• 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 56: Moving the Pieces

Author's Note:

4/16/19 - Wtf is this? An update, like, a year later?

Peppy gets his name at the top cause he did a deeper dive on proofing and reviewing for this one's drafts (for the first 9 pages).

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine (now w/20% more Peppy editing)

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

Chapter 56: Moving the Pieces

Twilight gazed down the desolate expanse, a jagged and lonely world marked by dusty valleys and old buttes. So… these are the Badlands, huh? She stepped forward, leaving what she knew of Equestria’s lands and towards the dry, lifeless earth ahead. Endless sun bore into the rock, bleaching everything into a milky orange. She paused as she passed an enormous boulder, her eyes darting to what it hid. Skeletons of ponies, gryphons, minotaur, and other races piled up. Fresher, or at least fresh enough to still have decaying flesh, corpses were among them. She reexamined the path into the Badlands and took notice of crumbled rocks. Approaching, it became clear that they weren’t rocks, but rather the old, sun-worn bones of a long dead dragon. She pressed a hoof to a rib, slowly applying pressure until it cracked. A warning sign, or—

A weakling, her doppelganger commented.

The oracle frowned and continued forward. I’ve never been here before. It could be interesting. She gave a faint smile to the wasteland. I like the idea of that.

Don’t let your guard down. You’re an uninvited guest here.

Twilight teleported to the top of a cliff and scouted the path. It stretched for miles, shaded by its walls of rock, but she took notice of a peculiarity to it. The path looks unnatural. Something carved it. Still, she could spot no life from her vantage point. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, focusing her magical sense to the area before her. Visualizing a rising green aura around her, it burst outward until it vanished. Nothing. She pivoted slowly, maintaining concentration as the spatial detection shifted, and suddenly she could feel something familiar. She gasped and stumbled backwards out of her senses.

“What is it?” the doppelganger asked as it appeared beside her.

Wide eyes stared back towards Equestria. “The princesses… They’re coming! They’re close… closer than they ever should be.” Her mind raced as she considered her options and the reasoning. I’m hunting Aurelius, but there’s no way both of them would come after him… unless… She swallowed. “They’re coming for me.”

The doppelganger snickered. “The hunt is on, oracle. What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know… Nightmare Moon is with them,” she replied, her words trailing into whispers.

“What!?” The doppelganger moved to better view the path she treaded. “She cannot interfere. Not when you’re so close. Don’t waste any more time here. Aurelius is here, and you must kill him!”

Twilight nodded as she turned back and teleported down to the main valley of the Badlands. “For once, I agree with you. But what should I expect here? You seem to be… familiar with this place.”

The doppelganger returned to her mind. Dragons.

“Dragons are nothing I need to worry about. I can avoid fighting them, or overpower—“

You won’t be overpowering these dragons easily. Avoid fighting at all costs and let the princesses deal with them. Your hosts here will not be the same as those in Draconis.

She broke into a gallop, and then into flight as her heart matched the pace. Her wings carried her across the rough terrain with ease, and she took joy from the wind hitting her face and running through her feathers once more. The journey from the Crystal Kingdom had given her ample time to recover her physical state. Gaining height, she soared up to the tops of the cliffs and glided over the landscape. As Equestria became lost on the horizon behind her, she noticed something in the distance to her side.

I’m being followed, she noted.

Picking up the pace, she dipped back into the valley and took a deep breath. What she felt suddenly engulfed her magical senses, and she could feel it flowing all around her. The feeling shifted and spread before suddenly uniting and moving as one. Confused, she rose back out from the valley to find herself flanked on both sides by dragons in the distance. What the heck? She stopped and landed atop the nearest peak, watching as the dragons did so. They pivoted and focused on her. Abruptly, more appeared from the valleys and crevices ahead, perching atop the cliffs and watching her.

Twilight swallowed as her heartbeats grew heavier. She cast a glance behind her, and the way back to Equestria was still clear. She could only garner the faintest trace of the princesses now. If not for experiencing their magic in full force she wouldn’t sense them at all. Turning back, the dragons still watched her. She slowly lifted off and continued forward, and again the dragons to her flanks mirrored her, but those in her path did not move. Two were directly in front of her and simply waited.

“This isn’t looking good,” she muttered as she kept her eyes on them. “I don’t even know where I’m going.”

You’ll know it when you see it, the doppelganger replied, but the notion failed to reassure her.

As she neared, the dragons took flight and charged her. Moonlight gleamed as it was brandished into the light, and she propelled herself between them, attempting to score a wing during the pass. The blade halted, grinding against what sounded like stone or dense metal, and she spun around and glanced back to see the unscathed dragon turning to give chase. What was that? she wondered.

Dust roiled in the wake of their wings, and Twilight maintained her speed while she observed them over her shoulder. Their bulky forms and thick wings made their flight slower than the Brood, but something else about them seemed strange. Looking all around her to view the dragons in the distance, it dawned on her. They’re all the same color. Every dragon was the same dusty grey-brown, and nothing else seemed different among them beyond size and minor body variations.

A fireball sizzled by her and crashed into the ground ahead, a liquid-like flame rolling into the air as it splashed outward. Several more chased her and she whirled over while energy gathered at her horn. She spun again, righting herself before them. With a deep breath, she fired a violet beam at one of the dragons, striking him in the chest. It yelped as it tumbled down onto the ground, becoming a ball of dust. She snickered and continued her flight, casting a prideful glance back over at her work. However, the dragon shook itself off and continued its pursuit, a black mark on its chest where the beam struck.

H-How did he get up from that? I put enough energy in that to stun one of the Brood’s royal guards.

“You’re only going deeper into the maw,” the nearer dragon called to her. “You won’t leave this place alive.”

Twilight repeated her aerial maneuvers and charged another beam, this one darker and larger than the last. It struck the speaking dragon and she watched as he fell backwards out of the air. When he rose from the dust cloud he was slower than the first, a claw clutching a bloody wound, but still he continued on. Her eyes darted to the sides in time to see the other dragons narrowing in on her.

“How far is this damn place? As much as I’d love to kill these things I can’t afford to waste magic on them.”

Get down!

Twilight thought she heard the doppelganger speak, but at the same time she descended into a valley. She looked up in time to see fireballs and dragon breath scorching the air she had just occupied. Did my body just… move on its own? She shivered and pushed the thought away as she moved inside the shade. More fireballs rained down overhead and around her, the cliff providing natural cover to some of the attacks.

A fireball hit the ground beside her, splashing its liquid flame onto her wing. She bared her teeth and dropped to the ground, her hooves skidding over the land. Her horn flared, and she grunted, a pillar of sand erupting in her path. Rolling through the wall of sand, she came out the other side with the fire out, but pain lingered on the wound. Ahead, the earth started to slope, the cliffs rolling over to a yawning cave.

That has to be it, she thought. More fireballs came from behind, and she teleported forward as the heat crawled up her back. In the moment of transition, she could see the world around her warping, distorting as she visualized her destination melding around her. Abruptly, she stopped, hitting an invisible wall and toppling backwards. As she lied on her back, she could see her foes halting, their eyes heavy on her. The injured dragon clutched his wound, his gaze heavy, but he maintained his position.

Twilight rose up, magic ready for a fight, but they did not attack her. She stared back, studying their body language, but soon more dragons arrived and stood at the perimeter of the cliff overhang, all watching her. Magic coursed through her body, and she could almost feel a hum within herself while she poised for survival.

“What? Not going to make the first move?” she taunted. They did not speak, continuing only to watch, their only movements their breathing. What is going on? Why aren’t they attacking? She stepped forward, but they did not move. She stopped after a few steps, observing the surroundings, and then slowly tilted her head back. They aren’t entering the cave? She pivoted, peering into the depths of corridor; the maw of darkness piquing her curiosity.

She moved into the darkness, listening intently for any movement. Suddenly, a red force field manifested and took hold of her. Jolts of energy rippled through her, and her body convulsed before being thrown back. Her mind was reeling before she hit the ground, and fear slipped in as forced herself to rise and face the dragons, yet still they had not moved.

“You are trapped,” the injured dragon declared as he watched her, a red glyph appearing on the crest of his head.

Twilight coughed and snickered. “Well, we’ll see about that. I know you won’t—or maybe you can’t—cross this line.”

She turned and trudged to the force field and closed her eyes. Concentrating, she found the trap and started to unravel its mechanisms. It only allows certain creatures to enter… Dragons… Dragonkin? Dragon magic was foreign and complicated to her, and there was no time to dispel or temporarily disable the trap. I guess I’ll need to do this the old fashioned way. She turned and shot a smirk to the dragons watching her.

“Do you think you can escape us?” the glyph-marked dragon called to her.

“I’m wondering if I could kill all of you right here and now,” she replied. The dragons exchanged glances. “But I’m not here for you.” She turned back to the cave. “Your deaths are going to have to wait.”

Closing her eyes, she channeled her magic into an avatar of herself. Translucent, purple, and larger than herself, it stepped forward and plunged its hooves into the force field as it appeared. Centering the force, it grabbed into the field and Twilight growled, slowly ripping it open, but suddenly it crushed her avatar and pushed her back again. Damn it! This thing is stronger than I thought. What are they protecting? It can’t be Aurelius… She turned and looked at the injured dragon. Can I use his body to get through? She calculated her odds of killing him and fleeing against how much magic it would cost, but the situation didn’t favor her.

The earth started to rumble, and she could see something coming in the distance. Slowly, more and more beings appeared until a shadow formed at the edge of their vision. Twilight blinked and scanned the distance for traces of magic; Equestria’s forces had arrived. The dragons turned and took in the newcomers.

“Kill them all,” shouted the glyph-marked dragon. “The king must not be disturbed.” Twilight watched as all took flight, fanning out to meet the encroaching forces. The glyph-marked dragon turned to her and snorted, removing his hand and placing it on the ground. “Stay there, little pest, and quietly watch your people burn before your eyes.” The wound on his chest no longer leaked blood, though the plate-scale was still charred.

Twilight frowned, blinking slowly at him. “I want you to remember this moment, dragon. It’s the moment you thought you were superior. It will be your final regret when I take your life.”

The dragon offered his disdain through a snort and lingering gaze before turning and flapping a wall of dust at her. She coughed and flicked a hoof, gusting the dust away while she watched him go. Returning to the warding spell, she reached out to it and closed her eyes. A dark world opened to her, phasing into existence as a blurry mess. Slowly, it became clearer as lines appeared and connected together to form what represented the barrier. Once the world was in focus, the structure of the magic could be observed.

Bizarre, yet intricate spell weaving was done to create the barrier and she marveled as it continued to unravel before her mind’s eye; however, it continued to grow and reach out far beyond anything she had ever seen. It was becoming daunting and her confidence waned while she studied the spell’s manifestation blooming ever outward. The magic bore no signature of any race or order that she recognized. It even seemed alien to what she had seen of the Brood’s designs in Draconis. Once it reached completion, the design felt familiar to her in some way, but more she studied it the more she struggled to place its origins.

“Who… could have possibly made this?” she blurted in frustration. Her eyes shot open as she glared into the darkness of the maw. Aurelius was close, but she was now impeded by the most complex magical barrier she had ever seen. She could dispel it, or find a way through given enough time, but that was something she didn’t have a lot of. Explosions in the distance broke her concentration; she whirled around to glimpse plumes of smoke rising from where she had come from. “Damn you, Celestia. You should’ve just done what you’ve always done and watched me handle our problems.”

---

A shifting, shadowy cowl hid Nightmare’s mane and most of her face from the others in the small army she marched with. The rapidly assembled forces of gryphon, pony, dragon, minotaur, and an assortment of elites offered by other races and territories comprised the group. Chrysalis remained the only changeling, and she was glued to Luna’s side every step of the way. Nightmare never let her attention stray from the changeling’s presence for very long. Whether she noticed her watchful gaze or not didn’t matter; if Chrysalis had to be put down, she would never see it coming.

A nudge from the side perked her up briefly, but she settled as she realized it was Celestia. “Relax. There is no need to focus on her so much.”

“I promise you that I’m just as aware of our surroundings. I can sense all around us at the same time, and I know you can as well.” Nightmare’s eyes strayed to the cliffs. “I’m glad we’re no longer using airships for this part, but this still feels like a trap.”

The sun princess followed her gaze and took a deep breath. “There could be an ambush waiting for us, but dragons are not normally the type for such tactics.”

“And dragons aren’t normally covered in magic-resistant plating,” she reminded. Several rocks and pebbles rolled down from a cliff, clacking and clattering on the way down. Nightmare instinctively rose up and reached towards her cowl but stopped as she fully realized what the disturbance was.

“You’re jumpier than usual.”

The Id exhaled slowly. “Twilight is here. I feel her presence every second calling to me. And every second that I’m reminded of it I see her face… the way she looked at me…” She slowly turned to Celestia. “What she has become.”

The sun princess grimaced as their eyes met. “I… understand all too well.”

“Enemy dragons!” bellowed a minotaur in the front of the march. “Brace for impact!”

“An ambush!? Why couldn’t we detect them?” The Id threw her cowl back and ripped her scythe from her mane.

Celestia did the same, brandishing her axe. “Luna, we shall take the vanguard.”

The moon princess already had her hammer at the ready, offering a sideways nod before turning to Chrysalis. “Stay with the magi and provide support from there.” Luna pivoted and called, “Paladin Hooves. Defend the rear. Paladin Do, join us on the front line.” Derpy turned and hovered at the rear of the forces, her sword and shield drawn.

The sisters flew to the front of the march and joined the others as dragons came into view. Volleys of fireballs and rakes of dragon breath spread through the canyon, but shields conjured by the mages protected them. The first dragon hit the ground with a thunderclap, attempting to stomp through, but Luna gathered energy into her hammer and, with a shrill cry, drove it into his chest. The force boomed off of the plate scale, jangling the rest in a rumbling cacophony. With a yelp, the dragon stumbled and collapsed forward through roiling dust, the earth trembling fell. Several of the minotaur were caught underneath a wing, but with a combined effort, they heaved and roared in unison and pushed it off.

The stunned dragon shook itself, blinking into alertness as it rose up. Rage filled his gaze, and he swept a wing towards her. The minotaur were blasted back even as Luna rushed to stop it from carving through more of the forces. The other wing came up behind Luna, and Celestia intervened, catching it with her axe. A growl rumbled out of his throat, his head pulling back; his body reeled up as his chest swelled, and he loosed a brilliant orange flame onto his foes. The ground scorched and crackled, the heat haze obscuring his vision, before it wafted into the air. A blue barrier appeared in the wake of the breath with Chrysalis and the magi standing on the other side, their horns bright with magic.

Grey streaked down from the sky through the flames, and Daring appeared at the scale Luna had struck. She seized the opportunity and drove her blades into the flesh beneath. She pried, grunting as the bloody flesh held fast. The dragon yelped and peered down, but the the new weak point had already met both swords. The dragon growled and spun, but still Daring held on. Flipping over and anchoring herself with her weapons, she planted her hooves to the body and torqued them until the scale was carved away. The dragon stopped and she spiraled away, crashing into the dirt while his enraged roar boomed off of the cliffs.

The dragon staggered backwards with a claw masking the wound, blood oozing between the talons. He shrank inward, bringing both armored wings close to his body, and two more dragons landed in front of him.

“Split up,” Celestia shouted. “The other races can work together for one, and I’ll bring one down with Paladin Do. Paladin Hooves and the Brood have the aerial and rear.”

Luna nodded and gathered magic in her hammer head once more. “Midnight and I shall fell another.”

The Id nodded, and from the depths of her dark cloak a blade emerged, the blackened steel drawing light to its razor edge. “We need to save as much magic as we can. We don’t know how many we’ll have to fight.”

Celestia and Daring broke off to the left of the advance as Luna and Nightmare took the right. Two more dragons engaged the arm, a fiery battle beginning overhead between the Brood, and the other on the ground with Derpy and the gryphons.

Luna was the first to attack, gathering magic in her hammer and aiming for the chest. Abruptly, the dragon forced its wings out and spun, shrouding itself in a haze of dust. The tail extended and whipped as it completed its rotation, blasting the army with rocks. The shields came too late, and stones rained into the unicorns and minotaur like meteors. Those not too injured rose up with groans, blood leaking from the sides of their heads, or welts forming on their bodies through the fur and dented armor.

Luna clamped her eyes as the tail batted her against a wall, but she growled and shrugged it off, her grip still tight on her hammer. As she prepared for a reprisal, the dragon inhaled deeply, his mouth aglow with furious orange. The shield of the supporting forces was prepared, but the flames did not come for them. The dragon unleashed it to his side, consuming Celestia and Daring off of his ally. From the rolling flame, Celestia bellowed. “Switch!” Two pairs took flight and switched foes, with Nightmare chasing the dying flame to follow Luna.

Daring dove into her foe’s open jaw, driving one sword through the roof and the other through the bottom. The dragon snarled and whined as she carved through the tongue, another fire breath gathering in its throat. Glimpsing the impending flame, she brought her limbs and weapons to her body, pushing through the blood and saliva through the bottom of the jaw. Barreling over, she watched the flames erupt from the new orifices, charring the wounds. Celestia leapt into the air, her mane becoming a yellow flame, and her fur a blinding white. As the dragon’s head reeled back in his agony, she roared and drove her axe into its exposed neck. There was no clang of metal, only the sizzle of her blade to the flesh. Nightmare turned to see the dragon as he toppled backwards before his wounded ally, but quickly refocused on the one Luna had engaged.

Luna dodged between scratches and swipes, maneuvering closer with each deflect from her hammer. The dragon hopped back, the earth trembling as it landed, and beat its wings. The princess was forced to shield herself before the storm of sand and rock. With her prey distracted, Nightmare moved in from the side and aimed for a hamstring, but her scythe struck plating and bounced off.

Damn, there’s no cutting through this without magic.

Reversing with the new momentum, she took a righting step and spun back as fast as she could, her scythe leaving a blue trail of light. With a cry, she forced it through the dragon’s entire foot, separating it from the rest of the body. She lurched backwards while it fell, the thick plates clinking as the wings plunged into the ground and stabilized him.

“H-How can you cut through my scales!?” the dragon cried, his eyes shooting to her.

Suddenly, everyone doubled over and clutched the ears as a thunderous ringing exploded through the canyon, even the dragon wincing as the sound screamed off of the cliff walls. Nightmare’s eyes swam in her head, and she scanned the source of the cacophony; Luna trembled as she staggered away from the dragon, her hammer unceremoniously falling from her grasp. The princess recovered, but was too late to react, her eyes focusing as the dragon’s hand took her. The talons constricted and she yelped, but it stopped when a stream of fire reached the hand, two slivers of steel glinting in the sunlight in the hand.

Daring bared her teeth, struggling to pry the talons apart. “F-Fight, damn it. I… can’t… hold… this…!” Luna took a deep breath, her sweaty reddened face revealed when her mane shifted away. Grunting, she pushed back with the blades, but one of the swords slipped, and a pop preceded another yelp.

A battle cry came from above and Celestia dove with her axe, crashing the glowing head into the wrist. Her horn flashed, and the axe severed the hand, her sister hitting the ground and freeing herself. The dragon snarled and rapidly inhaled, fixating on Luna. Daring whirled around and pushed Luna away before spreading her body in front of the moon princess. Nightmare watched in awe as the breath streamed over them, but her eyes drifted to the severed hand. Molten metal dripped from the wound, rapidly cooling back and hardening.

Luna emerged from the fading flames with her hammer and sprang into the air. “We’ll see just how much force those scales of yours can take.”

She flew high into the sky, and then dived straight down to the dragon’s back. She surged and spun, whipping herself into a blue funnel, finally driving the hammer into the center of a back plate. Her teeth bared as the sweat fell from her face on impact, blue light bloomed through the dragon’s chest, exploding onto the ground beneath. He heaved and caved downwards, but he rotated and his wings started carving through the earth while his tail swept debris and batted it towards the magi. Nightmare moved beside Celestia and formed a shield together, the boulders and pebbles stopping or bouncing off entirely. The dragon collected himself and retracted his wings for protection, furiously clawing at Luna.

Daring flew in from behind and landed on a wing, diving into the gap beneath. Her shoes made a small tink with each step, running up the spine. She found Luna’s impact spot, a scale cracked and sunken with blood pooling. With a vulnerable spot, Daring’s blades were plunged into the wound, twisting and prying the pieces apart. She wobbled and released her swords as the dragon thrashed and howled in pain. Her wings burst open and she stabilized before snapping forward and latching onto the weapons again. With a battle cry, they erupted into a roaring flame, and she dragged them down his spine before taking off.

The dragon’s eyes rolled into his head as he stumbled forward, his wings falling away and revealing the bloody, molten gash running down his back. Finally, his body came to a silent rest against one of the cliff walls. With the first wave falling and the party regrouping, Luna propped herself up on her hammer and panted, an absent hoof sweeping sweat from her face. Chrysalis flew to her side and examined her.

“Are you alright?” the changeling asked, circling her.

Luna waved her away. “Remain with the group. It is safer that way. I will be fine when the… ringing in my head subsides.” Nightmare watched as she rejoined the magi, the changeling’s concerned gaze still on the moon princess.

So far so good, she thought.

The forces gathered and advanced deeper into the Badlands, with Derpy scouting ahead. She made several passes in silence before dropping to the princesses. “The dragons’ scales are camouflaging them. I can’t see any in the distance, and there are too many crevices in the landscape to watch all at once. Everyone needs to stay on high alert.”

Nightmare glanced over her shoulder to the bulk of the forces. The injured were loaded onto the back of a Brood dragon and triaged, several magi tending to their wounds. Minotaur hauled supplies to them as needed, but the bulk of the force remained intact. She looked ahead as Twilight’s presence grew stronger, but failed to notice Luna had moved to her side.

“Smart of you to try and disable the dragon,” she commented.

“Smart of him to use his wings for support,” Nightmare replied.

Luna’s expression became pensive. “He managed to brace his wing, even while using it for stability. It felt like I was hitting an unbreakable wall. I’ve never encountered anything like it.”

Nightmare exchanged thoughtful glances with the moon princess before her eyes strayed to the cliff tops. Derpy occasionally darted back and forth, maintaining her scouting vantage. “I cannot pierce the plating without using my magic. If my scythe were to be destroyed it would be very annoying to fight.”

Luna snorted. “You would be just fine. I know what you’re capable of, though perhaps I can offer you a technique.”

“Oh? And what—“

The princess stepped closer and silenced the Id by placing a hoof to her head. She turned to her other hoof as it encased itself in a smooth, shiny sleeve of magic. Nightmare gasped, her magic linking to Luna’s as the ability spread over the princess’s entire body. She could feel what it did, and how it flowed. Every second she could understand more and more of the spell, the whole of its creation and application blooming into her mind.

“A technique I once demonstrated to Twilight. Always a quick study, she learned how to use it with just a few hours of practice. I once regretted not teaching her the full ability at the time, but I was right to trust my instincts.” She met Nightmare’s awed gaze. “Synchronizing my magic like this can only be done with you… We may prefer different manners of combat, but our magic is still the same. Yours is based on mine, and no other could understand the way I share this to you.” Luna retracted her hoof and the sensations vanished, but the understanding remained. Layered beneath that understanding of the technique was something… else. Like a faint memory long eroded by time, the sensation of phantom limb came to her.

What… is this? A feeling? A spell? Her scythe slid down her grasp, and it felt as if she could feel the world with it. The sensation faded, but she became acutely aware of the presence her weapon and all of its potential to her. The Id stared into the distance and cleared her mind of what she had just experienced. “My connection with Twilight worked similarly. She taught me how to teleport like her once we allowed our minds into one another’s’.” She marveled as she manifested the magical sleeve over a hoof, slowly turning it over as it completed its shell, and then receded when she ended the spell.

Luna raised an eyebrow as they resumed marching with the others. “Curious. Her magic has changed since then. Perhaps you are the reason why.”

Nightmare swallowed at the thought. “She saved me, yet I dread to think I could be the reason why she’s become so twisted. She’s seen all of me, and I’ve seen all of her. My pain… melted away when I was with her. I never thought that she might… become my sin eater. That’s what I always tried to be for her. I was used to the pain, and it ceased to exist as long as she was… there…”

Luna’s eyes widened, and she opened her mouth to speak, but Derpy shouted from overhead. “Reinforcements incoming!”

Here we go again, Nightmare thought, raising her scythe, the new feeling of its presence encompassing her combat instincts. Before she could examine it, more dragons emerged from the flanks, their shadows casting over the small army. With Chrysalis’s help, the magi formed their barrier over the bulk of the forces before the valley was filled with dragon breath. Nightmare’s face burned, the dry air scratching her lungs. She peered around to see the group faring much worse than her. Celestia and Daring quickly moved together, each of them seemingly shrugging off the extreme rise in temperature.

“I’ll protect the group,” Daring offered, but Celestia shook her head and raised a hoof.

“No. Save your strength for now. We don’t know what’s ahead. I’ll be fine out here in the sun, unlike you.” The sandy pegasus bowed her head as the sun princess took flight. Her body started to glow in a golden aura, and she grew in size. “Disperse the shield!” Her words boomed off of the cliff walls, and even in the face of the fatal attack the magi obeyed.

As the shield fell, a shade engulfed the party and the heat subsided. Everyone looked up to see the princess’ massive form, her wings delicately surrounding them like an embrace. After a moment the light returned and Celestia turned away. Her horn shined against the sun, a brilliant white glow pushing back any shadows the cliffs could cast. Nightmare could hear the discharge of magic, but she could not see the attack in the light. The anguished wail of a contractor drew her eyes to a cliff top. The thick plates were melted away to reveal a hole in his chest, and he crumbled forward. Vibrations in the ground reached the Id in the valley, and the dust cloud from the corpse plumed over his body. The other dragons looked on in shock, but it quickly cleared as the princess shrank back to her normal size, slouched forward and panting.

“Go, Paladin Do…” Celestia ran a hoof across her face, scrubbing her mane away from her eyes. “I can protect the group… but not much more for the time being. Remember. Your power is the last resort… never the first line of defense.” She took a full breath and exhaled hard before straightening herself.

“I… know,” the sandy pegasus replied before darting into the air.

The group split apart to engage different dragons, with the magi working to aid them. The Brood attempted to restrain the opposing brethren with their might while concerted attacks were used to dislodge the defensive plating. Several groups were successful in rendering their foes vulnerable, but others failed. Gryphons were burned alive out of the air, and minotaur were crushed underfoot as one of the contractors escaped its hold. He turned and bit into the shoulder of his restraining dragon, wrenching away pieces of the leathery flesh away. Pained growls and snarls were unleashed as they grappled with each other. The dragon attempted to breath, but the contractor bashed his throat with a wing, pivoting to a second attack with sharp talons.

The Brood dragon’s stomach was ripped open, scaly hide hung like tattered rags and bloody organs spilled forth. The contractor wasted no time and searched for an ally to free. Locked in the dying Brood’s claws were several bloody, plated scales. Streams of light cascaded across the exposed flesh, chased by blood before a final stream drilled into the body. Derpy pulled back, her grey fur painted in red, and watched the contractor topple to his grave. Her eyes hung on the sight of the dying Brood, and they exchanged nods before he slumped back and exhaled to stillness.

“I can’t do much after that,” she called to Daring. “But we have to take every chance we get.”

Her sister nodded. “Fight with the others, and save as much strength as you can. We don’t know how many there are.”

A boom, followed by several thuds drew everyone’s attention towards the path ahead. A larger dragon landed and stepped towards them. His plates clinked like the others, but they made a different sound, one that was higher pitch. Nightmare watched him coming and listened closely.

It sounds like glass, but that’s not quite it… She watched as he stopped and sized the party up, a red glyph appearing on his head. “Brave of the lesser races to enter the king’s lands together. Bold of the ponies to bring their leaders to their graves.” He inhaled, drawing in air and dust.

Nightmare’s eyes widened as she could feel something coalescing within the dragon, and the atmosphere bearing down on her. That’s not a normal dragon’s breath! Her fur bristled; she turned and screamed as loudly as she could with the air in her lungs.

GET OUT OF THE WAY, HE’S AMPLFYING WITH MAGIC!”

A scarlet light exploded forth from his mouth. The paladins were out of the blast, but Celestia, Luna, and Nightmare were in the path, as was much of the army. A shield was cast to protect them, but it disappeared in the light. The beam tore through the valley and detonated in the center of the army. Nightmare was cast into the cliff walls by the explosion, her helmeted head banging on a rock. She groaned as the light faded, but her ears rang for a moment longer, and dust obscured immediately her vision.

Squinting as it cleared, the sunlight revealed the carnage of the attack; buried amongst the rubble were dragons, gryphons, ponies, and contractors alike. This new dragon had indiscriminately fired on its own kin, striking them down with all of the rest.

Luna climbed out of some rubble, appearing banged up, but lacking in any major wounds. Celestia appeared to have escaped the blast entirely, but spent only a second surveying the casualties before her eyes were on the dragon. He shuddered and his head hung low. Whatever that attack was, Nightmare thought, it took most of his power. She climbed down from her blasted perch and made her way down to regroup. Her hearing returned and she could hear her counterpart’s frantic cries.

“Chrysalis! Chrysalis! Where are you!?” Luna tossed stones and boulders as heavy as a dragon aside with ease. “Come on, you damned insect, I know how tough you are!” Stone after stone was tossed around until she found the changeling queen. Luna dragged her out into the light and firmly slapped her face several times. “Wake up!” she shouted into her face.

Chrysalis stirred and groaned, weakly swatting the offensive hoof away. “I’m alive, damn it. Knock that off.” Nightmare blinked in surprise as the moon princess took the changeling into an embrace.

Luna exhaled slowly. “Thank goodness you’re alright.”

The changeling regained her bearings and swayed her gaze to the casualties. Surviving forces climbed out from the rubble and regrouped, but the party had been diminished to half. “This isn’t looking good.”

Nightmare turned her attention to the cliff walls. The remaining contractors were perched atop, their idle gazes on the forces in the valley. Some were wounded grievously in the attack, but even the unharmed ones remained watching. The glyph-marked dragon had cut down his own forces considerably, but his presence put grim odds on victory.

“How do you want to die, Princess Celestia of the pony empire?” the glyph-marked dragon asked. Abruptly, he started to step backwards. “The oldest among us still remember her. Her face. Her ruthless smile. You look just like her.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Celestia snarled back.

The glyph-marked dragon shook the plates across his body and rose up, starting to inhale again. Nightmare coiled down low to the ground. He can make another attack like that so soon!?

“You’re no less arrogant than she was, and you shall pay for that with your life.” Scarlet light appeared in the glyph-marked dragon’s mouth, bathing everything in front of him in its glow.

Nightmare swallowed, her eyes wide at the incoming attack. Even if we survived, there’s no way we can keep going together after this!

The light from the sun dimmed, as if being drained away, and a violet and black beam split the ground. A grand quake shook the Badlands as it crashed into the dragon. He screeched out his pain as the right side of his torso was ripped away in the light. His right arm, plated scales, and flesh blasted against the valley walls, and he choked on his breath. Immediately, his wings enclosed over the fatal wound, and he drew his left arm over for additional protection where a hole in his right wing had appeared. Blood pooled beneath him and ran out from under his now-shuddering body. His neck twitched while he twisted to glimpse over his shoulder, and Nightmare sprang into the air to follow his gaze.

“I’ll kill you for this… you damned… witch… I swear you’ll suffer slowly!”

From the distance, Twilight shouted and brought a hoof to her chest, “You’re just another pathetic dragon. Remember this moment… That I killed you.”

The color adorning Nightmare’s body faded into a void, her body thinning and stretching as she surged towards the dragon’s wound in a streak of inky black. It slipped between his defenses. Her scythe emerged from her void, the blade thick with a blue aura and humming loudly. The glyph-marked dragon’s body stiffened as she sliced into him, rending vital organs and carving chunks of flesh out onto the ground. Several quick slashes revealed the heart, and she drove the blade into it as quick as she could. The organ drained out as the dragon died, falling forward onto the ground in a bloodied heap.

Nightmare’s body slithered atop it and her features emerged as the void settled and receded into her. With closed eyes, she tilted her head back and breathed in deeply, the blood that should’ve been covering her appeared in a pool around her. Opening her eyes, she glimpsed Twilight in the distance and her heart fluttered. Please don’t leave, she begged. The oracle met her eyes for a moment, a ruthless gaze to crest her dark grin, before she stepped backwards. Her black fur caused her to vanish into the darkness of the cave almost immediately. Chills ran down the Id’s spine. Looking at you is like… looking into a mirror to my past… What have you become?

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