The dusty tome hit Adagio’s writing desk with a loud ‘THUD’. Flipping it over, she ran a hoof across its curly, gold leaf title: Canterlot Royal Library’s Official Practices and Principles of Privilege for the Refined Lady Duchess.
Adagio scoffed and rolled her eyes.
What a crock.
Still, considering her current circumstances, perhaps it would prove wise not to judge the book too harshly as yet. If her hunches were correct, those orange flashes in the beyond would be Upright busying himself with blocking off every bit of spellwork that might prove useful to her. No further letters in or out unless he allowed it. No teleportation, either.
There would be just one problem with the Duke’s schemes, however. He did not own a copy of the Refined Lady’s spellbook. Only Duchesses maintained that right. And whilst Teleportation and Invisibility would, no doubt, be the first magical conjurations he would prohibit inside of the estate’s magical dome of protection, the ‘Refined Lady’s Heavenly Hoof’ certainly was not.
The Heavenly Hoof—some brainwashed old noblemare, Lady Dapple, figured long ago that it might serve a Duchess well had she the ability to hover ever so slightly above the ground whilst walking in her robes. ‘It complements one’s mareish physique, and is quite pleasing to a stallion’s eye,’ read the passage beneath the spell’s header.
It took all of Adagio’s will power not to set the page aflame immediately. The ability to float, or in this case appear to float, for long periods of time would definitely be useful. A full grown unicorn would much rather teleport as floating for very long or very far usually proved too strenuous a task. Fortunately for all “refined” noblemares, Lady Dapple had put to the silliest of uses something notably ingenious: magnetic force. A magical charge was sent down into the ground, and this in turn would interact with the usually metallic shoes of a noblemare, repelling them upward. A bit of tweaking and the spell would, theoretically, allow one to float as high or low as they wished with little trouble.
Adagio sneered over the page. Take what was useful of the spell and leave the rest, she supposed. That seemed like a good enough philosophy to keep.
A few hours later, she had managed to cast the Heavenly Hoof, but only for ten minutes at the longest. Still, it was better than some of the best levitation spells she had witnessed any unicorn conjure. It would have to do.
Tearing out a few useful pages from the mostly useless spellbook, Adagio then tied up the hem of her robes into a glow of magic, threw a dark evening cloak about her shoulders, and turned to face her opened window.
Adagio tapped lightly upon the chamber window's glass paneling. The pony within did not hear her. Her legs shuddered where they hung in the early evening air. She nearly panicked, and her hoof slammed into the window’s ledge, pulling a few pebbles loose from stone. Again, she tapped against the glass, much louder this time.
Hurry, hurry, before somepony sees!
This time a pair of tired, but slightly less forlorn, pink eyes darted about in her direction. “Off with you then! Remember, sugar in my tea. Not honey,” Violet instructed her little servant filly, shooing the child away before she could see what was lingering just beyond the window. Perhaps Adagio might have been happier to see her sister in somewhat higher spirits were she not in danger of becoming a greasy stain upon the garden pathway below.
Once the filly had gone, the Duchess Vision locked the door behind her, and raced toward the window. She unshuttered the thing, and quickly pulled Adagio inside.
“Adagio, what are you doing here?” Violet hissed, her eyes wide. “If the Duke were to catch you, he would—”
“I'm leaving, Violet! Tonight! Come with me!” Adagio panted, pushing herself up onto her haunches. The potent combination of adrenaline and unseen peril worked to enliven every cell in her body. Her eyes were wide and glossy. They darted about, already scoping out what should be packed for Violet’s trip.
Violet stalled and then blinked. “Adagio, have you gone mad? What the jewel are you talking about?”
“Beryl. He had those beasts torment Beryl! She revealed everything to him!” Adagio blurted, not noticing the ever tightening movement of Violet’s lips. “He plans to put Lighthoof on the front line at the border. He wants him dead. We must leave!”
“Spirits, Adagio,” Violet breathed, shaking her head. “Listen to what it is you ask of me. I cannot secret myself about Equestria this way. What about my children? No. I am sorry, but I must remain here.”
“Once I'm gone, the Duke would surely take his anger out upon you. What if he surrenders you to the horde out of spite?” Adagio pressed.
“He shan’t, Adagio,” Violet murmured. “Trust me.”
Adagio frowned. “What are you talking about, Violet? We both know that Upright does not want you here. Now hurry it along. I will not be able to return to you a second time.”
“Adagio…” Violet pressed, looking quite exhausted.
“If I run, you shall no longer matter to him!”
“Stop it!” Violet bellowed.
Adagio was stunned into silence.
Violet let loose a tired sigh, shaking her head. “Adagio, at some point, you must stand alone in your truth. Be honest with yourself, above all. Honesty is what could have set you free long ago. Honesty could set you free, even now,” Violet said. “I understand the difficulty of… of this all, but there is no other way. There never was any other way.” Her gaze softened as she stroked her younger sister’s cheek. “I love you. I never could bear to see you unhappy, not even in the beginning when these horrid matches were made. But what is done is done, and we have come too far to turn back now. I fear our goodbyes have been in the making for a very long time. You would not hear me this morning, but please hear me now. Let us not make our farewells bitter by attempting to evade that which is inevitable.” She held her forelegs out to Adagio. “Embrace me, little sister. Let us remember our time together fondly.”
Adagio thought to herself as the dimming sky continued to flash in orange beyond the window. Being honest with herself—Was it a thing she’d ever been capable of? She had been lying to everypony for so long, herself included, that she was no longer sure which tale she truly had conviction for. “Honesty,” she mumbled, pouting like a reprimanded filly. For just a moment, they were young again. She was a foal in the presence of a youthful and equally naive teenage sister. “The truth,” she said.
She wanted a life of beauty, power, and love, but none of those things were possible in the house of Goldenstalks, especially now. That was the truth. She was an exceptionally gifted and intelligent mare, one whose potential this world could never respect. This she could never accept, but it was the truth. Everypony perished eventually. The choice was now hers as to whether it would happen to her slowly whilst she remained unhappy, or swiftly whilst she beamed with joy, whilst she burned out with the beauty of a falling star. As brief as a happy life would inevitably be for her, she could no longer deny that this is what she desired for herself. She would have power over her own life. She would have the love she hungered for. She would be radiant, and even if just for one second, she would live honestly.
Adagio stepped forward into her elder sister's grasp. She allowed herself to be wrapped in warmth, and relished the sensation of gentle hooves swimming through her frazzled mane. She breathed in the scent of Violet, and committed it to memory. Stroking her sister’s cheek, Adagio stared and stared at her ever beautiful snow white mane and soft pink eyes. She remembered a time when those pretty eyes were fresh, filled with naive hopes and dreams. Those were now long gone. Adagio imagined her own eyes now looked quite similar. She smiled. “I love you, Violet. No matter what may happen, please remember that I love you.”
“As do I,” Violet said, kissing her curls. She paused. “Are you headed away this very instant?”
“No,” Adagio replied. “Not until evening when I shall go to meet Lighthoof.”
Violet blinked. Then she nodded her head. “Of course. Good,” she said with no intonation. “He will know what to do to keep you safe.”
“But first, I must free Beryl. She is in the dungeons,” Adagio added.
“Beryl? In the dungeons?” Violet gasped. “What has she done to deserve such a punishment?”
The Duchess Goldenstalks lowered her gaze shamefully. “I have wronged her. And now I must make things right,” she said, running a hoof down the length of her face.
Violet stood frozen to her spot. By the looks of it, she desired to scold Adagio just as she would have in simpler times. By the grace of Celestia she somehow managed to restrain herself. “Come, then. I shall help you,” she said, hiking up her own hems and rushing to open the window. “That spell of yours, it was Lady Dapple’s ‘Heavenly Hoof,’ I take it?”
Moonstone called out to her, again. “Dont… She…” she cried. Her spell was weakening. Adagio could feel the enchanted bridge between their minds fading with her every word.
“You there! Stop!” the stocky dungeon guard bellowed. Two mares’ hoofsteps clicked and clattered across damp stone soiled with grime and moss. Down torchlit corridors they raced. Their shadows were black streaks against dingy green and brown.
“Now, Adagio,” Violet panted when the guard’s voice had fallen a comfortable distance behind. “Go now. I will meet you there when I've lost him.”
Too winded to reply, Adagio nodded her head, and veered off to the right.
She wasn't fond of frequenting the estate dungeons, nor had she ever much of a reason to in the past. Still, her position dictated that it was a place she could not avoid forever, not if she and her husband had any hopes of keeping a firm grip of control over their land.
The Pit was a place for ponies who needed to disappear without dying, whatever the reason for that might have been. Perhaps they were filled with secrets and important information. Perhaps they were notoriously bad influences on the other prisoners. Or perhaps, like Beryl, they had been shown the oddest form of mercy: a life when death was deserved, but a life spent in solitude and shadow.
Adagio winced away thoughts of how much she had wronged her maidservant as she veered left, then swung another left down a steep decline of stairs. Behind her, she could hear the guards racing after Violet. Hopefully, she would keep them distracted long enough.
Eyes peered at her in the dark. Through cold bars and rank cells, those gaunt, sickly orbs seared into her flesh. She could feel raging hatred attacking her from every side. Whispers in the dark swore vengeance, hissing out the countless ways in which a pony’s life could come to an end for its simply daring to be brave, insolent, and a commoner at the same time.
The walls reverberated as word spread throughout those hallways of forgotten souls. Adagio could not understand any of it, and yet she didn't need to understand in order to decipher what awful things they were saying to her.
The faces, lost in various stages of decay and destitution, seemed to stretch on forever. It stunned her to remember just how many bodies wallowed down in these pits, completely forgotten by the world. Deeper she went, forcing herself to gaze upon each and every one of Goldenstalks House’s transgressions, forcing herself to take them all to heart. As much as she abhorred the sight of them, they were all part of her.
“It is time we demand what is ours!” a stallion’s voice called from somewhere in the darkness. “Let us unite, brothers and sisters of the earth!”
“Aw, not this again! Shut it, Rooster!” a mare spat at him from across the corridor. “I was just falling asleep!”
Her protests didn't seem to sway the brown stallion in the slightest. Neither did Adagio’s presence as she scuttled past his cell. “We must demand liberation from under the suffocating hoof of the unicorn peerage!" he bellowed.
“‘The unicorn peerage, unicorn peerage,’ he says,” the jailed mare replied. “It’s that crazy mouth of yours what makes me wish I could kiss the grime under the Duke’s hooves right this instant if the bastard would have my cell switched!”
The earth mare seemed a disheveled little ball of scrapes, bruises, and missing teeth. That anypony might treat a mare in such a manner startled the Duchess so that she couldn't draw her eyes away.
The imprisoned mare sneered at the sight of Adagio, despising her judgmental eyes. She hocked up something into her throat, and spat it in the noblemare’s direction. The wet lump caught Adagio right upon the hems. “And what are you gawking at, Princess?” the mare screamed. “Forgive me, Your Grace. If I knew that you was planning on paying us Forsaken a visit, I would have worn my good dress!”
“I… I'm… s… sorry,” Adagio blurted, too shocked to remember the wisdom in keeping her mouth shut. “I didn't meant to—”
“You're sorry?” the mare breathed. “You hear that, lads? Her Grace says she’s sorry! You know how long I been down here, Princess? Yea, me neither! My children probably don't even remember they gots a mother no more! Another day without your guard feedin’ us, and them foals just might end up being right!”
“Hear that, mates? The Duchess says she’s sorry!” a stallion’s voice chortled madly somewhere down the dark corridor.
“Aye, Your Grace! I'll take that pretty dress you're wearing as long as you're paying penance!” one more pony called.
“I'll take the mane and tail beneath! Those sodding guards cut mine clean off!” said yet another.
The entire Pit broke out into a fit of raucous laughter, boos, and hisses. Cell bars clanked. Stones cracked and crumbled. The faces of the wretched swirled about Adagio in the darkness, and despite her best efforts, she couldn't keep a clear head. As much control as she might have lacked in her chambers filled with fineries, the same could easily be said for her down here in the dank and dim. She had to find Beryl and soon before she got lost, or worse yet, went mad.
“Down with her!” the same brown stallion bellowed. “Down with the unicorn peerage!”
Walls began to hiss again. Adagio rushed faster down the corridor, peering from cell to cell. The grim and grimy faces became a blur as she searched for that one familiar trace of pretty green and a long, quaint braid.
Further she ran…
And louder the voices of the wretched grew…
“Your Grace?” a small voice squeaked somewhere off to her right.
The tenderness in the words was enough to make the Duchess halt her steps. She spun about, to take in the sight of a drab, but distinct lime green coat and a lovely flank mark depicting a golden key encrusted with an array of precious stones. “Beryl? Beryl!” she cried.
“Your Grace, is it really you?” Beryl whimpered as she limped to brace against her cell bars.
Adagio lunged forward to hold Beryl’s beaten and bruised face tenderly between her hooves.
“Your Grace, tell me I am not dreaming!” Beryl cried, shocked tears rolling down her cheeks. “I thought I would never see light of day again, much less your face. And here you have brought me both!”
“Oh, Beryl. I've made a horrible mistake. You were correct all along. I've come to make things right. I've come to set you free!”
Beryl, understandably, was at a loss for words. Taking the quiet opportunity, Adagio bid her to stand back. Once the earth mare had retreated into the dark, Adagio lowered her head, and struck the cell’s lock with a powerful beam of magic. The rusty lump went clattering to the ground in an instant. One moment more, and the two mares were huddled in a dirty corner, embracing as if their very lives depended upon it.
“Forgive me, Beryl! Forgive me,” the Duchess repeated over and over. Her hoof ran across the earth mare’s mane and fur as she perused the entirety of the damage that Echo Hum and Silent Wing had wrought. The most distinguishable change, by far, was made to Beryl’s once lovely mane and tail. They had both been cut short, probably to keep them out of the way when her blood had begun to flow. Now the length hung in an uneven mess about her mid-neck. In addition to this, her left eye was ringed with darkness, and a few deep lacerations on her left thigh explained the limp.
Thinking these things the extent of her injuries, Adagio breathed a tentative sigh of relief. It wasn’t until the earth mare turned onto her opposite side for comfort from her leg shackle that the Duchess finally witnessed the true extent of the pegasus duo’s depravity. When she did, her jaw fell slack. For a moment her brain went numb. Bile rose up into her throat, and was choked down, only for it to rise again with double the force. “Why? Why? Why?” she wheezed.
Beryl’s right cutie mark was missing.
It took a moment of thinking and staring and blinking at the raw wound before Adagio’s mind could accept the notion that Beryl’s mark had quite literally been flayed from her side.
Noting her mistress’ distress, Beryl attempted to roll away so that she might hide her shame.
Adagio held her still, and pulled her in close. She wanted to remember. She wanted to see the horror she had brought upon her dearest friend.
“Monst… monsters…” the Duchess croaked. Her stomach churned as the gruesome image seared itself into her memory. She kissed Beryl’s mane, hoping to draw out a feeling of personal guilt for stealing so sweet a sensation. She deserved to feel like a monster, too.
“Th… they were going to take the other, but I fainted away before they could. I suppose it was no longer fun for them after that,” Beryl murmured, not knowing what else to say. “It… it doesn’t feel as bad as it looks, Mum. Honest!” Perhaps it was out of habit that even in this lowly state, the earth mare could not help but try to protect her mistress’ peace of mind from these all too nasty, all too worldly things.
“Shut up, Beryl! Just shut up! You shall never spare my feelings again! Not after this!” Adagio barked. Leaning down, and bowing her horn in the direction of Beryl’s shackle, the Duchess let off a powerful ruby beam, blowing the restraint to bits. “From this day forth, you are a free pony. You may come with me if you'd like, just so long as you run far away from here!”
“C… come with you?” Beryl asked, rubbing at the raw ring of flesh about her shorn fetlocks. “Where are you going?”
“I know you've confessed,” Adagio replied, helping Beryl to her hooves. “And I don't care, Beryl. I'm glad you did it. But now we must go. We must flee or the Duke shall have Lighthoof killed, and imprison us both.”
Beryl took one aching step forward and paused. Her brow was furrowed in confusion. Slowly, her head began to shake. “Your Grace, I… I do not understand,” she said. “I didn't tell those sky beasts anything.”
Adagio rolled her eyes, and attempted to tug the earth mare along by the dirty rags she now used for a shawl. “It's alright Beryl. How could I possibly be angry with you after—”
“‘Tis the truth!” Beryl exclaimed, pulling away, and limping about to Adagio’s front. “They tried to make me talk. They hurt me… they hurt me… all over. Spirits know how much I wanted to confess. But, I am telling you, it never happened! I gave them nothing! That is why they took my mark! They took it, and I fainted away, and when I awoke I was back in my cell!”
Adagio’s heart was pounding out of her chest. Once again, things were moving too quickly. She shook her head in disbelief. “That can't be. That just cannot be,” she whispered. “If you didn't confess, then who…”
“Adagio?” a hushed voice whispered in the dark. The sound bounced off of the Pit’s stone walls.
Both mistress and servant froze, pressing each others’ mouths shut.
“Adagio, where are you?” the voice came again, a bit louder this time.
Upon spotting a flash of stark white in the dim, Adagio realized who it was. “Violet! Here we are!” she replied, drawing the Duchess Vision’s attention. In a moment, all three of them were huddled together against the cold stones.
Violet stared down upon Beryl in shock, taking in all that the mercenaries had done to her. Her brow twitched. She restrained the brunt of the frown she surely wished to point in Adagio’s direction. “Spirits, Beryl. You did not deserve this,” she said.
“Please, Your Grace,” Beryl replied, forcing herself to her hooves. “I'm just so happy to see you here. I only wish to leave this terrible place.”
“Of course,” Adagio said, rushing toward the cell door, and poking her head out to check for a guard. Seeing none, she ushered the others forward. “Violet, where are the guards who were chasing after you?”
“I ran them into that filthy pit of wastewater that leads into the backfield,” the Duchess Vision chuckled, bobbing confidently down the dark hallway. “That Heavenly Hoof is quite useful. Even over water!”
The three hurried along the dark corridor, stopping at every twist and turn to peer around the corner. Voices attached to no faces followed them as they went, groaning and straining, begging for freedom. Bent solely on not being caught, the two noblemares ignored them all. It seemed fitting that Beryl was the first to speak on the other prisoners’ behalf.
“Your Graces, please wait,” she hissed in the dark.
The clattering of hoofsteps faded. Adagio and Violet spun about to find Beryl standing in the middle of the corridor, her head bowed with deep conviction.
“What is the matter with you, Beryl?” Adagio asked. “We must hurry!”
“I… I cannot leave them here,” Beryl began. “The others I mean. Some of these ponies are as innocent as I. Many of them do not deserve their punishments. Please wait a moment so that we might free them!”
Neither Violet nor Adagio could hide their sneers of disapproval.
“Beryl, they are dangerous. They despise us!” Violet hissed. “We cannot simply allow them to walk free.”
“Then I shall release them,” the maidservant pressed. She raised her head high in a manner the two noblemares had never before witnessed. “Many of these ponies are like me. They said the incorrect thing at the incorrect time, and have ended up down here for their mistake. If I were to allow them to stay and rot, I would be as heartless as your Duke.”
Adagio and Violet faltered at the fresh determination in the earth mare’s words.
“Beryl, you shall be caught,” Adagio said. “I cannot, in good conscience, allow you to—”
“With all due respect, Your Grace, you are not allowing anything,” Beryl interrupted. “Do you not remember that you have already set me free? I shall stay behind whether you fancy it or not. I shan’t leave these ponies to suffer!”
Silence cloaked the Pit save for the stray sniffle or cough that echoed along the corridor. Seeing that the earth mare was set on her decision, both unicorns turned, and passed each other worried looks.
“If I truly am to be honest and of my word, then I must say that she can do this. I must believe her conviction,” Adagio said.
Violet nodded her head, and passed her sister a resigned smile. “That you must.”
They both turned to face Beryl who stood stretching the aches and pains from her hind legs.
“Good luck, Beryl,” Adagio said, rushing forward to embrace her. “Meet me by the old fountain once it is completely dark if you plan to escape. I imagine a slew of earth ponies could figure ways to hide amongst the green until then?”
Beryl, stunned that her mistress might believe in her as one would an equal, quickly nodded her head and smiled adoringly. “I’m certain we shall figure the correct thing to do.”
With one more nod, Adagio turned to follow her sister.
It took a while before Adagio noted the unnerving silence stretching on between Violet and herself. A few minutes had passed since they had left Beryl to free the other prisoners, and still there were no traces of the guards. Something began to tickle at the back of Adagio’s mind. “The guards should have returned by now. It isn’t as if that water pit is filled with bog mud.”
“Adagio, please stop mumbling to yourself. You’re making me nervous,” Violet sighed, hurrying along up the stairs toward the dungeon proper.
“Sorry, Vee,” Adagio said. “It is just so very strange.”
“The only thing that is strange is the way you are behaving,” Violet clucked, peeking around the bend, into the torchlit chamber. “Those guards are probably off pulling the muck from their fur.”
“You’re probably right,” Adagio replied. Still, as much as she wanted to agree with her sister, something continued to nag at her. “She said she did not confess.”
“What was that, dear?” Violet tittered absent-mindedly.
“Beryl,” Adagio stated clearly. “She said that she did not confess. Those mercenaries took her mark, and she still did not confess.”
“Remarkable,” Violet muttered. Suddenly, she looked sick to her stomach, “and ghastly.”
“Indeed,” Adagio replied. “Yet the question still remains, if not Beryl, then who?”
Things went quiet again as the two mares cast the Heavenly Hoof spell upon themselves. As they neared the entrance of the large vault, the clattering of their hooves upon stone disappeared.
“I haven’t the slightest idea, Adagio, dear,” Violet replied, her voice lowered to a whisper. “You wouldn’t suppose somepony else might have been given reason to take up disfavor with you?”
“I cannot imagine who…” Adagio trailed off.
They entered out into the quickly fading twilight, and rounded the corner into the shadowed cloisters. Casting their spell again and again, they only stopped when they had floated quite near to the ceiling. The vantage point was terrible from this height, but nopony down below would ever think to look for them up here.
Adagio’s mind began to buzz in a familiar way as she rose higher.
“Betr—” Moonstone’s voice hissed within her brain, once again.
Adagio gasped. “That is who she meant!”
Violet’s eyes went wide. “Who? Moonstone? What was it that she said? W… who did she speak of?” she inquired anxiously. “Somepony close?”
“I do not know. The spell is casted too far away for clarity,” Adagio replied. “The Duke is purposely keeping her away from me. Still, I was able to hear the words “betrayal” and “she”.”
Violet remained silent, apparently lost in thought. They were nearing the edge of the cloisters now. As soon as they were free of them, they would have to cast their spell a few more times to reach the safety of the garden, and eventually the old fountain.
Expended magic coupled with the weight of her own body was making Adagio’s spell cumbersome to maintain. She felt herself reaching her limit, and imagined Violet was reserving her own energy as well considering how quiet she was being. “Vee, I cannot hold the spell much longer. Let us hurry,” she panted.
“I cannot stop thinking about Beryl,” Violet cut in abruptly.
The calm in her older sister’s voice made Adagio pause. “Neither can I,” she replied.
“That a pony should choose to suffer such torments merely to protect the secret of the one who brought them upon her...” Violet shook her head. “I can fathom nothing more honorable, more righteous.”
Adagio felt her cheeks go red. She hung her head so that her mane shrouded her face. “I shall regret it for the rest of my life, Violet. I shall regret all of the hearts I have broken.”
“Shall you?” Violet clucked. Her tone of voice was reprimanding. “After all, you still cannot decipher whoever this mystery pony is that holds a vendetta against you.”
Adagio remained silent.
The edge of the cloister opened up before them, and with it the night. Both mares stepped across an invisible platform made of air and magic toward the garden. The green came up to greet them, Adagio more so than her sister. Maybe upon one of the garden’s stone paths noise wouldn't be a problem, but by the time the edge of the manicured shrubbery gave way to rugged terrain, she would have to muster up enough magical energy to cast the Heavenly Hoof again.
“Don’t…” Moonstone called. The echo seemed to move beyond Adagio’s tired mind and out into the evening.
Violet frowned as their hooves grazed lightly against the sides of rose bushes and tulip stalks. The garden was thick around them. “How do you know you would not forget poor Beryl’s sacrifice the moment you are rid of this place?” she continued. “What’s worse, how do you know you would not convince yourself to weigh the price she has paid and determine it a mere pittance?”
Adagio scoffed, “Violet, you cannot be serious. You cannot think me so selfish that I might ever compare my woes with those of a mare who has been robbed of her mark.”
“It is tragic the things you seem to forget, Adagio,” Violet sighed.
The path was beneath them now. Adagio, gratefully, sank down onto the stones. Her golden shoes hit rock with a ‘clank’. The garden was eerily quiet save for the sounds of crickets and the unnaturally rhythmic gusts of breeze. Adagio wondered if perhaps those winds were spawned on pegasus wing, and had traversed the entire Duchy in order to unnerve her.
Grasses rustled as they went. At times a mouse or frog would dart across their path, betraying their hiding places. Adagio felt anxious. This emotion was understandable, all things considered. However, she just could not shake the distinctly horrible feeling that many eyes were now upon her.
As soon as they had reached the edge of the garden, they stopped a moment to cast the Heavenly Hoof one last time. Adagio stole herself. This conjuration would have to be her strongest. It would have to last longer than what she thought possible. It would have to see her through to the fountain where the hind border of Upright’s estate lay, and hopefully, where Lighthoof was awaiting her.
As they set off into the untamed, Violet looked up at the sky and breathed in the air. She moved confidently through the moonlight, despite all impending dangers. “You did realize whilst you were lambasting the Lord Vision this morning, that I actually did love him, did you not?” she asked quietly. The night around them was too silent.
Adagio stammered, “Oh, Violet. O… of course I knew that!”. The fountain was just ahead, sunken down in between two small knolls. In the dark dip, Adagio could not see what waited there. Upright’s enchanted barrier crackled and hissed in sputtering orange as they neared it.
Adagio frowned at the implication of her sister’s words. Shame was very nearly beginning to weigh her down. The spell faltered for a moment and she sank a few inches more toward leaves and roots. “When I said those things, it was intended as my pitiful attempt to help you feel better about—”
“About the fact that I chose to follow the rules, to obey my husband, and to do as I was told. You thought, Adagio, that in his death, I might have realized my own freedom from the control he held over me?” Violet was scowling now, her pink eyes very nearly burning. She turned to peer at Adagio as they paused just beyond the dip of the hill.
“Do not listen…” Moonstone called.
Adagio was losing her grip upon the spell. Her breath was belabored. As she stumbled forward into the dim, her eye caught sight of something white and rather large darting behind a tree. “He's here,” she exclaimed, bounding forward upon her shoddy spell. When she realized that Violet was lagging behind, she spun around. “Violet, did you not hear me? Lighthoof, he is—”
“There is no spell that Vision has placed upon me, Adagio,” Violet continued, ignoring her sister’s words. “I loved the Lord Vision and I loved my son. And now they are both gone.”
Adagio frowned. Bit by bit, things began to gel within her brain. Abstract pieces finally came together to create a single, terrible truth. Her hooves sank onto the ground as it all dawned upon her, at last.
Lighthoof, having waited far too long, darted from his hiding place and approached them. By the time he was close enough to reach out and touch Adagio’s shoulder, the mare could no longer budge.
“Violet…” Adagio breathed.
“Do not listen…” Moonstone called.
“And you and your husband failed me. You failed us. If my husband and son are gone, it is your fault!” Violet’s horn sparked. “Fortunately, at least your Duke could afford me a bit of his penance.”
“Gio?” Prance muttered. His deep purple eye had gone dark as they studied Violet. His expression had grown quite grim. Cautiously, he reached down to wrap a bating hoof around Adagio’s foreleg and said, “We must move now.”
Adagio’s gaze remained steadfast, directed straight ahead. Something hot began to rise up into her chest, then her face. The fire reflected itself in Violet’s eyes.
Lighthoof was tugging at her legs, then rounding about to nip at her tail. Her hooves left a streak in the dirt as he dragged her across the earth. “Adagio, we must leave!” he pressed through clenched teeth.
And the moon shone down upon the three, and Adagio’s heart had begun to crack, and Violet smiled. Her purple horn glowed in indigo. Dim at first, the light intensified until it shone like a beacon through the trees.
“Do not listen to her!” Moonstone called. The message came clear at last. “She will betray you!”
And Adagio’s heart broke in two. “Violet? What have you done?” she breathed.
“Violet, retreat to the estate!” Prance bellowed angrily, his eyes flashing. Seeing that Adagio was less than inclined to budge, he rounded about again to stand in front of her, blocking the Duchess Vision’s line of sight.
Violet didn’t respond. For a moment, it seemed as if she had not noticed Prance’s presence at all. Then her head bowed. The look she gave the anxious stallion was half dazed, half satisfied. She blinked at him, wearing the most demure of smiles. “Oh. Sir Lighthoof. Hello,” she said as plainly as one might mention the weather.
Her horn flashed, cloaking the scene in blinding light. From the bushes bounded eight estate guards. Two of them pulled out enchanted rings and rushed forward, bent on placing one upon Adagio’s horn.
Two guards pounced upon Prance who easily fought them off with well-aimed hooves to the jaw. Three more rushed to replace their cohorts, this time with ropes in tow. “Gio, run! Hide!” Prance bellowed as he found himself overpowered. A hoof to the maw silenced him for good, and sent him crashing to the ground.
Adagio turned to make a mad dash for the enchanted barrier about the estate, her mind drawing a stunned blank. Violet’s burning indigo beam of magic cut across her path, forcing her into a retreat. Finding herself surrounded by guards with nowhere else to go, she turned about to face her sister. “Violet! How could you?” she cried, as Violet calmly floated down toward the earth. “I am your sister!”
Violet sneered. Her pink eyes narrowed into spiteful slits. Stepping forward she released the knot in the hem of her velvet gown. Suddenly, the Duchess Vision seemed to have reclaimed some of her former glory.
Reaching out with one dainty hoof, she lifted Adagio’s chin so that she might have a gander at the despair carved upon her face. Moving the hoof upward toward the golden lady’s horn, she ran it against the rim of the enchanted ring that sat there, and shoved it down hard. “If you need ask a question like that, then you really do deserve all that is coming to you, Adagio,” she replied.
Then came another blinding flash of light.
Straining her head to the side to see, Adagio’s heart sank when she spotted Upright now making his way toward them, flanked by two of his guard. In their company was her sister, Moonstone. Upon her horn was an enchanted ring, probably placed there the minute Adagio had been recaptured.
Unwilling to allow her captors a moment’s peace, the youngest Glow daughter struggled and wrenched at the magical bindings that held her. “Violet, you absolute scoundrel!” she screamed. “How could you do this? How could you possibly be settled to see yourself as this… this snake?”
Violet never even afforded her sister a passing glance. Instead, the Duchess Vision turned about to stand before Duke Goldenstalks. She did not bow, nor did she smile. Instead, she nodded her head in reverence. “I told you she would prove far too selfish to keep her mouth shut and leave Lighthoof be, and that he would prove far too gallant to follow his better judgement.”
Watching Violet and Upright together in this way made Adagio’s blood boil. Her mind drifted to that morning when she had visited her sister, hugged her, kissed her, and reassured her that everything would be alright. She remembered the look that Violet had given her. That blank, depleted stare. She recalled the supposed discussion Violet had with the Duke when she’d first arrived. Adagio felt sick to her stomach as she realized the discussion had been about her. She remembered Violet’s sparse words, no longer cryptic and mysterious as they had once seemed: ‘Do you believe that I am kind and forgiving, and that my husband alone brought this upon us all?’ Violet had asked her. ‘I am so very sorry for all the havoc that I bring upon you, Adagio,’ she had said. How was it at all possible for her to be sorry? If she was then why would she still have chosen to go through with her plan? What twisted satisfaction did she draw from all of this?
The golden duchess was startled from her thoughts when she saw the Duke shift his weight to his left side. He peered beyond Violet’s shoulder, piercing blue daggers into Prance. With one flick of his hoof, he bid the knight’s captors forward. Hoisting the white stallion up, they drew near.
“Lighthoof, you’ve always had a knack for the art of persuasion, ever since we were young,” the Duke said. There was no inflection in his tone, his face was void of all expression. “If only I’d had the foresight to utilize such gifts for the benefits of the Duchy. Perhaps then you wouldn’t have squandered your talent on this sordid brand of treachery.”
Lighthoof huffed steam where he lay at the Duke’s hooves. The ropes binding him stretched taut as he struggled to break free. His shoulders rolled in circles where he lay on the ground, pushing and pulling at the twine beneath them. “There isn’t a pony alive that does not wish to make haste out of your presence, Upright,” Prance scoffed, shooting the Duke a defiant smile. “Your company is poison to the living and the full of heart.”
Upright cocked a brow at these words. “Is it?” he asked. “And I suppose you are the panacea.”
“Adagio is only one of those who have suffered for your callousness,” Prance continued. “I was moved to rectify the problem.”
“Well, you were most certainly ‘moved’ to do something, weren't you?” Upright taunted him. He waved his hoof. “Very well. If you are so eager to leave my presence, then I shall spare you the trouble of my company.” He turned and looked toward his guards. “To the Pit with him. The Sardhoof’s pegasi problem shall have to wait until he is feeling more conversive.”
“No!” Adagio cried struggling against her captors.
Upright’s eyes landed upon her next. This time they were wide, indignant. “Escort Her Grace back to her chambers,” the Duke commanded his guard. “And this time, make certain that she remains there until I return. Remove her spellbooks, empty her potion cabinet, keep that ring upon her horn! If she escapes again, it shall be you who disappears into the Pit!”
“Your Grace!” the guards responded in tandem, lifting Adagio by her bindings, and beginning the task of toting her away.
Adagio kicked and struggled against her restraints in vain, hysterical at the sight of Lighthoof being dragged out toward the path that led down to the Pit. “Release him!” she cried. “I said let him go, you miserable—”
“My Lord, Duke Goldenstalks, have mercy, I beg of you!” Moonstone cried, looking every other emotion besides submissive. “She is your wife! Are you intent on treating her this way forever?”
She received no response. Digging into his seemingly infinite well of coolness, Upright found it within himself to ignore her. “See Lady Moonstone to her chambers as well. Allow her to collect her things, and then usher her out,” the noblestallion commanded his entourage. “She is no longer welcome at Goldenstalks manor.”
Enraged by this act of disregard, the feisty heiress resorted to more familiar tactics. “What manner of overcompensating, small-snouted, stiff-tailed, tight arsed…” she prattled on never noticing how the Duke’s entire body tensed with her every insult, “sparse-maned, fizzle-horn, foalish, snot-nosed—”
“Gentlestallions?” the Duke suddenly called to his guard. “Away from her!”
“Your Grace!” the mare’s captors responded. Moving as one—as if having practiced it many times before—they stepped away from Moonstone, leaving a wide berth around her.
The mare hadn’t a moment to realize what was happening before she was hit with a powerful blast of orange magic. It flung her high into the air. She squealed, more in shock than pain, as the Duke’s barrier spell opened up behind her airborne body to allow her passage through. Sailing down, she hit the grass with a thunderous ‘THUD’.
“Moonstone!” Adagio screamed wrenching her head about to see if her sister was alright.
Violet, stunned to witness this fearful turn of events, could only manage to hold her ground, her eyes wide with disbelief.
Lighthoof was the first to realize that the mare was still moving where she had landed in the grass. Her robes were smoking and singed, but she was moving. “Moonstone, answer me!” he called out to her. “Are you alright?”
The spirited mare lay face down in the green for only a moment before one hoof planted itself beside her smoking left ear, and then the other beside the right. Lifting her head up, she spat out some grass. Her green eyes rolled much like they did after she’d had one too many helpings from a particularly strong batch of cider. “‘Course I'm alright!” she chuckled. “The bastard’s horn would barely do to spark dry straw!” Struggling to shaky hoof, she feigned composure before walking headlong into the estate’s magical barrier, and falling backward onto her bum. “Come again, you knave! Challenge me with some dignity! We shall see who the better mage is!”
“Moonstone!” Lighthoof hissed, bidding her to be quiet lest she stoke the Duke’s anger again. “Get away behind that tree!”
“Me? Run? Never!” Moonstone scoffed. Her horn sparked and buzzed as she absent-mindedly attempted to let off a beam of magic in Upright’s direction. Failing at this, she opted to stick her tongue out at him instead.
“You have a ring upon your horn, ye’ silly mare! Now, just do as I say and get behind that tree! Over there!” Lighthoof barked, nudging his head in the direction of a particularly thick oak to the mare’s left. His shoulders still rolled and rolled. The hidden hooves beneath his belly pulled at their restraints.
There was something in the knight’s eyes that Moonstone had not the patience to detect until the last possible moment before what happened next happened. Thankfully, she managed to catch the hint just in time. Backing away from the fizzling, orange barrier, she retreated toward the oak that the knight had mentioned. “This isn’t the last of it, Goldenstalks!” she cried, eyeing the Duke.
Duke Goldenstalks, who up until that moment had been busying himself with straightening his uniform, never noticed Moonstone’s particularly sporty brand of robes go flying from behind the oak tree. Nor did he notice Prance’s rolling shoulders finally cease their rolling. Nor did he notice that the knight’s scabbard had been turned about to sit beneath his body. It seemed to make sense, then, that he also would not notice Prance’s earth-reared form puffing with raw force to finally break free from its severed restraints. The curved silver dagger the knight had used to cut them was now bound tightly to his foreleg.
Before the remaining guards could attack, the white stallion let off a loud, reverberating whistle into the night air. “Now!” he cried.
Many things happened, all at once.
The heavy shroud of bushes surrounding the fountain clearing began to rustle and shake. Even as Upright’s horn glowed bright, and pointed itself in Lighthoof’s direction, something close to eighty or ninety rough and ragged ponies—most of them earth, a few unicorn—leapt from their hiding places. Prance’s white hoof landed square into an armored stallion’s jaw whilst, across the clearing, two large, bedraggled earth stallions tumbled the guards hoisting Adagio. They quickly set to work cutting her free with their teeth.
Violet’s indigo volley aimed itself upon Adagio’s saviors before a bright green beam struck her in the side. The Duchess Vision reeled in pain and fell to the ground. When she managed to search for who it was that dared attack her, she was shocked to see Moonstone standing beyond the barrier. Her body was rid of its hindering robes and her horn rid of its ring. Standing by her side was a familiar-looking earth mare with gentle eyes and grass green fur.
“Beryl?” Violet croaked. “How did you—”
“Adagio and Sir Lighthoof are coming with us! Out of our way, Sardhoof and Edinbridle! You shan't stop us!” Beryl cried. Her eyes were filled with uncertainty, and yet in the midsts of her newly-found independence she stood tall and did not recoil in fear.
“Violet, you snake in the grass!” Moonstone interjected. She charged her horn with such raw power that it emitted a crescendoing whirr. Her mane flowed on end. Her voice reverberated and echoed itself whilst her aura increased. “I'm going to make doubly sure that you spend the next year in a tub full of hex-breaking potion for what you’ve done! Get up! Get up and face me!”
The entire world seemed to hold its breath at the mare’s words. All was silent save for the whirring and sparking of Moonstone’s horn. One second more, and every free unicorn on the scene was standing at ready, their horns alight. The earth ponies, wisely, decided to stand watch at their backs. Slowly, a circle rounded about the Duke and his remaining entourage, closing them into a barrier from which they could not escape without injury.
“You are outnumbered, Sardhoof!” Beryl called again. “Let us go in peace! This is all we want!”
The Duke seethed. His horn’s aura sparked and roiled when he saw Adagio and Lighthoof, now both free, race to embrace one another. However, being a pony of logic, even he had to concede that the chances of four ponies defeating over eighty were rather slim. Possible, but slim. And if anything, he was not a stallion to squander precious resources, soldiers included.
Upright inhaled deeply—the hissing sound he made was similar to that of fire being doused in water. He allowed his horn to go dim. “Very well. Go. Get out of my sight. However, I want one thing in return,” he said, his tone gone cold and flat.
“What?” Violet huffed, reeling upon him and stomping her hoof. “Goldenstalks, you are not serious! You cannot simply allow them all to leave! These ponies are criminals! What should happen if—”
“Lady Vision, remember yourself!” Upright bellowed, his horn sparking. “I said they are free to leave Goldenstalks manor. As things stand, we shall not win this fight. But not to worry. They shan’t get far.” He then turned to face Adagio and Prance, a glimmer in his eye.
Adagio shoved herself in front of the knight and charged her horn in warning.
“What is it that you want?” Beryl called from the Duke’s rear, beyond the fizzling magical barrier.
“Everypony may go. Even you Ada, if your heart is truly set on it,” Upright continued, feigning aloofness. “My one condition is that Lighthoof must stay.”
A grim murmur encompassed the crowd of ponies. It didn't take a genius to figure what they were all discussing.
Naturally, Adagio was the first to step forward in protest. “No, Upright! Lighthoof will leave with the rest of us!”
“If you attempt to leave with Lighthoof, I shan't guarantee that the rest of you will remain unharmed,” Upright shot. “Lighthoof stays, and all of you may leave without fear of injury or worse.”
“That thounds like a fair thrade to me,” one particularly toothless earth stallion said.
“Aye, and why shouldn't the knight remain? His family has been guarding the Goldenstalks for decades, hasn't it?” called a far too skinny unicorn mare.
Bit by bit, the crowd began to turn until, at last, they were all but closing in upon Adagio, shouting for Prance to surrender himself.
The Duchess Goldenstalks bore down defensively, her horn glowing even brighter. “Have you all gone mad? Do not allow the Duke to break your resolve! We outnumber them! We can still break free if you would only—”
“Very well,” a voice said from behind her. Calmly and confidently, Prance walked away from his beloved’s protection, bound for the Duke's guards. “I shall stay if that means freedom for them all. ‘Tis a fair trade.”
“Lighthoof! Are you mad?” Adagio gasped, her magic failing her. She leapt forward to block his path. “Do not stay. Please, I beg of you!”
Prance grinned that same warm smile that Adagio loved so. She felt her skin going warm as he reached out to caress her cheek.
“Gio, I want you to be realistic now. Be that strong, sharp mare that I remember. Think for a moment. Look around you. Understand how these ponies have suffered, and then tell me that I should not surrender.”
“But…” Adagio sighed as she gazed out upon the countless wretched: stallions and mares, earth and unicorn, even a few foals. She could not find it in herself to put them all in anymore danger for her own selfish desires. Others had often demanded that she take on the weighted responsibilities of a Duchess. Perhaps tonight was a fine night indeed to do right by her ponies, to be trusted rather than simply adored.
She gazed into Lighthoof’s eyes, her head still shaking in protest. Something wet streaked down her cheek, and was quickly kissed away by her beloved knight. She couldn't bring herself to say the word, but she no longer had to.
Lighthoof smiled, seeing the truth in her eyes. “I love you, Gio,” he said, leaning in to kiss her lips one more time. He then turned around, and continued on toward the guards.
Upright glowered at them both. The tender looks in their eyes worked to make him realize something awful about himself. As he watched their lips touch, he understood fully all the opportunity he had squandered and lost. Here this earth gentry stood, grinning and making eyes at something he had seduced and stolen. Something that rightfully belonged to him, a Duke of the mighty unicorn peerage.
Upright's eyes narrowed as Lighthoof stood before him, waiting.
“Well?” the knight said. “You have me. Now, release them.”
“Very well,” Upright replied. The words escaped his throat as a rasp. His eyes had gone all red again, and if one were to look close enough, one would note how his forelegs now trembled. The unicorn bowed his head. Gradually, his horn began to glow.
The gathering became tense, waiting to see exactly what would come of the Duke’s promises. Lighthoof was the only pony who did not flinch. Like Adagio, he had known Upright long enough to know what he would do.
The enchanted dome around the estate fizzled and hissed. It sparked once, bright as day. Then again, a bit dimmer like the moon. The third time it flashed, the projection of its image remained, then began to fade until nothing at all was left. The cage had been opened. They were all free to go.
The Duke waited, and so did the crowd. They couldn’t believe that things might be so simple, not after all the time they had spent down in the dank and dark. Upright, fed up with the entire evening, reared up unto his hind legs, and flashed his horn menacingly at them all. “Get out! Get out now before I change my blasted mind!” he cried. He didn’t have to speak again.
The entire gathering surged, headed straight for the border of Sardhoof forest. One by one, ponies disappeared into the darkness of the woods until none were left behind.
Even Moonstone, after shaking a threatening hoof in Violet’s direction, decided it would be wiser to stay back. She remained beyond the barrier line beside Beryl. The noblemare took a passing glance at the former maidservant. Her eyes lingered. She smiled coyly. “You look different somehow,” she said, turning away again. “I like it.”
Beryl didn’t acknowledge her statement, too busy staring out into the fountain’s clearing where only Adagio remained upon the estate’s land. The Duchess Goldenstalks’ hooves were glued to their spot as she looked on helplessly toward the two stallions who had torn her world asunder.
Beryl frowned. The look Adagio was wearing worried her immensely. “Miss Adagio!” she called. “We must leave this place! Now!”
“She’s right, Gio,” Lighthoof said, his eyes never wavering away from the Duke’s. “Go.”
Adagio trembled. Her hooves plodded about anxiously. “I… I can’t, Lighthoof! I—”
“Gio! You must! There is no going back to that mare you once were. The time has come for you to live a life of your choosing!” the knight insisted.
“Prance!” Adagio lamented.
“Miss Adagio! Now!” Beryl called from the beyond.
Adagio huffed with resolve, and allowed her mind to go blank. Willing her legs to move, she closed her eyes, and made a straight dash for the oak tree where Moonstone and Beryl were waiting.
Violet, who had managed to remain mostly quiet until now, watched her sister go. Rage boiled in her eyes. “Goldenstalks, this is not at all what we have agreed to,” she murmured just loud enough for Upright to hear her.
Upright’s eyes remained trained straight ahead at Lighthoof. The sound of Adagio’s hooves upon the grass began to fade, little by little. The Duke’s smile grew in tandem with this noise. “On the contrary, Lady Duchess,” he said.
Adagio was near the barrier, now.
“I assure you, you will get exactly what it is you have asked for,” Upright finished, just as Adagio’s hooves crossed the line between estate ground and the Sardhoof.
Her hind hooves had just kicked up those lingering pieces of grass when she heard a crackling and fizzling at her rear. Unable to spin around fast enough, she gazed out toward Moonstone and Beryl whose expressions had fallen slack with shock. A bright glow of orange reflected upon their fur, rising up from their hooves until it was cast against the entire oak tree.
Upon reaching them, Adagio spun about and gazed back toward Goldenstalks manor where Upright’s enchanted barrier had been re-erected, much stronger this time. She peered past it in horror to where Upright stood in the middle of the clearing. His horn was glowing bright whilst a deadly beam of sheer power was blasting into the center of Prance’s chest.
“No!” Adagio screeched, racing back toward the barrier where she pounded, and scratched, and dug to no avail. “Upright stop!”
“You treacherous charlatan!” Upright growled, his body gleaming, his mane caught aflame. “You smile, you laugh, you feed happy lies to the impressionable, never supposing that you might ever have to pay for your deceptions.” He caught Lighthoof’s stunned body up into his magic, and tossed it far and hard where it slammed against the estate’s magical barrier.
Sparks surrounded Prance as he fell to the ground in a daze. Adagio was before him in an instant, pounding upon the magical wall, bidding him to rise. “Lighthoof, get up! Get up and fight!” she begged him as he struggled to get to his hooves. Of course it went without saying that an earth pony who would willingly choose to take on a fully empowered unicorn was probably also suicidal. Still, there was little other choice to be made at the moment. “Fight him, Lighthoof!”
“Yes, Lighthoof, turn and face me!” the Duke bellowed, sending a relatively slow warning blast Lighthoof’s way.
The white stallion dodged to the side just in time. His eyes grew alert once more. His body shook, adrenaline now coursing through his veins.
“We shall free you!” Adagio cried, placing her hoof against the fizzling orange wall of light. “But you have to hold him off! As long as you can manage!”
Prance only had time to look at Adagio once. “Adagio, you need to lea—” he began, only to find himself hoisted up into an orange beam once again, and thrown into a large tree.
When flying branches and jagged shards of bark rained down upon Violet and the two remaining estate guards, they decided that backing away from the scene was a wise decision to make.
Lighthoof reeled where he lay at the roots of the decimated tree before getting back up to his hooves. Shaking the trembles from his body, he stole himself and bore down upon his forelegs. Huffing steam, he pulled the strap upon his dagger tight with his teeth, then made a mad dash in Upright’s direction. Adagio was right. Even if she never found a way to set him free, she was still right. He would have to fight if there was to be an inkling of a chance that he might survive.
Upright projected a powerful beam directly at him. Lighthoof dodged it once, then again, the earth tearing up beneath his hooves. The Duke’s horn sparked once more, and suddenly a hail of glowing orange shards rained down upon the knight’s back. One caught him on his shoulder, gashing it open. Another caught him on his hind leg. He was nearly upon the unicorn stallion when something stung him upon his forehead. A warm trickle slid down the middle of his face. Lighthoof could taste blood. Again, Upright’s horn flashed. Now was the knight’s chance. Now, before the Duke could cast another spell.
With a great cry, Lighthoof dove through the air, his head bound directly for the center of Upright’s chest. The Duke’s horn glowed, and in a moment, a transparent orange shield had erected itself in front of his body. Lighthoof crashed headlong into the shield, ricocheting off of it and onto the ground.
“I’ll crush you where you lie,” Upright growled through bared teeth as the shield of light turned itself horizontally, and careened down into the earth. Again, Lighthoof rolled out of the way, rounding about to Upright’s side. As the magical shield disappeared, it left a deep, smoking crater in its wake.
When the spell had completely dissipated, and the Duke’s horn was recharging itself, Lighthoof got to his hooves. He was so close to the unicorn’s face now that his tail could have touched him were he to spin around.
The earth stallion’s outfitted foreleg crossed to his front, then upward and out. The world slowed down as Prance’s dagger edged up toward the pristine, gilded buttons splayed across Upright’s chest, so symbolic of the guarded and untouched fantasy world the Duke had erected about himself. As the blade met flesh and cut deep, the two tiny suns within Upright’s eyes sputtered and died down to a stunned, icy blue.
The Duke reeled for a moment and then fell backward onto the ground whilst gazing down in shock at his own bleeding chest. His breath quickened as tingling turned into stinging, and stinging into an unbearable searing. Never before had anypony managed to touch him, much less create in him this sort of sensation. He had always been the bookish type of colt and young stallion, the type to stay indoors whilst his peers were busy skinning their knees and rolling down rocky hills for fun. The rough ways of the earth had never seemed significant to him. Tolerance for these hard-earned scuffs and bruises of life’s affections was something, he only now realized, he had never acquired.
Upright’s chest heaved once, twice. His vision blurred in and out before settling on ultra-sharpness. For the first time in his life, the sounds of the earth, and the wood, and his guard’s hooves plodding across grass, and Lighthoof’s menacing face seemed sharper than ever before. A cruel world he had hardly ever noticed now came into focus. Something filled his nostrils. He tried to shake the smell out of his nose before realizing that it was fresh forest air mingled with the heavy scent of two warring stallions. Not knowing what else to do, he clawed at his ruined uniform until it slid off of his shoulders and away into the grass. Blood streaked down the fur of his orange belly, as he retreated away from the white knight. He needed a moment. Just a moment to catch his bearings. A moment that, if Lighthoof was smart, he wouldn’t allow.
“You… you shall pay for that,” Upright stammered. His voice sounded wholly unsure of itself.
Lighthoof grinned, relishing the fresh fear rooted in the Duke’s eyes. The same grin that could so easily put minds and hearts to rest filled the noble unicorn with pure apprehension. His horn sparked and failed. One more time, and its aura died down to nothing.
“And how much do I owe you, Upright? Put it on a tab, old chum!” Prance chuckled, tightening the band upon his foreleg again. The two guards who dared approach him were quickly hoofed and cut down to unconsciousness before the knight continued on his path. “Tell me, can you function at all without your ledger? Your quill and ink?” He huffed steam. The earth-reared muscles in his forelegs twitched as he wiped the trickling blood from his forehead. He was smiling up until the moment his shadow cast darkness over the Duke’s breathless form. “Even still, do ye’ truly think that any of your books could help you now?”
He brought his head in toward Upright’s. There was a beat of silence between them, blue gazing into deep purple.
In one swift motion, Lighthoof’s forehead went smashing into Upright’s face. Again, and a clean muzzle was now dripping blood. One more time, and ice blue was now haloed by a swelling purple.
It was only for self defense that Upright was able to muster enough magic to blast a beam straight into Lighthoof’s face. As the white stallion staggered back, momentarily blinded, the Duke stumbled to his hooves and dove forward, barreling into his chest. His magic, his rules, his constant show of refinery eluded him now. For the first time, the Duke was all gnashing teeth on fur, and torn up earth beneath bloody flesh, and merciless hooves upon bone.
“You lecherous, conniving bastard!” Upright barked, rolling about in the scorched earth with Lighthoof’s blood and sweat-soaked mane between his teeth. “We shall see how useful you are to a mare after I blast you between the stifles!”
“And even then I shall still prove more useful than you ever were, you pompous, limp-tailed git!” Lighthoof quipped, hoofing the Duke across his already reddened maw.
Meanwhile, off by the old oak, Moonstone shook her head as she and her companions looked out at the roiling cloud of dust and leaves. She clapped her hooves together sarcastically. “Well, that’s stallions for you. Well done, Adagio. Hopefully they shall both soon knock the other out cold. Make our jobs easier.” She turned almost boredly to gaze at her elder sister. “Any ideas as yet?”
Adagio’s brow furrowed as she attempted to ignore the warring heap out by the fountain. Taking a deep breath, she settled her mind and focused. “We must disrupt the Duke’s barrier, or at least just enough of it to give Lighthoof a way to escape. But I’ve never seen such a thing done before. I’m uncertain as to how we might possibly…”
“Oh, dragonshit, Gio,” Moonstone huffed. “S’just a bit of magic. Nothing more. We’ve learned hundreds of evasive spells since youth. The Dispel, the Dispute, the Repulse, the Warder, the Dismiss—that one’s my personal favorite, by the way. We simply have to figure which one is the most powerful.”
Beryl stood off to the side in silence, listening to this very unicorn-oriented conversation and looking completely mystified.
“Well, the spell has long since been cast. The Dispute and the Repulse shan’t work now,” Adagio replied. “Perhaps the Dispel?”
Moonstone cleared her throat. “The Dismiss, darling. We shall try that one, together.” She did not wait for a reply before bounding off toward the magical barrier. Adagio and Beryl followed close behind.
Once they had arrived at the border of the estate, Moonstone drew her sister forward to stand before her, and quickly bowed her head. “With all of our strength, now!” she called as her horn began to whirr and glow a blinding green. Her body encapsulated itself within a high-beam of emerald light. Flecks of purple shimmered at its edges. She resembled a glorious shooting star and her halo its sparkling tail.
“Beryl, stand back!” Adagio warned the earth mare as she too charged her horn.
Beryl obediently ran for cover.
The forest sang as its magic was drawn in by the mares’ will. Their manes flowed up into a rush of power, and their eyes flashed white hot. When they both bowed their heads forward to touch their horns, the haloes about them mingled and grew into an enormous, humming and frothing ball of smoke and brilliance. It gushed, spread itself, and heaved forward against the Duke’s magical barrier, crashing into it with a deafening blast. The light emitted upon impact made the world flash white. When the glow died down, and the forest finally hushed its whispering, the two unicorns lay heaving upon the ground. The estate’s magical barrier still remained, steadfast and strong.
“No. Oh no!” Adagio panted, struggling back up to her hooves. “How could that have not worked? It was our strongest spell! What shall we do now?”
Beryl, watching the two noblemares’ plan fail from the sidelines, immediately rushed forward to meet them. “Miss Adagio, Miss Moonstone, I believe I have another solution!”
In the beyond, Lighthoof had somehow managed to round about to Upright’s rear, and collect the noble’s neck into a deadly-looking headlock. Upright gagged and choked until his horn sparked in orange, surrounded the both of them into a halo, and cast Lighthoof off into the crater he’d made earlier. With a savage growl, the Duke dove in after him.
Violet remained standing off to the side, bellowing for the both of them to stop.
“The Duke’s power is returning,” Moonstone stated matter-of-factly. “We should think of something else.”
“Miss Adagio! Miss Moonstone!” Beryl called, reaching into the neck of the tattered rags about her shoulders. “I believe I—”
“What if we simply power rammed the wall?” Adagio suggested, ignoring the earth mare once again. “We build our energy again, and—”
“Listen to me!” Beryl cried, stomping her hoof into the grass. The two noblemares gazed upon her, looking quite stunned. It was only then that the former maidservant removed the hoof she had buried within her shawl to pull out what, at first, appeared to be the strangest and most crudely made piece of jewelry either unicorn had ever seen. It was fashioned from a thin, simple twine, knotted together upon its edge. Hanging from this twine were about twenty or so large, metal rings.
Moonstone edged in closer to take a look. “What is that, Beryl? Oh, dear, did you make that dreadful thing in order to keep sane whilst you were locked away in their Pit? Spirits, the absolute horro—”
“Those are enchanted rings!” Adagio gasped, pushing her overly dramatic sister out of the way—which was fine enough since the true nature of the necklace didn’t entice Moonstone into getting close to Beryl again. “Where did you find those, Beryl?”
“From the horns of your unicorn prisoners. I figured they might come in useful,” Beryl said. “And they have! This was how I managed to escape the barrier in the first place!”
“What?” Adagio and Moonstone cried in tandem.
“Why did you not say anything before?” Moonstone screamed, her horn sparking.
Beryl recoiled, looking rather embarrassed. “Well, because…” she started, “the sensation of using them is rather unpleasant. Rather painful, actually. Most of the unicorns could not bear it. So, I decided to see what you would come up with first.”
“Well, bully for you!” Moonstone cried with a roll of her eyes. Rounding about Beryl, she shoved the earth mare forward toward the barrier. “Now, make that terror of an accessory work before those two kill each other!”
“I cannot by myself,” Beryl said, bowing her head to allow the necklace to slip onto the grass. She undid the knot so that the rings fell free, and then collected three of them into her teeth. “I need one of you to help me.”
Moonstone looked toward Adagio, and Adagio toward Moonstone.
“S’all yours, dear,” Moonstone deadpanned. “Those rings give me the shakes.”
“Thought as much,” Adagio sighed, stepping forward. “I’ll do it.” Bending down, she collected the rings into her teeth. Immediately, she felt their magic-repelling power drain some of the force from her body. Her legs trembled, and she stumbled. Moonstone rushed forward to help her back up, and edge her toward the barrier.
“We both must push the rings into the barrier at the same time. It shall be more painful for you, but you must hold steady until Lighthoof can make it through,” Beryl instructed them both.
“Moonstone? You shall fetch him. Understood?” Adagio commanded her sister.
“Alright, on the count of three,” Beryl shouted. “One… two… three!”
Adagio shut her eyes and rushed forward until she felt the sting of the metal rings between her teeth repelling the magic of the barrier. Her brain buzzed, the fur upon her face felt hot, and the flesh beneath it burned like fire. The pain was unbearable and yet, the thought of Lighthoof’s smiling face was enough to give her the strength to endure.
The tiniest hole opened up in the magical wall about her mouth. It began to spread until it was a wide and gaping archway, an earth mare and a unicorn duchess on either of its sides.
“Moonstone!” Beryl called, her eyes weeping tears of pain.
Moonstone rushed in through the doorway, headed straight for the crater in the middle of the clearing. When she stood upon its side, she looked down into the darkness and found just as much as she expected: two stallions beating each other senseless amongst the grime. “Lighthoof! Get him down! It is time to go!” she bellowed. She saw Lighthoof’s ear twitch. Had he heard her?
Violet, having seen the amazing feat of the three mares, rushed forward, her horn glowing bright. She shot once at Moonstone in desperation, but the younger mare quickly dodged out of the way.
Moonstone’s horn glowed in green, and soon she had encapsulated herself within her own magical shield. “Lighthoof! Now or never!” she cried again.
And again, Violet directed a powerful beam at her sister, breaking through her shield, and sending her flying into the crater. “You aren’t going anywhere!” the Duchess Vision screamed. “If you presume that I would ever allow you to run away from retribution, then you’ve gone absolutely mad!”
Moonstone landed upon the battling pair with a sickening ‘THUD’. As pained as she was, she recognized this as her best chance to save Lighthoof. Forcing herself between the two, she bucked Upright away from Prance’s body. “Hold onto me, Lighthoof!” she screamed, hoofing the knight across the jaw to snap him out of his blind rage.
As if seeing her for the very first time, Lighthoof’s entire visage cleared up. He blinked once, nodded his head, and rushed round to wrap his forelegs about Moonstone’s middle.
“Have you got him?” Adagio called from the barrier, her voice barely audible amongst the chaotic whirring and clashing of magics.
“Got ‘im!” Moonstone cried as her horn glowed, encapsulating Lighthoof and herself within green.
Violet’s horn flashed bright. She was on the brink of casting a disruptive spell. Upright, lost in his rage, was already flying through the air, Lighthoof’s neck within his sights.
Moonstone breathed deeply and focused on the doorway Adagio and Beryl had created in the beyond. The Duke had banished all teleportation spells within his closed barrier, but perhaps concentrating on the tiny place where his conjurations no longer existed might still work.
There was a flash of light, and a rush in her stomach. When Moonstone again felt grass beneath her hooves, she prayed that her eyes would open to find the barrier doorway sitting right in front of her.
“Quickly! I can’t hold it much longer!” Beryl hissed, urging them both through.
Prance and Moonstone dove headlong through the opening. The two escaped ponies landed hard in the grass, one atop the other. Moonstone, now groaning and sputtering beneath Lighthoof’s weight, was quick to protest. “Gerroff me ye’ big lummox! Do you realize how heavy your dense earth bones are, you—” She paused. Her eyes popped open wide. Her tail swished back and forth. “Well! That certainly feels different without my robes on.”
By the time Beryl and Adagio had backed away from the barrier and dropped their smoking rings into the grass, Beryl’s fur was steaming and Adagio’s mane had exploded into an enormous, orange frizz. They both turned to approach their companions.
“Are you alright, Moonstone?” Lighthoof gasped, only now realizing that he had landed atop of her. Jumping to his hooves, he helped her up.
“Just splendid,” Moonstone tittered, dusting herself off and edging up closer to the earth stallion. “But I must say, Lighthoof, that I didn’t realize you cared…”
“Errr… ” Lighthoof stammered before his entire body was cloaked in a ruby beam of magic and levitated somewhere far away.
His emptied place in the grass beside Moonstone was quickly reoccupied by Adagio. “Moonstone, have you any shame at all?” the golden unicorn sighed, her hulking mane still sizzling smoke.
“None whatsoever,” Moonstone chirped, daring to pass a wink Lighthoof’s way.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Beryl piped in, collecting her enchanted rings back onto their twine. “But we should probably leave. The Duke’s full power has nearly returned!”
When the ragtag group of ponies looked again into the smouldering streak of scorched earth, both Upright and Violet were standing beyond the crater. Upright, bloodied and beaten, was bearing down onto his forelegs, concentrating as hard as he could upon replenishing his magic so that he might revoke his own spell. Violet stood beside him, fuming and raging, casting incantation after incantation upon the magical barrier to no avail.
“Ugh. They deserve each other,” Moonstone spat, sticking her tongue out in Violet’s direction. “Come along then, all of you!” She turned about and casually trotted off into the darkness of the Sardhoof. “By the way, does anypony happen to know exactly where it is we are going?”
Adagio was the only one who lingered for a moment more, staring out across the clearing toward Upright and Violet. Even after all that had happened, and all they had done, some part of her still felt responsible for the pair’s misery.
Once they had trekked far enough away from the manor, and the only light visible was that of the shining moon, they stopped to say their goodbyes. Moonstone collected her sister up into a warm embrace, and then made room for Beryl to do the same.
Even when the enchanted rings around Beryl’s neck stung her chest, Adagio felt no desire to pull away. The question lingered in her mind: Would she ever see either of them again? Looking into their eyes, she knew that they were thinking the same.
“What shall you do now?” she asked looking from sister to closest friend and back again.
“The Duke will want me. There is no going back to a life of servitude after all of this I imagine,” Beryl stated outright. She winked Adagio’s way. “I suppose I shall gather those ponies I freed from the Pit, and see what they now think is the best course of action for the Sardhoof.”
“Oh, I love it, Beryl!” Moonstone exclaimed, clapping her hooves together. Her eyes had gone all dreamy. “A battle-worn beauty! Scarred by hatred and betrayal! With her terrifying necklace of unicorn misery, the Sardhoof leg of the Resistance is precisely the place for her now! The nobility shall tremble when they hear the horrendous ‘jingle jangle’ of her enchanted rings upon the winds!”
Beryl blinked at Moonstone. “A… alright,” she said.
“Um. Pardon me?” Adagio clucked, placing her hooves upon her hips. “‘The Resistance’ you say? ‘The nobility shall tremble’ you say? And what exactly do you suppose we are? Field peasants?”
Moonstone rolled her eyes and swatted her hooves in her sister’s direction. “Oh, Gio, you are so very behind the times. The House of Glow is already part of the Resistance… Well, save for Mother. Father and I don’t tell her anything. Can you believe she still hasn’t noticed? She’s too self-centered to realize that all of our earth pony servants are already turned. And as we have learned, Violet is far too set in her ways to realize that she would never have been put in danger had she simply seen reason and come home to Whinnysor sooner. Why do you suppose all of those pegasi continue to lurk around the Glow estate without harming us? How did you suppose that I was able to invite Saga Celine for tea, anyway?” She snorted. “By asking nicely? Please, Gio. Give me just a little more credit than that.”
When her words finally died away, a strange silence pervaded the empty space between them, a silence in which all four ponies’ fears were realized. Perhaps this, indeed, would be the last time they would ever meet.
“I shall see you at home for tea when this whole sordid mess blows over, alright?” Moonstone wavered, trying and failing to stave off the tears now filling her eyes. She leaned in one more time to embrace her sister.
“Miss Adagio,” Beryl added, stepping forward to adjust the cloak that hung about her former mistress’s shoulders, perhaps for old times’ sake, “I beg of you both, no matter where you may go, no matter what you may do, please be—”
“Be careful,” Adagio interjected, wiping the moisture from her own cheek. “I know, Beryl. We shall.”
Beryl’s brow furrowed in confusion. She laughed politely and shook her head.
Moonstone moved to stand beside the earth mare. “That isn’t what she was going to say, silly filly,” the noblemare laughed as she bid Beryl to take hold of her tail. “She was going to say: No matter what you do, please… be happy.”
The youngest Glow sister gave her kin a playful hoof to the shoulder before she stood back. Her horn began to glow. The rising light of her aura drew the tears from her face until nothing remained but a hopeful smile.
“Moonstone, Beryl,” Adagio stammered, trying to think of the perfect thing to say to them. “I… I shall see you again. I swear it,” was all she could manage. Prance gently nipped at her tail, drawing her away from the force of Moonstone’s magic.
Moonstone sniffed back the last of her lingering sadness and shot her usual cheeky grin Adagio’s way. “You had better. That’s my cloak you’re wearing, I’ll have you know.” Her green eyes went wide as her aura brightened. She gasped and turned to face Beryl whose eyes were squeezed shut. “Your mane! It’s your mane that is different, isn’t it Beryl? Oh, I love it! Do you think you could do that with mine? Wait… What kind of tea do you like?”
In a flash of green, they were both gone.
Lighthoof collected Adagio up into an embrace until she had stopped her crying. “You know, when you say those types of things, things like “I shall see you again,” it is best if you were to believe them,” he chided her gently.
She forced a laugh and nodded to herself, wiping away the last of her tears. “Right!” she called out, inhaling deeply upon the night air. “I suppose we should be off, too, then!” She paused, and turned to face her lover. “Where should we go, Lighthoof? The skies are hunting us, you realize.”
Prance nudged his bruised and muddied nose against hers, smiled, and calmly reached up to adjust her cloak. “You’ve travelled to the countryside before, haven’t you?” he inquired.
Adagio nodded her head as she tucked her curls beneath the cloak’s hood. “Dreadfully boring, but yes. Many times.”
“Do you remember the large field of purple thistle and dandelion you would pass upon the main road. It is only a little ways from the Goldenstalks’ country estate.”
“Yes.” Adagio paused again, then smiled coyly. “Is that your little blue friend’s farm, by any chance? Are you saying that I shall finally be afforded the opportunity to snoop around in her affairs?”
Prance chuckled and saddled in close to the Duchess as her horn began to glow. “Well, if you can remember those fields enough to transport us there, then I suppose you could at least be afforded that privilege.”
“Oh, I’ll get us there,” Adagio hummed mischievously. She bore down upon her forelegs as her horn flashed.
In an instant they, too, were gone.