The throne room of the palace of the Crystal Empire was colder, lonelier than Twilight Sparkle had remembered. Much of this, she told herself, was due to circumstances. Even so, as she sat stewing inside of the tall, high crystal walls, she could not help but shiver. Or was it fear, not grief, not cold, that made her quake? I don't know, she told herself. I don't know anything any more.
Celestia, sitting in the throne at the room's head, could not conceal her grief. “What news, Cadence?” she asked.
Even Cadence, who in all the times that Twilight knew her had erupted in great warmth and love, was dour, lovely pink coat, candy-stripéd mane seeming flat and muted. “We've... we've managed to accommodate all the Equestrian ponies.” She gestured to a window; through it, all who looked could see huge towers hastily sprung up from fast-grown crystal. “It's cramped in the tenements- it can't help but be cramped- but everypony has some space. The crystal ponies have taken in those they can fit inside their homes.”
“What of my white-tails?” asked Falalauria, blinking twice her sightless eyes.
“We've got a tenement for them, too... I'm afraid the Chief Crystal Engineer didn't make it as spacious as the Equestrian tenements. I argued with him about it- I... he's fired now.” Cadence sighed and sunk into her haunches. “I'm so sorry, my lady.”
“No matter. You have done what you could.”
Silence reigned in long and heavy moments. Finally, Fluttershy could no more stand the quiet. “What do we do now?”
“We... we have to regroup, of course,” said Celestia. “We must plan a counteroffensive-”
“There's nothing to do,” said Pinkie Pie, bandages now supersaturated with the blackened fluid, such that it was seeping down her back. “There's nothing to do! We've lost!”
“Don't say that, Pinkie Pie,” Celestia said.
“She's got a point,” said Twilight. “We've been driven out- and most of Equestria is being taken over by Reiziger.” Her purple eyes grew narrow. “We should have stayed and fought!”
“Twilight, we did not have the power,” said Luna. “Nor was it safe to unleash what power we did have with civilians so close at hand.”
“Always with that excuse! And look where it's gotten us! We've lost! We lost Cloudsdale, we lost Manehattan, we lost Fillydelphia, and now we've lost Canterlot! We keep losing! I'm tired of it!” Tears sprang to her eyes. “I'm tired of seeing Reiziger destroy my country!”
“Twilight, that is why you all must continue to strengthen your Elements of-”
“My Element of Magic is more than strong enough, but it hasn't done us any good! And in case you haven't noticed, the Element of Loyalty and the Element of Generosity are in Reiziger's control! We couldn't use the Elements even if we wanted to!”
“We will cleanse them, Twilight,” said Celestia. “We must... somehow, we must.”
“Somehow? That's all you've got for me? Somehow?”
The glare that Twilight fixed upon her broke Celestia's heart. There had for so long been a wideness, an openness to Twilight's eyes. They had seemed constantly vast as she looked everywhere, eager to learn and to absorb all information that she could out of the world. Now her eyes were hard, and closed. There was a fierceness in them that reminded her of-
Everyone's horns and antlers suddenly itched- and no wonder, for with a flicker the Deer Elders stood there in the throne room, Fëanor and Nordeshang, Glorfindel, Nona, Decima and Morta. Celestia's breath drew in as Fëanor's gold eyes lit onto her. “You have failed.”
“You have failed!” he roared. “Your plan has failed, and Equestria has paid the price for your foolishness!”
“We have not failed, I swear it. There is still time for the Elements of Harmony to set things right.”
“Two of them are in the Herd Lord's possession. A third is far abroad on a hopeless quest for reinforcements. And one of them is infected with the Herd Lord's black rot- she is not long for this world. So I ask you, Celestia, what Elements do you speak of? It cannot be the Six.” Ominously, Pinkie started coughing, hacking up black goo.
“I... I shall not give up...” Celestia's voice caught within her throat. “I still have faith.”
“Faith is for fools,” snarled Fëanor. Nordeshang made a face, but did not speak.
“Celestia,” said Glorfindel, “surely you must admit that thus far, your faith has not been rewarded.”
“One does not possess faith by virtue of reason,” said Falalauria. “It is knowing beyond knowing, a certainty beyond even the reaches of Long Sight.”
“We hate to see you in such distress, Falalauria,” said Decima.
“How do you feel?” asked Nona.
“Well enough, save that I have neither sight nor Sight.” She sighed. “I can... perceive dimly using magic, and my other senses. I feel lost, though. I... I know nothing now.”
“But could you fight if you had to?” Fëanor asked.
“I... perhaps, maybe.”
“You may have no choice.”
“I say you have no choice to fight,” said Celestia, face twisting with anger. “You are still forbidden from using your battle magic in Equestria.”
“Your country is gone, Celestia. You are no longer princess of anything, and thus you have no authority with which to stop me.”
Celestia stepped off her throne. “I can stop you right now.” Her horn began to shimmer with the golden light of dawn.
Curling up his lip, Fëanor advanced. Bronze-gold power played upon his antlers. Twilight felt the crystal palace begin trembling gently. Celestia and Fëanor drew nearer to each other; wrath was smoldering between their eyes-
Suddenly a cool blue light enveloped both of them, and they were both dragged backward. “Enough!” bellowed Nordeshang. “Enough! We are friends, remember?”
“I have no time for friendships with fools,” snarled Fëanor. “Even as we speak, the Herd Lord is swallowing up Equestria. He is draining it of life and getting stronger all the while! Morta, show them.”
Morta stepped forward. Her eyes became now dark and filled with stars, but then, in a move Twilight had not seen before, she projected those stars outward in a warm galactic cloud. The stars then bloomed and brightened, becoming a white field, and then that white field gave way to a terrifying sight. From above, a shadow was enveloping Equestria. It was spreading out from Canterlot (had already eaten Ponyville), moving north, moving south, moving east, moving west. Then the vision shifted, swinging down into the dark. Changelings buzzed and drained the life and love of woodland creatures. Wyverns scorched the grass and trees. Fell beasts nested in the mountains, ungoliants wove webs of darkest shadow. Above it all there swooped the thestral and the mythicorn, silently surveying what was now owned by their master.
The vision broke apart; Morta's eyes returned to normal. Fëanor's own eyes grew narrow. “You see? We must act. We must wipe the Herd Lord off the face of the Earth, no matter the consequences of our assault!”
Fluttershy squealed and jumped back twelve paces, wings aflutter. Fëanor's eyes lit into her, piercing her, terrifying her. And yet... she felt she had to speak. She took a deep breath, tried to keep from shaking, and stood up. “Princess Celestia has a point, d-doesn't she? I mean, what good is it to destroy Equestria to destroy Reiziger? In the end, he's already done his job, and our home is ruined.”
“Equestria is already lost, Bearer of Kindness. My concern now is for the world as a whole- and for all worlds beyond it.”
“B-But you weren't able to destroy Reiziger last time, right?” Fluttershy was slowly standing taller. “And even once you sealed him a-away, the world was ruined. If the Wills That Draw The World hadn't made things better, nopony would have been alive, and the Earth would have ended.”
“But Fluttershy,” said Twilight, “if we don't stop Reiziger he'll drain the life of everything on Earth! The whole world will be lost if we don't act!”
“But if you do act, the world will still be lost,” Fluttershy turned now to Twilight. “Even if you defeat Reiziger, the destruction he's caused will stay around. Even after he's gone, Equestria will still be ruined, and only the Elements of Harmony can fix it. So we'll still need them, even if you fight. Why abandon them now?”
“Because if we don't act now there won't even be land to save! We've already waited too long! We've waited and struggled and tried to make our Elements stronger, but it hasn't worked!”
“Yes it has. Our Gifts are all more powerful than they used to be.”
“We can fix Equestria after we've annihilated Reiziger and all his forces!”
Anger flashed in Fluttershy's soft heart. “Two of our friends are part of his forces now. Have you forgotten about that? Or were you planning on killing them, too?”
Twilight's eyes went wide, then narrowed up again. “How dare you. What's wrong with you, Fluttershy?”
“I...” her ears drooped. “I can't understand what's happened to you, Twilight. The Twilight who's my friend wouldn't talk the way you're talking.”
“I've changed. I've had to change. In case you haven't noticed, all of existence is in danger!”
“You're in danger too, can't you see that?”
“Stop it stop it stop it!” moaned Pinkie, hooves clutching her head. Fluttershy and Twilight stood apart now, only by a few feet, but the distance might well have been miles. Twilight glared across at Fluttershy, while Fluttershy's eyes had become turquoise depths of sadness and regret. The whole throne room- even Fëanor- had stood and watched the argument. Celestia and Cadence had been wincing at most everything Twilight had said.
“My my my, what a dour company.” Time and space rippled a bit. “Turn those frowns upside-down!”
Balloons, streamers, and dancing ponies wearing bunny ears suddenly burst into existence. A cake emerged within the middle of the throne room. It jiggled, it wiggled, and then from it burst Discord, a party hat upon his head.
“Ta da!” he exclaimed. He looked around. Nopony had laughed. “Whew, tough crowd.” Then he turned, and saw the deer, and grinned. “Why if it isn't Fëanor! How are you, old grumpy guts?”
“Hello, Chaos Lord,” Fëanor growled.
“Still as charming as ever, I see.”
“Discord, where have you been?” asked Fluttershy. “I've been worried about you!”
“Oh, I've been going to and fro across the world, walking all up and down it- that sort of thing.” He slithered from the cake and wound into the air. “The doings here in Equestria have most creatures very spooked. They're talking about the end of the world.” He dragged his paws down his long face. “Oh, my. It's a perfect time to have a party! Wouldn't you say, Pinkie Pie?” Pinkie did not answer, curled up and muttering as she was.
“It is not time for a party,” growled Twilight. “How dare you mock all this!”
“Mock? I'm serious. We celebrate at funerals too, after all. And-”
“You know, Chaos Lord,” barked Fëanor, “if you truly are reformed, why don't you just magic the Herd Lord out of existence?”
Discord put his paw upon his chin. He floated there, thinking- or pretending to. “Hmm... nah.”
The throne room gasped. “But Discord, why not?” asked Cadence.
“Because the deerfolk haven't learned their lesson yet. Why interrupt divine teaching?”
“Lesson?” said Morta.
“The Herd Lord has nothing to teach us!” barked Glorfindel.
“Come on now, chuckles,” said Discord, plopping a party hat down on Glorfindel's head. “Think about it. The Wills That Draw The World could have stopped him at any time, if they'd really wanted to. I mean, they did work to undo all his destruction once he'd been sealed away. Doesn't that mean they allowed all that destruction in the first place?”
“But... I...” Decima stammered.
“Which means, of course, that the reason Annatar wreaked such havoc is because the Wills allowed it. That seems like they were doing some teaching. Hmm hmm, they basically gave you all a spanking.”
“Glorfindel is correct- we have nothing to learn from the Herd Lord,” Fëanor said.
“Oh, really?” Discord said, voice dropping an octave. “Because from where I'm floating,” he swirled closer to Fëanor, streamers and confetti following behind him, “it seems to me that he's merely taken the deerfolk's philosophies of superiority to their logical conclusion.”
“That's absurd,” said Nona.
“Is it, though? You all believe that the deerfolk, the six species, are superior to every other race and culture and folk- that's how you justified dominating and enslaving them, right?” The Elders said nothing. Discord nodded. “Well, if we take this idea as true, then it stands to reason that within the deerfolk, there are some species superior to the others, right?”
“That doesn't follow!” barked Fëanor.
“Doesn't it? Why shouldn't the high deer have cracked down on the common deer? And even more, why shouldn't it be the case that even within the high deer, there were some families, some groups, that were superior to the rest of those four species?” Discord waved his paw. “And so on, and so forth, on down and down, until you reach the point where there is one deer superior to all the rest. Hence Annatar and his delightful megalomania.”
“You're talking nonsense,” Glorfindel said. “The heights the deerfolk ascended to don't mean that there should have been division between the six species.”
“Ha!” Discord laughed, but then he made a face. “Oh, you're serious, aren't you? My goodness, how can you be centuries old and still so naive?”
“Stop joking around, Chaos Lord!” snapped Fëanor.
“Oh, you want me to stop joking? Fine.” Discord's voice again grew low, and dangerous. “I know the Wills That Draw The World better than anypony who is and was and will be. I know what they're after, and it's obvious to me that the deerfolk haven't learned a thing. Not even Falalauria has learned enough,” he said, to gasps from Luna and Celestia. “So the unjoking truth, Fëanor, is that you all, you six species, have deserved everything that's happened to you- every bit of it. And I'm determined to see that you keep on suffering until you finally learn your lesson, or until you've been completely wiped off the face of the Earth... whichever comes first.” The silence deafened. Discord shrugged. “Wow, now this is a tough crowd. Ta-ta, everypony! Oh, and Pinkie Pie, do feel better.” Then he vanished in a burst of light.
Nordeshang sighed deeply.
“My lord...” Nona began, but stopped.
“Enough! Forget him! He has at least agreed not to intervene, and that is enough for me.” Fëanor glanced out upon the throne room. “We are going to move against the Herd Lord. We shall take what allies will join us, right here and now. Celestia?'
“Unsurprising.” Fëanor's eyes drifted downward. “Luna, I know you cannot approve of your sister's decisions. You were always the more practical one. Surely you can see that the time for hoping and praying has passed, that-”
“Dost thou think to separate me from my sister?” Luna said. “Nay, Lord Fëanor. I...” she glanced sidelong at Celestia, sighed, and bowed her head, “I indeed have had my disagreements with Celestia. But I am with her to the end, regardless. If she will not join thee, neither shall I.”
“Very well.” Fëanor again swept round his head. “Falalauria, what of you?”
Again she blinked her sightless eyes. “I... cannot See, any more. I no longer have the gift of foresight. I can say nothing for certain.” Her blank black eyes grew narrow. “But I can smell, and touch, and taste, and hear, and all those senses speak to me of your disaster. I shall not join you, my lord.”
“Fine,” snarled Fëanor. His gaze settled on Cadence. “You... what was your name again?”
Cadence rolled her eyes. “So you want me to help you, but you don't even care enough to know who I am?”
“Forgive me, O alicorn princess, I simply have not had the time to learn of you. But I think... Cadence, yes?”
“Well, at least you know my name.” Cadence's cutie mark sparkled for a moment, and pain ran cross her face. “You claim you want to cause all this destruction for the good of the world, but that's not what I sense. Your heart is filled with hate, Lord Fëanor, and nothing good can come of that. I've always sworn not to kill, and I won't be changing that now. The answer is no.”
“Hate is sometimes necessary,” Fëanor responded. “But I shall respect your decision. And at last... Twilight Sparkle?”
All eyes in the crystal throne room swiveled onto her. She took a deep and final breath, then said, “I'll join you.”
“But Twilight!” exclaimed Fluttershy.
“Twilight, I know you're angry, but this is a bad idea,” said Cadence. “Please, think of what he's asking you to do.”
“I have to do what I feel is right. I'm sorry,” Twilight said.
“I know that, Twilight Sparkle,” said Celestia. “I know...” her face twisted in sorrow, “I know you have always, always wanted what is best for Equestria. But this is not the way to go about it. Twilight, listen-”
“No, you listen!” snapped Twilight, whirling on her mentor and her teacher, eyes ablaze. “You lied to me. You've lied to me all my life! You've kept things from me, held things back, not just the truth about the deerfolk but so many other things! But when I learned about them, one by one, I still trusted you, because I thought you knew best. I thought that if I put my faith in you, things would work out. But now... now everything is gone! Everything's lost! I put my trust in you and all that's left is ashes!” She twisted up her hoof and sharply turned, showing Falalauria and all the ponies her back. “Fëanor is right. You have failed. Now I have to do what has to be done.”
Celestia breathed hard in and out... but then she hung her head. “I won't stop you, then.”
Fëanor could scarce conceal his grin. “Well said, Twilight. Come here- you don't know where our stronghold is, so you will have to hold tight while I teleport to it.”
“Yes, my lord,” she said. She trotted to him and she wrapped a hoof around his lower leg. Twilight spared a final glance back at the gathered folk. All of them were staring at her with a longing and regret that nearly made her reconsider. But then anger rose again within her heart, and her soft eyes grew hard.
“My offer still stands; we shall not attack for several days,” said Fëanor. “In the meantime, if anyone wishes to join us, come to the highest mountain left in Equestria. I shall keep my eyes on it. Farewell.” The power rose around him. All the air was tingling.
Twilight glanced one last time back upon her friends and allies. She saw Celestia with empty, haunted gaze. She sighed. “Goodbye,” she said. Then Fëanor vanished, and she did as well.
Nona, Decima, and Morta likewise winked out one by one, Glorfindel right after them. Nordeshang remained for a few moments, blue eyes shimmering with sorrow. “Forgive us,” he said, then he teleported far away.
The moment they were gone Celestia lost all composure. She bowed her head, her shoulders shook, and soon her weeping filled the throne room, golden tears drip-dripping on the crystal floor.
“Everything is over now,” said Pinkie, trotting down the crystal steps. Out of the palace she and Fluttershy came down, the latter wincing as the black rot seeped to gushing out of Pinkie's bandages. Pinkie's colors had grown seriously dark, her pinks and hot magentas seeming more and more like sunlight's final gasp before the setting. “We're doomed.” She tripped, and tumbled down the steps, rolling in a heap onto the courtyard stones. “We're doomed!” she bawled, thrashing where she lay.
“Pinkie, I don't think so.”
“I can feel the end coming, oh gosh I can feel it! Can't you hear it? The crunching and the cracking of the bones of the world? The sun's gone dim, the sky's turned black! Shadow, shadow everywhere!”
“Pinkie, I think-”
“Wrath and destruction and hate are all that grow now. No plants, no animals, no life- only death!” She was crawling on her belly, scraping cross the stone into a garden where the crystal shimmered in between the lovely flowers and the blossoming tall trees. She looked about it and then vomited black bile. “So awful, so terrible.”
“Pinkie, we need-”
“This is it, the last and final winter of the pony race. The end is here! This is it! Everypony will die, and all that will be left is a smear across the stars! We'll all be dumped into the jaws of the Beast, the Thing that blotted out the sun and smashed the moon! There is no-”
“Pinkie!” At last, the writhing pony stopped her motions. She turned onto her back and looked up. Fluttershy was standing in the sunlight. It might have been a twinkle of the light- or might have been some twisting of her vision brought on by the rot of Reiziger- but now the butter yellow pegasus appeared to glimmer. It was a faint thing, barely noticeable, like the half-seen spark when flint strikes flint. In an instant, half an instant, Fluttershy seemed brighter, somehow. Then she sighed, and the soft spell was broken. “Pinkie,” she said gently, “ we have to leave.”
“We have to leave the Crystal Empire. I... I don't know how I know that, but I do. W-We have to go back into Equestria, and keep training our Elements. We have to keep training our Gifts.”
“Why? Why bother?” Pinkie cried black tears. “Don't you get it, Fluttershy? It's over! It's done! The Elements of Harmony have failed!”
“I can't believe that. I won't believe that. I'm still here, and so are you, and we're still friends, and as long as there's a friendship between two of us, the Elements haven't failed. Not yet.”
“I... I can't see... I can't see anything good!”
Fluttershy sat down, was quiet for a moment. Then she gently said, “I... I know that I don't do much... or talk much. I know that sometimes I'm... scared. But one of the things that happens when you sit back and watch... so much... is that you realize how much things work out, in the end. Darkness never lasts forever, Pinkie. The sun always rises. The stars always come out. The rain breaks up, the rainbow comes. It happens even when you've forgotten that it ever did before.” Fluttershy went to Pinkie and rested a gentle hoof upon her cheek. “Hope isn't lost, Pinkie Pie. Faith hasn't failed.”
Pinkie glanced downward. “I don't have any faith left.”
“You don't have to. All you need to do now is come with me.” She smiled sheepishly. “I mean, if it's okay with you.”
Pinkie looked up into Fluttershy's deep eyes. They were wavering, quavering- she was not as confident as she was forcing herself to appear. But there was, just so, a strength somewhere, deep down underneath the fear. Pinkie breathed out. “I'll come.”
“Yay!” cheered Fluttershy. She turned around and showed her back to Pinkie. “Now, hop on. It'll be faster if we fly.”
Rising on her creaking limbs, Pinkie clambered atop Fluttershy, wrapping all four legs around her torso. Fluttershy spread out her wings. “Are you sure you can carry me, Fluttershy?” Pinkie asked. “Are you strong enough?”
Fluttershy sighed. “I'll try to be.” She flapped her wings. At first she gasped, for Pinkie's weight was no small thing, and even after all the training she had done to make the waterspout, she wasn't a strong flier. But she did not give up. She kept on flapping, kept on pushing, and finally she rose into a hover. Pumping her wings harder still, she rose into the air, and with a twist around into the south, both ponies flew away, off into the shadow that had eaten the horizon.