Chrysalis stared out at the blackened, mostly dead landscape made even more bleak by the stormclouds that blocked out the sun with mild distaste. This was an area not fit for pony or changeling. The rather large and imposing fort overlooking the small valley in which she and Celestia were walking did nothing to calm her unease. Again, the Changeling Queen was clad in her Luna disguise, but that provided little comfort as the Element of Tyranny that had fused to her had refused to change with her form. The fact that such a blatant give away as to her true nature was so visible made her changeling instincts screech in dismay and did nothing to help her increasingly foul mood. In the distance she could see their destination that they slowly approached; a small cave entrance with a set of barbed, wrought-iron gates preventing entry and guarded by two Earth-pony guards with spears. With the storm rumbling and the sun only peeking out from behind the dark clouds on occasion, their golden armor looked a lot less pristine and shiny.
"What is it you seek in Tartarus, Celestia?" Chrysalis asked for not the first time since the destination had become clear.
"You will see," her alicorn companion replied evenly, much to Chrysalis' continued annoyance. The Princess -- or whoever she was, for Chrysalis wasn't sure which of the two she had seen was the real one -- had been keeping her plans very close to her chest since this alliance began, only telling the Changeling Queen what was going on in very vague terms and only when her plans were almost to be enacted. The whole cryptic immortal double-talk was really starting to aggravate her; Chrysalis decided that as soon as she was back with the majority of her swarm that this alliance would end. This Princess Celestia was powerful, yes, but with her new abilities and the swarm at her back, she was certain she could force an end to the alliance by sheer numbers if nothing else.
But until she had those numbers, Chrysalis had to play along.
"Won't we be seen by the fort?" Chrysalis asked, motioning with a hoof to the imposing base cresting the valley.
"We're the Princesses of Equestria," Celestia noted with amusement, "Who would stop us? Besides, that fort -- and most other ones in the country -- is currently severely understaffed and operating with only a skeleton force. Most of them are out trying to contain those storms and providing aid to communities. Likely, only administrative staff and those unfit for weather duty are still there. The only ones we have to worry about are the two guards at the entrance and that will be easy."
"And why aren't they gone, too?" Chrysalis asked, eyeing the growing form of the two ponies guarding the entrance.
"After an incident where the primary guard to the Tartarus Prison, Cerberus, managed to get off his chain, there were a few break outs," Celestia explained with the tone of a teacher patiently answering a particularly dull student's question, "We -- that is to say, Luna and I -- decided that more traditional security was needed. That fort is less than a year old. Before this new security measure, there wasn't even a gate or guards on the entrance. The only thing that kept the prisoners inside were their own cells and Cerberus." The white alicorn snorted derisively, "Such a shocking display of poor security, was it any wonder that Tirek escaped?"
Chrysalis looked sidelong at her companion, pursing her lips tightly, "You have some surprisingly harsh words for your own folly."
"I was... different then," Celestia stated, "I didn't understand. It's taken me this long to fully comprehend what it means to rule. That order above all is worth any price and sacrifices must sometimes be made for the greater good. I never was comfortable with that truth of ruling before. I was a coward, unable to fully commit to doing what was necessary."
Chrysalis didn't know how to respond to that strange admission, so she said nothing.
Soon they arrived at the cave entrance and the two guard ponies levelled their spears at the pair. For a moment, Chrysalis thought they had somehow discovered her deception (maybe that accursed jewel in her barrel!), but before she could drop her illusion and prepare for a fight, Celestia stepped forward.
"Halt!" one of the ponies said, "State your identity, your purpose, and the password!"
Celestia smiled down at the guard who spoke, the spear still levelled in a position to pierce her heart at a moment's notice. "I am Princess Celestia with Princess Luna, we are here to see a prisoner. The password..." Celestia paused a moment, rubbing her chin with a hoof before offering a grin and a wink, "I think that today the password is 'cake'. Am I right?"
Both guards raised their spears and bowed before Celestia. "Forgive us, Princess. We have been given strict orders to prevent anyone access unless they knew the password."
"It's quite all right, soldier," Celestia replied, "In fact, I am quite pleased that you followed proper procedure. One never knows if some enemy of Equestria may try to get past with illusion spells or any of the myriad other means of disguise. This is a prison for the most dangerous in Equestria, after all. We can't take any chances." She paused briefly then added, "You may both rise." Both Guards did so.
Celestia nodded towards the iron gate and one of the guards took a keyring off his belt, selected one of the keys, then slid it into the overly large lock on the gate. With a heavy clunk the key was turned and the gate slid slowly open with a creak of protest. Celestia began moving through the open gate with Chrysalis in her Luna form following, then stopped halfway through. She looked over her shoulder at the guards then nodded to the one with the keys. "You there. Accompany us." The guard hesitated, looking over at the his companion who seemed to consider the request before nodding. The three figures entered the darkened cave, the gate closing shut behind them and locking with a final-sounding clunk.
The mouth of the cave quickly began to narrow and a sickly red glow could be seen flickering at the other end. A set of spiral stairs, rough-hewn from the very rock of the cave went down towards the faint red light.
Chrysalis trotted up beside Celestia and whispered in a sotto voice, "Why did you take the guard?"
Celestia smiled wryly, before responding in equally quiet tones, "He had the keys. Besides which, I need a present for when we visit. We wouldn't want to be rude, now, would we?"
Chrysalis was about to ask for clarification, but stifled it with a sigh. It was unlikely Celestia would say anything other than more cryptic words and the answer would reveal itself soon.
After several minutes of walking down the uneven staircase, the trio finally reached a landing. Chrysalis chanced a glance upwards and saw the stairs spiraling dizzily upwards into darkness -- how far down were they? The heat was oppressive and the source of the red glare from above now was obvious: around the landing flowed two lakes of lava, bubbling and churning and tossing hot coals occasionally onto the edges of the stone dais where they stood. A thin walkway of polished obsidian bridged the lava flows and led further out into the cave. Celestia began moving across and the other two followed, the sound of their hooves against the black stone mixing with the general bubble and churn of the lava and echoing otherworldly against the walls of the cave. A large crevice was bored into the wall beside the staircase, four heavy chains bolted to the rock disappearing to the darkness within.
The trio walked in silence down the corridor, still flanked on either side with thinner streams of lava, but also illuminated by magic torches set at regular intervals along the walls. The mix of red and yellow light cast ghastly, mocking shadows of the three figures across the black ground. Occasionally, an additional section of obsidian would trace off in another direction, disappearing into the distance or ending in front of a cell. The occupants -- beings of every possible description --- of the cells glared out with hungry, evil eyes at the ponies who passed, occasionally shouting invectives and rattling their iron cages. The guard pony and Chrysalis were both unnerved, but Celestia seemed to take the cacophonous abuse in easy stride.
Eventually, after what seemed to Chrysalis like hours of walking, they turned off on one of the smaller obsidian walkways. The guard stopped, hesitant to go any further and Celestia looked over her shoulder at him. "Something wrong, soldier?"
The guard hesitated, eyes flickering from the path forward to Celestia and back. "N... no, Your Highness," he eventually said, "But... this corridor leads to--"
"I know where it leads," Celestia cut off the pony with a firm voice, "Are you incapable of following orders and escorting my sister and myself?"
The guard steadied on his hooves, body going taut to attention, "No, Princess."
"Then come along," Celestia turned and continued her path down the obsidian way. The others followed.
They came out onto a dais, raised on stone steps and surrounded by more lava and fire. A large cage of cold-iron lay at the center of the dais, the wizened, four-hooved occupant faced away and towards the blank wall. Celestia, Chrysalis, and the guard approached.
"Celestia," came the somewhat rough voice from the figure, dripping with malice and sneering contempt, "And to what do I owe this visit?"
"I've come to offer you a chance to join me, Tirek."
Cackling laughter echoed through the chamber as the emaciated figure turned around to face the three, his sallow somewhat simian face pulled into a rictus of amusement that held no warmth. "Now that is rich," Tirek wheezed, "I'm afraid I will have to decline. I have no wish to become your puppet like Discord nor to be 'redeemed' by friendship." He spat the last word like a curse. "I'd prefer to rot in this prison for eternity than have your compassion inflicted on me."
"I have not come to redeem you, Tirek," Celestia stated patiently, "I want you as you are."
Tirek narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "You will forgive me if I am less than credulous of your offer."
Celestia chuckled softly, "Of course. That is why--" Celestia's horn glowed and the guard pony let out cry as in one fluid magic motion his spear was ripped from him and tossed in the lava and his body was encased in the bright, harsh white glow and dragged towards the cell, "--I brought you a gift. As a gesture of good faith."
"P-Princess Celestia! What are you doing?!" The guard continued to struggle in the telekinetic grasp, but beyond the rippling of his muscles, he could not break free. He screamed as his jaw was forced open and snout jammed through the bars.
Again, Tirek peered suspiciously at Celestia, his dark eyes drifting lazily from the alicorn to the captive guard and back. After a moment's consideration, Tirek opened his mouth and the tell-tale swirls of magic began to pour forth from the poor guard pony into Tirek. His wizened form began to grow and become less emaciated as the pony's coat drained of hue. A few seconds later, the guard was a feeble rag-doll, moaning piteously in the telekinetic embrace of Celestia. "Better?" she asked.
"Hardly much of a meal," Tirek replied, "But your gesture is... appreciated." His eyes narrowed then moved to Chrysalis then back. "You do keep strange company these days, Celestia. A Changeling? And from the taste of her magic, a Queen at that." He canted his head slightly as he peered at Chrysalis, "Though... something is odd about the magic you possess. I have not felt its like before, yet it feels startlingly familiar..."
Chrysalis took a step back and narrowed her eyes at the creature in the cell, "Watch yourself, leech. You would not find me as easy prey."
Hollow chuckling rose from Tirek, "No, I suspect not." He turned his attention back to Celestia, "What is it you want from me, Celestia?"
"As I said, I want you to join me," Celestia replied before motioning with a hoof towards Chrysalis, "As you said, I keep different company these days. I plan to take over all of Equestria and then beyond. You can be a part of those plans, Tirek."
"Interesting," Tirek replied, black eyes still suspicious, "Though you should know from experience that I do not play well with others. And besides which... are you not undisputed ruler of all Equestria already?"
"Co-ruler," Celestia replied, "And hardly undisputed. There is too much disorder in Equestria for my taste." A slow smile spread on her features, "And I suspect you can learn to work with me if the rewards are sufficient. We both know the value of an alliance only reaches as far as it takes one or the other to gain an advantage." She motioned with a hoof to Chrysalis, "She is already planning to usurp me. Why should you be any different?"
Chrysalis blinked and stared at Celestia, "Princess! I don't know where these thoughts of your come from, but I had no intention--"
Celestia fixed the Changeling Queen with a hard stare and she found her voice dying in her throat. Celestia turned back to Tirek and smiled, "Join me, Tirek, and I promise you more power than you have ever dreamed possible. Enough to make all the magic in Equestria itself pale before its might."
Tirek rubbed his chin thoughtfully with a claw. "I don't know what game you are playing, Celestia," he said slowly, "But I suppose I could play as well. It would be better than rotting in this cell at least."
"Excellent," Celestia replied, her telekinesis dropping the drained guard to the ground with an unceremonious thump as she opened her saddlebag and produced a small dark pinkish-red diamond gem. It floated towards the cell and hovered in front of Tirek, "And finally: another gift. I, Princess Celestia, present to you, Tirek, the Element of Tyranny: Power."
Tirek paused, staring at the gem for a long moment. "I... sense power here," he said cautiously, "But..."
"But what?" Celestia asked, arching an eyebrow, "Are you saying you reject the power I am giving you?" She snorted in scorn, beginning to retract the gem, "Perhaps I was wrong about you. Maybe you are not fit to wield an Element, especially one as special as this. Very well, we will leave." Celestia began to turn away.
"Wait!" Tirek called out, raising a hand and grasping through the bars, "I was merely trying to ascertain the aspect of magic within the gem. I did not say I rejected it."
Celestia looked over her shoulder, eyebrows arched imperiously, "No? You seemed quite willing to walk away from power just now." A thin, mocking smile spread across her lips, "Or perhaps you believe you will be unable to handle the power of the Element? Is cowardice staying your hand, Tirek?"
Tirek glared at the alicorn. "No power is over me!" he roared, "I am power! Give me the gem!"
Celestia paused for a long while, staring calculatingly at Tirek. "Very well," she said finally, floating the gem closer. Greedily, he reached out for the gem through the bars, grasping it with his claws. Shafts of light burst forth from his grip and the ancient magic leech let out a roar of intense pain. In an instant it was gone and Tirek found the gem -- now transformed into the shape of a gripping fist -- infused in his palm.
He looked up at Celestia, "What treachery is this?!"
Pure, harsh white light enveloped the keys on the weakly struggling guard and glided up to the thick lock on Tirek's cell. One by one the keys were tried until a thick clunk was heard and the door to the cell swung open wide. "No treason," Celestia replied, "I gave you exactly what you wished for. Power."
Tirek growled low in his throat as he stepped out of his cage, still staring at the gem embedded in his palm. "I fail to see how this grants me any power, Celestia."
The still prone guard was floated into the cage that Tirek vacated and the door closed and once more locked, the keyring floating towards Celestia's saddlebags. She smiled with mild amusement at Tirek, "Why don't you test it?" She nodded towards the lava surrounding the dais, "Try absorbing the lava."
Tirek blinked at Celestia then frowned, "Are you insane? I take magic, not geological features!"
"All of Equestria is magical in some way," Celestia stated, her voice once more going into a teacheresque lecturing mode, "It touches everything; the earth, the rocks, the plants. Even the lava."
Fixing Celestia with a glare, Tirek trotted over to the edge of the dais and peered into the roiling lava pit. He took a breath then extended his hand with the gem and concentrated. The gem began to glow with a sickly, throbbing light and, much to his surprise, Tirek could feel the magic in the very earth being ripped away and taken into him. More than that, he could feel the very magic of the land, washing over him in details and ways he never experienced before. After a moment as the sensation began to ebb, Tirek opened his eyes and found the cavern mostly pitch black -- the only light being a bright, pure yet harsh white coming from Celestia's horn.
The lava in the cavern had been completely removed -- only a thin layer of volcanic dust remained where once the lava flowed.
Tirek couldn't help but be impressed despite himself.
"Satisfied?" Celestia asked with a smirk.
"Yes," Tirek said, unable to keep the note of wonder from his voice, "That was... most satisfactory."
"Good," Celestia stated and started to walk out of the cavern, "Now come, we have much to do."
The journey back to the landing was an eventful one. The trio would pause at each cell they encountered on the way back and Tirek would absorb the magic that the prisoner contained. Under usual circumstances, Tirek would have to build up to absorbing greater magic, taking smaller and less powerful sources first. Doing otherwise was dangerous; there was a possibility of not being able to handle the larger, more powerful sources in a weakened state.
Now, however, it didn't seem to matter what his own status was: if it was a magic source, he could absorb it, regardless of the power contained.
Tirek was feeling quite powerful indeed by the time they reached the bottom of the stairs that led out of the cave. Indeed, his emaciated form had improved immensely, becoming powerful and fit. Not quite up to his strength when he faced down Twilight Sparkle, but still quite respectable. So busy marveling at his new abilities and fortune was Tirek that he nearly missed the hole in the wall until a large, three-headed dog bounded out of it, stopped only by the four heavy chains. It barred the access to the stairs.
"Well, Tirek?" Celestia said, nodding towards the slavering beast.
Tirek nodded and extended his gem-infused hand to Cerberus. The beast suddenly stopped its straining at its restrained and sniffed the air cautiously, growling at Tirek.
"The beast's magic is... difficult to take," Tirek said, "That is probably why it is tasked with guarding this place."
"You'll be able to do it," Celestia spoke with confidence.
Tirek merely grunted at that, instead pouring his concentration into his task. The beast began to back up, whining and whimpering softly. Then, suddenly, Cerberus let out a yelp as strands of yellow magic flecked with red began to flow out from the creature. It began to shrink and shrivel, it's strong limbs trembling and eventually collapsing under its own weight until the three-headed dog was left as a grey, old, piteous caricature of its former self. Tirek took in a deep breath. "An interesting experience."
The three began to walk up the stairs, towards the cave entrance.
"P-Princess?!" the guard at the top behind the gate stared with surprise at Celestia in the company of Tirek. Celestia smiled and lifted the keys from her saddlebag, unlocking the gate and swinging it open. "Do not worry, soldier. Everything is fine."
"But... but..." the guard was flabbergasted, looking between Celestia, Chrysalis, and Tirek as they exited the cave, "Princess, that is Tirek!" The guard blinked twice then watched as the keys once more floated to Celestia's bag. "Wait, where's Stalwart Heart?"
Celestia paused, frowning at the guard. "You ask too many questions," she stated flatly, grabbing him in her white aura and wrenching the spear from his grasp. She looked towards Chrysalis, "Tirek has been feeding quite well recently, why don't you have this one?"
Chrysalis blinked then smiled nastily, licking her lips as her Luna disguise fell away in a flash of green magic, "Don't mind if I do..." The guard screamed.
Tirek watched the feeding with mild interest for a few moments before turning his attention to Celestia. "You have, indeed, granted me power," he said, a small smile beginning to form on his features, "But now I have that power and my freedom. Tell me, Celestia..." he raised his bejeweled hand towards the alicorn, "... Did your 'plans' include my betrayal so soon after release?"
Celestia turned towards Tirek and fixed him with a mildly amused smirk devoid of any real mirth. "Yes."
Tirek blinked and frowned. That was not the reaction he was expecting. No matter. Tirek reached out with his senses and his power and prepared to absorb Celestia.
Only nothing happened.
He couldn't even sense her.
"Well?" Celestia asked, the smirk replaced with a cold intensity, "Weren't you going to betray me?"
Tirek blinked and looked at his hand then back to the alicorn, "What... what did you do to me?!"
"As I said, I gave you what you wanted," Celestia stated, beginning to slowly circle Tirek like a predatory shark, "Ultimate power. But power always comes with a price. You just didn't know what it was until this moment. You can't use your powers on me, Tirek, nor on any of the other Elements of Tyranny. That is the price of power." She turned away from him and began to walk away, only to pause and look over her shoulder, "Oh, and one more thing..." Her horn glowed and the Alicorn Amulet at her throat glowed in sympathy.
Instantly, Tirek was hit with a wave of pain unlike he had ever experienced. It felt worse than when he had the magic torn out of him from his second defeat. Every single fiber of his body seemed to be at once on fire, prickled with needles, and being pulled to pieces.
He had never felt such relief when the pain stopped. His head swam and his vision was blurred. Disorientated, it took several moments for Tirek to realize he had collapsed on the ground. His breathing was labored and he discovered to his disgust that he had fouled himself in the most messy, embarrassing way possible. He reached up to his face and found it came away wet. At first he thought it was spittle from his mouth, but then realized to his horror that they were tears. Tirek had never cried before. Not once, ever. It was a symbol of pure weakness. The fact that he had just now disturbed him more than the pain itself.
Celestia stared imperiously down at his prone form, her countenance a mask of cold, controlled indifference. "So tell me, Tirek," she said, her voice a deathly quiet that gave Tirek chills, "How long do you think you were subjected to that pain?"
Tirek blinked and heaved in a heavy breath. He tried to think -- it seemed like an eternity when it was happening. "A... a few minutes," he said between his labored gasps.
"Seven seconds," Celestia replied, "It was just seven seconds. Had I let you writhe in pain for another seven, what do you think that would do to you? Could you stand it, Tirek? Would you go mad?" She narrowed her eyes, "Attempt to betray me again, and you will find out."
"I... I understand, Celestia."
"Good," the alicorn said, a faint smile appearing on her features as her horn glowed, "Now let's get you cleaned up."
Chrysalis was enjoying feeding off the pony's love mixed with the nice spiciness of fear when she heard the cry. The Changeling Queen blinked and looked over towards where Tirek and Celestia stood, frowning at the interruption. Her eyes widened as she saw the large brute collapse suddenly and twitch like a dying insect, voiding his bowels and letting out the most pitiful cry of pain and despair she had ever heard. And she had heard some cries before -- usually she rather enjoyed them. Here, though, it was heartbreaking in a way she had never experienced, at least first hand. She felt... sympathy. It was an uncomfortable feeling.
She looked down at the pony in her grasp. Despite the clawing hunger, she had lost her appetite; another unusual sensation that disturbed her. She instead stood and trotted over to the pair.
Tirek had stood up and Celestia had cast a spell to clean him up. She looked over at Chrysalis' approach and smiled, "Satiated?"
"Never," Chrysalis replied, "But I am finished with him."
Celestia's horn glowed again and encompassed the emotionally drained pony in her harsh, white magic, dragging him over to the gate on the cave entrance and throwing him inside. The gate closed shut with a bang and locked.
"Come, we have someone else to add to our merry band," Celestia stated with cheerfulness, "We go North! To the Crystal Empire." She started off at a regal walk.
Chrysalis watched the Princess go before turning to Tirek, a frown on her features. "What happened?"
"It... it was nothing," Tirek replied, wiping his eyes and staring with quiet horror at the salty liquid there. He shook his head quickly, "A... miscalculation on my part, that is all. And a lesson in loyalty." He began to walk off, catching up to Celestia.
Chrysalis watched the two begin to recede in the distance before she started to walk. Perhaps her severing of the alliance would have to wait even longer than she planned.
This deal was getting worse all the time.