The Sword Coast

by AdrianVesper



Twilight focused on a spot on the far side of the grate, about to begin her second nightly excursion out of her cell.


Her ears perked at the sound, and she dropped her gaze to the wall beneath the grate. She waited, listening – nothing. Her brows furrowing in agitation, she focused outside again, and reached for her spell.


Before she wasted the spell, Twilight pushed it to the edge of her mind instead of casting it. “Spike, do you hear that?” she hissed.

“Yeah,” Spike answered from within her dim cell, his voice loud in her primed hearing.

Twilight warily stepped back from the wall as the sounds continued, growing with each passing moment. “Hey girls?” Twilight said, calling over the noise.

“What’s going on in there, Twilight?” Rainbow answered.

“No idea...” Twilight said. She backed away from the wall until her tail brushed the bars of her cell’s door. Spike gave her a small wave, and disappeared.

The sounds built to a crescendo, scraping and rumbling. Her ears flattened back. Instinctively, she reached for her swords and immediately felt foolish for trying. As a precaution, she cast a spell to activate her mage armor. The moment the spell completed, the noise suddenly stopped.

Twilight listened intently, her eyes scanning the wall of her cell. “Maybe it’s gone...” Fluttershy murmured from behind her.

A blue aura lit a single stone in the wall, and it slowly slid into the cell. Twilight smiled. “Or maybe it’s Rarity.”

“Rarity?!” Rainbow cried. “It’s about time! I can’t wait to get out of here!”

The stone slid completely free and thumped onto the floor of Twilight’s cell. A blue light shined through the hole. “Twilight?” Rarity’s voice caressed her ears, sweeter than she could have imagined.

“Rarity!” Twilight said and rushed towards the hole in the wall.

“Oh thank Celestia,” Applejack said from her cell.

“Twilight?!” Pinkie called, bursting with excitement.

Twilight crouched down in front of the hole and peered through it, lighting her own horn. On the far side, Pinkie’s smiling face filled her field of view. “Hey Pinkie!” Twilight said with a grin.

“Twilight, step away from the wall,” Rarity said.

“Right,” Twilight said as she backed away.

“Are you clear?” Rarity asked.

Twilight pressed up against the bars, ready to protect herself with her levitation. “As clear as I can be.”

Rarity started an incantation. She’s casting a scroll, Twilight realized. She recognized the spell as a relatively simple Silence. Most unicorns couldn’t even manage that much, but Rarity had already demonstrated a certain arcane knack.

When Rarity finished the scroll, every vibration in the air stilled, and Twilight could only hear the pulse of her own blood. The wall fell in, surreally quiet. She felt the tremors in the floor, but no sound reached her ears. Large stones crushed the flimsy cot, flattening it. Twilight smiled – seeing the itchy thing destroyed was immensely satisfying. A cloud of dust threw the light from her horn and painted her surroundings in a distorted mix of blue and purple.

Twilight sneezed. Blinking, she peered through the dust. Her heart raced when she saw the silhouettes of two diamond dogs. For an instant, she was back at the bottom of the shaft, alone, with her leg broken. They’re friends; they must be, she told herself, trying to calm her beating heart.

Pinkie emerged from the dust and hugged her, her mouth moving as she said something. “—I’d be back!” she said, sound abruptly returning.

Twilight buried her face in Pinkie’s curly mane. It smelled like candy – like it always did. She wrapped her forelegs around Pinkie, feeling calm almost immediately. I wonder what I smell like, Twilight thought. Pinkie didn’t seem to care.

As the dust settled, Rarity said, “Thank you, sirs. You’ve done all I can ask of you.”

Twilight watched over Pinkie’s shoulder as the diamond dogs, a pair of well-muscled brutes, knelt before Rarity. “We can never repay you, pony!” one said.

“You have,” Rarity said with a smile. “Go, get to the docks. Find Captain Fairbreeze. Pull your weight, and he’ll take you aboard.”

“Thank you, pony!” they said in unison, then turned and retreated down a freshly dug tunnel.

Twilight disentangled herself from Pinkie and looked down the tunnel leading out of her cell. It descended with a gentle slope, fading into darkness. Wooden supports held the loose earth. Two thick beams flanked the gap in her cell wall and bore the weight of the fortress wall above. A white bunny bounced out of the tunnel, rushed between Twilight’s legs, and through the bars of the door.

“Angel!” Fluttershy cried.

Twilight smiled, turning to watch Fluttershy embrace her friend. “How’d you get their help?” Twilight asked Rarity.

“We set them free,” Rarity said simply. “Now, we haven’t much time. Somepony must have heard some noise from the digging.” From an assortment of weapons on her back, she levitated Twilight a curved blade in a sheath with a belt coiled around it. “Here, this’ll have to do if we run into trouble.”

Twilight belted on the sword, noting the other weapons Rarity carried: a pair of wingblades, and a flail. “Are we leaving?”

Rarity stepped forward, unlocking the door to Twilight’s cell and swinging it open with ease. She shook her head as she stepped into the corridor beyond. “Heavens no.” She shot Twilight a grin. “We’re getting our things back.”

Twilight waited behind Rarity and Pinkie at the base of a spiral staircase. She floated the sword at the ready beside her. It felt weighty and unbalanced. Compared to the swords she was used to, it was little more than a crude club with a sharpened edge. She was glad to have it.

The controlled grumbling of an annoyed pegasus filtered down from above. “I have rank on you, Raindrops. Go check out the weird scraping noises, Raindrops... why is it always me?”

Hoofsteps descended the stairs. Twilight checked behind her. Her group was lined up on the side of a corridor, Fluttershy beside her, with Rainbow and Applejack taking up the rear, wingblades and flail ready. Behind them were eight cells, four of them occupied until recently.

A light cast shadows in the corridor as the guard drew closer. When she reached the bottom two steps and came into view, Rarity lunged forward. She held her dagger to the pegasus’s throat and her hoof to her lips.

“Eep!” Raindrops dropped the lantern in her mouth. It hit the ground with a clang, the flame going out.

“If you want to live, you’re going to do exactly what I tell you,” Rarity said, her voice icy cold.

Raindrops swallowed and nodded, her eyes wide.

“How many?” Rarity asked.

“Four!” Raindrops said. “Well, three, since I’m down here. Double shift...” she rambled nervously.

“Quiet,” Rarity hissed.

“Ey, Raindrops! Everything okay?” a voice called from above.

“You’re fine. You dropped your lantern,” Rarity whispered. “Tell them!”

“I’m fine, I just dropped my lantern is all!” Raindrops called.

“I think it’s broken. I’m going to come back up and get a new one,” Rarity whispered.

“I think it’s broken. I’m going to come up and get another,” Raindrops shouted up the stairs.

“Alright!” the voice yelled.

Rarity focused intently on Raindrops. “Listen to me. We don’t want to hurt anypony, but if you make one step out of line, we’re going to have to kill you all. The lives of your comrades are in your hooves. I need you to go up those stairs like nothing is amiss. Can you do that, Raindrops? Can you save them?”

Raindrops gulped. She eyed Twilight and the others. “I uh... forgot the all clear codeword,” Raindrops called. “It’s ‘Cumulus’, isn’t it?”

“You had me worried there for a second,” the voice shouted. “Don’t forget the codeword!”

“Good girl.” Rarity whispered with a smile. “Now go on up...” she turned, saying over her shoulder, “Twilight, Pinkie, you’re up.”

Twilight nodded and cast an Invisibility spell. As opposed to the Greater Invisibility she’d been using earlier, this one would be disrupted much more easily, but it was also less taxing on her resources. She wouldn’t be using it long anyway – she hoped.

Raindrops watched Twilight disappear with a mixture of fascination and awe written on her face. Rarity flicked her head towards the stairs, and Raindrops dutifully climbed them. Twilight followed, with Pinkie behind her. Between her spell and Pinkie’s abilities, it sounded like only one pony was climbing the steps.

At the top, Raindrops fumbled with a keyring and shakily unlocked a heavy oaken door with a barred window. Laughter filtered from the far side. The door creaked as Raindrops gently swung it open. In the room beyond, three ponies sat in uniform, armored only with light chain vests, pushing cards and bits around a table. Two of them weren’t even wearing their wingblades.

Raindrops stepped into the room, going to a set of hooks where lanterns hung nearby the table. As soon as Raindrops was close to the others, Twilight cast a Sleep spell, and her hooves faded back into existence beneath her. Three of them dropped instantly: Raindrops and two of the guards at the table. One of them managed to hold onto consciousness. He fell out of his chair, struggling to keep his eyes open.

Pinkie blazed past Twilight and struck the still-awake guard in the temple, disorienting him long enough for the Sleep spell to work. He slumped against one of the table’s legs, out cold. “All clear,” Twilight called.

According to Rarity, each cell block had only one stairway leading up, and each stairway had a guard room at the top; beyond that, the fortress was largely deserted at night, with most of its occupants asleep in their bunks. Minus a couple patrols and one soldier headed back from the latrine, she was right – except for the evidence vault.

The four guards there met much the same fate as the four guards at the top of the stairs, and soon Twilight stood beside Rarity in front of the vault door, four unconscious pegasi sleeping around her. Six thick steel pins held the door shut, operated by turning a central crank. The locking mechanism was beyond complicated, and Twilight had no idea what purpose half the components served.

“Hold this,” Rarity said, highlighting a seemingly innocuous steel bar.

Twilight laced her levitation around the bar and held it in place while Rarity manipulated several other parts of the mechanism. Something clicked, and Twilight nearly let go of the bar due to a sudden increase in pressure. She strained against it, her horn flaring brighter. The bar creaked and bent.

Suddenly the pressure was gone. Before she could stop, Twilight wrenched the bar. A metallic snap sounded within the mechanism. A moment later, the six pins retracted with a pop. “There we go!” Rarity said, grinning with satisfaction. “Good work, Twilight. You should consider being dumb muscle, instead of the intelligent leader.”

Twilight blinked at Rarity. “What?” she said. Is she making fun of me? she thought.

“It was a joke, darling. I’m just saying I couldn’t have done it without you.” Rarity chuckled and patted Twilight’s shoulder. “Now, let’s get this open.”

With a push from Rarity, the door swung silently toward them on well-oiled hinges. As soon as it was open a crack, an alarm rang. Twilight wanted to cover her ears with her hooves. A horrible arcane wail echoed throughout the fortress, pulsing, rising ever higher in pitch, until it stopped abruptly. For a brief moment, everything was still and silent, then the alarm began again.

Rarity pushed the door open wide, revealing the interior of the vault. Most of their equipment was arranged on a table in the center. “Hurry!” she shouted, barely audible over the alarm, and rushed forward.

Twilight hesitated, her friends following Rarity. Something caught her eye – a sign, up a floor, and beyond a railing. It conveniently pointed the way to the Commander’s Quarters. “I’ll be right back!” she shouted. Then, she focused and cast Dimension Door.

She appeared beneath the sign. A staircase lead back down. To her left, down a short hall, was a door bearing a plaque that read ‘Commander Lightning Dust’. She made for the door, the alarm blaring in her ears. The latch wouldn’t budge – locked. She drove the sword through the handle, chipping the blade, and pushed the door open.

A desk strewn with papers occupied the center of the room. Bronze Fury’s nose ring rested on it beside an inkwell. Lamplight glinted off of the golden filigree adorning the chair behind it. In the corner, an armor stand stood, fully outfitted. To her right was a closed door leading to another room. Twilight held her sword ready and stepped into the office.

Lightning Dust burst through the door, her mane disheveled. The moment she saw Twilight, she lunged forward, swinging Rainbow Dash’s wingblades. A blast of wind hit Twilight and slammed her into the wall. She fell to the floor, battered through her mage armor, but just before Lightning Dust sliced her with a wing, she retaliated in kind, lashing out with her levitation.

Lightning Dust smashed into the desk, flipped back over it, sent the chair sprawling, and hit the far wall, her unprotected head cracking against the wood. She landed in a broken pile. Twilight picked herself up and slowly approached the unmoving body.

With a groan, Lightning Dust shifted. Twilight watched her struggle to rise like a cat watches a mouse, a sense of cold detachment falling over her. Her sword, nothing more than a lump steel, hummed to her, promising blood. She was hungry. It would be so easy... she thought. Still, she hesitated, fighting to hold back. The alarm reached it’s fever pitch, then went silent again.

When she was about to let her sword fall, she heard somepony’s hooves in the doorway and whipped around. Rainbow Dash stepped into the room. “What the hell, Twilight! I nearly lost track of you!” she angrily shouted.

“I said I’d be right back,” Twilight said, turning back to Lightning Dust.

“I didn’t hear you,” Rainbow yelled over the alarm as it started back up again. “Besides, we should stick together!”

Twilight eyed Lightning Dust. What do I want to be? she asked herself. She loosed the straps on the wingblades and roughly pulled them off Lightning Dust’s wings. As she passed them to Rainbow, Lightning Dust almost managed to rise. I wonder if she knows Rainbow just saved her life, Twilight thought while she picked up Bronze Fury’s nose ring from where it had fallen beside the desk.

“Let’s go!” Twilight shouted and stepped out the door.

And nearly ran face first into the backside of a Flaming Wing soldier scrambling toward the vault. He turned, his eyes wide, and swung at Twilight with trained precision. Rainbow intervened, parrying the attack. Twilight stepped to the side and flanked the soldier. While Rainbow kept him on the defensive, Twilight aimed a swing at his thigh muscle with the intent to hinder, not kill.

She swung hard, knowing that she had to cut through armor with a dull, non-magical blade. He took a step back at precisely the wrong moment. She couldn’t stop in time. Her swing contacted chainmail and tore more than cut through his leg, dragging the links with it. He collapsed, his leg broken and nearly severed, bleeding profusely.

Rainbow watched in horror while blood pooled on the floor of the hallway. “Twilight!” she shouted.

“I missed!” Twilight cried. She stepped forward and touched a hoof to the fallen soldier’s thigh, healing him. He’d lose the leg, most likely, but at least he wouldn’t bleed out.

The fortress was alive with activity now. The thunder of hooves accompanied the blaring alarm as soldiers rushed to defend against the intruders. Twilight reached the railing and teleported back down to the vault. Rainbow landed beside her a moment later.

“Where’d you two go?” Applejack shouted from inside the vault as she strapped on the last piece of her dragonscale armor.

“We got the wingblades!” Twilight yelled.

Applejack tilted her head toward Twilight. “What?”

Rarity ripped a narrow rod scribed with arcane runes out of the wall, and the alarm finally went silent.

“We got the wingblades,” Twilight said as she retrieved her swords and strapped them in place, discarding her bloody mundane weapon.

“Good. We’re about done here,” Applejack said.

Twilight put on her cloak. “We’ve got to move.” She looked around for her last important item, the horn ring, before she realized she had it the entire time. It fit snugly under the suppressor, so it had been hidden from her captors. She wondered what it would be like to cast without the ring. That’s an experiment for another time, she decided.

“Twilight, this is evidence!” Rarity said, exasperated, as she picked up the bloody sword and shoved it into the Bag of Holding.

Twilight cast a Haste spell. “Let’s go,” she said, then stepped out of the vault. The Flaming Wing were assembled between them and the fortress’s main door, at least twenty of them, with more arriving every second. She stopped short.

Rarity sped past her, saying, “That’s not our exit,” as she headed for the cell block. Twilight followed, along with the rest of her friends.

“Where are they going?!” one of the soldiers shouted.

“After them! They’ve got nowhere to go that way!” another yelled.

Twilight glanced over her shoulder. Pegasi flew in, blocking the hallway behind her. They advanced in formation in the confined space. The gap between her group and their pursuers quickly expanded, the haste spell proving invaluable.

“Look out!” Pinkie Pie yelled, and Twilight snapped her gaze forward.

A group of four Flaming Wing ponies burst into the hallway ahead of them from a side door. Twilight slowed, preparing to cast a spell, but before she could, Rainbow swept two of them aside with blasts of air, and Applejack knocked the other two into a pile against a wall with a swing of her chain. Twilight galloped past as they were getting back to their feet.

When they reached the cell block, she paused to grease the stairs after they reached the bottom. That should slow them down, she thought. She caught up with her group as they reached the tunnel. Rarity waited for her in the opening.

“Collapse it,” Rarity said.

Twilight nodded, and cut the beams with her swords before sprinting down the tunnel beside Rarity. The wall held for a moment, and Twilight looked back, only to see it collapse. A thunderous crash followed them as they descended.

A layer of fine grey dust coated Twilight’s sweat-slicked fur when they emerged from the rough tunnel into a wide masoned passage. She blinked dust from her eyes and tried to spit it out of her dry mouth. She’d been collapsing the tunnel as she went.

In one direction, the passage curved gently away, perfectly level. In the other, it ended in a cave-in. A pile of dirt had been built beside the mouth of the tunnel. Twilight coughed. “How long did it take to dig?” she asked.

“Not long,” Pinkie said.

“With two diamond dogs?” Rarity said. “About eight hours... need a drink?”

Twilight nodded, and Rarity produced her pack from the Bag of Holding. After settling the saddlebags on her back, she took a long swig from her waterskin. Swallowing, she peered at the walls around them. The stones were cut to fit almost perfectly together.

“What is this place?” Applejack asked, brushing her hoof against one of the walls.

Pinkie grinned. “Smuggler’s Way!”

“A side passage, to be specific, mostly unused,” Rarity elaborated.

Twilight sagged, lying down by the wall. She’d let go of the Haste spell when it was no longer needed, and now, her muscles burned. Her stomach knotted – a reminder that she hadn’t had anything to eat besides a bit of bread since she was captured. She opened her pack and discarded a rotten apple.

“What’ve we got to eat?” she asked.

“I’m starving,” Rainbow said, plopping down on her haunches beside Twilight. “I couldn’t eat a bite of that gruel.”

“I managed a little,” Applejack said. “But I’m pretty hungry too.”

“I um... have some oats,” Fluttershy said while she rummaged in her pack. “Oh, and I’m hungry also.”

“Come on,” Rarity beckoned from down the passage. “There’ll be food on the way, I promise.”

Twilight munched on oats while she walked, the echos of everypony’s hooves surrounding her. “So,” she said around a mouthful, “You named this place, but what is it?”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t actually know,” Rarity said. “These tunnels are a relic of old Manehattan – from before the Time of Troubles. Most of them are collapsed or flooded, but there is one that runs from the docks to the heart of the city that’s still open. It’s called Smuggler’s Way, and we’ll be coming up on it soon.”

“Doesn’t seem like it’d be much good for smuggling if the Flaming Wing knew about it. I guess they don’t come down here?” Applejack said.

“Indeed. It’s a closely guarded guild secret. Well, that and bribes keep the law enforcement out,” Rarity said.

Applejack nodded in understanding.

“What guild?” Twilight asked.

Rarity shot a sidelong smile at Twilight. “The Theives Guild, of course. Did you grow up under a rock?”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “No, behind a wall. I didn’t read about them in any books... I mean, now that I think about it, I can remember them being mentioned in passing, but I never realized they were so prevalent.”

“I think they like being kept out of the history books,” Rarity said.

“They?” Twilight said. “So you’re not a part of the guild?”

“Sort of. I was a part of it, but once you’re in the Thieves Guild, you can never really leave,” Rarity said.

Pinkie nudged Applejack in the ribs. “Once a thief, always a thief, ‘ey AJ?”

Applejack’s ears swiveled back. “Uh... sure.”

“Hey, you ate that stolen bread too,” Rainbow said.

“Ooh, you ate something stolen?” Pinkie said. “Juicy! Guess that makes you a thievin’ thiefy thief, Applejack.”

Applejack sighed in exasperation. “Fine, I admit it! I was a bit too harsh on the stealing thing. Sometimes, there’s a good reason for it. That don’t make it right, though. If we get the chance, we should pay that baker back, Twilight.”

Twilight nodded. “If I can, I’ll pay them back, window and all.”

Twilight’s hoof struck something metal and she stumbled forward, spilling oats as she struggled to regain her balance. She winced and lifted the injured hoof while she looked for what she’d run into. She found a thick metal bar with a T shaped cross-section lying on the floor of the passage. Out of curiosity, she picked it up, inspecting it. She could make out the faint lines of what were once arcane runes.

Her eyes went wide as realization dawned on her. “This is the Tramway!”

“The what now?” Rainbow said.

“Manehattan used to have a Tramway that could take ponies from one end of the island to the other in a matter of minutes using arcane cars,” Twilight explained. “This tunnel was once part of it! It’s real!”

She felt like one of her favorite scholars recounting the story of how they stumbled on proof of an ancient relic. “The magical implications alone are fascinating,” she said. “I can’t wait to tell Crystal Clear about this!”

“You can’t tell her, Twilight,” Rarity said.

“What? Why not?” Twilight asked, incredulous.

“Because then I would have betrayed the trust of the Thieves Guild, and I don’t want that to happen,” Rarity said.

Twilight dejectedly dropped the bar and stared at it. “Right...” she said. She looked up at Rarity. “Wait... Crystal Clear... is she alright?”

“She’s fine,” Rarity said. “The Flaming Wing let her and her group go when they found nothing tying them to us.”

Twilight sighed with relief.

The line they were on soon curved into another. The bustle of voices reached Twilight’s ears long before they made it around the bend. When they reached the other line, Smuggler’s Way, Twilight saw ponies traveling to and fro pulling carts full of exotic goods. It was twice as wide as the tunnel that ran under the Flaming Wing prison and as busy as a city street.

Rarity stopped them before they reached the traffic. She held out the Bag of Holding. “Put anything valuable in here, or you won’t have it by the time we get where we’re going.”

All of their cloaks, except for Fluttershy’s – she insisted on wearing hers, and with Angel on her back protecting it, it would be safe – went into the bag, along with a few of the more accessible pieces of Applejack’s armor, Rarity’s bow, and any coin they had. Twilight considered, then added Solstice to the bag. She was confident she could keep anyone from stealing one of her swords, but not both. When Applejack fished the spike out of her bag, Rarity eyed it with interest.

“Does that go on the end of your chain?” Rarity asked.

“Yup. I was hoping to find a blacksmith that could reforge it in this city,” Applejack said.

“Humm, I might know how to get it fixed,” Rarity said as she slipped the spike into the Bag of Holding. “We’ll deal with that later though.” She passed the bag to Applejack, tucking it under her breastplate. “I’m trusting you to keep this safe.”

Applejack nodded, and with that, Rarity turned the corner and slipped into the traffic.

Twilight followed Rarity. Their group stayed tight, occupying a space between two carts. Still, a couple strangers brushed against her as they wove through traffic. An unseen unicorn tried to steal her sword, but Twilight kept an overwhelming grip on it. Within a few minutes, Twilight entertained the thought of wasting the crowd with a Fireball so that she could have some peace.

Before long, the passage widened out, makeshift wooden steps on either side leading up onto elevated platforms. She stared up at the vaulted ceiling. A station... she realized, awestruck by the sheer size of the artificial cavern. Rarity led them onto one of the platforms. Above the traffic, vendors hawked their wares.

“I don’t get it,” Twilight said, twirling two sticks in a bowl of noodle soup as she looked around the platform.

“Oh, chopsticks are quite simple once you get the hang of them, really,” Rarity said between mouthfuls of noodle.

“No, I got that. I don’t get how so many ponies can be down here and it be any semblance of a secret. Isn’t one of them bound to sell out?” Twilight said. She lifted the bowl to her lips and hungrily scooped some noodles into her mouth. It was supposed to be some sort of foreign delicacy. To Twilight, the broth tasted like salty water with a hint of spice and shrimp, but it was full of delicious noodles that filled her belly. “Why can’t I tell Crystal Clear?” she asked after swallowing.

Rarity sighed. “It’s not so much that nopony knows about it, it’s more that the officials in charge of law enforcement – the ponies that pay the Flaming Wing – can deny that it exists.” She pulled a bunch of noodles rotated around her chopsticks out of the bowl. “If a scholar like Crystal Clear published what you discovered, there would be no end of them poking around down here. Sooner or later, the ponies that the Thieves Guild bribes wouldn’t be able to plausibly deny the existence of Manehattan's underground any longer, and I’d be to blame.” She popped the noodles into her mouth.

Twilight shrugged. “She wouldn’t publish it if I told her not to.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow at Twilight. “Are you sure about that? How well do you know her? She’s ambitious, for one. She might even steal your discovery, given the opportunity.”

“She wouldn’t! She’s not that ambitious!” Twilight argued.

“Then why did she come out of retirement for this whole Crystal Princess thing?” Rarity asked.

“Professional curiosity,” Twilight said.

Applejack looked up from her bowl of soup. “Look, I’m sure this is a fascinating conversation you’re havin’ about fancy unicorn cutlery, bribery, and academic backstabbing, but I’d like to eat, get wherever we’re going, and get some sleep. So clam up and eat up.”

Rainbow tipped back her bowl with her hooves, sucking it down. “Done! How far is it, anyway?”

Pinkie finished off her bowl and thunked it down on the table they were sitting around. “Finished!” she glanced at Rainbow’s empty bowl. “Aww... you beat me.”

“Not far from here,” Rarity said. She pointed a hoof at the ceiling. “There’s an exit up there near where we’re headed.”

Fluttershy toyed with her food, not eating. “So there’s really shrimp in here?”

Twilight held up a dust-covered foreleg, shielding her eyes from the Sun as she stepped out of a small, nondescript building that concealed one of the entrances to Smuggler’s Way. In the street, she stopped. She dropped her foreleg and closed her eyes, facing east down the street toward the dawn. She smiled with the breeze in her mane and sunlight warming her coat. It was refreshing – to stand in the day rather than glimpse it through a narrow grate.

She opened her eyes and looked up at the strip of cloudy blue sky visible between the buildings that lined the street. Above, she saw the glint of two armored pegasi making their way across the sky. In the distance ahead of them, the Flaming Wing fortress towered above the surrounding structures, red banners flapping in the breeze.

“Come on, Twilight,” Rarity said, and Twilight trotted to catch up with her friends.

Rarity lead them uphill, and Twilight could tell that they were moving into an upper class area. As they went, the streets got cleaner, and the buildings became fancier. Up here, there was considerably less bustle and chaos, though many ponies walked through the streets around them despite the early hour. They stopped at a street corner to dodge a Flaming Wing patrol, and Twilight looked back the way they’d come.

Water sparkled between the island and the mainland. On the far side, the patchwork of farmland extended into the distance. A wide, long bridge spanned the narrowest point, connecting the city with the Coast Road. In the distance beyond coastline, a single three-masted sailing ship made its way out to sea.

Rarity signaled an all clear, then lead them across the street to a brightly colored building with stylized spires decorating its roof. A sign hanging out front depicted the silhouette of a mare whose mane flowed gloriously in the breeze. Rarity pushed the door open, the soft chime of a bell signaling her entrance, and slipped inside.

Twilight followed Rarity through the open door. The interior of the shop was warmly lit and colored. An elegant pony behind the counter looked up and greeted Rarity with a smile. “Ah, Miss Rarity, you made it!” she said, her accent carrying a foreign flavor.

“Lotus! Of course I made it,” Rarity said, approaching the counter. “I trust we still have our arrangement?” She produced something from her Bag of Holding, and Twilight caught the glimpse of gemstones as she passed them across the counter.

Lotus swept the gems behind the counter with a forehoof. “Absolutely, you have the place to yourselves.”

While Rarity and Lotus talked, the group filed in. Twilight glanced at them standing awkwardly in the small waiting area, their rough, travel worn appearance decidedly out of place in the clean establishment, and their hooves left marks on the blue rug in the center of the room.

“No questions asked?” Rarity said.

“No questions asked,” Lotus confirmed. She looked past Rarity at Twilight and her friends. “Oh no... this simply will not do.” She shook her head, then shouted, “Aloe!”

A second pony swept out from a back room, nearly identical to the pony behind the counter. Her eyes widened in horror when she saw Twilight. She rushed forward. “What is this?” she asked, scraping some dust off of Twilight’s coat with a hoof. “This is a travesty! Such a wonderful shade, hidden!”

Twilight held still as Aloe picked up her forehoof and inspected it. “Chipped, unmaintained,” Aloe said. She inspected Twilight’s horn and gasped. “Bruised! What has happened to you, filly?”

“I, um...” Twilight said.

Aloe held up a hoof. “Do not answer that. Come, you must be treated!” She beckoned. “All of you!” She shouted ahead, “Warm up the baths!”

Twilight stewed in a bath. Even though she knew it was mud surrounding her, not water, she felt immaculately clean. Somepony held her hoof and filed at it gently. A mask of paste covered her face. A cool salve coated her horn – wonderful and soothing. Tender scents caressed her sinuses. Another unidentified pony brushed her mane. She even had cucumbers on her eyes.

She’d never been more relaxed in her life.

“Wow,” Pinkie said from nearby, chewing. “You were right Twilight! They do have cucumbers at spas! This definitely beats the bath we had at the Helping Hoof.”

“Mhmm...” Twilight murmured, barely conscious. A quiet moment passed, and she slipped away into a dream.

White feathers caressed Twilight. Celestia’s wing lovingly draped over her. The Goddess looked exactly like Spike had described. Her horn was long and elegant. Her mane was an aurora, flowing in an ethereal breeze. She looked at Twilight, her eyes glowing gold, and spoke.

“She will be the death of you, Star Swirl. She could bring the death of us all.”

Twilight looked down. There was a black thorn buried in her chest, festering. Shadows reached out and pulled her away from Celestia. She struggled against their clutches, fighting to return to the light.

Celestia looked down at her from a bank of clouds, silhouetted against the sun. Evil ponies surrounded Twilight. They rushed at her with weapons held high. She cut them down like a farmer reaping wheat. She had to live; Star Swirl wanted her to live. Blood spilled around her. She was power.

But every time she killed, the thorn drove deeper. The harder she fought to survive, the further the shadows pulled her. Eventually, she couldn’t see the golden glow of the Goddess's eyes.

She was alone.

Twelve black wings spread above her, radiating around a central eye. The eye opened and revealed a maw of bloody teeth. She drew ever closer to it, unable to escape.

Twilight came awake screaming. She couldn’t see. Something sucked at her hooves, holding her back as she tried to rise. She reached for her swords – they weren’t strapped to her. Her horn surged with magic. Flames wreathed her hooves, sizzling in whatever held them.

Somepony hugged her – warm and gentle. “Shhh... Twilight, it’s okay...” Fluttershy whispered in her ear.

Twilight released the spell, allowing it to dissipate harmlessly, as realization dawned on her. She pulled the cucumber slices off of her eyes with her levitation. She was in the spa, with her friends. They were staring at her with concern. She was safe.

She buried her face into Fluttershy’s shoulder. I almost... she thought. If I had completed the spell... Fluttershy’s coat was damp against her cheek. Am I crying? Twilight wondered.

Twilight shifted in a bed on the second floor of the spa. The bed was luxurious, beyond comfortable compared to where she’d been sleeping, but she couldn’t relax. The feeling of terror in the spa lingered in her mind, torturing her with the possibility that she was moments away from burning everypony in the room to a crisp. I’m unstable... she thought.

“Hey Pinkie, are you awake?” Twilight softly said into the darkness.

“Yeah?” Pinkie answered.

“You know I’d never hurt you, right?” Twilight said.

“I know,” Pinkie said. “I told you to Aiff.”

Twilight managed a small laugh. “Yeah...” I would have stopped in time... she told herself. “Do you think that they know that?” she asked.

Silence. A shiver ran down Twilight’s spine.

“... I think that they know you’ve been through a lot,” Pinkie said.

Twilight rolled over to look at Pinkie. Dark curtains covered the windows, and she could barely make out Pinkie’s bed. “So have you.”

“I haven’t been through as much as you, Twilight,” Pinkie said. Twilight saw the faint reflection of light on her eyes.

Twilight settled onto her back, pressing her head into the soft pillow. “We’re close... it’ll be over soon.”

“I don’t think so,” Pinkie said. “I think we’ve got a long way to go.”

“We’re going to go back home, Pinkie,” Twilight said with conviction. “We’ll get to the bottom of this, and it’ll be safe there.”

“Even if we can go back home, it’ll never be the same,” Pinkie said sadly.

Twilight sighed. She’s probably right... she thought. She didn’t want Pinkie to be right. “Sleep tight, Pinkie,” she said.

“You too, Twi...” Pinkie said. “Remember, I’m here, with you.”

Twilight nodded and closed her eyes. She listened to Spike’s soft snoring at the foot of her bed until she finally drifted off to sleep.

Cloaked figures wearing masks plagued her dreams.

Twilight languished in a hot bath, sipping tea. The bathwater smelled of lavender – courtesy of a special soap Lotus had provided. She took in the view out the second story window; the Sun was low on the horizon, its rays shimmering across Rigger’s Cove.

Twilight held up a flier. It had sketches of all six of them, along with their marks, printed from a block carving. It promised a thousand bits for information leading to their capture. “Should we be worried?” she asked.

Rarity, resting on a couch wrapped in a thick robe, shook her head. “No. Lotus and Aloe would never sell out a customer. They showed that to us, didn’t they?”

Twilight nodded. She set the filer and the tea aside and pulled herself out of the bath before her hooves got too soft from the water. Dripping water on the floor, she reached for a warm towel.

“Besides, only a thousand bits for escaped prisoners of our capability? The trade crisis must be cutting deep into their coffers,” Rarity added while Twilight dried herself off.

“So, what’s our next move?” Applejack said from across the room.

“We need to clear our names,” Twilight said, glancing at the filer again. ’Dangerous if confronted, report sightings to the Flaming Wing headquarters,’ it read.

“How do we do that?” Rainbow asked around a primary feather, preening her wings.

Twilight sighed. “I don’t know. Who would listen to us?” She picked up her tea and took another sip.

“We could go to one of the Duchesses,” Rarity suggested. “If we told them what we know, showed them what we found in the Ponyville safehouse, and showed them our old friend Pyros’s head, they might launch an investigation.”

Twilight raised a brow. “What’s in it for them?”

“Status,” Rarity said. “If they could claim credit for uncovering this conspiracy, it would do wonders for them.”

“Who, then?” Twilight asked.

Rarity produced a small book from her Bag of Holding and tossed it on the floor in front of Twilight. “I got that from an information broker on Smuggler’s Way. It’s everything there is to know about Manehattan’s esteemed Dukes and Duchesses.”

Twilight hoofed the book open while she used her magic to wrap the towel around her wet mane. She flipped through it, skimming – four Duchesses and two Dukes, each selected to represent the interests of one of Manehattan’s six great merchant houses.

“Take a look at Duke Shining Armor,” Rarity advised.

Twilight found the page and read it over. Shining Armor had been an orphan of unknown parentage until he married one ‘Mi Amore Cadenza’. After that, her parents died, and he and his wife inherited a great deal of money. In less than a year, he became a Duke. The page included a sketch; he was handsome, with a chiseled jaw and strong features. His mark was interesting: a shield adorned with a six pointed star much like hers. He was probably a talented magic user.

“Can I see it?” Applejack asked.

Twilight passed the book to Applejack. “It’s a real rags to riches story,” she said. She eyed Rarity. “Why him?”

“He’s young, the newest Duke, and he married into nobility. He’s got the most to prove. If any of them would take a risk on this, it’s him,” Rarity said, punctuating each point with her hoof.

Applejack nodded. “Makes sense.”

“Their estate is nearby,” Rarity said. “We could be there by sundown.”

“What are we waiting for?” Rainbow asked, standing up.

Twilight peered around the corner of a building, watching Pinkie scout ahead. A stone wall topped with iron spikes separated Shining Armor’s estate from the road. The four story structure towered behind the wall, light shining out into the dusk through its illuminated windows. A barred window in a small guardhouse next to the estate’s gate glowed with lamplight. Pinkie looked over the wall, standing on it. After a few seconds, she turned and descended.

Pinkie crossed the street in the shadows, and when she reached where the group was hiding, said, “There’s one in the little house and two by the estate’s door.”

“We’ll go around the side, slip over the wall, and deal with the guards,” Twilight said.

“Sounds good,” Rarity said. “The Duke will probably be a little shaken when we come bursting in, but he’ll listen.”

Applejack chuckled. “I’ll bet it won’t be his favorite way to spend an evening.”

“Planning a break in?” a voice said from behind Twilight.

Twilight whirled and laced her magic around her swords. Ten paces behind them, a hooded, white pony stepped out of the shadows. With a flick of her head, she tossed back the hood, revealing a horn and a pink mane.

Twilight blinked in surprise. “Sunny Skies?” She relaxed her guard.

Sunny Skies smiled warmly at Twilight as she stepped forward. “Twilight Sparkle. It’s a surprise to see you here. Did you cast the scroll I gave you.”

“You know her?” Rainbow said as she folded her flared wings.

“I did...” Twilight nodded and turned to Rainbow. “She was a friend of Star Swirl’s.” She refocused on Sunny Skies. “What’re you doing here?”

“I’m here to speak to Cadance. I could ask you the same,” Sunny Skies said, her voice passive.

“We need to talk to the Duke,” Twilight said.

“Why don’t you try asking?” She stepped past Twilight, still smiling. “Come on. I’ll tell them to let you in.”

Twilight watched Sunny Skies cross the street, dazed.

“Who is she?” Rarity whispered.

Twilight glanced over at the corner of the house where they were planning to climb over the wall.

“We going with her?” Applejack asked.

In the middle of the street, Sunny Skies turned back to look at Twilight, lifted a hoof, and beckoned. Twilight found herself stepping forward out into the street. There was something entrancing about the unassuming unicorn in front of her; she felt safe.

They waited in beside the gates while Sunny Skies gently knocked. Almost immediately, a small panel in the gate slid back. “Sunny Skies?” the guardspony on the other side asked. Without even waiting for an answer, the gate swung open.

The two guards on the far side jumped in surprise when they saw Twilight and her friends. Their chainmail clinked as they shifted into a defensive posture. “Who’re they?” one asked.

“They’re with me,” Sunny Skies said evenly.

“Of course... right this way,” one of the guards said, bowing slightly. “Princess Cadance is waiting for you in the dining room.” She turned down a path that lead to the estate’s double doors.

Twilight blinked. Princess?

She didn’t have time to ponder for long. Before she reached the doors, one of the guards held up a hoof, gesturing for them to stop. “Could you leave your weapons with us please?” he said. Twilight could tell from his tone that he wouldn’t let them in unless they complied.

She shifted nervously, remembering her last experience with giving up her weapons, and shook her head. “I’d rather not.”

“Let them in,” Sunny Skies said. “It won’t be a problem; you have my word.”

The guard swallowed and opened the doors for them.

Twilight stepped into the entry foyer, her clean, polished hooves clicking on the marble tiles. A chandelier hanging from the vaulted ceiling illuminated a grand ballroom. To her left, a staircase climbed to a second story balcony. A servant on the staircase busily polished the railing, pretending not to look at them.

“Fancy!” Pinkie said, gazing around the room with fascination.

Another servant, smartly dressed in a black suit, greeted Sunny Skies. “Right this way, Lady Skies,” he said, his gaze passing over Twilight and her group. His eyes narrowed, but he turned and lead them towards a wide doorway leading out of the ballroom to the right. On the way, he paused beside a pony wearing an apron and whispered something.

“I know; we’re going to the dining room,” Sunny Skies said with an understanding smile. “Why don’t you figure out how to accommodate your unannounced guests?” she suggested as she stepped past. “I can find my own way.”

The pony in the suit dipped his head. “Of course. We’ll be serving supper shortly.”

When they arrived in the dining room, the estate’s staff were already setting six new places on a long banquet table. Even with the new plates, it looked barren, far too long for eight ponies in total. Sunny Skies took a seat at one end of the table. Their hostess was nowhere to be found.

After she picked a seat, Twilight unbuckled her swords and set them beside her chair so that she would be comfortable. She felt awkward; the weapons were out of place. At least I don’t look like I’m fresh out of prison, she thought. As she propped Celestial Fury against the table, a voice drew her attention.

“Sorry, I had to step out for a moment.”

Twilight focused on the speaker. A pink unicorn with a styled, marble-patterned mane stood at the end of the table. She wore a loose fitting robe of white silk. She stretched before taking her seat opposite Sunny Skies, and wings spread from her back, emerging from under her robe.

Twilight stared in awe.

“Sunny, you didn’t tell me you were bringing friends,” the Alicorn said, eyeing Twilight.

“I’m sorry, Cadance, I didn’t expect them either,” Sunny Skies said, chuckling.

A servant ladled some soup into the silver bowl in front of Twilight, and she snapped out of her daze. “You’re the Crystal Princess!” she blurted.

“Twilight!” Rarity hissed from beside her. “Don’t be rude!”

Cadance dipped her head. “I am,” she said, a hint of something sad in her tone.

Regret? Resignation? Twilight wondered.

“Cadance... I warned you about calling yourself a Princess...” Sunny Skies said.

“It’s what I am, isn’t it?” Cadance said, her tone defensive. “It’s my right. You yourself said I was the heir to her power.”

“It’s only going to cause tension,” Sunny Skies said. She unfurled her napkin, toying with it. “I heard a rumor that you’re planning on asking the Duchesses to back you as the rightful ruler of the Crystal Empire when they next meet.”

“Is that what this ‘visit’ is about?” Cadance asked irritably. She lifted a glass full of red wine to her lips and took a hurried sip.

Twilight awkwardly looked between them. The table had suddenly become tense. She felt like her group wasn’t supposed to be here. They all sat quietly, watching.

“Cadance, is it true or not?” Sunny Skies said, staring hard down the length of the table at Cadance.

Cadance sighed with resignation. “It’s true.”

Sunny Skies glared at Cadance, her eyes smoldering. “You’re going to start a war,” she said with a cold calm.

Cadance shot up out of her seat, staring back at Sunny Skies in defiance. “I’m not the one who’s starting it!” she shouted. “Look around you! Manehattan and the Empire are a hair's breadth away from war! The mere rumor of my existence is making the Empire lash out! Just two weeks ago, they sent assassins! If it weren’t for Shining Armor, I’d be dead!”

Sunny Skies rose from her seat. All of the calm and safety Twilight had seen in her had vanished. “Have you even thought about what you’re about to unleash?” Sunny Skies said, her voice still controlled. “Thousands will die. Maybe hundreds of thousands. Raping, pillaging, famine. Is that what you want, Cadance?”

“What I want?!” Cadance yelled. “Did Celestia even think about what I wanted when she chose me for this ‘Ascension’? I wanted to live happily ever after with my new husband,”–she flapped her wings–”not sprout these things and be told I’m a demigod! If the Empire takes over and finds me, they’ll kill me, or worse! I need to unite the merchant houses while I still can!”

Cadance looked down at the table. “Tell Celestia I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve been given,” she said. “If she wants to strike me down, she can. Isn’t that what she does to gods that step out of line?”

Sunny Skies sighed, still standing. She hung her head low. Twilight thought she looked weary – exhausted. “Celestia thinks you can do better... but so can we all,” Sunny Skies said slowly. “I’m sorry, Cadance... I’ll take my leave.”

Sunny Skies turned away from the table and made her way towards the door.

“Or did she just strike down her Sister?” Cadance shot after her.

Sunny Skies’s step hitched, and she trotted quickly out.

Cadance eyed the hilt of Celestial Fury propped against the table. She looked at the group. “Are you Celestia’s champions? Is that why Sunny Skies brought you here: to kill me?” She sank back into her seat and held her head in her hooves.

Is she crying? Twilight wondered, watching Cadance’s chest heave. She felt a pang of sympathy. She shook her head. “No, we’re not. We barely know Sunny Skies. We’re just here to see–”


One of the double doors that lead into the ballroom flew off its hinges and hit Applejack in the back, knocking her face first into the table and scattering dishes. The plate on her forehead absorbed the blow, and she kicked the sheet of wood back the way it came. The door crashed into the wall beside the torn hinges.

In the same moment, Twilight reflexively cast Stoneskin. She jumped up onto the table, facing the door. She saw a unicorn on the far side with a silver tower shield floating beside him; she recognized him from the sketch – Duke Shining Armor.

Shining Armor focused and shot a light from his horn. It hit her square in the chest, and all the layers of her Stoneskin crumbled away. Breach, she realized. No matter. She had another Stoneskin stored in Solstice, ready to be cast as part of a Sequencer. Cadance shouted something, but Twilight couldn’t hear what it was over the sound of the door falling to the floor. Shining Armor was already advancing toward her, shield held high. He focused on her with single-minded purpose.

She held her swords ready, a plan of action flashing across her mind in an instant. When he attacked, she would trigger her Sequencer, eat the hit, step to the side around his shield, and hamstring him with Solstice. While he recovered from the pain, she’d knock away his shield with Celestial Fury. With her allies around him, she was certain he’d surrender.

As the shield came toward her, its blunt face coming for her face, she felt a strange sense of déjà vu.

“Shining, stop!” Cadance shouted.

Shining Armor froze, his shield mid-bash. As sudden as a bolt of lightning, Rainbow sideswiped him with her hooves, his mage armor rippling into view as she hit, and they both sprawled onto the floor. Pinkie dove off the table into the melee and hit Shining Armor in the horn. His shield clattered to the floor.

“She could help us,” Cadance said.

Rubbing his horn, Shining Armor looked between Twilight and Cadance in disbelief. “She can?” he said. His voice seemed vaguely familiar.

“I’m so sorry, everypony,” Cadance said. “My Husband has been jumpy since the assassination attempt.”

Shining Armor picked himself up off the floor, eyeing Pinkie and Rainbow warily. “I heard shouting, I thought something was wrong...” he looked at Twilight. “Then, I saw y—” he paused for a moment, wincing as he held his horn. “Your swords.”

Twilight glanced at Cadance. “It’s okay. I’m sorry we appeared to be a danger,” she said. She climbed off the table and set down her swords, then turned back to Shining Armor. “You could’ve hurt somepony with that door, though. I’d look before I tossed something like that,” she said, still irritated. “You okay, Applejack?”

Applejack laughed as she sat back down in her chair. “Didn’t feel a thing. This armor is great, Rarity.”

Rarity smiled. “I’m glad it performed well in the line of duty.”

“Yeah...” Shining Armor said, his voice low.

Is that all he has to say for himself? Twilight wondered, glaring. “You could have hit Cadance, or one of the servants,” she said, gesturing at where Cadance sat at the end of the table next to Applejack, then at one of the shaken serving ponies. “Be more careful!”

“I’m sorry,” Shining Armor said with resignation.

“Apology accepted!” Twilight said, smiling. She sat down, immediately feeling awkward for having scolded a Duke. In the moment, it had felt natural – like she was talking to Pinkie Pie.

“I’m glad you brought this to us,” Shining Armor said. “We inherited considerable investments in iron.”

Twilight looked up from her food at where Shining Armor sat at the end of the dining room table, reading through the documents from the Ponyville safe house. The places had been re-set, and the servants had brought out the main course. Everypony ignored the missing door.

“At first the Iron Circle seemed like a normal trade organization, but not long after I became an Alicorn they started to get more sinister,” Cadance said. “I couldn’t pull the money we had invested into associated merchants without alerting them, but we investigated as best we could.”

“Do you know who’s behind this?” Twilight asked between mouthfuls. The food was delicious, far better than what they had to eat at the spa, but the portions were lacking. She’d had to ask for seconds twice.

“I think the Empire influenced them,” Cadance said. “They were probably promised control of the city.”

“It would certainly explain why they’d propagate a trade crisis,” Rarity said. “If they raised tensions, the Empire could justify an invasion.” She daintily nibbled some herb roasted potato off the end of her fork.

“Don’t explain why they’d go out of their way tryin’ to kill Twilight,” Applejack said.

“About that...” Shining Armor said. “This ‘Black Knight’ you mentioned... I’ve heard of him.”

Twilight snapped her attention to Shining Armor, instantly alert. “What did you hear?”

“He hunts ponies with certain unique attributes. He’s efficient, experienced, and effective. He’s killed in Manehattan more than a few times, and the Flaming Wing couldn’t stop him,” Shining Armor said while he distractedly speared some food with a fork. “Unfortunately, even though he was an archmage, Star Swirl didn’t stand a chance.”

Twilight bristled. “He got caught off guard.”

“Yeah!” Pinkie said. “Star Swirl was the bestest wizard ever!”

“He wasn’t good enough. It would have been better to let the Black Knight do what he wanted,” Shining Armor said.

I don’t like him, Twilight decided, glaring at Shining Armor.

“Shining, how could you say that?” Cadance said. “Twilight has obviously suffered a terrible loss.”

“I’m sorry,” Shining Armor said. “I didn’t mean to offend, I was just telling the truth.”

Rarity humphed. “How’d a pony as blunt as you manage to become a duke?”

Twilight sighed. Maybe he should have stood aside, she thought, toying with her food. Her appetite was gone. If only I could do then what I can do now, none of this would have happened. She had to wonder why Star Swirl didn’t push her harder.

“According to what we’ve found out,” Cadance said, “the Black Knight is one of the Empire’s hunters working with the Iron Circle. This isn’t well known, but an organization called the Grey Wizards holds the true power in Canterlot, not the more visible nobility. The wizards suppress all magic users of any significance within their borders, and occasionally, they send agents like the Black Knight beyond. They jealously guard their power; maybe they wanted to ensure that Star Swirl’s knowledge died with him?”

Twilight shrugged. “Maybe...” It doesn’t add up, she thought. “Why would the Black Knight have just been after me though?”

“Are you sure you remembered everything exactly right? Under extreme stress, the mind can do strange things,” Cadance said, looking at her with concern.

Twilight looked down at her plate. She had to consider the possibility. Star Swirl’s death had been like a nightmare. The only proof I really had was his corpse in the morning, she thought. “I don’t know...” she said. A small inconsistency, Shining Armor’s mention of Star Swirl letting the Black Knight kill her, nagged at her. He was saying that based on what I told him, she realized.

“There’s a war with the Empire on the horizon,” Cadance said. “You’re a powerful warrior, Twilight. If you help me, I’ll be in a position to give you justice.”

Twilight felt like throwing the table. She had answers, perhaps, but they didn’t satisfy. She wanted individuals to blame, not another nebulous organization beyond her reach. She wanted the Black Knight, and she wanted him now. “I’ll help you, Princess, but he might still be here in the city. First, I have to try and find him,” she said.

“I understand.” Cadance dipped her head to Twilight. “Thank you.”

“I’m going to go write you a Letter of Pardon,” Shining Armor said. “It’ll reach the Flaming Wing in the morning. With what you’ve given us, we should be able to launch an official investigation.” He stood up from the table and headed for the open door.

“We have a big-ol, dried-out, slightly-charred Dragon’s head if you need it,” Pinkie said with a grin, pointing at the Bag of Holding around Rarity’s neck.

Cadance held up a hoof. “That won’t be necessary,” she said quickly.

“You mean we shoved that head into the bag for nothing?” Rainbow grumbled.

“It could still be useful,” Rarity said.

“Yeah, for what?” Applejack asked. “Going ‘hey lookie we killed a Dragon!’?”

Fluttershy shuddered. “I don’t think I want to see it again. It’d be best if it just stayed in the bag.”

Twilight frowned, mostly ignoring her friends’ banter. “How long will it take?”

“What?” Cadance asked.

“The investigation,” Twilight clarified.

“Weeks,” Shining Armor said over his shoulder as he left.

“You should take some time and relax in the city. You can even stay here, if you’d like,” Cadance said. “Our doors are always open.”

I can’t wait that long, Twilight decided. Her life since Star Swirl died had gone from one crisis to the next. The idea of doing nothing seemed wrong, especially not when the Black Knight lurked just around the next corner – she could feel it. And if I can’t have him, maybe somepony else will do, she thought. She felt wrong for thinking that way, but she couldn’t muster the will to care.

“The Iron Circle has a headquarters in the city, don’t they?” she asked nopony in particular.

Cadance nodded. “They do.”

“Where?” Twilight said.

“They have a tower in the trade district by the docks,” Rarity said.

“Could we get there?” Twilight asked.

“Easily,” Rarity said with a wink.

So it’s near Smuggler’s Way, Twilight thought. She picked up her swords and stood up. “I say we go do a bit of investigating on our own. Who’s with me?”

Her group stood almost immediately, their plates forgotten. “Always, Twilight,” Rarity said.

Applejack smiled wryly. “Night’s still young, might as well make the most of it.”

They headed for the exit. “Wait!” Cadance called after them.

Twilight stopped in the ballroom and turned to look back at Cadance through the open dining room door. “What?”

“This is risky,” Cadance said. “It won’t end well. Please, don’t go!”

Twilight grinned. “I think you’re underestimating us.” She continued forward out into the night.