• Published 13th Oct 2011
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The Quiet Place - Aynine



Twilight fights against sinister manipulations, struggling to overcome a deep-seated darkness within. As she battles to preserve everything she cares about, she will sacrifice anything necessary to succeed. But the price of victory may be herself.

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Chapter 14: Bloodline Limit

The Quiet Place
By: Aynine
[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 14: Bloodline Limit

A lonely wind meandered through the desolated land, sweeping and carrying sheets of ash and bringing a nightly chill as it combed the ground. Loose debris bounced and rolled across the dirt at the coaxing of the wind, and the trees of the new forest edge rustled slightly to its rhythm. Twilight stirred, her mind still stranded within a subconscious state. A large leaf slipped from one of the trees above and sailed down, landing atop the end of her muzzle, and she finally opened her groggy eyes to the darkness.

"Ohh..." she moaned as the pain of brutal injuries refreshed her memory as to where she was, and how she got there. "Nightmare Moon... Are you there?" she asked the wilderness. Oh, that's right... She recalled the dark alicorn leaving her with riddles, but also leaving her alive. She wanted to question what she'd meant, but there was no telling where she was now, or if she had even survived her own injuries. Twilight stood up, groaning as her stiff and sore muscles protested, more leaves slipping from her body, and held up a hoof to inspect it. "I'm still alive..." she said, almost in awe of the fact.

She attempted to stand on her hind legs, but she winced and fell to the tree's trunk for support. Putting her back against it, she slid down to a sitting position and placed her hooves to her chest. A white glow emanated from them, and her horn gave a weak glow with it. As she felt the tension from her pain release, her eyes trailed down to where she had been laying. There was a smear of dried blood there, and on her chest, and she fixated on them. She didn't know how long she stared at it, but she'd failed to immediately notice when her wounds had been mended.

Her forehooves fell to her sides, and she exhaled a deep breath. What did Nightmare mean? She looked up to the jungle canopy for help, rays of moonlight poking between the large leaves. Lifting herself to standing again, she garnered a feeling of malaise, and her eyes scoured the moonlit landscape for Telos. The white glint of the staff spire stood out in the moonlight along her bloody trail. I must not have been out long. It doesn't look like anyone else has been here. She took slow, steady steps to the staff, but she found that she could will it back to her once she got close enough.

Her telekinesis felt weak--loose--but she was able to return to the jungle and tear down some of the leaves for a quick breakfast. She snatched extra and tucked them into her duskweave. Every now and then it would give a light itch and she'd adjust Telos so the spire could scratch it. Satisfied she was prepared for the journey to reunite with her friends, she set off, still at a slow pace. Her malaise dulled her desire to move at all, but she continued on, each step one less than she needed to take before.

Her magic continued recovering, but she feared encountering a dragon. If she used too much more, she would be rendered sick until a full, uninterrupted recovery. Unicorns that were forced to use every last bit of their magic were typically rendered bedridden for several days. She shivered as she recalled the last time that had happened. Please no more dragons. As the trek to Draconis continued, she grew bored, her prayer for no additional dragons being answered, but also at the cost of nothing to keep her occupied. Her mind wandered back to Nightmare Moon again. What did you mean...? Ugh. Why didn't you just tell me!

She estimated she'd been walking for two hours when she began to feel better, comparable to having just awoken from a long sleep on a normal day. Her body still felt stiff, but the malaise had gone away. Telos levitated before Twilight, and she paused her walk and stared at it. Celestia... are you there?

There was a squeak of relief that filled Twilight's head before a rush of words. Thank the sun you're alright! What happened, Twilight? Celestia attempted to collect herself, but her chest felt like it would burst at hearing Twilight's voice.

I... need to find Trixie and Rainbow Dash.

You're not with them anymore? Celestia asked confusedly.

Twilight grimaced and began moving on with her slow pace again. I told them to go on without me after...

Nightmare Moon? Celestia finished.

Twilight nearly tripped as she heard her. How did you know?

Celestia sighed, and rubbed her temples. She was brought to me hours ago, badly injured. Did... did you do that?

Twilight nodded automatically to herself. I tried to free Luna, but I... I wasn't strong enough. I was afraid I killed her... Twilight trailed off and there was a pause of silence, each hesitating to say anything more.

What did you mean by 'She said it was a lie,'? You said that before we lost contact hours ago.

Twilight squeaked and glanced up to the sky, scanning constellations and the moon to try and determine a time, but the cosmos offered no definitive answer to her. Hours!? How long was I unconscious?

Nightmare Moon was brought to me over six hours ago, Twilight. What happened?

We used almost all of our magic in our fight. I passed out after she left, but... She implied there's something more to this war. I don't know what's going on yet. I have to find Rainbow Dash and Trixie. Twilight attempted to quicken her pace to a light jog, but her body fought back with aches and a lingering stiffness that lessened her back to walk in only a few strides. She groaned as she became stricken with the need to catch her breath. Celestia, do you know what Nightmare could be talking about?

I'm sorry, Twilight. I don't know anything more than you do. Have you looked at the sky?

Twilight stopped and glanced up in confusion. Of course.

Look again...

What are you talking about? The adventuring alicorn stopped and focused, her mouth slipping open as it dawned on her what was happening. But... But, that's impossible!

The canvas of the night sky had been completely painted with stars and constellations, each blooming and twinkling in the dark blue and black sea of space. Twilight stared, turning and following them as far as she could see. "Wow..." she muttered. The elegant craft of the cosmos matched Luna's in passion and skill, all perfectly placed in such a way that they were not overshadowed by the moon. Did Nightmare Moon really do this? Or maybe it's Luna.

I don't know, Twilight. I'll ask her when she awakens, but she is still Nightmare Moon.

I need to go, Celestia, said Twilight after she nearly tripped and fell again, her eyes still glued to the sky and ignoring the path she walked.

Alright. I'll contact you again as soon as I learn anything else. And, Twilight...

Yes?

Please be careful.

Twilight sighed and stopped walking. She twisted her head around to glimpse her wings as she unfurled them and held them out full. There were a few patches of feathers missing, but compared to Nightmare's, they were pristine. She gave them a test flap, slowly making the motions for flight. They were still stiff and sore like the rest of her body. Her eyes scanned the horizons for any wandering dragons, and after laying her fears to rest, galloped and leaped into flight.

The cool air slid through the bare parts on her wings and elicited a wince from her, an icy sting marking each featherless spot distinctly. She attempted to shift her duskweave into black again, but the tears left her with slits and gaps where her natural purple coat slipped through. She groaned at the inconvenience and prayed that her description hadn't been released. As she gained altitude, the temperature of the air rose enough to remove the sting in her wings, and she relaxed as she soared and glided over the landscape.

It had been a while since she'd been unconscious, and she studied the landscape, squinting and peering down to the darkened terrain in hopes of catching sight of Rainbow or Trixie's brighter coats. She swooped down and glided closer, but nothing stood out against the darkness or shone uncharacteristically bright beneath the moonlight. Damn. Where are you?

After searching around a large span of land for an hour, she encountered a mountain on the plotted course to Draconis. It appeared to be a waypoint between the surrounding regions as it connected multiple flatlands divided by other mountainous terrain. There was an empty canyon to her left, and an area that stretched beyond where she could see to her right. The base of the mountain featured a small cave, but more than large enough for several ponies to enter. She descended down to the ground and surveyed the area, taking note that it had been a long time since any travelers had come through.

There were no markers, and nothing of interest beyond the cave itself. Rough paths were carved along the mountain, but they lacked any maintenance, and some appeared defunct and forgotten. Twilight sighed and coiled down to leap back into flight once more, but something in the cave entrance caught her eye and she turned back to it, approaching cautiously. Telos levitated in front of her and began to glow and illuminate the darkness. Scribbled on the stone was a fresh image of Celestia's cutie mark, oft attributed to her solar empire. Twilight breathed in in relief as she ran a hoof over it, smearing the details.

She stepped further into the cave, finding it dank and empty. As she walked further in, Telos's light became brighter, forcing back the darkness and revealing everything inside. Creatures and insects of the cave fled from the sudden light, bats and lizards vanishing beyond the glow back into dark crevices and the shadows ahead. Twilight shuddered as she waited for the vicinity to clear. Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the sudden brightness, and she pressed on when she could see clearly.

The path in the caves was relatively flat, but it meandered through the mountain in the darkness, and several side paths followed their own way into the unknown. Twilight's cautious pace left her wondering just how far she'd traveled, or how long. Time seemed to crawl as she strained her eyes to find any hint of where her comrades had gone, the clop of her hooves being the only sound to play against the ambiance. To her delight, a single cyan feather rested along the main path; however, several more paths branched out directly beyond it. She groaned and set herself to analyzing just which one they might've taken.

Formulas played in her mind to calculate the probability of the feather indicating which path was correct based on its proximity to the entrance. She bucked one of the walls when a gust flowed through and carried the feather out of position. Ugh. Really? she grumbled silently, snatching the feather and disintegrating it with a small flame from Telos.

"Trixie, Rainbow Dash! Are you there!" she called down each path. She listened as her voice echoed through and through, but returned no signs of life from anyone other than herself. She shouted several more times just to be sure, but each returned the same lull of ambiance that the first set did. She was ready to buck another wall in frustration, but a faint rumble reverberated through out the cave. Her ears folded and twisted as she strained herself to hear its point of origin.

She couldn't determine which path it had come from, or what part of the mountain, but it renewed her spirit. Taking Telos into her hooves, she raised it as the spire began pulsing a white glow that grew stronger in vibrancy is it gained distance from the floor. "Haaah!" Twilight slammed the base into the ground and a wave of pure white light boomed outward from her and flowed down each path, including the one she had been walking along.

Her breathing quickened for a moment and she sat down to catch her breath, waiting for a response. Telos went silent and Twilight idled in the darkness until she could hear the sound of hoofsteps. She rose to her hooves and moved off to the side of the rightmost path, a light pushing the darkness in her room back. Hushed voices sounded just around the corner and she took her staff into her hooves, crouching down and preparing herself for any combat.

The shine of another light source entered the cave, and the light caused Twilight's vision to bloom too much to make out what was in front of her. Blindly leaping, she tackled the source, and another form with it. "Hey!" In a moment, her vision recovered to find a blade at her neck and two confused ponies looming over her. "T...Twilight!?"

The blade was put away, and the alicorn found herself lifted back to her hooves by Rainbow Dash, and immediately squeezed by Trixie. "Thank Celestia you're alive!" she cried into her, sudden tears streaming down her eyes. "We... We thought you were dead."

Twilight returned the tight embrace, nuzzling into the unicorn's neck and breathing in her scent, her chest feeling as if it would burst. It was difficult to breathe in that embrace, but it was not because she was being held too tight. "I'm so glad you're alright," she whispered, her own tears soaking into the unicorn's silvery mane. They held each other for a minute before Dash coughed into a hoof to get their attention.

"I don't mean to interrupt you two, but we need to keep going. We sat around for hours hoping you'd make it."

Twilight nodded to her and held Trixie back. "I missed you." She leaned close and kissed Trixie leaving the unicorn blushing before nodding to Dash. "Which way?"

The knight smiled. "Good to have you back, Twi. Are you sure you're okay, though?" she said, her eyes absorbing what the alicorn's image. Her mane was hardly kempt with frazzled strands and cowlicks throughout, but the tattered state of her duskweave worried her most.

"Yeah. A little weak, but I'll be fine."

Dash took the lead and they moved at a brisk pace down the tunnel they had come from before. "Say, Twi. Did you really defeat Nightmare Moon by yourself?" The knight tilted her head to glimpse her.

Twilight's eyes took on a hollow look. "No..."

Dash stopped and gaped at disbelievingly. "Then... what the hay happened?"

Twilight brushed her way past the knight and took the lead as she explained. "We fought to a draw. I tried to purge her from Luna, but I wasn't strong enough. Before she left she said some... things." Her companions traded perplexed glances before focusing back on her. "She said she wasn't allied with the Brood at all, and said she would tell them that we were dead."

"Wh-what!?" Dash and Trixie blurted in unison.

Twilight stopped walking and put a hoof to her chin, deep in thought. "I don't think Nightmare Moon is as evil as we thought." She mulled the idea of Nightmare being an additional soul atop Luna's.

"You don't really believe that do you?" Dash said. "Nightmare Moon is just Luna's corrupted alter ego... right?" She ran a nervous hoof to her sword's hilt, shuddering as she imagined the Id's sharp eyes cutting into her soul again.

"I don't know. At this point, I'm willing to believe anything is possible. She told me to find a truth in Draconis, that it 'would bury this pointless war,' she said. I'm worried, though..."

Dash's hoof tensed on her blade's hilt briefly. "Do you think she could be lying? I don't trust her. I mean, she's tried to kill us before."

Twilight's expression became glum again. "I don't know. I want to believe her, but... we won't know anything until we get to Draconis."

Trixie stepped up to her and patted her on on her shoulder. "Don't worry, Twilight. We'll figure this all out."

Twilight nodded and extended a wing over her, pulling the unicorn closer and nuzzling her. "Thank you."

Trixie blinked and stepped away, grabbing the wing and inspecting it. "Are you really okay?" she said while motioning to the missing patches of feathers. Her hoof moved too close and touched one of the spots, and Twilight furled it back up immediately, wincing. "I-I'm sorry!"

"I'll be fine. I'm sure I'll be healed by the time we reach Draconis." She extended her wings and stretched, attempting to support her words with a demonstration. Trixie stared at her with worry etched into her face, but sighed and seemed satisfied. "As long as the dragons don't know any gravity spells..." Twilight added, grumbling. Her wings slipped back into her duskweave and vanished into the purple coat of her body. Trixie gave her an odd look at the mention of gravity spells.

Telos shined and kept the way illuminated, filling as much of the tunnel as possible with light, without being too hard on the party's eyes. Twilight took comfort in the artificial light. The everlasting darkness of Nightmare Moon's reign always made her uncomfortable, even when surrounded by her friends. Her mind thought back to the moments before the Id departed the battlefield, the entire situation seeming surreal with Nightmare's mercy.

Nightmare had unknowingly made her feel secure for a moment, if confused. When the Id had departed into the forest, she could've sworn she'd heard her say something she never expected, but she quickly pushed the idea out of her mind, citing the Id's precedent for madness and teasing. The trio continued through the tunnels in silence, save for a few complaints about their current setting. Their demeanors lit up as natural moonlight appeared at the end of the tunnel to pave the way back into the open.

Telos dimmed back to its idle state as they stepped out into the world. Trixie coughed and stuck out her tongue, breathing in the fresh air. "I never thought I'd be so happy to be outside in the dark again," she muttered.

The trio's eyes took in the mountainous lands before them with a hint of wonder and anxiousness. The other side of the mountain boasted a jagged landscape that appeared to have been maimed, rather than shaped naturally. There were a couple hotspots in the distance, but any tephra and magma that helped shape the earth had long since cooled into the harsh environment they now laid eyes upon. Waves of heat emanated from them, drying the party's eyes and forcing them to squint as the heat sprayed their faces. Dragons favored the excessive heat of volcanic areas, and they each exchanged disappointed looks as the paths through the area wound between the hotspots.

Dash snorted as she gazed at one of them. "Woo, smokin' place the dragons got here," she joked. She quickly adjusted the snugness of her breastplate as the heightened temperatures overtook the chill of the mountain tunnels and night air.

"Really now, could the Brood live any further out of the way?" Trixie asked in annoyance. The luxury of flight was a high tax to a unicorn's magic, and she lacked the illustrious ability to teleport that Twilight had.

"The dragons typically don't interact with the rest of the world. Spike was the first one I ever met, and hatching his egg was my entrance exam into Celestia's magic school. There was one near Ponyville a long time ago that slept there. We had to get him to leave. But... I've never really met any others before Garr..." Twilight's conscious sent a pang of guilt throughout her as the memories of the ones she had slain flickered into her mind briefly.

"Oh, yeah. I remember that one by Ponyville. Fluttershy was the one that got him to leave. She's so fierce when she's angry. She was like, 'Leave. You're upsetting all of the animals!' or if that doesn't work,"--she stretched her eyes wide with her hooves, "'The stare!'" she finished in an intentionally ghastly voice.

Twilight snickered. "Yeah. I guess we surprise each other sometimes by just how strong we really are. Still, she's always so nice. I hope... she's okay right now." Twilight shook her head and Telos returned to her back. "Alright, we need to keep going."

"Let's go," chimed Dash, her own prayers going out to her shy friend.

The mangled landscape was surprisingly easy to traverse, the trio found, but they grew nervous as the paths they took wound themselves between several hotspots. Occasionally, they would spurt a wave of heat, or a spew a small blast of magma into the air that cooled into rocks as it cascaded back to the ground. Dragons could be seen and heard from from the depths of the night, but they weren't spotted, or they were and they were ignored. Twilight prayed that it was merely their deal with Garr and the messenger dragon being honored.

The uneventful lull of their journey through the dragon's lands put them on edge, and each roar nearby caused Dash to brandish Nightfall, only to sheathe it a moment later when it was determined that the roar was not a battle cry. Their path eventually led them to rounding a massive canyon wall, the high peaks warding off the prying eyes of any being that could not fly. "This must be one of the walls to Draconis," Twilight concluded.

They walked on for several more hours before they reached what appeared to be a massive gate tunneling into the canyon. Giant, iron doors barred their path, the black metal and beautiful engravings depicting the Brood's symbols and crests over the ages marking their pride in their legendary crafts. However, sheets of rust covered the once-colorful decorations, and there were no discernable mechanisms for opening the gates. The longer the trio stared, the more they seemed to loom over them.

"It looks like they haven't been opened in thousands of years," commented Twilight in wonder.

"Honestly. What do fliers like the dragons need a gate for anyway?" asked Trixie, tilting her head further back as her eyes climbed the heights of the construction. She squinted, but was unable to tell if she could see the top or the canyon was casting a shadow over them.

"There was a time when the Brood interacted with the world. There are legends of their great city, and their race's architecture and treasures." She sighed. "That was a long time ago. Nopony has seen the inside of the Imperial City of Dragons since before Celestia and Luna defeated Discord. At least, nopony has lived to tell about it. This could be a trap..."

Dash stepped up to the gate and knocked one of her armored hooves against it. The density of the metal made the expected ringing down to a low, dull tinking sound. "Geez. There's only one pony I know could that even dent this." She turned around and studied Twilight's face, the alicorn still lost in her imagination of what lie behind the doors. "Hey, Twi, are you gonna try to open them?"

The alicorn shot her a very bothered look. "Of course not! Can you imagine how loud that would be? Opening these would attract too much attention." She turned and pointed off in the direction they had come from, the empty path not particularly inviting. "We'll backtrack and climb the canyon wall."

Dash groaned. "More walking? C'mon Twilight. Look how steep the canyon walls are. There's no way Trixie can climb that by herself."

Twilight nodded as she followed them with her eyes. There were no points where it would be easy to ascend it manually. "Alright, but don't fly too far from the ground. I'm betting the messenger never thought we'd make it this far."

Dash gave an energetic salute. "Alright. Let's get this over with." She took the lead and soared down the pathway before them.

Twilight and Trixie exchanged glances before the alicorn picked her up and began flying after the knight. They were slower, and Twilight's sore wings protested the additional weight, but she said nothing as they flew after the knight. They traveled back a couple miles before ascending the wall. Dash was already at the top in a prone position and observing the city. Twilight set Trixie down and landed with a heave, panting and wiping her brow of sweat. Both mares crouched down beside the knight and marveled at the city.

"Whoa..." mumbled Dash at the same time Trixie muttered, "Beautiful."

Twilight stared in silent awe as she tried to view as much of the city as possible, her jaw threatening to unhinge. For as far as she could see, the city seemed to have its own horizon that simply blurred and continued further than her eyes could believe. Though the veil of night was strong outside of the canyon, large torches and brilliant constructions illuminated the city's interior. She swallowed as she could see hundreds and hundreds of dragons walking the marble streets as dark specs, or soaring through the skies as dark smears.

From their vantage point they could not decipher the city's layout, and there were no specific landmarks to tell the buildings apart. Each building boasted an intricate exterior, finely detailed with rare and magnificent materials such as gold and silver. Dash stood up and groaned as they finished enjoying the city's brilliant image.

"You have got to be kidding me. This place is huge! We're never going to find any archives." She slapped a hoof to her face and slid it down, comically stretching her features briefly. Afterwards, she picked up a rock and slung it down the canyon wall, watching as it chipped and clattered its way down to the flat land below.

"It might not be that bad," reassured Twilight. "I need to get to the keep, but I can help you look around a bit. I just hope," she swallowed, "that they aren't in the keep."

"Oh man. We're so screwed if they are. Think of how many dragons are here. This is their capitol!" the knight complained.

"Are you scared?" Trixie teased. "As long as we stick together, we'll be fine," she said as she stood up. She shook her head and straightened her mane, then adjusted her staff so that it would be as concealed as possible beneath her dark cloak.

"As long as we tell any dragons that stop us that it was Captain Garr that sent us to deliver a message, we should be fine, alright?" Twilight rose to her hooves and Dash nodded doubtfully. "I know you're here for any documents they might have on their plans for the war, but I'm changing that priority."

"Huh? What do you mean?" asked Trixie.

Twilight took on a more serious expression and gazed past the pair and into the city. "I want you to look for any information on Nightmare Moon, anything at all. Whether it's now, when we first defeated her, or when she rebelled over a thousand years ago."

Dash obscured her view to the city and gave her a hard stare. "Why should we bother with Nightmare Moon? We should be stopping this war for Equestria."

Twilight closed her eyes and took a deep breath. I have to know. When she opened them again, her irises shined slightly through the darkness. "No matter what was going to happen on this mission, at least one half was meant to succeed. I'm supposed to assassinate King Render, and I will see that through, but I need to know if what Nightmare Moon said was true."

"How can you even trust her!?" Dash snapped. "She's tried to kill you twice. For all you know, she's lying!"

Twilight stared at her back with an empathic expression. "Please, Rainbow... I will hold off the royal guard if need be. There's something wrong with this war. I know you think it, too."

"Twilight, if you can assassinate Render, then we can complete both of our missions and go home. Why don't--"

"I might not survive," Twilight interrupted with a flat tone. She cast her eyes to the ground and went silent.

"What do you mean?" Trixie asked, stepping closer to her. "We're going home together, Twilight."

Twilight turned to look at her, her sad violet eyes meeting worried lavender ones. "I can hold off the royal guard and kill Render, but... I might not have enough magic left to escape."

Twilight couldn't tell how quickly Trixie's hoof was raised and slapped her, but the pain ripped her thoughts back to reality. "How can you think like that!? No! I won't let you throw your life away," Trixie shouted into her face. She'd begun to tear up. "I won't let you..."

Tears welled in Twilight's eyes and she lurched forward and pulled Trixie into an embrace. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to worry you." She stroked Trixie's mane, and soon the magician began to calm down.

"If you die... I'll make sure everyone knows who the better pony is!" chided the unicorn.

Twilight cracked a smile and pulled away. "I promise we'll go home together. No matter what." Her words eased the magician back into a normal mood. "We should get going. Everyone is counting on us."

The other mares nodded and began their descent down the canyon wall. Twilight sighed and turned to glimpse the vast expanse behind them. The mountains of the dragon's lands obscured her view of the forests and plains beyond, a smoky haze rising from the hotspots, but she allowed her imagination to remind her of the beauty of all that lay behind that veil. Her eyes trailed up to the sky above, the twinkling stars and bright constellations filling the sky around the moon soothing her. I believe you, Nightmare Moon.

She coiled down to leap over the canyon's side, but she hesitated, her eyes following Trixie's descent. She turned and quickly scratched a magic circle into the ground. There was a purple flash from her horn and the circle glowed for a moment, then became nothing more than an engraving. Please don't let it come to this. With that, she followed after her comrades down the slope, sliding in an almost heroic stance until she reached the bottom.

The trio dusted themselves off and began walking slowly through the city. From close up, the constructions appeared even more magnificent than their imaginations had led them to believe from the vantage point. Marble, gold, platinum, silver, masterfully shaped stone of various types--all culminated into a glorious city that even textbooks could never capture, even in speculation. Their jaws hung open as their eyes glazed with delight at the beauty.

It wasn't long before they were spotted, and several dragons immediately surrounded them. As the denizens approached, they each attempted to hide their weapons. Dash tucked her blade into her breastplate, Trixie adjusting her cloak, and Twilight forcing Telos to shrink and tuck itself into Trixie's cloak, much to her chagrin. "Hey!" she protested in a hushed whisper. Twilight held a hoof to her mouth and shot her a serious look.

"What's this... Ponies in Draconis?" one red dragon asked in disbelief.

"This war just seems to get stranger and stranger," added another with the shake of his head.

The first one grunted and eyed them, lowering his head and opening his mouth to show his teeth. "Now, why have you come to Draconis, hm? Coming here to die, perhaps?"

"Captain Garr sent us to deliver a report to King Render," Twilight replied as she bowed. Trixie and Dash quickly followed her lead and gave a gracious bow, holding their heads low until after Twilight had raised hers.

The second dragon mumbled something, but Twilight couldn't hear him. The first one spoke up afterwards. "Hmph. Garr, huh? Enjoy Draconis... while you can." The draconic flash mob quickly dispersed away, and several more dragons had gathered behind them to see the commotion. The trio of ponies breathed out in relief, and Twilight collected Telos before leading them on.

They made their way to a primary causeway splitting the city as far as they could see, the road wider than eight of Canterlot's main streets combined. The stone road featured impeccable creation, flawed only by the natural wear of the colossal dragons walking upon it each day. More intricate designs had been added into the surfaces; tiny lines and carvings forming pictures in the stone that seemed too small for a dragon to create. Twilight continued to study everything she could with her eyes, further fueled by the fact that she was one of the few ponies to ever see the inside of the magnificent city.

Occasionally, a dragon would stop them and interrogate them as to why they were there. They were mystified by how Garr's name warded off further investigation into their presence, and most would give a quick harrumph and be off. Several stopped them to ask for the time, appearing nervous and confused by the endless night. The trio cast them a sympathetic look before shrugging, to which they would hang their heads mournfully and keep going, the beleaguered dragons appearing more confused than before their encounter. Even some of the Brood don't know why it's eternal night? wondered Twilight as she would watch them leave.

They walked for what felt like several hours, the massive buildings seeming to crawl past them, before they reached a much larger open area. The causeway broke into a large stony waypoint that connected multiple paths. Directly ahead led to a massive keep, and the branching paths connected to other nearby buildings. A black and a red dragon stood guard at the keep, but the other buildings showed no signs of external protection. Twilight squinted and made out one of the buildings to the right featuring a sign depicting a quill and parchment. Dragons write in their culture? She yearned to go in, her thirst for knowledge almost aching her mind to know what lay inside.

"I guess... this is it," Twilight muttered as she spun around. Trixie gave her a hard look and she quickly coughed into a hoof. "If a battle breaks out, you need to leave the city during the chaos. I'm going to try to make this as quick and quiet as possible." Dash nodded, but Trixie only stared at her.

"We're going home, together, Twilight." Trixie stepped closer and gave her a final hug. Twilight snuggled into her and sighed. When they relinquished each other, she sighed again and cast a sad look to the keep before returning her eyes to Trixie.

"Together," she echoed. She waved and began walking towards the keep.

Trixie stayed an extra minute to watch her go, a distant regret lining her eyes. Dash nudged her back to the mission and she reluctantly followed her towards the archival building. "I'm worried. I don't want her to go alone," she muttered to Dash.

The knight adjusted her breastplate, Nightfall's sheathe uncomfortably pressing into her chest, and sighed. "I don't like it either, but we both know she's the only one who can do it." They stepped up to the building's massive wooden doors and cast a quick glance behind them to see if any dragons were watching. Most were going about their business, or too far away to see or care. Dash put both hooves on one of the doors and pushed with all of her might, heaving and grunting.

Trixie giggled as she watched her struggle to part them enough for them to enter, let alone at all. "I could use my magic you know."

Dash snapped her head to her and glared. "Then why don't you!?"

"Because. It's funnier when you try." She continued giggling as she slipped past her and into the building. Dash groaned again and threw one last cautious glance to the city before following after her and the doors closing behind.

Where the front doors appeared massive, the entranceway was a large area with a beautiful, symmetrical marble floor. Several torches lit the interior, but they seemed to draw a significant amount of natural light from the windows normally. As a result, the interior appeared bathed in a darkened tint where the torches did not reach or fully illuminate. They were met with a powerful, almost grating, wall of sound shortly after entering. They jumped at the racket that echoed throughout the large lobby, and found the source to be a white dragon, fast asleep and snoring over a huge desk before them. The pair exchanged nervous glances before tip-hoofing past him. He snorted briefly in his sleep, causing the pair to freeze and their hearts to sink to the pit of their stomachs, but the dragon rolled his head over and settled back to snoring.

They breathed silently in relief before moving beyond the lobby and into a great hall boasting novella of all shapes and sizes. Trixie muttered an awed, "Whoa," as her eyes followed the gargantuan bookshelves to the ceiling. "Twilight would love this place, but it's going to take forever to look through everything. Look at how big these bookshelves are!" she complained in a hushed voice.

Dash groaned and put a hoof to her face. "Look around. They wouldn't leave important stuff in the open."

Trixie branched out and followed down the next parallel aisle over. She walked slowly, throwing her head back and forth to scan book titles and look for signs to guide her. She arched a brow as some of the books on the lower shelves seemed recognizable. Why do the Brood have so many books about Equestria? That's strange...

"Trixie, I think I found something."

The magician galloped down the rest of the aisle and returned to the first aisle to see a portion of the archives sealed behind a giant gate. She reached out and ran a hoof over the overlapping pattern of metal, and cast a doubtful look to Dash. "How are we going to get through these without waking the dragon at the lobby?"

"Use your magic. I might be able to break it with my sword, but that'll make too much noise."

Trixie rolled her eyes. "Typical Rainbow. Asking a unicorn for help." She stuck her tongue out and received a sour look before glancing over her shoulder back down the aisle. It seemed to stretch into infinity with how deep into the building they were, but the shadowy aisles only offered her silence. "Maybe I can melt it." She pulled Mystic Sage from her cloak and held it to the gate, a burst of magic running through the spire. It turned red and a section big enough to climb through melted into a puddle of liquid metal before hardening to the floor. She slipped her staff back under her cloak and attempted to fan the smell away with a hoof.

"C'mon, let's hurry before old snoozy wakes up and finds us." Dash hustled her through and they entered. The archives behind the gate were dark with a blue tint, but they boasted the same climbing bookcases, however, they were completely empty.

A chill wafted through the archives and flowed out the way they came, causing both to shiver, but Trixie swallowed and shot Dash a hollow look. "This... this can't be right..."

"Wh-what?"

Trixie threw her head in all directions before tugging her cloak around her body better and shrinking into it. "I don't like this. We've all studied the Brood before this mission, right?" Dash nodded slowly. "There's an overwhelming feeling of dread coming from this place--from magic. I've never heard of dragons using magic, though. Could somepony have betrayed the princesses?"

Dash grimaced and looked on down the dark aisle. "I hope not, but we've never run into any dragons capable of using magic. Let's check this area out then get the heck out of here. This place gives me the creeps."

They pair continued down the aisle at a slower pace than before. The archives were devoid of sound beyond their hoofsteps, and the further they went in, the more the sense of dread filled Trixie, and the more the echoes haunted them. Paranoia began to set in and she constantly glanced around or stopped to listen for something. "What?" Dash would ask in a panicky tone. The knight couldn't see or hear anything out of the ordinary. After walking for several more minutes, they reached the back wall of the sealed archives and a large table sat against it.

Dozens of tomes lay sprawled open across it and on the floor, with sheets of undecipherable notes and diagrams. Trixie dashed ahead and began investigating the materials. "This... this can't be!"

"What, Trixie? You're scaring me now!" The knight stood up and placed a hoof upon Nightfall's hilt and turned to watch the main aisle.

Trixie levitated several books and a diagram closer and motioned for Dash to view them. "Look." Dash leaned in close, squinting to see. When her expression lit up, Trixie shivered. "This looks like one of Twilight's beta runes. And look--" She snatched another diagram and held it over the rest. "These are concepts of an ancient magic used for summoning golems."

"So, what does this have to do with anything? We haven't fought any golems or magical dragons."

Trixie shook her head and levitated one last sheet in front of her. It had a variety of notes and miniature magic circles scribbled on it, but there was something she recognized, and it gave her a sense of horror. Gasping, she snatched the sheet and scanned it a few more times, blinking, unable to fathom its authenticity. Her hooves shook as she grasped it, and her eyes trailed away to Trixie's. "I can't believe it... Nightmare Moon isn't... she isn't Luna after all."

"This is bad. But if she wasn't lying to Twilight, then what did she mean?" Trixie relinquished all of the items from her magic and turned to the table, sweeping it with her eyes. There was an open book she hadn't viewed yet, overlapped by several other sheets, and she quickly snatched it and flipped through the pages. "Whoever did this... this must be all of their notes. It looks like it has most of the same information, but after tests."

Another chilling draft swept through the archives again, the sense of dread it brought was powerful enough that Dash could feel it. "We need to get out of here Trixie!"

"Wait, we need to---! Hey!"

Dash grabbed Trixie as she finished tucking the book away. She beat her wings hard and pushed herself to fly as fast as she could. The bookshelves slid by in a blue blur, and they reached the gate. They gasped as it appeared completely untouched, almost new, and the metal that had cooled on the floor was missing. Not wasting time, she dropped Trixie and brandished Nightfall, making several two-hoofed strokes to cut through the bars. Each strike made a symphony of metallic sounds that reverberated throughout the archives, but they broke through. She deftly slipped the blade back into its sheathe and picked Trixie up again, pushing herself to make up for lost time.

As they soared through the archives, another draft swept through them, chilling them to their cores. Dash nearly lost control as she felt herself freezing for only a few seconds. When it passed, she grunted and her wings ached from the additional weight. They reached the front lobby, zooming through, but both casting a fearful look at the front desk. The dragon that had been sleeping was missing. There was no time to wonder where he had gone as the doors came into view. She lowered her head and raised a shoulder, and with a battle cry slammed through one of them, bursting the door open with a heave of the hinges. Trixie groaned as the impact sent a shockwave through her body. They spotted Twilight sitting idly at the edge of the marble waypoint and raced across the waypoint towards her.

***

Twilight approached the towering keep with light, nervous steps, her gait not being forcefully diminished this time. The two guards studied her, but made no indication that they were bothered by her presence, and she moved passed them without a fuss. She entered the first room, or area based on the sheer size, and glanced around. The ceiling seemed to reach for the heavens, but faded into a black darkness. She stopped and allowed her eyes to follow the path onward. Large braziers featuring quiet flames lit the halls and corridors, though they appeared more like bonfires to her. The interior appeared to be mostly comprised of dark stone, with the same intricate marble floors as the rest of the city. Burnished gold trim carved to great detail lined most of the floors and ceiling decorations, and tapestries of dragons and crests hung in proud display out of the way, or over the walls.

She gulped as the number of dragons inside was quickly becoming staggering. Members of the Brood wandered the halls, the royal guard clad in minimalistic armor, but all of varying scale color and size. There were no white dragons, she noted, and they all offered only minimal attention to her. Nobles in the dragon culture? she wondered as she continued walking on. Her theory was further cemented as the deeper she went within the keep, the more attention she received.

Members of the Brood hurled insults, taunts, and tantalizing comments her way, but a few offered sympathetic apologies to the plight of Equestria. She ignored the derogatory comments and pondered the apologies. Some dragons sympathize with Equestria? Maybe this war won't be as hard to end as I thought. There was a quick moment between the passing Brood that she was alone, and she used the moment to pause and take a few deep breaths. It wasn't long before she reached the throne room, the amount of dragons increasing as she neared it, and entered with her heart rate increasing. More and more wore armor to signify their status as the royal guard, and Twilight's anxiety began to climb as their eyes fell to her with a dark silence.

The throne room was massive and circular, with numerous members of the royal guard standing. The silence as became overwhelming as she entered, as if she had just interrupted an important personal conversation. Before her, with his back turned, stood the gargantuan dragon king, Render. As she stopped in the center of the room, he turned his head to glimpse her, and then his entire body. He rose up, nearly to the ceiling when standing fully on his legs, but coiled back down to better see her and swept his tail out to rest beside him in a crescent. The room suddenly grew hot, and she found herself cotton mouthed as he crept closer until he was only a couple meters away.

"My, my. What a bold pony you are, to dare waltz into these sanctimonious halls of the Brood. Now tell me, why have you risked life and limb to tread through the perils and dangers of our lands to a place your kind would only call a graveyard?" His deep, heavy voice suffocated the atmosphere and his breath ruffled her mane, but to her relief, it did not carry a foul scent.

"I-I'm f-from a town..." The dryness in her mouth made articulating anything difficult. Render cocked his head sarcastically and a few of the royal guard chuckled. She cast them nervous glances before focusing back on the king. "I'm from a town far away in the prairie lands. I'm here to deliver a report on a messenger's behalf."

Render frowned, but continued watching her intently. "Speak quickly, equine, and choose your next words very carefully. The merit for which you draw breath does not exist here." He extended a claw beside Twilight, then dragged it back beside her. The grinding, almost squealing, sound it made caused her to jump and cover her ears, wincing as it reverberated through the throne room. When he finished, she glanced nervously to the indent in the floor.

"Captain Garr first sent me!" she said quickly, and the tension in the room relaxed as Render cocked his head again and said nothing. "He was commanding the dragons stationed in my town. He heard a rumor of a really powerful unicorn spotted nearby, and sent one of his soldiers to investigate, but they didn't return. Garr and the other two dragons went to go find him, and wanted me to deliver that information to a messenger dragon nearby. But the messenger wanted us to deliver it to you instead." She fidgeted a bit nervously as Render's expression became unreadable. "My town doesn't have any militia, so he could probably come back and occupy it again without any resistance."

Most of the royal guard began laughing, a couple howling out the hilarity, but it was lost on Twilight. Render loomed over her with a faint grin gracing his face, and she wondered if he was about to attack. To him, she was merely a bite-sized morsel to be devoured at any moment, either out of pity, or boredom. Twilight shrank back into the floor as the laughing faded away. "Wh-what's so funny?"

"Garr has not returned, and may have gotten himself killed. Indeed, a powerful unicorn is being searched for, and perhaps he may have met his end to..." He shot his comrades a quickly crumbling look. "A mere unicorn." The royal guard began laughing with renewed vigor.

Twilight gave him a confused look. They think we're really that weak? "My report is done. Can I go now?" Her words silenced the laughter, and Render regarded her with a smile on his face.

"Your race amuses us with your capacity for fear. I imagine most would have refused to travel to Draconis to seek out an audience with me, yet, here you are." He chuckled and looked away for a few seconds, then looked at Twilight with a softer stare. "I shall allow you to roam free for the time being, and return to your pathetic town. Should you happen to encounter Captain Garr, and he is still alive, tell him to return directly to me." Twilight nodded slowly. "Now, run along, little pony."

Twilight wanted to run from the room, or teleport, anything to get away. The royal guard roared with laughter again as she walked out, and a smug look graced Render's face. She walked on down the halls, relieved once she had left earshot. None of the dragons in the keep paid her any mind on the trip out, and she seemed to be nothing more than a trophy or a jester to them, as far as she could tell.

Her eyes listlessly scanned everything as it passed by again, but her thoughts wandered to the situation she just escaped. Too many... I don't think I can kill them all by myself, even if... Damn it. I hope Trixie and Rainbow found something. She made it back outside without any trouble, and stopped between the pair of dragons guarding the front gate.

"Be careful, pony. Normally, you would already be dead," warned the red.

"I don't believe it. King Render is allowing you to live?" muttered the black.

She glanced up to them with a blank look before moving on, choosing to ignore their words altogether. The marble waypoint came as a welcome relief and she moved to stand near the beginning of it from where they had entered. She sat down and held a hoof to her chest, hoping it would help calm her racing heart. The royal guard had left her nerves shot, and she wanted to relax in safety again.

There was a burst of movement in the distance, and her head shot up to see the archive building's right door open and hanging onto a single hinge. Dash was flying towards her carrying Trixie, a panicked look etched into both of their faces. The knight set Trixie down and skidded to a stop, panting before the alicorn.

"What happened?" blurted Twilight, glimpsing the keep guards from the corner of her eyes. They appeared not to have noticed, or cared, for the time being.

"Twi...light. We... triggered... some... kind of... alarm..." Trixie managed between hyperventilating puffs of air. She took a deep breath and loosed her next words all at once. "We need to get out of here. Now!"

"Whoa, slow down, Trixie. Are you sure? I delivered the report to Render, and none of the dragons reacted." She cast another sidelong glance to the keep guards, but they remained idling, still.

Trixie nodded quickly. "Yes, I'm sure! Something's not right here, Twilight."

"C'mon Twilight, we need to get out of here right now," Dash said. "Did you take out the king?"

Twilight shook her head. "No, I couldn't. There were too many of the royal guard with him. Maybe I could..." She shook her head again. "No. Did you find anything about Nightmare Moon?"

The pair exchanged grim looks and nodded to her. Trixie produced a book and passed it to the alicorn. "Take a look at this." Twilight flipped through the pages, her eyes glazing with fear and awe as Trixie continued. "That was a notebook I found containing information about runes and ancient magic, but it was in a sealed part of the archives. Twilight, this is stuff you've been working on, but look--" Trixie stepped beside her and used her magic to flip to a specific page near the middle. "Here's a part about summoning golems, and,"--she flipped to a page closer to the end--"homunculi. That would be forbidden magic if it could ever work."

Twilight's hooves trembled as she held the book, her eyes widening further. "This... this can't be..." She flipped to the last few pages and hastily scanned them. "Do you know what this means?" she asked rhetorically. "Nightmare Moon is... We need to get this to Celestia. We can worry about Render later. This could mean there's a traitor among the archmagi, but I don't know anypony strong enough to use magic like this besides the princesses. This notebook dates back to before I became an alicorn, almost to before I became an archmage."

Trixie's expression hollowed, and Dash pulled Nightfall's sheath from her breastplate, strapping the baldric back around the outside of her armor. "Twilight, this information will get us killed. We need to get out of here! You can study the book later."

"No, just give me a little more time," she protested, holding a hoof out to ward off further ushering. The others nervously glanced around as she further read into the notebook. She slammed a hoof on the waypoint floor and grimaced. "Damn it... The only signature is 'A' and that could be anyone. She's a weapon, but she isn't fighting by her own volition. When we thought we purged her from Luna, we only sealed her inside of her. If this A character is a dragon, then he must be in Canterlot!" Twilight stuffed to book into Trixie's cloak and turned. "We need to get the Elements of Harmony together and try to remove her from Luna. Maybe we can redeem her in exchange for her freedom. Let's go."

"Finally," muttered Dash.

They began galloping down the causeway when a faint whistling sang through the air. Trixie turned her head, and for a few seconds, time slowed. As she turned to glimpse behind them, her eyes settled onto Twilight as a massive two-pronged lance pierced her body, shattering the marble causeway where she stood. The force of the impact and the subsequent spray of stone blasted her and Dash away, two screams filling the air.

The alicorn screamed until her lungs had emptied and begun to refill with blood, and her body attempted to quiver at the pain's compelling, but the lance prevented her from moving. Telos clattered silently to the ground with blood splattered onto it and the broken ground around her.

"TWILIGHT!" Trixie and Dash cried in unison, both recovering and rushing to her side.

"Fools. Did you really think I would allow you leave Draconis alive? Your friends have meddled in places they don't belong, and I know what you're after," roared Render from atop the keep, and despite the distance, his voiced carried down to them. Among the ramparts and the rooftops were members of the royal guard, all watching silently. He leaped off and began a descent, the others following him.

Twilight coughed blood onto the ground in front of her, and found her lower half paralyzed. She couldn't twist her neck much, and the pain was rapidly overloading her senses. Trixie dash to her face as she began to articulate something. "T-Trixie... c-complete the... m-mission. Stop A and this war. The... Elements..."

"Twilight," Trixie bawled, "N-no! You can't die! Not now!"

The alicorn heaved and coughed another slew of blood onto the ground. "T-Trixie... promise me..." The unicorn nodded, tears streaming down her face. "S-save... Night... mare... M-Moon..."

"I... promise."

"Here... take... T-Telos..." The staff sprang to life and moved to perch itself on Trixie's back, but she didn't pay it any mind. Twilight reached out a bloody, trembling hoof and placed onto her forehead, droplets landing on the unicorn's muzzle. "I... l-love... y-you..." A white light engulfed all three of them briefly, and when it faded, Twilight was alone. She strained her neck with the last of her strength and glimpsed the moon and the night. I'm sorry, everyone. Final images of Nightmare Moon, Trixie, Rainbow Dash, Luna, and Celestia flickered briefly before everything went numb.

***

Trixie blinked tears out of her eyes in surprise and she glanced around, finding the knight just as stunned beside her. They appeared atop the canyon wall on the outskirts of the city. Trixie fell to her knees and Telos moved from her back to float in the air above her.

"H-how... How could you...!? Twilight... how could you do this to us!? We were supposed to go home together!" she cried. Each word she uttered was punctuated with a blow to the ground, but it did nothing to dampen the pain, and her tears poured freely onto the ground.

Dash cast the city a crestfallen look, tears welling silently in her own eyes. She turned and pulled Trixie into a tight embrace, and the unicorn broke down completely.

"Why... why did she lie to me--to us? Why... why... why, why, why, why," Trixie continued to blubber, her further attempts to speak losing enunciation and coherency.

Dash began to shake and tremble as the fangs of sorrow sank into her. "I don't know, Trixie... I don't know," she said as steadily as she could before she lost control of herself.

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