• Published 5th Jul 2012
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Where Loyalties Lie: Honor Guard - LoyalLiar



Rainbow Dash saves Princess Luna's life, and uncovers a conspiracy bigger than Equestria itself.

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II - Sacrifice

Chapter II: Sacrifice
- - -

Going Solo dressed well below her station in life. Despite the hundred-thousand bits she turned over in black on an average year, her rough-and-tumble vest earned her sneers of derision from the upper crust of Canterlot's insufferable nobility.

Fortunes had turned sour for her in the past few days, however, when one of her wagons of 'discretionary' goods had been confiscated by the Guard. She was thirty big figures in the red in a single day, and it was starting to wear on her nerves. She floated along the road slowly, with heavy wing-beats that slapped the air far harder than was necessary to keep her aloft.

She was headed for her favorite joint in the city - a pasta shop that didn't ask questions when she followed up her spaghetti with scotch instead of some prissy wine. It lay at the edge of the Palace district, putting her pleasantly far away from all her prospective customers, or so she thought.

She looked up when a shadow passed over her head. Nopony was there to be seen, but a moment later, a gust of wind accompanied another pegasus mare - no, barely more than a filly, really - taking up a walking pace beside her. She was a sort of light blue color, that the snooty ponies probably had a better name for, Sea-salt, or something? Whatever. Her incredible mane was more interesting; it was striped in a magnificent rainbow pattern, with each section perfectly separated into its own hue.

"Hey, are you Going Solo?"

"Not if you're asking," she answered, never able to resist a cocky answer. It didn't seem to have gone over well with the young mare, though, who shook her head and wrinkled her nose at the joke.

"Look, I heard you were who I should ask if I was looking for some, uh… you know…"

Going Solo didn't exactly take the words well. She threw her gaze around the area, then clamped a hoof over the mare's mouth, before pulling her into a nearby alleyway.

"Mmmpph! Mmm!"

"Shut up and listen, newbie. If you're really interested in picking up a habit, yeah, I'm the mare to see. But the first thing you've gotta learn is that you don't go talking about things like that in the nice part of town. You'll get picked up. Now, what exactly do you want?"

The dealer lowered her hoof from the other mare's mouth, only to earn an undecided "Uh…"

"I carry a lot of good stuff, you know what I'm saying? Dried Nightshade, Whispersalt, the powdered Rubies dragons get a kick off of… I've even got some beef if that's what you're into."

The mare's face turned from its usual light sapphire color to a funny shade of green for just a moment, before shaking her head. "I can go for some Nightshade, I guess."

Going Solo nodded, flicking open a pouch on her vest, and pulled out a few small bags, filled with purple and white dust. The other item she slipped out clearly went unnoticed, as her 'customer' was too busy staring at the powdered goods. "Let me ask you, who'd you hear about me from?"

"Uhh…" the mare looked around nervously.

"Thought so." The rainbow-maned mare's eyes grew surprisingly wide when she found a bladed horseshoe pressing against her throat. "Who sent you, huh? Was it Grizz again, trying to- what is it he says? Clean up the streets? Or are you with one of the nobles this time? Or the Griffins?"

"I'm… not…" she managed to answer, trying desperately to squeeze out the words without cutting her own throat on the blade.

"She's with me, Solo."

The mare squirmed, feeling the blade press tighter against her throat as Going Solo's turned in surprise to face the approaching stallion. Even beneath the hooded cloak he had covered himself in, his identity was as plain as day.

"Shining Armor?"

"Not expecting to see me again so soon, Solo?"

"Not really, no," she responded with unveiled spite. "Having fun entrapping ponies today? Don't you have anything better to do?"

Shining Armor walked forward slowly, eyeing the smaller, sprightlier pegasus with caution. "I'm not here to arrest you, though you've given me ample reason to do so."

"Well, I'm pretty sure you're not here after what I'm selling, since you already took almost all of it away. So let's cut to the chase. Why are you here?"

"I'm here to offer you a deal, Solo. You let go, and tell Rainbow Dash everything you know about the poison she's going to describe to you, and then answer my questions. Then I let you walk away, with the cart my troops took earlier. You get that stuff out of Canterlot, and its somepony else's problem as far as I'm concerned."

Solo's eyes shot to the rainbow mare, who was still fearfully eyeing the leg holding a blade to her throat. The dealer turned back to the guardspony. "That's a good deal. Too good, in fact."

"You have information that we need. I don't like having your goods on the street, but it's better than the alternative."

The mare nodded. "For arguments sake, what happens if I refuse?"

"I remove your hoof from Rainbow's throat with magic, then arrest you for treason, and conspiracy to assassinate Princess Celestia."

"What? You're joking, right?" Shining Armor shook his head, and a massive weight seemed to settle on Solo's shoulders. Who was crazy enough to go after Celestia? Wouldn't that put out the sun?

"First question. Rainbow is going to describe a flower to you. We need to know what it is, and if you carry it."

The mare pressed against the wall wiggled for a moment, and Solo released her. A hostage wasn't going to do much good against Shining Armor anyway. After a moment of checking her throat for cuts, Rainbow Dash spoke up. "Right, uh... The flower is gold. Not, like, yellow colored; it looks like its covered in metal. It's got petals that sort of curve in, like a tulip, but they don't close as tightly, and they're pointy on the end. So spill the beans. What is it?"

Going Solo wasn't exactly a fan of her tone. "I don't carry anything like that. Sounds like something from Grivridge or Zebrica. The shape might be a lotus or a lily, but I've never heard of a flower made of gold - at least, not an edible one."

She hadn't given them any real information, but Shining Armor seemed satisfied with the answer. "Then has anyone approached you trying to buy poisons in the city?"

"Well, you'd call everything I sell a poison, probably, but most of the time it's just kids looking for a quick high. There was one thing, though. Somepony by the North End - across from Donut Joe's place. It's a run-down old noble's house, but there were a few ponies there. One of them-"

"Breed?"

"Unicorn. A mare, with a black mane. She wanted a bunch of whisper salt. It's usually used to slip into somepony's drink, make them drowsy or whatever. She bought enough to kill somepony, but she asked for it separated out into doses."

Shining Armor nodded. "I appreciate your honesty."

"And I appreciate not getting hung or arrested," Solo answered. "Where can I get my cart?"

"Drop by the station tomorrow morning."

"I'm not going to Guardspony central!"

"Fair enough. It's your cart."

Before she could protest further, the Guardspony captain turned his back, and walked away. His cyan mare-friend followed closely.

"It's a stupid color," Going Solo muttered to herself, before turning back toward the call of precious pasta and scotch.

- - -

"Now, you're going to wait out here. Take a couple bits, go get a coffee." Shining Armor floated a handful of coins up in the air, and gestured with his horn toward Donutopolis, the premier guard hangout in the city of Canterlot. "I'll be back soon."

"But you might-"

"You nearly got decapitated, Rainbow!" Shining Armor slowly realized that his voice had attracted the attention of several pedestrians near their destination. He narrowed both his eyes and his volume. "I'm not about to let you put yourself in danger that way again. I only let you come in the first place because I can't trust the other guards. That doesn't mean I'm going to let you get hurt myself. If you hear something, I want you to fly as fast as you can, and get somepony from the Guard. Tell them that you need a Tactical Squad, and then lead them here."

"But what if-"

"No!" The unicorn stallion glared. "I will bury your hooves in the ground if I have to, Rainbow Dash. I signed up for the guard knowing I'd have to deal with things like this; it's not your job."

With those blunt words, the Captain of the Royal Guard edged his way into the ramshackle doorway that led into the equally ramshackle house across the street from Donut Joe's shop. The mundane looking snack bar was Dash's destination. She walked slowly, wings folded lazily against her side, as she wondered what she might find on the menu inside.

It was just past dinnertime. The sky had begun to turn pink, and everything was quiet in Canterlot. Seven o'clock, and all's well. That was a lie, but it was what the handful of ponies passing in the street seemed to believe. Dash ignored them, and pushed open the door to the restaurant, contemplating only how she was filled with a sort of longing hollowness. The inside of the shop would have been empty, save for two ponies. One was the scruffy owner of the shop itself. The other, a unicorn mare with a cloudy blue coat and a black mane, who brushed past Rainbow in the doorway.

"Sorry," she offered unfeelingly.

"No problem," Dash muttered back, over her shoulder. The motion was small, but it was enough to draw her attention to the mare's destination. She walked straight across the street, without urgency, but with a definite deliberateness. The ramshackle door opened with a gentle tug of her magic.

"Hey, you're one of Twilight's friends, right?"

Dash turned around, to where Donut Joe himself had finally looked up from a coffee mug he was polishing.

"Sorry - just remembered I've got to go."

"Wait, let me-" The jingling of welcome bells accompanied the strike of glass on wood as his door swung shut again.

Dash walked as calmly as she could across the street. Her mind didn't even consider the idea of following Shining Armor's directions. If she did, he'd be dead.

The door creaked open to reveal what had once been a beautiful entryway. A rotting hat rack stood in the corner, leaning on a broken leg. A mostly-crumbled staircase led to an equally destroyed second story. Boarded up doors concealed rooms on either side. In front of Rainbow, an upturned carpet revealed its secret. A trapdoor lead to a basement staircase, which in turn lead to a dark hallway and a door concealing a distant light. There was no sign of the darker blue unicorn. She descended the steps with apprehension, each hoof fall accompanied by a puff of dust and a wheezing creak of ancient, probably moldy wood.

Below, Rainbow couldn't miss the flashes of light and the gasp of two stallions in combat. A sudden crack was accompanied by the shaking of the wall. The door in front of Dash smelled of teak and mold, but with a faint copper undertone. Blood. Gilda had taught her the scent in her youth with a talon to the nose, and she had never forgotten it.

She ran forward, and kicked open the door. It exploded in a burst of splinters, revealing a scene of chaos, which the Bearer of Loyalty had only a moment to take in.

Shining Armor, far side of the room. Bruised face. Bleeding. Tired.

Guardspony. Morning Star? Dented armor, bloodied nose. Wing pinned to his side. Injured?

Wine barrels. Broken glass.

Duck.

The gold-shod hoof soared over her head by mere inches, and it wasn't the sort she knew from flight camp. A blow like that wouldn't end in a bloody nose; it would end in a morgue.

She was under him; his extended leg in midair over her back. She flung herself up, with a hard hoof to his ribcage. It wasn't a proud uppercut, but its strength was unquestionable. It shook her foreleg painfully, but she felt him stagger. He roared in pain, rolled to the side, and lunged. A beam of pink magic burst on his armor. It left a singed smear and a dent, but he didn't even slow down. His wings tensed. His stance lowered, ready to pounce.

Dash waited for the last possible second. She had expected him to take wing, but his running lunge worked just as well. His front legs lifted off the ground, and she threw herself forward. He was ready for a stomp, to crack a neck or a wing or a leg, but she was fast. Much faster than he had expected. She threw herself into his rear legs, and swept them out from beneath him with a wing. He collapsed onto his face. The ringing of a metal helmet filled the room, sliding free of his head. Rainbow spun as quickly as she could, readying a hoof for his jaw, but her motion was too slow. Her head twisted just in time to see a burst of pink light strike true.

The helmet rolled free of its head, like a coin tossed on the street side. Ring, ring, ring, ring… It grew faster for a moment, before its pulse stopped completely.

The head it left behind was a bold blonde, with a long, fiery red mane. Scorches on the stallion's forehead and neck marked his cause of death beyond any shadow of a doubt. He lay still, his eyes glazed over. Dash felt sick. Her stomach recoiled within her, as she stared at the wisps of smoke that rose in the dark room.

Shining Armor limped forward slowly, and placed a calm hoof over the eyes of the late guardspony, shutting his eyes.

"I wish it hadn't come to this."

Dash looked up at the room, taking it in for a moment. There were dozens of old wine barrels, though most of them smelled like they'd turned to vinegar. Shining Armor had apparently been thrown into a wall of wine bottles, as they were the source of the glass that covered his side of the floor, as well as the countless tiny cuts leaking blood across his otherwise immaculate coat. A particularly large piece of glass was slowly pulled from its place in his shoulder with the soft glow of his magic.

In the corner behind the corpse sat a desk, matted in an inch of thick dust, where another broken wine bottle had ruined a beautiful journal. Beside it sat an equally dusty cot, with half-made sheets and a moth-ridden pillow.

Shining Armor took a few slow, obviously painful steps, as the blood in his coat began to dry into a sickening crust. He looked tired, and angry.

"You shouldn't have come." Shining's voice was too fatigued to shout, but the disappointment was obvious.

"I was fine! Besides, you're the one who got hurt."

"That's my job, Rainbow. Now, why didn't you listen to me?"

"There was another pony. A mare. She came in here after you."

"Well she's not here now," Shining Armor sighed.

"Now what?" Dash asked.

"Now, we go to the Academy. We sit through a long ceremony, and pretend nothing happened. Tomorrow, I'll pull some strings and track down this mare you saw. Otherwise, everypony believes everything is good…" The Captain staggered for a moment, but caught himself before Dash could get beneath his weight. "… and that means that everything is."

Dash didn't know what to say in response, so she let the stallion continue with his words.

"You fight well, Rainbow, even if you shouldn't have had to." Shining Armor stepped through the room's sole doorway, and fell sideways onto Rainbow as his hoof slipped on the first step. She struggled to hold him up, until he took back his balance. "Where did you learn to do that?"

"I had a friend at flight camp. A griffon. Are you okay?"

The Captain cracked a quick smile, and ignored the question. "Should have known. You stand like they-" His hoof slipped again.

"Look, let me help you." Dash tried to pull one of his legs over her shoulders, but he pushed her away.

"I can't walk out of here leaning on you."

"Why not? You're hurt!"

"Because you're a civilian, and I'm the Captain of the Guard."

"So?"

Shining Armor finally managed to pull himself up the last step, ending in front of the door to the ramshackle house at the North End of Canterlot. "I know it doesn't matter to you, Rainbow, and that's what I like about you, but there are lots of creatures out there - not just ponies, but Griffins and Elk and Boars and even Dragons, who'd jump all over us if they saw that the Guard had to lean on civilians. It's easier this way. I've got to carry my own burdens."

The Guardspony staggered out the door, and into the twilight air. The sky had turned a brilliant purple, well past sunset, but it was not yet time for the moon to take its stage in the sky. "I could use one favor, though, Rainbow."

"Yeah?"

"I'd really love a cup of coffee. You still have that change I gave you?"

Dash smiled, with a curt nod. "On it, Captain."

- - -

Twenty minutes later, Rainbow Dash sat across a tiny linoleum table from Captain Shining Armor, cupping a drink that could barely be called a 'coffee', swimming with sugar and cream, and buried beneath a mound of whipped cream. Donut Joe had suggested it, noting that it was what Twilight ordered when she aced an exam (or, as Shining Armor put it, whenever she took one). The trial of the previous hour had been as taxing as anything Rainbow had done in a long time, and it seemed to deserve the drink.

The twenty minutes of delay had served ample time for the two to overcome the stress and tension of a literal matter of life and death. Across the table, Shining Armor's straight black cup was slowly growing cold, as he focused his attention on cleaning the glass and blood from his legs. Without looking up, he broke their silence. "Thank you, again, Rainbow."

"For what?" she asked, between sips of her scorching drink.

"You saved my life, down there."

"Well, I wasn't about to just let you fight him alone. That would be totally not cool." She twisted her head quickly, throwing her rainbow locks aside in what she must have thought were a smooth way. They landed in front of her eyes.

After a moment of silence, they both burst out laughing at the ridiculous display. When the pounding of the table finally ceased, Shining Armor leaned back in his seat, and smiled with a contented sigh. "You'd make a great guardspony, you know that, Rainbow?"

The mirth on Dash's face drained away in an instant. "Not my style."

"Hey, I didn't mean anything by it. I know you'd probably rather be with your friends. I bet Twilight would have my head if I got you to move up here."

"Yeah," she said with slow apathy. Rainbow turned to stare out the window beside their table. The purple sky seemed to be changing so slowly. "I don't want to have to make those sacrifices."

The Captain knew better than to press whatever issue was bothering the pegasus mare, so he instead turned his attention back to pressing the wounds on his leg. It wasn't long, however, before another thought crossed his mind.

"Can I ask you another favor, Rainbow?" he managed through gritted teeth, as he focused his magic on manipulating the bloody rag on his leg.

"Sure thing," she answered. The few moments of contemplation seemed to have returned the perky energy to her voice.

Shining Armor set his rag down, and pulled a golden disc out of some concealed part of his armor. It floated slowly across the table, before landing in Dash's waiting hooves. "This will prove I sent you. Tell the guards that I sent you to speak with the Commander."

"The limping one with the black armor?"

Shining nodded. "Tell him what happened."

"Why? He seems like a jerk."

"Because the Princess' security is his job, and it isn't my place to decide how they're guarded. That's all I need, Rainbow. Just the message. Then you can meet me at the Academy."

"Okay." Rainbow glanced down at her drink, then downed the entire thing in a single tip. Before Shining could say another word, cyan wings carried the filly from the restaurant. The ring of the bell over the door was audible only for a moment before Rainbow soared into the open evening sky. She spared a few moments to enjoy the altitude, then set her sights on the palace. No point in wasting time.

In the air, Dash let her mind wander. What would the Commander say? He reminded her of the gym teacher from Flight Camp, only he didn't actually shout. Maybe that was scarier… She just had to tell him what happened though, right? No big deal. They'd taken care of everything. The Princess was safe, and everything was okay.

It didn't take long to get to her destination, even though Rainbow was barely flying at what she would call a 'fast' pace. She landed on the drawbridge leading in to the main doors, where a pair of guardsponies stepped forward.

"The Palace is closed-"

"Yeah, yeah, look, Shining Armor sent me." Rainbow offered the golden emblem she had been given. "He said I have to go see Commander… something."

The armored pegasus scrutinized the emblem for longer than Dash was happy with waiting, before offering a stiff nod. "This way."

For the second time that day, Rainbow was led through the hallways of the Royal Palace; this time, without the obnoxious egghead rants that Twilight and her brother had shared. The stained glass windows that decorated the widest public halls took on a new, more sinister air in the purple light. They passed Rainbow's own depiction twice; the light that shone through Nightmare Moon and Discord alike sent chills down Rainbow's spine.

It wasn't until the guard rounded a corner that a nagging question became an obvious fact.

"This is the way to the Princess' room, isn't it?"

Sure enough, Dash and her escort rounded the corner to the grand hall, where glorious stairs led up toward Celestia's private quarters. "Yes. The Commander's quarters are just down the hall."

"I know the way, then." Dash took off. "Thanks." The guardspony said nothing in response, so she simply flew up to the doors and pushed them open.

Celestia's hallway, with its gold and ivory, was oddly and terribly quiet. It held no stained glass, or windows at all, but instead, was lined with busts and paintings and tapestries, all devoid of label or identification. Though they had seemed fine earlier in the day, their eyes now seemed to follow the cyan mare down the hall. She wasn't about to let something so uncool get to her, though, even if nopony was watching. She shook off the feeling of creeping dread, and strode boldly down the hall, past Celestia's decorated doorway, to a corner.

On turning, it became abundantly clear to Dash just why Shining Armor had referred to the hallway as 'the gauntlet'. A dozen suits of armor stood, polished, along the walls of the hallway. They were gold and silver, black and white, steel and gem, with armored wings and holes for horns, and all manner of other peculiarities. Most interesting, however, was that while the metal of the armors was maintained perfectly against rust and age, many bore gaping holes and gashes; the sort of wounds nopony just walked away from.

At the far end of the hall was a door, marked as distinct only by the quality of its woodwork. Dash approached it with only the slightest hesitation, before she found it looming over her. With a quick series of slight strikes, she knocked. The door creaked open, unlocked and unbarred.

"Uh, hello? Mister, uh, Commander? Anypony?"

It didn't come as any great surprise that no answer was offered, so Dash pushed her way inside. What she found was a totally plain office, with a desk, chairs, and a few other sparse amenities. A doorway on the right wall led to some other room Dash could only guess at. The left wall was covered in portraits of ponies Dash didn't recognize. The only other notable feature was the ivy growing on a climbing pole on the windowsill.

Dash approached the desk slowly, and glanced over a clump of papers, only half-way organized. They looked a lot like weather scheduling forms, only instead of cloud formations, they held an odd assortment of locations and names that Dash didn't dare try to pronounce.

She turned to the window, and glanced outside. The sun was setting, so close to its curtain call that it looked more like a sliver than an orb above the horizon. She would be late, if she didn't find this guy soon. She stepped away from the window, and in turning, knocked down the ivy pole. It tumbled across the ground, spilling dirt from the pot at its base, until it finally came to rest at the foot of the unopened door.

Dash did a quick double take to make sure nopony had seen her mistake, before moving to pick up the plant. It looked no worse for the wear; as well trimmed as it already was. Most of the body was just a long thin stalk, and it barely had any flowers remaining; the only one she saw was a tiny golden bulb. It looked almost as if it had been cast from metal, rather than growing that shade.

She almost gasped aloud when it hit her. The plant! No time to waste, she tried the only door left in the room, only to find it locked. She spun, and kicked it with all her might, in a full, double-hoofed buck. Wood cracked, but did not give. Again, she threw herself against it, and on the third set of kicks, the wood exploded inward.

Inside was a bedroom, but she didn't bother with the time to take it in. There was a body, lying on the bed. A pegasus, and a familiar one at that. Blonde fur stained with blood, and a fiery red mane. The room reeked with the stench of decay. Rainbow's stomach rolled, and her eyes struggled against her will to look away from the horror. When she was finally able to bring herself to look again, painful as it was, she began to see the details. The blood on the back, spread all over the sheets of the bed, did not come from a killing blow; it came from something worse. He had been a pegasus, but without wings, how would anypony be able to tell?

"What… what do I do?" Rainbow's words were strained by the effort it took her to control her stomach. Did she go get the guard? Tell the Princess? Yeah, that made sense. Rainbow turned to walk, but her mind was spinning far faster. The Princess wasn't back in the Palace. She was at the Academy, with Twilight and Shining Armor… and the other guardsponies.

What was the corpse doing here, in the Commander's bedroom? And if Morning Star was here, who had she and Shining Armor fought? The answer that came to mind replaced the bile in Rainbow's throat with ice.

Rainbow turned to the window, and dove through it without a further thought. The glass gave to her force, and she shot off toward the Royal Academy, pumping her wings like she never had before. On a better day, she might have cared about the beauty she left in her wake, as the shards of glass fell glistening through the rainbow streak she painted in the night sky. That day, there was no time to think.

- - -

The Academy arrived in a mere few minutes, which seemed to be the longest in the mare's life. It seemed to fit the depth of the situation. The structure consisted of a massive dark stone tower with looming walls and toothed battlements, patrolled by countless white and gray guards in gilded armor. The only words it added to Canterlot's skyline were 'old' and 'intimidating'. The eyes of the guards searched the outskirts of the Academy grounds, with no regard for the danger that lay within the dark fortress.

Dash rushed to the front doors, where two guards were waiting. Before she could even catch her breath, one of them stepped forward. "Rainbow Dash, Captain Armor has requested we lead you to the-"

"Just tell me where they are!"

The guard's neck pulled back, as his eyebrows rose. "The balcony on the Great Tower, overlooking the Courtyard."

"Thanks!"

She wouldn't bother with the doors; it would be faster to simply fly over the wall. Her wings beat the air as she climbed, corkscrewing up the tower until she found the balcony.

A hundred feet into the air, she cleared the wall of the academy, and gained an astonishing view of the great courtyard. Some three-thousand ponies had gathered before a massive stage. Glowing lights and banners, all decorated in magic to pulse colors and signs, were arranged around a wide area with rows of cushions. A brilliant, uplifting fanfare was playing, from no source the racing mare could identify. The audience paid no mind to the decorations, though. They had all taken their eyes from the stage, staring up at the sky. Above the courtyard a thousand feet over Dash's head, hovering a hundred feet clear of the tallest of the Academy's towers was Princess Luna. Her focus was on the stars, which slowly popped into view, one at a time. There was a little pride to be had as Dash observed the awe with which the crowd looked at her.

Rainbow kept shooting up; a few eyes looked away from Luna's display at the newcomer, but most were too entranced by the power of the Princess of the Night.

Finally, Dash's wings pulled her level with the balcony. Princess Celestia, Twilight, and Shining Armor were all sitting there, along with the traitor himself. Rainbow wasn't about to waste any time. She pulled around, forcing herself into the narrow gap between Twilight and the Commander.

"Uh, Rainbow, what are you doing?" Twilight asked.

"No time, Twilight!" The pegasus thrust forth an accusatory hoof, which she pressed against the Commander's black armor. "Shining, it's him! He's an impostor!"

Rainbow was disappointed when Shining Armor failed to leap into action. Instead, he glanced around awkwardly. "What are you talking about? We already dealt with this."

The looks Rainbow earned from Twilight and Celestia only belied further confusion. The Commander, for his part, wore the same face of all the guardsponies. His perfect white expression grew narrow, but did nothing to betray his dark secret.

Rainbow had to show them. She lunged at the Commander. He responded with all the military training that the imposter should not have had. A stiff wing caught Rainbow's neck, obscuring her vision with feathers and forcing her to the ground. She threw her weight to her left side, trying to stand up, only to bear a blunt, crushing weight on her wings. He was standing on her, and try as she might, she couldn't rise.

"Rainbow!" Twilight cried with shame. "What are you doing?"

"This is the assassin!" Rainbow shouted back, with a volume that would have caught the audience, were it not for the obliviously uplifting tone playing in the background.

With as much force as she could muster, she lunged up at his face. Pain tore through her, as she felt the flesh of her wings rip beneath his stalwart hoof, but the motion did fulfill its purpose. Her hoof struck his face barely more than a glancing blow, but it was enough to send his ebony helm toppling from its perch. Her body slumped again to the ground, and the helm fell with her. Two painful thuds issued into the air, one sharp, the other dull. Both bore finality.

Squinting in pain, Dash waited for the inevitable onslaught. It didn’t come. When she had waited long enough, her eyes slowly slid open. Overhead, they met the gaze of a pair of harsh brown eyes attached to the scarred face of an aging stallion. It was the Commander's face; not the impostor she had been expecting.

He looked down at her, scornfully. "Explain."

"I found the body in your room," Rainbow snapped back. "Morning Star's body. And the poisonous flowers from the tea-"

"What?" Shining Armor stepped forward, horn glowing with potent magic, and pointed straight at the Commander's face. Though she lacked his battle-ready magic, Celestia's face wore a similar judgmental appearance. "I killed Morning Star on North Street, an hour ago."

At that point, Twilight joined the conversation with rapid words that were quickly lost in the flurry of words between the Commander and Shining Armor. The voices into the air tangled a muffled cacophony, only restrained by the unspoken agreement not to alert the crowd below of the royal plot slowly being unfolded over their heads. Only one pony seemed to be keeping her head calm. Without speaking a word, Princess Celestia merely unfurled her wings, and there was silence.

"Thank you. Commander, explain yourself."

To Rainbow's gratitude, he began by taking a slow, stiff step off of her wings, allowing her back to her hooves. "Three days ago, Corporal Reckoning identified a plot from within the Guard against you."

"Why was I not informed?"

"The information was vague, from an unreliable source. I didn't feel the need to trouble you. I informed Captain Armor, and put some of my troops on investigation. They didn't turn anything up. The plot seemed to have died down until today, when Lieutenant Star tried to poison Princess Luna and Rainbow Dash with gilded lotus."

Celestia's face took on more emotion in that moment than Rainbow had ever seen, or even imagined. Her eyes grew wide, her pupils sharp, and something resembling fear overtook her. "Luna's bodyguard-"

"Morning was loyal. He was the pony I tasked with investigating the possibility of a traitor. I imagine he's been dead for more than a week. Captain Armor, you claim that you fought and killed him earlier today?"

He nodded firmly. "Up by Donut Joe's, in that run-down-"

"Details later," the Commander snapped, before turning his gaze to Rainbow. "You said you found Morning's body in my quarters?"

"Yeah. He… He had his wings cut off."

"Common way to deal with Pegasi prisoners," the Commander explained, offering no care for Dash's obvious issues with the fact. "Captain Armor, I was wrong. The traitor is mine, not yours."

"What do you mean?"

"One of the Honor Guard intends to betray the Princess."

"How, exactly, did you decide that?" Rainbow asked, taking a step forward, and puffing out her chest. "I still don't trust you. The body was in your room." She thrust out an accusatory hoof, which pressed heavily against his black armor. He seemed not to have noticed.

The answer came from a source the Pegasus had not expected. "Rainbow, you can trust him," Celestia answered, in as calming a tone as she could muster. "The Commander has been my personal bodyguard for years. I know things may appear to be…" For the first time ever, Celestia seemed to hang on her words.

"Difficult?" Twilight suggested.

"Yes, thank you. Things may seem difficult, but I ask that you give him the benefit of the doubt."

Dash looked back at the stallion, and watched him for just a moment. She still didn't trust him. His wiry gray neck didn't seem to match the powerful, young white body gifted to him by his armor. He ignored the mare's attentions and instead returned his gaze to Shining Armor.

"Take Princess Celestia and the guests back to the Guard Headquarters, as quietly as you can. When Princess Luna is done, we will join you."

"Not the Palace?"

The Commander clearly did not like being questioned, judging simply from the way his face wrinkled up in response to Shining Armor's words. "Has the traitor gained access to your quarters, Captain?"

Shining Armor gave a stiff salute. "Understood. Princess, Twilight, Rainbow, if you could come with me."

"Of course." Celestia bowed to fit her towering head beneath the doorway into the Academy's interior. Twilight Sparkle followed slowly, eyes darting around the room from shadow to shadow.

Dash waited for a moment before following the rest of her group. She turned back to the Commander one last time, and saw him pacing calmly at the edge of the balcony. His every step fell in perfect rhythm, as his head swiveled between a half-dozen points on the wall overlooking the courtyard. There, amidst the towers and the gargoyles and the shadows cast by the lights below, Dash saw guardsponies, clad in golden armor. They watched not Luna, but the crowd below.

"Come on, Rainbow," Shining Armor called from inside the building.

Nodding, Dash broke her gaze away from the Commander, and tried to settle the rumbling in her stomach. Ahead, Twilight and Princess Celestia were walking deep into the halls of the Academy. Dash took to wing to catch up with them. When she landed behind Twilight, the unicorn jumped, and her horn erupted with magic. The pegasus mare barely ducked in time to avoid a burst of pink magic claiming her head. It instead struck the stone wall of the space, where it dissipated harmlessly.

"Watch it, Twilight!"

"Sorry."

Celestia stepped between the two friends, and knelt down to match the level of their eyes. "I think we've all have a very stressful day. I'm very sorry you two had to be a part of any of this. Now, let's get somewhere safe. Things will be better in the morning."

Celestia then returned to Shining Armor's side, leaving the two friends to follow in their shadows. The Guard Captain's horn illuminated the way through the halls, up until the dark hallways gave way to a starry sky. Outside, the streets were empty, marked by street lights, starlight, and a fell wind that settled Rainbow's feathers the wrong way.

Despite the comforting words of the most powerful pony in the world, Rainbow's gut remained less than convinced. In fact, it grumbled audibly in protest.

"You all right, Rainbow?" Twilight asked.

"Not really." She took a deep breath and shook her head. The dread refused to fade. "Something just feels wrong. I still don't trust him."

"Rainbow, everything's going to be fine. Shining Armor is here with us, and so is the Princess. Nopony is going to try anything."

"I'm not worried about us, Twilight. Shining Armor said the traitor was after us, but he tried to poison Luna-" Rainbow stopped mid-sentence, and the silence said far more of her urgency than the words that had preceded it.

"Rainbow, what are you…" Dash streaked into the night sky, without a word of further explanation, leaving her unicorn friend to simply mutter. "…doing?"

The air was irrelevant to Rainbow, for the very first time in her entire life. It didn't feel good, or bad. It didn't invigorate her, or sap her strength with every beat of her wings. Had it not been present at all, she might very well not have noticed, so great was her urgency. She cleared the Academy wall without so much as a glance at its security. The guardsponies looked up at her, but whether because they knew her or because they could not catch her, none bothered to try and stop her.

On what had until only moments previously been the Royal Balcony, the Commander continued his smooth paces. His head swiveled from guard to guard to guard to guard, then lingered on Luna as he turned his body, only to begin the cycle again.

Rainbow approached slowly, hesitantly, and she carried herself low to the ground. Her body was tensed, as half her muscles urged her on, and the rest begged her to flee. The tap of her hooves against the smooth stonework eventually stopped the Commander stopped in his paces. The last chance to flee was gone when he turned to face Rainbow. "What are you doing here?"

"I figured you out, Commander. You told us to leave so you'd be alone to go after Luna."

"Is that so?" The Commander's scarred, twisted face spun itself into a sickening smile. "What do you intend to do about it? Fight me?"

Rainbow hadn't really gotten to that stage of her plan. She was hoping that the answer would have somehow been obvious, but there he was, waiting.

"I'll stop you. "

"Then I suppose you should get started." The stallion turned back to Luna, and put a hoof on the railing of the balcony.

Rainbow took off and shot forward, with her forehooves ready to strike. Despite her speed, she watched what followed as though she was crawling at a snail's pace. A misty blue magic enveloped the base of the Commander's wings, and then with a sickening, elongated ripping, they tore free from his back and flew forward. Flesh should not have made the sound of fabric, but the noise came out nevertheless. A few droplets of blood spilled from the severed ends, but nowhere near as much as ought to have been present. Nausea overcame Dash's stomach, and her will to charge. Only inertia kept her going. She lowered her head, and felt the limp, icy feathers collide against her, battering her before falling almost silently to the ground. Her gaze followed them, and lingered for some time.

When Dash finally looked up, the Commander was gone. All that remained were the wings, and their fallen feathers.

Blonde feathers. Morning Star's feathers.

There wasn't any time to think on this revelation, however, as a powerful kick struck her ribs from the left. Rainbow threw open her wing in response, hoping to catch the Commander. When she spun, no one was there.

She stood, alone, panting with a potent combination of fear, fury, and disgust. She turned, searching the area as quickly as she could, but he was gone. Her focus turned to the gargoyles adorning the nearby roof. They were the perfect place to hide - especially for a gray stallion.

A quick pump of her wings put her amongst the shadows and the statues. She threw a quick glance over her shoulder, before continuing. Luna's magic still enveloped her, apparently keeping her mind from the outside world.

"Good," Rainbow muttered to herself, before continuing slowly. "Stay there, Princess." Whether the words were meant for Luna's benefit or her own, Dash didn't know. Her head twitched from gargoyle to gargoyle, tapping every one that came within reach with a wingtip or a hoof. Each and every one was stone. The further Rainbow went, the more her mind filled in the omnipresent shadows with wispy mirages of the traitorous Captain.

She stepped around a corner, and found herself at the top of the Academy tower. The slope of the roof must have connected it to the balcony below. It was high - nearly as high a vantage point as Princess Luna herself. Offering a quick glance backward, Rainbow saw only the statues she had passed. That left only one possibility.

As quickly and quietly as she could, the pegasus sidled along the narrow stones that led to the stone crown at the top of the Royal Academy's highest tower. She had nearly traversed the crenelated stonework, when a shadow caught her eye to the left. She turned, but saw nothing there.

Still distracted, Rainbow's jaw was suddenly smashed by a hoof from the right side. Bone slipped and skidded against her skull, sending searing pain as her body was thrown to the smooth stones of the tower's roof. She bounced, and rolled, before coming to a stop at the edge of the battlements, overlooking the thousand foot drop to the courtyard below.

When the spots on her vision cleared, Rainbow looked up just in time to see the Commander rear up, and bring both his forehooves down on her right front leg. The pain was indescribable. The limb was broken - maybe beyond repair. Rainbow shouted, but no noise came out. She was alone in her agony, as a dark tunnel began to swallow up the edges of her vision and a faint ringing filled her ears.

"I'll have to thank the Commander for his armor," came a feminine whisper just beside Rainbow's still-ringing ear. Heat rolled over her coat from the closeness of the speaker's breath. "The illusion enchantments are incredible. You looked straight at me and you couldn't tell."

Rainbow struggled to throw another hoof, and was rewarded with a blade against her throat for her efforts.

"Please, don't spoil the fun. I'll tell you, it's hard to layer an illusion under another one - especially one as powerful as a Guardspony's armor, yet it fooled everypony but you. Now it's your turn. You get to be just like a storybook detective, Rainbow Dash. Tell me, how did you figure it out? What gave me away?"

Dash began with a gasp, as frigid air suddenly rushed into her lungs. She didn't recall holding her breath. In the heat of rushing breaths that followed, the darkness and the blur left her vision. They were replaced by an indigo unicorn mare with a swirling black, purple, and blue mane. At the back of her mind, Rainbow vaguely recognized her as the pony she had seen leaving Donut Joe's, following Shining Armor. Now she seemed much more vibrant, though her coat was obscured by the Commander's gold and black armor. Her most prominent feature was the long, jet-black spike covering her horn.

Finally, Rainbow's tongue moved. "I didn't trust you when you disappeared out of Luna's room. But I couldn't prove anything until just now. You screwed up."

"What?"

"When you were pacing, as we were leaving, you didn't limp."

She laughed. A tiny part of Rainbow's mind noted that it was a rather pleasant noise, rather than the horrible stereotypical 'evil laugh' described in Daring Do and Con Mane novels. The thought was silenced by Rainbow's curiosity.

"Why are you doing this? Money?"

"In part, yes, Rainbow. But also to protect Equestria."

"You're insane! Killing Princess Luna is the opposite of protecting Equestria."

"Please, have some maturity. I'm not 'insane' just because we disagree." The blue magic that had claimed Morning Star's wings moved up her horn, enveloping the sharp black spike. "Unfortunately for you, history will prove me right. I'm just finishing what you started, Rainbow. You and your friends."

Her meaning was obvious, and as the lethal spike twisted in midair to point at Luna's exposed neck, Rainbow did the only thing she could think to do. Her wings spread their full length, and with a single mighty pump, she threw herself at the mare. Pain surged again through her broken foreleg, but it was worth it to throw the mare's aim off balance. The spike shot off into the night, and nicked Luna in the leg. All at once, her focus was broken.

Dash landed on three legs and faced down the staggering mare. "Now it's over. Give up."

"Over? Please, look at your Princess and say that again."

As if on cue, the crowd below let out an echoing gasp, channeled upward by a thousand synchronous voices. Luna's wings were failing to beat in the air. Her eyes caught Rainbow's for just a moment, before fluttering shut. With one last final flap, her wings gave in to gravity, and her body began to plummet.

"Hurry, Rainbow. It's me or your Princess. Make your choice."

As Dash took to wing, launching downward after Princess Luna, the last of the assassin's words caught her ears.

"Tell Shining Armor that Masquerade sends her regards."

Dash cleared the tower battlements without a further thought, and her flying instincts kicked in automatically. She tilted herself down, and launched after the Princess, whose eyes were beginning to fall shut.

"Princess!" the pegasus shouted, in a vain hope to keep Luna awake. She didn't respond. She was falling fast - much faster than any pegasus Dash had ever seen fall. The ground was no more than five-hundred feet below now. Nopony could survive that. Dash was racing, actually pumping her wings to accelerate downward, but she was gaining slowly. Far too slowly. It took only a moment's thought for her to realize why.

Luna's wings had folded completely against her side - a bad sign. An unconscious pegasus' wings stiffened, to keep a fall like this from proving fatal. Luna's had grown just as stiff, but they were pinned against her sides instead of spread out, catching the air. Slowly, Dash inched forward, but with each split second, the growing ground got closer and closer. She could make out the individual ponies in the crowd, watching in terror and awe, screaming in slow motion.

There, in midair, a terrible realization hit Rainbow Dash. Even if she did catch up to the Princess, she couldn't lift her. Luna was too large, and Rainbow too tired from all the days flying and fighting. With only one good leg, the idea of carrying her off was impossible. Still, she kept racing down, as her mind raced a different challenge, trying to come up with an idea. She had to do something. Focusing herself into the tightest point she could manage, Rainbow accelerated. As she pushed against the spectrum barrier, it became rapidly clear that she would not catch Luna in time. There were a mere dozen feet between them, but only a hundred between the Princess and the ground.

Time seemed to slow, as another thought came to her. Living up to the title of the 'Fastest Pony in Equestria', Rainbow Dash threw her mad plan into action without considering the consequences. Those consequences would ultimately see the pegasus live up to her more important title - the Embodiment of Loyalty.

Rainbow angled her wings even more tightly than she had before, cutting up into the backlash of wind striking her body. She overlapped her hooves, taking on a slight spin - just enough to overcome the last bit of air resistance. She felt the breaking barrier slip over her body, and knew it was her chance. A last powerful pulse of her wings shot her forward at more than twice her previous speed.

In a burst of color and sound, Rainbow Dash shot past Princess Luna. A ring of rainbow light shot out, catching the falling Princess with its force. Luna's wings were violently thrust away from her sides, even as she was sent sprawling sideways into the crowd. She landed with a dull and painful thud at the foot of a table of refreshments, with a force that nopony noticed next to the shockwave of the rainbow mare.

It was too fast and too close for Rainbow to pull up; too fast even to think about what was happening before she hit the ground, and all thought was stripped from her. All over Canterlot, glass shattered from the ground-level burst of the Sonic Rainboom. All across the Mountain of Dawn, stonework crumbled and fell. Ancient pieces of the Royal Academy crumbled, and the Palace's stained depictions of Equestria's noble history vanished in an instant - the tiniest of prices to save the life of the Princess. Foals screamed, as their parents tried to shield them from the untold chaos that they had witnessed.

The greatest price was not clear until the dust began to clear. The Sonic Rainboom had finally issued forth a mere three feet from the ground. Far too close for even the greatest flier in all of Equestria to pull up. Lying, unmoving in the cracked and steaming crater at the top of the Mountain of Dawn, in the heart of the glorious golden capital of Equestria lay a ball of rainbow hair, blue feathers, blood, and bones. Without having seen what had happened mere moments earlier, it would have been hard to imagine that the burnt and broken body had once been a pony.

It was in this act that Rainbow Dash, bearer of the Element of Loyalty, gave her life to save Princess Luna, and became a true hero of Equestria. And, it is in this act that our story truly begins.