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        The sun was setting. It was already mostly hidden by the horizon, its dying rays giving the world a warm red tint. In the east, the sky was already fading to purple, and stars were slowly winking into existence, the tiny pinpoints of luminescence eager to twinkle in the absence of Celestia’s sun. Lording over the first stars to appear, already halfway over the horizon, was her sister’s moon, full and gleaming.

        Celestia allowed herself a slight frown of irritation at the sight of the rising moon. She preferred to work by daylight, but it wasn’t as though she could simply refuse to lower the sun. Certainly, she would love nothing more than to deny Luna her “beautiful” night, but that would be an unthinkable breach of the rules, even during a time of war.

        She tilted her wings, bringing herself into a steep dive. Plummeting downward, she felt the thrill of flight and made a mental note to do it more often. Of late, she had been spending the majority of her time holed up in tents meeting with her commanders and planning their latest move against Luna. It would be nice to get out and stretch her wings for once.

        Now, however, was not the time for indulgent thrill-seeking. Celestia broke through a layer of clouds, and the scene of the battle unfolded before her. The ground was scorched and scoured of foliage, leaving only dry, gray soil. Armored earthponies wrestled and charged, crushing each other with their incredible strength. Unicorns impaled enemy soldiers with metal shards, and some wielded deadly magical blades. In the air, pegasi circled one another, occasionally colliding with bone-crunching speed, at which point one would fall to become another dead pony on the field below.

        Celestia picked a group of Luna’s soldiers, identifiable by the black-and-blue of their uniforms, and angled herself towards them as she dove downwards. As she tore through the air, several pegasi turned from their aerial combat to regard her. Those who wore the white-and-gold of her army did so with awe. Those who wore the black-and-blue of Luna, however, did so with terror. As she passed, a pegasus called out to the forces below her.

        The contingent of Luna’s troops looked up, but it was too late. Celestia flared her wings, causing herself to slow abruptly as she drew nearer to the ground. Then she cast her blade, conjuring a brilliant shaft of pure sunlight directly above her head. She focused more of her magical power, and Zenith, her blade, surged with a brilliant light. Luna’s soldiers, blinded by her magic, were dazed and disoriented as she landed amongst them.

        She cut down three before any of them could react, Zenith cauterizing their wounds closed as it sheared them into pieces. A unicorn, the first of her enemies to react, threw a set of sharp shards of iron at her. Celestia grabbed the nearest live earthpony with telekinesis, then tossed him into the path of the shards. They tore into his flesh, and the unicorn, having just harmed one of his allies, lost his focus. He ceased to grip the iron shards, and Celestia took advantage of his mistake, tearing them out of the earthpony and launching them back along their trajectory to bury themselves in the unicorn’s neck.

        An earthpony tried to jump on her, and she rolled under him, beheading her enemy with Zenith even as she came to her feet. She kicked out at another unicorn with her hind legs, using her earthpony magic to strengthen the blow. The unicorn’s skull crumpled, and Celestia struck out at another earthpony with her blade.

        She turned to face the final two soldiers who were proximate to her, both unicorns. She deflected two iron shards with her blade, then cast a bolt of fire toward one of her adversaries. Her target, a young mare, ducked her spell, but did not evade the spinning metal disc that suddenly shot through the air and opened her throat. She crumpled to the dirt.

        The remaining unicorn, a stallion, looked from his fallen ally to Celestia. He backed away slightly, clearly aware of the fact that he stood no chance against the alicorn. Celestia did nothing. Instead, she watched as a tiny point of blue energy built around the far side of the unicorn’s neck. There was a flash of blue light, and another unicorn suddenly stood beside her only remaining adversary. The new arrival bowed sharply to Celestia as the remaining soldier of Luna’s fell to the ground, slain by her teleport splice.

        “Lieutenant Coruscare.” Celestia greeted the new unicorn, and she rose out of her bow. She was a deep blue mare with a long, straight mane of white that contained a single streak of black. She wore a stiff white coat, hidden under a flowing white cloak, each of which was trimmed with gold. Along each side of the collar of her cloak were five golden sunbursts, each within a circle. She was the most powerful unicorn alive, and as such was a tremendous asset on the battlefield.

        Celestia watched as her own troops surged around her, overtaking their position and pushing Luna’s forces back. “We assume,” she said to the unicorn standing before her. “That thou hath a report for us?”

        Astor Coruscare nodded. “Yes, princess. We have lost the ridge, but with minimal casualties. Luna’s forces overtook us despite our slight numerical advantage.”

        Celestia frowned. She had prepared for the eventuality, of course, but it was still a nuisance. “Why?” she asked simply.

        “I wasn’t present, but it seems her personal guards had something to do with it. The pegasus destroyed an entire air contingent by herself. Were I there, we would not have lost. But I thought I would be more useful on the front. I’m sorry, Princess.”

        Celestia thought for a moment, then decided that Astor had not done anything wrong, and did not warrant a punishment. She knew she was playing favorites, but the unicorn was her favorite; she was smarter and stronger than any other commander in her army by an order of magnitude.

        “We shalt retake the ridge,” she said at last. “Thou wilt taketh command of the twenty-second and the thirty-fifth, along with a contingent of air power. I shalt strike from above, opening a-”

She stopped, looking up sharply. The troops ahead of them, the ones who had been pushing Luna’s forces back, had begun to scream. The sound wasn’t the usual cacophony of war, but rather the bone-chilling sound of trained soldiers wailing in terror. Through the chaos of the battlefield, she saw her soldiers frantically running toward her, weapons and armor abandoned, and made out a single shout:

        “It’s Luna!”

        Celestia felt a surge of both hatred and excitement. She shared a look with her lieutenant. “Princess,” Astor began, “let me-”

        “Nay, Astor.” Celestia spread her wings and brought Zenith to a ready position. “Thou art not prepared to face her. Not yet. Take the ridge.”

        Astor made a sullen face, but nodded and vanished in a burst of blue energy. Celestia brought herself forward and into the fray with several beats of her wings. She landed amongst her scattered soldiers, and flared Zenith so as to draw their attention.

        “To us!” she shouted, “Form ranks! Push forward, soldiers, for Equestria! In the name of the King!”

        She slew two of Luna’s warriors with a single swipe of her blade, then set a unicorn on fire with a simple spell. “To us!” she shouted again. She scanned the battlefield, searching for a sign of her sister, but Luna was nowhere to be seen.

        “In the name of the king!” her soldiers took up the battle cry, surging around her to push deeper into the battlefield once again. It was then that Luna made her presence known once again.

        A torrent of bats came over her forces, black with glowing blue eyes. They swarmed around her soldiers, tearing tiny chunks out of their flesh when they could. Her soldiers screamed and curled up on the ground, unable to fight the newly arrived foe. Celestia scowled at the magical swarm, then channeled power into her blade. It burst into brilliant light once more, and the bats withdrew, screeching as they converged into a dark cloud above her, just outside the light cast by her blade.

        They funneled upward, then arced down toward the battlefield, converging on the form of a blue alicorn. There, they landed, each bat melting into an elaborate, hooded cloak that fell loosely over the other princess’s form. Celestia watched the pointless display with disinterest. She stepped forward, away from her soldiers, until she and Luna stood apart from their armies. To Celestia, Luna aligned perfectly with the rising moon on the horizon. She knew that in her sister’s eyes, she stood against the setting sun.

        Luna spoke, magically charging her voice with volume. “The sun is setting, sister. Best thou find a light to huddle beneath, lest the dark devour thee!”

        Celestia didn’t answer, instead raising a single eyebrow at her sister’s words. Luna always had been a little over-dramatic. She held her blade at the ready, counting on the fact that her sister would strike first. Luna drew her own blade, an almost identical shaft of concentrated moonlight, then charged.

        Their blades met before them, the energy between the two magical constructs flaring, and Celestia felt the corrosive bite of the magic radiating from Luna’s blade, Nadir. She drew away, pushing against Luna’s blade with her own even as Zenith singed the hair of her adversary. They each pulled their blades away, and the harmful effect of Luna’s blade subsided. Celestia pressed the attack, striking out at her sister with a series of lightning-fast blows. Luna, in a display of excellent bladecasting, either blocked or turned each blow away with Nadir before beating her wings to flip over Celestia’s head.

        Their blades met once again in the air above Celestia, and she saw her sister sneer. Luna landed, swinging Nadir at Celestia’s face, and Celestia ducked under the weapon, feeling the odd magical burning sensation that seemed to emanate from the blade. She tapped her unicorn magic, and a wall of yellow flames erupted underneath her sister. Luna shrieked, her flesh singed by the magical fire, then threw herself into the air, the force of her takeoff pushing flames in every direction. Celestia allowed herself a small smile of satisfaction.

        In the air, Luna’s horn glowed, and her dark cloak broke into hundreds of tiny bats once more. They flew at Celestia, battering her face and neck with tiny impacts and obscuring her vision. She snarled, then drew the flames she summoned earlier about herself with her magic. The fire billowed and churned around her, destroying the tiny magical beasts, then condensed, clinging to the princess as it formed a suit of golden armor and flowing white cloak.

        Too late, Celestia looked upward to see her sister descending upon her, Nadir outstretched. Celestia felt a strange cold feeling as the blade came toward her. Unable to raise her own weapon in time, she hit herself with a wave of telekinesis to throw herself quickly downward and to the side. She was not fast enough, however, and a freezing pain blossomed in her side as Nadir cut away a small piece of her hide. She winced as she came out of her roll, then deflected another series of blows delivered by her sister.

        She found herself regretting the decision not to bring Astor. Luna might not have Celestia’s capabilities when it came to tactics and magic, but her physical prowess was far superior to Celestia’s. As their blades met in front of their faces once more, Luna sneered. “Art thou badly injured, sister?” her deep voice vibrated through the air around them, ruffling Celestia’s pink mane. “Perhaps thou shouldst attempt to think the wound closed.”

        Celestia ignored the taunt as she pushed her sister away with her blade. Luna stumbled back, and did not come at her again as Celestia spoke. “We know that thou hast no penchant for thought before action,” she said as they began to circle one another, “but if thou didst think before acting, thou might have realized that this,” she gave a general nod to the battlefield around them, “is but a distraction.”

        Luna’s eyes narrowed. Celestia continued, “The pegasus that thou keepest on thine guard,” she said. “We hope she is not of any import to thee.”

        Luna laughed with her tremendous voice. “How couldst this be a distraction? We drew thee out, sister.”

        Celestia responded with her own laugh, which was much quieter on account of the fact that she did not waste power enhancing her voice. “We knew that thou wouldst attack at moonrise,” she said. “Thou dost always attack at moonrise. Thine pegasus is as good as dead.”

        Luna’s face began to show a hint of doubt, and her smile vanished. Celestia sneered. “Predictable as always, sister. Thou never couldst see the strings. Remember this lesson when thou doth cradle the corpse of thine favorite soldier in thy arms: thou canst never beat us.”

        Luna backed away, her eyes shooting towards the sky. She slowly shook her head.

        “Every victory that thou claim, every soldier of mine that thou slay, thou doest by our design.”

        Luna took flight, undoubtedly to save her strongest soldier and the ridge, and Celestia ended the memory.

-

The Immortal Game

A story by AestheticB

        Celestia sat in the center of her circular chambers, breathing steadily and with her eyes shut. The memory had not been a long one, but its effect on her had been quite strong. Her breathing quickened slightly as she tried to quell the surging emotions inside her. It had been a terrible memory, one from days long since past. Examining it now left her with an overwhelming sense of regret. She gave up trying to control her breathing and let out a long sigh. She and Luna both had done horrible, horrible things to each other.

        She had failed as a sister. Failed to protect the one pony more important to her than any other pony in existence. Let herself be twisted into a weapon of war and done nothing as her sister had undergone the same transformation. How they, the fastest of friends, had become such bitter rivals in ancient times still sometimes baffled Celestia. Their separation had resulted in decades of loneliness for both of them.

        Celestia realized that she was angry. Yes, she clearly identified the emotion as rage, a feeling she did not experience often. She and Luna had not simply decided one day to take up arms against each other and sunder the entire race of pony. Somepony had been responsible for their conflict. Somepony had hurt Celestia, had hurt Luna, and had indirectly caused the deaths of tens of thousands of ponies. It was only natural, Celestia decided, that she be angry at them. She let the rage run its course rather than stifling it.

        She stood off of the wide circular bed that dominated her chambers and began to pace. Examining the memory had been necessary, she had decided. She would need to look at others from the same time period. She had already been over the more immediate memories of her sister, the ones surrounding her corruption and the birth of Nightmare Moon. Now, she would have to go deeper into the past.

        Luna was the reason she had called up the dreadful event in the first place. Even after so much time in the present, Celestia’s sister was still acting distant and sullen. Most of it, Celestia believed, was from guilt. Still, there were things she didn’t know about her sister, behaviours that she didn’t understand. She needed to delve into the past, remember everything she could about her sister, so as to gain the greatest possible understanding of the other princess. It was Celestia’s responsibility to ease Luna’s troubles, and to help her sister adjust to the new world.

        Luna was having trouble, and it didn’t help that the ponies in Canterlot were either terrified of her, or ignored her outright. It didn’t help that Luna spent four hours a night sitting in an empty room as nopony came to her court. Celestia had watched matters unfold for a time, but decided after a point to intervene. She would not let her sister spiral downward into depression and jealousy once again. She had failed Luna too many times before.

        Yes, she decided, she would continue to delve further into the disturbing memories of the past. She would also make a greater effort to manipulate the palace staff from afar, nudging the right ponies in the right places. She would need to ensure Luna had ponies around her to talk to, ponies who would not shrink away from their princess. She would also need to find problems that Luna, and not Celestia, could solve so that the other princess did not feel redundant. She would, if she had to, create problems for her sister.

        She made out the sound of two sets of hooves approaching, and was not surprised to hear a knock at her door. She briefly wondered what kind of problem had arisen that warranted disturbing her at such a late hour, then telekinetically opened the door.

        Standing in the doorway to her chambers was Index, one of the palace administrators. He was shifting from hoof to hoof, clearly anxious. Several metres behind him stood Princess Luna, wearing a dark scowl.

        “Princess,” Index gave a low bow before coming to his feet again. “Forgive me for asking your counsel at such a late hour.”

        Celestia looked from Index to Luna, confused. Luna shot her a glare, looking supremely displeased. Had she been unable to attend to whatever Index needed? It seemed unlikely; by now Luna was well-versed in the workings of modern Equestrian government. A feeling of unease began to settle in Celestia’s stomach. This was not good. “Continue,” she said to Index.

        Index seemed somewhat cowed by Celestia’s one word response and the fact that she had not excused him. He shot an uneasy glance back at princess Luna before turning back to Celestia. “I-” he began. He worked his mouth, clearly at a loss for words. “Could we speak... privately?” he asked finally, shooting another glance back at Luna.

        Suddenly Celestia understood. The request was so disrespectful to Luna as to be insulting.

        “No,” Celestia said simply. She tried not to sound too harsh, and under normal circumstances she would have been much kinder to the poor unicorn. Luna took precedence, however. “What did you come here to ask me?”

        Index, clearly distraught, wrung his hooves. “Luna-”

        “Princess Luna.”

        “Princess Luna, yes, a thousand apologies, Princess. Princess Luna has ordered that the escort assigned to Twilight Sparkle be abolished.”

        Suddenly, Celestia understood. Twilight was in Canterlot that night, to spend the night with her and Luna. It was tradition that as a guest she be given an escort of at least two of the Princess’s guards. Such a measure was by no means necessary, but Celestia did not want to leave her pupil alone. She was currently eating a meal after arriving from Ponyville. It was very late, and nopony would be in the dining hall to eat with her. Twilight, while quite introverted, would likely not appreciate taking her supper completely by herself. Celestia had thought ahead and seen to it that she and her pet dragon would have somepony to talk to.

        For whatever reason, Luna had ordered Twilight’s escort away. Celestia couldn’t fathom why, but she also knew that Twilight would be fine without them. The young mare knew her way around the palace. Index, however, had not seen fit to follow through on Luna’s order. He had come to Celestia rather than carry it out.

        Celestia concealed her immense displeasure at the situation. The last thing Luna needed was somepony questioning her authority. Hopefully, Celestia could still turn things around.

        Rather than answer Index, Celestia turned to her sister. “I am so sorry, Luna. Please, forgive him for his appalling breach in etiquette.”

        At this, Index paled and glanced quickly at Luna before turning back to Celestia once more. “Princess,” he said. “If I have done something wrong, please accept my most sincere apologies! I never-”

        “Index, you have worked in the palace for what, twelve years?” Thirteen years, four months, six days, Celestia recalled.

        “Thirteen, Princess.”

        “And you have enjoyed serving so close to me, yes?”

        “Of course, Princess. It is an honor to work under you.”

        “And when you cannot solve a problem, who do you bring it to?”

        “Why, you, Princess. Your wisdom and judgement are unparalleled.”

        “And when I give you an order?”

        “I would follow it to the death, my Princess.”

        Celestia leaned forward, and spoke softly to the administrator. “And why,” she said, “do you do these things?”

        He began to answer immediately. “Because you are the ruler of Equestria,” he said. “Because you are my Princess, and-” realization dawned on his face. Her slumped, then spoke again, losing his indignant tone. “Princess...” he began.

        “Not to me.”

        Index turned to face Luna. “I have wronged you, Princess. From the bottom of my heart, I ask that you forgive me.”

        Luna gave the kneeling pony a cold stare. When she spoke, her voice was hard. “If thou had sought to undermine my sister’s authority, what might thine punishment be?”

        At this, Index began to tremble visibly. “I-I-I-” he stammered. Luna cut him off.

        “Be about thine business.” she said curtly. “And do not make this mistake again.”

        Index gave a tiny yelp at the reprimand before hurrying away. He cast one last look at the alicorns before rushing around a corner as fast as he could walk without running.

        Celestia felt a tinge of pity for the poor pony, then stepped out to meet her sister. “I was giving you an opening to be nice, Luna,” she said, “that’s why I was so harsh with him to begin with. So you could seem kind by comparison.”

        Luna scoffed. “Thou callest that harsh? By ancient standards, I was kind. He still has a job.”

        “We don’t live in ancient times anymore, Luna. A thousand years have passed since you last ruled.”

        “As if I could forget,” Luna said wearily. “When thou art twice my size, and everypony looks at me strangely when I say ‘thou’.” She gestured to the end of the hallway. “Shall we?”

        Celestia began to walk with her sister towards the dining hall. “Are you excited to meet Twilight?”

        For the first time in several days, Celestia saw her sister laugh. “Thine last student was a weapon bred and trained to murder me. Forgive me if I am less than thrilled to meet another.”

        “Luna!”

        “I was kidding, sister. Twilight and I have already met, and she was interesting enough. I shall be pleased to be formally introduced.

        “Oh, right,” Celestia said as they rounded a corner. She had known Luna was joking, but her objection had served to draw more attention to the fact and possibly encourage her to do it more often in the future. “Funny that you should mention Astor, I was just thinking of her. You remember how the Coruscare scale is named after her, on account of the fact that she’s a perfect ten?”

        “I do.” The Coruscare scale measured a unicorn’s magical energy.

        “She’s a nine point three now. The scale had to be reordered to accommodate Twilight Sparkle. She’s the new ten.”

        “Element of Magic indeed,” Luna muttered. “Hopefully she is satisfied with having defeated me once already.”

        They were moving through one of the palace’s larger passageways, and the guards lining the walls bowed as they passed. “So tell me,” Celestia said. “Why did you want to have Twilight’s escort sent away in the first place?”

        “I don’t like the captain,” Luna said simply.

        Celestia stopped in the middle of the hallway to give her sister a look. “You don’t like the captain? That’s your only reason?”

        Luna simply kept walking, giving Celestia a smug smile. “That’s my only reason. He seems ...off to me.”

        Celestia was taller than Luna, and it was easy for her to catch up to her sister while still appearing graceful and majestic, as befit her station. “You had the guards sent away because one of them seemed off?

        “Esteem, I think his name was. He volunteered to be part of her escort despite the fact that the duty is far beneath his rank. It seemed strange.”

        Esteem, Celestia thought, recalling everything she knew about the pony. “Hmm,” she said after a time, pursing her lips. “You’re right,” she said at last.

        “I am?”

        “Yes. Captain Esteem should not be anywhere near Twilight Sparkle, or her friends, at any point in time. Requesting to be on Twilight’s escort is a blatant subversion of my authority. I shall have to reprimand him.”

        “What ever happened to being kind?”

        Celestia stopped before the doorway to the dining hall and faced Luna. “Esteem is a soldier. He respects discipline. I’m sure he’ll understand.”

        “I don’t know, Celly,” Luna said to her quietly as Celestia opened the doors. “I spoke with him this afternoon. His soldiers are terrified of him, you can see it in their eyes. He is always so quiet, and controlled. He almost reminds me of-” Luna’s sentence trailed away and died as they both turned inward toward the dining hall.

        The wooden tables and benches that normally stood in neat rows were scattered and broken, splinters littering the floor. Celestia could make out the bodies of three of her guards, lying unmoving in pools of blood on the stone floor. Another pool of blood sat in the center of the room, slightly smeared towards them. The dining hall had only two occupants, neither of whom was Twilight, or Esteem.

        They were her parents.

        Panic gripped Celestia, stronger than it had in over a thousand years. She felt her mouth fall open slightly, and she took an involuntary step back from the couple in the center of the room. Words failed her; all she could focus on was the fact that she didn’t have a plan. With Nightmare Moon and Discord, there had been a plan. She had worked to ensure that her enemies would not harm her kingdom, had assembled the Elements of Harmony. Now, however...

        Her eyes fell upon the pool of blood in the center of the room once more. It wasn’t perfectly round; the fluid had been dragged towards them, almost as if somepony had struggled while they bled out.

        She looked up at her father. “What have you done with Esteem?” she demanded, “and Twilight?” She deliberately said Twilight’s name second so as to make the unicorn seem less important. Hopefully, if the King had her, her importance would be overlooked.

        King Titan was exactly as tall as Celestia, but much broader. His mane was a long, almost feminine flowing mass of bright white ether. His wings and coat were a matte black. He wore nothing, and his cutie mark was a simple white circle.

        His face bore the expression of dispassion that Celestia remembered so well. His eyes were cold and distant, his mouth a thin line at the end of a square muzzle. He was handsome, in a way.

        Since they were the same height, it was difficult to tell how much older than Celestia he really was. But if one looked closely, they would notice that the tips of his wings split into the same bright white ether that he had in place of a mane, and that his irises were a burning white as well. He had a certain stillness to him, as though he could stand in the hall forever, watching with disinterest as the stone walls crumbled around him and were overgrown.

        Titan spoke in a fluid, resonant tone that seemed to demand attention despite not being particularly loud. “You forget,” he began, “our first rule. You never ask us questions, my daughter.

        “I will, however, do you the service of answering the most obvious one.” He looked at Celestia.

        “How?” she asked simply.

        “I had help,” the older alicorn said. “You failed to fully bury the knowledge of our existence and our imprisonment. A unicorn of considerable talent was all it took to tip the scales and allow me to break our bonds. How you could have made such a grave oversight is beyond me, however. I taught you to be better than this.”

        Celestia didn’t bother masking the disgust in her voice. “You taught me to be hateful, paranoid, and alone.”

        Titan tilted his head slightly, as if confused. “I taught you to rule.

        He waved a hoof and began to pace the room. “Let’s not do this, Celestia. You could stand there and wax philosophical about what ponykind ‘deserves’ while I argue with you. Or I could scream and yell and stomp my feet, expressing my anger at you for imprisoning me in the first place. We could taunt one another and bring up painful memories from days long since past. I’m sure you could hint vaguely at all the plots you have in place for just this occasion. I don’t want to do any of these things. I don’t even want to fight you, though I suspect I will have to.

        “Instead let us simply allow the events of tonight to unfold uninterrupted. You will fail to defeat me, and your former pupil will break you down into your component parts. I will use your power to create a son, whom I will appoint the new prince of Equestria. Luna will be captured and forced to be his lady wife, and I will begin reverting things to their natural order while he and his faithful student pacify the population.”

        His faithful student. Celestia felt a chill. She turned to her mother.

        Where the King looked upon them with disinterest, Queen Terra’s eyes were filled with hate. Her lips were pulled back in a sneer, her nostrils were flared. The expression was almost comical on the Queen, as her coat was a forest green and her mane a sunshine yellow. Celestia knew that Terra was much younger than Titan, and likely younger than herself, now.

        Terra snarled. “Your precious student-”

        Titan interrupted her. “Enough, Terra,” he said simply. “Tell them nothing.” Terra stopped talking immediately.

        Her outburst had been enough, however. If Twilight was still alive, and working for Titan, it meant only one thing. Her most faithful student had been enslaved by the Sliver of Darkness.

        “I must admit,” Titan continued, “That I was surprised to find you in power upon my return. With me gone, I can only imagine that Discord seized control of the world once more. How you managed to defeat a draconequus is beyond me. My old rival was not a force to be trifled with.”

        “I also find it interesting that you have aged so little since I saw you last, Luna. It would seem that your old rivalry did not end with me out of the picture. A pity, considering if you were Celestia’s age the two of you might actually stand a chance of opposing me. As is, you are severely out-classed.”

        Celestia grit her teeth. “There’s more to ruling than power, Titan.”

        She needed to think. Her imminent death was no reason to shirk her duty: ensuring the safety of ponykind. Her opponents might have Twilight, and they might out-age her and her sister by a combined two and a half millenia, but that didn’t make the situation hopeless.

        It just made the game they were playing a difficult one. Celestia made her first move:

        “Run, Luna.”

        She knew that Luna hated being ordered around by her - they were, after all, supposed to be equals. She also knew that her younger sister would much rather stay and fight, despite the impossible odds. A part of Celestia hoped, however, that in the face of such an unbeatable opponent, Luna would be able to swallow her pride and listen.

        Fortunately, Luna ran, speeding out through the doorway they entered through and taking flight in the hallway.

        Terra immediately turned to Titan. “Send me after her,” she begged. “I owe her.”

        Titan looked at his wife, deciding. “Yes,” he said finally in his quiet, controlled voice. Terra flew off after the younger alicorn, leaving the two of them alone.

        Celestia stood motionless, but in her mind she was thinking furiously.

        A corrupted Twilight Sparkle, she thought. How can I anticipate the game plan of an opponent I’ve never even met? The answer was an obvious one. The Sliver will construct an anti-Twilight. So what do I know about Twilight Sparkle?

        Titan stopped pacing and looked into her eyes. Even after over a thousand years, she had to suppress a shiver.  “Surrender, Celestia,” he said simply. “I don’t want to put this off any longer. I will be king again.”

        The princess of Equestria gave no answer, save but to conjure a brilliant blade of sunlight and level it at the older alicorn.

        Twilight is studious and patient. Intelligent and curious. A little timid, but brave when it counts. She both respects and fears authority. She feels the need to rationalize all of her actions, and the actions of those around her. She has a close group of friends who also happen to bear the Elements of Harmony.

        And you let them get her, another voice said accusingly in the back of head.

        Celestia flattened the emotion of guilt almost instantly. Nearly eleven hundred years of life had given her a mind of steel.

        Outside of her thought process, Titan regarded her incandescent blade lazily. Faced with what was until moments before the most powerful pony in Equestria, he maintained his dispassionate composure. “I see,” he said simply.

        Celestia let him take his time. An anti-Twilight, then, would be what? Her answer almost made her sick. She’d be completely insane. Unpredictable. An impatient, sadistic monster with more power than any other unicorn in the kingdom. A perfect ten on the Coruscare scale. And Twilight is trapped inside of her.

        Celestia had to save her student. She also had to save her sister. In the long run, she had to save all of Equestria. She estimated she had less than two minutes to live.

She worked a thought-speak spell and sent it after her younger sister. It was a powerful spell, and it would be extremely illegal for a regular unicorn. Celestia, however, was past worrying about breaking her own rules. She had to save Luna.

The spell connected in a moment, allowing her to send thoughts to her younger sister.

        “Listen carefully, Luna,” she told the other princess through their mind link. “Terra is coming after you. You need to fly low and make for Ponyville. Find the Elements.”

        She turned to face the would-be king, alone. She wasn’t afraid, really. The first rule of being able to live forever was that you would still, someday, die.

        Titan cast his own blade, a slim length of darkness. It didn’t glow, or burn, or waver. In fact, it almost looked solid for something made entirely of energy. The blade was a perfect representation of the king: total control. Celestia waited for him to attack first. Every moment he delayed was one that she could spend planning.

        Using her powerful mental discipline, she split her mind three ways. She had never been sure if the technique was magical or not. After a thousand years of practice, however, the princess’s mind was capable of amazing things. The first of her minds would fight Titan, while the second would handle helping Luna to escape. The third needed to figure out how to guarantee the protection of the Elements of Harmony.

        Those six ponies were their only hope. Sadly, their leader had already fallen.

        An anti-Twilight would be unpredictable, yes. Her actions would not be completely random, however. She would hate Twilight’s loved ones with a burning passion.She would be power hungry. Most importantly, she would have no respect for authority, no loyalty, and no fear.

        Titan attacked, accelerating through the sound barrier less than halfway through his lunge. Celestia was thrown backward into the surrounding rubble as she barely managed to deflect his blade.

        The princess knew Twilight as well as anypony. Which meant she also knew her student’s shadow. Celestia imagined a game board taking shape in her mind. While the anti-Twilight might not know it, she had just become a piece. The game was far from over.

        She was vaguely aware of her other minds: the first was now fighting Titan, and despite its cautiousness, losing. The second was speaking with Luna through her spell. The two would occasionally communicate, but left the third mind to its machinations. The Elements of Harmony were more important than everything else.

        Titan doesn’t know about the Elements of Harmony, she thought. Neither does Terra, and nor will their son. But Twilight- or rather, anti-Twilight- will. It is a safe assumption, then, that with her lust for power and disregard for her superiors, she’ll seek to use the Elements against them. I need to give her that opportunity.

        Her thoughts stuttered slightly as King Titan threw them through a solid stone wall. She had hoped for more time to plan, but it seemed that even fighting cautiously their battle would be a short one. Celestia still had things to do, however.

        She communicated briefly with the part of her that was fighting Titan. That Celestia needed to ensure that the Tower of Harmony was destroyed. Titan could not know of the existence of the Elements, and the anti-Twilight would need to know he didn’t know. Destroying the tower would give her the opening she would need to retrieve them.

The part of her fighting Titan answered in the affirmative, but warned against being too obvious. Since Celestia was so much weaker than the king, her only hope would be to strike fast and defeat him quickly. Since she wasn’t doing that, it would be obvious to him that she was biding time for something else.

Her second consciousness chimed in, offering an easy solution. She would make it appear as though all her effort was focused on protecting Luna. Indeed, at that moment, Luna was in serious danger.

The Celestia fighting Titan manoeuvred in the air so as to put Titan in between her and her sister’s adversaries. Then, she launched a stream of sunlight at the older alicorn. He dodged, but Terra, several thousand metres away, was struck. The part of Celestia that was dealing with Luna expressed satisfaction.

Despite her attempt at subtlety, Titan would likely figure out what she had done. Celestia was fine with that, however. In reality, the move had been to cover up her true intentions. The king might expect her to hide a play behind another play, but she doubted he would look deeper.

Celestia manoeuvred in the air again, this time giving Titan an extremely small opening. He attacked, throwing her through another building with so much force that it broke the focus of all three of her minds at once.

When she collected her thoughts a moment later, however, she found herself in the exact structure she had intended Titan to throw her into: the palace library.

The corrupted Twilight - now the princess’ most important piece- would have a hatred for her friends as deep and voluminous as Twilight had had love. It would be difficult, then, to prevent the corrupted unicorn from murdering them. Fortunately, Celestia had just the thing.

You need to grab a certain book, her third consciousness told the part of her mind that was in control. It’s there, under magical theory. You need to move it to the section concerning the black arts, war magic, and mind magic. Place it on the ground, in clear view, open to this page. Ensure Titan does not destroy these shelves.

Even if the anti-Twilight didn’t decide to betray her masters on her own, the page that the book was open to would likely plant the idea in her mind. In order to gain the firepower necessary to defeat princess Luna, the corrupted student would need the books on the surrounding shelves. Celestia was, hopefully, ensuring that her “enemy” picked up exactly the book that would tell her how to harness the power of the Elements of Harmony.

She knew that Twilight would instantly be suspicious of a book on the ground conveniently open to just the page she needed, which was enough reason to believe that anti-Twilight would take the bait. Once she did, the book would tell her how to harness the Elements of Harmony from their current bearers. It was a process that did not involve killing them. Twilight’s friends, five of Celestia’s essential pieces, would be safe from the corrupted Twilight.

Of course, that was only if she could get the book where it needed to go.

You need to get it there fast, her second mind added, Luna will need our help again very soon.

Thankfully, the part of Celestia fighting Titan delivered. As the king came in to land another blow, Celestia threw herself to the side, throwing a nearby bookcase at him. Titan knocked the bookcase out of the air with ease, but with eleven hundred years of experience manipulating objects, Celestia plucked the book she needed from the shelf.

She rolled in to attack him from the other side, causing him to turn to face away from the book she now held. He easily thwarted her assault- he was three times as strong as her, and a better bladecaster besides. But while he did, she found the page she needed.

She threw herself into the air, careful to trace in her mind the most likely path he would take to follow her. As he shot up after her and out of the library, she slid the book into position, page open.

Then, she dived, and when their positions were in the right alignment, she attacked with another long-range beam of sunlight. While Titan dodged her assault with ease, the king had not been her mark. On the other side of the city, Terra was crushed under several tons of falling stones.

        Satisfied that Luna was safe, the part of her mind dedicated to protecting her fused back into the whole. Now Celestia had only two tasks, and two minds to complete them. Delay Titan, and ensure that the Elements of Harmony were properly positioned on her game board.

        Luna was safe, however. In her mind, her sister’s piece slid across the game board and into position.

        Titan clearly realized that the spell had been aimed at Terra. He did not look pleased.

        Celestia moved, goading his next attack. He would hit her hard, likely with enough strength to finish her. She was almost prepared to lose, finally. She just needed him to hit her in the right direction...

        He struck.

        Celestia was thrown through the air. Not for the first time, she broke the sound barrier and burst through another section of the palace.

Specifically, she was thrown through the Tower of Harmony.

        She struck out with her own magic as she exploded through the tower, encouraging its destruction with subtle telekinesis. The tower collapsed, but the force of Titan’s throw brought her through both tower walls, causing her to land on the grass some distance away.

        Celestia looked at the ruins of the Tower of Harmony as Titan descended next to her. Somewhere in the rubble, unbeknownst to the older alicorn, was a chest containing the one weapon that could defeat him. And his own servant, the anti-Twilight, was going to bring it to the only ponies who could use it against him. Satisfied, her consciousness slid anti-Twilight’s piece into position, then merged into the whole.

        Celestia lay helpless on the ground next to Titan, feeling unbearable pain. The pain was why she had had to split her mind in the first place. She needed to focus to give ponykind a fighting chance in her absence. Now, as she was brought out of her partitioned mind and into the real world, she found herself completely drained of power as Titan stood over her. The fight had hardly lasted a minute.

        She was, of course, just another piece. Titan had moved to take her, and in doing so he had allowed Luna to escape. Luna would be strong enough to protect the Element bearers until the corrupted Twilight learned war magic. When she did, however, she herself would be compelled to refrain from killing the Element bearers, giving them the room they needed to fulfill their purpose.

        Titan had said he would leave the kingdom with a son. The newborn son he spoke of would apparently have all of her power- but even if he did, he would be no match for the Elements of Harmony. The princess had agents of her own within Canterlot, contingencies that would keep the prince busy at least long enough to ensure the Twilight and her friends fulfilled their purpose. His actions, too, would be dictated by Celestia long after her death.

        With Celestia taken out of the game, the king would believe that the only threat to him would be Terra herself. He would return to his works, and restore the natural order. While he did so, he would keep Terra close, where he could watch her and be certain the other alicorn did not plot against him.

        Titan raised his blade, and in her mind, Celestia moved his piece and Terra’s off the board. She was careful not to betray her happiness at one particular observation:

        Every remaining piece in play was hers.

        “Terra is coming after you. You need to fly low and make for Ponyville. Find the Elements.”

        Luna sped out and away from the palace grounds, flapping her wings once to clear a rooftop, then dove back down into the streets. Even as a relatively young alicorn, she was a world-class flyer, but that would mean little when trying to outrun Terra. From behind her, an incandescent flash of white light lit up the world, and she heard a thunderous crack.

        “And what about thou, Tia?” Even through thought-speak, she sounded panicked. “Thou canst not hope to defeat him! Not every pony in Canterlot could defeat him! Flee!” She tilted her wings, causing herself to do a barrel roll midair, and searched the sky for the other alicorn. Terra was nowhere to be seen. Luna continued flying through the streets. Her only chance of escaping was if Terra didn’t see her. She needed to head to the city gates.

        “I know, sister,” Celestia’s voice sounded sad inside her head. “But I have a plan. I need you to send me what you see.”

        Luna let her sister’s spell widen, so that Celestia could see through her eyes. It would be too much information for her sister to keep track of in a fight, and the younger sister wondered how Celestia planned to survive.

Another burst of light followed by a wave of sound came from the direction of the palace.

        Celestia’s voice sounded again shortly afterward. Even thought-speaking, it was terse and strained. “Terra stopped and made several pegasi out of nothing. Black coats, blue manes. I’ll help you fight them. Turn left.”

        Luna spread her wings to slow herself midair as she veered toward an alleyway on her left. She didn’t slow herself fast enough, and she impacted the side of a building, hard. Being an alicorn granted her earthpony strength and resilience, however, and she simply pushed off of the building wall with her legs and beat her wings to regain her course. Behind her, she saw a black form trailing blue blur past along the road she had been travelling. So fast, she thought, I had forgotten Terra’s creatures could be so potent. She turned down another alleyway, and came face to face with one of the puppet pegasi for the first time.

        It was obvious at first glance that it wasn’t a normal pony. Its coat was was black, a color not natural among ponykind. Its mane was a blue so light and vibrant it almost seemed to glow. The creature’s eyes were the same shade of blue, with no pupil. It grunted mist out of its nostrils, obviously not intending to let her pass.

        But it was a pegasus, and Luna was an alicorn. She didn’t slow down and she sped through the alleyway, and cast a spell she had learned as Nightmare Moon to strike it with a bolt of lightning from her horn. She expected the construct would simply dissipate.

        The pegasus dispersed into an inky cloud of black smoke, and Luna flew through it unharmed. She propelled herself upward over another rooftop, doing another barrel roll and scanning the sky.

        This time she saw Terra. The other alicorn was perhaps three hundred metres away from her, hovering high in the air and surrounded by perhaps a half dozen of her pegasi. The tiny green figure saw her too, and lunged.

        Suddenly the world became so bright it might have been daytime. Luna flinched, but not before seeing a stream of white-hot sunlight cut through Terra and two of her pegasi. The incandescent beam was extinguished an instant later as another loud boom came from the palace.

        “The West gate, Luna! Go!” Her sister’s voice sounded frantically inside her head. “That won’t slow her down for long!”

        Luna was shocked that Celestia’s spell had packed so much punch. Celestia was even stronger now than she had thought.

        Luna pumped her wings furiously and dove back down into a street. It was a busy street during the day, and was now filled with panicking ponies. They looked up as she passed, obviously confused as to why their princess would be speeding down a main street so late at night. Now they notice me, Luna thought glumly.

        

        Another flash from the palace. Another ripple of concussive force.

        Luna flipped in midair again and saw two of the pegasi gaining on her before turning back around. She levitated a nearby signpost out of the ground with her magic, then swung it around toward her pursuers. One of the pegasi banked in time to avoid the steel signpost. The other did not. She hadn’t swung the post very hard, but the pegasus’ momentum was enough to cave its skull in around the metal pole. It poofed into another cloud of smoke.

        She dropped the pole and banked sharply into the remaining pegasus. They collided, and she grabbed his wing and used earthpony strength to bring the flailing pegasus in front of her, angling the two of them into the corner of a nearby bookstore.

        The bookstore was made of wood, and the walls were simply not strong enough to withstand both of their weights moving through the air at such high speeds. The corner of the store burst into splinters as she carried them through it. She dropped the puppet’s limp form to the road below them. It might not die, but it wasn’t picking up the chase any time soon.

        

        The impact with the wall had shaken her, and shards of wood were lodged in her wings and hooves, but her earthpony resilience was more than enough to handle the damage. She shook herself once and cleared her head.

        

        She veered back down the street toward the city gates. Canterlot was not a large city, and she was closing the distance to the gate fast. Hopefully, Celestia was also almost out of the city by now. Another loud crack from the palace dashed her hopes.

        Only feet from the gate, Terra attacked.

        Luna felt an invisible force crush her to the ground, and her field of vision went white with pain as she struck the ground just inside the gate.

        “Keep going, Luna”, her sister’s voice said weakly inside her head.

        Terra landed in front of her with her remaining pegasi. “Luna!” The other alicorn’s voice betrayed her excitement. “What did you plan to do after you got out of the city? Outrun me? There’s no place you can go where I won’t find you, child.”

        Luna pushed against the floor with her legs, sliding herself further under the massive stone archway that was the western gate.

        “A little further sister. You’re going to need to hit her with everything you have.”

        Terra continued. “As much as I would love to tear your pretty little head off its shoulders, Titan wants you alive and well.”

        Suddenly, Luna realized what her sister’s “plan” was. Celestia wasn’t going to escape. She was just distracting Titan. Her sister intended to lose.

        She dragged herself further under the western gate of Canterlot, trying to make herself look as pathetic as possible. She mentally readied a huge portion of her magical power, but it was far too little to actually kill Terra...

        “I don’t see why you are so reluctant, Luna. You’re going to be married! Isn’t that wonderful news?” The other alicorn stepped towards her and smiled.

        Luna attacked. “Tia, now!” Her spell was a blinding bolt of moonlight that zipped through the air and struck Terra in the chest. The other alicorn screamed. Luna immediately felt exhausted from the expenditure of magical energy.

        At the same time as Luna struck Terra, another blinding stream of Celestia’s concentrated sunlight struck the western gate of Canterlot, causing tons of stone to collapse.

        Luna flapped her wings, taking to the air and gaining the speed necessary to avoid the falling archway and exit Canterlot. Terra, however, was not nearly so lucky. The other alicorn, stunned momentarily by Luna’s spell, was crushed under massive blocks of stone along with her puppets.

        Luna found herself standing on the grass just outside the city walls. “Celestia,” she thought to her sister. There was no answer. “Celestia!” Her sisters reply came soft and faint.

        “Luna. Are you safe?”

        “I am, now get out-”

        From the direction of the palace, there was another flash of light, followed by a slow crack.

-

Chapter 2: My Name is Nihilus

A thanks goes out to The Prereaders


You have somehow fallen into the magical land of the before-time. This is an old version of the first chapter of Ponies Make War. It is NOT part of the actual fanfiction anymore. If you just read chapter one and are looking for chapter two, click here:

Chapter 2: My Name is Nihilus

This is just a sort of easter egg. Congratulations on clicking on the magic hyphen. I do enjoy being able to use this hideous text.

- AestheticB

Ponies Make War

He Has Returned

-

The royal gardens of the alicorn sisters were arguably even more beautiful at night than they were during the day. Specially enchanted, bio-luminescent plants hung down from the tiered walls, just barely touching the ground below. Flowers that remained closed during the day bloomed each night under the pale light of the moon. Even the grass was enchanted so that every blade turned slightly to catch the moonlight, and each was the exact same length. Yes, the gardens were a beautiful sight, even if nopony was there to enjoy them.

        Celestia yawned as her sister entered through one of the multiple archways leading into the garden.

“Twilight is in the dining hall now,” she said. “Poor thing hadn’t eaten anything since she left this morning, so I had the kitchen make her something despite the late hour. She should be here any moment.”

        Luna picked a spot on the grass and sat, then gave her sister a meaningful glance. “Thou art tired, sister, I can tell just by looking at thee. I would not fault thee for going to bed. It is long past thy bedtime, and I’m fully capable of spending the night with thy protege on my own.”

“Still speaking like you come from a thousand years ago, Luna?”

“I do come from a thousand years ago. Adjusting is hard work, but at least I’ve stopped using the majestic plural. It takes time to unlearn a language. Thou didst avoid my question, however.”

Celestia smiled. “I can easily manage another night without sleep. Besides, I’m more here for her sake than for yours. Twilight will be more comfortable this way. This is the first time she’s getting to really meet you, you know. She’s probably going to be nervous.”

“With good cause, too. the last time I met one of thy students I tried to murder her.”

“That was not you, Luna,” Celestia said sternly. “That was Nightmare Moon.”

Luna raised an eyebrow. “Nightmare Moon? I was talking about the time I almost killed Astor.”

Celestia frowned. Of course her sister hadn’t been talking about Nightmare Moon. It was easy to forget that events from over a thousand years ago were still fresh in Luna’s memory. Luna was coming straight from a completely different time. “It’s strange, thinking about how much has changed since back then.”

“Thou art telling me,” Luna agreed. “A year ago I can remember a farmer petitioning thy court because a dragon razed his entire village. A day later, I would be off slaying a dragon whilst thou kept order. Now I watch ponies come to thy court and complain about weather patterns. Thou didst make them the perfect world, Tia.”

“Far from perfect, Luna, but I’ve tried. They’ve had a thousand years to forget about fighting and war. You will, too.”

Luna scoffed, “I’m not so sure about that. I’ve always been the fighter, and I likely always will be. Even after Discord I couldn’t adjust to a life of ruling. That probably helped quite a bit with the whole Nightmare Moon fiasco.”

Celestia was not impressed. “Two minutes into our conversation and you’re back to Nightmare Moon. Honestly, it’s all you ever talk about. It’s over, Luna. Are you ever going to give it a rest? Stop worrying about the past and start worrying about impressing my star pupil. She’s eager to meet you.”

        Luna sighed, “Even after that whole ‘everlasting night’ bit? Hopefully this one is willing to let bygones be bygones.”

        Celestia’s face grew stern. “You’d best hope so,” she chided playfully. “Twilight and Astor are related.”

        “Related? Thou hast tracked her lineage for over a millennium? Is that not that a little... extreme?”

        “It isn’t a difficult thing to track, believe me. That family stands out. You remember the Coruscare scale?”

“But of course. It measures unicorn magic from a factor of one to ten in a base-ten logarithm. six being your average unicorn and ten being Astor Coruscare.” Luna wrinkled her snout. “It always bothered me that we ranked the same, but thou wert so much better with magic than I.”

“Nopony uses the scale anymore, as there isn’t much need for it, but it had to be reordered recently. Twilight Sparkle is the new ten. Astor would rank somewhere around nine point three.” Celestia smiled at the look that came over Luna’s face. “Don’t worry, I think that you two will get along just fine. You share enough common interests. She should be along with Esteem any moment now.”

        “Esteem?” Luna sounded shocked at the mention of the soldier’s name. “She is being guarded?

        “It’s only a slight precaution since that minor incident last week,” Celestia said in an off-handed manner.

        “Minor incident? Somepony tried to kill thee!” It was true. Not a week prior, a crazed anarchist had assaulted Celestia while she held court.

        “And they failed,” The elder sister said firmly. “They never had a hope to begin with. Their method was incorrect. Alicorn magic notwithstanding, I have enough earthpony magic to keep me alive through the most grievous wounds.”

        “Must be nice, being invincible,” Luna said dryly. “Still, a pony tried to kill thee. Thou hast not slept since. And when thine student comes to visit, she must be guarded when she isn’t in your presence.”

        Celestia sighed, “Not everypony loves me, Luna. Even so, this is the first attempted deicide in eighty seven years. And it was just one pony who was... a little misguided. He’ll get a fair trial.”

        “A thousand years ago there would not have been be a trial,” her sister’s voice was hard. “That pony was insane. And at least thou receiveth negative attention in the first place.” Luna crossed her front legs.

        “Just what is that supposed to mean?”

        “Okay, that was childish,” the younger sister admitted. “But somepony came up with a plot to slay the ruler of Equestria and take the throne for himself. And I wasn’t part of it at all. Apparently, Celestia alone is what holds the kingdom together. No need to worry about little old Luna. I might as well still be a shadow on the moon.”

        “It was a foolish oversight, Luna, nothing more. You said yourself he was crazy.”

        “Thou thinkest he could have just as easily forgotten about thee?” she accused. “It has been months since I returned, and nothing has changed to them. Nopony comes when I hold court. Nopony writes me seeking counsel. The staff at the palace won’t even look me in the eye. The aristocracy don’t invite me to their balls. I spend all my time catching up on history and magic, rather than taking any part in the government.”

        “You have to give them time, Luna. You are an immortal goddess, and it becomes you to exercise a little patience.”

        “Thou art an immortal goddess. I am a thousand years younger than thee now. In any case, I was not complaining for the sake of it like a spoiled filly, I was building towards a proposition.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow, “Let’s hear it.”

“Thou sayeth that we are meant to rule together, so I think we ought to hold court together.”

        Celestia smiled. Her sister always had been the emotional one, and the way she had turned a rant into a proposition was familiar. Her idea was also not a bad one. She let Luna continue.

        “We would eventually revert back to the court of the sun and the court of the moon, but only after a year or two of holding them jointly. At first, I could just sit beside you, doing little more than being the figurehead I am now. When I become more comfortable with lawmaking and the people become more comfortable with me, however, we could delegate specific areas of government to each of us. Then, when we revert to the traditional way, each of us will have an area of expertise and court-goers will petition either of us accordingly. Equestrians will be forced to realize that the kingdom now has two princesses, and I’ll learn how to be less useless.”

        “I think it’s a wonderful idea, Luna.”

        “I did think that thou wouldst agree.” Her sister smiled. “The people need to adjust to me, and I need to adjust to the people. I’ll have the staff refurbish the court of the sun to better reflect that we live in a diarchy now.” She frowned. “And I shall also require a place to sit.”

        “I’m glad you’re back, Luna. Doing both our jobs was tough work.”

        “Thou hast said both of those things to me about four hundred times, Tia. But I agree. After a lifetime of war and strife, it will be nice to settle down and rule with thee.” The younger alicorn looked around. “Why has Twilight not gotten here yet? I thought she was almost-”

        The world changed.

        Celestia shuddered. It wasn’t a physical change, but one that Celestia felt. It was as though a light somewhere inside her had been turned on, illuminating something ugly, hateful, and somehow wrong. She suddenly felt as though something was watching her, hating her, wanting to hurt her. Goosebumps prickled along her legs despite the warm summer air.

It was a presence she hadn’t felt for a very, very long time.

        “He’s back,” she said softly.

        A fluid male voice answered her. “He has returned, Celestia.” The speaker slowly trotted through an archway and into view. “I did not create this language so that you could speak below your station as if you were some semi-intelligent mortal.”

        He was an alicorn as tall as Celestia, but much broader. His mane was a long, almost feminine flowing mass of bright white ether. His wings and coat were a matte black. He wore nothing, and his cutie mark was a simple white circle.

        His face bore the expression of dispassion that Celestia remembered so well. His eyes were cold and distant, his mouth a thin line at the end of a square muzzle. He was handsome, in a way.

        Since they were the same height, it was difficult to tell how much older than Celestia he really was. But if one looked closely, they would notice that the tips of his wings split into the same bright white ether that he had in place of a mane, and that his eyes were a burning white as well. He had a certain stillness to him, as though he could stand in the garden forever, watching with disinterest as the stone walls crumbled around him and were overgrown.

        “Titan.” Celestia greeted him harshly as she and Luna rose in unison. “I would have expected you to make a grander entrance than simply strolling through the door.”

        “Who do I need to impress? Everypony here already knows who I am. Besides, I believe that that is Terra's intention.” Titan looked up.

        The gardens exploded.

        Bits of stone and dirt were blown in different directions. Those that would have struck the three alicorns standing in the gardens all rebounded off of magical barriers. When the dust settled, a fourth alicorn had joined the gathering.

        This one was green. She was not as tall as Titan, and was much more slender. Where his expression was dispassionate, almost apathetic, her eyes burned with hatred. She looked around, her eyes finding Luna, and she actually let out a growl.

        The four alicorns faced each other across the ruins of the gardens for several moments. Celestia broke the silence.

“How?” she asked simply.

        “I had help,” the older alicorn said. “You failed to fully bury the knowledge of our existence and our imprisonment. A unicorn of considerable talent was all it took to tip the scales and allow me to break our bonds. How you could have made such a grave oversight is beyond me, however. I taught you to be better than this.”

        Celestia didn’t bother masking the disgust in her voice. “You taught me to be hateful, paranoid, and alone.”

        Titan tilted his head slightly, as if confused. “I taught you to rule.

        He waved a hoof and began to pace the ruins of the garden, “Let’s not do this, Celestia. You could stand there and wax philosophical about what ponykind ‘deserves’ while I argue with you. Or I could scream and yell and stomp my feet, expressing my anger at you for imprisoning me in the first place. We could taunt one another and bring up painful memories from days long since past. I’m sure you could hint vaguely at all the plots you have in place for just this occasion. I don’t want to do any of these things. I don’t even want to fight you, though I suspect I will have to.”

        “Instead let us simply allow the events of tonight to unfold uninterrupted. You will fail to defeat me, and your former pupil will break you down into your component parts. I will use your power to create a son, whom I will appoint the new prince of Equestria. Luna will be captured and forced to be his lady wife, and I will begin reverting things to their natural order while he and his faithful student pacify the population.”

        His faithful student. Despite the warm summer night, Celestia felt a chill. She turned to the green alicorn.

        “Another Sliver of Darkness, Terra?” Terra didn’t answer her, but the slight movement of her eyebrows told Celestia everything she needed to know. They had Twilight.

        “I must admit,” Titan said, “That I was surprised to find you in power upon my return. With me gone, I can only imagine that Discord seized control of the world once more. How you managed to defeat a draconequus is beyond me. My old rival was not a force to be trifled with.”

        “I also find it interesting that you have aged so little since I saw you last, Luna. It would seem that your old rivalry did not end with me out of the picture. A pity, considering if you were Celestia’s age the two of you might actually stand a chance of opposing me. As is, you are severely out-classed.”

        Celestia grit her teeth. “There’s more to ruling than power, Titan.”

        She needed to think. Her imminent death was no reason to shirk her duty: ensuring the safety of ponykind. Her opponents might have Twilight, and they might out-age her and her sister by a combined two and a half millenia, but that didn’t make the situation hopeless.

        It just made the game they were playing a difficult one. Celestia made her first move:

        “Run, Luna.”

        She knew that Luna hated being ordered around by her -they were, after all, supposed to be equals. She also knew that her younger sister would much rather stay and fight, despite the impossible odds. A part of Celestia hoped, however, that in the face of such an unbeatable opponent, Luna would be able to swallow her pride and listen.

        Fortunately, Luna ran, her flight unsettling the dust that coated the ruined garden.

        “Catch her,” Titan said in his quiet, controlled voice. Terra flew off after the younger alicorn, leaving the two of them alone.

        Celestia stood motionless in the gardens, but in her mind she was thinking furiously.

        A corrupted Twilight Sparkle, she thought. How can I anticipate the game plan of an opponent I’ve never even met? The answer was an obvious one. Easy enough. The Sliver will construct an anti-Twilight. So what do I know about Twilight Sparkle?

        Titan stopped pacing and looked into her eyes. Even after over a thousand years, she had to suppress a shiver.  “Surrender, Celestia,” he said simply. “I don’t want to put this off any longer. I will be king again.”

        The princess of Equestria gave no answer, save but to conjure a brilliant blade of sunlight and level it at the older alicorn.

        Twilight is studious and patient. Intelligent and curious. A little timid, but brave when it counts. She both respects and fears authority. She feels the need to rationalize all of her actions, and the actions of those around her. She has a close group of friends who also happen to bear the Elements of Harmony.

        And you let them get her, another voice said accusingly in the back of head.

        Celestia flattened the emotion of guilt almost instantly. Nearly eleven hundred years of life had given her a mind of steel.

        Outside of her thought process, Titan regarded her incandescent blade lazily. Faced with what was until moments before the most powerful pony in Equestria, he maintained his dispassionate composure. “I see,” he said simply.

        Celestia let him take his time. An anti-Twilight, then, would be what? Her answer almost made her sick. She’d be completely insane. Unpredictable. An impatient, sadistic monster with more power than any other unicorn in the kingdom. A perfect ten on the Coruscare scale. And Twilight is trapped inside of her.

        Celestia had to save her student. She also had to save her sister. In the long run, she had to save all of Equestria. She estimated she had less than two minutes to live.

She worked a thought-speak spell and sent it after her younger sister. It was a powerful spell, and it would be extremely illegal for a regular unicorn. Celestia, however, was past worrying about breaking her own rules. She had to save Luna.

The spell connected in a moment, allowing her to send thoughts to her younger sister.

        “Listen carefully, Luna,” she told the other princess through their mind link. “Terra is coming after you. You need to fly low and make for Ponyville. Find the Elements.”

        She turned to face the would-be king, alone. She wasn’t afraid, really. The first rule of being able to live forever was that you would still, someday, die.

        Titan cast his own blade, a slim length of darkness. It didn’t glow, or burn, or waver. In fact, it almost looked solid for something made entirely of energy. The blade was a perfect representation of the king: total control. Celestia waited for him to attack first. Every moment he delayed was one that she could spend planning.

        Using her powerful mental discipline, she split her mind three ways. She had never been sure if the technique was magical or not. After a thousand years of practice, however, the princess’ mind was capable of amazing things. The first of her minds would fight Titan, while the second would handle helping Luna to escape. The third needed to figure out how to guarantee the protection of the Elements of Harmony.

        Those six ponies were their only hope. Sadly, their leader had already fallen.

        An anti-Twilight would be unpredictable, yes. Her actions would not be completely random, however. She would hate Twilight’s loved ones with a burning passion.She would be power hungry. Most importantly, she would have no respect for authority, no loyalty, and no fear.

        Titan attacked, accelerating through the sound barrier less than halfway through his lunge. Celestia was thrown backward into the surrounding rubble as she barely managed to deflect his blade.

        The princess knew Twilight as well as anypony. Which meant she also knew her student’s shadow. Celestia imagined a game board taking shape in her mind. While the anti-Twilight might not know it, she had just become a piece. The game was far from over.

        She was vaguely aware of her other minds: the first was now fighting Titan, and despite its cautiousness, losing. The second was speaking with Luna through her spell. The two would occasionally communicate, but left the third mind to its machinations. The Elements of Harmony were more important than everything else.

        Titan doesn’t know about the Elements of Harmony, she thought. Neither does Terra, and nor will their son. But Twilight- or rather, anti-Twilight,- will. It is a safe assumption, then, that with her lust for power and disregard for her superiors, she’ll seek to use the Elements against them. I need to give her that opportunity.

        Her thoughts stuttered slightly as King Titan threw them through a solid stone wall. She had hoped for more time to plan, but it seemed that even fighting cautiously their battle would be a short one. Celestia still had things to do, however.

        She communicated briefly with the part of her that was fighting Titan. That Celestia needed to ensure that the Tower of Harmony was destroyed. Titan could not know of the existence of the Elements, and the anti-Twilight would need to know he didn’t know. Destroying the tower would give her the opening she would need to retrieve them.

The part of her fighting Titan answered in the affirmative, but warned against being too obvious. Since Celestia was so much weaker than the king, her only hope would be to strike fast and defeat him quickly. Since she wasn’t doing that, it would be obvious to him that she was biding time for something else.

Her second consciousness chimed in, offering an easy solution. She would make it appear as though all her effort was focused on protecting Luna. Indeed, at that moment, Luna was in serious danger.

The Celestia fighting Titan manoeuvred in the air so as to put Titan in between her and her sister’s adversaries. Then, she launched a stream of sunlight at the older alicorn. He dodged, but Terra, several thousand metres away, was struck. The part of Celestia that was dealing with Luna expressed satisfaction.

Despite her attempt at subtlety, Titan would likely figure out what she had done. Celestia was fine with that, however. In reality, the move had been to cover up her true intentions. The king might expect her to hide a play behind another play, but she doubted he would look deeper.

Celestia manoeuvred in the air again, this time giving Titan an extremely small opening. He attacked, throwing her through another building with so much force that it broke the focus of all three of her minds at once.

When she collected her thoughts a moment later, however, she found herself in the exact structure she had intended Titan to throw her into: the palace library.

The corrupted Twilight - now the princess’ most important piece- would have a hatred for her friends as deep and voluminous as Twilight had had love. It would be difficult, then, to prevent the corrupted unicorn from murdering them. Fortunately, Celestia had just the thing.

You need to grab a certain book, her third consciousness told the part of her mind that was in control. It’s there, under magical theory. You need to move it to the section concerning the black arts, war magic, and mind magic. Place it on the ground, in clear view, open to this page. Ensure Titan does not destroy these shelves.

Even if the anti-Twilight didn’t decide to betray her masters on her own, the page that the book was open to would likely plant the idea in her mind. In order to gain the firepower necessary to defeat princess Luna, the corrupted student would need the books on the surrounding shelves. Celestia was, hopefully, ensuring that her “enemy” picked up exactly the book that would tell her how to harness the power of the Elements of Harmony.

She knew that Twilight would instantly be suspicious of a book on the ground conveniently open to just the page she needed, which was enough reason to believe that anti-Twilight would take the bait. Once she did, the book would tell her how to harness the elements of harmony from their current bearers. It was a process that did not involve killing them. Twilight’s friends, five of Celestia’s essential pieces, would be safe from the corrupted Twilight.

Of course, that was only if she could get the book where it needed to go.

You need to get it there fast, her second mind added, Luna will need our help again very soon.

Thankfully, the part of Celestia fighting Titan delivered. As the king came in to land another blow, Celestia threw herself to the side, throwing a nearby bookcase at him. Titan knocked the bookcase out of the air with ease, but with eleven hundred years of experience manipulating objects, Celestia plucked the book she needed from the shelf.

She rolled in to attack him from the other side, causing him to turn to face away from the book she now held. He easily thwarted her assault- he was three times as strong as her, and a better bladecaster besides. But while he did, she found the page she needed.

She threw herself into the air, careful to trace in her mind the most likely path he would take to follow her. As he shot up after her and out of the library, she slid the book into position, page open.

Then, she dived, and when their positions were in the right alignment, she attacked with another long-range beam of sunlight. While Titan dodged her assault with ease, the king had not been her mark. On the other side of the city, Terra was crushed under several tons of falling stones.

        Satisfied that Luna was safe, the part of her mind dedicated to protecting her fused back into the whole. Now Celestia had only two tasks, and two minds to complete them. Delay Titan, and ensure that the Elements of Harmony were properly positioned on her game board.

        Luna was safe, however. In her mind, her sister’s piece slid across the game board and into position.

        Titan clearly realized that the spell had been aimed at Terra. He did not look pleased.

        Celestia moved, goading his next attack. He would hit her hard, likely with enough strength to finish her. She was almost prepared to lose, finally. She just needed him to hit her in the right direction...

        He struck.

        Celestia was thrown through the air. Not for the first time, she broke the sound barrier and burst through another section of the palace.

Specifically, she was thrown through the Tower of Harmony.

        She struck out with her own magic as she exploded through the tower, encouraging its destruction with subtle telekinesis. The tower collapsed, but the force of Titan’s throw brought her through both tower walls, causing her to land on the grass some distance away.

        Celestia looked at the ruins of the Tower of Harmony as Titan descended next to her. Somewhere in the rubble, unbeknownst to the older alicorn, was a chest containing the one weapon that could defeat him. And his own servant, the anti-Twilight, was going to bring it to the only ponies who could use it against him. Satisfied, her consciousness slid anti-Twilight’s piece into position, then merged into the whole.

        Celestia lay helpless on the ground next to Titan, feeling unbearable pain. The pain was why she had had to split her mind in the first place. She needed to focus to give ponykind a fighting chance in her absence. Now, as she was brought out of her partitioned mind and into the real world, she found herself completely drained of power as Titan stood over her. The fight had hardly lasted a minute.

        She was, of course, just another piece. Titan had moved to take her, and in doing so he had allowed Luna to escape. Luna would be strong enough to protect the Element bearers until the corrupted Twilight learned war magic. When she did, however, she herself would be compelled to refrain from killing the Element bearers, giving them the room they needed to fulfill their purpose.

        Titan had said he would leave the kingdom with a son. The newborn son he spoke of would apparently have all of her power- but even if he did, he would be no match for the Elements of Harmony. The princess had agents of her own within Canterlot, contingencies that would keep the prince busy at least long enough to ensure the Twilight and her friends fulfilled their purpose. His actions, too, would be dictated by Celestia long after her death.

        With Celestia taken out of the game, the king would believe that the only threat to him would be Terra herself. He would return to his works, and restore the natural order. While he did so, he would keep Terra close, where he could watch her and be certain the other alicorn did not plot against him.

        Titan raised his blade, and in her mind, Celestia moved his piece and Terra’s off the board. She was careful not to betray her happiness at one particular observation:

        Every remaining piece in play was hers.

-

        “Terra is coming after you. You need to fly low and make for Ponyville. Find the Elements.”

        Luna sped out and away from the palace grounds, flapping her wings once to clear a rooftop, then dove back down into the streets. Even as a relatively young alicorn, she was a world-class flyer, but that would mean little when trying to outrun Terra. From behind her, an incandescent flash of white light lit up the world, and she heard a thunderous crack.

        “And what about thou, Tia?” Even through thought-speak, she sounded panicked. “Thou canst not hope to defeat him! Not every pony in Canterlot could defeat him! Flee!” She tilted her wings, causing herself to do a barrel roll midair, and searched the sky for the other alicorn. Terra was nowhere to be seen. Luna continued flying through the streets. Her only chance of escaping was if Terra didn’t see her. She needed to head to the city gates.

        “I know, sister,” Celestia’s voice sounded sad inside her head. “But I have a plan. I need you to send me what you see.”

        Luna let her sister’s spell widen, so that Celestia could see through her eyes. It would be too much information for her sister to keep track of in a fight, and the younger sister wondered how Celestia planned to survive.

Another burst of light followed by a wave of sound came from the direction of the palace.

        Celestia’s voice sounded again shortly afterward. Even thought-speaking, it was terse and strained. “Terra stopped and made several pegasi out of nothing. Black coats, blue manes. I’ll help you fight them. Turn left.”

        Luna spread her wings to slow herself midair as she veered toward an alleyway on her left. She didn’t slow herself fast enough, and she impacted the side of a building, hard. Being an alicorn granted her earthpony strength and resilience, however, and she simply pushed off of the building wall with her legs and beat her wings to regain her course. Behind her, she saw a black form trailing blue blur past along the road she had been travelling. So fast, she thought, I had forgotten Terra’s creatures could be so potent. She turned down another alleyway, and came face to face with one of the puppet pegasi for the first time.

        It was obvious at first glance that it wasn’t a normal pony. Its coat was was black, a color not natural among ponykind. Its mane was a blue so light and vibrant it almost seemed to glow. The creature’s eyes were the same shade of blue, with no pupil. It grunted mist out of its nostrils, obviously not intending to let her pass.

        But it was a pegasus, and Luna was an alicorn. She didn’t slow down and she sped through the alleyway, and cast a spell she had learned as Nightmare Moon to strike it with a bolt of lightning from her horn. She expected the construct would simply dissipate.

        The pegasus dispersed into an inky cloud of black smoke, and Luna flew through it unharmed. She propelled herself upward over another rooftop, doing another barrel roll and scanning the sky.

        This time she saw Terra. The other alicorn was perhaps three hundred metres away from her, hovering high in the air and surrounded by perhaps a half dozen of her pegasi. The tiny green figure saw her too, and lunged.

        Suddenly the world became so bright it might have been daytime. Luna flinched, but not before seeing a stream of white-hot sunlight cut through Terra and two of her pegasi. The incandescent beam was extinguished an instant later as another loud boom came from the palace.

        “The West gate, Luna! Go!” Her sister’s voice sounded frantically inside her head. “That won’t slow her down for long!”

        Luna was shocked that Celestia’s spell had packed so much punch. Celestia was even stronger now than she had thought.

        Luna pumped her wings furiously and dove back down into a street. It was a busy street during the day, and was now filled with panicking ponies. They looked up as she passed, obviously confused as to why their princess would be speeding down a main street so late at night. Now they notice me, Luna thought glumly.

        

        Another flash from the palace. Another ripple of concussive force.

        Luna flipped in midair again and saw two of the pegasi gaining on her before turning back around. She levitated a nearby signpost out of the ground with her magic, then swung it around toward her pursuers. One of the pegasi banked in time to avoid the steel signpost. The other did not. She hadn’t swung the post very hard, but the pegasus’ momentum was enough to cave its skull in around the metal pole. It poofed into another cloud of smoke.

        She dropped the pole and banked sharply into the remaining pegasus. They collided, and she grabbed his wing and used earthpony strength to bring the flailing pegasus in front of her, angling the two of them into the corner of a nearby bookstore.

        The bookstore was made of wood, and the walls were simply not strong enough to withstand both of their weights moving through the air at such high speeds. The corner of the store burst into splinters as she carried them through it. She dropped the puppet’s limp form to the road below them. It might not die, but it wasn’t picking up the chase any time soon.

        

        The impact with the wall had shaken her, and shards of wood were lodged in her wings and hooves, but her earthpony resilience was more than enough to handle the damage. She shook herself once and cleared her head.

        

        She veered back down the street toward the city gates. Canterlot was not a large city, and she was closing the distance to the gate fast. Hopefully, Celestia was also almost out of the city by now. Another loud crack from the palace dashed her hopes.

        Only feet from the gate, Terra attacked.

        Luna felt an invisible force crush her to the ground, and her field of vision went white with pain as she struck the ground just inside the gate.

        “Keep going, Luna”, her sister’s voice said weakly inside her head.

        Terra landed in front of her with her remaining pegasi. “Luna!” The other alicorn’s voice betrayed her excitement. “What did you plan to do after you got out of the city? Outrun me? There’s no place you can go where I won’t find you, child.”

        Luna pushed against the floor with her legs, sliding herself further under the massive stone archway that was the western gate.

        “A little further sister. You’re going to need to hit her with everything you have.”

        Terra continued. “As much as I would love to tear your pretty little head off its shoulders, Titan wants you alive and well.”

        Suddenly, Luna realized what her sister’s “plan” was. Celestia wasn’t going to escape. She was just distracting Titan. Her sister intended to lose.

        She dragged herself further under the western gate of Canterlot, trying to make herself look as pathetic as possible. She mentally readied a huge portion of her magical power, but it was far too little to actually kill Terra...

        “I don’t see why you are so reluctant, Luna. You’re going to be married! Isn’t that wonderful news?” The other alicorn stepped towards her and smiled.

        Luna attacked. “Tia, now!” Her spell was a blinding bolt of moonlight that zipped through the air and struck Terra in the chest. The other alicorn screamed. Luna immediately felt exhausted from the expenditure of magical energy.

        At the same time as Luna struck Terra, another blinding stream of Celestia’s concentrated sunlight struck the western gate of Canterlot, causing tons of stone to collapse.

        Luna flapped her wings, taking to the air and gaining the speed necessary to avoid the falling archway and exit Canterlot. Terra, however, was not nearly so lucky. The other alicorn, stunned momentarily by Luna’s spell, was crushed under massive blocks of stone along with her puppets.

        Luna found herself standing on the grass just outside the city walls. “Celestia,” she thought to her sister. There was no answer. “Celestia!” Her sisters reply came soft and faint.

        “Luna. Are you safe?”

        “I am, now get out-”

        From the direction of the palace, there was another flash of light, followed by a slow crack.

-

Chapter 2: My Name is Nihilus

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My Name is Nihilus

The deep thumping of Ponyville’s only dance club filled Rainbow Dash’s ears as she threw herself onto the ground in front of their table. Colorful lights flashed on and off above them, each outlining the silhouettes of dancing ponies for an instant before vanishing. Applejack took a seat beside Dash, and Fluttershy and Rarity sat delicately on the floor across from them. Pinkie Pie remained standing, bouncing in place as she addressed her friends.

        “Now!” The party pony spoke loudly to be heard over the pumping music of the dance club. “Everypony know tonight’s objective?”

        The friends seated at the table exchanged confused glances, struggling to figure out what the pink-haired pony expected in answer. Pinkie was unpredictable, but tended to follow a single constant: “To party?” Rainbow Dash hazarded a guess.

        “No, silly filly!” Pinkie pie exclaimed. “To have fun!” With that, she stood on her back legs, throwing a shower of confetti into the air. “Just because Twilight is off having some midnight picnic with the princesses in Canterlot doesn’t mean the five of us can’t have a perfectly good time here in Ponyville the way we usually do! I mean, five out of six ponies is still, like, five halves the fun that four out of twelve ponies is, right?” She frowned, considering her last sentence for a moment, then shook her head. “In any case, drinks on me!” Before any of the friends at the table could express their appreciation, the pink pony had cartwheeled off toward the dance floor.

        None of the group sitting at the table gave her outburst more than a raised eyebrow. For Pinkie Pie, it had been almost mild.

        “What do you think they talk about up at the palace, anyway?” Rainbow Dash wondered aloud. “Doesn’t Twilight write to Celestia, like, every day?”

        “Princess Celestia, Rainbow Dash,” Rarity corrected her. “The title is important. And being arguably the three most magical beings in all of Equestria I would think that magic comprises a great deal of their conversation, wouldn’t you? Or perhaps they will discuss the accident that happened last week.”

“Er...” Applejack started, obviously confused, “what accident?”

“Oh Applejack,” Rarity gasped dramatically, “hadn’t you heard?” The earthpony gave Rarity a blank stare. “Honestly, anypony who is anypony knows by now. Though I suppose you wouldn’t be as ‘In the know’ as a pony such as myself. I do have a number of -shall we say- connections-”

“Just tell us what happened, Rarity,” Rainbow Dash interrupted her, obviously as confused as Applejack.

“Well if you’re going to be so rude about it, I don’t see why I should tell you two anything.” The unicorn turned up her snout and sniffed.

“See if I care.” Rainbow Dash turned to Applejack, completely ignoring Rarity. “So today I was breaking a cloud, right, and this other pegasus struts up like she thinks she can-”

“Alright, fine!” Rarity’s shrill voice cut Dash off. “Somepony went crazy and attacked the princess! There!”

Rainbow Dash and Applejack both turned back to the unicorn. Dash was, if anything, even more confused. “So you’re saying that somepony was actually dumb enough to try and kill Princess Luna? I mean I know there was the whole Nightmare Moon thing, but-”

“-Not Princess Luna, Princess Celestia,” Rarity corrected, leaning in and whispering in a conspiratorial tone, her grudge seemingly forgotten. “In the middle of her throne room, while she was holding court. They failed, obviously. In any case, her assailant wore a grey cloak, and wearing the color has become a major faux pas. The entire aristocracy has to reorder their summer wardrobe.”

“Celestia had the entire thing under control in moments, of course,” Rarity continued, “Though I have heard rumors- and these are totally unvalidated, mind you- that in order to catch all the culprits she used mind magic on her assailant.”

“Alicorns can read minds?” Dash said, “You mean now I have to watch what I think around the princesses?”

“Thinkin’ something you shouldn’t be, sugarcube?”

“No!” Dash said defensively. “It’s just nopony’s business what I’m thinking, is all!”

Rarity scoffed. “It’s unicorn magic, actually, though totally forbidden. And there are spells that do far worse than simply read a mind. Don’t worry though,” she added quickly upon seeing Dash’s expression, “I imagine Celestia and Luna are the only two people who how to perform any.”

Rarity went on in her silvery voice. “I hear the princess was absolutely furious. She actually cast her blade.” The unicorn looked around at three ponies sitting at the table, obviously expecting some kind of reaction. Nopony gave one.

“Oh, come now! at least one of you must know what I’m talking about! Fluttershy?” She turned to the pink haired pegasus and was rewarded with an apologetic shrug. Rarity groaned and began to talk as though she was teaching schoolfillies how to add two and two. “Unicorn warriors throughout the ages have been known for spells that summon elegant and terrifying weapons based on their one special talent. Princess Celestia’s is a shaft of sunlight so hot it can burn through anything and so bright it would blind you to look at it. I’m sure Twilight has pictures she can show you in one of those books of hers.”

“Swords!?” Rainbow Dash exclaimed, eyes wide. “That sounds so cool! Can you do it?”

She gave a high pitched laugh. “Of course not, darling, I’m a fashion designer! I said warrior ponies. Ponies like Sir Enamorous, the dragon slayer, or Sir Radiant Shimmer, the undefeatable jouster!”

Rarity’s eyes stared off into the distance and she smiled dreamily. “Or Sir Fernando,” she said, clearly lost in thought. “The extremely attractive...”

Applejack and Rainbow Dash snickered. “Sounds like a real fine stallion there, Rarity.”

Rarity saw the looks the three ponies at the table were giving her and regained her composure. She cleared her throat. “But that’s enough courtly gossip for one night, don’t you think? Let’s dance, Fluttershy.” She stood up and turned to face the pegasus.

Fluttershy looked down and sank a little in her seat. “Oh I don’t know, Rarity. With all these ponies here, watching. Maybe you could just-”

“You don’t want to dance with me?” Rarity’s lower lip quivered as her eyes went wide.

“Uh... no! that’s not what I meant at all! I mean, um, of course I’ll dance with you... yeah... yeah I’ll dance.” Rarity led Fluttershy away with a hoof on her shoulder.

“Ya ever think that Rarity isn’t being a very... good pony when she pulls Fluttershy around like that?” Applejack asked after they had left.

        Since Rarity wasn’t around to complain, Rainbow Dash propped her back legs up on the table.  “That girl should learn to at least stand up to her friends.”

        As they spoke, shock of bright pink hair appeared in the top of Rainbow’s field of vision. She looked up, and found Pinkie Pie leaning out of the booth one over from theirs, her face just several inches from Dash’s. She had been dancing, and her face was covered in sweat.

        “Dashie!” she shouted, causing Rainbow Dash to recoil and hit her head off of the floor.

        “AUGH! You could just, you know, sit down if you wanted to talk to us.”

“Sitting is for chumps! You guys gonna come dance? Look how much fun they’re having!”

Dash looked towards the dance floor and easily spotted Fluttershy and Rarity. They were both engaged in some kind of complex dance that complimented their natural grace. Fluttershy had her wings folded despite the heat. Rarity’s horn was glowing, the unicorn using magic to make their manes sway  and billow with the beat.

“You know what seeing them two dancing like that makes me wonder?” Applejack asked.


        It was Pinkie who answered. “What?”

“How much Rarity has to practice to use magic like that and dance at the same time. Makes me glad my magic is innate.”

“Me too.” Rainbow Dash agreed. “But you know what I wonder?”

“What?” Pinkie again. The music suddenly died as the DJ switched over to another track.

“Isn’t Fluttershy hot dancing with her wings folded?” Dash said loudly to complete silence.

Everybody in the club looked over at her. Fluttershy’s face burned furiously. The only thing that broke the silence was Pinkie Pie’s loud guffaw.

“Oh, hay,” Dash cursed under her breath. She spoke louder, scratching the back of her head. “I meant, like, warm, you know, dancing, in the heat, like-”

Applejack sighed and upended her drink with her mouth, downing it in one gulp. Everyone turned back to their conversations as the music picked up again. “Come on sugar-cube, let’s just go dance.”

        It was several hours before the group of friends all exited the club into the warm summer night air. Rarity and Fluttershy were chatting about feathered hats, and Dash and Pinkie were talking about seeing a movie.

        “I’m not put off by gore or anything, I can handle all of that easily,” Dash lied, “I just think it looks like a stupid movie, is all.”

        “Okey-Dokey-Lokey!” Pinkie chirped. “We don’t have to see that one if you don’t want. We’ll just see something else! How about that one where the unicorn messes up a teleportation spell and all his friends end up in-” She stopped suddenly.

        The world had changed.

        All the hairs on Rainbow Dash’s neck stood up immediately, and she got the overwhelming feeling that she was being watched. She felt as though a siren had gone off inside her head, warning her that everypony was suddenly in danger. Adrenaline coursed through her bloodstream, and with a single beat of her wings, she threw herself a dozen feet into the air. She spun around, searching for whatever it was that had set her off.

        The street was quiet and empty except for them. Nothing was any different.

        But it was. Rarity spun in place, eyes alert, and Applejack was looking around with one hoof on her hat. Fluttershy had leapt into a nearby bush, her eyes blinking out the world fearfully. Pinkie Pie had stopped talking mid sentence, which was a strange enough reaction for Pinkie Pie. They had all felt it too.

        “What in the hay...” Applejack muttered after a moment.

        Suddenly there was a flash in the sky, followed shortly by a deep rumbling.

        “I love lightning!” Pinkie Pie cheered. “Did you know you can figure out how far away it is by counting the seconds between the flash and the noise?”

        The sky flashed again.

        “Ooooooone... twooooooo...”

        “It’s coming from Canterlot,” Rarity said quietly

        Dash looked, and sure enough she saw the flash originate somewhere near the palace. The boom sounded again. It was a long, deep, and loud sound, never cracking or changing in pitch.

        “And it isn’t lightning,” Rainbow Dash added, “the sound is slightly off.”

        “Must be princess Luna or princess Celestia,” Rarity said the words with a hint of unease “Some kind of... late night fireworks, perhaps?”

        They sky flashed again. And again, and again. All Rainbow Dash could do, all any of them could do, was stand there feeling uneasy. Twilight is with both the alicorns, Rainbow thought, they can protect her from anything. Besides, it’s probably nothing dangerous anyway. 

Almost a whole minute passed before the strange flashes stopped. Applejack spoke first.

“Ah don’t like this one bit. Maybe we should have Rainbow fly over there in the mornin’, just to see if they’re alright.”

“Um, you guys...” Fluttershy had come out of her bush.

“I agree completely, Applejack,” Rarity answered, “Something here just doesn’t quite add up.”

“I think you should all take a look at this...”

Dash landed and crossed her arms. “Why are you all acting so worried? Twilight is more than capable of defending herself, remember how she smoked that Ursa Minor?!”

“Because, you see, the thing is-”

“-And that’s if she didn’t have both of the alicorns with her, which she totally does.

“The moon is red,” Fluttershy finished quietly.

Every one of them turned to Fluttershy, then looked up at the tiny sliver of moon in the sky. The pegasus had not exaggerated; it had somehow turned a deep crimson.

“Well that’s odd,” Rarity said after a while.

“Yeah! Usually the moon is white!”

“No, Pinkie,” Rarity answered, her voice taking on a strange tone. It almost sounded as though she was sad. “I meant it’s odd that the princess would do that. It’s a sign, you see- one that’s almost been forgotten because it’s never had to have been used. It’s as old as Equestria.” She resumed looking up at the moon.

“Well?” Dash eventually asked, impatient, “what does it mean?”

The unicorn drew a long breath. “It means,” she said, closing her eyes, “Equestria is now at war.”

It was a short while later that Rainbow Dash arrived at home. It was late enough that she should be in bed.  The events of the night however, nagged at her.

At war, she thought, is it even possible? Equestria has no enemies. Equestria doesn’t even have equals. Was Rarity wrong? She does tend to be a little over-dramatic about, well, everything. And knowing something that old and obscure is Twilight’s thing.

Twilight. Somewhere in Canterlot, Twilight was with the princesses who had quite possibly just declared war on some unknown enemy. And the others expected Rainbow Dash to just wait until tomorrow to check in. It wasn’t right for them to just sit around while their friend could be in danger.

This was a time for action, she decided.

A midnight flight to canterlot and back was well within her capabilities, even if she was tired and a little tipsy from alcohol. She hastily packed a saddlebag, passing herself in the mirror she kept in her room.

Lookin’ good, she thought with a nod. I wonder how I’d look with goggles... I should ask Rarity about getting a pair. At the very least, I’d look more like a Wonderbolt. She shook her head and brought herself to focus on the task at hand. The sooner I get this over with, the sooner I get some well-deserved sleep. She glided down the stairs and went to open her front door.

“Going somewhere in a hurry?” said a familiar voice.

In an instant, Dash’s fatigue was dispelled as she felt adrenaline course through her veins. She turned, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up once more, to face-

“Twilight? How did you get up here?” she asked.

The unicorn sat at Dash’s kitchen table. “Magic,” she answered with a wink. “How else?”

“You have no idea how relieved I am to see you,” Dash leaned against the door and let herself sag down to the floor. “We saw flashes of something that wasn’t lightning over Canterlot, and then the moon turned red, which Rarity said meant that Equestria was at war. And we started to worry about whether or not you were alright, and everyone wanted to just send me to check up in the morning, but I decided I’d go check things out now instead. But, I guess now that you’re back, I don’t need to, right?”

“Wait, why are you back?” Rainbow Dash was speaking the words as she thought them. “You aren’t supposed to come home until tomorrow morning. Did something bad happen? Is Celestia alright? Why did Luna turn the moon red?”

Twilight was silent, so Rainbow Dash continued.

“What were those flashes over Canterlot? And why are you in my house so late? It’s polite to knock, you know!”

Twilight raised a hoof to silence her, and began to speak. “Your instincts are right, as usual, Rainbow Dash, something is wrong, and I... I...” She seemed to have trouble with the words. “I need your help,” she said finally.

        “Hey Twilight, you know you can count on me. I’m the most dependable pony around!”

        “I know, Rainbow Dash, which is why I came to you. You see, I’m going to give you something, something magical, and it’s going to try to hurt you. You need to accept it for me. It won’t really hurt you, of course, I would never do that. But it’s going to feel really unpleasant at first.”

        “Accept it? what do you mean, accept it? Twi-”

        “I can explain everything once it’s done, Dash, it’ll only take a couple of seconds, and then we can go get everypony else.” She got up from the table and moved towards Dash, who stood up and eyed her suspiciously. “Now are you with me, or not, Dash?”

        “I...” her voice was filled with hesitation. The night was getting stranger and stranger, but Dash knew that she could count on Twilight to make sense of everything. Plus, if she backed down she’d seem like a sissy. Rainbow Dash was not a sissy. “Alright,” she said. “Do it.”

        Twilight leaned forward and closed her eyes, focusing. After a short time, her horn began to emit a glow and a dark blob began to appear at its tip. She placed her horn just in front of Dash’s chest.

        “Alright,” she said, sounding slightly excited, “are you ready?”

        “I guess so. Just, do whatever it is you’re going to do quickly, okay?”

        “Oh don’t worry, this will be over in seconds.” She moved her horn forward so that it touched Dash’s chest.

        Immediately, the formless darkness began to take shape, sprouting writhing tendrils that crept over the surface of Rainbow Dash’s coat. A tendril sunk through the fur and she felt it touch her skin. It felt... wrong. It was cold and nauseating and somehow felt purely malicious. Dash pulled away, and the tendrils withdrew to the orb of blackness on Twilight’s horn.

        “I can’t!” she said quickly, “I’m sorry Twilight, but it’s just so wrong. Can’t you feel it?”

        Twilight looked down, “I know it feels bad at first, Dash, but you have to trust me. I came to you because you’re the Element of Loyalty, Dash, and the toughest person I know. I know it isn’t fair for me to ask you to do this for me when you don’t even know what you’re doing. I’m sorry I asked you, though. I’m sorry for wasting your time.” She moved to leave.

        Rainbow Dash felt ashamed. “Twilight, I...” The unicorn looked up. “I’ll do it,” Dash finished.

        Twilight perked up. “You have no idea how much this means to me, Rainbow Dash. I know it feels bad, but just, maybe try thinking about something else.” She placed her horn against Rainbow Dash’s chest again.

        The tendrils once again began to crawl across her chest, spreading over her coat and then plunging through it and into her skin. The horrible feeling returned, and Rainbow Dash thought of the happiest feeling she knew: flying. Air under my wings, she thought, wind whipping through hair.

        More and more tendrils found their way under and through skin, and the feeling of wrongness intensified. It was like the spell wanted to hurt her. It made her stomach turn.

        Breaking through a cloud and getting showered with misty rainwater, doing a back flip and watching the whole world turn upside down. Passing another flyer to win a race.

        The tendrils had now reached her neck and flank, and were creeping around to her back. They felt cold almost, and slimy, like worms trying to burrow under her skin. All the while she could feel the spell’s presence, wanting to hurt her, to kill her. She couldn’t stand it any longer. She pulled away.

        This time, the spell did not withdraw.

        “Twilight!” Dash called frantically, clawing at the darkness that had spread all over her chest. “Stop it!” She manage to pull some of the spell away from herself . Where it had touched, her fur had turned black. “Twilight!” she cried. The tendrils that had come off were now spreading across her hooves. “Help me!”

        The unicorn smiled. “Twilight?” She said, her voice becoming sinuous and low. “The neurotic little student girl who spends her time learning about friendship despite the fact that she’s one of the most powerful beings in Equestria?

        Realization dawned too late. “You aren’t her,” she said, terrified.

        The unicorn positively grinned.

        Dash propelled herself forward, straight into the unicorn’s chest. She slammed the unicorn backwards, onto the kitchen table, and wrapped her forelegs around her neck. “Where is she?!” she screamed. The darkness had worked it’s way up to her forelegs and was almost at her jaw.

        In a very Twilightesque facial expression, the unicorn raised an eyebrow.

        The air sizzled and flashed, and suddenly Rainbow Dash was pinned the surface of the table by an unseen force. The mare-who-was-not-Twilight sat atop her, straddling her belly. She leaned down, placing her head beside Dash’s and whispered in her ear.

“I was counting on you to be too stupid to realize that little fact before it was too late, and  lo and behold, you did not fail to disappoint.” She slowly drew her horn down along Dash’s neck and brought the point to rest directly against the center of her chest. “No, you imbecilic little fool.” Her voice had become a hiss.

I am not Twilight Sparkle.”

        Rainbow Dash tried to move her arms, her legs, her wings, but they were all held back by the unicorn’s incredibly strong magic. The tiny magical strands of darkness had converged, covering her entire body up to her neck. The nausea was overwhelming. She whimpered.

        There was an earsplitting crack from the unicorn’s horn, and Rainbow Dash was thrown to the ground as the table exploded beneath her. The darkness was forcing its way into her mouth, and was still rendered helpless by the not-Twilight’s magic. She couldn’t help herself: she threw up, soaking the floor beside her with vomit.

        “Oh, Twilight is in here,” somehow the unicorn was now standing over Rainbow Dash despite having just been on the table. “She’s screaming and sobbing to get out, to help you, as she watches through her own eyes while we suffer upon you a fate worse than death. I don’t even think she made this much noise when we murdered her beloved mentor. Why don’t you say hello, Rainbow Dash?”

        The spell was worming its way into Rainbow Dash’s ears now, and covering her eyes with darkness. She tried to scream but the sound that came out was muffled and weak. There was only blackness...

        Dash awoke on her kitchen floor surrounded by splinters, her head resting in a cold pool of her own vomit. A low buzzing noise seemed to come from inside her head, and her skin felt itchy. She noticed immediately that her coat had turned black, and her mane a dark grey. It must have been the spell.

        The spell! she sat up suddenly. The unicorn was sitting close by on her kitchen floor.

“You blacked out for a bit there,” she said, examining a hoof.

        Dash considered attacking the unicorn again, but thought against it. She felt so weak, and not-Twilight had crushed her before. Not to mention that if the unicorn was to be believed, Twilight was still in there somewhere.

        “We’re going to try this again, Dash,” the unicorn said. “Say hello to Twilight.” The last sentence was spoken as a command.

Immediately the slight buzzing noise grew louder, and she found herself unable to think straight. It was as though a thousand parasprites were swarming around inside her head. It felt as though insects were crawling under her skin. She tried to remember what she had been doing, where she was, but her vision blurred and swam. Say hello, the buzzing noise wanted her to just say it. Hello, Twilight, it grew louder, more insistent.

Her back arched as the crawling sensation grew unbearable. Rainbow Dash tried to remember who Twilight was, but couldn't. She could hardly even remember her own name, let alone some stranger. Her entire mind clung to one thought, one purpose:

“Hello, Twilight,” she managed weakly.

Instantly the room snapped into focus around her, and the noise vanished.

 I did it. Dash thought, I gave in. “Your spell,” she said quietly, “It makes me do what you want?”

Not-Twilight stood and circled Dash, then leaned in to whisper in her ear. “You fail to appreciate the true genius of it, Rainbow Dash.” Dash felt magic grip her shoulder. “You see, every second you disobey one of my instructions, my spell is going to take a small piece of your sanity.” Another bit of magic gripped Dash’s mane and turned her to face the unicorn. “And eat it.”

Her face was only inches away from Rainbow Dash’s. The pegasus wondered how she could have ever mistaken this unicorn for Twilight. She had her face, and her voice, but her eyes were filled with hatred and insanity. The unicorn spoke again, her voice sharp and biting, “Eventually it will force you to obey, and when that happens, you will become perfectly sane again.”

She jerked Rainbow Dash by her mane. “Do you not see the beauty of it, my pet? You will stumble along through insanity, lost and confused. And you will only truly be Rainbow Dash after you have surrendered your free will and done my bidding. You will experience moments of clarity only after you have succumbed and committed the most horrible atrocities, and you will spend those moments grieving for the innocent lives I will have you destroy. Your only escape will be to become a monster of your own volition.”

“Listen closely, pet.” the unicorn stood over her now. “You will cease to think of yourself as Rainbow Dash, and will no longer answer to that name. You will not take your own life.”

No. You can’t take my name. Rainbow Dash thought. The buzzing noise grew louder.

“You will not think of harming or hindering me in any way. You will do everything in your power to advance my goals as you see them. You will not try to circumvent any of my orders.”

No! Her skin began to itch.

“You will be cruel to others. You will show no compassion, and a day from now you will beat Pinkamena Diane Pie to within an inch of her life.”

A tear made its way down Rainbow Dash’s face. “Twilight...” she whispered.

“You will not call me Twilight. My name is Nihilus.”

“I wasn’t talking to you.”

Nihilus turned and regarded the pegasus with a look of amusement. The buzzing grew even louder, and she struggled to hold on.

“I’m sorry, Twilight...” she whimpered. “Sorry I wasn’t there... sorry... that I couldn’t save you.”

-

Chapter 3: A Beautiful Morning

A thanks goes out to The Prereaders


A Beautiful Morning

War.

        Rarity had not been able to banish the thought from her mind since they had left the dance club. Celestia must have been the one to turn the moon red. Only she had the capability to turn the moon red. What are the chances that Princess Celestia made a mistake, using a millennium-old symbol by accident? The chances were zero. The princess was not known to make even small mistakes, let alone one of this magnitude. That meant one thing:

        War.

        Equestria had to be at war, but with whom? The answer was obvious, of course. Either princess Luna had once again become Nightmare Moon, or somepony somewhere believed they had the power to rival both the princesses and every soldier in Equestria. The thought was a frightening one.

        She arrived at the Carousel Boutique and immediately made for her bedroom. After searching around under her bed for several seconds, her hoof grasped a long, slender chest. She slid it out from under the bed.

        Sweetie Belle was having a sleepover at Sweet Apple Acres with her friends, leaving Rarity home alone for the night. The filly wouldn’t like it, but Rarity would have to forbid such things in the future. Whatever was going on, whoever they were at war with, she would want to keep her sister close. Sweetie would not approve, but how could Rarity make her understand?

        Rarity opened the tiny chest. Inside were fourteen diamonds of varying shapes resting upon a cloth. None of them were particularly pretty, and Rarity would never consider using them were she designing a dress. Still, she ran her hoof over each of them in turn, feeling each facet, testing each edge. Were she less careful, she could have easily cut herself- but no, of course she didn’t cut herself.

        Touching the fourteen gems reminded her too much of days long from long ago. Unbidden, a memory came to her. It was of her father, handing her her newborn sister for the first time.

“This is your sister, Rarity,” he had said. “Your mother is gone now, so we’re going to take care of her. Your mother wanted us to name her ‘Sweetie Belle’, But I prefer ‘Allure’.  What do you think?”

Rarity had answered that Allure was fine. She knew better than to disagree with her father.

Sighing, Rarity closed the lid of the chest and slid it back under her bed where it belonged. She hoped that she would never have to open it again, that its contents would remain hidden to the world. They were not diamonds to be worn, or shown off. As much as she hated the chest, its existence was necessary, should the unthinkable ever happen.

“So Twilight, how are you handling things so far?”

        Nihilus trotted into Ponyville with an entourage consisting of forty or so of Terra’s earthpony puppets. The puppets weren’t by any means perfect replicas- each of them was almost entirely incapable of thinking for itself, and as such could only follow simple orders. On top of that, each of the ponies was physically identical: all male, with the same jet-black coat and neon green manes and tails. Their eyes and eyebrows were all a solid green. They didn’t look around at their surroundings, or walk in formation. The simply cast the occasional glance at Nihilus, as if following her was their only purpose.

        Which, come to think of it, was their only purpose. One could never have too many witless brutes ready to die for them, if Nihilus was to be any judge.

        At length, the other unicorn answered her. “Leave me alone,” she said faintly.

        “Seems your spirit broke sooner than I expected. A pity, really, as I had figured tormenting you would be an excellent warm up to taking all your friends. ”

        Twilight didn’t answer.

        “While you watch helplessly, of course,” Nihilus added just for good measure.

        It was the morning after Titan’s return, and their passage through the town was drawing looks from everypony on the streets. It made sense, really. The people of Ponyville still hadn’t heard from the Canterlot, and had probably been able to see the fight between the king and the princess even at this distance. The whole town was probably on edge, and almost forty strange looking earthponies were trotting down the street in unison.

        Nihilus would have preferred holding off taking Ponyville directly, instead bringing some of the other Element bearers under her control first. It would have likely been quite easy, in fact, to break the minds of the others just as she had done with Rainbow Dash. Her alicorn superiors, however, had insisted that she immediately take Ponyville and dispose of “Celestia’s elite”, and Nihilus had to obey them... for now.

        Twilight responded at length. “You’re a monster.”

        At this, Nihilus laughed out loud. Several townsponies gave her strange looks as she continued to laugh at something they couldn’t hear. “Twilight! Calling me a monster does not do your vocabulary or my actions any justice. I’m just getting started, kiddo.”

        “This is insane, Nihilus. You don’t need to do any of this!”

        “You know what, Twilight? You’re absolutely right! I don’t need to do any of this. But you see, it’s going to just be so much fun.”

        Twilight didn’t answer her.

        “Oh don’t worry, kiddo. I know just the thing to cheer you up. What you need is a friend.” Nihilus reached out with her magic and gave a little tug.

        It was several moments later that a gray-maned, black-coated pegasus came crashing to the ground in front of them. She came down fast, barely flared out her wings in time, and landed with her face in the dirt. The pegasus spasmed violently, then jerked to her feet and looked at Nihilus, her expression changing from a look of defiant hatred to a blank stare. There were bags under her eyes, and her mane and coat were dirty and disheveled. She had obviously not slept the previous night.

        “I must say, my pet.” Nihilus took several steps forward until she was less than a foot from the pegasus. “You exhibit a remarkable ability to resist the pull of my spell.”

        The pegasus lunged at her, but her muscles locked up as soon as she started moving. She toppled forward again onto the dirty street as Nihilus delicately sidestepped her.

        “Bad,” the pegasus mumbled to herself as she spat dirt out of her mouth. “Bad, bad pony.”

        “It must be agonizing, really, to be so close to me but be completely unable to do anything. Twilight isn’t taking very well to her complete powerlessness either. Is there anything you’d like to say to her?”

        At the mention of Twilight’s name, the pegasus’ head shot up. “Twilight,” she breathed softly. Then she screwed her eyes shut. “I hate you,” she finished quickly.

        “You’ll pay for this.”

        “Forgive me for not feeling threatened. And it isn’t my problem if you don’t like my new toy,” Nihilus replied.

        At last she came to the town hall, her destination. She climbed up onto the slightly raised balcony that surrounded the building and her earthponies fanned out on the ground around her in a semi-circle. Her pet looked around, then curled up into a ball beside the stairs.

        “Citizens of Ponyville!” Nihilus shouted. Her voice carried to the far edges of the town square. “I bring news from Canterlot!”

        The forty puppets she had brought with her had already attracted a great deal of attention on their way into town, and her little show with Rainbow Dash had helped. In moments, a small gathering of ponies was growing at the base of the town hall.

        Nihilus turned toward the crowd. The ponies were talking amongst themselves in hushed voices, eyeing Nihilus and the ring of strange earthponies. She scanned the crowd for any of their targets, but none of them were there.

She hadn’t expected Fluttershy or Applejack to have heard or seen her because they lived so far from the town centre. Or Pinkie Pie, for that matter, as Sugarcube Corner was several streets away. The Carousel Boutique was visible from where she was standing. a sign out front read: “Out on business. Store closed momentarily”.

        I suppose can work with this, Nihilus thought to herself. The other unicorn was well-known by the townsponies. While Nihilus would prefer a live demonstration, it was by no means necessary.

        She judged that the crowd was large enough for her to proceed. “Listen well, my little ponies, for what you are about to hear is joyous news indeed!” she cried. She paused, giving everypony in the crowd time to once again turn their attention towards her. “The King and Queen of Equestria have returned!”

        A murmur went through the crowd, and the ponies gave each other confused looks. It was clear that none of them knew just who she was talking about.

        “Equestria doesn’t have a king,” a stallion in the crowd pointed out to her. “We’ve never had a king.”

        Nihilus nodded along, then rolled her eyes when he finished. “So you have been led to believe,” she said. “But in truth your Princess Celestia was merely a usurper, a rebel who treacherously locked King Titan and his wife away so that she and her sister could seize Equestria for themselves. But the king has returned, and the sun tyrant has been destroyed!”

        Her statement was met with disbelief, and in some cases, outrage. Almost immediately, ponies in the crowd began to heckle her.

        “Why wouldn’t anypony know if we had had a king and queen?”

        “Tell us what really happened in Canterlot!”

        “Celestia isn’t a tyrant!”

        “The princess can’t die!”

        It was exactly the reaction Nihilus was expecting, and exactly the reaction she had been hoping for. She tapped into her well of magical power. It was enormous- Twilight Sparkle had been unmatched in raw magical power, and was well learned enough to make Nihilus a potent unicorn. She had more than enough power to suit her needs.

        Instantly she felt the magic surge through her. It vibrated through her entire body and made the air crackle around her. Her hair shimmered and coalesced into a mass of seething black ether tinged with indigo at the edges. It began to sway gently as if being blown by a nonexistent wind. The blood in her veins was felt as though it had been replaced with liquid electricity. She was overtaken by the sheer magnitude of the power at her disposal.

        “Enough!” Her voice cracked through the air like a whip. Everypony in the crowd drew away and gasped.

        Nihilus swung her gaze back and forth, staring them down. Nopony would meet her eyes. “Your god is dead, you pitiful little foals. Overthrown in a single night by an alicorn who possesses endless power and unfathomable intellect.” She emphasized her next words, “He is Titan, and you will ALL worship him, with more devotion than you ever paid to your dead princess!”

        She watched the looks on their faces change from disbelief to fear. They were beginning to believe her.

“The raising of the sun will now be attended to by the king and queen’s newborn son, prince Empyrean. Should you have any problems with the new order, you will petition him at court.”

        

        Nihilus stepped down and began to walk among the crowd. Ponies backed away from her as she moved through them, shooting looks at random townsfolk. None of them met her eyes.

        “This brings us to a very important topic: myself,” she said, her voice losing its harshness. She spun around in place and gave a little flourish.

“Should any of you feel that the new monarchy is not adequate, know this: King Titan, Queen Terra, and Prince Empyrean rule by divine right. They created this world, the celestial sphere, and your species. Each of you owes to them everything you have.”

        “Should any of you make the most unwise decision to act against them, passively or with violence, you will be branded as a rebel-” The crowd was hanging onto her every word, and she loved it. What she loved even more, however, was what came next:

“-And I will kill you.” The ponies in the crowd were now giving her passage a wide berth.

“Should any of you house any rebel, or keep from the monarchy any information regarding a rebel, I will kill you.”

Nihilus drank in their uncertainty, their terror, and felt exhilarated. She approached a mother standing with a unicorn filly, and the mare backed away. The filly, however, did not. She stood, looking up a Nihilus, confused and shaking.

“If I hear anything that makes me think you are a rebel.” She leaned down and looked the filly in the eyes, and the other pony gave a tiny gulp. “Even the slightest little peep-” she gave the filly a tap on the forehead with her horn, the stood and turned to face the rest of the crowd. “I will interrogate you, and you will beg me to kill you. Should I decide I would like to kill any of you for no reason whatsoever, I will, you guessed it, kill you.”

        She emerged from the group of terrified ponies. The Carousel Boutique sat in front of her.

        “Don’t do this,” a little voice in the back of her head begged gently.

        She unleashed her magic, focusing on a point she imagined somewhere inside the Carousel Boutique.

        The entire building imploded.

        The colourful roof, the walls, even the sign out front simply burst into splinters, tearing themselves apart as they were pulled inward by her spell. The sound of tearing wood was deafening, and sawdust filled the air around the boutique. Nihilus watched, if anything feeling even more energetic after the expenditure of power.

        Nihilus heard her pegasus plaything give an incoherent scream that was suddenly cut short. She suppressed the urge to laugh.

        “Don’t worry, Twilight. Rarity is off running some errand; I only killed her sister. Oh, and ruined her life’s work and left her homeless and destitute.” She thought about it for a moment. “Actually,” she told Twilight, “I like the way this turned out. Can you imagine the look on her face when she returns?”

        Using the destructive magic and terrifying the townsponies had been exhilarating, and Nihilus was nowhere near finished. She tapped the immense well of power again, this time throwing herself through space. The air around her sizzled and cracked, and she reappeared once again atop the balcony outside the town hall.

        “Pay attention!” she barked.

        Forty-odd solid green sets of eyes and one set of magenta ones snapped toward her. The townsponies were still watching her, but many of them were inching away from the main crowd.

        She called upon even more of her magical power, and  began to create crude illusions to represent her targets as she named them off one by one.

        “Rarity.” A sloppily constructed image of a white unicorn with a intricately kept mane appeared between her and the earthponies. She enlarged the cutie mark to ensure they all got a good look at it.

        “Applejack.” The earthpony’s image was easy to construct in a way that made her identifiable, her hat and cutie mark being distinguishing traits.

        “Fluttershy.” She noticed with glee that her store of magical power was not even close to running out; Twilight had certainly been a powerful unicorn.

        “And Pinkie Pie.” She didn’t spend much effort on the final illusion. A pink coated pink haired pony named ‘Pinkie Pie’ would be easy to find for even these half-witted brutes.

        She raised her voice again, making certain the crowd of townsponies heard her. “All of these ponies are dangerous rebels and you are to treat them as such. Should any of you think to join their cause against his majesty King Titan, the events of today will serve to help you... reconsider.”

        She addressed her earthponies, “Eight of you to Sweet Apple Acres. Two of you search that wreckage.” She nodded sharply towards the ruins of the carousel boutique. “Six of you go with my pet to Sugarcube Corner, and two of you to Fluttershy’s cottage. The rest of you, search the entire town. Kill nopony, but do not be gentle. You will find these four, and you will bring them to me alive.”

        She dispersed her illusions and looked back at to the townsponies. “Until every one of them is found, I will assume you are harboring these dangerous individuals. You will be treated accordingly,” she let the last word drip with menace.

        The earthponies attacked.

        They trampled through the crowd of townsponies and split into their respective groups. Her puppets kicked, shoved, and head-butted the helpless townsponies with the kind of casual brutality suited to a creature created only for violence. Once they realized their victim was not one of their targets, however, they simply moved on. Nihilus noticed with pleasure that several ponies were checked multiple times by different puppets. They broke down doors, kicked in windows, and otherwise caused mayhem.

        Nihilus tugged on her pet’s magical leash, and the colorless pony turned to her. “Get to Sugarcube Corner, and carry out your task,” she said. Her monochromatic toy jerked and spasmed, obviously trying to resist, but eventually took to the air. Nihilus turned back to the chaos in the town square.

        Ponies screamed and begged for restraint. Some frantically cried out their coat and mane colors, even waving their flanks, displaying their cutie marks to show that they weren’t one of her targets. Nothing worked. Nihilus watched the chaos unfold and smiled. Terra had ensured that the puppets would refrain from killing any non-vital targets, regardless of her orders, when she spun them from nothing. There was a fine line, she had said, between enforcing the new rule and encouraging rebellion through brutality.

        One of her puppets burst.

        She hadn’t seen it clearly. One moment she had watched lazily out of the corner of her eye as it struck the mail-mare with its front hooves, the next moment the mail-mare was staring up from the ground in confusion as the earthpony dissolved into a cloud of inky darkness. The cloud dissipated in less than a second, leaving no trace of the servant it had been. Nihilus perked up slightly.

        Two more followed the first. This time she saw it- a rough shape moving through the crowd, definitely a pony. The figure’s features were hidden, however, by a hooded cloak.

Well that’s a little dramatic, Nihilus thought wryly. The strange pony moved with purpose, spinning and rolling, not away, but toward Nihilus. Two more earthponies were felled before the figure emerged from the crowd. The figure, a mare, let the oversized cloak fall to the ground around her as she faced the dark unicorn. Nihilus recognized her immediately.

        “Princess Luna,” she greeted the alicorn. “You have no idea how happy I am to see you. Let’s make this quick, alright? I have ponies I need to capture.”

        The princess regarded Nihilus, and recognition flashed in her eyes. The alicorn gave her a look of absolute loathing.

        “Thou,” she spat. “Thou hast no conception of how much I am going to enjoy peeling thee away from her whilst thou scream. I hope thou hast more than unicorn magic to use against me. I am an alicorn.” She flared her wings and her horn began to glow. “This was thy first and last day among the living, parasite!

        The princess lunged.

        Applejack’s hooves dug gently into the packed earth of the road she travelled. The harness for her apple cart sat heavily on her back, but it was only a small discomfort for the earthpony by now.

She tilted her hat forward so as to better shield her eyes from the hot summer sun. In the distance below her stretched Ponyville, but something about the town was strange. She was on her way down from Sweet Apple Acres, and she had seen an awful lot of ponies gathered in the town square. Now the crowd seemed to have dispersed, but as she got closer faint sounds began to carry from the town. Applejack thought she heard shouting.

        It was another strange occurrence to add to the growing list. Applejack would arrive in town soon enough, and then she’d find out what all the ruckus was about. With luck, Twilight would have sent word back from Canterlot, explaining the strange noises they had heard the night earlier. There was also the matter of the moon turning red, for which nopony had had any explanation but Rarity.

        Rarity’s answer, however, had been a little too melodramatic for Applejack. In any case, her explanation made no sense. Equestria didn’t make war, and that was just the way it was. True, small conflicts existed between ponies and their various neighbors, and in some cases even other ponies, but as a kingdom Equestria had never taken military action, ever.

        Applejack shook her head. Here she was thinking about things that were way above a farm pony. She was likely just worrying where there was no need for it. She sighed and began pulling her apple cart towards town. Big Macintosh was selling apples in the market today, and she was bringing him a load of freshly bucked Red Delicious to carry him through the afternoon. While she was there, it wouldn’t hurt to check in and see if word had come back from Canterlot.

        It wasn’t long before she spied several dark shapes travelling towards her on the road ahead. On closer inspection, there were a little less than ten of them, and they were galloping. She watched as they came closer. They were all identical earthponies with black coats and unnaturally bright green manes.

        The ponies were yet another item to add to the list of strange happenings. She debated about whether or not she should just let them pass by, but in the end curiosity won her over and she resolved to ask them a couple questions. She unhooked the apple cart and stepped into their path.

        “Howdy there!” she called out as the group of ponies approached. “Ah see y'all came from Ponyville. There something goin’ on down there that Ah should be worried about?”

        The pony in the lead didn’t answer. He simply continued charging straight towards her, throwing his shoulder forward to strike her.

        The pony crashed into her. It was a powerful blow, and Applejack was not prepared for it. Despite her sturdy frame, and the fact that she had all four hooves on the ground, she was knocked to the dirt.

        “What in the hay do you think yer-” Her sentence was interrupted as her assailant kicked her with his forelegs, knocking the wind out of her and turning her over. Applejack gasped for air as he leaned in to examine her cutie mark.

        “It is Applejack,” he said in a deep voice. It had an almost metallic echo to it, making it sound as though his lungs were hollow. From her position on the ground, Applejack saw another set of black hooves approach her.

        “Take her,” the new pony said in the exact same hollow voice.

        Before she could register what was happening, the first pony pinned her to the ground and knelt down on her neck, choking her.

        Applejack’s confusion immediately became terror. She instinctively flexed the muscles in her neck to protect her windpipe, and began beating her legs against the ground uselessly. She tried throwing a shoulder back to roll him off, but he had her pinned too tightly. He had left one of her forelegs free, however, his own foreleg focused on choking her to death.

        Panicking and out of options, Applejack threw her front leg out to hit him in the chin.

        The punch was an unnaturally strong one. Applejack had worked for years on the family farm, strengthening her muscles into an enviable physique. She was also an earthpony, and a strong one at that. Not to mention she was fighting desperately for her life. All of these things combined into a punch that snapped outward lightning fast, and with incredible force.

        She hit her mark, and the earthpony’s head whipped backward with an audible snap. Shocked, Applejack rolled him off of her and sprung the her feet. The other pony twitched once, then burst into a cloud of dense black smoke.

        They aren’t real, she thought, They’re just some kind of fancy magic. At least she hoped that’s what they were. If not, she had just killed somepony. The thought did not sit well with her.

        But there were more pressing matters at hand. Another earthpony stood just metres away from her, and another six of them stood behind him. Seven earthponies who were apparently trying to kill her. She had to get home, had to make sure Applebloom and Granny Smith were safe. But she couldn’t lead these strange earthponies there, which meant one thing:

        She had to fight for her life.

        The ponies began to slowly move towards her. She raised her back legs, and brought them downward onto the abandoned applecart. The front of the applecart shattered, setting hundreds of apples to roll across the ground. Applejack stepped out of the way of the wave of apples, but the earthponies were not so quick. They stumbled and tripped, struggling to remain on all four hooves. The closest pony fell over completely.

        Applejack picked up two apples in her mouth and tossed them high into the air. While the two apples sailed skyward, she pivoted on her forelegs so that her back was to the closest earthpony. He was just regaining his feet.

        She bucked him harder in the chest than she had ever bucked an apple tree. The front of his ribcage shattered under the force of her legs, splinters of bone pushed back into the vital organs they were meant to protect. Like the first pony, he vanished into a cloud of thick black smoke.

        Applejack didn’t slow down. She repositioned herself as the apples she had thrown earlier fell back downward. Her back legs snapped out again to launch the apples at another earthpony. It was a difficult rodeo trick, one that many ponies took years to master.

Applejack had perfected it when she was eight. She aimed for her target’s head.

        The first apple missed, but the second hit him and burst right between his eyes. The pony recoiled, blinded by the mush that now covered his face.

        The remaining ponies were now all on their feet, and all of them faced her. They seemed completely unfazed that she had taken out two of their companions. The ponies didn’t spread out to surround her. They simply stared ahead with solid green eyes as they advanced towards her.

        Applejack moved to put the closest pony between herself and the rest of the group, then waited. As she expected, he lunged at her as soon as he got close.

        She caught his lunge, throwing her weight and turning herself so that he didn’t pin her, but was caught in a grapple. She twisted and spun and the earthpony was pushed to the ground, Applejack atop him.

        Applejack brought her front legs up just as another dark pony tried to tackle her...

        She brought her legs down, crushing her pinned victim’s skull as the next pony came sailing toward her head. But the earthpony she had been on top of exploded into the strange black smoke, and she fell the short distance to the ground. She tightened her form, drawing inward and hugging the ground, and the lunging pony sailed over her and landed on the road behind her.

        She snapped her head back, waiting for the pony to turn around. When he did, she straightened and lashed out with her back legs in another incredibly powerful kick. She barely felt her legs connect with the earthpony’s face before he too dispersed.

        She turned too late to see two of the remaining three ponies bearing down on her. They struck her, hard, and she was thrown to the ground again, this time landing back first. The two ponies were on top of her, pinning all four of her legs with their own.

        She struggled helplessly as the final pony approached. He looked down at her, his face betraying no emotions whatsoever. He raised his front legs, preparing to smash her skull. She gave one last jerk, attempting to break free, but it was no use. Two ponies holding her down was too much. She got one last glance at the bottom of the earthpony’s hooves as he brought them down...

        “EEEEEEYAAAA!”

        Every one of the earthponies atop her was thrown off as a massive red pony slammed into them.

        Macintosh! she realized.

        She righted herself, and looked at her older brother. He was on the ground, tangled up in the other three earthponies he had just charged. Two of them lay under his hindquarters, dazed. The other was sprawled across his chest, head-locked by one of Mac’s front legs.

        With a jerk, Mac snapped the neck of the pony he held. It too became only a cloud of rapidly fading darkness.

        Applejack wasted no time. She sprung forward before the the other two earthponies could recover, landing with a hoof on each of their necks. They were helpless, and it was hardly fair, but she was long past sympathizing with the creatures that had almost killed her twice. They aren’t living ponies anyways, she thought uneasily as the two beneath her dispersed. The way their skulls caved in felt real enough.

        Big Mac got to his feet and looked around. His eyes found the one remaining pony at the same time Applejack’s did. It was on its haunches, rubbing at its eyes despite the fact that the apple mush had all come off by now. They flesh around them was swollen, and she could barely see the solid green orbs beneath. The apple had hit its mark hard.

        She and Mac both moved until they were at opposite sides of the earthpony. “What...” Applejack swallowed. “What should we do with him?”.

        She met her brother’s eyes. They were hard.

        “Only one thing to do, sister.”

Applejack nodded. This time she barely felt the impact at all. Only the light tapping of her and her brother’s hooves meeting amid a cloud of dark smoke.

        Applejack adjusted her hat once more, “Mac-”

        “They’re all over the town, AJ, and they’re looking for you. You and all your friends. Came up this way to warn you. Was almost too late.”

        “Ah’m fine, Mac. We have to get Applebloom out of here, she-”

        “Ah will get Applebloom, and her friends. You find yours. They need you AJ. Do your thing.”

        “I-” she began, but she stopped herself.

        Strange sounds and flashes had come from Canterlot the previous night. A declaration of war that was older than dirt had been made. Now, Ponyville had come under attack by strange magical ponies looking for the bearers of the Elements of Harmony.

        Whatever the problem was, whatever was happening, Applejack realized that it had become her responsibility. Her responsibility, and the responsibility of the other bearers of the Elements. While she might want to take her family far away to someplace safe, she had a duty to do.

        And when duty called, an Apple answered.

        “You take Gran and the kids to Appleoosa, you hear? Don’t stay with cousin Braeburn, though. It’s too dangerous. See if the local Buffalo will take you in, they know him and me.”

        Macintosh nodded. She knew he understood completely- not just that they needed to lay low, but why Applejack needed to leave. That she may never see him, or Applebloom, again.

        “Good luck, AJ.”

        Applejack nodded once more before turning away and sprinting off toward Ponyville. She couldn’t afford to stretch the goodbye out longer. She needed to find her friends.

        Twilight Sparkle is the new ten, Celestia had said. Don’t worry, I think that you two will get along just fine. You share enough common interests

        Luna thought back to her sister’s words as Nihilus’ spell threw her through a nearby house. The walls folded under her, then cracked and burst into bits. Chips and splinters of wood followed her as she landed back first on -of all things- a sofa. She shook the debris off of herself, noting how many pieces of wood were now lodged in her back.

She flexed her wings, and found them to still be functional. While it was true that most of a pegasus’ ability to fly came from magic, that magic was still centred in the wings. Damaging them too much would knock out one of Luna’s two major advantages, and stop her from being able to escape.

        Escape was looking to be her only option. The spell Nihilus had used was not a complicated one. Luna’s opponent had simply slapped the her with enough telekinetic force to uproot a tree. As far as combat magic went, what Nihilus was doing was inefficient and bland. It makes sense, Luna thought, Twilight probably knew nothing about fighting with magic. Despite this, Luna was losing.

        She had still not recovered from Terra’s attack the previous night. She was exhausted, her magical reserves already half-spent. Her wings and muscles ached whenever she moved, and casting spells required extra focus. Had she not been so exhausted, perhaps she would have been able to defeat the unicorn in single combat. As things were, she was barely scraping by.

        Luna rolled off of the sofa and kicked it away from her, earthpony strength sending the it sliding across the room. Looking around, she noticed that there were actually several sofas in the room with her, as well as a wide assortment of what looked to be quills and ink. She was in a shop. She waited, and it wasn’t long before Nihilus came in after her.

        The parasite that had taken Twilight Sparkle had not made any drastic changes to the unicorn’s form. She was still the same size as Luna remembered, and was now simply darker. Her coat seemed a darker purple, and her mane, energized with magical might, blazed blue-black.

        Luna had not known Celestia’s student personally, but had seen the unicorn before. Nihilus still had the round muzzle and the small mouth of Twilight Sparkle, as well as her sharp eyebrows and straight lashes. But where Twilight’s eyes had seemed deep and focused, analytical even, the parasite’s flitted to and fro, wide with madness.

        “You know,” the unicorn remarked casually as she stepped through the gaping hole in the shop wall. “I don’t seem to hate you nearly as much as I hate the others.” Several shingles fell, only to bounce off an invisible barrier over her head. “I could offer you the chance to surrender. This fight is really just a formality. Even if I couldn’t restrain you, you’re no match for the new prince. He’ll get you eventually.”

        The parasite went on, “But I don’t think I will. You see, you’re really the only pony in Equestria who can give me a good fight. I have all of Twilight Sparkle’s power, and I am just itching-

        Luna attacked.

        She threw herself across the room with all the force her wings and legs could muster. It was enough that she closed the distance between them in a fraction of a second. Nihilus was a unicorn, lacking the earthpony resilience that made Luna so hard to kill. Luna could take being thrown through walls all day, but one good hit would be all it took to bring the unicorn down.

        But Nihilus was not going to let herself be beaten so easily. With a whip-like crack, the unicorn vanished, and Luna passed through hot air. Instinctively, she angled herself towards the ground and tucked into a roll as she left the shop. Another intense blast of force whipped at her mane as it barreled over her head. She heard another building break behind her.

        She stopped and spun in place, finding herself back in the town square. It was not as packed as it had been moments ago, but there were still small groups of ponies fleeing from Terra’s brutes. Nihilus stood perhaps twenty paces away from her, mane blazing.

        Luna wasted no time. She tapped her unicorn magic, grabbing the shards of wood leftover from the broken quill and sofa store and threw them at her adversary.

        Nihilus’ horn glowed, and the shards of wood broke harmlessly against her chest and face. Tiny splinters shattered against her open eyes.

        That’s... war magic, Luna thought, completely taken aback. I don’t even know that spell!

        “You think I came here completely unprepared?” The parasite smirked. “I have a number of texts detailing how to cause harm to other ponies. The first spell I learned was, naturally, the one that made me near invincible. The second was an interesting bit of mind magic designed to control free will itself.”

        She learned two spells in less than a day, Luna thought numbly. Spells unicorns talented with magic might spend months working to perfect.

        Twilight Sparkle is the new ten, her sister had said.

        She was loathe to admit it, but she couldn’t win. While Luna had enough magic to make even a powerful unicorn envious, her opponent outclassed her by an order of magnitude.

Luna was a world-class flyer, but Nihilus had even more mobility because of her uncanny ability to teleport. Luna had enough latent earthpony magic to make her almost unkillable, but Nihilus had the spell for unbreakable skin. Despite decades of experience of war, Luna was going to lose to the parasite.

Luna remembered a very similar battle she had fought once, against a powerful unicorn named Astor Coruscare. She had won then, but she had also been able to cast a blade. That magic was lost to her.

        She decided that she couldn’t afford to lose. She had to buy time, at least, enough to make sure the bearers were safe. She had to survive, and help them fulfill their purpose.

        What was it you were always so fond of saying, sister? She thought to herself.

        Nihilus narrowed her eyes and pawed at the ground. Her horn glowed as she prepared another attack. Her mouth curved into a wicked smile.

        Time to make the best of a bad situation. Why is it you get to be the martyr and I get left with all the work?

        Rarity had an appreciation for beauty, and it was truly a beautiful morning. Shafts of sunlight broke through the tree branches, bathing her in a glow that made her dazzling white coat shine. It had been sunny all morning, despite the fact that Rainbow Dash still hadn’t cleared the few clouds that had formed. Rarity was waiting on the ground as Fluttershy addressed the occupants of a nearby oak tree.

“It’s alright. I’m not going to hurt you.” Rarity watched as Fluttershy gently rose through the air until she was level with the oak’s higher branches. The birds in the tree scattered as she approached, multicolored blurs of feathers shooting off in different directions.

        The yellow pegasus frowned slightly, but did not otherwise express any frustration. This was not the first time the animals had run away from her that morning.

        They were in a lightly wooded grove that was perhaps a five minute walk from the Carousel Boutique where Rarity was supposed to be making cloaks for the Canterlot aristocracy. Though I wonder if they’ll be worrying about their cloaks now, Rarity thought, reflecting once again on the previous night’s events.

        Fluttershy descended softly to the ground before her with her characteristic natural grace. The pegasus gave a resigned sigh. “I guess they’re all just agitated from all the loud noises last night. They didn’t even act this scared during the trouble with the dragon.” Another sigh. “I suppose I’ll just have to wait for them to calm down.”

        Over the course of the morning Fluttershy had approached more types of birds and rodents than Rarity could name. Every single one of them had fled when she got close. The woodland creatures would seldom run from anypony, let alone Fluttershy. It was curious behaviour indeed.

        “Well, if you’re done-” Rarity made a sweeping motion to indicate the grove around them “-checking in, I ought to get back to the boutique. Technically we aren’t open this early in the day, but I do have so much to do I’d like to get a head start.”

        Fluttershy’s eyes widened. “Oh, I didn’t mean to keep you Rarity! I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have asked you to come with me...”

        Rarity brought a hoof to her mouth and gasped. “Oh my dear, that isn’t what I meant at all! You know how much I love spending time with you!” she said even as she began leading them back toward the boutique. In truth, her mind had never left the shop. She had spent their whole outing debating whether or not she wanted emeralds or green sapphires inlaid at the clasp.

        She didn’t have enough of either gem to outfit the entire line, of course. But she could always borrow Spike and fetch more once he and Twilight returned from Canterlot. The real problem with the cloaks now was the trim. It really couldn’t be any color but green if she wanted to avoid her cloaks seeming garish. That was if she decided on a trim at all, in which case she would have to blind-stitch the hem, which meant the collar would need to be-

        Rarity’s train of thought was rudely interrupted by a loud crack. She frowned and looked about, trying to determine the source of the noise. “You don’t suppose that came from Ponyville, do you?” she asked, trying to hide her worry. She looked around for Fluttershy.

Two eyes looked out at her from a nearby bush.

        The brush parted slightly as the pegasus’ pink maned head slowly poked out and looked around. It was followed shortly afterward by the rest of her body. Rarity gave her a flat look.

        “Um... sorry.”

        “Whatever it was I suppose we’ll find out when we get to town. What was it you were saying?”

        “I wasn’t saying anything.”

        “Oh,” Rarity remarked. Had she really been paying that little attention? “So sorry dear, it seems I just can’t stay focused today.”

        It was at that moment that a purple pony came galloping at them full tilt through the woods, eyes wild. “Run!” she screamed through labored breathing. Rarity and Fluttershy both simply stared. “Run!” the wild-eyed mare urged again as she got closer. She suddenly stopped and regarded them with a look of pure terror. “Oh no,” she said, shaking her head and backing away. She looked as though she was seeing a pair of ghosts. “You’re them.

        Rarity didn’t know how to react. Fluttershy spoke first.

Shhhhhh,” the pegasus said softly as she approached the mare. “Just calm down and tell us what’s the matter. I’m sure we can help, whatever it is.”

        “No... no...” The mare continued to back away. “They’re here for you. They’re going to catch you! There’s one following me!” She quickly stole a glance behind her. “You have to run, but I can’t be near you. I’m sorry,” the pony turned to run-

        And stopped dead as a thickly built black colt with an electric green mane stepped into view. He began to move towards her, but stopped as he saw Rarity and Fluttershy.

        The mare curled up into a ball on the ground. “It’s them,” she muttered quietly. “It’s them, you don’t need me... please, you don’t need me... don’t hurt me...”

        The colt approached them and examined them for a moment with his pure green eyes. They’re here to catch you, the mare had said. The black colt’s eyes narrowed.

        For the second time in the space of a day, Rarity heard the voice of her father:

        

        An earthpony strikes low, and forward. They can kill you or I in one blow. It is imperative that you remain outside of their reach.

The colt took a step forward. Rarity took a step back.

Always engage one with a weapon, and remember that strong earthponies can take a dozen times the punishment you or I can.

        The colt lunged. Rarity sprung backwards, panicking. He’s attacking me, she thought. He’s actually attacking me!

She thought of the chest of diamonds she had under her bed. No, She thought, I am not his daughter. We are not his daughters.

        The colt began to circle her. She made sure to keep him at a distance. Fluttershy was nowhere to be seen.

I’ll just... negotiate with him. Yes, that’s right, I’ll disarm him with my natural charm and poise. Or frighten him away with a bout of good old fashioned whining, like I did those other ruffians...

        She cleared her throat. “Ehem, yes. I’m sure there’s been some misunderstanding, good sir,” she called out. The dark pony tilted its head. “Why don’t we just conduct ourselves like gentleponies and have a nice little chat about whatever it is I’ve done to offend you.” The pony pawed at the ground. “Er... at a distance?” Rarity added meakly.

        He charged. Rarity didn’t jump out of the way, or defend herself. She simply stood, frozen with fear.

        For a moment, she was a filly again. “But I don’t want to practice! Cinnamon Swirl’s costume party is today!”

        The colt collided with her, throwing her onto her side. He rolled on top of her, pinning her. He had to be twice her weight.

        There were tears running down her face as she screamed at him. “I spent hours making my costume! It was going to be the most beautiful and best costume of any pony there!” It was the first time she had ever yelled at her father. The first time she had ever refused to practice.

        She felt the colt shift, moving her onto her back. His front leg pressed down onto her neck, choking her. Her mane was trapped under his other front leg, and as he shifted it pulled taught, tearing at her scalp.

        She should have stopped when he remained quiet. She didn’t. “Practice is stupid! I don’t CARE about having a weapon! I want FRIENDS! I want a cutie mark! And when I get one, It isn’t going to look like yours!”

        She was going to die, and she was only realizing it now. Why hadn’t she been able to get out of the way? The edges of her vision began to turn red, and everything lost focus except for the two green eyes staring down at her. She could only hear her heartbeat. Her head felt as though it was going to explode.

        “I don’t want to be like YOU!” Her father had regarded her for a moment, expressionless. Then he grabbed one of the metal shards they used for training and slapped his daughter across the face, drawing blood.

        Rarity’s world began to spin, and she closed her eyes.

        “I will not tolerate whining,” he had said. “And you will not cower and sob. The strong do what they want, my Rarity, and you are a weak little child. I will make you strong, though, and then you can go to all the parties you like. Now pick up the shards.”

        Even at such a young age, Rarity had been a perfectionist. She had made a good student.

        She couldn’t even feel the weight on her neck or the pounding in her head anymore. She wondered if her senses had gone numb or if she had actually already died. She realized she had been breathing for quite some time. Dead, then.

        “Um... Rarity? You can get up now. I got rid of the bad pony almost a minute ago.”

        The unicorn opened her eyes to find herself still in the clearing, her neck throbbing where the earthpony had tried to strangle her. “I’m alive,” she managed hoarsely, “He’s gone.”

        “It was incredible.” The purple pony from before stood next to a noticeably shaken Fluttershy. “She just... looked at it, right in the eye, and it stopped. Then it just... vanished... like it had never been here in the first place.”

        Fluttershy was clearly distraught. “I-I-I just tried to tell him to go away... to leave us alone. I didn’t mean to,” she gulped. “Kill him,” she finished in a whisper.

        Rarity’s mind was still reeling from the attempt on her life.

        The metal shards clattered uselessly against the walls. “In battle we must kill our enemies without hesitation. If you cannot attack your father properly in practice, how can I expect you to do this?”

        “I-”

        “Try to kill me, girl! I know you want to!”

        Rarity had to focus on the present. “You say it just vanished?” she asked the purple pony.

        “Yes... like it was made of smoke.”

        Rarity nodded. “Well then it was simply a conjuration, my dear! It wasn’t even alive to begin with!” She had no idea whether or not that was true, but it was what Fluttershy needed to hear. Indeed, the pegasus visibly relaxed at her words. “Thank you, Fluttershy. You saved my life.”

        “Now,” she began, turning toward the purple mare. “I need you to tell me everything, as quickly as you can. Her throat was badly damaged, and the words came out hard. This is probably going to leave a nasty bruise.

        The mare looked from Rarity to Fluttershy, then sat. “She came into town, with so many of those black ponies. I knew something was wrong, everypony did. She told everypony that the princess was dead.”

        “Who came into town?” Rarity demanded. “Which princess?”

        “C-C-Celestia. She said that Celestia was dead. That we had a king and queen now. I don’t r-remember their names. But she also said there was a prince now, and I remember his name was Empyrean. Then she said your name, and yours,” the purple pony nodded to Fluttershy. “She told us you were rebels. And then- then those things she had with her started hurting ponies. They were looking for you and your friends.”

        It was too much information. Rarity could process it later. Right now only one thing was important.

“Who gave them the orders?”

        The purple mare looked away as she spoke, “It wasn’t her, it was like she was different somehow.”

        “Who is trying to hurt me?!”

        The purple pony looked up, “Your friend,” she said softly. “The librarian. T-T-Twilight.”

Silence filled the grove.

“Oh, no,” Fluttershy said softly, “that has to be a mistake. Twilight isn’t... she wouldn’t...” Rarity heard her friend let out a heart-wrenching sob. “What’s going on?

But Fluttershy would have to wait, “Did any of the black ponies head towards Sweet Apple Acres?” she asked the purple pony in a level tone.

The mare was obviously still in shock, and her answer came delayed. Rarity realized that she must look like a savage, covered in dirt with her mane in disarray. “She-” the purple mare looked up at Rarity with fear. “She sent a group of them there specifically. T-T-To get Applejack.”

“Fluttershy.” The yellow pegasus looked up, eyes studded with tears. “Do you remember where we go to pick trilliums?”

The pegasus nodded.

“Wait for me there. Stay away from ponyville, and do not go back to your cottage.” Rarity turned away, toward Ponyville. “Everything will be alright.” She didn’t give the pegasus time to answer. She broke into a run.

Rarity was not an athletic pony. She preferred to leave unsavory physical pasttimes to ponies like Applejack and Rainbow Dash. But Ponyville was only moments away, and she had hardly broken a sweat by the time she cleared the trees.

She hoped that Fluttershy would do as she was told. The pegasus had obviously also been in some amount of shock before Rarity left them, but it was understandable. Rarity doubted that she was fit to make decisions in her current state, either. She was, after all, charging headfirst into Ponyville nonetheless- a place apparently filled with strange ponies who were trying to capture her.

Sweet Apple Acres was not her destination. No, first she needed to go to the Carousel Boutique. Then she would go to the Acres, and warn Applejack, and make sure Sweetie Belle was safe. Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash would have to make do on their own.

Rarity cleared the trees and looked out at Ponyville, and she felt like she was back in the grove, being strangled.

“I am proud of the progress you have made, daughter. Most unicorns your age would struggle to lift even one shard. Yet today we have shown that when the correct pressure is applied to the right places, you are capable of lifting four.” Rarity tasted blood in her mouth. She could hardly stand. “Yes, you are a precocious little filly. One day you will make me proud.”

Ponyville was in chaos. Ponies were being assaulted in the streets by the strange black earthponies. Not a window in sight was intact, their glass littering the roads and twinkling in the morning sun. Several buildings had collapsed entirely.

One of them was Rarity’s home.

The Carousel Boutique was a shattered heap of painted wood and cloth. What had once been a top-tier fashion emporium, a temple of tasteful dress and impeccable style, was simply reduced to nothing. All of her work, all of her possessions, were gone. A small part of her realized that she now had no products to treat her mane- which, at the moment, was a dirty mess.

It was too much for her to handle. She fell to the ground, shaking, as she looked at the ruins of her livelihood. Princess Celestia was dead. By now Pinkie Pie was probably dead too, and Applejack would follow soon afterward. Rainbow Dash would easily be able to escape, but Twilight was either still missing or trying to kill them. And Sweetie Belle, Sweetie Belle would-

No, Rarity thought adamantly. Rarity would get to Sweetie Belle in time, and the filly would be fine. Rarity might not have a roof to put over her sister’s head anymore, but she would never, ever stop being a big sister. She would give Sweetie Belle everything she had. Even if it cost Rarity everything that she had. Even if it cost her her own identity.

She would be his daughter, just for today.

“How dare you!” she said to the colts ravaging ponyville, all of whom were too far away to actually hear her. Rarity knew what to do.

She ran full tilt past the Carousel Boutique, and focused, her horn aglow with magic.

There were two of the strange colts sifting through the ruins of the Boutique, and each of them turned its attention to her as she approached. When she got close enough, one of them lunged at her.

She rolled out of the way of its lunge, putting it between herself and the ruins of the Boutique. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the second creature preparing to lunge.

She released her magic, letting it take the form of a gem finding spell, as she rolled. It was a specific form of the spell, a certain frequency of magic designed only to detect diamonds of a certain kind. Fourteen clustered points of light appeared in her mind.

As she came out of her roll, she pulled on all of them.

Rarity was a talented unicorn. Not just in the areas of taste, class, design, common sense, grooming, sewing, artistic vision, and social graces, but in magic as well. While she could never rival the ability of a magically talented unicorn like Twilight, she still possessed a level of focus and skill that many unicorns would envy. Indeed, she could manipulate a dozen objects at once while she carried a conversation and operated a sewing machine.

But focus only went so far, and a unicorn’s magic was designed to aid their special talent. A pony could only move something so heavy, and only so quickly. And even that would quickly become exhausting. Rarity was no exception.

Unless the object in question was, say, a gem.

As Rarity came out of her roll and regained her footing, fourteen enchanted diamonds tore their way from the ruins of the Carousel Boutique. They punched through cloth, wood, and the unlucky black construct that stood between the gems and their mistress. As Rarity was showered with a discorporeal black mist, the gems aligned in front of her, their various irregularities interlocking perfectly.

The second pony had already lunged.

It was met in midair by a length of the hardest, sharpest material known to ponykind about as long as Rarity’s tail. The irregular diamonds had tessellated into a perfectly straight edge, the fractures that joined them refracting light into a myriad of colors that sparkled through the air as Rarity cleaved her enemy in two. She was rewarded with another shower of silky darkness.

She brought the blade to rest floating in front of her, parallel to the ground, and whipped around to face the rest of ponyville.

Four more dark ponies were in the nearest street, some of them kicking townsponies who were on the ground. None of them paid her any heed.

She split her blade along its fractures and sent four tiny, brilliant spikes outward. When they returned, the street was clear, and Rarity was already making her way toward Sweet Apple Acres.

She was skirting past the town square when none other than Princess Luna came flying through one of the town hall’s windows and landed not twenty feet away from her. The princess was covered in scrapes, and an oblong metal rod was jutting out of her shoulder.

The glass from the window did not fall to the ground, however. It stayed frozen in the air until the alicorn righted herself on the ground. Then, it plunged through the broken window frame, treating the room inside to a storm of tiny shards of glass.

The princess took in her surroundings with a wide sweep of her head, noting Rarity. Her gaze turned, whipping back and forth between the broken window, the surrounding rooftops, and the empty streets. Then she spoke:

“Rarity?”

Rarity was aghast. She had completely forgotten her manners. “Princess? You know my name! Ah!” She almost squealed as she came out of a deep bow.

The princess was breathing heavily as she spoke. Her eyes continued to scan their surroundings. “Thou must runneth. Find thy friends and get out of here, now!”

Rarity had forgotten her task when she spotted the princess. She remembered what she needed to do, but now she wasn’t so certain. “But... you’re hurt!” She could not leave what was possibly Equestria’s only remaining leader to bleed out in the town square.

The princess spat out a mouthful of blood. “I’ll be fine. Now I am giving you an order, as your princess. Run. Save thyself, before she-”

Just then, another length of steel spun through the air with incredible speed, striking Luna on the back of her head. There was a loud crack and the princess was thrown forward, face first, into the dirt. She didn’t get up.

A smooth laughter filled the square. Rarity looked around, searching for the sound’s origin. She found it in the window Luna had broken earlier. It was Twilight.

Or so she seemed to be at first glance. She had the same face, but her coat was a deep aubergine, her mane a writhing mass of black energy tinged at the edges with-

Azure? No, it was a darker shade than azure, like a navy blue, but a bit more vibrant. Yes, definitely too much hue to be as mundane a shade as navy blue, perhaps ultramarine-

“Rarity.”

The mare spoke her name as a statement filled with loathing, and Rarity was brought out of her thoughts and reminded of the fact that she was in mortal peril. She looked up and saw the new pony bringing herself gently to the ground- an odd feat, considering the broken window had been on the second story.

The mare’s eyes radiated a hatred that Rarity knew Twilight Sparkle to be incapable of. Whoever this was, it wasn’t her friend. The air around her crackled with energy as her horn began to glow. “My, my,” the mare said. “Is that a blade you have there?” The other unicorn chuckled. “What a completely irrelevant surprise.” The aubergine unicorn cast a spell.

Immediately Rarity was hit by a wave of force that knocked her breath away. She curled up as tightly as she could as she was thrown backwards, tumbling through the square until she struck a wall. A splitting pain filled her head, and her legs trembled as she failed to stand. Somewhere during the throw, she had lost her hold on her blade diamonds. She tasted blood.

A voice sounded, but Rarity couldn’t tell from where. “Seems our princess is down and out. Hopefully I didn’t hit her too hard, I’m supposed to keep her alive, you see. You, on the other hand...” Rarity was suddenly thrown up and against the wall, her legs spread out around her. She could barely make out the form of the other unicorn in front of her, her vision was so blurry.

“I’m sure you think I’m going to kill you, and I could, but I see you now, here, like this, and you’re just so pretty!

Rarity’s senses began to return to her. What was the other pony talking about?

“Even with your mane all trashy, and that unseemly bruise on your neck. Even all covered in blood and dirt. You’re just so precious, and of course you know it. But that isn’t ever good enough for you, is it?” The unicorn leaned in to whisper in her ear. “You have to look perfect.

Rarity knew that she needed to escape, somehow, but the magic that held her was impossibly strong. She couldn’t even move a single leg.

 Rarity could feel the other pony’s breath in her ear. “No, Rarity, I’m not going to kill you. You’re going to kill yourself, eventually. And you’re going to do it because I tell you to.”

Rarity had to escape, find her sister, but she couldn’t move, and she couldn’t focus enough to call her blade through all the pain...

The other unicorn stepped back and regarded Rarity, crucified against a wall, with glee. “No, Rarity, I’m not going to kill you.” Her horn glowed, and a point of twisting darkness appeared in front of Rarity’s face. Rarity tried to draw away from the writhing ball of blackness. The other pony grinned. “I’m going to give you a makeover!”

Rarity whimpered as the point of darkness drew closer.

Luna barreled into the other pony, and the point of darkness vanished as Rarity felt herself fall away from the wall. The other unicorn was not so easily had, however, and moments after Luna struck her she simply vanished, reappearing in the centre of the square.

Luna turned to Rarity. Her head was slightly misshapen, and a metal rod still stuck out of her shoulder. She was covered in blood.

“As soon as I give thou a chance,” Luna said quietly enough that only Rarity could hear. “Run.” The alicorn’s horn glowed, and the metal protruding from her shoulder wrenched itself free with a sickening squelch and hung in the air beside her. “Understand?”

Rarity willfully stopped her back legs from shaking with fear. What am I doing here, she thought, calling her blade to herself once more.

She tightened the magical grip she had on her diamond blade, and nodded slightly in answer to her princess.

Their adversary attacked.

        The morning air was crisp and warm, and a light breeze ruffled the nameless pony’s sleek black feathers. The sun shone down on ponyville, bright and cheerful, ignorant of the destruction and violence consuming the town. The nameless pegasus was surrounded by Nihilus's puppets. There were four of them forming a ring around her, and two of them were attempting to break down the door to Sugarcube Corner.

        Just don’t think, she thought firmly, just don’t think of anything and it won’t hurt you. The madness will just go away.

        The ponies she had brought with her were bucking the door to the shop, but to no avail. It had obviously been barred from the other side. They were making little progress breaking it down, the useless brutes. The black colts were nothing. They were scum, worth less even than her. And she didn’t even have a name.

        But she had had a name last night. She tried to remember...

        Don’t think, she reminded herself, just do, and it will go away.

        She called it the Insanity. It was in her, through her, making sure she didn’t do anything bad. Anything Nihilus wouldn’t want her to do. It was always with her, dimming her vision at the edges, making her skin itch. It writhed and twisted in her belly, making her feel as though she had swallowed an eel. It was always with her, because she was always resisting.

        A part of her didn’t want to be cruel to others. She didn’t want to be merciless and hateful. She didn’t want to do what Nihilus told her to. It was there, a remnant of her former self, to struggle against everything the Insanity wanted her to do.

And because a part of her was always resisting, the Insanity was always with her, muddling her thoughts.

        And the more she resisted, the harder the Insanity would grip her. It would make her forget herself, forget where she was. It would squeeze her insides and crawl under her skin and it would become a thousand insects buzzing around in her brain. She could try to be the other pony all she wanted, but the Insanity would take over and follow Nihilus’ orders regardless.

        Once it had, however, it would recede again. The nameless pegasus would be cruel, and merciless, and then she would be her old self again. And when she was her old self, she resisted. And when she resisted, the Insanity took her, used her, then let go, and she was her old self again...

        She hadn’t slept at all the previous night. It had taken her hours of mental torture, of teeter-tottering between her old self and the Insanity before she realized how to keep the two balanced. She simply tried not to think, and so she hung between the malicious spell and her old psyche. She couldn’t want to be cruel, and merciless, and all the other things Nihilus had said, not yet. But if she simply didn’t think, It was almost like the Insanity was gone.

        Almost.

        The door was cracked and splintered now, and slowly being pressed inwards. The vermin were making progress. On the other side of the door was Sugarcube Corner, and-

        Don’t think, the nameless pegasus thought sharply to herself, Not about that.

        Instead she tried to come up with a name for herself while she waited. Her mistress had only forbidden her from using her old one; there was no reason she couldn’t come up with new one for herself. A new name would be the perfect thing to help her forget her old self. Help her to be cruel, and dispassionate...

        She was a glossy black mare now, with a deep grey mane, the color of a storm cloud. Storm Cloud? No, she didn’t want to be a cloud. Dark Dash? The buzzing in her ears grew louder, and she immediately discarded the idea. Too similar to her name. Blackblitz? It had a certain ring to it, and she was fast. Blackstorm? Storms were cool. She decided she needed more words for the color black. Rarity had a fancy word for every shade imaginable. The unicorn had once gone through sixty with a handful of Rainbow Dash’s mane alone-

        Her stomach knotted and her legs grew weak. The buzzing in her head grew louder, and her vision tunneled as the darkness closed in. Don’t think that name. she thought desperately. Don’t think about her, either. Don’t think about any of them, they’re all going to die. Don’t think...

        The door burst, and the puppets charged into Sugarcube Corner. Blackblitz followed.

        The interior of Sugarcube Corner was not as she had remembered it. The tables and chairs had all been piled against the door, except for one that was tipped on its side at the far end of the bakery. Evidently, somepony had known that Pinkie Pie was a target.

        Blackblitz moved into the centre of the room as the puppets cleared the broken pieces of furniture from the entryway. She had to force herself not to remember anything about the room. Her old self was getting agitated.

        Don’t think, just do. She had to remember why she was there.

        “Dashie!” Despite the circumstances, Pinkie Pie’s voice had lost none of its energy.

        Dash turned, and the Insanity proceeded to choke her out.

You will no longer answer to that name, Nihilus’ voice echoed in her head. You will be cruel to others. Her stomach knotted and her skin began to crawl.

        The sight of Pinkie had awakened a new resistance in Rainbow Dash. Rainbow Dash, she thought to herself. Blackblitz is a stupid name. The darkness at the edges of her vision began to creep inward, until all she could see was Pinkie Pie, standing on the staircase that led up to her room. She couldn’t fight the Insanity forever, but she wouldn’t need to.

        “Pinkie,” she managed to choke out. “Run,” she gritted her teeth and collapsed to the floor as blackness consumed her vision. The Insanity took hold-

        And suddenly she had crossed the distance between them with a powerful sweep of her wings. She slapped the pink mare across the face with a front hoof.

The Insanity immediately gave a little, and the hoof was jerked backwards away from Pinkie Pie as Rainbow Dash realized what she was doing.

        She was a strong pony. Not as strong as an earthpony focusing their innate magical talent, but strong enough to hoof-wrassle even the biggest pegasus and come out on top. Pinkie’s head snapped to the side. She turned back to the nameless pegasus.

        “Dash?” she asked softly.

        Dash knew that the puppets were going to try to help her. She had only moments before the Insanity took her again....

        “Don’t touch her!” she called out to the black ponies that had followed her inside. She pumped her wings as her vision darkened once more to throw herself backwards off of the staircase.

        You will beat Pinkamena Diane Pie to within an inch of her life. She used her wings to spin midair, and aimed a back leg at Pinkie’s face.

        The party pony had the sense to dodge this time, tilting her head out of the way with a surprising speed. While Dash was still turning in the air, she threw herself into a sideways aerial somersault, wrapping her two back legs around the leg Dash had used to kick her. Pinkie used the grab to twist Dash in front of her as continued through the air, spinning over the stairway banister and landing on the floor of Sugarcube Corner. Dash was face down, Pinkie holding her pinned with whatever strange leg grab she was using.

        “Wooooooooo-eeeee!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed. The vermin around them were completely motionless, following the orders the pegasus had given when she was Rainbow Dash. “Somepony is having a bad day!” She released Dash’s leg, and the pegasus threw her front legs at the pink pony’s face again.

        Pinkie Pie threw both punches aside with her own front legs, then shifted forward, pinning the pegasus’ front legs to the floor. Her face was inches away from Dash’s. She smiled.

        “But I know just the thing to cheer you up and get you well!” She let go of Dash’s front legs and stood. “First,” Pinkie Pie whispered so loudly that everypony in the room could hear her. “You should stop hanging around with these guys. They look like Grumpy McGrumperpusses, if you know what I mean. And the look is wearing off on you.” She gave a conspicuous wink and nudged the pegasus “Eh, Dashie?”.

        The pegasus had hardly heard her through the buzzing that filled her ears. “That’s not my name!” she shouted. “My name is Darkbolt, or-” what had she decided on earlier? It was so hard to remember... “Blackblitz, or Stormcloud...

She was stalling. The Insanity needed her to do one thing, just this one thing, and then she could be any name she wanted.

        “Take her,” the dark pegasus ordered. Her vermin moved toward the pink pony.

        She watched as the expression on Pinkie Pie’s face turned slack. Saw the bright earthpony turn to her, mouth open, and raise her eyebrows. The look in her eyes became one of understanding- she was finally taking things seriously, finally realizing that Darkbolt was trying to kill her. Pinkie Pie’s lower lip quivered as the six vermin closed in around her.

        “What’s wrong with you, Dashie?” She didn’t sound angry.

        Pinkamena Diane Pie. Dash got to her feet as the first two of her vermin reached the pink pony, one of them aimed a kick at her chest with both its back legs. The other struck out with a front-hoof punch.

        Pinkie Pie flipped onto her back and swept a front leg around, striking the vermin’s legs mid-kick,  making it lose its balance and fell on its belly. The second vermin’s punch sailed over her head, and she grabbed the offending limb between her two back legs. With a powerful twist of her thighs, she threw the vermin to the ground and brought herself to rest on top of him.

        Another vermin tried to tackle the pink pony. Pinkie Pie simply straightened her legs and bounced, clearing the vermin as he landed atop his downed comrade. She landed next to the nameless pegasus.

        “Come with me, Dashie,” she said, ducking to avoid another punch and striking out with her back legs to trip the offending vermin. “We’ll find Twilight. She’ll know what to do!” She flicked her tail into the face of an approaching vermin, causing him to sneeze. “Afterwards when you’re all better, we can throw a party!” She turned and threw a handful of confetti into the face of another vermin. It stopped, momentarily confused.

        Dash attacked.

        She landed on Pinkie’s back, wrapping two legs around her shoulders to squeeze at Pinkie’s neck. She beat her wings downward, slamming Pinkie headfirst into the floor. The earthpony struggled, but was dazed and had no leverage. She began to jerk spasmodically.

        The nameless pegasus was doing her job well, and the Insanity receded...

        “No!” Dash screamed. She loosened her grip, and tried to roll off of the earthpony, and ended up beside her on the floor, back to the door. She wasn’t going to let herself choke Pinkie Pie.

        Pinkie Pie let out a squeak.

        Thump!

        The Insanity tightened, and so did her grip. She needed to knock Pinkie Pie unconscious, and then everything would be so easy.

        Thump, Crash!

        Pinkie Pie tried to speak out of the suffocating headlock, and failed. Once she was out, the buzzing would go away. the Insanity would leave her alone. She could pick a new name.

        She felt the pink pony go limp with unconsciousness, and the Insanity receded momentarily...

        Snap, Thump.

        Too late, she saw the dark cloud of smoke at the corner of her field of vision. She turned, only to see an orange hoof hit her directly in the forehead.

        Her vision swam, and she rolled over onto her back. She saw two more vermin disintegrate, and a stetson-wearing earthpony jumped over her with Pinkie Pie on her back. The room stopped spinning, and she felt herself blacking out.

        A bad, bad part of the nameless pony cheered, but she was already unconscious before the Insanity could reprimand it.

        Crack!

        Nihilus’ teleport brought her to a hallway just inside the town hall. The smell of slightly singed wood filled her nostrils as the energy from her spell scorched the floor. The repercussions of her battle with Luna had knocked the pictures lining the hallway from the wall, and she could see a gaping hole at the end of the hall where one of her attacks had struck earlier.

        Before her teleport, she had been standing just outside the town hall. She hadn’t been far from where she was now, just outside the building. Nihilus watched as, less than second after she entered the building, a dozen glittering gems punched through the wall behind her former position. Rarity was not nearly as inept as she had thought, and seemed to have no issue with trying to kill her.

        “I guess I really did kill her sister.” Nihilus thought to her passenger with glee.

        “You’re evil!” was Twilight’s response. “How can anypony be so cruel?”

        Nihilus tapped her magic once more and flung herself through space, this time focusing on a point in the square outside. There was a sharp crack and she found herself facing Rarity and the princess. They had their backs to her. With Rarity’s gems all buried in the town hall’s walls, the unicorn was completely defenseless. Unlike Princess Luna, who had gratuitous amounts of earthpony magic to keep her alive, Rarity would go down with only one good hit.

        “I’m evil, am I?” she replied in a dry voice. “You’re just catching on to that one now?”

        She threw a wave of force at the white unicorn. It was a basic spell, one poorly suited for fighting, but Twilight had not known any war magic whatsoever. What Twilight did have was more raw magical talent than any other unicorn in Equestrian history. With Nihilus in control, she could hold her own against a young alicorn. Even her basic spells packed as much punch as a locomotive.

        Luna turned just in time to see Nihilus unleash her spell. The princess released a spell of her own, causing an invisible barrier of force to spring up between Nihilus and Rarity. While Luna wasn’t strong enough to stop her spell with force alone, she didn’t need to. Her barrier angled the wave of concussive force downward, causing it to harmlessly kick up a large amount of dirt.

        The moon princess’s spell had the additional effect of obscuring them for several moments while earth rained down on the square.  Several pieces of splintered wood and stones were thrown at her through the cloud of dirt, but Nihilus let them bounce harmlessly off of her magically hardened skin. She still felt the impacts, but her spell made it almost impossible for anything to pierce her flesh.

        The dirt cleared, revealing Rarity, but no Luna. In addition to having her mane in a complete state of disarray and a nasty bruise along her neck, the unicorn was now covered in earth. She gave Nihilus a murderous look.

        “Dirt?!” she screeched, “You’ll pay for this, you wicked mare! You aren’t aubergine, you’re just a muddy maroon! You look like a rotten plum!”

        Nihilus looked down at her dark, reddish-purple coat. She had actually thought it was quite striking. What was wrong with plums? Plums were delicious.

She almost missed the cluster of razor sharp gems speeding towards her. Her magical skin wasn’t that strong. She teleported to the first place she could think of- back in the hallway in the town hall.

        She was struck immediately in the chest by a pinpoint of force so powerful it sent her reeling backwards down the hallway. Luna had been waiting for her. She tried to gain footing as she skidded across the floor, but her hooves slid off the hallway floor as though it were made of ice. Luna had somehow turned it into a frictionless surface, preventing Nihilus from gaining her bearings.

She’s good, Nihilus thought.

        She reacted by immediately throwing a magical barrier between her and Luna. Luna’s next spell- a ball of silvery light- struck the barrier and exploded into a shower of sparks. The shock of the spell striking the barrier still sent Nihilus spinning down the frictionless hallway once again.

        She reached outward, desperately trying to cling to something to stop her slide, and her hoof found the hole in the wall she had made earlier. She clung to it, stopping her movement, and rolled out onto the patio surrounding the town hall. She shot to her feet.

        “Left!” her instincts seemed to scream.

        She turned her head sharply, and was brought face to face with the hole in the wall she had just exited. It was empty. She turned to her right too late to see Rarity’s glimmering blade soaring towards her face. She ducked, but wasn’t fast enough. The blade opened her face from the end of her muzzle to just below her eye before burying itself into the wall behind her.

        Her instincts hadn’t warned her. It had been Twilight. She was trying to get them both killed.

        She threw a wave of force toward Rarity, but before her spell was even loosed, Luna had flown in low and grabbed the unicorn, carrying her target away.

        “Get back here!” Nihilus screamed, blinking blood out her eye. She had to get Rarity. She had to get them all, make them suffer...

        “I think I know why you hate them so much,” Twilight said to her quietly.

        “Shut up, you little foal. You could have killed us.” Nihilus had no way of sealing the wound on her face. It was going to scar.

        “That’s the plan, kiddo. You think I wouldn’t die for them?”

        Nihilus had no response. Instead she set out for the doctor’s office.

It had been abandoned in the chaos, and Nihilus found a needle and gut with which to crudely stitched up her face while she waited. It was perhaps a half hour before her earthpony servants found her waiting on the steps of the town hall, having thoroughly searched Ponyville.

        Or at least, what servants she had left returned to her. Of her original forty-something earthponies, nineteen remained. What was worse, not one of Twilight’s friends had been caught. Nihilus stared in disbelief as two of Terra’s earthponies deposited the unconscious form of her pet at her feet. Nihilus made a mental note to punish the pegasus later.

        Inside her head, Twilight cheered. Nihilus didn’t understand.

        She had access to all of Twilight’s memories, knew everything the young unicorn did. While she was a separate consciousness, she was still very much Twilight Sparkle. And she knew Twilight’s friends.

        None of them could fight. None of them had any special combat experience, no training whatsoever in the art of war. Indeed, Twilight had absolutely no knowledge when it came to weaponizing magic. They were simply a group of mares who happened to bear the Elements of Harmony. Nothing Twilight knew suggested that any of them would be able to fight off her minions, let alone all of them. Rainbow Dash was a black belt in whatever martial art they taught in Cloudsdale- yet somehow Pinkie Pie had knocked her unconscious and defeated half a dozen of Terra’s earthponies to boot. The pink earthpony was always full of surprises.

        Nihilus had counted on Applejack being able to take care of herself- she was the strongest earthpony Twilight had known, and was likely able to take a hard beating. But to defeat eight other earthponies? The idea was absurd.

        Fluttershy could always fly away if she was caught outdoors, so it made sense that she might be able to escape. The pegasus was usually outdoors, tending to all her little critters. Against a pegasus, her earthbound minions were woefully inadequate.

        What Rarity had done, however, was beyond Nihilus’ ability to rationalize. She had obviously not been in the implosion that had probably killed Sweetie Belle, which accounted for her survival. But what about her blade? The fashion designer somehow knew the most deadly and sophisticated war magic known to unicorns. It wasn’t a spell you could simply intuit- you had to actually forge the weapon beforehand.

        The unicorn had not known any other spells with which to fight Nihilus. She actually couldn’t perform any other spells, on account of her special talent being gems, or fashion, or sewing, or whatever-it-was. But all unicorns could learn the spell to turn their special talent into a weapon, and apparently Rarity had. That simple fact went against everything Twilight had known about the unicorn.

        Next time I fight that little minx she won’t have a princess to protect her, she resolved. We’ll see how long she lasts then.

        Nihilus had told prince Empyrean that Twilight’s friends were responsible for defeating Nightmare Moon and Discord because they were some of the most powerful ponies in Equestria. She had said that they were Celestia’s specially trained elites, ponies used for precision attacks. Faced with their survival, the irony of her lie was not lost on her.

        It was she who had the Elements of Harmony, of course. Titan, Terra, and Empyrean didn’t know of their existence yet, and the Tower of Harmony had been destroyed during Celestia’s fight with their king. Nihilus had retrieved them before travelling to Ponyville to corrupt Rainbow Dash. And once all of Twilight’s friends were hers, she would find a way to harvest them and use them herself.

        Then she would dispose of the alicorn family, and be queen of Equestria. She was the only one capable of transferring an alicorn’s power; she had done so with Celestia to help Terra create a new son. If she could take a defeated alicorn’s magic and bestow it upon another alicorn, why not herself? The Elements of Harmony were the most powerful magic in Equestria, and once she had them she would be invincible.

        Prince Empyrean thought that the resources he was lending to her were going to be used to prevent ponykind from rebelling against the new regime. And they were- for now. He thought that she needed to kill her targets because they were highly trained guerrillas capable of causing his government serious harm. In truth, they were the only reason he and his parents were still alive.

        “It’s too bad you let them get away,” Twilight lamented sarcastically. “Now you’ll never get to rule Equestria.”

        “Oh I’m not too worried,.” Nihilus replied. “You see, when I teleported I let Luna see the null-space where I’m keeping the elements. She knows I have them, and she knows that they’re the only way to save you. Your friends are going to come to me.”

        Nihilus paused, however. How had Twilight known what she had been thinking? Nihilus couldn’t tell what Twilight was thinking, but could Twilight perhaps read her thoughts? It was a disturbing revelation.

        “So you can’t read my mind,” the unicorn’s voice sounded cheerfully in Nihilus’ head. “But I can read yours. Good to know.”

        Unfortunately, Nihilus had no way of harming her passenger consciousness. She decided to ignore the insolent mare for the time being, and instead sent for a quill, ink, and parchment. Her letter read:

        Dear Prince Empyrean,

        The operation in Ponyville has met mixed results. I succeeded in regards to one of our five targets, but the other four were prepared and escaped. They would not have, but I was hindered by your fiancee, Princess Luna, who also escaped. She has joined forces with the remaining four elites, no doubt intending to seed rebellion among the general populace.

        While I search for them, I will continue to spread the message of your rule among Equestria’s towns and cities. The citizenry needs to be shown that we are not a force to be trifled with.

        The constructs that Terra provided were inept and useless. While they may suffice against an average soldier, they sustained heavy losses against Celestia’s own. I will need more adequate forces, especially if I am to capture your bride-to-be.

        These ponies are the only free link to Celestia left in the kingdom. Give me the resources I need and I will kill them, my prince. Then your rule will be absolute.

        Your faithful student,

        Nihilus Nix Naught

-

Chapter 4: “The Beginning”

A thanks goes out to The Prereaders


The Beginning

        Night had fallen by the time Applejack and Pinkie Pie made their way into the trillium-filled clearing. Fluttershy had found them wandering far away from Ponyville, and had led them back to the glade where Rarity was now waiting. It was a beautiful place; moonlight filtered through ancient tree branches, patterning the tens of thousands of flowers with spots of luminescence.

        Pinkie Pie had regained consciousness before Fluttershy had found them, and after insisting that she was alright, made most of the walk herself. She had been oddly silent on their way to the glade. Applejack hadn’t pressed her about it.

        Rarity was already in the clearing, as expected. What Applejack had not expected, however, was the alicorn princess who sat beside her. Luna appeared serene and immaculate sitting under the moonlight. Rarity, by contrast, was teary eyed and covered in dirt. The unicorn ran to Applejack almost immediately.

        Applejack knew why. “Mac’s got her,” she said before Rarity could get a word in.

        Rarity’s reaction was to bury her head in Applejack’s mane and sob. “I just didn’t know what to do! There was nopony at Sweet Apple Acres and I thought what if... what if...”

        Applejack nuzzled the unicorn. “She’s fine, Rarity. Mac’ll take her out to Appleoosa and they’ll hide with the Buffalo until everything is alright. Ah’m sure she’ll miss ya, but she’ll have her friends with her too.”

        “But-” Rarity sniffed. “What if she thinks I left her? I should go-”

        “-Ah know you want to go find ‘em,” Applejack cut her off. “But Sweetie Belle is a smart filly. She’ll understand.”

        Rarity pulled away and contemplated this for a moment before giving her a hug. “Oh thank you, Applejack!” she cried out, her voice returning to its usual silvery lilt. “You have no idea how much I’ve been worrying! I insisted on returning to Sweet Apple Acres, but you can just imagine my reaction when there was nopony there! I assumed she was okay, but, I just had to be sure. I haven’t been able to think of anything else since we got here! I haven’t even bathed!”

        The unicorn looked down at herself as she spoke. “Augh! I haven’t even bathed!” She began brushing dirt off of herself with her hooves. “I’m dirty! filthy!” She ran past Applejack, no doubt heading for a stream they had crossed on their way to the clearing.

        Applejack sighed and trotted over to Pinkie Pie, who was sitting by herself in the grass, absent-mindedly picking apart a flower. The pony had spoken much less than usual on their day-long journey to the glade. Applejack had initially just assumed that she was exhausted- she had been strangled half to death when Applejack had found her- but now Pinkie was sitting apart from everypony else, which was unusual behaviour for Pinkie Pie. She noticed Pinkie’s hair was losing some of its typical poof, a bad sign.

        “All right, sugarcube,” said Applejack, sitting beside the Pink pony, “what’s the matter?”

        “Rainbow Dash,” Pinkie Pie said simply. Spoken without her usual energy, her high voice lost its cheerful squeak and sounded melancholy.

        Applejack laid what she hoped was a comforting hoof on Pinkie Pie’s back. “That’s it?” she said. “Don’t worry about her, Pinkie. Dash can fly faster than any other pegasus in Equestria. Fluttershy could escape alright, Ah’m sure Dash is fine. She just doesn’t know where to find us, is all.”

        “No, AJ, she isn’t ‘fine’. She tried to kill me,” Pinkie Pie said simply, pulling a petal off of the flower she held.

        Applejack was dumbfounded. “What?”

        Pinkie Pie looked up her, “You didn’t see her when you rescued me? She gave me this,” the pink pony gesture to the puffy bruise that had formed around her neck. Rarity and Pinkie had both gotten them from being strangled. Applejack hadn’t, but she supposed that she simply hadn’t been choked for as long as they. Pinkie Pie had actually lost consciousness.

        “Yer confused, Pinkie. I knocked the pony that had you on the head. She was definitely a pegasus, and about Dash’s size, but that pony was black, just like all the others. Grey mane, too. About as not-Rainbow Dash lookin’ as a pony can be, in fact.”

        “You what!?” Pinkie Pie suddenly grabbed Applejack and shook her. “Tell me you didn’t kill her!”

        Applejack moved to push Pinkie away, but saw real fear in the pony’s eyes. She realized that Pinkie Pie truly believed that the pony who had tried to kill her was Rainbow Dash. Come to think of it, the pony did have Rainbow’s perpetually wind-ruffled mane and sleek form...

        “Calm down, Pinkie! Ah just bopped her on the head and knocked her out is all. She should be fine. What makes you think it was Rainbow Dash anyway?”

        “She was Rainbow Dash. She’s confused, or sick, and she doesn’t know what she’s doing.” Pinkie Pie’s voice no longer sounded melancholy as she began talking fast. “She told me to run and then she told all the others not to hurt me but then she hit me and I asked her what was wrong but she told them all to attack me and I stopped them but she jumped on my back and I couldn’t-get-her-off-and-I-thought-I-was-going-to-die!” The pink pony was now breathing heavily.

        Applejack sat, stunned. “You sure it was Rainbow Dash?” She asked at length.

        Pinkie nodded, “She didn’t want to use her own name, like, it hurt her when I said it. And she was herself for a little while, but then she just... lost it. And I tried to cheer her up because cheering ponies up is something I’m good at but it was like Rainbow Dash wasn’t even there anymore and-I-thought-that-maybe-if-I-just-kept-smiling-” Pinkie Pie stopped to take a deep breath, “-She’d let me throw her a party and everything would be okay.”

        Applejack leaned in and nuzzled Pinkie Pie’s neck. “Look,” she began. “You remember when Discord made us all strange?”

        Pinkie nodded.

        “He messed with our heads. Made us do things we’d never do. Ah’m willing to bet this is just like that. Dash is probably under some spell.”

        Pinkie Pie gave Applejack a flat look. “I figured that much out.”

        “Well do you remember how it worked out for Discord?” Applejack waited.

        The answer seemed to have an effect. The edges of her mane gained a little more volume and her eyes brightened. Applejack continued:

        “Twilight made us remember how much our friendship is really worth, and wiped away his magic just like that. Ah reckon she can do the same thing again. She’s the most magical pony in all of Equestria. An’ Rainbow Dash is the strongest mare Ah know, and the Element of Loyalty to boot.”

        “Speaking of which, Ah’m the element of honesty. And Ah’m telling you now, that I truly believe we are gunna find Twilight, and then we’re gunna find Rainbow Dash. Then we’ll find out whoever is behind all this mess and teach them a lesson!”

        Pinkie Pie leapt to her feet. “And then I am going to throw the biggest party ever known to ponydom!” She began to bounce in circles, singing a song that she was likely making up on the spot.

        Applejack smiled, realizing that she did believe what she had said. She let out a yawn, realized that she was exhausted, and looked forward to getting some sleep.

Sleep, however, would have to wait. Fluttershy was hovering in the air beside one of the many ancient trees that stood sentinel over the glade of small white flowers. As Applejack approached, the pegasus shushed her softly, gesturing to an owl sitting amongst the tree branches, back facing them.

        

        Fluttershy said something so quietly Applejack couldn’t hear her. The owl didn’t hear, either.

        

        She mumbled something again, this time barely audible. Applejack considered asking her to speak up, but remembered that she had been shushed.

        “Um... excuse me, sir,” Applejack could barely hear the words. The owl turned suddenly, then flew away, startled.

        Fluttershy didn’t even bother landing properly. She simply folded her wings and let herself fall to the ground in a heap. She began to cry.

        “Fluttershy? Whats wrong?” The pegasus buried her head in her hooves and didn’t answer. Applejack moved to stand beside her and lowered herself to the ground. “Hey,” she said in the best soothing voice she could manage. “Talk to me.”

        Fluttershy spoke between sobs, shaking. “H-h-how m-many of the d-dark ponies did you-” she swallowed. “G-g-get rid of?”

        “What’s that got to do with anything?” she asked.

        Fluttershy wiped her eyes. “You’re right,” she said. “I’ll just leave you alone now...”

        “Wait a minute!” Applejack did a quick mental recap of the morning events. “Uh, twelve or thirteen, depending on how ya look at it. Why?”

        Fluttershy looked at her, clearly shocked. “I got one,” she said in her unusually soft voice. “And it was by accident, using the stare. And I almost let it kill Rarity first. And afterward I ran because Rarity told me to. She could’ve gotten hurt and I wouldn’t have been there to help.”

        “Sounds to me like you saved Rarity’s life.”

        “But any of you would have done it faster. She wouldn’t have gotten a big bruise around her neck.” Fluttershy sighed again. Applejack still didn’t understand why she was so upset.

        “What’s this really about, Fluttershy?”

        “I know I’m not good at flying, or fighting, or farming, and I can’t do magic, but that was okay because I always had my special place in the world. But now...” Fluttershy looked at Applejack, and she looked more terrified than the earthpony had ever seen her before- and Applejack was no stranger when it came to seeing Fluttershy afraid.

        “I can’t talk to them anymore, Applejack!” There were fresh tears in her eyes. “The animals act like I’m some kind of monster from the Everfree forest! They screech and growl and run away and all I want to do is help them. I want to tell them everything will be alright, but what if everything won’t be alright? Rainbow Dash is missing, and Twilight-” the pegasus paused.

        Applejack considered telling her about Rainbow Dash, but decided it could wait until the morning. She would focus on the more immediate issue for now.

        She continued after a moment, “We still haven’t heard from Twilight.”

        AJ sat up and gingerly put a hoof around Fluttershy’s neck, bringing her close. “You remember when we came out of the club the other night and everything seemed all strange for a second?” The pegasus nodded. “Well Ah reckon the animals are just still spooked from whatever that was. An’ maybe Ah’m wrong, and something else is bothering them. Maybe they won’t act normal again until we fix all this.”

        “But we will fix all this, and they’ll come back to you either way. But until then you’ll just have to cope.” Fluttershy looked taken aback at the harshness of AJ’s last statement. “Cope with being one of the kindest, most empathetic, graceful ponies Equestria has ever known. Cope with being somepony who faces their greatest fears to help their friends, and somepony who Ah have personally seen face down a dragon. Somepony who flew three times as far as Ah walked today just to make sure her friends were safe.”

        Fluttershy gave a small smile.

        “Yer special, Fluttershy, whether some owl realizes it or not. Ah realize it, and so do all yer other friends. It does you no good to mope about it when yer likely exhausted. Get some rest.”

        Fluttershy nodded, then curled up and closed her eyes. Applejack gave yet another sigh, then turned to find her own place to settle down for the night, noting that Pinkie Pie was now sprawled out on the forest floor, snoring softly.

        She noticed Luna, however. The princess hadn’t moved since Applejack entered the trillium glade. She sat on her haunches, looking up at the night sky, completely unmoving. There was a certain timelessness to her bearing, as though she could, and had, simply stare at the sky all night. If the princess had heard any of their conversations, she gave no indication.

        Applejack continued to examine the princess. She was simply beautiful. Her coat was a deep and luxurious blue, darkened to a near black under the night sky. Not a single strand of its hair was out of place. But where her coat seemed to reject the light of the moon and stars, her mane caught and reflected it, causing individual threads to shine with brilliance, framing her face with an ethereal glow. The shining half moon was a small semicircle reflected in each of her pupils, and the image seemed so right to Applejack, as though her eyes should look that way all the time. As though they were meant to.

        Luna was a being infused with magic and presence. She was a god. It was all so alien to the mundane earthpony.

        “Come, sit,” the princess said suddenly, never looking away from the night sky. Her voice was not loud, but it was still strong, clear, and fluid. The sound made Applejack shiver. Nopony was above or below a little Apple family hospitality, though, and Applejack took a seat beside the princess, and looked at the sky.

        

        It didn’t seem any different than usual, although the lack of the lights this far from Canterlot made some of the stars more visible.

        Applejack figured she ought to say something. “Twilight likes to stargaze.” It was the first thing to come to her mind.

        “Does she?” Luna replied in her powerful voice.

        “Yep.” Applejack said. Luna’s short response made her wonder if the princess cared at all, but she continued anyway. “She reads all sorts of books on the subject and has this fancy thing called a telescope that lets you see them closer up. Took us out to see a comet with it once.” Luna smiled, still looking at the sky. “Though Ah suppose you already know what a telescope is, seeing as the sky is sort of, well, yours,” Applejack added, feeling a little embarrassed.

        “On the contrary, I only learned about them recently. The modern telescope was invented by Gallopileo Gallopilei four hundred years ago. I was in the moon.” The princess didn’t seem bothered by the fact.

        “Can I ask a question about, well...”

        “Go ahead. It doesn’t bother me.”

        “Wasn’t it awful, well, boring, being up there fer a thousand years? Ah would’ve gone crazy myself.”

        The princess finally looked down at her, and laughed. It was a quiet laugh that chimed softly through the trillium glade. “I wasn’t actually conscious for the whole ordeal, or I would have gone insane. I was a little aware that time was passing, but at the end it felt like we were waking up from a dream.”

        We, Applejack thought. She’s talking about Nightmare Moon. Applejack needed to change the subject.

        Luna saw her face and evidently thought the same thing. “Tell me more about Twilight Sparkle. Thou didst mention earlier to Pinkie Pie that she cast a memory spell to help thee in defeating Discord?”

        Applejack almost jumped at the opportunity to talk about something else. “That was Twilight, alright. Discord had us all acting like the opposite of our Elements, and Twilight showed us that friendship was worth fighting for. Ah couldn’t tell the truth to save my life, but her spell brought me back. It showed us our friendship, and all the times we had had together. It was-” Applejack stopped.

        “Thou misseth her.” the princess observed.

        “Twilight is always in charge. In control. She’s what we rally around. She’s strong, you know? We could really use her right now.  Ah’m not sure what to do without her...” Applejack admitted.

        “I understand exactly how thee feel, Applejack. I think thou art doing an excellent job in her stead, however. Thou didst admirably ease the troubles of thine other friends. They shall rest well tonight, I think, thanks to thine efforts. Thou ought consider resting as well.” The princess gave Applejack a meaningful look

        “Ah can stay up and work off of no sleep, if I really need to.” She thought back to the time Mac had an injury and she’d tried to tackle apple bucking season by herself. “Fer a little while, at least.”

        Luna regarded her strangely. “The mark of a powerful earthpony. I can do it, too. My sister could stay awake for a week in a row without succumbing to exhaustion.”

        “Ah’ve... Ah’ve never heard of that before.” Applejack admitted.

        “It is difficult attribute to measure. All earthpony magic is. I think taking on thirteen puppets is the least of what thou art capable of.”

        “Puppets?” Applejack asked. Is that what they are?

        Luna frowned. “I shalt speak more of this in the morning, when everypony else is present.” She stood and stretched. “For now, I shalt find Rarity. Does it usually taketh her this long to bathe?”

        “Princess, You have no idea.”

        “I see.” The princess spread her wings. “Thank you, Applejack.”

        Applejack was confused. “Fer what?”

        “I eavesdropped tonight on all of your conversations. The things thou didst say... didst give me hope. I think I see now that ye did not simply defeat Nightmare Moon or Discord through luck. Ye will all make powerful soldiers, I think.” The princess did not elaborate on her last statement as she took flight.

        It was a short while later that Applejack found a soft patch of mossy earth to lay down on. Her thoughts were not nearly as troubled as they had been before, and sleep came to her easily. One thought nagged at her, however. Soldiers, Luna had said. What if she didn’t want to be a soldier?

        It was a depressing morning.

        First, Rarity had had to sleep on the ground. No matter how much time she had put into inspecting and clearing the small patch of earth she used as a bed, she had always found more little twigs to poke at her uncomfortably. As a result, she had not gotten nearly enough sleep, and it took her almost an hour staring at her reflection in the nearby stream to get her mane to look like anything other than a train wreck. Even then, she had absolutely no cosmetics, and her coiffure lacked its usual sheen.

        Fixing her mane and bathing helped her to forget about other things, however. Like the Twilight look-alike who had also happened to be the strongest unicorn Rarity had ever seen. Or the pile of splinters that had been her home and livelihood. Or Sweetie Belle, forced to live apart in a strange land simply because Rarity bore an Element of Harmony. Or the fourteen irregularly cut diamonds that she had tessellated into a masterwork weapon.

She could only spend so much time at the stream, however, and these thoughts filled her head once again as she made her way back to their impromptu camp. Princess Luna had told Rarity the previous night that she was working on a plan, but not said anything more. Luna had been gone when they woke up in the morning. Whatever her plan was, Rarity hoped it involved suitable accommodations. She was not an outdoors pony.

        When Rarity returned however, Luna was back, conversing with Applejack in the centre of the glade. Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy were also awake, picking flowers a short distance away. As Rarity approached, Luna looked up at her.

        “Thou hast returned.” the princess stated in her strangely resonant voice. “That makes everypony, so we shall begin. All of you, gather round, and listen.”

        None of the four friends needed to be told twice; Rarity imagined all of them had questions that Luna could hopefully answer. They formed a semicircle in front of the princess and waited.

        Luna seemed to a think for a moment. “I am... not sure where to begin,” she said finally. “The beginning,” she said, looking up at the sky. “Or you.” She looked back at the four ponies. “For now, I think, the beginning will have to wait, as we address the more immediately important details.”

“Those black ponies that attacked Ponyville are called puppets. They are constructs created by a special kind of magic to carry out their master’s will. They are hardly sentient, and don’t possess any free will.”

Luna looked at the group expectantly. “In other words, destroying them is a fairly guiltless act. I would liken it to breaking one of another pony’s possessions. A sensible action, if said possession is trying to kill you.”

Applejack relaxed visibly. Fluttershy let out a very audible sigh of relief. Rarity tried to seem as though the news meant anything to her. In truth, she hadn’t cared much whether or not the six she had killed were alive in the first place. They had tried to kill her, destroyed her home, and could have hurt Sweetie Belle. Her actions had been justified.

“These puppets are the servants of King Titan, a very old and very powerful alicorn. It is his belief that all energy, matter, and life are his to control. He believes that there is a ‘natural order’ to his world that ponykind violates. Titan has come to return his world to the ‘natural order’. Should he succeed, all creatures, big and small, shall worship him as their god and be forced to do his will. Everything will suffer.”

Luna’s words were met with total silence. The princess continued:

“Beneath Titan is his wife, Queen Terra. Terra’s purpose and magic are of creation. It is she who maketh the puppets who attacked ponyville. Terra’s purpose is to create, and Titan’s is to rule.”

“We have to use the elements on two alicorns?” Applejack asked. The earthpony looked uneasy.

“Thou bore them against Nightmare Moon,” Luna countered. “And there are more than two.”

“Somehow, Titan and Terra have taken Celestia’s power and given it to their newly created son, Prince Empyrean. Empyrean is not a infant alicorn, but rather a fully grown one with all of the power Celestia had. He hast been raising and lowering the sun.”

It was Rarity’s turn to interrupt. “Couldn’t you just refuse to lower the moon again?”

“And what would that do other than terrify the population even more?” Luna turned to her. Rarity flushed.

Luna continued. “An alicorn is born with considerable power. That power then grows linearly with their age. Empyrean is equal in strength to Celestia, who is a little stronger than Terra. Titan is stronger than both of them put together. And because I have not aged for the past thousand years, I am much, much weaker than all of them.”

“Also, they intend to wed me to Prince Empyrean, and have the two of us rule ponykind while they restore the natural order. While a rebellion doesn’t exactly threaten them, it would still hinder their plans somewhat. Which brings us to Nihilus Nix Naught.” The last name was spoken with unmasked hatred. “She is the pony beneath Empyrean, and she is in control of the puppets who attacked Ponyville. I spent most of last night and this morning gathering information- from the four of you, from intercepted letters, and listening in on conversations. I can safely tell you Nihilus is thine friend and leader, Twilight Sparkle, corrupted by something called the Sliver of Darkness. Rainbow Dash is somehow under her influence as well.”

Everypony began to speak at once.

“That monster looked nothing like Twilight-”

“How’r we supposed to use the elements if Twilight-”

“They can be fixed, right?!”

“But we need them-”

Luna silenced them all with a raised hoof. The gesture wasn’t sharp or aggressive, but still managed to draw all their attention and command silence.

“I shalt tell you a story that I hope will explain things,” the princess said. “But first, ye will all need to do some explaining thine-selves.” She looked at each of them in turn. “Beggining with thou, Rarity. Cast your blade.” Rarity felt her blood run cold. She knew this had been coming.

The others looked at her with confused expressions. Rarity gave a dramatic sigh and moved over to where her fourteen diamonds were spread out and hidden under the long grass. She cast her blade, and the diamonds zipped through the air, their razor sharp edges causing them to trail bits of grass as they collided in the air and formed a straight edge in front of her. Each diamond had its own specific position in the whole.

Fluttershy stared on in awe. Applejack frowned. Pinkie Pie clapped her front hooves together.

Luna spoke, “The spell that summons a blade is perhaps the most complex spell that a unicorn whose talent is not magic can learn.” Rarity felt like she was back in school, holding something up for show and tell.

“Not only is learning it a grueling exercise in focus and ability, but most blades also require material components. A unicorn does not manipulate a blade with unicorn telekinesis, but rather a far more graceful and complex form of magic that conveys a set of benefits unique to the caster.”

“The spell that casts a blade is one of the deepest expressions of unicorn magic known to ponykind. As such, it requires something deeper than concentration, study, and ability. A unicorn has to believe in what they fight for. A unicorn cannot cast a blade without the conviction to wield it. Doubt thyself for even a moment, and thy blade will be lost to you. Thou must fight for something, even if that something is merely the fight itself.”

Luna walked toward Rarity, stopping so that she didn’t block anypony’s view of her. Rarity shifted uncomfortably.

“I am not surprised,” Luna said to her, “That you have the talent and focus to cast a blade. Nor that thou possess the conviction to wield it when those you love are in danger. But why dost thou know the spell in the first place? To what purpose didst thou learn to weaponize thine special talent?”

The ponies in the glade all waited expectantly. Rarity considered lying. It would be fairly easy, coming up with a believable answer. A lie might be even more believable than the truth, she reasoned. She could say something to make her interest in the weapon seem superficial, and they would probably buy it. Even the princess.

They were her friends, though, and her ruling monarch. She was a lady. Lies were unbecoming of her. She could, however, leave out the unnecessary details.

“Honestly, Princess Luna, you sound so grave,” she answered, twirling the diamond edge through the air and around her person. “This really isn’t such a big deal. My father was part of the twelfth Equestrian. I was a military brat, and father wanted me to grow up to be just like him. When mother died, he wasn’t fit to take care of us anymore. He wasn’t really fit to raise children in the first place, if you ask me. He wanted a warrior, not a daughter.”

She brought the blade to float in front of her and separated the diamonds, breaking it into its components. “He taught me the basics of combat and bladecasting before Sweetie and I were moved out here to ponyville. It only makes sense that when I found my cutie mark I finally created the weapon I had romanticized about all throughout my early fillyhood. My father was an extremely competent bladecaster- it was his special talent, you see- and I figured it would be useful thing to have if he ever came for Sweetie Belle.”

She spun it through the air some more, letting the diamonds catch the sunlight. “And doesn’t it look fabulous! Who knew that something with such a function could have such form!

Rarity watched as the expressions on her friends’ faces turned from shock to sympathy. Princess Luna’s expression, however, was unreadable.

Fluttershy began to speak. “I never knew, Rarity, I’m so-”

Rarity cut Fluttershy off mid-sentence. “Please don’t heap sympathy upon me like I’m some helpless orphan. The past is the past, and I’m now an accomplished fashionista. In any case, don’t you think we should all be focused on the present?”

“Sorry.”

Rarity released her blade and the diamonds fell back to the forest floor. She would need to get something to carry them around in, eventually. In any case, Rarity thought, if you want to feel sorry for me you should focus on the fact that I am now completely ruined and homeless.

“That explanation will suffice for now,” Luna said. “Let’s stay focused. Applejack, how didst thou defeat thirteen puppets?”

The orange mare scratched the back of her neck with a hoof. “Well, Ah sort of had help from my older brother Big Macintosh.”

“And how many didst Big Macintosh destroy?”

“One or two,” the earthpony answered meekly. “But Ah woulda been a goner if he hadn’t of come and saved me for sure.”

“How didst thou fight them, though?” Luna seemed confused. “Did you have a weapon? Special training, like Rarity?”

“Nope,” Applejack shook her head. “Ah just sorta... kicked em, and they went poof.

Luna tilted her head. “Destroying a puppet is no different from killing a regular pony. Thou hast to deal them a mortal wound. Thou art saying you can kick a pony so hard that they die?”

“Of course she can!” Pinkie Pie had been unusually silent up to that point in the conversation. “She can kick an apple tree so hard all the apples all off!”

“Indeed,” the princess said, regarding Applejack with the same unreadable expression. “Earthpony magic is what makes alicorns so difficult to kill, and so quick to heal. I pulled half a lamp post out of my chest yesterday and am fine today. I have the power of a world-class earthpony, just like I have the power of a world-class pegasi and unicorn.”

Luna still looked puzzled. “I am not sure if I could kick a tree that hard, to be honest.”

“Moving on.” The princess continued, ignoring Applejack’s dumbfounded look. “What is ‘the stare’?” She turned to Fluttershy.

The pegasus didn’t meet the princess’ eyes. “I can, um, sort of...” she mumbled the last bit.

“Speak up.”

Fluttershy looked like she had been caught committing a crime. The pegasus made herself as small as possible, then took a large breath. “I-can-sort-of-control-anythings-free -will-if-I-look-into-its-eyes,” she said quickly. She looked up the the princess, squeaked, and cringed.

“Also, I sort of, got rid of one of the, um, puppets, with it.”

The look on Luna’s face was one of absolute horror. “Thou canst what?

“I don’t ever use it on ponies!” Fluttershy pleaded. “Just on the critters sometimes when they get... obstinate.”

“Thou meanest to say that thee canst look a pony in the eye and compel them to do whatever you wish?”

Fluttershy hung her head. “Yes,” she said quietly.

Luna looked troubled. “This explains quite a bit. Mind magic is completely illegal. Nopony is allowed to influence another pony’s will with magic, under any circumstances. But nopony can perform mind magic on a pony without their express permission. They have to allow it. I have never heard of anything like this ‘stare’ of yours. But if it affects free will, then it makes sense that it would work strangely on the puppets, considering they have none. It would probably affect mind spells as well, because mind magic does not mix with itself.”

The princess continued. “I was interested to learn that Twilight was able to use a memory spell to help ye defeat Discord. Not only is such a spell illegal, but she shouldn’t have had access to any books detailing the spell itself. Somehow she invented a spell she didn’t know existed, and she didn’t need your consent to use it on you.”

“You aren’t in any trouble, Fluttershy,” Luna said, “you haven’t done anything wrong. I was just shocked to hear about something I thought was impossible.” The pegasus looked relieved.

“Now that that’s done,” Luna carried on.

“Hey! You skipped me!” Pinkie Pie shot the princess an accusatory glare as she bounced up and down in place.

“Didst thou destroy any puppets?” Luna asked with a smile.

“Nope.” Bounce.

“Hast thou any secret knowledge of the art of war you’d like to share?”

“Nuh-uh!” Bounce.

“Any inexplicable special powers?”

“Noperoo!” Bounce. Pinkie Pie gave a sly wink.

“Then we shall get to you later.” Pinkie Pie slumped. The princess continued. “Right now, I need ye all to tell me about Twilight. What hast ye seen her do? What spells can she cast? How does she learn new spells so quickly?” Luna looked at them all expectantly.

“She can teleport,” Applejack offered.

“Once she levitated a water tower and restrained an Ursa Major at the same time!” Fluttershy’s exclamation was soft.

“Twilight has a spell for everything! I bet she has a spell to help her keep track of her spells!” Pinkie Pie was still bouncing.

“Perhaps all of you should let me handle this question.” Rarity fluffed her mane. “Your education is lacking when it comes to some the, er, finer points of unicorn magic. Understandable, considering none of you are unicorns.” She batted her eyes.

Then Rarity turned to Princess Luna. “From what I’ve been able to tell, Twilight’s education avoids actually teaching her any spells altogether. She spends all her time learning about almost everything but. Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics. She spends so much time with her nose in books, and almost none of them are practical magic. Only theory.”

“Twilight does learn spells through the formulaic method, like when she needed a very complicated flight spell or when I taught her a gem-finding spell.”

Rarity had actually been a little peeved at how quickly Twilight had learned the gem-finding spell. It was her specialty, and Twilight had spent barely an hour mastering it. Rarity had gotten over her envy, however, when the other unicorn used it to rescue her.

“Instead, she uses her knowledge of theory to invent spells as she needs them. She’s very talented. I suppose that’s just what magically talented unicorns are supposed to do.”

Luna looked unnerved. “Unicorns who create spells do spend a long time gaining a rigorous understanding of physical laws, but it can still take them months to properly balance the forces they work with to create a spell. How long does it normally take Twilight?”

Seconds. “Much less time, I would say. She once came up with a spell to manipulate the behaviour of some parasprites, although that was technically a failure. She spent an afternoon working on a spell that turns an apple into a carriage, and mice into horses.” Rarity ran through her mind looking for more examples. “She also managed to counteract Discord’s magic, undoing some of his chaos and shielding us from him while we confronted him.”

Luna looked both troubled and confused. “What dost thou mean, undoing some of his chaos?”

Pinkie Pie chimed in, “She made a giant bubble and everything inside it returned to normal!”

“Interesting,” Luna said. “It seems that Twilight is able to intuitively cast a spell that only Titan himself could perform. Celestia told me she was talented, and I suppose she is the bearer of the Element of Magic. But this behaviour is still quite astonishing. No wonder the parasite could defeat me.”

“The parasite?” Applejack asked.

Luna nodded, “I think it’s time I told ye all the story. Ye all remember Twilight’s memory spell?”

        The princess looked around at them. Everypony nodded.

        “This shall feel a little like that. You’re all going to need to willingly let me in, however. Unlike your friend Twilight, I must still obey the laws of mind magic.”

        “Also, these memories are very old, and of a rather personal nature. Do not share them with others. And try not to interrupt; it is a long story, and this spell will take focus.”

        Rarity piqued up at this last bit. Just what exactly was Princess Luna going to show them?

        Luna’s horn began to emit a soft glow, and Rarity immediately felt her spell’s presence pressing against her thoughts. She let it in-

        And was immediately floating in nothingness, surrounded by a million brilliant stars. She floated, only able to observe, in the vast expanse of nothingness.

        But she was also still sitting in the trillium glade, surrounded by her friends and the ancient trees. Somehow, Luna’s spell made her aware of both realities at once.  Judging by the wide-eyed way the other three were looking around, they were experiencing it too.

        The memory continued to rotate in place at the centre of the void, bringing more stars into view.

        “We shall begin, naturally, at the beginning. I will admit that as I had not been born at the time, I cannot give you a full recollection of these events. Titan and Terra never spoke of the past. But I know this:”

        The edges of her memory vision blurred, and suddenly she found herself staring up at a pair of alicorns. One was as big as Celestia, colored midnight black with a blazing white mane. The other was slightly smaller, and had a grass-green coat and a mane of sunshine yellow.

        “Queen Terra filled this world with life, and king Titan did name and order all of her creations. Eventually, they created a race in their own image. A race without equals. It was the race of pony. Each pony was granted a drop of their immortal blood, a spark of divinity. This gifted them with one of three attributes.”

        The image of the alicorns dissolved, and a pegasus zoomed past overhead. The memory followed the pegasus as it landed beside two other ponies- a unicorn and an earthpony.

        “Unexpectedly, it also bestowed upon them the gift of purpose.”

        Each pony’s flank flashed, and the three looked down to find that they had cutie marks. The unicorn had a four-pointed star, the pegasus a whirlwind, and the earthpony a tree.

        “But while Terra created the ponies, she did not nurture them. And while Titan ruled them, he did not love them. The race of pony rebelled. Titan, furious with them, turned to Terra and spoke the words that all of his possessions fear most. ‘Strike them down,’ he said. And she obeyed.”

        The three ponies caught fire and disintegrated. The alicorn Rarity now knew to be Terra landed where they had been a moment before.

        “It became evident that ponykind couldst not rule themselves, lest they rebel again. Too busy with their own works, the king and queen created beings to rule ponykind for them. Beings they could trust not to rebel. Their daughters, Celestia and Luna.”

        “Waitwaitwait!” Pinkie Pie shouted, “they’re your parents?

        Luna hung her head in shame. “Yes,” she said simply.

        “But don’t that make this prince feller yer brother?”

        Unexpectedly, Luna’s response was to laugh. “I am as disturbed as thou art by the idea of marrying him, Applejack. But Titan and Terra predate incest. Alicorns don’t reproduce via mammalian means. In fact, they may actually be siblings.”

        “Ewww.” Pinkie Pie stuck out her tongue. The other ponies all gave similar reactions.

        “In any case, back to our story. It is going to shift to a more... personal nature.”

        Rarity focused again on the memory spell that was giving her a second set of senses. The memory shifted again from the image of Terra, and she found herself struggling through the air as a filly smaller than Sweetie Belle. With a start, she realized that she was now living one of Luna’s actual memories. Rarity relaxed, and let the spell take hold.

Luna was flying for the first time.

It was more than just flapping your wings, she had realized. Her wings weren’t nearly big enough to lift something even as small as she was. Instead, she had to tap some kind of force inside of herself, lifting herself off of the ground just by thinking about it while flapping her wings. She didn’t understand it, but she was still flying.

She struck a wall. The princess tumbled backward, landing on her head, then shot back into the air with enthusiasm. She hadn’t learned how to steer yet, and her movements basically consisted of frantically beating her wings upward and leaning so as to fall in the direction she wished to go. Right now, she wished to go to the courtyard.

“Celly!” she called as she entered the well-kept yard enclosed within her father’s half of the palace. “Celly, I can fly!” She faltered in midair and plummeted down into one of the many flower bushes. She sprung up a moment later, “Look Celly! Celly!” She landed roughly in front of her sister on her side, then threw herself back to her feet. She was a durable filly.

Princess Celestia was sitting in the center of the courtyard, where she spent most of her time. Luna didn’t understand why, but Celestia spent almost all of her days outdoors basking in the sunlight. At the moment, she was magically pulling petals of a flower. Celestia had finally discovered how to use her unicorn magic two days earlier, and had not stopped moving things around with it since.

Luna had been so jealous she had called her sister a big stupid horse and locked herself away in her room, crying. Now, however, the feud was completely forgotten by both sisters.

Celestia dropped the flower and gave her sister a hug. “That’s wonderful news, Luna! Now we both have magic! Father will be so pleased when you tell him. Show me again?”

Celestia pulled away and watched as Luna lifted herself a mere three feet into the air and then fell back to the ground in a heap. She gasped in awe, clearly impressed.

“I’m still working on the landing bit,” Luna said, shaking dirt out of her mane.

“That was amazing! I can’t wait until I learn how to use pegasus magic!”

“You already know unicorn magic though, right?”

“Yeah, look.” Celestia screwed up her eyes and the flower lifted slowly into the air. She screwed up her eyes, and it burst into flame, ashes falling gently to the grass.

Luna oohed and awed appropriately.

Celestia stood. “When I’m as big as father, I’m going to be the most magical pony in all of Equestria!”

“And I’m going to be fastest flyer there ever was!” Luna made a zooming sound as she ran in a circle.

Luna, fastest flyer in the world, was seven years old.

Luna watched her mother closely, every muscle in her body ready to move. She was charged with her unicorn magic, and her wings were flared.

Queen Terra dipped her horn, and it began to emit a wispy black smoke. The smoke condensed into a earthpony puppet, which looked up to Terra for instruction. Terra nodded, and the earthpony charged her.

“Earthpony,” her mother’s voice resonated through the training hall.

Luna evaded the charge by rolling to the side, then telekinetically grabbed a bronze shard off of a table nearby.

“Keep them at a distance and attack with magic,” she answered, launching herself out of her roll and into the air. She threw the bronze shard through the earthpony’s neck, and it fell to the ground, gurgling blood.

“Destroy the head to ensure that you break through their earthpony resilience.” She landed beside the earthpony as it struggled on the ground and grabbed it’s head with her forelegs. With a surge of her own earthpony magic, she tore the construct’s head from its shoulders. It dissipated.

If her mother was pleased or impressed, she showed no sign of either. “Pegasus,” she said simply, conjuring another puppet.

“Superior agility renders basic magic useless.” Luna threw herself into the air, toward the oncoming puppet.

They collided in midair, and Luna easily overpowered the larger creature. She bent its front legs back so that they pinned its own wings and then twisted to ensure that her enemy hit the ground first.

The pegasus struggled beneath her. “Close with them quickly and overcome with earthpony strength.” She grunted as she headbutted the pegasus, and the front of its face exploded under the sheer force of her own. Thankfully, the gore dissipated almost instantaneously. Luna rolled to her feet, excited for what came next.

“Unicorn.”

The unicorn puppet had a mane of fine, bright red hair. While in reality unicorns had no inherent advantage over the other two races, Terra infused her unicorn puppets much more power.

Luna grabbed several of the bronze shards and flung them at the puppet from different directions. She charged.

The puppet threw out a sloppily cast wave of telekinetic force, deflecting each of the shards, then it turned toward her.

The puppet turned too late, however. Luna collided with it and pinned it to the ground, throwing a hoof at its face in a hasty punch.

The unicorn moved its head to avoid the punch, then made to slap her with a wave of force. Luna had anticipated this move, however, and thrown her set of bronze shards at the puppet. It had to redirect its spell to deflect them, then cast another to disengage her. Luna ducked in close as the unicorn cast the first spell, gripping on to the puppet’s horn with her teeth.

The second spell threw her backward, and the length of bone snapped free in her jaw. She tasted the puppet’s blood as she telekinetically threw the horn point first through the staggering puppet’s eye.

“Divide its attention before you go for the kill.”

Her mother nodded, then began to summon more. “All of them?” She asked.

Luna leapt into the air as the three puppets came at her. She threw her shards of bronze at the unicorn and moved to tackle the pegasus. She didn’t have time to bring it to the ground, and the earthpony could attack her there in any case, so she simply impaled it through the ribs with her horn.

The pegasus dissipated in time to reveal her bronze shards coming back at her, thrown by the enemy unicorn. She deflected the one that would have hit her head and felt the other two bury themselves in her abdomen. She fell from the air, and the earthpony jumped her as the unicorn sent more shards her way.

She grabbed the earthpony with her unicorn magic, holding it so that it was in the way of the the oncoming shards. Then, she tore the shards lodged in her own body free, throwing them at the earthpony to guarantee a kill. Four bronze shards bit into the earthpony’s flesh from two different directions, and it dissipated, leaving the shards hovering in the air between her and the unicorn.

She threw herself and the shards at the unicorn, and it threw both back with a powerful ripple of telekinesis. Then, it threw a spike of magical force at her. This time, however, she kept hold of the shards, and ordered them all to converge on the unicorn as she deflected most of its own assault with a slanted barrier. The unicorn deflected three of her shards, but the fourth ripped through both its hind legs.

Luna approached, no longer needing to be fast. She had one opponent, and it was immobilized. Cautiously, she approached the puppet as it threw more shards and force spikes her way. She was magically exhausted, and relied on her speed and wings to evade them.

“Divide and conquer,” she said. “Defeat enemy pegasi first for air dominance and a potential escape route. Place enemies between you and the unicorns. Sustaining harm is worth it only if it gains you a victory.” While the wounds in her chest would heal in a couple of days, tearing the shards out of them had been excruciatingly painful.

At last she reached the unicorn. It tried to kick itself away from her, but with only two legs it was a pitiful sight. Puppets had no self-preservation instincts, but putting more distance between itself and Luna would give it more time to attack her. She stepped on its neck, and leaned forward, crushing its windpipe. It vanished.

Luna, studious pupil, was eleven years old.

Her mother regarded the wounded young alicorn for a moment. “Alicorn?” she asked quietly.

Luna was confused. “When would I ever need to fight an alic-”

Faster than Luna could have possibly imagined, her mother had her pinned to the ground. She telekinetically drove a metal shard back into one Luna’s wounds and spun it around. Luna shrieked.

“Wrong answer,” Terra hissed. In an instant, her mother was standing back where she had been before.

“We will ask you again tomorrow. Do not answer us with a question. Thou dost not ask us questions.”

Luna pulled the shard out and struggled to her feet.

“Get those wounds dressed and switch with your sister.”

It was Luna who interrupted this time. “Something wrong, Rarity?”

Rarity blinked back tears. “Was it like that every day?”

“Every day. And she wasn’t nearly as bad as Titan.”

“I’m sorry. Please, continue.”

Her mother’s behaviour had not been uncommon. Luna gingerly exited the training hall and bandaged up her wounds, then went to go find her father.

She found Celestia travelling in the opposite direction as she passed through her father’s courtyard. The left side of her sister’s face was swollen and bruised, and a thin cut ran along her neck, from the base of her ear to her collarbone. They regarded each other's ragged and beaten state, then smiled in unison.

“Got a question about monarchical ethics wrong,” Celestia explained. “Thou?”

“She asked me how to fight an alicorn, and I hesitated.”

Celestia frowned, “there are none other than us, though.”

“I know,” Luna said, worry creeping into her voice. “Dost thou thinkest that they will have us train against each other?”

“I hope not. You would win. See you tonight, sister.”

Luna laughed. Celestia did come back from their mother’s lessons with far more bruises and cuts than she.

She proceeded to their father’s study. He was teaching them how to rule a kingdom. “One day,” he had said to them, “We will take your mother to complete our other works. Thou wilt ensure ponykind stays in its place.”

The memory shifted again, and Rarity felt a surge of pity for her princess. She understood the look that Luna had given her earlier. Their childhoods had not been so different. Rarity had never had a sister to confide in before Sweetie Belle, but Luna had never had a mother, really.

Luna stood beside her sister, facing what seemed like every pony in the kingdom. Her mother and father sat behind her, watching over them. They looked up, unblinking, at the sky.

Specifically, Luna looked at the moon.

It was daylight out, and nopony could tell where it was except her. She tracked it as it moved across the sky, drifting towards a point directly above them. Celestia was moving the sun to the same point. The two astral bodies converged.

The world was bathed in glorious darkness as the moon blocked out the sun’s light. The black shadow of her moon was surrounded by the sun’s pure white corona, and beyond that the stars.

She was finally using alicorn magic. Unlike unicorn magic, it wasn’t a pool of power to be spent at her leisure. It was deep, limitless, and totally beyond her understanding or control. It could defy all the regular rules. And with it she would live forever, ruling ponykind with her sister.

They weren’t going to do it the way their father wanted them to, however. Yes, ponykind would fit into the natural order. Yes, they would worship the alicorns and do their bidding. But it would be out of both fear and love. They were going to show all of ponydom that they could be compassionate where Titan was not.

The ponies cheered. Titan placed a tiara on each of their heads, fixed them with a jeweled necklace, and shod their feet with gleaming shoes. Today marked their first day as the royal pony sisters, responsible for all ponykind.

“We are proud of you,” Terra said.

Luna, princess of Equestria, was thirteen years old. She and her sister had gotten their cutie marks the previous day.

The memory shifted, and in the trillium glade, Luna spoke. “Titan and Terra returned to their works, but Titan commanded Terra to stop creating new life. He said that the ecosystem was complete, that he could begin moving each creature into its natural place. He explained that order was his purpose, and that he ruled all creatures, including Terra. He was above her, and so she must obey him.”

“Naturally, Terra disagreed. The war was devastating.”

“Captain!” Luna bellowed. “Where are the rest of my guards?!”

The castle shook, not for the first time that night. Dust was shaken from her court’s smooth stone walls. Dead ponies, armored in the gold-colored bronze of princess Celestia, surrounded them. The soldiers had really been in service to King Titan. Every soldier in the palace technically answered to either the king or the queen. Celestia would never have sent soldiers to apprehend her.

Outside, the elements battled furiously. Wind tore banners off their posts, and lightning arced across the sky. The ground shook every couple moments, and dark storm clouds obscured Luna’s moon. Rain battered against the citadel in sheets. The elemental cacophony was Terra’s doing.

Her captain looked at her with fear in his eyes. Luna wondered if he was afraid of the enemy soldiers, or of her. “They were sent to capture your sister.”

It only made sense that Terra had sent a group for Celestia. Titan had, after all, sent one to apprehend Luna. The effort was futile, however. Luna was an alicorn trained by her parents to kill. The corpses of the soldiers riddled the floor around them.

Luna dove through one of the windows in her court and tried to orient herself in the raging storm. She was a strong flyer for her age, and managed to do so quickly. She set off towards Celestia’s tower. It was night, so her sister would likely not be out and about the palace.

She was just over halfway there when a group of gold-armored pegasi came for her. The first collided with her, but she overpowered him, snapping his neck and letting him fall to the castle below. The second cast a javelin at her, and she telekinetically pushed it back along its course, impaling him.

The third and final pegasi was a mare who hesitated upon seeing Luna’s brutality. The princess used her magic to wrench the javelin into her hoof, causing the falling pegasus’ body to twist violently in the air. She threw it at the mare.

The mare managed to roll out of the way of the javelin- a difficult maneuver in the storm. She looked at Luna, and her eyes were filled with fear. She didn’t see the javelin reverse its course.

The mare fell, javelin through her neck.

The last look of desperation haunted Luna as she approached Celestia’s tower. Why had she killed the mare? All of the pegasi had been her people, and the mare hadn’t even attacked her. She landed in Celestia’s chambers, and was greeted with a gruesome sight.

The burned and broken corpses of her personal guard were strewn about her sister’s opulent bedchamber. The smell of seared pony flesh was overwhelmingly nauseating, and the floors were coated in a thin layer of ash. Luna was almost sick.

There was a flash, and the room with filled with incandescence for a fraction of a second as a bolt of lightning arced through an open window and into the centre of the room, pulverizing the smooth stone floors. When it vanished, Terra stood where it had struck, her form back-lit by the raging storm outside. She was different; her mane seemed to blaze brighter, and her eyes burned with a searing orange glow. Her pupils had narrowed into slits, and her wings split into energy at their tips, feathers melting away into wavering bands of light. She looked like she was two thousand years older. She looked like Titan.

“Luna,” she said. Her voice was quiet, but hard. “It is good that thou art here. Titan has withdrawn from the city.”

Luna forgot entirely the fact that she was speaking to the queen. “What is going on, mother!? Where is Celestia?”

Terra turned, to face out of the open window and into the raging storm. “Titan has ruled for far to long, child. We have had enough of his rules and deliberations. We are going to crush him, and then it is We who will rule this world. We who will be worshipped as the supreme being, the divine authority!” She turned her head slightly so that she could see Luna. “And thou, my dearest daughter, are going to help us do it. Whether you like it or not.”

Rarity was confused. “Why are you showing us this?” She asked.

Luna looked sad. “It helps to explain the monster I became. The monsters we made our people become.”

“You see, that last pegasus I killed had been a good friend of Celestia’s. Celestia had known all of her guards, and when they came for me, I had slaughtered them, to a pony. I only felt guilty about the last one, however- she hadn’t attacked me. I found out that she had been the only parent of an infant daughter, whom I took under my wing. She was not the only ward I took in. But I was no better to them than my own parents were to me.”

“Under the tutelage of our parents and subject to the horrors of war, Celestia and I became horrible, cruel monsters. Somehow, Terra had made herself as powerful as Titan. They did not fight each other, each too afraid that they would die. Instead they sought control over Equestria and all of ponydom. Terra had me, and Titan had Celestia. We were their generals, and we hated each other with a loathing that takes decades to build.”

The memory began again.

Luna’s elite tore through Celestia’s forces.

Blooper cut through her enemies with amazing speed. He was a blue flurry of death, his jagged mane trailing behind him as the earthpony cut down her enemies with the retractable blades attached to his forelegs. Arcbolt was the greatest flying ace in the kingdom, faster even than Luna herself. She owned the skies above them.

Luna moved amidst the conflict, pressing ever deeper into Celestia’s army. An enemy earthpony came at her, evidently with a death wish, and she cleaved him in two with her blade. A unicorn attempted to stick her with a set of iron spikes, and she deflected them as Blooper slid a blade into the offender’s neck. An enemy pegasus fell from the sky above, wings broken, and Luna put him down where he lay.

Luna brought herself into a group of Celestia’s soldiers with two powerful flaps of her wings, and spun her sword around in great, sweeping arcs. Those who weren’t cut down immediately were either killed by the iron spikes she now gripped telekinetically or cut down by Blooper as he flipped and rolled to her position.

She heard a high pitched whistling, and instinctively ducked. She wasn’t fast enough, however, as a round, bladed disc cut into her back and continued to fly through the air. Blooper back-flipped over the disc with his usual acrobatic panache, smiling as he narrowly avoided death. The disc came around for another swipe, quickly, and Luna was impressed. Not every unicorn could manage that level of telekinetic manipulation.

Another disc shot through the air toward her, low this time, and Luna prepared to launch herself to the side. Before she could, however, her legs lost their grip on the ground beneath her, sending her sliding onto her belly as the whirling discs closed in.

“Wheeee!” Blooper slid past her and out of harm’s way, flipping back up to his feet as he exited the friction spell’s radius.

Luna launched herself into the air with her wings fast enough to avoid the flying discs. She was a powerful flyer, and one flap of her voluminous alicorn wings brought her high into the air.

“Arcbolt!” she shouted, searching around for the pegasus. She found the pegasus above her, falling through the air, wings bound by magical blue threads.

Luna undid the spell controlling the bonds with her mind and deflected another oncoming disc with a force field. She used her blade to shear through the second disc as it came for her. She jerked her head downward, and Arcbolt dove, her spiky blue and red mane trailing behind her. Luna followed.

Approaching the ground, she expected to see a team of unicorns directing the magic that had been used against them. There was only one.

She was a deep blue mare with a long, straight white mane sporting a single streak of black. An iridescent length of blue floated before her, a blade. As Luna expected, her cutie mark was a four pointed star. Magic was her talent, then. Magically talented unicorns were a terror on the battlefield.

The unicorn was surrounded by Luna’s fallen soldiers. Another set of discs spun around her as she brought her blade to a combat position. Her skin shimmered, and Luna knew she had used a spell to make it tougher, resistant to all but the sharpest blades.

Luna waited for the unicorn to throw her blade-discs at Arcbolt, then landed and charged her. Their blades met.

While Luna was a talented flyer and a strong pony, her skill with magic was lacking, and the shaft of moonlight before her flickered and vibrated against the more powerful blade.

Blooper cartwheeled up them and took a swing at the unicorn with one of his retractable foreleg blades. The unicorn split her weapon into two pieces, one deflecting Blooper’s lightning fast series of blows, the other matching Luna’s slower, more powerful swings as she stepped and rolled into and out of different fighting stances. Even half of her sword was enough to keep Luna at bay.

A blur of white, blue, and red streaked through the air, colliding with the unicorn. The unicorn’s concentration broke, and her swords vanished. Arcbolt rolled, keeping the unicorn in a headlock. Their enemy looked up at Luna. She was young, barely a mare.

“Please,” she begged. “I’m the last of my line.”

Luna looked dispassionately at the unicorn. A magical talent was a rare resource. One that would benefit her own army greatly. “Then thou shouldst not have come to war,” she said coldly. She nodded to Arcbolt. “Kill her.”

“Like any of us has a choice,” was the mare’s only response. She hung her head.

Arcbolt looked at Luna, then shared a glance with Blooper. “Princess... she’s just a girl.”

“She can’t be any older than you two. Do as I say.”

Arcbolt’s face grew firm, and she released the mare. “I refuse,” she said quietly. Both Arcbolt and Blooper turned away.

Luna screamed and thrust her blade at the mare, intending to kill her herself. Her blade, however, was blocked by another, this one also stronger than hers.

It was made of sunlight.

“No!” Celestia shrieked, desperation in her voice. “Thou shalt not take her!”

Luna sneered. “Why? Is this one special?”

“More like useful,” Celestia shot back. They began to circle each other. “You know we’re all just tools. Us, and them.”

Luna never knew why Celestia fought for Titan. But she knew why she fought for Terra. To kill her sister.

Luna, warrior princess, was thirty-seven.

“It would take a long, long time for us to reconcile our differences. As a result, the war lasted for decades.”

Luna picked through the ambush site aimlessly. They had been greatly outnumbered, and all of her forces had perished. She had killed the remainder of their ambushers herself, fighting furiously until she was only living creature within miles. The ground below them was barren except for the bodies of her subjects.

She came to the corpse of a tiny earthpony, and was appalled to find that the small form lying in the dirt didn’t have a cutie mark.

Luna looked away from the colt, up toward the moon. It hung brightly in the sky, indifferent to Luna or the dead that surrounded her. Was this tiny colt one of Celestia’s forces. Had Luna killed him herself in the fray? Or was he one of Luna’s soldiers, sent by her to die in an alicorn’s war? She couldn’t tell, he hadn’t gone into combat wearing any armor.

For the first time in her life, Luna got tired of looking at the moon. She checked its distance in the sky, measuring the stars on the horizon. It would be seven hours before morning.

Luna wanted to see the sun. She was forty-one years old.

        In the glade, Luna looked exhausted. “Little did I know that my sister was undergoing the same transformation. It is a difficult thing, confronting yourself after you have become such a pitiful creature.”

        She emerged from her battle line unarmed. Less than a hundred feet away, Celestia’s tiny force had formed its own line. Her sister stood in front of them, pink mane billowing. Celestia had a much smaller force, and Luna could easily crush it if she so chose. She didn’t give the order to attack.

        Instead, she strode out to meet Celestia.

        Her sister eyed her as she approached. She looked tired. “Where is thy blade?”

        Luna’s voice was quiet so only they could hear. “I haven’t been able to cast it for six months.”

        Celestia didn’t smile, or attack. Instead, she let out her breath. “Neither have I.”

        “We don’t have to do this, sister.”

        “As Celestia would say, we were no longer pieces, but players. Our endgame was what we had aspired to do so many years ago: to rule ponykind with compassion and love. To do this, however, we needed to get rid of the two most powerful ponies in the world. We each tricked them into thinking the other was weak, goading them into one final confrontation.”

        Luna watched her mother as she was defeated.

        Titan’s spell had caused her to plummet to the ground so hard that her impact kicked up dirt. She coughed up blood, and her wounds didn’t fully heal. She struggled to stand, but her legs went limp. Titan pressed his solid black blade against her throat. She was an alicorn with no power left, too weak to stand, barely able to talk. Titan could have killed her if he wanted. Luna stood to his left, Celestia to his right. Their obedience gave him what they needed him to have: a feeling of control.

        “Relinquish the Sliver, Terra.”

        It was the first time Rarity had ever heard his voice, and she shivered. It was like he was speaking to her through the memory. His voice was smooth and resonant, and echoed unnaturally. Something about it seemed so wrong.

        Slowly, a tiny black sliver of crystal slid its way out of Terra’s chest, right above her heart. As it did, the alicorn seemed to age backwards, losing whatever power she had gained to make her Titan’s equal. Titan spoke.

        “Interesting. Thou hast our power, yes, but not our skill. You cannot defeat us with power alone, dear wife, for we are power. Had thou not forgotten this we could have avoided this unnecessary conflict.”

        “Luna,” Terra hissed, her voice filled with hatred.

        “You are wondering, of course, why our daughter betrayed you. We too were surprised to see her displayeth such wisdom. It seems she wanted to be on the winning side.”

        Luna attacked first, swinging her newly casted weapon at his neck.

        But Titan was old, and alicorns gained power through age. Despite being near-exhausted from his fight with Terra, he moved impossibly fast, and was barely able to dodge the attack by leaping back from Luna with a beat of his wings.

        His leap impaled him on Celestia’s sword.

        It was the first and only time Luna ever saw him look surprised. At full strength, Titan would have been more than a match for both of them, but weak as he was, Celestia’s blow gave them the opening they needed. They descended upon him, his daughters, hacking until they were sure he had spent every last vestige of his power to keep himself alive. It was grisly work.

        “Impossible,” Titan said weakly from the ground after they were finished. “I gave you everything,” he continued, dropping the use of the majestic plural.

        The sisters insulted him in the worst way they knew how: they ignored him. Their horns began to glow, and they tapped their alicorn magic, most mysterious of all the powers they had available to them. It showed them what to do.

        “You betray the very nature of existence by defying me. I am order. I am control. Without me, chaos will consume you all.”

        They began to construct a prison.

“With Titan and Terra locked deep beneath the earth, slumbering eternally, Celestia and I began creating the perfect world for all of Terra’s races. We sought to serve ponykind, and for the first time ever, ponies were given the ability to govern themselves. But with our father gone, we inherited his ancient enemy.”

        “Discord was a creature unlike anything we had ever seen before, and without Titan to fight him off, there was nothing to stop him from taking our world from us. We were powerless against him.”

        “These were some of the darkest days ponykind had ever faced, and they are not necessary to our story. So I will skip over the finding of the Elements of Harmony and the defeat of Discord. But I will say that had a young pegasus named Arcbolt and an even younger earthpony named Blooper not refused to kill a mare named Astor Coruscare when I gave the order, we would all still be doomed.”

        In the Glade, Luna sat, eyes downcast.

        “This brings us the last thing we must address today. My greatest shame.”

        Luna stood out on the balcony of her chambers, overlooking her kingdom. It was cold, but she was an alicorn, and the cold did not bother her. Below her, the city was silent.

        

        The night was beautiful. Moonlight bathed their palace, giving it a surreal glow. Above them, stars moved too slowly to be visible to the naked eye. A meteor streaked through the sky, leaving behind it a trail of light. During the day, the sun blanketed the world in its light, but at night, Equestria was open, almost vulnerable, to the vastness beyond. Yes, Luna decided, the night was beautiful.

        It was also ignored.

        All throughout Equestria, ponies slept. Luna could hardly blame them- after all, it had always been this way. Work during the day, sleep at night. That had been part of Titan’s original order.

        But there was no reason things should remain that way. Titan was gone, and with him his miserable laws. Luna made the rules now. Luna... and Celestia.

        Celestia had become everything the people needed. She was now wise and benevolent, social and compassionate. While each of them worked tirelessly to ensure that ponykind prospered- and there was a lot of work to do- Celestia seemed to get all the credit. It made sense, really. Celestia had a stronger connection to ponykind just because they were awake when she ruled. The people actually got to see her in action, raising the sun and holding court.

        They respected Luna as their ruler, and even their saviour. But they loved Celestia.

        Luna looked at the moon, high above where it was supposed to be in the night sky.

        They would love her too, eventually.

        Celestia entered her chambers several hours later. “Luna!” She called out as soon as she was through the doorway. Her pink mane flared out behind her as she skidded to a halt. “Luna, art thou in distress?”

        Luna did not turn around. “I’m fine, sister.”

        Celestia sounded confused. “Then why-”

        “-I have decided that the night will last for another twenty-four hours. We can make it a holiday.” Luna realized that what she was doing was crazy.

        Celestia’s answer was quiet. “Thou speaketh madness.”

        Luna turned around to face her sister sharply. “Perhaps thou hast forgotten that I am a princess of Equestria. I know they have.” She jerked her head in the direction of the city outside, filled with sleeping occupants. “This is necessary. To remind them, and thou.”

        “No.” Celestia shook her head. “I know thou hast been discontent lately, but this goes too far. This is not the way things were meant to be.”

        “The way things were meant to be, Celestia? That sounds familiar.”

        Her sister’s eyes narrowed. “Thou darest to compare me to him? I’m nothing like him.”

        “Is that so? Because it seems to me as though thou makest the rules now. Thou decidest what is right and wrong, and ponykind worships thee for it. I give them so much, and I am ignored. They can ignore me, but they will not ignore my work.”

        “I know how thou feelest, sister. I know that this is hard, that thou hast had trouble adjusting. Please, lower the moon and we can talk about this. Thou dost not have to be alone.”

        Luna’s voice was soft and pleading. “Let me have this, sister. I need this. Thou canst not understand what it is like, being so alone, every day. I feel like a janitor, just keeping things clean until thou wakest up each morn. I want to be their princess. I want to rule.

        “If thou dost not lower the moon, then I will.”

        It was a dangerous threat. While theoretically they could move the other’s astral body, they never had. Luna was the moon and stars, Celestia was the sun. It had always been that way. Luna was never going to let Celestia take that from her. Even if it came down to a fight.

        Luna turned once again to the balcony. Siting on the stone railing in front of her was a tiny sliver of black crystal. She lifted it with her magic, and it shimmered in the moonlight.

        “Thou wisheth to fight me for control?”

        “If I have to.”

        Luna plunged the sliver through her chest and into her heart. Instantly she felt its immense power coursing through her. “So be it,” she said.

        In the middle of the clearing, the princess turned away from them. “I don’t think I will be able to finish the story. The memories are... draining. From here, I wilt tell it the traditional way.”

        Rarity felt the memory spell dissolve, and was grateful for it. Luna’s memories had been disturbing, to say the least. She didn’t think she agreed with most of Luna’s decisions. How had the princess become so terrible in the space of two decades? Was Terra’s influence really so strong?

        The princess began again. “We called it the Sliver of Darkness. It was what had given Terra the power to oppose Titan in their war. Hers is the only magic known to us that can actually create something from nothing. It was her strongest and most mysterious creation, and neither of us knew how it worked. I used it anyway.”

        “But where it had given Terra strength, it took mine. The Sliver imprisoned me within a new consciousness, one created to mirror my own in many ways. Where I wanted my people to love me, albeit in a twisted sort of sense, she only wanted to be feared. Where I was soft and subtle, she was harsh and brash. And she was powerful. Stronger than Celestia is now.”

        “Nightmare Moon,” Rarity whispered.

        Luna nodded. “I was forced to watch through mine own eyes as she terrorized the kingdom I was supposed to protect. You cannot imagine my sorrow, my regret. It’s the story of my life really, harming the ponies I’m supposed to protect. It came as a relief when Celestia confronted her with the Elements of Harmony.”

        “Celestia was only one half of the Elements of Harmony. I was the other. In those final moments, Celestia forgave me. She knew that I was not Nightmare Moon. She said she wanted her sister back. She was, and always has been, my only friend.”

        “It was then that I discovered that despite being trapped within Nightmare Moon, I could still use the Elements. I helped Celestia banish us to the moon.”

        Fluttershy spoke softly. “You used the elements to banish yourself? That’s so awful!”

        “Actually,” Luna replied, “I was trying to destroy myself. Celestia was the one who made it a banishment spell. I had no idea that when I returned the new element bearers would be so powerful they could destroy the Sliver and Nightmare Moon, but leave me intact.” She looked around at them.

Applejack frowned. “About us... In your story there were a couple ponies...”

        “The resemblance occurred to me last night when I was preparing the spell. I have no idea if there is any connection between ye and they, though I suppose it’s possible you’re related somehow.”

        She paused, “I do know for a fact, however, that Twilight Sparkle is a descendant of Astor Coruscare, Celestia’s most trusted Lieutenant. Any other questions?”

        “Yeah!” Pinkie Pie was on her feet again. “What happened to Twilight?!”

        Luna frowned. “Isn’t it obvious? Twilight has been corrupted by a new Sliver of Darkness. The Sliver hath created a creature named Nihilus, who is absolutely insane. Thankfully, it did not grant her the strength that it granted me. I imagine this is why Titan chose Twilight for corruption. Had he corrupted Celestia, she would have had power to rival his own. What’s more, Nihilus has the Elements of Harmony with her, and Rainbow Dash.”

        “Can we save them?” Fluttershy was biting her lip.

        “If we can capture Rainbow Dash, I will be able to undo whatever spell is affecting her mind. After that, ye will need to confront Nihilus and use the Elements of Harmony with Twilight. Once we have all the element bearers back, we can work from there.”

        “You mean we have to go back to Ponyville?” Applejack asked

        “Actually, communications I have intercepted lead me to believe Nihilus will be moving to Cloudsdale in a week. I’m not sure why. It is then we shalt strike, if the opportunity presents itself.”

        “Hold on now,” Applejack said. “You expect us just to sit around for a week when Twilight is trapped inside some crazy pony? And Dash is with her? We need to move now!

        “For once,” Rarity said, “I agree with Applejack. We can’t afford to let them suffer any longer.”

        Luna did not look pleased. “We can and we will. This is not a discussion.” She stood and turned away.

        Applejack got up to follow her. “You think yer in charge just because you’re an alicorn? We follow orders from one pony, and that’s Twilight.”

        Luna spun around sharply. “And Twilight would send you into battle against a foe that has already claimed two of you, unprepared, just to save your friends a little discomfort?”

        “Yes.

        “Then Twilight is an idiot.” Luna looked around at all of them. Rarity was speechless. Why was Luna so angry all of the sudden? Was it from her memories?

        “I am too weak to fight my father, or my mother, or my brother. Ye six are the only hope this kingdom has for survival. I will not risk thine lives in a reckless attack. I will not fail Equestria again. Ye think I’m in charge because I am an alicorn?  I am in charge because I am over a hundred years old, with decades of experience fighting against the greatest general ponykind has ever known. And I know our enemies better than any of ye.”

        “Thou art a soldier now, whether thou likest it or not, and thou shalt do as I tell you. And right now I am telling ye to wait. If we attack Nihilus now, she will destroy us. The only way we are going to stand a chance against her is if I come at her with all my power, and the four of you take Rainbow Dash in a coordinated rescue mission. Right now, I can barely fly. That memory spell took the last of my unicorn magic. I haven’t slept in two days. I need time to regain my strength, and teach you four what you need to know. Any questions?”

        The four ponies did not object.

        “I know it is going to be a long week, but we do not have to like each other. We just have to win.”

-

Chapter 5: “The Plan”

A thanks goes out to The Prereaders


The Plan

Nihilus frowned as the light she had been reading by was obscured. She looked up, through a hole she had made in the ceiling, to find that a cloud had passed over the sun. She was temporarily living in Ponyville’s town hall as she gathered forces, and the building had suffered substantial damage during her fight with Luna. A benefit of all the collapsed ceilings and walls was that there was lots of natural light to work by. As the cloud darkened her reading light, Nihilus grew irritated.

“I thought I told those stupid townsponies to resume their regular duties,” she said. “It’s the middle of the afternoon and the sky is still filled with clouds. Where is the weather pony?” She looked around the room, her eyes coming to rest on its only other occupant. Her pegasus plaything was huddled in a corner, shivering, her eyes wild. A trickle of drool ran from her mouth to the floor beneath her.

Oh,” Nihilus said delicately, “right.”

The pegasus was faring much better than she had been during the sack of Ponyville. The spell was slowly doing its work, and her pet was finding herself less and less able to resist. Soon, she would be able to act at full capacity, making her much more useful in a fight. At least, Nihilus hoped she would be. She had corrupted Rainbow Dash first because she thought she was the strongest of Twilight’s friends. Hopefully the next time they encountered Luna and the others her pet would be able to do more than get kicked in the face.

She considered using a light spell or telling her pet to clear the clouds, but thought against it. The book she had been reading was one of magical theory, not of war magic, and had been extremely boring, not to mention useless. Strangely, she had found it-

        “
Wait, what?!” Twilight Sparkle’s voice sounded sharply within her mind.

Her passenger consciousness rarely ever spoke to her, and never initiated a conversation herself. Truth be told, Nihilus didn’t like having nopony to talk to. Her only other intelligent companion was drooling in the corner, and did not count for much of a conversationalist. Nihilus was puzzled at Twilight’s sudden outburst.

“I didn’t say anything...”

“No, but you thought it. You said that book was boring and useless!”

“It is boring and useless. I’m looking for ways to quickly defeat Luna, not enchanted cuff-links.”

“That book details exactly the topic you are looking for. And it was enchantment cuffles, not enchanted cuff-links.”

“I knew that!” Nihilus shot back at her indignantly. “I just don’t care. None of this interests me.” She tossed the book onto the floor with her magic to emphasize her point. “My only goal is to get the Elements of Harmony.”

For the first time ever, she felt her passenger consciousness project something other than her voice into Nihilus’s mind. It was an emotion, a feeling. It was curiosity. Twilight Sparkle was studying her, and wanted Nihilus to know it.

The feeling made Nihilus uncomfortable, to say the least. How was Twilight able to show Nihilus her feelings at will, and read Nihilus’s thoughts? Certainly, Nihilus had more power- she was, after all, in complete control of their body and magic. Still, Twilight’s strange ability made her angry.

The feeling of curiosity lingered as Twilight spoke. “You can’t actually understand anything written on that page, can you? You don’t have it.”

“Have what?” Nihilus snapped back. She was quickly growing tired of their conversation.

“My talent. You can learn spells through magical formula like any unicorn, but you don’t understand the theory at all. You can use my magic to teleport, or force mind magic on anypony, and you know everything I knew. But you can’t put the pieces together for yourself. That book is the key to taking the elements for yourself, and you can’t use it.”

Nihilus barked out a humorless laugh. “What makes you think I’m going to believe you?” Her pet looked up, and she realized she had started speaking aloud.

If Twilight were in the room, Nihilus knew she would be giving her a flat look. “There’s a picture,” she said dryly.

Intrigued, Nihilus picked the book off of the floor with telekinesis. Twilight gave her a page number to turn to. Sure enough, the entire page was occupied by an illustration of six colorful gems, The Elements of Harmony.

“I remember this page. This was the page the book was open to when I picked it up. This is why I kept it even though it had nothing to do with war magic. But other than this picture, it doesn’t mention the Elements.”

Twilight’s voice spoke to her, sounding excited, “Not directly, no. But the reason this illustration is here is because the Elements are a mythological example of a cuffled enchantment. Turn to page sixty three again.”

Nihilus didn’t trust the pupil, but she humored her anyway. Page sixty-three turned out to be the page she was on earlier. She had to light her horn to read the cramped script without sunlight.

“That’s what this book is about: Cuffled enchantments. You remember Rarity’s blade?”

Nihilus ran a hoof along the puckered wound now marring her face. Oh,” she said dangerously. “I remember.”

Twilight ignored her momentary rage. “Those diamonds were enchanted. Their enchantment makes it easier for Rarity to throw them around when she calls her blade, and probably makes them sharper, too. But it also makes it so that no other unicorn can take them from her.”

“Of course they can’t.” She continued to speak out loud to an empty room. “Unicorns can’t take something another unicorn is manipulating telekinetically.” Titan himself wouldn’t even be able to take control of a grain of sand that, say, Snails had a hold of. It was just the rules.

It not ‘just the rules’,” Twilight sounded irritated. “It’s a fundamental telekinetic theory and it’s provable. In fact, that fundamental theory is probably what makes it so that you can’t grab a hold of those diamonds, even when Rarity isn’t using them.”

Nihilus knew that Twilight was probably leading her on, but the other unicorn had just revealed an interesting fact about her enemy’s weapon. “Go on,” she said, now a little more interested.

“Okay, so how would you prevent Rarity from using her blade?”

Despite being asked a question like she was a school-filly, Nihilus answered.

“I’d break it.”

“Yes!” Nihilus wondered how Twilight could be so excited about magical theory. “You simply destroy the object and the magic enchanting it will detach and dissipate. But what if you wanted to use the sword for yourself?”

“I can’t, and why would I need it? My talent isn’t gems. I don’t even have a cutie mark.”

“Just hypothetically, if you wanted Rarity’s sword, magic intact, how would you get it?”

“I’d kill her.” It seemed a simple enough solution. “You’re saying I need to kill the element bearers?” Nihilus was puzzled. What was Twilight’s game?

From the corner, her pet look up in fear. “I’m not talking to you, dear,” Nihilus told her.

“You would kill her, yes, and then re-attune the enchantment to yourself. The enchantment has three primary components: the user; Rarity, the object; her diamonds, and the magic. You cannot take the artifact for yourself while the user is still alive. This is because of something called the cuffle.”

“Again with the cuff-links.”

“Cuffle,” Twilight corrected. “And I admit it’s a pretty silly word. But skilled unicorn enchanters can cuffle objects to themselves, ensuring that only they can use it.”

“You said that already.”

“Just making sure you understand.”

Nihilus gritted her teeth. “Go on.”

“So you can disenchant the magic, destroy the object, or kill the user, and the artifact become useless. But what if you add a fourth component? You add a whole new dimension to the enchantment.”

Nihilus didn’t follow. Was what Twilight was saying even possible?

“The author of that book wrote that it is theoretically possible, but most unicorns would say no. No method has ever been discovered for adding a fourth component to an enchantment, and no examples of artifacts with four components exist. Every artifact ponykind knows of is simply an object enchanted with magic, sometimes cuffled to a user.”

Nihilus was getting tired of her passenger consciousness playing schoolteacher. “Does this lesson have a point to it, or is this just what you do in your spare time?

“The author of that book, she could think of only one example of artifacts that had more than three components. Unfortunately, those artifacts are largely considered to be a myth.”

Nihilus was instantly interested again. “The Elements of Harmony,” she said, “they have two cuff-links?”

“Cuffles,” Twilight answered flatly. “And they actually have three. The object, the magic, and the user are all cuffled to something else. The magic doesn’t actually touch a pony, or a jeweled necklace. All three components are cuffled to a central one. This way the enchantment can only be destroyed fully by knocking out that central component!”

“So I just have to destroy whatever it is they’re cuff-linked to?”

“No, because the central component isn’t another object, or a user, or a spell. It’s something totally untouchable, and completely indestructible.” Twilight’s sense of excitement spilled over into Nihilus’ consciousness. The mare really was interested in what she was talking about. “An idea,” she said simply. “Whatever made the Elements of Harmony knew that this was the most powerful magic in Equestria. They couldn’t risk it being stolen, or destroyed, so they did the impossible and enchanted an idea! You can’t smash loyalty against the wall, and you can’t break magic over your knee!”

The bottom dropped out of Nihilus’ stomach. “You’re saying I can never control the Elements,” she said out loud.

Twilight spoke slowly, as though choosing her words carefully. “Conventional unicorn wisdom would say no.”

Nihilus stomped a hoof on the floor of the broken-down office. Twilight was lying. It had to be possible.

But I can show you how to do it. I can give you a spell.”

Nihilus scoffed. “You’ve had two days to come up with a plan. And this is your best shot? You’re just going to try to kill me.”

“I can prove it works, right now, on Rainbow Dash. You will be able to take the Element of Loyalty.”

Nihilus smiled, “Oh no I won’t. I’ll use it on us, and take the Element of Magic. You aren’t getting me to set her free.”

“How do you know I won’t try to kill us both? I already tried, once.”

Nihilus once again ran a hoof over her scar. “You won’t. Just tell me what it is you want in return for your ‘spell’, unless you honestly think I’d believe you’d give me this for free.”

“The reason I’m pointing all of this out to you is a selfish one, rest assured. If you want the Elements of Harmony, you need their current bearers alive. You can’t kill any of them.”

Nihilus did not like the idea of letting Twilight’s friends live. “I already knew that much. But after I have the Elements?”

“You could kill them, but you won’t.”

Nihilus laughed. “And why is that?”

“Because,” came Twilight’s answer. “I won’t tell you the spell until you give me your word that you won’t harm them.”

“You would put stock in my word? You are an imbecile, then.”

“You forget that I can read your mind. You have to tell me you won’t harm them, and you’ll have to mean it. If you intend for even a second to go back on your promise, I’ll know. And then no Elements of Harmony for you.”

Nihilus thought of Rarity, opening her face with a diamond blade. “No,” she answered. “I will learn the spell on my own. And then I’ll kill your friends while you watch.”

Another emotion from Twilight flooded into her thoughts: amusement. Twilight thought she was being funny. Nihilus did not like being laughed at.

You’re going to learn the spell on your own, are you? Good luck, Naughty. It’s only a bit of theoretical magic dealing with an obscure idea in a branch of unknown enchantment. I’m sure you’ll do fine. You’ll be severing cuff-links in no time.

The taunt was shocking. Twilight Sparkle was not, had never been, a bully. Why was she being so mean now? Nihilus felt her face burn. She was too inept to perform the spell, and they both knew it. She wished Twilight couldn’t read her thoughts. Couldn’t sense her feeling shame.

You aren’t acting much like my counterpart,” she accused her passenger.

“Maybe you’re rubbing off on me. Which reminds me: there’s a second part of the deal, once you agree to the first.”

“I need to think! Leave me alone for a second.” Twilight complied.

Could Nihilus really do what Twilight wanted? Thinking of the unicorn’s five friends filled her with inexplicable rage. She hated them so much. She didn’t just want to kill them, she wanted to make them suffer, like Dash. That simple want drove her onward, kept her focused.

If she wanted the Elements of Harmony, however, she would have to give that up. Ultimately, the Elements were more important. She would love nothing more than to agree to Twilight’s terms and then betray her, but Twilight could read her thoughts. Nihilus had to fundamentally change her goals if she wanted the unicorn’s help. In the end, she would have to make the compromise.

“Once I have them all, I release Rainbow Dash and all your friends. Until then, however, I won’t kill them.”

Twilight must have read her thoughts and sensed her honesty. “Good. Now on to the second part of the deal. I think you’ll find this part mutually beneficial.”

Nihilus waited, intrigued. What could both of them possibly want that she would be willing to share?

“When you have all of the elements,” Twilight said quietly. “I will make a spell for you that you can use to destroy me. I will not spend eternity trapped with your thoughts. It’s already making me more like you.”

Nihilus thought back to the way Twilight had made her feel earlier, teasing her about her magic. “I agree. Now show me how to take the element of magic.”

Twilight had Nihilus write a spell formula out onto a sheet of paper. She waited as Nihilus studied the formula for several minutes. “It’s that easy?” Nihilus asked after she was finished. The spell seemed remarkably simple.

“No,” Twilight answered. “For you to cuffle an element to yourself, it must first be uncuffled from its previous user.”

“And how do I do that?”

“You can’t. The current bearer of the element has to do it by neglecting the ideal that connects them to both the magic and the object. Like when Discord hypnotized us and we couldn’t use their power.”

“So I need to make Rarity greedy, Applejack a liar, Pinkie Pie unhappy, and Fluttershy unkind?” Nihilus liked where this was going.

“Yes. I will help you do it in the most equine way possible. For now, however, your mind magic has Rainbow Dash being disloyal. Obviously I don’t have my magic. You should be able to cuffle yourself to those two Elements.”

Nihilus turned to Rainbow Dash, who hadn’t moved throughout the conversation. Which made sense, considering not a word had been said.

“My pet,” she called out. Dash’s wild eyes moved to her, unfocused. “I rescind my earlier order about killing yourself. Stop breathing.” Dash did as she was told.

“What are you doing!?” Twilight sounded enraged. “You agreed not to kill them!”

Nihilus chuckled. “I’ll take it back after I have the Element of Magic. I don’t intend for her to die, but I also need to know whether or not the spell you sent me is legitimate. Maybe I could have her eat her own wings instead.” Nihilus decided that the last idea was a good one, and made a mental note to remember it.

“Just cast the spell, it will work!”

Nihilus was surprised at Twilight’s reaction. Had the other unicorn actually given her the correct spell? Twilight had no reason not to try to kill her at least once. For all her magical talent, the mare was quite stupid.

She drew the magical crown out of null-space and cast the spell. Immediately, the gem at it’s centre changed color to an opaque black. Nihilus felt what she took to be the new connection to the element almost immediately, and then... nothing. Nothing else happened.

“You may breathe again, my pet,” she called out. “Do not attempt to take your own life.” She deposited the crown back into null-space and withdrew the lightning bolt necklace. The spell turned that one black, too. She now had two of the Elements of Harmony.

“Why give me this?” she asked her passenger. “Don’t you believe the magic of friendship will save you? What made you give up hope?”

“I can read your thoughts, remember? I know exactly what my friends are going to walk into. I’m just making the best of a bad situation.”

        “Lower thine forelegs.”

Luna’s voice sounded throughout the glade. Applejack grumbled, then shifted on her legs, lowering herself slightly to the ground. Luna walked a circle around the earthpony, inspecting her stance.

“Now thine back legs are too high. I said lower thyself, not lean forward.”

Applejack shifted again. “Ah feel ridiculous.”

Rarity looked up from where she sat in a tree trimming tree branches some distance away. “That’s because you look ridiculous, dear.”

Applejack turned to respond, and Luna attacked.

She spun into Applejack’s guard and  kicked the earthpony’s back legs out. Then, with remarkable dexterity, she hooked her own back legs under Applejack’s. She flapped her wings, throwing herself into the air and causing Applejack to topple forward and roll onto her back. Luna flapped her wings downward, pinning the earthpony’s back legs to the ground. Applejack looked up at her, clearly surprised at the aggression.

Luna’s horn flashed with magical energy, and a long gash appeared in Applejack’s leg. A short yelp of pain escaped the earthpony’s mouth.

“How did I beat you?” Luna asked simply.

Applejack winced. “You cheated! Ah wasn’t paying attention.”

“That does not make me a cheater, but rather thou a fool. Now get up.” She rolled off of the earthpony and stood on her two back legs again. It was a pegasus fighting stance.

Applejack groaned, and the other ponies in the glade looked on in shock. “Ah can’t get up, my leg is bleeding! What in the hay did you think you were doing!? Ah won’t be able to help you catch Dash like this!”

“Fix it.” Luna spoke the command with impatience. She saw Fluttershy approaching, no doubt to help her friend. Luna shot the pegasus a look, and she backed away. She turned back to Applejack.

Applejack twisted onto her side and looked at Luna as though she were insane. “This’ll take hours to stitch up! What’s wrong with you!”

        “Listen to me very carefully, Applejack.” Luna approached the wounded mare. “I need thou to findest the strength thou use to buck apple trees. I doubt that thou hast ever focused on that strength before, so it might take some time. The faster thou findest it, however, the faster thou wilt be out of thine pain.”

        Applejack winced from the pain, still looking at Luna as though she were crazy. “How am I supposed to focus when my leg is-”

        “-The same way that thou wilt focus when thine enemies are bearing down upon thee. I need thou to findest that energy, and then concentrate thine mind on thine leg. Dost thou understand?”

        Applejack screwed up her eyes to an almost comical degree. “Ah suppose Ah do. How am I supposed to know Ah have it? Ah always thought earthpony magic was innate, and Ah was just strong.”

        “For the most part, it is. The active part, however, lets thou kick trees with incredible force. It also strengthens thine legs so that thou dost not pulverize them. It is a very powerful earthpony who canst maketh her flesh stronger than wood. This next part is difficult. Thou needst clench that magic around thine leg as though it were a muscle. I won’t lie, it may take several days-”

        Applejack kicked out with her leg while the flesh around the wound bound itself together. The earthpony stood, clearly in awe of what she had just done. A soft “whoa, Nelly,” escaped her before she looked up at Princess Luna.

        “Seconds,” Luna said flatly. “It taketh thou seconds. Why is it that I am hardly surprised. Now get ready again. This time, make sure thine back legs are low enough, and I won’t be able to flip you. And don’t stop to oggle the belle of the ball over there.” She nodded toward Rarity, who immediately fell out of her tree.

“Ah wasn’t ‘ogglin’, Ah was about to tell her to stuff her pretty face!” Applejack said angrily.

Rarity picked herself off the ground, brushing herself off. “I can vouch for Applejack. She was almost certainly about to say something crude and unrefined.” Her tone was indignant.

“I know that. See how defensive thou art? Try to apply that to your training, and thou might last more than two seconds. Remember that thou art going to have to win against Rainbow Dash.”

“She ain’t an alicorn, though!”

“No, but thou sayeth that she is faster than I, and knows martial arts. Pegasi have impeccable balance, and fight on two hooves. Thou canst not trip them, because they can fly. Thou canst not pin them, because they will be so much faster than thee. And if they get hold of thou, they won’t tell thou to get back up while they correct thine mistakes. You’ll get to think about your mistakes on your own on the way towards the ground. That is unless they decide to fly thee so high the air is too thin for a non-pegasi to breathe.”

“Dash wouldn’t-”

“Thou dost not know that. By now whatever spell Nihilus has cast on her will likely have complete control.” If she hasn’t murdered the poor mare. “Thou cannot expect this to work like a storybook, where she comes back, all better, because thou asketh her nicely. This is not like what happened with Discord. Mind magic is almost indiscriminately evil. And even if Dash doesn’t give it her best to kill thee, the pegasus puppets will.”

“More puppets,” Applejack breathed, “right.”

Lots more puppets. Terra will have had a week to increase their numbers. Most will be in Canterlot, but some will be under Nihilus’ command. That pegasi will be with her is guaranteed. Hopefully she doesn’t have any unicorns. But if you see one: run. None of you have a hope against one of Terra’s greater servants. She infuses her unicorns with more power and focus than her other puppets.”

“Well if Ahm gunna lose against Dash, why bother?”

“Because you aren’t going to lose. You’re going to win. I’m going to teach you how to win, and afterwards you can brag to your returned friend about how you can take her in a fight. Let’s be honest, it’s probably something you always wondered.”

At this Applejack looked up sharply.

“Ah, I thought so. That was always the case with my sister and I.” Although that might not be a good thing. We spent two and a half decades trying to kill each other. “Now flatten thine haunches. Good. If you take all of thine weight off of one hoof, you should still stay on the ground...”

Luna spied Rarity looking disdainfully at Applejack from her tree. “Don’t give us that look,” Luna called out. “Thou art next.”

        It was still overcast, and the dark grey clouds lent an extra amount of gloom to the already melancholy town square in Ponyville. Nopony went outside anymore unless they had to, for fear of being caught by Nihilus or one of her puppets, and the town was empty except for Nihilus, a pale green stallion, and another forty puppets.

        Nihilus was less than impressed by the reinforcements. “I was led to believe that I would be meeting with General Esteem, not one of his lackeys.”

        “General Esteem is busy leading the counter-resistance in Canterlot. The citizens in the capitol are proving much more rebellious than we would have assumed considering ponykind has known a thousand years of peace.” The lackey’s face betrayed no emotions as he spoke. He might as well have been a puppet himself.

        This made Nihilus grow even more irritated. “Canterlot has rebels? Prince Empyrean cannot crush them and let Esteem do his duty?”

        A look of annoyance flashed across the soldier’s face before he regained his composure. “Prince Empyrean is an alicorn, and need not concern himself with these matters. General Esteem is a talented unicorn and a master tactician. He answers to Empyrean only.”

        “Oh, you precious little thing.” Nihilus chuckled. “You think your boss outranks me, don’t you? If Esteem is such a ‘talented unicorn’, there wouldn’t be a rebellion happening right under our prince’s nose.”

        The soldier’s jaw stiffened. “Canterlot is the magical capitol of Equestria. There are more magical talents there than in the rest of our kingdom combined. It is a much more difficult task to subdue these rebels than it is to attack a small village.”

        “Watch your tongue, boy!” Nihilus snapped. “Do you know what would happen to me if I were to send your head back to Canterlot in a box?”

        The soldier paled visibly as Nihilus jerked him towards her with her magic. She brought her mouth next to his ear. “Nothing at all,” she whispered as she threw him to the ground.

        She turned once again to the meagre group of puppets she had been given. “This will not suffice,” she said, “I will need pegasi to take Cloudsdale. And unicorns to subdue Celestia’s task force while I deal with the princess.”

        The soldier picked himself up off the ground as though nothing had happened. Nihilus wondered if Esteem had ever threatened to kill him before. “These are only a preliminary batch of reinforcements to ensure your hold on Ponyville is secure. The rest will be delivered with your boon.”

        “My boon?” Nihilus asked. She had no idea what Esteem’s soldier was talking about.

        “For you services and continued loyalties, Titan has offered to grant both you and Esteem a boon. The secondary reason for my visit is to ask what you desire of your god.”

        “He’s giving us presents?” Nihilus grinned. “Goodie! What can I ask for?”

        “Almost anything within his or Terra’s power. Esteem was granted eternal youth, at his request.”

        Anything within his or Terra’s power. Nihilus thought furiously about what she could ask for. What were Titan’s capabilities, in any case? Clearly he knew things no other pony did; Twilight knew of no way even Celestia could have granted eternal youth. Her plan to rob the Bearers of the Elements was already in motion, however, and she didn’t need anything else to accomplish it.

        Nihilus didn’t necessarily need anything. There were a great deal of things, however, that she wanted. She thought of things to make the attack on Cloudsdale even more fun, things that could assure her victory against Luna and the Bearers. Things she would want after she had harvested the Elements of Harmony and used them to usurp the royal family. In the end, there was really only one thing she could ask for.

        “The way thou art holding it is more or less correct against an earthpony. Against a unicorn or pegasi, however, thou wanteth to keep the blade to thine side, at an angle to thine front leg. Like so.”

        Under the soft light of the night sky, Luna instructed Rarity in the art of bladecasting. Everypony was awake and in the clearing despite the late hour. While Luna instructed Rarity, Applejack, Pinkie, and Fluttershy seemed to be playing some kind of game under a tree. Luna wasn’t sure if the game involved spinning around on your head, or if Pinkie Pie had simply opted to play that way to make things more interesting.

        “Now,” she said once Rarity had adjusted her stance properly and looked ready to continue. “Thou already knowest the basics, but I assume that thou hast no practical experience with the blade outside of the attack three days ago?”

        Rarity looked up thoughtfully. “I haven’t any real fighting experience, no. I was under the assumption, however, that this was to be a rescue operation, not a raid. Will I really have to tussle with those uncouth brutes again?” The unicorn moved a hoof up to her neck, which was still badly bruised.

        Luna found it curious that Pinkie Pie’s bruise was not healing any faster than Rarity’s, and still appeared much worse than the unicorn’s. Earthponies were supposed to heal faster than others. Applejack was strong enough to heal at will, something Luna herself had trouble with. Perhaps Pinkie Pie was simply not a strong earthpony.

        “Nihilus already has upwards of fifty puppets, and will likely have more by the time she moves on Cloudsdale. We aren’t going to destroy them all,” she added, seeing the look on Rarity’s face, “But thou wilt undoubtedly encounter some, along with Rainbow Dash. Thou needst to be ready for that eventuality, especially since the others don’t want to fight.”

        It was true. While Rarity and Applejack had been willing to receive Luna’s crash courses in pony-on-pony combat, Pinkie Pie had refused, cheerfully telling Luna that she wasn’t going to hurt another pony. The princess had not even bothered asking Fluttershy. The poor mare broke into tears when birds were impolite to her. It was pathetic.

        “You realize, of course, that I am only going to use this-” Rarity twirled her glimmering blade- “on puppets?”

        Luna sighed. It was a topic she’d been hoping to avoid. “Rarity, I know thou dost not want to hurt anypony. None of us do. But sometimes we do not have a choice. There will be real, living ponies who side with Nihilus and Empyrean. And if it comes down to it, if thou must choose between them or you, well... we are at war.”

        “I could give up my ideals for Sweetie Belle,” the unicorn said quietly. “But not for you, princess. I’m sorry, but I’d imagine Applejack feels the same way.”

        Luna could see that she wasn’t going to get through to the other pony. “We’ll talk about this again later. For now, show me a roll. Go left when I come at thee.”

        Rarity scoffed, clearly apprehensive.

        “What is the matter?” Luna asked, “afraid to get dirty?”

        “It’s huge!” Nihilus exclaimed, “how did you build this in a matter of days?”

        Nihilus was some distance outside Ponyville, and before her loomed a massive complex constructed from bleak gray stone. The fortress was certainly imposing; it had numerous bastions and crenellations along its exterior, and the entrance in front of her was nearly three ponies tall. There were no lights shining out of the large doorway, and she could not see very far inside.

        The two unicorn puppets standing at the entrance to the complex looked at her with blank expressions. One of them spoke:

        “Queen Terra constructed it herself with alicorn magic. The magic is what gives it the unique properties you requested.”

        Nihilus regarded the enormous structure appreciatively. “Well that makes sense, as nopony could ever move something this large with unicorn magic.” Alicorn magic could move the sun and the moon; of course it could move this comparatively small fortress.

        Nihilus walked past the unicorn puppets to enter the fortress. As she moved into the darkened hallway, glass orbs lining the walls responded to her presence by emitting a bright glow, illuminating her passageway. She heard hoof-steps behind her, and turned to see the two unicorns following her inside. Nihilus was perplexed, but said nothing. She knew that unicorn puppets were supposed to be stronger than the others, but that did not explain how they were able to follow her without being told.

        One of the puppets spoke. “The fortress is split into sections. The lower two levels consist of smaller rooms where you can store troops and supplies. The top level is smaller, and contains only a single large hall. That room is where you are intended to direct the citadel and hold audiences with captive rebels. The tower above it contains your personal chambers and is the final section of this citadel. As you are a true pony, your rooms have been stocked and furnished.”

        As they walked, they passed numerous small doorways set into the stone walls of the hallway. Eventually, the hallway opened into a larger, circular room, lights flaring on to illuminate its dimensions. Three other hallways split off from the room, no doubt leading to the three other entrances to the fortress.

        “How do I get to the other levels? Where are the stairs?”

        Surprisingly, the unicorn answered her question. “Ramps run along the exterior of the structure. Shall we show you, mistress?”

        Nihilus smiled when he used the word “mistress”. “Yes,” she said simply.

        The unicorns led her along another one of the hallways, but before coming to an exit, they turned into one of the identical doorways and led her to a set of stairs that brought them outside and onto a crenellated rampart. There, the unicorns stopped.

        “Keep going,” Nihilus said. “Take me to my chambers.” It seemed that the puppets still needed some prompting. Her servants complied, moving along the battlement until they entered another hallway. The second level looked similar to the first.

        They quickly turned again and ascended another set of stairs leading up to another rampart. This one led around the exterior of the fortress as well, and the rampart above the first level was visible below them. As they walked, Nihilus questioned the unicorns.

        “Why do we have to walk around a quarter of the fortress to ascend to the next level? Wouldn’t it be simpler just to go straight up?”

        One of the puppets answered her. She wasn’t sure if it had been the one to speak earlier or not. “King Titan’s symbol is the circle. When Terra constructed this fortress, she made it circular so as to represent the pony it serves. When you discover your cutie mark, your sigil will be your mark within a circle. Prince Empyrean’s will be as well. The fact that the pathway to the upper chamber is a long one will make the complex easier to defend from earth ponies and unicorns.”

        “I thought Terra made this fortress. Why does it’s architecture follow Titan’s iconography?”

        “Terra is Titan’s puppet, just as we are yours.”

        Nihilus hadn’t really cared about any of the first bit. She wasn’t worried about the shape of the fortress, or about Titan. All she cared about was the fact that when the remaining bearers attacked, she would have an additional edge.

        At last they came to the third level. It was smaller than the other two because of the way the fortress had been built, tier upon tier. The upper floor seemed vast, however, because it consisted of only one giant, circular room. “Cages,” Nihilus said, noticing the metal enclosures along one section of the wall. “Those will come in handy. I suppose the throne is for me?” The centre of the room was a raised platform, the centre of which was occupied by a large chair, made out of the same stone that composed the rest of the fortress.

        “The chair, yes. You will notice that each of this room’s four doorways open up to smaller balconies, rather than a battlement that surrounds the entire level. The balcony that leads to your personal chambers is this one.”

        The tower turned out to be a squat cylinder protruding from the centre of the fortress. Nihilus supposed that there was no need for additional height, considering the structure in question. Her chambers were colorful and luxurious, dominated by a circular red bed and wall hangings. She noticed that the hanging directly above her bed was Titan’s sigil, a white circle on a field of black. Evidently the alicorn wanted to remind her of where her power came from.

        “This boon is a gift,” she said softly. “To remind me of my ultimate allegiance should Empyrean ever rebel as Celestia did. Titan doesn’t trust his son. He wants to make sure Esteem and I are his side.” The alicorn’s mistrust was misplaced however. He should have been watching Nihilus, not Empyrean.

        The puppet that spoke did not use its regular emotionless voice. Instead, Nihilus detected a hint of hesitation in the unicorn’s words. “The fortress simply serves to remind you of who you ultimately serve. Who all true ponies ultimately serve. It is also a gift of appreciation from the king to you, for your contributions to his cause.”

        Nihilus had been the one to perform the ritual that granted Celestia’s magic to Prince Empyrean. Titan had not said why he needed her to complete the spell.

        “Where is Titan now?” she asked, regarding the circle. She knew that Prince Empyrean was ruling in Canterlot, and supposedly having trouble with rebels. Titan, however, had vanished after defeating Princess Celestia, and taken his wife with him.

        “The king has taken the queen with him to the Everfree Forest to complete his works. He has left Empyrean in charge of ponykind.”

        “Why is it you can speak so well? I thought puppets were stupid.”

        “The queen created us with more intellect than other ponies so that we may better focus our abilities in combat. We are designed to emulate magically talented unicorns, and require the additional intellect to cast our many spells. It is far more taxing for the queen to create a unicorn puppet than an earthpony or pegasus because of the extra power she invests in us.”

        “So you’re stronger and smarter than the others?”

        “Yes, mistress.” The puppet that answered her was not the one who had been speaking earlier.

        “I see. Do you have names?”

        The puppet thought for a moment before answering in its emotionless tone, “I am Puppet.”

        “Creative,” Nihilus said flatly. She had come up with her own name as well. Nihilus Nix Naught. She thought it had a certain ring to it, even if it meant nothing. “And you?” she turned to the other puppet.

        “I am Puppet,” it stated simply.

        Nihilus laughed. “Of course you are. Do either of you have free will?”

        “We can act of our own volition, but we still desire only to serve you in all things. We do not have wants ourselves.”

        Nihilus regarded the puppet for a moment. “Stop breathing,” she commanded.

        The unicorn complied, remaining perfectly still as it held its breath. Nihilus turned to his companion. “You have no sense of self-preservation, yes? So ‘Puppet’ here will hold his breath until he dies?”

        The other puppet appeared completely unfazed as his partner continued to not breathe. “Not until he dies, mistress. He will likely just fall unconscious and start breathing again.”

        “I suppose you’re right. You may breathe again,” she said, speaking to the unicorn on the ground. She turned back to the other puppet. “When do the other reinforcements arrive?”

        “The next batch of puppets will be complete in two days. Terra will give you a cut of that group as well.”

        Nihilus began the descent from her quarters to the central chamber. “Good,” she said, “Then we can proceed as planned and take Cloudsdale in three days’ time.” If the settlement in the sky had heard any news concerning Ponyville and Canterlot, they would not resist her. Still, the pegasi needed to be taught to fear their new ruler.

        “We can allow ourselves and other earthponies to walk upon the clouds, mistress, should you wish it.”

        “I will. But for now, I require only one other thing of you before I retire for the evening.”

        “Anything you ask, mistress.”

        A grin spread across her face. “How do I make it fly?”

        Despite her skill and power when it came to flying, Luna’s descent back into the trillium glade was sloppy and tedious. Her wings laboured to stall her awkward fall, and she panted with exertion. Thankfully, Fluttershy saw her and flew up to give her a hoof.

        It was late afternoon, and the sun was just beginning to dip below the horizon. Luna had just come back from doing reconnaissance in Ponyville. She had also offered to pick the other ponies up any supplies that they might need for the coming rescue operation. The second task was the source of her current overburdened state. She had travelled the considerable distance between Ponyville and the glade laden with three heavy sacks of goods.

        She had not expected the Element bearers to ask for so much; and they hadn’t, really. Fluttershy, Applejack, and Pinkie Pie had not asked for anything at all. Rarity, however, had given Luna a list of items two pages long. The pages had also been double sided. Where the unicorn had gotten the paper, Luna didn’t know. It been difficult, however, to remain hidden in town while collecting the absurd amount of things that Rarity had requested.

        The princess grunted as she dumped the contents of the sacks into the centre of the clearing. “What dost thou need these things for, Rarity? Tis’ merely a bunch of frivolous nonsense.”

        Rarity daintily trotted over and placed a hoof to her chest. “Nonsense?” The unicorn made a face. “These items are imperative, princess. They are absolutely vital to the success of our mission. As a former commander, I thought surely you would understand.”

        Luna raised an eyebrow. “Of course, Rarity. Please forgive me for not seeing why this-” she levitated an item out of the bag. “-two litre bottle of glossy and glamorous mane and crest shampoo is vital to our success.”

        Rarity sniffed. “Princess, surely you cannot expect me to fight the forces of evil without looking my best! I haven’t been to the spa in almost a week! In any case, not all of this for me.” The unicorn turned, “Pinkie, dear!” she called out. From the other side of the glade, Pinkie Pie looked up.

        “Chin up!” Rarity called out sharply. Pinkie Pie shot to all fours and stood at attention as Rarity pulled a scarf out of one of the sacks and tied it around her neck. “This should help to cover up that horrible bruise of yours.”

        “Pink!” Pinkie Pie observed. “My favorite! Thanks, Rarity!”

        “Thank the princess, dear. I also had her pick up a couple of board games to entertain you while we train.” Rarity stacked the board games neatly outside their sack.

        Pinkie Pie cheered and merrily carried the pile of games away as Rarity tied her own scarf around her neck. “A little strange, wearing a scarf in summer, but I think I can pull it off,” she said to herself.

        Luna gave an exasperated sigh, “Does anything here have anything to do with the rescue operation?” she asked through gritted teeth.

        Rarity looked up as though she had just noticed the princess’ presence. “Well of course, princess! These-” she pulled out various materials, a needle, and thread. “-are for me. I’m going to make myself a saddlebag to carry my blade diamonds around in! I’m thinking it will sit farther back than a normal saddlebag, perhaps give it a lower clasp...

        Luna’s eyes narrowed as the unicorn trailed off. “Thou meanest to sayeth that all thou really needed was a saddlebag? I just hauled all this junk through the air for three hours, and all thou didst need was a saddlebag?!”

        “No!” Rarity threw the half a dozen objects she had been manipulating away from herself. She turned to face the princess, and Luna saw that her eyes were burning with rage. The other ponies looked over, startled at the outburst. “I did not need a saddlebag! I needed to make something, don’t you understand?!”

        Luna took a step back from the unicorn. Why was Rarity acting this way?

        “Pinkie Pie needs to play, Fluttershy needs something to care for.” She drew a long roll of canvas out of one of the bags and unrolled it. Then, she cast her blade, and fourteen diamonds shearing through the canvas she held in front of her. “You might enjoy this, maybe it reminds you of your glory days, princess-” Rarity divided the canvas into pieces, then split her blade and wrapped a piece around each diamond, smothering its edges in cloth. The diamonds did not cut through the cloth. “But the rest of us don’t like sitting around here doing nothing while Twilight and Rainbow Dash are in torment!”

        Luna let the words wash over her. Not only was she surprised at Rarity’s sudden outburst, but she had no idea how to react. She could treat Rarity as a subject, and try to be firm and resolve whatever her problem was. She could also treat Rarity as a soldier, and simply punish her for questioning the chain of command. Neither seemed appropriate in her situation.

        Applejack spoke before Luna could think of anything to say. “We wouldn’t have a hope of rescuing Twilight and Dash without the princess an’ you know it, Rarity. They’re the strongest of any of us. She’s only trying to help.”

        Rarity gave a hmph. “You would defend her now, wouldn’t you Applejack?”

        “Course I would! You’re being mighty stupid, and Luna is my friend!

        Luna considered interrupting their argument, but thought better of it. Rarity and Applejack knew each other better than she knew them, and could likely sort their feud out on their own. She had done enough harm already, apparently.

        Rarity was fuming. “Twilight and Dash are your friends! The princess is your commander! You saw her memories with the rest of us, you don’t think she’d trade your life away if circumstances called for it?!”

        “Hay no Ah don’t think that! What’s wrong with you, Rarity?”

        Did Rarity hate Luna because she was in charge? Did the unicorn think she could do a better job? Or did she hate her because Luna had asked them to wait? Certainly the unicorn was under a lot of stress, but she had put her life in danger before. Was it just boredom, then? Rarity had said she needed to make something, whatever that meant.

        “Of course she would, Applejack! That’s what commanders do.” The unicorn was breathing quickly now, and blinking tears away from her eyes. “No matter how much they’re supposed to love somepony, they can...” She sobbed as she sat in the grass and released her sword. The covered diamonds fell to the ground around her. “They can...”

        “Rarity,” Applejack sat next to the unicorn in the grass. “Is this about your parents?”

        Luna watched the two with growing confusion. Had Rarity’s father sent her mother to die? Was that where Rarity’s sudden hatred for the princess came from? Did Luna remind her of her father when they trained? She decided that she shouldn’t have been so pushy when it came to the sacks of shampoo. The decision seemed inconsequential, with the way the argument had suddenly escalated. Celestia wouldn’t have minded about the shampoo. What would Celestia do about Rarity’s outburst?

        Rarity stood, regaining her composure almost instantly. “The Carousel Boutique is gone, Applejack. I am homeless and poor. The only thing I have of value to my name is the blade. I am the Element of Generosity with nothing to give.”

        “Ah know things are hard, Rarity, but that doesn’t give you any right to go off on the princess like that.”

        Luna decided enough was enough, “yes it does, Applejack.”

        Both ponies looked up, evidently surprised to hear Luna’s opinion.

        “I have been treating thee like a soldier, Rarity. Admittedly, tis all I know how to do. I’ve only really had one friend in my life, whereas I’ve had tens of thousands of soldiers and many more subjects. Thou art no a fighter, however, thou art a fashion designer.” The unicorn continued to eye her warily. “If we’re going to win this war, we’re going to do it with the Elements of Harmony. With friendship, not violence, as silly as that sounds. So perhaps you don’t need to be soldiers.”

        Rarity wiped the tears from her face. “I’m sorry I let everything get to me. I assure you princess, I am usually much more collected. I don’t know what came over me.”

        “I understand, Rarity.” Come to think of it, the unicorn was much more collected than Luna would have expected of somepony her age, all things considered. She was, after all, homeless and destitute, with the fate of the world depending on her.

        “There’s some rope in there for you, Applejack.” Rarity nodded to one of the sacks. “And some birdseed for Fluttershy. I also got this canvas to wrap my blade so that we can train with it.” Rarity once again cast her blade, the cloth-covered diamonds forming a shaft in front of her. “Now I can hit you without worrying about slicing you to ribbons.”

        “Tis... thoughtful of  you.”

        Rarity gave her a weak smile.

        Pinkie Pie cartwheeled over to them, somersaulting into the air and landing with a flourish. She had incredible balance and speed for an earthpony. “So!” the pink pony exclaimed. “Who wants to play a game!” Fluttershy landed softly beside her. “I have Monopony!”

        Luna suspected Rarity and Applejack agreed to play only to help them simmer down after the previous conversation. The ponies took positions as Pinkie Pie set up the board with lightning speed and precision, declaring herself the “banker”.

        “You gunna play, princess?” Applejack motioned for her to sit down beside her.

        “I... um...” Luna had never played a board game before. She hadn’t even realized that they intended for her to join them until Applejack asked. What was it she had she said? Maybe we don’t need to be soldiers.

        “What is it?” Applejack prompted her.

        “I do not know the rules...”

        “I’ll teach you!” Pinkie Pie said, “You even have your own piece because this is a new edition!” Luna caught a tiny figurine of herself with telekinesis as Pinkie Pie threw it at her. It was metal, and incredibly detailed, probably crafted with magic by a unicorn. It even had her sparkly little shoes.

        “So this is me?”

        “Yep! You move it around on these squares here, see? We all start here. I’m the top hat!”

        “So those are supposed to be bits?” Luna regarded the cardboard coins, “Why dost thou have so many?”

        “Those aren’t mine, silly filly! That’s the bank!”

        “And what is that?”

        “What’s what?”

        “The object  thou art hiding under you back hoof.”

        “Hey!” Applejack exclaimed. “Are you cheatin’, Pinkie?”

        “No! Its just a spare piece. We only have five players so it’s the only piece left.”

        “So then why art thou hiding it?” Luna was confused. Was it part of the game? Was Pinkie Pie just being strange like usual?

        “It isn’t important, guys. Let’s just play.” Pinkie made to roll the dice.

        “Oh, just show her the piece, Pinkie!” Rarity said, clearly exasperated. “What reason do you have to hide it?”

        With a guilty expression, Pinkie Pie slowly extended her hoof. In it was a tiny, extremely detailed figurine.

        It was of Celestia.

        Of course, Luna thought, if there’s one of me there has to be one of Celestia. Her sister had loved games of all kinds. While Luna never played against her, she understood that Celestia almost always won. When they were in their teens Celestia would sit out in the courtyard on days off and play two or three games with multiple opponents at once. Luna had originally thought they were letting her win because she was their princess, but later other ponies had begun to gather just to watch her play, and Luna realized that Celestia was really just that good. Even at such a young age, Celestia had been attracting her subjects’ attention better than Luna ever could.

        Now she was dead. Luna didn’t have time to mourn her. She first had to save the kingdom, and then rule it. She wasn’t sure she could do either, but she knew where to start. Where Celestia would have started, at least.

She was going to play Monopony.

The other four ponies had been looking at her in silence for some time while she regarded the figurine.

        “It is okay. We can still play, everyone.”

        “You sure, sugarcube?”

        “I’m sure, AJ. But Pinkie?”

        “Mhmm?”

        “Can I... keep this?” Luna nodded towards the tiny figurine of Celestia. It was silly, really, but lately she had found herself wondering what Celestia would do more and more. Maybe having the game piece would help.

        “Of course you can! Now we roll to see who goes first, see...” Pinkie Pie cast the dice across the board. “Twelve!” she cheered.

        Nihilus received General Esteem on one of her fortress balconies. The soldier approached in a carriage pulled by two pegasi puppets. He stepped from the carriage to the balcony.

        Esteem was a pure white stallion with a blood-red mane. The mane was effeminately curly, but ended in masculine spikes that framed his sharp features. His cutie mark appeared to be three short, razor sharp spikes of metal. He wore a tightly fitted harness, no doubt to hold the fourteen shards of platinum-iridium that made up his blade, and on his shoulders sat epaulets, each displaying five stars surrounded by circles.

        Nihilus despised him. “You look younger than you did last time I saw you, General. I didn’t think you were so vain.”

        “I indulge in a healthy amount of narcissism, Nihilus.” He looked around at her fortress. “From the looks of your ‘gift’ you indulge in a more than a healthy amount of megalomania.” The general regarded her coolly. “You also look different. Last time I saw you, you looked just like Twilight Sparkle. Who ruined your face?”

        Nihilus had not wanted him to ask that particular question. “Who do you think?

        “Ah, of course,” he said simply. The general gave something that could barely be taken for a smile, showing a small portion of his perfectly white teeth. “I’ve never been so proud. Perhaps next time she will do me a favor and take your whole head. But it is not just your face that has changed. Your coat is black now.”

        “I figured I’d color-code things for your convenience,” Nihilus replied nonchalantly.

        “Your right eye is much brighter than your left, and the pupil is becoming a slit. In fact, the iris is almost glowing. It is a different color, too. Closer to red than purple.”

        Nihilus hadn’t known about those changes. The Sliver was changing Twilight’s appearance quite a bit, it seemed.

        “I think the asymmetry compliments my aesthetic.” She lied.

        “It does.” She was surprised to hear him agree. “Your ears have also curved. They look sharper now.”

        “Is there a point to this visit other than prattling on about how menacing I look?”

        Esteem did not react. “I have come to deliver these pegasi to your control and check up on things. The royals would like to know what the Sliver is doing to somepony who is not an alicorn. They know it didn’t amplify Twilight’s power by much, but they are curious as to whether or not the magic is unstable in any way. Empyrean is also growing agitated with the uprising in Canterlot. I hope you have good news for him.”

        “I will have the remaining rebels within the week. Rainbow Dash is already dealt with.” Nihilus tugged on her pet’s magical leash. The pegasus made a perfect landing beside her, coming to a low crouch and barely making a sound despite the speed at which she had been flying. “Isn’t she just adorable? Have you thought of a name yet, pet?”

        The pegasus did not hesitate before answering. “Spike?

        Nihilus’ eyes narrowed. “What made you choose that name?”

        The pegasus realized she was in trouble, and her eyes grew fearful. “I just thought... I’m your pet... and you had a pet named Spike once, I can almost remember, so I-”

        “I hate it. Pick something else. Now tell General Esteem here your purpose.”

        “To be cruel and merciless. I will further your goals and kill your enemies.”

        Esteem regarded the creature with disgust. The look that he gave Rainbow Dash, however, was nothing compared to the way he looked at Nihilus. “Do that to my daughter,” he said quietly, “and I will kill you, parasite.

        Nihilus let out a humorless laugh. “You and every pony here couldn’t take me, Esteem.”

        “We’ll find out soon enough, won’t we?”

        “What makes you say so? We’re on the same side, general.” Much as Nihilus would love to make Esteem one of her pets, the general would have to wait until she had the Elements of Harmony.

        “Don’t think that I don’t know you’re planning something, Naught. I’m just waiting for you to make your move. And when you do, it will be me Empyrean sends to take care of you. There’s more to single combat than being a perfect ten on the Coruscare scale. I’m going to make you beg for mercy, girl.”

        “And I’m going to turn you into a slobbering dog, pretty-boy. You’re going to do anything for a treat. I’ve had this one-” she nodded sharply towards her still-nameless pet. “-Eating the books that I finish with. They’re full of all sorts of terrible spells that we wouldn’t want to fall into the wrong hands, you see.”

        It was a lovely use of her pet, Nihilus thought. Twilight was reviled by the idea of destroying a book, and even more reviled at the sight of what was once Rainbow Dash forcing parchment down her throat simply because Nihilus told her to.

        The general turned away from her sharply. “Our business is done here,” Esteem said, climbing back into his carriage. “I have seen enough to fill my report to the prince. Take your pegasi and go play in your dollhouse like a good little child.”

        

        Nihilus considered destroying his carriage as he flew away, but though better of it. She would have him, have them all, soon enough. She just needed the Elements of Harmony first. Where were Twilight’s friends?

        They were in Cloudsdale.

        It had taken several trips or vertigo-inducing flights to move the entire crew to the sky settlement, carried out in the dead of night. Applejack wasn’t exactly afraid of heights, but having nothing but several thousand feet between her and the ground as she dangled uselessly from Luna’s legs had not been a pleasant experience. The princess had used some magic to allow them all to walk on clouds, then created a tiny hollowed out portion of cloud for them to wait the rest of the night out in. Despite the late hour, nopony had gone to sleep.

        

        Luna was in the centre of their makeshift hideout, and the four ponies gathered around her by the light of her horn. Applejack didn’t know whether the princess was using pegasus or unicorn magic, but Luna had sculpted a perfect replica of Cloudsdale out of cloud-stuff, which sat in the centre of the room. She marked locations on the model as she spoke to them.

        “Nihilus will likely announce herself in the plaza, like she did in Ponyville.” The section of Cloudsdale representing the plaza filled with a blue light. “I’m counting on the fact that once she knows we’re here, she’ll spread her puppets out to look for us. Hopefully, that will include Rainbow Dash. If Nihilus decides to keep Rainbow Dash close, though, ye four will have to leave Rainbow Dash to me as well. I won’t risk letting ye get close to her, she’s just too dangerous. Last time we fought she hurt me enough to kill the lot of you several times over, Applejack not included.”

        Applejack frowned at the princess’ estimation of her abilities. Hopefully, she wouldn’t have to find out just how much punishment she could take. “If you’re responsible for Dash and Nihilus, then what do we all do?”

        “Again, this is only if she doesn’t send Dash after ye while I distract her. I’m fairly certain she will. If she doesn’t, or if anything else goes wrong, ye four will get out as fast as you can. Ye all remember how to find our secret entrance?”

        The four ponies nodded in unison.

        “Good. I doubt Nihilus will expect you all to hide right here in Cloudsdale. My spell will only work for the next couple of days, though, so you’ll have to have Fluttershy take ye down by then if I get captured or killed. Oh, don’t give me that look, I am well aware of my own mortality. If this ends badly, I need to know ye four will be able to continue the fight.” Luna levitated the figurine of her sister, turning it around in front of her face as she worked her mouth. “Celestia was always better at planning than I . She’d find a way to make it so that even if her enemies won, she won more.”

        “You’re doing fine, princess,” Fluttershy said.

        Luna gave the pegasus a tiny smile before continuing. “As loath as I am to break up our only two fighters, Rarity, I plan on putting thee here-” she marked a point on the model “-with Fluttershy. Applejack and Pinkie will take the higher ground here. This way, regardless of where the pegasi fly, they’re bound to run into two of you.”

        “I think Fluttershy and I will be just fine, don’t you darling?” Rarity said. “My only concern is for you, princess. The last time you fought Nihilus-”

        “The last time I fought Nihilus I was already exhausted from escaping my mother the night beforehand. And I had to worry about protecting a certain unicorn. This time I think that little parasite will be surprised.”

        

        “Oh. Well, I suppose there is that little tidbit, isn’t there.”

        “In any case, tomorrow is the big day. Our only goal is to rescue Rainbow Dash, but I will not lie to you. If we succeed, and the five of ye use the Elements on Nihilus, it will kill her, just as they killed Nightmare Moon. I figured I should let you all know that beforehand. It’s the only way to save Twilight, but it’s also thine choice to make.”

        Silence dominated the room. Applejack had been waiting all week. Despite the danger they were in, she felt a little... excited. “She took Rainbow Dash,” she said coldly.

        “And blew up my home,” Rarity added.

        “And she has Twilight.” Fluttershy’s voice wasn’t angry like theirs, just sorrowful.

        Pinkie Pie said nothing, but her eyes narrowed and she growled.

        Luna tucked the figurine of her dead sister under the necklace she wore as part of her royal regalia, letting it press against her. “It’s settled, then,” she said simply. “As the only princess of Equestria in a time of war, I grant ye all the power to act in my name without fear of Equestrian law.”

The four other ponies in the room shifted uncomfortably, Applejack included. Luna looked at them each in turn, meeting their eyes before she spoke again. “Nihilus Nix Naught,” she said, “needs to die.

-

Chapter 6: The Battle of Cloudsdale

A thanks goes out to The Prereaders


The Battle of Cloudsdale

        It was afternoon, and Cloudsdale sat high in the sky, basking in the gleaming rays of Empyrean’s sun. Its native pegasi flew about, soaring to and fro between the austere white columns that were a staple of the city’s architecture. Ponies milled about on the surface of the clouds, catching breaks between their duties combining hues into rainbows and shaping precipitation into rainclouds. High above any dirt on the ground, the city gave off an overwhelming sense of cleanliness, and was almost a uniform white. The achromatic radiance of the city was broken by the occasional stream of rainbow essence that flowed from the upper tiers of the ouropolis, creating a favorable contrast.

        The flying citadel broke through the permanent clouds that made up the base of the city from beneath. It tore its way upward, causing several structures to collapse and tumble into the open sky below. Pegasi frantically flew to avoid the debris and escape the collapsing structures. Ponies who had been doing nothing rushed to the scene, overtaken by curiosity, to observe from a safe distance. In moments, the bustling and orderly city was thrown into chaos.

        In the city’s central plaza, under the shadow of the dark citadel, a black pegasus dropped to the ground, managing a perfect landing despite having fallen at a speed that would make most pegasi envious. Slowly, her gaze took in her surroundings, her eyes evenly moving from left to right. The ponies around her and above her froze at her appearance. Even though most of them did not know her personally, they had still heard the stories. There was only one black pegasus in the world.

        “Gather!” the dark pegasus shouted, and her voice carried to the far edges of the plaza. The surrounding ponies did not need to be told twice. Slowly and uneasily, they landed and formed a crowd that stood in the citadel’s looming shadow. The closest ones formed a circle around the dark pony, and she moved, setting herself slightly off of the circle’s centre, closer to the citadel. The ponies around the pegasus waited, talking amongst themselves in hushed tones and looking around nervously. They clearly knew about what had happened to Ponyville. They were obviously terrified.

        The dark pegasus didn’t speak from her place surrounded by the other pegasi. The tension built as nothing else happened, rising to almost unbearable levels. Just as the moment would have ceased to be tense and become boring, however, over a hundred puppets swarmed outward from the dark citadel that had speared itself through the heart of Cloudsdale. Pegasi flew from its upper tiers and then landed amongst the the terrified crowd below. Earthponies stormed from its forward facing entrances and formed ranks in front of the flying fortress. The crowd of pegasi shrank away from the intimidating soldiers. All of the puppets faced inward, at a point just in front of and above the dark pegasus.

        She appeared with a crack that reverberated throughout the city, and a pinpoint burst of dark energy. She levitated, floating a dozen feet off of the ground so that every pony could see her arrive. Her mane, warped even further by the Sliver of Darkness, was a twisting mass of pure black, shot through with a single streak of sanguine. Her left eye was a shining purple, but her right was an iris of the same red as her streak, burning around a slitted pupil. A still-unhealed slash ran along her face. Slowly, she lowered herself, never once looking at the pegasi of Cloudsdale until her hooves touched the hardened cloud that made up the plaza’s “ground”. As she touched down, she gracefully lowered her head, closing her eyes softly and letting her mane burn more dimly. Then, she suddenly brought her head up sharply and glared at the citizens of Cloudsdale. The ponies, startled, drew back a step, and a ripple of motion moved through the crowd.

        Nihilus loved a good entrance.

        She gave a cold, humorless laugh, then began to address the crowd. “Judging by your reactions, my reputation precedes me. I will assume then, that you have all heard of that little trouble I caused in Ponyville about a week ago, so believe me when I say that if any of you disobey me, or keep me from what I want, the destruction I will bring upon you will make the incident in Ponyville seem tame. The first act of any survivors will be to rename Cloudsdale to the much more fitting ‘Dale.’”

        She spoke airily, striding in front of the many winged ponies of the ouropolis, pausing occasionally to stare one down for her own amusement. “It is safe to assume, then, that you will have all heard of the new King, Titan, the Queen, Terra, and your new ruler in Canterlot and replacement for Celestia, Prince Empyrean.” None of the ponies in the crowd gave any visible or audible reaction to the news.

        “Since it has been a week, and you likely know all of these things, I’ll get to the real reason I am here. I’m not sure if any of you have heard of the “natural order.” It’s the way things were before Princess Celestia and her sister Luna stole Titan’s throne, and it is the way things will be now that Celestia is dead. While the new rules are full of all sorts of exciting little things, part of the natural order is that ponies are no longer allowed to control the weather.”

        At this, the citizens of Cloudsdale finally gave her a reaction. Some gasped, some spoke to their neighbors in low tones, and some simply stared on with looks of horror and despair. Nihilus drank in their helplessness and their dying hope. She didn’t like working under Empyrean because she didn’t like having superiors. The job itself was wonderful.

        “So,” she continued, “to summarize: your god is dead, most of you are now out of work, and any objections or oppositions will be met with so much force you will feel re-enlightened when it comes to the term ‘overkill’. Any questions?”

        None of the pegasi spoke.

        “Come now!” Nihilus placed a hoof under the nearest ponies chin. “What I’m telling you is horribly unfair! You’re being mistreated and tossed aside like refuse! Your entire world is about to change for the worse. I was hoping I would get to make an example out of at least one of you.”

        She gave a little moue and roughly pushed the pegasus she had been holding away. “Nopony wants to prove their bravery and stand for what is right and true? How disappointing. I really don’t have anything else to do today. Sadly, it’s understandable, considering what I did to the last pegasus I called ‘enemy.’” She waved a hoof in her pet’s direction. “Take heart, my pet. You get to stay my only and favorite toy. There isn’t a pegasus here willing to oppose me.”

        “What about an alicorn?” The voice came from deep within the crowd, somewhere behind her.

        Slowly, Nihilus smiled, overjoyed at the fact that her day had just gotten much, much more interesting. She turned around slowly, first looking lazily over her shoulder, then moving her legs to turn herself and face her adversary head-on.

        Luna emerged from the crowd just as Nihilus finished turning to face her. Her mane was no longer a cluster of individual strands of hair, but rather a deep, waving cloud of stars, flowing downward from her tiara. She stood taller than everypony in the plaza, including Nihilus, much to her displeasure. The princess held her chest out proudly, maintaining a regal posture as she met Nihilus’s look with her own, much more intense, glare.

        “You know what the biggest difference is, between you and I, Luna?” Nihilus said with a little smile.

        “Wings and a pretty face?” the princess answered her coolly, with her own slight smile.

        Nihilus was a little annoyed by the taunt. “Showmanship,” she said. “I demolish half a dozen buildings arriving in a flying castle that casts an ominous shadow over half of the central plaza. You only arrive after I give you a perfect entrance cue, and even then you just trot on up to me as though I’m a casual acquaintance. It’s insulting, really.”

        The sun went out.

        It was as though somepony had slowly slid a shutter over Empyrean’s blazing sphere. Suddenly, it wasn’t daylight out anymore, but rather closer in appearance to night. It looked as though the sun, unable to shine directly at them, cast its light sideways, forming a bright white ring around a central black disc. Cloudsdale was plunged into an eerie demi-night.

        “Go on again,” Luna said loudly, “about casting an ominous shadow.”

        Nihilus magically sent a pulse of intention out to her minions. They were here. They had to be. She turned to her pet as her puppets took to the sky and galloped away across the plaza. “They’re here,” she barked. “Find them.” Her pet shot into the air and joined the swarm of other black pegasi.

        As she did this, Luna called out to the crowd in her booming voice. “Citizens of Cloudsdale!” she said, “take thine loved ones and find someplace safe!”

        In the flurry of activity that followed, Nihilus and Luna once again turned to face each other. They were less than thirty feet apart.

        “Tell us more about the infantile little flying castle our father granted thee.” Luna had begun to use the majestic plural, and she spoke in low, venomous tones. “Give orders to those wind-up soldiers that our mother lets thee play with. Attack us with the magic thou stoleth from our sister’s star pupil. Thine name suits you, Nihilus. Without all of thine little toys, thou art merely an insane monster with an ugly face. Thou art nothing.”

        The insults stung. Twilight chose that moment to make herself heard: “Luna one, Nihilus zero. She’s pretty much got you there, Naughty.”

        “Shut up!” Nihilus shouted suddenly, jerking her head to the side as though she could shake the voice out of her mind. Luna raised an eyebrow. Nihilus looked back at the princess. “I am more than ten times older now than I was the last time you and I fought, Princess,” she spat.

        “And we are fully rested, and have double the strength we came at you with then. Thou didst not truly think thou wert our match, did thee? Even the weakest alicorn can take the strongest unicorn on a good day. We are a god, Nihilus.”

        Nihilus felt a burning fury rise within her. For the first time, she felt herself truly hate a pony for a reason other than Twilight loving them. Her eye began to glow brighter, and she felt her magical energy gathering there, making it feel warm. “You pitiful child,” she said, “what makes you think that I am anything less?”

AJ watched the world go dark, and felt a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. Luna was distracting Nihilus. If things were going according to plan, the puppets would come for them any moment now. She took a breath to calm her nerves, and checked her saddlebag for the ropes that Luna had brought her. Then she fiddled with her stetson, and pawed the false ground, waiting.

She stood with Pinkie Pie in the top tiers of Cloudsdale. They were indoors, or as indoors as you could get in the ouropolis. They were under a roof, supported by a row of white columns. Beyond those, the building simply dropped off several stories to the false ground below. Pegasi had no need for fences or walls to keep them from falling, and Cloudsdale did not need to protect its residents from the weather.

Pinkie Pie was bouncing on her hooves so quickly she was almost vibrating. “Are they coming yet?” she asked, speaking quickly. “Are they? Huh? Huh?”

Applejack knew the futility of asking for her to calm down. “They’re comin’ alright,” she said, spying several dark shapes moving towards them through the dark sky. “When those puppets touch down you try to stay close, but keep outta my way, you hear?”

Pinkie Pie sprang more than five feet into the air. The mare could jump extraordinarily high when she wanted to, AJ noted. “You betcha!” Pinkie cried. “I’m just here to cheer for you and help with Dashie.”

Applejack spied more dark ponies moving along Cloudsdale’s “ground”. “Ah sure hope Rarity and Fluttershy know what they’re doing.” She saw a pegasus puppet pass close by and called out to it. “Up here, you no-good varmint! Ah got a hoof here with your name on it!”

The pegasus turned, and all of the puppets close by turned with it. They took off towards her, and AJ backed away from the edge of the building. In moments, several of the pegasi had landed, their black coats contrasting the pristine white of the pillared structure. Applejack looked for Dash, but all their manes were a bright blue.

More puppets began to converge on their position. Applejack counted at least ten, and their numbers were increasing every moment she dallied. “Now,” she said to herself, “ten of you against me? That just ain’t fair.” The closest pegasus stood on its hind legs, a pegasus combat stance. Applejack lowered herself so that she was close to the ground, just like Luna had taught her. The pegasus flapped its wings, its legs barely skipping along the floor as it moved towards her. “Ah had breakfast this morning,” she muttered, spinning quickly to buck the puppet as soon as it came within range.

Her kick sent it through the air and into one of the pillars. It burst, but not before the impact caused the room to shake slightly. Applejack turned to face the other puppets. They had taken similar stances as the first. “And Ah slept last night,” she said. “That puts me twenty up on the lot of you.”

This time, it was AJ who attacked. She knew what she was, now. She was an earthpony.

She charged forward, the weight of her lunge easily overcoming the first puppet’s attempt to grapple her and sending him to the floor. She pinned its forelegs with her own, then bashed its skull in with her forehead. Another puppet aimed a kick at her while she was on the ground, and she rolled toward it, catching its extended leg and jerking it toward the ground. The puppet stumbled towards her on one leg, and she grabbed it with her forelegs, wrapping them around its neck.

She rolled, placing her victim between herself and an incoming blow, using the pony as an equine shield. The incoming punch struck her victim, and, no longer needing the puppet, she broke its neck. Then she flipped onto her front, striking out with her back legs as she did so. She hit her mark, sending the puppet who had just struck his brethren into the ceiling, where it burst. She came out of her kick on all four legs.

Earthpony.

Two pegasi came at her from different directions, and she pivoted and lashed out again with her back legs, destroying it with another powerful kick. The second puppet, however, wrapped his forelegs around one of hers, throwing her off balance while she threw her kick and twisting her onto her belly. It would have been able to keep her held, too, were she not ten times stronger than it was.

Applejack simply brought her foreleg in, and the pegasus that held it was dragged on top of her. She rolled, placing the puppet beneath her, then punched out with her free foreleg. Her punch caved its face in. It burst, and once again she had all four hooves on the ground.

Earthpony.

Four puppets came at her at once with their strange flying two-legged charge, and she hoofed the first one in the skull, destroying it. Two of them got a strong grip on her, bringing her to the ground, but she rolled onto her belly, wrapping her hind legs around the third’s neck. She twisted, and the puppet burst, destroyed. Its two allies held her to the ground, however, and a new puppet entered her field of vision, raising its hooves to bring them down on her face.

She tensed the muscles in her neck, tapping her magic, and headbutted the puppet’s legs as they descended towards her. She felt the blow against her forehead, but her bones remained intact, strengthened by the same magic that allowed her to kick solid wood and remain unharmed. The puppet’s hooves shattered, and its legs broke against her face, propelled onward by the force of the stomp.

Earthpony.

AJ gave an incoherent yell, and pulled her hind legs toward her chest. The puppets that were holding them were dragged towards her, and their grips on her forelegs loosened. Applejack pulled her forelegs free, and brought them upward, smashing the two puppet’s heads together with her enhanced strength. They both burst.

The puppet whose hooves she had shattered was standing on its hind legs just above her head. She pulled her own hind legs in ever further, tightening her flank and rolling back on her shoulders. The result was that she rolled, flank-over-face, kicking the puppet into another pillar with her hind legs and landing on all four hooves, facing inward.

Earthpony.

More pegasi landed inside the structure. None of them had grey manes. Applejack reasoned that Dash had found Rarity instead of them, so she kept destroying Nihilus’ minions. She straightened out her stetson. It had taken a bit of a damage during the fighting. Applejack had not.

Two pegasi were proximate. She jumped on the nearest one, riding it to the floor as she kicked out at its ally. Its ally dodged her kick and grabbed one of her hind legs, but AJ had time to smash in the pinned puppet’s skull with her own. She felt the leg that the other puppet held break, and her brain registered intense pain. Her immediate reaction was to tap earthpony magic, forcefully re-knitting the bones. She kicked the puppet with her newly healed leg. It didn’t kill it, but sent it sprawling into a group of pegasi that had just landed.

Applejack jumped, sailing a huge distance through the air, propelled by her incredible strength. She didn’t land with the light grace of a pegasus, but rather smashed downward, landing on the dazed puppet, crushing it to death and bringing her into the middle of another group of Nihilus’ minions. Before they could register her presence, she had bucked another one into the back wall. She was dimly aware of Pinkie Pie cheering.

Earthpony.

She rolled onto another puppet and broke its neck, then felt a puppet grab her from behind. She threw herself backward, landing belly-up on top of her adversary, then head-butted backwards. To her dismay, her head struck only the floor, shattering the smooth cloud-marble. The puppet wrapped its forelegs around her neck, squeezing, but another backwards headbutt made contact, and she fell to the floor, unharmed.

Two more came at her, and she grabbed the first one around its chest, swinging it so that its legs struck the other puppet in the face, sending it reeling. The puppet she held struggled and squirmed, and she bit down on one of its wings, then tore the limb out of its socket with her teeth. She squeezed its chest with her forelegs, bringing all of her earthpony strength to bear against the puppet. Its ribcage shattered, and it burst just as the other puppet regained its bearings and came at her.

Applejack gave another battle cry and jumped the pegasus, pinning it to the ground beneath her. She struck down with both her forelegs, crushing the puppet’s neck. It burst, and she wheeled around, searching for the next enemy.

There were none.

“Wow, Applejack! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pony fight like that. Although,” Pinkie Pie said, bringing a hoof up to rub her chin. “I haven’t seen many pony fights.”

“That’s it.” Applejack was panting from the exertion. “That’s all of ‘em.”

“You forgot me,” a voice said from behind them. Applejack froze, and her mind instantly went to the ropes she had in her saddlebag. It hadn’t been the voice of the puppets. It was the voice of Rainbow Dash. AJ turned to face the mare with Pinkie Pie.

“Not surprising, really,” the pegasus said. “You’ve been doing that a lot lately.”

        Fluttershy cringed as the glittering diamond blade soared past her and cleaved an earthpony puppet in two. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Rarity to be careful; the unicorn was often the centre of a whirlwind of moving tools and cloth in her shop, and Fluttershy hadn’t ever been struck once. There was a difference, however, between a yard of fabric and a blade that could slice her to ribbons.

        What made her more uneasy, however, were the puppets. There were so many of them, more than had attacked Ponyville. The green-maned dark earthponies ran at Rarity, and she tore them apart without ado.

        “You know,” Rarity said to her as she separated her blade and pushed a storm of the super-sharp diamonds through several puppets, “I have always just adored Cloudsdale’s architecture.” She reformed her blade behind her, then turned to face the other half of the horde. “So filled with ideals of the earlier artistic periods, it is!” The blade snicker-snacked amongst half a dozen earthponies, killing them all in seconds as Rarity daintily back-stepped their assaults. “And it’s always so clean. Sensible, really, considering it’s thousands of feet away from any dirt.”

        Fluttershy felt her stomach turn. She didn’t like watching Rarity slaughter the mindless horde while she casually carried a conversation, almost as though she were making a dress back in the Boutique. She certainly didn’t like that she couldn’t help. The only reason she was with Rarity was that it was simply the safest place for her to be. They were on the low ground, and Fluttershy would easily be able to fly away if Rarity were to fail. She tried not to think about that, however.

        “I mean certainly,” Rarity continued, sending the blade into a group of puppets at neck level. The results of her swing were predictable. “A number of vermin still make their way into the city.” Several puppets had ducked the swing, but were killed when Rarity disassembled her blade and then jerked the shards through the air to reform in front of her. “But at least they don’t leave much of a mess when you clean them up.” Without turning around, she impaled an earthpony lunging at her from behind.

        Fluttershy had no way of helping her. Worse, she was actually in the way. Rarity would have far less ground to hold were the pegasi absent. She hung her head. She just felt so useless...

        “Did you know, dear, that unicorn blades are supposed to have names?” A large group of earthponies rushed into the structure that they were fighting in. “Mine, doesn’t, of course, but I ought to think of one, don’t you agree?” Rarity eyed the oncoming mass of puppets, then shattered her blade again. “I remember a poem I read once, or was it a book? Oh, never mind. In any case, I was thinking...” She narrowed her eyes at the oncoming horde, and the diamonds shot outwards in all directions. They ricocheted off of the walls and ceiling, causing tiny bits of cloud-marble to puff outward where they struck. The diamonds tore through the earthponies, and those who weren’t slain immediately were destroyed when Rarity returned the blade to its formed state in front of her.

        “Vorpal,” she said coolly. “What do think?”

        “I, um, I don’t know what that means, but I think it sounds g-” She was cut short, however, as she was enveloped by red magical energy. She was completely paralyzed.

        “Fluttershy!” Rarity breathed, spinning. Fluttershy saw two more puppets at the other entrance to their structure. These, however, were unicorns with blazing red manes.

        Fourteen diamonds sped towards them, and fourteen red flashes of light sent Vorpal scattering across the floor. Rarity reformed the blade.

        “Attack us again and the pegasus dies.”

        Rarity hesitated.

        “We have specific instructions to use her life as collateral. You will surrender your blade, and then both of you will be taken to the mistress. She will keep you both alive. Do not attempt to negotiate these terms. We are not capable of altering the ultimatum in any way.”

        Rarity looked at them for a moment, then back to Fluttershy. Fluttershy tried to give her a signal, a sign, but she found herself completely unable to move. She had the overwhelming urge to blink from the dust gathering on her eyes, and realized that the spell was also preventing her from breathing. Rarity let out of her breath, looking downward. Then, she threw her saddlebag to the ground at the puppet’s hooves. Thirteen irregularly cut diamonds followed it.

        The unicorns waited until they had finished scooping up the diamonds with the bag to release Fluttershy. She blinked furiously, her eyes tearing up, as she took a long breath. They were now surrounded by earthponies, the two unicorns approaching them.

        “You will come with us,” one of them said to Rarity.

        “And the earth puppets will take you,” the other said to Fluttershy.

        Fluttershy couldn’t look at her friend. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. She had ruined it, ruined the plan, ruined everything.

        Wrong, she had decided. She was Wrong.

        Wrong wasn’t sure what had made her come up with the name. There was something in her, though, some very tiny, almost completely inaudible voice, that told her she was wrong, that something was wrong with her. So she was now Wrong. The voice would tell her to do things, plead her not to obey the mistress, but she knew that the voice was, ironically, wrong. She would be cruel. That was her purpose.

        “Applejack,” she greeted the earthpony indifferently. “Pinkie Pie.”

        “Dashie!”

        “Rainbow, Ah know you’re in there,” AJ uncoiled a length of rope.

        The tiny voice spurred into action, but Wrong suffocated it with a slight effort of will. She was far beyond letting it get the best of her. She regarded the two earthponies in front of her, and the Insanity urged her to feel hatred. It was so good to her, the Insanity. It always showed her the way, guided her towards clarity. When clarity came, however, the tiny voice would become louder, striking at her when she was weakest. The voice was such a coward, attacking Wrong only when she was weak. It was a good thing the Insanity was there to help her get rid of it.

        “You got my name wrong,” Wrong said as she approached them. “My name is Wrong.” Pinkie Pie gave her a strange look. Applejack began to spin a lasso.

        “Sorry, Dash,” AJ whirled the length of rope above her head, “But if you can’t come with us on your own, Ah gotta bring you in the hard way. Last chance.”

        Wrong smiled. “I am going to enjoy killing you ten times over, you rotten traitor.”

        Applejack winced at her words, then regained her composure and threw the lasso, wrapping her own end of the rope around a foreleg.

        Wrong rolled to the side with lightning reflexes, then reached a foreleg out and caught the loop of the lasso. She jerked it backward, and AJ stumbled towards her. Wrong sped forward, meeting her halfway with a hind hoof to the face, and felt AJ’s jaw break under the force of her blow.

        AJ skidded onto her flank, and Wrong wrapped the loop of the rope around her neck. Then, she struck out with a lightning-fast flurry of blows, knocking Applejack’s face back and forth against the cloud-marble floor.

        She felt a hoof on her shoulder, and struck out with a foreleg. Pinkie Pie moved to avoid it, but in doing so tripped over the hind leg Wrong had extended. Pinkie spun as she fell, so as to land on her hooves, but Wrong kicked out with her unnatural speed. Her hoof caught Pinkie Pie in the stomach, and the pink pony made a terrible choking noise as she hit the ground.

        Tears had formed around the pathetic pink pony’s eyes. “Dashie?”

Wrong knelt down and smashed Pinkie’s face into the marble. Then she took the other end of the length of rope and wrapped it three times around Pinkie Pie’s hind leg.

Applejack had recovered, and stood, her jawbone realigning and the bruises on her face fading rapidly. The lasso loop was still wrapped around her neck. “You want to fight me, Dash? Alright, we’ll do things the hard way.”

Wrong stood onto her hind legs, keeping one on Pinkie’s neck. “Fight you? This won’t be a fight. I’m going to make you suffer for what you did to her.”

She spread her wings and flapped once, letting the considerable forward force of the thrust throw her, and Pinkie Pie, forward. Pinkie absorbed most of the momentum, and began to slide across the floor toward the edge of the structure and the several story drop. Applejack’s eyes widened, and she quickly moved to help her friend.

Wrong moved more quickly. She flapped her wings again, angling her motion towards the earthpony, and triple-kicked Applejack in the chest. Pinkie Pie, too dazed from her beating to stop herself, went off the edge and downward toward the city below them.

Applejack got up from where she had landed on the floor. Wrong looked down at her from her stance on two hind legs. Their eyes met.

The rope went taught.

The lasso around AJ’s neck tightened into a stranglehold, and the earthpony let out a choking gasp, struggling to remain standing on the smooth, clean floor. The muscles in her neck tightened, and she drew in a wheezing breath. Wrong spun herself through the air, kicking AJ across the face, then landed and drove a hoof into her stomach. She pushed AJ’s face downward as she pulled her leg back, driving another hoof into the earthpony’s muzzle.

Applejack fell, bloody, to the ground, where she began to slide towards the edge. She recovered and caught herself on one of the pillars, then struggled to draw another wheezing breath.

“Come on, AJ. All it would take is one bite. Cut the rope.”

Applejack looked up at her with horror. She opened her mouth wide, sucking in more air, then spoke, her voice quiet and strained. “Ah... would... never...”

Wrong crossed the room in an instant, placing her face in front of the earthpony’s. “Then why did you do it to her!?” she screamed.

Applejack drew back from the pegasus. “What...” she said, struggling to draw another breath.

“She waited, AJ. Waited for you to come for her. Rainbow Dash would have come for you, but you couldn’t be bothered. It ate her. Every second of every day she waited for you to come to the rescue and you never came. I’m what’s left, and I’m Wrong.” She punctuated the last sentence by slamming AJ’s face into the cloud-marble.

Applejack raised her head slowly, blood dripping from her snout to pool beneath her. Her face was reddening from the rope. “Nih’lus... did this to you... Dash.”

“And you let her! She was your best friend, and now I despise you for what you did to her.”

Applejack looked up at her, then slowly shook her head. “You’re not Dash. You’re crazy.” Her face was red from the lack of oxygen. She would pass out soon.

“No!” Wrong screamed, “I am Wrong!” She smashed Applejack’s head downward again, then grabbed the rope around her neck and pulled it back, adding her own strength to Pinkie Pie’s weight. She placed a hind leg on the back of Applejack’s head, bending it forward and into the rope. The earthpony tried to talk, but only managed a raspy cough, spluttered into the pool of blood.

It wasn’t long until Applejack passed out. The rope was still taught with Pinkie Pie’s weight. Wrong sat holding the rope, wondering what to do. The tiny voice was pleading with her, but she couldn’t hear what it was saying through the Insanity.

You will be cruel to others.

        She kept choking Applejack, long past the point where a normal pony would die. She reckoned that AJ’s earthpony magic might be enough to keep her alive. Then, she undid the rope, which was still heavy with Pinkie Pie’s weight.

        She let it go.

        Wrong picked up Applejack’s limp form and flew away, handing it to some pegasus puppets she found in midair. She did not look down. She felt different, somehow, as though something inside her had changed. The Insanity was barely present, but the tiny voice had

nothing to say. She should have been happy for its absence, but instead she only felt...

        Wrong.

        Luna attacked first.

        Nihilus watched the goddess dive straight downward, throwing herself through the clouds that made up the “ground” of the Cloudsdale plaza. Nihilus, having lost sight of her opponent, mentally prepared both a teleport and a powerful force field. Her knowledge of war magic had been greatly expanded in the past week, and she ran through the list of spells that she could now unleash upon her opponent. They were nightmarish things, magical terrors from an era of war and strife long since past.

        She caught a glimpse of motion out of the corner of her eye, and whipped around to see Luna emerge behind her, bursting from the clouds and rising high into the air. In the surreal darkness, Luna possessed an ethereal glow, her mane and raiment glimmering with magical power. By contrast, Nihilus’ eye and mane each burned with a crimson energy, and her black coat was hardly visible in the darkness. Her curved and pointed ears helped to make her look positively demonic.

A stream of dark, wispy clouds trailed behind the princess as she rose, and Nihilus realized what her opponent was doing.

“We could offer thee a chance to surrender,” the princess said, “to save thyself the pain and embarrassment. But we don’t think we shall.”

 Luna threw her forelegs foward, and a blazing bolt of lightning arced towards Nihilus, illuminating the darkened plaza momentarily.

        The bolt was deflected by Nihilus’ magical force field, harmlessly striking a nearby pillar. Nihilus felt her red eye burn as she used her own magic to conjure a dozen tiny orbs of the writhing darkness that characterized her magic.

        “You think you’re a god, Luna? I’m going to pull your legs off and watch you squirm.”

The orbs hovered around her for a moment, then sped off toward the floating alicorn, each of them spiralling silently through the air.

        “Like an insect.

        Luna dove towards her despite the approaching missiles. She twisted and spun in the air with a remarkable amount of dexterity, narrowly dodging every single one of the orbs. As the princess approached Nihilus, however, Nihilus teleported into a nearby structure. She gritted her teeth with rage. When had Luna become so fast? The structure, like all pegasi structures, was open to the city, and Luna easily caught sight of her and charged.

        Nihilus tapped her magic once again and aimed a transmutation spell at a nearby pillar of cloud-marble. It solidified instantly, the false marble turning into actual stone. Then it exploded, bursting into a thousand bits of rubble as Nihilus struck it with a single thought. Luna slowed herself in midair, but it was too late, and she was already in range of the broken bits of stone. Nihilus tossed several at her, keeping the rest hovering in the air around her as extra ammunition.

        As expected, Luna flipped over in midair, the stones passing just under her wings. The princess flapped her wings several times, and the clouds around her became incorporeal, swirling upward and concealing the princess from view.

        From within her building, Nihilus gave a snarl of rage, and slapped the remaining bits of stone at the cloud bank. She knew that even if some of them struck their mark, Luna would be mostly unharmed because of her earthpony magic, but it wasn’t as though the rubble was useful in any other way, and Nihilus had felt like hitting something.

        “Face me, insect!”

        The stones disappeared into the cloud bank, and there was no indication that any had struck the princess. Then, the vaporous clouds solidified, condensing into the moisture that was their liquid state. The droplets of water solidified further, coalescing into a thousand glittering, pointed shards of ice. At their centre was Princess Luna, hovering and giving Nihilus a calm look.

        The bits of ice shot towards her, and Nihilus rolled behind an intact pillar to avoid them. Most of the shards smashed against the wall behind her, but some remained in the air, held back by Luna’s magic, hovering inside the structure. The princess followed the shards in moments, rocketing into the building and landing vertically on the wall opposite Nihilus. She dropped down and moved closer. Nihilus smiled.

        Her smile widened to a grin as she cut the air with her horn, waving it from left to right. She felt her eye grow hotter and glow brighter as she poured power into her spell. A wall of unnaturally crimson and fluid flames spread from one side of the structure to the other. The remaining shards of ice vaporized, and Luna cried out and recoiled as the hellfire seared her flesh. Nihilus, however, was unharmed by the molten flames.

        Luna backed against the wall and threw several silvery bolts of magic at her. Nihilus burned them out mid-flight with her own dark energy, then countered with another terrible war-spell. A conjured mass of writhing, dark chains was violently thrown through the wall of fire at the princess.

        Luna turned to face the back wall, flapping her wings upward. With the upward force of her flight, she placed her hind legs on the vertical surface and ran up the wall, narrowly avoiding the infernal shackles. Then she pushed herself off the wall, catapulting her weight over the molten barrier and landing not ten feet from the dark unicorn.

        Nihilus called forth more of her magical power while Luna was in the air, feeling her warped eye grow hotter. As the Princess landed, Nihilus screamed, and an unnatural, screeching wail tore through the air around her, causing the cloud-marble to splinter and crack. Luna tightened and winced under the unbearable sound of the war-spell.

        Nihilus took the opening. She tapped her power again, conscious of the fact that the Princess was steps away from killing her. Her spell was channeled through her gaze, and she fixed her glare on Princess Luna. Immediately, the princess began to wither, her lithe form shrinking, wrinkling, and becoming fragile.

        Luna did not let Nihilus gain the upper hand so easily, however. She raised her head and met Nihilus’ eyes with an equally forceful stare, and Nihilus watched in dismay as the the effects of her flesh-fade spell reversed, and Luna’s form filled out once more.

        “Thou hath learned some new tricks,” the princess hissed.

        “Are you not entertained, princess?”

        Nihilus focused, forcing her magical energy into a single point. Her eye flashed, and a crimson beam of pure energy shot forth to impale the Princess with the unicorn’s dark power. Luna’s horn glowed, and a translucent barrier appeared in front of the goddess. Nihilus knew exactly what spell the Princess was using, and cast her own reflective wall as the beam rebounded towards its mistress.

        She kept the beam steady, forcing more and more energy to bounce between the two duelists. The red light between them became blinding, and Nihilus could barely make out Luna’s expression of surprise as the princess realized what was happening. Nihilus teleported out of the structure. The princess was not so fortunate.

        Nihilus came out of her translocation spell not anywhere in the plaza, but rather directly above the pillared building they had just occupied, over a hundred feet above the ground. She held herself aloft with her own telekinesis.

        The structure exploded, a burning cloud of the unnatural crimson energy throwing cloud-marble outward and demolishing everything around it. A ring of flames from her hellfire spell engulfed everything just outside the blast radius.

        She gave a gleeful shriek as she watched the destruction, then pieced together another war-spell in her mind. Using her incredible telekinesis, she summoned a massive wave of her dark energy and then propelled it downward into the ruins where the princess supposedly lay. As the spell descended, she made out the tiny form of Luna below her.

        The Princess, unable to avoid the dark blast with her wings in time, simply threw her own wave of telekinetic force at herself, throwing herself to the side violently to avoid the much greater danger. Nihilus’ spell impacted the ruined structure, impressing a crater into the structure’s already annihilated foundation.

        Nihilus did not let up on the princess. She threw herself through space again to land in front of the injured alicorn, then cast another set of infernal shackles at the Princess as she rolled out of her self-inflicted throw. The chains struck, wrapping themselves around the alicorn and tightening. Luna’s horn flashed, however, and the dark shackles shattered, their pieces speeding towards her.

        Nihilus, however, had teleported once more, back into the rubble of the demolished structure and behind the Princess. She struck out with another spell of hellfire, and the Princess was consumed by the superheated molten flames. Luna was still not finished, however, and the Princess drew the clouds around her once more to extinguish the flames, the air around her erupting into a cloud of steam.

        Luna exited the cloud battered and burnt, but still standing. She tore through the air towards Nihilus, aiming a kick at the unicorn’s face. Nihilus teleported out of panic, translocating herself back into the air.

        Before she began to fall, she cast another beam of red energy through her glowing eye. It speared through the air incredibly fast, but the princess rolled out of the way and the beam simply cut through the base of Cloudsdale. As she fell, Nihilus readied another war-spell, softening her landing with telekinesis.

        Luna turned, and Nihilus hit her with another withering glare, simultaneously casting another set of infernal shackles to bind the princess. Luna’s muscles withered, but she shook the spell off once more. Her earthpony magic was near its end from all of the harm she had sustained, however, and it took her too long to counteract the flesh-fade. The chains engulfed her once again. The princess’ horn flashed, but Nihilus channeled more power into the infernal shackles, keeping the princess bound. Luna had lost.

        Nihilus wasn’t finished.

        She snarled, throwing herself into the air above her helpless opponent, and threw another wave of darkness downward with even more force than she had the first. It impacted the struggling alicorn head-on, creating a massive crater in the cloud city’s plaza and throwing out a ring of force. She landed softly once again, using a touch of telekinesis to slow her fall, then examined her opponent.

        Luna was not conscious, but she still drew breath. It was a pity, really. Nihilus had been enjoying a good night out on the town. “I won,” she said simply. She lifted the princess by the infernal shackles that held her. “I beat a god.” She grinned.

What did that make her?

        Pinkie Pie landed.

        She fell several stories through the air headfirst, turning before she hit the ground and coming to a low crouch. She sustained no harm, despite the fact that the fall should have been fatal to a pony without a massive amount of earthpony or pegasus magic.

        She had fallen, which meant that Rainbow Dash had tried to kill her. Had she also tried to kill Applejack? Pinkie Pie began to feel herself panic. Why was everything so wrong?

        Before, In Sugarcube Corner, she had been able to see Dashie inside whatever that thing had been. Now, she couldn’t detect the presence of her friend at all. Rainbow Dash was gone. They had to save her.

        She moved through the city’s lower level. The plaza was empty now, filled with destroyed buildings and patches of unnatural red fire that burned despite the lack of fuel. She wasn’t able to think about what kind of a fight had taken place between Nihilus and the princess. She could hardly handle seeing Applejack destroy the puppets, and Dash striking her had almost left her broken.

        Her face and mane were covered in blood, and the pain beat against her mind as she tried to pull herself together. Her mane was going limp. Her hind leg stung from where the rope had dug into her flesh as she hung. Her eyes were wide with panic, and she continuously swung her gaze around, looking for nothing in particular.

        She moved across the city, heading towards the looming citadel that had broken through the city’s underside. If Luna wasn’t in the plaza, she might be there. If Applejack had truly lost against whatever held Rainbow Dash, she would be there. If Pinkie could get to them, rescue them, Dash would still have a chance. Twilight would still have a chance. Equestria would still have a chance.

        That was only if Applejack was alive, though.

        A group of earthpony puppets tried to block her path, but she absent-mindedly flipped over their heads and continued moving faster than they could catch. A pegasus tried to tackle her, but she countered its grab and threw it to the ground gently. Several more earthponies guarded the entrance to the dark fortress, but Pinkie slid under them with a lack of enthusiasm. She had to find her friends.

        Luna awoke with a shuddering intake of breath. Her lungs cried out in pain as she filled them with oxygen. Her entire body ached all over, and she barely managed to open her eyes. She had lost. The thought hurt more than all her bodily pain combined.

        “Applejack took far less time to recover from her near-death,” a familiar voice mused. “I wonder if I simply caused you more harm, or if Applejack is just a much stronger earthpony than you.”

        Luna looked up, through the bars of a cage, to see that she was in a large circular room. She realized that they were in the floating citadel, likely at the top level judging by the size of the room. She looked back and forth to see Rarity and Applejack occupying similar cages beside her.

        Nihilus stood atop a raised platform in the centre of the room, flanked by two unicorn puppets. She was wearing Applejack’s hat, and her horn poked out awkwardly from beneath the tilted stetson.

        “It’s interesting, really. One moment you’re lying on the floor, dead to the world, not even breathing, and then the next you just gasp yourself back to life again. Earthpony magic is interesting indeed.” Nihilus stepped down towards them. “The metal of the bars has been enchanted. While truly nullifying unicorn magic is impossible, you will find yourselves unable to manipulate anything outside the cages.”

        From her place in her own cage, Applejack spoke softly. “Ah’m sorry, princess. Ah held back. Dash was too much for me.”

        “We failed,” Rarity said.

        Nihilus came closer. “Did you expect any other outcome, Rarity? Twilight is what leads you to victory every time. Twilight is your power. And Twilight is mine. What is it that you have there?” she asked Luna suddenly.

        Before Luna could act, Nihilus had grabbed Celestia’s game piece with her telekinesis and brought it in front of her face to be examined. “Oh,” she said, smiling. “This is just precious.” She moved closer, and knelt in front of the bars to look at the princess. “Missing your sister, are you?”

        Her voice became low and taunting. “It wasn’t Titan, you know, who finished her. I wasn’t Empyrean either. It was me.” She levitated the figurine out in front of her and the air around them began to grow hot. As the metal began to melt, she continued. “I beat her down into her component parts, her different pieces of magic, so that we could give the power to Titan’s little whelp.” A puddle of molten metal now sat in the air between them. “The process was much... messier than this, mind.” Luna turned away sharply as the metal was flicked towards her, and droplets of superheated steel burned her face. “And the result was far less useful.”

        Luna was not going to let the monster-child Nihilus get the best of her. “Thou thinkest,” she said slowly, “that thou knoweth pain because thou inflict it upon others.” She met Nihilus’s deformed eyes. “I served Queen Terra for decades, parasite. Her favorite past-time is torture. Twilight’s friends are here to rescue her, not harm thee. If I get hold of thee, however...”

        Nihilus’s eyes narrowed, and the red one began to glow. “Why you little-”

        Her head snapped to the side suddenly, and she closed her purple eye. “Oh come now,” she said quickly. “I’m allowed to have fun.” She gave an exasperated sigh. “Fine,” she said.

        From her place in her cage, Applejack looked up. “Twilight?” she asked.

        “Applejack!” Nihilus barked. “Look at me.” She approached the earthpony’s cell. “Tell Twilight everything is going to be alright. Tell her that you’re going to get her out of this. Tell her that you believe that you’re still going to win.”

        At this, Applejack straightened and looked Nihilus in the eye defiantly. “We are still going to win, Twilight, you hear me? This ain’t over. Ah don’t know what it’s like for you, spending all your time with her, but we’re gunna get you out. Ah swear it.”

        Nihilus teleported back to the centre of the room, spinning around and laughing. “All too easy!” she crowed. She turned, and hovering in the air beside her was a golden necklace, at the centre of which was a black apple. “Oh Applejack,” she said, “lies do not become you.”

        “Ah wasn’t-”

        “The Element of Honesty disagrees. Now,” she said as Applejack looked on in confusion. “Rarity.” She teleported to bring herself in front of Rarity’s cage. “It will be difficult to get you to commit an act of selfish greed, I think, so I will have to simply seize control of your mind. Hold still, please, this takes quite a bit of effort, or I would have done it to Applejack, too.”

        Just then, the gray-maned and black-coated form of Rainbow Dash sped into the room by way of the open balconies. She landed facing Nihilus, then gave a low bow.

        “Trouble, mistress.”

        A look of irritation flashed across the unicorn’s face. Her horn glowed, and Luna was soon wrapped up in the black, biting chains. She turned to the unicorn puppets still standing on the raised platform. “If they attempt to escape,” she said, “kill her.” The puppets nodded.

        Nihilus teleported to one of the outdoor balconies, and Rainbow Dash moved through the air quickly to her side. They spoke for a short time, the Dash took off as Nihilus disappeared in a burst of her dark magic.

        The room was silent for a time, then Luna spoke from her position pinned to the wall by the chains. “Applejack,” she said. “Thou canst breaketh the bars. Thou hath the strength.”

        “No, Luna,” the earthpony responded firmly.

        “Applejack, please. My part here is done. Even if we win, I know nothing about ruling a kingdom. The royal pony sisters died with Celestia.”

        “How can you say that, Princess?” Rarity asked.

        “If they don’t kill me now, Nihilus is going to eat me. Let me die doing something useful for once, rather than making Nihilus even stronger. Let me give you the chance to do what I couldn’t.”

        Applejack was silent for a time. The puppets ahead of Luna watched her with blank faces. Rarity wouldn’t open her eyes. Finally the earthpony spoke:

        “Ah see why Celestia wanted you to meet Twilight, Princess. You have a lot to learn about friendship.”

        Fluttershy was led across the broken centre of Cloudsdale sometime after the unicorns took Rarity away. Their progress was slow, and Fluttershy did not resist. She let them gently prod her along. The puppets guarding her were pegasi, so she couldn’t fly away. They would be much faster than her. They entered the fortress.

        She needed to rescue Rarity, but she couldn’t do anything. She only had two guards, but even if she could somehow get past them, she had no idea where Rarity was being kept, or how many enemies were between her and Fluttershy. She had to try, though. She couldn’t just give up.

        She remembered how she had used the stare on the first puppet she ever saw, how it had dissipated. She stopped moving, and the pegasi in front of her turned around to prod her again.

        She met its eyes with the stare.

        It was as though it was empty inside. There was no mind or will for Fluttershy to influence, and so the stare simply passed through it, obliterating the little function that the puppet’s mind had. The pegasus vanished.

        Fluttershy turned sharply to face the pegasus behind her, and it too met her eyes. She hated it, hated how it just died. She reminded herself that it wasn’t really real, but her unease persisted.

        She moved forward through the citadel, encountering no puppets on the lower level. She found a room with stairs leading upward and outside, and spread her wings, preparing to fly around the outside edge of the fortress to find her friend.

        The air next to her suddenly grew dark, and a black pony who she could only assume was Nihilus appeared next to her. “Stop,” she said simply. Fluttershy froze, terrified.

        “Isn’t that interesting,” Nihilus mused, stepping in front of Fluttershy and regarding the pegasus. “I don’t need magic to subdue you at all. How pathetic.”

        “T-T-Twilight, if you’re in there-”

        “Ugh, why do you all keep trying to talk to her. Can’t you see I’m just so much more interesting? Now do me a favor, Fluttershy, and do something cruel. I’d hate to have to waste such a large portion of magic on a creature as insignificant and pathetic as you.

        Fluttershy looked into the pony’s mismatched eyes, and realized that Nihilus really was insane. “I’m insignificant and pathetic?” she asked. “But then what does that make you?”

        Nihilus regarded her coolly. “It’s a start,” she said. “To answer your question: a god, I should hope. What else could I be?”

        “Alone.”

        Nihilus laughed. “You have got to be kidding me. Go on.”

        “You didn’t get to choose what kind of pony you are, Nihilus. You were made.” The dark unicorn’s eyes narrowed. “But you don’t have to act like this. Twilight changed, when we first met her, so why can’t you? You don’t have to be alone and friendless, cruel and hateful. You could choose. You don’t really like having nopony to talk to, nopony to care about you, do you?”

        Fluttershy felt herself thrown into a wall as Nihilus casually slapped her with telekinesis. “I think I’ve heard enough,” the unicorn said simply.

She coughed, but kept going. “We came here to save Rainbow Dash and Twilight. Who would come for you, Nihilus? Even if you beat us, you will be hated forever. You could be good.”

Nihilus snorted. “Good? After all of this you think that any part of me is capable of good? You think that any part of me would ever want to do what you call ‘good’?”

“Twilight could do evil. Everypony has a choice, Nihilus. What have you chosen to do so far?”

Nihilus closed her purple eye, then looked away from Fluttershy. “My name,” she said, her voice filled with cold rage. “I’ve chosen my name. I don’t believe for a second that you think I am redeemable, Fluttershy. You love Twilight too much to let me go.”

“I mean it. I swear. I’ll Pinkie Pie Swear.”

Nihilus turned away from her fully. “No need,” she said simply. She turned back around, and in front of her was a golden necklace set with a butterfly-shaped gem. Her horn darkened, and the gem at the centre of the necklace turned black.

Nihilus closed her eyes, and a pained expression came across her face. “You just lost the Element of Kindness, Fluttershy,” she said. “Do you know what that means?” She turned around, and her expression was one of fury. “That means that everything you just said was a lie. You know you’ve lost, so you’re trying to hurt me in the only way you know how. Cruelty, Fluttershy. It means you’re being cruel. And of all the ponies in the world, you chose to be cruel to me.”

Another telekinetic push slammed Fluttershy against the wall. “Well I don’t want your friendship! I don’t need any other pony! I am more powerful than all of your friends combined.”

Fluttershy was confused. She hadn’t been dishonest; she really didn’t want anypony to die so that Twilight could live. Nihilus, however, was not going to change.

“And this is what you do with it,” Fluttershy said weakly. “Nopony deserves power as little as you do, Nihilus. You should be helpless here, not me.”

From the top of the steps, A black pegasus with a gray mane descended to stand beside the unicorn. It took Fluttershy some moments to recognize Rainbow Dash.

Suddenly, Nihilus jerked her head to the side once more and closed her purple eye. “Shut up, you!” she shouted to nopony in particular. She continued to yell at herself, “You heard what she said. I have your spell already, I don’t need you anymore.” She barked out a humorless laugh. “You really think pleading is going to get me to change my mind? You’re just as pathetic as they are.” Nihilus turned back to Fluttershy. “You have enlightened me, Fluttershy. I realize now that the five of you will never stop trying to rescue Twilight Sparkle. You will never stop trying to kill me. I simply cannot allow you to live.”

She looked over to Rainbow Dash. “Kill her,” she said simply. Then she vanished in a burst of darkness.

“Rainbow Dash, you-”

Dash crossed the room faster than Fluttershy would have thought possible and kicked her in the chest. Wind knocked out of her, Fluttershy fell to the ground. Dash straddled her form and struck out with a flurry of blows, hitting Fluttershy several times in the face. Fluttershy’s mouth filled with blood.

She spat the blood out. “Dash-”

She felt another hoof made contact with her face, and her head bounced off of the stone floor, dazing her. She felt a leg press down onto her windpipe. She couldn’t draw breath.

She looked around, searching for something, anything she could use to save herself. There was nothing. She flailed her hind legs, but they struck nothing. She beat them uselessly against the floor, all the while feeling her life ebbing away. With no other options, she looked up, into Dash’s eyes.

She stared.

For a moment, it seemed as though it would work. The pressure on her neck let up slightly, and she almost managed to take a breath. It was as though her stare met some invisible barrier, however, between her and Rainbow Dash. She tried to push through it, tried to force her way into Dash’s mind, and felt the barrier crack and splinter...

Dash closed her eyes.

After awhile, Fluttershy closed hers, too.

        Silence.

        There was no buzzing, no writhing inside of her, no crawling under her skin. For the first time since the mistress had given her the Insanity, it was totally quiet. All her memories, all her thoughts, all her feelings, came back to her.

        She stood frozen, realizing who she was. She couldn’t stand the silence. The Insanity would come back, soon, to make some noise, to make her forget. She looked down in disbelief, hardly aware of where she was or why she was there. Before the buzzing came to bring her back to blissful insanity, she managed to softly speak one word. Her voice was quiet, but she could easily hear it through the total silence that permeated the room:

        “Fluttershy?”

-

Chapter 7: “She’s Alive”

A thanks goes out to The Prereaders


She’s Alive

        Fluttershy was dead.

        “Fluttershy?” Rainbow Dash asked again.

        The Insanity hit her in full force, choking out her thoughts and wrenching at her gut, reminding her that she wasn’t Rainbow Dash. For a moment, she withdrew, hiding again inside her hatred and letting the Insanity take control. She would be Wrong from now on, she would be  a good pony. Rainbow Dash was gone, beaten into submission by the relentless pain of Nihilus’s spell. Wrong would do as she was told. Wrong hated her old friends.

        Wrong’s hatred was an excuse, though, Dash realized. Rainbow Dash would never hate her friends because they hadn’t come for her. She knew that attacking Nihilus in Ponyville right away would have been suicide. Wrong was just looking for a reason to feel the hate the Insanity needed, and spare herself the pain. Wrong was a lapdog, a broken mockery of what Rainbow Dash had been. Wrong was pathetic.

        The Insanity intensified, and Dash grunted, falling to her haunches before being forced to submit. It had been weaker, though. Whereas before she was totally incapable of acting outside of Nihilus’s will, now she found that the tiny voice was no longer so tiny. She could resist. She could be Rainbow Dash again, if only momentarily. Fluttershy’s stare had weakened Nihilus’s spell.

        The pegasus lay on the floor before her, however, not moving or breathing. Wrong had choked the life out of her. Rainbow Dash looked at the lifeless pegasus in shock, still barely able to comprehend what she had done. The Insanity nudged her, urging her to feel happiness at her former friend’s death, but how could she? She resisted, fighting it until it caused her to fall to the floor again. She would rather feel the pain.

        

        “Fluttershy?”

        This time, she got an answer, but not from Fluttershy.

“You.”

Dash turned around sharply and came face to face with Pinkie Pie. The earthpony stood in the doorway, her face covered in blood. She looked from Dash to Fluttershy, then back to Dash again.

“You did this,” she said quietly. Her expression was one of complete horror.

“Pinkie Pie,” Dash said slowly. “What are you doing here?”

The Insanity returned to Dash in full force in response to Pinkie Pie’s presence. She fought it at first, but the buzzing noise built and built, growing until it was too much to bear. It pushed her aside, as strong as it had been when she fought Applejack, forcing her into submission.

Dash could still feel that the spell had weakened, however. It was as though she were an outsider looking in, examining her broken psyche as it bent to do the spell’s bidding. She wasn’t cured, or even close to being in control, but she could feel the spell unravelling because of Fluttershy’s stare.

When the time came, she would be able to fight it again. She would be able to act, if only for moments, and do something. She would wait, gathering her strength, preparing to take action at a crucial moment. She hated the idea of not fighting the Insanity with everything she had, but she had tried that before, and it had failed. She receded, slipping back into her delirium. Wrong gritted her teeth and looked Pinkie Pie in the eyes.

“I...” Pinkie began to shake, and her breathing quickened. “I came to...” She fell back onto her haunches, shaking her head, looking at the still form of Fluttershy all the while. Tears appeared at the edges of her eyes. “I came to save the day,” she finished, so softly it was almost inaudible.

You will be cruel to others. Wrong took a step towards the pink pony. “You’re too late, Pinkie. If only you had been faster. Go ahead. Call me Dashie.”

“No...”

“Throw Fluttershy and I a party to make everything all better.”

“No-no-no-no...”

“Tell me you forgive me.”

        “No.” Pinkie Pie looked away from Fluttershy, at Wrong. Her mane billowed around her, then fell straight around her head, its edge cutting a smooth line against her neck. The pony seemed to fade, her colors diminishing, and her expression came into focus. It was unnatural to see Pinkie Pie be so still. “I’m not going to throw a party,” she said.

        Pinkie Pie rose to all fours, bloodied. Wrong noticed that her neck was still bruised slightly from where Wrong had choked her. The earthpony continued to speak, “And I’m not going to call you Dashie. You aren’t Dashie.”

        Wrong stood on her hind legs, using her superior pegasus balance to keep herself perfectly steady. Capturing Pinkie Pie would be easy, really. The pink pony would be no match for the fastest pegasus in Equestria, trained in hoof-to-hoof combat.

        Pinkie Pie continued to look her in the eyes. Something about the way Pinkie was looking at her seemed off, however. It was as though something inside of the earthpony had broken. “And I will never forgive you, Wrong.”

        Strangely, the earthpony rose onto her own hind legs. She wiped the tears from her eyes with a hoof, and tried to wipe the blood away from her face with another. The dark red fluid was smeared across her muzzle. Suddenly, the pink pony didn’t seem so pathetic. “I’m not going to do any of those things,” she said in her eerily steady voice. “I’m going to kill you.”

        Wrong barely had time to register the hoof connecting with her face before she was thrown to the stone floor. She looked up, astonished, to see Pinkie Pie standing on all fours where Wrong had been only moments before. Pinkie had moved so fast, crossing the distance between them in barely the time it took to blink. It wasn’t possible.

        Wrong got back to her feet. It didn’t matter if Pinkie Pie was fast. Wrong was the fastest pony in all of Equestria. She spread her hind legs in a fighting stance again and threw a punch at Pinkie’s face.

        Within her, Dash prepared to seize control. Trying to stop the Insanity now might end up driving her crazy again, but she couldn’t  let herself hurt Pinkie Pie. She gathered her willpower, preparing to give Pinkie Pie the chance to run-

        Pinkie Pie caught the punch in a high block, then twisted Wrong’s leg under her own. Wrong threw another with her other foreleg, and Pinkie caught it too. Then, Pinkie threw her head forward, driving her forehead into Wrong’s face. Wrong’s head snapped back, and Pinkie Pie headbutted her once again. Wrong brought a hind leg up to Pinkie’s chest and beat her wings, forcing them apart. As she regained her footing, however, Pinkie Pie struck her in the chest with a foreleg, sending her stumbling back into the wall.

        

        “You were supposed to be Loyalty!” Pinkie screamed, sobbing.

        Wrong, frustrated by Pinkie’s inexplicable fighting prowess, beat her wings, sending herself through the air over Pinkie’s head. She flipped over Pinkie Pie head-down, and Pinkie tracked her as she moved, her gaze never leaving Wrong’s. Wrong landed, and Pinkie Pie struck out with a well-aimed kick from one of her hind legs. Wrong was prepared, however, and caught the kick with her forelegs. She twisted them, and the torque sent Pinkie Pie spinning sideways.

        Pinkie Pie, in an act of incredible balance, threw out a foreleg and caught herself as Wrong twisted. Supported on one end by a single foreleg, and on the other by Wrong’s hold, Pinkie Pie kicked out with her free hind leg, striking Wrong twice in the face and sending her reeling once more.

        Inside her twisted consciousness, Rainbow Dash withdrew. She had been prepared to take the Insanity head-on again, but it hardly seemed as if Pinkie Pie needed her help. She, or rather Wrong, was losing.

        Wrong regained her footing, then stared at Pinkie Pie in disbelief as she threw herself upward off of the ground, spinning several times in the air before she landed perfectly on her hind legs once more. Pinkie Pie did not wait this time, coming at Wrong with her unusual speed.

        Wrong blocked a punch from the other pony, then another, then tripped Pinkie as she tried to kick her. Pinkie Pie threw her weight backwards, rolled back to her feet, then narrowly dodged a spinning kick from Wrong. Wrong struck out with a punch as Pinkie recovered, hitting Pinkie Pie on the cheek. Pinkie Pie caught her foreleg before she could bring it back, however, and twisted, using her leverage to throw Wrong towards the ground.

        On her way down, however, Wrong wrapped her hind legs around Pinkie’s neck, then beat her wings, pushing herself upward and Pinkie Pie down. Pinkie Pie rolled underneath Wrong as she was forced to the floor, then kicked upwards with her own hind legs. Wrong was thrown upward and away, and struck the ceiling, wind knocked out of her momentarily. She forced herself to focus, then beat her wings downward, throwing herself at Pinkie with enormous speed.

        When Wrong landed, however, Pinkie Pie had once again spun herself through the air and back onto her feet. Wrong knew she shouldn’t have been able to move so quickly. Earthponies weren’t capable of such agility. Most pegasi couldn’t even move so fast.

        Pinkie Pie pivoted and kicked out at Wrong’s face with both hind legs. Wrong threw herself onto her forelegs to avoid the kick, then spun and caught Pinkie’s hind legs with her own. She twisted, and both of them were thrown toward the ground. Each of them landed an identical roll, however, and came to their feet a short distance away.

        Pinkie Pie spat. “You were supposed to come back at the last minute and make everything better!” Dash wished she could speak to her hysteric friend. She had to wait until her intervention was absolutely necessary, though. She couldn’t take on the Insanity. Not yet.

        Pinkie Pie jumped, throwing herself an incredible distance into the air, legs flailing. She aimed three kicks at Wrong as she came toward her, and Wrong cross-blocked each with her forelegs. As Pinkie landed, Wrong spun on one hind leg, first aiming a kick at Pinkie, which the other pony ducked. Wrong continued along her trajectory, however, spinning so that her hind leg met the ground again and she faced Pinkie directly. As the other pony ducked, Wrong put her in a headlock with her forelegs.

        Wrong pushed off with her hind legs and beat her wings, sending both of them forward before Pinkie Pie could react. They struck the wall behind them, Pinkie Pie pinned under Wrong. Her opponent caught Wrong’s attempt to punch her with a foreleg, then headbutted Wrong once again. Wrong did not let go of the other pony, but she recoiled enough to let Pinkie Pie bring her hind legs into her chest. Pinkie kicked out, throwing Wrong away, then came at her with another kick.

        Wrong caught the kick with one foreleg, then punched Pinkie Pie in the chest. Her opponent weathered the blow, then put all of her weight on the foreleg holding her kick. Pinkie Pie pivoted, using Wrong’s hold as a support, to bring her other hind leg across Wrong’s face. Wrong released Pinkie, and recoiled.

        She looked up in time to see Pinkie Pie running up the wall behind her in an act that outright defied ordinary pony physics. Pinkie Pie sprung off of the vertical surface, and this time it was Wrong who looked up as her opponent sailed over her head, their faces inches away from one another. Their eyes met, and Pinkie Pie’s expression was one of cold indifference. Wrong knew that she herself was wearing an expression of complete disbelief.

        Pinkie Pie was using pegasus magic.

        Pinkie made a perfect landing behind Wrong, and Wrong turned to face her opponent. How was it possible?

        “Surprise,” Pinkie said coldly, as if in answer to her bewilderment. Then Pinkie spun on her forelegs and kicked Wrong in the chest once again with two legs. Taken by surprise, Wrong took the full force of the blow.

        She was thrown backward into the wall, and before she could react, Pinkie Pie had struck her across the face. Pinkie hit her, again and again, and Wrong’s head was tossed from side to side. She tasted blood in her mouth, and her vision blurred. Finally, Pinkie Pie stopped hitting her, her blows slowing down and losing force before she stepped away from Wrong. Wrong looked up weakly and saw that Pinkie Pie’s eyes were once again filled with tears.

        “You killed her!” Pinkie continued, driving a hind leg into Wrong’s chin and causing her head to snap back against the wall. “You tried to kill me! Why do you have to be Wrong,” Pinkie Pie sobbed. “Why can’t you be Rainbow Dash!” She aimed a punch at Wrong’s exposed throat.

        Her hoof stopped in midair.

        “I think that will suffice.” A cold, sinuous voice called out. “Thank you, Pinkie. I wouldn’t have thought you had it in you.”

        Nihilus stepped down from the stairway that lead to the ramparts. “Sorry to spoil your fun, but I’d like to keep my favorite toy alive. But again, thank you for punishing her for her absolutely dismal failure in subduing you.”

        Pinkie was completely frozen in front of Wrong, enveloped by a soft coat of red energy. Nihilus’s horn was glowing. She pulled a gold necklace out of thin air, and watched as the balloon gem it was set with turned black.

        “Who would have thought,” Nihilus said with a smile, “that somewhere in there you failed to represent laughter. Don’t feel so bad, dear, it isn’t your fault.” She gave Pinkie what was probably meant to look like a reassuring smile. “Only I can be happy all the time.” The Element of Laughter vanished, and Nihilus closed her purple eye for a moment. Then, she regarded Pinkie Pie, her expression growing cold.

        “I am almost finished with you and your friends,” she said. “And I do not want any more surprises. I intend to keep you alive awhile longer. Your broken spirit will set an excellent image for the others. Still, to make sure you don’t do anything to hinder my plans...”

        Pinkie Pie was thrown straight upward, and impacted the ceiling with a sickening crunch. Then, she was thrown downward onto the floor, still held by Nihilus’s magic. A black lash of energy wrapped its way around the pink pony, digging into her flesh and drawing blood, before Nihilus bound Pinkie in magically conjured shackles.

        “I am surprised you’re still conscious, Pinkie,” Nihilus said lightly. “I suppose that’s for the best, though. Wrong,” she said sharply, turning. “Grab Fluttershy. It is a long ascent to the central chamber.” Nihilus’s horn began to glow, and her magic lifted herself and Pinkie Pie off of the floor with telekinesis. “Fortunately, I can fly.”

        Luna wished Applejack had let her die.

        They had lost, and that was that. The plan had failed. That Applejack still clung to hope would have been admirable, were it not for the fact that her stubbornness was costing them the only chance they had left. It was a small chance— even if AJ got free of her cage, the earthpony would have to deal with the two unicorns in the center of the room. It was their only option, however, and Applejack had refused. Luna was going to be fed to Nihilus so that the unicorn could become even more powerful.

        Such a thing was supposed to be impossible. While it was true that there were forms of dark magic capable of stealing the abilities of another pony, they all came with severe drawbacks, and required the limbs of the pony in question to be severed. How Nihilus had been able to take Celestia’s magic and give it to another, Luna didn’t know. It seemed to be just one more magical rule that Twilight Sparkle— and as a result, Nihilus— could break.

        Luna fell roughly back to ground as the conjured chains binding her disappeared. She looked up, expecting to see Nihilus, but the anti-Twilight was nowhere to be found. She tried to judge the strength of her cage door. The bars were thick— likely too thick for her to simply break with earthpony strength. She was not as strong as Applejack. She couldn’t manipulate the bars themselves with magic, either, or anything outside of them. Even without the chains or the presence of Nihilus, she was trapped.

        If she did manage to escape, what then? She was more than a match for the unicorn puppets, but Nihilus? The unicorn could be in every place at once. Luna wouldn’t stand a chance of escaping, weak as she was. She sighed, painfully aware of the tiny particles of metal clinging to her face. She had failed the bearers. She had failed Equestria. She had failed Celestia. What made her fail again and again? What was she missing?

        Just then, Pinkie Pie, beaten and bloodied, was thrown unceremoniously to the floor through one of the outside doorways. Pinkie looked different, however. Her mane was straight, for one, and the color of her coat seemed slightly off. She sat up just as Nihilus, still wearing Applejack’s hat, descended through the open archway to the ground in front of her.

        “I see none of you tried to escape in my absence,” she said loudly. “I’m glad. I’ve had enough excitement for one day, I think.

“Not that you could if you tried, of course. We are now far from Cloudsdale, and high above the ground, getting higher even as I speak.” The pony stepped up onto the central platform so that she stood between her two unicorn puppets. “Pinkie has so generously given me the Element of Laughter,” she continued, “and now sees the futility of your attempts to rescue Twilight Sparkle. Fluttershy was not so cooperative.”

        As if on cue, Rainbow Dash slowly flew through the doorway, holding the other pegasus. She stiffened her wings, holding them straight so as to glide downward and land before the three cages that held Luna, Rarity, and Applejack. There, she lay the beaten form of Fluttershy. She wasn’t breathing.

All Applejack managed to utter was, “No...” The earthpony rushed forward to press herself against her cage’s bars, but did not attempt to break free.

        There was no expression in the look that Nihilus gave the ponies. She didn’t seem pleased, or amused, or angry. When she spoke, however, her words were tight and strained with barely contained rage. “I’m sure you will all be happy to hear that she spent the last moments of her life feeding me a beautiful lie. I will admit that I underestimated her capacity to cause pain.”

        Rarity lunged forward and smashed herself against the door to her cage. The door rattled on its hinges, but Rarity was far too weak to break the lock that held it shut. “Murderer!” she screamed. She continued to rattle the cage door uselessly. “Murderer! I’ll kill you for this, you hear me?”

        Nihilus teleported so that she was in front of Rarity’s cage. “You will do nothing of the sort, Rarity,” she hissed. “I don’t know why I hate you so much more than the others. Perhaps I’m predisposed to because of Twilight, or perhaps it’s this gash I have on my face. In any case, I’m glad I get to do you last. But first-” She teleported again so as to bring herself beside Pinkie Pie. “I’m going to kill this little firecracker while all of you watch. Would you believe that Pinkie Pie can use pegasus magic?”

        Luna threw herself against her bars with all her might, but the lock on the door was too strong. Applejack’s attempt at escape met the same result. “You just love it, don’t you!?” the earthpony shouted. “Making other ponies feel powerless!”

        Nihilus tilted her head and regarded the earthpony. “I used to,” she said. “But now I think I’m tired of you all. There isn’t any more joy in tormenting you. I’m not going to throw any more taunts, or play any more games. I’m just going to kill you. It is over. This is the end.” She turned back to Pinkie Pie.

        “Wait!” Rarity cried. “You still need the Element of Generosity!”

        Nihilus sighed in exasperation, rolling her eyes, then turned to Rarity. “And?”

        “If you kill them, I’m not going to give it to you.”

        Nihilus laughed humorlessly. “I was just planning on making you my mind-slave, Rarity. I hope you like the taste of books, because when I have the Elements I won’t be needing this one.” Nihilus pulled a massive tome out of thin air and threw it to the ground in the center of the room. “I’ll have the Element of Generosity with or without your consent.”

        Rarity’s horn glowed, and from within her mane a single diamond levitated outward. She didn’t aim it at Nihilus, however, instead placing it against her own neck. “Not if I’m dead you won’t,” she said quietly.

        Immediately, Nihilus’s eyes widened. “You wouldn’t.”

        Rarity stepped backward to the far back of her cage. “Either you let the others go,” she said. “Or I kill myself right now.”

        Nihilus narrowed her eyes. “You’re too selfish. You don’t have the guts.”

        “You can either give me what I want and get everything you want in return, or you can risk everything. Let them go.”

        Nihilus stomped a hoof against the floor. “You think I’m stupid? If I let them go you’ll just kill yourself anyway! Give me the diamond first.”

        “You think I’m stupid?”

        “I will give you my word.”

        “Your word isn’t worth anything to me.”

        “It’s all you have. I will spend decades finding a new Bearer of Generosity if I have to, but I will not let them go before you give me that diamond.”

        “Don’t do it, Rarity,” Luna said. “She’s lying. There’s only one way to stop her now.”

        “Shut up!” Nihilus snapped at the princess. The unicorn turned back to Rarity. “You’re going to take my deal. You’re going to do it because these are your friends, and this is the only chance you have to save them. I will give you my word, and when you give me the diamond, I’ll let them go. I’ll let you go, too, when I’m done, if you want.” She shuddered and closed her purple eye for a second. “Twilight says you can trust me, Rarity. All I want is the Elements. Nothing more.”

        Rarity looked at the princess, then back to Nihilus. “You have to swear,” she said. Luna closed her eyes. They were lost.

        “I swear, now give me the diamond!”

        “You have to Pinkie Pie swear!” At this, Pinkie Pie looked up from her place on the floor.

        “Fine! I Pinkie Pie swear!”

        “Say the words!

        Nihilus gave Rarity a look of disgust. “Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.” She went through the motions as she spoke, placing a hoof over her purple eye. “There,” she said, “are you happy?”

        Rarity released her hold on the diamond and slid it outside the bars of her cage. Nihilus stepped forward and looked down at the gem. Then she threw back her head and laughed.

        Pinkie Pie laughed with her.

        The party pony’s hair had exploded back into its usual untidy mess, and she rolled around on the floor behind Nihilus, laughing hysterically. She beat the floor with a hoof, tears streaming down her face. She gave no indication as to what she found so entertaining.

        Nihilus approached, looking down at Pinkie Pie. “Just what,” she said quietly, “is so funny?”

        “I just got it!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed. “Just now!” Nihilus tilted her head, evidently confused. “I have pegasus magic, you guys! I get it! We’re going to win.”

        Nihilus did not look amused. “Oh?”

        Pinkie Pie continued to talk between bouts of laughter. “Fluttershy!” she called out. “Fluttershy!” The dead pegasus lying in front of Luna’s cage did not respond. “Pegasus magic,” she said to herself through bouts of laughter. “You are over, Nihilus.”

        Nihilus closed her purple eye. “Fluttershy is dead, you crazed imbecile. I killed her. And now I’m going to kill you too.”

        Rarity rattled the door to her cage. “No!” she screamed

        Pinkie Pie laughed even harder. “You’re not gunna kill me, silly. You can’t break a Pinkie Pie Swear.

        “Just watch me,” Nihilus said, clearly at the end of her patience. Her horn glowed.

        A lot of things happened at once.

        The first was that Nihilus’s spell struck Pinkie Pie directly in the chest. Pinkie was thrown through the air, sailing upward, out the doorway behind her, and over the edge of the balcony. She smiled the whole way, grinning even as she disappeared over the edge to plummet to her death.

        The second, and by far more surprising thing, was Rainbow Dash.

        Before Nihilus had even released her spell, The black pegasus was moving. She turned toward Nihilus so fast her mane whipped around behind her. She moved through the air, landing on Nihilus’s back, forcing the unicorn roughly to the ground. As she beat her wings and pumped her hooves to cross the distance between herself and the Nihilus, she screamed Fluttershy’s name once.

Dash didn’t stop there, however. She used Nihilus as a springboard, throwing herself out the doorway and over the balcony. There, the air gathered around her with a ripple and a loud thrumming noise and she shot downward at an incredible speed, chasing Pinkie Pie.

Finally, and most surprisingly, when Rainbow Dash called, Fluttershy answered.

The pegasus, lying in front of the Luna’s cage, took a single gasping breath. Her eyes shot open as she filled her lungs with air, and she rolled onto her back. She made another huge, gulping intake of air, and her eyes shot into focus. Nihilus was recovering from Dash’s blow, and the unicorn puppets were too slow to react. Fluttershy rolled to her feet, towards Luna’s cage. Then, she grabbed the lock holding the door shut in her teeth.

        It was a massive piece of enchanted steel. Fluttershy yelled in exertion, the sound muffled through the lock she held in her mouth. Then, she simply tore it away, the metal screeching in protest as the strength of Fluttershy’s pull snapped it in two. Luna felt her mouth open in disbelief.

        Fluttershy was using earthpony magic.

        The door to Luna’s cage swung open just as Applejack, upon seeing Fluttershy come back to life, kicked her own door off its hinges. Luna wondered where Applejack had found the strength for such a feat.

        The unicorns across the room seemed to take in the events of the past several seconds, but it was too late. Luna was free. Applejack was free. Fluttershy was alive.

Luna beat her wings to bring herself across the room, charging at the unicorns. She was surprised to find herself smiling as she travelled through the air.

        Nihilus had been wrong. It wasn’t over. Not yet.

        Rainbow Dash.

        The name echoed inside her head as she tore through the air around her. She had to resist. She couldn’t afford to succumb, not now. Pinkie Pie might have pegasus magic, but she didn’t have wings. The pony was a tiny pink speck below her, plummeting towards the ground at an alarming rate. Dash pumped her wings furiously, focusing herself downward.

        The Insanity came at her, and her wings faltered for a moment. She ignored it, summoning every bit of willpower she had, taking advantage of the flaw that Fluttershy had created.

        Rainbow Dash.

        She focused on the flight itself, the air moving past her and grabbing at her mane. She could feel every stream and current around her with her pegasus magic. It was as though the wind itself spoke to her, telling her to beat her wings just so and to tilt her tail like this. She accelerated, speeding downward.

        The Insanity clawed at the edges of her mind, but it faltered. It wanted to punish her for her transgression, but Dash found that she had more than enough strength to fight it. As she moved faster, it seemed to fade away, the buzzing noise in her ears slowly growing quieter. The Insanity might want her to be Wrong again, but it had to catch up with her first.

        Rainbow Dash, she thought again. The fastest flyer in Equestria. Like anything can “catch up” with me.

        The pegasus magic that let her slide so easily through the air, that made her seem so light when she wanted it to, and that allowed her to defy ordinary pony physics, was building around her. She was moving so fast that her own power gathered in front of her, unable to escape due to her extreme velocity. She saw Pinkie Pie below her, plummeting toward the quickly approaching ground. Rainbow Dash was going to catch her, of course. How could there have been any doubt?

        The Insanity beat uselessly against Dash’s mind. Fluttershy’s stare had rendered it weak, however, and now Dash’s desperate flight to save her friend was rendering it impotent. It was so small, so pathetic. It couldn’t stop her. Nothing could stop her.

        She thrust a hoof forward enough so that it barely dipped into the magical shock-wave gathering in front of her. It split the magical energy, causing it to angle sharply around her and to her sides. Where the tip of the hoof dipped into the shock-wave, it almost seemed to turn blue. Dash smiled. It didn’t seem blue, it was blue. She could barely see Pinkie Pie below her through her teary eyes, barely make out Pinkie’s smile.

        Rainbow Dash!

        The world exploded around her, and Rainbow Dash felt a moment of total clarity. It was as though time slowed down, and her senses picked up every single minute detail.

        She broke through her own shock-wave. It rippled along her body: first up her foreleg, then past her face, until finally it moved past her tail and broke behind her into a massive explosion of every color imaginable. As it moved over her body, however, it seemed to peel away the spell that Nihilus had used. Her senses took in every individual hair shedding its dark coloring in favor of Dash’s natural blue. She knew her mane had done the same.

        She saw Pinkie Pie clearly in front of her, grinning wildly and flailing her legs as she fell through the air. It was just so easy to move through the air toward her. Dash felt no drag forces as she sped down toward Pinkie Pie, grasping the other pony’s hoof in her own. She kept flying downward, decelerating herself just the right amount so that she stopped moving as her hind legs touched the ground.

        It took her several seconds. As she and Pinkie Pie touched down onto the ground, they both looked up at the Sonic Rainboom spreading out over them. Pinkie looked at Dash, and Dash looked at Pinkie. She felt her mane billow around her, charged with magical energy. She gave Pinkie Pie a wide grin.

        “I’m back.”

        It was all that needed to be said. Dash held out her forelegs, and Pinkie Pie hopped into them. Then, Dash took off, speeding upwards through the air at double the speed she had descended at despite having to fight against gravity. She had performed the Sonic Rainboom; all her power was at her disposal. As a result, she was able to move at what could only be called a ludicrous speed.

        “Awe, yeah!”

        Pinkie giggled at Dash’s remark. Dash gave her a wink. “I probably wouldn’t be able to go this fast without hurting you if you weren’t some kind of pegasus-earthpony hybrid, you know.”

        “Faster!” Pinkie Pie cried. She stuck out her tongue and let it wag in the intense wind. “Pbfaaaaaasthter!”

        “You like to go fast?” Dash redoubled her efforts.  “How’s this?

She realized too late what she had said. Pinkie Pie giggled. “Did it again...” Dash muttered to herself.

“Gee, Dashie, you sure do know how to show a mare a good time.”

Dash gave Pinkie her best unamused look.

        It was not long before the speed of their flight brought them to the citadel balcony. Dash slowed their flight, losing velocity as she crested the balcony, then landed just inside the doorway. She had no idea what had been happening while she was gone. Pinkie Pie had made her realize that Fluttershy had earthpony magic, however. Hopefully, the pegasus was alright. Hopefully, she had knocked Nihilus out when she stomped on the unicorn’s face.

        As she and Pinkie moved through the doorway, none of her worries seemed to bother her, however. Nor did the fact that she had spent the past hour trying to kill her friends. The power of her Sonic Rainboom, her new freedom, and Pinkie Pie had somehow infused her with a feeling of joy that she couldn’t shake. She believed Pinkie Pie. They were going to win.

        Dash took in the room at a glance.

        She saw Fluttershy, alive and awake, in front of the cages. She looked beaten half to death, however, and Dash was surprised she was even able to stand. Rarity and Applejack duelled the two unicorns, forming a two-pony shield around the wounded pegasus.

        Somehow, Rarity had reassembled all of her mysterious diamond blade. Dash knew that the unicorns had confiscated it, but apparently once out of her cage they could not keep it from her. It whipped and whirled through the air before her, deflecting red bolts of energy and cleaving thrown metal shards in two. As Dash watched, the blade exploded into its separate pieces, all of which went shooting toward the unicorn opposite Rarity. Each diamond met a force-field that the enemy unicorn erected at the last moment, however, and bounced away harmlessly.

        The other unicorn, the one opposite Applejack, threw several metal shards in Rarity’s direction. AJ speedily jumped to intercept them, however, the pieces of steel tearing into her flesh. Applejack seemed totally unfazed by the grievous wounds, and charged the unicorn as Rarity reassembled the blade.

        Luna was fighting a bloodied Nihilus. The alicorn looked burned and beaten, and one of her wings was broken. It was obvious that there was little fight left in her. Nihilus, again at the centre of the room, seemed to be favoring a hind leg, and her muzzle was bleeding. A wide gash ran along her back. She fought with her purple eye closed, and its red counterpart burned. As she watched, Nihilus struck Luna with a blast of force, sending the princess sprawling across the citadel floor.

        Dash knew that there were still earthpony and pegasi puppets on the lower levels. She knew that Nihilus had the ability to call them with magic, and that given the chaotic situation she probably already had. They could be seconds from being overwhelmed. Dash punched her forelegs together in front of her, feeling the power coursing through her body. It was time for action.

        “Help them,” she said to Pinkie Pie, nodding sharply to Rarity and Applejack.

        “Right!” Pinkie Pie gave a salute before forward-flipping down the steps toward their friends.

        “Hey!” Dash called out towards Nihilus. She turned away from Luna, and a look of shock came over her face at the sight of Rainbow Dash, mane blazing, standing in the doorway. Their eyes met, and Nihilus’s red eye instantly reminded her of what the unicorn had done to her, of what she’d done. Her purple eye reminded her that Nihilus still had Twilight. Hopefully Twilight couldn’t feel Nihilus’s pain. Rainbow Dash didn’t bother finishing her one-liner.

        Dash crossed the room almost instantly, leaving behind her an energized rainbow trail. She kicked Nihilus in the face with a hind leg, her hoof impacting the unicorn’s face so hard Nihilus bit her tongue. Blood trailed through the air behind Nihilus’s mouth as the unicorn was thrown to the side.

        Rainbow Dash was on her before she hit the ground, punching her in the muzzle again, twice. Her third strike, however, hit only solid stone floor as Nihilus instinctively teleported away from Dash. Rainbow Dash spun in a full circle, spotting Nihilus on one of the four balconies lining the room. The unicorn threw a set of magical chains at her, but they seemed laughably slow to Dash’s enhanced senses. She did a perfect back-flip over the chains, then flapped her wings, throwing herself at the unicorn once more.

        She crashed into Nihilus, careful not to throw the unicorn over the edge, and shoved a hind leg into her belly before punching her once more in the face. Nihilus teleported again, and Dash found her back in the center of the room with a quick spin. Nihilus did not throw chains this time, but rather sent a huge wave of force at her, clearly trying to prevent Dash from evading this time.

        Dash beat her wings so hard that she simply pushed her way through Nihilus’s spell unharmed. She landed on the central platform with a roll, picking up the book Nihilus had dropped earlier between her two forelegs as she came up to face her opponent.

        She brought the book across Nihilus’s face so hard it sent the unicorn sprawling backward. Dash landed on her, pinning her with her hind legs while she still held the book. Nihilus looked up at Rainbow Dash, and for the first time, Dash saw fear in her eyes.

        “I hope you like the taste of parchment,” Dash said. She spat into Nihilus’s red eye, then thrust the book into her jaw when the unicorn winced. The edge of one of the book’s covers found its way between her teeth, and Dash pounded on the spine of the book with a foreleg. Nihilus gave a muffled cry as several of her teeth were knocked loose and her lips split along their edges. Dash snarled as she raised her hoof again.

        “Dashie!”

        Dash looked up to see that the puppet reinforcements had arrived. She slapped Nihilus with the book again for good measure, then took flight and crossed the room in an instant. She reached out a hoof as she approached the other pony, and Pinkie Pie grabbed her, pulling Dash from the air so that she turned over Pinkie Pie’s back and landed on her hind legs. They stood back to back, surrounded by over a dozen earthpony and pegasi puppets, while Rarity, Applejack, and Fluttershy, faced the two unicorns not twenty feet away from them.

        The puppets came at them.

        Dash tripped the first one to approach, then drove a hoof into its neck, using her wings to add downward thrust to the blow. As she stood on the ground over the dissipating puppet, Pinkie flipped over her back and broke a pegasi’s neck with her hind legs. Dash caught a kick from a pegasus puppet, shattered its leg bones with a twist, then caught it in a headlock and broke its neck as it fell to all fours.

        

        A metal shard, encased in glowing red unicorn magic, sped through the air towards her, but Pinkie Pie tossed a pegasus puppet into its path. The shard stuck the puppet in the chest, and the pegasus vanished. Dash spun around on one hind leg, kicking the flat end of the shard before it could fall the floor. Her aim was flawless, and the shard flew point-first through an earthpony puppet’s eye.

        

        Dash flapped her wings, gracelessly flipping over another puppet and grabbing it by its head with her hooves. As she came down from her flip, she flapped her wings downwards, smashing the puppet’s head into the floor with bone-crunching force and destroying it.

        She saw Pinkie Pie trip two earthpony puppets, and they hit the floor. Their eyes met Fluttershy’s across the room, and one by one, they vanished. Dash looked over to see Applejack, bleeding from several holes in her side and with one eye slashed out, kick through a unicorn’s force-field and send it sprawling.

        Rainbow Dash took the opportunity to cross the room with two beats of her wings, her mane blazing a trail behind her. She landed on the unicorn as it threw Applejack backwards, and shoved a hind leg into the back of its neck. Its head bowed, and Dash twisted it toward where Fluttershy sat on the floor. The pegasus stared at it, and it vanished into a cloud of dark smoke.

        “Ah was doin’ fine on my own, thanks!” Applejack said. Dash didn’t have time to respond. She looked up to see Rarity still dueling the other unicorn between them and Pinkie Pie. Half of her mane was burnt off and a scratch ran along her neck through her scarf. The puppet threw a series of metal shards at her, and she deflected them with her blade. Dash moved towards her.

        Pinkie Pie gave a cry, and everypony looked over to see her surrounded by the remaining puppets, a bone in one foreleg bent at an awkward angle.

        Rarity shouted, “Jump!” and broke her blade, sending it towards the puppets threatening Pinkie and leaving herself defenseless.

        The unicorn between Rarity and the puppets deflected several of the diamonds, but not all of them. Half a dozen went flying past it towards Pinkie Pie and the other puppets.

The unicorn threw another steel shard at Rarity.

        Dash moved to intercept it as Pinkie Pie threw herself belly up into the air. Pinkie flipped over the diamonds, and the puppets behind her were torn full of holes as Rainbow Dash batted the steel shard coming for Rarity back towards the unicorn.

        Rarity began to bring the diamonds back towards herself as Pinkie Pie landed from her back-flip. Pinkie jumped once more, and one of her hooves was suddenly supported by the flat of one of Rarity’s diamonds. Another diamond pushed against one of Pinkie’s hooves, and she sprung off of them, using Rarity’s blade as a support in midair. A third diamond zipped underneath her face, and Pinkie Pie grabbed it in her teeth.

        Pinkie Pie soared head down over the only remaining unicorn puppet, releasing the gem when she was directly above it. Rarity took the cue, sending the diamond speeding downward toward the unicorn puppet’s head. The puppet, focusing its attention on Rarity and Rainbow Dash, did not realize the danger until too late. It looked up, and the diamond tore through its head, causing it to dissipate.

        Pinkie Pie landed, skidding to a halt, and nursed her broken foreleg. Rarity reassembled her diamond blade in front of her. Applejack screwed her one good eye shut, and several pieces of metal were forced out of her body as her wounds closed. She brushed a hoof across her slashed eye, and the gore wiped away to reveal that it, too, had fully healed. Fluttershy stood weakly, a huge bruise around her neck. Rainbow Dash folded her wings and looked around at her friends.

        “We kick ass,” she said.

        “No!” The entire citadel shook as Nihilus Nix Naught appeared in the center of the room. Her lips were torn at the edges from where Dash had forced the book down her throat, and blood ran down her face and neck in rivulets. The flesh around her red eye was swollen, and the gash Rarity had made along her face had reopened. She stood with a hind leg off of the ground. She had her purple eye closed tightly.

        Her horn glowed, and the ceiling cracked. Several chunks of stone tore their way free, held by Nihilus’s magic. “You will die!” She screamed, throwing a chunk of stone at Fluttershy. The huge hunk of stone was met in midair, however, by another massive rock, and the two exploded, raining bits of rock down on the entire room. Dash ducked and covered her head. The others did the same.

        Luna had intercepted Nihilus’s stone with her own. Dash wondered where Luna could have possibly found the strength to lift the rocks with magic. She had been beaten near to death twice in the past two hours.

        Luna blocked another huge hunk of stone, and all the five ponies could do was take cover as rocks as big a hoof rained down upon them. The citadel shuddered. Luna spoke, punctuating every word by knocking another stone out of the air as she limped across the room to stand with them.

        “Thou. Shalt. Not. Harm. Them!”

        Nihilus snarled. “If not by stone,” she screamed, “then by fire! The air in the room suddenly became searing hot as Nihilus was surrounded by a torrent of deep red flames. The ponies recoiled, but the spinning inferno expanded, pushing outward. From the center of the inferno, Dash heard Nihilus cackling.

        Luna’s horn glowed, and the princess conjured a thin white barrier that encompassed them all. Instantly the temperature around them felt cooler. Luna grunted, seeming to crumple under the weight of the spell. The Princess turned away from the flames, clearly in pain. She screamed once, and the barrier around them collapsed as her legs buckled under her.

        The fire spread outward, and the heat became unbearable. Dash felt her skin blister as she shielded her eyes, backing away only to hit one of the broken cages.

        The heat vanished.

        A ripple of violet translucence travelled outward from the center of the room, extinguishing the raging inferno. Dash looked up, to see Nihilus standing tall on the central platform. Her red eye was open, but seemed somehow dim. Her purple eye, by contrast, burned so brightly that it was painful to look at. She regarded the six ponies on the ground in front of her, then her mangled mouth formed a tiny smile. It was an expression Dash knew the unicorn to be incapable of. Nihilus spoke, in a voice that was not her own:

        “Enough, Nihilus. This contest is over. You have lost.”

        No, Nihilus thought, not her. Anypony but her.

        Twilight had somehow seized control. It wasn’t supposed to be possible; the Sliver of Darkness was made to imprison her. Nevertheless, she had felt the other pony inside her overflow into her body and speak. Nihilus gathered her willpower, and threw the other pony away, once again gaining control of their body.

        “No!” she screamed. “I have five of the Elements of Harmony! I cannot lose now!”

        Twilight’s mind once again overwhelmed hers. The other unicorn had more willpower than Nihilus could have possibly imagined.

        “You think you can control the Elements of Harmony just like that?

        Nihilus had to gather her wits. She had to come up with enough willpower to take their body back. She wondered again how Twilight was even able to take control in the first place.

        “Well you’re wrong!”

        Nihilus focused, forcing herself to take control once again. Twilight’s willpower wasn’t so strong, really.

        She was furious. She had been so close, the Bearers had been within her grasp. She was tired of complications, of being denied what was rightfully hers. She tore a chunk of stone from the crumbling ceiling with her mind.

        “How!” she screamed, her grip on the stone tightening until it cracked. “How are you doing this?” She threw the separate rocks at Twilight’s friends, careful to avoid Rarity. She would save Generosity, if she could.

        Twilight overwhelmed her almost as soon as she threw the stones. Nihilus felt the other unicorn tap into her reserve of magical energy, casting a spell with Nihilus’s power. The chunks of stone in the air all exploded at once.

        Nihilus pushed against Twilight with her own will once again, but failed. She felt her lips move as if of their own accord as Twilight began to speak.

        “You see Nihilus, when I saw my friends, together, fighting to save me, I felt something you can’t hope to comprehend. When I saw them there, it ignited something within us. You may be the Sliver of Darkness, but I have the one thing that can beat the darkness back.”

        No! Nihilus thought frantically. She pushed again against Twilight’s mind, but it was to no avail.

        “A spark.

        Nihilus gathered her thoughts. She would not lose to Twilight and her group of village ponies. She would become a god. It took extreme effort, but she forced herself back into control.

        “You told me-”

        Twilight batted her away again with barely a thought.

        “I lied, kiddo. You can’t trick the Elements of Harmony. They know who their bearers are. They’re the five ponies standing in front of you now.

        Nihilus couldn’t curse, she couldn’t even spit or snarl. She hated Twilight. She let her hatred burn, using it as fuel for her willpower in addition to her ambition. She would win this fight, just like had won all others.

        “Applejack!” Nihilus felt her mouth cry out with Twilight’s voice. Across the room, the earthpony puffed out her chest. “Who gave me hope when I believed all hope was lost, represents the spirit of...”

Nihilus felt Twilight pull the Element out of their null-space and send it flying across the room towards Applejack’s neck. The gem was once again orange. “Honesty!”

        Sickened, Nihilus once again threw her willpower against Twilight’s, this time focusing on not just her will to become a god, but her desire to crush the ponies that stood before her. She broke through, and immediately tore another slab of rock out of the wall and hurled it at Fluttershy.

        “She lied!” Nihilus snarled.

        Twilight batted her aside once more. Nihilus didn’t know how. Twilight expended a meager amount of magical energy, and the stone turned to water, showering her friends lightly rather than crushing her. They looked quite refreshed.

        “Fluttershy!” The way the pegasus snapped to her feet disgusted Nihilus. “Who showed a creature even as wicked as you compassion, represents the spirit of...”

        Nihilus threw her will against Twilight Sparkle once again, and Twilight winced, falling forward slightly. Nihilus still didn’t gain control.

        “Kindness!” The butterfly necklace snapped against Fluttershy’s badly bruised neck. If it hurt her, she gave no indication.

        Nihilus envisioned her willpower as though it were a battering ram, and pushed her way into control. She threw a set of dark orbs at Pinkie Pie, but Twilight slapped her aside. A set of matching violet orbs zipped through the air, each perfectly intercepting Nihilus’s. How was Twilight able to fight her so well?

        “Pinkie Pie!” she continued. “Who could find joy again after being brought to the brink of despair, represents the spirit of...”

        This time Nihilus did not try to take control. Instead she gathered her will, preparing to strike in a way that Twilight could not counter...

        “Laughter!”

        The necklace sped through the air, pink gem glittering as it fixed itself to Pinkie’s neck. It was almost as though they had rehearsed. She supposed they had done this, before. Nihilus was not about to let them do to her what they did to Nightmare Moon, however.

        “Rainbow Dash! Who overcame your nightmare to save a friend in need, represents the spirit of...”

        Nihilus focused all of her hatred together into one tiny pinpoint. Twilight would not stop her from becoming a god.

        “Loyalty!” Another Element snapped into place around its bearers neck. Nihilus would have one chance...

        “And Rarity...” Twilight forced them to look at the unicorn, and Nihilus felt sick. “Who would give her own identity and be consumed by one of your twisted spells to save her friends, represents the spirit of...”

        The last necklace flew through the air to settle gently around Rarity’s neck. Nihilus had decided on lightning. Twilight would not be able not intercept lightning. Her friends were as good as dead.

        Nihilus threw her will against Twilight once more. She focused on her hatred for each of Twilight’s friends, for Luna, and for Twilight herself. She focused on her will to become a god, to be more powerful than any other being in existence. She would see her enemies bend and break beneath her, and they would cry out in despair. Nihilus threw all of this at Twilight to seize control, mentally preparing a lightning spell that would instantly kill her friends.

        She failed. Twilight didn’t even flinch.

        “NO!” She screamed at Twilight from inside her mental prison.

        Twilight summoned the final Element, the Element of Magic, and placed it upon their head. She nodded to the five ponies in front of her, and their body lifted into the air. Then, Twilight spoke to her through their thoughts.

        “How does it feel, Nihilus? Being powerless?”

        Nihilus had no mouth to scream with. “Please!” she begged, “Don’t do this!”

        The energy coursing through them burned Nihilus as Twilight’s eyes began to glow. The other five Element bearers rose into the air.

        “You never deserved a moment of happiness, Nihilus. Every iota of joy you felt was one you took out of our world.”

        Nihilus didn’t understand. Why hadn’t she been able to take control from Twilight at the last moment?

        A rainbow beam of light shot upward from Twilight’s five friends, spearing its way through air before arcing down towards her.

        “You know,” Twilight said to her, “I’m not sure if I’ll survive this. I’m not an alicorn, you see.”

        What made Twilight’s willpower so strong?

        “You want to know what makes me so much stronger than you, Nihilus? You want to know why I’ll beat you every time?”

        From within them, the other unicorn observed the rainbow descending towards them. She remarked, more to herself than to Nihilus:

        “And I thought I had a lot to learn about friendship.”

        “Luna,” a voice called out. It seemed as though the sound was coming to her from very far off. Every inch of Luna’s body was screaming in pain, and it was an effort for her to simply open her eyes. The blinding light of the sun greeted her pupils, and she squinted, making out the blurred form of a pony above her.

        “Luna,” the voice said again, this time clearer. Luna recognized its owner as Rainbow Dash, the other pegasus. “Get up. It’s over. We won.”

        Luna gingerly got to all fours. Decades of experience allowed her to endure the pain of her injuries. She noted her broken wing with dismay. It would take days to heal, especially since she was almost completely drained of earthpony magic. The fight with Nihilus had pushed her to her limits. All of them had been pushed to their limits.

        She staggered to her feet, wearily glancing around at her surroundings to take in their location. They were in a grassy field someplace, likely below wherever Nihilus had moved her ridiculous flying castle. The sun was out once more, indicating that the moon had stopped tracking it when Luna had fallen unconscious. The scenery around them would have been serene, were it not for the six heavily beaten and wounded ponies that surrounded the princess.

        “Is everyone okay?” Luna squinted as her eyes still adjusted to the sunlight. She absent-mindedly told the moon to return to its usual course as she faced Rainbow Dash.

        “Twilight is still out,” Dash replied. “But everyone else is fine. Are you sure you’re alright?” she asked as Luna took a step, then stumbled as her leg gave out.

        “I’m not,” she said, “but I will be.”

        She approached the other ponies, all of whom were gathered around the unconscious form of Twilight Sparkle. Luna couldn’t help but feel a little envy toward the unicorn for the attention she was getting. She wondered why Rainbow Dash had stayed at her side and not Twilight’s.

        She spoke up as she neared them. “How did we get down here? What happened to the fortress?” Applejack stood up and turned to her, once again wearing her tattered hat. The earthpony was covered in dried blood, but had no injuries to speak of.

        “It fell apart around us as soon as Twilight was done,” Applejack said. “We would have died if it weren’t for Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash.”

        Fluttershy looked up from where she had been listening to Twilight’s heartbeat. “I really only carried Twilight,” she said. “Rainbow Dash got everyone else.” She turned back to her examination of the unicorn.

        Luna was not startled by the information. Rainbow Dash had turned her mane to pure energy with pegasus magic. That she could slow the fall of four other ponies was hardly surprising. In fact, it was not nearly as surprising as what Fluttershy had done. Luna decided that a full analysis and explanation would have to wait, however.

        “She has something in her her mouth,” Fluttershy said suddenly. Everypony leaned in as Fluttershy gently pulled Twilight’s jaws open. Luna, using a small amount magic, grabbed the tiny object stuffed into one of Twilight’s cheeks. She pulled it in front of her and examined it, curious as to what Twilight had decided to preserve before she fell unconscious.

        It was an extremely detailed monopony figurine. A tiny, plain-looking earthpony wearing no clothes spun slowly in front of Luna’s face. She had a white coat, a pink mane, and unmistakable facial features. Luna quickly tucked it into her raiment, and Nihilus’s voice echoed in her mind:

“The process was much... messier than this, mind. And the result was far less useful.”

        “Is Twilight fit for travel, Fluttershy? Can she be carried?”

        “Um, I don’t see why not, but-”

        “Grab her, Applejack.” The earthpony complied, and Fluttershy helped lift the still unconscious Twilight Sparkle onto Applejack’s back. Luna spoke up so that everypony could hear. “We need to move as quickly as possible.”

        Rarity groaned. Rainbow Dash took to the air and hovered above them. “Why are we in such a hurry? What did Twilight have in her mouth?” she asked.

        “We need to get under the treeline so that nopony sees us.”

        Dash landed in front of Luna, blocking her path. “Answer my other question,” she demanded. “What did Twilight have?”

        Luna cocked her head to the side, the pulled the figurine back out and held it in front of Rainbow Dash for her to see. “It’s Celestia,” she said. “She’s alive.”

        Applejack caught up with them, trotting alongside the Princess with Twilight on her back. “What are we going to do, princess?”

        “I told you. We’re going to take cover under the treeline.”

        “But after that? Where are we going to go?”

        Luna turned to regard the group of friends. They looked horrible, really. They had been beaten and bruised and put through more than anypony deserved. They had done it willingly, too, performing incredible feats, and, much to her surprise, they had won.

        Perhaps that was what Applejack had meant, when they were both in the cells. Perhaps that was what Luna had been missing, was why Luna had lost every time she fought Nihilus. Certainly, skill and power played some part in their fights, but maybe Luna had missed something else, something greater. Twilight’s friends had been fighting for something.

        Luna looked at the Celestia figurine. She had something to fight for now, too.

        She reached inside herself, drawing out the meagre amount of magical energy she had left. It was, in fact, only what had recharged since she had passed out in the citadel. She didn’t need much to perform the spell, however. She closed her eyes, thought single word, and the magic came back to her as though it had never left.

        Nadir.

        She knew exactly what happened, even though her eyes were closed. Her blade appeared before her, a beautiful shaft of blazing moonlight. The air around the length of magical energy darkened, causing the sunlight itself to lose its intensity. She held it, not in a fighting stance, but vertically in front of her, so that it extended from just above the ground, to just below her eyes. She opened her eyes before she answered Applejack’s question.

        “War, Applejack. We’re going to war.”

-

Chapter 8: My Name is Twilight Sparkle

A thanks goes out to The Prereaders


My Name is Twilight Sparkle

        Esteem gently cast a spell to dry off his coat and mane as he rose out of his bath. He used his magic to open the curtains, and the white walls and floor of his room were bathed in the light of the early morning sun. He strode over to the mirror that dominated one wall as he opened his wardrobe and examined himself. A set of combs and picks, guided by his unicorn magic, began to pick their way through his dark red mane, styling it into a sweeping wave that fell to his right and ended in dozens of curled points. A complex harness floated through the air to sit beside him, and he stepped through the various loops, fastening the straps through the metal rings until the harness hugged his body tightly. He affixed his collar, each side of which supported a strip of five yellow sunbursts within white circles, the symbol of his rank. Lastly, fourteen irregular shards of enchanted platinum-iridium made their way from the top of his bedside table to tuck themselves into their various holding places on the harness.

         Dressed, he pulled a pocket watch off of his harness and checked the time: seven fifty-seven. Three minutes to breakfast. He took one more look into his own vibrant blue eyes before exiting his expansive chambers into one of the Canterlot Palace’s luxuriously carpeted hallways. Outside, his assistant was waiting for him.

        Esteem gave the green pony a sharp nod as he saluted. “Good morning, cadet.”

        The officer cadet fell into step beside him as he made his way down the hallway. “Good morning, sir,” he said. “I have the intelligence report you requested on the outer city loyalists.”

        Esteem opened a door and they stepped out into the morning air. He allowed himself a deep breath, and smiled at how refreshing it felt. It was a cloudless day in Canterlot, already warm despite the early hour.

        “Sooner than I expected,” he remarked as they made their way down a white stairway and into the palace gardens. “I shall look forward to hearing it. Unfortunately, I am scheduled to have breakfast with Prince Blueblood in the sculpture garden in two minutes. I assume everything is in order?”

        “Of course, sir. The kitchen staff were somewhat... unsettled by your specific request, but I had something arranged. How do you expect the Prince will react?”

        They rounded a corner of the Canterlot maze, and a small table attended by several palace staff members came into view. “I knew I could count on you to see that my order was followed, cadet. You continue to exhibit commendable ability. As to how the prince will react-” Esteem considered his cadet’s question for a moment. “Hopefully, exactly as I tell him to,” he answered finally.

        The cadet gave a slight nod, graciously accepting the compliment. Then, Esteem sat at the table as the palace staff unloaded their various trays of food and set him a place. When they were finished, he dismissed them, then checked his watch once more. Eight-oh-one. Blueblood was late.

        Esteem looked back to where the cadet stood, waiting. “It would seem,” he said loudly, “that our Prince is running somewhat late.”

The cadet approached the table. “Prince Blueblood has a bit of a reputation among the nobles, sir. They say he has no interest in the Canterlot government and that he spends all of his times chasing mares.”

“I’m well aware of his reputation, cadet,” Esteem said as he covered the food on the table to keep it warm. “It’s why I chose him for this particular task in the first place.” He looked around before giving a drawn-out sigh. “Still, this tardiness is rather... excessive. You might as well give me your report.”

“Yes, sir.” The cadet straightened. “As you know,” he began, “the outer city was separated from the inner city, and the inner city from the palace, by Empyrean’s magical barrier roughly one month ago, when Nihilus Nix Naught was slain by Luna and her elite task force.”

Esteem did already know all of that, but he let the cadet continue nonetheless.

“Travelling through the barrier requires the accompaniment of a unicorn who knows a specific spell. The loyalist forces in the inner city have effectively been cut off from both the palace, and the outside world. As a result, they have mostly gone underground, and will be caught eventually.”

Esteem hated Empyrean’s barrier. Its presence made them appear weak. The Prince, despite being the second most powerful being in the world, was hiding from his enemies for fear of being destroyed the same way Nightmare Moon was. Nopony knew exactly how Nightmare Moon had been vanquished, but Esteem believed trickery must have been involved. Six ordinary ponies could not have defeated an alicorn with over a millennium of power in a fair fight.

The cadet continued. “The loyalists in the outer city, however, have recently been causing a great deal of... commotion. Initially we had thought that somehow the magical talents trapped in the inner city had broken through the barrier, but now the situation appears even worse than that. Intelligence confirms that the five ponies responsible for defeating Nihilus are also responsible for most of the damage caused in the inner city in the past two weeks. It is safe to assume, then, that Luna is leading them.”

Princess Luna, cadet,” Esteem reminded him. “The title is important.”

“Of course, sir, my apologies.”

“Now,” Esteem said, “what do we know about these five ponies? Tell me everything.”

The cadet began to name the loyalists from memory. “Applejack,” he said, “is a powerful earthpony. In addition to extreme strength and durability, we believe she has the power to spontaneously regenerate wounds. Six days ago she tore down a two-story building in a fight with a unicorn puppet. She wears-”

“That will be enough on Applejack, I think,” Esteem interrupted him. “Continue on to the next member of Luna’s team.”

The cadet nodded. “Fluttershy,” he began again, “is a pegasus, but from out observations she rarely takes the skies or the field and fights. This would suggest that she is perhaps their commander, or a close advisor to Princess Luna, rather than a soldier. We-”

“Fluttershy is easily dismissed, then. Continue.”

Again a nod. “Pinkie Pie,” he said, obviously quoting the report directly seeing as he was naming them in alphabetical order. “-Is an earthpony who appears to be trained in some kind of obscure fighting art. She uses a number of complex apparatus in the field, including grappling hooks, smoke grenades, and even firecrackers and confetti. We aren’t precisely sure what her role is on the team, but-”

“Continue.”

The cadet looked somewhat confused for a moment, but carried on nonetheless. “Rainbow Dash is a pegasus who appears to be the team’s major air power. Despite the fact that the airspace over the city is almost entirely inaccessible due to the large amount of puppets patrolling, she regularly takes to the skies and single-hoofedly defeats groups of pegasus puppets. She shows expert knowledge when it comes to hoof-to-hoof combat-”

“Continue.”

“Rarity,” the cadet said finally, “Is a unicorn possessed of interesting traits. She is able to cast a fragmented blade made of enchanted diamonds, and wields it quite skillfully in the field. Intelligence indicates that she has slain more puppets than any of the other team members, in part thanks to the nature of her weapon.”

“Tell me more.”

“Rarity appears to enjoy public appearances and engagements, so we do have a great deal of information to work with. Her blade is made up of fourteen fragments, suggesting a high level of mental ability. She worked as a designer and shopkeeper before Nihilus destroyed her home.”

“A designer, you say? What is her cutie mark?”

“Three gemstones, sir.”

“Of course,” Esteem said quietly. He looked up to see a white stallion blearily making his way down the palace steps. His mane was disheveled and his coat was unbrushed. Esteem doubted he had even washed himself. He checked his timepiece again. It told him that Blueblood was eight minutes late.

“Prince Blueblood,” Esteem nodded politely to his tardy guest. “I’m glad you could make it. Please, sit,” he gestured to the other side of the table, then removed the metal covers from the food.

Blueblood sat across from Esteem, then looked down at the food before him. He didn’t greet the General, but rather grunted in disgust at his plate, recoiling slightly as though Esteem had offered him a plate of ground-up insects rather than a healthy breakfast.

“What... is this!?” He pushed the plate away from himself. “This food may be fit for a soldier, but my royal lips will not touch such peasant food.” Blueblood looked at Esteem, clearly expecting something.

Esteem did not react to the outburst in any way. Rather, he simply levitated his utensils and took a bite of his buttered asparagus. The spoiled Prince continued.

“Boiled vegetables, squeezed fruit juice! I don’t even know what this is,” he said, levitating a grey slab of something in front of his face.

Esteem delicately swallowed the asparagus before speaking, as etiquette dictated he do. “If you don’t know what it is,” he said, “how do you know it isn’t fit for a prince? That particular morsel is my favorite.” He sliced a piece off of his own grey slab and placed it in his mouth.

“I’ll pass,” the prince said in his haughty tones. “If this is what you had me wake up three hours early for, I must say I am disappointed.” He got up to leave.

“You misunderstand, Your Royal Highness. I didn’t invite you to breakfast so that you could eat. I have a proposition for you.” He took another bite. “Please, sit.” He did not act offended by Blueblood’s complete lack of manners.

Whether it was Esteem’s lack of affront at the prince’s atrocious behaviour, or the fact that he did not scrape and bow at the prince’s complaints, Blueblood seemed intrigued. He sat once more. “Be quick about it, would you,” he said contemptuously, “I have things I’d rather be doing.”

Esteem held back a laugh at the prince’s last statement. The first thing Blueblood was like to do after their conversation was to return to bed and sleep past noon. He waited until he had finished his bite of food before speaking.

“I will traversing the barrier in roughly a week to deal with the loyalists myself,” he said. “While I had intended to do this from the start, the erection of Empyrean’s barrier put a damper on my plans. While it keeps the loyalists from getting out, it also greatly increases the difficulty in communicating with our forces. We expected the barrier would render the need for my presence on the field obsolete, but recently the conflict in the outer city has been escalating. I will take the field.”

Blueblood had begun to look impatient almost as soon as Esteem had begun speaking. “Yes, yes, but what does that have to do with me,” he said.

Esteem took another bite, slowly savoring both the meal and the look of irritation that came over Blueblood’s face as he slowly chewed his food. “The nobles within the palace barrier carry quite a bit of weight within the city. Their bloodlines have also produced a number of talented unicorns.”

“Such as myself,” Blueblood said, puffing out his chest.

“Indeed.” Esteem did not allow his expression to change. “Many of the nobles went over to the loyalists side during King Titan’s reclamation. We believe that many would, still, were it not for the barrier dividing them from the main loyalist group in the inner city. It is imperative that order be kept in my absence, a task I can only trust to a capable pony. One who expresses ability. It would be best if they were of noble blood themselves, so as not to breach the status quo.”

Blueblood looked taken aback. He may have been stupid and egotistic, but Esteem suspected that even he realized that he was obviously not a pony possessing the qualities described.

“Well of course you came to me,” he said. “But you aren’t a noble,” he accused.

Esteem could barely contain his disbelief. Surely Blueblood did not actually think that anypony believed the prince was worth something? Esteem knew himself to be quite vain— his boon from Titan, had, after all, been eternal youth, restoring him to a permanent age of twenty-two years. Blueblood’s ego, however, seemed to be so preposterously large it blinded the pony to his obvious inferiority.

He would be perfect.

The warm sun rising in the sky, the picturesque green grass surrounding them, the deliciously prepared breakfast— things were shaping up to be a perfect morning. Esteem found himself looking forward to giving the Prince a lesson. He had not educated another pony in almost two weeks. The cadet was so skilled at his job he rarely needed to be taught.

He turned his attention back to the Prince, swallowing another bite of his breakfast and wiping his mouth with a napkin politely before speaking again. “I am, however, Sir General Esteem, Knight of the Natural Order, the high prelate of King Titan, the redeemer of ponykind and the right hoof of Prince Empyrean. The hoof of god is more than fit to run things in the palace.”

Blueblood furrowed his brow as Esteem spoke. The expression did not look good on him. Esteem wondered if the Prince was actually thinking for once. “I thought that Twilight was the right hoof of Empyrean,” he said after a time. He looked genuinely confused.

Esteem made a small noise. “Prince Empyrean,” he corrected. “The title is important.” He left out the fact that Blueblood had been failing to call him by his title all morning. “In any case, the only other pony who served directly under Prince Empyrean was not Twilight Sparkle, but rather Nihilus Nix Naught, and inversion of her created by the Sliver of Darkness and tasked with killing the ponies now on my doorstep.”

Esteem took a small amount of pleasure in the look of confusion that came across Blueblood’s face. He continued:

“Her failure was hardly surprising. She was complete psychopath, a waste of the power and privilege granted to her.” He gave Blueblood a meaningful look. “Completely pathetic and worthless.” The insult was lost on the confused Prince. “Be glad that she was not Twilight Sparkle. Celestia’s pupil, the leader of her task force, is undoubtedly a master tactician and war unicorn in addition to being a perfect ten on the Coruscare scale.”

Blueblood looked well and truly lost. “May I ask, Your Royal Highness,” Esteem continued. “How you came to know the name Twilight Sparkle?”

Blueblood seemed to think for another moment as Esteem enjoyed another bite of his breakfast and a sip of orange juice. Finally, the Prince spoke: “Celestia told me that I was to stay away from her and her friends after one of them humiliated me at last year’s Grand Galloping Gala. I tried to track her down to teach her to show a little respect for her betters, but the Princess ordered me to stop.”

Esteem sighed, “Princess Cel-” he stopped as the full gravity of what Blueblood had said struck him. “One of her friends? What was her name?” he asked suddenly.

Blueblood thought for another moment. “Rarity,” he said finally.

Esteem ran his tongue over one of his front teeth. It had, along with several of his other teeth, been magically manipulated into an incisor. He hid a surge of interest at the mention of her name. “Is that so,” he said, lifting another bite of his breakfast. “Tell me about her.”

Blueblood seemed baffled at the request, but complied nonetheless. Esteem had relied on the Prince’s love of hearing his own voice, and sure enough, he delivered, launching into a story:

Well, he began, It was the day of the Grand Galloping Gala. I had... shall we say... warmed up for the celebration by having a tumble with some red-headed earthpony ditz who actually thought I was going to take a commoner like her to the Gala. I was coming out of the gardens when I saw this unicorn.

“I’m not sure what your ‘Coruscare’ scale measures, but this mare was a perfect ten on the Flank scale, if you get what I’m saying.”

Esteem got what he was saying. The prince had not been subtle in any way, shape, or form.

“I had to have her. She was absolutely gorgeous, and you could just tell by looking at her it was her first Gala. I figured she’d be easy.

Carsomyr. The name of Esteem’s blade was Carsomyr. In his mind, he was acutely aware of each of the fourteen razor sharp shards of platinum-iridium sitting on his person.

        “Imagine my surprise when I find her to be the rudest, most vulgar mare I have ever met. I had to prompt her to pay for our snacks and open a door for me. As if I ever pay for things. She expected me to step through a puddle when she had a perfectly absorbent cloak on hoof.” The prince smirked. “I got her back, however. At the end of the night I tossed her in front of a falling cake and her appearance was simply ruined. Teach her to dress up like a lady when she’d really just a peasant,” he said the last word with intense disgust.

        Esteem ran his tongue over his incisor once more.

        “But then,” Blueblood continued. “She shook the mess all over me. Like a dog. Honestly,” he said, “If she’d wanted to be a dog, or should I say bitch, she should have just told me in the first place. I would have happily obliged her.” He gave a sleazy smile. “Know what I’m saying?”

        Esteem sat in silence for a moment, politely finishing up the food in his mouth.

        Then he laughed.

        It was a deep, rich laugh, filled with genuine entertainment. He looked over at the cadet, gesturing with a hoof, and the cadet began to chuckle slightly as well. Blueblood seemed confused at his sudden outburst, but eventually joined in despite not knowing what he had said that was clever. The three of them continued to laugh together in the gardens for some time.

        “Oh,” Esteem said between bouts of laughter, “I know what you’re saying.” He stopped laughing suddenly, snapping his expression in one of total seriousness, and the cadet followed suit. “You’re saying,” Esteem said dangerously. Blueblood’s laughter died out at the tone of his voice. “That you tried to play my daughter.”

        Again, Blueblood furrowed his brow in thought. He looked at Esteem, and for the first time, seemed to fully take in the unicorn he had been continuously disrespecting since before he had even sat down.

        His pristine white coat.

        His perfectly well kept mane, done in sweeping curls.

        His deep, vibrant blue eyes.

        Blueblood backed away from Rarity’s father. “You can’t be!” he said incredulously. “You’re so-”

        Faster than Blueblood could close his mouth, Esteem mentally directed the left point-shard of Carsomyr to detach from its place on his combat harness. It blurred through the air between them, the piece of unnaturally bright metal flashing in the morning sunlight before moving straight into Blueblood’s open mouth. There, it stopped instantly before causing the prince any harm.

        He had selected the point-shard for its diminutive size, so as to give it some maneuverability whilst inside the prince’s mouth. He lamented to himself that the prince probably did not understand how incredibly difficult the precision of such an attack was. He had just displayed legendary mastery over his weapon, and only the cadet was able to appreciate it.

        The prince’s mouth closed around the shard as Esteem rotated it along its side so that Blueblood would not be able to remove it. Blueblood’s eyes widened in terror as he breathed heavily through his nostrils. Esteem gently floated the shard towards himself, and Blueblood was forced to move forward with it lest it slice its way through his face.

        “Young?” Esteem provided with a smile. It wasn’t the false mirth of his laugh, or the tiny smile he gave to be polite; rather it was a full, lazy grin, his sharpened teeth pressing slightly upon his lower lip. Blueblood whimpered.

        “You will forgive me, Prince Blueblood, for this rather dramatic assault on your person. I simply want you to shut up for once whilst I speak.” He tilted the shard and drew it gently towards the ground. The result was that Blueblood bent before him. “Ah,” he said, regarding the prince. “I see you have finally remembered your manners. It is polite to bow before your superiors, Prince.

        He took another bite of his breakfast before continuing. The cadet refilled his orange juice.

        “My daughter and I have not seen each other for almost a decade, you see. Celestia herself forbade me from ever seeing her again when she found out how I had elected to raise her. She believed that she had more say than I when it came to my own daughter’s upbringing. I imagine she was reminded of the way her father, King Titan, raised her.” He took a sip of his orange juice. The citrus drink seemed somehow... fresher than it had before. “Forbidden to see my own daughter,” he said. “That doesn’t seem very fair to you, does it, Prince Blueblood?”

        He moved the point-shard from left to right, and from his place beneath Esteem, Blueblood shook his head. Tears were running down his face, as well as a small trickle of blood that originated from the corner of his mouth. The prince was trying and failing to suppress his shaking.

        “Nevertheless,” Esteem continued, “I think that I have raised my daughter well. I taught her to protect herself, you see. I did not shield my daughter from the world, but rather taught her to shield herself. And look at what she has done so far. She helped to defeat Nightmare Moon. She helped to defeat Discord. She helped to defeat Nihilus. She protected herself from you, when I was not there to do so for her.”

        He telekinetically moved the table and all of its contents to the side so as to clear the space between himself and Blueblood. Then, he drew the prince upward with Carsomyr’s point-shard.

        “I made her strong.” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “I made her... superior.” He shuddered slightly as his favorite word left his lips. “Still,” he looked down at the prince, “I have neglected many of my duties as a father.” Prince Blueblood looked up to Esteem, his eyes pleading. Esteem looked out in the direction of the city. “Rarity is coming home to me,” he said softly.

        He turned back to Blueblood. “And I feel that since she is setting such a good example as a daughter, I must strive to be the best father I can be.” He leaned down. Blueblood was covered with sweat, and his uncontrollable shaking was causing him to cut his mouth on the point-shard. Esteem could sense, through his magical link with the shard, the blood around the blade. He could almost taste it.

        “What was it you said, about my daughter? You wanted ride her like the peasant bitch she is?”

        Blueblood tried to talk despite being unable to open his mouth lest the shard cut into the back of his throat. The resulted was a desperate, muffled cry. Esteem stood up straight. “I’m not sure exactly what punishment is appropriate,” he mused.

He drew the leftmost bridge-shard off of his combat harness. When Carsomyr was assembled, the bridge served no purpose but to fit with the point, core, and edge pieces and comprised the blade’s fuller. Despite its intended position in the whole, however, it was still made of extremely sharp edges and points for when he needed to use the shards as individual weapons. Being a bridge-shard, it was the longest, thinnest piece of his blade. Esteem had selected it for just that reason.

He lifted his point-shard so that Blueblood was forced to tilt his head back, then slowly levelled the bridge-shard so that it pointed directly into Blueblood’s pupil. “I could gouge one of your eyes out,” he said to himself thoughtfully. Blueblood was only able to draw his head so far away from the shard before it cut the inside of his mouth even more. More blood ran down the front of his face.

“Yes.” Esteem continued to speak as though they were having a casual conversation over breakfast. “I rather like the idea of disfigurement. It will encourage hesitation in the other nobles should they think to oppose me— as so many of you already have. But is a single eye really enough? I wonder, what would Rarity want? You know her better than I, Prince Blueblood, so tell me: would my daughter take more than simply your eye?”

Blueblood, unable to move his head for the point-shard in his mouth, managed only to shake his head by millimeters. Esteem moved the point-shard up and down, and a fresh set of tears ran down Blueblood’s face as he was forced to nod.

“I see. I commend your honesty, Your Highness. Were I in your situation I would have lied. Especially considering it is physical beauty at stake. Ah, well.” He sighed as Blueblood made another pitiful muffled noise. “I suppose I could also slit your tongue.” He rubbed his chin with a hoof. “Or sever your ears, or burn away your mane. Castration seems to fit the offense quite nicely.” Blueblood paled, and his shivering grew violent. More blood dribbled out of his mouth as he made a pathetic whinny.

“Stay still,” Esteem said suddenly. “Open your mouth, but do not speak.” He rotated the shard again as Blueblood did as commanded. He pulled the point-shard, dripping with blood and saliva, out of the prince’s mouth. Blueblood immediately turned and began to run.

Esteem sheathed both of Carsomyr’s shards and grabbed the Prince with telekinesis. He dragged him back as he gently moved the breakfast table back into place with another bit of magic. He forcibly turned Blueblood’s head so that the Prince faced him. “What kind of idiot foal,” he said levelly, “turns his back to his opponent and then does not use the spell that would protect him from said opponent’s telekinesis?” He took a sip of his orange juice, aware of the fact that Blueblood was suffocating under the iron grip of his mind. “When I release you, you will stay and be quiet.” He dropped the Prince.

Blueblood made no attempt to run, and did not say a word. “So even one as thick as you can be taught,” Esteem observed coolly. “Now sit down and eat your breakfast while I explain to you some crucial information.”

Blueblood’s breathing was uneven, and he was still shaking. The front of his face was covered in blood, tears, and spit. One side of him was dirty from where Esteem had dragged him across the ground. He sat, never meeting Esteem’s eyes, and began to forcibly swallow pieces of asparagus.

        “You seem to be under the impression, Blueblood, that your royal blood makes you special. That you have an inborn amount of privilege and superiority. This is false.” Blueblood continued to eat mechanically, staring down at his plate as Esteem carried on. “You think that I am Prince Empyrean’s right hoof because it is my birthright? Do you think that King Titan has the power to rule the world because he is king? It is the other way around. King Titan is king because he has the power to rule the world. Because he has no equal. Power is privilege, Prince.

        “The nobles disagree. They can stand a general who appears noble, who follows proper etiquette. But if I tell them that the palace is being left in the charge of a cadet, they will grow even more restless than they already are. It is a small problem, with an easy solution. I will grant you power over the palace when I leave. You will be a figurehead, however, and the cadet will ensure that things run smoothly in my stead.

        “I chose you because I know that you are so inept, so incapable, that even if you had the moxy to use your new-found legislative powers against me, you would not be able to. You are simply too stupid. So, you are to do exactly as the cadet tells you, and the nobility will not object to your appointment. Do you understand?”

        Blueblood, still shivering, nodded. He looked down at his plate, which was empty but for a single piece of food. He prodded it gently with his fork.

        “It’s chicken breast,” Esteem said simply.

        Blueblood gave him a look of absolute horror. “I figured it would emphasize not just one, but both of the points I am trying to make here today. I needed to be absolutely certain you understood, and you have a reputation for being rather thick, Your Highness.” Esteem leaned over the table and gave another smile. “I can, should I choose to do so, slaughter and eat any animal I wish. I do not do this for fun, or even because I like the taste, I do it because I can. There is nothing to make one feel superior quite like eating meat, Your Highness.

        “There is nothing wrong about eating meat, just as there is nothing right about it. You think that Celestia’s old rules determine what is morally acceptable? Celestia is dead. Titan chooses what is right and wrong now, and he does so not because of his divine right, but only because there is not a force on this world capable of opposing him. The ultimate authority, the only true authority, is power. That is the first lesson.

        “The second lesson stems naturally from the first: I am more powerful than you. When I return from the field, Carsomyr awash in the blood of my enemies, I will decide on whether or not to revoke your punishment based on your performance. This means that you will do exactly as the Cadet and I tell you. Should he require it, you are to nod along as surely as if my blade were still in your mouth. To start, you are going to eat your chicken,” Esteem finished, giving his guest an expectant look.

        Blueblood winced, then slowly cut a slice from the piece of meat. He grimaced as the chicken touched his bloody tongue, then chewed before giving a thick swallow. “How does it taste?” Esteem asked the Prince with another smile.

        Blueblood looked as though he was holding back vomit. “Delicious,” he said hoarsely.

        “I’m glad we could come to an understanding,” Esteem rose, then turned to the cadet. “See to it that our Prince finishes his breakfast.”

The cadet nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“With any luck, you will prove to me that you are worthy of remaining in the pony gene pool.” Esteem turned towards the steps leading back up to the palace. “And I will not have to forcibly remove you from it. Have a good morning, Your Highness.”

Having enjoyed an excellent breakfast, Esteem set off for Empyrean’s throne room, not a hair out of place.

        A unicorn puppet met Esteem outside of the wide double doors that led into the Court of the Sun. It approached Esteem with an unusual amount of autonomy, leaving its partner puppet to guard the doors alone. When it reached the General, it spoke in the metallic, hollow voice shared by all of Terra’s mindless soldiers.

        “General Esteem,” it said. “My name is Puppet. I am to accompany you into the Court of the Sun, by the orders of King Titan.”

        Esteem gave the puppet a once-over. “I see,” he said as he turned toward the doors. “Will the King be speaking with his son?”

        “Yes.”

        Esteem raised an eyebrow. It was certainly shaping up to be an interesting morning. He opened the doors with a magical thought and they strode unannounced into Empyrean’s court.

        Prince Empyrean did not look much like the deity who had controlled the sun before him. His coat was still white, and his mane was the flowing mass of multi-hued energy that Celestia had possessed. He wore a similar set of royal garments, and a tiny gold crown rested upon his head. Where Celestia had carried a regal bearing, however, Empyrean’s manner was that of a petulant child. He was sprawled comfortably across a cushion in the center of the room, rather than sitting with the posture that his station demanded. He looked bored.

        Since citizens could not actually come to court due to Empyrean’s barrier, the only ponies in the large, well-lit chamber were the nobles who resided within the palace. There were perhaps a dozen of them, all trying to gain power by associating with the new prince, no doubt.

The door closed loudly behind him, and everypony in the room turned to look at him, their conversations coming to a halt. Esteem took the small group of noble-ponies in with a single, disdainful sweep of his eyes.

“Get out,” he said to the silent nobles.

Since Empyrean spent most of his time indoors socializing with the noblemen and struggling to control his godlike powers, Esteem had been, for the most part, ruling Canterlot for over a month. While he was not harsh or cruel, and did go out of his way to make himself feared, there was not a pony in the palace who did not know exactly who he was. He heard, through his subordinates, the rumors that ponies said about him.

Esteem killed Twilight Sparkle, Celestia’s favorite pupil, some said. Esteem was the one who released Titan. Esteem eats meat. Esteem eats pony meat. Esteem killed forty ponies alone on the night of Titan’s ascension, then licked their blood from his blade. Esteem is a forty year old stallion, but somehow appears to be twenty. Esteem killed a gryphon when he was nine.

All of them were at least somewhat true, and as Esteem looked at the nobles standing in the Court of the Sun, he could see their eyes flash with uncertainty, and knew that they were likely recalling the rumors. When Empyrean did not tell them to stay, they left, shuffling quietly out by way of the smaller doors lining the sides of the court.

It was only after they had left that Esteem dipped his head and bent his legs, bowing to his Prince. He was only going through the motions, however. He neither loved nor respected Titan’s whelp.

“Why did you have to send them away?” Empyrean whined as Esteem approached. “Lord Goldsworthy was telling me a story. It was about a silly filly who-”

“I will be leaving the palace this afternoon, your highness,” Esteem said simply.

At this, Empyrean eyes widened and his mouth hung open limply. “You can’t!” he said. “What if they come for me!”

Esteem resisted the urge to spit. “My prince, Luna and the five are safely on the other side of two impassable barriers. You have almost half of the sum total of all our puppets here to protect you at the palace. And you have more power than all of them combined.”

“You can’t know that!” Empyrean snapped impetuously. He shifted on his enormous cushion. “They defeated Nightmare Moon, and she was stronger than Cel-” He stopped in the middle of saying her name, working his mouth as though he had almost uttered a swear. “Me,” he finished.

Esteem ran his tongue over a sharpened tooth. “They still cannot reach you, Your Highness. I intend to take the field and crush the remaining rebels, the five included. I will not be taking many of the puppets with me. We already have more than a thousand in the field, my truepony soldiers not included. I will defeat Celestia’s elite, and then you will not need to worry.”

“But why not just stay here,” Empyrean stomped a hoof on the ground in the manner you might expect from a five year old refusing to go to bed. “They’ll all give up or die of old age eventually.”

Once again, Esteem had to restrain his frustration. Because I need to make war, my Prince, just as Titan needs to rule. It is my purpose. “I cannot keep the city running smoothly for much longer while it is under your barrier. The barrier must soon come down, and you will not do that until the loyalists are crushed. So I have taken it upon myself to crush the loyalists.”

Empyrean’s face twisted into a mix between a pout and a scowl, and he stood. “No!” he said, sounding more like a colt throwing a temper tantrum than a god. “I forbid you to leave the palace! The risk to my person is too great.”

Esteem barely kept his temper under control. Titan’s little whelp would not keep him from his eldest daughter. Rarely did Empyrean exercise his authority as Titan’s only son. Esteem simply needed to be firm. He gritted his teeth.

“My prince, the city can barely function under your barrier as things are. If it stays up any longer, Canterlot will collapse. The people will starve.”

“Then let them!” Empyrean shouted. “I am their god, and they’ll starve at my behest! You will stay here, Esteem, and protect me.”

Before Esteem could come up with reply to Empyrean’s childish declaration, he heard the slap of a pony hitting the floor behind him. He turned, to see that the unicorn puppet who had accompanied him into the Court of the Sun had fallen onto the ground and was shaking violently as seizures racked its body. As he watched, it spoke, but not in the hollow voice of a puppet.

“I am assuming control.”

It was a fluid, resonating voice that forced its way into  Esteem’s mind, demanding his attention in an unsettling manner. It was the voice of their god.

As he watched, the unicorn’s eyes shot open, their usual red replaced with a blazing white. A ripple of incandescent energy travelled down the puppet’s mane, and it burst into a flowing mass of white ether. The puppet stood and regarded the two occupants of the room with an intelligent, dispassionate gaze. On its flank burned the ghostly imprint of a simple white circle.

Esteem already has his muzzle pressed to the floor of the court. His bow was not the mocking gesture he had used for Blueblood, or the controlled observance of etiquette he had given to Prince Empyrean, but rather a genuine act of obeisance. Titan deserved his respect. Behind him, he knew that Empyrean was doing the same.

“You may rise,” Titan said simply. Then he looked at his son with his unreadable expression. “Were I here in my true form, Empyrean, I would cause you pain.”

The Prince flinched. “Father, I-”

Titan waved a hoof and Empyrean flinched again, shutting his mouth. The king continued. “A month has passed since Nihilus died and you erected your barrier, Empyrean. Her death did not bother me— she had already served her purpose in helping us create you. The barrier did not upset me, either— you have every right to protect yourself from Celestia’s elite. Even I do not yet know how they defeated Nightmare Moon, an answer that I am certain will come to us in time.”

He slowly crossed the distance between himself and son, drawing each step out to an agonizing pace. “My displeasure comes at the fact that you have failed in your purpose. Ponykind is supposed to fear you, my son. Yet they fight Terra’s puppets in the streets of Canterlot, your seat of power. If you insist upon not leaving the palace to smite them yourself, then you will allow General Esteem to do it for you. Have I made myself clear?”

Empyrean bowed once more. “Yes, father, but-” Again Titan silenced him with a raised hoof.

“Celestia managed your task masterfully. She made ponykind respect her as a ruler and love her as a princess. She manipulated them into believing they ruled themselves even as they called her a god. She made them brand her enemies as their own and then thank her for destroying them. Even now, they still love her and rebel.

“I do not expect you to do as Celestia did, my son, but you will at least keep order. Chaos and discord among ponykind draws attentions that I would rather remain elsewhere.”

Esteem shrank away as the much smaller pony approached him. “I will do better, father,” he promised.

“You will,” Titan said simply. “I am currently at the heart of the Everfree Forest. It is taking more time than expected to undo the damage that Celestia did to this world over the course of a thousand years. Soon, however, the natural order will be restored. Ensure that Canterlot is in order when that happens. Ensure that ponykind is ready to accept its place. Or I will once again command Terra to strike them down.”

Empyrean opened his mouth as if to speak, and Titan once again silenced him with a raised hoof. The King could make the gesture seem very dramatic, Esteem observed. He supposed it came with three thousand years of practice. “Leave us,” Titan said.

Esteem realized that the king had been speaking to Empyrean, not himself. What would his king need of him that Empyrean couldn’t hear? The Prince gave an indignant pout, then flew over them and left by way of the main doors.

“General,” The possessed puppet turned to face Esteem, and he bowed. “You are not to completely destroy the loyalists,” he said simply.

Esteem raised his eyebrows, bewildered. “Your majesty?”

“Certainly, it is my wish that you destroy the remaining members of Celestia’s task force. You will also kill many of their members and aid in capturing Luna. But you will allow several of its leaders to escape and continue fighting for their cause. Enough of them must die that Empyrean abolishes his barrier, but I wish for a small amount of rebels to remain in Canterlot at all times.”

“If I may ask, my King-”

“Empyrean is an incompetent brat.” Titan said the words evenly, never putting any feeling behind them. “He acts like a spoiled infant. He lacks the decisiveness and temperament that a ruler requires. He erects a ridiculous barrier rather than crushing the rebel forces himself. He is not worthy of the power I have given him. Celestia’s power.”

Titan turned and strode to one of the many tall windows that lined the Court of the Sun. “He has the mind of a child now, but as he grows older he will mature. There will be rebels in this city when he does, and I will teach him how to crush them. It will take many years, and put strain on ponykind.”

Strain. Thousands of ponies would starve, if not tens of thousands. The economy would collapse. Esteem realized that Titan would gladly allow those things to happen in order to properly raise his son. He would do the same for his daughters, after all.

“In the end, however, Empyrean will grow up during a time of war. He will learn to keep ponykind in check, and ponykind will learn to fear him. Those are their places in the order.”

Esteem marvelled at the simple elegance of Titan’s plan. The majority of ponykind’s sympathies might lie with the loyalists at present, but in a decade? Would ponykind support the loyalists after ten years of conflict fighting for princesses that were obviously not coming back? They would likely welcome an end to the fighting. They would worship Empyrean for delivering them from war. Empyrean would grow up learning to handle dissent among his people.

“A fine decision, Your Majesty.”

Titan ignored the praise. “The last matter I wish to speak with you about is Luna, General. She is inside the city,” he said simply.

Esteem had no idea how Titan had gotten his information. “We suspected as much when her five began to attack our forces in the outer city, but we weren’t certain.”

“You are certain now, General. This form is fragile, and takes a great deal of power to sustain. I will, however, be able to defeat my weakest daughter without leaving the Everfree. Should you encounter Luna on the battlefield, you will leave her to me. Your task is to kill the five.”

The King did not give Esteem the chance to respond. He simply vanished into the cloud of dark smoke that all puppets produced upon death. Kill the five, Titan had said.

“All but one, you majesty.”

Dear Diary,

        Tonight I went with the gang to see Starsworl’s comet. It only comes once every thirty-four years. It wasn’t as interesting as the meteor shower, but we still had a blast, even if I didn’t learn anything about friendship in the process. I don’t spend time with them just to learn lessons for the princess. I spend time with them because they’re my friends.

        ...Actually, that sounds like it could almost be a lesson. Maybe I should write to the princess. But then what if she doesn’t think it’s good enough and she accuses me of not committing to my studies! She could stop thinking I’m her most faithful student! I’d just be Twilight Sparkle, ‘student’. OR she’d abandon me altogether, and I’d have to find another way of life! I’d have to change my name out of shame and go into hiding! I’d end up working at Pony Joe’s to get by, a unicorn named Betty who dyes her mane because she’s secretly in EXILE! Best not to send her a letter about it. BUT what if she finds out that I didn’t send her a letter and she thinks that I THINK that she isn’t worth my time!? I could hurt her feelings so much that she-

        Right, I just read that last paragraph out loud. I’ll just tell her about the meteor shower tomorrow. Which reminds me, tomorrow I’ll be in Canterlot to spend the night with BOTH of the princesses! Be ready for an interesting diary entry then!

-Twilight Sparkle

        Twilight sat at the centre of one of the dining hall’s long trestle tables. She was attended to by four of the palace guards, all of whom were unicorns. Aside from the guards and Spike, who was fast asleep on the table beside her, the large hallway was empty. She smiled as the sleeping dragon blew a bubble with his own spit, then shielded her plate as it burst.

        “I feel bad making the four of you just stand around and watch me eat,” she said to the palace guards. “I know my way around the palace. I really don’t need an escort. Not that I don’t like having any of you around!” she said hastily, “it’s just that I’m sure you must be a little bored.” She piled fourteen peas onto her spoon, then happily put the food in her mouth. She hadn’t eaten since morning.

        “A high-profile pony such as yourself being given an escort is tradition, Miss Sparkle.” one of the guards said breezily. “Besides, a soldier should always delight in doing his duty.”

        Twilight flushed at being called a “high-profile pony”. “Me?” she said, “I’m just a student. And you can still do your duty sitting down. You must be tired of standing around.”

        The guard who had spoken approached and sat, and the other guards gave him looks that suggested he was breaking some secret rule. Twilight noticed that under the ceremonial armor of the palace guards, he had on a complex harness.

        Twilight swiftly swallowed her peas. “Is that a blade harness?” she asked with a surge of genuine curiosity. “I’ve read about those! You’re a bladecaster?”

        The pony sat across from her. “Captain Esteem, at your service.” He gave a mini-bow.

        Twilight scooped up another spoonful of peas. She counted thirteen, so she added a pea to her spoon before taking a bite. While she did this, the Captain removed his helmet and shook out a luxurious red mane.

        Something about the action gave nagged at Twilight’s memory. “Have I... met you before? You look familiar.” Twilight wasn’t sure just what about the Captain Esteem she found interesting. There was definitely something about him that she couldn’t quite place, however.

        Esteem stood and unfastened his cuirass with telekinesis. It clattered to the floor before him, leaving his front bare. “I imagine that I would,” he said, giving her a tiny smile. “I believe you know my daughter, Rarity.”

        Twilight tilted her head slightly, confused. Beside her spike continued to sleep. “Rarity?” she said. “But her parents—”

        “I know nothing about whatever couple took them in almost ten ago,” Esteem interrupted briskly. “But I assure you, Miss Sparkle, that I am both Rarity and Allure’s father.” He continued to remove pieces of his armor, letting them fall to the floor around him unceremoniously. The other three guards were exchanging glances.

        Twilight examined the Captain closely. He did have a striking resemblance to Rarity. “Rarity doesn’t have a sister named Allure,” she said slowly. She started to get a bad feeling about the Captain. Where were Celestia and Luna?

        Esteem regarded her for a moment. “She does have a sister though, yes? Unicorn, white coat, a mane of lavender and carnation?”

        “Sweetie Belle...” Twilight whispered.

        Esteem nodded once, then dropped another plate of armor to the ground. “What her mother wanted to name her,” he said simply. “That is, before I had her killed.”

        “Captain!” one of the guards exclaimed. They began to move toward the centre of the room.

The unease that she had been feeling intensified into real fear. Twilight stood and began to back away. “Who are you?”

The last piece of Esteem’s armor fell to the floor with a clang. He wore only his harness, upon which sat several sharpened shards of an unknown metal. Platinum-Iridium, the logical part of Twilight’s brain though involuntarily. The only metal that is both hard and conducive to enchantments. “I told you,” he said, “I am Captain Esteem, redeemer of ponykind and father to Rarity and Sweetie Belle.”

The three other guards now surrounded Esteem. “Captain,” one of them said in a tone that was half warning, half pleading.

Esteem raised a hoof, and the guard stopped talking immediately as if out of habit. “I intend to cause harm to your charge, soldiers,” he said lightly. “Act.”

“Captain, is some kind of test? A joke? This is not—

Twilight watched in horror as the soldier’s neck suddenly exploded, blood splashing outward as a piece of Esteem’s blade tore through the stallion’s throat. It continued along its trajectory, bursting through the other end of the guard’s neck and trailing blood through the air.

Before Esteem had even turned to face the other guards, a long, thin piece of his blade had thrust its way into one of the other unicorn’s eyes. Esteem had turned around before the body even struck the floor, facing the only remaining guard.

The last guard looked down at his fallen comrades, then back up to his captain with disbelief. His eyes flashed with a mixture of rage and terror, and his horn began to glow as he readied a spell. Esteem raised a single eyebrow, and the shard that had slain the first guard whipped across the guard’s throat so quickly it sent the other unicorn flying. A spray of hot blood struck Twilight, the fluid splattering across her face and the front of her body.

Twilight’s mind could barely register what was happening. She flinched at the blood, and her legs began to shake. A deep, primal terror welled up in the pit of her stomach. She had never seen somepony die before. She had certainly never seen somepony kill before. She knew she was in danger, but she just didn’t know what to do. She silently begged for Princess Celestia to come for her.

It had taken Esteem seconds to murder all of the other guards. Twilight watched in horror as the Captain lowered three more shards to surround Spike, who had slept through the entire ordeal. She let out a quiet sound that was halfway between a yelp and a squeak. The Captain ignored her, instead leaning down to speak softly to the final guard as he lay on the floor, gurgling and spitting as he died.

“No, soldier,” Esteem said quietly. “It was not a test.” He stood and faced Twilight. “If you teleport, or attempt any magic of any kind, I will kill your dragon.”

Twilight tried to move her legs, but they didn’t respond. She managed to nod weakly as she made a small whimpering noise. Please, she thought, Celestia.

“Any noise you make will not be audible outside this room,” Esteem said calmly. “Relinquish the hold on your body.”

Twilight shut her eyes. Unicorns could move anything with their telekinesis— including other ponies. A unicorn could only move something that another unicorn did not already have hold of, however. While it was considered extremely rude to grab another pony in most cases, almost every unicorn still kept themselves under a spell that made them immune to another unicorn’s manipulation. It was an effortless spell, after all.

“The dragon means as much to me as the guards did, Miss Sparkle. You have until the count of three. One.

“Celestia,” she whispered, “where are you?”

Esteem tilted his head and regarded her with a curious expression. “Do not count on your god to save you. The only pony you can count on for protection is yourself. Two.

Twilight didn’t know what Esteem was going to do to her, but if he had wanted to simply kill her, he could have used his blade. Spike was going to die unless she gave complete control of her body over to a murderer. Celestia, please! She looked at the Captain, then over to Spike, still sleeping soundly on the table. “You’re nothing like her,” she said as she disabled the spell.

Immediately she was pinned back-down to the ground beneath her. She heard hoof-steps, and Esteem appeared above her. She found she could still move her face.

“Understand, Miss Sparkle,” Esteem carried on as though they were still talking over dinner, “that this is nothing personal. I am simply following orders. Although-” He produced a black sliver, much tinier than any of the parts of his blade. It glittered as he moved it to float over her body. “A soldier should delight in following orders.”

        Twilight knew that nopony could hear her, but she screamed anyway. “Celestia! Luna! Celestia!” Esteem continued to move the sliver, bringing it directly above her face. “Mom!” Twilight cried desperately. “Dad!”

        The sliver stopped directly above her right eye, and Twilight tried to recoil from it. Esteem telekinetically forced her head to face upward, and pried her eyelid open.

        

“Are you going to kill me?” she asked as he leaned down.

He shook his head. “No,” he said. “Unfortunately, you should survive the process. Goodbye, Twilight Sparkle.”

The sliver descended.

Dear Twilight’s Diary.

        Aren’t you cute? Maybe I’d have a use for all of these saccharine writings if I didn’t already have access to all of Twilight’s memories, but I do, so I don’t. Tomorrow I’m going to assault Cloudsdale and hopefully become one step closer to godhood. Be ready for an interesting diary entry then!

        How DISGUSTING. I’m going to laugh as I feed this to Rainbow Dash and Twilight screams. If the racket she’s giving me NOW is any indication, her agony will be quite entertaining. I’m surprised that after being with me a week you’re still sane, kiddo.

- N

        Twilight woke up screaming.

        She felt a weight on her body, and thrashed around, desperately trying to push whatever it was away from her. Her eyes shot open, but something was covering her face, inhibiting her vision. As she flailed her forelegs, she realized that the slight weight she felt was only a blanket, and she had pushed it up over her head. She grabbed the fabric and pulled, tearing the blanket away from herself.

        She didn’t spend much time taking in the room around her, instead immediately rolling herself out of the bed. She hit the floor, gasping for breath, then pushed herself across the room with her hind legs, coming to rest against a bookshelf that was beside the bed. Her head darted left and right, and she took in her surroundings. She was alone, in the library.

        Alone. The surge of relief she felt at the though made it feel as though she had just been given a full-body massage. All of her muscles relaxed, and her breathing steadied. Nihilus was dead. Twilight was in control again. Rainbow Dash had been freed from the nightmare. Fluttershy was alive. All of her friends were alive.

        So why weren’t they there with her?

        She remembered the fortress crumbling around her as she had channeled the power of the Elements of Harmony. If it had collapsed, would Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash have been strong enough to carry them all to safety? Obviously somepony had brought Twilight back down, so the others were likely safe. She couldn’t have been unconscious for long. Why was nopony with her?

        She closed her eyes and a flurry of much darker memories came to her. She remembered screaming in protest as Rainbow Dash writhed in agony on the ground below her, engulfed in dark magic. Nihilus had looked like Twilight, then. She had used Dash’s friendship to infect the pegasus with a nightmare, then destroy her.

        She remembered tearing the Carousel Boutique apart, obliterating it with only a thought. Had Sweetie Belle been inside? Had Nihilus killed Rarity’s younger sister? She recalled the joy that the parasite had felt at the thought, and then the pure loathing she had felt at the sight of Rarity herself. All the while, Twilight had been powerless to stop her.

        She remembered being forced to look into Fluttershy’s eyes— her wide, soft, innocent eyes— as Nihilus ordered Rainbow Dash to murder her. Twilight had been able to do nothing. The plan she had come up with to keep her friends alive had failed. Had Fluttershy not possessed earthpony magic, they would have all died.

        Nihilus had done worse than try to kill them. She had done her best to make them suffer. All because they were her best friends. All because Twilight had not been able to stop her. All because Twilight had let herself become corrupted in the first place. Why would anypony want to be by her side when she woke up?

        Slowly, Twilight unsteadily pushed herself to her feet. She hadn’t used her body in over a week. Nihilus had been doing all of that for them. She tested her legs, lifting each of them off of the ground before trotting slowly in a circle. She focused, shaping and weaving her unicorn magic into a spell. She released it, and it told her that there was no trace of foreign magic about her. Nihilus was gone. She was free.

        She examined herself, noting with relief that her coat and mane had returned to their normal colors. Lastly, she conjured a mirror and checked the color of her eyes. They were both purple.

        She was still the Element of Magic, and she had a responsibility. She would make things right again. She would find Luna and her former friends, and they would rescue Princess Celestia and defeat King Titan. For the first time since achieving freedom, she spoke.

“My name-”. Her voice came out hoarse and quiet from disuse, and she cleared her throat. She stood straight, meeting her own gaze in the mirror before finishing.

        “-Is Twilight Sparkle.”

-

Chapter 9 : An Alicorn’s War

A thanks goes out to The Prereaders


An Alicorn’s War

-

Captain Coconut Crunch led a group of over two dozen puppets and half a dozen truepony soldiers through the streets of outer Canterlot. As she moved, the ponies in the streets rushed to get out of her way. None of them would look at her or the puppets. The outer city might not have a strong loyalist presence, but that didn’t mean its citizens loved the new regime.

        Well, Coconut thought to herself, it didn’t have a strong loyalist presence until they showed up. Now I’m patrolling with thirty soldiers total. The puppets under her command made her a little uncomfortable, but with the way things had been going recently, they also made her feel a little safer. Although I’d feel a lot more safe if I had some of those unicorns. Word amongst Empyrean’s army was that even the five didn’t fancy fighting Terra’s unicorn puppets. Or at least, word was that the unicorn puppets could slow them down.

        Those were only rumors, though, and Coconut had heard a lot of rumors about both sides. Some ponies said that General Esteem ate fillies and colts to sustain his eternal youth. The same ponies then turned around and said that the five were actually puppets in disguise.

        Coconut, like any warm-blooded pony in Equestria, would have preferred it if Titan and Terra had never come. She would have liked it if Celestia still ruled. She couldn’t change the past, however, and neither could any of the loyalists. Celestia was dead, and there was no way any amount of rebelling ponies was going to overthrow their new gods. They were gods, after all. Coconut was only trying to keep things orderly and make enough bits to put a roof over her head.

        The captain  was brought out of her thoughts as a jagged metal spike buried itself into the cobblestones thirty feet away from her. A thin cord ran from the end of the miniature harpoon, leading up to the rooftop of a nearby building. Her eyes followed the cord, and she saw an earthpony standing atop the building, her form silhouetted by the sun behind her. Coconut watched in amazement as the pony fastened the other end of the cord to the rooftop and then jumped off of the four story structure. Somehow, the pony hooked the side of an armored foreleg onto the cord and zip-lined down to the street below, landing with an acrobatic tumble as she tore the harpoon from the cobblestones.

        The enemy pony was wearing what had to be the most ridiculous looking set of armor Coconut had ever seen. Strapped to one of her forelegs was a firing mechanism for the bladed grapple hook. She snapped the hook that she had fired earlier into the contraption, and the trailing cord was wound into a receiver on her shoulder. On her other foreleg was a similar mechanism, and as Coconut watched, the earthpony reached back to where several short blades were strapped to her back. One of the blades clicked into the contraption, and with a another click it was extended to point outward from the pony’s foreleg.

        Beyond her foreleg armaments, the pony’s outfit became even stranger. Small tubing ran from each of the contraptions to several canisters of what Coconut assumed was compressed gas harnessed to the pony’s back. Pouches and containers sat alongside the canisters, and a few flaps of fabric hung down from between the gear. Atop her head sat a strange set of goggles that appeared to have several lenses each. She wasn’t wearing the goggles over her eyes, but rather had them sitting askew, partially obscured by her wild mane.

        What was more, every single piece of the outfit was painted a bright color, and no two pieces shared the same shade. The pony looked more like a circus performer than one of Luna’s terrifyingly effective elites.

Despite her silly appearance, Coconut still had to swallow her fear at the sight of the pony. She was fairly certain her squad could take the mare down, but if one of Luna’s elites was around, more could appear at any moment. If that happened, she would need air support.

She couldn’t let her troops see her be afraid, even if only six of them were real ponies capable of sentient thought. She cleared her throat, and was surprised when the newly arrived enemy did not rush them or run away.

“Pinkamena Diane Pie,” Coconut said, managing to keep her voice clear and steady.

“Yep!” The pink earthpony beamed at the sound of her name.

Coconut wondered what she would say next. She hadn’t thought the pony would stay still for this long, let alone answer her. Maybe there wouldn’t be a fight after all. While she was sure her forces would win against the lone pony, she was also sure that the victory would cost them a few pony lives. She didn’t want that. “You are under arrest,” she said loudly.

Pinkamena looked up. “Nope!” she said cheerfully, poking at the empty air above her head with a bladed foreleg. “No arrest here!”

Is she crazy? Coconut thought, or just mocking me? Either way it didn’t matter. “Either come quietly or we will be forced to subdue you.”

Pinkamena looked around at the civilians who had gathered around to see what the commotion was about. Coconut thought it must be quite a strange sight, a single pony facing down thirty soldiers. “Hear that, everypony?” Pinkamena said loudly. “There’s gonna be a fight! Better hightail it outta here so nopony gets hurt!”

Coconut could appreciate what Pinkamena was doing, so she waited for the civilians to clear the street before she gave her order. She turned to her soldiers, and her puppets, all of whom were earthponies. Pegasi took the skies, and unicorns were needed in the inner city, so this far out from the barrier almost all soldiers on the ground were earthponies.

“Take her,” she said. Her soldiers and her puppets charged.

Coconut, being an officer, remained behind. She expected that Pinkamena would fight well. Certainly, the pony had come equipped for a fight. She had the advantage of numbers, though, and her soldiers were not incompetent when it came to hoof-to-hoof combat. Their opponent might take a few of them down with her, but she would eventually fall herself. Or so Coconut Crunch thought. She was wrong.

Pinkamena didn’t go down fighting. Pinkamena didn’t go down.

She began by raising a foreleg— the one that had the blade attached to it— and pointing at the nearest earthpony. She bit down on a strap with her mouth and pulled, and there was a loud hiss as the contraption expelled a white cloud of gas and the blade was shot through the air. It stuck a puppet in the neck just feet away from Pinkamena.

As the puppet dispersed, Pinkamena rushed forward— faster than Coconut would have thought was possible— and thrust her foreleg into the cloud of dark mist. There was an audible click, and Pinkamena emerged from the vanishing cloud with the blade she had used secured to her foreleg once more. She lost no momentum, spinning to bring the blade across the throat of another puppet before they knew she was upon them. She stabbed another in the eye before she cleared the group of charging soldiers, destroying a third puppet within a second of the the other two.

Coconut’s soldiers and puppets alike experienced a moment of confusion as they reached the place where Pinkamena had been only moments before. They slid to a halt, then turned to find Pinkamena between them and their captain. They charged her again, but not before Pinkamena turned to Coconut and said with a genuinely cheerful smile:

“My name’s Pinkie Pie.”

Then Pinkie Pie fired her bladed grapple hook into the nearest earthpony puppet. It dug into the puppet’s chest, but was not a lethal blow. Pinkie tugged on the metal cord connecting her foreleg to the puppet, and the puppet staggered forward, thrown off balance. Then, Pinkie ran at the puppet, leaping just before she reached it.

She hit the puppet, hind legs first, and drove her blade into its brain. Before it dispersed, however, Coconut watched Pinkie leap forward, off of the puppet, to send her flipping over the group of soldiers and puppets in an impossibly high jump. While she was in the air, she aimed her foreleg downward and pulled the firing mechanism with her mouth once more. Her blade shot downward with another release of compressed gas, and was driven point-first through the back of another puppet’s neck. Spine, throat, and major arteries severed, it dispersed. Pinkie landed and casually slipped inside the guard of another puppet, grabbing its head and breaking its neck.

Coconut watched with a mixture of horror and amazement as her troops stopped once more to turn and find Pinkie Pie behind them, unscathed. The pony had taken out six puppets and not taken a single hit. In fact, not one of her soldiers had even taken a swing at the pony yet.

Pinkie Pie looked around with a grin on her face as she loaded another blade into her strange mechanism. Then she dove into the crowd of soldiers once more, still smiling.

Except this time the first pony she came across was not a puppet, but one Coconut’s true pony soldiers. Her soldier turned and kicked out with his hind legs as he approached the pink menace, but Pinkie Pie was simply too fast. She moved to the side, dodging his kick as she retracted her blade, then grabbed one of his hind legs with her forelegs and twisted. Coconut’s soldier was thrown to the ground.

No! Coconut thought. He had known the risks. All of them did. Coconut still watched in horror as Luna’s elite overcame her soldier. Nopony should have had to die for King Titan or Princess Luna. This is wrong.

Pinkie Pie didn’t deliver the finishing blow, though. Instead she simply rolled under a punch and drove her blade into the neck of another puppet before carrying on. Coconut watched as her soldier, confused, got up to rejoin the fight. Pinkie Pie came out of the group of soldiers with two more kills, stopping again to face Coconut and still wearing her crazed grin.

“What’s yours?” she asked as though she had not just violently slain eight puppets.

Coconut managed to find her voice. “Don’t come at her all at once!” she shouted, “Spread out! Surround her!” Her soldiers moved to follow her orders.

        The pink menace had other ideas, however. She plucked a small, cylindrical container from her harness. It was made of metal and painted red with what Coconut thought looked like a yellow happy face on it. She held it in her teeth as she released the blade from her forearm, then loaded the container into the launcher.

        As the soldiers came at her, she aimed at their center and fired. The tiny metal canister was launched through the air with another hiss of compressed gas, and exploded into a cloud of rapidly spreading smoke. The smoke spun and whirled at a dizzying rate, and was of every color imaginable.

        No, Coconut corrected herself. It was not every color. Only the bright colors that Pinkie Pie wore. Her soldiers would be easy to distinguish in the cloud, but Luna’s elite would be perfectly camouflaged.

        She couldn’t see what happened next clearly, because she couldn’t see the enemy pony. Several times she would catch a glimpse of one of her puppets jerking suddenly and then dispersing. She heard the occasional sound of Pinkie Pie’s launching mechanisms going off, and several times heard the sound of her own truepony soldiers grunting as they sustained what Coconut hoped were non-lethal wounds.

        She wondered why Pinkie Pie had elected not to kill her soldiers, or even wound them. She had not expected such compassion, and her soldiers were likely not going to return it in kind.

Before she had come to the outer city, she had heard terrible things about the five. While she didn’t believe that the loyalists were evil, she did think they were wrong. There was no point in fighting for Luna, no point in causing more chaos in an already troubled time. Titan had won.

        At last the smoke began to clear, and Coconut was pleased with what she saw. Ten puppets and all of her soldiers remained, and Pinkie Pie was backed against a wall. Coconut was confident that while Pinkie’s combat skills might be superior to that of her soldiers, she couldn’t take sixteen ponies at once.

        Again, the pink menace seemed to think differently. Pinkie fired her strange bladed grapple-hook upward, yanking on the trailing cord so that the hook dug into the ledge of the stone building behind her. At first, Coconut thought that she was going to run, but then Pinkie detached the metal cord from her foreleg launcher and fed it into a receiving mechanism on her back. She took another strap and put it into her mouth, then tugged. The mechanism on her back that now held the cord whirred, and the length of metal went taught. Pinkie reached up with both her forelegs, and two blades clicked into her foreleg-launchers. She brought her forelegs in front of her, brandishing the weapons.

        Pinkie retracted the blades to trip one of Coconut’s soldiers, then extended them once more to behead a puppet. She blocked two punches, broke the foreleg of the puppet who had attacked her, then jumped over six feet in the air to land behind it and put a blade through the base of its skull.

        Coconut’s soldiers closed in around her, but Pinkie Pie tugged the strap in her mouth and the cord went taught. As she was pulled towards the wall, she jumped and did a three-quarter backwards somersault through the air, landing with her hind legs on the horizontal surface.

        Coconut Crunch watched with growing despair as Pinkie Pie fought her forces from the wall, battling them at a ninety degree angle. Her ponies were fast, but Pinkie Pie was clearly faster and better trained. The pink menace matched them blow for blow, a multicolored blur that jumped and spun along the wall, always out of reach. She destroyed two more puppets in less than ten seconds of lightning-fast combat.

        Then, Pinkie Pie jumped away from the wall as her cord went slack once more. She tugged on the cord, and high above them, the grappling harpoon came free. Pinkie Pie landed with the soldiers between herself and the wall, then casually launched both her blades through another puppet’s eyes. The pink menace loaded her final blade into an open launcher, then reached up with her other foreleg and fastened the cord of her grapple-harpoon into the other.

        A puppet tried to tackle her, and Pinkie Pie rolled out of the way. Then, the puppet was yanked forward as Pinkie’s grapple-harpoon caught it in the back. Pinkie executed it with her blade, then reeled in her grapple harpoon until she had about eight feet of slack. She bit down on the cord, then began to swing the cord and harpoon in a small vertical circle with her foreleg.

        “Stop!” To Coconut’s surprise, they did. Pinkie Pie froze in place, letting the grappling harpoon fall to the ground with a clatter. Her soldiers faced the Pinkie warily, but made no move to attack. The puppets simply stopped moving, each of them turning to her in unison.

“We’re outmatched. We keep this up and she’s going to kill us.” At this, her soldiers relaxed visibly. They had apparently been thinking along the same lines. Coconut didn’t blame them.

        She looked at Pinkie Pie, who was panting as she fed her harpoon’s metal cord into a receiver on her back. “Why haven’t any pegasi come to reinforce us yet?”

        “Well, duh! They’re fighting.”

        “Fighting who? You only have one pegasus willing to take the air. We have hundreds of puppets.”

        “Princess Luna!” Pinkie Pie practically sang the name.

        Coconut felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. If Luna had finally revealed herself, then something big was happening. It also meant that their pegasi were probably occupied, and Coconut wasn’t going to get any help from above. “So what are you doing, then? What are here for?”

        At this, Pinkie’s grin widened. “Why, you, of course. You’re under arrest, Captain Crunch.”

        Rarity gingerly stepped around a small concentration of rubble as she sliced and diced a nearby earthpony puppet.

        Her cut had been towards her: a clean, quick diagonal swipe through the puppet’s body. She cringed as she was splattered with conjured blood just moments before it vanished into the dark ether that all puppets became upon death. At this point she wasn’t particularly bothered by the false gore that sometimes lingered just long enough to be seen before vanishing. She just hated feeling messy, even for an instant.

        She absent mindedly flipped her mane away from her eyes as her blade broke into parts and punched lethal holes into three nearby puppets. She reformed it in time to cleave a charging puppet in two and wrinkled her nostrils in distaste as the dark ether washed over her.

        She searched around for more puppets, but found none. Instead, she spotted a pale blue unicorn stallion at the end of the street. She cursed inwardly at the sight of the civilian. Now she would have to escort somepony out of the conflict zone, leaving Applejack to rescue the prisoners on her own. Unless of course Luna or Rainbow Dash decided to put their hooves on the ground for once.

        “Hello there,” she called out to the civilian. He turned, and she noted for the first time just what he was wearing.

        Did it take me that long to judge him based on his clothes? She thought to herself. Rarity, my dear, you are becoming too much a soldier! This conflict is not good for you.

        The stallion was wearing a full body white robe, complete with a wide hood. Rarity recognized the outfit immediately— she was wearing the exact same thing. Under her own robe were several thick pads of hardened cloth and a harness for Vorpal. It was an extremely light garment, and the mark of a unicorn knight. A bladecaster.

        Rarity would have designed her outfit to have a little more flair, but Princess Luna had insisted she conform to traditions. Still, her design skills allowed her to make sure her garment was appropriately beautiful. It was almost incandescently white; she had magically spun the fabric to reflect much more incoming light than any mundane material. It was loose, and tended to billow about her if she moved quickly, but was also so light that it didn’t inhibit movement whatsoever. Her mane flowed around her head in lazy curls, spilling down to her drawn back hood, where it coiled against the rippled fabric.

        Rarity had grown to like the bladecasting robe; it, along with her white coat, gave her a sort of austere appearance that was intensified by the completely transparent diamonds that made up Vorpal.

        The other knight stared at her coldly. Rarity noticed that his robe was made of drab white fabric, and wasn’t keeping away the dust that came along with the rubble the way hers was. “Dame Rarity,” he said coldly. “Knight Bachelorette of the Order Nocturnus. I am Sir Ironhoof, Knight Bachelor of the Natural Order. If you do not surrender to me and face King Titan’s judgement, I will be forced to slay you in single combat.”

        Rarity raised a hoof to her chest. “Bachelorette? I am Knight Commander of the Order Nocturnus, Sir Ironhoof.” This one had actually done quite well, other than mistaking her rank. Titles were important, after all.

        Sir Ironhoof tilted his head. “You are the only member of the Order Nocturnus. Luna hasn’t had knights for over a thousand years.”

        “I’m still Knight Commander! And its Princess Luna.”

        He sighed. “You aren’t going to come quietly, are you?”

        Rarity levelled her blade. “It’s ironic, really,” she said in a conversational tone. “I always dreamed of being rescued by a white knight.”

        “I see.”

        A handful of shards of some mundane metal or another were thrown upward from the ground around Ironhoof and towards Rarity. She extended her magical senses, pinging each of the shards with her mind, then split Vorpal and sent a diamond fragment after each of them.

        

        The shards and diamonds collided in the air, rebounding off of one another before each bladecaster reformed their blade. Rarity noted that Ironhoof’s weapon had only eleven fragments. Vorpal had fourteen, and she now knew that she could safely send three shards at him without leaving herself defenseless.

        Unfortunately, doing so would kill him. Vorpal was not a good weapon for exercising restraint.

        Ironhoof charged her as he telekinetically tossed several stones at her. Rarity frowned at the oncoming stones. She couldn’t intercept them with Vorpal without giving Ironhoof an opening, so she was forced to quickly roll to the side to avoid them. Her bladecasting robe didn’t pick up any dirt, but she felt filthy nonetheless.

        Ironhoof reached her as she came out of her roll, swinging his blade, a thick length of dull metal. The air around Vorpal snapped as Rarity’s blade moved incredibly fast to intercept it. Ironhoof’s attack had been a competent one, and a clever move at that. He just hadn’t taken into account the fact that Rarity outclassed him by an order of magnitude.

        His blade was thrown to the side by the force of Rarity’s swing, and Rarity had time to slap him across the face with the flat of her blade before batting away another one of his swings. He took another swipe at her, and Rarity ignored it, slapping him across the face again before catching the attack contemptuously at the last moment on her diamond weapon. Ironhoof looked past the two blades at Rarity with disbelief, blood running from one of his nostrils.

        “Knight Commander,” Rarity corrected once again.

        It was then that she caught a glint of red reflected back at her in one of Vorpal’s composite diamonds. Rarity give a slight moue as she watched Ironhoof’s eyes widen. Things always had to get so complicated.

        She threw her magical weight against Vorpal, pushing Ironhoof and his blade back momentarily. Then, she sent a soft ripple of thought into her blade, willing it to reflect more light than diamonds normally would. She would need the extra visibility for this particular fight. Rarity pivoted in place just in time to deflect two glowing red bolts of energy with her blade.

        A unicorn puppet stood at the other end of street, red mane flaring out around its black form. It seemed content to throw magic missiles at her, as unicorn puppets usually did. Rarity thanked Celestia it didn’t have any shards to toss. Simple spells she could handle.

        She caught the reflection of Ironhoof coming at her in one of Vorpal’s facets, and spun to parry and block a rapid series of blows. She ducked a more powerful swipe so as to free Vorpal to deflect another pair of magic missiles. She had the sense to aim them at the puppet this time, but it caught them with red bursts of moment-field. The puppets weren’t that easy to kill.

        Rarity was holding against the puppet and Ironhoof, rapidly spinning to face each foe and block their attacks, but she wasn’t gaining any ground. It was only a moment of time before she slipped up or they got lucky, and then she would die, which was in no way, shape, or form an acceptable outcome to her.

        She jumped as high as she could into the air— which admittedly was not very high— and pushed Vorpal beneath her, where she flicked a bit of magic at it. The blade shattered and its shards were sent flying through the air at her opponents.

        Ironhoof and the puppet each had the acumen to use their magical senses to detect and deflect Vorpal’s shards, but her attack provided a much-needed distraction. She quickly rushed to put her back to wall and face both her opponents. The, she threw her blade at the puppet once again.

        To her dismay, the puppet caught every one of the shards on a moment field as Ironhoof charged her. She drew the shards back through the air and reformed her blade to parry Ironhoof’s thrust, then looked at the puppet too late to see several metal shards speeding towards her, encased in red energy.

        It did have shards, she thought, it was just waiting for the ideal moment to use them. When did these brutes get so smart?

        She couldn’t use her blade to deflect the shards without exposing herself to Ironhoof, and the strain of constant combat had left her mentally weary enough that she couldn’t split part of Vorpal to intercept them.

        Thankfully, the building behind her chose that moment to explode.

        Rarity caught a glimpse of Ironhoof being showered with splinters and rubble before she was thrown violently to the ground, protected from the collapsing structure by the armored body of another pony.

        She made a slight whining noise as her face was pressed against the dirty cobbles. “Thank you, Applejack, for saving my life,” she said curtly. “Please stop touching me.”

        “You ought to show some gratitude, Rares.” Applejack rose and shook off several hundred pounds of stone, wood, and glass, completely unscathed. She placed herself between Rarity and the unicorn puppet, then raised an armored foreleg. As Rarity rose and gathered Vorpal, she saw a shard strike Applejack’s leg and bounce harmlessly away, sparks flying. Applejack caught another shard in her mouth.

        Rarity had made Applejack’s armor with the assistance of Luna, who was one of the only ponies in Equestria who still knew how earthpony warplates were made. It was an incredibly thick set of mundane steel barding that had been magically folded in upon itself for structural strength. The entire suit weighed more than Applejack herself, and the extra weight helped her gather the momentum she needed to break through solid stone walls.

        The armor was a sharp shade of red, and Rarity had made it as ornate as Applejack had let her. The joint and neck were protected by angular plates, and golden filigree spiralled and swirled along the main plates to form intricate Apple designs. Atop her head, her trademark stetson still sat, battered from being forced through at least one building.

        Applejack spat blood, metal, and teeth. Then she leaned over and struck Ironhoof, who was pinned beneath some rubble, but otherwise uninjured. He was immediately knocked unconscious by Applejack’s steel-clad hoof.

        The unicorn puppet sent more shards and magical missiles their way, but Rarity twisted and spun Vorpal to deflect each of them. As she did, AJ spoke.

        “Prisoners are mostly free, but we got about twenty puppets and two unicorns two blocks over. Ah figure we can take ‘em together.”

        Rarity threw Vorpal at her opponent only to have it deflected once again. She sighed. “Of course you do. Shall we be using discretion or would you rather we simply plow through every obstacle in our way screaming like a bunch of barbarians?”

        “Mmm...” Applejack worked her mouth as if the question required serious consideration. “Second one.”

        The skies were cleared.

        It had taken Luna all of several minutes to destroy the puppets that controlled the sky above that particular section of Canterlot. There were perhaps a hundred of them, but they were unarmed and Luna had the help of Rainbow Dash. While a pegasus puppet might not be strong by itself, their mobility allowed them to easily descend upon and overwhelm any forces on the ground. In a matter of minutes, every pegasus puppet within kilometres could be in the same place.

        Luna had killed them all. The task had been almost trivial.

        Rainbow Dash had been an asset. She was far too fast for the puppets to catch, and would use her mastery of pegasus magic to strike down their foes with fire, lightning, and gale force winds. If an enemy did manage to close with her, she was more than its match physically; Dash was one of the strongest pegasi Luna had ever seen, and Luna had been training her in aerial combat.

        Luna had done most of the work, though. She was a full-powered goddess, an alicorn straight from an age where violence and brutality were commonplace. Her opponents might as well have been made of the smoke she reduced them to. She tore them apart with her blade, her hooves, and if they were too far way, her mind. Nothing could withstand her.

        “Rainbow Dash.”

        The aptly named pegasus came to hover beside her. “What?”

Dash’s armor was a full body suit of tight fitting super hardened cloth that was colored sky blue. Along its edges and joints ran a multicolored trim designed to emulate Dash’s polychromatic mane. Luna and Rarity had worked together to create the skypony barding to afford her maximum protection and flexibility. Luna herself wore a suit under her bladecasting robe, though she had denied Rarity’s request to “spruce it up.” Luna valued appearances, but Rarity’s design sense didn’t exactly conform to her standards when it came to intimidation.

        She looked down at a distant intersection. With a small amount of concentration, Luna bent the air in front of her into a lens that magnified the crossroads. Rarity and Applejack were close to one another, locked in combat with several dozen puppets and trueponies.

        Dash did not need to be ordered. The air collapsed around the pegasus with a heavy thrum as she took of in their direction with her uncanny speed. Luna followed.

        Dash landed next to Rarity and Applejack, clearly intent of protecting them. Luna reckoned that they’d be alright, so she sped past them and began to destroy their enemies.

        Her first target was a unicorn puppet positioned across the square from the trio. As she approached it, she tore several cobblestones from the street below her and hurled them at the puppet with magic. It deflected the stones, then threw a wave of force at her, clearly trying to prevent her from closing the distance between them.

        Luna took the spell head-on, and as she was thrown to the ground, she called her unicorn and pegasus magic to form a sophisticated spell. The air around her dropped several dozen degrees and frost coated the ground, her coat, and her black bladecasting robe. She formed several spears of ice out of the moisture held in the air and flung them at the unicorn puppet. At the same time, she lifted several more cobblestones from the street behind the puppet and drew them towards her.

        The puppet erected a full force field to deflect the incoming projectiles, but had no way of preventing Luna from closing the distance between them with a powerful flap of her wings. Luna landed beside the unicorn, surrounded in the fog that her winter spell had caused, and cast her blade inside the puppet.

        The puppet was eaten away from the inside out, and it dispersed as Nadir formed. It was all the colors of the night— the pure white of moonlight, the twinkling shimmer of starlight, and the soft greens and purples of the aurora. Nadir caused light to dim, metal to rust, water to freeze, and flesh to deteriorate.

        She pulled her blade up to its ready position, causing the black mist leftover from the puppet to swirl around the fog that her drastic temperature spell was creating. She smiled as another unicorn puppet took notice of her.

        Trivial.

        The puppet threw two bolts of magical energy at her. She deflected them with her blade, then countered its telekinetic push with her own, much stronger push. It was staggered, and she closed with it and decapitated the foe with one swipe.

        Luna beat her wings once more to land amongst the earthponies that were attacking her own team, and two swipes of Nadir downed four foes. Luna joined her trio of ponies and they proceeded to clear the square.

        It was not difficult. The arrival of Luna and Rainbow Dash had tipped the scales in their favor, and the remaining puppets went down in less than a minute. The truepony soldiers, few as they were, were rounded up at blade point and brought into a nearby building. Luna, Rarity, Applejack, and Rainbow Dash followed.

        The Princess did her best to look intimidating, and it was a successful effort. She was taller than anypony present, wearing a pitch black bladecasting robe, and wielding a spell blade. The air around her was filled with billowing fog, and the ground beneath her hooves frosted over. Her eyes were glowing and her hood was drawn up. The enemy soldiers shivered, though whether from the cold or from Luna’s presence, the Princess couldn’t tell.

        She was being a little dramatic, after all. It was the modus operandi of alicorns.

        “An abysmal lot of foes we find ourselves burdened with upon an equally abysmal afternoon.” Her voice boomed through the building around them, and she saw her allies cringe out of the corner of her eye. They didn’t like her Royal Canterlot voice. Luna thought it helped to keep things fresh. “Tell us. she dismissed Nadir and leaned forward to look the lead soldier- a unicorn- in the eyes. “How might one pass Empyrean’s barrier?”

        The unicorn’s eyes hardened. “Even if I did know the spell, why would I tell you?”

        “Because.” The unicorn pulled back at the volume of her voice. “We are the only chance thou hast of overthrowing King Titan.”

        “You can’t beat Titan. Even if you could, how can any of us be sure you’re a better ruler than him? You’re likely to plunge our world into eternal night as soon as you ascend the throne.”

        Luna practically recoiled. Surely that wasn’t what her people thought of her?

        The unicorn continued. “We’ve all heard all about you, Luna. You’ve never gotten along with your sister. You probably laughed when you found out that she was dead. And now you’re just an alicorn trying to fill the power vacuum she created.”

        Luna slowly shook her head. “No,” she began, her voice losing its volume. “I- I- I don’t-”

        “If you really were fighting for the sake of ponykind, Princess, you wouldn’t have disappeared for the past month. You wouldn’t have killed Twilight Sparkle. Why don’t you just marry Empyrean and settle for being his princess. I’m tired of being forced to fight my fellow ponies because you’re trying to take advantage of your sister’s death. I’m tired of fighting an alicorn’s war.”

        Luna looked at the unicorn in disbelief. He thought she was just as bad as Titan. He thought the fighting was her fault. She felt sick.

        Suddenly she was standing amidst hundreds of dead ponies on a scorched and barren plain, looking down at a colt without a cutie mark who had died for her. She felt herself butchering ponies from eons ago, their dying cries fueling her thirst for absolute destruction. She had broken their race, then. Had taught ponykind to destroy one another rather than love each other. And they had.

        She was vaguely aware of falling to the ground in front of the prince as the temperature in the room dropped even further. Was she doing the same thing now? Was she simply going to lead ponykind down the path of destruction once more? If Twilight never woke up, then they didn’t stand a chance against Titan and Terra.

        How long would her war go on then? Years? Decades? Would Twilight’s friends die in battle or of old age while they searched for a new Element of Magic? What right did she have to ask them to help her and her sister reclaim the throne?

        “Get out.” Her voice had assumed its usual volume.

        No, she had decided; Twilight Sparkle would come back to them and they would rescue Celestia, wherever she was. Luna wasn’t fighting for her parents anymore, and she wasn’t fighting to kill her sister. She would rescue Celestia, and free ponykind from Titan and Terra once and for all.

        A look of surprise crossed the unicorn’s face. “We’re... free to go?”

        “What? Didst thou think we were going to gobble thee up? Thine commander is ours and thine prisoners are freed. Thou art of no use to us.” Luna didn’t know if the first bit was true; hopefully Pinkie Pie had captured her target and Fluttershy had led the prisoners to safety. She stepped to the side to let the unicorn and the other soldiers leave. “Run along.”

        The captured soldiers left, shivering as they scurried past the frozen princess.

        After they had left, Rainbow Dash said dryly, “That could have gone better.”

        “Ah think maybe next time you ought to turn down the menace, princess.”

        “Yes,” Rarity said, teeth chattering. “Would you mind maybe turning the heat back up, Your Highness?”

        With a thought, she warmed the air around them. Luna had no idea how they could keep their spirits so high after almost twenty minutes of on and off combat. She was still thinking on what the unicorn had said.

        How could she explain it to them? She couldn’t tell the general pony populace that Celestia was alive, because then their enemies would know they knew. If that happened, who knew what Titan would do to his Celestia? She couldn’t tell them that Twilight Sparkle was secretly still alive, either; she would instantly become the most wanted mare in Equestria next to Luna herself. And she certainly couldn’t tell the population that they had a weapon capable of destroying Titan himself. If her father knew that Twilight and her friends posed a threat, he would almost certainly tell Terra to strike them down. Her mother would wipe Canterlot from the face of Equestria with barely a second thought.

        So ponykind had to think that Celestia was dead. That Luna wanted to rule them by herself. That the loyalist cause was hopeless. That their twice-time hero and saviour, the personal servant of Princess Celestia, Twilight Sparkle, had died a monster.

        Naturally, Twilight Sparkle had attained virtual messiah status amongst the loyalists. While ponykind wasn’t in on the details, Twilight and her friends had effectively saved Equestria twice before. It was probably exactly why Titan had chosen to turn her into his pet monster in the first place. That, and Nihilus Nix Naught could apparently take all of Celestia’s magic and give it to his newborn son Empyrean. He had, by enslaving her, effectively destroyed the biggest symbol of hope ponykind had as well as acquiring a useful asset.

        In the eyes of ponykind, Twilight Sparkle had died in the Battle of Cloudsdale with Nihilus Nix Naught, whom Luna had slain. Luna had killed their saviour, and it seemed she was even more hated now than she had been before Titan returned.

        Ultimately, it didn’t matter. If Luna had to be a villain to rescue her sister, than so be it. Ponykind had never loved her as much as they loved Celestia, and they likely never would. If Luna was going to save them from her father, she didn’t need them to.

        “Fluttershy will have had enough time to lead the prisoners to safety, I should think,” she said, dropping down to a mild volume and doing her best to curb her archaic accent. “Pinkie Pie ought to have captured our captain by now. Let us away to the underground.”

        With that, they went home.

        Twilight Sparkle did her best to keep things together.

        Magic helped. Left alone to her own thoughts, she knew she would lose focus and break down again. So Twilight focused on focusing, keeping herself busy with simple tasks and spells while she decided her next move. She knew she needed to find her former friends and the Princess, but how? She was in the Books and Branches library. Luna could be anywhere.

        She pulled the Marvelous Manual of Medical Magics off of a shelf with a bit of telekinesis and looked up a diagnostic spell. While true healing magic was impossible, there were all sorts of spells that were designed to help with traditional medical treatments. The spell was a complex one, so it took Twilight several minutes of study before she could cast it.

        It indicated that she was fine, but that she ought to eat. Twilight didn’t feel hungry, and the fruits left out on the table looked as though they had been rotting for weeks. She took note of the state of decay, then searched through the cupboards until she found some oats. To keep herself busy while she forced the oats down with a spoon, she learned a spell to tell her the time. She had calendars and clocks in the library, but nopony had been around to mark the calendars and the clock couldn’t tell her the exact date.

        When the spell told her that she had been unconscious for almost a month, the spoonful of oats only faltered slightly before continuing along its course. Twilight munched the oats mechanically, then swallowed and decided she had eaten enough.

        She pulled the Element of Kindness out of her null-space. The golden necklace wasn’t actually the Element of Kindness, but rather one facet of the four-part whole. The whole Element consisted of not just the golden necklace, but also Fluttershy, its magical power, and the idea of kindness itself. It was what conventional unicorn knowledge would have called an impossible enchantment.

Twilight created a spell to follow the necklace’s link to the ideal that connected it to both its bearer and its enchantment. She focused on the bearer, holding that portion of the element in her mind. Then, with a small amount of thaumaturgy, she created and cast a spell to find the bearer in reference to herself.

        The spell gave her the general direction of Canterlot. Trying to ignore the implications of such a location, Twilight telekinetically grabbed a map of the capitol while she held the tracking spell and the enchantment in her mind. She unrolled the map and directed a meta-spell at her thaumaturgical one to pinpoint Fluttershy’s location on the map.

        It marked her position, and Twilight had the good sense to reorganize the spell so as to track Fluttershy relative to the position on the map. The spell gave her the direction of downward. Fluttershy was in the Undercity.

        Twilight rolled up the map and deposited it in null-space after marking Fluttershy’s position. Canterlot was not far away at all. She managed to make the trip between Canterlot and Ponyville by herself three times within twelve hours when-

        She needed to focus, so she began to search the library for things that she might need to take with her. She arranged several foods on the table, then began to pick out books for her trip. For obvious reasons, Marvelous Manual of Medical Magics might come in handy. She hoped it wouldn’t, but it never hurt to be prepared. She decided the chronology textbook would be of little use, so it would stay.

        She moved soundlessly about the library, picking out books and stacking them alongside her travel food on the table. She only found a couple. The majority of the books she examined were useless. Her new copy of The Astronomical Astronomer’s Almanac to All things Astronomy was useless. Slumber 101 was useless. Running in the Running for Dummies was useless. She carefully placed all of them into a pile for useless books.

        As she moved throughout the library, carefully selecting which books to take with her and which books to leave behind, Twilight became slower. Her movements did not become less precise or meticulous, but she began to spend more and more time examining the titles of the tomes. She levitated new books onto the stack at an ever decreasing rate, until finally her glacial pace gave way to absolute stillness.

        She stood motionless, hardly breathing, staring at the book she held aloft with magic. Then, she gently set it on the floor and began to cry.

        Her tears came with great, wracking sobs that broke the otherwise perfect silence of the library. She fell to the ground, rocking herself back and forth until she could once again focus on what was important. In all, she wasted fifteen minutes of time shaking uncontrollably on the library floor.

        She picked up the book, Draconic Appetites and Ailments, and set it in the useless pile next to the musical storybook It’s a Wonderful Equestria. Then, she decided she had picked out enough books, deposited the useful ones in her null-space, and left.

        To draw her attention away from the signs of the extensive repairs that the town had undergone, Twilight recalled and cast an illusion spell to disguise her appearance. She intended first to recolor herself white, but changed her mind and went with a pale red. Unrecognizable, she proceeded towards Canterlot.

        When she was clear of the town, Twilight decided that she didn’t want to walk. Being alone with her thoughts was counter-productive, so she used a series of teleports to bring her to the city gates. The western gate of Canterlot was still a pile of rubble, and truepony guards as well as puppets were stationed around it and along the walls. What was more, a mysterious curtain of white rose from within the city itself to the sky. Twilight took note of its appearance, then teleported to the other side of the wall.

        She appeared in an alleyway, then consulted her map.

        When Twilight Sparkle was nine years old, she had become fascinated with mazes. Celestia had left her a book of them on her desk one night, and she got hooked. She would spend hours at a time finishing the little maze books that she could buy at the bookshop with her allowance. After a week, she started doing them in ink instead of graphite. After two weeks, she had asked the owners of the bookshop to order her more complex maze books.

        They did. Twilight had never realized how rarely anypony said no to Celestia’s most prized pupil.

        After three weeks, Celestia took a personal interest in Twilight’s “maze craze,” as she affectionately dubbed it, and asked Twilight is she had wanted to see a maze in real life.

        Twilight had answered that she already knew the palace hedge labyrinth by heart. Not only did it feature prominently in Canterlot’s Nightmare Night celebrations, but she could get a bird’s eye view of it from the palace.

        Celestia had smiled and told her that the labyrinth she had in mind was much bigger. A day later, she had taken Twilight down into the Canterlot Undercity.

        It was a sprawling labyrinth that ran beneath all of Canterlot. It was enormous, large enough to hold tens of thousands of ponies at a time, and it was also totally impossible to navigate. In some places it was made up of square passageways and corners, in others it was slides, tunnels, and curves. Making things worse was the fact that the maze fully took advantage of the fact that it existed in three dimensional space. It was also pitch-dark on account of the fact that it was buried under Canterlot.

        Twilight hadn’t been scared of the dark. Celestia had been with her. The Princess had explained that the Canterlot Undercity was the most difficult labyrinth that she could possibly give Twilight, and that her test would be in a month.

        Twilight was forbidden from entering the Undercity just like every other pony in Canterlot, of course; it was simply too dangerous. A pony could get lost and then starve to death, or fall into one of the many chasms and not be able to get out.

        So Princess Celestia had given her four very ancient books on the topic to study from. And study from them Twilight did. The Undercity occupied almost all of her time for the next month. She read the books, analyzed the maps, and made models. She came up with half a dozen theories as to its purpose and its mysterious origin. Eventually, she realized that she could split the enormous labyrinth into smaller mazes and solve each on its own.

        After three weeks, she had the entire labyrinth memorized and could come up with a route between any two points in a matter of seconds. Celestia had been thoroughly impressed.

        Then Twilight had learned the true purpose of the exercise: to train her mind so as to accustom it to the intense spacial reasoning that she would need to possess. She had inherited the Sparkle family ability to teleport from her mother. She teleported for the first time two weeks later, to the astonishment of her parents.

        It wasn’t until two years later that Twilight learned, in a rare conversation with another student, that there were only four books detailing the Canterlot Undercity, and only two of them contained maps. Celestia had let Twilight in on a very special secret simply to ensure Twilight enjoyed her studies.

        A month ago, Twilight had raped her of her godhood, laughing as Celestia begged for mercy.

        In the alleyway, Twilight’s stony expression flickered slightly as she examined the map once again. There were thirteen entrances to the Undercity spread throughout Canterlot: One at the palace, six in inner Canterlot, and six in outer Canterlot. With the palace at the centre of a circle, each entrance portended an arc length of exactly one-sixth pi radians from its neighbor. She noted where the nearest entrance ought to be on her map and mentally traced a route that would take her to Fluttershy’s position.

        Then Twilight left the alleyway, still a red unicorn, and travelled the several blocks to the Undercity entrance. On her way, she passed several heavily damaged buildings, and noted dimly that ponies were looking timidly out at her from broken windows and doorways. She ignored them, and noticed no puppets on the way to the entrance.

        The portal to the Undercity had been blocked up and cobbled over, like most of the entryways throughout Canterlot. Ponies were not allowed down there on account of how dangerous it was. Not that anypony could have known where the entrance was in the first place. To Twilight’s knowledge, she and Celestia were the only ones who had studied the layout of the Undercity.

        She reached out with her magical senses to find the hollow area beneath the earth right where she expected it to be. After a moment of focusing, she teleported.

        She found herself alone in darkness, and lit her horn with a bit of illusion magic. The illusion magic immediately reminded her of where she had learned the spell that changed her appearance, and what she had used it for. Rainbow Dash.

        Twilight hadn’t eaten many oats, and had only drunk a little bit of water, so she didn’t have much in the way to vomit. Still, she stood shaking, retching up nothing, wasting almost a full minute after the oats were gone. She made a mental note to eat again soon before setting off throughout the labyrinth. Proper nutrition was important.

        The various twists and turns of the labyrinth matched what she had in her mind. Without Discord to rearrange a maze at will, Twilight could navigate them with ease, which was probably why she had been so eager to dive into the hedge labyrinth upon hearing his riddle.

        As she moved through the tomb-like, silent darkness, she wondered why Fluttershy would be in the Undercity. Hopefully she wasn’t lost or hurt. Hopefully she was with the others. Twilight briefly considered checking the other Element bearers, but decided just to press on.

        Her journey through the Undercity was for the most part serene. She passed through large rooms and claustrophobia-inducing crawlspaces. She teleported across chasms and pushed open heavy metal doors. Twice, she teleported to another nearby section of the maze, using her acute spatial sense to determine exactly where she ought to be, skipping two whole sub-mazes and saving herself a great deal of time.

        Once, when she wandered close to the inner city labyrinth, she found a curtain of white energy blocking a passageway. She imagined that it was the same barrier she had observed from outside the city. She extended her magical senses, but they could not penetrate the barrier. Twilight marvelled at the sheer amount of power it must take to sustain such a thing before moving on.

        It was obvious when Twilight had come to Luna’s lair. It was set up in what Twilight knew was a small complex near one of the surface entrances. She supposed that they wouldn’t have to travel very far to reach the complex, and so were less likely to get lost. She stood outside the metal doorway to their chambers, which was bathed in the purple light of her horn and had been marked with a crescent moon. Then she took a deep breath and opened the door.

        Inside was a room entirely different from the cold stone outside. The walls had been covered with hundreds of cloth hangings done up in warm shades, and the floor had been lined with hardwood. At one end of the room burned a magical fire, in front of which was a plush rug. In the center of the room was a table, upon which was a map of Canterlot. A stairway ran up to an overhanging balcony and four doors, which Twilight assumed led to bedrooms.

        Twilight took all of this in without consideration. She was too busy focusing on the room’s only occupant. Sitting on the rug, basking in firelight, sipping a mug of hot cocoa, was Fluttershy.

        Twilight was a shadow in the back of Nihilus’s mind, looking down on the beaten and bloody pegasus who had cruelly spun her a lie of redemption. It wasn’t enough that Fluttershy simply die. No, Nihilus would have Rainbow Dash kill her; would have one friend savagely murder the other. She liked the idea of Rainbow Dash having a few moments of freedom from her nightmare to contemplate killing her most innocent friend.

        Twilight lost the cold, distant viewpoint that had gotten her from the library to Canterlot, and was drawn back into herself. She stood in the doorway, wondering how she could possibly face Fluttershy after what she had done.

        She must have made a noise, because Fluttershy looked up from her place in front of the fireplace. She saw Twilight, and her eyes widened, her lips parting slightly in amazement.

        Twilight knew she had to say something, anything, to the pegasus before Fluttershy was scared away.

        I’m sorry. It was so woefully inadequate. It wasn’t me. But it was still her fault. I didn’t want any of it to happen. But it happened anyway, and Twilight couldn’t help that. She cycled through a dozen responses and her mind rested on one: You shouldn’t have come to rescue me. I didn’t deserve it.

        “Twilight!” Fluttershy screamed louder than Twilight had ever heard her before. Before Twilight could speak, the pegasus had crossed the room and had her locked in a hug so powerful as to almost suffocate her. “You’re back! Oh, thank Celestia!” When Twilight didn’t hug back, Fluttershy pulled away and looked Twilight in the eyes. “Are you alright? You look terrible.”

        Twilight stared back into Fluttershy’s eyes, confused. In them there was no hatred, no rejection: just pure, simple concern. Concern for Twilight’s well-being. Fluttershy was actually worried about her, like an overprotective mother instead of a tormented victim. No, Twilight realized, not like an overprotective mother. Like a friend.

        Twilight couldn’t help it. She broke down and began to cry.

        For the second time that day, her legs gave way as tears began to stream down her face. “I,” she stammered, “I-I-”

        “Shhh,” Fluttershy hugged her again, gently rubbing her back. Then, the pegasus picked her up as though she were nothing more than a filly and flew them over to sit in front of the fireplace. Twilight was set down on the incredibly thick rug and she felt the warmth of the fire begin to spread through her. She hadn’t realized how cold it had been in the labyrinth.

        She buried her head in Fluttershy’s coat, and her friend wrapped her almost completely in her wings and forelegs, then nuzzled a sobbing Twilight with her wispy mane. “Shhh, I know, Twilight. Let it all out.”

        Suddenly Twilight realized why she had tracked the Element of Kindness instead of the others. Some part of her had known that what she wanted, what she really needed, was somepony to care for her. A shoulder to cry on. A little kindness.

        She was getting tears and mucus all over Fluttershy’s luxuriously soft coat as she sobbed, but the pegasus didn’t seem to mind. She rocked Twilight back and forth as the unicorn gasped for air.

        “I-I-I couldn’t do anything.”

        “I know, Twilight, let it all go.”

        “I couldn’t even close my eyes. I-” Twilight’s entire body shook as she drew in a shuddering breath. “I had to watch.”

        “It’s okay, Twilight. You’re safe.”

        “You shouldn’t have come for me.”

        “Of course we should have, Twilight. We love you.”

        “I-I thought,” Twilight squeezed Fluttershy as tightly as she could manage. Fluttershy squeezed back. “I th-thought I was never going to get t-t-to t-talk to any of you ever again. I thought it was o-o-over.”

        Fluttershy squeezed her harder than Twilight would have thought possible, then released her. Once again, the pegasus looked Twilight in the eyes. Her voice hardened. “It isn’t over, Twilight. Not yet.”

Twilight nodded numbly, and Fluttershy smiled. “I’ll go fix us some hot cocoa and when I come back we’ll get you cleaned up, alright?” She nodded again, and Fluttershy fluttered away.

Twilight waited, looking into the fire as it crackled merrily. Despite the streaks of tears running from her eyes, she felt better than she had in a long time. We love you, Fluttershy had said. Twilight believed her.

Fluttershy came back with two steaming mugs of cocoa and a box of tissues in her mouth. Twilight happily sipped at her drink and tried not to cringe as Fluttershy dabbed away at her face and neck. Fluttershy did not seem at all discomforted by the fact that Twilight had just broken down and cried under her wings for the better part of twenty minutes. For that fact, Twilight was immensely grateful. It was just one more thing that set Fluttershy apart.

“The others are going to be so happy to see you,” Fluttershy said softly.

“Has it really been a month since Cloudsdale?”

“Mhm,” Fluttershy nodded, “we’ve been in Canterlot causing trouble for the King, but normally there’s somepony back in Ponyville to watch you. Today we needed everyone, though, because Luna was going to fight. They wanted to, um, get rid of all the puppets in the outer city and capture a commanding officer. But then there were also some prisoners that we had to free.”

“You’re still with Luna? How is she?”

“She’s, um... nice.”

“I see. How is everyone else?”

“Well,” Fluttershy began, “Pinkie Pie-”

“Present!”

Pinkie Pie burst through the metal door to the labyrinth complex on two legs and covered in colorful armor and gadgets. Right behind her was a brown-coated, white-maned earthpony Twilight had never seen before in her life.

Pinkie Pie saw Twilight, and her eyes widened. There was a hissing noise and a jet of white gas, and a harpoon attached to her foreleg was launched straight downward, where it bounced off the ground and the clattered to a resting position.

“Twilight!” She grinned as she began to shed the various pieces of colorful equipment that adorned her. When enough of them had fallen to the ground, Pinkie sprang across the room, pinning Twilight to the floor in another painfully tight bear hug.

“Oh-my-gosh-we-missed-you-so-much-and-now-you’re-back!”

Twilight wheezed under the strain of Pinkie Pie’s hug. “Thanks, Pinkie.”

Pinkie Pie gasped as though suddenly coming to a realization. “We need to throw a party! Fluttershy! We need to throw Twilight a party!” She ran up the stairs and through one of the doorways. Moments later, various party paraphernalia were thrown out of the doorway and over the balcony to land in front of the fire.

Twilight dodged a falling roll of streamers and turned her attention to the unknown earthpony. The mare had been giving her a wide-eyed stare since she entered. “Are you...” she trailed off, then slowly approached Twilight. The way she looked Twilight over made her feel like a specimen on display, except from the look on the mare’s face she clearly didn’t understand what she was seeing.

“Burning blood of Celestia,” the mare swore in disbelief. “You’re really Twilight Sparkle.”

“Um... yes?”

“This... this changes everything. Everything.

Twilight was confused. “I don’t understand.”

“You’re a legend, Twilight. You’ve saved Equestria twice. When Titan returned and you were… taken, and Celestia killed, most ponies thought that resisting was hopeless. But if you’re still alive then... there’s hope, isn’t there? We can win.”

Twilight didn’t know how to react. Was there hope? She didn’t see why not; they still had the Elements of Harmony, after all. “Yes,” she said finally. “We can win. And Celestia isn’t dead.”

The mare smiled. “It’s better than I thought, then. If we actually have a chance of returning things to the way they were before, then all of ponykind would support us. This war would suddenly make sense.”

Then the mare did something completely unexpected. She knelt on the carpet before Twilight. “Twilight Sparkle,” she said, her voice taking on a ceremonious tone. “I, Captain Coconut Crunch, renounce my loyalty to King Titan and my position as captain in the Royal Army. I hereby swear myself to you as your servant and vassal as Celestia’s successor.”

Twilight stood frozen, mouth agape. “I’m not her successor,” she managed after a time. “What could possibly give you that idea?”

“You’re her personal student, aren’t you? You’ve saved Equestria twice, on her orders. Who else would rule in her stead?”

“Her sister? Princess Luna?”

“Luna? Luna is ignored at best and despised at worst. The ponies don’t see her as being any better than Titan himself.”

Twilight sighed. She was in way over her head. “Look— Coconut is it? Luna is the rightful ruler of Equestria, and the only reason I’m still alive. She risked her own life to save me. I know she can come off as a little scary, and I know that you think she was Nightmare Moon; but Nightmare Moon and Luna were two completely different entities. I would know.”

“You would know,” Coconut echoed. “That’s what happened to you, isn’t it? That’s who Nihilus really was.”

Slowly, Twilight nodded. “I’ve been asleep for the past month.”

“And now she’s ba-ack,” Pinkie Pie said in a sign-song voice before jumping from the overhanging balcony to the carpet in front of the fireplace. She was holding a cake.

Pinkie’s ear twitched, and she suddenly stopped moving. She turned towards the doorway as it opened, encased in the glow of unicorn telekinesis.

“And do remember to wipe your hooves this time, Applejack. I did not spend the past three weeks decorating this hole simply so that you could-”

As Rarity came through the door, she saw Twilight and suddenly stopped. Applejack ran into her, and they both went tumbling to the floor.

Twilight was once again encased in pony as her friends smothered her with hugs. They squeezed her and asked if she was okay, tears of joy streaming down their faces. Applejack had to be careful not to crush Twilight to death as she was in a massive suit of armor. Rainbow Dash hung back while they smothered her. Twilight tried her best to catch her gaze and failed.

When they had finished, Twilight came face to face with Princess Luna. Luna was not as big as Celestia, but Twilight still had to look up at her. The Princess’s eyes betrayed none of her feelings. After what seemed like forever, she spoke:

“We are pleased to see thee, Twilight Sparkle.” Twilight cringed.

“Indoor voice,” Rarity reminded gently.

“Of course,” Luna said in a voice that was still several times louder than it needed to be. “If thou art healthy and well, Twilight, then we ought to begin with our next course of action.”

“Throwing a party!” Pinkie cried.

Luna narrowed her eyes at the bouncing pony. “No, Pinkie. Teaching Twilight Sparkle what ye all already know.”

“In party hats! And everypony still gets cake!”

Luna grumbled.

It was several minutes later, with everypony seated in a semicircle around the magically burning fireplace, eating cake and drinking hot cocoa, that Luna told Twilight everything. Twilight already knew most of what Luna had to say, such as the fact that Titan and Terra were her parents, but she knew almost nothing about the pre-Discordian history that Luna described.

“Dost mine tale satisfy thee, Twilight?” Luna asked after she had finished.

She had a hard time believing the things Luna had said about Celestia. “I suppose,” Twilight said at last. “The name Astor Coruscare sounds familiar.”

“She was Celestia’s most powerful lieutenant. A unicorn trained from birth to make war. She could defeat Celestia or I in single combat by the end of the war. The Coruscare scale is named after her. She is also your distant ancestor.”

Twilight frowned. The part about being related to her was a surprise, but it wasn’t what was bothering her. She didn’t recognize the name from the Coruscare scale. She made a mental note to think on it more later. “So why do you all have suits of armor?” she asked, suddenly having the urge to change the subject.

Rarity interrupted. The unicorn had been eating her slice of cake so slowly and delicately it was barely half-finished. “Oh, aren’t they gorgeous, dear? I designed them all, with help from Princess Luna, of course. Although Pinkie Pie made most of hers by herself. Did I tell you I’m a knight?”

“A knight?”

“Knight-Commander of the Order Nocturnus! Dame Rarity, as it were.”

Applejack snorted. “Also the only member of the Order Nocturnus.”

Rarity sniffed. “In any case, its keeps us all a little safer when we’re out causing trouble. I have to wear this robe because I’m a bladecaster.”

Twilight remembered full well what Rarity was capable of. After all, Twilight had met her father.

She shuddered inwardly at the memory of the stallion who had driven the Sliver through her eye. She reminded herself that she needed to keep things together. Twilight decided that she would wait awhile longer before letting Rarity know who she had run into, and do so in private at least.

“So what about Fluttershy? How can she use earthpony magic?”

I have not the slightest idea!” Luna practically shouted. “I was hoping that thou couldst explain it to us. Nor do I know how Rainbow Dash freed herself from your spell.”

Nihilus’s spell,” Fluttershy corrected stiffly.

“Of course!” Luna boomed.

“Hmm...” Twilight said. “Enchantments that cuffle to a pony instead of an inanimate object are unstable by their very nature. I suppose it’s possible that if fed enough non-native energy the bondings in the cuffle could break. But for that to happen the enchantment would already need to be extremely weak.”

“It was,” Rainbow Dash said quietly. “Fluttershy used the stare.” She shifted uncomfortably as she spoke to Twilight.

“Well that makes sense, I suppose. Mind magic isn’t supposed to mix.” She brought a hoof to her chin and scratched. “As for Fluttershy using earthpony magic, I don’t know either. It might have something to do with the Elements of Harmony, I suppose that since we have them in our possession, I should study them.”

“Thou wilt not hath the time, Twilight Sparkle. We need to train you.”

Twilight closed her eyes for a moment. She had been afraid Luna would say something like that. “I’m-” She paused, looking up at her friends, Luna, and Coconut. “I’m not going to fight.”

The look that came over Luna’s face was hard. “Why not?”

Nihilus allowed herself a slight smile as she punted Pinkie Pie off of a balcony to fall to her death. Twilight felt the pain as Rainbow Dash split their face open with the cover of a book. Days earlier, Twilight had watched helplessly as Dash force-fed herself Twilight’s diary.

“I just can’t.”

“We shalt speak of this later. For now, thou wilt tell me everything thou knowest of my sister.”

Titan said, “This brings me no pleasure, Celestia.”

Twilight tried to look away, tried to close her eyes, but she couldn’t.

“Please,” Celestia managed weakly.

The Sliver tore off Celestia’s ear and chewed it thoughtfully, trying to decide on a name while her spell did its work. “You know,” she said casually to Celestia, her mouth full of flesh. “She thought you were going to come and save her. Still does, judging by the racket she’s making now.” She continued to chew on the ear, and blood ran down the corner of her mouth.

Twilight could taste it.

Twilight did her best to keep her cake and cocoa down. “Nihilus took her power and gave it to Empyrean. She’s a simple pony now; no magic at all. Mortal.”

Luna nodded. “I had thought as much.” Her voice was almost at an appropriate volume by now. “Though a spell that doth remove a pony’s magic is supposed to be impossible.”

Twilight looked down, so that Rainbow Dash was no longer in her field of vision. “I break the rules,” she said. “In any case, Titan gave Celestia to Terra. I don’t know where she is.”

Luna nodded stiffly, her expression unreadable. “Empyrean will know. Now that we have Twilight, we can move against him.”

“But you said that there was a barrier between us and the inner city.”

“Indeed. A barrier that thou shalt shatter.”

“I can’t. That’s-”

“Thou didst reorder the Coruscare scale, Twilight Sparkle. Thou said thineself that thou doth break the rules.”

“I-” Twilight paused. An alicorn’s magical barrier would be almost impossible to destroy. The laws of magic stated that no system was perfect, though. “I’ll try,” she offered. “But I would need as much surface area as possible. And as much time as you can get me.”

Luna rose and strode over the table. Everypony followed, and soon they had formed a circle around the map of Canterlot. Twilight noticed several of what looked like monopony figures wrought to resemble Luna, Twilight, and her friends. The only pony missing was Pinkie Pie, who Twilight presumed was represented by the figurine that looked like a top hat.

“The ideal location would be Bolten Square,” Luna mused. “But that is halfway across the city. The pegasi would spot us before we were halfway there. There will also be reinforcements coming through the barrier throughout the day tomorrow after our actions today. And even if we do break the barrier we will need ground to go to.”

“Almost certainly,” Coconut added. “We usually come through on Bay Street, if that’s any help.”

Luna gave her an icy look. “Thou art a prisoner, Captain. I shall not trust a word that thou speaketh.”

“She’s telling the truth,” said Twilight.

“And how dost thou knoweth this?”

“Well, where else would they use?” Twilight said. “They would need one of the major streets for width, just for efficiency. Roan Street is too close to here, where I assume you have been operating out of for awhile now, so they wouldn’t use it.” She looked up at Luna.

“Go on,” the Princess said.

“Princess Lane is too close to the city walls. The barrier intersects Sorrel Street through the Canterlot School of the Fine Arts, making it a perfect ambush site from our side. If I recall correctly, the school has a long overhang that would corral pegasi to one method of approach and the plaza would give us the high ground. The same can be said for Prince Street, but from the other side. If they tried to get a sizable force through the loyalists from the inner city could stand on the bridgeways and tear them apart with an easy escape route through the glass factory. Not to mention the factory itself would provide them with lots of ammunition.”

Twilight began to highlight points on the map. “So that leaves Main Street, Starsworl Avenue, Alicorn Way, and Bay Street as potential main roads to send your troops down. Except you’re sending troops through the barrier; you need to ensure they’re appropriately provisioned and that they can get to their posts in the most efficient was possible. Which means that you have to hit the cannery, the logistics office, and then come out near whatever you’re using for a barracks, which I’ll assume is the steel mill due to its size, defensibility, and proximity to high class housing that you could put officers in to enforce the chain of command.

“The only streets that do this are Alicorn and Bay. So how do we eliminate Alicorn? Simple: morale. Alicorn runs through a heavy residential district; Bay, an industrial one. You want to expose your soldiers to as few starving civilians as you possibly can, for fear that they will defect. And you certainly don’t want to give your civilians a reminder that they’re living in a military state. So you send your soldiers along Bay, and if anything the factory workers are encouraged to slack off less as they pass.”

Twilight conjured and image of the Undercity labyrinth and had it hover above the map of Canterlot. She began to highlight different passageways. “So Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, and Fluttershy take this route through the labyrinth. They attack the column of reinforcements coming through the barrier here while they’re on their way to the barracks. Then they draw them back here, in the opposite direction of Bolten Square. Then they take this entrance into the Undercity— it’s buried under the sweet shop on the corner of Alicorn and Crown, you’ll have to dig. They take this route through the labyrinth.” She highlighted more sections in another color. “If all goes well and the barrier goes down, they can rendezvous with us here.” Another highlight. “If not, getting back to this place shouldn’t be to hard, you just follow this route here.” More color coded highlights.

“Meanwhile, right after you’ve started the distraction, Luna, Rarity and I emerge through this entrance and walk one block to Bolten Square. There will still be pegasi and some puppets and soldiers who will catch sight of us, I’m sure, but I can at least disguise us until we get to the actual barrier. I do my best to break the barrier, and if I fail, we go back the way we came. They won’t be able to track us through the labyrinth because they don’t know its layout. If I succeed, however, we push through into the inner city.

“We don’t use force; the barrier coming down will hopefully have created chaos. I take advantage of that chaos to once again disguise us and we use this entrance and this route to get to our rendezvous. After that we lay low and look for the inner city loyalists.” She looked up for the first time at the room’s other occupants. “Make sense?”

They were all staring at her as though she’d grown and extra horn. “Twilight,” said Applejack, “where in the hay did you get a map of the labyrinth?”

“Well, um, Celestia taught me when I was little. Well, not really, I taught myself, she just gave me the books I needed. I never thought that it would be useful knowledge to have.”

“And where,” Luna said quietly, “didst thou learn strategy, tactics, and logistics?”

“I did a book report on it when I was fourteen.”

Rarity tilted her head. “Princess Celestia had you learn about warfare?”

“Well, no,” Twilight said defensively. “I picked the book out myself.”

“You picked a book about warfare when you were fourteen?”

“I-” Twilight though back, remembering... “No,” she said. “No I didn’t. I mean, I thought I did, but...” She frowned. “Celestia had just given me my own rooms, complete with enough shelves to hold an entire library. There were only a couple dozen books when she gave it to me though, and she said I should pick one to do my report on. She said that I should pick something we’d never covered before so that I’d learn something new. She said that she always spoiled me with lessons about the things I loved— magic, science, history— and that I should pick something that doesn’t interest me this time. It was just a suggestion, of course, but when her Royal Highness Princess Celestia gives you a suggestion...

“We’d covered almost every topic on the bookshelf. I had to choose a book that I didn’t find interesting and that I knew nothing about. And only one book fit those criteria. The book Celestia made sure was there. That’s where I’ve heard that name before. The book’s author was named Astor. No Coruscare, just Astor.”

“What!?” The volume of Luna’s voice caused the map to slide across the table. “My sister had thou readeth that book?”

“It didn’t make any sense, and I hated it. It was about how to kill each other. It argued that it was in our nature to kill each other. It described warfare on a scale that Equestria had never seen before. It was incredibly detailed, but the author was crazy. They kept referencing battles that never happened, events that didn’t occur.”

Luna’s eyes were wild. “They did happen, Twilight Sparkle. Almost every written word that existed before the time of Discord was destroyed. Celestia and I decided that history would begin with the end of him. But Astor was special to Celestia, so she kept five things that Astor had written. The first was her diary. Then she kept two copies of Astor’s first book, The Power to Destroy. It details every war-spell from Astor’s time.”

“I remember that book,” Twilight said softly. “Nihilus read it.” The Power to Destroy was the quintessential tome concerning war magic. It did not credit any author, and Twilight had assumed it was an anthology. To think that one pony could have invented so many ways to weaponize magic made Twilight feel ill. Astor Coruscare, her ancestor, had created Magic Missile.

Rainbow Dash shifted uncomfortably once again. Her face was unreadable.

“Celestia also kept two copies of Astor’s other book. A book that could arm ponykind with terrible knowledge. Knowledge that could be used to assemble mass armies and slay each other by the tens of thousands. Knowledge usable by any pony wishing to make war, regardless of their magical power. Knowledge that had no place in the world we wanted to create.”

“I have both copies,” Twilight said softly. “One in my rooms in Canterlot, and the other in the Ponyville library. Except I brought that one with me.” She pulled it out of null-space and set it gently onto the table.

Pinkie Pie grabbed it first. She oohed dramatically as she picked it up. “Why does this book give me chills?” Pinkie said as she opened the cover. Everypony but Twilight and Luna leaned in.

“Well,” Applejack said, “What does it say?”

Pinkie Pie cleared her throat and read the very first page. “Astor presents,” she read loudly.

“Ponies Make War.”

-

Chapter 10 : Daughters and Daughters

A thanks goes out to The Prereaders


Daughters and Daughters

Esteem walked with deliberate nonchalance through the scene of the battle. Puppets occupied the streets, doing their best to subdue the loyalists, but they were failing. The earthponies and pegasi were practically useless against a powerful unicorn, and the loyalists had them to spare. Even the unicorns could barely hold their own, though Esteem was not surprised. The strongest race of puppets did little more than throw shards, use telekinesis, and cast Magic Missile.

        Yes, Esteem reflected, while their purview of skills was enough to subdue the average pony, they were woefully ineffective against the organized, militarized population of inner Canterlot. He shook his head in dismay as he watched a unicorn puppet get crushed under a collapsing building. Their only advantage was in numbers.

        Esteem drew a basic shield around himself and the cadet as the dust and debris from the collapsing building reached them. He would need to have the repair crew magically fix the structure sometime within the week. The crew was a useful thing to have. The loyalists and the Royal Army would likely have destroyed inner Canterlot three times over were they not around.

        “Cadet.” Esteem stopped and waited for the dust to clear.

        “Yes sir?”

        “I have in my possession what I believe to be the only copy of The Power to Destroy. Remind me when we return to the palace and I will let you read it.”

        “I would very much like that, sir.”

        “Your performance in the field lately has convinced me that you deserve the knowledge contained within its pages. The way you held against that peachy little unicorn was particularly creative.”

        “He was nothing impressive, sir. I should not have let him get away.”

        “Unimpressive is not how I would have described him,” Esteem said thoughtfully. “You survived the entirety of two minutes against one the enemy’s strongest bladecasters. It was a feat that deserves no small amount of praise. That said, I’d like you to return to the palace. I can handle things from here on by myself.”

        As he said the words, a force spell struck the bridge-way above them, causing bits of stone rubble to rain down onto Esteem’s shield. He looked on as a group of earthpony puppets were destroyed by a series of azure magic missiles. The bolts of energy burnt holes as wide as a hoof in the earthponies before bursting against the cobblestones.

        The Cadet sounded concerned as he spoke. “Are you sure, sir? The loyalists here-”

        “Loyalist, Cadet. This is the work of one pony. Now go.”

        “Yes, sir.”

        Esteem watched lazily as the loyalist’s magic finished off the remaining puppets. The color of the spellcrafting had tipped him off to his opponent’s identity. He was about to fight one of the strongest unicorns the loyalists possessed. Esteem ran his tongue over a sharpened tooth. He could not have been more pleased.

        Once his opponent had destroyed the remainder of the puppets, Esteem drew Carsomyr’s component shards from beneath his bladecasting robe. The robe was an extremely light garment of pitch black, made of cloth he had ordered specially enchanted to possess a glossy finish. It looked quite fetching on him.

        He considered for a moment where his foe might be. Inner Canterlot was characterized by its tall, round buildings and the arcing bridge-ways that ran between them. The streets were narrow, and any building tended to have at least two balconies. The confined spaces and multiple levels of elevation were naturally advantageous to unicorns.

        Esteem selected four of Carsomyr’s shards and charged them with kinetic energy before sending them through the air towards their targets. Two struck the building directly opposite him, burying themselves in the stone walls. The other two were embedded into the underside of a bridge-way and an overhanging balcony. Esteem gently picked an errant strand of mane away from his eyes as he willed the shards to release their payloads.

        There was a series of explosions, causing the balcony, the bridge-way, and the building itself to collapse. The four shards of Carsomyr sped back through the dust and rubble to interlock with their kin, assembling the full blade before the general.

        They were useful things, explosions.

        “I will err on the side of caution,” Esteem called out, “and assume that you were not killed by the blast. Well, my good enemy, I’m standing right here. Come out and kill me if you can.”

        A dozen bright azure bolts of energy spiralled out of the dust towards him, and Esteem disassembled his blade and intercepted all of them with Carsomyr’s shards.

        Then, he cast a complex spell, focusing on a point next to what he calculated as the origin of the missiles. The world around him shifted, and Esteem blitzed through the space between his original position and the point of his spell, a blur of motion. The dust parted as he tore through it with uncanny alacrity. It took him a tenth of a second to cross the distance and land next to his unicorn opponent.

        Both of their blades were disassembled in the air behind Esteem, but the General was trained in hoof-to-hoof combat. As he called Carsomyr through the air, he struck his enemy in the chest with a foreleg, then swept his other foreleg under him and flipped his opponent to the ground.

        Carsomyr assembled in the air next to him, and he brought it downward viciously to slay the other unicorn.

        His strike was blocked, however, by another unicorn blade, a glowing shaft of amethyst light.

        Esteem immediately drew Carsomyr back to deflect an incoming blow from the azure blade, then parried a jab from the amethyst one. He shattered Carsomyr for a diversion, then blitzed back to his original position to face his two opponents. Why did everything always have to get so complicated?

        “You too?” he said to the white mare who had joined their little duel. His blade shards tessellated into the full weapon in front of him as he regarded the two unicorns. “I suppose you two have as good a reason as any to want to me dead.” Esteem smiled.

        He blitzed in and began to duel the two unicorns. They were good with magic, but their bladecasting was poor, and Esteem could easily hold them both at bay with his lighting-fast strikes. He stood almost motionless between the two unicorns as Carsomyr whipped back and forth.

        “This is just embarrassing, you two. Surely you have more than this?

        The mare backed up a step and her horn flashed. A lightning bolt arced between them, but Esteem was ready for it. He blitzed a short distance backwards and caught the electric spell on his blade, sending it towards the stallion.

        The stallion erected a shield in time, and Esteem broke a point-shard off of Carsomyr and buried it into the ground between the two ponies. He blitzed backward again, landing several dozen feet away from the couple, then willed the shard to explode.

        Dirt and shattered cobblestones were thrown upward by the blast. Each of the unicorns rolled out of the way in time to avoid most of the damage, but Esteem used his telekinesis to tear a wall off of a nearby store and throw it at the stallion. At the same time, he shattered a nearby window and tossed the glistening shards of glass at the mare. Before the projectiles reached their targets, Esteem used his mobility spell to blur across the distance between himself and the stallion, whom he considered to be the weaker opponent.

        Esteem should have had him. The stallion had to use all of his concentration to shield himself from the storefront, and his wife was distracted by the storm of glass. Esteem raised his blade, overjoyed that he was finally getting to kill the irritating stallion.

        The white mare appeared out of nowhere in the air before him, wielding her blade, and blocked Esteem’s swing yet again. The General gritted his teeth in frustration and pushed Carsomyr against the mare’s blade.

        “Run, Midnight!” she shouted. “We can’t take him. I’ll cover you.”

        The azure unicorn got to his feet and looked at the two of them. “As soon as he gets to be too much, you get out, okay? No matter where I am, you run.”

        “I know, dear.”

        “I love you.”

        “I love you too.”

        Esteem watched with frustration as the azure unicorn took off down the street. He could chase the unicorn, but where would that get him? Midnight was far from defenseless, and he still had to deal with the stallion’s wife.

        He looked at her over their clashing blades and let his face break into a wide smile. “She looked just like you, Starlight.”

        “You son of a bitch.

        “She screamed for Celestia. Over and over again. It wasn’t until I was holding her down that she called out for you.”

        Starlight screamed incoherently and lashed out with a series of furiously powerful blows. Esteem blocked them all with ease. He knew that he wasn’t going to kill her, not tonight, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t have a little fun.

        “You know, Starlight, you have a certain determination that I admire. I should think you would make a good wife.”

        Starlight looked appalled. “Not on an empty sky, General.”

        “I didn’t mean now, Starlight, you’re far too old for me. Twilight was closer to my age, but she lacked your spirit. She was a snivelling coward. Still, our children would have been powerful indeed...”

         Starlight spat. “One of these days, Esteem, I’m going to kill you. I don’t care if I have to take Canterlot apart brick by brick, I will hunt you down. There will be no place you can go where you will be safe from me, do you understand?. I will unmake this world to destroy the bastard who took my daughter away.” With that, she vanished.

        Esteem let out a long sigh. Teleportation was perhaps the most irritatingly powerful ability he’d ever encountered. Still, he’d sent the loyalists running; that was something at least.

        Queen Terra was beautiful even by alicorn standards.

        Her coat was the vibrant green of grass in springtime, her mane a voluminous mass of sunshine yellow ether. It flowed around her head and neck, radiating outward with a ferocious intensity. Her eyes were a deep, rich brown that seemed to drink in every sight around her with a child-like eagerness. The crown sitting atop her head was made of vines and blossoms, and as Celestia watched the multicolored flowers would open and close, growing before her very eyes.

        Terra had a certain life about her that Titan lacked. While the King radiated a sense of unshakable stability, Terra was always in motion, always letting something new capture her attentions. When the Queen made some new discovery or found a novel way to entertain herself, she would smile, and the sun itself might look upon her with envy for the way she shone. Or perhaps that was just Celestia.

        Had Celestia ever been so beautiful? Certainly now she could not compare to the Queen of the world, but what about when she had been a goddess herself? She doubted she had ever matched Terra’s radiance, her charisma, her natural force of personality.

        She was mortal— a pony with no magic to speak of, no wings, and no horn. Celestia had believed that she was humble and equine enough to admit that all ponies were equal, that power did not make the pony. That she was no less herself without her magic. The truth was that she hadn’t been anything less than the most powerful and arguably the most beautiful pony in Equestria in over a thousand years. Now, she was the weakest, the only mundane pony in existence. She was empty, and the sun obeyed another.

        Terra saw Celestia, and her face broke into her magnificent, infectious smile. To a pony who had never met her, it would be beautiful and heartwarming. To Celestia, it was chilling. She knew what made her mother happy.

“Hey, Sunshine.”

        “Hi mom.”

        Terra crossed the room suddenly and stopped inches away from her daughter. “Don’t call me that, Sunshine.” Her mane stretched out licked Celestia’s face warmly.

        “Don’t call me Sunshine.”

        Terra raised an eyebrow. “And why not?”

        “It’s not my sun anymore, now is it?”

        The strands of Terra’s mane pushed against Celestia’s face, squeezing into her nostrils and pressing up against her chin. “I suppose you’re right,” the Queen admitted.

        “So you got bored and longed for my conversational skills?”

        Terra laughed and licked her lips. “Not entirely, Celestia. You always want to talk about the same old boring things.” She walked over to the ancient stone table that sat in the center of the room. “No, I’m just exhausted, you see. King Titan has me making as many puppets as I physically can— which is more than you might expect. It keeps the army in numbers and me weak. Can’t have his lady wife try to kill him again, now can he?”

        Celestia dropped all pretense. “You despise him, Terra.”

        Again, Terra laughed, playing with her voice the most beautiful instrument that Celestia had ever heard. That any pony could hear. “Of course I despise him, Celestia. He’s the only thing more powerful than I am. And for that reason I will never, ever be able to escape him.”

        “You tried before.”

        Terra’s face darkened. “I did, yes. And I was cast beneath my own firmament for over a thousand years by my daughters, if you recall. But only after my dear husband brought me to the brink of destruction.”

        “I could help you. Together, we could-”

        Celestia suddenly felt herself bite down on her tongue in the middle of her sentence as Terra’s magic violently forced her mouth shut.

        Terra examined the objects on table before her, rearranging them to her desired order. “Stop being such a child.”

        Her magical grip was released, and Celestia fought to speak past her bleeding tongue. “I’m older than you, now, mother.”

        “But you aren’t older than him,” Terra answered. “Not all of us together are older than him. Even if we were...”

        She levitated a dull metal implement from off of the table beside her. She examined it, smiling, then brought the pointed tool to hover in front of her daughter.

        Celestia tried to draw away. “No...”

        “He knows things, Celestia. He is three thousand years old. You can’t imagine the things he is capable of. He can break his mind into pieces that think for themselves. He can make you do whatever he wills just by looking into your eyes. He breaks all the rules, Celestia. You think that any of us could fight the pony who holds himself above trivial things like reality and truth? I tried, and he swatted me down like an insect.”

        Terra smiled her beautiful smile again, and Celestia fought against her restraints. The Queen spoke.

        “I didn’t come here to have this conversation with you again, Sunshine. This is a leisure visit. I came here for pleasure.

Celestia screamed. “Empty sky, Terra! I’m your daughter!”

Terra selected another implement. “Do you think that means anything to an alicorn?” she said quietly. The wicked tool descended.

Celestia split her mind two ways as her mother proceeded. She had one mind take the body; it would experience all of her pain. It would scream, and beg, and ask her mother for forgiveness, because Celestia, like any pony, had a breaking point. It would slowly, ever so slowly, go insane, and when that happened Celestia would have to break her mind again, and again after that.

Soon there wouldn’t be anything left of her. Her solution was only a temporary one; there was no way she could truly stop herself from experiencing Terra’s torture.

“I’d much rather be doing this to Luna, you know. She’s the one who betrayed me. But you’re the one who back-stabbed your dear father, so you’re the one he gives me to play with. He’s so considerate, wouldn’t you agree?”

By now the first Celestia was screaming, and in doing so she was giving Terra what she wanted. The second Celestia was busy observing.

She took note of every expression that crossed Terra’s face. Every spasm that wracked her body, every twitch and jerk. She interpreted everything that Terra had said earlier, and everything she was saying now. She had been doing this for over a month. Soon she would put her observations to use.

Terra watched her writhing with a look of satisfaction. “Just be glad that Titan doesn’t have the time to do this himself. He could create for you a thousand new ways to experience torment. In a way, I envy you. When I need punishing, there is no pony but him to carry it out.”

The Queen turned and walked to where Celestia had been tied to the wall. She leaned in to whisper in Celestia’s ear, and her voice was perfectly steady and sane.

“When I met him for the first time,” she said softly, “his name was Order. And he was good. Like you were. Like I was.” With that, she turned back to the table and selected another tool.

Celestia stared on in utter shock and disbelief. Was Terra telling her the truth? She had assumed that Titan had driven Terra insane, that a thousand years with the King of the world had broken Terra’s mind. If what Terra said was true, it confirmed her theory. It also made Terra more deserving of pity than of hate.

Her first mind disagreed.

“You got to be Queen of the world for so long, Celestia. Beautiful and loved at the top of the paradise you created. Me? I used to be like that, too. I used to sing, and not a single soul could help but love me when I did. Not even Titan, though he loved how I was loved rather than love me.”

Terra seemed as if she couldn’t decide between two particularly promising looking tools, so she settled for both of them. Dimly, Celestia’s second mind heard her first mind screaming.

        “We used to be so good.” Terra ran her mane along Celestia’s cheek. “And look at us now.”

“Rainbow Dash?”

The sound of Twilight’s voice caused an immediate feeling of fear to surge through Dash’s body, and she froze. She regained her composure a moment later. “Uh, yeah?” She focused on making her bead, facing away from the unicorn standing in the doorway.

“I brought you a map of your route to the rendezvous. Pinkie Pie says she has it memorized, but she can be a little unpredictable.” Twilight gave an extremely weak laugh.

Dash continued to make her bed, being as slow about it as she could. “Thanks.”

“Do you want to talk, Dash?”

“Maybe later.”

“Alright. I’ll just leave this here.”

With that, Twilight left.

As soon as the door was closed, Dash sunk to the floor beside her bed and began to shiver. It wasn’t Twilight, she thought. It was Nihilus. Nihilus is dead.

But that didn’t change the fact that the Insanity had conditioned Dash to immediately answer at the sound of Twilight’s voice. To feel fear at the very sight of her. To want to obey her every command.

Now, Rainbow Dash was expected to act normally around the unicorn. She couldn’t even act normally around Fluttershy, and they had been living together for almost a month. Dash walked over to the doorway and picked the map up off the ground, then began to don her armor. She had the feeling it was going to be a long day.

        “I know I can,” Twilight was saying as they moved through the dark passageways of the labyrin