XCOM: Ranger

by Wanderer D

Chapter 128: Fallible


Chapter 128: Fallible

By Wanderer D

This was not Canterlot Castle.

The architecture was different, the color scheme was different and the banners were different. Twilight wasn't sure what she was doing in this place, but it was surely some sort of—

"Not another step!" Luna ordered, marching out from behind the curtains.

Given that Twilight had not moved from the spot where she was standing, she glanced behind her, to make sure others weren't approaching. That's when she noticed Celestia, standing at the entrance to the grand hall, eyes wide, staring at Luna.

"Did you really expect me to sit idly by while they all basked in your precious light?" Luna continued, walking over to the balcony that overlooked the room. "There can only be one princess in Equestria! And that princess... will be me!"

Luna reared back on her hind legs and crashed down hard, being enveloped in darkness as the glass behind her split and the moon rose above with her.

Twilight cringed. "I thought it had been a bit more elaborate than this."

She stepped back as Celestia took center stage. Clearly this was a battle between them that Twilight was no part of. In fact, if her theory was correct, there was nothing she could do herself about the fight itself… but then… why was she here?

She kept an ear on what the princesses were saying, but it was… not very informative. In fact, it made her angry. It brought back memories of betrayal and trying to figure out how… why things happened. She held the belief that Luna had probably experimented with forbidden magic, much like Sunset, which had fueled her desperate and irrational transformation.

It was about then that both princesses shot into the air, chasing after each other.

Twilight grimaced. She hadn't really had much opportunity to practice flying. There was no way she was catching up with them. She still flew up to the roof of the Castle of the Two Sisters and landed on it, watching the evolving battle from there.

Granted, she wasn't a fighter pilot, but she'd seen Rainbow Dash in action, and neither princess seemed to be doing a good job at battling. Nightmare Moon was erratic, but clearly she wasn't pulling her punches. Celestia was… dodging and the only way she would miss more often is if she had closed her eyes.

Either she was really that bad at it, or she didn't want to hurt Luna. Twilight was quick to note that it was that hesitation that cost Celestia the battle. Nightmare Moon dodged a feeble attempt at a restraining spell, and blasted Celestia on the side with pure magical energy.

On pure instinct, Twilight dove after her mentor, landing next to her unmoving body as Nightmare Moon cackled outside. "Oh Celestia…" she murmured, looking over the injured Princess. "I know kindness is a force onto itself, but how much are we willing to risk for it?"

She watched in silence as her fellow princess stood up painfully.

"What if Luna had actually killed you?" Twilight asked as Celestia used her magic to invoke something from under them. "Who would have been left to fight off the darkness?"

The fact that the Elements was what Celestia had summoned did not surprise Twilight. It was, after all, the past, as real as it seemed, and she knew the story… she knew that to stop Nightmare Moon, Celestia had had no other choice than to use the Elements themselves.

She followed the princess into the air, mind racing. This couldn't be the reason she was here. She already knew how Nightmare Moon had been defeated. Both in the past and the present. Was this a sign that the Elements would be needed to fight those strange vines? But… they already were planning to do so. Why even bring it up?

Twilight's eyes narrowed. Unless the clue was here, somehow… and she was missing something. She watched with interest as Celestia used the Elements of Harmony, not as a force of balance, but as a weapon, channeling and amplifying her magic through each element, then focusing them all into the Element of Magic.

What mattered now was the focus of the spell, and Celestia was using the same as earlier: a binding spell.

Nightmare Moon for her part, Twilight could only describe as insane. She turned around, saw the Elements of Harmony being aimed at her and started a pissing contest that, had she been rational, she would have known she couldn't win.

It was over in an instant, and Twilight was just as suddenly standing back in vine-covered Ponyville.

"Hey, she's back." Alejandra called out, waving her claw in front of Twilight's face. "You okay there, Twilight? How many fingers am I holding up?"

"None, you don't have fingers right now."

"Yep. She's back."

"So… did you find out who's flank we have to kick?" Rainbow Dash asked, flying over to her as the others approached.

Twilight shook her head. "No… I got a glimpse of the past, but I didn't really see anything of value."

"Perhaps farther back still are the answers you seek," Zecora said, approaching with the potion once more. "Another sip of the potion... will give you a peek."

"Okay, be straight with me, at least until we're alone," Alejandra whispered, "did you also cast a spell on her? All that rhyming isn't natural."

Twilight gave her a annoyed look, then took a sip of the potion.

A few seconds later, she was watching schools of fish swim by her in the open air, and a pair of very battered Princesses approaching a throne atop a flannel mountain.

The confrontation with Discord went about as expected. Plenty of taunting, flashing of the Elements… there was at least a connection there… and using them as weapons.

One thing that Galahad had insisted on teaching them was that there was a lot more to the world around them than what they would be immediately aware of. Rangers and Reapers, for example, tended to use distraction and subterfuge as part of their skillset to more or less the same purpose.

That was how he had snuck into the classroom when the new recruits had been concentrating on Twilight. That was how Reapers could get so close to enemies without being noticed. It was distractions, observation and opportunities to act.

One of his favorite stories involved a thief called Dureena. In that story, she had been offered freedom by a wizard with the only caveat that she had to assist a legendary Captain of the army to find and stop enemies operating behind the scenes.

In order to get the information, she needed to contact members of the thief guild, so she had ordered the Captain to create a distraction. While the captain did just that by starting a brawl, she had focused not on the fight, but rather on what was going on around it… and quickly spotted other thieves, who helped her out in her quest.

When it came to Discord… especially old Discord, things were never what they seemed. It would be too obvious, and if anything, before his repeated defeats, Discord had been too proud and cocky not to play games.

If Discord was half as smart as he pretended to be, then he would have realized the danger even before Celestia and Luna used their trump cards.

So when the interchange of words started… when the lights flashed… Twilight barely paid attention. Her eyes studying the area around and trying to figure out what she was missing.

Whatever black stuff Discord was eating landed all over the place. Bouncing off of Luna's muzzle and Celestia's forehead. The clouds were all made of chocolate. The moon was molten cheese, being stirred by a rabbit.

And then… the black things started to burrow, just as the flash of light turned into rainbows and hit Discord.

Twilight's eyebrow twitched.

She felt another rush of magic coming and this time, she was in a cave, with the Princesses once more.

"The Tree of Harmony," Luna whispered in awe.

Twilight herself was impressed as she followed both princesses deeper in to gaze at the crystal tree in front of them. She studied it carefully, noticing Luna's and Celestia's cutie marks, as well as her own in the middle.

The Elements of Harmony, sans the Element of magic, were cradled at the ends of the branches of the tree, glowing faintly with the magic within them.

When Celestia started levitating the Elements away, it was Luna who spoke for both, herself and Twilight. "Are you sure?"

Celestia nodded, face grim. "We have managed to discover the only means by which we can defeat Discord and free the citizens of Equestria." She used her magic on the tree and the centerpiece opened up, revealing the floating Element of Magic within. "Even without these elements, the Tree of Harmony will possess a powerful magic. As long as that magic remains, it will continue to control and contain all that grows here."

The wording struck Twilight. "Everything that grows?"

She blinked and shook her head, blinking again to try to get rid of the spots in her eyes.

"So what did you find out?" Spike asked, trotting up to her with Tala on his head.

"I think I know why the Everfree Forest is acting this way. Something's happened to the Tree of Harmony," Twilight said, turning around and looking for a certain draconequus. When she saw him sullenly kicking a stone, she started walking towards him.

"The tree of what now?" Rainbow Dash asked as she and the others fell in line behind her.

"If that potion is right, that's where Princess Celestia and Luna obtained the Elements originally from," Twilight explained. "If the vines come from the Everfree Forest, it stands to reason that the Tree has been damaged… it's supposed to control and contain everything that grows there… isn't that right, Discord?"

The draconequus sighed, and looked down at her morosely. "What do you want now, Sparkles?"

"Simple, I want the truth," Twilight said. "I think I know how this got started, I just want to hear it from you."

For a moment it seemed like Discord was about to argue.

"Fine. Take away all the fun out of it, Princess," Discord droned. "Yes, I did throw around the Plunder Vine seeds thousands of years ago when Celestia and Luna captured me. But I promise I had no idea they were still active! They should have come out hundreds of years ago!"

"What?!" Rainbow Dash shouted, flying up to a smirking Discord. "This is all your fault?!"

"No, it's not," Twilight said, interrupting Discord's retort, and making him blink in surprise.

"It's not?!" both him and Dash echoed.

Twilight shook her head. "No. Besides the seeds there was another theme… the constant use of the Elements to solve problems ended up in Celestia and Luna being dependent on them. Celestia used them not as a last resort, but as a desperate means to not take more drastic measures.

"When they trapped Discord in stone, they could have left the Elements with the Tree… but they did not, and eventually it drained out of its power… just like the Crystal Empire and the return of Nightmare Moon and the Invasion of Canterlot… it's overconfidence and ultimately a dependency on outside forces to control and defeat anything that threatens Equestria."

"Twilight, Ah can't believe you're saying these things… are you sayin' that this is Celestia's fault?"

Twilight closed her eyes and took a deep breath, steeling herself to what she was about to say. "I can't speak one hundred percent for them, but as much as I love and respect my mentor, she's not perfect. None of us are… and she's forgiving to a fault… sometimes… even arrogant in a way."

This drew a gasp from the other girls, but she continued, "She will always be the pony I look up to… the princess I will always ask myself first: "what would Celestia do?" But I also realize now that… she's been trying to teach me all along, that she doesn't have all the answers. And that she might make the wrong choice."

Twilight smiled at the girls. "This is why we can use the Elements as a force of balance, and she could not, and why she entrusted us to help her old foe."

She turned to Discord again, who had remained quiet and wide-eyed the whole time. "So Discord, I know this is not how you had planned things… given how bored and morose you were earlier, but… as a friend, would you mind giving us a paw?"

"I—" he stammered, eyes wide before slowly his smile grew. "Why, Princess, I would never be morose, you must have imagined that!" He disappeared and reappeared next to her. "I would love to help you, but unfortunately I can't affect the Plunder Vines that are growing right next to wherever the Tree is… they would feed on my magic, you see."

Twilight nodded. "Not a problem, then just keep an eye on things over here… and help clean up when all is said and done."

Discord flashed in place, suddenly wearing a military uniform. He saluted. "Yes, princess!"

"Good, now, girls, let's go find that Tree."

"Wait," Tala said from above Alejandra as the latter sighed in disappointment and holstered her gun. "That's it? A lecture? Are we not fighting the snake-like creature?"

"Apparently not."

"Oh, for folk's sake, that's fanning bullseye!"

Alejandra started trotting behind the mares. "Language."

"Foam you."

o.0.o End Chapter 128 o.0.o