• 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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V - Dishonesty

V: Dishonesty
- - -

Rainbow awoke to a scratching on her nose. Wind accompanied it, sending strands of her mane into her eyes. She curled further into her cloud, but the gentle sensation would not leave her be. It prevented any hope of sleeping, so the mare stretched her legs, letting her wings enjoy the gentle breeze of a Ponyville morning. Even sitting upright, eyes still closed, it wouldn't leave. She brushed a hoof idly over her face, and felt the surprising roughness of torn parchment.

Her eyes shot open when a gust of wind tore the sensation from her face. The little strip of fine paper was pulled toward an open glass balcony door. The world-class flier lunged after it, catching the tiny strip just before it escaped into the high mountain air.

She wasn't in Ponyville, of course, though she had found her morning on a cloud. The balcony seemed familiar, as did the view of Equestria gazing down from this particular balcony. She turned back to the room behind her, parchment held tight in her teeth. Her hoof met a tiny puddle.

The pool of liquid was a soft brown, punctuated by tiny shards of shattered porcelain, and a single golden lotus petal.

Luna's tea, and her own. They hadn't even cleaned up the spills. Her gaze drifted upward, to the room of blues and purples contained inside the glass doors. Everything about the chamber was exactly as it had been when Rainbow left, charging off after Shining Armor three days earlier. The only change was the unsettling of the sheets on the Princess' cloud bed, a change Dash recognized from her own sleep moments earlier.

She looked back down at the little flower that had nearly cost Luna her life. Everything was quiet until she brought her hoof up and stomped on it. Set on top of the little thing, she pressed down and ground back and forth, until she could feel that nothing but reedy strands remained.

"Why?" The question didn't even mean anything, it was just a raw thought gone rogue in a swamp of memories and tears. All the purpose it ever served was to let a tumbling strip of paper fall from her lips and spin in the air.

It was the text on the other side that caught her eye. The script was plain and straightforward, looking almost printed in its uniformity, save the occasional splatter of ink. She caught it on the tip of her wing and held it up, her eyes scanning slowly.

Rainbow Dash, here is your message, exactly as it was given to me.

You may find a cure where Luna slumbers, but only Celestia can illuminate the answer. It will take Reconciliation and Loyalty together to save the Princess.

I trust your judgment, but do not let the Sun Queen or her guard know of these words. They were not meant for her kind.

-III

Dozens of questions arose, but were quickly washed away in irritation. She groaned and let the scrap of paper fall to the floor. She had better things to do than solve a stupid riddle, especially with somepony's life on the line. Her hooves brought her to the doors of the room, but a quick flick of the handle found them locked.

She was about to run out of the room and fly off the balcony to the main Palace entrance when a noise outside the door caught her attention. Her ears perked again when another followed, and then a third, in a long stream. Voices. She pressed an ear flat against the wood and listened closely.

"...don't see how she could be here. We already checked Celestia's room, right?"

"I'm telling you, the filly quit. About time too." That was the loathed voice of Thunder Crack, just as irate as ever. Rainbow's first instinct was to throw the doors open and hit the stallion in the face. It would prove him wrong, and show that she could fight, all in one awesome move. That plan fell flat, however, the moment that Rainbow tried the door. It was locked from both sides, just as it had been moments before, and she could see no way to undo the latch. Maybe Luna just used magic to get in. Her plan dead in the water, the stunt flier resigned herself to listening in on the rest of the conversation.

"What do you even have against her, Thunder?" The other voice was a mare's, likely not all too much older than Dash herself, though with the slightest hint of a 'proper' Canterlot accent. "Is it because she's Luna's bodyguard?"

He answered first with a growl. "You wouldn't understand."

"You sure? Understanding is usually my job."

What followed was a loud crack, and the sound of porcelain shattering. Dash felt the door shift against the side of her face from a sudden impact. When the ensuing silence broke, Thunder Crack's voice was just as angry as usual. "Keep your nose out of this, Private. I was on orders, and I did them damn well for the warning I got."

The response came incredulously. "So you're telling me Soldier On ordered you to take Rainbow Dash into a bar and nearly get her killed?"

"Captain On and I agreed that we needed to get her off the guard. She tried talking to the Princess, but they still aren't on the best of terms after the Captain yelled at her about Luna. So she told me to solve the problem on my end. I tried to get the dumb filly to quit the usual way, but she was stubborn."

"Oh, I see. So that's when you decided a bar-brawl was the solution."

"One of these days, Marathon, you're going to learn to shut up. But, no, I wasn't just going to throw her into a bar brawl. Everything was under control. I paid off a bunch of the Royal Guards to go hit on her, and pick a fight. Maybe a cut, or a broken leg; just something to keep her out of shape for duty while we solved this issue. I didn't take the real drunk into account, but I was watching in case anything happened. If it weren't for the bat-freak, everything would have gone off perfectly."

The sound of wings beating the air drew closer to the door, and Rainbow pulled back, ready to lunge into Luna's incredibly comfortable cloud bed. To her surprise, however, the approach stopped just in front of the doors, leaving Equestria's fastest pony with perfect clarity for what was said next.

"Fine, Thunder, whatever. If that's what you had to do. Back to my actual question, though, what do you have against Rainbow Dash in the first place?"

"Plenty, but that isn't why we had to get rid of her."

"Why, then?"

Thunder Crack grumbled an answer back in gravely tones. "Because she has a stupid magic necklace, that's why."

"Huh?"

"If she were just some filly that the Princess threw on the guard, it wouldn't matter. I'd put up with teaching her for a week or so, until we could send her off. She'd go off and get eaten by a dragon or stabbed or something, and I wouldn't lose any sleep. Unfortunately for us, this particular dumb kid happens to be the Element of Loyalty. So if we let her stay on the Honor Guard and try to do what we do, her story ends in a wooden box six hooves under. Then what happens when Discord escapes again, or Nightmare Moon returns, or some other god-monster that we can't fight attacks the Princess? Do you think you can talk them out of it, Marathon? If not, as much as I hate to admit it, we need the filly alive."

A long quiet followed, before the mare (Marathon?) spoke up again. "Celestia hasn't considered this? You're sure?"

"She's probably considered it. The problem is that the Princess doesn't care, Marathon. She might not be shouting and threatening war, and whatever else she said to Captain On today, but she still isn't in her right mind. She's more concerned with her sister than she is with Equestria, and that means that we have to pick up the slack."

"So that's why the Nobles are convening tomorrow." The wingbeats stopped. "Are you coming?"

"I don't have time for that sort of thing. Satisfying them is your job, Ambassador." Sarcasm dripped audibly from the Sergeant's voice. "Captain On and I are following up a lead on the assassin."

"She needs to be there. The Commander always came to meetings with the Stable of Nobles."

"Well, she isn't the Commander, is she, Marathon?" He snorted so loud, Rainbow found herself jumping back from the door again. "She's got history with the new Stalliongrad cuh-zar, or whatever they call themselves up there. Princess said she was getting somepony else to fill the spot."

"Who? Mirror Image?"

"Shining Armor." His final words were accompanied by the sound of the Sergeant's hooves wandering their way down the hall and into the distance.

The sound slipped slowly into silence, and Rainbow waited without breathing. Then a key clicked in the door's silver keyhole, and the fear of shame sent the mare across the room and into the bed. As the door slowly creaked open, she pulled the thick down-stuffed covers over her body and pressed her eyes closed.

Again she was forced to rely on her ears, listening to soft wings beat closer and closer and closer, until finally they could be no further than a leg's length away. She felt a hoof press gently against her shoulder, followed shortly by a kind voice.

"It's time to get up, Rainbow Dash." She feigned a yawn and opened her eyes slowly.

Marathon was a younger mare than Dash would have guessed from the accent of her voice; she couldn't have been any older than Fluttershy, and the similarities between the two didn't end at age. The Guard wore her mane long and straight down both sides of her head, though pulled back far enough to leave her gentle smiling face peeking through. Both it and her coat were a warm burnt orange, with the former marked by stripes of yellow and red. Her most notable features were the dress attached to her armor, which thoroughly covered her rear legs and flanks, and the fact that she insisted on hovering, despite the fact that her legs were only a fraction of an inch from the floor of the room.

Rainbow sat upright and stretched her forelegs in a long fake yawn. "Gimme a second, Marathon."

"You know my name?"

"Uh... Sergeant Crack mentioned you yesterday." It hadn't been the smoothest move Rainbow had ever pulled, but it got the desired reaction out of the other mare. Instead of suspicion, she reacted by drawing back a bit.

"I hope he didn't tell you anything too bad about me. Celestia knows he's never said anything good about anypony in his life." She laughed, and gestured to the door. "We're actually pretty late. It took me forever to find you, and Captain On wanted to see you an hour ago."

Dash stumbled to her hooves for the second time in as many short minutes. "Is she down in the hospital room?"

"She's down in the armory waiting to deploy you."

Rainbow was taken aback. "Really? I thought Crack would have me off the Guard for sure."

"Well, I think he thought so too, but here you are. To be honest, I doubt he had much say in the matter. Anyway, if you aren't quitting now, you need to get cleaned up."

"Where am I going?"

Marathon smiled. "I'm supposed to let the Captain tell you, but I guess it can't hurt. Ever wanted to see Zebrica?"

Rainbow's mind pictured the endless jungles and deserts faced in the everyday life of Daring Do. She could almost see the hidden temples and the strange creatures. "Heck yeah! That's what I'm talking about!"

The other guardspony couldn't help but share her new companion's enthusiasm. "All right, then. I've got most of our gear packed, but you need to go down to the armory and see Captain On before you go." Marathon's hoof tapped against the golden breastplate attached to the trail of her dress. "I hear she has something for you."

The Bearer of Loyalty didn't need to be told twice. Her own armor, and going to Zebrica? For the first time since joining up, Dash had to admit that she finally had hope for her time serving in the guard. Compounded with the realization that she was finally doing something to help Luna, it seemed she had finally found her long awaited silver lining. The euphoria carried her down the hall and all the way to the center of the Palace ballroom before she realized that she had no idea where the armory was.

She was also left with no idea that after she left the room, Marathon spotted a strange piece of parchment on the floor, and tucked it idly into a pocket on her own armor.

- - -

Shining Armor stood in full armor, still suffering under days of stress. Cadance's insistence of sleep had done him good physically, but no amount of sleep would let him forget his duty.

That particular morning, his duty took the form of standing in the Royal Palace ballroom, socializing with the entourages of the 'noble' rulers of the eight Domains of Equestria.

His bored eyes had fixed themselves onto the doorway of the enormous room, even as his hooves locked themselves in place beside an ornate punchbowl resting on an equally ornate table. He was grateful the beverage had been spared liquor, simply to give him an excuse to keep his mouth full. That way, he could listen, and nod along, and generally pretend to be listening to what anypony was saying at any given time. The experience of meeting his wife's family had taught him just what Equestria's upper crust thought of a commoner attaining the rank of Captain of the Royal Guard. Hopefully, a mouthful of punch would keep him from saying something stupid, at least until Cadance arrived to watch his back.

He'd been expecting the first encounter of the day to be a so-called 'noblepony'; instead, he nearly spat out the very first mouthful of his punch when a radiant rainbow mane suddenly dropped into his face from above.

"Hey, Shining!'

Quickly swallowing his drink, the Guard Captain took a step back. Rainbow Dash was hovering in the air, just over where his head had been. He couldn't help but notice a few bruises on her shoulders, and a particularly potent one on her cheek, but given normal guardspony training, he wasn't about to comment. "Rainbow, you shouldn't sneak up on ponies like that." He chuckled to himself at a sudden memory. "Especially not guardsponies."

"Why? You thought it was funny."

"Just trust me." Though Shining Armor didn't explain it, the answer had to do with a prior commanding officer, who had responded to an 'eraser in the door' prank by bucking his desk through the office window and charging spear first into the training yard at two in the morning. The overreaction eventually led to six weeks of latrine duty. He hadn't enjoyed it, but at least his magic made life better than it was for his earth pony friend.

The Captain refilled his glass of punch and set it down on the table before he spoke up again. "How are you liking the Honor Guard, Rainbow? I see you got through your first day of training all right."

"I wish. Thunder Crack- sorry, Sergeant Crack, is a total jackass. He spent the entire day just beating on me, and telling me that I couldn't use my wings to fight. He wouldn't even let me fly - how stupid is that?"

Shining opened his mouth, fully intending to comment on standard training procedure for Pegasus guards, due to the risk of wing injuries in combat. Rainbow continued before he could offer his thoughts, however.

"After like the whole day of just doing these stupid drills and getting hit over and over, he took me to a bar and just started drinking. Anyway, I actually-"

"Wait, Rainbow," the Captain demanded. "This bar Sergeant Crack brought you to, was it named the Private's Reserve?"

"Yeah, actually. It was kind of a lousy place, and all these drunk guardsponies kept coming onto me like I was some kind of two-bit-" Rainbow's words were interrupted this time not by Shining Armor's voice, but by the smashing of his hoof against the marble floor. "Uh, you okay, buddy?"

"I'm fine. I'm glad you're fine, I should say. I'm going to need to talk to Captain On about that, though. He shouldn't have taken you there."

Rainbow shrugged. "I came out all right, didn't I? Anyway, if you do need to talk to her, you can come with me. I need to go to the armory, so I can get a suit of my own." She gestured to Shining's namesake gear. "I wonder if it comes in blue."

The guardspony smiled at the naivety of his young friend. "Well, the armory is just through that door, down the stairs, first door on the right." His hoof pointed the way. "When you see Soldier On, tell her that I'll take over your training. I don't want you having to deal with Sergeant Crack anymore."

Rainbow flew off, and Shining's magic picked up his drink again. Halfway across the ballroom, the mare turned back to him and called out loudly. "Thanks for the offer, Shining, but I don't need any more training. I'm heading off for Zebrica later."

The fastest mare in Equestria made it through the door and out of the room just in time to miss the sudden surge of magic from Shining Armor's horn as it shattered his glass of punch into a rain of crystalline shards and droplets of pink rain.

- - -

In the days following her impossible victory, much of the incredible high of her task has worn away. Masquerade's thoughts had gone from a bouncing school-filly to a philosophizing mare. It was probably the endless expanse of desert that surrounded her, giving her nothing to do but think as she walked in the heat.

The problem with being a philosophizing mare was that philosophy didn't tend to get very far without discussion. Given that one of her companions was completely incapable of speech, and the other didn't seem interested, she found herself in something of a bind. Her mind had explored magic, theater, truth, and even that rare and deadly subject called morality. Now she was, to put it bluntly, bored.

She glanced over to the stallion pulling her cart. He was a big thing, but his mind was weak. It had been easy enough to wipe it out completely. She knew he'd never recover, and she had every intention of putting him out of his misery as soon as he was no longer useful. The magic was considered 'cruel and vile', as well as illegal, but on her list of crimes it still couldn't compete with Luna's assassination.

The cart itself was really just a cage with wheels, for those few who could see past the illusion. Inside, the pony called the Commander was glaring at her, surprisingly lucid. She'd had to lower the whisper salt injections after she realized that her supply was running low, but nevertheless his attentiveness was impressive.

"So, Commander..." her words trailed off and she simply let them hang in the dry scorching air. To her surprise, he responded. He didn't offer any words, but he did shift to a painful mockery of sitting upright, with his scarred rear leg sticking out of otherwise perfect posture. "You want to talk?"

He didn't say anything, or move any further. He just sat there, staring silently, judgmentally. Though she did her best to hide the feeling from her face, she had to admit the way he watched her was unnerving.

"I figure I'd like to get to know you a bit better."

"Why am I still alive?"

Masquerade couldn't help but notice that his voice was far drier than it had been in Baltimare. The long trip south had not been kind to his health, even without his own deliberate dehydration. Twice, she'd had to drug him, and then pour the water down his throat herself.

"You're worth a lot of money, Commander. I love what I do, but I still have to make a living. My turn for a question. What's your name?"

"Steel," he stated, eyes searching the horizon.

"Just Steel?"

His eyes didn't even look at her, for almost a full minute, as he craned his head to see through the bars of his cage. When he spoke again, unprompted, Masquerade was caught off-guard. "You're selling me to the Changelings?"

Masquerade cocked her head, trying to read the stallion's face. It was a prospect doomed to fail from the moment it began. She might have been a master of deception, but she could never dream of a poker face as good as his. She relented with curiosity in her tone. "I've never spoken to a Changeling, Steel."

He nodded, having heard the answer he was expecting. "Chrysalis would want Shining Armor more than me."

"Who's Chrysalis?"

"Their queen."

Masquerade smiled, cracking yet another of her jokes at his expense. "I get it, tough guy. You're saying don't love anypony, right? That's how he and his Princess stopped the invasion. That's what you're telling me here, that you're too hard for that sort of thing? Typical stallion, trying to act tough." She shook her rear at him suggestively. "Maybe I could change your mind?" She stopped to take in his response, and found herself disappointed. Steel's eyes were pointed at her, but she felt that he wasn't really seeing her at all.

She found herself honestly sad. No matter how much he hated her, she couldn't help but feel a bond between them, as companions on a lonely road. She thought to herself, wondering what she could say to get him to speak again.

As they progressed, the badlands grew dustier and redder until the entire horizon could be reduced to a block of blue sitting atop a block of red. Her thoughts wandered, and her mind listed, until finally the silence started to hurt again.

"We're going to the boars, Steel. Their Warchief offered me half a million bits worth of their coin for you."

She didn't know why she had said it. As sedated and contained as he was, there wasn't likely much he could do with the information, but it was still unprofessional of her. Talking about contracts was terrible for business.

The moment he pulled himself up again, though, she decided that the trade had been worth it. "Good."

"Huh?" Her first thought was that the price of his head somehow gave him satisfaction, but the way his faced turned down, she knew there was no pride in his statement.

"The boars don't keep prisoners."

By the way he put his face on the floor of his cell, he had decided once again that their conversation was over. Masquerade thought otherwise, and offered a question that she thought was sure to catch his interest.

"Then, for the sake of argument, what happens if your guards do catch me?"

He didn't bother to pick up his head when he answered. "You'd have to face Celestia."

"I have a hard time believing she could actually bring herself to do anything. Aren't I one of her precious little ponies, after all? She forgave Nightmare Moon. Why not me?"

"You don't know her," the Commander told her.

"So I'd burn?" she asked, sarcastically.

"She's more creative." He shook his head, and his eyes looked out on the horizon. "Have you ever seen her statue garden?"

Imagination turned to fear as Masquerade pondered eternity. It took more time that she would have liked for her to remember realities. No matter what sort of company he was, or how he acted, the Commander was her enemy. His words were chosen to produce exactly the kind of fear she had just felt. It was time to turn the tables again.

"Well, Steel, I suppose that would probably scare me pretty badly, if your guards were ever going to catch me. I still don't believe it, but it doesn't matter. Seeing as I was able to waltz into the Palace right under their noses, I'd say they don't have a chance of catching me out in the world."

"You should hope they do. The garden isn't Tartarus." The words sounded strange, coming from a voice so devoid of emotion. Plenty of times in her line of work, Masquerade had heard her name damned from afar. Sometimes, she even had the luxury of standing beside the victim, wearing somepony else's face. The words were always bitter, but it was a flavor she loved above all others. Steel didn't give her the wonderful rush she always expected.

"Well, that's where we disagree, Commander. I know that if Luna had been allowed to live, Nightmare Moon would have returned. I did the right thing. I saved Equestria."

"Maybe you did."

The words stopped Masquerade in her tracks. She watched his face, wondering if he could honestly have meant what he said. She was certain that he sounded sincere, and as she watched him, she began to believe that he might have meant his words.

"So you're saying I'm right?"

Steel shook his head slowly, almost mournfully. "Who decides if you lived a good life, Masquerade?" His eyes, the last part of his body that held the sharp and watchful figure of the Commander, stared straight up into the fiery ball heating the desert from overhead. "All she has to do is wait."

She shook off that lying threat much more quickly than its predecessor. Everypony knew that if you did the right thing, you got to move on. Even Celestia wasn't above that... right?

"Waiting won't save her sister, supposing the poison hasn't killed her already. It isn't going to save you, either."

"I'm not afraid of dying."

"I've heard a lot of ponies say that, Steel. I might just believe it from you. Tell me, though, what would you do if I let you go?"

He looked her dead in the eye, and she knew what his answer was going to be before he even opened his mouth.

"I would take you back to Celestia."

"You're no fun sometimes, Captain. Don't you have at least a little imagination? Let me ask this way. What would you do if you could start all over again? If you could live your life differently? Would you raise a family? Do something you love?"

He lay down onto his side, and lifted his left wing. Beneath it, his one remaining cutie mark was left as plain as day. "I'm a guardspony."

"No regrets? I can respect that."

"One," he answered, looking again as though he could see straight through Masquerade to somepony behind her in the distance. "If I wrote a letter, would you deliver it?"

"I guess... you're not trying to call down your guardsponies on me, are you?"

Steel's answer was to close his eyes and lay back down to his lethargic rest. Masquerade found herself with a strange constriction in her chest. It was a feeling she hadn't felt in years: she pitied him, the first victim since her first to evoke such an emotion.

The feeling was strong enough that it earned the tired guardspony a piece of paper, a quill, and ink. Try as it might, though, pity could do nothing to stop the wagon on its progress toward his end.

- - -

"Yeah, I get that normal suits look this way, but does it come in blue? 'Cause I think that'd be way cooler than looking just like everypony else."

"You don't look like everypony else, Rainbow," Marathon answered, tugging at the dress covering her flanks. "Nopony's going to mistake your mane for somepony else's, I promise."

"Yeah, what's the deal with that? I don't even get armor that let me turn into one of those guardsponies?"

Rainbow Dash flexed her wings for the coming long flight. After days on the ground, though, it would be a welcome change.

"Can't make up your mind, Rainbow? Do you want to look like us or not?"

"Well, if I can't get blue armor, it would be pretty cool to turn into a guardspony. I could prank Twilight so well like that. Can you imagine how she'd flip, if I told her she was late for an assignment?"

Marathon answered with an awkward pawing of the ground. "You mean Twilight Sparkle, right? Celestia's student."

"Yeah, she's a good friend of mine. I sort of figured you'd know her, what with- Whoa!"

The source or Rainbow's surprise was Marathon's removal of her skirt-like fabric. Beneath it, Rainbow was offered a perfect view of a pair of tiny stumps where the guardspony's hind legs ought to have been. She immediately regretted her reaction, when she realized exactly what she had said.

"I'm sorry," Rainbow threw out quickly, hoping to allay some of the damage of her words. It didn't seem to do much. She wondered what Twilight, or Fluttershy would say, and then found herself regretting their absence. "It's, uh... it actually looks kind of cool. Was that from a fight?"

"It's no big deal. I'm kinda used to it, actually. I was born without rear legs. It's why I fly inside, even when I could just be standing still."

"Don't your wings get tired?"

Marathon cracked a snarky smile. "Nope. Why? Do yours?"

Rainbow could smell the challenge coming from a mile away, and put on her game face accordingly. "Well, not usually. Sometimes when I break the sound barrier, you know, things can get a little rough."

"So you think you're a big deal, huh, Rainbow?"

"I don't think, Marathon. I know."

"Them's racing words, Rainbow Dash."

"Anytime, anywhere."

Marathon laughed. "All right then. Zebrica it is."

Rainbow was left slack jawed as the other mare shot forth, taking the early lead in their race. It didn't take more than two flaps of her wings to catch up, but she chose to match her speed, rather than flying ahead.

"Isn't Zebrica, like, a thousand miles from here?"

"Depends on where you're going. We're headed to a base camp on the Congallop river, near the district of Marezambique. It's almost on the southern border of Grivridge, if you know where that is on a map. And it's four thousand miles, give or take."

"So is this going to be like that race they do up in Vanhoover, where it takes five days?"

"If you want it to, Rainbow, you're welcome to. But I'd be pretty embarrassed to call myself the fastest flier in Equestria if I lost a race by four whole days."

The pause that followed wasn't Rainbow struggling with basic math. Its source was instead the mare's difficultly with accepting the implication that followed. "You want us to fly four thousand miles in one day?"

Marathon shrugged. "I do it all the time. We get up in a jet stream and pull a little over five-hundred miles an hour. If you get tired, you can grab a cloud and just let the wind take you. It's easy."

"So you're saying we should fly altitude and distance? What happens if one of us passes out?"

Marathon shook her head. "If you're honestly that worried about it, we can take a little longer and get there tomorrow morning. It's no fur off my back."

"Hey, I'm not backing down, Marathon; I just think you're going a little far."

"Fine. We'll call off the race." She placed her only two legs behind her head, reclining backwards as she drifted lazily through the air. "And I promise what I'm saying isn't as crazy as it sounds. You're in good shape, and even old Deadeye can fly that far with me in one day."

"Who's Deadeye?"

"His real name's Dead Reckoning. You'll get to meet him pretty soon, since he's going to be your partner in Zebrica."

"Why are you flying four thousand miles, if you're not going to stay down there too?"

"It's my job, Rainbow. I'm the Honor Guard courier. Sometimes the Princess has me do diplomacy too, if something needs to be said fast. Now follow me." The mare's wings pitched steeply upward, and she began flapping up into the higher, thinner skies.

Rainbow followed, though her attention was pointed down at the miles of Equestrian soil passing beneath her hooves. Below, the rough scar of land that was Rambling Rock Ridge brought to mind memories of facing down dragons with her friends. She glanced to the side, but Ponyville still seemed so far away. Something inside cried out for her to go home, and leave the guard. Loyalty silenced it quickly.

- - -

Celestia's found herself standing in front of her oversized full-length mirror, when a knock on the door echoed through her chambers. Without turning away from her reflection, the golden light of her horn opened the space to whoever would come inside.

She half-expected Soldier On, or Shining Armor, or even her mane-servant Record Time, with some minor issue regarding the housing of the nobles. Her ears perked when the hooves that approached carried a steady, soft tone.

Like so many things in her indescribably long life, Celestia had the luxury of learning how to hear a pony approaching not by practice, but simply by the passage of time. The talent often served her well, simply because the idea didn't often reach the mind of an average, mortal pony. In this case, the hooves were a stallion’s, older and lighter than Shining Armor. For just a moment, her ears expected the slight pause of a limp to be heard between the third and fourth step, but no such answer came. Was it disappointing?

These thoughts passed through her mind in the span of a mere second, and were wiped away when the experienced and weathered face of her sister's doctor stepped through her doorway and into view of her mirror.

"Dr. Asclepius, I presume."

"Your majesty still isn't tired of that joke?"

"I think we could all use something to laugh about these days." She turned, and then forcibly flipped her mane to get its mundane strains out of her field of vision. No matter how much everypony around her complimented the look, she missed the radiance of her more magical appearance. Sacrifices had to be made, though, and it was by far the least. "Has something changed, or are you headed home for today?"

He smiled in response, and Celestia felt her heart soar with hope in her chest. Even the force of thousands of years of passivity could not keep a matching smile from her face.

"Not a cure, but progress. I was looking at the entry wound. It's actually been healing, just very slowly."

"Is she getting better on her own?"

He seemed reluctant to disappoint her, judging by the pause that preceded his answer. "I'm afraid not. Her condition is still..." His momentary search for the right word paused the beating of Celestia's heart. "...decaying. I've been running every test I could think of trying to find a cause. Her blood-work was clean, her muscles didn't have any outside contaminants, and even her mana was stable. Today, though, when I did an x-ray of the wounded leg, I found something that wasn't there when she was brought in. Specifically, arthritis."

Celestia cocked her head to the side, utterly confused. "What does that tell us, doctor? The poison is targeting her bones?"

"No, Princess, I'm afraid not. The deterioration doesn't conform to sudden, rapid onset damage like might be caused by a corrosive, or a substance which feeds on calcium. It looks like aging. Eighty years of aging."

"So you-"

"How old is Luna, Princess?"

Celestia sighed, facing another of the difficulties of her lifespan. "Luna and I have lived something like eighty-two thousand years. I haven't bothered to check the exact year in some time." As was usually the reaction to such a revelation, Asclepius' mouth fell open. "I trust that information will not leave this room, Doctor. I know that medically, she's always been in her late twenties."

The thin stallion nodded slowly, and then just as carefully removed his glasses. Celestia knew what was coming, from the way that he took the time to look her dead in the eye.

"I'm afraid we have a diagnosis, then, your majesty. Princess Luna is aging to death."

Celestia's eyes were too tired to bring forth new tears, but they did wander away from the young pony's face. "What can we do?"

It was a testament to his professionalism that he was able to bring out his next three words. "I don't know." He stepped close to her, as young doctors were taught to, and offered a shoulder to lean on. The motion seemed hollow when presented to the mare twice his height and three-thousand times his elder. "We don't know of any spell, or any poison that can cause this."

"How long?"

That question did break the doctor's resolve. His eyes drifted to the carpet, and the walls, before settling down the perch of a radiant phoenix sitting on a golden roost near the far window. "I can't say for certain, Princess. At most, a month."

She wished she didn't know ponies so well. She desperately dreamt she had never learned to see through lies so plainly. Though it had long since abandoned her, true Honesty still had its ties in her mind, and those ties sometimes stung.

"I need to know the truth."

He hesitated for the longest fraction of a second in Celestia's life. When he spoke, it almost hurt to listen. "Most likely, a week. Maybe as little as five days."

Celestia could only bring herself to nod, gesturing with her horn toward the door out of the room. Thank you would seem a vile thing to say, after such news.

The doctor didn't move. Instead, he looked Celestia in the eye again, gravely. "Can I ask you something, Princess?"

"If it helps Luna, please do."

"You healed Rainbow Dash, didn't you? If you do have the power to do that sort of magic, why not use it on your sister?"

Just as she had learned to see through others lies, her own tongue had long since mastered the art of deceit. Some were easy, like claiming to enjoy the Grand Galloping Gala, or telling others that she was a mere two-thousand years of age. Others were harder. They forced her to look away, and face the light of her own mournful sun as she spoke them into the world.

"What I did for Rainbow wouldn't work on Luna."

"Wasn't she even more far-gone, though? When you brought her, with her neck twisted around like that, and her spine-"

"Please." Celestia put on her oldest and most trusted mask. Her face turned back from the window and the sun with serenity and apathy. "If there was anything within my power that I could do for my sister, do you doubt that I would?"

He didn't answer her immediately, instead choosing to walk back to the door of the room, which still hung ajar from his entrance. His body slipped nimbly through the open space, only to stop halfway back into the hallway. She couldn't see his face, and her mirror only exposed his white coat and brown tail. His voice carried his parting thought clearly enough, though.

"I'm sorry, Princess. For everything."

Celestia closed the door behind him as he left, and turned back to her reflection.

"Coo?" Philomena titled her head to the side, watching her ageless mistress with curiosity.

"Did you expect me to tell him the truth, Philomena?"

The phoenix answered with a condemning call. "Wraa."

"I know I'm being selfish. Do you think I should just let my sister go? It isn't her time."

"Coo."

"How could he help? He couldn't heal her."

The response was the majestic bird placing her head beneath her wing.

"I am not hiding, Philomena. I'm saving her life!"

"Coo."

Her blood pumping, the ancient princess of the sun turned her attention back to the task of preparing her mane. Yet again, she found herself wishing for a lie, though this time it was to lie to herself. Philomena's taunting tone did not make her wrong. What Celestia had done was unfair. In that way, it was like so many of the decisions behind the rule of Equestria. More than anything, she needed somepony else to shoulder some of her burden, and if not her sister, then who?

A terrible question arose in her mind, one which would not leave her be no matter how hard she tried to force it away. Her mane tangled in its brush as she tugged too tightly, and her mirror cracked when she shoved it with magic to adjust its angle. Finally, with a growl, she turned to her pet once more, bringing to bear the anger that her own immense powers were helpless to save her dying sister.

"What does it feel like?"

"Kree?"

"Dying, Philomena. Does it hurt to die?"

Even the phoenix hesitated, brilliant head brought low in thought and silence. "Wraoo."

Celestia stared, unable to bring forth any emotion at all. "You couldn't have lied to me?"

- - -

Four hours later, Shining Armor was almost prepared to fall to his knees in a prayer of gratitude for his glass of punch. He was standing beside his wife (for whom he had already offered many such prayers) and her family (who necessitated the punch in the first place).

"It's wonderful to see you again, Captain. Grazie, Cadenza." The obese unicorn with the overwhelming Bitalian accent took hold of his own glass of the blessed beverage, and offered a sidelong glance at its liquid. "Tell me, how goes your post in this time of trouble?"

Swallow. "Things are hard." Shining filled his mouth again, watching as his wife wandered off without him into crowds of more tolerable ponies.

"A shame, but I'm sure you're doing your very best to protect us. One must wonder, though, why Equestria has faced so many tragedies in recent years. I certainly don't recall anything so drastic as battle in the streets of Canterlot under Sir Crucible's vigil as Captain of the Guard."

Shining answered first with a swallow. The motion gave him time to bury his anger, and instead focus on rerouting the very obvious goading onto an easy target. "Crucible was from your family, wasn't he?"

"Correct, Captain," stated a surprisingly young mare, wearing a bright red dress with a highly overstated collar. "Our family is known for alicorn children, as I'm sure you are no doubt aware."

The family in question were the rulers of the Principality of Bitaly. The family itself was ruled with an iron hoof by the fat unicorn standing across from Shining Armor, smug lips pressed against a beverage he obviously held utter derision for. His name, Sforzando Eccesivo, was one that Shining Armor had learned to despise from the very first time his wife had taken him home for 'dinner with the family'. Sforzando’s current wife, the Lady Climbing Ivy of Shetland, was a tiny pony, barely any older than Cadance. Judging by the way she carried herself, so stiff-necked and proud, one might have thought her stature to be more in line with that of Princess Celestia herself. She was a recent addition, dating to a handful of months after Shining's own wedding. He had already decided he didn't like her any more than her husband.

Swallow. "Yes, I did notice, thank you." Shining shot a quick, desperate glance to the alicorn in question. His wife was greeting the delegation from some other domain of Equestria that he hadn't bothered to learn, and though her response was a pitying smile, Shining caught himself hoping that they could have exchanged places. "How are things in Bitaly?" He took another drink.

Sforzando answered with his deep and overbearing voice. "Bene. Things have been peaceful. Uneventful, even. Honestly, if things were going any better, one might wonder why we maintain the biggest domain guard in Equestria… or even a guard at all."

Swallow. "That's good to hear. I wish I could say the same." Drink.

Climbing Ivy inclined her head even further than usual, trying to catch the gaze of the towering stallion before her. "Shining, I was hoping to meet your family while we're staying here in Canterlot. Are they around now, or will they be arriving later?"

The question was too much. Shining didn't even bother processing it. "It has been a pleasure speaking with you again, Prince, and meeting you, Lady Ivy. I hope we can talk more in the future." He knew he was a terrible liar, but the words were at least enough to justify leaving the punch bowl in search of anypony else at all.

Much of the words that passed behind his back were lost in the crowd, but he did catch Sforzando's final declaration. "...not a noble."

The sharp shriek from Climbing Ivy cemented his opinion. "What?" Having unsettled the ponies he left behind enough to satisfy his honest feelings, Shining made his way across the royal ballroom, to where Cadance was entertaining a pair of young stallions.

One of the pair, a thin unicorn with a dark indigo coat and a pair of thin oval glasses, glanced Shining direction as he continued speaking at length with Cadance. From the way he dressed, with his elegant gray dinner coat, his quilted vest, and his marigold silk scarf, it was obvious he considered himself a politician.

His counterpart clearly held no such opinion. He was surprisingly short even for a pegasus, with a scruffy jawline on his dried blood-colored coat and a look of quickly growing irritation at being forced to endure the nobles. Shining judged him a guard, not only by the way he carried himself, but by the bulky muscle tone visible even through the heavy black winter coat he wore, with its faux fur collar and its long trail that concealed the stallion’s cutie mark. The black coat said the most, though. Without speaking a word, Shining Armor could recognize a Black Cloak from Stalliongrad.

"...and after that whole sordid affair was over, I had to put aside my magic studies for politics. I assume you have as well, if half of what I read in the paper is true." The unicorn spoke with almost uncomfortably enunciated Equiish, tinged with the slightest hint of a Prench accent. “I must say, things are very different here than at home. It's good to be back in Canterlot." The formal stallion offered a sweeping gaze around the room to indicate his point, and partway through the motion, he spotted the approaching guardspony. "I understand this is your counterpart, Roscherk. Maybe you'll finally have somepony to talk to."

"I doubt," the burlier of the two growled back. Unlike his companion, his words bore the definite touch of a Stalliongradi accent, much stronger than Soldier On's.

"At least have the decency to talk for once." The unicorn looked up as Shining finally reached the group. "You must be Captain Armor. It is a pleasure to meet you.”

“Shining,” Cadance began, “This is Predvidenie. We studied magic together at the Royal Academy.”

“Please, call me Foresight.” A hoof extended stiffly, though Shining momentarily hesitated to take it. His mind sat on the mismatch between the stallion’s prim Prench accent and his heavy Stalliongradi name. “This is my younger brother, Red Ink."

Shining took Foresight’s offered hoof, and after a brief shake, extended the same leg toward Red Ink. The disgruntled pegasus stared at it as though it were covered in pustules, and made no move to reciprocate the offer. “Roscherk Krovyu is name,” the stallion insisted, though Shining immediately gave up any hope of pronouncing it correctly, and instead stored Red Ink in his mind. All the while, his hoof hung in the air.

"You're going to offend him," Foresight whispered, quite loudly enough for Shining Armor to hear.

"It's fine, honestly. It takes a little more than being quiet to get on my bad side, I promise." Shining had hoped the comment would break the ice with the pegasus. Foresight forced a sort of awkward laugh at the comment, which was quickly and more naturally mirrored by Cadance. Once more, Red Ink did not join in.

Shining finally pulled his hoof back, coughing into it twice the way the other nobles often did when trying to clear the air. "I'm guessing you're the... the Prince of Stalliongrad, Foresight?"

"The title is Tsar, Captain, though as long as you don't say Baron, I'm sure you’ll be forgiven. I’m afraid you’re mistaken, however. I serve Stalliongrad as the domain’s Secretary.”

“Of…?” Cadance prompted.

“Everything,” growled Ink, though he donned a hint of a smile at the comment.

Rather than let the implication float in the air, Foresight picked up quickly. “I manage our finances and trade, and look after the many noble families who call Stalliongrad home. Ink here is the Commandant of our own guard, the Black Cloaks.” A quick gesture was made to Ink’s massive coat, as if the connection weren’t obvious. “The pony you are thinking of is our father, Watchful Eye. I'm afraid I haven't seen him in a few hours. He went off looking for some old friend. If you need him, he isn’t hard to find; there aren’t many alicorn stallions wandering around.”

“An alicorn?” Shining’s brow rose. “Cadance, have you met him? Does he have special magic like yours?”

Red Ink snorted out something that resembled a laugh, and then he shook his head. “Father is ‘alicorn’.” He pantomimed the quotes with wingtips. “Terrible with magic. He struggles to hold fork upright with dinner. You are more strong than him, Armor, I am sure. And as for fly… well, perhaps you are more strong at that too.”

“Ink!” Foresight chided. “Show some respect. The last thing we need is the other nobles having something else to hold over father’s head.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Cadance offered with a gentle smile. “Whether or not he cares for the ponies of your domain is far more important than whether he is a strong mage or a talented flier. I’m certain your father is an excellent ruler.”

This time, it was Foresight’s turn to cough awkwardly into a hoof. The wordless comment drew a raised brow from both Shining and Cadance. After nervously tightening his scarf, Foresight began to explain. “Father is… and idealist, shall we say? I know he has the best of intentions, with his dreams of a domain where all the breeds are truly equal, but sometimes he lets those dreams interfere with harsh reality. Some days, it seems Roscherk and I manage more of the domain than he does.” Foresight’s magic slid his glasses further up the bridge of his muzzle. “Thus, if you have business with Stalliongrad, I would be glad to assist in his absence."

"Thankfully, there's nothing so urgent," Shining explained.

"In time of trouble?" Red Ink's accusing words caught the eyes of all assembled. "You are here making talk and playing politik, while Princess is dying?"

"I'm doing my job!" Shining answered, defensively. "I have seventeen-hundred of the best ponies in Equestria out there looking for the cure."

"The best?" The pegasus let out a chuckle that put fire in Shining Armor's veins. "You should be a joker, Shining Armor. Gold guards are embarrassing. Pegasi do not know even know magic."

Shining's hoof grated slowly and heavily across the marble floor, before he felt a wing on his shoulder. Cadance had stepped up beside him, offering a look of both comfort and warning. Though his skin was thick enough to ignore jabs about nobility and his position, it was something else entirely to insult the Guard. A deep breath gave him enough pause find words again. "The Royal Guard are brave, honorable ponies."

"I am not of doubt that, Shining Armor.” A little grin built on the corner of Ink’s mouth, wrinkling the rough edges of his coat at the corners of his jaw. “But honor and bravery are not skill. Good ponies make bad soldiers."

In that single sentence, Shining Armor decided that he didn’t like the blood-colored stallion very much. "Good ponies are the only kind of soldiers I would ever have behind me, Red Ink.”

"Then we disagree―" Ink’s words were cut off as his eyes locked on something, or somepony, over Shining Armor's shoulder. The pegasus' wings flared from beneath his coat, and his head lowered, ready for combat. The smile on his face widened, though it was no longer a smile of amusement. Shining knew bloodlust when he saw it. Before the unicorn’s eyes, orange flames lit along the crests of Ink’s wings, releasing heat and smoke into the ballroom, and drawing the eyes of every noble present.

Shining Armor turned to the sound of shod hooves clapping loudly against the marble floor. Approaching at a full-on gallop was Soldier On, wearing armor but no helmet. Her glare was locked on Red Ink, and she carried her massive body low to the ground, focused as if ready to strike.

"Рад Вас видеть, Stoikaja." Though Shining didn't know the Stalliongradi words, the snide tone in which they were spoken told him everything he needed to hear. “This is where you are hiding?”

Foresight’s pale rose magic ignited, wrapping a telekinetic grip around his younger brother’s shoulders. “Roscherk, please don’t make a scene.” It was a noble effort, but Shining doubted it could hold the pegasus for long. “This is not the place.”

Rather than answering Red Ink with words, Soldier stopped a dozen of her massive strides away. There followed an audible screech, as the steel shoes at the ends of her enormous forelegs dug into the marble floor like as much loose soil. For a moment, she looked ready to fight there and then, though a glance around the room calmed her nerves.

Nobleponies were turning at the smell of smoke and the crackle of the flames on Ink’s wings. Some of the smarter ones stepped away from the line of pure hatred joining his eyes to Soldier On’s. The enormous earth pony’s shoulders rose and fell twice with heavy breaths, forcing air deep into her lungs. Her forehoof dug at the marble floor. She might have charged, had Shining not stepped between her and the living inferno of Red Ink. Her eyes refocused slowly on her Royal Guard counterpart, and after a moment’s hesitation, she gestured toward the doors leading out of the palace. "We have a lead, Armor. I came looking for you."

He turned quickly back to his wife and the two guests. "I have to go."

“This is not take long…” Ink growled between gritted teeth, straining against his brother’s magic. To Shining’s surprise, Foresight’s horn gathered another spell, and then fired it at the pegasus’ back. The fires on Ink’s wings disappeared, and the stallion’s eyes rolled backward as he fell to his side.

Soldier On took two powerful strides forward, but stopped when Foresight’s horn, still glowing with rich golden magic, swiveled in her direction.

"Please don’t let us keep you," Foresight did not so much beg as order, stepping up to his now-unconscious younger brother with a pant of exertion. Idly, the stallion’s magic fiddled with his scarf again, untying it and then wrapping it into a distinct new knot, but he still found the time to shoot a glare of his own toward Soldier On. “I’d rather not have another political incident on my hooves today, so why don’t you take Stoikaja and go about your business? And in the future, consider keeping war criminals off your staff, Captain.”

Soldier On declined to answer the second apparent taunt, and she showed no hostility toward the elder brother. After a moment of glaring at Red Ink’s stunned formed, she turned away, heading for the doors out of the ballroom. Shining Armor slowly followed her away from the party.

The mare retained her perfect silence and brisk jog until the two reached the palace drawbridge. There she still said nothing, but in passing the palace doors she suddenly let out a vicious kick and a bellow of rage. Having cleared her thoughts, she beckoned that they continue at a full run. Shining was left with only a few moments to process the six-inch deep dent in the gilded steel of the door.

- - -

Six hours of an eight hour flight had passed in total peace and idle small-talk. Marathon's promise had proven surprisingly true, as kindly winds and easy rest had left Rainbow's wings not tired, but refreshed. What she could not shake, however, was the feeling that the flight was growing boring. Having already crossed the Antlerntic Ocean from Baltimare, she had exchanged miles upon miles of endless ocean for further miles upon miles of endless savannah. There was utterly nothing to see, yet she had already run out of cool Wonderbolts tricks and stories of awesome pranks to share with Marathon. For her part, the more experienced guardspony seemed content to enjoy the boring scenery.

"So, uh... are we there yet?"

Marathon shrugged. "Depends where 'there' is. We've been over Zebrica for an hour, but we're still fairly far north from where we're going. Like I said before, we've got about two hours to go."

"Well, I'm bored."

"Yeah, I could kinda tell." Marathon followed the statement by rolling aside, as Rainbow darted forward with a light punch aimed for her shoulder. "Look, don't you have any more crazy stories about your friends? I thought the one about Fluttershy and the weather team was pretty good."

"I wish. Not a whole lot happens around Ponyville most weeks, unless I find some new way to be totally radical, or the Crusaders manage to blow something up." Rainbow entered a rare state of curious reflection, as she realized that she had told every single story in their journey up to that point. "What about you, Marathon? You've gotta have some stories about the Honor Guard, right?"

"The first rule of the Honor Guard, Rainbow, is that we don't talk about the Honor Guard."

"So we're super secret spies, or something?"

"No, it means we don't talk about each other's lives. Everypony on the Honor Guard has secrets, and most of the time, it's easier not to worry about everypony finding them out."

"So, there's actually a super secret reason behind why Thunder Crack has a stick up his butt?"

Marathon laughed, and then shook her head. "No, that's not exactly what I mean. He's just sort of always been like that. If you do somehow get him to respect you, he's a pretty decent friend, but that respect takes a while. Trust me, I know."

"Okay, so then what's your secret?"

Marathon smiled. "If I tell you, Rainbow, you have to promise to tell me yours."

"I don't have a secret."

A cocky grin accompanied the diplomat's next words. "Pinkie Pie promise."

A groan preceded the semi-involved ritual, but in the end, Marathon seemed satisfied. "So what is it? Spit it out!"

"I don't know how to fight."

Rainbow growled in frustration. "That's it? I'm not telling you my dark, dirty secrets for that!"

Marathon put on a teasing voice. "But breaking a Pinkie Promise is the fastest way to lose a friend-"

- - -

Back in Ponyville, an emotionally distraught Pinkie Pie leaned away from Rarity's shoulder just long enough to let the twitching in her right shoulder fade. With a dull, tired voice, she whispered to herself, "Forever."

- - -

After about twenty seconds, Marathon lowered her ear. "It didn't work, Rainbow."

"Well, yeah, we're a couple thousand miles away. I mean, she can do some crazy stuff, but I don't think she can teleport. She just runs fast. What were you expecting?"

"You just made it sound so convincing. Anyway, you said I got to know your secret."

"Right, fine. What do you want to know about?"

Marathon preceded her question by tugging a little strip of parchment out of a pouch or pocket somewhere on the armor covering her chest. "Now, I found this little strip of paper in Princess Luna's bedroom before we left-"

"Whoa, hold on! Uh, I don't know what that is!"

"You're not much of a liar, Rainbow. Why would you be so worried if you didn't know exactly what this said?"

"...Crap."

"Thought so." Marathon stopped, as Dash's mind began trying to find a way in which flying really fast would solve the problem in front of her. Marathon, thankfully, saved her the need. "This isn't a problem, Rainbow. It's not against the law to have secrets. However, I do need to know where you got this. Who is 'three'?"

Rainbow resigned herself to the truth. She had already been caught in a lie once. "He's one of the Night Guards. He helped me out at the bar last night." It wasn't difficult to miss the distrust that flew across Marathon's face at those words. "Is that bad?"

"I don't know. They're kind of creepy. I don't have anything actually against them, but... I just don't trust them."

"The one I met seemed nice enough." Rainbow took a moment to recall the final moments of the previous night. "He talked kind of funny, but I guess Princess Luna does that too."

"That's the thing, Rainbow. They just 'showed up' out of thin air, when Princess Luna came back. They never come out during the day, and they never talk to anypony unless they have to."

"What, so they're like, vamponies or something?"

"I know it probably sounds stupid, but fully trained guardsponies don't just show up out of thin air."

"I don't know." Rainbow shook her head, before her thoughts drifted to a different topic entirely. "I don't get the riddle."

"The what?"

"You read the letter, right? He gave me some stupid riddle, like he already knew how to cure Luna or something, but I had to 'figure it out' first, or something. Besides, it doesn't make any sense. If we want to cure Luna, we should just hunt down Masquerade, right?"

"I don't know much about hunting anypony down, Rainbow." The messenger paused, looking closely at the letter. Then, with a shrug, she handed it to Rainbow. "Luna and Celestia are also the old Bitalian words for the moon and the sun. I don't know much about 'where the moon slumbers', but it probably means that you need to do something during the day."

"What about the other part? Loyalty and reconciliation?"

"Well, they're names. You're loyalty, so I guess go find somepony you don't get along with." Marathon shook her head, and looked dead onward again. "You're right. This does seem stupid. Anyway, look there." She gestured ahead with a hoof. "You can see the beginning of the jungle. We're getting closer."

"Yeah, I noticed. What I want to know is, what are those?"

The 'those' in question were five rough figures on the horizon, flying closer at an impressive speed.

"Manticores or hippogriffs, probably. If they come after us, split up and fly straight up as fast as you can. They can't breathe the thin air the way we do, so they'll pass out if they chase."

"We're not going to fight them?"

Marathon looked over to Dash incredulously. "You're joking, right? First off, in case you couldn't tell, only having two legs makes it pretty hard to win in a fight with a giant monster. Second, my orders are to get you to Dead Reckoning safely. That pretty much means not fighting manticores if we can avoid them."

"Fine, I guess. I just figured that since we're guardsponies..." The thought trailed off into nothing.

"You might be surprised, Rainbow, but most of the Honor Guard doesn't get into a lot of fights. If we're expecting violence, we send Thunder Crack, Soldier On, Mirror Image or the Commander." Her voice dropped to a mere whisper suddenly. "Well, we used to send the Commander. "

"I don't think now is the best time for thinking about that, Marathon. I'm not sure those are Manticores. Look at the one in the middle. It's huge! Do you think it's a dragon?"

"I doubt it. Dragons don't usually like the jungle. Maybe it's a... griffon?"

"Griffons don't get that big. Gilda wasn't that much bigger than a pony, and-"

"Rainbow, relax. We're fine. You'll get to meet someone 'cool'." Before Rainbow could beg any sort of clarification, Marathon began pumping her wings and shooting off at full speed toward the approaching group of supposed griffins.

As the fastest flier in Equestria burned a rainbow trail in the sky, catching up, her vision of the distant fliers grew clearer. They really were griffons. The two on either side of the center were fairly big, with armor on their ankles and - what did Spike call them? - wrists. Between their wings, they carried heavy swords, ready to be drawn at a moment's notice. They barely registered in Rainbow's mind, compared to the figure in the middle.

On a basic level, he was a griffon. He was shaped like the others Rainbow had seen in her life, just bigger. His wingspan, like the rest of his body, was two or three times that of his smaller companions. The massive wings were white at the crest, but grew darker as they moved down, leaving behind trailing feathers of utter black. His head was a sharp white, but where the feathers ended and the fur began, his body took on a golden coloration.

Dash might have kept staring at the enormous creature, were it not for a sudden wall of heavy wind opposing her motion. It seemed to come from out of nowhere, yet she hit it like a concrete wall. After recovering, she fought her way forward, feeling her wings tire for the first time in a flight of hours.

Still, nopony was going to beat the best flier who ever lived, and she certainly wasn't going to lose to some stupid weather. Pressing harder and harder with every flap, she tightened herself down into a fine point. She had to fight for every inch, but when her eyes squinted open, they were only a few dozen feet away.

The huge griffon was talking to Marathon, sitting on a cloud that shouldn't have existed in the terrible windstorm. Rainbow couldn't hear their conversation over the air rushing by her ears, but when the huge griffon glanced at her, it stopped suddenly.

"Rainbow Dash, may I present Magnus, Emperor of the Griffons?"

"Uh, sure. I'm Rainbow Dash, faste-" The only thing Rainbow proved to be the fastest at on that particular day was getting hit; Marathon's reflexes were impressive.

"Emperor Magnus, this is Rainbow Dash, Princess Luna's bodyguard, and Bearer of the Element of Loyalty."

"The pleasure is all mine, pony."

When he spoke, Rainbow felt as if the wind beneath her wings was failing her. Her stomach lurched up in preparation for a fall that never happened.

"Emperor, could you spare us a cloud?"

"Certainly." He reached forward with a razor-sharp talon as massive as Rainbow's head, and pinched the air. With a dull rush, like the sound of a vacuum, he simply pulled, and a puffy white cumulus cloud was brought into being, complete with a pair of sculpted seats for the two ponies to rest against.

"How did you do that?" Rainbow asked in awe, too surprised to sit. It took immense factories in Cloudsdale full hours just to make the raw cloud for this sort of a structure, let alone the cloud architect it would take to make it so supportive and fluffy.

"Surely you did not think your kind had a monopoly on clouds. Sit, and we shall speak briefly, but I must be going again soon."

Rainbow simply closed her wings and let herself fall into her seat. It was incredible, countless times better than even the very best work any pegasus had ever crafted. In a word, it was divine.

"This is amazing."

"I should hope so. Marathon, it would seem Luna's little hero knows nothing of the world. Perhaps I should educate her."

"I don't think she's actually been outside of Equestria before, Emperor." Marathon bowed deeply.

"That doesn't mean I don't know about griffons." Rainbow protested. Magnus broke what could have been portrayed as either a smile of humor, or hunger. Marathon merely pressed her face into a hoof, shaking her head.

"Tell me, then, Rainbow Dash, what do you know of my kind?"

"Well, you can walk on clouds and make weather, just like a Pegasus. Your wings aren't hollow boned, so you can use them for fighting." Two statements in, Rainbow suddenly realized she was running out of facts. "Filly griffons are called Griffonesses."

"Better than most of your kind could do, I suspect, but you know very little. Tell me, if you can, what it is that I do in the world."

Was it a trick question? Rainbow thought it was certainly obvious. "You're the Emperor of the Griffons, right? So doesn't that mean you rule the Griffons?"

Magnus answered with a barking, punctuated roar that left Rainbow stunned until she realized it was, in fact, his way of laughing. "You are truly an amusing creature, little pony. Did my laughter frighten you? Do not worry. It is natural for prey to feel uneasy around a predator." He held out the same talon that had snatched a cloud from midair, aloft and palm up. To Rainbow's amazement, a sudden wind surrounded the hand, snapping at it in every which way. Finally, the howling built to a point, and a tiny whirlwind arose in his palm.

"The answer to my question was this. Just as your Princesses raise the sun and the moon over my lands, I give the winds to yours. When you take to wing, remember me."

Magnus laughed again, and spread his wings.

"I must be going. Marathon, I am certain we will speak again in better days. Rainbow Dash, it has been a pleasure to meet the defender of Luna's life. Perhaps we too shall meet again. I give you a parting gift."

As his wings gave a single mighty flap, Rainbow and Marathon felt the cloud beneath their hooves soar off on a might wind of its own. Rainbow turned around to see the ruler of the Griffons and his own guards already almost a mile into the distance.

"Does he really make wind? Like, all wind?"

"Yes, Rainbow. Believe it or not, Equestria had to get all its clouds and rainbows from the griffons too, a few hundred years ago. I know he can be somewhat intimidating, but-"

"Intimidating? That was so cool! I always wondered as a little filly where wind came from." The ecstatic filly bounced lightly in her cloud seat and watched as the jungle flew by below them. Marathon offered her a little smile, and then began to fiddle with the pouches attached to the side of her armor. "You looking for something? I thought you said we weren't going to eat again until we got to Zebrica."

"We aren't, Rainbow. Princess Celestia gave me something for you. I figured since we weren't flying, you should get it now."

The messenger mare pulled from her pouch a roll of parchment, a quill, and a little glass jar containing a rolling green flame. Realizing what they were, Rainbow's day was complete.

- - -

Dear Friends,

Things have been pretty crazy for me. Yesterday was maybe the second-worst day of my life, but today was so awesome, it doesn't even matter. I guess I should start from the beginning, right?

Yesterday, I had to learn how to fight. I was stuck with this awful Sergeant, who acted just as mean as the ones in all the jokes about guardsponies. Anyway, he made me not fight with my wings, and was just sort of a total jerk. I figured I didn't want anything to do with the guard anymore, but I didn't want to let him win, so I just stuck it out.

That night, he took me to a bar, and I kinda got into a fight. Of course, being totally awesome, I didn't get hurt, and I met one of Princess Luna's bat-guard ponies, like the ones from Nightmare Night. He seemed nice enough, even if he was a little weird.

Anyway, today was way better. I got my own suit of armor (even if it is boring, normal gold), and then I flew to Zebrica! All in one day, like 4000 miles or something! Nothing can stop the Dash! While we were flying, I met somebody really cool. I don't say somepony because he wasn't a pony; he was a griffon. And not just any griffon; the Emperor. Just like in Daring Do. I thought he was made up, but it turns out he's not. Plus, he makes the wind, just like how Princess Celestia raises the sun. Even for us. He's huge too, but I guess that makes sense, if you look at how much bigger Princess Celestia is than any normal pony.

I guess if I were writing a lesson about this, here's what I'd say. Sometimes, you have to give things a chance. When Princess Celestia asked me to join the Honor Guard two days ago, I wasn't sure it was such a good idea. Yesterday, I was dead-sure that I should quit. The only reason I stayed at all was because I promised to help Princess Luna. Today, though, I was super glad I stayed. Things are starting to seem pretty cool here after all.

Stay safe and wish me luck. I'll save Luna by the end of the week, or I'm not the fastest guardspony in Equestria.

Princess Luna's Bodyguard,

-Rainbow Dash

P.S.

Twilight, do you know what Reconciliation might mean. As a name? Is there, like, some seventh Element of Harmony that we left in the Everfree Forest or something? I know it's a weird question, but it might help. Thanks.


Author's Note: Special thanks to SatoshiKyu, who has been kind enough to agree to pre-read this and future chapters. If you're interested, as usual, you can look in the comments below for my out-of-setting comments on the process of writing this chapter. Finally, since I basically never do Author's Notes, I'd like to say thank you all very much for taking the time to read. I hope you've enjoyed it so far.

-Loyal Liar