• Published 10th May 2019
  • 5,856 Views, 685 Comments

Sunken Horizons - Goldenwing

Twilight glared at her reflection standing among the ruins. "You know you're a monster." It only smiled, revealing bloody fangs.

  • ...

V: Of Memories

Twilight hunched low to the stones underhoof as a dragon roar rolled over the city like distant thunder. She dimmed her hornlight, all too aware of how exposed she was from the tower steps, and looked towards the source of the noise. Whips of green fire silhouetted the dead city like an ethereal sunrise. Twilight turned to the door of her old tower, picked out the shape of the handle in the flickering light, and slipped inside.

The door shut behind her with a soft click. Looking up, Twilight could still see that the roof was missing; she could still see the glow of the fire blooming over the highest reaches of the walls, though the interior remained swathed in shadows.

For several seconds Twilight stood there in the darkness, feeling the stale air around her. It was thick and heavy, almost like a blanket, and she let it wrap around her in the same way she had hidden under her sheets as a filly, afraid of the monsters that might attack from the dark of her bedroom. Strangely enough, Twilight now found herself more afraid of what she’d see in the light.

Midnight was watching her, but it didn’t deride her with harsh words as she had expected. Perhaps it held some reserved respect for this space as well.

Taking a deep breath, Twilight lit her horn.

In some ways, the tower was just as she remembered it. The walls of books she had left behind remained on their shelves, and all her reading cushions and book pedestals were arranged as she had left them. The great curved window that once faced the Equestrian landscape was now shattered, the golden arms that had supported the glass curled outwards like a broken ribcage, but the hourglass centerpiece still stood tall. Twilight could almost believe that the room had travelled to the future with her, waiting patiently for her return.

But although the ravages of time had taken little, it was the things added in her absence that sent a chill down Twilight’s spine. A heap of glittering gold and silver loot was piled next to the broken window, the treasure too dulled with time to catch her lavender light as it would have centuries ago. Dark, chitinous bodies lingered in disjointed piles around the pile, and Twilight’s nose twitched at the old scent of cooked changeling that hung in the air, causing her mouth to water.

“Ah, it seems we’ve stumbled upon the dragon’s lair,” Midnight mused. “It seems your darling Celestia’s enchantments failed to withstand the wrath of a determined firebreather.”

“Spike took the Elements?” Twilight frowned as she approached the treasure pile, cutting a wide berth around the bodies. She glanced to the side and saw her first copy of Predictions and Prophecies resting on a stand, its pages open to the legend of Nightmare Moon. “But how? There’s no way a baby dragon could have burned through that door.”

Midnight, seated atop the riches with hooves crossed, chuckled as the faraway sound of changeling shrieks and dragon fury drifted past. “Your pet hasn’t been a baby dragon for a long time, little flower.”

“He’s not my pet,” Twilight said, lifting a hoof to sift through the pile. Would she have to dig through it all to find the Elements?

“Then what is he?”

Twilight stiffened, her hoof falling back to the ground. Spike was many things to her in many ways. He was a little brother, a colleague, a confidant, a friend, and sometimes she even found herself thinking of him as a son. She had hatched him, after all, raised him from birth and been with him through every challenge and achievement he’d ever faced—until she wasn’t.

There was only one phrase that encompassed all of her relationships with the earnest baby dragon she remembered. Twilight’s voice hitched when she spoke, pouring the ache in her chest across her mental bond with Midnight.

“He’s my number one assistant.”

The words seemed to hang in the air, lingering as if loath to leave the home where they had once been spoken so often, and Twilight found herself staring unseeing at the riches before her. As her hoof brushed lightly over golden goblets and silver spoons, she thought instead to bright mornings, to meals cooked in earnest love and shared with smiles around a simple wooden table, to the scent of flowers carried on the breeze as books were read and notes were taken by a quill held in tiny claws, to lists long enough to sprawl out on the ground and the excited grin of a young dragon ticking off the third box next to each item.

Hot tears traced the curves of Twilight’s cheeks. It had been so long since she’d had pancakes.

Looking up, she saw Midnight watching her with a tight frown. She braced herself for the usual jab, but it only looked away with a quiet, “I see.”

Twilight sighed, shaking her head. She had to remain focused, at least until she made it back to her safe room in the castle. Her horn hummed as she turned her attention to the hoard in front of her and began to probe it with her magic. Precious metals, gemstones, even a few trinkets enchanted with minor spells, but the Elements of Harmony were conspicuously absent. She turned away from the pile, expanding her search to the rest of the tower, and her breath caught as she picked up on the powerful energy radiating from a room on the upper level. Her old bedroom.

Twilight looked to Midnight, but her befanged shadow only stared back impassively. She began up the stairs, hooves shaking as a pit of trepidation formed in her stomach and ears flattening back at the sound of the old wood complaining. The steps had been scuffed by heavy weights dragged across long ago.

Cresting the steps, she approached her bedroom door. It was banded in iron, the chipped paint only clinging on in narrow strips, and as Twilight peered closer she realized that the door had been melted into the frame. It stood steadfast when she raised a hoof to push against it, but she did feel something carved on its surface. She lowered her hoof and brightened her horn, picking out the word hastily engraved into the wood with slanted, jagged script. Twilight.

Pausing to take a few deep breaths, Twilight teleported herself to the other side.

She appeared in her old bedroom with the crack of magic and the fluttering of disturbed paper. The air was stale, smelling of old books and lost time. Twilight’s eyes passed over the room quickly, taking in the bookmarked notebook on her rotting desk and the gold-encrusted chest that rested at the foot of her bed, but they didn’t linger there. Instead her attention was drawn to the bed, where six Royal Guard helmets were carefully displayed, each one standing watch over a full set of armor arranged on the floor beneath it. The sets were broken and dented, in places stained with the memory of blood both red and green, and some were missing pieces.

Twilight’s throat tightened, a hoof rising to her muzzle, as she saw the badge strapped to the breastplate in the center, shaped like a shield and emblazoned with the image of a six pointed starburst. Her family crest.

She approached the armor with leaden hooves, vision blurring with fresh grief. Picking up the helmet and peering inside, she was just able to make out the words stamped into the metal in blocky, official font. Captain Shining Armor.

Twilight let out a shaky moan as she clutched the helmet to her chest and broke down into sobs. Of course she had known that her brother was long dead, and she still remembered the tears she had shed for him when she and her friends had first escaped Canterlot. She had cried for him as she had cried for the rest of her family, but she had buried the grief deep, deep beneath and thrown herself completely into the quest of fixing Equestria, of saving it from its future.

In truth, she had never truly stopped to consider what she was trying to do. She pored over books and explored ancient ruins, never giving herself time to rest, because to rest would be to think, and if she gave herself time to think then she might never recover. She had been running from her sorrow like a pony fleeing a timberwolf, too frightened to look back or to look where she was going, and now she had collided headfirst with an unavoidable and very visceral reminder that almost everyone she had ever loved was dead.

“Why are you crying, little flower?”

Twilight looked up. Midnight frowned down at her, its brow furrowed with thought. “M-my BBBFF.” Her lip trembled as she stroked the helmet under her chin.

“We have known him to be dead,” Midnight said, its head cocked. “Why is it only now that you mourn?”

Twilight shook her head as she peered down into the helmet, imagining her brother’s smile. “I—I don’t know! I g-guess I had h-h-hoped it had been easy, but—” She grimaced at the jagged gaps that had been punctured through her brother’s armor, and found herself unable to force the words past the tightness in her throat. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to push away the images of him lying on the ground, still as death, the last drops of his life seeping out through his wounds.

“He was a warrior. He died a warrior’s death.”

“W-what would you know of it?” Twilight snapped. “You’ve n-never even b-been outside of my head!”

“With every hour, I glimpse more of our memories,” Midnight said. It paused, and Twilight could feel it choosing its next words with care. “Shining Armor would not have protested a death protecting those he was charged to defend.”

Twilight clenched her jaw as hot anger surged through her, overcoming her tears. “You’ll n-never understand, will you?” She opened her eyes, setting the helmet back into place before standing up on shaky hooves. “How could you ever understand what it’s like to lose someone? You’re just a—” she licked her lips, searching for the right word to convey her malices “—a construct, words and hatred spawned by this dark magic in my head, and you have no right to talk about any of my friends!”

She rounded on Midnight, and it regarded her with cold silence from where it lay with forelegs crossed on her bed. Twilight let out a deep-throated groan as she turned away, approaching her old desk and the notebook that waited on its surface.

It was familiar to her; Princess Celestia had gifted her the day planner as a housewarming gift after her first Summer Sun Celebration in Ponyville, lightly enchanted to survive the rigorous use that all of Twilight’s scheduling implements were put through, and she had used it every day since. She had brought it with her to Canterlot for the wedding, and it hadn’t even been half filled at the time, so the bookmark placed in the back of the book was unexpected. Her hoof was shaking so heavily that she could barely get a grip on the cover, and so she used her magic to flip it open to the marked page.

“Shining Armor is dead. It’s my fault.”

The script was instantly recognizable to her, even with the jittery edges and faded ink. Spike had written this. Pausing to wipe away the tears still budding in her eyes, Twilight read on.

“I hid when they evacuated Canterlot. I knew that you were still in the city somewhere, being held captive by those monsters, and I thought that maybe I could find you. I could save you. I guess it was stupid of me to think that I could do what nopony else could. I’m so stupid.”

“Oh, Spike.” Twilight looked away, clutching at her chest, and saw Midnight watching.

“He was a fool.”

“He was just a child!” Twilight shot back. She sighed and turned back to the page. “He didn’t know any better.”

“I don’t know how long it’s been. I can’t tell time with this giant dome over the city, and the clock fell off the wall and broke during the invasion. Shining Armor arrived a few days ago, I think. He brought some guards with him to look for you. He says that there’s some dark magic taking over Equestria, turning ponies violent. I told him about how the changelings have started fighting each other. He says that Celestia has a plan. She misses you.”

“The whelp survived here all alone?” Midnight let out a quiet grunt. “Weak of mind and body, but strong of heart.”

“The guards aren’t as good at hiding as I am. They’re too big, and their armor is loud. The changelings followed us back to the tower. Shining told me to hide, and made me promise not to come out no matter what, or who, I heard.”

Twilight couldn’t control her shaking. Old water stains marred the paper, and it was all too easy for her to imagine the little dragon squirreled away in some dark corner, listening to the sounds of ponies dying just feet away. She should have been there. Why couldn’t she have been there for him?

“I’m not sure how long I waited. When I came out again, I was the only one left. When it got quiet out, I buried the bodies in the garden and put their armor out of the way. It didn’t feel right to just leave them there. I still wish I could have done more.”

The letters began to slant harder, almost running into each other like the members of a panicked crowd rushing to escape a confined space.

“I’m not even sure if you’ll ever read this. I don’t like the idea of writing a letter to you, because it makes me feel like maybe I won’t be able to see you again. I don’t know. I miss you, Twilight. I’m sorry I couldn’t do better.

“Shining brought some papers with him. It didn’t feel right for me to look at them, but I left his saddlebags under the bed. Maybe you’d like to read them.

“I love you, Twilight. I hope I’ll find you soon.”

Violent sobs rocked Twilight’s body as she reached the end of the letter. She frantically turned the page and let out a shuddering sigh of relief when she saw more words, and she devoured them just as quickly. Page after page passed underhoof, Twilight unable to look away even as each letter, each adventure described to her, each near-death experience written about with uneven lines and each lonely self-reflection inscribed with carefully measured script tore at her worse than any monster she’d ever faced.

Small moments of light broke through the darkness, and she couldn’t help but smile sadly when Spike talked about all the books he read during the empty hours between hiding, fighting, and exploring the ruins, sharing his thoughts on how she might feel about them. She watched him grow up across the steam of letters, watched him grow ever more convinced that he was truly the only one left and ever more callous in his dealings with the changelings. It was a lifetime’s worth of letters to her, and by the time she reached the final letter, her throat tight with the apprehension of saying goodbye, she was all out of tears.

“I’m losing myself, Twilight. It’s this darkness that’s corrupted Equestria, I’m sure of it. The changelings have all turned into monsters, or perhaps beasts would be a better word. It’s affecting me, too. Sometimes I wake up, my memories slipping through my mind like sand, with changeling bodies around me and a fire in my chest. My claws are long now, and my wings wide, and they give me a wide berth. Only Chrysalis, or what little of her still remains in that body, will still face me. Both of our bodies bear the scars of our many conflicts.

“I considered leaving you, as much as it shames me to admit it. I felt that I needed the company of ponies, some break from this dark place, before I become like them. I was barely able to fit into the tunnel that Celestia burned through the mountain when they evacuated the city, but there is nothing but water at the end. I could not reach the bottom, and I can hold my breath for a long time. It seems that we are trapped here, together. There are worse fates.

“I hear a voice in my head, Twilight. It whispers sinister things, but I shall not give in. So long as I can hear my own thoughts, I will remain myself.”

A cold chill ran down Twilight’s spine. She read the line again, searching for some other interpretation, but there was no way around it; Spike had become a victim of the same dark magic that was plaguing her now.

“Still, I’m old enough to know that sometimes things don’t go the way we wish. With some effort, I have managed to remove the Elements of Harmony from their vault. I’ve placed them in your bedroom, along with these last words to you, and sealed the door shut. I can only hope that my draconic instincts won’t lead me to them again, should I find myself lacking the rational thought to restrain them.

“After so long, it feels silly for me to still be writing to you. But… if you are out there, if you do find these words, don’t blame yourself. None of this is your fault, Twilight. I’m sure you did everything you could.

“Your number one assistant, Spike.”

Midnight scoffed. “He no longer believed you were there, and yet still he wrote to you like a foal to their imaginary companion. Weak of mind to the end.”

Twilight felt too empty inside to offer any rebuttal. She stooped over the old planner staring at the last blotches of ink stained into the paper next to old singes and water marks. There was a dragon still roaming Canterlot, bestial and deadly, and she wasn’t sure who it was anymore. What she did know was that she held Spike’s last words to her, and he had written them with a mature acceptance that felt alien compared to the little dragon she had raised.

She flipped between the first and last letters, comparing the differences in diction. How long had he spent among the ruins, scrounging out what he needed to survive as the changelings mutated from an occupying force into a pack of beasts? His writing had become so well developed even with nobody else to speak to, and she thought of him spending long nights in her tower, reading every book on the shelves in an attempt to drive off the same lonely apprehension that haunted Twilight.

Closing her eyes, she ran a hoof over the coarse edges of the page that seemed to have been blackened by heat. She pictured a purple dragon—a true dragon, no hatchling—hunched over a desk, the sharp edges of its green spines brushing against the ceiling as it delicately cradled a quill between two claws. Its scales were thick like armor, bearing the marks of many battles, and its tail was like a living mace that idly swayed side to side. Its nose was long and angular and dotted with small horns, and its breath was so hot that the paper blackened and curled underneath as it snorted at a clever thought. She frowned as she tried to see her Spike inside it.

It looked up, meeting her eyes, and smirked at her. Twilight couldn’t help but smile at the imagined sight. Yes, there he was.

When she opened her eyes again, Twilight felt strangely better. Maybe it was just the exhaustion of crying, or maybe it was the knowledge that, no matter what else happened, Spike never blamed her. She turned to Midnight, who was eyeing her with an arched brow.

“Are you done with your… emotions?”

“For now, mostly, I think so.” Twilight shook her head, bemused. “Are they really so strange to you?”

“Yours are, as you find mine,” Midnight said. “I don’t understand why you waste so much time remembering things that ended long ago.”

“Because if I didn’t, then I might forget.” Twilight crouched low and peered under her bed, using her magic to drag the saddlebags out from underneath. She spent a moment looking at the starburst crest embroidered on each bag. “And they deserve better than that.”

She flipped each bag open in turn. Old rations as hard as rock, canteen filled with something strong-smelling, compass, map, notebook, and maintenance supplies. She discarded most of it before slipping the old day planner with Spike’s last words next to the notebook inside and strapping the bags to her barrel.

Finally, she brought her attention to the gem-encrusted chest at the foot of her bed containing the Elements of Harmony. She ran a hoof over the rainbow of gems set beneath the latch, watching the way they caught the lavender light of her horn, and opened the box.

Twilight let out the breath she had been holding when she saw the Elements inside. Even up to the last moment, there was a part of her that had expected them to be absent, and for her to be sent on another harrowing trek across the city or beyond in search. Now, at last, something was going her way.

“These are powerful artefacts.” Midnight walked a slow circle around the box, leaning in close to inspect each Element in turn. “We will truly be unbeatable with these in our grasp. What shall we do with them?”

“We’ll save Equestria. We’ll make things right again.” The lavender aura of Twilight’s magic wrapped around the tiara at the front of the set, and an ethereal scream cut through her mind.


Twilight’s vision went white as a lance of pain stabbed at her skull. Dizziness overcame her, and when she was finally able to think again she found herself lying on the ground in pitch darkness with a pounding ache at the base of her skull. Twilight clenched her jaw, ignored the pain, and lit her horn once more.

Midnight hissed at her as it drew back into the shadows at the corners of the room. It was little more than a fanged mouth and bloodshot eyes. “Are you trying to kill us, foal?!”

“That—ngh—wasn’t supposed to happen.” Twilight grunted as she climbed back to her hooves and eyed the open box. The Elements of Harmony remained inside, apparently undisturbed.

A cold pit formed in Twilight’s gut as she formed a probing tendril of magic and brushed it against the Element of Magic. She flinched back with a yelp at the jolt of pain that raced down her horn, reinforced by Midnight’s pained growl.

“It rejects us! Leave it be!”

Twilight fell to her knees in front of the box. She lifted a hoof as if to touch it, but drew up short. “But—why?”

Twilight’s ears twitched at the distant sound of heavy wingbeats. Her head snapped around and her eyes zeroed in on the sealed door as the wingbeats grew louder and louder until each one made the room shudder with its weight. The tower groaned in complaint as a great mass landed in the main room, the sound followed soon after by the scraping of sharp claws against the wood and the crackling snorts of a firebreather. For a long minute Twilight sat frozen against the ground, ears swiveling at every petrifying sound from beyond the bedroom door, before finally she wrested her eyes away and met Midnight’s gaze.

“What do we do?” Twilight whispered.

Midnight scoffed. “We shan't let a dragon impede us, ancient or not. Ready yourself for battle.”

“No!” Twilight hissed. “I won’t hurt him! We can take the Elements and teleport out.”

“The same Elements that burn us every time our magic touches them?”

Twilight blinked. “No, no, no!” Muttering under her breath, she began to gingerly wrap the Elements in her magic, but the feedback was too much. Closing the box, she let out a breath of relief when she was able to levitate it without pain, but the Elements resisted her when she tried to form a teleportation spell. She gnashed her teeth and poured more power into the spell, lighting the room with a sparkling kaleidoscope of lavender energy, but no matter what she tried, the Elements remained steadfast.

Twilight went limp with an exhausted groan. Why wouldn’t they let her touch them? Of all the things to refuse her, why?

From outside the room Twilight heard a rumbling snort. She stiffened, slowly turning around to face the door. A chill silence hung over the room.

The snort came again, this time accompanied by the rush of flame. A dull red glow formed in the center of the door, growing steadily larger and brighter.

Spike the dragon had returned home, and Twilight had nowhere to run.

“Spread out. Delta formation. Trails, take point.”

The quiet splashing of the submarine bobbing in the water drifted behind Rainbow Dash as she took her spot on the left trailing edge of the formation, quickly drowned out by the overlapping echoes of armored hoofsteps. Five pale beams of illumination danced ahead of the party, jittering like nervous fairies with each step as they pulled the world out of the pitch-black night of Canterlot. She glanced to her right, to Applejack’s position on the far side of the formation, but her old friend was nearly invisible to her. If not for the light cast from the cowpony’s shoulder and the dim glow of her helmet’s visor, it would be impossible to pick her out of the darkness.

Rainbow suppressed a shiver as she turned her attention forwards once more. In spite of all her previous efforts, this was the first time she had left the relative safety of the submarine, and the experience was enough to make her heart quicken all on its own. She had grown used to half of her world being taken by void, but now she had even less. The armor dulled nearly every sound into quiet vibrations that left her breath ringing like thunder in her ears, and the cone of light cast from her shoulder was barely wide enough to fill what little space she could see past her helmet.

Rainbow had never coped well with small spaces. Sometimes even her old home in Ponyville had been too small for her, but she had always been free to spread her wings and take flight in those days. Now she was trapped in this coffin of metal, and although the armor allowed her to stretch her wings, she was acutely aware of the stiff cast that encased them. Why hadn’t Twilight ever warned her about this?

What would happen if she just stopped walking? Would the others even notice if she shut her light off and fell behind, or would she be left alone in the dark, isolated, waiting for the dead air to consume her?

She jumped at the crack of static in her ear, followed by Sea Sabre’s voice. “Hold here.”

They had reached the edge of the city. Star Trails and Flintlock each crouched low, watching different directions, while Sabre hunched over a bundled up shape on the ground. As Rainbow came closer, she identified it for what it was: a changeling corpse, the cracked pieces of its shell hanging limply around its hollowed frame.

Applejack stepped up to Rainbow’s side. “Y’all see something?”

Sabre nodded. She flipped a piece of chitin over, shining her light on the last strips of meat inside. “See these teeth marks? Flat, like a pony’s teeth.”

Heat rose in Rainbow’s breast, and she couldn’t keep the accusatory tone out of her voice when she spoke. “What are you trying to say? You think Twilight did this?”

Sabre shrugged as she straightened up. “I can only make observations and state my knowledge, and I know that changelings don’t have any flat teeth. It’s best that we keep moving.” She looked between Applejack and Rainbow Dash. “Do you have any ideas as to where we should look first?”

Rainbow exchanged a glance with Applejack. “I, uh, don’t really know my way around the city that well.”

“I’m afraid I ain’t too familiar with it, either,” Applejack said. “I reckon she’d head for a library, or maybe her folk’s old home. Somewhere she’d feel safe.”

“Aren’t ye two supposed t’ be from here?” Flint grumbled.

Rainbow snorted, turning to glare at his back. “I’m from Cloudsdale, Flint. I’ve only been to Canterlot twice, and the second time was when the changelings attacked.”

“Why don’t we try the castle first?” Applejack stepped between the two, her tone diplomatic. “Twilight seemed to feel pretty cozy there, and at least we know how to get there.”

“It’s better than nothing,” Sabre said. “We’ll see if we find any more clues along the way.”

“Or some salvage,” Flint groused. “Sure as hay didn’t find any last time.”

Trails chuckled over the radio as she stood up and began leading the way, the white spiral of her suit’s horn glowing softly. “Oh, give it a rest, Flint.”

With the decision made, the five ponies slipped back into formation and pressed deeper into the ruins. Rainbow played her light over the buildings on either side of the cracked street, peering past the broken windows and empty door frames and trying to imagine how they had looked in their prime. She had never known Canterlot as much more than a silhouette in the sky, and at this point she had spent nearly as much time traversing its ruins as she had navigating its streets under the light of the sun, dodging ponies that pranced past her with their noses turned up in disdain.

“So have we got a plan for if we find Twilight?” Star Trails asked as she led them between the two halves of a collapsed building. A faded sign hung askew from the front, depicting an ecstatically grinning pony pointing at the broken end.

“We assess her for any symptoms of wyrd corruption,” Sabre said. “If she remains open to peaceful negotiation, then we’ll bring her in. Otherwise, we’ll terminate her.”

“Whoa, what?” Rainbow sped up, cutting in front of Sabre. “Terminate her? Bring her in? What are you talking about?”

“She’s a threat, Rainbow,” Sabre said, stepping around her. “To herself and others. Even if she agrees to come back to Heighton, I’m not going to let her roam around my ship unwatched.”

Applejack cleared her throat, drawing their attention. “What’s all this ‘wyrd’ business y’all’re goin’ on about, anyways?” she asked. “I know ya said Owloysius was one of ’em, but I admit I still don’t quite know what it means.”

“It’s the handy-dandy catch-all term for anything that’s been corrupted by the ocean,” Trails explained. “We use it for all the ugly odds and ends that you’re bound to come across if you dive deep enough, long enough.”

“There’s a few stories about ponies turnin’ in t’ wyrds,” Flint added. He kept his gun pointed at the ruins as he slowly scanned the windows. “Never put much stock in ‘em, but yer friend seems t’ fit.”

“Hang on, so y’all’re tellin’ me that ya never seen somethin’ like this before?” Applejack asked. “Are y’all just as lost as we are?”

All five ponies crouched down as a thunderous dragon roar passed over the city, dislodging loose stones around them and making Rainbow’s teeth chatter. She looked up towards the source, narrowing her eye in a vain attempt to pierce the darkness. “What was that?”

“Dragon,” Flint said. “Definitely th’ dragon.”

A purple star suddenly burst into being atop a distant tower, the slim structure glowing like a giant torch rising up out of the shadowed city beneath. Lashes of green fire flared up past the shattered top of the tower, and the twinkling purple star was thrown out into the open air with a shower of rubble and a distinctive feminine scream.

“Twilight!” Rainbow took a step forward, her wings flaring as if to take off, but the armor weighed her down. She could only watch as a massive purple dragon soared out of the tower and dove down after the light, spewing a torrent of green fire from its maw.

A chorus of changeling calls raced around the city, some barely audible howls in the distance while others seemed to come from right on top of them. Rainbow glanced behind her at the sound of scrabbling hooves and caught a glimpse of a dark form jumping towards her. She cried out and instinctively lashed out with a wing. The changeling shrieked as the hardened spike on her wing joint collided with its skull and it fell to the ground with a thud, perfectly still.

Flint’s repeater spat fire as he stopped another changeling dead in its tracks. “Looks like dear ’Light woke up th’ whole damn city!”

“Ah, horseapples!” Applejack cursed as she twisted in place, eschewing the shotgun at her side and opting to instead buck the changeling that pounced her with both hind legs. It crumpled like a sack of potatoes, letting out a wheezy hiss. “Twilight needs us, y’all!”

“Stay together, ponies!” Sabre barked. “Trails, find us a route to that tower!”

“Got it, boss!” The tinkle of Star Trails’ magic was barely audible under the commotion as her javelin zipped through the air, spearing changelings in the chest before pulling back for another blow. The white lining around her horn glowed as she angled her head towards the tower before jumping into motion. “Follow me!”

Rainbow’s heart pounded in her ears as she followed after the unicorn. The hissing of changelings and the stomping of hooves seemed to chase her as she raced through the ruins of Canterlot, growing ever closer to the sound of the dragon’s wrath.

For a moment, Twilight was in free fall. She tumbled through the air, the chest containing the Elements clutched with all four hooves, eyes squeezed shut and mind focused solely on the life-preserving orb of magic around her.

Her panicked screaming cut off with a grunt as she collided with something solid, and it was all she could do to hang onto the pain in her horn as she bounced off. She shoved every sensation aside but that pain, her beacon in the whirlwind of confusion, and with it as her bulwark she held the spell together. She couldn’t even remember why she needed it anymore. All she had left was the terrified, animal instinct to survive.

“Get up.” Midnight’s harsh voice cut through the blinding pain, pulling her back to the shores of consciousness. “Get up, damn you!”

Twilight blinked her eyes open. Midnight was standing over her, its bloodstained face framed by the jagged remains of a shattered roof. She groaned as she forced herself off the hard floor with shivering legs, flinching in alarm when the Elements’ chest fell to the ground with a loud clatter.

Thunder roared overhead, and it wasn’t until a loose pebble bounced off Twilight’s muzzle that she remembered her situation. Her heart skipped a beat as she scooped the Elements into her magic and frantically scanned her surroundings in search of escape. “Oh, no, oh, no!”

“Eyes forward, foal!” Twilight’s head turned of its own accord, looking up at the hole she had fallen through just as a clawed hand as large as her entire body tore the rest of the roof away. Green fire rushed towards her, and Twilight could only watch in shock as Midnight appeared in front of her, brandishing an arcane shield. The inferno splashed around the glittering lavender barrier like a wave breaking on the coast, sweeping past her close enough to singe her fur.

The fire broke, and Midnight roared back at the fearsome dragon peering down at them, the shield shattering and reforming into a lance of energy. With a gasp, Twilight re-asserted control, holding the attack back. “Stop! You’ll hurt him!”

“Let us go, you suicidal idiot!” Midnight rounded on Twilight with fire in its eyes, fangs bared with fury. At the same time, the deadly bludgeon that was Spike’s tail came crashing through the wall, and Twilight shrieked as she threw herself to the side.

The stones groaned in complaint at the punishment, and Twilight’s stomach lurched at the sensation of the floor sliding underneath her. Realizing that the building was beginning to collapse, she scooped up the Elements in her magic and raced for the nearest window. She let out a strangled cry as she leapt through the frame, plummeting a dozen feet to the street below as the falling structure kicked up a choking cloud of dust.

“What are you doing, little flower?!” Midnight spat. Twilight scrambled off the ground, coughing with one hoof held to her muzzle as her sneering shadow approached her. “You’re going to get us both killed!”

“We can’t hurt him!” Twilight shot back. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing!”

I know what he’s doing! He’s trying to kill us!”

“No, it’s the corruption! My Spike is still in there—”

A powerful gust of wind blew through the street, nearly throwing her off her hooves as it carried the cloud of dust away. Twilight and Midnight both looked up to watch Spike land heavily on the cracked cobblestones in front of them, the darkness fleeing in terror as small gouts of green flame burst from his nostrils. His deep, rumbling growl was so powerful that Twilight felt as if her eyes were about to shake out of her skull, and a cloud of thick purple magic seeped from his eyes as they darted between the two mares.

Twilight’s eyes widened. “He can see us! He sees both of us!”

“Finally, I can speak to something on my own terms.” Midnight stepped forwards, its legs spread and its back straight. “Stand down, creature! I will not hesitate to end you!”

Spike snarled at it, lunging forwards with jaw stretched wide. Midnight’s horn flashed brilliant lavender just as his teeth went to snap closed around it, and he reared back with a howl of pain.

Twilight gaped at the exchange in shock. She could feel her magic twisting about unbidden, feel her limbs moving of their own accord, even as she stood back and watched from a few steps away. Her blood went cold as she realized that she was losing control of her own body, and Spike could be the one to pay for it if she didn’t stop it soon.

She stomped her hooves against the ground, putting as much command into her voice as she could muster. “Stop!”

She blinked, and now it was her standing in front of Spike’s towering form. He glowered down at her as Midnight hissed furiously in her ears. “If you won’t let me strike at the beast, at least don’t stop me from defending ourselves!”

Spike lashed out with a claw, and Twilight raised a hasty shield. The shield shattered on impact, sending her tumbling down the street with a cry of pain. A weak groan escaped her as she rolled clumsily onto her hooves, blinking past the blood dripping in her eyes to watch Spike stalk towards her. The blow had thrown her nearly to the end of the street.

“Twilight! Hang on!”

Twilight frowned, confused. Rainbow Dash? She looked behind her, and her heart sank.

Rainbow practically fell to the ground at Twilight’s side, one armored hoof reaching out to touch at her lost friend’s bloodied face. She couldn’t keep her voice from cracking as she pushed the words out past her grin. “We found you!”

Twilight stared back at her with wide eyes, her jaw hanging loose, and Rainbow’s grin faltered as she noticed the pointed fangs framing the unicorn’s mouth. After several seconds, Twilight seemed to regain her bearings. “You’re not supposed to be here.”

“What do you mean?” Rainbow asked. She tried to pull her into a hug, but Twilight danced away. “We came looking for you!”

Twilight jumped as the rest of the dive team finally caught up, their armored hooves kicking up a small cloud of dust. “No, no, no. I’m s-supposed to be alone!”

Sea Sabre galloped past them, Star Trails and Flintlock fanning out to either side of her and forming a line between them and the growling dragon as she barked orders over the radio. “Flint, load the hornbane rounds.”

“Ah, I love it when ye let me shoot th’ expensive ones!”

“Trails, find me a weak spot.”

“Already looking, Boss. Looks like an old wound on his rear right leg that isn’t healed right.”

“Rainbow, keep that mare under control.” Sabre glanced back for just a moment before turning her attention back to Spike, steam hissing from her armor as a port opened on her shoulder. He flared his wings in response, matching the sound with a hiss of his own. “We’ll handle the dragon.”

“What are they doing?” Twilight asked, stepping towards them. She grimaced, nearly falling over, and her next words came out in a harsh sneer. “Too weak to stand, little flower?”

Applejack stepped in front of her, lending a shoulder to catch her weight. “Howdy there, Twilight. Y’all know you had us worried sick.”

“I told you not to follow me.” Twilight’s voice was hoarse and accusing as she pushed the cowpony away and stumbled past her. “They’re beneath us. Let us focus on the matter at hoof. Don’t talk about my friends like that! It matters not. I will vanquish the beast. No, shut up!”

Rainbow exchanged a look of concern with Applejack. She spared a glance towards Spike and saw the dragon steadily crossing the distance towards the group, his head bobbing side to side as he sized up the newcomers. Gingerly she laid a hoof on Twilight’s back. “Twi, who are you talking to?”

“What?” Twilight spun around, her eyes wide. “You can’t hear it?”

“Slow down, sugar cube,” Applejack said softly. “We’ve got ya.”

Twilight squeezed her eyes shut and looked away, muttering under her breath. “Of course you don’t hear it. Stupid, stupid, I’ve been talking to it out loud all this time.”

A roar from Spike drew Rainbow’s attention. She watched the dragon rear up and flare his wings, raising his claws high to crush the three divers.

“Fire and maneuver!” Sabre shouted.

Flint’s repeater spat fire, the bullets zipping into Spike’s hind right leg and flashing on impact like miniature shooting stars. Star Trails’ javelin sprang forth next, piercing the ragged scales left behind by the barrage of gunfire and drawing a frustrated hiss from the dragon. A jet of steam vented from Sabre’s suit as she launched a weighted bola at the injured leg, the balls barely reaching enough to wrap around once before they began to buzz with electricity.

Spike screamed as his leg finally gave out, and the three divers each darted in different directions as his gargantuan head crashed to the ground where they had been standing. Rainbow felt a pang of sympathy as she watched his eyes roll about in his head, smoke curling from his mouth as he gnashed his teeth in fury.

She clicked her radio on. “Sabre, you’re gonna kill him!”

“That’s the plan, Rainbow,” Sabre said, breathing hard. “There’s only room for killers and corpses in the ocean, and I’m not letting my ponies die.”

Twilight was huddled up on the ground, muttering words under her breath too quiet for Rainbow to hear, her eyes locked on the battle in front of them. Sea Sabre rushed out of cover, her wingblades catching the flickering light of Spike’s fire, and pounced towards his head.

There was a flash of lavender light, and Rainbow yelped as she was thrown back to the ground hard enough to knock the breath from her. When she rolled back to her hooves, gasping for breath, she saw Twilight standing protectively in front of Spike, glaring at each of the ponies sprawled out in the ruins around her, her pupils turned to dark slits. “He is ours!”

“Twilight, no!” Rainbow ran forwards, heart pounding in her ears. This could be it. Please don’t make me choose! “Just calm down!”

“Stay down, Rainbow!” Rainbow grunted in pain as she was forced to the ground face first by an unseen force. “I don’t want to hurt you!”

“Change of plans.” Sabre’s voice was strained but calm over the radio. “Go for the unicorn first. We’ll get the dragon next.”

“We have to save him!”

“We must destroy him!”

“I won’t let you hurt him!”

“He will kill them all if we don’t.”

“Or they’ll kill him.”

“We can subdue him, if we act as one.”

“Nobody else has to die.”

“We have the power to stop it.”

Together, Twilight and Midnight looked up. They saw Spike on the ground, one bleeding hind leg splayed out behind him as he was peppered with gunfire and gored by a floating javelin. They watched Sea Sabre bound towards him, her blades bared like fangs sinking towards his throat.

Calling on their magic, they teleported between the two, throwing the armored ponies back with a wave of force powerful enough to daze without crushing the soft bodies inside. They looked to each pony in turn, and Midnight cast its voice out over them. “He is ours!”

“Twilight, no!” Rainbow Dash, quick as ever, was the first to bounce back to her hooves. She ran towards them at full speed, wings half-extended. “Just calm down!”

Midnight hissed its irritation, but Twilight intervened, pinning her friend in place with an arcane force that should keep her safely out of harm’s way. “Stay down, Rainbow! I don’t want to hurt you!”

With a sharp glance towards Applejack to ensure she didn’t try to interfere, they turned to Spike. The dragon spewed fire, and they deflected the blast with an unflinching wall of magic. He propped himself up off the ground with his forelegs, his rear end still dragging limply through the stones, and met their gaze with a deep growl.

The clouds of dark magic stemming from his bloodshot eyes pulsed with light, and Twilight winced as she felt a sharp pressure on the inside of her skull. She thought back to her confrontation with Owloysius, when she had faced a very similar attack, but it wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as it had been then.

Midnight laughed, stretching their lips into a prideful sneer. “Is that all you have, dragon? I had expected a challenge!” Their magic twisted in strange ways alien to Twilight, and she watched as Spike flinched back, jets of flame spewing from his snout as he glared defiantly into their eyes.

What are you doing to him? Twilight asked. What is this magic?

He is in two, as we are. I can feel it, Midnight said. They stepped closer as it spoke, driving him back. But both his halves are weak in spirit. His darkness is like a wild animal, fleeing craven before my power!

Twilight turned the words over in her racing mind. If there were two halves to him, like there were to her, then that meant that her Spike had to still be in there! And if Midnight was able to drive the dark mind inside him away, then that meant…

“Spike!” Twilight reached a pleading hoof out towards the dragon, tears budding in her eyes as she saw his massive green eyes flinching in pain. “I’m here, Spike! You’ve found me!”

“See how he submits to our strength?” Midnight boasted, stretching their face into a wide grin. “Submit to us, dragon! Bow!”

Midnight pushed them towards him, pressing even more magic against his mind. Slowly, the malice in his eyes gave way to pain, and then from pain to fear as the ancient dragon gave ground. He scrabbled backwards like a cornered animal, unable to truly escape with his lame leg.

Stop it! Twilight clenched their jaw, re-asserting her will.

Midnight gasped as their magic was cut off, the swirling energies that had surrounded their horn fizzling out with a colorful spark of energy. What are you doing? We have him!

He’s not some monster to subjugate, Twilight said sternly. He’s my number one assistant, and I want him back!

The ruins had fallen deathly still. Twilight looked up to Spike with one hoof gingerly outstretched, and he looked down at her with wide, fearful eyes. They were not the eager eyes of the young drake that had helped her sort books in simpler times, nor the clever eyes she had imagined in the mature dragon that had grown up in the dead city as he searched for her, but they were also not the hungry, malicious eyes of the monster that had chased her and her friends out of Canterlot what felt like forever ago. They were confused, caught between the instincts of fight and flight. They reminded her of when he was barely a hatchling, a little bundle of energy that barely came up to her shoulder when she was just a filly and who seemed to approach every new object wondering if he should eat it or run away.

“As long as you can hear your own thoughts, you’re still yourself,” Twilight said softly. Slowly, she laid her hoof against the hot scales of his nearest leg, staring up into his eyes. “You remember, don’t you? You’ll always be my number one assistant.”

He held her gaze for a long moment, plumes of smoke chuffing from his snout with every thunderous breath.

She heard a hiss of steam behind her. Spike jerked his head around with a curious snort, looking away. Following his gaze, Twilight turned to see Star Trails crouched low, the javelin thrower built into her shoulder aimed for her heart.

The javelin flew forth with a sharp twang, and Twilight cried out as Spike’s claws flashed into motion.