find a word for the look in Navy's eyes, but when I found it, it burned like a white-hot knife lodged between my ribs. It was betrayal.
“You... can't mean that.”
She was on her feet in moments.
“We fought, side by side, for the sake of ourselves and everypony in Equestria. We endured EVERYTHING together, and you would cast us aside for... a shade? You would abandon everything you fought for and surrender to the siren song of what you once had?”
Those were... tears in her eyes. I had never seen the assassin show so much as a shred of compassion, fear, or sadness, but now... I had to look away.
“I'm sorry, but this isn't just about you, Spitfire, and Twilight. I need closure. I need an end. I can't just let her trail off, or I'll never get it out of my head... I'll never forgive myself. I trust you, Navy... I know you'll keep Spitfire safe, I know you'll keep yourself safe. And that's what I need you to do, okay?”
She shook her head.
“You're wrong. This is entirely about me; about Spitfire. You can't leave...” her voice caught, and it was a moment before she continued, her eyes averted.
“You can't leave, because I'm in love with you.”
It was an hour-long second before I knew what to say or what to feel, Twilight's eyes resting on me the whole time.
“Navy, I... I'm sorry, but this doesn't change the situation.”
“Yes it does,” she whispered, meeting my gaze once again, “Because if Spitfire feels about you the same way I do, then leaving her like this... Dash, she may not be conscious right now, but if she ever found out that you'd abandoned her at her weakest, left her when she needed you most... it would destroy her. For me, for her, and for yourself – you need to stay.”
Silence reigned for minutes before I could find my words again.
“I'm sorry, Navy, but this is something I need to do.”
She shook her head, her mouth downturned.
“Don't apologize to me. Apologize to your wife.”
She was quiet for a few moments more, and continued after taking a deep breath.
“But, if your mind is set...”
Navy glanced to her crippled wing, then back to me, and in a moment of empathy, we both knew what I was asking her to do. What I was asking her to sacrifice. She didn't even try to stop the tears as she snapped to attention and saluted sharply, blood-red eyes burning with rage... but also with understanding.
“Celestia's eternal spirit watch over you,” she whispered, her voice layered with anger and bitterness, before turning away and not looking back. I stepped forward to say something, anything to help ease her burden... but stopped myself when I realized I would have been speaking for my benefit, not hers. But even if I had chosen to speak, I'd just condemned her to a life without her flight. There really were no words strong enough to convey the guilt I felt.
“Let's go,” I whispered bitterly as I strode past Twilight, towards the stairs. She hesitated, but followed eventually, her gaze lingering on Spitfire and Navy until they were out of sight.
“Wait,” she called after me as I set a hoof on the first step, “We go down first. There's someone we might need.”
I stared at her a moment, considering.
“Alright. You know what we need better than I, so I'm letting you lead.”
And so we started down the spiraling staircase, descending below ground into the bowels of the central complex. The stonework shifted from smooth marble to damp granite brickwork, and as the lights grew further and further apart, the sense of unease and sinister weight steadily intensified. Was that perhaps intentional...?
“What's down here?” I asked eventually.
“Dungeon,” Twilight responded bluntly. My silence served to inform her that her answer hadn't been detailed enough.
“While I was exploring further up the tower, I found some dossiers on important staff members here. There's a Unicorn who works down in the dungeons – Necrous, I think his name is, who might be able to help us. His dossier pegs him as a bit softhearted – not outright mushy, but empathetic. I think he'll be willing to help us out.”
“How do you know he hasn't left?” I asked, “The city was mostly evacuated ages ago, and has been in lockdown since.”
“The psychological profile mentioned an almost overwhelming sense of duty. He'll be there because he believes it's what's expected of him by his superiors.”
“But if his sense of duty is so strong, how do we convince him to potentially go against the wishes of Whytemane, his superior?”
“We'll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Twilight sighed. Eventually, the stairs stopped, and before us stood the entrance to a claustrophobic, labyrinthine maze of damp stone walls, dim gas torches, and cells thick with the reek of dead flesh.
“Necrous!” Twilight called out as she started down the central hallway, “Necrous, are you in here?!”
“You don't know where he is?” I asked, slightly incredulous. She shot me a glare.
“I've only been awake for a couple of hours; I couldn't possibly know enough about the facility or the pony to place him with that kind of precision. Shouting will have to do.”
Fortunately, we were able to spare ourselves further embarrassment – a sizable, storm-gray Unicorn stallion had stepped from the shadows, bright green eyes electrifying in the darkness, and a back-swept silver mane catching the flickering of the lamps.
“Who are you, and what do you want?” he asked in a deep, calm voice. I glanced to Twilight, and she stepped forward.
“We're going to the top of the tower, and we'd like you to come with us.”
Necrous raised an eyebrow.
“Sure. Let me just drop everything I'm doing, so I can traipse off on a mystery quest with a pair of Pegasus strangers, who I'm certain will soon by my very best friends.”
Twilight sighed heavily.
“Really, there's no need for that. Let me explain the situation.”
And a few minutes later, the story was told. Necrous' sarcastic air was entirely gone, and he was staring off into the distance, half lost in thought.
“I was aware that experiments regarding resurrection and immortality were underway – I was participating in them, but I had no idea they were up to a prototyping phase... But even if I had known, the complexity of that kind of magic would be completely beyond me. I'm sorry I can't help you myself, but I do wish you luck on your way up the tower, and hope Whytemane sees fit to help you.”
Confused, Twilight glanced back to me momentarily.
“But...” she said hesitantly, “Why won't you come? If Whytemane won't help me, then you could help convince him.”
Necrous shook his head.
“Whytemane is my superior officer, even if his rank is above mine by several orders of magnitude, and I need to respect that. If I go up with you, you'll either need my help convincing him, which I can't do, or you'll convince him yourself, making my presence unnecessary.”
“Look,” Twilight said quietly, darkness in her voice, “I don't know if you have any idea what's been going on above ground these last few minutes, but we're at the tipping point: this is ending now, for better or for worse, and I can guarantee the rebellion forces will be much kinder to you if you helped their leader.”
Necrous glanced to me, then chuckled quietly.
“So you're Rainbow Dash, eh? Thought I recognized you.”
He turned away, and started pacing.
“You two are asking me to betray crown and country on a whim. What could possibly empower you with the audacity to pose such a question?”
Twilight had nothing, but that was Twilight.
“What do you do down here?” I asked, glancing around. If I was lucky, he'd been shoehorned into a bad job. When he froze, I knew I was on the right track.
“I'm an... interrogation specialist.”
I crossed my arms.
He was silent for a long time.
I glanced around, and pulled over a chair that had been sitting next to a guard's table.
“There's a story behind that 'no',” I said nonchalantly as I took a seat, “Please, do tell.”
He didn't say anything for at least a minute, then turned back to me with a resigned sigh.
Twilight and Necrous both fetched something to sit on, and when we were all approaching comfortable, he began.
“I was... young when I discovered I had a special knack for pain manipulation. It's testy magic that not many can master, but it just came so naturally to me... for years, I harbored dreams of entering medicine, perhaps joining the military and relieving the pain of the wounded and dying. And that's exactly what I did during the war... but once the Unicorn regime was in place, the powers that be saw me as a unique resource with a particular advantage. I can make pain go away... but I can also amplify it a thousandfold. That's when they sent me down here. They use me to extract information from ponies because I can cause tremendous pain with no physical side effects, leaving the body intact for other forms of magical experiments or public execution. Occasionally, I get pulled up to higher floors to help with the biologically-oriented magical experiments, but even there, my presence is often to simply cause pain, and as much as I can. I go along with it because I believe in the chain of command and remember the oath I swore at the start of the war, but now that it's all falling apart, now that I'm being offered an alternative...”
He met my gaze.
“If you win, my oath will mean nothing. If you lose, the Unicorn regime will be weakened and scattered, and my oath will mean nothing soon enough.”
“Then it's time to swear a new oath,” I said sincerely, meeting his gaze, “I intend to have little to do with the new government, but I can promise you a comfortable life: a home, and a stable job where you can do what you've always wanted to – relieve pain, instead of cause it.”
He remained silent for a moment, so I forged on.
“You swore an oath to the Unicorn government, yes, but they've turned on you, dropped their end of the bargain: they're abusing your power for torture and experimentation rather than medicine. They betrayed you, Necrous, and now they're weak. You can walk away.”
“It's treason,” he said after a moment. I raised an eyebrow.
“High treason, yes,” I said with a slight smile. His expression remained flat for a while, and I was starting to get worried, but then, a smile crept across his features.
“Count me in, Rainbow Dash.”
I nodded in appreciation as Twilight let out a sigh of relief.
“Alright, Necrous, we'd best get moving. Twilight doesn't have much time to work with. Twi, you lead – you know the layout better than me.”
And with that, we started up the spiral staircase.
If I'd known what was waiting at the top, I'd have unholstered my revolver and shot myself in the head.
About a quarter of the way up, we exited the stairwell and pulled up some chairs, giving our tired legs a rest. That floor happened to have been one of the tower's observation decks, and it was clear from the dizzying height we already found ourselves at that the tower was much taller than it had seemed from the outside. Even here, just a fourth of the way to the top, it was easy to see over the sprawling city and down into the battlefield behind the main gate. I leaned closer to the window and squinted, trying to make out details – and it looked like we had won. Wrecks were being dragged aside, a few fires burned, presumably fueled by the bodies of the dead, and a vast banner bearing Twilight's cutie mark flapped in the breeze.
“Is that... my cutie mark?”
I glanced over to where Twilight had come even with me, and nodded, before looking back to the commotion on the city's outer rim.
“What do you suppose drove me to this?” I asked quietly, “Why do you think I moved mountains to bring this city down? I wasn't happy about the way things were, but I never really cared... but then they killed you, and everything changed. I had nothing to drive me but my fury. My despair. So I channeled it into the only thing I could: I joined the resistance, and I turned it into an army.”
I laughed slightly to myself.
“The one big question that's been eating at me these three years... it was 'would she be proud? Would she be happy? Would she be content, knowing she was avenged? She and everypony else who was lined up and shot that day?'”
I met her gaze.
Her words caught in her throat as the glanced between me and the battlefield, unsure of what to say.
“Dash, I... as much as I understand where you're coming from... I never would have wanted this. My own death was enough, why would I want more suffering and bloodshed in my name? Why would I want that on my conscience? Why would anyone? Those soldiers that your men just massacred weren't evil. Hell, most of them probably didn't want to be there; were probably shaking in their boots as you gunned them down. Rainbow, what's done is done, but how could you even begin to imagine I would have wanted this!?”
It took me a long time to get my thoughts sorted.
“Don't talk to me about mercy,” I spat, disheartened and bitter, “I cared once. I took prisoners. Spared those that were coerced into fighting, integrated those that were sympathetic, executed those that were unapologetic. I tried my damndest, time and again, to minimize enemy casualties. 'I'm not here to murder,' I'd tell myself, 'I'm here to take a stand.' But then, after all the effort I put into being kind, being merciful... the Unicorns activate their unholy weapon of slaughter. Twilight, since that thing went off, since Spitfire was wounded...” I met her gaze, “I can tell you in complete honesty that I will kill any Unicorn soldier I see, any way I can.”
“Is that really what you want? Blood for blood?”
I sighed, turning away from the window and starting for the staircase once again.
“It's all I've got left.”
The next few minutes were spent in nearly complete silence, only the echoing 'clop, clop, clop' of our footsteps disturbing the quiet. Twilight was scared and panicked, partly because of her current predicament, partly in response to my expression of vengeance. Necrous was uneasy and edgy, probably because he still wasn't completely okay with the idea of betraying his superior officer. Then there was me, and I was just... spent. Disillusioned, I suppose. Two things had kept me going through the rebellion: the first was Spitfire, and the second was the security in my belief that Twilight would've been glad I was doing this for her. Now, one was badly injured, maybe dying, and the other was simply gone. The only reason I was still climbing the tower was because I hadn't come this fucking far to just ditch this close to the end.
“So, Necrous...” Twilight began furtively, “What kind of magical experiments were going on here? Magic has always been a... fascination of mine.”
Necrous shrugged, and his expression didn't seem to change much, but I could tell he was as relieved as I was to have a distraction from his own thoughts.
“Pretty much any kind you can think of. If it hadn't already been mastered, the Unicorns wanted to discover, control, and utilize it in any way they could. And even that wasn't always true – I caught wind of Unicorn scientists revising casting methods for much older spells: magic predating the twin Princesses.”
“Anything of particular interest?”
“A few. The big one was a harnessing and storage system, which Rainbow has probably encountered firsthoof. Unicorn casters worked with Earth Pony scientists to develop a machine that can siphon pure magical energy from a Unicorn's horn, then channel and redirect it into a powerful weapon. It was used mostly to add a Unicorn touch to Earth Pony designs; arming tanks and mechs with magic-based weaponry and the like.”
I nodded slowly.
“Yup, I've definitely run into a few of those.”
“There are a few variants on that, of course. I've heard rumors about more sinister versions that can extract raw life energy... or souls... or... something like that instead of magic, but they're probably baseless. There were dozens of tiers of scientists working here, and urban legends about what was happening on higher floors ran rampant. I was only involved in mid-level projects at highest, so my knowledge of the high level projects is limited.”
He started as something came to him.
“There IS one project you might find particularly intriguing. A very large team was working 'round the clock to develop a spell or machine that could suppress the magical ability of all Unicorns within a radius, excepting the user.”
Twilight's eyebrows shot up.
“How is that not ironic:” I scoffed, “The utopian Unicorn regime developing a weapon to control their own people.”
Both of them ignored me.
“Was the project successful?” she asked with immense interest, “I can't imagine how it would work. Magic can't cancel out magic, you'd need some kind of.. anti-magic, something that could negate the energy of the spell at a very basic level.”
“The project did produce functioning prototypes, yes. They were a little bit temperamental, but they worked. “
“By prototype, I suppose you're implying...”
“...a machine rather than a spell, yes. You're completely right when you say that magic can't cancel out magic, so they had to take it up the chain of command: play with a force even more fundamental to reality than magic.”
“That couldn'tve been safe.”
“That's what I said at the time, but we're not all dead, so I suppose it wasn't an issue.”
“I'm curious about those urban legends you mentioned earlier,” I said over my shoulder, “What were some of the most interesting ones?”
Necrous laughed outright.
“Do you want 'plausible interesting' or 'batshit crazy interesting'?”
“I think we could all use some lightheartedness right about now. Five hundred on 'batshit crazy'.”
“Alright, if you say so,” he replied with a smile.
“Alright. Here goes. One of the lower level scientists approached me one night in a fit of panic, and went off on this massive speel about how he'd tried to follow a high-level scientist into his lab, but wound up pursuing him underground and into a massive hangar. And in that hangar, according to him, was a massive, half-finished war machine being built from the bones of thousands of dead ponies.”
The stairwell was quiet for some time.
“He was... wrong, right?” I asked.
“Of course,” Necrous reassured me, “I mean, of course, there's always a tiny chance that the Unicorn regime is building a giant war machine in a secret underground facility from the bones of dead ponies, but there's also a chance that this entire tower is built from the processed remains of some long lost second moon. The Unicorns were working on some insane projects, that's a certainty, but there's a threshold I highly doubt they even dreamed of crossing. Like building a giant war machine in a secret underground facility from the bones of dead ponies.”
We laughed it off, but there was something about the concept that stuck with me, gnawing at the back of my brain like a stupid decision I just couldn't forget. The Unicorns were researching dark, dark magic to help keep themselves in power – how far were they really prepared to go? The tale itself may have been pure fabrication, yes, but it served to remind me, to remind all of us, that the Unicorns had committed atrocities of faith and science in their pursuit of ultimate order... and we would have to be prepared to face down anything, anything before the end. I was only getting more and more tense as we progressed, but fortunately, the conversation of magical science kept Twilight and Necrous entertained and distracted. I smiled to myself as they broke out in laughter yet again – no need for all of us to be miserable.
But with that thought, my mind wandered back down the staircase to where Spitfire and Navy lay, exposed and vulnerable, and my throat ran dry when I realized that by now, Navy's wing would be beyond saving. I justified the decision in seconds. 'It had to happen.' 'There was no other way.' But was there? What if I had been too hasty in my consideration? What if Twilight was going to die no matter what, and I'd just cost Navy her flight for nothing? No, I corrected myself. I hadn't cost her her flight, I'd TAKEN her flight. Me. I was a monster. But even as that realization settled in, it lost its impact. Come to think of it, I'd been a monster for a long time already... but that only dragged a new question to the forefront of my mind. As a murderer, a sinner, would overturning the Unicorn regime be my absolution, or just the last nail in the coffin? I sighed, and picked up the pace slightly. That was for somepony else to decide.
After another solid forty minutes of climbing, we entered the part of the tower that was still under construction. It was fairly dull for some time – exposed steel girders, bare concrete, and various discarded tools cluttering the floor, but once we ascended past the portion of the tower that had walls, into the top eighth, the view was awe-inspiring. Through the skeletal framework of the tower, you could see for eternity... the plains of the Mild West, the scorched and muck-racked battlefields of the long lost war, even the serene peace of liberated Ponyville, where all ponies lived as equals and without fear of overzealous, racist control.
“Ponyville,” Twilight whispered to herself, pausing for a moment to take a seat on the stairs and look out over the vast expanse of Equestria, “I miss it... I miss it so much.”
Smiling, I sat down next to her.
“You'll see home again. Don't worry.”
She smiled nervously.
“Try not to be too cavalier. I've got a feeling this won't be as easy as we're hoping.”
“I don't care. They can try their damnedest to put us down, but I promise you: you will see Ponyville again.”
A small smile crossed her face.
I felt it as she let her hoof rest on top of mine, and I wanted to pull away, wanted to make sure she knew I wasn't hers anymore before she got hurt, but... I wasn't sure, sure about anything really. If these were to be our last moments, Twilight's last moments, then I owed her a little comfort at the very least. So I let her come close; let her rest her head on my shoulder, consequences be damned. We all need a little love at times like these, even if it isn't real. I had loved her once, for years – I could pretend for a few moments more.
“Twi,” I whispered after some time had passed, “We need to keep moving. Who knows how long it'll take to deal with Whytemane?”
“I know you're right, it's just... I don't want to go, Dash. I know you're not in love with me anymore, I just... I want to make believe for a little longer.”
For a moment, I considered abiding by her wishes, but I couldn't. I got to my feet, and offered her a hoof up.
“I'm sorry, Twi, but make believe won't help if you're dead.”
She glanced away after getting to her feet, taking in the view again.
“I... don't know anymore,” she said quietly, “Part of me doesn't want to go to the top of the tower... just wants to wait it out here, live my last few minutes happy. With you.”
I resisted the urge to lash out at her, simply shaking my head and starting up the stairs again.
“As much as I understand and respect that sentiment, the only two ponies I really care about paid a price so that we could come this far. Spitfire gave up her security and her guarantee of dedicated medical assistance, Navy gave up her flight, for Luna's sake, and I... I abandoned them down there. I'm not about to invalidate those sacrifices on a whim.”
Eventually, she followed, her head hung low.
“I... suppose I understand. Let's keep going, then.”
There was something about the reluctance in her voice that started me worrying. She was genuinely upset that we couldn't just stay and wait it out... what could possibly make her change her mind? What could possibly drive her to decide she'd rather die than reach the top of this tower, after the panic she'd shown earlier, clear as day? Things were starting to add up in my head; pieces of the puzzle were clicking into place, and I was starting to wonder if agreeing to take Twilight up had been an act of mercy, or desperate stupidity? After all, Celestia only knew what was actually up there. What if Whytemane wasn't there, and this had all been for nothing? Worse, what if it was actually a trap? The more I thought, the worse I felt, the more the acidic sense of panic rose in the back of my throat. What the fuck was I about to walk into? But I was all in now – the choices had been made, the cards had been played, so I swallowed my fear and kept walking up those stairs.
“We're getting close now,” Necrous muttered, “Be on your guard.”
I nodded mutely in reply, readying my revolver. This far up the tower, there really wasn't much in terms of structure – a few seemingly frail core structural girders jutted up into the air, but past that, it was pretty much just the spiral staircase, the as of yet nonfunctioning elevator in the center, and one, last platform, up at the very top. Fortunately for us the wind was light; if it had been storm weather, we could've been picked up and tossed out over the city like leaves. Very heavy leaves that die when they hit the ground. I smiled as I remembered a stunt I'd pulled in my youth; saving half the Wonderbolts plus Rarity from a lethal fall, pulling a Sonic Rainboom at the same time... no way I'd do that again, and certainly not after the damage my wings sustained during the war. Hell, they'd probably snap clean in two. Just like Navy's in that explosion. I winced as my reverie was shattered by the immediacy of that event, but appreciated how it centered our objective in my mind once again. There were twenty, maybe thirty steps left before we knew exactly what we'd gotten ourselves into.
“Here we go,” I sighed, popping my gun's cylinder one last time, making sure all six chambers were loaded. It was a few more steps before I realized Twilight had fallen behind again.
“Are... are you sure?” she asked, her voice layered with panic, “We can still turn back, it's not too late...”
That was too much. The straw that broke the camel's back, I suppose.
“What is it with you!?” I snapped, “We've gone over this already, and if you're thinking about pussying out, just go over what I said last time. Not a single word has changed. I expected more of you, Twi. You asked a LOT from me, and the least I'd expect is that you'd have the balls to see it through! Now we're FINISHING this, whether you like it or not!”
She looked hurt, but said nothing, and caught up with myself and Necrous.
“Ready?” I asked quietly, as we stared at the last few steps.
“As I'll ever be,” he grunted, his horn flaring with energy in preparation to cast, “I still don't feel particularly good about turning on Whytemane... but it helps that you're backing me up.”
“That guy fucked over a lot of ponies; murdered even more. The fact that you're willing to consider going against him says more than enough for me.”
“Glad to have your back. Let's do this.”
And with that, we charged up the last stretch of stairwell, and out on to the platform above... empty.
“Ffffuck,” I muttered, holstering my gun and trying not to think about everything this stupid, bullshit run had cost my friends, but no such luck. It wasn't working. All I could see was the betrayal in Navy's eyes when I chose Twilight over her and Spitfire; all I could hear was the hatred in her voice when she let me go. All for nothing. NOTHING. For a moment, I looked over to the edge, wondering if it would be easier to throw myself off rather than descend the staircase and see the look in her eyes amplified a thousand fold. I turned to Twilight to say something venemous, but... the look in her eyes froze me solid. She stood, her arms nervously crossed and hair whipped by the breeze, her head held low and her eyes guilty.
“I'm so, so sorry, Dash...”
One look at her, and my fury and despair melted away. How did she do that...?
“No, it's... it's okay. You couldn't have predicted he wouldn't be here.”
She shook her head.
“Not about this. About that.”
Then she pointed over my shoulder, and my blood ran cold. Dreading what I would see, I slowly came about... just in time to see a massive, skeletal hand reach up over the edge of the platform and take hold, the tips of its sharpened fingers shattering the marble where they made forceful contact.
“Twilight,” I whispered, “Oh, Twilight... what have you done?”
Necrous came up next to me a second hand surfaced over the edge, the tips of its claws raking scars through the polished white stone before finally finding purchase.
“What... would you say those claws are built from?” he asked hesitantly.
“Some kind of ceramic. It almost looks like...”
Then it clicked.
“...bone,” I trailed off, in complete shock.
“No. Fucking. Way.” Necrous said, caught somewhere between laughter and panic. As we stared in abject horror, the vast machine's head rose from beyond the edge. A sharp, angular skull housing dozens of vibrant red mechanical eyes stared us down, formed entirely of fragments of cut, polished, and drilled bone, held together with a plethora of steel braces and brackets. Long stretches of steel reinforced any leading edges, and it was easy to see why: the monster clearly wasn't finished; literally, a skeleton built from skeletons. Then, with one final heave, the beast dragged its torso up onto the platform... fortunately for us, that was all that had been built. A thick, complex spinal column of cables, wiring, grease and bone simply trailed off into nothing after exiting the base of what appeared to be the machine's ribcage... but when I saw what the ribcage contained, the machine's spine lost all appeal.
“Necrous... are you seeing this?”
“I wish to Celestia's eternal spirit I wasn't.”
Dangling inside the ribcage were hundreds, hundreds of violated pony corpses, limp sacks of meat, shaved and deprived of any bones needed for the terrifying construct's framework.
“I don't understand,” I whispered, half to myself, “Why... why would somebody build this atrocity? What purpose could it possibly serve...? What could justify the unholy... rape of these poor ponies?”
“Fear,” Necrous spat grimly, “I'd say fear is the top candidate. Who would dream of rising against a regime that creates monsters such as this?”
“Impressive, isn't it!?”
At first, I didn't recognize the voice booming across the tower's final floor, layered as it was with hysteria and rage, but it didn't take too long to recall the name that had been on everypony's mind since the Unicorn regime's inception. Whytemane. And sure enough, moments later, the biomechanical monster dropped its chin to the floor like a bowing servant, allowing Whytemane himself to descend from where he'd been perched in a control unit atop the construct's skull. As he approached me, I noticed he looked terrible. His mane was long, frayed, and unkempt, his coat matted and scorched in places, his eyes wide, ferocious, and hysterical. This was the face of a pony gone mad.
“Pity we couldn't finish it, because of you and your FUCKING REBELLION!!”
I recoiled slightly as I felt his spittle spray my face. I was angry, I was tired, and the asshole had just spat on me, so I got straight to the point.
“Why in the flying FUCK would you build something like this!? 'Atrocity' doesn't do it justice! 'Abomination' is FAR too kind! This is... this is a violation of all natural law!”
Whytemane pouted. Luna's tits, he was far gone.
“Oh, I thought he was kinda cute.”
I was about to shoot off something bitter and disdainful, but he wasn't done.
“This was an experiment! Not in mechanics or technology, no... in magic! As Twilight will probably tell you, there are ten known schools of magic, but an eleventh has been theorized to exist for... well, for a very long time. During our research in this very tower, we FOUND it, hiding right beneath our noses! The eleventh school is Life! Life itself! And in Celestia's name, is it powerful. Trouble is controlling it. You see, most magic that is used for combat – pure magical energy, essentially, can be channeled through wiring, much like electricity. But Life... Life is very particular. It needs to be generated by, transmitted through and used within an organic framework. So Unicorns can cast Life spells, if they're strong enough... but using it with machines requires some... interesting touches. The Titan you see behind me is the first large-scale prototype of a war machine powered exclusively by Life energy!”
“Explains the bones, but why the bodies?” Necrous asked, half curious, half disgusted.
“Batteries,” said Whytemane bluntly, “Or generators, rather. A beating heart is close enough to alive to create Life energy, so all the lovely cadavers hanging up in there have their hearts electronically stimulated. At any given time, the Titan has enough energy flowing through its bony circuits to get right up and go to work! At least, it would if it has legs. Right now it's reduced to a, sort of... crawl.”
I was finding it hard to take him seriously. He was so clearly completely mad that even with the looming war machine behind him, I was getting more and more confident in our odds.
“Look,” I said, stepping forward and readying my weapon, “Your entrance was nice and your pet is impressive, but this is all beside the point. How do we make the spell on Twilight permanent?”
Whytemane paused, frowning.
“What do you... it IS permanent.”
Then something clicked in his head... and inside mine.
“Right, the plan! Twilight, if you please...”
My heart plummeted into my boots. Poor little Twi was in much, much deeper than I'd dared to consider. She hadn't just known what was going to happen and led us in nonetheless... she had been working for Whytemane.
“I'm sorry,” she whimpered as her horn flared.
“Twilight,” I said nervously, “Please, don't do anything rash – Whytemane is at a disadvantage, and we don't need him. He said it himself; the spell's permanent. You don't need to do what he says. It's three one one, Twi... please, don't make this any worse.”
She squeezed her eyes tightly shut for a moment... and her horn faded back to normal.
“...you're right, Dash.”
“FUCK!!” screamed Whytemane, “Alright then, Plan B!” And in a single chaotic instant, he charged Twilight, his horn streaming with combat magic, while the Titan came to life of its own accord.
“Should never have relied on her, never have relied on her! Always do it yourself!” I heard him rambling to no one in particular as he and Twilight began to fling bolts of magic at one another, flickering shards of discarded and deflected energy scattering through the air like fireworks.
“How is it moving!? He's not controlling it!” I shrieked as I frantically threw myself aside, just in time to dodge the machine's first ponderous swat.
“It's a thinking machine!” Necrous hollered back as he pelted its face with magic, “A robot! It's either driven by a captured spirit or a calculating engine – but either way, the important bit is its head – there's no space in its chest! If we can sever that spine, we might be able to kill it! Here!”
I barely caught the long, wicked knife he tossed to me.
“I'll keep it busy, you fly up there and do some damage!”
“Stay safe!” I shouted as I took to the air; he just nodded and kept up the attack. As I circled the machine from altitude, I was once again struck by how unbelievably massive the thing was. Its body and outstretched arms covered half the circular platform, which was easily a hundred meters across... but now wasn't the time to think, now was the time to act. Necrous was holding his own against the Titan; nimbly dodging to and fro, keeping it occupied and irritated with repeated blasts of magic directed into its soft bits, and the duel between Twilight and Whytemane was in full swing; the light blinding even from my altitude, and the once-polished sheen of the floor vanished beneath a plethora of fresh scars. As I watched the battle unfold, I wasn't sure what to feel. Part of me was furious that she'd played us straight into Whytemane's hand - not because of the fight I found myself entangled in, I could handle a fight. It was Navy, and what I'd forced her to do, believing that Twilight really did have little time to lose. But what was done was done, and for what it was worth, Twilight was on our side now... would that be enough for me to forgive her? Only time would tell.
“Hang in there,” I whispered, before returning my focus to my target. The head was moving around quite a bit as Necrous pelted it with magic, and the various plates and flanges of bone jutting from the back of the framework skull were making it difficult to get a bead on a segment of exposed spine. Eventually, however, I spotted my in: there was a thin gap cut through the center of the plating coating the back of the neck, to allow more freedom of movement around the spine itself. If I could get the knife through that gap and between the vertebrae, the fight was over. It was just a matter of timing... and speed. Well, I could handle one of those items, at the very least. So with one last, deep breath, one last whispered prayer to the twin princesses, I plunged.
Air ripped past me like a living thing as I folded my wings tight against my flanks, just like we'd practiced when I was learning to fly again, just like we'd practiced during the war, just like I'd practiced for the Wonderbolts... just like I'd been taught, so many years ago. 'My entire life has been building to this moment,' I thought to myself, and only became more resolute, more focused: it was true. This was the end: the end of the rebellion, and by association, the true and final end to the war. With this knife, I would murder my demons. I brought my limbs as tightly together as I could manage, refining myself into a missile; a bullet of flesh and blood. The faster I got in, the less time the Titan had to cover up its weak spot. I was close now, very close... I could make the strike! I held the knife high as I plunged towards my target, flaring my wings in preparation for impact... the landing was hard, and for a moment, I thought my shock-addled legs would cost me my balance on the slick, bony surface of the Titan's back... but I managed to stay steady nonetheless, and drove the knife downward and in. I screamed in surprise and stumbled back as an oily, bloodlike, reddish-black fluid surged from the wound, forcing its way past the knife's blade with tremendous pressure and spraying meters into the air. I gritted my teeth and stepped forwards again, ignoring it as the vile substance saturated my coat and mane, driving the knife in to the hilt and wrenching it left and right, widening the pinprick to a violent slash in the soft cabling of the Titan's inner spine. I decided the job was done when gallons of the machine's blood were raining down around me like the storm of the century, and carefully slid down the incline of the ribcage, hitting the ground running.
As I skidded to a halt next to Necrous, it was clear my attack had had a profound impact. The Titan's movements were lurching and imprecise, the eyes flickering out one by one as the monster slowly lost power, before collapsing against the floor with an echoing crunch of splintering bone and cracking stone.
` “That look dead to you?” I gasped, still trying to catch my breath as machine-blood slowly filtered out of my coat into a steadily widening puddle on the floor. He nodded approvingly.
“Quite dead, yes. I could poke it with a stick if you like.”
My laughter was interrupted by this strange, hair raising sensation of energy, like static electricity, or a thunderbolt was about to strike... MAGIC.
He didn't act fast enough, so I acted first: I bodily hurled myself at him, but my insignificant mass wasn't enough to fully bowl him over. Fortunately for both of us, that happened to be sufficient, as an arc of vibrant white magical energy split the air centimeters behind me. I swore to myself as I disentangled myself from Necrous, turning to the source as fast as I could manage... there stood Whytemane, grinning contentedly to himself and bearing a number of fresh burns and wounds. I couldn't find Twilight, at first... but she wasn't hard to miss. She lay near the edge of the platform, bleeding, smoking, and barely moving. I cursed myself a thousand times for losing track of the magic duel. Somewhere along the line, probably while I was joking with Necrous, knowing my luck, Twilight had needed our help... and we hadn't delivered. Well, it was in our hands now. I whipped out my revolver and fired off three rounds while Necrous unleashed a beam of magic energy... but with a wave of Whytemane's hoof, it all just... stopped.
“Life magic is a very tricky thing,” Whytemane started, beginning to pace, “It's hell to control and is loaded down with silly little failsafes and rules, but it has some genuine power squirreled away in its significant expanse. Now, Dash, I'm sure you remember that Twilight was a strong caster, but what you might not know is that your undead ex is the most powerful caster in recorded Equestrian history. That's right, much more powerful than me. So how can I attain that power for myself? Why, by taking over her mind of course.”
And in the corner of my eye, I saw Twilight stumble to her feet, swaying and drooling like a zombie, her eyes blank and soulless.
“Oh, she's alive, don't worry... but she is very much MINE. That... that you can feel perfectly free to worry about.”
And with a violet-white shock of blinding energy, I was out cold.
The first thing I recall was the confusion. What had happened? Where was I? Was everyone alright? The second thing I recall was the frustration. I'd had more than enough of being knocked out cold for one day by that point. I managed to force my eyes open fairly quickly, blinking the blurriness away as quickly as I could manage, desperate to get a handle on the situation before things got any further out of hand. Nobody was immediately visible from where I was, but... something seemed... off, Like I was... higher up than I should have been. I wasn't a particularly short pony, but I wasn't quite that tall either. That was when I realized: things were much, much worse than I had been picturing. With a shrill, electric sense of panic, I looked down, trying to work out what I was standing on... and it was about there that the pain set in.
I'd been crucified.
“What... what the fuck...”
Iron spikes had been driven through my wrists and ankles, hot blood dripping to the floor with a hollow 'tap, tap, tap' as the pleasant numbness was steadily driven back by the angular razor edges of agony.
“Hello?” I called out hopefully, “Is anyone else still up here?”
I started when a gleeful face thrust itself into my vision.
“Ah, you're awake! Fan-TAST-ic! Let's get started then, shall we?”
Fucking Whytemane! Last thing I needed right now... though come to think of it, given he was the one who had probably nailed me to that cross, who else should I have been expecting?
“Why are you doing this?” I grunted hoarsely as he vanished out of my range of vision, searching for something behind the cross, “The war is lost, it's over. What do you stand to gain?”
“VENGEAAAANCE!!” he screamed as he charged into sight again, wielding the knife I'd used to kill the Titan, still soaked with machine-blood, “You've taken EVERYTHING from me! EVERYTHING!!”
I winced as he trailed the weapon's point up my throat and under my chin, bringing his wild eyes mere centimeters away from mine.
“The least I can do is utterly destroy you.”
Then he whirled away, spreading his arms to the empty distance.
“Isn't that right, my pet?”
“Of course,” an emotionless, empty voice said from somewhere out of my vision. Twilight's voice. As if on queue, her stiff, puppeteered body shambled into view, her jaw hanging slack and her eyes rolled back. She was breathing and alive, but, at the same time... I'd never seen a pony quite so dead – so empty.
“Twilight is here to help me deal with you. Aren't you, Twilight?” he asked as he turned back to me, twirling the knife in his hooves.
“Yes. I am.”
Then Whytemane came very close; his feet audibly splashing in the blood pooling at the foot of the cross. Where the fuck was Necrous!?
“I'm going to get right down to business. This WILL hurt.”
And without a moment's hesitation, he plunged the blade's tip into my lower abdomen, just above my right hip. I managed to choke back my screams as he slashed out and across, cutting a long, clean gash just above my pelvic line. But when he drove the knife into my flesh a second time and began to cut upwards, my endurance shattered. I shrieked in agony as the knife carved its bloody path through my skin, finally stopping after what seemed like an eternity about midway up my abdomen. Whytemane tugged the knife from my body and stepped back a moment, wiping it down with a white handkerchief and nodding to himself as the searing pain slowly began to recede.
“I think that'll do nicely, yes.”
What was he talking about, I wondered...? It was only when my own entrails tumbled to the stone floor with a wet, sickening flopping sound that I realized I'd been eviscerated. Immediately, I wretched – my stomach heaving and straining long after every last iota of bile had been spattered all over the floor; added to the reeking, bloody pile of biological waste gathering at my feet.
“Why...?” I moaned, the agony so intense it was almost numbing, “I don't... understand...”
“Really? I thought you'd understand why, at the very least. It's just vengeance, my dear, good, old-fashioned vengeance, like I said earlier.”
“But there's nothing to gain,” I forced out, my head spinning and my eyes blurred to uselessness by tears, “Nothing to gain making me hurt... cutting out... parts of me...”
“Depends on who you're talking to. Personally, I find this quite therapeutic.”
I heard approaching hoofsteps once again, and squeezed my eyes shut, prepared for the worst.
“Now if you don't mind, I'll make the incision a little longer and start disassembling you properly. Should be a simple matter of insuaaAAAGGHHHH!”
His sentence had trailed off into an alarmed shout, and now, the sounds of a dirty scuffle on the floor reached my ears, ending with a sickening 'crunch'. Judging from the sound, somepony had tackled Whytemane, and dashed his head against the ground - HARD. I made an attempt to blink my eyes clear, but only managed to resolve Twilight's figure moments before she turned to me and shrieked.
“Oh, Celestia, Dash! What did he... how could...”
“Doesn't matter,” I choked, “Go, run, get out while you can...”
“I can't do that,” she whispered tearfully as she stepped up to the cross and threw her entire weight into wrenching the spike out of my left wrist... but she just wasn't strong enough. When she finally gave up, tears were streaming down her face in volumes as she fell back on her rear.
“I'm so sorry,” she sobbed, “I was stupid and weak and pathetic and now you're... you're...”
“Just go,” I cried, “Before he...”
But it was already too late. Twilight froze, and once again took on the likeness of a broken doll as Whytemane stumbled to his feet, his horn flaring and blood winding down his face from where his head had been smashed against the floor. He wasn't grinning anymore.
“Whytemane,” I gasped through clenched teeth, trying to choke down the pain, “You can have this body, you can do whatever you want to me... just... let her go, please...”
“See, that's the problem,” he growled, the hysteria replaced with cold fury, “YOU don't care about yourself anymore. YOU are willing to sacrifice. But Twilight, poor little helpless Twilight... you care about her more than you care about yourself. So if I want to break you properly, I'm going to have to take it a step further. Twilight, here.”
He held out the knife to her, and she accepted it, turning back to me.
“Twilight, be a dear and cut out her kidneys.”
“Please don't do this,” I whispered as Twilight shambled closer, knife held ready, “Twilight, please... Celestia damn it all, I know you're still in there...”
But she couldn't hear me. Neither bothering to pause for effect nor making any attempt to make the process less painful, she pulled open the incision in my abdomen and made four quick, deft cuts. I noticed with a sort of grim satisfaction that I was starting to go numb... probably blood loss, I realized as I noticed volumes of thick, hot vital fluid were spilling from the horrific wound and flowing freely down my legs, spreading into a quickly growing lake of bright crimson red. Once Twilight was finished, she yanked the recently detached organs from their intended place and presented them to her master like a gift. The sight made me violently ill, and I lurched forward, trying to vomit again... but there was nothing left, and only a stringy dribble of clear bile dripped to the floor from my dry, panting mouth. I glanced up again just in time to see Whytemane shrug, and toss the recently extracted kidneys over his shoulder, where they landed with a wet 'smack'. For a moment, the floor seemed to vibrate, as if from some impact... was I losing my grip on reality...? Had I already lost so much blood? No, I said to myself, focusing as hard as I could, you need to stay awake, you need to stay strong. You need to show him that you will not break... that you are indestructible. If these are your last moments, you need to make a mark... if only on the sick, demented and crazed stallion standing before you.
“Okay, Twilight, shall we continue?”
“Take the liver next. Be careful not to catch her diaphragm – we wouldn't want her to DIE, now would we?”
I sighed, and let my eyes flutter closed as Twilight approached with the knife again. The pain was almost completely gone now, vanished as I slowly began to lose hold on life – I was dying, Necrous was nowhere to be found, and no help was coming. It was over. And as that fact sunk in, everything I had – my resolution, my determination, my strength – it all bled away, leaving me an empty, hopeless wreck. I didn't even try to hold my head high anymore, just breaking down into sobs and tears as I felt the knife begin to cut away once again. What a way for it all to end... so close, so fucking close to my final victory, the conclusion of my life's work...
“GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM HER!!”
In the next second... so much happened. Whytemane's concentration shattered. Twilight shrieked as she came back to herself, and realized she had a knife wedged inside my body. Three ponies charged up the stairs and onto the platform, one sprinting straight at Whytemane, and two towards me. I couldn't identify any of them... my eyes were useless with tears, and my head swam as I teetered on the verge of unconsciousness.
“Oh, Celestia! Dash! Dash! Why would he do this!? Why the fuck would he do this to you!?”
When I recognized the voice, I found enough energy to hold on for a little bit longer.
“Who the fuck else would it be? Try to hold still, I'm going to get you down.”
And with a single deft yank, she wrenched each nail from the hard wood it was driven into. It probably should've hurt, but I was completely numb by this point.
“Spitfire,” I whispered as she gently lowered me to the ground, “I'm... slipping...”
“Shh... I'm here for you.”
Carefully, she wiped the tears from my eyes, and for the first time, I saw her face. The bandage encircling her head and hiding her eyes had been pushed up on the right side, and now that the blood had been cleaned off, it was clear that that eye, at least, still worked. Her mane and coat were stained brown and matted with blood and her face and bandages were soaked with tears, but she was smiling as she took my hooves in hers.
“I'm not out of the picture until I'm dead and buried, Rainbow Dash. Count on that. Wherever you are, whatever you get yourself into, I will always, ALWAYS be there for you.”
“How did you... how did you get up here so fast? And... Spitfire, how are you awake?”
“Adrenaline hypo,” she commented with a wry smile.
“And we came up using the elevator,” Necrous said as he knelt down next to me, “It wasn't operational yet, but it was at the bottom of the shaft and the counterweight had been installed. It was a matter of smashing the brakes, then bailing at the right moment. The counterweight hit the bottom of the shaft so hard I thought it might bring down the entire tower, but... well, we made it. I'm sorry I wasn't here helping you sooner, but with the kind of power Whytemane had access to while controlling Twilight, I knew I couldn't fight him on my own... but... it's clear I wasn't fast enough.”
I forced a smile.
“You're here... and that means more than I can say.”
“Need a little help!” echoed from out of my vision... that was Navy's voice.
“Shhhit,” Spitfire muttered as she glanced up, “Navy's taking on Whytemane, but he's fast – faster than I'd thought he'd be, and he's armed. Sword of some kind – Navy's barely holding her own, even with her talent for blades. We need to do something.”
Necrous closed his eyes for a moment, and his horn began to flare.
“Rainbow, I can take away the pain and I can give you a jolt to get on your feet, but, past that... there's nothing I can do. You are going to die, but I can help you fight Whytemane for a little bit longer.”
“How much will it hurt?” I asked in a half whisper as Spitfire brushed my hair out of my face. Necrous sighed.
“Even with the pain suppression... a LOT.”
“Get me sorted then get me on my feet.”
“I was worried you were going to say that. Fortunately, I brought up some bandages.”
“Bandages aren't going to be enough,” I gasped as I struggled to sit up, “Something's going to have to be done with my...” I gagged again just saying it, “...my entrails. I can't fight tripping over them.”
“Can't we just... put them back in?” Spitfire asked, frowning. Necrous shook his head.
“If most of them were still inside, that would be possible, but...”
“They need to be cut out,” I growled, “Give me the knife.”
“Oh Celstia, I can't watch...” Spitfire sobbed as Necrous solemnly passed me the weapon, which was now caked with machine-blood, my blood, bits of fur, and a light sprinkling of bone dust that had settled on it while Whytemane had been nailing me to the cross. I tried to scrape some of the crap off on my hooves, but to little effect.
“Here goes,” I whispered to myself, then clenched my teeth and pulled open the wound.
“Pull them taught,” I gasped through the sudden agony, waiting as Necrous took a firm grip on the leading end and pulled. Before I could overthink and stop myself, I made a single, deft cut. The pain was sharp, but it was by no means the worst I'd experienced that day.
“Other one. Now the other one.”
We repeated the procedure once more, and it was done. I sighed in ecstasy and fell back to the floor as I let the wound close, and the pain diminished to a bearable level.
“Okay,” I sighed, focusing on taking deep, even breaths, “The bandages now. Need to keep this closed.”
Necrous nodded and moved out of the way as Spitfire produced some rolls of gauze from a bag she was carrying and knelt in his place, still crying.
“I can't believe this,” she whispered as she started to patch me up, “I knew things could go bad, I was fully prepared for that, but this...”
She stopped in her tracks for a moment, just trying to keep herself from breaking down into sobs.
“I don't know what I'm going to do without you, Dash...”
Gently, carefully, I reached up and cupped her cheek in my hoof.
“Don't think about that. Once this is over, we can be together for just a little longer... don't think about what happens after, just enjoy the time...”
She cinched the last knot tight, then looked into my eyes.
“I love you, Dash...”
Then she leaned in close and kissed me, lovingly, passionately... much like the way I'd kissed her after the explosion. It was a kiss that said, 'I know I may never see you again, and I don't care. I love you'... a kiss who's emotion literally brought tears to my eyes.
“I love you too, I whispered when she came away.”
Moments later, Navy hit the floor with an 'oopmh', sliding past us with her sword skittering along the floor next to her.
“I DON'T CARE WHAT YOU'RE DOING, JUST MAKE IT QUICK!!” she hollered as she picked up her weapon and charged back into the fight. I motioned Necrous over; it was time.
“Do what you've gotta do,” I growled, “Just get me in that fight.”
He nodded, and his horn flashed brightly with magic. In an instant, my screaming pain was dulled to a mild throb. The relief was so great that I nearly collapsed back to the floor.
“Thank Celestia,” I whispered to myself, and he shot me a look.
“Don't thank her yet, I haven't revitalized you yet.”
Then... agony. My back arched and my limbs spasmed as it ripped through my body like an electric shock, leaving me gasping for air, but very, very much alive. I scrambled to my feet and immediately took in the situation; dead machine to my back, cross to my left, Spitfire and Necrous to my right, Whytemane and Navy duking it out before me. And what a fight it was – Navy's infinite finesse and expertise was just barely enough to counter Whytemane's combined use of his blade and various magic attacks, despite her shattered wing, which had been folded and taped shut to keep it out of the way.
“Necrous? I'm going to need to borrow your knife one last time.”
He nodded, and gestured to where it lay on the ground.
“Be my guest.”
I knelt and lifted the beautiful blade into my hooves once more.
“Time to get some of Whytemane's blood on this thing. Complete the set.”
Spitfire stepped before me one last time, and looked me in the eyes with her single, tear-filled one, the vibrant orange gleaming with strange brightness in the dim cloud-cover light.
“Please... be safe. We have so little time as it is.”
I kissed her, and whispered in her ear,
“I promise. Are you in good enough shape to help me fight?”
She smiled grimly, and gestured down to her left leg. A red-soaked bandage was tightly wrapped around her knee, metal bars taped to each side of her leg to keep it straight.
“A piece of shrapnel shattered my kneecap in that explosion. I can barely walk... I'm sorry.”
“Don't worry. You've earned a rest.”
But then... I had a job to do. I took to the air and screamed towards Whytemane, knife held high.
“I'M NOT DONE YET YOU UNICORN FUCK!!”
I hit him with the force of a freight train, sending him sliding right up to the edge, and his sword skittering over it.
“One last kill. One last murder,” I whispered to myself, “Then, I can die... I can finally die.”
“You're going to PAY FOR THAT!!” he roared, stumbling to his feet as Navy stepped up next to me.
“Glad to be fighting alongside you one last time, Rainbow Dash,” she said, sincerity in her voice, the hatred and betrayal gone. I nodded as my heart swelled in my chest.
“The honour is mine, Navy Blue.”
Whytemane just stood for a moment, glancing between us.
“Oh yeah!? OH YEAH!! Well FUCK you both!!”
We dodged in opposite directions as he unleashed a magic bolt at each of us; Navy rolling to her feet in moments and charging from the flank, while I took a moment more to recover from the pain the fall had instilled in the wound.
“Gonna have to avoid doing that,” I gasped to myself as I started running at him from the front. Whytemane was frozen for a second; glancing between myself and Navy, as we approached from nearly opposite directions. He decided to focus on Navy – unfortunately for him, as she was able to nimbly sidestep his attacks much more easily than I would have. I gave myself a speed boost with my wings, running faster than my legs could actually move. This proved to be an issue – I wasn't able to stop myself in time, and clumsily body slammed Whytemane rather than driving the knife through his spine. The two of us tumbled to the ground again, and the pain was great enough this time to pin me to the ground, dry heaving for a few seconds. I had to overcome... had to overcome. Fortunately, Navy intervened before I was toasted, and I managed to pull myself up about ten seconds later, wiping my mouth and returning to a combat stance.
“Not feeling well, DASHIE!?” Whytemane snapped, the distraction nearly costing him as Navy's blade passed mere millimeters in front of his face. The shock of the close call had him frozen for a moment – more than enough time for me to tackle him to the ground, and raise the knife high.
“Might be because YOU KILLED ME!!”
He rolled away as I swung, the blade's tip striking sparks from the white marble floor... but I found I was... having difficulty getting back up. I was... slowing down, getting weaker. Then I realized: the jolt had worn off, my body was acting like it should be after losing a good half its blood.
“Necrous,” I called as loudly as I could manage, “I... I need another jolt!”
“Can't keep doing this!” echoed back, “Contrary to what you might believe, this isn't good for you!”
The shock wasn't as bad the second time, but it still left me in bad shape. It was nearly a minute before I could pick myself up again.
“Could do without the sarcasm!” I shouted, charging back into the fight, just as Whytemane knocked over Navy with a blast of energy and moved in for the kill.
“No... you... DON'T!!” I cried, lashing out with the knife and managing to cut one of his arms to the bone. He cried out in pain as he stumbled back, blood spattering to the ground and soaking his coat.
“I did. Not feeling so indestructible now, are... are you...”
It was worse this time: much worse. I collapsed to my knees almost instantly, my head swimming and vision tunneling.
“Necrous... need another...”
“Damnit, Rainbow, this is killing you!”
“I'M ALREADY DEAD!” I half-moaned, half-hollered over my shoulder. A moment later, the shock hit again. I collapsed on all fours and screamed... falling against the ground, barely conscious when I was through. Necrous' voice seemed to come from a great distance.
“I hit you again, and you are dead, do you understand!? Not dead in a day, not dead in a minute, dead.”
“I understand,” I whispered, struggling upright and retrieving the knife. I didn't have long – even after the most recent jolt, I still felt weak. I stumbled towards where Navy and Whytemane, fought, trying to work out what was happening... and getting my answer when I saw Navy's blade enter the front of his left shoulder and exit the back, soaked crimson. When she wrenched it free, he was on his knees, teetering at the very edge of the platform.
“Whaddya got to say for yourself?” I slurred as I stumbled closer, “Huh?”
He laughed a low, maniacal laugh.
“I got to say,” he said, staring at the ground, “Catch me if you can motherfucker,” and before we could stop him, he flopped off the back of the platform. I was about to dive over the edge and try to make sure he smashed his head open on something, but Navy stopped me.
“Dash. Spitfire needs you right now, and we both know: if you're going over that edge, you're not coming back.”
I sighed, and nodded.
“You're... right. You know, we'll... have to catch him later, though. Need a break first.”
Navy smiled as the two of us sat down, taking in the view.
“What about two weeks from friday?”
I laughed weakly.
“It's a date.”
I picked up the knife, and let the light catch the fresh blood gleaming on its blade.
“Served me well, you did,” I sighed, setting the gore-caked weapon down safely next to me. Spitfire came up next to me a few moments later, and managed to sit, despite her leg.
“How's it feel?” I asked in a half whisper, “How's it feel to know that we just won? How's... it feel to win, after... after all these hard years...”
I coughed, and blood sprayed from my mouth. Spitfire managed a weak smile as tears streamed down her face.
“Feels good,” she said, her voice quavering.
“Where do you wanna live? You know, settle down? Maybe... maybe get a pet... start a family...”
She looked out over the expanse, and shook her head.
“Not Ponyville. Too many rotten memories – war, oppression, rebellion... how about somewhere in the Mild West? Near the Bison border? Clean air, kind people, and a whole lotta sky.”
I struggled through another racking cough.
“What... you mean like... Appleloosa? Something like that?”
“Yeah,” she said, taking my hoof in hers, “Something like that.”
I winced as the wound twinged, tentatively putting my hoof over the bandage as Necrous and a battered but healthy Twilight stepped up behind us; saying nothing, just... thinking.
“You still proud of me?” I asked after a couple of minutes of silence, “Even... even though I... wasn't strong enough to save all of us...?”
“Yeah,” she whispered, draping her arm over my shoulders and resting her head next to mine, “Damn proud.”
“'s nice,” I said, half to myself... but my head was spinning, my vision was blurring, and it hurt just to sit upright. I tried to stay where I was, tried to let the moment go on a little longer, but I... just couldn't. With a little whimper I fell back against the floor, closing my eyes against the aching brightness of the sky.
“Dash,” Spitfire sobbed, “Please, please don't go yet...”
“'m sorry,” I whispered, “I'm just... tired...”
A few moments of peaceful silence stretched into a minute of worrisome emptiness. Had I already slipped away...?
“There's another option,” Twilight blurted out, “I never told you the whole truth. I've been awake for a long time now. The Unicorns have been testing me; teaching me their new magic... Life magic. There's a spell I know that can stop this... that can save you, Dash, but... Whytemane was right when he was talking about Life magic's little checks and balances. If I save you... I give up my life as payment. Life for death.”
I shook my head weakly.
“Twilight... Twilight, I signed on for this... I... I was prepared to die to see this through... you never asked for death, you were just caught in the middle... This is a second chance, Twi... you need to take it. You need to go back to see ponyville like I promised you you would, then... get on with your life... get married, have a family, settle down, grow old...”
I tried to laugh, but it came out more as a harsh cough.
“We... all make sacrifices... some greater than others. You already made yours, and I... I am about to make mine...”
And with those words, my strength was gone. Peacefully, happily, I felt my body subside to silence, felt my spirit slipping away... slipping away into blackness.
Alone she sleeps in the shirt of man
with my three wishes clutched in her hand
The first that she be spared the pain
that comes from a dark and laughing rain
when she finds love may it always stay true
this I beg for the second wish I may too
but wish no more
my life you can take
to have her please just one day wake.
WE'RE NOT FINISHED WITH YOU
With a violent jolt of energy, I felt myself wrenched from the calm, peaceful place I'd found, dragged kicking and screaming into the light of day... and with a shock of pain and anger, I sucked in a gasping breath.
“What...” I gasped, wildly looking around at the shocked and grim faces around me, “What... what happened!?”
They were all here – Navy, Spitfire, Necrous, Tw... where... where was Twilight. Then it clicked. Tears began to stream down my face as I picked myself up, and turned around. There she lay on the cold marble floor, curled up into herself and ever so still. The stillness of death.
“Celestia damn it all,” I screamed, falling to my knees next to her body, “WHY!? WHY DID YOU DO IT!?”
“I'm sorry,” Spitfire whispered as she put a hoof on my shoulder, “We tried to stop her, but... she knew what she wanted to do. She held us back with a magic barrier until the spell was cast, then... then it was too late.”
“I just...” I sobbed, “I just wanted her to have a chance... wanted her to have the life she never could because she got stuck with ME...”
“You cannot save them all, Dash,” Navy said as she came up on my other side, kneeling down and looking into my eyes, “And I understand that you were more willing to sacrifice your own life than admit that, but... sometimes, the decision rests in somepony else's hooves. I understand the sorrow you feel, but... I may know little of love, but I know that Twilight would not want you to mourn her, like you once did. She would want you to take her actions as a gift, not a curse... a gift borne of love.”
I sniffed, and tried to wipe away the tears, with little success.
“I know, I just... it's hard, you know? I wanted so badly for her to just... let it go...”
“Dash, when Twilight was executed... if you'd been given the option to trade your life for hers, what would you have done?”
I was silent for a long time, letting it sink in.
“You're right,” I whispered, “You're absolutely right.”
I hated myself for the longest time. I understood why Twilight had done it, I just... couldn't accept it. But eventually, with help from my wife and my friends, I came to accept her gift and feel gratitude for what she had done. The spell had almost completely repaired my body – the old scars and battle wounds were still there, but all fresh damage had been completely smoothed over, stretching all the way back several months. I only wish Spitfire had been granted the same fortune. She can walk, but leans heavily on a cane, bears a number of fresh scars and wears a patch to spare others the sight of her destroyed eye. She's quite positive about it all, however, and her flight certainly hasn't been hampered – the Wonderbolts even asked her to consider rejoining them. She's thinking about it, but despite my old dreams, I turned down a similar invitation directed at me. I was strong and fast enough to outfly anyone on that team, but I'd had my fill of excitement. The war, the rebellion, everything I'd done... it took its tole. Right now, I just want to live a quiet life and be as ignored as is possible.
They wanted to make me a queen – my army, but I made it very, very clear that I had no interest in rule or politics of any sort. I'm a warrior, not a liar, and even though I could see why the virtues I hold dearest would be of value in a head of state, I'd rather spend the rest of my life with my home and my dearest... maybe children, if something can be arranged. Come to think of it, I want my life to be like it was before the war. Occasional adventure and moments of excitement, but in general, containing problems that didn't take more than a day to solve. The good life. I occasionally think about what the old Rainbow Dash would say now if she saw what I'd become... what the old Scootaloo would think. Hell, I wonder what any of them would say if they saw the scars, the medals, the emptiness in my eyes and the darkness in my heart. I doubt it'd be good, but... all of them went through the same trials I did, and those that survived... well, they wound up much like me.
We fought, we won, and we lost. We killed, murdered, executed. We sacrificed much and forced others to sacrifice more. We turned Equestria on its head in the name of a better future and laid down the lives of our friends in that pursuit... I'm content with my new life, but I don't want anyone to ever, EVER call me a 'hero'. I've done too much evil to ever earn that title.
We all make sacrifices: some greater than others. You made yours, and I made mine.