The Tainted Renaissance

by Red B

First published

For centuries Equestria has existed as a beacon of order and harmony. However, not all things are meant to last. A storm of change is rising on the horizon. One that will shake the very foundations of Equestria.

Among all the nations on Equis, no nation has enjoyed such a peaceful existence like Equestria. Under the loving care of Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, Equestria has outlived many nations. Even when Princess Luna was banished, Equestria continued to exist as a land of peace and harmony.

However, nothing stays the same forever. Sooner or later great changes sweep the land, regardless of the desires or wants of those living there. And while Celestia's rule has ensured that Equestria has remained the same, a great storm of change is approaching. For better or worse, life in Equestria is about to change...

Cover image by anarchemitis. Used with permission.

Prologue

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Silence reigned supreme. Unnatural, unnerving silence, almost deafening in its intensity assaulted her ears as Celestia surveyed her surroundings. She flicked her ears back and forth in all directions, even casting a spell to sharpen hear hearing, but there was nothing she could hear. At least nothing apart from silent voices and cautious hoofsteps of the Royal Guard as the soldiers scoured the nearby area for any clues. So far, there were no results.

Celestia removed the spell and opened her eyes, sighing heavily when her eyes took in the sight of a small and completely empty village. She was standing in the middle of the crossroads that served as the center of the settlement where five roads came together in a single point, taking the appearance of a five point star when viewed from above. In fact, that's there the village's name, Five Points came from. Located in the Southern part of Equestria, the frontier settlement would have spent most of its existence completely unnoticed and unheard of, except for the fact that the entire population had gone missing without a trace.

The princess picked one road at random and slowly walked down the street, looking at the empty buildings, hoping that inside one of them there would be at least a single pony who had managed to survive whatever had happened here and would be able to provide some answers. No such luck. Only empty windows and open doors that were staring at her, silently following her movements and keeping all the secrets to themselves.

“Your Majesty!” The sudden voice of a Guardspony, coming somewhere from above, almost made Celestia jump. She looked up and saw a pegasus pony come in for a landing next to her. The stallion landed and, after a quick bow, gave her the report. “We have searched the area. So far we have found nothing. No survivors, no clues as to what happened here. Apart from a few overturned tables or small things like that, it looks like everypony just stood up and left. Judging from the hoofmarks on the ground, they all headed in the same direction before disappearing some sixty meters past the outermost buildings. We are trying to pick up the tracks, but just like before, there is nothing. It's as if they vanished in thin air.”

Celestia listened to the report and dismissed him with a nod. “Thank you. Please tell others to make one more sweep through the settlement. Make sure to document every possible clue, regardless how insignificant or strange it might seem. All possibilities must be considered. This is the third time already and we still have no idea what is going on.” The pegasus nodded in acknowledgment and took off, leaving Celestia alone again. She watched him leave and, once she was sure the stallion was out of earshot, let out a heavy sigh and cast around a gaze filled with a mixture of frustration and desperation.

Three settlements over the course of the month. All of them small settlements, located far away from the major population centers, allowing the ones responsible for it to work with little chances of being noticed. News traveled slowly. It had taken more than two weeks after the first village had disappeared for the news to reach Celestia. Though she had taken immediate action and responded at once, she was no closer to solving the mystery as she was two weeks ago.

Celestia heaved another sigh and shook her head in order to clear her thoughts. She cast around a quick look, this time taking in the landscape rather than the buildings. There wasn't much to see. The terrain was rather rocky, covered with small ridges and dried out riverbeds. Small trees and spare shrubs represented the local vegetation, while a thick orchard of plums and cherry trees, near the village, represented the attempts of the ponies who once lived here, to tame the land. As far as Celestia could see, they had been successful. The orchards had brought the town an additional source of food and income in addition to hotels and supply stores that took care of the traders passing through the town. At least, that had been the case until...

The princess once again shook her head, banishing the unwelcome thoughts. It was time for her to meet up with the senior members of the Royal Guard, so that they could better organize the last sweep of the town. She spread her massive wings and was about to take off when a strange sensation crawled up the back of her neck, forcing her to freeze for a moment. She was being watched. Somepony, was observing her with such intensity, Celestia could almost physically feel it. It was like a pressure on every part of her body. Cold, firm pressure that drowned out all the other sensations.

The white alicorn folded her wings and turned around, her eyes moving from one spot to another, searching for the source of the unpleasant feeling. She scanned the windows, alleys, corners, rooftops, everything in her vicinity, but found nothing. There was nopony in the immediate proximity. She then cast her gaze on more distant locations. The skies above her were empty. There wasn't a single cloud, much less a pony, in sight. Her eyes then focused on the horizon as well as the various terrain features she could see. Large rocks, hills, ridges... There! The thought flashed through her mind when she finally noticed it.

Standing on top of the tallest ridge was a pony. At least Celestia assumed the silhouette was a pony. It was difficult to make it out at this range. With her eyes locked onto the observer, Celestia cast a Farsight spell on her eyes. She blinked a few times and suddenly found her vision so powerful she felt like she was standing right next to the strange pony. So close it felt like she could touch the pony just by reaching out.

The figure was clearly a pony. A unicorn mare to be precise. Her body shape and size allowed Celestia to quickly identify the most obvious details. However, once she took a closer look, Celestia had to take a short gasp. The mare's coat was black, unnaturally black. It was so dark, it looked like it was absorbing the nearby light. A pony shaped tear in the fabric of reality, revealing the darkness behind it. Her eyes were also black, the slitted pale pink pupils were the only way to determine the direction the unicorn was looking in. The same pink color was faintly noticeable in her mane and tail, which made them just a little bit lighter than the rest of her fur coat.

However, the unicorn's appearance was not the cause of Celestia's discomfort. It was the gaze. The intense, focused gaze that was burrowing into Celestia's eyes as if nothing else existed in the world. It wasn't a hostile gaze, but neither was it a friendly one. It was just a stare, a blank, piercing stare that felt like it was going past her eyes and looking directly into her soul. At the same time, Celestia noticed that the unicorn's mouth was moving as of she was saying or rather chanting something.

All of it changed, however, the moment Celestia decided to approach the unicorn. The mare's mouth stopped moving and her eyes narrowed a fraction. A moment later, a sudden gust of wind, rushing through the town, sent Celestia's ethereal mane billowing. Celestia shook her head to clear her eyes and focused her sight on the unicorn again. The black mare was still there. However, the moment the gust hit her, Celestia had to blink her eyes more than once to make sure she wasn't seeing things.

Small bits and pieces flew off the unicorn, as the pony dissolved into air like a statue made of fine powder. The pitch black dust swirled in the air in complex patterns before the wind scattered them without a trace. Just five seconds later, Celestia found herself staring at an empty space. The princess canceled the spell and blinked her eyes as her vision returned to normal. She cast a glance at the ridge, but didn't see anything. The pony was gone without a trace. She was, once again alone. Alone to figure out what exactly was gong on and why.

One and a Half Unicorn

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Rarity was not a happy pony. At the current moment she felt like the least fortunate mare in all of Equestria. Absolutely everything was working against her and there was nothing she could do about it. Nothing other than carry on and hope that her luck would change.

Her thoughts were scattered to all winds when her hoof got caught in something, she couldn't see what it was, and the white mare fell down, hitting the ground hard, splashing thick mud in every direction. A fair amount of the vile stuff ended on her coat, adding to the thick layer of dirt and grime already there. Strangely though, the dirt was only a secondary concern at best. Usually, Rarity would be horrified at the thought of even a tiny speck of dust ruining her coat, but right now, she failed to notice it. Even if she did, Rarity had more pressing concerns to deal with.

Hooves slipping in the mud, the white unicorn forced herself to stand up. Rarity ignored the shaking of her legs as well as the massive headache that intensified the moment she was standing again. At least she tried to. Her head was hurting so bad, she lifted her hoof and pressed it against the spot that felt like the center of the pain. A cry of pain escaped her lips the moment her hoof touched her head right between her left eye and the horn. She took in a jagged breath, forcing air into her lungs even though it felt like somepony was shoving hot coals down her throat and inside her chest with every breath Rarity took.

A few short breaths later, Rarity lowered her hoof and had to close her eyes for a moment when she saw it come away covered in blood. Her blood. The sensation of hot fluid trickling down the side of her head was impossible not to notice, despite the intense downpour. That was most likely because her blood was hot, while the rainstorm was downright freezing. Such contrasts were hard to miss. Shoving aside the sensation of pain that assaulted almost every part of her body aside, Rarity resumed walking. She had to get back home. And as she pushed herself through a particularly thick brush, trying not to think about the monumental task of getting her coat and mane clean again, Rarity focused the idle part of her thoughts on the events that led to her current predicament.

It was very simple actually, she could thank her inspiration for this. A sudden flash of inspiration had struck her early in the morning, filling her with compulsion to create art. And create art she had. At least until she had ran out of gems, which had forced her to do a quick trip to her usual hunting grounds.

A flash of lightning, followed by a deafening crack of thunder interrupted her thoughts, forcing Rarity to cast a concerned glance upwards as if searching for any signs that would tell her whether or not the lightning would strike somewhere nearby. However, her search bore no fruit It was so dark, she could barely see anything. The thick layer of storm clouds hiding the moon as well as the dense foliage made it impossible to see further than a few meters in any direction. She was pretty much blindly stumbling through the darkness, hoping that she was heading the right way. During this time, Rarity recalled the last episode of her gem hunt where everything had gone terribly wrong.

Her gem hunt had been quite fortunate. Then again, all of her hunts were. Her spell had done a marvelous job at revealing the gems she needed. It hadn't taken her a long time to load a noticeable pile into the small cart she had brought with her. However, during her search she hadn't noticed that she had moved near an edge of a cliff that formed an entire side of the hill she had been on. With her back towards the edge of the cliff, Rarity hadn't had a single warning about the dangerous situation she had been in.

The only warning she had received had been when the ground beneath her had suddenly become loose and unable to support her weight. In the process of digging numerous holes as well as moving around half and fully buried rocks, Rarity had weakened the integrity of the section of the edge she was on. Her taking a step closer to the edge had been the final straw. The entire edge had given in and had turned into a massive landslide that had carried everything on the platform, including Rarity, down the cliff-side in a lightning fast and unstoppable flow. The only thing Rarity could recall from the fall was the sharp blow to the head at the very end.

Rarity had woken up several hours later in the middle of an intense downpour, lying in a large puddle, half-buried under a pile of mud, rocks, broken branches, leaves and other types of plants. However, as soon as she woken up, her remaining senses had flared to life and hadn't hesitated to inform her of pain. Immense pain all over her body, making it hard to breath, think or otherwise gather her thoughts.

It had taken her a lot of time to free herself of the mud. She'd tried to use magic, but had nearly passed out when the pain in her head had skyrocketed to almost unbearable levels and hadn't gone away even after she had stopped to use magic. Fortunately, the mud hadn't been that deep and Rarity had been able to free herself with pure force alone. Once she free, Rarity had moved underneath a nearby tree and, after a brief thought, had decided to abandon her gem hunt and return home.

The decision had been made more than two hours ago. More than two hours of wondering through the dark and rainy forest, unable to see a single familiar tree, which would help her get back on track. The headache wasn't helping either.

Strangely, though, she wasn't too worried about being lost. Sure, it was inconvenient in the extreme, but Rarity had little doubt that sooner or later she would return home. She had friends. The moment they noticed she was missing, they would go and look for her. Of course, that did not mean she was content to just stay there and wait to be rescued. She wasn't helpless. Rarity proved it to herself by increasing her pace, despite the various aches becoming less bearable.

Rarity's mind came to an unexpected halt when she saw something in the distance. Her entire body froze up as she focused her gaze in the direction where, unless she was hallucinating, she had spotted a flash of light. Not one from the lightning, but the warm glow of a lantern. A sudden jolt surged through her body when she saw it again. A small light was moving not far from her, flickering and occasionally disappearing from her view as it was briefly obscured by a tree or a bush. Not only that, but when she focused her hearing, Rarity was certain she could hear the sound of hoofsteps. How she could hear it over the thunderstorm, Rarity had no idea. Perhaps she was imagining the sound in order to give herself additional hope.

Well, sound or not, the fact that she was looking on what was obviously the light coming from a lantern, which was being carried by somepony, did wonders in lifting her spirits and lending her extra strength. With her eyes focused on the light, Rarity moved towards it as quickly as she could. She ignored her body protesting against such sudden and quick movement by leaping over a log lying on the ground. She immediately regretted her decision. Her legs almost gave out from the impact of landing, sending her stumbling in an ungraceful manner before she recovered. Still, Rarity didn't stop moving. Not now. Not when she had a chance to escape her current situation right in front of her.

“Hello?” She called and blinked her eyes in order to get rid of some of the rain that was flowing from her mane. “Is anypony there? Please, I am in need of help.” Whoever was holding the lantern must have heard it, as the light came to a sudden halt. The sight fully convinced Rarity that here was definitely somepony out there. She wasn't seeing things.

The light moved downwards a little. The pony holding it must have lowered it on the ground. “I am over here.” Rarity called out again. She pushed herself through a relatively sparse bush, gaining a few more scratches on her sides in the process. It didn't matter. Right now she didn't care about something like that. Once she was back home, then she would address the issues regarding her appearance, but right now, all she wanted was to reach that light, meet the pony next to it and ask him or her to help her get back to Ponyville.

Rarity was close enough that the lantern turned from an obscure orb of light in the distance, to a solid object that was standing in the middle of a dirt road, illuminating the surrounding area and letting her notice plants and other objects the light was revealing. Strangely, though she didn't see anything else. She saw the lantern, the dirt road, the trees and bushes it cast its light upon, but she didn't see the pony who was supposed to be carrying the lantern. Rarity thought she saw movement in the bushes on the other side of the lantern, but when she looked again, there was nothing else, but a cluster of bushes whose leaves were rustling in the wind.

With her hooves meeting solid ground instead of grass and moss, Rarity entered the circle of light the lantern was casting. A quick look around confirmed her suspicions. There was nopony there. “Hello?” She tried again while looking around. Nothing. She slowly walked over to the lantern until she was standing right next to it. The faint warmth coming from it confirmed that this wasn't a product of her imagination. This was real. She was standing next to somepony's lantern on a dirt road in the middle of the forest, covered in mud as well as scrapes and bruises while rain kept falling on her, drenching her mane and coat. However, the pony to whom the lantern belonged to was nowhere in sight.

“Is anypony there? Please, I am in need of assistance and I would greatly appreciate your help.” The white mare hoped that a more polite request would yield some results. No such luck, she was still standing all alone, with nothing but the forest and rain to keep her company. Rarity waited a few more minutes before she decided to act. If there was no pony else nearby then she had to keep on moving. As for the lantern, she glanced down, since it was of no use to anypony while standing in the middle of the forest, she might as well take it and use it to get home. This way she wouldn't have to worry about blindly stumbling around. Rarity was just about to lean down and grab the lantern when a voice spoke from behind her.

“Can I help you ma'am?” Rarity let out a surprised gasp and quickly turned around, almost knocking down the lantern while doing so.

Standing on the edge of the light, with a pair of saddlebags hanging from his sides, was a gray stallion. An earth pony, considering she couldn't see any wings or a horn. He was looking at her, his dark green eyes traveling back and forth across her as he took in every single detail. Like Rarity, the stallion was also wet from the rain, his long dark blue, almost black mane hanging from his head and neck, similarly to Rarity's. The difference was that, unlike Rarity, he wasn't carrying half of the forest's flora in it. Another thing Rarity noticed was the tension in his stance. The stallion was like a coiled spring, ready to explode into action at the slightest touch. That little detail made her take a step back. However, when their eyes met a moment later, Rarity saw no anger or threat inside them. Instead, they were filled with a mixture of curiosity and, much to her surprise, fear. For a reason she could not fathom, he was afraid of her. As if expecting her to attack him any moment.

Rarity was so surprised that she forgot to reply to his question. Instead, they stood there, staring at each other as if caught in a trance. Eventually, the stallion took a careful step forward and spoke again. “Can I help you, ma'am? You seem to be hurt. What happened to you?” Just like the look in his eyes, the stallion spoke in a cautious voice. Fortunately Rarity also heard genuine concern in his words.

“Ah, yes... help.” Rarity mentally shook her head, pushing the confusion to the back of her mind. “I am afraid I had an accident, as you can plainly see. I had the misfortune of being caught in a landslide earlier today. When I woke up, it was already dark and I couldn't see a thing, which led me to wondering around this forest, looking for a way back home.” She summed up the day's events. “Please, good sir, could you direct me towards Ponyville? I must return home in order to take care of all this dirt.” She pointed at her mane and the rest of her body.

The stallion's eyes followed her hoof before focusing on her eyes again. “That is very unfortunate indeed, ma'am. Judging from the sound of it, you were fortunate to get away with only a few scrapes. As for Ponyville, it is in that direction.” He pointed in the direction he was facing. “Head down this road and turn right at the crossroads. You should reach Ponyville in about an hour, roughly speaking.”

Rarity felt the bottom of her stomach drop. “An hour?” How far away had she wandered off in her confusion? She turned her head in the indicated direction and stared at the road as it disappeared into the darkness. The trees on either side of the road made it look like it was leading into a giant maw. The white unicorn looked down at the lantern and then back at the road. A whole hour through darkness, rain and mud. She wasn't sure she could do that. Then again, what choice did she have?

With a heavy sigh, she turned her gaze back at the gray stallion and flashed a thankful smile. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate your help.” A sudden thought crossed her mind. Perhaps she wouldn't have to do it all alone. “Um, excuse me for asking, but where are you heading? If you are traveling to Ponyville perhaps we could do it together?” Her hopes lasted only for a moment before the stallion shook his head.

“Sorry, ma'am, but I do not live in Ponyville.”

“Oh, I see. That is most unfortunate.” Rarity said. She should have known better than to hope for such luck. This entire day had been unfortunate for her, no reason for her luck to turn. She'd been lucky enough to meet a fellow pony. “It looks like I'll just have to make it on my own. Either way, thank you for your assistance, mister...” She paused, fishing for his name.

“Lumberjack.” The pony replied after a moment of thought. The fear in his eyes was gone and though there was still a fair amount of tension in his posture, it was nowhere near the level it had previously been at.

“It is a pleasure to meet your acquaintance, mister Lumberjack.” Rarity felt her miserable state recede enough for her usual elegance to surface. “My name is Rarity. Once again, I am thankful for your help. But now I must go. If you ever decide to visit Ponyville, come to the Carousel Boutique. Perhaps I will find a way to repay you for your assistance. Farewell.” Rarity said and steeled herself for the journey ahead. She turned around and set off in a slow, but at the same time determined, pace. She had survived the fall, the forest and the mud. There was no way she would let a the road ahead of her get the upper hand.

Lumberjack didn't say a word as she walked past the lantern and left him behind. The last look on his face Rarity saw, told her that he once again had that tense look on his face. The one he had sported at the very beginning of their short meeting. The one that told her of an immense conflict being resolved behind those dark green eyes. She was mildly curious to find out what he was thinking so hard about, but the pang of pain from near her horn reminded her that she had other, more important matters to take care of.

It was around two minutes later when Rarity heard the thundering sound of hooves hitting the ground in rapid rhythm approaching from behind her. She glanced back and saw Lumberjack running up to her. “Ma'am. Miss Rarity. Wait.” His words were slightly unclear, courtesy of the handle between his teeth. The lantern was wildly swinging back and forth, causing the light to move back and forth as well. “Please wait.” The gray stallion repeated as he came to a stop right next to her. He placed the lantern on the road before addressing her.

“Miss Rarity, please. I cannot, in good conscience, allow you to go on like this. You asked for help and the only thing I did was show you directions. It is unacceptable! You are injured, probably tired, it's the middle of the night and it's raining.” Lumberjack said and glanced at a spot above Rarity's eyes where the gash was located. “This is not the best time to be outside. Therefore, if I may suggest, perhaps you would be willing to spend the night in my house? I have medical supplies for that gash on your forehead and you will also be able to get some rest. Afterwards, tomorrow morning, I will escort you all the way back to Ponyville.”

“Spend the night in your house?” Rarity was surprised by the sudden offer.

“Yes, I live very close by.” The stallion nodded and continued, this time with some regret in his voice. “I should have made this offer the moment you asked me for help, but the thing is, I live alone and I don't meet other ponies very often. That and, I'm not afraid to admit, you did scare me when you called out to me so suddenly. It took me a while to get my thoughts back in order.”

Rarity gave it some thought. The chance to put something between her and the rainstorm, take care of her injuries as well as getting rid of all the mud did sound appealing. The offer to get some rest as well was just icing on cake. However, Rarity wasn't certain she could trust Lumberjack. She had just met him and didn't know a thing about him. Following a stranger to his house sounded like a very bad idea. Then again, he did sound sincere and the look in his eyes told her that Lumberjack had no sinister motives in mind. That or he was a very good liar. She didn't think he was lying though, as someone who spent quite a lot of time dealing with the upper crust of Canterlot's society as well as other celebrities from all over Equestria, Rarity was familiar with false facades and hidden meanings that came with the territory. She had little trouble spotting when somepony was hiding something, and as far as she could tell, Lumberjack was being honest. Besides, even if he did try something funny, Rarity knew how to defend herself. Sure, she wasn't in her best form at the moment, but she was still more than capable of taking on anypony she knew. If something went wrong, Rarity would make sure that Lumberjack remembered this day for a very long time.

“Very well. I accept your offer, Lumberjack.” Rarity said. “Thank you.”

Some of her concerns must have surfaced on her face, because Lumberjack smiled a reassuring smile when he heard her reply. “I assure you, miss Rarity, I mean you no harm. Truth be told, if I wanted to do something like that, letting you go would be a much easier way to accomplish that.” He pointed out and picked up the lantern before proceeding down the road in the opposite direction of Ponyville, with Rarity trotting right next to him. “This is about doing what is right.”

For the next few minutes, they both made their way towards Lumberjack's house in silence. They moved fast enough to reach their destination as quickly as possible, yet at the same time, Lumberjack, who was leading the way, also made sure to keep the pace at a level where Rarity was able to move without too much discomfort. Rarity greatly appreciated the courtesy. Now that the prospect of a good rest was hanging pretty much in front of her eyes, her eagerness was making her impatient and, in an effort to further motivate her, it was making every ache feel twice as strong as it actually was. Rarity stumbled a bit when her hoof slipped on the ground. Almost instantly Lumberjack glanced back at her, worried that the sudden sound would indicate that something bad had happened.

“No need to worry. I am fine. Thank you for your concern.” Rarity put his worries to rest, forcing herself to sound less tired than she actually was. “Just slipped a bit. Nothing serious.”

“Oh, okay. Fortunately, we're almost there. Just a little bit left. This way, miss Rarity.” Lumberjack replied and moved off the road, walking down a small, almost unnoticeable path that led deeper into the forest. “My house is a bit off the road. It is more private that way.” He explained.

Rarity arched her eyebrow and look in both directions of the road. “More privacy? You live in the middle of the forest. There can't be that many ponies around.”

“Well, yes. You are right about that. It's just that this road does see a fair amount of traffic. It's one way a pony can travel from Canterlot to Ponyville or Dodge City. Not many do it, since it's much faster to take the train. However, some ponies do prefer the longer road. And, considering that the nearest inn is some thirty minutes away, it's logical that somepony would decide to stop at my house.” The gray stallion explained as they walked down the small path. It was too narrow for them to walk side by side so Rarity decided to follow him rather than step off the path and into the grass. She had enough of that for one day. “I am not good with other ponies, so I prefer to stay away.”

“Yet here you are, inviting me to follow you and offering a place to spend the night.”

Lumberjack gave a short chuckle and Rarity saw him nod his head in agreement. “Good point. If this was a normal situation, I would have simply let you go and that would have been all. However, I think you will agree, this is not a normal situation. You asked me to help you and I couldn't leave you there. As much as I dislike contact with others, I can't just refuse a request for help.”

Rarity was about to reply, but was cut short when he saw several lights through the trees. A moment later, the path led them to a small glade where a small cottage was located. The building was rather simple. It looked just like any other building in Ponyville. Light gray stone walls with a thatched roof. There was also a small shed, right next to the building as well as an entrance to the basement. However, the sight that instantly drew Rarity's attention was the light coming from the windows. Beautiful, welcoming light that promised shelter, warmth and peace from the rain.

“We're here.” Lumberjack said as they stopped in front of the door. He put down the lantern and started rummaging through his saddlebags. A few moments later, he fished out a key and unlocked the door. “Please.” He gestured at Rarity to enter.

Not one to turn such an invitation down, Rarity entered the house and let out a short breath of relief when she felt the constant feeling of rain on her back go away. She looked around and saw that the interior wasn't that much different from other houses. A single, large room dominated most of the interior. The most distinctive feature was the fireplace, located at the far opposite wall, with a pair of bookcases nearby and a reading chair in front of it. A large table with three chairs was in front of her across the room, near the doors leading to the kitchen. Right next to the entrance was a pair of wardrobes and shelves. Another set of doors was located to her left, while a dividing wall to her right, concealed the rest of the room.

Rarity walked further inside and saw that the rest of the room, hidden behind the dividing wall, was occupied with even more bookcases, a chest and a large desk, which was entirely covered by various books, scrolls, notes and other things. There was also a staircase, which led to the attic, where, Rarity assumed, the bedroom was located. All in all, the interior was simple and at the same time, comforting, the dark wooden panels covering the walls, played a major part of it. She quickly noticed that the furniture was old, but well maintained with a perfect balance between comfort, appearance and practicality.

She took another step and felt her hoof land on a soft rug. I am dirty. A panicked thought flashed through her mind, causing her to look down at her dirt covered hooves, step off the rug and look back at Lumberjack, who was busy removing he saddlebags. “Oh, I am terribly sorry. I dragged mud all over the floor.” Rarity said apologetically. “Is there a place I could...”

“The bathroom is over there, miss Rarity.” Lumberjack smiled and pointed towards the door on his left. “You will be able to wash off the mud in there. I do have to warn you, though. Considering the location, all I can offer is a cold shower. It's difficult to get hot water all the way out here.”

With a thankful nod and relief flooding every part of her body, Rarity quickly moved towards the bathroom. Once inside, she reached for the switch and turned on the lights. Magic crystals, arranged along the walls, came to life, filling the small room with light, allowing her to see a small cabinet, a sink, a shower stall and a mirror. “Thank you. I won't take long.” Rarity said and closed the doors. She then walked over to the mirror and glanced inside. What she saw there made her gasp in shock.

Rarity knew that she was a mess. She had expected to see dirt, leaves, and even a bit of blood. However, the reality was much more shocking than she had expected. Her mane was ruined. That was a fact. In some places it was difficult to tell where her mane ended and a patch of mud began. There were also small twigs hanging from the knots in her mane as well as leaves of all types. Her face wasn't that different. The entire left side of her face was covered with a mixture of half-clotted blood and mud, creating a gross, leathery layer that was disgusting to the touch. Some of the stuff was even in her eyelashes. In short, her appearance was a disaster of highest proportions. No wonder Lumberjack got scared when he saw her.

Afraid to even look at the rest of her body, Rarity hurried into the shower and let water cascade over her. The fact that the water was cold didn't bother her at all. Usually she took cold showers, since cold water was good for the health and beauty. She closed her eyes in delight as she felt all the dirt and mud being washed off of her, making her feel lighter. Even her headache wasn't as strong as before, the relief of experiencing a small bit of civilized lifestyle acting as a wonderful painkiller.

Rarity ran her hooves through her mane, getting rid of all the unwanted objects and untangling the knots. Rarity then rubbed her face in order to get rid of all the blood. The cold water also helped reduce the pain from the gash. She was careful not to touch the scar too much. The blood had clotted enough that it wasn't flowing anymore. Disturbing the clot would result in the whole mess starting all over again and perhaps even leaving a scar. Rarity shuddered at the thought and made sure to make an appointment at the Ponyville's clinic in order to have a professional look at it. Having a scar on her face would be the worst possible thing.

Once she was done, Rarity shut off the shower and stepped outside with a noticeable spring in her steps. A single shower and she already felt like a young filly. Rarity looked at the mirror again and this time instead of a gasp, she smiled at her reflection when she saw herself, not the swamp creature from before. Unfortunately, her smile soon disappeared when she saw that there was no drier in sight. Only a stack of towels with which to dry her coat and her mane. “Calm down, Rarity. This is an emergency. Desperate times call for desperate measures.” Rarity reached out and grabbed on of the towels and began to dry herself.

She tried not to think about the damage she was doing to her mane and coat by using a towel to dry herself. She tried to ignore the agonizing cries of her soul at the rough treatment. Rarity, this is an emergency. A one-time thing only. You're doing this only once. You'll go to the spa and get proper care as soon as you get home. Rarity repeated the mantra in her mind the entire time it took for her to dry her coat and mane. Once she was done, Rarity was further disappointed when she didn't see a single product she could use to style her mane. There were some of them, but they were meant for stallions, not mares and Rarity had no intention of using them even as an emergency measure. In the end, she decided to keep her mane straight as it currently was. Even in her current state with towel dried coat and straight mane, Rarity had to admit, she was feeling good. Then again, anything was better than walking around with all that mud.

“Ah, you're done. Excellent.” Rarity heard Lumberjack say the moment she left the bathroom. She looked over to the table where Lumberjack was busy setting down a tray of food. The sight of several sandwiches made her realize how hungry she was. Judging from the look on Lumberjack's face, he was fully aware of it. “I took the liberty of preparing a small midnight snack. I figured you'd be hungry from all that walking around. Please. Take a seat. The tea will be ready soon.” He nodded in the direction of the kitchen.

With a large smile on her face, Rarity walked over to the table and sat down. “Thank you most sincerely. I have to admit, I am starving. I haven't had a bite to eat ever since I...” Her voice trailed off when she took a good look at Lumberjack's face. Or rather his forehead. It had been dark outside, so she hadn't noticed it before. Even when they had entered Lumberjack's house, where lightning was much brighter, Rarity hadn't noticed it due to her thoughts being occupied by other things. However, now that her mind was fully at rest and she could spare more attention towards studying her rescuer, it took only a second for her to notice that Lumberjack wasn't an earth pony. He was a unicorn.

Partially hidden under his dark blue mane was a horn. Or rather, the remains of what had once been a horn. Its edges were jagged and the very tip of the gray stump was charred black as if burnt. “What … what happened to your horn?”

Lumberjack took a sharp breath and raised his hoof to the stump. “Oh, this? Nothing... just a small accident a long time ago.”

“A small accident? You can't be serious!” Rarity stared at the stump with wide eyes. She felt sympathetic pain pang through her own horn as it suddenly felt very weak and vulnerable. “What happened to you?”

“Nothing … I mean, it doesn't matter... I … please … You see …. It's a bit … long ago.” Lumberjack was clearly feeling very uncomfortable. He kept his hoof to his stump while looking at the table in front of him, sparing an occasional glance at Rarity. He kept trying to form a sentence, but to no avail. Every time it looked like he would tell her something, the gray stallion trailed off or found himself unable to speak. After several tries, he took a deep breath and cast a pleading look at Rarity. “Please, miss Rarity... I beg you, let's not talk about it. It is a very painful and uncomfortable memory... please.”

Despite burning with desire to know more about how Lumberjack lost his horn, Rarity decided to listen to his request. It was obvious that the issue was very uncomfortable for him and he wanted to avoid talking about it. A lot of ponies had something they preferred to keep to themselves and not discuss with anypony else. Private matters were just that, private. Besides, she was a guest in his house. It would be very rude if she tried to press the issue after the help Lumberjack had given to her. “As you wish, Lumberjack. Just one question, if you don't mind. Can you use magic?” Rarity asked in a quiet voice as if afraid to hear the answer. The dead look Lumberjack gave her made Rarity's heart clench. Like any other unicorn, magic was a crucial part of her life. It was so ingrained in her everyday life that she sometimes wasn't even aware of using it. To have something like that taken away, to not be able to use any magic. She shuddered just at the mere thought of it. Of course, it was then that she realized that she was currently in a similar position. The blow to the head, resulting in one hell of a headache and a light concussion made it impossible for her to use magic. At least trouble maintaining it without being driven to her knees from the pain. “I apologize for making you feel uncomfortable.” She whispered.

Lumberjack lowered his hoof and gave her a brief smile. At least he tried to put up a smiling appearance, but Rarity could see the pain in his eyes. Pain from having old scars torn open again. Suddenly, Lumberjack's preference for privacy made a lot of sense. “It's okay, miss Rarity. It's not like the horn is impossible to notice ... And it's not like one sees a crippled unicorn everyday. I understand.”

An awkward silence settled between them as neither pony knew what to say and waited for the other pony to change topics. Before that could happen, the silence was broken by the sound of a kettle's whistle as the water inside it started to boil. Glad for the sudden distraction, Lumberjack grabbed the tray and hurried towards the kitchen. A few minutes later, he emerged with a pair of teacups resting on the tray he held between his teeth. He placed them on the table and offered one to Rarity. The white unicorn took the cup and inhaled the scent. “Mmm... Peppermint. Smells wonderful.” Rarity commented and took a sip. It tasted just as good as it smelled and the sensation of hot tea going down her throat made her feel much better. She felt even better when she ate one of the sandwiches. She didn't realize just how hungry she actually was until she caught herself eating the third sandwich without remembering anything about the second one.

A short chuckle from Lumberjack made her blush in embarrassment at her unladylike behavior. Lumberjack was only half-way through his first sandwich, though it was obvious that he was eating just to keep her company, not because he was hungry. He saw the uncomfortable look on Rarity's face and raised his hoof in an assuring manner. “Don't worry about it and eat as much as you want. A healthy appetite is a good sign, don't you agree?”

“Yes, but it was impolite of me to eat most of them. I apologize for...”

“You don't have to apologize, miss Rarity. I am not hungry at all. The only reason I am eating is so you wouldn't feel uncomfortable. Eat as much as you want … More tea?” Lumberjack offered, the pained expression in his eyes now a distant memory as the conversation changed topics. Rarity glanced at her cup and her blush deepened a bit when she distantly recalled emptying the cup sometime between her second and third sandwich. She had to take a short breath in order to calm herself. She was acting just like her parents who merely consumed the food without enjoying the taste. Rarity scolded herself for letting her manners slip like that. She was better than that and she would prove it by eating the rest of the meal in a proper manner.

“Yes, please.” Rarity nodded and patiently waited for Lumberjack to prepare another cup of tea. Only then she resumed eating, taking small bites off the sandwich and savoring the taste before washing it down with a small sip of the tea. She finished eating and used the napkin to wipe off any crumbs or stains that might have ended up on her lips. Once she was done, Rarity passed the plate and the empty cup to Lumberjack with a thankful nod. The gray stallion took the empty dishes and carried them to the kitchen. When he returned, he was carrying a first aid kit with him. He placed it on the table next to Rarity, and opened it.

“Miss Rarity, if you don't mind, may I take a look at that gash? The bleeding seems to have stopped, but I think it's best to check it out regardless. There is the possibility of infection after all.” Rarity considered his offer and eventually replied with a nod. “No worries, it won't take long.”

Lumberjack carefully brushed away a few strands of Rarity's mane away from the forehead and examined the injury. “Hmm, it looks like there is nothing to worry about. Seems to be shallow. I'll just disinfect it just to be sure.” He turned his attention towards the first aid kit and started searching for the disinfectant. “You mentioned you got caught in a landslide. How did you end up in one, if I may ask?”

“It is simple really. There is a ridge not far from here and there are a lot of gems scattered all over that area. Even though you can find gems almost anywhere, gems over there are of much better quality. I needed them in order to finish a dress. I am a fashion designer and I often incorporate games in my designs. I find it adds a unique touch to the design.” Rarity explained and winced slightly when she felt the sting of the disinfectant as Lumberjack started to clean the gash. “Anyway, I was busy searching for the gems. Unfortunately I was so focused on the task that I did not notice that the ground was becoming less safe because of my actions. Some of the gems were hidden underneath large rocks, so I had to remove them in order to get to them. As a result, when I made a careless step, the side of the hill gave in and collapsed. Since I was close to the edge, I got caught in it as well.”

“Oh. That does not sound like an enjoyable thing. Good thing you were lucky enough not to be seriously injured. Such accidents often result in broken bones or worse … Wait a minute ... Fashion designer … lives in Ponyville … named Rarity.” He trailed off as realization settled on his face. “Aren't you one of the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony? … How could I be so stupid and not realize it sooner! … You are one of them, right? … The element of Loy.... no, wait … The Element of Generosity, correct?”

Rarity chuckled at the dumbfounded look on his face. She couldn't help it. “Why yes. Yes I am. Rarity, the Element of Generosity.”

“Wow … I can't … Wow.” Lumberjack gasped, his hoof hovering somewhere above Rarity's head as he absentmindedly kept cleaning the injury. Rarity glanced up, laughed a bit and brought his hoof down to the actual spot. That turned out to be a mistake. Lumberjack was still staring at her in amazement and failed to pay any attention to his actions. As a result, Rarity grunted in pain when the piece of cotton in Lumberjack's hoof came down a little bit harder than intended.

“Please, do be careful with that.” Rarity directed his attention to the gash on her forehead.

“Sorry.” Lumberjack pulled away his hoof as if he had burned it. “It's just that meeting a hero of Equestria like this is the last thing I expected. I have heard a lot about you. All those times you saved Equestria... Wow. I mean, I knew that you all live in Ponyville, but I never expected to actually meet you. I have to say, it's an honor to meet you, miss Rarity. I am grateful for what you have done for all of Equestria.”

“Thank you.” Rarity gave him a kind smile. She always loved being treated like a celebrity. Being admired was one of the things she enjoyed. This was also one of the very few times when a pony expressed his gratitude for her efforts just like that, out of the blue.“I appreciate your gratitude, but I can hardly claim all the credit. I worked together with my friends. Without them, I wouldn't be sitting here. We all helped each other and stood by each others' side.”

“Apologies, miss Rarity, I wasn't insinuating that your friends were in any way less important. It's just that you are the only one of the Element Bearers I have met, so I couldn't avoid focusing mostly on you. All of you are important and I would be a fool to deny that.” Lumberjack nodded in agreement and resumed the treatment. He didn't say anything else on the matter, but Rarity could plainly see the enthusiastic grin on his face. Part of her enjoyed the attention she was getting, however, another part of her felt exhausted. As much as she enjoyed being in the spotlight, right now, she didn't have the strength for it. She was content to merely sit there, savor the brief moment of fame and wait for Lumberjack to finish. As it turned out, she didn't have to wait for long. “There, that should do it. Didn't look serious, it was only a flesh wound. Either way, cleaned it and it seems to be well on the way of healing. Won't even leave a scar.”

Rarity carefully raised her hoof to her forehead and probed it a few times. As far as she could tell, everything was fine. At least as far as the injury went. There was still the mild concussion and headache to consider. “Thank you most sincerely, Lumberjack. Your help is greatly appreciated. There is one more thing though. Do you have anything for headache? I hit my head during the accident and the pain doesn't seem to be going away.”

“Of course. One moment.” Lumberjack quickly searched his first aid kit and produced a bottle of pills. He checked the instructions, opened the bottle and shook out a pair of white pills. He then fetched a glass of water and offered it to Rarity. “These should kick in almost immediately.” The white mare took the pills and washed them down with water. She was surprised to feel the pain recede almost instantly, however, after a brief though, Rarity realized that it was nothing more than her imagination. The medicine would take time to work.

Meanwhile Lumberjack finished gathering the medical supplies and placed them back inside the kit. Once that was done, he glanced outside the nearby window before addressing Rarity. “Now that that's taken care of, I think it would be best if you got some sleep.”

“Yes, I would like that very much, assuming I am not inconveniencing you.” Rarity replied with slight concern. It was one thing to know that she would be spending the night at Lumberjack's house, but it was an entirely different thing to actually talk about it. It felt like a much greater intrusion of a pony's privacy than any of the previous things. A chance to clean up, a meal, as well as medical aid was something that most ponies would offer to others without a second thought. It was basic decency. However, spending a night at somepony's house was a much more serious. It placed more demands on the host.

“Not at all, miss Rarity. I invited you here after all. And I would be a very poor host if I kicked you out in your condition and in this weather.” Lumberjack put her concerns to rest with a kind laugh. Gesturing her to follow him, he lit a candle from the fireplace and led Rarity across the room towards the staircase. As expected, the second floor wasn't an actual floor. Unlike most ponies who used attic to store old things they didn't have the heart to throw out, Lumberjack had turned the attic into a room that saw frequent use. Once they were up the stairs, they ended up in front of a small room. The gray stallion opened the doors and gestured Rarity to enter.

Lumberjack's bedroom was messy. Though Rarity was quick to notice that the books, scattered across the floor, piled on top of the desk near the window, or resting inside the two bookcases or on top of the nightstand as well as on the bed itself weren't there because Lumberjack didn't care about cleaning up after himself. There was chaos, but there was a system to it, it was organized chaos. A work in progress type of mess. Just like her inspiration room back at Carousel Boutique.

The gray stallion muttered a quick apology and hastily cleared some of the books off to the side, so that they presented less of an obstacle. He also removed the piles of books from his bed and shoved them into a nearby bookcase. Once he was satisfied, Lumberjack gave Rarity a somewhat sheepish smile. “I apologize for the mess. I sometimes get carried away with my work and fail to remember to put away some things before taking out new ones. Anyway, I hope this bed will be to your liking. It's not much, but it's all I have to offer.”

Rarity frowned when she heard his words. “Wait, this is the only bed you have? Your bed?” Her frowned deepened when she saw Lumberjack give a short nod. “I can't do it. I can't claim the only bed in the house. Even as a guest that would be rude.”

“Well, the alternative is a worn out reading chair downstairs. However, letting a guest and a lady sleep in it while I spend the night up here would be rude to the extreme. I am afraid I must insist that you sleep here.” He patted on the covers before his voice took a more reassuring tone. “Thing is, I am not much of a sleeper. A few hours of sleep is more than enough for me. Besides, I still have a few tasks to take care of, so I will be up for a while. Please, miss Rarity. You need a good rest more than I do.”

Rarity bit her lip as she considered her reply. On one hoof, she was tempted to accept his offer. While the bed wouldn't be up to her standards, it was still a lot more comfortable than anything else that was available. Furthermore, Lumberjack was being polite and was determined to treat her like a lady by offering the best he had. On the other hoof, she did feel like she was intruding. Yes, she liked getting special treatment, yes, she enjoyed comfort, yes, she wanted to have the best possible thing. But never at somepony's expense. To take from others without any regard for them, it went against everything Rarity stood for.

Eventually, Rarity decided to acquiesce Lumberjack's offer. He had raised a lot of good points and didn't seem to be bothered by it. That, or he was hiding it very well. However, a quick memory of Lumberjack's initial offer of help and the lack of lies in his eyes, convinced Rarity that Lumberjack was speaking the truth. He didn't mind her taking the only bed. “Very well. I accept your offer. Thank you for your generosity, Lumberjack.” Rarity gave in with a tired voice. Now that she could see the bed, or, after a short walk, touch it, Rarity realized just how tired she was. Her eyes were almost closing on their own accord and she could barely remain on her hooves.

“You are welcome. In case you need anything, I'll be downstairs.” Lumberjack replied and headed towards the doors. “Good night.”

After he left, Rarity kept her gaze focused on the doors before glancing outside through the only window the room had. The storm was still going on at full strength. Rainbow Dash and her team had really outdone themselves. The weather schedule rarely called for storms, but the very few times it did, the cyan pegasus preferred quality over quantity. Instead of a light storm that lasted for a day or two, she arranged for a stronger one that lasted only a single night. While such an approach made the storms more devastating, they passed much quicker. Besides, Rainbow Dash always made sure that Ponyville itself didn't experience any damage. Rarity knew that tomorrow morning there would be no trace of the storm. The skies would be bright and sunny with not a single cloud in sight.

“Well, what better way to wait for the storm to pass than to simply sleep through it?” Rarity muttered and got into the bed. The bad was very comfortable and coupled with the warmth coming from the fireplace below, the white unicorn found herself slowly drifting to sleep. Rarity turned to the side and cast a sleepy gaze at the stack of books on the nightstand. The light of the candle nearby allowed her to read the titles. The books were ancient myths, magic history and... her train of thoughts broke as she fell asleep.

---

When Rarity woke up, the sun was already up. She yawned and looked outside the window. The welcoming sight of a beautiful late summer morning added an extra boost to her already high spirits. Rarity sat up in the bed and stretched. Her mood worsened a bit when she felt some of the sore spots act up, but she instantly dismissed them. They were barely more than a minor annoyance. Something the lack of headache made it easy to fully ignore. In fact, the lack of headache made her draw a sharp breath when Rarity realized one thing. She focused her mind on one of the nearby books and smiled when she saw it float in the air, surrounded by blue aura. She could use magic again. Or rather, she could use magic without having to worry about headache.

Smiling in relief, Rarity got up from the bed and slowly made her way towards the door. At the same time, the bedsheets behind her folded themselves and soon were piled into a neat stack on top of the bed. Rarity even made sure to correct a few of the book piles that looked particularly unstable. She couldn't help it, she hadn't realized just how much she'd missed to be able to use magic. It was like finding a small part of herself she hadn't realized it had been missing and once it was in place, the entire world felt like a better place. With the same relieved smile still lingering on her lips, Rarity left the room and walked downstairs.

“Lumberjack? Are you there?” Rarity called out as she descended down the stairs. To her displeasure, no response came. She glanced around once she reached the end of the stairs, her ears moving back and forth as she tried to pick up the sound of any response, but no answer came. The morning light was pouring through the windows, filling every part of the cottage, but not its owner.

Frowning, Rarity walked towards where the dividing room separated the living area she was currently in, from the more utilitarian part of the house. Rarity glanced at the desk nearby and, with curiosity getting the better of her, stopped to take a peek at the notes and books scattered all over it. History of magic? Rarity arched her eyebrows as she studied some of the most obvious titles. Why would he study magic if he can't use it? An idle thought crossed her mind. It was one thing to study magic on a purely academic level, but from the material she was seeing, Lumberjack's interest was much deeper than that. “Origins of magic … Ancient cultures … Myths and legends of the old world … Teachings of Epona … 20 Scriptures of Epona … Book of Epona … The origins Evening War.” Rarity read some of the titles, noting how often they referenced Epona.

Rarity was not well versed in ancient history, but like every pony she knew about the myths of Epona. According to legends, Epona, also known as the Great Mare, was considered as the creator of the world. Epona was the goddess who created not only the world, the magic, the sun and the moon, but also all the living beings. Earth ponies, pegasi, unicorns, alicorns and all the creatures in the world were considered her children and part of the Great Herd, whereas Princess Celestia and Princess Luna were considered divine manifestations of Epona. As a result it was no wonder that a lot of ponies worshiped her.

However, it wasn't the religious aspect Lumberjack was working on. His notes were focused on the creation of magic, ancient languages and something called The Grimoire of Evening War, which, as far as Rarity could discern, was a book of great importance to Lumberjack. In fact, he seemed to be almost obsessed with it. Every book that was open had tiny notes scribbled on the pages, all mentioning or referencing the Grimoire. Rarity looked at the remaining books, partially expecting Lumberjack to have a copy of the book that seemed to be the focus of his work, but apart from some of the books with titles in languages Rarity couldn't understand, it wasn't there.

She was about to move around some of the books in order to continue her search, when a bird landed just outside the window near the desk and started singing loud enough to startle her. Rarity jumped a bit and glared at the dark green and black bird for giving her such a scare. Almost immediately, Rarity's mind grasped the situation she was in and she felt shame overwhelming her. She was a guest at Lumberjack's house and she was sticking her nose into his business without asking. Just because the books were in the open did not mean she could read them and study his notes. It was rude.

Chastising herself for such behavior, Rarity stepped away from the desk and made her way towards the table where Lumberjack had served her sandwiches last night. Immediately, Rarity noticed several things placed on the table. One was a large plate with several sandwiches under a glass cover to keep them fresh. There was also a teapot, placed on a warmer that kept its contents hot. A cup and a small note.

“Went out to take care of some things in the forest. Won't be long. Please, enjoy your breakfast. In case you decide not to wait, there are directions on the other side that will help you get back to Ponyville. Lumberjack.” Rarity read the note while using magic to hold it in front of her. She turned it around and checked the directions. Once she was done, Rarity placed the note onto the table and surveyed the meal. The sandwiches looked delicious. Lumberjack had prepared several kinds of them. Some with vegetables, others with flowers and a couple of ones with jam. Blueberry from the looks of it. Rarity took a deep breath and felt the wonderful aroma of peppermint tea. She wanted to return home as quickly as she could. She even had directions in her possession. However, she also didn't want to leave just like that, without saying goodbye. That and she was hungry. The last thought made her stomach growl in an unladylike fashion as it voiced its lack of enthusiasm of abandoning all this food and making the long trip back with only those three sandwiches inside.

“Very well. I shall stay here for the breakfast. Perhaps he will return while I am eating.” Rarity made her decision and, with a well-practices move, tossed her mane away from her eyes and headed towards the bathroom in order to freshen up. Sadly, as expected, her morning rituals were limited to bare basics, just enough to make herself presentable to the world.

Once it was taken care of, Rarity returned to the table and began eating. Unlike before, this time Rarity didn't wolf down her food like a savage. She made sure to retain her grace and class, taking small bites and savoring the taste. It did take her a lot longer to finish her breakfast, but Rarity was used to it. She always took the slow approach when it came to eating. It was much healthier and better for her body. Besides, it wasn't like she was in a hurry.

Just as Rarity finished the last sandwich, she heard something outside. Her ears perked up and swiveled towards the door behind her. Putting down her sandwich, Rarity turned around so she could see them as well. She could clearly hear hoofsteps approaching the door and a moment later, they opened, revealing Lumberjack, holding a basket of flowers in his mouth. He met her eyes with a smile and chuckled before putting the basket down. “Ah, good morning miss lady Rarity, the Most Amazing of Gem Hunters.”

“I beg your pardon?” Rarity was caught off guard by Lumberjack's words. The gray stallion looked like he was about to burst from laughter if the quiet chuckling was of any indicator. It was plain to see that something, or somepony had amused him greatly. Rarity watched him pick up the basket and walk over to the table so he could place it on top of it. Once it was done, he looked at Rarity, his face still sporting that amused look. Noting her confusion, Lumberjack raised one hoof in front of him placatingly.

“Apologies. It's just that... Let me explain from the beginning. I went out to collect some Lightning Bloom flowers.” Lumberjack nodded at the flowers in the basket. Rarity took a glance as well. The flowers didn't look special. They were dark gray with puffy petals, which reminded her of storm clouds. However, as she looked, she also spotted an occasional spark jump between the petals. “Lighting Bloom. Blossoms only after thunderstorms. Dry them and you can make an extremely delicious tea.” Lumberjack explained after tracking her gaze. He then cleared his throat and continued.

“As I was saying, I went to gather some flowers. Didn't take long, and hour or so. At least, that was my intention when I left the house. Thing is, it all started exactly as planned. There is this nice place, where there's a lot of them. Once my basket was full, I was about to head back when I heard a commotion in the distance. I got curious and went to investigate. As it turned out it was a group of diamond dogs, standing around a white cart and arguing about something, while some of them were busy loading gems into the cart. I might have stumbled upon the location where that landslide had happened yesterday, since there was a huge pile of rocks and mud at the base of the cliff and a large part of the hill was missing. Turns out, it's actually pretty close. Anyway, I started to listen in, but it didn't last long, since they spotted me.”

“A moment later, I was surrounded by the entire pack. For a while I was afraid of what they might do. From what I've heard, they don't like others intruding in their territory. Imagine my surprise when one of them asked me if I knew you. Obviously I said yes. I thought they were looking for you, so I offered to lead them here. However, they were having none of that. It was almost as if they were scared of meeting you. Then they asked me whether or not you would be returning for the cart. When I said that I didn't know, they practically grabbed me and tied me to the cart. They then demanded that, since I know you and where you are, I take the cart with me and deliver it to you. What surprised me the most was that they were begging me to do it. They were terrified when they mentioned you and were constantly coming up with all sorts of titles for you.” Lumberjack shook his head in mild amusement. He shot her a suspicious glance. “I've never seen diamond dogs act like that. What did you do to them?”

Rarity couldn't hold back a short laugh, especially when she remembered that time when she had been captured by diamond dogs and how that day had ended. To think that after all this time, they would still be so afraid of her that they would.... Rarity's laugh died down instantly when she recalled the inspiration, the gems, the entire reason of her trip. In a flash she jumped down from the chair and was staring in Lumberjack's eyes from just centimeters away. “The cart. I assume you did bring it back, right?” Lumberjack silently nodded, surprise and worry plain on his face. Almost immediately, Rarity felt the weight of the world drop off her back. She let out a heavy sigh of relief and stepped away from the gray stallion. The slightly manic look in her eyes disappearing without a trace.

“Thank you, Lumberjack. You cannot imagine how much it means to me. Without those gems, all of this would have been for nothing. My work would be ruined and I would never find peace. Thank you most sincerely.” She said in a joyful voice and placed a hoof on her chest to still her beating heart.

Lumberjack studied her carefully for a while, confused by the sudden change of Rarity's mood. The look in her eyes when she heard about the gems was still fresh in his mind. When he was certain that it had been only a momentary thing, Lumberjack managed a weak smile. “You're welcome, miss Rarity. Though it's not like I had a choice, those diamond dogs were … adamant that I deliver you your cart. It's right outside, good to go the moment you... finish your breakfast.” He trailed off when he saw that the plate was empty. It looked like he had arrived just in time.

Rarity traced his look. “As you can see, I am done eating. It was very delicious. Thank you for going out of your way to make me breakfast. Please, allow me to return a small part of the favor and take care of those dishes.”

“That is not necessary.”

“Lumberjack. I insist, I must repay your hospitality somehow.” Rarity said and used her magic to gather all the dishes.

“I can't let you do that. You are a guest, Rarity.” Lumberjack paused for a moment. “Umm, I mean, miss Rarity.”

“Nonsense, darling. It would be rude not to clean up after myself. Oh, and just Rarity is fine.” Rarity ignored Lumberjack's protests and moved towards the kitchen so she could wash the dishes. A small part of her mind noted that she had used the form of address she usually reserved for ponies she considered friends. However, after a brief thought, Rarity decided to include Lumberjack in that circle. She felt comfortable enough to consider him a friend. Not as close as her Ponyville friends, few ponies were that close, but he was certainly a lot closer than an acquaintance.

The kitchen, as expected, was very basic. An ice box with the stasis spell cast on it, to keep the food fresh, a sink, a small table, a wood burning stove and a few counters for the dishes. Nothing exotic. It a lot of ways it reminded her of Applejack's kitchen at Sweet Apple Acres. It was there to take care of the most basic needs with minimum fuss. In short, it was a working pony's kitchen. Perfect for somepony who spend most of the day working and didn't want to bother with the more complicated aspects of cooking. As a result, it took her barely a minute to wash, rinse and dry the dishes before Rarity placed them in a nearby counter.

“You see? All has been taken care of. No problem at all.” Rarity said with a victorious smile and turned around to face Lumberjack. The stallion shook his head and admitted defeat.

“Well, I couldn’t really stop you, so I guess there is no point in complaining, Rarity. Anyway, now that the breakfast has been taken care of, I assume that we are ready to head to Ponyville?” Lumberjack said and left the kitchen with Rarity following close behind. They made their way towards the doors and, after a brief pause while Lumberjack grabbed his saddlebags and put on a dark blue boonie hat, they went outside.

Rarity narrowed her eyes and covered them with her hoof when the sunlight almost blinded her. With raindrops covering most of the surfaces and small puddles dotting the ground, everything in her sight was shining as if covered with gems. She blinked a few times in order to adjust to the daylight sooner. Once the glittering reflections weren't causing tears to well up in her eyes, Rarity looked around and was momentarily stunned by the sight that greeted her.

Unlike last night when the forest was dark and dangerous, the morning sun turned it into something amazing. Bright rays shone down upon her, filling the glade with a warm and comfortable light. The forest, surrounding the cottage was like a giant wall. However, it was far from intimidating. Here and there in the distance, Rarity could see rays of light piercing the foliage, bathing the lower parts of the forest in their warmth. Raindrops glittered in these isles of light, filling the already rich palette of greens and browns with sparkles and revealing the colorful flowers covering the ground. Mesmerized by the sight, Rarity took a deep breath, savoring the fresh scent of the forest in the morning.

Most ponies believed that Rarity disliked nature. For the most part, they were right. Rarity despised nature, since it often had a nasty habit of getting on her hooves, or her coat, or in her mane. She also disliked bugs that seemed to make it a sport to surprise her with their presence when she last expected it. However, if all those factors were removed and Rarity was free to observe nature, rather than be in it, the white unicorn found some of its aspects rather enjoyable. The colors alone could serve as a source of inspiration whenever Rarity felt like designing a nature themed collection.

However, nature failed to keep Rarity's attention when she spotted a very familiar gleam in the corner of her eye. She couldn't hold back an amazed gasp when she saw her cart, filled to the breaking point with gems of all types and sizes. The amount of gems was more than twice of what she had collected. The diamond dogs had not only gathered up the gems she had collected, but also added a fair amount of their own. She never expected something like that from them. Not if that last time was of any indicator. “I … I am speechless. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine them doing something like this.” Rarity muttered to herself as she walked over to the cart. She made a mental note that the next time she went on a gem collecting trip, she would mark some of the gem deposits and leave them untouched. A small way to repay the diamond dogs for the unexpected generosity.

“Yeah, they mentioned adding a few gems of their own.” Lumberjack overheard Rarity's words and followed Rarity after he made sure the door was locked. “Ready to go?”

“Yes … yes, I am.” Rarity replied, her mind still trying to get a hold of the situation.

“Excellent. Now, if you allow me.” Lumberjack said and moved over to the front of the cart where the harness was located. It was a few sizes too small for him, but he managed to put it on regardless. He pulled the cart a bit, testing its weight and momentum, and then started moving. They made their way onto the main road and were soon on their way to Ponyville, with Lumberjack pulling the cart and Rarity walking right next to him. For a while they walked in complete silence.

Eventually, Rarity decided to break the silence and satisfy her curiosity. “So, Lumberjack, would you mind telling me about yourself? Where are you from?”

The gray stallion didn't reply immediately. He remained silent for a while as if composing his answer. “I am from Fillydelphia. I grew up there and, for the most of it, had an ordinary life. Went to school, got an occasional part time job here and there, you know, the usual. The only problem was my parents. You see, they were a bit different from others. They were very big on all sorts of mystical stuff. Prophecies, predictions, fortune telling, that sort of deal. They were so obsessed with it, that, when she was pregnant, my mother went to see a fortune teller who claimed she could predict my destiny. The fortune teller told my mother that my destiny revolved around working in the forest, cutting down trees. That's how I got my name before I was even born.” Lumberjack made a short laugh.

“Unfortunately, I was something of a disappointment. I had little interest in trees and a lot of it in magic. Or rather history of magic. I wanted to know what magic really is, how it came to be and how it does the things it does. My parents were not happy. They were so focused on that stupid prediction that they wouldn't even consider that maybe it was a false one. Either way, they tried to pressure me into forestry, but I refused. Even when I got my Cutie Mark, which, as you can clearly see, has nothing to do with forestry, they didn't give up. Eventually, I got tired of it. I packed my things and left. That was the only way I could indulge my hobby and study magic. Ever since then I've been wondering around Equestria, collecting rare books, studying the history of ancient magic and so on. I came to this place around two months ago. Heard that there might be some lost books in the ancient castle ruins.”

“I see. Interesting.” Rarity said thoughtfully, as she mulled over what she had heard. His story was interesting, there was no doubt about that. However, it was also made up. At least parts of it were. Rarity had spent several parts of her life in order to develop a proper Fillydelphia accent to a level where it sounded like she'd been using it for her entire life. Lumberjack, despite his claims of spending most of his life in Fillydelphia, didn't have even a hint of the accent. In fact, he sounded like a Canterlot pony. The part about the prediction was somewhat believable, though she did notice the change in Lumberjack's tone when he had spoken about his family. It felt like there was a much bigger conflict underneath. As for the special talent... Rarity's eyes drifted towards Lumberjack's flank, where his Cutie Mark was located.

Lumberjack's Cutie Mark was that of a golden star, trailing streaks of colorful dust. The trail was a mixture of red, violet, green, blue, black and other colors that were similar to a nebula. Clearly, it was plain to see that whatever Lumberjack's special talent was, it had nothing to do with forestry. And while Rarity was far from an expert on deciphering the meaning of a Cutie Mark just from its appearance, it made more sense to tie it with magic and its history. Perhaps his talent was to reveal the stars of ancient knowledge from the dusty layers of history?

Meanwhile Lumberjack, completely oblivious to Rarity's musings, continued to speak. “I don't usually stay in one place for long. Three, four months maximum, before I move on. There is just so much hidden history to recover across Equestria.”

“Why are you moving from one place to another so quickly? I don't know much about researching old knowledge, but from what I have learned from a dear friend of mine, such things require a lot of time and, apologies if I sound offensive, you do not seem like a pony who is in a hurry.” Rarity noticed a hole in his argument. He also noticed him squirm a bit when he heard the question.

“Well, you see … It's complicated.” Lumberjack gave her, arguably, the most frustrating answer there was. No answer was ever complicated. There were either things a pony wanted to hide or a lack of patience to explain a problematic situation to another pony and Rarity could clearly see that lack of patience was not the reason for Lumberjack's refusal. But then why hide it? What was so important about history that Lumberjack would hide? What is something personal? Something to do with his horn? Something else?

“You don't want to talk about it?”

“Yes, that is correct.” Lumberjack took a deep breath and held it for a long time. Eventually he heaved a heavy sigh, muttered something that sounded like “terrible liar” and looked at Rarity with an apologetic look in his eyes. “Rarity, I understand that you want to know a few things about me, and that the answers I am providing are insufficient at best. I will also admit that not all details I told you about my past were true. Thing is, there is a reason I can't tell you that.” He looked away from her and focused his gaze on the road ahead. “It is frustrating, I know, but I will risk sounding melodramatic and say that the less you know, the safer it will be for you and your friends.”

“I think you are underestimating us, Lumberjack. I do not want to sound arrogant, but we have confronted many trials in our past and we have managed to overcome all of them.” Rarity replied, feeling mildly offended by Lumberjack's implication that there was a threat she and her friends couldn't handle.

Lumberjack shook his head and smiled a reassuring smile. “You misunderstood me. I was not insinuating that you or your friends are helpless. Far from it. Considering the things you have done, underestimating you would be the height of folly. You and your friends are heroes. You all bear the Elements of Harmony, there is nothing in Equestria that could pose a threat to you. It is just that this is a problem I alone must fix. It is a personal quest I must undertake in order to atone for what I have done. A one pony crusade if you will.”

The heartfelt explanation helped banish the unpleasant sensation, stemming from the assumption that Lumberjack was looking down on her. In fact, Rarity felt a warm feeling of satisfaction inside her when Lumberjack spoke about her achievements. It was so wonderful to be appreciated for a change. Especially since it was more or less a random pony expressing his gratitude. Despite the power Rarity and her friends could wield in order to protect Equestria, few ponies recognized them. Even fewer ponies actually bothered to say thanks. Sure, there was plenty of cheers and stomping during official events, but rarely was Rarity thanked for her efforts in her daily life. Then again, it wasn't like she walked around announcing her status as an Element Bearer for all to hear, such things were beneath her, but she had hoped that at least some ponies would bother to do some research. It sometimes felt that all the world saving business was something other ponies considered her daily job, not worth mentioning. Therefore, it was refreshing to hear her efforts being appreciated. Rarity could actually feel her steps become a tiny bit lighter as the warm feeling spread throughout her body. In some ways it was mildly surprising. A girl like Rarity was used to receiving compliments. In fact she savored them like fine wine. The surprising thing was the effect such a simple and direct compliment had on her. However, as Rarity immediately realized, there was a difference between the hollow, almost casually dispensed compliments in a high society event in Canterlot and a genuine one, expressed in the middle of a forest.

However, there was more to Lumberjack's words than a mere compliment. There was also his admission that he had a problem, but refused to involve others. Normally Rarity would do everything in her power to help out a fellow pony, even if she had to insist on helping out. It just wasn't in her nature to abandon a pony in need. This time it was different. There wasn't a hidden plea for help in his voice as it was with mos ponies when they refused help because they were too afraid or too shy to ask for it. Instead there was determination in his voice. A strongly held belief that this was indeed, as Lumberjack had put it, a one pony crusade, and as much as Rarity wanted to insist on offering her help, she understood that doing so would only result in a refusal. Therefore, Rarity decided to respect Lumberjack's decision and not pressure him into accepting her help. Of course, that did not mean she didn't want to know about it. The entire situation was very interesting and her curious nature was intrigued by it.

“Is it safe to assume that the problem is tied not only to all those books, but to your horn as well?” She asked, trying to voice her question as gently as possible as the painful expression on Lumberjack's face last night surfaces in her mind. As expected, Lumberjack took a deep breath before answering, an action that took place every time the conversation touched upon an unpleasant topic, Rarity noted.

“Yes, Rarity. That is correct.” Lumberjack adjusted his hat, making sure the stump of his horn was covered. “Did a stupid thing, got punished and now I have to fix the mess I made.”

“I am sorry to hear that.” Rarity said, wondering whether or not Lumberjack was telling the truth. After he had admitted to hide some of the details about his past, Rarity had her doubts about the authenticity of his claims on what looked like a self-imposed journey of repentance. He could be very well telling her half-truths or even outright lies. Then again, Rarity was becoming familiar with his body language and, as far as she could tell it, Lumberjack was telling the truth. Rarity shook her head, all this speculating was becoming frustrating. She could already feel small hints of a headache forming, something she desperately wanted to avoid. In the end, Rarity decided to drop the issue and just let it be. Why worry about irregularities of somepony's past? If he was that determined to keep tings to himself, then Rarity saw no reason to be rude by pressuring him. “Perhaps a change of topic would be in order? How about that nice house of yours? You mentioned that you are planning to move somewhere else soon and that you generally travel a lot. What are you going to do with it? Sell it?”

Lumberjack heaved a relieved sigh as the conversation changed tracks and for once Rarity didn't hear any moments of silence or sudden gasps. The gray stallion shook his head in denial. “Nothing of the sort. I will be taking it with me. You see, it's not a real house. At least not in the traditional sense. Have you ever heard of Home Away From Home artifacts?” Lumberjack glanced at her, just in time to catch Rarity frown slightly as she searched her memory. “Truth is, they are rather rare. The one I have is a family heirloom, a gift from my grandmother. You see, the Home Away From Home artifact usually takes the form of a small version of the real thing. A model if you will. It makes it easy to carry around. When you decide that you need a place to stay, you place the model on the ground, tap it three times with the key and it immediately expands to a full-sized house. It comes fully furnished and even has running water as you already know. That is if you place the building on top of an underground stream, so there is one thing to keep in mind. Whenever I decide to move to somewhere else, I can use the key to shrink it so it easily fits into my saddlebags. Let's me avoid carrying around a large pile of various things and allows me to enjoy some benefits of civilization no matter where I am.”

“That does sound like a useful thing for somepony who travels a lot. Especially if it allows you to bring along various necessities without having to worry about carrying them. I have a tent in my possession, which is very similar to your house. To some degree. It is magically enchanted to be more spacious than it might appear from the outside. I will admit, I do not use it often as I am not fond of camping, so it merely gathers dust most of the time. However, the few times when I had to spend a night in the wilderness, it has been invaluable in its ability to provide a comfortable semblance of civilization.” Now that they were no longer talking about complicated matters, the mood became noticeably lighter, especially when Rarity realized that the forest was becoming familiar.

“That one looks familiar.” She instantly recognized a small path they passed a few minutes later. It was leading off the main road and was the same one she usually took when going on her gem hunting trips. “We will be in Ponyville soon.” Rarity added, feeling the weight of the world disappear from her shoulders as the thought settled in. Though she hadn't been thinking about it, there had been that small though, far away at the back of her mind that perhaps Lumberjack could not be trusted. After all, meeting a strange pony, who was unusually helpful and who also kept things hidden from her, was rather suspicious. Suspicious enough to make her think that maybe Lumberjack had a hidden agenda in regards to her. Something unpleasant. However, the sight of familiar surroundings as well as the forest becoming less dense, was a wonderful realization that, no matter what he had to hide, Lumberjack had kept his promise.

“Y-yeah … sounds good.” The nervousness in Lumberjack's voice caused Rarity to turn her head towards him so fast, she almost sprained it. Rubbing a sore spot with her hoof, she noticed that Lumberjack's body was screaming nervousness to the world.

“Oh my goodness, is there something...” Rarity started to ask before recalling a few details from their conversation last night. “Ah, you mentioned you don't feel comfortable around other ponies, correct?” She watched him reply with a shallow nod. “Well, if it bothers you so much, we could part ways here. Ponyville is not far from here and it won't be a problem to pull that cart by myself for the rest of the road. You have been extremely helpful already, I would hate to ask more of you.”

“NO!” Lumberjack slammed his hoof against the ground. Initially Rarity thought she had offended him in some ways, but when Lumberjack didn't say anything else and even increased his pace, the white unicorn realized that the response was mostly intended for himself, rather than her.

“Darling, please, you don't have to go that far on my account. I will not think badly of you for coming this far and turning away because you are afraid of crowds.”

“No, Rarity.” This time he was talking to her. “It's not that I am afraid of crowds. I'm just not used to them. It's not a big problem. Besides, I did promise I would help you get home. I mean, what kind of a pony would I be if I left a lady alone and broke my promise to escort her home?” He said with a somewhat forced smile.

Rarity answered his smile with a short laugh which seemed to drain all the nervousness from Lumberjack's eyes. “Oh, my. What a gentlecolt! I guess chivalry is still alive. Very well, mister Lumberjack, if you insist on keeping your promise and escort me all the way home, how can I refuse?”

“Precisely. I am a pony of my word.” He replied with a genuine chuckle of his own just as they left the forest and the pleasant sight of Ponyville greeted them. Usually, when Rarity saw her home village, she felt glad. The familiar sight was like a soothing balm for her soul. This time, she was almost bouncing from joy. She was so happy, she nearly let out a joyful squeal. Fortunately, Rarity managed to control herself and settled to a mere smile. An unusually wide smile, but a smile nonetheless.

The short trip to the Carousel Boutique was an interesting one. Mostly because a lot of ponies gave her more than a single confused look. It wasn't everyday when one saw Rarity walk around with her mane completely straight and unstyled. At least when it wasn't raining. Not only that, but looking like that while accompanied by an unfamiliar stallion, who was pulling her cart of gems, was more than unusual. In some ways, it was almost unsettling. Perhaps there was something wrong with her?

Rarity noticed the strange looks she was receiving and did her best to ignore him. Yes, she knew that she didn't look like her usual self, but what was she supposed to do? Quietly sneak around, hoping nopony would notice her? That would be more humiliating than her current situation. Then again, it wasn't like she felt humiliated. An unstyled mane and a slightly unkempt? Yes. Humiliated? No. She merely looked different like her usual self. That was it. In an about an hour, she would look like she always did and that would be the end of it. There was no reason to look at her like that. Honestly, it is like they have never seen me like this. Aren’t you overreacting a bit, my dear? Rarity thought when she caught sight of an earth pony staring in her direction as if she had grown another head. The purple mare seemed to be so shocked by Rarity's appearance that it looked like she was unable to keep her eyes on Rarity and was staring at Lumberjack who was right next to her.

Rarity made a quick check on Lumberjack and almost laughed. The stallion was putting up a brave show of trying to look like he didn't care about other ponies. Unfortunately, the stiffness in his posture, the focused sight and the constantly moving ears told Rarity that his mind was full of thoughts about the ponies looking at him and Rarity. His stiff appearance made him look more like an automaton than an actual pony, forcing Rarity to look away before she started laughing. She knew it wasn’t right, because Lumberjack was doing it for her, however, it looked so funny it was almost impossible to resist. Perhaps that's why they were getting so many strange looks?

“Ah, there we are. Home sweet home.” Rarity said moments later when they reached Carousel Boutique. “You can leave the cart over there.” She pointed at a spot near the door. Lumberjack nodded and moved over to the indicated location, where he removed the harness from his back. He was about to start unloading the cart when Rarity stopped him with a raised hoof. “That will not be necessary. I will sort them out later myself. Why don't you come inside for a cup of tea while I figure out how to repay you.” Rarity opened the door and walked inside. She stopped, however, when she didn't hear Lumberjack following her. The white mare turned around and saw that Lumberjack hadn't moved from his spot near the cart.

“I appreciate the offer, Rarity, but that will not be necessary. You don't have to repay me.”

“But I can't let you leave just like that. You did so much for me. I have to repay you somehow.” Rarity tried to convince him, but once again, the look in his eyes convinced her that it would be a wasted effort.

“There is no need for it. Really. I did all those things because it was the right thing to do.” He gave her a warm, reassuring smile. “A simple thank you will be more than adequate. Though is that is not enough, I would like to ask you to forget everything that happened.”

Rarity shook her head in defeat and smiled back at him. “You really won't let me pay you back, won't you? Oh well, as much as I would like to do something, I understand. In any case, thank you Lumberjack for all the help. I truly appreciate that. And if, by any chance, you are in Ponyville again, perhaps after you have taken care of your crusade, please, do come by. Maybe then we can arrange something.”

“Maybe I will do that.” Lumberjack replied and started walking away, back towards the forest. “Anyway, I bid you farewell, Rarity. It was wonderful to meet you.”

“Good bye, Lumberjack. Best of luck to you.” Rarity said and watched him leave. “Unfortunately I will not be able to grant your request.” She muttered quietly a moment later as she closed the door. A strange, yet very helpful and kind unicorn with a broken horn, living in the middle of the forest, far away from other ponies, obsessed with magic and history, determined to accomplish a personal task. “It is impossible to forget something like that.”

Unpleasant Visitors

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“A broken horn... That is pretty strange. And he didn't say how it happened?” Twilight said and slowly stretched out her wings. She groaned quietly when the sore feeling increased threefold.

“No, he said it was a personal issue and he didn't want to talk about it.” Rarity watched her friend spread out and fold her wings several times in an obvious attempt to make them feel better. “That did not stop me from wondering about what happened to him. As far as I know, our horns do not break easily.”

Twilight nodded in agreement. “You're right. They are durable. Obviously, there are limits to that durability, but in most cases it takes a lot to break one. And even if it does happen, they grow back rather quickly. Though it looks like Lumberjack is an exception, since you said it has been several years after that horn was broken.”

“Just an assumption, my dear. He didn't mention anything about how much time has passed. I merely made a guess. I could be wrong.” Rarity replied and gave Spike a warm smile when he offered to refill her glass of iced tea. The purple dragon returned the smile with a blush before proceeding to refill other glasses as well. The whole group of close friends were enjoying a peaceful picnic in Ponyville's park. Though, in truth, calling it a picnic wasn't entirely accurate. It was more like a training session with an audience, where Rainbow Dash was working Twilight to the bone while others got to observe it in peace and comfort.

Three days had passed since Rarity had returned from the forest. Almost immediately she had started working on bringing her appearance back up to her usual standards. A long bath, coupled with a pair of refreshing spa sessions, as well as a quick trip to the clinic, had done wonders in making her feel better. Not only that, but she had managed to finish her dress as well. Therefore, with all of her immediate problems taken care of, Rarity was more than able to attend the picnic Pinkie Pie had put together so that all of them could enjoy a pleasant afternoon after Twilight's flying lessons were over. And it was during the picnic that Rarity had told them about the recent incident.

Unsurprisingly, her friends had reacted to the news in various ways. Rainbow Dash and Applejack had more or less shrugged at the whole story, Fluttershy had been concerned about Rarity and later Lumberjack, Pinkie Pie had nearly darted off into the forest in order to befriend the new pony, prevented from doing so only by Rarity's explanation that Lumberjack was very uncomfortable around others and was about to leave anyway. Twilight had expressed interest about Lumberjack's horn and his obsession with history.

“I see. Well, in either case, this is very interesting. I ought to look into this and figure out what is wrong with his horn. I think some late evening research will turn up some results.” Twilight took a large gulp from her glass and started coughing when she swallowed it too quickly.

“Whoa! What do you mean, late evening research?” Rainbow Dash perked up from her corner of the picnic blanket where she and Applejack had been discussing potential plans for the upcoming Nightmare Night festival, which was supposed to take place tomorrow. “You don't have time for that. We've got training this evening, remember? You need the exercise in order to get your stamina up. Lots of exercise.”

Twilight shot the cyan pegasus a dark look, every part of her body groaning in desperation. “More? I thought we were done for today. I already feel exhausted.”

“And that is why we need to work on your stamina. You lack endurance, Twilight. Every single time we train, we have to take numerous breaks for you to recover. That is inefficient. You will never become a good flier at this rate.” Rainbow Dash replied a bit more harshly as intended as she subconsciously mimicked her flight instructors at the Wonderbolt Academy. “You might as well give up your wings.”

“Hey! I can fly! I flew at my crowning ceremony last month!” Twilight snapped back. Intellectually she knew that Rainbow Dash was right. However, she didn't enjoy having her lack of progress pointed out like that. No pony did. “And I do have endurance. Need I remind you about that time when I beat you at the Running of the Leaves Race? I know how to pace myself. That, and I have read plenty of books about flying.”

“Yes, you did fly. But there is a difference between flying and flying good. That and you started flying in the worst possible way … a running start.” Rainbow Dash shivered in disgust. “No self-respecting pegasus performs a running start. It's just so sad to watch. I mean, even Fluttershy here doesn't do running starts.” She gestured at Fluttershy who gave a tiny, apologetic smile to Twilight. Rainbow Dash was about to say more, but then she saw the look on Twilight's face and sighed. “Look, Twilight. I know this sounds harsh, but that's just how it is. Flying is not something you master just by reading a few books. In fact, all those books you showed me are wrong for you. They are written for pegasi by pegasi, with the assumption that you already have the basics down, which you don't. You will just mess up all the work we have done. Flying is only ten percent reading and ninety percent, well … flying. Theory only gets you so far.” Rainbow Dash ignored the surprised looks everypony was giving her as they had never seen Rainbow go into lecture mode.

“As for that race, yes, you might have won, due to an oversight on my part, but that that doesn't mean anything. Pacing only gets you so far. Once you're up and have to fly for prolonged periods of time, you have to keep working with your wings, non-stop. You can't slow down or pause for a short rest in midair. And landing won't help as well, since you'll have to waste time to regain your altitude. Not to mention that there might not be a suitable place to land.”

Applejack cleared her throat in order to interrupt the cyan pegasus. “I think you're overdoin' it a little. We're here to encourage and help Twilight to fly, not ground her permanently.”

Rainbow Dash fell silent for a moment as she considered Applejack's words. When she spoke up again, her voice had a slight touch of softness to it. “I guess you're right. I just got carried away. Thing is, it's hard to explain and especially teach the basics of flying. Most pegasi know how to fly mere hours after they're born. It is instinctual. All those flight camps back up in Cloudsdale merely teach you how to fly better, because every pegasus knows how to fly. There are no flightless pegasi. Telling somepony how to fly is like explaining how to use your eyes.” She took a deep breath and a large sip from her glass. “That is what we're doing in all these exercises. Yes, you do know how to fly, it's just that I want you to have the very best foundation upon which to build the remaining skills. You've made good progress so far and you're a good student. It's just that I would love to see you become a good flier not a “good enough” one.”

“Thank you, Rainbow. You know, I didn't know you were so concerned about...”

“That and I do have a reputation to maintain. After all, I can't be seen together with ponies who can barely fly.” Rainbow suddenly spoke up with a cocky grin, cutting Twilight off and earning a series of laughs from everypony else while Twilight shook her head. “Just make sure to exercise like I told you to. It's not that hard and you'll start noticing results very soon. I did those exercises myself in order to regain my form after I had to spend that month in Fluttershy's...” Rainbow's voice died down with a choke, a look of terror frozen on her face as her mind caught up to what she had said. The merry mood disappeared instantly, giving way for eerie silence as they all shared horrified looks with each other, pained expressions on their faces as relatively fresh scars were ripped open again. “Sorry … I didn't … sorry.” Rainbow hung her head and whispered in a silent voice.

Fluttershy, fighting down an unpleasant shiver, immediately moved to give the cyan pegsus a warm, comforting hug. “We know … we know.” She said quietly while tightening the hug, which Rainbow Dash returned. Usually the athletic mare wasn't one for displaying her soft side in public, but this time it was different. This time it was serious. An uncomfortable silence settled between them.

“Umm, Pinkie Pie? What's this?” Spike spoke up suddenly, when the silence had grown almost unbearable, his voice a mixture of genuine curiosity and forced nonchalance. He was holding up what looked like a piece of glass. Something he had found in the small bowl of candy.

“Oh, that? That's a Glass Shard.”

“Glass?” And just like that, the discomfort was gone, replaced by confusion as all ponies stared at Pinkie and Spike, as well as the object the purple dragon was holding in his claw. Spike raised it up for a closer inspection. “Why is there glass in the candy bowl?”

“No, no, no. It's not glass, it's a Glass Shard. Me and Bon Bon made a small experiment. She is very good at making candy. With her experience and my advice, we tried to create candy that would never melt. Sweetness that would last forever and ever, and ever. The special prize for the best candy hunter on Nightmare Night, which I am bound to win. However, something didn't go as expected and the end result was the Glass Shard. Candy that doesn't melt. It also can't be broken, cut, smashed, crushed, dissolved, tasted, smelled, affected by magic, destroyed or even damaged in ay way.” She leaned in and poked the candy angrily with her hoof. “It is indestructible. And tasteless as well. I decided to throw them out eventually. However, it seems that one of these things has ended up among the other candy.”

Spike eyed the mysterious candy with a hungry look in his eyes. In a way, the candy looked a lot like a gem. A crystal clear, colorless gem. Innocent and pure in every shape. Before anypony could say anything, Spike opened his mouth and bit down on the candy. Much to his surprise, his teeth stopped cold the moment they encountered the surface. For the very first time in his life, there was something he couldn't chew. He strained his jaw, which was powerful enough to bite through the hardest gems in existence like they were nothing more than a crunchy apple, but to no avail. He tried it again, but it only resulted in him nearly biting off his own tongue when his teeth slipped on the smooth surface of the candy and slammed shut.

Everypony studied him with curiosity plain on their faces as Spike slowly opened his mouth and fished out the piece of candy, which wasn't sporting even a single scratch. “Soooooo, looks like even a dragon can't do anything to it.” Pinkie tilted her head slightly and chuckled. “I guess you could call it the ultimate hard candy.” Her chuckles became louder when Spike tossed the indestructible piece of candy aside and emptied the entire candy bowl in his mouth, shrugging off the few glares with a sheepish look on his face as he ate the more conventional pieces of candy.

“Ahem … I … Twilight. About Nightmare Night. Will Princess Luna also grace us with her presence? She seemed to enjoy the festival last year and I was hoping she would come to Ponyville again.” Rarity spoke up in order to steer the conversation further away from the unpleasant memories. Spike's attempt to distract them had been brilliant, but, unless they continued talking, memories would surface again. “It would make the celebration all that greater.”

It's all my fault! Twilight shook her head to rid herself of the still lingering thought. “No, Rarity, unfortunately Luna won't be able to make it. As you know … Celestia, has left Canterlot in order to deal with some sort of an issue South of Baltimare, which means that Luna has been very busy these last two weeks. She is simply too busy to attend. She does send us her greetings and she also promised a little surprise for the festival.”

“What kind of a surprise? Will it be a scary surprise? Or will it be a nice one? Oh, I just love surprises! I can't wait to find out what it is.” Pinkie couldn't hold in her excitement when she heard Twilight's words. “Do you know anything about it? Anything at all? Perhaps a hint? Or a small clue as to what might happen? No! Wait! Don't tell me! It won't be a surprise anymore! Or, you could tell me, and I could pretend to act surprised! Perhaps I could even prepare a very good response! No, no, no. That won't do. Luna will know that I'm not surprised for real and that will make ruin the festival fer her, and that will ruin the festival for me as well. Perhaps it will even ruin the festival for all the ponies in Ponyville. And if Ponyville is sad, then there is the chance of the entire Equestria becoming sad as well. No, Twilight! You absolutely must not tell me anything about the secret! Not even a single word! Not even a half of a single word. Not even...”

“Pinkie, don't worry. I don't know anything about the surprise either.” Twilight cut off the rambling pony before Pinkie's speculations could go way out of hoof. “There is nothing for you to worry about. Just focus on enjoying the Nightmare Night and everything will be fine.”

“Yeah and I'm sure you'll forget about it anyway. There will be all sorts of other things for everypony to enjoy.” Applejack added in a reassuring voice. That seemed to put Pinkie's concerns to rest, though she still shot an occasional concerned glance in Twilight's direction now and then.

“That reminds me, Fluttershy, what about you? Will you be joining us this year?” Rarity gave an encouraging smile to the light yellow pegasus. “You have been spending the festival hiding in your cottage every time. Don't you think it's time to give it a chance?”

Fluttershy merely shook her head in refusal. “I'm sorry, Rarity, but I just can't do it. All those costumes everypony wears are just too scary. I know they are supposed to be just for fun, but they are too much for me. They look like the real thing.” She sighed quietly. “I appreciate the offer, but I will be spending Nightmare Night in my cottage.”

“I, on the other hoof, have no intention of doing that. My new costume is ready and I am determined to enjoy the night to its fullest.” Rainbow announced proudly, something which drew knowing smiles from Applejack, Rarity and Twilight. “What?” Rainbow noticed their grins.

The three mares shared a quick look amongst themselves before Applejack decided to speak up. “You sure it's all about the festival, sugarcube? Because some of us have heard some interestin' things. For example, a certain long time Wonderbolt is comin' to Ponyville tomorrow.”

“Ah, I think I know the stallion you're talking about, darling. Good flier, athletic build, looks absolutely dashing in his flight suit.”

“Goes by the name of Soarin, if I'm not mistaken.” Twilight continued from where Rarity left, a wide grin plastered on her face as she watched the most adorable blush creep up Rainbow's face.

Rainbow Dash glared at them, but the look didn't have any anger in it. She merely sighed and rubbed the back of her head. “Okay, yes, so I am excited about Soarin coming to Ponyville so we could spend some time together. I fail to see what the big deal is.”

Rarity covered her mouth with her hooves in order to hide her gasp. “Rainbow, darling, we were just teasing you a little. We were not poking fun at you for your relationship with him. We are happy for you. It is wonderful to know that you have found a pony who is close to your heart.”

“Rarity is right, Rainbow. It is a wonderful thing to hear. Perhaps you could introduce us to him? I would love to meet the stallion who managed to … tame the wild Rainbow Dash!” Twilight needled her friend, enjoying one of the rare chances to do so.

Tame? … Oh, so you want to play it that way, huh? Fine, I can do that. Rainbow's glare turned contemplative for a moment, before a grin, which was just as wide as Tilight's settled on her face. “Heh, I guess you're right about that. Soarin is definitely a cut above the rest. After all, I am not interested in average stallions. Certainly not enough to let them take some degree of control over my life. Soarin's special like that. Unfortunately, I doubt there will be time for introductions. You see, we don't get that many chances to be together. Plenty of responsibilities for both of us. Therefore, whenever we do get the chance, we tend to … catch up on lots of things. And it's funny you mention him taming me. He is very good at that. Like that one time when he tied wings so I couldn't use them, pinned me to the ground, grabbed my mane with his teeth and then rammed his...”

“Rainbow Dash!” Twilight hissed through her teeth, flicking her eyes at Spike and back. Meanwhile Rainbow was sporting a smug grin on her face as she took in her friends' reactions. Pinkie was giggling quietly, while Applejack settled for merely rolling her eyes. Rarity had an understanding smile on her lips, while Twilight was blushing like crazy. Strangely, Fluttershy had a dreamy look on her face.

Spike, however, looked very confused, his gaze traveling from one mare to another. “Umm, huh? Is there something I've missed?”

“No! You're not missing anything. Everything is perfectly fine and completely normal. We are having a completely normal conversation, without any age inappropriate content, thus suited for everypony nearby, thus making it age appropriate. It is not polluted in any way, shape or form.” Twilight quickly replied while maintaining her gaze with Rainbow Dash.

“Polluted?” Rainbow Dash narrowed her eyes at the lavender alicorn. She was about to say more, but with Pinkie, Applejack, Rarity and Fluttershy breaking out in laughter, the intention died down.

“Heh, you two are so funny whenever you spend some time together. Just a few sentences and it's entertainment guaranteed.” Applejack chuckled as she slowly stood up and stretched herself. “Unfortunately, I got to go. There's plenty of things to take care of at the farm in order to prepare for the festival. Wouldn't want to let Ponyville down.”

Almost immediately, Pinkie shot up to her hooves with a determined and at the same time, cheerful look on her face. “Oh, oh. I'll go with you. Can’t let you do all those super-duper preparations alone.”

“I appreciate the offer, but there's really no need. I can take care of them myself...” Applejack's voice trailed off when Pinkie gave her the pleading eyes look. “Oh, okay. If you really want to, I'll let you help. It would be a darn shame to turn down a helping hoof. Besides, Apple Bloom will be happy to see you.”

“Please, don't mind us, there's not much to pack. I will take care of it in a flash. You don't have to stay and help.” Rarity urged them when she saw the questioning look on their faces. Concerns alleviated, Applejack gave Rarity a brief nod and set off with Pinkie accompanying her with her usual bounce.

“Yeah, um, I got to go as well. Soarin's coming tomorrow so I have to make preparations, such as...”

“Rainbow.” Twilight warned the pegasus, not liking that small grin on her face.

“Such as cleaning my house, you perv.” Rainbow chuckled briefly and took off. “Just don't forget about the evening's exercise. I'll come get you so I can make sure you don't skip it.”

Twilight watched her leave and shook her head. “What have I gotten myself into...” She muttered and proceeded to help Rarity, Fluttershy and Spike gather up the plates. It didn't take long, especially when magic was involved. Just a few moments and everything was placed neatly inside the basket, while the blanket, folded by Rarity, rested on top of it. One it was done, they all parted ways. Rarity and Fluttershy were heading to the spa center for their weekly session, while Twilight and Spike walked back to the library, where Twilight was determined to do a little research on unicorn horns.

xxxx

“Tell me you're not thinking about what happened at the picnic, Twilight.” Spike spoke up after they had left the park and were walking down the street.

Twilight spared him a confused look before realization struck. “What? Oh … that. No. I wasn't. I was thinking about that unicorn Rarity met. I'm curious about what happened to his horn.”

“What a relief.” Spike let out a breath that felt like it was taking off an immense weight from his shoulders. “I was worried that you were still blaming yourself for... well, you know.”

“I wasn't thinking about that. However, my thoughts remain unchanged. What happened to our friends was all my fault. I never should have cast that … thing. It was irresponsible of me to do so without any precautions. I did something stupid and my friends paid the price.”

Smooth move. Spike mentally kicked himself. He should have known better than to bring up that spell. It summoned all sorts of unpleasant memories. Not just for Twilight, but for everypony else. Just like Rainbow's verbal blunder had shown, the scars were still there, buried beneath the surface as they tried to move on with their lives. However, stupid move or not, he couldn't let Twilight continue to blame herself for causing it. “But Twilight...”

“Spike! Don't try to make me feel better. I know what I did and there is no sugarcoating it. No matter how you look at it, I am responsible for what they had to go through. You were there with me, you saw the whole thing. Every last part of it. And no matter how much I would love to pretend that everything is in the past, we know the truth. We saw it today. The memories are still fresh, even though they're doing their best to hide it. Nothing is over.” Twilight's voice became exasperated as she unknowingly increased her pace.

Next to her, Spike rolled his eyes in frustration. It was the same thing all over again. No matter how much he tried to reason with her and point out the flaw in Twilight's opinion, all of his attempts were met with failure. Always. Twilight was dead set on blaming herself for the mess she had unknowingly created when Princess Celestia had sent her that test in the form of an unfinished spell. “Fine. Whatever. Forget I said anything.” He said with a tired sigh.

“Spike?” Twilight stopped and turned around. The annoyance in Spike's words was impossible to miss.

“Nothing. I am just tired of all this. Your blame game, that is. Even though you won't admit it loudly, we both know the truth. It was not your fault. Despite that you are hurting yourself more than anypony else. You have cut off all contact with Princess Celestia for a month now and you still haven't told our friends that the entire Cutie Mark spell was just a test.” He replied pitifully, staring into Twilight's violet eyes and sounding many years older than he actually was. “It is painful to watch. Why can't you tell them the truth?”

Twilight looked back at him in silence for a long time before sitting down on her haunches and hanging down her head, as if ashamed to look him in the eyes. “You know very well why I can't do that. You were there in Canterlot and you also saw what happened when I returned to Ponyville. You know how much both Princess Celestia and my friends mean to me … That is the reason why I can't bring myself to talk to Celestia or tell the truth to my friends … I am just not strong enough to do that. I don't want to hurt them any more than I already have. And if I have to suffer for my indecisiveness, then that's for the best.” Twilight lifted up her head. “Please understand.”

Spike slowly rubbed his forehead and sighed. “So it's fear that's bothering you, huh? You're afraid to cause more damage... You could have just said so before … I understand. Sort of. Though you'll still have to reveal the truth eventually. It's not something you can keep to yourself forever.”

“I know, Spike. I know. But not right now. Not when things are so fragile.” Twilight managed a weak smile and released Spike. “Thanks.”

“Yeah, don't mention it. There is one thing though. I know how much you can get worked up about these things. I know that there are times when the pressure can make you … crack.” He held up his claw in order to forestall Twilight's objections. “My point is, while I will play along with your idea, I will also be keeping my eye on you, Twilight. The moment I see that things are too much for you to handle, I will... what was the term … pull the plug on the entire thing and tell your friends everything. I don't know what will happen, most likely it will be ugly, perhaps it will even cause permanent damage in some form, but that is a risk I am willing to take. You are the only family I have and I will not allow this wound to fester into something worse than it already is.”

A thousand replies exploded into Twilight's mind as she mulled over what Spike had just said. There were reassurances in her mind that told her that nothing like that would ever happen, beliefs that she would be able to keep herself together, hope that Spike was bluffing and even a few angry replies that Spike shouldn't be sticking his nose where it didn't belong. In the end, Twilight settled for a quiet nod. Spike was only looking out for her. He was worried. Besides, it wasn't like he hadn't given her a fair chance to solve things at her own pace. “Very well. I will keep that in mind.”

“Excellent. For a moment I was worried that you would overreact again and start to protest. Nopony likes it when others give them such an ultimatum. I know I don't. But as we both know, this is not your usual situation. This is critical.” Spike's face brightened up and he started walking down the street, taking the lead. “C'mon, let's go to the market before we head back to the library. We're running low on carrots and onions. Knowing you, you'll probably start doing research on that horn thing the moment we get back, so I would prefer if we took care of the shopping right now, so I don't have to carry everything myself.”

“Good idea, Spike.” Twilight replied and followed him to the town's market square. “Just one thing, I don't overreact.”

xxxx

Rarity was a happy pony. The lightness in her step, the dazzling radiance of her coat, the rejuvenating sensation all over her body, she felt absolutely divine. Going to the spa for the second time in a week had allowed her to discover a level of serenity and relaxation she hadn't been previously aware of. Aloe and Lotus Blossom were truly masters of their craft. A small part of her wondered perhaps she could make her spa visits a bi-weekly thing. However, after a moment's consideration, Rarity decided against it. Too much of a good thing was bad. Besides, as much as Rarity loved to visit the spa, it wasn't that enjoyable when she went by herself. Fluttershy made for a very enjoyable company, but a single trip per week was most the animal caretaker could afford. She was far too busy for that.

Decision made, Rarity opened the front door of the Carousel Boutique and went inside. “Sweetie Belle, I have returned. I will start working on dinner in half an hour, so please let me know if you are hungry.” Rarity said just loud enough to be heard as she moved the grocery basket to the kitchen. After her visit to the spa, Rarity had made a short trip to the market in order to pick up a few things to eat.

“Sweetie Belle?” Rarity placed the basket on a nearby counter, next to the picnic basket she had dropped off earlier and perked up her ears, listening for a reply. There was none. In fact, it seemed that Sweetie Belle wasn't even home. Not that it was anything unusual, but after the worried greeting Rarity had received after returning home from the forest, she had half-expected her little sister to spend more time at home for a while. Apparently, Rarity was wrong. Her sister's attention span was just too short for something like that. Most likely she was together with her friends doing their best to earn their Cutie Marks.

Shrugging, Rarity quickly emptied the grocery basket and then followed up with the picnic basket, stacking the dishes into the sink and putting away the leftovers. As for the blanket itself, Rarity decided to take it to the laundry room. On her way there, she passed a ponnequin, upon which her latest masterpiece was displayed. She gave it a quick check, smiling fondly at the sight before her and moved on, sneaking a few glances as she went.

Rarity was proud of her work. The dress was, to put it simply, amazing. She had done it, despite the unfortunate experience. There was just one problem with it. She didn't know what to do with it. She didn't have any special orders at the moment and neither was she expecting a visit from her usual customers. Rarity supposed she could wear it herself, the dress would certainly look good on her, but there wasn't a single event, important enough for the dress, in the near future. Nightmare Night was not even slightly suited for it, the Hearth's Warming Eve was in the winter, when it was too cold. She could wear it to the Grand Galloping Gala, but after that last fiasco, Rarity had no desire to attend the event in the foreseeable future. Oh well, I guess I will just have to wait for the opportunity. One always comes along. Rarity shrugged and put her mind at ease.

Just as she was placing the picnic blanket in the laundry basket, Rarity heard the front doors of her workshop open and close a moment later. Initially, she thought it was Sweetie Belle, but the sounds of two stallion voices convinced her otherwise. Customers? But I thought I left the “closed” sign up. Hmm... must have forgotten to do that. Rarity frowned a little and made her way towards the main work room where she could greet the customers.

Two stallions were standing in the middle of the room and observing the various designs around them. One was a beige pegasus with a very short white mane, while the other one was a copper brown earth pony with a spiky sky blue mane. The earth pony was also sporting an olive green trench coat, which made him look like a detective, just like ones in some romance novels Rarity loved to read. Both of them instantly heard the sound of her hoofsteps and turned to face her. In response, Rarity put on her usual welcoming smile. “Greetings, my name is Rarity and welcome to Carousel Boutique, where every garment is is chic, uni...”

“Save it, lady. We're not here for your rags.” The pegasus interrupted her while nodding at the ponnequin with Rarity's recent masterpiece. “We're here for a much different purpose. One that actually matters.”

Rarity's smile turned a few millimeters narrower. On the outside, that was the only reaction she had for the insult. Inwardly, she gritted her teeth in anger. “And what purpose would be that?” She addressed the earth pony, hoping that he would be the civilized one of the two.

Much to her relief, her hopes were fulfilled, the earth pony gave the pegasus a tired look and heaved a heavy sight. “My name is Persistent Tracker and this is Storm Chaser. We are from Section 9. Our organization is tasked with hunting down and capturing extremely dangerous criminals.”

“I see.” Rarity frowned in mild confusion. Initially she wondered what did these two ponies wanted from her. However, as she gave it some thought, Rarity had a feeling she knew what the visit was about.

“Don't worry, we are not here for you.” Persistent Tracker misinterpreted her frown. “We are here because there have been reports that a very dangerous criminal has been sighted in Ponyville. Not only that, but you have been spotted in his company.”

“A criminal in Ponyville? That is quite unusual. We rarely have ponies breaking any laws here and even then those are very minor offenses.”

The beige pegasus let out a derisive snort and shook his head. “Figures. You small town yokels have been living under Celestia's teats safe and sound. You have absolutely no fucking idea what a cesspit the outside world is.”

Rarity ignored Storm Chaser. The presence of the vulgar pegasus wasn't worth acknowledging. It was beneath her. Unfortunately, it seemed that Persistent Tracker had a similar mindset. “Well, as my colleague said, Ponyville doesn't see any of the serious criminals due to its location … Anyway, this is the pony we are looking for.” He reached into his coat and fished out a small photo. When Rarity saw the image, she nearly let out a gasp. The pony in the picture was definitely Lumberjack. The gray coat and that dark blue mane were exactly the same. The only difference was that he seemed to be a bit younger and he still had his horn. “His name is Stardust. Though he often uses a fake name like Lumberjack, Average Joe or Glitter Hooves. He is wanted for several accounts of murder, sexual assault, extortion, theft and several other major offenses. He is mentally unstable and extremely dangerous.”

“Yeah. Killed more than thirty ponies from Manehattan to Fillydelphia. All of them mares. Raped them and then cut them to pieces. Or killed them and raped them afterward. He's one sick fuck who will attack you the moment he sets his eyes on you.” Storm Chaser added with a dark smirk. He stepped closer to Rarity and continued in a low voice. “You don't want that to happen to you, don't you? You don't want him to break into this place, beat you up, bend you over that table over there and then fuck you until you scream and moan like a whorish mare in heat before he slits your throat, right?”

Rarity couldn't suppress a shiver. The way Storm Chaser had said all those nasty things, made it sound like he was threatening to do all that if she didn't cooperate. Still doing her best to ignore the pegasus, Rarity stared at the photo, considering the words she had just heard. It didn't feel right. It didn't sound like the Lumberjack she knew. Granted, she had know him only for a single night, but she had seen his eyes, his face, his entire posture when he was talking to her. He didn't feel like an insane killer. A pony with a few secrets, sure, but not the merciless killer these two detectives claimed him to be. Upon further reflection, Rarity realized that she had spent the night in his house where she had been dead tired, exhausted and unable to use magic, yet Lumberjack hadn't done anything. He had been helpful to the point of selflessness. Perhaps he was very good at hiding his true intentions? Or maybe there was something else going on?

“Yes, I did meet him a few days ago, but he didn't strike me as an insane killer. Quite the opposite, he was friendly and very helpful.” Rarity slowly replied as she recalled the time she spent with Lumberjack. “Yes, he was definitely friendly.”

Unfortunately Storm Chaser wasn't satisfied with the answer. He leaned in, invading Rarity's personal space until his face was just centimeters from hers and yelled. “Didn't you hear what we said, ya dumb bitch!? Stardust is a fucking monster who should be put down like an animal he is. So, tell us all you know about him, unless you want him to fuck you up.” His voice trailed off and a genuinely sickening grin settled on his face. “Hell... you know, I bet you want him to rape you. You're probably one of those ponies who gets off from that. If that's the case and you really want that to happen to you, then think about your friends. I think you don't want that to happen to them.” The pegasus finished, accentuating his words by poking Rarity's chest with his hoof.

Rarity glared down at the hoof, her self defense instincts flaring. “I think...” I could dislocate that hoof in three different ways. “... that you should leave this place, sir. Your intimidation tactics are cheap, uncouth, and quite frankly I find them extremely offensive. I am a lady and I would prefer to be treated as such. And if you think that I am concerned about the potential consequences for refusing to assist in your investigation, you are sadly mistaken. You are free to take this issue to your superiors, all the way up to the Princesses if you have to, however, considering the circumstances, I am confident they will see the reasons for my refusal as thoroughly justified.” Rarity forced herself to remain calm and collected. She had no desire to stoop down to Storm Chaser's level or let him provoke an unladylike reaction from her.

“What did you say?” Storm Chaser growled through gritted teeth.

“Storm Chaser, outside.” Persistent Tracker said in a tired voice while giving Rarity an apologetic look. “I said, go outside! Your presence is only making things worse.” He repeated when Storm Chaser glared at him. Both ponies stared at each other for a few seconds before the pegasus backed down and stomped towards the exit. He gave Rarity a meaningful glare before slamming the doors.

Rarity didn't look away from him, even as he left the building. She kept staring at the doors for a few more seconds, silently seething in anger at the stallion's uncouth behavior. He had done an excellent job at ruining her mood. She was about to turn her attention to Persistent Tracker when she noticed a small detail. The sign on the door. Words “open” could be clearly seen on it. This mean that she hadn't forgotten to flip the sign in order to let everypony know that the workshop was closed. Something that hadn't bothered these two at all. They had barged in without a single care or respect for her privacy. Usually it wouldn't bother her that much. Rarity had a lot of customers who had arrived at off-business hours. But at least they made an effort to warn her in time. Not this time. Not these two. And while their urgency was a good reason for breaking the rules, their words and actions were not. One did not barge into a pony's home and start harassing them.

“I apologize for his actions. Storm Chaser is a decent pony, but he tends to get carried away. We have been on this case for a long time now and it has hit him rather hard. It is not often we get cases like this one.” Persistent Tracker rubbed the side of his head and sat down.

“The severity of the case is irrelevant. There is a limit to how rude you can be and your colleague broke them the moment he opened his mouth. If this is how you usually operate, I am starting to doubt your competence in the matter.”

“Hey, I said I was sorry, okay! No need to rub it in.” Persistent Tracker retorted in a flash of annoyance. He took a few breaths to calm down. “Look. Just tell me what you know about Stardust and I'll be out of your mane in a flash. Any little thing can help.”

Rarity considered refusing the request as a way to get back at the impolite ponies, but she decided otherwise, despite her anger. She could hardly claim the moral high ground if she let anger cloud her decision. “There is not much to tell. I was out on a trip for gems and met him in the forest. He asked me for directions to Ponyville and I agreed to show him the way. That is it.” Okay, perhaps she was letting her anger influence her a little bit.

Persistent Tracker frowned in disappointment when he heard the response. “That's it? I was expecting a lot more information. Where is he hiding? Why is he here? What are his plans? Does he have any collaborators in Ponyville?”

“I do not know an answer to any of those questions. I merely met him in the forest and he accompanied me to the town. We parted ways afterwards and I haven't seen him since.” Rarity said, knowing full well that she was leaving some details unsaid. She knew where Lumberjack was staying, at least for now, yet somehow, she didn't want to reveal the location to the detectives. Something just didn't feel right about this whole situation. The almost desperate attempts to intimidate her and make her afraid of Lumberjack were setting off a lot of red flags in her mind. Rarity understood that by withholding information she was, potentially, endangering other ponies if all those accusations were true. But somehow, she still had doubts. She remembered the look on his face, the way he talked about himself and how Lumberjack generally behaved around her and none of it made her nervous. She was almost fully certain that Lumberjack was not a threat to others. Still, there was that tiny possibility of him being an excellent liar. “All I know is that he mentioned he was staying somewhere in the forest. That is all I know.” Rarity added after a brief consideration. She wasn't certain about Lumberjack's fault, so she decided to give an uncertain answer. Enough to give the detectives some sort of a lead, but not enough to sell out Lumberjack.

“I see. Looks like this was a waste of time.” Persistent Tracker studied her face. “I guess we will have to do some more searching around. Perhaps somepony else has some information on the matter.” He sighed and slowly got up to his hooves in order to leave. Just as he was about to open the doors, he looked back at Rarity. “Thank you for your assistance, such as it was. Me and my colleagues will be staying in this town for a while, so if you learn anything new, make sure to inform us.”

Rarity didn't reply, she merely nodded and watched the stallion leave her workshop, glaring a the doors well after they closed behind him. Rarity slowly worked through the emotions boiling inside her, taking slow breaths to calm herself down. Once she felt a bit relaxed, Rarity used her magic to lock the front doors of her workshop. Unless it was a life or death issue, she wasn't in the mood for any visitors and Sweetie Belle could always use the back door to get inside.

Once the potential distractions were taken care of, Rarity trotted towards the kitchen, where she could use a sharp knife to vent her frustration on the groceries.

xxxx

“Yes! Yes! Yes! I think I finally found it! After all that searching, I think this is exactly what Rarity was talking about!” Twilight squealed in joy as she once more checked the book in front of her just to make sure. “Yep, sounds just like she described. Mana Burn. A potential side effect of a Magic Rebound.”

Spike put away a large pile of books and gave Twilight a confused look. “Magic Rebound? You mean like the ones you tend to have?” He gave a sheepish grin when Twilight glared at him.

“No Spike. Rebound is a different thing from a misfire, which, I'll admit, I have … experienced. Granted, it happens very rarely and mostly because an unforeseen variable entered the equation. Misfire is when you get the spell wrong, thus causing a different result. Rebound is when the energy of the spell, magic, rebounds into you. Roughly speaking it's like accidentally hitting yourself with your own spell.” Twilight read the explanation out loud. At the same time she levitated a huge pile of books towards Spike as a way to get some revenge for the small dig at her.

Spike caught the pile and nearly dropped it, it was too heavy. Fortunately, his shaky grip resulted in some of the books falling to the floor, thus making the pile easier for him to carry. The purple dragon gritted his teeth and started making his way towards a nearby bookshelf, carefully maneuvering around the small stacks of books Twilight had gone through during her research. “Meh, so he tried to break off somepony's horn and got hit by his own spell big deal … On a second thought, if he was trying to do that to somepony, I'd say he got what he deserved.”

Twilight shook her head. “No, Spike, you don't understand, Rebound doesn't inflict the same spell you were trying to achieve. It is a surge of raw magical energy and is the result of a powerful spell gone wrong. The book says the amount of damage depends on the strength of the spell, the strength of the unicorn casting it as well as many other factors that aren't fully understood. Damage can vary from something like headache or unconsciousness to death, complete loss of magic or … loss of the horn, among other injuries. So my theory is that Lumberjack tried to cast a powerful spell but something went wrong, causing a Magic Rebound, which destroyed his horn.” She explained, tapping her lower lip thoughtfully.

“And he also suffered Mana Burn, which more or less cauterized his horn, preventing it from regroing. Like how ponies tended to cauterize bad wounds in the past when healing magic and proper medicine were hard to come by.” Spike continued with a shrug as he continued Twilight's train of thought and added a historical fact he had picked up from spending most of his life around books.

Twilight stared at him for a moment, considering the possibility. “Sounds about right. That's a very good theory. Of course, the question is, how does one cure something like that and what kind of a spell Lumberjack was casting? I guess I could take my chances and try to find him in order to ask a few questions. Or, I could do a bit more digging and...” A series of loud knocks on the front door stopped her musings.

“Hey, Twilight! Open up!” Twilight heard Rainbow's voice. For some reason, she sounded angry.

“Yeah, sure. Just a moment.” The lavender alicorn replied and, with a flash of her magic, opened the door, revealing a clearly annoyed pegasus. “What's wrong? Is it some sort of an emergency? It is getting late and...”

“You're late! I can't believe you forgot... Wait, scratch that. I knew you'd forget, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.” Rainbow said mostly to herself before shaking her head and glaring at Twilight. “Your flying lessons, remember? We were supposed to meet ten minutes ago!”

Twilight stared at her, confusion evident on her face before realization dawned and made her jump to her hooves. “Oh... OH! Right! Yes! The lessons! How could I forget?! I promised that... oh, my … umm... yes... wait...” The realization that she was late for a lesson completely derailed her thoughts. She glanced around, looking for reference materials before realizing that there were none for what Rainbow had in mind. She then tried to grab the closest piece of paper in order to use it as a bookmark so that she could close the book in front of her. Unfortunately, she failed to notice that half of the paper sheet was trapped under a stack of books, which resulted in the stack being knocked down when Twilight pulled the piece of paper towards her. Of course, then her OCD kicked in and she just had to stack the books back up again, sorting them by alphabet, obviously. Problem was, the bookmarks she had placed inside the books were now on the floor, which meant that she had to find the correct pages again and mark them. It would only take a few...

“ENOUGH!” Spike yelled, tearing a book from Twilight's telekinetic grip. “I'll take care of this! Just... go!”

Twilight blinked a few times, breaking her momentary panic attack, and took a few deep breaths to calm herself. “Okay, okay. I'm calm now. I'm calm.” She took another deep breath. “Sorry about that.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Spike gestured in her direction while trying to figure out where to start. “Just go and let me work.” Twilight made a tiny, apologetic smile and headed towards the door, where Rainbow was waiting for her.

“Are you done?” Irritation was dripping from Rainbow's voice. Even the brief show hadn't been enough to lighten her mood.

“Sorry about that. I just got so absorbed in my research I forgot all about it.” Twilight made a quick apology as she closed the door behind her. She glanced at the skies, noting that it was already evening. “I didn't even notice how quickly time flew. To me it was barely after midday just a few moments ago.”

Rainbow shook her head in frustration. “What else is new? At least we still have enough time for a few laps around Ponyville. C'mon, let's go.” She said and took off with hardly any effort at all. Behind her, Twilight stretched her wings a few times in order to warm them up and, with a grunt of effort, took off as well, taking joy in the fact that she didn't require running starts anymore. Both mares slowly gained altitude until they were flying several meters above the buildings and headed towards the edge of the town. Twilight used the chance to observe the preparations that were taking place all over Ponyville. While most of the decorations would be set up in the next day, there were some that required more work. The outdoor stage as well as some of the larger stalls were some examples.

While most things were proceeding as expected, Twilight noticed that something wasn't quite right. She couldn't point her hoof at it, but for some reason the general atmosphere seemed a bit... off. At first she just wrote it off as general stress due to the oncoming festival. Considering the amount of effort ponies usually put in for the Nightmare Night, that was to be expected. However, as she continued to fly, Twilight noticed that it wasn't the usual anxiety, that enjoyable impatience one always had when preparing for something great. Instead, the general mood was that of concern. Ponies sporting nervous expressions, quietly discussing something in small groups, occasionally casting worried looks at their surroundings and so on. It was as if most of the town was expecting something bad to happen at any moment.

“Umm, Rainbow Dash. What's wrong with everypony?” Twilight asked during one of their several laps along the outer edge of Ponyville. “Everypony is acting so strange. As if they're scared.”

Rainbow glanced towards the middle of the town, taking note of several concerned looking ponies, before looking at Twilight who was flying close behind her. She slowed down a little, so they were flying side by side. “Wait, haven't you heard? There is a psycho killer hiding in the woods. A whole bunch of detectives arrived today and have been going around, asking questions, since somepony spotted the guy a few days ago.”

“What?” Twilight nearly forgot to use her wings. “A killer? Here? In Ponyville?”

“If the detectives can be trusted, then yes. They did seem scared out of their minds when they talked to me. Kept coming up with all sorts of crimes he has committed. Like he has killed more than thirty mares and then chopped them to pieces. Stuff like that. Felt a bit over the top to me. Oh, and they also gave me his description. And guess what, it was disturbingly familiar because...”

“Because Rarity described him this morning, right.? Twilight quickly put two and tow together, gasping in horror when Rainbow replied with an expressionless nod. “Does that mean Rarity spent the night under the same roof with a serial killer?”

Rainbow nodded again. “Yep. But this is where it gets weird. According to the detectives, this guy is supposed to be mentally unstable. Extremely easy to provoke and basically unable to resist his urges. Yet Rarity returned safe and sound. Even more, she had nothing but positive things to say about him and you know how good she is when it comes to getting a feel for other ponies.”

“So, you think that the detectives are lying. Or at least not telling the whole truth?”

“That or this Stardust guy, that's his real name apparently, is an amazing actor, easily able to fool even Rarity.”

“You know, I think I would like to have a few words with those det... detectives.” Twilight cringed when a sudden pang struck her between the wings and made her realize that she was growing tired. She was nearing her limit, which, while slightly better than her previous one, was nowhere near good enough for a prolonged flight. By comparison, Rainbow wasn't even breathing hard. Her wing strokes were slow and lazy, yet still able to keep her next to Twilight. “I think I'm getting near my limit. Perhaps we should stop for tonight?”

“Not yet, Twilight. Soreness means your muscles are working outside their comfort zone. This is the best time to push your limits, even a little. You make them work a little bit extra and that additional effort will become part of your new limit.” Rainbow flipped around so that she was flying backwards and on her back. Twilight recognized the taunt for what it was and glared at the pegasus. When Rainbow merely replied by giving her a challenging, smug grin, Twilight began flapping her wings with extra effort, fighting through the increasing tiredness. Still, it wasn't enough to catch Rainbow, but at least the pace quickened.

Rainbow observed Twilight's efforts and nodded approvingly. “Good. Very good. That's what I'm talking about. You won't find your limits without pushing yourself and you won't push your limits without challenging yourself.” Her words seemed to encourage Twilight and the alicorn managed to make a few more laps around the town. Twilight didn't talk during those laps as all of her strength was focused on her wings and using them to remain airborne.

Eventually, Rainbow decided to call it a day and end the lesson. While it was good to see Twilight push her physical limits, Rainbow knew it from experience that there was a limit to the amount of exercise a pony should go through in one day. Too much of a good thing was still bad and considering all the exercises Twilight had gone throughout the entire day, she was nearing the limit. Otherwise, the strain would start causing damage. “Okay, Twilight. I think that's enough flying for today. Time to slow down.” She said and turned her flight into more of a glide, with the occasional flap just to control her course. Behind her, Twilight did the same, though she still had to correct herself a lot more often than Rainbow did.

They were slowly losing altitude and making a wide pass over the edge of the forest when Twilight spotted something on the ground. “Rainbow, look over there! Where the road enters the forest … Is … is that a pony?” She pointed her hoof towards the figure. A wasted effort, since Rainbow couldn't see her pointing and had spotted the pony before Twilight had finished her sentence. “Looks like she is hurt.”

“Let's go.” Rainbow replied and shifted into a dive towards the obviously injured mare who was slowly making her way towards Ponyville. Twilight followed at a more controlled pace, not wanting to risk crashing into the ground. A few moments later, she landed on the ground with a slight stumble, her legs protesting at the sudden impact. Thankfully, Twilight quickly recovered and hurried over to Rainbow who was already standing next to the earth pony.

“Are you alright? What happened?” Twilight asked the moment she was within easy speaking distance. When her eyes fell on the purple mare's injuries, she winced. Large, nasty looking bruises covered most of the mare's body, some of them were even bleeding, leaving dark marks into the fur. The left eye was swollen shut, while the right one seemed to have problems focusing on her and Rainbow. Probably a concussion. Twilight's mind noted when she saw the questing gaze. However, all thoughts were banished from her mind when Twilight traced the mare's arm where it was pressed against the side of her neck, which was covered by a particularly thick mixture of fresh and clotted blood. A crossbow bolt! Twilight and Rainbow both gasped when they saw a half of the projectile protruding from the purple pony's neck. The end of the bolt had been snapped off at some point, but the tip and more than half of it still remained.

The mare managed to gather enough strength to finally focus her sight on the two ponies. She took a shaky step towards them, muttered something inaudible, which was more of a wheeze than anything else, and collapsed on the ground. Her hoof was still pressed against the wound and her sides were heaving with the effort of drawing air into the lungs. Almost immediately Rainbow and Twilight were next to her and looking for a way to help.

“Hurry! We have to get this thing out of her!” Rainbow indicated the bolt and reached with her mouth towards it.

“Don't! Leave it there!” Twilight stopped her friend, while her mind was running over the vast amounts of knowledge she had memorized over the years. “It acts like a cork while it is inside and helps block the blood flow, to some degree. Pulling it out will cause a lot of tissue damage and increase the bleeding.”

Rainbow shot her a worried look, but decided to follow her advice. “Okay, what can we do then? Can't you use your magic to help her?”

Twilight didn't reply, instead she channeled some magic through her horn and cast a healing spell in order to stop the bleeding. The blood flow slowed down noticeably, though it was still going on. When she saw the results, Twilight bit her lower lip. “I can only make it easier. Take the edge off. I don't have the experience with healing magic and her wounds look very severe. She needs professional help. Rainbow Dash, please head to the town and get some help. I'll stay here and do what I can.” Rainbow nodded in agreement and took off. A rainbow colored streak trailed her as the pegasus shot off like an arrow. Twilight watched her leave, before a sound from the injured mare claimed her attention.

“He … there … here.” The mare wheezed through bloodstained lips, her voice barely audible.

“Huh? Who? … The one who attacked you? Who did this to you? Where is he?” Twilight asked one question after another, eager to get some information, but the mare didn't reply. She couldn't. The effort of staying alive seemed to claim most of her strength, leaving her unable to hold a proper conversation. She merely repeated the words a few more times before falling silent. “Don't worry. Just hold on. Help is on the way.” Twilight reassured her and brushed out the light green mane out of the mare's eyes. “Help is coming.” She repeated and glanced around, hoping to see Rainbow returning with the town's doctor close by. Nothing. They were completely alone for now.

Twilight cast a few more spells in order to further reduce the bleeding and treat some of the worst looking bruises. She was having mixed results. Some bruises were too much for her to handle and didn't respond to her treatments to the degree Twilight expected. Others were thankfully healed by her magic. They closed up and stopped bleeding, thus easing the burden the mare had to endure. Still, there were a lot of them remaining and Twilight could only shake her head. There was so much damage.

The thunder of hooves in the distance made her look up and Twilight was relieved to see Rainbow, followed by a pair of earth ponies and a unicorn, running at full gallop. She didn't know who they were, but she was glad to see some help arrive. One of the ponies, an earth pony stallion, wearing a trench coat, was running right next to Rainbow. The moment he spotted the mare on the ground, his face twisted into an expression of horror. “Shit, shit, shit... Damn it! Not her! Hurry up!” He ordered his fellow ponies with a shout.

Twilight quickly moved away from the injured mare as the three ponies she didn't know, skidded to a halt next to her. The unicorn, a mare with a blue coat and a messy, dark blue mane, quickly started treating the wounds with healing magic and Twilight was impressed to see the skill at display. The healing magic not only looked, it felt magnitudes stronger than her attempts. The bruises were quickly closing up and disappearing before her eyes. Even the crossbow bolt injury in the neck was treated almost immediately. The bolt was teleported out of the wound, which was closed up a moment later, leaving only a pale scar. Meanwhile the pony with the trench coat was having a silent conversation with the purple mare. Now that her wounds were being treated, she was able to gather enough strength to provide answers, though her voice was so quiet neither Twilight, nor Rainbow could hear her.

“What the fuck's going on here!” A loud voice came from above the small group of ponies, where a beige pegasus was coming in for a landing. He landed with a heavy thump and surveyed the scene. “Is that Amethyst Jewel? Did that fucker messed her up?” He shifted his gaze towards Rainbow and Twilight. “Who the fuck are you two nags supposed to be?”

“Nags?” Rainbow arched her eyebrow with a low growl, while Twilight merely frowned at the insult. “We're the ones who found your friend, asshole.” The pegasus glared at Rainbow and took a threatening step towards her.

“What did you call me you bitch?” He was about to say more when the earth pony, now done with his conversation, intervened.

“Stand down Storm Chaser. If it weren't for them, Amethyst jewel would be dead now. So do us all a favor and be quiet.” He barked out an order in harsh voice, causing Storm Chaser to move away, though the glares he and Rainbow were exchanging were a clear sign that it wasn't over. One problem solved, the stallion looked at the unicorn, who was done treating the Amethyst's wounds. “She needs some rest. Get her out of here.” The unicorn stood up, but hesitated a moment. She traced a questioning look from Amethyst, to Twilight and to the leader. When the stallion replied with a short nod, the mare cast a teleportation spell, causing her and the injured pony to disappear.

“What the...” Twilight gasped when she felt the discharge of magic wash over her and she noticed how powerful it was. It was almost like a physical force, nearly pushing her away. Clearly, the mare was not an ordinary unicorn. “High level healing spells and teleportation. Who are you?” There was no reaction to her words. The three ponies ignored her and started moving towards the forest. It was only when Twilight teleported in front of them and repeated her question, did she receive a reply.

The earth pony stallion gritted his teeth and glared at her in a mixture of anger and uneasiness. “We're detectives. As you may or may not know, we're from Section 9, we were sent here from Canterlot to capture a particularly dangerous criminal. I'll have to ask you to leave, since this is no place for civilians.”

Twilight frowned at the reply. “A dangerous criminal? Here?” She recalled what Rainbow had told her and quickly connected the dots. “You know, if he is really that dangerous, perhaps Rainbow and I could help you capture him? I am sure, we can handle him.”

“You are mistaken. Stardust is no ordinary criminal.” The stallion shook his head. “You cannot handle him. You saw what he did to our colleague and she was a trained operative. Please, for your own safety, go home. Leave it to us.”

Twilight tried to object, but was forced to take a step back when Storm Chaser moved in front of her, blatantly invading her personal space. “Yeah, you heard him. This is no place for you. So get the fuck lost!” He snarled and shoved Twilight away. The alicorn was caught completely off guard by the sudden movement and, as a result, was sent sprawling to the ground by the immense force the pegasus had used.

Even before she was fully on the ground Rainbow sprung into action. Storm Chaser blinked in surprise when, in a flash, a cyan pegasus practically materialized in front of him from thin air and smacked him in the face with solid hoof. Rainbow was a very athletic pony, most of her daily activities were physically demanding, which meant she was in an excellent shape. Not only that, but she also had studied martial arts and knew how to hit another pony. However, much to her, and Twilight's surprise, Storm Chaser barely reacted to the strike. A hit, which would have sent most ponies if not straight to the ground then at least staggering, was barely enough to turn his head.

A wide grin settled on Storm Chaser's face when Rainbow stared at him in surprise. “Oooh, this one's feisty. You think you're hot shit? C'mere! I'll show you what a stallion does to a mare who acts up!”

“STORM CHASER! STAND THE HELL DOWN! NOW!” A loud voice cut through the air before Storm Chaser could take a single step. The earth pony pushed himself between the two pegasi and shot the beige pegasus a death glare. “I HAVE HAD IT WITH YOUR CRAP! ONE MORE TIME AND I WILL MAKE SURE YOU REGRET THE DAY YOU WERE BORN!” He screamed in his face, anger and, to Twilight's surprise, terror, filling his voice. For a moment, it looked like Storm Chaser had no intention of listening, but after a few tense moments, he backed down.

Rainbow was about to taunt the whipped pegasus, but Twilight's gentle hoof on her withers, convinced her to remain calm. Not a single word was spoken as the detectives moved into the forest, while Twilight and Rainbow followed them with their eyes. They remained standing for a while even after the three ponies had disappeared from their sight, their minds digesting what had just happened. “Detectives, yeah, right. What a bunch of assholes.” Rainbow eventually commented. “If these are supposed to be the good guys, I would like to see the guy they're after.”

“Let's go.” Twilight said eventually and started moving towards Ponyville in a quick trot.

Rainbow gave her a surprised look and glanced back at the forest before following her. “Umm, Twilight, aren't we going to follow them? Every single feather in my wings is telling me that there's something weird going on. We have to find out what's going on!”

“We will. Don't worry. But not by following them. We'll start from the other end. They said they're from Canterlot and I know a pony who could fill us in on this matter. Especially since this is the first time I've heard of an organization by that name.”

“You're going to write a letter, aren't you?”

“Precisely. All government organizations, based in Canterlot, are under the oversight of Princess Celestia or Princess Luna. One letter will be enough to provide us with some answers. And then we will get to the bottom of this.”

xxxxx

“Spike! Spike, where are you! I need you to take a letter for me.” Twilight called as she entered the library later that evening. She had parted ways with Rainbow soon after entering the town and had decided not to waste a single second. “It is very important!”

“I'm here. In the kitchen.” Spike's voice answered her. “I wanted to make myself an evening snack.”

Twilight entered the kitchen and him preparing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. As always, the dragon was making a huge mess of things. Twilight opened her mouth to point that out, but decided to let it go. There were other, more pressing matters. “No time for that, now. Time is of the essence. Please, Spike...”

“Yeah, yeah.” Spike sighed and, with a forlorn cast on his sandwiches, left the counter in order to fetch a quill, an inkwell and a blank scroll. He returned a few minutes later, carrying the items in his claws. He placed them on the table, made himself comfortable and, after raising his claw with the quill, cast a meaningful look at Twilight.

“Thank you.” Twilight cleared her throat and took a deep breath before starting to dictate the letter. “Dear Princess Luna. I apologize for bothering you so suddenly, but it seems that something very wrong is going on. Today I learned that there is a very dangerous criminal, hiding in the forest near Ponyville. A mentally unstable pony who attacks others without provocation. At least that is what the detectives told me. However, there are few things that doesn't make sense. The detectives told me that they're from Canterlot, a unit called Section 9. And they were sent here to capture this criminal. Thing is, I have studied the organizations in Canterlot. Extensively, I might add. And there is no such organization. I am certain of it. Even if it was a secret organization, I would have found some sort of information on them, yet there is nothing. Nothing at all. Clearly, they are hiding something. I can't quite place my hoof on it, but it's there.” She paused for a moment to gather her thoughts and give Spike a moment to flex his claw.

“Furthermore, regarding the criminal they are after. His description perfectly matches the pony Rarity met in the forest and...” She heard Spike take a deep breath at the last sentence. “Don't worry Spike. You know very well that nothing happened to her and Rarity can take care of herself in an emergency.” Twilight said in a reassuring voice, glad to see Spike calm down after considering her words. After that, she continued the letter.

“...and Rarity described him as a kindhearted pony. A pony with some problems, sure, but nothing that indicated him as a mentally unstable serial killer. I trust Rarity in this matter, since she is very good at reading other ponies and it is difficult to fool her. As a result, there are two opinions on the matter. Rarity's and that of the detectives. Strange. The reason I am writing this letter is because I need to have some answers. If there is truly an organization like Section 9, you must know something about it. Or, perhaps you have heard about the criminal they are chasing? His name is Stardust. I understand that this could be a covert operation that is best resolved quickly and in secrecy. However, a lot of ponies over here are getting nervous, so I would appreciate any information you can divulge on the matter. Please, reply as soon as you can. Your friend, Twilight Sparkle.” Twilight finished dictating the letter and waited for Spike to finish writing it. “Wonderful. Please send it immediately, Spike. There is not a moment to lose.”

“Got it.” Spike started rolling up the scroll for easier transportation when he saw Twilight trotting towards the kitchen door. “Wait, what are you going to do?”

“That's simple, Spike. I will check my books for any information on Section 9. I know we just asked Luna in the letter, but, hopefully I can find something before she replies. That or we find some information in case Luna doesn't know anything.”

“Research, huh? Why do I get the feeling it will end up all over the floor again?” Spike made a heavy sigh and prepared himself to do another cleanup that was sure to follow a few hours later. Hopefully, the Princess would reply before Twilight managed to make too big a mess of things.

Nightmare in Ponyville. Part I

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Twilight stirred slightly when she felt the dawning sun caress her face, its light slowly banishing the pleasant blanket of sleep. She smiled and let out a silent groan of contentment when she moved her face away from the light and felt one of the best scents in the world – parchment. She nuzzled the material, taking a deep breath in order to savor the moment. As she did so, Twilight noticed another, equally amazing scent, ink. Ahh, parchment and ink … two of the most beautiful scents in the world … no perfume even comes close. Twilight let out a short chuckle as she felt herself slowly drifting towards sleep again. Yeeeeessss … this is paradise. A wonderful aroma and no sun to pester me while I sleep … wait! Why is there parchment and ink in my bed? … I never take ink to my bed. I leave it on the desk near the … wait … The gears in Twilight's mind started turning, grinding away all the promises of a continued sleep. Wait! Sun! Princess Celestia! Princess Luna! The letter to Princess Luna! Her response! That last thought caused Twilight's eyes to fly open as she jerked up from where she had been sleeping on her desk, with a thick book, covered with small traces of drool, serving as an improvised pillow.


She looked around and realized that her suspicions were true, it was indeed early morning. She had fallen asleep during her evening research. Probably because of the exhaustion from all those exercises yesterday. She checked the clock and frowned. According to her most recent memory, more than five hours had passes since the last time she checked the clock. Probably less, since she had continued her work after that before drifting off to sleep. Either way, five hours was a long time. She had to find Spike and ask him whether or not Luna had sent a reply.


A quick spell took care of the drool puddle on the book, something that was a more common occurrence than she wanted. After that, Twilight put the books away, shaking her head slightly when she saw the blank notes, indicating a lack of any results. Once that was taken care of Twilight headed off to the bathroom so she could take care of her morning needs.


Several minutes later Twilight was trotting towards the staircase that lead to the first floor of the library. As she approached it, Twilight heard sounds coming from below. Flicking her ears forward revealed that there was a conversation going on. She instantly recognized one voice, it belonged to Spike, whereas the other voice, which belonged to a stallion, was a complete mystery. At least he sounded friendly, Twilight noted when she heard the stallion laugh at what was probably Spike's joke.


Twilight started walking down the stairs, her eyes and ears focused on what little of the first floor she could see. The amount increased drastically when she reached the small turn of the staircase and was granted full view of the first floor. As a result, she instantly spotted the visitor. Storm Chaser! What is he doing here! A thought flashed through her mind when she first saw the pegasus pony sitting next to the small table in the middle of the main room. A moment later all thoughts left her mind when her hoof slipped and she half-fell, half-staggered down several steps before catching herself before it became a full fall.


Obviously, her grand entrance meant that all attention in the room was focused on her. “Whoa! Princess Twilight, careful!” The pegasus shot up to his hooves and took a few steps towards her. “Are you okay?”


“Y-yeah. I'm fine, I’m fine. I just tripped a little.” Twilight replied as she steadied herself and turned her attention towards the stallion. Almost immediately Twilight realized why she had thought of Storm Chaser when first seeing the pony in front of her. The color of the coat was rather similar at first glance. Light orange versus Storm Chaser's beige. In addition, there was also the fact that not much of the coat was visible under the suit of armor the pegasus was wearing. A suit of light chain mail armor formed the base of the armor and covered most of the body with the exception of wings and legs. The armor also had a hood, with which to cover the head and neck, however, the pegasus had elected to leave the hood lowered, exposing the short two-shaded sapphire blue mane. In addition of the chain mail, there were also plates of armor that covered his chest and front legs.


“Ah, that's good to hear.” Seeing that Twilight was fine, the stallion took her confused look as a sign to introduce himself. “In that case allow me to introduce myself, Princess. I am Lieutenant Flash Sentry of the Royal Guard. I was sent here, along with my squad, to investigate the matter of those strange ponies, you mentioned.”


“Huh?” Twilight blinked in confusion.


Spike caught her attention by waving a letter he held in his claws. “You sent a letter to Princess Luna, remember? You asked for help in order to deal with those ponies and that serial killer in the woods.”


“Yes, but I didn't ask her to send soldiers.” Twilight finally recovered. “I mean I asked her to clarify a few things, but that's about it. All I needed was some information.”


Flash Sentry cleared his throat. “Well, yes, that would be correct, Princess. You see, Princess Luna was greatly disturbed by your letter. As you mentioned, there is indeed no such thing as Section 9. There never has been. Princess Luna even went so far as to check the Royal Archives. Those ponies were lying. As for that pony they are looking for, there is no information on him as well, but if even a fraction of his supposed crimes were true...”


“Then Princess Luna would have heard something about him already and there would be a lot more ponies than a bunch of detectives chasing after him.” Twilight picked up the trail of thought and sat down, her eyes staring into distance as she contemplated the theory. “What this means is that we have a group of ponies, pretending to be detectives, looking for another pony. A pony they really want to get their hooves on, judging from the sound of things. What is strange, however, that this pony they're after, this Stardust, is not seeking help from the authorities. He prefers to stay away from others and keeps wondering around … very interesting.” She used her magic to snatch the letter from Spike's grip and move it towards her. As expected, the letter was a response from Luna. It was very short and basically repeated what Flash Sentry had just told her.


“Oooohh, I know that tone. And I know that look.” Spike saw the expression on Twilight's face and felt a rush of excitement bubble up inside him. “Get ready.” He winked at Flash Sentry.


“That means we have to find Stardust. We find him and, chances are, we will also find those detectives. Or whatever they really are. And once we find him, we can get to the bottom of this. Stardust knows something. Or has done something. That's probably the reason why they are after him.” Twilight carried on, her enthusiasm growing as she reached the conclusion of her thoughts. “That's it! We have to find Stardust!”


A short chuckle, accompanied by the sound of metal rings brushing against each other, brought her back to the present. Flash Sentry was walking towards the table where he sat down next to his helmet. “I knew you would say something like that, Princess. Now, usually I would ask that civilians stay out of this, however, judging from your file as well as those of your friends, you are far from an ordinary civilian. In fact, you probably have more experience with these sorts of things than I do. If things take a turn for the worse, I would be happy to have a magician of your caliber on my side.”


“Wait, I have a file?” Twilight asked while the compliment made her blush a little.


“Umm, yes.” Flash replied as if stating the most obvious thing in the world. “Considering your achievements as well as your status as Element Bearers and other things, the Royal Guard decided that everypony within our ranks should be aware of the ponies who are out to steal our jobs.”


“No! We... wait … that's a joke, right?” Twilight's concerned voice turned into a short laugh which sounded embarrassingly lame to her ears. She stopped laughing and joined Flash and Spike at the table. “Anyway, why are you here? I mean here at this library?”


“I seek information. About those ponies pretending to be detectives as well as Stardust. Appearance, places where we could find them, anything that could help the investigation. I'm afraid we don't know much, apart from the overall situation, so I would like to gather some info before I send my ponies into the forest.” Flash replied in a business like voice.


Twilight tapped her nose with her hoof as she considered her answer. “Sorry, but I won't be of much help. I only met them once, for a brief moment. You should ask Rainbow Dash or some other ponies about those detectives. As for Stardust, ask Rarity, we strongly suspect that she spent the night at Stardust's house so she knows how he looks and where we can find them.”


“I see. Rest assured, I already sent a few of my ponies over to Rarity's workshop for the same reason. Why don't you tell me about that meeting? Even if you don't know much about them, every little bit can help since every pony tends to notice different things.” Flash urged Twilight to continue.


Twilight shrugged and quickly told him of the last evening's events. She told him everything she could remember, starting from the moment they saw the injured mare up to the moment when the detectives had disappeared into the forest. She made sure to mention the strange interaction between Storm Chaser and the pony who was supposed to be his superior. Twilight also mentioned the unusually powerful magic the unicorn had been using, although she could see that Flash didn't quite understand the significance of the matter. As for the rest of her story, the pegasus remained quiet, listening attentively. Once she was finished, Flash took a moment to consider what he had just heard.


Spike, who was also following the conversation, shook his head in amazement. “Wow, and these guys want others to believe a word they say? I mean if you're going to pretend you're a detective, at least act like one.”


“Yes, that does seem a bit strange. Tell me, Princess, why didn't you ask them to provide some sort of identification? A badge, for example?”


“My thoughts were focused on that injured mare at that time. It didn't occur to me that I should be checking others for identification. Besides, it's not like we usually have ponies walking around and pretending to be government officials.” Twilight replied somewhat defensively.


“Good point. Though I have to admire their courage to attempt something like that so close to Canterlot, where their claims could be checked so easily. All it takes is one suspicious pony and their cover is blown. Then again, perhaps it is because of how insane the idea is, that they managed to pull it off. It's like hiding in plain sight.” Flash shook his head, impressed by the audacity of the false detectives.


Twilight studied him curiously, this was the first time she had a genuine conversation with a member of the Royal Guard. Having grown up in the castle, Twilight was so used to them, she rarely noticed their presence. Until today, most of her conversations with the Guards were limited to questions regarding directions and even then, it didn't last long as Twilight soon learned the layout of the castle and was able to find her own way around. There was also the fact that Flash was treating as an equal, instead of placing her on an unreachable pedestal far above him and awaiting her guidance and approval, like other members of the Royal Guard. Sure, she could feel the respect he had for her, but it was more because of her as a pony than her status as a Princess or Celestia's personal student, something she found rather enjoyable. Flash was an interesting pony. “So, what do we do now?”


“Now that I have some information, I think it's time to act on it. I'll go and see my squad at the Town Hall, they should have unpacked our things by now, and prepare to search the forest. Hopefully, the group I sent to Carousel Boutique will be back with directions. Once the scouts are back, we'll be moving into the forest to find some answers.” Flash replied and grabbed his helmet. He hooked it to a small nub on the side of his armor. “I should probably send somepony to check the clinic. If that mare you found is still there, this investigation would move along a lot faster.


“Town Hall? I think Mayor Mare won't be happy about that.”


“She wasn't. But after we explained that the Town Hall is the only building in Ponyville with enough space to suit our needs, she was willing to cooperate. Especially when she realized that a squad of Royal Guard in the middle of Ponyville could give ponies some reassurance that something is being done about the supposed criminal.” He stood up to leave. “Now, if you are serious about helping us, please come find me at the Town Hall in half an hour. Please, keep in mind that we won't be able to wait for you if you're late, Princess … If you have no other questions I will take my leave. It was a pleasure and an honor to meet you Princess Twilight.” Flash said with a slight bow, causing Twilight to shift uncomfortably. She still wasn't fully used to ponies bowing before her.


She replied with an awkward smile as she watched him leave. “Okay … Sure, I will be there. Don't worry about that.”


“Nice guy. Different from all those ponies back at the castle.” Twilight heard Spike comment once Flash was gone. She couldn't help but nod in agreement. “Had a nice chat with him while we waited for you to get up.”


“Wait a minute.” Something clicked in Twilight's head and she looked at Spike. “Why are you awake? It's early in the morning. You never get up this early. Did you... did you stay awake all night, Spike?”


Spike gave her a level look and shook his head as if Twilight was having trouble understanding a very obvious thing. “Uhh, the letter? You know, the reply from Princess Luna.” He pointed at the parchment on the table. “Kind of hard to sleep when a letter comes through. Woke me up an hour ago and, once I read it, I decided to stay up, since I knew that one of those Royal Guards would come here the moment they arrived.” He said and started walking towards the kitchen. Twilight followed him close by.


She glanced back at the letter. “Yeah, but why didn't you wake me?”


“I wanted to, but you looked so silly sleeping face down on that book, I just couldn't do that. Besides, considering that you passed out, I figured it was best to let you sleep a bit longer.” He paused and gave Twilight an amused look. “Is the book going to be alright? You were drooling a lot.”


“The book is fine.” Twilight replied in a peevish tone as she brushed past him. “Now let me have some breakfast.”


xxxxx


Some twenty minutes later, Twilight emerged from the library and made her way towards the Town Hall. On her way there, Twilight saw the familiar sight of Ponyville waking up to a new day. Some ponies looked like they had been up for quite some time, while others were barely able to stay awake as they went through their preparations. However, regardless of their state of awareness, all the ponies Twilight saw seemed to be sharing two thoughts. One was the concern about the rumors regarding the supposed criminal in the woods, while the second one was much more pleasant and revolved around taking care of the last preparations for the Nightmare Night. Fortunately, it looked like the concern was slowly giving ground to excitement. Nightmare Night was such a popular celebration that even rumors about a psychotic killer could not dampen the spirit. In fact, Twilight even overheard a few ponies debating whether or not the entire deal was some sort of a prank that would play a major part in the celebration later that evening.


For a moment Twilight considered pointing out that few ponies would come up with such a disturbing prank, but she decided to remain silent in order to prevent panic, which could lead to somepony doing something regrettable. She ignored the arguing ponies and carried on in a quick trot. Better to get to the Town Hall so she and Flash could get this thing taken care of and make sure it remained just a rumor to the rest of Ponyville.


“Hey, Twilight! What are you doing up so early in the morning? Where are you going?” Twilight looked up and saw Rainbow Dash dive from the clouds towards her.


Twilight waited for the pegasus to make an elegant landing right next to her. “Morning, Rainbow. I'm heading to the Town Hall. A group of Royal Guards arrived. They will be going after that pony in the forest and I offered to help them out.” She said and resumed walking towards the center of the town with Rainbow accompanying her.


“Oh? You mean you already got a response to that letter you said you were going to send?” Twilight nodded in agreement. “Wow, that's great. By the way, what did you learn about those detectives? What did the Princess say?”


“About what you might expect. They were lying.” Twilight replied and told Rainbow about the conversation she had with Flash.


Rainbow reacted precisely as Twilight had expected. She muttered something under her breath and then let out a sigh while shaking her head. “Why am I not surprised... I can't believe I considered them detectives for even a moment. Especially that Storm Chaser asshole. Wait until we find him. I've got score to settle.”


“Rainbow, you can't possibly be thinking of... wait, you're coming along?”


“Yep. Can't let you wonder through that forest alone. No offense, but the Royal Guards don't have the most successful track record.” Rainbow mercilessly pointed out just as they reached the Town Hall. The moment they cast their eyes on the square in front of the building, both mares gasped in surprise.


They were greeted by the sight of approximately ten ponies moving supplies from one of the wagons to the Town Hall. They moved quickly and efficiently, eager to get the supplies inside as quickly as they could. Earth ponies, pegasi, and, all clad in simple, yet practical steel armor, were the complete opposite of the golden armor wearing soldiers Twilight and Rainbow had half expected to see.


After a moment of observation, Twilight was relieved to spot Flash emerging from the Town Hall, followed closely by an earth pony mare, sporting a bright orange coat, with whom he was having a conversation. Fortunately, it didn't last long. Twilight saw him shake his head in denial, which caused the mare to shrug and walk away towards the nearly empty wagon. Flash followed her with his eyes before he spotted Twilight and Rainbow. “Ah, you're here, Princess. Excellent. And I see you've brought Miss Rainbow Dash with you.” He trotted over to them and gave Rainbow a short nod.


“Yes, I...”


“Dude, just Rainbow is fine. No need for titles. They sound weird.” Rainbow said before Twilight could finish her sentence. She ignored the glare Twilight shot her for cutting in and continued. “Anyway, Twilight told me about the chat you two had and I've decided to go with you.”


“Are you sure? Things could get rather messy. We don't know whether or not the ponies we are trying to find, will feel cooperative towards us. It could lead to a confrontation.”


This time it was Twilight who spoke up before Rainbow could provide a reply. “You don't have to worry about us. We can take care of ourselves.” Just like Rainbow had done it to her, Twilight ignored the annoyed look her friend gave her.


Flash saw nothing of the silent exchange. “Ahh, excellent. Now, if you could wait a few minutes, we will be departing in...”

“Sir! Sir! There is a problem.” A mare's voice caused all of them to look up, where they spotted a dark green pegasus come in for a landing. She landed next to them, folded her wings, and, after giving Twilight and Rainbow a small nod, she turned towards Flash. “It's about Sergeant Blitzkrieg.”


Flash let out a groan when he heard the name. He rubbed his forehead with his hoof. “I hate it when you put the words “problem” and “Blitzkrieg” so close. Is it about the task I gave him?” There was a nod in response. “Wonderful. I asked him to do such a simple thing, go to Carousel Boutique, ask Miss Rarity about the suspect and report back. Yet....”


“Whoa, whoa... wait a minute. You sent a pony to Rarity's house? At this hour?” Rainbow asked incredulously.


“Umm... yes?” Flash frowned in confusion, his gaze moving from Rainbow to Twilight.


Twilight was confused as well, at least until realization dawned. “Oh no … This is not good. I think we should go and get your Sergeant. He might be in trouble.”


“Twilight's right. You do not, I repeat you DO NOT interrupt Rarity's beauty sleep.”


xxxxx


A few minutes later, four ponies were approaching Carousel Boutique. From afar, it didn't look the least bit threatening, but Twilight and Rainbow weren't fooled. The lavishly decorated building was merely a facade to the dangers that lurked within. They both had firsthoof experience on the matter and it was something neither one of them wanted to live through again. One time was enough. In fact it was more than enough.


Unmindful to the unpleasant thoughts coursing through Twilight's and Rainbow's mind, Flash lead the small group towards the entrance. He raised his hoof and knocked on the door, before slowly pushing them open. There was no response. Before he pushed the doors further, he glanced back at the pegasus mare standing nearby. “Corporal, go back to the Town Hall and have the rest of Sergeant's squad assemble here. Full equipment. We'll be leaving as soon as I clear this mess.” The mare nodded in reply and took off, leaving them alone. With Twilight and Rainbow following him, Flash pushed the doors completely open and all three of them went inside.


“Rarity? Sorry to bother you so early, but...” Twilight spoke up, but the moment her eyes took in the full sight of the main room, her voice trailed off. At the same time Rainbow broke out in barely suppressed laughter while Flash just stared, dumbfounded, at the sight before them.


Surrounded by mirrors on three sides, a tall bluish-gray pegasus stallion was standing completely motionless. With his wings flared out and one arm raised, he had assumed, or, most likely, been told to assume a pose that would, to many, seem majestic. His steel gray eyes shifted slightly when he noticed them, but they quickly snapped back to staring at a point in front of him, when he saw just who exactly the three ponies were. The only movement, aside from the eyes, he made, was a nervous twitch of his tail, which, just like his disheveled mane, sported black, brown and red streaks. However, what made an uncomfortable silence spread throughout the room were the clothes he was wearing. From the looks of it, the entire set looked like some sort of armor. A surreal, twisted and completely bizarre set of armor.


“Umm, are those … streamers around his ears?” Twilight began, trying to make sense of what she was seeing.


“Yep, though those are nothing compared to the chain skirts he's wearing.” Rainbow chortled, staring at the colorful chains that nearly covered the stallion's Cutie Mark, three yellow arrow-shaped lightning bolts. “And don't get me started on the … I don't even know what's that on his head.”


“Looks like a flower pot.”


Their guesses were interrupted by Rarity who trotted down the stairs with a reel of tartan fabric floating next to her. “Found it! Sorry for making you wait. It took me absolute ages to find the thing.” Rarity said in a cheerful voice. “Just hold still for a while longer. This won't take long.” It was then when she spotted the three ponies standing near the doors. She put away the reel on a nearby table and gave them an apologetic smile. “Oh my. Rainbow, Twilight. I am so sorry, I was so busy, I didn't hear you enter and … ah, I see you brought a friend with you.”


“It's alright Rarity. Sorry to bother you this early.” Twilight replied. “This is Flash Sentry, he came to Ponyville in order to deal with those strange ponies that were walking around yesterday.”


“Uhh, pardon me, but … what's going on?” Flash was still transfixed by the sight of the pegasus across the room.


Rarity traced his gaze and her smile grew a bit wider. “Nothing much. Sergeant Blitzkrieg was very kind to offer assistance. He agreed to model for me.”


“How did...”


“I don't want to talk about it.” The pegasus model replied in a small voice. “Ever.”


Flash shook his head and sighed. He then turned his attention towards Rarity. “I apologize for bothering you this early, Miss Rarity, but I am afraid I didn't have a choice. As Princess Twilight said, we were sent here to investigate the matter on those false detectives, as well as find the pony they are trying to capture. Something is going on here and we have to find out. In order to do that, we need your help, since you are the only one who knows where we can find him.”


“You mean Lumberjack? Yes there were ponies looking for him, rather uncouth fellows if you ask me. One of them in particular insulted me to a great degree when I doubted their motives. I have met Lumberjack and while he admitted to having a secret or two, he didn't strike me as a criminal.” Rarity tapped her hoof against her lower lip thoughtfully. She then cast a suspicious glance at Flash. “Assuming you find them, what are you going to do with him? Understand that he helped me a great deal, so I am a bit reluctant to assist in his capture.”


“I merely want to capture him so that we can learn why he is being chased by those ponies. Not every day you encounter ponies who claim to be chasing after an insane serial killer, so this case does raise a few red flags. Either way, if it turns out that he has no trouble with the law, he will be released immediately. Or, should he choose to, remain in protective custody while we deal with his pursuers.”


Rarity considered his answer. One on hoof, she was a bit hesitant to help him capture Lumberjack. As far as she could tell, Lumberjack was simply trying to deal with a personal problem, while staying away from others. Granted, he must have done something if there were ponies looking for him. Yet that was none of her business. On the other hoof, the fact that he seemed to be on the run from others, bothered her. Ponies with clear conscience did not do that. The law abiding part of her urged Rarity to do something about it. She could not merely signore the matter as there was always the small chance that Lumberjack had broken the law. And if Lumberjack truly was a criminal of some sort, then refusing to do anything about it meant that, in a way, she was condoning his actions. Besides, Flash's main goal was to find out what exactly was going on, not hunt down Lumberjack, therefore helping Flash didn't mean that Lumberjack would be instantly thrown in the dungeon. Furthermore, Twilight wasn't having any objections with his plan, so it meant that it couldn't hurt to trust him. “I see. Well, if that is what you have in mind, I guess I should lend a hoof … Very well, if Twilight says you're here to help, then I will help you. Just give me a minute to get ready.” Rarity said and started walking towards the staircase.


“Does that mean you're coming with us?” Rainbow tore her gaze away from the unfortunate pegasus, a deep frown on her face.


“But of course, darling. I have a personal interest in the matter and I would like to see Lumberjack again. Furthermore, since I know him better than anypony in this room, I could talk to him and make the whole capture thing easier for all of us.”


“Good. By the way, could I have my Sergeant back?” Flash said, not bothering to object to Rarity's decision, just one look at the white mare told him that it would be pointless to argue.


All four ponies turned their attention towards Blitzkrieg, who was still maintaining his pose and could have been mistaken for a statue of not for the occasional blink or the flaring of his nostrils. Rarity regarded him with a sweet smile and chuckled. “Well, since we are about to leave, I guess there is no point in keeping him here.” She walked over to the pegasus and adjusted one of the streamers. “I am grateful for your assistance, Sergeant Blitzkrieg. You may go now. And should you ever decide to model for me again, please let me know. I have plenty of ideas I would love to try out.” She flashed another smile and trotted towards the staircase to the second floor.


“Yes, I will.” Blitzkrieg replied and started to carefully remove Rarity's version of stylish armor. Although his tone didn't betray his thoughts, everypony knew that there was no way Blitzkrieg will be going anywhere near Carousel Boutique. Once all the items had been removed, he quickly put on his own armor, and left the building without saying another word.


Meanwhile Flash, Twilight and Rainbow decided to wait fro Rarity to get ready. Surprisingly, it didn't take long. They had to wait only a few minutes before they saw Rarity come down the stairs. She was wearing a light yellow sun scarf around her neck with a matching sun hat. A perfect outfit for the sunny day that was ahead of them. The only problem was that, from the look of things, they will be spending most of their time in the forest, then again, nopony felt like pointing it out to Rarity. They were eager to take care of the whole thing and be done with it.


The moment they stepped outside, the four ponies came face to face with a whole group of ponies. A total of thirteen ponies, all clad in armor and wielding weapons, ranging from clawed hoof boots to crossbows and even a couple of muskets. And while the group seemed to be in a relaxed mood, it was obvious that their attention was focused on the four ponies leaving Carousel Boutique.


Flash surveyed the group and, with a short nod, gestured one of the ponies, a young, light green unicorn stallion to bring forward a map of the area. “Before we move out, Miss Rarity would you show me on the map where we can find Stardust, I mean Lumberjack, or whatever his real name is? This way it will be easier to coordinate our actions.”


“Of course. No problem.” Rarity studied the map and, with a little help from Twilight and Flash, pointed out he rough area where, if she recalled correctly, Lumberjack's cottage was located, assuming he hadn't left already. “I think I should point out that Lumberjack's house is not a permanent building. He can move it around quite easily, so there is a chance that we won't find anything there. Especially with those brutes combing the forest.”


“An approximate lead is still better than nothing, Miss. Since we have a starting point, we can coordinate our search accordingly and hopefully make some progress instead of blindly running around.” Flash replied and passed the map back to the unicorn, who then proceeded to show the map to the rest of the group. Meanwhile Flash cast a thoughtful gaze at the three mares. “Just one last thing. Please do not take this as an insult to your abilities or experience, but I will have to ask you to follow a single rule once we're in the forest. Once we move out, I am in charge. If I ask you to hide, you hide, if I ask you to run, you run. No questions and no arguing. The safety of you three is the highest priority. Is that fine?”


“Of course, darling. I will trust you and your brave soldiers to keep us out of danger.” Rarity replied and gave all the nearby ponies a cheerful smile, causing several stallions, and a few mares, to perk up.


Twilight considered the request and saw no problems with agreeing. Sure, she could defend herself and probably all the nearby ponies as well, but that did not mean she was against somepony else take the lead. Flash looked like a reasonable pony. “Sure, no problem. Sounds good to me.”


“Yeah, fine, whatever.” Rainbow replied with a casual wave of her hoof. “What?” She said when she noticed the level stares she was receiving from all the nearby ponies. “Okay, fine.” Rainbow rolled her eyes and looked at Flash. “I'll follow your lead.” This time she actually put a little bit of emotion into her words, so that she sounded like she actually meant it.


The answer seemed to satisfy Flash. The pegasus nodded and turned to address the guardsponies. “Okay, time to do what we came here to do. Our task is to locate and capture a pony known as Stardust, as well as the ponies who are going after him. We will head to the location where Stardust's house is supposed to be. Once we're there, we'll spread out and search the nearby area for any clues, which could help use n the investigation. Keep in mind that the main task is to capture the target, that means no shooting unless it is absolutely necessary and even then, try to avoid vital areas.” He looked at each of the guardspony and was satisfied to see that he was understood.


When Flash spoke again, he was talking in a less formal tone, which made him sound a lot more sincere. “One last thing, as you all know, this is our first real deployment ever since that disaster at the wedding. Remember what happened that day. This is our chance to turn things around, to turn a new page. Remember what the Captain said. Never again.” He paused for a moment and then nodded at Blitzkrieg. “Sergeant.”


The pegasus turned his attention towards the remaining ponies. “You heard the Lieutenant. We're moving out. Mint Lily and Sledgehammer, you two will be on point. Scout ahead and make sure there are no surprises waiting for us.” He gestured at two earth ponies, who were sporting camouflage pattern cloaks over their armor. “Glint, Monsoon. You two will scout from above. Keep an eye out for anything suspicious. Make sure you stay in contact with the rest of us.” A pair of pegasi gave their nods. “Private Gatekeeper, you'll be on wagon duty.” An earth pony stallion nodded in acknowledgment. “Everypony else, you'll establish a mobile perimeter around the wagon. Spread out enough to notice unpleasant surprises that slip past the scouts, but stay close enough for easy contact.” Even though he was giving orders, Twilight, Rarity and Rainbow could easily hear a fair amount of lightheartedness in Blitzkrieg's voice. The pony was clearly enjoying himself, the cocky grin on his face further cemented that belief.


“Strange.” Rarity commented as she watched the group burst into action while Flash walked over to the wagon and retrieved a crossbow. “He was much less chatty and a lot more quiet when he was inside my workshop.” She said just loud enough for Twilight and Rainbow to hear. Both mares shared a quiet laugh. However, judging from the nervous twitch of Blitzkrieg's tail, he had heard her as well, something which made Rarity chuckle as well.


Xxxxx


“Soo. About that wedding disaster you mentioned earlier. Were you talking about my brother's wedding?” Twilight asked when the silence had grown almost unbearable. They had been walking for a while now, slowly making their way through the forest. The initial excitement had died down since they left Ponyville, giving way to boredom. She had tried to strike up a small conversation with either Rarity or Rainbow, but with all their thoughts focused on the matter at hoof, they hadn't been able to exchange more than a few sentences before the conversation just petered off.


Flash slowed down a bit, so that we was walking alongside her, before replying with a heavy weight in his voice. “Yes, that is correct, Princess. The Changeling invasion during the wedding was a bad day for the Royal Guards. I doubt you failed to notice the … limited resistance the Changelings encountered.”


“I'll say. You guys got taken out so easily it was as if you weren't even there.” Rainbow commented in her usually brash tone from where she was flying just above the ground, next to Rarity.


Rarity gave the cyan pegasus an accosting glare. “Rainbow! How could you say such a thing! I am sure the Royal Guards gave did their best to protect us.”


“I appreciate the kind gesture, Miss Rarity, but I am afraid that Rainbow is correct and no amount of sugarcoating will hide it.” Flash nodded in appreciation. “The bare truth is, we failed. We had all the advantages, position, familiar territory, a warning even, yet our defense was a spectacular failure. Almost everypony was captured or disabled in a few, short minutes. The most elite unit in Equestria was unable to do even a fracture of what you managed to do.”


“Yeah, we sure kicked their flanks alright, we're awesome, it's what we do. Too bad there was too much of them.” Rainbow said with a cocky grin and made a quick loop above the formation.


“Either way, you still did more than the entirety of the Royal Guard.” Blitzkrieg, who was walking ahead of them, interjected.


Flash nodded in agreement. “Precisely. That day showed everypony what the Royal Guard were capable of and a lot of ponies did not like what they saw. If not for Captain's... I mean Prince Shining Armor's spell, things would have been ugly.” He took a deep breath and sighed heavily. “Anyway, that was the last straw. As it soon turned out, he had already set things in motion. You see, whenever the Captain of the Royal Guard resigns, for whatever reason, he or she must select a successor. While many expected him to select one of the nobles of Canterlot, Prince Shining Armor surprised everypony by ignoring all the offered candidates and selecting somepony who wasn’t a noblepony. Not only that, but he pushed his decision through before any of the Canterlot nobles could protest. Not to mention that Princess Cadance and Princess Luna were on his side. He worked so fast it took only three days after the wedding for us to get a new Captain.”


“Captain Frost Wyrm. I heard that Shiny and he go a way back.” Blitzkrieg once again provided his commentary, earning a few frowns from some of the nearby ponies, who were not amused by the way he referred to the Prince.


“Yes, they do know each other. Either way, with Captain Frost in charge, the last year has been … rough, for the lack of a better year. Harsh training, high standards and so on. Being a Royal Guard means you no longer get a chance to goof off or take things easy.” Flash explained. “And, as I said before, this is the first time my unit is sent on an actual mission, so expectations are high. Screwing up after all that work would be … unfortunate.”


“Well, in that case, I wish you luck. I know how it feels to have your superior expect great things from you. My advice, don't think about it too much and just do the best you can.” Twilight said in a cheerful voice in an attempt to lighten his mood.


“You can also try drinking, I hear it…” Blitzkrieg started to say before trailing off, his gaze turning slightly distant and a hoof coming up to touch the side of his helmet. Almost immediately, all the attention was focused on him. “Understood. We'll be there soon. Check the nearby area and report in if you find anything else.” He lowered his hoof and quickly trotted over next to Flash. “Just got a report from the scouts on the Voice Caster.” He tapped the side of his helmet, where the small earpiece was clipped to his ear. The item, enchanted by magic, allowed two ponies to talk to each other over great distances. All it took was for one pony to think of the recipient's name and, if they were in range, the pony on the other side would be able to answer. “They have reached the glade. Problem is, the house is little more than a pile of rubble. No signs of anypony.”


Flash thought for a second and nodded. “Order everypony to assemble in the glade as quickly as possible. We will search the area for anything of importance and then work outwards.” Blitzkrieg passed on his orders and the entire group broke out into a quick gallop towards the destination. “Rainbow, don't. Stay with the group!” Flash spoke up when he saw her stretch her wings in what he immediately recognized as a pegasus preparing to take dart forward at full speed. “There is no telling what awaits in front of us. Can't risk an ambush or something equally unpleasant.”


Rainbow glared at him, but obeyed his orders. She switched from flying to running, so that she could remain alongside her friends more easily without the urge to use her wings and reach the distance in a flash. Next to her, she could hear Rarity voice a silent complaint, something about the possibility of breaking a sweat and ruining her scarf. Typical Rarity. Rainbow thought and sighed. Not being allowed to go at full speed was annoying. At least the boredom was gone. It now held the promise of developing into something interesting.


xxxxx


Rarity gasped when she saw the pile of rubble in the middle of the glade. Hers was probably the strongest reaction of the group. Then again, considering that she was the only one who had been there before and her mind still held the memory of the house when it was intact, her reaction was well founded. “Oh no, this cannot be. I can't believe it.”


The earlier description was very accurate. The house was little more than a pile of rubble. If anypony had been inside when it had collapsed then there was no way for them to be alive. The level of destruction was just that high. It looked like the front wall of the house had been the first to go. It had collapsed inwards, as if bucked, pulling down the rest of the building. One of the corners looked like it was still standing, but a closer inspection revealed that it was barely holding together, it was only a matter of time until it too collapsed. Curiously, nothing much was left of the thatched roof, most of it had been probably consumed by flames if the faint smoke, rising up from the gaps between the rubble as well as the scorch marks were of any indication.


Rarity silently moved forward in order to take a closer look. She heard Flash giving orders to the guardsponies to spread out and search the glade and the nearby forest for any clues. Behind her, Twilight and Rainbow decided to take a closer look at the rubble as well, she heard them follow her. Rarity approached the pile where she recalled the door had once been located and, true enough, she saw several wooden splinters scattered across the ground. Rarity stopped and shook her head. “I sincerely hope that he managed to get out before it collapsed. It would be most unpleasant otherwise.”


“Hey … what's that? Lying there on the ground?” Rainbow saw light reflecting off something metallic that was lyign in the grass nearby. She flew over to the spot, landed and picked up a badly damaged crossbow. “Whoa. Looks like somepony was in a bad mood.” She weighed the weapon in her hooves and looked it over. “Well, whoever was using it, won't be using this thing again. It has been set on fire. The string is gone and there's cracks all over it.”


Flash, who was standing nearby, while Blitzkrieg was organizing a search, looked at the crossbow and then glanced around the glade. “The user also seems to be a bad shot, that is if we assume it was used against a pony. There are no bodies in the area. Clearly the shot didn't land.”


Rainbow turned the crossbow over a few times before tossing it aside. “So, now what? There's nopony here and we don't have a clue where to continue the search.”


“We'll work from here with what we have. I already have ponies searching the forest. If all goes well, we'll find some sort of a clue soon enough. In the meanwhile...”


“In the meanwhile, I think we should take a closer look at the house. It might be a little more than a pile of rubble, but, chances are, there's something buried underneath. Rariy said that Lumberjack... Stardust, whatever, was obsessed with history. Perhaps if we search the remains, we'll find something that might shed some light on why is he being pursued.” Twilight interrupted Flash as she stared at the rubble, her mind considering the possibilities.


Rainbow looked at the pile and frowned, the idea of rummaging though all that junk held little appeal. “Wait, you want to dig through that? Do you have any idea how long it will take? Not to mention how heavy some of those pieces of rubble are?”


Twilight gave her a knowing smirk and flicked her eyes upwards, towards her horn. “No worries, Rainbow. I can deal with it, no problem. It shouldn't take long.” She lit her horn and lifted several pieces of rubble that were closest to her. Twilight slowly moved them away from the destroyed house and placed them on the ground. More pieces rose into the air as Rarity decided to help out as well.


This left Rainbow without anything to do. Technically, she could have lifted a few of the pieces herself, but there was no need for that. Twilight and Rarity could take care of it without any problems. A quick glance around revealed that the guardsponies were moving into the forest, spreading out to search a larger area, at the same time, Flash, Blitzkrieg and the earth pony stallion, Gatekeeper, removed a small crate from the wagon and used it as an improvised table for the map, so that they could better track the search.


With no way to contribute, to Twilight's and Rarity's excavation or Flash's search, Rainbow shrugged and flew over to a large, flat stone, lying near the edge of the glade. She landed on top of it and, after discovering that the stone was pleasantly warm from the morning sun, laid down in order to rest a little. Very soon, she found herself drifting into a sleep-like state, where she was more or less awake, but her thoughts were scattered all over the place, making her think about dozens of things at the same time. Occasionally, she would become more awake as a particular thought anchored itself in her mind for a while, before drifting off again.


She didn't know for how long she had been in that state until a particular half-thought, half-dream surfaced in her mind. Soarin. One of the senior members of the Wonderbolts as well as her special somepony. The thought made her smile, though Rainbow wasn't sure if she was actually smiling or just imagining it. Soarin was supposed to arrive later that day in the afternoon and Rainbow was really looking forward to it, since they didn't get many chances to see each other that often. With him often traveling across Equestria and her working as the leader of Ponyville's weather team, they had to make most out of every little chance they got. Spending the Nightmare Night together was one such opportunity. She had planned out the whole thing. From costumes and treats, to which events to participate in, right down to retiring to her house where, if all went well, they could end the celebration in a more intimate setting.


The last bit definitely made her smile. Even though she usually denied it, Rainbow wasn't immune to romantic things. She liked them as much as any other pony, she just wasn't fond of expressing them in public. A gentle nuzzle of a friendly hug was all she was comfortable revealing about her softer side. After all, she did have a reputation to maintain. The same reputation was the reason she and Soarin had started dating. They've known each other for a long time, but it wasn't until the royal wedding at Canterlot that their relationship had taken a romantic turn.


It had started simply at first. Cracking jokes and throwing friendly insults at each other whenever they met or competing against each other in a race. Eventually, it was their shared love for flying that brought them closer, sparking a different sort of attraction. One that led to dates, sharing of dreams and hopes and, unsurprisingly, to an occasional night when they shared more than just that. Her tiny smile grew into a dreamy one when Rainbow recalled just how wonderful those nights felt and she couldn't wait to add one more night to the list. She couldn't help it. Given how rarely they saw each other, it was not surprising that their relationships got rather intense from time to time. No sense in taking things slowly when it was hard to say when would they meet again.


Rainbow stirred in her daydreaming and found herself blinking her eyes, becoming more aware of her surroundings with every blink as she woke up. She yawned, blinked her eyes one more time and turned to see how far Twilight and Rarity had gotten. When she saw the destroyed house, Rainbow realized that she must have been doing off for a while. The rubble had been separated into several piles, revealing the scorched remains of the interior. A quick glance at the sun confirmed her suspicions. It was around midday. The realization sent a troubled shiver down her spine. Soarin will arrive soon! We have to hurry up!

Determined to move things along, Rainbow rose up from her stone and flew over to where Twilight was examining what was left of several books and scrolls, while Rarity was resting further away, closer to the edge of the glade, where a nice shade kept her out of the sun. Rainbow ignored the white unicorn and flopped down next to Twilight. “So, what's going on? Found anything?”


“Huh? … Oh … Yes, I mean, no. I did find these bits and pieces, but most of them are nearly destroyed. It looks like the house was set on fire before it was collapsed. There's not much I was able to find.” Twilight poked the pieces of paper while nodding at the house. “Anyway, what little I have been able to find are pieces of various books and personal notes. Like Rarity said, it looks like our strange pony is obsessed with history. Ancient history to be precise...”


“Yeah, yeah, ancient history, old ponies, words nopony cares about and all that jazz. None of it matters. What I want to know is, did you find anything that would help us find the guy?” Rainbow waved her hoof impatiently, stopping Twilight before she could get carried away.


Twilight gave her a dark look and followed up with a shake of her head. “No, Rainbow, I did not find anything like that. As I said before, I was looking for a reason why those ponies are chasing him and so far I haven't been able to find any clues. It might be because of his research or something completely different. Look like we'll just have to ask Stardust once we find him.”


“Ugh, wonderful... So we just have to sit here and wait until he shows up?”


“Pretty much, Rainbow.” Twilight replied. “Though, if you want to, you can always head back to Ponyville. I'm sure we'll manage without you.”


Rainbow glared at her, but didn't say anything. The pegasus glanced at the pieces of paper on the ground, then at the destroyed house and finally in the direction of Ponyville. Twilight saw Rainbow flick her tail nervously and was about to say it that it was okay to leave, before Rainbow made up her mind. “I'll ask Flash. Maybe he'll know something.” She said to nopony in particular and took off towards where Flash and Blitzkrieg were busy examining a map.


Flash looked up from the map and saw Rainbow approaching them. He instantly realized the unspoken question and voiced his reply before Rainbow opened her mouth. “Unfortunately, we haven't located him yet.” His words were slightly unclear as he spoke around the pencil in his mouth. “Though we have found plenty of signs, indicating a lot of recent activity.”


Rainbow landed next to the improvised table and glanced at the map. It was practically covered with dozens of small notes, making it difficult to see the actual layout of the terrain. “What kind of activity?”


“The violent kind. Whatever happened here, it clearly involved a lot more than angry words and threatening glares. Some of the trees as well as the ground have been scorched by what's obviously unicorn magic. We also found a few crossbow bolts, stuck in the trees and plenty of tracks.” Blitzkrieg spoke up, replying in Flash's place. He pointed at one spot on the map. “From the looks of it, once the house was brought down, our friend, Stardust, tried to run away and hide from the attackers. Unfortunately, the pursuers followed him into the forest. However, at some point they split up, probably lost his tracks in the darkness. What seems to have followed next was Stardust being chased back and forth throughout the forest with one of his pursuers picking up his tracks and then loosing him after a while.” He kept tracing the chase on the map, his hooves moving further away from the glade as he spoke. “Fun night.”


Rainbow's incredulous gaze moved from the map to the bluish-gray pegasus and back. “That's it? All this time and there's nothing else?” As soon as the words had left her mouth, a gunshot went off in the distance, causing everypony to look in its direction.


“Well, according to a recent update, it seems that somepony is armed.” Blitzkrieg muttered and looked at Flash. “That wasn't one of ours.”


“Find out what's going on!”


Blitzkrieg nodded and raised his hoof to his ear, but before he could request an update from his scouts, a tiny voice in his Voice Caster provided the answer he needed. “Sergeant Blitzkrieg, this is Mint Lily. I've spotted movement. Hold one second, while I get a closer look.” Blitzkrieg used the pause to repeat the mare's words to Flash, Rainbow and Twilight, who had approached the small group. As soon as he had done that, the scout spoke again. “Okay, now I can see … It's him! I've spotted the target! He seems to be chasing after somepony. An earth pony … They are moving in your direction, pretty fast I should add … The target is armed with a musket and looks like he's out for blood … They're both in a rough shape, bru... shit!” The voice was cut off when another gunshot rang out, this one audible to everypony. “Yeah, definitely wants to kill him … As I said, they're both in a rough shape, bruises and everything.”


As soon as Blitzkrieg was done relaying the scout's words, Flash made a decision. “Tell her to follow them, do not lose sight of those ponies. Order everypony else to move in to intercept them. If they're heading towards us, we'll be able to trap them easily. Just make sure to try and capture him alive, we need... RAINBOW! DON'T!” He yelled, but it was too late. Frustrated by the lack of action as well as eager to get things done, Rainbow had taken off the moment she had figured out a rough estimate on Stardust's position. She took off so quickly and suddenly that even Twilight was unable to use her magic to stop the cyan pegasus.


With a single beat of her wings, Rainbow was already above the trees. She heard somepony call her name from somewhere below, but she chose to ignore it. They probably wanted her to turn back and take things slowly, carefully, inefficiently. That was not her way, that was not how Rainbow Dash solved problems. Problems were solved by moving in on the source and dealing with it the moment an opportunity presented itself. It was as simple as that.


Once she was airborne, Rainbow moved her ears back and forth, scanning the scene in front of her, searching for any sounds she could use for guidance. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see several pegasi converging on a spot somewhere in front of her. A few moments later, Rainbow picked up a commotion, coming from somewhere below were the sounds of curses, hoofsteps and breaking branches. After pinpointing the location, a small, nearby clearing, Rainbow darted towards the destination. With her speed, she was easily able to reach it before anypony else. After pulling off an impressive looking loop, Rainbow dived towards the ground, where she could already spot a pair of ponies.


As she came in for a landing, Rainbow quickly recognized Stardust, thanks to Rarity's description. The gray unicorn, sporting several bruises and cuts was busy chasing down an earth pony stallion who was trying to do his best to stay away, but was having mixed results because of what looked like a gunshot wound in his left shoulder. The bleeding wound, while not exactly lethal was doing a good job at preventing the stallion from moving too quickly, thus letting Stardust catch up to him. Rainbow reached the ground at the same moment, Stardust caught up with the earth pony and slammed into his side, bringing the wounded pony to the ground. Stardust then spat out the musket he had been holding in his mouth, grabbed it with his arms and, to Rainbow's horror, started hitting the downed pony in blind fury.


“I'll kill you! I'll fucking kill you! All of you!” Stardust yelled, a bestial snarl on his face. Pained cries filled the clearing as the earth pony tried to cover his head and crawl to safety at the same time. Every time the musket came down, a new bruise appeared on his body. Occasionally there would be blood spurting in the air or the sound of a bone breaking when the strike landed on a particularly vulnerable spot. The earth pony tried to say something, but only incoherent screams came from his mouth.


“HEY! STOP! I SAID STOP!” Rainbow tried to intervene, but to no avail, her words passed Stardust's ears without being noticed. The enraged unicorn was consumed by anger, able to focus only on the enemy in front of him.


One, hard blow caused the earth pony to scream in pure agony as the musket had come down on the gunshot wound, the force of the blow driving pieces of shattered bone deeper into the body. “You like it? Huh? You fucking like it?” Stardust raised the musket in what Rainbow immediately realized as an intended killing blow. “Where's your magic now?”


Before a coherent thought could form in her mind, Rainbow found herself shooting through the air, towards the gray unicorn. She crossed the distance between them in an eye-blink and, just as Stardust was starting to bring down his weapon, Rainbow slammed into his side, sending both of them to the ground in a painful heap. Unfortunately, her plan resulted in Rainbow drawing Stardust's full attention. Though she knew her way around a fight, Rainbow's martial skills were of little use when she found herself on the ground, on her back and pinned underneath a psychotic opponent. Whether it was because of immense amounts of misfortune on her part, or great skill on Stardust's part, it was impossible to tell and it didn't really matter.


A pair of hooves came down on her throat, cutting off her air flow as Stardust sought to crush her windpipe. Rainbow squirmed underneath him, searching for an opening, a chance she could use to get him off of her, but there was none. She didn't have the leverage. Rainbow also lacked the brute strength to break free, Stardust was bigger and heavier than her. With a shallow wheeze escaping her throat, Rainbow struck her opponent with her hooves, but in his current state, Stardust was able to whether her blows with no reaction. If anything, he actually increased the pressure by putting more of his weight on her. Rainbow felt her vision slowly blacking out as the lack of air started to affect her, she lashed out with her hooves one more time, a last attempt to break free. She did a good job at bloodying Stardust's muzzle, but it was not enough for the enraged unicorn to lose his grip.


Suddenly, a purple aura surrounded Stardust and lifted him in the air, causing the stallion to gasp in surprise. A moment later, he found himself being flung through the air like a rag doll. He hit the ground none too lightly, feeling the impact echo throughout his body and rattle his bones as he half-skidded, half-tumbled to a stop. He felt himself drawing short breaths in a desperate attempt to fill his lungs with air, which had been knocked out from the impact. Other than that, he couldn't do anything else, his mind trying to put things in order so that he could form a coherent thought. For all intents and purposes, the throw, coupled with his other injuries, had rendered him unable to protect himself from whoever had intervened in his attempt to fight fight off the attacker.


“Princess Twilight, please stop. We need him alive.” Flash said in a concerned voice as he came in for a landing, accompanied by a very angry Twilight and all the pegasi he had brought with him.


Twilight didn't reply, she merely let out a shallow snort as she continued to glare at the gray unicorn, lying on the ground. The sight of him trying to strangle Rainbow Dash had caused a sudden surge of anger to well up inside her and turn thoughts into action. Twilight then hurried over to Rainbow, who was slowly climbing back up on her hooves, coughing and retching the entire time. “Rainbow! Rainbow, are you okay? Can you stand?'


“Yeah... yeah, I'm fine … I'm fine … No problem, just a little...” Rainbow replied between short breaths and series of coughs, one hoof rubbing the spot where Stardust's hooves had been firmly planted on. She glared at the unicorn with a look that spoke of wounded pride, not just anger. A mere fluke had been enough to put her, a trained combatant, at the mercy of an unhinged, injured pony.


“Are you sure? He did...”


“Hey! I said I'm fine, okay?” Rainbow snapped at Twilight and brushed off her hoof when Twilight tired to examine her neck. Twilight scowled, but said nothing. She knew a pony, trying to put up a brave face when she saw one. And if Rainbow felt good enough to do that, then she assumed there was no need to worry about her.


“Is everything okay? Are you hurt?” Flash trotted over to the two mares, while keeping an eye on both ponies on the ground. Their objective, Stardust was trying to regain his senses, while the earth pony stallion was slowly raising up on his hooves with delicate slowness.


Rainbow gritted her teeth and glared at the guardspony. Will everypony be asking me that question? Can't you see I'm fine? I'm standing ain't I? So stop worrying, I'm not made of glass! She ignored his questions and focused on the two stallions in front of her, indicating that the conversation about her injuries was over and that they should focus on the task at hoof. As a result, she failed to notice the dark look Flash gave her, before turning his attention to the two ponies himself.


Despite sporting several cuts and bruises, a gunshot wound and most likely a severe concussion, the earth pony managed to stand up on all four hooves, though it was clear to see that he was trying not to put too much pressure on the wounded limb. He looked around, taking note of all the guardsponies, until his slightly unfocused eyes fell on Twilight, Rainbow and Flash who were studying him with mixed concern and curiosity. Realizing that they were the ones in charge, the stallion took a few shaky steps towards them and forced a smile on his face. “Th-thanks … I … thanks for helping me. I … I though … he attacked … he attacked me when I was traveling … through the forest … Jumped me without a warning … I thought I was going to die.”


“Traveling through the forest? Aren't you one of the detectives, sent to capture him?” Twilight arched her eyebrow and nodded towards Stardust, who was still lying, somewhat suspiciously still, on the ground. She heard Rainbow open her mouth to say something, but gestured for her to remain silent.


The earth pony blinked twice, his gaze becoming more focused, while his smile narrowed a bit. “Yeah, um... I was... traveling through the forest to... capture him … part of a secret mission … yeah … can't really speak about that … sorry. Section … Nine business.”


“Section Nine? You mean a unit that does not and never has existed? A completely made up unit? That one?” Twilight smiled when she saw the earth pony go pale and take a single step backwards. A short chuckle from nearby told her that Rainbow was finding the situation highly amusing. “Or did you mean a different unit?”


“Yeah, we will have to ask you a few questions about that. It's not everyday a pony makes such a claim. Especially so near to Canterlot, where things can be verified rather quickly.” Flash stood next to Twilight, quick gesture with his wings ensured that his soldiers were keeping an eye, and a few weapons, at the earth pony as well.


The stallion glanced around, his stature growing increasingly nervous. It was clear to see that he was doing a good job at fighting off the effects of his injuries, however, as he did so, he also seemed to be realizing that Stardust wasn't the only one in trouble. “Umm … listen, there surely must be a … misunderstanding.” His voice trailed off when he could not come up with any more things to say. “You can't arrest me.”


“Princess Twilight, since my squad's unicorn hasn't arrived yet, may I ask you to prepare a spell with which to stun this guy? There is a chance things might get hectic. Even though he is wounded, there is no telling what he could do.” Flash muttered just loud enough for Twilight to hear. Almost immediately, he saw Twilight tense up a bit as she gave a barely perceptible nod. Good, the princess was on the same page as he was. He turned his attention back to the earth pony and took a step closer. “We aren't talking about an arrest, sir. We just want to take you in for a questioning in order to clear up a few … misunderstandings. Though, I have to say that an arrest seems to be a likely outcome for you. Impersonating a government official is a serious crime after all. Please, come with me, sir.”


By now, all traces of a concussion were gone and the stallion looked genuinely concerned, the expression on his face spoke about increasing desperation and even panic. He kept glancing around, searching for a way out, but he couldn't find anything. “You can't arrest me. It's wrong … very wrong … You have to … It was not supposed to happen … not supposed to happen.” He muttered to himself. “No, no, no.”


“Calm down. Do not make this any more problematic than it is.” Flash said in a steady voice, while putting away his crossbow. Better not to put pressure on the guy. “Let's take it... DON'T!” He was cut off when the stallion suddenly tried to make a run for it. Blind panic made him completely oblivious to the fact that he was surrounded and that his injuries wouldn't let him run very fast or far. Fortunately, all his worries were gone a moment later when Twilight struck him with a well aimed spell, knocking the pony unconscious and on the ground.


“Idiot.” Rainbow commented the escape attempt with a shake of her head. “Did he really think he could escape? Must have received one too many blows to the head.”


Twilight studied the unconscious pony and sighed. “He was cornered, wounded, unable to think clearly and we just shot down his attempts to escape trouble. No wonder he panicked.” She took note of the gunshot wound. “I just hope he's okay. That wound looks nasty.”


“Excellent shot, Princess Twilight, thank you.” Flash ordered a few pegasi to move in and secure the earth pony while also administering some first aid. “Don't worry about him, though. He is an earth pony, he is tough. Those injuries won't keep him down for long.” He said and glanced at Stardust. “Anyway, one down, one more to go. Hopefully, he will be more cooperative.”


“I sure hope so, there's lots of things I want to ask him.” Twilight said and started trotting towards the still motionless unicorn. “Though he has been suspiciously quiet. Stardust. I know you're awake and fully aware of what's going on. Why don't you stand up?”


Realizing that his meager attempts to go unnoticed were ruined, the gray stallion slowly rose up. He sat on his haunches and observed everypony with an expressionless look on his face. He saw the unconscious earth pony, surrounded by three pegasi, who were busy treating his wounds. He saw the remaining pegasi, who were keeping their eyes on him, making sure he didn't try anything stupid. And he also saw the three ponies trotting towards him, with a lavender alicorn leading the way. He locked his eyes with her. “What?” He said in a flat voice, which, to Rainbow's ears, sounded completely surreal when compared to the mad cries before. “What do you want?”


“Well, first of all. My name is Twilight Sparkle. This is my friend Rainbow Dash and Lieutenant Flash Sentry.” Twilight decided to start with the introduction. It seemed like the right thing to do. “Your name is Stardust, correct?” There was no answer. “Okay … umm, we came here to find out what is going on. A group of ponies, pretending to be detectives, claimed that you're a serial killer and were determined to catch you.”


“And you decided to come all the way out here to confirm whether or not they are telling the truth? That's a lot of concern for some random pony you've never met. Does neither one of you have anything else to do?” Stardust tilted his head.


“You helped my friend, Rarity a few days ago. She told me about you and how nice you were to her. So when I heard some ponies telling that you are a psychotic killer, I was confused.”


“Maybe I was just pretending to be nice around Rarity.“


“No.” Twilight shook her head in denial. “Rarity said that you're a decent pony, not a killer. She has an eye for such things and I trust her.”


The expression on Stardust's face softened a bit when he heard Rarity's name, but when he spoke, his voice still possessed the same coldness. “Well, there you have it, then. Rarity is right, those assholes are wrong. I am a wonderful pony and they are lying. Case closed, dismissed, done. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go.” He stood up to leave, but found himself facing Flash.


“I am afraid it's not that simple. There is a reason why those ponies are after you and I want to find out. You'll have to come with us, so I can ask you a couple of questions and get to the bottom of this.”


“That would be unwise, Lieutenant. I have no intention of answering your questions, it is a rather personal thing. One which I would prefer to keep to myself. Furthermore, the longer I stay in one place, the greater the chance that unpleasant things will happen. Considering that those bastards already tried to capture me, I'd say it's time for me to leave.”


“What things? What are you talking about?” Rainbow was the first one who managed to voice the question on everypony's minds.


“I don't know. All I know is that I can't stay in one place for too long.” He looked at Twilight with what felt like a pleading look in his eyes. “For your own sake, you have to let me go.”


“What's coming? What have you done?” Twilight repeated Rainbow's question. “Does it have something to do with your horn?”


The expression on Stardust's face changed immediately when Twilight mentioned his horn. The expressionless look was replaced by more than a hint of anger. “That does not concern you! It is none of your business! Let me go! NOW!”


“No. There is something going on here and we will find out the truth. I have every right to detain you while I investigate this matter. One way or another, Stardust, you are coming with us.” Flash replied with a hint of frustration on his part. He was slowly losing patience from the lack of cooperation.


“Please, we just want to help you. There is no need for things to go this way. We can all work together and figure things out. Trust me, we are here to help you.” Twilight tried to reason, but her words fell on deaf ears.


Stardust shook his head vehemently. “No, no, no! No! You do not understand! This is none of your business! This does not concern you! Just … Just. Let. Me. Go.”


“Then explain it! Because the way I see it, an innocent pony is being pursued by ponies who are willing to take great risks in order to capture him. I'd say it does concern us.” Twilight's voice became more forceful as she too was losing patience. Why did some ponies had to be so damned stubborn? Was it really so hard to explain things in a rational manner? Was it really that difficult? “Why are they after you?”


“LEAVE ME ALONE!” Stardust roared, his voice gaining that unhinged tone Rainbow had heard earlier. A moment later, he made a run for it. He charged towards the nearest opening between the pegasi, guarding the perimeter. He made excellent progress. Stardust managed to take precisely three steps before Twilight blasted him with a spell. He was unconscious before he hit the ground.


Flash watched the unicorn dig a short trench in the ground as he came to a halt and heaved a heavy sigh. “Well, this went swimmingly. It is so nice to work with such wonderful and reasonable ponies.” He rubbed the side of his head in frustration.


“Yes, that could have gone a lot better. I can't believe how stubborn he is. Reminds me a bit of Applejack.” Twilight raised her horn and observed the results. Part of her was not satisfied with the outcome. She had expected to be able to solve the problem rationally, with words. Unfortunately, neither one of the two ponies had been willing to follow her preferences. Hopefully, they would calm down and eventually she would be able to have a more civilized conversation.


“Applejack indeed.” Rainbow shook her head. “Keeps talking about approaching danger, yet refuses to say anything about it. Either tell us everything so that we know what's going on or stay quiet. Don't go teasing others like this. Some ponies. What now?”


“Now? Now we get these two in the wagon and head back to Ponyville. That guy...” Flash gestured at the earth pony. “... will be sent to the clinic in order to take care of that wound. I'll post a few guards to make sure he doesn't try to slip away. As for Stardust, once his injuries are checked, I'll have a unicorn fix one of the rooms in the Town Hall into an improvised cell, where we can hold him.”


Twilight took a sharp breath when she heard Flash's plans. She understood his reasons very well and saw no reason to argue with him, however, Twilight just couldn't let such an opportunity go. No scrap of knowledge, no matter how insignificant would get past her. “Excuse me, but what about me? I mean, there are some things I want to ask Stardust. Things regarding his horn. This is the first time I've seen a case of Mana Burn with my own eyes and I would appreciate if you let me examine it closer. Furthermore, if I were to talk to him again, in a stress free environment, perhaps Stardust will be more cooperative and be willing to work with us.”


“You have no reason to be concerned, Princess Twilight. You are free to visit him as much as you need. I am sure you will be able to uncover something. You seem to have a talent for solving difficult problems, therefore your assistance will be appreciated.” Flash reassured her with a warm smile. Twilight sighed in relief. She felt like a huge boulder had just been lifted off of her back. “Wonderful. I'll start working the moment we get back. Oh, I can't wait to begin.”


At that moment, the rustle of leaves and several voices drew everypony's attention towards the side of the clearing. A group of ponies was moving through the forest towards them. Initial concerns of more, potentially unhinged ponies, were laid to rest when they saw that the arrivals were a trio of earth ponies and a Royal Guard unicorn escorting Rarity. The white unicorn entered the clearing and, with a practiced toss of her mane got rid of the single leaf that had somehow managed to get caught in her hair. “Ah, finally we have arrived. I can't believe it took us so long. It is as if...” She trailed off and noticed the sight before her. Rarity blinked in surprise when she saw the unconscious form of Stardust. “Oh my... Did … did I miss anything?”


xxxxx


With a silent groan, Stardust slowly came to his senses. He slowly opened his eyes, blinking several times as he fought the desire to keep them closed and go back to sleep. The thought was particularly tempting when he felt the soreness that was slowly waking up all over his body. Those cuts and bruises were still there, covering numerous spots on his body. As he mentally examined himself, Stardust noticed that the pain, while there, wasn't as strong as before. In addition, he felt a sensation of pressure on the same parts of his body where the bruises were. Lastly, judging from the softness underneath him, he was lying in a bed. It didn't take long for him to put two and two together and realize that he had been knocked unconscious and captured.


With his vision more or less clear, Stardust looked around and noted that, yes, he had been captured. He was inside a small room. One that seemed to have served a different purpose some time ago, if the filing cabinets, arrayed along one wall were of any indication. The wooden floor and paneling on the walls was another sign. However, just because the room wasn't originally designed as a cell, did not mean it couldn't double as one. Thick iron bars, stretching from floor to ceiling, cut the room in half, with him on one side and the exit to the other one. Stardust made a quick glance at the bars and shook his head. His captors were a careful bunch. The bars had been fused with the floor and ceiling, making it impossible to somehow dislodge them.


Pushing thoughts of escape to the back of his mind, Stardust glanced down and inspected himself. As he had thought, there were several bandages covering his body, ensuring that this injuries would heal faster. At least his captors were interested in his well-being. For now. How long would that last, he had no idea.


Carefully, he got out of the bed and walked over to the bars in order to take a closer look. As expected, somepony had done an excellent job. The fusion was flawless, he could barely see the transition line and it was the same for every single bar. He was not getting out without outside help. That was a fact. Unfortunately, there was another fact that concerned him greatly. He had been found. His location was known, which meant that trouble was most likely already on the way here. The longer he stayed here, the bigger the chance he would be caught by those he sought to avoid. Unfortunately, it didn't look like he had a choice. All he could do was to sit down and wait for the situation to develop. Perhaps he would get his chance to escape.


When he was done considering his situation, Stardust made a low growl of frustration and sat down on his haunches. He focused his gaze on the doors and stared at them intently as if expecting them to open at any given moment. As it turned out, he didn't have to wait for long. The sound of hoofsteps came from somewhere on the other side of the door. They grew louder with every moment, which meant that somepony was walking closer. Soon enough, the hoofsteps stopped right in front of the door. He heard a few words being exchanged, apparently there was a guard stationed on the other side, before the doors slowly opened, revealing a lavender alicorn.


Twilight immediately caught sight of Stardust when she entered the room. It was hard not to, considering he was the only pony in the room and was sitting in plain view, staring at her. Though Stardust was trying to give her an expressionless look, she also picked up a fair amount of agitation. Hopefully he is in a talkative mood. Twilight made a silent prayer as she closed the doors behind her. She walked over to Stardust until she was standing a meter away from the bars, meeting his eyes with her own. Okay, it looks like he might still be upset about that spell. Once the mental note was filed away, Twilight forced an apologetic smile on her face.


“I am glad to see that you're awake. I was worried that my spell had done more damage than I thought.” She began. “For which I am terribly sorry. I didn't want to blast you, but you didn't leave me any choice when you decided to run.” Twilight paused politely in order to give Stardust a chance to respond as well as in order to gauge his mood. More frustration, great. “You were out for almost two hours. Apparently, the exhaustion increased the effectiveness of the spell. Once again, I am sorry for that. I should have taken that into consideration when I cast the spell.” Another pause and once again, no answer. “Yeah, so we brought you here to Ponyville, where it's safe. We also took care of your injuries, so it won't take long for you to recover.” Still no answer. Twilight suppressed an eye twitch. It wasn't like she expected Stardust to sing praises for what hey had done, but she had been expecting some sort of answer. At least a single word after all that effort of loading him into the wagon and bringing him, as well as the earth pony back to the town. Instead, the unicorn was content with sitting in the improvised prison cell and quietly stare at her.


Twilight stared at Stardust, her mood gradually worsening when the gray stallion didn't say anything. With a sigh she carried on. “I understand that you're not in the mood to talk about what happened today, and that's okay. I came here for a different reason. I wanted to talk about your horn. I've been doing some research on it and I believe that's Mana Burn, right?”


“Yes.” Stardust replied after a long pause, causing Twilight to almost squeal in joy when she finally got an answer. “You are correct.”


“Good. I mean, it's good to know that my theory was right, not that it's good that you have it. I believe it's never a good thing to have something like that.” Twilight realized she was babbling. With a cough, she focused her mind on the main task. She sat down in order to focus. “Now, during my research I learned that Mana Burn can be...”


“Can be caused by a wrongly cast spell or otherwise improperly used magic, known as Magic Rebound, the results of which can vary, depending on multitude of factors, ranging from the type of magic used, down to unicorn's magic affinity. Yes, I know what it is, for obvious reasons I have studied this problem rather extensively.” Stardust took over and finished the sentence, practically quoting Twilight for word intended word. He even managed a smug grin for a few seconds while Twilight considered what he had just said. It wasn't everyday a pony interrupted her in order to finish a scientific explanation she'd been planning to give. Usually she was the one who did that. Being on the other side was both exciting and annoying.


“Ah, so you know what it is. Good. What I wanted to ask is, how did it happen? What kind of spell did you try to cast? How did it fell? Did it hurt?”


“No.”


“It didn't? Strange. Considering that unicorn horns become very sensitive when using magic, I figured...”


“No.” Stardust said again. “I will not tell you. This matter does not concern you, so stay out of it. Do not stick your muzzle where it doesn't belong.”


Another brick wall. Wonderful. I was hoping that he would be willing to speak about his horn. At least I managed to confirm my theory. That is indeed Mana Burn. Twilight thought and decided to change topics slightly. “I understand, you do not want to talk about why you lost your horn. Have you thought about doing something about your horn? Like going to a doctor, for example. A powerful healing spell should be be able to fix your problem.”


Stardust gave a short, sad chuckle. Twilight instantly realized that she had probably asked a painfully obvious question. Stardust shook his head and gave a heavy sigh. “And what do you think, Princess Twilight Sparkle? Would a pony, who is skilled enough in magic to get a Mana Burn like this, would try to get this fixed? … To answer your question, yes, I have tried fixing it. Unfortunately, the Mana Burn is too severe for magic to fix it.”


“What about removing your horn?” Twilight recalled some ancient medical techniques she had read about. Although Stardust wasn't a pony you wanted to stay around for long, her heart went out for him. She couldn't imagine how it would feel to lose her ability to use magic. “If the affected part of the horn was removed, then there is a chance your horn would grow back.”


Stardust was shaking his head before Twilight was done speaking. “Too burns go too deep for something like that. The nerves have been burnt all the way down to the base of the horn. This would require my entire horn to be removed, considering how close it is to my brain, there is a high risk of brain damage. There isn't a doctor alive who can perform an operation like this. And quite frankly, I would appreciate if you stopped pestering me with your stupid questions. It is getting rather annoying.”


“And I would appreciate if you stopped acting like this. You are rude.”Twilight shot back, her nostrils flaring as she fought down a surge of dislike for Stardust. Was common politeness too much to ask? Stardust was doing an excellent job of annoying everypony. All she wanted was to learn more about his condition and maybe even help find a way to treat it. Yes, it was a personal thing for Stardust, but Twilight was being polite about it, perfectly willing to obey gentle unwillingness on Stardust's part, like an adult. Unfortunately, Stardust preferred to brood and brush others off.


The gray stallion glared at her and snorted. “Oh, really? I was attacked by several ponies, who destroyed my house, along with all my work, I spent more than two years on, they chased me throughout the forest for the entire night, resulting in me getting more than a couple of bruises and when I finally manage to corner at least one of those bastards, I get jumped by your friend, thrown through the air, knocked unconscious, taken captive and then having you ask me all these stupid questions, so I apologize if I'm not feeling excited about having a conversation, or seeing another pony, for that matter.” He vented part of his frustration in a voice that almost bordered on yelling. He took a few breaths before continuing. “If you really want to have a chat, then tell me when I'm getting out of here.”


“Not for a while, Stardust.” Twilight replied evenly, not raising to Stardust's tone. At least one pony in the room had to be the levelheaded one. “You do realize that you attacked and nearly killed two ponies?”


“They started it.”


“Regardless, there is a point where self-defense becomes an assault. Because of you, two ponies have suffered severe injuries, which could have been fatal if not for a great deal of luck. And while you can claim self-defense, there is a good chance you crossed the line in the eyes of the law. You will have to stay here while we investigate this matter as well as why were those ponies after you.”


Stardust didn't say anything for a long time. However, Twilight could easily see anger boiling just underneath the surface. He was not taking the news well. Eventually, he seemed to come to a realization. “I see.” He said in a calm voice. Twilight felt a flicker of hope inside her, perhaps now that he had calmed down, he would be more willing to cooperate? “I see. In that case I believe there is nothing left for us to talk about.” He rose to his hooves and jumped up on the small cot. “This conversation is over. Especially since I do not have a lawyer nearby.” He curled up with his back towards Twilight and yawned. “Now, begone. Go enjoy your festival.” He said and closed his eyes, leaving a very angry Twilight glaring at his back.


xxxxx


“Ugh, I can't believe a grown pony acts like that. For a moment I seriously wanted to give him a piece of my mind. How does he expect anything to be solved and I do mean anything if he keeps acting like that? I understand that he is in a bad mood, but c'mon, realize who is your enemy and who isn't! I was trying to help him. We all are, but that grouch seems to have an allergy to normal, social interaction.” Twilight rambled while she made the finishing touches to her costume. “I mean, even the most socially inept pony should understand that antagonizing everypony is not how things work. Yes, I understand, there are ponies one does not like, but you can't have dislike for everypony. It's illogical. You need balance between ponies you lie and ponies you don't, even if that does sound wrong. But no, he has to be a total grouch to everypony and acts like we should all be apologizing for bothering him, even though he hurt two ponies. I mean, the nerve of that guy! Not only that, but he even went and lectured me, after he interrupted me, of course. I can't believe how annoying that was. Spike, do you have any idea how it feels to have somepony lecture you?”


On the other side of the lobby, Spike lowered his comic and gave Twilight's back a level look. “No, Twilight, I have no idea how it feels.” He rolled his eyes, sarcasm dripping from his voice.


“Well, let me tell you, it's annoying.” Twilight replied, still absorbed in her thoughts and the examination of her costume.


Seeing his message go unnoticed, Spike sighed and tossed the comic aside. He stood up from the cushion he'd been using and patted down his own costume in order to make sure there were no wrinkles. This year, his costume was less scary than usual. This year he was dressed as a prince. He wore a light blue jacket with white collar and cuffs, as well as golden buttons and epaulettes. A small, plastic sword hung from his left side, while a large, golden crown, with false gems was carefully placed on his head. Once he was done with inspection, he looked at Twilight. “Twilight, I understand that you're upset, but you can't keep thinking about it all the time. You'll never enjoy Nightmare Night if you keep thinking about that guy.”


Twilight glared at his reflection in the mirror in front of her.“I am not … Yes, Spike, you're right. I can't spend the entire night thinking about him. It's just that the situation frustrates me so much. We could have probable solved the entire mystery if he was more forthcoming. Just a little cooperation is all I ask.” She took a few deep breaths and forced the issue out of her head. She would deal with it later. Twilight gave herself one last look in the mirror and, satisfied with her costume, turned around, presenting it to Spike. “Well? What do you think?” Much to her frustration, Spike could not recognize her costume, despite how familiar he should have been with it.


“Nice costume, Twilight … you're a … Looks familiar … I know I've seen it before … You're a … wait. I got it! You're that unicorn assistant from that play … Clopper the Cleaver.”


“Clover the Clever.”


“Oh, right. Yes … what did I say?”


“You said... never mind.” Twilight said and adjusted the simple robe she was wearing. It was slightly itchy, especially around her wings, the rough fabric wasn't that comfortable. It was, however, completely historically accurate and that was the most important thing. If she had to put up with some discomfort, so be it. “Anyway, now that I'm done, I guess we are ready to go.”


“Good idea, we're almost out of candy anyway, so it's best we leave before more kids arrive. It would be a shame to let them go without any candy.” Spike pointed at the nearly empty bowls next to the entrance.


Twilight shook her head and opened the door. “Yes, and I wonder why we're running low.” Out of the corner of her eye, Twilight saw Spike snatch the very last cookie and swallow it whole as they left the library.


“Yeah, it's a mystery. A Nightmare Night myst... Ouch.” Spike's chuckle was cut short when he bumped into Twilight who was standing in front of him and staring in the skies, completely unaware of her surroundings. “Twilight, what gives, I... whoa.” His complaint died down when he looked up and noticed the sight that had captivated Twilight.


Usually, the skies would be full of stars, arranged in various constellations, while a bright moon bathed everything in its cold, yet gentle light. Tonight everything was different. While the moon was still in the skies, it had a new appearance. The soft cream white color had shifted to a blood red, giving everything a faintly noticeable, red tone. Not only that, but the moon also sported the profile of Nightmare Moon. The pitch black silhouette was clearly visible for anypony who looked up. In addition, the stars had been moved from their usual spots and arranged into bats, spiders and whatever creepy creature a pony might expect to symbolize Nightmare Night.


Twilight was almost speechless. She couldn’t tear away her gaze. “So this is Luna’s surprise. It is amazing! I had no idea she was planning something like this.” She managed in a barely audible voice as the magnitude of Luna’s work sank in. A small part of her let out a short laugh when she thought about all the astronomers Luna was sure to annoy. A lot of ponies had come to expect to see the stars always remain in their places. She stared at the skies, taking in every single detail, making sure, she remembered it for a long time. A slight frown settled on her forehead, when she spotted a tiny, blue light moving way up in the skies above Ponyville. However, she soon dismissed it as unimportant and went back to enjoying the view.


Either way, it was clear that Luna was with them, if not in body then certainly in spirit. Her present to those who celebrated her favorite night was both amazing as well as eerie. It certainly increased the atmosphere of the festival. “Let’s go, Spike. I want to hear what others will have to say about this. No doubt they will be impressed. Princess Luna has truly made this night special, I can’t wait to see what else is there.” She looked down at Spike and urged him along as they both headed towards the main square, where their friends were sure to enjoy this night.


xxxxx


“Stupid, height. Stupid fucking height. Couldn’t they arrange the meeting at a more reasonable altitude? First I have to listen to that asshole’s preaching, then we spend the entire night chasing that bastard until we lose them and now I have to fly all the way up here, just because those fucks want to.” Storm Chaser fumed as he forced his wings to carry him higher and higher. He had been flying for quite a while now. He was so high that Ponytown or whatever that backwater place was called was barely more than a tiny speck of lights underneath him.


With a deep breath, he consulted his surroundings and realized he was high enough, now he just had to find them. That problem was solved quickly. He needed barely a fraction of a second to spot a massive, dark shape making its way through the skies. He also saw bright blue light shining through what looked like numerous cracks in the flying object. Lastly, and most importantly, Storm Chaser spotted a pair of figures, sitting on top of the shape as it was flying towards him. The Pegasus strained his wings once again and moved to converge with his target. It was a tricky thing, since it was moving very fast and he had to not only match his speed, but also fight the displaced air around it. Eventually, with a low grunt, he surged forward and landed heavily onto his target, sliding slightly as his hooves struck the solid surface.


“I should tell you to get off, but I doubt you have the brain capacity to consider such a complicated thought.” A low growl came from nearby. “Since you obviously cannot follow such simple orders and wait for us to solve the problem.”


“Fuck off.” Storm Chaser replied and turned to face the other two ponies in front of him. As he did so, he had to fight a small shiver that ran down his spine. The two unicorns in front of him were far from normal. One of them sported a crimson coat, though it was barely visible underneath the massive leather cloak he was wearing. His head and face were also obscured from view, by a massive dragon’s skull, shaped with magic to form a helmet; the stallion’s amber yellow eyes were barely visible through the skull’s empty eye sockets. The other pony wasn’t wearing anything, though that did not make her any less intimidating. In fact, when compared to the skull freak, the mare was much more scarier. Her coat was black, not just black, but black black. So dark, that even the night skies looked white in comparison. She was like a pony-shaped hole, torn in the fabric of reality. The only parts of her that weren’t black were her pink mane and the pink slit pupils of her eyes.


Storm Chaser looked past the black mare, focusing on the stallion further away. “Fuck off, considering how slow you two usually are, there was a good chance that bastard might have slipped away. I don’t want to start tracking him from scratch all over again.”


“So you figured that acting like a bunch of retards and pissing off the entire settlement in your pathetic attempt to capture him is better?”


“Siķļum.” The black mare chuckled. Storm Chaser had no idea what she had said, but he doubted it was a compliment.


Before he could come up with a reply, the unicorn continued. “Then again, you did manage to ensure that he stays here long enough. So I guess your approach did yield some results.”


“Sat aniamen utkaf, ak šņiv ajēpsen tīdlipzi umuvedzu.” A hiss from the second unicorn cut in, forcing the two stallions to stare at her in confusion before shrugging off the accusation. Neither one of them had any idea what she was talking about; then again, her purpose was not to talk. She was here for a different reason.


“Yeah, anyway, I guess it’s time to get to work. Now, Storm Chaser, since you’re here, you will get to participate. Though you managed to lose him, Persistent Tracker remained near the settlement and succeeded in obtaining some useful information. According to him, our long lost friend is being kept at the Town Hall. However, don’t concern yourself about that. Stardust is her problem.” He nodded at the mare. “You, however, will get to play a more noble part. Swamp Boulder, one of the earth ponies you were teamed up with, has been placed in the clinic; apparently, Stardust worked him over pretty good. We cannot leave him there. So, you will have to go down and rescue him during the confusion. Do you understand? Fail to do so, and I’ll see what I can do to make sure, you’re handed over to her.” He once again nodded at the mare, who was staring at Storm Chaser with a disturbingly focused gaze. Seeing no alternative, Storm Chaser merely nodded in agreement.


“Good, prepare to move out.” The stallion said and then turned his full attention to his companion. “Black Lotus, you’re up. Give those ponies something nice to play with.”


The mare didn’t reply. Neither one of them would have understood her anyway. Instead she closed her eyes and started muttering something nopony could hear. At the same time, she reached up and touched her hoof to the tip of her horn. When she pulled it away a moment later, a black trail of dust followed it. Tiny tendrils of pitch black dark snaked from the trail of dust and a distant screaming filled the eyes of both stallions, causing them to shudder. The screams, sounding like hundreds of ponies being burned alive, became louder the longer the tendrils became. Eventually, as they snaked away from the trio and down towards Ponyville, the screams grew more silent. A few minutes late, on the ground far below, several bright flashes came into existence for a brief moment. Though neither one of the three ponies could see it, they knew what was going on. Down below, spawned by the brief flashes, a group of dark shapes were sprinting towards Ponyville, filling the air with their tortured screams. The Nightmare of Nightmare Night was about to begin…

Nightmare in Ponyville. Part II

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“You know, this sucks. Why are we stuck with guard duty when we could be out there, doing all sorts of crap and enjoying ourselves? Nightmare Night is only once a year and I can't believe we're missing out on it.” A dispirited voice sounded across the small meeting room Flash and his squad had turned into their command center.

“I know how you feel, I don't like it myself. But duty calls.” Another voice joined in, this one was less whiny, however, the sentence was said in a way that Flash instantly recognized a complaint which was aimed at him. He chose to ignore it, instead focusing on filing the report in front of him.

With no reaction from him, another guardspony felt the courage to complain about his situation. “Dude, I know what you mean. Fuck duty!” One of the stallions, Misty Ridge, judging from the voice, added rebelliously. “We're missing out on some serious shit. Did you see how many sexy mares there are in this town? I could have gotten laid tonight!”

“Oh? What makes you think that?”

“Well, not to brag or anything, but you should have seen the smile one of the mares gave me. It was a smile full of promise. She looked hot as well. A mint green unicorn with a light green and white mane... awesome. I would love to get to know her better, if you know what I'm saying.”

With his face hidden behind his report, Flash couldn't avoid rolling his eyes. The Canterlot Royal Guards represent the finest soldiers Equestria has to offer. Dedicated and highly professional, they are the pride and joy of all of ponykind. He recalled a line from a recruitment brochure he had read years ago. Perhaps it was the wrong brochure?

“Dude, you might have gotten it wrong. I mean, when I saw you for the first time, I couldn't stop laughing for a week.” A series of chuckles accompanied the friendly insult.

“Hey! Fuck you, Morning Dew! At least you have somepony to ride you when you're horny! Go pester your coltfriend!”

The finest soldiers Equestria has to offer...

“Can't, sorry. He is reading fine literature.”

“A Playcolt magazine is not literature!”

Flash glanced up from his report just in time to catch an earth pony Stallion, Sledgehammer, lower his magazine and cast a smug look at the annoyed pegasus. “That's not what you said yesterday, Ridge. In fact, I clearly recall you praising this very fine example of literature! Half the barracks heard you grunting.”

Highly professional...

“You know whom I would love to hear grunting as well as moaning?” An earth pony named Gatekeeper spoke up. “That new princess we accompanied to the forest today. She's so damned cute, I couldn't take my eyes off her.”

Pride and joy of all of ponykind...

“Princess Twilight?” The second mare in the room, Rose Star spoke up, eyes glinting in amusement as she levitated one of the cupcakes towards her. Earlier that evening, one of the Element Bearers, Pinkie Pie had brought a basket full of delicious pastries to the guardsponies unable to enjoy the festivities. “Yeah, she's nice, if you're into that dorky and adorable stuff. I, however, would love to hang out with Applejack. She's strong and hardworking. Lots of stamina, which means we could go all night long. Plus I bet that mane of hers would look great if she let it down.”

Flash sighed and dropped the pencil he had been holding in his mouth. It was fine to let them talk about various things, but there was a line. He cleared his throat to get the attention of all five ponies in the room. “That's enough. Have some respect and stop daydreaming about the ponies we are supposed to protect.”

“Daydream? But it's night outside.” Sledgehammer pointed out.

Flash fixed him with a stern glare, forcing the stallion to avert his gaze and hide behind his magazine. However, there was little anger in Flash's glare. He knew that they were just trying to stave off the boredom. Truth be told, he was bored as well. Investigating the forest for additional clues had yielded no results, the rest of the pretenders had probably decided to flee. Stardust wasn't being cooperative. The earth pony stallion they captured in the forest was currently at the clinic, recovering from his injuries. The doctors had insisted the he was to be left alone for a few days before Flash could order his interrogation. With one source of information refusing to cooperate and other one being shielded by doctors, Flash didn't have a lot of options. So he decided to wait. Either for Stardust to calm down or the earth pony to recover, whichever came first. He would probably have to move them to Canterlot at some point, modified archive rooms weren't suited for holding ponies for long.

With the situation more or less solved, Flash looked at his report and sighed. The report was done, which meant he had nothing else with which to stave off boredom. He glanced over it a few times, just to make sure he hadn't missed anything and to buy himself more time, during which he tried to find a new way to pass the time. Only one solution came up. One that would probably earn him more than a few dirty looks from the rest of the ponies on guard duty. Oh well, at least they'll be able to talk about whatever they want. He pushed the report to the side and got up to his hooves. “I'll go out and check how everypony else is doing.” He was right, the amount of not so well hidden glares he received was incredible. They all knew what he meant by that. Even though he would indeed be checking up on others, he would also get the chance to clear his head and perhaps even enjoy the festival a little. “You stay here and watch the prisoner.” He added fuel to the fire, feeling odd amusement at the same time.

He checked his armor, making sure it was on properly and slipped on his helmet. Lastly, after raising the visor, he attached a pair of hoof boots to the sides of his armor, where he could easily reach them. It wasn't like he was expecting to be attacked, but there were regulations to follow, besides, one couldn't attend Nightmare Night without a proper costume. As he started walking towards the exit, he cast a quick look at the five ponies, swallowing nervously as they followed him with their eyes. Perhaps it wasn't right to poke fun at them like that. Time for damage control. He thought. “I won't be long. I'll also get somepony to relieve you, can't have you holed up here for the entire night.” That did the trick. The promise of some free time did wonders in making the guardsponies feel better. With that taken care of, Flash let out a silent chuckle and walked outside into the night.

xxxxx

“Dude, I understand you're not good at this, but at least make an effort! You're missing. Badly.” Rainbow Dash shook her head when she saw the second ball sail right past the empty can pyramid. “The point is to hit the cans, not avoid them.” Soarin muttered a silent curse and picked up the last of the three balls he had been given by Applejack. He placed it in the slingshot and then started to pull back the rubber with his teeth, while trying to get a proper aim.

Applejack watched the scene with a great deal of amusement in her eyes. “Just remember that this is your last chance. You wouldn't want to disappoint your marefriend now would you” She said and winked at Rainbow Dash who chuckled when she saw Soaring swallow nervously.

Already in a playful mood, Rainbow decided to have some fun. She leaned closer to him and whispered in a salacious voice. “Hey, you know, if you manage to knock down all the cans, I will give you a special reward. A very special reward.” She said and blew on his ear lightly.

“Wha...” Soarin started to say, but in doing so, he let the rubber slip from between his teeth. The ball didn't even make it to the cans. It landed just shortly before the intended target. Both Applejack and Rainbow broke out into laughter while Soarin shook his head in amused defeat. “I just can't win against you, can I?”

Rainbow pretended to think for a second. “Umm, nope?”

“You know, because I like to see you try and take down Rainbow Dash a few pegs, how about one more try?” Applejack suggested and tossed a ball at Soarin.

“Hey, how come he gets an extra try?”

Applejack glanced at Rainbow with a curious look. “What? Are you afraid he'll beat you?”

“Hell no!” There was fire in Rainbow's eyes. Hearing that she might be afraid of something, especially losing a competition, instantly got her blood boiling. “There is no way you will win, Soarin! You have only one try and you will have to knock down all the cans in order to score better than me.”

Soarin smiled when he heard the fierceness in Rainbow's voice. As always, whenever the conversation touched upon a contest of any sort, it always brought out the competitive side of Rainbow, one that he loved so very much. It made her stand out from any crowd. “Well, you never know. I just might get lucky and nail this thing.”

“In that case, you should let me help you, Soarin. I think a few calculations and a proper application of force will be enough to make a perfect shot.” A familiar voice cut in from nearby. Soarin and Rainbow looked in the direction of the voice and saw Twilight and Spike heading towards them.

“Heh, since when do you know anything about slingshots and cans?” Rainbow was reluctant to let the competitive atmosphere vanish. She gave them both a friendly nod, but, other than that, she did not lose the determined expression on her face.

Twilight chuckled when she saw the look on Rainbow's face. Whether by accident or serious role-playing, Rainbow's expression perfectly matched her costume, which was that of a rather colorful Daring Do. Though she had managed to get the clothes right, it seemed that Rainbow had stumbled upon a few problems in regards to her mane and tail. It had taken Rainbow so much dye to make her tail gray, that she hadn't been able to bye her mane. As a result, Twilight was looking at a cyan Daring Do with a multicolored mane. Though, truth be told, it looked pretty good. “Nice costumes, everypony.”

“Thank you,” Soarin replied with a shallow nod. His costume was also inspired by the Daring Do books. He was sporting the appearance of a tribal warrior, with warpaint markings covering his face and body, and various amulets and trinkets either hanging from his neck or woven in his mane. “I like your costumes as well. This is the first time I've seen a prince and a beggar theme on Nightmare Night. It looks good.”

Here we go again. Twilight gave a mental sigh. “Actually, I'm Clover the Clever.” She dropped the name, but seeing the lack of recognition on anypony's face, told her she might have not bothered. “It's a historical figure. Nevermind.”

“Well, if you say so, Twi.” Applejack adjusted her vest, which served as one of the main pieces of her sheriff costume. “Would you like to try a hoof at this? Knock down all the cans with the slingshot there and win a prize. Soarin and Rainbow have been havin' plenty of fun.”

The sound of a ball being loosed from a slingshot drew everypony's attention. They all watched the projectile fly through the air and knock off the very top can of the pyramid. “More like me losing all the time.” Soarin added with a sour look on his face, while Rainbow sported a cocky grin.

“No thanks. I'm fine.” Twilight replied as they all shared a laugh at Soarin's expense. There was no ill meaning behind it, just a group of ponies having fun and joking around. Privately, Twilight was amazed just how cheerful everypony was, considering the depressing mood in the previous day with all the rumors of a serial killer going on. She had half expected the celebration to be somewhat on the quiet side, since everypony knew of the prisoner being held at the town hall and there were several guardsponies patrolling the streets of Ponyville. Fortunately, she had been worrying about nothing. Ponies had short memories when it came to such matters and the Nightmare Night was just too exciting to keep a pony depressed for long. Have fun and don't worry about anything. That seemed to be the general thought. One Twilight was eager to follow.

Next to her, Spike's eyes lit up the moment he heard the word “prize”. Though he wasn't competitive by nature, he did love prizes. Especially tasty ones. And, considering that most of Nightmare Night revolved around various treats, he was certain that the prize would be something tasty. Perhaps an apple pie, made by one of the Apple family traditional recipes. “I want a go, Applejack. Let me try.” The purple dragon raised one arm, jumping up and down in excitement.

Applejack gave him a kind smile and placed three balls next to the slingshot. “There you go. Remember, the goal is to knock down all of the cans. Good luck.”

“Think you can win this game, huh?” Rainbow teased him when Spike walked over to the slingshot.

Spike ignored Rainbow's friendly taunts. Instead he focused on the task. He picked up one of the balls. The ball was nothing more than a small sack of thick fabric, filled with sand for extra weight. Problem was, this gave it very poor aerodynamic capabilities, which was part of the challenge. Still, Spike felt confident about his abilities to hit the target. He placed the first ball into the slingshot and pulled back. The temptation to pull back as far as he could was strong, but he knew it wouldn't do any good. He had a different approach in mind. Spike made a quick calculation, adjusted his aim and let go. Instead of shooting straight at the pyramid like it did in most attempts, Spike's shot arched through the air in a ballistic trajectory. Instead of shooting through the stack of cans, it came down at a slight arc, dealing a more widespread impact. As a result, all but four cans remained standing. Three on one side and one on the other side.

There was silence behind him. Stunned silence and Spike couldn't help smile a little. Oh, I'm just getting started. He picked up the second ball and aimed it at the small stack of three cans. This time he went for a straight shot and though he nearly missed it, he managed to knock down all of them, leaving only a single can standing.

“How is he doing that? He has already scored more than I did!” Rainbow stared at Spike's back and then at the last remaining target.

“Magic.” Spike answered mysteriously. “And an excellent aim.”

“Spike's right. He has always been good at this.” Twilight added with a slight chuckle when she saw the displeased look on Rainbow's face. She was about to watch Spike make his third and last shot when she saw a glimpse of somepony familiar. “Hey! Flash!” She waved her hoof in the air, drawing the attention of a pegasus guardspony, who had been making his way across the market square. Flash looked around until he noticed Twilight and then changed his course towards them.

“Look at that lazy costume! Must he wear the same costume those other twenty or so ponies are wearing? No originality at all.” Rainbow commented in a low voice, causing her and Soarin to laugh quietly as they noticed the suit of armor Flash was wearing. Even Twilight couldn't hold back a brief chuckle.

The moment he was within easy speaking distance, Twilight collected herself and smiled. “Hi, Flash. Nice costume.” This time Applejack and Spike laughed as well. “I suspect you're a guardspony tonight.”

“Yes, Princess Twilight, or should I say Clover the Clever?” Flash replied, causing Twilight to gasp in surprise.

“You recognized my costume. Finally! After everypony getting my costume wrong, again, somepony finally recognized my costume! Wow! How did you know? Do you like history? How long did you study it?”

“Heh, another egghead.” Rainbow rolled her eyes when she saw her friend practically shiver with excitement.

Flash raised his hoof placatingly. “Not exactly. I haven't studied history. At least not more than any other pony. It's just something I recall from my high school history class.” One could almost hear Twilight's excitement vanish like air from a balloon.

“Oh... I see... Well, at least you got my costume right.” Twilight said before a sudden realization struck. “Oh, wait. I haven't introduced you to my friends yet. Umm, Flash, this is Applejack and Soarin. Soarin, Applejack, meet Flash Sentry.”

Flash and Soarin briefly shook each others hooves, whereas Applejack greeted Flash in her usual manner. “Well, howdy there, partner. The name's Applejack, like Twilight said.” She grabbed his hoof in hers and started shaking vigorously. “It's a pleasure to meet your acquaintance.”

“Th-thank you.” Flash had trouble speaking clearly until Applejack decided to let go of his hoof. The pegasus glanced at his hoof as if expecting it to fall off any second. “Though introductions are hardly necessary, I already know who you all are.”

“As my granny tends to say, there's a difference between knowing a pony and meeting him.” Applejack countered with a wide smile. “Anyway, would you like to test your luck? Three shots to knock down all the cans and you win a prize. Test yourself to see just how accurate you can be. Maybe you will get lucky like Spike here. Just two shots and he's already wipin' the floor with Rainbow Dash.”

“Hey...” Rainbow glared at the grinning earth pony mare.

“Just tellin' the truth, sugarcube.”

“Not exactly, Applejack. I don't really need luck to win this game.” Spike said from where he was still standing next to the slingshot. Because of the excitement Flash's arrival caused, he hadn't made the last shot in fear of wasting it. Now that things had calmed down a little, he felt calm enough to take the last step. He placed the last ball in the slingshot and pulled back. A moment later, he let it loose and, as expected, the final can was knocked down. “See? Pure skill. Now, what did I win?”

They never found out what the main prize was, as a distant scream reached their ears. Usually, a scream on Nightmare Night was nothing to worry about. It was part of the celebration, after all. However, this one was different. It was a scream of pure terror, without the tiniest bit of excitement in it. Either somepony was doing too god a job of scaring others or somepony was in real trouble. They exchanged brief glances, realizing that they all were thinking the same thing. Something was wrong. Before anypony could voice their thoughts, Flash focused his thoughts on the Voice Caster in order to contact the pony responsible for security in this part of Ponyville. “Blitzkrieg? What...”

“It's one of the locals. A unicorn mare. Just spotted her running towards the town hall, something's scared her.” Blitzkrieg replied before Flash could finish his sentence. He seemed to be together with other guardsponies as well, since Flash could hear him addressing them. “Stop her! We have to find out what's going on.”

“What's wrong? Is everything okay?” Rainbow voiced her concern as they all watched Flash wait for a reply.

The pegasus shook his head. “They are trying to find out. Blitzkrieg saw one of the local mares running towards the town hall, probably for help he'll...” His explanation was cut short when another scream, this one more panicked than the previous one, echoed across Ponyville. Unlike before, this one was cut short. A faint feeling of dread welled up at the back of their minds as they all started to slowly move in the direction of the scream. Meanwhile Flash contacted his subordinate again. “Was that...”

“Not her, it was somep... For fuck's sake, calm down, lady! What is wrong with you! Glint, help me hold her down! Silent Watcher, Shadow Step, Iron Arrow, that scream came from nearby, go check it out!” There was a moment of near silence when Flash could only hear a series of grunts and muttered curses as Blitzkrieg struggled with the mare.

That's strange. Blitzkrieg is one of the strongest pegasi in the Royal Guard, somepony like him shouldn't have problems with a single mare. A sudden thought occurred to Flash as he waited for the sergeant to reply. A few moments later, he heard his voice again. “Finally managed to calm her down, didn't want to hurt her. Anyway, the mare's possessed, she keeps talking about being attacked by some weird ponies on the outskirts of the town. They tried to run away, but got separated. I guess that second scream was from her friend. I sent a couple of guardsponies to investigate, I'll be joining them as well. Private Glint will take the mare to the town hall and inform Sergeant Bastion about the situation. The rest of my squad is converging on the area as we speak.”

“Understood. I'm with Princess Twilight as well as Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Soarin and Spike, we'll be heading in your direction as well.”

“Got it. I'll send Corporal Rose Star and her tactical squad to meet you. Can't have you all alone with those VIPs in case things turn ugly.”

“Okay, okay. Hopefully, it won't be necessary. With luck, this will just turn out to be a bad joke, nothing more.” Flash said and cut the link. He glanced at the nearby ponies and was met with expecting gazes as they all made their way in the direction of the screams. “Looks like something's gone wrong. According to the mare Blitzkrieg was forced to detain, she and her friend was attacked by some strange ponies. They tried to run, but got separated during the escape. Blitzkrieg is heading towards where the second scream came from. Hopefully, he'll have some answers for us once we get there.”

Twilight nodded in agreement, fighting to keep her nerves down. “Good …. That's good … Let's hope that his is nothing serious.” The entire night had lost it's festive atmosphere as they made their way across the market square. All around them, ponies were exchanging nervous looks with each other, all staring in the direction from where the screams had sounded. Some of the more nervous ones were slowly moving towards the center of the town, away from the potential trouble. The sight of Twilight, Applejack and Rainbow wearing concerned expressions, stirred up unpleasant memories. If the Element Bearers were involved, then things were about to get serious. As it soon turned out, their fears were well placed.

The small group of ponies had reached the edge of the market square and were about to head down one of the streets when more sounds reached their ears. Several screams, some of them frighten ted, some angry, and one of them unnerving, could be heard from nearby. They were followed by shouted orders, sounds of struggle and a gunshot. That drew everypony's attention. Especially when there were more screams before silence settled in.

Almost immediately, Flash's hoof went to his helmet as he heard Blitzkrieg's voice all but scream in his ear. “FUCK! SHIT! … We have a fucking HUGE problem. We found the second mare and one of the attackers. She's dead, fucking ripped to pieces. Blood and guts everywhere! The killer was still standing over her, ripping off chunks of flesh. We tried to capture him, but the … thing just threw itself at us. Tore out Iron Arrow's throat! … I shot him … it ... in the chest, but it didn't go down … Kept snapping those freaky jaws at us … had to bash in the thing's skull before it died!” Flash related Blitzkrieg’s message as fast as he could, causing everypony to go pale from the news. He was about to ask about the status of the wounded pony when he heard screaming again. This time it was different. It was coming from nearby. And it was moving. Towards them.

The next moment, they all gasped collectively as a strange pony emerged from between two houses, crossed the street in front of them and disappeared from sight. They only managed to glimpse a few details, but what they saw was more than enough to unsettle them. Black and gray coat, stretched taut as if struggling, and failing, to cover the body, leaving pale ribs and spine gleaming in the night. Behind the pony, a trail of ash and dust swirled in the air as tiny flakes seemed to be coming off its body and mixing with the black smoke that made up the mane and tail of the pony. The only bit of color they manged to catch a glimpse of was the Cutie Mark, a bright, burning sigil nopony could recognize.

“Halt!” Flash cried out, but the strange pony was already gone. It's hoofsteps growing weaker is it weaved between the buildings, heading deeper into the town. Before any thoughts of pursuit could be formed, new ponies appeared in their sight. These ones, however, did not run away, instead they charged straight at the five ponies and one dragon.

Flash opened his mouth again, in order to try and stop them, but words died in his throat when he caught sight of the ponies' faces. There were no eyes. Just dark, empty sockets staring back at him. Still, despite the lack of eyes, neither one of them seemed to have any problems moving around. Not just moving, but running at a pace that would put even a trained athlete to shame. However, that wasn't the detail that disturbed Flash the most. It was the teeth. Long, sharp, needle-like teeth filled the mouth which stretched way past what was considered natural. The lack of cheeks as well as the loose jaw, made the mouth big enough to easily bite off half of a pony's head.

And as if that wasn't enough, there was the screaming. Pained wails of tortured screams as dozens of voices cried out in horror, forced the small group to take more than a single step back. The screams represented all that was wrong and evil in the word. Screams of terror, pain, suffering, loss, hate, anger, bloodlust, all-encompassing hunger, all of them mixed in a single sound that chilled the bone.

Flash was still trying to figure out what was going on and what should he do, when the three strange ponies suddenly put out an extra burst of speed and attacked. Flash barely managed to raise his hoof to where one of the hoof boots was attached to the side of his armor, when the nearest pony fixed the eyeless gaze on him and leaped, slamming right into Flash and knocking them down to the ground.

Seeing the guardspony being attacked, gave Rainbow a clear message that this was not a problem that would be solved peacefully. The message, more like a realization sunk in fast enough for her to prepare herself. When the second pony leaped at her, a second later, Rainbow was ready. Just before impact, she brought up her hooves, slammed them against the sides of the attacker's head and redirected the momentum to smash the pony into the ground. She then used her wings to jump back and put some distance between herself and the downed pony.

“Dash! Look out!” Soarin cried out and Rainbow turned her head just in time to receive a hoof to the face from the third attacker. She staggered from the force of the blow, trying to get her bearings even though it felt like half of her head had been caved in. A moment later she was sent to the ground when a second blow connected with the side of her head, opening up a nasty gash as the pony continued the assault. Rainbow tried to recover before the third blow came, but she could not stop her head from spinning. Being caught off guard meant she hadn't been able to brace for the blows. Fortunately, the third blow didn't come. Rainbow managed to recover just in time to see Soarin tackle the dark pony to the ground with a hateful roar.

“Applejack! Help Flash!” Twilight said to her friend and turned her attention to the pony Rainbow had knocked to the ground. The stranger was already back up and was preparing to attack Rainbow and Soarin, who were busy trying to subdue one of the attackers. However, before that could happen Twilight intervened. She grabbed the pony with her magic, determined to neutralize the attacker by holding it in place, before breaking up the two other fights in a similar fashion. However, the plan collapsed the moment her magic got hold of the target.

The pony screamed in a mixture of pain and rage, and started squirming in Twilight's grasp. It's movements were so strong that it managed to actually slip out of Twilight's grasp, something which had never happened before. “Wha...” Twilight blinked in surprise, but her reaction was cut short when the pony, howling like a banshee blitzed towards her with blinding speed. Instinctively, Twilight lashed out with a pure telekinetic blast, but her aim was off and the pony jumped out of the way. With her panic increasing, Twilight tried again, but this time it was too late. She managed to channel her magic through the horn, but before she could release it, the pony was right in front of her. Acting on reflex, she raised her hoof to ward off the attacker, but regretted it a moment later. She screamed in pain when sharp teeth sunk into the flesh and stopped only when they met the bone. Before she could form a coherent thought, Twilight found herself flung to the ground, as the attacker yanked her arm to the side, causing her to lose her balance.

The pony let go of her arm, which was bleeding profusely and went for her throat in an obvious attempt to kill her. But before it could happen, Spike intervened. With his voice a mixture of fear and anger, he screamed something Twilight couldn't understand. A moment later, Spike's crown impacted the side of the attacker's head. The blow was nowhere near strong enough to cause any damage, but it was solid enough to gather attention. The dark pony let out a particularly loud scream and charged Spike, leaving Twilight alone.

With tears of pain welling up in her eyes, Twilight tried to recover, but the sheer terror of the attack as well as the pain from the deep bite, meant she wasn't fast enough. She was still trying to form a coherent thought when Spike's scream pierced the night, which was already filling with terrified screams, coming from all directions.

Unlike others, Spike didn't have any magic or combat training to protect him. He wasn't even able to come up with anything before the pony reached him. Sharp teeth clamped around his sides as the massive jaws closed around his belly, the pony trying to rip open his stomach and disembowel him. Luckily for Spike, he was a dragon and his scales were strong enough to stop the bite. The comforting realization didn't last long. Almost immediately, Spike was thrown to the ground and found himself trying to shield his head with his arms, as the pony started raining down heavy blows upon him. Part of his mind noted the thick bone that covered the pony's hooves, like a set of grotesque shoes. However, that part of his mind soon was overtaken with pain as the blows came down again and again, though unable to pierce his scales, the sheer force of the impact was more than enough to form bruises.

Flash's entire world disappeared for a moment in a shower of stars as a particularly heavy blow struck his helmet. The impact caused his grip to falter for a moment and his attacker used the chance to try and go for his throat. However, Flash recovered quickly enough and managed to steer the disturbing jaws to the side before pushing with his hooves and keeping the attacker's mouth as far away from himself as possible. This lead to more blows being rained down upon him as the attacker flailed with his hooves, but through a combination of resolve and armor, he managed to weather them without too much problem. Even as he did so, Flash was busy trying to work his legs underneath the dark pony on top of him, so that he could kick the bastard off of him. It was easier said than done, since constant blows, attempted bites and general struggling made it hard for him to focus.

Suddenly, the sound of approaching hooves heralded the arrival of another pony. Flash sneaked a quick glance and caught sigh of Applejack running towards him. He tried to shout a warning, tell her to stay away from the danger, but the only thing he managed was a muffled groan as one of the blows struck him right in the muzzle. Before he could register the pain or the attacker could utilize the momentary advantage, Applejack arrived. With a grunt of an effort she planted her fore hooves solidly in the ground turned and bucked the dark pony with all her strength. There was the sound of bones breaking with wet snaps as the pony was sent tumbling to the ground. It came to a halt a few meters further. The body twitched once, twice and then stopped moving entirely.

Flash was getting back on his hooves when Twilight's scream filled his ears. He and Applejack looked in her direction, just in time to see one of the dark ponies let go of Twilight and pounce upon Spike. Almost immediately Flash surged into action. He paused only to slip on his hoof boots, slamming them against the ground a moment later. Wickedly sharp claws, three on each hoof, locked into place as the guardspony rushed to save Spike. As soon as he was close enough, he raised both arms and slammed the claws into the dark pony's neck and barrel. Using the momentum of his charge, Flash reared up and actually lifted his opponent off of its hooves. He took a few steps forward and slammed the pony against the ground. Hard. Operating on a mixture of fear and shock, rather than rational thinking, he reared up again and brought down his armored hooves on his opponent's head. There was a sickening crack and the screams of the dark pony became almost unbearable. Blood was poring from the ears and muzzle of the wounded pony as it trashed around, trying to get back on its hooves. Not wanting to face such a persistent enemy on equal terms, Flash slammed down his hooves again and again, delivering powerful blows to the opponent's head. He stopped only when the screaming did. By that time, his hooves were practically caked with blood and gore and a fair amount of the vile stuff was covering his face and chest as well. Breathing heavily, he stepped away from the broken corpse and looked around.

Things were bad. Though they had managed to take care of the attackers, they hadn't gotten away without a scratch. Twilight was gritting her teeth in order to keep herself from screaming in pain as she did her best to avoid looking at the nasty wound on her arm. She kept her eyes focused on Spike, who was sobbing uncontrollably into Applejack's coat as she held the little dragon in a tight embrace and whispered something Flash couldn't hear. Rainbow, despite bleeding from the gash on her head, was busy taking care of Twilight, using pieces of her costume to bind up the wound and stop the bleeding.

“We have to move. It's not safe here.” Soarin's voice interrupted Flash's thoughts as he moved towards him, leaving behind the third attacker with a broken neck. Soarin himself was completely unharmed and seemed to be the least nervous about the attack. “There is more trouble nearby.” That last bit of information was completely unnecessary. Anypony with a pair of working ears could hear the screams of panic that came from all around them. The market square behind them was completely empty, save for empty stands and various junk littering the ground. The attack on Twilight and her friends, as well as the screams before that, had resulted in ponies fleeing for safety without wasting a second. Furthermore, Flash could easily pick up the disturbing screams of more of the strange ponies somewhere nearby. There were more than three of them.

Flash was about to reply when a nearby gunshot reminded him that he had other things to do than just stand there and talk. With a sudden rush of horror, he realized that he was in charge of all the guardsponies in Ponyville and that they were probably expecting him to give orders. He was reminded of it a moment later, when a pegasus rounded the same corner the three dark ponies had come from earlier. The armor she was wearing, identified her as a guardspony and a closer look revealed that she wasn't alone. The mare was carrying a pegasus stallion on her back. Flash immediately recognized him as Iron Arrow, whereas the mare carrying him was known as Shadow Step. He rushed towards her, determined to learn more details when said details were presented to him without having to ask. Blitzkrieg and Silent Watcher emerged from the side street a second later.

Blitzkrieg quickly spotted his friend and hurried over to him, his eyes making notes of the nearby area. “It's not safe here. There is a whole lot of those freaks around. Saw at least a dozen of them disappear in the nearby streets. Judging from the screaming, I think they're pretty much everywhere. We also need to do something about Iron Arrow.” He pointed his hoof at the stallion on Shadow Step's back. “He lost a huge chunk of flesh when he was bitten in the throat. We managed to stop the bleeding, for now, but until we get him to a specialist, he won't last long.”

“We can't just run away!” Rainbow spoke up as she finished tending to Twilight's injury. “Other ponies are in trouble.”

“Wait. Let me think.” Flash began.

Twilight experimented by putting a bit of weight on her arm, but a sudden surge of sharp pain made her wince. Regardless, she joined the conversation. “Rainbow is right. We have to stop all this. Our friends are in trouble. We won't leave them.”

Flash raised his hoof in order to gain a moment to think. Unfortunately, that was the moment when his Voice Caster came to life. “Lieutenant! What the hell is going on! Glint just brought a hysterical pony to me and told me something about weird ponies. The next moment I hear screams all around and everypony's in panic. What is going on? What are your orders?”

“Corporal Rose Star, reporting. Sorry for being this late, there's some serious shi... trouble going on.” The unicorn mare caught herself when she saw that Twilight was nearby. “Anyway, what's the plan? What do we do?”

At this moment, Flash could feel the pressure weigh him down almost like a physical weight. As more and more ponies voiced their concerns, his sense of responsibility demanded that he do something about it. Problem was, he had no idea where to begin. Everything was important. Everything had to be taken care of. “Just let me think for a moment.” He asked weakly, his voice cracking.

“Elements! We have to get to the Elements of Harmony!” Twilight spoke up. “If we get to the Elements, I am sure we will be able to stop … whatever is going on. We have to get to the library! Now!”

“That means we will have to find Fluttershy, Pinkie and Rarity.” Rainbow added.

“SHUT UP!” Flash suddenly yelled, drawing everypony's attention. “Just … just shut up. Let me … think for a moment … Just give me some time to think … just a few minutes.”

“We don't have that much time.” Blitzkrieg pointed out quietly. “We have to move now.”

“I know … I know. I just...” Flash was drawing short, shallow breaths as he felt the entire world start to spin around him. The need to make a quick decision was only making it worse. Every second he spent panicking, meant that he was unable to make a decision, which only made his panic grow even more. He glanced around, noting the looks everypony was giving him and felt a sudden urge to vomit when he could almost feel their expectations. Flash was about to go over the edge when he locked eyes with Twilight.

Twilight didn't say anything. She merely looked back at him, with an understanding look in her eyes. Then, she gave him a kind smile, despite the pain she was feeling, and did something strange. Flash saw her take a deep breath, raise her hoof to her chest and then slowly extend it in front of her as she exhaled. She repeated the gesture several times, keeping her eyes locked on him the entire time. Eventually, Flash got the message.

He mimicked the breathing exercise and suddenly found himself being able to think more clearly. Flash did it a few more times until his thought became more rational. “Okay, so we are being attacked by strange ponies, who seem to have only one thing on mind. We have to get the Elements, but we can't just leave others to fend for themselves while we retrieve them.” He was talking both with the ponies nearby as well as Sergeant Bastion listening through the Voice Caster. “This is what we're going to do. Sergeant Bastion, you're at the town hall, correct? Now, gather your squad and fortify the building as well as the main square. Get as many civilians inside and set up a perimeter, do not let the enemy get to them! Private Glint is already with you and I will have Blitzkrieg send Corporal Monsoon and her tactical squad to reinforce you.” He heard the mare give her acknowledgment. At the same time, Blitzkrieg relayed Flash's orders to the pegasus mare known as Monsoon. “Now, the elements. We need six ponies to use them, right? Three are already here, where are the others?”

“Rarity's watchin' over Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom and Scootaloo. She said they would go to Sugarcube Corner once they're done.” Applejack replied. “Pinkie could be anywhere, but considering that the Cakes were planning to organize a cupcake eating contest, I reckon she'll be there as well. As for Fluttershy...”

“Fluttershy is in her cottage. She doesn't like Nightmare Night, so she prefers to spend it hiding in her cottage.” Rainbow provided impatiently when a particularly terrified scream overwhelmed all the others.

Flash digested the information and mentally placed the locations in question on an imagined map of the town. Now that his mind was working, it didn't take long for him to come up with a plan. “Here's the plan. Our main task is to get to the lybrary where the Elements are kept. We'll stop at the Sugarcube Corner on the way there and pick up Miss Rarity and Miss Pie, before proceeding to the library.”

“In the mean time I'll go get Fluttershy. I am the fastest flier, so it won't take long.” Rainbow flared her wings, but a hoof on her shoulder stopped her. She blinked in surprise when she saw that it was Soarin who was shaking his head.

“I know you're eager to go, but you can't just rush ahead. I'm going with you.”

“Good idea, we can't run off alone, there is safety in numbers. Blitzkrieg, take Silent Watcher, Shadow Step and Iron Arrow, and go with them. You will be passing the town hall on your way to the cottage. That's where you will leave Iron Arrow. Silent Watcher and Shadow Step, you will remain at the town hall and provide help to Sergeant Bastion, while Blitzkrieg, Rainbow and Soarin continue to the cottage.”

He then turned towards the group of four guardsponies. All clad in armor and wielding various weapons. “You will come with me. We'll make sure the Princess and her friends get to the library in one piece. Understood?” The guardsponies replied with brief nods. “Good. Now, everypony. Let's move! We have to stop this before more ponies get hurt.” No words were spoken as the entire group split in half and started making their way towards their destinations. A group of pegasi took off and, with the heavily injured Iron Arrow being carried by Blitzkrieg and Soarin, flew towards the town hall as quickly as they could. At the same time, with Twilight and Flash in front, the second group disappeared into a nearby alley as they headed towards the Sugarcube Corner. All around them the screams of panicked, terrified ponies, mixed with the howling wails of the strange attackers, came together in a cacophony that would haunt the nightmares of many ponies for a long time.

xxxxx

Hate, there was so much hate coursing through her veins. Burning, unadulterated hate for all living beings. It was all-consuming and knew no bounds, always urging her to share that hate with others, to rip and tear and rend their flesh into tiny pieces. To feel their blood splattering on her face, to hear their bones break, to see the light of life drown in the sea of pain and horror as their eyes slowly turned blank and empty. So powerful was the hate raging inside her, so tempting it was to just give into it and mindlessly throw herself at the nearest pony.

A tight grip on her mind forced part of her consciousness to leave the Darkling she was possessing, lest she lose herself in its mind and become a feral beast. She ordered the Darkling to slow down, ignore the fleeing ponies in front of her and cast its eyeless gaze around. She was in what looked like a town square. It was almost empty, save for several trashed stands as well as a large amount of discarded costumes and various snacks that littered the ground. There were also a couple of dead ponies lying on the ground, the luckiest ones missing large pieces of flesh while the least fortunate ones were barely more than few bloody bits and scraps in the middle of crimson puddles.

The square was dominated by a single building, which was bigger than most buildings in the town. She immediately realized that she was looking at the town hall. The location of the government of this town as well as the place where they were keeping him. A wicked, toothy grin slowly appeared on her Darkling's face and she started trotting towards the large building. Her smile grew even wider when she saw that the fleeing ponies, pursued by other Darklings, were running towards the town hall for safety. Safety they would never have as they would be slaughtered down to the last stallion, mare and foal. A small part of her mind realized that these ponies had nothing to do with her mission, but she couldn't help it. It was just too exciting.

“Take aim!”

Perhaps it was the thirst for blood of her Darkling that was affecting her, or maybe it was just her, but there were times when the urge to slaughter these insignificant insects was just too great. It would bring her great joy to make these ponies realize just how powerless and weak they were.

“Fire!”

Her train of thought was derailed by a thunderous roar, followed by an immense blow to her chest, which knocked her down on the ground. A scream of pain escaped her mouth, which was joined by several others from nearby. Feeling strange numbness spreading through her body, she tried to get back on her hooves, but was unable to do so. She couldn't move or feel anything below her neck. She lifted her head off the ground and looked around, searching for the source of the unexpected intervention.

Then she saw them. Standing on either side of the stairs, leading to the entrance of the town hall, were several ponies, clad in armor and wielding long barreled weapons. They were busy tinkering with their weapons, inserting what looked like a small paper cylinder into a hole of the weapon before closing it and leveling the weapons in her direction.

“Fire!” She heard a mare's voice reaching her over the sounds of panicked screams and hoofsteps. Then she heard that thunderous roar again, followed by another impact. Then she felt nothing.

xxxxx

With a heavy gasp, Black Lotus opened her eyes and raised her hoof to her chest. Still gasping heavily, she moved her hoof away and looked down at it as well as her chest. There was nothing. No holes in her flesh and no blood flowing from her body. She calmed her breath and blinked a few times as her consciousness fully returned to her body.

“Problems?” The skull-helmet wearing unicorn picked up on her sudden distress. His voice held little actual concern for her, since most of his attention was focused elsewhere.

Black Lotus did not dignify him with an answer. Or even a shred of attention. Instead, she quietly took several steps forwards and glanced down at Ponyville. Apart from several small lights there was nothing else to see. However, a brief mental effort and a few blinks later, she was getting a much better look at the settlement. She could make out separate buildings as well as signs of movement between them. Black Lotus cast her gaze around until she spotted the town hall and what was going on around it.

She could see several ponies making a mad dash towards the town hall in order to escape the Darklings pursuing them. However, that was not the problem. What was the problem were armored figures moving to meet her Darklings and prevent them from tearing apart the fleeing ponies. Black Lotus narrowed her gaze in annoyance. This would not do at all. She moved back to her previous location, closed her eyes and cast out her mind again. This time she didn't focus on a single Darkling. Instead, she reached out almost every Darkling in Ponyville and placed an obsessive need, a compulsion to head to the town hall and kill everypony there. At the same time, she urged a small group of Darklings to take care of the main reason why they were at Ponyville. It was time to stop having fun and start doing her job.

xxxxx

“Okay, looks clear. Let's go.” Misty Ridge gestured with his hoof and ran across the street into the alley. Everypony else followed him a few seconds later, doing their best to slip into the narrow passage before they were noticed.

Twilight used the chance look in both ways, just to be perfectly sure there was no immediate threat nearby. However, in doing so, she lost her grip and nearly fell. With a startled gasp, she tightened her grip and achieved two things. One was a jolt of pain from where she had been bitten and the second thing was a short choking sound from Flash when she nearly cut off his air supply. The pegasus glanced back at her with a worried look on his face. “Are you alright, Princess?” Twilight didn't reply, she merely nodded, since opening her mouth would result in a pained scream announcing their location. “Understood. Just hold on tight. We are almost there.” Flash said and continued moving forward, carrying Twilight on his back.

Twilight had started their journey to Sugercube Corner like everypony else. Well, everypony else, except for Spike. Applejack had asked him to get on her back the moment they had started moving, realizing that the baby dragon was in no condition to match their pace. Something which also applied to Twilight, since her injured arm hurt like crazy whenever she put weight on it. Twilight had tried to tough it out at first, but everypony had soon realized that she was slowing them down. Flash had offered to carry her on his back, something she refused at first, but after Flash had insisted and Applejack had told her to stop being stubborn and accept help, Twilight had stopped her protests.

With Twilight on Flash's back and Spike being carried by Applejack, the small group had made excellent progress towards their destination. By staying to the shadows, they had managed to avoid encountering any of the dark ponies, something they all were grateful for, since anypony, unlucky to avoid being caught, had met a violent and gruesome end. Twilight had to fight down the urge to vomit when she recalled the last sight of an unfortunate pony. We have to get the Elements! She chanted in her mind. Once we get them, we will be able to take care of this. We will save everypony! Like always! She kept focusing on the thought, trying not to think about anything else. Especially how quiet everything was getting. The panicked screams that had filled the night minuted before, were slowly dying down. This could mean only two things. Either everypony had escaped or they were all... Twilight cut the thought off before it could fully form. Everypony will be fine! We will fix this!

Suddenly, they all skidded to a halt when a volley of gunfire echoed in the distance. “What was that?” Sledgehammer asked, although everypony knew the answer.

“Musket fire. It's coming from the direction of the town hall.” Rose Star replied, her ears, like everypony else's were flicked in the direction of the gunfire. A moment later, another volley echoed in the distance.

“Sergeant Bastion is organizing the defense of the town hall. With everypony heading there for safety, I guess it's only logical to assume that those … things would be drawn to them. We have to hurry up.” Flash said, urging the group to move out.

They were just about to break out in full gallop and cross one of the last streets that separated them from the Sugarcube Corner when Misty Ridge, the pegasus who was on point, suddenly raised his hoof and, with more than a slight hysteria in his eyes, urged everyone to press against a nearby wall. All questions were answered when they heard the sound of dozens of screaming voices approaching them. Voices belonging to the dark ponies terrorizing Ponyville. They came from the street in front of them as well as the street behind. In some cases, the screams also came from above. Before any decision could be made, the sounds of hoofsteps told them that it was too late. Nine ponies and a dragon held their breaths when they saw several dark ponies run past their alley. There was around a dozen of them, all running in the same direction and not noticing the small group of ponies who were trying to fuse with the ground in order to avoid being noticed. Several dark shapes even crossed the skies above them as they jumped from one roof to another in their mad dash towards whatever destination they were heading to.

After almost three dozen of the dark ponies had passed them, the small group dared to draw in a collective breath of relief. It looked like they hadn't been spotted. The thunder of hoofsteps and screams were becoming more distant with every passing second. “Not good, looks like they are heading in the direction of the town hall. Sergeant Bastion will have her hooves full, trying to...” Morning Dew began, but was cut short by Gatekeeper's panicked scream.

“SHIT, SHIT, MOVE EVERYPONY! MOVE!” The stallion who had been busy guarding the rear part of their group screamed. A second later, another scream, this one more primal, joined his. They all looked back and saw a single dark pony standing at the entrance of the alley, its empty gaze focused on them. It let out another scream and this time it was joined be several others from nearby. They had been spotted! They had to run!

They all broke out in full gallop, crossing the street and moving down the next alley. Twilight risked a glance back and saw the dark pony, now accompanied by six others, pursuing them. She risked a quick blast with her magic, but the ponies easily dodged her attack. Not only that, but the attack seemed to only make them more angry. They let out furious shrieks and put out an extra burst of speed, rapidly closing the distance between them.

Twilight tried again, but this time, instead of trying to hit a specific target, she aimed at the nearby wall. Pieces of shattered bricks were sent flying as Twilight blasted the wall with all the strength she could muster. Several pursuers went down, when they were struck by the flying debris, and several others had to stop unless they wanted to be buried by the collapsing wall. The owner of the house was not going to be happy about that, but Twilight had no other choice. She either had to sacrifice part of the building and create an improvised barricade or risk being ripped apart. As a result, it was an easy choice to make. The barricade would not hold the pursuers for long, but it did buy them precious seconds.

With that taken care of, Twilight carefully tightened her grip around Flash's neck, as they exited the alley and entered a small square. Situated right ahead of them was their destination, the Sugarcube Corner. The square itself was empty, but that did not surprise them. Anypony with even a bit of common sense was doing their best to find someplace safe. Their only hope was that Sugarcube Corner counted as a safe location.

Their hopes were soon fulfilled when the doors of the building flew open and revealed a welcome sight. Pinkie was standing in the doorway, urging them to hurry up inside. “Twilight! Applejack! Quick! Get inside! Hurry!” She called to them while checking the square for any danger.

The danger soon presented itself when a group of seven dark ponies emerged from the alley and ran after Twilight and her group. As expected, the pile of rubble hadn't slowed them down for long and they were quickly making up the lost time as they ran across the square, straight towards the Sugarcube Corner, screaming in impatient bloodlust.

Misty Ridge and Morning Dew were the first to reach the stairs. Immediately, they turned around and leveled their weapons at the approaching enemies. Using their wings to leave the ground, they worked the levers of their repeating crossbows, sending bolt after bolt at the dark ponies. Because of the remaining ponies in the way, the two guardsponies had difficulties landing solid hits, but any bit helped.

“Get away from the door! Clear the doorway!” Twilight cried from Flash's back when a sudden idea popped in her mind. As soon as Pinkie did as she was told, Twilight focused part of her mind onto the clear space she could see inside the building and another part at Applejack, who was the closest pony. “Everypony, as soon as you're inside, clear the way. I have to have a line of sight!” Twilight said and channeled her magic. Her horn lit up and a purple aura surrounded Applecjack and Spike. A second later, there was a loud crack and they disappeared, only to appear inside the Sugercube Corner a moment later. “Clear the way!” Twilight repeated and turned around, aiming her spell at Rose Star, who was at the back of the group. Another crack and the unicorn mare was teleported inside the building.

The dark ponies let out a blood chilling howl and doubled their efforts to catch them. It was almost as if Twilight's use of magic had somehow angered them. Twilight filed that small thought even as she teleported Sledgehammer to safety. We won't make it! A sudden thought struck, when she saw how close the dark ponies were. I have time for only one more spell before they catch up. She realized with growing panic.

“Twilight! Get out of the way!” Twilight heard Pinkie's voice. She looked in her direction and saw the window next to doors swing open and a familiar light blue muzzle being aimed at the dark ponies chasing after the three remaining ponies.

Twilight managed a surprised squeak before the decision was made for her. Flash Sentry saw the cannon, realized what was about to happen and reacted with lightning speed. He was unable to warn Twilight, so it came as a complete surprise to her when he suddenly threw himself, and Twilight to the side, landing none too lightly as they both tumbled out of the line of fire. Nearby, Gatekeeper did the same thing and also dodged to the side at the very last moment.

The lead Darkling saw nothing else but prey in front of him, their souls burning brightly, temptingly. There was no escape, no hope for them. Their only fate was to be ripped apart by his teeth, to scream in excruciating pain as flesh was torn from their bones. He saw the two of them go down to the ground and howled as he prepared to leap at them. He opened his grotesque jaws and strained his muscles as he kicked away from the ground and leaped. There was a sudden roar from nearby and then there was pink...

“C'mon! Let's go! Help me get her to safety!” Twilight heard Flash's voice while she was busy gathering her thoughts. Flash's sudden jump had resulted in Twilight landing on her injured arm and then banging her head against the ground. Luckily for her, the blow to the head wasn't anything serious, but it did leave her momentarily disoriented. She felt two ponies grab her and half-drag, half-carry her forwards. She tried to protest, but couldn't muster the strength to do it. Her ears were still ringing from that cannon blast, and it didn't make it any easier to concentrate. The only thing she knew for sure was that Pinkie had saved their lives by using her party cannon.

Twilight finally regained her bearings at the same time Flash and Gatekeeper brought her inside Sugarcube Corner. They both immediately slammed the doors shut and locked them, while Carrot Cake and Misty Ridge lifted a large table in front of the window. A second later, her vision was filled with Pinkie's fuzzy mane when her friend gave her a tight hug. “You're here! You're here! I am so glad to see you! I was so worried! I wanted to go and look for you, but there were those scary ponies outside hurting others, so we had to hide. And then I saw you all outside, and you were chased by those meanies, so I had to open the doors and let you in.” Pinkie took a deep breath and loosened her grip in order to look Twilight over. She noticed the bandaged arm and gasped. “You're hurt! Did those mean ponies hurt you? Is it serious?”

“It's fine, Pinkie. It only hurts when I put weight on it.” Twilight smiled and gently disengaged from Pinkie's hug, while taking a fresh breath of air. She looked around and saw that the only reason why Pinkie wasn't smothering Applejack was because Apple Bloom had her arms locked tight around her older sister's neck and was quietly crying from relief, while Applejack was slowly stroking her sister's back. Rarity stood nearby with Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo hiding behind her. The white unicorn gave Twilight a reassuring smile and nodded.

“Twilight, darling, it is a relief to see you unharmed, relatively speaking. We were immensely concerned about you two.” She said and looked at the rest of the group, noting the troubled looks the guardsponies were shooting at the doors as well as the quiet conversation Dlash was having with somepony through his Voice Caster. “Have you seen Rainbow Dash? I haven't seen her all evening.”

“Rainbow Dash and Soarin went together with Blitzkrieg to get Fluttershy. That is also why we came here. We need you and Pinkie in order to use the Elements of Harmony.” Twilight explained quickly. She looked around and saw Cup Cake standing on top of the stairs with a concerned look on her face. “They will be meeting us at the library, where the Elements are. Once there, well use them and hopefully stop this madness.”

Carrot Cake's ears perked up. “Hopefully? You mean, you do not know what those … things are?”

“No.” Twilight shook her head. “Nopony of us knows what they are and why are they here. We were at the market square when they attacked. They just showed up and started...” She trailed off when she realized that the three little fillies didn't need to hear the details. “... hurting others.”

“So it means that we will have to go outside? Where those things are?” Rarity swallowed audibly. Twilight merely nodded.

Rarity and Pinkie shot troubled looks at the front doors and then looked at each other, concern plainly evident on their faces. They both took deep breaths and then Pinkie spoke. “Okay, we'll go with you, Twilight. We have to help save as many of our friends as we can.”

“Now, Apple Bloom, I want you to stay here with Mister and Missis Cake, where it's safe. I'll be right back.” Applejack ruffled her sister's mane. However, the filly was having none of it. She wrapped her arms around Applejack's arm and shook her head.

“No! Please don't go! Don't leave me here! I want to go with you! I don't want you to leave! Take me with you! Please!”

Applejack sighed and gently pulled her hoof out of Apple Bloom's grip. “I can't take you with me. It is too dangerous outside for a filly like you. Stay here. You'll be safe with your friends. And don't go worryin' about me.” She predicted Apple Bloom's protests. “I'll be just fine. We'll get to the library and take care of this thing in just a few minutes. I'll be back before you know it.” She gave her sister a quick hug and a reassuring smile, before doing something that caught everypony by surprise. She took off her hat and placed it on Apple Bloom's head. The hat fell over the filly's eyes as it was several sizes too big. “There you go. A good luck charm. While wearing this, you have nothin' to worry about.”

Apple Bloom adjusted the hat so she could see and took a deep breath. “Thanks, sis … I'll …. Thanks.” She managed a small smile on her face. “Just … just be careful.”

“I'll be fine.” Applejack reassured her. “You have my word.”

“Spike, I think you should stay here as well. It is dangerous out there and you could get hurt. So it's best if you say here with the girls and let Mister and Missis Cake look after you while we're gone, okay?” Twilight turned her attention towards Spike who was standing nearby in complete silence. He didn't say anything. The purple dragon merely walked over to where Scootaloo was observing Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom saying farewell to their sisters, and sat down on the ground.

Twilight watched him go and felt a surge of sadness inside her. Spike was obviously in a state of shock. Despite his maturity he was still a child. A child who had experienced one of his favorite days of the year be shattered and twisted into something horrible. Not only that, but Spike had seen some of the bodies and that was not something a child should experience. Twilight made a note to talk to him once this was over. She had to help him. Somehow. But first, they had to fix this. There was no other way. She felt her resolve strengthen. “Okay, everypony. We have to go and put an end to this.”

“I will open the back door for you. You will be able to get out quietly that way and perhaps avoid being seen if you stick to the alleys. It might take you a bit longer to reach the library, but I think it will be safer.” Carrot Cake offered.

“No.” Flash shook his head as he ended his conversation through the Voice Caster and caught the last bit of the earth pony's offer. “We have to get there as soon as possible! We can't waste a single second. I just talked to one of my Sergeants and she said there is a large group of those things attacking the town hall. A lot of ponies are taking shelter there and I don't have to tell you what will happen if those things get inside.” More than one pony shuddered at the thought. “Sergeant Bastion is holding those things off for now, but it's bad. Very bad. And there is no telling how long they will last.”

“What about Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy? Have you heard anything from them?” Applejack voiced her concern.

Flash nodded. “Yes, they are making their way towards the library. They had to be careful about it and avoid being spotted. Apparently, some of those things can fly.” He said with a sour look on his face. Great, more problems! “However, they are still moving forward and will be there shortly, so it's best if we just make a run for it.”

“Are you suggesting that we use the front door and risk being attacked by those things on our way there? Surely, you cannot be serious?” Rarity voiced her concerns. “What if by doing it, we attract attention to this building? I refuse to do something that would endanger my sister or anypony else staying here.”

Before Flash could reply Rose Star spoke up. Her voice was calm, however everypony could see the impatience in her eyes. “Excuse me, but every moment we waste discussing this matter is another moment my friends are forced to fight without any help and more civilians placed in great danger. We don't really have a choice. And if we don't get the Elements, things will bad. Very bad.”

“But, I can't...”

“We ask for permission to stay behind and fortify this position.” Misty Ridge spoke up after exchanging a few words with Sledgehammer and Gatekeeper. “This way we'll be able to provide safety in case those things decide to check this place out and with less ponies in your group, you'll be able to make faster progress and are less likely to be spotted.”


“What? No! I can't allow that. You will only reduce our fighting strength.” Rose Star shook her head in disagreement, but the sound of Flash clearing his throat stopped her.

“Permission granted. Stay here and defend this place. Do whatever you need to keep these ponies safe. But make sure to avoid attracting any attention.” His gaze drifted towards his Corporal as he moved towards the door. “Misty Ridge is right. Less ponies means quicker progress and it's not like the library is that far away. We'll reach it in less than a minute. Besides, you've seen what's going on. We are completely unprepared to handle this problem. The Elements are our only chance. If that doesn't work, we're done for.”

“Orders understood. We'll make sure nopony gets past those doors. This place will be safe as a vault. Especially if we get to use that thing again.” Misty Ridge said with an eager grin and nodded towards Pinkie's party cannon in the corner.

Before he was done talking Pinkie was shaking her head. “Sorry, but one shot was all I had. I don't have anything else to load.” She pointed at an empty bucket, lying on the floor. A few glittering shards next to it told Twilight what exactly Pinkie had used for ammunition.

“Not to mention that using a cannon is bound to attract a lot of attention.” Twilight pointed out and took a deep breath as she prepared herself for the inevitable sprint. She hoped her injury wouldn't be too much of a problem. However, as she considered that fact, she felt a pair of hooves grab her and in the next moment, she found herself on Pinkie's back. “P-pinkie! What are you doing?”

The pink mare looked at her with a strange expression and chuckled. “Silly Twilight. I'm carrying you on my back of course. How do you expect to run with your injury?” Twilight opened her mouth to protest, but was cut off by the sound of doors being unlocked. With a surge of fear, she gripped her friend around the neck and shot a worried gaze towards the entrance, expecting those nasty ponies to break in any second now. Fortunately no such thing happened.

She watched Flash crack the door opened and peek outside. A moment later he looked back at them and nodded his head. “Okay, looks good. Let's go.” With that he swung the door open and went outside. Morning Dew followed him close by, her crossbow ready to fire at any threat that presented itself. Next was Applejack, followed closely by Rarity and Pinkie, who was carrying Twilight. Rose Star was the last to leave, making sure to quietly close the door behind her.

Once outside, they turned right and started moving towards the library at a quick trot. Twilight heard Rarity take a sharp breath, which was followed by a barely suppressed sound of gagging. She looked at her friend in order to check if everything was alright, but in doing so, Twilight caught the sight of what had caused Rarity's distress and found herself fighting down the suddenly raising wave of vomit.

Lying in the middle of the square where the mangled remains of the dark ponies who had been gunned down by Pinkie's cannon. Half buried in pink streamers and colorful confetti, the corpses looked very similar to the remains of ponies they themselves left behind. Some were missing limbs or sported large holes in their bodies. Others were quite literally torn apart, with piles of steaming entrails and pieces of flesh lying everywhere, painting the ground black as blood flew freely from the numerous holes Pinkie's improvised scattershot had made.

“Don't look at it, Twi. Keep your eyes forward and don't think about it.” Applejack advised in a low, emotionless voice when she noticed Twilight's reaction. They quickly made their way down the street and, much to Twilight's relief, soon rounded a corner which blocked off the unpleasant sight. It did little to block out the sounds, however. Whatever was going on at the town hall was audible throughout Ponyville. And though the sounds of the battle worried her greatly, a small part of Twilight's mind reassured her that all the noise was a sign that there was still time to save the ponies at the town hall.

After rounding another corner and not being spotted, the entire group felt a wave of relief when their eyes fell on the Golden Oaks Library. The large tree stood ahead of them like a beacon of hope, promising safety to all who reached it. Without realizing it, everypony in the group further increased their pace, sprinting towards the library at full gallop. They were nearly safe, the only thing left to do was to reach the library and wait for Rainbow and Fluttershy to arrive.

Flash slowed down a little and placed his hoof against his helmet, where the Voice Caster was hidden underneath. “Blitzkrieg. We are almost at the library. Where are you?”

“Almost th.... SHIT!” The last word was heard by everypony as it came from nearby. They all paused in surprise and looked in the direction of the scream, where the beginning of a street was located between two rows of houses. It was exactly at that moment a cyan blur entered their view and shot towards the library, while a rainbow streak trailing after what was unmistakably Rainbow Dash. In her front hooves, she was holding Fluttershy, who, with her eyes closed, was holding on to her friend as if her life depended on it.

A second later, Blitzkrieg, carrying an empty musket, and Soarin, armed with a sharp looking shovel, also entered the view. Unlike Rainbow, their backs were facing the library. The reason for it was made brutally obvious when four dark ponies flew into view. Using tattered flaps of flesh as wings, they shot after their prey, howling in rage. Soarin and Blitzkrieg moved to intercept, but it was clear that they would be either overwhelmed and killed, if all attackers focused on them, or unable to prevent all of them from going after Rainbow and Fluttershy. Something had to be done.

“Library! Now! Get the Elements! You two, after me!” Flash heard an unfamiliar voice and found himself charging towards the dark ponies, while Morning Dew and Rose Star followed close behind.

Flash's sudden yell broke the momentary chains around Pinkies', Rarity's and Applejack's hooves, they turned away from the sight of the inevitable fight and galloped towards the library as quickly as they could. Twilight, trying to block out the screams and curses behind her, shifter her attention towards the library itself. She focused her magic and opened the front doors, just in time for Rainbow to avoid smashing them down, and considering her speed, the pegasus had been planning on doing exactly that. The cyan mare disappeared from sight as she entered the library. A few moments later, they were all inside.

Twilight jumped off Pinkies back at the same time Applejack slammed the doors closed, while Rarity was busy working on closing all the curtains. Though they would hardly slow down the attackers, it did grant them a small measure of safety, since they couldn't be instantly spotted. Making sure to avoid landing on her injured arm, Twilight quickly looked around to check on her friends. Applejack and Rarity were busy keeping watch by peeking through openings in the curtains. Pinkie was standing unusually still, following Twilight with her eyes and not saying a single thing, which was a rather disturbing thing.

“It's okay. It's okay. Calm down, we're safe now. Nopony is going to attack you. It's okay. Calm down. Easy. Twilight will get the Elements and then we'll make them go away. It'll be okay very soon. Just a little bit more patience. That's all.” Rainbow was busy holding Fluttershy in a tight hug and whispering quietly in order to calm down the panicked pegasus. It seemed to be working, though Fluttershy's eyes were still wide, her pin-pricked pupils shooting back and forth, as the shaking mare inspected the room for any imminent dangers.

“Alright girls. Let's get the Elements and put an end to this …. madness.” Twilight said in what she hoped was a confident voice. She walked over to the glass stand, where five necklaces and a crown were kept. She used her magic to lift off the glass cover and then took hold of the Elements. Immediately she felt a wave of relief wash over her. A warm, pleasant feeling like the touch of an old friend engulfed her as she held the Elements in her magical grasp. It will be okay. It will all be fine. Twilight managed a heartfelt smile and turned around so she could pass out the Elements to her friends. From their reactions Twilight could see that they were experiencing the same sensation of relief the moment they reconnected with their Element. Breaths became calmer, muscles relaxed and a great deal of fear vanished from their eyes. The entire room seemed to become a little bit brighter as the six mares looked at each other and felt the reassuring connection they shared, become even stronger with every passing moment. Even Fluttershy stopped drawing panicked breaths and managed a brief smile as a thanks for Rainbow.

Applejack was the first to speak. The farmer took in the sight of her friends and, with a smile, brushed out a few errant strand of hair from her eyes. “Aren't we all just a sight? I guess it's time to go out there and show those things what the Elements can do.”

“Yeah! It's time to show them who's boss! Let's go girls!” Rainbow said eagerly and went after Applejack who was already near the door. Applejack hesitated only for a second before she flung the door wide open and stepped outside, followed closely by everypony else.

The second they went outside, a bloodcurdling howl came at them from where four pegasi and one unicorn were busy fighting the dark ponies. One one of the attackers broke off from the fight and charged the six mares, leaving a trail of ash and dust behind it. The eyeless face and the grotesque grin focused on them, a sight that would haunt the nightmares of anypony who looked at it. However, none of them moved a single step. Not even Fluttershy who was visibly trembling from fear. The reassurance of the Elements was more powerful than fear. Everything would be fine. Somewhere deep down, they all knew it. That was a fact.

A brief glint crossed all the Elements before a sudden beam of rainbow colored light shot out from the gemstones and struck the charging pony. It screamed again, though this time it was from pain. The scream didn't last long, however, barely longer than a second, before the pony burst into flames. Bright flames covered every part of its body, as it collapsed and thrashed on the ground, with blindingly bright sparks flying in every direction. The flames grew brighter and brighter, until it was impossible to look at them directly. Then, suddenly, with a bright flash, it was over. The flames vanished without a trace, leaving only a small pile of ash and what looked like pieces of charred bone behind. The whole process took slightly more than two seconds. Before anypony could fully comprehend what had just happened, another howling pony threw itself at them. And, like moments before, it was met with the same result. A bright beam of light swallowed up the attacker, set it on fire and turned it into ash.

“We did it. We stopped them. It works. It really works.” Twilight muttered as the shock slowly wore off. She stared at the two piles of ash and took a sharp breath. “I knew it. I was right. The Elements are the answer. It doesn't matter what these things are, we can fix this now.”

“Wow. I had no idea the Elements could do something like that. I mean, I knew they're powerful, but I've never seen them in action. It's just …. wow.” Blitzkrieg stared at the two piles of ash and then at the six mares who had taken out two attackers in a flash.

Next to him, Flash pushed off the motionless form of one of the two attackers they had managed to defeat and stood up. “Yeah, the reports don't really do them justice.” He checked the nearby ponies and was relieved to see that, apart from cuts and bruises they were unharmed. Flash then turned his attention towards Twilight and her friends, some of which seemed to be still in shock. “Ladies, are you all okay? Is anypony hurt?”

His question broke the trance and, as one, they let out a breath of relief. “No … no, we are completely fine, I assure you. None of us is hurt.” Rarity replied as they shared exchanged glances between themselves in order to confirm that everything was fine. “Everything is okay.”

“No. Everything is not okay.” Twilight suddenly said, the force of her voice drawing everypony's attention. “Those things are still out there. We have to get them all. Ponyville is still in danger. Let's go. Now that we have the elements, we can help others.” She said and started moving towards the town hall. She felt, rather than heard, others follow her. A jolt of pain struck her when she placed weight on the injured arm, but Twilight ignored it. The reassurance that she could now help others, that she could solve this problem, filled her with a sense of determination that was superior to any painkiller. There was a problem and she knew how to solve it. Everything else was irrelevant. Especially something like a minor injury. “Let's go!” She called out to others and turned her trot into a full gallop. She heard somepony offer to carry her again, but she ignored it. She had the solution, pain was irrelevant. Solve problem now, take care of injury later. Twilight thought as she lead the charge towards the town hall.

xxxxx

The sight that greeted them when they reached the town hall looked like something out of the darkest nightmare. Discarded costumes littered the ground, along with several upturned tables and broken stools. Music instruments were lying on the main stage, where various performers had been entertaining the crowd just recently, only to be dropped as their owners had fled when the horrors began. Among the debris, there were several shapes of what were once their fellow ponies. Their mangled forms telling the now well-known story of immense pain and brutal death.

However, not all bodies belonged to the citizens of Ponyville. Scattered all over the main square were several bodies of the dark ponies. Their bodies sporting gunshot wounds, deep cuts, ugly signs of blunt force trauma and, in two cases, large pieces of improvised stakes, made from table or chair legs, sticking from the bodies like needles from a pincushion. There were dead guardsponies as well. Three members of the Royal Guard were lying on the ground near the town hall, where they had fought to keep the attackers at bay and buy the civilians extra time.

The town hall itself differed little from the state the main square was in. A large plume of smoke was coming from the second floor, where one of the rooms seemed to be on fire. Several windows were boarded up in an attempt to hold the attackers at bay. In some cases the barricaded windows were still holding up. In some cases not. The broken windows staring in the night like bottomless pits. The state of barricades in front of the windows didn't matter, however. Not when the main entrance was completely open, granting anypony free passage in and out of the building. The doors, were slowly swinging in the night wind, obstructing the view of the interior, but doing nothing to stop the screams. The screams of pain, desperation, bloodlust and the dying.

Twilight's eyes barely registered the sight around her as she ran across the square towards the main entrance. The only thing she could see were the doors and the only thing she could hear were the screams. She heard somepony behind her, a stallion, say something, but she ignored him. The logical part of her mind also screamed at her, voicing caution and self-control, but Twilight ignored it as well. Ponies are getting hurt! I got to help them! Her heart was screaming at her and that was the only voice she was listening to. She knew that her friends were following close by and that they were doing what their hearts told them to. She could feel it. They all could feel it. Driven by desperation, Twilight quickly reached the town hall and went inside.

One of the words she had learned while studying about the Griffin Empire was “slaughterhouse”. A place where griffins butchered their animals before eating them. Twilight had never been to a slaughterhouse in her life since there were almost no slaughterhouses in Equestria, but that was the first word that entered her mind when she entered the town hall and saw what was going on.

There was blood everywhere. On the floor and on the walls. There were even a few stains on the ceiling. There was blood on the curtains in front of broken windows. Blood on the carpet, on the tiles and the floorboards of the stage. There was blood on her hooves when she stepped into a small puddle near the door. Twilight slipped and fell, and there was blood all over her. There was also noise. Screams, shrieks, shouts and howls, assaulting not just her ears, but practically drilling in her brain. Battering her senses like the blows of a hammer.

There was also death. Ponies, who were crowding against the far wall, showing and kicking against each other as they tried to get away from the merciless attackers. Several foals, elders and anypony who wasn't strong enough were trampled to death under panicked hooves or ripped to pieces by the demonic attackers, leaving savaged bodies in their wake. However, death was not one-sided. More than one attacker was lying dead on the ground due to the efforts of the eight remaining guardsponies as well as several of the bravest mares and stallion of Ponyville. Outnumbered, battered and wounded, they fought with the desperation of a cornered animal. Using furniture to form improvised barricades or makeshift weapons in case they had none or had lost their previous one, they fought to the bitter end, doing their best to grant just a few more seconds of life to others.

Twilight screamed. The blood, the noise, the death assaulted her with such force that she lost all sense or reason. She simply screamed. Nearby, she heard others scream as well, as they too reacted to the gruesome scene in front of them. She kicked and struggled to get back on her hooves, but was unable to do so, as her hooves kept slipping in the blood. She wanted to run far, far away and hide. She wanted this to stop. She wanted it to end. She wanted those evil things to just go away.

A low, rumbling noise came from her tiara. The sound of a furnace rumbling grew stronger and stronger while at the same time the gem of her Element pulsed with bright light. The rumbling sound was soon joined by others, as the remaining Elements also reacted to the thoughts of their bearers. The rumbling grew louder and soon drowned out every other sound. Bright light flashed from the gems at an increasing pace. Soon the flashes turned into a steady glow. It lasted only for a moment before five beams, each bearing the color of its gem, shot out from the necklaces and connected with Twilight's tiara. The purple gem flashed white and burst into a sphere of light. The sphere grew and grew, stretching outwards in all directions, while shimmering in every color of the rainbow. It engulfed Twilight, her friends, Soarin, Flash Sentry and the guardsponies who had followed Twilight inside the town hall. It reached further out and soon touched the nearest dark pony.

There was no scream. It happened too fast. The pony disintegrated into ash and dust the moment the light touched it. The same thing happened to all the other dark ponies as the growing sphere expanded and reached them while leaving everypony else unharmed. The sphere grew until it reached the walls. It didn't stop there. The light passed right through it and kept on growing. Soon, the light washed over all of Ponyville, scouring every street and every house, every corner, nook and cranny. All over Ponyville the dark ponies disintegrated the moment they touched the light.

xxxxx

For the second time that night Black Lotus opened her eyes and found herself someplace else. This time, however, she didn't gasp. She screamed. The black mare screamed in a mixture of pain and fear as she still recalled the sight of a blinding light moving towards her. She crawled backwards, kicking and screaming as she felt the phantom pain of being burnt alive, her hooves trying to brush off non-existent flames, while her mind went into blind panic from the anticipation of expecting to be disintegrated any second now. She tried to run, to get as far away from the light as possible. She had to. Otherwise...

“Hey! Calm down, you'll fall off!” Black Lotus heard somepony speak. Even though he was right next to her, close enough for her to touch him, the voice sounded distant, distracted and came from several directions at once. Black Lotus looked at the other unicorn, just in time to see his horn flash amber yellow for a brief second. The stallion shivered slightly, removed his helmet and turned around to face her. “You're safe now. Whatever it was, the light's gone.”

Still looking in the crimson stallion's amber yellow eyes, Black Lotus nodded. She then stood up and silently walked over next to him. From there she looked down at the small town, where she had been just moments before. There was no sight of the light. It had vanished as quickly as it had appeared. She took a deep breath and reached out with her magic in an attempt to reconnect with any of the Darklings still on the ground, however, the attempt went unanswered. She couldn't sense any of them. They were all gone.

“All gone, huh?” The stallion observed her attempt and brushed back his black mane. “Figured as much.” He said when Lotus replied with a nod. He sighed and looked at the town below. “I think they used the Elements of Harmony. That's the only way they could have gotten rid of those Darklings so quickly. So, what now? Think you could summon more of them?”

The mare shook her head, her eyes still locked on the town. “Iņiv išrākneiv sīradzi ot ušap. Van sagēj.”

“I assume it meant we're not pulling off a repeat performance.” The stallion frowned before muttering quietly. “And that thing is still here.” He paused as he considered their options. “Okay, since you can understand me, did you manage to get Stardust out of there?” A shrug was the only answer. “Wonderful. That means...”

Black Lotus. Crimson Saddler.

Both unicorns froze when they heard a voice echo through their minds. They shared a brief look, confirming that they had indeed experienced the same thing. The stallion reached inside his cloak and pulled out a small gem, which was glowing with a faint, light blue light. “Uh, you … called?” He said to the gem. A small part of his mind wondered how silly he looked talking to a stone.

Yes, my friends. How are things? Have you retrieved Stardust?

“No, unfortunately. We encountered a problem before it could be done. From the looks of it, they used the Elements. Took out every single Darkling. I asked Lotus to send another wave, but she doubts it's worth it.”

I see. Looks like Storm Chaser was telling the truth. I thought they were keeping those things at Canterlot.

“Wait. Storm Chaser? Where is he?” Crimson Saddler looked at the town, trying to spot any sign of the troublesome pegasus.

Don't worry, he did what you asked of him and managed to escape. The voice replied. There was a long pause afterwards. Crimson Saddler and Black Lotus could almost feel the gears turning inside their friend's head. This changes things. There is no way we're getting our hooves on Stardust now. He is out of our reach. Especially now that we've caused this ruckus so close to Canterlot. The entire region will be soon swarming with guardsponies … we have been defeated here. Come back.

“What? But what about the plan? We need him. You need him for the plan!”

I want him, but I don't need him, Saddler. He is not that important. Stardust could have merely made things easier for us. We can still achieve everything. We'll just have to fall back on plan B. Make some changes. Either way, there is nothing we can do for now. Come back, there are other things that must be taken care of.

“Very well.” Saddler sighed hid the gem inside his cloak once it stopped glowing. He spared the town one last look and reached for the helmet. Once it was back on, he focused his magic and reached out to the shape underneath him. He shivered subconsciously, as he felt part of his mind leave his body and follow the trail of magic. He could feel his mind connect with another entity. A half-dead essence of ancient mind, intertwining with him, forming a single, united consciousness. With practiced ease, he took control of it and made his will known.

Underneath him, a massive skeletal dragon flared its tattered wings and started gaining altitude. Blue light shone from its eyes, throat as well as through the numerous gaps of its ribcage, which was cowered with crude plates of thick metal. The dragon moved carefully, in order to avoid dropping any of the two ponies, sitting on its back. After all, it would be unwise to lose part of your mind.

From Stars to Dust

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A sudden jolt of pain made Twilight wake up. She slowly opened her eyes, but was unable to see anything because of the bright morning sun in her eyes. With a groan, she closed her eyes and tried to figure out what was going on, but her mind felt sluggish and unresponsive. At least until there was another dose of pain assaulting her nerves. Twilight took a quick breath, feeling her mind sharpen with every second. The pain was coming from her arm.

Her actions must have drawn somepony's attention because she heard something metallic being placed down and followed by a strange but familiar voice. “You're up. Good. I was worried about you.”

Twilight cracked one eye open and saw a pink pony standing next to her bed with a concerned look on her face. “Pinkie? Is that you?”

“Yes. I'm here. You're in your bed. We brought you back to the library. You've been out for several hours.” Pinkie replied while checking the tray of medicine on Twilight's nightstand. As she spoke, Twilight felt a sense of unease well up inside her, there was something wrong with Pinkie's voice. “I just changed the bandages on your arm. Sorry if that hurt. I've never done it before and it's not as easy as it sounds.”

All concern about Pinkie's voice vanished when Twilight recalled the last night's events. She sat up in her bed, her eyes wide open as she looked around her room before settling her gaze on Pinkie. “What happened to those strange ponies? Did we stop them? Last thing I recall is the town hall.” She reached up with her hoof. “Where is my Element?”

“It's downstairs, with the rest of them. Considering that after the light there were none of those ponies left, we brought them back.” Pinkie helped Twilight get out of the bed. She had to support her for a moment, when the sudden change of position made Twilight stumble a bit. “How do you feel?”

Twilight waited for the dizziness to pass before running a quick check on her body. “Fine, I think. My arm still hurts a bit, but it's much better now. Anyway, it doesn't matter now. Where is everypony else? What is going on? How long was I asleep or out?” Twilight rattled off several questions in quick order. “Where is Spike?”

Pinkie patiently waited for Twilight to finish before replying. “He is at Sugarcube Corner. He fell asleep after sending a letter to Canterlot and I didn't want to disturb him.”

“He sent a letter to Canterlot? Wonderful. That is good news.” Twilight could practically feel the tension leave her. “That is very good. It means everything is going to be fine.”

“No, Twilight. It won't be fine. It will never be.” Pinkie replied in a low, barely audible voice. Twilight looked at her and suddenly felt her entire world turn upside down as her eyes finally took in and registered all the details. The damp fur around Pinkie's bloodshot eyes. The emptiness inside them, further emphasized by her voice, which was drained of all emotion. The straight mane. The short, businesslike answers. The complete and unnatural calm surrounding her. It was all wrong.

Twilight swallowed slowly and reached out to place a hoof on Pinkie's shoulder. “P-Pinkie? Are you … alright?”

Pinkie didn't react to the touch, she merely continued to stare in Twilight's eyes in a way that was both unsettling and saddening. “That is a silly question, Twilight.” She smiled a humorless smile. “Of course I am not...” She closed her eyes and was quiet for a long time. Then she drew in a deep breath, opened her eyes and continued. “A lot of ponies got hurt. Many of them badly. Some of them are dead. Gone. I knew every single one of them. I tried to do something. I tried to cheer them up, but I couldn't … I couldn't make a single pony smile. Not after something like this... I failed to... Just like...” She was cut short when Twilight moved forward and pulled her friend into a tight hug.

“Don't say that, Pinkie. Don't even think about that. You haven't failed anything.” Twilight whispered while feeling Pinkie return the embrace. She also heard Pinkie open her mouth to say something, but cut her off by tightening the hug. “Please... Pinkie. You haven't failed. You haven't. It is not like then, with the farm. It's not because you weren't good enough. It's not your fault.”

“Then whose fault is it?” Pinkie said, her thoughts switching tracks slightly. “Who caused all this? Who would do such a thing? Why?”

“I don't know, Pinkie. I really have no idea. However, I think there is somepony who knows. Somepony who has the answers.” Twilight replied and slowly let Pinkie go. She was glad to see that the empty look in Pinkie's eyes wasn't as evident as before.

Pinkie wiped her eyes and sniffed. “You're talking about that pony they locked up in the town hall, aren't you? The one you found in the forest?”

Twilight replied with a nod and gave Pinkie an encouraging smile. “Yes. I am sure Stardust knows something about this. And this time I will make sure he answers my questions. Even if I have to...”

“Lecture him?” The joke was obvious and overused. Pinkie as well as everypony else had used Twilight's habit of lecturing others as a punchline for jokes for years. However, in that situation, both mares couldn't help but smile a little.

“Yes, Pinkie. But first, let's go and find Flash Sentry. I have to ask him a few things as well.” Twilight said and started moving towards the door. Before meeting Stardust, Twilight wanted to know more about the last night's aftermath.

xxxxx

Thirty two ponies. He had arrived to Ponyville yesterday with thirty two guardsponies under his command. A relatively small platoon, sure, but it was his platoon. His first real duty as a Lieutenant. A true, honest mission. A task he and the thirty two guardsponies under his command had been given to accomplish.

Flash Sentry glanced at the small bag in front of him and swallowed heavily when he saw a glimpse of metal from inside. He quickly pulled the string, closing the bag, gritting his teeth when he heard the metallic rattle. Once it was done, he turned his attention to the notebook next to it. Trying to avoid looking at the list of names, he closed it and tucked both items behind his armor, where they felt like two giant boulders against his chest.

Now he had just twelve. Out of thirty two, only twelve guardsponies had survived the night. It had been fourteen when the fighting had stopped, but two of his ponies had died from their wounds shortly afterwards. Flash didn't know when exactly. He had been busy at that time. Busy hiding in an alley and vomiting until it felt like his guts would fall out as that evening's events had fully sunk in and the adrenaline had worn off. The realization of all those deaths, not just his, but those of the Ponyville civilians, had struck him like a sledgehammer, leaving behind a frightened, uncertain colt.

It had taken him more than an hour to compose himself to a point where he could face other ponies and even then he felt an almost irresistible urge to run every time somepony had asked him a question. With Mayor Mare hurt in the attack and princess Twilight incapacitated, ponies had looked to him, as the representative of government, for answers. Well, not just him, because as soon as ponies had realized that they weren't under attack anymore, several mares had stepped forward to help deal with the aftermath. Together they had been able to restore order and start repairing the damage.

“There you go. You look like you need one.” A gentle voice from nearby startled him. Flash looked to the side and saw a gray pegasus mare standing next to the table under the canopy they had erected next to the town hall. The mare was looking at him, or rather, partially looking at him, since one of her eyes was looking in a completely different direction.

“Uh... can I help you ma'am?”

The mare smiled and pointed at a muffin she had placed on the table. “I brought you something, you look like you need one.”

Flash stared at the muffin and frowned. “A muffin? Why would you think I need that?”

“Because you look sad and muffins always make me feel better.”

Shifting his gaze from the muffin to the pegasus and back, Flash couldn't help a wave of annoyance rise inside him. He didn't have time to deal with this. Couldn't she understand that there were much bigger problems at hoof? Problems, a mere muffin could never hope to solve. He took in a deep breath. “Ma'am. I appreciate the gesture, but this does not in any way help me. Perhaps it works for you and your problems, but I am not like you. Just because...”

“We're both ponies, aren't we?” The mare gently pointed out, causing Flash to fall silent. He opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came out when he realized the simple logic. Closing his mouth, Flash glanced at the muffin and decided to humor her.

He grabbed the muffin and took a large bite from it. The chocolate and oat muffin was a bit stale and had lost most of its moisture. That and he wasn't a big fan of chocolate either. This was far from the best muffin he had eaten. However, as he chewed, he met the mare's gaze and noticed the kind warmth she was practically radiating. And then he realized that ever since the last night, this was the first time he had experienced something positive, something kind. It was a small thing, a barely noticeable one, but it still reminded him that there wasn't just sadness and despair around him. He had seen countless examples of ponies help each other deal with the tragedy, but this was the first time somepony was helping him. Flash swallowed the muffin, noting the warm feeling it left behind, and took a deep breath. The tiny gesture of kindness had done wonders for him. Sure, things were still pretty grim and his problems were still there, but at least the situation wasn't hopeless. He was still there, other ponies were still there and they were doing their best to make things better.

“Thank you.” He said quietly, all the irritation in his voice gone. The mare didn't reply. She merely gave him a knowing smile and trotted off towards where a unicorn filly and an earth pony stallion were impatiently waiting for her. Flash watched them leave before returning his attention to the reports and notes in front of him. He was about to double check Blitzkrieg's report on the search for missing ponies when he spotted princess Twilight and Pinkie heading towards him.

Twilight opened her mouth in order to wish Flash a good morning, but the words died in her throat. There was nothing good about this morning. Instead, she decided to go for something simpler. “Hello, Flash. It is good to see you again.”

“Likewise, Princess Twilight, Miss Pie. I'm relieved to see that you're fine, Princess. All things considered. I have no doubt that you're eager to hear my report about the situation, correct? Please, take a seat.” He gestured at the bench on the other side of the table. As the two mares sat down, he quickly went over the information he had, trying to figure out where to begin. Apparently the dilemma had echoed on his face, since Twilight leaned closer with a deeply concerned look on her face.

“Is it bad?”

“Yes, Princess Twilight.” Flash replied automatically. He then decided to stop searching for a suitable explanation and just let it all flow. “Well, obviously, the attack is over. Ever since you used the Elements last night, there have been no sightings of those things. They are gone. Apart from the ones that were killed earlier that night, there are no other traces of them. Other than piles of ash scattered across the town. We've gathered all the bodies and stored them in a secure location so that we can send them to Canterlot for further examination. I hope that the Council of Mages will be able to shed some light on this.”

Twilight considered his words and nodded in agreement. Some form of magic was obviously responsible for creating those things. She wasn't aware of any creatures like that living in Equestria. She briefly considered the Changelings, but quickly dismissed the idea. After the wedding, no Changeling would be stupid enough to openly come that close to Canterlot. Furthermore, there were the strange brands on the dark ponies to consider. There had been magic at work. Evil, dark magic. There was no other possibility. Only the most vile forms of magic could create something so terrible and cause that much suffering. She shuddered. “I hope so too. I have studied lots of magic, and I can tell it for a fact that there was nothing natural about those ponies, so magic is the only explanation. However, my knowledge in that area is very limited, so the Council is the only thing that could figure out what's going on. They, or Princess Luna. She is quite familiar with the darker aspects of magic. Oh, and speaking of Luna, have we heard anything from her? Pinkie told me that Spike sent a letter to Canterlot.”

“No reply yet. But considering the situation, I am certain that help will arrive soon. Probably with the next train. If those things decide to come back, we'll be ready this time. If not, then, we'll have plenty of extra help to deal with the damage.”

“What about the … um, damage?” Twilight asked while throwing a worried look at Pinkie. “I was told that several ponies were badly hurt.”

Flash chewed his lip before answering. Like before, the tried to find the best way to answer the situation before deciding to tell things as they were. “It's true. We lost a lot of ponies.” He checked the stack of papers in front of him, pulling out a small note. “Twenty three ponies were … killed during last night. Four more died from their wounds shortly afterwards. More than thirty have been injured, at least six of them are in critical condition and we don't know if they'll survive. On top of that, I lost twenty guardsponies. That leaves just twelve ponies. Thirteen, including me. Some of the survivors are wounded, but it looks like they will recover.”

“Twenty three ponies?” Twilight stared at Flash with a horrified gaze, trying to wrap her thought around the number. No wonder Pinkie had lost her cheerful mood. It was a tragedy the likes of which Ponyville had never experienced. Considering that the population of Ponyville was just over three hundred ponies, losing that many ponies meant that everypony had lost somepony they knew. Not to mention the twenty guardsponies who had died fighting the attackers. Twilight found herself asking the same question Pinkie had asked her a while ago. Why would anypony do something like this? Why?

“Where is Stardust?” Twilight asked quietly. Flash felt shivers run down his spine when he hear her voice. The mare in front of him was determined to get some answers and there was no way anypony would prevent her from doing that. “Where is he? I believe he owes us an explanation.”

“He is at the clinic, right now. Some of those things from last night tried to pull him out through the bars, I don't know how they managed to bend them. Fortunately, you and your friends intervened before they could accomplish that, so he is not seriously hurt. Still, considering that he is our only clue in this mess, I figured it's better to be safe and had him sent to the clinic.”

Flash's reply caught Twilight off guard. “Wait, the only link? What happened to the other pony? The one at the clinic?”

“Gone. Somepony broke in, incapacitated the orderlies and the head nurse, and took him.” Flash explained with a grim voice. “The only positive thing is that the attacker wasn’t one of those ponies who attacked us. Nopony was killed, though some of the injuries are pretty bad and it leaves us with a shortage of trained medical personnel. Your friends volunteered to assist the doctors, but a helping hoof is not enough for the more severe cases.”

Pinkie made a strange nose, something between a sob and a choked cough when Flash said the last words, but Twilight didn’t hear it. Her thoughts were somewhere else. “They probably took him in order to prevent us from learning anything important. And from the looks of it, they tried to do the same thing with Stardust. Question is, who was their main target? Did they come after Stardust and also rescued one of their own? Or did they come after that earth pony and tried to rescue Stardust?”

“Considering how often Stardust mentioned that he was on the run, I am leaning towards the former. Then again, why not ask him? It is as you said, he owes us some answers.” Flash pointed out and stood up from the bench. “I'll go with you, I have to check up on my guardsponies.”

xxxxx

“Twilight! Pinkie! I am so glad to see you two.” Rarity’s voice reached Twilight the moment she entered the clinic. Twilight turned her attention in the direction of the voice and saw her friends. She couldn’t help, but notice how exhausted they all looked. Bags under their eyes, unkempt, or slightly unkempt in Rarity’s case, hair, bloodshot eyes and other signs of tiredness. However, all of them wore determined expressions on their faces. Neither one of them were willing to give into the exhaustion.

Twilight and Pinkie trotted over to them and exchanged a few friendly nuzzles and hugs. “Hi. I am happy to see you all as well. You look tired.”

“We are tired, sugarcube. We’ve been up all night lendin’ a hoof to the ponies working here. With so many ponies hurt, they needed a bit of help.” Applejack replied with a tired smile and nodded towards a small stack of medical supplies. “Livin’ on a farm taught me a lot on how to take care of injuries.”

“Farm for some, careless siblings, injured animals or first aid courses in Wonderbolts Academy for others. I’ll be honest and admit that we’re far from specialists, but every bit counts.” Rainbow added with a tired, but satisfied look on her face.

“Considering that it’s the little things that often count for so much, I think you all are selling yourselves short. Clean bandages or a kind word can do just as much good as any operation or medicine. You all did a fine job and I appreciate your help.” A white earth pony mare, known as nurse Redheart, said as she entered the reception area and caught he last part of the conversation. She returned their looked with a smile, or at least that was the idea before a sudden wave of lightheadedness forced her to hold on to a nearby chair while trying to fight off a throbbing headache at the same time. She noticed the concerned looks others were giving her and waved them off. “No worries, just feeling a bit lightheaded from the bump on the head I got last night. It’s nothing more than a mild headache after a wild night. It’ll pass.”

The concern in their eyes didn’t vanish, though the expression in Flash’s eyes turned into mild curiosity. “What exactly happened last night? All I heard was that somepony broke in and helped the pony we caught to escape. Out of all the ponies who were attacked, you’re the first to wake up, so I would appreciate if you could tell us what happened.”

The white mare groaned in frustration and gave Flash an exasperated glare. “There’s not much to tell. He smashed down the front doors.” She pointed at the recently repaired doors. “I asked the two orderlies who were with me to restrain him, we thought the guy was seriously drunk from the celebration, though that does not explain how he was able to break the doors so easily. Anyway, the two orderlies tried to tackle him, but he…” She paused a moment to take a deep breath as she recalled the unsettling events that had followed. “He took them both down in a matter of seconds. He knocked out one orderly with a single punch. Right to the face. The other orderly saw what was going on and bucked the guy in the face. But he just laughed it off, before he grabbed the orderly, slammed him to the ground like he was nothing more than a ragdoll and slashed his throat with his wings.”

“What do you mean, slashed his throat with his wings? Was he wearing a blade harness?”

“No blades. I didn’t see anything, not that I had much time to observe him, since he started moving towards the patient rooms. I tried to stop him, but he must have knocked me out since I don’t recall anything after that.”

“What did the guy look like? From what you told the guy was a pegasus stallion. What was the color of his coat? His mane? Did you see his Cutie Mark?” Rainbow asked suddenly, her eyes full of suspicion.

Redheart tapped her chin lightly as she tried to recall the details. “I didn’t see his Cutie Mark, but the color of his coat was light. Beige or something … Yes, beige, with a white mane.”

“Storm Chaser.” Rarity and Rainbow said in perfect unison. “He’s one of the ponies who were bothering us.” Rainbow added.

“Hmm, I do recall some rumors about suspicious ponies, going from house to house, bothering everypony.” Redheart said. She walked over to the reception desk and picked up a few folders. She transferred them to her hoof and looked at the group. “Anyway, I told you all I know about last night. As much as I would love to stay here and chat, I have patients to attend to. Is there anything else?”

“Yes, there is one more thing. We are here to talk to Stardust. The unicorn with the broken horn. He was brought here this morning. Where is he?” Twilight spoke up.

Redheart gestured at the corridor to their left. “That way, look for the room with a guardspony outside. And be sure to tell him if he doesn’t stop antagonizing everypony, I’ll toss him out on the street. Because of the whole suspect thing, he is occupying a whole room by himself, at a time when some ponies have to sleep in the corridor.”

“Umm, okay. We will. Thank you.” Twilight replied and turned towards her friends, only to see all of them already standing and looking at her expectantly.

“We're going with you. After everything that's happened, that guy has some explaining to do. And we won't let him talk his way out of this.” Rainbow said what the rest of them were thinking. “Oh, don't worry about that. We won't lay a hoof on him. At least not without a good reason. We'll let you do the talking. We're just concerned that you might decide to go easy on him and not push it when some pressure is needed.” Rainbow added when she saw Twilight's reaction to the potential meaning of her words.

With relief evident in her stance, Twilight let out a heavy sigh and smiled. She then heard Flash clearing his throat. “You all go ahead and talk to Stardust. I'll join you as soon as I see how my injured guardsponies are doing.”

Twilight nodded and started walking in the indicated direction, with her friends following close by. The trip was a short one, the clinic wasn't that big. However, in that short trip they saw more than enough injured ponies for Twilight to feel a surge of anger well up inside her. All of this could have been avoided if he had told them everything. I could have been more aggressive and forced him to talk. Perhaps even find some sort of spell that would make him talk? A sudden thought crossed her mind, forcing Twilight to shudder at the realization. She banished the thought immediately. No. I will not do something like that. That path leads to darkness. Magic cannot be used for something like that. She finished her thought just as they reached their destination. A guardspony mare, with thick bandages wrapped around her barrel, stood next to the door. She gave them a quick look, nodded and opened the door, so that they could enter. Inside there was another guardspony, a unicorn stallion. Unlike his colleague, he wasn't injured at all. This way he could focus all his attention on the room's other occupant.

Stardust was sporting several bandages on his arms as well as several treated bruises on his face. He had been sitting on the floor, staring out the window, but the moment the doors opened he turned his attention towards Twilight and her friends, studying them with an expressionless look. Twilight almost groaned when she saw it, that was the same look Stardust had sported when they had their precious unproductive conversation. She steeled her resolve, however, it didn't matter what happened last time. Today she will be walking out with answers. Proper answers. Once everypony was inside and the second guardspony had left the room, Twilight took a step forward.

“Hello, Stardust. It's good to see you're okay. All things considered.” Twilight began and couldn't suppress a spark of curiosity. “How did you get injured by the way? You should have been safe in that room. Those things couldn't get to you.”

Stardust lifted one hoof in front of his face and inspected it for a moment. “I thought so as well. Turns out we were both wrong. They bent the bars either by working together or..” He smiled. “Bashing their heads against them. They're not big on the whole self preservation thing. Three of them fractured their skulls and died before they managed to squeeze through. After that, they tried to push and pull me through the bars. Would have probably tore me in half if not.. well, you know what happened in the end.” He lowered his hoof and looked back at Twilight and her friends. “But you're not here because you feel bad for my condition. Aren't you?”

“No. We are not. We're here to ask some questions about what happened yesterday. We know this all happened because of you. What we want to know is why? And I would appreciate some answers.”

Stardust sighed and shrugged. “Beats me. I have absolutely no idea why... ugh” He didn't get to finish his sentence when Rainbow charged forward tackled him to the ground, pinning him to the floor.

“Don't fuck with me.” She growled. “You don't get to refuse this time. Twilight might be the diplomatic one and actually respects your rights, but I do not have her standards when it comes to ponies like you.” She slammed his head against the floor none too lightly, ignoring the protests from her friends. Stardust tried to struggle, but this time the situation was reversed. He was injured and Rainbow was in the superior position. “So I suggest that you start talking or I will simply beat the answers from you.”

“I don't know! I'm telling the truth! I really have no idea why that bastard organized all this.” Stardust said through clenched teeth even as he continued his ineffective struggle. “Let me...” His voice died down when Rainbow placed a hoof on his throat. A warning sign.

“Rainbow! You let him go this instant! No matter how much we want to hear the answers, there must be standards!” Rarity started walking towards Rainbow. “Let him go, so we can conduct this questioning in a civilized manner.”

“Rarity is right, Rainbow. Violence will not get us anywhere. Besides, what if he is telling the truth?” Twilight spoke up as well, slightly frustrated with Rainbow's impulsiveness. Then again, her approach had provided a clue.

Rainbow didn't reply, she continued to glare at Stardust for a while before letting him go and backing off, so that the stallion could get back on his hooves. She still continued to glare at him, as he stood up and coughed a few times to clear his throat. “Thank you.” He said to Rarity.

“Don't mention it. However, I do have to point out that Rainbow is correct. Granted, the execution was rather uncouth, but the point is perfectly valid. You were given the chance to answer these questions in a peaceful manner. Yet, you refused. In some ways, this makes you partially responsible for all that happened last night.” Rarity gave him a very brief smile, though it was obvious that she was being kind for the sake of politeness and that deep down, she was siding with Rainbow.

“Precisely. If you had cooperated, we might have managed to prevent, or at least prepare for the attack. Now we can't afford to be gentle if we want to avoid something like this happening in the future.” Twilight picked up from where Rarity had stopped. “You mentioned a specific pony. Who is he and what does he want?”

“Argent Blaze. His name is Argent Blaze. And, like I said, I have absolutely no idea what he wants from me.” Stardust replied while rubbing his throat and shooting occasional glares at Rainbow. “I only know that it's for something he has been planning for years. I've tried to find out what that plan is, but I've been unable to find out anything. And with my house destroyed, all my research is gone.” His gaze turned introspective. “Funny thing, I could have uncovered his plan, perhaps even become part of it, if only I hadn't refused his friendship.”

Twilight could feel her spirit dropping. Stardust wasn't lying. A quick look at Applejack confirmed it. Her friend was very good at sensing lies, despite being a horrible liar herself. However, it only upset her more, since Stardust didn't answer any of the important questions. They were stuck and had no clues to follow.

“What happened between you two? Why did you refuse?” Twilight heard Pinkie's voice, which was barely audible. Something that was completely unnatural for the cheerful pony. Pinkie was sitting on the floor, her eyes focused on the ground. At least Twilight thought she was looking at the floor, Pinkie's mane was obscuring her eyes, making it impossible for anypony to see her face. There was silence in the room, during which Pinkie was idly scraping her hoof against the floor in random patterns. “What did you do?” She asked in a whisper that sent shivers down everypony's spine and caused Fluttershy to whimper, and take several steps back.

Stardust was about to say something, Twilight saw him open his mouth, but at that moment, Pinkie tilted her head just slightly and out of all the ponies in the room, Stardust was the only one who saw the look in her eyes and what he saw killed every single objection in his mind. He didn't say a word and the silence stretched on for what felt like forever. In some ways there was magic in the air, an atmosphere so unsettling, yet demanding, that nopony dared to say anything, much less move.

Eventually, Stardust let out a long, defeated sigh and when he spoke; his voice carried the tone of long buried memories. “What I did was … it destroyed my life … it cost me everything I had … it cost me the most precious thing I had.” He pointed at the remains of his horn and fell silent again for several moments. “It is a complicated story. And forgive me if I go into unnecessary details, but I might as well tell everything. I hope it will make sense.”

“I don’t really know where to begin, since it’s hard to point out a specific thing that went wrong. Though in some ways, the problem was brewing since the day I was born and it was the expectations, legacy and the upbringing my family gave me that shaped me. I was born in Canterlot, to a family of nobles belonging to the house Platinum.”

Twilight’s eyes widened when she heard the name. The historian inside her perked up with great eagerness. “Platinum? You mean Princess Platinum? One of the founders of Equestria?”

“Yes. Princess Platinum was an ancestor of mine. When Equestria was created, she started the noble family I am part of. Or at least was part of, before I got disowned.” He added with a pained, humorless smile. “Thing is, if you have studied history, you will know that my family has always been known for their talent for magic. Archmages, members of the Council of Mages, powerful mages, well-known teachers of magic, talented scholars in the field of magic. My family tree is full of such ponies. It is the family pride and tradition to produce talented magicians. As a result, my future was already decided. I was to be schooled in the arts of magic.”

As he continued his story, Stardust’s gaze became distant. “I was really good at it. No surprise, since with so many magicians in the family they knew very well how to teach a unicorn cast all sorts of spells. I trained and studied, and cast spells. The best tutors my family could afford the finest schooling only nobility could provide. Nopony was surprised when I was accepted in Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. After all, I belonged to a family with a strong legacy of magicians, why shouldn’t I be accepted? Not being accepted wasn’t even considered.” Twilight wanted to voice her surprise, but Stardust was on the roll now. Words, filled with emotion, flowed from him like a river.

“I soon became the best in my class. The teachers loved me, other students admired me. Yet it didn’t matter to me. All I wanted was to push myself, to keep pushing the boundaries with every single day. I didn’t want to be the best; I wanted to be THE best.” He gave a sigh that sounded almost dreamy. “For a while it looked like it would become true. But then, he arrived.”

“Argent was a talented pony. He was almost as good as me when it came to magic. He was also quite popular, but for reasons other than excellence. He was friendly, sociable, a pony you couldn’t help to like as a good friend. I, however, did not care about friends. I cared about magic and it did not require any friends. At least friends I considered to be worth my time. Friend is somepony you consider an equal. And to me, a friend was a pony who was my equal in magic. But with no equals among the other students…” He let the words hang in the air, the unspoken thought perfectly obvious to everypony in the room.

“At first, I didn’t care about him. To me, he was just another student. A talented student, yes, but nothing special. At least, that’s what I thought until I learned more about him. Turns out he was a misborn. He was the unicorn child of an earth pony father and a pegasus mother. Not only that, but there were no traces of any unicorns in his family line.” Stardust glanced around the room and noticed the confused looks some of the ponies were giving him.

“You see, some noble families place great importance on their ancestors, especially if there are many great ponies among them, it is an honor and a privilege to become part of that legacy. In order to keep it that way, the nobles pay great attention to what kind of ponies marry into the family. Some families favor money and don’t let anypony who isn’t wealthy enough to marry their children. Others want to see only talented artists become part of their families. My family was no different. For them, the history of talented mages stands above all. Not a single pegasus or an earth pony has ever married into my family. The legacy of house Platinum is the legacy of pureblood unicorns only. Anypony else was just dirt beneath our hooves, not worth the tiniest bit of attention, for they could not possibly comprehend what it meant to be a unicorn and use magic.” The confused looks were slowly turning into glares.

“That is the environment I grew up in. I was told every day that only a pureblood unicorn could properly wield magic and understand it. I was told every, single day that earth ponies and pegasi were nothing more than crude dirt crawlers and cloud humpers.” The looks Applejack and Rainbow were giving him were practically murderous. “And when you’re told something like that, you eventually start to believe it. And that is why I started to hate him. For me, to see a misborn become a talented mage, to be so successful, to be almost my equal… It was the most offensive thing. To think that a misborn, from an unknown commoner family, could walk the same halls as the nobles did. To be allowed under the same roof with us, who came from families of higher status and bloodlines… Disgusting. It demeaned everything I valued. And that was something I could not tolerate nor forgive. Especially when other ponies started hanging out with him.”

Rainbow shook her head and snorted. “This is what it was about? You hated somepony because your family is nothing more than a bunch of tribalists? Heh, I always knew those stuck up ponies at Canterlot were a useless bunch. Only they would make a fuss about something insignificant as bloodlines.”

“Rainbow, darling, as much as I agree with you, keep in mind that not all nobles are like that. Some of them are decent ponies. And Celestia has done her best to stamp out any signs of tribalism.” Rarity tried to be diplomatic. She really did, but it was hard. Just because a pony had different parents, did not make them worse than others. It wasn’t the parents that defined a pony.

“Besides, it is a well-known fact that parentage doesn’t provide a one hundred percent certainty in regards to what type their foal is going to be. Pony tribes have been interbreeding for so long that every family has a chance of their foal being the same type as their distant relatives.” Twilight pointed out. “It is wrong to ostracize somepony for something they cannot control. Especially in regards to such an insignificant detail.” She briefly thought about the Cake twins, a unicorn and pegasus foals, the most adorable bundles of joy, born to what was a solid earth pony family. “It is unreasonable.”

“Well, hate based on tribalism isn’t exactly a source of reason and rational thinking. Then again, I never said I was rational back then. All I had was the values and beliefs my family gave me and a pony who embodied everything said values stood against. Is it really surprising I reacted like that? ” As much as Twilight hated it, she had to admit, Stardust had a point.

She took a deep breath in order to focus. “Okay, so you didn’t like him because he wasn’t from a noble family. What happened then?”

“I tried to kill him.” Stardust’s brief reply left a shocked silence in the room.

“What!?”

“Oh, not immediately. At first I merely disliked him and hoped that he would drop out. However, as years went on and graduation approached, my hate started to fester and grow. You see, at first, I was able to fool myself, thinking that he would never make it to the graduation, that he lessons would become too difficult for him and he would drop out. How stupid of me.” There was that humorless laugh again. He continued talking, his voice slowly growing fiercer as raw emotions started flooding his voice. His eyes gazing in the distance at something nopony else could see. It was clear to them that Stardust was no longer with them. His memories had brought him back to the prestigious school at Canterlot.

“No matter how many students dropped out, he and his little group of friends, remained. With every exam, there was less and less doubt that he would graduate. And that was something I could not allow to happen, because if he were to receive his diploma, it would basically confirm my greatest fears, that a misborn could stand as my equal. That there was no difference between a commoner like him and a pony with noble and pure bloodline like me. Everything my family stood for would be undone if Argent graduated with scores almost equal to mine. I had to do something.”

“So you decided to kill him.” Twilight whispered, trying to comprehend what she was hearing. Her mind didn’t have trouble understanding the reasoning behind Stardust’s words. He had voiced his argument and the factors that had led to his decision. However, her heart did not understand it. It couldn’t. Everything Stardust was saying was wrong. So very wrong. There was no way it was enough to excuse attempting to kill a pony because of intolerance and spite.

As if sensing her inner turmoil, Stardust paused before answering. “Yes. Five years ago, with less than a month before graduation, I decided to take matters in my own hooves…”

xxxxx

The sound of hoofsteps echoed from the cold stone walls, drowning out the faint tapping of dripping water that usually reigned in the dark tunnels. Darkness, thicker than any night could ever be, was banished by the small, yet bright speck of light, riding on the very tip of a horn. The light not only revealed the walls, ceiling and floor of the ancient passage, but also a single unicorn, who was making his way through the tunnel with a determined look in his eyes.

He was forced to stop when the corridor suddenly split into two tunnels. He looked in both directions, looking for any sign that would indicate where he was supposed to go, but he couldn't find anything. He leaned closer to the ground, looking for tracks, while at the same time straining his hearing. Nothing. There was nothing he could see or hear, or even smell. For an ordinary pony, this would be the end of the road. However, he was a unicorn, and thus had access to tools far above the level of any earth pony or pegasus.

The light on his horn disappeared, only to be replaced by a faint, dark green glow as he forced the magic in it. At the same time, he focused the remaining part of his mind on his target, picturing every singly detail he knew. The snow-white coat, the slightly darker, silver mane, those golden-yellow eyes and that Cutie Mark, depicting a yellow-black sphere, with the yellow half burning with bright flames. “Argent Blaze. Where are you?” Stardust muttered and released the spell. A green sphere flashed outwards from the tip of the horn in every direction, bathing the surroundings in its light for a few seconds before it vanished and let the darkness consume everything once more. Everything except the barely noticeable hoofprints glowing on the floor.

The marks on the ground were very faint and were visible only for a few meters, however that was more than enough to tell Stardust where to go. He turned to the right, summoned the tiny flare again, used his magic to chip a small mark into the wall and continued moving forward. This time he was moving at a slightly faster pace. The tracking spell was difficult to pull off. The hoofprints of the target had to be at most one hour old, otherwise the spell wouldn't work. Considering how faint they were, even in the perfect darkness that reigned underground, Stardust was forced to pick up the pace or risk losing his target.

Several minutes later the tunnel split up again, this time into three additional tunnels that formed a perfect cross. However, like before, it took only a few seconds for him to find his path, leave a small mark and move on. He didn't have to walk for long. Only a dozen or so meters later, Stardust saw a large set of double doors emerge from the darkness at the end of the tunnel. He stopped in front of them and flashed his tracking spell, just to make sure. This was it, the hoofprints led straight for the doors. Slowly he reached out and was just about to touch them when a sudden thought crossed his mind. These are the first doors I have encountered in the last twenty minutes, he could have placed some sort of a ward or trap on them. Better make sure.

Stardust pulled back his hoof and reached out with magic. Unlike the previous one, this spell was almost unnoticeable. A barely visible tendril of magic weaved through the air and gently touched the surface of the doors. Immediately, Stardust felt a light tingling in his horn, which confirmed his suspicions. There was a spell in place. A recent one. He waited a few more moments in order to get a better feel for it. The spell turned out to be an interesting one. Argent had fused the doors together, so that it formed a single, solid wall, which became one with the walls, floor and ceiling around it. An effective way to lock the doors you did not want somepony to open easily or quickly.

Stardust canceled the spell and considered his options. He could blast the doors apart. However, that would alert Argent to his presence and Stardust didn't want that. Argent would probably run away and disappear into the tunnels, making the trip to the tunnels a waste of time. He could wait for the spell to end or try to find another way in, but he didn't have the patience for it. Besides, Argent wasn't that stupid to lock one entrance and leave others open. You could also turn back and leave him be. A strange thought crossed his mind. What was even stranger was how long he actually considered it. Don't do this! The tiny voice in his head cried. The tiny voice in his head died with a faint choke when Stardust shut it up. I cannot leave this be! He has no place here. His very presence taints everything. And is nopony is going to do anything about it, then I guess it's up to me, a unicorn of proper status, to take care of this problem. With all other choices crossed off, Stardust settled on the easiest one. What one unicorn could do, another one could undo. And there were few unicorns more talented at banishing spells than he was.

He reached out with his magic again, though this time he made his magic intertwine with Argent's spell. By using the magic as a medium, he directed his senses at the flow of the spell. He could feel the magic of the spell, flowing through the doors, maintaining the unnatural effect on them. He reached deeper until the magic felt like a collection of strands, woven tightly together in a complete whole. He examined the strands and then viciously tore into them, severing the flow of magic, causing it to dissipate, forcing it to change its course. The spell's magic mixed with his and, like water flowing through a previously made riverbed, trickled towards him. The now-unfocused, raw magic, sparkling in the air like hundreds of tiny stars, swirled around his horn for a few moments before it was unceremoniously discarded to the ground, where it instantly vanished. The whole process lasted for a few seconds and when Stardust canceled his magic with a deep exhale, he saw that the doors in front of him were back to normal. With a satisfied grin resting on his face, Stardust reached out, pushed to doors open and entered the room.

“Hmm, must have once been a library, or a storeroom.” Stardust muttered when he caught the first glance of the room's interior. The room was very big, more like a hall actually, and it was filled with rows and rows of shelves. Most shelves were empty, but some of them held small boxes and other things. However, a quick inspection of the nearby shelf told him that there was nothing else but junk and bits of scrap lying on the shelves. Nothing useful. He took a few steps forward, trying to figure out between which row he should go, when he heard something that might have sounded like a voice.

Immediately, the light on his horn disappeared and Stardust chided himself for being so careless. What if they had seen the light? What if they knew he was there? He listened for a while, listening for any hoofsteps or other signs that his position had been noticed, but there were none. Nopony shouted anything, nopony was moving in his direction. It seemed his small blunder had gone unnoticed. Good.

Now that his light source was gone, Stardust was able to spot a soft glow in the distance. With his eyes fixed on the target, he carefully made his way towards it. Making sure to walk slowly in order to avoid knocking something over or otherwise betray his presence. As he maneuvered between the bookshelves, the light became more intense and he could distinctively hear several voices. Eventually, he got close enough to fully see what was going on. Almost immediately, he felt his jaw tense up and his teeth grind against each other.

Surrounded by a circle of burning braziers, there were five unicorns. All of them were huddled around a wooden table, upon which various books and scrolls were piled. With their attention focused on a single book, Stardust was easily able to identify them.

His eyes first fell on the youngest member of the group. Sporting a light black fur and a pink mane, with a barely visible lotus flower Cutie Mark, was the Black Lotus. Though not anypony special, she was known for her excellent scores in psychology and psychiatry. She was also very good with healing as well as various protection spells, especially those that affected the mind.

Next to her stood a stallion with an indigo blue fur and a long, curly white mane was the Spell Scroll. His Cutie Mark, three scrolls tied together in the middle with a purple ribbon, proudly displayed his talent. He was considered one of the finest magic historians of this generation. Though only seventeen, he had already ensured that at least three spells would not be lost to the time due to him deciphering the ancient languages in which they were written.

With a loud laugh, the next stallion drew Stardust’s attention. Crimson Saddler as well as his sister, Life Weaver were the only siblings currently studying at the school. Just like his name said, Crimson Saddler sported a fiery crimson fur. His yellow-orange mane left the impression that the athletic unicorn was actually a pony shaped flame. It suited him, considering his aggressive nature.

His sister, looking somewhat fragile next to her brother, echoed his laugh with her own, while giving Argent an apologetic look. Even in his current mood, Stardust could not help but breathe just a little bit softer. Kind, funny and helpful, Life Weaver was one of the most desired mares in the school, especially since she was easy on the eyes. Her coat, bordering between red and pink, and complimented by a blond mane further accentuated her pleasing appearance. One point of interest was her Cutie Mark, a silver caduceus entwined by a pair of ropes. When compared to her brother’s rein and collar, made from a copper chain, they looked completely unrelated. However, Stardust knew that to be false. They both were interested in biology, especially concerning various creatures and life in general. Though whereas Life Weaver was fascinated by the numerous processes and workings of the body, Crimson Saddler was more skilled with training and dominating various creatures.

Lastly, there was Argent. The leader of the group and the source of all his frustration. The misborn unicorn who was considered among the school's finest students. Stardust had no idea what Argent's special talent was, apart from spitting in the face of what Stardust considered the established order and ancient traditions, but it was obvious to everypony that he was a talented unicorn with excellent marks in every subject. Stardust watched, with a scowl as Argent shook his head at what was probably a joke and, with a small smile, raised a forehoof in a request for silence. Almost immediately, the laughter died down and all four unicorns were watching him with anticipation.

“Okay, okay, I admit that there is some truth to that. We all have our little quirks. But please, there is no need to blow it out of proportion.” He paused to clear his throat before continuing in a more serious voice. “Jokes aside, there is a reason why I asked you all to come here. You see, Spell Scroll has made excellent progress with the translation and from what he told me, it won't take long until he's done.”

The indigo unicorn flashed a cocky grin and pointed his hoof at something Stardust couldn't see. “That's right, I've been working on this thing for ages and I think I am close to uncovering the entire knowledge this book contains.” He shifted his position slightly and Stardust saw a glimpse of the book in question. It was a thick tome, with pitch black covers, shielding pages that were also black as night. He quickly recognized the book. If Argent had any quirks, it was his obsession with that book. Stardust had only seen it a few times, but the distinctive appearance and the zealous protectiveness Argent displayed towards the book made it obvious that Argent treasured it greatly.

“And once that is done, we'll be ready.” Argent spoke up again, a small amount of excitement coloring his voice. “All that knowledge will serve us in our cause. We will be able to correct everything. All will change.”

Stardust couldn't hold back a laugh when he heard the determination in Argent's voice. He could not believe what he was hearing. Him? Correct everything? What a load of nonsense! He was aware that all five ponies were now looking in his direction, his laughs giving away is presence. But he didn't care. It didn't matter anyway. He was not here to spy on them. He was care to set things right. To do what should have been done a long time ago. To deal with this upstart once and for all.

He walked forward, still chuckling at the surprised looks on their faces until he entered the light cast by the braziers. The flash of recognition in their eyes made him chuckle again. They were clearly caught off guard. “Your cause? Change everything? Heh, looks like my suspicions were correct. Turns out you've been sneaking down here into these tunnels in order to start your own little cult. A cult which will “use powerful knowledge to change everything”.” He mocked Argent's voice with a sneer. He stopped some distance away from them and tilted his head. “And what are you exactly planning to do? Use that book to teach all the dirt farmers out there to read?”

“I thought I smelled shit from nearby. Turns out it was something worse. Piss off Stardust. You're not welcome here.” Spell Scroll took a few steps towards the gray unicorn. Next to him Crimson Saddler did the same, while both mares exchanged worried looks with Argent.

“Stardust, what are you doing here? How did you find us?” Argent quickly moved around the desk in order to stand between Stardust and his friends in order to prevent a confrontation. At least that's what he wanted to do, before Saddler stopped him with his hoof.

“I think the answer to your second question is quite obvious.” Stardust tapped his horn meaningfully, he ignored the petty insults. Those who rubbed shoulders with a misborn were no better themselves and, as such, were beneath his notice. Instead he replaced the sneer on his face with a glare and focused on his rival. “Anyway, misborn led literature clubs aside, I am here to deal with a problem that's been bothering me. You, Argent. I am here to deal with you.” Almost immediately, four unicorns had placed themselves between him and Stardust.

“Fuck off. We're not letting you do anything to him.” Saddler voiced the opinion of the entire group. Argent tried to say something, but was cut off by Life Weaver.

“Precisely. You have been nothing but a bully since the day he came to this school and you are starting to annoy us. I suggest you leave.”

Stardust glared at each of the unicorns. “How the mighty have fallen. Unicorns from noble families siding with a misborn. Pathetic.” He muttered, more to himself than to anypony else. He looked at Argent and took a deep breath. “Still, despite having to deal with somepony like you, I will be merciful. Leave, Argent. Go away from this school, leave Canterlot and never come back again.”

There was a long pause before Crimson Saddler broke out in laughter. One by one others joined in as well, laughing until they ran out of breath. Only Argent reacted differently. He stared back at Stardust and gave and apologetic shake of his head. “Sorry, but I can’t do that. I want to graduate alongside my friends.”

“Dude, you’re being too polite with this arrogant piece of shit.” Crimson Saddler wiped a small tear from the corner of his eye as he struggled to regain his breath. There was no reaction from Stardust, he merely continued to stare at Argent.

Spell Scroll, still chuckling lightly, shook his head. “Since you’re being so merciful, let me return the favor. Get the fuck lost before I decide to sodomize you with every phallic shaped object in a three kilometer radius.”

“Heh, fascinating ... Did you learn that from Argent when he was turning you into his bench?”

The grin on Spell Scroll’s face vanished instantly.“What did you say? You seem to have forgot that there’s nopony else here. You are all alone against us.” The tension was rising with every passing second.

“Spell Scroll, please don’t do that. We can solve this peacefully.” Argent tried to defuse the situation.

“Unlikely.” Crimson Saddler said, while keeping his eyes on Stardust. “Besides, he’s had it coming for a very long time.” Next to him Life Weaver nodded agreement.

Encouraged by the support of his friends, Spell Scroll started channeling magic through his horn. “Looks like you messed up coming here. Don’t worry; it will only hurt for a second.”

“Enough! Stop this immediately!” With a flash Argent teleported between Stardust and his friends. “Listen, I appreciate you all standing up for me, I really do. But this is going too far. I don’t want my friends get in trouble because they had to defend me. And you, Stardust.” He turned his attention to the glaring unicorn. “Please, just leave me alone. You’ve been bullying me for several years already. Enough is enough. I know you don’t like it that my family isn’t a noble one like yours, but can’t you just let it go? Please, I beg you, let’s put this petty hostility behind us and be done with it. There’s only one month left until graduation. So let us finish this school together and then go our separate ways. You are…”

His words died with a choke when a dark green aura surrounded his throat, cutting off all air. “Petty hostility? Graduate together?” Stardust whispered with a slightly unhinged edge to his voice. Argent tried to struggle, but to no avail. He was roughly yanked to the ground and then pulled towards Stardust until he was lying at the hooves of his rival. “You dare consider us equals or consider this bullying for petty reasons?” Argent didn’t answer. He couldn’t. He was barely able to breathe much less compose a reply.

“Don’t you dare do anything or I will snap his neck.” Stardust said when Spell Scroll and Black Lotus started moving to encircle him.

“You wouldn’t dare.” Life Weaver gasped as she started channeling magic through her horn.

“Would you like to find out?” Stardust lifted the captive Argent off the ground and shook him. “Are you willing to risk your beloved leader’s life for it?”

“He’s our friend and we’ll do everything we can to protect him from shits like you.” Crimson Saddler growled and fired a telekinetic blast at the grey unicorn, surprising him with the audacity, causing Stardust to stagger and lose his grip on Argent. Although the blast wasn't that strong and Stardust recovered almost instantly, the atmosphere in the room reached its boiling point. The anger inside Stardust roared into an uncontrollable inferno and demanded retaliation. Similarly, for Argent's friends, the sight of the white unicorn hitting the ground and coughing heavily, was the final drop. One could almost hear the sound with which the tension snapped and all hell broke loose.

Stardust only had a second or so to cast a protective sheath around him, causing his coat to shimmer with a faint green glow. Though it was of little use against spells, it was invaluable against telekinetic attacks. The sheath served as a layer of armor as well as a warning system, thus giving him time to react in case somepony tried to grab his horn or strangle him. Once the sheath was in place, Stardust had to duck and roll to the side in order to avoid a pair of searing beams of light that scorched the place where he had just been standing.

An invisible hand tried to grab him by his throat, but Stardust quickly reacted with his own telekinetic grip, pushing back against the pressure. At the same time, a large fireball, cast by Black Lotus came screaming at him. Instead of dodging, he locked his eyes on the projectile and lashed out with his own magic. The fireball exploded into hundreds of shimmering particles as Stardust ripped apart the spell that formed the magical projectile and transformed it into raw magic. The energy swirled in the air towards him, as he pulled it closer to him. Several more projectiles, made of raw magic, threatened to burn nasty holes in his body, were sent in his way, but were likewise intercepted and turned into a more unfocused form.

Stardust scooped a fair bit of magic from the energy surrounding him and used it to send a powerful telekinetic blow towards Spell Scroll and Black Lotus, forcing the two to dive out of the way and knocking over one of the braziers. A whirlwind of sparks and embers shot up as the burning coals spilled on the ground. They didn't stay there for long. Stardust grabbed more than half of them and hurled them at Life Weaver even as he used the remainder of the raw magic around him to empower his shield spell as he not just stopped but actually reflected a beam of light back at the Crimson Saddler.

With a loud crack, he teleported behind the recovering Black Lotus and lashed out with quick telekinetic strikes in rapid succession, forcing the mare on the defensive. She screamed in pain when one of Stardust's strikes, shaped into a sharp edge, opened a large gash along her side. However, before he could capitalize on it, Stardust had to divert his attention and prevent the brazier Spell Scroll had hurled at him from caving in his head. A telekinetic blow was enough to divert it to the side where it landed with a loud clang.

Infuriated with the sight of their friend being wounded, the three remaining unicorns unleashed a flurry of spells at Stardust. Blasts of raw magic, ice bolts, fireballs, beams of light converged on him, but not a single spell reached the target. The majority of the projectiles shattered into a shower of shimmering particles as Stardust broke down the spells and surrounded himself with a swirling dome of dazzling sparks. In some cases, the particles would leave the dome and make their way towards his horn to empower deflection spells whenever Stardust couldn't tear apart the magic forming some of the spells thrown at him.

Stardust grit his teeth as he felt sweat trickle down the side of his face. His breaths came sharp and short, his head was being pounded by intense headache and his horn was getting alarmingly hot. As talented as he was with breaking apart spells into raw magic and then using it to boost his own spells, he could not do it for long. Not against several opponents of such strength. Regardless of his opinion on them, his enemies were still among most skilled unicorns of that year. They didn't do weak spells. He had to finish this as soon as possible or else be overwhelmed and defeated.

A quick glance around provided him with a solution. The crumbling bookshelves and other pieces of ancient furniture would serve his purpose well. With a grunt of effort, he reached out in several directions at once, anchoring his grip on whatever object he came across. He didn't move them immediately, lest he give away his plan. A dull, throbbing pain started coming from his horn as the weight of all that spell casting threatened to overwhelm him, but he forced himself to remain in control and forced the magic to obey through a sheer effort of will.

“Watch out. He is reaching for the...” Somepony cried a warning, but it was too late. Determined not to give them a chance, Stardust attacked. He pulled all the objects towards him, creating a wall of furniture and broken bookshelves between him and his opponents. The barrier lasted only for a second before Stardust sent it flying towards Argent's group. He didn't just throw it, he used all the raw magic he had accumulated from the intercepted spells to fuel the throw. Every last drop was channeled through the horn and into the spell. The result was devastating. Some of the weaker pieces of furniture disintegrated into dust from the force of the throw, whereas the rest shot forward like cannonballs, shattering everything they impacted as well as shattering themselves.

Stardust himself almost collapsed to the floor as intense pain shot through his horn, forcing him to cry out in pain. He had never used so much magic at once before. The whole fight had lasted a bit less than two minutes. But in those minutes, the amount of strain that had been placed on him, was incredible. He opened his eyes and slowly rose to his hooves, one hoof pressed against his horn in a futile effort to ease the throbbing pain. It felt like a white-hot nail had been driven in his forehead. It made it hard to think.

Taking his hoof away from his horn, he brushed back wet strands of hair from his eyes and surveyed the destruction before him and, with a grim satisfaction, noted just how quiet everything was. It looks like the job is… He started thinking, but the thought was cut off by a pained moan from nearby. Stardust shook his head, thinking he had probably misheard that, but a second moan put those thoughts to rest. Somepony was still awake. Not only that, but he recognized the voice. Argent. He snarled viciously and started trotting in the direction of the moans. A thousand thoughts swirled through his head as he moved across the battlefield, some were screaming at him in horror, trying to make him realize what he had just done, but those thoughts had quiet voices and were easily dispelled by a single sentence. This was necessary in order to set things right, as they should be.

He passed the motionless form of Black Lotus. The mare was lying on her side with one puddle of blood forming around her barrel where the gash was and another, smaller one, around her head. Not far from her was Spell Scroll. The indigo unicorn hadn’t been lucky at all. One leg of a chair was sticking out from his side, with smaller pieces of jagged wood splinters embedded in several other locations of his body. That’s two traitors taken care of. Stardust thought and stepped over the remains of a broken desk, trampling several scrolls underneath his hooves. Somewhere in the distance, he could see the vague shapes of Life Weaver and Crimson Saddler. They were both motionless, but because of the limited light, cast by small piles of burning coal, scattered across the room, it was impossible to see the extent of their injuries. Oh well, I’ll take care of them later. Stardust made a mental note and stopped in front of a shattered bookshelf, underneath which he could see the unmistakable form of his rival. “Argent. Why am I not surprised to see that you’re still awake?”

Argent, trapped underneath the bookshelf, moaned again and opened his eyes. He was in a much better shape than Stardust had expected. Sure, there were lots of gashes and bruises, as well as plenty of easily noticeable bloodstains on his coat, but they weren’t life threatening. Debilitating and painful, sure, but not deadly. Lucker must have managed to cast a shield and avoid most of the impacts. Argent coughed several times, blinked and turned his attention to Stardust. “Why, Stardust? Why?” He croaked. “Why did you have to hurt my friends? Why do you hate me so much?” Tears welled up in his eyes as he caught a glimpse of Life Weaver.

“I hate you because you do not know your place. You walk the halls above us like you belong there. You come here to this school and have the arrogance to stand as equal with those far nobler than you. You ignore the established order and…” Stardust trailed off as a sudden realization struck him. “…break traditions that have stood for centuries.” He finished in a near whisper, his eyes wide from the shock. “You have changed things. I came here with the intention to make you leave the school. But I understand it now.” He looked around the room. “What was I thinking! This will not be over with just that. It is already too late. You have already broken EVERYTHING!” He yelled and locked his gaze back on Argent, who suddenly went very, very pale. “Even if I make you leave, it won’t change anything. Ponies know about you. They know who you are and what you can do. They have realized that a misborn can stand as an equal to a pureblood unicorn. And it won’t be long until they start thinking above their station. That they can challenge the inherent greatness of the nobles of Canterlot. The undisputed supremacy of unicorns, studying at this school. The natural order that has stood for generations will be challenged, questioned and shattered. All because you did not know your place. ALL BECAUSE OF YOU!” His pupils shrunk to the size of pinpricks as Stardust went over the edge. “ALL BECAUSE OF YOU, ARGENT! A FUCKING MISBORN!”

Argent swallowed nervously. “Stardust…” He began quietly but was cut off by a low chuckle that made his hair rise.

“But I will fix it, I will wash away the stain you’ve made. Water under the bridge, right? If you were to die, then so will your sins, right? I mean death is the ultimate purifier, right? It solves all problems, right? No pony, no problems, right? … Right … But I can’t just kill you like that. It wouldn’t be right.” Stardust was looking around as if searching for something. “Just like you crushed what I held dear, I think it’s only right to return the favor. Ah, there it is.” Stardust winced from the pain and levitated a black book towards them. As soon as Argent’s eyes fell upon the book, he became very still.

He took a sharp breath and spoke in a low and calm voice. “Okay, Stardust, you win. You win. I will do as you ask. I will leave this school. No, I will go to headmistress and tell them I quit. I’ll tell them I can’t handle this school, that it is too much for me and I will leave. You will never see me again.”

Stardust smiled and licked his lips when he heard the defeated tone in Argent’s voice. He glanced at the pitch black book, noting the silver letters on the cover. He couldn’t understand them, but a small note, with what he assumed was the translation, was added underneath. “The Grimoire of the Evening War.” He read out the title and then leafed through the pages. They were all black, covered with a silver ink in a language he did not understand. Numerous notes in Equestrian were sandwiched between the pages. Stardust paid them little attention. He just skimmed through the book before looking back at Argent with a sickeningly sweet smile. “Oh, my dear little pony, I am afraid it doesn’t work that way.” He cooed. “It is already too late. For you, for me, for everypony, for this book.”

“NO!” Argent cried when a flash of magic caused the book to burst into green flames. “NO! NO! NO! NO!” He cried and, with a sudden surge of strength, lifted the bookshelf off of him. He made a mad charge towards Stardust, but he didn’t take a single step before pain, unlike anything he had ever felt before, forced him to collapse to the ground, screaming in terrible agony.

Stardust let the charred book drop to the floor and focused his attention to the screaming unicorn. “You know … you’re not the only … only one with … se-secrets.” He fought the pain in his horn as he channeled more and more magic through it. “I have a few … of my own … spells, to be pre-precise … spells … they don’t … teach … to students … A family trick.” He added as he added more power to the spell, which caused intense pain to the victim by making every nerve feel like it was being slowly burned to a crisp. “Suffer, Argent! … Suffer! … Suffer!” The white unicorn trashed on the ground, screaming until his throat started to bleed and there was no air left in his lungs. Then he screamed some more. The stench of urine wafted in the air as Argent lost all bladder control. The added humiliation barely registered with Argent and only amused Stardust. “That’s right… know… know your … place … in the shit … With the rest … your kind.” Stardust chanted, fighting the immense pain from the overused horn. Just a little bit more. Just a few more seconds and the strain on Argent’s body would be too much to bear. Just a little bit more and he would be gone. Forever.

What if this is wrong?

That one thought, a single, tiny flicker of doubt, born somewhere deep inside of him. The tiny voice of conscience, a small whisper that made itself audible despite the furious screams of hate and fear. The gentle touch, that was felt through the layers of family instilled beliefs and values. The tiny spark that sailed against the tide of the raging inferno managed to get to the very surface of his thoughts and, for the briefest of instants, was the only thought in Stardust’s mind. However, like all small things occasionally do, it had the impact of a lightning bolt.

Stardust’s focus trembled, the flow of magic wavered and the spell collapsed. Usually, it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but for Stardust’s horn, the sudden surge of magic was the tipping point. Stardust managed to catch a glimpse of his horn before it exploded, sending chips of horn as well as pieces of tissue and drops of blood in all directions, leaving behind a charred stump.

Stardust screamed. He screamed like he had never screamed before. He couldn’t see anything; the pain was so intense, so immeasurable he lost all but one of his senses. Only pain remained, agonizing, searing pain that surged through the very essence of his being. The white-hot nail had been driven from his forehead directly into his brain and it didn’t stop there, it kept on going forward, deeper, causing more and more pain that seemed to go on forever. He trashed on the ground, both hooves pressed against the charred stump, crying, begging for the pain to end. He called out, screamed for help, but nothing happened. He was alone. All the hate and adrenaline that had fueled him just moments before was gone.

He had no idea how much time had passed before pain started receding, it could have been minutes, hours, days, but eventually Stardust was able to feel something other than pain. With tears still flowing from his eyes and pained whimpers escaping his lips, Stardust opened his eyes and looked around. The dimly lit room was in the same state as before. Broken pieces of furniture lying on the floor next to several still shapes he recognized as ponies. Ponies he had attacked and injured. Now that anger, the source of all his reasons that night was gone, a cold feeling of dread filled whatever gap pain would grant it. Dread and fear, which screamed with the voice of his conscience as the gravity of his deeds started to sink in.

You did this! The voice spoke to his through all the pain. Y did this. You did all of this. This is all your work. Your fault! Your fault! Your fault! The voice chanted in his mind. Stardust started hyperventilating. It had sounded so easy at first. Track Argent and his group. Force them to leave and that's it. It had sounded so simple. So easy. Unfortunately Argent's friends and his own temper had ruined such an easy plan. And now... Now you have hurt … no killed several ponies. Murderer! The accusation flashed through his mind, fully banishing the pain and thoughts about he destroyed horn. Like a surge, it shot through his body and he did the only thing that was left to do...

xxxxx

“So I ran. Blinded by pain, pushed to panic by fear, I ran. I didn't care where I was running, I only wanted to get as far away as possible, so I ran. It took me a long time until I managed to get out of the tunnels without any light or reasonable thoughts. But once I was outside, I felt like everypony I knew was chasing after me. I fled the school, the castle, I even fled Canterlot. Everything I had, everything I was, I left behind as I ran into the night, hounded by the realization of what I had done.” Stardust finished with a heavy sigh and hung his head.

The silence stretched on for minutes until he heard somepony clear their throat. “How could you do something like that?” The whisper made Stardust look up, his face drained of all emotion when he saw the looks he was receiving. Applejack and Rainbow Dash both looked disgusted, angry even. Twilight and Rarity looked more than a little sick, though in Twilight's case, her expression also sported a great deal of outrage. Fluttershy was horrified, but at the same time, there was a great amount of sorrow and even sympathy in her eyes. Pinkie was, well, he couldn't see Pinkie's face. She was taring at the floor again.

“Hate? Anger? Fear? Jealousy? I don't know which one exactly pushed me over the edge. As I mentioned, my actions weren't guided by reason.” Unable to identify who had asked the question, he moved his gaze from one mare to another. “It was an unreasonable rivalry that went way too far.”

“Was? It WAS a rivalry? If the yesterday's attack means anything I'd say the rivalry is still going strong. Now it just involves innocent ponies.” Rainbow shook her head, fighting, struggling, to keep from throwing herself at this … bully and beat his face into a pulp. Anypony who picked on others without reason or anypony who picked on others at all was lower than dirt. “I think we should simply throw you out of Ponyville and let him finish the job.”

Stardust shook his head in denial. “I already told you, yesterday has nothing to do with what happened between us. He has something else in mind. He told me himself about a year later when he found me...”

xxxxx

“I know what you're thinking, Stardust. Why haven't I killed you yet? After going through all the trouble to find you, to track you here, to this mansion where your family has allowed their disowned son to live, and beating you up. Why haven't I killed you yet?” Argent's voice reached him over the roar of fire as the mansion burned around him. Stardust tried to move his head in order to see the other unicorn, but couldn't muster the strength to do so. A white aura surrounded him, drawing a pained groan from him as Argent picked him up and brought him over to where he was standing next to the main entrance.

Argent lowered him so that he could look Stardust in the eyes. “That would seem appropriate, considering what you have done. Because of you Spell Scroll is dead and Black Lotus is...” He trailed off for a moment as he took a deep breath to compose himself. “You attacked and hurt my friends, destroyed almost everything I have worked for my entire life when you burnt that book. I'd say killing you does seem like an appropriate response.”

“Th-then … why?” Stardust managed. Every word felt like it was filling his insides with molten metal. Then again, that was to be expected after being slammed against several hard surfaces multiple times. It hadn't been a fight. Not even slightly. Not when he had no means of defending himself against a magic user like Argent.

“Because I understand you. We have known each other for years. Granted, we knew each other as rivals, but it did provide me with an understanding about you. I understand why you attacked me and, by extension, my friends.” He fell silent again and Stardust could see the sadness in his eyes. No anger, though, and that was what truly puzzled him. Argent wasn't angry at him. Further musings were cut short when Argent resumed talking. “And because of that, I understand how you are feeling right now, when you have lost everything, especially your horn. To some degree, no amount of physical pain I inflict, will ever match the emptiness inside you. One you yourself caused.”

“Still, I could not let your actions go unpunished and I would be lying if I told you that hurting you wasn't cathartic. And, I'll admit, setting this house on fire as well as killing all the servants was probably a bit too much ... Come now, let's get you outside. I wouldn't want you to burn to death.” Argent said and trotted outside, with Stardust held in his magical grip. “Besides, having your rival not only spare your life, but actually save you only adds to the suffering, don't you think?” Once outside, he dropped Stardust unceremoniously on the ground. “I could have done much more, you know. I could have killed your entire family since, they are the ones who raised you and influenced your beliefs. But that would be too much. It is not worth it.”

He watched Stardust struggle for breath. “Don't worry. You will be okay. At least as far as the physical part of your punishment is concerned. Whether or not you will be able to survive the emotional aspect, I cannot tell, though I would appreciate if you did. That way you will be able to witness the future and what it brings.” He cast a gaze at the moon, taking in the sight of the dark silhouette that graced its surface. “Marvelous isn't it? ... You know, there's a great change coming to Equestria. Whether it's through ancient prophecies or my own doing, but change is coming. Mark my words, Stardust. Things will change. I'll make sue of that.”

Even though he was more concerned about his condition, something in Agent's voice made Stardust focus his attention on the white unicorn. “What? … What do you mean?”

Argent smiled at him and turned to leave. “Exactly what I said. Change is coming. Soon everything will change.” He paused and looked back at him. “This is our last meeting, Stardust. I hope we will never meet again. Farewell.”

xxxxx

“Wait a minute. Something's not right. If he told you that everythin' between you is over, how come he's chasin' you right now?” Applejack narrowed her eyes suspiciously when she felt that Stardust was done with the story. “You told us that what happened yesterday was because this Argent guy is lookin' for you. Yet now you're sayin' that he's done with you? Somethin's not addin' up.”

“He changed his mind. A little over two years ago, he sent some of his goons to capture me. I got very lucky and escaped, and I also found out that Argent had sent them. I have absolutely no idea why he wants me, but I highly doubt it's something I would enjoy.”

“So why didn't you go to the authorities? Get some help? Tell them what's going on?” Twilight had to focus to keep her emotions in check. It was hard. Stardust's story of how he had assaulted his fellow students had been bad enough. But hearing that he had used magic to hurt and torture other ponies was beyond the pale. It offended her on almost every level. Magic was something wonderful and amazing. It allowed a unicorn to do great things, to help others and make life better for everypony. Not something that was used to torture others and inflict such senseless suffering. It was wrong. Twilight recalled hearing something about an incident, involving several students, when she was sixteen. However, her obsession with studies had prevented her from investigating the matter. “You could have told others.”

Stardust looked at her with a frown and shook his head. “I think you are missing an important detail. I attacked and, from what Argent told me, killed at least one student. I couldn't exactly go to the nearest guard station and ask for help. Besides, what would I tell them? A powerful unicorn is planning something big? That's not exactly a convincing argument, especially with no evidence. I would be no different from all the other doomsday nutjobs out there. And with my family having decided to disown me, I didn't couldn't pull any strings to get things done. All I had were his words. That's it.” He heaved a heavy sigh and winced when the action caused his tender sides to burn. “So I decided to find out on my own. I scavenged what remained from the wreckage and set out to learn about his plans. Specifically, I tried to learn something about a book called Grimoire of the Evening War, since that was the name of the book he used to carry with him all the time and was very important to him.”

His answer seemed like a logical one and did present a good point. However, Rainbow wasn't convinced that easily. Not when there was a major flaw to address. “Speaking of nutjobs, how can we be sure he's not one? He tells you that he is planning something and you immediately start investigating it, instead of crawling into the deepest, darkest hole and staying there? What makes you thing he was telling you the truth, not spouting some random crap. Like you said, there's all sorts of weirdos out there, claiming that they will change the world or some other stupid stuff. What makes you sure, he is any different?”

Stardust opened his mouth to answer, but no words came out. However, it was plain to see that it wasn't because Rainbow's question had raised a point he could not argue, but because he was searching for the right words. “You didn't hear the way he said it … Those weren't ramblings of a madpony. It was like … imagine one thing that you know for certain. Something that will never be any different, not matter what happens. Something that is absolute, the complete and total truth. Something that is destined to be the way it is … And then imagine the certainty you would have when talking about it to others … That is what I heard when he spoke about his plan. He wasn't rambling or lying. He was absolutely, one hundred percent certain of it. That I can guarantee. And even if you ignored everything I have said, last night's attack alone should tell you that something is coming. Something big, since nopony would dare do something like that this close to Canterlot.”

His final words remained hanging in the air, casting a feeling of dread around them as everypony considered the situation. Even if Stardust was lying or had been lied to, they could not deny the evidence before them. The nature of the attack was unlike anything they had ever witnessed before. Never before had they experienced such violence and cruelty. It was like waking up to find the world was completely different from what they had believed to be in their entire lives. Twilight's injured arm throbbed slightly as if to accentuate the point. And to think that something like that had happened so close to Canterlot, arguably the safest place in Equestria...

A loud knock on the door caused all of them to jump. The doors opened and a guardspony entered. She looked around the room, fixed her gaze on Twilight and bowed slightly. “My apologies for intruding, but I was asked to inform you that Princess Luna has arrived. She wishes to talk to you.” The mare nodded at everypony except Stardust.

For Twilight it was like a huge load had been lifted off her shoulders. She nodded agreement in reply and looked back at Stardust. Several thoughts and dozens of questions were surging through her mind, but she left them unspoken. She had heard enough from him for today. She needed some time to properly digest the information. But before that, she and her friends had to see Princess Luna and discuss the situation with her. Hopefully, with Luna's help, they will be able to figure out what to do and deal with this Argent Blaze.

The Scars Within

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Luna slowly made her way across the room, her eyes moving from detail to detail while a deep frown threatened to settle on her forehead. She managed to retain her composed expression, even when her eyes noticed a particularly large stain of dried blood. She carefully stepped over it, and continued her examination of the room that had been a battlefield several hours ago.

When her eyes fell upon a row of bodies, covered by whatever blankets the guardsponies could spare, the frown managed a brief appearance before being replaced by an angry scowl. Luna moved across the room, her hoofsteps echoing throughout the town hall, and lifted the nearest cover. Underneath it was the motionless body of one of the attackers. Killed by what seemed to be a well-placed shot to the forehead, the corpse was not a pleasant sight. Especially with the needle-like teeth filling the grotesque grin, regardless of the fact that the back of its head was missing.

However, Luna was not easy to unnerve by gruesome sights. She had not only lived through a time when life was violent and short, but had also caused the most terrible civil war in the history of Equestria. The real reason why the look on her face spoke of growing anger was that something like this had happened so close to Canterlot, right under her muzzle. It was a taunt, a message that whoever was behind this could do whatever they wanted and nopony could do anything about that.

Luna dismissed the idea and put the corpse back on the floor. She was overthinking it. The attack, while bold and unexpected was not meant as a challenge to hers and Celestia’s rule. At least that hadn’t been the main objective. Luna was fairly certain that the real reason had something to do with the strange occurrences surrounding Ponyville. Not only that, but she was willing to bet all the stars in her nightly skies that the attack was somehow tied with the disappearances in South Equestria. Her heart rate quickened at that thought. Celestia had yet to find anything of importance, despite her efforts. Could it be that this was the turning point when they finally obtained knowledge that would shed some light on the matter? She quickly calmed herself. Best not to get ahead of things, lest I set myself up for disappointment.

Luna’s ears perked up when she heard the sound of doors opening behind her, followed by heavy hoofsteps as somepony made their way towards her. She covered the corpse and turned around. Her eyes fell upon an earth pony stallion. Though his thin, sinewy form was clad in armor, she could still see the off-white coat underneath, which allowed her to instantly recognize him. “Captain Frost Wyrm.” She acknowledged, watching the stallion give a slight bow before he removed his helmet and dropped the chain coif, revealing a short, regulation length salt and pepper colored mane.

“Your Majesty. I am here to report that Ponyville and the surrounding area has been secured. As per your request, we fully control everything in a five kilometer radius, with the exclusion of Everfree Forest. Nopony gets in or out without our knowledge.” The Captain of the Royal Guard reported his pale, ice blue eyes fixed on Luna’s own. “Medical personnel and supplies have been dispatched to the clinic and relief workers are assisting civilian volunteers in clearing rubble and providing any aid as necessary.”

Luna acknowledged his report with a brief nod and started walking towards the exit, with the old stallion trotting alongside her. “Did you send for Princess Twilight Sparkle and the rest of the Element Bearers?”

“Yes ma’am. I sent for them five minutes ago, so they should be here any moment.” Luna gave another nod to his report and used her magic to open the front doors. They both left the building and walked out onto the town square. The scene had changed dramatically since she had entered the town hall several minutes ago. Instead of a single canopy, the town square was full of large tents, with stacks of crates near most of them. Between them, several guardsponies, all clad in the nondescript combat armor, moved in a flow of organized chaos. Above them, the skies above Ponyville were frequently crossed by pegasi patrols, either arriving to report on their patrols or heading out to conduct new ones.

Once again, Luna thought that perhaps she was overreacting by bringing along an entire Royal Guards company. After all, the attack was over and she doubted there would be a second one. Nopony was that stupid. Then again, she realized that the sight of the soldiers would provide some small comfort to those who lived in Ponyville. A small reassurance, so that life would return to normal as quickly as possible, though she doubted that life in Ponyville would ever be the same. “Captain, I want you to assign a garrison to Ponyville on a more permanent basis. Though I doubt it will do any good for those who have suffered already, perhaps presence of the Royal Guard will grant them a small comfort. We have to show them that we won’t let something like this happen again.”

The Captain nodded in agreement and gestured to a nearby adjutant. “Find Lieutenant Cold Iron, tell him that I request his presence at the town hall.” The guardspony saluted and took off, the pegasus stallion quickly disappearing from view. Frost Wyrm tracked him as far as he could before turning his attention back to Luna. “Consider it done. Anything else, ma’am?”

“No, that will be enough for now, Captain, see to your tasks. I will meet Princess Twilight and her friends at the command tent. See that we are not disturbed.” Luna replied and made her way towards her destination. Guardsponies parted to clear the way and saluted as she walked past them, but Luna paid them little attention. She had bigger things on mind. Things like possible reactions to this attack and measures she could take in order to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. However, she was drawing a blank on that one. She had no information on the ones responsible. Not even a rumor. All she could do was to react, which put her on a severe disadvantage. Her mood worsened when her thoughts shifted towards her sister who, despite personally leading the investigation on the disappearing settlements, had failed to uncover anything.

Without fully acknowledging them, Luna gave a curt nod of reply to the two ponies guarding the entrance to the tent and went inside. Her eyes immediately fell on the large table with numerous reports scattered all over it. However, despite the amount, the table might as well be empty. They merely repeated what she already knew. Her only hope was that perhaps Twilight had learned something that would shed some light on things. She had survived the attack and had been in the middle of investigating a potential lead on the matter when Luna had arrived, so it made sense that the young princess was her only chance to learn something.

A wave of bitter amusement nearly cracked the reserved mask Luna always wore. Once again she, and by extension – Celestia, were relying on Twilight to solve a problem. Some things never change. Luna thought tiredly while clearing the table from the reports and haphazardly piling them in the furthest corner.

It was about time already. The moment Luna let go of the last report, she heard several familiar voices just outside the tent. A few seconds later, Twilight, Applejack and Rainbow Dash entered the tent. “Greetings.” Luna said with a small nod. She looked over the three mares and arched an eyebrow. “Where are the rest of your friends, Twilight Sparkle?”

Twilight glanced back at the exit and swallowed nervously. “I am sorry, Princess Luna, but Rarity, Fluttershy and Pinkie couldn’t come. Pinkie is … the last night hit her hard. More than anypony else. Fluttershy and Rarity remained with her in order to help.”

“After what happened … I can’t blame her.” Applejack added silently with a shake of her head.

“That is most unfortunate. Though it also shows just how serious the situation is.” Luna motioned them to sit down in front of the table. She mirrored them across the table and waited until they were settled before continuing. “Therefore we must do our best to resolve it as quickly as possible. Now, please, tell me what happened last night. A new perspective on the matter could reveal crucial details.”

The three mares exchanged a quick glance between themselves and then, after clearing her throat, Twilight began to speak. She told her everything she could recall, which, considering her impressive memory was quite a lot. Only a few times did she pause when Applejack or Rainbow chimed in to provide their own impressions as well as fill in any gaps Twilight’s story might have left. She didn’t get to tell the entire story as she couldn’t recall anything after the Elements had wiped out the attackers, however, Rainbow and Applejack quickly picked up the story and continued on, explaining how they had helped the town in the aftermath.

There was a moment of silence when Applejack finished explaining the most recent events as Luna and everypony else quietly contemplated the story. “And what of this Stardust? I understand you were interrogating him when I arrived. Did you learn anything about those who attacked us?”

“Well, yes and no. He did identify the pony responsible for the attack, but Stardust was unable to provide any details, other than this is part of some plan.” Twilight replied. She told Luna everything. From Stardust’s ancestry to the fight underneath the school, to the confrontation between Stardust and Argent some time later.

When she was done, Twilight waited for a moment before voicing the thought that kept surfacing in her mind. “I wanted to ask you something, Princess Luna. Stardust mentioned that Argent was obsessed with a book known as the Grimoire of the Evening War. Now, I’ve studied history and I think I have seen both the war and the book mentioned once or twice in my books, but it was never anything specific. Only vague indications or unclear mentions, making it more of a myth than anything else. Perhaps you know something about this matter?”

“Yes, Twilight Sparkle, I have heard of it.” Luna replied, glad about the change of topic. She gathered her thoughts, reaching for memories that were centuries old. “Though I am afraid I will have to disappoint you, since the war and the book were already myths even before Celestia and I came into existence. It is so old I doubt anypony knows the truth.” She paused for a moment. “The Grimoire comes from an ancient conflict, when an alicorn race, known as Arions, fought the dragons.” Luna had to stop when Rainbow, much to Twilight’s frustration, raised a hoof.

“Arions?”

Luna nodded. “Yes. They were a race of immensely powerful alicorns, created by Epona herself. Unfortunately, myths and legends are all that remains. They vanished a long time ago. Either they were wiped out by dragons or some other calamity befell them. The Grimoire is said to be their legacy. However, nopony knows what it means, since the book was only a myth as well … Though it sounds like it was not just a myth.” Luna said after a brief pause, her face void of any emotion.

That is not nearly enough information. I was hoping for more. Twilight felt the gears in her head moving. She looked at the table in front of her, not really seeing her as she added the new information to what she already knew. The results were not good. “Okay, so the Grimoire is an ancient book, containing knowledge we don’t know anything about. Judging from Stardust’s story, Argent Blaze had it in his possession and it was very important to whatever he is planning, until Stardust destroyed it.” She took a deep breath through clenched teeth. “However, even though he lost the Grimoire, Argent still seems to be able to carry out his plan, which means…” Twilight brought up her hooves in front of her and stared at them before letting out an exasperated moan and rubbing her eyes. “I’m sorry, but it doesn’t give us anything. Book or no book, we still have no idea what he is planning and why.”

Luna studied her, carefully considering Twilight’s words. “At least we now have a name. Argent Blaze. If we know the identity of the pony behind all this, we have a lead. A trail we can follow. Celestia will be happy to hear the news. Her investigation in this matter has brought little fruit.”

“Pardon me, Princess, but what did you mean by that? Celestia is doin’ her own investigation? Did she know about this?” Applejack frowned deeply. Twilight and Rainbow Dash looked at their friend and then back at Luna, a pair of frowns also settling on their foreheads as they also realized the hint behind Luna’s words.

Luna turned her head around and searched for a nearby map. When she spotted it, Luna used her magic to bring it to the table and spread it out. The three remaining mares leaned closer in order to get a better look at what was the map of Equestria. The first thing they noticed was the large, red circles around several locations in the South. Luna let them examine the map for a moment before she cleared her throat and started talking. “I am afraid, this attack is not the only incident Equestria has experienced in these recent weeks. Other settlements have been attacked.” She tapped the marked locations with her hoof. “However, unlike the attack on Ponyville, these incidents have been of different nature. Instead of slaughtering the population, the ones responsible have chosen to abduct them. Every stallion, mare and foal has disappeared without a trace. There have been no traces of struggle, no clues, nothing. Celestia has been investigating these attacks, doing her best to find out who is responsible, but unfortunately, she hasn’t been able to find anything.”

“Whoa! Ponies are disappearing and you didn’t tell us about it?” Rainbow couldn’t believe her ears as she counted the number of circles. Next to her Applejack drew a sharp breath, while Twilight was studying the map, muttering something to herself. “Four towns have disappeared and you don’t tell us a single word? We could have helped. In fact, we should be out there right now, making sure other towns don’t get attacked.” Her voice was growing more forceful with every word until she realized that she was talking to Princess Luna.

The glare Luna gave Rainbow instantly silenced the mare. “And what would you do? The reason you weren't told anything is because we have no idea what is going on. All we know is that somepony is abducting entire towns. That is it. There aren’t even any rumors that could provide some clues about the situation. All this time we have been chasing ghosts. Getting you involved would not have changed anything. Celestia herself told me that none of you should be involved in this matter.” All this time Luna’s eyes were focused on Rainbow, but then they suddenly shifted towards Twilight for a very brief moment.

“Why would Princess Celestia not ask us to help her? We’ve done plenty of things in the past. I’m pretty sure we could have helped her nip this one in the bud.” Applejack noticed the look Luna gave Twilight and couldn’t help feel suspicious. Especially when Twilight met Luna’s eyes and drew in her breath just a tiny, little bit sharper than before.

“How do you know these attacks are related?” Twilight suddenly said, her eyes shifting to the map. Applejack arched her eyebrows, when a slight poke made itself known in her gut. Something was off. She couldn’t place a hoof on it, but something was going on here. “Considering how different they are, this could be the work of two unrelated parties.” Twilight slowly traced her hoof from one circle to another, as if trying to connect them to each other. For a moment she raised her head and looked at Luna with what Applejack thought was a pleading look in her eyes.

Luna shook her head. “Though your argument does sound reasonable, I doubt it. And even if there truly are two threats Equestria is facing, it matters not. We still have to find out who is behind this and put an end to it.”

“How do you suggest we do that, Princess? All we have is a name, stories of an ancient book and strange disappearances.” Twilight could feel the gears inside her head turning as she considered the possible actions. As it turned out, Luna’s reply was exactly the one she had been expecting.

“We will pursue the few leads we have. I will return to Canterlot and find out more about the unicorn Argent Blaze and his comrades. You, I believe, will most likely prefer to research the Grimoire. If we can find out what it contains, then there is a chance we will be able to figure out what Argent is planning.”

Rainbow’s eyes traveled from one princess to another. She scratched her head in confusion. “But wasn’t that book destroyed? Stardust said he burned the thing. How can we learn about something that was destroyed?”

“We don’t really need the book itself, Rainbow. There’s bound to be references in other books. Perhaps copies or fragments taken from the book. Things like that.” Twilight explained while her mind considered potential sources of information. “Besides, I am not sure if that book was really destroyed. There is no way a simple book could have survived this long. It could be enchanted with a layer of protection. A spell that protects it from damage. Things like that. Which increases the chance of finding any sort of reference.”

Rainbow considered Twilight’s reply and had to agree. If that Grim-something book was anything like her Daring Do novels, then it would not take very long for the wear and tear to cause serious damage. “Hmm… I guess, that makes sense.”

Meanwhile Applejack stopped sneaking suspicious glances at Twilight and joined the conversation. She cleared her throat, forcing everypony to look at her. “Okay. We clearly have a plan of action and we’re one step closer to solvin’ this mystery. However, there is still one thing I want to ask. What are … were those things from last night? The ones that attacked us? I’ve seen plenty of critters in my life, hard not to when livin’ near the Everfree and hangin’ out with Twilight here. But nothin’ comes close to those things. I thought Timberwolves were nasty, but this is on a completely new level.”

“Applejack’s right. Those ponies, if you could still call them that, were insane. All that howling and screaming was bad enough, but the way they threw themselves me…” Rainbow actually shuddered at the memory. “Not to mention those teeth…” Twilight’s arm gave a sudden pang when Rainbow mentioned that particular topic.

Luna took a moment to collect her thoughts. When she did start to talk, her words were slow, as if she was trying to put together an answer at the same time as saying it. “Truth be told, I cannot answer that question, because I am also at a loss. Those markings on their bodies… Sigils or Brands I believe they are called, makes me think those were familiars. Demons, summoned from the depths of Tartarus, to do a master’s bidding.” There was another pause as Luna searched her memory for additional information. Even though her knowledge of the darkest aspects of magic was much deeper than her sister’s, there were still some bits that escaped her. “However, what makes this situation strange is that the bodies are still whole. Demons can’t remain outside Tartarus for long. It takes a lot of power for them to manifest a physical form in this world. Therefore, whenever they are slain, the body disintegrates. Disappears.”

“Does that mean they are not demons?”

“I cannot say for sure, lady Rainbow Dash. Most clues indicate that they are. But the differences I have seen, makes me doubt that assumption. I will have to look into it. It has been quite some time since I last dealt with magic of this nature.” Luna replied and pulled one of the reports towards her. “It is most frustrating.”

Applejack chewed her lip nervously. “Do you think they will attack again, Princess?”

“Doubtful. There are plenty of soldiers in Ponyville and we can always use the Elements again. They have to understand that, for now, Ponyville is untouchable.” Twilight spoke up in a determined voice. “But I think we are getting sidetracked. Considering how little we know, I think it would be best if we tried to learn as much as possible, without wasting any time. The sooner we find out what Argent is planning, the sooner all the missing bits will fall into place and we’ll be able to stop whatever he is planning.”

“You speak the truth, Twilight Sparkle. Time is of the essence. Please understand, however, that my help will be limited. With Celestia searching for any clues on the disappearing towns, I have been tasked with ruling Equestria all by myself.” At some time, Luna would have been overjoyed with the prospect of being completely in charge. However, now that she had experienced the full weight of the task, Luna was starting to have regrets. Suddenly being in charge of Equestria was much more problematic than she had imagined. Everything needed her attention, didn’t matter if it was a trivial argument between two ponies or the most recent border incident with the griffins.

Twilight jumped to her hooves. “Don’t worry, Princess. I will take care of it immediately. I’m sure I’ll discover something by tonight.” As soon as she had finished the sentence, Twilight turned around and headed towards the exit.

“Twilight Sparkle, before you go, may I talk to you? In private?” She looked at Applejack and Rainbow Dash and gave them a small nod and a smile. It was a clear sign that for them, the conversation was over.

Twilight looked back at Luna and immediately realized what the dark blue alicorn wanted to talk about. Thoughts of any other possibility were banished by the request for privacy. It was a conversation Twilight wanted to avoid, but at the same time couldn’t ignore as well. After all, Luna was Celestia’s sister and she had plenty of reasons to be worried about how things were between Twilight and Celestia. Some small part of her tried to come up with some sort of an excuse and, considering the situation, Twilight was almost certain that Luna wouldn’t mind. However, at the same time, she couldn’t ignore the problem as well. Something had to be done. Letting it just sit at the back of her mind and fester, would only make things worse. As a result, Twilight found herself turning around and slowly walking back to the table, pausing only to say goodbye to Rainbow and Applejack as they exited the tent.

Once they were alone, Luna met Twilight’s eyes and dropped her guard a little, letting the sadness inside her find its way to her face. “Have you forgiven her, Twilight?”

xxxxx

“I wonder if everythin’s alright. Maybe we should ask her what’s wrong with her?” Applejack stared back at the tent and muttered quietly. She turned her head back just in time to avoid running into a guardspony. She managed to avoid the collision, but almost knocked down Rainbow.

The cyan pegasus jumped to the side with a surprised gasp. She glared at Applejack and rose up in the air where it would be easier to avoid clumsy earth ponies. “Hey, careful, Applejack! You nearly knocked me down!” She paused to make sure her friend was okay. “What’s wrong with you? Usually you’re not this clumsy.”

“Sorry sugarcube, my mind was wonderin’ all over the place back there. Couldn’t see what was in front of me until the last moment.” She adjusted her hat and smiled apologetically.

Whatever snarky comment Rainbow had in mind, was banished by her friend’s words. She glanced back at the tent and nodded in agreement. “Yeah, you’re right. Can’t believe this is happening. Ponies are disappearing and nopony has any idea on what’s going on. Not only that, but we’re supposed to just sit here and do nothing. It’s crazy!”

“I don’t like sitting on my hooves either. Doing nothin’ while others are suffering, it just ain’t right. However, you have to admit, Princess Luna was right. There is nothin’ we can do if we don’t know who’s responsible. Blindly running off will get us nowhere. I think it’s best if we let them figure out what’s going on, before we go and give a solid buck to the teeth to whoever is doing this.”

“You got that one right.” Rainbow agreed with a grim look in her eyes and cracked her neck. “Somepony’s in for a world of hurt.” As soon as they got clear of the tents, they started moving at a faster pace.

Applejack smiled briefly, before her previous concerns resurfaced, causing her to lose the smile. “I just hope Twilight’s okay.”

“What did you say? Something about Twilight?”

Applejack couldn’t find the right way to voice her thoughts and eventually decided to just go with it. “Nothin’ much, I just … It could be that my mind’s playin’ tricks on me, but I think there is somethin’ wrong with Twilight. She seemed a bit nervous when talking to Princess Luna.”

“I think you’re worrying too much.” Rainbow waved her hoof dismissively. “It’s Twilight we’re talking about, she’s always nervous about all sorts of things.” Applejack considered that.

“Hmm… perhaps you’re right. Maybe I am worryin’ too much.” She shook her head to clear the thoughts and broke into a gallop. ”C’mon, let’s go and check up on Pinkie. Hopefully Rarity and Flutterhy have calmed her down.”

Rainbow flapped her wings a little faster in order to keep up. “Yeah, just don’t mention all this to her. She has had a hard enough day.”

xxxxx

“Would… would you like a glass of water, perhaps?” Rarity desperately tried to come up with a way to switch her friend’s thoughts in another direction, but her attempt proves fruitless. Pinkie didn’t respond. The pink mare was sitting on her bed back at Sugarcube Corner and stared at the ground in front of her.

Fluttershy gently sat down next to Pinkie and slowly pulled her into a comforting embrace. Much to Rarity’s relief, she saw Pinkie lean into the hug a bit. She and Fluttershy shared a small sigh. At the very least Pinkie was responding to them. From her place next to the door, Rarity watched Fluttershy comfort Pinkie. “Don’t worry, Pinkie. We’re here for you. There is nothing for you to worry about.” It was a lie and they all knew it. Rarity knew it, Flutershy knew it and even Pinkie knew it as well. Problem was, none of them really knew what to say.

Rarity walked over to the window and looked at the Ponyville outside. She was still trying to process the story she had heard. Sure, she had suspected that Stardust had a problematic past, but she had never imagined that it would be something like this. Rarity honestly didn’t know what to think about the situation. It was obvious that Stardust was a victim of his own crimes. Going so far as to try and kill a fellow pony for such petty reasons… Rarity shook her head at the sheer incredulity of it. However, while this realization made it easy to label him as a criminal who got what he deserved, Rarity couldn’t bring herself to decide so quickly.

The way he had helped her a few days ago, it was not something a pony like Stardust from five years ago would do. Those were the actions of a decent pony, who tried to do the right thing. Perhaps he was different now? Maybe he was a different pony, who had seen the error of his ways and tried to atone for his crimes? Of course, the very moment the thought formed in her mind, Rarity recalled the day Stardust was captured. She hadn’t seen the actual event, but from what Twilight and Rainbow had told her, Stardust had been about to mercilessly kill one of the attackers. While Rarity could understand if a pony went too far when it came to self-defense, there was the fact that at that moment Stardust had been the aggressor, going after his attacker when said attacker was fleeing and unable to resist.

Some small part of her wanted to use it as final proof to condemn Stardust as a violent pony, a criminal who occasionally showed a moment of kindness. However, her sense of honor didn’t allow that. Stardust had helped her and Rarity still felt she was in his debt. Rarity looked in the eyes of her own reflection and made a decision to give Stardust the benefit of doubt. That was the least she could do. Perhaps we shall meet again and I will be able to make a decision. Rarity said to herself with a sharp exhale. Decision made, peace of mind attained, Rarity turned around to face her friends.

Unfortunately, despite Rarity reaching some sort of closure and putting her thoughts temporarily at ease, the situation was still far from good. Pinkie was still unnaturally quiet and unresponsive, staring at a spot on the floor in a manner that was rather unsettling. Whenever Pinkie got that empty look in her eyes it was like she became a completely different pony. A pony that required a delicate approach.

“C’mon pinkie, please cheer up.” Fluttershy once again tried to get a response from her friend. In retrospect, perhaps it would have been best if she had stayed quiet.

Pinkie twitched, as if suddenly waking up from a trance, and pulled away from Fluttershy, while giving her a strange look that caused the pegasus to move away. “Cheer up? How? How can you say that? After all we heard. How can I cheer up?”

“”Pinkie, darling please…” Rarity began, but Pinkie didn’t hear her. She stared at the trembling Fluttershy, with a look that held no anger or sadness. Her eyes were void of all emotion.

“I just heard a pony openly say they refused to be friends with somepony else. While I could understand it, he also told us that he tried to hurt other ponies. Not just hurt, but seriously injure and maybe even kill them.” She took a shaky breath which sounded longer than was naturally possible. “He tried to kill another pony because he was different … How … How can anypony do such a thing? How could he do something like that? How can I cheer up after I hear something so terrible?” Pinkie fell silent for a while and turned her attention towards the floor again. “Ponies are supposed to be friends, not try to hurt each other.”

Rarity shot Fluttershy a concerned gaze, somehow fearing that her friend, who was often easily frightened by various things, would be already halfway out of the room. However, Fluttershy remained on the bed. She met Rarity’s gaze and shook her head in response. More than that, the pegasus slowly got back up, once again sat down next to Pinkie and started gently rubbing Pinkie’s back with a reassuring touch. “I don’t know, Pinkie. I’m sorry, but I really don’t know. ”

“It’s just that I saw so many terrible things last night.” Pinkie continued. “And just when I thought I managed to get over it, I had to listen to more.”

With a heavy sigh, Rarity walked over to the bed and sat down next to Pinkie. “I know, Pinkie. I know. Last night was horrible for everypony. I wish I knew what to say in order to make it easier, but I don’t. All I can say is that you just have to grit your teeth and move on.”

“But how?”

“Think about nice things. All those times when something good happened to you or anypony else. I am sure you have plenty of nice memories. Focus on them.” Now that Pinkie wasn’t looking at her with that empty gaze and it looked like there was a proper conversation going on, Fluttershy found the courage to speak up.

“Fluttershy is right. You can’t dwell on the bad things all the time. Think of something nice. Something that cheers you up. I know things look bad right now, but it won’t always be like that. It will get better. With time, everything gets better.” Rarity continued from where Fluttershy had left. She made an encouraging smile.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy to break through the depressing mist. “I can’t. I really tried, but I can’t. How can I be happy if other ponies are not?”

“Look, Pinkie, we're not asking you to be happy while everypony else is miserable. You're not the kind of pony who would do that and that is why we love you so much. But please understand that there are times when it is impossible to make ponies laugh, no matter how much you want to.” Pinkie opened her mouth to protest, but Rarity cut her off before she misunderstood the meaning behind those words. “And it has nothing to do with your ability to cheer them up. Sometimes bad things happen in life. Sometimes you have to let them be sad. Give them time to grieve so they can later move on. You know that saying, time heals all wounds? Well, this is the case when it is true. Give ponies some time. It will get better. All you have to do is wait.”

“Just wait?”

On the other side Flutterhsy nodded several times. “Yes, Pinkie. Occasionally waiting for some time to pass, can be just as good as any other solution. For example, there have been cases when some of my animals have been injured and no matter how much I want to help them right away, I have to let them get a little rest before that.”

“Yes, there is time for everything. You just have to wait until the right moment. And you can’t do it alone, we will be right here to help you.” Rarity managed a smile. She was about to say more, but her voice was cut off when Pinkie slipped her arms around Rarity and Fluttershy and pulled them into a tight hug.

“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Pinkie whispered as she pulled her friends closer. She kept her eyes shut, but that did not keep the tears from flowing down her cheeks and disappearing into Fluttershy’s or Rarity’s manes. “I will wait. I will wait until the time is right … you are the best friends a pony could ever wish for. I am so happy to have met you.” She opened her eyes just in time to see the doors open, revealing Applejack and Rainbow Dash. “All of you.”

xxxxx

“I… No… I can’t… I don’t know. I can’t answer that. Not yet.” Twilight couldn’t meet Luna’s gaze. Her voice caught up in her throat several times, preventing her from completing her sentence, forcing her to push them out with all her strength. “I am sorry, Luna. But… I can’t… I don’t know if I can forgive her.” She managed to raise her eyes and saw that Luna was staring at her. As usual it was impossible to read any emotions from the dark alicorn’s face.

“It has been more than a month.” Luna finally said.

“I know!” Twilight slammed her hoof against the ground in a sudden rush of emotions. “I know.” She added much more quietly and sat down with a heavy sigh. “But I can’t. Not now. Not so soon. Not when they are still suffering from it. Sure, they might be hiding it from others, but it is still there... The pain is still there, just under the surface. I can feel it.”

Luna didn’t say a word. She didn’t know what to say. Twilight was speaking the truth. Since Luna’s duties also included safeguarding ponies’ dreams, she often saw the nightmares plaguing them. Twilight’s friends were no exception. They often had nightmares about that time when Twilight had switched around their Cutie Marks, forcing them to live completely different lives. A deeply traumatic experience if there ever was one. Luna herself couldn’t hold back a shiver at the thought of having the very essence of herself being taken away from her. Celestia had done something terrible, in more ways than one. And it had cost her. “She is in pain, Twilight. What happened between you and her, it hurt her deeply.”

“I know that. And it pains me to hear that. She means a lot to me. But my friends, they mean everything to me. What we have been through…” Twilight took a sharp breath to focus her mind. It didn’t help much, but it did make her feel slightly more in control of herself. “I can’t forgive her. Not yet. I need more time. Please, tell her that I need to fix this. And… tell her that I don’t hate her.”

“I understand. I will tell her. Hopefully, it will grant her some peace.” Luna eventually admitted defeat. Her attempt to patch things up between Twilight and Celestia had failed. The only consolation was that Twilight didn’t have any anger towards Celestia, only indecision. Though it wasn’t the solution Luna had hoped for, it was better than nothing. “I thank you for not turning your back on her entirely. I know what she did was wrong, even though Celestia had her reasons, but it also pains me to see her like this.”

“Is that why she never told me about the disappearances? About ponies going missing without a single trace?” Twilight voiced the thought that had been inside her head for a while.

“Yes. She felt that asking you for help would violate your request, even though I told her that this is a very serious exception. One that you would understand. However, she didn’t listen to me. Her guilt was making her deaf to all of my objections and attempts to reason with her. Even when I offered to investigate this matter, she refused. Eventually, she took several guards with her and left Canterlot, leaving me in charge of Equestria as well as the sun.”

The last part hit Twilight like a sledgehammer. ”Princess Celestia left you to guide the sun?” She had no idea it was that bad. Yes, she had said some terrible things that night, but there was no way it could have affected Celestia so much.

“I hope you now understand how worried I am. The bond you had with my sister went very deep and it left a large wound when you severed it.” Luna correctly interpreted the unspoken question. Almost immediately, she saw the look on Twilight’s face change and, before Twilight could open her mouth, Luna already knew what to say. “I am not blaming you at all. What you did … it was bound to happen. Truth be told, I was surprised Celestia did not see it coming. Perhaps that is why it affected her so much. The unseen blade always cuts the deepest.”

“I know. It is painful to me as well. I never wanted to hurt her like this. But…” Twilight muttered as the events of her last meeting with Celestia flashed through her mind.

“But things rarely happen the way we want. All we can do is to deal with the consequences and hope that something can still be salvaged.” Luna finished the sentence with a heavy sigh and watched Twilight nod quietly. There was nothing else to say. At the very least she had a small ray of hope to hold onto. Hope that there was still a chance for Celestia and Twilight to recover at least a portion of the relationship they once had. Luna wasn’t a fool; she knew that things would never be exactly the same. The wounds were simply too deep for them to heal completely and too fresh for the healing to start. “Sadly, it looks like more time is needed.”

Luna slowly rose to her hooves, feeling the weight of the world on her back. The conversation on that particular topic was over. “I think it is time for us to start working on solving the more pressing issues. Let me know if you find anything. I will be in Ponyville for a few hours, I have matters to attend to. After that, I will head back to Canterlot.”

Twilight nodded in response, though the strained expression did not leave her face. She was clearly thinking very hard about something. “I will start working on it immediately. Hopefully, I’ll learn something useful by tonight. And one more thing…” She stood up and quickly moved around the table. Before Luna could realize what was going on, Twilight was in front of her. The younger princess reared up and threw her arms around Luna’s neck, pulling her into a warm hug. For a moment, Luna went completely stiff, but a friendly nuzzle from Twilight made her relax. “Thank you, Princess Luna. Thank you for everything. I don’t know what I would have done without you.” She felt Luna shift her stance and a moment later, Twilight felt an awkward hoof gently touch her back.

xxxxx

Later that night Twilight was sitting on the floor of the main room of her library, surrounded by books. A large blackboard was set up near the wall and was covered with small notes, connected with lines in a seemingly random pattern. On the floor, near the blackboard, several scrolls, also covered in notes, were lying around.

One of the pieces of paper rose up in the air and floated towards Twilight. She carefully read it, looked at the book, floating next to it and, with a frown, crumpled the note and tossed it into a pile of other discarded ones. Twilight stared at the blackboard for a while, taking in all the notes she had written down, and felt a strange feeling of partial success fill her mind. Much to her frustration, her search for the Grimoire had not been as successful as she had hoped. Still, it wasn’t like she hadn’t found anything. Her ability to gleam information from books had served her well. Though there were no specifics to be found, Twilight had spotted several clues and a few potential leads. Tales of an ancient artifact of immense power had surfaced several times during her research. Though the artifact could have been anything, Twilight had a hunch that the artifact in question was the Grimoire. The occasional line describing the artifact as the “legacy of the ancients”, or “tome of power”, was enough to make her take note. One passage including words like “tongue of gods” when referring to the book was another clue.

Unfortunately, vague clues were all she had been able to find. Even after Twilight had went over her findings for a second time, including leads she had discarded previously, she hadn’t been able to find anything else. Her library did not have the information she needed. It was simply too small. I need to expand my research if I am to learn more about that book. Twilight thought and started discarding the unnecessary scrolls. At the same time, she levitated a fresh scroll and quill in front of her, and began copying the notes from her blackboard. A precautionary measure, since notes on the blackboard could easily be wiped off.

She was halfway done with the writing when realization struck. “Canterlot Royal Archives. That’s it! I am sure I’ll be able to find something there.” Twilight nearly pushed the quill through the paper in her excitement. “That’s a brilliant idea. Most of my books are copies of the material I can find there, so it’s fair to assume that there would be even more material on these topics in the archives.” Her writing speed increased drastically, up to the point where the quill was nearly a blur. As soon as she was done, Twilight made sure that she hadn’t missed anything and rolled up the scroll.

“Spike. I need you to take a letter. I want to tell Princess Luna about my findings and inform her that I’m going to Canterlot in order to investigate further.” Twilight put down the scroll and looked around. There was no reply. “Spike? Where are you?” Twilight repeated and looked around again, hoping to spot the baby dragon hiding between piles of books. Nothing. “Spike, I need you to…” She fell silent when she realized she hadn’t seen Spike all day.

“Spike?” Twilight trotted around the room, double checking all potential spots where he could be. Still noting. “That can’t be right. I am sure I saw him today.” She muttered and strained her memory. She remembered the conversation with Luna, the quick trot towards the library and the research. Not much more. However, as she focused on the details, Twilight did recall seeing Spike enter the library, greet her in a quiet voice and then quickly running up to the bedroom.

Twilight glanced up in the direction of said bedroom with an uneasy look. Without a single word or thought, she started climbing up the stairs. The closer she got, the more worried she became. How could I forget about him? When was the last time I saw him before? She asked herself and quickly covered the remaining steps when the answer came. She hadn’t paid any attention to him since the last night. The last thing she remembered was the shocked look on his face before she left him at Sugarcube Corner. Swallowing nervously, she cracked the door open and poked her muzzle inside. “Spike?”

The inside of her bedroom was completely dark and, apart from rough shapes, Twilight couldn’t make out any details. She could have cast an illumination spell or light a candle, but that would only disturb Spike. Therefore, she decided to rely on her memory to avoid tripping and slipped inside.

Once she was inside, Twilight’s ears picked up barely audible sobs coming from her bed. With a few flaps of her wings, Twilight landed on the edge of the alcove and saw a small shape, hiding under her blanket. Spike was shivering slightly, and his sobs sounded very dry as if coming from somepony who didn’t have the strength to cry anymore. A sharp pang of pain shot through her heart when Twilight realized that Spike had been spending all day up here, crying, without her even noticing it. Any thought of sending a letter to Princess Luna evaporated immediately.

Slowly, Twilight approached her bed and reached out. “Hey, Spike.” She said softly and placed her hoof on Spike’s back. The sobbing stopped almost immediately and soon after a pair of green eyes were staring at her expectantly. Twilight’s heart clenched when she saw the look in his eyes. How could I forget about him?! “Have… have you been up here all day?”

Spike didn’t say a word, he merely nodded in response. “How are you? Is everything okay?” Twilight forged ahead. She knew that she was asking the obvious, but she didn’t know what else to say and talking was a much better option than letting the silence drag on. There was another nod. An unconvincing one. Spike was trying to be brave, but he wasn’t fooling anypony. Fresh tears welled up in his eyes despite his best efforts to hold them back.

“Oh, Spike.” Twilight suddenly found herself struggling to keep her eyes dry. After all that horror they had witnessed last night, she hadn’t spared a single thought about how Spike was feeling about it. The promise she had made to herself, to talk to him, to comfort him after everything was over, had turned out to be nothing more than a lie. She had left him at Sugarcube Corner and hadn’t spared a single thought about him for the entire day. Just because she had learned so much about the situation, it didn’t make it okay to forget about Spike. Yet she had. She had forgotten about him until the moment she needed him to send a letter. She had left him to deal with the last night’s memories alone. I am a horrible pony. Twilight found it hard to breathe. I am such a horrible pony. How could I forget about Spike? She rubbed Spike’s back even as she was steadily losing her struggle against keeping her eyes dry.

Eventually, she stopped bothering with that. “I am sorry, Spike. I am sorry for leaving you alone.” She sobbed and pulled Spike closer. An invisible dam burst inside her and tears started to run free. Twilight was only partially aware of pulling Spike into a hug, which he returned by holding onto her as if his life depended on it. “I am so sorry.” Twilight said as everything came crashing down. Up until that moment, Twilight had been able to keep her emotions in check, operating on detached, scientific logic. Even the conversation with Luna hadn’t managed to crack the hard shell. But now, when she was sitting on the floor of her bedroom, holding her little brother in her arms, she couldn’t keep it away anymore. Every single memory of the last night, the realization, the horror, the fear, the anger, the sadness, the desperation, it all struck her at once. She wept as once again she realized just how quickly things could get very bad and how much worse with every new time they became.

xxxxx

No, please no! Not again! Please, not again! Celestia though when a sudden blink made her fully aware of her surroundings. She was standing in front of a room, in the middle of a long corridor at Canterlot Castle. Her sister’s moon was casting its pale light through the window at the far end of the corridor. There wasn’t a pony in sight and the entire castle felt eerily silent and empty. Not even the guards were present. Usually the lack of guards would be a cause for some concern, but this wasn’t a usual situation. In fact, over the past few weeks the situation had become distressingly common for her.

Celestia closed her eyes for a moment, hoping it would grant her the escape she wanted so much, but it didn’t work. There was no escaping from this dream. Not until she saw it all the way through. Not until she entered the room in front of her and watched this dream, this nightmare unfold. It had plagued her sleep for many nights and didn’t even fully leave her thoughts during daytime. The dream of that night, when everything had fallen apart.

She tried to leave, to run away as quickly as she could, hopefully avoiding what would soon follow. Unfortunately, it did not happen. The moment Celestia lifted her hoof off the ground, there was the sound of paper being torn and, just like that, the brief moment of lucidity was gone, and she once again became a prisoner in her own body. Unable to do anything else, but watch.

She continued to raise her hoof so that she could knock on the door. “Twilight. I have to talk to you. May I come in?” Usually she didn’t ask such things. She was the ruler of Equestria in her own castle. There was not a place she could not go. All the doors were open for her. All but two.

No response came from the room, though she was certain she heard another piece of paper being torn in half. The sound alone was disconcerting. That was not a sound she expected to hear anywhere near Twilight. Perhaps the guardspony had been right. Maybe there was a cause for concern. She used her magic to check the door and found if unlocked. That was a good sign. It meant that Twilight wouldn’t object if she entered the room.

“Twilight, I was told you did not come to the…” Celestia opened the door and walked inside. She quickly glanced all over the dark room, taking note of the lavish furniture as well as the room’s two occupants. Suddenly, her voice died in her throat when her eyes fell on Twilight and she fully comprehended the sight in front of her.

Twilight was sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace. She was staring at the crackling flames and seemed to be completely unaware of Celestia’s presence. Twilight was sitting completely still, her brand new wings hanging loosely from her sides, while her disheveled mane was obscuring her face. However, what made Celestia briefly lose the ability to speak was the sight of an open book, floating near Twilight. It looked like an ordinary book, except for the fact that most of its pages were missing, as in carelessly ripped out. Celestia immediately realized where the tearing sounds had been coming from and, judging from the fireplace and the lack of any pages on the floor, what Twilight had been up to. Twilight is burning a book!

“Twilight. What is going on? What are you doing?” Celestia quickly closed the door behind her and moved closer to the younger alicorn. She briefly flicked her eyes towards the other side of the room, where Spike was lying on top of the bed, still as a statue, observing them. Their eyes met for the briefest moment and Celestia could have sworn there was a flash of anger in those green eyes. Before the realization could properly set in, Twilight spoke in a quiet voice.

“Why, Princess Celestia? Why did you do this to me and my friends?” Twilight was staring into the fire as she spoke. She turned the damaged book in her grasp, so that Celestia could see the cover. Celestia gasped when she saw the cover. It was Starswirl the Bearded’s journal. The one she had sent Twilight a month ago. She barely got a glimpse of the cover before Twilight tossed the book into the fire.

“Twilight!”

“DON’T YOU DARE TOUCH IT! LET IT BURN!” Twilight’s voice shattered the silence that had reigned in the room until then, stopping Celestia’s attempt to save the book. Shocked by the sudden outbreak, Celestia could only stare at her former student. Twilight had never yelled at her. Not like that. Not with such anger in her voice. And never had she seen such anger in Twilight’s eyes as the young princess turned to glare at her. The sheer novelty of the fact kept Celestia still as a statue. “Let it burn. Something so terrible should not exist.” Twilight added, her voice quiet once again.

“Why did you send me that book? Why did you ask me to work on that spell? Why, Celestia, why?” Twilight’s voice was almost pleading. A desperate attempt to make some sense of the questions plaguing her.

Celestia didn’t answer immediately. She didn’t know how. It was one of those few times where she, despite her immense experience, had no answer to a question. At least not a safe question. Eventually, she decided to tell the truth. “It was a test, Twilight. A test to see if you were ready to become a princess.”

As expected, the answer didn’t do much. Twilight closed her eyes and shook her head in denial. “I know it was a test. I knew it the moment I realized the spell doesn’t do anything. Even before you told me. A spell that changes everypony’s Cutie Marks and then changes them back? What is the purpose of such a spell? It doesn’t make sense. So, please tell me. Why did you do this? Why did you make me a princess?”

“I didn’t make you a princess. I can’t. You did it yourself. You were able to restore harmony through your deep understanding of friendship and it was this realization, this epiphany that made you ascend.” Celestia explained with a heavy heart. “As for why I did it. That is because it has always been your destiny to become a princess. It was fated to be from the day you were born.”

“A prophecy? About me becoming a princess?” Twilight frowned as the anger was replaced by confusion. “I thought the prophecy was only about me and my friends using the Elements of Harmony to defeat Nightmare Moon.”

Celestia shook her head. “Yes, but there was another one. “Spurred hardship and guided by selflessness, a pony would wield the six stars and join the guardians of Equestria.” This prophecy was made after the one that foretold about you and your friends using the Elements. Considering what you have done, the prophecy has come true. So, please understand when I say that I had to do this. I had to help you fulfill your destiny.”

Twilight was silent for a very long time. Celestia tried to get a read on her emotions, but was unable to. Whatever Twilight was thinking about, was not for her to find out ahead of time. However, Celestia had faith in her student. Twilight was a smart mare, she always tried to look at the big picture. She would understand. She had to.

Eventually, Twilight took a slightly deeper breath, which told Celestia that Twilight had an answer. “So, all this a lie then? All these years I spent as your personal student. Everything you taught me, everything you told me was a lie. All of it was just a series of tests, stepping stones of a grand plan to turn me into a princess.”

“No, Twilight. It is not like that. I haven’t lied to you!” Celestia took a step towards Twilight, but stopped when Twilight moved away from her. It was wrong. It was so very wrong. “You got it all wrong.” She could literary hear Twilight’s world breaking apart.

“THEN HOW COULD YOU DO THIS! HOW COULD YOU DO SUCH A THING?” Twilight accentuated her sudden roar by slamming her hoof against the ground. “You used me to destroy the lives of my friends. All because of some prophecy.” She took several breaths in order to focus her raging thoughts. “You weren’t there. You didn’t watch my friends suffer. For a month I had to watch their lives become worse and worse. Their entire world crumbling to pieces despite, or rather because of their attempts to do what they believed was their calling in life. For an entire month I tried everything I could to help them, to make them who they were, but nothing worked. Do you know how it feels to know that your failures do not end with a bad grade, but with a very close friend suffering?”

“Not only that, but nopony else noticed it. Nopony noticed that the ponies they had known for so long were suddenly doing the wrong thing. Instead, they blamed them for something that was not their fault. It was as if they were made to believe that my friends had the correct Cutie Marks.” Celestia winced at the unspoken accusation. “And you did this for what? To give me wings? A title? None of which I desired. ”

“Twilight, please. I just wanted to…” Celestia closed her eyes in a vain attempt to lessen the pain Twilight’s words were causing her. The look of utter betrayal in Twilight’s eyes cut deeper than any blade possibly could. She tried to reason with herself. She tried to convince her that her actions were justified, but just hearing Twilight’s voice derailed any such attempts.

Unfortunately, Twilight wasn’t done. She either couldn’t see or did not care about the effect her words were having on Celestia. The only mercy Twilight granted her was that Twilight wasn’t looking at her anymore. Twilight turned her head to look at the flames again. Celestia felt grateful for that. However, Twilight’s next words cut even deeper. “What you did was unforgivable… By all means I should hate you for what you did to my friends. However, I do not. I can’t … I love you … Ever since you took me as your personal student, you have been like a second mother to me. You have taught me so much. And you played a large part in making me the pony I am today. For that I can never be grateful enough.” A sudden chill crept up Celestia’s spine when she heard Twilight’s voice. There wasn’t any anger in it. Instead, it was filled with a cold acceptance.

“And it is because you made me who I am today, I cannot accept your actions. The pony you taught would never accept doing what you did, no matter the reason. You taught me to use magic responsibly, for the good of everypony, not for personal gain. You told me that there is more to life than just magic… and you were right. My friends mean much more to me than any magic in Equestria. Because of my friends I have achieved much more than I could ever achieve on my own. In fact, it’s thanks to them I am standing here tonight. Like you, they also have helped me become who I am today. I care about them and I will not use their friendship for selfish means. If it means ignoring my destiny, I am fine with that. I would rather live an unfulfilled life than build my success on the suffering of my friends.” Twilight hesitated for a moment before continuing. “I thought you knew that. I thought that Celestia I love, knew that … I was wrong.” There was a note of finality in her voice as she stood up and started walking towards the door. She moved past Celestia, but no matter how much she tried, Celestia could not bring herself to say anything, she couldn’t even move. In that moment, Celestia realized that the bond she had shared with Twilight was gone. Dead.

Before she reached the door, Twilight stopped. “I will go to my friends and tomorrow we will return to Ponyville. I hope I will be able to find some way to mitigate the damage I have cause when I cast that spell… I don’t know if it can be done, but the bond between friends has proved me wrong before … It is the very same bond that is crying out not to leave you, but I can’t. I am afraid that if I remain here, I will… You still mean so very much to me, but right now, I have to be with my friends. Please, Celestia, I beg you, do not approach me. I love you too much in order to risk making things even worse.” There was the sound of doors opening, followed by a set of hooves walking outside. On the bed, Spike quickly jumped to the floor and hurried after Twilight. On his way, he spared a moment to cast an apologetic look at Celestia.

A moment later, the spell broke and Celestia found herself able to move again. “Twilight.” She whirled around, but was met with closed doors. “Twilight…”

xxxxx

“… forgive me.” Celestia opened her eyes as the last words crossed her lips. A dream. She thought and closed her eyes in order to clear her vision. When she opened them again, looked around the tent. Everything was just as it was when she had gone to sleep. Her royal attire was within easy reach, waiting for her. A small table, covered with numerous notes was the only piece of furniture she had apart from the light bed she was sleeping in.

With her thoughts still on the nightmare, Celestia rose up and glanced upwards. A brief touch on her bond with the sun, told her that it was the middle of the night and she had been sleeping for four hours. For her, that was enough. She stood up and walked over to the table, ignoring her attire for now. Celestia picked up one of the notes in order to get her thoughts in order, but the dream retained its hold. She could not stop thinking about it.

“Why did everything turn out like this?” She put the note down with a heavy sigh. “I was so sure about the prophecy. I was certain I did what was needed. Then why did it all go wrong?” It was not the first time she tried to understand the situation, to make sense of what had happened on that night. However, even a month later, she was no closer to the answer than before.

It had seen so simple before. Guide Twilight towards her destiny of becoming a princess, a shining beacon that would defend Equestria along side her, Luna and Cadence. All the signs had been there. Everything had gone according to plan. She had succeeded. Twilight was a princess. “Then why do I feel no joy? Why is there no satisfaction?” Celestia asked the question she had asked herself for so many times.

Usually, after a plan successfully carried out, Celestia felt the wonderful sensation of a job well done. The satisfaction all ponies got whenever they saw the end result. So why was it different this time? Why there was this gaping hole inside her? Why Twilight had turned her back on her? It wasn't supposed to be like that. Twilight was supposed to become a princess and help protect Equestria by her side. That was what the prophecy had told her. That was what Celestia had worked towards all these years. Everything had gone as it had supposed to, even though she had to make some ponies suffer. In the end, everything was supposed to work out just fine, like it always did .

Always.

Right?