• Published 13th Oct 2011
  • 17,483 Views, 1,168 Comments

The Quiet Place - Aynine

Twilight fights against sinister manipulations, struggling to overcome a deep-seated darkness within. As she battles to preserve everything she cares about, she will sacrifice anything necessary to succeed. But the price of victory may be herself.

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Chapter 11: The Joker & The Thief

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 11: The Joker & The Thief

Twilight shifted awake to the crackle and sputter, the embers of a small fire fleeing from the heat. The faint aroma of a mediocre breakfast slipped into her nostrils, further rousing her from the depths of a worried sleep. Her stomach growled and she opened her eyes, the grim darkness a welcome to her unadjusted vision. She sat up with a start, a look of panic taking hold of her face. Her eyes darted back and forth before settling upon the campfire nearby. She opened her mouth, but the scolding she had prepared vanished as she realized the fire emitted nothing more than a few tendrils of smoke and a small glow.

She gave a breath of relief when memory reminded her her comrades knew how to remain stealthy when camping out. They stared at her with mild confusion until she yawned and began to relax. A slow rubbing of her eyes removed lingering elements of sleep and she settled into her well adjusted night vision, peering around through the woods. The familiar apprehension of the forced darkness returned and she glanced up to the sky, the moon hanging in place like an ornament or a trophy for show. Her eyes scanned the sky, a mental note already marked in her mind of a striking detail missing: stars. The night was devoid of detail, save for a few wandering sheets of cirrus clouds.

"Mmm... Smells good. I guess that's breakfast," she mumbled discontentedly aloud. She shifted her gaze to bits of foliage roasting over a rock nearby. There wasn't much, but they had gathered a few berries and additional leaves to fill their stomachs. Twilight couldn't help but yearn for the lavish buffets the princesses had spoiled her with in the past several years. She took her share and bit down, a mild look of her disapproval blurred into the night. The food was bland, carrying with it the hint of burning wood as she ate.

"Man, this is going to be rough unless we just happen to find a vegetarian dragon," Dash moaned. There was a pause as Trixie and Twilight exchanged glances and snorted. Dash herself cracked a smile in the darkness towards as them she caught on. "Heh, a vegetarian dragon."

"Yeah, but I don't plan on starving," said Twilight. "Maybe we can catch a scouting party the next time we're hungry. Who knows, maybe we'll find this mythical vegetarian dragon." They broke into a fit of laughter for a few moments, eventually fading back to quiet smiles, all staring into the fire. "Were there any scouting parties while I was asleep?"

Rainbow Dash's eyes trailed off towards the direction of Ponyville. She raised a steady hoof, her expression straightening. "There were a few way over there, but they didn't come to the forest. Do you think they're on to us?" she asked as she brought her eyes back to the fire in front of them.

"I doubt it," replied Twilight. "But if they're looking at all, then they must think we're a threat after all. We need to get going. We'll leave as soon as--" She stopped herself suddenly.

Overhead, the silhouette of a dragon consumed all light upon them, its mammoth form erasing all with shadow as it passed over briefly. Their hearts skipped a beat as they waited for his listless flight to lead him further away. Twilight considered shooting him down, but any sure-kill spell would immediately light the sky and alert reinforcements. She swallowed hard when she could resume speaking.

"--we're done eating," she finished in a hushed voice. She brushed a hoof across her forehead to clear a trickle of sweat. "Let's hope there aren't many more patrols headed this way."

Breakfast concluded shortly after and they continued their low profile hike through the Everfree Forest. Rainbow Dash and Twilight found a distant sense of nostalgia trekking through the familiar wilds once more. Rarely did they visit it for pleasure, and most of their past encounters with it had been significant, particularly that of Twilight's first night in Ponyville leading her and her new friends to it. They descended the rocky cliffs without instance, and passed the river, the duo taking note of absent flamboyant serpent they'd encountered so many years before.

The party was led by Rainbow Dash until they reached the bridge to the former castle of the royal sisters. The pegasus pulled a leg up to take another step, but hesitated. "What's wrong?" asked Twilight.

Dash turned her head and shivered. "It's just... memories..." she muttered, finally putting her hoof down and taking the next step forward.

"Memories? You've been to this place before?" Trixie asked. Rainbow Dash didn't answer and continued leading the way to the entrance in silence.

Twilight took the lead after crossing and stopped in front of the ancient ruin's doors, surprise lining her eyes that their rotted construction still held together over a millennia later through the weathering. The same memories that wanted to drive Rainbow Dash away slipped into her mind. They had conquered all of Nightmare Moon's challenges. Together, she thought. The feelings were strange; she felt both compelled to move forward, and to flee, and she eyed the doors cautiously. The castle stood as a bittersweet reminder of Luna's fall from grace. Twilight tensed for a moment as she studied them. But even she was redeemed.

"Do you think there's anything here?" asked Trixie. She studied the crumbling walls skeptically. "This place looks like it hasn't been used in ages."

Twilight pushed open one of the doors, the rotted wood and rusty hinges giving an anguished creak to the gentle force. "I don't know... I want to check something out, though." She cast a determined look to Trixie and disappeared inside without a sound. Rainbow Dash and Trixie followed closing the door behind them. Trixie breathed out in relief when it didn't fall over on top of them afterwards.

Twilight slowly stepped forward and took in the surroundings. A vague sense of familiarity rang out from every piece of the stonework to her and Rainbow Dash, but the magician found herself treading new ground. She eyed the moonlit stone carefully, the light giving it an apprehensive feeling. There was no ceiling, no form of cover to shield them from searching eyes should a dragon patrol near again. Dust muddled the rays of moonlight and more filled it as the doors closed with a faint breeze rustling loose dust.

The alicorn moved forward, the glint on the ends of her peeking staff blending into the light, and constantly threw her head back and forth. Several pieces of discolored glass lay in a pile against one wall, a colorful memory of the past now lost. Against the opposite wall lay the decayed, rotted pieces to a wooden chair.

"So... what are supposed to be looking for?" Dash asked suddenly, her nerves periodically compelling her to check her six.

Twilight's heartbeat grew into a pounding at the words, the anxiety lining every one of her movements with caution. "I don't know. Anything. Maybe we can find something to use against Nightmare Moon later if the Elements can't be gathered." She paused and sniffed the air quietly. Something isn't right, she thought. She threw her head towards Dash, but her cowl hid her eyes behind a black blur. "It's worth checking out, right?"

She didn't want to admit it, but the talking eased the her mind. They continued onward, but every sound not belonging to her or her friends caused her to freeze or flinch, even a stray breeze making its tired sweep through the old ruins elicited a reaction. They moved through a deeper part of the ruins and the stonework improved slightly. Where walls once built with pride now stood in shambles with climbing moss and creeping vines overtaking them.

They made it to the room where the Elements were previously housed. The arms of the odd monument constructed to display their previous forms had broken off and crumbled. Twilight swallowed hard as her anxiety began to rise further as they walked through the room.

"Creepy..." mumbled Trixie as she took a moment to stare at the monument.

Dash gave it a disbelieving look and they moved to a final staircase. Twilight hesitated before moving, raising a hoof and staring up the steps with caution. The feeling of anxiety intensified and she forced herself to keep going before she was questioned. She reached the top and the anxiety within her shifted for a moment, the feeling now as if it had layered upon itself. What is going on?

"Wait here," she commanded with a hoarse voice. She moved to the center of the room, a place she once stood facing Nightmare Moon alone, against all odds. She closed her eyes and imagined the dark alicorn's smug look fixated on her. She began to focus and scan the room with Telos springing to life and dancing around her in an entertaining manner. The vibe in the room gave off the feeling of faint magic--old magic, but the presence suddenly encroached upon her. The magic wasn't Nightmare Moon's or the princesses.

"Something... isn't right," she said aloud. Anxiety turned to fear and her eyes shot open, Telos returning to her back in a second. "We have to leave," she added abruptly. When the other two mares looked at her with confusion, she yelled. "NOW!"

A black mist seeped over the walls and windows, and filled the stairway. It swirled and began to close in on them. Dash leaped into flight and Twilight telekinetically pulled Trixie to her, grabbing the startled magician and taking to the sky. Her large wings beat the still air hard, and they barely managed to escape from the room. The mist coalesced into something and reached several yards into the air in an attempt to grab at them, but its failure caused it to flatten and dissipate back to nothingness in a matter of seconds.

The trio landed outside far beyond the ruins, back in the safety of the dark forest's canopy. Twilight set Trixie down and forcefully wiped her brow and kicked up a piece of dirt.

"Hey, Twi. What the hay was that?" Dash asked as she eyed the now-distant ruins nervously. The stone walls seemed like a prison she had just escaped from, her chest tightening as she gazed at it. She took an instinctive step away from it.

Twilight looked to the ground, her eyes darting between invisible calculations and theories inlaid into the grass. "A problem," she concluded. "I don't think Nightmare Moon could've beaten us here, but she can move quickly. Or maybe she just left behind a trap after we defeated her the first time. None of that seems probable, though." She swallowed hard, her imagination and fears getting the best of her. She looked up and to the darkness at the edge of her vision. "It was some kind of alarm. We need to get out of here, quickly and quietly." She led them onward at a quicker pace than before, her ears constantly bending and straining to hear any sounds that didn't belong in the forest.

"So, just what was that place back there?" Trixie asked while staring at Twilight's cloaked flank.

"That was once the ancient castle of the royal pony sisters. It was the place where Nightmare Moon first surfaced within Luna and rebelled; where Celestia herself had used the original Elements of Harmony to banish her to the moon." Twilight stopped walking and glanced up the moon, the surface devoid of the Mare in the Moon markings. She took in a deep breath and frowned slightly "That was over a thousand years ago." She continued walking again, her head hanging lower than before.

"I remember the stories you told me about Nightmare Moon and Princess Luna, but you never told me about the Elements or where all of that happened."

"Applejack, the Element of Honesty. Rarity, the Element of Generosity. Fluttershy, Kindness. Pinkie Pie, Laughter. Rainbow Dash, Loyalty." The knight shrugged her armor between a skip and tilted her head at the mention of her name to better listen. "And I'm... the Element of Magic. We are living representations of them now."

"Wow... Isn't Magic the most powerful?"

"Yes." Twilight cast a glance to the shadowy ground. The most powerful... but I can't do anything more, even now.

The rest of the hike through the Everfree Forest was conducted in an empty silence. No one had wanted to continue the conversation, but Trixie was left pondering Twilight's status again. The alicorn never boasted her legendary accomplishments and rarely mentioned them unless they pertained to a subject they were discussing. Suddenly, she felt small in comparison to her once again.

The party neared the edge of the forest, the trees ending their thick canopy abruptly to a few stones before the landscape dipped into a wide valley. They took one last look at the ruins behind them. They were only tiny slivers of moonlit grey in the great distance they had traveled, and they all shared the same sense of dread at the new feature they beheld. A pair of dragons were circling them, searching. Twilight bit her lip and a pang of relief hit her briefly.

"Are the dragons really at her command?" Twilight mused to herself.

"Is Luna working with the Brood to usurp Celestia?" asked Trixie in response.

Twilight and Rainbow Dash both shot her an incredulous frown. "No, not Luna," the alicorn answered. "It's Nightmare Moon. Luna would never betray her sister... willingly." Twilight's voice became unsteady for a moment, the self reminder that Luna was no longer herself looming over her thoughts.

"But what about Celestia? What are we going to do about Luna?"

Twilight sighed. "One problem at a time, Trixie. Let's take care of Dragon King Render first." Twilight froze for a moment. Did I just... speak about killing him so easily? She shuddered and shook her head, then looked down to the valley. The wide open space was sparse of trees and rocks, but a small dirt path split it in two. Most of the valley was shrouded in darkness, the walls blocking the moon and casting the only cover. A chill ran up Twilight's spine as she studied it from the cover of the forest. "Dash, go scout ahead. I don't like this place." She squinted in hopes to see more detail, but the blur only sharpened to smear with the few trees poking up as different shades of the blur. "Be careful, and come right back if you see anything out of the ordinary,” she added earnestly.

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes and muttered. “Don’t worry mom, I’ll look both ways when I cross the street.” She took off without catching Twilight’s frown, but she swore she could feel it.

The knight kept low to the ground as she soared over the sloping, shadow-stricken landscape. It was nearly as dark as the forest; the moon seemed unable to peek over one of the seemingly raised sides, and the shadows swallowed her in apprehension. Dash nearly crashed into a rock as it slipped out of the darkness mere seconds before a collision. She made two passes to be sure that she could spot nothing. After landing, she shuddered, and readjusted her helmet. “That place is creepy. I scouted it the best I can, but I wouldn’t let your guard down. I can’t see much in the dark.”

The other mares nodded and Twilight instinctively shifted Telos on her back. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this. I’ll cross and do a magical sweep. If I make it across, I’ll signal you to grab Trixie and fly over.”

Dash shrugged and her and Trixie pulled back to the forest treeline. Twilight began a cautious trek through the valley, occasionally tugging her dark cowl lower. There was no cover in the valley beyond the veil of the night. Anyone, or anything, could spot her if she wandered too close, and Dash’s aerial reconnaissance wouldn’t trigger any traps on the ground. Trixie and Dash watched her outline blur and fade into the black, until only a subtle ripple made its way across the shadow canvas of the distance.

Twilight stepped passed the rock that Rainbow Dash nearly hit and stopped. Something’s here! The ground rumbled and several figures began pulling themselves from the earth. The scouts at the ruins abruptly ended their patrols and began heading towards the valley. Twilight moved Telos beneath her and tugged at the end of her cloak. She leaped off of the dragon and quietly vanished into the night as a dark smear. Dragons...

“What should we do?” Trixie asked in a hushed voice. “There’s too many for us to fight.”

“Keep your head down! Wait until Twilight’s signal,” commanded Dash, pulling Trixie behind a tree and to the ground behind some bushes.

The two mares swallowed hard, their chests thumping in tandem to the heavy ambience of the scouts passing overhead. Their shadows swallowed up the ponies in blackness before relinquishing it back to the natural darkness. They peered out from behind the tree and strained their eyes to find Twilight in the array of confused dragons, but even the beasts down searching for her were wandering about and combing the valley in an effort to find a trace of her.

"Report, Captain," ordered one of the scouts from the ruins. His voice was sharp, a tinge of impatience punctuating his words.

The captain of the valley cell glanced around in confusion for a moment, then straightened himself as he met his superior's stare. "There... There was someone here just a moment ago. They walked over me, I'm sure of it. And another, a flyer. They made a low pass through here, I think."

The scout gave him a hard, disbelieving look. "And, can anyone else verify this?" he asked to the rest of the group.

The others exchanged nervous glances, none offering themselves to the scrutiny of backing their captain's story. One even shrugged while another shook his head, in lazy disagreement, or fear. "What? You cannot--"

"Do not make this a fool's errand, lest you wish to answer to General Aurelius," the scout cautioned in an angry tone. The pair of scouts turned to fly back in the direction of the ruins. "Get back to your duties," the lead scout added curtly with a sidelong glance.

The captain stared after them for a moment, yearning for something. In an instant he whirled his head around and barked, "Find them!" As he lifted himself up fully in preparation to fly, Twilight's dark blue cloak slid from his back and fell to the ground in a billowy dance. He lowered himself and snatched it from the ground, dangling it before him in his claws. I knew it. How could a pony just disappear into the night? he wondered. He peered around, but could not separate one shadow from the next.

The dragons began dispersing and taking to the air as Twilight reached the other side with a small smirk tugging at the corners of her mouth. She stepped carefully, unsure of her sneaking skills, while moving as swiftly over grass and rocks as quickly as she could. The terrain on the other side of the valley sloped up and into a rocky, sandy path. She found a large boulder, one large enough to conceal a being larger than herself, among a collection of them. She exhaled deeply, grinning beneath the veil of her tugged up duskweave. Her violet eyes pierced the darkness with determination. Telos slid out from beneath her and she disappeared in a flash.

"Do you think she made it?" whispered Trixie to Dash.

A hoof tapped the magician on the shoulder and she flinched, afraid to turn around. Her imagination ran wild until Twilight's voice came quietly. "Don't speak. Just gather with me." She led them back into the forest thirty meters and behind several trees before teleporting them to the other side of the boulder.

Twilight's companions looked dizzy after reappearing on the other side. "Hey, Twi. That flash is a little bright in this darkness, you know?" Dash started. She rubbed at her eyes and blinked them back to adjusting. "Do you think they'll find us?"

"I left my cloak behind," replied Twilight, her voice muffled only slightly by the duskweave. "We need to get out of here before they start looking over here."

"Wow, Twilight. You're almost invisible. Is that a spell or just the duskweave?" asked Trixie.

The alicorn nodded. "It can absorb and refract light around me."

Trixie arched a brow. "But it's dark. There isn't any light." She could've sworn Twilight snorted, but her eyes were no indication of her disposition at that moment.

The alicorn motioned up to the moon, muttering, "There is always light in the darkness."

Telos reaffixed itself upon Twilight's back and they continued at a brisk trot into the lands beyond the valley. Twilight slid the duskweave down from her muzzle and it reformed flawlessly onto her body as a second skin once more. As they trekked through a flatland area beyond, she bit her lip, constantly glancing over her shoulder. Trixie inwardly groaned, wishing she would stop, her own nerves wanting to scare her each time the alicorn looked away. She fidgeted occasionally when she snapped her view over her shoulder too quickly, sure danger might be there that time.

"We're really exposed out here, Twilight. Any dragon with good night vision will see us moving," Dash started, her eyes watching the distance in front of them. "Shouldn't we put up an illusion or something?"

Twilight shook her head. "I don't like it either, but I don't want to waste any magic. I'm getting hungry and we don't have anything. I'm saving my strength in case we do get caught." She sighed when their stomachs growled. "Still..." She paused for a moment, standing up and swinging her forelegs outward. "I've never been beyond the Everfree Forest before," she said in a breathy, awed manner.

Trixie and Dash exchanged blank looks. "I have," they said in unison, but Dash continued, "but not this way."

Twilight frowned. "For a moment, I forgot we're supposed to be careful." She glanced over her shoulder again, smiling this time. "Let's hurry. I'm starving," she said, groaning out the last word. "If they haven't come out of the valley now, I don't think they'll ever broaden the search in time to find us."

As they continued onward, Twilight continued to periodically glance over her shoulder, though more subtly than before. I wish I could've kept my cloak. Only an archmage wears a cloak, and if they find the mark... She pursed her lips, forcing herself to look ahead. Her nerves betrayed her and she looked up to the moon again. Nightmare Moon...


Back in the valley, the captain ordered the dragons to expand their search, though much too late. The darkness hindered their search as much as it helped enshroud their actions, and he clutched the cloak in his grip with a heavy dismay. After watching over his cell a while longer, he took off back to Canterlot, a frustrated and disappointed rhythm weaved into the beating of his wings. He grimaced at the thought of facing General Aurelius with nothing to show but a unicorn's traveling garment.

It was an hour before he returned to the Canterlot castle, his resolve faltering just after reaching the city. He forced himself to land on the front steps, wishing it did not require so much effort. He followed a path of calculated destruction through the castle walls. Ponies and dragons moved about attempting to repair and restructure the building to accommodate their larger forms. Occasionally a death threat would sail towards a pony slacking off or not moving quickly enough. Most would snap right back to work, the fear of being devoured driving them, and some would shout back curses, earning a swift smack.

He stopped outside of the throne room and swallowed, hard. As he entered, he found Nightmare Moon staring outside of one of the ruined windows, Princess Celestia beside her without any regalia, and Aurelius laying near the throne. All of their eyes connected to him the moment he lumbered into the room. None of their expressions told him what they thought and his mouth suddenly felt dry.

"My lord, General Aurelius," he offered, the larger dragon raising his head in interest. "It would appear that Her Majesty, Moon, was correct in implementing the magical trap in the Everfree Forest."

The dark alicorn turned to face him completely, her eyes narrowing upon him slightly. "Go on," she said invitingly.

He swallowed again before continuing his report, Nightmare's sharp eyes matching only Aurelius's in intimidation. "Someone visited those ruins. Where we laid in the valley, someone passed through only a short while after the scouts arrived at the ruins."

"Oh?" muttered Aurelius. "And what makes you sure they were not simply adventurers?" he asked, his heavy voice adding weight to the atmosphere bearing on the captain.

The captain reflexively lowered his head, but kept it high enough to maintain eye contact with his superiors. "Because of this," he said as he produced the dark blue cloak. "That fell from my body after we sprang our trap, but we were unable to find the unicorn whom I believe it belongs to." His tone shifted from confident to apologetic halfway through his sentence. He dropped the cloak on the ground before Nightmare Moon then stepped back, shying away from her gaze.

Nightmare Moon lifted the cloak up and spun it around, a faint crest of Luna designed into the underside. She frowned for a moment, but it was replaced as quickly by a grin. She put it on and froze with an unreadable expression.

Aurelius studied the dark alicorn in her new attire. "Hmm... Princess Celestia." He glanced to the princess, and she returned his look with a placid expression. "Do you care to explain why the cloak of an archmage would be so far from their home? I did not think I miscounted earlier." The dragon maintained an even look as he spoke.

Nightmare Moon moved to Celestia and bent her neck down to look up at her in a teasing manner. "Oh, sister. Do tell. You know I hate,"--she suddenly straightened herself in front of her--"being lied to," she finished angrily, but her face maintained the grin.

Celestia met her eyes with the same placid expression, her eyes revealing nothing but a slight confusion. "The robes and cloaks that the archmagi choose to wear are solely of their own volition. That cloak could belong to anypony," she said plainly.

Nightmare Moon's grin shifted into a disdainful frown. "Do you think me a foal, sister? Four of your precious Elements of Harmony have already been captured. Where might the other two be at, hmm?" she asked quickly, the question chaining to what Celestia hid behind a well practiced mask.

The princess shook her head. "I don't know. We merely communicate through letters, but I know not where she currently resides. I would not tell you, even if I did," she replied calmly, her eyes catching a sharp look from the Id.

"You're lying!" Nightmare snarled. "I know you and your faithful student are in constant communication--the accursed Element of Magic!" The Id grunted and growled her frustration out. She threw the cloak from her back in a spark of her horn. "How... embarrassing," she said, suddenly calm once more.

Celestia regarded her carefully, but refused to look at the cloak. Not now... she thought to herself. "I am not lying, Nightmare Moon. As I told you, that could be anypony's cloak. And, it has been some time since I last spoke with my student." She stared into Nightmare Moon's sharp eyes, her own still completely calm. For a moment, she wondered if Nightmare Moon would ever consider a word she spoke as truth.

The Id narrowed her eyes examining, rather than condemning, Celestia, and huffed. "We will find out soon enough, won't we?" She glowered at the princess and turned to the idling red dragon. "Expand the search at once, Aurelius," she commanded in a flat tone.

Aurelius chuckled, but it came out more as a heaving rumble. A grin split his face for a moment, but he stood up and shrugged his body. "Mistress Moon, you are overreacting. It is probably nothing. Lay your paranoia to rest."

Nightmare shifted her eyes between Celestia and Aurelius in disbelief several times, then she moved to gaze out the window and to the moon again. With an exasperated sigh, she let her eyes fall to the city. "Fine. You're probably right and it's just some thrill seeking explorer." She whirled back around to face the dragon again. "But someone visited those ruins. They are... sentimental to me and I am going to investigate them myself," she added.

"Merely your paranoia, Mistress. It is not the first wandering visitor, nor will it be the last. Those ruins lay unguarded in the middle of a forest few dare tread. Calm yourself." The dragon's voice hit a pacifying note for a moment and Nightmare went silent for a while. She glanced to the captain, his head still lowered and she frowned.

"I will personally investigate them myself." She turned to Aurelius and sneered. "Funny how our dispositions have been reversed, is it not?" Her form dispersed into a starry mist and flowed out of the room in a gust of air. The captain bowed and Aurelius nodded allowing him to leave.

"Your sister," Aurelius started, studying the princess' face as she turned to him with an irritated stare. "She won't find anything... will she?" he asked, doubt and wonder in his tone simultaneously.

Celestia half rolled her eyes and sighed. "She is not my sister. I don't know what Nightmare Moon expects to find. Those ruins have been abandoned to the Everfree Forest for centuries. Only adventurers ever visit them now."

Aurelius laid back down and grunted, but for what, Celestia couldn't tell. "She is merely paranoid, having reentered the world in such a chaotic state. We will find the Elements of Harmony in due time, but they are no priority of ours."

Celestia raised her eyebrows, suddenly piqued by the Brood's agenda. "Oh, and why is that?" she asked, taking a reluctant step closer to the dragon.

Aurelius didn't move as he spoke, his rumbling voice driving any point he made for him. "Nightmare Moon simply keeps you in check, and the forced darkness demoralizes your races. I will not hesitate to get rid of her should she become... disobedient."

Celestia scowled at him, but her chest tightened suddenly. "A staggered night is of no hindrance to us."

Aurelius studied her face, the princess still clinging to the idea of her sister's soul being pure. "Your world falls beneath the Brood's rule now. You are to sit here comfortably and watch all that you sought to maintain burn away. Your words are now hollow, puppet princess."

Celestia stared at him contemptuously for a while, then spun on her hooves and walked out of the throne room, shaken by his nickname. That bastard... I will never be anyone's puppet, nor will Nightmare Moon be yours!

"Wander where you wish, princess. Your magic may as well be sealed." Aurelius's voiced chased her through the halls, an echoing reminder that she was truly bound to herself now.

Aurelius moved over to gaze out of one of the shattered windows, his eyes falling blankly over the razed city. Several fires flickered in the distance off blackened rooftops, most charred buildings protruding as scars upon the white city. Ashes swept the streets with messy grey streaks and painted buildings in their path.

"And what will your subjects think when they see you still live above them, princess? Will they rebel? Will they slander your name? Or..." His gaze shifted to the broken throne. "Or will they decide they no longer have need of you, a frail ruler left alone? I wonder..."


Trixie groaned as she stubbed her hoof on a rock, the seventh on the rough mountain path they now walked. Each time she stumbled, she glared at Rainbow Dash and her expected grin, but each time she stumbled, her eyes would shift as quickly to Twilight. The alicorn continued to watch the surrounding areas and behind them with subtle looks, and even during their breaks would position herself facing paths they'd taken. It had been a few hours since they left the valley, and no dragon had moved much beyond it in their search. She sighed and grumbled, her stomach growling to match her disdain for her lover's excessive caution.

"Can't we just cast an illusion on ourselves and have Rainbow fly us over this thing?" she asked, almost whining her question out. She hit another rock, a frustrated groan following and hanging in the air even louder this time.

"No," replied Twilght flatly, turning herself to face the magician. When Trixie met her eyes with a sour look, she offered a sympathetic one. "I'm sorry, Trixie, but I'm not risking it. I've got a bad feeling as it is and I'd like to stay under the radar without the help of magic as much as possible."

"But we wouldn't be using that much magic if we just hide ourselves for a few minutes to make it over," Trixie argued.

Rainbow Dash stood up and pushed her forehooves out. "Whoa, whoa. I can't fly that fast with all my armor and your fat flank, Trixie."

The magician glowered at her. She hit another rock and gnashed her teeth, poising herself to blast the path clear if not for Twilight. Suddenly realizing a golden opportunity for alleviating her frustrations, she took the most recent rock she kicked in her magic and propelled it at the knight's flank. However, before it could make contact, it was captured in Twilight's more powerful magical aura.

"I don't like any of this either. I really don't, but we're on a mission. I'm worried about Canterlot--about Celestia. We've got Nightmare Moon and the Brood's armies to deal with, and we haven't even made it halfway to Draconis. You two have fought dragons before. You know exactly how draining it is to fight one. Imagine if we ran into some out here. With the Brood's armies flooding into Equestria, they could be anywhere in the night. I can fight the royal guard, but I can't regenerate myself quickly without the sun."

Twilight's companions exchanged apologetic glances as she went on. "I... don't like this," she muttered again.

Rainbow Dash took the lead again, though there were no more words exchanged between them. They continued rounding the mountain path at a brisk pace, even as it narrowed and forced them into a straight line. Dragons periodically moved about in the distance and they would slow their pace and add additional care to each step.

After another half hour passed and they arrived on the opposite side of the mountain, the path beginning to slope down and meander back to the even ground. Trixie gave a breath of relief when it was much clearer going down on that side than coming up on the other. But each of them stared in some form of awe from the vantage point they now had. Dash smacked her head, a sound of disgust escaping her throat.

"There's dragons everywhere!" she cried, an accusing hoof pointing down in the direction they were headed.

The land had become a bit less barren than before, with a few splotches of greenery to add life on the canvas of dull prairie lands. But the knight was right. For every few square miles of terrain they could see there was a patrolling member of the Brood to sweep through it.

Twilight took in the picture before her, but didn't convey any sign of what she was thinking. She pointed to the closest town to them, but from their point, they could see several dragons were occupying it. "We'll rest there. I'm pretty sure we're all a bit hungry."

"But that one has the most dragons occupying," Trixie protested. "Are we going to hide with the rest of the ponies there or fight them?"

Twilight put a hoof to her chin and contemplated the idea for a while. "We'll remove them from the town if it comes to it. Maybe we can trade some dragon hide for food," she joked. The other two mares looked at her with genuine surprise. Twilight wasn't sure what they were thinking given the darkness. "We'll figure something out," she finished hastily and moved past them.

As they made their way down the mountains, Trixie and Rainbow Dash held back to whisper to each other while their leader was distracted with the coming situations. Trixie pulled her cowl down and Dash shrugged her armor.

"We need to watch what we say," Dash whispered to Trixie.

The magician raised an eyebrow and turned her head enough to catch her in the corner of one eye. "What do you mean?"

"Twilight doesn't like all of this fighting. I know we haven't said much about it, but she's under a lot of stress right now."

Trixie fixated back onto Twilight. The alicorn's focus was to the front, and she seemed to pay no mind to their hushed voices. "I'll try to support her more," she murmured.

Dash nodded. "It's not as hard for me, but she has it the worst."

Trixie snapped her head to the side. "What about you?"

"I... I have somepony waiting for me," she answered dejectedly while looking at the ground. "I'll be fine."

"Hurry up, you two," called Twilight. She had moved much further than when they spoke, standing at the bottom of the path and at the entrance to the flatter lands. "I've studied their behavior and I don't think they'll attack us."

They moved as a unit across the prairie lands, keeping their heads low and their gaits subdued. Twilight prayed they would not notice Telos in the night, even as she ensured it was not shining in the darkness. The platinum finished creation appeared as a dull silver, only slightly darker than Dash's armor, and shifted into a generic looking pole. Her duskweave shifted colors and she took on a black coat with a grey mane and tail, a quill and parchment replacing her multi-star cutie mark. Hopefully, she thought, that'll be enough.

They reached the town without instance, though Trixie and Dash eyed their surroundings warily. The town itself was of similar size to Ponyville, minus stray houses and the Apple family farm on the outskirts. However, the town had a large fence erected around most of it, likely due to stray animals, Twilight figured. The front gate was left open, a couple militia ponies guarding and watching it. Twilight wished she still had her cloak as she passed them. Maybe I should've changed my appearance to something else.

After walking down the main street, a dragon at the first junction caught sight of the newest arrivals. He lumbered over to them, his large form filling most of the dirty street. On-looking townsponies stared in caution while others dashed into the nearest building, many looking wide-eyed out of the windows to watch.

"Give me your names, or you shall be detained," the dragon ordered quickly, his breath rustling up loose dust into the trio's faces.

Twilight studied him for a moment, her form stiffening as she considered how to react. My wings... I can't tell him who I am.

"Your names. I will not ask again," the dragon grit impatiently. His thick tail swept the ground behind him and left a fan shaped indent in the street.

"What if I ain't got a name?" shouted Rainbow Dash. As quickly as the words left her mouth, she took the heater shield from her back and slung it like disc at the dragon. The shield spun and sailed through the air, one of the corners striking him between the eyes.

The dragon reeled back into a sitting position, clutching his head. The shield clattered to the ground and he didn't say anything immediately. Gasps and squeaks filled the air as more civilian ponies scrambled into the nearby buildings, only a few brave--or bold, no one could be sure--ponies remained outside. Trixie produced her staff, and Twilight shifted Telos back to its idle state, but retained her illusion--both mares carrying surprised expressions.

A trickle of blood ran down the dragon's snout and he bared his teeth. "You'll pay for that," he seethed. Three additional dragons moved in behind the first, each prepared to fight. "It appears we have some rather courageous rebels. Let's put them in their proper place," he said, then picked up Dash's shield and crushed it in one of his hands.

"Oh, yeah? If you think you can beat a Celestial Knight," Dash shouted as she rushed forward. In a fluid motion, she brandished Nightfall into both hooves, the dark blade gleaming for a moment in the moonlight as it moved. "Then bring it on!"

The dragon frowned before unleashing his flame breath into the streets. Dash skidded on the street and then sprang into flight. Twilight took to the air after her, her large, violet wings appearing as if they ripped from the night itself. There were a few stray gasps as the color difference with the rest of her body was revealed. "Trixie, take care of that!" she called down.

The magician nodded and produced her staff, taking it into her hooves. With spire and horn shining in unison, she threw a hoof forward at the flames. Translucent walls of light encased the flame and locked together, smothering it in the middle of the street. She grit her teeth and swayed her hoof away, the walls vanishing quickly after. A wide span of blackened dirt remained where the flame had once been. Ugh, dragon fire is so powerful, she thought.

"Trixie, place an illusion and barrier around this area. We can't let this get out of control!" came the magician's next set of orders from Twilight. She took in a large breath and put on a determined expression.

"Got it!" Trixie dug Mystic Sage into the ground and leaned back in the air, her horn shining much brighter now. The staff spire flashed, and her cowl fell off while a stream of wind flowed around her. The air flickered briefly and more translucent walls surrounded a greater area around their combat zone. The drain hit her like a truck and she lost her stance immediately, slumping onto her staff. Gritting her teeth, the walls shifted from translucent light to a dark blue tint.

"Keep it up, Trixie," Twilight added.

Easy for you to say.

Rainbow Dash propelled herself towards the dragon she hit with her shield. They climbed into the sky, above the tops of the buildings, and began their aerial combat. She continued to hurl taunts at him, provoking him into attacking in anger. The dragon clawed and snapped at her, his teeth smashing together with dangerous might. She evaded his attacks deftly, stroking a reprisal with Nightfall during each dodge. After several non-fatal wounds, the dragon swiped with both claws.

The knight propelled herself to the side, but too focused on the claws, she missed the incoming tail. Seeing it too late, she was forced into a desperate parry attempt. Holding her sword at an angle, the tail smashed into her, the colossal force sending her streaming into a rooftop, a cratered mess where she crashed. The dragon grinned down at the wounded knight, satisfied. Winded, Dash scrambled back up and forced air back into her lungs. "Not bad," she heaved. "For a dragon!"

She spat blood to her side and rocketed forward, barely slowed by her injuries. The dragon, surprised, attempted to repeat his tactic, but she barreled over the tail the second time. As she spun, she closed the distance and flipped herself sideways adding the force of her gyrations into an awkward, wide vertical cut into the wing. She managed to rend most of it outwards before a defensive attack forced her away again.

The tattered flesh bled into the air and billowed like a ripped sheet. Try as the dragon might, his wing would no longer allow him to remain airborne. He clutched his wing and plummeted to the ground, landing with a boom near a few of his idling comrades. Dash began gaining more altitude while the dragon roared in pain and anger. She fully righted herself and braced Nightfall against her chest as she began a dive bomb.

This is gonna be close! As she picked up speed, it became difficult to maintain her trajectory; her vision blurred and she couldn't be sure she was descending on her target in the warped darkness. Laying into instinct, she began to spin herself, spiraling downwards as a menacing drill.

"You're going to kill yourself!" shouted Twilight. Telos moved from her back and aimed towards the dragon. "You're lucky..." she muttered as the knight neared her target. He attempted to flee down the street and avoid the deathblow, but Dash had already gained too much speed and distance. In an instant she drilled through his neck in a messy surge of blade and flesh. "--That I'm the Element of Magic!" cried Twilight. A sudden burst of air blasted the knight sideways, a mere meter from hitting the ground.

Dash spun out of control for a moment before jamming Nightfall into the ground and righting herself, speeding along the ground with a thin indent into the street. "Thanks for the save, Twi!"

Twilight unleashed an exasperated breath of relief, wiping a sprinkle of sweat from her brow. That could've gone better. Her eyes wandered to the walls of the illusion. It remained intact, but she pursed her lips when her eyes fell to Trixie. The magician was sweating profusely and using Mystic Sage to keep herself standing, parts of her cloak damp and clinging to her form. The glow of her horn shined brightly in the night, but its glow was beginning to dim from a typical shine. I'll try to hurry, Trixie.

Telos flipped through the air as it made its way back to Twilight, her duel with the leader beginning. The dragon, black and larger in size than the others, closed the distance and swiped down, his powerful claw quaking the earth as it stamped in a tracing crater. She evaded and willed Telos into a greatsword once more. She leaped into the air with a following sweep from the other claw. I can't hold back this time. "Trixie, can you hold the illusion against magic?" she shouted over her shoulder. "I can't use my magic if it's going to break."

The magician nodded and forced her fatigued body to raise Mystic Sage overhead. She mouthed a word and her horn shined brighter for a moment, the light flowing into the staff's spire. The illusion walls within sparkled and reinforced, the outer walls showing no change to the city's outward peaceful appearance. Trixie's hooves fell low and she slumped against the staff once more, barely able to keep herself standing whilst propped against it. "It's.... It's done," she panted, unsure of Twilight could hear her. The spell continued to strain her greatly, even when the walls weren't stressed.

The moment Trixie had finished, Telos left Twilight's hooves and reverted into a staff again. She skipped several strides backwards and pointed the spire to the leader. As the dragon attempted to move in, the spire shined and a burst of arcane power ripped forth and blasted him in the face. He reeled backwards to his haunches so hard that he slid backwards.

"Wh-who are you!?" he asked through a claw covering his face. The scales sizzled and more blood trickled down from his snout. This is the power of an alicorn? Is she a princess? The dragon dropped down and poised himself for combat once more. The wound he could not hide displayed blackened scales and flesh, but he showed no signs of weakness from his injury.

The dragon approached Twilight more cautiously the second time, his eyes fixated upon the spire of Telos. Its movements were sporadic and inconsistent, and he began to fear another spell the closer he got. Twilight shivered slightly, wind suddenly brushing her form as air swirled around in front of her. She applied herself and concentrated, the staff freezing its dance. The wind picked up into a tornado and ripped dirt and gravel into it becoming a dark, shearing twister.

The tornado carved a deep, wide groove into the street as it moved towards the dragon. He backed up and attempted to fly, desperate beats of his wings taking over his priorities. The harder he tried to fly the more the tornado pulled him in. "I'm the one that's going to show you..." Twilight muttered as she watched. The power of the tornado picked up, and chunks of nearby buildings began to break and flow into it. Entire walls were snapped off of the nearest ones. Damn... Too strong...

The dragon sank all four claws into the ground and attempted to hold on. His right wing was pulled outward and frayed by the debris while the rest of his body was lacerated, his scales wearing down against the dirt and gravel. The tornado expanded and engulfed his entire form in the dark brown dirt, and his wailing roar could faintly be heard over the howling winds. Twilight maintained the spell for another minute before ending it in an instant and having Telos return to her back. The debris and sediment all settled upon the dragon's bloodied form, some scattering in a dusty ring around him.

Twilight walked towards him and exhaled in relief when she found he was still conscious. "Tell the others to stand down and I will spare their lives," she said as she moved closer. "I don't want to kill you."

The dragon, despite all of his injuries, loosed a rumbling guffaw. "You cannot possibly believe you can stop us with your worn down little party," he retorted.

"Fine then. I'll ask again after I expel your doubt."

Twilight took to the air, the air beneath her wings pushing some of the sediment off of the dragon as she gained altitude. The dragons that remained were hurling themselves at the barrier walls, scratching and punching it. Trixie cringed with each charge, but the barriers held against their terror-driven efforts. Come on, Twilight... I can't... hold this... much longer! she thought, her voice unwilling to work to her will.

Twilight quickly reached the other two dragons. They turned and glimpsed her, their eyes widening in fright. Before they could make one final, desperate attempt to break the barrier, she blasted them with a sheet of electricity. The bolts ran along their bodies briefly before dispersing and fading. The dragons exchanged confused glances before suddenly slamming into each other and dropping to the ground in a quaking impact next to their leader. The shockwave filled the streets with dust for a few moments and blew most of it off of their leader.

Twilight landed on top of the leader's snout and lowered her head to meet one of his eyes with a serious gaze. She threw a hoof to her side and the dragons were engulfed in her violet aura and levitated closer, their forms compressed together in a lopsided sphere. "Tell them to surrender or I will execute all of you." A pang of guilt echoed throughout her, but she refused to show it.

The ball of dragons settled back to the ground and the duo became rattled. They thrashed and rolled themselves several feet in a circle while begging for mercy and the life saving command they would be compelled to follow.

Rainbow Dash dropped down on the ground in front of the leader and sheathed her sword, a worried look striking her features. "But, Twilight, they've already seen us. If we let them go, what's stopping them from giving us up?"

Twilight stared at Rainbow Dash for a moment, her face hard as she contemplated what to do. "I'll just... make sure they can't speak."

The dragon leader's eyes widened and he quickly blurted, "Alright! We will surrender and submit, so long as you honor your words." He relaxed when Twilight nodded. He breathed in relief, afraid she intended to remove their tongues if his response was delayed any longer.

Twilight smiled and the balled up dragons began to beg for freedom. "Hmm..." She turned toward the ball and stomped her right hoof abruptly, the leader wincing as she did so. "Silence!" An invisible wave of force passed through them and all sounds they uttered had ceased. Their eyes stared at her, pleading for mercy, fear of what may come reflecting in them. Holding a hoof in their direction, she sparked her magic and their bond tightened.

"Where do you receive your orders from?" Twilight asked as she turned back to face the leader.

"And why would I tell you, whom we are at the mercy of, where our orders come from? What is to stop you from killing us after I tell you?"

Telos moved from Twilight's back and hung above a large, open wound. The platinum staff radiated a subtle warmth as the dragon leader stared at it. In an instant, it was pulled away and perched upon Twilight's back, its shine dimming away. "Nothing," she replied with a neutral voice. "Can't dragons be honorable?"

"What... the hell... are you talking about?" he responded confusedly.

Twilight stared into his eyes more intensely than before. Telos whipped itself and snapped the blood from it before returning back to her. "From what I know of dragons, you're typically prideful. I'd like to think that pride could mean you're willing to honor a promise."

"So what? Even if I tell you, you cannot stop the Brood's invasion. There are many dragons who give orders to different contingents and cells. Why do you try so hard to beat us back with just this?" he asked while throwing a weak hand to the lot before him.

Twilight followed it with her eyes. Rainbow Dash looked at her expectantly, and Trixie was in an exhausted stagger approaching from further back, panting as she held the lower parts of Mystic Sage's shaft to keep herself from falling onto the blackened street. Residents of the town began to funnel out of the buildings, cautiously eyeing them and the dragons while creeping along the sides to get closer. Twilight loosed a long sigh and returned her eyes to the dragon's.

"Just moments ago you were willing to sacrifice yourselves for your cause. What difference does it make to you if I let you live and we fail further on? Please just tell me where your orders come from. Tell me where I can find your superior and I will let all three of you go," she asked in a more pleading tone, leaning gently forward with her words.

The dragon turned his head slightly and examined his remaining companions. The ball rolled a few inches as they squirmed, but they both looked to him for help. He gave a low sigh and focused back on Twilight. "About sixteen miles to the northeast lies a jungle. Within lives a small dragon that relays our orders. If you are truly going to spare us, will you allow us to go free?"

Twilight nodded and smiled. "I promise. You have my word. For now, rest up. You'll need your strength for later." She turned her head and noticed more awestruck ponies had filtered into the sides of the streets and crept further closer. "I'm really glad you surrendered, but... do you really believe in this war?" she whispered to him. Before he could answer, she turned and leaped down to the ground, leaving him with his own confused thoughts.

Trixie staggered up to Rainbow Dash, her staff being used as a poor crutch to aid her fatigued body. She had threatened to topple over with every step of her struggling stride. Twilight leaped to her as she reached the knight, the magician's legs finally giving out. Trixie was caught slumping over the alicorn's back.

"I... I did it, Twilight. I bet you're proud... of me," she rasped before releasing Mystic Sage and losing consciousness.

Twilight caught them in her magic and lifted the magician onto her back and slipped the staff beneath them, her wings vanishing into her altered coat. "Thank you, Trixie," she whispered. "I truly am. You've earned a rest." She looked up to meet the expectant and stunned crowd. She spent a moment contemplating how to address them, but ultimately settled on allowing them to ask first.

A colt lost in the crowd piped up with the first question. "What's happening with the dragons?" he hollered nervously.

"Don't worry about them. They can't speak, and they can't move." She swayed her head back and forth over the crowd as an awkward silence fell. "Is there anywhere we can stay and rest?" she asked.

A young pegasus colt stepped out of the crowd and pulled her towards a nearby building, Rainbow Dash trotting just behind. Twilight studied the way the pegasus moved as she was hustled along. Somepony who's not very worried... she observed. They entered what she figured was a hotel, an intimidated receptionist eyeing them suspiciously as they entered. The pegasus moved ahead of her and spoke to the receptionist in a hushed voice for a few moments before motioning them to follow.

They were led upstairs to a room at the front of the building with a four-paned window to view the street. After thanking the pegasus for their hospitality, she pushed Rainbow Dash inside and closed the door quietly behind her. The room offered two beds, a bathroom to their left, and a small table with two chairs in a corner by the only window. A bare dresser sat against the wall at the feet of the beds. Twilight plopped Trixie onto the closest bed while Dash took the one nearest the window.

The knight sat down slowly and stared at the floor for a moment. "I know what you're thinking, Rainbow, but the less bloodshed, the better," Twilight said quickly.

Dash whipped her head to her in surprise, but it faded as quickly as it had surfaced. "Don't you think it's too risky to let them go? I know you don't like the alternative, but they know too much about us. I don't like it as much as the next pony, but..." She sighed and grit her teeth. "Please tell me you have a plan besides trying reverse psychology."

Twilight nodded slowly. "Right now, all they have is a story about an unknown alicorn and a pegasus knight that defeated them with the support of a powerful unicorn. They failed to occupy a town with no real military power and were gravely injured. What dragon would ever believe that?"

Dash hung her head doubtfully after removing her helmet and setting it beside her on the bed. "Fine, but this is probably just going to make things harder in Draconis." She took a few heaving breaths before scooting to the end of the bed and turning to fully face Twilight. "Do you think saving them will help us later?" she asked. She began removing more pieces of armor, grunting, gnashing her teeth, and wincing in her attempts.

"I don't know, but I hope it helps. You never know if an enemy could become tomorrow's friend, or some kind of ally, though. No matter what happens in Draconis, it has to end this war. I just... I just wish..." Twilight let loose a frustrated groan. Dash paused and looked at her sympathetically. The alicorn recomposed herself and sat on the bed next to Trixie. "I just wish there was another way..." she trailed off. She stood up and moved to the window, staring blankly at the street below.

"I know, Twi. I just don't want anything to come back and bite us in the flank when the time comes."

"Me neither," Twilight muttered as she shifted her gaze down the street. The townsponies had begun to form a mob in front of the injured dragon leader, a few slinging rocks at him. "I'll be right ba--." Twilight disappeared in a flash before she finished speaking.

The startling flash at the other end compelled the mob of townsponies back from the dragons. Twilight appeared between them and the leader, her face and eyes hard on the frightened mob. Telos moved and swept the area back and forth further sending the mob back. She turned to the injured captain and looked at him just as evenly. With a burst of light from her horn, the area around the three dragons flashed, and in an instant, a barrier was placed around them.

"This will hold until we need to leave. A promise is a promise." She spun around as the crowd began talking amongst themselves with sharp tones and hushed voices. She frowned and Telos returned to her. "They can't do anything to you now, and I need them alive. They will go free whether you want them to or not, but my magic binds them for now. This is more important than any of us." Her words quelled the boiling emotions for the time being and she vanished in another flash.

She opened her eyes to the renewed shadows of the bare inn room. Rainbow Dash was struggling with removing her breastplate, the last piece of her plate mail still equipped. Her eyes were clamped shut and she grit her teeth. With a sharp grunt, she managed to remove the last of its bindings, but collapsed to the bed afterwards with a whimper. Twilight rolled her eyes and moved to the bed. Her gaze softened when she could see the color of bruises bleeding her coat a different shade, blending her torso into the darkness of the room.

"You were hit pretty hard out there. Let me help you," she offered earnestly.

"Come on, Twilight. It's nothing a little nap can't fix." Dash attempted to sit up and forced a weak smile onto her face, but Twilight scowled.

"Really, Rainbow? You got hit by a fully grown dragon. You could have some internal bleeding and broken ribs." The knight's smile withered away and Twilight gently pushed her back down onto the bed. The knight coughed, wincing once more, and wiped a small bit of blood from the corner of her mouth.

"Twilight, really. You don't have to--"

"Shh." Twilight placed her hooves just over Dash's torso, and her horn started with a soft glow. White light emanated from beneath her hooves and washed over the knight's torso in pulsing waves. Twilight closed her eyes for a few minutes and Dash's pain slipped away. She could breath in fully again and relax with the pain gone. Twilight finished and nodded, then moved to the other bed and laid down beside Trixie.

"...Thanks, Twilight," Dash whispered, her eyes on the ceiling with a slight burn on her cheeks. "I'll take better care of myself." She closed her eyes and a memory cut through her peaceful thoughts.

You need to take better care of yourself, Rainbow Dash! teased Derpy.

I'm sorry. I promise.

Twilight rubbed her temples, muttering in reply, "Get some rest." She closed her own eyes and laid in silence for a moment. I haven't used that much magic outside of training. I can't afford to fight like that in a town again if we run into too many... She sighed inwardly. I can't hold back anymore.

The faint glow of Twilight's horn illuminated the dark room, nearly overtaking the moonlight pouring in through the lone window. She focused, her mind searching through a darkness only she could navigate. Celestia... Are you there? There was a long silence as she waited for a reply. Only the rising beats of her heart and her breathing became audible beneath the veil of concentration. Celestia?

Yes, Twilight. I'm here, came the clear voice of the princess.

Twilight breathed in relief and smiled automatically. We've freed a town from a party of dragons, sparing three. They reluctantly gave us useful information in exchange for their lives. She paused, biting her lip and wondering if that was the right way to describe it. What's the situation at home? she asked quickly.

Celestia's sigh filled her mind momentarily. A dragon brought your cloak to Nightmare Moon. Twilight's heart sank. Aurelius dismissed it, but Nightmare Moon suspects something. She is hunting you, Twilight. The other four Elements have already been captured.

Twilight's heart began to race again. That's bad. Without the Elements--

I know, Twilight. I trust you will figure something out.

Celestia's words did nothing to alleviate her sudden anxiety, and she could only imagine what the corrupted alicorn had in mind for her were she to catch her. She opened her eyes and squinted in the dark to see Trixie. The magician's mouth hung open with a tendril of drool running onto her pillow. Her cowl was pulled back and Twilight stroked her silvery mane.

It's strange, though, started Celestia. Aurelius intends to keep the Elements around to remove Nightmare Moon if they cannot control her.

I don't like that... They could banish Luna along with her again.

I know, Twilight. There was another long pause, and Twilight could think of nothing more to say. Be careful. Nightmare Moon has gone to the old ruins to investigate herself. I pray that she does not pick up your trail.

Me, too. For now, we're still beneath the Brood's radar. I'll deal with Nightmare Moon when the time comes.

Get some rest, Twilight.

I will. Twilight breathed in deeply for a moment, her hoof continuing to stroke Trixie's mane. The magician mumbled and giggled in her sleep occasionally, but Twilight couldn't bring herself to smile. She stood up and moved to the window, peering out, not at the dragons, but up to the moon. Nightmare Moon will find us. There's no way she can't track my magic. She turned her head to view both Rainbow Dash and Trixie, their sleeping forms bolstering her resolve. I'll protect both of you. No matter what... I promise I'll protect you.

She moved back to her bed and laid down, pulling Trixie close. She leaned to her ear and whispered, "I promise I'll always protect you."

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