Disclaimer: I do not own My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, or any of its characters. I make no money from this writing.
Equestrian Knights: the Two Powers
Chapter 5: Ouch
Sometime during the night it had started to rain, as when Twilight woke up the next morning she could hear the rainfall still coming down. It pattered against the glass window set in the wall beside the bed she had taken, an aimless yet somehow calming rhythm that filled her ears, a gentle background noise that seemed to call her back to the peace of slumber. The thick mattress and soft cotton sheets of the bed, so much better than the simple sleeping bag she had used the previous night in the wilderness, did not help any.
Twilight struggled against the urge to go back to sleep, instead sitting up in bed and yawning. Blinking the sleep from her eyes Twilight looked at the room around her. The group had taken shelter in the small tavern for the night, using the shower and upstairs guest rooms to their advantage. There were three beds to each room, and as she looked Twilight saw one of the other beds in her room to already be vacant, the sheets thrown to the floor. Rarity still slept in the other bed, her dainty snores barely audible over the rain outside. Twilight smiled at the sight, before as quietly as she could manage climbing out of bed and tiptoeing across the room to the door. It was cold so she made sure to wrap her cloak tightly around her before slipping out of the room to the hallway beyond.
Twilight walked down the hallway to the stairs at the other end, listening as she passed by the other rooms. She could hear snoring still coming from one of the other rooms the group had occupied, so at least she and Rarity weren't going to be the last getting up, she thought to herself. The room closest the stairs, which Big Mac, Diogo, and Doctor Whoof had taken for themselves, was entirely silent. Twilight hurried past it and down the stairs to the main room of the tavern. It was down there she found the three males of the group, gathered around a table and talking.
"Wow, I'm surprised to see you all awake," said Twilight as she left the foot of the stairs and approached the table. "I've always imagined guys to be late sleepers, based on Spike."
"Who, us?" Doctor Whoof waved a hoof at Twilight and rolled his eyes. "Nah, that's just silly! Of course we can get up early on a quest to save the world from becoming a diamond dog's chew toy! I mean, not like we had to sleep through a massive clod shambling about the room at 5 in the morning!"
By the time he'd finished speaking Doctor Whoof had switched the pony he was looking at from Twilight to Big Mac. The red earth pony shrugged and adjusted the bit of hay in his mouth. "What can I say? When ya live on a farm it becomes a force 'a habit ta get up early. Lot of work to be done and only so many hours in the day to get to them, you know?"
"No, I don't," replied Doctor Whoof, smirking. "I've got a time machine. Or at least I did," he hastily added when he noticed the shocked look on Diogo the deer's face. "I kind of...took a lot of it apart to make it work better and never quite got around to putting it back together. So we definitely couldn't have used it to finish this quest thing lickety-split, if that's what you're thinking. And I know it is."
Diogo continued to glare at the brown earth pony for a few seconds longer, before sighing and shaking his head. "There's probably some kind of test during the journey we will have to complete to reach the crown anyway. That's how these things usually go. Speaking of which..." Diogo looked back over at Twilight. "Since we're all waiting here for now, it is probably a good time to plan our next course."
Twilight nodded in understanding and, reaching into her cloak with her magic, drew out a long, rolled up map. Near the start of the journey she had been entrusted with it and most of the "lore stuff", as Rainbow Dash had so eloquently put it, because she was "the biggest egghead of them all"; again, Rainbow Dash's eloquent words. Still, Twilight could understand the reasoning behind the decision, and even somewhat enjoyed her role. It didn't hurt that the map was very well made.
Walking over to the table Twilight set the map onto the bare wood and unrolled it. Before the three ponies and deer was revealed a highly detailed rendering of Equestria and the lands immediately surrounding the pony country, such as Gildedale and the Shimmerwood to the west, and the great sea known as Eternity's Crossing to the south.
"Here we are," Twilight said, indicating a small stylized town an inch or so above Canterlot. "A day and a half's journey north of Canterlot, and just on the southern bank of the Mearas River." At this she indicated a long line of blue running through most of the map, from the northern reaches of the Drackenridge Mountains to the west, all the way to Germaney to the northeast. "And Khaza Rim, our destination, is all...the way up...here." The others followed Twilight's hoof as it trailed up the map, passing over a massive forest area, up further to what looked like a veritable plain of mountains. They all flinched when they noticed her hoof had nearly reached the uppermost edge of the map. "This is going to be a long journey," she said, drawing their gazes back up to her. "Going straight like that, which we can't, would still be weeks-long at best."
"But it seems the straight journey is the only logical way to go," said Diogo. The deer edged closer to beside Twilight and began pointing to the map. "After crossing the river here we simply go through this forest." He placed his hoof on a drawing of many pine trees, covering a good several inches of map. "It looks like it continues all the way to the foot of the mountains, so that will provide us good cover in case of spies or attacks. Then we continue on into the mountains, going between them when we can."
As soon as Diogo finished Twilight sighed and shook her head, feeling rather disappointed with the deer. "Seeing as you're not actually from Equestria, I guess I can understand why you think we can do that. But we can't."
"Not unless we want to have a very painful, very arrow-filled death," added Doctor Whoof. Twilight shot him a look and he shut up.
"Okay then, what am I missing," asked Diogo.
Twilight looked back down at the map and pointed to the picture of a forest. "You see this? This is called Hatchling Forest. Years past, when the peace between ponies and gryphons was first struck, this forest was given to the gryphons as a sign of friendship. While most adolescent and adult gryphons become wanderers, mercenaries, and hooligans, these woods are their ONE truly centralized place of living. It is where nests are built and eggs kept safe, hence the name." Twilight looked up from the map, not to Diogo but to the table in general. "And absolutely no non-gryphons are allowed to step hoof or claw beneath those branches, not without express permission from a gryphon ranger captain."
"Unless you want to have a very painful, very arrow-filled death," Doctor Whoof once again added.
Twilight frowned at Doctor Whoof, but did not dispute his point. Instead she returned her hoof back to Brelagrose. "Our best bet would be crossing the river here and then heading northeast along its northern bank..." she drew her hoof in the direction she spoke of, following the blue line representing the Mearas, "for about two days, until the Hatchling Forest comes to an end. Then we leave the river there and cut north through the plains." Her hoof left the blue line and went up, moving to more miniature paintings of buildings set on a few mountains. "To Stalliongrad."
"That...is really far out of our way," said Diogo, leaning down to look closer at the indicated city. "I will be honest; I know little of Equestria beyond Canterlot. What is this Stalliongrad place like?"
"Oh, it's great!" said Doctor Whoof. The sardonic grin on his face said otherwise. "As long as you don't mind much oxygen in the air you breathe. I've been there a couple of times; well, I've everywhere a couple of times, but that's not important right now. Maybe later, but not right now. Anyway, Stalliongrad's a major manufacturing city for Equestria. I'd say half the city is nothing but factories, endlessly churning out everything from refrigerators and farm equipment to military arms and armor. The air is thick with smoke and ash from the foundries, quite permanently casting the whole place in a sort of eternal twilight. Not our favorite Twilight, but whatever. The ponies and diamond dogs that live there are hardy and strong, not nice but dependable if you get them to like you."
"That sounds like no place a member of the Apple Clan should ever find themselves." Big Mac frowned and turned his heavy, thoughtful gaze to Doctor Whoof. "But hold on now a moment. Did you just mention diamond dogs living in Stalliongrad? Ain't that going to be a problem for us?"
"Nah," said the bow-tied pony, waving a hoof at Big Mac. "Or maybe, I don't know. The diamond dogs that live and work in Stalliongrad live and work right alongside ponies, and have done so since the place was founded. It's why I like Stalliongrad so much; a place where two groups, normally so against each other, coming together to eke out a living. Beautiful. And I don't see Nero much liking diamond dogs that willingly socialize with ponies. We should be fine. Probably."
"It's a risk we will have to take," said Twilight, ending the discussion by rolling the map back up and sliding it back into her cloak. "At Stalliongrad we'll be able to replenish our supplies, as well as get better mountain gear for when we reach the lands of Gallopfrey. Plus, it'll be nice to hear news on what's happening around Equestria. If Nero has attacked somewhere else, I'll feel better at least knowing about it."
As Twilight stepped away from the table, her attention was drawn upwards at the sound of muffled steps. Someone or ones in the rooms above was moving around. "Well, it sounds like the rest of the group is waking up. That reminds me, Rainbow Dash was already out of her bed when I woke up. Where did she go?"
Big Mac indicated past Twilight to the back of the tavern, to a door set behind the bar. "She headed that way soon as she came down the stairs. I reckon that's some sort of kitchen, as she poked her head out after a bit ta ask if we preferred buttermilk biscuits or cornbread."
"Wait, Rainbow Dash cooking?" Twilight quirked an eyebrow at this odd tidbit. Turning from Big Mac and the others Twilight walked to the counter, around it, and then down the length of it to the door. Opening it with a flicker of magic she entered the room beyond, closing the door behind her with a soft click.
Big Mac had been right in his assumption, it was a kitchen. It was a small room, barely half the size of the kitchen back home in the library, but well-stocked all the same. Stacks of corn meal and wheat, apples, syrup, sugar, hay, and other kitchen necessities lined the wall to her left, while set against the wall to her right was a medium-sized refrigerator, filled Twilight supposed with more kitchen staples like milk and eggs. Against the wall across the kitchen from Twilight were the oven and stovetop, and it was here Rainbow Dash stood, working several pans at once.
Twilight Sparkle walked deeper into the kitchen toward Rainbow Dash, her hoofsteps loud enough for the rainbow-maned Pegasus to hear her coming and look over. "Oh, good morning Twilight."
"Good morning, Dash." Twilight stepped to Rainbow Dash's side and looked down at what she was doing. Pancakes dotted with bits of grass and hay cooked in the pans, and now that she was closer Twilight noticed a large plate set on a nearby table, already covered with about a dozen pancakes. "I didn't know you can cook."
Rainbow Dash shrugged and flipped a pancake onto the plate, moving the pan it had been using into the nearby kitchen sink. "Nothing too special. Just a few things I learned from the Pronghorns when I visited them again. I'm not really good, but it still makes me about 20% cooler than I was before, right?"
Rainbow Dash looked to Twilight and grinned. It was a weak grin however, and it did not last long before the Pegasus sighed and turned back to flip another finished pancake onto the plate. "Besides, it doesn't feel right letting all this stuff go to waste. I think Frosty Lime would have wanted us to use it. At least, I hope he would."
"You're the pony who knew him, Rainbow," said Twilight. She stepped closer to Rainbow Dash and placed a wing over her back in a comforting gesture. "I'm sure you're right. And you should know, we are all here for you if you want to talk about this or, I don't know, anything."
Another weak smile crossed Rainbow Dash's face. She flipped the final pancake onto the plate and turned the stove off, and then leaned against Twilight. She placed one of her own wings across Twilight's back in return, and there the two friends stayed for what felt to Twilight hours, but in reality could have been no longer than minutes at most. Twilight sighed, contentment in the moment filling her up.
Then Rainbow Dash said "But you never talked about it."
Twilight frowned and pulled away, looking at Rainbow Dash. The contented feeling inside her vanished, replaced by a rising feeling of confusion and. Even more, fear. She tried to keep this out of her voice though, as she put on a smile. "I'm...sorry, but I'm not sure I know what you, uh, what you mean. Hehe...."
Rainbow Dash shot her a flat glare, piercing through that painfully fake grin like a knife through paper. "Twilight, I really, really appreciate the support you're offering, but I'd appreciate it even more if it wasn't so hypocritical."
"I'm not sure what-"
"You know exactly what I'm talking about," said Rainbow Dash, making Twilight shut up. "You never came to me, or Rarity, or any of the rest of us who where there when you went bad. When you got Spike and Trixie killed. When you MURDERED Yellow Jacket. You never came to us for help or comfort, when we would've offered it at a moment's notice." Rainbow Dash stepped away from the stoves, advancing toward a rapidly backing away Twilight. "So just tell me one thing; why?"
"..." Twilight hung her head, wiping a hoof over her eyes to get rid of the tears that had begun to gather there. The seconds dragged by and she looked back up at Rainbow Dash. The Pegasus was still glaring at her expectantly, though the glare had softened some. Twilight quickly looked back down. "I know what killed these ponies. And you do too, or at least suspect it."
Twilight nodded, keeping her head mostly down. The tears had returned to her eyes. "Yes. I recognized it all instantly. The life and magic had been sucked out of everything."
"Like what you did to remove that horror illusion from me," said Rainbow Dash. She narrowed her eyes. "Like what happened after you attacked Celestia and we had to go stop you. I remember now. The whole Whitetail Wood was dead, along with Sweet Apple Acres. Everything from trees to creepy bugs was dead."
Twilight backed up a few more feet and sat down on her haunches. "It's an old bit of healing medicine, from the time when illusions and curses were more common. Since those sorts of things feed on the inherent magic of the victim to continue, a technique was created to draw out the corrupted magic from a pony, to help them. It was meant as a spell of healing...but I corrupted it, using it to gather from nature the raw power to bend time and space to travel to Midnight Castle. And now..." Twilight looked up, her eyes shining and cheeks wet with tears of guilt and self-loathing. "Now someone has taken what I did and amplified it into a weapon of mass destruction.
"I killed those ponies just as much as who or whatever performed the spell."
For the longest while, Rainbow Dash was silent, her brow furrowed and her eyes narrowed. Twilight shifted nervously and stood back up, preparing to leave the room on her own. But then Rainbow Dash turned and took the plate of cooling pancakes in her mouth, turned back around, and without a single word pushed her way past Twilight to the door. Twilight held back a sob and turned to follow her.
By the time everyone had eaten and gathered their equipment back together the rain had stopped, the skies above drifting away to reveal blue skies and a shining sun. A fierce wind had picked up, quickly dispelling any mist that attempted to form. And so when the group made its way onto the Bridge of Brelagrose and the rest of their journey, the scene they left was a far cheerier looking one than the scene they had arrived to. Only the deep silence, the lack of any sound indicating life, revealed the lingering horror of the dead town.
The Bridge of Brelagrose, named for the city it was part of, was a grand structure, the greatest suspension bridge in all of Equestria. It stretched across the entire width of the Mearas River, a length that would take most ponies a good 40 minutes to cross at a trot. Rainbow Dash pushed them to cross it in 20.
Rainbow Dash took the lead in the group, running ahead of the others with long hurried strides, her silver scarf fluttering in the north wind and her eyes trained forward. To her right and a pace behind flew Ditzy, one eye trained forward on the path ahead and the other eye watching Rainbow Dash in concern. Behind her ran Shield Maiden and Diogo, back in their full armor and on full alert, carefully watching their surroundings; a bridge would be a good place for a sneak attack, as it left little room for escape other than a plunge into the water. Rarity and Big Mac ran together behind them, Rarity fully suited in her deer-made armor and Big Mac carrying the bulk of their provisions with his mighty frame. Between them and Diogo and Shield Maiden ran Doctor Whoof, going on about the wonders of the bridge and how awesome the bridge builders had been for building it. Twilight Sparkle brought up the rear of the group, her purple cloak flapping about around her as the wind caught it. Together they ran, a sudden sense of urgency overcoming them after nearly a whole day spent in the town.
Halfway across the bridge, Ditzy flew up to Rainbow Dash's side and focused both eyes on her as best she could. "Rainbow muffin? Saddlebags weigh heavily on the shoulders. What passes the kumquat to the caboose?"
Rainbow Dash stayed silent a few moments, continuing to look ahead at the northern shore of the river gradually growing closer. Ditzy frowned and flipped over Rainbow Dash to her other side, preparing to ask again. Before she got the chance to however, Rainbow Dash sighed and glanced over at her. "Don't worry Ditzy, I'll be fine. Brelagrose was...not as I'd hoped or expected to find it, but there's nothing we can do to change it."
She then looked forward again, her eyes narrowing as a righteous anger, held in control the day before by grief and her desire to honor the deceased, ignited in her chest. Her irises flashed every color of the rainbow at once for a split moment, before she reined it in again. "What we can do is kick the tail of whoever did all that clear across Equestria. Like Twilight said yesterday, we can make them pay."
Another minute of silent running passed, and then Rainbow Dash glanced back over to Ditzy. The other Pegasus was frowning, her brow furrowed as if she was thinking on something and not liking it. Looks like that were rare for Ditzy, at least in the time that she and Rainbow Dash had been together. Worry wormed into Rainbow Dash's gut, and the thoughts that had been troubling her before Ditzy spoke, thoughts on her conversation with Twilight earlier that morning, were pushed aside for the moment by feelings much simpler and much more powerful; concern for a loved one.
"Hey Ditzy, is something wrong?" A thought of how things had just been reversed from a moment ago with those words made Rainbow Dash grin and chuckle. "I mean, besides worrying if I'm okay or not?"
Ditzy chuckled along with Rainbow Dash at this, the troubled frown leaving her much to the blue Pegasus's relief. Ditzy looked over at her. "Don't go west to retrieve southern birds, rainbow muffin. The caboose of a train arrives last at the station, how should things proceed toward her benefit?"
"Caboose of the..." Rainbow Dash looked behind them, past Shield Maiden and Diogo and Rarity and Big Macintosh, to a purple Unicorn just barely bothering to run and keep up with all the rest of them. Rainbow Dash frowned and looked back to Ditzy beside her. "What, Twilight? You're worried about Twilight?" Ditzy nodded and Rainbow Dash made a dismissive noise. "Nah, that little egghead's tougher than she looks. Plus, she's always quiet. She's fine."
Ditzy hit her suddenly with a look that clearly said "I don't believe you". Then Ditzy moved to in front of Rainbow Dash and turned around to face her while flying backwards. "Egghead, exactly as it says on the tin. Nicely shaped, but fragile shell that easily breaks to pieces if hit the right way. Put down the hammer and think for your rainbow."
And with that, Ditzy slowed down her flying, falling past Rainbow Dash as she continued running and moving further back in the group. Rainbow Dash watched her go over her shoulder and mulled over what her lover had said. It sounded surprisingly coherent for the wall-eyed Pegasus, except for one line that Rainbow Dash couldn't quite get over.
"Wait, Twilight Sparkle's nicely shaped?!"
Further back in the group, Rarity blinked and slowed down her running just a bit as Ditzy Doo drifted down the line to fly even with her. A few seconds of silence passed as the two mares just looked at each other, or at least one golden eye managed to focus on Rarity. The ivory Unicorn smiled somewhat awkwardly as the moment stretched longer and longer, before finally... "Yes, dear? Can I help you with anything?"
Ditzy glanced ahead of them, to where Rainbow Dash was running ahead with seemingly wild abandon, and then behind them, where Twilight was lagging farther and farther behind. "Pretty dusk pony, egghead, fragile like an eggshell, right?"
"Um..." Rarity followed Ditzy's gaze to Twilight. The Pegacorn herself kept glancing about behind and around them, though at what Rarity couldn't tell. "I'm not as good at understanding you as Rainbow Dash is, but are you worried about Twilight Sparkle?" Ditzy nodded. "And it has something to do with Rainbow Dash herself?" Ditzy nodded again, and Rarity frowned. Looking forward again, she saw the Pegasus in question did seem rather...agitated about something. So did Twilight Sparkle, for that matter.
Rarity looked back to Ditzy and frowned. "Well now that you mention it, they do seem rather upset. But Ditzy dear, I think we all are. Why, after the utterly horrible things we found in Brelagrose, I'd be more worried if one of us WASN'T acting upset. I myself have had the lingering need to vomit since we got to this horrid place, and I dare say I'll be needing to for some time longer!"
"EVERYONE BACK!" At the same instant this cry came from Rainbow Dash, the Pegasus spreading her wings and leaping backwards, a purple glow suddenly enveloped everyone there. Without a grunt of effort Twilight yanked Rarity, Big Mac, Ditzy, Doctor Whoof, Shield Maiden, Diogo, and Rainbow Dash backwards, dropping them back down onto the bridge behind her non-too-gently. She did this not a moment too soon, as just seconds after they were all out of the way a fireball slammed down in front of Twilight. The whole bridge shook, sending everyone on it to their knees as chunks of melting metal and concrete showered in every direction. Twilight hastily pulled a magic barrier up in front of the group, flinching as molten bits of metal splattered onto it, chunks of concrete the size of her head crashed against it, and white-hot flames licked hungrily at it. Twilight spread her legs out and poured more power into the barrier, actively pushing back at the fire and material raining down onto them, pushing it away from her friends.
Seconds passed by, and as the roar of the fire lessened and the last of the debris fell Twilight lowered her magical barrier and looked about ahead of them the fire from the blast still raged, reduced in intensity from white to yellow but still blocking their way forward for several yards. The bridge itself now sported a crater down its center, and many of the suspension lines near the site of destruction were gone completely or hanging limp, disconnected by the force. The road beneath their hooves shuddered, an ominous groaning of overstressed metal filling the air around them.
Twilight looked behind her at the other climbing back to their hooves. "Hey, are you all okay?"
They all gave groans and various forms of acknowledgment. Rainbow Dash fluttered over to Twilight's side and looked ahead at the fire. "Holy guacamole. We'd have all been vaporized by that. Damn. I only caught a flash of black on the bridge ahead of us for a moment, before I looked up and saw the fireball coming."
Twilight nodded at this, her gaze focused on the flames. "I felt the buildup of magic and just reacted. That tells me this wasn't a dragon, whose fire doesn't require magical buildup."
"So it was a what? A magician or sorcerer or wizard or something?"
"Yeah," replied Twilight. Her eyes narrowed and her wings fluttered at her sides in nervousness. A purple charge of magic enveloped her horn. "And here they come now."
Twilight carefully positioned herself in front of the others as from the fire strode a figure. The flames parted around the figure, flowing around them as if little more than water in a pool. From this Twilight recognized the pony as a natural adept with fire. And it was a pony, a Unicorn of course, tall and thin. She wore a cloak identical in style to Twilight's, except black as pitch instead of a royal purple. The hood was up, hiding the facial features except for two glowing eyes, one purple and the other gold, and long blonde hair with a purple stripe reaching down to the chest. What could be seen of the body beneath the cloak was wrapped from neck to hoof in white bandages that created an image that was slender yet elegant.
The Unicorn came to a stop several yards from Twilight, who in turn stood several feet out from Rainbow Dash and the others in a protective gesture. For several seconds they stood there staring at each other, no word passing between them as the bridge groaned and the flames crackled. Then the mysterious stranger's eyes flashed, and Twilight perceived her smiling. "You are Twilight Sparkle and friends, yes? The fabled Knights of Equestria and a few tag-alongs?"
Twilight's eyes narrowed even more than they were, silently swearing at how this stranger knew who they were. More than that, there was something incredibly familiar in that voice, a haughtiness she had only heard one pony reach. Twilight stepped forward and lowered her horn towards the stranger. "Yeah, we're them. Though these are friends, not tag-alongs as you so rudely suggest. Now, perhaps you'd like to tell us who you are, and why you sent a fireball at us?"
A chuckle rose from the strange pony, as she reached up a hoof and lowered her hood down to her shoulders. Her blonde mane catching in the wind and whipping about. The dark purple fur of her head and upper neck seemed to an insane contrast to such a light mane. Her hood down hiding her features, the Unicorn mare smirked at Twilight. "What's the matter, Twilight? Are fireballs off-limits when you're not slinging them around? Or maybe I should have aimed at the innocent city behind all of you instead. Would that have been acceptable, Twilight?"
Rainbow Dash let out a growl and sped forward, only coming to a stop in front of Twilight's outstretched wing. Still she glared at the stranger. "Hey, don't you dare badmouth a friend of mine like that! Do it again and I'll shove my hoof so far down your throat it'll come out your-"
"You still haven't told us who you are," said Twilight, cutting off Rainbow Dash's threat. While she kept her own gaze relatively even, inside she couldn't help but feel her heart swell at how quickly the rainbow-maned Pegasus had come to her defense, especially so soon after their conversation in the tavern kitchen.
The stranger, for her part, seemed only amused by the attempted threat. "Rainbow Dash, demonstrating your legendary loyalty. It's true; I haven't answered who I am." With a flurry of motion the mare threw off her cloak, revealing to them her whole bandaged body in its entirety. A crack of thunder rent the air, and to the left of her head a blade crackling with electricity materialized. "I am the end of your days..." A sudden roar of fire, and to her right now floated a blade flowing with blue flames. "I am the end of the light..." A third blade materialized above her head, a thin stabbing instrument of ice. "I am Dusk. And these blades," she said, raising them high above her as if preparing to strike. Then she put on a grin that reminded Twilight and the others that knew her uncomfortably of Pinkie Pie. "These blades are only a distraction."
Shadows fell on Twilight and the group. Her head snapped up, her eyes widening at the sight of a half-dozen tendrils of water, as thick around as her tree home, towering over the bridge. With a roar as if wild beasts they drove down, hurtling towards the group to crush them beneath tons upon tons of water.
"NO!" Twilight leapt into the air and placed herself between the others and the oncoming pillars of water. Her cloak flared out behind her as she opened her mouth and screamed. Her eyes shone white, and a moment later a gout of flame burst from between her lips, making everyone else cry out in pain from the brightness and sheer heat coming from it. It was as if the sun had decided to touch down onto the earth for a brief moment. Twilight's screaming took on a new quality, her mane and tail bursting into flame from the heat. But still she poured more power into the attack.
The pillar of flame shot up, lancing through the six pillars of water. All at once they exploded, steam billowing out in all directions. Twilight fell back to the bridge, ignoring the scorch marks left on her fur and skin where her burning mane slapped down onto her head. Instead she ducked, a bolt of lightning sizzling through the space moments ago occupied by her head. Jumping back a step a blade of ice stabbed down in front of her, piecing the concrete of the bridge. Dusk grinned at her from the other side of the blade. "Okay I lied, these blades AREN'T just distractions!"
Before Twilight could say anything to this, a leather clad blur leapt past her at Dusk. Gripping the haft between her teeth Shield Maiden stabbed forward with her spear, aiming to skewer through Dusk's head. The dark purple Unicorn blocked the stab with the lightning-covered sword, flicked the blade around so the spear was shunted out of the way, and slashed at Shield Maiden with the fire sword.
A barrier of green magical energy sprung up in front of the Gildedale pony, the fire sword breaking apart as soon as it came in contact with the energy. Diogo teleported to Shield Maiden's side and with a flicker of his antlers the magical barrier went flying towards Dusk. A resounding crunch filled the air as it smashed into her, sending her flying yards back, through the dissipating flames to the ground beyond.
"My friends," said Diogo, forming another green shield in front of him. "I'm not normally one for killing, but I think if we don't take care of this sorceress now...."
"I have to agree with Diogo on this one," said Rarity next, moving herself to the deer's side and lighting up her horn. The blade on it shone, bolts of power crackling over it. "I somehow doubt this 'Dusk' is willing to back down."
"She's not," spoke up Twilight, striding to the front of the group. Magic sizzled over her body, her burns and gashes already healing and her mane and tail already growing back. Twilight summoned a sword of ice from the water dozens of yards beneath the bridge and held it before her. "But I want you guys to. Whoever she is, she's too strong for most of you. Let me handle her."
"No way Twilight! We can-"
Twilight turned to look over her shoulder at Rainbow Dash, locking eyes with the Pegasus. No words passed between them, but through her eyes Twilight tried to pour out all her feelings, all her thoughts, to explain herself. In her eyes, Twilight tried to say to Rainbow Dash "let me make up for Brelagrose. Please."
Twilight didn't know if her silent plea was caught by the others, but if it was it went ignored. Rainbow Dash flew over to her side, quickly joined by the others. "No can do, egghead. You wouldn't let us fight that Nero jerk, so this will have to do!"
A high, mocking laugh came in response to this, snapping everyone's attention forward. A tendril of water rose up from the river below and splashed down onto the fire, quenching them. When the resulting steam cleared there stood Dusk, seemingly no worse for wear and grinning at them with that Pinkie Pie grin. Her eyes were wide and shining. "I like your spunk! It's exactly what you'll need if you want to succeed on this quest of yours. Now, come at me!"
Twilight and the others needed no further prodding than that. With a shouted battle cry they charged forward, racing over the yards of bridge separating them from Dusk. Diogo sent another magical barrier flying at her, copied a moment after by Rarity. The two attacks flew at Dusk, who smiled and brought up a wall of purple magic, absorbing the two magic constructs into it. A moment later the two attacks shot back out, slamming into their original casters and sending them flying.
Before Dusk could press the attack, Ditzy flew over the magic barrier. She circled around Dusk to behind her and flipped around, bucking at the Unicorn with both rear legs. Without Dusk even turning to look behind her another magical barrier materialized over her back, blocking the attack. The kinetic force of the blow rebounded back at her, and like Rarity and Diogo before her, Ditzy was sent flying back. At this Rainbow Dash instantly broke off from her charge toward Dusk and sped off to catch Ditzy.
"Big Mac, with me!" Her horn glowing with magic, Twilight charged towards Dusk and her magical barriers, Big Mac following close behind. At the last possible moment before Twilight ran into the barrier a beam of pure magic shot from her horn and pierced the barrier, followed a split-second later by the barrier exploding in a flash of light. Her momentum unchallenged Twilight kept going, blasting her way through the second magic barrier before smashing her head into Dusk's chest with a wet thunk, accompanied by the feeling of hot blood oozing out around her horn. Dusk let out a gargled wheeze, a shot of blood spraying from her mouth out onto Twilight's cloak. The blood felt hot and sticky against her skin, and Twilight barely repressed the urge to vomit, pulling out of the dark Unicorn and jumping back.
Before Dusk could recover from the blow Twilight flapped her wings and shot into the air, giving Dusk a second to clutch at the gaping hole left in her chest by Twilight's horn before the rippling train of muscle and anger that was Big Macintosh filled her vision. She looked up at the stallion bearing down at her and sighed.
The crunch that came next was far louder than the one Twilight had managed. Watching from above in the air Twilight cringed at the look of complete agony that crossed over Dusk's face, unable to keep her from imagining the results of such a body slam from the towering stallion. Bones shattered, ribs shoved back until they crushed the organs they were meant to be protecting, blood vessels ruptured from the sudden pressure; unless Dusk was made of sterner stuff than meat and bone, that impact would surely kill her. And if it didn't, the voice in Twilight's head whispered, what was about to come next would. Because as Twilight watched Big Mac kept going, Dusk's limp body stuck to him by through sheer momentum. He ran down the length of the bridge for one yard, two yards, three, before turning aside and coming to a sudden stop. Dusk went flying back first over the side of the bridge and over the water, her body limp as a rag doll's and her mouth open in a silent scream of terror.
But even as Twilight hovered in place and watched, that mouth curved up into that grin again. A magical glow surrounded Dusk's horn, before with a flash of light she disappeared. Twilight only had a moment to gasp in shock at this, before a matching flash of light above her made her look up. Then Dusk's forehooves smashed into her face, sending Twilight's head snapping back. Dazed, Twilight fell, landing on the unyielding bridge surface with a resounding snap, one wing caught beneath her bending unnaturally. Twilight's eyes widened in pain and she screamed.
Dusk was not finished. Teleporting again she appeared beside Big Mac and smacked him with a hammer of pure magic, sending the large stallion tumbling end over end. The next instant she was in front of Rarity, sidestepping a stab of her horn blade before slamming a magically-infused hoof against her flank. Rarity collapsed to the ground with a cry of pain, limbs twitching erratically as sparks flew across her metal armor. Then Dusk was gone from there, appearing at Ditzy's side on the other side of the bridge to telekinetically grab hold of her and slam her into the ground.
A roar of fury ripped through the air, and Dusk barely managed to teleport out of the way of a blast of rainbow energy. Before Rainbow Dash could ready another shot Dusk teleported in the air above her and blasted her with a bolt of frost magic from her horn. Ice spread over her wings, and with a surprised yelp Rainbow Dash fell from the air and landed on Diogo, knocking the air from the deer's lungs. Before either could recover a purple glow surrounded them and smacked them against each other. Hard.
Dusk teleported back onto the solid ground of the bridge and let out a wheeze, collapsing to her knees. A forehoof reached up and pressed against her mangled chest, working to stem the flow of blood pouring out from where Twilight's horn had punched through skin and muscle, straight into one of her lungs. Her eyes clenched shut as a wave of pain passed through her, a ragged cough sending blood spurting out onto the concrete. The sound of galloping hooves striking the concrete caught her attention, and without looking up she telekinetically pushed a charging Shield Maiden away, slamming her twice against one of the suspension bridges towers before dropping her unconscious body to the ground.
The sound of cautious hoofsteps, however, did make her look up. There stood Doctor Whoof, a wary look in his eyes. His sonic screwdriver held in his mouth and aimed at her. "I'm not a fighter like all those others, but I am clever and I hate seeing people, ponies or whatever, getting hurt. So try anything other than letting me heal you and you will regret it."
Dusk's lips turned up into a smile, her white teeth stained red by the blood leaking up her throat. "Hello sweetie."
Doctor Whoof quirked an eyebrow at this, before activating his sonic screwdriver. Rather than some kind of horrific green ray beam of painful death or anything however, the pain in Dusk's chest began to fade bit by bit, and the blood loss radically lessened. "I don't think we know each other quite well enough for that sort of thing." He stopped his sonicing her for a moment to look around. "I mean, first you beat most of my friends into unconsciousness, then you stop before getting to me and call me sweetie. As far as first dates go, I'm getting mixed signals."
A laugh left Dusk's throat, quickly turning into a hacking cough that splattered more blood onto the bridge. Doctor Whoof quickly resumed sonicing her, but a shimmer of magic from her horn sent the sonic screwdriver spinning from his mouth to land several yards away. She grinned at him. "No need for that, I'm quite alright. Well, I'm going to be anyway."
Dusk groaned and shuddered, and as Doctor Whoof watched wisps of golden light drifted out of the wound on her chest. Still she chuckled and looked away from him to the others. Big Mac was staggering back to his hooves, and Rainbow Dash had sat up and begun chipping away at the ice covering her wings. Twilight was the most recovered, slowly stumbling over towards them with one wing, her left, hanging limp at her side. Doctor Whoof followed her gaze, and then looked back at her. "What?"
"You're not ready," she said, looking back to him. "None of you are ready to face the trials ahead. If I'd been aiming to kill, we wouldn't be having this conversation." A shudder ripped through her and Dusk choked back a wheeze. "You all n-need to...step up your game...Nero won't be so merciful...and neither shall the Master."
Dusk smiled, and a brilliant purple light surrounded her horn. "Spoilers, Doctor." Then with that she was gone, teleported away.
Doctor Whoof sat there for a moment, staring at the spot the mysterious Unicorn had been. The gathering commotion behind him told him that the others were all in various stages of getting back up, but he didn't move to join them quite yet. He was...thinking.
Twilight staggered up beside Doctor Whoof, setting his sonic screwdriver down beside him before looking to where he looked. Behind them, Rainbow Dash succinctly expressed just how they were all feeling.
"Well that sucked."
Pinkie Pie was just fixing up a meal for her pet Gummy in the kitchen when an explosion of light and sound behind her sent her flying into the wall. Pulling herself out of it Pinkie shook some loose tiling from her mane and turned to see what had happened. She shrieked at the sight. It looked as if a bomb had gone off at the center of the kitchen, a crater several ponies wide dug into the center of the floor and all the cooking instruments and assorted baked goods scattered around the room or destroyed. What made her blood run cold though was the dark purple Unicorn at the center of the crater, gasping for breath and clutching at a wound in her chest.
"DUSK!" Pinkie Pie galloped over, jumping down into the crater and landing at the older mare's side. She could feel tears stinging her eyes, threatening to fall as she sat down on her haunches and took one of Dusk's hooves in her own. "Oh Dusky, what happened?! You were only supposed to play with them a little!"
Dusk let out a half-laugh, half-cough and smiled up at Pinkie. "Your friend Twilight didn't quite see the playing in it. Besides, the dreams...don't always show quite every detail...every memory...I should've been prepared for something so painful to h-happen."
Pinkie Pie sniffled, clutching at Dusk's hoof all the tighter. As she did so however her attention was caught by a growing glow. Looking from Dusk's face Pinkie gasped at the golden light beginning to seep out from the Unicorn's chest wound. In fact, as Pinkie watched Dusk's whole body began to shine gold, as if an inner fire was growing and working to consume her.
"Dusk, is this...?"
"Yes, yes it is," said Dusk, before pushing the pink party pony away. "Ba...back up. Last time was...rather explosive...."
Pinkie Pie gave a nod and obeyed, climbing back out of the crater before turning to look back at Dusk. The tears continued, lessened just a bit, and she could not keep the fearful tremor from her voice as she spoke. "Pr-promise you won't forget me?"
"Who, the world's best party...party pony?" Dusk grinned around the pain and shook her head. "Never."
With that, Dusk threw her head back and screamed as her body erupted in golden light.