The Flaming Wing patrol had been carrying two sketches: one of Rainbow Dash, and one of the minotaur who attacked them. Twilight held the image of the minotaur. The writing below the picture read, ’Bronze Fury, wanted for 7 counts of murder in the city of Manehattan. Known Bounty Hunter. Dangerous if confronted. 800 bit reward. Acceptable items of proof: burn scarred patch of skin on left shoulder, nose ring.’
Twilight stood over Bronze Fury’s body. The others were engaged in various activities: searching bodies, putting on new chainmail, or in Fluttershy’s case, hiding in the grass on the far side of the road as distant from the carnage as possible. Spike was still in the Celestial Plane; Twilight had told him to stay there unless they were camped.
She smiled wryly while she ripped the distinctively marked nose ring from Bronze Fury’s face. Though the locket still lingered on her mind, she found the irony of a bounty hunter after her with a bounty on his own head amusing. She glanced down at the mutilated corpse. Even though he’d tried to surrender, and even though he might have been able to give her information, she was glad Rainbow had killed him.
She wasn’t as sure about his band of hunters.
Did they really all have to die? What if I had cast a Sleep spell instead? Would it have worked? she wondered. Countering her nagging doubts, she immediately rationalized. A Sleep spell simply wasn’t as thorough, as reliable, or as widely effective as a Fireball. Spread out like they were along the treeline, she probably wouldn’t have caught more than four or five of them with the Sleep spell. No, the Fireball spell was the correct solution.
Her mind, countering her own cold logic, conjured a scene that had been running through her head since she saw the locket. A small family sits around a table in a humble one room cottage, eating thin porridge from wooden bowls. A knock sounds at the door. Lying in a crib made beneath this very roof, an emaciated baby begins to wail. The unicorn stallion at the head of the table stands and opens the door.
There stands Bronze Fury. Five hundred bits, enough to feed his family through several hard winters, enough to own land and lift them out of poverty, and all he has to do is help kill one mare. He levitates his bow from the corner, previously only used to hunt beasts at the behest of the local farmers. It’s a powerful weapon; a weapon made to kill. It had cost him a small fortune, but it’s the work it brought him that put the crops of the farmers on their table.
He steps out the door. He waves goodbye. He’ll be back by the end of the week.
Later, he is hunkered down in the brush beneath the trees. There she is, on the road, out in the open. He wipes a bead of sweat from his forehead, and draws back his bow, waiting. Maybe, if he’s the one to bring her down, he’ll have a fortune. Bronze Fury’s axes fly through the air. It’s time. He fires. To his horror, she’s still standing, his arrow in her leg. She looks unfazed.
She stands tall, even when she realizes she’s been wounded. She glances over at her group, then back at the treeline. He sees murder in her eyes. Her horn starts to glow.
He tries, but a demon of the woodland blocks his shot. The next thing he sees is a red spark descending towards him. His world becomes pain. He lays there, for a fleeting instant, writhing as his face burns off.
He won’t be coming home.
The scene ended, and a brief glimmer of hope found it’s way into her thoughts. Maybe, he was not the victim she imagined.
What if he stole the locket?
She shook her head. It’s far more likely I took him from his family, she concluded. Her friends, or them. She’d chosen her friends, and she’d chosen right. It wasn’t her fault someone wanted her dead. She hated the Black Knight even more, for what he’d made her do. Even if he hadn’t put the bounty on her head, he’d been the catalyst. He’d forced her from her home. And now, down that path, there was blood on her hooves.
It was his fault. It was his fault Star Swirl was dead – not hers. The satisfaction she felt in bringing death was his doing. The Black Knight made me kill him.
A gust of wind on Twilight’s cheek brought her back to the present. Rainbow Dash landed beside Twilight, droplets of moisture still clinging to her fur and feathers. Rainbow had missed a couple spots when she cleaned away the bloodstains, but she looked much better. She avoided looking at the corpse. In fact, she seemed to only be near it because Twilight was.
Seeing Twilight look at her, Rainbow said, “I’m sorry, okay?”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Twilight said.
Rainbow blinked at her. “But I—”
“He deserved it.”
“He was trying to surrender, but I killed him!” Rainbow said, guilt written all over her face.
“Okay, maybe you should have left him alive, but only so that he could answer our questions.”
“What do you mean... ? Why do you have his ring?” Rainbow asked.
Twilight glanced at the nose ring. She’d left it floating in her levitation, a bit of his black skin still clinging to it. She wordlessly held the parchment with the sketch in front of Rainbow.
“Oh... seven murders, huh... I guess he was pretty bad.” Rainbow said. “But, I still killed those others. I didn’t even give them a chance.”
“You didn’t know they wouldn’t shoot.” She levitated over the chainmail the wingpony had been wearing and held it up so that Rainbow could see the ragged, bloody hole where the arrow had pierced it. “All it takes is one arrow to kill a pony. You were the only one who could do it fast enough. You didn’t have time to think; you didn’t have time to second-guess yourself. You acted, and by killing them, maybe you saved one of us.” Twilight wasn’t sure if she was trying to convince Rainbow, or herself.
“Yeah,” Rainbow said as she glanced at the ground.
“You should wear this,” Twilight said, offering the hauberk to Rainbow Dash.
Rainbow eyed the bloodstain disdainfully, but she shouldered into the armor as Twilight held it. Twilight figured the chainmail wouldn’t hinder Rainbow’s fluid fighting style. The hauberk was extremely light; it was skymail, forged in Cloudsdale, as strong as earth-forged steel but with only a quarter the weight. She didn’t bother suggesting that Rainbow wear the helmet as well. The heavy plate helm was forged on the ground; clouds couldn’t make solid sheets, only small links. It would probably get in Rainbow’s way more than protect her.
As the chainmail settled around her neck, Rainbow looked wistfully up at the sky and said, “Up in Skywall, I’d been told to fight for as long as I could remember. Honor, duty, discipline. Pegasi are always fighting. We fight the weather, we fight each other, we fight the griffons, and we fight down here to pay for our food up there.” Rainbow shook her head. “The only pegasus I know who didn’t want to fight was Fluttershy.”
Twilight pulled the black skin off the ring, wiped away some of the blood on the grass, and tucked it into a pocket of her saddlebag. She let Rainbow continue uninterrupted while she listened intently, her eyes on Rainbow, and her ears perked. She knew so little about Cloudsdale – pegasus culture produced few scholars to write about it – but more than that, she wanted to learn more about Rainbow.
Rainbow sighed. “I could never get the discipline part down. This one time, some colts were picking on Fluttershy. I got aggressive, and I challenged them to a race. I won. Hoo boy did I win, but I did this... thing. I was small, but I went fast enough that the air around me—well, it wasn’t good for clouds. It nearly destroyed the village. After that, they sent me to the temple, where they could keep an eye on me. I never tried to do it again, even though it’s what earned me my mark.”
Rainbow started to pace, her eyes shifting to ground. “They hated me there; the other students at the temple. I saw the way they looked at me: as if I was about to explode and take their homes away from them. And, to add to that, they knew what I could do. They knew I was stronger, faster, and better than them. Firefly, our teacher, always said that I never kept my form, that I wasn’t as good as I could be because I let things get under my skin. I lacked self control: ’discipline.’ She didn’t go easy on me, but she taught me to fight, and she taught me not to hesitate.” She glanced at the corpse. “She taught me to kill.”
Rainbow dropped onto her haunches and turned her gaze back upward. “In the end though, I think I’m glad I left. After what I did, I don’t think anypony really wanted me there – except for my parents. Everypony could see the mark on my flank and know I was Rainbow Crash, the pony who went too fast and ruined everything for everyone. I came down here, and I found you, and Pinkie Pie, and everypony else. I found friends.” She took a ragged breath. “Then, I killed somepony for the first time. I tried hard not to think about it afterwards, but it ate at me. As much as Firefly taught me not to hesitate, she couldn’t prepare me for what it felt like to take a life. No one could.”
Rainbow looked away from Twilight, trying to hide the fact that she was blinking back tears. She paused, her feathers ruffling. “Why am I even talking to you about this! I should be talking to Fluttershy, even though she wouldn’t get it! I don’t know you! I—”
Twilight wrapped her forelegs around Rainbow. She didn’t know why she did it, other than it was something Pinkie would do to her when she felt sad. Rainbow went silent, freezing for a moment. Then, hesitantly, she wrapped a wing around Twilight, reciprocating.
Rainbow’s breath caught in her throat when she spoke again. “Thanks, Twi,” she said with a small smile. They broke the embrace. “I don’t know why I lied about killing ponies.”
Twilight shrugged. “You had to look strong where you come from.”
Rainbow nodded. “Yeah...”
“I have to ask, though, what was it? The thing you did?”
Rainbow frowned. “I don’t want to talk about it. Ask Fluttershy, she’ll tell you.”
Now, Twilight felt like she understood. Rainbow Dash bottled up her feelings until she lost control. Do I do the same thing? she wondered. She realized the problem with that theory was she didn’t remember having the same experience when she took a life for the first time. She hadn’t felt anything. She was different.
’We. Are. Alone.’
Once more, the presence of another pony brought Twilight out of her thoughts. Applejack stepped up to them, wearing the lighter silver-white skymail beneath her plate armor. Twilight had seen her offer the skymail to Pinkie Pie, but Pinkie had refused, saying, “Don’t be silly, it’d keep me from using my Chi-eerfulness!” Wisely, Applejack had chosen not to question it. Similar problems had arisen with Rarity and Fluttershy. Rarity claimed the armor was too gaudy, and Fluttershy seemed convinced that wearing metal armor, cloud-forged or not, would break her connection with nature.
Applejack eyed Rainbow. “Looks like you’ve talked it out. Good, don’t want you killing any other potential sources of info. We’ve got precious little to go on as it is.”
“You too, huh? That’s why you were mad?” Rainbow said.
“Yeah, mostly. It was a little cold, what you did, but I know you didn’t mean to do it,” Applejack said.
“We all know you didn’t mean to do it,” Rarity said as she strolled up to them, Pinkie and Fluttershy beside her.
“Fights can get pretty confusing,” Pinkie said, nodding sagely. “You have been... forgiven!”
“Thanks,” Rainbow said, smiling.
“Um... can we go now?” Fluttershy murmured.
While the first rays of dawn broke over the horizon, Twilight sat on a weathered log in front of a small fire, sipping a cup of tea. When Pinkie had woken her to take the morning watch, it was still dark. It took some doing to extract Twilight from her bedroll before the Sun had even come up, but soon, once she had a fire going and something hot to drink, it didn’t seem so bad. Despite the absurdly early hour, she felt well rested. For the first time since leaving Candlekeep, she’d slept for a full eight hours with no nightmares.
Fluttershy sat next to her. As a druid and a wizard, they both had to prepare spells for the day, and it was agreed that they would guard over their sleeping group in the early hours of the morning. Both of them watched as the Sun crested the horizon. Spike would be with them, but he’d complained about the chill and the discomfort and returned to the Celestial Plane.
Twilight’s usual experience with the sunrise was when the light filtering in through one of the Library’s windows informed her that she’d lost track of time and stayed up all night studying. Once, years ago, she’d realized how late it was before the dawn and gone up to the keep’s roof to watch the Sun come up. That morning, gazing at the sunrise from Candlekeep’s battlements as a spectrum of orange painted the sky, she had felt like there was someone watching over her from far away.
Now, she had that same feeling again, but the dawn possessed a certain majesty, and she was certain everypony felt the same way she did. Celestia watched over them all.
Legend had it, long ago, before the Time of Troubles, Celestia walked Equestria in person, ruling ponykind alongside her sister, Luna. According to the stories, once every year, on the day of the Summer Solstice, Celestia would demonstrate the raising of the Sun. She’d launch into the sky on wings of the purest white, rising with the dawn, her horn glowing with sunlight as she brought the day.
Today, and for the past thousand years or so, Celestia stayed a world away from the Material Plane. From her domain in the Celestial Plane, she chose clerics and paladins to represent her here, where ponies lived. Many scholars attempted to explain why Celestia chose to watch over Equestria from afar, rather than rule in person, but they all agreed on one thing: Celestia was a sole survivor.
The Time of Troubles was a war. It was a war the likes of which Equestria had never seen before and would never see again. It was a war where gods fought, and gods died. According to what little records remained, before the Time of Troubles the gods struggled against each other, but neither the dark or the light could inflict any lasting harm on the other. For centuries, possibly millennia, Equestria enjoyed peace and plenty. Celestia and Luna themselves ensured Harmony prevailed on the Material Plane. Through their combined power, they kept evil and chaos at bay. Eventually, the Time of Troubles brought an end to the stability.
Star Swirl told her once that the Aspect of Chaos, Discord, had changed the rules of the existence itself when Celestia and Luna achieved something that would ensure their victory; he’d made it so that gods could die. While it made him vulnerable as well, it gave him a way to get what he wanted. When she’d tried to find out more on the topic, all she found was the raving of lunatics, prophesying the end of all life when the gods all died due to the whimsy of the God of Chaos. Her existence today proved them wrong.
Regardless of what upset the balance, war raged. Some scholars claimed that Celestia and her allies were the victors. They’d killed the Abyss itself, the Shadow, albeit at a terrible price; in the end, Celestia stood alone. She’d been forced to strike down her sister goddess when Luna became corrupted. Several lesser demigods that allied themselves with the Sisters were dead. As far as Twilight was concerned, one needed only to look at the world of today to see that the price the gods paid to kill the Shadow was far too high.
Equestria after the Time of Troubles was a much darker place than it was before. An entire ordered civilization of ponies had been nearly obliterated, leaving behind only fragments that reformed into the city-states of today. Even the Empire, though strong, held sway over only a few cities. The agents of the Shadow lingered, like the Lich of the Deadwood. Clerics that pledged themselves to darkness still had power. Finally, perhaps most importantly, the goddess Celestia no longer shared her presence with Equestria.
As the rays of the Sun started to warm Twilight’s coat, her musings came circling back to Celestia and the explanations for her absence. Speculations abounded: Celestia the coward, Celestia the mournful, Celestia the weary. Once, when she’d asked Star Swirl what he thought, he’d told her, “Celestia is older than most of us can understand, and wiser than most of us combined. When she does something, she does it for a reason, and she has the best interests of everyone, pony or otherwise, at heart.” It didn’t answer the question, of course, but it was an answer Twilight could believe.
Twilight glanced at Fluttershy beside her. In the stillness of the morning, chirping birds perched on the log within a couple hoofspans of the pegasus, heralding the coming day. A small family of mice sat on the grass at Fluttershy’s hooves.
Twilight broke the silence with a question that had been nagging at her since the previous day.
“What was it? What did Rainbow Dash do?”
The mice glared at her angrily, and the timid birds took flight, chirping in a startled frenzy. Twilight glared back at the mice, and they hid behind Fluttershy.
“Oh, um... you mean the Sonic Rainboom?” Fluttershy said.
“The what now?”
Fluttershy began shakily, but her confidence built as she spoke, “The... Sonic Rainboom is – I mean it was – an old pegasus fable. There were a few different versions. In one, a pegasus stopped a storm by flying fast enough to clear the sky in a single explosion of sound and color. In another, a proud pegasus flew too high, and when he came back down, he went too fast and exploded, killing his entire family and all of his friends... or so the stories go. Well, they were stories, until Rainbow Dash did one.”
A memory flickered through Twilight’s mind. A Rainbow of color in the window. Star Swirl and the chroniclers gazing at her: expectant, disapproving. A jump of sound, shattering her concentration. Pure, uncontrollable magic, spilling forth in a wild torrent. Desperately trying to hold it back. A calming, melodious voice in her ear. Her mark, finally earned.
She shook her head. Before, all she could remember about the experience of earning her mark was waking up on the library floor with an odd tingle in her flanks as a Dispel Magic spell washed over her. It was the first time she’d cast a magical spell more complicated than levitation, and she didn’t remember the experience. After the first time, she’d never blacked out when spellcasting again, even if she got interrupted. The fear that more complicated spells would cause another blackout was part of what held her back.
No sense dwelling on something I can hardly remember, she thought, bringing her mind back to the present.
Fluttershy had gone silent again. Out of curiosity, Twilight asked, “What happened?”
“Um... well... a rainbow shockwave radiated out from Rainbow Dash, pushing away the clouds. It shook me up, and dissolved the clouds beneath me. My wings locked up, which happens when I get scared, but before I hit the ground, a flock of pink butterflies rose up from the forest below. I remember feeling very grateful as they attached to me and beat their wings as hard as they could, but it did so little to slow me down. I was certain I would die, but before I hit the ground, the trees caught me and set me gently on the forest floor. I don’t think any pony even noticed me gone, except for Rainbow.” Fluttershy glanced at the bedroll where Rainbow slept. “She’s the one who found me and helped me to fly back up.”
“Were you mad at Rainbow?” Twilight asked.
Fluttershy shook her head. “No, I was fine, and I earned my mark on the ground. I learned that I could commune with nature. If anything, I was grateful. I met Angel on the ground.” Fluttershy squeezed Angel in her hooves, and the bunny glared at her. “I loved the ground; it’s why I got banished. But, I understand why everypony else was mad at her. I remember looking up at the sky, watching some of the buildings of Cloudsdale get shattered by the Rainboom. In the end, ponies got hurt, but nopony died. At least, until the storms came in. The Rainboom, so close to the Cloudwall... it was bad. I think some ponies were calling for Rainbow’s head...” Fluttershy stamped her hoof on the log. “It wasn’t fair, she was just a filly!”
“The Cloudwall?” Twilight said.
Fluttershy answered with a dull tone, as if reciting something she’d heard many times before, “The duty of every pegasus in Skywall Village is to maintain the Cloudwall, the barrier between us and the Everfree. If the Cloudwall ever falters, it could spell disaster and famine for everypony in Cloudsdale.”
Fluttershy shook her head. “Well... no... sort of... the Cloudwall is packed so dense that Rainbow only damaged it slightly. Still, any breach is a problem.”
Twilight nodded. “Were you ever mad at them for banishing you?”
Again, Fluttershy shook her head. “No, of course not. I didn’t contribute. I’m useless, a clutz. I couldn’t help.”
True or not, Fluttershy’s self depreciation bothered Twilight. “But, you could heal them at least, right?”
“My powers don’t work as well up there, and they had clerics for that. When they told me I was being thrown out, I didn’t mind. I could live on the ground. My animal friends would provide for me.” Fluttershy sighed. “At least, that’s what I thought it would be like, until I got captured by slavers. If Rainbow hadn’t gotten mad at them for kicking me out and came after me, I’d be stuck as Trixie’s slave for who knows how long.”
Twilight frowned, unconvinced. Even the insular society of Candlekeep would never throw somepony out because they were slow or stupid. If they weren’t good at reading or writing, there was always some other way they could help. Finally, she said, “I’m glad you’re with us. There will always be a place for you.”
Fluttershy smiled at her. “Thanks, Twilight.”
The next few days passed uneventfully. Twilight was sore when she pulled herself out of her bedroll each morning, but she slowly became accustomed to the long marches. The nightmares continued their absence and she slept peacefully. Even though they faced no threats since Bronze Fury and his bounty hunters, the group remained vigilant, and Twilight shared another morning watch with Fluttershy. She continued to get to know the shy pegasus a little better, but she passed most of the time on watch reading books that Spike retrieved for her. The Celestial Library had more writing on Cloudsdale than Candlekeep, allowing her to sate her curiosity without making Fluttershy uncomfortable.
As they traveled, Twilight noticed the vegetation changing to hardier varieties of plants, with narrow, oily leaves and sparser ground coverage. The Everfree retreated until it was little more than a green smear in the distance, but Twilight knew they were approaching the equally dangerous Badlands.
On the evening of the third day, they came to a covered wooden bridge crossing a shallow river.
On one side of the river, the vegetation grew lush and thick next to the water, and parts of the floodplain were covered by tall trees with rich, green leaves. The landscape Twilight saw on the other side surprised her. Starkly contrasting with the greenery, a reddish brown expanse of sand and rock encroached on the river. Even right next to the water, only a few, rugged Cacti grew. They stood on the border of the Badlands.
Applejack advised that they should press on, even though they would normally make camp when the Sun dipped below the horizon. They were close to Appleloosa, and it would be too hot to travel during the day once they crossed the river. Even though fatigue weighed her down, Twilight agreed, along with the rest of the group. After refilling their supply of water, they kept walking into the night.
After they crossed the bridge, Twilight illuminated the road with her horn. The meager light of the moon and stars did little to brighten their path. As they ventured deeper into the Badlands, Twilight asked Applejack, “Why would anypony settle out here anyway?”
“Iron, mostly. Also, they aren’t that deep in the Badlands. The river bends back ‘round up ahead, and the Appleloosans diverted its flow to grow enough crops to feed themselves. In fact, the road never goes too deep into the Badlands. Back there was just the best place to build a bridge,” Applejack said.
Twilight couldn’t see the river in the dark, but if she perked her ears and listened carefully, she thought she could hear the water running.
Twilight willed each step from her stiff legs. Her best guess put the time at about three o’clock in the morning, and, despite the numerous breaks they took, they’d been traveling for the past twenty hours or so. Applejack had been insisting that Appleloosa was ‘just up the road’ for the past half-hour. Twilight almost sent Rainbow ahead to check, but she was quickly reminded that the pegasus wouldn’t be able to see much at night anyway.
Her tired mind registered two glowing points of red light in the darkness. She stopped absently, staring at the lights.
“Look out!” Pinkie shouted.
Twilight drew Solstice as a cat nearly twice her size leaped from the shadows. It was bound for her, Fluttershy, and Rarity, who lagged behind the other three ponies. Her reaction was immediate. She swung Solstice out ahead of her, to ensure that she struck the creature long before it could pounce on any of them, but when the blade of her sword connected, the creature dissolved into sand. She closed her eyes as the rough grains rushed past her, then whirled when she heard a growl behind her.
Before she could reposition Solstice, it raised a clawed paw. When it swung, the plates of her mage armor lit, but the creature was too strong to be stopped so easily. Its claws punctured through the ethereal plates and pierced her skin. Before they could leave anything more than three shallow holes in her skin, a blast of wind scattered the creature into a million tiny grains.
“Got your back, Twi,” Rainbow said with a smug smirk. She glanced at her wingblades. “These things sure are useful.”
“It’s not over yet,” Rarity said.
Twilight faced the spot where the creature had last dissolved. She watched the sand whirl, build, and form four legs. A torso coalesced, then a head, and the creature bounded at her, jaws open wide.
Before it connected, another gust of wind scattered it. “Hah,” Rainbow said, “I can do this all night long.”
“If you use those things too much, they won’t work for a while. Don’t worry, I can handle it.” Twilight said.
She reached for magic. The sand slowly built as she cast. When she completed the spell, she held it, keeping the glow on her horn, and waited. She clenched her jaw.
Just a little longer... now!
As the creature’s head reformed once more, her spell, a conjured flaming arrow, struck it in the mouth. Heat exploded from the head of the arrow, turning the inside of its head into a solid ball of glass. The rough orb landed in the sand while the rest of the creature dissolved into a loose pile.
“There we go,” Twilight said.
“Um... what about them?” Fluttershy said, gesturing around the group.
Twilight glanced at the shadows. Four more pairs of red eyes watched her, circling slowly. All six of the ponies were gathered now. They drew close, back to back, shielded only by the ring of light from Twilight’s horn. Twilight noticed Fluttershy’s eyes glow, and Angel grew, this time covered by a thorny green skin. He protected Fluttershy, standing between her and the predators.
“I don’t have any more Flaming Arrow spells prepared...” Twilight murmured.
“They aren’t like any normal animals, I can’t hear them,” Fluttershy said.
“Well, what do we got?” Applejack said.
“I can keep a couple out of the fight for a while,” Rainbow said.
Twilight went over her options during the brief respite. A Fireball spell, maybe, but she doubted it would have the concentrated heat needed to turn sand into glass. Before she had come up with anything substantial, the cats were closing. They were out of time.
Down the road, she heard battle cries.
“For the Empire!”
She turned her head to look. A unicorn clad in chainmail and four earth ponies wearing Stetsons charged toward them. Their weapons: buckets of water. If it weren’t for the danger she was in, Twilight would have laughed. Some rescue.
However, when she turned back to the cats, she saw their shapes fleeing into the night. She watched the lead pony set down a bucket. He wore a leather vest in addition to his hat, and she saw a silver star affixed to the vest glint in the light of her horn. He lined up a shot and bucked the bucket into the air.
The bucket sailed toward the target, the water inside sloshing out and spreading as it flew. The majority of the water came down on the hindquarters of one of the fleeing cats. Twilight heard a hissing sound. The cat stopped moving, and she couldn’t make out its shape against the darkness.
“Cousin Applejack!” the pony called.
“Cousin Braeburn!?” Applejack yelled.
The two Apples raced across the space between them. “I haven’t seen you in nigh on four years now!” Braeburn said, laughing merrily as they embraced.
Applejack nodded. “Yep, not since I came out here to help set up the apple orchard. How are the foals, and the wife?”
Braeburn grinned. “Bigger and stronger every day!” He lowered his voice and added with a chuckle, “Don’t tell the wife I said she was gettin’ bigger.”
The unicorn in armor stepped up, looking at them. “You know these ponies?” he asked Braeburn.
“Yup! A friend of Applejack’s is a friend of mine. We’re all good here, Amber Stone,” Braeburn answered.
Amber Stone turned, irritably muttering something about backwater posts and night shifts as he walked toward Appleloosa.
“If no pony minds me interrupting your little reunion, what the hell were those things?!” Twilight said, too tired and irritable to care about not being rude.
“We call em’ Sand Cats,” Braeburn said, unperturbed. “The water deals with them for a while, and they hate it, but as long as there’s sand, they keep coming back.”
“We thank you for your assistance, but we’ve been traveling all night. Can you direct us to a place to stay?” Rarity said, her tone far more diplomatic than Twilight’s.
“Shoot, y’all can bunk at my place,” Braeburn said.
Even though Braeburn only had a single room to spare for all six of them, Twilight couldn’t have been more grateful to finally have a place to lay her weary head. To keep the Sand Cats at bay, the Appleloosans had protected their town with a muddy trench around the perimeter. She felt safe here. She hoped the small, out-of-the-way town lacked bounty hunters.
As she lay down to sleep in her bedroll spread on the floor, a fear that the nightmares would return when she had a roof over her head struck her. Despite her fatigue, the fear kept her awake. While the others softly snored, she quietly moved her bedroll onto the back porch, and finally, beneath the stars, she could close her eyes.
Twilight was curled in her bedroll, partially awake, when she heard a filly’s voice.
“Careful, Auntie Applejack said she’s a wizard.”
Something prodded her in the flank.
“She ain’t gonna wake up. She’s been sleeping like a log all mornin’ long,” a colt said.
“Jus’ cuz she hasn’t woken up yet don’t mean she ain’t gonna, ya’ doofus,” another filly said.
With a groan, Twilight cracked her eyes open. The moment she made a sound, she heard the three foals screech, even the colt, and scamper away. She pulled herself out of her portable bedding, blinking in the light of the day. When the brightness faded, she could see the three foals hiding over the edge of the porch on the other side of a railing, watching her. She approached them.
When she reached the edge of the porch, the filly in the front, the smallest, stared up at her with large eyes. “Please don’t turn us into newts, Miss Wizard,” she said.
Twilight couldn’t stop the warm smile that spread across her face. “I’m not going to turn you into newts. Why would you think I’d turn a nice little filly like you into a newt?”
“I told you she ain’t gonna turn us into newts,” the colt hissed at the filly in the back.
“Shush!” the filly whispered back when she noticed that Twilight had heard them.
“You’d turn us into newts because Crumble poked you!” the filly cried.
“I did not poke her!” the colt objected, then said with confidence, “I poked her with a stick.”
Twilight held back a snicker at the colt’s childish logic while she glanced up at the Sun. It had to be nearly noon. She was lucky her bedroll rested in a well-shaded part of the porch, or she would have baked in the heat. “Eh, I probably should have been getting up anyway. Besides, if I were going to turn you into something, it wouldn’t be newts. You’d dry up like raisin out here. Dying that way would be—”
The foals ran from her, wailing at the top of their lungs. “What did I say?!” Twilight shouted.
A peach colored mare with an orange-blonde mane met the foals as they fled around the corner of the house. “Woah now. You know Daddy works the night watch. No shrieking and hollerin’ before lunchtime!”
“But—but she’s gonna turn us into newts and then we’ll dry up and die!” the little filly said as they clustered around the mare’s hooves.
The colt nodded, adding, “Like raisins!”
“Who in Equestria put that idea in your little heads? She’s our guest!” the mare said.
“So she’s not—” the second filly started to say.
“She’s not gonna turn you into a newt!” the mare said. She shook her head in exasperation as the foals ran past her. “You’d best be back within half an hour, clean an’ tidy for lunch, or I’ll tan your hides!” she yelled after them. Putting on a sweet smile, she turned to Twilight. “I’m Marigold, Braeburn’s wife. They weren’t bothering you, were they?”
“Twilight Sparkle.” Twilight dipped her head respectfully to her hostess. “No, they weren’t a problem. It’s my own fault for sleeping out on the porch.”
“If you don’t mind me askin’, why were you out here?” Marigold said.
“No reason, really... I just like the night air,” Twilight lied. “I hope it’s no trouble.”
The answer seemed to satisfy Marigold, and she said, “Wherever you’re comfortable is fine. I just wanted to let you know that you and all your friends are welcome to join us for lunch.” Again, she smiled sweetly.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Twilight said, inclining her head again.
Marigold smiled one more time, but it never reached her eyes, then turned and walked back around the corner of the house. With a shrug, Twilight ignored the fake smile at the end of their awkward exchange.
There wasn’t enough space in the kitchen area toward the front of the house for both Twilight’s group and Braeburn’s family, so Twilight and her friends ate in the family room at the back, where they’d stayed the night. Twilight savored every bite; Marigold’s Apple Stew was delicious.
When she had come inside after speaking with Marigold, her friends had asked her why she’d chosen to sleep out on the porch. Not wanting them to worry, she’d fed them another excuse, saying that it had been too crowded inside and she couldn’t sleep.
Beside her, Spike belched up a gout of fire. Out of the corner of her eye, she briefly checked to make sure her familiar hadn’t caused any damage to their hosts’ lovingly crafted home. Seeing none, she piled another heaping spoonful of stew into her mouth.
When Spike shouted in triumph beside her, she nearly choked on her food. Spike rushed over to Applejack, brandishing a scroll. “I told you!” he yelled, pulling the scroll open and holding it up for Applejack to see.
Applejack looked up from her bowl. “Well I’ll be... it’s for you, Twilight,” she said, then added something under her breath.
Twilight raised a brow and took the scroll from Spike with her levitation. When she saw what was written there, she nearly dropped everything she held, including the scroll. The calligraphy in front of her was beautiful, each letter written in flowing black ink, without blotch or blemish. In awe, her eyes scanned the scroll.
Dear Twilight Sparkle,
When I heard of Star Swirl’s death, I mourned the loss of a hero, a great scholar, and a brilliant mind. I hope you, like him, will strive to be a better pony and learn all you can. I have been told that you seek to investigate the Appleloosan iron mines. It is good that you have already met Applejack, for you will need friends on the path you travel.
There is a darkness inside the mines. An evil presence haunts the deep shafts, but it is not the creatures that call the mine their home. Do not stop descending until you have the answers you seek.
When he confronted evil, Star Swirl would write to tell us all about what he learned. I hope you will continue his path and help expand our understanding of the enemy and ourselves. I am sorry it took me so long to write you, but I had pressing matters to address.
Sincerely, Princess Celestia
P.S. Please tell Applejack that Spike is a fey dragon, and not a bag of hot air. Also, I rather like the title “Princess.” It is so much nicer than Queen, or Goddess.
P.P.S. Remind Spike that he has full access to Celestial quills and parchment.
Despite the humility of the words, Twilight found the signature on the page overwhelming. Princess Celestia, one-time ruler of ponykind, goddess of the Sun itself, and the last source of divine good, had written her a letter and blessed her with a familiar that could convey messages between her and a god.
“She wrote back,” Twilight said, dumbstruck. She’d forgotten all about the letter Applejack had sent.
“Of course she did, silly!” Pinkie Pie said. “Spike said she would, after all.”
Twilight narrowed her eyes at Pinkie. “I didn’t even say who I was talking about.”
“Princess Celestia, who else?” Pinkie said with a laugh. She trotted up and peered over Twilight’s shoulder. “Are you gonna tell her about what you learn?”
Twilight furrowed her brow. How can I help her? she wondered. She was nowhere near the wizard or the scholar that Star Swirl had been, but she couldn’t refuse a request from a goddess, the Goddess, not that she wanted to. “I suppose I will,” she said.
Twilight and her friends stood in the dusty main street running through the center of Appleloosa while they waited for Braeburn to meet them and guide them to the iron mines. Around them, the citizens of Appleloosa went about their business. A few held their heads high, but most gazed at the ground, worry in their eyes. Beneath the town water tower, ponies waited in a line for their turn to fill jugs and drums from a rusty spigot.
“Twilight, you forgot your cloak,” Applejack said, glancing at her.
Twilight looked down, the clasp absent from her throat. In the shade at the side of the road, she hadn’t noticed the lack of the barrier between her and the Sun. “Shoot, I’ll go back and grab it,” Twilight said and trotted briskly toward Braeburn’s house.
Shoot? Since when do I say shoot? she wondered as she rounded the corner to the back of the house.
Not wanting to disturb Braeburn’s family any more than they already had, she crept in through the back door. She spotted her cloak over the arm of an easy chair. As she levitated the silken fabric toward her, she heard Marigold’s angry voice emanating from the kitchen.
“Tell me you aren’t going down into the mines!”
“I’m not gonna go down into the mines, unless they need me to,” Braeburn said.
“It’s dangerous down there, Braeburn! Why would you go with them?” Marigold said.
Twilight turned as soon as she had the cloak fastened, realizing this wasn’t a conversation she should be listening to, but out of curiosity, she paused in the door.
“It’s dangerous, but I’ve got a job to do. I’m not gonna to stand idly by when I can help our town. Besides, who would I be if I wasn’t hospitable enough to help our guests?” Braeburn said.
“Ah, your hospitality, the same reason why you invited six young attractive mares into our home to share our food and our water!”
“Not this again... You know you’re the only mare for me, Marigold. Besides, Applejack’s my cousin!”
“It’s not like that’s ever stopped you Apples,” Marigold muttered. Twilight caught every word, so she knew Marigold wanted Braeburn to hear her.
Braeburn nickered angrily. “Ya’ don’t listen, do ya’.”
Marigold’s voice softened. “I don’t want to lose you, Braeburn, not to the mines, not to the sands, and not to another mare. Just... promise me you’ll be careful, and you’ll let Applejack and the soldiers handle it.”
Realizing that she was still eavesdropping, Twilight stole out the door and trotted away from the house, but before she left, she levitated a few golden coins out of her coin purse and dropped them in the ‘Rainy Day’ jar high on a shelf. The jar was mostly filled with copper bits, and she was pretty sure her gold doubled the value of their fund. She hoped the money would ease the burden they’d placed on Marigold and her family.
She managed to make it out of line of sight before Braeburn left the house. When she made it back to where her friends were waiting, an argument had broken out at the base of the water tower. An armored Empire soldier pushed a mare trying to fill a jug away from the tower’s spigot. She stumbled, nearly falling.
“This is my ration!” she shouted. “It ain’t fair.”
“That was your ration last week,” the soldier said. “You’ve already gotten your maximum for this week.”
While Twilight walked up to her group, the mare continued to argue. “But the ration keeps getting smaller and smaller. Last week we barely had enough fer cooking and drinking, an’ not nearly enough fer washin’,” the mare said. She strode up to the soldier, eye to eye with the armored pony. “I say you let us take our water!”
“Yeah!” a voice sounded from a pony in line, followed by several others.
“This is our town!”
“She’s gonna start a riot,” Applejack said to Twilight as soon as she was near.
“Yeah, but whose side are we on?” Twilight said.
“What do you mean?” Rainbow said angrily. “Obviously we’re on the side of the ponies getting bullied by soldiers!”
“I don’t think it’s that simple, Rainbow,” Rarity said.
“If there’s a fight, we should break it up,” Applejack said.
“Agreed,” Twilight said, sifting through her mind for appropriate spells as the townsfolk grew more heated.
The first blow came from the Appleloosans. Somepony, it was impossible to tell who, bucked a brick at the pair of soldiers guarding the spigot. The brick slammed into the ground next to the soldier who had been arguing with the mare. Twilight watched with concern as the emboldened ponies surged forward. The two guards moved close together. She saw fear in their eyes as they readied their weapons; they were outnumbered more than ten to one.
Twilight started to cast a spell she thought would help stop a riot, but before she could finish, Braeburn ran onto the scene.
“Woah now!” he cried.
The Appleloosans jostled, but stopped moving. Somepony shouted, “Sheriff, they’re trying to keep us from getting enough to drink! Do something!”
Braeburn addressed the thirsty ponies, saying, “Water is scarce, everypony. We need most of it to keep the Sand Cats at bay and the crops watered. Everypony is hurting, and every family has the same ration, per member, ‘less they need more for some particular reason, like providing food for the rest of us. Times are tough, and that means we’ve got to stick together.”
As Braeburn spoke, Twilight released her spell, and the magic faded completely from her mind. She’d wasted the spell, but she could always prepare another.
“Is it true that the reservoir is drying up?” a pony shouted.
“Sheriff Silverstar woulda’ never let things get this bad!” another cried.
Braeburn took off his hat, holding it to his chest with a forehoof. “I ain’t gonna lie to you folks, things are pretty bad. We’re draining the river dry. Without the coin from the mine, we can’t afford to get much extra water out here, and without rain, the Sand Cats are getting worse. And, I’m sure y’all have heard about the buffalo sneakin’ into our fields at night and stealin’ our crops. Add to that the fact that I ain’t half the Sheriff Silverstar was, and we’re in a heckuva’ pickle.”
Rarity winced at Braeburn’s speech. “Negativity isn’t going to help,” she murmured.
Braeburn placed the hat back on his head and pressed on. “But that don’t mean we should be losing our heads! We’re Appleloosans! These Empire ponies ain’t the enemy, the Badlands are! If we want to continue to make a life for ourselves here, a good life, a free life, we’ve got to stand together! Besides, it ain’t like we’re alone.”
Braeburn pointed over the gathered pony’s heads, toward Twilight and her friends. For a moment, Twilight glanced around, until she realized Braeburn was pointing at her and Applejack.
“Mah Cousin Applejack has brought some help our way. They’re all good fighters, and they’re gonna get to the bottom of the problem with our iron!”
Twilight cringed internally when she saw the crowd turn to them, hope in their eyes. Why are they looking to me for salvation? she wondered. She had killed a pony just like them a few days ago. She’d burned him to death. She looked down, afraid to meet their eyes lest they see the monster the Black Knight had made.
When Twilight glanced at her friends beside her, she realized that she didn’t have to bear the burden alone. She had them. They were better ponies. They felt remorse. She turned back to face the townsfolk, holding her head high. Together, they could save Appleloosa.
Braeburn took them out of the town center along a road leading up a nearby mesa. When Twilight reached the crest of the hill, the road curved down, descending into a small basin in the middle of the mesa. Below her, in the center of the depression, rested the dark mouth of the main iron mine entrance. Wooden supports framed the entrance, holding it wide enough for multiple sets of rails for minecarts. The central mine lay dark, silent, and unused. Around it, set into the edge of the depression, were secondary shafts where stubborn Appleloosans continued to push and pull carts full of red ore. They were beyond the trenches protecting Appleloosa, so a few ponies sat next to buckets of water, guarding the miners.
Twilight turned and looked back down the hill at the town whose fate rested on their shoulders. Spread beneath her next to the town, the green of the crops and the apple orchard rested along the thin band of the river they had crossed yesterday. Past the town, the river terminated in an earthen dam. Only a muddy trickle spilled beyond the dam. Where the river ended, the land around the riverbed turned from green to barren.
From her vantage, she saw that dam’s reservoir held only about half its full capacity. Hard at work pushing rotating pumps that drew the water up from the reservoir, the shapes of faraway ponies spun in circles, ensuring the supply of water keeping the town alive.
“So you’ve been having more trouble with buffalo?” Applejack said, already descending toward the mine with Braeburn.
Twilight realized she’d been dawdling and trotted briefly to catch up while Braeburn answered Applejack.
“Yup, they were worst when we first built the dam. They attacked us, and that’s when we had to ask for help. The Empire answered.”
“There doesn’t seem to be very many Empire soldiers here,” Rarity said.
“They only left a skeleton crew after they pushed back the buffalo. In return, we have to pay them a portion of all the profits from the mine for the next ten years, but since we’ve barely made any profit recently, they’re threatening to leave. We Appleloosans will fight if we need to, but we ain’t soldiers. We need their support,” Braeburn said.
“What about the Sand Cats?” Applejack said. “Come to think of it, I don’t remember ‘em at all from last time I was here.”
“That’s because they only showed up last year. Some folks say the buffalo called them up to drive us out. All I know is the buffalo are lil’ more‘n a nuisance now, but the Sand Cats are one of our biggest problems,” Braeburn said.
Twilight eyed the empty main mine as they approached. “What about the mines?” She flicked her muzzle toward the entrance. “Why aren’t you digging there anymore?”
“Two reasons: diamond dog problem, and the ore ain’t no good anyway. That’s why the miners have started digging new shafts. I hear it smelts okay sometimes, but sometimes ain’t good enough with the hit our reputation took. We need to ship quality ore, and only quality ore, to get buyers to trust us again,” Braeburn said.
Twilight nodded. She’d read and heard stories about diamond dogs. They were bigger than a pony, but not altogether bright; while they were strong, the weapons they used were crude at best. Diamond dogs occasionally raided towns at night for food and other resources, but a decently armed and organized militia could easily repulse them. They mostly survived on fungus and gemstones they found and grew beneath the ground. Still, they were dangerous, savage, and in enough numbers they could overrun defenders by burrowing up beneath them and breaking their lines.
“If ya’ want to go inside and take a look, it should be safe. The diamond dogs moved into some deeper shafts the miners dug to extract veins of silver and gold, and they don’t come this close to the surface during the day... most of the time,” Braeburn said.
“They come out at night then? Are they a problem, or are they just having fun?” Pinkie said.
Braeburn frowned. “We’ve lost a few miners to them, but since we abandoned the main mine it hasn’t been too bad, and they’ve also taken some crops like the buffalo. Their tunnels have been seen in some of the new shafts, so no pony mines after dark, and the miners always stay in groups. They don’t seem to want to confront us directly... but if the soldiers left... well, I worry about what would happen then. The Sand Cats are already bad enough.”
“I see...” Twilight said. Celestia seemed to think there was something down there other than diamond dogs. “I think we’ll have to go down there to find out what’s going on.”
“Would ya’ like me to come with? I’ve been down there a few times, part of the job, and I know my way,” Braeburn said.
Twilight shook her head, wondering if Braeburn had made the promise Marigold wanted him to. “I think we can handle it.”
“Are ya’ sure? I wouldn’t want ya’ getting lost down there...” Braeburn said.
Twilight sighed internally. He clearly wanted to help, and she didn’t know what to say to convince him to go home.
Fortunately, while Twilight considered what to tell Braeburn, Rarity came to her rescue, saying, “Braeburn, we need you to keep the townsfolk calm. Besides, I’m sure your wife would be happier if you were safe at home.”
When Rarity mentioned his wife, Braeburn nickered and looked at the ground. It was obvious Rarity had hit a nerve. “There’s no sense taking risks when you don’t need to. We can handle it, we’ll be fine... trust us,” Rarity said.
“Alright... good luck,” Braeburn said and turned away from them. He glanced over his shoulder as he trotted back toward town. Rarity waved him off.
Twilight stared at the doorway. Mentally, she catalogued her spells, making sure she was ready for what lurked below. She had a couple of Shield spells prepared, which would protect her from the crude bows she knew diamond dogs were fond of. Her mage armor was active. Down there, in the tight quarters, it would be unlikely that a Fireball would be usable, but she had one prepared anyway, just in case.
She lit her horn and strode forward, illuminating the entrance. “Here we go,” she said.
Twilight stepped down a passageway, setting her hooves between rail ties. “Hold up!” she said as she stopped abruptly. In front of them, a dark chasm split the tunnel. A rickety bridge provided a way across.
She heard Rainbow’s voice say, “Is it another dead end?” The pegasus was around a bend behind her, protecting the rear of the group.
Applejack, beside Twilight, answered Rainbow, “Naw, you’d better come up here.”
Twilight eyed the bridge. It looked to be in poor condition, and someone – probably the diamond dogs – had hacked away part of the bridge, leaving only one narrow, railing-less path forward.
When Rainbow stepped up to the chasm, Twilight asked, “Can you catch us if we fall?”
Rainbow flared her wings. “I dunno, the air is pretty still down here, and it’d be tough to fly in such a small space. But if anypony can, I can. Just... try not to fall.”
“If the bridge broke, could you fly us across?” Twilight said.
Rainbow shook her head. “Four of you? No way. I might be able to catch you, once, but I’d be whipped.”
“Alright... I’ll go first. That way, I can levitate Applejack’s armor across when I get to the other side,” she said. Among the group, she figured Applejack would be the heaviest, with her dense build. She was most worried about the bridge cracking under her weight. She gingerly took the first step onto the bridge.
While Twilight gradually made her way across, she focused on the far side to avoid looking down. Carefully, she took another step. She was almost at the middle; if it was going to break, it would most likely break here. The wood creaked, and she paused.
“If you think it’s gonna break, you should come back. Even if you do make it, we don’t want to get seperated down here,” Applejack said.
Twilight nodded and started to gradually inch her way backwards. To check the position of her hooves, she glanced down. The chasm faded into darkness, the bottom an untold distance away. A point of firelight, glimmering below her, caught her eye. She blinked when the fire started fly toward her.
With a thud, a flaming arrow impacted the bridge directly in front of Twilight.
She yelped when she saw the fire licking along the dry wood. She felt the heat on her hooves, and panicking, she turned fully on the narrow span. One of her hooves slipped, and she barely kept her balance with the other three. She heard a second arrow thunk into the wood beneath her and ran for safety.
“Jump!” Applejack shouted, hooves outstretched. Beside her, Rainbow spread her wings, preparing to take flight.
Twilight leaped toward her friends, but the burning bridge cracked away beneath her hooves, leaving her kicking air. She felt the brief moment of weightlessness as she plummeted toward the darkness beneath.
Applejack caught her forehooves, pinning them vertically against the ledge. The pressure hurt. She desperately scrabbled against the rock with her hind hooves. She was starting to slip.
“Gotcha!” Rainbow said, wrapping her forelegs around Twilight’s waist.
The air around Twilight swirled as Rainbow beat her wings powerfully, and they rose upward. Before she was high enough to climb up onto the ledge, she heard something strike flesh, and Rainbow grunted. Twilight slid from Rainbow’s grasp, and her belly hit the wall. Her forelegs jerked free from under Applejack’s hooves.
“Twilight!” Applejack cried as she fell.
Twilight gazed upward, watching the ledge retreat.