Empty Horizons

by Goldenwing

XIX: The Duchy


Twilight shot up out of bed, heart thumping. She had her hoof outstretched, grasping for an arcane javelin that was nowhere to be seen.

“Whoa! H-hey, calm down, now.”

Twilight blinked in rapid succession, taking in her surroundings. She was in the little medical room aboard the Argo. A heavy rubber collar was fixed around her neck, constricting her breathing. It glowed a gentle lavender as she made to rip it off.

“Stop that!” Dusty Tome’s pale green hooves reached out to unclasp the collar’s latch before Twilight broke it. “That’s expensive!”

Twilight took deep breaths, forcing her racing heart to slow. “Sorry, I was just—thought I was somewhere else.” She swung her hooves off the bed to stand, but Dusty stretched out a leg to hold her back.

“Uh, hold on a second, now. You need some rest,” he said.

Twilight reached out to brush him aside. He stepped back, letting her slide off the bed and onto her hooves without further resistance. “I feel fine. Where’s Philomena?”

Dusty cocked his head. He shot a nervous glance towards the door behind him, tugging at the lapel of his jacket with almost imperceptibly thin magic. “I, uh, don’t know who that is, Twilight.”

Twilight shook her head, holding it in one hoof. She remembered speaking with The Other, watching herself make to strike down Philomena. But then—what? It was all blank. “The phoenix. The glowing monster we fought.” She met Dusty’s eyes, leaning in close. “Did it survive?”

He leaned away from her, not meeting her gaze. “Uh, you killed it, Twilight. You saved everypony. But are—”

“Ugh!” Twilight slumped back against the bed, sending it rolling into the diagnostic machine next to it. She sighed, closing her eyes. “But I didn’t mean to.” I’m sorry.

A few moments passed before Dusty’s voice broke the silence. “Hey, uh, are you alright? Your suit was in shreds when they brought you up here. They said you just teleported back onto the sub and then passed out. You had wet ashes plastered all over your coat.”

“I’m… fine,” Twilight said. She opened her eyes and looked down at herself. Her coat was matted and clammy, but the body beneath was bereft of wounds. “I’m fine.” But why? She had been on the brink of death before, and now she felt well-rested and whole. A pang of anxiety formed in her chest. “Was I gone very long?”

Dusty shook his head. “It’s only been about an hour since the sub returned. Are you sure you’re okay?” He took a tentative step forwards. “I had to cut what was left of your dive suit off of you. The ocean should have crushed you.”

Yes, it should have. Twilight blinked, taken aback at the thought. “What about the others?”

The other unicorn shrugged. “Flint and Sabre had some minor burns, and Applejack some bruising. I actually just managed to get your friends out so I could focus on you.”

“Thank you, Dusty,” Twilight said. At least it wasn’t a total loss. She had saved her friends, and that was something to be grateful over. She would have only put everypony in danger by trying to speak to Philomena. The phoenix had clearly fallen victim to the same terrible condition that had taken Owloysius. Twilight could only hope that Celestia’s old companion would find some peace. Or perhaps her ashes will coalesce in a few days, and she’ll be tortured once more. Perhaps she’s already died a dozen times.

Twilight shoved the thoughts aside, standing up. “I should go see my friends.”

Dusty stepped to the side. “I’m sure they’d like that.”

Twilight nodded. She slipped out into the hall without a word, making for the cargo hold that had become her home.

The Other Twilight had saved her and her friends when it subjugated her will. With the determination to survive behind her and the benefit of hindsight with her, she had to admit that she would have likely failed in the endeavor without its help. For the first time, she began to wonder if it was really as evil as she had thought.

She glanced at the cloudy horizon visible in the passing windows. Hadn’t it always acted in her interest, protecting her and her friends?

She shook her head, chastising herself for her foolishness. It had tainted her with violent thoughts, whispering terrible things into her ears. It had killed Philomena and it had banged against the bars of her mind yearning to kill many more in the past. She had no proof, but she suspected that it was of the same corruption that had turned Equestrians against each other in the past. It was evil, and she couldn’t allow herself to forget that.

Yet it had saved her.

Twilight let out a relieved breath as she walked into the dining room. Applejack was nursing a brass mug as she spoke in quiet tones with Fluttershy. “Hey, girls.”

Fluttershy was the first to react. “Twilight!” She flapped her wings, latching onto Twilight with a surprisingly firm hug. “Oh, we were so worried!”

Applejack followed soon after, laying a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “Shucks, filly, y’all gave us a right scare there. I’m gettin’ too much practice with waitin’ on friends to wake up.”

Twilight offered a sheepish grin. “Sorry, girls. I’ll try not to turn it into a trend.”

“S’already a trend by my reckonin’,” Applejack said as she and Fluttershy stepped back. “How ya feeling?”

“It can’t be a trend until there’s three data points, Applejack. I’m feeling fine.” Twilight decided to ignore the near-imperceptible arch of her friend’s eyebrow. “Definitely much better than I thought I’d be. Where’s Rainbow?”

“Oh, she’s, um, practicing,” Fluttershy said. “She’s in the hold with Sea Sabre.”

“Yeah, she’s been pretty keen on learnin’ to fight ever since—” Applejack paused, taking a sip from her mug to cover herself. “Uh, y’know. ‘Shy, why don’t y’all go tell her that Twi’s alright?”

“Oh, okay,” Fluttershy said, backing up a few steps before turning for the doorway. “I’ll be back in a little bit, I guess.”

Twilight watched her go, reluctant to meet her other friend’s gaze. When she did, she found her worries realized in Applejack’s gaze. “It’s gotten worse, ain’t it?”

Twilight sighed. She plopped herself down into a chair and rubbed at her eyes with a hoof. Once she blinked the stars away, she noticed Applejack offering her mug from the seat besides her. Twilight took it with her magic and gave it an inquisitive sniff. More of Flint’s cider. After a moment’s deliberation, she lifted the mug to her lips and took a long, hearty draw.

A few seconds passed before Applejack spoke. “Y’all wanna go somewhere a mite less public?”

Twilight shook her head, offering the mug back. The aftertaste clung to her tongue. “No, I’m fine. Just give me some time to collect my thoughts.” She took a couple deep breaths, her eyes outlining the stains worn into the table. “What happened?”

“I had been hopin’ y’all would be the one tellin’ me that,” Applejack said, accepting the mug and peeking into it. “Land sakes, girl, it’s almost all gone.”

“I don’t remember what happened, is the thing,” Twilight admitted. She kept her eyes on the table. “Not completely, at least.”

“I see,” Applejack said. Silent seconds passed as the knot of anxiety in Twilight’s chest grew. At last, Applejack leaned back in her seat and pushed the mug aside. “Well, after y’all quit respondin’ on the radio, Sabre told Flint to go find ya, which he did, just in time for that monster to light ya up. Then all of a sudden y’all were out in the water, glowin’ somethin’ fierce and chargin’ right at the thing.”

Twilight shivered, leaning into her friend. “I… killed it. I remember that.”

“Just about hit the sub and killed us with some of those magic beams, too,” Applejack groused. She wrapped a leg around Twilight’s shoulder. “But y’all saved us in the end, Twi. Ain’t no way we woulda gotten outta that without ya.”

Twilight felt her throat tighten. She squeezed her eyes shut as she forced the next words out. “It w-was Philomena. I k-killed Philomena, AJ.”

“Philomena?” Applejack echoed. Again, the silent seconds. She pulled Twilight closer, lowering her voice. “Shoot, Twi, it ain’t y’all’s fault. I think she was long gone. Ya did her a service.”

“No I didn’t!” Twilight snapped. “I could’ve saved her! If I had just kept control, then she’d have survived!” A sob racked her body. “I k-killed Celestia’s p-pet. She might have known where t-to find her!”

“Twilight Sparkle, you best hush with that nonsense!” Applejack’s stern voice was clear in Twilight’s ears. “Y’all know there ain’t no sense in that kind of speculatin’. Even a half-blind hen can find a rattlesnake in November if she don’t stop lookin’.”

Twilight let out a groan and buried her face in Applejack’s fur for the second time that week. She latched onto the other mare’s words, turning them over in her head. A sob and a laugh competed for dominance. “I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.”

She could feel Applejack’s grin against her forehead. “What I mean is that y’all are seein’ guilt where it don’t exist. Y’all don’t know any of those things, sugar cube. Ya did the best anypony coulda done. That’s all that matters.”

The laughter won out, and Twilight didn’t have the will to resist. She snorted, a sloppy smile breaking out onto her face as a few salty tears dripped down her cheeks. “T-there’s more.”

“Go on, then.”

“That t-thing I told you about,” Twilight began. “The dark thing. Do you remember? It—s-spoke to me.”

“What?” Applejack pulled back, looking Twilight in the eyes. “What are you sayin’, darlin’?”

“It’s—” Twilight gulped as she searched for a proper word. “It’s—intelligent. I think. It t-took over. I was—it f-forced me into a d-dream and—I was just so tired.” The concern in Applejack’s eyes nearly held Twilight back, but she pushed on, her voice shaking. I can’t do this all alone any longer. “It kept t-telling me, ‘go to sleep’. I’m n-not sure if I would h-have ever woken up. But I didn’t, and—b-but it still t-took control. I could feel it, and I was f-far away—and it killed Philomena! It killed her and I couldn’t stop myself!”

There was a long moment where Applejack just looked at her, and Twilight began to worry she had said too much. Would her friend cast her out? What if she told the others? She thought back to Owloysius floating dead in the water, leaking blood from the wound Star Trail’s javelin had given him, and to the fresh memory of Philomena lying crippled on a statue of her old master. What if I’m next? The next thing to be put down and mourned because I was already gone?

She flinched as Applejack pulled her back into a tight embrace. A comforting hoof ran down her mane. “Thank y’all for tellin’ me, Twi. We can take care of it together now, ya hear?”

Twilight sniffled, letting her stiff body relax as the fears drifted away. “Are you going to tell the others?”

There was only a moment of hesitation. “Do y’all want me to?”

Twilight shook her head. “I d-don’t want them worrying. W-we can t-tell them later.”

“Alrighty, sugar cube,” Applejack said. “Y’all just promise to tell me when anythin’ happens, okay? I’ll help ya through it.”

“Thank you, Applejack.” Twilight closed her eyes. A semblance of peace began to take hold as Applejack hummed soothing notes into her ear. “Thank you.”

“I’m not a great fan of this Duke Titus, darling,” Rarity said. She frowned in the hoof mirror floating before her as she checked her makeup.

Pinkie gave an exaggerated nod from where she sat on Rarity’s bed. “He’s a real grouchie, that’s for sure. I’ve got a good feeling about him, though!”

“Goodness, but how could you?” Rarity dabbed at her cheeks absent-mindedly with a cotton. “He barely gave us the time of day until his son trotted in with that gaping fish mouth of his.” She paused in her ministrations just long enough to curl her lip at her reflection. “And he called me a harlot. A harlot, Pinkie!”

“What’s wrong with being a harlot?” Pinkie asked.

Rarity nearly dropped the mirror. She turned to hit the other mare with an incredulous stare.

Pinkie blinked back at her. “What?”

“A harlot!” Rarity repeated. She closed her eyes for a moment, letting out a brief sigh before re-opening them. “Pinkie, dear, do you know what a harlot is?”

“I thought I did,” Pinkie muttered, tapping at her muzzle with a hoof. “Hmm, it’s some kind of clown, right?”

“It’s a call girl,” Rarity said. She turned back to stare intently into her hoof mirror, forcing a conversational tone. A lady is not stirred by petty insults. “You know, a courtesan, a fille-de-joie?”

Through the mirror, she saw Pinkie crack a nervous smile. “Uh…”

“A prostitute!” Rarity snapped. She looked up to the cloudscape painted onto the ceiling of the chamber Titus had given her and let out a guttural groan. “It’s a prostitute, Pinkie!”

“Oh,” Pinkie said. A moment later, Rarity felt warm hooves wrapped tightly around her. “Don’t worry, Rarebear! We all know you’re not a harlot!”

Rarity couldn’t help but smile as she leaned into the hug. “I appreciate it, darling.” A few moments passed while she allowed her pent-up ire to drift away. “Okay, that’s quite enough of that. I need to check my mane now.”

Pinkie gave her one last squeeze before stepping back. Rarity wasted no time in returning her attention to the hoof mirror and performing some expert adjustments with her comb. They would be speaking with Duke Titus again, the brute, and Rarity wasn’t going to let his barbarous tongue get in the way of all the good she could do for Equestria, no matter how disgraceful it was. She found herself thinking back to Mister Lay Drifts from Fellis. I wonder, how many ponies of this ilk will I have to suffer to get the job done?

A knock at the door grabbed her attention. “Who is it?”

“Is Pinkie with you, Countess?” Whitehorn’s voice asked from out in the hall. “She’s not in her room.”

“Right here!” Pinkie sang, bouncing up to the door and pulling it open.

“Ah, there you are,” Whitehorn said. He looked away, raising his voice a bit. “Are you proper, my Lady? I was just going to go speak with the Duke, and would quite enjoy you mares’ company.”

“You know we don’t normally wear clothes, right?” Pinkie asked.

Choosing not to fall into that particular conversation trap again, Rarity ignored the comment and  fluttered her eyelashes at her reflection. She was wearing a simple pale blue dress with golden highlights around her neck and hooves. She let out a small tut of satisfaction before setting the mirror aside. “Yes, I think I’m about ready. Shall we set forth?”

The three ponies started down the hall at a gradual walk, keeping roughly abreast. “I’d like to apologize for the incident last evening, my Lady,” Whitehorn said.

Rarity angled her head towards him. A wonderfully crafted painting of a column-adorned cloud city passed by, framing him in its splendor. “Whatever for, darling?”

“The Duke, of course.” Whitehorn shook his head. “I should have warned you about that roughness of his. I apologize for the rude comment he made, as well as any others he imposes on you during our time here.”

They reached the end of the hall, and Rarity levitated the door open for the three of them with her magic. “That’s quite kind of you, but I won’t have you begging forgiveness over another’s crass words,” she said. She gave him a small smile as she followed him and Pinkie through the door. “As long as we’re remembering what we came here for, I think it may even be worth the trouble.”

Whitehorn dipped his head and returned the smile. “Your nobility never ceases to impress, my Lady. Also—”

He paused, and Rarity arched a brow. “Yes?”

“It’s unlike the Duke to have changed his mind so suddenly over an infatuation of his son,” Whitehorn said, the smile fading. He lowered his voice as they approached the door to the dining hall. “It’s also unlike Pontius to gawk over a pretty mare. I suspect that there is some other motive at play.”

Rarity heaved a sigh. “There always is, isn’t there?”

“Don’t worry, Rarity,” Pinkie said, laying a leg over Rarity’s shoulder and leaning into her ear. “I’ll be watching them both. Nothing gets past Pinkie when she’s on the case!”

“Thank you, dear,” Rarity said, patting the other mare’s hoof. “I appreciate it. Shall we get on, then? It would be awfully awkward if we were caught loitering in the hall like this.”

The three ponies entered as one into the dining hall. Duke Titus, wearing a robe of identical design from yesterday, was discussing something with a stern-faced pegasus in a light set of scarred metal barding. He looked up from the map laid out on the table at the sound of the door opening, and dipped his head to the newcomers as he rolled it up.

“Allow me to entertain my guests, Pole,” he said, pushing the map away with a hoof. “I’ll take yer report in the afternoon.”

Pole executed a short bow. “Yes, my Lord.” He grabbed the map with a wing, rolling it up and tucking it to his side, before walking past the visitors and out into the hall. He kept his eyes pointedly facing forwards.

Whitehorn gave the Duke a good-natured smile as he sat himself at the table. “Anything we should be worried about, my Lord?”

Titus grunted. He turned his attention to a plate of roasted vegetables sitting in a shallow sauce beside him. “Just landowner’s business, Whitehorn. I hope ye lot found yer rooms acceptable. Ye hungry?”

“I know I am!” Pinkie cheered, hopping onto a seat before Rarity in yet another breach of proper hoofmaiden’s protocol. “What’s for breakfast? Cupcakes? Pie? I had a dream involving some eccentric key limes last night, and I could use some closure.”

“I don’t think the Duke is quite the pastry fan that you are, Pinkie,” Rarity said, lowering herself daintily onto a cushion. A part of her was glad that the Duke seemed to have so little regard for social rules. No doubt a more proper noble would have little respect for a countess with such an unruly servant.

Duke Titus stomped a hoof, and a pair of pegasus servants entered the room with plates balanced on their spread wings. They began to serve the dishes as he spoke. “Eh, I’ll have the servants bake something fer ye.”

A few moments of silence passed as breakfast was served. Whitehorn was the first to speak. “Do you know, I had been curious at your change of heart yesterday.”

The Duke grunted. “Am I not allowed to change my mind, Whitehorn? Or would ye prefer to be on yer way?”

“I don’t think that’s quite what he meant, darling,” Rarity said, giving the other noble a placating smile.

“We’ve been doing business for some time now is all, my Lord,” Whitehorn said. “And even before that, I’d heard about your stubbornness.”

“Flattery won’t get ye anywhere, ye know. Heh.” Duke Titus shrugged as he poked at a carrot with a silver fork. “What can I say? I’ve got a soft spot fer my colt. The way he spoke about ye when he came in, I just couldn’t turn ‘im down.”

Rarity pursed her lips, flicking an ear. There’s something off about this pony. She turned to glance at Pinkie, who had her head cocked at the Duke curiously.

Whitehorn nodded, a friendly smirk on his face. “I suppose I’ll have to remember your weakness if I need anything from you in the future. Now tell me, my Lord, how can I ease your concerns about my proposition?”

Duke Titus snorted, quickly falling back into his usual aloof gruffness. “Ye know exactly what I’m concerned about. The barons won’t stand fer having some committee oversee them.” He bumped a proud hoof against his chest.  “The land belongs to the nobility, and it’s our right to decide what we do with it.”

Rarity frowned, clearing her throat. “And what about the ponies under your protection? What about Equestria as a whole?”

“What about ‘em?” the Duke countered. “I know exactly what’d happen as soon as ‘Equestria as a whole’ gets into my business. They’d be coming down on me fer defending my own land, sending foreigners to patrol my roads, and knocking on my door hollering about my bits. What do I get out of it?”

Rarity’s tail twitched under the table at the display of selfishness. “You get stability, of course,” she said. “Why can’t you trust fellow Equestrians? In my time, war between ponies was nothing but a myth! You could focus your efforts on your land and your ponies without threats from the outside.”

“Yer time, huh?” Duke Titus said, his voice dripping skepticism. He gestured with a wing to the armor standing guard along the walls. “My ancestors were warriors, Countess. I’m proud to fly in their wake.”

“Consider, my Lord,” Whitehorn said. “You have the largest demesne on Altalusia. Only Duchess Nettlekiss can challenge you on her own. If you support the Gifted Table in Parliament, then your position will be unshakeable. Your lineage will dominate Altalusia for generations. Is it really worth passing over that opportunity just to have a chance at expansion?”

Rarity turned to Whitehorn, eyes wide. That didn’t sound like the kind of Equestria that they were trying to make. He met her gaze for just a moment before Duke Titus spoke.

“Now ye’re talking sense,” the pegasus said, rubbing at his chin with a hoof. “With a squad of Gifted keeping any upstarts from becoming too unruly, even that old crone wouldn’t be able to bother me.”

“And I’m sure your ponies would be way happier, too!” Pinkie chirped. “They wouldn’t have to make grumpy faces at everyone that came to see you, for one thing.”

The door to the hall opened, and Rarity was struck with a case of déjà vu as Pontius stepped in. He was wearing a polished steel plate over his chest, partially hidden behind an orange tabard. The younger stallion did a considerably better job of keeping his jaw under control as he dipped his head in greeting. “I’m going out fer a public showing, father.”

“A public show?” Pinkie asked, perking up. “Can I help? I’ve got a great ear for lyrics!”

“Showing, lass,” Duke Titus corrected. “To keep sure the peasantry don’t forget their place.” He turned to his son. “Keep an eye on the woods, eh?”

“Yes, sir,” Pontius said. He turned to leave.

“Ah, I’d like to come with you, darling,” Rarity said, standing up. She adjusted her mane with a hoof as Pontius looked back. Is that fear in his eyes? The poor colt. “I’m quite interested in seeing the land up close, as it were.”

Pontius grimaced, glancing towards his father. “Uh—”

“I’ll come too!” Pinkie said, bouncing off her pillow and starting around the table. “If the ponies I’ve met have shown me anything, this place needs some Pinkie prowess.”

Pontius tried to wave a hoof at the mares as they approached. “Wouldn’t ye be more comfortable in the manor? I’m sure my father has much to talk to ye about.”

“That’s fine, lad,” Duke Titus said, eyeing his son intently. “Show them around while I chat with Whitehorn here. Just be careful ye don’t lose them anywhere, eh?”

For a moment Rarity thought that Pontius was going to protest further, but the young pegasus gave in under his father’s glare. “Yes, sir,” he said. He beckoned with one wing as he held the door open with another. “Lady Rarity, Miss Pie.”

“Thank you, dear,” Rarity said as she led the way through the door. “We shan’t be too much trouble.”

Pontius closed the door behind them before taking the lead. The sound of conversation faded away as they followed the path to the front door. He didn’t look back as he spoke. “Shall I s-send fer a wagon, Countess?”

Rarity failed to suppress a giggle at the display of nerves. “I think we’ll be fine walking. Pinkie?”

Pinkie blew a loud raspberry. “You know I’d just walk alongside, anyways.”

Pontius risked a glance back, his gaze lingering on Rarity’s horn for just a moment. “Ah, alright. As long as ye’re alright with a walk.” A servant filly was scrubbing the entrance hall with a wet rag, and he beckoned her over with a hoof. “Head to the barracks and have a pair of soldiers sent to relieve the gate.” The filly scampered off without a word.

The rising sun greeted the trio as they stepped outside, passing between the imposing stone glares of Pontius’ ancestors on their way down the steps into the garden. His barding gleamed in the morning light, turning the blades fastened to his wings into twinkling silver feathers. Rarity couldn’t help but stiffen as she noticed them. Are those truly necessary?

The same pegasus mare as before was waiting at the gate. She straightened as they approached, rolling her shoulders. “My Lord.”

Pontius nodded. “Ivory. Where’s Onyx?”

There was a snort of alarm, and the unicorn stallion stepped into view from behind the stone wall that encircled the estate. “Here, my Lord.”

“I’ve sent fer replacements. I’d like both of ye to come with us,” Pontius said. “Lady Rarity and her hoofmaiden will be accompanying me, and we must ensure their safety.”

Onyx exchanged a glance with Ivory before responding. “Aye, my Lord.”

With their numbers bolstered, the party left the walled safety of the estate and traveled down the meandering dirt path at a steady trot. Pontius walked in front while Ivory and Onyx brought up the rear. All three ponies observed the passing countryside with the sort of aloof alertness that Rarity had only seen before in the eyes of Royal Guards.

Although Rarity had already glimpsed much of the baronland during the ride from the shore, she enjoyed the opportunity to stretch her legs. Farmers worked endless fields nestled among rocky hills that were unsuitable for agriculture. The farmers toiled under wide-brimmed hats that hid their faces and protected them from the long hours of harsh sun. A dog would sometimes join them, receiving a few pats from Onyx or Pinkie before returning to its business. Songbirds played in every copse of trees along the road while their larger cousins idly soared far above. If not for the soldiers in her peripherals, or the absence of the Canterhorn on the horizon, Rarity might have imagined herself on a calming walk outside the Everfree Forest. I do hope the other girls get Pinkie’s invitation. I’m sure Fluttershy would love a soiree through the woods after all the dreadful ash and stone of Heighton.

Pinkie was the first to break the peaceful silence. “So your name is Ivory, huh?” she asked.

Ivory’s tail twitched. “Aye.”

Another few seconds passed. “How come you didn’t tell me your name yesterday?” Pinkie asked.

Ivory shot her a sideways glare before looking away once more. “Workin’.”

Pinkie frowned. She exchanged a glance with Rarity, who responded with a slight shake of the head. Pinkie screwed her eyes up before trying again. “You can talk while you’re working, can’t you?” she asked. “We can be friends!”

Onyx cleared his throat. “It’s not that she can’t talk,” he said. “She just don’t wanna.”

From the way that Pinkie’s jaw dropped, it was clear to Rarity that the matter was about to spin out of control. She laid a soft hoof on Pinkie’s shoulder. “So where are we going, exactly? Is it very much further?”

“Just over that hill,” Pontius said, gesturing forwards. “I like to get out and speak with the peasants every few days.”

“To keep them in line, as your father said?” Rarity asked. “I do hope that’s not what all these weapons are for.”

“Th’ weapons are fer yer protection, my Lady,” Onyx said. He scanned the countryside as he spoke. “It’s unsafe t’ travel otherwise.”

“And they’re certainly not fer the peasants,” Pontius added as they approached the crest of the hill. “I only hope to remind them that my father and I care fer their safety. The weapons aid in that regard.”

“Ah, how kind of you,” Rarity said. A sugar coating for the truth, darling? She certainly didn’t feel very safe in the moment, tucked amidst a trio of armored ponies. She looked them each over once more. The memory of her scuffle in the fabric shop came to mind, easing her nerves. She and Pinkie would be able to defend themselves if necessary.

The village on the other side of the hill was a drab yet quaint affair. It was little more than a couple dozen stone hovels spread haphazardly around a larger wooden building in the middle of a dirt yard. Farms covered the surrounding slopes, the crops partially obscuring the homes of the families that worked them. Rarity’s eye was drawn to the top of the lone wood construct, where the roof had been carved into the likeness of a faceless, spread-winged alicorn. Her forelegs were wrapped around a lovingly detailed brass relief of Princess Celestia’s cutie mark.

Rarity wrinkled her nose at the display. It wasn’t the first time that she had seen religious buildings dedicated to the Princesses, but she was far from used to it. Neither of them would have wanted to be worshipped as goddesses; she knew this. Perhaps it’s better than being forgotten altogether, though.

“So this is the place?” Pinkie asked. She stopped bouncing, opting instead to walk along the ground as she looked around. “It kinda reminds me of the rock farm.”

Pontius glanced back. “How do ye farm rocks?”

“You just—” Pinkie sighed, her mane losing some of its puff as she kicked at a pebble. “Roll them around.”

“Pinkie, dear,” Rarity said, stepping close enough to rub shoulders with her friend as they walked. “Perhaps you could throw them a party? I’m sure they’d quite appreciate it.”

She smiled as Pinkie’s mane popped back into place. The mare jumped in place and let out a giddy shriek. “Do you really think so?”

“But of course, darling,” Rarity giggled. “I’ve never met anypony that would turn down a Pinkie Pie party!” Her ear twitched at the derisive snort she heard from Ivory’s direction.

“Oooh hee hee! I’m gonna need some supplies!” Pinkie bounced to the front of the party. She turned around to face Pontius as she spoke, now bouncing backwards. “Who’s the lucky pony I talk to to get some party supplies around here?”

Pontius pulled his head back from the unnatural display of coordination. He stretched his wings for a brief moment before returning them to his sides. “Cinnamon Twirl is the ealdormare here. Ask fer her.”

“You got it! See you guys at the party!” With an exaggerated salute, she turned around and sped ahead of the group.

Ivory let out a low nicker. “Finally.”

“Ah, don’t be that way, Ivy,” Onyx said from Rarity’s other side. “Th’ mare’s got spirit is all.”

Pontius slowed his pace and raised his head as the group came closer to the village. Rarity knew when a pony was donning a mask, and watched the subtle transformation with interest. He’s been comfortable with his soldiers so far, but he cares how the villagers see him. He wants to be somepony they can speak to, but not one to get familiar with.

Pinkie’s distinctive voice drifted through the air. Many of the villagers had had their ears angled in its direction, but they were quick to forget about her once they noticed the young lord in their midst. Most of them stepped out of the path, bowing in silence. Some uttered quiet greetings before returning to their business. None raised their gaze to meet his, but Rarity did catch a few glances stolen in her direction.  She did her best to smile at those villagers, only to have them all quickly look away. She suppressed the urge to let out an indignant huff. That brute Titus must have made them this way.

Although the villagers’ shyness towards an unfamiliar noble could be forgiven, Rarity supposed, the felonious grade of their wardrobes was harder for her to overlook. Coarse browns and dirty whites were the dominant colors, and most ponies wore nothing but simple coats and caps. Rarity was reminded of the many spats she’d shared with Applejack over such attire. How would she describe it? Ah, yes. ‘Practical.’

Pontius approached a yellow-coated pegasus mare leaning against the door to her stone cottage. He spoke with a thicker accent than Rarity had heard him use before. “Sun shine ye, Twirl.”

Cinnamon Twirl was the only villager Rarity had seen that was willing to look Pontius in the eye, but it was hard to tell if she was flaunting it or just being friendly. “Sun shine ye, Master Pontius. How’s yer father’s health?”

“Duke Titus is in fair spirits as usual, thank ye,” he said, giving her a small smile. She didn’t respond in kind. Pontius cast an eye over to where Pinkie was speaking with a wide-eyed filly. “Ye hear that mare’s lookin’ fer ye?”

“Aye, whole village’s hearin’.” Cinnamon Twirl watched as Pinkie bounced behind another cottage and out of sight. “Lass could find me in ten seconds if she’d spare more ‘n a moment fer each pony. Ain’t that many of us, though. She’ll get t’ me soon enough.”

Pinkie’s cheery voice was moving around the village so fast that Rarity could almost imagine she was teleporting. “Are you Cinnamon Twirl? Darn! Are you Cinnamon Twirl? Drat!” A little smile played at Rarity’s lips. She seems to be having fun, at least.

Cinnamon Twirl just shook her head before turning back to Pontius. “Ye on business?”

“Just rangin’ the land, Twirl,” Pontius said. He gestured with a wing. “Have ye met Countess Rarity?”

Rarity stepped forwards with a sweet smile. She didn’t care if she was a noble or not, she would greet this mare like a neighbor. “I’ve heard many things about the beauty of baronlands, but I must say that your charming village puts the stories to shame.”

“By Celestia’s blessin’, my Lady.” The suspicion in the mare’s eyes was subtle, but as clear as day to Rarity. “I’m sure th’ Duke is pleased t’ hear it.”

“Is there anything my hoofmaiden or I could help with while we’re here, darling?” Rarity asked, leaning forwards. “Anything at all?”

“Yer presence alone is help enough, my Lady,” Twirl said. Her voice had a dry timbre that sat on the narrow fence between wit and exhaustion. “We’ve our troubles well-handled, thank ye.”

“Ah, of course.” Rarity stepped back, a small frown on her lips. She doesn’t trust me. And why should she? She’s probably never met a Gifted or a noble with an actual interest in her life, the poor dear.

Cinnamon Twirl gave a respectful dip of her head before turning to Pontius. “Lad came in from th’ east yesterday. Said he was headin’ t’ th’ manor t’ speak with th’ Duke. Stayin’ with Mother White if ye want t’ see ‘im.”

Pontius nodded. “Thank ye fer lettin’ me know. Fare well.”

He turned back to the path, the two guards following in silence. Rarity hesitated only long enough to give a little wave and receive a plain-faced nod in return before following suit. “Does your father hold many of these villages, Pontius?”

“My father collects tribute from nearly a dozen settlements in this part of Altalusia,” Pontius said. He fluffed his wings up as he spoke. “We’ve held our position as the most powerful dynasty on the island fer over a century.”

“Ah, I see.” Rarity grimaced as she realized that they were heading for the church to Celestia. She had never actually been inside one of the things. “And I’m certain that you do more than just collect tribute from them, of course?”

Pontius glanced back at her, his head partially cocked. “Of course. My father and I understand th’ meaning of fealty.”

The double doors of the church were banded in brass and built into a frame fashioned like protective wings. One was already ajar, leaving space for the party to slip inside single file. The earthy scent of chrysanthemum tickled Rarity’s nose as she entered behind Pontius. Narrow windows of stained glass flanked blanketed pews, resting above lovingly tended beds of the brilliant flowers. Depicted in the colored panes, Rarity saw ragged peasants kneeling in prostration, heroic warriors slaying terrible beasts, and humble leaders caught in passionate speech. In each window, the image of a gleaming sun was prominently displayed.

Morning daylight streamed in through an opaque window stained in a radiating pattern of gold and white at the far end of the church. The light silhouetted the faceless marble statue of an alicorn, its wings stretched up to cradle the rising sun while its forelegs reached out as if to encompass the entire church in their embrace.

Rarity didn’t notice the earth mare sitting with bowed head before the statue until she lifted her head, looked back, and spoke. “Sun shine ye, Lord Pontius.”

“Sun shine ye, Mother White,” Pontius said. “Twirl tells me ye have a lad lookin’ fer my father.”

“Aye, I do.” Mother White nodded. The hood of her gold-trimmed white robe bobbed with the motion. It was without a doubt the most aesthetic outfit in the village, despite its simple design. Her gaze passed over Rarity and the two soldiers. “Shall I fetch ‘im fer ye?”

“Please,” Pontius said. He took a few steps to the side and sat down on the nearest pew.

Mother White nodded once more. Her robe rustled as she stood and disappeared through a small door off to her side.

Rarity looked up into the blank face of the alicorn statue. So this is how these ponies see Celestia? It felt alien to her, a far cry from the maternal warmth that the Princess of the Sun had always exuded. She thought back to all the Summer Sun Celebrations she had attended back in simpler times, watching Celestia raise the sun in that very same pose, marveling at her beauty and her regal poise. In an instant the Celestia of her memories became ragged and gaunt. Her pristine coat became patchy and torn, leaving only her rainbow mane untouched in its ubiquitous arcane breeze. Rarity looked up into the blank face of the alicorn statue and she saw the empty, bloodstained eyes of the Celestia that had prowled the flooded streets of Fellis Island looking back at her.

She blinked, and the image was gone. Don’t let your imagination get the better of you, Rarity. She still hadn’t told Pinkie about what she had seen that day. Perhaps she would muster the courage to share the story when she reunited with all of her friends.

Rarity welcomed the distraction when Mother White reentered the room with a young stallion in tow. He stepped nervously towards the pew where Pontius had taken a seat to wait, urged on by her gentle presence.

“Ye wanted t’ speak with th’ Duke, lad?” Pontius asked. The lanky unicorn colt nodded, and Pontius beckoned with a wing. “Ye can speak t’ me then. I’ll pass th’ word along.”

The colt looked to Rarity, who gave him a friendly smile, before speaking. “It’s about yer bounty, my Lord.”

Rarity stiffened. Bounty? She took a casual glance towards the still-ajar door and saw Ivory watching her intently. Had the price on her and Pinkie reached Altalusia as well? She grimaced at the lack of usable fabrics in the church. That little shop had been so charming, too.

“Speak on, then,” Pontius prompted, leaning forwards. “What do ye know?”

“Th’ bandits, my Lord,” the colt said. “I can show ye where th’ camp is.”

Pontius pointed a wing towards where Onyx was standing. “Tell ‘im where ye found it, lad. We’ll go take a look.”

The young pony rushed to oblige, and Rarity realized that she had been holding her breath. She let it go, fidgeting with her mane with a hoof. Foolish girl, ready to bolt at the first mention of a wanted pony. “I had heard that you have crime problems in these lands.”

Pontius stood up and shuffled his wings. “Aye, and sometimes our patrols aren’t enough. A few bits always helps t’ open sealed lips.”

“I see.” Rarity looked over to where Onyx was listening intently to the young pony. “And I suppose the next step is to find the camp and—then what?”

He shrugged. “Then we bring ‘em t’ justice.”

“Surely you don’t mean—” Rarity grimaced, the word stuck in her throat.

Pontius gave her a curt nod. “Aye, death. Father’s never taken kindly to those that break his law, and even less so t’ stockin’ ‘em in a dungeon and feedin’ ‘em. If they’re wise, they’ll run and not give us reason t’ look fer ‘em again.” He paused before adding, “Assumin’ we can’t catch ‘em.”

“But they’re still ponies!” Rarity insisted with a step forwards. “They have families and stories. Surely they have a good reason for what they’re doing?”

“That’s not our concern,” Pontius said. He exchanged nods with Onyx as the colt finished his story. “A lord’s duty is t’ his land, not t’ those that threaten it.”

He stepped back outside, Onyx quick behind him. Rarity stared after him with her mouth open, ignoring Ivory’s impatient stare. How could anypony think that way?

She let out an unladylike nicker. Focus, Rarity! You can save those ponies! She shook herself, cantering past Ivory and out into the sunlight. Pontius was listening as Onyx pointed towards a wooded hillside and recounted what he had heard. Rarity fought to keep her face neutral as she approached him, but failed to steady her voice altogether.

“Your duty is to the ponies, not the land, y—” She caught herself before an insult slipped out. “When did the nobility forget the meaning of chivalry?”

Pontius turned to her. He cocked his head, a small frown on his face. “Countess, th’ ponies are th’ land.”

Rarity opened her mouth for a rebuttal, only to find that she couldn’t think of one. She knew that there was something off about what he had said, but she just couldn’t find the words for it. After a few seconds she settled for an indignant, “Hmph!” and turned away.

The stallions resumed their conversation as she seethed. Pinkie Pie bounced into sight from behind the church, waved, and rushed to close the distance. “Hi, Rarity! Something wrong?”

“It’s just—” Rarity let out a dramatic sigh. She didn’t want to talk about Pontius behind his back. Even if, technically, he was actually the one behind her back at the moment, she felt like complaining about him not two steps away would be entirely improper. “Just this world, Pinkie. Did you find Cinnamon Twirl?”

Pinkie cocked her head. After a couple seconds, she burst out into a wide smile. “Yeppers! Nopony can hide from the Pink forever!” She reared up and struck a pose as she spoke, only to break down in giggles a moment later. “She wasn’t too cooperative at first, but she gave in after a few rounds of my smilegressive negotiating. Party’s gonna be in the big sun house tonight, and you know you’re invited!”

Rarity gave her a wan smile. “Thank you, darling. I’m quite looking forwards to attending.”

Pontius cleared his throat behind her, and she forced a calm demeanour onto her face before turning to face him. His accent had thinned to where it was before entering the village. “We’ll be making fer the camp now, my Lady. Would ye like me to send fer an escort back to the manor? The village keeps a couple pigeons.”

Rarity scoffed. “Certainly not! I shall be accompanying you to speak with the bandits.”

“You’re not going to take too long, are you?” Pinkie asked from behind her. “I don’t want you guys missing the party!”

“I’m sure we can have it handled and be back before sunset, Pinkie,” Rarity said. She glanced up to the sun as she spoke. It wasn’t quite noon yet.

“My Lady, we aren’t marching into the woods to speak with bandits over a meal,” Pontius said, drawing her attention back to him. “They’ll know the risks they’ve taken, and they won’t wait to speak to ye until ye have ‘em begging for mercy on the ground.”

Rarity raised her chin, looking him in the eye. “I am not the type of fair maiden that requires coddling to interact with the world, Pontius. If you don’t want my company, then you’re more than welcome to try and stop me.”

An exasperated grimace formed on his face. He glanced back to Onyx and Ivory as if for support, but their attention remained steadfastly elsewhere. He turned back to Rarity only to see that she hadn’t moved. Please back down, she thought. Although her recent experiences had quite bolstered her confidence with regards to violence, she would have hated to get into a fight. There was just so much dirt in the little village.

At last, he relented. “Very well, then. But ye stay behind me and ye don’t get involved. These ponies are dangerous, and yer clothes won’t protect ye from a weapon aimed to kill.” His eyes darted down to her cutie mark for a moment before he continued. “I don’t want to have to drag ye back to the village bleeding all the way.”

A sweet smile crept past Rarity’s stern facade. “Certainly, darling. I would hate to stain this outfit, either way.”

Steam hissed above Twilight’s ear as the door to the cargo hold slid open. She stepped through without looking, engulfed in the copy of Callus’s Classified Collections on Chiroptera suspended before her.

Her concentration was broken as she bumped into something warm and furry. She flinched, the book falling and clattering against the metal of the floor as she looked up and noticed Fluttershy.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Fluttershy said, stepping aside. “I, um, wasn’t looking where you were going.”

Twilight gave the mare a soft smile as she levitated the book closed and laid it to rest on her back. “You’re fine, Fluttershy. It was my fault.”

“No, I should have been watching,” Fluttershy insisted. “I know how you are with books, Twilight. I was just distracted by Rainbow.”

Twilight followed the other mare’s gaze and noticed for the first time the pair of pegasi circling each other in the open space beneath Rainbow’s cloudroom. Rainbow and Sea Sabre both had their wings flared, the feathers sheathed in hard wood. “That’s just a spar, right?” she asked. “They’re not actually fighting?”

“Oh, goodness, no,” Fluttershy said. “Rainbow’s just been so frustrated lately with her training. She kept telling me about how, um, ‘pointless’ all the drills were and how, uh, ‘stupid’ it was. And I’m sure Sea Sabre’s a very good teacher!” She shot a nervous glance towards the two other pegasi. “So I suggested that she talk with Sabre about it, if she wanted, and Sabre told her they could have a practice fight.”

“I see.” Twilight teleported the book into her room for later, sitting down next to Fluttershy to watch. “I guess she roped you into cheering her on?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say roped,” Fluttershy hid behind her flowing mane. “I mean, Applejack’s busy helping Trails with the sub, and I would just hate for Rainbow to feel lonely. I know just how  important it is for her to have a friend to cheer her on.”

“Of course not.” Twilight gave her nervous friend a sincere smile. “I know she appreciates it.” She faced the makeshift arena, raising her voice for a cheer. “Go Rainbow Dash!”

Rainbow turned, her eye lighting up as she saw the new audience member. She waved with a hoof. “Hey, Twi! Here to see my new moves?”

Twilight opened her mouth to respond just as Sabre pumped her wings, lifting her hooves off the ground and propelling herself forwards with barely a sound. Twilight gasped as she realized that she had caused her friend to leave her blind spot exposed. “Rainbow, look out!”

Too late. Sabre hooked a hoof under Rainbow’s neck, flipping her over onto her back. In the same motion she wrapped her hind legs around Rainbow’s wings, pinning them in place. Rainbow released a strangled squawk as she was slammed into the ground.

Sabre’s wooden blade was already against her neck. “You’re dead.”

“Ack—no fair!” Rainbow coughed. She strained against the other pegasus’s hold to no avail. “I wasn’t ready!”

“You were ready ten seconds ago,” Sabre said, stepping back. “Now you’re dead.”

“She distracted me!” Rainbow leveled a hoof on Twilight, who blushed and looked away. “And you came in on my left side, too! I couldn’t even see you!”

“You let your guard down, Rainbow,” Sabre said.

Rainbow gnashed her teeth, glaring at her mentor. She jumped backwards and lowered herself to the ground. “Fine! Let’s go again!”

Twilight had her hooves clasped over her muzzle. “Oh my goodness. I didn’t mean for that!” She kept her voice low to ensure that only Fluttershy could hear her.

“Maybe we should be more careful with our, um, cheering,” Fluttershy whispered, shrinking down. “I wouldn’t want to distract her again.”

“Come on!” Rainbow launched forwards, twisting mid-air to strike with one wing. Sabre turned to the side, deflecting the blow with one wing while her other arced around to strike at Rainbow’s belly. “Hrk!”

Rainbow grunted as she spun head over hooves and landed face-up on the ground. Sabre rested a hoof on her neck. “Dead again.”

Twilight had flinched from the sound of the impact. “This is their first time sparring?” she asked.

“Well, Rainbow spent her first day of practice sparring with her, actually,” Fluttershy said. She whimpered as she watched her friend throw herself forwards again, only to be bodily flung to the ground once more. “She’s doing better this time. Go, Rainbow Dash! Woohoo!”

Twilight grimaced. “Oh.”

Rainbow bounced back to her hooves for the fifth time. “Stop doing that! I can’t even see on that side!”

“Did you want me to go easy on you?” Sabre asked. She had only just begun to breathe hard. “Or do you want to learn how to fight?”

Rainbow scuffed a hoof against the floor, her tail flicking side to side and her ears flat against her head. She flung herself forward with a reckless scream.

The sound of venting steam prompted Twilight to look back just as Flintlock stepped into the cargo hold. He sat down next to Twilight. “Sparrin’, huh?”

Twilight let out a little laugh. “I’m beginning to wonder if I should say something.” Rainbow yelped as she was tossed up into the air and vanished into her cloudroom with a puff of white.

“I don’t think Rainbow would like that,” Fluttershy said. “But that’s just, um, what I think.”

“Eh, don’t ye worry,” Flint said. “This is how it always goes. Sabre’ll have ‘er in shape soon enough.” Rainbow darted back out of the cloud before it even had time to settle. He chuckled as she got a hit in on Sabre’s shoulder before being flipped off her hooves.

“You’ve seen this before?” Twilight asked. She clapped her hooves together as Rainbow picked herself up off the ground yet again. “Keep it up, Rainbow!”

“Ye, I’ve been workin’ with that mare fer at least a decade, it feels like.” His eyes grew distant as he spoke, his lazy smile fading. “Seen ‘er train a lot of good ponies. I was one of ‘em.”

Twilight cocked her head at the strange tone in his voice. She thought back to the empty soldier silhouettes that she had seen die in Flint’s dream. Why didn’t they have any faces? The question hung heavy on her tongue, but she couldn’t think of the right words. Maybe it wasn’t the time. She doubted the surly stallion would answer her anyways.

A thunderous cheer erupted from Fluttershy. She took flight, waving her hooves in the air. “Yay, Rainbow! You did it!”

Twilight refocused on the fight. Rainbow had practically collapsed on top of Sabre. Her wooden blade was lying against the other mare’s neck. Twilight stomped her hooves, lending her own voice to the cheer. “Go, Rainbow!”

“Heh,” Rainbow was panting hard as she rolled off of her teacher. “Gotcha.”

“So you did,” Sabre said, climbing to her hooves. Both of them were drenched in sweat. “So that’s one in fifteen. Do you think you can catch me out again?”

Heavens, I should have changed before coming out here. Rarity wrinkled her nose as she followed Pontius across a small stream, using her magic to hold up the hem of her skirt. She was dressed to negotiate over a dinner table, and now here she was hiking through the woods to find some bandits. Pontius probably would’ve left without me if I had left to assemble a proper outfit, though.

They’d been walking for an hour at least, weaving a path through the forested hills of Duke Titus’ land. The canopy kept her from getting a good look of the sun to gauge time, and so she had only the soreness in her hooves to go by. She winced as she stepped in some mud. Better hooves than shoes, I suppose. The shoes she had been wearing would have probably been ruined by now if she hadn’t left them in the village.

Onyx paused as he approached a rocky ridge, prompting the rest of the party to come to a stop behind him. He crept up to the ridge line, poked his head between a pair of rocks, and then returned to the group.

“Camp’s ahead,” he whispered. “Fire’s out, but still some smoke.”

“So they just left,” Pontius said. “Perhaps they just finished lunch.”

“Should we try to track them down?” Rarity asked. She forced herself to crouch alongside the others in spite of the dirty ground. “We should be close, yes?”

Ivory shook her head. “Huntin’.”

Onyx nodded. “Aye, they’ll return before th’ day’s out, probably laden with whatever loot they get their hooves on.”

“We must be patient,” Pontius said. He tapped Ivory’s shoulder with a wing. “Ye take first watch. We’ll take ‘em by surprise.”

Ivory dipped her head. “My Lord.” She advanced up the ridge, tucked herself into the shadow of a tree, and settled down to wait.

If time had flowed slowly before, it progressed at a crawl now that the group had reached their destination. After the first two hours, Ivory relinquished her position to Pontius. Onyx took up the watch two hours later. All the while Rarity was forced to wait in silence with only the ambient birdsong and occasional rustle of leaves to fill the void. A light drizzle began to fall, and she was thankful that her dress was already so far gone that the water could do little more to harm it. It was approaching sunset when Rarity finally moved to take her turn. Pontius raised a wing to stop her.

She turned to him and received a small shake of the head. She glared daggers at him as she swept the wing aside with a hoof and advanced up the ridge as quietly as she could. Onyx exchanged a questioning glance with Pontius before relenting the position.

Rarity was grateful for the mental stimulation as she took her first look at the campsite. Four thin bedrolls were laid out in the dip between a pair of shallow ridges. Cloths propped up on stakes protected them from the weather, and an ashen pile of wood sat in a circle of stones in front of a small tent. All in all, it wasn’t a very interesting site. Rarity strained to keep herself focused despite the creeping boredom.

The orange light of sunset was filtering through the trees when she felt a tap on her back. She turned to see Onyx beckoning for her to rejoin the group.

“They should be back by now,” Pontius said. The irritation in his voice was apparent even with its low volume.

“We should be headin’ back as well, my Lord,” Onyx said. “Th’ moon’s wanin’, and I don’t favor th’ hike back without bein’ able t’ see my hooves.” Ivory nodded, but said nothing.

Pontius let out a quiet grunt. “Perhaps they saw the lad spot them and were spooked. Let’s see if we can’t find anything in the camp, then we’ll head back.”

He led the party up and over the ridge, no longer concerned with stealth. Rarity was thankful for the opportunity to stretch her legs as she followed. She didn’t know how Twilight could ever stand to sit still for so long. I do hope Pinkie’s party is still going by the time we return.

The camp was of little more interest up close than it was from atop the ridge. The bedrolls were disgustingly dirty, no doubt having gone without washing for weeks. There were a few sacks hidden in the tent, but they found nothing but bread and bruised fruit inside them. As the sun drooped ever lower, Rarity found herself using her hornlight to help illuminate the site while the party combed the ground for anything left behind.

“Gah, this is pointless!” Pontius spat. “We just missed them!”

“Perhaps we got lucky and they tried robbin’ th’ wrong pony,” Onyx offered. “We can find th’ bodies on th’ side of th’ road in a few days ‘n say th’ problem solved itself.”

Ivory let out a short cough. It took a moment for Rarity to realize that it was a sort of laugh. “Maybe.”

Rarity grimaced at the dark humor. “Or, better yet, perhaps they realized the error of their ways and retired from banditry for good?”

“Or maybe,” an unfamiliar voice called from the woods, “we spent th’ day sleepin’ off the cider at th’ tavern!”

Rarity’s heart skipped a beat as she spun around. She poured more magic into her horn, revealing the half dozen dirty ponies that had spread out along the ridge in the fading daylight. They leered down the slope with chip-toothed grins. A breeze swept through the little dip carrying the strong scent of alcohol.

“Stand down, bastards,” Pontius said, flaring his wings. “Ye’ve evaded us long enough. Let’s not make too much trouble.”

“Stand down?” a mare parroted back. “Do ye think us dumb? We know how yer daddy deals with banditry.”

“Then ye know that this is yer last chance t’ run,” Onyx growled. The light of Rarity’s horn gleamed off the barbed cap he wore on his horn. “If ye surrender then ye’ll get a clean hangin’. Ivy here is good with ‘er knots, and it’s a league less pain than gettin’ gored in th’ gut.”

Ivory gave an agreeable nod. “True.” She shuffled a wing over the place where her gun was secured to her side.

“Now let’s not be too hasty, darlings!” Rarity stepped in between the two parties, looking between them. “I’m sure we can talk this out. Nopony needs to get hurt.”

A bandit stallion turned to the mare next to him. “Isn’t that th’ Gifted from th’ poster in town?”

The mare blinked in astonishment. “Aye, it is! We’ve stumbled on a pretty bit, fellas!”

“You will address her by her station as a lady,” Pontius said, stepping in front of Rarity. “She is under the Duke’s protection!”

“Th’ Duke’s protection’s a few heads short of fair, by my count,” the mare shot back. She took a threatening step forwards. “Hand ‘er over, and we’ll let ye run back t’ daddy in one piece.”

“I can speak for myself, thank you, darling.” Rarity stepped out from behind Pontius. “I don’t want to fight you dears, you know.” She offered a friendly smile. “If you just tell us what’s inspired you to opt for banditry, I’m sure we can resolve the matter peaceably.”

The bandits exchanged a few confused glances with each other. “Why’s it payin’ so good fer this mare?” one asked.

“Cause she’s Gifted, ye dunce. Stronger’n any, th’ sheet said!”

“If she’s so strong, how come she ain’t killed us all by now?”

“Maybe ‘er talent is talkin’?”

“Doin’ a piss poor job of it, if’n that’s th’ case.”

“Shut it!” the first mare shouted, bringing the debate to an abrupt halt. “Time’s up! Let’s get ‘em, lads!”

Rarity’s eyes widened as she came to the realization that friendship wasn’t going to resolve this conflict. Thunder roared from under Ivory’s wing, the flash of the gun burning the after-image of the charging bandits into her vision once it faded. Pontius leapt back in front of her and caught an earth mare’s charge. He grunted as he was lifted off his hooves by the tackle, his wings flapping in an attempt to keep his balance. Rarity was trapped in a brawl, and blood was already being spilled around her.

The world was a blur of violence. The light of her horn cast long shadows against the surrounding ridges like some sick puppet show. She had to do something. A lady does not sit idly by.

She clenched her teeth and poured the magic into her horn to summon up the only solution she could think of. “Be still!

The woods fell into an eerie silence. Even the birds had stopped their singing, having been frightened off by the commotion. A pale blue glow smothered the campsite as everypony around her found their clothes suddenly clamped tightly to their limbs and refusing to let go. One of the bandits grunted as his ragged outfit ripped and dropped him to the floor. He bounced back to his hooves in an instant, charging for Rarity with his horn lowered.

“I said, still!” Rarity grabbed her own dress in her magic, tearing it free and launching it at the bandit. He yelped as he was wrapped up in its dirtied, silky folds and pulled to the ground. A pang of mourning swelled in her breast at having to mistreat the dress further, but if she was being honest with herself, it had died far earlier in the day.

Rarity was breathing hard. Oh, how does Twilight do it? “I just wanted to talk, but I see that Altalusia is clearly inhabited by unruly foals!” She turned to where Pontius and the earth mare were frozen mid-wrestle, and with the most delicate nudges of magic she could muster, released his clothes.

He dropped to the muddy ground with a thud. “M-my Lady?”

“Pontius, darling, please tell me you have restraints,” she seethed.

Pontius blinked. “Ah, we have rope. F-for hangings.”

“Ah, of course, hangings.” Rarity took a deep breath. A few beads of sweat broke out on her forehead. “Be a dear and tie these bandits up. Their hooves, not their necks.”

He grimaced, but didn’t push the point. “Aye, my Lady.”

Rarity stood stock still as the young noble worked. He first fetched a long length of rope from the satchel which hung opposite Ivory’s gun before beginning to hobble each of the bandits. He ran out of rope before the final one, and so Rarity indicated for him to use the corpse of her increasingly tortured dress.

She felt nearly ready to faint by the time he was done. A shaky breath escaped her as she let the magic fade, plunging the woods into a darkness broken only by the last pale vestiges of the day. A series of thuds and grunts filled the air as each pony hit the ground. She was quite grateful when Pontius appeared at her side to steady her. Ah, perhaps there’s some chivalry in him, after all.

“My Lord.” The urgency in Ivory’s voice helped push some of the exhaustion away as Rarity and Pontius turned to face her. “Onyx.”

The unicorn soldier, despite being free from Rarity’s arcane grip, was bent over nearly double against a tree next to his partner. He let out a groan. “Aye, I’m bleedin’ over here.”

Rarity pushed off of Pontius and found her own tree to lean against, freeing him to rush over to the wounded pony. “Where is it?” he asked.

“Pegasus got a good slice on my belly,” Onyx said. “Don’t ask how, th’ slippery fuck. I gave ‘im better ‘n I got, though.” He nodded weakly to one of the bandits. He had fallen limp to the floor once Rarity had released him.

“Ye did good with that,” Pontius said. He nodded to Ivory, then to the bandits. “String this lot together. We’d best be quick.”

Ivory’s eyes lingered on her partner as she nodded. “My Lord.” She began making the rounds at a rapid pace, taking the rope off the dead bandit to work with.

Rarity, for her part, resisted the urge to close her eyes and rest. She had learned that restraining ponies that were trying to break free was far harder than making armor dance, and she had pushed herself further than ever before. A weak grin tugged at her lips. I’m no Twilight Sparkle, but I can still make a difference.

She whimpered as Ivory helped her to her hooves for the walk back to the village. The night was far from over yet.

Perched in the trees above the campsite, Ana watched with slitted eyes as the line of bandits was led down the hill and back towards the village. She was glad that she decided against purchasing some light barding when she had stashed her dress back at the port town. The Countess wasn’t the archmage that the bounty postings made her out to be, but her talent for manipulating clothing couldn’t be denied. Even just a chestpiece might have been enough to reveal her if she was close enough. Ana had never seen so many ponies held hostage by magic before.

She filed the thought away for later. No armor when fighting Rarity. Then again, the unicorn had clearly been exhausted. Either way, it was a note to consider once Gava finally arrived.

She jumped from her vantage point, gliding silently after the prisoner train on her leathery wings. The darkness of the nighttime woods was no obstacle to her eyes. Her hooves touched lightly against branches passing beneath her as she trailed her target.

These Gifted were odd. They were a breed she hadn’t seen before, and not just in terms of power or naivete. She had crossed paths with many Gifted in her life, but none had the strange, near-suicidal compulsion for selflessness that these two did.

It made her wonder about what Equestria was like before the floods. The Countess and Pinkie had spoken often about how different the world was, and for the worse. It crossed her mind that perhaps it wasn’t all an act. She had seen some convincing acts before, but usually a pony smart enough to put one on wasn’t dumb enough to try it when it mattered.

She let out a quiet snort, confident that the sound of the wind and wildlife would cover her. She was looking forwards to catching up with Gava and seeing if her sister had made any similar observations.

She almost felt bad about it all. Almost.