Darrilon’s brief taste of victory turned to ashes in his mouth. “Ma’am, I was only—I mean, you were…”
“You’ve been pushing yourself too hard lately, Captain. Sometimes I forget how much of a strain this kind of schedule can be on the Guard.”
Darrilon didn’t like where this was going. “Ma’am, I assure you I can handle—”
“You need some time off. I insist. For next Tuesday’s run I’ll use Thistlefell as my sole guard. You can have the day off.”
Darrilon stumbled, losing his gait for a moment. He had failed. He had thought he was proving himself, but all he had done was give Celestia another reason to get rid of him. He would spend next Tuesday exiled from her majestic presence. Alone.
The setting sun touched the mountain tops ahead. An evening gloom gathered, chilling the air to match the darkening sky. Maybe if he smoothed things over with Luna, Celestia would take him back. With the difference in their schedules though, he hardly ever saw Celestia’s younger sister, and he doubted Princess Luna even knew his name. What could he say to her to apologize for what he had done? He needed to come up with something quickly, for his job depended on it.
The stratospheric cloud layer which moments ago had been an open aerial field now roiled with dangerous divots, snags, and plateaus. Darrilon slowed to a trot, inspecting the unusual meteorology. It had been years he’d done any weather-working, but a pegasus always knows which way the wind is blowing.
A steady, unchanging breeze flowed from the northeast, turning south. Wind was usually a more capricious phenomenon, constantly changing from moment to moment. Darrilon lifted his nose, sniffed the air and triangulated. This was more like some sort of vortex. From miles around, the lines of the cloud ridges converged to one spot, directly over Trottington, the city they had visited earlier today.
Darrilon gestured, pointing out the vortex to Celestia, and they adjusted course, flying down to the outskirts of town. He had no idea what they would find there—these clouds were unlike anything he had seen before.
Trottington was being demolished.
It was hard to believe that hours earlier this was the site of a thriving, prosperous village, because now it was a challenge to find a single home still intact. The streets were littered with overturned carts and carriages squashed flat. Of the beautiful grandstand, where hours earlier Darrilon had been dazzled by an avant-garde light show, only one section remained standing, with the rest reduced to scrap lumber. Raging at the epicenter of the destruction was a nightmarish creature, a monster formed out of water, so tall it reached the clouds.
The water swirled up from streams, from the dammed river used to power the stage show, and from the saturated ground itself. These tendrils merged into a spinning column, squat at the base, tapering slightly as it rose to the sky, like an inverted water spout, fountaining out the top and cascading down the monster’s back in a saurian imbrication. Instead of arms, a ring of tentacles circled the torso, each one barbed with a tip like a flattened spade. Its crude head was a mockery of nature, little more than a gaping maw, a line of foam delineating an angled brow, and two jagged lightning-filled gashes for eyes.
At once amorphous and lethally solid, it grew a tentacle to match the dozen it already had and used it to smash the spectator stands. One brave pony rushed forward to slice through the tentacle with a shovel, but his improvised weapon passed harmlessly through the creature.
Darrilon had no idea how to fight this thing. He didn’t even know if it could be fought. “What is it?”
“It’s called a Maelstrom,” Celestia answered, and for one panicked instant he thought she had read his mind, until he realized he had spoken aloud. “Wind and water, given form and life through magic. In years gone past, it took a half-dozen pegasi and unicorns to complete the invocation.”
The monster roared with enough force to drive the air from their lungs.
Darrilon shifted into crisis mode and started down towards the town below, bracing against the wind. “We have to evacuate the city. I can corral the colts and fillies. You’ll have to return to Canterlot and—"
Celestia blocked him with an open wing. “Our role here is to observe, Captain. Nothing more.”
“But— but the monster!”
“Stand your ground, Captain.”
Never in all his years of service had Celestia given him an order so blunt. It stung like a reprimand. He hesitated, uncertain, but Celestia didn’t lower her wing until he mustered the will to step back.
Was this why she was replacing him? Had he become too familiar with her, acting on his own based on incorrect assumptions?
The scene below was agonizing to watch. He couldn’t identify anypony in charge; the few who hadn’t yet found shelter were fleeing in panic. Another house blew apart, literally exploding from an inrush of water, its timbers popping like bones breaking. Darrilon fought to maintain his footing as the hurricane winds gusted around him. Even Celestia had to take a step back, bracing her wings, and as she did, she brushed Darrilon’s flank with one wingtip—
And the entire landscape wavered and rippled.
Time slowed. The trees which a moment ago had thrashed and convulsed from the gale now swayed in a graceful waltz with airborne debris tumbling lazily by. The freight train noise from the Maelstrom became muffled, as if coming from far away.
The wind, although still there, was more like treacle than air, pushing against him with a slow insistence. He was afraid to move, for fear it would break the magic somehow. Did Celestia know he was caught in her spell?
The colors were muted as well, as if he were now looking through a thick pane of dirty, warped glass. Darrilon could see himself and Celestia without distortion, but the entire town below was slightly fuzzy and indistinct, save for one little pegasus filly: Whitewater, the young pegasus with a talent for splashing water.
She ran from house to shuttered house, seeking a place to hide. He could hear her too, her panicked breaths and pleas for help, as if she were standing beside him. A looming shadow startled her into looking up. The creature was almost on top of her.
She stumbled backward, tripping over the unconscious body of another pony lying on the ground. With a start, Darrilon recognized Jazmataz, the unicorn that had caused her so much trouble earlier. Darrilon had to give her credit—she didn’t hesitate for a moment. Taking her friend’s tail in her teeth, she dragged him backward to the temporary safety of an overturned cart.
The unicorn coughed and opened his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he moaned. “Please, make it stop.”
Whitewater reared back. “Me, make it stop? I’m not doing this!” She peeked around the cart’s edge. “It’s that thing out there!”
Bewildered as to what Celestia’s plan was, he looked over at her, and saw something that shocked him even more than the town’s devastation. Princess Celestia was praying.
“Be strong, my children,” Celestia whispered. “I have played my part and now the stage is yours. Please. Let your hearts guide you.”
To whom does the Goddess pray? She prays to the children.
“It’s your monster,” Jaz insisted, even as Whitewater shook her head in denial. “You made it.” His horn glowed as he cast the spell to charge the ditch water around them with rainbow-colored magic. “It’s why I kept teasing you. I was jealous that you can make the water move like that. But I’m really sorry and I promise I won’t tease you anymore and please make the monster go away!”
The Maelstrom looked down and noticed the two ponies below. Darrilon tensed as the creature raised a tentacle to swat them with a crushing blow. Whitewater looked up and screamed, “No!” her wings beating frantically backward, spraying the ditch water up in a wall… a sparkling wall full of water magic. A golden flash sparked across her barrier, leaving bricks of red stone in its wake. The wall of water had transformed into an actual brick wall!
The Maelstrom’s tentacle crashed into the wall, causing the monster to recoil in pain, even as Whitewater’s barrier collapsed back into a million tiny droplets. The pegasus had only bought them a few moments.
Realization came to Darrilon and Whitewater simultaneously. Her friend was right. She was responsible for it all. Somehow the unicorn magic mixed with her own water shaping talents had created a monster with the power to level a city.
“I did this,” she said.
Darrilon wondered how it had all happened. Maybe another argument had sparked enough subconscious frustration to manifest in this form. Maybe she’d been practicing her part in the show a little too long and didn’t realize what was happening.
He watched her eyes fill with anguish as the full weight of her quandary became clear. She could fight the Maelstrom and use her talents against her own creation, but to do so she would have to admit, to herself and everypony else, that she was the one responsible for it in the first place, that she had within her these horrible, destructive forces. She looked left and right, seeing everywhere around her the whole town, destroyed.
“I did this.”
It was an impossible decision for one so young. It’s always easier to curl up in a ball, squeeze your eyes shut and hope the monster goes away. Darrilon had seen colts crack during Guard training when faced with situations nowhere near as intense as this. The sight of that little pony unfurling her wings and raising herself up to face her own rampaging creation thrilled him to his core.
“I did this,” she said, “and I can undo it.”
She braced herself, taking a wide stance, and probed the wind’s fury with her wing feathers. There was something unique in how she was shaping her wings. Some feathers were rigid, guiding the air; others were loose and fluttering. Even though Darrilon could see her with preternatural detail, he knew he’d never be able to duplicate this himself. This special talent was hers alone.
Whitewater snapped her wings forward and down, spinning a pair of vortices which hit the Maelstrom where it connected to the ground. For a moment, the monster didn’t notice. But then a wobble appeared in the monster’s form and its base began to destabilize, the currents of water which formed its shape unraveling. It tried to fight the spreading infection by shifting its mass and reshaping itself, but there was nothing to fight—it was simply dissolving from the ground up. The swirling effect quickly spread upwards, erasing its tentacles, torso, and finally its head.
Just like that, it was gone. Celestia’s spell collapsed and time resumed its normal flow for Darrilon. A clear, cloudless sky stretched across the horizon. The sudden silence left by the monster’s disintegration lasted but a moment, as a pair of songbirds returned to their nest, chirping at each other.
From here it became a standard clean-up and rescue mission, putting Darrilon on the more familiar footing. He and Celestia appeared in the sky over the outskirts of town, “just missing” the great commotion. A crowd of townsponies had gathered around Whitewater, surrounding her, their mood teetering between fear and relief. It was impossible to guess if they were about to congratulate her for saving the town, or lynch her for almost destroying it—so Celestia made sure to set the mood with her own arrival, surrounding herself with a nimbus of magical energy that sparked and sizzled as they descended from above.
“It looks like you put on the most impressive show of all, Miss Whitewater. Everypony here owes you their gratitude,” the Princess said.
“Your Majesty!” the little filly stammered. She had fallen again, weak from exhaustion. Her plumage and coat were a bedraggled, muddy mess. “I didn’t mean— I mean, I didn’t know…”
Celestia flicked her left ear twice, a signal for Darrilon to move forward. He eased his shoulder under Whitewater’s wing, helping her up. She continued to lean on him even as she stood; she was still very much in shock and could collapse at any moment.
“I think we need to get you something warm to eat,” he said, as he helped her away from the crush of the crowd. “Why don’t we find a spot to rest while Princess Celestia talks to your parents?”
Such a strange talent she had. She had immense power, but that power was locked away unless she could find some friends among the unicorns. Her family eagerly accepted Celestia’s invitation to let her train in Canterlot, although Darrilon noted the pride they showed at the royal invitation was tinged with a note of relief, no doubt thinking that the town would be safer if she practiced her new talents someplace far away.
Before Celestia and Darrilon left, they talked with a red and gold stallion who was the forepony in charge of construction for town. “Don’t you worry, ma’am,” he reassured the Princess as they surveyed the damage left by the Maelstrom. “This is nothing. We can have this fixed in no time a’tall. We’ll be ready for opening night.”
Groaning and creaking, the last upright section of the grandstand came crashing down, splattering mud everywhere and forcing Darrilon to shield Celestia behind his outstretched wings. The forepony glared at the ruined structure, daring it to contradict him in front of the Princess. “Opening night,” he repeated. “You have my word.”