Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

An ice cold breeze flowed through the moist cave, chilling a wet Celestia to the bone. She tried to navigate herself away from the drops of water that constantly fell upon her, only to smash her head off of the iron bars that made up her cage. Celestia felt her teeth rattle and suppressed a howl of pain.

Drip.

Shaking her head, the princess let out a defeated sigh. How long had she been trapped in here; cold and alone in this horrible cave? It was probably no more than a few days, but it felt much longer, like weeks, or even months. The constant dripping of condensation certainly wasn't helping matters.

Drip.

Celestia wished that something would happen. Anything would be better than sitting in a cage, cold and alone with nothing to do and not even a scrap of information on why she was in here! Heck, even seeing her captors would be better than dealing with the terrible loneliness the darkness brought. The only pony she had seen since her imprisonment was a squat, squeaky earth pony who occasionally brought her meals- and he never said anything to her!

For the umpteenth time, the ruler of Equestria attempted to smash the door to her prison open with her magic- and again, the energy washed over the cave and sent her careening into the iron bars on the other side of her cage. If I keep smashing my head like this, those bars are bound to give way. she thought wryly, rubbing her throbbing skull.

Drip.

Resigned to just lie down and sleep again, Princess Celestia curled up on the rocky ground and closed her eyes. Just before she dozed off though, the mare heard echoing voices emanating from beyond the room. There was a soft click in the darkness and the door to her room opened.

Slowly, a pony walked in. He was short and stocky, with saggy eyes and shaking limbs. Celestia recognized him as the stallion whom usually brought her food. He carried with him a dimly lit lantern that cast the walls of the cave in a hazy yellow glow. The old pony gently set the lantern down by the door and promptly left the room without so much as a sideways glance at Celestia.

An incredibly large stallion walked in a few minutes later. A stallion so large, he rivaled even Celestia for size. A soft, tinny clinking noise sounded every time his back-right hoof touched the ground. His right wing reflected the light from the lantern in the same way as his metallic leg, giving off a bronzy gleam.

The princess stood up as tall as the cage would allow her and placed her face against the bars; she knew this larger pony all too well. Past events began to make sense to her- the perfect ambush, Swiftblade's murder, her defected guards... "You."

The stallion's smug sneer was partially hidden in the darkness. His silhouette- cast by the lantern the smaller pony once held- gave his blood red coat an ominous weight that seemed to thicken the atmosphere with the feeling of danger and unpredictability.

He walked up to Celestia and studied her for a moment, then gave a chuckle that contained no warmth or humor. "Good afternoon, Celestia."

A righteous fury filled the princess for the first time in over a millennia, causing her to growl at her captor. Not even bothering with a response, the alicorn's horn began to glow brightly as she charged the biggest blast of pure energy she could summon, and prepared to hurl it full force at the stallion.

Suddenly, her magic began to dissipate. The light faded and Celestia felt herself growing lethargic. The sudden loss of vitality forced the mare onto her haunches, fighting to catch her breath.

Once more, the stallion chuckled as the glow of his own black horn faded. "My, my, Celestia!" he tsked. "A bit out of practice, aren't we? I was expecting this to be harder; it's no wonder my stallions found it so easy to capture you two!"

Celestia did her best to ignore the taunts coming from the other alicorn. He wanted her angry. Angry ponies didn't think clearly. The princess took a deep breath and focused on maintaining control of her temper. Only when she was sure she had a proper lid on her irascibility, did she finally speak. "Two?"

The larger pony just smirked and gestured to the door with his head. Rattling sounds could be heard down the hallway, metal chains grating against stone. "Unhoof me fools!" The voice, though strained, was one Celestia would recognize anywhere.

NO! He didn't... He wouldn't dare!

Celestia's worries proved to be true as a few more ponies walked in; two large guards, a unicorn, and... "Luna!"

Though chained and bloodied, the other princess looked over to the voice. Upon noticing whom it came from, she strained once more against her bonds. "Sister!" One of the guards holding Luna's chains hoofed her across the face. The mare yelped and stumbled to the side, desperately trying to stay standing up.

Celestia's rage reached its boiling point. Kidnap her, kill her Swiftblade and turn her own guards against her, but harm Luna? There was going to be somepony in pain. Struggling back onto her hooves, the white alicorn summoned all of the strength she could muster- only to collapse and release a groan of chagrin when nothing more than a few pink sparks blew dishearteningly out of her horn. Powerless to help her sister, Celestia watched the guard pull his hoof back again.

"That is quite enough, Sickle!" The red alicorn said curtly. "I'll not have you harm our guests needlessly."

The guard looked at his master with a confused expression. "But, sir-"

"Just put her in the cage and leave." The tone was gruff, a tight growl that- though low in volume- managed to fill the room. The guards holding Luna did as they were told. Soon Celestia's baby sister was locked in a similar cage across the room from her, and they left.

Luna charged against the iron bars, crashing into them with all of her strength. The resulting impact forced Celestia to cringe. Standing back up, Luna began pacing angrily along the length of her cage, her breathing was heavy and labored.

"Relax, Luna." The red pony said. "You will not break those bars."

Luna positioned herself as close to her captors as she could, growling furiously. "You will not get away with this, Eclipse!"

"Aww..." he responded with mock sympathy. "And why is that, Princess?"

"I have dispatched a highly trained strike team to track you down," she said defiantly. "They should be here any time!"

Huh? As far as Celestia knew, Equestria had no 'highly trained strike teams'. There hadn't been a war in centuries! The greatest levels of training nowadays were personal guardsponyship and the Wonderbolt Teams. Luna had to be bluffing.

Eclipse raised an eyebrow and released a small chuckle. "You mean your 'Elements of Harmony'? Times certainly have changed if they qualify as 'highly trained.'"

"I warn you, do not underestimate their power. Let us go!"

"Oh, trust me Luna, I have no intention of underestimating anypony. Isn't that right, Dusk?" It was then that Celestia noticed the unicorn hadn't yet left the room. The silhouette from the lantern hid her visage, but something about the pony seemed familiar.

The smaller pony stepped out from the shadows. The light caught her face and Celestia gasped. No! It can't be!

"Of course not, father." Twilight said, laughing alongside the stallion.

[X] [X] [X] [X] [X] [X] [X]

Rainbow Dash gasped at the sight before her. Hoofington was HUGE! In fact, everything about the city seemed to be huge; from the tall towers in the corners of the city, to the giant walls that surrounded it. Ponies walked along the streets in droves; from this height, they looked like ants.

Cutlass had said that it would only take a day's worth of hard running to make it to the city; he had obviously never met Rarity or Fluttershy, neither of which managed three hours of hard running before pleading for a slower pace. So- in an act that annoyed both Rainbow Dash and the guardspony, the group slowed down to what felt like a crawl. It had been three days, but they were finally here!

"-still don't understand why there wouldn't be an inn somewhere along this route." Dash overheard Rarity's complaint as she landed by her friends. "I cannot believe I've been reduced to sleeping in the dirt!"

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. Ever since their first night out, the unicorn had been complaining about something or other. The dirt, the running, the boredom; but she kept returning to sleeping conditions.

"Sugarcube," Applejack sighed. "Ah hardly think that sleepin' inside a tent with a sleepin' bag an' six blankets counts as 'sleepin' in the dirt.'"

Rarity gasped at her friend's comment and furrowed her brow. "Maybe not to a ruffian like you." she sniffed.

Sensing an argument brewing amongst her friends, Dash announced her findings to the group. "Hey guys, we're here!"

"Of course we're here silly," Pinkie Pie giggled. "Where else would we be?"

Ahead of the group, Cutlass shook his head in exasperation. It was safe to say that the six friends had run him mentally ragged over the past few days. Rainbow suppressed a snigger at the thought; she had to claim the majority of cause for his stress. She'd found out early on that teasing Cutlass was an incredibly fun pastime.

"Hey, Cutlass!" Twilight spoke up. "What can you tell us about Hoofongton?"

The white stallion answered the question without stopping or looking back. "There's probably not much that you don't already know; Hoofington is Equestria's military capitol. The whole place is really just one huge fortress surrounded by walls and siege towers. The city itself is mostly home to soldiers, guards and high ranking members of both services, along with their families."

"That's it?" Rainbow asked, once more floating aimlessly above the group.

"Don't test me."

The group resumed idle chatter as they walked toward the city. Rainbow tuned in and out of it, but mostly occupied her time with simple aeronautical tricks. She flipped and spun through the air, lost in her own little flying world. She caught something about gates being closed, but paid it no heed, for she was having too much fun in the sky. Before she knew it, they stood before the entrance to Hoofington.

The gates themselves were not all that impressive. It was a simple series of crossed iron bars about twenty feet wide that stood in place of the humongous wall. Chains and hooks looped around pulleys and connected to the gate for easy hoisting. Even while flying, Rainbow had to gawk in awe at the sheer height of the structure. That wall has to be like, a million feet tall! she thought to herself. I wonder how they got the bricks up there... Images of ponies firing cannons loaded with masonry blocks filled her head.

"Halt!" A sturdy voice shouted from above, ripping the cyan pony from her daydream. "Who goes there?"

Rainbow Dash looked around for the source of the voice. A mare in full battle armor observed them from a window in the wall. She peered sternly down at the road, her cream colored coat contrasted with her raven mane and silver uniform.

Cutlass stepped forward and irritatedly addressed the mare. "Commander Cutlass, personal guard to Princess Luna. Now open the gates!"

The mare seemed about to speak, but then paused. She said a few inaudible words before disappearing. A few moments later, the same mare peered back out the window. "What did you say?"

"Open the gates!"

The guard shook her head. "No! Before that!"

Cutlass released a threatening growl before roaring, "I said: I am Commander Cutlass, personal guard to Princess Luna! NOW OPEN THE DAMNED GATES!"

The mare disappeared behind the wall once more, causing Cutlass to growl in frustration.

"What's going on here?" Rainbow groaned. "How are we supposed to get anything done if we're just standing around outside the walls... doing... nothing?" her comment trailed off as the stallion shot her a murderous glare, "What?"

The group waited in silence for what felt like hours to Rainbow Dash, who'd forsaken flying in favor of laying on the ground and staring at the sky. I wonder who does the weather patrol around here... she thought to herself as she noticed the numerous clouds that dotted the clear blue. Sloppy!

Much to her annoyance, just as Rainbow was about to doze off into a peaceful slumber under the comforting heat of the sun, the voice of the mare rang out from behind the wall. "All right, Moonlight! You can open the gates now!"

Cutlass mumbled something about the guards "finally doing their jobs" before rising from his seat and starting for the city.

The mare from the window stood just inside the wall flanked by a few more guardsponies, their armor shining in the sunlight. Their piercing gazes made Rainbow uneasy. She felt like the guards were watching them, waiting for something.

Rainbow's sense of unease grew as they strode under the gate and into the city. The guards' eyes glared unblinkingly, they seemed to be looking right through her. Suddenly, there was a loud grating sound behind them and the gate slammed shut with a crash. The previously unmoving guards quickly drew their swords and Rainbow soon found a blade being held to her throat.

"Hey!" she cried indignantly. "What's the big idea?" Beside her, the rest of the group was in a similar position.

The only pony who seemed unfazed by the cold steel against his neck was Cutlass, who growled angrily. "What is this?"

The mare stepped closer to him, her eyes as cold as the night. "Like you don't know, Commander."

"I demand an explanation, NOW!" Cutlass howled. Despite the blade, he leaned forward intimidatingly; a rivulet of blood dripped down his throat.

"You don't get to make demands here, prisoner." The mare said coolly. She looked around to her stallions. "Guards, take the suspects to the precinct. Let's show these vermin what happens when you kidnap our Princesses."

[X] [X] [X] [X] [X] [X] [X]

"Ugh! I'm so-o-o bored!" Rainbow Dash groaned, rolling over on the wooden floor of the jail cell. Twilight Sparkle did her best to ignore her complaints, but with little else to do, she found her frustration with the pegasus quickly mounting.

The unicorn was getting annoyed with the guard station. The plain stone walls offered no comfort or peace of mind. The only thing about the place that didn't feel hopelessly dreary was the single window by the desk on the other side of the room. The sunlight washed through it, showering the ponies in it's warm glow.

Shouting could be heard coming from down the hall behind a door labeled 'Chief.' Twilight sighed. She wished those two would be quiet for a few minutes; all of this yelling was giving her a headache. Cutlass and the guardmare had been at each other's throats since they'd arrived at the station, yelling about something or other.

From what Twilight had gathered, Princess Luna had gone missing shortly after speaking with the group a few nights ago, causing Hoofington to go into full scale alert. As Luna's personal guard, Cutlass was suspect number one, a title the stallion didn't quite take a shining to.

"She's the one that sent us!" A throaty voice roared. A loud thump emanated from the Chief's office.

"Then where is your proof?" An equally enraged voice bellowed.

Beside Twilight, a yellow pegasus was cowering in the corner of the cell. She seemed to shrink smaller and smaller with every shout that washed over the room. The lavender pony placed a comforting hoof on Fluttershy's shoulder in an effort to calm her timid friend down.

"I demand our release!"

"You go nowhere until King Lionheart says otherwise!"

Twilight cocked an ear; she wasn't sure she'd heard that last part right. Equestria didn't have a king. The royal diarchy consisted solely of princesses Celestia and Luna.

"I outrank you!"

"Not in here you don't! I have my orders!"

"This is an outrage!"

Shaking her head, Twilight tuned back out of the argument. The angry ponies' disputation was once again deteriorating back to nonsensical shouting.

"Well this is jus' dandy!" Applejack sighed. "We come all this way jus' tuh git locked up!"

Twilight wanted to object and tell her friend to have some faith in the Equestrian legal system, but the situation certainly seemed dismal. How could they do as Luna asked if they were stuck in a Hoofington jail? On the other side of the cell, Rainbow groaned again.

"Ouch, Rainbow!" Rarity cried suddenly. "Do watch my tail!"

"Hm?" the cyan pony slurred tiredly. "Oh, sorry Rares..."

How Rainbow Dash was able to take a nap at a time like this, Twilight couldn't begin to hazard a guess, but she had to admire the pony's ability to take their problems in stride. It seemed that besides Dash, only Pinkie Pie- who'd been pestering the watchstallion for the past two or three hours with a nonstop barrage of questions and stories- was unperturbed by their situation.

A knock on the door freed the watchstallion from the pink mare's endless prattle. After nearly sprinting to the exit, the guard opened the door to reveal a light gray stallion with a crimson mane in full military dress. The guard reared back in surprise, "Lieutenant Cabal, sir!"

The new stallion walked in and nodded a greeting to the watchstallion. "It's Prince Cabal now, sergeant." He looked over to the cell where Twilight and her friends lay. Something caught his eye and his brow rose sharply. "I take it these are your new suspects?"

"Yes, sir." The watchstallion said, closing the door behind Cabal. "Wanted access to the city, sir."

"I see," he said, approaching the cell. "I had no idea kidnappers were so... beautiful."

Twilight twisted her head around. Is he talking to me? she thought, surprised. The target for his compliment was made evident to everypony as Rarity shrieked and lunged at the bars, desperately trying to get as close to the stallion as possible.

"And what is your name, my sweet?" Cabal asked smoothly.

"Rarity." the unicorn responded, batting her eyelashes. There was a gagging sound Twilight later learned was Rainbow Dash.

"Rarity, huh? Such a beautiful name, for a beautiful mare."

Behind Cabal, the watchstallion cleared his throat loudly. "Commander Cutlass was with 'em, sir. He hasn't shut up since he arrived. Chief Quicksilver's had about enough of him."

The new stallion nodded in understanding and continued down the hall towards the direction of the shouts. "You're wasting your time, sergeant; these ponies are innocent." With those final words, he shut the door to the office and the yelling ceased.

The watchstallion sat grumpily in his seat, grumbling to himself. "Father ain't even ruler for two days an' he thinks he's King Shit of Turd Island..."

Pinkie Pie launched back into her story as soon as he sat down. Amidst the explosive sound effects and incredible narrative, Twilight watched the guard's shoulders slump.

A few minutes later, Cabal walked out of the room with Cutlass and the Security Chief by his side. Cutlass wore a smirk of smug satisfaction as the mare next to him complained loudly.

"You can't just take my suspects, Cabal!"

"I thought you said we could leave 'when Lionheart said we could,' Quicksilver... or was I hearing things?" Cutlass tossed out in a mocking tone.

Cabal growled and stamped a hoof on the ground. "Silence, the both of you!" He turned and looked the angry guardmare right in the eyes. "I am freeing these ponies, that is the end of it."

The second the watchstallion had the door unlocked, a polychromatic blur zoomed quickly in front of Twilight, leaving a trail out of the jail cell and through the open window. In the distance, a screeching voice sounded loud and long; "Freedom!"

Once the gust of wind died down and the stunned expressions had cleared off those who didn't understand what had just happened, Cabal blinked. "What... was that?"

"Rainbow Dash," Twilight explained as she walked out of the cell. "She can get a little... overzealous. Don't worry, she'll come back."

"I see..." It was quite apparent to Twilight that the stallion was unsure of what to say to that. "Well then!" he said, recovering from his shock. "Commander, I trust you can get to the castle from here? I have some other business I must attend to." Cutlass nodded his answer and lead the group out the door of the guard station.

Twilight did her best to ignore the goo-goo eyes Rarity shot at Cabal as they left. It wasn't like she was jealous or anything. In fact, the unicorn had never given the idea of romance much thought before. Still, something about the way her heart skipped a beat when she'd thought that Cabal was talking to her stuck in her thoughts.

It wasn't like the stallion was anything special to her, but the attention- or lack thereof- was something she was unaccustomed to. Was it so bad to want somepony to like you? To enjoy your company and compliment you every now and then? Perhaps Twilight would look into that situation more once they got back to Ponyville, but for now, she had a job to do.

Hoofington reminded Twilight a little of Canterlot. Busy ponies bustled around in the streets, the streets themselves were mostly clear of refuse and litter. Despite the similarity, there was an air of discipline and formality around the city Canterlot seemed to lack; Ponies seemed to walk a little faster and a little straighter than back home, most of them were large with rippling muscles and shining armor. Then again, this was Equestria's military capitol. Was it really any surprise that the ponies here were so regimented?

High above the city, a rainbow blur zoomed around, dipping, weaving and curling. It slowed down once it reached a row of pillars in the town square, only to- much to the frustration of the merchant ponies- speedily twist and turn around them. Twilight suppressed a chuckle at Rainbow Dash's antics.

Eventually, the pegasus's cabin fever calmed down and she glided happily back to her friends. "Hey guys, what's up?" she asked, hovering over them. Taking the silence as permission to continue, she landed and began trotting next to Cutlass. "So, I saw this really cool looking restaurant downtown and I thought since we haven't had lunch yet-"

"No." Cutlass interrupted flatly.

Rainbow's brow furrowed visibly. "But-"

"We have a job to do. I'll not have us lose sight of it amidst your silly games."

"Actually, Cutlass," Twilight heard Fluttershy speak behind her. "I think we should get something to eat too, and wouldn't you rather have a hot meal than another sandwich?"

"I know I would..." Rarity grumbled.

Twilight felt her stomach growl it's own opinion on the subject. "Yeah, Cutlass, I don't see anything wrong with getting lunch somewhere."

"Fine, whatever." he sighed. "Let's keep it quick though."

"Great!" Rainbow cheered, taking back off into the sky. "Follow me!"

The group followed Rainbow Dash through the crowds and further into town. Here it seemed, there were even more ponies in armor. Dash led them down a few more streets before setting down outside of a low, open building with no walls and shrubbery neatly clipped around the outside of it. The smell of spices and hot food filled Twilight's nose and nearly carried her the rest of the way there.

"Excuse me, ma'am." Twilight heard somepony beside her call out to Rarity. His voice was rough, grating, and as gritty as the rags he wore on his back. His unkempt mane hung limply over his eyes; his hair had probably been blue at some point, but it had been overtaken by a silvery hue. The feathers of his wings were ruffled and missing in some areas, his coat was dirty and caked with mud. "Spare a Bit?"

The white unicorn reared back in shock, shrieking wildly. "Rarity, relax!" Twilight yelled between the white unicorn's screams of horror. "He's just homeless!" she whispered tautly into the other mare's ear.

"Oh... Right..." Rarity laughed nervously. "Sorry... He just looks so..." The stallion gave her a pointed look. "Never mind." As she reached into her saddlebag to get a few Bits for him, Cutlass quickly stepped forward and stopped her.

"If you give him anything, he'll follow us all day." He said, shooting the other stallion a glare. "Keep moving, he'll survive."

Twilight gasped at the stallion's heartlessness. "How can you say that?" she asked indignantly, "Look at him!" She gestured to the stallion, but he was gone. Curiously, Twilight looked down the alley way, but the homeless pony was nowhere to be seen. "Where did..."

"Let's go." Cutlass said flatly, walking off towards the restaurant without a second glance.

"Hey!" Applejack called after him. "How can y'all be so callous?"

"Easily."

Twilight pondered Applejack's question herself, such insensitivity to a pony who clearly needed help just wasn't normal. While Cutlass wasn't exactly the friendliest of ponies, Twilight would hardly classify him as a reprobate. She wondered what exactly had motivated the guardstallion to do what he'd done.

A waitress gathered the ponies up once they'd reached the eatery. She sat them at a large table under the canopy that served as the restaurant's roof. The grills were in the center of the dining area so that patrons could watch the cooks prepare their respective meals. The place was packed with talking ponies waiting to be served. Similarly, the six friends made small talk while they waited for their own orders.

After few bites into their meals, the air was rife with the group's moans of appreciation for freshly prepared food- with the exemption of Cutlass, who ate in stony silence. Twilight's taste buds danced as the soup rolled down her throat, thankful to be eating something other than raw grass and daisy sandwiches.

Rainbow Dash swallowed a bite of her own order and grinned. "Was I right or what?" She got her answer in the form of numerous "Mmms."

"So," Applejack said between bites. "What exactly's the plan?" Everypony quietly looked to Cutlass who continued eating as though he hadn't heard her.

Sensing their eyes upon him, Cutlass looked up from his plate. "We go to Castle Hoofington and talk to Lionheart." he said, returning to his food. "Where we go from there depends on what we find out."

Twilight was about to comment on his behavior when the clanging of a loud bell interrupted her thoughts. A mare with a microphone stood on top of a small platform by the grills. She smiled as the attention of the crowd turned to her.

"Good afternoon, Hoofington!" she said warmly, observing the dining area. "As most of you already know, here at the Carrot Garden we have a bit of a tradition; Every Saturday afternoon we pick one lucky customer to face off in a cooking competition against our undefeated champion, Chef Cheddar!"

The air was filled with hoots and hollers as the crowd cheered in anticipation of the event. The mare held up a small bag on her hoof and continued speaking. "If you manage to beat him, you'll win this bag of fifty bits!" The applause grew louder as numerous ponies jumped in the air with their hooves raised, begging for a chance to compete.

"Ooh!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed. "Pinkie Pie, you should totally do that!"

The pink pony simply shook her head. "Nope!"

"What? Why not? You're a great cook!"

"No," Pinkie explained. "I'm a baker, not a cook."

"What's the difference?" Pinkie's eyes widened at the statement.

"Trust me, Dashie; there's a big difference." Looking around the table, her eyes settled on another of her friends. "Rarity could do it though, she's a great cook!"

The unicorn was visibly taken aback by Pinkie's words, but seemed to honestly consider it for a few moments. "Well, I suppose I could compete, but I'd still have to be called up there." She turned and studied the mare on the podium. She was surrounded by ponies eagerly begging for a chance to face the chef. "And with this crowd that doesn't seem very likely."

Just then, a deafening bang rocked the restaurant. Fluttershy shrieked and grabbed the pony closest to her- which happened to be Cutlass. The unexpected weight caused him to lose his balance and tumble out of his chair with a yelp. Twilight looked around the room apprehensively. Everypony had stopped talking to look at the spectacle before them. "Pinkie Pie!" she whispered heatedly. "Get down from there!"

The party mare awkwardly climbed down from the table, uselessly attempting to hide the remains of the firecracker behind her back. Still blushing, Pinkie Pie aimed a hoof at her friend. "Um... Rarity can do it..."

The mare on the podium was the first to recover from the shock. "Well then!" she said, the happiness in her tone now seemed just a tad forced. "I guess we have our contestant!"

[X] [X] [X] [X] [X] [X] [X]

Rarity smiled awkwardly as everypony in the restaurant stared at her and her friends. Why did Pinkie Pie have to draw attention to them like that? If there was one thing Rarity hated, it was public embarrassment.

The mare on the podium called out to her again. "It's Rarity, right? Come on down!"

Rarity felt a heavy pressure shove her forward a few steps. She twisted her head to see Rainbow Dash motioning her forward with her hooves. Her friends were all giving her encouraging smiles- well, almost all of them. Cutlass was glowering at his plate, mumbling something to himself.

A few of the other customers clapped while she made her way down the aisle to the podium. All eyes were on her as she climbed the steps and onto the platform. Rarity gulped. She was used to attention, in fact, she usually loved it. But this was different; cooking wasn't like making dresses. She couldn't stitch a meal together with her sewing machine, and while she was a pretty decent cook, Rarity wasn't entirely confident she could beat a trained chef.

"So Rarity," the mare said, shaking her hoof. "Are you familiar with the Carrot Garden Challenge?"

The unicorn shook her head, releasing a nervous laugh.

The mare nodded. "Okay then!" she said. She aimed a hoof at a large clock on the wall. "That's our timer, you'll have exactly thirty minutes to make any type of dish you want. When the time runs out, you bring your dish to the judges table over there-" she aimed a hoof at a small table to the side of the grill, where a trio of grinning ponies sat. "-and our judges will decide whose dish is better; yours, or Chef Cheddar's!" An orange earth pony with a white mane bowed when the mare said his name, eliciting a round of clapping from the customers.

A waitress led Rarity by the hoof to the second grill, which was right next to Chef Cheddar's. The mare looked at her cheerfully. "Are you ready?" she asked into the microphone.

Rarity nodded, still unsure of how exactly she had gotten into this situation.

"Then let's begin!" A bell rang and the crowd roared with excitement. "Good luck!" she mouthed away from the microphone while the crowd cheered.

Rarity looked around at her workstation. She had a small sink, a cutting board, a knife, an assortment of cabinets she could only assume were full of other cooking apparatus finally, a single refrigerator stood next to a pantry in-between the grills.

Okay... she thought, attempting to calm herself down. Simple enough; make a dish of any sort... The unicorn rushed to the refrigerator to see what food she had access to. She had no idea what she was going to make or how she was going to make it; but whatever she was going to make, she had to make it fast!

Rarity pulled open the refrigerator door and nearly gasped in surprise. The interior was packed with everything she could possibly think of! There was cheese and red peppers, carrots, broccoli, corn on the cob, liqueur, chocolate, lemons and bread! There was even some things inside that Rarity didn't even know existed, like that weird lumpy looking green object, or the misshapen peach colored thing. There was so much stuff inside that Rarity couldn't even begin to decide what to make for the competition.

Okay Rarity, the pony tried to pull her thoughts together. Let's keep it simple. Stick to what you know. She looked around the refrigerator once more. But what do I make?

"Excuse me." A voice behind her said politely.

"Hmm?" Rarity glanced behind her to see who was speaking to her. An orange pony with a green apron was standing just behind her, a kind smile on his face. "Oh! I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to get in your way!" In her anxiety, she'd forgotten that she was sharing the kitchen with somepony else.

Rarity stepped aside and allowed Chef Cheddar access to the interior, still seriously contemplating what she should make. The chef reached into the refrigerator and pulled out a pair of eggs. Giving her a pleasant nod, he walked back to his own work station. That's it! Rarity exclaimed to herself. I'll make eggs! Wait, no Rarity; that's too simple! She peered back into the fridge and looked for something she could add to her dish. Her eyes settled on the red peppers and the cheese. Omelets! she cheered to herself. I'll make omelets!

Having decided her course of action, Rarity set about gathering the necessary ingredients. One advantage she had over the earth pony was that he did not have unicorn magic. Rarity soon had all the needed supplies set up on the counter and she was ready to start cooking.

As she beat the mixture of egg and milk in her bowl, some of the ponies in the crowd began cheering loudly. Rarity looked over to see how her opposition was doing. He had a large knife in his hooves and was speedily chopping up some onions. Diced bits of the vegetable seemed to fly straight from his cutting board and into his pot. Concentrate Rarity! she berated herself.

She dumped the egg mixture into a pan and set it on the grill with her magic. Turning to the clock on the wall, she discovered she now only had fifteen minutes to complete her dish. Rarity lifted up her own knife and began dicing the pepper, only to drop her blade when she heard a voice from the crowd call out, "You can do it Rarity! Knock his apron clean off his body!"

"Quiet Rainbow!" another voice sounded almost as loudly. "She's trying to concentrate!"

Rarity looked from the knife that now lay on the ground to the half-diced pepper on the cutting board. There were no other knives that she could find on her side of the kitchen. Her own knife was dirty and useless now, she couldn't possibly serve food that had been cooked with contaminated equipment!

Rarity looked to the rapier she still had strapped to her side and sighed, she had to cut the ingredients somehow. Using her magic, Rarity speedily pulled the blade out of its sheath and flipped it around in the air a few times to adjust herself for the weight. There were a few gasps in the crowd at the sight of a weapon being drawn, but nopony objected as Rarity set the pommel in her jaws and, lifted the omelet ingredients into the air withe her magic, and expertly cut each morsel into tiny pieces with it.

Rarity hacked and slashed with professional strokes, each swipe cutting exactly the way she'd wanted it to. In her humble opinion, this was actually better than using the kitchen knife she'd been supplied with; Rarity's rapier was much sharper and way easier to handle. Ingredients floated around her, red peppers, green peppers, onions, spinach, and broccoli were all constantly chopped and diced with the blade Rarity held in her mouth.

When she was done, Rarity wiped her rapier clean and leaned it against the counter. It was then that she noticed the stares. Everypony in the restaurant was watching her with shocked expressions on their faces, including Chef Cheddar and the announce mare. The total silence was broken by the clock chiming five minutes left in the competition.

The competitors returned to their dishes, ponies now cheered loudly on both sides of the grill. Rarity quickly seared the vegetables on a separate skillet and dumped them into the omelet pan, flipping the eggs over after a moment.

When she deemed it appropriate, she lifted the finished omelet into the air and split it amongst the three plates that sat upon the cutting board. By the time all this was done, the customers were counting down from thirty.

Rarity studied her plates carefully; something was missing, but she couldn't quite put her hoof on it. Chef Cheddar had already delivered his dishes to the judges' table, and they looked beautiful! Her own platters looked so plain, so boring. Garnish! She nearly hoofed herself for forgetting it. Rarity charged to the refrigerator and yanked it open as fast as she could.

"Ten! Nine! Eight!"

Where is it, where is it, where is it! she panicked, she still had to get her plates to the judges' table before the bell rang! Rarity spotted a red bowl with some green leaves sticking out of it. Ah, there it is!

"Seven! Six! Five!"

Rarity pulled out the bowl hurriedly and made ready to sprint to the counter. On the way back she slipped, and the bowl- along with the garnish- flew high into the air.

"Four!"

Thinking quickly, Rarity used her magic to tip over her sword, which fell onto the cutting board that was hanging slightly over the counter. The board gave way to the weight of the sword, catapulting her precious plates into the sky.

"Three! Two!"

Time seemed to move in slow motion. Rarity's dishes soared over her head towards the judges' table, catching the garnish plate along the way.

"One!"

The plates landed perfectly in front of the stunned judges with a trio of bangs. The garnish bowl landed at the corner of the table by Chef Cheddar. Finally, the garnish leaves settled gently on top of Rarity's dishes, decorating them perfectly. The unicorn felt a smile begin to grow on her face; the Sweetie Belle Garnish Trick never failed!

"Zero!" A loud buzzer went off as the crowd finished the countdown, but nopony heard it; they were all to busy screaming about what they'd just witnessed.

"Amazing!"

"-never seen anything like it!"

"I can't believe that worked!"

After a few moments, the announcer mare politely calmed them down. "Judges," she said happily. "You may begin eating!"

The judges took a few bites of each dish before talking amongst themselves. Rarity's heart beat like a drum. By all rights, she shouldn't be this nervous. It hardly mattered to her if she won or not, but something inside her had ignited. Some enormous fire that refused to let her believe she could lose. The adrenaline rush filled her with a staggering vigor that proved incredibly addicting. She wished the feeling would last forever. Maybe that's why Rainbow Dash likes competition so much! she realized.

"Judges, are you ready to decide the victor?" The judges each nodded enthusiastically. "Judge number one: which dish was better?"

The first judge wore a large smile on his face, he held up a small sign that said "Chef Cheddar."

The crowd cheered as the mare on the podium continued. "One for Chef Cheddar! Judge number two: which dish did you like better?"

The crowd went wild as the second judge held up a sign that said "Rarity."

"Well, well. It looks like we have our first ever vote against Chef Cheddar!" What! Rarity panicked. Nopony's ever even scored against him? What chance did she have now?

"Judge number three, this competition hangs on your decision: which dish was the best?"

You could cut the tension in the air with a knife. Nopony spoke as Judge number three studied his card. Tentatively, he scribbled something on the card, then quickly crossed it out. He wrote something else down, and then flipped the card over.

The customers roared with excitement. A few ponies dropped their eating utensils, they clattered to the floor unnoticed as the uproar rocked the building. "Fillies and Gentlecolts; after six long weeks under the strangle hold of the invincible Chef Cheddar, we have a new Carrot Garden Champion! Congratulations Rarity! Come and get your fifty Bits!"

The unicorn walked numbly up to the platform where the announce mare happily plopped the bag of coins in Rarity's hooves. The customers' cheers were deafening; Rarity was sure that they could be heard in Ponyville. The loudest of them probably came from her friends, who hooted and hollered as she walked back to the table with her bag of Bits.

"Aw-right!" Rainbow Dash cheered. "I knew you could do it, Rares!"

Rarity felt very flattered by her friends' praise and congratulations as she sat down. "Well, thank you girls. But it was nothing really." She emptied her prize into the larger money bag she'd strapped to her side before leaving Ponyville.

Cutlass gave her an look of mild amusement. "That was some very skilled blade work." he said musingly. "Who taught you?"

Rarity inhaled sharply, she hadn't really wanted to talk about that. Well, she thought. I suppose I don't have to tell them the whole story. "When I was young, a stallion broke into our house. My father decided that we should be able to defend ourselves, just in case. So he started taking our family to defense classes." she said evasively. She hoped that that explanation would be enough for her friends.

"Huh," Rainbow snorted. "I guess I really do owe you an apology!"

The friends chatted idly for a few more minutes, enjoying the cool breeze. A few ponies walked up to Rarity and offered her congratulations. The looks that some ponies were giving her had gone from warm to slightly creepy and it was starting to make Rarity anxious. A few of these ponies looked... dangerous.

"Shouldn't we be getting to the castle?" she asked, as yet another stallion got too close.

"Absolutely!" Cutlass agreed, getting up from his seat and stretching. "Let's go!" He tossed a mouthful of Bits onto the table and headed for the street. The group followed him, most of them still wrapped up in their respective conversations.

"Ooh! I can't wait to get there! What do you girls think the castle will be like?" Pinkie Pie asked as she bounced along.

"Um... Big?" Rainbow Dash said, floating above her. "And... castle-ly?"

"Castle-ly?" Twilight raised an eyebrow. "Did you even put any effort into that?"

Rarity could have sworn she saw Dash's face gain a reddish tinge at the other unicorn's words. Refusing to look up from the ground, Rainbow answered her with a huff. "Shut up..."

The streets were now packed with ponies. They seemed to move in clusters, each with a different number of ponies and a separate place to go. It was nearly impossible to stay on course as the group made their way to the other side of the road. Rarity fell to the ground as somepony bumped into her side forcefully. The clinking of coins reached her ears as she glanced up to see who had just smashed into her.

"Hey!" Rainbow Dash shouted angrily. "Give that back!" Without warning, the cyan pony darted off through the sky. Who she was after became apparent when a scruffy pegasus pony took flight over the crowded street and zoomed away. A polychromatic blur trailed behind him.

Twilight looked over to Rarity with a frown. "What just happened?"

The white mare was still too stunned to fully absorb the situation. In a soft voice, she told her friends why the pegasi had seemingly started a race around the city. "He... he just stole my coin bag..."

The group charged through the streets in a crazed attempt to keep up with the breakneck speed of the racing pegasi. Cutlass had long since taken to the skies himself, but the weight of his armor prevented him from keeping pace with Rainbow Dash.

Rarity ducked under a dresser two ponies carried through the street, keeping her eyes glued to the sky. Her friends ran beside her, with the exception of Applejack, who led the pack through the streets. Ponies yelled in protest as they were forced to the side of the street to make way for the sudden stampede.

Rarity still couldn't believe that somepony had stolen from her. All of her money was in that bag, and now it was gone. If the thief got away with it, then she was in deep trouble. She would have no money to make dresses, to buy food or pay for bills. She'd be forced to sell her gems just to keep her head afloat, and then she wouldn't have any of the precious stones to make her living with. No, losing the thief was not an option.

Applejack tore down a dark alleyway to the left. Rarity and the rest of the gang followed in hot pursuit. They jumped over a large puddle and out the other side of the alley, back into the sunlight. The rainbow trail still flashed over the sky, back and forth around the city. It seemed that the pickpocket was more focused on losing Dash than getting home.

The trail flashed over the sky and then took off to the other side of town, disappearing into the horizon. The friends hurriedly followed down on the street, ducking ponies and dodging carts. "Hey!" One earth pony cried furiously as somepony crashed into his merchant stand. The street filled with round green vegetables that rolled about and were subsequently trampled into slaw. "My cabbages!"

The group ran into an intersection of two streets and looked around. Rainbow Dash's trail had disappeared. Cutlass swooped down next to them and landed neatly. "I lost them." he said simply, folding his wings. "But I saw them go in there." He motioned his head towards a back alley that sat between two office buildings.

He led them down the alleyway. It was dark and damp inside, the sun was unable to penetrate the wooden ceiling that had been constructed overhead. The dull gray bricks were coated in layers of graffiti and dirt. The passage ended with a single door leading into an unidentifiable building. Rainbow Dash stood just outside of it, pacing angrily. Her ears pricked up when she noticed her friends approaching.

"He's in here." she said. "It's the same guy as earlier!"

In all actuality, Rarity didn't really care if it was Celestia herself, she just wanted her money back. Of course, her surroundings sent a chill up her spine. The homeless stallion had scared her with his ragged looks before, and his choice of hidey-holes just furthered her fear of danger. She just wanted to go in, get her Bits back, and forget about this whole disaster. Rarity prepared to open the door, but stopped when she heard a voice speak out.

"Put that away!" Cutlass said in a reprimanding tone. Rarity looked over her shoulder just in time to see a blushing Dash quickly slip her dagger back into its sheath.

"But he kicked me..."

"It doesn't matter. We're here to retrieve stolen property, not to start fights." Cutlass spoke calmly, but his voice was filled with unquestionable firmness. "Never draw your weapon unless you're ready to kill something."

He strode passed Rainbow- ignoring her mocking mouth motions- and rapped a hoof off of the door. There was some commotion on the other side, scuffling noises mixed with panicked whispers. Rarity caught one of the louder ones as; "Hide! Now!".

Cutlass knocked once more. "Open up!"

"Go away!"

"You have something that doesn't belong to you. I am offering to be reasonable about this. Must I take it back by force?" There was silence. Cutlass sighed and turned around, grumbling something to himself.

"Oh, I get it..." Rainbow said frustratedly. "All thunder and no..." There was a loud crash, followed by the sound of splintering wood and warping metal. Cutlass had kicked the door right off of its hinges. "...lightning." she finished, chuckling nervously as the guardpony gave her a look of mild irritation.

Rarity was the first to peek through the now open hole in the wall. She nearly fainted when she found what lie on the other side. What she had thought of as a building was actually a wooden structure somepony had built around the alley behind the office buildings with simple wooden planks and nails. Nopony had even bothered to remove the dumpster. The smell of alcohol, mildew and burned wood wafted outside. There was a small fire pit in one corner by a small collection of sleeping bags. A few torches hung here and there, barely illuminating the dark interior of the- well, exactly what it was, Rarity wasn't sure; a shack? A shanty? She shrugged and just decided to call it a hovel.

Knowing exactly the types of ponies who would live here, Rarity was hesitant to step hoof inside- for all she knew it may be the last step she ever took. However, her decision was made for her as she felt herself being shoved inside from behind.

The unicorn stumbled inside, careful to avoid any puddles. She regained her balance and spun around to find out who'd pushed her. Rainbow Dash sat just outside the door, her eyes darting about. She picked up a hoof and pointed it at Cutlass, who growled. Rolling her eyes, Rarity turned back around to face the interior of the hovel.

There was nopony around that Rarity could see. She wondered, had she imagined the voices and the hoofsteps? No, the others had heard them too. Hay, Cutlass blasted the door in because of one of them. So perhaps they'd escaped? Rarity looked around for a second door, a sewer cap, an upper window, but she found nothing.

A scuffling noise from the dumpster brought Rarity back to earth. She approached it cautiously, and that was when she heard the voices.

"Ow! Get off my leg!" a young voice groaned quietly. It sounded like a colt, and a very youthful one at that. Rarity's friends were now all inside the hovel, curiously looking around. Rarity caught Cutlass's eye and beckoned him over with a hoof.

"I'm not on your stupid leg!" A second voice said, it was softer, obviously that of a filly.

"Are too!"

"Am not!"

"Are too!"

"Both of you shut up before you get us caught!" A deeper, adult voice whispered. It sounded familiar, this was most certainly the homeless stallion who'd asked Rarity for money earlier.

"Are the bad ponies gonna hurt us, Papa?" another filly's voice came; it sounded absolutely petrified. Rarity felt her heart shatter at the words. She didn't know the full story behind this, and she didn't need to. The only thing that mattered was the fact that she'd essentially stormed into somepony's house to take something away from them. Rarity suppressed a tear. She knew all too well what this filly was feeling, and it filled her with guilt.

"No, Ivy. Nopony's going to hurt you." the adult voice returned in a soft manner. "And how many times have I told you not to call me that!"

Rarity was going to tell everypony to forget about her bits and just leave, but Cutlass strode right passed her. He reared up on his back legs and stuck his head under the lid of the dumpster. "Hi."

A shrill scream echoed around the room, piercing Rarity's ears and forcing her to the ground in excruciating pain. In the corner of her eye, she saw Cutlass fall backwards out of the dumpster and stagger around dizzily. Shortly after, he lost his balance and collapsed a few feet from Rarity, a look of pain plastered on his face.

The screeching continued for a few more moments until the filly had used up all the air in her tiny lungs. Rarity breathed a sigh of relief, thankful for the brief moment of mercy. The group just lay on the ground, their ears still ringing. The guardpony did little aside from blinking for a couple of minutes. Although he was the cause for all of the screaming, Rarity actually felt bad for Cutlass; the sound waves would have reverberated inside the dumpster, making the noise even louder.

Once she was sure she could hear again, Rarity sat up on her haunches and looked around. "Is everypony okay?" She got a few mumbled yeses from her friends and a languid nod from Cutlass. She turned to the dumpster. "What about you in there?"

"We'll live." the adult voice answered. There were a few more whispers in the interior of the dumpster and then a hoof appeared. The homeless stallion crawled out of the glorified trash bucket and fluttered down to the ground. "Now would you mind leaving?"

"We're not going anywhere until you give back what you stole." Cutlass groaned as he lifted himself off the ground.

The homeless stallion looked away. "I don't know what you're talking about. I've never stolen anything." The pony stood up and walked towards the sleeping bags. "So, Cutlass, what brings you all the way out to Hoofington? Going out on another big adventure?"

"It's nothing that concerns you." Cutlass replied curtly. "Just give us what we came for so we can leave."

"Wait..." Twilight said stepping over to them. "I'm confused, you two know each other?"

Cutlass sighed and placed a hoof to his forehead. "Yeah, yeah. Meet my good for nothing older brother, Broadsword."

"BROTHER?" Applejack screamed. "AND Y'ALL JUST LET HIM LIVE IN AN ALLEY?"

"Oh, I wasn't always like this, young mare." Broadsword said, rifling through the pile of sleeping bags. "I was once a high General in Celestia's Army. Still would be, if-"

"-If you hadn't started drinking whiskey like it was water." Cutlass cut in. "He was dishonorably discharged for daily drunkenness." he finished angrily.

"That bastard Lionheart set me up!" Broadsword interjected, forgetting about his search. He looked Rarity right in the eyes and continued. "I knew too much about his little plans, so he turned me into a fool!"

"Yes, yes, brother. We've all heard the story before. I suppose he also held the bottle to your face and forced you to drink it?"

"Ooh!" Pinkie Pie cheered. "Story? I love stories! What's it about?"

"Nothing." Cutlass scowled. "Just the rambling lies of an old drunk."

"Are they lies, Cutlass?" Broadsword replied sadly. "Look at where he is now and tell me honestly; is he not exactly where I said he'd be? The bastard's a liar and a traitor! I guarantee you he's the one behind Swiftblade's death!" There were tears in his eyes as he finished his little speech. He'd obviously had this discussion with Cutlass before.

Cutlass shook his head dourly and sighed loudly. "Just give the mare her Bits back."

The other pegasus picked up a small canvas bag from underneath a sleeping bag and threw it at his brother. "Fine!" he snarled, turning away to face a wall. "But you leave me with nothing to feed those foals!"

Cutlass picked up the bag with his teeth and gave it to Rarity. "You can have my sympathies, brother, but nothing more." he said as he walked out. The unicorn's other friends awkwardly followed, unsure of what exactly they should be doing. She was about to follow, until she saw the faces of three little foals looking innocently out from underneath the lid of the dumpster.

Rarity knew it was a dumb move. Broadsword was a miscreant; a scroungy, mangy, homeless, mess of a stallion that reeked of intoxicants and garbage. He would probably blow most of it on alcohol, or use it to get somepony killed or... or whatever else low class louts like him did with their Bits. But in her heart she knew it was the right thing to do.

Rarity opened her bag, and counted out fifty Bits; her prize money for the cooking contest earlier. Then she put the coins in a separate bag she got from her saddlepack and set it on the floor before leaving the shelter.