Spike took the bait.
Twilight grinned down at the board as the baby dragon eagerly moved his knight across the checkered squares. His piece nudged her queen aside.
“Wow, Twilight,” he said, absently bouncing the black queen up and down in his claws, “I can’t believe you blundered away your most important piece like that!”
Twilight Sparkle shook her head, a small smile warming her face.
“And I can’t believe you’re still thinking in such limited terms, Spike.”
Spike weighed her words, his forehead creasing in thought.
“It’s true the queen is powerful,” Twilight continued. “And formidable. But is she always ‘the most important piece?’ That’s really up to the situation and to the players themselves. For example: from my point of view, the ‘most important piece’ was that knight you just moved—because now that it’s gone…”
Twilight’s magic gripped a bishop carved from dark stone and levitated it to a square that, until last turn, had been menaced by Spike’s knight. Spike’s eyes widened as he saw the bishop line up perfectly with his own king.
“Check,” Twilight teased.
Spike stared at the board, realizing that he’d fallen for Twilight’s dupe.
Twilight’s check put Spike, who before had played aggressively—stupidly so—on an abrupt defensive streak. She fervently stole the dragon’s momentum, her pieces coordinating together in a relentless advance.
Twilight knew her game: reserved, calculated defense from the outset, misdirecting and luring the opponent until it was too late for them to erase the mistakes they’d made. Then, a strike at their vulnerabilities.
In an attempt to protect his king, Spike was forced to endanger many of his other pieces, just as Twilight knew he would be. Many of her smaller pieces ganged up on Spike’s greater threats, eliminating them from the board. Soon a tide of black swept towards Spike’s end, an overwhelming mass of pawns and knights and bishops surrounding the white king.
“And that’s checkmate,” she said.
“Twilight, d’you think you could go easy on me just once?” complained Spike as they set up the game again.
“The game goes on,” said Twilight. “If you want to improve, learn from your mistakes. In this match I’ll play black, as usual.”
Before Spike could make his first move, a series of frenzied knocks sounded on Twilight’s door.
When she opened it, Trixie Lulamoon stood before her: disheveled, haunted, and beaten.
“Twilight…please, help. They’re coming for me.”
The blue unicorn’s eyes, wild with desperation, rolled into her head, and she collapsed.
Twilight stared down at her former rival for a silent half-minute, mind spinning as she tried to process the information.
“Twilight? Twilight, who’s at the door?”
Spike’s feet pattered against the library floor. When he saw Trixie, the young dragon let out a small yelp of surprise. A white pawn, loosely gripped in his claws, tumbled downwards; it chipped as it hit the floor.
“Twilight—Twilight, what’s Trixie doing here?” Spike asked. “Why does she look so beat up? What do we do, Twilight?”
His voice spurred the unicorn out of her stupor.
“Help me take her inside,” she commanded. “We need to protect her.”
They took Trixie inside, settling her gently on Twilight’s bed.
“Right,” said Twilight, pacing near her occupied bed. “Next up, we’ll need to tend to Trixie’s hurts. All unicorns are capable of basic healing magic, but this is beyond my knowledge of the subject. Spike, I need you to run to the hospital. Get Nurse Redheart or any other pony you can find and send them our way.”
Spike gave no response; he was staring at Trixie with a small frown on his face.
“Uh, y-yes, I heard you!” Spike said, jumping at Twilight’s shout. “I was just thinking…I know you forgave Trixie for that stunt with the Alicorn Amulet six months back, but…well, she didn’t turn you into a helpless ball and toss you around Ponyville. I still get bad dreams, sometimes. I’m just wondering…do we really need to help her?”
Twilight looked at her protégé, and Spike learned that cold disapproval made him flinch more than any display of open anger.
“Spike,” she said in a level voice, “you will go and fetch a nurse or doctor for Trixie, because she needs help. And after you return and we’re sure Trixie’s in no danger, the two of us will sit down for a long talk about forgiveness and personal responsibility. Understand?”
Spike gulped. “Y-Yes…Twilight,” he stuttered.
He dashed out the front door, shame and apprehension written on his face.
Twilight returned to Trixie’s side, studying the blue unicorn. The magician had an assortment of injuries: a number of nasty-looking bruises, a few cuts and scrapes—one, along her flank, was large enough that it would likely leave a scar—and a general coating of dirt and grime.
However, Twilight could find no sign of broken bones or anything truly life-threatening; Trixie’s collapse seemed to be from a mixture of exhaustion and stress.
What happened to her?
Twilight thought back to the last words to escape Trixie’s mouth.
They were coming.
Perhaps the better question is not ‘what’…but ‘who?’
The thought chilled Twilight. Many wicked creatures stalked Equestria—and in her own role as a wielder of an Element of Harmony, she had personally encountered her own fair share—but one of the most malevolent beings Twilight had faced was not a fearsome dragon, or an evil spirit, but a regular unicorn. One with formidable magic power and a decided lack of morality, to be sure, but a unicorn like herself nonetheless.
For a few weeks following her adventure in the Crystal Empire, nightmares of herself as a tyrant had fouled Twilight’s dreams. She had wielded Sombra’s own dark magic, after all. Nopony was completely incorruptible…
Thoughts of the Crystal Empire sparked other memories, these of Shining Armor and his wife, Mi Amore Cadenza. As Twilight’s mind turned to her brother, inspiration struck.
Whatever was hounding Trixie might still be in pursuit, she thought. While I’m hiding her, my own safety is in question…no harm in taking a few extra precautionary steps.
Shining Armor’s specialty was defense magic; on his own he could shield an entire city for days. Twilight’s imitation of her brother’s spell could not encompass so wide an area, but soon enough her library stood under its own protective globe.
There, she thought. I can drop it when Spike returns. No harm in being too careful.
No harm indeed. It was not long before the barrier shimmered with power. Twilight jolted in surprise, sensing an attack through her shield’s magic.
The lavender unicorn cautiously stepped out of the library, collecting power in her horn’s tip.
A pegasus mare paced back and forth on the far side of the magic shield. She was slightly younger than Twilight herself, straddling the line that divided young and true adulthood. Her body was thin and wiry, like a metal coil, and suggested speed and tightly wound power. Her coat was a dark, midnight blue, her mane a silvery grey, and her cutie mark depicted a briar patch, sickly green, growing out of control. Her only accessory was a strange earring in her right ear, a slender shard of black onyx dangling from a silver chain.
Catching sight of Twilight, the pegasus stopped pacing and stood still, glaring at the unicorn.
“Let me inside.” It was not a question.
“I’m gonna have to say ‘no’ to that one,” Twilight replied, gathering more energy.
The mare’s nostrils flared. She flew aloft, hovering over ten feet in the air; the earring danced with each flap of her wings. Her shadow, looming through the shield, enshrouded Twilight.
“You don’t want to be the pony who tells me ‘no,’” the pegasus growled. “And you don’t want to be the pony who hides Lulamoon from us.” At the emphasized word, both the onyx shard and the mysterious mare’s eyes flashed a vivid green.
Twilight’s barrier abruptly wavered, small cracks growing in isolated spots. Twilight herself buckled, gasping from sudden shock. An unseen and powerful magic force assaulted her barrier.
The pegasus’ eyes narrowed, and Twilight felt the pressure on her spell increase. The power was steady and unyielding; holding it back was like trying to stop a glacier with her bare hooves.
Fear crawled through her. As one second stepped after another, the cracks in her barrier slowly spread, and Twilight’s mind raced at the tremendous speed only attainable by thought.
That’s definitely magic that the pegasus is using against me, Twilight thought. I don’t think she’s an alicorn…Luna above, where is she getting this power? My barrier can’t stand up to this much longer…
With all its cracks, the shield now resembled a spherical cobweb. I’ve got to catch her off guard, Twilight reasoned. She’ll hurt Trixie—or worse—if she gets the chance. Twilight forced resolve into her heart.
Her brother, from whom she’d mimicked the shield spell, had once united his power with Cadence to expand his shield and expel an entire army from Canterlot. Twilight’s imitation was imperfect, but the element of surprise aided her.
The shield exploded outward, catching the mare in wide-eyed surprise. While Twilight’s spell dissipated after a few moments, the force still flung her adversary a good distance, slamming her against the wall of a building.
The mare rose from her position on the ground, naked rage on her face.
“Nopony does that to me!” she snarled. “Nopony dares to—”
Whatever it was nopony dared to do remained a mystery, for the pegasus let out a yelp and ducked against the ground. A magic bolt sailed through the spot that had been occupied by the mare’s body just a few seconds before. It smashed into the wall, and bits of brick and mortar sailed into the air.
Twilight charged the pegasus, re-forming her spell as she did so.
The blue mare rose from her position on the earth, eyes brimming with fury. “You want to play hardball?” she said. “Fine.”
The onyx earring glowed green once more. Power flowed from her body like waves of heat, and she began…changing.
Long slivers of bone erupted from her body, two from each side. They stretched out like branches, growing until they touched the ground. Flesh sprouted from them, quickly transforming the bones into spindly legs.
Her original four legs elongated, raising the mare’s body higher into the air. As they matched the new four in length, a sick grinding noise came from them. With eight long legs splaying from her body, the mare looked not unlike a spider.
Other parts also changed. The pegasus’ wings grew, and bones poked out of the tips of her feathers; they resembled curved needles. A glistening liquid with a sickly-sweet smell dropped from each pointed tip of bone. Her muzzle stretched, and curved fangs filled her mouth, dripping with the same unknown liquid as her wings. A third eye split the skin on her forehead, glowing green—the same green emanating from her earring and other two eyes.
Twilight’s charged slackened as the purple mare stared up at the monstrous apparition rising before her.
“Let’s play hardball,” the monster crooned. Twilight had expected the creature’s voice to be some sort of vicious, gravely roar, but to her surprise it sounded unchanged—a voice one might hear from any random mare on the street.
Somehow, reality disturbed Twilight more than her expectations could have.
The former mare unleashed a battle howl and soared skyward. Flecks of the glistening liquid fell like rain with every beat of its massive wings; it didn’t take long for Twilight to decide that she wanted to avoid getting any on her.
The creature screamed in a mare’s voice; the familiarity of the sound disturbed Twilight more than any guttural roar. It bore down on Twilight, wings drumming a furious sound through the sky.
Twilight resumed her charge, racing to meet her adversary. The monster let out a cocky chuckle as it closed the distance. Fangs glistened in its wicked smile.
Moments before its maw met Twilight’s neck, a flash of light momentarily enveloped the purple unicorn. A breath later, she was gone.
The beast blinked as its fangs closed on empty air. The momentum of its attack offset the creature’s balance; it wobbled, crashing into the dirt. As it rose, growling, Twilight’s mocking voice met its ears.
“Hey! Hey, stupid, up here!”
The spider-like abomination turned its gaze to the sound’s source. Twilight cheekily waved at it from the roof of a nearby building.
“Hell~ooooooooo…” Twilight droned. Her enemy bared its fangs at her taunt.
Behind the unicorn’s chill façade, her heart beat a staccato of terror. A lesser pony might have let it show, but Twilight had years of experience facing hydras, manticores, and worse under her belt.
Instead of flying at her as it had before, the creature scuttled across the ground, its eight unnaturally-long legs blurring together in a nauseating union of motion.
It shrieked and swiped its wing through the air like a claw. Splashes of poison flew from the bony tips.
Twilight collapsed against the roof of the building, the droplets whizzing overhead. A speck of the venom caught in her mane, eating a hole into her hair. Twilight yelped and shook it free of her mane, only to pick up the sound of hooves scraping against plaster.
The monster rose into view, chuckling in that nightmarishly normal voice. The regular pony body looked almost comically undersized between the spindly legs and oversized pinions, like a butterfly too small for its wings.
The monster raised one of its front hooves and drove it down towards Twilight’s position. Twilight teleported once more, this time to the ground, and took off in a dead sprint. Behind her, she heard the air split as the monster’s attack smashed into the roof. It screamed in frustration.
The creature pushed off the rooftop with all eight of its legs and landed with an enormous crash. It scuttled after her.
Twilight’s hooves brushed against pebbles and weeds and loose clods of dirt as she raced from her pursuer. She only half-noted the obstacles; even as she splashed through an errant puddle, only part of her mind registered the shock and discomfort of the water against her fur.
I’ve got to stop running and take the offensive, she thought. If I exhaust myself…
Twilight spun. The creature was bearing down on her, nearly at the puddle she’d ran through.
Six months prior, during her magic duel against Trixie, Twilight had the opportunity to use a heating spell she’d chanced upon. The spell she now used operated under the same principle, but in the other direction—it lowered temperatures.
The air plummeted to a decidedly uncomfortable chill; the ground was blanketed with a smattering of frost; small plants withered at the touch of the sudden, extreme cold.
And, most importantly, the puddle flash-froze into a patch of shining ice.
When the monster’s hoof met the near-frictionless surface, it slid out of control almost immediately. The monster tumbled over itself with an alarmed gasp; it collapsed against the road, sending puffs of newly-born frost spiraling skyward. Many of its legs sprawled in odd angles as it crashed, snapping as the beast’s momentum and weight proved too much for the thin bones to handle.
Twilight gathered energy into her horn, lining up her shot. The spell she unleashed—a modified and perfected form of the spell she’d wielded during the changeling affair—shot out from her in a blaze of purplish-pink energy.
The blast met the side of the monster’s body, scalding away a large blotch of fur and skin, and burning the flesh beneath into a sickening, shining scarlet.
Twilight expected some sort of response from her foe—a roar, perhaps, or an agonized howl—but she could not anticipate what she received.
The creature leveled its three eyes at Twilight and glared, a growl ripping from its mouth, as its wounds began to heal. The burned flesh knit, new tissue taking its place, and the wound quickly scabbed over.
“No,” Twilight breathed, mind struggling to process what she saw.
The scabs dropped in favor of ugly scars, grey and purple, which soon gave way to smooth, unblemished skin. Within seconds, dark blue fur blanketed the bare patch, blending perfectly with the rest of the monster’s coat.
“This—this can’t—” Twilight stuttered. All evidence of her attack was gone.
The creature slowly rose, placing weight on all eight of its slender limbs. The leg fractures snapped back into place with loud cracks. Lumpy movement beneath the skin showed where the bones moved, sliding back into their usual spots.
The creature smiled and stepped in Twilight’s direction.
“That’s not…it’s not possible,” Twilight said, her voice’s utter clam masking the panic in her mind. Somewhere in her brain, a loose thought recognized the peril she was in and ordered her legs to move, her horn to initiate teleportation—anything to get her away from the abomination now stalking towards her.
The monster slowly approached Twilight, all three eyes fixed on her face. Every step it took left a soft crunching noise, an impression in the powdery frost coating the street. The purple pony’s legs refused to follow her brain’s orders, merely twitching in an effort to escape.
The creature raised its wing, ready to rip into Twilight with the slivers of poisoned bone.
At that moment, a purple blur rocketed through the air and landed on the monster’s head. Its three eyes looked up, meeting the gaze of the baby dragon staring down at it.
“Um, hi there,” said Spike. He took a big breath and exhaled dragon’s flame into the creature’s face.
It shrieked, convulsing in spasms, its bucking body throwing Spike to crash down onto the street. The young dragon raised himself and raced over to the stunned unicorn.
“Twilight! Twilight!” he said, trying to get her attention. “Snap out of it!”
Their opponent raised a leg to charge in their direction, but a lariat flew through the Ponyville skies, ensnaring it. The rope pulled the creature’s leg in a sudden show of force; again, its balance was destroyed. The monster tumbled down into a mess of broken limbs.
Applejack raced into view, spitting the end of the rope from her mouth.
Her friends’ voices finally snapped Twilight from her stupor.
“A-Applejack?” she said, looking at the orange-furred mare staring worriedly at her face. “I’m…I’m all right.” Twilight shook her head, mane flapping as she tried to banish her panic. “But we need to focus on the enemy.”
“Oh, no need to worry about that,” Applejack boasted. “That beastie took a little tumble when Ah wrangled it. Looks like it broke its legs.” A smug smile graced the earth pony’s face. “Poor little thing,” she finished sarcastically.
“I wouldn’t celebrate just yet,” Twilight warned. “I already tried something similar. Look!”
The former pegasus was already rising, its bones aligning into their proper places once more. Pure hatred shot out of its eyes like arrows, flying from a face that already boasted half-healed burns.
“What in tarnation?” yelped AJ. “But we burned that thing and tripped it good!”
“Not enough,” Twilight replied.
New sounds registered in her ears: screams and hollers from the Ponyville townsfolk. The good ponies of Ponyville were not unaccustomed to a certain amount of craziness—they’d faced parasprites, a spirit of chaos, and even a giant rampaging Spike (long story) in the past few years.
But nopony said they deserved to endure another incident.
“This way!” Twilight shouted, racing away from her enemy. Applejack and Spike followed suit. The creature shouted behind them; wingbeats resounded through the air like timpani drums.
Spike began flagging behind the two ponies—no matter how much endurance he possessed, the little dragon still could not cover as much ground in a single pace as his equine friends.
Twilight levitated him onto her back.
“Thanks, Twilight.” He smiled.
“No problem. Now, we need to lure it out of Ponyville! It’s causing way too much trouble to be left here!”
“Agreed,” Applejack responded. “The Everfree Forest?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
The two mares ducked between buildings, doing their best to lead the creature through the least populated areas of Ponyville as they raced to the cursed woodland beyond.
A sudden scream drew Twilight’s attention.
A stallion writhed on the ground behind them, screaming as spots of festering flesh ate up his body; the creature flapped above him, scattering poison as it went.
I’m sorry, Twilight thought, thinking back to her own charred mane. What would that feel like with flesh? Please be okay…please be okay…
The two mares broke free of Ponyville’s outer limits, racing towards the Everfree Forest. Sparks of green flame catapulted through the air—Spike’s desperate attempt to keep the monster at bay.
The ponies dashed under the shielding tree branches, the canopy protecting them from the airborne terror in pursuit.
It gave a shriek, forced earthward to continue its hunt.
Applejack snagged Twilight and Spike into a spacious bush. They rested, regaining their breath, and tried to avoid provoking the monster that prowled through the trees.
“Twilight,” Applejack said, voice subdued, “Ah didn’t say anythin’ before, but…that monster, when it cries out, its voice sounds like no monster Ah’ve ever heard!”
“That’s because a few minutes ago, it was a plain old mare,” Twilight replied.
“Pony feathers! You think Ah’m gonna believe somethin’ like that?”
“It’s true. I don’t know what this thing is—maybe it really is a pony, maybe it’s a shapeshifter like the changelings—but I’m not sure how to beat it.”
“Well, it’s got no advantage here in the forest, figurin’ it can’t use its wings and all. Maybe if’n we just lie low, it’ll give up and fly away!”
“We can’t. If it gives up on me, it’ll probably just head back into Ponyville.”
“Why the hay would it do that?” Even whispering, Applejack’s frustration was palpable.
“It wasn’t going after me originally. It was after Trixie.”
“She’s at our place,” supplied Spike. “She showed up outta nowhere, beaten up and begging for help.”
The creature, which was furiously combing rocks and fallen logs a few dozen feet away, suddenly perked up, its ears twitching as it turned its gaze towards the forest path. A few seconds later, Twilight and the others heard what perked its interest.
“Cutie Mark Crusaders trailblazers!”
“No!” whispered Applejack, total horror dawning on her face. “Ah plum forgot—Apple Bloom and her friends said they were goin’ to visit Zecora!”
The voices of three fillies wafted through the forest air.
“I can’t believe she’s not home!”
“Ah coulda sworn she was here yesterday…”
“And no note!”
“And is her place usually such a dump?”
Three foals, one for each pony race, trotted into view. A red-maned earth pony led the group, an orange pegasus and a young, squeaky-voiced unicorn keeping close behind her.
The monster turned to them with a low growl, and the three girls’ banter screeched to a halt as they caught sight of it.
“What—what is that?” Scootaloo shrieked.
“Ah don’t know!”
Sweetie Belle pointed a hoof at the monster’s head. “Ew!” she said. “It’s got three eyes! Oh, and jewelry. That earring looks pretty!”
The monster, screeching, rushed the three girls. They huddled together, petrified.
“Ah won’t let you!”
Applejack leapt from the bush, snagging a sizeable rock from the forest floor, and tossed it into the air. She smashed one of her rear hooves into it, bucking it as she would an apple. The makeshift projectile rocketed at the charging creature. It smashed into its head—whuck!—and the impact sent it careening off course.
The assailant toppled into a thicket of dead trees a small distance away from the Crusaders. Blinded by the blood trickling from its newest—and already half-healed—head wound, the creature wailed, a sound like crystal held against a grindstone. I lashed out wildly with its eight limbs.
One of its mad blows struck a dead tree with tremendous force. The withered behemoth creaked, tipping precariously, before it fell with a great moan that echoed through the forest.
The falling tree aligned directly with the three fillies.
Applejack, too far to save her sister, screamed a wordless, desperate plea, even as she dashed hopelessly down the path.
Scootaloo was the first of the Crusaders to unfreeze from her terror, and the pegasus used the brief seconds given her to shove Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom away from the path of the falling tree.
The safety of the other two guaranteed, Scootaloo stared up at her doom with wide eyes…
A rush sounded through the air. A vibrant blur zoomed through the forest, plucking Scootaloo safely off the ground before the great tree smashed into her.
The orange filly clung to her rescuer, and Rainbow Dash smiled back.
“Hey, squirt, quit getting yourself into situations like this!” the older pegasus teased. “I’m not always gonna be around to pluck you outta danger, you know!”
Scootaloo grinned sheepishly. “I’ll…try my best, Rainbow Dash.”
Rainbow scooped up the other two Crusaders, depositing the trio a safe distance away from the action.
“Run back to Applejack’s place fast as you can and shore up, you hear?” she commanded. “We’ll be along soon enough.”
“You’re not coming with us?” Scootaloo asked.
Rainbow shot a cocksure grin at her surrogate sister.
“Not this time,” she said. “Got some flank to kick.”
“Go, Rainbow Dash!” Scootaloo cheered. Her idol sped through the trees, effortlessly weaving through branches, and returned to the site of battle.
As the monster raced at Applejack, Twilight unleashed a burst of magic at its back. It flinched at the blow, but kept charging. Rainbow was astonished to see the wound from Twilight’s attack knit up almost instantly.
Spike blindsided the beast as it approached the earth pony, the little dragon darting in among its slender legs.
Seizing her chance, Rainbow Dash slammed into it alongside Spike. The extra force toppled the monster earthward.
Spike ducked here and there, dodging the droplets scattered by the creature’s wings and fangs. The blue pegasus needed no incentive to do likewise.
Rainbow and Spike retreated from the creature; they and Applejack rallied around Twilight.
“Thank you kindly for helpin’ mah sister and her friends get out of here, RD,” Applejack said.
“No prob. But maybe you can save the thanks for after we beat up the scary monster?”
“Agreed. We need a game plan. Twi?”
The purple unicorn’s face tightened as thoughts ran through her head. After a few seconds she looked up, a small smile on her face.
“I’ve got just the thing,” she said.
A few minutes later, the monster rampaged into a small forest clearing to find Twilight, and Twilight alone, staring it down.
“Abandoned by your friends already?” the creature taunted, speaking in that eerily mundane voice.
“It’s just you and me,” Twilight replied. Her horn glowed with magic. “Let’s do this.”
The creature screamed, racing towards her in blind aggression.
Twilight forced down a smile and charged to meet it.
As the two approached each other, Twilight unleashed her spell, teleporting behind her charging enemy—a technique she’d perfected against her first foe, Nightmare Moon, in this very forest.
Twilight leapt through squares and over her enemy like a knight, disorienting and confusing her opponent with the unanticipated move. Now she had it—if it stayed still, she could easily blast it with magic. Though it could heal, the creature’s screams indicated that it felt pain, and Twilight felt confident it didn’t want unnecessary hurt.
But she did not expect it to stay still: it would expect an attack and sidle left or right to remove itself from her strike. Twilight did not know which way it would dodge, but either choice held a nasty surprise.
It chose left, slinking towards the thick bushes at the clearing’s edge. Spike burst from the foliage, the dragon’s sudden appearance startling the creature.
Twilight’s assistant maneuvered between writhing legs and drops of venom, his small form eventually settling beneath the monster’s torso. Spike raised his head and unleashed dragon fire.
A continuous stream of flame bombarded the creature’s underside, provoking shrieks. Its own body protected Spike from the spilling poison, and its long, spindly legs could not reach beneath itself to strike back.
The creature staggered away from the thicket’s edge, fruitlessly trying to escape Spike’s attack; the dragon found it effortless to keep under its body.
In her mind’s eyes, Twilight transformed the clearing into a grid of white and black. She smiled, lining up her next move.
“Rainbow Dash, now!” she called.
The blue pegasus, hiding in the canopy above, darted out, speeding diagonally like a bishop crossing the board. Rainbow wove through the sprinkling venom with her tremendous speed, smashing into one of the oversized wings. It crumpled in a snap of feathers and bone.
The creature gasped, swiping at Rainbow Dash with one of its limbs, but the pegasus had already vanished. The wing began to fix itself, but as it did so the pegasus barreled into two of its legs, breaking both limbs.
As the seconds passed, Rainbow Dash created a blur of colors as she spun around the creature’s body, breaking legs and attacking wings. Though the creature healed whatever wounds Rainbow inflicted, the pegasus was always quick to strike elsewhere, sometimes smashing bones that had only just recovered. And all the while, Spike spewed fire into its body.
Held in place by the pegasus’ assault on its limbs, the creature could not dodge ranged attacks. Twilight blasted it relentlessly with her magic, and Applejack revealed herself from the brush on the other side of the clearing, where she’d poised to attack the creature if it dodged right instead of left. The earth pony’s face was a grim, wrathful mask, and she bucked rocks and stones at the thing that had dared endanger her little sister.
Applejack’s missiles tore open holes in its hide; Twilight’s magic burned away patches of fur and skin. Their foe thrashed wildly, immobilized by Rainbow Dash’s assault and still shrieking from Spike’s fire.
Now Twilight saw it for what it really was, this seemingly unstoppable, seemingly invincible juggernaut that had so intimidated her. Like a rook, it mindlessly barreled down the board, smashing through any obstacle in its way. But here it was: boxed in by lesser pieces, with nowhere to move and nowhere to escape; pinned by knights and bishops and a young pawn, its destruction inevitable.
Twilight blasted another burn into its side, and again the creature healed its wounds—but the fresh skin appeared slower, this time. Twilight saw its leg bones aligning with sluggish speed, and looked at its face. All three eyes were wide in terror, and she knew the endgame was hers, that the creature’s healing powers were not inexhaustible.
One of Applejack’s stones scraped open a wound in its side. The edges of the small cut trembled, slowly crawling towards each other as the wound mended—and then abruptly stopped. The wound stood, trickling blood; the earring dangling from the creature’s ear gave off several flashes of dim green light.
“Stop!” the creature screamed. “I give up! Please, no more!”
None of the others stopped their assault, but both Spike and Rainbow Dash turned to Twilight, questions in their eyes. Twilight was grateful they deferred to her judgment before stopping on their own.
“Everypony, stop,” the unicorn decided. “Both of you, back away from it.”
Both Spike and Rainbow Dash retreated from the monster. Its underside was a nasty, violent red; small burns and cuts dotted its hide; and, three of its legs were broken.
The creature stood, heaving, for several seconds. After nearly a full minute without punishment, its wounds began making themselves right, though still without the speed which Twilight had first observed.
The creature looked down at Twilight and the others, hatred beaming from its three eyes. “How dare you,” it said—or should it be she said? Now that she was speaking instead of shrieking in fury—not to mention that she was no longer trying to murder them—Twilight found it easier to think of the creature before her as a ‘her,’ not an ‘it.’
“Nopony—nopony—” hissed the enemy. She panted, holding her sides weakly. “What—what are you?”
“What are we?” answered Rainbow. “Gee, I dunno. An ace flyer, Iron Pony, soon-to-be Wonderbolt (if you ask my opinion)—”
“Dedicated sister,” Applejack interjected. “Hard worker, strongest earth pony mare around—”
“Plus the personal apprentice of Celestia!” Spike said, hoisting a claw in Twilight’s direction. “A master of magic and one of the smartest ponies you’ll ever meet—”
“Only pegasus ever to pull off a Sonic Rainboom—”
“And a freaking dragon!” Spike said, puffing up importantly.
“We’re ponies who don’t like bullies swaggering into our town,” Twilight said, returning the monster’s gaze. “Maybe next time you pick a fight, it shouldn’t be with fully half the wielders of the Elements of Harmony.”
The creature blinked.
“Elements…of Harmony?” she croaked. Her voice wavered with more than just pain—Twilight recognized utter fear.
“You three…you are…” the monster quivered. She tentatively retreated from the group, despite her still-mending legs.
“…wielders of the Elements?” it finished in a voice laced with horror. Twilight and her friends stared back wordlessly.
A mindless, terrified scream erupted from the creature’s mouth. A burst of green light flashed from the onyx earring, temporarily blinding Twilight and the others.
When Twilight’s vision cleared, the monster before her was gone, replaced by the same deep-blue pegasus from before.
The pegasus raised her wings, still screaming wordlessly, and flew straight up through the canopy of the Everfree Forest and out into the sky beyond, streaking away from Ponyville.
“Hey, wait!” Rainbow yelled, preparing to rush after her.
“Stop! Rainbow Dash, stop!”
Twilight’s words halted the pegasus.
“Why?” the blue pony challenged.
“Even wounded as she is, I don’t know if you—if any of us—could take her one on one,” Twilight said. “The fight’s over. If she wants to run, let her. Better than you getting hurt.”
Rainbow grumbled, but settled down in the glade.
“Twilight…what was that?” Applejack said. “Ah’ve fought timberwolves, dragons, and the living embodiment of chaos itself…but Ah don’t know if Ah’ve ever seen something like that.”
“I’m not sure. But I think I know somepony who can tell us. Spike, did you send doctors to the library to help Trixie?”
“Yeah,” the dragon replied. “I was running back with them when Applejack ran into me, told me you were in trouble. They should be helping Trixie right now.”
“Good. Maybe when she wakes up, we’ll get some answers.”
Twilight turned to the others, a stormy look in her eyes.
“Get ready, everypony. Somehow I don’t think our problems are over with yet.”