Twilight opened the doors to her chambers in Canterlot Castle, yawned, and plodded her way inside. Somehow, against all odds, the room finally stopped wowing her each time she stepped in it. Though, that may have been because her mind's capacity was completely overtaken with other matters. When she got to her bed, she flopped down and melted into its illogical but incredibly welcome warmth, and closed her doors.
Sleep never came. It certainly didn't feel like she'd reached the point in her ascension where she didn't need it, though that was little comfort. Years had passed since her father's techniques had failed to work, but she was rapidly going through her mental checklist of things to try.
Maybe that's the problem. Too much going on in my head. She reached out through her magic, probing the inside of her closet before finding her Grand Mage journal and matching quill set and hauling them out and over to her. She parted the book’s pages, dipped the quill in the ink, and began to write.
I haven't written anything in a long while. Celestia once told me, "Ascension is eventful." I didn't really believe her at first. The idea that it's my fault that things keep happening didn't sit well with me, and it still doesn't. If there is something about Ascension that sets something in motion, then it's bigger than me, than the Sisters, than everything.
I certainly wasn't the one who committed heinous crimes against Equestria. I didn't steal everypony's prized possessions in Ponyville, or hypnotize an entire town. I haven't been running a secret society based on illusions for what appears to be hundreds of years, or leading a cult for dozens. All I did was seek to find truth and protect my ponies, which put me in the right places at the right times.
Yet despite how exhausting it is, I'm glad I found those places when I did. Things have certainly been eventful, and though it has also been trying, it was definitely worthwhile.
The last couple months, however, have been especially bad.
Twilight's ear rang with the memory of Celestia's words.
"Duke Esteem, you stand accused of crimes against ponykind, and of treason to the crown. If you are found guilty by this tribunal of the Empyreal Hall, let it be known that the diarchy will be considering our most severe punishments."
Twilight shook off the thought and continued.
I didn't actually succeed in my original mission. In fact, neither of my recent missions went the way I expected. Both, however, led to something more than I could have ever anticipated. The corruption in Cloudsdale resulted in the firing of the entire city's police department, so I enlisted an army of Crown Agents after I arrested Esteem. Arrests are already in the thousands, and may climb higher before this is all over. Most ponies are eager for a plea deal.
And yet we are no closer to uncovering who, or what, the Majestics are, nor their goals. Nopony seems to know anything, and with an untraceable geas in play, that may well be the case.
She paused, as more memories spilt forth.
"I couldn't do anything! I had orders, and a knife to my back!"
"And it was his fault! He was the one!"
"Yes, I saw him. That stallion there, Seapony Dustmane!"
"The bite marks are conclusive. They match perfectly."
Cloudsdale is doomed, at least as it is right now. I wish you could have seen it, reader. Perhaps someday it'll be something even greater, but for all its faults, it was still a city in a scale of size and beauty like no other.
Though we stopped a pair of the bombs, the weather factories are a total loss, and the Cloudsdale Armories’ facilities fared no better. The Emergency Redistribution Plan was only really supposed to be used in a dire time of war, and that's exactly what happened. We are in a war for the soul of a nation, and our facilities have been destroyed.
In the coming years, food and water will be relatively short. Wild weather will reassert itself. Our weather control will be reactionary, rather than proactive. However, since we already have a plan in place, it will be manageable. Ponies will live, and there should be no mass starvation. Better still, it will be exceptionally difficult for any foe to ever do this again once we are done.
Twilight exhaled, breathing out the nerves and tension.
"I swear, before this tribunal, my words are true. It was the honourable Duke Esteem!"
"Cheval Industries refutes the allegations that we are forging anything. Duchess Artfeather authorized and subcontracted us explicitly. We did not know who the weapons were going to."
"At least twenty thousand mounted guns are now on the black market."
"Duke Esteem. He ordered non-pegasi fleeing the city to be killed."
Rebuilding efforts are underway, but millions of former residents of Cloudsdale are fleeing for greener pastures. Since they generally have wings, it's not hard for them to move. Much like Duke Esteem's excuses in court, a lot of the city is going to evaporate. Abandoned cloud homes deteriorate over time, turning back into regular clouds. Many homes will be stripped of their solid belongings and reprocessed for rain to hold back drought conditions.
The nobility of Cloudsdale is similarly being dissolved. A few select ponies that can prove their worth will keep their titles, while the rest are seeing their corruption brought to light. It is a mighty blow to both the Council and Celestia's reign. Ponies aren't sure who to trust.
For my part, I know that I trust Celestia. I trust Luna. I trust my brother. I trust my friends and family.
Anypony else is up for debate.
I know that doesn't follow the tenets of harmony per se, but this is a world apart from Ponyville. This is politics. The halls of power. Of greed. Of corruption.
Honestly, it disgusts me. I don't know what we'd do without Celestia, without a counterbalance to the breakdown of harmony itself. She's the linchpin. Without her, there is no Equestria, pure and simple.
"Duke Esteem, this tribunal finds you guilty of heinous crimes against ponykind."
The tip of the quill snapped, and Twilight pulled out the next.
That's not to say that there are no forces of good to aid her. My sister-in-law, Princess Cadence, is quite possibly the greatest to ever hold the position, even at her relatively young age. My brother does his part as well, though he mostly works through his military positions.
As much as I hate to admit it, even Prince Blueblood is an overall force for good politically. Oh, don't misunderstand me, reader. He's arrogant, full of himself, spoiled beyond reason, and whiny, and any mare willing to put up with him romantically is either out for some favor or is out of her mind. Yet I have to say that politically, Celestia has no stauncher ally. When there is a decision on something in the Empyreal Hall, he can be counted to do the right thing consistently.
Princess Luna butts heads with her sister occasionally, but it's usually not because she sides with the Council. Rather, she likes her own solutions, even when they aren't workable. She thinks with her heart, and that puts her at odds with everypony. She speaks without thinking, and often puts her hoof in her mouth. Figuratively, of course. I can't be sure if that will be an expression in hundreds of years. Maybe I'll be there to explain it, but... I'm rambling.
She's not much of a politician, and is often without tact, but she is honest and forthright. She's also frustrated. I can say that her heart is in the right place, but that I also see where Princess Celestia is coming from. Whatever may come from her outbursts today, I'll face it, though part of me wishes she wouldn't kick the hornets' nests for fun…
Twilight switched off the presentation spell, and the lights in the Empyreal Hall returned to normal. "This concludes my findings thus far. Thank you for your time, Council Members." She bowed and returned to the seat at the desk at the bottom of the chambers, readying herself for the inevitable questions.
"The Council thanks you for your service in this matter, Grand Mage Sparkle." Charlemane flipped through his copy of the documents. "Tell me, do you believe that the accused, Duke Esteem, was responsible in any way for the death of Duchess Artfeather?"
Twilight shook her head. "I found no evidence directly linking him. Everything is circumstantial at best, and even that is a stretch."
"But, what do you think? Do you believe him guilty of the act, and you simply were unable to find the evidence, or is he innocent?"
"He's hardly innocent, Chairpony."
Twilight managed to get a laugh out of the Council with that one, although the bound and gagged Esteem did nothing but glare at her.
"However, if you are asking what my instincts tell me, they're saying that Esteem did not contract to have his wife eliminated. The crew that killed Duchess Artfeather was professional, while the pony we know he hired was an amateur. He is innocent of the murder of his wife, but guilty of a great many other things."
"And do you know who did murder the Duchess?" Charlemane asked. "You do have a rather large evidence list, but no suspects."
"I do not."
"Why not?" Duke Badlands of San Palomino pounded a hoof on his desk. "Why do we allow you such a prestigious rank if you can't get results?"
Twilight leaned forward into her microphone. "I just exposed an international conspiracy perpetrated by one of your own. One which has cost the lives of hundreds of ponies and untold thousands of horses, I might add. If that doesn't qualify as 'results,' Your Grace, what does?
"If you truly believe me incompetent, then you are free to request a specific investigator within RGIS to review my findings and come to a definitive solution for the case. But if they don't get significantly farther than I did, then perhaps you will agree that I did the best possible job."
Charlemane banged his gavel. "That's enough, you two. Time for the next question.
"Your report includes a description of a now-destroyed ledger with a transfer of over two billion bits to something listed as the 'Majestics.' Do you know for certain who, or what, that is?"
"No. However, based on the amounts and the subsequent investigation into their accounts, I believe it reasonable to assume that it is the same organization that conducted the Siege of Canterlot."
The Duchess of Shanghay flipped her microphone on. "Are you accusing Artfeather of being the one in charge of the coup attempt?"
"I don't have enough evidence to formally make that accusation, but from an intelligence and investigation standpoint, it bears keeping in mind. It's certainly enough to form the basis of further inquiries and warrants.
"Also, your words bear careful scrutiny, Duchess. You said 'one in charge,' but there is nothing to suggest anything beyond being a source of funding. At least, so far. Neither I nor RGIS intend to drop this anytime soon."
"I can't believe I'm listening to this." Badlands tossed his papers behind him. "Artfeather was my friend, and you're slandering her! She wouldn't--"
"Let me in!"
The doors to the outside crashed open, probably from a pair of Day Guard being thrown into them. A large gryphon strode in wearing a crown and the most elaborate armor Twilight had ever seen short of her own. It was covered in shades of silver, gold, and purple, and the accompanying crown was similar, with gems of lavender. Her eyeshadow was also dark purple, but her feathers were brown and white.
She walked directly to the center of the Empyreal Hall, glanced around, and bellowed, "I demand to know why I have been kept waiting for reparations for the destruction of one of my cities!"
"King Morvana, my apologies," Celestia said, calm as a winter's night. "We have been dealing with the fallout of a major domestic event. I ask for your patience. Our intelligence service is actively engaged with your consulate with regards to relief efforts."
"Relief? Relief?! That mare--" Morvana thrust a claw at Twilight "-- destroyed a historical treasure and put my daughter in the hospital!"
Yeah, I think I'm equus non grata at this point. Twilight leaned her head on her hoof. On the bright side, her doing this means the Council will basically have to back me up. They're politicians. They won't take to being yelled at like this.
"King Morvana, please do watch your tone." Celestia rested her forelegs on her desk. "The tower that was destroyed was subverting your government, your businesses, and every major institution in Gryphonia. Your daughter, meanwhile, was attacking Twilight's Guard Captain without cause."
"Which means what to me?!" King Morvana only yelled louder. "Gryphonhelm Valley is poisoned, and it was you ponies making illusions in our fights! We demand retribution! We demand to be made whole!"
For all the silence in the moment following Luna's question, one would have thought somepony had lit an anti-candle in the Empyreal Hall. Even King Morvana was stunned.
"Luna, that was not appropriate for a diplomatic setting." Celestia still sounded calm, but Twilight could pick up on the subtle disturbance in her mane. "We should discuss this later."
"Diplomatic? Sister, she burst in here, injured your guards, and made demands. That's a threat." Luna rested her head on her folded hooves, making her throne more a perch than a chair. "So tell me, King. If I were to tell you to take your threats and shove them, what would you do?"
The King stumbled with her beak for a moment. "This, this is an outrage! Some of my citizens died!"
"Lots of ours died in our issues, and one of ours was injured defending Gryphonhelm. You are avoiding the question." Either the lights over Luna were dimming, or her mane was eating some of the light. "What, exactly, would you do?"
"Luna, that's enough." Celestia was no Ionger matron, but big sister about to lay down the law. "You are making things worse."
"I am still a princess, am I not?"
Luna vanished in a wisp, reappearing in front of the King. "Your threats are empty. You dismiss Grand Mage Sparkle's offer of help, cry about your injuries, and threaten us in order to look tough to the gryphons wanting to hold you accountable. It's like a pony falling down, rejecting EMT efforts, then trying to beat up the first responders with a wet noodle for not getting enough help.
"You can't eject all the ponies from your lands. Your economy would collapse. You can't exercise an embargo without hurting both economies. You can't declare war; your government is in chaos. Even if you could unite the aeries against us, that would take time. Time we could use to build dozens of Bellerophon-class warships."
"I second her motion to build more ships!" the Duke of Stalliongrad blurted out. "There's clearly a threat here we must respond to!"
"And that would get your companies more money," said the Duchess of Manehatten.
"Shut it!" Luna barked. "This is my time. And you, King Morvana. You're trying to get Celestia to be... diplomatic. That's not hard. My sister is always diplomatic. Because she's a nice pony.
"But We are not. You want our Sister to be diplomatic because her kindness will be mistaken for weakness by your gryphons. Yet We see through you. We know how threats work. We have made a few in our time."
Morvana gripped one of the audience chairs and crushed the back into splinters in her palm. "You... Arrogant, insolent…"
"We've been called worse. Much worse. But this only proves our point. Thou art uncovered by thy refusal to make real threats, because thou canst not follow through. Here's one thou canst take home: If thou hurtest Our ponies, the explosion of the tower will seem as but a kernel of popcorn. Also..."
Luna's mane flared out, sucking even more light from the Empyreal Hall. A blue mist enveloped the alicorn's lower half, and she seemed to grow a few inches to look down on the Gryphon King.
"If thou dost declare war, We shall win. We shall show mercy for thy gryphons, but not for thee. We shall stuff thy cavities and serve thee for a meal to the dragons." Luna's lip turned up in a grin. "That, little gryphon, is how one maketh a threat."
Morvana didn't have teeth, but Twilight was sure she was grinding something before storming off, muttering a string of Gryphonic curse words.
Twilight and the entire Empyreal Hall was stunned, staring at Luna as she returned to normal and walked her way back to her seat. Had Twilight not looked to Celestia a second earlier than the rest, she would never have caught the subtle wink Celestia gave her.
She knew this would happen! Twilight looked over at a similarly happy Luna. They worked together and planned it all out! She exhaled and laughed under her breath. At least they're communicating.
"Well, that was... something." Charlemane cleared his throat a few times, likely trying to regain a train of thought. "Shall we proceed, then, to questions about the financial statements of Cloudsdale Armories and the Cloudsdale Weather Factories? There was something that--"
"Chairpony." Celestia said, voice returning to her smooth, glass-like calm. "We are avoiding an issue. We have established what Esteem was and was not guilty of, yes? Then I wish to come to an accord for a sentence. He has not been forthcoming with testimony, and I doubt he ever will. Thus, I want him removed from my presence, and my city."
Charlemane looked like he was groaning on the inside. "Yes, Your Majesty. Do you have a recommendation as to your preferred sentence for the convicted?"
"I leave that in the hooves of the Grand Mage."
Twilight was exceptionally thankful she hadn't been drinking anything. The entire Council would have been soaked. "Me?!"
"Indeed, my student. I apologize for springing this on you. But, I believe it is experience you will, someday, think useful. Take a few minutes if you need it. In fact, why don't we call a five-minute recess? We have been here for quite some time; a break is warranted, I believe."
Somewhere in the back of Twilight's mind, there were some rogue neurons paying attention to the ponies filling out of the Hall to use the restroom or just get some fresh air and stretch their legs or wings. The rest of her, however, was weighing the options at a mile a minute.
Any possible legal punishment was open for her to recommend, from life imprisonment to immediate execution. Even various time frames of petrification were on the table. Nothing was beyond her say-so.
Something reasonably strong is warranted... If I choose a light sentence, the diarchy will look weak. If I go too far, though, we may look tyrannical. It has to be somewhere in between.
She looked over to the condemned stallion sitting in his cage. He was surrounded by four guards, wrapped in a straitjacket, shackled, and had a gag over his mouth. All that could speak were his eyes.
There was no mercy or kindness to be had there. No generosity, or loyalty. It was all anger, hate, indignation; a sense of rage contained only by his bindings.
"I've decided..." she said, only realizing a few seconds too late that it had been out loud.
"Have you?" Celestia asked, sipping some tea from her throne. "That was faster than I imagined. We still have a moment of recess. Are you sure you are ready?"
"I am." Twilight looked away from Esteem, focusing instead on the hall itself. "Completely sure."
"Very well. It will only take a short while to reconvene the Council."
Twilight barely paid attention to the ponies returning. She certainly didn't pay attention to the one in the cage. She didn't regard the outside world at all until Charlemane spoke into his microphone.
"I said, are you ready to proceed, Lady Sparkle?"
"Yes." She sat up as straight as she could on her seat. "My recommendation is one thousand years petrification, the stripping of all assets and titles, and the further imprisonment beyond that for thirty years."
Charlemane scratched his chin while the Council conversed amongst themselves. "That's a surprisingly... merciful recommendation, Lady Sparkle."
"Is it?" Twilight asked. "I don't think so. I want him to see, after all that time and progress, an Equestria filled with peace and prosperity. One where tribalism, if not eliminated entirely, has been reduced to background noise and is no longer an accepted way of life. One where his callousness, cruelty, and corruption alone render him a pariah to society.
"And I fully intend to spend my life towards achieving that goal, so that I will know he'll open his eyes one day to a world without his type, one that will retch at the pony he once was."
More murmurs scattered about the chambers, most of which sounded vaguely like surprise. Charlemane didn't seem as impressed.
"I see," He said. "I can understand where you are coming from, then, Lady Sparkle. However, I believe the Council has a different recommendation." He shuffled some note cards, briefly looking them over.
"Your Majesties, this Council has been polled during the break. It is our recommendation that the accused be sentenced to permanent petrification, with no hope of restoration in the course of eternal time."
Celestia considered this for a moment, then banged her gavel. "I have heard the recommendations of both parties, and will take both into consideration. Before my sentence is decided, it is customary to allow the convicted the opportunity to speak one final time. Bailiffs, if you would please remove the gag."
The cage was unlocked, and the bailiffs removed the bit gag before locking the cage back up.
Celestia didn't even look at the stallion as she spoke. "Esteem, do you understand the seriousness of the recommended sentences?"
"Don't patronize me, your supposed highness. I'm not stupid."
"Then, do you have anything to say on your own behalf before I decide your fate?"
"Yeah. Where do you get off?"
Celestia still didn't look at him. "Pardon me, but such outbursts will do you no favours in this proceeding. Do you wish to amend your words?"
"No, I want to add to them. So you're immortal. How does that give you the authority to rule over us?"
"What gives you the authority to order ponies killed for the ‘crime’ of fleeing Cloudsdale?" Twilight didn't expect her own outburst. It just came out. She wouldn't have trouble sleeping over it, though.
Esteem struggled in his straight jacket, possibly to make an obscene gesture. "Shut it; I'm talking here. Why is it that we bow down to you when you don't even know what it's like to be us? Why pamper you and ask for your blessing instead of ruling ourselves?"
"My little pony," Celestia said, taking a sip of tea. "My sister and I don't just rule Equestria. We created it out of the ashes of the Chaos War."
"Like that matters anymore? That was thousands of years ago. Any sane pony would have retired by now, if not died. And yet you're here, the biggest hypocrite in history! You condemn me, but there isn't a single pony in this room that isn't just like me! Every single member of the Council is guilty of just as much!"
"Asinine." Prince Blueblood scoffed. "Nopony else here has been shown to blow up civilian and military assets en masse in a way that threatens the stability of the whole country."
"I must also object." Duchess Suisaiga raised her hoof. "Nopony here has a better anti-corruption task force than I do. Neighpon has seen a drastic, RGIS-documented reduction in corruption since my assumption to the Duchy Chair."
"That's all well and good, Duchess Suisaiga." A pony unusually rotund for a pegasus stood up, though it took him a wobbly moment. "Marelaysia has, consistently, been renowned for its fairness and rule of law since its founding. Cracking down on corruption is one thing. Not having it to begin with is another."
Celestia banged her gavel a few times. "That is enough. This is Esteem's chance to speak. Possibly his last chance, so let us allow him to say his piece."
"You shouldn't be allowed to dictate who can speak, hypocrite." Esteem struggled some more. "You talk of crimes, yet the biggest criminal of them all is still here! That mare, your sister, tried to destroy the entire world!"
"Watch your tone," Luna warned, voice as soft as Fluttershy's. "You know not of what you speak."
"What's there to know? You tried to kill us all! Billions of attempted murder charges, that's what you should have faced! And now we're expected to call you Princess? Or what, you'll try to bring eternal night again? Is that what this is? Let her rule or we die?"
"Do not continue, Duke." Luna again warned. "I still have a say in your sentence if that is my desire."
"Oh, I'm so sorry, Nightmare Moon. Don't stop the raising of the sun and freeze me, not to mention the billions of other ponies you nearly exterminated! What, you spend some alone time on the moon and we're supposed to believe it's all better now? That we should still bow before you because you had a time out? You're immortal, a thousand years is nothing for you! A slap on the fetlock!
"Yet here I sit, supposedly guilty of far less crimes, and you're talking about killing me? Where's the justice in that?"
"How... dare you..." Luna's voice retreated even further, yet grew far more acidic.
"Yes, how dare I! How dare I tell the truth! The truth we all know and ignore because we might get killed if we don't!"
"How... Dare... Yoooouuuu!" Luna screamed, appearing at the cage in a flash, grabbing the stallion by the neck with her magic. "A slap on the fetlock? Is that what you think? Well, let me explain to you what that ‘slap on the fetlock’ was!
"It was the tearing apart, the disintegration, of my wellspring, my soul, my essence! It was the banishment not to the moon, but becoming the moon, and feeling all of it! One thousand years of a hell you couldn't survive, much less understand! Pulled apart and crushed at the same time! Burned on one end by the heat of my sister's sun, and frozen by the void on the other! Knowing that the world forgot about you through the dreams of foals, yet being unable to experience anything but hatred, sorrow, and pain the likes of which would break you in an instant!
"And at the end of all that, to be 'cleansed' by experiencing the pain you put others through first hoof, then shattered mentally and emotionally until nothing but your core and a few key memories remain! Knowing everything about your sin while expecting to become nothing but a trophy to be held up by your vanquisher!"
Twilight lowered her head, trying to make herself small.
"That was my penance! Yes, alicorns live for a long, long time. But my punishment fit my crime, yet neither of what was thought up here today fits yours!" Luna dropped him on the floor of his cage and turned her back as he coughed and gasped. "Sister, allow me to decide how he is punished."
Celestia finally looked at the condemned. "For insulting you?"
Luna shook her head. "For my ponies that were hurt."
"If you do this, he won't be made a real example. His punishment will have to be classified."
"Then let the mystery fuel the imagination, Sister."
Celestia looked between the two one last time. "Done. But remember, this will haunt even you."
"Shide danna brune ien."
Twilight looked away and pretended not to know what was said. She truly didn't know the translation, only knowing that it was Luna's native tongue. However, her secret message to her sister was decodable from the tone and the knowledge of what it means to be an alicorn: "I will bear it."
Luna broke open the cage, ripped apart Esteem's straitjacket, and even unlocked his shackles.
Esteem stumbled backwards in his container. "W-what are you--"
"I am not cruel enough to strip you of your magic given where you are going." She pulled him out, forcing his face to the Hall and the members of the Council. "We're going to take an exceptionally good look at Equestria, Esteem. Savour it. Remember it. You are never, ever going to see it again."
She kept a magical grip on his neck, leading him out the doors, then vanished with him to parts unknown.
Twilight was the last out of the Empyreal Hall for the evening, albeit not to the degree of how late she would stay in her classes -- provided that didn't make her late for something else. The only two left in the area were a pair of Day Guard pegasi standing at attention as she walked past, plus one additional, retired Day Guard.
"Hey, Twilight! How did it go?"
"Hey, Cloud Burner. It went... well, it's hard to say." Twilight yawned, pulling a muscle in her jaw. "I never knew how exhausting just talking could be. The Council grilled me. I'm kind of surprised I'm not charred black at this point."
"Yeah, they'll do that. It's one of the things they're best at: talking in a way that makes themselves look good and others look bad. Still, I saw Luna hauling Esteem around like a foal. What happened?"
"Honestly, I'm not sure." Twilight thought back to Luna's words in that strange tongue. "All I know is that he's in for something pretty awful. The Crown threw the book at him. I kind of doubt we'll ever see or hear from him again."
"If we ever do, it'll be too soon."
"I hear that." Twilight glanced down to his bandage-wrapped forelegs. "How are you fairing? Any permanent damage?"
"Nah, doc says I'll be fit as a fiddle in no time. They're making me do physio anyway, though. Not that I mind. The therapist is a serious hottie. Like, wow. She can massage my legs anytime. She– Oh, crap, I'm making you uncomfortable, aren't I?"
Twilight laughed and shook her head. "No, not at all. Just because I'm not interested in such things personally doesn't mean I don't appreciate and accept that others are. Although, I wouldn't hit on her now, if I were you. You're patient and healer, which means there are ethical limits."
"I know. Doesn't mean I can't enjoy things in the back of my mind!"
"Naturally. And I'm glad you're healing okay. In fact, Rainbow and I have a surprise to say thank you for your help. Come, follow me."
Twilight led him through the castle, stopping to say hello to his old comrades at a few points. Eventually, they came to the tallest tower, and started the climb.
Dang it, Twilight thought. Guess I should have expected him not to freak out from coming here. He's ex-Day Guard, after all. He's probably been here plenty of times. A vice of realization crushed her pupils to tiny dots. Aw, crap. I'm turning into Celestia. Bad Twilight! No plotting to make your subjects uncomfortable!
They made the right turn to her chambers, and stepped inside.
The fact that Cloud Burner stopped in awe at her room didn't make Twilight giggle like a filly in her head at all. Nope. Not one bit.
"Pretty nice, huh? Luna did the decorations." Twilight stopped and turned to face Cloud, then motioned for Rainbow to come in from the balcony.
"'Nice' doesn't even begin to describe this. It's... Impossible. I've never seen anything like this, and I've been all over Equestria and beyond." Cloud hopped a couple meters into the air, peeking over her cloud walls. "It... It just goes on forever! But we're inside! Aren't we?"
Twilight chuckled. "In a manner of speaking, it does go on forever. Sadly, though, my closets aren't infinite. Oh, to think of all the books I could store..."
Rainbow have her a poke. "Ahem."
"Oh, right! Cloud, if you could come down here, please." Twilight took the box from Rainbow as Cloud leaned. She faced it towards him, and pulled back on the velvet lid. "Cloud Burner, on behalf of the Evening Guard, I am awarding you a purple heart and bronze star for your service and sacrifice. You went above and beyond the call of duty, and you deserve this."
"Congrats, big guy!" said Rainbow.
Cloud took the box in his hooves, holding the treasure like it was made of millimetre-thin glass. "This... Holy... Day Guard almost never get medals. Nopony is usually stupid enough to mess with us. I... I don't know what to say!"
"You don't have to say anything. In fact, we aren't quite done." Twilight took out the large scroll from Rainbow's pouch and unfurled it onto the floor between them.
The design scribbled onto it wasn't anything more than back-of-napkin work, but that didn't stop Cloud Burner from blinking in surprise.
Twilight continued, "Up until now, I've been borrowing chariots from one of the other Guard units. I think it's time I had one of my own built, which means I'll need a trained charioteer or two capable of long-range flight. I honestly can't think of anypony else I would want to haul my tiny unicorn butt into or out of certain, fiery death."
Rainbow chortled. "In other words: 'How's retirement treating ya? Bored yet?'"
"Wow. I mean, wow. I, uh, I'm still not sure what to say. I mean, I'm honoured, but I'm also old. Like I said, I'm not a spry young foal anymore."
"I can promise, no super-heavy mounted guns." Twilight held up a hoof and crossed her heart. "I can make Rainbow do that part."
Twilight's mental jack boot suppressed a laugh. "And, if you join, I can upgrade your clearance to Indigo-Cosmic. You kind of need it to go where I go."
Cloud Burner whistled as he looked over the chariot plans. "That's... That's really tempting, but... Well, I don't mean to impugn the honour of the Day Guard. They are the absolute best, but we also did a lot of standing around like statues. I'm not really up to doing that again. It's, well, rather boring."
Twilight and Rainbow looked at each other for a moment, then broke out laughing. The air squeezed out of their lungs as they collapsed onto each other, getting a little bit of support but eventually falling down on the heated starry floor.
"Um..." Cloud may as well have been talking to Rainbow Blaze. "Did I say something funny?"
"Hehehe... Trust me, Cloud Burner." Twilight fell back into a fit of giggles for a moment. "If you join us, your life will be anything but boring."
"Yeah! What was the word Celestia used?" Rainbow giggled as she stood up. "‘Eventful’. Yeah, that's a good way to put it."
"Oh, er, well, I..." Cloud sighed and let his wings droop. "I'm still not sure. Could I have some time to think about it?"
"Absolutely." Twilight held out a hoof and Rainbow helped her up. "Take some time, think about things. You can even do a trial run with us if you want. My chariot will take some time to be fully designed and built, anyway."
"Thanks." Cloud Burner have them a bow. "For the medals, and the opportunity. I'm honoured, and I promise, I'll get back to you."
Twilight gave him a small bow in return. "We'll be waiting."
"Why is it getting hot?" Esteem asked, tripping over a rock on the cave floor. He stayed as close to Luna as he could, not that he had a choice. Pegasi were supposed to be too fast to get so thoroughly caught in unicorn magic. Alicorns must have been an exception. Moreover, she was the only source of light he'd seen for miles. "Are we really that deep?"
"Such questions. You sound like a curious little foal. Aren't you scared?"
"Not especially. You're good with threats, I'll give you that. But nopony had ever really fulfilled them to me, in my experience." Esteem ate her indignant smugness with a grin. "Wherever we're going, I'll know somepony. You'd have to follow me around forever to keep me banished."
"Who says I'm not just going to find some dark hole to dump your body in?"
"If that was the case, you wouldn't have bothered taking me this far. I'm guessing this is a tunnel, rather than a simple cave."
"So there's some cleverness in you. 'Tis a shame it wasn't harnessed for good instead of evil."
"Who says I'm evil? I'm just out for myself."
"Hold onto that attitude. You'll need it, where you're going. Though, I doubt it will do you much good."
"Yeah, whatever." Esteem sniffed in some kind of fume and coughed. "What is that smell? And is it getting even hotter? Just how deep are we?"
"I'm afraid that conventional metrics are no longer sufficient to answer that question. And truthfully, I do not know the exact answer. The magic in this place causes it to shift its location from time to time, and I haven’t been here in a few thousand years." Luna froze and punched the wall next to her.
The wall, in turn, growled so deeply it could only be felt, not heard. Esteem's leg muscles turned to liquid, bringing him to the ground while a door opened and scorched his nostrils with sulfur.
"What was that?" Esteem struggled to stand, pushing away the pain to resolidify his legs. "You could have warned me!"
"I see no reason to offer sympathy to a monster such as yourself."
"Like my body count is higher than yours."
"I paid for the lives I took unjustly. The others were in defence of myself or others." A second wall fell, raising the mercury further and painting Luna in crimson gold. "Come. This is but the first of three gates."
Esteem rolled his eyes and turned the corner. Below him, a field of glowing red and amber stretched for miles, a veritable lake of molten rock and fire. It painted a scar on his soul, burning away something that had once been part of him. Tendrils of ash snaked their way into his nose, sinking fangs of venom in his lungs. He reared up and ran back, only to slam face first into the ground as his magical collar tightened on his neck.
Luna pulled him back to the doorway, scraping his belly along the stone. "Down, boy. Heel."
"You have got to be bucking kidding me!" Esteem wrapped his hooves around the magic, his muscles futile against the diamond strength of her power. "If I go in there, I'll be dead for sure!"
"You must be confusing me with somepony concerned with your well-being." She yanked again, pulling him to the ledge.
Esteem held fast to the rock for dear life. His wings pushed against the infinite force of the goddess' magic, doing naught but swirling the heat around him. It wrapped him like a blanket of flame, singeing his coat and feathers. Pain whipped at his body and heart, driving him beyond anything he'd ever felt. His body's meager might soared, pushing him an inch back into the cooler cave.
Then Luna tugged again.
Fire didn't just lick at his body as he fell, it consumed him. Skin and muscle was gobbled up as a feast, liquid bone washing down the taste, with organs as a dessert. Each millisecond was worse than the last as he was devoured, screaming while he was transformed into ash and fuel for the infinite fire of the magma.
Esteem was standing on a cave floor. The magma was far behind him. He was alive, intact, physically unscathed. His mind, though, told him that everything was anything but alright, and his shaking body agreed wholeheartedly.
"H—how? How am I alive?"
"You'll see." Luna tugged him again, and onwards they walked.
Esteem wanted to run. No, he wanted to fly. More than anything, he wanted to turn back, but the only thing waiting for him there was the lake of fire. So, onwards he went, down the dark cave of brown stone. His hooves moved in time with Luna's, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. Even his ear twitched to the rhythm.
"Wait, what's that sound?"
"The second gate. The gate of rhythm and blades."
"Like, rhythm and blues?"
"No." Luna punched open another gate, revealing another ledge. This one led to a small maze of paths to a distant solid "shore" where the cave continued. Above the whole thing were swinging and chopping blades, some the shape of axes, others swords or knives. Each was the height of a three-story building, and each was moving almost too fast to see. "Rhythm and blades."
One of the blades, or something like it, must have stabbed his heart, as it had stopped beating. "I-I can't get through that! Can't you teleport us through?!"
"If I try, we won't get through the gate. Where's that boundless confidence?"
"Confidence and stupidity are not the same thing."
"Says the pony brave enough to betray alicorns, then insult them in their home. Or would that be stupidity?
“Come, we must pass through the second gate."
Luna pulled his leash again, dragging him down to the start of the maze despite every step he made trying to turn back. One more tug brought him to her side. "Move as I do."
Each second had a hoof-full of snicks and snacks of the blades, moving in a rhythm too impossible to exist, much less predict. Yet, as they walked, not a single blade so much as clipped one of their hairs.
Left, right, right, left. They turned time and again. They even retraced steps, always dodging the metal as it hushed out of the void and through the air, always where they had just been or were about to be.
Hallway through the maze, there was a particularly fast blade, although “particularly fast” wasn’t enough to do its speed justice. It could not be seen. The wind could be felt, its passing could be heard, the rust and dirt that flew off of it could be tasted, but it could not be seen.
Esteem fell back a step, now standing one step behind Luna and off to her right. "You have to be joking."
Luna didn't slow down one iota. "Don't fall behind."
Esteem fell behind, then shoved the mare's rear as hard as he could. "Maybe I want to!"
Luna held out her left forehoof to her side. The blade stopped.
It didn't crash, or cut her in two, or even get caught by her limb. It simply tapped her silver-clad hoof, and stopped.
Luna turned her head to look at him.
Two hoof-shaped hammers of pain cracked his bones and turned his organs into mush. His ragged body and broken spine flew like a doll tossed by an impertinent foal, while pain danced through what parts of his body he could still feel. Piece after piece of him was removed by the blades as his anguish and blood spilled out into the cave.
Esteem was standing on the far side of the maze. He was intact, whole, and physically unscathed. "W-what in Tartarus is going on here?!"
"The second gate." Luna took a few more steps, and punched another gate open. "And, quite honestly, you had a rather accurate choice of words."
"Accurate choice of... What are you talking about? That makes no sense! Let me out of he—" He turned around to run, and his words died as though they'd been cut by the blades, despite the fact that the blades weren't there. Nothing was there save a wall of rock three inches from his face.
Luna yanked his leash again, pulling him into the opening. "There is no path that way. Even if you could dig through this solid stone, it simply doesn't exist. One can only ever proceed farther into the gates past this point."
Esteem nodded, as his mouth wouldn't move. He looked through the next gate, and this time, there was no drop, or magma, or blades. There was simply a large opening in the cave, containing a three-headed dog the size of a large house.
"T-t-t-t-t-t-that's not possible!" Esteem's jaw hung open, save for the times he tried to swallow futilely. "That's Cerberus!"
"Guardian of the Gates of Tartarus, yes. That is where we are, condemned. That is where you are going." Luna pulled again, dragging him across the ground as he slid on all four hooves.
"You can't be serious! This place doesn't even exist! It's a fairytale! He's supposed to be something we tell foals so they think all the monsters are locked up! He's a fairytale!"
"Indeed, there are monsters here. And as for fairytales, recall that I was one, once. Yet here I am, one fairytale dragging you into another."
Cerberus looked down on them with its three heads, growling and drooling, ready to eat them both with a single chomp.
"Oh, and Cerberus isn't here to keep the monsters in. They simply have no way to leave. The puppy is here to keep foolish ponies out. He's the only thing that can escort a soul unjustly here to safety." Luna swatted the center head's nose. "Bad dog! No growling!"
Cerberus whimpered and scooted back and to the side.
"N-no way, it just can't be real!" Tears streamed down Esteem's face as his chest collapsed in on itself. "It can't be real!"
Two doors made from thousands of skulls of every conceivable creature from pony to dragon lay before them. Glowing, neon blood poured from the eye sockets of each. They drained to the bottom of the cave, then flowed up the wall to fill in burning runes surrounding the structure.
Magic circles appeared in front of the doors, spinning and warping, adding dimension after dimension until they were warped beyond recognition. They stretched out to infinity, vanishing as the gateway opened.
Inside, countless blood-red clouds twisted into impossible shapes, splashing themselves on a background of every possible foreboding, evil color. Hues that simply could not exist chilled Esteem's soul as they stretched into an unending expanse. Lightning chains longer than Equestria itself danced through the hellscape, some striking islands made out of torture and hatred as much as rock. There was no sea they were sticking out of save for the eternal sky itself, stretching out in all directions, even straight down.
Glowing will-o'-wisps haunted everything, screaming and moaning of misery untold by mortal lips. Threads of blue light whipped through a living wind, striking up at Esteem and melting into his flesh. Then, they tugged.
Esteem dug his hooves into the stone, and flapped his now-free wings as hard and as fast as he ever had. "What's happening to me?!"
"The threads of fate. They bind a soul to Tartarus forever. It's too late for you now. But what do you have to worry about? Here, you're immortal, just like me. Well, not quite like me. Tartarus doesn't let you die, no matter how gravely you are wounded, how badly you are parched, how empty your stomach, or how great your age. By no force in existence will death's bony hoof touch you, for all of eternity. No matter how much you're going to want it."
The wisps howled and swarmed around him, digging thread after thread into him. His body burned, but there was no flame. His flesh split, but there were no cuts. His fear strangled him, but there was nothing on his neck. Inch by inch, the wisps pulled him into Tartarus itself as he tried to pull himself back, tried to fly, tried to flee. He was afraid.
Esteem's back legs slipped over the edge of the gate and into the void. "Please! Spare me! Spare my soul! I'll do anything!" Esteem cried out to Luna, then to Cerberus. The dog only tilted his heads, while Luna shook hers.
"How many ponies cried out that very thing as you sent them to their deaths? See, Cerberus doesn't move, doesn't help you." She stomped on Esteem’s front fetlocks, pressing him down and anchoring him to the ground. "Even the dog knows that this is where monsters like you belong."
Esteem's heart died in his chest, over and over again. It tried, oh how it tried, but it wouldn't beat. In fact, it hadn't done so since they’d entered the second gate. "Please! I'm sorry!" Through tears of sand, he saw more blue threads. They were weak, frayed. They ended quickly instead of flying out into Tartarus forever, and they were attached to Luna. "H-how...?"
Luna's grin ate at his soul. "Didn't I tell you?" She leaned in, bringing her lips to his ears, and kissed them with a curse. "I am the only pony that has ever escaped from Tartarus."
Esteem's heart beat, just once. There's a way out?
Luna let go.
Esteem screamed out from his heart, his soul, any piece of his being that ever existed as the wisps howled with glee. The island with the cave, the entrance, the only way out fell away from him. It was enormous, and the gates were but a pinprick on a stone empire.
One blink later, and it, the cave, Luna, the exit, were all gone. Vanished. Yet, “gone” was something he would never be, no matter how much he screamed. No matter how much he wanted it.