• Published 6th May 2013
  • 9,613 Views, 425 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)

  • ...



The gates of Candlekeep were open wide to Twilight. She floated back into the confines of her library home. A weight lifted off her soul now that her short adventure was over. The gardens whispered around her, their sound filling the space with color as she approached the doors to the library-keep. A figure opened the doors ahead, shattering Twilight’s bliss.

It was the figure in armor. The Black Knight was here, in Candlekeep. Twilight screamed and tried to run, but everywhere she turned he stood before her in the open doorway. The world forced her to watch as the residents of Candlekeep stepped up to him one by one. “Stand aside, and I can spare you,” the figure said to each in turn.

The residents only had one answer. “I will not allow you to harm Twilight Sparkle,” they said, the voice of Star Swirl on their lips. One by one, the Black Knight addressed them as he had Star Swirl, received their answer, and beheaded them with his cruel shield. The Keeper of the Tomes, Chancellor. Mr. and Mrs. Cake. The guard captain Thunderfoot. A kindly old sage who had once helped her when she was lost, but whose name eluded her. Each face became a head in a growing ocean of blood.

Finally, when no one else remained, Star Swirl stood before the Black Knight. “Stand aside, and I can spare you.”

“I will not allow you to harm Twilight Sparkle.”

As the shield bit into Star Swirl’s neck, Twilight drowned in helplessness. Star Swirl’s head rolled in the dust.

Something reared its head within her, shattering her cage of despair. Her hatred came ablaze and lashed out. Black tendrils tore away the Black Knight’s invincibility until he was left naked and weak. A jagged, cruel ebon blade materialized before her. It floated a hairsbreadth from the exposed chest of the Black Knight. It waited for her to drive it home.

Taking hold of the blade, Twilight embraced her revenge, but for a moment, she hesitated. As much as she wanted the Black Knight’s life, she knew she wanted answers more. “Why!” she cried, searching the Black Knight’s shadowed features for any sign of the truth. Before she could end him for his silence, two orange pulses of light filled her mind.

A voice in the darkness screamed in rage.

The sound of two knocks on the door chased away Twilight’s nightmare. She shot up, panting, covered in perspiration. She winced when her horn struck the frame of a second bunk above her. The impact rattled her skull, starting a morning headache.

Applejack’s voice called through the door, “If you two are alive in there, breakfast is gonna be served downstairs in about thirty minutes. There’s some hot bathwater in the tub on this floor if you want to wash up.”

Twilight settled back onto her warm pillow, loathe to leave the comforts of the linen sheets. She could tell from the light slanting through the small, square window of the room that it was well into morning. “Thanks, Applejack,” she called back. Her stomach felt empty, but leaving the soft bed would be challenging.

“Breakfast? I’m starving!” Pinkie announced as she bounded out of the top bunk. “See ya in the bath, Twi!”

“Uh... I’ll—” The door slammed shut before Twilight could finish. Pinkie was already gone. Twilight sighed, closing her eyes. Immediately, the dream plagued her thoughts. Her head throbbed. Rather than confront phantasms of Star Swirl’s severed head floating in her imagination, she gathered her resolve and dragged herself out of bed, if only to supply something else to occupy her mind.

As soon as her hooves were supporting her weight, Twilight winced. Her sore leg muscles protested every movement. Magical healing and a good night’s rest could only take the edge off the strain her unprepared body had been under since she left Candlekeep. After spending a couple minutes on stretches she’d learned from a book in the library she found pain from her sore muscles tolerable.

Twilight reached out with her magic to the door out of the room, but she hesitated when her eyes caught the curved blade of Solstice leaning up against her bunk. She considered bringing the blade with her for protection, then decided against it. Without any saddlebags or cloak to tuck it into, carrying the sword she’d killed a pony with around the inn like an over-sized kitchen knife would be awkward to say the least. As soon as she prepared spells, she could protect herself with those if somehow another assassin lurked in the Helping Hoof.

Twilight left the room and hurried across the common room, hoping that the bathwater was still hot. She noticed steam wafting over a flimsy looking dividing wall and bee-lined for it. Beyond the wall, she found Pinkie luxuriously soaking in a giant wooden tub, along with a few other late risers. Eagerly, Twilight slipped into the soapy steaming water. She sighed happily as she sank up to her neck in the tub.

“This is – hooves down – the best bath I’ve ever had,” she said.

Pinkie nodded beside her. “You got that right, Twilight.”

Twilight started to prepare spells while she relaxed in the bath. Whether she liked it or not, her apprenticeship was over, and she attempted to prepare spells more complex than she’d ever cast before. In a couple of minutes, the paranoid, ignorant guests they shared the tub with had left, driven off by her wizardry.

Twilight considered a moment, then scaled back her judgement. Most ponies, even unicorns, lacked understanding of advanced magic. She supposed that if she heard a unicorn mutter ‘ley lines,’ ‘planar rifts,’ and ‘fireball’ under their breath while their horn was glowing, she’d get nervous too.

Conveniently, she felt Solstice’s presence while she prepared spells. It lingered on the edge of her mind, ready to accept part of the burden of holding onto the prepared magic until the proper moment. However, as soon as she placed spells within it, she couldn’t feel them anymore. She guessed that in order to unleash magic stored within Solstice she’d have to actually be close to the weapon, possibly wielding it with her levitation.

She finished preparing the last spell she considered herself capable of maintaining for the rest of the day. She felt surprised at how easy preparing the more complicated spells had been. Back in the library, she preferred theory and tended to avoid more advanced practice. Now, she needed those spells, whether she believed she was ready or not.

“You know what would make it better?” Pinkie said.

“Make what better?” Twilight asked.

“Cucumber slices!” Pinkie said.

Twilight blinked in confusion. “What?”

“Cucumber slices would make this bath so much better,” Pinkie finally elaborated.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “You don’t need to put cucumber slices on your eyes.”

Pinkie quirked her eyebrows at Twilight. “Why would I do that?”

“I dunno, isn’t that what ponies do at Spas?” Twilight said. Now they were both puzzled.

“What’s a Spa?” Pinkie said.

“Enough!” Twilight yelled and jumped out of the tub, splashing water onto the floor. She cursed Pinkie under her breath for not reading the same books about upper class city living that she had. “Let's go get some breakfast.”

“Good, because I just wanted to eat some cucumbers,” Pinkie said matter-of-factly. Twilight facehooved.

Twilight sat next to Pinkie on the main floor of the inn. The scroll that Sunny Skies had given her lay open next to her empty bowl. Beside her, Pinkie noisily slurped up her third serving of oatmeal. Twilight ignored Pinkie’s messy eating and focused on the scroll. The spell seemed to be entirely innocuous, except for one small detail: it involved binding her essence to some extraplanar creature. No, that’s not right, she realized. She read over the runes again. Apparently, the Find Familiar spell drew on an existing bond. Where did that bond come from?

The sound of something clattering on the table distracted Twilight. She looked up. Applejack stood over their table, and she had dropped a ring onto it. When the ring came to rest facing Twilight, she saw a rounded, red stone resting in the setting of the simple gold band. “What is it?” She leaned in closer to inspect the ring.

“It’s a horn ring the sorcerer wore. You being a wizard taught by Star Swirl and all, I figured you could use it,” Applejack told her.

“Not a sorcerer,” Twilight corrected Applejack, who gave her a blank look in return.

Applejack ignored Twilight’s interruption. “Anyways, its not cursed or anything. I checked.”

Twilight levitated the band over, peering at it more closely. “Are you sure?” She considered taking the time to identify the full properties of the item using a spell.

“I’m a hundred percent positive, and Granny told me to protect you. I’m not gonna let you down by passing you a cursed ring. Trust me.”

Applejack radiated a sincere confidence that Twilight could not deny. After all, the earth pony had saved her life. She twirled the ring once in her levitation, then slipped it onto her horn. The thin band easily slid down to the base of her horn, settling into her mane. Her head throbbed painfully as a tingle flowed through her mind. The feeling passed when the tingle resolved into a focused clarity.

“Whatsit do?” Pinkie said as she licked up the last of her current bowl.

Twilight tilted her head noncommittally. “Something with magic, I guess. I’ll find out when I cast a spell.”

Applejack pulled up a chair and settled into it, seating herself across from Twilight. Twilight noticed Applejack didn’t have the same qualms about carrying a weapon around the inn. Her chain remained wrapped around her tail. Twilight also noticed that Applejack wore a Stetson almost perpetually. Something red glinted on the hat, sewn into the crease between the crown and the brim. It looked like the scale of a ruby colored lizard.

“So, where are we headed?” Applejack said.

“I think we should go to Appleloosa and look for this ‘Hay Brittle.’ He might know who wants me dead. I have a feeling the Black Knight left Candlekeep alone as soon as he realized I wasn’t there, but if I ever want to go back home, I need to resolve this. I don’t want anyone else to die trying to protect me,” Twilight said.

Applejack nodded. “I know the road to Appleloosa, and I can take you there. Its an Apple town after all, even if they’re part of the Empire now.”

“I thought the Empire only controlled the lands around Canterlot?” Twilight said.

“That's all they used to control, but a while back the Appleloosans appealed for help. Apparently, they had some issues with the local races out on the frontier. Manehattan ignored them, but the Empire sent soldiers,” Applejack explained. “Anyways, they’re Empire now. And lately, I keep hearing about funny business with their iron, so its not surprising that the Tarn feller mentioned the mines.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “What sort of funny business?”

Applejack shrugged. “Dunno. I just hear rumors. We could swing by Ponyville. It’s nearby, and I know a blacksmith there who might know more.”

“Wow, the world outside of Candlekeep sure is full of strange stuff,” Pinkie interjected. “How about the bandits? Are they normal?”

“The bandits? Sorta, the Coast Road has always been a bit dangerous, but less risky than braving the pirates and the sea beasts out on the water. Now, it seems like trade can barely get through. Even travelers are holed up here instead of finishing their journey. They’re all waiting for it to blow over.” Applejack gestured at the full tables of the inn. “With this crowd, you're lucky that Bon-Bon had an open room. Demand is so high that she’s been charging double, but she’s probably not gonna charge you a single bit on account of Granny giving her this place.”

Twilight blinked at Applejack. “Granny Smith gave her this castle?” When the innkeeper, Bon-Bon, didn’t charge her for their room last night, she’d assumed she’d be paying when they left.

Applejack nodded. “Yup, this place used to be a bastion against the Deadwood, but when Granny killed the Lich, the Order paladins who defended it didn’t have much left to do. They gave the place to Granny and her group for ridding the world of such an evil. None of ‘em had much use for it, so Granny gave it to Bon-Bon to run after she finished founding Ponyville. Since it’s kept in good maintenance, and the inn pays for the guards, if Ponyville were ever attacked the population could hole up in the Helping Hoof until the danger passed.”

Twilight stood up from the table and collected her scroll. “Well, Ponyville it is then. We’ll see what we can find out there.”

The trio assembled at the gates of the Helping Hoof, kitted, resupplied, and ready to go. Of the three, only Applejack wore armor. Chainmail covered most of her body. Steel plates covered her shoulders, back, flanks, and the front of her forelegs for added protection. A single plate with a ragged gash torn partially through the steel sat beneath her hat, covering her forehead and between her eyes.

Applejack’s armor reminded Twilight that she’d forgotten to prepare a Mage Armor spell. The plates that the earth pony wore provided better protection than any ethereal conjured armor, but the mage armor had the advantage of not obstructing her spellcasting. She decided to cast the spell unprepared, rather than be vulnerable out on the road.

The Mage Armor spell came together within ten seconds when it should have taken more than a minute; the clarity she felt from Tarn’s horn ring greatly expedited the process of shaping raw magic. So that’s what the ring does, she thought.

“I’d better cast this before we go,” Twilight said, levitating out her scroll.

Applejack peered at the scroll. “What’s it do?”

“I don’t know. A friend of Star Swirl’s gave it to me. It doesn’t do anything bad,” Twilight said.

“How can you cast a spell if you don’t even know what it does?” Applejack said.

“It’s held by the scroll. All I have to do is the last bit, then the scroll will be consumed,” Twilight explained. “Here goes.”

Twilight opened the scroll and spoke the incantation. The magic took hold of her, pulsing through her horn. Her body fell to the ground. Her mind ventured out beyond its confines.

Twilight felt the spell come together, flickering into being like a lit candle. Two strings in the darkness held together by a single thread intertwined. Her mind wandered a bridge between planes, where, in the middle of it, she found a kindred spirit: an entity wholly different from herself, yet with familiarity, like she’d known him her entire life. She saw the sun. A sensitive part of her soul burned in its light, forcing her to turn away, and then only black remained.

When Twilight opened her eyes, she lay where she’d been standing, and a small green and purple lizard stood with its back to her. It held itself up on its stubby rear legs in a bipedal stance. “Back! Back!” he shouted as Applejack advanced toward her prone form, his voice childlike, but male. He brandished the Solstice awkwardly, struggling to hold it high enough to keep Applejack at bay.

The armored Applejack loomed over him. “We’re trying to help her, you varmint!” Applejack yelled and stomped her hooves angrily.

“Surprise!” Pinkie giggled from Twilight’s opposite side. The lizard yelped, spinning around to face the second pony behind him. He nearly cut himself with Solstice as he turned.

Twilight lifted Solstice into the air before the little guy had an accident. The lizard dangled from the handle like a ripe purple pear. She picked herself up and shook her head clear of the effects of the spell.

She eyed the lizard. “Let go,” she ordered.

“No, I’ve got to protect you!” he protested.

Twilight jiggled Solstice with her levitation until the lizard lost his grip. He hit the ground with a plop. She stood over him. “They are not a threat. Who, and what, are you?” she said.

He clambered back to his feet and extended a claw toward her. “I’m Spike! I’m your familiar.”

Twilight sheathed Solstice and placed her hoof in his claw. “I’m Twilight Sparkle. What’s a familiar?”

Spike shook Twilight's hoof as firmly as he could. “I’m not sure, but I know where you can find out. Hold on a sec,” he said.

He released her hoof and turned his head away from her. Twilight recoiled when he coughed up an eruption of green fire, but her surprise turned to curiosity when a book materialized in the flames, entitled: Celestial Familiars: A Guidebook. He caught it with his claws before it hit the ground and presented it to her. She took the book, opening it.

“Are you a building?” Pinkie suspiciously inspected Spike. “Libraries are usually big buildings.”

“No.” He giggled as Pinkie investigated one of his ears. “I’ve got a direct line to the Celestial Library though. I can transport any book here!”

Twilight stopped looking for information in the pages, and her eyes widened in shock. “Any book?” she confirmed. “As in: Any book ever written?”

Spike nodded proudly. “Yep!” His expression fell. “Well, so long as its not restricted. And some newer books have yet to be added to the archives. And I can only retrieve so many before I get tired.”

He made a comical little squeak when Twilight hugged him. She squeezed him tightly with a foreleg while she levitated the book off to the side. “Where have you been all my life?” She laughed and let him go. “That’s amazing!”

Spike beamed with satisfaction. “Yep, I’m pretty amazing.” He stroked the green spines on top of his head. “It’s no biggy, but I can also send messages straight to Celestia herself,” he boasted casually.

That claim made Twilight quirk an eyebrow at Spike. It wasn’t unheard of for an extraplanar creature to have powers, but the ability to communicate directly with a goddess would be quite unique. She flipped through the book, stopping at a useful segment. She read it out loud, before both Pinkie and Applejack could decide to cram in and read over her shoulder.

“Some spellcasters are blessed from birth with a Celestial familiar. A thread of destiny forged from the Sun itself connects them. If they are true of heart, these individuals can summon their familiar from the Celestial Plane with the spell Find Familiar. The familiar will become a permanent companion. A familiar will never betray their master and will do everything in their power to assist their master. However, a familiar is not suited to combat and should danger arise they will typically retreat back to the Celestial Plane. Should they die, their master’s soul will suffer a permanent and terrible scar. They can return at will when the danger has passed.”

Twilight flipped ahead, looking for more information. “Ah, here we are,” she announced when she found an illustration that resembled Spike. She began to read again.

“Fey Dragon. Fey dragons are small lizard-like creatures that resemble their draconic namesake. Fey dragons have unique dragonfire that allows them to transport written works between the Celestial and the Material planes, though they cannot transport any inherently magical object, such as spell scrolls, except in rare circumstances.”

“It doesn’t say anything about sending messages directly to Celestia,” Applejack said, scoffing at Spike.

“Yeah, but I’m special! She told me so,” Spike protested. “I can prove it. Do you have some parchment? And something to write with?”

Twilight levitated a charcoal stick and a page of parchment out of her saddlebag and offered them to Spike. He took them gleefully. “Alright, what do you want me to write?” he said, charcoal poised.

“Dear Princess Celestia,” Applejack began sarcastically, “Your lizard here is tooting his own horn a bit loud. If you’re actually reading this, and the lizard in question is not a bag of hot air, please reply at your earliest convenience. Sincerely, Applejack,” she dictated.

Spike scribbled away at the parchment. Twilight noted his penmanship was excellent, but ‘convenyence’ was a rather glaring spelling error. He rolled up the note dexterously and promptly incinerated it in a gout of flame. Applejack watched him expectantly. “It... might be a little bit.” He rocked on his feet awkwardly.

“Till then, you’re a windbag,” Applejack said with a snort. “We’d better hit the road.”

They trotted out the gate, Spike hurrying to keep up. Applejack paused when they heard Granny’s voice calling from the gate, “Jackie, you keep Twilight safe, y'hear!”

“You got it, Granny! I’ll see you back at the farm before ya know it!” Applejack yelled over her shoulder before turning back to the road ahead.

“Alright, that's it. I’m not carrying you anymore!” Twilight said, glaring back at where Spike perched on her hindquarters. It was nearly noon now, and they’d been traveling for over an hour. It turned out ‘swinging by’ Ponyville meant a four hour march.

“But my feet are so tired...” Spike complained.

“So are mine. Go back to the Celestial Plane! You can do that whenever you want, can’t you?” Twilight said.

“Yeah, but its so boooring there!” Spike whined.

“You are leaving, or you are walking!” Twilight ordered. “You can come back here when we get to Ponyville.”

Spike’s eyes widened, and he poofed into green flame. Twilight humphed with satisfaction. “Good. He finally learned to listen.”

“Uh, Twi, maybe you should get ready for a fight,” Applejack said.

“With what? There’s no one around.” She continued to trot as she scanned both sides of the tree-lined road. She’d passed Applejack and Pinkie, both of whom had taken up a guarded stance, flanking each other on the road. She looked forward, and there before her towered an ogre. “Oh...” she said. She nearly planted her face in his chest before she could stop. “He’s big...” she marveled as she looked up at his angry face.

“I AM WOMAN!” The ogre roared, dousing Twilight’s face in a deluge of spittle. He reared up in front of her. Judging by the shrunken thing that dangled between his legs, he was most definitely not ‘woman’, she noted with disgust. He kicked his forelegs in the air, and the chains wrapping them clattered ominously.

Twilight rolled just in time to avoid a direct blow from his smashing forehooves as they plunged back down out of the rearing motion. Her invisible mage armor lit momentarily as the chains glanced off it. She tumbled across the road from the force of the blow and slid uncontrolled into the muddy ditch beside it. “Twilight!” she heard both Applejack and Pinkie cry as she fell.

The lip of the ditch where Twilight had fallen hid the ogre from sight. His heavy steps thudded toward her. Her heart pounded in her chest, adrenaline taking full hold of her body as her mind caught up with the danger of her situation. She reached for Solstice with her magic. The blade failed to respond. She wriggled in the mud, starting to panic. When she fell, her back had buried deep into a crevasse at the bottom of the ditch, simultaneously trapping the blade and preventing her from rolling off it.

Twilight heard the characteristic hiss of Applejack’s chain streaking through the air. An instant later, the ogre grunted in pain, but even as the chain clattered back, he kept moving. Twilight whinnied in terror. Solstice still wouldn’t budge. Desperate, she closed her eyes and focused inward in an attempt to save herself with a spell, but as she began to cast, muck oozed into her nostrils and shattered her concentration. The spell fizzled pathetically on her horn while she snorted out the mud.

Twilight opened her eyes when warm liquid splashed her underbelly. The ogre loomed over her, his blood dribbling down from a deep wound in his shoulder. She saw Pinkie leap onto his back and wrap her forelegs around his neck. He kept his chin down to prevent Pinkie from getting a chokehold and bucked her off his back with tremendous force. Pinkie lost her grip and sailed over the trench. The ogre planted his hooves on the edge of the road, raising one of them up above Twilight. An instant before the ogre’s deadly blow fell on her, Solstice pulled free.

She positioned the blade between herself and the ogre’s earth shattering punch at the final moment.

The edge of Solstice caught the chains wrapping the ogre’s hoof. Muck splattered her cheek when the deflected hoof plunged into the mud beside her head. She couldn’t feel Solstice; the ogre’s blow had knocked it from her grip. Half in the ditch now, the ogre pulled back his second hoof, ready to pummel her to death. She had nothing to parry with this time, but before the second blow could fall, a cerulean blue blur flashed by. Twilight blinked when a gust of wind hit her face. A rainbow afterimage clung to her retinas.

The ogre no longer loomed above her. He had been knocked onto his belly in the ditch. A deep gash ran from his formerly uninjured shoulder to his hindquarters. His guts oozed out into the trench from the open slit in the side of his abdomen while he dragged himself toward her with single-minded purpose. Eyes bloodshot, he stared at her in blind rage.

Twilight frantically cast about with her magic for Solstice. Within a second, she found the blade buried point first in the mud dangerously close to her head. She drew it free. When she returned her focus to the gasping ogre dragging his broken body toward her, Applejack stood over them both. Without a moment’s hesitation, she loosed the chain on her tail and bucked the spike at the end cleanly through the ogre’s skull. The fury in his eyes vanished, but even in death they stared forward.

Twilight gazed up at Applejack with silent thanks. Applejack gave her a tiny but firm nod in return.

“Hey! You stole my kill!” an unfamiliar voice yelled.

Pinkie reached down a hoof to help her out of the trench. Twilight took it gratefully. “Maybe you should have finished him then, so that he would stop trying to kill my friend!” Applejack shouted back at the unknown speaker.

“What? He was down in the ditch, completely helpless. I had him!” the voice said indignantly, closer now. Twilight recognized it as female, though it carried a rough edge.

The mud sucked at Twilight’s back, but with Pinkie’s help, she finally came free. She dragged herself out of the ditch, covered in a thick coat of mud. “So much for that bath,” she muttered to herself. “Can’t I go a day without almost dying out here?” she said with a relieved, mirthless chuckle.

On the road, she saw a cerulean blue pegasus with a uniquely patterned rainbow mane and tail standing across from Applejack. Narrow metal blades covered the leading edges of her wings, protruding out to the tips of her primary feathers. Twilight noticed the pegasus holding her left wing like it had been injured, and fresh blood spattered it.

“Woah, someone was down there?” the pegasus marveled. She leaned around Applejack to get a better look at Twilight. “Did I just save your life?”

“Yeah, I guess you did,” Twilight replied. She set Solstice down on the road and started attempting to sweep the mud out of her coat and mane with her magic.

“Awesome!” The pegasus pumped her hoof into the air. “I just saved somepony’s life!”

“So you attacked that ogre for no reason?” Pinkie said, looking down at the body in the ditch.

“What can I say, I hate big brutish bullies like him. What was I supposed to do, let him finish whatever he was doing in the ditch then come after you two?” the pegasus said.

“Naw, you did right,” Applejack said. “Ogres, however unfortunate their condition, are twisted creatures. I’m Applejack, by the way.” She offered her hoof to the pegasus. “Of the Apple Clan.”

“Rainbow Dash,” Rainbow said as she planted her hoof against Applejack’s, “fastest wingblade out of my village near Cloudsdale.” If her mark, a tri-colored lightning bolt descending from a cloud, was any indication, she might be right. “Hold on a sec.”

Rainbow flexed her wings. She winced as she took to the air, essentially limping on her injured wing, but still managing to fly. She collected a small cloud, pushing it through the air with her forehooves and positioning it over Twilight. Before Twilight could protest, Rainbow dumped a deluge of water on her head by bouncing on the cloud. A few seconds later, the empty cloud dissipated. Twilight glared up at Rainbow from where she sat shivering in a puddle of mud.

Rainbow settled back to the ground. When she landed, she shrank a little beneath Twilight’s unamused stare. “Sorry. At least you’re clean right? I’d dry you off, but I think I sprained my wing.” She flexed her wing again, and a painful groan escaped her lips. “I guess hitting things that big that fast isn’t always a good idea.”

“Hey Twilight, look at this! It looks magic!” Pinkie pulled a thick leather belt out of the ditch. “The ogre was wearing it.” She started to wrap the belt around her waist with her mouth.

“Wait, Pinkie, don’t put that on! We don’t know what it does,” Twilight warned.

“Aww.” Pinkie slumped dejectedly with the belt loosely draped over her back. “You got to put on the ring.”

“Yeah, but I knew it wasn’t cursed,” Twilight said as she levitated the belt away from Pinkie. Magical runes were pressed into softer inside of the belt. “What do you think?” she asked Applejack.

“Dunno,” Applejack said while she inspected the belt from beside Twilight. “It looks a bit more complicated than the ring.”

“I’ll have to use a spell,” Twilight decided. She focused. Casting an unprepared identification spell took a bit longer than the armor spell, about thirty seconds. The ring helped, just not as much.

While Twilight worked, she heard Applejack strike up a conversation with Rainbow. “So what brings you down here? I don’t see many Cloudsdale Pegasi that aren’t Flaming Wing mercenaries on the ground.”

“I’m looking for a friend,” Rainbow told Applejack. “She fell. I think someone took her. Have you seen a creamy yellow pegasus with a pink mane anywhere?”

Applejack chuckled. “How in Equestria did a pegasus manage to fall?”

Rainbow bristled. “She’s not a strong flier!”

“Alright, alright,” Applejack said. “How long ago did she fall? Do you think she’s near here?”

“She fell into Whitetail Wood, near Ponyville. She’s pegasus gifted with druidic magic, which is pretty rare.” Rainbow puffed out her chest proudly. “I was sent to find her because I was the fastest.” She paused, then pleaded, “I have to find her, and... she’s my friend.”

“‘Nuff said.” Applejack nodded sagely. “I know a lot of folks ‘round Ponyville. We could help you look. Its up to Twilight though. We’re sorta in the middle of something.”

Twilight finished her spell. Her eyes widened. “That explains a lot...”

“What? Whatsit do?” Pinkie vibrated with excitement in front of Twilight.

“It would change you into a stallion if you put it on,” Twilight said, “or a stallion into a mare, I would imagine.”

Pinkie eyed the belt slyly. “That could be fun to try out.”

“Ew, no.” Twilight made a face. “Besides, its permanent.”

Pinkie’s expression shifted to disappointment. “Oh,” she sighed. Twilight stowed the belt in her bag. Ponies of a certain predicament might find it valuable.

“So, Twilight,” Rainbow addressed her, “if you help me find my friend Fluttershy, I’ll help you with whatever you’re doing, favor for a favor.”

Twilight eyed Rainbow. “Are you sure you want to commit to that? I’m trying to find my foster father’s murderer. He’s a powerful unicorn called the Black Knight. I can’t predict how long it will take to find him.”

“And I have no idea how long it will take to find Fluttershy.” Rainbow extended a hoof to Twilight. “If you help me, I’ll help you. Deal?”

“Deal,” Twilight said as she bumped her hoof against Rainbow’s. She knew she could use the help.

“Is it over?” Spike re-materialized on Twilight’s hindquarters. Rainbow jumped back in shock. Applejack chuckled, and Pinkie giggled briefly at Rainbow's reaction.

“A bit late there, Spike,” Applejack said with a chuckle.

“What’s that?” Rainbow peered curiously at Spike.

“My familiar, a fey dragon,” Twilight said.

“Huh. Neat,” Rainbow said. Twilight could tell from her tone that she knew absolutely nothing about familiars, and she probably didn’t care.

“We’re about to get going again,” Twilight told Spike.

“Aww,” Spike sighed. “I know, I know, back to the Celestial Plane.” Twilight nodded sternly, and Spike vanished.

“Does he do that often?” Rainbow said.

“I don’t rightly know, we just met him,” Applejack mused, “but I’ll betcha he does.”

The loud clangs of a falling hammer filled Twilight's ears while she looked around the interior of the dark, soot filled, blacksmith’s shop. Applejack walked beside her. When they reached Ponyville, Rainbow and Pinkie had split off to find them a place to stay the night. Spike had wanted to go with them, so Twilight let him. Also, she had entrusted the task of selling off the trinkets and bolts of dispelling they’d acquired to Pinkie’s haggling skills.

Meanwhile, Twilight and Applejack hunted for information in the blacksmith’s shop. “I’m gonna wait until he’s finished working to chat,” Applejack said over the noise.

Twilight nodded and trotted over to one of the walls to inspect the blacksmith’s wares. Horseshoes, chainmail, hoofmaces, axes, spears, swords, and plow blades were all on display. She glanced over her shoulder when a shower of sparks shot up near the forge in the back. Two ponies and a donkey worked metal, wielding heavy hammers on their hooves and tongs in their mouths.

Out of curiosity, Twilight tested the axe’s sharpness with the sensitive pad at the base of her hoof. The edge scraped across her skin, shearing away a couple of tiny hairs where her coat began. The blacksmith did good work. She tapped the axe firmly with her hoof in satisfaction.

She jumped when the axehead cracked off the shaft and landed on the dirt floor with a dull thud. “Eep!”

Her ears swiveled back when she sensed someone behind her, and she realized that the sound of clanging hammers was gone. A tan earth pony stallion in a blacksmith’s apron with a three horseshoe mark on his flank looked at the axehead on the ground with disappointment. Twilight’s head drooped with shame. “Sorry! I’ll pay for it,” she said.

The caramel-coated stallion raised his eyebrows at her. “I’m not the one you should be apologizing to.” He stepped to the side and pointed toward a donkey standing next to Applejack. “This is his shop.”

“I won’t take a single bit from you,” the donkey grumbled. “Not your fault that what's supposed to be steel behaves like porcelain.”

“How is this possible?” Twilight said. “If its so brittle, wouldn’t it break while you were hammering it into shape?”

“As I was saying,” Applejack cut in, “Cranky, this is Twilight. We’re curious about the rumors floating around involving the Appleloosan mines.”

Cranky nodded. “You’d think it would break the moment I took a hammer to it, wouldn’t ya? Wrong! The ore carted in from Appleloosa looks perfectly fine, smelts into fine steel, then bam! A couple days after I smelt it it falls apart.”

Twilight rubbed one of her hooves across her chin. “Humm... so there’s nothing wrong with the ore? And you’re not smelting it any differently?”

Cranky humphed. “No! There’s definitely something wrong with the ore. Whatever it is, it can’t be seen.”

“Do you know anything else?” Applejack said.

“If I did, I’d tell you,” Cranky shot back at her. “Why don’t you ask a pony like Rarity? She’s much better informed about trade relations with the Empire. All I know is how to use a hammer and work steel.”

“We’ll let ya get back to work,” Applejack said quickly and herded Twilight out the door before they broke Cranky’s patience.

After they were outside, Applejack started to grumble. “Sounds like a bit a’ voodoo trickery t’me. I’ll reckon the buffalo are involved, trying to drive the good settlers out by taking away their mine,” she said as they trotted down the cobblestone streets to the town center, where they’d all planned to meet.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Voodoo isn’t a real thing. However, it is extremely likely that magic is involved.”

“Voodoo, magic, what’s the difference?” Applejack said.

“Well, voodoo involves superstitious rituals that don’t actually work...” She paused, considering. “You know what? You’re right. The difference is semantics.”

“Of course I’m right,” Applejack stated smugly.

“Other than that voodoo doesn’t work and things like wizardry do: hence it doesn’t meet the practical definition of magic,” Twilight quickly added.

“Oh really, and what book did you read that in, Miss Smartypants?”

Practical Forms of Magic by—” Twilight frowned. “Wait, what’s your point?”

“Did ya stop and consider that whoever wrote the book didn’t have any more experience with the topic in question than you yourself?” Applejack said.

“She was a well respected scholar,” Twilight said, her nose in the air.

“Did you know the author? Did she ever try to practice voodoo? How’d she get so knowledgeable about voodoo anyway, if she were a stuffy scholar and weren’t a member of a buffalo or zebra tribe?” Applejack said.

Twilight paused to consider her response. “Well, no... the book didn’t mention where she got her information. But it was in a book! In Candlekeep! It must be true!” she protested.

Applejack stopped and gave Twilight a hard look. “Look Twi, all I’m saying is that before you accept something to be true, there needs to be a good reason to believe it. You’ve got to think for yourself. Unless you have reason to believe something and you know what the evidence is, maybe its true, and maybe it ain't.”

“I do have reason to believe it! It’s in a book!” Twilight argued.

“Did you ask someone who actually has experience with the world and wasn’t making assumptions about something they didn’t understand?”

“Well, it never came up with Star Swirl... but—”

“I happen to have it on good authority from someone who has seen the world that voodoo has very real powers, just like wizardry,” Applejack said, interrupting. “Your ‘respectable scholar’ was makin’ stuff up.”

“She wouldn’t!”

“Okay, maybe she believed what she said.” Applejack shrugged. “Still don’t make it true.” Applejack turned and continued down the tree lined street.

Twilight opened her mouth to argue some more, but she found nothing left to say. What if the author hadn’t done her research? she considered. Finally, she snorted and quickly trotted to catch up with Applejack.

Ponyville had an appreciably sized town center with an open air market where farmers and craftsmen alike sold their wares. Twilight judged from the architectural style and the citizens they passed that Ponyville was primarily an earth pony town. She spotted the recognizable frizz of Pinkie Pie’s mane above the crowd and pointed her out to Applejack.

When they approached, they found Pinkie midway through haggling the price of a gem. Rainbow Dash leaned up against an empty stall with a nonchalant, bored expression. Spike hovered around the pegasus’s hooves. He looked around the town with interest, and he drew a few curious glances in return.

“Twelve bits!” Pinkie shouted.

“Nine bits!” the merchant said.

“Twelve bits!”

“Nine bits!”

“Nine bits!”

“Twelve bits!”

“Deal!” Pinkie giggled and snatched her twelve-bit share of currency.

“Hey! Thats not fair!” The merchant protested.

Pinkie blew the merchant a raspberry while she shoveled the coins into her pouch. “A deal’s a deal!” she said.

Twilight eyed the swollen coin pouch around Pinkie’s neck. “Looks like she’s doing pretty well,” she whispered to Applejack.

Applejack nodded. “Right... if yer noticing that, somepony else is bound to be. Ponyville is a peaceful place, but even so, there’s any number of cutpurses in this market. We’d better get indoors.”

Applejack was prophetic. As soon as the earth pony finished speaking, Twilight saw Pinkie’s bag lift off her neck, caught in a sparkling blue aura. “Hey!” Pinkie cried. “That’s mine!” She took off after the bag. It danced through the crowd, forcing Pinkie to dive under pony’s bellies and prance across their backs to keep up. Numerous ponies shouted complaints as she blazed past, under, and over them.

Rainbow shot into the air to get a vantage above the crowd. She hovered – only slightly favoring her injured wing – and pointed. “There!” She leaned into forward flight. “I’ll stay above the thief!” she called down.

Applejack galloped after the flying Rainbow. She pushed roughly through the crowd. “Outta the way! I’ve got a thief to catch!” she warned the ponies ahead of her. The crowd fearfully opened a path for the armed and armored Applejack.

“Sorry!” Twilight said to a downed pony she passed while trailing after Applejack. Twilight noticed Rainbow zip around a corner into a side street. When she and Applejack rounded the corner after Rainbow, they found the pegasus hovering again, looking around in confusion.

“Where did the thief go?” Applejack shouted.

“I don’t know!” Rainbow yelled. “I had her, and then I lost her!”

“I got her!” Pinkie called from a shadowy crevasse between two buildings. She emerged from the darkness. She dragged a white unicorn with a purple mane and tail toward the rest of the group. Pinkie wore her coin bag proudly on her neck.

“Put me down, you barbarian!” the unicorn wailed, ineffectually pounding on Pinkie’s side with her pristine white hooves. She closed her eyes, and her horn started to glow. Pinkie bonked her squarely between the eyes and the light went out. The unicorn whimpered, and Twilight winced in sympathy. Pinkie unceremoniously dumped the unicorn on the ground in front of the other two ponies. Rainbow settled beside them.

“Rarity?” Applejack said in confusion. Twilight blinked in surprise. The unicorn Applejack called Rarity did not at all fit the image of the villainous cutpurse she imagined in her mind. Despite the dust clinging to her coat and mane, she was immaculately groomed. She also held herself with an air of importance, even after being dragged across the street by Pinkie Pie.

Rarity rubbed her forehead in discomfort, then picked herself up off the dusty cobblestone. “Ooh, you are so lucky that you snuck up on me,” she growled at Pinkie.

“Rarity, why’re you taking pony’s coin purses?” Applejack said. “You run a business. You're not a street urchin.”

“Why Applejack, it’s good to see that you're associated with these... proto-ponies,” Rarity said. “A lady has to do what a lady has to do. Surely you understand.”

“That ain't no excuse for theft,” Applejack told her.

“How does that saying go? ‘There ain't no rest for the wicked.’ I’ve got to make ends meet, Applejack! I haven’t made a sale in weeks. Nobody wants to commision something as valuable as my services with so many highway robbers stalking the Sword Coast.” She gestured at Pinkie and Rainbow while she spoke. “When I saw these two ruffian adventurers poking around the market like they owned the place, with their strange little pet, I followed them until the right opportunity. Money like what the pink one is carrying could cover my expenses for a week!” she said, then added the assurance, “You know I’d never steal from good, hard working, Ponyville folks.”

Applejack sighed. “Times are tough for everypony, Rarity. I can understand that a pony with your line of work has it pretty hard, though.”

“Ooh, is she an escort?” Pinkie said.

“No!” Rarity screeched indignantly. “Absolutely not! I’m a seamstress. I make dresses.”

“She means she smuggles Empire gems into Manehattan tariff-free disguised as part of dresses,” Applejack corrected.

“Smuggling is such an ugly word,” Rarity said. “I prefer to call it open-commerce.”

“Isn’t that a bit... illegal?” Rainbow said.

“Technically, no, because I sell dresses, not gems. Either way, I pay my Ponyville taxes like everypony else. All the Empire lords would do with the money they embezzled off of the trade is spend more on ridiculous magic institutions and their military interests,” Rarity explained.

“Speaking of trading,” Twilight interjected, “what do you know about the problems with the Appleloosan iron?”

“Oh, that awful business. What I hear ranges from the Empire is trying to cripple the Flaming Wing’s military equipment and leave Manehattan ripe for invasion, to the Appleloosa mine is simply out of good ore. Either way, Manehattan merchants are talking about a trade embargo, but that would be bad for everypony involved,” Rarity said. “With the bandit presence on the road though, I’m not sure if an embargo would make much difference.”

“Why are they talking about one then?” Twilight said.

“Because it’s leverage. Manehattan moves a lot of goods out of it’s harbor to other places in the world, more goods than Canterlot, but the ponies in power there are terrified of the Empire sweeping in and taking everything. Without trade, tensions are high. The Empire wants to send in troops to secure the Coast Road, but Manehattan doesn’t want Empire armies anywhere near them.”

“Where did you hear all this?” Twilight said.

Rarity waved her hoof. “Around. Merchants, mostly. I also have a business partner who writes from Manehattan.”

“Alright, that’s all we need to know. You’d best get out of here, Rarity – before I change my mind and turn you in for theft. And don’t let me catch you doing it again!” Applejack said.

“You won’t,” Rarity said with a sly wink. She trotted down the road and paused before turning a corner to call. “Oh, and one more thing, there’s a group of merchants called the Iron Circle. Without Appleloosa, they’ve got a monopoly. I’ll bet anything that they’re involved.” Then, she was gone.

Spike ran up beside Twilight, panting. “Who... was... that?” he wheezed.

“Rarity,” Twilight answered.

“You left me behind!” he said when he caught his breath. “And I missed her!” He stared wistfully at the corner Rarity had disappeared behind. “She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Pinkie giggled. “You silly! You could’ve just disappeared and returned next to Twilight.”

Spike moaned. “Why didn’t I think of that? This familiar thing is tough.”

Applejack patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t feel too bad, you’re too good for a miscreant like her anyway.”

“I have a feeling we’ll see her again,” Twilight said.

It was edging into the evening hours when the four pony group, plus one familiar, sat at the end of the bar in an establishment named Berry Punch’s Tavern. Pinkie had rented them a couple of rooms before the incident in the marketplace. “The market seemed pretty crowded this afternoon,” Applejack said as she took a mug of cider from the barkeep. “Any idea why?”

The barkeep nodded as he scrubbed the counter with a dirty rag. “Yup. Folks from the farms around here have all taken a trip into town this weekend to see the Carnival. I hear the headline act is really something special.” He reached under the bar. “Here, they paid me to pass out fliers.” He placed a well-scribed poster on the bar in front of Applejack.

Rainbow tapped Twilight on the shoulder and whispered in her ear. “The group at the table behind us have been watching you since you came in. Do you know ‘em?” Twilight turned her head to glance behind them. “No, don’t look!” Rainbow hissed.

Twilight had already taken the glance. She glimpsed two earth ponies, a unicorn, and a griffon sitting around the table playing cards. One of the earth ponies wore plate barding not unlike Applejack’s, the griffon wore leather, and the other earth pony wore chainmail. The unicorn looked like a wizard.

One of them saw her look.

“What do you make of this, Twilight?” Applejack asked her innocently while she gestured at the poster on the bar.

A chair clattered to the floor behind them. Twilight cringed. “Shoot I forgot about the bounty thing. We’re about to get in a fight, aren’t we?” Applejack said. Twilight nodded. Spike vanished.

Twilight heard the sound of weapons being readied behind them. Rainbow kicked off the bar with a shout. She looped through the air, using her hooves to bounce off the ceiling and come down in a flanking position on the opposite side of the group at the table. Applejack bucked her stool behind her. It crashed into the unicorn and sent him sprawling beneath the table. Pinkie jumped up onto the bar, ready. Twilight drew Solstice as she turned and held the blade in front of herself in a guarded stance.

Twilight saw the heavily armored earth pony lunging toward her, and she froze for an instant. Then, her survival instinct took over and she sidestepped the powerful stroke of his hoofaxe. With a tremendous crash, the axe bit into the wood of the bar. The pony wielding it expertly twisted it free, but Twilight took the brief opportunity to stab the tip of her floating blade into his flank, just beneath the plate. Solstice easily punctured his chainmail, drawing blood. Pinkie pummeled him from above as he limped back, and her forehoof thudded solidly into the plate on his forehead. Twilight saw his eyes cross momentarily from the blow, and he staggered, wounded and disoriented.

A bright flash of sparks drew her eyes to where Rainbow battered the earth pony in chainmail with her wingblades. He wore two kite shields, one across his foreleg, and one across his back, allowing him to hold off Rainbow’s precise spinning strikes, but each arcing glance of her wingblades against his shield pushed him back. His eyes began to glow, and Twilight noticed him mouthing a prayer.

Oh no you don’t, she thought. She concentrated for a moment, bringing magic to the surface of her mind, and shot a quick spell out of her horn. Two violet balls of energy zipped across the room with unerring accuracy. They passed through the cleric’s chainmail as though it wasn’t there and burned him with pure magical energy. Twilight noted with satisfaction that the glow in his eyes faded; her spell had interrupted his concentration.

Twilight heard a crash, and an instant later wooden splinters glanced off her mage armor. She looked at the source of the sound. Applejack had sundered the table with her chain. The wizard huddled behind the broken pieces of the table, horn aglow, and before Applejack could strike again, he finished a spell. With a pulse of light from his horn, he vanished into thin air. Applejack refocused her attention on the cleric as she readied her next attack.

“Twilight, look up!” Rainbow warned as her wingblade glanced off the cleric’s shield.

With only a split-second to spare, Twilight adjusted her guard up. Her eyes widened when she saw the griffon descending upon her from the rafters. He swung a cutlass at her with his right talon. Solstice moved partially of its own accord to parry the blow, saving Twilight from the ambush. Beyond the griffon, Twilight saw the recovered heavily armored earth pony moving in to join the assault, but before he could, a pink blur slammed into his side; Pinkie tackled him to the ground.

In the following seconds, Twilight barely held her own against the griffon. He was fast and ruthless, and every time she blocked the sword in his right talon the claws of his left would follow. Her mage armor saved her from a couple of the blows, but she still received deep lacerations on both shoulders and the side of her neck.

While Twilight fought the griffon, she saw Applejack’s chain puncture the cleric’s shield and skewer his foreleg. Before the shock and pain left his eyes, Rainbow spattered his blood on the wall with a stroke of her wing. He fell, gasping, his throat cut open.

Twilight backpedaled as the griffon pressed his advantage until her rear end hit a wall. With nowhere left to maneuver, she locked Solstice against his cutlass to stop him from finishing her. Before his talons could rake her again, a blue blur collided with him. Rainbow hit forehooves first, striking the griffon in the side. Twilight heard ribs crack. Wrapped together, the two winged combatants tumbled against the bar.

Twilight caught sight of the wizard when he appeared behind Applejack, his horn lit with a spell. “Applejack!” she shouted. Applejack turned to look at Twilight, and the wizard touched his energized horn to her flank. Applejack’s jaw clenched as electrified sparks jumped across her armor. Spasming, she fell to the floor of the tavern.

Twilight felt something shift within her when she saw Applejack fall. Her thoughts only held room for actions – no hesitation, no mercy, and no regret. She rushed forward at the wizard and made a looping strike with Solstice, sending it out ahead, then drawing it back. The floating blade cleanly severed the unicorn’s head from his shoulders, leaving his features forever frozen in an expression of terror.

Unphased, Twilight turned back to the griffon. He’d gained the upper hand against Rainbow. His sword lay forgotten on the floor of the tavern, useless in the close quarters fight. Rainbow lay on her back, battling the griffon back with bats of her wings and strong kicks, unable to make effective, swinging strokes with her wingblades.

As the griffon’s talons descended toward Rainbow’s neck, Twilight unleashed a spell. She inserted a phantasm into the griffon’s mind, changing the struggling pony beneath him into a creature of pure terror. He scrambled back in panic. It only lasted an instant, but Rainbow only needed an instant. She spun on the floor and slashed the griffon across the chest with her wing. Two more blows, and he stopped moving entirely.

Twilight turned her attention to the final target, the earth pony in armor, but he lay motionless, his neck twisted at an unnatural angle. Pinkie straddled his back, tears freely flowing down her face. Twilight levitated a healing potion out of her saddlebag and set it down next to Applejack. “Give that to her,” she ordered Rainbow, who nodded and rushed to Applejack’s side.

Twilight sat down on her haunches next to Pinkie. “You did what you had to do, Pinkie,” she said softly.

Pinkie sniffled. “It was fun until I had to kill somepony.” She turned to Twilight, burying her face in the unicorn’s chest. Her wet cheeks dampened Twilight’s fur. “How do you do it, Twilight? How do you kill a pony, and then just walk away?”

Twilight wrapped a foreleg around Pinkie and held her dearest friend comfortingly. “I don’t know, Pinkie, I don’t know.”

Author's Note:

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