The train pulled into the Canterlot station with the shriek of grinding metal as the bright, afternoon sun shined down in a surreal contrast to tense silence inside. Normally, a train coming from Ponyville should have been full of chatter and laughter as the little town’s travelers disembarked at their final stop in the glorious Equestrian capitol. However, a brief conversation with the station master involving both marshal emblem and Celestia’s personally sealed missive had resulted in one egregiously off-schedule departure not five minutes later. Thus, the seven sojourners aboard sped off as fast as an engine brim-full of coal could run as anxiety pressed on their minds and silenced their tongues.
Cabin doors slid open with a hydraulic hiss and the six girls plus one soldier quickly stepped out onto the empty station platform. Or, almost empty.
“Twilight Sparkle and company?” a lone guardsman in golden armor called out from the cleared platform. “Princess Celestia is waiting. If you would please follow me...”
Quick glances between friends conveyed the same shared sense of unease. The princess had summoned them before of course, but never by awaiting military escort, so it was with growing apprehension that the Ponyville troop boarded the carriages waiting outside and clattered off towards the royal palace.
As they quickly pulled into one of the castle’s many courtyards, the foreboding knots in their stomachs wound a little tighter as they laid eyes on a dizzying flurry of hubbub and activity. Guardsmen were everywhere, dashing to and fro in regimental formation and carrying with them weapons and supply crates as an equal number of liveried servants ducked in between with armfuls of who knows what else. There was noise and confusion enough to match a Saddle Arabian bazaar, but through it all ran a clear sense of purpose. People may have been scurrying as fast as two legs could carry them, but it was always with a definite reason in mind.
At the sight of the Ponyville company, a squad of nearby soldiers came forth and continued the hurried escort along into the palace, clearing a path through the throng to hasten their way. In a much shorter time than the throngs would have suggested, the seven were brought before the grand audience chamber and showed inside, where–
“–and I want you and Colonel Shadow Strike to begin mobilization along the west coast immediately,” Luna commanded, her regal voice echoing through the vaulted hallway. “We’ll be relying on him and Blitzkrieg to bolster the eighth and ninth sections of the eastern wall should reinforcements fail to arrive. At that point, they will be the eastern wall. Is that understood?”
“Ma’am, yes ma’am!”
“Good. Now go. You all know your orders.”
With a quick salute of fist over heart, the cadre of stern faced officers took up their plumed helms and strode out of the hall, those with power armor not even waiting for the open skies before unfurling rune frame wings and taking flight. The ones that passed each gave the new arrivals a look over, appraising them with the sharp, caustic scrutiny the military types seem to do as second nature. It wasn’t clear what they thought, but the lack of change in expression couldn’t have been good.
“Princess Celestia?” Twilight called. “Is… everything all right?”
From her seat next to Luna at the large conference table, the solar sovereign looked up from her stack of reports, the aurora of her hair flowing to an invisible breeze as she gave a smile of obvious relief.
“Twilight, thank goodness you’re here,” she called as she quickly stood up to receive Twilight in a tight embrace.
“Yo, princesses, what’s all this about?” Rainbow Dash called as she turned from making faces at the last exiting officer. “Don’t tell me that Discords weird little message got you all freaked out or anything.”
“As strange as it is fer me tah say it,” Applejack chimed in, “Dashy here’s makin’ a whole heap ah sense. Discord’s more crooked than a dog’s hind leg. There’s no way tah tell what’ll come outta that mouth of his.”
“I am aware of that, of course,” Celestia nodded as her brow furrowed in concern, “but there are times where even Discord wouldn’t dare to speak anything but the truth. I believe this is one of those times.”
“Well what on earth could possibly make him honest?” Twilight asked as she looked up with obvious incredulity. Seeing that her protégé’s confusion was equally shared by the rest, Celestia turned to Luna and gave her a quick nod.
Pulling out her ebony wand, the princess of the night summoned a small, shadowy portal and drew forth a heavy, leaden box bound over in strange bands of coppery metal carved all over with runes and totems, most of which not even Twilight had encountered before. Luna set the box upon the table and after flicking her wand about with deftness to shame even the most celebrated conductors, she began to chant.
Ancient spells formed, spoken in forgotten tongues that had seen ages pass since last they were heard. As the strange words poured forth, the carvings on the bands began to glow as the bands coiled together to form two handles on the now unbound lid. Pulling open the box, Luna paused, almost looking as if she were taking a brief moment to steady her nerves. Then, with all the care of a snake charmer reaching into the viper’s basket, the princess of the night drew out a rounded, crystal phial the size of her closed fist and just large enough to contain…
… Actually, nobody was quite sure just what it contained.
The bulb seemed to house a single black flame, no bigger than the end of a candle’s wick, that flickered as it hung suspended in midair. Of course, this alone wouldn’t have been anything special: the colors of flames could shine in just about every shade and hue imaginable and then some.
But this one didn’t shine. In fact, it almost seemed to do the exact opposite. From the contours of the flickering flame, it almost looked as if the fire were consuming the light itself to leave the space darker than it had before. Of course, that had to be a mistake. After all, who had ever heard of a flame that could burn light?
“What is that?” Twilight asked, her previous worries taking a back seat to her newfound curiosity as she quickly stepped forward to get a closer look. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fire quite like that before.”
“You wouldn’t have,” Luna agreed with a small grimace, “for this flame is not one that you could find anywhere on earth. In fact, it does not actually exist as all.”
“Well of course it does, silly!” Pinkie Pie giggled. “It’s right there. We can all see it!” And as strange as it was for the other girls, they found themselves agreeing with Pinkie. It was certainly weird, being a hue that would make the blackest pitch seem pale, but it was still there, right in that little bottle.
“Perhaps a demonstration, then,” Celestia suggested as she turned once more to her faithful student. “Twilight, do you think you could conjure up an Aegis of Legion?”
“Um… I think so,” the young mage nodded hesitantly. “Shining Armor showed it to me a few times. I mean, it wouldn’t be very big of course, but–”
“Anything will be fine,” Celestia replied with an encouraging smile. “Show me how much you’ve learned.”
Well, if there was anything Twilight was good at, it was passing tests and making teachers happy, so pulling out her own wand, Twilight began the intricate motions and complex litany that made up the strongest barrier known to magic.
A thousand layers of arcane shields, folded over a thousand times and then a thousand times more, compressed smaller and tighter till the near infinite layers of spellwork would have made steel seem like butter and diamond but cheap glass. This, Twilight molded and weaved till she’d composed a sturdy, little buckler of near opaque light that could have shattered a dragon’s fang with ease.
Conjuring done, Twilight smiled and she quickly pushed the pink stripe of hair from her forehead and set her shield before her teacher for inspection.
“Very impressive,” Celestia smiled with warm and genuine delight. “You’ve certainly been applying yourself in Ponyville.”
“It’s nothing,” Twilight grinned, her cheeks flushing red that only came partly from embarrassment: the shield she’d conjured was only about as big as a dinner plate, but the effort after an already trying day quickly painted her brow with beads of condensation: strong as it was, the spell certainly took a lot out of a girl.
“Sister, are you certain about this?” Luna asked as she eyed the shield askance. “To use your student’s handiwork like so…”
“They need to know exactly what they’re up against,” Celestia replied, the words clearly not what her heart wanted to say. “They need to know exactly how dangerous he is.”
With a small nod, Luna waved her wand to levitate the phial, removed the carved lead seal at its mouth, and poured the inky, black contents atop the shield.
Twilight was confused. Everyone was confused as well. Though nobody knew half as much about the mystic arts as their purple-haired friend, they knew exactly how good said purple-haired friend was. It had taken Twilight a full minute of utmost concentration to make that little shield, so whatever it was, it would be some of Twilight’s best work. What could a tiny little candle flame like that possibly–
Silence reigned as the Ponyville troupe, eyes wide with abject shock, watched as that one small flame cut through the shield like a blob of molten iron through ice. In a mere matter of seconds, it had almost completely eaten through the spell and only a timely intervention from Luna and her incomprehensible spells lifted the flames back into the bottle and saved the table from sharing a similar fate.
Twilight could only stare in mute horror as with the sound of shattering china, her intricately wrought spell exploded into a million motes of light and faded into the ether. Her spell, the one representing the culmination of her magical abilities, had been completely and utterly broken.
“What… what the hay is that?!” Twilight cried, eyes fixated on the black flame as if it were a failing term paper with her name on it. “That… whatever that is, it’s not possible. It’s just not possible! There’s no way on earth anything could get through that spell so easily!”
“You’re right, Twilight Sparkle,” Celestia replied as she laid a soothing hand on her protégé’s shoulder. “Your spell was flawless, and truly, nothing on earth could have pierced it. But as I said, this flame isn’t any spell or magic in existence. It is pure entropy.
“Er, entro- what now?” Rainbow Dash blinked.
“Entropy,” Luna repeated, the word clearly laced with disgust. “This is the essence of pure destruction, an all devouring void that seeks the annihilation of everything. It is quite simply, nothingness given form.”
If anything, the eyes fixed on the vial grew even wider. One pair of eyes however, widened not from surprise, but from illumination as like the cascade of dominos, pieces began to fall into place.
“Princess Celestia,” Rarity began. “This… nothingness you showed us, you said it didn’t come from anywhere on earth. Then based on your reaction from Discord’s message and your response to Princess Luna, am I correct in guessing that it came not from a where… but a who?”
Slowly, Celestia nodded.
“His name is Nul and he, to put it simply, is The End.”