Twilight Sparkle stood at the top of a ridge. The city of Manehattan was laid out in front of her. The road traveled straight down the slope until it met a long bridge spanning the water between her and the island. Two towers supported the span, their foundations deep beneath the waves. Traffic moved to and fro across the bridge.
Twilight set off down the slope with her group. Cadance walked beside her, wearing a hooded cloak to hide her face and wings. “They’ve probably already started,” Twilight muttered. Though they’d made good time, it was the day of the meeting, and well after noon.
The days on the road had passed in a blur. Twilight could only think about one thing: the Black Knight. She hadn’t rushed or forced a faster pace; instead, she moved with a calm certainty. She was rested and ready, and he would be there.
Cadance nodded. “The meetings begin in the morning, though they will continue until the Duchesses have addressed all of the pressing issues requiring their votes.”
“Let’s hope they haven’t voted to recognize you as the rightful leader of the Empire,” Twilight said.
Cadance focused on the city ahead. “I won’t let that happen. I don’t want ponies to die because of me.”
The crash of waves against the coast grew louder with each step. When they reached the bridge, Twilight felt her hackles rise. She looked around warily while they walked across the bridge, unable to shake the feeling of foreboding. “Something’s wrong,” she finally said as they passed the middle of the span.
Rainbow laughed and nudged her shoulder. “Relax, Twilight. Last time you crossed this bridge, you had that suppressor thing on. You’re probably remembering that. It’s nothing.”
Twilight breathed in – and out.
“Or not,” Rainbow murmured, squinting up at the tower ahead.
Twilight followed Rainbow’s gaze. Two groups of four pegasi in Flaming Wing uniforms descended toward them, flanking a single flier. Additional Flaming Wing soldiers stood guard above on the tower.
One of the four pony squads flew over their heads. The other group formed up on the lead flier. “Twilight Sparkle, halt!” the lead pony shouted. Twilight recognized the voice as Commander Lightning Dust.
Worried voices murmured around Twilight as the crowd spread, moving clear of the Flaming Wing. She laced her magic around her swords and held her ground. She glanced over her shoulder. The squad that had flown past them was blocking traffic into the city.
“What do you want this time?!” Twilight shouted.
Lightning Dust touched down over twenty paces away from Twilight. Behind her, beneath the second tower, another squad was blocking traffic. The middle of the bridge cleared as ponies filtered out. “Same thing as last time, Twilight,” she called.
“Wait, she’s trying to arrest us? Again?” Rarity said quietly. “I thought we were pardoned.”
Twilight drew her swords. “We’re not giving up this time.” She glared at Lightning Dust and hoofed the ground aggressively.
Rainbow dropped into a ready stance beside her. “Yeah, we can take ‘em.”
“Maybe I can help,” Cadance whispered.
“Just sit tight,” Applejack said.
“Planning to resist?” Lightning Dust called. “You don’t have a choice. Look around.”
Twilight twisted, scanning their surroundings. They were trapped in the middle of the bridge, several squads of Flaming Wing soldiers on each tower. To either side, pegasi hovered carrying torches. She already had a plan. A prepared Death spell thrummed on the edge of her mind. She turned back to Lightning Dust.
“You can’t stop us!” she called.
“Did you notice the carts?” Lightning Dust asked. Twilight glanced at the four carts filled with barrels to either side of the group. Their owners must have run off. Lightning Dust grinned beneath her helmet. “Ever hear of alchemical fire?”
Twilight’s eyes widened as she shot another glance at the carts, then the torch-bearing pegasi above them. She ran through a quick estimate in her head. If all the barrels are full...
“We have to keep those barrels from getting lit, or push them off the bridge,” Twilight said out of the corner of her mouth as she turned back to Lightning Dust. “We’re not scared of a little fire!” she shouted.
“I’ve got front left,” Rainbow said.
“Back left,” Applejack said.
Lightning Dust held up a hoof. “Last chance!” she shouted, already backing away. “You can still come quietly!”
“I’ve got it,” Fluttershy said.
“Are you sure?” Rarity asked.
Fluttershy closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I’ve got it.” A glow spilled out from under her eyelids. “Stay close.”
“She’s casting!” one of the pegasi called.
Lightning Dust dropped her hoof.
The pegasi to either side of the bridge swooped in and launched four torches at each cart. There were too many to stop. Twilight tried to flick them aside with her levitation, but she only managed to get a few when they passed into range. All it took was one.
The torches landed on the carts. They smouldered on the barrels. In the brief moment of respite, Twilight cast Fireshield Blue, but she knew it wouldn’t be enough to save them.
“Sanctuary,” Fluttershy breathed.
A barrel on one of the carts burst, spraying burning liquid. Within a second, all the carts went up in flames. Twilight raised a hoof to shield her face. She waited a heartbeat. There was no heat.
Twilight dropped her hoof. An inferno raged around them, held back by a shimmering, spherical green barrier. “They can’t hurt us, and we can’t hurt them,” Fluttershy said as she opened her glowing eyes.
“How long?” Twilight asked.
“We have about twenty seconds,” Fluttershy said.
Twilight nodded. “The alchemical fire should be burnt out by then.”
“We’ll be ready,” Rainbow said.
Twilight focused magic on her horn. “I can deal with the ones to the front, don’t worry about them. Rainbow, Rarity, don’t let them outflank us from above. Pinkie, Applejack, watch our backs.” She finished casting. A Haste spell activated, affecting them all. “Fluttershy, keep safe, keep us safe. We’ll push through to the palace.” Before the Sanctuary ended, Twilight cast Mirror Image and Shield. She had several more powerful protective spells at her disposal, but she wanted to conserve her resources.
“You’re going to kill them,” Cadance said.
“Yes,” Twilight replied. With each passing moment, the flames around them burned lower. Through the transparent green barrier and the smoke, she could see pegasi maneuvering into position. “There’s more at stake here than a few Flaming Wing soldiers.” Mentally, she pulled on the Death spell, making sure it was ready. If enough of them grouped around her, she could cripple their forces with a single casting.
“We don’t have much longer,” Fluttershy said.
Cadance walked toward the front edge of the barrier and pulled back her hood. “Maybe we don’t have to fight.”
“What’re you doing?” Twilight yelled. “Stay back!”
As the Sanctuary shattered, Twilight rushed forward. The flames ended in a perfect line where the edge of the barrier was a moment ago, but the ring of magical blue fire around her snuffed them out as she approached. She moved in front of Cadance and planted her hooves. On the far side of the flames, Lightning Dust stared past her at Cadance.
“My name is Cadance!” Cadance yelled. “My husband is a Duke of Manehattan.”
“Stop!” Lightning Dust shouted. “Everypony stand down!” Around her, Flaming Wing soldiers diving in to attack breaked and wheeled, nearly crashing into each other in confusion. She took to the air and flew in closer. At a safe distance, she called, “Lady Cadance? What are you doing with them? We could have killed you!”
“They’re my allies,” Cadance said.
Lightning Dust ripped off her helmet and slammed it into the street below. “What the Hell! First, it’s get rid of them. Then, they’re pardoned by your pet Duke. Now, I’m supposed to get rid of them again, and you stop me! Make up your damn mind!”
Cadance blinked up at Lightning Dust. “All I know is that I don’t want anypony to die,” Cadance said. “Let us through.”
Lightning Dust laughed. “You don’t want anypony to die? You’ve got to be kidding. The answer is no.” She hovered lower. “We had a deal.” She growled. She touched down as the flames beneath her died away. “I. Want. My. Wingblades!” She took a step closer with each word, skirting the edge of Twilight’s Fireshield.
Twilight bit the inside of her cheek. Lightning Dust was within reach. She held her swords ready, waiting for her enemy to make one wrong move.
“Can’t we work something out?” Cadance pleaded.
“You know what? Maybe we can,” Lightning Dust said. “Cloudsdale law allows for a duel of honor.” She focused on Rainbow Dash. “What do you say, Dash? Think you have what it takes, or are you missing even a shred of courage?”
“We fight, and no matter who wins, you let us through, right?” Rainbow asked Lightning Dust. “Nopony has to die?”
“On my honor,” Lightning Dust said.
Rainbow glared at Lightning Dust. “Then you’re on.”
Rainbow and Lightning Dust faced each other down in the center of the bridge. They each wore functionally identical skymail shirts and wingblades. A thick cord connected them by the back right hoof, giving them just enough slack for them to get out of the other’s reach. Commander Hurricane’s wingblades rested on a cloth between Twilight and a Flaming Wing Captain.
“Are you sure you don’t want to cut the cord now?” Lightning Dust taunted, slowly circling Rainbow. “This isn’t a practice fight. Pegasi die in these.”
Rainbow matched Lightning Dusts motion, keeping the spacing between them. “No way.” She smirked. “You’re going to be the one that forfeits.”
“You don’t have to do this, Rainbow,” Twilight said.
Rainbow glanced at Twilight. “I do.”
“Duelists, are you ready?” the Captain called: Bailiff, if she remembered right.
“Ready,” Rainbow and Lightning Dust confirmed in unison.
“The bell will ring in three seconds,” Bailiff said. He reached down and picked up a bell with his mouth. Twilight watched him tap out the count with his hoof. When he reached three, he dropped the bell.
The cord pulled taught as Rainbow Dash and Lightning Dust took to the air, each straining against each other for momentum. Rainbow powered her wings down, and with each beat, pulled Lightning Dust a few hoofspans backwards through the air. Lightning Dust dropped and flipped onto her back, her right hind leg stretched toward Rainbow. For a moment, it seemed like she’d lost control, but she looped beneath Rainbow and flew straight up. Suddenly, there was slack in the rope.
Rainbow down-stroked to accelerate away from Lightning Dust and regain control. For a moment, the rope went taught again, but Lightning Dust used the force to slingshot herself toward Rainbow. Sparks flew as the two pegasi clashed. Twilight could barely follow Lightning Dust’s wings. They blurred across her vision.
With a parting strike, Lightning Dust wheeled above Rainbow. They both hovered for a moment, breathing heavily. “Come on Rainbow, you can do better than that,” Lightning Dust shouted.
Twilight noticed a trickle of blood running down Rainbow’s side from a narrow gash in her mail. “I’m just getting started,” Rainbow yelled. She lunged, powering upward, and spinned into a swing.
Lightning Dust was ready. She deflected Rainbow’s strike and she rolled to the side, letting Rainbow shoot past. As they parted, Rainbow cried out in pain, a shallow gash in her flank from Lightning Dust’s bade. She flew up until the cord was taught again. Twilight felt her heart sink. At this rate, Rainbow won’t last long, she thought. She’ll have to cut the cord.
Lightning Dust laughed. “All wingpower, no brains! You always won the races, Rainbow, but never the fights. Just give up!”
“No!” Rainbow shouted. She dropped on Lightning Dust, whirling.
One, two, three clashes sounded in Twilight’s ears. A teal primary feather, Lightning Dusts, fluttered toward the ground, shorn in half. They parted, circling ever higher. “You almost got me there,” Lightning Dust called, “but your form is sloppy! No discipline!”
Blood trickled into Rainbow’s eye from a gash on her forehead. She wiped it away with a hoof, smearing it across her cheek. “Bring it!” Rainbow shouted.
Lightning Dust flashed her teeth in a grin and flew up at Rainbow. Their wingblades scraped against each other, sparking. Lightning Dust lunged aggressively, and Rainbow slashed her across the shoulder, penetrating her mail, but in the same moment, Lightning Dust cut the inside of Rainbow’s hind leg, high on her thigh. Blood rushed from the wound, coating the leg.
“Cut the cord, Rainbow! I hit an artery!” Lightning Dust shouted as they parted.
“No!” Rainbow roared. “I’m not going to lose!”
“Please cut the cord,” Fluttershy whispered from beside Twilight. “It’s just a pair of wingblades.”
“You’ve already lost!” Lightning Dust yelled. “I’ve seen a pony bleed out in under a minute from a leg wound!”
“I don’t have to win the fight!” Rainbow cried, and climbed up.
Lightning Dust struggled against the cord as Rainbow tugged her skyward. Within a few seconds, she dangled as a deadweight, unable to match Rainbow’s speed. A moment later, they were barely more than off-color specs against the blue sky. Twilight heard Lightning Dust calling something, but she was too far away to make it out.
Rainbow reached the top of her arc, and plunged, hooves outstretched. Within three beats of her wings, a cone of force shimmered in the air in front of her. The wind tore at Lightning Dust’s wings as she plunged after Rainbow, hind legs first and out of control.
Blood streamed off Rainbow’s hind leg as she dove, pushing into the air in front of her. The cone of force shattered with a thunderclap. Less than fifty hoofspans above the ground, Rainbow Dash performed a Sonic Rainboom. Lightning Dust cut the cord and braked. Rainbow sped at the ground.
As a rainbow ring rippled overhead, Rainbow slammed into the bridge. Dust and bits of shattered stone exploded around her, shrouding her undoubtedly broken form from view. “Rainbow!” Twilight screamed in unison with her friends as the cloud of dust washed over her, tinted with rainbow light.
Twilight stood frozen with horror as the wind started to sweep away the dust.
In her peripheral vision, Twilight spotted Lightning Dust tumbling out of the sky. The pegasus crash landed in the middle of the bridge and rolled to stop. Twilight advanced toward her. She knew there were voices shouting at her, but she couldn’t hear the words. She drew her swords as Lightning Dust shakily climbed to her feet.
She heard the whoosh of air from a flying pegasus and glimpsed motion in the corner of her eye. She drew Solstice and swatted the offender aside. A shrill cry rewarded. Another closed from the opposite side as she reached Lightning Dust. She pushed the second soldier down into the bridge as she raised Celestial Fury.
“We had a deal,” Lightning Dust groaned, spitting blood out onto the bridge. “I won.”
“You killed her!” Twilight shouted.
Lightning Dust glared at her. “You’re insane! She killed herself!”
Twilight held back. She wanted to bring the sword down. This isn’t right, Twilight thought, hesitating.
“Did I win?” a voice from behind her asked. It was unmistakably Rainbow’s.
Twilight turned. Rainbow stood on the lip of a crater in the center of the bridge. Fluttershy rushed to her side as she collapsed.
“Rainbow?” Twilight called in disbelief.
“No,” Lightning Dust gasped. Steel scraped on stone. Hearing the movement, Twilight whirled. Lightning Dust lunged at her, wing outstretched.
Without thought, Twilight raised Solstice and cleaved through Lightning Dust’s wing, mundane wingblade and all. The metal edges flew past Twilight to either side of her head, slicing a gash in one of her cheeks. As Lightning Dust flew past her, Twilight swung Celestia Fury and carved a deep wound into her attacker’s side, all the way down the length of her body. In an instant, the light went out of Lightning Dust’s eyes. Her corpse crumpled to the ground, and her blood leaked out, staining the mortar between the stones.
Around her, Flaming Wing pegasi looked on in shock, including the two she’d injured on the bridge. “Anyone else want to die?!” Twilight roared, brandishing her bloodstained swords. Divine power surged through her, and the wound on her cheek closed.
“Stand down!” Bailiff barked. He took to the air. “Enough of this! We don’t need to waste soldiers bringing her down. Honor the duel and let them pass.”
Twilight lowered her swords. For a brief moment, she felt disappointed. She shivered as she stepped past Lightning Dust’s body. She didn’t get a chance... why should he?
When they reached the palace gates, Twilight glimpsed two familiar figures walking away from the structure. “I’ll double your rate, Blackwing!” Crystal Clear shouted. “They don’t even have a Crystal Princess, and they’re talking war. It’s only a matter of time before one of these asylum cases accuses me of being a spy!”
Cadance pulled her hood lower with a hoof.
“Thinking,” Blackwing said, pausing in the street. “I rather visit Cloudsdale.”
“Just get me back to Canterlot,” Crystal Clear pleaded. “That’s all I ask.”
Blackwing hefted his hatchet in a claw. “I get you to Canterlot, but is as far as I go.”
“Thank you!” Crystal Clear said.
Blackwing looked up and spotted Twilight. “Sparkle! Good to be seeing you!” He tilted his head. “Bloody. Get in fight? Good fight?”
“Blacky!” Pinkie yelled. She sprinted forward and hugged Blackwing.
Twilight reached up and wiped some dried blood off her cheek, nodding. “I’m not sure if it was good.”
Blackwing laughed as he gently pushed Pinkie away. “Fight you live through is good fight!”
Crystal Clear stuck her nose up in the air. “Ah, Twilight. Here to apologize for rudely running off in the middle of our last conversation?”
Twilight quirked an eyebrow at Crystal Clear. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. We’re here to visit the meeting.”
“Why you impudent little—” Crystal Clear humped and limped past Twilight. “Come on, Blackwing, she’s lost her manners.”
“Was nice seeing you,” Backwing said as walked past. He tucked his hatchet into a belt loop and pointed at the Royal Guards standing at the palace gates with a talon. “Be careful. They take weapons before they let you in.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Twilight murmured.
“What was her problem?” Applejack asked.
Twilight shrugged dismissively. “Beats me.”
“Twilight totally ignored her in the museum a few days ago,” Pinkie said.
Twilight smacked herself in the forehead. “Right.”
Two unicorns in plate armor wielding halberds barred Twilight’s path. She glared at them. “Let us through!” she demanded, stamping her hoof.
“Even if you are the Crystal Princess’s Guards, here to escort her to the meeting, only certain ponies are authorized to carry weapons within the Palace,” one of the guards said. She turned to Cadance. “If you’re concerned for your safety, Milady, we can give you an honor guard.”
“Haven’t you been listening?” Rainbow shouted. “You could be compromised!”
“By Changelings, right?” the other guard said with a laugh. “If we were taken over by powerful demons, I’m pretty sure we would have noticed something.”
“You wouldn’t,” Rarity said. “That’s the point.”
“Enough,” Twilight said. “We’re not going anywhere without our weapons.”
“Then you’re not coming in,” the first guard said. “Especially you. If it weren’t for the Lady vouching for you, I’d have you arrested. You look just like the wizard we were warned about.”
Twilight flared her horn. In less than a second, she cast a sleep spell. Both guards dropped into a magical slumber before they could react. “Let’s go,” Twilight said as she trotted across the threshold into the palace.
“My Mother took me here a couple times,” Cadance said as she led them down a long hallway. “It’s the administrative heart of the city.” She sighed. “I never liked politics.”
Twilight glanced to either side. Numerous corridors crossed the hallway, leading to faraway corners of the building. The palace was the largest structure she’d ever been in, almost bigger than both Candlekeep and the Manehattan Museum put together. “Where is everypony?” She asked. The corridors were oddly deserted. The only sound was the click of their hooves on the marble floor.
“They’re in the grand meeting hall, listening to the Duchesses deliberate,” Cadance said. She gestured down the hall with her muzzle. “That’s the door, up there.”
Twilight frowned. Two more guards flanked the open door. A voice echoed down the corridor from within the meeting hall. She couldn’t make out the words. Twilight perked her ears. Something about the voice sounded familiar.
“I stand before you today as a warrior, not as a statesman,” the voice said.
“Shining?” Cadance murmured.
“War is coming, whether we like it or not. The Empire created this crisis between us and them. They want our port. They want to put their yolk on our merchants,” Shining Armor said. His voice was stiff and rigid, as if he was reciting the speech rather than performing it.
Twilight scowled and trotted faster.
“I wish Princess Cadance were here to plead her case, but I am the poor substitute. The Empire has forced her into hiding. They stoop low, using assassins to try and weaken our resolve. Her divine heritage makes her the rightful ruler of this so called ‘Crystal Empire’, and their enemy. If we put her on the throne, we would have a staunch ally to the north, and a true Crystal Empire.”
“Halt!” one of the guards by the door shouted.
“Any true Manehattan citizen knows this is a noble cause. You’re either with us, or you’re siding with them. We’ve deliberated long enough. I call a vote to recognize Princess Cadance.”
“Protect Cadance,” Twilight said. She focused on a spot within the room and lit her horn, casting Dimension Door. “Changelings could be anywhere.”
“Where’re you going, Twilight?” Pinkie asked.
Twilight held back completing her spell to answer. “I’m going to finish this, him and me.”
“Don’t kill hi—” Cadance cried.
When she winked into being in the center of the meeting hall, ponies around her gasped. Hundreds of them filled the seats behind her. Six ponies stood on six separate stages above her. She focused on one of them, ignoring everything else.
Shining Armor stood on his platform, covered up to his neck in the same charcoal-black armor he’d killed Star Swirl in, one forehoof on his helmet. His shield leaned against his side. When he saw her, he snatched up the shield and his helmet in his levitation and turned. “And an assassin comes,” he said as he disappeared through a violet curtain at the back of his stage.
As Twilight cast her second prepared Dimension Door, the crowd screamed. “Guards!” one of the Duchesses cried.
She teleported up to Shining Armor’s stage and peered past the curtains. She glimpsed his armored tail flitting around a corner. Before continuing, she paused and cast Improved Haste. She pushed past the curtain, and it slowly fell shut behind her. She walked steadily forward, knowing she was moving at the speed most ponies would run, and cast another spell.
She completed Spell Immunity: Abjuration a few seconds later, to protect herself from dispelling magic, and layered on Stoneskin after that. As she reached the corner, she added Non Detection, in case Shining Armor could cast True Seeing. It wouldn’t help until she was invisible, but she’d be casting that soon. She caught a glimpse of his black armor down the narrow corridor behind the stages as he turned to descend a staircase. Slow, panicked voices followed her from the grand meeting hall.
While she walked down the corridor, she added Spell Turning to her list of protections. She caught another glimpse of him at the bottom of the steps, disappearing into the shadows. Rather than use her horn to light her way, she cast True Seeing. She wished she’d been able to prepare a third Dimension Door. Instead, she greased herself and dove down the stairs. While she slid, she cast Improved Invisibility, completing her defenses. Breach would pierce through even her immunity to abjuration, but Shining Armor couldn’t target her if he couldn’t see her.
She dismissed the Grease as she hit the bottom and rolled to her feet. True Seeing revealed her surroundings, allowing her to see the outlines of the objects around her through the darkness. With her enhanced sight, she caught Shining Armor moving through a doorway. His soul blazed white, though dark lines cut across it. She drew her swords and trotted after him, reaching the door a couple of seconds after he disappeared through it.
He stood with his back to a corner in a small, dead end room. He’d chosen a good spot to fight, narrow and confined, where she couldn’t use her speed and invisibility as effectively. A Globe of Invulnerability shimmered around him; it would protect him from her spells, but she didn’t need offensive magic to kill him. A black thorn was buried in his chest, longer and wider than the one she’d seen in her own. Shadowy vines wrapped around his body. She glanced down, but she couldn’t see herself. She wondered if her thorn was still there.
“So you’re here to kill me?” Shining Armor said. “She said you’d come.”
Twilight glanced at her floating swords. He sees them, she reasoned. She limited her Improved Haste spell, temporarily reducing its effect so that she could speak normally. “Who?” she asked, not caring that speaking could give away her position. I want to know why, she thought. “Chrysalis?”
Shining Armor shook his head. “Cadance. Who’s Chrysalis?”
So she fooled him, Twilight concluded. Or he’s lying. “Did she tell you to kill me?”
“Yes,” Shining Armor said.
“We’re both Shadowspawn, and we both deserve to die,” Shining Armor said.
Twilight shook her head, even though she knew Shining Armor couldn’t see the motion. “I don’t deserve to die.”
“You must have felt it too: the hunger. We’re killers. Cadance helped direct me, even though knowing what I had to do hurt her, she helped me hunt the Shadowspawn, to stop them before they could hurt others. We’re monsters.” Shining Armor said.
“So you condemned them for something that they might do? How did you know what I would be when I hadn’t done anything?” Twilight asked, raising her voice.
“It’s our fate.” Shining Armor slowly levitated his shield into position. “I had to try and stop you from becoming this.”
Twilight silently stamped her hoof. “You killed Star Swirl because he was in the way! How can you justify that?! You made me become what I am by killing him! He was protecting me!”
“I had to!”
“There wasn’t anything written in the stones that forced you to kill Star Swirl! It was your choice!” Twilight shouted, stepping closer. “Fate didn’t make you a monster! You made yourself one!”
Shining Armor lunged. Twilight didn’t even flinch as the serrated edge of his shield clipped through the air beside her head. He’d missed by over a hoofspan. She reacted, allowing her Improved Haste to take full effect again. With Solstice, she turned aside his shield. She followed with Celestial Fury. Driven by her strength, the edge bit into his magically enhanced plate armor and cut his foreleg. She wrenched it free, twisting more flesh from the wound, and watched with satisfaction as a golden aura spread over him.
She moved past him like a ghost and hacked away both his hamstrings with Celestial Fury, crippling him. His shield, still wielded in his levitation, hit her in the back, but all it did was shatter a layer of Stoneskin. She turned and retreated back to the doorway.
When the golden aura faded, he slumped to his haunches. Even with her True Seeing, the blood oozing from his wounds showed red. She stared at him. She was the hunter, and he was the prey. She’d built up this moment in her imagination ever since she swore to kill him, but when she was prepared to face him, he wasn’t even a threat.
She dropped her swords and snatched his shield in her levitation. He tried to cling to it, but she wrestled it away from him. Twilight pulled back the shield, preparing to take his head the same way he’d taken Star Swirl’s. “Where is she?!” she cried. “She’s behind it all!”
Shining Armor gazed at the empty space between her swords defiantly. “Even if I knew, wouldn’t tell you! If you’re not a monster, why would you be trying to kill her?” Shadows pooled on the floor around him. His wounds closed.
“You’re lying!” Twilight shouted. “How could you not notice your wife being replaced! You’re working with her!”
“What’re you talking about?” Shining Armor climbed to his feet. “I have to stop you! I have to protect her!”
The thorn in Shining Armor’s chest pulsed. Vines grew out of it, thick and dark. The shadows pooling around him thirstily licked at Twilight’s hooves, but she felt her own rise in response and push them back. “No matter what it takes,” he murmured.
“I can feel you,” Shining Armor said, his eyes staring directly at her. He took his shield back, plucking it from her grasp with immense strength. Black wings spread from his back. Twilight wasn’t sure if they were physically present, or an artifact of her True Seeing. She snatched up her swords.
Twilight ducked as Shining Armor swung his shield at her. It buried into the wall above her head, cutting a deep gouge into the stone. She scrambled backwards, still twice as fast as he was. His shield obliterated the floor where she’d been standing a moment ago.
“I can give you what he has,” the Spectre whispered in her mind.
She raised Solstice to parry as she backpedaled. He swatted it out of her grasp with his shield, sending it spinning into the wall. There was no time to retrieve the sword. His next swing connected with her face and shattered another layer of protection. She had two left.
She remembered the dream with the winding, branching path and the doorway to the straight, narrow road. The straight road was still there, somewhere in her mind. “All you have to do is step onto the straight path,” the Specter whispered.
Her back hit a wall in the corridor outside the room. He gave in to beat me, she realized. She tried to twist under his next blow, but it clipped her side. She turned away and fled down the corridor, clutching Celestial Fury.
The shadows on the floor clung to her feet, like she was wading through knee-deep water. She glanced over her shoulder. He walked toward her, slow, but unstoppable. The white glow of his soul was nothing but a small speck consumed by shadow. I don’t need to give in to beat him, she decided. She whirled to face him with one last layer of protection. With a thought, she triggered the Sequencer in her necklace. The white wave of a Remove Magic spell spread from the necklace and over Shining Armor, purging away the Globe of Invulnerability. A Sunfire spell followed immediately after.
A ring of fire surged out from Twilight’s forehooves. He ducked behind his shield, like she expected him to. She moved in while the flames washed over him, and before he could block her, she slipped past. He clipped her ankle with the edge of his shield, shattering her Stoneskin entirely. In the same instant, she brought her Celestial Fury down on his back with all her might.
With the edge of her sword, she cleaved through his armor and severed his spine. A golden aura spread over his body, holding him in place. The flat face of his shield hit her in the side.
She slammed into the wall, her body thrown like a ragdoll by the force of his blow. The back of her head cracked against the stone, and stars exploded across her vision. She slumped to the floor. One of her forehooves, glowing with a white-lavender hue, materialized: the blow had broken her invisibility. She felt her ribs. Pain exploded from her side the moment she touched it with her hoof. She screamed.
When the golden aura faded, Shining Armor turned and crawled towards her on his forelegs, dragging the paralyzed back half of his body across the floor. Twilight desperately scrambled away on her back. She glimpsed Solstice buried in the wall above her and reached out to it. As soon as she gripped the sword with her magic, the Contingency within it fired, set to trigger when she was injured.
Layers of Stoneskin leaped up from the floor and covered her in a new protective shell. A Improved Invisibility followed, once again shrouding her from sight, though it was little use against her opponent. She gasped for breath in the moment of safety, her injured side burning.
She felt the Breach spell hit her; it shattered her protection. She struggled to her feet and faced Shining Armor. With a flick of his levitation, he ripped Celestial Fury out of his back. A few moments later, he picked himself up and stood on all four legs, his wound healed. That’s not fair! Twilight thought.
He raised his shield. Why did I go alone? Twilight asked herself. She reached for Celestial Fury out of desperation. He swung the edge of his shield at her. She crossed her swords, raising Celestial Fury just in time, and deflected the blow. It’s better to die than give in and become like him, she decided. I promised Pinkie.
Beyond Shining Armor, Twilight glimpsed the aura of a brilliant being at the bottom of the stairs: a pony formed from pink crystal, surrounded by wisps of energy. Twilight recognized it as Cadance.
“Stop!” Cadance shouted. “What are you doing?! Twilight isn’t your enemy!” She took the last step, and her hoof touched the sea of shadows that spilled from Shining Armor and lurked on the floor.
Immediately, Cadance’s aura flickered. She collapsed to the floor. The shadows surged over her, slowly diluting her essence. “Cadance!” Shining Armor cried, turning.
Twilight unleashed the sunlight stored in Celestial Fury. It burned away the shadows for a moment. Cadance’s aura resolidified.
Shining Armor turned back to Twilight. “Why is she here?!” he shouted. “She’s not supposed to be here!”
“She’s... the real Cadance,” Twilight gasped.
“Cadance!” Applejack called from the top of the stairs. Twilight heard the sounds of combat echoing from above.
“I’m killing her, and I can’t stop!” Shining Armor dropped his shield. “You have to stop me!”
Twilight pulled back Celestial Fury.
“Don’t!” Cadance cried, trying to struggle to her feet as the shadows surged back in around her. “Please don’t kill him!”
Twilight hesitated. She could see the thread of love connecting them. She trembled. She wanted to kill Shining Armor, more than she’d ever wanted anything.
‘Mercy is far more valuable than justice, when we can spare it,’ Star Swirl had told her once. She still loves him, Twilight thought. His life isn’t mine to take, not if there’s another way.
“What are you waiting for?!” Shining Armor shouted.
Twilight looked closer. She focused on the thorn in Shining Armor’s chest. “I can save you both,” she said. She reached out to the thorn, and pulled. Something held it in.
Shining Armor gasped and clutched his chest with a hoof. “What are you doing?”
“Let go,” Twilight said.
Shining Armor took a deep breath and released his chest. The thorn gave. With a final pull, Twilight ripped it free. It dissipated into a black cloud and surged into her. The shadows on the floor followed it. She could feel them surging up her hooves and into her body. In front of her, Shining Armor’s soul glowed pure white. The wings were gone.
Twilight hardly felt any different.