“Are you guys ready for this?” Jigsaw said.
The trio stood in the control room. Lights flashed along the rows of corroded monitors, displaying information on the state of various parts of the airship. The magical fourth wall shimmered, displaying small river and verdant forest spread out below them.
“I’ve been waiting for this,” Incendia said with conviction. “It’s time we end this. For Stalliongrad.”
Jigsaw nodded. “Tiptoe?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” she said. “I’m sticking with you no matter what.”
Jigsaw smiled. “I guess this is really it, then. Once we cast off, there’s no going back. Once we get the final Celestia fragment, we can figure out how to steal that crystal from Tantalus with the help of the goddesses. Luna says with both of them combined, they should be able to shroud us from Tantalus long enough for them to regenerate.”
“Is there anything you need us to do?” Incendia said.
“Honestly, I don’t think there’s much for you to do on the ride over. Luna— you know, if it’s okay with you guys, I think I’ll just let her explain.”
Incendia shrugged, and Tiptoe said, “If you’re okay with it.”
Jigsaw closed his eyes, and a gentle, cool breeze blew through the room. When he opened his eyes again, they were solid silver disks.
“Hello again,” Luna said curtly. “I do not require any assistance piloting this vessel. It was designed for me to fly, and I shall fly it once again. Let us waste no more time.”
With that, Luna hopped onto the command chair and closed her eyes.
Jigsaw’s horn began to quiver and a strand of silvery light billowed from the tip. It streamed down, flowing like water into the consoles at the base of the command chair.
Lights on the console sprang to life. Rusted metal struts and peeling paint began to recede and reseal, and the whole airship began to shake. An extremely deep tone rumbled up from the engine room, and the forest outside the ship began to spin away. In no time, they were soaring over the treetops.
“Where are we going?” Tiptoe asked, staring down at the forest below.
“Ponyville,” responded Luna.
“Where’s that?” Incendia asked.
“A few hours east,” Luna replied. “It was where Fluttershy lived most of her life— as well as the other bearers of the elements of harmony.”
“Is there anything we should know about it?” Tiptoe asked. “Is the fragment going to be defended?”
“Almost certainly, though I have no way of knowing how,” Luna said.
“So what do we do in the meantime?” Tiptoe asked.
Luna blinked, and when her eyes opened again, the solid silver was replaced by Jigsaw’s blue.
“We prepare. Follow me.”
Jigsaw hopped off the command chair and led Incendia and Tiptoe out the door and down the flight of stairs.
“What are we doing?” Tiptoe asked.
“Luna doesn’t want to admit it, but she’s terrified. We’re going to give her a little peace of mind. I think we can get one of the weapons systems back online.”
“Just out of curiosity,” Incendia said, “Is Luna just, like, talking to you? All the time?”
“Not really. Sometimes she speaks up, but most of the time she’s just watching, or… sleeping, I guess? She comes and goes. I think most of her time is spent resting and stopping the Celestia fragments from messing with my mind, which I appreciate. Take a left down here; this should be the battery.”
They entered into a small, cramped room, taken up from floor to ceiling by two strange, coiled cables. The cables were filled with a bluish-white fluid that was fluorescing weakly.
“This is what powers the main weapon systems. It was pretty thoroughly burned out when we used it in Totemhoof, but I think I can get it up and running. We have some extra power now that we don’t need the climate control systems.”
“This is the weapon? It’s so… tiny,” Tiptoe said.
“Oh, no,” Jigsaw said. “The main body of the weapon is underneath us, all the way to the bottom of the ship. This is just what powers it. These pipes are filled with liquid spell-fixing crystal, and when we fired it in Totemhoof, we essentially drained them of their magic, as well as putting awful strain on the machinery. With all of your help, though, I think I can fix it. Incendia, you’re going to have to get this fluid heated up. Stand over there and shoot a jet of fire at that tube. Not that one, the one next to— yeah. Tiptoe, you need to watch that gauge on the wall there. If it gets into the red zone, pull that lever to release the pressure. Everypony ready?”
Incendia nodded and her horn began to glow. She turned and pointed it at the pipe that spiraled from the ceiling and shot a jet of fire at it. In response, the liquid began to glow a little brighter. Jigsaw stood in front of the spot where the cables met the floor and his horn began to glow. There was a massive groan of metal bending and a cacophony of noise as far-off gears protested being forced into motion. The liquid in the pipes began to flow down into the machinery through the left tube and back up and out through the right. As Jigsaw concentrated, the liquid began to glow more intensely until with a sudden flash of light and a sound of rushing water, Jigsaw staggered back from the pipes.
“Pull the lever, Tiptoe!” he shouted, and Tiptoe responded by grabbing the lever with her teeth and yanking down. A soft hiss echoed from somewhere in the ship, and the liquid’s flow slowed to a trickle.
“You can stop now,” Jigsaw said to Incendia. The glow around her horn dissipated and she trotted up to Jigsaw and Tiptoe.
“It didn’t work quite as well as I hoped it would,” Jigsaw said, panting. “I think we’re only going to squeeze one shot out of it before it goes down for good. If we do need to use it, we’re going to have to make it count.”
“So… what do we do now?” Tiptoe asked apprehensively.
“We wait,” Jigsaw said. “I’m heading back up to the control room.”
Tantalus saw the airship begin to rise over the horizon, headed towards Ponyville. Right on schedule.
He reached one claw out and sunk his talons into the bark of the ancient, gnarled tree. He felt a resistance to his touch- the force inside pushing back against him, but it was trivial to push past it and sink his claws fully into the tree.
The whole trunk seemed shudder as he began to pour power into it. The pressure against his claw grew fiercer, but his grip did not slip. A sickly green aura began to glow around Tantalus and spread out to the tree. The pressure grew stronger and stronger, until Tantalus had to grit his teeth and put his full strength into keeping his claw in, but eventually the resistance broke. The leaves on the treetop, far above his head, wilted and died. A simple, wooden door at the base of the tree swung open silently.
Tantalus smiled, revealing rows of sharp, black teeth, but only for a moment. He began to dissolve, his physical body melting away into a cloud of loosely formed green smoke. The smoke hovered in the air for a moment before it seeped into the ground.
“That’s Ponyville,” Jigsaw said, staring out the window. “That’s where the last fragment is. Luna says we have to get in and out, fast— we Tantalus shouldn’t be able to detect us, but we’ll be far safer in the ship then on the ground.”
“I’m scared,” Tiptoe said to the room. “I can’t believe we’re actually here.”
“I’m scared, too,” Jigsaw said, walking to her side. “I’m terrified. I don’t know what’s going to happen after this. But there’s one thought that keeps me going.”
“What’s that?” Tiptoe asked.
“What else can we do?” Jigsaw said with a small, sad smile.
The airship began to silently descend over the ruined town. Decaying, fallen-in thatched roof cottages lined streets that had once been pristine and clear, but were now overgrown with twisted trees and shrubs.
“By the Goddesses,” Incendia said, “look at that tree!”
The huge tree in the center of Ponyville seemed to be reaching towards the sky. The branches were twisted upwards, seeming to reach towards the sun.
“I’ve never seen anything so large,” Incendia continued. “Not even Rubidium’s tower was that big. It must be a mile high!”
“That’s gotta be where the last fragment is,” Jigsaw said. “I’m going to take the airship down.”
Jigsaw hopped into the control chair and his horn began to glow. In response, the ship began to circle around the giant tree, gently gliding lower and lower until it touched down in a large clearing near the tree.
A moment later, the trio stood assembled at the exit of the airship, staring down at the shattered stones and yellow grass.
“Alright,” Jigsaw said, taking a deep breath. “Alright. We have to go in and get out as soon as possible. Are you guys ready for this?”
“Let’s just go before I think about it too much,” Tiptoe said.
“I’m okay,” Incendia said. “Let’s just get on with it.”
Jigsaw nodded and took the first step down the ramp that led to the huge tree.
The broken cobblestones forced them to make slow progress up the ancient road to the tree. Jigsaw, Incendia, and Tiptoe stood away from each other, watching every side for signs of trouble.
Their caution was unwarranted, however. After several minutes of careful walking, they reached the base of the tree.
“Let’s start walking around the base,” Jigsaw suggested. “There’s bound to be something here.”
As they began to make their way around the massive tree, Jigsaw took the opportunity to examine it more closely.
It was truly massive. The shadow it cast stretched cut a stripe of emptiness out of the forest, trees unable to grow in the area perpetually starved of sunlight. The tree itself had a noticeable curve to it- several hundred feet of overhang where it reached out towards the west and the sun. Suddenly, Jigsaw noticed something and shouted, “Stop!”
“What? What is it?” Incendia said as her horn sprang to life and her coat melted into flames.
“Up there, in the tree,” Jigsaw said. “About thirty feet up. Tiptoe, can you fly up and find out what that is?”
Tiptoe squinted for a moment, then caught a glimpse of a small tube that appeared to protrude out of the side of the tree. She gave her wings a flap and ascended towards the tube.
“I have no idea what it is,” Tiptoe said. “It looks like it’s embedded in the wood. There’s a lens covering the end.”
“A lens? Incendia said. “Are there more lenses inside?”
“I’m not sure,” Tiptoe said. “I think so.”
“I think it’s a telescope,” Incendia said, bemusedly.
“What’s a telescope?” Tiptoe said, fluttering to the ground.
“You guys don’t know what a telescope is?” Incendia said.
Jigsaw shrugged. “Never heard of it.”
“They’re used to look at stars and planets and stuff. They magnify things thousands of times.”
“Oh, well, that would be why I haven’t heard of it,” Jigsaw said. “Didn’t have many heavens to observe in the caves.”
“True. Why is it embedded in the tree, though? That’s really odd,” Incendia sai.
“Hold on,” Jigsaw said. “Luna thinks she knows where this is. She says the tree is hollow and grew around the telescope- the door should be just around the bend.”
“This thing is hollow?” Tiptoe said, staring up towards the canopy, far, far above her head. “That’s incredible.”
“I don’t know that the whole thing is hollow,” Jigsaw said. “But at least the bottom is.”
It only took them a moment more to find the door. It was nothing more than a corroded hunk of wood on rusty hinges. Flakes of paint still clung here and there to the rough, wooden surface.
“Together,” Jigsaw said solemnly. “We go through the threshold together.”
The three ponies lined up, side by side, and faced the doorway. Beyond it was a curtain of darkness.
They stepped through the doorway.
Instantly, Jigsaw’s fur stood on end. It felt as though he had just walked through a strong electric field. A small, aching pressure began to build at the base of his horn.
“Did you feel that?” he asked.
Incendia and Tiptoe nodded.
“Let’s make this quick,” Jigsaw said. His horn sprang to life, shedding blue light through the room.
Rows and rows of ancient, rotted books lined the wooden walls on shelves. Old language words Jigsaw had never seen before were faintly visible on the scraps that remained. Directly ahead of him, the fallen-in remains of a loft were visible.
“What do we do— ah!”
Tiptoe shouted as a sudden flash of light blinded the trio. A small orb of light, about the size of Jigsaw’s head, flew out of the ground. Angry jets of flame were shooting off the sphere in thin strands, reaching out several inches from the surface of the orb before collapsing back to join them. The surface spun and churned like the surface of a stormy, fiery sea.
“It looks… angry,” Tiptoe noted. “Almost like the one from Stalliongrad.”
“That was too easy,” Incendia said, her ears perking up. “We just walked in and found it. It’s never been that simple before.”
“You’re right,” Jigsaw said. His stomach sank. “I don’t like this. When I collect this fragment, we make a break for the ship.”
“Agreed,” Tiptoe and Incendia said together.
Jigsaw walked forward and touched the tip of his horn to the roiling surface of the orb. Instantly, wind began to whip up through the room, swirling around Jigsaw and lifting him off the ground. The orb began to shrink in size, seeming to flow into Jigsaw’s horn, which began to glow with an intense golden light.
Moments later, Jigsaw stood firmly on the floor, panting.
“Are you okay?” Tiptoe asked.
Jigsaw turned to face her and opened his eyes. They were solid disks of gold.
When he spoke, Jigsaw’s voice was overlaid with another— a more mature, feminine voice, full of urgency.
A huge blast knocked the trio off their feet. Green flames billowed in from the doorway, igniting the piles of yellow paper stacked around the walls.
“Tantalus!” Incendia shouted. She could feel the unnatural heat emanating off the flames.
Jigsaw blinked, and his eyes returned to normal. He quickly scrambled to his hooves and said, “He was lying in wait the whole time! He’s … he’s going to try and kill me while I’m vulnerable. We need to get out, now!”
“Stand back!” Incendia shouted. Her dark fur melted into bright flames, and she pointed her horn at the nearest wall of bark.
“Cover your ears!” she shouted. Jigsaw and Tiptoe complied, scrambling back and pushing their ears down as hard as they could against their heads.
Incendia’s horn flashed and a blast of hot air hit Jigsaw and Tiptoe with such force that Jigsaw thought he had been punched in the chest. He gasped for breath for a moment before his lungs finally unlocked and he drew in a gasping breath of hot, dry air. A smoking, gaping hole had been blasted into the wall.
To his right, Tiptoe stood shakily to her feet, breathing heavily. She saw the hole Incendia had blasted and glanced back at Jigsaw and the quickly spreading green inferno, and sprinted towards the hole. Jigsaw followed moments later.
“What’s going on?” Incendia shouted once they got outside. “Where’s Tantalus? By the Goddesses, which way is the airship?”
“Celestia’s complete,” Jigsaw said quickly, “and she knew Tantalus was here. He’s attacking while they’re not strong enough to reform entirely. He’s stronger than they thought— he can hide himself from magical detection. We have to get out of here before— Ah!”
Jigsaw doubled over as his horn flared with light. In the space before him a, a form began to shimmer into existence. Silvery white light began to flow out and into the form solidifying it, giving it substance.
“Luna,” Tiptoe whispered in awe.
Luna stood before them, still slightly transparent. Her coat was dark blue, and her mane flowed and rippled, reflecting celestial objects and events. She was at least twice as tall as any of the others.
Jigsaw struggled back to his feet. “I thought you said you weren’t strong enough to reform!”
“I am not,” Luna confirmed. “This is merely a projection. It is autonomous, but if it is destroyed, will temporarily rob me of the greater part of my power. It is my aim to protect you. My sister should follow shortly.”
As if on cue, Jigsaw’s horn flared with light, and golden fire began to stream out of it. The shape that emerged was even taller than Luna— and even more regal. Celestia’s outline seemed to glow with the brilliance of the sun itself. When the golden fire finished flowing out of Jigsaw’s horn, Tiptoe and Incendia were at a loss for words.
“Greetings,” Celestia said. “I only wish we were meeting under better circumstances. As it stands, we have to—“
“Have to what, dear sister?” came a deep, rumbling voice from somewhere out of sight.
“Do not call me that,” Celestia said, her mouth twisting into a snarl. “You are no brother of mine.”
“Such hostility!” Tantalus said with a wheezing laugh. With a flash of green light, he was standing before them. His scales were mottled blues, and his skin appeared to be bulging and bloated. His rows of black teeth glistened in the light from the flaming tree behind them. “I’ve been waiting for this,” he said, his voice suddenly quiet. “You’ve played into my plans quite nicely.”
Incendia’s horn began to glow, and flames again roared to life around her.
“We know what you are now,” Jigsaw said. “You can’t hide anything from us!”
Tantalus chuckled. “And how does that information help you? You cannot be so blind as to see how you have assisted me every step of your journey.”
Jigsaw furrowed his eyebrows, and Tantalus’ smile widened.
“I have been trying for millennia to wipe the earth clean of the work of my sisters,” Tantalus explained. “Some cities of your kind have managed to escape my grasp. You allowed me into Stalliongrad, just as I asked you. You finally revealed the location of Totemhoof to me. I shall attend to it later. Even your underground home was destroyed as a direct result of your actions. You’ve expedited the death of this world far more than even my wildest dreams.”
Celestia’s partially transparent horn began to glow, and she stepped between Jigsaw and Tantalus.
“Run,” she said, and a beam of golden light shot from her horn and struck Tantalus in the face.
Tantalus staggered and roared. The sound cut right through Jigsaw, and a stabbing pain shot through his head.
Tantalus’ form began to glow and shimmer with sickly green light. Jets of green flame began to shoot out of the ground all around the ponies.
“Run!” Celestia repeated.
This time, Jigsaw heeded her words. He set off in a gallop around the tree; Incendia and Tiptoe hot on his trail. Flashes of bright light and deep, echoing booms emanated from behind them, shaking the loose pebbles on the ground and making it difficult for Jigsaw to maintain his speed.
“There’s the airship!” Tiptoe shouted. “Once we get there, we can—"
Another blast drowned out the rest of Tiptoe's sentence as the huge tree behind them splintered and cracked, green fire beginning to burst out of the bark.
Jigsaw didn't look back. He kept his head down and charged towards the airship. From somewhere behind him, a high-pitched, animalistic wail echoed out, along with a wave of magical energy that caused his flesh to feel as though it was burning.
His vision blurred as tears of pain streamed down his face. Above him, the dark shape of Tantalus drifted into view, swatting madly at two bright, shining shapes that flitted in the air around his head, blasting him with novas of golden and white light.
Suddenly, Jigsaw heard an electronic hum and the sounds of the blasts outside were slightly muffled.
“Stop!” he shouted, skidding to a halt at the base of the airship. “We’re inside the shield. Is everyone okay?”
Tiptoe and Incendia, to Jigsaw’s great relief, were right behind him, breathing heavily.
“I think my right wing got singed,” Tiptoe said, stretching it out. “but I’ll be alright.”
“I’m fine,” Incendia said. “What-“
Suddenly, the scene was illuminated with harsh, green light, and Jigsaw instinctively turned to find its source.
A huge wreath of roiling, churning green flames surrounded Tantalus, expanding out rapidly like a tiny green sun. Jigsaw could feel the sickening influence of Tantalus’ magic, even behind the shield. Even the air seemed to be responding to the raw power, warping and contorting the light that passed by the expanding ball of flames.
Celestia and Luna were beating a hasty retreat from the attack, diving down through the air towards the airship, the green ball of flames hot on their tail. With only seconds to spare, they slammed into the ground.
The green fire collided with the airship’s shield, and suddenly the airship was encased in a glowing blue dome. The green light was replaced with a soft, shimmering blue, like the bottom of a clear pool of water.
Celestia and Luna appeared unharmed, though Jigsaw noted he could see through them much more clearly than their initial appearance.
“How much of this can the shields withstand?” Incendia asked in awe.
“Not much, if he keeps this up,” Jigsaw said. “I wasn’t sure it would work at all. We need to get inside.”
The roar of the fire stopped abruptly as the door of the airship closed behind them, and Jigsaw noticed for the first time that Tiptoe’s breaths were coming in short, ragged gasps. She was crying.
“Are you okay?” Jigsaw said urgently. “You didn’t get hurt, did you?”
Tiptoe shook her head and took a deep breath. “No. I’m sorry. I’m just… I’m just scared.”
To the surprise of everypony assembled, Jigsaw began to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” Incendia said harshly.
“Did you all forget?” Jigsaw said. “We primed the weapon before we came here. He’s right where we want him.
Incendia’s intense look of focus gave way to a huge grin. “Jigsaw, I could kiss you right now!”
“Ask Tiptoe,” Jigsaw said, “and let’s get up to the bridge. You too, princesses!”
Jigsaw dashed up the stairs, passing the extremely bemused princesses before they could get a word in edgewise.
Halfway up the flight of metal stairs that led to the control room, the airship rocked to one side, tossing the mass of ponies against the wall.
“What was that?” Jigsaw asked.
“Tantalus is trying to break through the shield,” Celestia replied. “Are you sure this weapon is strong enough to defeat him?”
“What do you think, Luna? It’s your airship, after all.”
“It was my army’s,” Luna corrected. “I did not design it. It was designed for me, true, but I only piloted it twice. And... that was a very long time ago. Without a full diagnostic, I have no way of saying for certain.”
“So, not no, then?” Incendia said with an impish grin. “That was good enough back in Stalliongrad. Let’s give that son of a bitch what he deserves.”
Celestia gave a begrudging smile. “Though I can’t say I approve of your language, young lady, I must say that I admire your spirit.”
Incendia gave Celestia a once-over. “Your spirit is looking pretty good, too.”
Celestia’s partially transparent face flushed red, which was rather impressive, considering.
“Incendia,” Tiptoe said tersely, “you can flirt with the immortal goddesses later. For now, let’s take care of the problem at hoof.”
The magical fourth wall of the control room displayed a scene of utter carnage. Tantalus appeared berserk— he darted around outside the barriers of the shield, huge, leathery wings flapping furiously as he beat upon the shield. The huge tree in the center of Ponyville had become a towering inferno, green flames reaching up its side and high into the sky. The smoke was now beginning to choke out the weak light from the sun.
His eyes were flaming pits of green fire that left trails behind them when he moved. The veins that covered his body pulsed grotesquely. Even through the magical wall he seemed to be projecting power, radiating off waves of corrosive energy. The green light hurt Jigsaw’s eyes.
Don’t think about it, he told himself. Focus on getting the weapon online. It’s going to work.
Jigsaw once again hopped into the familiar commander’s chair and closed his eyes. His head was buzzing with all that had happened, just in the last twenty minutes. He could feel the goddesses’ spirits, still residing within his mind, burning brightly.
Tendrils of light sprung from Jigsaw’s horn as he began to bend the machinery to his will. One by one, the tendrils spilt and branched out, forming a web of light that stretched over the room. The tendrils terminated at the various computer monitors that lined the walls of the room. One by one, they sprang to life. Tiptoe recognized some of the old-world words that flashed by, including “danger,” “malfunction,” and “overpressure”.
“Uh, Jigsaw…?” she said hesitantly.
“It’s all or nothing here, Tiptoe,” Jigsaw said. “I have to push it.”
The airship began to rumble, and not from Tantalus’ continued blows against the shield. Tiptoe recognized the familiar clamor of the engines beginning to fire.
“Celestia, Luna, can you make a shield of your own? To protect us?” Jigsaw said, his voice oscillating due to the quaking of the ship.
“Yes, but we could not last against Tantalus indefinitely. Why do you—”
“Make it now,” Jigsaw interrupted. “This is going to get messy.”
Celestia and Luna closed their eyes as Jigsaw hopped off the command chair. A tiny sphere of brightly shimmering white light surrounded them.
The screens lining the walls of the command room stopped flashing, the text replaced by a simple red screen.
Tantalus realized too late what has happening. With a bright flash of light and a sound like someone sounding a huge gong, a ball of white light as large as Tantalus himself was fired out of one of the barrels and engulfed him.
The light seemed to eat away at his very being. Tantalus shrieked with surprise and outrage as his flesh boiled away, dissolving into smoke.
Down below, another white light was beginning to build up inside the airship’s barrel, but this one didn’t fire out. It fired up.
Even though he knew it could happen, the severity of the explosion rocked him. The calm control room burst suddenly into blinding light and deafening sound and they were hurled around inside the shield as they tumbled through space.
Fortunately, the princesses’ shield functioned as advertised, protecting them from the damaging effects of the blast. After a few minutes of confused screaming and tumbling, they came to a stop.
The airship was utterly decimated. The gigantic structure lay burning on the ground before them, a huge, gaping hole visible in the smoldering envelope.
“Jigsaw,” Incendia said numbly, “You’re insane.”
Tiptoe began to chuckle, then broke out laughing. Before too long, Jigsaw and Incendia joined in, the laughter growing in intensity until it reached near hysterical levels. Even Celestia allowed herself a smile, though she did say, “That was a foolishly dangerous move. If we’d suffered a direct hit, I don’t know that we would have survived.”
Jigsaw took several deep breaths, tears of relief streaming down his face. “Yeah, but it worked, didn’t it?”
Celestia did a slow 360, searching the skies.
“I suppose it did,” Celestia said. “The shield around the airship would be down, and he would not hesitate to attack us now.”
She smiled a warm, kind grin that reminded Jigsaw somewhat of his mother.
“Congratulations, Jigsaw. That little stunt may well have saved the world.”
At the base of the burning tree, buried under an innocuous mound of dirt, a small, cracked blue gemstone started to vibrate. Golden light flared from its core as the mound collapsed, exposing the gem to the light of day.
The golden light faded to darkness, and a green pulse began to beat softly.
“Can we just take a minute?” Tiptoe suggested, sitting down on the shattered cobblestone. “I need some time to just digest stuff.”
“I’m just happy we’re alive,” Jigsaw said, smiling.
“You know,” Incendia said, still giggling, “I thought I’d seen everything trying to undermine Rubidium’s government, but you’re crazier than I ever was.”
“Payed off, though,” Jigsaw said. “We’re down one airship, but we’re up two goddesses and down one evil god. I’ll count that as a win.”
Incendia and Jigsaw sat next to Tiptoe on the uneven cobblestone and stared at the burning wreckage of the airship and at the dying flames that still licked weakly up the side of the tree.
“Celestia?” Tiptoe said.
The projection of Celestia jumped and turned to face her.
“Didn’t mean to startle you,” Tiptoe said. “I was just wondering… you know, how you’re doing. Luna had some time to adjust to being in Jigsaw’s body before she had to fight.”
Celestia smiled. “I appreciate your concern. The part of my essence that was tapped for so long to power Rubidium’s shield… I’m glad my sister was here to help me recover. I may not have had the power to act as swiftly as I did otherwise.”
“What’s our next move?” Incendia asked the group. “What can we do now that the airship is gone?”
“I guess it’s the same as the old plan,” Jigsaw said. “We just wait for the princesses to recover their full power, manifest fully, then we all storm Tantalus’ lair and destroy his gem. How long do you think it will take you to recover?”
He directed this last sentence towards the pair of alicorns standing awkwardly apart from the group.
“I would guess several days,” Luna said. “We should recover quickly with a host as ideal as you.”
“That’s… good to know, I guess,” Jigsaw said. “You can hide us from detection from Tantalus?”
Luna’s head fell. “I apologize I did not sense him waiting for us here,” she said. “Without my sister, I was… weak. I overestimated myself and put us all in danger.”
“Oh, Luna, you always were too hard on yourself. I’m just glad we’re back together again,” Celestia said, with a warm, motherly smile.
For a moment, the five of them stared out over Ponyville, the three young ponies and the two ageless alicorns, and everything was at peace.
“Wait,” Celestia said, breaking the peaceful silence. “Something’s not right.”
“What is it?” Tiptoe said anxiously.
“I sense it too,” Luna said slowly, “but it couldn’t be. He would not be so foolish.”
“He had enough foresight to attack us here,” Celestia countered. “He may be arrogant enough to have brought it with him.”
“Brought what?” Jigsaw said.
In answer, a huge flare of green light burst from the base of the burned-out husk of the tree.
“Oh no,” Tiptoe said, oh, Goddesses! He’s brought the crystal! He’s reforming right now!”
“What do we do?” Incendia said, her normally calm voice quivering with fear.
“Sister?” Luna said, her voice tinged with desperation. “We’re too weak to destroy the crystal.”
“I know,” Celestia said.
“So that’s it?” Incendia said belligerently. “We make it this far, but, ‘nope, the world is doomed because we didn’t think that maybe Tantalus might realize what we’re doing’? That’s bullshit!”
“Incendia, calm down,” Celestia said cooly.
“I will not calm down!” Incendia fumed. “Tantalus destroyed my city. He’s killed millions over the millennia! Probably billions! You’re telling me that once we actually bring the goddesses back from the dead, that’s when we’re doomed?”
“Incendia!” Celestia snapped. “There is a way.”
“Then what is it?” Incendia asked.
“Jigsaw,” Celestia said, turning her gaze in his direction, “did Luna already warn you?”
Jigsaw swallowed. The color seemed to drain from his face.
“Y-yes,” he stammered, “but is that really necessary? I mean, what if I just run into the forest and you hold him off?”
Celestia shook her head. “We would not be strong enough to keep your location secret. He’d find you soon enough.”
“Warned him of what?” Tiptoe said. Her stomach felt as though it had suddenly become weightless.
“I didn’t think it was important,” Jigsaw began, talking quickly. “I didn’t think it would become relevant, but… last night, Luna told me of… the emergency contingency plan. If everything seems like… like it’s going to end badly, there’s a way out. If I willingly sacrifice my life for the princesses, if I give up my life energy for them, they’ll be able to reform instead of fading away.”
A moment of shocked silence followed this announcement, then Tiptoe spoke.
“You— you’re kidding, right?” she said, forcing out a laugh. “You can’t be serious.”
“I’m so, so sorry,” Celestia said, “If there was any other possibility, I would suggest that, but there isn’t. This is the only way I can foresee.”
“I can’t believe this!” Tiptoe shouted, her fear giving way to anger. “You are just as bad as Tantalus! You’re just going to let him die now? After everything he did for you? You’ve been messing around in his head for weeks! We’ve put ourselves in harm’s way more times than I can count trying to save your sorry flanks! Sure, maybe the world is a little safer under your rule, but you’re just as willing to let ponies die to get what you want!”
“Tiptoe,” Jigsaw began, but she continued right over him.
“I’m not sure any of you are worth the trouble! If this is what we have to do to survive, maybe we don’t deserve to!”
Celestia and Luna looked as though Tiptoe had physically hurt them. Jigsaw walked in between them.
“Tiptoe, you know that’s not fair. They were forced into this, and if there was any other way, they’d take it. Trust me, they’re in my head. This wasn’t entirely unforeseen, and… I’ll do it.”
Jigsaw’s stomach felt as though it was boiling. Every muscle in his body, ever fiber of his being was screaming at him to run, to get as far away as he possibly could, but he forced himself to remain still.
“What… Jigsaw, no, you can’t!” Tiptoe screamed. Tears began to flow, hot and wet, down the side of her face.
“I can and I have to,” Jigsaw said. Behind him, the green mist pouring out of the gem began to coalesce and was forming the outline of a reptilian skeleton.
“I don’t want you to go,” Tiptoe whispered.
Jigsaw leaned close and kissed her. For that moment, the rest of the world melted away, and it was just him, just him and Tiptoe, and he became painfully aware of the life he wasn’t going to live with her.
“I love you,” he said. “Don’t ever forget that. Be happy. Goddesses, I love you.”
Despite his best effort, tears began to well up in the corners of his eyes. His legs began to tremble as his fear began to show.
“Incendia,” Jigsaw said, turning away from Tiptoe, “it’s been an honor travelling with you. Take care of Tiptoe for me.”
Incendia nodded and swallowed hard. “You’re the bravest pony I’ve ever met, Jigsaw,” she said. “Godspeed.”
“Celestia, Luna” Jigsaw said nodding to each of them.
“You’ll never be forgotten,” Celestia said, voice full of conviction. “Not so long as I’m alive.”
“Goodbye, everypony,” Jigsaw said. “It’s been an honor.”
“No!” he heard Tiptoe’s voice shouted as he turned to walk towards the green mist that Tantalus’ still-forming body was encased in.
He glanced back in time to see Incendia embracing Tiptoe as she struggled to get out and run to his side. He turned back towards the mist.
He could feel his heart racing as he walked, pounding against his ribcage as if it wanted to escape from his body and avoid the fate he knew awaited him.
Jigsaw’s eyes were drawn towards a small, green shoot of grass poking up between shattered cobblestone. He noted, with interest, the vines curing around the support structures of the ancient buildings. Distantly, he was aware that Tantalus' skin was closing up over his muscles.
Tantalus stepped out from the swirling mist. His skin was slick and dark, as though he had just stepped out of water. His mouth was twisted into a grin, the rows of razor-sharp black teeth clearly visible.
“I did not expect you to come to me,” Tantalus said. At such close range, his voice was painful in Jigsaw’s ears. “This is perhaps your first intelligent move. You cannot win against me.”
Tantalus leaned in close to Jigsaw, bringing his massive, reptilian head close to Jigsaw. Jigsaw had to fight to keep himself in place. Tantalus’ breath felt searing against his skin and it smelled of burning plastic. His eyes were pits filled with green fire.
“There’s only one thing I don’t understand,” Jigsaw said, fighting to keep the fear out of his voice.
“And what is that?”
“What’s the significance of Rarity?”
Tantalus’ eyes narrowed and his mouth curled into a snarl.
“Your death will be slow,” he hissed, his voice somehow more animalistic and unnatural. “Your friend’s deaths will be slower.”
Jigsaw’s resolve almost broke as one of Tiptoe’s anguished sobs echoed through the ruins, and he reflexively took a step back from Tantalus and towards Tiptoe.
Tantalus’ claw whipped through the air and grabbed Jigsaw around the neck, raising him high into the air.
“I want you to see her face,” Tantalus hissed.
Tiptoe was actively fighting Incendia now, flapping her wings furiously and screaming as Incendia braced herself against the shattered cobblestone, her hooves hooked resolutely under an overhang of rock, forcing Tiptoe to stay rooted to the earth.
“Bear witness!” Tantalus bellowed. “My final victory is at hand!”
Tantalus raised the claw that was not holding Jigsaw and raked a talon across Jigsaw’s chest.
Jigsaw screamed in pain as his skin split. Scarlet blood began to flow, hot and fast, down over his chest, soaking his lower body. He struggled and squirmed in Tantalus’ grip, trying to slip out.
Jigsaw froze as he saw Tiptoe’s eyes grew wide as blood began to flow from his body. Her wings stopped flapping, and Incendia closed her eyes, tears steaming against her coat.
Jigsaw saw her mouth move, but the sound seemed to take a long time to reach him, as though it was being echoed down a long tunnel. His name.
The last thing he was aware of was Tantalus’ claw closing over his head, a sharp shock, and darkness.
Tiptoe watched in silent horror as Tantalus grasped Jigsaw’s head and gave a twist. The snapping sound of Jigsaw’s neck seemed to reverberate through the space. Instantly, Celestia and Luna vanished, popping out of existence as if they’d never been there at all.
Incendia let go of Tiptoe in shock and horror. Tiptoe didn’t attempt to move. They stood, rooted in place, as Tantalus let Jigsaw’s lifeless form slide out of his claw and onto the blood-soaked ground.
“It didn’t work,” Incendia said, staring at Jigsaw’s corpse. “They just vanished. It didn’t work.”
“Jigsaw,” Tiptoe said, her voice unusually small. “No.”
Tantalus began to laugh, a low rumbling that soon built to a hysterical pitch.
“Nothing can stop me now,” he gloated. “The self-proclaimed princesses are dead, and the world is left to me!”
Incendia took a shuddering breath, and her horn flared into life. Her coat once more melted into twisting flames, first orange, then blue, then into a white so bright and hot Tiptoe had to avert her eyes.
“How quaint,” Tantalus said. “Even after your last hope has been extinguished, you still hope to fight?”
Incendia responded by letting out an inarticulate, primal scream and charging at Tantalus. She felt an incredible surge of power flowing through her, fueled by her anger and grief, and she directed it at Tantalus.
The stone beneath her hooves began to give way, turning red and molten, as a huge burst of light and heat flew in Tantalus’ direction.
The smug smile dropped off of Tantalus’ face as the fireball raced towards him. He raised one claw and testily sliced through it, diverting its flow around him.
“You dare—” Tantalus began, but Incendia didn’t let up for a second. Tantalus was forced to beat his leathery wings and shoot upward into the air to avoid the barrage of flames.
Incendia’s hooves began to protest— the puddle of molten rock was too hot even for her, but she didn’t notice. She was driven by one single, all-consuming desire: to cause Tantalus as much pain as possible.
One of the bolts of fire caught Tantalus in his left shoulder, the force of the blast knocking him back to the ground. To Incendia’s satisfaction, he let out an exclamation of surprise and anger.
“Incendia!” Tiptoe shouted.
Incendia ignored her, taking the opportunity to blast the momentarily stunned Tantalus with a stream of white flames.
Tantalus regained his wits quickly and stood up, the white flames seeming to do no more than push him back. He inhaled as though to breathe fire, but a sudden shock sent both Incendia and Tantalus tumbling to the ground.
Incendia was thrown out of the puddle of molten rock and the white-hot fire sputtered out as her concentration was broken.
“Incendia! Look!” Tiptoe shouted, pointing her hoof in the direction of the tree.
Incendia glanced in the direction Tiptoe was pointing and the light in her horn extinguished itself. Even Tantalus appeared to be taken aback by what was occurring.
A brilliant, swirling rainbow of colors was flowing from the tip of Jigsaw’s horn, forming a funnel of color that expanded outwards from his body. The ground gave another great heave as a shockwave rippled out from Jigsaw.
“What is this?!” Tantalus roared. He let out a blast of green flames, but when they met the swirling torrent of rainbow light, they sparkled and flared brightly, the flames simply stopping at the border of the light.
“It’s working,” Incendia said in awe. “It’s working!”
The ground began to shake and rumble as the funnel grew in size and brilliance. Inexorably, it advanced upwards, climbing until it was higher than the monolithic tree.
Tiptoe watched, mesmerized, as the sky itself seemed to react to the whirling column of light. Light and color flashed in streaks across the sky, seeming to race towards and into the funnel, until the entire sky was taken up with a patchwork of multicolored lights, snaking across the sky like a ribbon.
Abruptly, the funnel of light flashed and began to race back towards the ground, and a roar so loud and deep Incendia and Tiptoe cringed echoed out through the air, as though the sky itself was being torn.
The light slammed into the ground, leaving behind two balls of light so bright Incendia and Tiptoe had to squint to look directly at it. The lights began to quickly lose brilliance, fading until they resembled the familiar shapes of Celestia and Luna.
“Impossible!” Tantalus wailed. “I killed the host! I saw you vanish! I cannot be beaten!”
Celestia stepped forward, the last of the light fading from her form.
“You always did underestimate them,” Celestia said. “The mortal ponies. You never saw their inherent power.”
“How is this possible?” Tantalus growled.
Luna stepped out of the light next.
“The sacrifice,” Luna said, her voice uncharacteristically fierce. “Jigsaw gave his life to save his friends. To save us. To save everyone on this earth from you. That has power.”
“Power,” Celestia said, extending her wings to their full span, “that we can use.”
She flapped her wings and twisted back through the air, corkscrewing through the air towards the tree.
Tantalus roared and shot another jet of green fire at her, but Luna interceded, her horn flashing and dispersing the blast, seemingly without effort. Celestia touched down at the base of the tree and her horn began to glow.
A small cracked blue gem rose out of the soil, and Tantalus’ eyes grew wide. For the first time, Incendia saw fear in them.
Celestia placed the gem on the ground before her and crushed it with a hoof, shattering the fragile crystal like glass.
For a moment, nothing happened, and the group stood in tense silence. Then Tantalus began to scream.
His voice grew in volume and pitch until it seemed to be the only sound in the world, a sound of pure agony and pain, and the green fire burning in the pits of his eyes faded.
Tantalus’ body slumped to the ground, unmoving.
Incendia barely had time to blink before a small orb of flickering green light rose out of Tantalus’ mouth.
It appeared superficially similar to the fragments of Celestia and Luna they had encountered, but it seemed as though it was constantly bulging and snapping back to a sphere, as though it was fighting against some force that aimed to keep it in shape.
Then, with a loud crack, the orb began to elongate and take on a new shape. Celestia and Luna watched the scene unfold grimly.
The creature touched down on the parched earth. It resembled an alicorn— vaguely. Its neck and legs were hideously elongated. The wings were misshapen and malformed, and the horn bent sharply at the midsection. Its outline appeared fuzzy and shifted constantly.
“It’s good to see you as you once were,” Celestia said, her voice dripping with venom. “Only now, you don’t have any tie to chaos or your host body.”
Tantalus took a step back, small, green fires remaining where his ephemeral hooves touched the ground.
“Do you have any final words?” Luna said, walking to his sisters side.
“Luna,” Tantalus said. His voice seemed to crackle like lightning, but he seemed to has lost his former bass timbre. “We have shared power before. I gave you freedom when your sister sought to imprison you as she did me. Join me once more and we shall rule, together!”
“I have made my choice,” Luna said coolly. “I side with order.”
“Celestia,” Tantalus said, a note of desperation creeping into his voice. “You need me. The world needs me! Without me, there will be no balance!”
“Balance,” scoffed Celestia. “You don’t care for balance. You just care for destruction. You don’t differentiate between what is good and what is evil. You exist to seek imbalance.”
“Goodbye,” Luna said coldly, “and good riddance.”
Their horns began to glow as Tantalus let out an agonized wail. Jets of light shot from their horns and wrapped around him, encasing Tantalus in a cocoon of light.
The cocoon began to shrink, and Celestia and Luna began to chant something— something whose words gave Incendia and Tiptoe a splitting headache and blurred their vision.
When the light had shrunk to a mere pinprick, Celestia and Luna’s head snapped in their direction, and a tiny, glowing sphere surrounded them. Seconds later, the pinprick of light exploded, and Incendia and Tiptoe lost consciousness.
Tiptoe’s eyes fluttered open to see Celestia leaning over her, horn glowing. Her skin felt warm, and she realized Celestia was healing her. With some effort, she raised her head, just in time to see skin close up over a wound in her side.
“What happened?” she said weakly.
“I’m glad you’re awake,” Celestia responded, smiling. “I’m sorry you had to see that. That was… I guess you could call it Tantalus’ death rattle. He’s… he’s not here anymore.”
Tiptoe nodded and began to slip back into sleep, but a sudden thought jolted her upright.
“Jigsaw!” she shouted. Celestia withdrew her head quickly.
“Now, don’t get up so fast, you got pretty knocked around, even with the shield. You need to-“
“Did you bring him back?” Tiptoe asked urgently. “I saw that light coming out of his horn, and you healed me. Surely you can-“
“I can’t,” Celestia interrupted, a sad smile on her face. “Nothing can bring the dead back. Not even my sister or I.”
Tiptoe’s heart felt as though it had dropped into her stomach. Unbidden, tears welled up in her eyes and streamed down her cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” Celestia said. “We all have lost loved ones. He died a hero.”
Tiptoe didn’t say anything for a moment, then managed to choke out, “Is Incendia alive?”
Celestia’s smile wasn’t tinged with sadness this time.
“Incendia!” she called. “Tiptoe’s awake!”
Incendia trotted into view a moment later, her mane tattered and walking with a pronounced limp, but visually no worse for wear. Her expression was a mixture of relief and grief.
Tiptoe stood to her hooves unsteadily and, after a moment, embraced Incendia and began to sob audibly.
“I know,” Incendia cooed, “I know.”
Celestia and Luna glanced at each other.
“Is it time?” Luna said.
“I think it’s greatly overdue,” Celestia said. “Tiptoe, Incendia, you may want to look west.”
Celestia and Luna’s horns began to glow once more. Celestia slowly lowered her horn to the ground as Luna flew upwards.
Incendia gasped at the result. The sun, huge and red in the western sky, began to move. In fits and starts, like an old machine that needed oiled, the sun slipped lower in the sky, until finally, the sun set on Ponyville for the first time in a long time, the dying light casting red streaks over the clouds.
The group sat there, Celestia and Luna staring solemnly at the horizon, Tiptoe weeping silently into Incendia’s shoulder, bearing witness to the end of what had been, after all, a very long day.
One Year Later
The sirens still went off in the morning, even though they didn’t have to. The rising sun streamed in through the window onto Tiptoe’s face as her eyes opened slowly. She still had trouble getting used to seeing the sun move.
As she did every morning, she debated just staying in bed. She had another royal function to attend— nothing to look forward to but a day of Celestia and Luna parading her around Totemhoof’s socialites. She wondered if that was better or worse than the tedium of her day job- managing the weather.
She rolled out of bed and onto the soft cloud floor. She left her royal dress in the closet.
Her breakfast was a simple meal— a selection of fruits and berries she scarfed down quickly. She had made her decision. She wasn’t going to go to the royal function or work.
She left her home and flapped her wings, taking flying up and over the aerial section of Totemhoof. When she saw the hole in the clouds that allowed access to the terrestrial city, she folded her wings in close to her body and dove down.
It was still early in the morning, so she didn’t have to fight against the flood of pegasi that would normally be commuting to the sky to work.
Totemhoof glistened below her, nestled in the shadowed valley. The sun was just beginning to peak over the top of one of the huge hills that surrounded it. The buildings had been heavily modernized in the year since the Day of Rebirth, partially due to Celestia and Luna taking residence in the city, and partially because of the Stalliongrad scientists lending their expertise to the citizens.
Tiptoe touched down in a small, green park, only dimly illuminated by the sun at the early hour. In the center of the park, a small, domed structure stood, a single black-clad pegasus standing guard at the door. At the tip of the dome, a beautiful, golden statue of a pony stood.
Flowers and gifts surrounded the tomb. The floral scent in the space was almost overpowering.
Tiptoe approached the tomb and towards the beautifully carved marble door.
She didn’t need to speak to the guard. He extended a hoof and quickly entered a sequence of numbers into a keypad at the base of the door. The marble door slowly swung inward.
A sarcophagus of solid gold sat in the center of the room, adorned with only a single word: “Jigsaw”.
Tiptoe nodded at the guard and the door slowly swung shut behind her.
“Sorry I didn’t bring any flowers,” Tiptoe said to the sarcophagus. “I didn’t think you’d want any, anyway.”
As she spoke, her voice became more and more strained, but she didn’t cry. She’d learned how to hide the tears.
“I miss you so much,” she said. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about you. Sometimes I wonder if it was all worth it. Maybe we should have just stayed underground and made a life in that subway car or something. It would have been enough, if you were with me. Without you, I’m just… I’m lost.”
Tiptoe jumped as the heavy marble door swung open again and Incendia walked in, a small bag of bright red berries floating in front of her.
“Tiptoe!” she exclaimed. “I’m sorry, I’ll just—”
“It’s okay,” Tiptoe interrupted. “You have just as much a right to be here as I do.”
Incendia shuffled her hooves awkwardly and said, “Thanks. I brought some bloodberries. It’s not much, but… I remembered he liked them when I brought them that once.”
“Seems so long ago,” Tiptoe said wistfully.
“I haven’t gotten to see you in a while,” Incendia said tentatively. “I can’t seem to find you at the royal functions.”
Tiptoe squirmed uncomfortably. She always tried to get out of the functions as quickly as possible— it hadn’t really dawned on her Incendia might be looking for her.
“What have you been up to?” Incendia asked.
“Managing the weather,” Tiptoe said. “Regulating the rainfall on crops and things. It’s an important job. What about you?”
“Manufacturing, mostly. Smithing alloys and other metallurgy. Helping the Stalliongrad refugees integrate.”
“That’s nice,” Tiptoe said, without much feeling.
The silence between them stretched out uncomfortably until Tiptoe said, “How’s your personal life? Found a special somepony?”
“No,” Incendia said quickly. “No, I haven’t. What about…?”
“No,” Tiptoe murmured.
“Tiptoe,” Incendia said, her voice soft, “Are you alright?”
Suddenly, it was as if the year Tiptoe had spent hardening herself had never happened. She broke down, her breath coming in ragged gasps as sorrow overtook her.
“I’m not!” she said, louder than she intended. “I don’t feel happy. That was one of the last things he told me and I’m not doing it! I don’t know how I’m supposed to go on without him! I’m failing him, I’m failing myself and Totemhoof, and I don’t know how much longer I can—”
Incendia interrupted her by gently laying her head across Tiptoe’s neck and gently nuzzling.
“I’m so sorry,” Incendia said. “I know how you feel. There’s not a day that goes by I don’t think about what happened last year. But… you should know I’m always there for you.”
Tiptoe took a deep, shuddering breath, and said, “Thank you. I needed to hear that.”
“Tell you what,” Incendia said, “How about we just skip the royal function altogether today? I’ll go the market, get a lot of tasty food, and we can go back to my place and I’ll cook it up, and we can talk over dinner. Anything you want to talk about. Just the two of us.”
Tiptoe smiled, a real, genuine smile, for the first time in a long time. “I’d like that.”
The sirens went off that night, even though they didn’t have to. Neither of them had any intention of sleeping.