“And thus, we came to earth,” Luna wearily finished as the light finally returned to the audience chamber. “No longer the spirits of creation we once were, we use our remaining power to bury the prison at the planet’s core where we hoped it would remain for all eternity.”
“Why here?” Twilight asked, the first to respond from the overwhelming tale with a pertinent question. “I mean, wouldn’t it have been better to toss him into the furthest corner of the universe you could?”
“Keep your friends close,” Graves rumbled, “but keep your enemies closer.”
“Precisely,” Celestia nodded as she helped her sister towards her seat. “Kept close to us, we would always be able to keep an eye on Nul and respond should the need arise. But beyond the need to watch over him, his prison was needed for the world as well.”
“How do yeh reckon that?” Applejack asked with head cocked askew. “Never heard ah nobody ever needin’ a cage fer nothin’ but cagin’ critters.”
“This was different,” Luna explained. “Stripped of our powers, we could no longer renew the universe as we had before. Stars will burn out and planets will crumble, but there will be nothing new to take their place. That is why we hoped that the power emanating from Nul’s prison, composed of the force of creation itself, would be enough to sustain at least one world.”
“So we have to keep the most dangerous of enemies close by because without it, our world is doomed?” Rarity gasped. “My word, it’s like when fur’s in style during an exceptionally hot winter; you just can’t win.”
“What I don’t get is how he got out,” Rainbow Dash frowned. “Like, didn’t you three build the universe’s greatest trap and stuffed Nul inside? How’d he break free?”
“He hasn’t, at least not yet,” Luna replied. “Believe me, if he had, then there would be no world left to save.”
“Then what happened?” Pinkie Pie joined in. “Did it spring a leak?” At this, Luna turned to her sister, who replied with a small, tight-lipped nod.
“It was not an accident, if that is what you mean,” the night princess answered with eyes dark like a clouded night. “In truth, we were betrayed. By Discord.”
Eyes all around went wide with surprise a that pronouncement, but none more so than the marshal’s gunmetal greys.
“But… why did he do it?” Fluttershy squeaked. “You three were so close. Why would he do something like that?”
“We do not know,” Luna sighed. “When we combined our powers, our minds were one and our hearts beat in unison. But… perhaps our confrontation with Nul damaged him beyond what we had expected. As my sister and I found our place in the world of man, Discord drew further and further away until he disappeared altogether. We were concerned, of course, but he had always been a free spirit. We thought that the confines of our earthly existence simply chafed too much for his liking.
“How wrong we were,” Celestia spat as she surprised everyone present with the pure venom of her voice. “When he did return, he did so as the Spirit of Chaos, his mind and form corrupted and twisted by Nul’s destructive will into the form you know today.”
“But… I thought Nul’s goal was to destroy everything,” Twilight frowned. “What happened to Discord sounds a lot more like… conversion.”
“Perhaps he is,” Luna replied as she placed a soothing hand on her sister’s shoulder. “Even Discord couldn’t undo the bindings of Nul’s prison, but master of the impossible as he was, he did somehow manage to form the thinnest of breaches in the shell. It was through this tear that some of Nul’s power came through, not enough to match the destructive flames you saw before, but enough to decay and corrode till form and thought are worn away to shadows of their former selves. I assure you, though Discord still lives, who he used to be ceased to exist long ago as the first true victim of Nul.”
“First?” Graves blinked. “You mean there were more?”
“There were,” Celestia nodded. “After Nul was sealed and even memory of him forgotten, mankind entered a golden age where civilization grew, culture thrived, and the mystic arts reached their height of grandeur and depth. Though my sister and I were involved, the true leaders of this time of prosperity were perhaps the greatest mages ever born to history, the great sages Coronus and Crystallia.”
With a flick of her ivory wand, the image of two figures almost as regal as the royal sisters appeared, a man and woman standing side by side in harmonious splendor. The man was dressed in gleaming silver armor and crimson cape, the platinum circlet that ringed his brow holding back a lion’s mane of jet black hair. The woman was clad in gossamer sheets of glittering silk, bright and lush as a summer canopy and somehow still paling in comparison to the emerald hair that fell around a sublimely beautiful face.
“Just as Nul had corrupted Discord, so too did Discord corrupt them,” Celestia said as the image slowly began to transform. “With their great powers, the two delved deep into the heart of arcane lore and through discovery of Discord's betrayal, discovered the existence of Nul himself. Tempted by the existence of such power, they changed. Coronus was no longer content to be a steward of the people and instead sought to possess all for his own. Crystallia, seeking more and more of the people’s adoration, sought to become the sole object of their affection. Both found Nul and got the power to do as they wished, but only in exchange for a truly terrible price.”
Once glorious images of the great sages quickly changed. The man’s once kind face twisted into a fanged grimace of cruelty as his body faded into the dusk and darkness. The woman, once so lovely and serene, grew cold and haughty as skin crackled and gave way to inky black chitin.
“Coronus gave to the power completely, losing his mind and becoming a demonic shadow that sought to consume and possess all just as he had in ages past. Crystallia fared better as she had the sense to withdraw before the corruption consumed her completely. But even so, the change could not be stopped. The two of them rose up against us and the ensuing war shattered the great world they’d worked so hard to build. The people were scattered and the kingdom fell.”
“Land sakes,” Applejack grimaced. “From the sounda things, it looks like Nul here’s the source of every rotten apple in the barrel.”
“Perhaps,” Luna nodded somberly. “But Nul did not create those monsters, not entirely. He simply loosened the bonds that held them in check. I should know.”
“You mean…” Fluttershy gaped as the princess’s words struck home. Luna nodded.
“I was the third and final betrayal,” she answered, her words making no excuse even as they hung heavy with shame and regret. “After Equestria was formed, I grew hateful and resentful of my sister for her place in the people’s hearts. That bitterness drove me to find solace in the same source of corruption I’d fought so hard against before.”
“My sister is too hard on herself,” Celestia cut in as she gave Luna’s shoulder a firm squeeze. “Nul is the very source of destruction, and his imprisonment has made his power that much more insidious. Luna may have been jealous, but her loyalty to the people and her kind spirit would never have allowed her to do such things on her own. Nul is the one who took her goodness away, and that is why he must be stopped.”
“… S-s-s-s-s-o w-what are w-w-w-e sup-p-p-p-p-p-osed to d-d-d-d-o?” Fluttershy asked, the first to break the silence despite the jackhammer clattering of her teeth.
“What do we do? What can we do?” Rainbow Dash asked. “If it took both Princesses and Discord to lock this guy up, then what chance do we have?”
“Now I’m all fer givin’ it the ol’ what fer,” Applejack replied with an askew shrug, “but wouldn’t it make a lot more sense fer you princesses to… I don’t know… put on yer fancy universe makin’ duds and just patch everythin’ up all nice an’ proper like?”
“We could,” Luna nodded. “And the moment we did, the powers would return to us, the prison would crumble, and Nul would be free once more. His all-consuming flames would devour the planet and leave only my sister and I to face him. But yes, we could I suppose.”
“Uh… never mind,” Applejack murmured. “Ferget I said anythin’.”
“But that still raises the question on what we're supposed to do,” Twilight frowned. “If Nul’s as bad as he used to be and he’s awake and busting out now, what exactly can we do about it?”
“He may be awake,” Luna corrected, “but he is not yet free. The prison Celestia, Discord, and I constructed still holds. He would be like Discord is now, conscious and free to roam, but with the vast portions of his powers sealed. My sister and I no longer have the powers we did, but there is a way that you six might become what we once were.”
“The Elements of Harmony!” Twilight gasped. “Of course!”
“Formed when we three achieved true unity in the battle against Nul, the Elements serve as a link to the vast powers that created the universe,” Celestia said as she place a hand on Twilight’s shoulder with a proud smile. “Forming Nul’s prison as it does, my sister and I can no longer serve to stem the darkness. But you as the Bearers may yet touch the powers of creation the shell contains and repair the breach to return Nul to his slumber once more.”
“Slumber party, I love it!” Pinkie Pie squealed. “So how do we go about that?”
“The hard way, which is about only way we, can, I’m afraid,” a thunderous voice called out. Turning around, the Ponyville troop spotted General Ironside striding up to meet them, not in his simple tunic as usual, but now in the full crimson robes of an Equestrian officer.
“Apologies for the delay, Princesses,” he continued, saluting with fist over heart as he approached the table. “Organizing the carriers took longer than expected, but all is well.”
“Thank you, Ironside,” Luna smiled “And I’m afraid the general is correct. Nul’s prison still lies at the center of the earth, and the road to get there will not be easy.”
“Maybe we should get Maud in on this,” Rainbow Dash chuckled as she gave the giggling Pinkie a knowing wink. “Bet she’d have us at rock bottom in a flash.”
“Fortunately, that will not be necessary,” the night princess explained as she raised her wand once more to bring up a simple projection of the earth before them. “After Discord’s betrayal and the breach was discovered, my sister and I realized that some of his power continued to escape. Thus, we constructed three gates to the surface to keep his corruption from building up.”
“Tartarus, in the Savage Lands, Hel in the northern tundras, and Gehenna on the southern continent,” Celestia explained as three points of light appeared on the projection. “In order to make it to Nul, you will have to cross the Savage Lands and–”
Graves had been standing so still and silent, he’d practically blended into the stone work. So when his harsh, gravelly voice called out in startled surprise, it was as if one of the carved statues adorning the castle had sprung to life with choice, defamatory statements.
“You can’t be serious,” he continued, taking a step forward as he turned to address the general. “There’s no way they would survive the trip.”
“Hey, we’re a whole lot tougher than we look,” Rainbow Dash snorted as she crossed her arms in a huff. “Except for me. I’m exactly as tough as I look.”
“I’m sure you are,” Graves absent-mindedly agreed as he kept eyes fixed on Ironside. “But that doesn’t change the fact that just crossing the border is a Class C mission at best. Why on earth would you choose to send them there?”
“Necessity,” Ironside grimaced in reply. With a few swift gestures, he pulled the projection about so that they were zoomed in on a deep rent on the northern slopes of a range of snow-swept mountains. “The Jotun Pass here is going to be occupied and Gehenna caved in twenty years ago. Unless you know an easy way of moving a mountain’s worth of boulders, I doubt it’s gonna work.”
Graves could see the necessity; limited options made for limited choices, after all. But that didn’t make the choice any easier and frustration at the circumstances showed in a stonier set of his face.
“Well, they’ll at least get a proper escort, right?” Graves sighed, to which the general offered a wry grin.”
“Of course. You’ll be going in to make sure everything’s in order.”
“Aw yiss! Road trip!” Rainbow Dash grinned, and the marshal couldn’t help but grin as well.
“Great. What else?”
Three seconds. That’s how long the marshal’s grin had lasted before it slid from his face like water from an oiled canvas.
“That’s… it,” he repeated blandly. “You’re sending them into the Savage Lands with only me for company.”
“Can you think of something better?” Ironside challenged with one eyebrow arched. “Seven’s already a large party, and any more will attract attention you definitely don’t want around. You’re all they can afford, soldier. Get used to it.”
“Okay, so Graves keeps us company as we go intah them rough neck ah the woods and we patch up that hole like a leaky roof?” Applejack asked as she sent the marshal a small nod he didn’t seem to catch. “That seems simple enough.”
“For you, yes,” Ironside nodded as a fresh frown. “But see, there’s the problem of plumbing.”
“What does the potty have to do with anything?” Pinkie Pie inquired.
“Same sort of blockage,” the general explained. “The good princesses have informed me that the gates were made to release Nul’s blow off in discretely safe quantities. Problem was, they’ve been spewing off a whole heap more than what we could call safe for a good while now, which raising a very important question: if all three gates are already strained past their limit, then what happens when you pop just one of the corks on that fine bottle of champagne?”
“Ooh ooh! Pick me!” Pinkie Pie cried with arms flapping in the air. “Um… I’m guessing all the bubbly fizzy goodness goes exploding out that way, right?”
“Give the lady a cookie,” Ironside laughed. “The first gate we open’s gonna unleash a tidal wave of pure, roiling madness like tree pollen in spring. Which is why,” the general finished with a wicked grinned, “that’s exactly what we’re gonna do.”
“… Wait, what?!”
“Like the pink one just explained,” the giant general chuckled at the girls’ dumfounded expressions, “no matter what gate we open, we’re gonna get hit with a faceful of ugly. That’s why the royal guard are gonna pop the first one, pull all that nastiness into the open, and clear the way for you seven to get down there and fix the root of this mess.”
“That sounds way too easy if you ask me,” Rainbow Dash frowned. “I mean, this is the granddaddy of all bad guys we’re talking about. He’s like, the super end game boss you fight after you finish the actual game. How are you gonna hold him off long enough for us to lock him back up?”
Here, Ironside looked to Graves with a familiar light in his eyes before he turned to address the group.
“The only way we can. Ladies? Princesses? Equestria is officially going to war.”