His armies lay wasted on the ground below him. The field was charred and blistered, littered with the dead, lying like the scattered playthings of a careless child. The city along the mountaintop beside him was burning, the once magnificent buildings crumbling into explosions of masonry and embers. He twirled in the air, his horn burning like the sky above him as he levitated his sword, black as the night and razor sharp, closer to his body.
The white alicorn fell upon him like a bird of prey, her spear radiating with a holy light. He raised his own weapon in an attempt to parry her blow. He stopped the blade, but the force of the blow was enough to almost knock him out of the sky.
“Thou art a fool, Aurvandil!” his opponent yelled, her voice booming so all present could hear. “Thou hast betrayed thy people, thy kingdom and thy family! And chief among thy crimes is thy wilful rejection of Harmony in favour of the darkness!”
Aurvandil flinched away from the disappointment clouding his princess’ fury. “No! You cannot take this from me!”
“Foal! Thou hast destroyed all dreams of thine own without my interference! Thou hast forsaken Harmony’s light; thou hast already seen to that!” She struck out again with her spear, pirouetting gracefully in the air as she channelled the power of the sun through her weapon.
Aurvandil reacted with barely enough time to spare. He flicked his blade up and felt the jarring impact of the spear slamming into it. Just as before, he was sent flying backwards, flapping his wings wildly in a desperate attempt to remain airborne.
He was much lower to the ground now, and he could still hear the sounds of fighting carrying up through the smoke-choked air. Concussive waves buffeted him as some of the larger magical explosions rippled past. Mammon was putting up a fight, by the sounds of things.
Aurvandil finally managed to right himself, flapping hard to maintain altitude. His horn felt like it was on fire, and he snarled to drive away the pain.
“And just as we have the other demons who curse harmony’s name, I shall cast thee to Tartarus!”
Aurvandil’s blood froze. “No!” he screamed, his throat already raw from shouting. “No!”
“Thou hast left me with no choice. For thy crimes, no other punishment is appropriate.”
“Kill me!” he screamed. “Kill me, you coward!”
The white alicorn looked at him with something akin to pity. “No, Aurvandil. Thou art not deserving of the Void, let alone the stars of the Golden Fields. Millennia in a hell of thy own creation is the only thing thou deservest.”
Aurvandil screamed again. He coated his body with tendrils of darkness, his eyes burning black, the once blue irises clouded in fury. He levitated his blade above his head, marshalling all his remaining strength.
“You shall not have me! I will not lie down in the face of your arrogance, you coward Queen.”
“I am not thy Queen, Aurvandil,” the princess said, watching with eyes burning white like the newborn sun. “I am no longer even thy Princess. Thou rejected my name the day thou betrayed my trust.”
Aurvandil cried out, throwing everything into one last desperate effort. “Die now!” With the speed of lightning, the alicorn erupted forward, using magic to augment his flight. He angled his sword toward the Princess’ body, channelling every fraction of his magic that he had left.
The white alicorn watched him, her head bowed as if a great weight were forcing it down. He almost didn’t hear her whisper, “So be it.”
Her shield pulsed once, a blinding white light that encased her completely. Aurvandil struck it with the force of a meteor, and his power shattered, defeated completely. His horn flickered and went dark, and his sword fell from his magical grip, broken into three pieces. He fell with it, his wings broken and useless, his flesh still burning. The colour vanished from his vision, blurring into a veil of welcome darkness.
But he would not be granted his release. Filling every space left in the sky that was not burning, the rainbow light grew and grew, twirling around her in streamers of youthful exuberance. She was surrounded now by five other winged shapes, and they all stared down at him with faces that judged.
He tried to whisper up at them, but he did not have the strength to speak.
With a blinding flash, the rainbow light raced toward him, enveloping him, covering him. Aurvandil tried to scream once more, a silent cry lost in air.
The last thing he saw of the surface was her face, filled with pity and remorse.
I flew down through the wall of smoke and red haze on darkened wings. The air was scalding, hissing like a nest of angry snakes as the sky baked itself into an inferno.
The world stretched out beneath me. The ground was a sickening red-wash of cracked and blistered earth, crags of obsidian looking like deformed tumours. Here there was no sky. There were only burning clouds of sulphur and ash, obscuring the prison roof that was certain to lie just above.
Shoots of flame spat forth from cracks in the ground. A volcano rumbled, expelling more ash into the air. Shallow pits that were scratched over the ground like scars crisscrossed the land, filled with fires burning with the souls of the damned.
But that was nothing, absolutely nothing compared to the sounds. The air was filled with the most hideous yells and screams, cries in pain, laughter, agony and delight. Metallic shrieks lingered like wraith calls. The rock itself groaned as the fire within heaved and bubbled.
This was Tartarus, the bottom of the seventh level, a place forgotten about by all of the surface walkers. This was my prison.
I banked a little to the right, the ash, smoke and general filth not even close to affecting me now. As I descended, the sounds became louder, rising up from the camp beneath me, now no longer dampened by the clouds of haze.
The sprawl of tents stretched out as far as the eye could see to the north and east. Constructions of matted leather, stitched together from the rotting hides of every species known on the earth, and bone lay in a haphazard mess. Narrow and cramped rows had clearly been attempted, only to have been abandoned in favour of a system where the strongest got their pick of the rubble strewn land, the weaker being left to whatever they could find afterwards.
It was a system that I couldn’t care less about. They were my army, and they were ready to move at a moment’s notice. They had been ready for years now. Monsters from the darkest nightmares of the surface world stalked the tents, twisted orcs, corrupted monsters, demons, wraiths, shades, gargoyles and even more creatures whose names had long since slipped from use. Near the mountain I could see the looming shapes of black dragons, their burning eyes staring at me as I flew.
I made my final descent, landing in front of a tower constructed out of chipped black obsidian, made of curving lines where each point was sharpened at the end. Its name was Darkolith, I think, but I wasn’t sure. It had faded into the depths of my memory, lost in amongst millennia of memories that lingered like smoke.
A narrow path of ash led up to the structure, lined on both sides by the low-lying tents, fires burning in front of them, the smoke coiling frantically in the air like it had a mind of its own.
Like a child, an orc stumbled into my path the second before I stepped forward. He jerked, trying to move out of my way, but he slipped on the ash, pushing against me as he fell. My wings flared up, smashing him to ground, blood seeping from the corner of his mouth.
He rolled over awkwardly, picking himself up, holding a three tailed whip in front of his face as protection. “My lord! I didn’t see you, my Prince. Please, my Lord! I am sorry.”
I exhaled loudly, making a show of attempting to look calm. “You didn’t see me?” I said slowly.
“No my Lord, I didn’t see...” He stopped, looking past his whip and at me with wide eyes, terror clearly painted on his twisted face.
He was trying to protect his head, but it was no matter. I simply went for his stomach.
On the outside, it looked as if nothing happened, but the orc grunted as he doubled over, suddenly holding his gut as if trying to prevent it from exploding. To be fair, his silence was to his credit – that was no small amount of fire. He twitched once, twice, and then stopped moving altogether. A little red light began to flicker around his body, moving erratically, lost and confused. It was his soul. Even down here, death was no release.
It was only then that I looked beyond his corpse. There, shivering as if they were caught in a blizzard, was a line of ponies. They looked at me with eyes as wide as dinner plates, their once-bright coats filthy and matted, covered in lacerations, sores and bruises. The oldest could not have had his cutie mark for more than a year. What it had been, however, was a mystery to me, for it was gone now, replaced by a poorly healing gash, the flesh putrid and sickly. The mark of the shadow and cold had been placed there instead, the circle with the single line cutting it in half. One of the ponies was crying now.
These ponies were new, dragged down as the spoils of raids made against the surface in the past few weeks. It was part of His plan, to draw the enemy’s greatest weapon out before they could respond to the shadow building in the depths of the world. A plan that was mere hours away from completion. But now these slaves were trapped down here, imprisoned with the dark things of the universe until their bodies gave way, after which their souls would then endure for all eternity.
Without saying a word, another orc moved into place, the whip in his hand in a flash. He cracked it once, and the ponies started to move, shuffling forward on chained hooves. He would be leading them to the forges. They stared at me with naked terror, and I glared at them to force them to look away.
I knew why they looked. I knew that when they looked at me, they saw their precious Princesses, only twisted and corrupted. I took comfort in the knowledge that soon all ponydom would look at me in exactly the same way.
I walked forward, caring little for the screams so thick and desperate that you could almost feel them rattle your bones. The steps leading to the tower were warped, the rock shining like blistered glass. I ascended them carefully, placing my armoured hooves with purpose.
At the top of the stairs was a metal door the colour of blood that shuddered open after a brief thought. The corridor was lit with a mixture of blue, green and red lights, all of which emanated from torches set on brackets on the angled walls: soul lamps. If you looked close enough, you could see the ghostly flickers of faces dancing in the flame. And if you listened hard enough, you could hear their screams. I had stopped listening a long time ago.
It did not take long for me to ascend the winding staircases and narrow passageways. I encountered nothing on my trip up; this tower was usually empty.
At the tower’s summit, another blood-red door awaited me. To my surprise, this one was open already, soul-light pouring out into the corridor I stood in.
“Oh Aurvandil,” said a sickly-sweet voice, dark and hissing. “You take far too long.”
I walked into the room, my face settling into a dark scowl at the lack of respect. “Skelleitzor,” I said shortly. I was a little surprised; I hadn’t seen the demon in almost a century.
The grotesque shape sitting in my chair turned to look at me. Five eyes blinked from the middle of a misshapen head, more like a goblin’s or orc’s than a pony’s. The body itself was black and bulbous with six legs, thick and broad at the top and thin with pointed hooves at the bottom like a minotaurs. It was blatantly apparent that this… thing would not be able to stand.
I looked at him for a moment, letting him see my disgust. “What are you now?”
The thing with five eyes laughed, though it had no mouth that I could see. “I am not quite sure. I saw something just like it dying down in the Workshop’s waste pits. I quite like it, don’t you?”
“Now, now. Don’t be cruel. You wound me.” Suddenly, the creature melted, turning into a pool of darkness that writhed on the ground. It shifted, coiling up like smoke, forming a long body with spindly legs and arms. The shadow coalesced, and I was left standing in front of a shadow wraith, its elongated claws and fangs dripping with mucus. “Better?”
“Hardly. But at least now you have a mouth as well as eyes.”
“Oh, do we find it disconcerting? Is being anatomically correct that important?” His mouth shifted, turning into a vertical line while his two eyes moved to either side of the gaping maw. “One would think that you would have long since accepted that not everything looks… natural down here, unlike yourself.”
And that was where I decided I had had enough the demon’s sarcasm. My eyes flashed dangerously, and I let black sparks sizzle along the length of my horn. “What do you want, Skelleitzor?”
Skelleitzor’s face righted itself and he smiled, an expression that would have broken even the most stalwart of ponies. “Calm yourself. I simply want information.”
I stared at him, my expression speaking death. “What about? Do you not hear anything, oh shapeless monster?” I knew he shouldn’t be asking for information. He wasn’t anything important down here, but he was old, so impossibly old. He was ancient back when I was first sealed away several millennia ago, and he would probably continue to exist long after the earth crumbled to ash. If there was anyone I was likely to divulge information to, it was him.
“I hear whispers, oh Prince of Darkness, whispers that say we are days away from breaking the final seal.”
I’m not sure why I was surprised that someone like Skelleitzor has heard that. “Whispers?” I snorted. “They are much louder than whispers. The wheels are turning; the gears of the machine are already screaming as we move them into place.”
I smiled coldly. “A day after tomorrow. Maybe a day later.”
Skelleitzor at least had the decency to look impressed. “So soon?”
“Not a day too late.”
“Yes, yes, I suppose not.” He waved a claw. “What of the surface? Surely they have received word by now what your plan entails for them? The raids should have been warning enough, but it appears the Sun Queen has grown particularly fat and lazy in the last several thousand years.” He sat back down, his spindly limbs far too long to do so properly. “Honestly, no one tells me anything anymore.”
“They have known for sometime that something stirs. But they are far too complacent in their peace and their misplaced belief in their wards and gates.” I paused. “And weren’t you sleeping in the Baal crypts?”
“I was too… That’s why I’m so hungry… Where is that imp?” He shook his head, almost as if to clear it. “Ah yes. Another rumour. He has grown brave indeed if he thinks He can strike so publicly at such important weapons of the enemy before the Gate is down.”
“It was the only way. We will not be having a repeat of last time.”
“Because failure is never quite so bitter the second time round, is it?”
My eyes darkened. “Watch your tongue, wraith.”
“Am I a wraith?” He thought for a moment, looking genuinely interested. “Hmm. I don’t think so. It’s been a very long time since I remembered exactly what I was…” He shook his head. “It is no matter. It is interesting, though, Aurvandil; the Sun Queen will be waiting for you. Not only that, her sister is there now too. Apparently He was too slow by about a couple of years. A shame. They will be waiting for you with the vengeance of Him Himself, you know. Especially when they see you leading His armies for the second time. A tactical error, if you ask me.”
After he spoke, I laughed, a bitter and cruel sound that echoed in the small room. “Oh Skelleitzor. The Princess is weaker than a foal. Her power has dwindled, a candle compared to the flame it once was. There is nothing to stop me.”
To my surprise, Skelleitzor smirked. “Ponies do not change, it seems. Even mockeries such as yourself.”
“Your point?” I asked, genuinely confused and trying to not let it show.
“The Midnight one,” he replied as if in explanation.
I glared at him. “She will burn like the rest. Or perhaps I shall cut off her horn and make her my Queen.”
Skelleitzor laughed. “Of course, little Prince. At least you don’t have to pretend with the Sun Queen.”
“I have nothing to pretend.”
Skelleitzor got up, moving around the room, his red eyes never leaving mine. “With the Sun Queen there is fire, isn’t that right, Aurvandil?” His body started to shift, melting away only to begin to form the shape of a pony. Wings and a horn sprouted, looking ominously familiar.
And then his coat turned white. Red hot fury bit at the back of my mouth, burning and leaving a metallic taste that made me want to spit. I looked away from the shapeshifter, staring at the thick, warped planes of glass the colour of dried blood. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.
“Isn’t that right, oh Prince of Darkness? At least with her there is reason for your hatred. Revenge is a sweet desire, is she not? I should know. I’ve met her.” He circled me, his mimic coat infuriating in its perfection. The mane was the same ethereal mist. My mane had once looked like that. A glance out of the corner of my vision showed me that at least he couldn’t get the eyes right. They were still burning red slits.
“You could cut out my heart right now!” he continued, growing frantic as he danced around. “Come now, little Prince!”
“Shut your mouth, Skelleitzor,” I growled, my voice shaking. My horn was already starting to burn. My sword, Acchreon, was already beginning to form next to me.
Skelleitzor began to laugh, still circling me. “Ahh! The little Princeling doesn’t like the memories, does he? What if I called you a traitor? Would that change your mind?”
I shook, my whole body feeling like it was going to explode. I couldn’t see. I could only feel the hate.
“A little traitor about to lead the armies of Tartarus against the same Queen and her sister he worshiped for centuries. Oh what fun! A story worthy to tell for all the little foals on the surface. The Traitor of Hell!”
I snapped. Acchreon hissed through the air, the black longsword encased in my grey magic. The shapeshifter didn’t even blink as my blade removed his head in one stroke, after which it rolled around on the floor, still laughing. A fresh coat of crimson painted the walls, running down to pool thickly on the floor.
“Oh little traitor!” the head exclaimed, cackling loudly. “A nerve, I see? Over two thousand years later and you still can’t control your temper.”
I glared at the severed head, its lips grinning spitefully at me when he finished talking. “Watch your tongue, demon, or I shall silence it eternally by banishing it to the void!” I pressed my blade against his mouth.
The head melted into a pool of shadow, leaving the blood behind. Before I knew it, Skelleitzor was back in his wraith form, grinning at me again. “Oh Aurvandil, don’t tempt me.”
There was a knock on the door. I turned abruptly to see an imp waiting, his scrunched-up face glistening with apprehension. I looked to Skelleitzor, confused. The demon, however, looked very happy.
“Come in,” he crooned, much in the same fashion he did to me. “I will not be a moment.”
“Your imp?” I asked as the little creature fluttered over to the table, wringing his hands together, looking between us with nervous eyes.
“Hmm. Yes. But I am forgetting my place… Yes! That’s right! You threatening to send me to the void! Oh Aurvandil. You’re such a tease. To think, next you’ll be threatening to send me to the Golden Fields were I can see the stars with all the nice ponies!”
My anger began to creep back in, burning along my veins, leaving my vision red and raw like a freshly opened wound. “It would be easy. The void, that is.” I didn’t think about the Golden Fields with its sunlight and perfect stars.
“I don’t doubt it,” Skelleitzor said, not looking at me but rather at the imp. “But you don’t have the compassion, Aurvandil. You wouldn’t free me from this place by killing me when you could leave me to suffer.”
I glared at him out of the corner of my eye.
“But me,” Skelleitzor said slowly, continuing, “I am a merciful demon.” With a black flash, his claw snaked out and grabbed the imp, bringing it to his salivating maw as the creature writhed and shrieked. The demon leaned down and whispered softly to it like a mother to a child, “Isn’t that right? I am going to set you free…”
Skelleitzor was many things, and there was a great deal more which he was not, but he was certainly a fast eater. The bright red light of the imp’s soul flickered before vanishing from sight, fading away even from Tartarus, not left trapped here like everything else.
“Better?” I asked sarcastically.
The demon smirked, licking his fangs clean, not a trace of the imp left. “Much. I forget how long it was since I ate anything at all.”
An eldritch shriek shook the earth, echoing from down the tower’s base. I recognised that sound, and apparently so did Skelleitzor.
“Hmm. Beelzebub is here. Now that’s a surprise.”
“Not particularly,” I said, more to myself than him.
“Oh now, is there a hint of anger I hear there?”
“You would do well to leave, Skelleitzor. Beelzebub would not take kindly to your presence.”
The demon sighed. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. Well, thank you for the chat, Aurvandil! I quite enjoyed it!”
I grunted in acknowledgement.
“Ah well. Good luck with the coming war. I expect to see Celestia’s horn around your neck by the end of the week. By His name I am looking forward to seeing the sky again…”
And with that, he disappeared, dissolving into a pool of shadow before whisking away down the open door.
I sighed, letting Acchreon fade away back into the nether. My weapon existed almost purely within my magic, a blade crafted thousands of years ago on the surface from star-metal. It had been reforged here in Tartarus after I had fallen, now imbued with dark magics. All of the greater demons had similar weapons, though theirs were all made from hell-steel instead.
I thought about removing Skelleitzor’s blood but found I couldn’t be bothered. Let the Demon Prince make of it what he will.
It was not long before his heavy hoofsteps could be heard making their way up the narrow obsidian corridors. I waited patiently, collecting my thoughts before he arrived.
The first thing I noticed about Beelzebub was the smell. The smell of his rotting flesh was stuck perpetually in a way that never started to smell less, and it was not something I had grown used to even over the millennia I had known him. Flies followed him wherever he went, their constant droning eating away at the sanity of anything in the vicinity.
He walked into the room with his face locked in a grimace, his body sagging under the weight of its own dead flesh. His horn was cracked and deformed, twisting jaggedly as it rose from his putrid forehead, almost as long as mine. His eyes surveyed the room coldly, white pupils and irises that were devoid of even a hint of pity or empathy. His eyes were completely lifeless.
It was easy to believe Beelzebub weak and slow. Doing so would be one of the greatest mistakes something could make, no matter their station. I had seen him fight Celestia herself and almost win; the Sun Princess had to summon the might of her namesake before Beelzebub had finally retreated, missing the majority of his body in the process. There was a reason the demon prince was one of His finest.
“Aurvandil,” he breathed, his voice deep and wet, a forced whisper that carried far more than it should. It resonated, the walls snatching it out of the air and carrying it around the room, echoing.
I suppressed a shiver. “Beelzebub. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
He hissed. For centuries we had fought this argument. Pleasantries were reserved for Him and Him only. Formality was an alicorn creation, and not something that he ascribed to. I, however, took great pleasure in his disgust. I was who I was, after all.
“Little Prince,” he rasped, his voice dripping with mockery. “I am waiting for His call. Gothgor should be back within the hour.”
That got my attention. My insides churned at the thought, and my breath caught in the back of my throat. “Already?”
The demon nodded, his blank eyes locked somewhere behind me. “Yes.”
We both fell silent. We both knew just how important this was. The army outside the door was nothing, a useless collection of nightmares if the mission Beelzebub spoke of was a failure.
I shifted on the spot. Beelzebub was as still as a statue.
Eventually, the rotting pile of flesh spoke. “He is looking to you, Aurvandil. You would do well not to let him down this time.”
I bit back my retort that it was not me who failed last time. In fact, I was the most successful part of last time. But that would end me in more pain that I cared to admit. “I shall see to it. The gates shall open, the wards shall fall and the surface shall burn.”
Beelzebub rumbled. His throat made a wet squelching sound. “Good. We have spent almost two thousand years making this happen. I will not let you destroy our chance, traitor.”
I looked at him harshly, my wings flaring open. “Watch your tongue.” Beelzebub was strong, but not invincible. Two thousand years had done incredible things to my power, while the same could not be necessarily said for him.
He shifted his head, his white eyes definitely locked onto mine now. “Don’t fail him.”
“I won’t,” I said. “The sun will fall and the world will burn, and what was promised to me shall be mine.”
“If you earn it.”
“You will be hard pressed to do better than myself, demon. Why else am I leading His armies? Why else am I the one charged with her death? Not you.”
Beelzebub growled, his horn hissing with black magic. “Don’t tempt me, traitor. You are an infant compared to me, do not forget it.”
“And I am His finest. The burning jewel in His dark crown.”
Before I knew it, Beelzebub was an inch from my face, his hot breath suffocating me with its putrid stench. “Watch yourself,” he said, his voice barely louder than a whisper. “I was casting the angels down from the heavens before you were born. I was fighting enemies with twice the power of the Sun Queen before there was light in the world.”
I held my ground. “And you were defeated, every, single, time.”
To my surprise, Beelzebub simply snorted, though he did not move away. He leaned forward, past my face to whisper into my ear. “Remember, little Prince… I have made you scream…”
His horn shone black for a second and I bit my tongue to stop from flinching. A multitude of burning lines spread across my body, scars left the very same horn. He waited for a reaction, but upon receiving none, he stepped away, the faintest hint of a smile on his lips. The scars stopped burning, and I glared at him, letting every drop of my malice show upon my face.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he whispered. “So much pain. So much… fear. Ponies do not change, little Prince. You are still as weak as you ever were.”
Before I could respond, the light vanished from the world. The temperature froze, the air hissing as the stone walls constricted and cracked around us. I snorted in pain, and I heard Beelzebub do the same. The blood still left on the floor froze instantly.
And then, just as quickly as the change had happened, it vanished, the soul lamps flickering back to life, the temperature rising back to its normal sweltering heat.
I looked to Beelzebub and he exhaled, the breath hissing between his rotted teeth. “It is time,” he said.
I nodded, my stomach suddenly back to a writhing nest of snakes, biting and spiting with nerves. Centuries. Centuries of magic, work and patience. It all rested upon the success of one group of the lesser monsters of hell.
Tartarus had not been cast into the void with His displeasure, though, so I allowed myself to have some hope.
“Let us go then,” I replied.
He nodded, and we left the room.
The cave was lit by a cluster of black candles spluttering silently around the stone altar. Dark shadows danced along the walls, glistening with fresh blood. A shape moved around the room, circling the altar with slow, deliberate hoofsteps.
“Little Prince…” he whispered to the body tied down with twisting strands of black magic. “Can you hear me, little Prince?”
The alicorn nodded, his vision blurred with pain and a cloud of magical induced sleep. “I hear you.”
“Good,” the shape crooned. “Can you see me?”
The dark alicorn tried to shake his head but found it tied down. “No.”
“As it should be.” The shadow creature turned, his flesh already starting to show the first signs of rot under the candle light. The flies were already lingering around his body. “Now tell me little, Prince, can you feel me?”
The alicorn screamed. Fire. Pain. White hot agony that hissed and bit and stung. He screamed until he could scream no more and then he writhed on the stone altar instead, bound down by the same magic inflicting the pain.
It was only after he fell silent that the pain went away. He couldn’t feel his body. It was numb, completely lost to him. He held back a sob.
“Good. Tell me, little Prince, want do you want more than anything?”
The alicorn tried to speak, but his throat simply burned. The creature’s horn flashed, and he found he could speak again, his throat mending itself just enough. He shuddered to think what his body looked like. “I want… what was… promised to me…”
“What was promised to you…” the shape repeated gently. “And what was that?”
“My responsibility. My power, my position.”
“The city of Galathadros? The crown of the dead High King? The keys to Valaiya itself? Or do you want something more: the rule over The Golden Fields? The complete mastery of time? Tell me, little Prince, for I am kind and able to give many treasures.”
“I want what was promised to me. I want the rule of the golden city, and the respect of its ponies. I want to sit upon the council as an equal, respected. And I want her...”
The shape clicked his tongue. “Ah, of course. I can give you some of what you desire, but not all.”
The creature smiled. “Only some. But you should be very pleased, for I can give you some and then so much more.”
The shape resumed his circling, his eyes never leaving his charge. “Tell me, little Prince, do you want to live forever?”
The alicorn frowned. “But I already live forever.”
“You do not live forever. You endure. There is a difference.”
The alicorn thought for a moment. “Then… how do I live forever?”
The shape leaned down, whispering into the alicorn’s ear. “By grasping the power I can offer you. Would you like that, little Prince? Would you like to be able to create a new sun and move the stars? Would you like to rule the earth, respected and feared by everything that breathes upon this world?”
There was a silence, and then the alicorn nodded.
The shape’s lips curled upwards in a snarl of pleasure. “See? I can make you live forever. Not just endure in the shadows of those you call your greater. Would you like that?”
The alicorn nodded again, this time with more purpose. “What would you have me do?”
The creature’s whole body shook in silent laughter. When it spoke, however, its voice was the same collected hiss. “Simple, little Prince… all you have to do is open the gate…”
“Open the gates?”
“Open them wide as soon as the sun touches the sky. Can you do that?”
“And you… you can make me live forever?”
The creature leaned in, placing his lips against the alicorn’s ear. He smiled. “That I can, little Prince. That I can.”
Aurvandil woke with a short gasp, his body drenched in sweat, the sheets made from Dramad silk bunched in a tight ball near the bottom of his bed. The air was cool, and it kissed his skin softly as breeze worked its way in through the open window.
Just a dream, the alicorn stallion told himself. It was just a dream.
He looked over at the window, a buzzing sound causing him to frown. He watched as a small swarm of flies left his room, vanishing into the murky depths of the night.
Slipping onto his soundless hooves, Aurvandil walked from his bed and to the window. He took a deep breath, trying to see where the flies had gone.
Nothing. He could see nothing.
Nothing except for the gates to Valaiya, mighty doors of star-metal forged from the fires of the sun itself, set into a wall of stone over a hundred feet high. They were illuminated by a shaft of light not coming from the moon, not coming from any source Aurvandil could see at all, sickly and ghost like.
Aurvandil stared at the gates, his heart pounding in his chest.
I can make you live forever…
The flight to His fortress of Duvundur from Darkolith was short. His tower dominated the seventh level of Hell, a monstrosity of obsidian, tempered glass and hell-steel, Tartarus’ equivalent to the star-metal used by the alicorns so very long ago. Great spikes rose off it like the spines of a dragon, running along the edges. Their keen points glinted in the light of several hellish green glows, burning in little alcoves cut into the walls: soul lamps created by immortal alicorn souls. At its top was a great crown of spikes, piercing the sulphur clouds above.
Lightning arced through the air as I flew, the thunder’s roars becoming lost amongst the wall of sound that was always present here. A city surrounded Duvundur, black towers and temples all constructed in a mimicry of His own, all made to worship His name. Daemons who lived in the shadows whispered His words over and over in those darkened halls, cursing Harmony and the light of the sun and the moon.
I knew Beelzebub was somewhere behind me. The demon couldn’t fly on his own, or at least not without an incredible expenditure of power, so he flew on the backs of great dragon hybrids, crossed with birds of prey long since extinct from the surface world. Even with his mount, he was no match for my speed.
I landed on a platform on the highest level, the sky crackling with dark lightning and torn to pieces by a mighty wind. The balcony doors swung open after a thought, my horn not even needing to glow. I strode in, immediately surrounded by lesser demons, their horrific bodies all shapes and sizes, their hooves making different sounds as they walked on the polished floors.
“Oh exulted Prince of Darkness,” they said, bowing before me. “He the Most High awaits you, Your Majesty. The darkness awaits us all!”
I ignored their whispers, all praising my name and His, and walked past, going deeper into the corridor. Beelzebub would have to catch up. I knew I would be first to His throne room. I always had been first, especially back in the early days when I had been eager to please Him. Now I knew better; there were other ways I had to prove my loyalty.
The hallway was wide and well-lit, the shadows clinging desperately to the darkest recesses of the walls. Some of them moved, slithering up the cracks out of their own free will, all trying to find a darker home. The floors were polished obsidian, veins of grey diamond magically laced throughout. The walls and arched roof were made of hell-steel and flanged with more dark spines.
The whole thing had been built by Him Himself, right after the dawn of time when He and His brothers still had physical forms, back when they could still fight the alicorns and Harmony’s light.
He was the only one left now. His two brothers had long since been cast into the void, and now He was chained without form or movement, locked in His high tower of darkness.
Yet even then, even without body or movement, He was still the most powerful thing in existence. We all knew it. We all feared it. The surface would do well to bless their protector’s names for suffering so they do not have to. The creatures and monsters they encounter are nothing compared to Him. Even locked away, we know what carries on above thanks to His eye.
I turned a corner, only to be met with a closed double door of blood red metal, two snarling demons of stone standing guard motionless on either side. His mark adorned the frame on the top. Two eyes looked at me from the door’s centre, slits of black that followed my every move.
A voice whispered at me, “He has been expecting you, Prince of Darkness.”
“The summons has been received. My presence is accounted for.” The guard was Xastulis, a watcher of Him for longer than the sun has been in the sky. He fought in the darkness next to Him, and he was by his side when He fell. I had seen him slay a greater demon with nothing more than a thought when the abomination lost himself upon hearing His voice, tearing at his face with his claws, attacking anything that drew near. Nothing got past without Xastulis’ permission.
“Yesss,” the voice hissed. “You may enter.”
The mighty doors swung outwards, revealing a chamber as dark as the void itself beyond. With a nod of my head I strode forward, walking into the shadow without a word.
The doors shut behind me with a shudder. At first I could not see a thing, His presence banishing all light even from this plane, removed as it was from reality. The air cracked as I exhaled, any moisture freezing the second it left the shelter of my mouth. I refused to shiver, even despite the cold gnawing away at my outer extremities. I could survive worse.
But the worst thing about the chamber was His presence. It burned at me like a fire pressed up against my flesh. It was oppressive for it was everywhere in the hall. It filled up every possible space, saturating the room to where the walls themselves screamed in protest. These walls had been screaming for thousands of years now. If you listened carefully enough, you could hear the whine they made, a low frequency that ate away at the sanity of any unfortunate enough to hear it.
To my surprise, however, He was completely silent, choosing to ignore my presence for the time being. So I waited, ignoring the grinding presence of Him and the freezing cold.
It was not long before the doors swung open again. Light flooded in, briefly illuminating the stained walls, covered in symbols and pictures and artifacts of His past.
Beelzebub was the first to enter, followed quickly by Dracire, an orc captain, Cyricus, the demon spider, and Abbaddan, a demon in a body that vaguely resembled a pegasus’. His wings were leathery like a bat’s, his body diseased and mutilated like all the other greater demons. Several more demons and generals of the army I commanded entered soon after, lining up in the darkness as soon as the door closed.
When everything who was meant to be here had arrived, we waited. The silence dragged on, yet none of us spoke. None of us dared move save to breathe.
And then, like a voice coming to us from beyond this world, He spoke, “My faithful subjects… your presence here comes at an hour most of us have been waiting for for millennia.”
All around the room, everything assembled suppressed a shiver at His voice. It was cold, colder than death, and it sucked the feeling away from the chamber. It was a voice that carried with it all of the anger and malice and malevolence of all existence and destroyed all hope, all laughter, all goodness from the world. It was the voice of Him.
“Our armies are waiting on the plains of death; the wards of the seven levels have fallen, one by one, to my power; the Gate itself is breaking, the magic binding us mere days away from shattering.” He stopped, letting his voice sink in. We all knew it, yet we listened silently and attentively regardless.
“And not five minutes ago, Gothgor crossed back through in Tartarus.”
The room exploded. Voices sprang up, yelling, asking questions, desperate to know what the outcome had been. The noise was deafening for a heartbeat before silence fell again. This time, however, none of us dared to breathe in His presence for none of us could breathe. He took the breath from our lungs without rebuke or explanation.
The seconds ticked by. The orcs and lesser demons twitched, their eyes darting wildly. The greater demons and I simply stood still, the muscles in our necks tensed, waiting.
Eventually, after a minute, he released us, letting us take a single inhalation before continuing. “Silence. Word has not yet reached me.”
And so we were silent. We waited. And we did so without question.
The minutes dragged on, silent and unmoving. The only thing that dared move was the fog of our breath, and even that shimmered anxiously, tentative to be noticed by Him.
For how long we waited, I was not sure. The tension in the room was so thick it could almost be seen, a sludge of nerves and unspoken fears and doubts that threatened to unravel centuries of planning and work. If the plan failed, if the weapon was still in effect, then the Gate would be sealed again before we even had a chance to open it. The mission could not fail.
Only the orcs and trolls and other lesser monsters could leave Tartarus. The wards could be lowered just enough to let the lesser evils escape. He had been doing this for weeks now, always in secret, always with creatures still found on the surface, gathering slaves and information. I could not go though, and neither could anything even remotely powerful as Skelleitzor; the wards were still too strong and would be for some days yet.
The sound of tramping footsteps snapped time back into a measurable pace. Iron clad boots marched on the obsidian floors, ringing loudly in the otherwise silent halls. It grew louder and louder until it stopped right outside the doors. There was silence. Xastulis’ voice hissed, too quiet to be heard. A guttural voice replied, also indistinguishable.
And then the doors opened. Gothgor entered first at head of six orcs and two trolls. Thick shirts of black mail and plate armour covered their bodies, strapped over coarse furs. Dull helms rested on their heads, and metal boots and greaves covered their feet and legs. Each carried a sword or an axe, now harnessed to their sides, small round bucklers on their backs. They all bowed low upon entering, marching straight into the centre of the room.
It was then that we all saw what was being forced along in the middle of the procession. Connected to a spiked chain leading to one of the troll’s iron grip was a pony. She stood in the centre of the room, shivering uncontrollably, her purple coat covered in blood, not all of it dried, cuts, bruises and burns. Her mane, a darker shade of purple with a lighter streak was matted with filth, hanging down around her eyes as she shook. I could see the effect He was having on her. His presence alone was sucking the life from the creature.
The pony collapsed with a sob, the chain pulling tight as she fell, turning her cry into a choked gasp. Her whole body trembled. Blood dripped down her forehead and I noticed with a savage smile that this pony had once been a unicorn. Where her horn should have been was now a bloodied stump, a burn having cauterised the worst of the wound. Her cutie mark had been mutilated by a single cut on both sides, the blood from the wound obscuring the rest of the image.
He began laughing. The voice that destroyed souls laughed and laughed, a sound colder than the abyss of space. We all waited until He had finished.
Gothgor raised his fist in salute. “Your Eminence,” he growled, his guttural voice filled with confidence. “We have returned.”
“That you have, Gothgor. You have returned to me with the greatest prize I have laid eyes on since my brother cut off Alaris’ horn.”
“Everything went as planned, My Master. They were moving by train, heading to the Gate. The guards were many, and they were strong, but they were no match for the power of the orc and troll.”
Abbaddan finally drew the nerve to speak. “Forgive me, My Master, but how exactly is this our victory?”
He must have been happy beyond measure, for Abbaddan still had all his limbs after he finished speaking. “Can you not feel it? You know what this mission set out to achieve; reach out! Feel it! Feed off it! None of our station in the history of the world have been able to stand with the likes of her in their midst, completely defenceless!”
As he spoke, Beelzebub’s face contorted into a malevolent grin, knowing something the rest of us didn’t. I reached out with my magic, testing the unicorn, trying to work out what He was speaking of.
The unicorn pony was radiating a power I had not felt since the elder days. Flashes of rainbow light broke across my vision, only they had been wielded by the ruler of the sun at the time. I knew I gasped, but that was quickly forgotten.
It couldn’t be…
The mission had been to kill or eliminate the threat. No one, absolutely no one, had expected a live capture. Not her, not in the wildest nightmares of any present.
It couldn’t be. But it was. My own cry of delight rivalled even Beelzebub’s in its primitiveness. I didn’t care. I couldn’t care.
“What is your name, oh precious pony?” He asked.
I was already trying to hold back laughter, quietly, and Beelzebub was doing the same. Abbaddan looked to me, confusion plain on his face.
The pony looked up, her whole body shaking like a leaf in the wind. Her voice trembled, weak, empty, wracked with pain and the soul-crushing emptiness being near Him induced to those pure of heart. “My… my name,” she whispered, quivering with fear, “is Twilight Sparkle. And… and I want to go home…” She sobbed quietly.
“And she is the Element of Magic.”
And just like that, myself and Beelzebub were not the only two monsters laughing. It all fell into place, the disbelief that the mission had actually succeeded to the degree that it had sinking in, savage joy taking its place. The Gate would never be sealed now without her. Without the Elements of Harmony, the surface was as good as defenceless.
“Yes! Yes!” Cyricus screeched. “We must sacrifice her in His name!”
“The world shall burn!”
“The Sun Queen will fall!”
The hiss before he spoke brought silence to fall once more. The unicorn was trembling on the floor, collapsing into a tight ball, rocking back and froward as He continued to wear away at her soul. “Tell me, Twilight Sparkle, tell me about yourself. It has been so very long since I have heard a pony speak. It has been a very long time since I have seen anything so good, so pure, at all.”
The unicorn numbly shook her head, whimpering.
He laughed. “Speak.”
Tears streaming down her face, the unicorn’s head snapped up, forced to stare at the black altar at the head of the room. “I- I’m the librarian of Ponyville,” she whispered. I had to hold back a laugh. “I live with my brother, Spike, who’s a dragon, in our treehouse. I’m the element of Magic, and I’m… I’m the protégé and personal student of Princess Celestia…”
If she spoke anymore, whimpering and crying like a foal, I did not hear her, for all sound vanished from the room the second she mentioned her name. Her student? Her personal student?! She had a relationship with the Sun Queen! This unicorn, she was close to her!
And so I laughed again. I laughed and no one stopped me. Eventually Twilight’s mouth stopped moving, and she slumped back down, the compulsion holding her up fading away.
“We kill her now! We kill her in His name!”
“No! We wait and kill her in front of the gates as they shatter! The surface will see their champion’s body as we pour out from the darkness!”
He laughed. “Fitting. A worthy banner for our forces to rally around; the very spark that ignites the greatest weapon of our enemy.”
“Harmony shall fall!”
“Can I have her till then, Master? The Workshop always needs new parts, and something with her power…”
Everyone turned, staring at me, my voice still ringing in the chamber.
“And why not?” Cyricus snarled in challenge.
I glared around the room, radiating black light for effect. “Because she’s mine.”
Beelzebub remained motionless. Everyone else looked at me, confusion written across their faces.
He just laughed. “Yes… Yes! I like that. I like that a lot. Oh Celestia’s precious student, you have the most perfect host.” He laughed again. He knew exactly why I wanted her. And I was thrilled to hear Him like it.
“Good,” I said. “The unicorn is mine until the day of our release. The day we march to war as gods.”
“That she is, Little Prince of mine. Make her suffer. Make her rue the day she was born in defiance of the shadow.”
This time, I laughed. I laughed and Twilight sobbed, the unicorn all but ignored as we talked about her.
I smiled. “Oh, My Lord… it will be my pleasure.”
A huge thank you to my editor, Sessalisk, for generally making my writing so much less terrible. Also, another massive thank you to everyone for reading!
The thought only made me laugh even more.
She followed limply behind me, imprisoned in a dark cell of magic, an orb floating along behind me, forever trapped in my wake. I kept the walls translucent so she could see my world for what it was, and what her world was soon to be.
I was flying to my fortress, Valkor, and I was taking great pleasure in going the scenic route. My pathetic charge coughed and spluttered, her lungs choked with ash as I flew over the twin peaks Darrostoth, the mountain of dread, vomiting plumes of caustic smoke into the air. Her eyes were burning, and she whimpered, suspended so many hundreds of feet in the air.
The dragons eyed her carefully as I looped around them, circling like a bird of prey. Some laughed like me; others snarled, licking their lips with hunger; still more were silent, watching, their faces carved from stone for all the emotion they were showing. But for me, it did not matter. It did not matter in the slightest.
The base of the camps touched the foot of Darrostoth on its northern slopes. Filled with a desire to show off my prize, I fell from the air like a stone, tucking my wings tight against my body. At the last second, I snapped them open, my dark feathers imbued with black tendrils of magic as I skimmed over the tops of the squalid tents.
“Look at it!” I screamed to her. “Do you see? Can you see it, Twilight Sparkle?!”
There was no reply.
“Do you see the monsters I have at my command? The creatures who look to me for orders and direction? They would burn the world at my word, casting down the sun to please my slightest whim!”
I circled around Darkolith, now many miles away from the mountain. I was flying faster than I had thought.
I stopped, hovering in the air. “The Gates shall crack, and my armies will pour forth, covering the land in fire and shadow.”
I was booming, my voice echoing across the plain. Everything had stopped to look up at me as I screamed at her.
Finally, she spoke, “Please… I’m sorry… please… I just want to go home…”
I blinked at her. And then I started laughing again. I heard the nightmares near me laugh as well.
I drew her close, leering at her. “Home? How do you not see? Do you not understand yet? This is your home!”
I dropped her, letting her fall to the ground like a sack of flour. She hit the ash hard, not moving for a second. I floated down next to her, testing her with my magic for any broken bones. She sobbed quietly, trying to curl up into a ball. She had a broken leg, nothing more. With a flash, the leg was fixed. I left the pain though.
“Stand,” I commanded, and the unicorn forced herself to her hooves.
I had chosen this spot particularly. For there, watching with wide eyes and trembling bodies, were a group of slave ponies. They all wore chains around their necks and hooves, limiting them to half-hearted shuffles. Their coats were beyond filthy, and they were missing their cutie marks. They looked at Twilight, and some started to cry.
I turned to them, resplendent in my pleasure. “You know this pony, do you not? You know her for who she is, what she has done for you?”
A sea-green mare sobbed, falling to the ground. Another pony whispered his Princess’ name, asking the alicorn for help. My grin turned savage.
“You know her for the power she wields in her Princess’ name! For the last hope your world had in keeping us at bay! And now look at her…”
I turned, tight tendrils of magic already coiling around Twilight’s body, snaking up her legs. My horn flashed and she fell to the ground with a cry, the magic pulling her down, holding her still.
Very gently, almost a lover’s touch, I pressed my hoof to her skull. “Now look at her,” I said to the ponies, just as softly as my hoof. “Look at how far she has fallen.”
Twilight whimpered, throwing her gaze up at the ponies. Her lower lip trembled. “Don’t… don’t listen to him…” she whispered.
I laughed, applying pressure with my hoof.
“Everything… is going to be ok.” She whimpered, a consequence of my behaviour.
“Do you hear that?” I said, mocking her. “Everything is going to be ok!”
“The Princess…” she choked, “the Princess is going to make everything better…”
I leaned close to her head. “Your Princess can’t save you now, little Element. Your Princess is a liar.”
“Lea-leave her alone.”
Silence fell. I released the pressure on Twilight’s skull after a quick push. I looked up, making sure to take my time, letting my eyes burn.
The pony who had spoken gulped, a ridiculously comical gesture that had never been more appropriate. His back legs were wet, another appropriate response.
“Leave her alone?” I repeated, slowly, stressing each word, trying not the laugh at the absurdity of such a request.
He nodded once.
I turned to Twilight, her eyes wet with tears as she stared at this stallion. Her broken, pathetic face.
“So be it. I am a merciful Prince, after all.” The magic holding Twilight vanished, and she slumped properly, not finding the strength to even keep her head up.
But I was not done yet. My horn flashed, and the stallion started to scream. “But everything comes at a price,” I murmured.
With a wave of my hoof, not bothering to speak over the sound of the stallion’s screams, I summoned over two lesser demons, their wings and horns washed with a sickly red light. “There is a soul lamp in Valkor’s crypts that needs replacing,” I said casually, motioning to the pony writhing in agony on the ground.
The demons nodded, and without another word, they grabbed the stallion and left, his screams lingering a very long time after he had disappeared from sight.
“Be warned of any future requests,” I said to the ponies remaining, who trembled to scared to think let alone speak or move. “Every desire comes at a price.”
With a flash, Twilight was back within her floating prison, and I took off, racing towards Valkor. I wasn’t laughing now, but I let a small smile work its way onto my face. The day was still young, and the unicorn was still very, very alive.
Valkor rested on Darrostoth’s second peak, the one that wasn’t a volcano. It was cut into the rock, a spire of obsidian surrounded by a ringed complex of hell-steel buildings. There was no need for a wall, but a moat of lava existed around its entrance underneath an arching bridge. The moat itself poured into a waterfall, plunging down the mountain to the lower slopes below.
The fortress was lit by a collection of soul lamps and fire. Wisps and spectres danced amongst the buildings, lost spirits hiding away from the cruelty of the necromancers. Their only safety was in their numbers.
I swept through the already open doorway, the polished obsidian floors glinting from the light of my horn. Dark statues stood watch over the room, the chief of those being two stone daemons by the staircase, His shades of fire. Long had they been absent from the seventh level, lost to the void for all time.
Without a word I stalked down a doorway, Twilight floating just behind me. A shade flattened herself out of my way when she saw me coming, cackling at the new toy I had.
The staircase to the dungeons was impossibly dark, the inky darkness so real that you could almost touch it. I descended into it without hesitation or thought. Twilight, however, flinched as the darkness enveloped her, depriving her of one of her senses.
“You should count yourself lucky,” I said. “You’re not in His dungeons.”
At the bottom of the staircase, multiple soul lamps flickered into life. I could hear Twilight whimper as the screams, so soft that you could easily be mistaken thinking they weren’t even real, reached her ears.
I liked not having any lights on the stairs. The descent into darkness. The entrants liked it a lot less.
I placed Twilight on a low obsidian altar. Magic bound her in place, strapping her down tight.
I took my time. I circled her, slowly at first, letting her see me whenever I walked in front of her. I was so eager that my legs were trembling, anticipation setting my nerves on fire.
“Can you hear me?” I whispered.
She nodded, sniffling.
I grinned. “Can you see me?”
She nodded again when I walked in front of her. I paused, moving closer, looking her in the eyes. They were wells of fear, and I could see her fighting against the demons that lurked all around her. Such a brave pony. Such a brave soul…
This was going to be fun.
“Can you feel-”
“My Prince?” There was an awkward shuffling sound coming from somewhere near the stairs.
I stopped, my expression souring in disgust. “What?”
The troll grunted. “Dracire requests an audience, my Prince.”
“Gothgor had more to say about the pony defenders, my Prince. He wants to speak to you about how we assault Canterlot. There were more unicorns than we initially assumed.”
I exhaled, white hot rage bubbling just below the surface. “So be it.” With a flash of my horn, pits in the walls opened up, and out crawled a writhing mass of thin tendrils of shadow. They formed into dark claws, reaching up the side of the altar, reaching for her, caressing her coat.
Twilight started to whimper, thrashing against her bonds.
“Let’s go,” I said, turning away from the unicorn.
Great doors led into the resplendent throne room of the alicorn city of Valaiya. They were covered in vines of coloured crystal, diamond filigree twisting through the gems. An alicorn guard stood on either side, one in golden armour, the other silver. Carvings of the sun and the moon were set above the door, and framing it was two pillars carved into the likeness of evergreen trees.
Aurvandil strode towards them, his face twisted into snarl. The guards stiffened when they saw him, light creeping along their horns. Blades of light began to form above their heads, as they moved in front of the door.
Aurvandil stopped, his body encased in flanged grey armour, a bright pendant on his chest marking him out as some sort of a commander.
“Move,” he growled, his voice dangerously low.
The guards snorted, their blades forming into reality with a bright flash.
Aurvandil’s eyes narrowed, his own blade nowhere to be seen. “Please. You must be either very brave or very foolish, Ealise and Aiser. I hold your intelligence in nothing but the highest regard. Do not be fools. Move aside.”
There was a flicker of doubt in Ealise’s eyes. She spoke slowly, taking a deep breath. “Without her Majesty’s permission, we cannot let your enter, my Lord.”
Aurvandil’s eyes went dark. “You would dare stop me entering into mine own throne room?”
Fear worked itself into Ealise’s expression. “I’m sorry, my Lord.”
Aurvandil instantly lowered his stance, a shaft of grey light forming above his head. Ealise and Aiser moved their own blades in front of their faces, frail courage taking hold, determined to stand their ground.
“What is the meaning of this?!”
All three alicorns froze, relief flooding into the two guard’s faces at the sound of the faceless voice. Aurvandil looked black.
“Aurvandil, enter with thy blade banished! I shall not have violence between my peoples.”
The two guards willingly stepped down, their horns remaining alight as the great doors swung backwards, revealing the throne room beyond.
Aurvandil dispelled his blade and strode in, his head held high in the presence of the nobles, his eyes murderous. He walked soundlessly over the polished marble floors, laced with threads of crystal.
The throne room itself was vast, lined on both sides with great pillars covered in vines, little white flowers blooming along their lengths. Magical lamps burned in glass orbs in the centre of each pillar, augmenting the sunlight that poured in naturally through the vaulted, high glass ceiling.
At the head of the room was an arch of six thrones. Only two were filled, the rest having been empty for some time now. Several lesser nobles stood around the thrones, looking up from their interrupted conversations. Guards moved quickly and silently, taking positions around the chamber. If Aurvandil cared, or if he even noticed them, he did not show it.
Princess Celestia stood next to her sister, the Sun Princess’ wings raised high above her head, her face a mask of anger and power. She looked down on Aurvandil, her body covered in her elaborate golden armour, the sun emblazoned on her chest in enchanted crystal.
Her sister stood silently, her mouth in a right frown, almost as if she was trying to hide her emotions. Her eyes betrayed her, though, for they were glistening like morning dew.
“What is the meaning of this?” Celestia demanded.
“You liar!” Aurvandil shouted. “You promised me!”
Celestia regarded the alicorn before her carefully. “I did not lie,” she said after a pause.
“Then why did I have to hear from Farader that you refused to give the positions to me?”
“I did not lie,” Celestia said again.
“You did!” the grey alicorn snarled. “You promised me the position on the council! You promised me the rule of Galathadros! Instead you give them to Thail!”
Celestia was silent for another moment “I did,” she said at last.
“Then you admit it! You admit your promise to me!”
The Sun Princess lowered her wings. “I did promise those things to thee. However, I did so under certain conditions.”
Aurvandil froze. “You lie,” he hissed. “You did no such thing.”
Celestia’s eyes flashed. “Silence, child Princeling. Thy pride does thine intelligence a great disservice.”
Aurvandil snorted in barely suppressed rage.
“I did promise thee a seat on the council. I did promise thee the rule of Galathadros. Thou hast shown great courage and strength in the security of the Kingdom, and thou should be rewarded for such noble deeds. Thy defence of Iathalas shalt be sung of by the bards for millennia to come.”
“Then why hold my prize? Why hold my reward?”
“Because I promised these rewards to thee on the contract of goodwill and wise council. Thou hast shown none of this! Thou hast spit on my name and the name of Harmony! Thou hast lashed out at my sister, thy royal Princess, in anger and foolishness. Thou art not fit to rule; thou art not even worthy of my respect!”
Aurvandil was silent. He stared up at his Princess in disbelief. “You cannot be… you are not serious…” he murmured, his voice shaking with fury.
“Thou must show these qualities before I grant thee thy desires! Thou must earn my respect, the respect of our people!”
“Me? Earn your respect?” Aurvandil’s voice was low, suddenly calm. “I have to earn your respect?”
Celestia’s eyes twitched, attempting to pierce Aurvandil’s mask and guess his intention. “Yes, that is correct.”
Aurvandil reared up, his eyes burning with fury. “Have I not done enough to please you?! Have I not served your name with courage and valour?! Who stood alone when the gates of Iathalas fell, when your men cried and threw down their weapons and fled against Him? Who heard His voice and cast my blade at His face, alone against the demons of shadow and fire?”
The grey alicorn’s wings flared out as he began screaming. “Who stood and fought when no one else would? Who stood for YOU?! For years I have fought this menace, this shadow from hell, and I receive nothing! You are a liar and a coward, oh Queen of mine! And I spit on thy name and thy throne! Thou art no more fit to lead this Kingdom than I am!”
The court was silent. Celestia stood, dumfounded for the first time in years.
And then her wrath came with a vengeance.
“Thou art a fool and a foal, Aurvandil!” she roared, her body glowing with holy light. The sky darkened as her sun rumbled its displeasure. “Thou cometh to my throne and calleth me a liar and a coward?! Thou art not worthy to sit amongst the mules of this world!”
“Your arrogance is in full display, oh mighty Queen!” Aurvandil screamed back. “You cast away my service for a personal slight, refusing to give me what is owed! You are arrogant indeed if you think I shall stand idly by while you rule as tyrant and a liar over our Kingdom!”
“Be gone from this hall!” Celestia spat, her composure shattered. “Be gone from this hall and do not come back! Thou art not worthy to be in its sacred halls; thine insolence spreads a shadow through its very name!”
Aurvandil was silent. Both alicorns were breathing heavily. The nobles were deathly quiet, some shrinking away in fear. Both combatants were shrouded in halos of their own power, Celestia’s golden like the sun, Aurvandil’s dark like a storm cloud. The guards had begun creeping forward, their wings flared and their horns glowing in anticipation. They knew that if there was anypony who could challenge Celestia’s might alone, it was the alicorn in front of her.
But to everypony’s surprise, Luna spoke, “Step down, Aurvandil.” Her voice was quiet, but she did not have to speak any louder.
Aurvandil looked to her, the fire in his eyes cooling just a fraction. They locked eyes for a moment before he lowered his head, snarling in frustration. “As you wish, my Princess.”
Without another word, Aurvandil tuned and strode out the room, the tension dissipating in his wake, leaving a harsh and cold silence. The alicorn strode out the chamber, the great throne room doors slamming shut behind him.
I walked back into the festering darkness of the dungeons sometime later, my temper simmering like the burning lakes of sulphur down on the plains of duustuvur. I exhaled in a great hiss, stalking into the darkness. It was silent when I entered. I paused, my eyebrow arching in concern.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
There weren’t any fingers of shadow. There was no whimpering, no thrashing around, no pitiful whimpers for help, just a dripping sound, thick mucus leaking from something grotesque, no longer recognisable, pinned to the wall.
I turned the corner and walked up to the altar carefully. Twilight was exactly where I had left her, but the snakes were nowhere to be seen.
“It seems my friends decided to leave you alone,” I said.
There was no reply.
“Hmm.” I started to walk around the altar. Twilight’s eyes were closed, but they were scrunched far too tight for her to be asleep. Especially considering they hadn’t been before I walked in the dungeon. “So tell me, little element, how do you like my home?”
I twitched, running my tongue along my teeth.
And then with a voice so weak I could barely hear it, “Why… why do you hate her?”
“The… Princess… Princess Celestia.”
Fire. I could feel fire. Pain. White burning light. I grimaced, for once ignoring the urge to hurt her. I wanted to, I did, but I was curious. Why did she care about my motivations?
“Because she is a liar and a tyrant, little element,” I spat.
“No she isn’t.”
“Of course you would say that. You and all creatures of your world have been brainwashed so spectacularly that even the dragons seem to have forgotten her sins to them. The dragons have very, very long memories.”
“But she’s not. You’re wrong.”
This time, I let the anger triumph over my curiosity. I launched myself to her. “And what would you know? What would you know of her? The time you have known her is but a blip compared to my own! I watched her grow old millennia ago, little element. You think you know her but you do not.”
She was silent for a moment before replying, her voice shaking. “What was she like back then? Why do you hate her so much?”
“Because long ago she ruled almost the entire world without council or deliberation. Because her perception of the good of the Kingdom triumphed over her friends, to those she professed to hold oaths of fellowship and honour. If she wanted something, then it happened, no matter the dissenting voices held against her.”
There was a small, wet cough. “Maybe… maybe she was just trying to help.”
“Tyrants don’t help. They rule for themselves, not for the good of the Kingdom. And liars don’t help; no, they are even worse than tyrants. They help themselves no matter the cost to others. Your Princess was both of those things.”
“But she’s not like that,” Twilight protested weakly. “She’s not. She’s wise and she’s kind and she cares about everything. She sacrifices so much for other ponies, and she’s loved by us all for it. She leads everypony with kindness and compassion.”
“Then you have been lied to,” I said angrily. “You and the rest of your world.”
“But you’re wrong,” Twilight said. “Maybe you were right back when you knew her, but you’re wrong now.”
“She deserves to pay for what she did to me, to my brothers and sisters. She deserves...”
“The Princess just changed. She just changed when you were away.”
I had had enough, angry with myself for getting caught up in pointless conversation. My horn flared and Twilight let out a half hearted scream, lacking the strength to yell properly. She writhed against her bonds like a mouse unfortunate enough to be caught in a trap and still live.
“Come with me, little element. I have though of something I would like you to see. Think of it as a taste test, if you will. Tartarus has many old and ancient magics, and we know many things.”
“What do you want to show me?” Twilight asked in a very small voice.
I smiled at her, letting the hatred show in my eyes. “You shall find out.”
Within the blink of an eye, Twilight was back in her magical prison. I tightened it, giving her barely enough room to breathe, let alone move.
Once I was back outside, I took to the air, leaving Valkor behind me. I soared just below the smog clouds, racing towards my destination.
Below me, the cracked and desolate earth began to change. The ground swept down into a low valley filled with writhing shadows and spectres. Beyond that lay the Blood Fields, an ocean of tall crimson grass, glistening with its namesake, the plants secreting blood from their leaves.
To the west lay, Oustro, the Boiling Ocean, a sea of sulphur and molten salt that raged forever in a fury. It was the home of Leviathan, His once great champion now insane and broken.
Twilight looked down at all of this with wide eyes. She shook in her prison, and I laughed at her horror. Tartarus was a place of much variation and grandeur. I was not such a poor host as to forget to show my guest its wonders. She would be seeing nothing else soon, either above the ground or below it in another plane.
I streaked across the land as a dark bolt of lightning. Nothing in all of Tartarus was faster than me. The world blurred as I flew, lost in a whirl of speed that destroyed all clarity from the earth. I wanted to show Twilight the wonders of the seventh level, but I was also impatient.
My destination approached rapidly. On the far edge of hell were the mountains of Garugah, the very end of Tartarus. Beyond them was the smouldering end of the world, a vast expanse of nothing except for rolling clouds of super-heated ash, laced with arcs of lightning that illuminated the tempest for the briefest moments.
The first peaks of Garugah were before the clouds, and it was to one of these I was headed. Several spires were volcanoes, and from them came torrents of raging lava, pouring down to form lakes in the plains below. The earth itself burned, only to be covered in even more fire.
I began to slow on my approach, banking steeply to bring myself in line with a small opening cut into the rock, a tiny portal into the mountain’s great bulk. I landed with my wings flared, the magic augmenting them halting my descent unnaturally quickly.
A high pitched scream tore out into the air, nails on glass magnified a thousand times over. I flicked my head to the side, my ears pricked. Another scream sounded from beside me.
Shadow wraiths. Being so close to the edge tended to send many lesser creatures insane, the great void on the other side whispering to them, the foul magics chaining us all in this place altering their bodies into monsters.
They were hungry, and it seemed I had just stumbled into their nest. Well that was inconvenient.
Acchreon flashed into life and I waited patiently, letting my magic warn me of their approach. Sure enough, a wraith began to creep up the mountain behind me, sticking to the shadows created by the many boulders lying around. Perhaps they knew who I was, perhaps they didn’t. If they did, then they were desperate indeed.
Twilight shrank away from the ear-splitting shrieks. I knew the effect they had on mortals; a wraith’s cry sucked the light from your mind, leaving you in darkness, unable to see, hear, think or even scream. You could only wait for death to come at a moment of its choosing. Twilight whimpered, losing control of her body as the fear set in, every part of her falling limp like she had no muscles at all.
I, however, was not mortal.
The first wraith launched at me, a great mass of writhing shadows with elongated limbs and great silver claws and fangs, both thin and razor sharp. Without turning, Acchreon flashed, spinning around to slice the creature in half. The wraith was agile enough to dodge the attack. Mostly.
An arm hit the ground, the rocks suddenly splattered with a coat of black blood. The limb began to dissolve into shadow as the wraith tried to back away to reform. Not giving it the chance, I twirled on the spot and pressed my attack. The wraith screeched, realising its mistake far, far too late. The blade cut into its neck, but this time, I channelled my power through it, the metal hissing as the magic tore apart the creature’s soul.
The wraith hit the ground, my blade embedded in its neck. It writhed painfully as my horn pulsed. As it screamed in pain, I pressed harder.
“Fool,” I murmured. “You attack your prince? I will make you suffer for all time, wraith.”
The shadow squealed, trapped completely, my blade setting its very soul on fire.
“S- stop… stop it…” said a raspy voice.
I froze, my mouth open in surprise. She… what? “What did you say?” I asked the unicorn, utterly bewildered.
“You don’t have to hurt it,” she whispered.
I stared at her incredulously. “Do you even know what this is?”
She tried to shake her head. The shield encasing her prevented her from moving far, but I got the message.
“This is a wraith, foal. And it is a wraith tainted by the edge. It is mindless, a monster in a world of monsters. It deserves no pity.”
“But why do you hurt it?”
I looked at her, shocked by the pointedness of her question.
“Let it go,” she continued, begging, pleading, but why I could not fathom. “Please just let it go.”
I didn’t move. More wraiths were around us, but they were holding back, scared to approach me. I could feel the aura of power around my body, my eyes burning with magic.
I looked at this unicorn. Who was she? Who did she think I was? Asking me to let this monster go, this creature that wasn’t even worthy of her pity let alone mine? She was a fool.
But a brave one.
“So be it,” I said. My blade flashed, and the wraith began to dissolve. The wind carried wisps of its body away down the mountain. It gave one last tortured screech before fading into nothing.
I turned back to Twilight, and she looked at me.
“You… you killed it,” she said.
“I set it free,” I replied, looking down for a heartbeat. “I sent its soul to the void, where it can forever escape this prison.” It can even be at peace, I thought, but I did not say that. Not to her.
Twilight just looked at me, her eyes bloodshot.
The other wraiths had slunk away while we talked, forgetting about their kin in their fear of my wrath. So without another word, I strode into the cave, red soul lamps flickering to life around me. Twilight bobbed behind, her soiled and beaten body hanging limply in my magic.
The cave was dark and surprisingly cool. The walls glistened, covered in a strange moisture. The corridor smelled like death. Piles of bones littered the floor; some were picked clean, others still had bits of rotting flesh clinging to their former homes.
I followed the cave as it wound its way deeper into the earth, growing wider as it went on. Twisted fungi grew on the walls, dripping with foul smelling toxins that glowed green or orange.
At the end of the tunnel was a jagged opening, devoid of any light. It was a wall of darkness, the only thing leaving being strange bubbling or clicking noises.
We had arrived.
I walked into the darkness, plunging through the veil and into the room beyond. As soon as I stepped through, light filled my eyes, throwing the room into sharp relief.
Soul lamps covered the walls like tiny candles, each one set into its own alcove. Several pots sat over fires that burned without fuel, their sickly contents bubbling and simmering, filling the air with noxious fumes. I heard Twilight retch behind me. Nothing was immediately toxic though, so I let her breathe it.
A mess of tables were scattered around the room, covered in a random and often grotesque collection of items. Fungi were heaped in piles, as were jars of coloured dust or rocks. Body parts from dozens of different creatures were left out in the open, all of them fresh and dripping with gore. Small and spined flesh eating bugs crawled around the floor, devouring anything that fell from the tables. Glowing orbs sat on shelves cut into the walls, as were more magical items ranging from weapons to scrolls covered in demonic runes.
A slithery voice hissed to me from the depths of one of the exits, another curtain of shadow preventing me from seeing who it came from. “Greetings, Prince of Darkness. It has been a very, very long time since I have seen you here in the shadow.”
“Zeszsuu,” I said in acknowledgement, the creature’s crawling voice sending shivers down my spine. Twilight whimpered.
“And what’s this? You have a guest! A special guest! And a pony! And is that…? Oh my…”
“Come out from the shadows, Zeszsuu, so that we may speak properly.”
There was silence for a moment before a shape moved out from one of the openings. It was a hideous thing, with eight legs like a scorpion’s that weren’t quite jointed the right way. They were connected to a bulbous body that looked like it had once been a pony’s. It was cracked now and split in many places, pus seeping from the wounds. Its head was where the true horror was, for it had two, one inside the other; the first one, a pony’s, was splitting down the middle where a bulging mass of glistening skin and glowing eyes peeked through the shards of skull and matted hair.
“What do you have here, my Prince?”
“A prize, Zeszsuu. The first of many in the campaign to come.”
“A prize?” The creature started to crawl around the room, shuffling awkwardly on its legs. Its many eyes never left my own. “Such a pretty prize. Purple with purple and violet and lilac. And stars. Burning stars, bright stars.”
“The Element of Magic. The figurehead of our enemy’s greatest weapon and the banner for our armies.”
“A banner? A fitting symbol, a worthy flag. Yes, yes. She is full of life. Full of life and love and happiness.” Zeszsuu moved toward her, its head tilting to the side as it studied her with its many eyes. Twilight was shaking, trembling uncontrollably, unable to look away. “And fear. So much fear and sadness. Sadness for her, sadness for her friends and her world. These things I can see.”
“Those are not things that need the sight, Zeszsuu,” I said. “Even a witless imp could tell you that.”
“Ah yes, perhaps, perhaps. But can an imp tell you about the brother? The captain of the guard, her brother, escorting her and her friends before your minions fell upon their moving carriage? What about the five friends left behind? The Princess standing over them? The other nearby, unable to help?”
Twilight started to cry, giving small wet coughs as her lungs rebelled against the poisons entering them. “My brother? You know about my brother? What happened to him?!”
“You see much,” I said in interruption, watching the unicorn closely.
“But why here?” Zeszsuu said, moving back over to face me. “For what purpose can I help you serve, my Lord? My Prince? What good do these poison caves serve you?”
I looked at Zeszsuu carefully. “You see much, abomination, but you do not see all. That is reserved for something you have hidden away. I wish to use it, to show her the world as it shall be.”
Zeszsuu’s head jerked to the side, clicking sounds escaping its sagging lips. “The pool? You wish to use the pool? The mirror? The canvas? Time itself bends and burns and crumbles, but the pool shows it all. Past present and future.”
“I know,” I said. “I know what the pool can do. You do not need to lecture me. I wish to use it.”
Zeszsuu clicked. “Then so it shall be, my Prince. My Lord. My Highness.” He turned, and walked into the veil of darkness.
I turned to Twilight. “Count yourself lucky you are in my company, little element. Zeszsuu is a foul magician and a dark necromancer. Even the demons cast it from their lairs. The edge has twisted it.”
Twilight did not reply.
I turned and followed Zeszsuu into the mouth in the cave. It led into another passageway, similar to the entrance, only smaller and darker. I could hear things slithering in the darkness, but if they showed any interest in my charge, their fear of me kept them at bay. Even the scum of hell enjoy their fragile grip on life, no matter how illusory that grip may be.
The tunnel began to circle on itself, corkscrewing deeper and deeper into the mountain. In the places between soul lamps it almost became pitch black, and I was forced to rely on my magic to find a way. I could always feel the soul lamps, and even without their light I could use them to guide me.
Zeszsuu was waiting for us at the bottom. It was hiding in the shadow of a large boulder, its glistening eyes and horrible stench giving it away.
“Through here, my Prince,” it said, its voice clicking at the end.
I walked past him and into a cramped cavern. I could feel the pool straight away. It called to me, filling the air with a cursed magic, an ancient evil that corrupted and taunted and hurt all those around it. A few soul lamps shed a weak red light around the room, but they looked old and almost exhausted. That meant they were probably new.
The closer Twilight got to the pool, the more she trembled, her head twitching as she tried to look away. Even then, no words or sounds escaped the prison of her clenched jaw. How she still had the strength to stay conscious after everything, I was not sure.
In the middle of the cavern was the pool itself. It was the colour of blood and completely still like a sheet of red glass. Even the constant dripping feeding the lake from the ceiling did nothing to shatter its surface. I didn’t bother looking up to try and see where the drips originated. I had in the past, and each time I saw nothing but darkness. Even then, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what fed the pool.
I pushed Twilight towards it. “Look at it, little element. This is the pool, and in it you can see whatever you wish.”
“Why?” was all she asked.
“Because I want you to see. And see you shall.” My horn flared to life and Twilight jerked, her whole body rigid as stone. I tilted her head to the pool so she was unable to look away.
“You shall see the future as I have planned,” I said.
Suddenly, the surface of the liquid shattered. Colour began to race across, filling the entire pool with a mixture of melted tones and shades. Fires began to burn along the edge of the liquid, throwing the room into sharp relief.
At first, I could see nothing in the pool, but then, buildings began to grow. They were tall and proud – the towers of Canterlot. The sun sat above them, as did the moon on the other side, both celestial bodies sharing the same sky. But in amongst the buildings there was fire, fire burning so bright and angry that the towers cracked and shattered. Great gates sprang into the picture only to be blown open, a wave of shadow tearing across the land.
The whole earth succumbed to the shadow, and more fire engulfed the world. Fire and burning and ash and darkness. There was no more grass, no more trees or flowers or water. Ponies cried and screamed, their spirits defeated and their bodies broken. Great forges were sunk into the earth, fed by the fires of the world, churning out towers of obsidian and bone and hell-steel. The sky was choked, the sun and the moon cast down, their smouldering ruins lying in the middle of vast wastelands, once rich farming ground filled with valleys and streams.
But no more. No more.
And in the middle of the greatest tower, a monstrosity of hell-steel and obsidian, flanged and spined with wicked points and curves, there was a chamber. And in that chamber there were living shadows of fire, and they watched with burning eyes a tall throne, where He sat, His body hidden from sight. And by His side I stood, standing tall with my armour and pride.
But behind us, behind and above us lay our true triumph, for there, their bodies empty, their eyes bloodied sockets and their horns cut off, were the Princesses, the greatest prize from our victory.
I let the image fade, the colours leeching away from the pool, returning it to its clear surface. The cavern was silent, except for quiet sobs wracking a small unicorn’s body.
“Why?” she whispered. “Why?”
I ignored her question. “The pool is now yours, little element. I am sure you have things you wish to see. Speak them and they shall appear to you.”
She looked at me for a moment, not trusting my words. I stared back at her impassively. I knew the temptation of the pool would be too much. And any solace or information she gained from it would only serve to make the pain so much more acute.
Eventually, she turned back to the pool. She stared at it, uncertain, almost as if she were fighting against her self to speak. But she did, as I knew she would.
“I… I would like to see my brother, please,” she whispered.
And the pool showed her. I could see a hill swept with rain and fog, littered with stone plaques covered in the memories of the living for the dead.
It was a graveyard.
Twilight sobbed uncontrollably, tearing herself away from the pool, collapsing to the ground only to curl up and hold her legs tight against her. She rocked herself as she cried, the image on the pool vanishing like smoke in the wind.
I was silent. There was nothing that needed to be said. Instead I looked at her, watching her cry. She was weak, weak and alone, defenceless against the horrors of my world.
I was silent. I couldn’t find the words to speak.
After a time, Twilight’s sobs slowed. They became gentle hiccups as she picked herself up and began to drag her body back to the pool. I watched with interest, confused.
“Show me my friends,” she whispered. “Show me them like they are right now.”
And again, the pool showed her. There was a room, a tent of some sort. It was dark, and the sides were buffeted as if by the wind. Five ponies sat all huddled in the middle, crying as they held each other. Twilight gave a choked cry when she saw them, reaching out pitifully with a hoof.
The ponies sat together in one group. A blue one with a rainbow mane sat with her back to the others. A pink one gestured to her, her mouth moving silently. The rainbow one’s body started to shake. She pointed weakly to the tent’s exit, her head held low to the ground, but she did not move.
So the group got up and went over to her. They encircled her, hugging her close, all of them crying. They stayed that way for a long time until their bodies stopped shaking and their eyes had nothing left to give. Then they sat there for several minutes more. A white pony said something, and the orange one nodded. The pink one spoke as well, her mane flat and straight like heavy curtains. The group then actually laughed, silently for us. There were weak chuckles, their eyes bloodshot as smiles crept across their faces.
Twilight was crying again. But this time, her tears were as silent as her friends’. And to my absolute disbelief, she was smiling like them too. Her lips glistened with her tears, and they trembled, but she was still smiling as she looked at them.
She was smiling, her smile lighting up her face like a lantern. Her eyes shone, even despite the tears and the pain.
Why? Why could she smile? How could she smile at that? What happiness was there in that image? What joy was there to be found in such sadness? How could she possibly smile? How?!
I had no answer. Me, a survivor of millennia, a thing with memories as vast as an ocean, I had no answer to this little unicorn smiling at the pool.
And I hated it.
My insides began to burn, and I hissed, my face curling into an ugly leer. With a dark flash, I snatched Twilight up in my magic, tearing her away from the pool. The image shattered the second she looked away. She cried out, but it was quiet, her eyes looking at me with a heartbroken expression.
I looked away.
I strode past Zeszsuu, the creature looking at me with its unblinking eyes. It said nothing, and it just watched, fading into darkness as I left the chamber.
I had to stop myself from sprinting from the caves. I raced through instead, blind to everything around me except for this tumultuous feeling inside that I could not name. I was furious. My veins felt like there was molten steel pouring through them, setting every part of me on fire with this anger.
But I couldn’t work out why. I couldn’t see straight. I couldn’t think straight. So I left the cave, reaching the freedom of the surface with a half suppressed cry of joy.
Without even bothering to check my charge behind me, I took off, launching myself into the air, flying home as fast as I could.
The sky was alive. Little stars twinkled like faerie lights, glittering pinpricks that showered the world with beauty. It was a picture that was appreciated far too little. In all the world’s poetry and art, these stars looked just like the ones described or shown to be in the Golden Fields, the final resting place for those who grew tired of this world, transcending to another to find peace.
The night was filled with subtle tones and quiet grace. The stars twinkled, each little gem a masterpiece crafted with years of love and devotion by its maker, an alicorn with striking teal eyes and a rich and luxurious dark blue coat.
Aurvandil looked upon this alicorn with a gentle smile, walking with her through the gardens of Valaiya. They were yet to say a word since starting there walk, yet neither seemed to be in any sort of hurry.
Coloured flowers filled spiralling beds around them, smooth paths running in between. The gold and silver trees moved silently with the soft breeze, their perfect leaves sparkling under the light of the moon. Luna had put effort into her moon this night, and it showed.
“The night is perfect,” Aurvandil said, his voice genuine. He was not lying; such a night had not been seen in a very long time. Aurvandil couldn’t remember the last time since the War began the night had been so beautiful.
Luna blushed, her coat darkening very uncharacteristically. Her eyes flicked down to the flowers beside them. “You are too kind, Prince of the Morning.”
Aurvandil smiled at her. “Prince of the Morning? As you said earlier, there is no need for such formality, my Princess.”
“There isn’t now?” She raised an eyebrow at the double standard of his use of her formal title, but her smile betrayed her.
“No, there is not,” Aurvandil said again, smirking. “That sort of language best suits your sister with her court, not out here in the peace of the gardens.”
“My sister and her court? It is my own just as much as it hers.”
Aurvandil looked over to make sure there was no harm in her expression to match her tone and smiled teasingly when he saw nothing there except a playful smile. “Nonsense! Your place is with things of beauty, my Princess. Not in the cramped and dirty war rooms where they speak of dark things.”
“The throne room is hardly a place of darkness.”
“True,” Aurvandil countered, “but that has much to do with the windows along the ceiling.”
Luna laughed, a sweet sound that Aurvandil couldn’t help but smile upon hearing. “You tease, Aurvandil! You shouldn’t be so cruel to my sister!”
Aurvandil’s smile never left his face. “You are right. I am very fortunate. After all, it is her who will give me the honour of the rule of Galathadros and a place on the council.”
Luna looked at him. “It means that much to you? You have been leading my sister’s armies for years; you have never once mentioned such a desire before today.”
“I haven’t?” Aurvandil looked up to the sky. “I do. I truly do. I am prince of title only, sired from a magical lineage older than time itself. I have no real responsibility or power. I want both these things, my Princess. I want these things as truly as you wish for peace to enjoy your night.”
“I want many things,” Luna murmured. She paused, forcing Aurvandil to stop with her.
“What is it, my Princess?”
Luna was silent for a moment, letting her quiet fill the air between them. She looked to the side. There, bathed in the the serene streams of moonlight were two statues, polished marble alicorns – the Princesses. The larger one's shadow fell over Luna, hiding her face in darkness. "Look at me, Aurvandil. Look at me next to my sister and tell me what you see."
Aurvandil looked up carefully, studying the statues. They were both regal and beautiful, perfect in their complexions. But there was no denying the elder's eyes burned with a fire of superiority, a fire that when combined with her size, caused her to dwarf the smaller alicorn in every possible way.
He tried to think of a response, choosing his language carefully.
Luna neatly interrupted him though before he could speak. “Do you see, Aurvandil?”
“I see nothing but two mighty Princesses, your Highness.”
Luna snorted, a sound that took Aurvandil by surprise. “Please. You do not have to patronise me.” She looked up at herself, her eyes hidden in shadow. “You desire power?”
Aurvandil paused, frowning slightly in the darkness. “I want respect, my Princess, nothing more. Surely you can sympathize with that."
It was Luna’s time to frown. “I can, but… I should not.”
“You should not? How do you mean, Princess? I do not understand…”
“Power is dangerous, Aurvandil. The world successfully balances upon a knife edge because power is given to those who have the strength to use for the good of all, not a few.”
Aurvandil’s brow furrowed together. “That does not properly explain why you shouldn’t want power. What do you have to fear about desiring power?”
“Because power already belongs to another, Aurvandil. Is it my right to take that from them? Am I arrogant enough to believe that I deserve more power if that means limiting theirs? I am already their equal, after all. No... I should not think like that. My place is with the night... not with the ponies of the day...”
Aurvandil stared at Luna for a long time, unsure as how to respond. “My Princess, those are noble fears, but they do not apply to me, nor my position.”
Luna turned back to face Aurvandil, her eyes veiled and her smile sad. “It is not something to desire so openly, that is all.”
“I desire only what I deserve, my Princess. It is my dream, and I have worked so very hard for my dream.”
Luna’s eyes darted away, not holding Aurvandil’s gaze. “That you have...”
Aurvandil frowned. “Would you say anything to the contrary?”
“No... You serve tirelessly aiding my sister within the guard. I only wonder why you would leave now with the War still unsolved. Leaving now seems...”
Aurvandil’s eyes darkened. “What are you implying, my Princess? Am I not worthy of your sister’s respect because I wish for some peace for myself? Am I not worthy of the position she has promised me because I do not crave conflict?”
“I meant no such thing!” Luna said. “You…” She paused.
She paused, and Aurvandil’s eyes flashed. “I what?”
“You… The council is the role of politicians, alicorns with years of experience…” She fell quiet at the look Aurvandil was giving her.
“Years of experience? How… how could you say such a thing? You imply that I do not have experience? That I am not ancient and wizened? How could you!”
“I meant no offence, I assure you,” Luna said.
“You said it yourself, my Princess; I have led your sister’s armies for years, decades of nothing but war against an enemy made before I was created – an enemy made before you were created! Who else has stood against the darkness as I have? Who else has fought with every part of my strength? Your sister has not! She watches from her golden throne room while I fight her battles in her name!
“Even you do not fight! The precious little sister, kept safe behind her high walls and… and…” Aurvandil fell silent, his blood turning to ice. He could not bring himself to look on Luna’s face, but he knew that he had crossed a line a very long time ago. Luna may be shy, but her temper was as fiery as a dragon’s.
“I do not fight?! You believe I stand back on purpose? That I enjoy watching the Kingdom fall under the shadow of darkness while my friends fight, falling one by one, never to return again?! Do you believe that I enjoy waiting in my sister’s shadow, living by her word, looked down upon by her subjects?! I am her equal, so do not dare lecture me about respect, Prince! It is a topic I know of well, and one that you are yet to learn about!”
A silence fell over the pair. They looked at each other, both of them angry, both of them not wanting to say anything more.
Aurvandil wanted to snap back. Every part of him wanted to, but her eyes held him back. Her eyes forced him to keep his mouth shut. They were burning with anger, but they were still beautiful; even in her fury, even with the tears of frustration growing in the corners, they were the most perfect things Aurvandil had ever seen. He was furious; he was ready to yell and scream for a reason he was not sure, but her eyes stopped it from coming out. It all just seethed inside, making him feel sick.
And so rather than risk escalating things further, Aurvandil made a decision.
“Forgive me, my Princess; I have wronged you. I ask for your leave.”
Without another word, Aurvandil turned and left Luna alone in the garden. She stared after him as he took to the air, her temper cooling, a cold numbness seeping in to take its place. She reached out with a hoof, but didn’t call out. Perhaps she might have. But before she could, it was too late. He had already disappeared into the perfect night.
I swept back into Valkor, lightning trailing behind me as I tore through the air. The doors to my citadel slammed open, and I raced forwards, heading toward the dungeons.
Down in the darkness, I headed towards the cells. I threw Twilight in front of me with magic. She hit the ground and skidded along the floor, the filth on the stone floors soiling her coat even more. Eyes looked at me from behind the bars, and creatures moved about in the darkness. I couldn’t remember who they belonged to, or why they were here. But that wasn’t important.
I picked Twilight up, letting my anger get the better of me. I didn’t want to think. I just wanted to forget her smile and the way her eyes shone when she did.
I threw her against the bars of a cell, her skull cracking against the rusting metal. The bars cracked and bent under the impact from her body, the gate falling off its hinge. I did not pause to consider how hard I threw her. I just picked her up again.
A low snarl carried through the darkness, but I ignored it, throwing Twilight back to the ground. I turned away from her, fuming. I hated this. I hated this. I didn’t understand. How could she smile?
Why was I so angry? I had wanted to hurt her before, but it had been to hurt her Princess. But now, now I didn’t understand.
A shape moved in the broken cell. The creature walked slowly at first, shuffling forward on broken hooves, but with each step, it gained momentum before soon it was sprinting, bursting out of the darkness of the cell and out into the soul lamps.
The creature had once been an earth pony, but now its flesh had bubbled and rotted, scraps hanging limply from its broken frame. It was missing an eye, the other in the process of rotting away as well. It snapped its jaws, growling and snarling with an animal ferocity. It was heading straight toward Twilight, its jaw reaching for her neck. Without a horn, she was defenceless, and weak and broken as she was, she could do little more but whimper and turn away.
The zombie lunged forward, blood and froth dripping from its mouth.
Twilight closed her eyes.
And then the monster disappeared. My horn glowed and it exploded, showering the walls in gore as Acchreon formed inside of it, tearing upwards in a ball of magic. Twilight was covered in the filth, shaking at the sight of me: my wings flared out, my sword levitating high above my head. I swept the blade down, severing the bars near me, reaching the creatures inside. A swipe later and they were dead, Acchreon drinking their blood with savage delight.
I moved to the next cage, screaming as the shade inside tried to cower away from my blade. I would net set him free, and he knew it. The walls were soon painted with a shower of ichor, his soul trapped inside my blade.
I continued until there was nothing left alive in the entire prison. The walls were covered in scorch marks, the bars rent open and smoking, their inhabitants torn to shreds.
I stood in the ruin of my own prison, breathing hard, small fires burning around me. It was silent except for my own breaths. Silent… silent except for… singing…
The voice was so soft even my ears struggled to hear it. It shook, trembling like the voice of pony near death, each breath a struggle and a victory. I could hear the tears and the quiet sobbing.
I walked toward the voice, trying to hear the words being sung. I turned a corner, and then I saw her, Twilight, holding herself in the corner, her tail matted with filth curled around her. She rocked backwards and forwards, her eyes scrunched shut, trying to stop the tears from escaping.
“You’ll see that they can’t… hurt you just… laugh and ma-make them disappear… Ha… ha… ha…”
“Twilight?” I asked.
She ignored me, still singing to herself. “Just giggle at the ghostly… guffaw at the grossly… crack up at the creepy… whoop… whoop it up… with…” She broke down, her voice drowning in her own sobs.
I stared at her. I stared at her for the longest time, trying to move, unable to move. Her voice. Her tears. Her eyes. They were just like Hers.
My horn glowed, and Twilight fell silent, her cries fading away into the darkness. I watched as her chest began to rise and fall rhythmically, her breath easing in and out.
Without even thinking about it, I had put her to sleep. And so I stood there, holding the sleeping unicorn in my magic, not quite alone in the shadows.
I walked into the darkness, my mind spinning. With the storm of confusion thundering in my head, I was glad that He couldn’t read minds. Even still, I took a moment to turn my expression into stone, refusing to let any emotion show.
The throne room was pitch black, and so I waited patiently, trying to work out why He had summoned me. My mind reeled with the possibilities, and I tried to keep the worm of panic out of my stomach. I had done nothing wrong. The plan was still strong, the campaign on course. I thought.
Eventually, He lit up the throne room with red light, sending sickly shadows sprawling across the floor.
“Prince of Darkness, how fares our guest?”
The question was blunt and to the point, wasting no time with formal greetings. I kept my voice calm and level. “Poorly, my Lord. She suffers much, and it shows.”
“Good,” he said without pause. “Such a weapon of the enemy does not deserve anything more. For millennia Harmony has fought me, and I shall not see its chief enjoy her last moments alive.” He was silent for a moment. “Such a long time, Prince of Darkness. I have waited for such a long time. You have seen but a fraction of how long I have waited for this war. I have destroyed each seal with effort greater than anything you could imagine. I have sacrificed more power on each gate to escape than you have used in your entire existence.”
I nodded. “You have led us flawlessly, Master. We have not long to wait now.”
“Yes,” He mused. “Not long to wait indeed. Already the army starts to prepare. The last gate is so very weak now. It is only a day before you can escape to lead our forces. Smaller, lesser beasts have been slipping through the cracks all day. Battle has already been joined in places.”
I nodded again. I had been so preoccupied that I had not paused to think about the invasion for hours. Nothing had briefed me, and I tried my best to look like I already knew all of this without looking bored.
“Victory is near…” He trailed off. “And you shall be the new world’s Prince, oh Aurvandil.” We had spoken of this many times already, so I was not sure why he was bringing it up again. “When the alicorns fall and the world burns, everything that was promised to you shall be yours and more. An eternity of power.”
“You are generous, Master,” I replied.
“Don’t patronise me,” He hissed, my head suddenly burning, feeling as if red hot knives were being pressed into my mind. “I know. I know everything, Aurvandil. You are a traitor, but you are my traitor. Do not forget it.”
“Yes, My Lord,” I said, lowering my head in submission.
“This is your opportunity for greatness,” He said. “Do not disappoint me, or I shall ensure your existence is one of suffering for all time and beyond.” The lights flickered as He spoke and the temperature in the room dropped noticeably. I suppressed a shiver.
“I will not fail you,” I said, my voice harder this time. “I shall have my revenge on the liar.” I snorted, baring my teeth.
“Good. You are mine, little traitor. Go now. Enjoy your last moments with your prize. Tomorrow you march to war and to victory.”
“And then the world shall be mine,” I said numbly.
“If you please me,” He replied. “If you live up the shadow’s name. If you serve me as you have. Then yes, those things shall be yours.”
I looked up at the dark effigies on the wall, my jaw tensed. “As you wish, my Lord,” I said after a while.
“Go,” He said. “Go and make yourself ready. War is upon us.”
I bowed, and I turned and left the room, striding past Xastulis and back towards the balcony. I pushed everything to the back of my mind, focusing solely on the one thought that had sustained me for almost two thousand years.
I took to the sky, my thoughts filled with fire and shadow, and teal and purple eyes blinking away tears.
A huge thank you to my editor, Sessalisk, for generally making my writing so much less terrible. Also, another massive thank you to everyone for reading!
There would be no defeat. There would be stopping the darkness as soon as the gate fell. I couldn’t see it, deep down in the seventh level as it was, but I could feel it. The seal was cracking. The magic binding it in place shattering under His might.
The army was preparing to move. They were preparing to go to war.
I was furious. At what, I had absolutely no idea. I wanted to tear the earth itself to pieces. I wanted to raze Duvundur to the ground and burn the foundations and then cast myself into Oustro, the Boiling Ocean, until my flesh was nothing more than a memory.
I wanted her to suffer. Her with her purple eyes and missing horn. I wanted to destroy her, tearing her apart until there was nothing left but dust. I wanted to break her Princess, cast her sun down from the sky and burn her own body upon it.
I wanted my revenge. I wanted what I had always wanted, what had been promised to me. I had sacrificed so much. Because it was mine! It should have been mine! Everything! I had not asked for anything less than what I deserved, and my fealty had been cast down by a tyrant and a liar.
“Step down, Aurvandil.”
I felt like screaming. But I didn’t. I just stayed where I was, silent, watching the army slowly come to life like a virus readying itself to convert and mutilate.
I didn’t even turn around when Beelzebub appeared next to me. His winged beast was no where to be seen, nor had I heard it, so he must have walked up. Why, I couldn’t fathom.
I didn’t turn around. “What do you want?”
I heard the demon hiss. “Such anger. Such burning fire. I can hear it in your voice, little traitor. Your emotions are clearer than the daylight.”
“Speak your intention, filth, or be gone from this place!”
The next thing I knew, Beelzebub’s lips were right next to my ear, his hot breath lingering in my nostrils. I didn’t even blink. “Watch yourself, traitor. I will destroy you, and He will not think to punish me for burning the weak.”
Finally, I turned to him. I looked Beelzebub in the eyes, letting all my hatred show. “Try me.”
He held my gaze for a moment, our faces inches apart as his eyes showed no emotion at all. And then he stepped back, smirking. “Save your angst. The Princess shall need that kind of anger.”
“And after she is dead, and the Kingdom mine, I will cast my eyes to the dragons and tear off Glamduural’s wings, and he shall be my pet, a wyrm to lick the ash off the ground for food.”
Beelzebub walked around the wide obsidian balcony, moving away from me. “The dragon king is weak. Thyráil will be of some challenge. The dryads may be a memory of their former power, but their Queen still possesses some strength.”
“And then I shall ask Him for the pleasure of tearing off that fake alicorn’s horn. She is an abomination, a lesser being not worthy of the power given to her.”
“And I will be there to burn the city to the ground. Let you have your revenge. I will not rest until the earth is ash and the sky suffocated from smoke.”
We had held this conversation many, many times. Each time we went through the motions, taking comfort in the fact that we both meant each word with every fibre of our being, and that here we could find common ground. But now it felt like just that, as if I were reading lines from some script written a long time ago by a stranger.
“How fares the surface?” I asked, breaking the flow of conversation.
Beelzebub looked at me a moment before continuing. “It already starts to burn. He has been slipping out larger and larger forces all day and night. The more the gate cracks, the stronger beasts He can spirit out. The ponies are useless without their weapon; their guards are weak and untrained, their populations cowering. Some try to flee the land, others stay in their homes.”
“I am surprised the Chaos Puppet hasn’t broken free again.” I was genuine too. This seemed like the perfect sort of playground in which he would be his strongest.
Beelzebub snorted. We held no love for Discord. He was stronger than us and would just as easily turn on us as the ponies. “Let him come; He will be merciful and send the spawn’s soul into the void this time, I am sure.” Discord may be powerful, but he was not stronger than Him.
“He is not one to be merciful.”
There was a silence. I could hear Beelzebub breathing and the flies that surrounded him like a bad smell. I could feel his gaze on me, his blank eyes trying to eat a way into my soul.
“What about her?” he asked. “What about the Moon?”
I ran my tongue along the edge of my teeth, breathing hard through my nostrils. “What about her?”
“You will kill her.”
My head snapped to face him, losing control for a second. I saw the glimmer of satisfaction cross Beelzebub’s face at my response, so I bit back my original reply. “He said I could have her as a prize.”
“He did. But I am telling you that you will kill her to prove your loyalty to Him.”
“I have nothing to prove to Him! I have nothing to prove to you!”
Beelzebub smiled. It was a cold expression, his gaping maw and pointed and rotted teeth leering at me, leaving me feeling empty inside. “You have everything to prove to us, little traitor. And you will kill her, or I will. And I swear to you I will take great pleasure in making her suffer. Such pretty eyes. I always did say they sparkled like stars.”
I could feel the anger burning. “I will kill you.”
Beelzebub’s smile grew wider. “Will you now? Why would you kill me, your friend? But still... wouldn’t that be a sight to see. His two great titans, battling like we once did. Things would be right with the world then, wouldn’t they?”
I seethed, hatred flowing through my veins like a poison. “Don’t tempt me.”
The demon laughed, a forced, wheezing sound that filled me with the urge to tear out his throat. He was rarely like this. “The element? She still breathes? I assume she is still in one piece. He will not be pleased if that is not the case.”
I looked away from the demon and back out to the writhing mass of soldiers so very far away on the plain. “Of course she still breathes.”
Beelzebub moved, placing himself to my right, also looking out to the army. “Her eyes… they remind me of Luna’s…”
I tensed, biting down on my tongue to prevent myself from speaking.
“They have that same… sparkle. Like the stars live inside their eyes.” I knew he was staring at me. I could feel it. “I just hope they haven’t all gone out for tomorrow.”
“Do you have anything of importance to say, Beelzebub?” I snapped, ignoring his previous goading.
Beelzebub leered at me again. “Only that you are to come down and make yourself ready. We have much to prepare, and your-” he spat the word, his voice dripping with venom, “-army needs to see its leader else they become… disloyal.”
I growled. “I will be down, filth.”
The demon nodded. “Good. Bring her with you. Her body, broken yet still clinging to life, will be good for morale.”
I looked over, tempering my voice with sarcasm. “Is that even necessary at this point?”
Beelzebub stopped, looking at me closely. “No. It isn’t. But do you wish otherwise?”
My eyes flashed violently. “Fool.”
“Do not fail Him, Aurvandil. For if you do, I will destroy you. You are a traitor, and traitors never change. I can still tear your soul apart, and you will keep Nurshotal’s soul-lamps burning for many, many centuries.”
“Leave me, Beelzebub. I will be down shortly.”
The demon sneered. “As you wish, oh Prince of Darkness…” He turned and limped back into the depths of Valkor.
As soon as he was gone, I turned back to the vista before me, watching the ground tremble under the weight of the army under a burning sky.
The darkness of my citadel welcomed me like and old friend. I used the shadows to slip through the corridors unseen, a spectre in my own home. I wasn’t sure why I did it. I just didn’t feel like being seen. I wanted to move invisibly, undetected and alone.
And so I did.
I should have been moving to the dungeons. I knew that. But I wasn’t. I was heading to someplace that I should never in a thousand years have gone to, not now, and certainly not the night before.
The door rasped open, sliding with a loud whisper over the obsidian. I slipped inside, closing the door behind me and sealing myself in the darkness. There was a moment, and then a single, natural fire began to burn on a torch set along the wall.
She was curled up in the corner on top of a small pile of rags, the only objects in the room beside myself and the torch. Twilight’s back was to me, but I could see her body shuddering with each breath. Her tail was matted with blood and filth and so was her coat. Her head was marred by that black gash, her soiled mane partly covering it, the only remains of her horn. I looked at her cutie mark, the stars covered by a festering cut.
I stared at her for the longest time, not saying a word. She would die soon. They will destroy her and place her body above the army, a banner worthy of Hell. That was a fact. There was nothing to stop it from happening.
She stirred, twitching as she was assaulted in her dreams. She cried out, and then she fell silent again.
I looked away. I stood there, staring into the shadow, not wanting to stay, not wanting to move. I wanted her out of my sight. I wanted her gone so I could kill her Princess and get my revenge. I didn’t want her. Not anymore.
“I… I can’t even dream down here…”
I started, her voice so quiet and broken that I wasn’t sure I hadn’t imagined it.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“I can’t dream…” she whispered again. “I see things… but they aren’t dreams. Nightmares… that’s what this place is, and it’s all can see.”
“This is where the real nightmares live,” I said. “This where they are locked up so dreams can live under the sun and the moon and stars.”
“I saw them,” Twilight said, her voice shaking. She still hadn’t turned to face me.
“My friends. I saw them on the hill near Applejack’s orchard. They were all having a picnic as the sun began to set. It was just like the one we had before Applejack’s birthday last year. The grass was gold and the sun warm and not too bright. They were all talking and laughing. Rainbow was playing games with Pinkie, and Rarity and Fluttershy were talking together. Applejack rested under a tree and I… and I wasn’t there… they couldn’t see me. I could touch them… I could speak… but they didn’t know I was there. I even slapped Pinkie and she just shrugged it off, talking about party streamer consistency. I even…” She broke off, choking down a sob.
“There are no dreams here,” I said quietly.
“And… and…” Twilight sobbed, continuing, “I know that… even they could see me, even if they could feel me, I know that it’s never going to happen again. I will never see Rainbow fly or Fluttershy take care of her animals. I will never see Rarity fret over such a small thing as a get well gift. I will never see Applejack smile and tell everypony that everything’s going to be ok. I will never see Pinkie laugh again… Nothing… nothing but a nightmare now…”
Then she shifted, bringing her head around to look me in the eyes. Hers were bloodshot and ringed with tiredness. She looked absolutely exhausted. But deep down, down in the centre of her eyes, there was something missing. Her eyes were lifeless, dull and blank, devoid of any kind of light – any kind of spark.
She was broken.
I looked away. “Come now. The army is preparing. Soon they will move out and then the world will end.” It really was as simple as that.
I knew she didn’t look away. But I couldn’t look back. I just took her inside my magic and left the room, leaving the torch alight. It would burn itself out after a time. Of that I was sure.
I drifted through the camp, ignoring the calls shouted out to my charge behind me. The only creatures I acknowledged were those who got too close to her. She was to be left alive and unspoiled. Those were His wishes, and I pitied anything that failed to live up to His desires in His dominion.
Monsters scurried around me like ants, dismantling equipment and packing it up, ready to march. Beasts sharpened swords and made last minute repairs to armour. Others sat still, waiting, their bodies quivering with blood lust.
I ascended the stairs to Darkolith quickly. Normally, the tower would be almost empty, but today it was filled with all kinds of creatures speaking over maps or walking with clear purpose. They all knew their orders, and they did little more than salute me before continuing with their work. Centuries of planning was not wasted. A few of the monsters jeered at Twilight but she ignored them, their taunts falling upon deaf ears. I wasn’t sure she even had the strength to cry now.
Two demon pegasi stood guard at the top of the stairs, watching the corridor leading to my room. They saluted with their scaly wings when I approached, and they leered at the prisoner behind me. I walked past them without acknowledging their existence and strode down and then into my room, closing the door behind me.
It turned out I was not alone, even before Twilight floated in behind me.
“And here she is…” Beelzebub whispered, stepping out of the shadows and moving closer to Twilight. He was already garbed in his armour, flanged plate metal the colour of the plague, a sickly brown and green. Petrisis, his sword, was nowhere to be seen, still waiting outside reality for its master’s summons. “She looks dead… You have been cruel.”
“She still breathes, and she is physically fine,” I spat.
“True… true… Her spirit is another matter entirely. Hell has not been kind, it seems.”
“What were you expecting? To shower her with riches and comfort?”
Beelzebub’s lips curled up along the edges. “No. Not like that.”
“Then you are wasting my time,” I said.
The demon ignored me and began to circle Twilight, his blank eyes never leaving her. “Do you know what I am going to do to your home?”
Twilight shrank away, a whimper escaping her lips.
“No,” Beelzebub crooned, his voice soft. “There will be far too much fire for that. Picture it, little element! Picture the oceans of fire! The pits sunk straight into Tartarus, feeding the forges that will build our new world. The cities will fall and the black towers rise while your fellow ponies live the last of their lives serving me as I turn the world to ash. Now that… that is my dream.”
“My friends… my friends will stop you.”
Beelzebub stopped a moment before cracking up into a wet and coughing laugh. “She still has some spirit left…” he said to me before turning back to her. “Good. Breaking you will be much more enjoyable. That was my favourite part, you know. They were always alicorns, but they were spirits of harmony one and the same, just like you. The light in their eyes, that last sliver of hope, you could watch it go out. Poof! Like a candle. And in that moment, you knew that they knew all hope was lost and just as surely as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, they were about to die…”
He moved over to her, leaning close to her ear to whisper gently, “And trust me, little element, I have been waiting to see that light vanish again for a very… very long time.”
Twilight didn’t reply, trembling slightly, the proximity to the demon leaving her unable to speak. I remembered the feeling well.
Beelzebub leaned back, smiling to himself. “I look forward to our next meeting, little element. I pray you enjoy your last moments free of pain.” And then with barely a nod to me, he turned and left the room, his sluggish hoofsteps echoing through the open door.
“Do you enjoy that?” Twilight whispered, still in my magical prison.
“What?” I asked, taken aback.
“All of that… all of that talk?” Her breathing was laborious, forced even. “Is all of that what… what you want? The fire and the end of the world?”
“I want my revenge, and I want the power promised to me,” I said automatically.
“That’s… that’s a terrible reason to do all that...”
I raised an eyebrow. “You are naïve, Twilight Sparkle. I care for absolutely nothing about the surface anymore. There is nothing up there that I want to protect rather than serve my own interests.”
“So do you enjoy it?” she said, suddenly much quicker. “Do you enjoy all the pain and misery? All this hatred?” She was looking at me, her eyes glistening with tears.
I turned away. It was not like her to be so forward. She had barely spoken a word her entire time here, but now she was pressing me with her questions, suddenly seeming almost desperate for the answers. But for what purpose, I wasn’t sure.
But what’s more, I didn’t have an answer for her. I could have said anything, but I didn’t. It wasn’t that I would have said an answer that I didn’t want her to hear, but rather, I didn’t want to speak at all. So I didn’t. I turned around, opening a chest along the wall to reveal my armour sitting inside.
I took my time putting it on, tightening each piece with magic, trying to ignore the unicorn behind me. Black plates resting over a coat of dark mail hugged my chest and sides ergonomically, each flowing into the other like tapered dragon scales, leaving my wings plenty of room to manoeuvre. A spined helmet shaped like a wraith’s skull went over my brow, and greaves protected my legs. Acchreon shimmered in the air near my head, the massive blade not yet in reality, and not quite out of it. I let my horn crackle, sparks hissing up and down its length.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and exhaled. Then I opened them, turning to Twilight who was still watching me, her eyes heartbroken.
Beelzebub was right. I could still see the stars in her eyes.
The sunlight streamed into the throne room through the glass roof in golden waterfalls, warming the air like a gentle embrace. At its head was a collection of three figures dressed in finery so resplendent that even the diamond encrusted nobles in the front looked simple in comparison. Coloured star-metal armour covered their bodies, one gold, one silver and the other a dusky grey, as did cloaks of gold-worked Dramad silks. They seemed to glow, bathed in an otherworldly light, flushed in triumph.
The throne room was filled with alicorns, male and female, some in robes, others encased in armour. More than a few of those still in armour looked battered and beaten, sporting minor injuries that were taking their time in healing. If they were in any pain, however, they did not show it. Everypony assembled looked to the three alicorns at the head of the throne room with expressions bordering on awe.
While each of the alicorns was a sight to behold, everypony was truly looking at the shadow-grey alicorn in the middle, flanked by their Princesses. They looked at him with joyous smiles and bright eyes, ignoring their fatigue and injuries.
This was a day of celebration, a day of victory.
A day made possible by the alicorn standing at their head. He was smiling proudly, a victorious glint in is eyes.
“You gaze upon a true spirit of Harmony,” Celestia said, her eyes warm and benevolent. “You gaze upon the virtue of duty and sacrifice, and the courage to stand strong in Harmony’s name!”
She paused, smiling. “Aurvandil, Prince of the Kingdom, stood alone at the gates of Iathalas while the shadow threatened to destroy the city of life. He alone stood against the demon princes, pious and honourable in defence, stalwart and unmoveable. He alone stood against the last remaining Shadow, an evil beyond anything this world deserves to suffer.
“He alone held the gates against shadow and fire long enough for me to arrive to turn the tide.” She lowered her head, spreading her wings out as she bowed. “We owe him; we all owe him our thanks and our praise.”
Aurvandil looked resplendent, bathing in the gazes of everypony assembled.
The Princess raised her head, sunlight forming a halo around her as she opened her wings completely, holding them above her. “Heith Aurvandil! Heith the Prince of the Kingdom!”
“Heith Aurvandil!” the alicorns assembled cheered in the old tongue, their faces bright with joy. “Heith Aurvandil!” A wave of applause washed over the throne room, as did several cheers from the soldiers.
Celestia waited a moment before speaking again. “Today is a day for celebration, a day for song and light. Go forth and be free; sing songs of joy and of peace. The shadow is at bay; the sun and moon shine triumphant.” She smiled again. “For Harmony.”
“For Harmony!” the audience cheered back, suddenly laughing and smiling. Several started singing as they moved apart, filing out of the throne room, their clear and sweet voices filling the hall.
At the head of the room, Aurvandil smiled as Celestia turned to him, her own smile warm as the sun. “Thou hast inspired the Kingdom, Prince of Dusk.”
“I did as was necessary for the defence of the realm, my Princess,” Aurvandil replied, lowering his head in respect. “Nothing more.”
Celestia laughed. “Suddenly so modest! What has happened to thy pride, Aurvandil? Has victory cooled thy fire?”
Aurvandil allowed a small smile in return. His eyes, however, sparkled. “No, your Majesty. I am merely proud to have served the Kingdom in Harmony’s name. It is all I have ever wanted.”
“Ever wanted? Surely there is something I can grant thee in reward for thy services?”
Aurvandil thought for a moment, averting his eyes, hiding the flash of emotion that passed through them. When he spoke, he did so with measured ease and respect. “I would wish for the seat of Galathadros, to further my work for the Kingdom, my Princess.”
Celestia raised an eyebrow. “The seat of Galathadros? Thou asketh for a mighty gift, indeed.”
Aurvandil looked Celestia in the eyes. “Baraithea has stepped down, Your Majesty. The seat needs filling.”
“That it does,” the Princess mused. She turned to her younger sister. “Luna, pray tell, what is thine opinion on the matter? Dost thou believe Aurvandil to be fit for the role?”
Luna regarded both her sister and Aurvandil carefully before speaking. “I see nothing but a strong will and a good heart.”
“Such diplomacy,” Celestia said, clearly amused. “But for whose sake? His? Mine? Or perhaps thy own?” When Luna gave no response other than an impatient look, Celestia chuckled before continuing. “Yes, I do believe thee deserving of such a responsibility. Thy good character and unwavering sacrifice are necessary virtues that are enough to please me.”
Aurvandil nodded, holding back a wide smile. “You honour me, Princess. Thank you for this.”
The Princess looked at him for a long while. “Thou hast earned it, Aurvandil. Go forth and enjoy the day.”
Aurvandil hesitated. “But Your Majesty, surely they would appreciate my presence on the river instead? The line is spread thin, even without the fighting.”
Celestia shook her head. “No. There is no need. The Shadow has crept back into the dark places of the world against Harmony’s light.”
The prince looked around. Seeing only Luna listening, he spoke quickly, “É aés narsis rauc, aés Duvunai tarac.” Few still knew the old tongue other than phrases based on tradition, so it was not likely that anypony who did overhear would understand. Exactly as Aurvandil wanted.
Celestia regarded him for a long time, her eyes narrowing. “Talau sas ni resait dalos.”
“No need for fear…?” Aurvandil said in disbelief, switching back to the common tongue.
Celestia shook her head. “No. There is not. Go and enjoy thyself, Aurvandil. Thou hast earned that much.” With that, the Sun Princess turned and made to leave. “Excuse me. I must make myself present amongst those present.”
Aurvandil watched her walk away, shaking his head.
“You should not worry so much.”
The grey alicorn turned to the speaker by his side. “How can I not, my Princess? I have fear for the safety of my Kingdom. The enemy is strong. So very strong…”
“And this comes from the Kingdom’s champion…” Luna said, her voice light. “Perhaps I should be concerned then.”
Aurvandil raised an eyebrow, but he smiled despite himself. “Your sense of humour is much like your sister’s.”
“No, you misunderstand, oh Prince – my sister’s sense of humour is much like my own.”
Aurvandil laughed. “I cannot argue with that.”
“I should think not,” Luna said. She was quiet for a moment. “You have done well, Aurvandil.”
“Thank you, Princess.”
“I have told you enough times,” she said with a smile. “Outside the public eye, call me Luna, not Princess.”
Aurvandil smirked. “Yes… Luna…”
“Such disrespect,” Luna tittered. “One would think that a Prince would know better.”
“One would assume that, yes,” Aurvandil replied, chuckling.'
“But the point still stands,” Luna said. “You should be proud of your achievements. I feel that the songs they are singing would be very different were you not present at Iathalas when He attacked.”
Aurvandil shrugged. “I simply did what I had to. The Shadow has to be stopped.”
“Indeed it does… You do this Kingdom a great service, Aurvandil. Thank you. Truly, you have a most wonderful heart.”
“Yet it is nothing compared to your eyes,” Aurvandil said, facing away from Luna, his voice barely louder than a whisper.
“Pardon me?” Luna said, her head tilted slightly to the side and her eyes inquisitive.
“Nothing,” Aurvandil said, looking back to Luna with a smile. “It is nothing.”
“If you are certain…” Luna said. There was something in her eyes, though, that made Aurvandil suspicious, and her small smile made his stomach feel as if a tiny bird was fluttering inside.
“Prin- I mean, Luna, would you be interested in seeing me again this evening? The gardens look spectacular in the moonlight, and I would very much like to see you again soon.”
To Aurvandil’s great relief, Luna smiled warmly, her eyes shining. “I would love that, Aurvandil. I truly would.”
I stood encased in my vicious-looking armour, a true servant of Hell now, clad as I was in flanged hell-steel. I waited by the large window, trying to see through the thick panes of red glass. It was an exercise in futility, though, for they were far too stained to see anything.
My head was a mess. My thoughts smashed into each, other only to become lost before I could properly grasp them as I tried to make sense of the streams of consciousness. I wasn’t sure what I felt. Anger? Frustration? Disappointment? Apprehension? Even fear? I was not sure. All I knew was that if I did not acknowledge her existence, I could think faster and with more clarity.
Making matters worse were the two guards standing outside. I could hear them speaking. Their voices carried down the corridor as vulgar cackles, hissing and spitting as they verbally clambered over each other. I tried to push their voices out of my head, but I knew I would not succeed. Even with the door shut I could still hear them clear as day.
I allowed myself a quick glance at Twilight and saw that the unicorn hadn’t moved. She was still lying on her stomach, slightly on her side, her chest rising and falling unevenly. Her expression showed no sign that she could hear them as I did, so I assumed that she couldn’t.
“I will collect a part of each of each species and wear them around my neck,” one said, his voice low and rumbling. “I want a part of each of the three types of ponies by tomorrow’s end.”
A sharp, cackling voice replied, “What? What will you take from a earth pony or pegasus? They have no horns which you can cut off!”
“No, but they have wings and feathers, or hooves. Each will suffice.”
“Grishnak said that there are griffins and zebra outside the gates as well.”
The deep voice laughed. “The more the better! The more there are to face us, the more hope they will have.”
“The pony princesses will be waiting for us on the other side,” the cackling voice replied.
“Bah! Their power is a lie! I will personally cut out their hearts and eat them!”
“You? You would burn before you even took to the air!”
The deep voice growled. “I could destroy them both. First the Sun Princess. Her mane would make great rope!”
“And then the Moon.”
I felt my blood turn to ice as all sound in the room vanished except for their voices.
“And then the Moon. I would go slow with her, see how easy an alicorn’s flesh really cuts.”
“I would wear her horn as a trophy!”
“I want her eyes. They say they sparkle like the stars themselves. I don’t think they’d sparkle if I ripped them out!”
I didn’t really remember moving. It was all just a blur, driven by a burning hot point inside me. I didn’t remember opening the door, Acchreon bursting into existence beside me. I didn’t remember swooping down the corridor, the entire hallway filled with a flickering black light as my power surrounded my body.
I did, however, remember their faces. At first they turned to me, confused, each with their mouths hanging wide open in shock. And then I watched that shock turn to fear as they saw my face. I think even Death himself would have been afraid of my face in that moment.
They didn’t even have time to scream as Acchreon flashed again and again, each stroke colouring the walls with a dark crimson. I didn’t know how long it took me to stop, but I finally did, panting, my sword dripping with blood.
I surveyed the carnage around me with cold calculation. They were dead. I had no idea what I had done to their souls. I hoped they were trapped in my blade, and not free in the void. The fact that they were dead left me with a problem, though. I could kill things, but guards, guards that were meant to be guarding me? That would require answers. Answers that I did not want to give.
But I could lie. It would be easy. No one would even think twice about their deaths if I explained them as being insolent.
But I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about her eyes. It was stupid, but I knew I wasn’t thinking straight. I wasn’t sure I ever had been thinking straight though. Not for a very long time.
And so I didn’t think. I just acted. I let myself do what I wanted, without thinking, without anything. I always had been impulsive.
Before I knew it, I was back in the room, striding across to the window. Twilight was looking at me, horrified, still trying to stumble to her hooves.
“What… what did you do?” she asked quietly, looking at my blood-splattered body.
“I condemned myself, Twilight Sparkle. For better or worse, with logic or not, I condemned myself.” I turned and faced the window. My horn started to glow, and I saw my magic engulf the glass. I could have walked down the stairs, but if I was going to do this, time was of the essence.
With a loud crack, the glass shattered inwards, spraying across the floor in large shards.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
I turned back to her, looking her straight in the eyes. They were wide and scared, and I couldn’t help but give a small smile. Even I could find the irony in the moment. “I am doing what I do best, Twilight. Being a traitor.”
With that, I snatched her up within a magical ball and jumped out the window. North, I had to fly north, and faster than I had ever flown before. The army was already beginning to assemble. It would be less than an hour before they were on the move. Less if someone guessed my treachery.
And so I pushed my wings as hard as I could, quickly leaving the plains of Duustuvur behind. I didn’t think. I just flew.
I swept through the various levels of Hell like a demon possessed. I went north, straight as an arrow, nothing more than a dark streak as I tore through the air. I didn’t stop at any of the gates leading to the higher levels. Each mighty door was shattered open, the chunks of stone, obsidian and hell-steel moved to the side to clear a passage. He had torn them to pieces.
I flew through each passage without thought, disappearing into the darkness shrouding it and coming out on the other side, continuing north, being reset each time to the southern edge of the level.
The landscape of Tartarus changed constantly; there was less and less fire the higher I went, the earth becoming covered in a fine ash, a volcanic wasteland almost, rather than a fire pit for souls. I saw hardly any living things while we flew; not even the smoke shades were out, or the armies of mindless insects or other carnivorous scum that inhabited Tartarus. I knew that this was because each time we had broken through one of the gates, we had quickly set about either recruiting or enslaving its population. The higher we went, we began to find nothing but the lesser evils of Tartarus. Our forges were overflowing with these minor beasts, leaving the levels ominously quiet.
I knew, though, that the silence was merely the quiet before the storm. Each time I pushed through a gate, I looked back over my shoulder. No matter how high I flew, I could see the storm clouds burning behind me, demonic fire illuminating the black shadows from the inside. They loomed on the horizon, the clouds of war on the march.
I was running out of time.
Each time I flew through a gate, it became a little harder. The wards on each one, while broken, still lingered, a powerful and unseen force that pulled at me, slowing me down. It almost felt like I was flying through water, especially in the higher gates. But the feeling would pass the second I was through, and I could fly properly again. I was getting close. I was on the second level, flying over the forests of bone that dominated the northern expanse of this level.
It would not be long now.
Twilight was silent for our entire journey. Maybe she tried to speak. I wasn’t sure, though, for there was no way I could hear her as far back as she was from me. Even with my vastly superior hearing, the sound would vanish, left in my wake. I liked it better that way. I didn’t want to hear her talk. I didn’t want to think about what I was doing, about what I was doing to myself.
All I could see were shades of purple, a white light sparkling inside like stars. I was foolish, but that was acceptable, because I wasn’t thinking about it. Not really.
I passed through the final gate with some difficulty, pumping and straining my wings to remain airborne. I took some comfort in the fact that passing through the gates would slow Beelzebub and the army down considerably, though. It would buy me some time. Time that I was pretty sure I was going to need to see my plan succeed.
On the other side, I took a deep breath. I could see it. The first level was the smallest. It was an ash wasteland, but it was devoid of any fire. There were even scraggly trees, sickly leaves clinging to their skeletal branches.
But there, in the north, I could see the light, a golden white light, marred with shadow. The light of the final gate of Tartarus.
The second gate had slowed me down enough that I could hear Twilight gasp.
“But why…” she whispered.
I didn’t reply. I just picked up my speed until I couldn’t hear her. Not thinking. Just acting.
The final Gate of Tartarus was not as well guarded as one would expect. A subconscious scream built into the gate's defences forced Hell's armies to stay down in the lower levels, lest they be driven insane. Lesser monsters such as the trolls and orcs could stay here, but not for too long. It was simply easier to keep the army near the permanent forges where they could be easily equipped. It wasn't like we had to defend our side of the Gate anyway.
At the moment the Gate was flanked by two spined towers, the many windows and balconies almost giving the appearance that they were nothing more than scaffolding. To a point, this was true. The Gate was covered in etched symbols, written in a language that even I didn't understand. I knew how they worked, though, and that was the important thing.
There was only skeleton crew here. Some orcs and trolls bustling around a raised stage lying in front of the Gate, on which sat a obsidian altar, this one unstained and undamaged, waiting to be used.
They looked up at me when I arrived, my speed bringing with it a rush of sound. I could see the confusion in their eyes. I didn't give them time to ask any questions though.
I landed with the force of a meteor, shattering the stage under my hooves. Acchreon was already by my side, glinting hungrily. Several of the trolls had been sent flying, others simply knocked to the ground by my landing. The ones closest to me were the first to die.
Acchreon flashed, and the killing began. Within seconds the four creatures closest to me were dead, their blood consumed greedily by the ash. One of them screamed, grabbing a crooked sword nearby. My horn glowed, and the sword was ripped out his hands, embedded moments later into his neck. Acchreon soared through the air, taking out the legs of another orc before it flicked downwards, smashing his skull.
Two demon pegasi took off from each of the towers, dive-bombing towards me. I thought they might have been screaming at me, but what, I didn't want to hear. I took off, pushing myself into the air. I twisted mid-flight, avoiding their attacks to speed past them. Acchreon flashed twice behind me. Two of the pegasi kept falling, crashing into the ground with sickening thwacks. Both were missing entire limbs.
I screamed in anger, the all too familiar rhythm of a fight taking hold. I turned and fell back down, racing towards the last two pegasi. One of them managed to swerve, avoiding my dramatic increase in speed. The other failed, and Acchreon speared him through completely. I landed heavily again, the ash thrown up into a cloud around me. The demon slid off my sword, the blade slicked with thick blood.
An orc charged me with a yell, and I took off his head with barely a thought. Two more tried to run, and I dealt with them in short order. I looked up to see the last pegasus also attempting to flee, flapping his scaled wings as hard as he could as he flew south.
I liked my sword. I was good with my sword, and so I normally used it in favor of magic. But with magic, I could make a creature suffer, and if there was one thing that I hated, it was cowards who fled.
My horn glowed, and a dark beam lanced out, arcing through the air to strike the demon. I heard him scream as the magic engulfed him. He fell like a stone, the energy starting a fire in flesh and paralysing him at the same time.
He would be screaming for a long while.
Small lights flickered randomly around the broken stage, the souls of the creatures I had just killed. I took a moment to slow my breathing back to a normal level. It was only then that I lowered Twilight down behind me, releasing the magic holding her prisoner. She threw up as soon as her hooves touched the ground, my speed during the fight clearly not agreeing with her in the slightest. Or perhaps it was the violence. I wasn't sure. The second I was sure she was alive, though, and able to stand by herself, I walked away, heading over to the gate.
"What... where... I don't understand," Twilight said, wiping her mouth with a hoof.
"Quiet," I said. "I must concentrate."
I focused hard on the mighty Gate, towering to well over sixty feet in the air and thirty wide. I could feel the wards in the air around me, a sickly sweet magic that felt like a cool summer breeze. They worked their way into my mind, causing me to grimace in pain. However, the fact that I was not screaming on the ground was evidence that He was almost finished in breaking them.
He had spent almost five hundred years on this Gate. Working in secrecy, trying to keep the Princesses from realizing anything was wrong. He even had placed imitation wards, or in some places learned how to unravel the magics, leaving them intact till the last minute. And that minute was now.
An explosion of thunder rocked the air behind me. I turned, and saw with a frown that the burning clouds were even closer now. The army was on the march. I just hoped they were not racing here, knowing of what I was about to do.
"What are you doing?" Twilight whispered, watching me carefully.
"I have already told you," I murmured in reply, refusing to look her in eyes for more than a second.
I focused on the runes around the Gate, bringing them to life, muttering various words and phrases in many different languages as I did. Each one I focused on began to glow red or orange, and a strange whispering filled the air, a dark language rightly forgotten by the world.
My horn grew brighter and brighter as I worked. I was an alicorn, and this Gate was made by alicorns, crafted from their magic. Few had the power to open such a gate, but I was one of them. I knew the magic. This type of magic was old as time itself, and it was the type of power that all the true alicorns lived from. It was the magic that created them. It was neither good nor evil, for I guessed it had little time for such subjective perspectives, and it responded to my call without hesitation.
I had to gasp when the seal running down the middle of the door began to glow. I started to walk backwards as the earth began to shake, a metallic screech filling the air. Twilight threw herself to the floor, covering her ears with her hooves, trying to block out the noise.
I simply stared in awe as the gate began to move. It shuddered open, sliding inwards on unseen pivots, a burning white light pouring through and assaulting my senses. I shrunk away, temporarily blinded by the light. It was gorgeous, a reassuring and warm sensation that itched at my skin and burned my eyes.
The doors stopped moving with an ominous boom. There was a silence as I stood there, not moving, my eyes scrunched shut against the light.
And then she spoke quietly, disbelievingly, "The... sun?"
Slowly, I inched my eyes open, easing them apart. "It's the sunlight," I said, squinting. "It's the sun..."
"What are you doing?" Twilight said, taking a step away from me. "What kind of torture is this?"
I ignored her for the moment and walked forward. I was barely twenty paces away from the Gate, but I could already feel what was left of the wards. They gripped onto me, pressing me back. I struggled forward, grunting as the force stopping me began to press down. My legs threatened to buckle, and so I stopped, panting, not yet ten paces from the Gate. I couldn't go any further. If I did, the pressure would force me down, trapping me in place where I would even be unable to crawl back.
Looking up, I could see the day. It was veiled and muddled, a great haze separating me and the surface properly, but I could still make out shapes beyond. I could see a tree, the green of its leaves moving gently. I could see figures moving outside, the light glinting off their clothes. I was so close... And in only a few hours, I would have been free.
But by then, it would be too late. The world would be no more.
A screech filled the air, working its way into my bones and leaving an icy chill that gripped at my insides. The scream endured for almost ten seconds, the end of which I was shaking in place, trying to stay upright, trying to fight the urge to lie down and close my eyes.
I knew that scream. That scream meant one thing: Beelzebub was coming. The Gate was open now. He would know. They would all feel it; they would all know. And if they knew, they would know who was responsible.
They knew, and they were coming. And their wrath would be a sight to behold.
I turned and forced myself back to Twilight. With every step I made walking away from the Gate, I could move easier and faster. By the time I reached her, I could barely feel the wards at all.
I raced over to the unicorn. She was lying in the ash, rocking herself silently. Beelzebub's wraith's scream had left her shuddering, barely unable to move.
"Twilight!" I exclaimed. "Get up!"
"Make it stop," she moaned. "Please make the screaming go away..."
"I can do that, Twilight, but I need you to get up, ok?" I automatically used simpler language in an attempt to calm her down. I wasn't sure why; honestly it felt a little silly.
"You can make it stop?"
She stared at me, her eyes unconvinced, confused and desperate. "But why?"
"Because you do not deserve this."
She looked at me. "I don't understand.”
I smiled at her. "Neither do I." I stood up properly, helping her to her hooves with one of my own. "Now, do you know what you must do?"
Twilight shook her head, still disorientated.
"You have to go through the Gate, Twilight. You have to run through the Gate and go find your friends, the other elements. They are the only thing that can seal Tartarus again. You have to find them and you have to use the magic of Harmony. Can you do that?"
"But my horn..." she whispered, subconsciously reaching up to touch her bloodied wound.
"That will not interfere with the magic," I replied. "And ask Celestia about that. She repaired mine once; I am sure she can do the same for you."
"But I thought you hated her?"
I barked a laugh. "I do. But I do not hate you, nor do I hate the surface. You do not deserve to suffer for my mistakes, Twilight. It is time I put things right. A pony changes in the strangest ways."
"But why do this for me?"
I gave her a small smile. "Because I am a traitor." And your eyes are just like Hers. But I didn't say that out loud.
There was another scream. A different one, a dragon's roar.
"Go, Twilight. Go."
I watched her eyes go wide. "But what about the ponies down here? There are slaves still down here! I can't leave them!"
I clenched my jaw shut in frustration. There was no time! And so I took the fall. "What makes you believe I would let them escape with you? Get out of here! Go!"
"They'll kill you. They will torture you forever." I couldn't work out why in Hell's name she wasn't running. Daylight was just behind her!
"You endured," I replied, "and so will I. Now GO! Run! Fly you fool and never return! Seal this place away!"
Twilight looked torn. She lifted a hoof and began to move away. I watched her, my eyes darting. I could hear them. The low roar, the oncoming storm.
She paused, and I snarled. I encased her with magic and threw her forward, sending her towards the Gate. Only, my magic dissipated in the wards, and she landed in a neat pile on the ash covered stone. She stood up, looking at me in horror.
"Run!" I screamed. "Don't look back, just go!"
She looked at me, her eyes shining with tears. Her mouth moved, but I couldn't hear a thing coming from it. She was already too close... too far away. I could lip read though.
"Thank you," was all she said, her eyes saying so much more.
I opened my mouth... and then I closed it again, lowering my head a fraction.
She nodded once, and then she turned and sprinted out into the daylight. There were figures already waiting for her just beyond the veil. I prayed that they asked questions before attacking. I watched for a moment longer to see her being raced away before I sighed in relief.
The earth trembled.
I was running out of time. They would be here in a matter of minutes. I got to work. My horn began to glow again, and I went to work reversing the process I had undergone in opening the Gate. One by one the runes glowed bright before going out, and I swung the doors shut. I spent a moment adding my own seal to the existing wards. Anything that would buy Twilight more time.
Beelzebub and I may not be able to leave, but already the ward was weak enough that pretty much everything else could. The army would overflow the defenders, and even a handful would be enough to secure a foothold strong enough to hold while He re-opened the Gate. Unless it was sealed with the elements, He would be able to shatter any seal placed by the Princesses within hours.
With that done, I turned and walked out past the broken stage. I stood in the middle of a field of ash, completely alone, and I waited. I thought about sitting, but decided against it. Standing was just fine.
I closed my eyes, not wanting to look at the tumultuous clouds speeding across the first level to me. It was only a matter of minutes. I inhaled, pressing my hooves into the ash, only to exhale gently through my nose, keeping my eyes lightly pressed shut.
I smiled softly. I didn’t have any regrets. Perhaps it was arrogant of me, but in this moment, I enjoyed knowing what I was about to sacrifice for her. How altruistic of me. Perhaps Luna would begin to forgive me for what I did all those years ago.
Probably not, though. I imagined the look on Celestia’s face when Twilight told her that it was me who had set her free. Now that I would have given anything to see. Her arrogance would not have let her take that with good grace. It is easier for her to think of me as scum, I am sure.
The ground shook, a great wind picking itself up from the south, little tendrils of air reaching out to snag at my mane and tail. A moment of thought, and all the ash being blown into my face suddenly ceased, a small buffer placed between me and it.
I heard several beasts cry out, their roars seeming faint and vague, almost as if I was underwater.
Great pulses of air began to buffet me. Wing beats. I kept my eyes closed; though I let my magical senses go wild. In front of me, coming in to land, and quickly were about seven figures. All of which I recognized.
Beelzebub had arrived.
“Aurvandil!” he screamed, his voice bellowing out across the entirety of the first level. “What have you done?!”
It was only then that I opened my eyes. Beelzebub jumped off his winged beast, landing with the athletic grace of a warrior who had spent his entire existence fighting. His eyes were no longer dull and lifeless; now they burned with a fury that would melt steel. Five greater demons stood with him, their wings spread wide and their horns glowing. I knew each of them by name, for they were Beelzebub’s retinue, his own high champions. Some were so old I had fought them back in the elder days.
It seemed some fights never end.
“I let her go,” I said calmly.
“You traitor!” he roared, saliva flying from his mouth. “I should have torn your soul from your body and set it alight the day you came to us! Do you know what you have done?”
“You can say some truly imbecilic things, Beelzebub, but that might just have been the most idiotic sentence to ever leave your mouth.” Oh, that felt nice. I wasn’t just prodding the dragon with a stick now; I was pouring molten lead in its eye.
“I will tear you apart, Aurvandil,” he snarled, Petrisis forming into existence next to his head. The greater demons around him did the same with their own weapons.
“You will try,” I corrected.
“No. I will succeed. You have sacrificed your power here now. You are no longer bound to Him. You are outnumbered. You are alone.”
“I am very good at what I do, Beelzebub.”
“And He will make you suffer for all eternity for it! Already He readies Himself, drawing what strength He has left. Do you know what for? So He can see to you personally with some resemblance of a body. He will make you eat yourself, only to regenerate again for another day. He will set fires in your flesh, infect you with cancers that will destroy you slowly. He will whisper to you every day until you have broken completely. You will never be rid of Him.”
“Then so be it. You will never see the surface now.”
“But why?!” he roared, his voice no longer quiet and rasping. “Why have you done this?! What possibly could have led you to this course of action?!”
I looked him in the eyes, a small smile on my face. “I am a traitor, Beelzebub. Some things never change.”
He opened his mouth in disbelief, and then to my surprise, he closed it again, shrugging. “It is irrelevant. The army is minutes behind us. He is destroying the last of the wards now. The second you die they will break out from that Gate like water from a dam. The world will still fall despite you. If one greater demon escapes, the elements will be powerless to stop us.”
“Or so you hope.”
Beelzebub snorted. “So be it.”
He nodded his head once, and the greater demons took to the sky, circling round swiftly to surround me completely. The demon prince strode forward, his limp nowhere to be found, and his eyes still burning malevolently. Petrisis hissed through the air as he swung the blade in large arcs with his magic.
I pulled Acchreon close to my face, kissing the flat of the blade. “Don’t fail me now, my friend,” I whispered. I lowered my stance, tensing my muscles like a spring.
Beelzebub stopped a few paces in front of me, an incredulous smile on his face. He shook his head, almost chuckling to himself.
I exhaled, waiting for him to make his move.
Beelzebub just continued to shake his head. Then he looked up and spoke very clearly and simply, almost as if it were the punch line to some great joke.
“You’re going to die.”
And then they attacked.
Acchreon met Petrisis with an explosion of sparks, our horns glowing as we fed our power through the weapons. We both snarled as we pushed forward, trying to get an advantage through strength alone. Before either of us had a real chance to put any weight behind our attacks, the greater demons soared downwards, attacking me from behind.
This was going to be a nightmare.
I jumped backwards, lowering myself unnaturally quickly to slip underneath a blade aimed for my neck. I spun around as I moved, parrying another blow to then slash widely at a third attacker. They were sweeping past one by one, refusing to give me any real quarter.
I jumped to the side to dodge an attack by Beelzebub, relying purely on my senses to warn me of the strike; his blade was moving faster than I could see. My jump landed me several feet to the right where I was instantly attacked by another of the greater demons. I grit my teeth, parrying a blow. I had no room to plan, no room to play, and I was being caged in.
My horn glowed and a ball of power rippled out, expanding as it went away from me. The demons screeched as they were thrown backwards, failing to erect shields in time. I tried following up with something a little more complex and deadly to eliminate at least one, but they were too quick for that and had been given far too much warning.
Still, using the time I had bought myself, I jumped into the air, leaving Beelzebub stranded for the time being on the ground.
The other greater demons, however, had no such problems. They wheeled around, their eyes expelling small wisps of magic as they burned. They raced forward as one, their blades glinting in the light.
Their faces lit up in surprise as I pushed forward with a magically augmented thrust from my own wings. I streaked towards them, my blade glowing as I channelled my magic through it. The demons readied their own weapons, fanning out to encircle me again.
Just before we collided, I feinted, twitching my body to draw the demon’s guard upwards. He reacted quickly, snapping his sword above his head. In that exact second, I dove underneath him, flying past at near the speed of sound. I turned my head as I went below, smiling at their stupidity, to watch the demon I had engaged plummet from the sky, his front hooves pressed to his stomach, trying to keep everything inside. He hit the ground with a sickening crunch and did not get up again. Perhaps he might with time and enough magic, but now his soul was flickering above his broken body.
The blood now coating my sword bubbled as the heat from the blade burned it clean. The remaining four demons wheeled around and attacked again. I pursed my lips in frustration.
In what felt like hours but was probably all of five minutes, I fought the demons. Sometimes they forced me to land where Beelzebub attacked with all the fury of the ancients. Where blades failed, magic was used, and the air was filled with the stench of burning ozone as lances of power hissed and crackled as they were sent flying.
Each time I got away from Beelzebub, I was able to fight much better. Two more greater demons fell, leaving only another two. But with each passing minute, it became a little harder to react as quickly as I had to. I wasn’t sure what it was, though I had my suspicions about it being the Gate’s doing, but my strength began to dissolve, a burning sensation replacing it in my muscles.
I pushed myself into the air once more, flowing my magic through my body, regenerating my strength back. This was not normal. I could have fought for days back on the surface, but here I was tiring after five minutes. Some sort of magic was at work here, but I was not sure what.
The demons pressed forward once more, the two circling from behind, Beelzebub launching a magical assault to try and keep me occupied. My shield absorbed his magic with ease, an aura of dusk grey energy that covered me completely. My blade worked at my back parrying attacks from both demons simultaneously, pressing them away with short, sharp jabs.
But then Beelzebub tried something different. His whole body became engulfed in the sickly looking glow of his own magic, lifting him off the ground. There was a bright flash, and then the magic faded, leaving, to my horror, the demon prince with two wings made of shadow sprouting from his back.
He took the sky, snarling, “I’ve had enough of this.” He didn’t give me a chance to respond, already darting forward far faster than was natural. I was forced to bring my blade back around, deflecting his attacks with lightning speed. The other two demons attacked again, and so I started to dart through away, trying to create some space.
It was like a dance the way we moved through the air. My three opponents would separate from me, circling to come back around for another attack. Each time, our shields would hiss as they connected, our blades showering the ground in sparks. I was trying to be three places at once, spinning my sword around my body as I blocked attack after attack, each one never in the same place twice.
I tried to use magic, but there was a reason I preferred my sword; I was simply better with it, and it was far more effective against shields. But fighting three swords at once… I was hard pressed.
I deflected a blow behind me without looking, letting the blade skate off, the powerful strike sending his weapon far too low. Sensing the opportunity, I flicked my sword around, pressing the attack. Once, twice, each time he just managed to defend, but on the third strike, I pushed backwards, breaking the timing of his wing beats, and I slipped inside his guard. I snarled as I pushed Acchreon forward, the blade becoming embedded in the demon’s chest. He screamed, my sword burning at his soul.
But, and far too late, I realised that I had over extended myself. Beelzebub’s sword was racing towards me, and there was no way I would be able to pull my own sword out in time. Without another thought, I dropped to the ground, putting every bit of magic into my shield. The blow cut though it like paper, the only thing keeping me alive being the rate I was already falling. The sword still cut deep into my shoulder, and I screamed as the metal began to burn, the flesh already rotting. I jerked, my magic fighting with his to tear the blade out.
As soon as I landed, I rolled to the side, forcing Beelzebub to remove his sword lest I rip it away. I grimaced as I leapt to my hooves, my shoulder sending spikes of agony rocking through my body. I shuddered to think what the wound actually looked like.
The body of the greater demon landed next to me, still and lifeless. I jumped towards it, encasing Acchreon with my magic, pulling the weapon free. Beelzebub was already there, his blade hissing as it blurred through the air. I managed to parry the blow, just, but he was already attacking again, stepping forwards with each strike. He kept his attacks close to the body, forcing me to shrink my guard into an awkward position as I tried to keep him at bay.
The last remaining demon came from above. I rolled to the side, but, and again far too late, I realised that this had been deliberate.
I watched, almost in slow motion, Beelzebub’s sword jabbing forward, directly into my path. I tried to bring my sword around; I tried to move his blade with magic, but I could do little more than watch as Petrisis sunk itself deep into my chest, slipping between two plates of my armour.
I screamed. My entire body felt like it was on fire, the flesh decaying as the sword hissed, eating at my insides. I screamed until my lungs collapsed, torn open by his blade and their dark magic. I crumpled, hard, barely aware of the fact until I was staring at the ash, writhing on the ground.
Fire. Burning fire, black fire. It was eating me from the inside out. It hurt so much. I tried to scream but I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything other than feel the fire burning me.
And then it was gone, the blade jerked free, leaving my flesh sizzling. I coughed, my lungs finding no purchase on the air. There was just nothing going inside. It wouldn’t kill me, but I was pretty sure the damage to do just that had already been done.
My mind still felt like it was on fire; that was the weapon’s effect on my soul. It had been tearing it apart, shredding it like paper. My body shook, the pain leaving me crippled.
Beelzebub stepped over me, rolling me over to my side. I looked at him, his entire face filling my vision.
“You…” he said softly, almost as if to himself, “are a fool.” There was a flash, and I tried to scream again as he ripped my wing clean off, holding it within his magic.
Petrisis flashed, and I was certain I was suddenly missing a leg. My outer body was growing numb, so I wasn’t sure.
With my ear pressed to the ground, I could hear the ground shake, a rhythmic shudder that sent tremors down to the earth’s core. It was the sound of a great army marching. Shapes were moving around me. The army. It was here. The door was still closed, though; there was still a chance.
“You cannot learn,” Beelzebub continued, pressing the point of his sword into my neck. “You just do not learn! The world will burn! The world will burn and you will suffer for all eternity because you just did not learn. You are a traitor, Aurvandil, and I am surprised I ever thought you would be anything more.”
I tried to speak. I did. I put everything into the simple act of speaking, but when I couldn’t even breathe, all that came out was a wet gurgling noise. I was surprised at even that.
“Fool. Harmony will fall-” He stopped, his face suddenly leaving my field of vision. It was getting darker, which felt incredibly strange. Dying down here… the damage done to my soul would prevent me from being sent to the void… My soul would be trapped for His torment.
I guess I had always known that would happen…
Without warning, the world turned white. More specifically, the entire first level was bathed in a blinding white light, pouring in from the Gate. It seared away the shadow, an even greater rumble taking root in the earth.
“What...?” Beelzebub murmured somewhere above me, his voice sounding so very far away. “No…”
And then the white light vanished, replaced instead by streamers of rainbow. In the corner of my eye I could see the Gate, and I could see the rainbow light streaming in from the cracks, pooling like no light should be able to do.
It grew brighter and brighter, and the earth began to crack as it shook. Rainbow light, burning rainbow light. I remembered the last time I had seen that.
I tried to smile.
There was an explosion, and all the sound in the world vanished as if sucked into a vortex. Everything was silent…
A moment passed…
And then the world exploded again. The rainbow light tore forwards, washing over the entirety of the first level, heading south towards the army. Beelzebub screamed as he was engulfed, a primal scream of defiance that tore his own vocal chords.
But it was useless. The light dissolved him, tearing his soul from his body as he was banished once again to the seventh level. The other greater demons vanished in the blink of an eye, suffering a similar fate, as did the screaming shades. The marching sound stopped abruptly and never picked up again.
The light grew so intense that I could see nothing else. I didn’t want to close my eyes in fear that they would never open again. I waited and waited, the light washing over me, doing… something.
The fire in my flesh abated, the wounds to my soul eased as it was knitted back together. I continued to lie still, drinking in Harmony’s light. It had been far too long since I had been able to do that…
And then, the light disappeared. It faded away, leaving Tartarus silent, devoid of absolutely anything that could move.
I tried to get up. I tried to roll over. But I couldn’t. I frowned. My vision… the world was suddenly so much darker without the rainbow light. I could barely see three feet in front of me now.
Huh. I couldn’t move… I felt better. In fact, I felt... good. Except I couldn’t… move… I couldn’t see… and I could barely think straight.
It was perfectly fine, though, because Twilight had succeeded. I’ll be damned; it hadn’t all been for nothing this time. My plan actually worked. She was safe and home with her friends, her and her purple eyes, the light inside them still burning brightly.
I felt so tired. My bones ached, and my mind felt clouded, slow and unresponsive. I was pretty sure that the Gate was still making me tired. I tried to breathe, but I found that I still couldn’t. Some wounds… some wounds went too deep, it seemed.
Her eyes used to look like that as well, burning with that beautiful spark. They probably still did. I would like to think they did. They were always… always my favourite…
Always my favourite.
I smiled… and closed my eyes.
I opened them again… and I saw the Stars.
I was free.
Hey guys, thanks so much for reading this one! I would like to give a massive shout out to my editor, Sessalisk, to whom I owe everything as a writer.
Like this? Then chuck us a watch because I have a lot more work coming your way!
Also, do you want to see the story that finally inspired me to write my own version of pony hell? If you do, then go check out Shortskirts and Explosions' story The Last Tears in Tartarus. There is a reason he is one of the best writers in the fandom!
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this, because I know I had fun writing it.
Till next time!