• Published 29th Jun 2014
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Samael's Prison - Craine



When he came, he promised mercy. When he left, he promised life. When he returned, he promised wisdom. Soon enough, Celestia learns the pros and cons of trusting a demon.

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Chapter Two

The Princess of the Sun swallowed thickly under Twilight Sparkle’s frown. Even now, Celestia was unsure if telling her former student was wise.

The wind whipped the white mare’s mane against her forehead, but she ignored it. In fact, many times, she’d completely forgotten that she was sitting in the flying chariot, never mind why she was there.

But for the fourth time since take-off, Celestia peeked at the neighboring chariots adorned by her fellow alicorn princesses, and remembered why she was there. The fifth chariot, the one holding a certain winged statue—confettied with moss and vines—made her try to forget again and again.

Celestia glanced at her other colleagues, frowns disturbingly similar to Twilight’s knitted to their faces.

For the fourth time since take off, Celestia thought this was a terrible idea. Yet, for the fourth time, she knew the time was ripe.

The ride from Canterlot was quiet; the silence thick and murk, like drowning in a bog. Though it’d only been minutes, the trek to Ghastly Gorge took days for Celestia. Her failed attempts at small talk and icebreakers only made it worse.

Their descent into the deepest chasm of the gorge was also silent, the dismounting of their chariots was too. Celestia noted how much longer it took Luna to dismount, but said nothing.

Celestia looked to the guards that guided their chariots and nodded. As she expected, they hesitated, looking on with concern that could frighten a litter of kittens.

“We will return shortly,” she said. “Go. Defend our capital.”

The guards all shared uncertain glances, but after a few moments, saluted and obeyed.

As the chariots were hoisted away into the blue, Celestia’s horn glowed, and the statue—which had collected all that moss and all those vines deep beneath Canterlot’s Hedge Maze—levitated from its seat. She set it down nearby.

There they all stood before the statue. The chasm stood widely around them, caves and rocky paths decorating it all. Dim sunlight curtained that very spot, dotting the darkness like Manehatten lights.

Celestia closed her distant eyes, listening to every echoing drip from the natural caves.

Luna released a gusty sigh. “Sister…” And there it was. “This… I don’t like this.”

Celestia waited.

“I second that,” Cadence added. “I should’ve said something back in Canterlot, but…”

The white mare’s eyes remained closed, listening for rhythmic patterns in the dripping caves. She could probably find an old folk song somewhere among those patterns.

“Princess…”

Celestia’s eyes lifted open, surprised. She’d certainly not expected Twilight Sparkle to say anything. But lo, as she turned to see, Twilight was staring directly at her, those big, impossibly bright eyes trembling, all but demanding answers.

“I’m not questioning your decision—I hate questioning your decisions—it’s just…” Twilight’s eyes fell to the ground, and she took a practiced breaths. She looked back up to Celestia. “Why? Why would you want to see him again? Why would you even want to remember?”

Celestia had thought she was more than prepared to answer that question. She’d had five centuries to dream, deny, curse, then finally accept the reason herself. Yet, all she could do was turn back toward the statue, close her eyes, and listen to the singing caves.

“Twilight’s right,” Cadence said. “When you told us the story in your own words… I can’t imagine why you’d ever want to endure that again.”

Celestia counted the seconds until Luna’s chime.

“Sister, I’ve always respected your choices and the wisdom behind them. You know that. But this…” Luna’s throat trembled a bit; from anger or fright, Celestia didn’t know. “This is sheer recklessness. Bringing Samael back could put all of Equestria in danger!”

Celestia sighed quietly through her nose, if only because she’d heard this at least twenty-seven-thousand different times from royal advisors throughout the centuries. Celestia wasn’t stupid, and Celestia wasn’t reckless.

And she was tired of explaining herself.

“I know.”

When the tidal wave of shouts, insults, and questions about her sanity didn’t come, Celestia safely assumed, without turning to look, that her colleagues were floored.

“I knew that long before I allowed Discord’s reformation. I knew that when we gave all of our alicorn magic to Twilight.” She could feel her former student wince behind her. “And I know it now, more than ever.”

“Then… why?” Twilight’s voice was sharper than before, more demanding. “You chose to live and he let you. I get that. But do you really trust him?” She got louder. “Do you really think he’ll just sit here and talk over a nice cup of tea like nothing happened?!”

Immediately, Twilight’s ears flattened as she gasped. “Oh no, I’m sorry!” she wailed. “I-I didn’t mean to yell! I just… don’t understand.”

Celestia’s distant eyes focused again. She stared hard at the demonic statue, memories trickling before her eyes as she studied it for the first time in five-hundred years.

“You know,” Celestia began, never looking away from the statue, “when Samael left Equestria for good, I was going to burn this relic and throw the ashes into a lake.”

She didn’t wait for the, ‘Why didn’t you?!’ She knew that she’d never be able to do this if she had.

“But, in his own twisted way, Samael…” Celestia gauged her next words, ignoring the wrench in her chest for admitting this. “He taught me something that day.”

That time, though she expected the exact opposite, nopony spoke. Celestia released a breath.

“He taught me many things, actually. One of which, I assure you all, is the only reason I even told you that story, never mind preserving a single document of him.”

Again, nopony spoke. Finally, Celestia had full leave to talk.

“That day, I learned that the sheer vastness of the universe not only supercedes us, but knits us together. Samael was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. He did not belong in our world, yet he spoke our language. He didn’t agree with our values, yet he… wanted better of them.”

“I learned, that day, that even a demon can want for the sake of others. He had a cause: to protect a balance so vast, we can’t even imagine it. He forswore duty to his master to do what had to be done. He lived and acted—sordid as it may be—by a code of honor. He would’ve killed me outright if he didn’t.”

Finally, Cadence spoke, but not quite as tersely as before. It was inviting, curious. “You mean… after everything he did, he…?”

Celestia continued. “I didn’t want to acknowledge it at first, but there was good in him, Cadence. Someone devoid of gentleness or care wanted our salvation, something more than destruction and war.”

Cadence looked away, once again unsure.

Celestia’s eyes fell to her hooves and she smiled bitterly. “It’s strange, really. I… I used to hate him for what he did to me.”

A tiny gasp came from Twilight, and Celestia realized she’d never really spoken so openly around her, despite their recent equal standing in royalty.

“I’ve spent decades nursing those wounds, swallowing the most crushing defeat in Equestrian history.” Celestia closed her eyes again, only vaguely aware of her darkened tone. “Decades…”

There was silence, dampened only by the dripping caves and the chasm’s quiet howl. A hoof fell upon Celestia’s shoulder, and her own hoof gently touched it.

“My apologies, Luna.”

The moon princess gave a soft nod, her brows creased together again.

“I see now, sister.” Luna’s hoof fell from Celestia’s shoulder. “You believe Samael can be an ally to us.”

The white mare nodded.

“But that’s…!”

The other alicorns turned to a distraught Twilight, her teeth bared and ears flat. She threw her eyes to the ground. Celestia smiled, approached the youngest princess, and lifted her chin with a delicate hoof.

“Speak, Twilight.” That wasn’t a command, but a humble request. “There are no reservations here.”

No sooner were they spoken, than Celestia wished she could lunge forward and eat those words before they hitTwilight’s ears.

“I hate this!” Twilight shouted with an echoing pitch. “You’re talking about a despicable, bloodthirsty monster like he founded Equestria! After manipulating you for a whole century, reaping every page of Equestrian lore, turning on you, killing ponies—for light’s sake—and nearly destroying you and Canterlot in one day, you want to bring him back?!

Cadence placed a cautious hoof on her sister-in-law’s shoulder. “Twilight—”

The purple mare jerked away. “No! No, no, no! I can’t be part of this! I just can’t!”

Celestia lifted a hoof to her muzzle, her eyes bright with concern. “Twilight, you know I could not do this without a unanimous decision. I thought we all agreed—”

“Well, I’ve changed my mind!” Twilight shouted. “I won’t just sit here and let some… some freak waltz in here and ‘talk’! Are you kidding me with that?!” By now, even Luna had stepped back from Twilight’s outburst. “If he’s as strong as you say, then what’s to stop him from turning on us?! What if he just decides we haven’t lived up to his expectations and WIPES US OUT?!”

Twilight was panting, her faced lined with tears, her teeth clenched.

Again, all things Celestia considered more times than she cared to admit. And again—again—she forgot the whole reason she made this trip. The sun princess looked aside, regarding the waiting statue more thoughtfully.

It was true, Celestia vowed to leave the statue unused until all princesses agreed on it. Such was the agreement during the three months they’d spent organizing security, combat, and evacuation procedures for the entire kingdom.

Celestia should’ve seen this coming. Then again, maybe she did. Just as she sighed and resolved to do this another day, Luna stepped forward.

“Twilight Sparkle, Celestia may be right,” she said.

“What?!” Twilight shouted.

“If Samael is as she described,” the moon princess continued, “ then he could no doubt teach us invaluable things. And we, in turn, could teach him.”

Twilight sputtered, her hoof slapping against her forehead. “Are you even hearing yourself?! Okay, sure, Celestia learned something the first time around, neat! But what can we teach someone who hurts ponies and laughs about it?!”

At that point, the alicorn sisters looked to each other and nodded. Celestia looked back to Twilight.

“Perhaps nothing. Or, perhaps,” Celestia knelt down, leveling herself with the now flustered Twilight, “the same thing you taught Discord.”

Twilight sputtered back like she’d been slapped. “I… but…”

“Surely, young Twilight,” Luna intervened, “Discord has taught you that friends, when given time, can come in any form and from any background?”

Twilight’s head whipped from one sister to the other like a deer trapped between wolves. She turned to her only hope.

“Cadence, for the love of Faust, please talk some sense into—” The princess of love offered nothing but a guilty smile. “Oh no. Not you too,” Twilight groaned.

“Twilight,” Cadence began, crouching beside her sister-in-law. “I’m scared too, you know. This may very well be the most dangerous thing either of us has ever done.”

“Exactly!”

“But…” Cadence cut in with a shadow of a smirk. “Don’t we owe it to ourselves to reach out, to show him what we’ve overcome? Clearly Samael sees something in us. He could’ve rampaged across all of Equestria, but didn’t. He could’ve destroyed Canterlot Castle, but didn’t.” Cadence looked up at a smiling Celestia, who was still knelt before Twilight. “And he could’ve done so much worse. He didn’t.” She looked back to Twilight. “Maybe we should give him a chance.”

The purple mare fell to her haunches, her features saggy and dull. Tired. “I don’t want anything to happen to you. Any of you,” she said.

A gold-clad hoof returned to Twilight’s chin and guided her to Celestia’s eyes once more. “Surely you’ve surmised, that there’s always that risk.”

“Such was the case in all of your adventures, through Equestria and beyond,” Luna chimed in.

Twilight started shaking. “But… but…”

Cadence swooped in for the kill. “Twilight, nothing valuable in life was ever gained without taking a few risks.” Her cheeks tinted a slight red, and she looked away with a wry grin. “Just ask your brother.”

The cave was silent again, the seconds counted only by the soft drips echoing off the walls. Finally, with ears now erect and brows flat above her eyes, Twilight gave a strong nod.

Celestia smiled and said, “Then let us delay no longer.”

The white alicorn rose to her hooves and faced the statue. Soon, her colleagues mimicked her, standing side-by-side.

“Cadence?”

The pink mare nodded. “The Crystal Empire is on lockdown until we return. The Crystal Guard stands ready at all sides, and the train station is closed.”

Celestia nodded and turned to Twilight, who clearly strained to keep her resolve.

“The new gates around Ponyville are fortified with unicorn magic and mine. Everypony’s barricaded within their homes, as per instruction. And my friends agreed to stay inside the castle until I give the signal. No one gets in or out,” Twilight said.

Celestia nodded again. She turned to Luna, who nodded in return, a mute consensus passing between the two. Canterlot was in similar affairs.

“Good,” was Celestia’s only answer.

Her horn glowed a bright gold and in seconds, a thick, black key, nearly Twilight’s size—half as thick as a pony—appeared before her with a loud burst. She approached the statue, almost feeling the infinite, hollowing gaze from those empty eye sockets.

“Friends. Lend me your ears and listen carefully,” Celestia said in a tone that brokered no nonsense. “I’m uncertain what will happen when Samael comes through this gate. Be certain of this, however…”

The air grew thick, their hooves becoming heavy and immobile.

“I know what you’ll find in him. Knowledge. An endless well of it. Knowledge that makes him unimaginably powerful—not for his physical strength or arcane mastery, but for us.”

Cadence raised a brow. “What do you mean?”

“He’ll study you. Learn you. Pick you apart, thought by deeply-buried thought. And before you can even ask who told him about your obsession with cake, he’ll know everything about you.” Celestia couldn’t hide the light growl in her tone. “Your loves, your fears, every layered secret that even you’ve forgotten will be torn away and laid bare before him.”

Celestia spotted the challenging glint in Luna’s eye, but tried to ignore it.

Sister,” the moon mare intervened, “you speak of omniscience: an awareness of all things. That is absurd.”

“He’ll test you, wear you thin until you’re driven mad with rage or begging him to stop. His power is vast, like the sky. To this day I’m unsure if it even has an end. He doesn’t eat, he doesn’t sleep, and he doesn’t stop. Do not cross him.”

She heard Cadence shift on heavy hooves, and Twilight gulp embarrassingly loud.

“Do you all understand?”

A unanimous ‘yes!’ bounced through the damp cave walls, and Celestia smiled. Soon, however, that smile dropped as she lined up the key with the statue’s head.

“It’s time,” she said.

She jammed the key in its open mouth and listened to the deep, rusty clank. The jaws closed around it. With some effort, Celestia turned the key and its jaw flew open. Its tattered wings unfurled. Its nonexistent eyes burst into blood-red light.

The lock was undone.

Celestia stepped back, and waited with her colleagues. After only a beat, those piercing red eyes beamed bright, and shot pure concentrated heat into the ground.

The alicorns yelped as they barely leapt away in time.

The lasers whisked to and fro, a fiery symbol burned into the ground, a thick circle drawn around it. The symbol shot flames into the cold chasm air, and shifted within the circle. Loud clicks and clacks assaulted the ears, and the symbol undid itself.

Soon, only a well of smoke and flame remained in the circle. And from there, the alicorns waited.

“Sweet sun! Do you feel that heat?” Cadence blanched, physically straining to stand her ground.

Celestia’s eyes became distant once more, like the sky’s infinite expanse. Twilight was the first to notice, but was too busy with a cooling spell to voice her concern. Celestia was the only one among them who stood passive to the heat. Even Luna winced and edged away.

Then, they heard it.

A deep, gravel-like tone reverberated through the caves, through the ground—no—through everything. The air. The mana. Even the drips from the cave were quelled silent by the soft rumbling chuckle.

That chuckle burst into gruff laughter, and purple, blue, pink, and white wings sprang open.

“So…” Twilight gasped at the booming voice, just barely squashing the urge to teleport herself to a mountain. “Princess Celestia, ruler of Equestria, summons me at last.”

The flames lifted and roared as a large winged form burst from the open circle. Two arched, heavy, diamond-calloused feet shattered the rocky ground on landing.

“Though, I’m surprised,” the demon continued. “I didn’t think we’d have guests.”

It was the same. All of it. The towering height, the fiery red skin, the thick, iron-like muscles, the black horns curled on his head like a terrible crown, the stench of ash and sulfur as he spoke.

And those eyes. Yellow and dull, daunting and sinister. Celestia, for the longest minute she’d experienced in centuries, felt like a child staring up at a talking volcano.

“Samael,” came her steely response. “It’s been a long time.”

Samael stepped forward. Even that was the same; long lunging strides that seemed to scale miles at a time.

“Indeed it has,” he said, taking another heavy step. “I started to think you didn’t want to see me again. You can’t imagine my relief.” His smile was the same too, wide and gridded with white fangs. “But where are your manners, princess? You haven’t introduced me to your lovely friends.”

Samael stopped and hunched before Celestia, his face mere inches from hers. The alicorn remained passive as stone, despite her surprise for actually forgetting her fellow princesses.

She turned her head to the right. “But, of course.“ She addressed Luna with a nod.

Luna, for her part, had to consciously try to clamp her jaw shut. She put greater effort into restraining a traditional Royal Canterlot greeting, complete with howling tone. The same greeting used to impose dominance during peace conferences with other nations.

“Welcome, Samael,” Luna said, her face and voice now even. “I am Luna, princess of the night.”

The demon’s head whipped to the dark mare, his eyes slightly broader than before. He grinned.

“So you’ve returned. How noble of you, Celestia, to spare your sister further torment on the moon. Further still, to let her reclaim her throne.”

Luna swallowed thickly, squashing the curses rolling beneath her tongue. Samael’s eyes narrowed and his grin dropped.

“No. No, your return was… unsanctioned.” He stroked a claw along his horned chin—another habit Celestia noted. “You returned with no intent to share this kingdom, and you almost succeeded in taking it. Something stopped you. Hmm… A mystery.”

Luna’s chest started to shake, her muzzle unwittingly wrinkled into a frown.

Samael turned to a smiling Cadence. But even Cadence herself could smell her own nervousness. The sweating and constantly-shifting eyes didn’t help.

“And what of you, pink one?” the winged demon asked.

Cadence cleared her throat and bowed her neck. “I am Princess Mi Amore Cadenza. But I prefer Cadence, really.” Am I still sweating? Heaven help me, I’m still sweating. “I am the princess of love, and ruler of the Crystal Empire.”

Samael raised a stony eyebrow. “The Empire has returned as well? Hah! Then the tyrant Sombra is vanquished again!”

She tried to hide it. Cadence tried so very hard to hide her shameful grimace. But she failed. She failed and Samael caught it in a heartbeat.

“Wait… Not vanquished, no.” Again, Samael stroked his beard of sharp bone. Then came a sound that nearly drove Cadence’s hooves into her ears. Laughter. “The Crystal Heart, of course! You killed him, didn’t you?”

“N-no! We didn’t know the Heart would…!” Cadence stopped with a blink, collected herself with a deep, quiet breath, and stared firm at the beast. “You are very well informed.”

The demon’s low chuckle rumbled through the cave, as though every treble grinded the earth’s crust. The three alicorns stood firm against the light shower of dust and pebbles.

“There is little you can keep from me, Cadenza, once I’ve a mind to know it,” Samael said, tapping against his temple.

Cadence nodded, her brows flat and firm. “Noted,” she said.

Samael looked left. Then looked right. His smile faded with an almost mute growl.

“Something the matter?” Celestia asked, her stony, infinite expression never changing.

“I thought there were four of you,” Samael replied.

At first, Celestia’s face twitched with confusion. Then her eyelids lowered shut as she sighed, long and heavy. “Princess Twilight…” she called flatly.

After a beat, a shaking purple alicorn emerged from behind Celestia’s hind leg, her wings bound tight to her sides. Her legs shook, but were soon stilled. Her teeth clattered behind her lips, but were soon clenched firm. And finally, her ability to talk crawled from the hole in which it buried itself.

With her thirteenth practiced breath, Twilight stood tall, gently unfurled her wings, and looked Samael right in his yellow eyes.

“My name is Princess Twilight Sparkle and I—”

Samael’s wings twitched painfully loud and his claw lowered from his chin. Twilight swallowed dryly at the fiend’s now broadened eyes.

“... A-and I’m the newly crowned Princess of Friendship?” she finished uncertainly. She cleared her throat and regained herself. “Pleased to meet you, Samael.”

The horned demon resumed petting his ‘beard’, studying the youngest princess. He smiled.

“The pleasure’s all mine, Sparkle-clan.” He ignored Twilight’s quirked brow and turned to Celestia. “You never cease to amaze me, Celestia. Such a prestigious military name, granted royalty? Heh. I shouldn’t be surprised. The Royal Guard wouldn’t be the same without them, after all.”

Twilight’s brow furrowed, then softened when she stared up at her former mentor. She looked between the two for a time, and it did not escape Samael.

His smile pulled over his black gums. “You didn’t tell her…” he muttered deeply.

Celestia’s face didn’t change. “No,” she said, granting her a worried look from Twilight. “No, I didn’t.”

A tsunami of questions twirled and twisted in Twilight’s head. But when Samael’s cracked red face hovered to hers, she’d forgotten every one of them. He stared into her eyes.

“Yes… I sense much power in you, Sparkle-clan. Power untapped until only a few short years ago. A familiar power—ancient and undying.” Samael’s narrowed eyes darted to Luna. “Now I understand how you’re here, Luna, and why Equestria still has a sunrise.”

Luna swallowed another gaggle of profanities and nodded curtly.

Samael turned back to Twilight. “So, the Elements of Harmony have new owners. To think what one can accomplish with mere trinkets,” he said.

Twilight cleared her throat again and said, “Y-yes, of course.”

There was a another beat of silence, and Samael’s smile dropped again.

“Except…” He stared at Twilight even harder, and the alicorn shifted on her hooves by complete accident. “They’re not quite ‘trinkets’ anymore. Are they, Princess of Friendship?”

Deep, growling, protective rage churned in Celestia’s bones. Between the thought of tackling Samael into the fiery pit he crawled from, and then how easy it’d be—given that it was mere feet behind him—Celestia considered that maybe she’d jumped the gun on this one.

She stayed her hoof and watched with a careful eye.

Samael lifted away from Twilight and stood tall before the alicorns. “Yes. The very obstacles you’ve all overcome… they define you, they’ve shaped you,” he said with a loud crackling stretch of his back and wings. “But perhaps we could discuss those accomplishments elsewhere. It’s a little… cramped in here for me.”

Without another word, Samael’s inverted wings stretched fully, and pushed down with a force that cracked the bedrock below. The alicorns shielded their eyes for but a moment and hastily opened them when the dust cleared. Samael was gone.

“Princess!” Twilight cried.

“Go,” Celestia sharply replied.

The alicorns burst from Ghastly Gorge with whistling speed and stopped high above, floating. Their backs faced each other, each pair of eyes combing the land for that which didn’t belong.

“There!” Cadence shouted, with a pointing a hoof.

All eyes turned to a towering mountain not far from the gorge, a faded shadow on the summit. The winged mares made their swift trek, slowing as they closed in. They reached the summit and landed with feather-light hooves.

From behind, they watched Samael sit casually on the summit’s edge, an arm resting on his craned knee, deathly still against the bitter mountain wind. He stared silently at Equestria’s lush-green expanse.

“It hasn’t aged a day, this world.” Samael offered a clawed hand to an empty space beside him. “Has it, Celestia?”

Celestia understood the gesture. With her face as steeled as ever, she stepped forward, but was stopped by a pair of hooves around her hind leg. She turned to Twilight’s big pleading eyes and felt her heart lurch within.

Celestia looked to the other princesses, noting similar expressions. She nodded to them in what she hoped was a reassuring way, eased Twilight off of her, turned, and approached Samael.

A single shiver among the thousands of shivers Celestia had barricaded ran down her back. She stopped beside Samael, and sat.

“In a way,” she began with a lighter tone, “no. No, it hasn’t.”

Samael gave a low, rumbling hum. “To the naked eye, not much has changed.” He turned to the stoic alicorn. “But I can see a great change within you, Princess. A change due, in no small part, to your ilk.”

Celestia nodded with a silent breath, gently closing her wings. “Indeed, Harmony wouldn’t be possible without them.”

The demon ‘hmph-ed’. “There’s that word again: ‘Harmony’.” He paused, regarding Celestia more carefully. “Although, it seems a great many threats have endangered it. Hmm… Yes. Your corrupt sister, the Changeling army, the Unicorn King, and the Spirit of Chaos. The latter of whom you’ve tamed for the better.”

Celestia closed her eyes to the slow, deep, near-deafening claps of the demon’s solid hands.

“Color me impressed,” he said.

“You mock me, Samael,” she replied. “Most of those were but recurring nightmares we’ve quelled in the past. It produced the same results then, as it does now.”

Samael stopped clapping and stared at a blackened claw. “Even so, it took a more… capable generation to sever the head of such toil. Indeed, they’ve tasted the same strife you had one-thousand years ago. The difference?” He chuckled softly. “Well, perhaps there is no difference, after all.”

Finally, Celestia looked to the towering demon. “What are you getting at?” she asked in a low tone.

“Your ‘Harmony’ is a fickle little thing. Too often is it threatened by conquest, destruction… war. In fact, the Changeling army seized your land because of the love and unity here. Surely, Celestia, you’ve known this.”

She did know that. She could do nothing else but know that.

“Every threat has been eliminated,” Celestia claimed. Her gaze became strong and even. “Such will happen with every threat after.”

“Bold words, your Highness,” Samael replied, his claws returning to his chin. “Is that what you thought when the formidable Tirek returned and ravaged the land? Or when Discord betrayed you?”

Celestia’s wings tightened at her sides.

“Can you not see how fruitless it is? To overcome the same obstacle only to do so again in a new form? Do you truly believe you’ve obtained peace?” Samael asked, his eyes now gouging at Celestia’s head.

For another long, long moment, Celestia felt like a child, scolded by an angry parent telling her she should’ve known better. It was preposterous, really, how vividly she remembered a similar conversation five centuries ago.

Celestia, however, would not be swayed again.

“You once told me, Samael, that the cosmos was founded on war, that every nation—great or small—succumbs to the same throes of conquest and destruction. I didn’t believe that before we met.” Celestia’s eyes returned to the green horizon of her sunlit land. “I’d always believed we were above such triviality after Discord, Sombra, Tirek, and… Nightmare Moon.”

Samael’s bony cheek rested on his fist, sharing Celestia’s view.

“When they returned, one by one, I… I didn’t know anything anymore,” Celestia said, her ears lowering. “Every time an old foe returned, your words haunted me. And I started to wonder for the first time in a millenium, ‘Is this true peace?’”

Samael’s fist lowered from his cheek. “And your answer?”

Celestia paused, then turned to look Samael in his endless, ancient eyes. “No…”

Those eyes narrowed.

“You’re right, Samael—Harmony is a fickle little thing. So easily broken or tossed aside. For as long as we draw breath, strife will find us, hunger will test us.” Celestia released a long sigh. “And war will threaten us.”

Samael looked directly at his host. Anticipating. Listening.

“Yet…” A sagely smile graced the mare’s lips, her eyes returned to the land. “Here we stand at another age of peace. A pattern that has taken me full circle. We’ve faced many threats, and we may face many, many more, all for Harmony’s sake. Friendship. Peace. Love. It’s not always easy, but…”

Celestia turned her head, regarding her colleagues—no, her family—namely, Twilight Sparkle fretting far behind her. The white mare smiled.

“But it’s always worth fighting for,” she said, turning back to Samael. “In your own way, you’ve helped teach me that, Samael. I’d forgotten…” She closed her eyes soundly, and took her first real breath after three whole weeks. “But the most important ponies of my life were kind enough to remind me.”

“So I see,” Samael replied, staring at the princess for another moment. “Interesting…”

Celestia stopped herself. In her venting, she’d almost forgotten the real reason she opened that fiery gate to begin with. She closed her eyes again, collecting herself and her next words, sorting and arranging them with the precision and care of an underpaid clocksmith.

“Samael. There is another reason I summoned you here—”

“Ah, there it is!” the demon bellowed. “The point.”

“I... beg your pardon?”

Samael’s fist returned to his cheek. “Surely, you didn’t invite me just to talk over a nice cup of tea. Something drew you to that gate and key, Celestia—a goal.”

If Celestia weren’t trying to hold her composure, she’d have laughed herself off the mountain for being surprised.

“Astute, as always…” she said flatly.

“It’s a curse, I’m afraid,” Samael replied with a shameless grin.

“Very well.” Celestia resorted to a few more prepared—and briefly rehearsed—words to be sure. “Samael, you taught me a great and valuable lesson all those years ago. If you hadn’t, I dare say Equestria would be… a very different place.”

“I’m in your debt.” Celestia rose to her hooves, ignoring the creaks in her joints. “Your knowledge, though cold and unforgiving, is also vast and unbelievably useful. There is much you can teach an old foal and her ‘ilk’.”

She turned away from the now pondering demon, and back to her colleagues, who were all leaned in, each with an open ear tipped to the discussion. They snapped back straight like nothing happened and Celestia smiled.

She leapt to the other alicorns, her landing softened by her flapping wings. She stood tall and proud between Cadence and Luna. Twilight in front completed the set.

“And I believe there is much we can teach you, as well,” Celestia continued. “The result may benefit us all. One day, when ready, we could finally integrate into this ‘Balance’ of which you’ve boasted.”

Samael didn’t turn back. He just… sat there as still as the statue in Ghastly Gorge. Twilight stared back to her old mentor, unsure. Worried.

“We offer you a choice, Samael,” Celestia said. “Will you accept our friendship?”

Samael didn’t turn back.

From behind, Celestia saw one of his arms slightly raised, no doubt stroking his chin. The silence thickened the air. Cadence’s hooves shuffled. Luna’s flowing midnight tail swished to and fro. Twilight’s mouth became malted and dried.

Samael’s hand rose high, then fell to his rocky seat. With the sound of grinding stone, he rose to his feet. A brief pause. Then a mighty leap. And finally, a shattering landing before the gasping alicorns.

The moment Celestia saw those yellow eyes—no longer dull, but piercing and bright—she knew she’d made a terrible, awful, unspeakable error.

“No,” Samael answered, tiny embers wisping from behind his lips.

Twilight shuffled back a bit.

“Why would I befriend a bunch of ignorant equines, who don’t even know who they are, or what they’ve become?”

Destroyed. Every thought, fantasy, and prospect of allying Samael was completely and utterly destroyed. Celestia tried to reclaim the stony face that greeted him. But she could only gawk in disbelief.

“You think me a fool, Celestia? You think I don’t see how little you’ve really learned? How you still shape your world with half-truths and falsehoods? Pathetic horse.”

Samael was not smiling. He was not laughing. And he was not amused. And Twilight, for some unknowable reason, found her voice and her bravery in that moment.

She stomped the ground. “Y-you can’t speak to her that wa—”

“SILENCE.”

Twilight yelped and shuffled back again, her rib cage rattled by the booming command. Instinctually, Celestia gently shoved Twilight aside and stepped before her.

“What is the meaning of this, Samael?” Her voice was stern and pitched. “You claim to see change in us, but I find your tone disconcerting.”

Samael practically threw his face before hers, their noses nearly touching. “I meant what I said, princess; I see a great change in you. Change that has turned you from a brash young warrior who dived head first into blood and pain for her people, to a spineless old jellyfish who allows puppets to fight her battles.”

Celestia’s teeth clenched behind her pursed lips. “How dare you…” she whispered.

You claim to have learned something, but the foundations on which you’ve fortified your Harmony are—even now—nothing but lies. Lies that, if ever revealed, would break the legs that carry your society.”

Celestia narrowed her eyes.

“I hail from the Dark Kingdom, Celestia: the Woeful Realm. Its very foundation is the antithesis of all things good in the universe. It thrives on the corruption you’ve lived by, and you think I can’t see through it?” Samael lowered his tone only a little, and backed away from the now scowling Celestia. “Since the first End-war, the denizens of my realm have been condemned to the fires. With the Balance restored, they cannot leave the kingdom.”

Samael’s wings flung open, expelling debris off the mountain.

“They’ve thirsted for blood and revenge for nearly a century now. Even then, demons, great and minor, tiny and gargantuan, winged or otherwise, have prepared for the second End-war. One that I’d hoped you horses would rise to meet eons from now.”

“With no way to escape the fiery depths, they’ve lain in wait, sharpening their claws and fangs, brandishing their swords and axes, waiting to burst through any open gate, and sink their blades into fresh new worlds.”

And just like that, a switch flipped on in everypony’s head. Cadence choked on her own tongue, Twilight swayed on her hooves, Luna’s coat had a white tint, and Celestia’s eyes nearly fell from her head.

Samael looked to the sky, a finger on his chin in mock thought.

“Funny, that. If I recall, such a gate had opened just recently,” he said. He returned his glowing eyes to the distraught princesses. He grinned again, and lifted his now smoky hand. “A gate that can only be closed…” a familiar key fell into his palm, “the same way it was opened.”

The key. The key to the statue. The key to the statue that opened the gate. Celestia left it in Ghastly Gorge. Unguarded. She bat an eyelash, and the key vanished from Samael’s palm.

“Give me the key…” Celestia evenly demanded.

The red demon’s smile, again, pulled behind his black gums. And he vanished in a flash of orange.

Celestia took a breath, prepped to voice a defensive command, but her allies were torn away and flung off the mountain like swatted flies. She spun toward their fading, screaming forms and opened her wings to fly after them.

Or, she tried, at least.

A binding, suffocating grip closed around her, cramping her limbs and squeezing her ribs. She grunted and hissed as her body lifted from the summit. She mustered the strength to lower her eyes. Sure enough, there was Samael on the ground, his glowing hand stretched toward her.

“Pitiful,” he muttered.

He leapt high, leveling with Celestia, his fist reeled back.

A shock wave rippled in the great blue, birds squawking and darting from the trees. Echoing crashes of wood, stone and earth roared across the land, a tidal wave of debris darting through the forest below.

When it stopped, Celestia found herself shaking under a pile of broken wood and stone. Her eyes creaked open, blurring in and out, barely registering the destruction in her wake. With a grunt, and tightly shut eyes, Celestia willed herself from the pile, chunks of debris raining off her dirtied, blemished body.

“Great all-consuming eye of the sun…” she muttered, finally tasting the blood on her lip. “That hurt.”

She fell listlessly to her side, panting and cursing.

“Celestia!”

Her eyes creaked open again, barely aware enough to smile at the three winged angels falling from the afternoon sun. She passed out the moment hooves landed around her.

Her eyes snapped wide open, her sharp breath filling her lungs with cold, very welcome air. Three glowing horns lifted away from her, and a very frantic, very familiar ‘Thank goodness!’ rang in her ears.

Celestia rose to her forehooves, but was stopped by Luna’s stern hoof.

“Easy does it,” Cadence said, a thin blood trail painted on the side of her head. “You took quite a fall.”

Right then, Celestia felt the twinge in her back and legs. Not a good start.

“Right. Thank you all—oof!”

A shaking purple body lunged onto to her chest, a surprisingly powerful embrace pushing her achy ribs together.

“Stupid! You’re so STUPID!” came Twilight’s cry, muffled behind Celestia’s chest. “I thought he…! I thought you were…!”

Understandably, Celestia was speechless, just sitting there, jaw agape. With every weakened assault from Twilight’s scuffed hooves and every heaving sob, Celestia’s heart stung. She nearly returned the gesture and promised Twilight she’d never leave her.

She frowned instead. “Enough, Twilight.” She wrested the sniveling Twilight off her chest, holding her shoulders firm. “Get a hold of yourself. There’s work to do.”

Twilight’s shocked, tear-stricken eyes whipped up to Celestia’s, and the sun princess was certain she’d lose her own nerve and drown Twilight with apologies.

There was a long pause. Then Twilight sniffed one last time and wiped her face dry. She nodded tersely with knitted brows, and Celestia rose to her hooves, closing her eyes to every relieving crack.

“We must get that key,” Celestia said. “At any cost.”

“But, sister,” Luna interjected, “Samael could be anywhere by n—”

An orange flash cut her off, and a deep shattering landing threw the alicorns on defense. There he was, his body soaked with red light, wafting off his shoulders like smoke off freshly snuffed candles.

He lifted his head, yellow glowing eyes smoking with power, licking the air like narrowed flames.

“You really thought it’d be that easy, didn’t you?” He walked toward them, his heavy lunging strides snapping branches and crushing stone. “You thought you could summon me, boast of your lessons, and walk away, untested?”

He vanished again. And with gritted teeth and glowing horn, Celestia did the same. A writhing, shrieking whistle racked the air, and a funnel of wind and power exploded before the yelping alicorns. In the center of that power, Samael’s glowing hand held firm against a glowing horn.

His eyebrow raised at the grunting Celestia.

“And do you think, Samael,” she began, her voice as harsh as a desert sandstorm, “that after five-hundred years licking my wounds, I’ve gained nothing?!”

With a guttural shout, Celestia reeled her head back and pushed. The funnel of power burst apart and stopped with Samael leaned back. With wide eyes and a slowly growing smile, he glanced at the grooves left by his feet when Celestia pushed.

“Ahhh, yes…” Samael growled, staring at his electrified hand. “It seems you have learned a little something, after all. But tread carefully, princess.”

He vanished again. Twilight, Cadence, and Luna leaped forward as Samael reappeared behind them, sitting on the rubble that once buried Celestia. The four alicorns united, horns aglow, facing the demon.

“Or this story’s ending will be a tragic one. Sometimes, the hero dies in the end.”

Celestia did not listen. She spread her magnificent wings, her eyes bright with power and wrath, as were her allies’.

“Samael… Surrender the key. Now.”

Samael threw his head back and laughed, as though he’d just heard the most absurd joke in the universe. He stopped. He frowned. And his eyes beamed again.

“Make me…”

He raised his fist, and four swirling portals burst open behind the mares. He flicked his wrist, and every one of them was flung screaming into the circles of twisting light.

“You will learn, Celestia,” Samael muttered. He closed his fist, and the portals faded away. “One way or the other, you will all learn.”

Author's Note:

Imma have so much fun with this, I can't even...