Chapter 41: Collapse
“Yes?” The disguised Gareth was turned away from the guard, concentrated on a piece of parchment.
“Something seems to be wrong with the Prince and Princess!”
Starswirl put down his parchment, looking very concerned. “What's happened?”
“I'm not fully sure, but they're unresponsive. I fear it's some sort of spell.”
“Take me to them.”
The two of them took off running, their hoofsteps echoing off of the stone staircase. They made their way to the throne room, not pausing to acknowledge any of the other passersby. They burst into the spacious room, where a large patrol of guards was ready to meet them. When they saw who it was, they stepped aside. Starswirl trotted up to the royal couple. “Princess! Prince! Are you alright?”
As reported, the two did not respond. They seemed fine, physically. They were breathing, blinking, their ears twitched, and all-in-all, they were alive. They were staring intently into each other's eyes. Starswirl frowned, and put a hoof forward to break their eye contact. The royals reacted immediately, letting out audible protests and shifting quickly until they could see each other once more. The same reaction was met on the second and third attempt, until finally, Prince Terra pushed Starswirl aside with quite a bit of force. Starswirl tumbled down a couple of stairs, and Twilight could see the dark smile Gareth hid from the rest of the crowd.
Starswirl got up and dusted himself off. “It appears they've been hexed.”
Some of the guards gasped, while a couple of others simply nodded curtly.
“It looks like Griffon magic. Probably an overpowered love potion. You know how they are with their aphrodisiacs. Never thought they'd use one as a weapon.”
“A weapon, sir?”
“The spell has effectively neutralized these two until we find who administered the potion and ask them just how much of a dose they used. Breaking the spell without full knowledge of its strength could easily kill them both. Did anybody see the perpetrator?”
He looked over the guards. None said anything. Then, his eyes opened wide with surprise. “There he is! Chase after him!”
The guards turned to look, then took off towards the fleeing creature. It was an illusion; Twilight could feel the magical energy leaking off of it. Had the guards stopped to think for a moment, they would have felt it as well, but in the heat of the moment, and the with the need for somebody to blame, caution was forgotten. Interestingly, Gareth had designed its image after the assassin whom he had killed. The illusion ran down the hall and out the front doors. The guards followed suit.
With the guards gone, Gareth turned to the royals. “Nothing personal.” Princess Awyr sighed contentedly. Prince Terra did the same in return.
Gareth pulled down his pointed hat, signature bells jangling. “Time to go start a war. Don't hold up, you two lovebirds.”
With the now familiar transition, Twilight found herself hovering high above a battlefield. Griffon forces beat relentlessly against the Equestrian army, but the Equestrians held firm.
Around Starswirl, mages drew back energy bows, firing magical bolts at the airborne forces trying to flank the infantry. Clouds of dislodged feathers trailed the falling bodies, which crumpled in unseemly and gruesome heaps upon impact. It was then that Twilight remembered; this was before the Forgotten Realm had been split. Each life lost, on both sides, was permanent. Her stomach gave a lurch. She had almost grown accustomed to fighting, but when the stakes were so high... was that really what the reflections wanted? To merge the worlds so their actions would be permanent?
Starswirl ran forward. He stopped in the middle of the fallen bodies, and began archaic murmurings. A red transmutation circle faded into being, each of the bodies at a different vertex in the drawings. One of the griffon above saw what he was doing, and rushed to attack. The infantry backed up to guard Starswirl. The griffon hissed, pulling out of its dive, knowing it could do nothing.
Twilight watched the spell with concern. It wasn't just forbidden, it was inequestrian. Blood magic was certainly one of the most powerful schools of magic, but the very nature of it spread corruption more quickly than it prevented it. Something like the portal she had opened was borderline, and acceptable in dire circumstances, but using the bodies of the fallen to fuel more death was dishonorable.
The soldiers didn't seem to care.
Twilight paused. The books she read that had forbidden the practice made a lot more sense, now that she had learned there were actually bodies to use the power on.
Starswirl's voice rose as he finished the spell. The bodies around him disappeared in a flash of fire. The arcane lines in the transmutation circle glowed brightly, the energy trapped and drawn to the target.
Starswirl began laughing quietly. He rose into the air, his form glowing with the sapped power. He turned his attention to the griffon forces. “Igbu! Soleno! Sa'laska!”
A fireball flew from his form, directly into the front lines of the griffon force. The intense heat ignited the very oxygen in the air upon impact, simultaneously suffocating and incinerating the enemy. Some of those who had been unfortunate enough to not meet a swift end ran out of formation in a blind panic, only to meet the prepared Equestrian infantry. The magical bombardment continued, and within a minute the griffon forces were scattered and retreating.
The force marched forward, methodically picking off the survivors. Starswirl surveyed the battlefield with satisfaction. He turned to the waiting commander. “You can handle the rest from here. I have an appointment to keep.”
He disappeared with a flash. Twilight felt her mind pulled through the teleport. She found herself at the edge of a forest, amongst an even larger group of griffons than the one she had just left. She looked around quickly for Starswirl, but he wasn't to be seen.
There was, however, a large, muscular griffon who seemed to be in charge. “The Equestrians have taken the bait. Let's not let our allies' sacrifice go to waste. CHARGE!” The forces surged forward with a uproar. Their target was an unguarded and unprepared town. The ponies looked up to see the source of the noise, and yelled in terror. The griffon front-runners leaped with predatory precision, breaking necks and tearing skin with ease, children and adults alike. The blood rage begun, the griffon's calls turned into incoherent screeches. A squad flew overhead, cutting, spotting runners and cutting them off. There could be no call for backup.
Buildings went up in flame as incendiary grenades were tossed through windows, torching anypony who thought they'd escape notice by hiding. The 'battle' was over quickly. Bodies were gathered and feasted upon in ritualistic fervor.
The looted goods were gathered together, counted, and split equally. “Hit 'em where it counts. Without this trade route, the Equestrians will fall within a month.”
“Yeah, but that's only if we keep them at bay. We'd be fine one versus one, but that mage of theirs, what's his name? Skytwist the mustached? He's ripping through our forces.”
“All it will take is one of us to destroy him.” The muscular commander intercepted the conversation. “If but one griffon claw gets his throat...” The commander made a slicing sound. “That's the end of their advantage.”
“Should we send in assassins?”
“I'll bring it up with the council, but I wouldn't be surprised if they agree. You guys can handle the rest, yes?”
“Of course, commander.”
There was another teleport, and Twilight followed once more. The griffon was standing on a stone path in a dark forest, stretching his neck. With a casual snap of his fingers, his body flashed into Discord's, or rather, Gareth's. He whistled a cheerful tune as he strolled up the stairs in front of him.
A shadowy figure was waiting for him at the top. How did your efforts go?
“Do you ask because you don't know or you want me to say it?”
“Ah, ambiguity. Well, I've done as you've asked. War has begun. All it took was a little push. Soon enough, one of the griffons will assassinate 'Starswirl the Bearded' and the griffon commander will fall in battle. Then I can be done with the entire business.”
So, you wish to claim your reward?
“I've done as I was told, yes?”
Indeed, you have fulfilled your side of the bargain.
“Then yes, I want my reward. Give me the knowledge of and the power to perform a resurrection ritual.”
Come with me.
The Metaspectre turned away, walking across the plateau. Discord and the shade Twilight followed.
Thael stepped behind the altar. He placed a hand into his chest, pulling out the seven glowing orbs that constituted his soul. He placed them back into the grooves on the altar.
Stand at the base of the altar.
Gareth did as he was told.
Gareth, I bestow upon you a fraction of my power. The Metaspectre retrieved a black sword, whose blade was almost certainly the same material that the altar and towering crystals behind it were made of. With a pass of Thael's hand, the blade was pulled free of its hilt, and then ripped apart at a sub-atomic level. The condensed energy greatly overpowered the humming of the crystals and the ambient noise of the forest, but Thael's voice remained as calm and controlled as ever.
This power is yours to use or to abuse. It can either create or destroy, and it provides the gateway to your lost wife.
Thael gestured outwards with both hands. A simple, square mirror materialized, big enough for two normal sized creatures to stand on. Take this.
Yes, a mirror. Nothing special about it. No special properties, besides its dimensions. Go to a solitary place, place it on the ground facing the heavens. Look into the mirror, and meditate about the one you've lost. Everything about them; good and bad. Try to create an image so real, and so dear, you'd do anything to have them again. Then pour your energy into the mirror, and if the spirit is willing, a rip will appear to the spirit world, and they will come through, the energy you've expended forming their renewed body. But if they are not willing, the energy will reflect back into you, and you'll simply have lost time.
“Why don't more people know about it? Use its power?”
It demands total dedication and a steel resolve. Many don't have it, so it's been written off as a false lead. And those who succeed are often more concerned about their renewed relationship than scientific discovery. The sake of science isn't enough of a motivation.
“Hm. So... I'm free to go?”
Indeed. You don't have to speak to me ever again, unless you wish. You have been given your power, as you have carried out your part of the bargain. I wish you luck in your endeavors.
No, thank you.
With that, Gareth walked away. At the base of the stairs, he stepped off of the path, trudging through the undergrowth. Twilight prodded his thoughts, to see what he was thinking. She was surprised to find that besides simple reactions like “branch, side step. Root, step over,” there wasn't much going on. He was keeping his mind blank.
About ten minutes of traveling later, which happened very quickly for Twilight, he reached a clearing, dimly lit by the moon and the stars above. With some hesitation, he placed the mirror on a particularly flat piece of ground, taking care to remove the little pebbles underneath it.
He stood on the mirror, mismatched feet unsteady at first. He did not yet, however, look into the mirror, instead allowing his eyes to wander along the treeline.
“Do you remember, dearest? How we used to laugh together? How we talked about the future? How we hadn't a care in the world, knowing, somehow, that everything would turn out for the best? Funny thing about fate. Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can come together. I hope we're about to move on into better times. I'm not certain how much more I could take, without you.”
He took a deep breath, reading the required power. He tried to look at the mirror, but he was obviously struggling to face his fears. With a surge of willpower, he stared himself down. He recoiled in disgust. “Is... is this what I've become?”
He held out his hands, still glowing in the magical aura. “Deep down, I knew, but this...” He clenched his fists. “This is a body my dearest Gilda could never love. I can change my form, but deep down, this is what I am. More importantly, I'll always have the mind that caused me to do this. I've been so selfish this whole time. She told me to forget, but I couldn't. Despite all my power, I'm more weak now than I was when I was nothing more than a doctor. At least I could save lives. I fear I only remember how to end them.”
He chuckled quietly, falling to his knees, the aura of defeat almost tangible. The prepared magic fizzled out as his body shook with emotion. “Why do I still live? Why me, and not her? She did nothing wrong. It should have been me. It should have been me!” He stood suddenly, smashing the mirror with the force of his movement. He stared at the shining, shattered shards, eyes full of awe and a tinge of malice. “Seven years bad luck, right? Well, who says it has to be me? I'll finish what I've started. Start a war? I'll take the throne. They'll know my pain. All shall be subject to Gareth's -no, that's not who I am anymore- to Discord's whim. Change will be the only constant. The world needs to be mixed up, for to live as it has would doom more to my fate. The loss of what they hold dear because somebody else thought their views were worth another's personal freedom.”
A calm, collected smile grew across his face, and despite his monstrous features, he looked almost peaceful. “Out of chaos comes order. Chaos can not last forever, for eventually it will run out of fuel. I know this is a suicide mission. But whoever can overthrow me will be righteous, and have the divine right to rule. I will not allow myself to be defeated by the power-hungry, but my soul stands no chance against the lawful protectors.”
Once more he turned to the shattered mirror. “You know what dear? Sometimes good things do fall apart so better things can come together. I'll see you someday.” He bowed his head solemnly, then turned from the clearing without another word, whistling a quiet, cheerful tune.