• Published 3rd May 2012
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The Powers of Harmony - CyborgSamurai



The Mane Six develop the powers of the Elements of Harmony and must use them to stop a new villain.

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Chapter 13: Glimpses of the Truth

Chapter 13:

Glimpses of the Truth

The Next Day-

Miss Twilight Sparkle-

My name is Flowing Script, and I’m the head symbologist here at the University of Stalliongrad. One of my colleagues passed along your letter inquiring as to whether we’ve any information on the Elements of Harmony, or their corresponding Symbols.

I've good news for you! I know the Symbol of Loyalty. I normally wouldn’t volunteer this information, but I’ve spoken with the head of my clan, and since you’re the Bearer of Magic, the Princess’s personal student, and are pursuing an academic goal, we’ve decided to make an exception.

You see, my ancestral grandfather served during the War of the Sun and Moon, and had the honor of belonging to a prestigious group of knights called the Order of the Zodiac. I know that the Canterlot history records are woefully lacking from that time period, so it’s understandable if you haven’t heard of them. These stallions were skilled, courageous, versatile, and led countless battles to victory against Nightmare Moon’s soldiers.

After the War, each of the Zodiac Knights was granted a boon from Princess Celestia in recognition for the services. My ancestor, Aries, requested that he be allowed to use the Symbol of Loyalty as the crest for his new clan. The Princess denied this, as she saw danger in such a thing becoming common knowledge, so she crafted a new Symbol for him instead, one that’s not the true thing, but holds faint traces of its magic.

While my ancestor understood the Princess’s reasoning, he didn’t want the origins of our crest to be forgotten, and so he committed its image to memory. He then passed the knowledge and story to his children, who then passed it down to theirs, and have continued to do so ever since.
You can be assured that there’s no danger in this. We've zealously guarded this secret over the centuries, for we too understand the potential danger the Symbol poses. The Princess is aware of my grandfather’s actions, or at least, she was at one time, and it’s likely that she’s forgotten.

Hidden on the back of this parchment is the true Symbol of Loyalty. You'll need to use a Greater Revealing spell to see it, but I've heard that you're an accomplished Abjurer, so I assume you won’t have a problem with advanced magic. I apologize for such a measure, but we feel it’s necessary in the slim chance in this letter is lost or intercepted.

I wish you luck in your thesis spell.

Flowing Script, Professor of Symbology

P.S. The Aries clan sends the Bearer of Loyalty their regards.

Twilight flipped the letter over and stared at the back, which was blank and nondescript. She snorted, then shook her head and set down the Professor’s letter.

“What’s so funny?”

Twilight glanced up at Spike, who was sitting up in the loft with Blair. Beside them was a collection of files, hammers and chisels, and before them were two blocks of wood sitting on small pedestals that looked like the beginnings of a multifaceted gem and a lotus.

“Let’s just say that some ponies are overly cautious.” Twilight walked over to the Arcana section of the library and started looking for a particular book.

Blair, who’d been carving petals out of his block of wood, watched her pull out a narrow tome with a violet bookmark in its spine. “In what way?”

“Like concealing the Symbol of Loyalty with an Illusion spell so powerful that you need a Greater Revealing spell to see it.” Twilight opened the book and browsed the table of contents. “I may as well use Truesight while I'm at it.”

Blair gave no reaction to her words. Suddenly, his carving snapped in two.

“Would you look at that,” he said in a completely normal tone. “I really was using too hard of a wood. I should’ve listened to you, Spike.”

“I told you not to use maple.” Spike looked at the ruined carving and shook his head. “ You’ll need something softer if you’re gonna do something fine and detailed like a flower. Try balsa wood or cork.”

“Lesson learned, I suppose.” Blair looked down at Twilight. “I’m going to get some more wood from the basement.”

He vanished in a teal flash before she could say anything. Twilight shrugged, then returned to the book and found the entry for Greater Revealing. She flipped to it and prepared to cast the spell, but then, a thought struck her.

“Want to run an errand, Spike?” Twilight asked.

Spike stopped carving. “What’cha need?”

Twilight smiled. “Not what. Who.”

Rainbow Dash stood at the outdoor pegasus track at Ponyville Fitness Center. It was windy today with a mild chill, and the last remnants of summer were finally giving way to the more comfortable, albeit temperamental, weather of autumn. The cloudless sky was turning dull, the sun had finished its descent, and the only ponies around were the diehards that frequented the place like clockwork.

Rainbow stood on the grass inside the oval track wearing a Wonderbolts cap and a silver whistle, and beside her was a device that looked like a fan with a meter on the side. She looked down the track to see Esra and Tastar, the latter of which in a crouching position at the starting point for the five hundred meter dash. She couldn't see the details of his form at this distance, but she trusted that he was as ready as her.

All right, I remembered the anemometer today. Let's see what they can do. Rainbow took a deep breath, and blew the whistle as hard as she could.

Tastar took off down the track in response. He blasted towards her, and the grasses were blown back by the force of his acceleration. The disturbance increased as he picked up speed, and as he came into focus, she saw that he was gritting his teeth and flapping his wings as hard as he could. He sped past Rainbow, and following his wake was a faint roar that resonated in her eardrums. She looked down at the spinning anemometer, which was slowly coming to a stop.

Fourteen point-nine. Not bad, not bad at all. Rainbow turned to see Tastar panting for breath and circling around back to her. He stuck his head over her shoulder to see if he could catch a glimpse of the reading, but she covered it with one hoof, cleared it, and made a reproachful tsk-ing sound.

“No peeking.”

A mischievous grin formed on Tastar’s lips. “I’ll see it one of these times.”

“Low numbers like this are nothing.” Rainbow winked at him. “I'll let you see it when you get out of the teens.”

Tastar laughed. “You know, most ponies consider ten wingpower to be the ultimate goal.”

“Most ponies aren't supposed to be protecting me.” Rainbow hovered in the air and crossed her hooves. “Answer me this. If something happened right now, would you be able to handle it better than me?”

Tastar put a hoof to his chin, and looked up in mock contemplation.

Rainbow landed and gave him an earnest smile. “I just want you and Esra to be the best you can be, that’s all. And believe me when I say you both still have room for improvement.”

“Don’t we all.” Tastar flicked his eyes down the track, where a light red dot was now waiting at the starting line. “Speaking of which...”

Rainbow followed his gaze and sighed. “Yeah, I suppose we should bring him down here.”

“I'm sorry you guys can't get along,” Tastar said. “You're a lot alike, to be honest.”

“That's the problem,” Rainbow said dryly. “If somepony showed up that blew me out of the water in everything I thought I was good at, I wouldn't like them much, either.”

Tastar’s reply was drowned out by Rainbow's whistle.

Esra took off like a bullet. They watched as he zoomed towards them, the grass blowing back in reaction to his speed, much like it had for Tastar. The wind flickered at the halfway point, and his features gained definition and shape. They could now see his mouth was open in a scream. Rainbow dug in her hooves, covered her ears, and Esra shot past the both of them, the roar accompanying him an instant later.

Rainbow remembered herself and shooed Tastar away, who was lingering around with a peculiar look in his eyes. His ears drooped as he realized his plan had been foiled. When she was sure he was away, she looked down at the anemometer, which had already recorded Esra’s reading.

Fifteen point-four. These guys are improving faster than I thought! They say that amateurs soak up the exertion like a sponge during the first six months of working out, but I figured their bodies would already be used to training. Heh, if they're showing this kind of improvement after only three weeks, they’ll be in the twenties by the end of the year! Too bad that still musses up my plans… oh well, one thing at a time, I suppose.

Esra was standing in the middle of the track some distance away from them. Rainbow motioned to Tastar, and they flew over to him. Esra looked up as they approached, but was too winded to say anything.

Rainbow fought to keep down the condescending smirk that she found herself wearing so often when she was around him. It's not like I want to flaunt the fact I'm better; it’s just that he's just so plothurt about it, I can't help but give him grief. If he just accepted it like Tastar, we'd get along fine.

Rainbow hid her emotions behind a stoic mask and addressed both of them. “You're getting better. Nowhere near where I want you to be, but definitely a good start.”

Esra had regained his breath enough to snort. “Oh, really? And where exactly would you like us to be?”

Rainbow's lips twitched. “In a perfect world, I'd want you to do everything I can. Since that's not going to happen, though, I want you to get as close as you can.”

Esra scoffed. “So you’re expecting us to climb a mountain with the full knowledge that we'll never get to the top.”

“Oh, come on, I thought you liked a challenge.” Tastar nudged him. “There's no reason to stop if we haven't hit our limits.”

“You know, it's not easy for me to coddle you like this,” Rainbow said to Esra. “You’ve no idea what I'm sacrificing to work with you like this.”

“Sacrificing?” Tastar echoed. “What are you talking about?”

Rainbow regarded him with conflicted eyes. You know? I'd tell him. Not like I'm gonna change my plans at this point, but I'm kinda curious to see what he thinks. I'd rather confide in a rock over Esra, but if I hold back just for the sake of snubbing him, it’s more punishing to me than him.

Rainbow cleared her throat. “I'm not satisfied with being a weatherpony. I never wanted to do this in the first place, truth be told. I've had some long-term plans set in motion for a while now, and you guys coming here has set them back.”

“In what way?” Esra asked. “What other professions are there for pegasi around here?”

Rainbow took off her Wonderbolts cap and held it up to her eyes.“None that I'm interested in... which is why I'm going to bring the profession to me.”

Tastar tilted his head to look at the cap, and his lips parted as a slow smile started to build on his face. “What're you insinuating?”

A hungry look appeared in Rainbow eyes. “I’m going to­­—“

“Rainbow!”

All three of them turned to see Spike running towards them from the direction of the Fitness Center. He waved to them as he approached.

Esra did a double take. “Is that what I think it is?!”

Tastar put a hoof on his shoulder. “It’s fine. He lives with the Bearer of Magic.”

Esra cringed. He took a step closer to his partner and lowered his voice. “Are you okay?”

Tastar leaned to the side and spoke out of the corner of his mouth. “Why wouldn’t I be? I’ve known about Spike since he hatched in Canterlot ten years a—“

“What are you two whispering about?”

Rainbow’s chin was lowered as she looked at them through her eyelashes. She glanced at Spike, who was almost to them. “You got a problem with him or something?”

Tastar shook his head. “It's not—”

“I was hoping I’d find you here!” Spike ran around Esra and Tastar and went straight to Rainbow. He stopped in front of her, then paused to catch his breath.

Rainbow’s gaze lingered on the two guards for a moment longer, but she then shifted her attention to Spike. “Hey, sport. What’cha need?”

Spike straightened and grinned. “Twilight thinks she’s found the Symbol of Loyalty! She wants you to come over so you can check it.”

Oh, really? This oughta be good. I'm surprised, though, she sounded really unsure when she told me and Pinkie about this last Sunday. Maybe she got a lucky break or something? Rainbow raised her eyebrows. “Sure. You want a ride back?”

Spike’s posture slackened in response. His pupils filled his eyes, and he gave her a look of pure, innocent longing.

Rainbow chuckled. “I’ll take that as a yes.” She put a gentle hoof on his shoulder and turned him around so that she could examine his scaly back. It was still smooth and flat, interrupted only by his spines.

Spike lowered his head. “Still nothing, I know.”

Poor kid. Too bad we have no idea when his wings are gonna come in. They will, though, it’s just a matter of time. Rainbow crouched so Spike could get on her back. “Don’t worry, you’ll get ‘em. And then you’ll get to learn the joys of proper wing maintenance!”

Spike climbed aboard and got settled. “You’re still gonna give me flying lessons, right?”

“Either me or Fluttershy.” Rainbow put her cap on Spike's head. “It’ll depend on what kind of wings you have.”

“We’re going to the library?” Tastar interrupted.

“Yeah.” Rainbow trotted past him and Esra, and spread her wings for take-off. “Don’t think you’re off the hook, though.”

Twilight was writing out a complex calculation for her array on the chalkboard when she was rudely interrupted by the door slamming open with a bang. She whipped around to see Spike, who was leaning against the doorframe wearing a Wonderbolts cap with his eyes half-closed. On his face was the goofiest smile she’d ever seen.

“Found… Rainbow.” Spike staggered in like he was drunk.

Twilight dropped the chalk and sprinted over to him. “Are you all right?!” She looked up him and down for any signs of injury. “What happened?!”

Spike’s glazed eyes slowly met hers. “Gave me… ride.” His eyes crept up to the ceiling. “So much sky…”

Twilight picked Spike up in her aura and set him on the table. He swayed back and forth, continuing to gaze upward with a look of awe.

“Not enough… more... want wings…”

Twilight got goosebumps from seeing him in such a dazed state. “Snap out of it!” She put a hoof on his shoulder and shook him.

“Free...” Spike’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. He fell onto her shoulder, and the hat softly fluttered to the floor.

Twilight stood stock still as she supported his limp form, and it was then that she heard the sounds of other ponies at the door. She turned to see Rainbow, who was holding a hoof to her face to suppress her snickering. Her two guards stood just behind her.

Twilight glared at her and gestured to Spike. “What did you do to him?!”

Rainbow flexed her wings. “I gave him a taste of things to come.”

Twilight laid Spike down on the table and opened his eyes to see if they were dilated. “You took him flying?! Ugh, Rainbow, he’s still just a baby!”

“I was gonna go easy, honest.” She walked in and over to Twilight. “The minute we took off though, he got giddy and started egging me on. His excitement was kinda contagious, and I might’ve gone a little overboard.”

“A little?!” Twilight gestured to Spike’s unconscious form. “He looks like he’s been drugged!”

“Drugged on euphoria, maybe!” She giggled and she examined Spike, who was still wearing the same goofy smile as he lay spread-eagled on the table. “That’s one happy dragon.”

Twilight stepped away from Spike and spoke in a sharp tone. “I really wish you hadn’t done this. Now he’s going to be being to go flying every chance he gets!”

Rainbow met her friend’s eyes. “This was going to happen sooner or later, Twi. Spike wouldn't be acting like this if he didn’t have the sky in his blood.”

“I know that,” Twilight said. “I just don't want him trying to go out in the hot air balloon by himself, or even worse, bugging you or Fluttershy for rides.”

Rainbow picked up her hat and set it on the table. “I've already promised I'll teach him when his wings grow in. I don't see the harm in giving him a sneak peek.”

Twilight turned back to Spike, who was still out cold. She levitated him up to the loft, and placed him in his basket. “I guess we'll have to see when he wakes up.”

Rainbow motioned at Esra and Tastar, who were looking around the library. “You’ve met them, haven’t you?”

Twilight searched her memory. “Tastar, was it? I haven’t met the other one.”

Rainbow leaned in close and whispered in Twilight’s ear. “You're better off that way.”

“Is Blair around?” Tastar asked.

“Up here.”

Blair waved at them from his usual spot up in the loft. Tastar gave him a casual salute, then turned to Rainbow. “We’ll be up there.”

She nodded and watched him walk up the stairs. Esra politely bowed to Twilight before following him.

“So Spike said you found my Symbol,” Rainbow said to Twilight.

“Yep! Well, pretty sure, anyway.” Twilight was clearing off a stack of books off the table to make room.

“Where'd you find it?”

“A professor at Stalliongrad University happened to know it.” Twilight motioned to a piece of parchment on the table. On it was a drawing of a backwards ‘Z,’ with two dots and a diagonal slash like a lightning bolt through the center.

Rainbow picked up the parchment and tilted it back and forth. “Looks pretty cool. I’m not feeling anything, though.”

Twilight took a few steps away from Rainbow and stood beside the chalkboard. “I didn't feel anything with the Symbol of Magic until I cast a spell on it. I'm going to do that now.”

“Gotcha.” The paper became encased in Twilight’s magic, and hovered in midair just before Rainbow.

“You ready?” Twilight asked.

Rainbow took a deep breath and steadied herself. “Yep.”

“Here we go.” Twilight cast the Identification spell.

The lines of the Symbol of Loyalty flickered, then pulsed faintly. Rainbow jolted as a match was ignited in her core, and she squinted and leaned forward. The Symbol turned bright red in response.

What the—I know this feeling… where from, though?

It was like the Symbol was calling to her from the end of a long hallway. The burning sensation inside her didn’t get any stronger, but it was still there, familiar and tantalizing. Rainbow unconsciously took a step forward.

That’s riiiiight, it was at the castle in the Everfree. Twilight was alone with Nightmare Moon, and I was running up the stairs with the others.

Rainbow took another step forward, as if she was being drawn forward by a magnet. Her lips parted as the memories continued.

There was a loud cracking sound as we got to the top of the stairs. We ran into a big room, and saw that Nightmare Moon had destroyed the Elements. We all ran to Twilight to try to help her, and as we did, I started to feel hot, like I was running a fever. I thought Nightmare Moon was doing something to us, so I tried to resist it. It only got worse though, and I felt hotter and hotter. It didn’t make me feel sick of sluggish, though, it made me feel stronger, more energetic, more... alive. I wasn't about to question it, so I just kept running.

The Symbol of Loyalty flared brightly as its Bearer approached. Rainbow's heartbeat slowed, and her eyes became unfocused.

The world slowed down as I ran. The outlines of things seemed to blend and pulse. The Element of Loyalty appeared around my neck, and suddenly, the heat turned into an inferno. My vision became tinged with red, and I became aware of everything around me. The girls, the ruined castle, the forest beyond, and most of all, Nightmare Moon. I’ll never forget seeing her then, for in that instant, I saw her for what she truly was: A poor, ravaged creature possessed by her own hatred, bitterness, and sorrow. It was wrong. I pitied her. I wanted to help her. She was so far gone, though, that there was only one thing that I could do.

Rainbow’s face was inches away from the parchment. She blinked, and the light of the Symbol of Loyalty became reflected in her eyes.

Cleanse her in righteous fire.

“Rainbow!”

Twilight’s voice registered in Rainbow’s mind, and she realized the tip of her nose was almost pressed against the parchment. She shook her head and backed away.

“I called your name three times.” Twilight had a giant grin on her face. “You looked like you were hypnotized.”

Rainbow took one more look at the Symbol, then dragged herself away and turned to Twilight. “This is the real deal.”

Twilight leaned forward, her eyes glued to her friend. “Did it make you feel something?”

Rainbow looked at her with a deadpan expression.“Nah, I just really like the smell of paper.”

Twilight giggled. “I got a really vivid memory of when we were back in the Forest and used the Elements. Did you get something like that, too?”

Rainbow nodded. “Felt like I went back in time.”

“Good enough for me!” Twilight made a sketch of the Symbol of Loyalty on her chalkboard beside the Symbol of Magic. “Two down, four to go.”

The burning feeling was gone. Rainbow tossed her mane, trying to shake clear the remnants of the magic. “So some random professor in Stalliongrad just happened to know what my Symbol was, eh? What's the deal with that?”

Twilight finished her sketch and turned back to Rainbow. “It's something like a family heirloom to his clan, apparently. From his letter, it sounded like he went through some trouble to convince them to show it to me. I'll have to send him a thank you.”

Rainbow cocked her head. “Why wouldn't they want to show it to you?”

Twilight opened her mouth to reply, but then reconsidered. Instead, she looked up to the loft instead to see the three guards in quiet conversation.

“Hey, Blair?”

The three of them paused. Esra and Tastar turned their attention to the windows beyond, and Blair turned to Twilight and Rainbow.

“Yes?”

“You’ve read about the War of the Sun and Moon, right?”

Blair nodded. “I’ve spent more time researching it than any other. It’s one of my favorite battles in history.”

“Have you ever heard of the Order of the Zodiac?”

Esra and Tastar had their backs turned, so she didn’t see their expressions. Blair pursed his lips and looked up at the ceiling, then clucked his tongue and looked down at her.

“Yes, I have.”

Twilight sat on her haunches. “What do you know about them?”

“They were an elite group of knights that served directly under Princess Celestia during the war.”
Blair put away the book he was holding and walked down the stairs. “They played a key role in many victorious battles, and saved untold lives by defending the citizens of Canterlot from Nightmare Moon’s forces.”

Rainbow lowered her eyes for a moment before speaking up. “So they were like, generals, or something?”

Blair shook his head. “More like Special Operatives. Their talents and skill sets were varied, each of them uniquely suited for different kinds of situations.”

Twilight wrinkled her brow. “Such as?”

“I wish I knew.” Blair regarded the newly drawn Symbol of Loyalty on the chalkboard. “The texts I've found only say that the Princess was reluctant to use the Zodiac Knights. They don’t say why.”

“How many were there?” Rainbow asked.

Blair’s eyes flickered. “Twelve.”

“Interesting,” Twilight said. “I might have to ask the Princess about them sometime.”

“She could probably give you more information,” Blair agreed. “What brought this up, though?”

Twilight motioned to the parchment. “One of Zodiac Knights wanted to use the Symbol of Loyalty as the crest for his clan. The Princess made a new crest for him instead, but he wanted his line to know its origins, so he memorized the Symbol and showed it to his family, and they’ve passed it down in secret ever since.”

“Is that so?” Blair rubbed his chin. “I never actually knew that. Do you happen to know the name of the clan?”

“Aries.” Twilight hovered the letter to him so he could examine the postscript.

From above, Esra began to whistle terribly off-key.

Blair’s face was stoic as he looked at the letter. “I see.”

Twilight studied his reaction. “Have you heard that name before?”

Blair shook his head and returned the parchment to her. “I was just curious. I don’t think I’ll be going to Stalliongrad any time soon, but I’ll have to touch base with them sometime. It might be interesting to compare notes.”

“Maybe I can ask them more about their ancestor when I write them my thank-you letter,” Twilight said. “The more I hear about the War of the Sun and Moon, the more I don’t like that the Canterlot records are so incomplete. Why hasn’t the Princess gotten copies of the history records from other cities?”

“Maybe she just doesn’t like being reminded of it?” Blair suggested. “It wasn’t exactly one of her greatest moments in history, remember.”

Twilight looked at the floor. “This doesn’t seem right. It’s almost like she’s hiding something.”

“Not my place to say,” Blair said with a shrug. “You probably know her better than me.”

Twilight said nothing. She stared out the entrance window, and realized with a start that the sun had set. “I forgot it’s so late.” She turned to Rainbow. “Thanks for stopping by to check this for me.”

“No problem.” Rainbow flipped her cap on her head and started for the door. “You’ll be at Applejack’s for Granny Smith’s party on Friday, right?”

“I was planning on it.” Twilight’s ears twitched as she heard the sound of the upstairs balcony door closing. “Between you and Blair, I’m sure I’ll get there.”

Blair chuckled and went back up to the loft. “Hopefully without any kicking and screaming.”

Rainbow concentrated on improving flexibility in the evenings, and she had discovered that the best way to do that was through yoga. Esra seemed to have some experience with this, but Tastar had trouble accepting the validity of the exercises. However, when both of them explained to him that it would greatly relieve the soreness of his muscles, he did it without complaint.

The three of them now stood in Rainbow’s living room. It was normally filled with three chairs and a coffee table, but the furniture had been moved to the sides to make space. The chairs were stacked beside a small two-shelved bookcase in the corner, which was filled with books on nutrition, fitness, meteorology, and one book that had the title had been scratched out. Framed, colorful posters of the Wonderbolts hung on the walls that depicted a different championship won by the team, and a massive display case stood proudly against front wall, completely filled with Rainbow’s impressive collection of first place trophies from various competitions.

“So uh, Rainbow,” Tastar said. He was bent down into a push-up position. “About what we were talking about before—”

“Oh, yeah!” Rainbow was lying on her back with one of her back legs raised into the air. “What's your guys' deal with Spike? You didn't seem to like him or something.”

“He didn’t mean that.” Esra said, noticing that Tastar was grinding his teeth. “He meant about what you’re sac—“

Rainbow silenced him with a piercing glare, then turned back to Tastar. “Come on, what’s the deal? He may be a dragon, but he’s just a kid.”

“Kid isn’t the correct term—” Tastar abruptly cut himself off and clamped his mouth shut.

Rainbow raised an eyebrow as she turned onto her stomach and pushed up the front half of her body. “Isn’t the correct what now?”

“Careful, Rainbow,” Esra said as he bent himself backwards in a table shape. “You’ve no idea what you’re getting into.”

And you‘ve no idea how much I hate it when ponies hide stuff from me. Rainbow rolled her eyes. “Care to enlighten me, then?”

Tastar whimpered and pressed his mouth into a thin line. He then went over to the wall and did a hoofstand on his elbows, his back legs twitching as he precariously balanced himself.

Esra watched his partner through the corner of his eye. “Tastar’s... somewhat knowledgeable about dragons. He tries not talk about it because he understands others don’t share his enthusiasm.”

“You know about dragons?!” Rainbow got up from her pose and went over to him. “Cool! Maybe you can answer a question, then.”

Tastar’s face was turning red, though whether it was from the blood rushing to his head, or from trying not to say anything was debatable.

“I… can… try,” he managed.

Rainbow looked to the ceiling. “It’s about Spike. Although you may not know because I doubt I have enough info. I mean, I don’t even know what kind of dragon Spike is. “

“Amethy—ahh!”

Rainbow looked down at Tastar. He'd tried to cover his mouth with a hoof, and had fallen flat onto his face. He now lay on the floor in a heap, with his face still pressed against the floor.

She tried not to laugh and bent down to help him up. “What was that?”

Tastar pulled his face out of the cloud and met Rainbow’s eyes. She was staring at him with a friendly, inquisitive smile on her face, yet there was a subtle note of command in her voice that told him that she wasn’t going to accept anything but the truth.

Tastar gulped and mumbled something in a voiceless whisper.

Rainbow leaned forward. “Didn’t catch that.”

Tastar’s face turned red again. His entire head shuddered as he tried to keep silent, but it was a rapidly losing battle. His head twtiched like a bird as the pressure built to unstable levels

Esra sighed and plugged his ears.

“Here we go…”

Tastar opened his mouth, took an enormous breath, and began to speak like an auctioneer.

“Spike’s an Amethyst dragon halfway through the Wyrmling stage of his lifecycle. Amethysts are longer lived than most dragons but this is speculated upon simply because the race as a whole tends to live out their early years amongst the civilized races and more of them are allowed to reach maturity. He’s of normal height and weight has above average magical ability and his mental acuity is developing at a normal rate. He’s shown no signs of any illness or birth defects known of to the magical races. Amethyst dragons are unique in that they’ve been used by magi for thousands of years as familiars the reason for this being that they can become attuned to their master’s magic. In doing so the two parties form a link between their magical fonts. This has a wide variety of advantages and Amethyst parents will often times donate at least one egg from every clutch they produce to one of the magical races. Spike was hatched ten years ago by Twilight and serves as her familiar, but he’s magically bound to Celestia so that he may transfer messages back and forth between them.”

Rainbow’s mouth had gone slack around the third sentence, and by the time Tastar had finished, she was staring at him like she was meeting him for the first time.

Mother of Celestia… he’s the Twilight of dragon knowledge.

Tastar panted and he stared at the ground. “That felt good... okay, does that answer your question?”

Rainbow shook her head clear. “Actually, no.”

Tastar blinked. “Really? Because I can go into more detail—”

“Sun and Moon, let me talk.”

Tastar’s ears drooped, but he nodded and clamped his mouth shut again.

Rainbow moved back to the middle of the room and went into the stretching pose she’d been in before. “When will Spike’s wings come in?”

“Amethysts develop their wings when they reach the Young Adult stage of their lifecycle,” Tastar said immediately. “He’ll get them in a decade, give or take a year or two.”

Rainbow nodded and maintained a stoic expression. “Okay, next question.”

“Shoot.”

Rainbow leapt up into the air, and pointed both her forehooves at him. “How the bucking hay do you know all that?!”

Tastar laughed and sat on his haunches. “It’s part of my job.”

Rainbow watched him with a critical eye as he started to bend forward as far as he could. Recognizing the new pose she’d taught him the previous day, she landed and gently pushed him farther forward. “What do you mean?”

Tastar maintained his posture. “I’m a Dragoon.”

Rainbow paused. “Is that your rank or something?”

“It’s a kind of specialist.” Esra sat down beside Tastar and imitated his pose. “Dragoons specialize in tactics for fighting very large enemies, like hydras, ursas, manticores, rocs and of course, dragons.”

Never heard of them before. Then again, I’ve never been all that interested in the military. Too many freaking rules. Satisfied that they were both doing the pose right, she sat on the other side of Tastar and joined them. “So you know all that so you can fight them?”

Tastar nodded. “If there’s one mantra I live by, it’s ‘Know Thine Enemy.’”

Rainbow bent forward until her head touched the ground. Her flexibility was impressive, but having her face pressed into the floor had the side effect of muffling her voice. “Wait, enemy? Do you hate dragons?”

Tastar’s eyes flickered. “Only one, and that’s ancient history. No point in holding a grudge against the dead, after all.”

Rainbow leaned back, raised her legs, and positioned her body into a ‘V’ shape. “You have my attention.”

Tastar rested his head on his knee, wincing as he felt his back muscles stretch out. “I was born in a mixed race village at the foot of the Drakkenridge Mountains outside of Equestria to the northeast. When I was a yearling, a dragon named Kyneatoralqu committed an unprovoked attack against the village, and only I and a few others survived. My family wasn’t among them.”

I’m not even going to try to pronounce that name. Sucks about his family and village, though. Rainbow said nothing and concentrated on maintaining her position.

“I was brought to Canterlot to live in an orphanage,” Tastar continued, “which was where I met Esra. We got along right away, and things were uneventful until I turned ten.”

They’re both orphans? Rainbow turned to Esra. “What happened then?”

“Matron told him how he lost his parents.” Esra sighed. “I still don’t think she should’ve done it that early.”

Tastar’s voice was calm and practiced. “I had a right to know. If she hadn’t told me, I would’ve found out on my own.”

Esra lay on his left side and raised his front and back legs. “Tastar devoted himself to learning everything he could about dragons when learned that a dragon was responsible for the destruction of his village: their strengths, weaknesses, psychology, lifecycles, anatomy, culture, law, language, anything he could get his hooves on.”

Rainbow turned to Tastar. “Why?”

Tastar was lying on his stomach, and his body was bent back so that it resembled a bow. “Two reasons. The first was that I always had trouble concentrating in school, but for some reason, anything to do with dragons keeps my attention and holds it in a vicegrip. I was borderline obsessed for a while.”

“You learned to read, write, and speak in Draconic,” Esra said flatly. “There was nothing borderline about it.”

Tastar raised his chin. “That’s come in handy and you know it.”

“It’s unnatural.” Esra got to his knees, leaned back, then touched his forehooves to his back ones. “Ponies shouldn’t be able to make those kinds of sounds.”

Rainbow gave Tastar a sidelong glance. “Never heard Draconic before. Can you say something?”

Tastar released his pose and lay prone on the ground. He was silent for a few seconds, then he made a guttural, gnashing, hissing sound that had somehow had discernible syllables laced into it.

Creepy… Rainbow shuddered. “Okay, that’s enough.”

Esra chuckled. “Told you.”

Rainbow balanced herself on her forehooves and lifted her back legs. “So what was the other reason?”

Tastar rolled onto his back to rest for a moment. “Revenge. After school, I left Equestria and traveled to Drakkenridge. I made contact with the peaceful dragons in Shearwind, the capitol, and it was there I learned that Kyneatoralqu was an outcast that succumbed to savagery, which was why he’d committed the attack in the first place. Such a thing is rare, but still occurs from time to time.”

Tastar sat back up and looked at Rainbow. “Since the incident happened in Drakkenridge, it was subject to Draconic law. According to which, if an act of unprovoked slaughter is committed, the perpetrator’s fate may be decided by the surviving kin. I invoked this law, and challenged Kyneatoralqu to one-on-one combat.”

Rainbow almost lost her balance, and had to open her wings to steady herself. “You challenged a full-grown dragon to a fight?!”

“Not full-grown,” Tastar corrected. “As far as dragon lifecycles go, Kyneatoralqu was about the equivalent of your age. Still, that put him at roughly five times my size.”

“Closer to six, from what I recall,” Esra said.

Rainbow released her pose. “You were there, too?”

Esra grunted in affirmation. “The law also states that there must be at least one witness present from each race involved. I met with Tastar in Shearwind when he found Kyneatoralqu, and we went to face him together.”

Didn’t realize these guys were so close. I might actually want to get to know Esra if he wasn’t such a pain in the flank. Rainbow nodded. “So what happened?”

Tastar looked away. “I won.”

That’s it? He won? They tell me all the details leading up to it and nothing about the actual fight? Rainbow lowered her chin. “You’re hiding something.”

Tastar didn't reply and stared at the wall.

“Oh, for Celestia’s sake,” Esra said to Tastar. “You’ve told her this much, just tell her everything. Don’t shy away from the unpleasant parts.”

Tastar made a dismissive noise. “Fine, you tell her.”

Esra spoke to Rainbow in steady tone as he rose to his hooves. “The fight lasted three seconds. Kyneatoralqu charged, Tastar jumped out of the way, and as he did, he drove a spear right through the bastard’s heart. Poor beast was dead before he even hit the ground.”

Three seconds?! That’s gotta be some kind of record! Rainbow felt her skin tingling as she looked at Tastar. “How’d you—“

“Ruby dragons won’t breathe fire in their lairs because it’ll consume all the oxygen and they’ll suffocate,” Tastar said in a monotone. “They try to take off when threatened and attack from the air, but if they can’t, they charge through their opponents, trampling and or crushing them as they get to a spot for take-off. They don’t have any real weak spots, but dragons are similar to ponies in regards to location of internal organs, and any weapon made from Lunairium will pierce their scales. Kyneatoralqu was in a cramped cave, so I knew he was gonna try to run me over and take to the air, and the spear I used had a Lunairium tip. It was just a matter of getting out of the way in time.”

Esra nudged him. “Go on, tell her what happened after.”

Tastar shot him a reproachful glare. “She doesn’t need to know that.”

Esra laughed. “Of course she does! It’s the whole reason why you became a Dragoon!”

And now you’ve piqued my curiosity. Rainbow crossed her forehooves and looked at Tastar with a wrinkled brow.

Tastar sighed and looked at the floor. “I stood there for a few seconds, waiting for him to get back up, or roar, or breathe flame, or anything. I thought it was a trick of some kind at first, but Rubies don't like to hide or use underhanded tactics. It wasn’t until I saw the pool of blood spreading beneath him that the realization hit me, and when it did... I blacked out. I honestly don't remember anything else."

“Fortunately, I do,” Esra said. “He ran to Kyneatoralqu’s body, stripped off the scales, then chopped it to bits and drenched himself in its blood. He then cut off the head and pulled out all the teeth, all the while screaming in a mixture of Equestrian and Draconic. It was one of the most horrifying, depraved things I’ve ever seen, and it haunted my nightmares for months.”

That’s… going a little far. Rainbow’s stomach wobbled as her lower lip started to curl, but she quickly put it back into place.

Tastar sat down on his haunches. “Needless to say, I scared off the witness for Kyneatoralqu with my display of brutality. He informed the other peaceful dragons of what happened, and while they accepted my punishment of Kyneatoralqu, they condemned the desecration of his corpse. Normally such a thing is punishable by banishment, but as this was a special case, they instead sentenced me to join the Equestrian military.”

So they didn’t like what he did eith—wait, what? Rainbow frowned. “How’s joining another country’s military a punishment? Aren’t they worried that you’re going to... I don’t know, turn around and use your skills and knowledge against them, or something?”

Tastar gave her a funny look. “You’re not much for history, are you?”

Rainbow shrugged. “Not really. I’ve got my hooves full worrying about the present and the future.”

Tastar suppressed a cringe as he watched Rainbow bend all the way back and tilt her spine in the opposite direction. “The last war the Equestrian military fought in was against itself. That was the schism that occurred during the War of the Sun and Moon, and it’s been even longer since we’ve had an armed conflict with another country. The Dromedary Empire was the last one to pick a fight with us, and that was almost fifteen hundred years ago.”

“Which, coincidentally, was also when the Zhojia Mitfa was made,” Esra said with a dark snicker.

Rainbow was quiet. She wasn’t one for history, true, but geography was a subject all pegasi had a knack for, and even if it wasn’t, there weren’t many ponies who didn’t know of the infamous Desert of Glass.

“Ponies and dragons haven’t come to blows in millennia,” Tastar explained. “We’ve never exactly been buddy-buddy with each other, but the worst we’ve ever done is cut off trade for a few decades here and there. They saw me joining the military as kind of like doing community service, and figured it’d help me learn some discipline.”

Community service, ha! That’s about all they amount to these days, isn’t it? Must be dull to be in the military during peacetime. I guess I shouldn’t complain, though, considering the alternative. Rainbow tilted her head to him and supported herself on her elbows. “One last question.”

“Sure.”

“Why’d you flip out after you killed Kin-ee-at—“ Rainbow stuck out her tongue and tried again. “Why’d you flip out after you killed the dragon that destroyed your village?”

Esra put on the sneer she’d come to associate him with. “How would you feel if you’d spent your entire life preparing yourself for something that was over in three seconds?”

Rainbow ignored him. She unbent herself and sat on the floor, her eyes not leaving Tastar’s face.

Tastar finally looked up at her with lightless eyes. “I expected to die in that fight. Revenge was everything that drove me up to that point, and I hadn’t thought about anything beyond it. The more I learned about dragons, the more I respected them, because it seemed like they were so powerful and deadly. I thought there was no way I’d be able to beat Kyneatoralqu, but I wanted to at least put up a fight, so kept learning more and more.”

Tastar’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I wound up turning myself into the perfect dragonslayer, but what I realized was that Kyneatoralqu wasn’t the perfect dragon. He was a barely-sentient, malnourished, savage beast, and while he was still certainly dangerous, he wasn’t the terrifying, ruthless killing machine I imagined him to be. He didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Tartarus against me with the knowledge I’d gained, and the time I’d had to prepare.”

He jerked his head to the side. “I’d had my next dozen moves planned, and he goes and falls to the first strike? It was pathetic. It felt so cheap and hollow, what the hell did I spend ten years of my life for? I’d expected more, wanted more, and it was over so quick that it felt like I hadn’t gotten my revenge at all.”

So he took it out on what was left of the dude. Talk about a letdown. I guess I don’t blame him for it, and it sounds like the other dragons didn’t really, either, but then again, they might’ve been a little afraid of him. Rainbow grabbed a towel from the coffee table and wiped off her face. “Have you been around other adult dragons since?”

Tastar nodded. “I have a few friends in the Shearwind court I keep in touch with, and I’m well-known amongst the dragons of Drakkenridge in general. I’ve even been asked to act as an interpreter a few times when one of them has come to Canterlot. I’ve no problem with Spike, either. If anything, I’ve kinda been keeping an eye out for him.”

Rainbow thought back to the torrent of information he'd spewed at her. Now that she considered, some of it had seemed oddly… specific. She stared hard at Tastar.

“Have you been stalking him?”

“Of course not!” Tastar said. “I mean, yeah, I saw him every so often when he lived in the palace, but…”

For the first time, Rainbow consulted Esra instead of Tastar. “Has he?”

Esra groaned. “So this is why you always wanted to guard the West Tower. Just had to get your fix, eh?”

Tastar rubbed his neck. “Oh, give me a break.”

The three of them finished the exercises and began putting Rainbow’s furniture back. Tastar picked up one of her cloud chairs and set it on the wall where it had been, and as he did, one of the many posters of the Wonderbolts caught his eye. He turned back to Rainbow, who’d just finished moving the coffee table.

“So now will you tell us?”

Rainbow gave the coffee table one final adjustment. “About my plans that are getting screwed up because of you guys?”

Tastar laughed. “Do they have to do with the Wonderbolts, by any chance?”

Rainbow straightened and looked at the posters around her living room. Each one was a picture of six pegasi in blue jumpsuits and goggles, flying in formation in the sky and leaving trails of smoke in their wake. Below was always a stadium of some kind, filled to the brim with ponies watching in awe.

She brushed her mane out of her face. “What gave you that impression?”

“I dunno,” Tastar said, his eyes dancing. “Just a hunch.”

Esra collapsed into one of the chairs. “Have you tried out?”

“No.” Rainbow’s eyes were still focused on the posters. “And I’m not going to.”

Tastar frowned. “Why not? You’d be a shoo-in with your abilities.”

“Because I don’t want to start at the bottom.” Rainbow went over to her favorite chair and sat down. “I don’t have a problem with being on a team, but I’ve never felt like that’s the path I was meant to take with this. My goals are a little…loftier.”

Esra raised his chin. “What’s a higher honor than being a member of the Wonderbolts?”

Rainbow smirked. “Being their Captain, of course.”

Both the guards blinked. They stared at her for a few seconds, checking to see if there was any indication of jest. There was none. Rainbow wore the same smirk they’d seen a few weeks previous when they’d asked her about leadership.

Tastar was the first to speak. “I-I’m sure that you don’t need to go that far. You’d become the Captain regardless if you were on the team long enough.”

Rainbow laughed. “Probably, but that’s not what I want.”

Esra leaned forward. “Why?”

She sized him up. “You know where the Wonderbolts are based out of, right?”

Esra nodded. “Manehatten.”

“Do you know why?”

Esra shrugged. “Never thought there was a reason behind it.”

“Of course there is,” Rainbow said patiently. “You’d think that they’d be based out of Canterlot, Cloudsdale, or some other city that has importance to Equestria, right? That’s never been the case, though, and the reason why is because the Captain of the Wonderbolts gets to decide where the Headquarters is.”

Tastar looked at the fiery-maned pegasus in the center of the formation in the Wonderbolts poster. “Spitfire’s from Manehatten, isn’t she?”

“Born and raised,” Rainbow said. “Not that I blame her or anything for it.”

“So you want to become Captain so you can relocate the Wonderbolts Headquarters… here?”

Rainbow nodded. “The only thing I don’t like about here is my job, and it’s not worth it to throw away all the good things I have in an attempt to fix that. The Wonderbolts go on tour a lot, yeah, but it wouldn’t be so bad if I knew I was coming back to Ponyville each time.”

“So you want to have your cake and eat it too,” Esra said. He put on his best sneer and gave her a mocking bow. “How noble.”

Rainbow’s ears flattened against her head. More like I don’t want to leave my friends, you moron. Does he think that I’m selfish for being able to see that dealing with my job is better than leaving everything I know and love behind and starting over? I like to take risks, yeah, but I’m happy here, and I’ve all the time in the world to make myself good enough for the Wonderbolts to ask me to be their Captain. I can’t go to them, so I’ve gotta make them come to me.

Tastar cleared his throat as he felt the tension in the air rising. “How are you gonna impress them, then?”

Rainbow stared for a moment longer at Esra before continuing. “Like I said back on the track, I’ve had this plan set in motion for a while now. I started with three goals—one of which I’ve already made, the second I’m extremely close to, and the last I haven’t started.

“The first was to work on my stamina,” Rainbow said. “I’ve only ever needed to sprint since I’ve only lived in Cloudsdale and Ponyville, and I didn’t realize how bad I was at long distance until a few years ago.”

“What happened?” Tastar asked.

Fluttershy showed me what Hoofolulu pegasi can do, that’s what. I couldn’t fly for a week after that race. Rainbow looked out the window. “I’d… rather not talk about it. Let’s just say somepony taught me a lesson I won’t ever forget.”

Tastar glanced at Rainbow’s wings, which were short, angular, and pointed with narrow tips. While folded, they were slightly smaller than a normal pegasus’s. “How long can you go for now?”

Rainbow got up and opened her left wing. “My goal was to be able to sustain thirty wingpower for a full day nonstop. I made that goal two years ago, but when I tried to move on to my next goal, it felt like it still wasn’t enough, so I kept working on it, and now I can sustain thirty six wingpower.”

Tastar whistled. “So what’s the next thing?”

Rainbow smirked. She raised her hoof, shot it forward, and made an exploding sound with her mouth.

Tastar eyed her prismatic mane. “Figured that was it. Been wondering why you keep going off early in the morning.”

Rainbow slammed her hoof on the coffee table. “I’m so freaking close I can taste it! Before I did my stamina training I could only try to do the Sonic Rainboom twice a week because it wears me out so much, but now I can try it every day. I just need to push a little harder, and that barrier is as good as broken!”

Tastar chewed on his lip. “You know, the Sonic Rainboom alone might be enough for the Wonderbolts to ask you to be their Captain. It hasn’t been done by anyone in centuries, and it'd faded into legend until you did it ten years ago.”

Rainbow got up and walked to her trophy case, her back turned to them. “No. Even if it’s a legendary move, the Sonic Rainboom’s not enough for me.”

“And why's that?” Esra asked.

Rainbow turned back to the two of them with an odd smirk on her face. “Because I don’t want to be a one-trick pony.”

The guards blinked. Esra slowly lowered his head in a facehoof, while Tastar threw back his head in raucous laughter.

Rainbow giggled and broke out of her seriousness. “It’s true, though. The Sonic Rainboom may hold everypony’s attention for a while, but I may as well be a carnival act if it's all I have. I know other aerial stunts too, but they're just nowhere near on the same level, and if I'm going to impress the Wonderbolts to the extreme, I need something more to back it up. That’s where my last goal comes into play.”

Tastar had regained his composure and looked back down at her. “What could be better than the Sonic Rainboom?”

Rainbow walked over to the small bookcase and grabbed the book with the title scratched out. There was a multicolored bookmark in the spine. She opened the book and laid it out on the coffee table for Esra and Tastar to see.

“I may not care much for history, but I am interested in certain facts and details... such as the speed of the fastest pegasus who ever lived.”

Tastar's eyes widened. He leaned forward and saw that it was an old book of world records.

“The world record for wingpower is seventy eight point-four,” Rainbow said, “just shy of one thousand miles per hour. It was set by a pegasus named Lightning who lived four hundred and thirty-two years ago, and she was also the last one who could do a Sonic Rainboom. Nopony's even come close to her since.”

Tastar stared at the book in dumb awe. “So not only do you want to be the fastest pegasus in the world, you want to be the fastest pegasus in history?!”

Rainbow bent her knees and stretched. “You guys aren’t the only ones who haven’t hit their limits. I know I have it in me to break the record, but it’s going to be brutal. I’ll have to completely throw myself into my training, and that means I won’t have time to sit around working with you guys.”

“So the sacrifice you mentioned is that you can’t move forward with your plan to make the Wonderbolts ask you to be their Captain because you have to work with us instead of focusing on your training.” Esra rolled his eyes. “Again with the needless holding back for our sake!”

Rainbow turned and spoke in a monotone as she quoted him. “You’re expecting us to climb a mountain with the full knowledge that we'll never get to the top.”

She crossed her hooves. “How’re you gonna feel when that mountain starts to get higher?”

Tastar sighed and shook his head. “You don’t have to do this for us.”

“I’m not doing it for you,” Rainbow said. “I’m doing it for the Princesses. They want you to be here to protect us, and I agreed because I feel like I owe Luna for what we did to her. You’re supposed to be here to fend off something I can’t handle by myself, right?”

Tastar nodded.

“Newsflash: There aren’t many things I can’t handle. So either I gotta get weaker, or you gotta get stronger, and I’m sure as hay not going to give up everything I’ve worked so hard for. The side effect of that though is if something doesn’t happen, you guys are gonna look like foals when I take care of it by myself.”

Rainbow watched their reactions as she fell silent. Tastar was looking at the floor with pursed lips. Esra was resting his chin on his hoof, avoiding her gaze and looking out the window. She was about to say something more, but then, Tastar looked up at Esra.

“You need to show her.”

Esra exhaled out his nose. “Let her believe what she wants.”

Tastar got up and walked over to the Wonderbolts poster. “Blair won’t like it if he finds out she’s doing this for us.”

Doing what? Holding back? What other alternative is there? Rainbow looked at both of them in turn. “Show me what?”

Neither of them seemed to hear her. Esra hadn’t moved an inch, not even blinking. “We don’t need to prove anything.”

“Yes, we do.” Tastar turned to him. “We need to show her we’re not incompetent. I can’t do it, so you have to.”

Esra finally met his eyes. “This isn’t what my skills are for.”

“Don’t make me pull rank on you,” Tastar warned.

Esra slumped and looked down at his hooves. “You know what happened last time.”

“Stop hiding behind excuses!” Tastar stamped a hoof on the floor with a soft poof. “This is different and you know it!”

Rainbow stepped in between them, flapped her wings once, and blasted them both with a powerful gust that caused them both to jerk back.

“Stop talking like I’m not here,” she said icily. “Show me what?”

Tastar shook his head from the blast and turned to her. “We’ll admit that you’re physically superior to both of us. We’re not arguing that. If something happened and you could take to the air, you’d be able to get away, no sweat.”

Rainbow nodded.

“However,” Tastar continued, “you won’t always be able to fly. What would you do if you got caught in an enclosed space?”

“My wings aren’t the only thing I train,” Rainbow replied. “I’m also a second-degree black belt in karate.”

“Even that’s not enough.” Esra got up from his chair and slowly bent his knees. “You can train all you like, but no matter what you do, there’s something Tastar and I will always have that you don’t.”

Rainbow snorted and turned to him. “And what would that be?”

Esra’s light-red eyes met hers. “Experience.”

“Experience with what?”

Esra’s face hardened. “War.”­

Now it was Rainbow’s turn to scoff. “Oh, and you're going to tell me that just because I haven't seen glorious battle that you—”­

“There's nothing glorious about it!” Esra snapped. He broke eye contact as he looked past her. “The metallic smell of blood, the sounds of ponies screaming in agony, the sickening crunch of armor and bones shattering beneath you, the sight of your friends getting cut down and dying right before your eyes… the only way you get accustomed to it is by experiencing it for yourself.”

Rainbow wouldn’t have taken him seriously had she not seen the twisted shadow that had fallen over his face as he spoke. She tried to ignore the pit that had formed in her stomach and pressed on. “And you have?”

He regarded her. “I suppose you want to hear my life story, as well.”

Not even if you paid me. Rainbow’s voice was neutral. “Answer my question.”

“I’m a specialist, like Tastar.” Esra said. “My talents are in unarmed combat and disarming opponents.”

Oho, this might have just gotten interesting. Rainbow took a step towards him. “I see now. Tastar wants you to show me what you can do with a little sparring.”

“Yes.” Esra started to move the coffee table over to the corner again. “And I don’t want to. However, seeing as you’re going to keep holding back for us if I don’t, I have no choice.”

Rainbow watched as Tastar began moving the chairs out of the way. “Don’t tell me you’re worried about hurting me.”

Esra gave the coffee table one final nudge and turned back to her. “I have one condition.”

“What is it?”

Esra cracked his neck and walked into the center of the room. “If this is to be a proper demonstration, then neither of us can use their wings.”

Rainbow grinned. “Fine by me. I don’t need to use my wings to beat you.”

Esra took a slow, steadying breath and assumed a low crouch. “Then come.”

Rainbow looked away for a moment, and then ran at him. The moment she did, Esra’s eyes locked with hers, turning flat and focused. She got in range and chopped at his neck from above, but he saw the strike and reared back. He caught her hoof and pulled her forward, but Rainbow was ready for it and brought up her other forehoof to hit his chin. Esra rolled his head to the side, dodged the blow, then stepped forward and turned his back to her. He leaned and tried to throw her his shoulder, but as he did, Rainbow pulled back and cartwheeled over him, using his back like a springboard. She managed to wrench her hoof out of his grip as she landed and stepped out of range.

Esra immediately closed the distance. He stuck out a hoof as she landed, and he knocked her off balance and pushed her back. Rainbow stumbled, but shoved Esra back in time to prevent him from making her fall. He whirled around with the momentum, then stepped to her side and aimed a punch at her neck. Rainbow ducked to avoid the strike, but as she did, she felt his gaze on her, and she barely rolled out of the way in time to avoid Esra’s knee hitting her face.

Rainbow backed off as she watched Esra’s face contort with some kind of inner turmoil. His eyes, however, continued to stare at her with the same cold intensity.

“Almost got me there,” Rainbow taunted.

Esra’s face remained stoic and focused. “Do you know what the difference between us is, Rainbow?”

“Besides the obvious, you mean?”

His lips twitched. “You have to try to hit a vital spot. I have to try to miss.

Rainbow charged again, this time coming in low. She did a feint to the side, then brought her backhoof around for a kick to his head. Esra didn’t fall for the trick and stepped back again, allowing the attack to sail harmlessly by. Rainbow brought her other backhoof up in a second kick, hoping he would try to close, but she hit nothing but air. She turned back around, tensed and ready for his counterattack, only to find that he wasn’t there.

Rainbow felt a presence behind her. She ducked just in time to see a hoof appeared where her head had been, and felt the wind of Esra’s strike brush through her mane. She moved away and tried to put distance between them again, but Esra closed with her and entangled his hooves with hers. She yelped in surprise, and they both fell to the floor in a mass.

Rainbow tried to push Esra away, but realized that he had both hooves around her throat in a stranglehold. He squeezed, and her breath was cut off. She kicked and struggled as she tried to get free, but his grip was like iron. Rainbow tried to raise herself up, but he wrapped his rear hooves around her lower body, effectively preventing her from moving. Lights started to flash in front of her eyes, and her vision dimmed in the corners.

If there was one thing Rainbow hated most of all, it was losing. It didn’t matter what it was about, or what the circumstances were, it was the very concept alone that enraged her. Winning was all she’d ever known, and she refused to settle for anything less. And while she always tried to play by the rules, when failure threatened to rear its ugly head, a very loud, irrational angry voice echoed in her mind that overrode everything else.

That voice usually only said two words.

Screw this!

Rainbow opened her wings and punched Esra in the gut. He gasped and released his hold, coughing and gagging as he rolled away. Rainbow did much the same as the air returned to her lungs.

Tastar, who’d been watching the entire fight from the corner, stepped forward and separated them. “I think that’s enough. One of you is gonna wind up in the emergency room if you go much farther.”

Rainbow regained her breath and watched Esra, who was still fighting for air. A red spot was already visible where she’d hit him, but she hadn’t felt anything break, at least.

“I guess I lost,” she said dryly.

“Technically,” Tastar agreed. “Though it’s probably a good thing you did that. One of the side effects of Esra’s training is that he tends to get caught up in the moment.”

“Sifu… would’ve killed me… for pulling punches… like that,” Esra wheezed.

Rainbow furrowed her eyebrows. “What discipline was that?”

“Esra knows more than one.” Tastar looked at his partner. “I forget how many, exactly.”

“Five,” Esra said with a wince. He gingerly poked at his bruise as his breathing slowly went back to normal.

“Wait a second,” Rainbow said. “You’re a martial artist and you’ve been sore from flight training?!”

“I don’t train my wings for what I do any more than you train your legs to fly,” Esra growled. “You’d be sore too if you went through some of the leg exercises I know.”

Rainbow glared at him, but said nothing.

The two guards looked at each other for a moment before Tastar looked at her and spoke in a stern tone. “Rainbow, you don’t need to be helping us train our wings. We’ve got different kinds of skills and strengths that are just as well suited, more so in a lot of ways, to protecting you. Esra and I are tactical fighters that apply strategy and terrain to overcome our opponents instead of brute force. Your speed is amazing, but it’s not going to help you disable a dragon, fight off multiple enemies at once—“

“—or steel your heart to take a life,” Esra finished.

Tastar nodded. “We didn’t want to expose you to this, but I think you need to hear it. There’s nothing you can do to fully prepare yourself for war. You can think and believe whatever you choose, but if the time ever comes that you have to kill another living, breathing, thinking creature, you will hesitate.”

“I really hope you’re not just saying that because I’m a mare,” Rainbow said.

“War doesn’t discriminate,” Esra said. “Everypony does their first time, and hesitation means death in battle. We aren’t some greenhorns fresh out of Basic, Rainbow. We’re elite seasoned soldiers that serve directly under Princess Celestia herself. You and the other Bearers have been given some of the best. Just because we can’t fly as fast you doesn’t mean we’re useless.”

Tastar moved the chairs back into place. “I know how to fight large enemies, and Esra knows how to fight groups of opponents. There’s very little we can’t handle between the two of us, so you shouldn’t compare us to yourself and think that we don’t have the skills necessary to protect you.”

Tastar’s words struck a familiar chord in Rainbow memory, causing her to close her eyes and grit her teeth. I haven’t changed at all, have I? It’s the same thing with Fluttershy all over again! Here I am, spouting all this crap about how ponies shouldn’t be comparing themselves to me, and I’m doing the exact same thing and looking down on them for it! Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Esra started to limp out of the living room. “I’ve shown you what you wanted, Tastar. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going up to the tents.”

Tastar nodded and followed after him, but turned back to Rainbow as he did. “I’m sorry, but I’m gonna be blunt. I think you have what it takes to accomplish your goals, but you’re not gonna get there if you keep acting like this. You’ve shown us enough that we can keep going on our own with the flight training if you really want, but otherwise, you only need to worry about yourself.”

Rainbow avoided his gaze. He walked out of the room, and for a few minutes she stood there alone in the empty room. Finally, she sighed and sat down in her favorite chair.

“No, Tastar. I’m the one who should be sorry.”

An hour later, Rainbow was lying in her bed staring up at the fluffy ceiling. She gingerly rubbed her neck as her thoughts wandered, her mind alive with the revelations of the day.

I hate to admit it, but Esra’s got a point. I should’ve realized Celestia wouldn’t stick us with a bunch of inexperienced mooks. Best soldiers she’s got, eh? I suppose it makes sense, but if they’re both specialists, that would mean that they only get used for special situations.

Rainbow rolled onto her side and stared out into the darkness.

I’ve never seen a pony look at someone the way Esra was at me during the fight. I don’t doubt that he’s been in combat after that, but where, though? They said there hasn’t been a war with Equestria since…

Tastar’s words came back to her. Since the War of the Sun and Moon. That was against Nightmare Moon, though, right? So how can they be veterans?

The discussion with Twilight’s bodyguard floated up from her memory.

elite group of knights that served directly under Princess Celestia during the war…

Esra’s words followed immediately after.

we’re elite seasoned soldiers that serve directly under Celestia herself…

Rainbow sat up. What was the name of those knights again? Order of the Z-something? Not even Twilight knew about them...

More of Blair’s words came unbidden to her.

...their talents and skill sets were varied, each of them uniquely suited for different kinds of situations...

Rainbow shook her head and laid back down.

Nah. I’m sure Esra and Tastar aren’t the only ponies who specialize in the military. Heck, what else is there to do? We’re a peaceful nation and the ponies they’re supposed to guard are immortal powerhouses! The last time somepony ticked off Celestia, she fried an entire swath of the Dromardian desert!

Rainbow’s eyelids began to feel heavy as she began to drift off.

Esra… Aries…

Rainbow jolted wide awake.

Okay, that’s just weird.

She got up out of bed, pacing back and forth as more of the thoughts of the day came forth.

...as far as dragon lifecycles go, Kyneatoralqu was the equivalent of your age...

...how many of them were there?

Twelve.

...not part of my platoon…

Blair’s words from the picnic echoed in her ears. They’re all from the same platoon except for one! They’re veterans, but we haven’t had a war in one thousand years, War of the Sun and Moon, different specialists, twelve knights... that’s a heck of a lot of coinci­dences. Could it be that they’re—

Rainbow’s fell on her haunches as her jaw went slack.

A second later though, she burst out laughing and put a hoof to her head.

You’re thinking waaaaaay too much into this. Those ponies lived one thousand years ago, there’s no way they have anything to do with them! You’re just looking for an excuse to not like Esra. Come on, Rainbow, it’s bad enough your neck’s going to be sore tomorrow, don’t lose sleep over this, too.

Chuckling at her paranoia, Rainbow hopped back into bed, fluffed her pillow, and drifted off into dreams of prismatic barriers and building the new Wonderbolt Headquarters on the outskirts of town. She knew she was just being silly, an aftereffect of the day’s revelations. It was all just a coincidence, there was no connection between their guards and an ancient order of knights from a one thousand year-old war.

Right?