• Published 30th Sep 2022
  • 969 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.

  • ...

07: Crown of Thorns

The snows had stopped by the time Starlight Glimmer laid eyes on the castle, looming over the linen fields of white, glaring down at the Black Woods that kept watch over the road south.

The woods were slick from the morning drizzle, and the icy arteries of the forest had returned with the rain.

They had only just crossed up the Woodway, past the burned fields that had crumbled into ash. Outriders from the Crystal Army, Starlight suspected. They had taken the chance to raid and pillage the Highlands before the proper war could even begin. Starlight had searched for any survivors, or corpses even, but found nothing. Not in the huts or stables, not in the watchtowers or taverns.

“They’ve all fled south,” Eight Ball had presumed, “Outlaws chase them away, but they’ll be back. Below Haverford is where the real battles will be.”

Shining Armor would not succeed in defeating Twilight, Starlight thought. The only effect his rebellion might have is pushing Twilight further off the edge of sanity. The sickness, she recalled, the alicorns all succumbed to it eventually. So will she.

Starlight’s mane was soaked in the autumn rain, and some strands had become plastered to her forehead.

“Frostfall’s been abandoned for decades,” said Eight Ball, “Once, the Crystal Army used the castle to spend the night with their war wives or gamble away their wages. But all the soldiers have gone, so we shouldn’t find any trouble there.”

Eight Ball, as only member of the group to no wield any magic, had made an extra effort to prove himself as an asset. When he was not leading the way through the wilderness, he was keen on relaying every bit of information he knew about the lands they passed and its ponies. Luna’s only contribution to the road chatter was a grunt here and a sigh there.

Discord, meanwhile, had mostly given up trying to make conversation with Starlight, who was content to watch and listen as the group trudged on through the woods.

“No, it’s pronounced vin-cula fuel,” Eight Ball said, hopping over a log.

Vincula fuel,” Discord repeated, slithering through the air.

“It’s one of a handful of substances that can withstand your magic,” Eight Ball explained, “But it’s a task to extract it from the earth, and it’s even harder to process it. There’s not much left in our stores.”

“Then I’ll sleep easy tonight,” Discord grinned, “I’d have thought Celestia would have kept your little program better-funded.”

“It wasn’t Celestia’s fault. Ever since the bugbear incident, the Senate had a harder time believing the Erased were a financial priority. Inefficient and mismanaged were the words Filibuster used, I think,” Eight Ball said.

“Maybe they wanted you out of the picture,” Discord mused, “So you wouldn’t be made privy to their treasonous schemes.”

Starlight rolled her eyes. Discord seemed to thrive off of drama, even things that did not concern him.

“We knew what they were planning,” Eight Ball said, “We could’ve told somepony, but Chief didn’t want to stir up any kind of incident.”

“A daring move,” Discord laughed.

“Won’t he be looking for you?” Starlight asked. She had trouble believing Alias would allow one of his agents to roam the hinterlands without leave.

“He’s welcome to try,” Eight Ball said, “I’ve given my life to serve the Erased, and so have a thousand more like me, but we were all just dirt under the Chief’s hooves. He hardly batted an eye when they told him Bandolier got himself killed following orders. He and me argued, except this time I got him so wound up that he sent me to Seaward Sholes to…..”

His eyes drifted toward Luna, further ahead on the road.

“I’m not following his orders anymore,” Eight Ball said, “I’m helping you because maybe the three of you have what it takes to make a difference.”

Starlight said nothing, reluctant to give him a sense of false hope. She had already failed once, after all, and even with help, she had trouble seeing how things would turn out any different on a second attempt.

Luna had come to a stop up ahead near the edge of a ridge speckled with moss and snow.

“The castle,” Luna said once the others joined her, spying the silver spires that peeked over the edge of the mountains some miles off from the forest. The woods were quiet but for the rain, and even the animals had all seemed to disappear.

“We’ll make it before sundown,” Starlight expected.

“This is a fool’s errand,” Luna muttered, “You do not know this wizard as I know him. He will fill our heads with his lies. That is, if he does not turn us away or try to kill us.”

“I once saw him turn a pony inside out, for snoring too loud,” Discord remarked, “The pony was his own apprentice.” The others did not find that comforting.

Luna gave Discord the same look she always gave him when he opened his mouth. Twice already, she had tried to kill him in his sleep, though Starlight had been able to intervene.

It had been Starlight’s plan to find Star Swirl the Bearded, the only pony who might have any knowledge as to the whereabouts of Princess Celestia. The old wizard had retreated into exile, though Eight Ball had been able to track him down to a spiked plateau buried deep in the Elestellian Range in the Crystal Mountains.

Luna took a faster pace than the others, unwilling to let them slow her down. Celestia was within reach, she seemed convinced of it.

“What do either of you know about alicorn sickness?” Starlight asked. Discord and Eight Ball exchanged a look.

“If you consider arrogance and stupidity to be a sickness, then yes, I suppose you could count the alicorns among the infirmed, ” Discord said.

Eight Ball laughed.

“The term comes from some apocryphal texts from ages past. A blight of the mind, allegedly,” Eight Ball said, “Alicorn magic is powerful. Some creatures can bear it. The ones who can’t….They crack.”

Their eyes wandered over to Luna.

“I expect your experiments may have done more damage than you realized,” Starlight said, “The sickness is real. The former defense secretary told me that Celestia was showing signs of it before her disappearance.”

“It was the cause of her retirement, yes,” Eight Ball confirmed, “But Luna’s mind is not yet shattered.”

“She always had a few screws loose, as far as I was concerned,” Discord offered, “If poor Twilight’s mind should ever wander down a similar path…We’ll need every weapon at our disposal to stop her.”

“He’s right,” Eight Ball said.

Starlight kept her mouth shut. She did not want to think about Twilight Sparkle.

When they had reached Frostfall, Eight Ball was the first to collapse to the ground, eager to get some rest. Luna, as per usual, flew off away from the others to try and get some sleep. Most nights the princess of the moon could only toss and turn, tormented by insomnia. Her abilities to walk through others’ dreams had been tampered with during the Erased’s experiments, along with much else. Starlight recalled how Twilight spoke of Luna the first time she had met her. Nightmare Moon, she was called then. This new Luna seemed to fit the description more and more each day. She was sullen, hostile, and disoriented most of the time. There were frequently times Luna had forgotten why she was here to begin with, who Starlight was, and why Discord was allowed to fly about freely.

Starlight found Luna perched by a ruin of the castle wall, overlooking a steep cliff below and the full moon holding vigil over the King’s Lake.

Luna was wincing as she strained against the pain in her neck, flinching and twitching like a dog left out in the cold. The scars and bruises on her body had still not quite healed.

“I wish you’d let me try the spell I told you about,” Starlight said, “It will help with the pain.”

Luna glared at her.

“Flea bites,” she dismissed, “I am fine.”

Starlight did not attempt to argue with her.

“There are spells I know that could help you sleep, too,” Starlight offered, “Don’t think I haven’t noticed you lying awake all night.”

“The night is my domain,” Luna replied, sharply, “I do not need your help, Starlight Glimmer. No more than I did from Celestia.”

“What do you remember about Celestia, before she disappeared?” Starlight asked.

Luna seemed puzzled.

“Celestia?....There was an agony about her. That is what I remember best. Parts of me have been stripped away since then, that time when we were meant to live out our days in peace. All my life she had wanted that. And for a few months, it was ours. A lifetime of trials, for a single summer’s respite. I am not strong enough to go on without her. She left me alone in that prison. Why did she do that?”

“She made her choice. We can’t dwell on that,” Starlight said.

“Can I dwell on what I can’t remember? I was to hold a castle in the Highlands once, and there was a young lord the king had pledged me to marry, but I could not find that castle today. I could not tell you the color of his eyes, his hair, or how sweet his voice may have sounded. Then there was Canterlot, yes. But I could not tell you the names of its streets, or the color of its roofs, or of the songs that were always playing in the markets. Who gave me the crown, Starlight? What foods did I like to eat? The names fade. The faces sooner. Perhaps Celestia will make me see reason. She always has before.”

Starlight wavered. They would find Celestia, she was sure of it. Whether Celestia would be the same pony she once knew, however, Starlight could not be certain.

Only the pinelings still showed green; the broad-leaf trees wore new coats of crimson or gold, or else revealed themselves to scrape at the sky with bare branches of brown. Each breath of wind tossed the dead leaves across the old worn road, tattered with decades’ steps and wheel marks.

Juno kept her head lowered, in the middle of the chattel column, marching by the edge of some cavernous gorge. One pony had lost his footing a mile or two back, and he dragged three more with him before the linked chain could be severed.

Juno had not spoken to anypony in the convoy, not since she watched Hask’s skull collapse upon itself against Coda’s hooves. She had trouble sleeping since then. It was some sick relief she felt, that and the fear of what Coda might do to her should she misbehave. She had never felt as helpless as when Hask had his arms around her, not since she watched her mother and father turn to cinders.

Coda never spoke to her about the incident. She was beginning to think he was finally beginning to believe her pleas of innocence, though she was too frightened of him to risk any more annoyances.

She had spent weeks on the road by now, clad in chains that ground against her soiled cream-white coat, pressing so tight against her skin she felt part of her was made of iron.

Her bouncy brown curls were littered with twigs, dirt, and lice, and she had developed a terrible shivering sickness that made her tremble with every step.

She had long stopped trying to guess where they were headed. South of Canterlot - that she was certain of. But how far south? She would have guessed they had crossed into some other land by now. The Badlands, or Augusta, or the Arimaspi lands maybe.

But the Macintosh Hills, which made up the southern border of proper Equestria, had remained a distant shadow in the distance. No matter how far they marched, those mountains never got much closer.

Of her fellow prisoners, she had witnessed Tails and Bender grow weaker every day. Boze was killed during Hask’s attempted escape. She recalled Boze’s tales of his mother’s recipes. Was any of that real? She hoped the recipes were, at least. All she was ever fed now was sawdust bread and muddy water. Once she had manage to snag a grasshopper from the dirt, and had gobbled it up without a second thought. She had chewed on it as much as she could, savoring all she could before it was ground up into bits.

Stranger still, the convoy had not passed through any town as of yet. Juno suspected Coda was avoiding them, but why? There might have been more prisoners to collect. More mouths to feed, too. Perhaps she ought to have been glad they stayed as they were.

They were a lonely, quiet troupe, it was true, with all matters of heart and defiance beaten out of them, beaten to bloody bits. That was, until they came across something even the prudent commander Coda had not expected.

The camp spanned in and around the ruin of some ancient castle. An outpost most likely, raised within a small stretch of forest. These trees were all barren, she found, crooked grey fingers that twisted with the wind to watch them go by. Juno recalled her father having read to her about the ancient kingdoms that came before Equestria. Of heroes like Abraxius the Bold, Halberd, and Gusty the Great. She wondered to whom this castle belonged to, and how it came to such a sorry state of disrepair.

It had been abandoned until all too recently, she discovered. Here there were whole platoons of royal soldiers, clad in golden armor and iron mail, with broad shoulders and clean-shaven faces. The convoy drew eyes as they trotted along in. The sentries all seemed to know Coda, though did not seemed pleased that he was here.

“Who’s in command here?” Coda asked the first sergeant he found, throwing dice with a group of his comrades.

“First Tulips. Now Hawkbit, since he’s come south,” answered the sergeant, who spared Coda a cool glare.

Coda gave a sour scowl. He waved for one of his subordinates to lead the convoy on, while he watched them pass by.

There were hundreds, she thought, though she had never been great with numbers. They were camped by the walls of the castle, and deeper into the woods themselves.

“Two platoons’ worth,” Coda said aloud, having noticed Juno’s eyes scanning the hills up and below. He followed along with them then, walking beside her.

“You’d be wise not to start trouble here,” Coda warned her.

“I won’t run away. I told you I wouldn’t,” Juno said, glancing over her shoulder.

Coda glared at her, and she regretted having spoken at all.

“We won’t stay here long. Just enough to take on provisions,” Coda said.

Juno thought to ask where their true destination would be, but opted against it. She would have little luck wrestling an answer out of that one.

Inside the castle, the convoy came staggering along. Coda caught up to the front just as they entered the center courtyard. The grey ruin’s interior was cluttered with makeshift houses and tents, and Juno presumed this was where the higher-ranking soldiers got to sleep.

A pegasus stallion came sauntering out from one tent, scratching at his morning stubble and his dirty brown mane. He had a dull brown coat, but a striking handsome face that made Juno perk up. He wore silver armor unlike the others, speckled with mud and dirt, and a heavy grey trench coat hung over his shoulders.

“Captain,” the pegasus said, eyeing Coda up and down. Some more soldiers followed him out into the courtyard, inspecting the motley convoy, “What in Luna’s name has brought the swamp stallion stumbling half-dead into my camp?”

“A want for water. Food and medicine too, if you can manage it. The roads have been unkind,” Coda said.

“As it ought to be, for your likes and your lot,” Hawkbit spat at the ground.

Coda ignored the remark.

“What is all this?” Coda asked, “I thought you preferred the comfort of the capital.”

“That I do,” Hawkbit yawned, “Princess Twilight sent me south to remind the dragons of their oaths.”

“If that’s true, you’re in the wrong corner of the world, Lieutenant,” Coda said, rolling his eyes.

“It’s Commander, now. What good can we do against the dragons in their own country, in truth? Not much I reckon, not right now. The Great Plains are spent, Captain. That was plain, the second the dragons broke through pretty Periwinkle’s regiment of pin-up dolls. We can’t defeat the dragons in a forward action. But we can secure the lands from here to Everfree. We form a stronger line, a real defensive front, and the dragons won’t pass. That is, if they haven’t had enough blood already,” Hawkbit said.

“And what of High Water, Appaloosa, Dodge City?” Coda demanded, “What about all of the southern villages? You’re abandoning them? They’ll be slaughtered.”

“A hard sacrifice - the few to save the many, it grieves me to say. Some madness made them want to live right on the dragon’s doorstep. If they’re wise, they’ll flee north. Or they can burn with the rest of the south, for all I care. They’re already dead, the way I see it. It’s the Lowlands that concern me, not the squalling southron sons of whores.”

Coda seemed to have heard enough, and turned to leave.

“I haven’t dismissed you, Captain,” Hawkbit grinned. Coda gritted his teeth and spun back around.

“There’s another prison convoy en route south to the Ghostfort. I assume that’s where you were heading,” Hawkbit said, grinning.

Juno had not heard of such a place, though she did not like its sound.

“You’re to wait for them before you proceed south. Leave your prisoners with them. Then you’ll come visit me at my other camp up at Ashlea, by the Gorge. You know Everfree better than any of my ponies. For once you’ll have a use other than running petty errands.”

“You’re leaving?” Coda asked.

“Tonight. To prepare the rest of the line for the dragon’s arrival. We can’t have any weak spots or the dragons will break through. And then what will you think of me?” Hawkbit laughed and trotted off, leaving Coda behind with his prisoners, who were all staring at him with wide eyes.

Juno was not sure she would miss Coda, though she feared she would rue the thought.

She might not know how nice she’d had it.

Faint and far away the lights burned, low through the city mists. The princess watched them from her prison, counting them each in her head by color. Down the alley, Wayward Lane was a foggy waste, its very air seemed to churn a thick and swarmy charcoal black.

Silver Stream had only just returned. Her midnight escape had taken her to the Orange Light District again, a derelict den of the downtrodden, yet untouched by the riots’ wrath. Canterlot had begun to resemble its old self again. The chaos in the streets had grown into subtler, more organized resistance movements, six or more sprouting in each corner of the city. The havoc was deadlier than before, but not so sporadic or wanton. But it was not Twilight Sparkle who kept the city weak with fear.

“Dragons,” Sphinx had said. The street urchin had made Silver’s acquaintance over a week ago, accepting her grandmother’s necklace in exchange for her life. She could not recall exactly how she won him over, though after enough of a delay, Sphinx chose to treat her gently instead of demanding more tribute. Now he was her best source of information regarding the outside world.

“They’re coming to murder us all,” he had told her, “They say they take no prisoners. Anypony fool enough to surrender will make them a nice supper.”

Silver always took the boy’s tales with a sizable grain of salt. One of her best friends happened to be a dragon, and Smolder would do nothing of the sort.

Silver shut the window as if to block out the city itself, though only succeeded in repelling the rank odor of cigarettes, alcohol, and shit.

She was not to leave her room for any reason, not even to relieve herself. The bucket in the corner had sufficed for that. Her captors, or rescuers, she reminded herself, had made the rules clear from the first day they offered her shelter. All was not lost, however. She had the fortune of her harborer being a renowned restaurateur.

A knock at the door took Silver by surprise. No one was supposed to be awake.

Miss Silver!” hissed Saffron Masala, sticking her head through the door, “May I come in?”

Silver sunk into her bed, her eyes widening. Had she been caught? She did not usually make careless mistakes. She supposed it was only a matter of time.

“Y-Yes! Come in!” Silver whispered back.

Saffron burst through the door, shutting it gently behind her. She turned around to glare at Silver, who had to laugh off her own nerves.

“You’ve been out again, I know you have. How many times have I told you not to do such a stupid thing!” Saffron whispered, careful not to wake her sleeping father a few doors down.

Coriander Cumin had considered turning Silver over the moment he found her, shivering in a wet alleyway, crying her eyes out, alone and helpless. But the stallion took pity on her, for whatever reason. He had never been particularly kind toward her, and often she wondered why he kept her around at all. Saffron was far warmer, and would even go so far as to honor Silver with leftover portions from each day’s shift.

Silver had thought of returning to the palace, though she never forgot what Ocellus had told her. Anyone could be a changeling. Sometimes she even suspected Saffron and Coriander, though if a betrayal was coming, they were taking their sweet time of it. Silver did not want to go back, anyways. If the changelings knew they really had Ocellus, there could be dire consequences. And what was in store for her in the palace, anyway? A chance to be sold off as a broodmare to the highest bidder? That was precisely what her mother had dragged her so far from home to do, after all.

She had determined that it was not her person that was the prize, but rather her new royal title, and the royal fleet that came with it. Silver never wanted to be a princess. She preferred to idolize them from afar. The truth of it was not so pretty up close.

Pharynx wanted the hippogriff fleet to protect him in the new corner he had dug himself, content to plant himself in his own soil and wait for the opportune moment to join the winning side. Twilight may have wanted something similar - she thought of what Featherglass had said, that she’d be less a wife and more a hostage. What had become of Terramar? she wondered. Her mother?

“I’m sorry,” Silver said, focusing again on the moment, “But it wasn’t for nothing. That sewer tunnel off of Twinkletone, you were right about it. I climbed down and saw a speck of light far off at the end. I can make it quick enough, as long as no one’s on the other side waiting for me.”

Saffron laughed in disbelief.

“Going to the Orange Light District by yourself? Sometimes it seems you want to be caught, Miss Silver.”

“You’ve done so much for me, and I’m in your debt. But I can’t stay here,” Silver said, “They kidnapped my best friend! I have to get out of this city. I have to rescue her.”

“Mm. And what will you do? Take on the army of shapeshifter insects? I think not. Your friend took your place to save you. Do not waste your chance to throw yourself back into the lion’s jaws, after we’ve only just plucked you out. You are safe here.”

“Not for much longer. Soldiers are going door-to-door,” Silver said, “Now that things have calmed down, ponies will be looking for me again.

“Whoever has you on their side, very well may win the war,” Saffron supposed, “But nopony will catch you, Miss Silver. We won’t let them.”

Silver sighed.

“I’m not supposed to let my friends get hurt to protect me,” Silver said, “I want to go home.”

“Sometimes I too want to go home,” Saffron mused, “In Farasi there has been no war in many, many moons. My father thinks we have worn our welcome here. The Equestrians have lost their minds, he says.”

“He’s not wrong,” Silver said, “Please don’t tell your dad.”

“I will not,” Saffron said, “But you push your luck, young lady. No more.”

“No more,” Silver agreed.

She lied through her teeth, and for a moment she thought even Saffron had noticed.

That tunnel was her ticket out of here. And then she could fly to Newport, find Sandbar and any other help she could muster, and rescue Ocellus.

“We should kill him and be done with it.”

Blondie glared at Salt, who had a strip of gauze wrapped over his shoulder, and a knife twirling around his hoof. Salt had not approved of taking Prince Malthos as a hostage, as he was fond of reminding them all. It was Rainbow Dash’s idea, in truth. She was still at the sink as she had been for hours, washing the blonde dye out of her hair.

“It’s not a bad look, y’know,” Blondie had told her.

“No,” Salt agreed, “But we already have one dumb blonde.”

The uneven stack of rotting tenements stood in the shadow of the railway that ran overhead Harmony Boulevard, spilling black rain runoff into the street with each shudder of the steel.

It had been a trial for Salt to convince Speedy to let them stay in his apartment, a cozy hovel lit by cheap candles, decorated with peeling wallpaper, and reeking of septic leaks.

Have you lost your minds? You’re not bringing that thing into my home!” Speedy had barked at them. Poor Malthos had shrunk at the small stallion’s voice. “An army of changelings will be at my door next! That is if the Black Hoof doesn’t get here first!”

It had not sat well with Blondie, hiding in Speedy’s home like thieves on the run. Speedy had a wife around the same age as him, Pumpkin Pie, and three small foals - Ginger, Red Rust, and Nutmeg. Ginger had made a habit of following Blondie wherever he went, though he only minded when the girl opened her mouth. All three of them had fallen in love with Rainbow Dash, who still had an easy smile to her in spite of the past few months. Salt Shaker seemed to frighten them all. Blondie couldn’t blame them. Sometimes the giant frightened him, too.

“You don’t waste your best hand at the start of the game,” Blondie pointed out, ”Our royal friend here is worth more than as a meal for the alleyhounds.”

Who are you ponies?” Malthos asked, possibly for the eighth time, “This farce will come to an end soon, do you hear me?! M-My father will have all your heads on spikes!”

Salt snorted, while Malthos wrestled in his restraints.

“Your daddy’s not here, princeling,” Salt snarled.

“My friend here doesn’t like you,” Blondie said, glaring at Malthos, “I’m the only thing stopping him from putting you back underground. Tell me about Menteuse. Tell me about the briefcase.”

Malthos snickered.

“It’s out of your hooves now,” Malthos spat, “Menteuse has made the final deal already, with me. You’re too late.”

“Nothing is final until she puts the briefcase in your hooves,” Blondie said, “Where does the exchange happen?”

“At my wedding,” Malthos said, confidently, “In less than a month’s time.”

“Who’s the lucky bride?” Salt asked, “Some unfortunate leaf beetle?”

Princess Silver Stream,” Malthos grinned, proudly.

Rainbow stuck her head out of the washroom, suddenly alert. Red Rust had his arms wrapped around her hind leg.

“You’re lying,” Rainbow said.

“My amulet,” Malthos said, gesturing toward the box of his confiscated belongings, “My father will have sent a message by now, demanding I return for the ceremony. Wait until he sees I’ve brought him the weapon to end the war, as well!”

Blondie glanced into the box, but found nothing resembling an amulet. Until, Ginger came tugging on his leg. She had the device in her mouth, a round black disc with deep green jewels embedded in its edges.

“Thanks,” Blondie said, retrieving the device.

“No doubt, she prays for my return. Every moment you keep us apart is agony. You’ll pay for this. You will!” Malthos snarled.

Blondie fiddled with the jewels, until the amulet came to life, coughing up wisps of smoky green magic that coiled and fought to create the shape of a pony’s head.

“My prince,” the green head said with a mare’s voice, “We have been betrayed.”

Blondie glanced at Malthos, whose smile had fallen from his face.

“Silver Stream is still in Canterlot. The one we brought was Ocellus in her stead.”

Malthos shook his head in disbelief.

“No…I saw…I took her myself. It was her. This is a trick!” Malthos stammered.

“His grace, your father, wanted to make you aware she is likely still in the city,” the green head continued, “If you can find her before the ponies do, he would be most pleased. I am on my way to provide assistance, my prince.”

Malthos screeched in fury, while Blondie shut off the amulet, unimpressed.

“Why would Silver Stream ever want to marry you?” Rainbow wondered.

“Perhaps we judged our friend too harshly,” Salt smiled, “He may have some charms buried away somewhere.”

“Doesn’t matter. She’s lost, that’s what it said,“ Blondie said, “So much for true love.”

“Blondie, you’re a pessimist,” Salt said, raising his hoof, “Even if you were free, your highness, you wouldn’t find her.”

“I’m more clever than you think, giant,” Malthos retorted.

“Well, you’ve fooled us,” Salt shot back, “But perhaps we could lessen your burden. Allow us to find your runaway princess, and return her to her darling betrothed. And as gratitude for our help in rescuing your damsel, instead of handing the briefcase to you at your wedding, Menteuse will be handing it to us instead.”

Malthos licked at his lips, hesitantly.

“I would have honored my father a great deal, if I brought him the briefcase.”

“Well. You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” Salt said, “The girl or the case? Or we could just kill you now and take the girl anyways, if you’d prefer.”

No!” Malthos yelled, “Fine! The case is yours! But you have to fetch her now, before anyone else finds her.”

Speedy had entered from the other room, having just put Nutmeg to bed.

“No shouting. I mean it,” Speedy warned, sternly.

“My apologies, friend,” Salt said, bowing, “How is the little one?”

“The fever’s breaking, I think,” Speedy growled, “I don’t know. I’m no doctor. The bits you gave me should cover the medicine.”

“Betters hers than yours,” Blondie said, glancing at the pile of shattered glass bottles that made up an entire corner of the room.

“Your friend talks more than he should, Salt,” Speedy spat, “I can only hope the same is true for my invertebrate guest.”

“We’ve come to an arrangement,” Salt declared, “Speedy, it might be you’ve heard the whereabouts of a hippogriff girl running amuck close by?”

Speedy gave a puzzled look.

“Hippos don’t come downtown. Their kind are all rich tourists prancing about the Marble Mire apartments, or else royal folk staying in the palace,” Speedy said, “Don’t want any hippogriffs around here, anyway. Gaia made ponies to breathe on land, not water. Those creatures, they’re not natural, I say. And if there was one around here, I don’t reckon they’d last long. No strange folks do.”

Rainbow grimaced at the remark.

“This girl’s life is in danger,” Rainbow said, “The sooner we find her, the sooner we’ll be out of your hair, Speedy. You’re sure you haven’t heard anything?”

Speedy scratched at his cheek, gritting his teeth. He shook his head in dismay.

“Some days ago, I might recall a Klugercolt tumbling dice near me in the Belly of the Whale, down Spring Street way. He made mention of a gutter rat who lives in the alley near his house, one who runs with that Manehattan mare, Dazzle Debutante, and her Thirty Thieves. He said the kid had been seen talking with a hippo, a girl hippo like you said. The two of them were running around in the dark, up towards Wayward. But Wayward is midtown, and me and mine don’t rear our heads that close to the palace’s shadow.”

“Wayward Lane,” Blondie recalled, “That’s not too far. We can make it back with the girl by sundown.”

“You won’t be the only ones looking for her,” Speedy expected, “If this girl really is some hot commodity, then Dazzle and the Thieves will know by now. They work for the Black Hoof now, Salt. They’ll want the girl too, to make the same deal you just did.”

“She won’t be hiding by herself,” Rainbow considered, “And she might not come to us willingly.”

“She will,” Salt assured, “She knows you, you said.”

Rainbow bit her lip.

“She’s my friend,” Rainbow said, warily, “She managed to get away from this guy, and you want to give her right back?”

Blondie had his own reservations, but waited for Salt to speak.

“The Black Hoof will be after her. So will the Thieves. So will the changelings. No matter where she goes, she can’t escape them all. The changelings will get her back, one way or another. And who are we to break apart two young lovers?”

Rainbow shook her head, unconvinced.

“You’re right about one thing, at least. A lot of ponies are after her. Let’s find her first, and then we’ll see how she really feels about this,” Rainbow said.

Salt nodded, and glanced at Blondie, who kept his mouth shut. Salt reached for his belt and sheathed his knife.

Fear cut deeper than the knife, Juno would tell herself, but that did not make the fear go away. The fear was a part of her routine, as familiar as the stale bread she ate and the mosquito bites on her legs.

She had thought she had known what it was to be afraid, but she learned better in that ruinous castle that was now her home. Every day on the road she had prayed for some respite, though now she would have given anything to return to how things were before, dragging her hooves on some treacherous path.

Six days she had spent there, and each day she had seen someone die.

The former commander Hawkbit had left the same day she had arrived. Her and the other prisoners had been mixed in with another batch, and all of them would set off together to some place called the Ghostfort. She had not seen Captain Coda in three days, and the last time she did he had ignored her anyway.

The new commander was the pony they called the Surgeon. Nopony seemed to call him by his true name, whatever it was. He was a huge grey stallion with a shaved head and black stubble, and a grim, gaunt face.

The Surgeon would come into the stockades every morning after his breakfast and pick a prisoner for questioning. Among the thirty-odd prisoners, none of them ever spared him a glance. They seemed to think that he would not notice them…but he saw them all the same and picked whom he liked. There was no place for them to run to, no trick to play on him, and nowhere to hide.

There had been a girl four years older than Juno who had spent a succession of nights in one soldier’s bed, though the soldier had spoken nothing on her behalf the day she was chosen.

An older stallion claimed to have served in the royal guard some twenty years ago. He spoke so often about the old days of Celestia’s reign and his loyal service, that most of the other prisoners came to despise him. He was chosen only yesterday.

A mother there was, sickly and thin, so frail Juno could scarcely imagine what crime she could have managed to commit. The day she had arrived she offered to tell the soldiers all she knew, if only they would release her daughter, who was a few years younger than Juno herself. The Surgeon answered her plea. The very next day he chose her daughter, and the mother’s screams became such a bother that she had to be picked too.

Each one they chose was questioned not far from the stockade, close enough for Juno to hear every scream, every snap, and, more importantly, the questions being asked.

“Surgeon makes them bleat so hard they shit themselves,” Chack told them all. She did not like the way Chack looked at her. It reminded her of Hask. He had tried to speak with her once, though Juno pretended not to hear. For some reason Chack thought a mailed hoof to the face would help her hearing. Sometimes Chack would help the Surgeon, and sometimes the Surgeon just liked to watch on from nearby, watch the prisoner squeal and scream until they died.

The questions never changed.

“Was there gold hidden in the Deep Wood? In Dangling? In Hilltop? Food? Gems? Where was Captain Vertigo? Which of the villagers helped him? Where is his army moving? When you last saw him, where was he heading? How many soldiers did he have? How many scouts? How many archers, how many infantry? How were they armed? Were there wounded? Who else have you seen? Dragons? How many? When? Where did they go? Was there gold hidden in the Red Gap? Food? Gems? Where is Captain Vertigo?”

Juno could have asked the questions herself by now, she thought. Each day a few dozen more villagers were brought to the camp to be questioned. They were not criminals, Juno realized, just ponies suspected of helping this rebel soldier Vertigo. The Green Army was what the villagers called him and his troops. He had raised an army out of Irwind down south in Augusta, and was marching north to fight the dragons. That’s what these soldiers are supposed to be doing, she thought.

The royals’ efforts had not been in vain, despite most of the victims’ confessions ending up complete nonsense. They discovered some deposits of buried gold, some silver here and there. They learned that Vertigo had at least four thousand ponies fighting for him now, and was likely making his way through the Black Pass to cross the Macintosh Hills. Hawkbit would never send his troops that far just to put Vertigo in his place, she thought.

The Surgeon learned that Vertigo was as strong as an ox or was growing weak from the red plague. No one ever survived the Surgeon’s questioning. Not the strongest stallion or the youngest of the foals. The manner of torture would vary. His name must have derived from the strange instruments he used, she thought. Sharp things that seemed impractical at initial glance, until the Surgeon revealed the bizarre purpose they each had, to slice and sever and snap and pinch every which way. A tool for every part of the body. More and more corpses were strung up along the archway of the castle ruins, dangling there for the crows to feed upon.

Juno knew she was no soldier, not like her father. Her father would never have let himself be knocked down and put in chains, nor stood by while they slaughtered all these ponies. Her father would never have sat quiet as a mouse in that stockade, or kept his head down along with the other prisoners. Juno hated the prisoners for their sheepishness, almost as much as she had come to hate herself.

On the eighth day, however, the killing stopped.

Some news from the front seemed to have reached the Surgeon’s ears, and suddenly the prisoners seemed to have better use as laborers than as crowfood.

“The greens were spotted at Redrain,” she heard Duchess mention to one prisoner. Duchess was one of the only mares she knew to be serving in the Surgeon’s company. She was pale blue with a paler curly mane, almost white. In the stockade, she was feared more by the colts than by the girls, as she was known to geld every male victim before killing them.

“The Commander wants a proper front line before the dragons reach us. Trenches and battlements, from here all the way to Everfree,” Duchess told them, “Each of you will have a task. If you cannot complete that task, then…”

Duchess did not have to tell them what the result would be.

Juno had shuffled meekly along with the others into the orderly row, as each prisoner was inspected and assigned a role.

She kept her eyes fixed on the ground, as she had become accustomed to, though she made an effort to listen in.

Until at last she came to the front of the line, to face Raccoon and Duchess and the short one, Dagger.

“Look at this one,” Raccoon laughed.

“Much too little to carry stone or wield a hammer,” Dagger shook his head, “To the dogs, I say.”

“Not enough meat on her for the dogs,” came Raccoon.

Juno did not lift her gaze, not until Duchess grabbed her roughly by the chin.

“A homely little thing too,” Duchess scowled, “If she was prettier the Surgeon would want her.”

“I know,” came Raccoon, “The archers would do well to have a moving target. She can run, can’t she?”

“Quick enough, I expect,” Duchess replied, and she seemed to like the idea, “Feed her first, then give her to Forest.”

“Wait!” Juno exclaimed, catching all three of them by surprise, “I can sew and mend clothing, and I can run mail here and there and help with food too. I can work.”

“You should’ve spoken up sooner, girl,” laughed Raccoon, “We’ve already found a good use for you.”

“You can practice flinging arrows on a rabbit, or a squirrel. They’re just as quick. Maybe quicker,” Juno said, grasping for words, “It’s no use anyway. Dragons fly, and I don’t, and they’re a lot bigger than I am. If your archers can’t hit a dragon already, practice is wasted on them.”

Dagger laughed. Raccoon was aghast, and raised his hoof to smack her across the face. But Duchess caught him first, and she studied Juno, who held her head up firmly.

A grin found its way to Duchess’ face.

“I like this one,” Duchess said, “Bring her to Foxy instead, and put her to work.”

The Giant’s Path was a steep ride up the edge of the mountainside. The rain had ended, and in its place came snow, thick and heavy such that the way ahead was a hazy veil of white.

“I remember when Star Swirl was still beardless,” Discord laughed, “Even then, he was a withered curmudgeon, who better excelled at scolding the youth and yelling at clouds than at banishing beasts or slaying foes. Though ponies will still say otherwise.”

“For such a suspicious mind, don’t you find it odd how you think everypony is a liar?” Starlight asked.

“I would, but I have yet to be proven wrong,” Discord replied, “Ponies love to lie, they just don’t like to be called liars.”

“Except you, right?” Eight Ball rolled his eyes.

“I am the most honest creature I know,” Discord declared. Starlight and Eight Ball laughed.

You? You’ve never had a friend you haven’t double-crossed at least once,” Starlight said.

“I don’t hide what I am,” Discord smiled, “Can you say the same, Starlight? You may have forgotten what you are, but I haven’t. Those ponies in your old little village haven’t, either.”

“I haven’t forgotten a thing.”

Discord flashed his jagged canine tooth.

“Luna’s sincerity is beyond question. Our new little friend, the same,” Discord said, “You, however, I am beginning to have doubts.”

“You’ve always had doubts. But that didn’t stop you from saving my life,” Starlight reminded.

“Yes, but famously I’m kinder than I am wise,” Discord laughed, “Will my gamble pay off, Starlight? It will take all of us to destroy Twilight. But when the day comes, there will be no parlays or deals to be struck. You cannot slay a dragon with words. You cannot offer terms to a tempest. You faltered before. You cannot do it again.”

My friends are all dead because of what I chose, Starlight thought. Sunset, Lightning, Suri, Wallflower. And Trixie, she fought for me. They all fought for me. And I abandoned them. I abandoned them all.

Snow trickled out from a crevice up behind them. Up ahead, Luna had disappeared out of sight around the edge of the ridge.

Then the pony climbed out of his stick-and-stone shelter, hidden beneath last night’s snowfall.

The pony was a unicorn stallion, stocky and stout with a pudge nose wrapped in scarves. He was bundled up in jackets, his pockets filled to the brim.

Starlight, Eight Ball, and Discord came to a stop, staring down at him.

“What in the-...” the pony muttered, gazing up at Discord in horror.

“He’s a ranger,” Eight Ball determined, recognizing the patch on the pony’s jacket, “A runaway ranger. Might have been with the ones that sacked Barrowtown and the other villages.”

“Who are you?” the pony demanded.

Starlight saw the glimmer of gold in the pony’s jacket pockets. Spoils from the villages he had raided, she figured.

His eyes were fixed on Starlight, and somehow she could tell some alarm had clicked in the back of his head.

“If we let him go he’ll tell the rangers that we’re here. Or the Crystal Army. Or Twilight,” Discord muttered to Starlight, “He has to die.”

“Are you out of your mind?” Starlight whispered, distraught, “No, he…We can’t. He’s-...”

“We can’t take him with us,” Discord said, “You have to do it. Starlight, do it.”

The ranger took a step backward.

“Wait….Starlight, I think he’s-” Eight Ball began.

The pony below ignited his horn, though Starlight acted first.

A hole burned its way right through the pony’s chest, incinerating his heart on impact. Steam shot out from the charred flesh, dripping black blood into the snow.

The ranger collapsed, dead.

“I…I…” Starlight stammered.

“We need to move. Now,” Eight Ball said, hurrying back toward the road.

Starlight shut her mouth and rushed along behind him, avoiding having to look at what she had done. And Discord lingered behind her, grinning all the while.

Her son’s armor was fresh from the forge, and it seemed to Ocean Flow that the weight of it pressed heavy on Terramar’s shoulders.

Of gold and gemstones, he wore none, but instead bronze and silver, thin and form-fitting, sleek to fight against the tides.

Ocean Flow fell deeper into her chair, bathing in the grey light that seeped in through her window. She hardly left her palace quarters any longer, but had not wanted for company, not while Terramar visited her daily, informing her of the news from the front, of the changelings’ movements and tales of Twilight’s temperament.

The queen’s mane was a mophead mess of tangled curls, twisting around black-ringed eyes and a furrowed brow.

Two weeks had passed since Silver was last seen, since her laughter could be heard from down the hall. Terramar was left to distract her, to little avail, as she went on to dread how fate might punish her family next. Her grief for Novo had not expired, and now her own children’s lives seemed near forfeit.

Ocean Flow was busy staring off into space, though made an effort to acknowledge Terramar, nodding her head along as he rattled off the latest news.

“...Oh, and, I should mention - Twilight is still trying to pay a visit, she’s told me to tell you that she’s been very busy,” Terramar said, “I can’t help but think she’s acting a little odd.”

“You’re not the only one.”

The door had come creaking open, and in came Featherglass, smiling as he slinked through the doorway. Terramar rose to his hooves, confused as to what the lanky earth pony wanted.

“Featherglass,” Ocean Flow said, perking up from her chair.

Terramar seemed wary of the pale yellow stallion, who he knew only by name.

“Your grace,” Featherglass smiled, “I only wanted to stop by and see how the two of you are doing. I’ve not forgotten the turmoil you both must be going through.”

Terramar hesitated, unsure how to respond. Ocean Flow straightened up in her chair, and seemed to be touched by the attempt.

“I’m very glad you’ve come,” Ocean Flow smiled, “Has there been any word of Silver?”

Featherglass smiled, and made his way inside.

“May I sit?” he asked.

Terramar moved out of the way for Featherglass to claim the chair he had been sitting in. And Terramar himself was forced to stand off to the side, keeping a close eye on Featherglass.

“The armor looks good on you,” Featherglass said, “That sword of yours, too. I only hope you don't have to use it.”

Terramar was reluctant to reciprocate Featherglass’ compliment, waiting until the pony turned back to Ocean Flow.

“Your daughter is safe and unharmed. I’ve been in communication with the changelings, and they’ve assured me as much,” Featherglass said.

“She is not safe as long as she is a prisoner,” Ocean Flow replied.

“There is nothing you could have done, your grace,” Featherglass said, “And Silver is as much a prisoner as the two of you are.”

Terramar glanced back at him, having been watching the door. Ocean Flow’s eyes narrowed.

“What do you mean?” Ocean Flow demanded.
42 Featherglass glanced around the room.

“The walls have ears, though I owe you both the truth, so let them all hear. Twilight brought you here as a hostage, your grace. She had Stonehoof recruit your son into the army to keep him in the capital. Both of you serve her as leverage for the fleet that follows your command,” Featherglass said, “With your daughter a prisoner of the changelings, it would be wise for you both to flee now, escape the city before Twilight makes it impossible.”

“Do you take us for cowards?” Terramar snapped, “We’re not going home until we have my sister back.”

“We cannot save her,” Ocean Flow said, “She is lost to us. Perhaps he is right. Perhaps staying here will only bring more horror to our family.”

“There is a third way that may satisfy you both,” Featherglass said, “As long as the hippogriff fleet does not attack the changelings or their allies, then no harm will come to Silver. Elytra, the changeling princess, has confirmed this to me. If you will not try to escape Twilight, then you must earn her trust. Otherwise she will only ever see you as a piece on a game board, or worse, an enemy to be destroyed.”

“We could attack the green army,” Terramar proposed, “Destroy these rebels and prove ourselves to Twilight.”

“The green army is led by the Azimuths, in all but name,” Featherglass said, “Your daughter’s affections for the Azimuth boy will be the grounds for a future alliance. Best not to jeopardize that.”

“You would have us ally ourselves with those rebels?” Ocean Flow stammered, “An alliance built off of my daughter’s childish dreams of royal court romance?”

“Wars have been won with less,” Featherglass said.

“It would be good to have friends besides Twilight, mother,” Terramar said, “...If not south, then we’ll go north, and join Snowfall Glitter. We’ll beat the imperials and Twilight will have hard proof of our loyalty. Then she won’t think of us as hostages, but as friends.

Featherglass nodded, approvingly.

“Your son is wise beyond his years,” Featherglass said, “Once the empire is dealt with, the changelings will be the only enemy left in the north. And Twilight will gladly help you defeat them and rescue Silver.”

Terramar straightened his back, while Ocean Flow sunk back into her chair. And Featherglass could only smile all the while.

Her bag was packed to the brim with all she could carry, when her claw slid under the window lock, lifting open the latch. She could not say farewell, as much as she wished she could. Saffron and Coriander meant well, but this haven was safe no longer.

Silver Stream raised the window and climbed towards its edge, when she suddenly came to a halt.

Voices rang out from around the building, and hoofsteps followed. Seven pairs, no, eight. It couldn’t possibly be more. She heard a scrap of metal against stone.

I can’t leave Saffron, I can’t leave Coriander, she thought to herself. They’re here for me. Only me. They’ll throw Saffron and Coriander in the dungeons, and she’ll have left them there to rot. She had let someone else take the fall for her last time. She would not do it again.

The window slammed shut, and Silver threw her bag back down to the bed.

She burst out through her door and crept toward the restaurant portion of the building, peering out from behind a crack in a red wooden door.

They were not royal guards, as she had thought, but rather an ugly bunch of sharp-jawed stallions in grey, brown, and black. They totaled ten in all, and at the front was a pink stallion with a black mane and narrow eyes. The other patrons of the restaurant had wrapped up their conversations, staring up at the strange bunch of grizzly stallions. They all wore weapons around their waists, some tucked away, some out in the open for all to see. The pink stallion had a bandage wrapped around his right shoulder, and he winced with every step.

“Who owns this shithole?” he asked.

Silver could not see where Saffron was from the crack in the door. But she could see Coriander make his way from around the bar in the back.

“This is my establishment,” Coriander replied, curtly, “My friends, regretfully I inform you that parties of six or more require a reservation.”

The pink stallion laughed at that, and the others promptly followed him.

“We’re looking for a girl. A hippogriff girl. Your friends down the street were kind enough to point us in your direction,” the pink stallion said. He opened his hoof to sprinkle what looked like pink and white corn pellets to the ground. Silver’s brow hardened, until she realized it was teeth that now decorated the carpet of the Tasty Treat, “I asked them nicely, to begin with. I’ll show you the same courtesy. Where is the girl?”

If Coriander was alarmed, he gave no sign of showing it. He made no movement for what felt like hours, before waving to a table nearby.

“I am a businesspony,” Coriander said, “If you want to do business, let us discuss it. Civilly, I beg.”

The pink stallion smiled. He motioned for his friends to remain where they were by the front, and took his seat opposite to Coriander.

But one of the nine had followed him along, some magenta mare with huge curls of gold, deep blue, purple and pink. She wore a hot-pink trench coat and matching pink leather boots.

The pink stallion shot her a look, but said nothing. The mare was pretty, a strange sight amidst her companions, but had a hard glare to her that made Silver nervous to look upon.

“You know who we are,” the mare presumed. The other patrons of the restaurant gradually returned to their conversations, albeit hesitantly.

“I know you are the Debutante,” Coriander said, pouring the three of them some chai from a hot pitcher, “And this one, I can only assume he is one sent by Crozer, the one who rules Manehattan.”

The pink stallion smiled.

“That’s right,” he agreed, “I am not from Equestria either, you know.”

Coriander raised an eyebrow.

“Basalt Beach. Not so far as Khajaana, like yourself. Or…Farasi, more precisely?”

“You have a good ear for accents,” Coriander smiled.

“That I do,” the pink stallion agreed, “And for lies, as well. You and I were once strangers to this land, and now we are to bargain over the key to its future. What made you protect the girl?”

“Mercy,” Coriander replied, “She was scared, cold, alone. What would you’ve done?”

“You are nobler than I, my friend,” the pink stallion said, “You protected her well, all this time. But you can not protect her forever.”

“No. But perhaps a bit longer,” Coriander said.

The pink stallion flinched.

“Maybe I misjudged you. I thought you could be reasoned with.”

“I can be. First tell me, how did you know to look here?” Coriander wondered.

The pink stallion glanced at the Debutante.

“She’s made a habit of wandering the streets by night, in search of something,” the Debutante said, “My streets.”

Coriander nodded. He sighed through his nose, and Silver could feel his disappointment.

“I told her to stay put,” Coriander sighed, “I had warned her that it is the Thieves who reign now, and it will be the Thieves to hand her back to the insects.”

The pink stallion twitched.

“Crozer is not an enemy you wish to make,” the pink stallion warned.

“But Crozer is not here. I will speak to the Debutante. I see five of her ponies there behind you, and only three of your own. If Crozer seeks a deal of some kind, he will come himself.”

The pink stallion bared his teeth.

“She works for us,” the pink stallion roared, “Tell me where you’ve hidden her. Or I’ll carve up your daughter and feed her to you in tomorrow’s stew.”

“You will do no such thing,” Coriander laughed, “You are in Canterlot. Not Manehattan. I have friends of my own. And perhaps the Debutante will be wise enough to see that she might not need poor old Crozer looming over her any longer, not when a sweeter deal awaits her and her alone.”

The Debutante’s mouth hung agape, and she seemed shocked by the proposition. Behind her, the thugs in black, grey, and brown had all grown restless.

“The whore and her orphans belong to us,” the pink stallion said, “You will answer to us.

Coriander sat back in his chair, smiling to himself.

“Perhaps,” Coriander said, “I think you must answer to her, first.”

The Debutante’s knife brushed against the pink stallion’s neck, and might have cut deeper if he hadn’t fallen backward to dodge the strike. The Tasty Treat was a madhouse of blades and magic, as the Thieves and the Black Hoof ponies threw themselves at each other, all while Coriander ushered the other patrons to safety in the kitchens.

Silver smiled ear-to-ear, before realizing her chance still awaited her.

Darting back to her room, she scooped up her bag and made for the window, but stopped when the door flew open again.

Miss Silver!” cried Saffron, who had tears running down her cheeks already.

Silver glanced back, her head half-stuck out the window. Saffron laughed and wiped her eyes.

“Good fortune to you, Miss Silver,” Saffron said.

Silver smiled and nodded, before jumping down below.

She fled out down the alleyway, the way she had memorized a thousand times, only to be caught short at the edge.

Three ponies blocked her escape, but her eyes focused only on the one in the middle.

Rainbow Dash?”

It was never truly dark in Star Swirl’s chambers.

Candles danced beside pockets of stained glass around the dwelling, gleaming green, gold, red, and purple. Glass vessels of bubbling liquids and exotic powders were stacked haphazardly in shelves and worktables. In the hearth, a fire kept burning day and night. Outside, the midday snow came heavy, piling against the window glass.

Star Swirl closed his eyes and whispered a prayer, then opened them once more to peer into the fire. Just one more glance. He had to be sure of what he saw. Many a spellbinder and sorcerer before him had been destroyed by false visions. They only saw what they wanted to see. Twilight Sparkle was fighting a war on two fronts, she who carried the fate of the world upon her shoulders. The prophesied one, the savior. Had she gone to battle? Show me Twilight, he prayed, Show me the princess.

The visions bent and wove not unlike the flames of the candles, gold, crimson, sometimes purple, blue, and green. They flickered and fell upon one another, colliding and contorting into queer shapes that both seduced and terrified. Faces without eyes, he saw, and a purple dragon writhing in a green harness.

A pale girl with a head of stubble stumbled through black snow, and a foal’s crying came from somewhere close.

A great arena of red sand and bronze statues came next, dripping wax. No, it was blood, he realized. The blood collected in the sea, where the ships were waiting. Where were they going?

On the other shore, there she was, he found her. Twilight Sparkle appeared older than last he had seen, and he may have taken a closer glance, before something caught his eyes above her. A brilliant blue comet, tethered to the crescent moon, crashing toward the earth. Toward me, he realized.

He was frozen there, as the comet fell to the earth. And he may have expected it to crush him, if the sound of shattering glass had not startled him so badly he nearly collapsed right into the fire.

Star Swirl spun around, stroking his beard and rubbing at his eyes.

Outlaws. Bandits. Crystal Soldiers.

No, he realized, no, he remembered now.

“Gibbs!” Star Swirl bellowed, swinging madly from the fire, “Gibbs!!!”

More crashing came from the adjacent room, and Star Swirl’s horn ignited.

He teleported there in an instant, flailing his forelegs in dismay.

Gibbs was there, the bald-headed brute he had raised from a coledigger to one of his engineers. This was one of his many workshops, and at its center was the great furnace that could channel a particular kind of magical extract, necessary for the finishing touches on the wand. The wand, that had taken him two years now to perfect. And right then, those two years very well may have been for nothing.

Fool! Blind bloody fool! The compactor! Release the valve on the compactor!”

Star Swirl had despised modern technology upon his arrival in the modern age, though he had gradually come to appreciate its charms. That is, when it was being operated competently.

“Not that way! The other way! Right! Not left!” Star Swirl yelled, clawing at his beard restlessly.

Gibbs was trying his best, Star Swirl could grant, as he wiped the sweat and ash off his face. The stallion’s work ethic could not be questioned, which was more than he could say for a certain other pony.

“Where in the stars’ name is the boy?” Star Swirl roared, right as Gibbs finished tightening the valve.

“Here, sir,” came Quasar, the shaggy-haired lad of twelve years.

“Thanks for the help, master apprentice,” Gibbs muttered.

“You were supposed to keep things in order here,” Star Swirl reminded, sternly. This was his first apprentice in a thousand moons, and he proved more unruly than any other he had ever suffered before.

“I would’ve, but Yona made mention of some trouble down the Giant’s Path. If that were true, we might need to be concerned,” Quasar said.

Star Swirl scowled. He had accepted the yak girl as a gift from the Crystal Empire some moons ago. Prince Rutger had feared for her safety, and she would be safer here with him in his lonely little cottage than in Yakyakistan, where the former prince had been assassinated. The girl made better company than Gibbs or the foolish boy Quasar, that was true, and her cooking was far better than anything he could conjure up himself. Still, she was too fond of rumors, and paid too much attention to the happenings of the nearby villages.

Star Swirl recalled his vision, and the comet and the moon.

“Are we to have battle?” Quasar asked. Star Swirl had told the boy of the risks he would be taking, living with him in the Crystal Mountains. War had broken out all around them, and there was no place one could truly call safe.

“Not if it is who I expect it to be,” Star Swirl said, “You will be a fool to draw a weapon, or even open your lips without my leave. No. There will be no battle. Not with us.”

Glimpsing into a grey-green puddle, Juno did not recognize her own face.

She may have been spared a trip to the kennels or to the volley field, though not without cost. It had taken three soldiers to hold her down when they cut her mane. She watched her bouncy brown curls tumble down into the mud, and now her scalp was left a coarse mess of stubble atop her bare coat.

Not my hair, she had meant to scream, Mom loves my hair.

The words had never left her mouth, nothing but the stupid squeak she made when she was scared.

The prisoners were no longer idly awaiting their execution, though she had not expected their captors to treat them much differently. In some respects, their newfound freedoms had put them in greater danger than before. A single misstep might cost a pegasus his left wing, or somepony else his eye. A nose here, a horn there, quite a few tongues. Juno had only lost her hair so far, and only because a soldier ran into her and spilled her pail of well water. They had been careless with the knife, but thorough. There were no wisps left at all, though there were some scrapes and cuts where the jagged blade had cut too deep.

She had much to be thankful though, she reminded herself. Two days ago she had seen Bender nailed to a wooden post over the northern causeway. She recalled the stories he had told her during their brief companionship, of all the desserts he could bake and how he came to know them. He was a thief and a liar, it was true, but he never tried to touch her like Hask did. It was Hask who deserved to be up there, not Bender.

That left Tails, who she only got to see at dawn and dusk. All day he was sent miles out from the castle to dig the trench line and carry off supplies to build fortifications. Tails was not much older than her, but he was strong. Strong enough to finish his work each day, and smart enough to keep his mouth shut doing it. It was him who had run into her at first, and Juno had wanted nothing to do with him.

“You’re a thief,” Juno told him, “You lied. I wish I’d never met you. I’d be in Canterlot already, I’d have found Sunset Shimmer.”

“I thought Hask really meant to take you with us,” Tails said, “I didn’t know….I should have known, and I’m sorry.”

Juno had not given him a reply, and had instead marched off, sullenly. But she had found him often since then, most of the time to check if he was still alive. Everyday less and less of the workers returned. She dreaded the day she found Tails nailed to the post beside Bender.

There was only one other pony around her age left in the castle during the day, a portly earth pony with a bushy brown mane and beady eyes. She was not sure how he had maintained his girth, given the weeks of starvation.

Poundcake was his name, and he had been stuck in the kitchens.

“They told me I must be experienced,” Poundcake had told her, “I’d much rather be out there digging. I’m as strong as an aurochs, y’know.” Juno did not like how he complained all the time, and she liked even less the name he called her. Cueball. It was only when he saw the tears in her eyes once that he finally stopped.

Juno had caught him stealing food once, but swore to tell no one, as long as he stole a little extra for herself.

Everything she got from Poundcake she had begun to give to Tails, who she thought needed it more than her. She might have been running around all day, but it was Tails who was breaking his back in the heat miles out in the wildlands.

“This doesn’t mean I like you,” Juno insisted once, after sneaking him a bushel of apples, “...Please don’t die.”

Tails smiled.

“I won’t.”

Juno’s job was far less arduous than the laborers, though around camp, she had made herself invaluable. She had no choice, she thought, lest Duchess finally decide that Juno would make better dogfood than she would a servant. She scrubbed the commanders’ tower hall and swept the stone walks. She delivered letters and mail and summons, and served as the cupbearer to the Surgeon himself.

There came a day where some commotion had stirred up in the camp, and the Surgeon had ordered her to fetch his subordinates. Coda, she thought to herself, I’ll get to see him. Coda rarely attended the meetings. He did not care for the Surgeon or his pet rats, that was plain. On that we agree.

She darted down the halls of the castle and found each one - Raccoon, Duchess, Surly and Hex. Coda was not in his chambers, to her dismay, though she had little time to search for him.

She checked the storeroom, and the masonry, and finally the western tower chamber. There were six soldiers there, none of whom paid her any notice. She had turned so pale it was as if she phased right into the walls.

One of them might know where to find Coda, she thought.

Chack lay by the hearth, half-awake with a horn of ale hovering in the air. He was telling one of his many stories, and Juno dared not interrupt.

“I was there at Bitterbite, I was. We fled west when we saw the dragons tear right through the garrison as Desiree. The Velvets were all lost, that’s what Surgeon said,” Chack was saying, “We were on ours way here, nine of us with the Surgeon. Raccoon was with me, and that boy Stills, he’d been with the Surgeon before. Well, we run up on the Grand right after that night’s rain, and it’s running so high we can’t cross it without getting swept up downstream. But there’s this crofter’s hut not too far, so we came there to hunker down. Surgeon grabs the crofter and tells him keep our cups brimmed till the rains calm, and the old horse is grinning ear to ear when we show him our gold. So he’s getting us the ale, him and his daughter, and it’s hippo piss if I’ve ever tasted it, which don’t improve our mood much at all. Surgeon even less. Crofter won’t shut his mouth, blabbering on about this and that, while the Surgeon sits there still as stone. He was raw about leaving the line, y’see. Thought Hawk might’ve called us craven. Surgeon wanted to spill some dragon blood, we all did, but….if you saw how many there were, you’d have done the same,” Chack scoffed and choked on his ale. He wiped his mouth and continued, “But this daughter of his is quiet. Surgeon has that effect, I think. She pours and smiles and stays out of the way, the little lady she was. Not much to look at, in truth. But Hal’s had too much and puts a hoof where he shouldn’t, and would you believe that I did too, and Raccoon’s barking to Stills that the boy should take the girl right then and there and prove himself a stallion. So Stills sticks his hoof under her skirt, and she screams and spills the pitcher all over Raccoon’s lap. Well, that’s where it should’ve ended, but the crofter goes to Surgeon and asks him to put a stop to it. The Surgeon looks his way at last and gives that strange sort of smile he’s got, and tells him to bring the daughter over. So he does it. The Surgeon looks her over, and at the old stallion, and he gives the crofter some more gold and rips the dress off her and takes her right there. Hollering and flailing around like a fish on deck. The look on that old crofter’s face, I’ll never forget it. I was laughing so hard I damn near choked to death. Then this colt comes running up from the cellar, running quick he is. So Raccoon cuts open his belly when he rounds the top stair, and back down he goes. Surgeon’s wrapped up, he has, and he goes back to his cups while all of us have a turn on her. But wait, listen here….when it’d ended Surgeon tells the crofter that he wants one of his gold pieces back, that she wasn’t worth as much, and the crofter gives him it all back, calls it interest, and begs his pardon!”

The six soldiers were all roaring laughing, Chack the loudest among them. Juno remained in the stairwell and watched him. She watched and watched and waited, and left him where he was, scurrying back down the stairs.

Juno fled back to the commanders’ tower, just in time to find Coda by the door.

“You’re out of breath,” Coda remarked.

“I was looking for you,” Juno said. She wished she could confide in him about the things she’s heard, and the things she’d seen, but Coda seemed to not wish to hear.

You saved me once, she thought, Is it too much to ask you to do it again?

Opening the doors, all of the lieutenants were already inside, seated around a great stone table. The window at the end of the hall was stained red by the candlelight, behind where the Surgeon sat.

“Girl,” the Surgeon called, “Wine. Quickly.”

Juno lept to the task, rushing to the pitcher and the cups nearby the door, on the serving ledge. Coda had taken his seat opposite to the Surgeon, who seemed irritated with the captain’s tardiness.

“Vertigo’s army is a few miles away from High Water,” the Surgeon said, “If he succeeds where we failed, it will make the crown look weak. I shouldn’t have to remind you how that will sit with Princess Twilight.”

There was an uneasiness about the group at the mentioning of Twilight’s name. What kind of pony could make them afraid? Juno did not wish to think on it, as she made her way about the table, pouring slowly and carefully.

“The dragon army has split in three. Sear, Sawtooth and Revel sharpen their claws at the Red Teeth. Blacktip and Razer lead a force to take High Water, and the third marches our way, led by Cinder herself,” the Surgeon said, “She’ll take Appaloosa without much resistance. Our job is to keep her from touching Ghastly Gorge.”

“The line won’t be ready by then,” Raccoon reported, regretfully, “But we still have time to prepare. We can’t afford to lose a single pony.”

He glanced at Juno, who shrunk back into the shadows.

“The prisoners stay with me.,” the Surgeon said, glaring at Coda.

“I was charged to take them to the Ghostfort,” Coda said.

“We need bodies more than the Ghostfort needs cells filled,” the Surgeon growled, “Is that why you’ve lingered here for days on end? You were supposed to join Hawkbit up north. Instead you stay here, to protect them. No?”

“Yeah, and I’ve done a sorry job at it. I’ll be leaving here with half as much as I came with.”

And those ones aren’t in one piece, either, Juno thought.

The Surgeon laughed.

“You soft mewling fool,” the Surgeon said, “Everything Hawk told me about you was true. If we didn’t need them, I’d put the rest of your prisoners to the sword. I have half-a-mind to send you into the Plains to chase after Vertigo. I wonder who’ll kill you first, him or the dragons?”

“Either would be more pleasant than stomaching you any longer,” Coda said, rising from his seat.

He turned to trot out the door, and Juno slowly followed after him. The Surgeon was too enraged to call after her.

“Take me with you!” she whispered to Coda, catching him further down the hall, “If you must go north, take me, please! Don’t leave me with them.”

She grabbed him by the leg, though he did not move.

Coda glanced at her, and his mouth tightened.

“No,” Juno whispered, “No…”

Coda trotted off, leaving her in the dark once more.

She hardly spoke to anypony after that, not to Poundcake when he waved to her by the pantry, and not to Tails when he returned from the line.

“Did you eat today?” he always asked.

She did not answer, though, and continued along toward her barracks. But she never reached them, not before Duchess found her.

“A prisoner’s just arrived, and the bitch needs to be fed and given water. I don’t care what hour it is. Get to it, now.”

Juno nodded her head, and returned to the pantry to collect bread, fruit, and water.

“Who’s the bloody banquet for?” Poundcake asked, “That could last me a week, it could.”

Juno would have given her usual jape, but she was in no mood.

“Since when did you know how to shut up?” Poundcake laughed, “Wait, I’m sorry, c’mon, come back! Ah.”

Juno carried the basket over to the stockades, which had been empty for days now. The prisoners-turned workers were now kept in tent barracks, which certainly beat having to sleep in one’s own filth.

She found the prisoner there, hidden away in the darkest cell that stood under a looming castle arch. In the dark of night, the pony was scarcely a silhouette.

Juno set the basket down in the cell, and waited there, though the pony did not budge.

“Pardon me,” Juno said. The pony had appeared to be sleeping, “You’d better eat.”

The prisoner clawed her way forward, inspecting the basket.

“Thank you,” the prisoner said. She had a sweet voice, turned-raspy from what had to be tears.

The pony was pink in color, with a flowing pink, blonde, magenta mane, and a horn as well, all soiled in mud. She was a unicorn.

Sunset Shimmer is a unicorn.
“What’s your name?” Juno asked, and she felt her entire body tense up. Could this really be her?

The pony glanced at her as she scarfed down the food and slurped up the water like a stray dog.

“You’ve done your job, little boy. Now leave me alone.”

“I’m a girl. Tell me your name. If you don’t, then I hope you enjoyed your last meal,” Juno warned.

The prisoner eyed her.

Mi Amore Cadenza,” the prisoner said, bitterly, “My friends call me Cadance.”

“Cadance?” Juno repeated, “They named you after the princess?”

Cadance laughed.

“What are you doing here, little girl?” Cadance asked, “And where are we? If you don’t mind me asking.”

“I don’t mind. But the others will. Did you see the bodies up on the wall?” Juno asked.

“I did.”

“They liked to ask questions too. We’re in some castle, I don’t know its name. West of Appaloosa, north of the Macintosh Hills. It’s at the southern foot of the front,” Juno said.

“Front? Who are we fighting?” Cadance wondered.

Juno balked at the question. Who weren’t they fighting?

“Have you been living under a rock, Miss Cadenza? Dragons, changelings, southerners, northerners. Everypony’s fighting everypony, really. I couldn’t tell you why,” Juno said.

Cadance suddenly came to life, rising from the ground to sit up straight.

Northerners?” she stammered, “The Crystal Empire is at war?”

“The princess’ brother is leading them,” Juno said. She had heard the Surgeon say as much.

Cadance seemed on the verge of tears.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you-...” Juno said, stepping closer to the cage, “I’m sorry for however you ended up here.”

Cadance laughed at her own despair, and fell back into the stockade wall, wiping her eyes.

“You’re very kind,” Cadance said, “Look at you. You should be at home, not here, not in this place. You’re just a foal.”

“I am not,” Juno rebuked, “....My home’s gone. My family’s gone. I went searching for the pony who took them all away. Sunset Shimmer. I almost thought you were her.”

Cadance shook her head.

Sunset Shimmer? She’s a hard one to mistake,” Cadance said, “I understand how you feel…” she realized she did not know the girl’s name.

“Juno,” Juno said.

“Juno, I truly do. But you won’t bring your home back by finding Sunset Shimmer. You won’t bring your family back.”

“I know that,” Juno said, “But she has to pay for what she did.”

“She will. But must it be by your hoof?” Cadance asked, “I have a daughter, much younger than you. Back home. Back in the empire. If she was old enough, she might have done the same as you’re doing. Ran off to win a foolish war, to have vengeance, to save the day. All we can do is save who we can, and make right what we can. And know that I would give anything to see her safe again, just as I know your mother would want for you.”

My mother’s dead, Juno wanted to say. But she was sooner struck by the longing in Cadance’s voice, and realization overcame her.

Juno fell to her knees and bowed her head, eyes wide with terror.

“You really are Princess Cadance!” Juno realized, “I-I didn’t know, your highness, honest, I didn’t.”

Cadance smiled, and knelt over to lift Juno back up to her hooves, through the bars.

“You should go to bed, Juno,” Cadance advised, “I will sleep better myself, knowing that you get a night’s rest. I can’t know as much for my own daughter. It may be too late for her. It already is for me.”

The royal council chamber had more chairs filled than usual that day.

Twilight Sparkle had expected as much. Six days ago she had tasked Marius with assigning shadows for every member of the council, the ministry, and the executive committee. By now they all should have noticed.

She stopped in the doorway, her eyes passing over each one of them. Archangel, the defense secretary, stood next to Twilight’s chair. He liked to think that he could oversee this war better than I could, Twilight suspected. Wedge and Marius were opposite to him, both exhausted from the work she had given them the night before. Some senate committees had been plotting an escape from the city, she had discovered, and it had been Wedge and Marius’ task to have them arrested without anypony noticing.

Lieutenant Redshift was here too, to Twilight’s annoyance. She had no real place here, though undoubtedly she had begged Wedge to let her attend, if only to curry favor back from Twilight after her last failed mission.

Towards the other end of the table was Bone Marrow and Veto, and Featherglass, with those eyes that always smiled, and beside him was….

“Lady Lavender,” Twilight said, raising an eyebrow, “What an unexpected pleasure.”

The last time that name had crossed Twilight’s lips, it had been to commission an assassination attempt. That street urchin Clover had botched the job, however, and now the smirking sow had the gall to ride south and flaunt herself, as if her life was any safer.

“I shan’t be staying long, princess,” Lavender purred, “Though I will say, it’s good to be back. Running things in Silkwood without Blueblood has had its fair share of challenges. Even some matters of life and death. So many adventures. So much to be thankful for.”

Lavender’s eyes were locked onto Twilight, who stood as she was, unflinching.

Twilight crossed over to take her seat, and the other councilors followed suit.

“The Highlands follow the Warden of Haverford,” Twilight said, “And Stonehoof has gone over to the imperials. And yet you come south instead. Why?”

“Stonehoof is old,” Lavender said, sipping from her goblet of wine, “I fear for his longevity. Soon there will be a new Warden of Haverford, I think. Might it be better if it was somepony who had a stronger sense of loyalty?”

Twilight raised her head, and quickly took to Lavender’s meaning.

“There have been some skirmishes here and there, but a proper war in the north has yet to begin,” Lavender continued, “The same cannot be said for the dragons, who are the true enemy. With your leave, I wish to treat with your brother, the prince, and convince him to join us and defeat our common foe. I trust you know how persuasive I can be.”

Yes, you dress like a harlot and know how to whisper in a stallion’s ear.

“Shining will want Cadance,” Twilight said.

“Let them have her, but not until after the dragons are dealt with. The Empire is poised to be quite a challenge, princess. They have almost all of the Highlands behind them now, and perhaps the dragons, changelings and hippogriffs if we're not careful. If the war progresses as it is now, on two fronts - we won't prevail. We have to make peace with the Empire, or else they'll destroy us and take power for themselves, as they are capable of doing right now. Unite with them and defeat the dragons, before the dragons unite with them first. Once we have saved Equestria, all treasonous notions will disappear by then. And if the imperials fight alongside us, they will have a harder time turning their swords against their new brothers-in-arms.”

Archangel grunted in agreement.

“Very well,” Twilight said, “I would gladly have my brother as an ally once again, though I cannot say I share your optimism.”

“You never have, princess,” Lavender smirked.

“Featherglass,” Twilight said, shifting her attention to the lanky pale yellow pegasus lurching over the table, “What news of Silver Stream?”

“The changelings plan to marry her to Prince Malthos in the coming weeks,” Featherglass said, “I regret to inform your grace that you have not received a wedding invitation.”

“I’m not in the mood for your jokes, Featherglass.”

“You rarely are, your grace,” Featherglass laughed, “I am doing all I can to push for negotiations. Though you know our friend Pharynx likes to see us squirm.”

Twilight scowled.

“Your grace,” came Archangel, “Our reserves in Canterlot are depleted…If the dragons should manage to lay siege….”

“I will take command of the first battalion,” Redshift offered, “If you will allow it, your highness.”

“I will not,” Twilight said, to Redshift’s distress, “You’ve been running amuck in Manehattan, consorting with thieves and outlaws for the better part of a year. Now you ask me to charge you with the defense of this city? Wedge will take command of the first, and see that our walls are properly defended.”

“Let me make amends at least, your grace,” Redshift stammered, refusing to let that be the end of it.

Twilight glared at her.

“As you wish. Take a company north to join Snowfall and Styles. I’m confident you’ll have more use there than here.”

Redshift’s smile was crooked. To have to serve her old rival Snowfall was a just punishment, Twilight thought.

“What of the southern line?” Twilight asked.

“Hawkbit has committed to building a defensive front spanning from the Macintosh Hills to the Everfree Forest,” Marius reported.

Twilight took a moment to register what he had said, but when she had she quickly turned livid.

“There are sixteen settlements in the Great Plains. When I ordered him to defend the south, did he think those sixteen didn’t count?” Twilight demanded.

“A moral misstep, surely,” Marius said, “Though the southerners’ prayers have not gone unanswered. An army has launched out of Irwind, gathering support on its way into the plains.”

“Irwind?” Wedge repeated, “Irwind was given to Vertigo.”

Marius cleared his throat.

“It’s been said that it is Captain Vertigo who leads this army, I’m afraid. Him and the Azimuth girl, Delphi,” Marius said.

Another betrayer. Twilight had lost count of them by now. She trusted the ponies in this room even less.

“He is doing what Hawkbit should have done himself,” Twilight said, “...I should have him hanged for treason, yet perhaps we can make use of him as an ally, until the war is done. Otherwise the dragons will lay waste to the south, and then this city.”

Wedge shook his head in dismay. Vertigo was his own pupil, after all. He had never thought the boy had it in him.

“Send Hydrangea to bring his sister to reason. Offer them support,” Twilight said, “And remind them what the price of treason is, should they take this heroic endeavor too far.”

“Your grace, if I may,” Featherglass said, “The hippogriff fleet is wary of choosing a side, with their princess in chains and fetters. But Ocean Flow still stands with you. If you were to put them to use, provide them with a tangible stake in the fight, you will keep them as friends. Let them sit on the fence too long, and they may fall over to the wrong side.”

“You want me to send them to war?” Twilight asked, “Ocean Flow already believes her daughter lost. She will never agree to-”

“Ocean Flow is despondent and inconsolable,” Featherglass said, “But the young Prince Terramar, however…...his blood is hot and he craves battle. He will not allow the hippogriff fleet to be steered freely into the clutches of a kidnapping insect.”

Twilight smiled.

“Yes. I think you’re right. Make the arrangements,” Twilight said, “Now. All of you, get out. Not you, Wedge. Stay.”

The chamber emptied, save for Wedge, who had his helmet tucked into foreleg.

“Captain,” Twilight said, “You have served me faithfully these past few months. Tell me something. You know your ponies better than I ever will. Which of them do you trust?”

“Snowfall,” Wedge replied without delay, “Venger, Grey Wick, and Prickly, perhaps. The others are good soldiers. But I wouldn’t trust them with anything sensitive. Hawkbit is cowardly. Redshift is cruel. Hydrangea is young and hot-headed, and Styles….That one has no honor.”

“And Vertigo?” Twilight asked.

“It was me who taught him. Me who brought him up. If somepony must be held responsible for his actions, it should be me.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Twilight said, waving him off, “Vertigo will be dealt with. I need you to handle another matter. I want you to contact Styles, once the battalion has made camp. It’s time I told you of his true purpose in accompanying Snowfall.”

Wedge raised an eyebrow.

“In part he was to keep an eye on her, but I have a hundred pairs of eyes in that camp already who watch her every move. His task is more perilous, but should he succeed he may provide us with a bloodless victory over the north.”

“Flurry Heart,” Wedge guessed, “You want him to kidnap Princess Flurry Heart.”

Twilight nodded. Perhaps her captain was not the fool she had always thought he was.

“Shining did not balk at me imprisoning his wife. But he will when I take his daughter.”

“She’s only a child,” Wedge said.

“And she must be kept safe. Here, in Canterlot,” Twilight said.

“I’ll….I’ll let him know, your grace,” he said.

Wedge made for the door, but nearly collided into Venger, who scooted out of his way.

“Your grace,” she said, standing at attention, “Lady Azimuth has requested an audience. She is waiting without. Should I send her in?”

Twilight raised an eyebrow, and nodded.

The matriarch of Irwind was such a little thing, she was easily mistaken for a foal at the wrong glance. A wrinkled pale rose face was smiling up at her through a chaperon and veil.

“So this is the place where our princess wastes away?” Lady Azimuth said aloud. By the door, Venger seemed alarmed by the remark, “Goodness, would it kill you to open a window? There’s more sunlight in the castle dungeons.”

“Would you be wanting something, my lady?” Twilight asked, “Or, let me guess. You’ve come to assure me that you had no hoof in your daughter’s treason.”

“Ah, yes, I have a treasonous daughter. And I also have a loyal son. Surely one makes up for the other,” Azimuth declared, “My darling Delphi. If she had bothered consulting me, I would have told her to plan her betrayal with somepony other than some disgruntled army captain. But her newest plea for attention is not what brought me here. Delphi has emptied Augusta of its standing army to do battle with the dragons, and my lands are vulnerable. I should not have to remind you that without my grain and produce, your armies and citizenry will surely starve.”

“You might recall that we’re fighting a war,” Twilight said, “Two wars, in fact. I gave Augusta additional support already, and your daughter has spat my gift back in my face. Now you deign to ask for more?”

“If it’s not an army, then I would have a different sort of arrangement,” Azimuth said, “My son was supposed to marry the hippogriff princess, before she was whisked away.”

“I cannot give him a new bride,” Twilight said. She hesitated, before a thought came to her suddenly, “But I can give him something else. The Lowlands.”

Azimuth studied Twilight’s face, as if trying to decipher some hidden intention.

“You would give your old seat to a non-Equestrian?” Azimuth asked, skeptically.

“Equestrian or not, true friends are hard to come by,” Twilight said. She recalled a time the honor had been given to Starlight Glimmer, though that plan had only lasted a short while. Twilight’s face darkened at the thought.

“Your castle in Ponyville will be his as well,” Azimuth said, “Otherwise our shipments will come to a swift end, and our navy, the only one in the realm that can challenge the hippogriffs, may look to somepony else.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Twilight said, “Your son will be named Lord Protector of the Lowlands….if he succeeds in reaffirming his sister’s loyalty.”

“And that he will do,” Azimuth agreed, relieved, “You should not give up on my Delphinium so soon. The best way to bring her back to her senses will be through a suitable husband."

Twilight sighed.

"I would stop you now, my lady, and tell you that you overreach. But I'm curious. Who do you have in mind?"

"When the poor fool Prince Blueblood lost his head, to whom did his titles pass onto?"

"To the next closest living relative of Princess Celestia," Twilight answered, "A young colt. Heirloom, I think his name is. Your daughter is twice his age."

"He will mature," Azimuth said, "And I expect he'll be quick about it, once he gets a look at my Delphinium."

"I will not agree to any arrangements until your son has completed his task," Twilight said, firmly.

"I shall tell him to make haste, in that case," Azimuth said, staggering up to her hooves, "I was told you were drunk, impertinent, and thoroughly mad. What a disappointment it is to find nothing but a weary melancholic.”

Twilight watched Azimuth shuffle out of the room. Twilight sat back in her seat, rubbed at her forehead, and shut her eyes.

The sun slipped beneath the west battlements, and darkness enveloped the camp. Juno would have to be quick. Quiet and quick, like the rabbit who took her place at target practice.

Convincing Tails to climb out of his cot at such an hour was a trial, though Poundcake required less convincing. The offer of some stolen jam rolls was enough to coax him along. She brought them together into the servants’ tent, which was currently unoccupied save for the rats and the crates of ammunition.

“Escape?” Tails rebuffed. The very word was a death sentence if the wrong pony heard them, “Singe tried escaping. Remember what happened to him?”

“Of course I do,” Juno said. She could still remember the smell of that bird cage he was left in for the crows to devour alive, “Coda’s leaving without us. If we stay here we’ll die.”

“Might be,” Tails allowed, “But we run and we’ll most certainly die.”

Juno revealed her canvas satchel, rattling with glass bottles.

“Past five days I’ve been mixing dreamweed into the left-over bottles of cider they all drink.”

“Dreamweed?” Tails inquired.

“Never heard of such a thing,” Poundcake scoffed.

“It’s a plant, it grows on the north side by that old brick wall. it’s not supposed to be for cooking,” Juno explained. Her father had often ranted about the dangers of the drug, on the account of which he was often arresting unruly teenagers.

“I’ve filled up a whole barrel. It’ll make them drunk, sort of. They’ll be out of their minds, or asleep, and we’ll slip right past them.”

Tails raised an eyebrow.

“They’ll hunt us down,” Tails said.

“They might,” Juno agreed, “But they might not want to waste the effort. Not when the dragons are so close.”

“What if they punish the others for what we did?” Poundcake asked.

Juno had not thought of that.

“I’d take everypony if I could, but….We don’t have time. I already replaced the new barrel,” Juno said.

“You what?” Tails stammered, ‘So what, you want us to do this tonight?

“If you’re too afraid, you can stay here. But I’m going, with or without you,” Juno said.

Juno trotted right out of the tent, while the other two stared at each other in disbelief.

Juno checked her shoulder and saw the two of them had rushed after her, nervously glancing around to see if anypony was watching them.

Juno walked with a certainty in her stride, keeping her eyes locked on ahead of her.

She thought of Princess Cadance. I should bring her too. No, she thought, the Surgeon would surely come after them then. Cadance could handle them, maybe, if Juno knew how to break off that ring on her horn. And if she couldn’t….What parts of her would they take next?

She could not save Cadance, she thought with sadness. But she could save Cadance’s daughter, she realized. Flurry Heart, she was called. Juno had never laid eyes on the girl, though she owed Cadance as much if she was going to leave her behind.

At the gates, the guards were sound asleep, just as she had planned.

Tails laughed quietly in disbelief, amazed.

“Well done,” he said.

“That’ll only last a few hours,” Juno whispered, “We have to go.”

She sent Poundcake to quickly raid the pantry for as much food as he could carry, and Tails to the armory to fetch some weapons for them to use. Juno, meanwhile, kept watch over they guards to make sure none of them were stirring awake.

When they returned, Juno led them right out through the northern gate, while the castle slept on soundly.

They reached the top hill of the overlook before Juno finally let them stop.

She glanced over to the northeast road that led to Canterlot, to Sunset Shimmer, and back again to the woodland trail that ran back up near the gorge, up through the Lowlands and Highlands all the way to the Crystal Empire.

Sunset’s time would come, she told herself. First she would do right by Cadance. She would rescue Flurry Heart.

Star Swirl’s cottage was a simple dwelling, buried deep atop this spiked plateau.

Starlight kept her attention on Eight Ball, the only one among them who could not fly or keep himself airborne. The stallion kept his balance on the ridge, but barely.

The cottage was made of weathered grey stone and had copper-rung roofs, and a stone chimney that coughed up smoke into the grey sky.

Starlight knocked on the door, and heard multiple voices shouting, the breaking of glass, and the rustling of furniture.

The door creaked open, leaving a thin gap for a pair of eyes to peer through. Starlight had never been well-acquainted with Star Swirl, not like Luna, though Luna was not fit to make pleasantries.

“Starlight Glimmer,” Star Swirl muttered, opening the door wide enough to reveal himself. He was glaring deep into her eyes.

“Changelings make perfect copies,” Starlight said, “Except for the eyes. The eyes they often have trouble with.”

Star Swirl smiled, impressed, but was still suspicious.

“Forgive me young lady, but it’s common knowledge that you were killed,” Star Swirl said, as politely as he could, “A changeling would be more likely than a reanimated corpse.”

“And how often do you put your trust in common knowledge?” Starlight asked.

Star Swirl grunted, and Starlight suspected it was his best attempt at a laugh. His eyes passed over her to Luna.

“Princess. Have my dreams turned so dull they are not worth a visit these days?” he croaked.

“That power is lost to me. Along with much else,” Luna said.

Star Swirl stroked at his beard.

“I will do what I can to fix that,” Star Swirl promised, before turning to Discord, at last. “And….you. I did not foresee your coming, draconequus.”

“Maybe twenty years ago, you could have,” Discord smirked, “My old friend Star Swirl. Did you run all the way up here to spare the ponies of Equestria your stench? I can’t think of a better reason.”

“What am I to make of this…troop of brigands?” Star Swirl bellowed, “And who is this?”

“Eight Ball, it’s an honor, sir,” the stallion said, offering his hoof to the wizard. Star Swirl appeared not to have even seen him.

“He was the one who found you,” Starlight said.

“Did he?” Star Swirl growled, finally acknowledging Eight Ball, who took a nervous step backwards.

“If it’s not any trouble….We’d like a word,” Starlight said.

Star Swirl hesitated at the door.

“There are children inside,” Star Swirl warned, “And should any harm come to them, I will-”

“We just want to talk,” Starlight insisted.

Star Swirl hesitated some more, until he finally stepped out of the way.

“I knew of your coming,” Star Swirl said, “But not of your purpose. I trust you understand I came to this wretched mountain with the explicit purpose of avoiding visitors.”

“The trek through the snow made that abundantly clear,” Starlight smiled, “We wouldn’t have troubled you without good reason.”

Star Swirl snorted.

He sat them around in his dining room, where the great oak table stood, surrounded by jars of exotic spices and herbs and candles of all colors. Star Swirl poured them all tea, and himself some wine.

Yona came in from the kitchen, and nearly fell over her own hooves at the sight of Starlight.

Miss Glimmer?!” Yona gasped.

Yona ran to embrace Starlight, who had not felt a friend’s touch in what felt like an eternity. She savored it for as long as it lasted.

“Yona!” Starlight exclaimed, “What are you doing here?”

“Yona work keep wizard fed,” Yona smiled, “Good to keep Yona busy. Yona miss friends.”

“I know, Yona,” Starlight said, “Soon you’ll all be able to see each other again. I promise.”

Yona smiled an empty smile, and retreated to the kitchen to continue preparing the supper.

Star Swirl had taken his seat at the end of the table.

“It is strange to see you here. Equestria believes you’re dead,” Star Swirl said, before turning toward Discord, “And they can only wish the same for you.”

“You’re welcome to try it yourself, old friend,” Discord laughed.

“Try not to tempt me,” Star Swirl warned, “And you, Princess Luna. What brings you here?”

“A want for blood,” Luna replied.

“The purest of pursuits,” Star Swirl chuckled, “Twilight Sparkle’s blood, is that it? The three of you are strong enough, perhaps. If you’ve come to recruit me, I regret to inform you my fighting days are done.”

“If they ever really existed,” Discord laughed.

“Princess, I have seen glimpses of your suffering, and I know your thirst for vengeance well. But you will hear the truth now, from me. It was not Twilight Sparkle’s doing,” Star Swirl said.

“Liar,” Luna spat.

“It is no lie. Though the blood in Ponyville was on her hooves, your tortures had naught to do with her,” Star Swirl said.

“The crown she took was one drenched in the blood of our fallen friends,” Luna said, “I will have her answer for her crimes.”

“As Celestia did for hers?” Star Swirl mused.

“Careful, wizard. I am weakened, but not powerless to rip your throat out as I’ve always wanted,” Luna warned.

Star Swirl waved her off.

“Celestia would have waited until after tea to make threats of violence.”

“It’s Celestia we were wondering about,” Starlight clarified, “When was the last time you saw her?”

“Why, today, I reckon,” Star Swirl replied, “She has been with me for some time now.”

Luna rose to her hooves.

“One more lie, and I’ll-”

“She awaits you,” Star Swirl said, “Boy. Show our impatient guest to Princess Celestia.”

The boy, Quasar, who had been meekly standing by the door, suddenly came to life. He looked terrified.

Starlight rose to follow them, though Star Swirl raised a hoof, gesturing for her to remain seated.

Quasar led Luna away, and Star Swirl waited before resuming speaking.

“Luna’s mind has been altered, I have known this for some time. The answers you seek may alarm her, or elicit doubt, dread, or suffering. Better that she does not hear,” Star Swirl said.

“Do you have Celestia or not?” Eight Ball asked.

“I do. Celestia came to me, some time ago. She was inquiring about the shards,” Star Swirl said.

Starlight and Discord exchanged a glance.

“Shards of what?” Starlight asked.

“I did not know, at first. So I took to my library, first in Canterlot, then in Seaward, and then here, where I keep the oldest and most delicate scrolls of centuries past. I found the scrolls that gave credence to her claims,” Star Swirl said, “Celestia by this time had succumbed to paranoia, and became consumed by the things she saw in her seeing stone. She became obsessed with a pony, some accursed exile from across the sea, one who sought Celestia’s head and Equestria’s destruction. Celestia could not defeat this terrible threat alone, she told me, and certainly not as her mind had begun to slip away. So I urged her to step down from the throne to let Twilight run things, and perhaps prepare the nation better for its impending doom. And Celestia, with all the reason that remained to her, did just that.

“But she was restless, still. Celestia took to searching for the shards she had seen in her visions. I discovered them for her. Ancient relics, the first three seeds of the Tree of Harmony. Each seed was a gift from Gaia above. Two to the chief angels, Aetheria and Draco, and the third to us mortal beings, to wield as we see fit. Aetheria’s shard was the essence of all light and purity, and would protect against all evil - what we now call the Crystal Heart. Draco’s shard was the essence of all darkness, corruption, and selfishness - shaped like a dagger, a weapon of war. And last is the Orb, shaped like a sphere, that glows green. Celestia already had the Crystal Heart, and she had her servants searching for the dagger. As for the Orb….The Orb is the most powerful of the three, it is the balance of light and dark, it is the nature of mortal beings. It had never left Canterlot, not for tens of thousands of years. But nopony could wield it - its power was too great. Only a particular tool could harness the Orb’s power, and Celestia tasked me and her scientists to produce it.”

“Chrysalis, Tirek, and Cozy Glow couldn’t stop Twilight and her friends. Neither could Sombra, or the Shadow Pony, or Discord,” Starlight said, “Who is this creature that Celestia is so afraid of?”

Star Swirl laughed.

“As long as they remain on the side of the sea where they belong, I would not worry,” Star Swirl said, sipping from his wine.

“These relics…Where are they now?” Eight Ball asked.

“The Crystal Heart is where it’s always been, in the Empire. The dagger, nopony knows. And the Orb…The last I saw of it in the flames, the Orb was trapped in a bottle of brandy, surrounded by flies,” Star Swirl laughed.

“But you have the tool to wield it,” Discord said, “Might we see it?”

Star Swirl’s smile faded.

“The Witch’s Wand, it’s called. An elegant weapon, not fit to be gazed upon by the likes of you, draconequus. Ancient rituals and the scientists’ schematics made the wand into a reality. It is composed of impossible ores and alloys, from every stretch of the world. The strongest, most potent magic is fused into the metal and wood. Even now, it remains unfinished,” Star Swirl said, “Once joined with the Orb, the weapon will be more powerful than the greatest of the alicorns, or the most wicked of the leliurium. No creature may withstand its power. Not even you, draconequus.”

“Celestia had gone mad, and you were going to give her a superweapon?” Starlight asked.

“I did as she commanded,” Star Swirl said, “But the weapon was never meant for her. How could it have been? She is not the one prophesied to save this land from its doom. That would be Twilight Sparkle, the one you mean to destroy.”

Starlight gritted her teeth.

“Twilight Sparkle has betrayed Equestria, time and time again. She’s a murderer,” Starlight said.

“So are you, as of today,” Star Swirl said. Starlight’s scowl shattered, replaced by shock. “Yes…I saw it all. Just as I’ve seen glimpses of the future. It is just as Twilight told you, and just as Celestia told her. Blood shores, black skies, and lakes of fire. Cities of corpses. This weapon, the wand and the Orb together….once I arm Twilight with them she will be unstoppable, and she will save Equestria from its doom.”

Starlight shook her head.

“You’ll kill us all,” Starlight said, “She’s the one who’s destroying Equestria! This war is all because of her.”

“If you and your friends hadn’t interfered, there never would have been a war,” Star Swirl retorted, “You are well-read, Starlight Glimmer, and proficient in the arts of sorcery. Why must you act such a fool?”

“Why have you told us all this?” Eight Ball asked, “If Twilight is your champion, why arm her enemies with knowledge of how to destroy her?”

Star Swirl glanced at him.

“This one asks the right thing,” he grunted, “You have your parts to play in the war to come. But know this, Starlight Glimmer. Kill Twilight, and you kill yourself.”

“Is that a threat?” Starlight demanded.

“It is your fate,” Star Swirl said, solemnly.

Equestria’s fate is what concerns me,” Starlight said, “I want to see Celestia. Take us to her. Now.”

Star Swirl sighed and rose from his seat.

“As you wish.”

They came to the courtyard that sat behind the cottage, a mossy place spotted in blue frost. The trees were grey, crooked, jagged things that surrounded the yard, and Starlight knew at once that this was the place called the Crown of Thorns, an ancient place where kings were once made and the place where they were put to rest. A lichyard, it was, though no headstones remained.

Except for one.

Starlight had proceeded past Discord and Eight Ball, who lingered by the edge of the gate. Star Swirl proceeded on with a limp in his step, glancing over his shoulder to see Starlight’s face go pale.

Luna was kneeling by the spot in the snow where the stone was stuck. No words adorned it, no markings either. A diadem hung over its edge, though, one bejeweled with rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and rarer kinds. The diadem had once dangled off the crown of Princess Celestia.

“How can this be?” Starlight asked. Her voice came only as a whisper. Luna lay motionless in the snow.

Star Swirl fluffed the snow out of his beard.

“The day had been foretold, thousands of moons past,” Star Swirl said.

“Enough riddles,” came Luna, catching both of them off guard. Luna rose from the snow at last. Her eyes were red with tears, and her lips were trembling.

“She does not belong here. Who do you think you are? She is your princess. She is your sovereign. To bury her in this cursed place….The deepest of the hells will not suffice to hold your wretched soul, wizard,” Luna said.

“A grieving heart makes a foolish mind,” Star Swirl warned, “Your sister requested to be buried here, shortly before her passing. It was the last thing she asked of me.”

“You saw what happened,” Starlight presumed, “Who did this? Who killed Celestia? Was it Twilight?”

Star Swirl gave a great guffaw.

“Celestia had come back to me, having found the last of the materials I required to complete the Witch’s Wand. She did not see the assassin, nor did I,” Star Swirl said, “But I did see a swirl of blue twist through the air, like a helix, and in its wake came flames of gold, red, and opal. The specter tore through the heart of Celestia, and left her here to die. I was left unharmed. What was most queer, was that Celestia found her senses again, shortly before the end. She stopped speaking of portents and prophecies. She stopped mentioning the shards, or the exile, or her many enemies. She spoke only of the green country of the south, and how she missed the smiling faces of her dear friends. Of her sister Luna, of Twilight Sparkle, and Cadance, and all her old friends. Names from centuries ago, names even I had almost forgotten. Finally she asked to be buried here, without ceremony.”

“It was Posh,” Starlight realized, abruptly, “Or Ember, or Thorax, or any of them, or some hired cutthroat who worked for them…They murdered Celestia before she could stop them from starting their coup. They would’ve done the same to Twilight, if she hadn’t discovered what they were doing first.”

Luna shook her head.

“Twilight….Twilight avenged my sister’s death?”

Starlight glared at her.

“By starting a war. She didn’t have to murder all those creatures. She could have imprisoned them and forced them to stand trial,” Starlight argued.

Luna laughed, staggering up from the ground.

“Twilight Sparkle is not the enemy!” Luna rejoiced, weeping as she laughed some more, “I must find her and make peace. She will need my help more than ever.”

“Luna,” Starlight said, cautiously, “Twilight is no better than Posh or Ember. As long as she sits on that throne, more and more ponies’ lives will be at risk.”

“They have always been at risk,” Luna said, “And they always will be. You may not find her methods ideal, but somepony has to be there to keep the peace. That is how Celestia understood things, as well. I was once like you, and did not understand, and Celestia made things clear to me. Twilight is the most capable one we have. Celestia saw it from the start, why do you think she chose her to be her mentee, and not you or Sunset Shimmer? Sunset is arrogant and ruthless, and you are gentle and foolish. Twilight is the best choice to protect Equestria, like it or not. Our enemies gather their strength. To kill Twilight now would bring the ruin of Equestria.”

Starlight gritted her teeth.

“There will never be an opportune time to kill her,” came Discord, floating up between them. Star Swirl took a step back, “The best time to bear the needle is when you don’t expect it.”

“They killed my sister,” Luna choked, “Those putrid rebels, who then thought to make me their ally. They came to me with Celestia’s blood still on their hooves. They had the gall to ask for my help. I’ve had enough of the lies. Enough of the treachery. I remember who my friends are. And it was never you, Discord.”

“And what about me?” Starlight asked.

Luna glared at her.

“Perhaps now I see you for what you are. A jealous rival seeking the glory that you were spurned. I know that look in your eyes, the bitter contempt of a second-born, or for your case, a lesser horn. You had your chance to serve her, and now that she has thrown you out, you only wish to destroy her. But I will not allow this folly to continue.”

Luna’s horn ignited, as did Starlight’s. Discord’s laughter rolled up into the hills.

Star Swirl glanced at the gate. Eight Ball had disappeared.

Boy!” he yelled, but there was no answer.

A fire had started in the workshop. He could smell the smoke.

“I was blind before, for the years spent in that prison,” Luna said, “Now I see clearly. Twilight is still young. I can grant her a few mistakes. But letting you survive…..That will not do.”

Starlight’s glare hardened, and she stuck her hooves deeper into the snow.

Discord’s claws began to outstretch. Starlight eyed him, as did Luna.

Make your choice, Discord, and do it soon.

“You will have no eyes tonight,” Luna said, “You will have no tongue, and no ears. You will roam the next life blind, dumb, and deaf, and your rebel friends will know - this is Starlight Glimmer. The fool who thought she could kill Twilight Sparkle. The fool who thought she could kill me.

The snow fell soft and steady, and Star Swirl staggered back against a tree stump, losing his footing in the moss. Behind them all, the fires had spread up from the workshop.

Then the first cracks of thunder sounded, and the horns glowed brighter still, until they each burst into furious fumes of magic, and the air was set on fire.

Author's Note:

Next chapter should be out by the end of March or early April, thank you so much for reading! Also the current plan is to have five more chapters, though it may be more depending on how things turn out. I hadn't planned on this one being 19k words; it was a challenge to cut things down. Let me know what your thoughts are, any and all feedback is welcomed!