“It’s stuck,” Twilight told Applejack.
She tugged a key out of the jammed locking mechanism keeping Applejack caged. Applejack’s earlier attempt to break out on her own had left the metal twisted and warped. Twilight sighed in frustration, then suppressed a pained groan; when she breathed, she felt like she had a spike lodged in her side. She gritted her teeth and tolerated the discomfort, at least for the moment.
Applejack nickered and stamped furiously in the small space. “Well, I ain’t stayin’ in here.” She turned around, aligning her hindquarters with the cage door. “Guess I’ll have to finish what I started!”
Twilight took a couple steps back to get clear of the door. “Wait a second, I have an idea.” She laced her levitation magic around the grate of the cage and started to pull. “Alright, now go.”
Applejack’s next buck shattered the locking mechanism, flinging the door wide open. Before Twilight could react, her levitation tore the door’s damaged hinges clean off and sent it flying straight at her with dangerous speed. She released her magic in shock while she ducked beneath the metal. The deformed grate sailed over her head, hit the dirt, and rolled across the tent on its corners. The metal came to a stop with a ringing clang when it slammed into the open cage where Rainbow and Fluttershy had recently been trapped. She winced, both at the loud sound that stung her ears, and at the way the rapid motion to evade the grate had driven the pain in her chest to new heights.
“I’m working over here!” Rarity cried in exasperation. She sat in front of a cage, picking the lock, her bow slung across her back. She’d gotten the door to Fluttershy’s cage open with only her levitation before Pinkie had even found the keys.
“Sorry!” Twilight said. She crossed her eyes to look at her horn. She didn’t think her levitation was that strong. The hinges must have been mostly broken already, she concluded.
“Thanks, Twilight,” Applejack said, stepping out of the cage.
“The Great and Powerful Trixie will not stand for this! A projectile has painfully punctured her posterior, and she demands treatment!” Trixie whined from the ground where she lay near the tent’s door. Rainbow stood guard over the prone unicorn, one of her wingblades poised near Trixie’s throat.
Rainbow groaned. “Shut up already!”
Applejack flicked her head toward Trixie. “Now what do you think we should do with her?” she said softly to Twilight.
Twilight flashed Applejack a smile. “I’ve got an idea.”
Twilight stepped forward. While she approached Trixie, she brushed dried blood off her muzzle with a hoof and put on her most confident expression. She felt like a beaten dog. She hoped she looked like a victor.
“Tell you what, Trixie,” Twilight said, standing over Trixie as she levitated a healing potion, “I will consider giving you this if you dispel the illusion you’ve put on Fluttershy’s wings.”
Trixie looked up at the potion from the floor and nodded eagerly. “Done!”
Twilight looked up at where Fluttershy sat next to the edge of the tent. The white bunny snuggled against Fluttershy, back to his original, adorable, small self. Fluttershy’s wings gradually faded into existence on her back, confirming her identity as a pegasus. Twilight smiled; she’d correctly identified the spell hiding Fluttershy’s wings as long-term, sustained magic, like her mage armor.
“Now give Trixie the potion!” Trixie said.
Twilight held up her hoof. “I’m thinking.”
“We should just kill her and be done with it,” Applejack said with a grumble from beside Twilight.
“Does she really deserve that?” Pinkie said as she stepped up on Twilight’s other side.
“She’ll cause no end a’ trouble if we let her go,” Applejack said.
Twilight looked down at Trixie. The baby blue unicorn stared back at Twilight in defiance, but her eyes betrayed her fear. “If we kill her, would we deserve to die?” Twilight murmured.
“It ain’t about that, Twilight. Killing her isn’t right because she deserves to die; killing her is right because it’ll keep ponies safe from her illusions,” Applejack said.
Twilight continued to stare down at Trixie. She wanted to kill Trixie. She wanted to to wipe that arrogant smirk from the face of Equestria. Trixie had manipulated her, hurt her, and attempted to kill her by proxy. Still, she couldn’t decide.
“But what does that mean about us?” Twilight said, then paused, remembering something Star Swirl had told her months ago. She turned to look into Applejack’s eyes. “Doesn’t everyone deserve a chance at redemption?” The difference was, Star Swirl stated it with conviction while she could only question.
“The Great and Powerful Trixie is sorry for hurting you. She promises she will be better!” Trixie said quickly.
Applejack snorted. “There ain’t nothin’ she can say that we can trust.”
“I think Fluttershy should decide,” Rainbow said. “Out of all of us, she’s been hurt the most.”
“Oh, um...” Fluttershy said softly from where she sat. “I–I don’t...” her voice faded, becoming too quiet for Twilight to hear.
“I agree with Rainbow Dash,” Twilight said. She felt a little selfish for shifting the weight of the decision onto Fluttershy’s shoulders, but if anyone should decide, it was Trixie’s former slave.
“I don’t think you should kill her,” Fluttershy said, loud enough to be heard this time, “Even though she was mean and nasty to me, everypony deserves a chance.”
Applejack sighed. “Fair enuff... but mark my words, she’ll be trouble.”
Twilight started to levitate the potion down toward Trixie, but Fluttershy stepped forward before she could give it to the wounded illusionist. “I could heal her...” she murmured, “but you look like you need it more.”
Twilight watched Fluttershy approach. As soon as the demure pegasus stood next to Twilight, she gently pressed a hoof into Twilight’s injured side. Twilight groaned in pain, collapsing onto her haunches.
Fluttershy’s eyes widened. “Oh dear, you’ve got a broken rib. I’m so sorry Angel hurt you, I was just so frightened, and—” Fluttershy said.
“It’s okay...” Twilight interrupted. “It’s Trixie’s fault, not yours.” She glared at the tiny white rabbit hanging onto Fluttershy’s tail. “And his.”
The rabbit blew her a raspberry.
“He only gets like that when I’m really scared,” Fluttershy said.
Fluttershy focused her blue eyes on Twilight, and a natural green glow filled them. Twilight sighed in contentment as a warmth spreading from Fluttershy’s hoof purged her injuries. Her side felt whole again, the soreness in her jaw disappeared, and even the gashes on her neck and shoulders were healed.
“Thanks,” Twilight said.
Fluttershy’s head drooped wearily as she finished the spell, but she picked back up a moment later. She turned to Trixie and carefully extracted the crystalline arrow with her teeth. Twilight returned her healing potion to her bag, leaving the task to Fluttershy.
Twilight focused on the entrance to the tent when she heard commotion outside. In her peripheral vision, she saw her friends ready themselves for a fight. She drew Solstice.
A moment later, the Madame burst into the tent. She froze in the entrance when she saw Rainbow’s wingblade poised against Trixie’s neck. A number of armed carnival folk came to an abrupt stop behind the Madame.
“Don’t kill her!” the Madame cried. “You can have the pegasus...”–she looked around the tent at the open cages–“and the rest of the slaves can go free!”
“That sounds like a good—” Twilight said.
Rarity interrupted her before she could finish, saying, “That sounds like a bit of a raw deal. I imagine that a wizard of Trixie’s caliber is what keeps your carnival safe on the road.” Twilight hadn’t noticed the white unicorn step up beside her.
“I have some magic items; enough Cloaks of Protection for all of you. That would be good for adventurers like you, yes?” The Madame said.
“Not a wizard...” Twilight grumbled. Trixie’s brand of spellcasting had all the marks of sorcery.
“Shush, darling, I’m negotiating,” Rarity whispered out of the side of her mouth at Twilight with thinly veiled irritation. She tapped her chin with her hoof, then addressed the madame, “That sounds almost fair. You give us those, and the slaves their freedom, complete with papers to confirm it, along with fifty bits for each of them, and you’ll get your wizard back.”
The Madame shook her head, but she said, “Agreed. You rob me, unicorn. Now let her go.”
Rarity smiled sweetly at the Madame. “Ah-ah-ah! Papers, bits, and cloaks first. We’ll let you have her back at the edge of the carnival.”
The dozen or so slaves gratefully trailed behind Twilight and her group while they walked back towards town. Twilight held her blade to Trixie’s neck, eyeing the carnies that surrounded them on all sides warily. They carried a motley collection of weaponry, but Twilight didn’t think they looked like they wanted a fight, at least not while she had Trixie as a hostage.
“How’d she do all that anyway?” Rainbow said. She looped through the air above Trixie, inspecting the sorceress as she passed over, before coming down to land beside Twilight.
“She’s a sorceress. Some sorcerers can cast a variety of spells through innate understanding, but Trixie is a bit more unique: she can only do one type of magic. However, she’s very, very good at it,” Twilight said. “Isn’t that right, Trixie?”
Trixie nodded aloofly. “The Great and Powerful Trixie’s abilities are awe inspiring.”
Rainbow glared at Trixie. “And she uses them to pretend to be something she’s not.”
Trixie stuck her nose into the air. “The Great and Powerful Trixie spoke only truth. Her illusion magic makes her the Most Magically Gifted Pony in Equestria, and she was truly a Crystal Pony. How else could she know what the Crystal City looks like?”
Rainbow laughed. “Yeah right! You’re a Crystal Pony, and I’m an Alicorn!” She wiggled her head with an annoying expression plastered on her face. “See my horn!”
Trixie ignored Rainbow’s taunting and continued to walk proudly alongside Twilight. Failing to get a response, Rainbow gave up and settled down. “What’s a Crystal Pony?” she whispered to Twilight a moment later.
Twilight wished she could stop walking and plant her face in her hooves. Lacking that option, she chose a brief lecture.
“Crystal Ponies were crystalline ponies that—”
“Crystal Ponies were crystalline? You don’t say...” Pinkie said playfully from behind Twilight, interrupting.
Twilight rolled her eyes and continued, “That lived in the Crystal City at the heart of the Crystal Empire over a thousand years ago. They were destroyed during the Time of Troubles, and there has been no record of them since, making it quite impossible for Trixie to be one.”
“Time of Troubles?” Rainbow said.
“Yes... I’ll tell you about it later,” Twilight said.
“Eh, don’t worry about it. I’m sure it was some cataclysmic event of epic proportions that happened too long ago for anypony to remember, or for me to care,” Rainbow said.
The transfer went off without a hitch.
While the Madame and her group returned to the carnival grounds, Twilight clasped one of the silky, grey cloaks around her neck. The magic made the silk strong as steel, and the cloak would keep her warm in the cold and cool in the sun. The enchantment would even offer her minor protection against spells.
A moment later, an odd sensation passed through her, and she felt like Spike was about to return. She turned her head, looking at a spot on the ground next to her. In a flare of green fire, Spike appeared precisely where she expected him to.
Twilight smiled. “Your timing is improving.”
Spike grinned back at her. “I’m learning.” He scratched the back of his neck. “I think I can—I dunno... feel when you feel safe. Earlier it was more guesswork.” He pointed at the yellow pegasus standing next to Rainbow Dash. “So she’s the pony you guys rescued?”
Twilight nodded. Her ears perked when Fluttershy whispered something. She thought she heard Fluttershy say something about a baby dragon.
“Naw, he’s a familiar or something,” Rainbow said.
“Well, actually...” Spike said, running over to the rest of the group.
Twilight shook her head with amusement. Apparently, fey dragons shared ego as well as appearance with their namesake. She turned her gaze toward Ponyville, watching the last of the former slaves make their way toward the town. She hoped that the fifty bits they each had would last long enough for them to get settled or get back to their families. She noticed Rarity sitting a bit away from the rest of the group, staring after the slaves. While Spike conversed excitedly with her friends, she walked over and plopped down on her haunches next to Rarity.
“That was the reason you came to the carnival tonight, wasn’t it? To set them free?” Twilight said.
“Wasn’t that why you were there?” Rarity said as she turned to look at Twilight.
The question caught Twilight off guard. After a pause, she said, “Well, sort of. Specifically, I... we were there to help Rainbow Dash free Fluttershy. But, I don’t think I could have left the other ponies caged.” She turned her gaze down to the ground in front of her. “I don’t care if it’s technically legal. It’s wrong, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know, Twilight... that’s your name, right?” Rarity said. Twilight nodded, and Rarity continued, “Does the idea of taking a pony’s destiny away from them and turning them into a piece of property sound right to you?”
Twilight shook her head. “Of course not.” She wasn’t sure how much stock she put in fate, but she agreed with Rarity’s sentiment completely.
“Precisely. Now, the ponies who benefit from slaves will attempt to justify it as due punishment for crimes committed or a legitimate spoil of war, but even if they were right, plenty of slaves are just poor, innocent ponies,” Rarity said. “Take Fluttershy, for example. She was probably captured by slavers, had documents forged, then had her wings hidden to avoid unwanted scrutiny.”
“Well, thank you for your help,” Twilight said. Almost every day out here somepony has to save my life, she thought bitterly. “We should probably get back to town though. We’ll need to rent rooms for the rest of the night.”
“Absolutely not,” Rarity said. “I insist that you come stay at my boutique. There’s more than enough room for you all there, and I never would have had the opportunity to help those ponies if it weren’t for you and your friends.”
Twilight glanced at Rarity. “So you were planning this for a while?”
Rarity shook her head. “No, it would have been futile to try and help them on my own. Every year the carnival came to town I wished I could do something. But, after I heard about that business in Berry Punch’s Tavern, I started to keep a close eye on your group. At the carnival, I learned you were trying to help a slave. When you snuck in this evening, I knew I had to seize the moment, and I’m glad I did.” She smiled at Twilight.
Twilight furrowed her brows. The amount of attention she attracted troubled her, even though she had benefited from it in this case. If the Black Knight was still on the hunt, he could be almost upon them. Surrounded by allies, maybe she could beat him, but she doubted it. Even though wizards of Star Swirl’s caliber were not to be trifled with, the Black Knight made killing him almost look easy. She knew that if the Black Knight caught up with them, she would die, and if her friends made the same choice Star Swirl did, they would die as well.
Twilight noticed Rarity giving her a confused look and quickly brightened her expression. “We’d be happy to stay at your boutique.” Hopefully, Rarity’s shop would be better than the tavern at keeping them out of the spotlight.
“We’re stayin’ where now?” Applejack said.
The gates of Candlekeep were open wide to Twilight Sparkle. She knew no shelter awaited her within, but she found herself irrevocably drawn to the shadows beyond the gate. Unable to walk away, she drifted into the main hall of the library. A form moved on the stairway to the upper levels.
The figure resolved into the Black Knight, who strode silently down the steps toward her. His very presence defiled her beloved books. Ready to fight and die, Twilight reached for her sword, but she found nothing. She felt naked, as unprotected and ill prepared as when this adventure had first entered her life.
The Black Knight raised no weapon to strike her down. Instead, he stopped, standing on the stone floor before her. Fluttershy, still and statuesque, cowering behind her wooden guardian, appeared from the shadows next to him. A shadowy voice emanated from his helmet.
“Fluttershy, the Healer. Alongside Rainbow Dash, she will join you. But can she heal you?”
The Black Knight turned, taking one pace to the left. Beside Fluttershy, Rarity appeared, her bow ready, a sinister light in her eyes.
“Rarity, the Enigma. She will ask to join you, but can you trust her? Noble though she may seem, deception is her game, and you will be made a fool.”
The Black Knight took another step. Next was Rainbow Dash, wingblades ready, unbridled fury on her face.
“Rainbow Dash, the Fighter. She will fight for you, she will kill for you, but when she finally cracks, what will happen to you?”
Another pace. This time, Applejack appeared, armored, glancing over her shoulder, chain at the ready behind her.
“Applejack, the Guardian. She will not waver from her task, at least until she realizes exactly what it is she guards.”
One more step. Finally, Pinkie appeared, hair straight, hooves planted, a dark look on her features.
“Pinkie Pie, the Friend. She has stood by you all this while, through trauma and trails. But in the end, when she sees who you truly are? What will happen then?”
Twilight shook her head. The others, perhaps, she hardly knew them, but not Pinkie; she knew Pinkie. Something was wrong here. She found her thoughts, her identity, and with her voice, challenged the shadows for the first time.
“What I truly am? All I am is a friend, a wizard, and a scared mare trying to survive! I am nothing more!”
The Black Knight loomed before her. She saw him, close, every detail the way she remembered: every chink in his armor, and every contour of his terrifying helm.
“You will find that I am you, and you are me. And you and I... ?”
The Black Knight coalesced into a bolt of shadow. He whispered through the air, black ink spilling from his form as he traced black lines around the five statues of her friends.
The statues came to life. Together, they turned away from her, not even giving her a passing glance.
Her five friends strode away from her. She could only watch in silence as they left her.
The Black Knight’s form rushed through the chamber as a wind, becoming one with the darkness around her. As her friends walked away from her, they began to crumble. Brightly colored dust, yellow, white, blue, orange, and pink, spilled from their bodies until they fully dissolved away into the same featureless black. Only Twilight remained.
A deep horror filled her. Alone, friendless, the shadows would consume her. Still, she held her head high: defiant. She rejected the idea. Her friends would not leave her. Again, she challenged the darkness.
“‘I am you, and you are me...’ What does that even mean?”
“You will learn.”
The first thing Twilight noticed when she woke up was something terribly hot constricting her. She searched her mind for a defensive spell as her eyes shot open. She glanced around the room in panic and saw that she lay in a small guest bed. A larger, neatly made bed occupied the majority of the other half of the room. The midmorning sun beat down on her covers. Rarity’s room... she realized, then let out a pent up breath in relief. No spells were needed.
It took her a moment to free herself from the twisted sheets that she’d wrapped around herself in her sleep. Rarity’s empty bed told her that her hostess must already be awake. She also noticed that Spike was nowhere to be found. Twilight rolled out of bed and placed her hooves on the cold floor. When she glimpsed her reflection in the mirror of Rarity’s vanity, she crossed the room to get a closer look. Her haggard, worn features gazed back at her, beneath her mess of a mane. Compared to her tidy appearance back in Candlekeep, she was a wreck.
She retrieved her brush from her saddlebag and set about battling the knots in her hair. After a few minutes, not only did she look neater, but she felt better. She focused on herself in the mirror. Despite all that had happened to her, she bore no permanent physical marks. So far, she had weathered all that the world had thrown at her, and she felt stronger for it.
She left Rarity’s room and heard a voice drifting out the door of the guest room across the hall.
“So yeah, that’s pretty much the story, Twilight has a bounty on her head and she’s trying to figure out why, and I promised her I would help.”
Twilight easily identified the first speaker as Rainbow Dash, but it took her a moment to recognize the faint sound of the next speaker.
“And you killed a pony?”
“It’s no big deal, Fluttershy,” Rainbow said.
Twilight poked her head in the partially open door. Rainbow, who was sitting next to an open saddlebag that lay on the floor, turned to glance at Twilight. “Ey,” she grunted around one of the bag’s straps as she tightened it. She dropped the strap from her mouth and said, “We were just talking about you, and—”
“If Rainbow Dash is going with you, I’m coming too!” Fluttershy interrupted. Twilight stepped fully into the room and saw Fluttershy cringe at her own outburst. “That is, if it’s okay...”
Twilight paused, hoof raised mid step. It bothered her that the malevolent voice from the shadows of her nightmare spoke true.
Noticing her hesitation, Rainbow said, “I know, I know, she seems timid, but her magic would definitely help out. What do you say, Twilight?”
“No, no, that’s fine... but there is something else I wanted to talk about with you,” Twilight said, eyeing Rainbow’s wingblades on the bedside table. “Applejack tells me you stole those.”
Rainbow snorted. “So what. What else could I do? It’s not like I was going to abandon Fluttershy, like the rest of them.”
“I know. I just wanted to tell you that I don’t hold you to our deal. Now that you’ve found her, you could go back and—”
“No way! I’m not going back!” Rainbow said and turned away from Twilight in a huff. “They wouldn’t take her back, and they’d throw me in jail! Besides, Firefly would kill me.”
“Over a set of wingblades?” Twilight said.
“I’m sorry...” Fluttershy murmured.
Rainbow turned on Fluttershy. “It’s not your fault! I’ve said that a million times already.” She stalked over to the bedside table and snatched up her wingblades. “See these?” She held one of the blades out, one of the straps looped over her hoof. “I lifted these straight off the altar at the temple. They’re important. They aren’t just any wingblades.”
Twilight blinked. “What do they do?”
Rainbow shrugged. “Something ceremonial I guess... hey!”
Out of curiosity, Twilight levitated the wingblade off of Rainbow’s hoof to get a closer look. She turned it over, ignoring Rainbow’s objection, and peered at the padded inside edge that rested against the wielder's wing. She saw runes inscribed in the fabric. She flexed one of the leather straps. It was supple, even though she’d never seen Rainbow care for the leather.
“These are magic,” Twilight said.
“No duh, they don’t get old and all that,” Rainbow said, plopping onto her haunches angrily. “You didn’t need to snatch ‘em just to tell me that.”
“No, they do more than that. Let me cast a spell,” Twilight said as she closed her eyes. With her mind, she formed the identification spell. She could hear Rainbow’s tail lashing against the floor while the impatient pegasus waited for her to finish.
The spell complete, she opened her eyes. “Wow...”
“What? What do they do?” Rainbow said.
“How’d you even get access to these?” Twilight said.
“I was training at the temple. What does that matter?”
Twilight levitated one of the wingblades toward Rainbow. The pegasus fidgeted away. “Hold still! I need to show you what it does,” Twilight said. Rainbow irritably blew a lock of hair out of her face, but held out her wing.
Once she had both the wingblades fastened, Twilight told Rainbow, “Focus, think about wind, then swing the blade through the air.” She took a step back as a precaution.
Rainbow closed her eyes, brows furrowing in concentration. After a brief pause, Rainbow opened her eyes and swung her wing. The blast of air from her innate abilities alone lifted a blanket off one of the beds, but it was not the result Twilight expected.
Rainbow shook her head. “Nothing. You could just tell me what they do.”
Twilight thought for a moment. She would have to try something else. What would trigger Rainbow Dash? she wondered. Rainbow looked at her expectantly. “Try again,” Twilight said.
As Rainbow closed her eyes, preparing to swing, Twilight said, “Think about the cleric’s shield in the way.”
This time, a powerful blast of air sent the bed skidding back across the wooden floor. In an instant, it slammed against the wall. A half open window shutter twisted violently and broke free as the wind rushed past it to escape the confines of the room. Twilight winced when she heard the shutter clatter against something wooden as it fell.
“Woah!” Rainbow said.
“Sorry. It wouldn’t have worked if I just told you,” Twilight said.
Rainbow nodded. “Yeah.” She sat again, staring out the damaged window. “Anyways, we’re coming with you.”
“If that’s what you want, I’d be glad to have your help,” Twilight said. She turned to look at Fluttershy. “Both of your help.”
“What in Equestria happened here?” Spike said from behind her.
“Um, well—” Twilight began, turning her head to glance at where Spike stood in the doorway.
“Nevermind!” Spike said. “Tell it to Rarity. She sent me up to let you know breakfast is ready.”
Rarity’s dining table wasn’t small, but it seemed that way with several ponies and Spike crammed around it. When she arrived downstairs, the available spot happened to be next to Pinkie. Remembering last morning’s argument, she hesitated a moment, but the aroma wafting from the table prompted her to wedge herself into the space anyway. As she reached for a pancake that Rarity had prepared, she jumped when she heard Pinkie’s loud, excited voice in her ear.
“I forgive you!”
Twilight blinked. “What?”
“You know, the thing I was grumpy about because you made me mad, but it wasn’t really your fault I was mad. I forgive you!” Pinkie wrapped a hoof sticky with syrup around Twilight’s shoulders and gave her a hug. “We’re best friends, even if we’ve had to deal with some hard stuff.”
Twilight smiled. “Thanks, Pinkie.”
’But in the end... what will happen then?’ echoed through her mind.
“Friends forever, right?” Twilight said.
“Friends through eternity,” Pinkie said with a grin, releasing her.
Twilight nodded. “Absolutely.” She turned back to her food. How could I doubt Pinkie Pie? She felt like their bond had only grown stronger since she left Candlekeep.
After breakfast, they all pitched in to help clean up. In the kitchen, the two unicorns made quick work of the dirty dishes. As Twilight dipped a plate into the kitchen’s soapy trough, she said to Rarity, “If you were wondering about the noise upstairs... we—well, we kind of broke your window and maybe scraped up your floor a bit. I’m sure we have enough bits to cover the damage though.”
Rarity took the plate from Twilight, rinsing it in some clean running water provided by a pump she operated with her magic. The pump drew water from a well dug below the building, a common feature of a well-off merchant’s house. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it, I’m not planning on staying here much longer anyway.”
If it weren’t for her dream, the news would have surprised Twilight. “Why not?” she asked, even though she already knew the answer.
“You’re trying to get to the bottom of this trade crisis, aren’t you?”
Twilight looked down, scrubbing a dish. “Sort of. Someone’s trying to kill me, and I’m trying to find out why so that I can go back home. It looks like they are connected to the trade crisis though, at least the iron part.”
“That’ll have to do, I suppose,” Rarity said. She regarded Twilight. “I’d like to offer you my services; you’ve already seen some of my abilities. Of course, I’ll expect a fair share of any loot we happen to acquire along the way.”
Twilight set down the dish and gazed back at Rarity. “Are you sure you want to do that? I have no idea how long it’s going to take, or how dangerous it is going to be.” She wasn’t sure why she was trying to dissuade Rarity. The white unicorn appeared to have already made up her mind. I’m testing the voice, she realized.
“It’s better than sitting here waiting. I don’t own this shop, not fully. I bought it on credit. If I want to keep up with the payments, I’d have to sell Amethyst, my bow, assuming I could even find a buyer. I find that I would rather take Amethyst and use it. It’s a tool, after all, and hopefully it can help me solve my problems.”
“You’re welcome to join us,” Twilight said. She wouldn’t let her nightmare’s doubts about Rarity’s reliability rule her. “I’m curious, though, about your bow. It’s a manabow, right?”
Rarity nodded. “You have a good eye.”
Twilight raised an eyebrow when her suspicions were confirmed. Manabows were quite valuable; they were enchanted with magic that ensured a unicorn archer would never run out of arrows. “Where’d you get it?”
Rarity winked at her. “I acquired it.”
“So, you stole it?”
“Yes, a long time ago.” Rarity grinned. “But there’s no need to be so blunt about it.”
Twilight held a board in her levitation while Pinkie nailed it into place over one of Rarity’s windows. Together, they helped Rarity close up shop. Through the window, Twilight watched Rarity grab a few small items from the clutter in the main workshop area of her home, and insert them into a small pouch held on a strap at her side. Two hoofspan long, needle-like blades sheathed in rugged fabric dangled next to the pouch. Twilight levitated the next board into place, cutting off her view.
Next to her, Rarity stepped out of the doorway of her shop, turned, and appraised their work. From the second story, Rainbow called, “All done up here!”
“Thank you, Rainbow,” Rarity called back. Twilight let her magic fade as Pinkie finished securing the board. Her task complete, she watched Rarity. The white unicorn set one of her hooves against the door, and murmured, almost too faint for Twilight to hear, “This isn’t the end, Carousel Boutique.”
Rarity closed her eyes, her horn lighting. Twilight heard three bolts click into place in succession as Rarity locked the door with her levitation. Twilight had seen the bolts from the inside; they’d be near impossible to operate unless she knew exactly where they were.
“Is that all you’re bringing?” Applejack said to Rarity as she stacked excess boards against the shop.
Rarity nodded, turning to face Applejack. “Only the barest of essentials.”
Twilight raised a brow. Rarity wore no saddlebags. “Are you sure?” Twilight said. “If you need something, and you don’t have it, there’s no going back.” She thought that they’d need to cut down Rarity’s pack, not encourage the shopkeeper to pack more.
Rarity gave a good-natured chuckle. “I’m pretty sure I’ve got everything worth keeping in here.” She levitated the pouch from her hip over to Twilight. It was purple velvet, with a golden drawstring, allowing the mouth of the bag to open wide. “Here, have a look.”
Twilight regarded the bag suspiciously as she took it from Rarity. She loosened the opening, wondering why such a small bag needed to open so wide, and peered inside. Within, she could only see a black void. Out of curiosity, she leaned closer, until the tip of her muzzle crossed the opening. Her lungs choked when she breathed only emptiness in through her nostrils. She jerked back abruptly, coughing.
“That’s a bag of holding!” Twilight said.
Twilight let the bag slip from her levitation when Rarity took it back. As the white unicorn fastened the pouch back on it’s strap, she said, “Yes.”
“Sounds handy,” Applejack said. “I think Granny mentioned one once. What’s it do?”
Rarity stuck her hoof inside the still open pouch, then pulled it out. A massive glinting diamond rested in the center of her hoof. “You simply reach inside, think of what you want, and if the bag has the right object within, you can retrieve it.”
While Twilight said, “Let me guess, you ‘acquired’ the bag too.” Rarity returned the diamond to the pouch and tightened the drawstring.
Rarity smirked at her. “If by ‘acquired’ you mean won in a fair bet, then yes.” She smiled warmly at all of them. “It’s got plenty of space inside, and it never gets any heavier, so if there’s anything burdensome you’d like me to take care of, then simply ask.”
Twilight joined the rest of the group in offloading some of her supplies. She didn’t relish the idea of carrying her bedroll and provisions all the way to Appleloosa, which was about three or four days of walking away. The bag’s mouth seemed like it could stretch wide enough to engulf a pony. She imagined what it would be like to step inside, and a shudder ran down her spine when she remembered the feeling of attempting to breath nothing. Putting anything alive in that bag would be a bad idea.
Feeling lighter when they set out, together, they started down the road to Appleloosa
The Sun beat down on Twilight, painting an afternoon shadow on the road beneath her hooves. Unlike the Cobblestone of the Coast Road, the path she trekked down now was little more than packed dirt. Ahead of her, it curved into the distance over rolling hills. Back towards Ponyville, she could see the treetops of Whitetail Wood, a large forest that used to be the Deadwood.
On one side of the road, the trees loomed close. At some point, the relatively peaceful and safe Whitetail Wood morphed into the Everfree Forest, a gloomy and dangerous place. The darkness that made the Everfree what it was did not end when the Lich of the Deadwood was destroyed.
From what she had read, she knew that little was known about the forest, other than that the beasts of the Everfree mostly stayed within their territory, and powerful storms built there that battered Cloudsdale while they flooded the rivers below. The Everfree, together with the Badlands, bounded the lands of the Sword Coast on the inland side. No nation-state could lay claim to either of the unsettleable expenses. She knew that the trees near them were not part of the Everfree proper; it was the depths of the forest where the monsters dwelled, but the combination of the tree’s dense growth and the way the forest ended in a near perfect line filled her with a sense of unease.
She paused to wipe her brow and glanced up at the sky. Above her, the sky held only thin wisps of cloud in its blue expanse, but she thought she glimpsed something between her and the Sun. She squinted, attempting to filter out the brightness, and she made out a pair of pegasi descending toward them.
Twilight checked her group. Both pegasi were on the ground; unless Rainbow and Fluttershy wanted to outdistance them, walking was the least taxing way to travel. “Hey, girls, we’ve got company,” she said, gesturing upwards.
She reached for Solstice while the rest of the group stopped, their eyes trained skyward. She tracked the pegasi’s descent until the pair landed on the road ahead of them. When they cleared the glow of the sun, she could make out the red-orange emblem on the tabards they both wore. Beneath the tabard, silver-white chainmail covered their torsos, but left their legs and wings bare, other than a pair of wingblades. They wore helmets with orange plumes.
“Halt, in the name of the Flaming Wing,” one of the pegasi, a mare, called.
Even though the pegasi did not appear to be attacking them, Twilight kept the glow of her magic around the hilt of her sword. “Careful,” Rarity said softly. “They’re paid by the merchants of Manehattan to keep order. You don’t want to get on the bad side of the Flaming Wing.”
Twilight let her magic go. The lead pegasus stepped forward, the other to her left, a few hoofspans away and a pace back. “That pony”–the pegasus said while she raised her wing to point at Rainbow Dash–“is Rainbow Dash, a criminal wanted in Cloudsdale for Grand Theft.”
“Oh crap,” Twilight heard Rainbow mutter.
For a moment, no pony said anything, both groups facing each other warily. “So?” Twilight said, breaking the silence.
“What?” the pegasus said, furrowing her brows angrily. Her wingpony beside her shuffled nervously, glancing at the five armed mares, and Pinkie, facing them down. “So she should step forward, and come with us, and there will be no problems.”
Twilight held her head high and took two steps forward until she was face to face with the pegasus, trying to look more confident than she felt. She didn’t want to be made a criminal in addition to having some private bounty on her head, but she wouldn’t let them take Rainbow Dash.
“How much is she wanted for?” Twilight said.
The pegasus blinked at her. “What?”
“How much? How many bits? Could we pay to clear her name?” Twilight said. She hoped it would work. Government sponsored or not, the Flaming Wing was a mercenary organization.
“She stole a pair of skyblades from the temple of war in Skywall Village!” the pegasus said. After a brief pause, she added, “For a thousand, I take the wingblades, and she’s clear.”
She glanced over her shoulder at the rest of her group, trying to read their faces. If they scraped together what they had, they could afford that price, especially if Rarity pitched in a gem or two. The wingblades were useful, but she didn’t want the Flaming Wing dogging their every step.
Before she could reach any sort of decision, the sound of something whirling through the air filled her ears, ending abruptly with a clang.
Searching for the source of the sound, she whipped her head back around. Shock filled her at what she saw. The blade of a hatchet stuck through the pegasus’s helm and into her skull. While Twilight watched the body fall, the pegasus’s lifeless eyes stared back at her. As the pegasus hit the ground, Twilight heard the tell-tale sound of a second hatchet. With a wild cry, she drew Solstice, and, in the same motion, she faced the threat, arcing the blade through the air. Her reflexive swing managed to catch the haft of the spinning hatchet bound for her skull.
The butt of the deflected hatchet’s handle bounced off of the dirt next to her, continuing to turn. She heard a fleshy impact, and a grunt of pain from where the second Flaming Wing pegasus was standing. A rush of wind hit her side, and she glanced up, watching as the pegasus took flight, one of his hind legs bleeding profusely.
Before he had risen more than a few hoofspans above her, out of the corner of her eye she noticed a flicker of movement in the treeline beside the road. As soon as she saw a hailstorm of projectiles, all flying toward her, she instinctively dropped in an effort to get beneath the volley. A shaft whizzed close to her head, and she felt another graze her steely cloak. Most of the projectiles shot overhead.
Beside her, she saw the pegasus plummeting back to earth, an arrow protruding from his chest. With her levitation, Twilight caught his body, and she succeeded in softening the impact and preventing his head from striking the ground. It was a futile effort; his dull, unblinking eyes gazed up at the sky. Feeling helpless, she let him go, and his limp head struck the ground.
“Hold fire!” she heard a rumbling voice call from the treeline. A creature with stocky limbs, fingered hands, a coat of coarse, bronze colored fur, and a pair of curled horns stepped out from behind a tree. She identified him as a minotaur.
Out of immediate danger, Twilight registered a sting of pain in her foreleg. She ignored it; the minotaur demanded her attention. He strode forward, crushing the underbrush beneath his thick, short legs, a throwing axe in each of his massive hands. Hatchets attached to a harness adorned him like they were armor.
About ten paces from Twilight, he stopped and called, “Heh... you’re lucky I missed with the first throw.”
Twilight felt a twinge of unease as she realized she’d brushed with death again. When she heard Applejack say, “Tell me why we shouldn’t end you,” she glanced over at her group. Applejack stood ready, hindquarters facing the enemy. Rarity had her bow drawn, trained on the minotaur, a crystalline arrow set on the string.
“I’ve got a dozen good fighters on that treeline, ready to take you down. Let’s not make this a bloodbath. You give me Twilight Sparkle, and you get five hundred bits each, just like them.” He gestured at the treeline.
Twilight snorted. “Your ‘good fighters’ missed, just like you.”
The minotaur chuckled throatily. “Did they? I’d look down, if I were you.”
Before she could think better of it, she glanced down. There, an arrow stuck through her foreleg. She felt nauseous when she saw the blood oozing from where both the tip and the shaft penetrated her skin. Quickly, she looked forward again, and a tremor ran through her limbs. She lifted her leg to keep the weight off it, wincing.
She turned her head to look at her friends. They wouldn’t turn on me, would they?
The five ponies standing along the road beside her remained silent. “Come on!” the minotaur said. “How about you, Rainbow Dash, I just got the mercenaries off your back, what ties you to her?”
“After she just stood up to them for me? Hell no,” Rainbow said without a moment’s hesitation. “Come on, bring it. Let’s get this fight started!”
Twilight saw the battle happening in her mind: Another volley of arrows from the trees, not at her, but at them. They would get hurt. They might die. Not this time. This time, she wasn’t going to wait for one of her friends to lie limp on the ground. This time would be different. The pain in her back vanished as she purged emotion – hesitation – from her mind and focused on one thing: destruction.
Her horn lit.
She reached into her mind, finding magic, one of the strongest, most complex spells she’d prepared. “Stop her!” She heard the minotaur cry. He sounded so very far away. He winded up, readying a throw. As the axe left his fingers, she wondered, The spell, or Solstice? She knew she should choose to defend herself, but before she had the chance, a gust of wind blew the axe aside like it was a twig.
“Gotcha!” she heard Rainbow say. Rarity’s arrow hit the minotaur in the wrist, and his second axe fell from his grip. With his good hand, he reached for a third. Angel, rising up in front of her engulfed in wood, blocked her view, his back to the trees. She heard Applejack’s chain. Projectiles thudded into wood, and Angel turned toward the enemy, clearing her view, his back riddled with bolts and arrows.
A second layer of glow bled off her horn, and a moment later, the spell flashed into completion. A tiny red spark leaped from the tip of her horn and raced upwards. She focused on the tree that the minotaur had stepped out from behind. Faster than any arrow, her spell descended. A split second after she’d finished casting, the treeline detonated.
For one crystalline moment, Twilight saw the minotaur silhouetted against the inferno. With one hand, he gripped Applejack’s chain, the spike buried in his chest. With the other, he held an axe.
She closed her eyes reflexively as a wave of concussive force and heat nearly knocked her off her feet.
When Twilight opened her eyes, her vision swam, and her ears rang, but she could faintly hear high pitched screams of pain. The treeline burned. The trunk she’d aimed at was split down the middle. Near the edge of the blast, Twilight saw a unicorn mare levitating a bow fleeing the burning foliage. Before the unicorn made it five steps, Rainbow flashed past her in a blur. The archer’s head hit the ground, cleaved from her shoulders by Rainbow’s outstretched wing.
On the far side of the blast, two griffons broke skyward, frantically reloading crossbows as they beat their wings. A crystalline arrow hit one in the wing. Before the wounded griffon had even begun to fall, a blast of air knocked both griffons into the branches of a burning tree. Squawking in terror, they flailed their way free as Rainbow descended upon them from above. Twilight, her thoughts sluggish, could only watch the carnage as Rainbow spun toward the griffons, finishing them both.
When the ringing left her ears, her thoughts refocused. She saw the scene of devastation before her, and, to her surprise, the only thing she felt was a grim satisfaction with the power she wielded. She glanced at her friends, and none of them were hurt. She’d won; she’d protected them.
Movement caught her eye. Face down in the dirt, his back still smouldering, the minotaur raised his head with a painful groan. He let go of his axe, holding his bare palm upward in a signal of defeat.
Rainbow hit him in the back. “Why...” Slash! “Aren’t...” Slash! “You...” Slash! “Dead!” After the first swing, the minotaur’s head had fallen back into the dirt. With the third, a spray of blood and gristle flew off Rainbow’s wingblade as it arced through the air: she had severed his spine.
Twilight stared at Rainbow in shock. “What!?” Rainbow said, staring back at her, a smear of blood marring the normally uniform pattern of her prismatic mane. “What’re you all looking at!?” Rainbow raged, stamping her hoof into the back of the minotaur’s corpse.
’It’s no big deal...’
“What do you think we’re looking at! You just—” Applejack said.
Twilight interrupted, “Before you met me, you’d never killed a pony, right Rainbow?”
Rainbow stepped away from the corpse. “No, I’m fine... all under control here.” Twilight noticed that Rainbow wouldn’t meet her gaze.
“He was trying to surrender,” Twilight said.
“Oh...” Rainbow murmured. Twilight saw a flash of shame and remorse in the pegasus’s eyes, but anger quickly replaced it. “I didn’t see it! Stuff happens!” Rainbow finally raised her eyes from the ground and looked back at Twilight. “I was trying to protect you, all of you...”
In Rainbow’s eyes, Twilight saw herself, equally willing to do what it took to persevere. The difference was: She was completely in control, but Rainbow Dash was not.
“If you need to talk—” Twilight said.
Rainbow spread her wings. “I don’t, I’m fine!” She glanced at one of her crimson stained feathers. “I’m gonna find a cloud and rinse off this... stuff!”
In a powerful flap, Rainbow was gone.
Twilight’s leg hurt.
Awkward silence ruled the group as they inspected the bodies of their fallen foes. In the aftermath of her fireball, Twilight felt like she had done something wrong when the others looked at her. Between her and Rainbow, not a single one of her enemies had made it through the fight alive. Her wound was gone, Fluttershy had seen to that.
Fortunately, before the fire could spread through the treetops, a wind had begun to blow out from the forest and across the road. The blaze was little more than a few smouldering patches in the undergrowth by the time Twilight stood over one of the ponies she killed.
The corpse beneath her had no face now. She peeled a lump of deformed gold off the charred leather armor covering his chest: an amulet of some sort. As soon as she had it free, it slid apart in her levitation, one piece separating from the other. In between the two halves, she saw a small circle of fabric. She peered closer. Three blurred shapes inked into the fabric stared back at her. Though they were marred by the heat, she knew what the shapes were. She dropped the locket in shock.
How could a pony that would kill me for money have a family?