• Published 17th Dec 2012
  • 4,997 Views, 780 Comments

Where Loyalties Lie: Ghosts of the Past - LoyalLiar



With Equestria facing a war on three fronts, Princess Luna, Rainbow Dash, and Shining Armor must join forces to unearth a secret buried years in the past before it's too late.

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I - Spectre of War

Author's Note:

Hello, everyone.

Just a forewarning for anyone discovering this for the first time, especially after reading Beginner's Guide to Heroism or Tales from Everfree City: this fic, Ghosts of the Past, has been stricken (by my own hand) from the Price of Loyalty canon. This isn't work that I'm especially proud of, as the narrative's exploding focus exceeded my capabilities at the time as a writer.

Nevertheless, if you do choose to read on, I hope you enjoy it. There's a comment by me somewhere in the history of this fic that outlines what the sequel would have contained, had this story continued.

-LL

Where Loyalties Lie
Act II: Ghosts of the Past

by Loyal Liar

Pre-Read by SatoshiKyu, Roflknief, and DarkPhoenix
Russian Translations provided by Keyesty
Cover Art by Ruirik


I

Spectre of War

- - -

1453 A.S. marked the first year that 'A.S.' ceased to represent the Age of the Sun, and began to represent the Age of the Sisters. It was a change that had been a long time coming, requiring royal intervention in book publishers and calendar printers and all manner of other sundry industries. It had also taken hours upon hours to meet with individuals and protesters of all shades, let alone the time spent in letters and ink written to those too far away to petition in Canterlot personally.

And so, despite the issue having been handled prior to the start of the new year, it was not until January the Nineteenth that Her Royal Highness, Princess Celestia of Equestria finally found the new, rare, and almost alien joy of a truly boring day. Her plans included a delightful tea with her younger sister prior to Luna's diplomatic departure, a calm stroll through the gardens, and perhaps the time she needed to share some correspondence with her student.

All those hopeful dreams were crushed into a fine powder and blown away when the doors to her throne room opened, and a pair of familiar ponies strode in.

"Princess," Captain Shining Armor greeted, removing his helmet and kneeling. His companion, a civilian, followed suit with the curious curtsy favored in Bitaly. She rose with an annoyed yet proud smile on her face.

"Your commission has been finished as you ask, your Princess." A thick Bitalian accent carried through the mare's words. Her name was simply Venus, an earth pony sculptor from the island of Milos. Her fine, marble-toned coat hid well the tell-tale flecks of dust, though the brown belt around her midsection that carried the tools of her trade was considerably less subtle. "I have done as best as anypony could hope to do, but the crack will always be shown. I must wonder why you insist I work upon such a strange statue, and in such a poorly lit space."

Shining and Celestia glanced up at the sound of wings descending from above. "We didn't pay you to ask questions, sculptor. The money should show up in a week." Though there was the obvious tone of a Stalliongradi accent to the way he spoke, it was restrained behind a clear and forced pronunciation of each and every syllable in his thoughts. Each and every one of his words was permitted to find the ears of the gathered ponies before he landed. Four steel horseshoes touched the ground, bearing all the subtlety of a train wreck. Shining could plainly see the cracks left by the stallion's landing on the ancient marble. "You are dismissed," the pony finished bluntly, as he began a calm walk toward Princess Celestia as though he could assume that the mare had already left. "Can we go see her now?"

Venus left in something of a huff, probably offended that it hadn't been Celestia who thanked her and sent her away. Shining Armor stood his ground, glaring daggers at the stallion who had descended from the thin mantle that sat just below the room's ceiling. "Red Ink. I'm surprised you're still here." The insinuation in his tone was obvious.

"I had an..." he paused not for lack of words, but for deliberate effect. "...assignment." Ink flexed his wings, and embraced the sensation of his the wind on his feathers, freed from their casts. "Or are you trying to say you won our bet?" The Stalliongradi shook his head and chuckled. "The way I hear it, our 'masterpiece' downstairs beat you pretty easily. You had to have a civilian save your life, right? Speaking of which, how's your shoulder doing?"

Shining felt a hoof hover its way to the base of his neck, where a dinner knife had delivered a nearly-lethal blow almost five months prior. All that remained was a scar, and the occasional twinge of pain. He lowered his hoof quickly and shook his head. "Fine. I take it your chest is healing well?"

It was a more barbed statement than Shining had been dealt, but Red Ink took it in stride. His own hoof reached up to his shoulder, where a formal military award sash covered his own scar. The fabric was pulled away without ceremony or attention, falling to the floor as nothing more than a glorified ribbon. What it had once concealed was now laid bare. A line of bare flesh, no less than six inches wide, stretched all the way from his right shoulder down and across his chest until it stopped beneath his left foreleg at the top of his ribcage. The red, sore skin was in its own way even redder and more visceral than the bloody tone of his coat. "Not healing at all. I'd rather remember it, and not make the same mistake again. Then we'll see who loses our bet."

"Stallions." The curious quality of the word was that Celestia gave it no extra attention. Its tone carried no obvious implication or demand. Nevertheless, the authority of its speaker brought silence to the pair of guardspony leaders, whose heads snapped away from each other and in her direction. "I suggest that we stop wasting time amongst ourselves and head down to visit Masquerade."

"Of course, Princess." Ink stepped away from the carpet at the center of the room, then folded his right foreleg across his chest and bowed steeply. "After you."

The alicorn made no particular notice of his adherence to protocol and respect, but as the two captains took up even strides in her wake, Shining felt the need to speak up. "You've changed, Ink."

"I'm glad you've noticed, Armor. Most mares can't tell that I've bulked up."

Almost immediately, the little credit Ink had earned was gone. "I'd never doubt Twilight's teachingbut I am surprised that anypony could beat courtesy into you."

Ink chuckled as he shook his head. "I wish that was Twilight's work. Her friend Rarity held it over my head every time she fixed my coat. Although, Equiish wasn't the only thing your sister taught me." The Stalliongradi's brow rose and fell suggestively, until he could no longer maintain his composure and broke out into a chuckle.

Shining Armor growled. "Clever."

"Captain Ink, while I do admire your less violent sense of humor, I would appreciate it if you wouldn't demean my student's honor in my presence."

"Apologies Princess," Ink replied with a smirk. "Perhaps when I next encounter Princess Cadance, I'll have a joke more to your taste." There was a moment of silence, and then the clear sound of hoof meeting face. By the time Celestia had turned around, Red Ink had regained his footing, and Shining Armor was innocently rubbing his right fetlock.

"Apologies, Princess," the unicorn muttered.

Celestia let out a soft sigh as she turned back to her path. "I trust you two haven't forgotten who we're dealing with."

Shining Armor nodded, but Ink responded with a laugh. "Don't you mean what we're dealing with? She's still a rock, isn't she? Or did Armor screw it up that bad?"

Shining narrowed his eyes as the three ponies continued on their way. "If we intended to leave her that way, Captain Ink, we wouldn't have bothered with a sculptor at all. But, in case you have forgotten, we still don't know who was ultimately behind the plot to assassinate Luna. Since that pony still constitutes a threat to Equestria, we're going to try and interrogate her."

As they spoke, the trio had made their way down from the palace throne room, along narrow carpeted hallways past the palace infirmary and the council room. Their path then turned to a narrow spiral staircase that they traversed in single file. It led to the Honor Guard's rather large office wing, which Shining had assumed to be their destination. Celestia, however, did not stop on that floor, instead continuing her descent down a spiraling stair.

"Are we headed to the old crystal mines?"

"Not a part of them that you are familiar with, Captain Armor. Our destination lies much deeper." Celestia offered no more explanation for the moment, instead continuing on her steady downward pace. Shining watched as a heavy oak-and-steel door passed by in the staircase. He could recall ordering its installation shortly after his wedding, and more recently, using it to sneak a pair of criminal informants into the palace right under Red Ink's nose. He smiled just a bit at the memory, though he kept it to himself.

At both times, the fact that the spiral stairs continued further downward had been a matter not particularly worthy of his attention. He had been informed that the deeper path was not a security risk, and that was all he had cared about. Now he was wondering about his destination.

It very shortly became obvious that something significant to the Princess was ahead. This fact was made clear by a pair of huge steel doors that seemed to mark the end of the stairs. Hundreds of gems set into their faces ignited at the prompting of Celestia's magic, taking on a light of their own in a peculiar order. The process took only a moment, but in that time, Celestia spoke again.

"I trust you will keep your hooves to yourselves for now. This place is special, both to Luna and I. Only an alicorn can open these doors. I could think of no place more secure to contain our assassin." The doors swung open absolutely silently, with the slightest nudge of her magic, revealing more stairs. They continued to spiral around a central pillar, but that was where similarities ended. Rather than a wall to mark the 'outside' of their spiral, the continued passage was simply open, without railing or guard. In every direction, the thousand-foot drop extended down to the floor of an enormous cavern, at least a half a mile from wall to wall. Everywhere were the broken shards of once titanic crystals, some of which hung down in huge clusters a thousand feet long from the ceiling.

"Do not fly, Captain Ink," the Princess warned. "Please follow quickly. We have a long way to go."

Shining was left with a hanging jaw as he followed after Celestia. "What is this? I had no idea–"

"I've kept this place secret for some time, Shining Armor. Some thirty-eight thousand years ago, prior to the discovery of crystals in the frozen north, this was the greatest stockpile of magical gems and crystals known to pony kind."

"Thirty-eight thousand years?" Red Ink scanned the cavern in awe. "That's a lot older than Stol'nograd."

"It is. They've been sitting here for ages, but the Mountain of Dawn was first mined not long after Equestria was founded, about the same time as your home. For instance, take a look at that amethyst." Her wings indicated a huge purple gem jutting up out of the ground at in a distant corner. A rather large slice of the glistening stone was missing, clearly cut away by sharp blades or potent magic. "If my memory serves, that stone there was the source of Platinum's Ward."

Shining Armor glanced down at the purple gemstone cuirass covering his body, and then up again in silent awe. Celestia's urgent steps ignored his surprise, and she continued her brisk pace as she spoke.

"After Discord's influence took hold of the Everfree, I chose to place a new palace in Canterlot because of these caves. They have..." she paused to consider her words before concluding with "...sentimental value."

After that, she chose not to speak, and neither of her subjects felt up to the task of breaking her silence. Instead, they descended in silence until they reached the cavern floor. From there, Celestia wandered to the nearest of the space's natural walls, where five rather large archways were carved out of the rock.

"This one here," she observed, moving toward the leftmost passage.

"Are they all cells?" Red Ink asked.

"No. Only one, and even then, only in a manner of speaking. They are, however, private. Do not speak of what you've seen here. In fact, you would do well to forget it." She ignited her horn as she reached the tunnel she had indicated. Her horn nearly scraped the ceiling as she walked the passageway. Thankfully, this third leg of their journey was short for a change. It ended bluntly in not so much a door as a sheer wall of smooth, almost oily black crystal.

"Princess?" Shining Armor stepped forward, only to feel the magical glow of his horn ripped away. It flew into the stone without pause, accompanied by a brief but piercing ringing. "Isn't this-"

"Void crystal, yes. But not King Sombra's. I've had this for some time. There was the risk that Masquerade would, given time, saturate any ring of lodestone we might use to restrain her magic. I fashioned a cage that would hold her forever." Celestia's horn ignited in a golden aura, and the crystal refrained from consuming her power.

"That isn't what I meant." The Royal Guard leader stepped up to the nearly flat surface. "Did you build this yourself? I could have gotten some guardsponies, rather than force you to do so much work."

Celestia smiled slightly and shook her head. "I built this prison myself because I would prefer that only I know of its weaknesses. In theory, its guard can be broken, but there aren't many creatures in the world with the magic and the knowledge to break it. This way, there is no record, and thus no weakness. Should I have to use it again in the future, I can rely on it completely. And you forget, Captain Armor, but I do not only have wings and a horn." Celestia's slender right foreleg pressed calmly against the wicked crystal, and it shifted slowly. "The strength of the Earth Ponies' Endura is also a gift I possess." The crystal slid aside, revealing a hemispherical chamber no more than ten feet in diameter. A single glowing white shard hung in the air to provide illumination.

The light was quickly drowned out by Celestia's magic, which conjured an orb of golden energy in the center of the chamber. It faded before long to reveal a crisp marble statue of a unicorn mare, clearly pleading for her life. "Ink, close the door. Armor, a lodestone ring."

As the burly pegasus set about the unenviable task of pushing the rather heavy rock back into place, Shining Armor produced a smoothed gray stone ring, hinged on side, and with a small lock on the other. Celestia took it in a surprisingly dexterous wing, and snapped it onto the statue's horn. She glanced back over her shoulder, where Red Ink had finished his task.

"Remember, stallions, this mare is very dangerous. If she somehow manages to gain control of her magic, you have my full permission to remove her horn."

Shining drew back a step in surprise. The comment seemed uncharacteristically bloodthirsty for the normally peaceful princess. "Are you sure, Princess?"

"She very nearly killed my sister, Captain Armor. I'm not risking her taking another life. If she has to suffer, we can say with confidence that she has earned it."

Red Ink shrugged. "You should always be prepared to take that sort of action. I didn't think it needed to be said."

Celestia nodded to the more violent of the captains. "I say it as much for her benefit as yours."

"She can hear us?" Shining asked.

"Yes." Celestia's horn ignited with magic again. "Let's see what she has to say in return."

The light was so bright in the tiny space that Shining had to squeeze his eyes fully closed. All he could see was the blinding red of the blood pumping through his own eyelids. The pain lasted for almost a minute. When it faded, he could hear pained panting coming from the floor, accompanied by a single gasped utterance. "Damn."

Shining opened his eyes to see Masquerade laying on the ground in the same tattered, burnt black dress she had been wearing five months earlier. He could see spots where his own magic had burnt the fabric, marking near-scores that had never quite come close enough. She clutched tightly to her right foreleg, which the guardspony had found snapped off in the grass of Ponyville not long after she had been petrified.

Celestia showed no sympathy for the mare's pain. She had lowered herself to sit in a stiff formal posture. Though she did not look up from Masquerade, she dedicated her wings to directing that the guardsponies flanking her do the same. After only a moment's hesitation, Red Ink circled around the assassin and sat down behind her, opposite Celestia. Shining's choice was to remain close by the princess' side.

Masquerade panted and moaned for what seemed an eternity, before her eyes seemed to finally come into focus. "Princess." She rose to her hooves, though her balance wobbled and she squinted in pain when she placed weight on her right foreleg. The motion took a few seconds, but it ended in a bow. "I wish you'd just killed me."

Celestia glared. "That is Luna's decision. She may even offer you redemption, but–"

"I won't take it," Masquerade interrupted, tossing a hoof at the Princess not in threat, but in insult. "Save her the trouble."

"I'd love to," Ink remarked, stepping forward and pinning the mare to the ground by her neck. She struggled, but the stallion's bulky build made him the obvious winner.

"Roscherk Krovyu? Wow, it has been a long time."

The pegasus pulled back a hoof, quite clearly ready to snap her neck. Shining Armor tossed a telekinetic burst into the pegasus' side, sending him toppling off the mare. "Control yourself, Ink!"

He growled, and his face contorted in anger. It took a moment of that glare for his breathing to come back under control, and then he sat down and nodded. "I hope Luna lets me kill you when she decides she's had enough."

Celestia responded with a clearly controlled fury of her own. Shining had never heard her voice so totally even in tone. It was frightening simply by how academic, how utterly sanitary it sounded. "Masquerade, we are here to ask you a number of questions. If you answer truthfully, I will advise my sister toward mercy on your soul. If you choose not to provide answers, they will be ripped out of your mind."

"Wow." Masquerade smiled, and shook her head. "Sorry, Princess, but that doesn't really sound like the benevolent mare you're supposed to be. I think I'll call your bluff."

"My hooves are clean in this, Masquerade." The Princess accompanied the motion by rubbing her gilded shoes against one another, before turning to the door. "Captains, you have your suspect. I will be waiting outside."

- - -

Rainbow Dash soared on radiant wings, landing in the fetlock-deep snow just outside the small farmhouse of Sweet Apple Acres. Nopony was around, but that was a concern that could be easily fixed. The wind whipped past her with surprising strength.

"Hey, AJ, you home?" The shout was, to use a completely inappropriate metaphor, loud enough to wake the dead.

"Gol' darnit, Rainbow!" Applejack shouted just as loud, bursting out of the house. "Ya'll 're late again!"

"Well, sorry," she answered sarcastically. "Maybe I have better things to do than these stupid therapy sessions. You know, like managing this crazy storm."

As if in recognition of the words, a potent gust of wind swept up from the west, forcing Applejack to pin her hat to her head with a hoof. "Yeah, that griffon king sure did a number on us this time."

"Emperor," Rainbow corrected. "But this isn't his fault. Ponyville is the hardest weather assignment in Equestria. The Everfree messes with everything. I had a perfect wind curtain set up, but of course we had to get a gale from the stupid forest to throw everything off. I've done what I can, but we're out of clouds for this week, so we'll just have to tough it out. Just like this stupid meeting."

"It's for yer own good, Rainbow, and ya know it. Now, come on. I know ya' don't like the barn best of all, but its outta' this weather, and I figured what the hay, why not crack open a barrel of cider? It's spiced and warm."

Rainbow's tongue hung out of her mouth for just a moment, before she regained her focus. "Right, well, I guess I'll put up with it then. If only for the cider." The faux-sarcasm earned a smug grin from Applejack, who gestured to the huge red barn next door with a casual flourish.

"After you."

Inside, the barn was surprisingly warm. Nevertheless, six bales of hay had been laid out in a circle around a hanging oil lantern. Blankets sat atop each, though most had been pulled up and draped over the shoulders of their occupants. Four mares were already seated. Rainbow couldn't help but feel just a bit more comfortable in the presence of their smiling faces.

"Hey, girls."

"Hiya, Rainbow!" Pinkie Pie leapt up from her seat with a smile. "Oh boy, we finally get to start!"

"Pinkie, please calm down. This isn't just some story circle; Rainbow is sharing something very personal with us." Rarity accompanied the words with a calm but forceful hoof which pushed Pinkie back down onto her hay.

"Sorry," the excitable earth pony muttered, rather dejectedly.

Behind Rainbow, the barn doors closed. "Well, ya can get started whenever yer ready. I'll get some mugs of cider up like I promised.

Rainbow took her seat and started to think. "Where was I last time?"

Pinkie Pie jumped up again. "Oh! There was that scary elk, and-!"

Fluttershy curled up in her blanket with an uncomfortable squeak as Twilight spoke up. "Pinkie, she was well past that point. Rainbow, as I recall, you were telling us that you had left Gilda behind, and were out looking for Mr. Reckoning."

"Deadeye."

"What?"

Rainbow shook her head. "Sorry, I guess it's just weird hearing anypony call him that. It was just Reckoning, or Deadeye." She suppressed a small, sad chuckle, directly quoting the way the nigh-elderly pony had introduced himself months earlier. "Anything but 'Dead'."

Applejack moved from pony to pony, offering them warm wooden tankards. "Well, I figure that about sets us up then. Go ahead whenever yer ready, Sugarcube."

Rainbow looked over the faces and nodded. "Well, I found Reckoning in this big windy clearing." The blustering force whistling against the barn doors added a surprising realism to the story. "At first, I thought he was okay, so I called out to him." In her mind, she could still see the guardspony, in his bloody torn brown safari shirt, flapping desperately into the unstoppable gale billowing off of the Palace of the Winds. "But the griffons followed me."

"What?!" Pinkie gasped more loudly than was strictly necessary.

"Gilda wanted the other griffons to accept her, so she used me. Betrayed me." Rainbow sucked through two quick breaths. "It worked. I led them right to him."

"Rainbow, darling, that wasn't your fault."

"Thanks, Rarity," she muttered without meaning a word of it. "Anyway, Gilda had brought the Praetorians, and their leader. Her 'coltfriend', Gaius."

"Wait, Rainbow, you fought the Griffon Praetorians?" Twilight's mouth hung open in shock for a moment. "They're the most elite guard in all of Grivridge! They're like our Honor Guard!"

"Twi, why don't ya let Dash finish her story?" Applejack asked quietly but forcefully.

"Oh, right, sorry."

In truth, Rainbow had relished the distraction. It let her taste the delectable mix of cinnamon and cloves in the warm, thick, hard Sweet Apple Cider that Applejack had provided. The warmth of the drink and the subtle burn of the alcohol felt fantastic in her throat, though they did little for her heart and soul. It would have to be enough to pretend.

"I'm not sure the Honor Guard are quite what you think, Twilight. But anyway, Gaius first tried to get rid of me, and said I could go. Apparently, Gilda at least did that for me. He just wanted Reckoning. I tried to explain about his flashbacks, but he told me to shut up. He called me by my mom's name again." She paused, fully capable of going on, but unwilling to do so. The barn was dominated by silence, and her story continued in a much slower, quieter voice. "Gaius started fighting him. I tried to stop them, but Gilda got in the way. We fought. Badly."

Fluttershy leaned forward out of her blanket with a look of surprising determination on her face. "That horrible, mean... argh!" The rather guttural noise caught the attention of her five friends; when she realized this fact, she retreated back within the folds of her blanket.

"How did that make you feel, Rainbow?" Twilight asked.

Inwardly, Dash groaned. It was the part of her stories she hated the most. Far worse than drudging up the uncomfortable memories, or putting up with her friends' judgments and comments, she despised when one of them would drag out an analysis and force her to analyze her feelings. In her mind, the better choice was to simply endure the sensation and get it over with.

"I was mad, Twilight! What do you expect? I mean, sure she was a jerk, but she was like my oldest friend too! I didn't expect her to stab me in the bucking back!" Rarity and Fluttershy winced at the crude language, but it was a different mare who chose that opportunity to speak up.

"Of course, Rainbow. I think we can all understand that." Twilight nodded, glancing around the room as if she were the counselor at an alcoholics meeting. She didn't have to say anything at that point; the girls knew she expected one of them to speak up.

"Ah can't figure that felt good for you, Rainbow, but what about Gilda? What'd ya say to her if she were here, right now?"

Rainbow rolled her eyes. "I'd tell her to go home and get out of my face. I don't want her here, and neither do you. Hay, haven't I told you this a thousand times already? I don't want anything to do with them anymore! No guardsponies, no griffons, no crazy zebras, and no stupid princess!" The last of the words ended with her hoof striking the bale of hay she was resting atop.

"Well, Rainbow..." Twilight began, unsure where to take the sentence. Her mind finally found its way back to restoring the status quo by incredible bluntness. "I don't think The Princess is involved in your story right now. Why not just keep going?"

The heavy-hoofed term for Celestia had become a necessity simply because of how much the thought of the mare angered Rainbow. She suppressed her emotions only for the sake of sparing herself another argument.

"Yes, dear, please do," Rarity urged in the ensuing silence.

Rainbow sighed, but then reluctantly continued. "I knew I needed to get back to Deadeye. I knew he was in trouble; there were six griffons, and he wasn't going to run away. Not while he wasn't thinking straight. So I kicked lightning at her."

There were a number of gasps. Rainbow shook her head slowly. "She was still alive. I could see her breathing." Breaths were released synchronously, as the mares who had the luxury of not knowing such violence reacted to the revelation.

Pinkie chose the momentary pause to speak up again. "You still have to show us that, Rainbow! I mean, I know we saw it at the funeral, but its super-duper cool, and–"

"Why, Pinkie? What's the point?" Rainbow groaned. "I have to feel excited, or at least driven to it, but whenever I try it, I just remember Deadeye. I'd rather forget about the whole thing. Besides, what point is there? All it can do is hurt ponies. It isn't going to help any of my tricks." Rainbow neglected to mention that her few attempts to repeat the technique since the guardsponies' funeral had failed utterly. The memory of Reckoning's death stole her motivation and excitement without fail, leaving her legs devoid of magic. She had no intention of sharing the emotion with her friends, however. It seemed too personal a burden, though she knew she would be better off without it.

"Sorry, Dashie." Pinkie lowered her head and huffed.

"Whatever." It wasn't much of an answer, but Rainbow had honestly hoped to finish her story that day. "I came back, and saw Reckoning fighting all the griffons. Gaius was holding back, using magic. He made a bunch of steam, and tried to use it to grab Deadeye. When I called out, he grabbed me with it instead. I couldn't break out."

"That's horrible!" Fluttershy cried. "Could you hear what was going on?"

"I could see it," Rainbow answered dully. The girls shared concerned looks, but she didn't wait for further interruptions. "Reckoning held his own for a while, but Gaius eventually won. He stomped on Deadeye's wing, until it broke." Cringes spread across the room. "Then he picked him up, and threw him in the canyon."

"Rainbow–"

The pegasus ignored Twilight. It would be better to get it over and done with, like ripping off a bandage. "I finally broke free, with a sonic rainboom. I tried to fly down and save him, but I..." The hesitation was brief, but it spoke volumes about the mare's attitude. "I was too slow."

"Oh, Rainbow, that isn't your fault."

"You think I don't know that, Rarity?" Rainbow snapped, followed by a moment of panting in anger as her eyes glanced along the faces of her concerned friends. Her mug of cider bounced off one of the barn's support pillars, spilling over the hay piled against the wall. "Look, all I want is my old life back, okay? I don't need you to drag me out here and make me tell stories. I don't need this therapy crap. It's a waste of time! I'm going home. " She stormed over to the barn door and threw it open. "Come find me if you decide you want to do something fun for a change."

Outside, the uncontrollable wind blew the gentle into a misty veil of white flecks. In the distance, the vague shadows of barren-branched apple trees supported the weight of teardrop icicles. The winter seemed mournful, in a time when Rainbow would have much rather been rid of the sensation altogether. She glared into the mild storm and took flight, before any of her friends could follow her outside.

Her flight was short-lived, however. The Everfree's biting winds stole the heat from the blood of her wings in only a few seconds of sheer speed, leaving them stiff and numb. A pegasus could endure most normal wind, but Rainbow knew better than to fly against the forest that ruled itself. She contemplated returning to her home, but ultimately discarded the idea. It was a long way, and she was quickly finding herself desperate for even just a bit of comfort. As if to tempt her further, she could see the glow of light from somewhere in the orchard below. It was a simple matter to descend calmly through the slanted snowflakes, permitting her to land at the foot of a small wooden walkway. Her eyes traced their way up the ice-slick surface, to a simple lacquered wooden door, flecked with frost. Above it, and to its sides, windows shed a faint orange light.

Her hooves proved sure on the slick surface of the ramp, carrying her to the door of the Crusader's clubhouse. She didn't bother knocking, figuring there wasn't much of a point. The door swung inward with a simple push, driven more by the wind than the force of her hoof. After ducking inside, she pressed the door closed again, finding much more resistance in moving it the opposite direction.

"Rainbow Dash?"

Of course the squirt would speak up first. Rainbow turned around, only to find a surprising revelation. Scootaloo was alone, curled up in a sleeping bag beside an old farm-style lamp on the floor.

"Hey, kid. Where are your friends?"

"Oh..." Scootaloo looked away almost guiltily. "I just kinda wanted to be alone for a while."

The words brought a small, sad smile to Rainbow's face. "I know the feeling, kid. I'm not gonna ask if you don't want to talk about it. You mind if I join you, though?"

Scootaloo's smile was both wider and more genuine than Dash's. "Of course not!"

"Thanks." Rainbow paced over and curled up on the wooden floor beside her number-one fan. "What's going on with you these days?"

"Not much." She tossed back the top of her sleeping bag, revealing a pair of growing wings as well as a flank that had stubbornly remained a plain orange. "It's been two years, but everypony else has theirs, and–"

"Scootaloo, listen," Rainbow interrupted, holding up a hoof. "Maybe I'm a bad role model for this. Hay, I'm a terrible example for this, but life isn't always about being first."

"It isn't?" Scootaloo asked, cocking her head to the side in surprise at hearing the racer make such an admission.

Rainbow broke into a wide smile. "Nope. It's about being the best."

"Oh!" The filly laughed alongside her mentor. "Well, I've been practicing my flying every day just like you said."

"Good. How's it coming?"

"Well, I can hover… a little… if I jump…" With each continued admission, the young mare's happiness slipped just a bit.

"It'll take some time, Scootaloo. You've just got to let your wings grow, and practice in the meantime."

She huffed. "I know, but they're taking so long! I wish we could just go practice, but…" She nodded in the direction of the storm howling against the clubhouse door.

Rainbow nodded, before a subtle memory tugged at the back of her mind. "Hey, hold on. Who says you need to go outside to get better at flying? I've got an idea. Do you have a bucket or something?"

"Huh? Oh, sure. It's over there in the box of gear. We were using it to try and be 'Cutie Mark Crusader Fire Brigadiers."

Rainbow walked over to the box, pulled out the small metal bucket, and turned to the door. It opened to a gust of frigid wind, and when the gale was gone, so was the elder of the two mares. She returned only a few seconds later, having filled half the bucket with snow.

"What's that for? Applebloom got mad at me the last time we had a snowball fight in the clubhouse."

Rainbow chuckled. "Please, kid. This isn't even enough snow for one Rainbow Dash snowball. Nope, I'm gonna show you something cool. First, though, we have to melt this." Rainbow pulled the glass casing off the lamp that Scootaloo had set in the middle of the room, and held the metal bucket over the open flame. From there, it didn't take long to produce about half a liter of still rather cold water.

"Just water?"

"Yep. Wanna see a magic trick?"

Scootaloo nodded with excitement. Rainbow closed her eyes, and lowered the tip of her wing into the water. For just a moment, she could picture herself at the edge of a lake in the heart of Zebrica. When she had first done what she was aiming to do, it had taken memories of her youth, in the hallways of Cloudsdale General to produce the necessary emotions. Now, just the thought of that lakeside was enough. She opened her eyes, and flicked her wing forward.

The ice froze in midair. A trio of foot-long icicles impaled themselves on the wooden wall beside the door. Scootaloo gasped in shock. "Whoa!"

"I thought so too, the first time I saw that." Rainbow spared herself a moment to shake off the sorrow inherent in the magic before she continued to speak. "That's pegasus magic. I guess it's really supposed to be called Empatha, if you actually care. You wanna try?"

"Do I?!" Scootaloo lunged out of her sleeping bag, dunked her wing in the bucket, and thrust it forward quickly. Rainbow glared as she was drenched with near-freezing water.

"Thanks, Scootaloo."

"Oh. Sorry, Rainbow Dash."

"It's fine," she answered, rolling her shoulders back and forth rather like a dog to shed the cold water. She failed to notice how many of the Crusader's crayon-drawn maps were splattered by her action. "Making ice isn't just about splashing, though. Our magic works based on how you're feeling. You have to feel sad to make ice."

"Sad?"

"Yeah, like…" Rainbow let her words trail off as she paused to think. "Like, when I did the Sonic Rainboom the first time ever, it was because of desperation. I needed to win that race. And then, later, I needed to save my friends. But now that I've done it a bunch, the feeling isn't as important. I can do it just about whenever."

"Oh!" Scootaloo nodded. "So is this like how Mr. Ink was able to light himself on fire?"

"Yeah, but I don't know how to do that. Please promise me you won't try to light yourself on fire. Now, why don't you try again?"

- - -

The cookies were good, and the beverages (saying 'tea' was a stretch) were excellent, but only the company could be described as exquisite. The exorbitant spread separating the two sisters had been laid out in an ornate pattern, clearly indicative of the unnecessary salary provided to whichever of the three stallions available for the task had actually ended up delivering them from the palace kitchens to the small lounge.

"So tell me, Sister, how was Roam?"

"We–"

"Eh!"

A thin red blush spread over dark blue cheeks. "I was most disappointed to find that the practice of public sparring in the Grand Hippodrome had been abandoned by the Bitalian Guard. Also, Prince Sforzando was very… vocal with his opinions."

"Did he offer you a full cask of his private vintage with dinner?"

"Truthfully, sister, he offered his entire cellar."

The alicorns shared a hearty laugh, smiling more honestly than either often had cause to on their own. "Then, like the wine, he has only grown bolder with age. I hope that these words stay between us, Luna, but I cannot stand that stallion. He makes an excellent ruler, but his personal touch is unbearable. If you'd like, we can return Marathon to the task of bearing messages to him."

"Though I do share your feelings, sister, his personal lack of taste is a small price to pay for our–"

"Luna!"

The younger sister's brow creased in focus and self-disappointment. "Truly, sister, 'tis a struggle to sit through this new tongue. Whence is the distinction between us–"

"You did it again!"

"No, Celestia, that time I meant you and I. 'Tis correct, is it not?"

"Yes, I suppose it is." Celestia sighed. "I'm adding 'whence' to the list, by the way. Use 'where' instead."

"Surely you are the cruelest of mentors, Tia."

The elder bore the slightest hint of a smug grin. "It's working, isn't it? Now, you were saying something."

"I was going to say 'where is the distinction between you and I and the common pony?'"

Celestia chuckled. "The entire point of eliminating the royal plural was to make our ponies feel more comfortable around us. Or would you rather endure 'Nightmare Night' every day, Luna?"

Luna's thin body moved up and down slowly in a blunt sigh. "As usual, you are correct, sister. Very well. What were we talking about again?"

Celestia sipped her tea gently. The contents of the cup were a secret kept tightly guarded from the Canterlot nobility for fear of shame and disgrace. Still, she preferred the herbal mix (devoid of any actual tea leaves) to any of the more accepted 'Earl Grays' and 'Chamomiles' that her subjects seemed to favor. Across the table, Luna mocked tradition without any sense of humor via a cup of coffee containing so much cream and sugar that it ought to have been called a dessert.

When the short pause for drinks and a slight nibble of a lemon bar in Luna's case was finished, Celestia spoke again. "We were discussing whether or not you were to continue putting up with the Bitalian Prince, or whether I should return Marathon to the task. If I'm guessing correctly, you were going to tell me that being out and about in Equestria was worth dealing with his unique demeanor?"

Luna nodded curtly. "You've grown very good at guessing the words off another's tongue, sister."

"I had the luxury of practicing politics in a mostly peaceful era," Celestia answered. "But that does concern my proposal. You've spent these last few months doing excellent work managing relations with the various domains of Equestria, and I think it’s time we escalated your participation in our rule."

Luna raised a brow. "How so?"

"An old friend of ours is finally digging himself out of a twenty-year slumber."

Luna had to set her coffee down to keep it from spilling. "You speak of Krenn?"

"Yes, I do. As I'm sure you learned while reading up on the history you had missed, the dragon ruler and I had something of a conflict two decades ago."

"The 'Dragon Wars'? I had not realized you involved yourself personally."

Celestia shook her head. "As has been our agreement since Discord, he and I remained away from the battlefield. I suspect you would have found a much different landscape in Equestria had he chosen to fight. No, what I mean is that we were unfortunately unable to keep the conflict... impersonal. To use less formal language, Luna, there is 'bad blood' between Krenn and I."

Luna took a calculated sip of her coffee before nodding in comprehension. "Can I ask why?"

"You are welcome to ask; as I promised, I will not keep secrets from you. However, the fact that you don't have to worry over this issue is the reason that you would be a perfect representative to reestablish proper relations between the dragons and Equestria. That, and I have heard rumor that he was disappointed to have slept through your return. There is no need for you to share in my mistakes."

"You want me to go to Peshchera? To Krennotets?" Luna's smile spread nearly the entire length of her face, sending a warmth into Celestia's heart that could be found neither by the herbal tea traveling down her throat, nor the warmth of the sun shining through the winter clouds and the palace windows.

"Not all the way, no. He has agreed to meet with you in Stalliongrad in two days. Tsar Watchful Eye will host you, and see to your comforts. I'm sure you remember the old castle."

"If it is still as cold as it was in Platinum's day, I remember it well. But is Krenn not nearly as large as the castle itself?"

Celestia laughed a bit, before a sort of shame stopped the nose. "No, not any longer. You will see, Luna."

"Oh, we are so excited." Celestia offered her sister a sort of glare, and with a huff, she corrected herself. "I am so excited." Without the actual excitement in her voice, the sound was amusing.

"I'm glad to hear it, Luna, but I do have a condition for you. I insist that you accept an extra guard."

"Oh, Celestia–"

"I won't allow your life to be at risk again." The mirth in Celestia's tone took on a steeled edge.

"Is Masquerade not imprisoned below in the crystal chasm as we speak?"

"If she were the only threat in the world, that would be a perfect excuse, Luna, but she is not. Krenn will likely bring two of his subjects. I would like you to bring two escorts as well. I understand Mirror Image has done a sufficient job as your bodyguard."

"If one is able to disregard his lewd focus on every mare we encounter, then yes. I still do not see why it would be wrong to simply take a pair of my guard–"

"Absolutely not!" Celestia snapped, spilling her drink. There followed a long moment of silence, and then the empty teacup was lowered gently to its saucer, and Celestia looked away from her sister with shame. "Please forgive my outburst, Luna, but we have discussed this issue one time too many. Regardless of my own opinions, Krenn still remembers our… last conflict. I would prefer to avoid the risk of offending him if possible. Instead, I understand you have enjoyed the company of Private Marathon?"

Luna nodded. "She is a most virtuous mare, though I confess surprise that she forgives my actions so readily."

Celestia's response was one of disappointment. "Luna, haven't we done this enough?"

It was a testament to Luna's newfound self-control that her next words were delivered as calmly as their more pleasant predecessors. Nevertheless, Celestia's trained ear could hear the pain buried beneath the pleasant surface. "Would the Nightmare have existed if not for me, Celestia? Who else can be said to be responsible for its actions, if not its creator?"

"If you want to talk about blame, let me share it. If I had only realized–"

"Please, sister, let us not trot this beaten path again. Though those words were mine own, I had no intention to bring forth such a subject in our time of happiness. Perhaps I might ask a more pleasant question."

Celestia considered forcing the point, but slowly came the realization that Luna would be better off without reopening the wounds again. Perhaps those shallow scars would simply have to remain. "Go ahead, Luna. You don't need my permission."

"Your…" Luna hesitated, glancing momentarily down into the milky surface of her beverage. "The Commander–he passed under your vigil, did he not?"

Celestia's brow raised. "Yes, he did. Why is this a concern for you?"

"Some nights ago, whilst I was walking amongst the dreams of an old mare longing for her lost husband, I was approached by one of ours. I knew not his name, but he bore for me a most curious inquiry–one for which I lacked an answer. I intend to help him. After all, are the Summer Lands not meant to be free of want and suffering?"

Celestia nodded, and smiled. "That is valiant of you, Luna."

"It is my duty to him. Nothing more, though it still brings me joy." Luna drained her cup in a single, rather less-than-regal gulp and turned toward the door. "I shall depart after raising the moon. Until then, be well."

"You too, Luna," Celestia answered to the slowly closing doors.

Outside, a pair of guardsponies snapped to attention. Red Ink and Mirror Image flanked the lounge doors, providing their protection in tandem for their paired wards.

"Princess," they greeted synchronously.

"Captain Ink, I have no doubt my sister will welcome your company within. Warrant Officer Image, we have matters of great import to attend."

The pale tan unicorn stallion nodded to Red Ink before stepping away from the door to follow after Luna's surprisingly brisk pace. His dark brown mane remained perfectly still, combed down around his shattered horn. Her bodyguard had enough sense to wait until Luna was around a few corners from Ink and her sister before choosing to speak up.

"Something wrong, Princess?"

Luna nodded grimly. "Our sister is lying to us with guilt in her eyes. I intend to learn her purpose."

The unicorn shook his head. "Princess…?"

"'Tis within my reason this time, Officer. If you find your stomach holds not strength for what I ask, I shall permit my guard to attend me. Else, walk briskly, and shortly we shall have our answer."

Mirror Image rolled his eyes as he followed, slowly beginning to recognize the path. He asked no questions as they continued down the palace's central stair, past the Honor Guard's offices, and then even beyond the barred door to the deep mines. He did, however, stop when the pair reached a titanic pair of golden doors. It was at that point that a genuinely frightening thought wormed its way through his mind.

"Princess, what's behind–"

"Many things. Hold your tongue, Officer, and I may even tell you some of them." It took Luna barely more than a nod of her head to fill the gemstones with light and leave the door sliding slowly open. The cavern beyond was enormous, and dark.

Suddenly more frightened than he had ever been before, Mirror Image afforded himself the audacity to grab Luna's side and turn her around. "Please, Princess, I need to know. You aren't down here for …" He could not bring himself to finish the cruel thought.

Luna glared at him, slapping away his hooves with no small amount of sheer force. She clearly lacked the compunctions he was facing. "Monitor thyself, Officer. If you would speak of the Nightmare, then speak. Our last defender would not share his fears with me, and in the end such a lack of discussion came near to costing us both our lives." She turned back to the stairs and embarked on her descent as she continued. "'Tis true that what little is left of the Nightmare remains here, but 'tis not why we have come. We seek Masquerade."

"The assassin?" Mirror Image's brow tweaked up at its far right side. "She's down here?"

"Yes, Officer, she is." Luna's dry wit and somewhat bitter sarcasm rose for her next words. "I trust you won't use this knowledge to try seducing her."

The unicorn had to stop his descent to contain his laughter, before sadly shaking his head. "With respect, Princess, if I wanted a mare who could shape shift into my wildest fantasies, I would probably pursue a changeling drone. Though she does have a nice flank."

Grateful for Celestia's absence, Luna drifted into a more familiar manner of speaking. "Art thou not afraid it would drain you of your love, and leave you a broken husk?" Though somewhat amused, Luna's words nevertheless condemned his perversion.

Mirror Image shook his head. "I never said I'd love it, Princess."

"You are truly the most depraved of all stallions, guardspony. In my time, such lechery might have found you driven from Equestria by a furious horde."

Image laughed again. "I have had to deal with angry parents in the past, though I have never been a father."

Luna shook her head almost derisively. "'Tis not hard to believe such a statement. Tell me, Officer, if you pursue mares so readily, why dost thou not fancy us–or rather, me?"

Image shook his head. "I learned very quickly not to mix business and pleasure. Celestia―sorry, Princess Celestia―would probably have me keeping Discord company if she found out, and if she didn't, I'm sure the Commander would rise from his grave to finish this." He gestured briefly with a hoof to the shattered form of his own horn. "I have no doubt that your highness is delightful in bed, but if I die, there won't be more mares in the future."

Luna spared herself another glance at the terrible wound. A gap about half-an-inch across marked a jagged path down Mirror Image's horn. The wound must have been indescribably painful, though the stallion never seemed to comment on it. In fact, Luna might have believed it to be a non-issue for the unicorn, were it not for a single curiosity that had pervaded the five months he had served as her bodyguard. Never once had she seen him use magic. He ate, and opened doors, and signed paperwork, and all manner of other trivial issues as though he were an earth pony. It was a question that would need to be asked some day, but a sinking sensation in her gut made the concept uncomfortable.

Instead, as Luna's hooves set down off of the winding staircase and onto the heavy cavern floor, she changed the topic. "The Commander's fate is why we are here, Officer. You may speak freely, but I do request you retain control of yourself."

Those words were the last that the odd pair shared before they progressed to the massive gray crystal wall that served as the entrance to Masquerade's prison. Rather than struggling with its incredible weight, Luna's left forehoof moved the 'door' as though it were no more than a piece of parchment.

Sitting on her belly in the center of the chamber was a clearly broken mare. One of her eyes opened to look at her visitors, though the other was bruised too heavily to follow the motion. She clearly struggled to offer them a spiteful smile, though her jaw seemed to resist her motion. Broken shards of what had once been a lighting crystal were scattered across the floor. At least one was sticking out of a cut on her shoulder. She offered a tired, pitiful moan as Luna approached.

"Spare us your suffering, assassin. We would speak with you. Answer in truth, and we might offer you mercy as recompense."

Luna's demands were answered with a fragile hoof, which struggled to make the short journey to Masquerade's jaw. She moaned, pitifully, but no words came free. Luna took a step forward for a closer look, only to be stopped by the outstretched hoof of her guardian.

"Let me." Mirror Image strode forward, stopping just beyond a leg's reach away from Masquerade. Her pitiful, one-eyed glance in his direction still managed to hold some degree of spite. He reached out cautiously, tapping at the side of her face. She winced and pulled back, but the stallion was unrelenting. Realizing that the mare genuinely posed no threat, he stepped closer. His hooves prodded as lightly as possible along the underside of her neck, where numerous bruises were visible even over the surface of her coat. After a few minutes of investigation, the stallion made his way back to Luna's side.

"What is her ailment? Is it a trap?"

"No, Princess. Honestly, it reminds me of Soldier On's work. Her jaw is shattered completely. I'm impressed she was able to make that moaning noise."

"Then I shall heal her. We require our answers urgently." Luna stepped forward, lowering her horn to point at the broken assassin. Misty blue magic enveloped her wounded jaw, and with an audible cracking, Masquerade's moans turned into a clarion scream. By the time she had descended from her world of pain, Luna had stepped away, panting and shaking her head. "You are able to speak now?"

Masquerade clenched her jaw slowly, before turning her gaze toward her visitors. "Yes, Princess Luna, I suppose I can."

Luna's brow rose. "Thou do not call me 'Nightmare Moon.'"

"I can still see out of this eye," Masquerade answered. "And I know enough to tell the difference."

"I had expected that to be the cause of your actions."

"You're half-right, Princess. But we're…" She paused to hack up another globule of blood. "…reasonable mares."

Mirror Image spoke up whilst shaking his head. "You've got a funny idea of what 'reasonable' means, Masquerade. Reasonable ponies don’t try to kill the Princess."

She dragged her head along the floor, seemingly unable to lift it from the gray crystals, and turned her attention to Mirror Image. "It's a matter of context, I think, Mirror Image. You've killed ponies, after all."

"Criminals," he snapped. "Not innocents."

"So you call her innocent?" Masquerade shook her head. "That's hardly the point. Somepony who would kill you, Princess, for having been Nightmare Moon is vengeful. Somepony who would do it thinking you still are is insane."

"So which are you?" Image asked, seeing Luna's hesitance to answer.

"Neither," Masquerade responded quickly. "I damn near killed you because I know you're going to be Nightmare Moon again."

"You lie!" Luna shouted, leaning over the fallen assassin.

"Want to bet? A war is coming, Princess. One even Discord couldn't dream up alone, though I'm sure his claws are in it somewhere. If you're still alive, the Nightmare will be back."

Image glared at the assassin. "That's it, then? You did it because of some vague story you think is going to happen? Damn it, Crack was right. You're just insane. I owe him forty bits."

Masquerade smiled sarcastically as she responded. "Well, to be fair, I also did it for fame, and more money or power than you stupid guardsponies could ever possibly dream of. Don't forget, Warrant Officer, I was the Commander for a little while. How is that twenty-thousand bit salary treating you? That's enough for, what, a crappy apartment in Manehattan? Or do you just gamble it all away?"

Mirror Image let out a grim growling noise, but Luna moved herself to the space between her bodyguard and the assassin. "Enough of this, Masquerade. I have questions."

"Wasn't that what Armor and Ink beat the tar out of me for? I assumed you'd come to send me to Tartarus?"

Luna shook her head. "Neither the time nor the decision has come. I have every intention of offering you salvation yet, though you tempt me otherwise. For now, answer a simple question." Masquerade rolled her eyes, and shook her head, until Luna said the words themselves. "Where is the Commander?"

Almost immediately, the mare's demeanor changed. "He's dead. I killed him."

"And then he wrote a letter, after his demise? A letter to my sister bearing information you could not have possibly known?" Luna's horn shed a fell blue light, focusing tightly on Masquerade's face, and then wrapping around her throat. The wounded mare was hoisted into the air, where she found herself face to face with the immortal being she had only months past tried desperately to kill. "Do not lie to me."

She clawed feebly at the mana wrapped around her neck out of fear, though Luna made no effort to actually choke the unicorn. After her efforts proved ineffectual, Masquerade nodded. "I didn't kill him, but he is dead. The boars wanted him alive!"

Her body fell suddenly to the harsh floor, and the snap of her collision was a truly painful noise. Luna turned to the huge crystal slab that was the door. "Thank you, assassin. I will remember your words."

After a terrible grating noise, both the princess and her bodyguard sealed off the prisoner again. Masquerade smiled, and even afforded herself a mild laugh. It had almost been too easy.

- - -

Night fell over Equestria, and far to the south, over Suida as well. There, amidst towering red cliffs and cracked plains of brush and stone, a stallion hissed through clenched teeth in sheer agony. The 'Commander' could not see, but his blindness was the result of pain and not of the darkness. All through his body were broken bones, from the crown of his skull to the tips of his ribs. Shards and spurs ripped into his muscles with his every motion, and so in order to spare himself the suffering, he struggled to remain still. It was a futile effort.

The body of a pony has many sensitive areas. Muzzles and necks are surprisingly capable of detecting the ticklish touch of a gentle nuzzle. For more intimate encounters, other areas are capable of bearing even more sensation. These regions have nothing, however, on the intensity of feeling that can be built in a pegasus' wings. It was for this reason that the Commander found himself unable to hold his body still.

Both his wings were broken, and a boar apothecary was setting about 'fixing' them. His first act was to twist the left wing back, until its crest snapped. A shard of bone ruptured through the Commander's flesh and feathers, sticking out into the cold, dry desert air. He screamed for a few moments, until his dry and tired voice failed him. Then, only a hoarse trickle could be heard.

From there, the boar twisted the wing back upon itself, tearing through further flesh as an unnatural angle was formed. What ought to have been a smooth primary crest instead jerked sharply into a right angle, twisted back along the Commander's side. Blood spilled along his left side, and the shining shield flanked by lightning bolts that had once marked the purpose of his life. With the bone set into its new place, bandages and plaster were brought forth.

A pony who had never before been broken in battle was laid low by a doctor's work. Tears streamed from his eyes because he could no longer hold them in. What little of his rational mind had remained over five months of torture knew that he would never fly again. It was a wound that even his body could not heal.

When the second wing snapped, the last of the Commander's dreams of rescue was thrown into a shallow, unmarked grave. No more did the faint promises of some lingering purpose even register in his mind. No longer did he wish to return to Celestia and his Honor Guard. He only wanted death.

- - -

Rainbow rolled over in the sleeping bag she had shared with Scootaloo. Though perhaps a bit personal, the cold had been too harsh and the storm too furious to take any other action. A heavy knock had stolen away her slumber, though it had nearly been lost the continued whistling of the wind against the tiny wooden structure.

"Rainbow Dash? Are you there?"

"Huh?" Rainbow twisted slightly, hoping not to awaken her young friend. "Twilight?"

The door burst open, and the sudden gust of chilled air was enough to wash away all memory of sleep. It was slammed shut quickly, revealing the faintest hints of a violet unicorn, buried beneath a foot of thick fabric and heavy boots. "Thank Celestia I finally found you. What are you doing out here? And why is Scootaloo here too?"

"Huh?" the young filly asked upon hearing her name. Though the cold had woken her, she was still clearly drowsy. "Twilight?"

"I found her out here after I left the barn," Rainbow answered with a groan. "What time is it?"

"What time–?" Twilight was clearly furious over the question, as her response devolved into a groan. "Rainbow, it's two in the morning! We've been out looking for you all night!"

Dash's answer was a quick glare, before turning back to the welcome warmth of the sleeping bag. "Well, I'm fine, Twilight. You can head home."

"I'm not leaving you two out here alone! In case you haven't noticed, the storm has gotten worse. A lot worse. You'll freeze to death out here!" Rainbow groaned, but Twilight persisted. "Look, I get it if you want some space, Rainbow, but this is dangerous. At least come back with me to the library. Please?"

The elder of the two pegasi glanced at her young fan, and then nodded. "Fine, Twilight." She crawled out of the sleeping bag fully, and Scootaloo struggled to the same. "No, kid, relax. Just stay warm in there." A wing was lowered to the floor, and then with no small amount of effort, the filly and her warm bag were both pulled up onto Rainbow's back.

Scootaloo squirmed for a moment, contemplating resistance to the offer. Ultimately, however, the warmth of the bag and the comfort of Rainbow's wings proved too tempting to be resisted. She snuggled into the base of her mentor's mane and closed her eyes.

"It might be too windy to sleep out there," Rainbow observed.

"Relax," Twilight answered. "Shining Armor taught me this." Her horn ignited, created a rather small purple orb that expanded straight through the walls of the clubhouse to a distance of about three feet in each direction from Twilight's horn. The mare opened her eyes slowly, and then smiled. "A wind shield," was her explanation. "The air and the snow will still be cold, though."

"I'll survive. Let's get moving."

The two adult ponies trudged out of the clubhouse and struggled to walk down the ice-slick slope that served as its entrance. Once on the ground, Rainbow immediately felt the chill of snow against her hooves. In the dark of the night, the barren apple trees seemed surprisingly menacing. A flurry of wind and snow beat against the edges of Twilight's purple orb, but neither the flecks of snow, nor the biting whistling of the wind reached the pair of ponies inside. In fact, the stillness of the air was unsettling.

The road down from Sweet Apple Acres to the heart of Ponyville was a long one, lined only with trees and devoid of much by way of sights. Off in the distance, to the far left, the Everfree sat blotted upon the horizon. Ahead, the silhouettes of Ponyville's buildings had given up their lights to the embrace of sleep.

"This is kinda weird," Rainbow whispered. "Outside shouldn't be this quiet."

"It's just the spell, Rainbow," Twilight answered with equal quiet. "Nothing to worry–"

The words were cut off perfectly by an audible howl. The ponies glanced at one another with sudden urgency. "Timberwolves?"

"It sounds like it," Twilight answered. "But what could drive them this far from the Everfree?"

"Who cares? We have to get moving." Rainbow turned to the path and broke into a brisk trot. "Come on!"

Twilight followed as quickly as she could, but even burdened with the filly on her back, Dash was clearly faster. She kept pace with Twilight, though the slowed steps spared her both the time and the focus to glance off the worn path and into the nearby trees. The faint silhouettes of creatures were moving against the dull purple glow of the sky. Though they followed their prey, they maintained their distance, as if waiting for something.

Her eyes turned to the other side of the road in time to see a trio of timberwolves closing on Twilight. She reacted too quickly for thought, jumping over her friend in a single motion and bringing a hoof down on the lead wolf's snout. Wood splintered beneath her blow, drawing Twilight's attention and earning a gasp from Scootaloo. Before either could actually speak, however, Rainbow had lunged out with her hind hooves, driving the second away and tripping the third. "A little help?"

Twilight caught herself suddenly, pointing her horn into the woods and firing a trio of magical blasts. None connected, but the light they cast revealed at least seven more wolves in the midst of the storm. Rainbow could spare no more time ponder their number, as the first three were slowly rising to their wooden paws.

As she lowered herself to the ground, her wings rose to form a barrier around Scootaloo. "Hold on, kid."

"Are those timberwolves?"

Rather than answer the question, Rainbow lunged forward at the first to rise. Her hooves moved quickly, wielding a skill that her more peaceful companions had never seen before. Two, three, four, and five times she struck in the span of a single second. By the last blow, the growl of the creature had been reduced to a whimper. It fled with its tail between its legs, though Rainbow's instincts told her that defeating a single foe had not won her the battle so quickly.

Twilight had grabbed a second of the three wolves, and with sheer force of telekinesis, she flung it back into the woods. The force was incredible, but the focus it required of its user stole her focus away from the third wolf. The beast pounced on Rainbow's friend. Its wooden claws and teeth drew blood in shallow blows from beneath her violet coat.

The pegasus' action was almost too fast to follow with naked eyes. She lowered her right wing from the filly on her back, lending her enough force and balance to outright tackle the wolf away. Trapped on its side by the weight of two ponies, the beast had no time to react as Rainbow's hoof came down on its neck three times in quick succession. Unlike its friends, it released no whimper or cry. In the faint light of Twilight's horn, a viscous splash could be seen on Dash's hoof. She flicked it away and turned back to her friend. "Hurry up, Twilight! There are more–" The words died with the sight of another figure in the woods. Something was out there fighting with the timberwolves, though its identity could not be discerned amidst the silhouettes of the monsters.

"What is that?" the inquisitive unicorn asked.

"Who cares? Let's go!" Rainbow didn't wait for a response, bluntly shoving her friend before breaking into a run herself. Though their journey proved short, the library's welcome door could not have arrived soon enough.

- - -

To make way for the coming dawn, Luna lowered the moon not from her usual bedroom balcony, but from Canterlot's train platform. The few businessponies and nobles who were waiting to accompany her on the train watched with awed expression as the deed was done simply and bluntly. Luna felt no need to soar into the sky or flare her wings as her sister so often did. Instead, a slight glow of magic was all she truly required.

Private Marathon watched the ponies on the platform idly, with almost the curiosity of a young filly. "Princess, if you'd like me to fetch some breakfast, we have another ten minutes before the train boards."

"We supped well only two hours ago, Private, though we thank thee for–"

"It's 'you', Princess," Mirror Image interrupted. After receiving a fierce glare, he held up both his forehooves as if to placate the princess. "I promised Princess Celestia."

"Of course she would extract such an oath. Let me simply say that, should you happen to forget such an obligation, I would certainly forgive you your oath-breaking. In fact, I might even forgive some of your constant lechery."

Image smiled and nodded. "Understood. If you'll forgive me for asking, why aren't we taking a chariot to Stalliongrad?"

Luna and Marathon shared a glance before both began to chuckle. The latter spoke up. "It's January, Mirror. Anypony flying out in the open would have frostbite by the time they reached the city. Besides, with a train we can relax. Well, by we I mean the Princess and I. You're on guard duty."

"We're on guard duty, Private."

"I beg to differ, Mirror. You're here as the Princess' bodyguard. I'm serving in my capacity as a 'diplomatic advisor and consultant'. I know how you hate big words, so I'll dumb that down for you. It means I get to sit in the cabin with Luna and have fun while you're standing outside the door." She smiled teasingly, intending the words in good fun (even if they were true).

"We suspect our bodyguard has the point," Luna responded. "Relax, Officer Image, our journey will be fun. Perhaps we shall have a snowball fight."

Image turned away only as he heard the train chug up the tracks toward the station. Something in his gut warned him that Luna's subtly hidden playful nature would make Stalliongrad more trouble than it was worth.

- - -

Rainbow crept slowly away from Twilight's bed, where a rather small orange filly had finally managed to shake off her fears and fall asleep. Thankfully, the icy wind had ceased its rattling of the library windows, and the storm had subsided to a pleasant snowfall. The door to the bedroom swung open and shut without a creak or a moan, allowing Rainbow's wings to carry her gently downstairs. There, Twilight Sparkle and Spike were seated together on a small couch. Four eyes watched as the pegasus descended, alighting on a small chair opposite the pair. "How are you holding up, Twilight?"

She responded by tilting her head to the side, revealing the heavy white bandages that covered her scrapes and cuts. "I'm fine, I guess. Thanks, Rainbow."

"Hey, don't sweat it. You don't think I'd just–"

"No, really, Rainbow. You saved my life."

The baby dragon sitting at Twilight's side looked up at her with suddenly increased concern. "Are you going to tell me what happened now?"

Before Twilight could offer a proper response, Dash spoke up. "There were some timberwolves out by Sweet Apple Acres. We fought them off."

"You fought them off," Twilight corrected. "I don’t know if I've ever been more scared in my entire life."

"Oh, come on, Twilight. We've done way crazier stuff than that. You remember the Changelings, right? Or, heck, that first time we all went into the Everfree and fought Nightmare Moon–"

"None of that was ever like this though." Twilight shuddered slightly as she spoke. "I mean, they were dangerous, but it was right on top of me. I could feel its breath. And then you just… attacked it."

"I guess I learned something useful," Rainbow admitted. She buried the tiny voice in the back of her mind that noted how much she had enjoyed the surge of adrenaline, and the prospect of danger. Twilight had been in danger. Scootaloo could have been hurt. That risk would never be worth the thrill. Instead, she completed her thought after the moment's pause. "I'd still rather not have to do that anymore."

Twilight nodded, and then walked slowly over to Rainbow and wrapped her in a tight hug. "Thank you."

At first, the embrace was welcome, but a knocking at the door quickly made its lingering presence feel too long. "Uh, Twilight, you gonna get that?"

The unicorn pulled away with a soft laugh. "Oh. Sorry?"

Rainbow collapsed back in her seat as the unicorn and her dragon assistant moved to the door. It opened to a calm winter day, and the voice of a stallion, though Rainbow couldn't see his face.

"Hello. I'm sorry to bother you, but I was hoping you might know where I could find Rainbow Dash?"

The pegasus in question rose to her feet in time to see Twilight backing away from the open door in shock. Lacking the same knowing expression, Spike shrugged. "Sure, she's actually right in here."

The pony who then made his way into the Golden Oaks library caused Rainbow's heart to skip not a single beat, but several. Her eyes widened, and her mind refused to process what she saw. Without better directions, her mouth managed to mumble only a single word in quiet shock.

"Deadeye?"