For a few seconds, nopony said a word. Finally, Twilight stepped out of the small crowd and stared at her mentor. "Why are you here? And what happened to you?"
The princess smiled. "I have seen the light, my faithless student. The true power of Harmony lies behind that disc, yet to be unlocked, and I am here to make sure nopony gets in the way of the Dawn of the Seventh."
This is not how it is supposed to go, Sun Princess, and you should know that. Warden Grey stepped in front of Twilight. The Dawn must come, and then the Eight and the Six will hold their final battle against whatever it is that lies in the Seventh Prison. You have no place in this, and you have no power here.
"You may be right on the first count," Celestia said as her horn began to glow, "but as for the second, you could not be further from the truth." A lance of golden light shot from the tip of her horn, colliding in midair with a similar beam of greyish light streaming out from Warden's forehead.
This is not your battleground, Princess. You shall not harm the Elements while I stand. Warden's eyes were pools of the deepest black, and his necklace seemed to absorb light now, turning a darker shade of grey.
"Do you think you can stand against my Dawn?" The voice was Celestia's, but the reverberations were not. Twilight stared at the princess, and her own horn began to glow as she tried to understand what had taken possession of her mentor. Yet her magic failed to reveal anything - for all it told her, the white alicorn in front of her was the same Celestia she knew and loved.
I do not know if I can. But I know that I must. The grey beam gained a few inches against the golden one. This is my destiny. This is what I was created for all those millennia ago.
"Oh, is that what you think? You do realize that that word in the prophecy can be read two ways, don't you?" The wicked grin on Celestia's lips widened. "This is not your destiny, Keeper of the Spaces Between. It is your doom."
The golden light flared up, and the grey beam was driven back almost to Warden's horn. The grey alicorn gritted his teeth, barely staving off the impact. It was clear he couldn't hope to hold out much longer.
Twilight didn't even notice the tears streaming down her face. This was Princess Celestia, her mentor, her ruler, her friend. Yet at the same time, she wasn't. Something else had taken hold of her, and that thing had to be fought.
"Elements of Harmony, we need to help Warden!" she called out, and in answer, five lights flared up among the crowd. Twilight felt her own Element begin to tingle and glow, and she turned to her teacher. "Whatever you are, we will drive you out of her!"
A rainbow of light shot out towards the Sun Princess, and a single note rang out through the Spaces Between. For a second, Celestia's body glowed brighter than the midday sun, and Twilight had to avert her eyes.
When her sight returned, she turned towards Celestia. The Elements had worked perfectly, she had felt it. Perhaps this was enough to stop the evil that had taken hold of the princess.
Her hopes were dashed when she saw Celestia standing there, looking completely unharmed - and more than that, seemingly invigorated by the burst of energy the Elements of Harmony had just unleashed upon her. The white alicorn threw her head back and laughed. "Foals! You honestly believed that was the weapon to use against me?" She stared at Twilight. "Have I taught you nothing? Just as you cannot fight evil with evil, you cannot fight good with good."
She is right. Warden was staring at the princess with open-faced wonder and horror. Though perhaps 'order against order' would be a more appropriate terminology.
"What do you mean?" Twilight had never felt weaker in her life, drained from using the Elements and despondent from seeing that they had strengthened Celestia.
Whatever may have happened to her, she is ultimately still a creature of order, as is the force possessing her from what I can tell. Warden dug his front paws into the ground. The same is true of the Elements of Harmony. You just tried to quench a fire by pouring oil into it. The grey light holding the golden one at bay dimmed, and Warden's eyes turned back to their usual purple. I was blind. I thought I knew it all, yet this thing caught me completely unawares. He turned to look directly at Twilight, and his next words were more than just her memory of them.
"I failed you, Elements. Fight the Dawn with all your hearts." The grey alicorn closed his eyes and turned towards his opponent. Another lance of golden energy shot out from Celestia and hit the keeper square in the chest, flaring up into a yellowish explosion. A deep rumble shook the ground, as if the very fabric of the Spaces Between cried out, and then subsided again.
The black metal necklace clattered to the ground, shattering on impact, and Warden Grey was gone.
Celestia smiled. "Well, that was easier than I expected." She turned to look at the assembled Elements. "Any other candidates for pointless sacrifice?"
"Don't you dare." All eyes turned towards the dragon now stepping out of the crowd towards the Sun Princess. "It can't have been pointless, since he died fighting you, and whatever you may be, you won't play down what he did."
"Moving indeed, Spikey-Wikey," Celestia sneered. "You would fight me, then?"
Spike gritted his teeth for a second, then he grinned. "I'm not that stupid, Celly." Outrage flared up on the Sun Princess' face at the name, yet the dragon continued. "Even if I was willing to fight my mother, Unity is just as much a force of order as Harmony is." The grin widened, now showing off some fangs. "But there are others here willing to fight you. Scoots, Sweetie, AB, remember Twilight's rainbow in the battle with Doubt?"
Twilight realized what was about to happen a fraction of a second before it did, and she smiled. You've learned more than I gave you credit for, Spike. Four beams of light erupted from the Elements of Unity, converging not on Celestia, but on the other four Elements still standing next to them.
Gilda, Big Macintosh, Trixie and Derpy lined up, and the griffon turned to Celestia, unsheathing her talons. "We are a force for good, and you most certainly aren't. Whatever you might be, whatever you want to do, I will fight you. No fears, no doubts, and no regrets."
The princess sneered. "We shall see as to that, Boldfeather." Twin rays of golden flame shot from Celestia's eyes straight at Gilda. Seconds before they could pierce her chest, the yellow claw-shaped gem in the griffon's Element glowed, and a flickering sphere of energy took shape around the four, deflecting the flames.
"Is that all you got?" Gilda drew a talon across her forehead and flicked a few droplets of blood at the Sun Princess. "Take a good look at this, because it's all you'll see or touch of my warm blood!" Rainbow Dash drew in a sharp breath.
Twilight saw a hint of uncertainty flickering on Celestia's face as the princess' eyes fell on Derpy's element. "Very well. If we have volunteers, who am I to say no?" Another beam of light, this one thinner and seemingly hotter, shot out at the Elements of Diversity, piercing Gilda's shield.
And stopped in midair, only a few inches from the four, held at bay by a lattice of deep green light. Big Macintosh looked at the golden light quizzically, then at the Sun Princess, and smiled. "Nope. Interesting try, though."
Trixie closed her eyes, and both her horn and Element lit up in the same shade of light blue. "You will not have your way with them unless you can pass us first." She opened her eyes, and a hail of blue light began to rain down on Celestia. The small glowing spheres didn't leave any mark of impact, yet Celestia screamed as though she were being pelted with rocks.
A small flickering cube of grey light emerged from the fourth Element and shot towards the princess, constantly changing shape as it did so - first a cube, then a sphere, a pyramid, eventually shifting so quickly that it was nothing but a blur. It seemed to do nothing on impact with Celestia's horn, yet a second or two later Derpy called out, "Gilda! Mac! Trixie! Focus on her mane!"
The other three exchanged glances, then four rays of light streamed out of the Elements, straight up into the sky, and then down at Celestia's head.
Twilight averted her eyes. She couldn't bear seeing this.
"It's working!" she heard Derpy shouting, and her curiosity got the better of her. She slowly opened her eyes to look at Celestia and saw that something was flowing out of the princess' mane, something burning with golden fire. It hovered in the air for a second or two, and then another ray of four-coloured light struck it, and it seemed to melt, boiling away like ice in a frying pan.
The light diminished, and then it was gone. Princess Celestia collapsed to the ground, the familiar pastel-hued mane fanning out around her head and neck.
"Princess!" Twilight was at her side in a heartbeat. "Are you alright?"
"I am now, thanks to your friends." Celestia's voice was quiet, yet steady. "They purged this thing that had taken hold of me."
"But what was it?" Twilight turned to look at the Elements of Diversity, and her eyes met Derpy's. The grey pegasus seemed shaken to the core.
"It was Harmony."
"What?" Twilight managed not to laugh in disbelief. "What's that supposed to mean? That thing couldn't possibly have been Harmony!"
"Oh yes, it was," Derpy said firmly. "A strange, corrupted form of it, but Harmony all the same. Why do you think your Elements gave it strength?"
"She's right, my faithful student," Celestia whispered. "It named itself Harmony, yet I would call it by another, more appropriate name, for it has been this malevolent, evil force for a long time from what I could tell." She beckoned Twilight closer, whispered a single word into her ear, and then fell back, unconscious.
Twilight blanched, turning to the others. "Stay vigilant. This isn't over yet."
"What did she say, Twilight?" Spike asked. "Who are we fighting?"
Twilight stared at the golden disc that was now cracking all the way to the centre. "Now I understand what Warden meant when he said he'd been blind. This is not meant to hold a splinter of the Ancient Darkness after all."
Derpy walked to her side. "No. It's a cell for a force of good gone insane. It's not a prison. It's an asylum."
"Asylum?" The other twelve just stared at Twilight and Derpy, Spike voicing their thoughts. "For who?"
"For the one that used to be Harmony. It must have gone insane a long time ago. It wants to remake the world in its image. When everything is equal, nothing will be unharmonic ever again. This is who we're up against." Derpy focused both eyes on the disc, and her next word sent rumbles across the Spaces again.