"I have fought over a thousand battles..."
Flames of Annihilation continued her chant. It seemed to go beyond the mere physical sound and resonate with the very souls of the listeners, carrying with it a feeling of powerful desolation. Sunset saw that Rainbow Dash seemed to want to attack her and so she shouted:
She could hear Trixie ordering the same thing to the others. Of course, she knew just as well the meaning of such a chant that came from the very soul, since it had been princess Celestia who had taught them about it.
"Believing in justice...
Without any reward..."
Yes. That had been a particularly memorable lesson.
4 Years Earlier
"The Soul Aria is one of the most powerful techniques that has ever been recorded." Celestia said "Calling it a spell is something of an understatement. Instead, it is more like a manifestation of the soul of the user." She closed her eyes for a moment "Essentially, the user forcefully defines themselves, using the strength of this definition as a way to directly affect the outside world." A beat "What do you think about that?" She asked her three apprentices.
"I think it sounds really strong." Sunset was the one to answer.
"Strong, huh..." Princess Celestia muttered "It is certainly strong, but it is also a trap." She spoke with finality.
"A trap?" Trixie asked.
"Indeed. Defining oneself is a double edged sword. You may gain power from the definition, but you are also throwing away the multiplicity of your soul, giving up on the variety of magic in exchange for a single goal. It's like removing all of your limbs, as well as your nose and mouth just to make your eyes stronger." She shook her head "The consequences are terrible. Perhaps calling it a trap is too harsh, magic and the mysteries of the soul are infinite, so perhaps there could be a way to do it without losing oneself, but as far as I am aware of, just like users of Light Magic, there were no users of the Soul Aria who managed to have a good ending."
The three teenage unicorns thought long and hard about it, understanding that this was something important. Eventually, Sunset spoke, raising a practical question:
"Do you think we are going to eventually fight against somepony like that?"
Celestia closed her eyes in thought "It's possible. It's not a particularly common ability, but there were many teams of Knights who had to deal with it."
There was an obvious response to that "So how do we deal with it?" Trixie asked.
"Well, the first thing to know is that you shouldn't attack the enemy while he is chanting. The Soul Aria is a technique of the soul, and it is completely impossible to stop from activating after it starts. Even if the body of the enemy is completely destroyed, their soul will still remain, and it will anchor itself on the very Soul Aria, and when it is finished, the enemy will be returned to the same condition he was in when he started." She stopped for a moment "So the best thing to do is waiting until the enemy finishes chanting the Aria and activating and then attacking." She sighed "I know this is the opposite of what I told you to do in general, but Knights must be adaptable. Apart from that, high level mages can generally survive as still cast magic as long as their soul remains strong, so you must attack the body and the mind in a way to disturb the soul. Souls can't be directly attacked, so this is the best you can do."
The three nodded in understanding.
"In search of revenge, I purified myself..."
The Flames began to shift, looking like they were becoming more ethereal and less connected to the world, yet somehow more powerful.
"Together!" Sunset ordered, and teleported to the place where most of the other Knights were.
An instant later, Rainbow Dash was there as well, and the six Knights were gathered together.
"Yet, I can no longer remember anything..."
The presence of their enemy seemed to expand, almost as if she was taking over the world around and making it into parts of herself.
"We can only attack after she is finished." Trixie said in full seriousness.
The other Knights knew there should be a reason for that, and so they simply waited and watched as she finished her chant, trying to prepare themselves for what was about to come.
"All that is left, are the Flames of Annihilation."
And then, the World changed subtly.
The Knights had an impression of both an endless desolation and an endless will, and realized that this was Flames of Annihilation. This was their enemy at her most basic and raw. Magic was imposing your will on reality, but this was more like she was imposing her own self on reality directly.
And of course, there were also physical changes that the Knights could see with their own eyes.
The flames that had become ethereal did not return to reality, instead, it was more like reality itself was shifting closer to the same state of being as the flames. In fact, at that point the flames seemed even more real than at any point in the previous fight. They were positively brimming with the intent to destroy, and the Knights couldn't avoid shuddering with the realization that, while that intent wasn't actually directed at them, they were still in the way.
The flames weaved themselves into two distinct agglomerations. The first was light, creating a ring around Flames, and even though it was light, the proximity of the flames was enough to burn and force her to have to continuously regenerate herself. The second agglomeration was like a whirlwind around her that prevented anything from coming close. Even now, when they were literally reflecting her soul, the flames remained shapeless, only weapons of destruction.
"I wanted to leave that to the princesses..." Flames spoke "But I'll just have to hold on until them."
On the Basement of Canterlot Castle
"Your Highnesses, what's wrong?!" One of the guards asked in a near panic.
The princesses had suddenly screamed and fallen to the ground at the same time as the spell they were working had shattered like so much glass.
"We are... Alright..." Princess Luna said woozily, trying to get up and failing.
"She... Managed to break the spell and we got hit with a backlash..." Celestia said, with a forced calm.
The two of them slowly tried to recover, and Princess Celestia could not help worrying.
'I hope they are alright.'
There was a moment of silence after Flames of Annihilation said those words.
Then, she finally took another step an suddenly shewastooclosetheyweregonnadie-
Five of the Knights were dragged into the air as Rainbow Dash used Tailwind again to force a retreat. She had already been moving an instant earlier, her Crisis Mode still enhancing her intuition to amazing levels. But it wasn't enough, as all of them screamed in pain as the simple proximity of those devastating flames had been enough to overwhelm their defenses and make their very organs tremble and their muscles tear.
'How is she so fast?!' Was the thought shared by all six of the Knights.
They looked back and saw that Flames was still walking with the same speed and cadence as before, only she was somehow covering a lot more ground than she should, and it almost looked like no part of the world wanted her presence, and kept pushing her forward to another one. Applejack saw what was actually going on and had to force herself not to blink.
Flames of Annihilation was somehow destroying distance itself, the distance between her and her target.
And she was gaining on them.
Rainbow Dash got angry at that sight, but they still had one card to play.
"Rarity!" She shouted.
Her partner understood immediately, and brought out the Artifact of hers that hadn't gotten much use on that mission, the Wind Ruler Sword.
"Wind Mail!" She shouted.
Her magic spread through the air, fusing seamlessly with Rainbow Dash's Tailwind. The wind grew in strength and turned into a multitude of small whirlwinds, which wrapped around the five non-pegasus Knights like armor plates. Rainbow Dash grinned and then declared confidently:
"Let's see who is the fastest here!"
And with a monstrous flap of her wings that created a crater on the ground just from the force of the wind, Rainbow Dash accelerated madly and broke through the sound barrier. And instead of letting the Rainboom form, she fused its energies with her wind, trying to go even faster.
Rainbow Dash still wasn't good enough with her Tailwind that she was capable of bringing others with her beyond the speed of sound. She couldn't protect them appropriately, and even Knights would have to spend too much energy protecting themselves from the extreme wind resistance for it to be worth it. That was why she and Rarity had worked out the Wind Mail, with her taking the burden of protection while Dash focused on speed.
The Knights had pulled away slightly, but Flames of Annihilation was still accelerating, so Rainbow Dash was forced to push herself further and further to keep increasing her speed, while Rarity was pushing herself to keep the team protected.
In a few seconds, they reached Mach 2, and it was still not over. The environment around them became a blur and yet they were still accelerating. Another few seconds and they reached Mach 3, and that was finally the limit. Flames of Annihilation wasn't accelerating anymore, so Rainbow Dash kept her speed, despite being able to go faster, since they needed to be able to attack.
Rainbow Dash smirked, and then paled as she realized a very important fact:
"One minute!" She shouted, manipulating the wind to force the words to be heard by her partners.
Indeed, they were now going so fast that they would reach Canterlot in one minute. That was all the time they had to finish the fight before the consequences became much graver.
That was the beginning of the final stage of the battle.
Trixie was the first to attack, she held nothing back and attacked with the most vicious spells she knew, trying to destroy the mind of her opponent directly. It was difficult, because smaller targets were harder to hit, and there wasn't much left of the mind of their enemy by that point, which was why she hadn't done that before, but now there was absolutely no other choice, if she could help even the smallest bit with defeating the enemy, that would be enough.
Sunset focused, and decided that it was time to be reckless. She forcefully reactivated both Trance Mode and Critical Mode at the same time, almost passing out from sheer pain as the extra burden made all of her internal injuries worse, then she charged magic for a few seconds before attacking.
"Septuple Magic Enhance: Curse of Burden!"
The overwhelmingly powerful spell managed to pass through the wall of flames, and it hit directly on the body of the enemy, causing black chains to appear and clasp themselves on every inch of her flesh. That was the strongest curse Sunset knew, amplified to the highest possible degree, and forcefully extended as Sunset kept her super modes going to supply it with energy.
It was an attack that tried to burden every single cell of the enemy's body at the same time.
Body and mind, the two sides of a coin of which the third side was the soul. The two original Knights present magnificently used the perfect method in complete harmony to try and finish off their overwhelmingly strong opponent.
And yet, it wasn't quite enough. Flames of Annihilation, despite all of the attacks, her soul was still firmly set on her task and she refused to die.
"Overdrive!" Applejack shouted.
She could see a lot of things, and thus she knew that no normal attacks of hers would be enough to help at that point. She needed something beyond the limit to have any chance, and so the Overdrive was her only option.
"Do ya want ta replace reality? Then let's see what reality has ta say about it!" She focused all her power and punched "Truth Seeking Blow: Imagine Breaker!"
Her attack forcefully reminded reality that it was supposed to be existing in a place where only the reality of Flames currently existed. For a moment it was like the whole world was pushing against Flames' soul.
The world broke first.
Flames of Annihilation stumbled, but managed to remain walking and not lose any speed. Applejack felt cheated.
But at the last moment, she Saw something.
'What was that?' She thought, moments before falling unconscious 'Was it the future...? There is only one way ta win.'
Using the last of her strength, Applejack shouted, trusting Rainbow Dash to carry her words to the others.
Pinkie had been thinking a lot ever since she heard about the purifying magic. It wasn't really something that often happened with her, but something about it just seemed to interest her, but seeing Flames of Annihilation and her use of that magic caused her some discomfort that she couldn't really explain... Until that moment.
'She's wrong.' Pinkie thought 'The whole way she used purification, her concept of purity, it's all wrong.'
While the others attacked, Pinkie kept thinking, feeling like she was on the edge of something important.
'She threw away everything else to become more "pure", but real purity should have contrast. Being only one thing meant her pure traits didn't have a way to shine brighter in contrast. The real purity should be containing everything, but focusing on just one thing.' She gasped as she realized something 'And that's the same for emotions. Even if you're feeling just one thing, it doesn't mean the other feelings aren't still meaningful.'
And with that realization, she knew that she could finally achieve the full potential of her emotion charge.
And the emotion she was feeling the most strongly was anger.
'How dare she?! How dare she want to kill the princesses?! How dare she still be fighting even after those two got hurt to try and defeat her?! And how dare she think she can reach Twilight and Fluttershy?!'
"Emotion Charge: 100% Anger!" Pinkie snarled, at the same time as she heard Applejack's words.
Her red aura of anger exploded and then condensed, forming into a perfect red crystal that put itself right on top of her heart and seemed to radiate menace. Pinkie's eyes turned into the same shade of red as the jewel, and then she jumped.
Rainbow Dash and Rarity were surprised at the same time as Pinkie broke free from the wind and dived right at Flames of Annihilation.
Right through the flames.
The other Knights looked on in horror, but then she made it past, somehow still alive despite having touched those destructive flames directly.
She had lost her left foreleg and right back leg, but it seemed to matter not a whit as she landed with her left back leg and twisted her body to bring her right foreleg to bear in a punch. And the moment before impact, there was a mini sonic boom, as her hoof broke the sound barrier on its own.
The sound of the hit was closer to that of a meteor hitting the earth than a normal punch, but that paled in comparison with the other effect of the punch.
It had made Flames of Annihilation stop in her tracks.
This wasn't because of the strength of the hit, titanic though it was, but because of the huge amount of chaotic energy she had infused inside the body of the opponent. It could be seen that it was wreaking havoc on her body by looking at the injuries that got worse as they watched. It could be seen that it was wreaking havoc on her mind by looking at her unfocused expression.
But that wasn't the end.
Before Flames could try to recover, Pinkie punched her again, doing the same thing, and the Knights, who had stopped as soon as their opponent did, looked on in wonder as they saw Pinkie's legs start to regenerate. (Except Applejack, who was currently unconscious and whom Rarity had started carrying in her telekinesis.)
That was the power she had gained upon reaching 100% anger: Regeneration.
Pinkie kept hitting her opponent over and over, with both forehooves when her second regenerated. The first zone of fire around Flames was burning her constantly even worse than it was already burning her opponent, but just like Flames, Pinkie could regenerate from the damage. And Flames was now incapable of directing her stronger flames at her opponent, because of her rigid Soul Aria. That was her weakness.
Pinkie usually would have started using chaotic attacks instead of just punching by now, except that the power gained through her anger wasn't suited for that. She was only capable of two things now, beside the regeneration: Chaos infusing and strength enhancement.
But that was all that she needed for that situation. Pinkie Pie was currently the toughest pony in the world, capable of surviving a dive through annihilation flames and punching hard enough to get through any aura barrier, and she could take advantage of that by attacking with infusions of chaos that targetted the enemy's weakness.
Flames of Annihilation still resisted grimly, refusing to die even as her entire self was more and more scrambled by the chaos magic. But she had no way to counter-attack, her attempts at increasing the heat of the first zone of flames proving not up to the task to overcome Pinkie's healing, and eventually, even she reached her limit.
Like a candle being blown out, all of her flames disappeared at once. Then, obtaining a moment of clarity just before death, she spoke:
"But I wanted... To kill the princesses..."
Then Pinkie's hoof came down for the last time, and her body vanished away as dust. Even at that last moment, she didn't manage to show a single shred of emotion.
On the Basement of Canterlot Castle
"It is over." Celestia said.
Luna looked at her "How do you know."
Celestia shook her head "Her influence has disappeared from the world, can't you remember now?"
Luna gasped in realization.
Celestia closed her eyes "Goodbye... Bell Maker..."
With Twilight and Fluttershy
Twilight snapped her head up when she felt a magical disturbance, and just after, the six Knights who had left on the mission appeared on a teleportation. Trixie was right at the front, smiling widely, which immediately made Twilight feel calmer, since she wouldn't be like this if they had lost somepony.
Then she caught sight of the entire team and saw that they, to be honest, looked like they were about to collapse. Trixie herself was walking very slowly and carefully, Rainbow Dash was actually walking instead of flying, Rarity was breathing hard without caring about appearances at all, Sunset looked like she was moving only through inertia, and Applejack was unconscious, being held in Trixie's telekinetic grip.
Most of them were dirty and full of small injuries all over their bodies, while Sunset and Rainbow Dash were dirty and full of big injuries, that looked like things that should have already rendered them unconscious.
The only exception to the general theme of "warriors coming back from a hard fight" was Pinkie Pie, who was completely clean and uninjured, and in fact, looked like she had just woken up (and as you might expect, she was very much a morning pony).
"We're baaaaack!" She announced, jumping to her teacher and fellow disciple and giving them both a hug "That was awesome! I even got to one hundred percent emotion charge!"
"That's... great, Pinkie." Fluttershy managed "Is that why you're looking so fresh?"
"Yep!" Then she stopped "But actually, I'm feeling a little bit tirezzzzzzzz."
She immediately fell asleep and started snoring, and the only reason why she didn't fall to the floor was because both of her forelegs were still around Twilight and Fluttershy.
Then Celestia appeared in a flash of teleportation and, taking a look at the situation, immediately browbeat both Sunset and Rainbow Dash into going to the emergency area for a few rounds of healing. Rarity summoned two couches and put Applejack on one of them before lying down on the other and going to sleep. Fluttershy offered to carry Pinkie Pie to one of the spare beds in the castle and Trixie... Siddled up to Twilight, with a mischievous smile.
"So... Did you finally do it?"
"What do you mean?" Twilight replied, a little too fast.
"Trixie means you and Fluttershy. Did you really think Trixie wouldn't notice?"
"Ahh... Ah..." Twilight blushed "I..." She dropped her head with a sigh and a smile "Yeah."
Trixie's eyes shined "Tell Trixie everything."
"Well... She hugged me and I couldn't help but ask... She said yes, and then we discussed how that could work, since I'm her teacher but I don't want to take advantage of that, and we set up some ground rules."
Trixie smiled, of course the most important thing for Twilight in this kind of situation would be that. She sat down to hear the rest of the story.
'Now, there's just those two who need to realize their feelings.' Trixie said, thinking of her apprentice and another pony.
Princess Celestia put her forehooves on her face and sighed "Maybe I was the problem all along..."
The reason why she was thinking like that was simple, two of her three apprentices and their five apprentices had, individually or in pairs, over the course of the last month, come to her with a very troubling request.
Apparently, they had become concerned that they were not getting stronger fast enough to overcome the obstacles they were gonna have to face, and they wanted to receive special training from her to be able to go beyond their limits and reach a new dimension of power. Even Pinkie and Fluttershy, who had recently gotten a lot stronger, felt that they were nearing a wall they needed to surpass.
And the worst part was, she had a lot of ideas about it.
'I don't want to have to see them getting hurt because the armors weren't strong enough.'
Rarity said she needed to be able to create better artifacts, so Celestia put her through the Samsara of Ten Thousand Lives (The complete version of the Samsara of 100 Lives she had put her apprentices through), so she could live out many different destinies and gain experience of the world (most ponies who tried ended up losing their minds, but she had faith on the Knights).
'I reached the limits of my Emotion Charge, but I need more than that to face those kinds of enemies.'
Pinkie Pie wanted to learn purification magic, so she taught her the basics and sealed her at the center of the earth where she would have to rely on her chaos magic to be able to survive until she became good enough at purification magic to purify away the spell keeping her trapped there.
'Ah was barely any help. Ah need something more.'
Applejack wanted to truly master her eyes, so Celestia took her to near Tartarus and told her to Look at it without blinking for a few months.
'My Soul Emulate is still not good enough, I need to become even stronger.'
Fluttershy wanted to reach a new level in her empathy, so Celestia took her to the Great Canterlot Quarry, currently a focus of constant chaotic and magical shifts and told her to live there for a few months, only eating and drinking whatever she could find there (which meant eating and drinking quickly before the thing could change in something perhaps non-edible).
'Looking at her power, I knew I wanted to walk a different path.'
Sunset was concerned about the possibility of losing herself in search of power like their opponent had done, so, once she finished healing from her injuries, Celestia sealed away her magic and started sparring with her everyday at full power, telling her to meditate about herself on her spare time.
'Trixie has seen the limits of her current abilities. She needs to reach an even deeper level.'
Trixie wanted to obtain greater control over the very duality of concepts of reality and illusion, so she asked Luna to leave Trixie to the "Shadowlands", one of the most dangerous parts of the realm of dreams, where she had to survive for six months.
'I need to become even more awesome to be able to help the others.'
Rainbow Dash didn't really have any ideas, so Celestia decided that she should train her weather magic by taking care of the weather above most of Equestria for six months.
And of course, Twilight was planning to ask the same after she recovered, and Celestia already had ideas about it.
"Why does it come so naturally for me to invent those types of training?" She asked herself, then smiled slightly "Well, at least life is never boring."
Flames of Annihilation Arc End
Next: Craft SubArc