Never Broken

by Torgaddon


"In closing of what i fear may have sometimes been a meandering, overtly emotional book, i would surmise the pain of loss a such. Loss is a pain that can be likened to an unclosing wound. It hurts, always, and it takes small things, the right image in front if your eyes, the right sound or song popping in your head, or even something as simple as the wind bringing just the right kind of scent to your nose in order to remind you of the one you have lost and send new aches throbbing from that wound. But every time it happens, you find that the pain fades to subconciousness just that little bit quicker. Just that little bit easier.
Purple prose aside, while it may seem unbearable at first, in time, it becomes naught but a welcomed harbinger of beloved memories"

Twilight Sparkle,
Psychology of Loss.

Twilight Sparkle closed the manuscript and gave the hard leather cover a minute long look, playing with the pencil in between her fingers, a content smile on her face. Her editor, Word's Worth, was going to have his work cut out for him once again. Princess though she was, her fame as the foremost expert in psychology and mental heath in general had begun rivaling her fame as a ruler. Twilight smiled morosely, knwing that Word's Worth complained only because he was a complainer by nature. Her books had been the most well recieved and acclaimed manifestos on mental health in the past decade an a half, already to the point that many universities around the world centered entire curriculums around her studies and writings. This particular one, dealing with the pain of loss, had been an especially hard one to formulate since even now, twenty years after the fact, she still grieved for Spike.
Twilight huffed to herself. For the foremost expert on psychology and psychiatry that she was, she made a poor show of herself. The purple alicorn allowed herself a small smile again. It was not entirely true. She did grieve, some nights she would wake up screaming or crying, but it was nothing compared to the first three years after Spike had died. Only the knowledge of how she would hurt her family and friends and what an insult it would have been to everything Spike had stood for, had kept her from slitting her wrists or hanging herself.

Twilight shook her head and slapped her cheeks softly. It was close to time to go and she had to maintain appearances as the immoveable and unflinching ruling figure that she was.
Honestly how Luna and Celestia dealt with putting the "masque" on for so many years was almost beyond her. But she understood it's necessity nonetheless. Her subjects needed to see her strong, indomitable and regal, more simbol than flesh and blood. They needed that to feel safe and assured.

Donning her symbolic dress, a dark, deep purple suit of fine plate armor, over a midnight blue chainmail dress, she set herself before the mirror and preened her mane. She had to admit she cut a pretty imposing figure. As the last living relative of The Warrior and in perpetual symbolic mourning for him, Twilight had refused to wear any dress or gown in public, other than the suit of armor gifted to her by the Draka of Nippon after Spike's death. Irronically her subjects saw this as a sign of strength, tradition and pride and their adulation had made even the supremely conservative Luna relent in trying to convince her to wear something more "princess-like". Indeed the people had taken to calling her the Lady Ironheart.
Irronically enough, her title had much less to do with her choice of dress than with her way of being. The Lady Ironheart, the most complete and cunning stateswoman the world had known since Machialo Vello the Snake if Athenesa over half a millennium ago. Her name came from the simple reality that she was as kind, loving and benevolent to her subjects as she was ruthless and uncompromising to any who would threaten her country.

Yes Twilight had learned a lot from Spike in the short time they had had together.

Twilight wiped a tear forming at the edge of her eye and looked at the magnificent basorelief adorning the entire north wall of her room. She took a deep breath.

"Okay, buck up girl, the masque goes on, now" she set her face in an expression of practiced, smiling tranquility and self-assurance. "I'm off then" she smiled to the basorelief and left the room.

In the silent stillness if the chamber, the mangled, lipless face of the basorelief gazed at the door with a single, sightless emerald in place of an eye. Whether it was a play of scarlet blossoms of the setting sun or something else entirely, one would have sworn it had smiled back at the lavender alicorn.

Twilight descended the stairs of her tower and made for the garden that separated the four grand towers of the Light - Embraced Palace. As she walked she heard the guards emerge from hidden alcoves and concealed rooms to form her honor guard behind her. Twilight huffed. While she did appreciate their dedication, she sometimes missed the simpler days when she could just go for a walk, alone with her thoughts. Still she did not shoo them away though. They took pride in their job and she did not want to make them feel unneeded. Although they all knew the Lady Ironheart was the last pony who needed anyone else's protection.

The sun caressed her fur and melted her troubles away as she emerged from the tower, her escort in tow. Twilight drew a deep breath and set her eyes to the tower adjacent to her own, the tower of the Twin Sisters. Celestia would most likely be on the balcony, sipping her afternoon tea, enjoying her "retirement". Insofar as an immortal manifestation of the Sun could retire. Twilight preferred to think of it as an extended holiday.

It had been Twilight's ideea. After the nigh erradication of the entire Equestrian race nearly twenty years ago, Celestia had worked like a madwoman to forge the alliances and rebuild enough to ensure her ponies survival. At the end of a decade of monstrous effort, she had managed to bring stability back to her subjects. But it had left her drained and tired. Twilight could almost picture the disheveled Celestia, crouched above her desk and papers like some ancient gargoyle, looking for the first time ever as old as she truly was. She and Luna had barely been able to convince the Princess of the Sun to allow the others to take the reigns and finally allow herself to rest. It had taken time but in the end even Celestia had reached the point where she could no longer bear the effort and responsability by herself and had agreed to take a more supportive role as the voice of wisdom and experience behind the Great Council.

It had been for the better. After all, Celestia needn't have done it all by herself. Her friends and allies were manyfold and over the last decade they had proven their will and loyalty many times over.

"Hmm, speak of the devil" Twilight smirked as she ran into another member of the Grand Council.

"Watch yourself pup. I'm a queen not a devil" Chrysalis said with a wide smirk. Their banter had become the stuff of legend in the past twenty years, and at this point it was a game between the two of them, to see who would break first. There was no enmity however in the banter between them. On the contrary, in the past two decades they had come to regard one another as both the most bitter rivals but also the closest of friends, their competitive natures pushing one another to greater heights of excellence.
After all, the newborn Equis Empire was an amalgamation of Equestrian, Crystal Empire and Changelings all come together under a single ruling organ, the Great Council, comprised of Twilight and her Small Council of the other five Elements, Luna and Celestia, Chrysalis and Cadence, with Shining Armor and Yog'hod as the Field Marshalls of the multi-species Royal Army.

Twilight herself was godmother to some of the most prominent of the Changeling families, as Chrysalis was to many pony families. It had been harder on the general ponies and changelings to bond with each other as species who had warred for centuries, but the changeling's help during the Great Catastrophe had done a great deal to cement relationships in the beginning and now, two decades later, the two races made almost no distinction between one another. It also helped a lot that the changelings had discovered they could feed on general emotion, not just love. Frustration, anxiety, stress, these everyday emotions that would ruin one's day had become mere momentary distractions, the conglomerate of changelings eating up these emotions leaving people with calm and happy hearts.

Love merely tasted better, according to Chrysalis, but even that was in no short supply, Twilight mused as she watched a stallion guard kiss a changeling mare in what they must have hoped would be a hidden corner of the courtyard. Interspecies couples had only become more and more usual and, according to the changelings, the romantic love of a spouse or special someone was the sweetest ambrosia, far above any other emotion.

The sound of steps upon the paving stones sang as a calming staccato as the two walked together to their destination, their bodyguards in tow. Not that they needed any such guards, but formalities and code had to be maintained. It was proper for them to do so.
Twilight's "masque" fell for a brief moment and her face lightened with an honest smile as they emerged in the capital city proper. Ponies, changelings, minotaurs, diamond dogs and even a few wyverns, the capital was as much of a hub of trade and interspecies kinship as she had come to expect of it. Pony hospitality had rubbed off on their changeling countrymen and the Equis Empire had flourished due to it. Normally the presence of so many different species would have been a recipe for disaster but it had not been the case. In their case, the "non-ponies" who had eventually settled in the Empire had come to fall in love with the pony natural honesty and imediatelly affectionate natures and the changeling's habit of saying just the right thing at just the right moment had helped even more.

"Luna and Cadenza?" Chrysalis asked.

"They've decided to let us handle this particular one. Normally I would have held it against them but considering this... particular... character we need to meet with, i can understand their reticience."

Twilight shook her head.
"In thruth, I advised them not to come. Luna is too volatile, she would end up punching or outright killing him and Cadence is busy with Flurry Heart. No use for a mother to have to talk to him...".

"IT" Chysalis corrected "I refuse to acknowledge that bastard as a man. Let's be off and done with it then, tonight is Nightmare Night and we have much more pleasant things to do than talk to that insolent boy with pretensions of royalty."

"True" Twilight nodded pensively. "Luna and Cadence will be here for Nightmare Night as well".

"As they should be".

The two walked in silence for a bit more.

"Sometimes it feels like Nightmare Night comes slower every year" Chrysalis mused.


"I may not have known him for nearly enough time as you did... but i will gladly acknowledge that we owe Spike everything... I owe Spike everything... I want you to know that".

Twilight reached out and patted Chrysalis on the back.
"We already know that. You have proven yourself time and time again for the past twenty years. You don't need to say it".

Chrysalis smiled then proceeded to rub her eyes.
"Curses. Enough with the mushy stuff. It'll give me crow's feet. I already found two more greying hairs today".

Twilight laughed.
"Advantages of being an alicorn. I'll never have to worry about that".

"Oh you will pay for that" Chrysalis chuckled a grimace of feigned anger on her face.

"I'll be looking forward to it" the purple alicorn giggled.

The great gates of the fortress - capital city opened with a long cry. The procession walked in with all the swagger and self assurance of born conquerors but their eyes betrayed fear and the weariness of the defeated. Atop his maple wood carved throne born aloft by over twenty chained and wound covered male and female slaves, the Horned King of the caribou scanned his surroundings. His eyes held the disdain inherent to his race as he glared at the obviously flourishing and rich country.

He hated it.

What right had such inferior species to be so happy and safe without being under the yoke of the obviously rightful masters of the world, the caribou. Ponies, dragons, minotaurs, griffons, all of them, all of them were inferior and should have long ago taken their rightful place beneath the might of the caribou. What right had they to flourish? What right had they to surpass the might of the caribou?
The maple wood cracked beneath his iron gauntlet as the answer came unbidden and unwelcome to his mind. It was the right of the strong. The right of the victorious. The Horned King hawked a gob of phlegm at the mere thought of ponies and strength in the same concept, but reality did not agree with him.

Two decades ago, after the invasion of Kilmaiil, the Doom of the Darraor, Equestria had remained a broken shell, bereft of it's former political, economic and military might, it's numbers reduced greatly, most of the survivors being civilians. It should have been child's play to surge in and conquer these last vestiges of power and reduce Equestria to another slave state of the ever expanding country of Cariba.
It's resources and position would have made for the perfect location to launch the next invasion and the one after that, fulfilling his ancestor's dreams of enlightening the world to the truth of the Great Race, the rightful masters of existence, the Caribou.

Yes, it should have been child's play to invade and enlighten the Equestrians to their proper place, beneath them. But instead of finding a shell of a country, spent, broken and driven to nigh dissolution, his invading forces had found themselves facing a warhost beyond anything history had ever seen.
Draka, Dragons, Strigoi, minotaurs, griffons, saddle arabians, diamond dogs,ponies and even changeling hives, all stood between him and what was rightfully his.
Burning rage filled him as he remembered that day, the "Princess" - he spat at the proposteros ideea - Celestia, surrounded by the representatives of over thirty countries and races, all speaking with one voice, gave voice to one single proclamation.

"The debt the world owes the Darraor must be paid. As long as we draw breath, none shall lay a hand against the home of the Godslayer".

And for twenty years, Cariba had been reduced from the greatest power, it's empire spanning over a third of the entirety of the world, to a medium sized country, pushed from all sides by angry, vengeful armies, all calling for blood for the sin of attacking the home of the one who had saved all. Even then, his numberless armies would have been enough to challenge the allied warhost, but once again his plans had been hindered by the appearance of an "unforseen event".
None could have imagined such a thing would have happened. Not in such a civilised age. Yet it had nonetheless.

The warrior's way of life. That had been the "unforseen event". Spike's doom had come as a blaze of glory that reingnited the warrior's passion in the hearts of so many. Knight orders, Warrior lodges, Battle monasteries and mercenary guilds had seemingly sprung up overnight, training and producing a never before seen number of knights, mercenaries, duelists, adventurers, war priests and so many more. Even moreso, barbarian tribes from the most wild and untamed parts of the world had converged upon the Equis Empire wanting to see and pay tribute to the grave of the one who had showed them the true undistilled way of the warrior. Though many had returned some had remained, either joining or forming warrior lodges or offering themselves to fight for the Equis Empire.
Normally this would not have been enough to even warrant Dainn's attention, but many if not all, had developed an almost fanatical respect for Spike, to the point where they had come to regard him as some form of Patron Saint of the martial orientented and his actions and way of being as some form of code of honor and conduit. As such, Cariba's attempt to invade the Equis Empire, Spike's home, had been taken as a direct insult to Spike and his heritage by these fanatics and they had joined the warhost in their battle against the caribou. This would have normally mattered little, except that amongst these fanatics were some of the most accomplished warriors, knight orders, barbarian clans and mercenary guilds the world had ever seen. This had been the "unforseen event".

Dainn had tried to apply political pressure to have these guilds and fanatical orders dispanded but no other country had listened, moreso since the emergence of so many vigilantes and overtly honorable knights had made crime and danger virtually obsolete in so many countries. Where once were forests haunted by savage beasts and vengeful terrors were now peaceful representations of nature's beauty, it's dangers hunted to extinction. Where once were underways and dungeons haunted by undead, bands of marauders and crime lords and their retinues were now aqueducts and archeological sites, their "inhabitants" culled into oblivion.

In the end, his numberless Caribou hordes had been ground to barely a tenth of their original number, no more than three million warriors, all strong and stout, but outnumbered and outmatched against the force of so many that stood against them. Still the Horned King would not have stopped fighting. His numbers had been depleted, true, but now that there was less territory to defend, the numbers left had proven to be enough to halt the war effort to a standstill, to it's current state for the last four years.
All he had to do was wait for the gratitude of the other countries to finally run out and for Equestria to remain defenseless once more, as was the way of things, and he could begin rebuilding his Empire once more. The caribou were nothing if not tenacious.

At least... that had been the plan. But now, after the events of the previous year, the previous Nightmare Night to be exact, here he was, his plans, his strategies, his entire dream... ash and dust.

Two million, seven hundred thousand and seventy seven. That had been the number of military casualties in a single night. Every fort, every redoubt, every fortified town, fortress or slightly reinforced house. The caribou soldiers, commanders, conscripts or mercenaries stationed in these places had been found beheaded, their bodies still standing, having been impaled on their own spears and swords in front of their designated charges, like nightmarish parodies of forests. All in the space of a single night. Only the military within the capital and the civilians had been left alive in what the ponies called Nightmare Night, that night of the year which the caribou had taken up calling the Night of the Singing Dead. They called it such because even though there had been so many casualties, not a single sound of combat, not a single alarm had been heard. Throughout the night, the only sound had been a low gravelly chant, reminding of the death-dirges one would sing at funerals, the dreadfully few reports had been filed by civilians, speaking of a single warrior, titanic of size, it's single eye glowing with a sepulchrous green, walking and singing the sinister dirge through the gloom.

The Horned King had awoken that night to find the walls surrounding his fortress capital manned not by the guards posted but instead over two and half million heads, their glazed, empty eyes facing the capital or, more specifically, his castle. His armies reduced to ruin, the morale of his people virtually non existent, Dainn had feared the warhost would descend upon the carcass of his empire with monstrous fury and wipe them out. But instead, the warhost had surrounded his country, assuring that none would enter, nor exit it.

Dainn could still remember the missive given to him by a particularily angry looking griffon.

"By the will of the Equis Empire and it's allied countries, you shall cease all hostilities against our countries and people. You will be called upon in one year's time to come to the Empire capital to negotiate a peace treaty.
Refuse this order or resume any further hostilities and you shall test His patience once again.
Trust us when we say, what has happened this Nightmare Night is nothing more than a drop in the ocean that is his fury".

Froth began to appear at the corners of Dainn's mouth, his anger drowning out even the fear that had resurfaced when remembering the Night of the Singing Dead.
How DARE they. To even consider the audacity of an inferior species DARING to order a caribou was beyond Dainn's capabilities. Circumstances had forced him to abide by their rules, but Dainn knew that in the end, the caribou would win.
He would negotiate a peace treaty in Cariba's favour, pretend to abide by it's rules, and when his empire and people grew once more, the inferior will pay, if not by his hand then by the hand of his children or grandchildren. The caribou did not forget or forgive.

As he mulled on his failure he realized that they had reached the Warlord's Grove. As if to make a point, Dainn brought a handkerchief to his nose and forced himself to cough out the smell of flowers, tree and incense. When the Capital had been reconstructed it had been made in a way to encouragre any visitor to pass through the grove on the way to reach the castle proper. Mounds of tree covered hillocks separated by paved roadways, each pavestone and clan plaque inscribed with Draken Script, a marvel of architecture, a glorious representation of the respect the Draka who had built the Grove had offered the place. Of course they had asked for no charge from the Equestrians when they had built it, claiming it was their duty to honor the place where the Third Vashanesh had met his Doom. In the end, they had created both a grove that doubled as a mausoleum, a place of such beauty and serenity that the entirety of the world had taken to calling it the Eight Marvel of the world, a true testament to Draka ingenuity and skill.
But, as beautiful as it was, it did not come close to what lied at the very centre of the grove. Between a three mile wide copse of fortress sized oaken trees, grown by the Dryads of Athel'Varal, lay the island mausoleum of the Legion.
Titanic stone dragon heads continually spewed the clear water that had formed the lake around it, marvels of perpetual magic gifted by the great Dragon Sages. A grand obsidian bridge connected the shore to the island and the obsidian, Draken Rune inscribed paving plaques market the way to the jewel hidden deep within the Inner Grove.

Merely looking at such grandeur served only to further nip at Dainn's already frayed nerves. How disgusting that such riches would be wasted on a carcass. What debt, what gratitude? It was expected for an inferior species such as the Draka to sacrifice itself in order for the great caribou race to live on.
As much as this waste of riches served to irritate his already fallen mood it was nothing compared to the storm of hatred that filled his heart when he saw them. Skulking between the trees, meditating at the foot of the tower sized trunks, sparring in the odd clearings or praying at the obsidian tablets. There they were, the "unforseen event" which had cost him the war.

Dainn's already poor disposition fell even more as he saw a clear example of this specific problem pacing the rune enscribed cobbles, heading the way of his retinue.
The Crusaders of the Flaming Heart, the most ardent followers of the Darraor's Code. Their tradition of coming to meditate at the Grove before any great undertaking had become a known fact, as was the knowledge of their strength. These were but a small retinue of the Crusaders but Dainn had experienced their strength enough that they were the equal of an entire batallion of charging mounted knights.
The Crusaders held a special place of hatred in the Horned King's heart for their Order had been the cause of many lost battles and destroyed skirmishes for his armies. He puffed up his chest and took an air of practiced indiference as the two retinues approached each other. A huff of annoyance escaped him when he recognized the three in the lead.

Applebloom, Sweetie Belle and Scotaloo the creators and leaders of the Order and the most dangerous and complete warriors of this age. Their deeds and strength were legend although they were barely in their late twenties.
Their ember hued armors gleamed, pristine and well maintained but also well used, the banners at their backs holding the seven pages of the Darraor's Code embroided with embersilk on the cloth, the weapons at their well toned hips witheld in well oiled scabbards.

The three girls pulled their cloaks down revealing gorgeous visages and looked at Dainn with the eyes that should have belonged to generals of entire armadas. Dainn could not help but suddenly feel smaller.

"Away from my sight woman. Your presence ills my disposition".

Applebloom gave the horned king a warm smile, scratching at the inked tatoo on her lower face in the shape of a grinning, dagger-fanged mouth that each of the three girls wore.
"Ah, if it isn't the deposed king. Arrogant as always".

Dainn's eyes flared with red, as a bull before a crimson cape, and the caribou in his retinue, sensing their king's anger, made for their swords, a chorus of steel hissing giving voice to the fast approaching violence.
Applebloom did not stop smiling but, as she opened her eyes, a cold sweat enveloped Dainn. There was no fear in those eyes, no obeisance, just defiance.

"Look around you, oh mighty king" she said. As Dainn did just that he saw many eyes upon him from the depths of the grove, hands of the hilts of swords and maces, the unmistakable sense of danger permeating the air. To shed blood within the grove without just cause was forbidden, and with so many followers of the Darraor's Code, notorious for their adherence to said Code despite the presence of royalty, he was under no illusion that if the Crusaders did not kill him, the warriors all around would, irrelevant of his position.

"Take heed of where you are King Dainn" a voice came from behind. Dainn turned atop his throne to the speakers and he saw Twilight and Chrysalis walking towards his entourage. "Your position and kingdom mean nothing upon the cobblestones of this sanctuary, only your deeds, and those who hold this grove dear to their hearts, find you wanting".
Dainn's frame trembled with barely restrained fury. The implicit threat in those words were as thinly veiled as a slight mist upon a lake. It was simple, if his warriors attacked, if he disrespected the Grove in any way, he was a dead man. Those around were merely waiting for an excuse.

Breathing heavily he signaled his men to resheath their weapons and made the motions for them to be on their way, only to find the Crusaders standing in their way, their hands still on their weapons.

"In the face of death and adversity, a crown is worth as much as rags" Applebloom quoted of the Darraor's Code.

"What? What prattle is this?" Dainn asked incredulously as Chrysalis pointed to the slaves that bore his throne.

"Slavery and the owning of slaves is outlawed in the Equis Empire. You will dismount and their shackles shall be broken. After our business is concluded, should they wish to return to Cariba with you, they are free to do so, if not, you will not be allowed to force them". Twilight clarified, putting emphasis on the word allow, knowing it would irk the king. Nobility was unused to being denied their wishes.

"YOU DARE..." Dainn bellowed, his body trembling with hatred.

"AND WHO ARE YOU TO DARE RAISE YOUR VOICE IN THE PRESENCE OF THE LADY IRONHEART, PUP?" another voice roared, interrupting the king. Dainn turned and his blood froze as he found himself facing a truly extreme example of the "unforseen event". A conglomerate of figures, each dressed in plain dark-green robes, each bearing a sword in one hand and a barbed flail in the other. At their forefront was a pony of medium height, his cowl down to reveal one of the most heavily scarred faces Dainn had ever seen. The white and brown pony was young but his eyes betrayed an almost rabid fervor and determination beyond his years. Dainn's body began to shiver uncontrolably as he recognized the group. If the Crusaders were the strongest, this group was even more dangerous because of their sheer lack of self preservation. This group, the Church of Welcomed Pain and their leader, ironically named Pipsqueak but known as the Orator, were fanatics in every sense of the word, believing that Spike had been an Avatar of Justice and Sacrifice and the only way to properly honor his deeds was to follow his example and find a meaningful death in the service of many. They chose no armor, no money, no worldly posessions. All they needed was their sword, their flail and a fight that was impossible to win and they were happy. Upon their faces he saw a rabid hunger. If most hated the Caribou for attacking Spike's home, these zealots were far beyond hate, waiting only for an excuse to kill them.

"I... I am a king... I..." he stammered.

" You are nothing here, I am sorry to say. Please, do save your breath and realize that in this hallowed ground, it is our laws you shall follow". Sweetie Belle spoke in her melodious voice, her honeyed voice and polite speech making the sheer threat exuding within each spoken word all the more terrifying.

Dainn tried to say something but no sound escaped his throat. It took one of his caribou bodyguards to look to Twilight and Chrysalis and speak.
"The Horned King has come at your becon, how can you allow such insolence, have you no diplomacy?".

Chrysalis snorted.
"We have enough diplomacy to follow the laws of the country that has called upon us. It is your own idiocy at fault for bringing slaves here". Without giving the caribou anymore notice, she turned to the slaves bearing the throne. "You are free. Rid yourselves of the burden upon your shoulders, and join us as masters of your own lives".

The slaves looked at the two queens with saucer sized eyes, hardly able to believe what they were hearing. Freedom. Salvation. As one they pushed the oversized throne from their shoulders, sending Dainn sprawling on the ground and made for the two queens, like the faithful heading towards their godesses.

"K... Kill them..." Dainn screamed from the ground, his voice in a fever pitch. The caribou made to launch themselves at the slaves only to stop when the first three caribou suddenly froze, their bodies rigid as a sound, thin and trilling, like that of a bird of prey, sang out through the Grove. Dainn fell to his knees, his ears bleeding as the sound's pitch and frequency rumbled in his brain, scrambling his thoughts and turning his muscles to jelly.
It was all he could do to turn and witness Sweetie Belle, her mouth open as she produced the sound.
Scootaloo dashed in like an orange wraith and the three bodyguards fell within a heartbeat, their skulls split open. She stood among the unconscious bodies, the mace in her hand red.

"You really should abide by OUR laws"she smiled.

The other bodyguards backed away, taken by surprise by the sheer brutality and speed the deceptively petite pony was capable of and the terrifyingly beautiful and hypnotic sound that Sweetie Belle had sung. It came with the wail of whip and steel that another caribou's head disappeared in a welter of blood, a barbed flail in it's place. The Orator stood in the falling corpse's place, his face a masque of rage.
"HEATHEN, PAGAN ANIMALS" he bellowed, his voice of such magnitude and dreadful clarity that it seemed impossible to have come from such a short frame. "UPON THE HOLY GROUND OF THE GROVE YOU TREAD, YOU DARE DISRESPECT THE DARRAOR'S CODE. I WILL FEED YOUR INNARDS TO THE CROWS, IDIOT BEASTS".

As the Orator made to raise his flail again, Twilight's hand interposed itself between the prone king and the fuming fanatic.
"I am sure king Dainn meant no disrespect. We cannot punish his ignorance and idiocy now can we?".

The Crusaders and the battle monks mumbled a few coarse words adressed to the caribou under their breaths but nonetheless did as they were told. The shifting of branches alerted Dainn and his guards that many of the other "pilgrims" of the grove had formed a large circle around them and were only now beginning to return to their own activities and, for some, rituals.

"I am sure that king Dainn will be more than happy to atone with a sizable donation to your many charity drives after we have had our talk" Twilight added, eyeing the Orator, knowing that the war priest would be hardest to placate. The stallion was the textbook definition of a fanatic.

"There is no need for you to attempt to placate me, Lady Ironheart. Although I disagree with allowing this filth his life, I would not dream of going against the word of the Honored Sister" the Orator declared with a bow and turned to leave, his sinister coven behind him.

Scootaloo chuckled a little.
"He's never gonna stop calling you that is he?"

Twilight shook her head, her hands massaging her temples.
"I doubt it. Honestly if these cults that have sprung up, weren't so dedicated in their charity work and their obsession over protecting the Equis Empire i would have banned them long ago".

"You can't hold it against them though" Sweetie Belle chimed in.
Twilight nodded knowingly. Many children had been orphaned during Kilmaail's invasion, and with Spike's sacrifice and no other guiding figures in their roads to maturity, there were many who had taken to seeing him as some sort of All-Father figure. Some, like the Crusaders took to it more superficially by following the Darraor's Code, which incidentally was almost word for word the ancient Draka Code. Others on the other hand, had taken it to the extreme, forming entire cults and religions around the Darraor.
Well, as long as they all kept to the adages of protecting the weak, honor and self- sacrifice which were the main components around these cults, Twilight saw no reason to disband them.

A shift in the grass returned her attention to the still prone Dainn and a disgusted grimace returned to her face.
"Oh... Right".

"There will be a reckoning for this insult" he snarled, rising and trying to regain a measure of his lost dignity.

"Impotent threats aside" Chrysalis intervened, her characteristic snark making Dainn's eye twitch " We have matters of state to discuss. I for one would prefer we be over and done with it, as soon as possible".

The double doors of the Council Chamber opened without a sound, their well oiled hinges leaving not even a small hiss to mark their efforts. A grand rotunda that had once been the sepulchral center point of the Light Embraced Castle's haunted library, the same place where the Mane Six had been subjected, almost succesffully to to the Mandala of Forsaken Memories, now served as the Council Chamber.

Although it had been cleaned to the point of shining, refurbished and remade with incredible care, all that work had done nothing to cull completely the dark, cold and oppressive atmosphere the former library held. It was obvious to any that entered the chamber that the spirits were closer here than anywhere else in the world. As to why the council would hold this as their meeting chamber, none knew for certain.

Away from the Grove and it's terrible inhabitants, King Dainn finnaly found his voice anew.

"This is the council chamber? Honestly now, what a pathetic display. You may want to use some of this… country's wealth in order to built a better place for such important discussions, Twilight Sparkle".

Twilight turned with a smile.
"I will take your opinion under advisement. But we of the council much enjoy this - place - as you call it. The veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thin here and the ghosts of the past have good advice to give if one has ears to listen" she said, refusing to rise to his bait.
Twilight went to the other side of the great circular table, joining Chrysalis, and sat, motioning to Dainn to do the same.
"Also, it is High Councillor Twilight, please refer to me as such" she added, her smile never fading.

Dainn watched the two for a few heartbeats as they waited in silence for him to sit. He would have given anything and everything for a chance to kill them, to wring their throats himself.
But even through the fog of his ego and anger, he knew better than to try.
The Lady Ironheart was as much a master mage as she was a genius stateswoman. Then there was also the former changeling queen to consider.
Grumbling angrily, he finally took his seat, drawing his red cape around himself in order to try and keep the sepulchral chill of the ancient library at bay.

Twilight nodded and her smile widened.
"Very well, shall we begin, "King" Dainn?".

The way she had lingered on the word King had not been lost in Dainn and he could feel the vein pulsing at his temple. What was worse was that she was right.
Defeated, bereft of any army to speak of and with almost every country at his throat crying out for retribution, he was King of very little, to say the least.

Swallowing his frustration for what felt like the hundred time on this accursed day, he produced the impossibly thick wad of papers that was the peace treaty. He may have been defeated, but he was not going to offer his sovereignty on a silver platter.
"Yes, let us begin" he said, pushing the book sized treaty across the obsidian surface of the large table.
"You will​ find all of our demands in these documents. Sign it and you will have your peace treaty".

Twilight looked to the documents, then to Dainn, the smile never leaving her face. She made a small nod and Chrysalis snapped her fingers lazily. Green flashed across the table, edging it's occupants in fresh shadows that seemed to gibber excitedly as the documents became ash under the tender caress of the fire which had engulfed them.

"I am so very sorry King Dainn, but tonight is Nightmare Night, and I would prefer to waste no more time than necessary on this matter. If we could avoid this frivolous back and forth, I would be very thankful". Twilight said, her smile having finally faded into a stony, stern expression.

Dainn looked in disbelief at the ashes as they drifted away upon a wind he did not feel. His frame began to shake and froth formed at the edge of his mouth.


"Finish that at your own peril, King of nothing". Chrysalis growled, interrupting the burgeoning tirade.
"Nightmare Night draws close, and you may risk the ire of the Singing Dead once again".

The utterance of that dreaded event froze Dainn's blood.


"How do we know?" Twilight asked and rise from her chair. As she rose, her shadow moved with her, growing larger. Much larger than it should have been.
The air grew cold. Colder than the heart of Jotunharr and Dainn's breath came as white misty ghosts, dancing mockingly before his eyes. They took shapes. Dark, malicious shapes. Crying children his decrees had doomed to starvation, bellowing slaves his dominion had sentenced to torment, shrieking wives he had become bored with and put to death. They all called for the blood of their tormentor, for the life of the crown bearing beast.
But Dainn saw none of it. All he could see, as he fouled the seat with the contents of his now voided bladder, was that singular shadow which hovered behind Twilight, possessed of a vastness that promised to swallow the world, the horned king's eyes locked upon the glacial stare of a single green dot which peered from the stygian depth of the shadow.

"Remember what Nightmare Night is, arrogant boy" Twilight continued, her voice as strong as Stone and as sharp as the blade. "To your kind it might seem a trifling joke but to us, it is the night when the veil between the living and the dead thins the most. It is the single night of the year when HE stands, a foot in the afterlife and the other in our world. He has visited you once already, and the only reason why your "superior race" was not driven to extinction, was because I begged him to show you mercy. This night, his patience is at an end, as is mine.
Now …" she concluded, walking around the council table and slamming their own version of the peace treaty that had sat forgotten on the dark wood, into Dainn's chest as the terrified king kept staring at the shadow that had not moved with her but simply kept staring at him with that singular, fearsome green light " SIGN THE DAMNED PAPER AND GET OUT OF MY SIGHT".

Fat tears slithered down Dainn's face as he signed the treaty that effectively rendered Cariba a toothless dog, vassal to the Equis Empire but sign it he did. He knew, if he chose not to, there would be no Cariba come tomorrow and the Equestrians and their allies would not have to lift a finger. HE would see to the massacre personally. Fouled and defeated, Dainn rose bowed deeply to the Lady Ironheart, turned and left in complete silence.

"Harsh" Chrysalis said as the great oaken doors closed.

"But necessary" Twilight said, not even looking at Chrysalis, instead staring at the wall behind her where now only her own shadow gazed back at her.
"Do you think HE would have approved of my actions?"

Chrysalis looked at the now diminutive shadow on the bare stone of the wall. It danced as the light of the flickering flame hit Twilight and seemed almost to want to leap out and embrace it's forlorn mistress. Twilight had a habit of falling into melancholy whenever she had to assume the role of ruthless stateswoman. Chrysalis sighed.

"You ask me if he approves?" She began lifting Twilight's head and looking deep into her eyes.
"We do whatever it takes in order to keep those we love safe. In our case, it is an entire country.
Even if we have to step on our own hearts, we set our jaws and do what must be done. Does it not seem familiar?"

Twilight smiled. Chrysalis had described Spike's mentality to the last detail. It was a hard job but she had the entire Council who understood what it took and supported one another. How Spike had been able to take such decisions by himself and for over two millennia, she knew she would never be able to fully comprehend.

"Now" Chrysalis began, waving away the "mushy stuff" as she called any display of doubt or sentimentalism "the hour is almost upon us and we should go".

Twilight looked at the dwarf made clock on her wrist and she could not help but smile widely. Dainn be damned, politics be damned and masks be damned. All of it be damned when this single night of the year came.

Nightmare Night was about to begin.

The courtyard of the castle stood as a display of joy and jubilation as thousands of celebrants came and went, danced and laughed, talked and whooped, their merrymaking punctuated by the booms and lights of goblin-made fireworks.
Twilight could not help but smile as a herd of foals played and ran before her entourage, a veritable chaotic mass of laughter, colorful costumes and ribbons. The stern Royal Guards did nothing to shoo the children out of the way. They knew that doing something like that would earn them an earful from Twilight.

The alicorn smiled and nooded left and right, her masque of "according to plan" that she displayed in public visibly putting any who looked upon her at ease. It helped for the people to know that those they had chosen to rule had everything under control.

To her left, Chrysalis walked alongside her, chin up and eyes closed as she drank in the love and adulation her subjects were showing her. From villain to one of the most respected and beloved individuals in Equestrian history, the former changeling queen had exceeded all expectations.

"Heyo there" a voice cut through the sounds of merrymaking, it's thick country accent making no mistake of it's owner.
Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash and Rarity stood at the foot of the courtyard portcullis, waiting for the others. Everyone of them had changed into mourning clothes, the strong whites and golds of the Council Vestments being much too gaudy for such a solemn occasion.
For the most part, simple knee length black dresses, though of course each with their unique quirks. Rainbow's was more of a dress suit, Pinkie wore a black two piece of shirt and skirt and Rarity's reminded more of a gown than anything else.

Still, personal touches aside, the clothing all wore was solemn with the barest hint of informality hidden here and there.

"Hello there bumpkin" Chrysalis began, looking at the orange pony.

"Oh now don't yah start BUGGIN' me yah old buzzard" Applejack retaliated.

One would have been excused to mistake their quips for outright hostility, if not for their smirks and informality which showed it for what it really was. The banter between close friends.

"Yes, yes, insect pun aside" Chrysalis waved her hand nonchalantly " Now where are my sweet little fluffballs?"

As if on que, three foals jumped out from behind the girl, their faces locked into grimaces that were meant to be scary, if not for their heart-melting cuteness.

"Did we scare yah auntie Chrissy?" The oldest one, a dark grey colored five year old filly with fiery orange hair and green eyes asked.

"No my dear. But i may be on the onset of diabetes from your adorable attempt" Chrysalis answered, bending down to pinch Appleseed's cheeks. Applejack laughed at her daughter's feeble attempts to escape her godmother's affection.

"Ooooh" the twin filly, Honey Apple, and colt, Big Mac Jr, butter colored and pale red haired children of Fluttershy and Big Mac puffed up their cheeks as they looked enviously at Appleseed.

"Pouty? Did you think I forgot about you little munchkins?" Chrysalis smirked and hauled all three foals into a bear hug, nuzzling her face into their coats, occasionally squeaking out a small "so fluffy" as the three children giggled.

The Mane Six looked on, Chrysalis's complete personality change whenever she was near the three children always fun to watch. But, then again, Celestia and Luna, their other two godmothers, did the exact same thing. Royal dignity could only hold out so long against such unbridled cuteness.

"Where are the others?" Twilight asked.

"They said they'd be waiting at the edge of the Grove"
Rainbow answered. "Something about not wanting to risk even seeing Dainn or they'd most likely try to murder him".

"Ahem" Fluttershy interjected motioning at the children. Futily, as they were to engrossed in their godmother's affection to hear the word.

"Don't worry. I made sure Dainn will never threaten the Equis Empire again" Twilight waved her hand, her eyes as cold as steel for a moment.

"Oho, the Lady Ironheart strikes again?" Rarity asked, playfully tapping her immaculate, slender fingers against Twilight's chest plate.

"Pff, hardly" Twilight scoffed. "The little pissant thinks himself a king, but has the political acumen of a shi..."

"AHEM" Fluttershy interjected again, much louder this time. "Language please Twilight" she said with a deadpan look.

"Ehehehe… sorry" the alicorn said, sounding more like the teenager she had been rather than the political powerhouse she was. The shy and meek friend though she may still be, Fluttershy had developed quite the assertive, some would say overprotective, streak when it came to her children.
And no one in their right mind would willingly make themselves the Chief Surgeon's enemy. None who didn't want to feel her proficiency with a scalpel that is.

"Apology accepted" Fluttershy answered, her warm nature returning with a kind smile as she clapped her hands.
" Alright you three., it's time to go. You may walk with auntie but promise to hold hands".

"Kaaay" the three answered and grabbed hold of Chrysalis's hands ( and a leg) as the former chanqeling queen mouthed a silent "thank you" to Fluttershy.

Twilight looked up and drank in the shimmering pale beauty of the moon. It had been over twenty years since the entirety of their existence had been threatened with oblivion. Twenty years since their salvation. But even today, the purple alicorn could still recall the feeling. They had been saved. Given another chance. And as such she owed it to him to live her life with gusto and appreciate all that which others took for granted. Such as the friends… the family that even now talked, walked and bantered around her.

A pair of hands gingerly grabbed her arm and pulled her out of her reverie. She looked to her left and Rarity's gentle smile greeted her.
"You're doing it again darling" she snubbed teasingly, referring to Twilight's occasional moments of introspection. "Come, let's walk together".

Yes, it was good to be surrounded by those you loved and who loved you in turn. Twilight walked arm in arm with Rarity, drinking in the peace of the moment, even as they reached the edge of the Grove where the three Alicorn Princesses, Shining Armor, Big Mac, Yog'yhod and the three Crusaders waited.

Between the hellos, the embraces, the smiles, Twilight's mind began to drift again into blissful gratitude as she was want to do this time of year.

The groups and couples formed as the entire gathering travelled the rune carved pavement of the road.

The Crusaders made the rear of the diminutive column, their armors shining beautiously in the translucent glow of the moonlight.

Elegant and proud, their every movement, every breaths radiating the nobility of their station, Luna and Celestia walked, a midnight black and snow white rose in their hands.

Shining and Cadence, hand in hand, with gazes that spoke of unending gratitude strode the steps of the mourning road.

Chrysalis half walked and half played with the three young, her content smile like a shining star, belying the edged fury that would emerge should anyone ever try to harm her family ever again.

Applejack and Yog'yhod, the married couple so odd, yet so endearing in how opposite to one another they were. The always open, honest and beaming Applejack edged in slyly and pecked her eternally disciplined and stoic husband on the cheek.

Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Jack, the two decades having done nothing to reduce the two eternal pranksters, nor their love for one another.

Fluttershy and Big Mac silent as they were want to be, experiencing this yearly ritual with joy and sorrow in equal measure, taking solace in each other's presence.

And, at the very front, Twilight and Rarity, the only two of the Mane Six who had chosen to forego either marriage or relationships. Rarity, the most coveted bachelorette in the Equis Empire had revoked the affection of both males and quite a surprising number of females as, in her own words: "the only man for me is waiting in the afterlife. Can't let Shagga have him all to herself now can I?" And Twilight had simply resolved herself that as an immortal alicorn she did not want to have to witness the one she would fall in love with, waste in the years before her eyes while she would remain eternally young. She had chosen not be romantically involved, at least for the time being. She had her subjects, her purpose and her memories.

Twilight was content.

But now, under the full Moon of Nightmare Night, she was more than just content. Twilight was happy.
Even as the group entered the now empty inner Grove, circled by the men and women of the knightly orders, warrior lodges and mercenary guilds that had made it their own ritual to encircle the inner Grove during Nightmare Night and let none except this group pass, Twilight was happy.

Even as they passed the obsidian carved bridge over the cascading falls that flanked the Inner Grove and her eyes began to blur with tears, Twilight was happy.

Even as the sound of birds and critters, even the wind itself stopped and was replaced with the half heard, ethereal tumult of deep chanting voices, Draka dirges and the sounds of weapons rhythmically slamming against shields, Twilight was happy.

Upon seventeen brass steps the obsidian casket had been built around the body that even dead had refused to fall, it's laquered, impecable surface notched only by Draka Runescript of such perfect beauty it would have made angels weep. Each brass step held within it urns containing the ashes of his Legion. Flanking the casket, the fortress sized Ironwood trees, masterworks of dryad magic stood tall, like eternal guardians looking over the mausoleum.

It was these steps which the group climbed, crying , smiling and paying their respects. It was under these trees that the group stopped and sat, their faces stained with tears but their eyes glowing with joy.

It was to that casket that they looked as Twilight, her voice breaking and quivering but nonetheless filled with happiness and gratitude, finally spoke.

"Twenty years, twenty Nightmare Nights. And you have returned every single time. As you promised".

He stood in front of the obsidian casket, unchanced as the day he had returned from Ginun and become their salvation, his form more felt than seen but nonetheless, possessed of a vastness that dwarfed the mausoleum itself.
Armor as black as the darkest night and ornate as the most elaborate basorelief covered muscles so developed that the body itself would have seemed deformed. Atop impossibly wide shoulders a green maned head sat, a lipless mouth with a fanged slab of steel in place of a lower jaw smiled at them through the strands of emerald hair.

A single eye, glacial emerald orb, bearing within it a disciplined rtuhlesness that felt like a cold steel edge pressed upon the throat, gazed at the assembled group. For those present, they could see what others would never be gifted within that gaze.
Beyond that unwavering discipline and iron will was the love that had given all for them. The love that not even death itself could stand against. The love that made him protect them beyond the grave.

"Welcome back, my number one assistant" Twilight laughed, tears streaming uncontrollably down her face.

Spike, Darraor of the Legion, Third Veshanesh of the Draka spoke, with a voice that was the basso of a cracking world and the thunder of a malestrom. His single word, a declaration, a statement of fact that not the gods above nor the devils below, not even the reaper himself could challenge.