• Published 22nd Feb 2016
  • 11,509 Views, 808 Comments

Empty Horizons - Goldenwing

Twilight wakes up, alone in the dark. And she's drowning.

  • ...

XXI: The Reunion

Rarity groaned as she blinked her eyes open. She rolled onto her back, pushing her frazzled mane out of her eyes with a hoof, and squinted up at the painted sky above her. A surge of anger overtook her, and her horn glowed as she threw her pillow at the ceiling. Dumb clouds!

The pillow fell back onto her face a second later. “Oof!”

She lay there for several seconds, letting the peaceful darkness take her over. There was a knock at the door, and she ignored it.

“Lady Rarity?” Whitehorn called. He knocked again.

With immense effort, Rarity mustered the will to pull the pillow off her face. The black smears of her mascara had been stained into the satin. “Go away!”

A beat of silence passed. “You asked to see me shortly after you returned yesterday, my Lady, and you sent me away then, as well. Do you need more time?”

Rarity pouted up at the ceiling. I don’t remember sending him away. She rolled over, jerking a window curtain aside with her magic. The light of the rising sun was just peeking over a rocky hill in the distance.


Rarity sighed. She must have cried herself to sleep last night, sending Whitehorn away right after she had summoned him like some petulant filly. That is not the behavior of a proper lady, Rarity, she chided herself as she clambered off the bed. “Just a moment, darling.”

Making her way into the bathroom, Rarity braced herself before turning on the light. She just managed to pinch off the shriek that tried to work its way out of her mouth. Black tears had been stained into her coat, and her mane looked as if she had spent all night bobbing for the deepest apples in the cider vat at one of Applejack’s atrocious hoedowns.

A shiver wracked her body. How could she have ever allowed herself to reach such a state? She turned on the faucet and splashed a few hooves full of cold water onto her face, scrubbing the black tears away. She grit her teeth as she tugged her unruly mane into place with a levitated brush.

Rarity curled her lip at the mare in the mirror. Her cheeks were clear of the black blemishes and her mane had returned to its usual curl, but the cracks in the mask were obvious. The stray hairs, bags under her eyes, and matted coat were clear signs of distress. She lacked the demeanor of a lady.

Rarity closed her eyes, gathering her poise. She must always be a lady. She must be Countess Rarity, the Last Lady of Equestria.

She opened her eyes, and there she was. Her posture straight and balanced, her gaze still tired, yet focused. It was impossible to hide her stress, but she could bear it with elegance. At least, she could outside the privacy of her room. She spent a few seconds practicing her smile before going to answer the door.

“Apologies for sending you away earlier, dear,” she said as she pulled the door open. She gave Whitehorn a weary smile. “Especially after asking for you.”

“Apology accepted, my Lady.” His mouth hung open for a second, as if he was thinking over his next words. “I heard the news.”

“Oh, ah, did you now?” Rarity grimaced at the way her voice cracked.

Whitehorn lifted a hoof as if to step forwards. He was wearing only a simple gray vest. “May I come in?”

Rarity quirked a lip as she debated with herself. There was still a part of her that wanted to shut the door in his face and wallow in blanket-smothered isolation. At last she forced herself to step back. “What have you heard?”

He dipped his head as he entered, keeping his eyes well clear of the mess of sheets on the bed. “Pinkie told me what happened. Titus, as well. Do you need my help, my Lady? I have many friends in high places, and I’m sure I could get the Duke to drop the betrothal.”

Rarity’s heart rate quickened. Here was her chance. Maybe she could slip free of the Duke’s trap. “What about the bandits?”

Whitehorn cocked his head. “I imagine he would execute them as he originally planned. If anything, he would do it out of spite at that point.”

“No!” Rarity snapped. She shook her head vehemently. “I won’t be responsible for the deaths of five ponies.”

“My Lady, they would have turned you in for bounty,” Whitehorn said. “Why are you going to such lengths to protect them? They don’t deserve it.”

“It—it’s the principle of the thing, darling!” Rarity pursed her lips, looking him in the eye. “There was no death sentence in my time, you know? Not even for the most hideous of monsters. The Princesses didn’t believe that anypony could be beyond redemption.”

“A noble ideal, but we must face reality,” Whitehorn said. “Are you really ready to give your life to Titus just to save five ponies that were ready to kill in order to capture you?”

“I have to be, don’t you see?” Rarity stepped closer, lowering her voice. “I want this the least of anyone, but what other choice do I have? If I turn that brute down, those five ponies will die for my decision. How could I ever say that I believe every life deserves to be lived, and every offender deserves a second chance, after I fail to give my all in upholding those ideas?” Her vision blurred, and she looked away before wiping the tears with a hoof. “Thank you for the offer, Whitehorn, but I can’t accept it.”

She heard him let out a heavy sigh behind her. “There’s nothing anyone could do to change your mind on this, is there?”

Rarity’s voice was firm for the first time that day. “No.”

She felt him lay a hoof on her shoulder, and she found herself leaning into it. The soft fabric of his vest was warm against her cheek. “In that case, my Lady, I must thank you,” he said.

She frowned. “What for?”

“Titus didn’t tell me about your deal just to brag,” Whitehorn said. “Well, he did do more than his share of bragging. But he also agreed to support me in Parliament.”

Rarity blinked. She realized how close she was to Whitehorn and pulled herself back. “But what of all his talk earlier about doing what he wants on his own land?”

“I believe he hopes to ensure he has a position of power within the new system,” Whitehorn said. “Further, as his daughter-in-law, your interests become his. Any influence you gain in the future makes him and his line more powerful by extension.”

“I see.” Rarity frowned. “So we’ve managed to accomplish what we came for?”

Whitehorn dipped down into a deep bow. “Indeed we have, my Lady, and it’s thanks to your bravery and generosity that we’ve done it. The Gifted Table is closer to becoming reality than it’s been in over a decade of attempting on my part.”

Rarity’s mouth hung open. Just like that? Whitehorn had been trying to change the world for years, and within a week of joining him Rarity had already made a breakthrough. She truly was making a difference. A great weight seemed to leave her shoulders as she realized that her sacrifice had much further-reaching consequences than she had first imagined, and for the better. With the fog of stress lifted from her mind, she realized that she was standing and gaping like an uncouth child, and promptly shut her jaw a scant moment before Whitehorn looked back up at her.

“I’m just glad I could make a difference,” she said.

“As am I, my Lady.” Whitehorn gave her a warm smile.

Rarity took a deep breath. “So what now?”

Whitehorn straightened back up, fixing the wrinkles in his vest with a hoof. “Now we, and I do hope I can say ‘we,’ must prepare to face Parliament.” He glanced towards the dawn sunlight streaming in through the window. “But I’d rather not burden you with yet more worries until you’ve had some well-earned rest. We can discuss it another time.”

“You aren’t leaving, are you?” Rarity took a step forwards, her voice hitching.

“Fortunately not, my Lady,” Whitehorn said, flashing her another of his smiles. “Titus is now our ally in the bettering of the world, though not due to any selflessness on his part. I have much to discuss with him. I expect that you and Pinkie won’t be seeing the last of me for some time now.”

“Ah.” Rarity forced herself to relax. “I look forward to it.”

“Now unless you require anything more of me, Countess?” Whitehorn dipped his head. “I’m afraid I have much business to attend to.”

“No, that’s all, darling.” As he turned to leave, a thought occurred to her. “Actually, there is something.”

He looked back. “Yes?”

“Do you know where the bandits are being held?” Rarity asked. “I’d like to speak to them.”

“In the dungeons, no doubt,” Whitehorn said. “Perhaps you’d like to accompany me to the dining hall? I’m sure we could find you an escort.”

Rarity grimaced, looking down at her disheveled coat. She was absolutely not in the proper condition to be walking around the estate. She looked back to him with a demure smile. “Perhaps you could ask Titus to send a guide while I freshen up?”

“Of course, my Lady. I’ll leave you to it.” With one more bow, Whitehorn backed out of the room and closed the door behind him.

By the next time that Rarity bothered to check the clock, almost two hours had passed. She had bathed with her own perfumed soaps she’d acquired in Straterra, thankful that she wasn’t forced to use the far more offensively scented bar that came with the room, and returned her mane to its immaculate sheen. After an excursion into her clothing stock, she’d donned a pale yellow dress with sunny orange sleeves. For the first time since waking up, she felt like herself again. Her stomach politely informed her of its desire for food, and she found herself wondering where Pinkie Pie was. And what about that guide I had asked for?

She opened the door to the hall, and found herself locking eyes with Pontius. Oh.

The young pegasus was leaning against the far wall, his usual polished barding replaced with a clean orange shirt. He stood up with a start and gave her a short bow. “Lady Rarity.”

“Pontius.” Rarity gave him a tight smile. “Were you waiting for me?”

“Aye, my Lady,” he said, looking up. “Ye wanted to speak to the bandits? I can escort ye to the dungeons.”

“Ah, of course.” Rarity hesitated, considering breakfast, but decided that it could wait. “Lead on, then.”

Pontius started down the hall at an easy pace, and Rarity followed a short distance behind. They retraced the familiar path to the dining hall first, where Whitehorn was in the midst of conversation with Duke Titus and a few other orange-garbed ponies, all of whom bore grave expressions and none of whom seemed to notice her polite greeting.

As they left the hall for the path to the other wing of the manor, Rarity once again found herself wondering where Pinkie Pie was. They passed the entrance hall, and it occurred to her that she hadn’t seen any servants either. Normally she would have spotted a cleaning mare by now at least. Perhaps she was imagining it, but the air of the manor seemed thick with some unspoken anticipation.

She cleared her throat, drawing Pontius’ attention. “Do you know where Pinkie is, darling?”

“She’s been quite busy directing the staff in the preparation of her party,” he said. “It’s to be held tonight, on the grounds.” His eyes flicked away as he continued. “My father was going to announce our betrothal.”

“O-oh.” Rarity cringed at the way her voice hitched. “So soon?”

He turned away, opening a solid wooden door that led to an upwards spiraling staircase and grabbing the lantern hanging on the other side in a wing. His voice was stiff. “He says that such things aren’t truly official until the peasantry hears of it.”

Rarity grimaced as she began to follow him up the steps. “I see.” The brute doesn’t want me going back on our deal. Does he really think I’d leave those poor souls to die? She couldn’t help but be offended.

Though a trio of slit windows on the bottom level allowed some light in, the stairwell was otherwise lit only by the dim light of Pontius’ lantern. Rarity found herself thankful that she hadn’t worn any shoes as they approached the top, perhaps three stories up by her guess. The steps were narrow in places, threatening a nasty fall at any misplaced hoof.

Pontius paused as he reached the iron-banded trapdoor at the top of the stairs. After several seconds, Rarity gave a polite cough. “Darling?”

“It’s my fault, Countess.”

Rarity blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

He wouldn’t look at her. He kept his gaze focused squarely on the trapdoor as he spoke. “Why this all happened. Why ye got pulled into the Duke’s affairs. It was my doing.”

Rarity frowned, glancing down at the steep stairwell descending into darkness. Not the most proper place for a dramatic confession. Did he believe that his little crush was what had pushed the Duke into action? She reached a hoof up to pat at one of his hind legs, the attempted comfort made awkward by the difference in altitude. “Now, dear, I’m sure it’s not—”

“It is!” He punched a foreleg against the curving stone wall, causing Rarity to jump. “He was going to send ye away like he always does. Whitehorn has pestered him fer years, and he’s always sent away!” Pontius turned to face her at last. The light of the lantern highlighted the hardness in his eyes, and for a moment Rarity imagined that it was Titus standing before her. “Until I told him about ye.”

Rarity’s pulse quickened. She thought back to what Whitehorn had told her just a day ago. “It’s unlike the Duke to have changed his mind so suddenly over an infatuation of his son.” She swallowed. “What do you mean?”

Pontius let out a dry laugh. “Don’t ye see? Ye’re Gifted, and so powerful! Ye defeated a half-dozen bandits in seconds, without even lifting a hoof!” He licked his lips and lowered his voice, leaning in as if he was worried of being overheard. “There are many powerful ponies in Equestria that would pay well to have ye delivered to them, Countess. My father doesn’t leave the land often, but I’ve seen bounties for ye in town.”

The pieces fell together in Rarity’s mind. “And you told him about them.”

He sighed. “Aye, I told him. And so he let ye stay. Because of me.”

“And the bandits?” Rarity asked. Her heart was pounding against her chest. “Is it all just some ploy?”

He gave a slow shake of his head. “They’re real. Ye were so set on saving them, and my father saw opportunity.” He lifted his forelegs and clapped the hooves together, as if catching a bug. “He had something ye wanted, and ye gave yerself willingly in exchange. Thousands of bits on yer head, and he could have ye fer a few worthless lives.”

The feeling of being trapped was returning to her. Titus had manipulated her into his clutches with barely an effort. She knew that he had trapped her, knew now exactly how he had done it, and yet she still couldn’t escape. The ponies held hostage on the other side of that heavy trapdoor were still relying on her. I wonder which of us is more the prisoner?

“Why are you telling me this?” Rarity asked. “Why just now? How could I trust you?”

Pontius scowled. “Ye shouldn’t trust me, anymore than ye should trust anyone ye meet.” He snorted as he turned back to the trapdoor. “As fer why I’m telling ye? We’re betrothed, Countess. I have a duty to ye.”

Rarity was still trying to decide how to respond when Pontius shoved himself against the trapdoor. He grunted as he bodied it open, drawing a shrill complaint from the hinges, and climbed out of the stairwell.

She followed behind him, body moving on autopilot as her mind struggled to process what had been revealed to her. Could she have really been so oblivious? Titus certainly acted the part of the proud, selfish brute, but was it all just a cover for something more conniving? Rarity stiffened as she came to the realization that she hadn’t been taking matters quite as seriously as she should have. All her fantasizing about being the brave heroine in some romantic fantasy, and yet she was being manipulated like some bumbling patsy! She’d fought bounty hunters not more than a week ago, and yet she was parading herself through the streets oblivious of the danger.

She had to stop the dreaming and focus on reality. She couldn’t trust just anypony that walked up to her and spoke of honesty. The future was a place of treachery, and who knew if this was the first time she had fallen for another’s ploy? What of Whitehorn? She had met him at a party and was blindly following him not even three days later. Perhaps—

Steady, Rarity. Whitehorn had been nothing but an honest, generous spirit. If he had wanted to trap her, he had had plenty of time to do so already. Rarity couldn’t help but cringe at the thought that the chief reason she knew she could trust him was because she had already put herself so freely in his hooves. Still, she mustn’t let a single act drive her into paranoia. A lady does not flinch back from glimpsed shadows.

Pulling herself back to the present, Rarity found herself in a squat, circular stone chamber. The trapdoor was set against one wall, while the far half of the chamber had been divided into three cells by thick iron bars. A tall, unobstructed window—large enough for a pony to step through, Rarity noted—was left open at the back of each cell.

The five bandits all shared a single cell, bereft of anything but a single bucket and some straw for comfort. Most kept their heads down, pointedly avoiding looking at the trapdoor. One of them met Rarity’s eye. A pegasus stallion, a leg and a wing both swaddled in stained bandages.

Long, silent seconds passed. Rarity turned to Pontius. “Would you mind giving us some privacy, darling?”

Pontius grimaced, but didn’t protest. “I’ll be waiting in the hall, my Lady.”

Rarity watched him go, her eyes lingering on the trapdoor as she listened to his hoofsteps receding below. She turned back to the cell and met the curious eyes of the bandit mare. Taking a few steps closer, cautious to stay out of reach, Rarity searched for something to say.

She nodded towards the large window at the rear of the cell. “I’ve never seen a prison cell with an unbarred window before.”

The stallion cocked a brow. His voice was like gravel when he responded. “Th’ good Duke believes we ought t’ have th’ right t’ fly if we’d prefer it t’ whatever fate may await us.”

Rarity blinked. Her eyes darted over to his injured wing, and for a moment she wondered how many ponies had taken up the Duke’s offer. How many ponies had opted for a fall in freedom over a hanging in chains? Had any survived?

“Do ye need anythin’, lass?” the stallion prodded. “If ye came t’ listen t’ us grovel in thanks, ye best settle in fer a long wait.”

“I’ve come for no such thing!” Rarity paused, adding in a quieter voice. “Though some gratitude would be appreciated.”

“What fer?”

Rarity’s brow furrowed. “Saving your life, I would imagine.”

The stallion shrugged. “I’m t’ be thankful that I live on th’ goodwill of some prissy Gifted noble filly?” He spat on the floor. “My freedom was th’ most valuable thing I had, and now I’ve lost it twice over. Once t’ th’ Duke’s law, once t’ yer self-righteous crusadin’. I don’t think fer a second that ye have any care fer me.”

“I gave up my hoof in marriage for you!” Rarity insisted. Her tail flicked side to side as she struggled to contain her ire.

The stallion shook his head. “Neh, you gave it fer yer own foal ideals. My lot just happened t’ be in th’ way. Ye don’t care fer me.”

Rarity stared open-mouthed at him. She glanced to each of the other prisoners in turn, but none met her eye. Some had their ears up as if they were listening, but none of them even faced her way.

Rarity closed her mouth, glaring up at the impudent stallion. “What’s your name?”

“What d’ye care?”

“What’s your name?” Rarity repeated. “I’m asking you. Is it some big secret?”

The stallion eyed her for a few seconds. A breeze whistled through the pony-sized windows, carrying the scent of rain with it. With a deliberate motion, he turned away from her.

“So that’s it, then?” Rarity pressed. She again cast her gaze to the other prisoners, failing to keep the frustration out of her rising voice. “Perhaps I made a mistake in defending you all? Even now, you can’t present a single excuse for your actions?!”

She realized that she was trembling, but she couldn’t stop herself. Titus had manipulated her so easily, and now it seemed that even the ponies she had sacrificed herself for were playing her as well. Was there no honesty left in the world? Was she truly so naive? Was she such a monumental failure?

Just as the tears began to break free, one of the other bandits finally met her eye. It was the earth mare that had spoken during the trial Duke Titus held, the one who had recited the laws she had broken and the punishment she deserved. Her mouth hung open almost as if she wanted to speak, but no sound came forth.

“Speak!” Rarity demanded.

The mare flinched back. “I—I’m sorry, my Lady! I never’d’ve meant fer a kind spirit like ye t’ get tangled up in our mess!”

Rarity closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. It wouldn’t be proper for her to lose her temper, even now. “What’s your name, darling?”

“River Pie, my Lady.”

“Thank you,” Rarity said. She couldn’t help but think about Pinkie Pie and her family. Had some member of the Pie Family survived to carry on her lineage? Opening her eyes, Rarity forced a kind smile onto her face. “My name is Rarity. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

River Pie responded with a nervous smile of her own. She shuffled closer to the bars, shying away from the sideways looks from her cell mates. “I appreciate what ye done, even if’n th’ others don’t care.”

“Well, it’s nice to know that at least one pony does,” Rarity said, shooting a glare towards the rude pegasus stallion. She returned her focus to the skittish mare. “Can you tell me why you did it?”

“Clamp shut, Pie,” the pegasus stallion growled.

“What’s it matter if’n I tell ‘er?” River Pie shot back, her tail flicking. “As if th’ Duke don’t already hate Nettlekiss?”

“Ack, fine.” The pegasus shook his head. “Yer loss.”

River looked back to Rarity. “Ye ever hear of Duchess Nettlekiss?”

Rarity frowned. Whitehorn had mentioned her. All she knew was that she was a rival of Duke Titus. “Once, in passing.”

“It’s ‘er that put us up t’ it,” River said. She hesitated as another of the bandits turned to eye her, then pressed on. “She gave us weapons ’n trainin’, ’n paid us well. All we had t’ do was rough up some of th’ Duke’s caravans, ‘n threaten bits from a few scared peasants.”

Rarity’s heart sank. Titus was right? “So you did it for greed.”

River Pie dropped into a low bow so suddenly that for a moment Rarity imagined that she had been struck. “I don’t deserve yer mercy, my Lady, but if ye still see fit t’ save me, I swear t’ ye that I’ll make it up.”

Rarity couldn’t help but take a step back from the dirty mare groveling beneath her. Who was she to have ponies bowing and swearing their unworthiness of her favor? River had plainly admitted to having no purpose behind her ill deeds beyond her own thirst for wealth, and Rarity imagined that she should have felt furious, yet she could only muster an aching sadness.

Worst of all, she still couldn’t bring herself to take it back. For even if every other bandit returned to their crimes once they were released, as long as just River Pie kept true to her word and did better, it was worth it.

Nobody is truly beyond redemption… right?

Rarity wondered if maybe River was just pretending to be remorseful. Perhaps the mare was just worried that Rarity would go back on the deal and she would be doomed to hang after all, and she was just acting the part to ensure her own survival. Rarity dismissed the thought an instant later. Deep paranoia lay down that path, and she decided she would rather keep some amount of earnest naivete in favor of living in a world where every word hid another meaning and every act served another purpose. Maybe it would ruin her to do so, but then wouldn’t she be ruined even moreso if she allowed the world to twist her into its treacherous mold?

“Thank you for your honesty,” Rarity said. She turned away, pulling open the heavy trapdoor with her magic. “I do hope you don’t squander my generosity.”

The door fell closed behind her with a heavy thud that echoed through the ghastly darkness of the stairwell. She pursed her lips as she followed the steps down, lost in her thoughts. As he had promised, Pontius was waiting in the hall, fidgeting with his shirt’s collar in the far less sinister lighting.

He dipped his head in greeting. “I hope all went well, my Lady.”

She responded with a wan smile. “It did, thank you.” Her stomach let out a polite growl, replacing her complex worries with a far simpler need. “Goodness, I do think it’s about time I had something to eat.”

“Allow me to escort you to the dining hall,” Pontius said, stepping up besides her. “Chef Marmalade can make you whatever you wish.”

Rarity arched a brow. “I do appreciate the notion, dear, but I do think I can find the way there on my own.”

Pontius blinked. He looked down to his hooves with a thin-lipped frown, brow furrowed with consternation. After a couple seconds Rarity realized that the young pegasus was probably just trying to treat her well now that they were betrothed. She resisted the urge to let out a sigh. I suppose I can humor him, for now.

She made a show of looking up and down the hall, making a few confused titters. “Actually, which way was it again? I may have gotten a bit turned around.”

He brightened up at that, the frown replaced with a content little smile. “If you’ll come with me, my Lady.”

Rarity allowed him to lead her through the halls. He was somewhat endearing in a way, earnest and eager to please. For the first time, she realized that Pontius really was just a boy. Even as he marched through the countryside in gleaming steel armor with a soldier on each side, hunting bandits in the woods and being called ‘my Lord’ by ponies twice or more his age, he couldn’t be more than twenty years old by her guess. He had turned out surprisingly polite compared to his father. Rarity regarded him with new eyes as she followed him through the foyer, and found herself wondering where his mother was.

It was at that moment that Rarity became aware of a distant, high-pitched keening. She stiffened, scanning her surroundings as alarm bells went off in her head. Pinkie Pie was out there somewhere, and she was tackle-huggingly excited about something.

Rarity’s suspicions were confirmed as a pink blur launched itself towards her from her periphery. She had just enough time to brace herself in the proper direction before being bodily slammed into and wrapped in her friend’s vice-like grip.

“Eeee!” Pinkie informed her. “They’re here! They’re here!”

Rarity struggled to catch her breath as she squirmed between Pinkie’s hooves. “Pinkie—too much!”

The iron grip released her, and Rarity managed to suck in a lungful of air. Pinkie Pie bounced in place beside her as she lowered her voice to a less piercing singsong. “They’re here, they’re here!”

“Who’s here?” Pontius asked.

“Our friends!” Pinkie chirped. She bounced over to the grand double doors that dominated the foyer, reared up onto her hind legs with a fanciful pirouette, and shoved them both open like a mare both totally oblivious to and unaffected by proper door-opening etiquette.

Twilight flinched as the heavy wooden doors of the mansion were flung open. She flinched again at the shrill “Eeeee!” that cut through the air, flattening her ears back against her head. She was still trying to identify it when she was tackled to the ground by something fuzzy and loud. Amidst the laughter and exclamations of her friends, Twilight looked up to see Pinkie Pie beaming down at her, her face framed by a mane that seemed almost to vibrate with poofiness.

“You got my invitations!”

Twilight coughed as she struggled to regain her breath. A choked laugh pushed its way out of her, only to be interrupted by a sob. “You’re okay!”

“We’re okay!” Pinkie agreed with a bouncy nod. She jumped off of Twilight and began to dart between Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Fluttershy, racing to greet them each in turn. “Oh, I missed you all so much, I can’t even begin to explain how excited I am! There’s so much to tell you about! Ghah! Dashie, what happened to your eye? AJ, why is your barrel all bandaged? Oh no, Fluttershy, why don’t you have any cuts or bruises? Have you been emotionally battered? Did you guys get into a fight? What did you find? Where—”

“Whoa, nelly!” Applejack said. She let out a familiar chuckle. “Slow down, filly. We’ve been apart a mite too long to get all caught up in one kick.”

“Oh, I know!” Pinkie tossed herself onto her back besides Twilight, stretching her hooves up to the cloudy sky. “There’s just so much to say!”

Twilight picked herself up off the ground, dusting herself off with a hoof. “Don’t worry, Pinkie. We all want to catch up as much as you do. Where’s Rarity?”

“Over here, darling!”

Twilight turned to see Rarity strutting down the marble steps of the manor with her usual measured gait, her yellow-and-orange dress swaying around her hooves with each step. Twilight broke out into a wide smile as she ran up to give her friend a hug. “Rarity!”

“We missed you, my sweet,” Rarity said, returning the hug with a coo of affection. “That goes for all of you,” she added.

Twilight let out a deep sigh of relief as she stepped out of the hug. “I’ve been so worried. There’s been these bounty hunters chasing us—and then we went to Fellis to make sure you were okay—and the whole island was gone!” She lowered her voice, pushing the next words out through clenched teeth. “I thought you two might have been—y’know.”

“Perish the thought!” Rarity giggled. “And pardon the wordplay. It would take more than an island falling out beneath us to stop two of the Elements of Harmony!” Her mirth faded, a distant look coming over her. Her voice grew somber as she met Twilight’s eyes again. “We have much to discuss.”

Twilight cocked her head, picking up on the serious tone. Had Rarity and Pinkie made some discoveries of their own while they were separated? She brushed a hoof over her saddlebags, feeling for the reassuring weight of her notebook and pen. She would need it even more than usual for the coming discussions.

Somepony cleared their throat behind Rarity, and Twilight leaned around her friend to see a young, dusty brown pegasus in a clean orange shirt standing behind her. “My Lady?” he asked.

Twilight looked to Rarity, arching a brow. The other unicorn started as if just remembering something. “Oh! Forgive me, dear,” she said, turning to the pegasus. “Pontius, this is Twilight Sparkle, one of my dear friends. Twilight, this is Pontius, my—erm—”

“Her betrothed,” Pontius finished. He dipped his head. “Glad t’ make yer acquaintance, Lady Sparkle.”

Twilight choked, her eyes bulging out as she found herself caught between a gasp and a cough. “B-betrothed?”

“Twilight, manners,” Rarity chided with a wan smile. “We really have missed a lot, haven’t we? Goodness, and I can only imagine what all you’ve been up to, considering those garish injuries on the others. How long has it been? It certainly doesn’t feel like weeks.”

“Betrothed?!” Twilight repeated.

Rarity sighed. She wrapped a leg around Twilight’s shoulders as she raised her voice to speak to the rest of their friends. “I don’t know about you all, but I think we should all head inside and settle down, hrm? We’ve got a lot of time to cover!”

Pinkie Pie blew a loud raspberry. “Inside? I didn’t plan no party inside!” She leveled a hoof on Onyx and Ivory, who had been waiting to the side with opposing degrees of irritation and bemusement. “Put out the call, ponies! It’s party time!”

It really was amazing what Pinkie Pie could pull together on short notice, Rarity reflected.

She was seated at just one of several round wooden tables spread across the grounds of Duke Titus’ manor. Lanterns and streamers hung from lines that criss-crossed above the yard, illuminating the space below like flickering stars trailing spirals of blue, green and yellow. Ponies chatted and joked in the faux starlight, swapping stories over slices of freshly-made cake and mugs filled from barrels of cider that waited patiently to be emptied. In one corner of the yard was a cleared space where a group of villagers pulled lively music from string and wind, filling the little corners between conversation with energy and cheer. The stone walls around the yard looked less imposing in this light, the once-threatening spearheads that lined the top hidden behind colorful banners.

Laughter was abound, and Rarity marveled at the upturned smiles of the very villagers that had seemed so dour when she’d seen them just a day before. It was a party a thousand years removed from the world Rarity had known, but it was unmistakably a Pinkie Pie party in all it’s uncouth charm.

Rarity’s smile faltered as her gaze came back to her friends seated around the table. Rainbow Dash was in the midst of recounting the thrilling tale of the dive into what was once the Everfree Forest. Her wings and hooves alike swept up and down, side to side as she described the way a fearsome monster had chased their little submarine through the wreckages of a hundred other ships. Pinkie Pie bounced along with every rise and fall in Rainbow’s voice while Applejack chipped in with the occasional good-natured addition and Fluttershy hid a quiet smile behind her mane. It was an image hauntingly familiar. If not for the black patch over Rainbow’s eye and the murderous monster in her story, Rarity could almost pretend that they were back in Ponyville. Almost.

Rarity stole a glance towards where Twilight sat next to her. The other unicorn was hunched over a notebook, scribbling away with a pen. A slice of cake waited untouched beside her.

“Quite a story, isn’t it, darling?”

Twilight blinked, looking up from her notes. “What? Oh. Uh, yeah, it’s—” She paused, grimacing. “It was something.”

Rarity frowned. “Are you alright? Can you see in this light? Why don’t you light your horn?”

Twilight shivered. “I can see fine, thank you.”

Rarity’s lips twisted into a concerned pout. She leaned forward, lowering her voice. “Twilight, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Twilight said, far too quickly. She sighed. “Well, there’s lots of things wrong, but that’s been the standard for a while. I just don’t feel like listening to the story, okay?”

It was clear to Rarity that Twilight wasn’t telling her something. The bookish unicorn never “just” did anything. There was always a reason, and usually that reason was some question she was fixated on. Rarity didn’t say anything. She waited patiently.

It couldn’t have been ten seconds later that Twilight spoke again. “We found Princess Luna.”

“You what?!” Rarity shrieked. All heads at the table immediately snapped to her. She let out a tentative giggle. “Uh.”

“I know, right?” Rainbow grinned at her, waggling her eyebrows. “She used The Stare!”

Fluttershy let out a despondent sigh. “I didn’t have any other choice. He was just misbehaving so badly.”

Applejack snickered. “Just wait till y’all hear how the story ends. That’ll really send ya for a spin.”

“Oh, I can’t wait!” Pinkie said. “What happened next? What comes next? Tell me!”

“Cool it, Pinks, let a mare tell a story!” Rainbow said, her grin only growing wider. “Alright, so ‘Shy’s got this thing locked in The Stare, but we’re still stuck, and Trails…”

Rarity cleared her throat. She took a sip of her cider to give her body some time to catch up with her mind. She set the mug back down carefully before rounding on Twilight. “You found Princess Luna?” she hissed. “What—where is she?”

“She’s on the ship,” Twilight said. “Don’t worry, Star Trails and Sunfeather are there watching her, and I made sure to place some wards around the ship and the cargo bay just in case. Oh, and Dusty Tome’s there, too.”

“No, I mean, where is she, darling?” Rarity insisted. Her mind flicked back to that brief glimpse she caught of Princess Celestia during the collapse of Fellis. “Why is she hiding away in the ship?”

“She’s not well, Rarity,” Twilight said. “She’s in some kind of magical coma. Self-induced, by my current theory, though that’s unconfirmed. We have to keep her safe and hidden away until I can figure out how to bring her out of it.”

“Oh.” Rarity let out the breath she’d been holding. “Right. Of course. But you have an idea?”

Twilight shrugged, never taking her eyes off of her notes. “I have a theory. I haven’t really been able to focus on it much. We were attacked by a gryphon bounty hunter named Gava, and then we thought she might be going after you and Pinkie, and I was just so worried! And I’m working on something for Rainbow’s eye and—ugh, there’s so much!” Twilight closed her eyes and shook her head. “I’m stretched so thin, Rarity. It feels like I’m going to snap.”

“You’re pushing yourself too hard, like you always do,” Rarity said. She put a hoof on Twilight’s back, ignoring the coarse fabric of the drab crew uniform she was wearing, and began moving it in a slow circle. “We’re safe, Twilight. We have time.” Her mouth hung open as she considered adding more. I saw Princess Celestia. Just four words, and they’d been trapped inside her for as many days. She had to tell her friends, but Twilight already looked to have reached her limit. What would she do if she learned that her mentor was still out there, in any form?

“We’re not safe!” Twilight hissed. “Gava is relentless. She tracked us from Heighton all the way to the Everfree, and who knows if she tracked us here, too? Or any other bounty hunters, for that matter.”

Rarity grimaced. “Well, Pinkie and I have had a few run-ins. But we’ve held our own!”

“See?!” Twilight’s eyes darted around the crowd, jumping from pony to pony. “It could be anyone. We can’t let our guards down.”

“Twilight, stop it!” Rarity chided. “Nobody’s going to jump out of the shadows. Not here, at the very least. Duke Titus is a very respected noble with a well-trained retinue of soldiers. And we’re not entirely helpless either.” She couldn’t help but steal a glance at Rainbow’s eyepatch. “We can defend ourselves if it comes to it.”

“Y-you’re right.” Twilight shook her head, looking back down to her notes. After a second, her gaze traveled to her untouched cake. “I do need to unwind. Pinkie put a lot of effort into this party.”

“It would certainly do you well,” Rarity agreed. She watched as Twilight grabbed the plate in her hooves and raised it to her mouth for a bite. She couldn’t help but cock her head at the lack of magic. Odd.

Her attention drifted back to the rest of the table just in time for a dramatic reveal from Rainbow Dash. “It was only like a minute, tops, but it might as well have been days!” she was saying. “We were just about to blast a path through when Flint spoke to us over the radio, and then Twilight like right after. And y’know what she told us?”

Pinkie looked about ready to explode out of her seat. “What did she tell you?!”

Rainbow Dash leaned over the table, lowering her voice. Pinkie Pie leaned in closer to hear. “We had found… Princess Luna.”

“What?!” Pinkie shrieked.

Rainbow looked to Rarity expectantly. Rarity blinked, realizing that she was supposed to be surprised, and managed to summon a flustered, “Oh, goodness.”

“Oh, goodness?” Rainbow echoed with disdain. “That’s it? Princess Luna, Rarity! Didn’t you hear me?”

“Don’t get y’all’s lasso in a knot, RD,” Applejack said. “She ain’t obliged to react a certain way to your story.”

“But—Princess Luna!” Rainbow repeated.

“Oh, you hush.”

“What happened next?” Pinkie asked. “Was she okay? Where is she?”

“Hold your horses, Pinkie,” Applejack said. “The story ain’t done with yet. There was a whole ‘nother rodeo waiting for them when they got back to the ship. Let me tell y’all my side of it.”

Twilight took another bite of her cake. She felt a little clumsy eating without her magic, but it was just as delicious as any Pinkie Pie cake had ever been, nonetheless. Rarity was right. She needed to enjoy the party.

She couldn’t help but smile as she listened to Applejack take her turn at storytelling, using just as much embellishment and flair as Rainbow had. They’re probably making some kind of contest out of it, knowing those two. I mean, really, three chains? She told it as if six ponies couldn’t hold her down working together.

Still, Twilight couldn’t deny that it was entertaining. She hadn’t heard the dramatic rendition of Applejack’s part in the fight before.

She was distracted by Rarity letting out a polite cough. Twilight looked to her expectantly.

“I… should tell you something, Twilight. But I don’t want you to overreact.”

Twilight arched a brow. She swallowed the cake in her mouth so that she could speak. “Well, I’ll do my best. What is it, Rarity?”

“I—” Rarity’s voice hitched. She closed her eyes and took another breath. Her words came out in a rush. “Twilight, I saw Princess Celestia.”

Twilight was glad that she wasn’t holding the plate in her magic. She was certain that any spell, even one as simple as levitation, would have fizzled out in that moment. Instead of dropping out of a magic aura with a loud clatter, her plate instead found itself lodged between hooves that felt made of stone. Twilight very deliberately lowered her hooves and wrenched them apart, allowing the plate to return to the table with a quiet tink.

There was a ringing in her ears. The table appeared to be spinning, but Twilight knew that it was just an illusion of her mental disorientation. She squeezed her eyes shut. “Where?”

“In Fellis, as it collapsed,” Rarity said. “It was just a couple glimpses as we left, but I’m certain of it. I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life. It was Princess Celestia, although she didn’t look well.”

“How do you mean?” Twilight asked. Celestia is alive. Of course she’s alive. She’s alive. She’s alive. I knew she was alive the whole time, didn’t I? I’m the faithful student.

“She looked sick. Her mane was patchy and her wings were drooping. And her eyes—”

“Red tears?” Twilight asked. Celestia wouldn’t leave me. It’s just like I thought. She’s out there, waiting to be found.

“I don’t know,” Rarity admitted. “It was just a brief glimpse. She just felt—cold.”

“Cold,” Twilight echoed. I can do this. We have Luna. Celestia is out there. I can save them both. Everything will be alright. Twilight saw the path clearly stretched before her. Wake up Luna. With her help, find and wake up Celestia. The Princesses would know what to do. They would know what had happened.

“Twilight dear, are you alright?”

Twilight opened her eyes. The table wasn’t spinning anymore. Her breathing was calm. “I’m just going to go for a walk real quick, Rarity. Thanks for telling me.”

She stood up abruptly. Applejack arched a brow. “Off to use the stall, sugar cube? Story’s just gettin’ good.”

“I’ll be right back, Applejack,” Twilight said. Her words sounded robotic in her own ears. “Don’t wait for me.”

She turned and walked away without waiting for a response. The crowd felt thicker. The spearheads lining the walls leered down at her from their stone thrones, hidden behind a thin dressing of ribbon. She needed to be on her own. She had to get out, just for a little. Celestia was alive.

She traced a path around the tables and to the open gate of the yard. Ivory and another guard that Twilight didn’t recognize waited on either side. The question in Ivory’s eyes was clear.

“I’m going for a walk,” Twilight said. “I’ll be right back, don’t worry.”

Ivory looked away. Twilight stepped through the gate and nobody stopped her.

She walked through the darkness without direction, eyes focused without seeing on the ground in front of her. The distant sound of music and laughter faded into the background along with the chirping of the crickets and the rustle of the wind running over the grass. Celestia was still alive. A light drizzle began to fall, and Twilight welcomed the feel of the cold droplets slapping against her back. There was a brief uproar from the party, and when it subsided it seemed that the villagers had taken the light rain as encouragement.

Celestia was out there. She was at Fellis as it collapsed. A pensive frown crawled over Twilight’s face. Philomena had been in the ruins of Fellis. Was she still following her old master? Had Twilight passed right over Celestia without noticing in her haste to confirm the fate of her friends? A wave of nausea passed over her. Celestia was alive. That was good. Stop fretting.

Celestia had been at Fellis when it collapsed. Correlation did not imply causation. Celestia was alive and she could be rescued. Once she had a spell theory for waking up Luna, it could be tested. Success could be refined and then applied to Celestia as well. Good.

“You lost, witch?”

Twilight was so deep in her thoughts that she nearly didn’t register the words. She looked up from her hooves for the first time and her blood ran cold. Gava was perched before her, on top of a boulder half-buried in the earth and silhouetted by the drizzling rain that sparkled in the moonlight.

Twilight stiffened, feeling her pulse quicken. Magic bubbled up inside her. It wanted to act, to remove the threat. She suppressed it. She couldn’t afford to lose control. “Gava.”

Gava grinned. “You remember my name. I’m flattered. What was yours again?”

Twilight was suddenly all too aware of how alone she was. She took some slow steps backwards. “What are you doing here?”

“Huh, weird name,” Gava said. She raised her forelegs, showing empty talons. “I’m just here to talk, alright? No need to get snappy.”

“You ate Rainbow’s eye.”

“That is true,” Gava said. She jumped down into the grass and began to advance, her steps slow and deliberate. “I did do that. On the other wing, you nearly wrecked my ship. I think you got the better end of that deal.”

“Nearly wasn’t near enough,” Twilight growled. She stole a quick glance behind her, but all she saw was the shadow of the Duke’s estate against the stars. Could she make a break for it? The griffon would surely catch her. She could risk a teleport, but what if she lost control? She looked back at the bounty hunter. “Why are you chasing us?”

“Y’know, that’s a good question.” Gava’s beak twisted into a dangerous grin. “I’ve had a lot of people ask me that. Friends, enemies, victims. At first it was money, of course. A Gifted like yourself, if subdued, would set me and my crew up for years.”

“My crew and I.”

Gava blinked. “What?”

“‘My crew and I’ is the proper way to say it,” Twilight said.

Gava sighed. “Whatever. It’s pretty clear to me that you’re not worth the trouble of capturing.”

“So then why are you here?” Twilight asked. She took another cautious step backwards. “Leave us alone if we’re not worth the trouble.”

“Not worth the trouble financially, no,” Gava said with a nod, matching each of Twilight’s steps with a longer one of her own. The distance between them grew shorter. “But y’know what you are? Dangerous. The most dangerous game. It’s not about the money anymore.”

Anger swelled in Twilight’s chest. “Stop right there!” She crouched down, allowing some magic to pool in her horn. She aimed the tip at Gava as if to cast a spell. “Don’t come any closer!”

Gava arched a brow, but complied. She sat back on her haunches.“Not a game,” she corrected, wagging a single talon. “A hunt. Very serious.” She fluffed her wings out, bringing a hand to her heart. “You’re my legacy and my dream, pony. You and your friends. I’ll be the only hunter in all of history who’ll be able to say that they caught the Purple Witch. And that’s a cause worth striving for.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Gava,” Twilight said. Her horn began to glow brighter. The darkness rolled over inside her, pushing her to fight. “You haven’t caught me yet.”

“No,” Gava agreed. She winked. “Not yet.”

A thrill of panic ran down Twilight’s spine. She sent a ping out around her, stiffening as she detected the figure crouched down behind her. There was a rustle of grass and she felt the wind of wingbeats on her flanks.

The shield spell was already in mind as she twisted around to face a pair of slitted amber eyes. Time slowed down as she saw the ring descending on her; glowing white runes were engraved into the iron.

Let the magic go, little flower.

Twilight felt The Other curled up inside her, coiled like a spring and eager to pounce. She hesitated.

The heavy iron ring slipped over the tip of her horn.

She cried out and fell backwards. No lavender shield sprang into being as she landed in the damp grass. The ring settled on the base of her horn, glowing a pale white as it held her magic back.

The thestral flashed a set of fanged teeth at her. “Gotcha.”

Twilight grit her teeth. She screamed her fury as she poured more magic into her horn. The Other’s voice echoed in her head. Destroy them! Release our power and show them what it is to face a goddess!

The glow of the iron ring grew brighter, but no magic came forth. No sparkling spears of energy tore their souls from their bodies. No radiant beams of magic burnt the flesh from their bones. Twilight lay in the wet grass screaming in impotent, mindless rage at the bounty hunters standing over her.

“Oh, shut up,” Gava said. Twilight watched as the griffon pulled the revolver from the holster fastened to her chest and brought the grip down on her head.

“That was creepy for you too, right?” Ana asked. “Like, wow, did you see that look in her eyes?”

Gava grimaced. The purple unicorn beneath them had deep bags under her eyes. “There’s something up with that mare. I’m almost worried she’ll break the ring.”

“She can’t break the ring,” Ana said. “I don’t care how strong she is. That thing’s pre-flood.”

Gava shrugged. “Guess we’ll see, huh?” She turned to a nearby copse of trees and let out a sharp whistle. A pair of earth ponies crept out of the shadows, eyeing the unconscious unicorn as if they were afraid she was going to suddenly open her eyes and evaporate them all. “Take her to the Screech. And tell Top we’re good to go.”

The hirelings nodded. Gingerly, they braced the limp purple body, still giving off a pale white light from the ring on its horn, and began to walk away.

“And don’t touch that ring!” Ana added. “She’ll probably kill you if you do.”

“Do we really have to tell them that?” Gava asked, turning back to her sister.

Ana shrugged. “You never know. Some people are dumb enough to attack a ship full of Gifted with unknown capabilities in a head-on assault, after all.”

Gava narrowed her eyes.

Ana nudged her with a wing. “You’re welcome.”

“You truly are my better half,” Gava drawled.

“Smart half, at least.”

Gava rolled her eyes. “So that’s the witch down. You said the second unicorn was the other big threat?”

Ana nodded. “As long as you’re wearing clothes, yeah. I think that holster would be enough, even. I’ll handle her. Pinkie Pie is a wildcard.”

“That just leaves Dyejob, the cowpony, and that skinny yellow one,” Gava said. She turned towards the soft glow of the illuminated manor in the distance. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”

“And Titus and his soldiers,” Ana added. “Can’t forget about them. There’s a lot of ponies in there.”

“I’m sure the Duchess will be more than enough to balance that out,” Gava said. She flared her wings. “You ready?”

“More ready than you, that’s for sure.”

Again, Gava rolled her eyes. She took flight with a couple powerful beats of her wings. She couldn’t hear the thestral’s wings, but she knew that she was following.

They were together now. No prey could escape them.

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