The town of Colton had a tense air around it. Ever since the Red Wings had been handed over to Nightmare Moon, the townsponies were more skittish around soldiers. There was just cause for this, as the soldiers of the kingdom had become increasingly aggressive and belligerent to the commoners. Nowadays, nopony dared so much as look at anypony else, for fear of bringing the wrath of the soldiers down on them.
It was this tense atmosphere that a quartet of ponies walked into from the chamber leading to the Road of Tartarus. Twilight Sparkle looked around, eyes narrowed. "Boy, the town sure has gotten quiet since I was last here."
Starswirl nodded, glancing at the few ponies who were out and about. "I was always led to believe that Colton was one of the liveliest towns in the world."
"It usually is," replied Twilight. "Something's changed around here, and not for the better."
Scootaloo coughed, impatient. "Look, we can deal with the town later. We're here at Colton, what's our next move?"
Twilight motioned for the others to follow her. She led them to a door set in the side of a hill. Testing it, she sighed as she found it to be locked, as always. "This door leads into an old waterway that connects to the castle's moat. It'd be an ideal place to sneak into the castle from. Still, we need a specific key to open this door."
"Can't you use magic to pick the lock?" asked Sweetie Belle.
Twilight grimaced. "With most locks, a lock-picking spell would work, but for more ornate locks, like this, we need the key itself. Which means we need to find a captain."
"Isn't that a bad idea, considering you're on bad terms with Colton at the moment?" Starswirl asked.
"Bad idea or no, we need the key, and a captain will be the most likely to know where the key is and how to get it," Twilight replied.
As they walked, intent on heading to the inn, a feminine shriek rang out. Glancing at each other, the four took off in the direction the scream came from. Rounding a corner, they beheld a strange sight.
Three soldiers, one wearing the insignia of a captain, had surrounded a young pegasus mare. The mare in question was gray in color, with blond hair and golden eyes. One eye was focused on the soldiers, the other seemed content to look anywhere but. This gave her a very odd appearance.
She was currently cowering in front of the captain. "Please, I didn't mean to bump into you! I have trouble flying sometimes, that's all! I was practicing a little dance routine!"
"A likely story," snorted the captain. He was a unicorn stallion with a gray coat and dark grey mane and tail. "Clap this mare in irons, men! We'll see if a day or two in the dungeon makes you more talkative about your intentions."
Twilight scowled; she recognized the captain. She drew her sword, intending to step forward and confront him, when she was pre-empted.
A pony in a dark blue catsuit dropped down from the wall nearby. The catsuit included a full-face mask with cyan eye patches, a matching cape, and a purple hat and collar. A stylized letter 'M' was on the chain holding the cape in place.
"Mare-Do-Well!" exclaimed the pegasus mare.
The captain snorted. "Well, well. If it isn't the thieving vigilante. You've made things quite difficult for us these past couple of days. Come to turn yourself in and return what you stole?"
The masked mare simply shook her head, spreading her legs in a fighting stance.
"Very well, then!" The captain motioned to his cronies, who jumped forward, drawing their blades to attack.
The 'Mare-Do-Well', in response, spun on her forehooves to buck one in the chin. He slammed into the wall, and remained suspended on it for a moment due to the sheer force. The other guard swung at her, but she nimbly pivoted on one hindleg, bringing the other around for a roundhouse kick that knocked the guard into a nearby pond with a splash.
The captain ground his teeth, using his magic to draw his blade. "If you want something done right, you need to do it yourself," he snarled, sending his blade at the mare. His expression changed to astonishment as the mare, not even looking at the sword, bucked it hard enough to shatter it.
The Mare-Do-Well turned her head slowly to regard the captain, who began sweating. "Uh, um, well, I'll let you go this time, Mare-Do-Well! But you will face justice if you show yourself before me again!" The catsuit-clad mare simply turned away, helping the pegasus to her hooves.
Unseen by them, the captain started to withdraw the dagger on his belt. Before he could do so, however, a blade appeared at his throat. "Now, now, you've already admitted defeat. Wouldn't do to impugn your honor as a captain, would it, Jet Set?"
Jet Set slowly turned to face the speaker, as did Mare-Do-Well and her rescuee. Twilight held the sword in her aura, a cool look directed at the grey stallion. If Jet Set had been sweating before, he was dripping now. "C-Captain Sparkle!" he sputtered. "Wh-what are you doing here?!"
"Me?" Twilight asked. "I'm just looking for something. And you're going to help me."
"I am?" Jet Set said, confused. As the blade at his throat pushed in a little more, he added, "Oh, yes, I am! Um, what was it you were looking for?"
Twilight smiled. "I'm looking for the key to the old waterway. You know the one."
Jet Set blinked, then frowned. "Ah, yes, that." He pointed a hoof at Mare-Do-Well, who was watching the scene. "That vigilante stole the key from Captain Upper Crust!"
Twilight blinked, then facehooved. "By the Sun… you as a captain was bad enough, but Upper Crust?! She was just a sergeant, last I checked! You were at least a lieutenant!"
Jet Set coughed. "Um, well, the army's fallen on hard times… a lot of older veterans have been laid off, and new blood is being added every day."
Twilight sighed. "I can imagine," she muttered. She glanced at Mare-Do-Well. "So, you have the key?"
Mare-Do-Well nodded, producing a key from a pocket in the catsuit.
Twilight smiled. "Excellent. Then I don't need you anymore, Captain Set." With that, she bashed the side of his head with the pommel of her sword, knocking him straight out.
"That dragged out a little longer than it should have, didn't it?" asked Starswirl, stepping up along with Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo.
Twilight shrugged. "Maybe." She turned to the gray pegasus. "You might want to head home, miss. Best not to irritate the guards too much."
"Yeah, I'll do that," the wall-eyed mare agreed. "Thanks, to you and to Mare-Do-Well!" She trotted off, slowly and carefully, although she managed to bump into the wall a couple of times.
Twilight then glanced at Mare-Do-Well, who cocked her head. "So, have you been in the vigilante business long, Miss Mare-Do-Well?" Her eyes narrowed slightly. "Or should I say… Applejack?"
Reaching up, the masked mare removed the mask, revealing the grinning face of the grandmaster of Stabul. "Couldn't fool ya, huh Twilight?"
"Your fighting style is pretty distinct, you know. How else could I explain why you were using the style native to Stabul?" Twilight said seriously. She then smiled, and wrapped Applejack in a hug. "I'm so glad you're okay! After Leviathan, I feared the worst."
"Pshaw, it'll take more'n an overgrown snake to take me down," the monk replied. "And 'sides, ah promised Big Mac ah wouldn't die. And ah don't make promises ah can't keep."
"That's certainly good to hear," Starswirl said, coming over. "I believe I may have seen you once or twice on trips to Stabul, but I've never actually made your acquaintance. I am Starswirl the Bearded."
"Pleased to meetcha, Starswirl!" Applejack replied, shaking the elder unicorn's hoof. "Ah'm Applejack, grandmaster of the monks of Stabul, and sister to King Macintosh. No bowin' to me, though, or callin' me 'Your Highness', 'Princess', or the like.."
"As you wish," Starswirl chuckled. "And these two young ones are Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, acolytes from Maresidia," he added, motioning to the two fillies.
Applejack shook their hooves as well. "Maresidia, eh? That's quite a ways from here, ain't it?"
"Yeah, across the ocean," Scootaloo said with a nod. "But we used the Road of Tartarus to get here pretty quick."
"Speak for yourself," Sweetie Belle shuddered. "The monsters there were awful. If it weren't for Twilight and Starswirl, we wouldn't have made it."
Twilight giggled. "If it weren't for me, you wouldn't have gone through there in the first place." She sobered quickly. "Still, that's enough wasting time. Let's get to the waterway."
As they made their way back to the locked door, Twilight looked over Applejack's outfit. "Say, Applejack, where did you get that?"
"Oh, the costume?" Applejack asked. "Well, that's a bit of a story. See, ah washed up on the shores near Colton, and naturally, the soldiers were a bit high-strung. They wanted to bring me in for questionin'. So, ah bolted first chance ah got, an' made it to the town. Ah ran into the nearest unlocked building, and shut the door. Turned out to be a dress shop, would ya believe?"
Twilight smiled. "Actually, I would. It was probably Rarity's shop. She ran a very successful business before she started devoting herself to white magic. Even so, she still makes dresses from time to time as another source of income."
"Huh," Applejack mused. "The things ya learn. Anyway, ah found this outfit in there on a ponyquin, an' ah thought it'd be just the thing ta hide mah identity from the guards."
"So, how did this 'Mare-Do-Well' business come up?" asked Starswirl.
Applejack blushed. "Well, when ah left the shop, ah saw some soldiers roughing up a merchant, just cause she actually tried chargin' them like she was supposed to. So, ah knocked them around a bit. And ah kept runnin' into soldiers doin' awful things ta the townsponies, an' ah kept gettin' in their way. A couple ponies started callin' me 'Mare-Do-Well', an' it sorta stuck."
"Sweet," Scootaloo said, grinning. "A mysterious masked vigilante righting the wrongs of the government. Wonder if I could get my cutie mark for writing a story based on that…?"
Applejack looked the filly over. "Ah should let ya meet mah li'l sister, Applebloom. She's rather determined ta find her cutie mark, too."
Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo exchanged glances. "Think she could be a third Crusader?" wondered Sweetie Belle.
"Could be," Scootaloo replied. "But we'll worry about that later."
Arriving at the door, Applejack inserted the key and turned it. The door now swung open easily. "As for the key, well, some dumb captain dropped it, an' when ah picked it up ta return it, she started hollerin' at me, callin' me a thief. Of course, she spent so much time yellin' that ah just ran off."
Twilight shook her head. "If I were still in the military, Jet Set and Upper Crust would never have made captain. I'm definitely going to have a talk with the king… hopefully before the likely accidental regicide."
The phrasing of that caused the other four to pause. "How can you have 'likely accidental' anything, let alone regicide?" asked Starswirl.
Twilight sighed. "Let's just say that while I hope the king proves amenable to reason, from what I've observed, killing him may be the best option. By the Sun, that leaves a bad taste in my mouth."
Applejack coughed. "Well, we should get a move on before that Jet Set guy wakes up an' informs the castle that we're comin'."
The trip through the waterway proved rather uneventful, save for monsters. Along the way, though, Applejack changed back into her standard vest, saying, "It'd be a shame ta ruin this outfit, with how much work Rarity put into it." The Mare-Do-Well outfit was stored in her saddlebags.
Eventually, they emerged from the waterway into the moat of the castle. Working their way along the castle wall, Twilight finally found the entrance. "Ah-ha! Here we go! A pony usually uses this place to send trash and such down the moat into the waterway."
"Ain't that unsanitary?" asked Applejack.
"Not really. The waterway used to be our primary source of water, until we unicorns figured out a way to purify salt water. Now, it's pretty much our garbage disposal. The monsters in the waterway will eat pretty much anything." Twilight had, of course, read about this in great detail at some point in the past.
Starswirl and Applejack nodded at the history lesson. The fillies, however, were looking around. "So this is what a castle's like on the inside," breathed Sweetie Belle. "It's so big… so ornate…"
"So quiet," muttered Scootaloo.
That caught Twilight's attention, and she glanced around. Sure enough, the castle seemed to be devoid of life. She frowned. "That's odd. There ought to at least be guards patrolling the parapets, but I don't see anypony. This isn't right. Everypony, stay ready."
She led them through the castle to the foyer. On the staircase leading down into the foyer, they paused as they heard a voice. "No… please! Why? Why… won't… this… work?!"
Twilight frowned, edging down the stairs to peek around the corner. Her eyes widened at what she saw.
The royal guard captain Trixie was in the middle of the foyer, her sword drawn, and poised at her own throat. Yet, it seemed that something was keeping her from ending her own life. The azure unicorn looked to be straining. "Please… just let it end!" she cried, tears streaming down her face.
Twilight took a step into the foyer. "Trixie?"
Trixie gasped and looked up, her violet eyes fearful. "Wha… Twilight! What are you – no!" She suddenly grasped the sides of her head with her hooves, thrashing around on the ground for a few moments. Applejack, Starswirl, and the fillies came down around Twilight, looking between the two mares in confusion.
The azure unicorn's struggles suddenly ceased, and she rose to her hooves. Looking up, turquoise eyes regarded the group before her, settling on Twilight. "Well, well. Look who had the nerve to return after defying the King's orders."
Twilight, however, wasn't fooled. "Let her go, Nightmare Moon!" she snarled, stepping forward.
Trixie laughed. "Oh, that's rich! You think the great Nightmare Moon would possess me? I'm not even worthy of being in the same room as her for more than a minute!"
"Nightmare Moon's nothin' but a madmare!" exclaimed Applejack. "Ya gotta fight her off!"
"And why should I?" Trixie asked nonchalantly. "Nightmare Moon seeks only to make Colton flourish. Her wishes are Colton's wishes. And those who serve her gain access to untold power." Her body began to glow a sickly purple, growing and twisting. "Behold!"
Twilight felt sick as she gazed on Trixie's new form. It was still equine in its general shape, but it was as if somepony had warped it, like some foal's twisted clay creations. It stood on its hind legs, its forelegs having grown longer. The forelegs also had faces on them, complete with moving mouths. But perhaps the most disturbing thing about this monstrosity was the demented grin on the main head.
Applejack voiced what Twilight was feeling. "That… that is just plain wrong. If this is 'untold power', y'all can keep it!"
With a crazed laugh, Trixie lunged at the party, lashing out with one of the twisted forelegs at Starswirl. With a grace that belied his age, the elderly sage jumped out of the way, as the rest of the group scattered. Starswirl, in response, cut loose with a massive barrage of lightning that played across the warped unicorn's body.
A shining green barrier suddenly sprang into existence around Trixie. Scootaloo, spotting this, moaned and cut the power to the spell she'd been charging. "That's a Reflect screen! Now we can't directly attack her with magic!"
Sweetie Belle smiled. "Most magic, true. But we've got an ace up our sleeve. Can the rest of you buy us thirty seconds?"
Applejack and Twilight blinked, but Starswirl nodded. "There's life in these old bones, yet!" he said. His horn flashed white, and a reddish aura surrounded Applejack.
To the monk, it was as though everything else had slowed down. She grinned, recognizing the effects of a Haste spell. As one of the mutated forelegs lashed out at her, she almost casually sidestepped, then bucked the offending limb clean off. "Hah! Some 'untold power'!" Her grin faded as she saw the limb beginning to regrow. "Aw, horseapples."
The other foreleg tried to attack her in her moment of hesitation, only to be cut off by a gleaming sword. "High-speed regeneration. If it wasn't being used against us, I'd actually be interested in studying this," Twilight mused, as the second limb began to grow back as well. The unicorn was also glowing with a reddish aura.
"Can't say ah share the sentiment," Applejack replied, and bucked Trixie's body away from the group. The mutated unicorn crashed against one of the walls, but stood up with a growl.
She was suddenly battered by small chunks of what appeared to be rocks falling from the ceiling. However, a glance at the ceiling revealed only the emptiness of space for a few seconds, before it vanished, leaving the ceiling intact. "Score one for Twincasting!" crowed Scootaloo, looking at the Comet spell's handiwork. Sweetie Belle smiled as well.
Trixie struggled to her hooves, but with her forelegs gone at the moment, it was hard to stand in her weakened condition. Glancing up, the warped unicorn saw Twilight's armor change from white to dark blue, and her sword from gold to red. The blade itself glowed purple, before a wave of darkness lashed out, and Trixie knew no more.
As the Dark Wave slashed through their opponent, she crumpled to the ground, and her distorted body returned to normal. Curiously, her forelegs returned, although a glance showed that they were broken in multiple places. All in all, the azure unicorn looked like a wreck. She managed to open her eyes briefly, violet irises brimming with pain-filled tears. "Thank you…" she managed to gasp out, before she closed them again.
"Trixie!" Twilight was by the broken mare's body in a heartbeat, exchanging her dark armor for the light. She cast a Cure spell, praying that it wasn't too late. Miraculously, Trixie's breathing, while slow, didn't stop. "Oh, thank goodness!" Twilight gasped. "Starswirl! Sweetie Belle! Care to lend a hoof, here?"
The two other unicorns came over, lending their more powerful healing spells. Between the three of them, Trixie was healed back to consciousness. She slowly opened her eyes. "Why…? Why go to such trouble for me?" Violet irises stared at Twilight's own in confusion.
"We may not have seen eye-to-eye before, Trixie, but nopony deserves such a fate," replied the paladin.
Trixie looked down, and chuckled. "Always the bleeding heart, even as a dark knight," she scoffed, but her tone was anything but mocking. "Always going to such trouble for anypony in need. Why do you do such things, Twilight Sparkle?"
"Because it's the right thing to do. And right now, the right thing to do is helping you, and stopping Nightmare Moon." Twilight helped the azure mare to her hooves.
Trixie's gaze remained on the floor. "I didn't deserve your mercy. I deserved to die for my failure," she said, as tears began to gather in her eyes.
"Now what in the hay are ya talkin' about?" Applejack asked, trotting over. "Twilight, Sweetie, and Starswirl here went to a lotta trouble ta bring ya back from the brink, and yer sayin' ya didn't want that?"
Trixie didn't look up as the tears began to fall. "I failed, don't you understand?! I failed in my duty! My honor as the Captain of the Royal Guard is forever stained, and only death can release me!" To that end, she attempted to use her magic to draw her sword, but she was still weakened from being so severely injured before.
"That sounds stupid," Scootaloo said. "If you're dead, how can you make up for what went wrong?"
Sweetie Belle nodded. "She's right. Killing yourself won't make anypony happy, least of all Twilight. She beat Nightmare Moon's influence out of you, and all because she believes you're worth saving."
Twilight, however, had a sinking feeling. "Trixie… what do you mean you failed in your duty? What happened?"
Trixie sniffled, giving up on her sword for the moment. "Nightmare Moon first came to Colton several months ago. She snuck into the castle, completely undetected, until she reached the throne room. I spotted her despite her spell of invisibility, and alerted the guards. She dropped the spell, and I admit I was… rather intimidated by her appearance."
"Yeah, she has that effect, doesn't she?" Twilight sighed, remembering her own encounter with the midnight-black alicorn.
"At any rate, she struck down all the guards in the room with a single spell, save for me. I barely managed to cling to life, and she actually seemed impressed. The King, on the other hoof, she tried to dominate, as she did with me. The King… he managed to stay in control long enough to impale himself on her horn. She was caught rather off-guard by that."
"I can imagine," murmured Starswirl.
Twilight's expression was unreadable. "So… King Colton…"
"Has been dead for months, and thus my duty has failed," replied Trixie.