Fortunately, the snow didn't seem so deep around here as previously; Chrysalis' hooves only sunk in to just below the knee, as opposed to basically sitting atop the snow and having to hover up to get out in an undignified sort of bunny hop through the icy wastes. She did consider just flying along the top of the snow as she did when traveling to this frozen pit, but her wings were already tired after the long flight here. The last thing she needed was to run out of steam on the way back. Especially with the cold sapping her strength, she needed to conserve her energy.
That didn't make the cold, wet stuff any more pleasant to deal with, however. Especially as it got into the gouges peppering her legs -- not a pleasant feeling at all. It was just fortunate that changelings were capable of making their own body heat, despite their insectile appearance. That didn't mean her species liked cold weather, though, just because they could survive it.
Adding to her increasingly foul mood was the closeness of the pony city absolutely filled with love, the top of which could just be barely seen over the horizon; it seemed to be radiating the emotion like a beacon. Being able to sense such a bounty of delectable treats so near yet so far (and without the protection of even a portion of her brood) was maddening and sent the constant, gnawing hunger in her belly to new heights.
Her companions didn't seem to mind any of this, though; Tirek merely barreled through the snow, bodily pushing it out of his way, his crystal embedded hand held out before him. Celestia walked easily on top of the snow, the faint harsh white glow of her horn and a corresponding aura of whiteness around her hooves revealing some kind of snow walking spell being used. Chrysalis didn't know that spell and she didn't want to ask the arrogant alicorn to teach it to her. She still had her pride, even if she had lost some of her freedom.
Suddenly, Tirek stopped and held up his other hand to single the trio to stop. "Here! It is here!" he said, eyes narrowing at a section of snow that looked like just any other patch, "I can sense it."
"Excellent," Celestia stated, her horn's luminosity brightening as a beam of white light burst from the tip and began to melt the snow where Tirek had indicated. A sibilant hiss filled the air and wisps of water vapor curled up from the rapidly expanding pit made by the Sun Monarch's beam, digging deeper and deeper. Chrysalis revised her estimate as to the depth of the snow here; it was clearly much deeper, she had merely encountered a section of snow underneath that was hard-packed enough to bear her weight.
A few moments later the beam of harsh light ceased and a single curved, blackened horn floated up out of the pit. The tip had a distinct reddish hue and still looked quite sharp but the larger end was a jagged, broken mess as if it had been snapped off at the base. Celestia smiled coldly at it before swiveling her eyes towards Tirek and nodding once.
The bestial being shifted his weight slightly in the snow then held out his hand to the floating horn, closing his eyes as if he intended to drain the magic from it. Here, however, magic seemed to flow out of him, into the horn; a sickening mixture of dark purple, green, and black. It coiled around the horn in a lovers embrace, crawling in a serpentine fashion across the surface. Soon the wisps of magic descended lower, gradually forming the outline of a quadruped body becoming more and more distinct. Soon it was a pony, and then a specific pony.
The large dark grey stallion shook his head, causing his wild black mane to shift from the motion. His eyes opened, red and malevolent, backed by a glowing green with purple streams of magic flowing from them.
"Welcome back, King Sombra," Celestia said.
"I... live?" Sombra rumbled to no one, his voice colored in confusion before he looked over at the other three entities sharing his location. His eyes shifted from Tirek to Chrysalis, and then locked on Celestia, a low, rumbling growl rising in his throat as he took a step back and lowered his head to the alicorn.
"Peace, King Sombra," Celestia murmured, raising a hoof to the stallion, "I would not have brought you back from the veil merely to destroy you immediately, would I?"
"What do you want?" Sombra asked, watching the white alicorn warily.
"I want to give you what you most desire," Celestia responded with a smile that did not reach her eyes, "Control. And fear."
Sombra sniffed dismissively, waving a hoof, "I have no need for whatever you can provide."
"Oh, I think you do," Celestia stated flatly, "You are weak, Sombra. Your subjects are no longer afraid of you. They don't even recognize you as their king." The white alicorn motioned to the horizon where the top of the protective dome of the city could just barely be seen, "The Crystal Heart is free and the ones who defeated you have claimed the throne of the Empire. You have nothing, King Sombra. I am offering you a chance to get it all back. All of it."
Sombra frowned deeply, looking briefly over to where Celestia had indicated then back. He looked about to reply when his eyes focused on her chest, widening slightly. "The Alicorn Amulet!" he exclaimed, pointing an accusatory hoof at Celestia, "That is mine! Give it to me!"
"I'm afraid not," Celestia replied with a smirk, "You lost it over a thousand years ago, if you recall. And you also know that it can only be removed by the one who wears it, so no... you are not getting it back." Sombra glared in fury at the white alicorn, though the Princess raised a hoof to forestall any comment, "That said, I can provide you with something almost as powerful. Consider it a gift. A token of my appreciation." Celestia opened her saddlebag and a gem floated out from the confines, stopping in front of King Sombra. Deep, dark blue and shaped like a teardrop, the gem hovered in front of the former monarch as Celestia continued, "I, Princess Celestia, present to you, King Sombra Arch-warlock and Sovereign of the Crystal Empire, Fear the Element of Tyranny."
Sombra peered suspiciously at the gem floating before him, his eyes sliding from it to the other three in attendance. With a snort, he reached out a hoof for the gem, hesitated one last time, then gripped it. With a howl of pain that echoed in the snowy wastes of the north, his entire form glowed with dark, green energy. After the glow faded, King Sombra panted for breath, the gem retaining its teardrop shape and now melded to his flesh at the base of his throat. The dark unicorn glared at Celestia and opened his mouth as if to speak, but paused. A look of mild confusion spread over his features and his ears flattened back against his skull, his head tilting to one side as if listening for a sound. Slowly, he turned around to peer at the just-visible city, his eyes widening.
"Incredible," he rumbled, "I can... I can sense all of them. All of their secret terrors, the things that keep them up at night. Even from here, I can sense them." Sombra took a deep breath, "It is a heady power." Slowly, he turned back to the trio behind him, peering at them curiously before frowning. "But you... I cannot sense the fears of you. None of you." His eyes focused on Celestia, "Explain."
"As I said, I have given you a great gift," the alicorn replied with a cold smile, "And you are now bound to me. Serve me well, Sombra, and you will have everything you desire and more." Celestia drew herself up, "Now we must return to the hive."
Chrysalis peered at Sombra and Tirek before speaking, "Are you certain you can fly with both of them in tow? It was a long journey here and our reserves are low."
Celestia chuckled in response, smiling mirthlessly, "I assure you, my dear Chrysalis, that my reserves are virtually untouched. However, who said anything about flying back? King Sombra! A word, please?" The unicorn glared at the white alicorn briefly, then acquiesced. The pair talked in quiet tones about eldrich things for several minutes before separating.
"By your command, Princess," Sombra murmured, bowing his head and stepping towards the pit in the snow that once held his form. He closed his eyes and concentrated, horn glowing with a sickly green light. The ground beneath the snow seemed to fall away into a deep, dark pit, roughly hewed stones spiraling down into the depths. "It is done," Sombra said after a moment, "This portal will lead to the changeling's hive."
"Excellent," Celestia stated with a nod as she began to move down the steps, "The distance should be much shorter, but it is still a long way. Do hurry." The white alicorn disappeared into the forbidding darkness. Sombra stared after her with a calculating gaze.
A moment later, Chrysalis followed. Tirek moved up next, but paused beside the dark unicorn. "Whatever you're considering, I would advise against it," he said flatly, "These gems bind us to each other and to Celestia in a very real sense. Do not provoke her wrath. It is... unpleasant." Then he, too, descended down the spiral staircase.
For a long moment, King Sombra paused at the edge of his portal, staring down into it. He could, with a thought, dissolve the portal trapping his 'companions' in a limbo from where there was no escape. He would then be free to do whatever he wished. But Tirek's warning sent a shiver through his spine. As assuredly as he could feel the underlining buzz of fear in his former city, he could feel his own just as acutely. Something about trying to betray the hated white alicorn filled him with ice-cold dread and, despite knowing it impossible, the idea that Celestia could somehow escape from the void seemed a very real and present danger in his mind.
With one final look backwards at the city -- his city -- Sombra began to follow the others down into the pit.
Twilight was so absorbed in the journal of her mentor that she almost missed the whumping sound from the veranda. The purple alicorn shifted her gaze away from the words on the page towards the window, watching as Luna walked inside the Royal Suites.
"Princess Luna," Twilight greeted the other alicorn, getting up from the comfortable pillow on which she sat, "You're back." Her eyes lit up as she noticed the green scaly lump slide off of the Princess of the Night, "Spike!"
"Hey, Twilight!" Spike said cheerfully, running over and giving Twilight a quick hug, "We have things mostly handled back in Ponyville, so I came along." He looked around at the luxurious, but tastefully appointed room. "So this is Princess Celestia's room? Nice. I like it."
"Greetings to you, Twilight Sparkle," Luna said, walking up and inclining her head slowly, "How goes your researches?"
Twilight hesitated before responding. "Well, it's really interesting, especially from a historical perspective," she said, "And fascinating to see you and Princess Celestia grow up." A somewhat sad smile spread over Luna's features at that statement. "But so far... I haven't really found anything that seems to pertain to the current situation, no."
Luna sighed, shaking her head. "Unfortunate," she murmured, "And I'm afraid we must interrupt your search again. Some... disquieting facts have been uncovered since we last spoke and I would have your opinion on them."
Twilight nodded and sat back down on the cushion, motioning for Spike and Luna to follow suit.
While Spike rolled in another cushion, Luna shifted her weight uneasily back and forth on hers. "We have discovered changelings in Ponyville. Or, rather, they were there; an investigation is still ongoing to see if the creatures still infest the town."
"Changelings!" Twilight exclaimed in surprise before frowning.
"There's more," Luna continued, "It seems the changelings we uncovered were after an artifact in your care. The magic mirror that links this world with the one Sunset Shimmer now occupies, as well as the means to activate it." The dark alicorn shifted her weight again, "In addition, Zecora informed us that... that my sister and I apparently came to her and retrieved the Alicorn Amulet. It wasn't me, of that I am sure, and with the addition of changelings, the obvious answer is that the two ponies Zecora saw were changelings themselves. Why, then, steal those items? A thought occurred that, perhaps, the changelings were going to invade that different world, using the Alicorn Amulet as a means to bolster their abilities in the wake of such a magic-poor world." She peered at Twilight owlishly, "Your thoughts?"
Twilight's frown deepened as she thought. "It's possible," she said slowly, "But unlikely. Honestly, I didn't get much of a chance to research the Alicorn Amulet before Princess Celestia asked me to give it Zecora for safe keeping, so I don't really know its full capabilities. It certainly is powerful and could conceivably do what you are suggesting." She shook her head quickly, "But it doesn't explain the strange storms. I don't think changelings have any magic like that. What changeling would know enough about the Amulet to adjust it like that?"
"I see," Luna said with a frown. She sighed and looked away uneasily, "There is a... remote possibility that my sister may be working with the changelings. She does have the knowledge to use the Alicorn Amulet as described if it is possible at all, and she alone knew how to retrieve the artifact from Zecora. It was protected with spells that only she knew how to circumvent."
Twilight listened to the reluctant accusation quietly before setting her jaw. "No," she said flatly, "Princess Celestia would never do that."
"I don't want to believe it either, Twilight Sparkle," Luna replied sadly, "But, as somepony stated, until we can discount the possibility it should be considered. If my sister is working with changelings, she may not be doing so out of her own free will. Or they may have somehow extracted the information from her and then pretended."
Twilight's gaze lowered to the floor as she thought. "I can't believe Princess Celestia would betray Equestria," she said again. Suddenly, she looked up, eyes wide, "The guards! The guards who were impelled to keep anyone from seeing you! Maybe the analysis of the spell is done and we can get some idea as to who cast it?"
Luna's brows lifted and she smiled, standing up, "An excellent idea. Let us go see, shall we?"
The hospital wing of the barracks was just as spacious as the rest of the palace, though much more functional and spartan. Simple light gems were set in the wall to provide illumination and the white, polished limestone brickwork was free of any embellishments. Ponies of various types wandered back and forth on their appointed duties, checking into rooms occasionally before continuing on their way. The massive storm and the injuries associated with trying to get it under control had transformed the normally sedate pace of the hospital wing (mostly used for treating training accidents or outbreaks of horn rot and wing fever) into a hub of bustling activity; more ponies had been hurt in combating the storm than had been even during the changeling invasion.
Twilight, Luna and Spike walked down the corridor dodging orderlies and doctors as they hurried about, eventually stopping at one of the rooms flanked by two spear-wielding ponies. Both immediately straightened up in attention at their approach.
"Is this the room where the four magically compelled Guardsponies are being held?" Luna asked.
"Yes, Your Highness!" one guard immediately responded.
"And have the doctors analyzed and treated the compulsion spell?"
"I'm afraid I don't know, ma'am," the guard replied after a moments hesitation, "You'll have to ask the doctors."
Luna nodded then motioned to the guards, who immediately parted and allowed access to the door for the two ponies and dragon.
"I'm with them," Spike said to the guards, completely unnecessarily.
Inside were four beds, separated from each other with heavy extendable partitions. The four guardsponies from before lay in the beds, strange beeping devices connected via leads to their foreheads. Several ponies in lab coats stood in an alcove nearby, pouring over sheets of paper and arcane medical devices that whirred and blinked lights at them.
Luna cleared her throat to get the attention of the collection of doctors pouring over the results. They turned towards her before one pulled away from the group -- a light yellow coated unicorn stallion with a short cropped black mane wearing black rimmed glasses, white lab coat, and a black tie -- and stopped before them. "Princess Luna, Princess Twilight. How may we be of assistance?"
"Have you completed your analysis and treatment of the spell these four were exposed to, Doctor..." Luna's voice faded off.
"Fine Line, ma'am," the doctor finished for her.
"Fine Line?" Twilight asked, canting her head, "Any relation to Flat Line?"
The medical pony coughed in minor embarrassment. "Unfortunately, yes. That whole malpractice thing has really tarred all of us Lines with a bad brush. Let me assure you, Princess Twilight, that former doctor Flat Line is an aberration and will not be practicing medicine ever again."
"I'm sure you and your brethren perform their medical tasks ably," Luna said, attempting to smooth over any ruffled egos, "One bad egg does not spoil the lot." The Princess of the Night affected a calm, yet authoritative posture, "Now, if you would be so kind as to answer the question I posed, Doctor Fine Line?"
Adopting a professional attitude himself, the stallion doctor nodded once and presented a clipboard to the two princesses, Luna gathering it up in her magical aura and eyes grazing over the data.
"Yes," Fine Line said, "Analysis and treatment have both been done, and both have been completely successful. The analysis was... difficult. The spell was very complex and, if you look at the fourth page there, you'll see why. We didn't even notice until we used the spectral thaumagraph to chart it."
Luna immediately flipped to the page indicated, her eyes widening slightly.
"Despite how complex the spell was," Fine Line continued, "Once we were able to sort through the matrix, it was easy to see what the spell did and even easier to remove it." The yellow unicorn smiled wryly, adjusting his glasses with one hoof, "If I had to say so, Your Highnesses, it's almost as if the spell was specifically designed to be easily removed with no harm being done to the subject."
Luna flipped back a few pages on the clipboard, frowning deeply as she read. Her eyes flickered to the doctor and she fixed him with a stare, the unicorn shrinking back under the gaze. "And you are sure of these origin results, Doctor Fine Line?"
The medical pony shifted his weight uneasily on his hooves before nodding. "Yes, Princess Luna. We are sure. Mind you, we only have Princess Celestia's yearly physical results to base it off of and there always is some variation in those, but for all intents and purposes, it matches."
"Thank you, Doctor," Luna said with a sigh, floating the clipboard over to Twilight. Fine Line nodded once then broke off to return to the gaggle of other doctors by the whirring machinery. Twilight's purple magic aura surrounded the clipboard as her eyes scanned over the pages, her face a study in varied expressions: from academic interest, to curiosity, to dismay, and finally to surprise.
"What's it say? What's it say?" Spike asked, bouncing up and down on his talons, trying to peek at the clipboard. Twilight sighed and floated the clipboard to the young dragon to gripped it and began flipping through the pages. "I don't get it."
"It is almost assuredly my sister who compelled these ponies," Luna summarized for the young dragon, "But the ease by which is was removed is curious. As is the final page."
Spike flipped to the page in question; it was an exceedingly complex glyph or chart for what purpose he couldn't quite grasp. What he could grasp, though was the image that seemed to form from the mass of lines. "Hey! That looks like--"
"--the Tree of Harmony," Twilight finished with a nod, "Yes, Spike. It seems too much of a coincidence, especially since that image made up the majority of the spell matrix and did nothing for the spell overall. It doesn't make sense."
"So it's like a secret message?" Spike asked, tilting his head.
Twilight paused, looking up to Princess Luna who in turn looked back. Twilight's face broke into a smile which slowly widened, "That's it! Celestia hid this in the spell because she knew that if somepony encountered it, they'd have to unravel the matrix to find the image inside! The only ones most likely to do that--"
"--Would be us," Luna finished with a nod, "Or, at least, somepony who wanted to preserve the lives and minds of those guards. Yes. Yes, it fits. For some reason, my sister couldn't speak in the open and so had to resort to more clandestine means of sending a message."
"Why didn't she just write a message directly in the spell, then?" Spike asked, "Or just draw out the letters like this image?"
"It would've been too easy to analyze, Spike," Twilight said excitedly, "If she just implanted words, then anypony with at least a middling level of experience would be able to see them in the spell. Drawing letters would be harder to discover on a cursory examination, true, but they are also very regular patterns and thus easy to recognize. Princess Celestia must've wanted this message to be virtually invisible unless great pains were taken in the analysis!" The purple alicorn hopped in joy. "Princess Celestia is not a traitor! She's... she's a double agent! This whole thing was a clue!"
"And it would appear that our double agent wants us to look to the Tree of Harmony," Luna stated thoughtfully, "Though I do not understand why my sister has felt the need to keep her infiltration of the changelings to herself." Luna's ears flattened against her head and she frowned faintly, "Though this wouldn't be the first time she had resorted to subterfuge when dealing with the changelings."
"Princess?" Twilight asked, canting her head to one side.
Luna was lost in thought for a moment before shaking her head and offering a smile to Twilight. "It is nothing. In any case, it would seem answers lie at the Tree of Harmony."
Princess Celestia -- the real Princess Celestia, she reminded herself -- lay in the small, dark room, green ichor dripping from the ceiling. The place smelled of musty mushrooms and her back hooves were immobilized by crusty rings of solidified green mucus. Without windows there wasn't any way to tell time, but based on the rumbling in her belly and the sense of thirst that pervaded, she had been there a few days at least. Once again, she tried to summon her magic, her horn managing a brief, sputtering, dim yellow glow before failing. She had lost track of how many times she had tried. Still, things did seem to be improving, slowly. A few hundred tries ago, there was only a small spark. A few hundred before that, no amount of magic manifested. It wasn't much, but it was something.
Celestia was jarred out of her thoughts by the sound of something outside her cell. The sound was faint, the chitinous walls providing excellent sound insulation, but it was there. The Princess of the Sun looked over at the door -- a round, iris like protrusion set into one of the walls -- and struggled to a seating position. A moment later, the iris opened with a squelch and in stepped her doppleganger, looking about the cell with mild curiosity. Her eyes eventually focused on the prisoner and a cold smile spread on her features. "Comfy?"
Celestia said nothing.
"I know that the accoutrements here are very different from the soft pillows and expensive gems you're used to," the other Celestia said, dark amusement in her tone, "But your accommodations could be much worse. Queen Chrysalis wanted you cocooned. You must remember how unpleasant that was."
Again, Celestia said nothing. She just stared balefully at her other self.
That other self smirked at the silence and motioned outside with a hoof. A changeling drone stepped inside, depositing a chitinous bucket filled with fetid water and a bowl full of something green.
"Eat, drink," the other Celestia ordered, "You'll need your strength for later."
Celestia frowned deeply, eyes going to the water and food and then back to her doppleganger. Still she sat in stubborn silence.
With a sigh, the other Celestia shook her head, "You're only hurting yourself, you know. I will do what I will regardless of your health. And besides." Another cold, darkly amused smile graced her features, "If you want to have any hope of escape then you need to be ready. It would be such a pity for your escape time to come and be unable to take advantage because of physical weakness brought on by thirst and starvation, would it not?"
Celestia glared deeply at her double, but then reluctantly bent down and began to drink from the bucket. As bad as the water tasted, it still was surprisingly satisfying. She didn't realize just how parched she was.
Her other self watched with satisfaction. After several moments, she spoke again, "You will be happy to know that your incarceration here won't last much longer. Despite some unfortunate delays, my plan is well on the way to fruition."
Again, Celestia refused to respond, instead moving to munch on the green... something... that was her meal. It tasted like alfalfa. She hated alfalfa. Still, nourishment was nourishment.
The other Celestia watched her eat in silence for a while more before again speaking. "There is something I was curious about, though," she remarked airily, "My good dear friend Chrysalis told me that you had mind controlled some of your own guard to watch over our dear sister -- oh, don't look at me like that, you know that she still has agents in the palace." The cold alicorn's eyes narrowed at her humbled double, "Though that is surprising. You have always been very moralistic when it came to using mind control."
"It wasn't mind control," Celestia replied simply in a pause of her meal.
The other Celestia frowned, peering at the mirror image with narrowed eyes. "That is not what Chrysalis said."
"Then she is mistaken or trying to deceive you," Celestia stated flatly before offering a faint smile of her own, "That is what happens when you try to build an empire on deceit and force."
The cold amusement was absent from the other Celestia as she regarded the imprisoned alicorn with malice. "If it wasn't mind control, then what was--" she cut herself off, understanding lighting in her eyes, "Ahh... you used that spell. Curious. Though I suppose it is understandable that Chrysalis didn't differentiate that from mind control. Only you would split moral hairs about that sort of thing."
Celestia frowned. "I don't think it is only me."
"Regardless," the cold Celestia remarked with a wave of her hoof, "I still find it surprising that you used that spell, considering your moral objection to its use on the Princess of Unicornia." She smirked, "I guess this is tacit agreement that morals and ethics can bend if the stakes are high enough. It is good I have finally gotten you to see the wisdom in pragmatism."
Celestia's frown deepened and she narrowed her eyes, "Bend, perhaps. But not break. There are lines I will never cross."
"No, of course not," the other Celestia stated acidly, rolling her eyes, "You always must have the moral high ground. You never see the world for what it is." She glared angrily at the prisoner alicorn, "And what have your much vaunted morals brought you, hmm? How many enemies have threatened you? How many ponies have suffered or lost their lives so you could feel good about yourself?"
"And how many will suffer or lose their lives for your goals?" Celestia shot back, just as angrily, "I, at least, try to minimize the dangers to my little ponies. You would throw them away whenever it is convenient!"
"I work for the greater good!" the other Celestia thundered in rage, "I bring order and stability to a chaotic universe! You--" the word was said with venom and derision, "--merely treat the disease with useless tinctures and sugar pills while the cancer grows. I would cut it out! Yes, there will be pain and suffering at first, but the end result will be a healthy patient. There will be order. There will be harmony!"
"There will be nothing worth living for!" Celestia yelled, "Even if what you say is true, then you would only have reduced a pony's life to a mechanistic series of events. There isn't any room for creativity or art or even love! There would merely be existing." She shook her head, "You can't force anyone -- pony or not -- to be harmonious. They have to see the benefits for themselves. They have to know there is a better way and choose, of their own free will, to follow it."
The other Celestia glared at her bound self, lips pressed tightly together in anger. She closed her eyes and took a deep, calming breath before opening again. "Always the same arguments with you," the cold alicorn stated with a sigh, "I really wish you could see just how much you enable chaos. But no matter. I am right." She straightened up, "I have always been right. Control. Power. Order. These are what matter. Not 'creativity' or 'love'. Those are things of disorder. No matter how prettily you dress them, Celestia, they still remain ugly agents of chaos." A thin smile spread on Celestia's features, "I hope you enjoyed your meal and our little chat. Good day." She turned and left, the iris door sliding shut with a squelch.
A cascade of hooves finding ground rose up from the fissure where the Tree of Harmony lie, now a twisted, withered skeleton of its former self. Twilight and Luna, backed by a full squadron of Nightwatch as well as some Royal Guard, stepped forward to inspect the tree. They had made almost a bee-line flight here, stopping only to set Spike off at Twilight's castle with Celestia's journal (an action which the little dragon had protested most strenuously). They had no idea what to expect on returning to the Tree of Harmony.
But it certainly wasn't this.
"What... happened to it?" Twilight asked, getting over her initial shock as to the state of the Tree.
"I know not," Luna said, frowning and cautiously moving around the tree, "It looks like the foulest warlockry is afoot." Her frown deepened, "Have the changelings managed to tap into such a fell power? That may be reason why my sister wished to falsely ingratiate herself to them -- to learn where they had discovered such eldrich secrets."
"Dark magic did this?" Twilight asked, motioning to the tree.
Luna nodded grimly, "Likely, yes, Twilight Sparkle. But this is not just any dark magic; this is powerful, ancient devilry." Luna hesitated then spoke again, "Starswirl was responsible for the Tree. It is created with some of the most powerful magics he had known. To twist and pervert it like this would require warlockry that only a hoofful of ponies have ever discovered."
Twilight inspected the withered form curiously. She blinked. "The Elements of Harmony are missing."
Luna's attention jerked back to Twilight and she raced to the area where the other alicorn was peering at the tree. "By the Great Maker, you are right!" she exclaimed, stumbling back, "The Elements of Harmony are gone!" The Princess of the Night's eyes darted back and forth as her mind raced. "I think this may be what my sister wanted us to know," she said, her voice hurried by her thoughts, "The Elements have been... been corrupted by some ancient, foul dark magic and taken. For what purpose I know not, but undoubtedly the theft of the Alicorn Amulet -- itself an item of dark magic -- and the magic mirror also factor into whatever dread plan is ahoof."
Twilight gnawed on her lower lip in worry. "I don't know what it could be," she said uneasily, "There are a lot of things here to consider, but I don't really see much in the way of pattern between them. Dark magic, stolen artifacts, Princess Celestia missing then seemingly working with changelings only to be a double agent. We're still missing too many pieces, I think."
"I think you are right, Twilight Sparkle," Luna replied with a nod, "We are missing too much information. I think... I think if there is an answer, it again lies in the journal my sister entrusted to you."
Twilight hesitated then nodded, "Yes, Princess. I have the same feeling. Should I get back to it?"
"Yes," Luna replied, turning her attention back to the Tree of Harmony, "Return to your castle and continue your study of the journal. I will remain here and attempt to discern what has been done to the Tree of Harmony to warp it in so foul a fashion." She paused briefly then added, "I will also be assigning to you half a cadre of Nightwatch." Twilight opened her mouth to protest, but the Princess raised a hoof to silence her, "Only as a precaution. We don't know what moves our opponents will take as we haven't seen the measure of their work in its entirety. I would not have you kidnapped or worse due to forgone caution."
Twilight sighed and nodded. "All right, Princess Luna." The Princess quickly denoted several of the Nightwatch to follow her and Twilight took off into the sky, heading back towards her castle and the mysterious journal within.