• Published 6th May 2013
  • 8,177 Views, 413 Comments

The Sword Coast - AdrianVesper

With a price on Twilight Sparkle’s head and the shadow of death on her heels, her only hope for salvation is the Magic of Friendship. (Baldur’s Gate Crossover)

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Twilight perched on Pyros’s charred skull, her blades aloft at her sides. Rain fell around her from the black sky above, rippling off her cloak and running down Pyros’s draconic features. She faced down a pair of griffons and a pegasus. After the column of fire, it hadn’t taken long for the gang’s scouts to locate them.

With a smooth sweep of Celestial Fury, Twilight lopped off the tip of one of Pyros’s golden fangs. She levitated the fragment up to eye level and wrapped a scroll around it. She dropped it in an oilskin bag and floated it over to where the bandits crouched on the ground beneath the watchful gaze of her friends.

“You’re free to go. Take this back. If anyone reads the note but Gilda, I put a spell on it that will kill them,” she said. A lie, but she needed to ensure her message made it back to the bulk of the bandits.

She’d written:

My name is Twilight Sparkle. I’m an agent of the Iron Circle, and I killed your leaders because they betrayed our cause. The bounty was a test, and for your attempt to collect it for the good of the Iron Circle, you have passed. However, this organization has served its purpose and must be eradicated. Consider the Cloakwood gang dissolved.

You did earn something for your efforts. If one of you can rise and bring this fragment of Pyros’s fang to me at his lair, you will be presented with a sizable portion of the Dragon’s hoard. I expect only the strongest to arrive. I am sure you understand what I mean. If you do not have the strength or the resolve for this sort of contest, you are free to go. Never return.

Lies, layer after layer of them, made up the message. She couldn’t afford to fight the Cloakwood Gang, not after depleting her and her group’s resources to kill a Dragon. Even if some of them saw through the deception, she hoped it would divide them enough that when they came for her, she could win. She doubted she could escape the forest before they caught up with her – there would be a confrontation.

It might as well be beside his corpse, where they can see what we’ve done, she thought.

Dear Princess Celestia,

I am glad you told me the truth. I would rather know. What we do in this life matters more than I could have imagined. This life is all we have; it is everything, and knowing that helped me do the right thing, despite how angry I was at the one who took Star Swirl from me forever.

Even with your response, I have more questions than answers. What does it mean, to be consumed by the Abyss? What did the Shadow do with souls before you and your sister killed him? Is it possible to reach the souls trapped in nothing? If you can’t help them, can anyone else?

Once, you defeated the Shadow. But what of death?

Twilight lifted her quill from her scroll, looking up when Spike’s voice cut through her thoughts. It had been nearly an hour since the scouts had left, and there was no sign of the confrontation she expected.

“So you killed him, huh?” Spike asked. He was seated on a block of stone, not ten paces from Pyros’s hindquarters. He ignored the rainfall that plummeted from the cloudy night sky and drenched his scales.

“Yes, we did,” Rarity said while rummaging through the Dragon’s hoard, her cloak protecting her from the rain. “He didn’t give us much of a choice. Leaving wasn’t an option.” She paused, and added, “Thank Celestia none of us were hurt.”

Spike looked wistfully at the massive corpse. His eyes traced up the body until Pryos’s shoulders disappeared beneath a pile of rubble.

“Not too bad, anyway,” Applejack said from a rain free spot beneath the hall’s ruined roof, drawing Twilight’s attention. Fluttershy gently rubbed a salve into Applejack’s coat, paying special attention to the spots where her fur had singed black. The sheer heat of the Dragon’s last breath had scorched her back even through the Fire Protection spell and her cloak.

Twilight tucked herself deeper into the warm nook she occupied, shielding her letter. Though the roof had largely collapsed after Fluttershy damaged the structure’s integrity, pieces of it remained intact. Cloakwood bordered the Everfree, and storms like this were not uncommon here. The storm had eased up since it first hit a few minutes after they’d killed Pyros, and she hoped it would move on altogether soon. With a sigh, she set her quill back to the page.

I’m sorry, you probably don’t have the answers. Everypony else talks like you know everything and can do anything. Ponies act like faith in you will solve their problems, and wonder why you don’t help them. Some scholars say that you’ve abandoned us, since you walked the world once and don’t anymore. Star Swirl said you had your reasons, and I am certain they are good. But, I still have to ask, why?

“Did you think he was handsome?” Spike said abruptly.

Twilight glanced up from the letter again, watching her friends.

Rarity stopped shoveling gold coins into her bag of holding for a moment to look at Spike. “He had a pretty face as a pony, but there’s a lot more to being handsome than that. You have to be a Gentlestallion.” She eyed Pyros’s corpse disdainfully. “It doesn’t matter what he looked like, because all he had in his soul was venom, and the only thing he cared about was himself. It’s probably why Applejack’s mother left him, like any intelligent mare would.”

“So if he was a Gentlestallion, it wouldn’t matter that he was a Dragon?” Spike asked.

Rarity blinked at Spike. “Well, no... but I’ve never heard of a noble Dragon.”

Spike slumped dejectedly, toying with an emerald. “I’m like a Dragon, what about me?”

Rarity chuckled. “Like a Dragon, yes... you’ve got a good heart. You’re not like him.” She laughed brightly and wrapped a hoof around his shoulders. “You’re a perfect little fey dragon. What’s gotten into you?”

“Well... I can sort of see what Twilight is doing while I’m on the Celestial Plane now... and I told one of the Keepers that you were fighting a Dragon... and he said some stuff.” He brightened, smilight. “Thanks though, you’re right, of course.”

Rarity quirked a brow at Spike. “Celestia lets her servants get away with bullying?”

“Well, no, but... don’t worry about it,” Spike said. He brought the emerald up to his mouth.

Rarity yelped when Spike bit down on the emerald. “What are you doing?!”

Spike froze, half eaten emerald in his claws. “Um... eating? These are really good.”

Rarity narrowed her eyes at Spike. “How many of those have you had?”

Spike shrank under her gaze. “Um... three or four?”

“Spike!” Rarity shrieked. “You just ate a thousand bits!”

“I’m really sorry!” Spike said. “I didn’t realize they were worth so much,” he murmured.

Rarity took a deep breath. “It’s okay.” She gazed at the mound of treasure before her and squeed gleefully. “Look at all this! I’ll be able to pay off my shop with just a sixth of it, and have a fortune left over!”

Twilight chuckled softly and returned to writing.

Again, I’m sorry, I should get to the point. I learned something about pride today. We killed a fully-grown Dragon who believed himself to be invincible. In his arrogance, he gave us the opportunity to prepare. I also made a mistake out of pride, and because of it we were discovered as imposters by a gang of bandits. Fluttershy very nearly lost her life.

I learned that if I want to keep my friends safe, I need to be confident in my abilities, but I should never take any unnecessary risks. There is simply too much to lose, and I don’t know what I would do without them.

Your Faithful Student, Twilight Sparkle

“Twilight! Twilight!” Pinkie said.

Twilight looked up as she finished her letter. Pinkie was practically vibrating with excitement in front of her. The earth pony threw four shoes on the ground. “You need to tell me that these won’t turn me into a stallion forever before I put them on!”

Twilight rolled up her scroll. “Spike, could you send this to Celestia please?” she called out while waving the scroll above her head.

Spike dropped off his seat and scampered towards her. While he took the scroll, Twilight turned her attention to the shoes. Silvery spider web designs were inscribed on the surface of each steel shoe.

“Come on, Twilight!” Pinkie whined.

“Give me a second,” Twilight grumbled. This was the fifth object that Pinkie had brought to her attention since they started looking through the Dragon’s hoard. Though the items were ornate, nothing so far was cursed or magical. “Just relax.”

“I had to wait and do nothing for the whole fight!” Pinkie complained.

“I told you, you were backup. If something had gone wrong, I was counting on you to provide a distraction,” Twilight said while inspecting the shoes. I don’t think I need a spell, she decided. It had been a long day, and if she invested magic on every little thing, she’d drain her remaining reserves.

“Yeah, I know, and nothing went wrong, which was great, but I still wanted to do something,” Pinkie said.

“The fewer ponies in the line of fire, the better. It was bad enough Rainbow and Applejack had to get so close to that thing.” Twilight shoved the shoes away. “These aren’t cursed, and they probably aren’t magic. Go nuts.”

“Thanks Twilight!” Pinkie said. “Rarity, I need you to help me put on shoes!” She snatched up the four metal pieces in her mouth and headed for Rarity.

“Hey, Twilight, if you’re done writin’ your letter could you come lend me a hoof?” Applejack asked. She stepped over some rubble and out into the rain, her cloak tightened snugly around her shoulders. “I think my Pa left me a little present.”

Twilight climbed to her hooves and tossed her hood up. “Where?”

“Over here,” Applejack said, approaching the corpse. “How do you feel about cutting open chest cavities?”

Twilight blinked and trotted after Applejack. They arrived on the lip of a small excavation they’d made in the rubble around the Dragon to retrieve Applejack’s chain. “Your father left you a present in the Dragon?” Twilight asked, quirking an eyebrow at the corpse.

“Well, he didn’t mean to leave it there.” Applejack held up the tip of her chain, indicating a spot next to the offset spike at the end. “My Pa hit him so hard with this chain that he cracked it, even though it was magic. A piece stayed in him, and I’m hoping it’s still there.”

Twilight nodded. “We’ll take a look.” With a grimace, she began to cut away at the Dragon’s chest with her swords. Pulling Applejack’s chain out link-by-gory-link had been bad enough, and this task was even worse.

After a couple minutes, they found the golden piece lodged beneath a flap of the Dragon’s collapsed lung in the fibrous tissue beside the heart. Twilight pulled it from the corpse and took a step back. It looked exactly like the spike still fixed to Applejack’s chain. The rain washed away the Dragon’s blood, revealing a magical rune.

“Truth...” Twilight said, reading it aloud.

“The chain used to be called Truthseeker,” Applejack said. “Thanks, Twilight, for helping me get this back... and for everything else.”

Twilight slipped the spike into Applejack’s pack. “Do you feel any better, now that he’s dead?”

“Not really,” Applejack said, regarding the desecrated corpse. “I didn’t expect to. Granny told me nuthin’ good ever comes from revenge, but there was justice in killing him; I’m glad he’s dead.” She looked into Twilight’s eyes. “We got mine, and now we’re gonna get yours.”

Twilight glanced down at her hooves. Will killing him really change anything? she wondered. The only thing she knew for certain was she wanted him to pay for what he’d done.

Before Twilight could say anything more, Rainbow Dash swept in from above, the leading edges of her wings spraying them both with rainwater as she touched down. “Someone’s coming.”

“Just one?” Twilight asked.

Rainbow nodded.

Twilight stood beside Pyros’s skull out in the courtyard. The stones glistened with moisture beneath the light of her horn, but the rain had moved on. Gilda limped toward her, covered in blood, clutching the fragment of the golden fang in one claw. The shaft of an arrow protruded from one of her wings, and the other was nothing but a messily cauterized stump. She looked at Twilight with one yellow eye, the other covered by a mess of clotted blood pasted over the side of her face.

“I did it...” she gasped and collapsed to the ground a few hoofspans away from Twilight.

“How... how many did you kill?” Twilight asked, horrified.

“More than ten... I lost track...” Gilda said.

Twilight felt a shiver run down her spine. “What about the rest?”

“I don’t know... I didn’t tell them what was in your message, but I dropped it... they read it, and came after me. They turned on each other, and I killed them when they tried to take the fang from me... they all wanted it.” Gilda murmured, inching her way forward.

“Did any leave?” Twilight said.

“I... I don’t think many did...” Gilda said.

Twilight looked down at her hooves. “This wasn’t what I wanted...” she mumbled.

“Wasn’t this the plan?” Rarity said from beside her. “We got them to fight each other, instead of us. We beat the Cloakwood Gang.”

Gilda’s good eye widened.

“I wanted them to leave,” Twilight said.

Rarity shook her head sadly. “You can’t dangle treasure in front of desperate ponies and expect them to turn away, Twilight. It doesn’t work like that.”

“You...” Gilda gasped. “You... aren’t going to give me anything... are you?”

“No.” Twilight drew Solstice. When she’s dead, this will all be over... she thought. She focused on Gilda. She saw nothing but despair in the griffon’s eye – a cold acceptance.

Before she could bring her blade down, Rainbow intervened, moving between her and Gilda in the blink of an eye. “You can’t just kill her!” Rainbow said. “She was my friend!”

“What else can we do?” Twilight asked, meeting Rainbow’s gaze.

Rainbow glared fiercely at her. “What happened to everyone deserving a chance?!”

Twilight fell back onto her haunches. She raised one of her forehooves, staring at it. When did killing become my first choice – my only choice? she wondered. “You’re right, Rainbow,” she said, sheathing Solstice.

“Now hold on just a second,” Applejack said. “She’s a criminal. We can’t just let her run free!”

“We can, and we will,” Twilight said. “We can’t execute her, even if it is what she deserves. We should only kill when we have to, and we don’t need to kill her. I’m not carting her to some dungeon where she’ll rot away, either.” She glanced at the ponies beside her. “Fluttershy, if you can forgive her, heal her. Rarity, give her fifty bits, enough to get a fresh start.”

Applejack nickered, but said nothing. Rarity and Fluttershy nodded, stepping forward. Fluttershy pressed her hooves against Gilda’s wounds, almost without hesitation.

As Fluttershy healed her, Gilda said, “Thanks, Dash. I won’t forget that you had my back... I owe you one.”

“You always owed me one,” Dash muttered. “It never changed anything.”

Gilda pulled herself to her feet, restored. Her eye and her wing were beyond repair, but she could stand and walk on her own. She took the offered bits from Rarity. “This time, I mean it,” she said, before turning and walking out of the courtyard. The first rays of the dawn illuminated her for a moment, then she slipped out of sight.

“There’s one more thing I need to do before we leave,” Rarity said. “Can I borrow Solstice?”

“Sure... what for?” Twilight asked as she passed the sword to Rarity.

“Dragonscale is a fantastic material... oh, and one more thing.” Rarity nonchalantly pointed to Pyros’s head with the blade. “We need to get that in the bag. We shouldn’t go before the Duchesses without undeniable proof of what happened here.”

When Twilight opened her mouth, Rarity added, “Yes, it’ll open that wide. It’s magic!”

Twilight Sparkle sat in the Amphitheater. The stones were fresh, uncracked, and unblemished. She looked forward at the central stage, alone, but not alone. The five lights of her friends floated beside her, and the spectre lurked in the darkness next to her. Except for Pinkie, she’d met them on the road, and now they were always with her.

She watched herself step take the stage and face her first foe, the sniveling bandit from the road. He lunged at her, oblivious to her strength. Her blade struck him with a violet flick, and his form froze and shattered.

Next was Tarn Inkstroke, and after him, the ogre with the belt, and every one of her foes, in order. As often as not, she wasn’t the one to deal the final blow. Sometimes, they escaped with their lives. The end result was always the same: she won. Battered, bloody, and beaten, but better than all that stood before her.

It wasn’t fair, what she did. Sometimes, her enemies were greedy, and sometimes, they were desperate, but the ones that crossed her path and lived, Trixie and Gilda, were truly sinister. Iron Will died in a blink of an eye because he was angry about his brother’s death, but Gilda slaughtered her comrades for treasure and lived.

After Pyros shattered, and after Gilda limped out of the ring, there were none left to challenge her. The spectre whispered to her, “We’ve grown strong, haven’t we?”

Twilight raised her gaze and turned to face it. “I thought I beat you too.”

The shadows around her pulsed with laughter. “No matter your choices, I will always be here. I will make us strong.”

Twilight glared at the spectre. “You tried to take Fluttershy away from me! How does that make me stronger?”

“Can’t you see that your friends are holding us back? Your attachment to them makes it... difficult for you to be what you were meant to be.”

“What am I meant to be?” Twilight asked.

The skull grinned at her. “You revel in killing, but still you repress your desire – because of them. Surely you can feel the surge of satisfaction every time you take a life?”

“I can...” she admitted.

The Black Knight took the ring, facing her on the stage, and she circled him warily. His helmeted head tracked with her. His essence thrummed inside of his armor, and she wanted to taste it.

“Despite your choices, I will help you kill him, because it is one of the things you are meant to do. I promise you, his death will be the most delicious one we’ve ever dealt,” the Spectre told her.

“Good,” Twilight said.

When Twilight opened her eyes, a pair of blue ones greeted her, piercing into her soul with their intense gaze.

“What’s good?” Pinkie asked.

“Nothing,” Twilight grumbled sleepily and swatted at Pinkie’s face with her forehoof. “Go’way.” She rolled onto her side and closed her eyes.

“Nothing’s good? That’s a pretty depressing way to look at things. I mean, I know you can be the glass-half-empty type, but there’s still water in the glass, isn’t there?” Pinkie said.

Twilight flicked her eyes open and glanced up at Pinkie. “I didn’t mean—”

Pinkie was standing on the wall.

Twilight groaned and shoved her head under her pillow. “I’m still dreaming,” she muttered.

A point of pain flared on her flank, and she threw off the pillow. “Ow!”

“I pinched you, and this isn’t your dream,” Pinkie said with a smile. “You had me going for a second there, Twilight, good one!” She giggled. “Oh, lookie!” She waved one of her hooves in front of Twilight, revealing the shoe from the Dragon’s lair fixed to the keratin. “I figured out what these do.” She pranced up the wall and stepped onto the ceiling. “I’m a spiderpony!”

“That’s nice...” Twilight thumped her head back against the mattress beneath her, staring up at Pinkie. “Can I go back to sleep now?”

Pinkie nodded vigorously. “Yep!” She contemplatively brought a hoof to her chin. “Well, if you want to miss dinner...”

Groaning, Twilight climbed out of bed. She set her hooves on the floor of their room at the Helping Hoof Inn and pulled her comb out of her bag. “Okay, I’m up.”

Pinkie dropped off the ceiling, flipping gracefully before landing lightly on the floor. She made for the door. “I’ll see you downstairs!” she called over her shoulder.

“And that’s how I got over my soap addiction!” Pinkie said with a grin to the group gathered at a table on the main floor of the inn.

Twilight struggled to avoid laughing while she tried to swallow her mouthful of cider.

A piece of food fell out of Rainbow’s mouth when a guffaw burst out. “Pinkie! Not while I’m eating!”

Twilight managed to gulp down her drink without choking or snorting it up her nose. As soon as her airway was clear, she let go, laughing while she watched Rainbow try and remove the offending bit of dinner from her chainmail.

“Quiet for a second...” Applejack said.

Pinkie chortled. “What’s the matter, Rainbow, can’t keep clean?”

Applejack thumped the table. “Quiet!”

Twilight managed suppress her laughter to a quiet snicker. “What’s wrong?”

“Fluttershy is trying to say something,” Applejack said, indicating Fluttershy with a hoof.

The table finally went silent, and Fluttershy stood up to say, “Um... has anyone seen Rarity? She wasn’t in our room when I woke up.”

Twilight glanced around, noting that their headcount was one short. “Come to think of it, I haven’t seen Spike either... has anyone seen her since she went into that outbuilding with the dragonscales?”

Out of nowhere, Rarity pounced on Applejack, grabbing the earth pony’s shoulders. “Applejack, you simply must come see what I’ve made!” Her eyes were bloodshot, and her mane was uncharacteristically disheveled.

Applejack recoiled, tensing. “What in the hay?”

“Rarity, did you sleep?” Twilight asked.

“Not a wink,” Rarity said while she tugged on a reluctant Applejack. “You can’t stop the muse, even if you’ve been up for a day straight.” She let go of Applejack and beckoned to everypony. “Come, come!”

Twilight stepped into the small outbuilding that Rarity led them to. Inside, what used to be a tool shed had been replaced by Rarity’s workshop, complete with a body-size mirror. A folded piece of Pyros’s scaled, magically cured skin rested on a table in the center of the room. The object that drew Twilight’s attention, however, was a set of dragonscale armor on a mannequin.

Rarity rushed over it, running her hooves over the lamellar layers of hide and scale that made up the armor. “Put it on Applejack! I need to make some final adjustments.”

“Wow, Rarity... this is...” Applejack said as she approached the armor.

Spike shifted in the corner of the room where he was putting Rarity’s sewing equipment into a bag. “It’s a bit morbid, if you ask me.”

Rarity shrugged. “It’s just like any other leather. He isn’t using it anymore.” She swept Spike into a hug. “Thanks for all your help, Spikey-wikey!” she said as she planted a kiss on his forehead.

Spike blushed. “No problem.”

“You did get permission to use this space, right?” Twilight asked.

Rarity nodded. “Absolutely! Bon-Bon was so grateful after we told her what happened, after all. She’ll get to keep the inn.”

Applejack held the faceplate. She rapped it with a hoof. “Isn’t it a little thick?”

“It’s much lighter than steel, so I spared nothing on protection. I had plenty of material to work with,” Rarity explained.

“How’d you manage to get this done so soon?” Twilight said.

Rarity smiled at Twilight. “A creative spark, a wonderful assistant, and a touch of magic.”

“So much sewing... Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a needle through a dragonscale?” Spike muttered, massaging his claws. “Diamond tipped or not...”

With Rarity’s help, Applejack strapped on the pieces of armor. Each one melded perfectly with her form. Thick multilayered plates defended critical areas. The joints were left open, protected by curtains of scales flexibly threaded together. The oversized left shoulder plate jutted up from the armor, providing a shield that Applejack could use to cover her face.

Rarity pressed a hoof into the plate covering one of Applejack’s sides. It compressed beneath her hoof. “I layered it to absorb impacts. Each scale folds under another.” She walked around Applejack, giving her a once over. “It looks like I got it almost right the first try. I’ll have to adjust some of the straps though. Hold still!”

“You’ve done enough today, Rarity. Take a break,” Twilight said.

“But I’m not finished!” Rarity whined. She attacked the straps holding the armor with zeal.

Applejack winced as one of the straps pinched her. “Ouch!”

“You really should sleep,” Fluttershy quietly said from the doorway.

“Sorry,” Rarity said. “It seems... I’ve lost a bit of precision. Don’t worry, I just need to refocus. I’m not tired.” She tightened another strap.

Applejack tensed, gritting her teeth. “Rarity!”

“Get some rest,” Twilight ordered.

“I don’t wanna!” Rarity complained, childishly prancing in place. She suddenly sagged, and the aura of her magic faded.

Twilight glanced over her shoulder and caught Fluttershy’s eyes glowing.

Rarity slowly settled down onto the ground. “Maybe... a quick nap wouldn’t be too bad...” Within a few seconds, she was snoozing peacefully, her head nestled in her forehooves.

Fluttershy’s eyes widened as the glow left them. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to make her do that. I just thought I should help her relax... I didn’t mean to use magic on her.”

Twilight rubbed her forehead with a hoof. “It was for her own good. We have plenty of time to get to Manehattan – the trip shouldn’t take more than a few days. We can leave tomorrow, after she gets some sleep.” She sighed. “We could all use a good night’s rest.”

Twilight Sparkle gathered with her friends in the courtyard as the morning sun peeked over the fortress’s wall. She remembered no dreams from that night, despite sleeping indoors. Ahead, two wagons rolled out the gate, each pulled by a pair of young ponies. At least twenty travelers clustered around the carts on their way out of the inn. Twilight fidgeted. She tried to be patient, but all she could think about was the road ahead – the path leading to the Black Knight.

“Why does there have to be so many?” Twilight muttered, sitting on the grass next to one of the worn paths criss-crossing the courtyard. “The Sun’s barely up.”

“I guess the word spread,” Rarity said. “Once they heard the Cloakwood Gang had dispersed, there’s nothing to keep them here.”

“Hey look! It’s the Dragonslayer!” One of the ponies shouted and pointed at Applejack.

Applejack shifted in her new suit of dragonscale armor. She awkwardly smiled and waved at the ponies exiting the gate. They cheered in response, and Applejack lowered her hoof. “I’m glad they aren’t swarming me,” she muttered out of the side of her mouth.

“Ponies need a hero,” Pinkie said.

Applejack looked down at her hooves. “All I did was finish what my Pa started. Don’t make me some storybook heroine.”

Rainbow groaned. “You killed a Dragon! Stop being so modest already. If it were me, I’d—”

“It was you, though,” Applejack interrupted. “Well, all of you.”

“It was your quest, Applejack, we just helped you finish it,” Rarity said.

Pinkie looped a foreleg over Applejack’s shoulders. “Don’t you worry, Applejack, Auntie Pinkie will make sure they get the story straight in the songs they’re gonna sing!”

Applejack raised an eyebrow at Pinkie. “Songs, huh?”

Pinkie nodded. “You betcha!”

Twilight turned her attention back to the gate. The lead cart cleared the drawbridge, and she stood up, ready to finally be on their way. Before she had made it three paces, one of the second wagon’s wheels slipped off the edge of the drawbridge; the axle hit the wooden planks with a thud, followed by shouts of surprise. Twilight plopped back onto her haunches with a frustrated groan.

She watched ponies jump off of the drawbridge into the ditch and push ineffectually at the wheel. “Careful! Don’t break the axle!” an elderly yellow unicorn shouted as she climbed off the wagon.

I’ve faced Demons and Dragons. A hundred ponies surrounding me tried to kill me, and I lived. This is what’s stopping me? A stuck wheel?! Twilight thought. With purpose, Twilight stood back up and advanced on the parked wagon. “Out of my way,” she snarled at the ponies blocking her path – one look at her sheathed blades and they moved aside.

Directly behind the cart, she planted her hooves on the drawbridge and closed her eyes. She focused, feeling her magic wrap around the wagon. What am I doing? she wondered. She’d never lifted something so big or so heavy with her levitation before. She started to pull upward, and startled gasps filled her ears as the wagon shifted.

Twilight cracked one eye open. The cart floated in front of her, a hoofspan off the drawbridge. The two ponies in the harnesses squirmed, their hooves barely in contact with the wood. She hardly felt the weight. Both eyes open, she levitated the wagon gently forward until all four wheels had cleared the drawbridge. Lifting the cart, ponies, cargo, and all, only became taxing when it was multiple ponylengths away from her. She eased the wagon onto the ground and let her magic fade.

I am that strong... she realized.

A nearby pony exuberantly clapped her on the back. “That was amazing, Twilight!” Pinkie said.

Twilight stared at the wagon while the ponies around her thanked and congratulated her. Was I always like this? she wondered. Or did I become this strong? Like with the rest of her magic, she’d never pushed her levitation to its limits; she’d never needed to. When my swords cut through armor, is it the sharpness of the blade, or the force behind it?

When the mare who had climbed down off the wagon extended her hoof, Twilight turned her gaze away from the cart. “Thank you so much for your help!” The mare said as Twilight took the offered hoof. “Never in all my days have I seen a unicorn as strong as you. You’re Twilight Sparkle, right? The one who dealt with the bandits?”

Twilight blinked, shaking the mare’s hoof. “Yeah.”

The mare released Twilight’s hoof and peered over her speckles. “Sorry, I have you at a disadvantage. My name’s Crystal Clear.” She smiled warmly. “I think we’ve met once before, though you probably don’t remember me.”

Crystal Clear... Twilight went over the name in her mind. It seemed familiar, somehow. Then, it clicked. She’d seen the name on the cover of a book. “Did you write ‘The Fall of the Old Crystal Empire’?” she asked, her eyes widening. Here, before her, was a renowned Canterlot scholar.

Crystal Clear chuckled. “I did. I’m glad to see somepony read my book in that dusty old archive.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes. “What’s wrong with Candlekeep?” They walked across the drawbridge while they talked, meeting up with the wagons on the far side.

“Nothing,” Crystal Clear said. “It’s a great archive. I spent a good deal of time there doing my research. It’s a terrible library though, very hard to get access. Books should be read by everypony, not just the elite.”

“It was pretty dusty, Twilight,” Pinkie commented.

Twilight relaxed. “I can’t disagree with that... I guess we met in Candlekeep?”

Crystal Clear nodded. “We ran into each other – literally.”

Twilight cringed. “Sorry.”

“Oh, you were little then.” Crystal Clear smiled. “It probably hurt you more than it hurt me.”

“I should warn you, I don’t know exactly what happened to the Cloakwood Gang. There could still be dangerous ponies lurking on the road... it’s only been a day; maybe you should wait a little longer before leaving,” Twilight said, glancing at her group. They were waiting for her beyond the wagons, except for Pinkie Pie. She couldn’t spot Pinkie anywhere.

“I can’t impose on Bon-Bon any longer. I ran out of funds for this little excursion three days ago, and we’ve been staying here on charity since.” Crystal Clear sighed. “We lost our supplies going through Cloakwood, and even though I didn’t have to pay for the mercenaries protecting us anymore, I spent most of our budget resupplying in town... at least the road between here and Ponyville is pretty safe.” She levitated her spectacles off the bridge of her nose, inspecting them.

“What happened to the mercenaries?” Twilight asked.

Crystal Clear’s face fell. “They ran, or died doing their jobs, while we fled.” She wiped some dirt off the lenses with a cloth. “There’s just one left, and if we run into trouble further down the road, I doubt we’d be so lucky again. Like you said, the Cloakwood Gang could still be a problem. They operated all along the Coast Road... some of them probably don’t even know what happened to their base of operations... but, I’ve got to risk it. I have to see if the reports of this Crystal Princess are true.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow at Crystal Clear. “Crystal Princess?”

“All these ponies here are traveling to see her.” Crystal Clear gestured at the group around them. “They say she’s an Alicorn, a demigod of old reborn in the flesh. If she’s real, I’d give anything for just a glimpse.”

Twilight blinked. “Where? What reports?”

“You haven’t heard of her?” Crystal Clear said, placing her spectacles back on her nose. “Even with all the trouble on the road, news got as far as Canterlot. Allegedly, she’s been stirring up a storm in Manehattan.” She peered at Twilight. “Have you been living underneath a rock?”

“Behind a wall, actually, and after that, on the road.” Twilight rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “I doubt any of the ponies I’ve spent much time with would have considered stories about an Alicorn in Manehattan important. It sounds like a fanciful rumor, at best.”

Crystal Clear shook her head. “I didn’t drag myself out of retirement for a rumor. Maybe there is no Alicorn, but something’s going on here, and I’m going to document it!” She grinned gleefully.

Twilight started when she glimpsed the edge of a hatchet flash in the sunlight, clutched in the talon of a black-feathered griffon lurking around the corner of one of the wagons. Pinkie stood next to him, chatting with another pony, apparently unaware. “Pinkie, behind you!” Twilight shouted, immediately stepping between the griffon and Crystal Clear while she drew her swords.

Pinkie turned, glanced at the griffon, and giggled. “You’re right, Twilight! You are behind me!”

The griffon didn’t even blink. “Is time to leave, ma’am,” he addressed Crystal Clear while he stepped fully into view. His accent was foriegn, his speech brief and clipped.

“Thank you,” Crystal Clear said. “Twilight, this is Blackwing. He’s paid to protect me.”

Twilight awkwardly sheathed her swords, the ponies around her staring at her. They must think I’m crazy... she thought.

Pinkie affectionately wrapped her forelegs around Blackwing’s neck. “He’s the bestest griffon ever! He’s the first one I’ve met who’s not a big meanie!”

Blackwing remained unfazed, even with Pinkie clinging to him.

“Ooh! I know! We could travel with him! We’re both headed for Manehattan!” Pinkie said.

“That’s... a great idea!” Twilight said, her excitement rising. “What do you say, Crystal Clear? We could protect your group on the road, and we could talk all about your books!” She grinned hopefully.

“I’m afraid we’d slow you adventurers down,” Crystal Clear said as she climbed into her wagon. “I’m not young like you; my knees aren’t made for long walks anymore. They have to cart me around now when I want to go places.”

“But...” Twilight stammered.

Crystal Clear held up a hoof. “If you want to travel alongside us, you’re more than welcome.” She smiled. “It’s not like I could stop you.”

Twilight walked leisurely alongside Crystal Clear’s wagon, cool beneath her cloak. A brook ran through a meadow beside the road, sparkling in the sunlight. Crystal Clear was right; her group of six would have made better time on its own, but she enjoyed the extra company, and taking the time for sights like these instead of marching at the best pace she could manage.

He can wait... she told herself, inhaling the scent of flowers on the breeze.

“So, following in Star Swirl’s tracks?” Crystal Clear said.

Twilight looked up at the old scholar. “Excuse me?”

Crystal Clear reclined on the wagon, rolling with the bumps in the road. She stared up at the sky. “You’re an adventurer, like he was, out solving the Sword Coast’s problems. You’re also a wizard, and a strong one, from what I’ve seen.”

“Did you know him?” Twilight asked.

“Not well, but he was pretty notable. Not many ponies have been called Archmage,” Crystal Clear said. “The thing that I remember most clearly is him chasing after a certain little filly, that beard of his a nice brown color.” She chuckled. “When I took another trip to Candlekeep two years later, it was half grey. How’s he doing, now?”

Twilight looked at the cobblestone beneath her hooves. “He’s dead.”

“Oh... when?”

“He was murdered about two weeks ago... It’s why I’m out here, ‘solving the Sword Coast’s problems’,” Twilight said bitterly. Two weeks, and it’s already been so long, she thought.

“I’m sorry... I didn’t know. Well, I’m certain Celestia would look out for a pony like him, and I’m sure he’s proud of you,” Crystal Clear said.

Twilight gritted her teeth. There was a knife in her side, and Crystal Clear had twisted it deeper. “Yeah...” she murmured.

Silence reigned until Blackwing stepped up beside Twilight. “Miss Twilight, you can help me, yes?” he asked.

Twilight blinked at him. “Um, yes?” she said.

“I thanking you. Come with me,” Blackwing said, darting off the road and into the meadow.

“Where’re we going?” Twilight called as she trotted after him.

“To stream!” he said over his shoulder as he ran through the meadow grass. He pulled to an abrupt stop beside the creek.

Twilight caught up with him and sat beside him. Blackwing studied the water intensely. “Do you see fishes?” he asked.

She followed his gaze. Suddenly, glittering scales broke the surface as a fish squirmed upstream through a shallow spot. Several others swam in the clear water. “Yes,” she said.

“Please, catch them,” he said.

Twilight raised an eyebrow at him and reached out with her levitation. It was a simple task to ensnare one of the fish and lift it out of the water. She floated it in front of her, watching its gills flex while it gasped for breath. It writhed in her grasp, nearly a hoofspan long, while it stared at her with cold, beady eyes.

“Now what?” she said.

She started to lower it back toward the water, but Blackwing’s talon shot out, snatching it out of the air. Before Twilight realized what was happening, he brutally slammed it against a rock beside the stream. While the fish lay on the rock, stunned, he pulled out his hatchet and bashed its head with the dull side.

“I eat good tonight!” he said gleefully. “Thank you, help me catch fish without getting wet!”

Twilight stared at the motionless fish on the rock. Did it have a soul? she wondered. Where did it go?

She remembered catching a rat once. The Cakes had been complaining about a rat in their cellar. She’d gone down there for a jar of jam, and caught it out in the open. The Cakes told her to let it go outside, and she said she would, but instead, she found somewhere secluded, and experimented. She’d killed it. She’d held it while it looked at her and snapped its neck, just to see what would happen. I didn’t understand... I was young, she told herself. It was what Star Swirl had said when he found out. I was young... she repeated.

“Catching more, please?” Blackwing said.

Twilight shook her head, trying to clear the memories. She turned away from the stream. “I’m sorry... I have to go,” she said. She trotted quickly back toward the road.

“That is okay. Not much ponies have stomach for hunting,” the griffon called after her.

She remembered Star Swirl saying ”Every life matters.” Star Swirl had told her the rat had a soul. If a rat has a soul, does a fish? she wondered. Did I just partake in the murder of a fish? Animals hunted each other. It was only natural. A few ponies, especially pegasi, liked fish. Does it matter? If it was alive, it would die from something.

Life matters, she thought. She knew that much. Something happened every time she killed, and it wasn’t good. But where is the line? she wondered. At some point, life had to come to an end. Sometimes, she was the one who had to end it. Did I really do the right thing when I let Gilda go?... Or Trixie? she asked herself. She didn’t think she’d ever know the answer.

Twilight sat next to a crackling fire, holding her cloak tight around her shoulders. She watched Blackwing’s three fish roast on a spit over the flames. Nearby, Blackwing scraped a whetstone along the edge of his hatchet, filling the crisp night air with a grating sound.

The bottom of the fish started to char, and Twilight glanced at Blackwing. “Um...” she said.

Blackwing glanced up from his hatchet at the fish. He set down the whetstone and wordlessly turned the spit, then calmly returned to sharpening the blade.

“It’s burning,” Twilight said.

“That is okay,” Blackwing said. “Best fish is burned on outside, raw on inside. Or Lutefisk.”

“Lutefisk?” Twilight asked, raising a brow.

“Lutefisk is fish preserved in lye. Is good with salt. I haven’t eaten Lutefisk in long time. Very common where I’m from,” Blackwing said while he tested the edge of his axe.

Rainbow Dash made a face from across the fire. “It sounds like you ruin fish.”

Blackwing shrugged. “Is good to me. I catch, so I cook the way I like, yes?”

“Whatever,” Rainbow said. “I don’t eat fish anyway... I mean, it’s pretty good if it’s cooked right, but...” Rainbow glanced at where Fluttershy was sitting next to another fire with Applejack and Rarity.

“Fluttershy wouldn’t like it if you did?” Twilight said.

“Yeah.” Rainbow sighed and turned back to the fire. “She’ll say she doesn’t mind, but she does.”

“I’ve never had fish, but charred fish doesn’t sound too bad...” Spike mused, curled beside Twilight.

Twilight chuckled. “You can have my share.” She focused on Blackwing. “Where are you from, anyway? Your accent is strange.”

“I am from creatively named island called Northfrost. Is cold, and north,” Blackwing said.

“And what brought you here?” Twilight asked.

Blackwing reached forward and finally pulled the spit off of the fire. “The currents. I floated to the Sword Coast on raft.”

“Why?” Twilight said.

Blackwing cut at one of the fish with his talons. “It too far to fly.”

“I think she means why’d you leave,” Rainbow said.

“Ah, yes...” Blackwing said. “Tragedy happen to my homeland. I had three choices. Fight and die for scraps, starve, or leave. I left.”

“What happened?” Twilight asked.

Blackwing tossed a piece of burned fish to Spike. “Well, ponies there once. My tribe grew on fish. Fight ponies. Eventually, we push them off island. We celebrated, and feasted on the ones who didn’t sail away.” He paused, tearing into one of his fish with his beak.

Twilight felt her stomach turn at the mention of griffons eating ponies. The fish in his beak could just as easily be a pony’s flesh. A shiver ran down her spine.

“You... ate... ponies?” Rainbow growled.

Blackwing shrugged as he swallowed his food. “They die in battle. Would be wrong to let go to waste. Is hunt. I don’t eat ponies anymore. This place different.”

Rainbow relaxed, but muttered something under her breath.

“After ponies gone, winter. Nothing to celebrate. We wait for summer. Food runs short. Six months, summer does not come. A year, summer does not come. Is long winter. Fish gone. Nothing but ice. My tribe kill and eat each other. I drag frozen-dead logs to edge of ice, dig up lutefisk, build raft, and leave. Find summer here. Live. Ponies gone, no summer. Ponies here, summer. Ponies bring summer, maybe,” Blackwing said.

He swallowed another chunk of fish. “I hear there griffon tribe in Cloudsdale. Maybe I join someday.” He shrugged. “Maybe better than lone mercenary.”

Somepony tapped Twilight on the shoulder. “Twilight, you’re up,” Pinkie said.

Twilight turned. “What?”

Pinkie smiled at her. “Patrolling the perimeter. You said we should do it, just to be safe. It’s your turn.”

Twilight nodded. “Right... thanks.” She picked herself up, checked to make sure she had her swords, and walked away from the warm fire to the edge of camp.

“See ya when you get back, Twi!” Spike called.

Patrolling beyond the glow of the fires, Twilight let her eyes adjust to the dark rather than rely on her horn. If there were thieves lurking in the night, it wouldn’t do much good to give away her position so blatantly. Laughter and conversation from the campsite lingered in her ears.

“The pink one gone?”

Twilight froze when a male voice, much closer, cut through the night.

“Yep. Time to get a closer look,” a second speaker, female, said quietly.

Brambles crackled, and two ponies emerged from a thicket. They crouched low and moved quickly toward the camp. Twilight waited, stock still, until they passed her in the night. She lost track of them a few seconds later. Letting out a breath she’d been holding, she cast a spell, and a cloak of invisibility descended over her.

Her hoof-falls silenced by the magic, she trotted after the scouts. Don’t spook them, see what they’re up to, she told herself. She scanned ahead, her eyes peering into the darkness, but saw nothing. Can’t lose them, she thought, and moved faster. Her hoof suddenly struck something warm, and she tripped. She fell silently, the impact muted by the spell, but not painlessly. Her left shoulder bashed against a rock as she hit the ground.

“What the hell was that?” the stallion hissed in the darkness.

Gritting her teeth to hold back a pained groan – unlike the spell Star Swirl had used to hide her, this one still allowed her to speak – Twilight picked herself up. She caught a glimpse of a metal blade flashing in the moonlight.

“What’re you talking about?” the mare said. “Put that away, and be quiet.”

The voices came from two dark patches on the ground. After looking carefully, Twilight made out the outline of two ponies hidden beneath their cloaks. The glint vanished, and she heard the brush of fabric on metal.

“Did you hit me?” the stallion asked.

“You’re crazy, focus,” the mare answered. “See the armor that one is wearing?”

Twilight glanced at the camp. Sure enough, Applejack was in plain view, her armor glittering in the firelight.

“Looks fancy. I wonder what animal it’s made out of. Wouldn’t want to tangle with her.”

“She’s just one pony. See the pegasus with the funny mane?”

“You mean the hot mane,” the stallion said.

“She and the griffon are about the only other ones who look threatening. Should be easy pickings,” the mare said, probably rolling her eyes. “Let’s go.”

Twilight hesitated a moment as they crawled backwards. If she went back to tell her friends, she risked losing them. If she took them captive and interrogated them, they were as likely to lie as tell the truth. I’ll follow them to their camp, and come back when I find it, she decided as they got to their feet.

Soon, she was weaving through trees after them. They moved swiftly, obviously experienced at running through woodlands after dark, and she received a couple new bruises in as many minutes keeping up with them. With her spell, silencing her missteps they were none the wiser.

They flitted out of sight as she dodged around the trunk of a tree. When she tried to find them again, they weren’t where she expected them to be. She rushed forward a couple more steps and nearly ran into a pony sitting on a root. Unable to stop in time, she stepped over him and silently stumbled sideways into another tree.

“Report,” a mare said sharply as Twilight recovered. She spotted the speaker addressing the scouts where they’d stopped a few paces back and instinctively tucked herself close to the trunk.

“‘Bout thirty of them, all told. Three, maybe four who look like they’d be tough in a fight,” the first scout, the mare, said.

Twilight glanced around, counting ponies that she could see. Ten of them were in full view, not including the scouts and the leader. I must’ve stumbled right into the middle of them, she realized. They were hidden in the shadows with no lights or fires to give them away. This was no distant camp; they were ready to strike.

“Good... Alright gang, scouts are back, nothing we can’t handle. We’re doing this thing, then we’ll head back to Cloakwood,” the leader said, raising her voice for the entire group to hear.

Four more moved into sight, bringing Twilight’s count to seventeen total. All of them carried weapons at the ready, and wore an assortment of armor. She turned, about to leave, in the hopes of making it back to warn her friends before the bandits arrived, when another thought occurred to her.

I could fight them here...

She weighed the option, knowing each moment she spent considering made it less likely that she’d be able to beat them back to camp. It’d be less risky, no innocents in the line of fire, and no chance that they’d make it there first. As long as I’m careful, they’re hardly a threat to me, she reasoned. Am I being proud? she wondered. No, confident.

“On me,” the leader said, moving forward.

Twilight was out of time. She opened her mouth, about to give them an opportunity to surrender, but before she could, the stallion scout said, “If the rainbow maned mare is still alive, I call her!”

The leader laughed, readying a bow in a field of magic as she trotted forward, “Relax, stud. She’s got three holes. If she’s alive after the fight’s over, I’m sure you’ll get a shot at one.”

Twilight furrowed her brows. Some of them will get a chance... to run, she thought. She moved into position beside the leader, in the bandits’ midst. Her first strike had to count; as soon as her swords were drawn, they’d be visible. She was prepared, but she hesitated, the memory of the voice in the mines telling her to kill nagging at her.

No, this is my choice, she told herself. This is the right option, the safest option.

She drew her swords. Solstice, the shorter, unsheathed faster, and with it, she cleaved through one of the stallion scout’s legs. A split second later, Celestial Fury followed, splitting his head from his shoulders. She carried through with the motion, arcing the floating blade through the air, until she split the leader’s horn and bit into her skull.

”Yes!” a voice cried in her mind, dripping with glee at the blood running down her blade. She couldn’t tell if it was hers or not.

Screams of fear and confusion surrounded her as the stallion’s head rolled on the ground. While she pulled Celestial Fury free, she stabbed Solstice into the ribcage of the next closest bandit, the mare scout, easily punching a hole through her leather armor. She twisted Solstice inside the mare while she swung Celestial Fury at another pony.

She aimed for the neck, but she still hadn’t fully mastered manipulating both blades at once. Her stroke went low, Celestial Fury carved a brutal path below her target’s shoulders, through ribs, armor, and sternum, without pause or effort. As the pony fell, blood surging from the wound, one of the bandits swung wildly at the space between her swords with a flail fixed to the end of his tail while he backpedaled.

She ripped Solstice free, the mare screaming in agony, and batted the flail aside. Stepping forward, she claimed another head with Celestial Fury. She searched for her next target. The remaining bandits were running, fleeing the floating swords of an invisible reaper.

Safe from attack, she drew on her magic, breaking her invisibility by casting the spell. Flames surged around her forehooves. She slammed them into the ground, and a nova of fire exploded out. The spell didn’t harm her, but the brightness forced her eyes closed.

When she opened her eyes, blackened earth and scorched tree trunks surrounded her. At the edge of the ring of destruction, flames smoldered. Eight new charred corpses lay on the ground near the edge of the blast. Counting the five she’d killed with her swords, only four escaped into the night.

I could have let them go... she thought. Why’d I cast that spell?

She looked up to make sure she hadn’t set the canopy alight, and saw a charred, headless body dangling from the branches. All I did was give them what they deserved, she told herself. She turned and headed back towards camp. She knew – no matter their crimes – she’d executed the ones who were running, what she’d let Gilda go to avoid.

Why’d it feel so good? she wondered.

Twilight paused on the grass between the camp and the forest, hearing the sound of her friends calling her name.


“Twilight, ya’ out there!”

“Here!” she answered, approaching the firelight.

When she reached the edge of the light, Applejack intercepted her. “Why didn’t ya’ answer sooner! We were—” Applejack paused, staring at her face. “What happened to you?”

“Nothing, sorry. Nature called, and I went too far I guess...” she said, chuckling nervously.

“Twilight, there’s blood on your cheek,” Applejack said.

Twilight touched a hoof to her face. It came away stained with red. She stared at it.

“What aren’t you telling me?” Applejack asked.

“I... uh... scraped it... in the dark,” Twilight lied.

Applejack glared at her. “Don’t lie to me, Twilight. That’s no cut. Tell me what happened.”

I dunno, Applejack, I killed twelve ponies, and I liked it, Twilight thought bitterly. How do I tell her? She sighed. “Look, I didn’t plan it, but... I got in a fight, alone.”

“A fight? Are you okay, darling?” Rarity said.

“I’m... I’m fine,” Twilight said. She tore her gaze away from her bloodstained forehoof and looked up. Second to find her, Rarity stared at her with concern. If she knew what I did, she wouldn’t look at me like I was a victim, Twilight thought.

“Why’d you fight alone? Why didn’t you get help? What happened?” Applejack said, stepping closer.

Because it was safer to deal with on my own... nopony else could get hurt, Twilight thought. She avoided Applejack’s eyes. She opened her mouth, searching for the right words, but Rarity saved her.

“Applejack, stop interrogating her!” Rarity moved to Twilight’s side, leaning into her comfortingly while she glared at Applejack. “She’s obviously shaken.” She turned to Twilight. “Come on, we’ll get you some rest, and you can tell us all about it in the morning. They won’t be a problem anymore, will they?”

“They won’t,” Twilight said.

Twilight sat next to a fire with a mug of tea. She inhaled the steam, purging the crisp air from her lungs. Her dream that night was still burned in her mind. It wasn’t like the others. No spectre haunted her. In a way, that made it worse. She remembered it clearly:

She stared at her forehooves. Red clung to them. They would never be clean again. She laughed. She wanted more. There, a white unicorn in front of her, in the center of a shadowy room. He had a black thorn in his chest, buried in his heart. He stood before the monster, valiant. She lunged, teeth and fury, and he was powerless before her. She tore the thorn from him, savoring its taste as she swallowed it. Power surged within her. She cast the body aside; it was worthless to her.

Wings of shadow spread from her shoulders. She gazed upward at her ascension. Twelve black feathered wings shrouded out all light from the sky above, radiating from a blazing red central eye. No Sun could reach her now. She started to rise. The eye opened, revealing a maw of sharp bloody teeth.

The Moon flashed, a full silver orb, pure and radiant. It blew aside the wings, leaving only a flurry of feathers falling around her. She stopped rising. Above, she saw her mark blazing in the sky, the five lights of her friends around it.

She held the warm cup in her hooves and brought it to her lips, taking a sip. The dawn behind her flashed on the surface of the liquid, forcing her to close her eyes for a moment. Her mark blazed as an afterimage. She blinked, and it was gone. In my dreams, I’m a monster. In the light, I don’t know what I am... she mused.

Was the Black Knight trying to kill a monster? she wondered.

“So, how many were there?” Rainbow asked. She, and the rest of her friends, were sitting around the fire with Twilight.

There’s no use hiding, Twilight decided. “Seventeen, I killed thirteen, four fled,” she said.

Rarity gasped. Fluttershy’s eyes went wide. Of all of them, Pinkie seemed strangely calm.

“You fought seventeen bandits? Alone?!” Applejack yelled, concern in her eyes. “What were you thinking?!”

Twilight met Applejack’s gaze. “They were ready to attack the camp. I didn’t have enough time to go back for help, and I had the opportunity to fight them without risking any other lives.”

“Why didn’t I feel anything?” Spike said, bewildered.

Twilight shrugged. “I never felt like I was in danger, and you certainly weren’t anywhere risky, since you weren’t with me. You might have felt something if you went back to the Celestial Plane, warning you not to join me.”

“Never... felt like you were in danger...” Applejack fumed, rising to her hooves and glaring at Twilight. “Twilight, that’s dangerous talk.”

“It’s true,” Twilight said. “I’ve finally pushed my limits, Applejack. I know where they are. They were not a threat to me. Only one of them even realized what was happening before he died. I was invisible, and they were helpless.” She stared back at Applejack, unwavering. “I’m not weak anymore. I’m not scared. I don’t hesitate. I don’t hold back. I kill, and I’ll kill everyone and everything that I have to. I’ll protect those that need protecting, and I’ll make those responsible for murdering Star Swirl pay.”

She sipped her tea.

Rainbow looked into the fire, settled on her haunches. “That’s cold, Twilight.”

Applejack took a step back. “I’m... I’m not sure if I should be proud, or horrified.”

“Both, neither... does it matter?” Twilight frowned. “I am what I am. I was innocent, once, and the Black Knight stripped that away from me... Now, I’m a killer. Maybe that’s horrifying, but sooner or later, something would have happened. Star Swirl couldn’t protect me from the world forever. It’s just the way things are.”

Twilight looked up at her friends, focusing on each of them in turn. “There’s something about me; there’s a reason why so much is being invested in trying to kill me, and the time has come for me to face that darkness. I’m just glad I have friends to face it with, if you’re still with me despite what I’ve become.”

“Through eternity,” Pinkie said immediately.

“I’m not gonna let you down.” Rainbow smiled. “We had a deal, remember?” she added jokingly.

“I’ll help you get to the bottom of this,” Rarity rose up and placed a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “No matter what it takes.”

Fluttershy looked up, her mane falling aside, revealing both her eyes, intense and focused. “You’re my friend. You made me feel like I belonged, and I’m not going to let anything happen to my friends if I can stop it.”

“I’m glad I’m with you, Twilight,” Applejack said with resolve. “You’ve got a good heart.”

Do I, Applejack? Twilight wondered. Still, a warmth spread through her, and she smiled. This is my family, and they won’t let me go, she thought. “Thank you all... it means a lot to me, to hear that,” she said. She glanced at Spike. “What about you?”

“Twilight, come on. I’m your familiar.” He hugged her. “I’m always going to be here.”

Twilight nuzzled him. “I hope so.”

Author's Note:

Editor: Idle Prose
Preread by: Extravagaunte
Editor: The Music Man

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