Rainbow Dash glanced around uneasily as her small group crossed the bridge to Nightmare Moon’s castle. They were in the home stretch now and it wouldn’t be long until they were back in what had been Rainbow's home for the past couple years. Then, they would find mystical artifacts that would hopefully bring down Nightmare Moon and restore peace to the land. And if the Elements didn’t work or they got caught in the process… Rainbow shook that thought away. They weren’t going to get caught. Even though they were crossing a bridge with no cover in plain view of anyone even glancing out a window in the castle. Nope, they definitely weren't going to get caught.
Rainbow took a deep breath and slowly let it out. Fluttershy. She was there to save Fluttershy, and she would fight a thousand guards and Nightmare Moon herself if she had to.
Despite Rainbow’s worries, they crossed the bridge without incident and came to stand in front of the large doors leading to the throne room. “You’re sure she’s not just in there waitin’ right?” Applejack asked, her gaze jumping to every shadow in the gloom.
Rainbow nodded. “Unless she got tipped off about us coming she shouldn’t have any business in the throne room for at least a couple hours.”
“Right then,” Twilight spoke up, “Let’s go in and save the world.”
“Not so fast!”
Rainbow groaned at the familiar barked order and slowly turned around. “Charged, I don’t want to deal with you right now.”
“And I didn’t want to deal with you,” The Thestral spat. He was flanked by a few other Night Guards, all armed and looking like they itched to fight. Or maybe they were just irritated to be awake at this hour. Dash knew none of them were on this shift. “After you talked with that monster and I found out what you were doing, I hired mercenaries to cleanly wrap this whole thing up without Nightmare Moon even having to be concerned. But you couldn’t settle for that, could you? Always have to try to make my life miserable don’t you, feathers?”
Dash gritted her teeth and rolled her eyes. “Ugh, I’m not doing this to spite you. I don’t think there’s a single part of me that could care how you felt. Get off your ego trip, jerk, and leave us alone.”
The Captain's mouth fell open. Despite some Thestrals' beliefs, Rainbow wasn’t stupid--when she had worked under him she had made sure never to directly insult Charged. She didn’t like him, sure, but he already hated her and she didn’t want to give him any opportunity to make her life any more miserable. She had almost always been quiet and polite when he insulted her. The last thing he expected now was Dash brushing him off so blatantly.
The captain’s face trembled in rage and his wings flared out aggressively. “I won’t let you set a hoof in the castle you plucked chicken!”
“Dude, do you even know my name?”
Charged screamed and shot off the ground toward Dash like a rocket. She easily spread her own wings and glided over him, coming to a rest a few feet away. Charged’s flight quickly became uncontrolled and he spiraled into the ground, landing in a heap a few feet away.
Dash turned around and regarded the other three guards behind her. They looked significantly less sleepy and more irritated. Rainbow assessed her odds and… they didn’t look good. There, by far, weren’t as many as the bandits, but these guys were trained and knew all of Rainbow’s weaknesses. Worse still, they were all fresh and ready while she had been trekking through the Everfree all night.
With a grunt, Rainbow lowered her head and prepared an attack stance. “Alright, who’s next?”
“Dash!” Twilight cried incredulously, “You can’t fight them all on your own.”
“Well I’ve gotta try Twilight,” she snapped back, keeping a careful eye on the guards and they whispered among themselves, “There’s no other choice.”
She felt a hoof on her shoulder and turned to stare into Twilight’s determined eyes. “We’ll help you then.”
Rainbow jerked back. “What? You can’t fight these guys; they’re professionals!”
“Don’t worry none,” Applejack spoke up, “Me and Twi know a thing of two about fightin’.”
“And we can help too!” Pinkie Pie said with a determined nod, “Rarity can do things with her magic still and I… I can be a super good distraction.”
Dash stared at her. “But you… Rarity… but…”
Twilight turned Rainbow’s head so they were staring eye to eye. “We can do this Dash. Just let us help you.”
After a moment, Rainbow slowly nodded. “Alright, if you want to then… thanks you gu-.”
She was cut off from her moment by Charged slamming into her back and sending her rolling. She saw her friends try to rush to her aid but were intercepted by the other guards finally deciding to attack. Rainbow tried to keep them in her sights but was distracted from her friends by a hoof slamming into her gut. That was another thing unfair about this situation: the guards were all heavily armored and Rainbow’s team didn't have anything but their saddlebags and traveling cloaks.
As Charged brought his hoof back for another blow, Rainbow reached up and nipped his ear, causing the Thestral to yelp and rear back instinctively.
Rainbow used the moment to slip out from under him and take to the sky. She only had a moment to regain her breath, however, before Charged slammed into her again from below, causing her to flip head over hooves before she righted herself.
Learning from her previous mistake, she preemptively dodged to the left, just in time for Charged to shoot past her.
"What are you trying to prove Dash?" Charged bellowed, turning to come at her, a dagger now clutched in his hoof. Rainbow barely had time to unsheath her own weapon and block the strike, though she had to strain her wings not to be blown back by the force of his attack. "Surely you can't think you'll actually win?"
Rainbow flapped backward before pressing her wings to her sides and dropping like a rock. They snapped back open a second later as she flew up in a surge of speed, making to stab the Thestral's barrel. The Captain of the Guard wasn't so easily fooled, however, and twisted at the last moment so Dash's knife harmlessly skidded off his armor while he slashed at her exposed stomach.
"You know what's going to happen?" He hissed as Rainbow pushed his knife away before it could do more than nick her. "I'm sure deep down you do."
He rushed forward and suddenly the two were nose to nose. Rainbow's dagger the only thing keeping him from impaling her. "When you lose, Nightmare Moon's going to kill your friends."
Rainbow bucked him in the stomach and flew back out of range. She brandished her knife and dived down at the prone Thestral, but he had recovered quicker than she had predicted and used her own momentum against her as he planted his rear hooves on her withers and kicked off, sending her spiraling.
“She’ll kill the rebels and all their families!” He cried, shooting down at her like a comet. She rolled through the air at the last moment and ensnared him with her flapping cloak. The thing tore off her neck as he sped past her, blinding him enough for her to send him reeling with another well placed buck to his back.
He shook the obstruction off and scowled at it. “She’ll kill that stupid, arrogant Unicorn!” He yelled, throwing the cloak to the ground as if it had personally offended him. Rainbow took the opportunity to use her knife again and the Thestral only looked up in time for it graze his cheek before he punched the Pegasus in the snout. “She’ll finally kill that crazy Earth Pony.”
He rushed her again, Rainbow’s wings straining to keep his bulk from sending her to the ground, and pressed his head against her own so his breath tickled her ear. “And she’ll kill your stupid little Pegasus friend,” he hissed, his voice quiet even at the close range, “the only piece of family you have left. All of it destroyed because of you.”
Rainbow screamed. She screamed in rage and pain and frustration. She screamed so loudly the Charged faltered, shocked. With a surge of strength, she knocked Charged's knife out of his hoof, her own falling away forgotten, and punched the Captain in the muzzle.
He reeled back, more out of shock than pain, but that was all Rainbow needed to grapple him and fly down. They had steadily gotten lower and lower in their fighting and so Charged had no time to recover before he was smashed into the ground by the enraged Pegasus.
His helmet came loose in the impact and rolled away. Rainbow took the opportunity to hit him again. And again. Her hooves were a flurry as she punched him in the face over and over, not relenting even after Charged stop moving. She just kept going until something soft but firm pinned her hooves to her side.
“Rainbow Dash, stop.”
The voice was gentle even though the hooves wrapped around her barrel were strong and unrelenting.
It took only a moment for the rage in Rainbow’s chest to snuff out like the sun. Trembling, she then gazed down at the battered body beneath her and the blood speckling her hooves. All energy left her at once and she sagged into the warm embrace behind her. Wide eyes staring at what she had done.
“It’s alright,” Twilight’s voice said again, right next to Dash’s ear. It was soft and reassuring as the Unicorn held Dash like one would a distressed foal. “I understand. I understand and everything’s going to be alright.”
“Is he…” Rainbow stuttered, swallowing away the tears that had run into her mouth, “D-did I…”
Slowly, calmly, Twilight released Rainbow and place a hoof on Charged’s neck. After a few moments, she gave a half smile and shook her head. “No, there’s a beat. He’ll live.”
Rainbow nodded as she wiped her face with the back of her hoof. “I didn’t… look, I didn’t mean…”
“I know,” Twilight interrupted. And looking into her eyes, Rainbow had never been more convinced of the truthfulness of that phrase. Twilight took her hoof and gently pulled Dash to stand. “Come on, we have to get back to the others.”
Dash stiffened. "The others! Are they..."
"They're fine," Twilight reassured, giving her a small smile as she guided Rainbow away, "I told you we could handle ourselves."
Rainbow let out a ragged sigh of relief and looked at Twilight from the corner of her eye. "Twilight, how do you know... how this feels? I could have... I was so angry..."
"Remember when we were in the library?" The Unicorn spoke in something just above a whisper, but her words did not slip on emotions like Dash's. "When I almost blew you up? That wasn't the first time my feelings directed my magic for me and it certainly wasn't the worst way it ended."
Rainbow paled. "Did you ever..."
Twilight shook her head. "No. No, I never killed anyone, but my mother can't walk anymore."
"Do you hate me?" The Unicorn asked, her tone serious but not without a glint of amusement in her eyes, "I let my anger hurt ponies, cripple them for life. Do you hate me because of that?"
Rainbow blinked. "No! No, it wasn't your fault. I mean, you didn't mean to hurt her." She frowned at Twilight's knowing smile. "But that's not the same. I meant to hurt him. I wanted to make him pay..."
"But did you want to kill him?"
Rainbow sighed. "I don't know... maybe a little?"
Twilight shrugged. "Maybe, but the point I'm trying to make is that friends stick by each other and help each other. Even at their worst." She stopped walking and turned to face Rainbow head on. "Don't they?"
Rainbow Dash could only nod as she was lost in Twilight's bright purple eyes. "Yeah, yeah I think they do."
"Rainbow Dash! Twilight!"
The two looked up as they turned the corner of the castle. Dash blinked in surprise a few times; she hadn't even realized how far she had flown in the fight. The other ponies rushed over to the two with worried expressions. They were bruised and scratched but mostly unharmed from their fight. A little ways off, Rainbow Dash could see the Night Guards either tied up in Applejack's rope or unconscious and she felt a swell of pride and relief that her friends had fared so well.
Pinkie Pie was the first to reach them and wrapped Rainbow in a hug the second she was close enough. "Rainbow are you okay? You flew off with Charged and we couldn't see you and then Twilight just disappeared. Poof! We had no idea where she went. Oh, your hooves! Are you bleeding? Are you hurt? Ohmygosh are you dying?” She gripped her friend’s face between her hooves and swiveled it so they were pressed nose to nose. “If you see a bright light don't go to it. Don't go into the light Dashie!"
"Pinkie, get off her before ya choke her to death." Pinkie Pie instantly released her death grip at Applejack's voice and switched over to giving Rainbow a comforting nuzzle. But for whose comfort exactly Rainbow wasn't sure. Applejack, meanwhile, went up and put a hoof on Twilight's shoulder. "You alright Sugarcube?"
Twilight nodded. "Yeah, I just had to help Rainbow Dash with The Captain and my magic reacted for me, sorry about that. We figured it out though." She looked her friend up and down and grimaced. "What about you? You don't look too good."
Rainbow glanced over. Twilight was right, out of all the ponies, Applejack was definitely the worst off. Her forelegs were cut up from where she must have blocked would-be lethal strikes and her barrel was covered in dark bruises as if somepony had used her as a trampoline. There was also a large bruise on her face that Rainbow could already tell would turn into a wicked black eye.
The other two, comparatively, had gotten off easy. Besides from Rarity's leg which she still couldn't put weight on, the worst she had were a couple scrapes and bruises as if she had simply tumbled down a hill. Pinkie was a little worse off but her biggest injury was a shallow knife wound on her chest that probably wouldn't even scar over.
"Yeah, well when ya up and left I had ta take the brunt of the attack." She rolled her shoulders and gave a little wince. "Weren't so bad though. Rarity helped much as she could with that leg and Pinkie did some real good right 'til she froze up and started cryin'."
Pinkie gave an embarrassed squeak and flattened her ears to her head. "Sorry, I...I just..."
"Nah, ya don't need ta apologize none." Applejack interrupted, picking her hat up from where it had fallen in the fight and securing it back on her head, "They got ya good in more ways than one. Ah was actually surprised ya managed ta get back up in the end."
Rainbow saw Rarity give the farmer an encouraging smile to which Applejack simply rolled her eyes. Rainbow didn't have much time to process just what that meant before Applejack spoke up again.
"And just what happened ta you two?" Green eyes traveled across Rainbow's rather unscathed body and blood speckled hooves. "Any trouble?"
"The Captain taunted Dash until she lost her temper," Twilight supplied before the Pegasus could open her mouth, "I had to stop her doing anything drastic to him."
Rainbow tensed and waited for the expected disgust and shock, but surprisingly, none came. Applejack nodded her head and wrapped a foreleg around Twilight in a small hug. Pinkie looked at the ground, a sad faraway look in her eyes. Rarity was the only one that looked angry at all but Rainbow got the feeling it wasn't directed at her when the Unicorn gave her a gentle nuzzle.
"Oh you poor dear, he must have said such awful things for you to react in that way."
Rainbow stared even as she instinctively nuzzled her friend back. "I could have killed him. I-I would have if Twilight hadn't..."
"And that's the world we live in," Twilight interrupted, "We're your friends, Rainbow, so we work through this. Together."
Rainbow let out a low chuckled and smiled at all her friends. "Thanks you guys. For everything."
"So is this it?" Pinkie spoke up. "We passed the last obstacle and now onto the prize?"
As one, the five of them turned to the large doors that marked the entrance to the castle.