Princess Celestia paused for breath. The monsters from the Everfree were retreating. Another blood moon had passed, and this time there were no casualties. Fillydelphia was safe. She reached out with her magic, connecting to her sister's mind.
Luna, are you alright? Have there been any problems? Luna was protecting Trottingham, a town that bordered on another wild wood, Marewood Forest. It was smaller, and the creatures weren't as dangerous, so it was perfect for Luna, who still found her magic a bit weak after her banishment.
Luna's response came through mentally. I'm fine Tia. The worst I have had to deal with was a Canis abyssus. But there has been no damage, every pony is okay.
Celestia nodded, forgetting that the gesture wouldn't translate telepathically. That's good to hear. And Twilight and her friends haven't had cause to send me a scroll all evening, so it's safe to assume that they're-
There was a flash of green light just in front of Celestia, distracting her. A scroll had materialised. Celestia was ready to dismiss it as a scroll reporting that all was well, until she saw the mauve ribbon it was bound with. The same ribbon she had given to Twilight Sparkle to be used in case of emergencies only. Luna, meet me at Ponyville. Something's wrong. She wasted no time in teleporting to Ponyville's library, where Spike had sent the letter.
She materialised in the library foyer, looking left and right for her pupil. "Spike, what's the matter? Has something happened to Twilight and the others?"
Spike pointed outside, unable to speak. Celestia looked, and was shocked by destruction she saw. Roofs had been ripped off buildings, trees had been uprooted and slammed into other buildings. All the leaves on the library tree had been ripped off, leaving the building looking rather forlorn. Gashes scored the ground everywhere, and elsewhere, deep scratches cut into what walls didn't have trees embedded in them.
There were no ponies weeping at this destruction in sight. The town seemed deserted, abandoned. But Celestia could sense a large gathering of ponies at the town's edge, in the direction Spike was pointing. She began to get more worried. She forced herself to walk towards the crowd slowly, not letting any of her worry show. As she approached, the crowd began to draw back, giving her clear passage. Finally she reached the edge of the crowd, and was struck dumb by what she saw there.
Lying in a row was Twilight and her friends, all of them with their eyes closed. No movement could be seen, not a fluttering of an eyelid nor the movement of the chest. They were all covered in scratches and bruises, and in the case of Fluttershy at least, dried blood stuck to their coats and manes.
There was a flash as Luna teleported next to her sister. She looked over the bodies, and had to turn away, fighting back tears. Celestia kept looking, though she longed to turn and flee from this awful sight. Wandering among the bodies of the ponies was a white earth pony with a rose coloured mane and a red cross for a cutie mark. She approached the royal sisters.
"Your highness, I'm sorry. There was nothing we could do. It was too late by the time we got here. They're... they're dead."
Celestia nodded. "Thank you Nurse Redheart. May I ask what happened here?"
Nurse Redheart began explaining. "Well, we're not entirely certain. The whole town was spending tonight in the Town Hall to be on the safe side, since it's the strongest building in town, so the monsters, if they somehow got through, would be unable to get to us. The night was almost over, when just a few minutes ago Spike was banging on the doors, crying out for help. He barely managed to explain that something bad had happened to Twilight and the others before he dashed off again, presumably to send a scroll to you.
"So we came outside to discover the destruction done to our town, and we headed to the clearing that Twilight and the others were meant to be defending. That's where we found them. Most of them were trapped under trees, but Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy were just lying there. We managed to pull them out and lie them here, but there was nothing we could do."
"I see." Celestia wanted to weep. Even after more than a thousand years, the loss of ponies she considered her friends still hurt her deeply. "We shall begin preparations for their funerals immediately." She turned around, finally looking away from the bodies. "Now if you'll excuse me..." She spread her wings and took off, leaving Ponyville behind her in a matter of seconds. Up here, where her subjects couldn't see her, she finally began to cry. She alighted on a cloud and wept openly for the loss of Twilight and the others.
A light thump interrupted her distress. She looked up to see Luna sitting on the cloud just in front of her. "Sister...."
Celestia sniffed. "It doesn't get easier does it sister? Even after all this time, I still feel their loss like it was part of me that was cut out."
"Sister, if you miss them so much, can you not just bring them back?"
"Bring them back?" Celetia looked at her sister in shock. "Luna, you know just as well as I do that we can't bring ponies back just because we miss them. There are procedures to follow. They must first enter the game, and there's no game in Ponyville. It's still too small to be able to host one."
Luna nodded. "Yes, but there is one in Manehatten is there not? That is not too far from Ponyville. And you're the Princess. If you ask for them to stretch the rules so they can include Twilight Sparkle and her friends, then what choice do they have but to accept?"
There was silence. Then Celestia spoke up. "You're right of course Luna. How did I manage to blunder through those thousand year without you?"
"I really wonder about that sometimes. I shall go fetch their souls, you talk with the Conductor about doing this. Is Manehatten's Conductor still Swamp Light?"
Celestia shook her head. "No, he was succeeded about a few years back. Somepony had taught him how to make Taboo Noise, and he was sicking them on his players and reapers alike.”
Luna shifted uncomfortably on her cloud. “I realise what I did was wrong, but surely you cannot hold me accountable for everything I did as Nightmare Moon.”
Celestia gave her sister a weak smile. “Of course not. Regardless, he had to go. he was replaced with his second in command, the pony who informed me of his misdeeds. His name is Gathering Storm."
Night was falling over Manehatten as Celestia flew in. She had spent most of the day overseeing the reconstruction of Ponyville, trying to keep her mind off Twilight. Now that she had gotten her emotions under control again, she was ready to talk to Gathering Storm. Celestia had only spoken with him a few times before since he took up the position of Conductor. The Conductor's role in running the Reaper's Game was to ensure everything went smoothly. While Celestia was the one who set up the game, and the only one who could bring the winners back to life, the Conductor was the one who decided on a Game Master, and dealt with any minor problems. He also was in charge of deciding who was entered into the game, and when it began.
Gathering Storm was based in the UG. While he was able to travel to the RG, it was more polite for Celestia to be the one to make the visit. Especially with the request she had to make. So as she landed beside the Clydesler building, she cast the plane shift spell. From her new vantage point in the UG, she could see the door that lead the to Reaper's Headquarters. She entered it, into a room rather like a mansion's sitting room. It wasn't quite as grand as her room in Canterlot, but it was still a sight to behold. There, behind a desk sat a dark grey unicorn, yellow highlights running through his short cut mane. He seemed to be anticipating the visit.
"Ah, Lady Celestia. A pleasure to see you again," said the unicorn, his deep voice cutting through the silence. "I admit, I wasn't expecting a visit from you, not this month at least. And unannounced as well. You are full of surprises."
"Gathering Storm. I should have liked to have given you forewarning of this visit, but I'm afraid I was rather unprepared for it as well. I'm afraid I have a favour to demand."
"Demand? Forgive me my lady, but aren't favours usually asked, rather than demanded?"
"Indeed, but this is one that you must grant. You see, just last night, six ponies had their lives taken before their time. I am here to see that they not only have entry into the game, but also that the game begins as soon as possible. Tomorrow if possible."
"My lady, why should that pose a problem?" asked Gathering Storm, perplexed. "I am always more than ready to accept those who deserve a right to live into our game, so long as they can pay the entry fee. So why should you need to ask this?"
"The ponies I speak of did not die within the boundaries of your game. They died a short distance away, in Ponyville."
"Ponyville?" The unicorn's features creased in puzzlement. "I thought Ponyville was within my boundaries? I must have forgotten to bring up the request. Still, no matter. I can accept these ponies. The game can even start tomorrow; it's been too long since we held one. I shall have to take the role of Game Master, I doubt any of the officers would be able to cope at such short notice."
"Good. I have one more request," Celestia added. "If any of these six ponies survive the seven days, they are to be revived."
"My lady!" For the first time in the conversation, Gathering Storm's tone was less than servile. "This is unheard of! To forego the judging of worth, as is right? If this is to happen, then they have to be at a disadvantage to begin with."
Celestia held his gaze for a moment, then acceded. "Very well. They shall not be informed of their situation from the start. They shall have to figure it out for themselves. Would this be disadvantage enough?"
Gathering Storm considered. "It is a start. But my lady, I suspect that you hold a connection to these ponies, to ask for so much from me. As such, what is to stop you from helping them throughout the week? Now, if you were to bar yourself from interfering with the game, or even monitoring the game, this should allow balance to be restored, and allow them to bypass judgment."
"It is done. So long as you keep your word, I too shall keep my word."
"Very good my lady. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must begin planning immediately. I shall see you at the end of the week with the victors."
"Indeed you shall." Celestia turned and left the building. She didn't even notice the smile Gathering Storm was unable to contain any longer.