• Published 30th Sep 2022
  • 971 Views, 26 Comments

The Rejects: Enemy of the State - Argonaut44

A band of misfits must come together to foil corrupt Canterlot elite, war criminals, and old enemies. Meanwhile, Princess Twilight Sparkle must divert her attention between Equestria on the brink of war and a vengeful threat beyond the sea.

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01: Payback

Across lantern-lit cobblestones, along rain-rutted stalls stuffed with honey jars and sweet-smelling cider, a pony kept to the blinking street shadows, wary of the watchful eyes that lingered on in the dark.

Canterlot was a labyrinth by night.

In those depths departed, she paid no mind to the passing pedestrians’ chatter, nor the carriages’ splashing of black puddle mirrors. Red, blue, and green bands of light bent around the nightstruck city’s crude corners and stained streetways. Car horns and masked mutterings made her hasten her pace. She tightened her grip on her satchel strap, which had begun slipping off her shoulder.

Wallflower Blush fixed her cap tighter over her curly green mane, glancing over her shoulder. She was certain about it now. He was following her.

She was absolutely lost, wandering about lucid tenement curtains and downcast sewer urchins.

She knew little of her pursuer, only that he wore a polished suit of golden armor, with a helmet to match.

A bead of sweat fell down her face. She could hear his hoofsteps quicken against the concrete, his armor clinking and clanking.

She could feel the soldier’s glare washing over her from behind. She considered putting up a fight, though quickly convinced herself against it. She had little idea how exactly she might have drawn the guard’s ire, to begin with.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” the guard grunted.

Run. Run. Run.

But she was stuck in place, to her horror, while the guard’s eyes locked on to her.

She slowly turned her head to face him. The soldier had a grizzly beard underneath his helmet, and a pair of wild green eyes.

“Are you alright?” he croaked.

Wallflower tripped right over her words. She tightened her grip on her satchel strap.

“Er, yes, sorry, my mistake.”

“You shouldn’t be out this way so late, ma’am. Just been a robbery down Oldtown. Crooks are still loose, it’s not safe.”

“...Oh! How dreadful,” Wallflower said, after a prolonged pause.

She watched his eyes wander down towards the satchel.

“Um, actually, there was something, something quite strange I saw,” Wallflower said, feigning a newfound epiphany, “Somepony dressed all dark, shoving folks to the curb, sprinting down off to East Village.”

“That so?” the guard asked, alarmed, “How long ago?”

“Not long. You’ll catch him if you hurry,” Wallflower said, batting her eyelashes for good measure.

“Well, thank you, ma’am,” the guard smiled.

But he lingered still, and she wondered if he was toying with her, if he had already recognized who she was.

“...What’s your name?” the guard demanded.

Wallflower was trembling, as panic swept her off her hooves.

But before the guard could press any further, her rescue came, when a blur of winged turquoise came darting down the road, breezing through carriage traffic.

The blur came barreling towards the guard’s head, knocking his helmet right off.

The guard promptly crashed to his knees. He landed face-first in the concrete, his armor crumpling as he fell.

“Lightning Dust,” she said, relieved.

“Thank me later,” Lightning grinned.

There you are,” came another pony, strutting out from an adjacent alleyway.

“Suri!” Lightning said, spitting out a bloody tooth, “What happened to ‘break right to Twinkletone Ave!?’

“It was left on Twinkletone, ‘kay, and second of all, it doesn’t matter, since somepony decided to go and get lost,” said Suri Polomare, flicking dust off of her coat.

“I know, I know, I’m sorry,” Wallflower said, “Neither of you are hurt, are you?”

Suri shook her head, and noticed Wallflower’s satchel was all but empty.

“Why’d you freeze up back there?” Lightning stammered, glaring at Wallflower.

“Why’d you run back in after the guards came? Have you got a death wish?” Suri snarled.

Somepony had to have the guts to try for it,” Lightning insisted, “I wasn’t just gonna give up.

“The market was crawling with guards! I told you, we’d only get one chance to get it right. ‘Drain the register, in and out, ‘kay?’ You both should’ve just followed the plan. You nearly get yourself killed! And you still came back empty-hoofed! ” Suri exclaimed.

“I was just trying to help,” Lightning said.

“No, you were only thinking about yourself, as usual.”

“That’s not true!” Lightning exclaimed.

“Stop fighting, please,” Wallflower pleaded, sticking herself between them, “We’ll get another chance.”

Lightning sighed, trying to calm herself down.

“...This isn’t getting any easier, you know. Especially on an empty stomach,” Lightning said.

“Let’s just get out of here, before any more show up, ‘kay?” Suri said, rolling her eyes.

Wallflower kept herself close to her exhausted companions, and the three of them again took off into the dizzying dim chaos of Canterlot.

Weaving through fire breath displays, noxious perfumes, and theater troupes dressed in red and gold, the three ponies persisted through the underworld of Canterlot, wary of wandering eyes. Ponies perused through carnival treats and barrels of oranges and cinnamon, sparing lustful gazes and whispering through sweat-sodden lips.

Struggling to keep up while the trio journeyed through the crowded streets, Wallflower Blush kept her head hung low, unwittingly forcing herself to look into the odd puddle reflections as she sauntered on by. She was repulsed at the sight. She wished she could stomp out the image, destroy it somehow. But no matter her efforts, the water would draw still after time, and the reflection would return.

She had no burning desire to deserve consideration. Only, she wished to feel some of the warmth that seemed to come naturally to all the other ponies in her life. She was in love with the idea, of having a family to call her own. She wished to do whatever she could for them. But she distrusted herself, enough to fear even opening her mouth unless necessary. The trials of the past were demanding enough, she couldn’t imagine what the future had in store.

“Stay close,” Lightning muttered, checking behind her to make sure the others had not strayed too far.

They escaped the crowds of merchants and thieves by the crack of dawn, when they arrived at Mandola’s Bodega on Harmony Boulevard.

“Ah, the musketeers,” cackled Mandola himself, a copper-colored earth pony with a heavy haunch and a greasy lump in his throat, “Another lucky day, eh?”

He stood behind the shop counter, enjoying a cigar.

“Save it,” Lightning snapped, “What have you got to eat?”

Mandola flashed his toothy snarl.

“Free meals were never part of the deal.”

“We were close this time, I swear! We’ll get the bits,” Lightning said.

Suri had entered after Wallflower, who, as always, was taken by the sweet smell of Mandola’s newest batch of bread.

“I don’t take kindly to swindlers, Polomare. Neither does the pony I work for. At your rate, you’ll be in debt to half this city.”

“You tell Razor Blade, one last run, and we’ll have the rent paid in full. Then we’re out of here,” Suri replied.

“You won’t see me complaining. You and your sewer rat friends bring me more trouble than what’s good for me.”

Suri scoffed and ushered Wallflower along towards the basement door.

“But for you, pegasus, I could always make accommodations,” Mandola said, a lustful grin stretching across his face.

Lightning flew towards him, laying her head down in her hooves on his front counter.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” she whispered, before snatching a small loaf of freshly-baked bread off of the counter.

Mandola’s hearty laugh followed after Lightning as she glided down the stairwell.

In the bodega basement, twenty or thirty ponies were crammed against one another, half-dead from disease, or starving, or keeled over in the morning heat. They were covered in bruises and needle holes, caked in dirt. Warm gold lanterns held the darkness at bay, revealing clouds of dust in the stale air.

“Lightning Dust!” squeaked Scootaloo from behind a row of blood-stained cots.

“Hey kid, how are ya?” Lightning asked, ripping a piece of bread off for Scootaloo to wolf down.

Lightning’s smile dropped, noticing a streak of grime and dirt above Scootaloo’s eye.

“What’s this?” Lightning said, crouching down beside her, cautiously reaching for Scootaloo’s forehead. Scootaloo’s eyes dropped to the floor, as if pretending to not have heard.

“You were screwing around outside again, weren’t you. Scootaloo, there’s broken glass all over the place, and needles and-”

I’m fine,” Scootaloo snapped.

Lightning hesitated, and subtly shook her head, deciding not to pursue the argument.

She had long stopped insisting that Scootaloo return home to her aunts where it was safe. The filly was relentless.

Lightning’s eyes glazed over the basement’s impoverished tenants, old folk and foals sprawled out on the gravel floor. She picked out Kickstart’s red coat and face full of scars in an instant; he was by the sick and the wounded, applying what little medical prowess he had picked up from Lightning’s first-aid experience.

Lightning soared over towards him, after ushering Scootaloo to run and join Suri and Wallflower down by the group’s designated spot by the basement furnace.

Kickstart had just finished tying off a bandage around a mare’s naloxone wound.

“Nicely done,” Lightning said, catching Kickstart by surprise.

“I had a good teacher,” he said, wrapping up his work.

“I told you to keep an eye on her when I’m gone. She’s going to get herself hurt one of these days,” Lightning said, glancing at Scootaloo, who was playing with a piece of scrap metal by the others. A year ago she wouldn't have thought twice about such risks, though now the idea terrified her.

“She came back in one piece, didn’t she?” he grinned, trotting off. Lightning shook her head, holding back a smile.

She found her pet rat, Scampers, still sleeping beside his stash of crumbs atop a broken microwave.

“Poor baby,” Lightning muttered, petting the black-eyed rodent.

“...Authorities have confirmed that Gilded Lily, niece of railroad tycoon Fancy Pants, has officially been declared missing,” came the clunky radio atop a rotten cardboard box.

“One more screw-up and he’s gonna turn us in. I know it,” Suri said, flatly, waiting for Lightning and Kickstart to join them on the torn-up chairs and couches Mandola had discovered mid-dumpster dive.

“I told you, we shouldn’t have gotten worked in with these ponies, Suri. They’re bad news,” Wallflower said.

“It was this or sleeping on the streets. Take your pick, Miss Hindsight,” Suri replied.

Bon Bon had joined them, dark circles dug in beneath her eyes.

“How’d it go?” Bon Bon asked.

Suri threw up her hooves, destitutely.

“Stay off the streets! Wanted fugitives Suri Polomare and Lightning Rust have been spotted in Oldtown. Canterlot police have issued a statement urging witnesses to report any suspicious activity in the area.”

What did they call me?” Lightning said, distraught, while Scootaloo lay giggling on the floor nearby.

“At least you got mentioned,” Wallflower smirked.

“Hey, chin up. I’ve got something that may help us out on the next try,” Bon Bon said, retrieving a strange device, held together with tape and rusty screws.

“What exactly am I looking at,” Suri said, flatly.

“It’s what I’ve been working on all week,” Bon Bon said, mildly irritated, “It’s an explosive, it’ll even out our odds a bit.”

“That’s insane,” Wallflower said.

“Desperate times call for-” Bon Bon attempted.

“We can’t put ponies at risk like that,” Wallflower said.

Suri sighed.

“Get back to tinkering, Macgyver. Wallflower’s sticking to softball,” Suri said.

“Sorry if I’m not all smiles and sunshine about cutting deals with criminals.” Wallflower said.

“In case you haven’t noticed, half this city wants us dead, and the other half wants our bits first. Our priority is to survive,” Suri retorted.

“We still have a fighting chance at clearing our names,” Wallflower said, eagerly.

“Not without Starlight and Sunset. Hell, I’d even take Trixie right about now,” Suri said.

“Starlight’s gone, but Sunset could still be out there,” Lightning said, “We should try and look for her. We can’t leave her behind.”

“You mean like how she left us behind?” Kickstart said.

“If she’s got her radio, I can contact her,” Suri said, “If she’s still alive, that is.”

“We don’t need Sunset, alright? She made her gambit, and she lost. She used us. She didn’t care who got hurt. That’s not who we are. We still have a chance to do things the right way. To help ponies.” Wallflower said, “We might be the only ones left that know the truth about Princess Twilight. She’s killed before, she could kill again. It’s up to us to stop her.”

I think we should cut our losses and get the hell out of this city. All we have to do is settle our debt, and we can put all of this behind us, ‘kay?” Suri said.

“Oh, um, about that,” came Scootaloo, who had been eavesdropping nearby.

Suri begrudgingly turned her attention to the filly.

“Some pony found me outside earlier this morning, he said he was looking for you.”

Suri glanced at Wallflower.

“Who was it?”

“Um, it’s that pony who you’ve talked to before, that stallion with the silver mane.”

Razor Blade,” Suri said, “What did he want?”

“Something like…the deal’s changed. And he wants you to meet him - today.”

Suri’s eyes widened.

“But….we haven’t got the bits,” Suri said.

“Have fun telling him that,” Lightning said.

“This isn’t a joke. He could turn us in, if he doesn’t feel like taking us out himself,” Suri groaned.

“Don’t get all worked up. I’m coming with you,” Lightning said, gritting her teeth, “We’ll sort it out.”

“Maybe we could renegotiate,” Wallflower said, “I’m coming too.”

Suri glared at the both of them, but she feared having to go alone, and so made no protest.

Nopony could run forever.

A flock of white doves had been let loose from the north-end spire, marking the princess’ arrival. Most hippogriffs fared poorly on land, but she found Equestria to be a home away from home.
Silver Stream had been asleep for much of the journey east from Newport, to the tune of her mother’s nervous ramblings and dreadful proclamations of how their lives were still in danger.

It had been just over a year since the untimely death of her aunt, Novo, and as it was in much of Equestria, safety was an elusive feeling. Silver Stream found it odd then, that she had been summoned to the capital. Her mother had been coy each time she had raised concern; as far as she knew, she would have thought her own home beneath the sea would be a safer place to stay. Still, any opportunity to travel and meet old friends could not be passed upon.

The pearly glow of the city was unmistakable, a sparkling star fallen from the heavens, perched on a lonely mountain’s face - bathed in sunlight by day, and wrapped in nebulous clouds by night.

Ocean Flow had insisted on the two of them arriving in disguise, for fear of recognition, though little could be done to stamp out a royal welcome.

Her face was glued to the window of her carriage, passing by the markets and the bustling crowds; ponies and creatures of all kinds passed by her view.

Starlight Glimmer is a traitor, the dragons are preparing for war, Twilight Sparkle has been lost to madness…all of the rumors that had engulfed the land had shot straight through Silver Stream’s ear and out the other. She recalled late summer nights at the School of Friendship, playing board games with her friends, procrastinating the study session she had sworn she would attend. It was ludicrous, to think that the ponies who had mentored her, who had molded her into the creature she was today, were not at all as she thought they were.

She expected only for the good old days to continue, when the carriage at last drew to a halt outside the great golden gates of the palace. Velvet adornments and shimmering spear tips marked her arrival, though Ocean Flow stuck her hoof on the door handle to keep Silver Stream from running out.

“Conduct yourself with dignity,” she said, “Be aware of yourself. And especially of others.”

Silver Stream nodded, pretending to take heed.

She sprung out of the carriage door, promptly blinded by the morning sunlight.

There, waiting for her by the great golden gates to the palace were six rows of royal guards, half-a-dozen in each, and alongside them were servants and stewards, dressed in fine silks and vibrant colors. The walls of the palace were a feast to the eyes, adorned with golden fixtures and stone carvings that resembled crashing waves and weaving branches. Sunlight drowned the palace in a heavenly cascade, bursting forth in cloud-spearing ribbons. And there was laughter and joy and music all about, a sweet-sounding song that rang through the stone and marble itself.

“Princess,” said Wedge Ward, the captain of the guard, with a stubbly face and a dark orange coat. His burnt brown mane was cut straight and short, though it was hardly visible underneath his golden helm.

“Welcome to Canterlot,” he said, proudly.

Silver Stream beamed in excitement, biting her lip in anticipation. Flower petals danced in the wind by her eyes, beckoning her to break down in a fit of giggling. Ocean Flow had descended from the carriage to join her daughter, a cautious smile trembling over her lips.

Silver!” came a thin voice from behind the royal guards.

Ocellus had managed to squeeze herself between the rows of golden plate mail, a smile stretching from ear to ear.

Ocellus! You’re here!” Silver Stream shrieked, dashing over to embrace her. Ocellus could not help but be throttled, though still she could not subdue her laughter. Silver Stream withdrew, while still holding Ocellus by her shoulders.

“How are you? How have you been? Is everyone else here? Oh. My. Celestia. Wait until I tell you what I saw on the road yesterday. It was the most craziest thing I’ve ever seen, we-”

“Sweetheart,” came Ocean Flow, prompting the guards again to stand at attention.

“I’m sure you two will have lots of time to catch up. The princess must be expecting you,” she said, glancing at Wedge.

He nodded for the guards to step out of the way to allow the guests passage through the gates. Silver Stream was again in awe of the magnificence of the palace, its sweeping spires and splendorous halls filling up the sky.

“I couldn't believe you were coming,” Ocellus said, while the group began their trek up a great outer staircase towards the Great Hall of the palace, “With everything that’s going on, I mean.”

“I still don’t even know why I’m here. My mom said it’s for my own protection. Like, what does that even mean?

Ocellus shrugged.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Silver Stream smiled.

“I wish the others could be too. But Yona’s still stuck in Yakyakistan, Sandbar’s in Newport, Gallus’s with the griffins, and Smolder…well, y’know.”

Silver Stream glanced down at her. She did, in fact, not know.

“Everyone says dragons are gearing up for trouble, or something,” Ocellus explained, “Whatever’s going on, I don’t think Smolder’s parents want her hanging out with us anytime soon…”

“But that’s not fair,” Silver Stream winced.

Ocellus had little to say in the way of comfort.

“I’m sure it’ll all get fixed, somehow.”

Wedge Ward led the group to the Great Hall doors, and after two more flights of stairs and a trip down the grandest hallway Silver Stream had ever laid eyes on, they at last arrived before the two great marble doors to Princess Twilight’s throne room, carven to depict heroic acts of history: the Great Alliance’s victory over Cyrax the Monstrous, Gusty the Great’s defeat of Grogar the Conqueror, the Fire of Friendship, and, most recently, the imprisonment of the Legion of Doom.

“Blast from the past. I remember this stuff from school,” Silver Stream muttered in amazement.

Posted by the doors there were two royal guards already present.

Silver Stream quickly caught herself staring at the one closest to her, a young stallion who wore two sets of copper leather faulds that rode along his hind legs, pauldrons of shimmering bronze, and vambraces made of thick brown leather. His helmet hid a fiery mane of reddish brown, and the helm itself bore a thick crest of mahogany feathers. He was a unicorn, tan in color, of firm build. His eyes were a sharp purple, bright as jewels.

“Princess, this is Lieutenant Styles,” Wedge said, having noticed her blushful gaze. If he had not said something, she may have come close to drooling.

“At your service, my lady,” Styles said, bowing his head.

“And Grey Wick,” Wedge continued, nodding towards the other guard posted at the door. He frightened her more than anything else. He had a thin mane of grey strands, an iron face with creases stretching across his cheeks and the edges of his eyes. He had a dense frame, a coarse beard, and a painful hunch. His greeting was merely a grunt.

Silver Stream would have meant to turn her attention back to Styles, before the ensemble of royal guards came crashing to their knees, when Princess Twilight arrived from the opposite side of the hall.

Silver Stream and Ocellus were unsure whether to kneel. Ocean Flow opted not to, instead approaching Twilight with the intent of a hoofshake.

Twilight had a warm smile about her, and a regal elegance that put both Ocellus and Silver Stream on their best behavior. She stood straight as a pillar, bearing a powerful stride and an illusive aura of purity. She exuded light in her very presence, by the flowing star embers of her mane, and the twinkling glow in those cold eyes of violet. It was difficult to recall Twilight as once merely their headmare.

“Your highness, it’s good to see you,” Twilight smiled, shaking Ocean Flow’s limp hoof. Ocean Flow was practically trembling, struggling to keep up her facade of confidence.

“Girls! It’s been too long,” Twilight continued, turning to Ocellus and Silver Stream, “I hope you’ve been keeping up with your studies. And staying out of trouble.”

Twilight winked, and Silver Stream could no longer hide her smile.

“You bet, Princess!” Silver Stream replied.

Twilight glanced towards Wedge, who was waiting patiently in the back.

“Captain, I’m tasking you with her protection.”

Wedge hesitated. Having to babysit was one or two steps below his paygrade.

“As you wish, your grace,” he managed.

“Go show our guests to their rooms. I’m sure you two must be exhausted after your journey,” Twilight said.

“Thank you, Princess, much appreciated,” Ocean Flow replied. She found herself a fool, for having been so worried about having to confront Twilight. She had nearly forgotten all about their last meeting, which had left a sour feeling in her stomach.

The guards had begun to disperse, while Silver Stream and Ocellus resumed their chat. Wedge approached Twilight, close enough for his whisper to be heard.

“I wanted to let you know that Princess Cadance has sent word she’ll be arriving in the city as well. Within the morrow.”

Twilight nodded, and then narrowed her eyes, before glancing over at Silver Stream, “Protect that girl at all costs.”

Wedge nodded.

While Wedge begrudgingly took off to lead Ocean Flow and Silver Stream to their rooms deeper in the palace, Twilight turned to the throne room doors.

She pried them open in a flash of purple light, before gracefully stepping inside.

Celestia save us,” Styles whispered, having noticed right as the others did that a pony was already waiting inside, propped up on the throne, basking in the stained glass light. Styles reached to draw his sword, as did Grey Wick.

“It’s alright,” Twilight said, motioning for them to stand down.

Twilight stepped lightly down the first few steps into the throne room, taking her time to stroll down the length of the hall. The throne room was like an icebox that day, while the city roasted in the late summer sun.

“What do you think you’re doing, sister?” Twilight asked.

Styles glanced at Grey Wick, before nervously closing the doors behind Twilight.

“Sitting,” was the reply.

“You weren’t expected so soon,” Twilight said, “I can’t remember the last time you visited.”

Cadance shrugged.

“Canterlot has never agreed with me.”

Twilight feigned amusement.

Cadance was dressed in a rose gown that turned to a pattern of crystal dust at its skirt.

“I’d heard you’d fallen ill,” Twilight said.

“The world’s in an uproar. Better to keep our enemies confused.”

“If only our enemies were as reckless as they are misguided,” Twilight rebutted.

“You’re right. Lies do spread like a sickness.”

Twilight had arrived at the throne steps, her head tilted to the side, playfully.

“Why did you come back, Cadance?”

Cadance smirked, leaning in from the throne. She sat as though she was made for it.

“...To take my seat on the royal council, as is my right. I thought an old friend might need my help.”

“You say it as though you’d think I’d want to be rid of you.”

“You wound me. Only, I worry about the order of things here.”

“Pity that it can’t be changed so readily,” Twilight said.

Can’t it?” Cadance said.

Twilight’s face twitched.

“Sister,” Twilight said, “You will always be welcome here.”

“I would expect no less from the Princess of Friendship,” Cadance said, grinning, “Which is why I intend to stay here. At your side. Our allies are turning against us, it would seem. I will not sit idly while Equestria succumbs to war. You should need all the help you may have.”

Cadance continued on past Twilight, heading for the doors.

Cadance found it almost jolting, to be at odds with her old friend, her sister, though she had made it her purpose to rein in Twilight as best as she was able, for the sake of the realm. There was no telling what kind of damage could be further caused by such raw power. She would stick to what she knew was right, no matter the costs to her heart, or sanity.

Twilight, meanwhile, was almost certain that Cadance knew the truth, but how could she act on such a risk, she had no idea. Novo, Ember, Thorax, and all of the others, their blood would forever be on her hooves. That much she had accepted long ago. But that of her own kin, she feared she did not have the strength for such treachery. There seemed to be no end to the cruelty of her predicament, she realized. Perhaps it was becoming rather simple: kill or be killed.

Rain boots caked in mud came trudging over stray twigs and fallen leaves. The forest felt most alive when it was raining. Drizzling drops shook the deep green leaves of Everfree, where, beneath its damp canopy, a young filly sprang across creekbed stones, careful not to trip. The rocks were slick and slippery, though she found a strange thrill in the threat of an imminent catastrophe. The voices of her parents would speak louder in her mind at times like these, beckoning her to be careful, to come inside where it was warm and safe.

But those were just memories now, and she was free to do as she wished, at her own risk. Here in the woods, she found solace in solitude, where she was free to sit and roam, to play and pretend that she would never have to leave again.

But the hour was late already, and she knew better than to stay out in the Everfree Forest after sundown. As much as she loved to brave such danger, even she feared what fell things crept there in the dark.

Ponyville was still undergoing remarkable renovations since the incident. Countless homes still had to be rebuilt, and some feared a recovery would deprive the town of what little resources they had left. Many had already abandoned ship in fear of whatever horror may come next.

The wrath of Sunset Shimmer left only ten dead when all was said and done; though, for many of the survivors, their lives were all but destroyed.

Her thoughts drifted back to embers dying in the firelight; how her father’s snoring would keep her up from the other room, or how he always had trouble saying goodbye to the visiting handyponies he had befriended. She recalled her mother’s enamorment with amassing a library of books in their home, to fulfill a childhood dream of running her very own bookstore. Those dreams, those bitter annoyances, those afternoon laughing fits were things of the past now. The world looked different, she had begun to realize. Some hazy shade of rose had melted off the trees, and while the breeze once brought her comfort, now she only felt the cold.

Every time she shut her eyes, she could make out the agony on her mother’s face, the moment before she was torn into a red mist. And her father, lost in a cold embrace.

None of it made sense to her. Why was she given life while her parents were cursed to die? She had nothing left at all, it would seem, nothing to live for, and nothing to die for. She was too young to succumb to these thoughts, she told herself, she could not just give up. But she yearned for a reason. A greater purpose that as of then, evaded her. She had no one to guide her, no one except herself.

She passed through the dusty streets of Ponyville, where flakes of ash still danced through the air like snowfall.

Night swept over the town in a billowing breeze, where the hill grass shuddered and the moon peered down from above. Though she had spent most of her nights sleeping in a cardboard box over in an alleyway on old M Street, tonight Juno had been promised a night’s rest in the care of her classmate, Apple Bloom. The barn may have stunk to high heaven, but it was a shelter nonetheless.

Her own home had collapsed during the fires. And with the house went the hoofball her father had caught from the stands with her at his side, and her favorite dolls in polka-dot dresses, and her grandmother’s delicate, storied quilts.

She tried to knock her mind off of the past, by the time she had arrived at Apple Acres, where she could enjoy her hosts’ warm hearth and pantries of food. For a while, she could call this place a home.

“Got some apple fritters waiting in the oven, one for each of you,” Sugar Belle said, briefly sticking her head into the living room, before Big Mac reeled her back towards him in the kitchen.

Get a room,” Apple Bloom grinned, before turning back to Juno, “They never stop.

Juno snickered.

“As long as they don’t touch the food, after,” Juno said.

Apple Bloom giggled.

“Hey, uh, thanks for inviting me over. It means a lot,” Juno said. She had rarely been invited anywhere by anypony, to the point that at first she had thought this to be an elaborate prank.

“Whatever you need, ah’m here to help,” Apple Bloom smiled.

Juno nodded.

“I always thought you and Sweetie and Scootaloo were the nicest ponies in school,” Juno said.

“Oh, well don’t stop now, keep goin’,” Apple Bloom laughed.

“Are they staying over too?” Juno wondered.

Apple Bloom’s smile faded.

“‘Fraid not. Sweetie’s been up in Canterlot for ages. Homesick like heck, probably. And Scootaloo, nopony’s seen her in forever. Story is she went travelin’ the world with her folks,” Apple Bloom said, “Ah guess it’s good they wasn’t here, y’know, since…” Apple Bloom said, trailing off.

“Hey, sorry, ah shouldn’t have-” Apple Bloom said, correctively.

“No, hey, it’s fine,” Juno said, “Actually…I was meaning to ask you something. About Applejack, and her friends…Have they talked at all? About what happened?” Juno asked, nervous of what the answer would be.

Apple Bloom choked on her words, careful not to misspeak.

“Applejack’s been over at the mayor’s all week. Her and Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie. Ah don’t know where everypony else was. All ah I know is they’ve been working out plans for how to rebuild, help ponies that’re hurt, y’know, stuff like that…She said they don’t want to be leavin’ Ponyville defenseless, even to hunt down the perp. Not that they’d have much luck, nopony got a good look at whoever started it all. Some folks blamed the fires on a lightnin’ storm, ah heard.”

Juno shook her head in disbelief. She glanced at the floor, wondering if she had been mistaken about what she saw.

But she was sure of it, she was convinced - those bloody cyan eyes, that red and gold mane, that twisted horn.

Sunset Shimmer.

The very name set her heart ablaze.

And while everypony appeared content to move on, Juno, to her distress, was not.

“Hey, thanks for inviting me over, but, uh, I gotta run, actually,” Juno said, having suddenly developed an acute urgency to leave.

“What? Are ya sure?” Apple Bloom asked, “I know this has gotta be hard on ya. I know what it’s like, to lose ponies that mean a lot to ya. I thought I could help.”

“I know, and thank you, but I just…I really gotta go.”

“B-But what about the apple fritters?” Apple Bloom continued.

“You can have mine!”

Apple Bloom opened her mouth to attempt another persuasive plea, though Juno had already sprang around and tore off, breaking off towards the door.

“Thanks! Sorry! Bye!”

Apple Bloom watched her race out through the door, baffled.

But Juno had already disappeared into the dark.

In dreams, those starbound illustrations of bloodstained treachery may have served well enough as a week’s quota of reality-adjustment nightmares. Eyes unblinking, hollow bones, empty screams. It had never been as she had heard about in songs or bedtime stories.

She had imagined it to be more romantic, to take a life. But at times it had felt more like a chore. She would hate to say she was getting used to the idea.

Twilight Sparkle frequented her balcony perch when the moon was at its brightest. Her thoughts seemed to ring clearer, when the city was almost still, when the stars in the sky stood unmoving. She could never look at them for long, before she could make out the vestiges of those slain by her hoof. Memories outlived the blood.

She had told nopony of Spike’s untimely demise, not while she had every one of her acolytes and spellbinders working day and night to discover some supernatural means of unholy resurrection. She had never felt so desperate in her life for anything other than to save him, though she feared she had already run out of time. To cheat death was a power that evaded even her.

She wondered whether she should have killed Sunset Shimmer and been done with it, though, she would remind herself, more death would do nothing to remedy her broken heart, nor a fractured Equestria. All that had transpired was ultimately her doing, whether intentional or not.

Mayor Mare would suffice as her scapegoat, as she had always intended. She had little trouble doing away with ponies so eager to betray their allies in exchange for power and wealth. She would have acted sooner, if there didn’t seem to be a new interruption every other day. Cadance’s visit was no small thing, she was sure of it.

She recalled the root of all this chaos, and the weeks she spent ruminating on what Celestia had told her, all those moons ago. That there across the sea waited a bygone vengeance, desiring foremostly Celestia’s head.

Why protect Celestia? Ember had demanded. Why turn her enemy into ours as well?

We should make peace, Thorax said, We can make an arrangement. We can avoid war.

But she had been certain of it, she had told them all, never more certain of anything. The dream she had was clearer than a memory. Equestria would be brought to ruin, born again into this usurper’s fire, burning all that anypony might hold dear. She had seen Canterlot aflame, mountains of corpses damming the Crescendo, infecting its waters with maggots and black rot. The sun and the moon had been driven from the sky, and the land would toil in an eternal darkness. The faces of all those she knew and loved were buried in ash and soot, while the fires ravaged and roared. The screams of survivors cursed to be tortured and tormented would echo into the starless void, the new dominion over Equestria.

But the others paid her no mind. It was unanimous. The lot of them came to terms, to tarnish Celestia’s legacy and welcome the threat across the sea with open arms.

Twilight grieved for them, and for the catastrophe of her foreseen future. What was the might of any sorcerer, or warrior, or politician, compared to the power of prophecy? She was bound by duty, sworn by countless oaths and the trust of the ponies she was charged to protect; she could not allow Equestria to meet its doom.

She had pleaded with Ember, Thorax, Novo, and the others, time and time again. They could not reveal the truth, she said, the threat beyond the sea would be their doom, and they ought to fight back. But the others would only see things their way.

If you are not with us, you are against us.

She recalled Posh Paramount among them, who had dismissed her pleas as the attempts of an apprentice to protect her teacher’s legacy. Twilight recoiled at the thought. If they had all been less arrogant and simply listened to her, she may have been able to spare their lives. All of them were vultures, tempted unto a path of wickedness.

Still she wondered whether she could truly excuse her actions. But she was stringent about playing it safe. She had long been raised on the prospect of heroes. Ponies that fought against impossible odds, or impossible dilemmas. But the songs never mentioned the rest of those heroes’ stories. How Gusty the Great was a weak ruler who reduced the unicorn tribe to squalor. How the Great Alliance committed mass killings of innocent dragon villages, all in the name of peace.

Being a hero was never an intrinsic quality, she understood. Only a fleeting experience that one may hope to embody for a brief period of time. Evil otherwise festered in the rudimentary.

Perhaps the nightmare had not been overcome, but only prolonged. Perhaps there truly was no stopping what was to come. Having to confront Starlight Glimmer, to look into the reflection of her actions, had changed her mind to a degree. The simplest course of duty that had once come first-nature was now less desirable. How could it be otherwise, while she had betrayed her beloved pupil merely out of necessitated circumstance?

But honor would not save Equestria from whatever horror waited across the shores. The blood would not go down in the history books. But the victor would.

Sunlight fell in soft paint-strokes through the rust frame windows, a golden dusty swill encompassing the Royal Council Chamber.

Twilight had arrived late, as it was, having been preoccupied with her own introspective dread.

She had forgotten that Cadance was insisting on being in attendance, claiming her spot on the council table, opposite the long table to Twilight herself.

Twilight had grown suspicious of her other councilors: the slithery Treasury Secretary, Featherglass, the cryptic Chief Intelligence Officer, Marius Moonshine, and the headstrong Captain of the Guard, Wedge Ward. A fresh face would have been welcome, if it had been anypony other than Cadance.

There was a cold glow to Cadance’s eyes, as if the North had turned her blood to ice already.

Twilight paid no mind to Cadance’s uninvited attendance, however. The last thing she would want was to draw suspicion of animosity between them. Still, Twilight wondered what exactly Cadance knew, and, more importantly, whether she could prove whatever it was. There could be no other reason for her visit, Twilight figured, than to be a thorn in her side.

“Let’s begin,” Twilight said, taking her seat at the far end of the great council table.

“Our naval scouts have reported sightings of dragons and sea serpents en route from the east. They’re mobilizing in the Badlands as we speak,” said Marius Moonshine, whose puffy perfume scents had conquered the room.

“Princess, it’s my suggestion that we send reinforcements to the Velvet Regiment’s position on the southern border, as soon as possible,” said Wedge Ward, his clunky golden armor shifting as he leaned closer in.

“If you hadn’t sent them there to begin with, perhaps the dragons would not have felt the need to bolster their own forces,” Twilight said, narrowing her eyes. Wedge sat back in his seat.

“The dragons will not risk war. Not while the rest of Equestria stands united against them,” Marius countered. “We should make haste with this marriage pact.”

Cadance glanced at Twilight, confused.

“Silver Stream. A former student of mine. Her mother, Ocean Flow, wears the crown in Seaquestria, until her niece Skystar comes of age,” Twilight explained.

“And you mean to barter this poor girl off for political favors?” Cadance asked, disgusted.

“Solidarity against the dragons will be the only thing that may keep them in check. A union between kingdoms would accomplish that,” Marius said.

“And who is this lucky suitor you’ve picked out?” Cadance asked.

“The Grand Galloping Gala will begin in a fortnight. Creatures from across the realm will be there,” Featherglass said, “Countless candidates.”

“We should allow her to at least choose her match, to seek them out,” Twilight said.

Cadance shook her head, uneasy.

“And what about the dragons in the meantime?” Cadance inquired.

“Dragons favor total war. They’ll cut off our shipping lanes, sever supply lines and starve out our holdfasts. We need to reinforce our ports, cautiously, in a way that will not escalate anything,” Twilight advised.

“The dragons are weak for now,” Wedge said, “Disorganized, angry, ambitious. We should strike first while they’re still preparing. Remind them what their oaths are good for.”

“I fear he may be right,” Featherglass said, “We don’t have enough food to sustain a prolonged war.”

“No,” Twilight snapped, “We avoid bloodshed as long as possible.”

“Bloodshed is inevitable,” Cadance said, coldly, “Any chance for peace was lost the moment their empress lost her head.”

She spoke as if she was making an accusation, plain enough that even the distracted Wedge Ward had taken notice.

Twilight narrowed her eyes, while the others remained silent. Marius glanced at Cadance, hesitantly.

“War is coming. We either embrace it or run from it. But we cannot idly await it,” Cadance said.

"She's right," Featherglass said, "Since our Captain of the Guard made his accusation, the dragons have wanted nothing but war. They surround themselves in a fog for a reason. They prepare for war, while we still futilely plot for peace."

"The attempt on Lavender's life was made with a dragonsteel dagger," Wedge reminded, "The dragons hired that cutthroat. It was the dragons who began this all, back in Ponyville. We know the truth now."

"No one will ever know the truth of what began this all," Cadance said, glancing at Twilight, "But the truth doesn't matter now. Lives are at stake. War is at our doorstep. We need to prepare, before the dragons take us by surprise."

“Captain, I want you to commit two platoons each to Shimmering Spires and Saddleopolis,” Twilight said, shifting her attention away from Cadance’s gaze.

Shimmering Spires?” Wedge repeated, baffled, “The dragons will come from the east, not the west, princess.”

Thank you for the geography lesson,” Twilight rebutted, “Balancing military commitments may dispel any assumption that we’re acting in response to the dragons’ recent activity. At the same time the dragons may yet be deterred,” Twilight said, "The Velvet Regiment is already at the border. If the dragons attack the border, we'll have auxiliary forces nearby on the opposite coast to cross eastward and add additional support."

While she spoke partial truths, her greatest priority was to improve upon the west’s defense, anticipating a certain threat from beyond the sea waging war in the not-so-distant future. She did not trust her advisors with such sensitive intelligence, though, nor did she seek to worsen the mass hysteria with vague threats of a vengeful foreign conqueror.

“As you wish,” Wedge replied, somewhat discontented.

Twilight sighed and sat back in her chair.

“That will be all,” Twilight concluded.

The council members rose from their seats, collectively filing out towards the door.

Twilight remained, transfixed on her reflection in the nearest window’s glass.

Wrought with guilt, Twilight withdrew also from the council room, storming back up to the confines of her own bedchamber.

Cadance, meanwhile, had meant to retire to her quarters for the day, though her plans were foiled by the hollow voice of Marius Moonshine, whose brow was beaded with sweat.

“Princess,” came the portly pig-faced stallion, bowing respectfully.

“Marius, you scared me,” Cadance said.

“A touch of subtlety is often to one’s benefit. You would be wise to start learning that,” Marius said.

Cadance raised an eyebrow.

“I’m not sure what you’re referring to.”

“You’ve come here to outwit her, I will tell you such a thing is not easily done.”

Cadance hesitated, before coming to terms with the now-necessitated confrontation.

“Are there others so self-interested that they’ll play along while a tyrant sits the throne?”

“No, if that should remedy you. My spies tell me the truth is still scarce. That is how I prefer it. You mean to overcome the web of lies she has strung, I tell you it is a fool’s errand. She has progressed past the point of reason.”

“Maybe. But Equestria hasn’t,” Cadance countered, “When ponies find out the truth-”

“Twilight will have nothing left to stop her,” Marius said, “Don’t take a stand. Not yet. The time isn’t right. The power she wields is too great.”

“I came to this city to prevent Equestria from further chaos and calamity. Mine is one of a few voices Equestria still trusts. If I tell the world what she really is, we can put all of this uncertainty behind us. There will be no more cause for war with the dragons. And if they persist, then I will be leading Equestria against them, not Twilight."

Marius glared at her.

“You know just half the truth, then,” Marius said.

Cadance twitched.

Marius suddenly became withdrawn, retreating a step backwards.

“You know more,” Cadance demanded, and Marius’ eyes gave it away, “...You know why.

“Some secrets are better to remain that way.”

Cadance sighed, and shook her head, undeterred.

“I’m tired of the lies. I came here to end this. And I will.”

Cadance took a step towards him. Marius seemed to resent the attempt at intimidation.

“Our peace hangs by a thread,” Marius said, “If the truth comes out, Equestria will tear itself apart. You act as though ponies will accept your word lightly. They are suspicious, fearful, hungry. When they find out their darling princess isn’t the saint they thought her to be….Thousands will die. Will you risk everything just for revenge, for pride?”

“For justice,” Cadance said.

Marius opened his mouth again to protest, though Cadance had already spun around towards the stairwell corridor.

He watched helplessly as Cadance stormed off down one of the dark passageways.

TV static had long drowned out her ears in a droll vacuum, while her mind shifted along soft spots of fuzzy memories and dark visions.

Solitary confinement suited her, she thought.

Trixie Lulamoon had kept herself stowed away in that room, surrounded by four grey walls, bathing in fluorescent light. She had almost forgotten what it felt like to walk beneath the sunrays. A light had been lost inside of her, ever since the news had reached her.

Starlight Glimmer is dead.

What a friend she was, she thought, to have failed to stop her. To have given in to the foolish hope of a happy ending.

She had little in the way of desire beyond lying in her own misery. Her hosts were a secretive bunch, to her fortune, though, and had little issue ignoring her. The Erased, as they were called, had been struggling to get a step ahead of their current predicament, ever since the fiasco with Twilight and Starlight. Spies, codebreakers, assassins, the best in the world were still being undermined by Twilight Sparkle. Trixie almost felt relief, that she wasn’t the only one to play second-fiddle to that bratty know-it-all.

She broke away from those sour thoughts, when the door’s creaking snapped her to attention.

A stallion was waiting idly in the door frame, his withered grey glance sending a cold shiver down Trixie’s spine.

“Now’s not a good time,” Trixie muttered, turning back to the other side of her bed.

The stallion scoffed.

“I should’ve started charging rent,” said the stallion. He was Alias, the Chief of the Erased, the first pony to speak to her in days.

“Is this my eviction notice?” Trixie spat.

Alias’ glare softened, as if to redesign his approach.

“...Glimmer gave it her best shot. If she hadn’t been so brash, she would have made a strong ally down the road.”

Don’t talk about her like that,” Trixie snapped, “You didn’t care about her. All you do is use ponies.”

“You’re right,” Alias replied, “I hardly knew Starlight. But I know she wouldn’t have wanted you to waste away, sulking down here.”

Way to pull at the heartstrings,” Trixie said, “Let me know when you find a new grave to dance on.”

She’s gone,” Alias said, “Gone. And there’s nothing you or anypony else can do about it.”

Trixie’s strength gave out once again.

“My offer still stands. We would be honored if you would join us.”

“There are faster ways to meet an early grave.”

“But none so exciting,” Alias said.

“You’re wasting your time. I was only ever along for the ride for Starlight. Without her, I’m…” Trixie said, trailing off.

“It’s my belief that there’s more to you than meets the eye.”

“Well you’ve got a funny way of showing it,” Trixie said.

“The choice is yours. Return to a peaceful life, somewhere dull and far from harm…Or, you can finish what Starlight started.”

Trixie shook her head.

“I’m not the hero you’re looking for.”

Alias shook his head.

“I have made mistakes. Costly mistakes. But this, I’m sure of. You, Ms. Lulamoon, are exactly the pony I’m looking for.”

Alias extended his hoof towards her.

Trixie stared into the old stallion’s eyes, and for a moment, she could almost imagine Starlight there beside him.

Trixie took a breath, wary of forgoing a chance to escape the fray she had all but unwittingly been thrust into.

She shook her head, as if subconsciously telling herself to refuse him, to run away. But she could not pull away, as she discovered; the fickle temptress of adventure had overcome her.

Their hooves met in the middle, shaking on the spot.

Wallflower, Lightning, and Suri climbed up the fire escape stairs, wary of the sun’s spotlight, or the ringing of royal spears.

“Somepony’s going to spot us,” Wallflower warned, frantically glancing over her shoulder.

Lightning, who was clad in a pink leather jacket and a black hoofball cap, shot her a dismissive glare.

“You worry too much, Wallflower,” Lightning said, “Oh, and this better not take too long. I’ve got a date with the pull-up bar in an hour.”

“You didn’t have to tag along.”

“Quiet, both of you,” Suri scoffed, “We’re almost there.”

“Old Razor Blade thinks he can hustle us for more bits, sounds about right, that toothless pig.” Lightning said.

“Don’t instigate anything,” Wallflower said, concerned, “We might be able to talk ourselves out of this.”

“Talk is cheap,” Lightning said, “And I’m getting tired of playing nice.”

“Lightning, you can’t take on all of Razor Blade’s goons,” Wallflower laughed.

“Well, it’s worth a try,” Lightning grinned, throwing some practice-punches in the air.

“I said quiet,” Suri snapped, “I’ll be doing the talking. Got it?”

Suri led them to the third floor of the apartment building by its fire escape, creeping in through a window left ajar.

The smell had hit her first, before she took her first step inside.

Suri’s mouth hung agape, in horror.

Bodies littered the floor around them. The room was painted red in blood, yellow-brown entrails and shreds of skin rotting in the humidity.

Wallflower immediately felt like throwing up as the smell overcame her. She retreated back outside to the fire escape.

Lightning climbed in first, stepping right into a puddle of spilled organs.

Sweet stratocumulus,” she whispered, “How many are there?”

“That’s Razor Blade,” Suri said, noticing one of the bodies.

Wallflower had regained the courage to venture back inside.

I got them killed,” Suri said, mournfully.

“That’s not true,” Wallflower said, consolingly.

Wallflower had retrieved her portable camera from her satchel, and had begun snapping photographs, hoping to learn more with closer examination.

She jumped back in fright, however, when she noticed one of the dead was very much alive, sliding in a puddle of blood.

Wallflower nervously knelt beside him on the ground, helping him into his back.

There was a burning red hole in his chest, leaking blood like a creekbed.

“Wallflower,” Suri said, hesitant to allow her in close proximity to him.

But the stallion could hardly move.

Wallflower reached for her canteen in her satchel, and offered the stallion a sip. He accepted it, greedily gulping down drops, right up until his body fell limp.

Wallflower’s eyes widened. She dropped the canteen and rose to her hooves, glancing back at the others.

“Somepony’s hunting us down,” Lightning said.

“Razor Blade had enough enemies already,” Suri said, “This could have nothing to do with us.”

“You think it’s a coincidence that the same day he comes knocking on our door, asking to see us, he and all his goons get hacked to pieces? Somepony’s on our trail!” Lightning yelled.

While the two of them sparred, Wallflower could no longer contain herself, desperate to speak her own mind.

“Would you listen to me now?” Wallflower said, catching the others’ attention, “We’re dead no matter what we do, right? We might as well start fighting back. We can make a change for the better, before we lose that chance.”

Suri glanced at Lightning, and sighed.

“Starlight believed in us. We should too,” Wallflower continued.

“Wallflower,” Suri said, “Starlight got herself killed, fighting a battle she couldn’t win. Twilight Sparkle, the royal guards, bounty hunters…We don’t stand a chance. What’s the point in trying? All we’ve ever done is make things worse,” Suri said, flatly.

“You’re wrong,” Wallflower said, “You’re my friends. My only friends. Back in Hellhatch, I’d given up. But you all helped me. I wouldn’t call that making everything worse. I know we can’t catch a break, but…we have to keep trying. So what do you say?”

Suri rolled her eyes and stormed off out towards the window, while Lightning too struggled to adhere to Wallflower’s plea.

“Sorry, Wallflower,” she said.

Wallflower sighed while Lightning followed after Suri.

She wiped the blood off of her hooves.

She had to prove them wrong.

Manehattan motel shutters wept black tears of gutter rain, shivering in the traffic breeze. Room 208 held the tumbledown reststop’s lone occupant: an old stallion, withering on strength while the hours drew later into the night, and closer to the unwelcome hail of dawn.

Gruff Granger had trouble keeping his hooves from shaking, while the ceiling seemed to rattle in the rain.

He was an aging stallion, an earth pony with a greying, thin beard, a face like leather, and dark circles beneath his eyes.

His visitor had just arrived, stamping out a cigarette in a doorside ashtray.

The visitor sauntered in from the rain, before his eyes began wandering about the dilapidated room Gruff had made into his makeshift home.

He waited in the doorway, his eyes dancing down towards the shag carpet, littered with insect carcasses, ash, and bodily fluids of unknowable origin.

Gruff stood a few yards away, deeper in the dark, lit only by the grey fuzz of the television.

He adjusted his belt, and hobbled down to his seat by a small dinner table, between the bed and the television.

The visitor was idle in the doorway, waiting while Gruff proceeded to pour out two glasses of ale.

The visitor stalked on towards him, his eyes locked onto Gruff and every movement he made.

He took his seat.

Gruff took a swig of his glass, and the visitor took a sip in reply.

“You’re Salt Shaker?” Gruff asked.

The visitor smirked, amused. Gruff’s confident front dropped in an instant.

“Tell Salt Shaker I’ve told him all I know,” Gruff sputtered. He cursed himself for revealing the fear swirling inside him, “Tell him I want to live in peace. I know nothing about the case.”

The visitor, who had glanced down at his drink, was suddenly interested again.

“It’s disappeared. If he had listened, we could have been spared all of this…I can’t tell Salt Shaker what happened to the case…Go back and tell him that,” Gruff continued.

The visitor’s smile faded. Gruff returned to his glass.

“Word’s been you’ve had a visitor.”

Gruff froze with the glass to his lips.

“Salt knows it,” the visitor continued, “Named Brandy. So either Brandy came by here, or Salt’s got it all wrong.”

Gruff’s eyes faltered, as if distraught to have no other means out but to concede.

“...He’s not wrong,” he said.

The visitor grunted.

“All I want is the name Brandy’s hiding under now.”

“Why would she be using another name?”

“Because otherwise I would have found her already. When I start off to find somebody I find them. That’s why they pay me.”

Gruff was wary, unable to sit still in his chair.

“And what’s Salt paying you?”

The visitor was silent.

“What is he paying you for murdering me?!” Gruff demanded.

The visitor snickered.

“5,000 bits. To get the name.”

The visitor narrowed his eyes.

“Just the name,” the visitor repeated.

The words were stuck in Gruff’s throat.

Menteuse. That’s what they’re calling her now.”

The visitor nodded his head.

There was a silence, broken when Gruff at last rose from the table, slowly dragging his hooves over towards one of his bedside cupboards. He retrieved a small satchel, heavy with the weight of coins.

He tossed the bag over to the visitor.

“That’s another 5,000. Take it. And leave me be.”

The visitor’s eyes flickered down to the gold. Granger had thought this to be a clever distraction, reaching for his pistol tucked in his belt holster.

The blast of the visitor’s pistol shook dust from the ceiling, and in a flash of light Gruff Granger lay dead in a puddle of blood, pouring out from the hole shot straight through his chest.

The visitor watched as the smoke cleared.

The visitor rose from his seat, finished his drink, and collected the gold.

The door flew open, and in burst a panicked Rainbow Dash.

Blondie!” Rainbow stammered, unable to make him out in the dark.

Blondie arrived beside her, sheathing his pistol.

Nice going. Let’s get out of here.”

The two of them broke off in the rain towards a parked carriage waiting on the curb of an old warehouse.

“That’s the last time we send you to negotiate,” Rainbow muttered.

Blondie remained silent, and proceeded to open the trunk of the carriage, checking to see if their prisoner had made any progress breaking free of her chains.

Redshift, a royal lieutenant, had been stuck in that trunk for what felt like days, covered in sweat, wrapped in ropes from head to hoof. Her horn was fixed with a makeshift magic inhibitor, made of spare parts by Blondie. She writhed in frustration, to his amusement.

He slammed the trunk closed and made his way to the front, where Rainbow had already climbed in.

He found their companionship odd, as it was, though he supposed he owed her as much. She had reeled him back from the brink of a drunken demise, all in hopes of rescuing the girl who had pulled him into this mess.


He wondered where she was, if she was safe. She had run off with the briefcase, and so he figured danger would not linger far behind her, wherever she was now.

Waiting in the reins of the carriage was Salt Shaker himself, a giant of a stallion, white in color bearing a silver-grey beard and a rigid glare. His watch was to the exact hour, and his suit was spotless from head to hoof. But he had a wicked sickness twisting behind those eyes, as if teetering on a line of precision and madness.

“The name’s Menteuse,” Blondie said, having to speak up while the downpour endured.

“And Granger?” Salt Shaker inquired.

Blondie was silent.

Salt Shaker nodded, and shrugged.

“He was a loose cannon. I had a feeling he’d try for it. It’s done. You’ll get your bits, lad.”

Blondie’s eyes fell to the ground, as if regretfully.

“You still insist on bringing that tinhead with us? She’s rightfully dead weight,” Salt continued.

“She knows our faces. We can’t let her go.”

“I was suggesting cutting her loose.”

Blondie winced.

“Royals will be looking for her. She could be worth a ransom,” Blondie suggested. In truth, he would hate to murder a pony in senseless cold blood, though he figured he had better speak a language better understood by Salt Shaker.

“Have it your way. You are sure about this, yes? Where we are going, fate fares poorly for our like. We could split up, perhaps-”

“We’re sticking together,” Rainbow interjected, having just joined.

Blondie was not one to put his trust in anypony else lightly. For all the giant’s genial cordiality, he was still a cutthroat killer through and through. But Rainbow had brought out something different in him, he had begun to realize. Perhaps not yet trust, but a willingness to listen, to take heed of her warning. He could have used such counsel before entangling himself in this mess, after all.

“Alright. I’ll be having the bounty on that briefcase, you’ll find your star-crossed lover, and your technicolor friend can lighten your spirits, poor devil.”

Rainbow rolled her eyes, while Blondie nodded in agreement. Salt Shaker shook his head, warily.

He would find her again, Blondie thought; he would catch the ever-elusive pony that wavered on being an imagined fantasy. South to the city of kings, he would find her.


A morning knock on the bedchamber door reeled Cadance out of bed, propelling her to crawl out from her sheets to greet the early visitor. Casting a quick spell to freshen up, she had half a mind to ignore the knock and carry about her morning routine.

Cadance opened the door, and a smile broke out onto her face.

“Rarity,” Cadance exclaimed, leaning in for an embrace. The white unicorn could not help but smile the same, glad to be in an old friend’s company once again.

“Here, come in, let me get you something to eat, or drink, or-” Cadance began.

“Oh, that’s quite alright, darling. I actually had wished to speak with you,” Rarity explained, stepping inside Cadance’s quarters.

Cadance shut the door, cautiously checking to see if anypony was lurking outside.

“It’s Twilight,” Rarity began, wasting no time.

Cadance blinked.

Rarity sighed.

“I know the truth, and so do you. I imagine that’s why you’ve graced Canterlot with your visit.”

Cadance froze, though Rarity gave her no chance to reply.

“I was too frightened to do anything about it, until I heard you’d arrived…Whatever I can do to help, name it.”

Cadance took a seat by her fireplace, her eyes swirling wildly, processing.

“I would never wish violence upon Twilight. Even after what she’s done.”

Rarity nodded, in agreement.

“She’s my friend. She always will be. But nopony sits above the law. She’s going to be taken into custody. I’ll make sure of it.”

“Alright,” Rarity said, weakly, “You must promise me you won’t hurt her,” Rarity said.

Cadance’s eyes darted back to Rarity, cast in shadow.

“I promise.”

The winds of winter had paid welcome to the visitor prince, clad in buckling silver armor. It was all ceremonial, the townsfolk supposed, though it made for quite a sight.

The sun was long hidden by the grey waste in the sky, that wept flakes of snow to bury the North deep. Light reflected off the prince’s armor, first a glimmering star over the distant snowbanks.

The castle-city of Rhinefrost was weathered, having withstood centuries of battle and blistering cold. Dark stone bore the keep, and within it were gentle homes of oak, cut from the surrounding forests.

Shining Armor had come with a sprinkling of lieutenants and attendants, and, most concerningly, without his wife. Cadance had been bedridden when he left, moaning of some crippling sickness. But he could not wait for her recovery, not while time had slipped away from him.

The city was silent, mournful while he and his entourage were led through the gate. He did not blame them. Their lord’s corpse was hardly cold.

“My prince,” came a stallion, five years Shining’s junior. He had a clean face and bright blue eyes, a curly mane black as coal, a tannish-grey coat, and a soldier’s build. It had been years since Shining had seen the boy, though he managed to reason this was Lord Boreas’ son, and a former squire of his.

They had met deep in the courtyard of the castle market, a crowd of soldiers and peasants having formed around them.

“Broadwing,” Shining Armor said, having just recalled the name.

Broadwing smiled, as if relieved to have been remembered at all.

“I’ve come on behalf of the empire, to offer my condolences.”

“This means a great deal, sir,” Broadwing replied, “My father often spoke highly of you.”

“He was a father to me as well, I was grieved to hear the news.”

Broadwing nodded.

“Won’t you come inside? My mother would be honored if-”

“Of course,” Shining Armor said, abruptly, shaking some snow out of his mane, “Lead the way.”

Broadwing wasted no time escorting the prince, trudging through the snow towards the inner castle keep.

Inside, up a well of great stone steps, and down a passage by the torchlight, Shining Armor arrived before a proper host of grieving knights, lords, and servants, collected in quiet droves with their eyes cast to the floor.

“Celestia save us,” exclaimed an older mare, whose face was worn grey, who was clad in a black woolen dress, “Your highness!” she continued, rushing through the crowd of ponies to meet the newest arrival.

“Lady Primrose,” Shining Armor said, and they embraced. She had a warmness to her, as though she was radiant with grace.

“You honor us,” she said.

“I regret not having been here when he passed,” Shining said, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”

“It’s been a…difficult few days, yes. He went peacefully. Stubborn old goat, he wasn’t once afraid. But he hated to prolong things. Death, principally.”

Shining smiled.

“He raised a fine stallion here,” Shining said, shifting his gaze to Broadwing.

“You’re kind,” Primrose said, “Darling, why don’t you go find your sister, and introduce her to the prince?”

“...Of course,” Broadwing said, hesitantly.

“You must tell me more about what’s been happening in the south, I’ve heard such dreadful rumors,” Primrose said, taking Shining by his leg to trot off with him in the court.

Broadwing found his sister, a young mare, pale blue with a fiery red-orange mane, giggling with her friends in the center of the room, sipping on near-empty chalices of wine.

“Bellflower,” he said, startling her.

“Whoever bought this sour swill, I want them thrown into the iron cells. It’s absolutely ghastly.”

“Then it should fit its drinker,” Broadwing smirked, “Mother’s sent for you. The prince is here.”

Bellflower dropped her glass to the floor, shattering it.

“The prince?” Bellflower said, “Without his princess?”

Broadwing said nothing. Bellflower quickly began toying with her mane, an anxious grin stretching onto her face.

“Where’s Orion?” Broadwing asked.

Bellflower glared at him.

“Brooding, somewhere, no doubt. I’ve no idea.”

Broadwing narrowed his eyes, disconcerted.

“How do I look?” Bellflower said.

“A pig would make a better suitress,” Broadwing said, before trotting off through the crowd.

He made for the nearby balcony, which had been blanketed in snow.

There was where the casket still lay for the wake, though his father’s face was long obscured beneath the snow that adorned it. This was the custom of the Frost Ponies, to leave the body out for one day’s time, before setting it ablaze that night.

Another stallion was sitting off by the edge of the stone railing, hidden from the view of the festivities inside. He had a lighter grey-brown coat than Broadwing, and a dark brown-black head of curls. Unlike the other members of his family, however, Orion bore a horn and not a pair of wings.

“I’d think you a corpse too, at first glance,” Broadwing japed, glancing up at the dense snowfall, shuddering in the piercing winds.

“There’s no place for me in there,” Orion muttered.

“So you say.”

“So mother says,” Orion corrected.

Broadwing scoffed.

“It’s dawned on me that with father gone, it would make me Prince of Rhinefrost,” Broadwing remarked, “And as my first act as your lord, I command you to join us. Have a drink.”

Orion grinned, and shook his head.

“Under penalty of death?”

“As you like it,” Broadwing laughed.

Orion rose from the ground, and shook himself off of the snow.

Prince Broadwing. Not sure it rolls off the tongue,” Orion said.

“It ought to, or else I’ll be cutting tongues out,” Broadwing laughed again, reaching for Orion by his shoulder.

Orion’s smile faded.

“My place is not among you,” Orion said, glancing at Boreas’ casket, “It never has been.”

“You are my brother. You will always have a place alongside me.”

Orion sighed.

“Let’s go on, then. His highness must be bloody frozen,” Orion smiled.

Broadwing laughed, and the two of them entered back into the hall.

Meanwhile Shining Armor had been pretending to find Bellflower’s tales of town gossip to be as riveting as she had hoped, until at last Primrose ushered her daughter to fetch them all some drinks.

“I should ask forgiveness for Cadance’s absence, by the way,” Shining said, “She fell ill with a terrible cold.”

Primrose glared at him, confused.

“Strange. I’d heard reports she had traveled south to the capital.”

Shining laughed briefly, before realizing she was serious.

“By whose account?”

“Every scribe from Hammerhold to Icehearth. The reports are the same. You’d have missed them while on the road, I suppose.”

Shining Armor glanced at the ground. He had warned her time and time again, not to flee south. He had thought he had convinced her, now he realized she was only waiting for the optimal moment to betray his words of caution.

“You must excuse me,” Shining said, disturbed. He made for the door, now dreading whatever madness Cadance had stumbled into.

Scents of wet ink wafted through the air of Cadance’s quarters, where the princess sat idly by candlelight and a plate of uneaten fruit. The parchment before her was written hastily, as though she feared the words would sooner spring off the script.

Cadance dwelled on the words, explaining in grave detail the extent of Twilight’s crimes, and an address to the inevitable madness that would follow.

She had struggled to maintain her belief that there was some intrinsic good inside the heart of every pony. Twilight lived two lives, she had reasoned: that of a bloodthirsty deceiver and a graceful monarch, both variations of the same twisted course of duty that she had become so devoted to. But to what end could duty remain just, with such abuses of power, with such bloody acts of cruelty?

But the worst was already over. Honor would prevail, she told herself. It had to, in the end.

A knock came on the door, right as she had finished adding her signature to the end of the letter. She set the parchment aside and glanced up to the door.

“Come in,” she said, loud enough for the visitor to hear.

In came Featherglass, swaying with each step. The candle flames bent in the night breeze, and the chirping of crickets kept them company.

“Your highness,” he said, exaggerating a bow. He dared not ask why he was summoned at such a late hour.

Cadance glared at him, as if disgusted with herself for requiring him to be there. She sat back in her chair, exhausted.

“The princess is behind the murders,” she said, flatly.

Featherglass’ gaze shifted.

“Thorax, Ember, all of them. She butchered them all,” Cadance elaborated, struggling to admit it even to herself.

Featherglass recoiled, a blank alarm sounding off in his eyes.

“So, if Equestria was to know…” he said, shakily.

“The kingdoms will demand her deposition. If not also her execution.”

Featherglass narrowed his eyes.

“So it would seem,” Featherglass said, aggressively trotting past Cadance’s desk towards the balcony, overlooking the moonlit city below, “Unless…

“There is no unless. She’s betrayed us all. Equestria is owed the truth.”

“And Twilight cannot be unseated unless you bring it about. You would be wise to keep this to yourself.”

Cadance glared at him.

“Have you a shred of honor?”

“You said war was inevitable. So, the choice becomes would you rather be fighting alongside Twilight, or against her? Twilight is no fool. She will have foreseen your turn of heart. She will dispel you as a would-be-usurper. If you value your life, you will make peace with Twilight, put aside your enmities and declare her innocent. The dragons will insist otherwise, and together you and Twilight can crush whatever haphazard rebellion may arise, as a unified front. Once the dragons are taken care of, perhaps then you can reveal Twilight's little secret."

“What you suggest is treason.”

“Only if we lose,” Featherglass said.

“No. I will not do it,” Cadance said, “There is no other choice.”

“And who should take the throne after Twilight’s head is on a spike? You?

“If I must,” Cadance replied.

"So why summon me here? Evidently not for my wisdom."

Cadance opened her mouth to speak, but hesitated.

Featherglass began to grin.

“Look at you,” he said, sitting down once again, “You know what you summoned me here for. An accusation like yours…the consequences would ensure blood be spilt. But to ask such a thing, it’s not honorable, so the words are lost on you. ”

Featherglass’ grin intensified.

“You have the position, the pulpit, and the passion to defy her. But you don’t have the support. That’s why you came to me, is it not? You need soldiers. Or, rather, the pony who pays them.”

Cadance glanced at the floor, slightly ashamed to require such barbarous means to exact her plan.

“The princess would have my head should you fail,” Featherglass said.

“Equestria will not survive the war that is brewing. It can be avoided, if we strike first,” Cadance said, “This is our only chance to stop what’s coming.”

Featherglass hesitated. His eyes flickered up and down, up and down, before resting comfortably on Cadance.

“Very well, Princess.”

“It should be over quickly,” Cadance said, “Tomorrow night, while she is sleeping. She should be taken into custody.”

Featherglass nodded.

“If she’s taken by surprise, her magic may be suppressed. You should be able to counter her long enough. I can have the platoons guarding every exit.”

“The fate of Equestria lies with us,” Cadance said, narrowing her eyes, “I need to trust you to uphold your end of the bargain.”

“In a day’s time, you’ll have a hundred swords at your command,” Featherglass said.

Cadance nodded, relieved that she was not the only pony in Canterlot committed to the truth.

She glanced at the ground, and noticed her hoof was trembling slightly.

She had no choice but to act, she reminded herself. Silence meant Equestria’s doom.

Still she was frightened almost out of her wits.

In a day’s time.

Hope remained by a thread. But there was a tempest in her, restless, for revenge, for justice, for the thrill of the fight.

Twilight Sparkle’s reign was soon to be cut short.

By some curious chance in the brief quiet of the day, when the ponies of Ponyville had retired to their homes to warm themselves by their fires and drink from their cider stocks, when there was less noise and more green to the hills, Juno had come across that remarkable answer to her question. While the sun was nearly set over Folly Lick Field, and the daybreak rush had slowed down its hurry, she could precisely make out a strange sensation ruminating within her; as if to trudge on beyond those bygone limits gave her a new comfort.

It was better to brave the unknown then remain bound to a familiar misery.

Her old life was forfeit, as far as she could tell. She would not stay idle while the world moved on from its grief. She did not care if it made her a fool. In her mind, there was no other choice.

Her father’s voice returned to her, beckoning her to remain put, to set aside her anger and hatred and stay where safety might protect her. But she knew what he would have done had he taken her place instead. Together they would have justice. She would conquer the burning despair that had taken hold her her heart, one way or another.

I can’t do this.

But she kept on moving, while her legs trembled with the weight of her duffel bag.

Over the hill, Juno took one last look back at Ponyville. She would return only when she had found peace, she swore it to herself. Sunset Shimmer would see justice.

And so she departed, uncertain where her next steps would lead her. But she was certain of one thing, at least.

Sunset Shimmer would get what was coming for her.

Bells shook the white walls of Canterlot, where crows flew overhead in mindless rings.

Six guards accompanied the princess, along with a sleep-deprived Rarity, and together they meant to arrive back in the royal apartment by midday.

Cadance had only been able to bring twenty of her crystal guards on the journey south; few were willing to defy the command of Shining Armor, even if he had been drunk when he gave it.

Among the guards was the haughty Lieutenant Lumineer, a warrior of countless battles, with his sleek navy mane and shimmering pale blue coat.

Cadance carried an envelope with her, to be copied and sent throughout the realm, the instrument of her treachery. She sighed with tired eyes, marching along, before the cries of a messenger seized her attention.

Princess! Princess!” came the messenger, a skinny young squire with bulging blue eyes.

The crystal guards had each begun to draw their swords, hastily.

“It’s alright,” Cadance said.

The guards cautiously stepped out of the way to allow the messenger through.

“Princess, her grace has requested you to the throne room.”

Cadance hesitated, and glanced at the ground.

“...Very well,” Cadance said.

She turned to Rarity.

“Rarity, see that this letter reaches every pair of eyes in Equestria. I fear we have run out of time,” Cadance said.

Rarity gulped.

“Are you certain?” Rarity stammered.


Rarity nervously accepted the task, receiving the folded envelope in a trembling hoof.

She broke off from the others, while Cadance and her guards begrudgingly proceeded after the messenger.

“We should return to the apartments, highness,” Lumineer muttered, “She’ll be laying a trap for you,” he countered.

“I’ve committed no crime,” Cadance said, “Twilight won’t strike first unless she’s certain of my intentions. Featherglass promised a hundred swords to our cause. The city will come to our aid as well, when they learn the truth.”

Lumineer held onto his suspicions, however, and followed along the princess regardless.

They first came through the courtyard, where, among a loose crowd of Canterlot aristocrats, Featherglass was waiting.

“As ensured, the guard is yours,” Featherglass said.

Lieutenant Styles stood a few steps behind him, approaching with an uneasy step.

“Your grace,” Styles said, bowing his head, “It’s long past time justice is dealt.”

“We’re glad to have you,” Cadance said, nodding her head, “What’s this all about?”

“Nopony’s sure. But it seems every lord and lady in the city has been summoned,” Featherglass explained.

Cadance’s eyes shifted towards the doors ahead to the inner keep. She glanced back at Featherglass, wondering what she could possibly have in store.

The great stone doors to the throne opened, and Cadance bore witness to the host of guards waiting in lines on either side, in compact rows of gleaming mail. Among them was the grim Grey Wick, the persnickety Prickly Pear, Valance, and Venger, who Cadance recognized as some of Twilight’s most esteemed commanders.

The room was packed with every knight and noble of note that Canterlot had to offer; there was Fancy Pants, Jet Stream and Upper Crust, and countless others dressed in colorful suits and expensive jewelry. Cadance persisted towards the front of the crowd, aided by the efforts of Lumineer and her guards. She spotted Ocean Flow and her daughter Silver Stream, the latter of whom was instantly drawn to Cadance, and, more particularly, Styles in her company.

“Princess Cadance,” Silver Stream said, extending a claw.

Cadance obliged the hippogriff princess, warmly.

“You must be Silver Stream,” Cadance smiled, “I’ve heard so much about you.”

Wedge Ward had followed after Silver, wary of letting her out of his sight.

“Lieutenant,” Silver said, beaming up at Styles, who hardly acknowledged her.

Wedge ushered Silver Stream to rejoin her mother, while staring daggers at Styles, who wore a sickly smirk.

“You should keep a tighter leash on that one, Captain,” Styles said.

Wedge turned his back to the lieutenant, shuffling through the crowd to rejoin Silver Stream and Ocean Flow.

Cadance recognized the changeling ambassador, Elytra, and the yak ambassador, Lazlo. She found Lumineer beside her.

They shared a glance of uncertainty, which was quickly interrupted by the arrival of Twilight Sparkle herself, through the rear entrance.

She was welcomed to a feast of gracious applause, as she gracefully made her way to the throne. Twilight’s eyes met her for a brief moment, and she was made alert, close to buckling beneath the weight of it all.

The applause and cheers of the crowd began to diminish after Twilight took her seat, gazing around at her guests with a warm smile.

“My friends,” she began, “It has struck me as unsound, that while shadows and rumors have swept our beloved Equestria, we have perhaps lost sight of our own unique brand of unity. What binds us as one nation, despite our differences: our commitment to the common good. Our love for peace, harmony, and friendship. Nothing is more sacred..”

Cadance could feel herself become irritable, witnessing Twilight’s shameless performance.

“It is my honor to have welcomed two of our fiercest allies to our city - Queen Regent Ocean Flow, of Seaquestria, and Princess Cadance, of the Crystal Empire.”

Applause again rang out, and Cadance forced a smile to express her gratitude. But she was more concerned with Twilight than the crowd.

“Equestria owes them a great debt. As it does with our friends in the Changeling Kingdom, and Yakyakistan,” Twilight continued, glancing at Lazlo and Elytra. The applause continued, louder again, and endured until Twilight opened her mouth to speak once more.

“There is strength in unity. When one of us should stagger, the others will help them up. That is our way. That will always be our way. In these times of uncertainty, we mean to show the world what we stand for. To embrace each other, and welcome all to join us in our mission to defend the pillars of duty and peace. So, I have gathered us here today, to celebrate our unity. To tell the world that Equestria still stands as one.”

The crowd murmured in agreement, eager to follow along with Twilight’s plea.

“To our four most esteemed guests, I ask you to recite your oaths. To promise your loyalty to protecting peace in Equestria, and to the crown, to one unified front.”

Lazlo was the first to march up to the front, kneeling before Twilight with little hesitation.

Elytra was more hesitant, though after Ocean Flow eventually gave in and joined Lazlo in the center of the room before the throne steps, she came around as well.

And so the three of them waited there, while Cadance remained as she was.

The crowd had formed a path between Cadance and the throne, while Lumineer, Styles, Featherglass, and the crystal guards remained behind her.

All eyes of the crowd were locked onto her, and though the arguments in her head were raging, she could not bring herself to budge,

Twilight’s smile had long slipped away.

“Sister,” Twilight beckoned, softly.

Please, her eyes begged, Please.

Cadance glanced at Ocean Flow and the others, and then around at the crowd, and finally back to Twilight.

“....My loyalty is and always has been to Equestria,” Cadance said, “I cannot say the same for you, your grace.”

The crowd had begun to stir, confused.

Wedge glanced Featherglass, and then at Twilight.

But Twilight could spare no response, not while her lips were stuck shut and a fire had begun to burn behind a frozen glare. She shook her head, subtly.

Stop, she wanted to cry out.

Cadance had turned her attention to the crowd, glancing around, forcing herself to speak.

“Equestria has been ravaged by paranoia, grief, and despair. Trust has never been harder to come by…Her grace speaks to unity, and good will, but she has deceived you all,” Cadance said, glaring back at Twilight, “Empress Ember, King Thorax, Queen Novo, Paramount, Filibuster, Bronze Beam…they all lie dead in the ground by your hoof.”

An uproar broke out, ponies in the crowd soon jeering and arguing among each other, unsure what to believe.

“You play with ponies’ lives like it’s all a game. All to peddle a false peace, that will collapse regardless,” Cadance said, practically seething, “No more.”

“You condemn yourself,” Twilight said, her voice twisted and choked. She glanced at Wedge Ward below, who was stunned for a moment, before turning to face Cadance.

He stepped out from beside Silver Stream, approaching Cadance warily.

Lumineer and two of the crystal guards had already sprang in front of Cadance, reaching for the hilts of their swords.

A few mares had begun to scream in fright, while the ponies of the crowd had all begun taking steps backward, for fear of collateral damage. Silver Stream turned to her mother, horrified.

“Do not harm him,” Cadance commanded, raising her voice.

Lumineer froze, as did the guards.

Wedge had stopped his approach, struggling to think straight.

“Lieutenant,” Cadance said, turning her head to Styles, “Take Princess Twilight into custody. Escort her to her quarters and keep her there, under guard.”

Styles kept his hoof resting on his sword belt, glaring at Twilight up on her throne.

“I do not want bloodshed,” Cadance said, softening her voice.

It’s over, she meant to say.

“Tell them to put away their swords. Nopony needs to die,” Cadance continued.

Twilight’s eyes flickered in the stained glass light.

The first shriek of sword through flesh took all in the room by surprise; it took only seconds before ponies were trampling over each other, dashing for the far corners of the room, if not the exit.

A panic soon broke out as ponies rushed for the doors, some suffering the stampede by means of crushed heads and broken bones.

Cadance spun around to discover Lumineer, lying in a bloody puddle of his own making; Styles’ sword had left its mark across the stallion’s neck, cut almost to the bone.

The other four crystal guards were meeting similar fates, stabbed and torn apart by spear or incandescent unicorn magic, courtesy of the surrounding royal guards. Cadance spun back around just in time to be sprayed by the slippery innards of the last guard, crystalline fragments of blood and tissue coating her mane and face.

Cadance’s mouth hung open in shock, and she struggled to open her eyes. Her horn ignited, though she had no time to cast a spell before Styles had his sword pressed against her neck.

Styles too was soaked in ponies’ blood, as he held her in place with his blade at her throat. She grunted, helplessly caught while hoof-deep in blood.

Mother, do something!” Silver Stream whispered to Ocean Flow. But she was paralyzed along with a few others of the now-scattered crowd, all along the edges of the throne room, bathed in multicolor light.

Silver Stream tore off from the crowd to help Cadance, but was quickly thwarted by Wedge, who had reluctantly grabbed a hold of her.

“Let me go!” she screamed.

Wedge held her down beside her mother, preventing her from running towards certain death.

Cadance’s eyes wavered as they left the gruesome sight of her slain guards, and up to Twilight perched on her throne. She had been joined by Featherglass, a sly smirk shifting over his face.

Twilight glanced towards the door, and Styles needed little more direction.

She could not bear to look on, while more royal guards descended upon Cadance.

Twilight!” was all Cadance could scream, as she was pulled away, buckling in rage.

Twilight lowered her head, and collapsed back to the throne.

And the room fell silent once again.

This can’t be happening.

Dried blood covered the stairwell to Mandola’s basement, which reeked of red rot and mold.

“We’re goners,” said Lightning, collapsing onto the old torn couch in the back corner. Suri and Wallflower trailed behind her, their heads hung low.

All of them? All dead?” Bon Bon asked.

“If they got Razor Blade, it won’t take them long to find us,” Suri said.

“What are you saying? That we need to leave? We’ve got nowhere to go,” Bon Bon said.

“I’m not saying anything. Just letting everypony know that we’re absolutely screwed,” Suri said.

“You’re right,” Wallflower said, “But we’re not just going to sit here and wait to be caught. If we’re running into a dead end, we could at least try to help ponies before we…”

Wallflower was interrupted when an eruptive crash had taken them all by surprise, tumbling down the basement stairs.

Kickstart sprang to his hooves, as did Bon Bon, who had already reached one of her projectile devices, locked and loaded.

Lightning stood in front of Suri, Scootaloo, and Wallflower, snarling like a rabid beast.

Suri recognized the pony by the time he had collapsed off the last step, groaning in agony.

Mandola must have broken a rib during the fall, by the sound of his wailing cries.

Hoofsteps on the stairwell again seized their attention.

Sweat slipped down Lightning’s cheek, as her eyes trembled up towards the new figure descending down the stairs.

She was a unicorn, with bright cyan eyes, an amaranth-golden mane, and an amber coat.

Wallflower’s mouth soon hung agape.

Sunset Shimmer rounded off the last step, carrying a small duffel bag in an aura of magic.

“Take it easy,” Sunset said, noticing the others’ defensive posture.

Lightning was beaming, exhilarated, while the others hesitantly loosened up.

“Like I tried to tell your friend here,” Sunset said, glancing at Mandola, “I’m with you. Yeah?” Sunset said, glancing at the other ponies of the basement who still had their weapons raised.

The basement dwellers eased up after a wave from Suri.

Wallflower noticed Suri’s smirk.

“You called her?” Wallflower said.

Suri spared her a dismissive glance.

“We need her,” Suri said, “It’s the only way we’re getting out of this alive.”

“Couldn’t agree more,” Sunset grinned, waltzing up towards the others, “This is some mess we’re in. We’ve got a tyrant princess, somepony’s on our bloody trail, and we’re the most wanted ponies in Equestria.”

Sunset glared at Wallflower.

“But don’t you worry,” she said.

Sunset had rejoined the others to a series of embraces and laughter, while Wallflower remained where she was, dreading what rabbit hole they had disappeared down.

“We’re getting some payback.”

Moonlight burrowed beneath the canopy through slits in the leaves, glancing at the trembling creek current and its pebble beaches. There the sound of foam and bubbles were bellowing out into the night, rushing, roaring in a thin voice.

And the voice was heard, by the twitching ear of a unicorn, whose coat was matted with blood, who had been lying motionless by the stream for what felt like weeks. Every now and then she could muster the strength to reach for a drink, before collapsing again in exhaustion.

Her wounds were not yet healed.

Starlight Glimmer was struggling to feel any of the pain, while her mind ran circles on an endless track, a spiral of dark confusion.

‘Twilight,’ she recalled, ‘Twilight.’

Hers was the last face she had seen before the darkness took her, and the sun seemed to have since vanished over the mountains.

The woods were dense but devoid of life, bearing a grey waste of frozen dirt.

She could make out her breath in the cold, whenever she could manage opening her eyes.

She had to keep fighting, she reminded herself. Fighting for what?

There was a tempest in her, she thought. Whether it was justice, or revenge, or the thrill of the fight, her heart was restless.

Still she was too weak and battered in bruises to do much other than lie in defeat.

Or so she thought, until a new strange figure seemed to appear across the riverbed, a pair of yellow eyes peering down at her. He was nothing close to a pony, but perhaps some figment of her imagination. No, she told herself, she recognized that gaunty chuckle, that lion’s paw, that lizard’s tail, that griffon’s claw.

She managed to lift her head up to greet him, while he was gleefully hovering there in the air.

My, my, what have we here?

Author's Note:

Thanks for reading! Feedback always welcomed!

Meant to have this done sooner! Started my first semester of college this fall and time sorta slipped away from me :derpyderp1: Looking back on the first story I feel like I wasn't planning things out as much as I should've, and I think it shows in the end with how a lot of payoffs aren't set up too well, and a lot of character arcs feel unsatisfactory/dry. Hoping this time around to improve on those mistakes and expand on the things that worked. I'm not sure if the high wordcount is an issue or not, always tough slimming things down (this used to be 20K!) But anyways thanks again for reading!! Means a lot