The sun shown once again over the lands of Equestria. Princess Celestia watched from her balcony, a firm expression set upon her face as she gazed over her kingdom. It was not a heartening sight, her mind wandering to the events of the past few days.
In the wake of Tirek's assault, Canterlot was left in shambles. His battle with Princess Twilight had far-flung repercussions. Their magical strikes left much of Ponyville and Canterlot in drastic need for repairs. The contest of blows and blasts of arcane might had unleashed shockwaves that nearly shook the mountains down to its roots. In Canterlot, the castle had taken the brunt of Tirek's wrath. The walls had protected a great deal of the lower portions and street levels, but the palace itself was in shambles. Repair crews were already hard at work, but there was an overwhelming amount of damage.
Celestia could not remember a time her home had been in such a state as she moved slowly through the halls. Decorations in tatters, windows shattered, even whole walls had been broken down. Guards were stationed at every passage, some standing at the ready while the rest aided in cleaning the rubble. With Tirek locked away in Tartarus, the danger was passed but the Commanders of the Royal Guard still felt the need to demonstrate their readiness. Shaken from the attack, weariness was apparent in the guards' demeanor yet they remained vigilant.
Celestia nodded to each group as she passed, trying to keep a smile on her face. Her subjects had endured so much in recent years. Discord's chaotic rampages looked like mere annoyances in comparison to an invasion of changelings and a towering, magic-siphoning warlord bent on their destruction. The most joyful news of her day had been the report that no casualties proved fatal.
After her long walk through the palace, Celestia reached the mural hall and gazed up at the stained glass. Because of their enchantments the windows had survived the powerful quakes. A blank mural was already beginning to glow, ready to be sculpted to depict the heroic actions of Twilight Sparkle. Her timely transformation to an Alicorn was truly what had saved the kingdom. Her understanding of unity and the power it held was what gave her the strength to properly use the abilities her ascension granted her. Celestia brimmed with pride at the notion that her student might some day surpass her. The Princess mused that these deeds were not only worthy of praise, but the beginnings of legends.
So lost in her own thoughts, Celestia did not hear the steps of another pony approach.
"You should be resting, sister." The calm, soft sound of Luna's voice broke Celestia's reverie.
Turning to regard her sister, Celestia smiled and shook her head. "I should be seen, not hiding away as so many try to rebuild their homes. Tirek's attack left so much in ruins. We are symbols of hope, and our subjects need to see us."
Luna nodded, but noted, "Exhaustion cannot accomplish that."
"True. But right now, I do not feel too tired."
Luna joined her sister watching the magical glass before them shimmer. Light flew across it as images began to appear. Princess Twilight Sparkle in brilliant glory, magic flaring out from her angelic form as the other members of the Elements of Harmony took position around her. In a halo of light and grace, the powers of harmony were descending upon the depiction of Tirek, banishing him once more to Tartarus. The memory of being trapped there herself, even for a short time, made Celestia flinch. There were few more unpleasant experiences than that.
Recovered from her thoughts of Tartarus, Celestia drew her gaze from the window back to her sister. "I am glad that what little warning we had was enough to prepare."
"You mean your vision?" Luna asked.
"Yes, my vision."
"I recall you being on edge before even that, sister," Luna caught Celestia's eye as she spoke. "Even your dreams were marked by a fear of something looming. How could you know?"
Celestia took a deep breath before she answered, "The predictions that came before my vision aided in the preparations that allowed our victory over Tirek. Without those, and without my vision, I fear far more than the destruction of property would have been the outcome."
Luna took a step back, and her expression dipped into a scowl. "Predictions?" she asked with a furrowed brow. "Please tell me they are not from what I fear they may be, sister."
Celestia's smile softened when she saw her Luna's expression. "I saw it fit to be prepared. Ensuring we are ready for what new or old foes may come is my duty as a Princess, no matter what disreputable source that knowledge may come from."
"Disreputable--you mean the Sapien, don't you." Luna's voice softened as if she were fighting not to shout. "You called upon the services of that creature below the crystal caverns?"
Celestia looked at the younger Princess, and was met with a hardened glare.
"You would break your promise in dealing with such a callous and immoral creature? You speak its name as a byword, yet you would make a bargain despite this?" Luna's voice rose, but she caught herself. "Why would you be act in so foolhardy a manner? There is no action the Sapien takes without demanding a price, and that price is always too high! You have told me this yourself!"
"My dear sister, please calm yourself." Celestia waited as Luna's heavy breaths slowed. "I made my promise that I would not deal with the Sapien unless the need was great. For centuries, I have kept that promise. I would not go back on my word to mother unless I had no other choice. Your return as Nightmare Moon was the first time in hundreds of years that such an occasion was even warranted."
Luna's expression began to soften from her hard glare.
"I made greatest haste from Ponyville when I felt your presence, or should I say 'hers,' return. The creature we have wisely imprisoned had long ago informed me that my connection to the Elements of Harmony would wither away since our separation. It was correct. I needed to find those who could take our place, and quickly. It turns out that what I sought through the Sapien's counsel, Twilight Sparkle and her friends accomplished on their own. I returned in time to see you had been freed by the new bearers."
"And what wisdom had it imparted to you? That we were to be replaced forever? That I would be free? None of these things could have been altered, with or without its counsel," Luna said in a low tone.
"On the contrary. The creature said that the newest bearer of the Element of Magic was a being of great potential. To learn that it was none other than my own protégé was indeed rewarding. Though I have been required to deal with it, the knowledge I have gained in return has restored hope where once none existed. Its most recent prediction did not even come to pass! It spoke that a great enemy would arise, and with it death and destruction would follow. Only Twilight Sparkle would be able to overcome it. It has all come to pass, but not a single pony died in contrast to its prediction. Perhaps the time has come that my dealings with it are no longer needed if its predictions no longer hold true."
"It would brighten my heart if this came to be." Luna looked at Celestia and sighed. "But I fear a darkness has taken root from this, Celestia. How many promises have you made to the Sapien? How many do you plan to leave unfulfilled?"
"It is a prisoner of the crown of Equestria, it does not have the right to compensation. Not only this, but it is a perpetrator of the most heinous of crimes. I did not see fit to grant its requests. Especially the vile ones it makes," Celestia spoke with disgust.
"You promise it payment then fail to deliver on your word?" Luna moved away from Celestia as her expression turned desperate. "It is not stupid! You know that it will not simply sit by and allow itself to be taken advantage of. How could you do this? How could you put the entire kingdom in such a position?"
"I did what I felt was necessary," Celestia pleaded.
"At the cost of our people's soul? The cost not only from the darkness you know this being to possess, but from the lies that you have so casually paid in return for its aid. What of your necessity now, Celestia?"
Fear and horror was drawn across the Princess's countenance. "Sister, we have seen fit to ensure that what happened before can never happen again. I retake my oath, never again need I seek the word of that being! We have proven it to be wrong! We have welcomed a new Princess among us! Peace may finally be achieved without fear of the darkness."
"The damage is done, Celestia. You have broken your oath and allied with the darkness. I above all other ponies know that you can not simply turn away. It owns a part of you. Do you not remember Virtuous Sight? She said much the same as you concerning the Sapien. Would you follow in her hoofsteps?"
"It is bound, Luna. It will reside in that dark hole forever so long as I have a say in its fate. For its crimes I would have its cage thrown into the ocean, but I am no executioner. What power it holds is in threat and in word, but nothing more. It has no power, not anymore, not ever. We have made certain of that, sister."
"Has he not escaped before? Twice in fact, if I recall."
With a slow exhale, Celestia looked into her sister's eyes. If only she could let her share in her own confidence. She had spent centuries researching magic to make sure that the prison she and others had built for the creature was faultless. "As I said, my dear sister," Celestia said calmly, "I have taken great precautions. Spells within spells woven and perfected to contain that monster. We have nothing to fear." She punctuated her statement with a warm smile and a nod before returning her gaze to the mural.
"Nothing to fear? Did we not just endure the rampage of a monster that feeds upon magic itself?"
Celestia suddenly found her breath stalled within her lungs.
"Tirek devoured the magic of every stallion, every mare, every filly he could reach before nearly erasing our whole kingdom from the map. Not even Discord was immune to him," Luna's voice rose. "No matter how intricate, any spell fails if the magic is drained. Have you not considered this for even a moment?"
Celestia could feel the warmth drain from her face as Luna went on, horror beginning to twist her stomach inside-out.
"We may already be too late, Celestia. What shall we do then?" Luna whispered. Her shouts had dulled as if mirroring the dread that was drawn over Celestia's face.
Turning her face away from the mural, Celestia clenched her jaw as hard as she could. Her pupils had shrunken to pinpricks as she tried to calm the raging thoughts in her mind. She finally mustered the strength to look at her sister.
Luna stared back, a similar glint of fear in her eyes. "Then you must question the fact that perhaps whatever the Sapien predicted has not yet come to pass. If this is so, then my sister, we may well--"
"Your majesties!" The interrupting call came from a guard, wheezing as he recovered from a dead sprint while still sliding to a halt before them. He was bowed even before he had stopped completely, sucking in air as he rose quickly. "We have surveyed the damage, but the great vault was breached. The seals guarding it were shattered, and the entirety of it has been upended. We have accounted for all but two items. The Phoenix Medallion, and the Horn of King Sombra. We cannot locate them anywhere."
Luna kept her eyes on her sister, not looking towards the guard. "Celestia--what did you promise him?"
There was no answer.
She was not even in the room any longer. A white and gold streak had torn through the hall, leaving nothing but a trail in her wake. Celestia's hooves did not even truly touch the ground as she bolted through the hallways. Magic was bleeding from her horn as she accelerated to a maddening speed, a fiery white blur of desperation as she descended into the lower levels of the palace.
When she halted, golden flames blasted off her body like a vaporizing cloak. Embers had piled around her hooves from the friction of her charge. Several guards were standing at the entrance to the dark path, ambling about as if unsure of how to proceed. The secret entrance had been obliterated, almost nothing was left of it. Within, the darkness was so thick it was as if it had become tangible. The stone of the path, once smooth, was now crumbling and decrepit as if aged a thousand years. Where once had been smoke and fog now dripped a viscous and foul substance that hissed on contact with anything but itself. Gritting her teeth, Celestia slammed a rear leg back as the light that had been coming from her horn exploded into a blinding inferno. She focused it right into the opening and listened as the darkness shrieked and wailed before dissipating. Like the cries of the damned, it struck fear in every guard in earshot, and they froze in place. Not the Princess, though. The moment the way had cleared, she vanished again in the white blur of unimaginable speed as she raced towards the Oculus.
In moments she was there, and gazed upon what had once been the prison. She stood on the once great iron door, the remnants of it so twisted and mangled she could barely recognize it as scrap. The Oculus was in ruins, scorched stone and blasted walls were the least of the damage. The corruption of the black substance was everywhere. It had eaten into the floor, into the walls. Pillars were crumbling, barely able to keep themselves upright. But that was not what drew the Princess's eye. Driven into the ceiling were the chains that had created a web around the prisoner's cage. At the end of each of those chains, hung upside down from their back legs, were the guards of the Oculus. They were all swinging listlessly, none making a sound. The horror in Celestia's eyes came from deep within her soul. This was cruelty not even her nightmares could have brought about. The hanging ponies drew her eyes towards the inner door. Slashed into the walls above the hole that an iron door had once existed were three giant words.
"TOBIAS WAS HERE"
Her eyes followed a single chain down from the middle of the message. There hung Captain Kite Glider by a single leg. Blood dripped from her onto the ground below. Only a moment passed and Celestia was by the officer's side. She did not know whether the Captain lived, her gaze was absorbed by what had drawn the blood. Slashed into her side was a second message carved directly into flesh. The Princess took a shaky step back when her eyes fell on something wound loosely around the Captain's throat. A simple magical nudge loosened it, and a biting grip came over her heart.
It was a simple piece of string.
Nothing was out of the ordinary or mysterious about it. Only the memory of the prisoner's rebuke blaring in her mind. He'd resorted to asking for string, because every other bargain they had made she'd broken. Now, with an empty glazed stare her eyes fell back on the words cut right into the Captain's side. They would haunt her worse than the blood that dripped from the wounds.
"P.S. I'm coming for you next."