Twilight Sparkle couldn’t distinguish between dreams and reality.
One moment, she was being eaten alive. She experienced her body being chewed up by the scorpion demon’s maw. It started with her forehooves, grinding away the keratin until she felt the burning sensation of her bones being sawed into pieces. Her head was next, and even though she should be dead, she felt her neck and torso follow in a wave of pain.
The next moment, hooves held her down while her body convulsed. She heard her friends’ voices in her ears, telling her not to give up, telling her that she was going to be okay.
She didn’t believe them.
She had watched them all die, over and over, one after another, while she walked down the winding path she had chosen. Sometimes, the Black Knight would kill them. Sometimes, the demon would kill her, and she would watch as it slowly bore down on her friends and finished them. When it was done with her companions, it would move onto the town; the last thing it ate was the three little fillies.
Paradoxically, at the same time they were there beside her. At least one glowing light in the darkness remained at her side through it all. Their voices were always with her, calm and soothing.
She wanted to know why pain filled every moment of her existence, and why she was still alive.
She should be dead.
The scorpion demon had eaten her.
No. I killed it. It’s dead, and I’m alive.
It came back to her then – the last reserve of strength that had risen to her aid when she needed it most. She remembered driving the unfamiliar sword into its black heart. She knew those moments were real.
Then why is it still here?
It loomed before her – an ethereal plague on her soul. Still, it tried to kill her, impaling her with its tail, ravaging her body with its claws, eating her again and again, but no matter what it tried, she would not die. No matter how much pain it caused her, she continued to breathe, and her heart continued to beat.
I’m alive because I’m stronger than it is, she realized.
At first, she had run, galloping into the darkness away from it. It would always catch her. Eventually, she had given up. The pain was inevitable anyway. Over and over again, she let it attack her, destroy her, and tear her limb from limb, waiting for death to finally take her.
She was tired of waiting to die. She was tired of seeing her friends die. She was tired of pain.
“Enough!” she roared.
She lashed out at the monster as it bore down on her, and an aura of shadow wrapped around it. With surprising ease, she lifted it aloft. It floated above her, its many limbs spread out. She focused her fury, and in the blink of an eye, she crushed the massive, mindless creature into a black ball smaller than a grain of sand.
Finally, her pain went away, and she drew an easy, peaceful breath of sweet air.
Twilight opened her eyes. Rafters criss-crossed above her, holding up the roof above her head, and she faintly heard the pitter-patter of raindrops on the shingles. She swallowed dryly; her mouth tasted like cotton. She felt soft linen sheets around her and a comfortable mattress beneath her.
Food, Twilight thought. An empty pit burned with hunger in her belly, and she longed to fill it. She glanced to the side, and saw Fluttershy and Angel dozing on a chair beside her bed, next to a shuttered window. She rolled to the edge of the mattress and extended her hooves to the floor.
Her legs crumpled beneath her, and her chin hit the wooden floorboards with a crack, pincering her tongue between her teeth.
In an instant, Fluttershy was beside her, gently caressing her back with a hoof. “Oh thank goodness, you’re awake!” Fluttershy said.
Twilight whimpered pitifully as tears clouded her vision. She gathered her hooves beneath her, trying to rise, and her muscles trembled with weakness. A fey-dragon sized purple smudge rushed over to her from around the foot of the bed.
“She’s awake!” Spike cried.
“That was a nasty spill you took, Twilight,” Fluttershy said soothingly as she pressed Twilight back down to the floor. “You shouldn’t be trying to stand just yet. Don’t you worry, we’ll have you back in bed in a moment.”
Twilight heard the bed she had just fallen out of a moment ago creak, and Rainbow Dash appeared with her hooves poised on the edge of the mattress. Twilight noticed a splint tied to one of Rainbow’s wings.
“She’s back!” Rainbow said. “See, I told you she’d be okay. Nothing to worry about!”
Fluttershy glared at Rainbow. “I told you not to move around so much! You could make your wing worse!”
While Fluttershy spoke, Spike embraced Twilight, and she weakly nuzzled him in return.
Rainbow chuckled. “Aww, Flutters, don’t sweat it. I only have one fracture left; you said it yourself.”
“Back in bed!” Fluttershy ordered, her glare intensifying, and Twilight focused on Spike to avoid even the periphery of Fluttershy’s gaze.
“Alright, alright,” Rainbow said, backing down immediately. Twilight heard the bed creak again and the sound of hooves hitting a mattress.
“No jumping on the beds,” Fluttershy said.
“Ugh!” Rainbow grunted. “Fine.”
Fluttershy paused awkwardly, her hoof still resting on Twilight’s back. “Um... actually, could you help me get Twilight up?”
A few minutes later, Twilight was back in bed, happily spooning hot, brothy soup into her mouth and munching on soft bread. While her muscles were weak, her magic remained strong enough for her to feed herself. While she ate, she read a note from Celestia that Spike had given her.
To my Faithful Student, Twilight Sparkle,
I hope this finds you in good health. In our last correspondence, I was able to determine from your notes exactly what Hay Brittle had summoned. I knew that a Sand Ravager, a demonic beast that has not been seen in many long years, descended upon Appleloosa. You would need help to face it, so I sent Celestial Fury.
I only wish I had been able to get the blade to you sooner. If I had, you might not be in such dire circumstances as I am writing this. Celestial Fury is blessed with great power, and it is a formidable tool for one capable of wielding it. From your last letter, despite what you believe yourself capable of, I knew you had the spark in your heart required to hold my sword.
It will serve you well.
Sincerely, Princess Celestia.
P.S. I have instructed the Keepers to give Spike access to materials in the library that detail Celestial Fury’s capabilities.
Twilight set the note aside with a small smile. Before, she had thought that the honesty of her last letter might have turned the goddess away from her. She glanced over at Rainbow Dash in the bed beside her. “So why aren’t you healed?” she asked.
“Eh, Fluttershy got me mostly okay as soon as the fight was over, but she used a lot of her magic on you and Applejack. The town cleric and the buffalo have been running themselves ragged trying to help the wounded, and I’m a low priority, since it’s not like I’m going to keel over if I don’t get healed,” Rainbow explained. “It’s been crazy boring for the past couple of hours though, with everypony in the room asleep.”
“Well, maybe you wouldn’t be bored if you hadn’t tried playing chicken with a rock and broke your wing in three places,” Applejack said as she stepped into the room, her coat glistening with rainwater. “I can see why they called you Rainbow Crash.”
“Hey!” Rainbow cried. “I saved your life, didn’t I?”
Applejack nodded. “That you did... thank you.” She turned her eyes to Twilight. “I came as soon as I heard you were awake, Twilight. We were mighty worried.”
“What happened to me, exactly?” Twilight asked. “I mean, I remember being pulled out of the river by Pinkie, but everything after that is...” She paused, shaking her head to try and clear away the terrible memories of being torn apart. “... Fuzzy.” She turned her gaze to Fluttershy. “I mean, I know I was poisoned, but why did you heal my leg, if I wasn’t going anywhere anyway? Didn’t other ponies need the healing?”
“You were convulsing, Twilight. Like, a lot,” Rainbow said.
“With the way you were spasming from the pain, you would have made your leg worse,” Applejack added.
Fluttershy nodded. “If I didn’t heal you when I did, you would have never been able to use that leg again without being healed by very powerful magic,” she said, then added in a murmur, “if you even lived.”
Twilight blinked at Fluttershy. “How bad was I?”
“Um... very bad,” Fluttershy said. “The poison was... well, even Wildhorn had never seen anything like it before. By last night, we... we thought you were going to die. Sooner or later, your heart wouldn’t be able to keep up anymore, and you’d stop breathing. Through the night, it was terrible. But then, this morning, three hours ago, it just stopped. You smiled peacefully, and you slept normally. You pulled through. It was a miracle. Celestia, or Gaia, or something must have intervened.”
“For the record, I said you were gonna be fine from the beginning,” Rainbow added.
“I see...” Twilight said. She knew she had crushed the Sand Ravager’s infecting specter, not a god. Maybe Celestia did empower me, she considered. Or maybe it was the same thing that saved me in the caves...
Pinkie suddenly bounded through the door and onto her bed. Twilight barely managed to stabilize the tray of food while Pinkie squeezed her in a loving hug. “Twilight!” Pinkie cried.
Twilight returned the hug despite Pinkie’s waterlogged fur and mane. “Thanks, Pinkie, for everything,” she whispered in Pinkie’s ear.
Pinkie pulled away with a smile and raised her hoof. “Through eternity?”
Twilight met the offered hoof with her own without a moment’s hesitation. “Absolutely.”
Twilight noticed Rarity standing beside Applejack. The white unicorn smiled softly at her. “Twilight, you’re extraordinary,” she said. “Oh, and we found your swords in the river, both of them. They’re downstairs.”
Twilight returned the smile. “Thanks.” Her thoughts turned to Braeburn. If she was okay, the hardy earth pony must be too. “So, how’s Braeburn?” she said.
The room went silent.
Twilight strode down the main street of Appleloosa through a light drizzle of rain with newfound strength in her limbs. Both her swords menacingly floated beside her. Citizens cleaning up the town in the aftermath of the battle fearfully cleared the way.
“Twilight, stop!” she heard Applejack say, somewhere behind her.
She saw Wildhorn conversing with a pair of buffalo beneath a brass sun hanging above the door of a small wooden structure and advanced toward him with single minded determination. Pinkie rushed in front of her, blocking her path. “Twilight—”
Twilight cast Pinkie aside with her levitation. Pinkie tumbled in the mud, unhurt. With nothing left to impede Twilight, she trotted up to Wildhorn.
“Rainbow brought Braeburn to you, to this house of healing, to be saved! And you betrayed him!” she shouted, brandishing her swords. “You were just waiting for the opportunity to weaken Appleloosa!”
“Calm, Little Shadow,” Wildhorn said. “We did all that we could.”
Twilight saw fear in the eyes of the two buffalo beside him as she raised Celestial Fury, but instead of striking them down, she flung the blade above them.
The sword impaled the brass sun, lodged in the metal up to its hilt. The sign swung wildly, the chain suspending it clinking.
“Why!?” Twilight screamed. She collapsed onto the steps at the entrance of the shrine as the strength left her limbs, Solstice clattering to the ground beside her. Why him, and not me?
Fluttershy was there at her side, soothingly stroking her mane. “Everyone did everything they could, Twilight, for both of you. None of us could stop the poison.”
Twilight curled into Fluttershy, a familiar dull throb in her chest. In her mind’s eye, she watched three foals grow up without the father they’d known their entire lives.
Twilight sat, still too weak to stand for long, in a wooden wheelchair on the eastern slope of the mesa. She watched Braeburn’s coffin as its bearers, Applejack among them, lowered it into a grave. A cluster of gravestones surrounded them, marking the bodies of other Appleloosans buried there. The rain still drizzled calmly from the light grey clouds above. The voice of the town’s cleric, Golden Delicious, filled Twilight’s ears.
“We commit the body of our friend Braeburn to the earth. His body will return to whence it came, but his spirit will soar. Celestia, in her infinite wisdom, will guide him to the heavens, where he may rest in eternal peace. One day, we will all join him, in a grand family beneath her pure wings. May Celestia watch over us all.”
“May Celestia watch over us all,” the funeral attendees echoed.
As the cleric’s voice faded, the sound of dirt hitting the coffin as the bearers filled in the grave replaced it. Twilight glanced at where Marigold stood in a black dress. Braeburn’s widow looked down at the grave with tears in her eyes; her children clustered around her hooves. One of her fillies, the smallest, tugged at the hem of her dress.
“Daddy’s not coming back, is he?” she said.
Marigold choked back a sob as she answered, “He’s not coming back.”
Twilight turned away, unable to bear watching the family any longer. She focused on the grave. As the bearers shoveled dirt, the rain stopped, and the dim shadows of the clouds gave way. The morning Sun lit the eastern slope. The rays warmed her damp coat and illuminated Braeburn’s gravestone.
Here lies Braeburn
Sheriff, Husband, Father, and Friend
She would trade places with him in a heartbeat. If the foals could have their father back, she’d gladly be buried in a grave for the worms to eat her. She wished that things had happened differently. She wished she had figured it out sooner and arrived in Appleloosa before Braeburn went out and got himself killed, but this was the way things were. No amount of wishing would change the fact that Braeburn was dead.
I’m not going to fail again, she decided.
Applejack wiped her brow, her head bare, and stood beside the gravestone, taking Golden Delicious’s place. “I’m no Appleloosan,” she began, “but I wanted to say a few words.
“I’ve known Braeburn since we were both foals. He’s always been strong and kind. I have fond memories of the friendship we had as children, and that friendship was still with us when I last came here to help y’all with building this town. I know that he believed in Appleloosa, and no matter how bad it got, he would have stuck with it.”
Applejack paused before continuing, and Twilight could tell she was having trouble keeping her voice steady. “In the end, he died fighting to save this town, and I think, if he had to go any way but peacefully in his sleep, he would have wanted to die for that purpose. His death was not in vain. We’re still standing here, and the terrible beast that killed him is no more.”
Applejack placed her hoof on Braeburn’s gravestone. “There’s no bond stronger than family, Braeburn. I won’t forget you... we won’t forget you,” she said, then turned away. With her eyes on the ground, she stepped to join the crowd observing the funeral and placed her Stetson back on her head.
Twilight pulled out the note she’d received from Celestia as the next speaker stood at the head of the grave. She produced a stick of charcoal from a bag she had looped over the arm of her wheelchair, and scribbled on the back of the parchment. She drew a few glares, but she ignored them. There were questions burning in her mind, and she believed she could get answers.
Is this true: There is no way to reach mortal souls after they are gone. Many powerful wizards and clerics have tried to find a way to resurrect lost loved ones, and all have failed. Though their bodies may be restored, their souls never return, and they remain dead.
Do we really join you in the end? What happens when we die?
What does death mean?
Why am I still alive, and why is he dead?
What am I?
She stared at the last question she’d wrote. She’d added it without thinking, and she considered scribbling it out, but in the end, she handed the paper to Spike as it was. He wordlessly incinerated it as quietly and as courteously as he could.
She didn’t get a response until after the funeral was over.
When Spike coughed up Celestia’s reply, she was sitting back in bed, toying morosely with another meal of soup. She knew she should be eating to keep her strength up, but she had no appetite. Her friends were all helping with the negotiations between the buffalo and the settlers, and she was left here, alone except for Spike.
Spike had attempted to converse with her and lift her spirits, but she gave him little response when he tried. Eventually, he sat with her in silence, but he never left her side. When he finally produced a scroll, Twilight snatched it in her levitation before he could catch it and hand it to her. It was the same note she’d sent to Celestia, with new writing in ink beneath her scribbles. A small line separated the new writing from hers.
Is this true: There is no way to reach mortal souls after they are gone. Many powerful wizards and clerics have tried to find a way to resurrect lost loved ones, and all have failed. Though their bodies may be restored, their souls never return, and they remain dead. – True
Do we really join you in the end? What happens when we die?
What does death mean?
Why am I still alive, and why is he dead?
What am I?
Many attribute powers to me that I do not possess. Some say I have control over life and death as I do over day and night. Some say I rule over the afterlife. Many blame me for things that are out of my control. I do not tell them they are wrong because the beliefs they have are far more comforting than the truth.
The harsh truth, something that I share with very few ponies and I hope that you are prepared for, is that death is meaningless. Before my Sister and I killed the Shadow, only the Abyss awaited mortal souls upon their death. Now, the Shadow is but a corpse, and the Abyss is closed. Instead of the Abyss, nothing awaits those who die. An uncountable number of mortal souls, all those who have died since the Shadow fell, exist in an eternal limbo. If I could help them, I would, but I have no power over the dead; they are beyond my reach.
The answer to your question is: Nothing happens when you die. There is no peace, no happiness, no family, no great adventure: only nothingness. Death, as it stands, is an inevitable, terrible robbery of the gift of life.
I must apologize, for I cannot give you all the answers, even though I wish I could. I cannot tell you why you lived and why he died. I only know that you, Twilight Sparkle, are extraordinary, and a destiny awaits you that few of us can imagine.
Those blessed like you must fight a world of suffering and death, no matter how hopeless the battle may seem, for without you, there is no hope.
Her eyes scanned the page over and over in disbelief. She’d always thought that Celestia watched over their spirits after they died, even though she’d never gotten a straight answer from Star Swirl on the subject. With the stroke of a pen, Celestia had shattered her hope.
She crushed the note into the smallest ball she could. Unfortunately, it didn’t become a grain of sand and disappear, like the scorpion in her mind. It was still there, reminding her of the cruel truth that Star Swirl was gone – forever.
Focusing her magical power, she lit the letter with a simple spark. She watched the crumpled paper suspended in her levitation slowly burn.
“I’m sorry, Twilight,” Spike said, holding her.
She gave him no response; she only stared at the flames in front of her.
I’m not blessed. I’m no hero... I couldn’t even save one pony.
Her friends returned with good news, but it did little to lift her spirits. Though the Appleloosans could tame the river’s flow once more, they agreed to never block it again. Instead, they would work with the buffalo, combining their cultivation with the druids’ knowledge and magic. Wildhorn predicted that together, they could grow more food with less water.
That only left the problem of the mines. Fortunately, only the top layer of iron ore was contaminated, and hopefully the diamond dogs would follow her orders and trade ore with the Appleloosans, who would have plenty of food to give in return. Even if the Sand Cats somehow returned after being destroyed by Fluttershy’s storm, the Appleloosans should have the funds to pay for more rain.
As it was, the rain had swollen the river, and it quickly refilled its old channel, spilling down the canyon on its path to the sea once more.
Over the rest of the day, well wishers sent Twilight tokens of appreciation. Though they had destroyed the dam, she and her friends were hailed as heroes for killing the Sand Ravager, dealing with the buffalo, and solving the problem in the mines.
Despite the Appleloosan’s hospitality, Twilight wanted to be on the road as soon as possible. Rarity had found the letter Hay Brittle had kept in her Bag of Holding. Since it was undated and not written by Hay Brittle, it had been lost in the bag when she retrieved the journal entries by date. It revealed the location of the Iron Circle’s Ponyville safe house. While Twilight knew that the Black Knight was in Manehattan, Ponyville was on the way, and she needed as much information as she could get.
However, she knew she needed rest before she could leave. Fluttershy said she needed at least two more days, but she hoped to be on the road in one. She needed to find the Black Knight as soon as she could. Even though she couldn’t blame Hay Brittle’s actions on him, or the actions of the Iron Circle as a whole, it was still his fault that Star Swirl was gone and she was a killer.
She was going to face him. While Star Swirl was powerful, he’d fought the Black Knight alone. With the help of her friends, she’d destroyed a nigh-invulnerable demon. She’d faced death many times now and survived.
She wasn’t afraid of him anymore.
It was time for the hunter to become the hunted.
Twilight Sparkle stood on a path. Shadowy trees loomed around her on both sides. Ahead, the path forked, and bent away into the darkness. Five lights floated at her side, comforting, ever present.
The voice whispered behind her.
“I’m still here.”
She turned. The shadow in her mind had shed the guise of the Black Knight. Before her, burning red eyes shone from the eye sockets of a unicorn skull. A body of shadows supported the skull, tall and imposing in stature, with wings that spread across the trail and connected with the dark trunks around her. Behind the specter, opposite the way she had chosen, was the straight road. Without fear, she addressed the darkness.
“I made my choice.”
A laugh spilled from its jawless mouth in an inky cloud.
“Let me show you where it leads.”
The ground slid past beneath her feet. The trees shot past her with incredible speed, turning as the path twisted and forked. In an instant, she stood next to the Black Knight in the center of a room. Around her, at the edges of the room, were her friends, unconscious – dying. Shadows boiled from beneath his armor and spilled across the floor, engulfing her and her friends. It consumed them, but she was left untouched. Their bright, brilliant souls wisped from their mouths, lost forever. She shouted in denial.
“This is but one ending! One path!”
Its reply was quick.
“You cannot escape me, no matter what you choose. I am at the end of every trail you may walk, long and short, hard and easy. I am nothing, and I will be everything. No matter where you run, no matter what you try, you will serve my will in the end.”
She would never bend.
“I will not.”
Fury rose from the shadows.
“I am not your enemy; I am you! You cannot deny me! One day, you will learn what you are, and that you will never escape me.”
She held her head high, faced forward, and strode down the path she had chosen. A whisper behind her lingered.
“Very well... but in time, you will learn...”
Twilight woke the next day feeling refreshed, despite her nightmare. By the end of the afternoon, she was ready to leave. They could travel to the bridge by night and exit the Badlands before the Sun came up.
That evening, she stood downstairs, and after securing her cloak and Solstice, she picked up Celestial Fury. In order to keep her mind off of what Celestia had told her while she was stuck resting in a bed, she’d spent much of the time studying books from the Celestial Library, especially ones concerning the blade.
It had many powers, beyond being sharp enough to cut diamond and never becoming dull. When it struck an enemy, it would hold them in a field of light for a time. While certain creatures could break free quickly, others would take longer to escape. The light would have the strongest effect on demons and the undead, though they could still overpower it. The blade also stored sunlight, which could be released in a burst that would vaporize creatures of darkness. When Celestia wielded it during the Time of Troubles, it earned the name ‘Godkiller’; few entities existed that it could not harm.
Despite all she’d learned, she felt the books Celestia had allowed her to acess left something out. Nothing she read told her about its origins, or its history outside the Time of Troubles.
“Are you sure you’re ready?” Fluttershy said, sitting on the floor nearby.
Twilight nodded. “Of course. I’ve been eating well, haven’t I?” It was true. After she’d refocused on her goal, her appetite had returned.
“Um... I don’t mean to pester, but I’m worried about you; I’m not sure you’re ready to travel.”
Twilight finished securing Celestial Fury. The hilt protruded beside her head, and the sheathed blade rested diagonally across her back over top of her cloak. It was too long to rest comfortably at her side like Solstice.
“I’m fine, okay?” Twilight said. In truth, her limbs were still a bit weak, but she knew she was strong enough to travel. I can’t stay here any longer, she thought. With everything that lingered on her mind, the only way to escape was through action.
Twilight stomped angrily, and Fluttershy stopped mid-sentence, cringing in response. “I’m fine!” Twilight shouted. She pulled on Celestial Fury with her levitation to ensure that the blade would draw smoothly. It did.
“... okay,” Fluttershy murmured.
Twilight glumly marched down the road to Ponyville. Exhaustion clung to her. After reaching the bridge, they’d only slept for a few hours before the Sun came up. She pressed on, determined to reach Ponyville as soon as possible, despite her lingering weakness.
Rainbow Dash trotted effortlessly up beside her. “I’m going as fast as I can, Rainbow,” she muttered irritably.
“I didn’t say anything!” Rainbow said.
“You were going to,” Twilight said.
“Well, yes, but not about that... I wanted to talk about something... I wanted to apologize.”
Twilight blinked at Rainbow. “For what?”
“I failed. I ran away. If I hadn’t, I might’ve been able to—”
“You’re not the one who failed; I did,” Twilight interrupted. “There was something in those notes that told Celestia what we were about to face. If I had noticed it, I could have cast a spell to protect us from the fear. Or, I could have realized Appleloosa was going to be attacked sooner. Two-hundred twelve days. How did I miss that?”
Applejack stepped up on her other side. “It ain’t easy to add days like that. Goin’ by months makes it hard to tell just how many days ago a particular date was. I don’t blame ya, Twilight, or you, Rainbow. Without you, there would’a been a lot more dead ponies. You did good. We all did. I know it don’t make it hurt any less, but what happened ain’t our fault; it was Hay Brittle’s, and he got his.”
Rainbow sighed. “Yeah... you’re right, Applejack.”
Twilight nodded, but she said nothing. She needed somepony to blame, and she was the last pony left.
“This the place?” Applejack said, eyeing a small townhouse wedged in between two other buildings.
Twilight checked the letter Hay Brittle had saved. They had arrived in Ponyville at around noon after a few days of traveling, and Twilight had insisted on their first stop being the Iron Circle safehouse. “They mention being beside a general store, and near a tavern.”
“Can’t hurt to check,” Applejack said and knocked on the front door of the townhouse.
They waited – no response. Twilight peered through a gap under one of the window shutters. She couldn’t make out anything more than the vague shapes of furniture in the darkness within. “Rarity?” Twilight said.
Twilight watched a blue aura slither around the door’s handle. A second later, the lock clicked. With her magic laced around her sheathed swords, Twilight moved in front of the doorway and gently pushed the door open.
The door gently creaked as it swung inward. Sunlight behind Twilight cast her shadow onto the house’s floor. Nothing moved. She lit her horn and raised her hoof.
“Twilight—” Pinkie said.
She was already in motion, stepping across the threshold.
Twilight looked down when she noticed light from beneath her. A line of runes worked into the crease where the doorframe met the floor glowed softly.
She knew that sound. She’d heard it once before, when the portal closed while she was fighting Tarn Inkstroke. She snapped her gaze forward. A spineless, winged, black demon rushed toward her, the fading remnants of a portal lingering in the air behind it. Through its open mouth, past its glistening fangs, she saw the glow of flames.
In one smooth motion, she drew Celestial Fury and cleaved through the creature’s neck, long before it had the opportunity to spit fire at her. A gout of flame burst from the stump and scorched the ceiling above. For an instant, a golden aura enveloped the creatures body, but the demon was already defeated, and a moment later it freely hit the ground with a thump. Droplets of its sizzling black blood sprayed onto a rug in the center of the room and set it on fire.
“Rarity, Pinkie, look for traps. Everypony else, put that out,” Twilight said, unfazed.
The safehouse was a treasure trove of information. It appeared that three ponies and one griffon lived there, probably the same ones who had tried to kill her in Berry Punch’s Tavern. It would certainly explain why the place is abandoned, she thought.
With the help of Spike and her friends, she’d found documentation indicating that the Cloakwood Gang raiding the Coast Road was on the Iron Circle’s payroll. The papers in the safehouse described how to acquire new recruits for the Cloakwood Gang and where to send them. Also, though there were few names, she found hints at the workings of the hierarchy in Manehattan responsible for the trade crisis. When they reached the city, they would have plenty to go on.
Still, after spending the better part of the afternoon in the safehouse and finding all of that information, she was disappointed. The reason for the bounty on her head and the Black Knight’s identity remained just out of reach. Though it was clear that the Iron Circle was the organization promising to pay the bounty should her head ever be presented, there were no further details, at least not here.
Twilight paused by a table with a small mirror sitting on its surface. She picked up the mirror, and after glancing at her travel-worn reflection, noticed a sheet of paper that had been laying on the table beneath the mirror. Written on the paper was a list of non-descript locations, among them ‘Headquarters’ and ‘Coordinator’, accompanied by arcane symbols. The symbols matched with symbols pressed into the mirror’s frame.
Out of curiosity, she pressed the symbol for ‘Coordinator’ on the edge of the mirror. It didn’t surprise her when nothing happened: Hay Brittle’s mirror, if it had somehow survived the explosion, was buried under a ton of rock. Next, she touched the symbol for ‘Headquarters’. This time, a featureless white surface replaced her reflection.
She furrowed her brows. An idea occurred to her, one that she knew was risky, but greatly appealing. Setting the activated mirror face up on the table, she levitated a quill and wrote a quick note on a blank sheet of paper. She rolled up the note, and after hesitating a moment, dropped it into the mirror. The paper passed through the surface of the mirror, vanishing, and the mirror returned to its normal silvery sheen.
I am coming for you,
She no longer blamed the Black Knight alone for taking Star Swirl from her. They were responsible as well, and she planned on making them pay their part of the debt for the terror and loss she’d suffered.
It’s their turn to be afraid.
A voice broke her thoughts when Rainbow Dash said, “Woah! Look at all this!”
Twilight turned away from the mirror, and saw Rainbow standing in front of the door of an open pantry. Within were jars of preserved foodstuffs, enough to last for weeks. Twilight sighed. “Rainbow, I told you not to open anything without it being checked by somepony who knows what to look for.”
“Aww, relax Twi, we haven’t found anything dangerous except for the trap you triggered. Besides, who’d put a magic trap on their food?” Rainbow said with a laugh. “With all this to eat, we could just stay here tonight,” she suggested.
“Or, we could always unlock my boutique and stay there,” Rarity mentioned as she stepped into the room. “This place is a run-down, shuttered-up bachelor cave. It’s dreadful.”
“Your windows are boarded,” Twilight said.
“It’s still better than here; there’s no color... except for ‘scorched.’”
“I think we should head out to Sweet Apple Acres to stay the night,” Applejack said, joining them. “We could get a fresh, home cooked meal there. It’s less than an hour away, and it would be nice to stop by and see my family. Granny Smith and Big Macintosh will definitely be back by now.”
Twilight nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”
Twilight trotted down a path toward a cozy farmhouse atop a hill with a big red barn next to it. Sprawling around her, Sweet Apple Acres occupied a vast tract of land on Ponyville’s outskirts near the Everfree Forest. The trees of Whitetail wood had been cleared away to make room for apple orchards, homesteads, and fields of crops. She spotted three fillies, a unicorn, an earth pony, and, oddly, a pegasus playing under an apple tree near the path.
The red maned earth pony, sporting a large pink ribbon in her hair, looked up. “Applejack! You’re back!” she cried with wide eyes.
“Hey there, Applebloom!” Applejack called out.
“Don’t worry! I’ll tell everypony you’re back!” Applebloom yelled and took off toward the farmhouse as fast as her little legs could carry her.
“Just for one night, Applebloom. Don’t get their hopes up!” Applejack shouted. When Applebloom continued running and gave no indication that she’d heard, Applejack sighed. “Foals...” she muttered.
“Sweetie Belle?” Rarity said, astonished.
“Rarity?” the unicorn filly said. Twilight watched her rush down to the path and meet Rarity with an affectionate hug. “Rarity!”
“It’s so good to see you!” Rarity said as she wrapped her foreleg around Sweetie Belle. “What’re you doing here?”
“I’m staying with Applebloom for a couple days,” Sweetie Belle said. “We’re building a clubhouse!” After a pause, she added, her voice cracking, “Mom and Dad were so worried after they got your letter. Last time you left you were gone for years!”
“I’m not staying for long, Sweetie. I’m dealing with something, like I said in my letter,” Rarity said.
“Filthy Rich has been looking for you. He said your payment was due,” Sweetie Belle said.
Rarity winked at Sweetie Belle conspiratorially. “It’s a good thing he can’t find me then.”
Twilight noticed the pegasus filly eyeing the Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash with interest from the edge of the path.
“Hey squirt, what’s your name?” Rainbow said while she waved her wing in greeting.
The orange pegasus smiled at Rainbow. “I’m Scootaloo! Are you from Cloudsdale?”
“I was from Cloudsdale, but after they told my friend here Flutters that she had to leave, I was out of there!” Rainbow said.
“I could have stopped some of the storms...” Fluttershy mumbled, almost inaudible.
Scootaloo hoofed the ground nervously. “I was banished too. They said my wings were too small when I was born.”
“Hey, no sweat,” Rainbow said as she approached the filly. “Cloudsdale doesn’t know talent when it’s right in front of their noses. Small wings or no, I’ll bet you’re great with air.”
“Well, I can beat my wings really fast!” Scootaloo said proudly and began to flap her wings. She rose a couple hoofspans off the ground, her wings buzzing as they clipped through the air. She only stayed aloft a few seconds before she settled back to the ground.
“Hey, you want to fly up to the farmhouse?” Rainbow said.
“I can’t fly that far... or at all, really...” Scootaloo mumbled.
Rainbow grinned. “No problem!” Before Scootaloo could react, Rainbow swept her up, and they were both gone, shooting skyward.
At first, Twilight heard a shrill scream from the sky above, but it was quickly replaced by whoops of joy.
Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie pranced on a large table in the center of the Apple’s spacious barn, nimbly avoiding pitchers of liquid and platters of food.
“So there we were...” Rainbow said to the assembled ponies, over a dozen pairs of eyes on her. Several ponies were gathered around the table for the evening meal: Twilight and her friends, Big Macintosh, Granny Smith, foals, among them three that Twilight had seen beside the path, and farm workers, Apple or otherwise. They all gave Pinkie and Rainbow their undivided attention.
“There we were!” Pinkie echoed.
“Running down the tunnel with an army of diamond dogs yipping at our heels. We rounded a corner, and can you guess what we saw?” Rainbow continued.
Sweetie Belle’s hoof shot up. “Ooh, ooh, pick me! I know!”
“Rainbow, you forgot about the trap!” Pinkie said.
“It’s not important, Pinkie, or exciting,” Rainbow said, exasperated.
“Well, I saw it, so I think it’s important!” Pinkie said.
“Fine, Rarity and Pinkie dealt with a trap, then we went around the corner, and can you guess what we saw?” Rainbow said and turned to point at Sweetie Belle.
“A cave full of diamonds!” Sweetie Belle cried.
Pinkie grinned. “Not quite, silly. It was a cave full of diamond dogs.”
“And before we knew what was happening, their leader surrendered the entire civilization down there to us!” Rainbow said.
“Now I know you’re tellin’ a tall tale. How in the heck could that happen?” Apple Fritter said.
“Oh, I dunno, Rarity can be preeetty scary,” Pinkie said. She stepped to the edge of the table and extended a hoof down to Rarity. “Come on up here, Rarity! Do the voice!”
“Oh, not me. You two are doing a fine job telling the story,” Rarity said, raising a hoof to wave Pinkie away.
“Do the voice! Do the voice!” Rainbow and Pinkie chanted.
Soon, the entire table was chanting those words, and Twilight found herself joining them. For a moment, even though she knew this was not her home, and the welcoming faces around her were not her family, she felt like she was back in Candlekeep at one of Pinkie’s parties in the Cake’s tavern.
“Alright, alright,” Rarity yielded. She took Pinkie’s offered forehoof, and clambered up onto the table. Reluctant no longer, she strode to the center of the table without getting a speck of food on her hooves. She flicked her mane dramatically, her horn glowing, and the light around them warped into shadow.
“I will be your queen! Not dark – but beautiful and radiant as a gemstone! All shall love me and despair!”
With the echos of Rarity’s voice in her ears, Twilight shivered. The room lay silent, but as Rarity calmly walked back to her seat, applause and laughter erupted from around the table.
“That was amazing!” Spike yelled.
As Rarity settled into her chair, Rainbow began again. “But that wasn’t anywhere near as awesome – no offense Rarity – as when we fought...” she paused dramatically and stalked toward the foals low over the table. “... the Sand Ravager!”
Twilight nearly spat out her drink. They’re going to tell them about that?
“So there we were...” Rainbow said.
“There we were!” Pinkie echoed.
“Atop the Appleloosan’s dam – and this giant scorpion beast comes barreling down the riverbed at us, ready to devour us all,” Rainbow said.
Twilight winced, remembering the horror she’d felt when the Sand Ravager first emerged from the cloud of debris and the two ponies it had killed a moment later. She glanced at the spellbound foals. At least Rainbow and Pinkie seemed to be telling the story with tact.
“It was a harrowing battle. We wounded the monster many times, but just like the Sand Cats, it could heal itself. Pretty soon, we were all beaten down. I broke my wing in three places!”
Pinkie held up her two forehooves, glanced at them with disappointment, and flexibly balanced on one hind leg to add a third hoof to her count. “Three places!”
Rainbow steadied Pinkie with a hoof to keep her from falling into an apple pie. “We were on the brink of death, about to all get eaten, fighting something that could heal from any wounds we could give it – and you’ll never guess how we survived.”
“Tell us!” the ponies demanded.
“The rain came!” Pinkie said excitedly as she regained her footing.
“That’s right! Right after I saved Applejack’s life,”–Rainbow added with a smirk–“Fluttershy here had called in this epic storm from the Everfree Forest with her special pegasus druidic powers, and it arrived just in time! The rain wrecked the scorpion, and it tried to run away. But we weren’t going to let it.”
Wait, what? Twilight thought.
Fluttershy cringed when attention turned to her.
“No way!” Pinkie said. “Fluttershy zapped the dam with a big ol’ lightning bolt and let all the water in the reservoir chase after it.”
Did they rehearse this? Twilight wondered.
“Sploosh! The river swept it away!” Rainbow said. “But Twilight saw its black heart floating in the water, and she—”
Twilight slammed her hoof on the table angrily. All eyes turned to her. She didn’t care. “That wasn’t what happened!” she shouted. “I nearly died! While you were lying in the mud with a broken wing, it nearly ate me! Alive! If Fluttershy didn’t break the dam on that thing when she did, I’d be dead! I got caught by the river, and I nearly drowned! I destroyed it because I thought it was the last thing that I’d be able to do!”
Twilight rose up out of her chair, glaring at Rainbow and Pinkie. “And if that wasn’t enough, I nearly died from its poison even after it was dead and gone! It wasn’t happy, it wasn’t glorious, and it wasn’t heroic; it was terrible! How can you stand up there and pretend it was anything different!?”
She stood there panting, her forehooves poised on the edge of the table, the room around her chillingly silent, and the foals looking at her with horror in their eyes.
Rainbow and Pinkie shamefully looked back at her. “Sorry Twi...” Rainbow murmured. “We didn’t mean it like that.”
“We were just telling a story,” Pinkie said, dropping her gaze to her hooves.
Granny Smith intervened from the head of the table. She raised her mug, and said, her old voice strong, “To Twilight Sparkle. She is a heroine who killed a powerful demon and lived to tell the tale. A toast – because, at the end of the day, that’s all we can ask: that we live to tell the tale.”
Twilight sank back into her seat, blinking in surprise as all around her ponies raised their drinks to her and said, “To Twilight Sparkle.”
She saw a better pony reflected in their eyes – a pony she didn’t feel like, but a pony she could be.
Granny Smith smiled at her and said, “Star Swirl would be proud.”
The barn door abruptly slammed open. From the doorway, a pony in a Helping Hoof uniform shouted, “I have a message for Granny Smith! It’s urgent!”
The moment was gone. The table went quiet as the panting messenger approached the head of the table and passed a folded letter to Granny Smith. Twilight watched with trepidation as Granny Smith unfolded the paper, separating it out into two sheets. The old mare’s eyes scanned the first sheet, then the second, while everypony at the table gazed at her in silence.
“Twilight, I’d like you and your friends to speak with me in the house.” She grinned at the ponies, showing her old gums. “As for the rest of ya’, why the long faces? Eat, be merry! Nothing to worry about.” She eyed the messenger. “And you, siddown. You look exhausted!”
While the Sweet Apple Acres barn had plenty of space, the family’s house was a small homestead with only a few rooms. Twilight and her friends sat with Granny Smith on the ground floor in a small living area next to the kitchen. The old mare leaned back in her rocking chair with both sheets of the message in her lap.
“I need y'all to listen close now, y’hear? No inturuptin’,” Granny Smith said.
Twilight nodded, along with the rest of the ponies.
“The Duchesses of Manehattan are considering givin’ Ponyville and the Helping Hoof to a lord—”
“What!” Applejack cried. “Ponyville has always been a lordless holding!”
“Jackie,” Granny Smith said, shaking her head with disapproval.
“Sorry Granny... but they can’t do that!” Applejack said.
Granny Smith nodded. “Yer right, so hear me out... ya’ listening?” Applejack nodded. “Good... One of these letters is from a Lord Ruby. He’s required to meet with me, as even though Mayor Mare runs the town, I am the official representative and primary landowner of the holding. He’s at the Helping Hoof right now. According to a Duchess, he’s been granted the title of Baron of Ponyville, but all of the Duchesses and Dukes of Manehattan need to meet to confirm the grant. That’ll be in two weeks.”
Granny Smith leaned forward, her chair creaking. “Now, I’m not sure why the Duchesses are considering the grant, but I can guess: The Helping Hoof would be a good base for trying to root out the Cloakwood Gang. I’ll bet that this Lord Ruby has promised to clear out the bandits in exchange for the Barony. I think I have a solution though...”
“I’m sure that we could talk to the Duchesses of Manehattan and speak on your behalf... I know a few ponies that could get us a meeting,” Rarity suggested.
“Or we could just say ‘no way!’ I mean, what if you said no? Have a rebellion! They can’t force you to accept a Baron, and if they can’t even deal with the bandits—” Rainbow said.
Granny Smith held up a hoof and shook her head. “No, we can’t. Lord Ruby is an influential noble, so I doubt that you could convince the Duchesses to deny the grant, and the nobility takes commoner uprisings very seriously. Unlike bandits, townsfolk have homes.” She focused on Rainbow Dash. “They’d rather see Ponyville burned to the ground than have a rebellion on their hooves. Is that what you want?”
Rainbow looked down. “No...”
“There’s gotta be something!” Pinkie said
Granny Smith glared at Pinkie. “There is, if you’d let me finish!”
Pinkie averted her gaze. “Sorry.”
“There’s a tradition that if a lowborn pony who rises in defense of a landless holding in service of the city, they become the land’s Baron.”
“Like Sir Fletcher?” Twilight said. “Sorry,” she added quickly.
Granny Smith heaved an exasperated sigh. “Yes, he was the first, although that was before even my time. What I’m gonna do is I’m going to have Jackie go to the Helping Hoof and meet with Lord Ruby in my place.” She eyed Twilight. “Now, I know ya’ have your own quest, but I hope you’ll continue on to Cloakwood after stopping by the Helping Hoof and give them a reason to grant the barony to somepony who cares about it.”
Twilight blinked. “Me? I mean, if that’s how it works, why didn’t they make you a Baroness when you killed the Lich?”
“One old fort don’t make a holding, lassie. Can’t be a Baroness when there ain’t no barony.” Granny Smith smiled sadly. “Us common folk, we built this town, and now they want to take it away from us!” With surprising strength, she pounded her hoof down on her armrest. “This is everything I worked for, and if Lord Ruby has his way, he’ll be able to confiscate what he wants, tax what he wants, and make the rules that he wants. This ain’t right!” Granny Smith stared into Twilight’s eyes. “Will you help us?”
She knows... Twilight realized. She could see it in Granny Smith’s eyes. Twilight saw an old mare who knew her time was running out and knew what awaited her, struggling to keep the legacy she’d left behind.
If there is one thing I do before I die, it’s going to be avenging Star Swirl, Twilight decided.
“I... I can’t,” She mumbled. She hated what she had to say, but she said it anyway. “I need to find him; he killed Star Swirl, and he’s going to pay,” she said. “I’m sorry. I can’t help you... not when I’m so close.”
“Whaddya mean you can’t help?” Applejack said, her voice low and angry. “This is my home! If you’re not gonna help, then I will!”
“Jackie! You’ll go where Twilight needs you to go! I made a promise to Star Swirl, an’ you swore you’d help me keep it!” Granny Smith shouted.
“Yes Ma’am,” Applejack growled. She stood up, shot a glare at Twilight, and trotted for the door. “Find me when ya’ want to go where you want to, leader,“ she said. As soon as she crossed the threshold, she spat into the dirt, and left the door wide open as she strode toward the barn.
Twilight watched in horror as the rest of her friends stood. Rainbow Dash started for the door first, giving her a glare. “I made a deal with you, Twilight Sparkle, and I won’t abandon you, but if all you care about is revenge, don’t expect me to be your friend.”
Twilight opened her mouth, but she couldn’t make any words come.
Rarity was next, Fluttershy and Spike trailing after her. “Twilight... is that all that matters? I thought we’d be helping ponies...” Rarity said, shaking her head sadly as she left.
“It isn’t right...” Fluttershy murmured while she followed Rarity out.
“Pinkie?” Twilight asked.
“I’m still your friend, Twilight... but Star Swirl would want you to help others if you could,” Pinkie said. She pushed the door shut from the far side, and she was gone.
Twilight gritted her teeth. She knew what the consequences of her decision were likely to be, and she’d made it anyway. She wanted to shout at Pinkie through the door – to tell her that Star Swirl wasn’t around to see the choices she made. Star Swirl was gone. She had no one to answer to and one simple goal to achieve. In her mind’s eye, she saw the straight path unraveling before her, with no friends by her side. The end of that road was the same as the end of any other; she’d be dead.
She remembered the voice from her nightmare saying, ’You will learn...’ It knew her better than she knew herself. Is this what it meant? she wondered.
“She’s right, you know,” Granny Smith said quietly.
Twilight glared at Granny Smith. “You know, don’t you!”
Granny Smith cocked her head to the side. “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. I asked Celestia what happens... about death.”
“Ah...” Granny Smith murmured. “Always the curious ones.”
Twilight blinked. “What do you mean?”
Granny Smith sighed. “When I was adventurin’ with Star Swirl, he would cast a spell to send messages to Celestia, not unlike what Spike can do. I don’t think Celestia can say no to ponies like you, because you’ll keep asking until you have answers. The real problem with ponies like you, though, is you’re compelled to teach everypony around you.”
“He told you, didn’t he?” Twilight asked.
“He did.” Granny Smith leaned back at her chair and stared distantly up at the ceiling. “I first noticed it when my husband died in the battle with the Lich. Days later, I finally mustered the courage to say goodbye, and I said, ‘he’s in a better place now.’ Star Swirl gave me this... look... I knew he knew something, but he wouldn’t tell me, at least not then. My son was born not long after. He was a strong one; he was barely a month old fetus at the time, but he lived through the battle with the Lich. When he was little, I was telling him a story about how his Daddy was up in the sky, watching him grow up, and Star Swirl overheard.”
Granny Smith focused on Twilight. “Star Swirl was visiting at the time, and after I put my son to bed, he gave me that look again. I had to ask, and that time, he told me. I didn’t take it very well. I think I would have been better off not knowing. I think I would have rather believed that if I weren’t an evil pony in life Celestia would look after me in death. I found something that mattered though: my family, and this town. I didn’t want to be nothing, and the best way to do that is to leave an impact on the world.”
“Was that why Star Swirl never had children of his own? Because they’d die and be nothing?” she asked.
Granny Smith shook her head. “No. Star Swirl knew there was joy in life. He would have had children, but the mare he loved died shortly before he started adventuring. He never found another. I might have had feelings for him once, after my husband died, but he was always so distant. You, though – you made him feel. You should have seen the joy in his eyes when he brought you by here on his way to Candlekeep when you were a wee lil’ baby.
“You meant the world to him, and he did everything he could for you.” Granny Smith smiled softly. “He brought you to Candlekeep where you could grow up with knowledge and sheltered from danger. You were the daughter he never had, and now you are the legacy he died for.”
Twilight blinked back tears. “He–he never told me... I mean, I knew he loved me, but...”
“He loved you dearly, lassie...” Granny Smith murmured. “Did he tell you how he found you?”
“He told me I was kidnapped by death cultists who murdered my parents, and he found me when he was investigating the cult in Manehattan,” Twilight said.
“And the moment he saw you, crying on a their sacrificial altar, he loved you as his own. You were what mattered to him.” Granny Smith gave Twilight a hard stare. “What matters to you, Twilight Sparkle?”
Twilight gazed down at her hooves. It doesn’t matter what I am... she realized. All this time, and she’d been asking the wrong question. Blessed or cursed, hero or monster – it wasn’t important. She knew what she was capable of, and what mattered was how she used that power.
What matters is the choices I make. There aren’t going to be any second chances.
She had one chance, one life, and Star Swirl had sacrificed everything so that she could keep it. What mattered to her was doing something worthy of that sacrifice with the one life she possessed. I chose the hard path, and I’m going to stick with it, she decided.
“I’m going to help you,” she declared. “And I’m going to help Ponyville, and Bon-Bon, and everyone that I can.”
She still wanted to find him, but he could wait. She wasn’t going to let Granny Smith’s legacy be eroded away, not while she could do something about it. Maybe I can do something that matters. Her mind drifted back to Appleloosa – to the town they had saved. Maybe I already have...
Granny Smith smiled warmly at her. “If that’s your choice, then you’d better tell your friends, before they think they’ve lost you. You’d best get some sleep; you can leave in the morning.”
The Sweet Apple Acres barn was full of warm bunks in small rooms, providing space for visitors and workers to lay their weary heads, and Twilight found her friends up in one of the lofts. She heard them talking as she climbed the ladder.
“She’s struggling, and you should give her a chance,” Spike said. “She’s learned a lot about herself and the world in a matter of days.”
“I don’t have time to give her a chance when my home is at stake!” Applejack said.
Twilight came up over the top of ladder and the conversation went silent. They awkwardly looked at her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I talked to Granny Smith, and I changed my mind. I’m going to help.”
In an instant, she found herself wrapped in a warm embrace. Forelegs wrapped around her body, and Spike attached to her leg.
“It’s tough to give up what you want to do what’s right,” Rarity said. “I’m sorry for being so hard on you.”
“I didn’t mean it... about not being your friend,” Rainbow said.
“I deserved it,” Twilight said, burying her face into somepony’s soft mane. “I lost track of what mattered... I’m so glad you’re all with me.”
She looked up; there was one pony missing.
Applejack stood in front of her – stoic. “I... I’m glad you came ‘round, Twilight,” she stepped forward and joined the hug.
Twilight’s heart swelled with joy. Wherever she went, with these ponies at her side, she was home.
Twilight tossed and turned in her bunk, unable to sleep. They were all bunked in the loft, even Applejack, who passed up on her bedroom to stay with the group. A small amount of moonlight spilling in the loft’s open double-door illuminated the unmoving forms of her sleeping friends. She glanced through the gap in the door at the second-story ledge outside the loft. The ledge was more than wide enough for a pony.
As quietly as she could, Twilight slipped out of her bunk. She stepped softly on the floor and levitated her bedroll along with her. Once outside on the ledge, she she laid it out, got comfortable, and closed her eyes.
“There’s plenty of room inside, ya’ know,” Applejack said from the doorway, yawning.
Twilight looked up at her. “I like sleeping outside,” she murmured.
“Good thing there’s no rain scheduled for tonight, unless we get a storm,” Applejack said and gazed toward the horizon, keeping her voice low to not wake the others. “I don’t see any storm clouds though... hard to tell at night.” She stepped back inside.
With comforting stars overhead, Twilight closed her eyes again, but before she had even begun to drift off, she heard a bedroll being laid out beside her. She cracked her eyes open and saw Applejack lying down. The earth pony rolled onto her back and stared up at the stars.
“I didn’t say it earlier, but I’m sorry – for how mad I got. I should have tried to talk things over,” Applejack said.
Twilight rolled onto her back and stared up at the familiar sky. “It wasn’t your fault...”
“Twi, just say, ‘I forgive you’.”
“I forgive you, Applejack,” Twilight said.
“Thanks... so, what’s eating you? Why’re you out here?” Applejack asked.
“I dunno... I’ve had nightmares ever since Star Swirl died – every time I’ve slept under a roof. When I sleep outside, I don’t have nightmares. I don’t know why; I don’t know if sleeping inside or outside even changes anything, but I have trouble sleeping inside now,” Twilight explained.
“Mmm... makes sense,” Applejack murmured. She went silent for a moment. “You want revenge, don’t you? That’s why you wouldn’t help at first,” Applejack said.
Twilight nodded, even though Applejack wasn’t looking at her. “Yeah,” she admitted.
“I understand... I want revenge too. I want to kill the thing that took my parents,” Applejack said.
“Who?” Twilight asked.
“I’ll tell you the story some other time. Maybe we can hunt him down together, after we deal with the Black Knight.”
Twilight didn’t press further, and after a pause, Applejack said, “Remember, Twilight, Star Swirl is still watchin’ out for you up there, just like my parents are for me.”
Twilight turned away from Applejack to make sure the look in her eyes was hidden. “Yeah...” she murmured. She doesn’t want to know... Twilight thought.
She finally drifted off to sleep in silence.