The Sword Coast

by AdrianVesper



“There’s at least four left,” Twilight said, looking over the bodies of the Changelings they’d killed around the nest. “Maybe more, if not all of them captured a victim, like the tenders below.”

Rainbow eyed Cadance's emaciated form lying on the floor. “Do you think they went after the others?”

The Princess slept soundly. Even in brief moments of consciousness, Cadance seemed delirious and detached. Twilight wondered how long she’d been in stasis. With one last glance at the Alicorn, she turned to the rest of the freed ponies: a small group of guards and chroniclers gathered in between the bookshelves.

“Thunderfoot, take them to the first floor. Stick together, and watch out for any newcomers. We’re going to hunt down the remaining Changelings,” Twilight said.

Thunderfoot nodded. “If that’s what you want, we can do that. You saved us, after all.”

Fluttershy took a determined step forward. “I’ll stay with them.”

“I’ll stay too,” Rarity offered. “It’s best for us to not be alone.”

Twilight sighed wearily. “Fine. Keep them safe.” She trotted rapidly toward the stairs, Rainbow joining her. “Remember, Solar – Lunar,” she called over her shoulder. She silently hoped there were no more nests, and her estimate on the Changeling’s remaining strength was accurate.

As they left, Rainbow quietly asked, “Can Changelings curse Alicorns?”

“I’m not sure,” Twilight said as she reached the first flight of steps. “Maybe they’re more powerful than I expected, or maybe we’re dealing with something that’s a little more than a Changeling.”

“So the Cadance in Manehattan told the Iron Circle we were coming,” Rainbow said.

“And destroyed them. She and Shining Armor,” Twilight said, descending the steps at a brisk pace.

Rainbow sighed. “The Duke too? How do you know?”

“I don’t know,” Twilight said. “But I can make an educated guess.” Twilight warily looked around as they reached a landing at the next floor. She turned to Rainbow, pausing. “He’s the Black Knight.”

Rainbow stopped dead next to Twilight. “What? You lost me.”

Twilight tapped her hoof on the stone. “My dreams, he and I being similar, the second child, what he said before he killed Star Swirl, how he attacked me the moment he saw me, how he fought me. It’s him. It all makes sense.” She set off down the next flight of stairs. Why didn’t I see it sooner? she thought. I was so close. She remembered what Hay Brittle had said when she asked him about the Black Knight.

’Shiny, shiny, shiny, hiding in the dark.’

“I still have no idea what you’re talking about,” Rainbow said. “Second child?”

Twilight sighed and pulled the journal out of her pack. She tossed it to Rainbow, and Rainbow caught it deftly. “Can’t read,” Rainbow reminded her.

Twilight took it back. “Right. Well, it’s Star Swirl’s. Don’t worry about it. Forget I said anything about the Black Knight. The main thing is, whoever’s pulling the strings wants a war. They threw away the Iron Circle as soon as it might lead back to them. Either Shining Armor is in on it, or he’s fooled by the fake Cadance.”

“Why hide the real Cadance here?” Rainbow asked, matching her pace. “To keep you from finding her?”

Twilight nodded. “We were digging, and it’s the last place I’d look. If we hadn’t found the tiny trail of breadcrumbs that led here, I never would have suspected a thing. It wasn’t a trap. They were just trying to hide.”

Rainbow ruffled her feathers. “Where does that leave us?”

“Same place we were before. Finish off the Changelings, find the Black—” Twilight said.

“Twilight! We’ve got a problem!” Pinkie shouted, rushing up the steps below.

“Solar!” Twilight and Rainbow challenged in unison.

Pinkie stopped and stared up at them. She turned to head back down the stairs. “Come quick!”

Rainbow glanced at Twilight. As Twilight drew her swords, she gave Rainbow a small nod. She advanced toward Pinkie as Rainbow opened her wings and glided down the stairs. Rainbow stretched out her wingblade, ready to strike.

“Oh right!” Pinkie said, stopping suddenly. “Lunar!”

“Pinkie!” Rainbow shouted, rolling to the side to avoid hitting her. She caught herself on the railing and managed a landing. “I could have killed you!”

“Don’t be silly, Dashie,” Pinkie said. “I would have ducked.”

Twilight stepped over the corpse of a Changeling felled by wounds from twin spikes as she moved down a narrow passage. Water slowly dripped from the ceiling, filling her ears with a staccato rhythm. At the end of the passage, a Changeling in the center of a small chamber perched on an opaque, white sphere, surrounded by two of its brethren. Where it’s hooves touched the orb, energy sparked and crackled.

“They were asking for you,” Pinkie said quietly. “They said that damaging the orb could kill everyone in Candlekeep.”

“They’re right,” Twilight whispered. She stared at the orb. It was twice as large as a pony, and it contained her foalhood wild surge.

“Twilight Sparkle!” the Changeling atop the orb called, its voice rough and grating. “Give us the Crystal Princess and leave, or we will unleash your power!”

“What’s it talking about?” Rainbow asked.

Twilight advanced. “I won’t condemn anypony to your fangs.”

“Stop! You can still save them!” the Changeling shouted. The two beside it chittered and hissed.

“You’re right,” Twilight said as she drew Celestial Fury. “I can!”

“If our Queen can’t have her, no one can!” The Changeling yelled. It lifted its hooves, and before Twilight could close, slammed them down onto the sphere.

A spiderweb of cracks ran across the surface of the containment orb. White energy tinged with a violet edge arced out from one side, vaporizing one of the Changelings and scoring a gouge in the wall beyond. Lightning rippled across the carapace of the Changeling on top of the orb, cooking it within its shell. Twilight rushed through the archway at the entrance to the chamber. Before the Changeling was fully dead, she closed enough to run it through with Celestial Fury.

The third Changeling jumped at her, but before it could reach her, Rainbow shot past, cleaving a wedge shaped chunk out of its back with her wingblades. It crumpled to the floor, green ichor oozing from the wound. Before it could die, Twilight pulled Celestial Fury free and brought the edge of the blade down on its head. The blade buried into the stone beneath, and Twilight let it go.

“Rainbow!” she shouted, “Get out of here!”

A second arc burst out of the orb, cutting through the air over Twilight’s head. With a grinding sound, it dug a furrow into the arch. Rainbow was shouting something, Twilight could see her mouth move, but she couldn’t hear the words over the noise. She caught the last bit. “— Not leaving you!”

“You’re wasting time!” Twilight lifted Rainbow in her levitation field and tossed the pegasus back through the arch. Pinkie caught Rainbow on the far side. “Get them out of here! All of them! I’ll hold it back for as long as I can!” Twilight shouted as the archway crumbled.

“I’m not going to let you die!” Rainbow screamed, struggling against Pinkie’s grasp. The arch collapsed. Stones fell between them, and in an instant, Twilight was alone. She turned to the orb.

A third arc had broken free, scouring the back wall. Gaping holes in the surface of the containment orb revealed a nova-bright core of magical energy. Twilight took a step closer. Crackling lines of energy met her skin and her horn. It was invigorating. She closed her eyes and focused on the core, forcing the energy back in.

This is for the best, Twilight thought. She’d die here. Her friends would live. The Citizens of Candlekeep would live. I have to buy them time, she told herself.


Her eternal enemy. She never had enough of it. She always solved the puzzles too late, and the more it pressed forward, the more mired and shadowed her world became. I wish I could have had my revenge, she thought. It didn’t seem so valuable anymore, though. Things weren’t so clear. The Black Knight didn’t appear to be the villain she’d once pictured, single minded and unstoppable. He was a pony like her, caught up in something that he didn’t understand.

The energy yielded to her at first, content to behave. But with each passing moment, the strain of holding it back grew. There was more than a thorn in her chest; there was a pulsing nova of magical energy as well. The more power she focused on the tip of her horn to try and hold back the energy in the core, the larger the wild surge became; her magic resonated with itself.

She stood rigid in the chamber with the fires of her magic raging around her. Time lost consistency, flowing around her in a free state. With no anchor to track it, she lost all sense of it. All she could do as she felt herself slipping was hope she’d bought enough of it.

Why am I giving up? Twilight thought. I have all this power.

“It’s better this way,” the voice from her nightmares whispered in her ear.

You said you’d help me kill him, Twilight thought.

“You’re out of control.”

Whose? Yours or mine?

“You should let go.”

Twilight remembered Rainbow’s scream. Her life wasn’t her own. It belonged to her friends, and theirs to her. I have to fight. No matter how hopeless it seems. I have to try. The magic was beginning to tear and warp her body. Pain spread through her.

She opened her eyes. Chaos flooded her senses, but she pushed through, grabbing a tendril of energy. She struggled to control it, but it was her own, and it yielded to her. With it, she forged a path by ripping a doorway to another place. It opened in front of her to a starry sky meeting the dawn. She had no idea where it lead, only that it was far away from where she was.

“Stay!” the voice roared.

Twilight waited until the energy was about to rip her apart, holding it back for as long as she could, then willed herself through the portal.

The whole of Equestria spread beneath Twilight Sparkle. She occupied a space fixed high on the Celestial Sphere. The dome of the material plane curved beneath her. Countless points of light gleamed on its surface, in the cities, the forests, and the oceans, each a living soul burning with vigor. They shifted and snuffed, a thousand dying here, and a thousand being born in their place, but they all shared connections.

She focused, and the myriad lines between them lit. Cities became etched with spider-webbing patterns of unfathomable interconnectedness, but rainbow lines of color in the wilderness drew her attention. Outside of the space she had left, Candlekeep, her friends stood together. An intangible bond glowed bright around them, binding them together. It reached up to her, and if she reached back, she could take it.

She gazed around the seemingly flat plains around her. To her left, stars, huge balls of warm energy, burned. To her right, the sky faded to a blue mist. A tremendous point of light flared through the blue mist and forced her eyes closed.

She blinked her eyes open as the brightness dimmed. From the fading light, Celestia walked effortlessly toward her, moving across vast distances with each step. The aurora of her mane and tail flowed behind her, stretching back toward the day. She spread her wings wide and smiled. “You’re awfully high up, Twilight Sparkle,” she said in a warm voice.

Twilight glared at Celestia. She reached for her swords, and found only Solstice. “You lied to me,” she said.

Celestia shook her head. “I never lied to you. I withheld the truth.” She produced Celestial Fury and wiped away a globule of green ichor marring the blade. “I think you left this in a Changeling.” She passed it to Twilight without hesitation. “I didn’t think the knowledge required to summon them had survived.”

Twilight took the sword. She held it aloft and ready. “We’re not friends. You shouldn’t have given this to me. You were right there! You were so close, and you let him die!” she shouted, “You’re as much responsible as anypony else! I should kill you!”

Celestia closed her eyes and bowed her head passively. “Do what you think is right, Twilight, but know this: My power in the Material Plane is limited. Any engagement with an individual as powerful as the one that killed Star Swirl would be a risk.” She opened her eyes, her gaze hardening to brilliant points. “And if you tried to kill me here, I would be forced to fight back.”

“You should have fought anyway! You should have protected him!” Twilight cried.

“I tried,” Celestia said. She looked down at the world below. “Even though I could have died, I tried. I didn’t get there in time, but at least you were safe.”

“What am I?!” Twilight shouted. “Why do I matter?! I want answers!”

“How much did you find out?” Celestia asked, turning back to her.

“Star Swirl... called me a Shadowspawn,” Twilight murmured, lowering her swords. “He called me an ‘it’! He said I was dangerous.”

“You are dangerous, Twilight. It’s why I withheld the truth from you,” Celestia said. “We were playing with fire, Star Swirl and I, and I had no idea how well you would have handled the truth. Would you have embraced your nature? Will you?”

“I could have handled it!” Twilight grumbled. “If I’m so dangerous, why not just get rid of me? Why all this?”

Celestia briefly closed her eyes. “Because of Star Swirl.” A scroll materialized next to her, and she passed it to Twilight.

Twilight unfurled the scroll.

Dear Celestia, Goddess of the Sun

I mean no disrespect, but I will not allow you to take Twilight Sparkle away. The Celestial Plane is no place for a mortal, however safe she may be there. She deserves a life full of passion and wonder. I know there’s something you are not telling me about what it means to be a Shadowspawn, but that is the truth. She has done nothing wrong. You cannot condemn her for a crime she has yet to commit.

She’s different from the other children, but I was different too.

I love her as my daughter, and I will protect her to my last breath.

Sincerely, Star Swirl the Bearded

Twilight sheathed her swords, her anger melting away. “So he did love me. I wasn’t an experiment,” she murmured. “Why did he talk like I was in his journal?” She checked her pack; surprisingly, her equipment was all intact, including the journal. She pulled out the small black book and showed it to Celestia.

Celestia frowned slightly. “That journal was him trying to look at things objectively, like I asked him to when he first took you in.” She pushed the journal away. “He loved you, and he saw something in you that I couldn’t see. It took me until I saw what happened when you cast your first spell, and your Mark, to realize he was right,” Celestia said. “You’re dangerous, yes, but you also have great potential.”

Twilight furled the scroll and gazed up at Celestia. “What do you mean?” She tried to pass the scroll back to Celestia.

With a slight shake of her head and a soft smile, Celestia said, “Keep it.” She positioned beside Twilight and draped a wing over her back. “Come here.” She pulled Twilight close. “I want to show you something.”

Twilight leaned into Celestia’s side. The angel-soft feathers along the leading edge of Celestia’s wing brushed her cheek. She breathed a sigh of contentment, pressing into the immeasurably warm body beside her. With a nudge, Celestia directed her gaze downward. “Do you see it?” Celestia said in a hushed tone.

Twilight blinked, the connections she saw before still etched into her vision. She still saw the rainbow of her friends wisping beneath her. “You mean the connections?”

“Do you know what they are?” Celestia asked.

“They’re... friendships. Interactions of mutual benefit,” Twilight said.

Celestia laughed, a musical tinkle in Twilight’s ear. “An odd way of describing it, but correct. It is Harmony. Life is a beautiful thing. It rises from chaos and conflict, but it strives against the darkness by forming bonds. Magic, the soul of the world, rises from life itself.”

“Friendship is Magic,” Twilight murmured. “They’re ley lines.” She turned to Celestia. “How did nopony see this before?”

Celestia smiled at Twilight. “Friendship is Magic... I never looked at it like that before.” She looked down at Equestria again. “Ponies understood the nature of Harmony once, and they built a grand civilization based on its principles, and some of them rose high indeed, but that knowledge was lost to a war of gods.”

“Why don’t you guide us still? Why aren’t you there when we need you?” Twilight asked.

With a sigh, Celestia pulled away from Twilight. “I am, in the way that I still can be.” She turned to face Twilight. “A long, long time ago, nearly two centuries after my Sister and I destroyed Azrael, the Shadow, my forces and I succeeded at pushing Discord and his servants back to the Gates of Tartarus.

“It would have cost countless lives to seal him within and safeguard Equestria from his influence. Instead, I used my position of strategic superiority to negotiate the terms of a truce. We both accepted a Geas, binding our divine essence to our respective planes of dominion. I find ways to slip around the terms of the Geas, but I can only use a fraction of my power when I’m on the Material Plane.”

Celestia frowned. “But no rules can bind Discord. His only concern is his own amusement. If he chose to, he could break the Geas and free us both. I fight a pointless war over dust and empty minor planes to keep him occupied, and it keeps my attention far from what truly matters.”

“And what truly matters? You still haven’t explained why I’m important. You’ve said I have potential, but what does that mean?” Twilight asked.

Celestia gazed into the blue mist, toward the day. “I don’t have all of your answers, Twilight. Time is a horizon I cannot see beyond. You have great power, and you carry a portion of Azrael’s divine essence, but I do not know what you will do. Your kind could doom us all. You, however, see things that other ponies don’t, and you’ve risen above what you are.” She turned back to Twilight. “I’m proud of you, and Star Swirl would be too.”

Warmth swelled in Twilight’s chest as she drank in Celestia’s words of praise, but her mind quickly turned back to darker things. “There are a lot of Shadowspawn, aren’t there?”

Celestia nodded. “Many, and if they’ve given in to what they are, they will try to kill you and claim your essence.”

Twilight lifted her hoof and peered at it. Red covered it. Here, in this place, the blood staining her hooves was clear as day. “What are we?”

Celestia hesitated a moment before answering. “Azrael never truly died. The Shadow found a way to escape defeat and seeded its essence among the souls of mortals that had yet to be born, and now those souls are living their lives and reaching maturity. The shattered essence wants to reform, and it drives those that carry it toward that goal.”

“Is that why Shining Armor tried to kill me?” Twilight asked.

Celestia took a step back in shock, cocking her foreleg. “Shining Armor is a Shadowspawn?”

Twilight tried to scuff at the ground with a hoof, before she realized she was standing on the sky. “I think so. It makes sense. With Cadance being a Changeling—”

“What?!” Celestia said, almost shouting. “When did you discover this?”

Twilight blinked in surprise at Celestia’s reaction. “Today. I found her in one of their cocoons.”

Celestia shook her head. “That’s not possible. A mere demon can’t impersonate an Alicorn, unless...”

“Unless what?” Twilight pressed.

“Unless it was Chrysalis herself,” Celestia said. Her eyes widened with realization. “She’s trying to collect Azrael’s essence. That’s why Cadance wanted a war! It would draw the Shadowspawn, and if Chrysalis had one or more of them in her control, she could collect Azrael’s divine essence.” She furrowed her brows. “What is she planning on doing with it?”

Twilight reached out toward the rainbow tendril with a hoof.

“Twilight, what are you doing?” Celestia asked, looking at her with a puzzled expression, as though she couldn’t see what Twilight was reaching for.

Twilight withdrew her hoof for a moment. “I’m going to do what you can’t. I’m going to stop her, before she hurts anyone else.” She reached out and made the connection.

As the rainbow tendril plucked her from the sky, Celestia cried, “Twilight!”

Souls wisped around Twilight Sparkle, spiraling around a jagged rift in the center of black plains. Formations of obsidian rock jutted from the landscape. A pillar of shadow rose from the middle of the rift. She stepped forward, until her hooves were poised on the edge. She looked down. An empty void opened like a maw around base of the pillar. Violet energy spiraled around it like water around a drain.

The Spectre stepped up beside her on legs of bone. When she turned to look at its white face, it spoke.

“Look up.”

Twilight tilted her head back. Above, twelve black wings spread from the pillar and stretched across the sky, blotting out any light that may stream from above. Countless closed eyes covered their underside. They opened, revealing red orbs, and all turned to look at her. Within each, she glimpsed the soul of a living creature.

Fear gripped her. She took a hurried step back. She hit a rib cage. The Specter whispered in her ear.

“Do you see your destiny?”

She recoiled from the Spectre. The edge of the ravine crumbled beneath her hooves, and she tumbled off of it. She reached out to save herself, but there was nothing to grab. Above, she saw herself poised on the lip of the ravine. Her eyes were closed, and black feathered wings spread from her back. The apparition opened her red eyes and stared down at Twilight.

The black silhouettes of pony souls had replaced her pupils.

Twilight gasped as she came awake.

The wind ripped past her, whipping at her mane and tail. She cracked her eyes open. Her hair streamed past her face. A dark blue sky lit on one side by the orange glow of the sun filled her field of view. She was oddly comfortable, though the air chilled her back. She tucked in her forelegs and rotated around in mid-air like a cat, righting herself.

A smattering of clouds dwelled below, far beneath her, above a jagged line where land met sea. She tensed; she was falling. She’d felt no pull downward, no acceleration that normally accompanied the experience.

I’m in freefall, she realized. She blinked, but the air dried her eyes again almost instantly, forcing her to squint them nearly shut. She traveled towards a grey mass surrounded by a faint line on the edge of the sea. She identified it as Candlekeep. As the structures drew closer, an arc of arcane energy burst towards the sky, cutting a rift in the center of the keep. She was headed straight towards it.

Turning her head, she checked the position of the Sun. It was dawn. She’d been in that room containing the core for hours. She hoped that her friends had enough time to get everyone out.

She focused on the ground moving toward her as she passed the highest of the clouds. Alright Twilight, think, she told herself. Through her nostrils, she sucked a deep breath from the air rushing past. You’ve gotten out of situations worse than this. You may not have any spells left, but you can still form one before you hit the ground.

She closed her eyes, piecing together a Dimension Door spell. She hoped she could cast it before she hit Candlekeep. Almost before she had begun, the spell pathetically fizzled on her horn. She gasped, opening her eyes. She had no magic left. She felt like a sponge that had been wrung dry. I’m going to die, she realized.

Panicking, she flailed at a passing cloud. In that moment, she would have given anything to be a pegasus. The motion threw her into an uncontrolled spin. I don’t want to die, she thought as the world twisted past. It doesn’t matter who cares about me. It doesn’t matter what they’ve done for me. It doesn’t matter what I am. I have so much to be, so much to do!

As she spinned, the forest beneath flew past in a green blur, and she saw a rainbow. It was strange, rippling out from a central point in a horizontal ring. With every turn, she glimpsed a rainbow streak rising from the center of the ring, climbing higher and higher.

The leading edge of the rainbow ring blasted away the clouds beneath her. A sound like a thunderclap drowned out even the roar of the wind in her ears. The rainbow streak curved into the sky above her and arced down toward her. The next time the ground turned past, it was surprisingly close. Another two arcs of arcane energy cleaved through Candlekeep.

Her rotation faced her toward the sky again. Rainbow Dash closed in on her with hooves outstretched, her mane and tail streaking out behind her and blurring into a rainbow trail. Twilight continued her roll, and Rainbow exited her field of view. Candlekeep loomed beneath her, and three blazing arcs ravaged its structures. She screamed. The ground was too close. I don’t want to die!

Hooves contacted her body. “Gotcha!” Rainbow shouted. Something scraped the outside of her ear and lodged between it and her skull, held by her mane. In an instant, the wind was gone. She came to a near stop – no spinning, no falling – and drifted slowly down. She reached up and touched the golden feather behind her ear as she looked down. The ground that had seemed so close while she was speeding towards it was hundreds of hoofspans away.

Beneath her, Candlekeep warped, every portion of the keep crumbling inwards. A white light rushed up from beneath the structure, expanding in sphere until it reached the outer walls. The brightness drove spikes of pain into her eyes, but she couldn’t look away. She heard a faint woosh as the sphere collapsed inward to a single point and winked out of existence altogether.

There was no thunderous explosion, no rumble as rubble tumbled into the sea; Candlekeep was gone, thoroughly and completely. The ground beneath it had been reshaped into a near smooth curve. Layers of dirt rested on exposed bedrock. The only sign that Candlekeep had ever been there was a lone road that led to nothing but a strange bite out of the cliffs.

The greatest repository of knowledge in Equestria was gone.

“Woah,” Rainbow said, hovering beside Twilight.

“Did they all make it out?” Twilight asked. She twisted, trying to rotate in the air, but only succeeded at pulling a muscle in her neck.

“Now that we’ve got you, everypony made it.” She moved in, wrapping her forelegs around Twilight. She squeezed tight.

Twilight returned the hug. “How did you know I was still alive? How did you find me in all this sky?”

Rainbow pulled away. “I felt it; we all did. It was like a tug on our hearts. I knew I was the only one who could get to you in time.” She looked down. “Until I felt it, I was just waiting for Candlekeep to explode or something, and you to die. I hate waiting.”

Twilight smiled. “You did it. The Rainboom.”

Rainbow smiled back, tears in her eyes. “I had to catch you.” She grabbed Twilight with a hoof and started to tug her through the air. “Come on, let’s get back to the others.”



“Thank you.”

Rainbow pulled her into a gentle landing beside the road. The citizens of Candlekeep huddled beneath the trees on either side. Some of them looked forlornly toward the horizon that had been lit by the magical explosion a few minutes ago. Her friends were gathered to greet her.

Almost as soon as Twilight’s hooves were on the ground, Spike appeared and lunged. He wrapped his arms around her neck, bumping her muzzle with his head. “Twilight!”

Twilight rubbed her nose with a hoof. “Ow, Spike.” She wrapped her other foreleg around him and pulled him close. With her magic, she passed the golden feather back to Rainbow.

Pinkie was next, hitting her left side like a missile. Twilight gasped as she squeezed tight. “You made it!”

“Pinkie, Spike, could you give her some space please? She could be hurt,” Fluttershy said.

Pinkie and Spike reluctantly pulled away.

“I’m fine, Fluttershy,” Twilight said with a smile. She looked around at the survivors from Candlekeep, her smile fading. “How’re they?”

Rarity followed her gaze. “Shaken. All they have is what they managed to grab while we got them out. They’re going to need help.” She patted Twilight’s shoulder. “None of us would have made it without you.”

“How’d you make it out?” Applejack asked. “Last I heard, you sacrificed yourself so that we could get out, and we were waiting for you to die.” She tipped her hat. “You saved us all.”

“I made a portal to somewhere else.” Twilight gazed up at the sky. “Somewhere up there. I think it was part of the Celestial Plane. It was safe.” She closed her eyes. For a moment, despite the Changeling ichor still crusted in her fur, her face felt clean beneath the Sun’s rays. “She was there,” she murmured.

“Who?” Rainbow and Pinkie asked in unison.

“Celestia,” Twilight said. “She told me some things.” She looked at Fluttershy. “Is Cadance awake?”

“Um... she’s been in and out, but she’ll be fine,” Fluttershy said.

“Where?” Twilight asked.

Fluttershy pointed between the trees. Twilight turned and headed in the indicated direction. With her first step, her hoof slipped on a rock. Her vision swam as she regained her balance. She shook her head, focused ahead, and took another step.

The next thing she knew, she was overbalanced and tipping to the side. Before she could fall, she collided with something firm. “Woah there, Twilight, easy does it,” Applejack said, supporting her. “You okay?”

Twilight leaned on Applejack. “I’m fine.” She closed her eyes briefly, and a sense of vertigo gripped her. “Why is walking hard?” she muttered under her breath.

Applejack chuckled. “You’re exhausted.”

“I need to talk to Cadance,” Twilight said. “Could you help me walk over?” she added sheepishly. “Please?”

When Twilight arrived leaning on Applejack, Cadance looked up at her from her seat at the base of a tree. Cadance’s eyes were sharp and focused. Twilight dropped wearily onto her haunches. “How much do you know?” Twilight asked.

Cadance looked puzzled for a moment, but she said, “I remember somepony mentioning something about Changelings last time I was awake.” She looked down at her hooves. “They said we were all replaced.”

Twilight nodded. “You were.”

“Where’s Shining Armor?” Cadance asked. “Why didn’t he save me?”

“I don’t know,” Twilight said. “Either he was fooled by the imposter, or he’s in on it.”

Cadance’s eyes widened in shock. She shook her head. “He can’t have been. Not Shining.”

“What’s the last thing you remember about Shining Armor?” Twilight asked.

Cadance frowned. “He...” She took a deep breath. “He was disappearing at night. Money was missing.” She closed her eyes tight. “He can’t have been seeing somepony else. He wouldn’t!”

Twilight furrowed her brows. The pieces were beginning to come together. “I don’t think he was,” she murmured. “How long was this going on?” she asked.

Cadance opened her eyes. “It wasn’t long after we were married that I noticed it.” She leaned forward and flopped onto the grass. “He said we were going to handle the Alicorn thing together.”

Twilight eyed Cadance’s wings and horn. “How’d it happen?”

Cadance breathed a deep sigh. “I don’t know.” She glanced up at Twilight. “Do you know Sunny Skies?”

Twilight nodded.

“She came to my door the day after. She said she represented Celestia. She said that I’d been blessed with the legacy of a demigod. She said that an entire people needed their Queen to wake up,” Cadance said. “I don’t know why. She was supposed to tell me more soon, but that night while Shining was gone, she visited again.” She closed her eyes and shivered.

“What is it?” Twilight asked.

“That’s the last thing I remember. Sunny Skies showed up, and there was a green flash,” Cadance murmured. “If the date I’ve been told is right... that was over a year ago.” She focused intently on Twilight. “You’ve fought Changelings. You have to help me save Shining Armor! If you need money, I have that.”

Twilight raised a hoof. “I don’t care about money. But, I have one more question. Did you ever see Shining Armor cast spells in armor?”

Cadance blinked. “He tries not to show many ponies, but he I saw him do it once. It’s a talent of his. Why is that important?”

Cadance had just put the final nail in the coffin. There was no doubt left in Twilight’s mind about the identity of the Black Knight. “Shining isn’t who you think he is.” With a surge of new energy, Twilight climbed to her feet. “And we’re going to stop him, before he uses his position as Duke to start a war in your name.”

“Duke?” Cadance asked. “Shining wasn’t a Duke.”

Twilight ignored her and turned to Applejack. “Tell Chancellor or Thunderfoot to get these ponies moving toward Ponyville.” She glanced around, looking for Rainbow. “Rainbow!” she shouted.

“Here,” Rainbow said a moment later, landing beside her.

“Fly to Ponyville.” She pointed toward the survivors from Candlekeep. “Ask Granny Smith to send help their way. Just fly along the road to Manehattan to find us again.”

Rainbow nodded sharply. “Sure thing.” She shot effortlessly back into the air and spread her wings wide. A moment later, the trees blocked Twilight’s view.

Twilight closed Star Swirl’s journal and stared into the flickering campfire in front of her. She knew everyone was looking at her, even Rainbow; she’d waited for them to all be together again to go over the information. Nopony said a word. The fire crackled in the silence.

Applejack tipped back her hat. “And Celestia said—”

Twilight nodded. “Yeah.”

“I don’t believe it,” Cadance said. “Shining isn’t a Shadowspawn. He never acted like—”

Twilight glared sharply at her. “He never acted like what? Like me?” she interrupted.

Cadance looked down at her hooves. “He... did kill some ponies. But they were trying to hurt me, or him. Anypony would have done the same.”

“He killed my father, and all he did was try to stop him from killing me,” Twilight said.

Cadance’s eyes widened in shock.

Twilight glanced around the fireplace; one pony was missing. “Where’s Pinkie?” she asked, standing.

“Dunno,” Spike said, glancing around. “She was right here a second ago.”

“She must need some time alone,” Rarity said. “I can only imagine what it must be like to learn that her family died so horribly.”

“I don’t think that’s what’s bothering her,” Twilight murmured, remembering the black speck she’d seen marring Pinkie’s soul. She stepped away from the fire.

Twilight sighed and stopped under a tree. She looked up at the stars. If Pinkie doesn’t want to be found, I’m not going to find her. A point of light flashed across the night sky above: a shooting star. “If only making a wish would actually work,” she muttered to herself while she gouged a furrow in the dirt with the edge of her hoof. I should have thought about what it all meant, before dumping that on her.

“Hey, Twilight,” Pinkie said from somewhere nearby.

Twilight snapped her head from side to side, looking around. “Pinkie, where are you?” she asked.

Pinkie giggled. “Other side of the tree, silly.”

Twilight walked around the thick truck. Sure enough, Pinkie sat on the far side, nestled between two roots. In her hooves, she held the blank book she’d retrieved from the tomb beneath Candlekeep.

Twilight plopped onto her haunches beside Pinkie. “Hey.”

Pinkie stared at the empty pages. “I remembered something about this book. I need to activate it for it to do anything.” She lifted the book and held it close to her mouth. “I’m scared, I’m lost, and I’m alone. Will you be my friend?” she whispered.

Ink rippled across the page, as if blown onto it by Pinkie’s breath. It was smokey and mottled at first, but the face of a smiling pony with a long, wispy beard materialized. His mouth moved, and Twilight heard him speak. “Place your hoof on the page, and we can begin,” he said, his voice filled with friendly cheer.

Obediently, Pinkie put her hoof on the page. The face faded as the ink moved, outlining the hoof. It solidified, then vanished. The page shredded into brightly colored confetti and launched into the air with a gust of wind. “Your Chi-eerfulness is strong. I can no longer teach you. You’ve walked farther on the Eversmiling Path than I was able to, and you will make the world a far brighter place,” the voice said. It sounded sad, like he was saying goodbye to an old friend.

“That’s never happened before,” Pinkie murmured as the book floated out of her hooves, lifted by some unseen force. Before Twilight’s eyes, it morphed into a white sash. The sash fluttered in the air for a moment, then settled on Pinkie’s outstretched foreleg.

Pinkie tied the sash around her waist with a smile. “I guess he wants to stay with me,” she said, moisture glistening in her eyes. “He always made things so simple.” She turned to Twilight. “Why can’t we go back to when things were simple?”

“Things aren’t the way they were before,” Twilight said. “But we have each other.” She lifted her hoof. “Friends forever?”

Pinkie smiled and bumped her hoof. “Through eternity.” She took a deep breath. “Things aren’t so scary when you have friends.”

“I’ve never seen you afraid of anything,” Twilight said with a half smile. “Not even the Sand Ravager.”

“Remember when I killed that pony?” Pinkie said. “I cried. I was sad because he’d never smile again, but I was crying because I was scared.” She looked at Twilight intently. “You know what the really, really scary part was? I liked it.”

Pinkie pulled her forehoof back and drove it into the tree. Wooden splinters flew from the point of impact, and Twilight reflexively shielded her eyes with a foreleg. When she looked again, Pinkie’s foreleg was buried into the tree up to her elbow. “And I’d do it again,” she murmured as she pulled her limb free, seemingly unharmed.

“I haven’t killed since then, not even the diamond dogs. I put them where they would be killed, but I never did it myself, because I was scared.” She focused on Twilight again. “Aren’t you scared, Twilight?”

“Should I be?” Twilight asked. “I guess I am. I’m afraid of what I might become, but all being a Shadowspawn has done is enable me to do what needed to be done. Could I have killed when I needed to without it? Would I be as strong as I am? Could I have helped ponies?”

Pinkie pulled her into an embrace. “Promise me you won’t give in.”

Twilight sighed. “I promise.”

Pinkie pulled away and glared at Twilight. “Pinkie promise.”

“Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye,” Twilight recited.

As Twilight made her way back to camp with Pinkie, Cadance approached her and said, “May I speak with you for a moment?”

Twilight nodded and followed Cadance away from the fire. The Alicorn held her head high and walked steadily. Between her own exhaustion and Cadance’s recovery, they hadn’t made much progress in the first day of travel, but Cadance was showing promise. If they kept a decent pace, they’d make it to Manehattan in time.

When they were out of earshot, Cadance turned to Twilight. “You’re going to kill him, aren’t you?”

Unable to meet Cadance’s gaze, Twilight looked up at the stars. “I don’t know,” she lied.

“At least give him a chance,” Cadance said.

Twilight said nothing.


Twilight sighed. “I’ll try.”