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“Ugh, we’ve been in here for ages!” Rainbow Dash sighed. She examined her surroundings carefully from time to time. Yep, still just stone walls.

“I know, isn’t it just exciting, just like hide-and-seek!” Pinkie Pie chimed as she jumped around her friend, seemingly without tiring at all.

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes, having tired of explaining it wasn’t a game over an hour ago. She just remained silent and let the flood of words wash over her, continuing to walk through the long-forgotten hallways while wearing a gruff look on her face.

“Oooo, do you think she’s behind the corner? Or maybe the next? Or wait, she could be hiding on the ceiling! Hmmm, on second thought, she doesn’t seem to be. Unless... unless she’s really good at hiding! Or... Hey, Dashie, are you listening?”

“Huh?” Rainbow Dash muttered upon hearing her name. “Oh, listening, right...”

Pinkie suddenly jumped in front of her friend, blocking her path. “I know what you need! Some motivation!”

“Here we go...” Dash sighed.

“Go past the next corner

Pass the nearest tree

Cross over the mountains

And sail over the sea

Let’s take a step together

And then, oh you will see

You’ll reach your destination with me!

Yay!”

Rainbow Dash stared at the pink pony in bewilderment. “Do you... do you have a song for everything?”

Pinkie pondered the question for a moment. “Nope!” she finally said as Dash walked past her. “I don’t have a song about singing! Ooohhh, do you want to help me make one?” She said as she jumped after Rainbow Dash again.

“Eh, I’ll pass...”

“D’awww, you don’t know how to have fun, Dashie.” Pinkie pouted.

“Hey! I’m lots of fun,” Rainbow said indignantly,” it’s just that I like other stuff. Like erm... racing.”

They rounded the corner, and Pinkie’s face lit up with an idea.

“Then lets race! From here to the end of the hallway.”

The pegasus grinned smugly. “You? Race me? Heh, alright, if you insist.”

They took up their places next to each other, and Dash crouched down, ready to burst forward in an instant. Pinkie seemed altogether more relaxed, just standing at their improvised starting line.

“Get ready. Set. GO!” Dash shouted, and she exploded out of the starting blocks. The hallways were quite spacious, so flying wasn’t much of a problem. All she had to look out for was the wall on the other side, but even when taking into account her stopping distance, she could easily maintain speeds over twice of what an earthbound pony could hope to achieve. She touched down again on the other side of the hallway, and turned around triumphantly.

“I win!” she shouted.

But Pinkie was nowhere to be seen. The entire hallway was deserted, and there were no places to hide, either.

“Euh... Pinkie?” Dash said in a small voice.

“Yes?” the pink party pony answered from right behind her, causing her heart to jump up into her throat.

“Ohmigosh, don’t do that!” Rainbow wheezed as she clutched her chest. “H-how did you... ? You couldn’t have passed me, there’s no way!”

“Silly filly,” Pinkie said with a giggle, “you still came in second place!”

She bounced off into another hallway again, leaving behind a perplexed Dash, who eventually shrugged and followed after her friend.

***

But from the shadows, Cheerilee was watching them. It had taken her some time to track them down, but luckily they were everything but silent. She had gotten a pretty good idea as to how Twilight had split up her troops. Cheerilee’d found the first two in one of the wings, and the second two in the centrum of the complex; it didn’t take a genius to figure out where the last two would be. She was--all in all quite--pleased with the order in which the culprits were presented to her.

She kept a close eye on Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie as she crept through the inner sanctum, her mind working at full speed. She knew exactly where they were going, and they had already passed by a few traps which Cheerilee could have activated. She had decided against doing so because of one simple reason: Pinkie Pie’s uncanny ability to predict seemingly random perils and occurrences. Most traps Cheerilee could throw at them would probably fail to reel Pinkie in, and Cheerilee wanted to avoid a repeat of the Applejack incident at all costs. At the same time, she couldn’t underestimate Rainbow Dash either. She didn’t have Pinkie’s strange senses, but she knew speed and agility like no other.

No, just firing up a trap likely wouldn’t do. But Cheerilee knew their strengths, and she had the means to turn those into their weaknesses.

The two of them were still happily chattering, when they finally turned the corner into the hallway Cheerilee needed for her plan. Of course, she hadn’t given them any other options, slowly leading them along the desired path. They hadn’t noticed a thing. Cheerilee walked up to a nearby vantage point, which had a rich supply of levers and hidden buttons. She pressed one of them; it was time for the show to begin.

***

“And that’s why you should never trust gerbils, see?”

“Yes, yes, I see,” said Rainbow Dash, by now resigned to the fact that Pinkie Pie was simply in an indestructibly good mood.

A high-pitched screeching sound resounded throughout the complex.

“That was you, right?” Rainbow asked urgently. “Please tell me that was you.”

“It was me!” the other mare responded cheerfully.

Dash wiped the sweat off of her brow. “Phew, you know, for a moment there I thought-”

Suddenly the ceiling slid down with a rumbling noise--a few meters back from where they were standing--abruptly turning the hallway into a one-way street.

“H-how did you do that?” Rainbow said, her jaw falling open.

“I, euh, didn’t,” Pinkie said, genuinely worried for the first time.

“What, but you said-”

“Because that’s what you asked me to say!”

Dash opened her mouth to provide Pinkie with a rather angry reply, but she cut herself short when she suddenly saw her friend’s tail twitch, followed by a series of other twitches, flutters and vibrations. The pegasus swallowed.

“Was that... ?”

Pinkie stared at her with wide open eyes, and then--as if the message finally got through to her--she jumped forward, wrapping her hooves around Rainbow Dash and pulling her to the ground. “Duck!”

An arrow shot out of a hidden slit in the wall, flying right through the point where Dash’s head had been just a second ago before impacting the wall on the other side.

“Fast-moving object from the side!” Pinkie exclaimed. “Somepony’s shooting at us!”

Dash was about to say something again, when she felt a series of shudders and vibrations go through Pinkie’s body, which seemed to last far longer than anything she’d ever seen before.

“Big one?” the pegasus pony ventured a guess.

“That wasn’t one,” Pinkie whispered, “those were at least five, which means we need to... RUN!”

Dash--just like everypony in Ponyville--knew better than to argue with the Pinkie Sense, and so she jumped up as soon as Pinkie gave the word. And not a moment too late. The very moment she took to the sky--and Pinkie performed a rather elegant forward roll--a barrage of arrows shot out from the ceiling, clattering against the floor exactly where they had just been. The entire hallway shuddered as the walls behind them suddenly moved towards each other, slamming into one another with a thunderous bang.

“Keep moving!” Pinkie yelled as the next series of warnings hit her, but Dash didn’t need to be told. She was already in the air and ready to blast off, when wave upon wave of arrows started flying out of every surface in sight. And to make matters worse, parts of the walls and ceiling seemed determined to turn any pony who tried to pass at the wrong time into a bloody smear on the ground or on the opposite wall.

“Left!” Pinkie yelled at Dash as she dodged a couple of arrows and a falling piece of ceiling. “Now right again! Forward! Oops, no, back!”

Dash weaved and tumbled around in the air, doing her best to follow Pinkie’s directions while keeping an eye out for anything the earth pony might have missed. After a close encounter with a pillar that suddenly shot out of one of the walls, it was clear that not even Pinkie could give her orders fast enough for Dash to be completely able to rely on them. Luckily, she was by far the most acrobatic pegasi in town; any other would have already resembled a porcupine by now.

“What do we do?” Dash yelled down as she continued to progress through the hallway slowly, hampered by the constant need to evade--often in a backwards direction--or wait for one of the stone pillars to retract.

“Just-RIGHT!-keep-RIGHT!-going!-LEFT!” Pinkie said, quickly running out of breath.

Dash quickly glanced towards the end of the corridor as she ducked past two arrows, and she realised Pinkie had a point. For all the projectiles flying around her head, the hallways up ahead seemed relatively calm. She wanted to yell an affirmative answer back at Pinkie, when a sudden scream made her turn around, just in time to see Pinkie disappear in a hole that had miraculously appeared in the floor.

“Pinkie!” she yelled as she threw herself into a dive. Pinkie Sense could detect every hazard around, how did her friend miss one so obvious?

Dash dove into the hole in pursuit of Pinkie Pie, attempting to stay in the air as best she could. Pretty soon the size of the hole decreased, and it angled upwards until it was more akin to a stone slide. It finally became so cramped that Dash was forced to retract her wings, and she started to slide down the tunnel instead. It didn’t take long for her to catch a glimpse of Pinkie Pie in between the twists and turns of the slide, but her friend seemed to be in bad shape. Her descent had been quite uncontrolled, unlike Dash’s, and so she seemed to be rolling down the tunnel rather than sliding down it, crashing into the walls constantly.

“Pinkie!” Dash yelled, as she tried to pick up speed. There was no reply.

All of a sudden, the part of the tunnel that lay between Pinkie and Dash changed. The wall slid forward--blocking off the path Pinkie was rolling down--and at the same time another fork opened up. Dash crashed heavily into the wall, her forward momentum catapulting her down the other chute. It didn’t last long though, as the tunnel suddenly became almost horizontal and she shot out of it straight into a big, metal cage. She crashed into its back wall and fell down in a heap, as the door slammed shut behind her all on its own.

“Ow ow ow ow,” Rainbow muttered as she struggled to get up. “That’s going to leave a mark...”

She looked around the room she was in, and found it to be mostly featureless. There wasn’t even a door in sight. There was, however, another cage--similar to hers-- on the other side of the room, and she immediately spotted her friend lying at the bottom of it, clearly unconscious. Rainbow Dash cringed slightly as she noticed one of her friend’s legs was bending in a way that it really ought not to.

“Hey, Pinkie, wake up! Hey!” she yelled as she started to rattle the door of her cage, trying to open it. “We’ve got to get out of here!”

But Pinkie didn’t respond, and Dash couldn’t find any way to get the door open, no matter how much she rammed into it or kicked it with her hind legs.

“Ow!” she yelped as she felt something sting her in the side of her neck.

She scratched at it with her hoof, and a little dart fell onto the floor beneath her cage. “What in the hay...” she said, as her vision rapidly detoriated.

“Well, you can’t wake her up, so why don’t you take a nap as well?” Cheerilee’s voice rang out besides her.

Rainbow Dash turned towards her, trying to focus her vision on the fuchsia-coloured blur that she knew to be the slightly older mare.

“Cheewee... ree?” was the last thing she managed to utter, before collapsing onto the floor of her cage.

Cheerilee simply smiled. She had suspected that Pinkie’s senses only worked on somewhat random occurrences--things falling from the sky or arrows being shot out of a wall in a certain sequence didn’t care if there was a pony in their path or not, after all--and that they’d prove useless against a deliberate action, but she had still been sweating when she manually activated that pit, until she saw Pinkie disappear down into it. The element of loyalty immediately tried to save her friend, of course, proving to be both more reliable and stupider than the average weed.

Cheerilee shrugged, and got to work. There was a lot that needed taking care of.

***

Rainbow Dash opened her eyes with a start, and Cheerilee immediately filled almost her entire field of vision. Rainbow tried to go on the offensive straight away, but found she had been securely chained up against a small vertical wall of sorts. Her wings had been forced through slits inside of the wall, and she cringed in pain as she tried to move them: it felt as if somepony had driven hooks or nails through the fleshy parts. Rainbow didn’t even need to guess who that had been.

“Just in time for the main event,” Cheerilee said while a sly smile played around her lips.

“Buck you! What have you done to Pinkie Pie?” the spiffy pegasus spat back into her face, leaning forward into her bindings as best she could, and putting on her most warlike face.

“My, my, have you got a dirty mouth on you...” Cheerilee said as she stepped aside. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of that. As for your friend...”

Dash could finally look past the other mare, and she gasped for breath. Pinkie Pie was tied to a table just a meter or two ahead, one side of the table elevated slightly to ensure that Rainbow Dash had a good view. The pink pony had been gagged as well, but from the look in her eyes Dash could tell that she was scared. It’s hard to giggle at anything with something like that in your mouth, she supposed. She noticed there was a far smaller cage hanging from the ceiling behind Pinkie, but it seemed to be empty.

“Let her go. Now,” Rainbow hissed at Cheerilee through clenched teeth.

“Oh, soon enough, soon enough,” Cheerilee assured her as she rummaged about inside of the saddlebags lying nearby. “Can’t say she’ll necessarily be in one piece, though.”

“You...”

“Let me guess: monster?” Cheerilee finished the sentence for her as she turned around, a syringe filled with a brightly coloured, green substance in her hooves. “I heard that one from your friend Applejack already... you weeds really need some original material.”

“You better not have hurt Applejack, or I’m going to ram my hoof down your face!”

“Cute.” Cheerilee lightly tapped the needle of the syringe with her free hoof. “Now hold still.”

Rainbow Dash fought against her bonds, but in truth she didn’t have much choice but to remain still as the needle drew near. Cheerilee roughly forced it into one of the pegasus’ legs, emptying its contents into her bloodstream, as Dash clenched her teeth with a grunt.

“You ugly mule, what did you do to me?” Dash demanded to know.

Cheerilee simply grinned, as she stepped behind the pegasus. “Let’s play a game. I call it: Sacrifice.”

“Sacrifice?” Rainbow asked despite herself.

She didn’t get a reply right away, at least not in the way she expected. Cheerilee was obviously doing something behind her back, and Rainbow didn’t think it was anything good. She heard something click behind her, and she grunted as the hooks embedded into her wings suddenly started to pull backwards, until her wings were just about at the straining point. Two ropes descended from the ceiling, dangling in front of Dash’s face. Cheerilee stepped back into view, brandishing a smooth knife.

“It’s quite simple, really... You keep sacrificing things that are important to you, or...”

“Or?”

Cheerilee pressed her body up against Rainbow’s, whispering in her ear as she lazily dragged the tip of her knife through the pegasus’ coat, without actually cutting. “Or I take something Pinkie cherishes away from her instead...”

“You’re sick!”

Rainbow looked over Cheerilee’s shoulder, and she met Pinkie’s eyes. The pink pony seemed at the verge of tears, and was shaking her head wildly. She was obviously trying to communicate something... but what was it? Don’t let her hurt me? Don’t do this for me?

Dash closed her eyes, and breathed out slowly. There really was only one option open to her, only one way she could live with herself. “Alright, I’ll do it. But only if you let Pinkie go!”

Cheerilee licked her lips. “Excellent, I knew you wouldn’t back down from a challenge... And of course your friend can go, once you’ve sacrificed everything you hold dear!” She cackled, causing Pinkie to whimper softly, and even Dash felt her blood go a bit colder in her veins.

“Just tell me how the hay you want to do this,” Dash hissed. She wiggled her nose for a moment, as she cursed her luck. Getting itchy at such a moment...

“Thought you’d never ask.”

Cheerilee grabbed hold of one of the ropes dangling in front of Dash, and pulled. A shock of pain went through Dash’s body as the hooks in her right wing pulled back with the same force, causing her to let out a yelp of surprise.

Cheerilee winked at her. “This’ll be the price for now: your wings.”

“N-no way,” Dash stuttered as cold sweat broke out all over her body. “Y-you can’t make me give up those! I’m a pegasus, I need to fly, the Wonderbolts-”

“Looks like it’s Pinkie’s turn already!” Cheerilee said cheerfully as she turned towards the party-loving filly, and Dash could hear her friends muffled cries.

“No! Wait! I’ll do it!” Rainbow Dash yelled. “Just... just please... please don’t hurt Pinkie...”

“Well, aren’t you ever the loyal friend,” Cheerilee said mockingly as she turned back around.

She briefly tinkered with the chains tying Rainbow Dash down, and they soon tumbled to the ground. The pegasus was surprised for a moment, but realized soon enough that the hooks pulling her wings back still effectively glued her to the back of the table. On top of that, Cheerilee was smart enough to stay well out of reach of her hooves. Dash scratched her nose almost without noticing, and her neck was getting kind of itchy as well.

“Well, chop, chop, those wings aren’t going to pull themselves off, you know,” Cheerilee said as she took up position right next to Pinkie Pie, whom she started poking with the tip of her knife, obviously meant as extra motivation for Dash.

The pegasus herself finally took hold of the rope with both of her shaking hooves, breathing in and out deeply in an effort to calm herself. She always prided herself on her loyalty, but that was really about to be put to the test; not only was this likely to be incredibly painful, but she was about to give up something that had defined every aspect of her life up until this day.

She felt tears pricking in the corner of her eyes, and for a moment a dark part of her mind told her to just give up, to reconsider. But as she glanced at her friend--lying there, helplessly, likely with at least one broken leg and at the mercy of a bucking psychopath--she realised she simply had to do it. For her best friend.

“YAAAGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!” With a primal scream Rainbow Dash pulled down hard on the rope, throwing all of her explosive power into this one desperate act. Her breathing stalled as pain exploded through her back and chest, and she felt some manner of bladed edge bite into the base of her wing, weakening it slightly as it tore away. Bone cracked and splintered, while whole bundles of nerve endings and flesh got pulled straight out of her back. Rainbow Dash screamed and screamed as the wing tore away, and continued doing so for at least a full minute afterwards as well.

She finally stopped screaming--still panting and breathing heavily--tears and sweat streaming down her face in tandem with the blood running down her back. “S-see? T-that w... was n-nothing. N-nothing at a-all,” she said shakingly.

“Then do the other one,” Cheerilee said, clearly enjoying the show.

Pinkie was crying silently as well, and she was still shaking her head.

“R-right. I... I can do t-this... No problem! J... just one more... s-stupid wing... it... it doesn’t even h-hurt... at all!” Rainbow broke into a nervous giggle as she grasped the other rope. “A-all... right...”

“YAAAGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!” she screamed again, and she pulled down with all her might, but the rope slipped between her hooves. The hooks still roughly pulled at her flesh, ripping into her as a blade sliced into the base of her wing. Dash almost fell forward off the table, but quickly found that even with just one wing trapped she was still securely locked in place.

“N-no way...” the rainbow-maned pony stammered, in-between her gasps for breath.

Cheerilee raised an eyebrow. “Again.”

Rainbow lifted her hooves towards the rope again, shaking like crazy. It had been relatively easy the first time; she hadn’t known exactly what it’d feel like. The second time had been more difficult, as she could hardly stomach the thought of having to go through that pain again. But this time...

“No! No! I... I can’t do it!” Rainbow said as she burst into a waterfall of tears, her whole body shaking under her emotions and pain. At the same time, the itching flared up again, worse than before. “It hurts, it hurts so bad! You have no idea... I can’t do it! I won’t do it! NO!”

Cheerilee burst into laughter, and the unpleasant sound echoed throughout the room. “This is the limit of your loyalty? I should’ve known better than to expect anything from the likes of you, I suppose.”

She turned towards Pinkie, bending over her as she readied her knife. “Well then, Pinkie... I’m afraid I have to take the thing you hold most dear: your smile.”

She ripped Pinkie’s gag out of her mouth, and the pink mare’s eyes filled with fear.

“No! Please, no! Somepony help me! Dash! DASHIE!” she yelled, desperately fighting against her bonds as best she could. Pain flared up throughout her body as several broken bones protested, but the threat posed by Cheerilee’s knife gave her enough strength to momentarily ignore those signals.

“I’m sorry... I’m s-so s-sorry...” Dash sobbed, her eyes closed and her face turned away, covering her eyes with one hoof and scratching at her neck with the other.

Cheerilee plunged forward, ramming the tip of her knife straight into Pinkie’s cheek, blood bubbling up both inside and outside of her victims mouth. Pinkie screamed in pain, and soon regretted it as she cut her own tongue on the knife, causing her to panic even more. The teacher started to move the knife downwards, intent on making a neat cut down towards Pinkie’s chin, but the struggling and screaming of the aforementioned made sure it was a messy cut at best. She tilted the blade slightly and cut under the bottom lip, grazing up against Pinkie’s teeth and badly damaging her gums in some places, as blood dripped down her face.

“Uuungh! Ghnnuugh!” Ponyville’s premier party pony screamed as Cheerilee dragged the knife up again through the cheek on the other side. She turned the blade again and drove it through the flesh between Pinkie’s upper lip and nose, connecting finally to the point where she had first plunged the knife in. Ignoring Pinkie’s cries and sobs, she leaned in and bit down onto the earth pony’s now disconnected upper lip, grabbing the jar she had stored Applejack’s tongue in from underneath the table, and dropping Pinkie’s lips into them.

Pinkie was crying profusely, and every tear only increased her pain as it rolled down the naked flesh of her now heavily disfigured face. Without lips she was quite the monstrosity, especially with all the blood oozing out of her cheeks, tongue and gums. Even Cheerilee felt a shiver run down her spine as she looked at her, but perhaps that was more out of artistic pride than true uneasiness.

“Awww, cheer up!” Cheerilee told her. “You just gave a smile, and perhaps you can still get a smile, too! What do you say, Dashie?”

The pegasus--who had been hiding her face in her hooves ever since Pinkie started screaming--finally dared open her eyes, and she slowly looked up at her friend’s face. Pinkie had a desperate, pleading look on her face, as if she really wanted somepony to tell her that it’d be ok, but the overall effect was nauseating at best. Dash felt herself go green, and with a sickening splatter she emptied her stomach onto the floor. Pinkie burst into tears once more.

“Wow, you know you’re ugly when even your most loyal friends can’t look at you without throwing up!” Cheerilee said, trying desperately not to burst into a fit of laughter again.

“N-No! I.. it’s not that bad! I was just, s-surprised, Pinkie, I swear!” Dash tried desperately, but it didn’t sound convincing even to herself.

“‘ou riar, I’nh ughie!” Pinkie sobbed, apparently not entirely used to speaking without lips yet.

Dash didn’t know what to say--what with pain, nausea and that infernal itch clouding her mind--but Cheerilee quickly took that problem off of her hooves.

“Well then, let’s move on to the next step, shall we?”

“N-next step?” Rainbow asked, as she tried to ignore itching, and the stabbing pain in her back.

Cheerilee smiled wickedly. “Seeing as you’re not mare enough to pull through yourself, I’ll just have to do the next one for you,” she said as she started to undo the bindings that held Pinkie Pie in place, causing the pink mare to let out a flood of whimpers and only half-formed syllables.

“Wait! I didn’t fail this round, you have to leave her alone!” Dash screamed indignantly. She wasn’t a stranger to cheating, but she still couldn’t stand it when others did it. Especially if they had been the ones to come up with the rules in the first place.

Cheerilee finished opening up the last clasp, and Pinkie tried to escape by quickly rolling off of the table. Her hooves touched the ground and she let out a terrible shriek, as her legs gave way beneath her. Dash swallowed; apparently her friend had broken even more bones than she had originally thought.

“H-hey, are you... listening?”

Cheerilee grabbed Pinkie by the hair and dragged her along the ground, ignoring her pleas and whimpers, as she threw the lipless pony into the cage which hung half a meter or so above the ground. Pinkie cried out in pain as she attempted to gain some sort of footing inside of the cage, but her broken legs kept slipping off of the bars, and her forelegs didn’t have the strength to pull her up.

As she walked towards a lever next to the cage, Cheerilee finally addressed Rainbow’s questions. “Oh, I’m playing by the rules... But I think that, after flying, the thing you hold most dear... is Pinkie Pie herself!”

She burst out in maniacal laughter as she pulled the lever into a neutral position, and the ground underneath Pinkie’s cage slid open. Immediately a plume of steam rose up from the newly created pit, and Pinkie cried out unintelligible as the heat wrapped itself around her. She looked down shakily and immediately saw a raging reserve of boiling water, which even Rainbow Dash could hear from her position on the other side of the room.

“You can’t do this! You said you’d let her go if I pulled through!” Rainbow Dash yelled, her pain and other discomforts momentarily forgotten.

Cheerilee burst out in another bout of maniacal laughter. “Ahahaha! And you think you have? If she really means that much to you, COME AND SAVE HER!” She abruptly pushed the lever down--opposite to the position it had been in first--and the cage Pinkie was in started to descend slowly.

“Djazh! DJASH!” Pinke screamed as she tried to move herself over to the door of the cage, which Cheerilee had left wide open. Her efforts proved to be in vain, as there was simply no way she’d ever make it even halfway with her body in the condition it was in. She almost went green with pain just trying to stand up.

Rainbow Dash bit back her pain and fear, putting all of her personal issues on hold. She hadn’t known exactly what Cheerilee was capable of before, and her first run-in with pain of that magnitude had shocked her to her core. She had lost sight of her principles in a sea of pain and fear, but now they were playing for the marbles. Now Cheerilee was threatening to take something that really mattered from her, and Dash wasn’t planning to let her get away with it. Not anymore.

“Hold on Pinkie, I’m coming!” she yelled as she put her hooves around the rope once more, gritting her teeth as she pulled down with all her might. She felt the sickening snap of her bones, and another wave of immense pain rolled over her as her second wing ripped free, once again taking a large chunk of flesh and skin with it. She screamed and fought against the pain, taking a deep breath before jumping off the table and onto her hooves.

As soon as she landed, however, the world started spinning before her eyes. She found it hard to keep her balance, and the first step she took caused her to fall down to her knees.

“Wha... what did you... do?” she said as nausea overcame here.

Cheerilee didn’t respond, but in truth, she didn’t have to. Rainbow Dash glanced at the empty syringe that lay a few meters away from her, and the answer became abundantly clear.

Meanwhile, Pinkie’s cage kept descending, as she desperately tried to rise to her hooves. One of her legs dangled out of the cage through the bars, but she simply did not have the strength to pull it up again. Her hoof finally broke the surface, and Pinkie screamed. The incredibly hot water assaulted every nerve ending it could reach, as the pink mare got submerged more and more. Where the water touched her her skin it first reddened, and then paled underneath her coat, giving it an altogether bleaker appearance. After a few seconds her flesh started to bubble, as it burst open in a series of bloody blisters which painted the water red. She sank deeper and deeper, and her screeches intensified.

“H-Hang in there, Pinkie!” Dash yelled as she tried to get back to her feet, attempting to move forward.

She swayed on her hooves more than Berry Punch on New Year’s Eve, but she slowly made her way over to the lever. She fell more than once, but scrambled to her feet as fast as she could every time. Even so, precious seconds were lost. On top of that, several places on her body started to itch, but she ignored that in favour of bigger problems.

Water flooded Pinkie’s cage, and pretty soon the water was up to her neck, as she barely managed to lift her face away from the bottom of the cage. She continued to scream, but the heat and the immense pain--combined with the loss of blood--slowly began to take their toll, and her screams became weaker and weaker.

Finally, Dash arrived at the lever, and she leaned heavily against it as she tried to catch her breath and push it in the other direction at the same time. Cheerilee just stood and watched, completely unconcerned.

“Better hurry, she’s about to go completely u- ah, there she goes!” Cheerilee yelled as Pinkie Pie finally disappeared under the surface, her screams drowned in the boiling water.

Dash pushed against the lever, but whatever Cheerilee had injected into her hadn’t only affected her balance, it had severely weakened her as well. She finally managed to push the lever back into its original position by throwing all her weight against it, and the cage started to lift out of the water again--thankfully at a faster pace than at which it had gone in.

Rainbow Dash managed to drag herself to where the cage’s door would be with some effort, but she felt a block of ice descend into her stomach when she looked down. Pinkie’s body was covered in bloody blisters, and her flesh was slouching off of her body in several places. Dash had heard how bad burn wounds could get, but this was far worse than she expected it would be. Pinkie looked like a zombie in some places, and like an overcooked chicken in others. Then again, she didn’t doubt that Cheerilee had done something to the water to make it turn out this way.

What disturbed her more than the absolutely abysmal condition her friend’s body was in, though, was the fact that she wasn’t moving. She held her breath in fear, and when the floor finally closed up again she immediately lunged forward as best she could, dragging Pinkie’s body out of the cage. The cage itself remained quite hot to the touch, and the layer of water that still coated Pinkie’s body scalded Dash slightly, but she didn’t care as she gently lay her friend down upon the stones in front of her.

From the way her chest was rising and falling, Dash could tell she was still alive, if only barely. As she brushed away Pinkie’s hair from in front of her face, Dash made another horrifying discovery: The water had almost completely melted her eyes away. The sight of the pink pony’s face--half-empty sockets, bloody blisters and a gaping mess of blood and teeth were her lips used to be--sickened Dash, but she was determined to stay by her side.

“It’s o-ok Pinkie, you... you’re g-going to be o-ok... I promise!” Dash stammered as tears started to stream down her face.

“Daaa... shhiee...” Pinkie moaned hoarsely, reaching out for her with a hoof. Her flesh continued to slouch off, and several more sores burst open into bloody pus, causing her to whimper weakly.

“Shhh, shhh...” Dash tried to comfort her, cradling her softly.

A clattering of steel drew her attention, as Cheerilee threw her knife down next to the two of them. “I think we both know what needs to be done.”

Rainbow Dash stared up at her angrily. “You want me to do your dirty work now? WELL BUCK YOU!”

Cheerilee sneered. “You’re blinder than your friend if you can’t see the pain she’s in.”

Rainbow Dash looked down at Pinkie’s face, and realised Cheerilee was telling the truth. Her entire face was contorted, and she whimpered without end. It was obvious she’d never make it, and by this point, it was perhaps cruel to delay her end.

She grabbed the knife with a shaking hoof, and looked from the blade to Pinkie’s face and back again a few times. She bit down upon her lip and sobbed, as she readied the weapon above her head. A swift stab to the heart seemed to be the kindest thing she could for her now.

“I-I’m s-sorry, Pinke... So sorry...” Dash sobbed.

She turned her face away from her friend as she stabbed down, so that she wouldn’t have to see the her friend die. That proved to be a grave mistake. She missed the heart by an inch or so, perforating Pinkie’s lung instead. Dash gasped as she quickly drew back the knife, and Pinkie whimpered, coughing up blood as her breathing became even more laboured and shallow.

“Daassshhh... why?” Pinkie said hoarsely.

“Ohmigosh, ohmigosh, ohmigosh,” Dash said in panic, as she quickly struck with the knife again.

She finally hit the mark, and blood welled up around the blade, as Pinkie’s hooves weakly clawed at Rainbow Dash’s, her survival instincts still fighting on.

“Ghngh... we... f... fr... iends...” Pinkie stuttered, and Dash broke into sobs.

After a few seconds, Pinkie’s hooves finally fell down next to her body, and she passed away. Dash stared at her own hooves in shock, and her shoulders shook. She was overcome by grief, but she didn’t have any tears left. Giving Pinkie a swift end had been the only sensible thing to do, but she wasn’t prepared for how heavy that decision bore down upon her shoulders.

Her entire body started to shake, and she wrapped her front legs around herself in an effort to control it.

“Did you like killing your own friend?” Cheerilee whispered into her ear. “You know, if you had been a bit faster...”

“B-buck you, you monster,” Rainbow said as she grabbed hold of the knife again, turning around. “I will make you pay!”

“I very much doubt that,” Cheerilee said with a cocky smile.

Rainbow Dash let out a battle cry and attempted to lunge at the other mare, but Cheerilee easily side-stepped that attempt. Rainbow was even worse on her hooves than before, and her reaction time was just terrible. Her balance was so far gone that she crashed to the ground all on her own, and she had trouble getting back up again.

“S... so are you going to kill me too now?” she said as she panted, looking at Cheerilee from her place on the ground.

Cheerilee grinned. “I think we had a pretty good thing going here with you, as you put it, ‘doing my dirty work’.”

“Well I’m not going to-” Dash started to say, when she began to become aware of the terrible itching sensation all over her legs and body again. She’d been able to hold it at bay for a while, but now it had intensified to such a level that she just couldn’t ignore it anymore.

The feeling continued to intensify, to the point where it was driving her insane. She started scratching herself all over with her hooves, attempting to drive out the feeling, but it simply wouldn’t go away. Especially the little puncture wound in her neck--from the dart earlier--became incredibly irritated, and she started rubbing it as if she was in a craze.

“Nice timing,” Cheerilee said as she took a step back.

Dash wanted to say something, but by this point she was simply too preoccupied to think straight. Her neck became red and irritated, as she continued to scratch with the tips of her hooves. Eventually her skin broke, and she started to bleed, but that wasn’t the most disturbing part. She became aware of a sort of crawly sensation around the wound, and suddenly a whole heap of maggots started to pour out from it, looking for a way out. Rainbow Dash could only look at them in horror as they fell down to the floor, and she screamed at the top of her lungs.

“AAAGGHH! What did you do to me! Get them out! GET THEM OUT!” she said as she frantically dug her hooves into the wound, trying to dig the beasts out.

Cheerilee looked on, giddy with excitement. She liked to see ponies break down, and this was quite a wonderful breakdown indeed.

Dash was now clawing at her own throat, widening the wound by the second, as blood dripped down her hooves, and maggots continued to pour out. She started to let out bestial sounds as she worked herself up into a frenzy, tearing out her throat piece by piece. She snatched up the knife and started to stab it into her throat repeatedly in an effort to dislodged the creatures, blood gurgling up into her mouth. Eventually her strength started to give out, and with one last stab she toppled over, as all power left her body.

“Gghet... theeemm... out...” she gurgled one last time, before life fled from her eyes.

Cheerilee looked at the wonderfully bloody scene, and she licked her lips as she went to fetch her jar. She still had something to collect, after all. She wondered what Dash had seen towards the end, she hadn’t seen any maggots at all.

***

“We should’ve found something by now...” Twilight said with barely restrained irritation, causing Spike and Rarity to exchange a worried look behind her back.

“I’m sure we’ll find her soon, dear,” Rarity said soothingly, “we’ve almost searched this entire wing, have we not?”

Twilight nodded. “Yes... But I’m still worried about those moving walls. They may be throwing us off target.”

Rarity and Spike exchanged a worried look once more, both of them fully believing that these so called ‘moving walls’ were nothing but a trick Twilight was playing upon herself. Nopony could be expected to perfectly remember the entire route they’d taken, after all. It made sense that things would be slightly different than they remembered when they passed by the same place a second time, but Twilight didn’t see it that way.

“And you know,” Twilight continued, “according to Hooves’ book, every hour we delay the chances of finding her alive are cut in half!”

Rarity clicked her tongue disapprovingly. “Twilight, you simply must adopt a sunnier outlook, otherwise you will get absolutely dreadful wrinkles.”

“She’s right, Twi,” Spike chimed in. “Well, euh, I wouldn’t know about the wrinkles, but... worrying constantly can’t be healthy, you know? Besides, the others may have already found Twist, right?”

The purple unicorn breathed in slowly. “You’re right, Spike, you’re right... I’m sure things will be fine.” She smiled at both of her friends, and they returned the sentiment, before winking at each other as soon as they were sure Twilight wouldn’t notice.

“So, darling, do you think we should-”

“Wait!” Twilight interrupted as they were about to turn right at yet another split. “The stone in the centre of that wall is missing a piece right there in the corner, which means that wall used to be over there... Which in turn means we should be going left here.”

Spike sighed and glanced over at Rarity, who just shrugged and shook her head.

“Whatever you want is fine, dear,” she said amiably, as the group turned left and they continued on their way.

***

Cheerilee gritted her teeth. How was it possible for one mare to so thoroughly foil her plans every time, without even knowing those plans existed? The maze had been built with subtlety in mind; if everything went according to plan, an invading force would never even realise they were being herded. Just blocking off pathways directly would quickly shatter the illusion, so instead she relied on combinations of paths that would lead her prey to the right location one way or the other, unless they really made the right choice every time, which was impossible.

Or at least she had thought it impossible before Twilight showed up; that unicorn planned every step she took so thoroughly that she had instantly noticed Cheerilee’s tampering. Every time Cheerilee thought she had succeeded, Twilight turned her little group away at the last second, and they escaped the grip of death once more.

Cheerilee couldn’t help but admire the purple mare for her intelligence, as Twilight possessed many qualities she had always sought to foster in her pupils. If they had gotten some time to get to know each other in different circumstances... Cheerilee coughed and shook her head, as she realised she’d just been staring at Twi’s plot for the better part of a minute. She couldn’t lose sight of what she was here for, and she couldn’t make an exception for Twilight, even if she had wanted to. Everything that had happened was her fault, in a way, so she had to be taken care of. How could such a brilliant mind have fallen so low?

As the three of them turned down the right path yet again--that is to say, the path that Cheerilee didn’t want them to take--she finally reached a decision. If trickery and subtlety wouldn’t do, then she’d simply have to take some risks. As an earth pony, she still held the advantage against unicorns who couldn’t use any magic.

Or she hoped so, anyway.

***

“Alright, this was the last hallway. We should probably turn back now.” Twilight frowned. “No Twist though.”

“Euh, how do you even know?” Spike asked with a frown. “I can’t tell these apart...”

Twilight ignored him as she quickly mapped a course on the imaginary map she kept in her head, and Rarity just shrugged. She was used to it by now, and the sooner they’d be able to leave these dusty old ruins, the better.

“Well, we should just be able to turn around here and-”

Suddenly the walls at the end of the hallway started to move, and the three of them stared, dumbfounded, as entirely new passages were formed, closing off the ones that had been there only seconds before. Rarity and Spike seemed suddenly ill at ease, but Twilight looked quite elated, as she instantly rushed forward to investigate, carrying Spike along with her.

“See! They moved! I told you they moved! I wonder how, is there some kind of mechanism?” She started patting down the wall, looking for a secret switch or something of the sort.

“I... I’m not sure you should be messing with that, darling,” Rarity said nervously. “I don’t like this...”

Spike leaned forward over Twi’s neck, whispering in her ear. “Let’s just go, Twi, I think she’s right.”

Twilight opened her mouth to remind him of the fact that he always agreed with Rarity, when a scream from the aforementioned made her turn around. She gasped for breath in tandem with Spike as she saw Cheerilee holding a knife against Rarity’s neck. There was an opening in the wall behind the two that hadn’t been there before, and Twilight instantly realised they had been fooled.

“Nopony move, and Miss Fashionista here gets to keep her head on that pretty little neck of hers,” Cheerilee said with a smile as she pressed down upon the knife just a bit, eliciting a little squeal from her hostage.

“So it was you!” Twilight shouted as she turned around. “Unhoof her, or I’ll-”

“Wave your magic horn at me?” Cheerilee laughed, as Twilight gritted her teeth. “Yeah, I didn’t think so. Now you two stay over there as we skip back behind this wall, this doesn’t have to get messy.”

“No! You leave Rarity alone!” Spike said as he jumped from Twilight’s back and ran forward, only to stop halfway as Cheerilee cut Rarity slightly, a single drop of blood welling up underneath the tip of her blade as the white-coated unicorn yelped.

“Tell your boyfriend to behave,” Cheerilee hissed at the fashionista.

“S-spikey?” Rarity said shakily as tears appeared in the corners of her eyes. “I... I k-know you w-want to save me, b-but I n-need you t-to stay t-there for now, ok? Can y-you do that f-for me? Sweetie?”

Spike wanted to protest, but the look of pure terror in the white unicorn’s eyes made him decide against it, as he balled his fists.

“If you hurt even one hair on her head, Cheerilee, I sw-”

“Blah blah, heard it all before,” Cheerilee interrupted him as she started to pull her hostage back towards the opening in the wall. “You just be a good wittle dwagon and stay the buck where you are.”

Spike seethed with rage, but there was nothing he could do. Twilight’s mind frantically looked for a way to turn the tables, but in truth nothing she did would be faster than Cheerilee’s knife. They both watched, powerlessly, as the wicked mare dragged their friend into the inner sanctum, the wall immediately starting to close up behind them. As soon as they disappeared out of view, Spike made his move, sprinting towards the gradually shrinking opening.

“Spike, no!” Twilight whispered as she gave chase, barely loud enough for Spike to hear, but not so loud that it’d endanger Rarity.

The little dragon didn’t heed her warnings and pushed on, rolling underneath the wall just before it closed. Twilight arrived just too late, and she banged her hooves against the wall.

“Spike! Can you hear me? Spike? SPIKE!” she yelled, but got no reply.

She started to search every inch of the wall with her hooves, determined to find the mechanism that’d put it in motion. She realised they were dealing with a cold-blooded killer, who had them outmatched to boot, but she didn’t care. Cheerilee had her friends, and she was determined to get them back.

No matter what.

***

Spike rolled through the gap, just barely making it through by the scales of his teeth, emerging into an empty hallway that seemed to run parallel to the one that he’d just been in. There was a dead end to his left, and the secret passage quickly disappeared around a corner to his right. He could hear hoofsteps and muffled cries coming from that direction and so he gave chase, following Cheerilee as stealthily as possible.

He followed them around like this for a few minutes--always taking care to be one corner behind--when a high-pitched scream rang out throughout the corridors. He instantly broke into a sprint and rounded the next corner, climbing the stairs he was surprised to find there.

“No! You fiend! How could you?” Rarity yelled as Spike lifted his head above the final step, peeking into the room beyond.

The room appeared to have a square shape, but due to poor lighting conditions only the middle of the room could be seen clearly. Rarity was sitting on some kind of wooden throne, her legs bound by chains. The chains around her forelegs first went through little rings connected to the armrests and then went up to the ceiling, while those around her hind legs disappeared through holes in the ground instead.

Cheerilee was standing in front of her, and Spike immediately saw what had caused Rarity’s outrage: the fuchsia-coloured mare wasn’t only holding her knife this time, she had taken possession of a sizeable chunk of Rarity’s mane as well. Spike’s anger seethe inside of him. A messed up mane didn’t bother him much personally, but he knew how much Rarity cared about appearances.

“What was that your boyfriend said again? Too bad he’s not here to see just how many hairs on your head I’m hurting.” Cheerilee’s laughter echoed throughout the ruins, and Spike’s blood finally came to a boil.

“You leave Rarity alone!” he shouted as he charged forward from his hiding place.

Cheerilee turned around, but she didn’t have time to brace herself against Spike’s attack, as the little guy rammed into her headfirst. She grunted as the air got knocked out of her lungs, and she staggered backwards, clutching a hoof to her chest. The ridge on Spike’s head was deceptively hard, and she could already feel a bruise setting in.

“Spike! Watch out for her knife!” Rarity yelled somewhat unnecessarily.

“So the pet has some bite after all,” Cheerilee hissed. “Why’s your owner not showing herself? Does she enjoy letting a little baby do the work for her?”

“Hey, you leave Twilight out of this!” Spike said as he balled his fists. “She just couldn’t make it through, that’s all!”

Cheerilee broke out into a smile and Rarity sighed. She hadn’t expected Spike to be that stupid.

“Well, thanks for telling me that... Now I don’t even have to watch my back,” Cheerilee said mockingly as she readied her knife and lunged forward.

Spike was taken by surprise, and the knife hit him straight in the chest, yet it didn’t manage to penetrate his scales. All it did was give him a nasty scare, as he slid back a meter or so. Cheerilee stared at the tip of her knife incredulously, and Rarity let out a sigh of relief.

“This is why you never mess with a dragon,” Spike said cockily.

“I only see a mutt,” Cheerilee hissed back.

The two of them circled each other for a few moments, as they looked for an opening. Normally, Cheerilee would’ve been quite excited, but Spike’s draconic heritage was a turn-off. There just wasn’t much fun to be had in fighting somepony that didn’t even bleed properly when you stabbed them.

Cheerilee lunged forwards once again, but this time the little dragon was ready for it. He belched out a jet of green fire, and Cheerilee just barely managed to dodge out of the way. Even then a few tongues of flame caressed the right side of her face ever so briefly, and she cringed as the smell of burned hair mixed with that of scorched flesh. She brought a hoof up to the small burn on her cheek, as she stared at the little dragon in disbelief.

“You did not just-”

“Oh yes he did!” Rarity yelled. “You go, my little spikey wikey!

Spike grinned smugly, ready to go for another round, as they began to circle each other once more. Cheerilee pretended she was about to lunge in once again, when in fact she jumped to the side and bucked her hind legs at the dragon. Spike was taken completely off-guard by the mare’s sudden change in tactics, and the kick send him careening into the wall, right next to the staircase he had climbed up earlier.

“Spike, get up, she’s coming!” Rarity yelled from her seat, furious at her role as impotent witness.

By the time he managed to scramble back to his feet, Cheerilee was almost upon him again. He drew in a large breath reflexively--intent on sending another jet of flames her way--but Cheerilee never fell for the same trick twice. She rammed her foreleg under his chin, slamming him into the wall. He let out a ruttle, and some little flames escaped his mouth, but nothing that could really seriously threaten Cheerilee. He clawed at her leg, trying to get her to let go, but she was made of sterner stuff. Some baby dragon’s scratches wouldn’t considerably inconvenience her.

“Let’s see how well those scales fare this time, shall we?” Cheerilee said sadistically, ignoring Rarity’s clamoring.

Because she was so close, Cheerilee could clearly make out the individual scales that made up Spike’s armour, which blended together too well to be seen from a distance. She grinned as he tried to get loose, and she tried to force her knife in-between two scales on the left side of his chest. She managed to wriggle it in and levered upwards, attempting to dislodge the scale. Spike let out a choked scream as it popped out, and Cheerilee immediately got to work on the next few. It didn’t take her long at all once she got going, so she created a vulnerable patch of flesh quite quickly. To her chagrin, he was still hardly bleeding at all. Yet another reason for her to despise dragons.

“I’m ending this boring charade,” she said matter-of-factly as she prepared to plunge the knife straight into his heart, “the other five were a lot more exciting than you.”

“Ghnno waight...” Spike managed to let out hoarsely as he clawed weakly and kicked his feet, but to no avail.

“Spikey! Please, spare him,” Rarity cried out as she fought against her chains, “do what you want to me, but spare Spike!”

“But, you see, what I really want...” Cheerilee said as she stared into the little dragon’s eyes, “is to see your reaction when Spike dies.”

Rarity screamed as Cheerilee stabbed forward, plunging the dagger deep into the left side of Spike’s chest. Blood welled up around the blade and dripped down her hoof, until she finally pulled back and let go of his neck, allowing him to slide down to the floor. He let out a hacking cough, and spit out a mouthful of blood.

“Spike! NO!”

Spike clutched a hand to his chest, attempting to stop the bleeding. He looked at the blood seeping through his fingers incredulously, feeling weaker by the second.

“Rarity...” he whispered hoarsely.

“Save your s-strength Spike, please!” the white unicorn implored.

“No... listen... you need... to hear this...” he replied, his voice getting weaker by the second.

“S-spike... p... p-please...”

“I... I love... I’ve... always... always loved... y... ou...” Spike said as his hands fell down next to his body and his eyes fell shut, his breathing slowly stopping.

“I k-know... I k-know... I... I l-love you too,” Rarity said, surprise overcoming her voice as she realised it was true. She had planned to say it to soothe him, but she suddenly realised it had been true all along. “Spike! I love you! I love you, Spike! Spike? S-spike?”

Cheerilee nudged him with a hoof, but there was no response. She shrugged at Rarity.

“NO!” the white mare screamed. “Wake up, please, wake up! You... you h-have to... you have to wake up... S-spike... You c-can’t... leave me now... Now t-that I... n-now that w-we...”

“Finally, I thought he’d never die...” Cheerilee said as she casually kicked his limp body down the stairs, causing it to roll all the way down to the bottom.

“Y... You ANIMAL!” Rarity yelled as tears streamed down her face, following up with just about every insult ever conceived by ponykind.

Cheerilee rolled her eyes; she had heard most of them already by now, and it was getting quite tiring. She walked over to the side of the room and let the mare’s insults wash over her, as unaffected by them as a rock was by a splash of water. She briefly disappeared into the shadows that dominated the edge of the room, only to reemerge a few moments later, holding a hammer between her teeth and pushing a wooden wedge along the floor.

“I’m amazed you never got along with Applejack,” Cheerilee said as she stopped in front of the other mare, grabbing hold of the piece of wood and putting the hammer underneath her free hoof. “You have so much in common.”

“Like what?” Rarity sneered.

“You both talk too much.”

Rarity opened her mouth to respond, and Cheerilee immediately jumped into action. She rammed the wooden wedge into the unicorn’s mouth, keeping it there with one hoof as she picked the hammer up with the other, getting up on her hind legs. The wedge was too thick to really fit into Rarity’s mouth, and her teeth scraped against it on both sides as she tried to turn her head, but the pressure Cheerilee exercised upon the wedge kept her squarely trapped in place. On top of that, the piece of wood pushed her jaws away from each other slightly, which was most uncomfortable. Cheerilee lifted her hammer, and the smile on her face could only be described as diabolical.

“Hnnnnggghhh!” Rarity screamed, unable to properly articulate, her mouth being as full as it was.

Cheerilee struck the wedge as hard as she could, driving it deeper into Rarity’s mouth and forcing her jaws even further apart. The unicorn screamed unintelligibly as her jaw muscles were stretched beyond their limit, tearing internally. Cheerilee did not relent, banging the hammer against the wedge time and time again, driving it a bit deeper with every blow. Rarity’s teeth scraped over the wood, creating several grooves on the top and bottom of the wedge, but that ultimately didn’t stop its advance. Several of her teeth got imbedded into the wood and were torn right out of her mouth, either staying stuck in the wedge or tumbling out onto the floor. By now Rarity’s coat had gone red with her blood in so many places, that Cheerilee was sure she wouldn’t have recognised her at all if she saw her in the streets like this.

The wedge started to dig into the corners of the unicorn’s mouth, and eventually it just tore straight through them, stopping only because it hit the bone of her jaw. Rarity’s screams had become even more warped, to the point where they could hardly be labelled as screams anymore, more closely resembling the squealing of a gutted pig. Blood ran down her neck, and every swing of the hammer bashed her head into the back of the chair. Her jaw started to chip, and the wedge forced its way into the cracks. The unicorn’s pain was so intense that even crying required too much coordination for her brain to handle, and Cheerilee lined the hammer up for what was to be her most monumental swing yet.

And monumental it was. The wedge was driven straight through the last thing keeping the lower jaw in place, and both the jaw and the wedge lost all of their support. They fell down along Rarity’s body, landing in a puddle of yellow liquid which was rapidly expanding around Rarity’s hooves, and which Cheerilee backed away from. Rarity’s body shook, her tongue hanging down limply against her neck, as blood flowed out of her mouth. With her entire lower jaw gone, Cheerilee could almost stare straight down her throat, and the rest of her mouth had been ravaged as well. Over half of the teeth in her upper jaw were missing, and the ones she still had were either partially broken, or sticking out of bloody gums at odd angles.

“I hope you like smoothies,” Cheerilee said mockingly as she walked behind the chair, taking care not to step into the puddle.

Rarity wailed as tears mingled with her blood, unable to let out more than a sort of low, guttural sound that reminded Cheerilee of a toilet not flushing properly.

“I guess that’s a, ‘not really’,” Cheerilee said as she peeked out above the back of the chair. “But hey, cheer up, I never intended to give you a last meal anyway.”

She dropped back down and rummaged through the storage compartment that had been built into the back of the chair, looking for the right tools for the next job. She’d found similar storages all over the complex, and while they were hard to find, they were quite convenient once discovered.

She reappeared in front of Rarity (or rather diagonally to the side of her, owing to the puddle the unicorn had excreted) brandishing a pair of metal tongs that looked like two spoons connected to each other.

“So, I know you were secretly keeping an eye on Spike... But he doesn’t need it anymore, so you don’t mind if I take it, right?” she said with a grin as she clicked the two sides of the tong together a few times.

Rarity squealed again and tried to turn her face away, but the messy tuft of hair left on Rarity’s head was more than enough for Cheerilee to grab hold off, and so she quickly forced her head back in the right position. Rarity attempted to delay the inevitable by keeping her eyes shut, but that was only a minor inconvenience. Cheerilee simply put the tongs into position around the mare’s right eye and pushed, not particularly caring if the eye was opened or not. The upper tong simply dragged the eyelid along as it popped into the socket, while the bottom eyelid got torn off in its entirety. With the tongs securely in place around the eyeball, the job was already half done, and the pressure on Rarity’s eye socket was immense. Her screams had gotten a lot more high pitched, but Cheerilee wasn’t sure if it was because of the pain or because she was forced to bear witness to the enucleation of her own eye through that very eye.

Cheerilee pulled back, and red hot pain exploded in Rarity’s mind as her eye was ripped out, ocular nerve and all. Cheerilee held the bloody thing up triumphantly, as Rarity screamed wordless, struggling against her chains out of a reflexive desire to push her hooves up against her now empty socket.

See Rarity, that wasn’t so bad, now was it?” the teacher cackled. “We could do the other one as well, what do you say?”

Cheerilee burst into laughter over her own jokes, as Rarity started to scream out of blind (or perhaps half-blind) fear, desperately struggling to get loose, but even though her blood had made the chains slippery, her cuffs were still as solid as ever.

“Haha, no, you’re right, you’re right,” Cheerilee said ponderously as she regained control of herself. “You are indeed boring me to death.”

Cheerilee briefly walked away to deposit the eye into the jar that she had been carrying around with her, and then walked right back again. Rarity cringed as Cheerilee drew closer, but the fuchsia-coloured mare just started messing around with the metal rings on the armrests, which the chains around her forelegs passed through before they disappeared up into the ceiling. To Rarity’s great surprise, the teacher actually got the chains out of the rings, allowing the unicorn a much greater amount freedom than before. She instantly clasped her hooves up against her pounding eye socket, before moving on to touch the rest of her face--a course of action she immediately regretted.

To Rarity’s great relief, Cheerilee walked away and went over to the side of the room. This relief, however, was quite short lived, as she suddenly got hoisted up in the air by the chains around her forelegs, dangling a meter or so off the ground. Cheerilee came back to push the chair out of the way, and replaced it with a big wooden wedge which was pointed upwards, and which had been mounted upon four metallic legs. She positioned it straight underneath the unfortunate unicorn.

“I’m thinking with wedges right now, I hope you don’t mind,” Cheerilee said as she disappeared into the shadows once more, leaving Rarity to struggle against her chains in vain, dangling about.

She let out a squeal of fear as the chains around her legs started to pull her down towards the wedge underneath her, until she was basically sitting on top of it, legs on either side. It wasn’t all that uncomfortable at first, but the chains kept pulling harder and harder, and soon the wood was pressing into her quite painfully. The chains around her forelegs seemed to gradually loosen up, but with that, all of the good news had been said.

“You comfortable, have everything you need?” Cheerilee asked mockingly as she re-emerged from the shadows. “You can answer with no, or with literally anything else.”

“Gghghgngnghhhh!” Rarity ‘said’, attempting to plead for her life, but totally failing to do so.

“Alright, good. Seeing how you were getting it on with that dragon and all, I figured you were one for a bit of interracial action. From the way you’re riding that donkey, I can see I wasn’t mistaken,” Cheerilee said as she drew near. “I don’t think it’ll be long at all before you’ll connect on a... deeper level.”

What remained of Rarity’s face contorted with pain as the wooden donkey continued to press into her skin. In an effort to relieve some of the pressure, she tried to press down against the wedge with her forelegs, but that didn’t prove easy. Her hooves simply slipped off if she tried to put them on the sloped sides, so she put them right on the top instead. Despite that, she wasn’t able to completely negate the chains’ pull, and the wedge broke her skin, sinking into her flesh bit by bit.

Rarity screamed as her blood started to trickle down and drip to the ground, pushing down with her hooves even harder. Her forelegs shook under the effort, but the wedge didn’t sink into her any deeper, so she continued to give it her all. The pressure continued to rise, and slowly but surely her hooves started to crack, but still she did not give in. Twilight was still out there somewhere, so every minute she managed to hold on...

Exhaustion finally started to take its toll, and Rarity found that her legs were no longer able to keep up with the increasingly great downwards force. Its pull overtook her from one moment to the other, the wedge sliding through her soft flesh, tearing her apart. The agony made Rarity let out a series of gurgling noise, and the bleeding was now no longer a trickle, but more of a stream. The wedge came to a stop against her pelvis, grinding against the bone.

“That time of the month, eh?” Cheerilee said with a sadistic smile. She’d always thought Rarity looked down upon the earth ponies of Ponyville, so it was extremely satisfying to finally be able to put the unicorn in her place, once and for all.

The fear of death gave Rarity a sudden rush of adrenaline, and she redoubled her efforts to keep the donkey at bay, but it was a battle she simply couldn’t win. By now, the forces pulling down upon her were absolutely massive, and she wasn’t able to push herself up again. It didn’t keep her from trying. Her hooves finally couldn’t bear the abuse anymore, and they shattered almost simultaneously, tiny fragments of bone digging themselves into the enormously sensitive flesh that lay just beyond. Rarity screamed and drew back her hooves reflexively, and in that instant she sealed her fate.

The full force of the chains made short work of her pelvis’ brave resistance, and the wedge shattered right through it. Rarity screamed as her reproductive organs and part of her intestines were torn apart, and the donkey crashed into yet another bone. The wedge seemed loathe to give up its newfound momentum, however, and the bone instantly started to chip, the wedge driving itself deeper and deeper into it. Rarity let out a high-pitched, choked scream, and then one moment later, it was over. The wedge broke through the bone and shot straight up, shredding her innards and breaking through everything foolish enough to get in its way, before finally cleaving right through her shoulder.

Cheerilee relished Rarity’s dumbfounded expression as blood flew everywhere, painting both the ceiling and the floor, and naturally splattering all over Cheerilee as well. The two halves of the unicorn’s body fell to the ground--one on each side--where they rejoined the blood and various other bodily fluids that had fled her body earlier. Cheerilee licked her lips, and was pleased to note that the unicorn’s blood didn’t taste any bit more fabulous or ladylike than any she had tasted so far.

She sighed happily, like one would on a sunny summer’s day, she just couldn’t overstate her satisfaction. “Huge success,” she said with a blissful smile.

***

The wall finally swung open. Twilight had found exactly what she had been looking for, but sadly it had been hidden just as cleverly as she had feared. There wasn’t any visual distinction between the secret buttons and the stones that surrounded them at all, so she assumed Cheerilee had them all memorised. She was impressed despite herself. Amongst her friends, Rarity probably had the eye for detail required for things like this, but her rather limited field of interests worked against her. Twilight couldn’t say her memory was anything remarkable, either. For Cheerilee to be capable of a feat like this...

She dashed into the inner sanctum, and was relieved to find only one path open to her. That made it a lot easier; she could have methodically searched the entire area, of course, but she knew she was running out of time. She didn’t know exactly what Cheerilee had lined up for her friends, but it couldn’t be anything good. After all, she was likely the one behind the theatre fire as well.

The unicorn followed the twisting hallway around every turn, galloping as fast she could. It didn’t take her long to arrive at the staircase at all, and there she made a startling discovery.

“Oh Celestia, Spike!”

She ran over to his side, dropping down next to him to examine his wounds. She instantly spotted the stab wound in his chest, and her blood froze in her veins. There was no way anypony could survive a stab straight through the heart without medical care, even if he happened to not be a pony at all.

“Oh Spike...” she whispered as tears filled her eyes, and she drew the dragon’s limp body into a shaky embrace.

“T... Twilight?” Spike said, as he opened his eyes slowly against all expectations.

“Spike!” Twilight yelled out in pure happiness and joy. “I thought... I thought you... How?”

He grinned at her smugly, if a bit weakly. “Dragons... have their hearts... on the other side,” he said as he patted the right side of his chest. “I... just passed out... from shock.” And blood loss, he thought, but he didn’t want to worry her by saying it out loud. There was nothing she could do right now.

“Twi... Rarity... Rarity is... And... a-all... the others...”

The unicorn looked at Spike’s tormented face and the tears running down his cheeks, and she instantly knew what he was trying to say. She felt sick, and if she’d been standing up she’d probably have been swaying on her hooves.

“How do you... ?” she asked carefully.

“C-Cheerilee told me... about... them, and t-then... I... I woke up, briefly... and... h-heard the... the screams...”

They remained silent for a moment, not knowing what to say. Or, rather, they both knew that there was nothing to say; their friends were dead, or well, their condition was uncertain at best. Twilight wouldn’t allow herself to believe anything Cheerilee said before confirming it with her own eyes. There was but one way to save everypony who was left--no matter if that was just the two of them or some of the others as well--and they were both well aware of the odds. Running wouldn’t help now, not when Cheerilee knew the entire fortress inside-out.

“I... I have to take out Cheerilee,” Twilight said, almost surprised to hear herself say it.

“I... I know... go... I’d... I’d just... h-hold you back... I’ll, r-rest here,” Spike said with some effort.

Twilight nodded reluctantly. She wasn’t stupid, she knew it was their best shot, their only shot, but she didn’t have to like it. More than anything she wanted to just curl up in a ball and cry, but she knew she’d lose everything she had left if she did.

“I’ll be back for you, I promise!” she said as she stood up and dashed up the stairs as quick as she could, to prevent herself from changing her mind. Tears stung in her eyes, but she had work to do.

“I know...” Spike said weakly, as he took out the parchment, the ink and the quill he always carried with him.

Nopony else even knew where he kept them, and nopony ever asked. It was kinda like a silent mutual agreement; he didn’t ask where they all kept their bits, they didn’t ask him about the parchment, ink or the quill. It worked.

He rolled around and put the parchment on the floor, dipping the quill into the ink as he started writing with a shaking hand, black spots swarming in front of his eyes. He couldn’t think straight, so he just kept it as concise as possible, fearing he didn’t have enough energy for a longer message.

Ruins in Everfree.

   Everypony else is dead.

  Twi went after Cheerilee.

  Send help.

He had barely finished writing the last sentence when he lost all feeling in his fingers, and the quill simply slipped out from between them. He took in as deep a breath as he could manage, and spit out a pitiful flame. He’d never produced a flame this small in his life, but it was sufficient, as it fed upon the paper and quickly empowered itself. The princess would get his letter.

He smiled. Rarity had been his crush, but he had known Twilight his entire life. It had felt wrong to leave without seeing her one last time, but now he felt at peace. He was at his limit, he couldn’t hold on any longer. He closed his eyes and quietly passed away, content knowing that--because of him--help was on the way.

***

Twilight rushed up the stairs, but she came to an abrupt halt upon entering the room that lay beyond. Cheerilee hadn’t bothered to clean up after herself, so Rarity’s bloody remains were still up for display. Twilight felt her knees go weak, and she supported herself against the wall as her stomach emptied herself all over the floor.

“Cheerilee...” she whispered through clenched teeth, “I’ll make you pay for what you’ve done...”

She breathed in and out deeply, slowly regaining her composure. A door on the other side of the room seemed to be the only other exit besides the stairway she had just climbed, so Twilight assumed Cheerilee had escaped in that direction. There was no way to be sure, though, as there were probably plenty of secret passages around this area as well.

She slowly walked over to the other side of the room--averting her eyes from the grisly scene in the middle--and pushed open the door. A dark hallway lay beyond, which didn’t seem to have any distinct features to speak off. Twi entered it only hesitantly, fully aware of the fact that it could easily be yet another trap. But then, what else could she do? Anything but a straight rush towards the finish was clearly in Cheerilee’s favour, as Twilight couldn’t really prepare against a possible attack, while Cheerilee had plenty of things she could spend preparation time on.

She started to gallop, her eyes zooming from left to right, but nothing happened. She reached yet another door without incident, and took a deep breath. She had a feeling she already knew what lay beyond.

“Welcome, Twilight,” Cheerilee said as the purple unicorn entered the room. “Why don’t you lie down and get comfortable?”

Twilight looked around, and found the room to be mostly featureless. It was circular in shape, and empty apart from a table in the middle and a chair on the opposite side, which Cheerilee was sitting in. The table had two metal cuffs at both ends, and their intended purpose was clear.

“No thanks,” the purple unicorn said.

Cheerilee sighed. “We both know you cannot win, Twi, why fight fate any longer? Your end will be the same.”

Twilight pointed at her adversary. “I see Spike managed to get one on you; I can’t let him beat me, now can I?”

The fuchsia-coloured mare gritted her teeth and leaned forward. She didn’t want to be reminded of that. “Enough words.”

Cheerilee surged forward, jumping over the table elegantly as she charged straight for the unicorn, who braced herself. Twilight managed to jump out of the way of the first punch, but the second one hit her straight in the face, and she staggered backwards. In truth, she was severely outmatched,  as Cheerilee had her beat both in strength and experience. She could only rely on her sharp wits, but as Cheerilee wasn’t unintelligent either it really didn’t do her much good.

Twilight retaliated, but Cheerilee dodged her with ease. “Give it up, Twi,” she taunted as she jumped to the side. “You unicorns may pretend to be the superior race, but we’re playing by earth pony rules now.”

Twilight backed away, creating a momentary lull in the fighting. “I can handle myself without magic just fine.”

Cheerilee sneered as she started to circle her opponent. “Last Winter Wrap-Up suggests otherwise.”

The unicorn charged forward, her head lowered, lining up her horn with her opponent. If she couldn’t use it for spells, she could at least try to gore with it, right? But such an attack was far too direct to have much chance of success against Cheerilee, who simply stepped aside and lifted one of her hooves. Twilight tripped and rolled over the floor, coming to a sudden stop as she crashed into the table in the middle of the room. She scrambled to her hooves, but Cheerilee was immediately upon her once more, delivering blow upon blow all over Twilight’s body. The unicorn could do nothing but weakly raise her forelegs in an attempt to protect herself, as Cheerilee raged on unabated. Suddenly, Twilight saw her chance, and she gripped both of Cheerilee’s forelegs with one of her own, struggling for control.

“You’re the reason... all your friends... are dead, you know,” Cheerilee said with a grunt, as she slowly forced back Twilight’s hooves.

“I... refuse... to... believe... they’re... dead!” Twilight said stubbornly, fighting on despite the bleakness of the situation.

Cheerilee grinned and suddenly threw all of her weight on just Twilight’s right foreleg, pushing her aside and slamming it down upon the table. She rammed her head against Twi’s at the same time, and the purple mare saw stars floating around her head. That brief moment of dizziness was all Cheerilee needed to slip one of the cuffs around Twi’s foreleg, and she jumped back triumphantly, panting slightly. Twilight was out of breath, and her foreleg was twisted into a rather awkward angle, which caused her a great deal of discomfort.

“You’ve lost,” Cheerilee said triumphantly.

“No, I... I can still... I can still fight!” Twilight said louder than needed, obviously trying to talk some confidence into herself.

Cheerilee was clearly unimpressed as she moved in again, easily ducking under Twilight’s amateurish jabs. The teacher lunged forward and wrapped both of her forelegs around Twi’s chest, bear hugging her tightly. The unicorn let out some choked sounds, as she started to feebly hit Cheerilee’s back with her free hoof, but it was largely ineffectual. The teacher simply lifted her up and slammed her down upon the table, thoroughly knocking the wind out of her, and dazing her for a few seconds. That was all Cheerilee needed to cuff both of the unicorn’s hind legs as well, and with that the fight was pretty much over.

“More bark than bite, just like that annoying pet of yours...”

Twilight struggled against her bonds, trying to free her right foreleg with her left, but without a key she’d never succeed. “You’ll never get away with this, Cheerilee! Somepony will notice we’re gone, and then they’ll come after you.”

Cheerilee laughed. “You mean to say you’ve told anypony about me?”

Twilight remained silent. They hadn’t actually known Cheerilee was behind Twist’s abduction, and at the time she had thought that there was no time to delay, so they hadn’t actually told anypony much of anything...

“No, but my friends will-”

“Your friends are dead, Twilight,” Cheerilee roughly interrupted her. “You’re the last living soul in this entire fortress, besides me. All the others died by my hooves...”

“I don’t believe you!” Twilight yelled. “Why should I believe you? You’re just trying to trick me into-”

Cheerilee suddenly grabbed Twi’s left foreleg, and forced it down towards one of the iron cuffs as well. Twilight wasn’t in any position to resist by this point, and her weak “No, wait!” didn’t manage to sway Cheerilee either.

“You want proof? I’ve got proof.” Cheerilee said with a smile as she reached underneath the table, revealing the jar she’d been moving around all this time. The glass was smeared with blood on every side, but it was still easy enough to make out the individual contents. She shook the jar in front of Twi’s face. “Applejack’s honest tongue, a piece of Rainbow Dash’s loyal heart, Pinkie Pie’s smiling lips and Rarity’s eye for fashion. I’m afraid I wasn’t able to retrieve a piece of Fluttershy.”

“N-no... T-that c-can’t be,” Twilight said shakily as she shook her head, tears appearing in the corners of her eyes as all colour flushed from her face. “Y-you’re lying, t-those aren’t...”

Cheerile put the jar on the edge of the table as she climbed up, pressing her body down against Twi’s as she softly started to stroke the unicorn’s mane. “Oh Twilight...” she said gently, “that brain of yours is your biggest selling point, don’t insult yourself by clinging onto irrational hopes... You know I wouldn’t simply happen to be carrying around a jar of pony bits.”

“B-but why?” Twilight said softly as her voice broke, and tears started to stream from her eyes. “What did we... what did we ever... d-do to you?”

“‘We’? No, just you, Twilight. You brought Canterlot’s corruption into this town. You corrupted my students, your friends, all of them!” Cheerilee said, suddenly angry. “You made them all weeds, and weeds are cast out, Twi, and I’m the only one who can! I’m the only one who can keep Ponyville clean from weeds like YOU!”

Twilight whimpered, making herself as small as she could while shaking all over. Cheerilee’s voice had gradually become louder and louder during her rant, to the point where she’d basically been shouting Twilight down at the end.

“But you know, Twi,” Cheerilee whispered into her ear, “I know you too are a victim, in the end... You’re intelligent, kind, but even you got caught up in the web of lies and deceit in the end...”

Twilight was surprised by the gentle tone of Cheerilee’s voice, but she was even more surprised when the mare suddenly locked her lips to hers, kissing her deeply, pressing up against her body. Cheerilee kept it up for well over a minute, and Twilight’s brain melted in her head, unable to figure out what the buck to do.

Cheerilee finally disconnected her lips from Twi’s again and panted, her cheeks flushed with a deep shade of purple. Twilight felt both bewildered and embarrassed, not sure what to make of the entire situation, and feeling more than a little violated.

“W-why... d-did y-you...”

“A sharp mind gets me going,” Cheerilee said with a sly grin. “And was that your first kiss, Twi?”

Twilight’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment despite herself, and she turned her head away, unwilling or unable to reply. Cheerilee grinned lasciviously, having gotten all the answers she needed.

“Well, I’m afraid we still have business to conclude,” Cheerilee said with the closest thing to regret she was capable of. “I can’t let you go unpunished, Twi, but I’ll make it quick...”

“N-no! No wait! I-if you let me go, I swear... I swear I won’t tell anypony!” Twilight said as she burst into tears again. “P-please, d-don’t kill me! Please!”

“Ah, don’t worry Twilight,” Cheerilee said as she tapped the jar next to her, “your friends are here for you. Although,” she said ponderously, “perhaps they could be a little bit... closer.”

She opened the jar and held it in one hoof, as she suddenly stomped the unicorn in the side, without warning.

“Guh!”

Cheerilee jammed the jar into Twilight’s now opened mouth, emptying the contents inside of her. Twilight gagged and tried to spit them out again, but Cheerilee was prepared for that. She threw the jar aside (shattering it on the floor) and pushed her hooves up against Twilight’s chin and lips, rendering her unable to open her mouth. All she managed to do was make some blood dribble out of the corners of her mouth, but that was pretty much it. She started to go green as she felt her friend’s body parts roll over her tongue, and her efforts to spit them out grew increasingly desperate.

“Hmmpffh! Hmmpffh!”

“You’re going to want to chew,” Cheerilee said with her classroom-voice, “else you’re going to choke.”

Twilight gingerly started to move her teeth up and down, as her gag reflex started to make her feel as if she was choking already. Pony teeth really weren’t designed for meat, but they still managed to cut Applejack’s tongue and Rainbow Dash’s piece of heart into smaller bits, crushing them into a bloody paste. Rarity’s eye got caught between Twilight’s teeth as well, and promptly burst open, releasing the inner-eye fluids into her mouth. This finally proved too much for the unicorn and she tried to hurl, but nothing came up as she already emptied her stomach earlier. All it did was hurt her throat, which reinforced the feeling of choking even more. She started to swallow reflexively, downing a little bit of the mouthful each time, until eventually her mouth was empty, and she really felt about ready to die.

“All gone?” Cheerilee said gleefully. “Good girl.”

She finally let go of the unicorn, and Twilight immediately rolled her head to the side and started to spit, trying to get the horrible taste out of her mouth, her insides feeling as if someone had tied a knot in her intestines.

Cheerilee left her to it, as she slipped off the table and walked over to her chair, retrieving the knife she had left there. She returned to the middle and climbed onto Twilight again, who was now sobbing quietly, apparently broken by her ordeal.

“Look at me,” Cheerilee said in a neutral tone of voice, only to scream: “LOOK AT ME!” when the unicorn didn’t respond right away.

Twilight shakily focused her gaze upon Cheerilee, tears cascading down her face. The fuchsia-coloured mare smiled and looked down into the unicorn’s eyes as she caressed her cheek.

“It’s time,” she said as she rammed the knife into Twilight’s side, hot blood dripping down the side of the table. The unicorns eyes widened, and she let out a choked scream. Cheerilee stabbed her again and again, until her victim was bleeding out faster than a gutted pig.

“Ssshhh, sshhhh...” Cheerilee soothed Twilight. “It’ll be over soon now...”

“I... d... don’t... w... want to... want to... d-die...” the unicorn said weakly, as the colour drained from her face and her breathing became troubled.

Cheerilee put her lips right next to Twilight’s ear, and whispered: “Your last breath... Give it to me...”

She put her lips over Twilight’s again and forced her tongue into the unicorn’s mouth, relishing in the lingering taste of blood within. This time Twilight wasn’t as taken aback as before, but she was way too weak to resist--although she did struggle against her bonds weakly. Cheerilee started to shake with excitement as she felt the other mare’s body grow colder and colder, and her struggling weaker and weaker. By contrast, the teacher’s kiss grew more passionate by the second, and pretty soon she was panting into the unicorn’s mouth, while Twilight’s breathing grew shallow and laboured.

Finally, the unicorn breathed out one last time with a final, desperate, muffled cry, and then all of her bodily functions ceased. Cheerilee broke off the kiss as she literally felt Twi’s body go still underneath her own, and a wave of excitement overtook her senses. She clamped her legs around Twi as she felt them turn to jelly, her whole body shuddering and shaking, momentarily rooting her in place as she panted, breathing in and out raggedly.

She threw her head back and let out a moan, before collapsing on top of Twilight in a heap, feeling thoroughly worn out even though she had barely undertaken any action. She continued lying there for a while, catching her breath and basking in the afterglow of her victory.

She eventually slid off the table, taking a few unsteady steps on her wobbly legs, as she started heading towards the exit.

Her work was finally done, her quest had come to an end. It hadn’t been a pretty job, but somepony had to do it, right? And if she happened to have made it a little bit more enjoyable here and there... who could blame her?

She’d have to lie low for now, wait for yet another investigation to blow over, probably. There were no ties to her this time, though, so she supposed she’d be alright. Ponies were used to her spending holidays at home during the school year, so her alibi wasn’t much of a bother.

Ponyville was safe now, and that was great, but she silently wondered if she wouldn’t start to long for some more weeds to exterminate after a while.

She smiled. There was always Canterlot...

***

A lone spirit wandered through a sea of darkness, lost, alone and afraid. It had no purpose, no shape, no form; it was just like the bleak expanse all around it. It seemed like the void was all there ever had been, all there ever could be, but slowly the spirit became aware that this wasn’t true. Within the darkness there was a single speck of light, a beacon that beckoned to the spirit, a beacon which promised to lead it home, back to the place where it belonged. Eagerly the spirit started to surge towards it, moving in a way that wasn’t entirely physical, while at the same time it was.

As it drew closer, the difference between it and the darkness all around grew more distinct. The spirit first became aware that it wasn’t an ‘it’ at all: it was female. Or at least, she had been in life. Life. It seemed like a new concept to her, but at the same time it was eerily familiar. For some reason she yearned for it, and with that yearning yet another concept was introduced to her: emotions. They seemed unnecessarily complicated at first, but as the light illuminated her more and more, she began to see the reason behind their existence. Memories started to flood what she now recognised as her mind, memories of friends, home, family. They were accompanied by feelings of happiness and joy, but also of great sadness, and loss.

With the memories of her friends came memories of herself, too. She hadn’t always been a spirit, she had been a pony. Not just a pony, she had belonged to a certain race as well: she had been a unicorn. But there were many unicorns, and each one of them was, in his or her own way, unique. Each one was an individual, with a name that suited them, and elegantly captured the meaning behind their existence. Hers had been... Twilight Sparkle.

The spirit finally reached the beacon of light that lay at the centre of her universe, and she surged forwards at once to investigate. There was a sort of mirror hanging there in the darkness, showing her images of a world once very familiar to her. She saw her own body lying upon a wooden table, limp, lifeless, wounded. An incredible yearning overtook her; she longed to break through the mirror, to be reunited with her body, despite the shoddy condition which it was in. But that was impossible. Or was it?

As a unicorn, magic was her heritage. It was her right by birth, and she had pursued it almost her entire life. In that respect, she was part of an elite even amongst unicorns, holding within her the potential to rise above her kin, to develop powers most ponies could scarcely even dream of. All she had needed was time, but that time was stolen away from her. She mentally assaulted the barrier between the worlds, but it would not let her pass. She wasn’t sure if she was simply not strong enough, or if she was being hindered by the fact that her body was in a place that magic could not reach. She focused, and her ethereal mind expanded in every direction; she wasn’t going to give up that easily. She still had a score to settle.

It is often said by sages and mystics that the body is a barrier, a hurdle one has to overcome in order to reach true understanding. Twilight realised now that this was true. Freed from her mortal coil, her mind seemed limitless and quickly expanded across the void, strengthening her will and broadening the basis of her understanding. Another beacon lit up in the darkness, this time inside of herself. It was a power she recognised and cherished, but which she had thought inaccessible. She had been mistaken.

There is a hierarchy, a natural order, woven into every part of the world, ingrained into the very fabric of existence. So too for magic. Nightmare Moon had wielded magic of a most terrible nature, and her followers had mastered those dark arts for themselves, easily smothering every inkling of magic Celestia’s followers had brought to bear against them. But even they hadn’t been invincible. Even Nightmare Moon had to bow her head before a greater power--an unstoppable force--in the end.

There was no resisting when the Elements of Harmony were involved, for they were unequalled.

Twilight felt her element, the element of magic, resonate within herself. She had long thought that the jewels--now held at Canterlot--were the true Elements of Harmony, and that she and her friends merely drew out the power contained within. But now she realised that the reverse was true. The jewels held no power of their own, they were only there to guide, to channel, to awaken... They started the process, but in truth, they fostered the power within. It was all so obvious now.

And with that realisation came new found understanding. The reason there were five necklaces and one tiara became clear: their function was different. The necklaces served to channel power into one point, the tiara unleashed it upon the world. In a way, Twilight and her friends had emulated a single entity--like Celestia, the wielder of the elements that came before them. They had been six pieces of a whole, but with only one mind to guide them. Hers.

She unleashed the power within her, sending shockwaves of magical energy coursing through the void. Five beacons of light--almost impossibly bright against the background of complete darkness--jumped into being in the distance, and Twilight smiled. Even though the Elements of Harmony had fallen, their energy lingered, ready to be called upon one last time, for one final battle.

A wave of colour swept through the void as power surged through the darkness, beams of light connecting Twilight to the five other beacons. Her spectral form almost burst under the pressure, but she was able to contain it all, to draw it all within herself. It was time.

The barrier between the worlds shattered into a million pieces, and Twilight Sparkle opened her eyes.

***

Twilight opened her eyes, and the discomforts of the mortal plane forced themselves back upon her in an instant. Her body was still technically too weak to sustain itself, but that was no longer a problem. Instead of blood, pure magical energy ran through her veins, and her wounds instantly sealed themselves. The weight of the fortress’ magical enchantments bore down upon her mind, but it was easy for her to resist it. The walls were directly connected to the enchantment, and they groaned under her incredible power.

For a moment, it seemed like the fortress had the unicorn beat, but Twilight still had more up her sleeves. She dug deep into her magical reserves, and send a wave of energy pulsating through the entire complex, shattering the magical enchantment once and for all. Free of restrictions, she immediately tore off the metal cuffs that had been holding her body in place, and got up from the table swiftly.

The walls shook and shuddered, and pieces of stone the size of her head came down from the ceiling, as the ancient fortress finally started to act its age. Without magic to support it, the structural weaknesses that had built up over the centuries took their toll, and Twilight didn’t doubt that the entire place would be coming down around her any second. She closed her eyes and her mind expanded, searching for signs of life nearby. Her heart ached as she realised she was the only living soul in the entire complex; Spike hadn’t made it.

She repressed her grief as she continued searching in wider and wider circles, filtering out the abundance of life she sensed in the woods, until she finally found the pony she’d been looking for on the edge of town. She frowned; she had been out of it for far longer than she had realised, but then again, it was hard to keep track of time when you were a disembodied spirit floating in the void.

She took a deep breath and winked away with a flash, as the entire fortress collapsed in upon itself. Her friends were long gone, but they had lent her their strength for one last time, and she knew why: They wanted Cheerilee to pay for what she’d done, and pay she would.

***

It was already getting dark by the time Cheerilee reached the edge of town. She smiled; she had finally made it. The trip through the woods had made her quite nervous, as she realised how ironic it’d have been if she got mauled by some wild animal on her final trip home. Luckily, there had again not been a single one in sight. She’d even been able to safely make a detour through the marshes, where she had quickly disposed of the entrance crystal she had used to open the fortress earlier. Twilight had blown out the doors, anyway.

She started whistling a happy tune, but got interrupted by a bright flash of purple light behind her. She turned around with a start, and gasped for breath.

“Y... y-you’re... dead!”

“Not quite,” Twilight said mockingly as she stepped forwards, her eyes glowing with magical might. “But you soon will be.”

“I-I’m not scared of you, Twilight! You were a fool to show up here by yourself, you should’ve gone for help, but now I’ll-”

Twilight swathed her aside with a burst of magical energy, and the fuchsia-coloured mare crashed into a nearby wall, groaning in pain as she tried to get back up to her hooves.

“I’m not alone,” Twilight said menacingly as she lifted Cheerilee into the air and pulled her closer, staring into the teacher’s  fear-filled eyes, “my friends are with me.”

“T-that’s... that’s... impossible,” Cheerilee managed to grunt. From the way every breath caused a stinging pain to flare up in her chest, she knew she’d probably broken a rib or two. She needed to get away, fast, but the unicorn was just so incredibly... powerful. Her mind raced as she tried to come up with a plan, but her intellect failed her as she sank deeper and deeper into a blind state of panic. Was this what her victims had felt?

“Nothing is impossible for the Element of Magic,” Twilight sneered as she threw Cheerilee towards the other side of the street, slamming her against a wall once more. Blood ran down the mare’s face, and dark spots swarmed in front of her eyes. She tried to get up, but instantly toppled over again.

Twilight pulled Cheerilee towards her once more, and the earth pony dug her forelegs into the ground, trying to resist. It didn’t help, she just clawed deep grooves into the ground. Within moments she was dangling in front of the unicorn once again, and she felt an invisible force grasp her around the throat.

“Ggh... w-wait...” she said hoarsely, “h-have... m-mercy... I... I d-did it... all... for the g-good... o-of... Ponyville...”

Twilight glared at her angrily, her face contorted into a snarl. Her voice, on the other hand, was calm, dangerously so. “Mercy? Like you showed my friends... and your students?”

“I had... n-no... c-choice,” Cheerilee said as she struggled against her invisible bonds, her face slowly going red.

Twilight laughed maniacally, a sound eerily similar to Cheerilee during her ‘purifications’. “Don’t give me that!” she yelled, enraged. “I know you enjoyed it, Cheerilee, you enjoyed every second of it! You liked watching my friends die, you liked stamping the life out of them... out of me! Anything you say... it’s just a rationalisation for your own twisted desires!”

“N... no... I... to save... P-pony... ville... I...”

“Need to DIE!” Twilight finished the sentence for her, consumed by fury as magical energy flared up around her, illuminating the night.

Ponies from the nearby houses started to become aware that there was something more than just two drunks yelling at each other going on outside, and the lights were turned on all around. The two ponies in the middle of the street didn’t notice, or perhaps they simply didn’t care.

Cheerilee tried to verbally justify herself again, but Twilight was out of patience. With a cry of rage she rammed a bolt of magical energy into Cheerilee’s mouth, shattering the mare’s teeth as she grabbed hold of her tongue, ripping it out savagely and tossing it aside. It slammed into a nearby wall with a sickening thud, practically bursting apart in a cloud of gore. Cheerilee let out a sloppy, gurgling cry as her eyes burst in her sockets, and cuts appeared all over her body.

The storm of magical energy around Twilight intensified, winds swirling around the pair, sweeping up dust and small pieces of rock.

“Ghgngh! Ngah!” Cheerilee screamed as her body got battered from every direction, blood streaming down her face, body and legs, as her intestines got pulled straight out of her stomach. Foam appeared on her lips, and had she still possessed eyes they would no doubt have rolled back in her head.

Twilight focused all of her magical reserves into the other mare, attempting to tear her apart. It wasn’t just Cheerilee’s limbs which suddenly wanted to get away from each other: every inch of her body tried to escape the whole.

“You talked about weeds, right, RIGHT?” Twilight screamed, her voice contorted with madness. “I don’t know much about gardening, but I know one thing: you reap what you sow!”

Cheerilee tried to appeal to the unicorn one last time, but between the pain, her lack of a tongue and her rapidly weakening body, she only managed to utter some unintelligible sounds.

“You’ve sown death across this town, so I hope you’re ready... for your scarlet harvest!”

The teacher wailed as her body groaned under the strain, and then, suddenly, she could resist no more. She burst into a thousand pieces, splattering into every direction. A rain of blood descended upon the area, painting the ground, the nearby houses and Twilight in a deep hue of red. Little bits and pieces likewise got catapulted through the air, crashing into buildings and splattering up against windows, causing the horrified ponies who hadn’t been able to resist watching to jump away in fear and hide inside of their houses.

Finally, the last bits of Cheerilee landed, and Twilight swayed upon her legs. She had used up most of the energy her friends had given her, and she realised she was, once again, at the end of the line. But she was content; her friends had been avenged, and future murders had been prevented. Maybe she’d see her friends on the other side. There was no reason to linger as a spirit this time, so maybe she could go see what the afterlife was really all about.

She fell to the ground with a smile, and looked up towards the stars as they started to appear in the sky. As she began drifting out of consciousness, she thought she saw a large shadow pass over, like a cart flying by. She tried to shake her head to get rid of the tricks her mind was playing on her, but found she couldn’t move at all.

Her eyes fell shut, and she felt as if she was being lifted into the sky. She heard a concerned, soothing voice talk to her, although she couldn’t make out the words. Was that... Princess Celestia? Twilight beamed. What a pleasant dream to leave this world on...

***

Twilight found herself surrounded by darkness once more, but this time it was different. Instead of limitless freedom, she felt trapped and claustrophobic, as if someone had locked her in a tiny box, barely big enough to hold her. She tried to move or open her eyes, but found she couldn’t, and it felt like a weight was pressing down upon her chest. She began to become aware of voices in the distance. That was odd. She was dead, right?

“There’s little we can do to save her by this point, she’s suffered a massive hit to her magical integrity,” an unknown colt said in a neutral tone of voice, “only a direct transfer of life force would do any good, but the amount required is-”

“Take mine,” Princess Celestia commanded.

The colt stuttered. “B-but Princess, the procedure is dangerous, even for you, and this unicorn, she... she...”

Twilight frowned mentally. Why was the princess there? Who was the colt? A doctor? No, he couldn’t be. He didn’t sound like he really wanted to help her, and doctors helped everypony, right? Then again, if what the Princess suggested really was that dangerous, Twilight could see why he’d be reluctant. She was just another unicorn, after all.

“She’s special to me.”

“I, I see... We’ll start preparations right away.”

“She’s coming to!” a female voice suddenly shouted panicky. “If she wakes up completely, the shock could kill her. I’m putting her under again.”

Twilight vaguely became aware of a prick in her leg, and then darkness swept her away, far from the troubles of the world.

***

When Twilight finally woke up, she felt strangely rejuvenated. She tried to move, and fear flared up inside of her mind. She was sitting inside of a chair, heavy chains binding her hooves together, so that she couldn’t move around all that much. Did Cheerilee catch her again? As she looked around, however, she realised that wasn’t the case. She was in a very large room, and a great deal of ponies sat on benches behind her, while Princess Luna herself sat on a raised platform right in front of Twilight.

Two muscular, armour-clad guards flanked her on either side, and an earth pony with a monocle and a brown-coat paced back and forth restlessly in front of her. A table stood next to him, but Twilight couldn’t make out the items that lay on top of it.

It was Luna who first noticed the unicorn had woken up.

“Ah, we see that thou hast awakened, Twilight Sparkle. Court is now in session,” Luna decreed with a booming voice which easily reached every corner of the room, and the few ponies who had been talking to each other immediately fell silent.

Twilight stared at the Princess in bewilderment. “C-court?”

The Ruler of the Night frowned. “Surely thou dost not claim loss of memory? We are here to pass judge thee for the brutal murder of fourteen ponies, eight of whom hath not reached adulthood yet.”

“Wait, what?” Twilight said, utterly horrified. “I killed Cheerilee, true-”

“Do we really have to do this? She even confesses!” the brown-coated earth pony said.

“-but I had nothing to do with the others; they were killed by Cheerilee!”

The crowd behind Twilight mumbled, and the earth pony in front of Twilight addressed the Princess.

“If I may?”

“By all means, sir Hooves,” the princess said with a nod.

“Ehem,” Hooves scraped his throat. “I’m sure you are familiar with my work, miss Sparkle?”

Twilight nodded, dumbfounded. She had several of his books back at the library, she had just never thought she’d meet him in person.

“Yes, we already knew that,” he continued. “This also means you’re well aware of my expertise. I was summoned here today to present the evidence my research team managed to scrounge up which, as you’ll soon see, strongly suggests you are guilty. You’ve erased your trail well, and no event can be directly tied to you, but when they’re all added together...”

“That’s absurd!” Twilight yelled. “Where’s Princess Celestia? She would never-”

“Our royal sister is currently resting in her chambers, Twilight Sparkle. The procedure to save thee took a lot out of her.”

Twilight nodded slowly, as she recalled the conversation she had overheard while she was out of it. “Don’t I get anypony to defend me?”

“Only if somepony like that can be found in due time,” Hooves said dryly. “In your case, due to the heinous nature of your crimes, and the debt of evidence against you, no such pony could be found. As the law does not require us to look further, you shall have to defend yourself. From what I’ve heard, you should be more than capable.”

Twilight bit her lower lip. She knew almost nopony ever went to court in Equestria, it just wasn’t needed that often. The three times a royal court had been assembled during her lifetime, the accused had been found guilty. She swallowed. “S-show me this ‘proof’, then.”

“Very well,” Hooves replied, “I shall start with the Ponyville Theatre Fire.”

Twilight nodded. She was quite sure she’d done nothing suspicious there.

“We have quite a high number of ponies who swore, under oath, that you were there amongst the first. Considering your later involvement in the slaughter of the only survivor of that event, I find that to be highly suspicious.”

“I wasn’t alone,” Twilight said defensively, “several of my friends were there, too.”

Hooves nodded. “Yet nopony dared say whether they had arrived with you or not, and now ‘luck’ would have it that all five of them are dead, so we can’t even ask them ourselves.”

Twilight spluttered. “B-but... t-that’s... How do you expect me to prove... ?”

“I don’t,” he said as he turned towards the crowd, addressing them more than he did the unicorn. “But here’s my theory: You lit the fire. The five of them were together when the fire started, and close by. Perhaps they had noticed something odd about you before, perhaps it was just by chance, but they arrived at the scene sooner than you had expected, which in turn forced your hoof, forcing you to save Cheerilee or risk being discovered.”

The ponies behind Twilight started talking to each other again, muttering their agreement. To them, it all made sense.

“That’s a lie!” Twilight yelled indignantly.

“Oh, is it? Then why did you level the entire theatre building immediately afterwards, after your ‘friends’ had run in to investigate? Perhaps you feared they’d find something they weren’t supposed to find?” he said as he paced back and forth in front of Twilight. “Or maybe you just knew how difficult that’d make our investigation, either way...”

“I just wanted to save the fillies!”

Sherlock Hooves frowned and took out his monocle, quickly polishing it with a piece of cloth before putting it in again. “Yes, you uh, tried to ‘save’ them by sending a theatre-smashing amount of water in their direction, 100% guaranteed to destroy whatever was left of the building. Maybe if you were known as an idiot, miss Sparkle, but Princess Celestia’s student? Nopony in here is buying it.”

Sounds of agreement came floating from the other ponies again, and Twilight gritted her teeth.

“I panicked,” she said in frustration.

“Sure you did,” Hooves said sarcastically.

Twilight felt her blood boil at the way she was being treated, seemingly branded a criminal already. “Yes I did you bucking oaf!”

The crowd collectively gasped, and Luna leaned forward.

“Twilight Sparkle, if thou canst not adhere to a minimum level of decorum, thou shall be removed from this courtroom, and we shall finish this case without thee,” Luna reprimanded Twilight, who immediately regretted her choice of words.

“Thank you, Princess,” Hooves said as he continued, “Now Twilight, you were aware of our fruitless efforts to find any sort of evidence in the debris you created, were you not?”

“Yes,” Twilight said reluctantly, trying to at least appear cooperative.

“Then why, if I may ask, did we find a bloody piece of theatre floor in your bedroom, which you have omitted to mention?”

The crowd buzzed angrily once more, and Twilight actually heard a mare say “Outrageous!” somewhere close behind her.

“Oh no, it’s not what you think,” Twilight said lightheartedly. At least that one was easy to clear up. “Twist found that and gave it to me... We wanted to first check if it was actually blood and such before kicking up a fuss about it.”

“And who could confirm this?”

“Uh... Twist... and Spike, my assistant...” Twilight said, trying to think of any others she may have said anything to.

“Both of whom are dead,” Hooves said in a ‘how convenient’ tone of voice.

“Y... yes...” Twilight was forced to admit as she hung her head. This wasn’t going too well.

“I believe you when you say Twist was on to something,” Hooves said, making Twilight lift her head again, a glimmer of hope in her eyes, “that’s probably why you decided to kill her, after all.”

“What? No!” Twi said, once again outraged. “Cheerilee abducted her to the fortress out in the wood, so we went to save her!”

“Nopony canst enter our fortresses anymore, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna interjected. “Our sister destroyed all of the access crystals over a millennia ago. When we heard you hath made use of the facility, we went over there ourselves. We found it in ruins, a remarkable feat of magic. Only a few rooms were left standing, including the main entrance hall, where somepony hath quite clearly forced her way in. We know nopony with such power in Ponyville, aside from thyself, Twilight.”

“And,” Hooves added, “this power is also why we find it likely you were behind the theatre fire in the first place. It would have been easy for you to set it ablaze on short notice, and trap the fillies inside.”

Twilight stuttered, at a momentary loss for words. What was she supposed to say?

“Also, alongside the piece of crucial evidence you held back, we found a book from my hoof,” the earth pony continued, his voice growing slightly more troubled. “It is with some discomfort that I admit this book may have explained my methods in a bit too much detail, which would have easily rendered one such as yourself able to commit such a villainous crime undetected.”

Hooves took out his monocle and began cleaning it again, clearly troubled by the thought that his work may have been used for evil. The ponies in the gallery noticed his discomfort, and started talking once again.

“Such a good colt.”

“It really isn’t his fault.”

“I wish my husband was a bit more like him...”

Twilight gritted her teeth. Was this a criminal case, or a popularity contest?

“I’m telling you, it was Cheerilee!” she bounced the ball back at him.

“Yes, Cheerilee, the mare who shouldn’t even have known the fortress existed, much less been able to access it, was the one who lead you all there, I’m sure,” Hooves replied dryly, having regained full control of himself. “I’m sure it was a coincidence, too, that you happened to have a book on the Nightmare Rebellion brought over to your library a while ago, which details the location of every fortress used in the war, including the one you broke into.”

“I don’t know how she knew it was there, but she did,” Twilight said decidedly, a bit stubbornly, even.

“So how did she get inside? Princess Celestia destroyed all the keys, like Princess Luna says.”

“She obviously missed one!” Twilight blurted out.

Luna rose up on her hind legs and slammed her hooves onto the table in front of her, her voice filled with anger as she completely forgot to use the archaic language she was normally preferred during official matters. “How dare you push this upon my sister! When they brought you in, you were on the very brink of death, and no doctor wanted to risk the life of another to try and save you, having heard what you did. But my sister wouldn’t listen, and risked it all for you! And now you have the cheek to question her?” Luna leaned back again. “You disappoint me, Twilight. You have done much for your country, but I see the burden of responsibility has finally broken your senses.”

Nopony in the gallery dared move, and even Hooves seemed a bit shaken. Twilight felt absolutely dreadful, trying to sink away into her chair. An angry Luna was quite something, and not something she wanted to see again, at that.

“Ehem, yes... Moving on,” Sherlock Hooves finally managed, as he strode towards the table in front of the bench, and took a piece of parchment from it. “This is a letter from your assistant Spike to Princess Celestia, it reads:

    Ruins in Everfree.

    Everypony else is dead.

   Twi went after Cheerilee.

   Send help.

Translation: ‘Twilight just killed everypony, now she’s killing Cheerilee.’ Spike, too, was killed. Didn’t like it when you found out your assistant had betrayed you, did you, Twilight?”

“T-that’s not how it went!” Twilight said desperately. “When I left Spike he was still alive, honest!”

“So that means you admit both to having been the last one to see Spike alive, and to heading out with the express intent of killing Cheerilee?” Hooves said pointedly.

“W-well yes, but only because Cheerilee would otherwise have killed me!” Twilight screamed furiously, eliciting another bout of angry mumbling from the gallery.

“And how did you think she would do that?” the detective said quizzically.

“Well, she knew all the traps and secret entrances-” the unicorn began, but Hooves quickly cut her off.

“Oh come on now! Not only did she know about the place and how to enter, but she also knew where everything was? Something our Princess Luna herself can’t even remember?” he scoffed.

Luna scraped her throat. “Well, our memory of the time is very bad, but even so, we, too, do not believe a simple earth pony from Ponyville capable of this.”

“I’m t-telling you... s-she knew...” Twilight said as tears started filling the corners of her eyes. She was quickly reaching the limit of what she could take. Before she went to Ponyville she had always been alone, and that was fine, but ever since Ponyville she had discovered the joy of friendship and amity. She couldn’t handle everypony being against her like anymore, whispering behind her back.

“I was with the Princess when we responded to Spike’s message,” Hooves said, more quietly than before. “I saw what you did to Cheerilee... It... I... I still see it, in my dreams. Nopony should have to see that. She never stood a chance against you...”

“B-but... you can’t use magic inside of the fortress!” Twilight said. She couldn’t dispute that she had gone a bit overboard with Cheerilee, but the mare had deserved it. Twilight obviously couldn’t tell the court that, though.

Hooves glanced over at Princess Luna, raising a hoof questioningly. This wasn’t his area of expertise.

“It is true that most unicorns would not be able to use their magic within our fortresses,” Luna said slowly, “but the most powerful ones would be able to resist quite easily. Since thou hath destroyed the entire fortress by thyself, thou art quite clearly sufficiently powerful.”

“B-but... I almost died! Cheerilee stabbed me, repeatedly!” Twilight blurted out in desperation.

“That is a lie!” the detective said as he stomped a hoof down upon the floor. “There were no wounds upon your body when we brought you in! Your gross overexertion of your magical abilities was to blame for your condition. Your lies have finally collapsed in on themselves, murderer!” Hooves said triumphantly.

The crowd burst into angry conversations, and Twilight stood up on her hind legs, shouting in order to be heard. “The Elements of Harmony healed me!”

“The Elements are still inside of the palace!”

Twilight shook her head. “You don’t need any kind of jewels, or objects, to harness their power! They were inside the six of us!”

“Not even ‘Tia could use them without them being physically present,” Luna whispered softly, “and though thou art powerful, Twilight, thy art no match for our sister! We have heard enough. Twilight Sparkle, we hereby find you GUILTY of both the Ponyville Theatre Fire and the yet unnamed massacre yesterday. Thou art hereby to be executed at nightfall. We hath spoken!”

Sherlock Hooves stood up tall, triumphantly. After weeks of investigations and dead ends, they finally had their culprit. Shame seven more ponies died before they caught her, but who knows what other victims Twilight would have gone on to make had she not been discovered?

Twilight fought against her chains. “No! I’m innocent! You can’t do this, it was Cheerilee! It was her all along! She wanted to wipe Ponyville clean of corruption, she was insane... Please, I beg of you!” she screamed frantically.

“So that was your motive, eh?” Hooves said. “You’re crazier than I thought, monster. Take her away!”

“S-stay away from me!” Twilight shouted at the guards as they closed in on her, and she tried to bring her magic to bear against them. Her horn lit up for a split second, but then fizzled out. “H-huh?”

“You’ve used up your magical energies, Twilight Sparkle, it’ll be some time before you’re a threat to anyone again. Time I do not intend to give you,” Luna said severely.

The guards grabbed her and started to pull her away, her hind hooves dragging over the floor.

“No, I’m innocent, I’M INNOCENT!” Twilight screamed as she was dragged out of the courtroom, and the entire gallery cheered.

There was a whole crowd waiting outside as well, although an entire column of guards had cleared a path. The masses pushed up against the guards, shouting angrily and waving their hooves in rage. Apparently somepony had informed them of the verdict, and they weren’t pleased with the purple unicorn.

Twilight hung her head and let her tears flow freely, unable to resist any longer. What was the point? Everyone thought her a monster, and her name would soon be synonymous with slaughter and violence all over Equestria.

When they got about halfway through, a bunch of ponies suddenly surged forward and pushed up against the guards’ line, attempting to break through. The armoured colts stood their ground bravely for a few seconds, but eventually they were overrun. Fights broke out between guards and civilians everywhere. Even Twilight’s jailers were drawn into the fighting, and forced to let her go. She tried to get away, but the chains connecting her legs made it a slow crawl at best, and she didn’t make it far before someone roughly dragged her up by her chains.

As she looked up, she saw a familiar, older colt standing over her. “You’re... you’re Rarity’s dad...” she said in surprise. “Are you here to... ?”

The colt looked at her, tears streaming from his eyes. “You killed my daughters, YOU TOOK THEM FROM ME!”

Twilight tried to tell him that he was wrong, that she was innocent, but he rammed one of his hooves into her face before she could even respond. She got smacked against the ground, and her attacker proceeded beat her down, as she weakly tried to shield her face with her hooves, whimpering under every blow.

“They trusted you! They thought you were their friend and you KILLED THEM! MURDERER!” he yelled as he continued to savagely beat down upon the mare.

The guards finally regained some semblance of control, pushing the enraged commoners back bit by bit. Twilight’s jailers finally broke free from their own opponents as well, and they pulled Rarity’s dad off of the unicorn, who was shaking on the ground. They handled the colt more gently than they perhaps needed to; they’d probably have done the same thing he did if their job wasn’t on the line.

They started moving again, and she whimpered as her battered and bruised body was roughly dragged along the ground. The crowd changed tactics, throwing everything they could find at the guards, hoping to get a shot in on Twilight. The guards stoically relied on their armor and shields for protection, but Twilight had no such thing going for her. She was a small target, but occasionally a neatly lobbed rock still fell down upon her, adding to her already considerable repertoire of bruises.

At long last they reached the other side of the plaza, and walked right into the jail: a decrepit building which hardly ever saw any use. The first cell they encountered was empty, so they simply threw Twilight in there, followed by a piece of bread as hard as a brick and a bowl of water, both aimed at her face. She clutched her hooves against her brow as the bowl bounced off, spillings its contents all over the floor of her cell.

She curled up in a ball and cried, wondering where it had all gone so wrong.

***

Even though Twilight was wet, clueless and miserable in her cell, she still felt nightfall came way too soon. Her jailers came to get her, and they weren’t any gentler than before. As they dragged her shaking body out into the night, she saw that some changes had been made. For one thing, a force field covered the entire plaza--as well as the front of the palace--which kept the crowds away. It was far smaller than the biggest one Shining Armour was capable of, and of a slightly different colour as well, but it retained the same basic function.

In the middle of the plaza they had quickly build a scaffold, and Twilight’s heart clenched inside of her throat as she lay eyes upon it. She panicked once more and fought against her chains, but the guards quickly threw her down on the ground, dragging her along as she sobbed silently. Her magic still hadn’t recovered, so there was nothing she could do.

Even though the crowds couldn’t reach her, she could still hear their cries and see them banging their hooves against the force field, hatred burning in their eyes. It hurt her more deeply than any blow could, and she hung her head. She followed along quietly as they reached the gallows, climbing the stairs obediently, not even trying to resist as they secured the noose around her neck.

“Any last words?” her executioner asked.

She thought for a moment, then shook her head. There was nothing left to say.

He shrugged, and pulled down the lever.

Twilight closed her eyes as the floor disappeared beneath her hooves, but to her great surprise, she didn’t fall. She opened one eye carefully. A familiar-looking, yellow magical aura surrounded her, preventing her from falling to her death. She looked up as she heard the flapping of wings, and something large and white landed upon the platform, causing it to shake violently.

“We must leave swiftly, Twilight,” Princess Celestia said as she undid the noose around her pupil’s neck with a simple wave of her hoof. “I am not letting them take my student’s life tonight, no matter what the law says!”

Twilight’s eyes filled with tears as the Princess put her down upon her back. “Y-you came for me... I... I’m so happy.” She felt as if she had suddenly reached an island of hope amidst a sea of despair. If they managed to escape and the Princess was on her side, there was a possibility they’d be able to set this right just yet. All was not lost; somepony still believed in her.

“Hang on tight!” Celestia yelled as she stretched her wings and took to the air, and Twilight did just that.

The guards stared at each other dumbfounded. Sure, they knew what the law wanted them to do, but this was Princess Celestia they were talking about, the pony who had ruled over them for generations. Maybe they’d be willing to stand against her in a courtroom, but physically restraining her? It was neigh unthinkable.

“We’ll make for the mountains, and then-”

“Look out!” Twilight yelled as a dark shape sped through the night sky, on a direct collision course with them.

Compared to Pegasi, Alicorns had a lot more trouble changing their course in mid-flight, so by the time Twilight shouted her warning it was really already too late. Princess Luna rammed into her sister, and the three of them crashed down upon the the roof of the palace. Twilight was catapulted off of Celestia’s back, and she bounced across the roof, almost sliding off the end, barely managing to stop herself.

Luna and Celestia scrambled to their hooves, and Celestia spread her wings out, blocking Luna’s path.

“Let me through, ‘Tia, you’re making a huge mistake!” Luna yelled as she locked hooves with her sister, wrestling for control.

“No! I won’t let you have her!” Celestia said as she barely managed to keep her sister back. Normally she’d wipe the floor with Luna without much effort, but the transferring of life energy to Twilight had taken its toll. “When I lost you, I went through hell... I’m not letting that happen, ever again!”

Celestia’s horn flared up with magical energy, followed by Luna’s a split-second later. They both fired off a spell towards the other, and in the end, nothing happened.

“I was always better than you at dispelling magic, ‘Tia, and in your current state...”

Celestia gritted her teeth. With Luna keeping her magic disabled with her own, this had become a purely physical fight, and she wasn’t sure she could win in her current state.

Twilight tried to get up on her hooves, but every part of her body hurt, and she was feeling somewhat unsteady. With her magical abilities still out, there wasn’t much she could do to help Celestia, and she quickly glanced to the side. The horde of ponies outside of the bubble seemed to have gone crazy with anger, as they were literally pounding into the force field, trying to make it give way. Pegasi swarmed all over the top of the dome, even though the guards desperately tried to keep them at bay. The guards inside of the bubble seemed to still be lost in indecision, having barely moved from their positions. Both of the princesses were involved now, so was this really still a matter for mortal ponies?

Twilight stared at the titanic fight going on in front of her eyes. It tore her apart to see the two on opposite sides.

“Don’t make me do this, Luna, I don’t want to hurt you!”

“You can’t help her, sister! The ponies won’t stand for it... She killed too many, in too gruesome a way,” Luna said pleadingly, desperately trying to convince her royal sister.

“No!” Celestia screamed defiantly. “I don’t care what she’s done, or who she’s killed... She’s my student, and nopony--not even you--will take her away from me!”

Twilight blinked incredulously. Had the Princess really just... ? “B-but... I really didn’t do it!” she said with a shaking voice.

Celestia looked over her shoulder and smiled, in the same way that she had been smiling at Twilight for as long as the unicorn could remember. “Shhh... Twilight, it’s ok... I know you’re scared, but you don’t need to hide from me. It’s ok, I understand... I don’t care about those others, I care about you, no matter what you’ve done, always.”

Twilight’s lips trembled as she slowly started to back away from the princesses, tears flowing down her cheeks. Just when she thought she had finally found one pony who believed her, her hopes got crushed into the dust again. There really was nopony left for her, nopony who trusted her deeply enough to understand, to accept, beyond a shadow of doubt, that she was telling the truth. Celestia obviously cared for her, but even she thought her a murderer, capable of the vilest deeds to grace Equestria in generations. Even if she eventually managed to convince her, the fact she had even considered it wouldn’t change. It made her heart ache, and her head swarmed with an all-encompassing sadness that threatened to smother her.

“Y-you d-don’t... b-believe me?”

“You can’t play us for fools, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna hissed, as she unsuccessfully tried to throw her sister aside.

“Twilight, it’s ok,” Celestia said kindly. “We can escape, together! We’ll find a way... we’ll build our own Equestria, just you and me, and we’ll never talk about any of this again...”

Twilight reached the edge of the roof and looked backwards.

“I trusted you...”

“Twilight, what are you-”

“I trusted you! But if you don’t trust me, I... I...” Twilight got up on her hind legs, spreading her forelegs next to her body, her eyes filled with tears. “Goodbye,” she said with a broken voice, as she allowed herself to fall backwards.

“NO!” Celestia yelled, and an unforeseen surge of adrenaline coursed through her. She threw Luna back several meters, and dashed towards Twilight as fast as she could. Her attempts at magic were unsuccessful, as Luna’s dispelling presence still lingered, even if they weren’t physically touching anymore. She jumped forward, sliding down across the roof as she extended a hoof towards Twilight, desperately trying to reach in time.

Their eyes met, and for the first time, Celestia really paid attention to the emotions in Twilight’s eyes. There was pain there: pain, sadness and loneliness. In that one instant, Celestia realised she had been mistaken; no psychopath was capable of the emotions she saw displayed there. Celestia had thought her student had been crying out of fear for her life, but there was so, so much more... She really was innocent.

Twilight saw the realisation dawn in Celestia’s eyes, and she reached out for her hoof, suddenly convinced she’d been wrong, that there was yet a reason to go on living.

Their hooves briefly brushed against each other, but neither of them was able to grab hold. Twilight fell out of reach, and Celestia could do nothing but watch as her student barrelled down towards the ground. She tried to crawl up to her hooves and jump down after her, but it was simply too late.

As the wind whistled in her ears, Twilight smiled. There was still somepony who cared for her, in the end. She looked up at the stars, and they seemed to be winking. For a moment, she even thought she could see her frie-

She hit the ground headfirst, and her brains splattered all over, followed by the rest of her body. Celestia looked down at her student’s broken body, and she burst into sobs, burying her face in her hooves. Luna walked over to her sister, and put a hoof on her shoulder.

“This was the only possible outcome, ‘Tia. You need to let it go...”

Outside the force field, the crowd began to cheer wildly, as news of the unicorn’s death spread from pony to pony like wildfire. Celestia lifted her head off of her hooves, and stared at the crowds with resentment, as her sister drew her into a hug. She lived in a kingdom where one of the two ponies most dear to her--her sister--had taken the other pony most dear to her--Twilight--away from her, and her people cheered it on. Her heart turned to stone, as she realised none of them were as good as the one they had taken away from her, none of them were really worthy.

She stood up, and wiped the tears off of her face, her expression turning from one of grief to one of grim determination. Any system which was capable of taking her student away from her was fundamentally flawed. She realised that now. Things would need to change.

She’d need to bide her time, recover and conserve her energy, fool Luna into doing her job for a little while.

Equestria’s days were numbered. When she next raised the sun, it would signal the dawn of her new, glorious, Solar Empire.

---

Credited to Unahim.

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