• Published 30th Sep 2022
  • 963 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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02: The Recluse

Blood gathered in the veils of gold tapestries, spilling down the east corridor steps, slithering deep into the castle crevices. There was screaming all about, directionless. In the dark, there sang a choir of crooning cries, cruel hymns that came closer to some bloody birthing beast than to a pony. But they were ponies no longer, she supposed.

Rarity stumbled over a corpse torn in two halves, left among the countless rank remnants that littered the hallways. Rarity caught herself before she could scream.

She could not recall when the bloodshed had begun, or when exactly she had lost her way in the palace passageways. Her eyes were red with tears, and every brief moment of silence was interrupted by some distant, distorted shriek. Soldiers’ shouted like barking dogs, while servants screamed and swords swept against stone.

Every crystal pony in the palace was to meet this terrible fate; anypony in the princess’ company had earned a place on the royal inquisition list. For what cause, Rarity could not begin to guess.

Rarity had tried the south exit, the east corridor, and finally the north-end tower emergency ladder, only to be met with the same result each time. The doors were all locked; the way was shut. And while she was once caught in the frenzy of crowds stampeding down the center steps, now the crowds had been thinned, scattered across the palace. Few crystal ponies had escaped the initial purge, and they were now left to hide away, while guards flooded each floor, peeling back furniture and breaking down doors.

Rarity reached to check for the letter Cadance had given to her, tucked away in her purse. She kept a tight hold of it, recalling Cadance’s request, the last thing she had said to her.

See that it reaches every pair of eyes in Equestria.

Rarity cursed herself for having approached Cadance at all. She could have remained silent, kept her front of obliviousness until the storm passed. She had known what Twilight was capable of. But now, to wade through the blood, to stomach the dreadful scent of rotting flesh, she had become better acquainted with her old friend’s true nature.

She feared for Sweetie Belle, who would be abandoned in the city, and her old friends back in Ponyville. Perhaps Twilight might spare her, she thought. But she expected that Ember and Thorax once believed the same.

Rarity hid around a corridor corner, waiting for a patrol of royal guards to finish marching by. She peeked her head out for a quick look, careful not to lose her balance.

She recognized this vestibule as one she had been just a half-hour earlier, only now the marble floor was stained red, and the columns wept bloody teardrops down their grooves.

Silver Stream, Ocellus, and Ocean Flow were among a small group of creatures being led to safety by some royal guards, and the young hippogriff princess’ resting smile had long left her face.

And there was Featherglass in the corner, watching while the guards busily kept about their work.

Rarity watched a small group of crystal pony servants held together in a weeping huddle, where some still refused to let their foals be ripped out of their grasp.

The foals were dragged off with the soldiers, slumped over shoulders, or scraped against stone. Mothers cried out in anguish. The crystal soldiers fared the worst - a two-horse cart of dismemberments and gore was left outside the bedchambers, reeking of maggot meat and dripping shimmering crystal blood.

Rarity recoiled in disgust, and kept on her way, hoping to find the westbound stair-tower at the end of the hall.

She jumped in fright, as a pony came toppling out over a stacked pile of crystal pony corpses, which blocked off the entirety of an adjacent doorway. He had come from the north-end tower, she reasoned, where she had just escaped from.

Rarity’s eyes widened.

His hide gave it away - he was a crystal guard, one of the royal hunting party’s prey.

His fur was matted in blood, though she could not tell whether it was his own. He was young, no more than a recruit. The pony was trembling in place as he hid behind the clump of dead ponies, likely composed of his friends and comrades. He lay down on his side to stay hidden behind the pile, which rose close to four feet up the height of the doorframe.

His eyes flashed towards her, terrified.

He mouthed some words to her, though Rarity was too distracted to pay him any more attention.

On the other side of the corpse mound, a trio of guards was approaching from the shadows. One carried a torch, the other a spear, and the one in the middle, a sword.

Rarity recognized the middle guard, Styles, one of Twilight’s favored knights. As for the blood on his coat, this time she knew with certainty that it was not his.

“Ah, Miss Rarity,” Styles said, reflexively reaching for one of his underlings’ cloaks to wipe the blood off his sword, “You’ve picked a dreadful time to visit.”

Rarity caught her breath, struggling to keep her composure.

“I was only just leaving,” Rarity said.

“Of course,” Styles said, sheathing his sword, “You wouldn’t have seen a pony just come by here? He might’ve been in a hurry.”

“I can imagine,” Rarity said, glancing at the guard’s spear.

“Where’s he gone, Rarity?” Styles asked, dryly.

If she was ever to take a stand against Twilight’s tyranny, now may have been the time.

She could be free of all this treachery, she thought to herself. She could stand beside Twilight as she had for years, nevermind recent events. She might have been content to be a coward then, if it meant living without fear of Twilight’s retribution

She glanced at the crystal pony hiding just a few feet from where Styles stood.

And her heart softened then, and she glared back at Styles, whose cocky grin still made her uneasy.

“Down that way, I saw him,” Rarity said, nodding off towards a stray westbound corridor.

Below her gaze, the crystal pony exhaled silently, devastatingly relieved.

Styles nodded his head, gratefully, and trotted off down that hall with his companions.

When the sound of hoofsteps subsided in the dark, Rarity reached down for the crystal pony’s hoof.

She helped him to his hooves, and marveled at the unlikelihood of him having even survived to this end.

“I know a way,” the pony said, between rasped breaths, “Come with me.”

Rarity’s breath quickened, and she reluctantly took hold of his hoof.

They fled down the passage, while the rats descended from the dark to feast on their bounty of blood.

Across the palace, Wedge Ward was shoving past crowds of frightened nobles scurrying about, making his way towards the Royal Council Chamber.

He was accompanied by his former squire, now his second, a green-maned stallion with a faint fern coat, who was called Vertigo. He had a handsome face, clean-shaven, and a pair of bright eyes. He was young for his rank, and by the skip in his step, ignorant of the palace’s somber dawn.

“It was a slaughter,” Wedge said, “Forty-eight in all, he made a public show of it.”

Vertigo glanced at Wedge, struggling to keep up while the pair stormed up a flight of stairs.

“The apartments have been painted red, they say,” Wedge continued.

At last they burst through the Royal Council doors, while Wedge continued his murmurings.

“He cannot be allowed to persist with unbridled insolence.”

But the council table had more seats than normal that day, and by chance the subject of Wedge’s grievances was present to overhear.

Styles had a sultry grin on his face, as if amused by Wedge’s chidings.

“Please, carry on about my insolence,” Styles chirped.

Featherglass and Marius Moonshine sat on either side of Styles, while Princess Twilight herself sat at the far end of the table.

Wedge moved to sit opposite to Styles, alongside Vertigo and Lieutenant Venger, who was already present, picking at her hooves.

Wedge glared at Styles, and then to Twilight.

“Captain, be seated,” Twilight said, silencing Wedge before he could offer any complaints.

Wedge obliged, scowling all the way, while Styles’ smirk intensified.

“Your platoon made quite the impression last night,” Wedge said.

“Did they?” Styles asked.

“Your orders were to take Princess Cadance’s company into custody, not butcher them in their beds for sport.”

“The price for treason is clear,” Styles said, “I spared those who agreed to come willingly. Few did.”

“You made a spectacle of brutality.

Enough,” Twilight said, “It's over.”

Wedge slowly sat back in his seat, begrudgingly.

“Your grace,” came Lieutenant Snowfall Glitter, who wore a coat of white, with a pale blonde mane and eyes of icy blue, “Discretion and fealty have been assured for every one of the city’s nobles, present for the arrest or not. Their residences are all under guard, and communication has been severed. Whatever they think they know, will be kept to themselves.”

“A relief, then, that they’ve seen reason,” Twilight said, “In spite of foul rumors and sedition.”

Snowfall bit her lip.

“...There were some who bore reluctance. Or refused, even. I had them brought to the palace cells.”

Twilight glanced at the ground, and sighed silently.

“I had expected as much,” Twilight said, “Choose three for the gallows. Be clean and be quick. Make it known what fate befalls a traitor.”

Snowfall was speechless, glancing at Wedge, and then back to Twilight, before nodding, hesitantly.

“Yes, Princess.”

“What news from the North?” Twilight asked.

“Word of the arrest should be reaching them shortly,” Marius said.

“Prepare a messenger to the Crystal Empire,” Twilight said, revealing her sealed letter. She placed it in front of Marius.

“I want Princess Flurry Heart relocated here, to the capital.”

“...The northerners are a suspicious folk, your grace,” Marius said, “They are likely to take your request as a threat.”

“My brother rules the empire in Cadance’s absence,” Twilight said, firmly, “He wouldn’t turn against me.”

“Your grace,” came Vertigo, leaning forward. The young lieutenant was little more than a stranger to Twilight.

“Forgive me, but, regardless of precautions, the threat of war looms,” Vertigo said, “Your brother’s love for you may not be enough to hold the North at bay. The crystal ponies may see through this deception, and demand justice for their princess. All it takes is one kingdom to declare against you, and Equestria will collapse upon itself.”

“I’m well aware, Captain Vertigo,” Twilight said, dryly.

“The southern border is weak. The dragons still pose a threat, and the south does not have the support it needs to withstand an invasion.”

“The Velvet Regiment holds the border.”

“These are dragons, your grace,” Vertigo said, “Changelings, hippogriffs, the Crystal Empire…Of all the potential enemies laid out before us, dragons are the greatest threat. The Velvets will be crushed.”

Twilight shook her head.

“Sending more troops south will tip the dragons over the edge. They’re waiting for us to make a move, waiting for a reason to strike. I won’t give it to them just to appease a heedless appetite for war.”

“War is already upon us,” Vertigo said, and was amazed he even had to say it.

Wedge glanced at him, prompting a retreat from the confrontation.

“Idleness has riled the blood in your veins,” Twilight said, “I will keep you occupied, then. You will take your regiment to Irwind, Captain, to hold the western coast.”

Wedge gritted his teeth, cursing his pupil for his hot-blooded instigation.

“Your grace, there is no threat by the west,” Vertigo said, plainly.

“That remains to be seen,” Twilight replied.

Vertigo did not understand, though knew his mind was of no consequence, as Wedge often reminded.

He glared at Wedge, and then back to Twilight, bitterly impotent in his cause for action.

“As you wish,” he muttered.

From across the table, Featherglass eyed the boy, who was struggling to keep his mouth shut.

“See to it that letter reaches the North by the morrow, Marius,” Twilight said, “I want Flurry Heart here, at my side, before the moon turns.”

Marius nodded, warily.

“It will be done.”

Snowflakes danced between twisted branches, among the billowing mist that drowned the old grey woods. The cold had invaded her dreams, painting a grey waste with coarse strokes of white. There, behind iron bars, atop buried bones, she held herself against the soft light of the sky.

She awoke in a restless stir, as if having expected to trip into a bottomless pit.

Starlight Glimmer gasped for breath, relieved that her nightmares had finally let her be.

Whispering winds wound their way between stale tree bark, reaching her where she lay in a small ridge-side cave, a meek shelter that she could not recall having found.

Starlight sat herself up against the wall of the cave, mere yards from where the snow came to an abrupt halt beneath the cave’s upper lip. Pale milklight poured into the cave, and the woods themselves were deathly quiet, without a single sign of life.

All she could hear was her breath, rasped and shuddering.

She glanced down at her wounds, and was bewildered to find they had all healed. Her torn and bruised flesh was sealed and cleaned, despite having just earlier been a twisted mess of blood and ruptured tissue.

Starlight shook her head in disbelief, before she remembered the last thing she had seen before falling under. That ghastly grin, those golden eyes, she wasn’t quite sure whether she had imagined him or not.

Starlight swiveled her head back and forth, searching for the draconequus, but was still too weak to make any drastic movements.

“Ah, finally,” came a bellowing voice from deeper within the cave.

Starlight sighed, too exhausted to humor any theatrics.

She waited for him to step out from the darkness, only to be caught by surprise when a shadow abruptly lept overtop her from the cave’s entrance.

She turned to face him, her eyes wide and terrified - she knew not whether he was her friend or foe at the moment, and she was far too weary to put up much of a fight.

“Aw, why the long face?” Discord said, slithering into the cave. He wore a thick scarf around his neck, and a puffy winter coat, “You’re hardly dressed for the weather, my dear.”

He snapped his fingers, and in a flash of light, a thick wool blanket appeared over Starlight’s lap, along with a mug of hot coffee in her hoof.

Starlight begrudgingly took sips of the drink, desperate for some heat and nourishment.

“What are you doing here, Discord?” Starlight muttered, glaring at him.

“I see that good manners are still lost on you,” Discord rolled his eyes, “What kind of friend would I be if I were to leave poor Starlight Glimmer out to freeze to death?”

“We are not friends,” Starlight snapped.

“On the contrary, it seems I’m the only one you’ve got left.”

Starlight lowered her head.

“I said it from the start, didn’t I? It was only a matter of time before Twilight would crack,” Discord said.

“She’s perfectly sane,” Starlight corrected, “That’s the problem.

Discord scoffed.

“It’s admirable that you defend her, truly. Seems some ponies are still thirsty enough to drink seawater,” Discord remarked.

Starlight sighed, and she could feel her blood begin to run hot once again.

“...Why are you helping me?”

Discord shrugged.

“Too much potential to go to waste, I suppose,” Discord said.

Starlight laughed, amused.

“It’s over now,” Starlight said, “She’s won.”

“Not without costs,” Discord said.

Starlight eyed him, confused.

“Our poor friend Spike seems to have been caught in the crossfire.”

Spike?” Starlight repeated, horrified, “He had nothing to do with any of this!”

“Someone must have disagreed.”

Starlight fell back against the cave wall, distraught. It couldn’t have been Twilight, despite her apparent propensity for violence. Spike was too dear to her.

Something must have gone wrong.

“Equestria is soon to plummet into war, and for once it’s not my doing,” Discord said, “It would seem your heroics may be needed.”

Starlight glared at him, while she shivered against the cold stone of the cave.

“I’m not a hero, and Equestria doesn’t need me. And I know better than to think you care either way. Your only interest is in yourself.”

“As much as you and I have had our differences,” Discord said, “I have never doubted your worth. And, as it is, Twilight Sparkle poses a threat to both of us.”

“You’re afraid of her, that’s it,” Starlight snickered.

Discord’s scowl hardened, bereft.

“If you won’t fight for your own sake, then consider Equestria’s,” Discord countered, “Hundreds of thousands will die, if war breaks out.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Starlight said, practically shouting, “I can’t stop her! Nopony can.”

“Everyone has a weakness,” Discord said, “And my guess is hers ought to do with the very cause for this deception.”

Starlight shook her head.

However, she began to recall their very last conversation, and Starlight could just barely remember what was spoken.

“Before she left me,” Starlight said, “She…she was speaking in riddles. Something about an impossible choice. A great enemy. Celestia - she said Celestia was afraid of something. It’s what made her give up the throne…”

Starlight glanced back to Discord, half-expecting him to make sense of her ramblings.

“Does any of that mean anything to you?”

“In my lifetime, I’ve known many-an-alicorn made a slave to their portents and prophecies...But, dare I admit, my knowledge is limited. Perhaps it would be wiser to go to the source.”

“To Celestia and Luna?” Starlight said, startled by the prospect.

“Equestria’s falling apart at the seams, and they’re nowhere to be found. Certainly strange.”

“I could’ve said the same for you,” Starlight said.

“This was never my fight,” Discord said, smirking, “I’m only helping a friend in need, you see.”

“Right,” Starlight said, dryly, while her heart began to sink, “...I shouldn’t have gone after her in the open like that...I should’ve stuck with my friends.”

“You survived, which is more than I expected,” Discord said, “Now we might want to figure out the truth of all this first, before running willingly to our deaths.”

Starlight struggled against the wall cave, pulling herself up to her hooves.

The fire had returned to her veins, and for a moment the cold had escaped her. She eyed him, and wondered what this little partnership might yet discover.

Matchlight wept in the dark of the den, acquainting itself with Suri Polomare’s last cigarette.

She took a great deep breath, while the silky bands of smoke disappeared into the dark.

Hazy flashes of orange and violet waded in through the window, with each firework crack. The tableside candles were trembling, dripping white wax. Past the basement brick, the Victory Day festival had taken the city, and the streets were flooded with ponies. Soft scents of sweetbread and sugar had made their way inside, along with the low beat of drums and pricking of strings.

Nearby, Sunset Shimmer’s eyes glided between the three photographs laid out on the table, each depicting a different angle of what remained of the late Razor Blade and his companions. The grizzly gore on display failed to phase her.

Lightning Dust, Kickstart, and Bon Bon were nearby on one of the ragged red couches, digging their hooves into Mandola’s surplus stock of throw-away bread.

“Don’t get too comfortable,” Suri warned, “This place won’t be home for long.”

“That’s a shame. I was just getting used to the smell,” Sunset replied.

“I’ve been thinking, and…now that Razor Blade’s dead, there’s nothing stopping us from leaving the city,” Suri continued, “We should cut ourselves loose, start somewhere new.”

“What, so run away?” Lightning countered, with a mouthful of bread, “No way. We’re in it to win it.”

“Better to run now while we can,” Suri rebutted.

Sunset shook her head, sipping at her glass of water.

“We wouldn’t make it far,” Sunset chimed, “Twilight’s got soldiers to spare. It’s a miracle you’ve lasted as long as you have.”

“No thanks to you,” muttered Wallflower Blush. Sunset jumped in her seat; she had not realized Wallflower had joined them by the cracked coffee table.

“Ah, Basket Case. What’s today’s sermon?”

“You’ve been gone for weeks,” Wallflower said, “After leaving us for dead, if I remember right.”

Sunset grinned.

“Nothing I knew you couldn’t handle,” she replied.

Wallflower took a deep breath, working up the courage to raise her voice.

“You know that Starlight-”

Starlight’s dead,” Sunset interrupted, “I warned her what would happen. If she’d listened to me, she’d still be alive.”

“Like you fared any better,” Wallflower laughed, “Twilight’s still sitting on that throne, last time I checked.”

“I’m still breathing. Which is more than Starlight can say.”

Lightning adjusted herself in her seat, uneasily. Beside her, Bon Bon’s eyes darted between the two of them, warily.

“I’m not just going to pretend that everything is alright again. Right now, we could do some real good, earn the second chance we got. If we follow you, all we’re going to do is hurt ponies.”

Sunset flashed her teeth, amused.

“And who else should we follow?”

Wallflower’s words were caught in her throat, and she cursed herself, unable to speak up on her own behalf.

“If the two of you are quite finished,” Suri said, intervening before Wallflower’s blood reached its boiling point, “We’ve got more pressing problems at the moment, ‘kay….”

Sunset sat back against the couch, sighing.

“Starlight was as much a match for Twilight as I am, and look how that turned out,” Sunset said, and her voice ached with regret, “We’re going to have to be smarter.”

“What do you have in mind?” Bon Bon asked.

“Well….” Sunset began, stealing a chunk of bread from an unsuspecting Lightning Dust.

“....First things first, we’ve got to figure out who exactly is on our trail, and how to best set a trap.”

“What, like hunt the hunter?” Bon Bon said.

“Better than staying sitting ducks,” Sunset supposed.

“Whoever it is, they’re in for a Category Five surprise,” Lightning grinned, throwing some punches in the air, “This will be a cinch.”

“It would be, if you could ever stick to the plan,” Suri muttered, rolling her eyes.

“Like your plans ever work anyways,” Lightning scoffed.

“I’d write out instructions, if you knew how to read them,” Suri snickered.

“How about you read this,” Lightning growled, preparing to throw another punch.

She was stopped by Sunset, catching Lightning’s hoof in an aura of blue magic.

“...Why don’t you sit this one out, kid,” Sunset said, and her eyes burned a hole in Lightning’s forehead.


“We’ll be alright. You and Kickstart should stay here with the filly,” Sunset said, glancing at Scootaloo, whose wispy snores could be heard from the broom closet she called her bedroom.

“And where are you off to?” Kickstart asked.

“If we want the upper hoof, we’re going to need some help. Lucky us, I know just the pony for the job.”

Sunset collected each of the photographs, stacking them up and stuffing them in her black duffel bag. Bon Bon and Suri were busy collecting their belongings as well, though Wallflower remained as she was, unmoving.

Sunset caught the earth pony out of the corner of her eye, and straightened herself up in passing.

“You coming?”

Sunset trotted past her with a breezy shove to the shoulder.

Before Wallflower could hang her head in defeat, Lightning had come by her way.

“...Hey, uh, you alright?” Lightning asked, hesitantly.

“I’m fine,” Wallflower growled, though Lightning suspected otherwise.

“You know, If she talked to me that way, I’d-” Lightning began, puffing out her chest.

“I know,” Wallflower interjected, coaxingly, and she appreciated the effort, “Just don’t burn the place down while we’re gone.”

Wallflower planted her last chunk of bread in the pegasus’ hooves.

Lightning grinned.

“No promises.”

Wallflower glared at Sunset as she walked off, descending deeper into the shadows of the basement with each step. Her voice echoed on through the brick, and the candle trembled in fright until its flame fell dead.

“Let’s go visit an old friend.”

Cigar smoke swept her off her hooves, bathed in fluorescence and scuffed by table-dust.

Half-a-mile deep in the earth, locked in monochromatic, the Erased’s subterranean headquarters was hardly hospitable. But for the likes of Trixie Lulamoon, this place was becoming something of a home.

She was late to the meeting, having just recently discovered her attendance was requested. A series of wrong turns later, and Trixie found herself the only pony in the meeting not clad in a steam-pressed suit.

Alias was reclining at the far end of the chamber’s long table, breathing smoke from his snout. His eyes led her toward an open seat, in between the green pegasus Slick, and the Amity Stiletto, a light-pink pegasus with a wavy reddish-pink mane. Trixie found herself sitting with her back to the great glass panels that made up the right-side wall, overlooking the bustling, sunken command center down below.

“Glad you made it,” Amity whispered.

Trixie smiled; Amity was one of the few Erased ponies willing to speak more than a few words to her.

“The situation has changed,” Alias said, dourly, as soon as Trixie had taken her seat.

Trixie tried to sink lower in her chair, catching sight of some of the other agents’ hostile glances. Trixie wished to glare back at them, though she reminded herself she was supposed to be on her best behavior.

Sweat had dried down on the old stallion’s forehead, nearby a throbbing vein. He bit down on his cigar, ripped it from his mouth, and stamped it in his tray, as if requiring something to destroy.

“Every pony within earshot of Cadance’s outburst has been put under house arrest,” Alias explained, “Every one of her guards has been killed or arrested.”

Trixie watched the ponies at the table begin murmuring and whispering to each other, all of them horrified. Trixie had expected as much; why would Cadance succeed where Starlight hadn’t? They were fighting a losing battle, as far as she was concerned. Still it brought her some level of satisfaction; for once she wasn’t the only pony to be outdone by Twilight at every turn.

Trixie’s scowl hardened. That insufferable, murdering hag had gotten everything she had ever wanted, she thought. All while she had to fight for every meal, struggle to get by, and still all just to lose what little she had, again. This time would be different, she told herself. It had to be.

Alias was unmoving while the room gradually fell into a cacophony of arguments and panic.

His gruff, growling voice snapped them all back to attention.

“We’ve found there was one soldier who escaped,” Alias said, “He had help from a friend of Twilight’s - our former guest. They were seen fleeing together through a sewer grate in Muletown.”

Trixie’s ears perked up.


“Starlight Glimmer’s recklessness is infectious,” Alias scowled, “Cadance was seen exchanging a letter to dearest Rarity, shortly before her arrest.”

“A letter?” Slick inquired.

“Cadance’s contingency plan, I suspect,” Alias said.

“How did you come by this?” asked Amity.

“One of our ponies came south in Cadance’s company. Escaped before the bloodbath.”

“What about Cadance?” Trixie offered, confused, “We’ve got to rescue her, right?”

Alias sat back in his chair, and his eyes drifted towards the ground.

“We can’t be certain where she is, at present. Or if she’s still alive.”

“Twilight wouldn’t-”

“By now it’s a sure thing, there’s no depravity Twilight Sparkle wouldn’t indulge,” Alias spat, bitterly.

“That letter will be the death sentence to hundreds of thousands, if it reaches the eyes of Equestria’s enemies,” Slick said, redirecting Alias’ train of thought, “If it says just half as much as what she said in that throne room, by tomorrow war will have been declared. Equestria is a tinderbox, and that letter is the match.”

Trixie spun her head towards him, and then around the room, shocked.

“Ponies trust Cadance, they’ll believe what she has to say. This is the chance to tell the world what Twilight really is!” Trixie exclaimed, “And you’re passing it up, just like that?”

It’s not that simple,” Alias muttered, “A better opportunity will present itself. I thought by now you’d have learned from Starlight’s mistakes. It’s better to be patient.”

Trixie scoffed, and retreated from the conversation, before she could allow herself to fly into a fit of rage.

“Flamberge,” Alias said, turning his attention to a broad stallion bearing a fiery head of red hair, and a pale blue coat, “You’re to return back to your post in the royal guard. Keep an eye on Twilight, and those close to her.”

Flamberge nodded his head. He had grown weary of these sullen scheming Erased agents, anyways.

“And me, Chief?” asked Amity. Aside from Flamberge, she was the only other field agent present.

Alias’s breath slowed, and his eyes narrowed in on Amity, who was by far the youngest in the room. She still had a soft smile to her, while her colleagues seemed to have already given up to grey disillusionment.

“...Your last mission cost me my best stallion,” Alias said, dismissively, and his face became twisted with grief, “You’re better needed here.”

“He could still be alive,” Amity said, and she too missed Bandolier, who she had once called a friend, “If you would let me look for him, I-”

“You’ve done enough,” Alias countered, “Our mission now is to put a stop to this war before it falls out of our control completely. Acorn, I want you to find Cadance’s little errand-girl, and bring her here, with the letter intact.”

Acorn, a brown earth pony who had only been half-paying attention, nodded his head.

“Now, if that would be all,” Alias finished, and everypony at the table rose from their seats.

Trixie lingered, however, her eyes darting back and forth across the table.

Alias had noticed her, however, and stayed seated.

He waited for the others to clear the room, until just the two of them remained.

“We play a dangerous game. Better to tread with caution.”

“Right. And tell me, how exactly has that worked out for you so far?”

Alias was disarmed by the rebuke, and watched as Trixie rose from her chair.

“You told me you needed me. What for? Just to fill in for one of your mindless yes-ponies?”

Alias scoffed.

“Precisely the opposite,” he said, “I need a pony to keep my head on straight. Too many think it wiser to follow, blindly. I have eyes and ears in every corner of this wretched land. It’s all too easy to make a mistake, a costly mistake. I thought you could be the pony to keep me from falling astray.”

“Then let me.

Alias shook his head, impulsively.

“Gore, Starlight, Cadance…They all thought like you did. Look where it got them.”

“Whatever’s at the heart of this, whatever made Twilight lose her mind in the first place…We’re never going to find out by letting her get what she wants,” Trixie said, “She wanted to play with fire, all you need to do is let her get burned. And maybe things will make more sense.”

“And how many ponies will need to die, so things can make more sense?

Trixie glanced off to the side, meekly.

“You can’t enable Twilight forever,” Trixie said, scornfully, “A line’s got to be drawn at some point. And the longer you wait, the worse things will be, when that pot finally boils over. Twilight’s a ticking time-bomb.”

Alias sighed, and winced for a brief moment. Trixie saw the pain of an old stallion, then, his legs buckling beneath him, his thin pale flesh withered and weak.

“I can’t put Equestria to the torch,” Alias said, “I won’t”

He glanced at her, regretfully, and trotted past her, stumbling in his step.

Trixie turned to watch him limp out through the chamber door.

But where Starlight and Cadance had failed, Trixie saw a new opportunity, perhaps one irresistible.

She smiled to herself, figuring her chance of defeating Twilight once for all was within her reach.

And all she would have to do is find that letter.

Sand-grain and gravel greeted him on the forest brook shores of the Silver Strait. Blood leaked from his head, while the sores and bruises and cuts that adorned his brown coat stained the waters red. With a rigid grip, Bandolier tore into the sand of the shoreline, dragging himself towards the woods over the rise. The waters behind him were roaring, ravaging past jagged great stones that loomed below the Smoky Mountains’ shadow. His mud-brown mane was ragged and coiled, as was his beard. His faint-brown coat was speckled with dirt and river stones, which dug into his skin. He stripped out of his waterlogged vest, tore off his black jacket, and unfastened his tie. The collar of his shirt was torn where a rock had gashed against his neck.

He cursed her, that witch, that craven assassin, Clover, who he had briefly considered worthy of endearment. He was lucky to survive the fall from Lavender’s palace to the river, let alone the journey downstream.

He fell into a coughing fit as soon as his legs gave out, collapsing into the sand.

He wondered if Clover had survived, or if any of his friends had, at that. For a moment in the haze, he thought he could make out Alias, and Amity, and Gin, and even that belligerent brute Flamberge, but it was all in his own mad mind.

His thoughts wandered to Lavender, the fair Lady of Silkwood, and he cursed himself for having saved the mare’s life.

Looks aren’t everything.

He carried himself towards the bank, growling like a rabid animal while he struggled to regain his strength.

Over the bank, his hopes returned, noticing smoke over the tree line, and praying that wherever he was, the ponies were friendly.

Green glass ornaments hung by the candle's glow, shivering by wood-board-creaks and lickspittle speeches. Bandolier glanced about the place, half-mindful of the hazy veil draped over his eyes. There were no windows in the tavern, tangled in its mist-mored tide, a dark place distinct for its tarry reek and its drunken quartet of string singers. There was a dense cloud of sea-salt musk that roamed about the moldy wood. Nopony knew what time of day it was, while ponies lingered on atop their seashell stools and drank their island rum. The bay waters swelled and swelled somewhere nearby, and a pair of gulls had found their way inside, perched on the same rafter beam.

The tavern bore the shape of an old ship hull, and the floorboards were wet with spilled drink. There was merriment all around, ponies and creatures of strange origins sharing old sea stories in glad tiding, or else warning each other of what a brawl would bring about.

Braised in the sand, the sea-stained, surly ilk of thieves, pirates, and other rotten characters were all gathered here, drowning in ocean cider and blue tonic. Sharpened boots, bludgeoned eyes, pretty young things and rotten old sots came into a dizzy dance of delirium.

Bandolier sat in one of the back-corner booths, near a barnacled sea-beast’s skull hung upon the wall and an orange oil lamp fixture. He was mesmerized by the bizarre beauty of the scene, the roaring of the crowd and the rancid fog that swept the tavern in thick wafts of smoke, stained green by the candles’ glass casings.

The seabirds mewled and swooped by his head, unnerved by the center-floor commotion. Bandolier spat out some curses, and swatted at the air, missing each time.

Matters of six-bit ale were soon made moot, when he hungered for more stale bread.

Bandolier was soon lost to the madness of the crowd, drunkenly dodging the odd tossed bottle, dollop of spit, or bloody lost tooth. Above the center deck, the polished carcass of a great white shark hung from the rafters, bearing two black harpoon holes in its snout.

Bandolier avoided a tumbling scuffle between the Serenity’s first mate and second mate, as he made his way to the bar, stocked with exotic liquors from across the sea. His eyes grew wide, torn over the maroon-glass flasks of Casaflankan Mahia, and the old leather flagons of Zebrabwean mead.

But it was a mare who first caught his eye, clad in a scarlet satin dress, with a head of black curls and eyes of moon-silver.

Bandolier stuck himself in her way, catching her eye before she could manage to drain her cup.

They nearly passed each other, before they half-spun back to see whether the other had made any attempt to catch their attention.

Waltzing back towards each other, the mare’s glare was fixed on him, while his eyes wandered about the room, aimlessly.

“Strangers in town don’t last long,” she said.

“As I like it. I don’t plan on staying.”

“We’ll see about that. And who do I owe the pleasure?” the mare asked.

“By the night’s end, I won’t remember your name. Let alone mine,” Bandolier said. He held onto her gaze with a rigid grip.

“And what else does the night entail?”

“That remains to be seen,” Bandolier said, pressing himself closer toward her.

But he came up short, when somepony’s hoof took a hold of his shoulder. Spinning around, he was met by the grizzly twisted face of a stallion twice his size, grimacing down with gory scorn.

Bandolier couldn’t yet manage an explanation, before the stallion’s other hoof slammed into his snout, sending him tumbling backward into the crowd.

He landed on the splintery wooden floorboards with a devastating thud, while the crowd erupted in laughter.

The mare in the red dress fell into the stallion’s arms, wistfully smirking down at Bandolier, whose nose was leaking blood, whose face was purpled into pulp.

She disappeared, dissolving back into the crowd, while Bandolier’s vision again drew hazy.

But his rage got the better of him then, and he sprang back to his hooves, dashing for the stallion with a haughty grunt.

He swung his hoof into the brute’s skull, knocking him into four others, who each joined the brawl.

Bandolier was caught between three of the brute’s lackeys, while the crowd began tearing itself apart.

Swinging madly, Bandolier accidentally dodged two thrown bottles of Newport ale, while suffering four blows to the skull. And he laughed and laughed, while he fell from left to right, buckling down to trip one stallion, while shoving another over a table into a wall of brick. The uproar had nearly encompassed the whole of the tavern, until at last one stallion managed to shatter a bottle over Bandolier’s head, and he came crashing to his knees, his mouth hung ajar, his eyes staring in two different directions.

The crowd gave a great cheer then, and Bandolier was promptly dragged by his hooves towards the back door. There, they swung him into the muddy lake of backwash swill. He landed with a sticky splash, and the crowd’s laughter rang in his ears even after they shut the door.

He groaned in agony, and twisted over to his back, sprawled out in the rain, which washed the muck and blood out of his eyes, enough that he could at least see straight once again.

He rued the day he had signed his life away to Alias, to the Erased, to all those promises. Perhaps Clover had been right about him, he thought, though such a concession made his stomach churn. He supposed he could be content forgetting those dreams of herodom, if only by the sweet kiss of vice.

Celestia be damned,” grumbled some voice from beyond Bandolier’s field of vision.

The pony made himself known, having stepped out the back door to stand over Bandolier, who was mumbling some curses under his breath, blinking wildly to make out the pony’s face.

The pony was a stranger, a portly fellow, with yellow-brown teeth, a thick brown beard of crumbs, and a faint lime coat.

“Right then, come on,” the pony said, grabbing a hold of Bandolier, roughly. Bandolier floated up to his hooves, weakly, and reluctantly came along with the pony.

The pony dragged Bandolier back into the tavern, and the crowd had already forgotten him, having returned to their merriment.

The pony sat them down in a dark velvet booth in the back of the tavern, far from the chaos by the bar.

Bandolier glanced away from the glass candle at the center of the table, searching for any
more ponies who might be standing in his way if he wished to escape. He had an awful taste in his mouth, and he did his best to scrape himself clean of his new coat of mud.

His rescuer snapped at a passing waitress, her messy blonde bun bouncing with each step. She had thick lashes and a stiff snout.

“Two pints of Seapony Tears for me and my friend here, Belle,” the pony said.

“Yes, sir,” replied the waitress, who promptly scurried off.

“Dreadful tease, that one. Gives the lads hell.”

“With your lot, I can imagine why,” Bandolier muttered, slurring his words.

The pony snickered.

“You think it wise to jape at me, boy? I could have you fed to the hounds, or chopped up and stirred into old Fig’s stew.”

“Best get on with it then. But first I’ll be having that pint.”

“Aye, that’s fair.”

The pony sat back in his booth.

“A foolish thing, picking a fight like that.”

“I’ve no stag’s luck, I think,” Bandolier replied, “Where am I?”

“Gooseneck, head of the south sea shore. Young Hickey’s got a cousin here - a cousin with daughters. The lads couldn’t help themselves,” the pony said, “Don’t dawdle, then. Here you are, dressed for dinner, wandering into town half-dead. Forgive my curiosity, boy.”

“My ventures proved unfruitful,” Bandolier said.

“That I can believe,” the pony said, “You might be looking for an escape.”

Bandolier glared at him.

“If you’re proposing something, you’ll have to be more specific.”

“There’s a spot on my crew for you, if you’d like. I could use an able stallion. Got too many green colts who can’t hold a rope taut.”

“You’re a sailor?” Bandolier said.

Scurvy, at your service. Captain of the Bronze Beauty. You might’ve heard of it.”

“I might’ve,” Bandolier replied, “Sailing where?”

“Down the coast to Augusta, then west across the sea, to Eris.”

“...I’ve heard rumors of something lurking there, on the far coast,” Bandolier said.

“It’s a dangerous place, surely. Whatever you’ve heard, it’s only half the truth.”

Bandolier glanced at the ground.

“What say you, lad? Are you with me? Or have I got to toss you back to the hounds?”

Bandolier’s eyes flickered back to Scurvy.

“You’ve got yourself a deal.”

Scurvy’s smile grew, and, in one quick motion, he cut open the ropes binding Bandolier’s hooves. Bandolier lifted his hooves, feeling his strength return.

Fireflies blinked glitter-gold, rousing once the sun had disappeared over the hills. The Hazelwood was alive that night, where the rain-spotted leaves glowed red, gold, and brown in the waning moon’s gaze.

Juno’s legs had given out just an hour ago. From just over the tip of the treeline above, she swore she could make out the glimmering tip of the Canterlot palace, a lone star perched in the sky. Scattered, feathery clouds soared at wicked speeds, like black specters in the night.

Canterlot was her destination, by mere approximation; Juno knew little of the pony she was hunting, except for one key detail - Sunset Shimmer was a unicorn. And where better, she thought, was she to find a unicorn than the capital of Equestria.

While the leaves shuddered in the breeze, Juno stuck by the light of her lantern, continuing to toil over her fire. Crows, toads, and foxes chirped and croaked and cried from deeper in the woods, and there were other strange sounds that Juno could not recognize. The thought was unsettling, of what beasts lurked there in the dark, just beyond the dim glow of her lantern. She had heard terrible stories of fell creatures lurking in these woods, the type that might gobble up a pony like her without second thought.

Her attempts at a fire manifested into a measly pile of wet twig-tinder and crumbled red leaves. Her hooves ached after a full day of journeying, and by her guess she had only made it six miles out of Ponyville. Perhaps she was not yet far enough that she couldn’t turn back, and with every failed effort to cast just a single spark with her pair of rocks, the opportunity was made more and more attractive.

She shook her head and shut her eyes, and imagined her mother’s voice, beckoning her to return to where it was safe and warm.

I’m doing this for you, she thought. She did not believe her mother could hear her, though she hoped she was wrong,

There was a pleasant lull to the air, as it was prior to a terrible fit of rain. Hoping to avoid the oncoming downpours, Juno took to gathering some larger sticks to try and form a makeshift hut. While the wind had once brought her comfort, she began to feel a chill, and knew she would have to hurry if she wished to outrun the storm.

Once, twice, three times she tried to construct a place to sleep under, and each time with little in the way of results.

“This is hopeless,” she muttered, struggling to dissuade herself from breaking down into tears.

At last she fell to the ground, defeated.

She dragged herself over to her duffel bag, and retrieved her pillow, planning to remain right there out in the open.

Still, sleep evaded her. She had taken up this foolish excursion on the promise of revenge, though she had yet to decide how exactly she would manage to best her enemy, that dreadful murdering witch.

Sunset Shimmer.

Juno was only an earth pony, after all. Though, as her father would often remind her, that just meant she would have to work twice as hard for what she wanted.

She sighed, deciding that she would have to tough out her first night exposed to the elements. But first, she settled on a midnight-snack, reaching for one of the berries she had picked earlier, stuffed in a small wicker pouch.

Ugh!” she muttered, spitting it out as soon as she put it to her lips; its taste was foul, almost rancid.

Juno groaned and fell back against her pillow, tossing some leaves over her coat to help against the cold. Those leaves were promptly blown off by the breeze, and Juno shut her eyes even tighter, cradling herself, cursing Sunset Shimmer, Apple Bloom’s sister and her friends, and herself as well, for having been so stupid as to believe she would survive longer than a single day out on her own. She noticed the black-bead glare of Shorty, her beloved stuffed bear, whose head peaked out from her bag.
Don’t look at me like that.”

Juno awoke early enough to see the sunrise, spared only an hour of sleep after enduring a night of windblown drizzle. Her coat was soaked, though she had managed to quench some of her thirst, having stuck her tongue out to catch the droplets mid-dair.

The sun peeked through billowing gold and white clouds that cast hallowed rays of light through the Hazelwood canopy. Morning dew and the night’s drizzle left the woods a shivering mess. Juno felt her stomach rumble as it had all night, though all she had brought to eat were cans of beans that she didn’t know how to open, and a bundle of apples, which she had eaten almost immediately after her departure.

Juno refused to risk eating any more berries, not since she had nearly fed herself poison, and yet she did not believe she could bring herself to hunt for an animal. She could only hope to come across some fruits or plants that would suffice, though her strength was already dwindling.

She found her lantern’s battery had already met an early demise. She packed it back in her duffel bag, hoping for a future chance to repair it. She finished by packing her pillow, which was once pure white prior to its forest-floor soiling.

Her legs still felt stiff, though she took off without much delay, promising herself that this brief hiccup would be worth it once she arrived in Canterlot.

She kept on through the woods, staggering with each step, wondering what first meal she would have upon her arrival in the capital. She had lived her whole life in Ponyville, only ever hearing second-hand stories and tall tales of what the rest of the world was like. And though thus far her experience was less than ideal, she was confident that she belonged anywhere but where she had come from.

But she had not made it more than a mile from the clearing, when she at last had to drop her bag off her shoulders.

She gasped for breath, and sat on top of it, wiping sweat from her brow, wiping off wet mud from her hooves and legs.

But she froze completely, when she heard a rustling in the leaves, somewhere behind her.

Juno’s eyes widened, and she subtly began scouring the woods for any further sign of movement. But she found nothing beyond the fallen leaves and the damp brown bark.

She slipped back into the straps of her duffel bag, and started off once again, this time at a quicker pace.

She knew she could hardly put up a fight under normal pretenses; but while starved and near-hypothermic, she knew she stood no chance against any beast of road thief.

But right after turning her head from behind her, she came face to face to a pony twice her size, standing directly in her way.

Juno shrieked and jumped back away from the pony, and almost toppled over when her duffel bag shifted weight.

The pony was blood-red in color, with a near-black mane cut short.

She watched helplessly from a few yards away, as three more ponies revealed themselves, two of which had a great wooden cart drawn to their necks, carrying barrels of spices and grain.

“Lost, girl?” came the blood-red stallion, grinning.

“I’m fine, thank you,” Juno replied, half-stumbling over her words. Her eyes darted madly between the four of them. She wouldn’t stand much of a chance against one, let alone the whole pack of them. Put she kept that to herself, and tried to mimic her father’s hardened glare, what her mother called the Eastwood stare.

“Awfully young to be on your own,” he continued.

“What’s it to you?” Juno snapped back.

The blood-red stallion’s grin grew, and he glanced back at his companions, amused.

“Nopony should travel these roads alone. Especially a little thing like you,” the red stallion elaborated, “And you look to be out of sorts.”

Juno ignored the slight, supposing he had a point; her bouncy brown curls were twisted and contorted after having been soaked through by the rain, and her coat was riddled with dirt and stray twigs.

“Thanks, but I don’t need help,” she insisted.

The red stallion’s smile fell from his face.

“Have it your way. But at least have something to eat. It would give me sleepless nights otherwise.”

Juno remained where she was, however. But as much as she wanted to refuse the offer, distrusting this quartet of strangers, her stomach begged her to reconsider.

Juno forced herself to give in, approaching the ponies, cautiously.

The red stallion stepped out of her way, raising his hooves to signal he was unarmed.

One of the other ponies, the youngest of them, a faint blue pony with a flowing mane of navy, fetched a slab of white bread from one of the sacks hanging off the cart. He tossed it to her, and she caught it with two shaky hooves. Juno scarfed the bread down without second thought. The strangers, the red stallion most of all, appeared amazed by her ferocity, as she tore the bread to shreds.

“Where’re your parents?” asked the navy-maned pony, softly.

Juno glared at him, deterring any subsequent interrogation.

“If you’re going to rob me, you’re in for disappointment,” Juno said, finishing the last crumbs of the bread, “I’ve got nothing you’d want.”

“In that, you’re right,” the red stallion laughed, “Lucky for us we’re not thieves. We’re traders, on our way to Canterlot. The Gala’s less than two weeks away. Ponies from all over Equestria are on their way, and they’d be remiss to lose out on our stock.”

Juno glanced at the barrels of grain, and the sacks of breads, and could then make sense of it all.

“...It was very good,” Juno admitted sheepishly.

“My mother’s recipe,” came the navy-maned stallion. He had a simple smile to him, as if the most menial of happenings might bring him joy.

“Sorry if I…I didn’t mean to-” Juno began.

“Don’t trouble yourself,” the red stallion said, “I’m Hask. This is Tails,” he continued, glancing at the navy-maned stallion, and then at the other two, “Boze, and Bender.”

“I’m Juno,” she said, slightly eager for the prospect of traveling companions.

“I’m heading to Canterlot too,” she said.

“You should be heading to school, at your age,” muttered either Boze or Bender. Juno was not sure which was which.

“How about that,” Hask said, smiling, “Tell you what. We’ve got enough food for one more, and it’s less than a day more by hoof. You’re welcome to tag along.”

Juno glanced at the ground, and then at her mudstained hooves. She was taken with them, she supposed, though still found herself uneasy of the prospect.

But she knew she would not make it much longer on her own, whether she first got herself lost or collapsed from exhaustion. As much as she had her reservations, there seemed to be only one choice.

“Better make room for one more,” Juno said.

Hask nodded, approvingly.

Where she might have doubted how serious her revenge fantasy would end up being, for the first time ever the reality of her situation was dawning on her. She would not be so easily done away with.

Cobwebs crept in the black edges of the cell, where rats roamed with eyes of ruby-red. Princess Cadance recalled exploring these cold crypts during her childhood visits to the palace. Her parents may have grounded her for a lifetime after they caught her, if Princess Celestia hadn’t intervened.

She had been left there to rot in the darkest depths of the palace, facing a set of steel bars that peered into the void. Her breath was slow and ragged, and her whole body ached.

She lay against the cold dusty grip of stone, her ankles bound in thick chains, her horn sheathed in a metal magic restrictor.

Hoofsteps in the dark took her unaware; sound came clearer in the dark, though its origin remained a mystery.

By torchlight, the plump lavender face of Marius Moonshine revealed itself around the edge of her cell.

Cadance shut her eyes, before the sharp glow of the torch could blind her irreparably.

Without much delay, she found the strength to look him in the eye.

“You must be thirsty,” Marius said, revealing a small canteen of water. Cast in his purple aura, the canteen floated to Cadance’s lips, though she refused to drink.

Marius sighed, and took a sip of it himself.

Cadance relented, and dove into the canteen once it reappeared, desperate for a drink.

Marius,” she muttered.

“Princess Twilight has decreed you’re not to be harmed. You have her word.”

Her word,” Cadance repeated, “And what good is that?”

Marius dimmed his horn.

“And what about my guards? My servants?” Cadance asked.

“Your household has been confined or killed, it grieves me to say. I do so hate the sight of blood.”

Cadance fell back against the stone, distraught.

“My ponies were slaughtered and you did nothing?”

“My trade is in secrets. Not blood.”

Cadance took another drink of the canteen.

“I warned you against recklessness. You’ve sent fifty ponies to the grave in less than a day.”

“Blood will have blood,” Cadance muttered.

Marius glanced to the ground.

“Your days draw fewer, I fear.”

“Twilight wouldn’t hesitate to kill me, if that was her intent,” Cadance said, “She would sooner give up this farce than make the Crystal Empire her enemy.”

“In that, you’re correct.”

Marius revealed a small sheet of parchment, lifting it towards the light for Cadance to read.

Summon Flurry Heart to Canterlot,” Cadance read, and her eyes shot up to Marius, “If she lays a hoof on that girl-”

“Twilight means it as an insurance of loyalty.”

Cadance shook her head, shocked.

“...I suggest a different course, however,” Marius said, “Send a letter of your own. Make it your command that no action is to be taken, that no armies be gathered. Call for peace. I will make sure it reaches your husband’s eyes, and his alone.”

“And why would I do that?”

Marius narrowed his gaze.

“The Crystal Empire will prove a powerful foe for Twilight, should it come to war - a war likely fought on your account. But you know better than anypony now, of Twilight’s true nature. She will burn the North, leave it only ash and bone. Hundreds of thousands will die, on either side. Your husband, your daughter…You have a chance to save their lives.”

“And bury the truth once again?”

“The truth remains a secret to the world, despite your efforts. Twilight has sworn the nobles to secrecy, or else had them arrested. A war may have been favorable with you at its helm, but now…You’ve lost, princess. And to let the consequences follow without you leading the charge, would be folly as well as treachery. You would be sending your ponies to slaughter. Not to mention, your own life may become forfeit.”

“The truth matters more than my life. She has to be stopped,” Cadance said, defiantly.

“And what of the lives of your family? Of the ponies you protect? What do their lives mean?”

Cadance faltered, and the truth of war began to overcome her.

Her eyes danced back up to Marius, bitterly.

Against their canvas of night black, stars glimmered red, blue, gold and green, perched alongside the fireworks’ technicolor flame. The streets were full of music and dancing, and deluges of laughter and drink. The city tossed and turned into the night, its flickering torch-lights fading in and out, buckling in the breeze.

Lightning Dust sat alone on the bakery rooftop, a half-empty brown bottle lying at her side.

For as much as she loathed Mandola and his unwanted advances, she could not deny he had exceptional taste for spirits. From her perch, she could make out the crowds below, as ponies passed beneath strings of golden lights, wading through the hazy fog of sweat, booze, and smoke.

Lightning felt a pinch on her leg, and she found Scampers gnawing at her coat.

“I just fed you,” Lightning sighed, ripping off a piece of stolen bread for her needy rodent companion.

She gave the rat some affectionate pats to the head. But Scampers’ attention was quickly seized by the creaking of metal wires coming from nearby.

Lightning turned her head around to investigate the disturbance, while Scampers scurried up to her shoulder, alert.

But it was only Kickstart, who had come crawling up the fire escape ladder, struggling up over the rooftop edge.

“I thought you’d run off,” Kickstart said, relieved.

“Lucky you. I’d be hard to catch,” Lightning grinned, turning back to the bustling city street below.

“You think they’ll be back soon?”

“What, that sorry bunch of suckers? The longer, the better.”

Kickstart sat beside her in a huff, before he noticed the bottle lying at her side.

“What’s that?”

“Bourbon. You wouldn’t like the taste.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Kickstart challenged, reaching over to snag the bottle over her lap.

Lightning watched him with great anticipation, while Kickstart pressed the bottle to his lips.

“Well, go on.”

Kickstart glared at her, before indulging himself with a great big gulp of the drink.

His throat twisted and burned, and he broke down into a coughing fit.

Lightning, meanwhile, could hardly contain her laughter.

“I warned you,” Lightning exclaimed, retrieving the bottle to set it aside.

Kickstart cleared his throat, and came back to his senses. He was laughing all the same, regretting his curiosity.

“Oh, and don’t tell Wallflower about that,” Lightning said, glancing at the bottle, “She’d kill me.

“My lips are sealed,” Kickstart said.

Lightning sighed and sat back against the concrete of the roof.

“It’s a bad habit,” Lightning admitted, “My mother would be scolding me. If I ever brought a boy home, she’d sniff him out for beer breath the second he walked through the door,” she said, giggling.

“...Your folks have got to be missing you, nowadays,” Kickstart said.

Lightning’s laughter came out as a snort.

“They gave up on me a while ago. I had it coming, I guess. They raised me to be the best. And when I couldn’t hack it, I broke both their hearts.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Kickstart said, “Wallflower told me you’re the fastest pony in all Equestria.”

Second,” Lightning corrected, begrudgingly paying homage to Rainbow Dash.

“‘Spose that’s better than third,” Kickstart pointed out.

“It’s always been like this,” Lightning said, scooting closer towards the edge of the roof, “When I was in high school, I joined the advanced junior cadet corps, flying with kids two years older. I didn’t care about flying, really, I just wanted to make some friends. But I was never going to be one of them. I was too weak, too small. I couldn’t speak up for myself, I couldn’t fight back, all I could do was shut up and pretend none of what they said really bothered me. But it did. Of course it did. And what made me so angry, was that I still stuck around. Because at the end of the day, all I wanted was for them to want me. To let me be one of them.”

Lightning’s laugh was wobbly, as her voice began to tremble.

“So once I was old enough, I decided I wanted to be the best. I was going to prove that I never needed any of them. Friends would just slow me down. My folks thought as much, too. And it worked, I almost had everything I wanted - a pair of Wonderbolt wings, no more smirking faces, no longer a disappointment. And then I threw it all out. I’ve had nothing since then. Just odd-jobs and spoiled second chances.”

Lightning reached over to pet Scampers, who had come scurrying over to her side.

“But this, I want this to work,” Lightning said, turning back to Kickstart, “I want to be out there, and fight for something, something that’s not myself. I think I’m through with that.”

“I thought we were a sorry bunch of suckers,” Kickstart reminded.

Yeah,” Lightning grinned, “But you’re my sorry bunch of suckers.”

Kickstart smiled, and dragged himself up to his hooves.

“That kid really got to you, huh.”

“How do you mean?” Lightning asked, springing up to join him.

“I heard what she said to you, back in that prison. She’s got a neat way with words.”

Lightning’s jaw dropped.

“Sometimes she’s more of a grown-up than I am,” Lightning confessed, “It’s good she’s got you as a role model.”

“I’m not much of a role model,” Kickstart said,

Below, the band’s music began to attract a larger crowd, and the sweet song of lute strings and drums reached the two of them, standing inches apart on that rooftop.

Lightning reached for his hooves, swaying to the beat of the drums from down in the crowded orange-lit street, where the band played its song.

“I should lighten up,” Lightning said, attempting to perfect her hoofwork, “And you’re too stiff.”

By now Kickstart could tell her mind had gone foggy, still he humored her attempt at the dance, attempting to mimic her mismatched steps.

She broke down laughing in the midst of it, while Kickstart tried his best to maintain his composure.

“Look at you, you've ruined it. I was just getting the hang of it.”

“You were! You were! Oh! Let’s go and show Suri and Bon Bon, oh, they’ll love it. We’ll put on a show,” Lightning giggled, through slurred speech.

Kickstart laughed and held her, as she drifted along into a euphoric mania of brilliant confusion, twirling and tip-tapping her hooves, all in off-rhythm.

And from the fire-escape stairs, Scootaloo sat just out of sight, watching with tired eyes. And her smile was hard to lose, while the two carried each other into the night’s gusty draw.

Icicles dangled off the old stone battlements, where faint flakes of snow danced in the galloping gusts. Shining Armor could make out the tips of the Crystal Mountains from his balcony perch, and wondered of home, and what trouble his daughter had gotten into today.

The funeral arrangements for the late Prince Boreas had drawn to a close, and Shining Armor expected to be back home in a week’s time. He feared what news would be awaiting him, however, knowing his wife had thrown herself into the lion’s den.

A light had left him; he thought himself half a stallion without Cadance at his side to coax his temper, to guide their daughter on a kinder path, to remind him of what he had fought for all those years. He had once found solace only in his distractions - fighting, hunting, training recruits. It was Cadance who showed him there was more to that mortal life than to work himself to death. He loved her, and loathed her all the same. Where he once thought himself the more headstrong of the pair, she was surpassing his expectations once again. It was his obliviousness to it all that tore him apart. She must have distrusted him, he reasoned. She must have thought him not cunning enough to be a part of her plan, or not careful enough to keep it secret.

He wondered of Flurry Heart. What she had eaten for breakfast that day, what destruction she may have caused in the palace. He never thought himself capable of loving anything the way he loved that little girl.

I have to get back to her, he thought to himself.

He had never sought to be a prince, to rule over the Crystal Empire and all its creatures. But for his daughter’s sake, and his wife’s, the responsibility came easily.

“Sir,” came the voice of Prince Broadwing, entering out from the inner chamber to the balcony, blanketed in snow.

Shining Armor turned around, blinking away the snow from his eye.

“My mother’s sent for you,” Broadwing said, “She says it’s urgent.”

Shining’s heart sank.

He followed the young prince into the inner keep, up a flight of stairs to the Great Hall, where Lady Primrose awaited them, sitting on her late husband’s great wooden throne at the far end of the room.

The air was not much warmer than the winterland outside, and though the Frost Ponies paid no notice to the cold, Shining was struggling to keep his shivering a secret.

“My lady,” Shining Armor said, bowing his head slightly.

He went on to acknowledge Princess Bellflower, Broadwing’s youngest sister, and Blackburn, Broadwing's paternal uncle as well as one of the Crystal generals who had journeyed alongside him here.

“What’s happened?” Shining Armor asked, surmising something was amiss by the dour looks on their faces.

“...A letter came this morning,” Primrose said, “From Princess Cadance.”
Shining Armor glanced at Blackburn, and back to Primrose.

Primrose revealed the aforementioned letter, left beside the wax candles on a small glass table.

Shining opened the letter, inspecting its contents.

My love,

I write to you with a heavy heart. I have been charged with treason. I have conspired against Princess Twilight and tried to steal her throne. I am being treated very well. I beg you: swear obeisance to Princess Twilight. Prevent any further strife from dividing Equestria. See to it that peace prevails. Yours, Cadance.

“Treason?’ Shining Armor repeated, turning to Primrose, stunned.

“Cadance wrote this?” Broadwing asked, stunned. He approached Shining, whose eyes were still locked onto the letter.

“It's nonsense,” Blackburn suggested, “Someone's idea of a joke.”

“Who would do something like that?” Bellflower stammered.

“It’s Cadance’s hoof,” Shining corrected, “And it is not in her nature to be deceitful.”

“Reports reached us not long before. They say Cadance’s been taken to the dungeons, though nopony is certain why,” Primrose said, and her voice trembled.

“This is madness,” Broadwing spat, reeling his feral glare off the stone floor.

“What of those in her company? Lumineer was with them,” Blackburn said.

Dead, no doubt,” Broadwing figured, before turning to Shining, “And you would join them, if we do as your sister bids.”
“Mind your tongue, boy,” Blackburn snapped. Broadwing ignored the venom in his uncle's voice.
Shining Armor’s eyes were fixed on the snow as it drifted past the threaded window, wavering.

Twilight couldn’t do such a thing.

“Whatever this is about,” Shining Armor said, “I’ll see the truth of it. I’ll go to Canterlot. Twilight will listen to me.”

Shining Armor turned towards the doors, following a look of approval from Blackburn.

But Broadwing, in spite of his mother’s warning gaze, thought otherwise.

“My prince, this is certain to be a trap,” Broadwing declared, sternly storming towards the center of the room, beckoning after Shining as he neared the doors.

Shining Armor came to a halt, and turned around.

“Cadance would sooner give her own life before betraying Equestria,” Broadwing said, “This is a letter of bloody lies.”

What would you have me do?” Shining Armor demanded, raising his voice, “Take up arms against my own sister? Betray Cadance’s own wishes?”

Broadwing kept his mouth shut, avoiding prodding Shining’s wrath any further.

The doors to the Great Hall came flying open then, and Broadwing instinctively reached for his sword.

But it was only Corporal Sugar Rush, a member of Shining Armor’s crystal guard.

“Pardon, sir,” came Sugar Rush, “There’s word from Canterlot.”

Primrose sat up in her chair, and the room fell silent as virgin snow.

“Speak it, then. Go on,” Shining Armor muttered, and he wished he could resign himself from this debacle.

“You’ve been summoned to the capital by Princess Twilight, my prince,”

Shining Armor seemed relieved then, having expected some newer sort of treachery. Redundancy made him greatly content.

“....And she’s requested to bring Princess Flurry Heart with you.”

Broadwing snapped a glance towards Shining Armor, who froze at the very mention of his daughter’s name.

The prince was restless then. He felt fury for his wife’s defiance, for his sister’s inexplicable behavior, and for the perceived threat to Flurry.

In some respects, Twilight was as dear to him as Cadance, and he wondered if by some cruel miracle this was all some misunderstanding, and that his actions may only set fire to a match. But to do nothing, to assume his sister’s best intentions, all meant Cadance remained a prisoner. By the threat of his daughter, there could be no cause of charitability, or assumption of good intentions. He shook his head, realizing that his sister had, by all means, forced his hoof.

“This is a royal command,” Primrose reminded, hesitantly, “If you should refuse…”

“I won’t refuse,” Shining said, “My sister summons me to Canterlot, I will go to Canterlot. But not alone.”

He glanced around at them all, and could hardly hide the anger swirling behind his eyes.

“The North will not lie idle while her princess sits in chains,” said the prince.

Broadwing smiled, ravenously, while Primrose sank in her chair. Bellflower flushed red, and was nigh swooning.

“Send word to Novador, and the Reindeer, and the Selvites in the east. Send for the Moose, and the Dains, and the Ice Ponies, and every one of our holdfasts south of the Crystal Mountains. We gather at the Capital.”

Blackburn nodded, softly.

Shining Armor said, turning back to the others, “My sister wants to test my loyalties.”

Broadwing straightened himself, and his smile died, while the thrill of the fight left him, replaced by fear.

“Here is my answer.”

Where once the Hazelwood's dusky susurrations, eerie echoes, and feral howls had left Juno a quivering mess, the woods seemed kinder now, and she felt as though it was no longer necessary to check over her shoulder with every other step.

Her new companions were a lively bunch - rare was it when young Tails was not whistling a sweet tune, or Hask telling stories of his youth, or Boze and Bender arguing over whose recipes made for the better sale.

She had long deprived herself of joy, of anything that could remind her of what she had lost. Though she had begun to doubt herself, and she became further compelled to smile along with the others and forget about her troubles for a little while.

That afternoon they had forded a river at a wide shallow place, whose quiet currents carried patches of foam and smooth stones.

Juno made sure to pick some of the stones as they gathered in clusters by the bank, cleaning each off for her new collection.

The far bank was a steep climb, and muddy too, such that Juno required help from Tails so as to not slip. And there at the top, they could see the great peak, the Heart of Equestria, and at its face sat the glittering city of Canterlot, guarded by a platoon of scattered stone-grey clouds. And from the mountain’s slopes began the great Crescendo River, whose wrathful tides rode all the way south through the Everfree Forest. Juno recognized the rushing hiss of the waters, from the few times her father could convince her mother to let her tag along on his fishing trips.

But before Juno could distract herself with memories of her father and mother, the majesty of Canterlot and the Heart had taken her. She had never seen a thing that looked so big before.

“Wait until you see it up close,” Hask said, having noticed her lingering behind, awestruck.

Bender and Boze were still struggling to push the cart over the bank, while Juno stood atop the hill, over the grass and mud, basking in the sunlight that peered over the mountain peak, where the city glowed pearly white. The wind blew her curly mane half-across her face, though she was almost frozen in place. The grass danced in the currents in the wind, gently, while the stray strand of sun glided over her eyes.

She smiled at Hask, and for a moment all the regret she had felt the night before slipped away in a single blink.

Bender and Boze at last made the final push, and the cart could rest over top of the bank.

“Here’s a good place to rest,” Hask said, while Bender and Boze caught their breath, “We set out at first light tomorrow - Save some strength. Fortune awaits us, friends.”

Tails was beaming in excitement, as was Juno.

They had only two tents to begin with, though Hask and Tails were content to let Juno have theirs. They were lucky for the night’s blessing, intending to lay out in the grass beneath the stars, and pray against the rain.

Juno insisted they not accommodate her, feeling guilty as an unwanted burden, though Hask’s word was final.

But before the sun had set, Juno chose to visit Tails, who was sitting by his lonesome on a downed log near the river bank, whittling a stick with his knife. He had a handsome face, she thought, and given his young age, she was drawn towards him the most.

Tails smiled for a brief moment when she arrived, but quickly returned to his work.

“You’re pretty good at that,” Juno said, and she was impressed with the strange groove pattern he had made.

Tails glanced at her, and put his knife down.

“You never said what you were doing out here,” Tails said, abruptly catching Juno off-guard.

Juno said nothing, having not considered the need for an alibi. But then again, she was not sure whether it was safe to trust anypony else with her true intentions, quite yet.

“Are you running from home?” Tails asked.

“Something like that,” Juno replied, half-smiling.

Tails sighed, and nearly laughed, and spun around on the log to face her.

“Sit down,” he said, scooting over on the log.

Juno obliged, trotting over to sit at his side.

“...You know your parents are gonna be worried sick.”

“I know,” Juno said, softly, and she imagined they would be.

But Tails had noticed her expression shift just then, and he began to fear the worst.

“But they’re not around, are they,” he posited, cautiously.

Juno turned her head away from him.

“Hey, I’m sorry,” Tails said.

Tails at first meant to stick out his hoof to comfort her, though he reeled it back, regretfully.

“My father would tell me a story once,” Tails said, and Juno slowly turned her head back towards him, “A fox there was, its leg caught in a trap. The fox was languishing for hours, in agony. But after a while, the blood and the sweat let it wriggle itself free. And the fox, with its mangled leg, could only limp back to its den. And crows and hawks began to circle it overhead, and they yelled at the fox, telling it to lay down and give itself to them. And the fox despaired, and pained. But it had its den to get back to, its cubs. And there came a point that the fox felt it could not go on, but drew what strength remained, and continued. And the fox returned home, healed, and raised her pups.”

“And what if the fox had no den? And no family?” Juno asked.

“Then the fox must find a new den. And start a new family,” Tails replied, “If the fox was meant to die, the trap would have killed it. But the fox was not meant to die.”

“I guess not,” Juno supposed.

“Maybe Canterlot could be a new home,” Tails said, “Or somewhere else. Wherever it is, I’m certain you’ll find it.”

Juno bit her lip, and nodded her head, though she was not certain she understood.

“Sun’s almost set. You should get to bed,” Tails said.

Juno nodded, and scurried off from the log, and Tails sighed to himself, pitying her.

But even hours after retiring to her tent, Juno could not find sleep. Each time she shut her eyes, the bloody visage of her mother’s screams and her father’s hollow eyes reminded her why her chest ached throughout the day, and why her mind was ever so scattered.

She was alert enough, then, to lift her head when her tent flap came unzipped.

Her heart sank, and she expected some monster of the forest to have finally found her. But it was only Hask, who seemed to have expected her to be asleep.

“Should have knocked, sorry,” Hask whispered, grinning, “Left a lantern in here.”

Juno smiled, though she was not sure what he meant; she hadn’t seen any lanterns in the tent.

“Can’t sleep?” Hask asked.

Juno shook her head.

“Too used to my own bed, maybe,” she explained.

“Nature can be cruel,” he said, stepping into the tent to search for his lantern.

“Just wait until we make it to the city,” he said, “With its featherbeds, silk linens and sweet perfumes, there’s every comfort a pony could want.”

Juno was excited by the prospect, weary of sleeping atop the crude rocks and roots that littered the ground. Hask continued searching for the lantern, frisking about the tent edges in the dark.

“There, it’s all too easy for a pony to indulge themselves,” Hask said, and Juno could not tell what he meant, nor exactly where he was in the darkness of the tent.

“Their desires, especially,” he continued.

Juno’s smile fell first after he spoke. She quickly turned pale, when she felt his hoof against her hind leg, gliding along her coat.

She would have screamed, if his other hoof had not stuffed itself over her mouth. She squealed into his hoof, and thrashed against him, while he climbed over top of her.

“Hey, now, I think it’s only fair. We took you in, and fed you, huh? Come on, go easy,” he said, attempting to coax her while she fought against his grip.

“A pretty thing like you should have thought as much,” he continued, and she could feel his weight on top of her, while tears began to well in her eyes, and she buckled desperately to wriggle free, to no avail.

“A pretty thing with brains, too, how about that. You were right about us the first time,” Hask laughed, “The last ponies we came across meant to sell their grain in Canterlot. What a shame, they ran into us first.”

Juno continued squealing, while Hask muffled her with his hoof.

“I said take it easy, did you hear me?” Hask said, dropping his relaxed demeanor, roughly reaching for her throat.

But before he could get any further, some rummaging from outside made him alert, and he perked up from on top of Juno.

Ponies’ shouting could be heard from outside, and Hask could feel a bead of sweat slip off his chin. He glanced back at Juno.

“Stay here,” he muttered, before promptly shoving himself off of her, and storming out of the tent.

Juno could feel her breath racing, and her eyes dart from side to side madly in the dark. Her mind had gone blank, and she was more or less paralyzed, lying on her back right where Hask had left her.

She was almost in a state of trance, broken only when she heard a loud crack and more ponies’ voices scattering around the tent.

Juno weakly picked herself up from the ground, and crawled out of the tent.

She froze at soon as she made it outside, watching as the other tent was torn to the ground by a pack of roughly sixteen ponies, clad in gleaming silver mail.

Juno panicked, and rushed to hide herself behind the tent. She couldn’t stop herself from peeking out, however, and watching on as Hask was thrown alongside Tails, Bender, and Boze, tossed to the ground and held at swordpoint.

She ducked back down, when two more soldiers approached from nearby on the dirt road leading back towards Ponyville.

“These are the ones, sir. Outlaws…” said one. His companions, a green-maned stallion with a matching feathery crest on his helmet, grunted in approval.

He must have nodded or given a wave to his subordinates, as Juno soon heard them pick up Hask and the others, and stick them in chains, and begin marching them off towards the platoon’s road convoy.

Juno, for a moment, believed herself safe in hiding, that was until she felt a hoof snag her by the shoulder, dragging her out from behind the tent.

“Sir! Another one,” said the soldier, who had a hold of Juno, now by her mane. She struggled against him, hopelessly.

“Wait! I’m not-” she attempted to say, before the soldier could smack her across the face.

The green-maned stallion glanced towards the road, and the guard understood, dragging her off to be chained up with the others.

She groaned while he ruthlessly dragged her by her mane, enduring a series of bruises as she scraped against the dirt. And her vision began to blur, when her head fell hard against a jagged rock.

Rivers of orange neon snaked their way down Maiden Lane, where Rarity kept herself hidden beneath a strawberry shawl.

Her companion, the crystal guard she had escaped the palace with, still had some maculate specks of blood on his face.

They had been wandering the city for what felt like hours, speaking little to one another, focusing only on avoiding catching any street patrols’ attention.

Escaping the bustling sidewalk, the pair of them managed to split off into a small alleyway, which reeked of spoiled discards from the nearby Farasi restaurant.

That night, the air was hot like a sauna, and Rarity had to wipe some sweat off her brow. She knew they couldn’t stay here for long, what with guards on the prowl, though a brief rest was much-needed.

But it wasn’t a royal guard who caught them by surprise, instead it was a more familiar face.

Trixie came stumbling out from the street crowd, dodging a low-hanging string-held lamp and approaching the two of them.

The crystal guard, who did not recognize her, rose to his hooves, expecting a fight.

Rarity jumped ahead of him, before he could land his first punch.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Rarity said, “But it’s good to see you.”

“It took me ages to find you,” Trixie said, regretfully, before her eyes darted over to the guard, “Who’s your friend?”

“Starbuck,” the guard answered, on his own behalf, “Nice to meet you.”

The stallion was faint turquoise in color, and appeared young for a corporal.

“We helped each other escape,” Rarity explained, “I thought Twilight would have kept all of that quiet, perhaps I was wrong.”

“You’re not wrong. Equestria doesn’t know what happened. But Alias does, and he’s looking for you.”

Rarity’s lips tightened.

“Still fraternizing with those sanctimonious bloodsuckers, are you? Can’t say I’m surprised. There really is no low you wouldn’t stoop to, is there?”

“The Erased are hunting you down, as we speak,” Trixie said, wiping the smirk off Rarity’s face, “I came to help you, to buy you time. But I need a favor.”

Rarity raised an eyebrow.

“Well don’t be coy, darling, what is it?”

“You’ve still got that letter Cadance gave you?”

Rarity’s eyes widened, shocked that Trixie could know of such a thing.

Starbuck glanced at Rarity, having been unaware of what Rarity was carrying in her purse.

“If we leak that to the press…There won’t be any more doubt about who’s to blame for all of this.”

Rarity recoiled at the thought.

“Cadance had the same idea. Surely, there must be some way to go about this without pouring gasoline on the fire.”

“This is our last chance,” Trixie said, “Those are Cadance’s words. Ponies trust her. If this gets buried, like every other lead we’ve had, Twilight wins.”

“And why, pray tell, what I trust you of all ponies with such a task?”

“Because you’ve got nopony else,” Trixie said, plainly.

Rarity sighed, struggling to budge.

“I saw what she did. To Cadance, to all those ponies,” Rarity said, softly glancing towards Starbuck for a moment, “...Perhaps it’s better that it’s out of my hooves.”

Rarity dug into her purse, and slowly revealed an off-white envelope, stamped in ruby-red wax.

“No matter the spell that’s taken hold of her,” Rarity said, “Equestria deserves the truth.”

Trixie nodded, and Rarity weakly stretched out her hoof, planting the envelope in Trixie’s.

“We’re going to end this,” Trixie said, though Rarity seemed to lack the same enthusiasm.

She glanced at the ground, and back towards Trixie, as if wishing to disappear right then and there.

“There’s an empty apartment room that the Erased uses sometimes, I’ll write down the address,” Trixie said, stuffing the letter in her bag and retrieving a pen and scrap of paper.

“The two of you should be safe laying low there for a while, it’s out of use.”

While Starbuck beamed in relief, Rarity could felt her chest flutter.

“That’s generous of you, darling. But Sweetie Belle-”

“-Is heading back to Ponyville,” Trixie said, “I already made the arrangements.”

Rarity was speechless for a moment.

“On the Express? By herself? Twilight’s not the only pony who’s lost her mind!”

“She’ll be safer in Ponyville, you know that. The farther from Twilight, the better off she’ll be...”

Rarity supposed she was right.

“Give it a week until the royals and the Erased all forget about you, and get out of the city. Your friend here would be smart to do the same.”

Rarity hesitated.

“A lovely proposition,” Rarity said, “...But Twilight needs me, Trixie. I remember the pony she used to be. I need to be at her side.”

Trixie was baffled, but nodded along.

Your funeral,” Trixie muttered, “...I’ll check on you in a few days. Be safe.”

Rarity wavered, and she was mournful almost, as if watching a ghost glide up through the air.

“Take care,” she said, weakly.

Trixie nodded her goodbye, and glanced at Starbuck to her right, before making her way back towards the street crowd.

A smile came to her then. She imagined Starlight at her side, trotting along, and Trixie cursed Twilight in the same fleeting thought. Here was her vengeance, Trixie thought, and this time Twilight would not endure.

Down the drizzle-drenched path, that winded and weaved through the city in narrow lanes, the rain slid off the gutters of pink, red, and white townhouses, where Wallflower Blush sauntered on.

Ahead, Bon Bon and Suri tried their best to not muddy their hooves, while Sunset trudged along at the front.

Sunset had kept them off the main roads, for fear of royal patrols, whose prowling eyes scoured the city day and night.

But at the gate of one alley block, the grey morning light brought a smile to Sunset’s face, and she turned back to the others.

“This is the place,” Sunset said at last, throwing open the gate and entering into a small neighborhood, buried underneath a set of stacked apartment buildings, that teetered in their rusty frames.

Rounding past a short wall of rigid grey bricks that guarded an overgrown yard and a dilapidated, red-roofed hovel of a home, Wallflower’s eyes widened in disbelief, at the gothic eyesore that sat between the rows of cookie-cutter Canterlot residences.

“What kind of pony would live in a place like that?” Suri muttered.

“She’s a bit of a hermit. And she’s not keen on visitors,” Sunset replied.

“That, I can believe,” Suri said, glaring at the patches of moss that oozed out from the surrounding stone wall.

“Just follow my lead, and don’t get her riled up,” Sunset advised.

Wallflower came last in the pack, as the four of them neared the front door.

But, to Sunset’s dismay, she found there was no door to the house, nor window, though she could have sworn otherwise during her last visit.

“We might have a problem, ‘kay,” Suri said, flatly.

“How the hay do you get inside?” Bon Bon asked, nervously checking her shoulder to see if they could be spotted from the street nearby.

“Just give me a second,” Sunset said, stalking about the property, searching for a point of entry, to no avail. For the entirety of the house, all she could find was brick, brick, and more brick.

“We can’t be out here like this for long,” Wallflower said, impatiently. Some plan this is, she thought to herself, glaring at Sunset.

“Just give me a second,” Sunset repeated, angrily.

She continued pacing around, almost desperately, until a thought came to her.

She had meant to teleport, though her spell fell apart on impact.

“What the-” Sunset muttered, and she tried a second time, with the same result.

“Wait…” Sunset said, before her horn ignited electric blue, and a wave of magic overcame the whole of the house.

And the air began to twitch and tremble, when the veiled vestige of the house she once recognized came to life, with its door just a few feet to her Sunset’s right.

“It’s a spell of concealment,” Sunset said, laughing, “Go figure.”

Sunset marched up towards the door, half-visible through the hazy spell.

Her horn burned bright, and before the others could stop her, the door came springing off its hinges, half-burned to ash.

Sunset glanced at a horrified Wallflower, and smirked, before trotting off inside.

“You could’ve just knocked,” Suri muttered.

The three of them followed Sunset inside, taking in the cluttered mess of parchments, books, and dark velvet furniture.

A pony came dashing in from another room, and her face said everything that her words couldn’t. She was a pale-cream unicorn, with a scarlet and purple mane, whose face was mostly hidden beneath a pair of black spectacles, held together with tape.

What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” the pony exclaimed, “Are you insane?! I just got that door replaced! Look at what you’ve done! Oh! You’re going to-”

The pony trailed off, as her eyes centered on Sunset.

You,” the pony muttered, through gritted teeth. She marched up to Sunset, unafraid, and her horn began to glow, “I thought you’d have gotten the message by now. I don’t want anything to do with you.

Moon Dancer,” Sunset cooed, “You didn’t really think your little spells would keep me away, did you?”

“No, I guess I underestimated how much of a relentless pest you’d be. How silly of me.”

Moon Dancer’s eyes drifted past the others, and landed on Bon Bon.

“Ah, the world-class monster hunter. Not surprised you’ve picked such dreadful company.”

“It’s nice to see you too,” Bon Bon said, rolling her eyes.

“We need your help,” Sunset said, bluntly.

Ha!” Moon Dancer exclaimed, “I don’t owe you a thing,” Moon Dancer said.

Sunset ignored her, and reached into her duffel bag, retrieving the three photographs of Razor Blade and his mangled cohorts.

Sunset set them down on a nearby coffee table.

Moon Dancer was unable to resist stealing a glance.

“What the hell am I looking at? Some college student’s modern art final?”

“This is real,” Sunset said, “Two days ago. Eight in all. Whoever did this, is probably after us next.”

“Ah. That sounds wonderful, then. One less threat to the structural integrity of my home.”

“This is serious,” Sunset said, “Throw me a bone, just this once.”
Moon Dancer glared at her, and sighed, exaggeratedly.
She trotted over to the coffee table, and glanced at the photos.

“Your friends can help themselves to the coffee. But don’t you dare use up any of my sugar. That’s for me.

“Understood,” Bon Bon replied, dragging Suri along with her towards the kitchen.

“Ah,” Moon Dancer said, having examined one photo in particular, “Look there,” she continued, pointing at one burning red gash in a pony’s side, “That is a trucidation spell, army standard. Performed a little gratuitously though, if you ask me.”

“How many ponies?” Wallflower asked.

Moon Dancer glared at Wallflower.

Who’s this?”

“Nobody,” Sunset dismissed.

“Wallflower Blush,” Wallflower said, softly.

“Well, Wallflower Blush, I’d wager just one. The puncture angles are all coming from the exact same spot.”

“Just one?” said Bon Bon, who had returned from the kitchen with a fresh cup of coffee, “Doesn’t sound so bad.”

“One pony, who could take out eight all on their own,” Sunset said, almost in disbelief, “How many of Twilight’s dogs could be capable of that?”

“It’d have to be a powerful unicorn, to master that kind of spell,” Moon Dancer said, as if it was obvious, “A few in the Nine could do it, Twilight’s personal guard. Or maybe Twilight herself, in which case you’d be really screwed. Look, it doesn’t really matter. They’ll find you sooner than later, and by the looks of it, this isn’t going to be pretty.”

Sunset scoffed, as her mind perused through a catalog of potential plans.

“You don’t have to fight out in the open,” Moon Dancer sighed, “Haven’t you got a bargaining chip?”

Sunset stared at her, blankly.


Moon Dancer glanced between them all, and her smug scowl fell from her face.

“Gilded Lily, the kidnapping. That wasn’t you?”

Who?” Sunset said.

“It’s all over the news. I assumed you had something to do with it,” Moon Dancer said, trotting over to retrieve yesterday’s newspaper off the coffee table.

Sunset and Wallflower battled for a closer view, though the headline was enough cause for concern.

“Some bigwig’s niece disappeared. So what? That’s got to happen all the time,’ Sunset said.

Moon Dancer glanced at the ground.

“Those friends of yours,” she said, drawing her words out as the gears began turning, “Who were they?”

“...Some ponies I knew from Manehattan. What’s it to you?” Suri said.

“Who did they work for?” Moon Dancer said, annoyed having to requalify her question.

“They were powder-runners, they used to work for a pony called Trench. He sent them down to pick up the five-thousand I owed him. But we made a new deal - Razor would let us off the hook and give us a place to stay, if I paid him off and we did a couple jobs for him. He wanted us to meet, when we came to see him, and that’s what we found,” Suri said, gesturing towards the photographs, “Now, ‘kay, if you’re through with the interrogation…

Suri reached to light a cigarette, as her face flushed red. Her thoughts drifted back to her old office in Manehattan, swimming in snowtrails and entertaining a daily lover. She would have it all again, someday, or at least she promised herself as much. She turned away from the others, though Wallflower had noticed the shift in her gaze.

Moon Dancer, meanwhile, glanced back at the photographs.

“Gilded Lily’s uncle is a railroad mogul, his name’s Fancy Pants. That little gentry club of his, Canterlot’s creme de la creme, they’ve worked themselves in with criminal clans and families from all over Equestria. Manehattan, especially. Odds are those friends of yours had a stake in something that didn’t have to do with you. Somepony wanted them quiet.”

“So what, you’re saying we’ve got nothing to worry about?” Suri asked.

“I wouldn’t count on that. Your friend Razor Blade sounds like the type to sell you out, and considering the price on your heads, I wouldn’t blame him. Poor idiot. You’re not safe, but if you want an upper hoof, Fancy Pants might know more about what this is all about,” Moon Dancer suggested, “And the sooner you go bother him instead of me, the better.”

“And his niece?” came Sunset.

“That’s the part I can't figure out. If you’re telling the truth, and she’s not stuffed in the trunk of your car somewhere.”

“Not that I can remember,” Bon Bon smirked.

“Look, it’s just the timing of it all that’s suspicious. One day his niece goes missing, the next day these friends of yours all wind up murdered. They’re related, somehow.”

Sunset glanced at Wallflower, who seemed unconvinced.

“It’s worth a shot,” Sunset said.

“We shouldn’t be throwing ourselves back in the fray,” Wallflower said, “Especially with you leading the charge. Ponies are going to get hurt.”

“We’re backed against a wall,” Sunset said, “It’s hunt or be hunted. Twilight’s never going to give up the chase. Whatever leg up on her we can get, we should take.”

Wallflower narrowed her eyes, and Sunset took a step towards her, as if expecting an altercation to ensue.

They kept on staring the other down, even after the sound of rummaging outside took the others by surprise.

“More friends of yours?” Moon Dancer asked, hesitantly.

“Not likely,” Bon Bon said, “Sunset?”

Sunset sighed and turned away from Wallflower, to face the source of the commotion.

“They’ve found us.”

From outside the window, Moon Dancer could count at least eight royal guards exiting their carriage parked down the street, marching up towards her front stoop.

Only, as far as the guards could tell, there was no front stoop. The concealment spell had returned, and from the exterior, the doors and windows were once again replaced by solid brick.

“It’ll take them longer to figure out the spell,” Sunset said, collecting the three photographs and the newspaper, and stuffing them all in her duffel bag.

“You’ve led them right to me,” Moon Dancer seethed, turning to Sunset, “What the hell am I supposed to do now?”

“You can come up with a good alibi,” Sunset said, approaching Moon Dancer, “Or…you can come with us.”

Moon Dancer laughed at the very idea.

“I heard what happened in Ponyville. Quite a coincidence, you’d just paid a visit.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Sunset said.

“Um, what is she talking about?” Bon Bon asked.

More and more royal guards began to encircle the house, struggling to decipher Moon Dancer’s spell.

“Ten dead. Half the city turned to ash,” Moon Dancer laughed, “Just another day in the life of Sunset Shimmer.”

Wallflower and Bon Bon turned to face Sunset, who glanced at the ground, hesitating. Bon Bon clenched her hooves and wished she’d never left Ponyville to begin with. Wallflower was less shocked at what Sunset had done, and more so surprised to see what appeared to be regret behind those out cyan eyes.

“It wasn’t kind,” Sunset said, grimly, “It wasn’t brave, it wasn’t decent. But some ponies need a taste of their own medicine.”

Suri backed away from the door, as a series of banging hooves shook her alert.

“Twilight’s not finished yet,” Sunset said, “And neither are we.”

“We shouldn’t try to beat her at her own game,” Wallflower said, “It isn’t right.”

That’s who we are,” Sunset snapped, “Nopony else is going to play at her level. But we’re not like everypony else. We’re the bottom-of-the-barrel, the discards. Everypony that’s tried playing fair, has wound up dead. We’re all that’s left.”

Sunset glanced over back to Moon Dancer, while the guards’ pounding rang louder outside.

“Time’s ticking away, Moon Dancer,” Sunset said, “Are you in or out?”

Moon Dancer sputtered, her eyes darting sporadically between Sunset and the window.

For Celestia’s sake,” Moon Dancer muttered, “Of all the rotten deals…”

“I’ll take that as a yes, now come on, before they wise up” Sunset said, grabbing Moon Dancer by the hoof.

Sunset gathered the others together, and began charging her horn.

“I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship,” Sunset grinned, while Moon Dancer sighed in disgust.

Sunset’s horn glowed blue, and the five of them disappeared in a flash of light, sending pieces of parchments spiraling off in the breeze.

By the bustling rows of buzzing computers and blinking color consoles, Trixie Lulamoon rubbed her tired eyes, having only returned to headquarters that morning.

Alias was mid-reprimand, his shadow cast against the great canvas screen that made up the front-facing wall of the command center. Rings of desks and postings encircled the screen, where ponies were busy flying into a frenzied fluster.

Time seemed to move slower by the instant, as Trixie’s eyes glided up past the cubicles and trembling agents, to the widescreen beyond. She made out the face of Bravo, head anchor of the Equestrian News Network, whose glimmering grin was long lost.

The anonymous source continues with…Princess Cadance has indicated that Princess Twilight had played some role in the Ponyville murders, though, we can’t be sure…Waiting on verification….Princess Cadance has made no public appearance in two days….I don’t know what to make of this, folks.”

The letter had gone through, she realized, as she had intended after slipping it in Canterlot Daily’s mailbox the previous night.

“Ponies have already begun gathering in Central Plaza, and…here’s more, Cloudsdale, Baltimare, Vanhoover, have all declared states of emergency…The rioting is nationwide. Celestia save us. Waiting now for updates.”

The chaos in the command center made sense to her, at that moment, and she glanced over at Alias. He had been staring at her since she first arrived, his face gaunt, his eyes blood-red.
What have you done?”

Author's Note:

Sorry for the delay!! Hoping to get the next one out a lot sooner. Thanks for reading, feedback always welcomed!