A canopy of trees covered Twilight and Star Swirl in darkness, shrouding out the meager light of the crescent moon in the sky above. They’d traveled well into the night, and Twilight began to wonder if Star Swirl planned to stop and rest at all before they got to their destination. Star Swirl’s horn lit their path, but still Twilight managed to stumble on the rough ground of the forest floor, rocks scraping her sore hooves. Star Swirl had opted against following the smooth road. Sweat had built up between her flanks and saddlebags during the heat of the day. Now, the cold night breeze that blew through the trees made her shiver. She had long since pulled out a traveling cloak to shield herself against the chill.
Twilight plodded on. On the bright side, at least she knew where they were going. Apparently, Star Swirl had an old friend he wanted to meet at the Helping Hoof Inn, about three days’ travel from Candlekeep. Although if Star Swirl planned on marching until they both collapsed from exhaustion, it could take a fraction of that time. She noticed she wasn’t the only one suffering. Star Swirl expressed his share of grunts and grimaces. Fit as he was for his age, years of a relaxed, scholarly lifestyle couldn’t be making this easy on him. She wished Star Swirl would tell her what had him so worried.
“You know, I’m not a filly anymore. You can tell me what’s going on,” she finally said, panting.
“What was that?” Star Swirl said, not looking back at her.
“I’m not a filly anymore! You can tell me what's going on.” This time, she stopped, stamping her hoof in exasperation – which only made it hurt more. She was certain Star Swirl had heard her the first time.
Star Swirl turned back to look at her, stopping as well. They stood on the edge of a clearing, with three circular rings of stones arrayed on the ground within, likely placed there by druids, or perhaps by superstitious woodsponies. “This isn’t the time to have this conversation, Twilight.” He sighed. “Look, I’ll tell you what I know when we get to the Helping Hoof. I promise.”
“All right, fine, but can we at least get some rest? We should keep our strength up,” Twilight said.
A dark expression crossed Star Swirl’s features. He spun, gazing around the clearing intently. “It’s too late for that now,” he murmured, barely audible. “You need to get to the Helping Hoof Inn, Twilight, no matter what happens,” he said, this time just loud enough to be heard clearly by Twilight. He tapped the end of his staff on the ground three times and gave her a sad smile.
Twilight tried to speak, to ask him what he meant. She opened her mouth. She felt the air pass through her throat, but no sound came. Magic, she realized. What spells had Star Swirl been storing in his staff?
Her attention snapped to the far edge of the clearing when she heard something crashing through the underbrush beyond. A dull clang of metal on metal accompanied the sound of breaking branches. She watched in horror as Star Swirl strode out into the center of the clearing, his eyes fixed on the source of the sound.
Moments later, a figure coated in charcoal black armor emerged into the clearing. Twilight remained rooted to the spot as the armored figure swept its malevolent gaze over her. The helm’s face looked like the maw of a demon. She thought she saw the muzzle of a pony within the darkness of its confines, but all she could truly make out were two burning lights where its eyes should have been. Spikes and jagged metal edges adorned the figure’s armor. A spike large enough to encase a unicorn horn protruded from the helm. Slightly to the left of the figure, a dark miasma held a massive tower shield covered in arcane symbols. Its jagged, sharpened edge glinted in the moonlight. Her heart raced in panic, but the figure looked straight through her. Then, its gaze continued past her.
The figure spoke, its rumbling voice clearly male. “Where is your ward, Star Swirl?”
Twilight looked down. Her hooves were gone; she was invisible. She glanced back up to see two more figures step out into the clearing. Hideously massive knots of muscle deformed their limbs. Tiny, frail looking wings drooped pitifully from their backs. They were ogres, a race twisted from pegasi with dark magic long ago. What they lacked in intelligence they made up for with raw strength and a cruel disposition. Both of them had a hoof encased in a vicious, spiked mace.
“She’s in the safety of Candlekeep,” Star Swirl countered. His voice held no fear. “Do you think I would bring her out here, with the likes of you afoot?” He spat. “Murderer.”
“I’ve long reconciled my lot. If I must be a murderer to stop a thousand murderers, a murderer I will be. You know what I must do. Stand aside, and I can spare you.”
“If you think that you can defeat an archmage with brute strength, then you are wrong. Fight me, if you must, but I will not allow you to harm Twilight Sparkle.” Star Swirl stood defiantly, his head held high, staff ready.
“So be it.” The armored figure lurched into motion. Star Swirl breathed, and a blast of fire leaped from his horn, throwing the ogres off their feet. Their charred corpses would never rise again. The figure ducked behind his shield as the fire raged around him. The wall of metal absorbed the blast, leaving a cone of clear air behind it. As the figure closed the distance, Star Swirl channeled a spell through his horn that called up a protective, multi-layered stone shell from the ground beneath his hooves.
The figure held for a split second, his shield aloft, ready to strike. From the surrounding trees, two metal bolts arced forth, striking Star Swirl. The bolts each shattered a layer of Star Swirl’s stony defense, but did no deeper harm. The bolts themselves were not the threat; they carried something far more dangerous with them.
Twilight had seen the faint signs of abjuration glowing around the bolts as they traveled through the air. When they both hit their mark, the last of Star Swirl’s protection vanished. Bolts of Dispelling, Twilight realized.
The figure attacked. When his shield struck Star Swirl with a vicious crack, Twilight screamed, silent and helpless. Her magic was likely too weak to truly harm the figure, and at this distance, her levitation would be too weak for her to parry the brutal stroke of his shield with Solstice. Finally, her hooves responded to her, and she started to move. If she could close the distance, maybe she could stop the second blow.
Twilight felt time pass slowly. She saw Star Swirl spin to the ground with a hard thud. One of his shattered ribs stuck grotesquely out of his chest. A deep dent creased the side of his frail old body. She saw a glimmer of magic as a contingency spell hidden in Star Swirl’s staff fired. A second multilayered skin of stone leaped up to encase Star Swirl, and other protections were likely to follow, but before the staff could complete its task, a single blow from the figure’s shield shattered it into dozens of fragments.
In the same instant, Star Swirl fashioned another spell with his horn. With a brilliant flash, a single lightning bolt arced between two trees. Two charred griffon corpses started to fall. Twilight felt hope swell in her chest. There should be no more dispelling bolts, and the Stoneskin spell protected Star Swirl from physical blows. The old mage might live.
The figure cast a Breach spell. Disbelief crossed Twilight’s thoughts. She had never seen a unicorn weighed down by so much armor successfully perform complex magic. Regardless, a Breach spell it was. The spell washed over Star Swirl, and his protection shattered completely. The third blow fell on Star Swirl’s prone body. An arc of blood painted the earth and vegetation of the clearing.
It was over before the griffons hit the ground, it was over before the flames of Star Swirl’s first spell had fully dissipated, and it was over before Twilight Sparkle had taken three steps. Her mentor, her father, was dead. She had done nothing.
Twilight collapsed in despair. She could do nothing. There was no tool available to her that could harm the figure in armor. The only result of any action now would be her lying in the dust, dead beside Star Swirl. She watched the figure as empty, silent sobs wracked her body. The figure casually scraped the edge of his shield clean in the dirt. He paused and took a moment to slide Star Swirl’s open eyes shut with a brush of magic. Then, with purpose, he strode off toward Candlekeep. He left the charred bodies of his accomplices and Star Swirl’s corpse without even a glance over his shoulder.
Twilight stared after the armored figure, her mind focused and clear for the moment. I’m going to kill him, Twilight thought. He took Star Swirl from her. He had the advantage now – the strength, and the power. I’m going to learn, and then I’m going to make him pay, she promised herself.
It took all the willpower she had left to rise to her feet and stumble away from the aura of death in the clearing. Her stomach lurched, then emptied. By the time she finished vomiting, leaned up against a tree a few yards from the clearing, she realized that her hooves were visible again, and she could hear her own groans. Perhaps the liquefied contents of her stomach had disrupted the spell, or perhaps it had worn off on its own. Either way, if the spell dissipated even a minute sooner, she would be dead right now.
As heavy as her heart felt, at least she lived. Star Swirl wanted her to live. He gave his life for her.
She wearily trotted forward until the scent of charred flesh, blood, and vomit no longer filled her nostrils. A branch in the dark caught her hoof, tripping her, and she collapsed onto a soft patch of moss. Lacking the will to move any further, she curled against the base of a tree and closed her eyes. She fell asleep without even removing her saddlebags, shivering as the cold breeze passed over her.
A voice calling her name awoke Twilight from a dream. She opened her eyes, blinking them clear as the bright light of day stabbed into them. Her left side was uncomfortably warm, her lavender coat heated by the morning sun. The foreleg she had been resting her head on felt like pudding. Pins and needles shot through it as circulation began to return. She could only remember a voice, Star Swirl’s voice, from her dream. 'I will not allow you to harm Twilight Sparkle' echoed over and over again inside of her skull.
She dragged herself to her feet, her rubbery hind legs almost failing to lift her weight. “Twiiiliiight,” a singsong voice called again, much closer.
“Pinkie?” Twilight murmured in disbelief. She stepped out to get a look around the next tree. Sure enough, Pinkie Pie bounced along between the trees. Twilight drew a foreleg across her eyes, and she looked again. Pinkie remained. “Pinkie Pie!” Twilight called.
Pinkie changed trajectory almost mid bounce and barreled toward Twilight. “Ohmygosh, Twilight! I found you!”
“Pinkie! Slow down—gah!” Pinkie slammed into Twilight and wrapped the unicorn in a tackle-hug. Twilight tumbled backwards. They rolled in the grass two or three times before coming to a stop. “Urgh,” Twilight grunted, disentangling her limbs from Pinkie’s. “Ow.”
“Sorry.” Pinkie Pie at least gave the courtesy of looking a little ashamed as she stood up. “I’m just so glad to see you, Twi!” She extended a hoof to Twilight.
“It’s okay...” Twilight accepted the helping hoof and pulled herself up into a sitting position. She regarded Pinkie. “What are you doing out here, Pinkie? Why did you follow us?”
Pinkie looked at the ground. “I knew something bad would happen. I could feel it.” She looked pale and queasy. “I saw Star Swirl.” Pinkie paused, possibly expecting a reaction from her. Twilight simply nodded. She felt dull now; the knife of grief buried in her chest had left her numb. “I’m glad you’re okay, Twilight,” Pinkie said finally, “and I’m not going to leave you out here alone! I’m not going anywhere without you. You need help.”
Twilight nodded again. “You're right. I do.” She managed a smile. “I’m glad you’re here, Pinkie.”
“We should get back to Candlekeep. Someone there will know what to do. Maybe Chancellor, or Thunderfoot?” Pinkie said.
Twilight shook her head. “We can’t. He’s headed that way.”
Pinkie Pie quirked an eyebrow at her. “Who?”
“The pony that killed Star Swirl. He’s encased in black armor, and he wanted to kill me.” Twilight took a shuddering breath. “If Star Swirl hadn’t stopped him, he would have. The weird thing was, he didn’t even seem interested in Star Swirl. It was like Star Swirl was just a rock to be kicked aside.” She pointed to herself with a hoof. “He only wanted to kill me. Why, Pinkie? What did I do to him?”
“I dunno, Twilight... if we can’t go to Candlekeep, where should we go?” Pinkie said.
“We should go to the Helping Hoof Inn, it should be along the road. It’s where Star Swirl and I were headed.” Twilight took a deep breath, steeling herself for what she had to say next. “But first, we need to take a look at those bodies.”
Pinkie blinked at Twilight. “Why? It’s... terrible in that clearing. Why would you want to go back there?”
“I don’t want to, but I need to. There might be a clue. Something to tell me why he wanted to kill me... Something to tell me why Star Swirl died. Because one day – one day when I’m stronger – the armored pony who killed Star Swirl will give me answers.”
Returning to the clearing wasn’t as hard as Twilight had imagined it would be. The numbness in her chest remained a dull throb, even as she watched the flies buzzing around the bloodied stump of Star Swirl’s severed head. She breathed through her mouth to help keep the stench out of her nostrils. With her levitation magic, she looked through Star Swirl’s possessions for anything that could tell her why this had happened. All she found was a small note crumpled in one of his bags like he’d forgotten to throw it away.
Twilight took the note, tucking it away for later reading. She proceeded to take everything that might be of value. She took the golden bits in a back pocket, the ornately crafted clasp for Star Swirl's cloak, and even his ivory beard comb. He didn’t need them anymore. She knew she was going to need money to survive. She considered taking his traveling gear, but she remembered seeing saddlebags on Pinkie’s flanks. She glanced over at Pinkie to confirm their presence. Pinkie looked back at Twilight with concern, sitting on her haunches at the edge of the clearing while she watched Twilight coolly loot Star Swirl's fresh corpse. Twilight mostly noticed that Pinkie did have the foresight to pack.
Twilight moved on to the other corpses. Each of them had a charred note, but only two on the griffons were legible after the damage. The same thing was written on both them in neat red ink, and they both included a sketch of a large six pointed star surrounded by five smaller stars: her mark.
This is a Contract on the Head of Twilight Sparkle
If you have Proof of your Involvement in the Death of Twilight Sparkle, you will be Paid FIVE HUNDRED (500) Bits upon Presentation of this Note.
If you can Present the Head of Twilight Sparkle, you will be Paid FIVE THOUSAND (5000) Bits for your Exemplary Service.
Money – that couldn’t be it. She didn’t feel like the armored figure wanted to kill her for money. From what the armored pony had said, she knew he acted with some sense of duty. Besides, the enchanted shield he carried was probably worth more than five thousand bits.
She took a few other items as well as the note, a few bits here, a shiny gem there, anything worth carrying. Notably, she found that the griffons had four more Bolts of Dispelling each. They might fetch a decent amount of coin. When she was sure she had anything worth keeping, she left the clearing and smoothed out Star Swirl’s note in a field of her magic. Pinkie crowded in behind her to peer over her shoulder.
Candlekeep not safe. He comes for your ward. Gather allies. I can not be there soon enough.
PS: Avoid a fight. He is ready.
“Of course.” Twilight frowned. “No signature. You’d think if they wanted to help, they’d write their name. But no, too much trouble apparently.” She dropped the note, grinding it into the dust in frustration. Her memory already burned with the words scrawled on that paper. Avoid a fight. Why, Star Swirl? she wondered.
Pinkie leaned against her side comfortingly. “It’s better than nothing, Twilight. Maybe it’s from his friend that he was going to meet at the inn?”
Maybe, Twilight thought.
Pinkie and Twilight stopped at a fork in the road. They’d found the cobblestone highway when they realized that neither of them could find the Helping Hoof Inn without following it. Twilight read the worn sign at the fork carefully. She pointed down the correct path. “This way to the inn,” she announced. She let her hoof drop when she saw a traveler coming down the road toward them. Twilight reached out with her magic, finding the handle of Solstice. She narrowed her eyes suspiciously as the stranger approached.
The stranger neared. She was a unicorn, with a soft, long pink mane and a pristine white coat. A brown linen cloak covered her back, clasped snugly around her neck. “I’ll do the talking,” Twilight told Pinkie.
Pinkie giggled. “Sure thing, Twilight, just as long as you don’t hog it all.”
Before Twilight could tell Pinkie that she had missed the point, the stranger was within talking distance. “Hail, travelers,” the stranger said. “Are you traveling from Candlekeep?” Her soft, melodious voice caressed Twilight’s ears. She reminded Twilight of Star Swirl, in a way.
No matter how kind the stranger seemed, Twilight remained guarded. She started to shake her head, but Pinkie said, “Yep! Sure are.”
The stranger inclined her head. “Would either of you be familiar with Star Swirl the Bearded by any chance? I’m told he’s taken up residence in Candlekeep.”
Twilight almost tried to deny the truth again, but she realized her suspicion could have consequences. What if the stranger was one of Star Swirl’s friends? she considered. “Yes,” she answered. A moment later, she added bluntly, “He’s dead.”
The stranger kept her expression passive, but Twilight noticed a hint of shock in the stranger’s lavender eyes. “I’m sorry to hear that. He was a good friend of mine,” the stranger said.
“Me too...” Twilight murmured.
“Regardless, I should continue on my way.” She walked past Twilight and Pinkie calmly. “By the way, my name is Sunny Skies.”
Pinkie beamed at Sunny Skies. “I’m Pinkie Pie!”
“Twilight Sparkle,” Twilight said automatically. She cringed internally, remembering the bounty note with her name on it.
Twilight’s wary eyes caught a hitch in Sunny Skies’s step when she heard Twilight’s name. Sunny Skies’s horn lit, and an aura of levitation pulled something out of her saddlebag. In response, Twilight nearly drew Solstice, but the object turned out to be a relatively harmless spell scroll. Unless it was opened and the incantation performed, the scroll was completely inert.
Sunny Skies looked back over her shoulder. “I think that Star Swirl would’ve wanted you to have this, Twilight Sparkle.” The scroll dropped onto the cobble at Twilight’s feet.
Twilight nudged the scroll with a hoof while Sunny Skies trotted briskly off down the road. “Well, that was interesting,” she said as soon as Sunny Skies was out of earshot.
“I’ll say.” Pinkie watched Sunny Skies walk into the distance. “She seemed nice.” She looked down at the scroll at Twilight’s feet. “What do you think that is, Twilight?”
Twilight picked up the scroll with her magic, unraveling it just enough to peek at the spell within. Strangely, the spell was one she’d never heard of before: Find Familiar. She let the scroll snap shut. “I’ll have to look at it more closely later,” she said, tucking it into her saddlebag.
Twilight felt uneasy. The air only carried the rhythmic clip-clopping of the duo's trotting hooves to her ears. She and Pinkie had been traveling for almost the whole day now, and the sound of chirping birds that normally accompanied them was notably absent. A crow perched on a rocky outcropping ahead, silhouetted against the sunset reddened sky. It carried something in its beak. Twilight thought she glimpsed a small piece of raw meat before the crow swallowed.
The road bent around the outcropping. As soon as Twilight could see around the bend, she stopped abruptly. Pinkie noticed the same thing Twilight did, her foreleg briefly hovering mid step when she came to a stop. In front of them, the wreckage of a merchant caravan sprawled on the side of the road. The thin frames of six formerly covered wagons stuck up like the bones of a rotted fish. The wagons held only ashes now. Twilight thought she spied a singed corpse peeking out from behind one of the wagon wheels.
“This is horrible,” Twilight murmured.
“Must have been bandits,” Pinkie commented nonchalantly.
Twilight narrowed her eyes at Pinkie. “That’s all you have to say?”
“Yep, I’m trying the hard-boiled emotionless thing you’ve got going,” Pinkie said. “Should we keep moving, or do you want to loot their bodies, too?” Pinkie gestured at the wreckage.
Twilight glowered. “If I hadn’t looked through Star Swirl’s things, we’d have nothing to go on now! We’d be no closer to answers than I was before he died.”
“Oh I get it.” Pinkie made an exaggerated frown at Twilight. “It’s more of a hard boiled grumpy thing!”
Twilight stomped angrily. Pinkie could be infuriating. “You know what? I do want to look. We need what we can get if we’re going to survive.”
“You got it, Twilight. We’ll do what we gotta!” Pinkie nodded. Twilight couldn’t be sure if Pinkie was being sincere or not.
Twilight approached the wreckage cautiously with Pinkie a few steps behind her. This time, when she approached the first corpse, nausea filled her stomach. She could see holes in the charred flesh where the pony had been struck by projectiles. To avoid losing her lunch, she decided she would focus on containers with possible goods in them instead of corpses. The last thing she wanted to see was Pinkie Pie staring at her with a righteous, smug expression while she vomited, though it occurred to her that she’d never actually seen Pinkie being either smug or righteous.
Twilight only found burned and empty boxes. Unsurprisingly, the bandits had picked the caravan clean. She was about to give up in defeat when a pony stepped out from behind one of the charred wagons. His coat was mangy, matted in places, and an ugly scar split his face from his eye to his muzzle. He wore a tattered vest of brigandine armor. He held a short blade in the corner of his mouth, and when he spoke, he spoke around it.
“Why hello there, ladies. Here to clean up after the Cloakwood Gang?” He gave an ugly chuckle. “So are we.”
Twilight turned when she heard the flapping of wings behind her. Two Griffons appeared over the top of the rocky outcropping, carrying crossbows in their talons. A pair of ponies stepped out from behind the wreckage of the carts, cutting Twilight and Pinkie off from the road. Their hoofmaces thumped on the hard ground. Twilight guessed the bandits must have secured the maces to their forelegs moments ago to sneak up on them like that. Emerging from the treeline on the opposite side, two ponies carrying rusty shortswords and wearing chainmail completed the encirclement of Twilight and Pinkie. Twilight whirled back around, looking at the first bandit fearfully.
“That's a mighty fine blade ya got there filly,” the pony wearing brigantine said while he gestured at the tip of Solstice peeking out from beneath Twilight’s traveling cloak. “If ya hand it over, we won’t be takin’ anything else from two pretty young ladies like yerselves, if ya know what I mean.” He grinned lecherously and took a firm, threatening grasp on his blade with his teeth.
Twilight fought down rising panic. A Sleep spell she’d prepared back in Candlekeep still thrummed at the edge of her consciousness. She spread her hooves, taking a firm stance. She had no intention of relinquishing the blade Star Swirl had given her. These weak-willed bandits wouldn’t know what hit them – or so she hoped.
“We need to get them to group up,” she whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
“Okie dokie lokie,” Pinkie Pie whispered back.
The pony wearing brigantine advanced toward them, as did his compatriots. Together, they tightened the net. He loosened his grip on the blade, shouting, “Oi, don’t you two be plannin’ any funny business. Just hand over the blade, and nobody needs to get hurt.”
“Betcha can’t catch me!” Pinkie grinned and shot off, leaving only her saddlebags behind.
It took a moment for Twilight to spot Pinkie making a beeline for the gap between the griffons. Pinkie darted between them while they stared in shock. Twilight watched in awe as Pinkie bounced up the rocks. Almost all of the surrounding bandits gave chase. They rapidly clustered up with the griffons near the base of the outcropping.
The griffons fired. One missed, but the other hit his mark. Dread filled Twilight when the metal bolt thudded into Pinkie, knocking her off balance and sending her tumbling down the rocks. She couldn’t see where Pinkie had been hit, and she couldn’t look away while Pinkie fell, her body solidly slamming into two boulders on her way down. Finally, her limp body came to rest in front of the bandits.
“Pinkie!” Twilight screamed. She’d been too slow. She knew she should have cast her spell sooner, but instead, her only friend might be dead.
“Well, that was stupid.” Twilight heard the smug voice of the pony in Brigantine beside her. “Now, I trust you won’t be trying anything stu—” He never finished.
Twilight didn’t think; she acted. Solstice flashed out from beneath her cloak, wrapped firmly in the field of her magic. Only the sharp tip of the blade nicked the pony beside her, but it was enough. Star Swirl was right, she realized. She knew what she needed to wield a blade. In shock, the pony looked down to see his lifeblood seeping out through a gash in his neck. The sword dropped from his mouth as he lost the strength to hold it. Twilight watched him collapse beside her, then turned her attention to the group of bandit’s standing over Pinkie’s motionless form.
Twilight unleashed her spell on the bandits, sending the magic through her horn. With the griffons still reloading, she knew they couldn’t stop her. They didn’t stand a chance. Most of them dropped unconscious onto the dust, but two of them managed to shake it off. They faced her, fear in their eyes. If they killed her... she thought. She advanced on them, her eyes cold and merciless. Solstice floated menacingly beside her, its tip red with blood. She would make them pay.
Twilight stopped short and stared in shock when Pinkie jumped to her feet suddenly, her hooves shooting out. Pinkie pummeled both bandits in the jaw with a quick one-two punch before they could react. While they reeled from her blows, she tripped them with her hind legs. They struggled to get back to their feet, but before they could stand, Pinkie finished the work of Twilight’s Sleep spell with two solid kicks, leaving them out cold.
“Pinkie!” Twilight cried in joy, surging forward. She let Solstice drop from her levitation as she wrapped Pinkie in a tight embrace.
Pinkie’s eyes were crossed when Twilight released her. “Ow.” Pinkie rubbed her own face with a forehoof. “Twilight, rocks are haaard.”
“You're okay!” Twilight laughed with relief. “Pinkie, wait,” she said when she saw Pinkie start to fold her hind legs.
Pinkie dropped onto her haunches. “Owwie!” She whimpered, and tears sprang to her eyes. The bolt sticking out of her rump had pushed a little deeper.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Twilight wiped away moisture clinging to her own eyelids. “Let’s get that out.”
Pinkie made an enormous fuss when Twilight cut out the barbed bolt with the sharp edge of Solstice, but fortunately kept still. With the bolt head free, Twilight placed a hoof on Pinkie’s flank to keep pressure on the wound and reached with her mouth to retrieve a healing potion for Pinkie to drink. The moment Twilight’s hoof came to rest, she felt a surge of power pass down her foreleg and into Pinkie. Twilight abruptly jerked her hoof back. The wound was gone.
“Oooh,” Pinkie turned her head to look back a Twilight. “I didn’t know you could do healing spells!”
Twilight blinked, looking at her hoof. “I can’t.”
Twilight tried to explain what had happened while she and Pinkie lashed the unconscious bandits together, relieving them of weapons and any valuables in the process. “It wasn’t a spell, Pinkie. Spells do come from within, but also from magic in Equestria and other planes that unicorns can channel through their horn. This came entirely from somewhere... inside,” she said.
“So more like a cleric or a druid then?” Pinkie mused while she checked over some of her knots. “Isn’t three classes a little much, Twilight?”
“No, not like a cleric or a druid,” Twilight said, exasperated. “A cleric gets their power from the Sun or the Moon or some other celestial body and the divine spirit associated with it, and druids get their power from nature in a similar fashion. No horn necessary.” She gestured widely at the sky and at the land around them. “Their power comes from out there.” She tapped her own chest. “Not in here.” She paused, looking at Pinkie oddly. “What was that about classes?”
“Huh?” Pinkie grunted around a piece of rope.
“Nevermind.” Twilight set back to the task of tying up the bandits, silently thanking the book Adventuring 101 for reminding her to bring at least a fifty hoof spans of rope. After a few more well-placed knots, she was certain the bandits wouldn’t be getting free anytime soon. They were all tied up hoof-to-hoof in a pretzel shape: Pinkie’s idea. Twilight almost wished they could stick around to watch the would-be bandits try to get untangled.
Twilight and Pinkie packed up and prepared to hit the road. As they left, Twilight paused to look down at the corpse of the bandit she'd killed. Dark thoughts flickered through her mind. What did it feel like when I cut open his throat? she wondered. She couldn’t remember.
Pinkie stepped up behind her, placing her hoof on Twilight’s flank comfortingly. “Are you okay, Twi?”
“I’m fine,” Twilight lied and turned away from the corpse.
Twilight groaned in frustration. “We should be there by now.” Her horn spread a pool of light ahead of them, giving them enough light to see the road. The Sun had vanished completely beneath the horizon over an hour ago, and she felt ten times as exhausted as she’d been when Star Swirl had pushed them last night.
“We’re almost there, look!” Pinkie pulled her into a headlock and pointed ahead of them with her hoof, slightly upwards.
“Pinkie, there’s nothing there—” Twilight paused and squinted when she noticed rectangles of warm firelight hovering above them in the night sky where Pinkie’s hoof pointed. With the glow of her horn in the way, she hadn't noticed the lights before. “Oh,” she said dumbly. “The inn must be up on a hill, and we’re seeing the light in the windows. It could still be miles though.”
“Nope!” Pinkie grinned, pointing lower.
“Gah!” Twilight recoiled in fear; something massive loomed over them. She felt stupid when the ‘threat’ resolved into a fortified stone wall. She took a couple steps forward, and the light of her horn illuminated an iron portcullis set into the wall. Above the gate, a painted sign read: 'Welcome to the Helping Hoof'.
“Strange inn,” Twilight muttered as she took a step onto a wooden drawbridge that spanned a dry ditch between them and the portcullis. She crossed the drawbridge, her eyes scanning the gatehouse topping the wall above them for a gatekeeper. “Hello?” she called.
“Let us in!” Pinkie wailed from beside her.
A wooden shutter on one of the gatehouse windows slammed open, and a voice called out, “Who’s making such a racket?”
“We’re weary travelers, looking for a place to stay the night,” Twilight answered.
A wrinkled old pony stuck his head out the window. “There’s no admittance after dark,” he said. “Sorry, come back in the morning.” His head whisked back into the interior of the gatehouse.
Twilight stomped furiously on the wooden drawbridge. “No admittance after dark! This is an inn! How do you even do business?”
The old pony’s head poked back out. “The Helping Hoof is doing just fine, thank you very much. But with all the bandit trouble afoot, the guests are much more comfortable if we close up after dark.”
“We’re not bandits!” Twilight shouted, fuming.
The gatekeeper harrumphed. “A likely story!”
Pinkie looked up at the gatekeeper with large, sad eyes. “Please let us in.”
The gatekeeper yielded to Pinkie’s pleading stare. “Alright, alright, I suppose I could make an exception,” he said. “But before I let you in, you have to agree to these terms: If you act out in violence against any other guest, you will be thrown out. If you attempt to kill any other guest in anything short of self defense, our guards will kill you. Do you agree?”
“Yes.” Pinkie and Twilight said in unison.
“Names and purpose?”
“Pinkie Pie,” Pinkie said.
“Midnight Shine,” Twilight lied. “And we’re here to meet some friends.”
“Fair enough, welcome to the Helping Hoof. Now let me get the gate.” They heard some muttering and grunts of exertion from the open gatehouse window, before the sound of clattering chains filled the night air. The portcullis rose slowly. When it had fully receded up into the wall, it settled onto a locking mechanism with a dull thump.
Twilight and Pinkie crossed under the arch of the gate, entering the courtyard of the Helping Hoof. Twilight sighed in relief when the portcullis fell shut behind them with a clang. Finally, they had reached a place of safety after a long and dangerous march.
“You can rent a room from the innkeep in the keep,” the gatekeeper called from behind them.
Pinkie giggled. “Innkeep in the keep!”
Twilight gazed up at the keep. Its windows housed the warm glow they’d seen from the road. It rose up multiple stories from where it stood in corner of the outer wall. Twilight noted with a hint of scorn that – unlike the free standing keep that housed Candlekeep’s library – the keep here was essentially an oversized tower, but the stone wall around them comforted her. It reminded her of home, even though the keep was wrong. Eagerly, she made her way across the courtyard toward steps that led up to the keep entrance. She knew a soft bed, a warm fire, and maybe even a bath awaited her inside.
As she approached the base of the steps, a unicorn appeared from the keep’s doorway. The sound of boisterous laughter and clattering mugs filtered out into the night air before the unicorn shut the door with his levitation. He was young, handsome even. He wore dark, wizardly robes. Twilight estimated from his appearance that he possessed some ability as a spellcaster – more than her, most likely. “Hello travelers,” he said with a warm smile. He trotted down to the bottom of the steps to meet them.
Twilight nodded to him. “Hello.” She stepped to make her way past the unicorn.
In response, he moved to block her path. “Hold on a moment, are you by any chance a friend of Star Swirl's? Twilight Sparkle maybe?”
“Nope, her name is Midnight Shine, definitely not Twilight Sparkle,” Pinkie said with a laugh. “I can understand the confusion though, she’s very sparkly.” She grabbed Twilight by her hoof and dragged her roughly past the unicorn in the dark robes. “Sorry, gotta go, better get a room and all that.”
Twilight bit her lip as Pinkie tugged her away, torn. Maybe this unicorn was the pony Star Swirl had intended to meet. However, something had Pinkie on edge. Trusting her friend’s judgement, she let Pinkie pull her up the stairs. Before they reached the top of the steps, she felt cool air brush against her flank. She glanced over her shoulder. The unicorn held the edge of her cloak with the red aura of his magic, lifting it high enough to glimpse her mark.
He grinned. “Nice try.”
The unicorn’s horn lit with a spell, and he closed his eyes in concentration. Twilight drew Solstice. She wished she could cast a quick magic missile to stop the unicorn, but with the stress of the last couple of days, the sleep spell she’d cast on the bandits was the only bit of magic she’d managed to hold onto. Solstice was all she had left. Still, if she could land a blow before he finished casting, she could break his focus. She charged down the steps, and Pinkie joined her with a shrill battlecry.
The unicorn finished his spell before they could close the gap. He conjured a dark gate at the base of the steps, and two fiends stepped out of it before it snapped shut with a crack. Pinkie and Twilight scrabbled to a stop on the wooden steps to avoid crashing into the spiny, Tartarus spawned creatures. The demons shared little in common with ponies except for their shape. Everything about them revolted Twilight, especially the spikes that stabbed grotesquely from their naked red skin. They hissed, bearing their carnivorous canines at Twilight and Pinkie.
Pinkie jumped over the railing and off the edge of the stairs. She hit the ground running. On fleet hooves, she advanced to confront the wizard, leaving Twilight to deal with the fiends on her own. One of the fiends lunged out ahead of the other. She sidestepped evenly, opening a space between her and Solstice. As the demon moved past her, she laid open its far side with the sharp edge of her blade. Caught off guard, the fiend squealed in pain and tumbled against the railing. Twilight felt a thrill run through her; she’d dealt a mortal blow to the creature.
Her elation vanished when she realized her maneuver left her exposed to the second fiend. Before she could reposition Solstice, the creature lunged forward, slamming into her. Pain blossomed in her mind as its spikes gouged her forelegs and chest. The force of the impact broke her levitation spell, and she heard Solstice clatter on the steps beside her. Now, instead of the thrill she’d felt moments ago, terror gripped her heart.
The fiend had her sprawled on her back and cornered between the wooden steps and the stone wall of the keep. It leaned in for the kill. Desperate, Twilight pushed against it with her forehooves, straining to keep it away. Its sulfurous breath stung her nostrils, and droplets of its spittle singed her coat where they landed. It slowly pressed forward, its gnashing teeth getting closer to ripping out her throat with each passing moment.
Twilight flicked her eyes to where Solstice lay beside her. Before the fiend could kill her, Twilight snatched up the blade. She stabbed the sword into the side of the fiend’s head. She didn’t stop pushing with her magic until she heard the dull thunk of Solstice’s hilt hitting bone. A sense of relief filled her when demon went limp. Sizzling with heat, fiend’s black blood seeped out from where her sword protruded from its skull. Before the blood could fall and burn her, Twilight threw the corpse aside, Solstice still lodged firmly in its skull.
With the second fiend out of the way, Twilight focused on the wizard. She saw four copies of the unicorn smirking up at her from the base of the steps. A mirror image spell, she realized. They pointed their horns at her in triumph. Twilight watched as Pinkie attempted to land a blow, but instead of connecting with the wizard, her hoof evaporated one of the images. Electricity surged down the length of their horns toward her. His next spell was nearly complete.
Twilight closed her eyes. With Solstice stuck in the fiend's head, she was out of options. It was over. In an instant, mage lightning would course through her body, stopping her heart and leaving her a burned corpse on the steps. She heard the door at the top of the stairs slam open, but it sounded like it was worlds away from her. “I’m sorry,” she breathed, hoping that somewhere Starswirl’s spirit would hear her last apology. He had sacrificed himself, and she had already failed.
Death never came to Twilight. Instead, something whizzed past her head with tremendous force. She opened her eyes just in time to see the spiked tip of a golden chain strike true, impaling the wizard in the dark robes. The remaining two images collapsed, and he stood there for a moment while the life left his eyes. As the body fell, the chain clattered back up the steps from whence it came.
Twilight turned to look. Above her stood an earth pony with an orange coat and a straw blonde mane and tail. The firelight from within the doorway illuminated one side of her face, but left the opposite side shrouded in shadow. The pony expertly wrapped the golden chain around her tail.
“Demon calling scum,” the pony said as she spat over the railing.
Twilight stumbled to her feet, the cuts on her forelegs and chest burning. Her sticky red blood matted her fur. With a sense of satisfaction, she watched the two corpses of the fiends she’d killed slowly evaporate as their spirits returned to Tartarus.
“Woah, you don’t look so good,” the newcomer said as she approached. Her voice carried a rough country drawl.
Twilight started to limp up the stairs. “I’m fine,” she said.
The newcomer spun her around with deft hooves, pointing her back down the stairs. “The shrine is back down. You need to see a cleric.”
Twilight caught a pink blur out of the corner of her eye. An instant later, Pinkie had her forelegs wrapped around the newcomer’s neck affectionately. “You saved her!” she squealed, squeezing.
“Choking,” the orange pony coughed.
Pinkie released her. “Sorry.”
“I don’t need a cleric,” Twilight grumbled. She pulled a healing potion out of her bag and prepared to drink it. “I've got these.”
“Drinking that won’t do ya much good.” The orange pony eyed her up and down. “Them fiends have a bit of venom in their spines that obstructs healing. You’ll need those cuts cleaned with a bit of blessed water, or more powerful healing magic than what's in those potions.”
“Right.” Twilight returned the potion to her bag. She knew that; she’d read all about fiends and numerous other demons in a book. She chalked the lapse up to exhaustion. “Where is the shrine then?”
“I’ll walk you over,” the orange pony said.
Twilight made it across the courtyard by leaning on Pinkie. By then, a few uniformed guards had noticed the corpse at the bottom of the stairs and come down off the walls and towers of the inn. They watched the trio, no doubt attempting to determine the correct course of action.
“Here we are,” the orange pony announced. She ducked into the doorway of a small stone building nestled in a corner where the rectangular keep met the outer wall. Two burning torches flanked the door, illuminating a stylized brass sun that hung above. Twilight and Pinkie followed her inside.
A small basin of glowing water lit the interior of the shrine with a warm white light. Beyond it, a mint green unicorn drooled on a stone altar inscribed with an image of the Sun. Her snores filled the small space as she blissfully snoozed. “Hey, Lyra, you awake?” the orange pony said quietly.
Lyra jumped up, blinking sleep from her eyes. “Huh, what? I’m awake!” she sputtered. She wiped drool off the corner of her mouth with a forehoof. Then her eyes settled on Twilight. “You don’t look so good.”
“So I’ve been told,” Twilight said. “Can you help me?”
“She’s been in a tussle with a fiend,” the orange pony explained.
“A fiend? Here? How did that happen?” Lyra asked as she led Twilight over to the basin.
Before Twilight could tell her the story, a guard stallion barged into the shrine. Twilight noticed that he wore a uniquely patterned uniform. He probably held a position of rank in the guard here. “Miss Applejack, can you explain the violent death of the pony Tarn Inkstroke?” he said with authority.
Applejack faced the guardspony down, her eyes smoldering. “I can, and I will.” She pointed at Twilight with a hoof. “This mare was accosted by a fiend summoning sorcerer who would’ve taken her life had I not intervened.”
“I don’t think he was a sorcerer,” Twilight interrupted automatically. Her mind felt cloudy. “He seemed to cast more like a wizard, drawing on rigorous study and magical knowledge rather than intuitive power. I guess he might have been a sorcerer though... it can be tough to tell them apart,” she rambled.
Applejack advanced on the guardspony and talked over Twilight’s muttering. “I killed him, and I wouldn't have needed to if you’d been better at doing your job.” She punctuated her final sentence by prodding the guardspony in the chest.
“I understand, Miss Applejack. Thank you for your statement.” He backed down, retreating halfway out the door. “But as you surely understand I have to explore all avenues of possibility. I don’t believe anyone saw the start of the fight, and these newcomers are completely unknown to us.”
“It was self defense!” Pinkie interjected, glaring at the guardspony.
“You don’t believe me? Why don’t you get Lyra to question the body?” Applejack challenged. “In fact, I demand it! I want to know what kind of a beef the fiend-summoner had with with these two travelers.”
“Oh no.” Lyra shook her head. “I hate doing that,” she muttered as she removed Twilight’s saddle bags and cloak. She situated Twilight next to the basin.
Applejack pushed past the guardspony and out into the courtyard. “In fact, I’ll even carry him over for you.”
“That won’t be necessary, Applejack! The guard can handle this!” the guardspony blustered, his voice fading as he chased Applejack out.
“Good, now I can get some quiet while I work,” Lyra grumbled as she started to clean Twilight’s wounds with water from the basin.
Twilight murred at the pleasant feeling of the warm water cleaning the sting from the gashes. She relaxed on her back next to the basin with her legs sticking up in the air where Lyra could access them easily. Her eyes slid shut.
Twilight started awake when Applejack dumped the body of the dead unicorn on the altar behind her, the guardspony trailing close behind her. Twilight noticed that she didn’t feel any pain, and her forelegs looked like they’d never been injured. She picked herself up off the floor to watch as Lyra stood over the corpse.
“The power of the Sun compels you to speak, corpse!” Lyra chanted, her eyes lighting with a golden glow. The eyes of the corpse filled with the same golden light, and Lyra went rigid.
The corpse spoke. It was not the voice of Tarn that left the corpse’s lips, but the voice of Lyra.
“I am compelled to answer.”
“Why did you try an’ kill this Twilight pony?” Applejack blurted before the guardspony could pose a question to the corpse.
“I was ordered to wait here and watch for Star Swirl and his ward.” Twilight saw Applejack grow more alert and intent when the corpse mentioned Star Swirl. Applejack peered at her while the corpse finished answering the question. “If I saw them traveling the road or at the inn, I was to inform the Black Knight. But I found Twilight Sparkle! On her own! I knew if I succeeded, I would be rewarded!”
Twilight shivered when Tarn mentioned the Black Knight. That must be what the armored pony who killed Star Swirl called himself. She wondered if he had a real name.
“Hey! She wasn't alone. I was there!” Pinkie said from the corner of the room.
Applejack held up a hoof to shush the guardspony before he could ask the next question. “Whose orders were you acting on?”
“I was acting on the orders of Hay Brittle.”
“Where is Hay Brittle?” Applejack said.
“I don’t know.”
“What are Hay Brittle’s responsibilities?” Applejack pressed.
“He is coordinator of the Appleloosan Mines project.”
The glow faded, and Lyra gasped in a breath. “That's all, no more of that.” Lyra shook her head. “Euagh.”
“Thank ya kindly, Lyra.” Applejack inclined her head to the cleric. “You were very helpful.”
“Yeah yeah,” Lyra grumbled. “Now thank me by getting this corpse out my shrine. You’re lucky I owe your Granny a favor or else you’d owe me a couple hundred bits for all this trouble.”
Applejack chuckled lightly as she hefted the corpse onto her back. “You got that right.” She adjusted the corpse so that its limp limbs fell around her torso and looked at Twilight. “So you’re Star Swirl’s ward. That explains a lot. Come with me up to the keep. I know someone who would like to speak with you. I just have to drop this body off with the guard before we go.”
Twilight nodded. Perhaps she’d finally found the friend Star Swirl intended to meet.
Ponies and a couple other creatures sat around circular tables on the main level of the inn within the keep. They swapped stories over mugs full of cider. It was crowded, despite, or perhaps because of, the late hour. Barmaids nimbly navigated the chaos, serving drinks and collecting bits. Applejack guided Twilight and Pinkie to a table where a wrinkled, old, green mare with white hair and a big, red stallion sat.
Twilight slumped wearily into an offered chair. The smell of stew in large pot in the middle of the table woke her up a little bit, and her mouth started to water at the thought of a warm meal. Pinkie’s stomach growled beside her. “Big Mac, why doncha serve these two mares some supper?” the old mare spoke, her voice creaking.
The big red stallion nodded, then ladled both Twilight and Pinkie a heaping bowlful of hearty potato and vegetable stew. They both dug in eagerly. Twilight opted to simply eat out of her bowl like Pinkie was, instead of investing energy in levitating a spoon.
“This is Twilight Sparkle,” Applejack introduced her. “Twilight, this is Granny Smith, and Big Macintosh. An’ I’m Applejack. We’re of the Apple Clan.”
Twilight lifted her head out of the bowl and swallowed. She stared at Granny Smith in shock. “You killed the Lich Mortimer who held the forests east of here in shadow!” Twilight cringed at her own outburst. “Well, you and Star Swirl, and the rest of your group.”
Granny Smith chuckled. “Thats right lassie. That was over a century ago though. I’m a family mare now, I’ve got the Apple Clan to look after. My adventuring days are long behind me.”
“So were Star Swirl’s,” Twilight murmured morosely, laying her head on the table.
“I’m afraid I’ve gotta ask, Twilight, do you know where Star Swirl is?” Granny said.
“He’s dead,” Twilight said, focusing on the grain of the table. A now-familiar dull throb returned to her chest. “A pony that I believe calls himself the Black Knight killed him.” She closed her eyes tightly while she struggled to hold back tears. “He died to save me.”
Granny hung her head. “I can’t say it surprises me to hear that.” She heaved a weathered sigh. “If Star Swirl were still with us, I knew he’d be with you. The world ain’t kind to old do-gooders like him an’ me.” She reached over with a hoof and patted Twilight’s head. “I wish I could do more for you. I’m sure you want to get to the bottom of this. What I can do is send my granddaughter Jackie with ya. She’ll keep you safe.”
Twilight sniffled and opened her eyes to look across the table at Granny Smith, grateful for her kindness. “Thank you.”