• 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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IV - Unwelcome

IV: Unwelcome
- - -

Honor Guard Master Sergeant Thunder Crack shuffled idly in his armor. It was a nervous tic from a lifetime earlier, which he had learned as a colt facing down his own first experience with a commanding officer. He hadn't felt the uncomfortable shiver in years. To take his mind off the thought, he glanced down at his golden armor. All the straps were in the right places. The little colored patches of his awards and honors sat in perfect standard rows at his left shoulder. He would have passed even the most stringent of inspections, though there was no risk that he would have to face one. The last was a long time ago. It had been ages, even, since he had given one to a row of quivering recruits.

The doctors shuffled past him one by one, bickering amongst themselves. He caught only one word. 'Hopeless' could have described his thoughts as well, but for a very different subject. When the palace infirmary was finally emptied, he summoned up the strength of a soldier's body and walked into the sanitized room.

He outright ignored the dying Princess at the far end of the room. It was the greatest kindness he could bring himself to give. He knew of the poison coursing through her veins, and the assassin that had put it there. His duty told him that he ought to be hunting down Masquerade. A deeper, nameless feeling shouted that he ought to simply leave, throwing aside his armor and his honors in favor of a free life.

Ultimately, he ignored both, in favor of the tiny voice that he had foolishly labeled loyalty. Thunder Crack thought himself the perfect guardspony, yet when he had been given his orders, he refused them outright. He had shared choice words with Soldier On, knowing that they were not the first she had endured in recent hours. Though she was a fine comrade, the new 'Captain' had not earned his loyalty. It had taken softer, more desperate words from a softer and more desperate mare to bring him to where he stood. Nopony could resist the Princess.

His solid steel shoes clicked on the linoleum beneath his hooves as he approached his prey. She was sporting, in a sense, but not the way a guardspony was meant to be shaped. Dense shoulders supported the most well-toned set of wings the Sergeant had ever seen. They were built for flying fast and hard, and taking the stringent pulls of tight turns in tight spaces. Unfortunately, the rest of the mare was thin, and light, and shapely. A decade earlier, he knew his heart would have fluttered for her, and a familiar heat would have built across his body and within his nethers. She truly was cute, even with her untidy exterior. He had known lots of beautiful mares, though, and in time, even settled for the less-than-gorgeous ones. His eyes could only see her as a dumb kid who didn't belong.

He steeled himself, and glanced out a nearby window at the orange tinge on the horizon, where the sun was about to rise. His best guess was five-thirty in the morning. A real guardspony would have been up. Instead, the mare… no, the filly, lay snoring away on a medical cot.

"Wake up, Private," he ordered, at a plain speaking volume. Rainbow Dash didn't even stir. Irritated the Sergeant placed a hoof on the side of the bed, and shook it. "Up. Now." The motion was enough to get Rainbow to idly scratch her muzzle, though it failed to end her slumber.

Thunder Crack took a deep breath, trying to keep his blood pressure low, as his doctor had ordered weeks earlier. It wasn't a common problem for a thirty-six year old stallion, but it seemed to fit perfectly with a former Drill Sergeant.

Finally, he felt he was ready. "Rise and shine, maggot!" he bellowed, at the top of his lungs, as he thrust the filly onto the floor with both his forehooves. She screamed a rather satisfying note, and collapsed in a bundle of feathers and fabric onto the floor.

It took a moment for her to pull herself together enough to even speak. As she struggled to free her left legs and her right wing from a coil of sheets, she finally managed words. "Geez, you think―"

"I don't recall giving you permission to speak, Private! On your hooves, at attention, now!"

It seemed like the sheer shock of everything going on was enough to get her to obey. She finally pulled herself free, staggered a few steps, and then stood with her hooves together, puffing out her chest.

Thunder Crack sighed. It wasn't worth shouting over, but it did remind him of just how far he had to go. "That, Private, is the worst 'at attention' stance I have ever seen. Tuck your wings properly, first." He waited as she glanced back, to realize that her left wing was sticking out to the side lazily. She reached back, smacked it, and then pulled it to her side.

"That good?"

"First rule of being a guardspony, filly. Do not speak to a superior officer unless spoken to."

The filly took on a sort of funny grin. Thunder Crack knew that smile all too well. It had been his life's work to lure it out of young recruits, tie it down, and strangle it in front of their eyes. It was the grin of a pony who thought they were above the chain of command. It was the first thing that had to go in a good guardspony.

Before he could address it, Rainbow Dash spoke again. "What makes you think that you're my superior?"

"My name is Master Sergeant Thunder Crack. You may call me Sergeant Crack, or sir. If you call me Sarge, I put you on the floor. Understood?"

On any normal pony, the threat would have been enough to earn submission. When the smile spread across Rainbow Dash's face, Thunder Crack wondered just what sin he had committed to be saddled with her training.

"Yeah, so you're some sergeant. Big deal. I'm Luna's bodyguard, right? Doesn't that make me the same rank as―"

Two seconds later, Rainbow was laying on the floor, silently clutching a shallow gash beneath her left eye. Thunder Crack glanced down, and noticed a tiny line of sweet red wrapped around the edge of his hoof. Regrettable; he hadn't meant to strike so hard. Perhaps his control was fading. "Don't compare yourself to the Commander. You aren't fit to lick his shoes, filly."

He stood there in silence, floating in her hatred. The warm burning of her eyes brought back old memories, and not all of them were good. Part of him wanted to cry, and part of him wanted to laugh. He still wanted to walk away. The soldier, though, stayed put to fulfill his orders, even if it meant sitting through her hatred. He offered her a leg to pull herself up.

Rainbow glanced down at the leg, still stained at the hoof with her own blood. Her nose wrinkled at the sight, and she rose to her own hooves without his aid. She stood with her legs wide, and her wings folded.

"At attention," he ordered. This time, he didn't have to wait. She slammed her rear legs together so hard that a clap rang out in the room. Her wings compressed even more tightly against her sides. She stared blankly over his shoulder, to something in the back of the infirmary.

It was good enough for Sergeant Crack. He paced idly in and out of her line of sight as he spoke, his hooves tapping out a familiar seven-step pattern. "Understand this. You are nothing like the Commander. You're a little filly with a magic necklace who thinks she's a hero. You're never going to be a real guardspony, no matter what the Princess says. You might be a bodyguard, but your Princess' titles don't mean anything to me, or the rest of the Honor Guard. Do you understand?"

Rainbow's answer was hollow and deflated, with a tinge of bitterness. "Yes."

"Yes what, filly?"

"Yes, sir," she corrected with biting sarcasm.

He offered her a glare to prove he had noticed her tone, though he hadn't the will to correct it. "Good. As of today, you are technically a private in the Equestrian Honor Guard. Your flank is mine for the next twenty-four hours."

“Geez, fillyphile alert,” muttered Dash under her breath.

“What was that, Private?!” shouted Crack.

"I said, what happens then?"

"I'm sorry, did that sound like a question?" Thunder Crack thrust his face so close to Rainbow's that he could feel her slow, steady breath on his currently white coat. "You do not speak without permission!"

In the silence that followed, the Sergeant took a deep breath, and pulled himself away from Rainbow. He could smell determination on her. Her obedience was meant to spite him, to be a slap to his face. He didn't mind. He could live with her loathing, as long as he got results.

"I have been given one day to teach you to fight. One single measly day, in which I'm expected to take a civilian and bring her up to the level of the very best of the Guard. It's impossible." He began his pacing again, paying more attention to the colored bands of honors on his armor than to Rainbow's stance. "But, because I am a guardspony, and they are my orders, I will try." He stopped, to draw emphasis to his next words. "You can quit at any time if this life becomes too much for you. The Princess told me to tell you that. You should consider listening to her. Now, do you have anything to say?"

Rainbow took a long silence before nodding slowly. "If I'm going with you, who's going to guard Princess Luna?"

Thunder Crack was taken aback by the question. It seemed so ridiculous that it took him more than a few moments to muster up a blunt, factual response. "Nopony is going to try anything now."

"That's what Twilight said right before Luna was attacked. I promised Celestia I wouldn't leave her alone."

The guardspony shook his head. "She will be fine. Now come with me, filly. And remember titles. You aren't familiar enough with the Princess to use just her name."

Rainbow stood her ground, shaking her head. "I'm not leaving her."

The sergeant groaned aloud, as his eyes scanned the infirmary. It was a wide enough room for his purposes, though the doctors would be mad. "If you intend to serve on the Honor Guard, it will be by going out into the world and finding her a cure, not by standing around protecting her when she is already dying. We can stay here for now, if you're so insistent, but you're going to have to get over yourself. At least come over here and stand in the middle of the room with me."

"Why?"

"Even when you are given permission to speak, you do not question orders." Thunder Crack gestured to an open space in the center of the room, and then raised a hoof up to his helmet. Almost idly, he tossed the priceless golden guard aside, revealing his true face. The perfect white stallion faded, revealing a head broader and flatter than the 'ideal face' of the illusory guardspony. His mane was cropped incredibly short, colored a dark forest green. The mares he had known throughout his life told him it went well with his patchy olive coat.

His left forehoof then reached across his chest to the opposite shoulder of his armor. With a single tug, he unlatched his defenses, and let them clatter to the ground. His hooves next moved to his own ankles, snapping off his steel shoes. Finally disarmed, a single stride was all it took to step away from the pile of collected armor he had left behind. The older pegasus had to fight to keep his face grim. His every muscle ached for the fresh joy of battle, even if his mind guaranteed that the filly across from him stood no chance.

"Now, Private, I want you to attack me. Show me what you've got."

"In here?" Rainbow looked up at the ceiling. "I can't fly in here."

"So you're only good fighting outside. Can't manage a hallway, or a cave, or just about anywhere you'd actually fight somepony?"

"No!" the mare shouted, defensively. Had he hit a sore spot with her pride? She forced herself up onto her hind legs, steadying her body with flaps of her wings. "I can do this. Just watch."

Thunder Crack stifled a laugh. Her pose was the most ridiculous stance he had ever seen. Certainly, he'd heard of those Neighpon ponies who would fight standing up that way, but she was so far from their grace that he imagined he could knock her over by flapping a wing in her direction. He bent his knees, lowering his center of gravity, and he tightened his wings against his back.

She tried to stare him down, but a life fighting boars, griffons, dragons, and criminal ponies left him cold to her hollow glare. He took a step forward, and then another. She jumped forward, using her wings for an extra push, and threw a hoof for his head. He sidestepped the wide, obvious attack, and gave the filly a punch to the belly for her effort. It wasn't a very solid hit. She was fast. When she spun, and hit him in the side of the neck, he observed just how fast.

In the process of the split moment of thought, he saw a cyan wing sweeping for his head. He ducked just in time to avoid a painful blow from her one strong muscle. As soon as the limb had passed, he jumped. His wings stayed pinned to his sides, avoiding a swipe from the mare beneath him. His left forehoof caught against her spine for balance, and then he fell.

Rainbow struggled beneath his pin. He was standing on one of her wings with one leg, and another pressed against her throat.

"You fight like a griffon," he muttered, releasing some of the pressure on her throat.

Dash gasped for breath. After a few moments drinking in the stale, warm, early-morning air of the palace, she finally looked up at the Sergeant. "Thanks."

He stepped off of her, shaking his head. "That wasn't a compliment. Griffons can swipe with their wings because they have a solid ridge of angled bones at the crest. If I were wearing my helmet when you went for that blow, my head would be fine and you'd have shattered your wing. You've got a lot to learn. We're going to have to start over from the beginning."

- - -

"Right, from the beginning. Imagine what you want to create. Once you've built up the subject in your mind, feel it. Sense it. Explore it. Not just how it looks, but its feel, its smell, its weight." Cloudy Mirror looked up at the mass of students in his lecture hall. His knees told him all too clearly that they wanted to be shaking. He responded with stalwart acting.

Off in the corner, a patient hoof was being raised. "Yes, there, in the back?"

"What elementary charges should we be combining, Professor?"

As soon as the first two words were out of the young mare's mouth, the lecturer began pinching his muzzle with a hoof. "Everypony, stop for a moment. Please, pay attention to this." He waited until the glow of horns had subsided, and eyes were focused on him. "First of all, you can call me Cloudy. I'm barely any older than you, so you can't call me Professor until I've got a beard at least half as long as Dr. Graymane's."

Some of the class laughed, but he meant the comment sincerely. Doctoral degree or no, he was barely twenty-eight; hardly any older than most of his students. Even if it was supposed to honor him, he couldn't stand being put up on a pedestal.

"That's not what I stopped you for, though. I want you all to understand that illusions are an art. This isn't an advanced research course, where your exact formula matters. You can't boil down a good illusion into a recipe and remake it over and over again. Illusions, especially really believable illusions, are fresh, and alive, and unique. You can't know them. You have to feel them."

When everything was quiet, he broke a little smile. It seemed to be that the words he'd borrowed from Princess Luna were just as effective on his students as they had been on him.

The thought of Luna brought new, unwelcome emotions to his mind. He glanced towards the clock on the wall in the corner, and saw something unexpected. A white coat and a blue mane, covered by shining armor.

"And I believe that is all the time we have for today. Class is dismissed. Be sure to practice over the weekend." Most of the students rose up out of their seats, leaving him to shout over the sound of saddlebags being stuffed with quills and scrolls. "Focus on maintaining as many sensory inputs as you can. Next Friday's test will be graded on the number of senses you can support. Extra credit for more than five."

As the last of his pupils pushed through the doors at the back of the lecture hall, Cloudy Mirror wiped his brow, letting his nervousness take firm hold over his mind. Without giving it much thought, he collapsed onto his side on the small wooden stage, at the front of the Royal Academy's smallest lecture hall. He was about ready to fall asleep from stress, and a little voice in the back of his mind couldn't help but remind him of the gray hairs he'd pulled from his mane that morning. Things were going straight to Tartarus. He just wanted to sleep through it all.

After a few moments of precious quiet, he heard hooves drawing closer, echoing into the hollow space beneath the wooden stage. He ignored them until they stopped, mere inches from him. He still didn't bother to open his eyes.

"Are you Professor Cloudy Mirror, Chair of the College of Illusions?"

It was time to make a good first impression.

"Did you not listen to the end of the lecture?" he asked, jokingly. "You can call me Cloudy. And to answer your question, at the moment, I'm the whole College of Illusions."

There was a moment of silence, followed by a simple declaration. "I don't quite understand."

Cloudy Mirror rose to his hooves, despite their rebellion. Before him stood a towering, muscle-bound unicorn clad in armor of polished amethyst and solid gold. Beside him stood a pink Alicorn, standing about his height, but with a slender, beautiful form.

"I'm the only Illusions teacher the Royal Academy has. I do all five classes." He offered a hoof. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Captain Armor." The guard's hoofshake was incredibly firm, forcing Cloudy Mirror to spread his legs and steady himself, or risk being pulled forward onto his face.

"Nice to meet you," Shining Armor managed to respond. When Cloudy Mirror looked at the stallion, he saw pain and fatigue. Bags had built up under his eyes, and an obviously painful stitch adorned his shoulder. Worst, though, was the charcoal black stain that adorned his horn, spreading almost halfway down its length. Cloudy shuddered to imagine just what sort of spell could use so much magic, or how much it would hurt to have to cast it.

Forcing himself to pull his gaze away from the draining mana burn on the guard's horn, he turned his gaze to his other guest. "And it's wonderful to meet you as well, Principessa Cadenza."

She smiled in obvious appreciation of his use of her native tongue. Thankfully, she didn't respond in kind. He barely knew two-dozen Bitalian words from his trip to Neighples.

"It's an honor to meet the youngest full Mage in the history of the Academy." Unlike her husband, Cadance's greeting was fast, and lively, and probably practiced.

"I hardly deserve that honor, Princess. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. And, if the rumors of your sister in law are true, I won't have the title much longer. Archmage Sparkle has a much better ring to it, anyway."

Cadance laughed, and Cloudy joined in, but the silence that emanated from the Captain of the Guard unsettled him too much to actually mean it. As if sensing his unease, Shining Armor chose the end of their laughter as the perfect time to speak up.

"We're here to talk to you about Princess Luna."

Part of Cloudy Mirror wanted to snap back in sarcasm at Shining Armor. He literally owed his entire life to her intervention, and her tutelage. Every title, every position, and every honor really belonged to her. Why would anypony ever be interested in talking to a washed up, fifth-year undergraduate, if not to learn about the immortal Princess?

"What can I help you with?"

Shining looked around the room briefly. "Is there somewhere more private we could talk?"

No sooner were the words out of the stallion's mouth than the trio of ponies were surrounded by an aura of misty green magic. An audible snap marked the familiar shift of teleportation. When the eldritch glow faded, Cloudy Mirror enjoyed the sound of a pair of gasps.

They were surrounded by the darkness of the void, pierced only by a countless array of stars. A comet roared past Shining Armor's head, and in the distance, a vast nebula slowly swept past a stack of tiny planets.

"Where is this?" Princess Cadance managed to whisper in spite of her awe. She looked everywhere but directly at her host.

"My office," he answered, as if it were the most mundane thing in the entire world. "I won't lie; the ambient illusion is set up to impress my guests."

"It seems to be doing its job," Shining Armor offered, accompanied by a nod from Princess Cadance. "I'm certainly impressed."

"You shouldn't be." Cloudy Mirror closed his eyes, and focused. A sofa and a tall-backed chair popped into existence, sitting smoothly on the same invisible floor on which the three ponies stood. He collapsed rather lazily into the latter seat, and gestured for his guests to make themselves comfortable. "This is really easy magic, Captain. The only reason its impressive is because nopony studies illusions anymore."

"You're fixing that, though, aren't you, Cloudy?" Cadance prompted.

"Luna was changing it. I can't do much on my own." He looked down, as a shade of worry crossed his face. "That's what you're here to talk about, isn't it? What happened at the Awards Ceremony?"

What followed was a long silence, filled with tiny motions. Shining offered Cadance a short glance, and she responded with a tiny tilting of her head. Cloudy Mirror nervously rubbed his forehooves against one another. The Princess' magic pulled a scroll and a wet quill from somewhere that the academic didn't see. Then they sat, no one speaking, until Cadance prompted her husband with a gentle poke. He shook his head, as if clearing his thoughts, then set his tired gaze on his subject.

"Cloudy Mirror, what I'm about to say is a matter of secrecy." He took the opportunity to gather his thoughts, as his words sunk in. "What you saw at the Awards Ceremony was an assassination attempt on Princess Luna's life by―"

The Captain stopped when Cadance put a gentle hoof on his shoulder. "Shining, I think he already knows."

Cloudy Mirror reflected that his lack of surprise must have given him away. Regardless, she was right. He nodded slowly. "Princess Luna introduced me to a few of the Night Guard. One of them told me, last night."

"So you already know about Masquerade, and Rainbow Dash?"

"Yes." There was another awkward topic, which returned Cloudy's gaze to his hooves. "May Princess Celestia guide her way to the Summer Lands."

"Actually," Shining observed, with a rather positive tone, "she isn't dead."

Cadance slapped his shoulder almost reflexively. "Don't joke about…" Her voice trailed off when she saw the truth in his eyes. "You're serious?"

"I spoke to her, yesterday afternoon."

"But, the crash―"

Shining Armor cut off the inevitable. "The Princess is keeping her health secret as well for the time being, though I'm not sure why. She said she'd told Twilight and her friends." Shining shrugged. "That's an Honor Guard matter now. I need to focus on catching Masquerade."

"That's the assassin's name, correct?"

A curt tilt of the captains' head gave the answer. "She used some sort of magic to disguise herself as a guardspony."

"Isn't the armor enchanted? Or do you only hire white stallions with blue manes?"

The jibe was one every guardspony had heard in their day; Shining Armor didn't seem to care. Criminals liked to mutter things about inbreeding and cloning. He'd grown a thick coat for the barbed words, and Cloudy Mirror hadn't even gone far enough to add an edge to his own words. "There are a few suits of enchanted armor; most guards have to put up with powdering their coats when they're on duty. That isn't the point. Masquerade was able to copy faces, and voices."

Cloudy Mirror nodded. "Most of my sophomore students could do that sort of magic."

"For how long?"

The young professor furrowed his brow in thought. "If she was really good, an hour. That's a little better than what I could do. But when you say voices, do you mean that she talked to other ponies while she was using the illusion?"

"Not just talked; Rainbow Dash thought something was up, and she kept up the illusion while they were fighting."

"It's impossible," Cloudy Mirror bluntly stated. "If you're good, you can keep up an illusion while talking, but you can't seal an illusion the way you can other spells."

"Seal?"

Cadance wrapped a wing around her husband as she looked up from her scroll at Cloudy. "He learned magic from the Military Academy. It's funny, the basic magic that he doesn't know. Of course, some of the magic he can do, I can only dream of." The princess then turned her gaze to Shining Armor. "Sealing is when you put more magic into a spell, so that you don't have to keep focusing on it. You do it whenever you cast one of your big shields."

"Oh," was all the stallion could bring himself to mutter. He seemed too tired to be embarrassed by his lack of knowledge. He just looked disappointed. "So you don't know how she did it?"

Cloudy Mirror's response was hesitant. "I have an idea… but I hope I'm wrong. I guess my first question is if anypony saw any strange behavior out… no, that's not the right way to put it." He took a deep breath, and then looked straight into Shining Armor's eyes. "Did Masquerade impersonate her victims perfectly? Or could anypony tell something was off? Even in hindsight?"

Shining Armor mirrored the seriousness in the professor's gaze. "No. It struck me as odd, but the only pony who noticed anything was wrong was Rainbow Dash, but she isn't part of the guard."

"Buck!" The declaration was short, loud, and left his guests slightly stunned. After he regained his senses, his faded green cheeks took on a potent blush. "I'm sorry. That was rude of me."

"What's wrong?" Cadance asked. "What's so bad about what Shining said?"

The illusionist rose up from his chair, setting his hooves down on the invisible floor, amidst the stars. "There are two ways for an illusionist to create a false image. The first is what I described earlier, and what I primarily teach. We call them images, even if they aren't visual. They require continual focus, they cannot be sealed, and they're tiring over long periods.

"Princess Celestia banned the second method of illusion seven hundred years ago from the threat of crime. They're properly known as phantasms, though every text I've ever seen refers to them as nightmares." He gritted his teeth before continuing. "Rather than creating an actual figment in the air, it puts the sense directly into the target's mind. It's a much more elegant form of illusion. You can seal phantasms. They take very little focus, and very little mana. However, they are incredibly dangerous."

Cadance watched the pacing scholar. "How?"

He took a deep breath. "I think it's better if I just show you this. Captain Armor, will you trust me?"

The guardspony rose to his hooves. "Yes."

"What you're about to see, whatever you think is happening, I want you to understand that it isn't real. Just say 'stop', and it will all be over." Cloudy Mirror paced forward, as Shining Armor's mind raced with fear and adrenaline. What was he about to experience?

The academic's horn ignited in misty green once again. He gently tapped Shining Armor's brow.

Princess Cadance watched her husband, wondering just what was happening. At first, he simply stood, stock still and silent. Almost a full minute passed. Then, slowly, his eyes grew wide.

"No!" His scream was pure and primal, as he collapsed to his forehooves. "Stop! Make it stop!"

Cloudy Mirror made to rush forward, where the Captain was rolling on the ground in agony. However, he was stopped in place as a furious Cadance placed herself in between the two unicorns. The alicorn’s eyes were literally shining with rage, and her horn glowed threateningly with an intense amount of power.

"What did you do?!" Cadance yelled, wings flaring as she loomed over Cloudy Mirror.

Cloudy Mirror instinctively drew back. "I promise, he's fine."

"You're killing him!" she responded. A surge of raw force flung the illusionist against the stone wall of his room, though to all eyes, he had simply stopped in the air of the cosmic void. He slowly forced himself back to his hooves, only to be lifted into the air by the same blue aura.

"Cadance, stop." The shock of hearing Shining Armor's voice in the silence left behind by his screams was enough to shock the Princess' magic away.

Cloudy Mirror was dropped to the ground, where he remained with his mouth open as the Captain of the Royal Guard shakily made his way across the room. Tears matted his muzzle, yet he seemed for all the world otherwise unharmed. He had nearly reached the pair when he almost lost his balance in fatigue. Cadance helped him back onto the couch, where his tired eyes locked calmly on the source of his pain. "What was that?"

"The most basic phantasm any illusionist can conjure. I showed you what you most feared. That spell is the reason they are called nightmares."

Shining Armor brought a hoof to his face, wiping away the last of his tears. "Cadance. I saw Cadance, and…" The guard couldn't bring himself to finish.

Cloudy looked away, unable to meet Shining Armor eye to eye. "I'm sorry. To be honest, I'm amazed you broke the spell on your own. Only the most determined of ponies can do that."

"Couldn't you have just told him?" Cadance demanded hotly, still clearly disturbed by the sight of her love's agony.

"This way, he will be more resistant to the magic if he faces it again. His mind will break the hold faster, now that it knows how. Like an inoculation. It also makes it clear just what's so dangerous about phantasms. They can react to the subject, and even be spread over multiple ponies." His horn illuminated, and a simple plastic tray with two cups of tea and a small bowl of candies settled down in midair before Shining Armor. "This should help you recover."

"Thank you," was all the unicorn could manage. Cadance said nothing, though her quill continued to scratch notes as Cloudy Mirror continued.

"I suspect this assassin, Masquerade, placed a phantasm on whoever was closest to her victim. Rather than fear, she conjured up the feeling that everything was normal. Whenever she did something…" He paused to search for words. "…out of character, the phantasm would brush over the mistake in the subject's mind. As long as she didn't go too far, she could never be caught."

Cadance looked up from her notepad, still obviously unsettled by the suffering of her husband. "So, Rainbow was the only one who could see through the illusion because she didn't know the victim personally?"

Cloudy Mirror nodded slowly. "A powerful will can also weaken the effect of a phantasm. That's the only defense an earth pony or a pegasus has. It's powerful magic. And, in the wrong hooves, extremely dangerous. I guess that warning is too little, too late."

"Can you dispel it?" Shining Armor asked.

"It's easy enough for a unicorn. I can teach you in no more than half an hour. The hard part is realizing you're under a spell. Something like what I did was obvious. It isn't always so clear that you're under an enchantment like hers."

"So, what's our best chance of catching her?" Cadance asked. "Is there anything you can tell us?"

Cloudy Mirror again put his eyes on his hooves. "It's hopeless. With that sort of magic, you could blend in anywhere, be anypony, and you wouldn't get so much as a question or an odd look. If you could find her mentor, you'd have something, but Princess Celestia banned the teaching of phantasms a long time ago. I thought Princess Luna and I were the only ones who knew. Well, the only ponies, anyway."

"You think something else would know?" Shining asked, with sudden intensity.

"There are dragons that are old enough, but I have a hard time imagining any that would deign to teach a pony magic. Besides, we don't cast much the same way. They use their claws, instead of horns." He took a deep breath. "No one else is any more likely though. The elk are too far away, and too alien to convince. The boars would never bother with magic that didn't help them fight or build or hunt. They'd sooner kill a pony than teach. Griffons use pegasus magic, so that's impossible." His list trailed on, as his voice and head drooped, and a grim realization settled over the room. One by one, the stars in the faux-night surrounding them burnt out. By the time Cloudy Mirror's muttered words had ended, only the moon remained, floating dead-still overhead.

"Thank you, Cloudy." Shining Armor moved to stand up, only to fall onto his wife's shoulder. After gently putting away her notes, she wrapped a wing around her weakened husband.

"I wish I could have helped more, Captain. Princess, it was a pleasure to meet you."

Cloudy Mirror rose to his own hooves, and his horn wrapped slowly in magic for a final spell that night. With a bright burst, the three found themselves outside the Royal Academy, looking out at the midday streets of Canterlot. As their eyes adjusted to the sun, from the darkness of the nocturnal illusion, the academic walked up to Shining Armor's ear, and whispered a few carefully chosen words, drenched in pure, undiluted terror.

"If you can't save her, please don’t make me take the fall."

Before the Captain could respond, another burst of magic put Cloudy Mirror far away. Never before had he felt so large, and so threatening. The feeling made him sick.

- - -

Nearly a full day later, Rainbow found herself struggling to contain a powerful urge. This urge was to shout in Thunder Crack's face about how much of an idiot he was, and how he didn't know how to fight. She'd have beaten him hours ago, if he had let her use her wings, and fight the way Gilda had taught her. He thought she'd hurt herself, but she'd used the same wing strike on a full grown dragon, years ago, and that hadn't hurt her at all.

Ultimately, the force that gave her the strength to hold back her urge came from the aching pain of the bruises covering her body. A hoof-shaped mark on her shoulder reminded her to keep her balance. A straight jab to her gut warned her to keep low to the ground. One on her neck just said 'shut up'. She didn't feel like getting in another fight, sparring or otherwise, with the bigger, older, and stronger stallion. She contented herself with sticking her tongue out as his back was turned, staring at a rack of suits of armor.

The room glowed with a golden light as the single hanging lamp in the center of the ceiling bounced its light off dozens of polished golden plates. Handling one gently, Thunder Crack pulled down a solid-backed suit of armor. He probably wanted her to get mad, so he could scold her, or fight her again. Instead, she stated the obvious with a grudging and ultimately false attempt at respect.

"That's earth pony armor." When the Sergeant turned around with a raised brow, she hastily added the proper closing utterance. "Uh, sir."

"Yes it is. Thank you, Private, for noticing the blatantly obvious. Is there anything else you'd like to add?" Before even giving Dash a chance to respond, he turned his focus back to the racks of polished golden armor that filled most of the tiny closet.

Her wings ached from the sparring bruises she'd earned, in the process of ripping up the infirmary completely, and then subsequently destroying a small courtyard garden after the doctors had kicked them out (with assurances Luna would be looked after closely). "Well, Sergeant, I'm a Pegasus. I need wing holes."

"You would need wing holes if you were actually good at using your wings."

Rainbow's eye twitched beyond her control. "I'm the best flyer in Equestria. Nopony else can do the Sonic Rainboom, and―"

"And you did a damn good job of nearly killing yourself the last time you used one of those as a guardspony, didn't you?" the Sergeant snapped. "Shut up and let me do my job, and I won't tell you how to show off or shoot rainbows out of your stupid necklace." With furious hooves, the stallion ripped a suit of armor off its rack and dropped it in front of his supposed 'student'. "Get dressed."

Rainbow stared down at the armor in front of her, and then to the locked chains holding the other, more fitting suits of armor in place. Her gaze again returned to the wingless armor, and with a resigned sigh, she began to pull it onto her back. The back of her mind offered the only glimmer of light she could come up with: if she put up with this jerk long for just a few more hours, he'd get out of her mane. Then she'd finally be able to fulfill her promise to the Princess, and get out of the guard altogether.

The gilded armor was a little big around her shoulders, but incredibly tight against her folded wings. She took a few tentative steps, observing the incredible lightness of the armor. Then she glanced down at herself. To her disappointment, rather than a pure white body, she was still the same (admittedly awesome) cyan mare she had always been.

"Uh, aren't I supposed to look like you? Or all the other guards?"

"There are twelve suits―" His words cut short suddenly, and his eyes drifted lazily away. When his tone finally arose again, it had lost the furious power of moments passed, replaced by a slower, brooding displeasure. Dash found herself wondering if he was still mad at her, or if his bubbling animosity was pointed inward. "There are eleven suits of enchanted armor. The guards who have them earn them. The rest use powdered chalk. Not that it matters. The Princess wants you to look like yourself; not one of us. Now latch the armor, so we can go."

She pressed a hoof against the latch on her barrel, and felt the armor lock securely in place. "Okay, sir, what's next?"

"Dinner. And a test. Come with me."

Thunder Crack led Rainbow down the maze of the palace's hallways, offering nods to the servants and guardsponies whose hurried paths he crossed. They, in turn, granted him salutes, bows, and curtseys. To her disappointment, Dash garnered no recognition from these same ponies. Without her wings showing, and with armor covering her cutie mark, she was just some guardspony mare. A nameless face, blindly following orders.

The Sergeant didn't speak again until he was across the palace drawbridge, and out on the streets of Canterlot. "You're probably wondering where we're going."

He was right. From her numerous past visits to Canterlot, Dash knew the Palace had an ample kitchen, with countless chefs making really great meals. Even if it was hard to get a hay burger, she'd learned to love a funny dish which Twilight told her was a 'sue-flay', or something like that. Why go out and pay to eat?

"Yeah, I guess," she said, feigning disinterest.

"Well, I'm off duty as of an hour ago, and I want a drink. So we're headed to the Private's Reserve. It's a guardspony tavern. You can eat there, or drink, or flirt, or whatever it is you do."

"Uh, I don't have any bits on me."

"Shouldn't be a problem. There aren't many mares in the guard."

Rainbow felt her face turn red, and threw a punch at the stallion's face. He leaned to the side, letting the blow collide with the armored back of his neck. Without even breaking stride, he smiled, and let out a little chuckle.

"What the hay do you think is so funny?"

"That was the first decent hit you've given me all day." Almost immediately, he stopped laughing. "It was still garbage, by our standards. Don't let it go to your head."

They continued in relative silence, sharing only the noise of their unshod hooves meeting cobblestone. The unmatched rhythms were left in glorious loneliness around street corners and beneath the lights of the occasional street lamp. Towering spires and rounded vendors were ignored left and right, until the pair reached a poorer part of the town. To Rainbow, it seemed more natural, and far more welcoming. Rough stone held together with mortar formed straight walls, holding simple, welcoming doors and four-panel windows. Warm lights told the stories of parents returning from work and warm tables covered in food. In the young mare's mind, they brought up thoughts of a graying old stallion with a funny moustache and cheeks covered in wrinkles from smiling far too much.

These wonderful thoughts were burst away like the bucking of a cloud when a daydreaming Rainbow Dash walked straight into Thunder Crack's back.

"Pay attention, filly. I'd rather you not embarrass me before we even go inside."

Rainbow looked up at a surprisingly non-descript structure. Double doors were manned by a single stallion who looked like he'd spent years cultivating the perfect five-o'clock shadow for a grizzled action hero. Above his head, a wooden sign with boring red letters proudly proclaimed the establishment to be 'The Private's Reserve'. The words were flanked by a pair of poorly drawn golden helmets, crested with those blue hair things that Rainbow had always felt looked exactly the opposite of awesome. She was thankful, for just a moment, that Thunder Crack hadn't given her a helmet.

The gratitude faded the instant Thunder Crack deigned to speak to her again. "Listen up. I don't feel like saying this twice. We're going in here, and I'm gonna go have some drinks and meet up with whatever other guards were lucky enough not to get shipped off somewhere awful by Captain Armor. We're going to stay until I'm done drinking."

"Okay…" Rainbow muttered, as suspicions of alcoholism rose in her mind. "…sir."

"You don't have to call me sir when we're off duty, filly. Now, the only rule is this one. If you get hurt in there, you're off the guard."

"How am I going to get hurt in a bar full of guardsponies?"

The corner of his mouth turned upward in a grim parody of a smile. "You're as good as gone, filly." Without any attempt, or even inclination to explain himself, Thunder Crack strode up to the bouncer. "Me and the new kid are headed in."

"Does she know the rules?"

"She's not good enough to actually break any of 'em. I'll keep an eye on her."

"Eh, if you say so, Sarge."

Thunder Crack's face curled up in actual anger, made distinct from the falseness of his earlier outbursts only by the fact that he remained quiet. The bouncer looked taken aback, wondering what was about to happen.

Then it hit him.

The sergeant tenderly massaged the ankle of his right foreleg. "Nopony calls me Sarge."

The Honor Guard walked into the tavern without further speech. Rainbow was left staring at the unfortunate bouncer as he slowly pulled himself up from the ground. He took one look at Rainbow, and with something like sympathy in his eyes, shook his head.

"You should look for a new coltfriend," the bouncer suggested, holding a hoof against the left side of his jaw.

Rainbow couldn't help but laugh as she strolled into the Private's Reserve, ready to face whatever Thunder Crack could throw at her.

Almost immediately, she regretted her cocksure attitude. She'd barely laid hoof inside the door when she saw a glass-bottle, half-full of amber fluid, flying toward her face. She ducked just in time to avoid the danger, and for her trouble, felt a mixture of alcohol and backwash splash across her flank.

"Hey, watch it! That was my drink!" some colt at the far end of the room shouted. Rainbow watched as a big earth pony guard picked up a smaller unicorn and slammed him onto a table. The pegasus filly was entranced for a while, watching as the huge pony shrugged off spell after spell, until finally, the unicorn gave up fighting, with blood and drool falling from his muzzle. As if nothing had happened, the earth pony shoved the unicorn onto the floor, fell back into his seat, and continued drinking.

The scene over, Rainbow found herself able to look around and truly take in the room. It was a big area, with wood floors and stone walls. Everywhere were half-armored guardsponies, nearly all stallions. Most were partially white, with goopy spots of other colors showing where sweat and booze had wiped the chalky powder from their coats. They drank, and licked salt licks, and flirted with mares dressed in obviously fake armor of their own, who in turn danced temptingly from table to table, serving drinks. A very young unicorn colt with a vest and tie tended bar.

Everything was lit a warm orange, from tinted overhead lamps. Thick oak tables and a polished bar added color to the scene, though not quite so much as the dented old jukebox in the corner, which still had the tenacity to belt out an old Neighvana hit.

The two strongest senses to assault Rainbow, however, were the heat and the smell. The place was kept warm by a roaring fire in a corner fireplace, and the feeling was impossible to miss, compounding the summer evening heat to an almost unimaginable level. This hot thick air was also home to a terrible stench, mixed from three parts booze, two parts vomit, two parts sweat, and a half-dozen other parts that this chronicle cannot mention for fear of offending reasonable audiences.

Seeing nothing better to do, Rainbow made her way up to the bar and took a stool. The bartender glanced over at her, but said nothing. He was too occupied with his magic, twirling three bottles at once as he poured some complicated, snooty drink that Rainbow could only guess the name of. With all the ice, and the little umbrella, she would probably have named it the Rarity.

He slid the drink down the length of the bar with his magic. Dash almost choked trying to suppress the laughter that followed, as Master Sergeant Thunder Crack looked at the funny pale drink, and then took a long, slow sip. Smug and satisfied, the Honor Guard stared up at the wall of carefully arranged bottles behind the bar, where his eyes lost focus on the world around him.

Dash managed to stifle her laughter by the time the bartender made his way over to her. A rag and a glass floated beside his head, slowly being washed off, as he looked her up and down. Rainbow gave him a look that clearly got the message across. His eyes immediately focused on her face.

"Sorry, I, uh… It's just, we don't get a lot of fillies in her, and I thought you might have been one of the, uh, waitresses. But that's real armor, isn't it?"

"Yeah, real stupid armor too," Rainbow muttered. "I'm a pegasus, but Captain Jackass over there didn't seem to notice."

"We have a donkey in here?" the bartender asked, incredulous. Rainbow shook her head, and pointed out Sergeant Crack. Following the point of her hoof, the colt's mouth formed a small 'o', which was quickly replaced by a look of confusion. "You mean Sergeant Crack? He's a great stallion. Maybe it was just a mistake?"

"Maybe if he hadn't spent all day beating me in the face." Rainbow gestured to the bruise she was sure had formed on the bottom-right side of her jaw. "He doesn't like me. At all. I can't really figure out why."

"Wait, he―"

"Shut up for a second, Happy Hour." Rainbow turned at the sudden interruption to see a strangely familiar guardspony stallion sitting on the barstool next to her. "Get me a Shetland beer, and a salt lick. And a beer for the beautiful filly, too." Upon finishing his order, the stallion turned to the mare seated beside him. "I'm sorry about my buddy earlier. Who throws a bottle at a pretty little thing like you?"

Dash then recognized him as the big earth pony stallion who'd beaten his drinking companion into unconsciousness when she entered the tavern. Her thoughts were cut short when she felt his hoof brush against the inside of her left rear leg. She twisted herself away from his reach, and stared at him with a disgusted, offended glare.

"Who the hay do you think you are?"

Happy Hour was returning with the ordered drinks when the clearly-drunk stallion continued. "Oh, how rude of me. My name's Phalanx. Warrant Officer Phalanx." Rainbow wondered if he was actually trying to turn his title into a Con Mane joke. He continued, ignorant of her thoughts. "And if I'm moving too fast for you, I'm sorry. I love taking things nice… and… slow."

The words were accompanied by both his forehooves reaching around Rainbow's neck, and his booze-soaked breath rushing past her face. Completely uninterested, and also totally disgusted, Rainbow shoved him with both her hooves. For a moment, his flailing hooves almost restored his balance; unfortunately, they were unable to rebalance the bar stool he had been resting on. Both he and the wooden fixture toppled to the floor with a pair of loud thuds. Most of the patrons didn't even look up at the noise.

Phalanx pulled himself up onto shaky hooves, glaring daggers at Dash. "Celestia, how much do you want, filly? Eighty bits? A hundred? You might have some fancy costume armor there, but you don't say no to me!"

"Uh… Phalanx, she's not―" Happy Hour's unsteady voice was cut off when Rainbow spoke up.

"You're disgusting. I wouldn't sleep with you for all the bits in Equestria."

Her unwanted admirer twisted his head to the side, letting some loud cracks break out of his neck. "Never heard of a picky whore before." He took a stumbling step forward, and then another.

"I'm not a whore, jerk. I'm Rainbow Dash. Princess Luna's bodyguard."

"Oh, that's funny. That's real hilarious. Too bad I know a pony named Morning Star, who'd say otherwise. But if you think you're a real guardspony, that means you know how to fight."

Rainbow could see his intentions coming a mile away. He pulled up his right forehoof, practically screaming his intended attack. She was ready to spring up on her perfect wings at a moment's notice, and let him fall on his face yet again.

He lunged, and it was at that moment that Rainbow's conscious thoughts caught up with her instincts. One such thought was that her wings were still trapped beneath earth pony armor. The next such thought was that his leg was really strong, and his hoof really hurt.

She could feel the boards of the floor beneath the plated saddle covering her wings. Her eyes quickly adapted to her new position, where Phalanx was standing over her, a taunting smile on his ugly face. "How much now, pretty filly?"

Standing over a pony like Rainbow was a mistake the stallion wasn't about to make twice, on the off-chance he would recall anything at all in the morning. Dash pressed her front knees into the floor on either side of her body, giving her leverage, and thrust upward into a powerful buck with both her hind legs. The blow connected with the underside of Phalanx's nether region, and with a noise that could only be described a the slow, whimpering whine of a deflating balloon, he collapsed to the floor beside her.

"Is he alright?" Happy Hour asked, when Rainbow sat down at the bar and grabbed the beer Phalanx had bought her. Dash just shrugged in response. The bartender nodded, and smiled awkwardly. "I'm sorry about that. Unfortunately, guardsponies aren't any different than the rest of the stallions in Equestria after a few drinks. Do you want something to eat? You know, to make it up to you?"

Rainbow took a sip of the drink, and almost immediately decided she didn't like it. It was cheap, and flat, and everything that Sweet Apple Acres Cider wasn't.

"I'd love a daffodil sandwich, if you can do that."

Happy Hour nodded, and quickly scrawled down a note on a little flap of paper, which his magic sent flying into the back room. "So, uh, are you really Rainbow Dash?"

"The one and only," Rainbow answered. "Fastest flier in Equestria."

"I heard all about you in the newspapers. They said you were dead. That you snapped your neck and impounded your skull when you saved the Princess."

"That's the first I've heard, though I guess I've been hurt pretty bad before, too. Princess Celestia healed me."

"She can do that?" Happy Hour asked, surprised.

Rainbow answered with another sip of her awful drink, and then an odd look. "I guess so. She can raise the sun and stuff too, right?"

"Yeah, I guess that makes sense. But, uh, unicorns used to do that too. It just took a whole bunch of them, and some big magic gems. But there's no such thing as a healing spell at all."

"Well, I guess it's something only she can do, then." Rainbow took another sip, stopped to wonder why, and then pushed the drink down the bar, out of her reach. "That's awful. Anyway, I'm not too worried about it. There are bigger things going on."

"Like what?"

Dash's mouth dropped open. "You mean you haven't heard?"

"About what? Nothing has happened since the big award thing at the College. You saved, uh, Princess Luna, right? So what else is wrong?"

Rainbow sat there, staring at him with her mouth hanging wide, until Happy Hour's eyes shifted away from the speechless mare and to something, or somepony, behind her. Slowly, Dash turned to see four colts approaching. Two pegasi, an earth pony, and a unicorn. The largest of the Pegasi was closest to her, and it was he who offered a smile, sans a few teeth, and spoke.

"Hey, pretty filly. If I buy you a real good drink, will you show me a real good time?"

Dash turned back to Happy Hour, then rolled her eyes. She wasn't about to go through the whole fiasco of an argument a second time. Instead, she skipped to the end, pulling up her legs and bucking the stallion straight in the gap-toothed muzzle. He stumbled, and fell back against his friends.

The unicorn reacted first, picking up Phalanx's abandoned drink and throwing it at Rainbow. She ducked under the flying bottle faster than most ponies would have been able to follow, before putting a forehoof straight into the horny stallion's jaw. His magic wavered, and the bottle maintained its original trajectory, flying all the way across the room, before breaking against the head of an older, angry pegasus with a missing ear.

What followed could only be described as Discord's purest dream. Undiluted chaos erupted, in the form of a bar brawl. Stools were thrown, tables overturned, and bottles broken. The entire room went mad.

Rainbow had to admit to herself that it felt good to be on the giving end of some punishment, after her long and awful day. She put her hooves into dozens of guardsponies, dropping some, tricking others, and generally being too fast and too agile for any of the drunks to follow. It wasn't flying, but it was at least enough of an adrenaline rush to improve her mood.

Finally, a few minutes later, half the bar lay on the floor, panting and moaning and vomiting. Things had all but stopped. Rainbow panted, feeling the weight of her armor catch up to her. Her legs were sore, not used to doing the work of her wings. She'd taken a few light bruises, but nothing that cut her skin. In fact, she probably looked the best out of anypony in the bar.

The cracking of glass escaped from the floor directly behind Rainbow.

"How ya' like me now, whore?" The voice was Phalanx's, and it was accompanied by a jagged shard of broken bottle aimed for Rainbow's face. She jumped to the side, but not fast enough.

The next noise anypony heard was the sickening snap of breaking bone, followed by a loud crack as the crude pony was thrown hard enough against the floor that he bounced, before rolling to a bloody, unconscious stop against the nearest wall.

Standing over Rainbow was a large stallion, the likes of whom Rainbow had never seen before. He turned slowly, and shot a glance around the tavern with gold slitted eyes. Veined, leathery bat wings were pinned against his sides. Strange patches of fur clung to his face, marking him as a different creature entirely than a real pony. Black and purple armor covered his gray-coated body.

"What are you doing here, freak?" somepony shouted.

Whoever the strange creature was, he simply ignored the cruel words. His frightful eyes locked on Thunder Crack, who was still sitting at the bar with his drink. "I will now be taking Lady Dash back to the Palace to rest. She has passed your foolish test."

The Sergeant only responded with a nod, not even mustering the will to look at the being that addressed him. For his part, the bat-winged stallion did not move his head. Within their sockets, however, his slitted golden eyes swiveled too quickly, riveting firmly on Rainbow.

She opened her mouth to ask his name, but the words were stolen from her tongue unspoken by his next action. Falling down on one knee, and bending his other foreleg, he prostrated himself on the beer-stained wooden floorboards.

"Are you well, Lady Dash?"

"Uh, yeah, I guess," Rainbow offered, confused.

The stallion snapped up faster than Rainbow thought possible, without the use of wings. It was as if he hadn't gone through the intervening positions; he was on the floor, and then suddenly, he was standing stiffly before her again. "Then we should leave. Please follow me."

Rainbow stared in awe as he just started walking off. It took a shake of her head to clear her mind of confusion for long enough to follow after him.

Outside, the sun had finally set, and the midsummer heat had faded away, leaving a comfortable coolness that soothed the heavy layer of sweat Rainbow had only just noticed building between her wings and her ill-fitting armor. She took the moment of refreshment to gasp a few calming breaths of fresh air, free of the scents of alcohol and testosterone. As her focus returned, her eyes veered from the strange bat-pony creature to the body of the bouncer, snoring unceremoniously on the sidewalk.

The black-furred being seemed to notice her glance as he sat down bluntly on the street. "He informed me that I was unwelcome in this establishment because he did not deem me to be a pony."

Rainbow looked up at her odd protector. "Are you a pony?"

"That is a very… difficult question. Perhaps the first of many. We should not talk here. Come with me to roost, and I shall give you the answers you seek. My kin are not welcome in the streets." He spread his leathery wings and took off, only to stop short a few feet overhead. "You are welcome to leave the armored garb here. That suit is easily replaceable."

Part of Rainbow hesitated to follow this pony, though she had her hunch as to what he was. Twilight had described two ponies like him after Luna visited Ponyville on Nightmare Night. She hadn't exactly believed her every word about the 'bat ponies', but now the description seemed to fit. If he was really one of Luna's guards, he had to be trustworthy… right?

The armor fell to the cobblestones surprisingly quietly. It was with immense pleasure, then, that Rainbow spread her wings and took to the night. She was tired, but the feeling of the cold air rushing past her sore body gave her a second wind the likes of which she had never experienced before. After a dozen or so loops, she turned around to see the night pony hovering a few yards away.

"We shall return to the palace roost. There, your questions can be answered, and you can rest, Lady Dash."

Rainbow watched as he flew on his odd wings, clumsily. He seemed to have too much power in every stroke, leading his body to bob up and down in the cool air as he moved. Nevertheless, he was fairly fast, and the travel went quickly. Their path headed straight for the highest spire of the palace, only to pass it completely and shoot on for the peak of the mountain behind it. No structure lay there to be seen, until they alighted on the bare purple rocks. The bat guard walked quickly on strangely stiff legs, darting around rocks and over small crags on the steep ground.

He stopped at the entrance to a cavern, where he looked pointedly at Dash, and nodded. Rainbow's brow rose, but she wasn't about to let him know how intimidating the dark cave was. Setting a bold foot forward, she strode into the darkness.

Around her, little pinpricks of light appeared. They glowed purple and blue, casting an eerie light around the room. Pillars of purple stone were covered with silver fabric. They spiraled up toward the towering ceiling, supporting layer after layer of walkways carved out of the raw stone.

Rainbow took another step for a better view, and felt plush carpet beneath her hoof. A black rug, dotted with a pattern of silver stars, led from her place at one end of the cavern to an elevated podium at the other. At its center was an enormous gem, audibly humming and pulsing like a beating heart, accompanied by a blue light that waned and waxed with its noise.

"This was meant to be our Mistress of the Night's observatory." Rainbow jumped. She hadn't heard the stallion approach, despite the obvious tones her hooves had made on the stonework leading up to the carpet. Either he hadn't noticed, or he didn't care. "The Sun Queen fashioned it for her. Instead, it was gifted to us, as a home. We call it the Roost."

Rainbow looked up at the creature standing behind her, and thought she saw a hint of pride on his face. "We, like the others of you? What are you, anyway?"

"I am a Night Guard," he stated bluntly. "And yes, Lady Dash, your assumption is correct. We take shelter here."

Rainbow shook her head. "You don't get it. I know you're a Night Guard. I mean what…" She struggled to find the right words, a gift that had often eluded her. "What breed are you? Does that make sense?"

"You ask the correct question, and yet misunderstand the answer. The concept is difficult for us as well as you. Night Guard is not merely my... occupation. It is also my form, Lady Dash."

She stopped to consider the statement for a moment, before her mind locked onto another set of his words. "Okay, well, you don't need to keep calling me that. I mean, I guess it's nice, but Rainbow's fine too. You sound all stuffy when you say things like that, and it's kinda freaking me out."

"Forgive me. It is the nature of our kind to feel kinship with you. You alone protected our Mistress of the Night, when all others were defeated." He prostrated himself again, as he had in the bar. "We owe our every moment to you, Rainbow."

Rainbow took a step back from the bowing Night Guard before her and shrugged, almost by force of habit. "It wasn't that big of a deal, really. I'm sure the other Guardsponies would have done the same thing if they'd realized what was going on."

He looked up at her, glowing golden eyes filled with confusion. "We are not so sure, Rainbow."

"Huh? Isn't that, like, their job? If you aren't going to protect the Princess, what's the point of being a guardspony?"

"We have no doubt that were the Sun Queen to fall, they would have saved her life. Our Mistress, however, does not have their loyalty the way she has earned yours, or ours."

"Well, that's kind of dumb," Rainbow answered. "Loyalty isn't something you should have to earn."

"I would disagree with you, though in this case, that may be foolish."

They stared at each other, as Rainbow found herself unable to interpret any emotion from the face of the Night Guard who stood before her. As she watched him, an obvious question arose in her mind.

"What's your name?"

He looked at her with the first emotion she truly could read: confusion. "I do not…" He looked around the room, as if searching for something in the shadows. "I am Third Brother. Is that a fair name?"

"Uh, yeah. Not as cool as Rainbow Dash, but yeah. What was with the thinking, though? Are you not allowed to give your real name?"

"We are not allowed to keep a real name. Third Brother is my Rank, and Lancer my duty. Either will do."

Rainbow nodded, and then found herself forcing back a yawn.

"You are fatigued?"

"Yeah, I guess, but I'm not about to go to bed now. I wanna know about the Night Guard. You guy's armor is awesome, and this place is cool, even if it is a little creepy. And―"

"Our Mistress of the Night will be better to answer your questions, and both our times are better served protecting her. You are tired, and we cannot waste you. We fear that you are the only pony who can truly save her life, now."

"Me? I mean, sure, I can do it, but―"

"Quiet, Lady Dash, and listen closely, for my time with you draws short this night. What we ask will not be easy, do not misunderstand. But you can go where we cannot. Know that the Night watches over you from afar, and should you require us, we will come to your aid. You may find a cure where our Mistress slumbers, but only the Sun Queen can illuminate the answer. Reconciliation and Loyalty together will save our Mistress."

"What the hay is that supposed to mean? If you know the cure―"

"I do not know the meaning, Rainbow. Only the words. Today has drained us both, for I rose against the sun to visit you." His slitted eyes began to glow, casting a golden light against the blues and purples of the room. "Sleep now, and join our Mistress for the Night. Come the morning, a new challenge lies ahead. Save her."

The golden light filled her vision, and before she could even feel her knees begin to bend against the carpet, darkness and dreams overtook Rainbow's mind.