• Published 30th Sep 2022
  • 962 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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06: The Dragon Queen

Blood and dust swept up against weathered stone and red-hot steel, where the howling and barking and bleating funneled into a muddled shriek, whimpering across the walls.

The weaving caves and tunnels were the work of the Velvet Regiment, holding out in the hills above the Badlands for week after week, starved and anxious for sunlight. First, the rats went, then the boots, then the dogs and cats. But despair crept ever closer, even when the first few deserters returned to their posts in separate pieces, a message from the enemy that watched them from beyond the ridge.

Periwinkle Radiance was too weak to budge in her chains, strung up by her hooves like a marionette, dangling from the ceiling. The dragons had pursued her regiment deep into the hills, starving them out until their defenses crumbled completely. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them came, clawing and crawling, all desperate for a taste of their prey. They breached first through the north entry, and swarmed through the tunnels, ripping apart each and every pony they encountered. They bit and slashed and tore, and laughed and jeered, toying with their emaciated victims, tearing them limb from limb one at a time.

Periwinkle herself was missing her hind leg, which had been twisted and ripped off by some young dragon’s sharp-toothed jaw. It was a bloody, screaming affair, though in the hours since, Periwinkle no longer had the strength to make much of a fuss. Her deep blue locks were matted with blood, as was her snow-white coat. There remained a gaping wound below her knee, now a dripping stump. The dragons had kept her alive for hours now, not before taking care to hold her down and saw off her horn. Grinding metal spikes coughed up dust as they cut through the marrow, until at last they severed all the way through. Her head was pounding as a result, as the magic inside her fizzled and twitched, abandoned without any outlet for release.

Four hours now, the dragons kept her there, occasionally slashing off pieces of meat to chew on, all while she was cursed to watch on as more and more of her comrades were slaughtered right in front of her. Each time they were crying out her name, begging for her to save them somehow. But all she could do was watch on in silence, helpless as her captors laughed and laughed. The room she was in reeked of gore, and the smell had already made her vomit, soiling her white coat.

And when the distant, echoing screams seemed to finally give out, Periwinkle’s ears picked up on a new sound. The dragons’ laughter subsided. The cave itself seemed to hold its tongue; no more drops of water fell from the ceiling, and the low mutter of the wind outside drew still.

She managed to open her eyes, but could not bear to glance down at her deformed body. She could feel how pale she was, how weak she was, as the blood continued to drain out of her.

And a new shadow arrived in the corners of her eyes, lurching out from another tunnel, sending the dragons scurrying to the corners of the cave, meekly hiding their eyes.

She was a dragon herself, tall and athletic in build, pale purple with an off-white underbelly. She wore a crown of four white horns, two by her ears and two higher up, sprouting from the tops of her skull. And her eyes were deep red, ruby red, endless bloody voids. She stood upright and proud, with a series of blood-red diadems hanging off her neck. The armor she wore was minimal, flexible, but sturdy, complete with black steel and spikes by her shoulders, and more red-gem fixtures.

Periwinkle recognized the dragoness and her haunting gaze, and made her best effort to keep her head up. This was the dragon empress, Cinder, the one Twilight Sparkle had warned her of.

Cinder seemed delighted by Periwinkle’s attempt at straightening up, and tilted her head back, approaching Periwinkle with a raised claw.

“What a pretty face,” she purred, “I wish I’d known beforehand. I could’ve made good use of you.”

“Equestria won’t forget this,” Periwinkle coughed, narrowing her eyes.

“I hope not,” the dragoness said, “...We’re following the last of your stragglers over to High Water. Four of your friends confirmed that as the rendezvous, before we put them out of their misery. So be smart and don’t make up a new story.”

Periwinkle gritted her teeth, hanging her head in defeat.

“Don’t look so glum, dearie,” Cinder smiled, “Take comfort in knowing all of Equestria shares your fate. Your princess has made it so. Soon enough she'll see the change in the winds, and come out and face us. She may take as long as she likes. Judgment will come for all.”

Cinder climbed up a short rise to a hole in the cave wall, and could make out the northbound road in the distance, stretching off into the setting sun. Canterlot lay at the end of that road, somewhere. Each day she drew a few steps closer.

Cinder turned away from the view and crept back down into the cave. She left Periwinkle with a parting glance. The dragons, meanwhile, began to creep closer, waiting for Cinder to disappear down another tunnel.

Leave her face. Such a pretty face.”

Periwinkle’s eyes widened, as Cinder's grinning shadow slithered off into the darkness.

And the dragons around her began to drool and laugh and grin, the twelve of them all descending upon her. Periwinkle screamed, as the chains came loose and they turned her over, eager to share the spoils.

Cinder, meanwhile, shut her eyes for a moment to the sound of Periwinkle’s screams, and smiled to herself.

Soon all of Equestria would share this fate, she thought to herself. And her smile grew just a bit wider.

A torrent roar set the air ablaze, shaking the earth and shattering the sky, there in that havoc on the hill.

A burst of blue light stood at the center of the tempest, and from it came a pony, rough-tumbling out like a beastly birth. And behind him came a companion, screaming all the while, clawing for a hold of something in the ether. And soon she found refuge from the spiral, upon landing in the grass with a bone-rattling smack.

Gasping for breath, Lightning Dust lifted her head from the dirt, in time to see the blue vortex above dissipate into dust, shrinking and crumbling right before her eyes, until nothing remained.

Kickstart lay beside her, frantically grabbing at his chest with trembling hooves, heaving and coughing and crawling away from where he had fallen.

Lightning stretched her jaw and shook off the specks of ice that had grown on her coat. She could do little to ease her headache, however, that pounded so hard she thought her skull might be lying on the brink of implosion.

Hey,” Lightning managed, weakly pulling herself across the grass toward him. She knew better than to try and stand, while her skin was ghostly pale and her stomach was tied in knots.

Kickstart jumped at Lightning’s touch, springing back to the grass like a cornered animal.

“Kickstart,” Lightning said, hesitantly. Her voice began to quiver, and she reeled her hoof back, having noticed the streaks of ash on his chest and the blistering red veins that poked out from beneath his skin.

Lightning allowed him some time to catch his breath, and lifted her gaze to the sky. There was Cloudsdale, a hazy silhouette, floating by in the current.

Scootaloo!” Lightning said under her breath, as her eyes widened and her skin turned even paler, paler still, “She’s still up there! Kickstart! She’s still up there! We left her!

Kickstart reached for her, only for Lightning to dart away, falling back onto the grass.

There was a bloody ring around one of his eyes, and there was a dim red glow beneath his skin.

He saw the fear in her eyes, and brought his hoof back, sitting down in the grass, hardly strong enough now to even prop himself up.

The pressure in his chest had not yet subsided, as it tended to do with prior incidents. Incidents that were kept quiet, from all except for Scootaloo, who was steadfast in minding his business. Blasting beams of magic through his eyes, turning water to boil with a blink, breathing flumes of fire, and now teleportation. He was reluctant to tell the others - what would be left of him besides this freak of nature, some experimental anomaly? He was alone to blame, he thought, for what had happened. He made the mistake of panicking, of rushing the unstable instinct inside him, that voice in his mind that grew stronger each day. Only, the voice was not his. They were several, all at once, all together, screaming and whispering and contradicting each other. They turned him every which way, and in these fleeting moments of weakness, they had the upper hand. How soon before he was no longer in control, he wondered. How long before the Erased had their victory, before his mind succumbed to this infernal sentence, before his fate was sealed?

Lightning, meanwhile, was a blubbering mess, desperately trying to muster the strength to sprout her wings. But her body refused, and she was too weak to do much else than sit idly.

“What did you do to me?” Lightning cried, “He took her! We have to get her! We have to go back!”

Kickstart shook his head, softly.

“If you run back in there, he’ll kill her. We’re gonna get her back, but…we’ve gotta do it the way he said. Lightning. We’re gonna get her back,” he said.

Lightning tried to control her breathing, and glanced back at him, her eyes red and gushing out tears.

“I’m sorry,” Lightning said, wiping her eyes, “It’s not your fault.”

“No, it is, I just….I don’t know how to control it,” Kickstart said, “Whatever it is, it’s getting worse.”

“No kidding,” Lightning said, sniffling and taking a deep breath to calm herself down, “We have to find a phone, and call Suri. We have to tell the others.”

Kickstart nodded and reached for his chest, which continued to burn. Lightning climbed over towards him. She rested her hoof on his shoulder, and it was hot to the touch.

“I’m alright,” Kickstart insisted, though Lightning had trouble believing him.

Lightning sighed and stumbled backwards on her knees.

“I was supposed to protect her,” Lightning whispered, her eyes falling to the ground, “I promised.

Kickstart took a great deep breath and pushed off the ground, staggering up to his hooves with a vicious growl.

He struggled over toward her and stretched out his hoof once again.

“Let’s make things right,” Kickstart said.

Lightning felt her heart twist in her chest, and she reached to wipe her eyes again.

She raised her hoof, clasping Kickstart with a firm grip.

Sunlight poured off the copper rooftops, flooding the city streets below, while the seabirds sailed overhead, disappearing into rose-dust clouds and perching on mossy stone spires.

Vertigo could taste the salt in the air, where the sea’s deep breath could still reach, and wiped the sweat off his brow. His armor, once golden now scuffed with dirt, felt heavier than ever before. His great green plume shivered in the wind, a bright beacon resonant above the coming crowds.

He was approaching his third week in the old bay city of Irwind, where the summer heat lingered on, even as the autumn winds crept closer from the north.

Now, Irwind was not precisely a possession of Equestria, having been ruled independently as a maritime city-state for nearly a century. Basking in the sun below the San Palomino Desert, and farther still at the edge of the Deep Wood, the city sat in the southwest of the Equestrian continent, along the South Luna Sea, or, as it was called by its local populace, the Meditermarian Sea.

Irwind had long remained outside Equestrian borders, having developed first as a trading post run by merchants sailing from Las Pegasus and the Western Continent, Primaeva.

For six decades now, it was the Azimuth family who had overseen the rule of law and trade relations of the city, negotiating mutually beneficial agreements with Equestria and beyond.

Irwind served as the capital of its region, Augusta, once known as the Nightshade Settlements. Within those borders, the Ghostfort stood in the Deep Wood, along with the old castle-city, Mercy Hill. And along the shore, beyond Irwind there was Newport in the north, and the Shimmering Spires in the south.

Lady Azimuth had remained in Canterlot even after the Grand Galloping Gala, reluctant to leave the safety of the palace while the city continued to erupt into chaos. And her son, Hydrangea, now a member of the Nine, was obligated to remain as well, to serve Twilight Sparkle in whatever facet she required,

And so was left the last member of the family, poor Delphinium, the youngest child of Azimuth, whose authority over the city had been charged only in name. Cursed to toil in her tower and watch on while her city falls deeper into desolation.

But it was not Delphi who had organized the negotiations with the revolutionaries, however, and it was not Delphi who ordered supplies to be rounded up from the nearest military storehouses north of the Deep Wood.

Vertigo hardly cared to indulge himself in the spoils of celebration, while his soldiers continued marching on through the city gates, driving carriages packed to the brim with barrels of food, medicine, clothing, and other supplies. To have organized such an effort only took him a week, having sent his fastest couriers to make way for the nearest outpost in the Red Gap. There, they would rally additional support from the towns of Dangling and Hilltop, and return south, gathering more supplies as they went.

And when the first shipments arrived, the ponies of Irwind were wary, unsure whether it was wise to accept any gifts from the royal army. It was not until Vertigo could meet with the revolutionaries face-to-face, that a degree of trust could be established. And over time, the starving poor began to appear in droves at the town square, crawling out from their stowaways and makeshift shelters.

Carriages ran through the street daily now, bearing soldiers tossing off crates and packages to the crowds. And after the third day, there was even merriment in the streets, with banners hung from tenement windows, and storefront decorated with flags and ornaments, all of them the color green. Green like the plume on Vertigo’s helmet, the very sight of which demanded cheers from the crowd.

That night, in the Governor’s Palace, Vertigo could still hear his name being called out in the streets. He thought it was only an echo from the day, only to find there remained a small group of citizens outside the palace gate.

The ache in his head told him he had better get some rest. The work was not quite done, after all.

Captain,” came the siren’s song, slipping out from the doors to the palace lounge. He had meant to pass by the place without a second glance, and had not noticed Delphi curled up on the red satin couch, with golden edges and frills. She wore a deep green gown, darker than the tone of her soft sea-green coat, while her chestnut mane was done up in billowing bundles of curls.

Vertigo came to a stop, reluctant to ignore the girl’s call.

“My lady, I should wish you goodnight,” Vertigo said, with a smile and a wave.

“You will, but later,” Delphi said, sitting up on the couch, “Come over here and have a drink with me.”

Vertigo glanced at the ground.

“My lady, I-”

“Oh, but you must. Captain, we’ve yet to celebrate all you’ve done for my city. All you’ve done for me,” she smiled, “Come over here. C’mon, don’t make me beg.”

Vertigo gritted his teeth and caved into her demands, finding trouble in refusing her yawning pleas.

He set his helmet down on a coffee table near the couch. The room glowed gold, with its decadent furniture and chandeliers, with its deep red carpets and silky-soft pillows.

“I owe you a great deal,” Delphi said, leaning over the edge of the couch to pour him a drink of her chardonnay, “My wicked mother left me a prisoner in my own palace, my city to rot and starve.”

“This is only a start,” Vertigo said, hesitantly accepting the drink, “They’ll be well-fed for a few weeks, maybe longer…Then they’ll starve again.”

“I’m going to change that,” Delphi insisted, “By working with them.”

Vertigo smiled, amused by her confidence.

“There’s a smile,” Delphi grinned, “I didn’t know I had what it takes to break a soldier’s sternness.”

Vertigo shook his head and took a few great gulps of his drink.

“You’ve become quite the celebrity here,” Delphi smirked, “But for some odd reason you seem to resent it.”

Vertigo glared at her.

“Day one - they make it clear, you’re a part of a whole, ” Vertigo said, setting down his glass, “...You might make a difference, but not because of who you are - no, it’s because of what you fight for. But here they are, cheering my name like some liberator.”

“But that is what you are,” Delphi smiled, scooting closer towards him on the couch, “Irwind might’ve crumbled to ash, with all memory of grandeur forgotten, if you hadn’t come. You’ve given them hope of what could be, if only the ponies charged to protect them could fulfill their duty, as you’ve done.”

“My duty is to Twilight Sparkle,” Vertigo corrected, “It was not duty that turned my mind.”

He glanced at her, and she blushed, sitting back against the couch.

“Nopony’s ever given me much thought, not that they should’ve,” Vertigo admitted, “Day in and out, there was never much point in speaking your mind. You’d be ignored, or maybe reprimanded if you made a big stink about it. The ponies who’ve led us into this war don’t like to be reminded of that it's them who are sending thousands to die, though.”

“Forget what your pompous officers with their medals and ribbons have told you. You’ve shown me who you are already,” Delphi said, glancing out the window.

Vertigo followed her gaze, and sighed.

“Twilight sent me here as a punishment, you should know,” Vertigo said, “To bide my time putting down insurrections, instead of fighting the enemy at our doorstep. It was some show of pride for her, to keep me here and make me watch while the dragons raid the south, razing entire villages and slaughtering thousands. Instead she's sent Hawkbit, that self-satisfied cunt, to lead the van to challenge them. He's too much of a coward to give the dragons the fight they deserve. And ponies will continue to suffer as a result. I know the southern lands, I know its ponies. It should've been me leading the van. Twilight has made me impotent, stripped me of all honor.”

Delphi leaned closer, her eyes circling her.

“Honor is what you make of it. It is earned, not given, not taken away,” Delphi said, as her voice fell to a whisper, “How few there are now - those who might make a stand against tyranny, who might deliver us all from the lawless, and free us from those who would see all the good in this world destroyed.”

Vertigo flinched, eyeing her deeply.

“Equestria has lost its faith. Its heroes have become villains, turning on each other and stepping on everypony who gets in the way. Equestria needs a new champion, a pony with the strength to pick up the pieces, to redeem us,” she continued.

Delphi reached for his hoof.

“And I believe I’m the one to have found him.”

Vertigo could no longer restrain himself, lunging forward to plant his lips on hers, grabbing a hoofful of her blonde locks from behind, and swinging over to climb on top of her.

She was a meadow, sweet like spring honeydew, but with a sharp sting like lemon juice to a wound.

He felt Delphi’s breath near his cheek, and their lips met. Pressing deeper, she was too soft, too slippery, in contrast to Vertigo’s dry, hard lips. Delphi’s cheeks were flushed, and her stomach began to twist. She grabbed at his chest, dragging her hooves against him. And they pressed tighter and looser, again and again, while both their breathing began to harden into something heavy and hot.

She pulled away briefly for a gasp of air and began to play with his mane, leaning in by his ear.

You don’t need her,” Delphi whispered, “Fight for what you know is right. And in time all of Equestria will see the truth - that here stands a pony who deserves their love. Here is a pony who really does deserve the crown.

Vertigo opened his eyes, and gradually pushed off of her, so shocked he could hardly speak. Delphi was still smiling, however, eyeing him down like a half-crazed animal.

“This is treason,” Vertigo stammered, “Your words mean death.”

“You know what you are,” Delphi insisted, “Listen to how they call your name. You were not meant to stay idle and watch the world catch fire. You were not meant to follow the whims of lesser rulers, who are content to reign over the ashes. You were meant to fight.

Vertigo backed away, rising to his hooves.

He shook his head.

He could feel her eyes, clinging onto him, reeling him back toward her. Each time he shut his eyes, he could see hers, blue and endless and all too beautiful to ever forget. Beauty of a strange kind, the kind worth protecting, the kind worth dying for. She was a fool, he thought, hapless and stupid, but true to her nature, with the naive self-assurance of a child. Why then did her words twist at him? Was his own will so weakened that this girl could demand he turn his cloak? It was more than the girl, he reminded himself. She spoke truly, she did, and when once he might have been content to retreat against ambition, behind the excuse of hopeless ineffectiveness, now he had proven himself at last. Outside those very gates the ponies of this city knew that his was the true steel, that his mind was not one to be disregarded so carelessly. Twilight had dismissed him and would dismiss him again even now, perhaps. There might have been a hundred more like him, he thought, too scared to stand up against Twilight. Even his own captain, Wedge Ward, held grievances with the princess. All it would take is one brave enough to take the first leap. And who else might do it, but the one whose name they still called out from the streets?

Vertigo slowly turned around to face her.

“And what good would it do you, for me to abandon you and your city?” Vertigo asked, “For me to have war?”

“Equestria’s fate matters more than my own,” Delphi whispered, “You must do this.”

Vertigo smiled, straightening up, catching a reflection of the gleam in his eyes in the window.

“....Twilight has left Cinder’s wrath unanswered,” Vertigo said, “The dragons expect the road to Canterlot to remain unguarded. I will catch them in their tracks, stomp them out, and send them running back to the Badlands with their tails tucked between their legs. The bloodshed will stop at last. And Twilight will have me to thank.”

Delphi grinned, leaping up back toward him.

“You are my knight, my brave knight,” Delphi chimed, “Show the world what you’ve shown me.”

Vertigo, red in the face with lust, with the thrill of ambition, with the thought of the world cheering his name just like those ponies outside, reached for her again, toppling together back toward the couch.

And even then, the cheers continued outside, echoing hard into the night.

Grey light drained through black tar smoke that wafted up past blood-soaked sewers and burning debris. The streets stunk of charred wreckage, echoing dead screams and the creaking of cracked hinges.

Such was the misery felt throughout the city, that not a single soul seemed brave enough to wander outside any longer. Those grinning traveling troupes with their horns and strings, and those clumsy hopscotch foals, all had gone away. A ghost town remained in the wreckage, a week’s worth of blood and battle and terror.

Sunset Shimmer had anticipated the day Twilight’s majesty would come crumbling down, and the madness that would ensue. Higher up on the mountain, in a mossy gorge tucked away from the chaos below, she may have been content to hide and count her blessings, if not for her impatience.

Lightning Dust should have returned by now. In fact, she should have returned yesterday morning. Lightning Dust was many things, Sunset thought, but not the kind of pony to needlessly dawdle.

Something must have gone wrong.

From the tip of a stony archway at the edge of the gorge, facing down the mountain toward the ruin of Canterlot, Sunset did her best to ignore that gnawing ache in the back of her head.


Sunset flinched, to her chagrin, and glanced behind her to find Wallflower climbing up the rock.

“You’re not usually awake before noon,” Sunset remarked, waiting for Wallflower to struggle up the climb beside her.

“I didn’t know I had it in me,” Wallflower smiled, catching her breath, “...I need to talk to you.”

Sunset glanced at her, with a softer scowl than usual. Wallflower seemed alarmed, having noticed the fire in Sunset’s eyes had dulled down. She opted to proceed as planned, though spoke softly, fearful of an escalatory argument.

“Suri got a call on her cell from Lightning Dust, over a payphone,” Wallflower said. Sunset’s eyes lit up, as if a great burden had been lifted off of her.

“Where is she? Is she safe?” Sunset asked.

“She’s alright, but she’s hurt. Kickstart too. They’re not far from Canterlot, but neither can fly right now.”

Sunset nodded, biting her lip.

“Then we’ve got to go get them,” Sunset insisted.
“There’s more…” Wallflower said, stopping Sunset from trotting off back to the gorge.

“She was a bit hysterical over the phone….Fire Streak has Scootaloo. He and his friends want to meet with us. You, particularly, she said,” Wallflower continued.

Sunset held her tongue before she could let out a string of curses.

“...They should never have brought her along,” Sunset muttered, “They want to meet us? When?”

“Tomorrow at midnight. In the city. Suri knows the location,” Wallflower said.

Sunset shook her head, uncertain.

“First they want to kill us. Now they want to talk things over? This is a trap.”

“Probably,” Wallflower said, glancing at the ground, “But we don’t have much of a choice, if they’ve got Scootaloo.”

Sunset scoffed.

“There’s two ways we come out of that hotel. In body bags, or as henchponies doing the dirty work for this collective of creeps. We’re not getting Scootaloo back either way,” Sunset said.

“We still have to try,” Wallflower insisted.

Sunset glared at her, and nodded, regrettably. She sighed, leaning against the rock, ignoring Wallflower’s gaze.

“No matter what happens, I need you to make an effort not to instigate anything,” Wallflower said.

Sunset scoffed.

“We did things your way last time. Now it’s my turn,” Sunset replied, “You really want to play nice with these elitist billionaires, who kidnapped a middle-schooler? This time I’ll be handling it.”

“Handled it like you did at Ponyville?” Wallflower asked, frustratedly.

But, to Wallflower’s surprise, Sunset seemed to shrink at the mention of Ponyville, and her eyes fell to the ground. Sunset’s face then began to change, warped and furled, and glanced back up at Wallflower.

“You think it’s some proud thing for me?” Sunset stammered, “Yeah. Things got out of hoof. You don’t think I know that? I’d do it differently if I could go back. I can still see them all. I can still hear them. Running for the hills, crying and begging. And the worst thing is - I still remember how good it felt. It felt good to get even. To take away something that mattered to her. Twilight Sparkle took everything from me. When you’re left with nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

“No matter what she did to you,” Wallflower said, “It’s no excuse to take it out on everypony else. I know how you feel, it’s why I did what I did to my village. But it doesn’t help. You didn’t just hurt Twilight, you hurt innocent ponies. I want to forgive you, Sunset, but I need you to get it through your head that the longer you spend hating her with all your heart, the more you convince yourself that you can’t change. That you’re in the right to do horrible things.”

“She made me into this,” Sunset said, through gritted teeth, “Into this monster that everypony thinks I am. So why not embrace it? My life is over, she made sure of it. This is all I am now. All I can do is spite Twilight in any way I can. And who better to do it, than me? This was what I was meant to do. What else have I got?”

“You have us,” Wallflower said, “Me and Bon Bon and Lightning, and Suri and Kickstart and Scootaloo. I don’t care how much you want to deny yourself the chance to change. I know that there’s good in you.”

Sunset glanced at her, and tried not to laugh, amazed by Wallflower’s sincerity.

“Why on earth do you give a damn about me, Wallflower Blush?” Sunset asked.

Wallflower laughed, turning red in the face, glancing at the ground.

“We need each other,” Wallflower said.

“...I’m beginning to think you’re right,” Sunset said, and sighed.

She glanced back at Canterlot below.

“Alright. Let’s handle this. Together.”

Wallflower smiled and followed Sunset back down the ridge.

Snowfall Glitter fixed the brace on her foreleg, and tucked the last strands of her platinum blonde mane into her white and gold helmet.

The ponies of the 2nd Assault Battalion were nearly all accounted for, packing into the carriage transports that waited in orderly rows in front of the Canterlot palace gates.

And by the gate, Snowfall was begrudged to find Styles, waiting there with his bronze helmet and leather armor.

“I heard they’ve made you commander,” Styles chirped, frustrated once Snowfall walked right along past him, “I wonder who else they’ve promoted. Perhaps the dungeon cat.”

“He’ll get it sooner than you ever would,” Snowfall smirked, continuing on.

Styles grinned, lept off of the gate he had been leaning on, and caught up to her.

“You and I are going to be spending a lot of time together. Best to not look so glum about it,” Styles said.

“That will be quite the challenge,” Snowfall muttered.

“Ah, I’ve got it. You’re just upset Twilight didn’t think her dog could handle this alone. Perfectly understandable. A pony of your rank, with your experience. Stuck with a babysitter.”

Snowfall stopped in her tracks, turning to glare at him.

Don't call me dog,” Snowfall spat, staring up at him, "And I'm not upset."

“Ah, then you are glad I’m coming along. I knew you had a soft spot for me,” Styles laughed, skipping past her.

"Wait, that is not what I-” Snowfall called out, her face flushing red.

Styles was already gone, however, joining Flamberge and Venger further down by the edge of the palace road.

“Looks like I nearly missed you.”

Snowfall’s ears perked up, when the voice behind her seemed to draw closer.

Snowfall turned around, her icy blue eyes widening in shock.

Redshift?” Snowfall exclaimed, struggling to make sense of the fact that her thought-to-be-lost comrade was standing right in front of her. Redshift’s serpentine eyes seemed to burn with a green fire, and her blood-red armor was scuffed and dented.

Snowfall jumped towards her to wrap her forelegs around her, and Redshift was shocked to have welcomed the embrace, at least for a few moments.

“Get off,” Redshift barked, “What’s the matter with you?

“We all thought you’d been killed,” Snowfall said.

Redshift scoffed.

“....Looks like Equestria didn’t take too kindly to my absence. Go figure.”

“Nobody’s exactly happy with how things have turned out,” Snowfall said, “Twilight’s sending me north.”

Redshift hesitated, and realized the implications of such an assignment.

“..Well, I don’t care what your friends up there used to mean to you,” Redshift said, snidely marching closer towards her, “They are rebel filth. Every one of our betrayers will face justice. If you don’t have the guts to do it, then I’ll go up there and take their heads myself.”

“Redshift,” came another voice, belonging to Wedge Ward, trotting down the road with a small entourage of royal guards. His golden armor glowed in the morning sunlight, and his smile put Snowfall’s heart at ease.

“You gave us no warning of your return,” Wedge said, suspiciously, “I’d suspect you were a changeling, though nopony can quite stare daggers at me like you can. Not even a changeling could copy that.”

“Captain,” Redshift muttered, “Where is the princess? I need to see her.”

“You’ll find her inside,” Wedge said, “I would advise cleaning yourself up before paying her a visit.”

Redshift scoffed and stormed off, shoving her way through the wall of royal guards to march up the palace road.

Wedge glanced at Snowfall, who felt more like a cadet right then, staring up at him the same way she had done all those years ago at boot camp.

“I thought I’d see you off, and wish you luck,” Wedge said, “I’d give anything to join you both. But Twilight would not have it so.”

“You have nothing to prove to anypony, Captain,” Snowfall said, “It’s me who’s in over her head.”

Wedge smiled and stuck his hoof on her shoulder.

“Even now you still tremble like it’s your first fight,” Wedge smiled, “Twilight chose you for a reason. So have I. Don’t obsess over where you are now, instead remember how far you’ve come.”

“I can’t do this,” Snowfall said, and her voice began to give out, “All I’ve ever had to my name is honor, loyalty…Now I’m made to wage war against the ponies who raised me. My friends, my family, everypony. And Twilight knows it, and is making me go through with it anyway. I've only ever done as she asked, even when I didn't think it was right...Why would she ask this of me?”

"This is a city of liars. Honest loyalty comes as a suspicious thing, it grieves me to say. She wants to test you, I think."

"Hasn't she tested me enough?" Snowfall stammered, lowering her head in despair, "I should not be questioning her, I know. I'm only supposed to serve. But-..."

Wedge led her closer towards him, and she fell upon his chest, burying her head in his shoulder. He held her for a moment, and his smile had begun to wane.

“All we can do is follow what our hearts tell us,” Wedge said, “What does your say?”

Snowfall freed herself from his grasp, and glanced up with teary eyes.

“I have to obey her,” Snowfall said, firmly, “I’ve no choice in the matter.”

“You always have a choice,” Wedge corrected, “Remember what I’ve taught you. And keep an eye out for Styles. I’ve told him to do the same for you.”

Snowfall sniffled and nodded her head. She glanced over her shoulder toward Styles further down the road. He was glancing up at her, before he noticed she was staring right back. He quickly turned away, embarrassed.

Snowfall hid her smile and turned back to Wedge.

“I don’t want to leave you, Captain,” she said.

“I’ll be right here when you get back,” Wedge smiled. He lifted his hoof off her shoulder, and trotted off to speak with Styles.

Snowfall wiped her eyes, and took a deep breath.

She fastened her helmet, and glanced over the palace gate past the mountain peak, to the stormy north that lay ahead, rumbling in low tides, in furious wake.

Stray sheets of ice fled down the current, steady in the shadow of Seaguard’s cold grey stone.

From across the bend, Broadwing stole a glance at the castle walls.

While the Crystal Empire had its fair share of allies in the Highlands, there remained countless holdouts, and those who still claimed loyalty to Twilight. Chiefly among them were Lavender, the Lady of Silkwood, and Stonehoof, the Lord of Haverford.

Stonehoof had wasted no time for Twilight’s leave, before mobilizing what forces he could and moving into Seaguard on the northwest coast. Seaguard was the southernmost castle port of the North, though had historically belonged to the Equestrian Highlanders. It sat up above the Smoky Shore, which held the cities of Seaward Sholes, Vanhoover, and Tall Tale.

Stonehoof’s preemptive occupation of the castle prohibited the Crystal Army from accessing the port, and, by extension, the Northern navy was unable to reach the North Lunar Sea. Northern ports were not fit to propel a southbound naval attack, not while the royals held Seaguard and could keep the Smoky Shore cities protected.

Broadwing had been right to target Seaguard first, but had arrived too late; Stonehoof’s outfit had already locked down the castle, and had withstood the Northern siege for three days already.

Broadwing had not received word from Shining Armor, not since he had left the Crystal City. His army was separated along the road to cover his tracks, gradually applying pressure to the siege.

But Broadwing had no mind for a prolonged siege; word had reached him that the Grand Equestrian Army had begun to depart from Canterlot. Without naval support, and without the Smoky Shore settlements under their control, the Crystal Army would be caught unprepared and under-supplied. Seaguard could not wait.

“Sir,” came Captain Windchill, entering into Broadwing’s command tent. He was surrounded by other of his lieutenants - Mulberry, Esther, and Aleheart, all studying the map of the castle, searching for a weakness to exploit, “...The courier from Stratusburg, he’s just come through.”

“Shining?” Broadwing asked, hoping for some kind of direction from the prince.

“No, it’s to do with the royals,” Windchill said, hesitantly, “They’ve put Snowfall Glitter in charge of the campaign.”

All eyes at the table turned to Windchill. Broadwing gritted his teeth, enraged.

“The witch that sits the throne has put a spell on our friend,” Broadwing supposed, “Never mind it be Snowfall or Celestia herself. They can not withstand us, once we take the sea.”

“The old stallion is a stubborn one,” Windchill acknowledged, joining them at the table.

“We should wait for Shining,” Mulberry said, “We’re no good without him. He’d know what to do.”

Broadwing narrowed his eyes.

“Don’t give up so soon,” Broadwing said, “There was something that occurred to me last night. Far from sound, maybe, but we haven’t the time to wait for a better chance.”

“What is it?” Esther asked.

Broadwing pointed at one spot on the map, at the side that faced the sea.

“Stonehoof’s only got forty-or-so ponies held up there. We’d only need a small number to get inside to take the castle,” Broadwing said, “It’s here. Right here. Some centuries ago, in the time of King Aretheus, the Dains were able to infiltrate a castle like this, against a vanguard of the king’s finest knights. Their method was not to lay siege, or levy some brutish assault as you would assume they would, knowing the Dains.”

The table laughed in unison, before allowing Broadwing to continue.

“They resorted to more resourceful means - a clever plan, tunneling underground from the edge of the sea. They kept the vanguard distracted with their catapults and bonfires and trumpets and arrows,” Broadwing said, “The castle is impregnable from any other route.”

“I know that story too. But the ground here is fickle,” Mulberry pointed out, “Most of those Dains that tried tunneling, they brought on collapse after collapse, and were buried in the dirt. To try it is a death sentence. Otherwise we’d be in the castle already.”

Broadwing shook his head, unconvinced.

“We have no other choice but to try. Every unicorn we have, commit them to the task of breaking through the earth. Bring in the ground-cutters from behind the line. We’ll enter in small groups. We’ve tried every other route. If this doesn’t work, we’ll have lost the war before it’s even begun.”

There was hesitancy about the table.

“What are you waiting for?” Windchill barked, “You heard him! Move!”

Mulberry, Esther, and Aleheart all scurried off from the table, leaving Windchill with Broadwing.

“Our window is closing,” Windchill reminded, “And we’re in no position to fight Snowfall. Not yet, not like this.”

“We take this castle. Then the sea,” Broadwing said, “Then the North, the Highlands, they’ll belong to us.”

Windchill nodded, smiling ear-to-ear.

Broadwing glanced out the crack in the tent, narrowing his eyes at the castle across the river.

Weathered wails haunted the honeycomb hollow, where the jagged stone tops trembled and the rain collected in cavernous lairs.

Pharynx had just finished drenching himself in a bowl of ice water, gritting his teeth in frustration. He had refused to wear his brother’s crown anymore, or even occupy the same throne room. Instead, he was content to remain in his old quarters, a windowless cave stuck up near the top of the changeling hive’s tallest tower.

Malthos had opted to remain in Canterlot, against Pharynx’s wishes. The boy might get himself killed, though Pharynx was reluctant to spare much concern. It was Thorax who had once given him purpose, and he had failed to protect him, as he had sworn to do. Malthos’ fate would not be different, Pharynx supposed, as would his own. Fate had spurned them all. They had been returned to light, only to be damned anew.

A knock at the door returned him to a scowl, spinning around to welcome in the new arrival.

He was greeted by Phasmid, an eighth-molt officer of his, along with four of her underlings. But what caught his eye in particular was the creature bound in chains, held between them. Silver Stream could not manage to meet his gaze, quivering in her chains.

“Finally,” Pharynx growled, stepping aside to allow them all to enter.

“My king,” Phasmid grunted, bowing, “The prince instructed me to send you his regards, and assure you his business in Canterlot is strictly for the interests of the hive.”

Pharynx glanced at Phasmid, who was waiting for a response.

“Has she been harmed?” Pharynx muttered, approaching Silver.

The hippogriff was trembling, her cornflower mane tangled, her eyes heavy with exhaustion. She could hardly lift her head to meet his eyes, as he stared down at her, inspecting her from all sides.

“Not since she entered my custody in Widowbrook, my king,” Phasmid said, “The prince’s soldiers may have roughed her up a bit, I’m afraid.”

Pharynx nodded.

“I want you and your soldiers to wait outside. I need to have a word with our guest.”

“As you wish, my king,” Phasmid said, bowing.

She gestured for her underlings to follow her out the door, which shut with a gentle shake.

Pharynx turned his attention back to Silver, who squirmed under his glare.

“It was not my desire for you to have felt threatened,” Pharynx sighed, “But these things are not always so easy. I had hoped Malthos might have won you over somehow. Foolish as that might have been, it would have spared you the chains and shackles.”

Silver Stream glared up at him, mustering all her courage.

Pharynx smirked.

“With you at my side, the hippogriff fleet will come into my possession, or else succumb to confusion and collapse upon itself. I either gain an ally or lose an enemy. I do regret using you in such a sordid way. Though if you were in my position, you might understand.”

“Yours isn’t the only kingdom to have lost someone,” Silver reminded, “My aunt was murdered right alongside your brother. We could have come together somehow, and figured out who the real enemy is, but instead you’ve betrayed us too. All because you’re scared. Your brother would never have-”

“Do not speak to me of my brother,” Pharynx snarled, “Loved by all, he was. Content to believe in brighter skies, until the first drops of rain sent him slipping into an early grave. Action must be taken. Sitting on the fence will leave you as you are now - a pawn, to be moved about a game you are unfit to play by your own devices.”

“You think you’re so much smarter and better than them! But you’re not! You’re a coward! A killer!” Silver yelled.

Pharynx’s scowl loosened, and, to Silver’s shock, he began to grin.

“I hadn’t thought you’d give up the act so soon,” Pharynx laughed, “....My dear, you should know that changelings do not suffer illusions. Or am I incorrect, Ocellus?

Silver’s eyes widened. But before she could speak, Pharynx already had his hoof over her neck, pressing taut.

In a flash of green light, Silver’s form evaporated in a cloud of smoke and left behind in the now-oversized chains was poor Ocellus, who was trembling in terror.

Pharynx released his grip on her neck.

“You have nothing to fear from me, child. We do not turn on our own kind. Though it seems you still have an issue remembering that. Some time in the dungeon should remedy that.”

Ocellus lunged forward in her chains.

Leave Silver alone!” she yelled.

Pharynx shook his head in dismay.

“Phasmid,” Pharynx said, raising his voice.

Phasmid opened the door without delay, stepping inside and standing at attention. Her jaw dropped for a moment, catching sight of Ocellus sitting in Silver’s chair.

“My king, I-I…Forgive me, sir, I-”

“Quiet,” Pharynx said, raising his hoof, “Our dear compatriot Ocellus has betrayed her country to protect her foreign friend. Still, she has more wits than my idiot son. Twilight still believes we have Silver Stream. Since they don’t have her, and we also don’t have her, she has likely not escaped the city.”

“Malthos is still there, sir. Should I-”

Pharynx narrowed his eyes.

“Make him aware. He might stumble into some stroke of luck, fate willing. You will also go, scour the city. Find her before Twilight does, or else our very first move will have already become a grave blunder. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir. And her?” Phasmid said, glancing at Ocellus.

Pharynx glared down at Ocellus.

“Leave her to me.”

Dirt crumbled out of Broadwing’s open hoof, as he rose up from the ground.

The tunnel stretched into the earth of the ridge, a mile away from the fort of Seaguard. The waves broke nearby, further down the ridge on the cold beach.

“If the earth holds, the castle is ours,” Broadwing reminded.

Behind him, Windchill stood at his side, along with a host of thirty ponies, armed with swords and spears and shields.

“Keep an eye on the pony in front of you. Listen to their steps. We’ll soon lose the light,” Broadwing said.

He motioned for them to follow along behind him, as he took the first steps into the tunnel.

The diggers and spellcasters were still inside, deeper by the first checkpoint, the last point of certainty where the ground would not cave in.

He found them there, Esther among them.

Esther’s horn brightened, revealing her pink face caked in brown dirt.

“My prince,” she said, bowing her head.

Broadwing grinned, impressed with the progress already made.

“Well done,” Broadwing said, before glancing over his shoulder at the line of soldiers behind him, “Carry on. With speed, while their courage remains.”

The surveyors took a step back, and Esther, along with four of her companions, ignited their horns, blasting at the dirt in circular motions, cutting the outlines of the tunnel deeper and deeper. The dirt was eviscerated with each blast.

Broadwing’s company trekked forward with a steady step, waiting as the diggers gradually made their progress.

“If this doesn’t work, we’ll all be buried alive,” Esther said.

“Say it louder, why don’t you,” Broadwing muttered, “I wonder what Shining would think of all this.”

“I’m sure he’ll mention it in your eulogy,” Esther said, shaking her head with concern, “The ground’s getting thinner.”

“Just think about the look on Stonehoof’s face,” Broadwing advised, “That should be motivation enough.”

Esther smirked. And they kept on digging, though as the light from behind them faded, and the ground above them began to tremble and shudder with its weight, there were those in the company who quickly considered turning back.

“Keep the pace!” Broadwing yelled, sensing the uneasiness behind him, “We’re near the castle already. Keep on the path, and keep steady!”

But Esther came to a stop, to Broadwing’s shock.

One of the surveyors had raised his hoof, checking his markings on his map with one of his companions.

He nodded toward Esther, who turned to Broadwing.

“We should be below the courtyard, sir,” Esther said.

Broadwing nodded.

“On my command, take two steps back!” Broadwing yelled, “....One! Two!”

And the company followed suit, each of them taking an even two steps backwards. Not a single soul stumbled or fell out of line, to Broadwing’s relief. He shot a glance back toward Esther, nodding in approval. He glanced back over his shoulder.

“Mulberry, take your ponies to the battlements first. Windchill, take yours to the gate. Open it. I’ll give the signal for Aleheart to move in. Everypony alright?”

There was a hesitancy to the response, though there was enough conviction that Broadwing felt confident in the plan.

“Esther, take us up,” Broadwing ordered, bracing himself at the front of the line.

Esther motioned for the other unicorns to split into a box-formation, while the surveyors scurried back toward the line.

Esther raised her hoof, and her horn ignited. The others followed suit, and directed their magic up towards the ceiling of the tunnel, cutting again in round motions, forming a circle.

Some of the dirt came spilling down over top of them, while most of it disintegrated on impact.

They pushed on, until the first beam of sunlight shot through the specks of grey dirt above.

“I see sunlight!” Esther yelled.

Broadwing drew his sword right there in the tunnel, and stormed forward underneath the hole.

He spread his wings, waiting for Esther and the other unicorns to back away against the tunnel wall.

He jumped up into the air and took flight, darting up straight through the vertical tunnel.

And he reached the dirt ceiling with a heavy impact, pushing through with his shoulder.

He lost his footing in the air as he plowed through the dirt, and toppled up over the ground.

He could breathe the frigid air again, as he came spilling down onto the proper ground, blackened and soiled in dirt.

Broadwing found himself in the courtyard of Seaguard, half-abandoned, with scattered crates of food and weapons left near-empty in the edges.

Up on the walls, the soldiers had not noticed his arrival for a few moments, or at least not until Windchill came charging up through the hole. And behind her came the onslaught of pegasi, flying up through the hole with their arms raised and ready.

Broadwing brought his sword up and flew toward the front gate spiral.

Back above on the battlements, Stonehoof shoved his way to see what had happened, and was shocked to find the company of northerners storming up from the ground like cicadas, rushing the battlements and gates. His commands came quick, but not quick enough, as the castle was overwhelmed from within its own walls. Grieved, he reached for his ax, eager to send these invaders crawling back underground. His eyes found Broadwing below, peering up at him, covered head-to-hoof in dirt. Stonehoof gritted his teeth, and barked his orders at his flustered troops.

Broadwing flew down to the courtyard, glancing at the collection of hostages held over in the corner, as more of his troops entered in through the gate, moving in their carriages of supplies.

At the center of the courtyard, Windchill held her sword to Stonehoof’s throat. Noticing Broadwing’s arrival, she pressed the blade closer.

Broadwing waved for her to be still, and glanced back up at Stonehoof.

“Ah, Lord Broadwing,” Stonehoof remarked, wiping the ash off his face. He was blackened and bloodied, and stuck on his knees for the gash in his hind leg. There were sixteen spears held near his neck, though the old stallion could not move much at all, anyways.

Windchill narrowed her eyes at Stonehoof’s address; Broadwing was no mere lord any longer, after all.

“Some trick. I hadn’t thought the ground would hold,” Stonehoof said, sucking up some snot and coughing up some blood, “And I didn’t think you’d risk your life to try it.”

“The prisoners we’ve taken will not be harmed,” Broadwing said, “I’ll make sure they’re well-fed and taken good care of.”

“That’s more than I’d have done in return,” Stonehoof said, spitting at the ground, “If Canterlot hadn’t dragged its hooves to get up here, I might not have had to march into this wasteland country and hold this wretched fort.”

“Yes, it was strange to find you here, my lord,” Broadwing said, “You once swore an oath to Princess Cadance. To defend her and her lands. Or perhaps in your old age you’ve forgotten.”

Stonehoof laughed at Broadwing’s jape.

“One stroke of luck and he speaks to me like a conqueror to his spoils. Yes I swore that oath. And a hundred more, to Equestria, to Twilight Sparkle, to justice and order. Your band of belligerents means to march south onto my land. That is where your war will be fought. Not in Canterlot. Here. Cadance is beyond your reach. My country will be razed and reduced to ash, all while you harp on about honor and glory. You are a foolish boy, serving the whims of a foolish prince and a council of foolish warmongers.”

Broadwing glanced at the ground, while his soldiers began to turn restless, incensed by Stonehoof’s disrespect.

“This is the first war I have fought. My heart trembles for fear of the blood. For fear of the Northern sons and daughters who I have sent to die far from home. What strange, heedless appetite for war would it be, for a pony with no taste of blood to charge headfirst into the fray, unless he was convinced there was some grave necessity behind it all? Twilight Sparkle has kidnapped our princess, turned Equestria against itself, and here you are, too stubborn to consider any other way than to take the easiest route and serve her without a second thought.”

Stonehoof winced, and resented the implication of cowardice. He straightened himself up, though still could not stagger up past his knees.

“Look around Equestria and see,” Broadwing continued, “War and chaos and calamity. All Twilight Sparkle’s doing. No other. It was her who butchered the dragon empress, the changeling king, the hippogriff queen, our own leaders in Canterlot, for some twisted cause. There is a sickness in that city that can be soothed only through this rebellion. The pony you swore your oath to is no longer herself. You have long been stuck in your ways, and proudly so, maybe. But I will offer you another choice, plainly. The old ways, the rotten ways, we may yet put them behind us. But to do so means to fight.”

Stonehoof growled and gritted his teeth, before pushing with all his might on his injured leg. He managed to stagger up, gasping for breath as he tried to steady himself.

“I’ve seen the sickness you speak of. And it has dwelled in that castle for longer than you know. Celestia kept up her illusions for a thousand moons. This is the way things have always been."

“More is at stake now than ever before,” Broadwing said, “There very well may be no stopping her. But to do nothing, to play along with her games, that is the true betrayal. We will not forsake loyalty. You are beaten here, my lord. Twilight would not blink if I chose to kill you. Would she?”

Stonehoof narrowed his eyes, disgusted by the question. But, upon thinking on it, he found himself disgusted more so with himself.

“I reckon not.”

“It is not the throne you are sworn to. It is the idea of the throne. It is honor and justice. Twilight led a bloody reign, and did her wicked deeds with impunity. The dragons seek bloodshed. The changelings seek survival. But we seek only the redemption of this land, the rescue of Cadance, a pony of rare kind, noble and gentle and good. You know her. She sits in ragged chains as we speak, in some dark dungeon, kept apart from her infant daughter, from her husband. On what grounds could she deserve this?”

Stonehoof gritted his teeth.

“On the grounds of treason,” Stonehoof argued, “The same grounds that will have you and your cohorts left to the hangpony's judgment.”

“Treason against Twilight,” Broadwing said, “Not Equestria. We are Equestria. Fight beside us, my lord. Fight beside us and help restore order to this land. The rest of the Highlands look to Haverford for guidance. They look to you. Join us and provide us safe passage south, and we can take the fight there, without blood being spilt on your soil.”

Stonehoof’s eyes fell to the ground, and he suddenly felt a fool, as his eyes began to redden and his breath became twisted.

“You would have me betray my princess, to spare my land damnation,” Stonehoof reasoned.

“Do not lie and tell me your faulty sense of honor is worth more than the lives of all those Highlander ponies. If you resist us, we will set the Highlands to the torch as we march south. The Royals would be glad to do the same. And all throughout the land they will know it was their stubborn Lord Stonehoof who resigned them to this fate.”

Stonehoof growled, enraged, and tried his hardest to stand up to his hooves.

“What is your answer?” Broadwing demanded.

Stonehoof glared at him, red in the face, boiling with fury.

“...The Highlands are yours,” Stonehoof said, and it came almost as a whimper, as shame washed over him, “But a day will come that you get what’s yours. And by Celestia, you’ve got it coming.”

Broadwing shook his head, staring down at him.

“We’ve all got it coming.”

Broadwing turned away from him, and glanced over at Mulberry, who began marching at his side.

“You weren’t serious about that, were you?” Mulberry asked.

“Nothing else would’ve convinced him,” Broadwing said, “...Bring the last of the carriages before dusk catches us. We need to be quick. Send word to Ad Astra and Seastar, and Old Harbor and Helaea. Have them deploy their ships downstream to port here, to pick up supplies and enter open water. Windward has the command. And send word to the Crystal City, and Hammerhold, and Kholodnos. Move their columns south along the rivers here.”

“The rest of the Smoky Shore will be expecting us,” Mulberry reminded.

“Their defenses are weak. Vanhoover’s declared martial law, thanks to the riots,” Broadwing said, “As for Tall Tale and Seaward Sholes, they’re no matter. Canterlot’s armies won’t be able to reach them in time. Windward will ferry Hardball, and Magnus' forces and hit them all at once. We need those ports to manage supplies for when Canterlot finally makes it up here."

"Snowfall will be in the vanguard, I expect," Mulberry thought.

"I hope so," Broadwing said, "She's the only one I've a chance of predicting. I'll be leading the key regiment south by land, staking the outposts along the inland Smoky Shore roads. I expect Snowfall will find us there. Our goal isn't to defeat her in the open field, it's only to keep her occupied while Shining Armor rallies the rest of the empire, and the Highlands too, now that Stonehoof's complied."

“Should I send word of our success to Shining? He’s gathering support in Selvet, as we speak,” Mulberry offered.

Broadwing hesitated, and a smile curled the corners of his lips.

“Yes, I think so,” Broadwing said, eager for Shining to hear the news, “Have Stonehoof confirm his loyalty in writing. You, Esther, and Aleheart are to ride for Silkwood, Shimmerspear, and Amapola, respectively, and round up their support. If the Highlands stand with us, Canterlot will have to move for Haverford first. That will buy Shining the time he needs."

“Yes sir,” Mulberry nodded and trotted off, leaving Broadwing by the castle gate.

Broadwing’s eyes were fixed out on the caravan of carriages as they found their way into the castle.

The real war had begun.

Down Marigold Lane, Moon Dancer’s carriage came barreling over blood-stained cobblestone and puddles of ash, through veils of autumn drizzle, by blackened, boarded-up hovel-homes.

Sunset Shimmer trotted through the rear compartment of the carriage. She passed Wallflower, who was shivering in the very back corner, too terrified to stare too long out the window. And next was Suri, counting what few gold pieces she had managed to salvage after the commotion.

And last was Bon Bon, tinkering with some multicolor wires and metal fragments over the workbench.

They had left the gorge just an hour ago, descending into the city. The streets were lonely at night, save for the lingering patrols of armored guards, whose rattling gold mail echoed from countless blocks down.

“You need to eat something,” Sunset said, tossing Bon Bon her last apple, “You look half-starved.”

“I wouldn’t mind a bite of Mandola’s bread right about now,” Bon Bon laughed, before accepting the apple, “There’s a chance you won’t be coming out of there, y’know.”

“Something tells me they wouldn’t go through all this trouble just to snuff us out. I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be much worse than that,” Sunset muttered.

“Moon Dancer and I are going to head downtown. Learn more about the auction, where we might be able to find the case,” Bon Bon said.

Sunset nodded, and turned her attention to Moon Dancer, who was focused on the road, up further in the driver’s compartment.

“Sunset,” Bon Bon said, catching her before she could make it any farther toward Moon Dancer, “...When this is all over, and Twilight Sparkle’s dead…I won’t have forgotten what you did to my home. I want you to know that.”

Sunset eyed her, and turned her body to face Bon Bon, who was still seated.

“If you still feel raw about it - I’ll be waiting,” Sunset said, taking her time with each word.

Sunset left Bon Bon to grit her teeth at the workbench, and proceeded into the driver’s compartment, where Moon Dancer was hunched over the steering.

“Making enemies comes naturally to you, I guess,” Moon Dancer muttered.

“You said you’d be out by now, before the gala. Or have you started to get fond of us?”

“Far from it,” Moon Dancer spat, “A band of psycho killers, that’s all you are. Living like rats, like low thieves. Your pegasus friend and the freak with the scars, they’re dead. Is that right?”

“No,” Sunset said, “Sorry to disappoint you.”

Moon Dancer sighed.

“I’m only helping you because I’ve got nowhere else to go. I hardly recognize this place anymore. This really is hell on earth. Where could I go? Twilight’s soldiers would arrest me the second I drop by home,” Moon Dancer said.

“It was you who led us here,” Sunset reminded, “You put us on to Fancy Pants’ niece. What are the chances we see her?”

Moon Dancer glanced at her.

“It’s possible,” Moon Dancer admitted, “Why would that matter?”

“We won’t get Scootaloo back. Not yet. But if the girl is there….Well maybe we could at least save somepony.”

Moon Dancer scoffed.

“Knowing you, you probably want to use her for something.”

Sunset turned for the door.

“Maybe you don’t know me as well as you think,” Sunset muttered.

Moon Dancer meant to reply, before her hoof found the brake.

“This is it, the Red Roan Hotel,” Moon Dancer said.

From the back of the carriage, Wallflower’s eyes drifted back up to the window, and caught sight of the building in question.

A six-story monster, the Red Roan Hotel stood taller than every other building in Canterlot, save for the royal palace itself. Marble spires rose up wearing crowns of gold, tall enough to escape the dirt, grime, and smoke that thrived below.

Sunset grabbed Suri’s pouch of gold right from her hooves, reeling her off of the bench.

Suri snatched it back, and snapped back to reality, having just realized they had arrived.

“Wallflower,” Sunset called, while Wallflower was still marveling at the spectacle.

Wallflower slowly rose to her hooves, as Bon Bon and Moon Dancer trotted over to unlock the back door.

“You guys be careful out there,” Bon Bon said, “Rendezvous at Mandola’s. Or whatever’s left of it.”

“Keep an eye out for Lightning and Kickstart, they should be close by now. If Suri calls, assume something’s gone wrong. Got it?” Sunset asked.

Moon Dancer nodded.

Suri and Wallflower jumped down out of the carriage, and Sunset meant to do the same, until Bon Bon caught her by the shoulder.

“Those ponies up there are no joke,” Moon Dancer said, “If that kid is still alive, bring her back. Do you hear me? Bring her back.”

Sunset glanced at the ground.

“I will,” Sunset said.

Moon Dancer nodded her head, and waited for Sunset to jump down to the street, beside Suri and Wallflower.

Sunset caught Bon Bon’s burning red gaze through the door, right before Moon Dancer shut it closed.

Sunset sighed in the frigid night air, and glanced at Suri and Wallflower.

Suri reached for a cigarette, though Sunset promptly smacked it out of her hooves.

What’s your problem?” Suri barked.

“I need you to focus.”

“That’s what it’s for!” Suri cried.

“Be careful what you say. We don’t know what we’re dealing with,” Sunset said, glancing up at the daunting tower.

“Don’t let them provoke you,” Wallflower reminded, “No matter what they say.”

Sunset nodded her head.

“Alright. Follow me.”

Sunset led them towards the front gate of the hotel. The three of them were only somewhat disheveled, though compared to some of the ponies lounging in the lobby, they resembled the poster-girls of poverty.

Sunset led her companions into the elevator, and promptly pressed the button, trying her best to ignore the lingering stares.

“52nd floor,” Suri reminded.

The doors closed, leaving the trio packed together inside.

“You stepped on my hooves,” Suri muttered, glaring at Wallflower.

Sunset glanced at Wallflower, who was a good four feet away from Suri. Wallflower’s jaw hung agape, baffled as to how Suri could make such an accusation.

“I did not,” Wallflower insisted, “I’m all the way over here. How could I even reach you?”

“No, eight days ago, you stepped on my hooves. When we were walking to the grocery store,” Suri said, "And you still haven't apologized."

Wallflower shook her head in disbelief.

“That was over a week ago,” Wallflower scoffed, “And I did apologize, like twenty times!”

“But you haven’t really changed, ‘kay,” Suri scoffed, “You're a clumsy ape, that's what you are."

“You can’t just complain about things that happened a week ago,” Sunset interjected, “These things have expiration dates. And don’t call her clumsy, you know she doesn’t like that.”

“The night before the gala she slipped in the shower. Four times. And what about the other day, when she ruined dinner and spilled chili all over Bon Bon?” Suri reminded.

Sunset snickered, recalling the shriek Bon Bon had made.

"Don't laugh," Wallflower scolded, rubbing her forehead anxiously.

“OK, so maybe she has some trouble with flexibility, wieldiness, and ordinary skill,” Sunset offered.

“That’s exactly what clumsy means!” Suri pointed out.

“You’re missing the point. This happened a week ago!” Wallflower exclaimed, “I do not have a problem, for the record. I just get unlucky sometimes. Now, here’s our stop. Let’s get our game faces on.”

Wallflower took a step forward right as the doors began to open, only to trip over her own hooves. Sunset grabbed her before she could land on her face. Wallflower smiled, embarrassed, before the trio’s attention turned to the doors.

The doors slid away, revealing the red carpet, white couches, and the hanging chandeliers. Spared the wrath of the riots, the room rivaled the decadence of the royal palace.

The room was packed with ponies, numbering thirty of forty, clad in formal attire, sipping champagne and liquor, giggling over plates of appetizers and empty glasses.

Sunset took the first step out of the elevator, with Suri and Wallflower reluctantly tailing behind.

Sunset stood in place, and felt the blood rush to her head as pairs of eyes began to lock onto her. The crowd’s chatter diminished, and soon the entire room was all looking in their direction.

It was one pony who broke the silence, setting his drink down on a table nearby and excusing himself through to the edge of the crowd.

Wallflower recognized him, as with most of the partygoers, as former guests at the gala. This stallion in particular she recalled, handsome with a sturdy jaw and broad shoulders, a night-dark lion’s mane that swept against his shoulders, and a faint grey coat. He wore a suit with a red tie, and a thin pair of bifocals rested on his snout. He eyed the three of them with predacious intent.

“You’re early,” he smiled, before turning to the crowd, “My friends, do excuse me.”

A pair of armed guards appeared behind Wallflower, nodding for them to follow the sharp-dressed stallion.

Suri glanced at Wallflower, hesitantly, but followed Sunset’s lead.

The stallion led them through the crowd, which slowly returned to their drink and conversation.

They found a refuge from the festive fanfare in a separate room.

The stallion stepped out of the way, waving them off inside.

The room was tighter than its adjacent mate, though was fixed with a wall-spanning window, revealing the dim luster of the city below.

There were a few ponies waiting in the room already. Wallflower recognized the stallion’s wife sprawled out on the couch. She was a golden mare with a bouncy lavender mane and seductive eyes, wrapped in a silky white dress. Beside her was Fire Streak, itching his nose, scratching out the irritation of stray cocaine fragments.

Sunset took a seat on the couch opposite to them, facing the window. Wallflower and Suri sat on either side of her, both nervously inspecting their surroundings.

Wallflower flinched at the sound of arguing by the door, and turned her head in time to see the stallion make way for two more guests. The first she recognized immediately, as the niece of Fancy Pants, Gilded Lily. a middle-school-age filly with big orange curls and a soft amber mane. A captive she might have been, though it was apparent she had been taken good care of. She bore no bruises, wore no cuts, and she appeared just as prim and proper as any of the other Canterlot patricians in attendance.

And behind her was a more shocking sight - a soft-white stallion in a dark-purple vest and black coat, and a great gaping hole where his left eye should have been. Wallflower turned away, fearful of staring for too long. The One-Eyed Pony led Gilded Lily to the back of the room near the faux fireplace, keeping an eye on her while the black-maned stallion shut the door.

“Sunset Shimmer,” the stallion cooed, making his way to the bar on the other side of the room. Fire Streak and the mare in the white dress were staring right at her, as if she was some exotic zoo exhibit.

“I’ve heard so much about you,” he grinned, while pouring his drink, “I’m Jet Set. This is my wife, Upper Crust. You’ve already become acquainted with our friend Fire Streak, somewhat. Yes?”

Sunset glanced at him, Fire Streak, whose slouching smirk repulsed her.

“We’re here for our friend. I want to see her,” Sunset said.

Jet Set glanced over his shoulder, resentful of the tone she took, “My dear, you’re very much not in the position to demand anything from me.”

He turned around, grasping his glass in an aura of magic, and eyed her up and down with a slithering gaze. Sunset straightened herself in her seat, unnerved by the way he slinked across the floor.

“You and your friends have created quite the ruckus this past year. Some military ponies insisted there had to be more of you, a small army perhaps, to cause the damage you’ve done. But an army would pale in comparison to the power you wield. Your friends as well, I think,” Jet Set said.

“You’re the richest pony in Canterlot,” Suri said, “What could you need us for that you couldn’t do yourself?”

Jet Set’s eyes swept over the ground, as he bit at his tongue and gave a great sigh.

“Everything in this city belongs to me. One way or another. The beggars and newscolts and sneak-thieves in Eden, the dives and mills and dens, the jackrollers and circus acts, foreign hordes and lipstick harlots. Everypony owes me. Everypony pays. That’s how we’ve kept the order of things. But all it takes is one pony - one pony to topple it all. When the cards are all turned, when the house is shaken down to its very foundations, it becomes necessary to turn to more…unorthodox methods of self-preservation.”

Sunset leaned in from the couch. Fire Streak sat up in his own seat, and his eyes were still locked onto her.

“What exactly do you want from us?” Sunset asked.

“You and your found-family of fugitives have been running for your lives for almost a year. When the chance came for you to jump back into the fold, my first inclination was to kill you all, put you out of your misery. But I couldn’t go through with it. Clawing your way through a world that doesn’t want you, it’s commendable. I want to give you the opportunity to clear your names. And I won’t ask for much in return, either. Just one job.”

Sunset glanced at Suri, whose ears had begun to perk up.

“The briefcase,” Sunset guessed, “You want us to steal it for you?”

“Recover it, whichever way you deem best,” Jet Set said, leaning on the arm of the couch, sipping at his glass.

“I’m not so sure it’s a safe bet, working in league with your likes,” Suri reminded, “You killed our friend, in case you forgot.”

“Razor Blade was no friend of yours,” Jet Set laughed, “He would have made the same bargain I’m making, except when the job was over, he’d have left you all for dead.”

“And why should we expect any better from you?” Sunset spat.

Jet Set grinned, and glanced at Upper Crust.

“We want the same thing, by chance,” Upper Crust said, “Twilight Sparkle is your enemy. We have that in common.”
Sunset’s eyes darted between the two of them.

“Posh Paramount and Filibuster recruited us early on, to invest in the project, to keep ponies quiet, to make sure their cry for revolution went unheard by Twilight, Luna, Cadance, or any of their supporters,” Upper Crust said, “But Posh, she became impatient with the slow progress. Hurried along by that warmongering dragon empress, and that spineless changeling who feared their secret would soon be exposed, they all planned to strike earlier than we had planned. Twilight discovered this treachery, and….you may recall how things ended up for them. But we here were able to escape Twilight’s notice, and have worked tirelessly to do things right this time.”

“And you need the briefcase to do it,” Sunset supposed, “...What is it?”

“Its contents aren’t your concern. Your friend’s life is,” Jet Set reminded.

“If you really want this little partnership to work the way you want,” Sunset said, “I’d appreciate an explanation as to what exactly we’ll be risking our lives for.”

Jet Set flinched, and the hint of a grin returned to the corners of his lips.

“Thousands of moons ago, Princess Celestia came across it - some relic of the ancient world, buried in a castle’s ruins. Its radiance, its durability, its mystery, all these things made it clear to her - it was not of this earth. She became obsessed with it, studying each and every part of it. The relic was one of great power, she reasoned, but spells had been placed upon it, leaving its true potential dormant inside.”

“A relic,” Suri repeated, raising an eyebrow, “What’s it do exactly? Raise the dead? Time travel?”

“Ancient magic is no laughing matter,” Jet Set said, glaring at her, “Whoever wields a thing like that, will have broken past these earthly bonds. It is a token of a higher power - chaotic and cruel.”

“I studied under Celestia for the better part of a lifetime,” Sunset said, “How is it she never mentioned this?”

Jet Set laughed and drank up the last drops of his glass.

“Celestia ruled for moons and moons, always growing in power. There are ponies who still look up to her as a god. One does not find themselves in such a position without being able to keep secrets. And Celestia had a great many. The relic became her life’s work. But after years and years, after generations of scientists and spellbinders toiling over it, hope dwindled. She became increasingly paranoid, in fact. As though without the relic, her reign, even her life, would forever be vulnerable. She needed it, ever so desperately. And it just so happens that in our lifetime, we bear witness to the completion of a century’s struggle. The contributions of one pony, Dr. Matchstick, got Celestia the closest to what she desired. He was able to access the true power of the relic…but that power was too raw, too volatile, too dangerous to be wielded without reducing Equestria to ash.”

“So it’s useless,” Wallflower supposed, “What’s the point in stealing it if nopony can use it?”

“Celestia was in a similar predicament,” Jet Set said, “Matchstick provided the schematics for a way to harness its power, and Celestia wasted no time pursuing it. She seemed to know precisely where to find the necessary tools, artifacts buried at the corners of the earth. She disappeared searching.”

Sunset’s eyes fell to the ground, while Wallflower shook her head, regretfully.

“Matchstick grew impatient, waiting in vain for Celestia to return. So he stole the project for himself, and plotted to sell it to a Manehattan criminal organization. The deal went wrong, however, and Matchstick was killed in the process. The project itself has switched hooves countless times, but has finally found its way back home, here to Canterlot. We will succeed where Celestia did not. With Matchstick’s plans, we have a chance to develop the means to harness its power, and control it.”

“And what if Matchstick was wrong?” Sunset asked, “What is there is no way to control it?”

“....I would rather not think on it. Sooner than later, Twilight will reduce Equestria to ashes,” Upper Crust said, “Of course there’s a risk that we do the same, but there’s a possibility we can stop her, and save Equestria from further calamity.”

“Somehow I doubt your intentions are as noble as you’d like us to think,” Wallflower said.

Jet Set smiled.

“Perhaps not,” Jet Set said, “...We’re not the first to dare to use the relic, to use it and destroy Twilight. Your own heroes - Ember and her league of rebels - it was their idea to wage war, their idea to rule Equestria, together as a united front. They had the right vision. But no sense of execution. We do not make careless mistakes. That is why I’m still deciding whether or not you’ll make better assets for us…or collateral.

Sunset bit her lip.

“Who has the case now?” Suri asked.

“We’ve been informed that the seller is handing the briefcase over to Prince Malthos, the son of the changeling king,” Fire Streak said, “Your task is to find out where the exchange is happening, intercept it, and bring it back here.”

“Do accept,” Upper Crust beckoned, “A better chance for your freedom will not come again.”

Sunset glanced at Wallflower, whose eyes led to the fireplace, to the One-Eyed Pony and Gilded Lily resting her eyes on the couch.

“We’ll do it,” Sunset said, “On one condition.”

Jet Set raised an eyebrow, amused.

“Humor me,” he smiled.

“Fancy Pants’ niece,” Sunset said, nodding toward Gilded Lily, “Let her go, hand her over to us.”

Jet Set hesitated, before his grin returned.

“Done,” he declared. Fire Streak narrowed his eyes, uncertain what madness had led Jet Set to such a conclusion.

“Darling, are you sure you should-” Upper Crust began.

“Quite sure,” Jet Set insisted.

Sunset rose from the couch, along with Suri and Wallflower.

“We’ll be keeping tabs on you, naturally. And, as for your friend, she’ll be kept in good care. You must understand, we need some sort of insurance against any thoughts of treachery.”

“Understood,” Sunset said.

Sunset led Wallflower and Suri back toward the door, until Jet Set cleared his throat.

“And Sunset,” Jet Set called out, “No tricks.”

Sunset’s eyes narrowed, and she rose from the couch. Suri and Wallflower scrambled up beside her, careful to stay close by her side.

“Back at ya,” Sunset said.

Jet Set’s eyes never left her, as he clicked his hoof against the floor.

The One-Eyed Pony sprang to life, ushering Gilded Lily over toward Sunset.

Sunset glared at him, and then at Gilded Lily, who stumbled to a stop.

“I’m not going with them,” Gilded Lily barked, “Mr. Jet, you promised me I’d-”

“-Be kept safe,” Jet Set said, “...All of us should be good friends now, my dear, you don’t need to worry. Sunset will take good care of you.”

Gilded Lily scowled, staring daggers up at the three of them.

“I want to see my uncle,” she groaned, “You told me he would be here today.”

“Yes. Perhaps he was delayed,” Jet Set mused, before glancing back toward Sunset.

“Follow the case, and once you wriggle it free from that wretched changeling’s hooves - be sure to keep it safe. Half of Equestria is after that thing, and will spare no expense to claim it.”

“It’s them who should be worried,” Sunset said, “We’ll get the case. But if anything happens to Scootaloo, you’ll never lay eyes on it.”

“I’m glad we have an understanding,” Jet Set smiled, “You and your friends have remarkable potential. I’m delighted to have you on board.”

Jet Set extended his hoof, and Sunset hesitantly shook it, before turning for the door.

“C’mon, kid,” Sunset muttered.

Wallflower waited behind for Gilded Lily to finally take off, only after Jet Set gave her a murderous glare.

And the four of them filed off back into the elevator, while Jet Set stuck his glass down on the coffee table, turning away from them to hide the smirk on his face.

Sunset stepped over a black crater in the sidewalk, before having to dodge a downed streetlamp that had crashed down into a storefront window. Gilded Lily was red in the face, shocked to be stuck with these delinquents.

“This is ridiculous,” Gilded Lily chirped, “How could they do this to me?!”

“Do you want something to eat?” Wallflower asked, offering her a bite of a granola bar she had in her satchel.

Gilded Lily swatted the bar out of Wallflower’s hoof, knocking it into a broken sewer grate.

“Oh,” Wallflower said, lowering her head, regretfully.

Up ahead, Suri caught up to Sunset, who was keeping a close watch on her surroundings.

“Not to question your famously keen and noble judgment,” Suri said, prancing over a downed mailbox, “But was it absolutely necessary to take the brat?”

“Jet Set wanted us to take her,” Sunset said, “That’s why he brought her along.”

“That didn’t mean we had to actually take her, ‘kay,” Suri said, “How do you think Mandola’s gonna take this?”

“He’ll get over it,” Sunset said, “The girl’s innocent. Fancy Pants told us everything he knew, threw himself in a deep hole. Now he’s got to dig himself out. The girl is just incidental, but Jet Set can’t keep her as a hostage forever. Shipping her off to us was a better option than killing her, and now she’s not his problem. We saved her life, whether she knows it or not.”

“I’m guessing not. She hasn’t shut her trap for the past two miles,” Suri grinned, “...If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you almost looked scared back there.”

Sunset glanced at her, scornfully.

“If that briefcase is really what they say it is, then Jet Set is the last pony who should be wielding it.”

“A world-ending magical relic,” Suri said, “I’m not sure anypony should be wielding something like that.”

Sunset bit her lip, struggling to contain her smile.

“Oh Celestia,” Suri whispered, “Why am I not surprised. You want it. So, what’s your real plan?”

“We’re getting that briefcase, alright. But there’s no way in hell we’re giving it to those blood-sucking suits up there,” Sunset said.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s them or you. The way it sounds to me, whoever tries to use it is in for a rude awakening,” Suri spat, “Nopony’s ever been able to control it, that’s what they said. This isn’t the race for world domination they want you to think it is. It’s a race for who can get themselves killed first. There’s still some opportunity here, though, don’t get me wrong. These ponies are the key. A real chance to clear our names.”

“A real chance to sell out, you mean,” Sunset snapped, “We’re not mercenaries who follow the whims of tyrannical corporate thugs. Twilight Sparkle is still sitting on that throne. And it won’t be Jet Set who knocks the crown off her head. It’ll be me.

“So you lied, right to their faces. We’re gonna double-cross them. For a second I thought you were beginning to wise up. But you still only care about sticking it to your old pal Twilight.”

“If I didn’t play along with them, they’d kill Scootaloo,” Sunset reminded, “Just like they could’ve killed Gilded Lily.”

“Yeah, you saved her, and I’m glad you did, it’s not like I hated how small my rations were already,” Suri said, “Look at us, Equestria’s Merry Mares, paragons of justice. Why don’t we go and rescue her drunkard uncle too, while we’re at it?”

“There’s not much we can do for him. Jet Set wouldn’t let him get away that easily,” Sunset said.

“You’ve just met him. How could you know that?” Suri laughed.
“Because I wouldn’t let Fancy Pants get away that easily, either.”

The moon sunk beneath its cover of clouds, and the stars in turn began to dim down, while the night drew colder, and colder still. There was vinyl spinning nearby, where the jazz quartet whispered their song into the dim hotel room.

Jet Set had a hoof on his fifth glass of the night, passively watching the city lights fade and follow and switch, while Upper Crust lay on his shoulder, on the brink of dozing off.

“You shouldn’t have let that girl live,” she managed through a yawn.

Jet Set hesitated to answer, sniffing up the beginnings of a cold, spinning his empty glass in his hooves.

“A vicious one, aren’t you,” Jet Set muttered, “Sooner than later you’ll want me dead as well.”

“Who said I don’t already?” Upper Crust smiled, tossing in his lap.

Jet Set grinned, just as the door to the lounge came open.

“Apologies for the interruption, sir,” came the One-Eyed Pony, strutting in through the door with some fresh blood stains on his coat.

He had not come alone.

Fancy Pants stumbled in behind him, trembling from head to hoof.

Jet Set recognized the stallion’s quivering breath before he even turned his head to see who had entered.

“He came with an armed escort. They refused to leave their weapons at the door,” the One-Eyed Pony said, wiping some more blood off his face, “The lobby is being cleaned and sanitized as we speak, sir, nothing they can’t handle.”

Jet Set gently lifted Upper Crust’s head off his lap, and planted a kiss on her head.

He rose to his hooves, and set her back down on the couch.

Turning to face Fancy Pants, a grin soon returned to his face.

“Fancy, I must say…Two hours late is gratuitous, even by your standards,” Jet Set laughed.

Fancy Pants could hardly breathe, forcing himself to stand up straight and meet Jet Set’s gaze.

“I’ve come for my niece. You told me she’d be here.”

“And she was,” Jet Set said, “You just missed her, in fact. Carted off by our new friends for safekeeping. If she was to stick around here any longer, I doubt my wife could keep herself from cutting open your niece’s throat. You know Uppy. Jealous mare, she is.”

From the couch, Fancy Pants could make out Upper Crust’s drunken giggle. His eyes returned to Jet Set, who had taken a step closer.

“I had hoped to make an example out of you, right in front of her, right in front of our new guests. To set a certain standard. These ponies, I understand they have a habit of recklessness, in fact, which is something I cannot tolerate. I’d once wished to keep them at a distance. Too unpredictable, I had said. Now I see I was mistaken. You showed me that, Fancy. That Underground rat Razor Blade, before he croaked he told us it was you who reached out to him, that you wanted him to recruit Sunset and her friends on a rescue mission to steal back Lily. And even now, until the end you’ll try lying to me. We had to kill him and his goons because of you. And if we hadn’t done that, Sunset would never know who we are or what we’re after. But by telling them just about everything that they wanted to know, and directing them right to us, you’ve unwittingly given us our best chance at finishing the project, once and for all.”

“I’ve told you before,” Fancy Pants said, gritting his teeth, “They’d have killed me!”

“Oh, Fancy,” Jet Set smiled, “You think your life is worth more to me than the future we’re fighting for? I had hoped taking your niece would provide you with apt motivation, but I see now I was wrong. Even now, you still do not share our vision. Vision of a new era.

Jet Set sighed and trotted back toward the couch, his eyes darting back up to the lights below.

“One with consequences.”

Before Fancy Pants could muster up any more explanations or pleas, the One-Eyed Pony had arrived behind him with a knife in hoof, pressing it into his chest and slashing diagonally up toward his throat.

Fancy Pants’ throat erupted with blood, as the curses slipped out of his lips, muddled and muddied and murky. He choked and clawed at the air and crashed to his knees, glaring up at Jet Set with red eyes bleeding tears.

And Jet Set spared him a parting glance, catching him just in time to see that last slip of air squeeze out of his lungs.

Jet Set turned back to the window, sighing to himself as the record player scratched its way to its end.

Author's Note:

Hey hope you liked this one! Thank you again for reading, feedback is always welcomed! <3