Twilight paced back and forth across the carpet of the throne room. “I need to go after them,” she said.
“But you heard what the princess said!” Spike said. “It's too dangerous!”
“Yes, I know what she said, Spike, it's just-” Twilight stomped her hooves in place. “I'm a princess now too! Isn't this my responsibility? And you saw Lady Falalauria's message. She seemed desperate! There's got to be some way I can help.”
“I don't know,” said Spike. “If Princess Celestia thought you could have helped, I'm sure she would have let you come.”
“Maybe she just didn't want me to slow her down,” Twilight said. “If-”
“If this is so urgent, she needs to be there quickly, and I can't fly, so she thinks I wouldn't have been able to come with her in time.”
“Well... yeah,” said Spike, “she's right.”
Twilight Sparkle grinned triumphantly. “But Princess Celestia doesn't know how much better at teleporting I've gotten. I kept meaning to show her, but she's always put it off. Learning that deer method from Rarity has really improved my distance and efficiency! And now-” she stomped her hoof. “Now I know I can make it to the Archback Mountains! And I will! Come on, Spike, hop aboard. We're going after the princess.”
“Spike,” Twilight said sternly, “Princess Celestia may need our help. I'm going to go help her however I can. You can come or not. What do you say?”
Spike fidgeted in panic. Would he really disobey a direct order from the Princess? He... he... he sighed. “I won't let you go off by yourself,” he said. “If something happened to you while I wasn't there I'd never forgive myself.” He dashed to Twilight's side and hopped onto her back. “But are you sure your teleportation can make the distance?”
“Not all in one go,” said Twilight. “Three or four jumps ought to do it.”
“But that'll drain your magic circuit!” Spike said. “You won't have enough strength to help with whatever the problem is when you get there!”
“Leave that to me, Spike,” said Twilight. “Just hold on tight.” Spike clenched his claws around Twilight's back, so she took a few deep breaths. She did as Rarity had instructed her those few years ago: she tried to put into her mind, not the sight of her location, but the touch of it. She imagined rock beneath her hooves, cold mountain air on her wings, snow falling gently on her flanks. Then she took a step- and vanished.
She reappeared an instant later high in the Drackenridge Mountains. At the very summit of the cold peak, near the roof of the world, she could just peer out beyond the mountain range to an endless-seeming field of golden grass. She concentrated on that now. She imagined the feel of grass beneath her feet- but it was old grass, long ago harvested and bereft of its freshness. She imagined the sensation of deep structure beneath that grass, and she imagined height once more, though not nearly so high as she was right now. And she imagined the sensation of endless space around her. She took a step-
And appeared atop the golden roof of Thatchholm, ancient dwelling of the Lords of Gildedale. She was roughly in the middle of the great country, with fields stretching every direction around her. Twilight was breathing hard, her small chest heaving in and out. But she took a deep gulp of air and steeled her resolve. She imagined herself next standing amid branches and leaves. She could feel the uneven splay of treetops around her hooves, noted how she would be at an odd angle no matter how she came out. She could even feel the sunlight colored green from leaf shadows. She took a step-
Now Twilight was standing amidst the upper canopy of the trees of the Shimmerwood. Her horn began to itch terribly from all the magic in the air, her insides drinking deep from the well of power the deerfolk had dug. It steadied her stomach a little, though she was still woozy and close to vomiting. Her coat was slick with sweat.
“Twilight?” Spike asked, feeling her sway where she stood. “Are you okay?”
Twilight shook her head. “I'm fine, Spike,” she said. “Just one more...” She swallowed her bile and focused. She imagined rock beneath her hooves again, but this was different rock, harder, sharper rock. And she imagined feeling the magic of the Archbacks' leyline rising up into her body. Crisp, cold air blew around her in her mind. She took one final step-
At long last, Twilight popped into existence amidst the peaks and vales of the Archback Mountains. She immediately collapsed to the ground, sending Spike tumbling down with her. She was breathing hard, and even harder she was trying not to be sick. She forced herself back to her wobbly hooves, tottering forward, nearly falling with every step.
“Twilight!” Spike cried. “Are you okay?”
“N-no...” Twilight mumbled. Her violet eyes flitted over the landscape. They lit up. “But I will be...” and she hurried toward a great bunch of greenery nearby. Coming closer, the growing things revealed themselves to be flowers. Specifically, they were deep purple flowers, and their petals formed a star shape. Twilight bent low and snare one with her teeth, chewing and swallowing as best she could.
Instantly she felt a little better, the emptiness in her spirit becoming noticeably less. She ate another flower, and her weakness cleared away, leaving only normal vitality. When she ate a third of the flowers, incredible, billowing strength flooded her body, to the point where she thought she could have fought King Sombra single-hoofed. She used this new magical vigor to pulse a wave of healing spells through her body, clearing up any lingering trouble from her teleportation.
“Beneviolets!” Spike cried, coming close.
“Yep!” Twilight Sparkle said. “I knew they'd be nearby, and I knew eating a few would have me feeling all better. Now come on, let's go find the princess.”
Twilight swept her head from side to side as they hurried through the mountains, her horn pulsing with seeking magic. She had been so close to Princess Celestia for so long that her magical signature was very familiar- and she was so powerful that to any basic scanning spell she stuck out like a sore horn. Sure enough, Twilight soon picked up on the massive spike in magical power, her horn drawing her through a tall passage between two soaring cliffs. She then turned right and headed up a steep switchback path, Spike holding onto her tail to steady himself and keep from falling off. As they drew nearer to the source of the magic, Twilight's horn began to throb from the sheer amount of power she was feeling. She had assumed that, given the combined presence of the Princess, Lady Falalauria, and Sir Clive, the magic she felt would be considerable. But not like this. It actually hurt her brain to take it all in.
Twilight nearly fell off the side of the slope. Subconsciously her wings began to flap, steadying her and allowing her to get her footing again. She looked up, and she could actually see the air shake.
BOOM BOOM BOOM
The very sky was quaking from the pounding. She could see it shimmer, get lighter and whiter, as if something heretofore invisible were being revealed. “We have to hurry, Spike!”
“Y-you d-don't have to t-tell m-me that!” Spike said, his voice shaking as the mountains rocked back and forth. “Just 'port us up there!”
“You're right,” Twilight said. “They're at the top of this path somewhere. Hop on!” Spike did so, and Twilight focused one more time. She focused on the feeling of the ledge above, of the dirt beneath her hooves, of the crisp air, and she took a step.
She reappeared on a large, broad, flat landscape, stretching for miles in either direction. It was a gap between the peaks in front of her and the peaks behind her, a valley, but a raised one. And in the distance she could see three figures standing and watching as-
BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM
-as the world shook and the sky shimmered. Twilight took advantage of the chaos to gallop closer, still trying to be as quiet as she could. At last she reached a large boulder just about a dozen feet behind the three. Celestia and Clive were there, as well as- Falalauria! She was even bigger than she had looked in the message, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the princess. They were speaking loudly, to better be heard over the pounding on the world, so when all was still, Twilight could hear them plainly.
Judging by Celestia's shallow breathing, she must have just arrived. Falalauria turned to her and said, “Hantale lyen tulië.”
“Mane ne raicë?” Celestia responded, and after that there was a long stream of words that flowed and swirled like clear water.
“They're speaking Laewtil- old deerish!” Twilight whispered.
“Can you understand them?” Spike asked.
“Maybe,” Twilight said. “I'm good at Laewtil, I swear, but they're talking so fast!”
“Just cast a translator spell!” Spike hissed. “We don't want to miss too much.”
“But I know I can-”
“Oh, fine,” Twilight sighed. She thought up the spell in her mind, and her horn glowed. Pink bubbles like blown bubblegum began to sprout in their ears, blowing bigger and bigger, until they finally popped.
“- and so I ordered my deer to evacuate,” Falalauria said, her voice clear and lovely even translated. She raised her head slightly, her dark eyes widening. “The Shimmerwood is nearly empty now, thank the Wills.” Twilight and Spike leaned closer to get a better glimpse of everyone. When Twilight got a good look at Falalauria's eyes, she gasped. They weren't just dark, they were black as an abyss, and in them, dozens of tiny pinpricks shone, so that her eyes seemed to be windows to a perpetual night sky.
“Quite a precaution,” Clive said. “Are you sure it's warranted?”
BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM
The whole Archback Mountain range quaked, knocking Twilight off her hooves and Spike off his feet. The three great beings beyond the boulder kept their footing, but only barely.
“You feel it, don't you?” Falalauria said. “Such power.”
“I do,” said Celestia. “What is it?”
Falalauria sighed. “Nearly the end of everything.”
BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM
“Lala...” Celestia said gently, her voice dropping so that Twilight had to strain to hear. “What's wrong? I need to know exactly what we're dealing with here.”
“Do you recall the magical barrier over the Archback Mountains?” Falalauria said. “You can see it now, since it's being so heavily pressured.”
Twilight looked up into the sky. Sure enough, a sheen of brilliant white seemed to shine in the sky, stretching from the mountains high up into the air. As she watched-
BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM
As she watched, it flickered and pulsed from stress. Twilight bounced her own magical senses off it, and she could tell it was buckling under strain.
“Of course, I've always known about it,” said Celestia. “It wraps around the whole of the Broken Lands.”
“Do you know why it was erected? Why the Deer Elders put it up, all those millennia ago?”
BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM
Twilight stifled a gasp as she saw the flickering white surface begin to crack. The mountains were rocking like a ship at sea.
“I always assumed it was to keep trespassers out of the Broken Lands,” Celestia said.
“Yes,” said Clive, “to keep the curious and the mischievous from harming themselves on the dark power still lingering.”
A long, sharp crack ran down the middle of the sky.
Falalauria sighed. “No, Tia. The barrier wasn't to keep creatures out. It was to keep something in.”
With a final, terrible quake, the shimmering barrier shattered. Enormous chunks of what looked like glass could briefly be seen tumbling to earth, but before they reached the ground they vanished. Past the space where the barrier had been, Twilight saw a field of gray smoke, wispy, cloudy, ephemeral. It leaked across the open space, swallowing up the peaks behind it, oozing over the rocky ground.
“Have courage,” said Falalauria, as magic began to swirl around her antlers. “The fight ends well for us- this time.”
“Fight?” Celestia gasped, and magic also started to swirl around her horn. Clive's horns likewise came alive with magic, and Twilight got yet another shock. The magic that they used was swirling, golden, glinting, almost slushy. It was like whitewater rapids set ablaze.
Battle magic!, Twilight thought, with awe and horror. It was magic engineered only for destruction, bursts of power that in the right hooves could level cities. It was illegal in Equestria- but of course the princess would know it, wouldn't she? And- but then her thoughts screeched to a halt. She could hear hooffalls. Very slowly, very gently, the sudden quiet of the mountain range was broken by the clop-clop-clop of hooves upon the stone. Twilight and Spike held their breaths. From the gray fog there came a shadow, one that clarified itself as it emerged from the murk of the clouds.
It was a deer. A big deer- as big as Falalauria, at least. Its body was lean and rickety, thinned with the passage years and the torment of a hard life. It was black, as black as pitch. Its antlers were not like Falalauria's with their proud and sturdy tines. Instead, its antlers seemed to be nests of thorns on thick branches, springing out at odd angles to end in bunches of small points. One set of points rose off each antler just above its head, in a way that reminded Twilight vaguely of a crown.
Its eyes, however, were not black. They were red, deep, infinite red, with no pupils or irises she could see, and they shone across the gap between it and her. They reminded her of something she had dreamed long ago, something from the depths of her fevered nightmares. She chanced a lean further outward- she pulled back abruptly, breathing hard. “What?” Spike whispered. “What is it?”
“I...” Twilight said softly, more frightened than she had ever been before. She swore the eyes had looked at her for a moment.
“That's enough, dark one,” said Falalauria, her voice ringing clear across the empty plains. “This far and no further. Turn back while you can.”
Twilight and Spike dared to peek out again. She saw the black deer work its mouth awkwardly, and it might have been her imagination but she swore she saw dust billowing from between its jaws. There was another part of it that was not black: its teeth, which were a dull gray-white and vaguely pointed.
The black deer coughed. It coughed again. It coughed a third time. Then it spoke. “Why, look who it is,” it said. “The half-breed.” Its voice was low and thick, like a viper's hiss.
“I said turn back!” Falalauria cried, and Twilight thought she heard her voice shake. “Turn back or be vaporized!”
“No,” said the black deer, its voice growing stronger with each word, “no, I don't think I shall. I've spent all these years banging at the doors, first of my enclosure, then of the barrier erected around my old kingdom. Now the walls have all come down. I am free, half-breed, and I'll not go back in my cage so easily.”
“It is not a request,” said Falalauria. “Do as I say or-”
“Or what?” the black deer sneered. “You'll kill me? You don't have the power. You did not have the power a thousand years ago, and this time, Giovanni and Glorfindel are not here for you to hide behind.”
“I am not without allies, as you can see,” said Falalauria.
“Ah yes, these,” said the black deer, nodding its head from side to side. “A pronghorn of inferior breeding, and...” it took a step forward, red eyes fixed on Celestia. “Why, what is this? Surely not a horse. The hindquarters are all wrong. Not-” A rumble rippled through the air. The black deer was laughing. “Not a pony, is it? It is! A pony, grown so tall and strong? Who could imagine such a thing. A unicorn and a pegasus in one, also? And do I smell-” a sniff rose on the air- “divinity? There are god-ponies now? By the Wills, how long have I been imprisoned?”
“Not long enough!” Falalauria cried. “I don't know how the bindings the Elders put on you were broken, but your freedom ends here! Begone!”
“Leave at once,” Celestia said.
“Do you even know my name, god-pony?”
“No,” said Celestia, “nor do I care. I think I know what you are, and that is enough for me. Know my name, though: I am Celestia, begot when the world was reborn, Regent of the Sun, Princess of Equestria! I carry the Light Eternal in my heart, and your darkness has no place in this reality!”
“Celestia? A lovely name,” said the black deer. “Now for mine: I am-” he started to speak, but his voice became mangled, words unable to emerge from the jumble of sounds.
“Ha!” Falalauria cried. “That is one bit of old magic that has held. The Elders stripped your name from the world they first time they imprisoned you. You can never again use it to rally dark forces.”
“A pity,” said the black deer. “Well then I shall once more be called-” again his words did not come.
“They stripped both your names.”
The black deer's eyes narrowed. “And what of it? What's in a name? If my old ones are denied me, I shall simply choose a new one, one that all the world can bow to.”
“This is all a bluff, of course,” said Clive, speaking for the first time. “Do you think we can't see your condition? Ragged and ruined, your long slumber has taken its toll on you. You're in no shape to fight. Surrender for your own survival.”
“Indeed,” said Falalauria. “You're not capable of fighting even me- never mind my allies.” She narrowed her starscape eyes. “What say you, then? Will you turn back?”
The black deer was silent for a moment. Its head bobbed from side to side, red eyes burning. “No,” he said. “No, I shall not. What I shall do is, I shall kill you, half-breed. Then I shall kill the pony-god and the pronghorn with you. Then I shall make my way down to that forest below the mountains, and I shall kill everything I encounter. Next I shall make my way across those golden plains in the distance, killing everything in my path. And on, and on, and on I shall go, until the whole of the world either bends or bows or breaks.” He smiled. “First things first, though.”
Twilight Sparkle's horn pulsed with feedback as the black deer began to gleam. Red power swirled around its antlers, and the ground shook. Twilight's stomach dropped as she felt unholy strength mustering not a hundred feet from her. The ground quaked from the gathering power.
Then it began to shake even harder, and Twilight knew it wasn't the black deer's doing. Indeed, he stopped his swirling power and turned along with Celestia, Clive and Falalauria to glance far to the right. Spike and Twilight followed, and Twilight's eyes bulged. The ground was coming apart about a mile away. The rock broke and shattered, revealing jet black skin made of scales the size of Ponyville. “Oh, not again...” Twilight sighed.
The world snake hurtled skyward, coming to a stop miles above their heads. Its huge snout whipped back and forth at unsettling speed, four green eyes gleaming as it sought what had disturbed it. It gave a chest-rattling sniff, flicked out its mile-long tongue, and seemed to focus right where all the creatures were gathered. It reared back, and before any of them could move, it struck, hurtling downward like the biggest and fastest of trains-
But its charge was halted. It screeched to a stop a few hundred feet above them, huge head shadowing the vicinity. That head was suddenly wrapped in rings of red light, and when Twilight glanced across the rocky plain she could see the black deer's antlers billowing with magical red flames. Falalauria, Celestia, and Clive were shocked into silence.
“That is enough of that, I think,” said the black deer. It tilted its head to the side as it peered up at the world snake. “I know you...” its red eyes narrowed. “Titan. Primordial. Balance-Weight of the World. And... liberator! Yes, it was your thrashing about several years ago that first cracked my prison. I have you to thank for my present freedom- well, you and whatever it was that upset you.”
Twilight and Spike shared a glance of horror. They were both thinking the same thing.
“And you can be one thing more for me now: lunch.” With that, the black deer's eyes pulsed, and it began to... expand. Twilight couldn't see clearly from the distance, but it seemed to grow and change and swell. It became something not a deer, something Else, something Other. The shadows grew around it. Infernal whispers lifted on the wind.
“Now!” Falalauria cried. “Now, while he feeds! Before he can drink too deeply!” Her antlers flashed and a blaze of light erupted in space. Celestia's horn pulsed golden and the earth shook from the power she unleashed. Clive's horns sizzled with lightning; from the heavens bolts snaked down, merging with the two expulsions of magic and setting them both ablaze with crackling light.
When the brilliance cleared, however, it had all been for naught. A dome of shadow swathed the black deer, and though it fizzled away almost as soon as Twilight saw it, it had done its job. The world snake, when Twilight glanced back up at it, looked... old. Its black scales had faded to deep gray, and when it opened its mouth (to whimper, in a noise that shook the peaks) its fangs seemed blunter.
“Done!” cried the black deer, in a voice much stronger than it had used previously. The rings of red light vanished from around the world snake's head, and it began to drift backwards, still whimpering. It reared back with much less vigor than it had the first time. “That's all I need from you, mindless thing. Begone!”
A blast of red light filled all of space around Twilight. She could hardly see anything; everything was enveloped in crimson radiance. It would have been beautiful if it had not been horrifying. The world snake's body was barely visible as a black shadow being hurled back. The light at last dissipated to reveal the world snake's body- and only its body. Twilight was sick with horror. The world snake's head was gone. Not burned, not blasted- gone. Black smoke billowed from its empty neck as its body plunged backwards, back and down, down and down, until it crashed across the miles of peaks with an earth-breaking BOOM.
Twilight and Spike shared another terrified glance. They looked back around their boulder, and Celestia, Falalauria, and Clive looked likewise. The black deer was no longer ragged and gaunt. He- for it was clearly a he now- had a thick neck, sturdy limbs, a stout torso, and mighty antlers. He looked healthy and vibrant, like a bull in the prime of a rut. When he smiled, his teeth were stark white... and razor sharp. “Now,” he said, “where was I?”
Crimson fire blazed upon his antlers. The mountains shook. Small rocks and dust began to rise off the ground. The three magical allies opposite him readied themselves.
Twilight and Spike shared a final glance. They nodded to each other. Twilight's horn came alight with power, while Spike spat a tongue of green fire. What could they do? They had no idea. But they had to do something. They had to-
“Twilight Sparkle. Spike the dragon.”
They whirled. “Princess Luna!” Twilight exclaimed, for there was Celestia's sister, coat deep blue, mane and tail a billowing azure nebula.
“You have seen enough, methinks,” said Luna. “I shalt remove you to safety.”
“No!” Spike cried.
“We want to-”
But those were their last words. Luna's horn shimmered blue, and with that, both Spike and Twilight Sparkle vanished on the spot.