Captain Blade Edge trotted briskly along the top of the fortress walls and looked out across the rolling green hills beyond. The skies were dark today. That was to be expected. The weather ponies were not going out there to clean it up considering the potential risks. They told horror stories of what those things out there were capable of.
He passed by a group of three soldiers, one of whom was shivering slightly.
"Feeling cold, private?" he asked.
The soldier, a white coated earth pony in the standard golden armour of the royal guards, turned to face his captain.
"Something like that, sir," he answered.
"What's your name, son?"
"...Steel Hammer, sir."
"If you're scared, Steel Hammer, I wouldn't blame you," Blade Edge confided, "This is my first time leading a major battle too. It's unnerving to say the least. There hasn't been a war like this in our lifetimes."
"Can it even be called a war sir?" asked another of the soldiers, a light brown pegasus, "It seems to me that 'war' would imply we're up against an army."
"Is it even true?" asked the other one, this one a light grey earth pony, "I don't know if I even believe those reports. There's no way just two of these creatures could take down an entire legion by themselves!"
"It's true," Blade Edge said grimly, "I'm not sure how they do it either, but I saw it myself. It's definitely just the two of them."
"What even are they?" the brown pegasus asked, "Has the princess given us an answer yet?"
"All we've got is the name. Human," the captain replied, "I've never heard of them, and the boys have been scouring the library for weeks trying to find some reference to them in any of the ancient texts. Nothing. It's as if they just appeared and started causing chaos."
Blade Edge turned his head and looked up at one of the watchtowers. The soldiers followed his gaze and met the sight of a red unicorn mare. She looked panicked.
"What is it?"
"I saw them!" she shouted urgently, "Both of them! The two humans are just over the hill and approaching the fortress as we speak!"
"No doubt just returning from Manehattan," the captain commented, "All right! Everypony get into position! This could get really brutal!"
He looked at the brown pegasus and the grey earth pony.
"You," he said, "Go sound the alarm. Get the whole fortress on red alert. We've got to be prepared! And you! Go down to the keep, see if the Elements of Harmony have arrived yet. We're going to need them for this."
"On it sir!"
The two soldiers saluted and ran off in different directions.
Steel Hammer gulped.
"You'll keep by my side for this coming battle. You protect me, and I'll protect you."
One thousand years later...
"...The following battle, referred to by historians as the Fall of the First, was where the forces of the Equestrian royal guard were finally able to win some kind of victory over the invading force. Though the other of the two humans escaped for a brief while, this battle marked the death of the human who assisted him. Since he was never actually named, he was dubbed the First by the ponies of the time, while the other human was named as the Second."
The teacher, a yellow mare with an apple green mane named Chalk Board, paused for a moment and gestured at the display case. The young fillies and colts of her class gathered around the museum piece and looked inside. Underneath the glass was a model where the battle had taken place, depicting hills and rivers and bridges, a large stone grey fortress at the back, and thousands of tiny model ponies posed around in various locations.
"Any questions?" she asked cheerfully.
"Oh! Oh! Oh! I have one!"
Chalk Board looked down at the young colt, a cobalt blue unicorn with a huge smile on his face, who was bouncing up and down hyperactively.
"Yes, Mystic Chant?"
He stopped bouncing.
"How did they kill First?" he asked.
"That's a very good question, Mystic," the teacher replied, "Well, historical records show that the First was defeated by one brave pony who managed to charge right at the First and wrench his favoured weapon, the Reaper's horn from him. First was killed when the soldier attempted to use the Reaper's horn against him, which destroyed them both."
Chalk Board walked over to another display cabinet, inside displaying a life size model of a white pony in royal guard armour. In his teeth, he was clutching a chunky black lump of metal that looked more like a mace or club than any kind of horn. On his hindquarters, the class could see that the stallion's cutie mark was of two war hammers forming a cross.
"Is that the horn?" asked a pegasus filly.
"No, it's just a replica," the teacher answered, "However, it is an accurate recreation. The real Reaper's horn is of course held by the princesses in the royal archives."
Mystic raised a hoof again.
"What happened to Second?" he asked.
"Ah, now that's where the story gets really interesting. Everypony follow me outside to the sculpture garden..."
Ancient Tome was an old unicorn. Or at least, he looked old. He wasn't exactly young, but he had the white beard and wrinkles of a stallion far beyond his years. Whenever he’d be out and about with his young son, many would assume he was actually his grandfather, a common mistake that he had come to resent.
Still, even he couldn't deny it. He had been degrading for years. Ever since the boy's mother died, he had lost a lot of his youthful energy. Nowadays, he spent his time in the study. It was his calling after all.
Tome was descended from a long line of respected magicians and researchers. His great uncle had once been the head of Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns, and his grandmother was the inventor of the portal network. The family had a long history, and he had always tried his best to live up to that, always researching and experimenting with new spells. He had more than a few major achievements to his name as well.
However, that was neither here nor there. Tonight, Ancient Tome was awaiting the arrival of a few old friends. As he paced back and forth in the study, he caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror leaning against a dusty bookcase by the side of the fire. One look at the dull grey stallion staring back at him, monocle over his right eye and ungroomed beard hanging down loosely, and he turned away from it sadly, sighing to himself.
Two flashes of light nearby indicated the arrival of the ponies he was expecting. His face lit up as he walked over to join them.
"Iron! Frosty!" he said happily, "Good to see you both again! I see you both made it out okay. Any trouble with the escape?"
"A lot," the first pony replied, "We had to fight our way out of there, and it wasn't pretty. We must have gone through at least nine ponies!"
He was Iron Hoof, supposed royal guard for Celestia and childhood friend of Tome's. He was a grey pony as well, but it was a dark solid grey, unlike Ancient Tome's wispy light shade. Also unlike Tome, he was an earth pony, so he was fitter and consequently had taken the years better. His cutie mark was a stylised sword slashing through the air.
"Oh, that's not even the worst of it!"
The other pony was Frosty Morning, an icy blue weather pegasus, and also his sister-in-law. Her cutie mark was a frozen patch of grass.
"Well what was the worst of it then?" Ancient Tome asked with concern.
"The guards locked down the archives when we were inside," Frosty elaborated, "We were trapped in the place. And then, some foal released the guard dragon. I think that thing killed more of them than we did. We never actually fought it because it didn't find us, but it was the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life."
"So that was the worst part?"
"No! Actually it wasn't!" Frosty said indignantly, "The worst part was what we did to escape the dragon. We used the enchanted stone you gave us. The idiot here, tried to teleport us out with the stone, through an anti-teleport barrier."
Iron Hoof hung his head. Ancient Tome just stared at him.
"She's right," he agreed, "You are an idiot. I'm surprised both of you are still alive."
"Especially considering where we ended up," Frosty commented.
"Where?" asked Ancient Tome, "I'm curious now. Where did you end up?"
Tome's eyes almost popped out of his head.
"We almost suffocated to death! We had to dig our way back to the surface! Good thing we were at least close. Any deeper and we'd have died. And here's the best part; we actually ended up emerging in a graveyard! Some grieving family saw us and went running because they thought it was the zombie apocalypse. That was not fun trying to explain to the authorities."
Ancient Tome stood awkwardly for a moment, scraping his front hoof against the floor.
"Well," he grunted, "At least tell me you retrieved it?"
Iron Hoof turned his head and opened up one of the saddlebags laying on his back. He reached inside and pulled out a large black piece of metal, which he held in his teeth. Ancient Tome eyed it greedily and then grabbed it with his telekinesis, pulling it over and floating it in front of his face.
"Good work, Iron," he said appreciatively, "We're a step closer to our goal now. You've both done the Brotherhood proud."
"I'm just happy to help," Iron Hoof replied.
Frosty rolled her eyes, but the soldier didn't catch it. Rather than draw attention to it and pointlessly draw out the conversation, Ancient Tome levitated the weapon of legend over into a small rucksack laying on a nearby desk.
"We will need to call together the rest of the Brotherhood," Tome explained, "Not at my mansion again though. We've met here one too many times already. I don't want Soft Spoken or my son to suspect anything."
"I can't host twelve ponies," said Iron Hoof, "You've seen my house, you KNOW I can't."
"Well I'm not holding it," Frosty added, "I held it five times already!"
The old unicorn sighed and rubbed forehead wearily.
"Fine, I'll ask Gold Coin to host," he conceded, "but I'm telling him it's your fault he has to."
"Oh no. Not Gold Coin getting angry. He might throw a pencil at me or something. Anything but that. Please."
Tome just gave his friend an annoyed frown.
"SOFTY! GET IN HERE!" he shouted.
A door opened nearby, and a wrinkled brown earth pony with a white mane stuck his head through the door and looked inside.
"You called, sir?" he asked.
"Iron and Frosty are visiting. Make them comfortable."
The pony nodded and opened the door the whole way, gesturing into the corridor beyond. He retreated that way himself first, with Iron Hoof following soon after. As he left, the weather pegasus turned back to her brother-in-law as he opened up the rucksack on the table and levitated out a large slab of crystal.
"Tomey?" she said, "What are you doing?"
"Making a call..."
Princess Celestia of Equestria laid down on the soft purple bedding in her private chamber, eyes closed and resting in a state of half sleep. The sun was overhead, and she was only barely keeping consciousness because she knew that she would be needed in another few hours to lower it to make way for Luna's moon. Her eyes flickered slightly and she kicked a bit as an image flashed across her mind, a memory from long ago...
"How though?" Celestia asked, "What could have possibly done this to my little ponies?"
A tear fell from the sun princess's eyes as she looked across the battlefield. Down below, across the rolling green hills and the over the little bridge that crossed the river, and well onto the flat ground on the other side of it, thousands of ponies of all colours, races and talents laid strewn about, many of them sporting bruises and dented armour and with more than a few bleeding in places.
"Your highness, it's actually not as bad as it looks," the captain said reassuringly.
Celestia turned to look at him and crouched slightly to be face to face with her lieutenant.
"How can it not be?!" she screamed, "Look at them, Blade Edge!"
"That's the thing though!" he replied, "They're not dead!"
Celestia raised back to her full height.
"They're all alive! Not a single death! We checked! They're all just unconscious. May need a bit of treatment from our medical ponies, but they're all otherwise fine. Honestly, I'm as shocked as you are. Whatever did this is either really merciful or really incompetent."
"Go with the first."
Celestia and her captain whipped their heads around and saw two strange pink creatures sitting in the princess's chariot. They were both hairless everywhere except the top of their head, and they appeared to be sitting in what should have been a very awkward position, with their back legs bent forward over the edge of the seats they were sitting on and dangling limply below. Curiously both creatures were wearing a lot of clothing too.
They were so strange looking. It took Celestia a little while to notice their hands, and realise that they were probably bipedal, like diamond dogs. There was also something else about them that seemed off to her. She couldn't quite place it.
"Who are you?" she asked, "Was this your doing?"
One of the creatures looked sideways at the other.
"I think the god princess of ponies may be mad at us," he whispered.
The other one stifled a giggle.
"Her problem, not ours," he said, "No use crying over spilt milk. I mean, we're trapped here forever, and we've made peace with that. I think the princess can get over losing a single battle in which no-one actually even died."
Well, whoever they were, they were definitely arrogant. That in itself was a bad sign.
"I demand to know who you are!"
"Well, we'd like to tell you, princess. Honestly we would," the first creature replied.
"It's just that there's a bit of a problem with that," the second one added, "That being that we're both holders of eldritch knowledge far beyond your poor little pony minds, and even telling you who we are alone could destroy all of civilisation."
"So please understand that when we act like condescending pricks, it's only out of respect for you."
"Could have worded that a bit better."
"Yeah, I know."
Celestia was more than a little off-put by the strange direction this conversation had taken.
"I demand an explanation!" she shouted at the creatures, "Who are you?! Why did you do this?! How did you do this?!"
"To which the answers are; 'can't tell you', 'they started it', and 'can't tell you' respectively," the second replied.
"If you refuse to answer my questions, I shall force the information out of you. I am not a mare to be trifled with, and I take threats to my citizens very seriously."
The first frowned at her.
"You know, I don't remember you being this angry before."
"Rules one and two!" the second shouted at his companion.
"Oh, shut it. It's not like she even knows what we're talking about. How is she going to make the connection?"
"Yes, well be smart and don't say anything more. If you let something slip, and pony civilisation destroys itself in an existential crisis, I've got to say I'll be more than a little upset."
"I didn't know you cared."
"Well I do. They're real aren't they? I mean, look at the princess. Even now she's listening in to what we're saying and trying to make sense of it, and slowly getting angrier and angrier because she can't, and giving me an evil glare, and trying really poorly to hide it in front of the other pony, but failing because I just pointed it out, and now she's probably thinking of some kind of threat or leverage to use against us..."
"By the way, usual wager that you know what does nothing."
Tired of her enemies talking about her like she wasn't there, Celestia finally snapped.
"Okay, fine! If that's the way it's going to be, you can answer all my questions in the palace dungeon in Canterlot!"
Celestia closed her eyes and focused on a spell. She fixed onto her targets and pictured their cell in her mind. Her horn glowed brightly with yellow light, and the princess let loose her power, banishing the two creatures to their prison. She opened her eyes and stepped back again in surprise upon seeing that the two were still there. Captain Blade Edge just stood awkwardly to the side throughout, and exchanged a worried look with her.
"Aha!" said the first, "I was right! Celestia's magic doesn't work on us either! I win the bet!"
"Ugh," the second groaned, "Fine then. What do you want me to sing?"
"Well, what would be appropriately awkward for this moment?"
"If you choose what I think you're going to choose, I will fucking kill you."
"Oh don't worry, I'm not."
"I choose '3-way' by Lonely Island."
Second narrowed his eyes and looked at First.
"I'll sing it, because I honour my bets, but I am going to whip you with my belt after I'm done. Also you chose a duet song, moron, so you're singing it with me."
"Okay, fine, we'll do something else."
"Jizz in my pants. That's a solo song. Or can be anyway."
"You little ba-"
"And you have to sing it directly to the princess."
"You're a cruel little man."
The second stood up in the chariot and balanced on two legs, confirming Celestia's earlier theory, and front flipped out of it to land in front of the still shocked princess. Second cleared his throat and dusted off his coat. First snapped his fingers. A beat from an unknown source began to fill the air, and the creature began to sing a song that neither alcohol nor the passage of time could make the princess forget.
Celestia's reminiscing was mercifully interrupted by a knocking at the door. Celestia opened her eyes and looked over at it.
"Yes? Come in."
The doors opened and one of the white coated pegasus guards rushed into the room, sweating profusely.
"Your highness!" he gasped, "There's been an emergency! There was a break in at the royal archives! Only the new captain survived, and he's out cold in the infirmary right now!"
Celestia groaned and pulled herself up. The guard looked at the massive alicorn as she stretched her wings, revealing scars all over her underside. The princess climbed off her bed wearily and stood on all fours again.
"Let's go then."
Ancient Tome adjusted the controls on his communicator, and it began to grumble with light static and emit sounds. The device was essentially a giant slab of enchanted crystal, one of his own inventions, and it was still in the prototype phases right now. In essence, it acted as a long distance transmitter and receiver for audio and visual signals. He could speak to somepony elsewhere in Equestria face to face instead of through letters. If only the enchantment wasn't so clunky he could have sold the design already.
That was the problem of being the inventor of a new technology; you were forced to work with the earliest and poorest versions of it. Others would later come and improve his designs once it was out there, perhaps succeeding where he could not and making it in colour and without the static, but for now he had to put up with what he had. The sad fact of it was that he would probably be dead long before his device was in common use.
"Hello?" said a voice on the other end with a Manehattan accent, "Who is it? Oh. Hello, Tome."
The yellow earth pony's face came into view from behind the wall of static. Not that he could tell it was yellow through the black and white of the screen. He only knew he was yellow because he had met the other pony in person.
"Gold Coin," Tome said happily, "I have good news! Iron and Frosty got it! The Reaper's horn is now- "
They were interrupted.
"Cousin? What's that thing?"
Gold Coin disappeared from view for a second.
"Nothing! Get out now!" he thundered.
"Well excuse me, princess."
The pony returned to the screen.
"Family visiting," he explained, "Nothing to worry about. You said you got the Reaper's horn?"
"That I did!" Ancient Tome replied, "We can at last move onto the final phase, and then the ritual!"
"Yeah...About that..." the other pony said awkwardly, "I know pulling off a theft like that at the archives was quite something, but I think stealing a statue will be a bit harder."
"We'll take these problems as we come," Tome replied, "That's what we do. Our entire order is based around finding creative solutions to problems like these. It’s a skill we value most highly."
"This is going to cost me, isn't it?" Gold Coin asked dryly.
"I ask nothing of you," his friend replied, "I am merely informing you of the situation. If you wish to contribute time, effort or funds towards furthering our cause, your generosity is greatly appreciated, but you are under no pressure to do anything, and you never have been. Your mere presence is enough for me, old friend."
Gold Coin exhaled and rolled his eyes.
"I guess I'd better get to work then. It was nice talking to you Tomey. Gold Coin out."
"Wait!" Tome interrupted, "I'm not done yet. I'm calling together a meeting of the Brotherhood tonight."
The figure on the screen stopped for a second.
"Tonight?" he asked.
"Yes, tonight. And it has to be at your place."
"Wait, what? My place? Tomey I can't-"
"It's your place, or the Everfree," the old unicorn insisted, "I've got no other volunteers tonight, and holding the meeting at my own mansion would be less than ideal for a number of reasons."
"Has Mystic not moved out already?"
"So? When I was nine I was already on the board of directors. Your son has no excuse."
Tome narrowed his eyes at the vague pony shape on the screen in front of him.
The little blue unicorn stared up with wide eyes at the huge statue of the human. It had a lot in common with some native Equestrian races. Like the diamond dogs and minotaurs, this being was blessed a pair of hands where ponies and a number of other races only had hooves. It too had a kind of mane like ponies and a similar, though different facial structure. It lacked a muzzle, but it still had a mouth and nose. What set it apart was that the human lacked any kind of fur or coat over the rest of it's body, even though it appeared to still be a mammal.
Second was preserved exactly as he was when he was first frozen like this, just like mighty Discord before him. Like ponies, Second wore clothes, though they were different to the kind that ponies wore, seemingly having been specifically tailored to his unique body shape. Not much could be seen of the clothes underneath since he was a statue now, but it was quite obvious that Second was wearing some kind of coat.
Mystic Chant thought that Second actually looked a bit sad. Discord was difficult to look at in his stone prison because his expression showed fear and horror when he was frozen all those years ago by the Elements of Harmony, as if he knew what was happening to him and was deathly afraid of it. He was frozen with that horrified look forever.
The human on the other hand was not. He stood still, arms folded and eyes closed, as if he had accepted his fate. It wasn't like he was content and waiting to be struck down though. He was wincing, like a pony who was about to be punched in the face.
The young colt's eyes were drawn to the golden plaque on the base of the statue.
"If I speak the truth, the world will die,
it's people will perish in an anguished cry,
the same fate that they delivered to him last night,
when they shot him dead, and took away his light.
Should I help, or should I kill?
Every pony, or just the ones on the hill?
I'll keep silent, and spare them that fate,
because he wouldn't want that; He wouldn't act out of hate."
Mystic raised an eyebrow. Those last two lines seemed very uncharacteristic of the being whom historians generally agreed to be the most dangerous enemy of Equestria to have ever lived. It wasn't just in class that one learned about Second and First. They were spoken of in legends. The feats they accomplished were still talked about and speculated on today. When ponies wanted to scare each other, they told ghost stories. When ghosts wanted to scare each other, they told human stories.
"Miss Chalk Board?"
The teacher heard him and walked over. Mystic Chant was now the last pony looking at the statue, as the rest of the class had already left to look around at the other parts of the sculpture garden.
"Yes, Mystic? What is it?" she said.
"Where did the poem come from?"
The teacher paused for a moment.
"I'm not actually sure. Maybe it's something Second wrote?"
Mystic considered this.
"That doesn't make sense though," he argued, "The last line of the poem talks about how he didn't want to kill ponies! I thought Second and First were famous for killing loads of ponies!"
"Not quite," Chalk Board replied, "That's the curious thing about them. You'd assume they'd have killed hundreds, but in actuality there were as little as five pony casualties in the entire war."
Mystic Chant's jaw dropped.
"See that's the thing," she continued, "Ponies like to forget that the humans weren't famous for killing. They were famous because nopony could kill them, at least until somepony did. They didn't try to take over Equestria, or bring about eternal night, or steal treasures. They weren't even doing it for revenge. One day they just dropped out of the sky and tore down our whole world.
“And nothing could stop them. No weapon could hit them, no spell would affect them, and no matter how many waves of soldiers were thrown at them, they took down everypony no matter what, and non-lethally too. That's why it was such a shock when First was killed. Everypony thought that the humans were immortal. Some even considered them to be gods."
The blue unicorn looked back at the statue. Somehow, the knowledge that the imprisoned entity before him had brought a nation to it's knees almost without a single death made it even more terrifying, like it had just been toying with all the soldiers it took down. That was what scared him; the idea that in spite of everything he could do, Second may have been holding back.
Celestia just stared. There was nothing that could be said that was adequate to describe her feelings at that moment. The entire central chamber of the royal archives laid in ruin before her. Somepony had made especially sure that nothing remained of the column in the middle of the cylindrical chamber.
The archives were built with the intention of making it as inconvenient as possible to reach any of the forbidden treasures housed within it's walls. Every single floor of the chamber had a series of numbered vaults in the walls, sealed up with huge stone doors that could only be reached by means of a wooden bridge. There were two of these wooden bridges on each floor, both sticking out of the stone pillar that normally dominated the central chamber, that would rotate to reach the doors at the edges of the room.
The idea was meant to be that one pony would maintain the control platform placed on top of this pillar and from there rotate the whole column and thus the wooden bridges so that a second pony positioned on those bridges could reach the vault required. It was needlessly complex and it made retrieving anything from the vaults a pain. Which was the point. None of these vaults were ever meant to be opened again, save two or three. The bridge system was just supposed to slow down would be thieves.
However, the concept seemed rather pointless now. Whoever the thieves were, they obviously had no trouble getting into the vaults and stealing whatever they wanted, and they had demolished the entire chamber in doing so. Somehow. The stone pillar had collapsed, the wooden bridges were splintered and burnt, and the vault doors around the edges of the room were all cracked and broken. The only item that seemed to be completely intact was the control platform, which rested atop a pile of rubble from the pillar. Underneath that rubble, the corpse of a giant scaly red dragon laid on it's belly, blood leaking out from the head.
A memory flashed across the forefront of Celestia's mind, momentarily distracting her.
"Hey, dragon? Settle a bet. If I cut out part of your heart and put it in myself, would we then be able to feel each other’s pain and would we both die if one of us were killed?"
"What? No! Of course not! Where did you strange creatures get such a notion?"
"Alright, so Equestrian dragons are not like the ones from that Sean Connery movie. I win the bet again. Now to think of a suitably humiliating song choice..."
The princess shook herself out of her stupor and focused on the task at hoof. What had her worried the most out of all this was the broken vaults. On every level at least one vault was now open. Some had swung open by accident, others had their doors destroyed, either smashed into pieces or ripped clean off the wall, and at least one on the upper levels had been opened properly. Considering the state of most of the other doors had, the one that had been opened properly was clearly out of place.
"Somepony go check that door up there," Celestia ordered, "Tell me what vault number that is. I can't make it out from down here."
Three pegasi took flight and ascended towards the vault above, and Celestia looked around at the other vaults. She tried to remember their contents, but was hard pressed to keep track of most of them. To her right, a unicorn guard levitated the body of another pony who appeared to have been stabbed to death past her. She watched the guard morbidly, and was slightly surprised by the sudden appearance of another guard to her left.
"Your majesty," he said, taking a bow, "I have the archive records, as requested."
Celestia levitated the ancient book of records out from between the guard’s teeth and brought it up in front of her. She flicked through the pages quickly and made count of all the broken vaults.
"Let's see," she muttered, "Vault 3G, that's the Elements of Harmony...4K...the uncensored history books. 9F, the alien spaceship, 4Q, Luna's foalhood drawings, 4Z, Metal Gear, 3D, those damn glasses, 5T, the elder scroll, 2W, that compass that doesn't point north, 7S...Oh. Oh dear."
Celestia looked up from her record book.
"Somepony check 7S! I swear if they took anything from 7S then we're all-"
"They didn't take it your highness!" one of the pegasi on the upper levels called back.
Celestia breathed a sigh of relief.
"Thank goodness," she said, "The colonel would kill me if I let somepony steal his secret recipe."
"Also by the way your highness," the pegasi called down again, "The opened vault you asked us to check is 12J."
"12J. Good. Right. No, wait."
The princess stopped dead in her tracks, and her eyes widened in realisation. She flipped through the pages of the book again.
"Is it empty?!" she shouted back at the guard.
"Yes your highness."
If it was even possible, Celestia went even whiter.
"They took the Reaper's horn."
Nothing in this world really scared the princess. There was nothing she truly feared, not even death. However, that wasn't because the idea of her dying didn't phase her. It was because she was the normally immortal princess of Equestria. Under normal circumstances, she couldn't be killed anyway, and any attempt made by anything less than another alicorn would inevitably fail. Except, if her would-be assassin were armed with the Reaper's horn. Then and there, for the first time in almost a thousand years, the princess was afraid.
Celestia trembled slightly and closed the record book. She stared at the floor for a second. The guard next to her began to take notice, so Celestia quickly regained her composure and shoved the book back in his face, ordering him to place it back where he got it from. She thought she had heard the worst of it. If only she had kept reading, and realised what else was missing from the archives.
In the infirmary of Canterlot Castle, a lone doctor wandered about the ward checking on his patients. He was a unicorn, cerulean blue, pink mane, and with a syringe for a cutie mark, and he was currently busying himself by checking on the condition of his patients.
The infirmary was currently filled with just as many bodies as living patients, which annoyed the doctor to no end. Especially since both kinds of patients were equally motionless and hard to tell apart at a distance. There was a virus going around the palace right now, and he needed all those beds for the living thank you very much. Didn't the castle have a morgue anywhere?
He levitated a clipboard in front of him as he walked over to the bedside of a particularly important royal guard, who he had heard from the ponies that brought him in had survived an attack on the royal archives. He was a white earth pony with a short blond mane. He was cut and bruised in several places thanks to the attack, and his armour which laid at the side of his bed was soaked in blood, though of whom or what was anypony's guess.
The guard opened his eyes.
"Ah, you're awake," the doctor said warmly, "Captain...Chain Mail is it? How are you feeling?"
Captain Chain Mail stared up at the doctor. It was a cold, piercing glare, and his eyes were green and serpentine. The doctor was unnerved. He was sure they weren't like that when he came in. The captain opened his mouth and snarled, revealing lines of jagged teeth and a long forked tongue. The medical pony jumped back away from him in surprise, not expecting such a reaction. Chain Mail leapt out of his bed across the infirmary at the unicorn and knocked him to the ground.
"I need...magic..." he hissed.
The huge earth pony was standing right on top of the floored doctor and stared right into his soul. He could only cringe as this thing, whatever it really was, stomped it hooves down on top of him and stopped him squirming and trying to escape. He closed his eyes and tried to pull his head away, but the captain pulled his head back so he was facing him again. He screamed, and as he did, the creature's snake-like tongue shot down his throat. He began to choke.
The possessed earth pony pulled back, and the tongue snapped. The rest of it came flying out of his mouth and the doctor swallowed it. The green eyes and the jagged teeth disappeared, and Chain Mail fell unconscious again. His victim stood up again and tried to catch his breath, but then the tongue in his mouth started wriggling. It crawled down his throat and into his stomach, and then he felt it shift form inside of him. It became lighter and it lost its solidity. He could no longer feel it so much as he felt a sensation as the thing floated up through him into his brain.
The doctor's eyes tinted green and his mouth hung open again, revealing that he had gained the same forked tongue and sharp teeth of his attacker. The unicorn had only a moment of thought left before he lost his mind, and another entity took over.
Suddenly, his eyes were its eyes, and it was in control. He could still see and hear and touch and taste and smell, but the entity could as well. And unlike him, it was in full control of the body, including his voice and memories.
Inside his mind, the terrified medical pony screamed, but the sound did not leave his mouth. It remained a muted thought. The creature in control of his body didn't respond, either unable to hear him or not caring. It turned to the huge glass windows that dominated one side of the room and lit up his horn. The windows all shattered spectacularly, raining down shards of broken glass on the room regardless of the many still sleeping patients in the beds below the windows who were hit by it.
Just like the captain had done while he was possessed, the unicorn jumped across the room further and higher than he should have been physically able to, jumping right into the now empty window frame. He looked down on the landscape of the city of Canterlot, the orange sun dying on the horizon, and grinned.
"More magic..." he said, "I need more magic. Need the human..."
"Welcome one and all!" Ancient Tome called out dramatically, "To this, the meeting of the BROTHERHOOD OF MAN!"
Thunder and lightning struck outside to punctuate the sentence, which was weird because it wasn't even cloudy a few minutes ago.
"Wonderful," said Gold Coin, "Can we please get on with it?"
Tome's horn lit up as he reached into the saddlebags he brought with him, drawing out the black lump of metal. He was met with a respectful silence as he laid the weapon down on the desk in front of the circle of ponies.
"Fillies and gentlecolts," said Tome, "I introduce, the Reaper's horn, aka the divine judgement, aka the god-killer, aka the one and only thing in this world capable of taking down the sun tyrant. If this isn't a sign that our time is at hand, I don't know what is. Any questions?"
"Uh, I have one."
The words came from a middle aged stallion who appeared to have not shaved much recently.
"How does this help with the ritual? Sure, Lord Second will appreciate having his weapon back when he's free, but I don't see how this furthers our goal of actually freeing him in the first place."
"Excellent question, Rail Way," Ancient Tome replied, "And the answer is ‘shut up’. You'd already know this if you paid attention to previous meetings. We have the salts, we have the ritual markings, we have the energy supply, and in five days we will have the full moon and the correct star alignment as well, but we're still missing an ingredient. Do you remember what it is?"
The stallion opened his mouth to answer, but then realised he actually didn't know. He stopped, and put a hoof on his chin as he contemplated the question. Realising that this would take all day, Frosty Morning cut in to answer for him.
"We need some of Second's essence," she explained.
"Oh, right! Gotcha," Rail Way replied.
"And the only place we can get that since he's stuck in a statue is through objects he touched in his life a thousand years ago. Such as..."
"...the Reaper's horn," Tome finished, "Now you see why we need this?"
"Good. Now, since not all of you were involved in creating the ritual markings, only a few of you have been to where this whole thing is going to take place. So you know, we found a nice empty clearing in the Everfree, and I sent auntie ahead to set up camp there and make it habitable. When the ritual takes place, I'm going to want everypony present there. This is important, guys. Don't screw this up."
"Are you sure the freaking Everfree forest of all places is a good location for this?" asked a yellow unicorn mare, "That just seems to me like it's asking for trouble."
"It's safe thanks to our protective wards, it's outdoors so we don't have to find a building with a skylight, and it's far away from where anypony can find us to interrupt the ritual. I think it's perfect."
"It's a forest full of wild animals!"
"It's where we're doing the ritual, Chameleon! Deal with it!"
"Tomey, this is a terrible idea, and I think-"
"Shush," Ancient Tome interrupted, "We are not having this discussion. I'm the leader, and I say it's the Everfree. Now, onto our next topic; How are we going to steal Second's statue?"
Mystic Chant approached the front door of the mansion and knocked a hoof against the old wooden doors. He turned around and looked across the garden outside as he waited for the butler to open the door. Everything was dark out now. The weather ponies had scheduled a three day rain storm, so it was going to be like this for a while. The statues of famous family members dotted the landscape outside. In the distance, at the very edge of the estate, Mystic could see the statue of his father still under construction.
The door clicked and opened up, and Mystic turned around to see the kindly face of the old butler, who smiled warmly at him.
"Hello there, Mystic," he said between coughs, "Sorry about my voice, I'm not feeling too good today. I regret to inform you that your father is busy with some official business tonight. I'm not entirely sure what it is, but I understand that it's very important."
Mystic Chant stepped over the threshold and wiped his hooves on the mat. The butler closed the doors behind him. He was an old stallion. A genuinely old stallion. Not just somepony who looked old like father was. Mystic never asked him his age because he was told that it was considered rude, but father hinted that he was somewhere between seventy and eighty now. He too had a wispy white mane and wrinkles, but his coat was chocolate brown, and he never grew a beard like his father had. He did have a powerful moustache though.
"That's okay, Softy," said Mystic, "He always has something."
Soft Spoken smiled weakly at the young colt and glanced down the hallway.
"Would you like me to get you anything?" he asked.
"I'm fine thanks," Mystic replied dully.
"No tea? Do you want me to make you a sandwich perhaps?"
"No thank you."
The old butler thought for a moment, trying to think of something to cheer up the unicorn, but he quickly realised that he couldn't think of anything. Mystic Chant wasn't exactly depressed; that was a difficult emotion to feel when surrounded by such luxury, but when his father wasn't around he was still rather quiet, and outside his capacity to act as a servant to him, there was little that the old stallion could do to cheer him up when he was down. At times like these, the little unicorn would retreat to his room and either play games or read something.
Soft Spoken paused for a second as he considered that. A grin spread across his face as a new idea came to him.
"Hey Mystic," he said, "How would you like to read something from Tome's study today? I know you've already read most the books in your room. Maybe you can borrow one of his?"
Mystic Chant's eyes lit up.
"Has he got any books about humans?" he asked excitedly.
He nodded and turned to walk down the corridor. His young charge followed after him, bouncing up and down in excitement.
Celestia trotted through the large hallway towards the infirmary. Two guards stood either side of her and accompanied their princess through the hallways. The torches were lighting up the hallways now, as the solar princess had not twelve minutes ago lowered her sun to make way for Luna. She normally liked to watch her sister raise the moon and talk with her for a while, as this was one of the few times of the day that both of them were awake outside of certain special occasions, but right now she had more pressing issues.
They turned a corner and entered the infirmary. The first thing that the princess noted was how cold the room was. The windows at the top of the room had been completely destroyed, and it was letting a draft in. Several other royal guards, mostly the batponies that served Luna, could all be seen milling about the room and checking on various aspects of the scene.
Some were carrying out the patients and/or corpses to take them somewhere else, while others were inspecting the damage done to the room or talking about it. One night guard in particular was having a heated discussion with a white earth pony, whom Celestia assumed to be one of her day guards out of his armour.
Celestia approached the scene quietly and cleared her throat to gain the guards' attention. They both noticed her and very quickly bowed down to greet her. Celestia just rolled her eyes and waited for them to rise of their own accord, which thankfully took less time for guards than it did for most.
"Your majesty," said the night guard, "We were unable to determine the cause of this disturbance, however it-"
"It was Sliske," the princess interrupted.
"Uh, pardon, your highness?"
"It was Sliske. Or as he always liked to call himself, Ssssssslisssssssske."
Princess Celestia hissing was way scarier than it should have been.
"He's an old foe of mine from several thousand years ago with a serious attitude problem. He's a body snatcher. He shifts form and possesses ponies to take control of them and use them to carry out his tasks. His biggest weakness is that he can only control one pony at a time, and while he can read his host's memories and learn from them, he can never carry over the powers of any one pony, so he's only ever as powerful as his host. For this reason, it's been a lifelong ambition of his to one day possess an alicorn. And for some reason he hisses whenever he talks."
"Uh...huh..." the night guard replied, "How do you know this is him, princess? If I may ask?"
"Because until recently, he was imprisoned in the royal archives," Celestia answered, "However when I visited there earlier today to check the damages and see what was taken by the thieves, I discovered that he was missing from his vault. He can't move long distances in his gaseous form, at least not at night, so that means he must have taken control of somepony to escape. So either he's in one of thieves who took the Reaper's horn, or he inhabited the body of the lone survivor of the attack."
The princess looked up at the destroyed windows, and then turned to the unarmoured day guard.
"I'm guessing that was you?" she asked.
"Yes. That's me. Captain Chain Mail, at your service."
For the captain of the royal guard, she didn’t know him too well. He had only recently been promoted, and Luna had overseen the ceremony when it happened. She had only had passing interactions with him so far.
"Do you have any memory of being possessed?"
"No, ma'am. Should I?"
"Hard to say. Sometimes the victims remembered it, and sometimes they didn't. Does anypony here know which doctor was on duty when this attack took place?"
"There is a sign-in register for staff," the night guard replied, "Going by it, the doctor on duty was Heart Beat."
"Who is a unicorn," Celestia recalled, "This makes sense. Sliske preferred unicorns because he was a better magic user than anything else. He never minded pegasi, but he absolutely hated controlling earth ponies, because their skills did not easily lend themselves to his goals. It's no wonder he skipped over Chain Mail in favour of taking Dr. Heart Beat."
As the princess considered the situation, she was reminded that she now had two completely separate problems on her hands. She hoped they were separate anyway. There was every possibility that the attack on the archives was a rescue mission for Sliske and that taking the Reaper's horn was just a bonus. If that were the case, all her enemies were on the same side, and thus were even more dangerous. She could only hope that these seemingly unrelated problems remained unrelated.
The last thing she wanted was that maniac learning about the human.
Five days later...
In the Everfree forest, miles away from any kind of civilisation, a group of cloaked ponies met. A clearing in the in the forest played host to the group, who had set up tents and a campfire. Six of the small tents formed a semicircle around the fire, while two larger ones sat the other side of it, used as storage by the group, and contained a number of crates and barrels.
Ten ponies moved around the clearing and busied themselves with various activities. They all had their hoods down for the moment, not having to worry about anypony finding them. Their clothing would have disguised them perfectly were it not for that. Even though some were unicorns, some were pegasi, some were earth ponies, and at least one of them was a huge zebra, subtle enchantments on the robes meant that once those hoods were up, everypony looked identical, save for Ancient Tome, who had a symbol of a stylised two on the front of his robes to signify leadership, representing that he was a follower of Second.
Ancient Tome smiled happily to himself as he laid down by the fire and levitated a book in front of him, a fantasy series he had been following. His sister-in-law Frosty Morning trotted up behind him and looked over his shoulder at the book. She grinned.
"I didn't know you read those kinds of books, Tomey," she said.
Ancient Tome almost jumped thirty feet into the air. He slammed the book shut quickly and turned to face her, using his telekinesis to hide it behind himself.
"I don't!" he protested, "It was recommended to me by a friend!"
Tome turned around just in time to see Iron Hoof leap over his back and grab the book in his teeth. He also grinned at Tome and cantered over to Frosty Morning to show it to her. He dropped it on the ground, opening it at an earlier point in the book. The two friends began to giggle as they read the page, whilst Ancient Tome pulled the hood back over his head and laid on the ground.
"Why, this is something special Tomey," Frosty teased, "This Shadowfax pony sounds just like you."
"Except he's cooler," said Iron Hoof, "Shadowfax fought a big fire demon. Tomey never did that."
Ancient Tome sat up.
"Wait, how did you know about that?" he asked.
"There's a stage play version of this," Iron replied, "Didn't you know? It's been around for years."
"What?! No! I didn't know! Why didn't anypony tell me?!" Ancient Tome shouted.
Another of the ponies in cloaks passed by, hood also down and revealing an orange head and red mane. He turned to the three as Ancient Tome was having his fit.
"Spoiler alert," he said, "He comes back to life in the sequel."
Tome just stared at the pony as he passed by on his way to the supply tent.
"Not cool, Sun Rise!" he yelled, "Not cool at all!"
"Would somepony come and help us over here?!"
Ancient Tome and the most of the other cloaked ponies looked over to the other side of the clearing. From between the trees emerged two earth ponies, one of them an apple green mare and the other one a familiar yellow stallion. Both of them were wearing harnesses and were dragging along a huge long cart with a grey mass on it. Behind them both, an even more familiar elderly lavender unicorn used her magic to push the cart forward. As they entered the clearing, she smiled and walked over to Tome and the others, whilst the two earth ponies collapsed, and a few of the cloaked ponies from elsewhere in the camp went over to assist.
"Tomey!" she greeted, "How are you dear? Is everything going well? How's the little 'un?"
"Mystic is fine, auntie," the grey unicorn replied, "He's growing fast, and he has taken a lot of interest in human stories as of late. His teacher covered it in class a week ago, and he's been really into it ever since. He doesn't know about what we're doing though. I do wonder what his reaction would be if he found out..."
"Ah well, that's all good then. What about you, Frosty? How's your little girl?"
"Excited. She's got tickets to a Wonderbolts show next month," Frosty answered, "She’s very enthusiastic about it. She loves the airshows. You know how fillies are."
The lavender unicorn nodded.
"So then," she began, "Me and the other two did it. We pulled off the heist perfectly. Somehow we got the statue out of the gardens and past guard patrols. We have Justice to thank for that. She was able to use her authority to redirect one of the guards elsewhere."
"Good to see old Goldie pull through as well," Iron Hoof commented, "I wouldn't have expected a pencil pusher like him to be able to do any heavy lifting."
"Don't be so quick to judge," Frosty scolded, "He works in finance now, but don't forget he spent all his early life working the farm with the rest of the family. He knows how pull his weight."
"Quite right," Ancient Tome agreed, "Now come on everypony. We have all the supplies we need, and all of us are here now. Let's get everything set up and begin the ritual."