Wind swept carelessly through a shattered valley, weaving and twisting its way past endless obstacles of both natural and pony origin. The majestic yet invisible force formed its own wondrous music as it came and passed, singing a tune for any pony who cared to listen. It whistled past the rocks, ruffled through the trees, dropped in tone across the grassy plain, only to rise again in a glorious crescendo that would make even Celestia herself envious. A symphony of music with nature as the composer, beyond anything the inhabitants of Equestria could hope to produce. It complimented the sunny skies well, sweeping away the cascade of heat, leaving a utopian warmth in its wake. Today was a day only gifted to ponies, so infrequent in number that they were nearly forgotten between occurrences.
But even such immense beauty must take pause sometime, if for nothing more than to recuperate from its tireless ambiance. This rare moment occurred just as the breeze flowed past a solitary figure standing atop a hillside at the edge of the valley. Her poise was firm, resolute, and unwavering against the gentle caress of air that so offhandedly blew through a loose mane, sending a stunning array of cyan streaks soaring skyward. She was dressed like the Samurai of old, the light folded cloth overlapping itself in a complex wave of patterns with unparalleled symmetry. It fit her turquoise form perfectly, tailored for comfort but designed for protection, shielding against whatever dangers might assail her. Only a brief pause in the armor was afforded along her flank, parting to show her mark, a simple golden lyre.
Her face, however, was not shrouded in armor or concealed behind protection. Instead, the full beauty of her features was displayed prominently, a seamless blur of perfection so boundless that it was hardly conceivable such a being could exist. At times, when gazed upon with the sun behind her, lesser stallions would swear that wings sprouted gloriously from her back to bask in the radiance unrestrained.
A sword was strapped firmly along her side, the long slender blade protruding out beyond her form. It was in no way humbled by her beauty, nor was it concealed from view. It rested proudly, boldly, and triumphantly at her side as if it had fought to be there for its entire existence. Throughout the years, it had slain everything from earth ponies to pegasi, the cold steel indifferent to what flesh it found to feed its insatiable blood-lust. It hungered for a master wielder, an artist of war, some pony who could create a masterpiece of violence with one singular stroke. Eventually, after trading hooves many times, it had finally found a home with her. She cared for it as one might care for a foal, and in return, it took care of her whenever she needed it. But for now, it rested gently in its sheath, lying in wait for what was to come.
Saffron eyes were stern, lips pressed together, a face flawlessly mimicking her poise. She was focused, intent on watching something, or some pony, across the expanse of the valley. Whatever it was, it had slowly begun materializing on the horizon a few moments ago, either moving forward or simply forming out of the air itself. It was the reason she had brought herself to this forbidden land, the being she had tasked herself to defeat. For years it had been stalking her, always staying one step behind, enough to be just around the corner and never in sight, nagging and taunted her sanity, straining it to accept the existence of something she could never see or verify. But today was different, today she was resolute to face it, today the years of torment would end. And as the wind suddenly revived itself with a gusty surge, her long since stalker came into full view.
What manifested into sight could no sooner be described as a pony than it could be a monster. Innumerable strands of pitch black tendrils surrounded the creature, interwoven seamlessly as they writhed viciously against one another. There was no beginning and no end to them, swimming like worms across its structure, flexing and bulging as they moved with a struggling lethargy. It was an unending sea of motion, enveloped by shadow so dense that not even the brilliant rays of the sun could penetrate into it.
Four distinctly separate columns extended below the center mass, each wrapped tightly in their own plethora of tendrils. They moved the creature forward at a lumbering pace, each step placed with a thunderous weight. The plants around it, vibrant with color and life, recoiled away from the sheer proximity to the creature. Those unlucky enough to be directly under hoof died without a moments resistance.
Two orbs sat side by side in front, as evenly placed as any eyes would be. They floated between gaps in the motion, buried in the murky darkness, only betraying their position by emanating a strong blood red hue that danced like fire. With each step, they shook lightly, smearing their color across the darkness, flames escaping up around the sockets to extinguish instantly against the open air.
She met those eyes boldly with her own, and it tore the breath right out of her lungs. The beautiful valley she was standing in shifted into a dark amber hue as the peaceful sun rapidly changed into an angry ball of fire, igniting the atmosphere into a hellish storm of heat. Everything from the trees down to the dirt began to burn, engulfed in flames and reduced to ashes only to continue burning long after the fuel was exhausted. Her ears were flooded with the sounds of stallions, mares, and foals screaming against some endless torture. Courage, bravery, and honor; values that defined the pure mind and righteous heart were void, melting away against the sweltering inferno. The empty space they left behind quickly filled with malice, cowardice, hatred, and fear that crushed her heart with an iron hoof. The ground began to buck and tremble beneath her hooves, cracking along a thousand fault lines to fall away into an endless abyss. As another fracture weaved its way between still steady legs, her eyes fell closed.
When she reopened them seconds later, she was back in the valley, still just as serene as it had been moments before. She took a deep breath, sucking in the cool morning air to purge the poisonous gases that had invaded her lungs, relaxing her mind. “A hallucination,” she mumbled reassuringly, “Just a hallucination.”
“Or was it a foretelling of things to come?”
Her eyes jerked forward quickly. The creature was stopped no more than ten paces from her, a black trail of miasmic death stretching as far back as the eye could see. Even motionless against the earth, the tendrils continued to stream through it, moving with the same unerring ebb and flow without rest. “Neat trick,” she scoffed, gathering her composure while purposefully evading those hellish globes that lurked inside the creature.
“My dear mare, trickery is the least of my talents. I do not require it to get what I want,” it had no mouth to speak with, yet the words were crystal clear to her ears, set in a deep whispered tone that reverberated against some invisible wall as if there was more than one voice being spoken.
“Which brings us right to the point,” she wasted no time to press the discussion forward, fighting an eerie sense of dread that was lurking over her mind. A feeling entirely foreign to her. “What do you want?”
There was a pause, an awkward silence that befell the air between them as she waited for a response. Just before she could stand it no longer and built her voice to demand one, the creature simply laughed. It was a nightmarish cackle, a million voices behind the one mocking her in unison. “You mean you don’t know?” the dark strands hastened their swirl ever so slightly, almost as if they were becoming energetic.
Energy leaped into her horn. It gripped the hilt of her blade tightly, the turquoise aura revealing the first glimpse of frustration bleeding into anger inside of her. She hadn’t come here to play games. “I wasn’t aware,” words spoken through clenched teeth, and she had to take a moment to gather herself. Anger could not be permitted take hold. “I wasn’t aware I should have known,” she finished, her tone much clearer and calmer.
“Ten years of stalking you around every corner you ever turned, and you still don’t know?” even as it spoke, there was still an undertone of laughter reinforcing it from somewhere. “I would have expected more from you, of all unicorns.”
‘Don’t let it get to you,’ she chided herself mentally, fighting the desire to rip the smooth steel from its sheath and end this wretched discussion. “Then why don’t you enlighten me?”
The valley instantly began to spin, colors colliding and mashing together like the world had turned into a giant paint bucket. Both the sky and the earth became rapidly indistinguishable, every color they possessed mixing to both create and destroy each shade on the spectrum. Slowly, all the light was sucked into a whirlpool, consumed by the creature until nothing was left but utter blackness. But she was not moving, nor was the creature standing opposite of her; and neither of them moved even as the last speck of light vanished into the black abyss. “With pleasure,” the creature rasped, vanishing into the darkness.
A speck of light appeared on the edge of her vision, only visible if she strained her eyes to focus in on it. It slowly advanced towards her, growing brighter until stark white rays flooded the area, becoming more and more brilliant until she was forced to close her eyes and shield them with a hoof. The light fought to penetrate her eyelids only for a short moment until it dissipated just as quickly as it had come, leaving behind a soft glow that was closer to the ambient light of a small room.
When she dared to open them again and lower the protective hoof, she was no longer in the valley, and the creature was nowhere to be found. Rather, she was in a stone built corridor of some sort, the stench of mold permeating from the walls. She tried to take a step forward, but found her legs were unnaturally heavy, anchored to the ground by an unknown force to the point she could not move. She attempted to call out to the creature, to demand an explanation, but her throat failed to vocalize any sound. ‘What is this?’ her mind fumed, struggling to understand, almost missing the sound of hooves coming from around the corner.
They were slow, taken purposefully, cautiously, and timed so perfectly in rhythm that it would have been hard to distinguish that they were hooves at all, or simply some steadily dripping water echoing along. Panic began to set in. Some pony was coming and she was unable to act, left out in plain sight when whoever it was rounded that corner. Eyes stayed locked on where they would appear as she fought more desperately against the forces that forbid her movement, fought until that figure rounded the corner.
It was her, or more accurately a younger her, almost six years past. Quite abruptly, she remembered everything. This corridor, this moment in time, it all came rushing back into her mind. It was here she had been trying to stalk her stalker, trying to trap that creature into a corner and end the torment. All information had led to here, weeks of careful movement to lure him here for her chance. And now, she was watching her past self, like the memory was plucked from her mind and put on replay.
She watched herself traverse that corridor, her past self apparently unable to see her former self intently observing, though she knew exactly what was going to happen and when. Her past self held a blade high, ready to strike when the moment was right, ready to find the creature around the next corner. There was no question it was there, but she couldn’t remember how she knew. At that point in time, she had just known.
Slowly, one step at a time, she worked her way within a few paces of that corner, and stopped dead in her tracks, contemplating the next move. The options that were weighing on her mind were still as fresh as they had been at that very moment six years ago.
With a sickening twist in her stomach, she was forced face the fact that there was no way to round this corner. Her foe was completely unknown to her in size, appearance, position, strength, and skill. Yet, with as long as it had been following her, she was sure that it knew much more about her. It was too much of a risk to blindly attack, unable to grasp any guarantees in her mind about the outcome.
The anger, the frustration, the sheer utter disgust washed over both her and her present self. Her past self knew right then and there that there would not be another opportunity like this for a long time, and she was refusing to lose this chance. But the terrain was working against her, as unmovable and unshakable as the earth itself. The stalker, despite her notion that she had trapped him here, had in fact continued to stay one step ahead and deny her any means to strike without giving him the upper hoof. He was still in control.
So she retreated. Slowly at first, keeping her front to the corner until she was far enough away to turn and leave. The world spun again as her present self looked on, swirling, washing, blending colors until they reconstructed themselves back into the valley. Her legs were given back to her, as was her voice, and the creature was still ten paces out, as if nothing had ever changed.
“Now do you understand?” the creature bellowed.
Her eyes fell to the earth between them, having come to a conclusion and being consequentially dismayed because of it. “Me,” she said solemnly, her mind reproaching her for having thought any different. “You want to kill me.”
“Close,” it replied, devoid of any hint of mockery or ridicule. “I spent most of the last ten years trying to figure out a way to do so. But it is not within my power to completely destroy you. We cannot exist without each other.”
She returned her gaze to the fiery red orbs that floated inside of the shadow, though this time nothing changed, save the telltale sense of dread hammering into her skull with a bit more vigilance. “What do you mean?”
“You cannot have day without night, heat without cold, earth without air, life without death. The same applies to good without evil. One cannot and will not exist without the other. A singular being, no matter how pure of heart they can possibly strive to become, will always have evil inside of them; dormant, waiting for its chance to take over. Nature must balance itself,” the creature rasped.
“I didn’t come here for a lecture,” she steadied herself. “Get to the point.”
The shadow churned strongly, flexing against whatever barriers kept it under control. “Your failure to understand has been the one and only reason we have been kept apart for so long. I see it has still unchanged, now overpowered and squelched by unshakable resolution. You know there is a saying on that? ‘For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.’”
“Why now, then?” she demanded. “Assuming you’re correct, we shouldn’t be standing here. You had an opportunity six years ago, and plenty more since. Why have you decided that this is the time to finally meet me?”
This question was met with the same maniacal laughter. “Because it was never my choice, Lyra! Six years ago you were not ready to face me, so you didn’t. I am nothing more than what you make me to be by denying my existence. Therefore, so long as you will it, I am unable to strike. But time is impartial, an enemy of every pony and a friend to none. Your resilience, though commendable, has damned you in the end. I grew stronger every day like a festering wound, patiently waiting for the time and place you would choose to confront the truth.”
Her voice lowered, a mind more active than a mouth. “Then why don’t I just return to the way things were, pretending you don’t exist?”
“You have exhausted that option already,” it replied smoothly and confidently. “Here I am. I’m not around some corner, lurking in some dark alley, or hanging from some light-less ceiling. To deny my existence now would be tantamount to believing the Moon isn’t round.”
She gripped her blade tightly with a blue surge of energy, her face that was only moments ago stretched in confusion, now resolute to the outcome. “So then, my only option is to destroy you. To send you back to wherever you came. You are nothing more than an immaterial nightmare, an embodiment of everything I stand against.”
“And one can only respect that resolution on how to live. But your error is that you believe you are not capable of becoming what you are fighting. A hero cannot experience such feelings or they become no better than the villain, right? Heroes are fictional, unicorns are faulty. Good and evil must find a balance in the body to continue coexisting. When one outdoes the other, an irredeemable fracture occurs and we find ourselves here and now. Two polar opposites vying for dominance, each unwilling to surrender half and live symbiotically.”
“Enough!” she lashed out, her blade singing ecstatically as it slid from its sheath into the cool midday air. “I will return you hell spawn to whatever cesspool you crawled out of!”
“Continual denial only makes me stronger, and you will never beat me if you cannot accept the truth.” The dark tendrils around the creature began to slide quicker, expanding and bolstering its form to nearly twice the size of what it had been. “Only one of us will walk away from this valley today if you refuse to accept the truth, so it is ultimately up to you what happens now. I only fight with the ferocity you have given me.”
The blade was suspending high above her head, set for slow powerful swings. “I will not allow your taint to infect anyone else.”
“Then so be it,” the creature took a slow step backwards, off centering its form to confront Lyra.
She did not hesitate to be the aggressor, quickly covering the distance between them with calculated strides. Her horn ignited into a tempest of energy as it assumed control of the blade, swinging it in harmony with her momentum into a horizontal strike.
Large the creature was, but cumbersome it was not. Her attack was anticipated the moment her blade came whistling around, and the creature leapt backwards and out of range as the blade found nothing but air. “Too slow,” it mocked her.
“Likewise,” she fired back, using the same energy to keep the steel soaring, taking another step forward to swirl and bring it down diagonally towards the creature’s top side. But again it was too fast, leaning backwards to deny the assault, leaving her in no position to continue this chain as all the power was expended against the tireless forces of gravity. She grudgingly returned to her starting position and took a step backwards.
“You just don’t get it, do you?” ridicule dripped from its tone, subtle laughter echoing under the voice once again. “Your attacks are intended to kill, but you cannot kill me anymore than I could kill you. We are the same.”
“I am nothing like you!” she lashed out, this time low and quick.
It dodged again with a causal sidestep. “Finally, something you are almost right about! We have nothing in common. You stand for everything moral and just in this world,” the creature replied, sidestepping another swing, “while I fully intend to destroy it. However, that doesn’t change the fact that we are merely two players in one game, two queens in one battlefield. Only one of us can have sovereignty if neither will yield any ground.”
She continued her attack in silence, the blade singing its own tune against the wind each time it made a sweeping pass. It demanded blood, thirsted for flesh, yet she was always unable to sink the hungry steel into its intended target. Her strength would wane if this was too continue, having to expend the force of the attack and the miss entirely of her own power.
The creature affording nothing more than a sigh following yet another uncountable reset back into position. “This is getting us nowhere. I will have to show you in a way you’ll understand.”
Her strikes immediately ceased and she took a few steps backwards, preparing herself for the unnatural sight of the world turning inward on itself. But this time it was different; the valley remained intact. This time the creature itself began to surge, the streams of tendrils leaping into a frenzy; spinning uncontrollably until they were nothing more than a blur. Light that had been brave enough to linger near the creature began to slowly fade, sucked into growing vortex. Then suddenly, it exploded outward with a gale force wind, throwing darkness out in all directions like shattering glass. Broken and without form, the shadow was weak, and it was quickly consumed by the sun. For the first time, illumination pierced the ground where the creature had once stood.
But when she gazed upon that ground, the creature was no more. It had changed, completely replaced its appearance. She quite unexpectedly found herself looking at a stallion.
He was tall and muscular, not so much handsome as rough, much like a seasoned blacksmith or fletcher. A simple tunic draped over his form long past the time it needed to be replaced paired well with a slightly disheveled mane and tail. Underneath, a dirty orange coat of hair stuck close to his skin, its color faded and graying in spots throughout his body.
But it was his face that betrayed his attire, denied the impression of just another unicorn. The way his dirty blond mane fell, the slant of his eyes, the curve of his mouth into a causal little smile; it paralyzed her senses and stole her voice. Only one unicorn could have held these traits so perfectly.
"Fa... Father?" her voice was barely audible, almost lost to the breeze as soon as it left her throat.
"There is where it all began, isn't it? With your father?" the voice was that of her father sure enough, but it reverberated with another tone underneath, the creature’s grating echo.
That dreadful noise freed her from the debilitating rigor mortis that had so rapidly set in. "Who... What..." she stammered, maintaining her battle stance with no less than all of her strength. "You leave my father out of this!"
The creature pressed onward unabated. "He was a good parent. Taught you almost everything you know today," as he spoke, the valley around her began to melt away into a sea of colors, swirling and churning to reconstruct itself just as it had before. "He loved you very much."
When the world stopped moving, she was standing in a field with a crawling metropolis on the horizon, the clamorous sounds of ponies little more than a whisper on the wind at such a distance.
She knew this field. She knew this memory the moment her eyes laid on it, and at that precise second of realization her guard fell, the tip of her blade sailing in a downward arc to rest against the ground. "This," she murmured, eyes once trained and focused now soft and wide, gazing not at her adversary, but at the next hilltop. "Father..."
Hooves beat against the soft dirt rapidly, two strong unicorns galloping along side by side as they made their run to the top of that hill. She watched them as they crested it, watched as they came into view. The one on the right was her, no older than a mere 10 years, pushing herself as hard as she could to keep up. The other on the left was unmistakably her father, staying perfectly by her side, his smile bright enough to light up the night sky. She could hear the things he was yelling to her as they went, heard them as if she was actually there. 'You're doing great, Lyra.' 'Pretty soon I won’t be able to keep up with you!’ ‘How much farther do you want to go?’ She watched as they crossed the rolling hills, her own mouth forming the response she had wanted to give to her father that day, but had decided it too silly to say. ‘Forever, daddy.’
But they didn't linger in that moment for long, the world once again shifted, stealing away the grass, the sky, and the sun from her all too quickly. "He taught you how to defend yourself with a blade, and how to defend others who needed it. He was always there on the stormiest of nights, and always close by on the brightest of days. Everything from hunting and cooking to standing up for what you believe in, all came from him," the scenery changed as quickly as the creature spoke, memories given little more than an instant to flash before her eyes before moving onward to the next moment. She watched each and every one of them, tears quickly welling up in her eyes.
"Stop it," she pleaded in a weak voice.
"Memories you tried hard to forget. But the past will always haunt us; will always be the suggestive whisper on our shoulder," still in the form of her father and standing almost next to her, the creature continued despite her request.
"No," she said, closing her eyes to dam the water that threatened to overflow. "The past cannot assert such authority over the present. We must move forward."
"You say that like you believe it, Lyra, but we both are very well aware to the opposite. And we both know why," another flash of light that beckoned her eyes open, and she found herself standing in a narrow street. Countless unmarked doors spanned the entire length of the road, illuminated by the moon set high in the nighttime hours. A forsaken street, left to rot against the elements; nearly forgotten amongst the other citizens who dwelled in more sanitary conditions. But for the ponies that lived there, it was home; and it was neither forgotten nor disparaged.
It was the street where she grew up, and she was standing right next to her house, the one simple wooden doorway that separated her family and the world. She could only find it because of a unique imprint in the lower right hand corner of the frame that she had made with her hoof, ensuring she would never be lost. The gentle caress of air brushed across her face, carried by very light breeze that flowed freely under a cloudless sky. "An ordinary and peaceful night, wouldn't you say?"
"Get to the point," she hissed, having many memories of this place, unable to pinpoint this precise moment in time.
"I can only bring you here. It's up to you how quickly it plays out. You see, tonight was a very special night for you. For us," it was the way the voices that accompanied the creatures own joined in on the last two words that sent an unnatural shiver down her spine.
Before she could ask what he meant, the sound of a dozen sets of hurried steps echoed through the narrow passageway, light armor bouncing and rubbing against itself in defiance of the speed of the bearer it protected. It took another few seconds for them to come into sight, but she had almost guessed who it was. A dozen soldiers or more, a captain in the lead with orders strapped to his side. "No!" she screamed, the tears that had been so valiantly returned to the depths of her body lurching back into her eyes.
"Ah, so you do remember this night," his voice was still calm, collected, and oddly indifferent. "Like I said, it all started with your father."
She had already stopped listening to him; her eyes glued on the approaching group. "Stop!" her voice was a cracked scream, anguish ridden to the point it could not conceal. As they neared, energy burst back into her blade, drawing it back up to take a swing, only to watch the thin steel pass cleanly through the armor, the neck, and out the other side with absolutely no effect. She watched as they approached her door. They didn't bother to knock. They didn't bother to wait. They simply smashed the old wooden frame down and poured in.
"The governor of your town decided that he wanted your mother. When the first few attempts to bribe her away from your father failed, he resorted to a more direct approach," the sounds of battle ensued inside the house, and she could see her father through the open window fighting them back alone, her mother behind him. "However, one against many can only deflect so many blades when defending himself and the one he loves."
The whirl of steel, the clash of metal, and the cries of pain filled her ears as the scene replayed itself right in front of her eyes. She had been upstairs at the time, ordered to stay hidden no matter what. That wasn't good enough for her, she had to watch no matter how much she feared the outcome. Her mind demanded she watch. "Silence!" she cried, her older self unwilling to watch this again, but still as unable to turn away as during that moment.
"He fought very bravely. But when two blades came at once, he could only swipe one of them aside," a scream erupted from inside the house, distinctly female. "The sword that pierced your mother was an accident. She died quickly, at least," the creature continued with the same casual tone as if what was happening had no real significance to any pony, especially not to him. "Your father fought on for her, and for you, and killed nearly all of them himself. But as each soldier fell, his strength waned, and there were still many more to go."
She was weeping bitterly now, tears streaming openly down her face as she watched the crumpled form of her mother on the ground, a pool of blood slowly expanding, seeping outward in all directions to fall between the cracks in the floor. And she knew only too well the next few seconds of this skirmish.
"He fought until he could fight no more, until strength had evaporated from his body entirely. They did not hesitate to do what they came to do. He did not scream. In one clean strike, your father’s life ended. With a failed objective staring them in the face, they immediately fled the scene and forgot about you," pausing to take a breath, the creature held its gaze on her. "You waited just a few minutes to make sure they were gone, and then came running down the stairs, kneeling over the lifeless forms of your parents. Tears did not satisfy your pain, did not quench the swelling hatred that spiked inside of you."
Her head was hanging downward now, a grip on a weapon barely enough to keep it from sliding out of its suspension and clamoring to the ground. Tears poured from her eyes in an endless supply, and her legs felt too weak to continue holding her up. "Enough... please..." she whimpered.
But the creature continued. It wasn't done, not yet. "You vowed to avenge his death, even if it cost you your own life. You took his blade still impaled into one of the assailants, ripped it out without a care to the sickening sounds it made or the blood that splattered against your face. It wasn't a far trip to the governors palace by any means, placed directly in the cities center."
The ground shifted underneath her cloudy eyes, going from that decayed street to a floor so clean that given enough light, her face would have reflected right back up to meet her. It was still dark outside, however, and equally so in this corridor that lead straight to the governor’s personal quarters.
"The locks weren’t built to withstand magic; the guards were all asleep or drunk. You crept all the way in here undetected to do your deed. There was no screaming, no calls for help; you didn't even rouse him from his slumber before bringing the blade down on his chest. Your aim carried a masters accuracy, silently slipping between ribs to pierce the heart, ending his life instantly," another pause, but different this time, like the creature was finally finding the end of his narration. "But all was not well like you thought it would be. The rage, the hatred, the pain, everything you had thought you could make go away by killing the reason your family died, was still there. It was not satiated. You stood over his corpse for hours, legs soaking in his blood, trying to figure out why. You stood there with the blade still locked inside of his body until the sun began to rise and you had to leave."
"And what does this all have to do with you?" she interjected, carrying a surge of tears that overflowed the sockets and created new paths down her cheeks.
"Everything," it replied simply, and the floor vanished once again, returning to the cracked and separating wooden boards of her home. "When you returned here the following morning, you had an epiphany. Standing over your father’s body, you realized that this was not what he would have wanted. Revenge was an unacceptable response, and at that moment you vowed to carry on his legacy, to follow in his hoof steps. You would take up a sword and fight injustice so that others would never have to go through what you just did. Before you left that house for the last time, you took the trinket your father had given to you when you were little, to remind you of him, and of your vow."
On impulse, a hoof reached for it still latched to her side ten years later. A miniature lyre, scaled down to the size of a hoof, given to her by her father when she had gotten her cutie mark. "You didn't answer my question," her voice was less cracked, tears drying up as they retreated from her eyes.
"Even after all of this, you still don't understand?" again it mocked her, the shrill scream of the background voices rising to a more audible level. "This was the day you decided you were above acts deemed evil, decided that you would lead a life of selflessness to respect your father’s name. This was the day I was created, thanks to your father’s untimely death. He was a good man. No less dead for that, but a good man."
"Enough!" she screamed, snapping her head back up to challenge him. "You insult the memory of my father with this imitation! He was nothing like you! And if you think I am too weak to fight the image of the unicorn I loved, you are a fool!" her horn burst back into life as it seized her blade, swinging it in a wide overhead arc, putting the force of her entire energy into crushing downward strike.
He did not flinch, did not bother to move a single muscle until the blade was mere inches away from cleaving his head open. A split second before it connected, the deafening clash of steel ripped through the stale air, accompanied by a brilliant flash of light that surged outward in all directions. It lasted only fraction of a second, just long enough for the world to return to the valley. Cool wind replaced the damp musty city air and soft dirt the wooden floor. A brilliant sun was once again set high in the sky, though it was now dipping closer to the western horizon than before. Time hadn’t waited for them to return.
As soon as her eyes recovered, they sought out the creature, still in an image of her father. He was staring right back her, eyes narrowed, a sickening grin across his face. His horn burned a deep midnight blue, the energy reaching out to grip the hilt of a sword that stood in the centimetres of space between her blade and his head.
"Ah," he proclaimed exuberantly, the first time she recognized any emotion in his voice beyond mockery and arrogance, "so you are capable of anger after all!"
"You are wrong," a sickening screech filled the valley as she pulled her sword away, scraping the sharp edge against the other with a deliberate gradual motion. "Anger is an emotion driven by an innate fear of the situation," she brought the sword back into stance. "And I do not fear you."
"Oh but you do fear something, Lyra," he too brought his weapon down, keeping a more casual hold than her, though. "So tell me, what do you fear? Is it your father? Do you think he is going to rise up from the dead and disown you for what you did? Or perhaps he is doing that right now, through me."
"You are not my father!" she took a step forward, bringing a slash in a wide arc towards his shoulder. "You could never hope to even be half the unicorn he was!"
He coolly deflected the strike with a simple step and a flick of his blade. "Unless there were things about your father even he didn't tell you. Did that ever cross your mind?"
She rebounded off the first assault to come at him again from the opposing side quick enough that her unbound mane stayed airborne. "You know nothing of the relationship we had, of how close we were," the blade again found only metal to greet it at its destination. "I can barely remember moments not spent with him. If there was even a hint of blackness in his soul I would have known about it."
"I know all too well how much time you and he spent together. But unlike you, I wasn't blindsided by love, so willing to accept certain oddities that should have been questioned," his voice had almost fallen back to his now signature nonchalant tone, only a few defiant strands of accusation still lingering here and there. "I suppose I can't blame you for it though. If love wasn't blind, it couldn't exist."
Her strikes quickened as he spoke, the shimmer of steel moving with such haste and precision that it was little more than a blur to the eyes. Yet he did not dodge these strikes like before. They were all met with a block, always one step ahead of her swing, a mismatched rhythm to the wind. "What does a creature like you know about love? About compassion? About caring? You wouldn't know any of these ideals if they hit you in the face.”
"Do you ever tire of being wrong?" the laughter that sat eternally behind his voice returned; a voice from somewhere she could not combat. "Of course I understand these self proclaimed morals. An opposite cannot exist without its counterpart, or it is reduced to merely an idea or notion, a worthless and meaningless thought that flitters away before any pony is the wiser," he deflected the next few strikes with a bit more enthusiasm, sending her blade into hopeless directions where it could do no harm. "Doesn't seem like your father was ever in your current predicament was he?"
Her relentless assault tripped momentarily at that notion, faltering a split second too long for the creature to find an opening and exploit it, using his size to slam into her and knock her backwards. She lost her balance and fell to the ground, having to discard her blade and roll her body to bring her hooves back underneath her. Before she could recover, the creature was above her, placing the sharp point of his weapon against her throat, urging her chin upward so she would have to look up along the slender blade and into his eyes. "He... what... no..." she stammered.
"No response?" he taunted her, pulling the icy steel away from her throat, letting the flat harmless edge slide tenderly through her hair. "Well then, since you're so adamant against the notion that I really am your father, prove to me I'm not. Stand up and prove me wrong... if you can."
She did not scramble to her hooves, resigned to take a calmer approach and conserve energy. The killing strike was his and he had completely squandered it, daring to shatter any preconceptions she had about his intentions, at least for now. "You," she growled, reaching out for her weapon, pulling it slowly from the ground, "cannot be my father."
"Why?" he immediately demanded, launching a flurry of attacks. "Tell me! Stop with your senseless accusations and back them up! Prove it or perish as clueless as when you faced me this morning!"
His attacks were strong and quick, able to turn and twist off of parries and blocks with fluidity unlike any she had ever seen, able to strike repeatedly without pause. They were coming too fast to allow any opportunity for a counterattack, no chance to exploit any defense he might have left open for the sake of a deadly blow. It was almost as if he was testing her reactions, daring her to lend too much attention to his questions before the pressure collapsed her concentration and faltered her guard. "You mimic his image. You speak in his voice. And you are able to readily recall every memory I have of him. But..." she paused as she made another close deflection, "you made a critical error."
"An understanding of values such as love, compassion, trust, and respect can only grant you so much knowledge as to how to be completely divergent from them, how to counter them on a one to one basis. What you fail to understand is that these are not simple ideals, do not follow simple rules, and certainly fail to make logical sense in some circumstances. Experience and practice will always be superior to observation," she managed to deflect the next few attacks enough to put a little more distance between them.
"You still haven't answered my question," he swung his weapon around to bring a crushing attack from above.
"Oh, but I have. You simply missed it," a dodge put her out of harm’s way and finally left her opponent in a rather disheartening position. "You said it yourself. Love is blind. And thus love is unconditional. I may have been wrong to avenge my father’s death, but that doesn't mean that I am any less of the little filly he raised," he managed to defend against her advantage, but it still rebalanced the sides and allowed her to stay on the offensive. "So despite what you say, you could never be my father. He would still love me no matter what I did."
"So perhaps you are right, for once," he continued to retreat from her. "Perhaps I understand less than I think I do. But what am I then? I'm certainly not a figment of your imagination.”
"You can only be one thing," she sighed, easing up momentarily in her advances. "You can only be what you claimed, everything I deemed unfit for my lifestyle and subsequently refused to acknowledge," her voice fell into a melancholy. "Whether I was right in doing so or not, is no longer a valid discussion. What is done is done, and there is no going back," and it flowed back into resolute ferocity just as easily as it had left it. "You must be destroyed. I cannot allow you to leave here."
"It’s not that simple. We must coexist," he countered. "Ponies continue on their lives every day, free of burden, free of guilt, because they share. So maybe they hurt one or two friends along the way by accident, who hasn't?"
Her voice became stronger and sterner, doubling her attack against him. "This is not a point system. One good deed does not pay for one bad one. A million good deeds cannot pay for one bad one. The only way to live is to deny you. To defeat you so that no pony else has to suffer anymore."
"And we both see how well that's working out for you."
"Enough games!" she demanded, parrying his blade away for the last time and driving her own straight into his shoulder with a gruesome crunch, the sword parting flesh and bone alike to travel through and out the top side of his body.
But there was no flinch, no cry of agony, no desperate hoof to reach up and clasp the penetration. Strangely enough, there wasn't even any blood that should have been staining his tunic in an unstoppable ripple. Instead, there was only an eerie black substance that poured forth, traveling down her blade to drip off and fall to the ground, splattering into pools and quickly vanishing under the sun. She knew this shadow; it was what had shrouded the creature before, what had enveloped him in impenetrable darkness. "You are truly unwilling to come to an agreement, to share? You realize that only one of us will be allowed to leave here alive. Is that a risk you’re willing to take?" he broke the silence, the air of arrogance that had plagued his tone since the moment he had opened his mouth finally resigning.
She sneered, unwilling to allow her energy to release its grip on the sword. “It is a risk I must take.”
"Then you are finally ready to face me."
He released his weapon before turning his energy upon hers, breaking her link while pulling it out of his flesh with one clean motion before tossing it at her hooves. Now open, the wound poured shadow from the gash, encircling his body as if gravity wielded no authority against him. It weaved and twisted its way around his form until the only thing left to the eyes was the smirk stretched from ear to ear where it had paused in its advance. "Now," the voice of her father was gone, "we will see who is stronger," the last word trailed off into the wind, echoing endlessly against her mind even as the blackness enveloped the last inches of his body, and once again her foe was completely surrounded by the misty void.
The murky shadow took on a liquid texture, flowing like water around the creature in endless waves, cresting and falling without any pattern. The layer of darkness receded inward as powerful and sturdy legs shrank to a more petite and agile structure underneath, leading up into an already thinning body. Atop, a tail and mane nearly doubled in size, bolstering their forms into a much younger and well kept thickness. Subtle changes along her face rounded out the nose, thinned the cheeks, and shrank the horn, though these were barely noticeable through the impenetrable void.
"Now what?" she shifted her weight impatiently. “Is this constant underhanded mimicry the best you can do?”
"Still foolish," the creature laughed as the motion underneath the bleak barrier began to subside. Or rather, she laughed. A female tone had snuck into the voice, matching the transformation. It was hidden well, heavily concealed beneath the creature’s echos while still remaining stronger than the rest. "Still clueless."
"Enlighten me," she fired back.
"With pleasure," she replied. The envelope of darkness exploded just as it had done before, shattering into millions of fragments that would quickly be swallowed up by the light. She didn't bother to watch this time around, eyes focused on what was going to materialize out of the black cocoon; what was going to come forth and challenge her. She narrowed her eyes as the creature came back into focus, finding only herself staring right back at her.
And at the same time, it wasn't her. The height, the weight, the general physique was all a perfect match. Her attire, however, was quite the opposite. An elaborate vest stretched smoothly across her back, the skin tight silk hidden underneath stunning arrays of emerald green folds that overlapped themselves in waves as they fell down around her sides. They extended well past her body, shrinking as they traveled until they merged with her legs, blending seamlessly into her light turquoise hair. They surrendered only part of her flank to the eye, her mark, a sinister lyre constructed out of spiked bones and bloody strings.
Above, a face so perfect in comparison they that may have very well been looking into a mirror, held only two notable differences. An impish grin was spread smoothly across soft lips, accentuating the cyan flair of her mane that whipped haphazardly around her head in the wind. Eyes, where there should have been soft saffron orbs, instead held that of the creatures. They were blood red, accompanied by seething fires that burned restlessly behind lifeless lenses, flames licking up and around her sockets.
Slung over her back was a blade that matched Lyra’s own in size and balance, but there was no visible edge. Instead, the entire length of where metal should have been stood only blackness. That same blackness that the creature possessed now molded into a long slender shape. It dripped like water and rolled like waves, anchored to some invisible force within so it would never stretch as far as to lose its figure. The shadow that fell endlessly from the weapon slid down her back and along her sides, streaming through her hair until it reached the ground where it would vanish into the earth.
“Hello, Lyra,” her voice was now a flawless copy without any trace of the creatures former tones. She extended a leg into a small bow, though she never let her fiery orbs fall from the others saffron eyes. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Heartstrings.”
Lyra readied her blade. “No more games. Let’s finish this.”
“No more games,” Heartstrings repeated, her horn igniting into an amber flurry as it reached out and brought her blade to bear.
Blue skies were chasing the retreating sun as it dipped below the horizon, its last fiery rays defiantly streaking upward, illuminating the grass covered valley below. A cool breeze continued to drift lazily through the fields, stirring the treeless leaves into a momentary swirl before allowing them to rest back down. The world was beginning its transition into the depths of night, save the two figures moving through the landscape with expert speed and precision, making strikes that dared to shatter reality itself as the opposing forces collided. One blade glimmered gloriously off of the sun, reflecting light and brilliance into all directions around her form. The other refused to let light escape, and exploded violently with each clash, releasing such immense amounts of blackness that it would seem that nightfall itself fought to escape that sword.
The time for words had long since passed for the duelists, replaced by the song of steel and fury as both fought for their very existence. Both were resolved beyond reasoning, entirely absolute in their motives to strike the other down without a moment’s hesitation should a guard fall, a parry miss, or a block shatter. As soon as ground was given, the other would advance, only to have to fall back to an onslaught of attacks until they could regain their balance enough to exploit an opening, and back they went like an eternal pendulum. Masters of war and combat, mimicked in poise to the point that it seemed such a battle would only reach a resolution when one became too fatigued to continue.
But such was not the outcome of this fight. Perhaps it was an inch off in one direction. Perhaps the other had gotten more gravity behind them. Perhaps it had simply been a slip of a hoof, a block when it should have been a parry. Whatever had happened, had happened so quickly that any pony eye couldn't have possibly ascertained where the fault had occurred. Within a fraction of time, a minuet blip in the vast unforgiving continuum, a sword was thrown upwards into the air with a resounded ring. Almost in unison, the sound of a blade eagerly claiming what it had fought so long for ripped through the valley, shrouded only by a short feminine whimper that only lasted as long as the echo’s carried it. One figure stood calmly, her horn suspending a blade that was sunk deep through the chest of the other and protruding out the other side. It dripped with victory and lusted for the final twist to claim its prize, begging its master to finish its work.
The other figure stood motionless, slightly slumped as if half of her dwindling strength was being supported by the weapon in her chest. Legs had lost all will to continue, and hung just as motionless by her side. A slow and damaged heartbeat thumped grievously against what had pierced through it, vibrating the length of the object, letting her mind feel every inch of agony that had been driven through her. No words, no strength for words, no strength to even cry against the pain. It was over, she was finished.
The victor’s breathing was heavy in the still silence; the earth itself freezing to witness the outcome as if it was still in question. She waited only as long as it took to recuperate, and then relaxed her stance. Her horn continued to burn brightly, gripping the blade with resolution, preparing to make the final twist. But the rest of her body took a step forward, past the sword, closing the distance between them with that singular step. A free hoof lifted and set itself down on the others shoulder with grace and tenderness, balancing her body enough to lean forward and bring soft lips against an ear, pouring hot breath smoothly against the side of her head.
Her words were short and concise. They carried with them the air of finality that meant only one thing. They were undoubtedly the last words that would ever be exchanged between them.
With that simple claim, a prepared horn igniting, gripping the hilt firmly. The blade, coated in shadow and tainted with darkness, twisted.
Lyra snapped awake, sitting bolt upright in her bed with a hoof pressed against her chest, firmly on the spot that the weapon had pierced her flesh. Her sheets were soaked with sweat, the remainder still continuing to drip down her entire form. Breath evaded her for a few moments, eyes staring blindly into the night that enveloped her room. "A dream," she stammered, trying to shake off whatever that feeling was lurking in her gut. "A dream. Just... a dream," it took another few moments to remember to blink, to realize she was in her own bed. "Just a dream, Lyra," she looked quickly to her right, relieved to see Bon Bon was still peacefully sleeping next to her.
Unsteady hooves lifted her from her bed and carried her to the bathroom. "But..." she mumbled to herself. "Bah! Leave it alone, Lyra," her horn reached for the light switch, forcing her eyes to shut as the light blinded her senses not accustomed to the illumination. Familiar enough with her own bathroom without needing to reopen them, she fumbled her way to the sink and cupped her hooves under the surface as she turned the water on, allowing the sink to fill with warm water. A moment later, she plunged her head into the small puddle, shocking the deadened nerves in her face back into life.
She continued this until she was fully satisfied with the results, finding a nearby towel to dry her face. There was still a groggy slowness as she wiped it across her hair, rubbing it with more force than was needed and long after it was dry, massaging the muscles and easing the tension. Each hoof dragged the towel around the outer edges of her eyes, moving above them before sliding down over them, pulling the eye lids down until snapping away; finally letting them open to stare into the mirror in front of her.
Only to find blazing red orbs staring right back at her, an impish grin stretched cleanly across her lips.