Amora’s chest seized to the impaling pain of sorrow and dread. She wheezed from a lack of breath, having exhausted her wind with a deafening shout in the moments that followed Conrad’s shot, but her scan of the mystical waters below refused to bow to the burn in her lungs. Where are you? Where are you? Where are you? Why aren’t you moving? Why aren’t you coming back up? Denial rode her mind ragged as the plethora of options nipped at the outskirts of her thoughts. They pounded against her, dragging with them the seeds of tears that glimmered in the corners of her eyes.
A thaumic arc danced up the length of her horn as the dying hope set anger in its rightful place. “Shut your bucking hideous face!” her hurt roar opposed the laughter that poured through Conrad’s beak, but the intended target did not bother to listen. He merely gazed upon the ocean, content to watch the nothingness that formed in the wake of his victory.
The medic swung her head around, glancing at all those she had in her protective grasp. Wick and Defiant appeared as though they were both ready to spring into action, while Twyst stood unmoving before her. The griffons collectively looked stunned. They looked betrayed and dejected by the very captain that had brought them here, and for once, Amora did not care.
She winced as she remembered that smile. “’I’ll always be here.’ That’s what you told me, Wing,” she mumbled softly, “and I told you that I’d always keep you in good health. I patched you up when we were little – when you would return after running off to do something stupid.” She sniffed, choking down the rage-driven need to cry. “Have they really taken you from me? I’m already at my limit… protecting those that made this happen. I could dump them. I could cast my spell. I could end them all for you! I can find you!”
Twyst slammed the blade of his scythe into the magical floor. “Knock it off.” The chill in his tone froze the other ponies to core. “We barely held this shit together through an attack that was deflected. He took a pointblank shot to the chest. There’s nothing you can do for him except live, and that is going to take everything we have. He gave those griffons a choice, and they chose, so shitting on them now does nothing but spit in his face. Do you understand me?”
Contorted looks of misery clung to the muzzles of Wick, Defiant, and Amora as they struggled to make sense of the stallion’s words. “We don’t leave our own behind,” the grey pegasus finally spoke as his red eyes affixed their sights upon the depths. He had barely mustered the nerve to talk as every limb quivered to the beat of the unwritten oath.
D.H.’s fur had been darkened by the unrepressed stream that relentlessly fell. His hooves scratched against the barrier, fighting against a tormented will that sent impulsive signals all the way to the tips of his wings. “T-Twyst is right…”
Bolts sprang from the griffon force as the soldiers of Talon’s End launched a counter assault upon their commander. Their bewilderment had whittled away in the seconds that carried the ponies’ grief-stricken cries and visible sacrifices, and they would not allow themselves to remain idle observers when others had taken up their defense. Whatever Captain Gänse had done to their comrades, whatever he had done in this hellish place, they would have a claw in assuring that he atoned for his sins.
Lichlos snapped his head towards the unicorns’ barrier, and his talons lifted to direct a woven cluster of Albatross scrap to slide in between himself and his traitorous underlings. “You ruined my laughter.” His flat, succinct delivery marched in time with the crashing of the metal fragments against the reverberating buffer.
Both Amora and Twyst buckled against the pressure. The merciless coils of Conrad’s invisible power pushed and pushed until the ponies could no longer hold the shield’s shape. “Move it!” Amora squealed through her discomfort as her horn sparked in defiance. The griffons darted closer to the mare as part of the spell gave way, and the spears of the dismantled airship subsequently shot through the fading light before colliding into the edge of the dreamshell with a thunderous clamor.
As Twyst’s lime aura moved to fill the gaps, Amora performed a quick sweep of Lichlos with her magic. Her cobalt-colored irides surrendered to her dilating pupils as the sensation of his malice crawled through her body. She recoiled and gagged, panting for air as she turned to Defiant. Fear pinned her ears back, sent her hooves scrambling for more stability, and stretched her facial features into a grimace before she finally blurted, “I can’t… He’s… a living tantibus.”
Conrad’s attention followed the rumbling that rang from the edge of Trigger’s reverie. His piercing stare ignored the others in his company as his wings unfurled amongst the mass of floating parts. “You’re all insignificant,” he uttered in a legato tenor. “Wing thought I’d lose myself in this imagined shithole, and the fool who cast it into existence thought I’d be contained.
“But I figured it out! I figured it out while in the shackles of my captivity! When you abandoned me, when you counted me out, I ascended to what I am now. I have what I want, and I killed the one pony with the brilliance to oppose me. The only thing left for me to do is to show my brilliance to the rest of world. Eggs are meant to be broken! And my dreams make whispers of bigger things…”
The celestial reach of the pinpricks above gently brushed the depths of the Ocean of Nightmare. The deep-sea wasteland lingered ominously in a discordant grey that swept away the simplest notion of normal life. Yet there, in the midst of the barren expanse, a single creature slithered around the still lavender form of a pegasus body. He alone had driven away the greedy seekers of fortune – those void masses that crawled and clawed towards a spoil of war.
“Wonderful weather this time of year, wouldn’t you say?” the draconequus spoke, unaffected by the presence of the supernatural ether. His talons snapped to summon a glass of chocolate milk, a pink beach umbrella, and a matching folding chair into which he immediately settled. “Not even a chuckle, Wing? I know it’s the offseason, but seriously, what’s wrong? Stiff upper lip?” He batted his paw to the audience of the peculiarly glowing crimson night. “I jest! I assure you.
“See, believe it or not, I really don’t like war. Isn’t that a sur-prise!? The Lord of Chaos despises the one thing ponies consider to be the most evil – most chaotic – most deranged – absolutely most horrible thing in the entire world! Don’t get me wrong! There’s nothing more amusing than sending all you fascinating, little equines scurrying about with a ruse. Harmless, mind you; I am reformed after all. But! If your obnoxiously dull friend up there has his way, he’ll be spreading that icky, disgusting mockery of my work all over the place, and I just can’t have that.
“Yes, I’m afraid I don’t par-tic-u-lar-ly care for that griffon, and I expect that he’ll soon break out of that one stallion’s – oh so amusing magic. Can you just imagine what would happen if he succeeds in wasting explosions on… uughhh… preset maneuvers? You also know how the princesses will react. They’ll fly in, too late, with their powers blazing while the nerdy one ponders the best way to use… friendship… to conquer a mad griffon. How will I ever crash Celestia’s en-chant-ing parties if the parties are all taken away by that insufferable Lichlos fellow?
“Do you see, Wing? I hate war because it takes the things that I find most fun and makes them into things most miserable. I even considered intervening directly for a change, but then I discovered something that simply necessitated our little ocean-in picnic. I hope you appreciate the absolutely huge favor I’m doing for Equestria by coming here. But then again, you’ve already given me something in return that is just oh so delightful.” His pitch practically scaled an octave through the final two words as his orange and yellow eyes traced the curls of darkened corruption that meandered over hoof and leg.
He rolled from the chair and banished his vacation assortment before settling a step above his target. “You’re one of those dreadful scientists, so even you can wrap your tiny brain around this. Chaos comes from choices. The more we have, the more potential I have to create fun, and you are currently sitting upon one of those choices that makes you a Picard to my Q. Well, that’s a lie. That honor is exclusively reserved for Alicorn Princess Twi-light Spar-kle, but for a half-dead pegasus, you...”
Discord paused as a compression wave tumbled along his coat and scales, and he responded by releasing an exaggerated sigh. “Can you believe that!? I’m trying to carry on an important conversation here and he goes and interrupts me by breaking that stupendous dreamshell. Rude! Perhaps I could curse him with an entire afternoon in the presence of Rarity. Wouldn’t that be grand?
“Now, where was I? Oh yes! When I said half-dead, I meant it. Sadly,” he spoke as false tears somehow fell while the draconequus was submerged, “I don’t have the ability to go into that mind of yours like Prin-cess Luna can. All I can do is foalsit you to make sure that those nasty little roots don’t have the energy to make it to that wondrous little barrier of yours.” He gestured with his paw, wiping from existence the tattered fibers of Wonderbolt uniform that cluttered his view.
He looked past the shattered shell that still dangled upon its chain and peered upon the luminescent arcs of laser lemon light that crept through tufts of tattered lavender fur. The unusual barrier had hurriedly sewn together the wound that had opened like a knife’s blade towards the heart. “My little pony, you have no idea how lucky you are yet, but suffice it to say that this love thing you’re all soooo into seems to have held you back from the brink.
“Though, have I ever told you about my love for children? They always think up the craziest things, and it was their sweet cacophony that inevitably set me free from that wretched stone prison. Without their inspiration, where would I be? Who would find joy in all those things that I do in the name of entertainment? Then again, what do I care if some pony finds my efforts interesting? It’s not as though they did before, but Fluttershy always says that I should embrace these feelings with open hooves – talons – paws…
“Ohhh dear, I seem to have gone and gotten off-topic again. How silly of me. The point I was getting at is that you, as it just-so-happens, are extraordinarily…” Discord let out an annoyed moan through his snout as strands of Trigger’s energy began to wrap around Resolve. The sword still remained affixed to its wielder, and the agitated draconequus made sure it would stay that way. He flicked his tail, flinging the white wisps of its tip over the blade to effectively remove the stallion’s magical presence.
“What is with these exceptionally rude creatures today? That shiny thing is going to be needed here! Is that such a hard concept to understand? I don’t like having my kindness lampooned and interrupted. And before you get any ideas about my cleaning skills, I still don’t do windows. As I was saying before your… companion… decided to put his thaums where they don’t belong, you are an extraordinarily lucky pony. While I don’t have the power to extract what’s left of your mind from the nightmare, a particular set of fillies and colts whom you saved are a bit more experienced in this craft than I.
“Oh, I wish I could see into what’s going on inside that head of yours. I bet it’s a feast of calamity fit for the ages. Your little friends will be here soon though, so instead of fretting about what could have been, I’ll leave you some advice for what is going to be.” The playfulness in Discord’s voice evaporated as he pushed his head closer to a motionless ear. “Like the cover of one of Sparkle’s books, the you that emerges from this place will be both a beginning and an end. It will be up to you to choose which path you decide to see. Don’t let me down…
“Besides,” he continued as the squeaky glee of a foal returned to his timbre, “this whole ordeal could leave us with yet another unneeded alicorn princess, and to be honest, I think you’d look just smashing in a coronation dress. Think of the business it could bring to your sister’s flower shop if she got to decorate.” He turned to meet the rolling lilac irides of a silver-maned filly. “Isn’t that right, Daughter of Dream? Or is good old Uncle Discord allowed to call you Midnight Star?”