• 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 16: Call of the Condemned

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 16: Call of the Condemned

Rainbow Dash stirred in her slumber, the transition back to consciousness being goaded along by the return of bitter memories. She opened her eyes, welcoming the darkness for them, but shivered as the chill returned. The forest was too quiet for her comfort, the trauma and uneasiness of the previous events lingering as haunting images played on the dark ground before her. She rubbed her eyes wearily and sat up, beginning to focus and readjust to the world she now understood once more. She could not tell how long she had been asleep, but her body felt restored, and little more than the stiffness of a good sleep hindered her rise to standing.

Her eyes landed sharply on the tree trunk Trixie had been left to rest under, and she promptly reached for her sword when the magician was not there. As her hoof rested atop the pommel, she caught Trixie in the corner of her eye, sitting just before a patch of light slipping between the canopy leaves. Laying before her were both Mystic Sage and Telos overlapping in a cross, her eyes empty as she stared at them with her head hung low and hidden in her cowl.

Dash paused and watched from the distance, unsure of how to approach the grief-sick magician. The usually bright, platinum sheen of Telos was no longer there, instead lit by the pale glow of the moonlight; its gem was inert and little more than a clear colored diamond. Dash quietly pulled Nightfall from the ground and sheathed it, slowly approaching Trixie from behind. The magician didn't react to her presence, even as she moved to sit closer to her. With a quieted sigh, she resolved to start a conversation.

"Hey," she started weakly, slowly, "We should probably get going." Her eyes fixated on the side of Trixie's mane, waiting, hoping that she would face her with more than despair, and less than anger.

The magician remained staring at the staves, her eyes frozen upon their details. There was a long silence before she spoke, and her words came in a defeated tone. "This... This is all that's left of her," she muttered.

Dash grimaced, the magician having unintentionally reignited the sorrow within her as well. She swallowed hard and pushed the feelings away after much mental effort on her part. Her gaze shifted from Trixie to Telos, and she forced herself to keep it there as she spoke. "I know, Trixie, and I'm sorry... But we need to keep going, or... or her sacrifice will have been for nothing." When she finished, she hung her head solemnly, letting her eyes dart away into the darkness.

Her head snapped up when she could hear the magician turning to her, and she locked with her dark violet eyes. She was taken aback by the glower she was given, and a hoof instinctively readied itself to brandish Nightfall if necessary. Dash swallowed and hoped Trixie couldn't see it.

"Her... sacrifice...?" Trixie muttered as she rose to standing. "So, we forget what she's done and leave her to the dragons... to what? Become a snack to them!?" Her features contorted in rage, further exacerbated by her pain. Dash took a step back as Trixie took a step closer to her, her glower evening to a heavy stare. "I'm going back for her body. Equestria can wait for all I care."

"Trixie, the dragons have probably already taken it!" Dash shouted back, her own inner turmoil surfacing. "We need to go help our friends back home. When we win this war, then we can go back and get it from them, I promise!" She attempted physical contact, but the magician stepped back and Telos sprang to life, swatting Dash's extending hoof away.

The staff floated before Trixie at a downward angle, poised to strike again if necessary. "Don't you touch me! I'm going, and I'm not going back to Canterlot without her body. Don't try to stop me... not that you ever could." Trixie turned and began to walk away, snatching Mystic Sage with her magic and slipping it beneath her cloak as Telos perched over it.

"Trixie, stop! Please don't do this! What about Canterlot and the princesses?"

The magician paused and turned her head one last time, a loathing gleam in her eyes. "I don't care."

Dash watched in unrestrained shock as she walked away, the patches of moonlight illuminating and shadowing her path until she moved beyond the forest's edge fully into its light. "I... I can't let you do this!" she shouted suddenly, surprised by her own boldness.

Trixie stopped again, and the knight's heart sank. "If you think you can stop me, then go ahead and try." She continued to walk onward into the darkness without casting a glance back.

Dash removed her hoof from Nightfall's hilt and hung her head in defeat. I'll come back for you later, Trixie, if you don't make it on your own. She swallowed, fearful of the magician's powers, even without the amplification from Telos. Please bring Twilight home. She shook her head and leaped into flight, the cool night air slipping beneath her wings as the branches and leaves grazed her, the wind washing away the lingering anxiety of her conversation with Trixie.

***

The magician walked without silence, her emotions constantly leading her back into fits of sobs and questions without sensible answers. Tears ran down her face now that she was alone, and the pain of Twilight's memory bit into her heart with searing fangs. Her eyes burned, and she could no longer maintain a steady gait, occasionally pausing to wipe her eyes and sputter more thoughts aloud or stumble over nothing.

Why... why, why, why why why why... WHY!? she thought over and over, no longer wishing to vent, and instead clenching her teeth until her jaw began to ache. You died right in front of me, but... then what? You came back to life just to make sure we couldn't help you--just to watch you die all over again? She wiped more tears as she continued walking on, an image of Twilight's impaled body and her weak, bliss-stricken eyes as she imparted Telos to her. At the thought, the staff moved before her, pulsing a soft glow from the spire almost as if it could sense her pain. She stared at into the spire gem, no longer caring where she was going, if it was leading anywhere at all.

The staff returned to her back in an instant, and the light burn in her eyes over the sudden darkness was filled with Twilight's blood on the waypoint stone. Why... The question ingrained itself into her mind, echoing and repeating still more as the alicorn's bizarre transformation moments after her death flooded into the sequence of trauma. She gave up questioning what could not be answered, wiping her eyes one last time before giving everything in front of her a hollow gaze.

The night and her grief distorted her perception of time, and her body felt exhausted even before she had begun the trek from the forest battlefield; she lifted her head periodically to scan the surroundings, and found that she had arrived at the mountain again. She changed her course and began to ascend the rough pathway around it and back into the heart of the Brood's fiery lands, no longer cautious of the dragons. The loneliness of her walk was eased by the comforting night above.

Her legs had grown achy by the time she had reached the igneous dragon's lands, but the pain was numbed as her will forced her on. The hot spots were a welcome light in the darkness, and the chill of the night could not be found beyond the mountain. She tread the fastest path between the hot spots, unafraid of being burned--or even killed--but the heat and the jets of flames that occasionally thundered out somehow soothed her. As she reached the canyon wall to Draconis once more, her legs cried in agony of the long journey, the muscles and soles of her hooves begging for a rest. Still, she tensed herself and pushed on to the city gate through the natural wall.

She stood in front of it, glaring at the black metal as if offended by it, and defiant of what it stood for. Telos floated before her, and she reached to take Mystic Sage into her hooves, slowly raising it as streams of energy collected from the air around its spire. "Get... out... of... MY WAY!" she roared, her horn igniting as the spires of both staves hummed and glowed.

The earth trembled and revolted against the sudden forces, quaking and growling out their resistance. The quakes grew in power until the black metal doors heaved, rust and creeping rock breaking and raining down from the shadowed tops. Trixie bared her teeth and strained as they began to part, screeching a horrific grinding sound as they slowly peeled open towards her. When they had finally finished opening, enough space for two adult dragons to enter side by side, she collapsed down, Telos returning to her back, and panted as her muscles welcomed the rest.

Waiting on the other side of the doors were several dragons, dumbfounded that the ancient gates had been opened at all, let alone by a lone unicorn. As Trixie panted, her cloak rested over her like a blanket and she shrank into it for a moment to catch her breath. As she rose back to her hooves, she slipped her staff beneath her cloak and wiped her brow of sweat, then glanced at the dragons. As her violet eyes fell upon them, they froze in fear and confusion as her first steps to enter the city were taken.

They could only stare as she walked past them down the center of the main causeway, shooting them icy glares at even the smallest of movements. Trixie's cloak fluttered eminently in her wake, and the dragons crumbled down and slinked out of sight when they were sure she would not give them a second thought. More dragons lined the causeway and the buildings to its sides at varying distances, some cautiously hovering in the air, all watching her silently.

When the numbers became daunting, she gave herself a small blue aura to amplify her presence, unsure whether they might attack. I dare you... As she neared the waypoint, she glanced over her shoulder to see dragons slowly creeping behind her, but all with curious expressions and keeping themselves at a great distance from her. She focused back ahead in time to find the remnants of Twilight's battle.

Bloodstains, ashes, and two-thirds of the waypoint had been torn asunder, and a lone dragon body lay impaled by the same spear that Render had used on the opposite side. Her eyes shot to the area where Twilight had been impaled the first time, but all that marked its place were broken slabs of stone lightly stained by her blood. She shivered as she examined it from where she stood, but shook away her apprehension and moved closer to it. The regret of not helping her returned and her expression hollowed. Maybe if we hurried back. Maybe I could've broken the barrier and saved you. Maybe...

She crouched down and pushed aside some of the smaller rocks until she reached the earth below, but there were no signs of blood in the earth. But... she bled out right here. How...? She stood up and glanced around to the dragons observing. None had dared move any closer than the outskirts of her vision, and all carried the same curious look, but Trixie recognized their expressions as something else entirely. Fear. They're afraid of me?

She turned and continued to walk slowly across the waypoint, noting that there were no other corpses of slain dragons to match the numerous bloodstains and ashes littering the area. She stopped before the massive black dragon laying dead before her and gasped as she recognized him, the monolithic lance standing quietly at an angle. She swallowed as she processed his gargantuan form up close, then swallowed again as she noticed blood splatter beside him and a trail of blood in front, pooling just in front of his snout. Twilight... you really did it... You killed the dragon king.

Telos moved unintentionally to prod the dragon's snout, but his rigid body did not react to it, and it quickly perched itself upon Trixie's back again. Wing flaps and light steps caused her ear to twitch, and she whirled around to catch the watching dragons creeping up on her, but still with only curiosity masquerading as fear marking their faces. "Where is the alicorn that was here?" she called out to them. Some traded looks of confusion, but none that she could see looked prepared to speak, with the front line slinking further back again. She glared and called out again, in a more curt voice. "Where is she!?"

The low rumble of an older dragon's voice cut through the ranks of the onlookers. "I have her body," it said, the deep voice identifying as male, but also one that was familiar to the magician. Her eyes widened as a path parted between the dragons and the owner of the voice stepped through with an interested look on his face.

"G-Garr?" she blurted in surprise. "What are--" Catching herself, she straightened the collar of her cloak and suppressed her delight at finding a familiar face in the heart of hostile territory. She couldn't tell if the dragon captain was grinning, but she knew he felt similar relief at finding her. "Why are you here, Captain Garr?" she asked in a flat tone.

The dragon captain's eyes darted past her briefly, but focused back on the magician just as quickly. "King Render has fallen, and much of the royal guard have been slain. With General Aurelius acting of his own accord, the Brood require a new ruler, and your friend has lifted the veil of deceit from my race. I am to be the king of the Brood by rites of succession."

Trixie's eyes narrowed on him. "So..." she started.

"Yes, little one. Your comrade is to both thank and blame for this turn of events."

Trixie hung her eyes to the ravaged waypoint, but the tension in the air relaxed. It did little to ease her discomfort, standing where her master had just slaughtered many dragons in their capitol, but she refused to back down from her original mission. She snapped her head up and carried a renewed look of determination. "Where is Archmage Twilight Sparkle?"

Garr hesitated to answer as Telos sprang to life and levitated beside Trixie, but the magician made no other indication she would attack just yet. "Come with me, little one. There is more to discuss."

He beckoned to her before lumbering towards her. She tensed as he moved past her, then followed behind with a light step, constantly shooting her eyes to what the dragons might refer to as their civilians. Even though they weren't part of the combative forces, she shuddered to imagine how strong they still were. Beats of large wings began circulating and Trixie's heart began to drum until she saw that the onlookers had begun to disperse, rather than follow. Celestia, help me. I could die at any minute here...

Garr casually slipped through the front gates of the massive keep, the doorway easily accommodating his form. Trixie paused and glanced around, noting the quiet to be apprehensive. She took a deep breath and followed reluctantly after, cantering just to keep up with Garr's casual stride.

The interior jumped at her with its extravagant finishes of gold and marble, and the vibrant tapestries of events she did not know. Several other dragons moved about, but all carried a solemn air about them, whether it was by their reluctant steps or their apathetic exchanges with each other. Some threw her contemptuous or inspired looks, and she worried for her safety once more. As they moved deeper into the keep, the other dragons began curtsying Garr, and giving her wondering looks. She maintained a distance of several of her strides from the new dragon king, eyeing him intently.

Garr led them down a branching corridor instead of leading the magician to the throne room. The massive halls guided them to a personal chamber where a huge table with food was awaiting. Trixie stared in disbelief as Garr stepped around to the other side and swayed a hand to the buffet, but it was comprised mostly of meat. "You must be tired and hungry after everything that you have endured. Take a moment to eat and rest while you are here."

Trixie shot him a disbelieving look, but he paid it no mind as he dug into the food. She reluctantly approached the table and found garnishes and vegetables lined up on the edges, but she had to jump to see them and levitate them down to her. The sound of Garr's eating was all she could hear against the surge of her own thoughts. What am I doing here? I need to find Twilight, she reminded herself. She swallowed a bite as Garr chomped down onto another large piece of meat. "Where is Twilight?" she asked pointedly.

Garr stopped eating and stared at her, and she quickly grew uncomfortable under the silence of his eyes as they shifted between the food in his grasp and her. "I'm afraid I couldn't stop them," he muttered distantly, increasing Trixie's anxiousness.

"Stop who--What!?"

"The royal chefs. You see... ponies are a delicacy among my kind," he explained, watching as the blood rapidly drained from Trixie's face, "and they took your friend's body and prepared it. I believe this is a part of it. It certainly tastes like pony..." He twisted the meat in his grasp over as he spoke.

Trixie stared at him, wide eyed and with her jaw open and quivering. "Y-you... wh-what!?" she shrieked, her stomach beginning to churn and her hind legs losing strength. She collapsed to the floor as her heart pounded in her chest and Telos began to hum and increase its radiance.

Suddenly, Garr burst into laughter, a deep, rolling wave that filled the chamber, and Trixie shakily stood up in surprise, a sense relief beginning to wash away her sudden nausea. "What's... so... funny?" she ground out in a hoarse voice.

Garr used the back of one hand to wipe his eyes and the other to wipe his mouth. "You should've seen the look on your face, little one," he said before loosing more chuckles.

Trixie glared death at him. "Tell me where Twilight's body is, or so help me Celestia I will kill you with my bare hooves!"

Garr held up both hands and shook his head. "There is no need for that. Come with me." He snatched one last morsel, at least for a dragon, from the feast and motioned for the magician to follow.

Trixie kept her eyes glued to him with a sour look, but the dragon king never glanced to her a second time. They walked further down the corridor that connected to the previous chamber and entered another one at the end of the hall. On the far end of the chamber were gigantic, plush pillows of various vibrant colors, lined with a golden rope decoration that tied into a knot in each corner. She squinted, but all she could make out were the colors standing out against the room's decor in the orange glow of more burning braziers.

"Your friend's fortitude is beyond anything we have ever seen," remarked Garr as he stopped and moved a hand towards the pillows, "and there was little we could do to assist her healing."

As Trixie stepped closer to the pile of pillows, the form of a bandaged pony began to sharpen from a blur upon a purple pillow. Her eyes widened and her steps became lighter and quicker with Telos returning to silence. Is it...!? She found herself hesitating the nearer she got as her heart fluttered, and she stopped with one hoof ready to take another step.

Garr moved past her and lowered himself, gently nudging the bandaged pony with one of his large hands. "It is time to awaken, cosmic one. I believe you are needed."

The pony moaned and stirred, slowly moving and opening her eyes. Trixie remained in place, her readied hoof unmoving as she stared ahead in disbelief. A loud moan followed as the pony shakily stood up on the pillow and attempted to balance, but their eyes locked with Trixie's after a few seconds, and the unicorn's heart felt as if it would explode out of her chest. "T...Twilight!" she choked out.

"...T-Trixie?" she said slowly, leaning forward and blinking several times until her vision sharpened to normal clarity. The magician dashed to her and leaped up to the pillow in an attempt to embrace her, but Twilight side stepped and let her land beside her.

Garr coughed. "Regardless of your healing capabilities, you must rest easy. I don't know if--"

"...Garr? Is that you, too? Where... am I?" Twilight gave him a groggy, surprised look, and quickly glanced around. "The Palace of the Dragons," she muttered to herself in astonishment. She quickly shook her head and composed herself. "I'll be fine," she added calmly but cautiously. She glanced at her bandages and took in the sight of dried blood staining through most of them, but aside from the great aching emanating from the bandaged wounds she felt no other injury. She turned to Trixie as the magician stood up to face her with a relieved look.

Trixie reached a hoof to her face and Twilight rested one of her own over it as she returned her gaze, glistening tears welling in the magician's eyes. "I thought... I thought you were... never coming back this time..." she squeaked as the tears rolled freely down her cheeks. Twilight smiled and opened her mouth to speak, but the words she had planned to articulate never came out. Trixie swiftly smacked her with the hoof resting on her face and left the alicorn stunned for a few seconds. "Don't you ever do that to me again!"

Didn't see that coming... There was a reluctance in the way Twilight returned her focus back to Trixie, but she smiled again and hugged her. "I'm sorry... I just... I..." She leaned into her, and the magician returned the hug with a stronger embrace, much to Twilight's chagrin. "I'm sorry." Twilight strained her eyes to look around over the magician's shoulder, and her brow arched as she could not find what she was looking for. "Trixie, where is Rainbow Dash?"

The magician relinquished her embrace and threw up a glum expression. "She went back to Canterlot. She wanted to help the fight there first."

Twilight nodded and gave her a thoughtful look. "Thanks for coming back for me, but I wouldn't think any less of you if you didn't."

Garr coughed again. "I do not wish to cut your reunion short, but I must divert your attention to the matters at hand."

Twilight sighed and rubbed one side of her head in thought. "What about the Brood, though? After what I did..." She grimaced, and Trixie put a hoof on her shoulder, but she pulled herself away and refused to make eye contact, obscuring her eyes with her mane until Garr spoke again.

"Let me worry about the Brood."

"I need to get back to Canterlot," Twilight said quickly. "Your king--Render, he was corrupted in some way. I don't know exactly how, but I need to find Aurelius. I think-"

"You know?" Garr interrupted suddenly. Twilight stared at him suspiciously for a moment. The dragon choked on a few words before stringing together a coherent follow up. "General Aurelius... is the one who instigated this war."

"But how? King Render said the dragons had no intention of ever fighting before him. How could one dragon influence the entire Brood to go to war with Equestria after hundreds and hundreds of years of peace?"

Garr shook his head and put a hand to it. "I don't know. He convinced our council and King Render over the course of several years, but he orchestrated most of our plans, all the way down to excluding me from the primary siege forces."

Twilight raised an eyebrow, but said nothing for a moment. "Why didn't anyone speak out against him, or try to stop them?"

"Few did, and I was his only true opposition, but Render and the council would not see reason. They followed Aurelius's every word, and there was nothing I could do. They had never considered war until his proposition, but he led them on like a carrot on a stick." Garr seemed to stare through Twilight as he spoke, and she shivered as her imagination absorbed his words.

"Do you really think Aurelius is behind all of this?"

"There's no way to know for sure, but he is behind the idea of this war--masquerading its purpose behind pride. I would like to know more myself, but it seems much of what remains of the Brood here in Draconis are regaining their senses. I don't know how."

Twilight shook her head. "I don't have time to look into that. I need to get back to Canterlot," she reminded quickly. "Can you get us there?"

"I will take you nowhere until you eat and I have gathered a force to accompany us. Aurelius is commanding the siege forces, and he may cite mutiny and treason and attack me. I must-"

Twilight's expression hardened as she cut him off. "I don't want to... but I'll kill them if I have to." Trixie's eyes widened as she stared at her from the side.

Garr sighed and nodded slowly, reluctantly. "I may need to do the same if my kin will not see reason this time. I fear Aurelius may have already brainwashed them with his silvered tongue."

Twilight brought her hooves before her and stared at them pensively, and Trixie fixated on her face with worry. "My magic might be too powerful to control if a large fight breaks out between the allied dragons and Aurelius's forces. When I tap into all of my power..." She looked up and shook her head. "It's too dangerous for you and your kin."

Garr shook his head and held a hand up. "That is a risk they will be made aware of before we depart. Aurelius must be put down, no matter the cost." He sighed and paused for a moment, then chuckled. "Had you not killed the royal guard singlehandedly, I would not have so hastily decided this course of action." Twilight gave him an even stare as she waited for him to continue, but Garr shook his head again. "I don't know how the rest of the Brood will react to these events when this is all over. Keep that in mind. Eat, and I will await you outside when you are ready to depart."

Twilight watched him leave, regarding everything that had happened. It's not my fault...

"Twi..." started Trixie as she shook the alicorn's shoulder gently. Twilight snapped out of her thoughts and looked to the magician with a surprised look. "I'm really worried about you. You haven't been yourself lately."

Hesitation glinted in Twilight's eyes as she gazed into Trixie's worried ones, the violet irises reflecting back a delicateness. "I'm sorry, Trixie. I just have a lot on my mind. I... can't stop thinking about everything that's happened... This war. The Brood. Everything I've... done..." She shuddered, or shivered; she could not be sure as the gruesome images of the dragons she slew played through her head.

"Come on, let's talk while we walk." Trixie led the way towards the dining hall, but she subdued her strides, Twilight absentmindedly matching her intentionally sluggish pace. "You died, Twilight. Rainbow and I both watched you. But here you are, alive and... well," she finished while her eyes catalogued the bandages over the alicorn.

Twilight stopped and winced openly to the floor, her teeth standing out oddly against the dark decor. "I... did die, Trixie," she muttered, turning her head up to face Trixie again.

"Then how did you come back to life? You told us you were going to sacrifice yourself to stop the royal guard... H-how, Twilight?" Trixie's voice shook and she trembled as she took a step closer and placed a hoof on Twilight's shoulder again. The alicorn turned her head away and took the hoof in one of her own, bringing it up to her face and rubbing her cheek with it.

"I gambled my life and it paid off. It's something... someone like me can do, but reviving one's self is..." she trailed off as she closed her eyes and held Trixie's hoof to her cheek. "I don't want to talk about it anymore. I'm just happy that it worked and you're here with me now."

"Don't you ever-!"

"I promise, Trixie. I don't think it can be done again." Twilight released the hoof and leaned to the magician, kissing her softly on the lips. "I love you."

Trixie gave her a frustrated look before muttering, "You better," and trotting ahead with an unseen smile on her lips. Twilight chuckled and followed after her into the dining hall.

The magician levitated food down from the table to them, and the only sounds that filled the air were the hum of their magic and the chewing of their food. Twilight devoured as much as she could before loosing a loud, contented sigh. "I feel so much better."

"Are you sure you're up to fighting again? Rainbow and I are more than capable enough while you recover from your fight with..." Trixie trailed off and pursed her lips.

Twilight ran a hoof through and ruffled the magician's silvery mane. "Thank you for concern Trixie, but I'm alright. Now," she said as she motioned to the main corridor, "Canterlot is still waiting for us."

Trixie nodded, quickly smoothing her mane back out, and followed after. As they walked out of the castle, the weak tremors of antsy dragons echoed through the ground. Twilight squinted as several dragons came into view with Garr's back to the magical pair. He was muttering and moving his arms about, but she could not make out what he was saying immediately.

Garr pivoted and nodded to them as they neared. "We are ready to depart if you are, Twilight."

"Give me a moment." Twilight turned to Trixie and pressed a hoof to her chest. With a grunt, light and an invisible force flourished around them briefly. When it ended, Telos moved and perched itself on Twilight's back. "One more thing."

The alicorn galloped past the idling dragons and towards the ravaged waypoint. The small party followed after her and halted as Twilight stopped in front of King Render's body. She knelt down and placed a hoof on the end of his snout. "I'm sorry for this... and everything else. I'll try to make this right."

She stood up and took several steps backwards before Telos moved in front of her. The staff blurred as it began to vibrate, and waves of light and air echoed out from it. A white glow took hold of the lance and, in one quick jerk, ripped it free. Little blood coated the prongs with most of Render's having drained out onto the stone and dried already. She gave one last solemn look to the dead king's face. So peaceful... she noted.

"Take this," she said as the lance levitated to Garr. "Maybe it can help us." Garr nodded before reluctantly taking it. "Let's go."

"Aurelius will pay for his crimes and the anarchy he has caused our race, even if it must cost me my life." The other dragons gave Garr a wing salute and breathed flames into the air. Twilight and Trixie watched as the flames grew into a large plume before dissipating into the night.

The pair of ponies climbed aboard Garr's back and he nodded to the other dragons before leaping into flight. Trixie's cloak flapped lively in the night sky, but Twilight found herself tuning out the world around her on the aerial journey, the rush of cool air piercing her bandages and sinking into her skin quickly becoming lost to the depths of her thoughts.

Nightmare Moon... What are you... Who are you?

"Twilight? What's wrong?"

The alicorn gave a start as Trixie nudged her back to reality with a gentle hoof again. She shivered as the sense of cold overwhelmed her body. With an orange flicker from her horn, the feeling faded. "I'm sorry. I'm just thinking."

"About what?"

"Nightmare Moon is too much for Rainbow Dash to handle, and if Aurelius is as powerful as I think he is, she has no chance against the two of them together."

Trixie's eyes widened. "Are you saying she flew back to her own death?"

Twilight turned to the magician with a hard look. "I don't know. Rainbow is tough. I think she'll be fine regardless." Despite the reassuring, she cast a worried look the skies ahead. Nightmare Moon held back against me because I held back against her. Would she still show another Element of Harmony mercy?

She closed her eyes and the world slipped away once more. Celestia, are you there? The silence that followed her first attempt at communication always raised her anxiousness. It was a feeling she could never get used to, not in this circumstance. Please, Celestia...

Twilight!? The alicorn jumped as Celestia's voice filled her head loud and clear, but her eyes remained closed, locked in her concentration. Is that really you?

Yes, Celestia. What's wrong? Has Rainbow Dash returned yet?

Twilight, the other Elements have all been captured! I overheard Aurelius discussing with another dragon what to do with Nightmare Moon. I think he might try to use them and banish her and Luna again!

Twilight's heart sank into the pit of her stomach and she found herself breathing quicker and experiencing pangs of nausea. Th-that can't be... Can he really use the Elements against her?

I don't know. I've never seen a dragon use such powerful magic before. There's no telling what he can do. Please, Twilight, be careful. You're the last one he needs to try.

Twilight's focus began to wane and she articulated her responses as she sent them. "Hold on, Celestia! We're on our way. Nightmare Moon isn't a part of Aurelius's plan. I won't let him banish her!" Trixie shot her a surprised look, but the alicorn kept her eyes closed. "Celestia? Celestia!" Twilight's eyes shot open, a fierce glare to the dark skies ahead, and the rush of wind quickly dried them out. She furiously unraveled her bandages and discarded them to the night behind them, her coat tinted by the dried blood but without any wounds where the bandages had covered. "Garr, pick up the pace!"

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Hair whipped at her neck and back as Dash sped back towards Canterlot, a surge of adrenaline empowering her wings. The chill of the night air was never felt as the heat from her exertion kept her warm. Her chest burned. Her wings burned. Her determination burned. Trixie's defiance echoed in her mind as guilt edged its way into her stomach, but she clamped her teeth together and forced the feeling to be overwhelmed by her desire to make it back to the capitol.

Trees bent and danced in the wake of her flight, and loose debris jumped to reach the tops. I can't afford to get caught now. Damn it, Trixie! I need your help now more than I'll ever admit. She made a sharp maneuver and began an ascent, climbing altitude until she found herself squinting through the misty cirrus clouds high in the night. She closed her eyes and jerked herself into a quick few spins as she breached them. For a moment the world stilled as her eyes locked with the full moon, unobscured by any clouds at all, and a feeling of weightlessness overtook her in the few seconds she drifted before peeling her gaze away and flying above the clouds.

The minutes ticked away, but she exhaled a breath of relief when the Canterlot mountain came into view in the far distance. Her wings continued to burn and she slowed when dragons began to dot the cityscape in her vision. A dragon was perched above the entrance to the castle, and she brandished Nightfall and braced the hilt tight against her chest. Here goes nothing. She snapped her wings back into a fevered beat and began a steady descent towards the lone sentinel.

A whistling carried in the air and she reeled her right shoulder back, pushing her left forward, before jerking herself into a spin. Her form blurred into black and blue with a multicolored stream behind her. The dragon turned to catch sight of her as she reached full speed and his eyes widened in fright. There was no roar as the knight ripped through his wing, and then his chest in a bloody mess of flesh and giblets. Nightfall struck a piece of the castle and chipped it off before Dash broke the spin and curved into a smooth flight again, but she slowed as the world continued to spin for her.

As the dragon's body and remains plummeted to the ground, other members of the Brood had become aware of the killing and the knight responsible. Dash stopped and took in the flocking dragon soldiers with a calculating glare. The red dragon general, Aurelius, lumbered into view from the side courtyard path, the gold chain around his neck jingling as he gave an unreadable look to the slew of blood and guts on the front steps and splattered on the walls and columns. He cracked a smile as he positioned himself to face the knight.

"All Celestial Knights are vetted as dragon slayers, but to think you could kill one so easily... I must admit, I know little about your order, but your position as such is justly earned."

Dash threw her head back and forth, then whipped Nightfall to remove as much of the blood from her as she could. She spit to her side and wiped her eyes and glowered at him. The corners of Aurelius's mouth tugged into a smug look, but he showed no signs he would move.

"Are you the one in charge here?" Dash asked forcedly. "'Cause if you are, then I'll just beat your hide and end this now." The dragons of the crowd shifted, and growling murmurs and body movements played into the ambiance. "What, you want a piece of me, too? I'll take you all on!" she shouted to them.

Aurelius slipped a finger beneath the chain around his neck and jostled the links for a moment, but his eyes remained locked to the hovering knight. "I suppose you shall be ample entertainment. You will make a fine example of what happens to the bold while I await a pony more important than you."

Raising Nightfall, Dash began to charge towards the red dragon. "I'll show you entertainment!"

In the span of a few seconds, Aurelius extended his wings and launched into the air with only a few, powerful beats of his wings. Dash gasped as the dragon surprised her with the sudden burst of speed, moving faster than any dragon she had ever seen. Aurelius raised his left fist as he reached her and slammed into her chest. Her vision blurred as the air in her lungs was forced out, her wings losing feeling to the sudden pain and shock permeating throughout her body. Nightfall slipped from her grasp as she spiraled down in a feathery disaster. She hit the ground with a pained groan, her sword impaling upright into the grass of one of the courtyards just a few meters before her.

Dash whimpered and clutched her stomach where her now-dented armor dug into her. She curled up, both forelegs clutching against her chest as she attempted to gather breath in her lungs and control over all of her body once more. It hurts... It hurts, it hurts, it hurts! Aurelius landed slowly, the ground heaving as he set all fours down, Nightfall marking the spot between him and the knight. Dash managed to pry her broken breastplate off after several weak attempts, slipping into a fit of coughs as the compression released. She heaved and made an attempt to crawl towards the standing sword. Breathe... Breathe!

The green of the blade cut through the darkness of the night and Aurelius found himself drawn to its mysterious glow. Abruptly, he pulled himself back into sitting on his hind legs. "What!?" he blurted. "No... it couldn't be..." he muttered to himself. He brought his face closer to the blade again, his red eyes reflecting off of the illuminating green. Dash managed to breathe normally again and she stood up and staggered towards the sword, but Aurelius snatched it up and held it between two fingers. "Where... Where did you get this sword?" he growled, anger beginning to fill him.

"Like I'd ever tell you!" Dash shouted back in a hoarse voice. She leaped into flight and snatched the blade from his hand. She whirled around in an attempt to slash his hand, but she was met with his tail crashing into her side. She braced herself and was grounded with the throb of more coming bruises. What the heck is this dragon made of? She landed with a skid, stabbing Nightfall into the ground to slow her slide and rising into a combat stance as she stopped. Her stance faltered for an instant, but she gnashed her teeth and reinforced it.

"You do not even know what that sword is for," Aurelius growled.

Dash gave him a deadly glare, but it waned as her vision began to blur. She shook her head and it remedied most of her difficulty seeing. She glanced at the dragons watching her, but they all maintained a stony outward appearance, none displaying more than a light smile, if there was one to be seen in the night. Ending the moment of repose, she lurched forward and leaped into flight, twisting and beginning a corkscrew again.

She poured all of her effort into her gyrations, spinning herself around and around once more. Aurelius raised his arms in time to block the knight's assault, and Nightfall twisted into his flesh, ripping and tearing it but ultimately only drilling half of the blade's length into his left arm. Dash squealed in surprise as the blade came to a stop, her eyes wide as they noted the lack of blood to spill from the wound. She hung from the hilt, suspending herself where her wings were too exhausted to lift her, and Aurelius gave her a dark frown. I... can't win... Her heart began to race in the lull of silence that followed the end of her attack. Come on, move! she mentally shouted to her body.

The free arm of the dragon quickly moved and took hold of her, and she relinquished her grasp on Nightfall as the dragon's grip around her tightened. The crunch of what remained of her armor was lost beneath the agonized scream that tore from the knight's throat. Dash wailed as she could feel bones crack and joints pop before being released to fall to the ground, her armor falling free in the air and clattering around her on the soft grass.

Aurelius plucked Nightfall from his arm and gazed at it for a moment before slipping it beneath a wing and out of view. Dash writhed and whimpered for several moments, the pain of her traumatized bones overwhelming her nerves. But slowly, she forced herself to stand, and remained shaky until she could glare at Aurelius again.

The dragon sighed. "Surrender and submit, Element of Loyalty, and you shall be harmed no further."

The knight could only keep her right eye open through the haze of darkness before her, blood flowing freely over the left and painting her cyan face in red. She could no longer see more than a smear of colors across a messy outline of the dragon. Her head was swimming, but she managed to keep her thoughts in order. "Up yours, dragon."

"Then so be it. You will be put in your proper place."

Aurelius raised his right hand high into the air before bringing it down with all of his might in a fist. Dash's body refused to move any more, and she clamped her eye as the fist swung down. The ground where the knight stood cratered under the colossal force, and debris sprayed in every direction. Dash's last wail of pain was cut short by the loss of consciousness. The dragon retracted his hand and inspected the form of the broken knight. "Your willpower was admirable," he muttered as he loomed over the crater. Turning his head, he called in the direction of the castle entrance, "I know you are there, Mistress Moon. Take this one and bring her to Celestia."

A cloud of blue, starry mist flowed out from the main entrance, running along the ground in a stream before coalescing into Nightmare Moon's corporeal form near Dash's body. She wore no armor, or her decorative neckpiece, but she focused only on the knight. Her mane shifted around her face, hiding a grimace she held for the sight before her. In a few seconds, it expanded and consumed the body, and with it her grim expression. She turned and began to walk back to the castle.

"The princess will ensure she does not succumb to her injuries," the dragon reminded her.

Nightmare nodded absentmindedly, never glancing to Aurelius. She entered the castle and trudged up the stairs and down the lonely corridors. It would be in my best interest to let you die, but at the same time, you're my best chance if left alive. A wispy tendril of her mane slipped into view, and she gazed at it. No. My only chance.

She stopped before Celestia's chamber door, closing her eyes and sighing. Her hoof rapped at the door, but before she gave time for anyone to answer, she forced it open with her magic and stepped through, the well oiled hinges failing to alarm the ponies within of her sudden appearance. The surprised eyes of the other Elements and Celestia fell to her as she gave them a blank look.

Nightmare's wispy mane formed into a bubble before her, producing the mangled form Rainbow Dash and gently laying her onto the floor. The other ponies loosed horrified shrieks as blood ran along the floor from open wounds. They hurled insults her way, but she ignored them all as she stepped closer to Celestia, the princess's dark gaze matching Nightmare's blank one. In the moment their eyes locked, the others became silent, frightened and awed at the same time.

Nightmare spoke first, a subdued tone for the sake of keeping the tension in the room down. "I promise you... This was not my doing." She ripped her eyes away and back to the form of the knight. "Please, Celestia. Take care of her. I pray Twilight Sparkle has..." She caught the words in her mouth and shook her head. "Please, Celestia." Before anything else could be uttered, she dematerialized into the starry mist and flowed out of the room, the door shutting behind her just as quietly.

The princess rose and stepped to loom over the knight. Without a word, she began to heal her. Applejack spoke up as everyone watched intently. "Your majesty, just what is goin' on?"

"Even I don't fully understand," Celestia mused sadly.

Nightmare moved about the castle aimlessly for a long while, but stopped and reformed herself as she passed by a window near one of the side courtyards. Her ears twitched and adjusted, straining to hear the voices that emanated from the courtyard.

"Are you sure, my lord?" said one she did not recognize.

"She has changed. I will not allow her to be a potentially disastrous element in my plan. The mistress will remain imprisoned once more, and the hope that her fate will be reversed will keep Celestia in check."

She gasped as she recognized Aurelius's voice. She attempted to move, but her body froze with dread, the thought of her only benefactor betraying her. I am alone... She turned and began to slowly walk towards Celestia's chambers. Maybe...

***

Twilight rose to stand as Garr soared towards the castle. She frowned at the ravaged cityscape, but she breathed deep, thankful that not much more appeared to have been destroyed since she was last there. Repairs had already begun and everything appeared quiet from the distance above in the night. The dragon king swooped down and landed on a street near the entrance, the ground trembling at the sudden force of his weight.

The ponies leaped from his back and stretched as the dragons set down further from the castle. Twilight turned and opened her mouth to speak, but a fireball struck the ground in front of her causing her to leap back with a startled cry. Telos moved in front of her as a guardian, and Trixie whirled around and took her staff into her hooves, prepared to battle the new foe.

"Come now, Twilight. That wouldn't have hit you. I wouldn't want to hurt somepony I would want to call a friend, would I?" cooed Nightmare. Twilight's eyes narrowed in confusion at the Id. Nightmare wore no armor, not even any piece of regalia bearing the symbol of the moon. "You know, this could be the last time we have fun together." Nightmare's eyes were puffy, but dry, and Twilight opened her mouth to speak once more, but she was interrupted as Aurelius lumbered to the front of the castle, the chain around his neck jingling with heavy clinks. The dragon general loomed over the Id, a smirk pulling at one corner of his mouth.

"Aurelius..." Garr seethed.

"Well, well, well. If it isn't the precious captain. You never cease to be a thorn in my side." Aurelius's eyes shifted over to Twilight, the alicorn shooting back a deadly glare, and then to her staff, however he could not see her wings in the dark. That little witch and her knight... No matter, this speeds up my plan. "It seems you have slain King Render. I can't say that is what I originally had planned, but it doesn't matter. You're little more than a tool to be used and cast aside when no longer needed."

"You were the one manipulating the Brood all along... The evidence we found and Render's dying words to me--Nightmare Moon wasn't Luna's corrupted mind. You created her as a homunculus!"

Aurelius moved a hand up to his chain, slipping a digit beneath the links and rattling it. "I must admit, I'm impressed. I would not expect a unicorn to figure that out, but you are an archmage, the Element of Magic, and Celestia's noble protégé after all. Still..." He's smug look faded and was replaced with a dark stare. "You are merely a tool for beings your greater, and another stepping stone for me."

Nightmare turned her head to the side and her mane obscured her face. "So, how does this play out?" she muttered under her breath, her expression becoming fragile.

"Surrender, Aurelius, or I will kill you," Twilight declared, pointing a hoof to the red dragon and Telos moving above her and tilting so its spire aimed with her.

"Oh how I will enjoy seeing you try, foolish Element of Magic. You are not worthy of your title or your power. Heed me,"--the dragon pointed his left hand at Twilight--"and know that your gifted powers are mine to command."

Nightmare returned her gaze to face Twilight, the alicorn's mouth hanging agape and Trixie standing at her side with a vexed expression to match. "So, you truly betray me after everything that... has happened." Tears ran down her cheeks and dripped to the ground, but all she gave was a pained laugh.

Aurelius rotated the chain around his neck until the rune dangled in front of his chest. "You are little more than the title of your birth. Did you think me a fool that I would allow you to roam free with the influence you have had over you? You would betray me the same if given the chance."

Nightmare turned up to him, her tears now glossing her eyes and distorting her face, but she carried an angry expression. "In the first breath that I could," she growled.

Aurelius gave her a cautious look before turning back to Twilight and Trixie. "Ponies are not the only ones that may wield magic." He placed a hand on the ground, and a quick flash left behind the other Elements, each dazed from the experience. The others were unharmed, but the wounded Dash stirred from her slumber. Bandages wrapped her body neatly, including one that muffled the groans escaping her mouth.

"Y-you bastard!" Twilight cried, her eyes widening at the sight of her friend's horrible state.

Celestia galloped out of the castle at full speed, leaping and descending the front steps in a single jump. "Aurelius! I will not let you take my sister from me again!" she bellowed, hitting the street with a clack and sliding. Her horn crackled with power at the ready, but it faded as her eyes took in everyone in front of her.

"All of you are nothing more than puppets, but I shall claim you as mine." Aurelius raised the rune and forces began to draw the five Elements near him together. Dash awoke as she was lifted into the air, all five giving cries of confusion and fright.

As the necklaces of the other Elements appeared, so did Twilight's tiara. She attempted to remove it manually, but it was too late and wouldn't budge. It erupted forth its light, mixing in with others into a stream of prismatic energy. The energy spiraled upwards before aiming and shooting towards Nightmare. The Id grimaced and closed her eyes as it neared.

"NO!" cried Twilight and Celestia in unison, each leaping into the light as it crashed into Nightmare.

The Elements of Harmony exploded into a blinding whiteness, pushing back the darkness and consuming the alicorns in its power. The colored energy whirled around and surged skyward, blasting into the night and fading into the darkness as the white light at the impact point receded back into the darkness. Rising from the impact site were three alicorns, but not the same three that had just been there moments ago.

Aurelius gave a surprised look at them. "It seems such a mysterious power cannot be predicted so easily, but this is far more than that." The dragon chuckled as he stepped backwards, distancing himself. "Far more indeed."

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