• Published 3rd May 2012
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The Powers of Harmony - CyborgSamurai



The Mane Six develop the powers of the Elements of Harmony and must use them to stop a new villain.

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Chapter 19: Twelve Knights and a Child

Chapter 19:

Twelve Knights and a Child

“So it was your idea,” Twilight said.

Blair and Piro sat side by side again on one of the seats while Twilight had gone back to sit beside Ace. The Truesight spell had faded, and the three Echoes looked like normal stallions again in Twilight’s faint, glimmering eyes. Blair still wasn’t fully cured of his hangover, and going over the events that were on the fringe of his repressed memories had given him a headache. They’d decided to take a break, and the four of them now sipped on cups of cider they’d acquired from a passing food cart.

“Libra’s,” Blair corrected. He was stirring his cider with a small stick of willow bark. “He’d already proposed the idea to the Order, and after some gentle coaxing, everypony agreed to it.”

“Gentle coaxing my flank.” Ace looked at Piro. “Scorpio and Libra argued for days. I thought for sure he wasn’t going to do it.”

Twilight looked at Piro as well, who was staring into his mug. “Why?”

Piro snorted. “That sightless buffoon was suffering from mental trauma. His wounds hadn’t even healed yet, and there he was talking about using more forbidden magic to make a valiant, time-traveling clone while he fumbled around in the wilderness. Libra kept rambling about honor and selfless duty, but masochism never struck me as an honorable trait. Unfortunately, Scorpio had already used his boon on those metal legs you saw, so he couldn’t do anything to stop this little escapade. What it came down to was that Libra’s clone was gonna need a foalsitter, and Scorpio had the most experience, so I got pigeonholed into the job.”

Twilight wasn’t known for her ability to read ponies, but even she could see through Piro’s facade. His voice and words were harsh, but his eyes were soft and wavering. Scorpio had watched his best friend damn himself to suffering and exile, and he'd blamed himself for not being able to prevent it. However, despite his frustration and anger, Scorpio had displayed an amazing level of dedication by staying at Libra’s side, doing everything he could without hesitation, even fighting tooth and hoof to prevent him from leaving. It was true that Piro was a bitter cynic that complained and made subtle jabs all the time, but both his and Scorpio’s actions betrayed their true feelings, and Twilight had to give him credit for that.

Twilight sipped at her mug. “Did you ever get to meet your predecessors?”

Blair looked out the window with a distant gaze. “Only briefly.”

Twilight leaned forward. “What was it like?”

Ace chuckled. “Awkward.”

“How so?”

Piro shrugged. “What do you say to yourself? We couldn’t even do the ‘who’s the original’ gag because we Echoes were residing in magical suits of armor, and it was pretty obvious who was who. I’m sure we all could’ve had a beautiful, heartfelt friendship, but we barely had time to say goodbye before Celestia zapped us away.”

Twilight frowned. “Zapped you?”

Blair finished the rest of his cider. “My headache’s gone down. You ready to continue?”

Twilight looked at her reflection in her own half-finished drink. “One thing, real quick.”

“Sure.”

The power of the Element of Magic glittered back at Twilight. “Not that I mind having this heightened sense of clarity and understanding, but the glowing eyes are kinda creepy. How do I turn it off?”

All three guards laughed, and Blair gave Twilight a brief overview on how to control her Element and what activated it. Twilight searched within herself, located the Element of Magic, and, after some experimentation, figured out how to cancel its effects.

Twilight felt the odd sensation of her thought processes dimming along with the glowing light in her core. “That wasn’t so hard.”

Blair eyed her curiously. “Feel okay?”

Twilight got to her hooves and stretched. “A little stiff from sitting, but fine otherwise. I assume you’re going to tell me about your host next?”

Piro moved over to make room for her. “Yes, but we’ll warn you right now these next memories are graphic.”

Twilight stopped in mid-stretch. “More graphic than watching your predecessors hack, slash, and siphon their way through a war?”

“Fighting off bloodthirsty monsters in self-defense is one thing.” The edge of Ace’s mouth twitched. “Mutilating an innocent child without provocation is quite another.”

Twilight looked between her guards. All three of them wore dark expressions of veiled fury. She felt her gorge rise as Ace’s emphasis struck a chord of realization.

“Innocence…”

‘Constitution of Civil Magical Conduct and Application, Article One, Section Two,’ Blair quoted. “’The practice of using children as magical conduits is unethical, detrimental to the future propagation of a species, and shall not be observed under any circumstance.’”

Twilight felt sick. It was one of the first things Celestia told her when they’d started talking about forbidden magical theory. The innocence of a child was the purest conductor of magic, allowing for a full conversion with no loss of energy. During the Era of Discord, children were used to channel powerful war spells, or, even worse, offered up as sacrifices to pagan gods. In the present day, children were held sacred. The act of using them in any form of magical experimentation was abhorrently barbaric, and was condemned by every civil race on the planet. Even most of the savage ones agreed on that.

Piro watched as Twilight turned a faint shade of green. “Are you sure you want to see this?”

Twilight swallowed hard. “I… I need to know. I said... I wanted to see everything... and I m-meant it.”

Blair gestured to the spot between himself and Piro. “Then steady your heart, and open your mind.”

Twilight sat back in between Piro and Blair. They both put their hooves on her shoulders, and Twilight allowed their hot and cold presences to wrap back around her mind. She exhaled out her nose, and let their memories carry her away once more.

Blair’s bodiless voice accompanied Twilight’s descent into the sea of thoughts. Libra’s wish was for us to be present and ready to fight whenever Nightmare Moon was freed from her prison. It was decided that the best way to do this was to place ourselves into stasis, and become linked to the magic that bound Nightmare Moon. That way, whenever her prison was disturbed, we'd be awakened and called down to aid Her Majesty.

Where did you sleep? Twilight asked.

In the heavens.

The darkness spread outward, removing the barriers in Twilight's mind. She got a sense of insignificance as she hovered amongst an infinite plane of nothingness.

Celestia spread out our essences and bound us to separate clusters of stars across the sky. For one thousand years we slumbered undisturbed, watching over the planet from on high.

It sounds so poetic when you put it that way, Piro teased.

Twilight felt herself slipping into a stupor, a lethargy beyond sleep that was like a current pulling her beneath the waves. She felt calm and at peace as centuries passed like seconds.

Then, the inky void was disturbed by a single pinprick of light, growing in size and approaching Twilight with alarming speed.

We thought that we'd wake to Princess Celestia welcoming us into a new era to fight for the ponies of the future.

The darkness fled away as the light sped towards Twilight. She had only a second to wonder what it was before it lanced her in the gut, sending a pulse of energy through her body that jolted her rudely awake and made her hair stand on end.

We thought that our creation would allow us to transcend time and prevent a horror from being unleashed upon the world.

Twilight felt a yank around her navel, and she rocketed forward as if pulled by a lasso. Lights flashed in her peripheral vision as she hurtled through space, a single blue dot becoming visible in the endless black.

We thought we could trust Celestia to keep our existence a secret, and that we'd only be called down in a time of great need.

Twilight blinked, and she was now racing down through the atmosphere at a speed beyond reckoning. Clouds whizzed past her, and a freezing wind whipped past her face. She caught a brief glimpse of a two-story stone mansion with a glass atrium before she crashed straight through the ceiling and her world was filled with cold, gray stone.

That... wasn’t what happened.

There was a burst of searing light, followed by a deafening blast. The world was a featureless white before defining into a horrific scene of grisly death. Twilight hovered in a stone observatory with a shattered glass ceiling and eleven charred corpses littered about the room. Around and above her were twelve colorful masses of energy reminiscent to an aurora, and the sharp tang of ozone hung heavy in the air. The walls were littered with hundreds of spidery cracks, and upon the floor was an immense, rune-lined, dodecagon array lined with twelve colorful symbols. In the center of the array was a bright, golden sun that gleamed in the dim torchlight. It was an icy winter night, and the howling of the frigid wind through the atrium's gaping hole was the only sound that pierced the silence.

Celestia's always been very cautious, Blair explained. She'd feared that somepony might find a way to free Nightmare Moon without triggering our release, so she created a ritual to call us down manually if that came to pass.

A backup plan for a backup plan, Piro muttered. Talk about redundant.

The runes on the array pulsed, and Twilight felt like she was being pulled down by a magnet. The twelve colored disturbances split up, each of them coming down to merge with one of the Symbols of the array. The Symbols flared, and with a sound like rushing wind, a dozen empty suits of armor appeared out of thin air. A thick, colored plasma seeped up from the Symbols, flowing into the suits of armor and fully saturating them. The magic in the air subsided, and the light of the array flickered and died. The suits of armor were motionless for a moment before one of them, clad in a silver hooded robe, raised his chin and spoke in a metallic baritone.

Is it time, Majesty? Has Nightmare Moon been free—”

Blair's voice died in his throat as he and the other Echoes took in their grisly surroundings, and everypony spoke at once.

Where are we?!”

What is this magic we stand upon?”

Where is the Princess? Is she not here?!”

These ponies are scorched beyond all hope! What has happened here?!”

Did we do this?!”

Be this some kind of cruel jest?”

How long have we been gone?”

Have we been betrayed?!”

Here! One of them still lives!”

These wounds are grave... Scorpio? Scorpio! Art thou here?!”

Doubtful,” replied a suit of armor containing bright-red plasma. Piro went over to the far corner of the room, where Megnii and Norric huddled around the crumpled form of a silver unicorn mare. The blood-smeared wall above her dripped down at a steady pace to join a spreading sanguine pool. Three of the mare's legs were bent at odd angles, and her eyes fluttered as her breaths came in quick, ragged gasps.

Piro clucked his tongue as he took in the mare's condition. He knelt down beside her and uttered a string of complex syllables.

The mare's breathing slowed, and her cloudy eyes opened. She focused on the possessed suits of armor around her with a mixture of apprehension and wonder.

What... are... you?”

The ghosts of thy ancestors,” Piro said in a soothing whisper. He reached up and stroked the dying mare's mane. “Fret not child, thou shalt not feel any more pain.”

The mare's lips parted as she saw the blackened remains strewn about the room. “Zemblani... did she know? Why would... she lie? Why—”

The mare's gaze gained a sudden mania. She grabbed Piro with her one good leg and pulled him close.

My sons! Are they safe?! She took them! She—”

The mare retched and coughed, staining both her coat and Piro with crimson. He gently took her hoof in his and held it.

What is thy name?”

Lucky... Star,” the mare choked. Her fit ceased, and her chin drooped down to rest on her chest. “Please... whatever you are... stop Zemblani... she's mad... my sons...”

Where are they?” Norric asked.

Gate,” Lucky Star mumbled. “Always muttering... about a Gate... so tired...”

Rest now,” Piro murmured. “Thy journey is at an end.”

Find them.” Lucky Star closed her eyes for the last time. “Horizon... and...”

Tears streamed down Twilight's face as she watched the passing of Lucky Star. She tried to avert her eyes from the corpse, but found that she couldn't. Ace’s words carried new weight as the confrontation with mortality hit her like a freight train. Watching the death of a monster was one thing, as she couldn't empathize with such a foreign creature, but this? This was a mare not much older than her, and she'd died in the hooves of a stranger. There were now going to be children who would grow up without a mother, parents who would mourn a daughter, and ponies who'd lost a friend.

The memory froze and dimmed out as Blair and Piro noticed Twilight's reaction. You alright?

Twilight sniffled, but found her voice as the darkness of her mind returned. I'll admit... I w-wasn't prepared for that, but d-don't stop. I just got caught off-g-guard, and I can get used to... t-that.

Piro's voice held a rare level of sincerity, but his words were all the more powerful for it. The flame of life is a hallowed treasure, valued and cherished by all on the deepest of levels. Seeing it snuffed out isn't something you ever get used to, even if you've seen it as many times as we have. There's nothing wrong with being upset over the death of another sentient being, Twilight, and having such feelings does NOT make you weak.

Twilight wiped her eyes, staring at the matted fur on her arm. What does it make me?

Piro's reply was immediate, clear, and earnest. Alive.

Twilight hung her head. How'd you—your predecessors, I meango through two years of this?

It was Blair who spoke first. There's no one answer to that, but for most of us, we found something that we wanted to protect. A pony, a location, a belief, a way of life... we latched onto that one thing, made it our entire world, and never let it go. I hope you never have to go through the hell that is war, but if you do, you'll find you'll do whatever’s necessary to keep that one thing from harm.

Even if it means taking another life.

Twilight knew that the truth was rarely pretty. One had to look no farther than the annals of history to realize that, but she still considered the pursuit of knowledge to be one of the highest goals that a pony could aspire to. Those who didn't know the mistakes of the past were doomed to repeat them, and the adventures with her friends had taught Twilight how different it was to experience things firsthoof rather than reading out of a textbook.

Twilight took a slow, deep breath, and looked away from the blurred out image of Lucky Star. Keep going, please.

The memory resumed. Piro gently sent down Lucky Star's hoof and stepped away from her corpse, standing still for a moment before whirling viciously on Blair.“Is this what thou wished for?!”

What?!” Blair gestured to the carnage around them. “Thou wouldst blame ME for this?! How could I have known—”

Exactly!” Piro stormed over, standing only inches away from Blair's face. “Thou hast NEVER considered the consequences of thy actions! Look around thee, Libra, take a good look at what thy quest for glory has wrought! Wilt thou bathe in oceans of blood before thy thirst is slaked?! Perhaps thou wouldst like to find more forbidden magic to see if thou canst destroy entire countries in one fell swoop!”

How dare thee,” Blair breathed. “Thou hast the gall to claim I chase after battle and death?! I have sacrificed everything in the name of protecting our country, and thou thinkest I am some kind of libertine pleasuremonger?! Truly, thy idiocy knows no bounds!”

Enough, both of thee!” Ace shouted.

Blair and Piro were grabbed and separated by the other members of the Order, taken to separate corners of the room. Ace stayed in the middle, addressing both of them in turn with a withering glare. “If it pleases you to squabble like an old married couple, do so when we are not about to have company.”

Both of them ceased their struggling. “Company?” Piro asked.

Ace shook his head. “Thou truly art consumed by rage if thou canst not feel the gathering magic. Swallow thy bitterness and resentment. Her Majesty comes.”

A circle of warm, golden light appeared in the center of the room, parting the very air around it. The silhouette of an alicorn appeared, gaining shape and definition into the form of Princess Celestia. The Order of the Zodiac went down one knee in the presence of their immortal leader.

Celestia gasped as she took in the ghostly Echoes, then the charred bodies around the room.

No...”

Your Majesty,” Piro said in greeting, “Forgive my breach of conduct, but I fear Tartarus is in peril.”

Scorpio,” Celestia said dimly, looking at each member of the Order in turn. “Libra, Cancer, Aquarius, all of y—wait, Tartarus? What peril?”

Piro gestured to the body of Lucky Star. “This one still lived when we woke. She mentioned a Gate, and somepony by the name of Zemblani.”

Celestia's face turned a sickly gray. She didn't question or debate Piro's claim, she just stepped back, lowered her horn, and created a dark, red portal large enough for her to step through.

Celestia motioned at the portal. “All of you, come with me!”

The Order of the Zodiac followed Princess Celestia into the glowing opening without hesitation, leaving the bodies and broken building behind.

Twilight sucked on her teeth as the memory faded to black. Zemblani... I know that name. You couldn't possibly mean Arch-Magus Zemblani?

Piro's voice developed an edge. The one and only.

A portion of the darkness broke away, swirling and coalescing into the form of a mare. Her face and frame were emaciated, her coat was a deathly pale shade of blue with patches of gray, and her mane and tail were a faded white. Her lime-green eyes held a unbalanced glint as her face curled up into a twisted smile, and her cutie mark was a circle filled with a black and white spiral pattern.

Blair resumed his narrative. Zemblani was a scholar who was credited with several discoveries on—

I've heard of her, Twilight cut in. She slowly circled around the image of Zemblani. She was a powerful Conjurer who wrote several papers and made over a dozen major magical breakthroughs, but every single one of them led to misfortune and unhappiness for her. She didn't do anything wrong per se, but everything she did inadvertently alienated her further and further from the magical community, so she finally turned her back on her colleagues and became a recluse. Her string of bad luck is something of a long-standing joke amongst Magi, so much so that if anypony makes any kind of unfortunate discovery on accident, it's called 'pulling a Zemblani.'

Twilight expected either of the Echoes to be amused at the phrase. She'd always found it funny at least, but both of the Echoes remained oddly silent, so she let it pass.

What does she have to do with all of this?

She's the one responsible for the pony barbeque. Piro said darkly. Among other things.

Twilight ceased her circling. What?!

She discovered the Zodiac Ritual while snooping around in the Millennial Archives, and duped a bunch of researchers into performing it for her. Not only that, she also tried to free all the demonic soldiers from Tartarus at the same time.

Twilight shied away from the image of the madmare. Every Arcana student thought that Zemblani was just a bungler of an Arch-Magus who'd let her failures get to her. To hear now that this same mare was a sociopath responsible for killing over a dozen ponies and trying to unleash a host of demons upon the world?

Twilight knew that the image of Zemblani wasn't real, but it felt realistic enough that her skin prickled from just being near it. Why would she do such a thing?

We don't know, Blair admitted. Maybe she became bitter and resentful due to being repeatedly shunned by her peers. Perhaps she held a long-nursed grudge for Princess Celestia or even Equestria as a whole as a result of her failures, or it could've just been she was insane from the start. Regardless of the reason, at some point, Zemblani came under the employ of an individual who had knowledge of ancient history and the Elements of Harmony. Zemblani then used her accreditation to look in the Millennial Archives, and stumbled upon a hidden section made by Princess Celestia containing information about the War of the Sun and Moon, Nightmare Moon, Tartarus, and the Zodiac Ritual.

Zemblani told the researchers that the Ritual was a powerful scrying spell that could be used to read the stars and predict the future. Piro gave a deep, slow sigh. What she didn't tell them was that the Ritual needed stronger wards than the ones they'd put in place. When they performed the spell, the magic surged up into the heavens, yanked us out of the stars, and came surging back down into the array. The velocity was too much for the wards to contain, and when the power all expelled outward, it destroyed the building and turned the researchers into charcoal briquettes.

We doubt that Zemblani knew what the Zodiac Ritual actually did, Blair said. It's more likely she was just using it as a means to free Nightmare Moon, and sabotaged the instructions for her researchers so she wouldn't have any loose ends.

The Zodiac Ritual was only supposed to be used in the event that Nightmare Moon had already been freed, Piro said with an exasperated note. Tearing us down from the stars while we were still linked to her prison caused it to weaken, and ultimately fail twenty years later. You know what happened after that.

Twilight nodded. I didn't think there was a technical explanation to how Nightmare Moon got free. I thought it was just some kind of dictation given out by the Elements themselves. That's what the prophecy states, after all.

All things have a way in which they come to pass, Blair said. Whether it be fate or left to chance, everything occurs according to the laws that govern our world. The prophecy of Nightmare Moon's escape was known by Princess Celestia, but nopony anticipated that those events would be set in motion twenty years early.

That's the annoying thing about prophecies. Piro spoke in a sarcastic deadpan. 'Something's going to happen, not sure when, not sure how, but it's gonna happen, and there's nothing you can do about it.' Heck, your efforts to stop it might actually help facilitate it! Kinda makes you question the validity of free will, doesn't it?

Twilight hadn't thought of it that way. She agreed with Piro that prophecies could be frustrating, especially the ones that foretold of unpleasant things coming to pass. The theory of 'destiny' put a lot of very serious things into question, such as individuality, free thought, and even the structure of time itself. It'd been something she'd questioned every now and then, as some things in her life had seemed to work out in such a way that it had to be more than sheer coincidence, but to question it as anything else was to go down a road that led to some very ridiculous assumptions.

After all, if their lives weren't dictated by their own individual thoughts, choices and ideas, then what were they governed by?

Twilight shook her head. I think discussing the authenticity of existentialism is getting a bit off-topic. Zemblani was a Conjurer, so she'd be able to create a skeleton key to get into Tartarus, and she took Lucky Star's sons with her, correct?

Yes.

Twilight knew she wasn't going to like the answer to this next question, but it was either ask it, or have it distract her while she watched the memory.

How old were her sons?

Piro clicked his teeth. Two, and four.

Twilight cringed. This isn't going to be pretty, is it?

The world turned red in response. Twilight was once more on an endless plane of bloody stone that exuded malevolence and spite. The oppressive air pushed down on her, weighing her down and sapping her energy. The sky was blank, and the menacing Gate of Tartarus stood before her.

The Gate had seen some changes since Twilight's last visit. Most noticeable was a foul, dark mist that seeped up from the prismatic grid and hung heavily on the ground. Drawn around the thirty-foot hole was the most complicated array Twilight had ever seen—spidery, complex runes covered every inch of a polygon that hummed with chaotic power, and multicolored lines were drawn around to intersect and surround each of the Symbols of the Elements, half of which were still blurred out. Other Symbols were drawn in the corners of the array, shielded with intricate wards. Twilight squinted, and recognized the new Symbols as the ones for two advanced barrier spells—a Prism Veil, and a Drain Sphere.

There was a flicker of movement on the ground, and Twilight saw two young colts on the edge of the array in a protective glowing dome, bound, gagged and unconscious. The younger was a silver unicorn with a navy blue mane. His face was peaceful as he lay comatose on the ground. The older was a dark gray earth pony, also with a blue mane but of a lighter hue. His face was twisted in a scowl as he twitched in his sleep.

Zemblani stood before the Gate beside the menacing stone pillars, wearing a faded blue cloak and the brimmed, pointed hat of an Arch-Magus. She was talking to herself, her haughty, flat tenor hanging the motionless silence.

All is in place, Master.”

A cruel, empty voice responded, stabbing into Twilight's ears like a knife.Waste no more time. Use the younger one, he is more pure.

'Master'?

Shh, Piro said. Just watch for now.

Zemblani roughly grabbed Horizon in her magic, pulled him out of the protective dome and hovered his limp form out and above the Gate of Tartarus. She stepped forward to the edge of the array, lowering her head and touching it with her horn. The lines and symbols flared to life, connecting and spearing together to form an intricate web of seething magic. Zemblani's low chanting was lost to the audible hum, and sparks of energy flew out at random intervals, being redirected and contained by the wards. The air around Horizon coalesced into shapes—first a cylinder, then a triangular prism. Then back to the cylinder, then the prism again. The two shapes flickered back and forth, going faster and faster as they came into being, finally going so fast that they were indiscernible from each other.

Stop!”

Princess Celestia appeared out of a nearby portal with the Order of the Zodiac close behind. Zemblani cracked open an eye, and her mouth twisted in a scowl at the sight of her unwelcome guests. She stumbled out her last syllables in a hurried rush, and there was sharp crack like a crystal hitting rock. Horizon's barrier morphed into a multifaceted, opaque sphere, and Zemblani's expression reversed into a dark, victorious smirk.

Too late.”

Zemblani released her telekinetic hold, and in an instant that was both a second and an eternity, Horizon fell into the Gate of Tartarus.

There was a sound like the screeching of jagged metal combined with a sizzling hiss as the barrier and the magical grid made contact. The barrier passed through, but got caught halfway as the magic lanced straight into and through its occupant. Horizon screamed, a high-pitched, piercing wail that rose over all other sounds, and a massive, prismatic shockwave shot out from the Gate. Celestia skidded to a halt, drawing up a glimmering golden shield around herself and the Zodiac Knights. The blast broke harmlessly against it, and it stretched out into the plane until it went out of sight. The wards of the array failed, and tendrils of errant magic shot out, shattering the ornate pillars and causing them to fall with a crumbling crunch. One of these tendrils pierced through Zemblani's protective dome and struck Horizon's brother across the chest, slicing his barrel and leaving a grievous wound.

Zemblani stood unharmed behind a makeshift barrier of her own. She was laughing as she stared at Celestia with uneven eyes, her voice difficult to make out under Horizon's agonized shrieks.

I know your secrets, immortal! My master has shown me the truth, and she has chosen me, the Great and Powerful Zemblani, to be the catalyst of your downfall! Soon all will see the perfect, flawless Princess Celestia as the ruthless tyrant she truly is! Witness now the end of your rule, false god! Witness the return Equestria's rightful Princess! WITNESS THE BEGINNING OF DARKNESS ETERNAL!”

Celestia was muttering under her breath with unfocused eyes as her horn blazed with golden light. There was a loud click that resonated throughout the entire plane, and Celestia lowered her barrier to stare calmly at the insane mare.

Zodiac Knights.”

Blair's voice was barely heard over the din. “Your Majesty?”

Celestia spoke in a voice of utter dispassion.“I'll save the boy in the barrier. Scorpio will attend to the other. The rest of you—stop Arch-Magus Zemblani by any means necessary.”

Celestia then disappeared, reappearing at the very edge of the Gate. She completely ignored Zemblani and lowered her horn, focusing all her attentions on Horizon and the barrier, still stuck in the Gate. Her entire body glowed with a soft yellow that was like the sun's light on a midsummer dawn, and her mane and tail shone with twice their normal radiance. The barrier became enshrouded in Celestia's powerful magic.

Zemblani was taken aback by Celestia’s sudden teleport, but cackled as she watched the Princess attempt to undo her work. “It's no use. The boy's innocence has already been woven into the Gate! Pulling him out will not only cause it fail, it'll result in an explosion that will destroy this entire plane! You've lost, Princess Celestia! The minions of Tartarus will be released, and your long-lost sister will be free to overthrow you in a glorious coup! Enjoy the rest of your stolen reign!”

Zemblani tried to teleport away, only to have her spell fizzle as she realized that ability was denied her. She had a second to be confused... before she was sent flying by a well-timed kick delivered by Esra. Zemblani fell skidding to the ground several feet away, her hat fluttering to the ground.

Going somewhere?”

Zemblani got to her hooves, and found that she was surrounded by eleven suits of armor filled with colorful plasma. A salvo of ice spikes hung behind Blair as he lazily held them in place with a hoof. Ace wielded a quartet of longswords that circled around him in a deadly ring. Elo held a long, thin rapier which he held elegantly before him in a fencing pose. Tastar had a double-bladed spear in his teeth, studying Zemblani intently as he hovered in midair beside Spesci, who was sporting an overly large repeating crossbow. Esra was grounded, balanced on one hoof in a bizarre fighting stance. Ras calmly twirled a set of daggers as he stared at Zemblani with a sadistic gaze. Strauss pawed the ground, a loud clanking sound emanating from each of his hooves. Norric held a set of bolas in his teeth, a lit torch in his hoof, and a set of bulging saddlebags hung at his sides. Megnii leveled a wicked halberd with a steely glint in his eyes, and Grovi stood farther back, his horn glowing as he focused intently on the blades of his allies.

Zemblani was unperturbed by the sudden display of force. She flexed her jaw in mild annoyance, seemingly unharmed from Esra's kick. She looked once over at Piro, who was beside Celestia and attending to Horizon's brother before returning her attention to her aggressors.

Well now,” Zemblani said. “What have we here? Twelve Echoes? Looks like that Zodiac Ritual did something interesting after all. I do hope you enjoyed the welcoming party I gave you.”

The Zodiac Knights tensed, but did nothing. This wasn't the first rogue spellcaster any of them had faced, and they knew charging in without coordination was suicide. They kept Zemblani surrounded as they waited for Blair's orders.

Surrender,” Blair said. The ice spikes behind him glittered. “Thou hast no hope of victory or escape.”

'Thou hast?'” Zemblani repeated with wide eyes. An unbalanced giggle escaped her as she looked around at all of them. “You really are from the War of the Sun and Moon, aren't you?! Well then, I suppose you'll appreciate this all the more, for my master has also given me gifts from that glorious era! Behold Echoes, the true extent of my power!”

Zemblani's body became encased in a cascading rainbow. Her eyes danced with colorful, tinted light, her mane and tail whipped about, and the air around her waved like her body was emanating a great heat.

Tell me,” Zemblani sneered, her voice resonating in the Echo's ears. “Does eleven against one seem very fair to you? I think not. Allow me to even the odds!”

Zemblani's eyes turned silver. The air around her shimmered once, and granules of light formed together all around her. They became connected by a thick, coiling mass the color of the night sky, forming into cohesive, definitive shapes. The Zodiac Knights held their ground, despite the obvious intensity of the magic.

A second later, Zemblani was surrounded by a menagerie of giant astral beasts. Bears, eagles, wolves, snakes, rams, bulls, crabs, even a rabbit or two advanced menacingly upon the Order of the Zodiac. Zemblani laughed again. “Cower before the power of the Elements themselves! You think you stand a chance against me when I can create my own army? When my magic is without limits? When I can read your very thoughts?! No, pathetic Echoes, YOU are the ones who have no hope of victory or escape, but you'll find I'm not as merciful as 'thou'!”

The pack of monsters lunged.

NOW DIE!”

The Zodiac Knights were pushed back at the attack of the ferocious astral beasts, and each one of them was forced to fend for themselves against the sudden onslaught.

And all the while, the tortured screams of a child rent the air.

Ace was confronted by a duo of charging bears. They each swung a massive paw at him, one high, one low. Ace jumped, his swords flashing as he flipped in a sideways corkscrew. The blades sliced through astral flesh, shearing off both of the bear's paws and leaving them with blank stumps. No blood spurted from the wounds, and neither of the beasts even noticed that they'd each lost a limb as they turned and readied another attack. Ace let loose a slow exhale upon seeing this, as if a huge burden had just been lifted off his shoulders.

So, thy minions are not counted amongst the living? How fortuitous.”

There was a splurch as Ace plunged his swords into the glowing eyesockets of the bears, twisting them viciously and tearing them free with a burst of stardust. The beasts fell soundlessly fell to the ground and vanished without so much as a sound, and Ace brought his blades back down to spin around him at double the speed. He ran headlong into the fray like a spinning whirlwind as he cleaved effortlessly through the mob of enemies, slicing, dicing, cutting, chopping and beheading.

A pack of lunar wolves circled around Blair, their wicked jaws dripping as they sized up their prey. Blair stood stock still, his ice spikes encircling him like a cloud of shrapnel. The wolves studied him with keen eyes, searching, studying, waiting for him to drop his guard. Blair lowered his head and closed his eyes, and one of the wolves pounced, it's claws and jaws extended towards his throat. Blair's ears twitched, and he deftly stepped to the side. The wolf didn't even get a chance to cry out as he landed in the freezing spike cloud, which ripped the helpless creature to tiny sparkling shreds. Blair then made the spikes explode outward like a bomb, each of them homing in on a target and tearing through it's innards. Seconds later, the entire pack fell to the ground in a glittering mound.

A flock of eagles filled the air. Tastar and Spesci hovered in midair as they narrowly avoided the swipes of scythe-like talons and razor sharp beaks. Tastar's eyes darted about in a careful, calculated manner as he carefully watched their foes.

Watch thy aim,” Tastar said over his back to Spesci. “Losing an eye is an experience I am in no hurry to repeat.”

Spesci chuckled as he shot an arrow into the throat of a nearby eagle, watching it plummet to the ground. “Nor I to lose a wing. It is nice to fly again.”

Tastar placed his spear in his teeth, and darted upwards with a mighty flap of his wings. The eagles screeched and gave chase, following him in a hail of starry feathers. Tastar flew up several hundred feet, the giant eagles following after him in a pillar of feathers, talons, and beaks. Tastar ceased his ascent, and hung in the air a moment before plummeting back down, spinning around in a deadly cyclone. The double-ended spear whirled around him like a rotary blade as he collided with the eagles, gutting and carving them to bits like a meat grinder. The eagles broke away to try and escape Tastar's wrath, and as they did, barbed arrows became lodged in their eyes, wings, and throats. Spesci rotated the crank of his crossbow with wild abandon from a short ways away, the air exploding around him in a hail of glittering stardust.

Strauss stood on the ground fighting off a group of bulls charging with their horns and bucking at him with their hooves. He was managing to dodge the attacks, his shod hooves clanking loudly with each step. He delivered a vicious backhoof as a bull got within striking range, causing it's neck to break with a snap. A second bull took the advantage and hit Strauss from behind, stunning him and sending him sprawling to the ground. Groaning, Strauss tried to get to up, but the bull had already reared to deliver the final blow.

Ras appeared from nowhere, pouncing on the bull with a disturbing look of glee. His knives gleamed, and the bull collapsed as it's throat was slashed. Ras winked at Strauss and tumbled away from his kill... only to find himself surrounded by five more bulls. He facehooved as the beasts lowered their heads.

Horseapples...”

Ras became an indigo blur as he ducked and weaved between the charging animals. His knives flashed with every advance, each bull being rewarded with deep wounds for their efforts. The enraged creatures continued without pause, but Ras was like a fluid, intangible shadow as his blades moved about him in a wild, invisible flurry.

Strauss got back to his hooves, running up to one of the bulls and bucking it in the face. There was a crunch as the creature's face was staved in, and it fell to the ground with a dull thud. A second bull noticed the attack and charged, but came skidding to a halt as a flying knife became lodged in the side of it's face. Strauss picked out a new target, closing the distance and smashing the animal under the chin, shattering its jaw. Ras flipped in the air to stand back to back with Strauss, the two of them eying their remaining adversaries with a with a mixture of resignation and annoyance.

We have to stop meeting like this,” Ras said.

Wouldst thou prefer another's company?” Strauss asked.

And lose my favorite meatshield?” Ras slid under a incoming bull, splitting it from sternum to stomach. “I think not.”

Not much meat left on me now, I fear.” Strauss grabbed one of Ras's spare knives from its sheath and threw it catching an advancing bull right between the eyes.

Enough for my purposes!” Ras jumped away from Strauss and ran away from the beasts, wiggling his rump as he did.

Over here, you foul sacks of week-old dung!”

The bulls turned and charged Ras, and as they did, he produced a small vial and threw it on the ground. A thick torrent of smoke spewed out, enveloping him in an enormous grey cloud. The bulls tried to stop, but found that was impossible as Strauss had followed behind them and now bucked them into the fog one by one. There was the dull thud of bodies hitting the ground as Ras skulked in the mist like a specter, picking off the blind creatures. Any bulls that did make it out of the cloud were finished off by Strauss, who circled around the smoke cloud like a carrion hunter.

Elo hadn't moved despite the chaos surrounding him. His eyes were focused on Zemblani as he slowly advanced while brandishing his rapier. She laughed as she watched him approach.

“Oh, this is rich. What, do you think you're some kind of duelist? Perhaps you trained under the esteemed masters of House Mont'hequ or Gallopulet?!”

Cousin Volio always said my form was too relaxed,” Elo said. “Cousin Tyba insisted it was too rigid. The monster that gutted both of them seemed not to care either way, and it was probably the last thing on his mind as I slashed him to ribbons in turn... again, and again, and again.”

Zemblani knew enough of history to recognize the names Elo had mentioned. She lowered her chin and scoffed. “You lie.”

Elo flashed her the hilt of his blade. Zemblani gasped as she caught a glimpse of the ancient crests of his houses engraved at the base, the only sign Leo had kept of his dual lineage. He produced an ornate metal sheath which he slipped on his horn like a glove.

Zemblani regained her composure and sneered. “I don't have time for this.” Her horn glowed as she tried to push Elo away with a blast of telekinesis. Elo brought his sword down with a lazy flick, slicing through the incoming wall of force with minimal effort.

What?!” Zemblani took a step back. “How'd you—”

Elo brought his rapier back up with a flourish, and Zemblani now noticed that it glowed with the faintest of auras. Zemblani looked over and saw Grovi beside Piro, his horn lowered and encased in a gray hue.

Draw thy weapon,” Elo said, now in striking distance.

Zemblani rolled her eyes. “You lived through a war of senseless slaughter and you're here trying to fight me one-on-one in some kind of honorable duel? What kind of veteran is going to just sit there and wait until I'm ready to—”

Elo jabbed at Zemblani's face. The blade struck her temple, leaving a long, thin cut. Zemblani cried out, clutching the wound as she backed away.

We are indeed veterans,” Elo said softly. “Echoes of a past age. We have suffered, slaughtered, found pleasure in hurting others, stained our hooves with the blood of the innocent, and offered up our very lives countless times so that future generations might not ever know such hell. Thou wouldst try to ruin everything we worked so hard for? Thou wouldst attempt to steal a gift that has been paid with the lives of entire civilizations? Tis a very foalish thing to do, for while it is true we are veterans, we are something else, as well.”

Elo's voice was cold as he pointed his blade at Zemblani's throat. “We are murderers. Cutthroats, soldiers, knights, masters of the killing arts. We know death's cruel bite because we have delivered it countless times. Thou hast no honor, no remorse, and I offer no chance at repentance for the crime of invoking our wrath. The only mercy I grant is to arm thyself before I skewer thee like an oversized shish-kabob, and I were thee, I would leap at the chance.”

Zemblani put a hoof to her wound, wincing at the stinging pain. Her eyes turned blue, and the cut mended itself in an instant. Now understanding that Elo meant business, she summoned forth a jagged longsword in a silver flash, shaped like a lightning bolt and dripping with a dark green fluid. Her wicked eyes narrowed as she lowered it at Elo.

I suppose we can do this your way, little clone,” Zemblani said. "Prepare to meet 'thy' doom."

Dark and sinister mare,” Elo answered. “Have at thee.”

Megnii and Esra found themselves at a loss as they stared at the menacing pincers of the slowly advancing cluster of crabs before them. Megnii spoke out out of the corner of his mouth.

Are thy martial arts applicable against carapacian foes?”

Esra snorted. “As Sifu would say, all things have function and purpose in this world, whether they be directed toward yin, or yang.”

Megnii licked his lips. “I... have no idea what that means.”

Esra grinned. “Nor did I, at first. If they have bones, I can break them. If they have muscles, I will tear them. If they have weak points, I can exploit them. All things must live, and so too must they die. A true warrior walks the narrow path of balance, so that they might see all possibilities and applications in battle.”

Esra walked up to one of the crabs, who raised it's pincers to close around his neck.

Observe.”

Esra's hoof shot out in a blur, hitting the crab's leg at the joint and breaking it with a snap. With a tearing, wrenching sound, he ripped off the broken pincer and used it as a club to stun it's previous owner. Esra reared, and with a flip of his forehooves, tossed the crab on it's back and exposing it's soft underbelly. He leaped atop it and plunged the pincer into into the crab's heart, causing it to disintegrate.

Impressive,” Megnii said with a twirl of his halberd. “Although a bit messy.”

Esra turned back to look at him. “Dost thou enjoy critiquing my form, or is thy weapon just for show?”

Apologies,” Megnii said with a bow. “I was simply curious.”

Megnii took to the air like a bullet, flying low just above the reaching pincers of the crabs. He brought his halberd down in great slashing arcs, piercing the shells of the crabs and lopping off their limbs with practiced ease. He rose up and began flying back and forth like a pendulum, bisecting and felling his enemies with each attack. Esra meanwhile waded into the sea of crustaceans, deflecting pincers with a mixture of soft pushes, snapping jabs, and fluid kicks. A crab larger than the others loomed before him, raising it's clacking pincers and intent on catching him in it's deadly embrace. Esra leaped forward and punched the crab in the face, ruining it's eyes and causing it to flail around wildly. The giant crab raised a claw to strike, but it was cleanly lopped off by Megnii as he made another pass. He then flew straight up, gripped his halberd in all four hooves, and fell down on to the larger crab like a rock. Both he and his blade pierced through the shell with a dull crack, piercing deep into the creature's insides. It shuddered once before falling to the ground.

Megnii reappeared as the giant crab fell to pieces, covered in a shining dust that clung to his armor. He sneezed, and Esra paused a moment to eye him dubiously.

Now who's the messy one?”

Megnii gave a nervous laugh as he retrieved his halberd, taking to the air once more.

Norric was running at a full gallop away from the battle, being chased by a stampede of rams the size of barns that were steadily gaining on him. He turned back once and gave a toothy smile as he saw his pursuers had been unceasing in their chase.

Come on big boys, just a little farther...”

The rams continued on without pause, getting closer to Norric with each second. He felt a disturbance in the air behind him as the rams hooves narrowly avoided crushing his tail, and decided it was far enough. Norric readied one of his bolas and lit the wicks on the ends. With expert aim, he threw them behind him one after the other, each of them tangling around the forelegs of one of his pursuers. The rams fell crashing to the ground, and an instant later, there was a deafening blast as the explosives on the ends of the bolas detonated, blowing the rams to bits.

Only three rams remained. Norric turned around in a wide arc, and produced a hooful of small orbs containing a putty-like substance. He delicately rolled them onto the ground, and sprinted away with a sudden burst of speed. The rams paid no heed to the small orbs, running straight through and crushing them with their hooves. A chain reaction ensued as the explosives detonated, and the rams faded to nothingness in the impromptu minefield.

Norric slowed as saw that he'd vanquished his foes. He looked down at the last remaining putty-orb with a wistful smile.

Seeker, dearest brother... I owe thee my life yet again.”

Piro was crouched beside Horizon's brother as he stayed well away from the battle. The boy hadn't awakened from the wound, which made Piro believe that magic was involved in his sedation. The boy's wound was shallow, but it stretched under his entire barrel, was bleeding profusely, and thus was proving difficult to mend. It also wasn't helping that they were right beside the Gate, and Horizon's constant, ear-splitting screams were making it difficult to concentrate.

Will the boy live?”

Celestia's voice filled Piro's head. He looked up, and immediately shielded his eyes. The luminous aura of magic surrounding Celestia was so bright that it hurt for him to directly look at her. Her features were faded into the brightness, the air had grown thicker, and there was a metallic scent in the air.

Piro caught on quickly enough to understand what was going on and responded with his thoughts in turn.

I am without my instruments, and the cut is too long to stitch. The boy is sedated, and so I am going to cauterize the wound.

Celestia's voice was pained. “Do what you have to do.”

A small red dot appeared at the end of Piro's horn. It hovered to Horizon's brother, where it pulsed once before turning bright white. Piro pressed the orb to the laceration, and the acrid smell of burnt flesh filled the air. The boy's face twisted, his teeth biting down on his lip so hard that a trickle of blood oozed out, but Piro continued his work without pause or restraint. A few seconds later, the bleeding had stopped, the wound was closed.

It is done,” Piro said. “Whether infection sets in will depend on how quickly we get him to a hospital, but the resilience of youth may protect him even from that. He will have a scar, but such worries are a blessing in and of themselves.”

No kidding,” Celestia remarked dryly.“This one's gonna have a lot more than a scar to show for all this.”

Thy manner of speaking is strangely relaxed,” Piro observed. “Is the other foal's condition truly that dire?”

Zemblani's broken thirty-two laws by doing this, and those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head.” Celestia's voice was strained and sharp.“The colt's innocence is woven into the Gate's spell grid, and now he's acting as a conduit for the entire thing. The two barrier spells she fused together have absorbed all of the Gate's magic, and it's all running through the child's body, transmuting it as we speak. If I try to pull him out, his molecular structure will collapse, the barrier will fade without a target, and the absorbed magic will be released. The resulting explosion will destroy this plane, catapult Nightmare Moon's army to random places all over Equestria, and the damage they'll do to the populace will be felt for generations to come. If I leave him in, the poor child will continue to be transmuted until his body is completely converted, but the Gate will remain intact and Nightmare Moon's army will be contained. His body will also remain whole so long as he remains in the barrier, but Zemblani botched the Spell Fusion and the blasted thing is incredibly unstable. It's all I can do to keep it together, and while I could technically stay here for as long as I have to, I'm also in charge of a kingdom, and I think ponies would notice my absence.”

Piro gulped. “What can be done?”

I'm not sure,” Celestia admitted. “I know of no way to revert energy back into mass. The Elements of Harmony might work, as their purpose is to revert things to a state of balance, but I haven't used them since I banished Luna, and even then... wait, why am I telling you about that? That happened only a few weeks ago for you! Ha! Oh, it's going to be nice to having you twelve around again. Almost as nice as... anyway, I need something that can stabilize this barrier until I can figure out a way to restore the colt to his original form and redo the seal on the Gate, and if possible, something that can also leech away some of this excess magic so that even if it does eventually collapse, the plane will remain intact.”

Piro bit his lip as he listened to Celestia's explanation. It was true that magical arrays and anatomy were his forte, but this was way out of his league. That Celestia was keeping the two high level barriers joined together when incorrect Spell Fusion caused the spells to repel each other rather than attract was a display of raw power that left him in awe. Heat was rolling off Celestia in waves, and Piro's hair was standing on end from being so close to her presence. If it required this much effort to keep the barrier together, and there was that much magic surging through the barrier and the boy, what sort of bonding could be created in order... to...

Piro looked down at his armored hoof, then over at Horizon, who had finally gone silent. His features were gone, blackened into a vague silhouette that crackled with chaotic, prismatic energy.

What about us?”

Celestia looked up. “What about you?”

Echoes feed on energy, do we not?” Piro spoke in an unsure, hesitant tone. “We can reside in any conduit of magic, living or non. Even if the boy has been transmuted into magic, could we still not use him as a host?”

Wait, it was YOUR idea?! You said it was Celestia's!

I lied, Piro said flatly, and now that you know, you can take that little 'you don't give a buck about Horizon' comment and shove it up your—

Ahem, Twilight said. Trying to watch here.

The beginning of Celestia's reply was drowned out, but Twilight got the gist. “—too unstable. Even if you were to join with him, you wouldn't be able to hold it together by yourself. There's also the issue of the child's mind, as I'd guess that the metamorphosis has broken him mentally, but there's no way to tell for sure. I do know that being attached to any unstable, magically saturated entity would have adverse effects on any kind of sentient being, even an Echo.”

Thou speakest in the singular,” Piro said. “What of the plural?”

Plural?” Celestia repeated. “What does—”

Celestia stopped as she realized what Piro was insinuating. She was silent for a time before replying.

That... could work. At least, in theory... but—”

Dost thou see any alternative?” Piro set his jaw. “One of us will fail, so our combined strength is needed. The boy's mind is broken, so well shall be the bond that holds his shattered psyche together. We will rely on each other for stability, and together we will keep the boy safe as he slumbers over the Gates of Hell.”

I'd rather not lose such a peerless group of soldiers so soon to something like this,” Celestia said, “not to mention the closest friends I've had in almost one thousand years.”

What else can—” Piro's jaw dropped as he abruptly fell on his haunches. “ONE THOUSAND YEARS?!”

Despite the circumstances, Celestia laughed, a pure, musical sound like the tinkling of a bell tinged with the hint of unending sadness.

Welcome back, Scorpio. I've missed you—I've missed all of you.”

Things weren't going well for Elo. It wasn't that he hadn't hit Zemblani, quite the contrary. He'd run her through four times, sliced her neck twice, taken out her both of her eyes, cut off an ear, and scored dozens of other hits. Unfortunately, she'd healed each and every wound instantly. Zemblani may not have had Elo's experience, but it didn't matter when Elo couldn't do any damage to her. She'd managed to hit Elo a few times in turn, but he didn't share her healing abilities, and it was only a matter of time before she overpowered him.

What's wrong?” Zemblani taunted as she swung her blade in a whistling arc. “You were spouting a lot of bravado there in the beginning. Or was that before you realized I could heal myself?”

Elo parried the overhanded strike, then slid his blade along hers and slashed her across the face. The cut was deep and showered him in a spray of blood, but before he could capitalize, she healed it and swung at him again.

That spell you have on your sword is useful, isn't it? It looks like it's directing all my offensive spells away from you.” Zemblani looked over at Grovi with a wicked grin. “It'd be a shame if something were to happen to it.”

Elo flinched as he realized what Zemblani intended. Before he could react, her eyes glittered green, and she bucked him savagely in the chest. Elo's breastplate was crushed, his rapier fell with a clatter, and he went sailing back several dozen feet. Zemblani turned and ran at Grovi, who was oblivious as he focused intently on his spell. She closed the distance and swung her sword at his neck.

There was a clang as Zemblani's strike was parried by a longsword hanging in a green aura. She had just enough time to be surprised when she felt a deep, slicing pain in the back of all four of her legs and fell to the ground. Ace walked into her field of vision, his swords circling around her as the blades dripped with her blood.

Do not move.”

Zemblani gritted her teeth. “Oh goodie, another swordstallion. You gonna challenge me to a duel, too?”

I once participated in duels.” A shadow passed over Ace's face. “Although griffins use not such terms when referring to slaves.”

WHAT?!

He doesn't like talking about it, Blair said quickly.

Cancer went through hell long before the war started, Piro explained. Let's just leave it at that.

Zemblani's eyes turned silver. “Then you're well accustomed to a cage!” The air shimmered around Ace, as a windowless cube of stone formed around him. She laughed as his swords fell to the ground, then turned her eyes back to blue as she healed the cuts on her legs. She readied her blade again to swing at Grovi.

Her sword was knocked out of her grip by a flying knife. Ras stood a short ways away with Strauss, who was studying her intently. Zemblani felt a disturbance in the air above her, and had enough time to duck as Megnii's halberd sliced passed her. A stinging pain pierced her shoulder, and one of Spesci's arrows blossomed out of a fresh wound. Zemblani now saw that all of her minions had been dispatched, and the Zodiac Knights were closing in on her.

Looks like you need more playmates,” she hissed. “Allow me to—”

A small cylindrical object with a sparking wick rolled in front of Zemblani. Her eyes bulged.

You can't be s—”

The explosive went off in Zemblani's face with a sharp bang. She had enough time to put up a shield, but the blast still knocked her back and away from Grovi. She coughed and wheezed as she quickly healed herself, the internal damage and burns on her coat dissipating in an instant.

ENOUGH!”

A pillar of white erupted from Zemblani, rising high into the air. Her eyes became half-filled, and she rose to levitate a short ways off the ground. She fired a blast of pure energy from her horn in a beam, scattering the Zodiac Knights and slicing Ace's prison in two. The magic around her increased, and she flew forward with blinding speed. Her hooves became charged with electricity as she struck Ras with a vicious haymaker, sending an excruciating shock through his body and throwing him to the ground. She then pointed her forehooves at Esra and Tastar, blasting them with crackling bolts of lightning. Zemblani let loose a primal scream and released a shockwave of telekinetic force, scattering the remaining Zodiac Knights as they were sent flying and crashing to the ground.

Zemblani stood there a moment, gasping for breath and looking around. A trickle of blood leaked out of her nose, and she moaned and grasped her head. She ignored it though as a sadistic, mad laugh welled up from within her that carried out into the endless plane.

Was there ever any doubt?!” Zemblani shrieked. “You're all GNATS before me! You may have seen war, but you've never seen anything like me! Your experience and talents are no match for the raw power I have at my command! I'll escape Celestia's stupid little dimensional lock, Nightmare Moon will return, and I shall stand with her as she brings forth everlasting night! I am the enlightened sinner, the chosen reaper, the dark lady's blade! I'll destroy you all, scatter your essences to the winds, and present your suits of armor as a gift to Cetus! I—”

“—know nothing of sin.”

A cold wind like the onset of winter hit Zemblani from behind. She turned and saw Blair, standing far away from the others as a mass of crystalline tendrils spread out from him in a rapidly expanding web. His hood was drawn, his eyes were shut and his gaze was lowered as he sucked away all the warmth of the plane like an endless black hole.

Oh boy...” Ras managed to get to his hooves. He limped away as fast as he could, followed closely by the other Zodiac Knights as they fled to Celestia.

Blair's hoofsteps were accompanied by the cracking of ice as he slowly walked towards Zemblani, speaking in a dark, menacing whisper. “Thou fancy thyself a reaper because thou hast claimed a dozen souls and tortured a few children? Pathetic.”

Zemblani's eyes widened as she recognized the magic around him, the immensity and horror of what he'd done hitting her like a hammerblow.

Impossible...”

Said the student before the master,” Blair said calmly. “See me for what I am, child. I have claimed the lives of thousands. Stallions and mares, old and young, strong and bereft, it matters not, for the damning call remains the same. I have felt the very heartbeat of an army flow through my veins, and I have ripped that heart away to watch it fade into nothingness. Yet even as those innumerable lives fell helplessly into the void, it was not enough. It is never enough.”

Zemblani tried using every element she could think of to break the tendrils—fire, earth, water, lightning, light, shadow, water, even ice, but nothing worked. Every hole she made was instantly filled, and she knew she couldn't touch them as a single brush would be enough to sap her lifeforce away. She tried attacking Blair directly, but as the source of the magic, the tendrils were strongest there, and swirled around him like a protective cocoon. Zemblani's mind raced as she tried to think of something, but the full force of Blair's chill hit her, and she buckled like she'd fallen through the ice on a frozen lake. The frigid wind picked up as the tendrils crept ever closer, surrounding her and cutting off her escape.

Thou hast only dipped a hoof in the shallows of depravity while I have immersed myself in its depths, and thou hast the audacity to call thyself a reaper? Thou thinkest that a single, meager act of genocide will garner infamy? Such arrogance! Thy crimes will be forgotten, lost, not even given a footnote, but be grateful for that, for it means that thy heart is not beyond saving.”

Stay away from me, monster!” Zemblani knew there was nowhere to flee. She couldn't break Celestia's dimensional lock, and she was now surrounded by death. She was trapped, cornered, without options, and Blair's tendrils forced them closer and closer together with each passing second.

Monster indeed,” Blair said with a note of agreement.“Be happy that my dark blessing shall saveth thee from becoming one thyself. Thy soul will be at peace, thy name will be lost, thy acts will be buried along with thy body, and the void will taketh thee in it's endless embrace. Forevermore, thou wilt be remembered as nothing more but a pony—a terrible, foul, crazed pony, but a pony all the same.”

Zemblani was paralyzed, both by fear and the cold. She fell to her knees with tears streaming down her cheeks as Blair came to stand over her. She looked up into Blair's hood, and saw that his eyes were holes, discernible as the teal plasma of his body swirled about his features like eddies in a stream. His voice was pitiless as the tendrils inched toward Zemblani.

Know my names and weep, pretender, for thou art in the presence of a true reaper. I am Blair, Echo of Libra the Lifestealer, Harbinger of Death, Scion of the Damned, Devourer of Souls.”

Zemblani screamed as the tendrils made contact with her skin.

And thou. Art. MINE.”

The memory's perspective abruptly shifted from Blair's to Piro's, sparing Twilight the specifics of Zemblani's grisly end. Twilight's stomach lurched as she stared at the web of tendrils from the outside.

You... killed her?

Yes.

Twilight swallowed nervously. I... I don't know what to say.

There's not much that needs to be said, Blair replied. Zemblani had to be stopped, and Her Majesty authorized the use of lethal force. We gave her several chances to surrender, but she chose to fight back, and our mercy almost got several of us killed. I had a way to stop her, but I didn't want to use it because I knew it would result in her death. However, when it became clear that she was too dangerous to be subdued and was going to kill my comrades, I was left with no other choice.

Although the lecture was a bit much.

...she annoyed me.

Really? Piro jeered. I didn't notice.

Tell me, Twilight, Blair said, noting her continued silence. What would you have done? If you were confronted by somepony who was going to take the lives of your friends, and the only way you had to stop them was to take their life, what would you do? Would you sit there and watch as your friends were slaughtered in cold blood? Or would you do whatever's necessary to protect the ponies you love?

I-I...

Such are the questions that are born from war, Blair continued, and such are the questions we tried so hard to keep your generation from ever having to face. There's no right answer because both choices result in murder. One could argue that there's always a third option, one that avoids bloodshed, but in the heat of battle, there's little time to weigh your options.

Lives are measured in seconds on the battlefield, Piro said. You can sit back and think, but unless you can slow down or stop time, ponies will be suffering and dying the entire time. Strategy and critical thinking have their uses in war, but their value is diminished in the trenches. It's a cruel, harsh, unforgiving truth, and those who fail to learn it are the first to fall.

Twilight pursed her lips. She knew they were both speaking from experience, and were only trying to help her understand something they'd learned the hard way, but she also understood this was something one had to experience for themselves. Everypony reacted differently under stress, and the choices that one made in an instant weren't necessarily a reflection of their character or beliefs. Nopony ever believed what they were doing was wrong, they just made their decisions based off their ability to interpret the situation and recognize the options available to them. Time was also a factor, and if one didn't have enough of it, they may not have time to identify the best solution. It was something that really didn't have a right or wrong answer, and was dependent on a set of ever changing factors that differed from situation to situation, culture to culture, and pony to pony.

I guess I don't have any right to judge you, Twilight finally said. I don't think you're a bad pony, Blair, I just think you've been put in some bad situations, and you've had to deal with it the best you could. I don't know what I would've done in your place because I've never been put in that situation. I could say I'd try to find a way to avoid taking Zemblani's life, but if I didn't have enough time and my hesitation meant my friends getting hurt or k-killed, well...

I'm not condoning my actions, Blair said in a rushed voice. I know what I did was wrong. There's nothing... NOTHING, that can justify murder, and anything that tries to in any way, shape or form is twisted, foul, vile, and corrupted.

You're getting preachy again.

...sorry.

Twilight giggled.

SCORPIO!”

Piro looked up to see the other Zodiac Knights running towards them with panicked looks. He raised an eyebrow at their battered forms. “What—”

The question died in his throat as he saw Blair's web of tendrils, and his hoof greeted his face in a familiar gesture.

Not even an hour into our return and I have to save the day.” Piro directed his next question at Celestia. “Am I correct in assuming that we Echoes are immune to Libra's lifeforce addiction?”

I think so,” Celestia said. “There's no reason why you'd be vulnerable to it, as you don't have anything for him to sense or steal. The children do, though.”

Piro's eyes flickered to Horizon's brother. “I thought as much. I will need to immobilize the idi—Libra, while I draw the array for the Lifesealing Ritual. How might I do that?”

It's been a while, but I'm pretty sure I designed your suits of armor to simulate the five senses,” Celestia hummed as she searched her memory. “Your faculties are largely similar to a true pony's, and share all their strengths and weaknesses, save for that you don't need to perform any biological functions.”

So sufficient blunt force trauma to the head would effectively disable any one of us?”

Celestia snorted. “Probably.”

Piro turned back to the other Zodiac Knights. “Stay with Her Majesty. I shall attend to our fearless leader.”

Piro galloped away, heading straight for the web of tendrils. He got to the edge and jumped in headfirst, feeling an instant of grasping and prickling around him before breaking inside. Piro saw Blair standing motionless over Zemblani, focused completely on his victim and oblivious to the suit of armor running straight at him.

Hey, Libra!'

Blair looked up.

WHAM!

Piro's sucker punch sent Blair sprawling to the ground, the icy tendrils dissipating and fading to nothing around them as he lost consciousness. Piro glanced once at Zemblani's withered husk before unceremoniously tossing it aside and set to work drawing the array for the Lifesealing Ritual. He moved with a practiced ease, directing snide insults at Blair all the while. A few minutes later, Piro finished the array and cast the spell, sealing Blair's addiction away with a rush of violet magic. After which, he heaved Blair's unconscious form on his back and trotted back over to Celestia.

Is Zemblani dead?” Celestia asked when Piro got within range of her telepathy.

As a doornail,” Piro replied. “Learning her motives will prove difficult.”

One thing at a time,” Celestia said. “I've told the others about your idea, and they've agreed to it.”

Good.” Piro rolled his neck. “Let us merge with the boy so we might re-enter our stasis and thou might be on thy way.”

You won't be able to maintain the barrier if you go back into stasis,” Celestia explained. “Fortunately, I have another idea.”

Oh?”

I managed to redirect the Gate's magic before it fully transmuted the child,” Celestia said. “His body is malleable now, caught in a state between solid matter and magical energy. What's left of his biological mass should provide enough of a base that I can use the barrier's magic to create psuedo-bodies for all of you, and I can place a transdimensional anchor in each of you so that you'll be able to go wherever you please.”

Piro took a moment to sift through the technical jargon. “So we would each have individual bodies, and we could go with thee back to Equestria?”

Celestia smiled. “I'd like nothing more.”

Then what are we waiting for?” Piro nodded at Horizon. “I am eager to see what one thousand years of time has done to the world.”

What about Libra? Do you think he'd agree to this?”

Art thou jesting?” Piro jerked his head at the unconscious Echo on his back. “This whole thing was his idea in the first place. He wanted to keep Nightmare Moon's army at bay, remember? Maybe this will teach him to be careful what he wishes for.”

Celestia chuckled. “He's lucky to have a friend like you.”

Piro rolled his eyes. He gently set Blair down on the ground, staring at him with an odd look in his eyes.

Princess... if I might be so bold, might I ask if Libra—the real Libra, I mean... did he ever return from his banishment?”

Celestia was silent for a time before answering. “He left Equestria less than a week after I created all of you and headed south to the Zhevra Flatlands. I tried many times to see if I could find out where he went, but I never tracked him down. I gave up after around fifty years or so, and I never saw him again.”

Damned, idiotic blasted foal!” Piro yelled as he kicked at Blair. “Why?! Why must thou hold thy suffering like some kind of twisted vanity?! Does a lifetime of friendship mean so little that thou wouldst abandon it and everything thou hast known for honor?! Why didst thou do it?! Why dost thou care so much about everything?! Why dost thou care so much about nothing?! Why in Celestia's name didst thou forbid me from accompanying thee in exile?! Answer me, blaggard!”

Celestia watched as Piro continued to rant and abuse Blair's helpless form.

Scorpio... you're going to really hurt him if you keep hitting him like that.”

Piro stopped, and noticed that the other members of the Order were looking at him. He ceased his attacks and sighed. “I suppose I am just making more work for myself... very well, as Seneschal, I hereby accept this task Her Majesty has placed before us. We shall merge with the colt Horizon and keep his barrier intact so as to prevent the destruction of Tartarus and the release of Nightmare Moon's army. We shall guard him with our very lives, or whatever equivalent we now hold, unto such a time we are no longer able, or until he is restored to his original state.”

The Echoes bowed as one before Princess Celestia, save for Blair, who was still sprawled limply on the ground. Piro raised his head and met eyes with the immortal monarch.

The Order of the Zodiac is honored to serve the Sun Goddess once more.”

“And that's what happened.”

Twilight felt Blair's and Piro's presences slip away, leaving her alone in her mind. She opened her eyes and squinted as she adjusted to the mid-afternoon light.

Twilight rubbed the back of her neck. “That was, well... wow.”

“There's not much exciting stuff after that,” Piro said. “Celestia created the bodies we have now and brought us to Canterlot. She gave us some history lessons, accustomed to modern culture, fixed our grammar, then put us in our own platoon in the Royal Guard where we've been for the last twenty years. We've seen you around the castle for the last ten, although I doubt you paid much attention to us.”

“We all look the same with that stupid Disguise spell, anyway,” Ace crossed his forehooves. “Don't know why Vigil still wears his. Probably out of habit, or maybe he just really likes white?”

Twilight was still reeling from everything she'd just been shown. She stared at the wall as she tried to get a grasp of everything.

Piro laughed as he watched her dumbfounded expression. “A lot to take in, isn't it?”

Twilight turned to him, then to Blair and Ace in turn. “Let me see if I've got all this straight. You're all the Echoes of the Order of the Zodiac from the War of the Sun and Moon, created by Princess Celestia as per the request of Libra, leader of the Order and Lifeforce addict. The twelve of you were placed into stasis and linked to Nightmare Moon's prison, where you slept for nine-hundred eighty years before you were unceremoniously called down by the Zodiac Ritual, which was a failsafe made by Princess Celestia in the event that Nightmare Moon was freed through means other than what she'd anticipated. Arch-Magus Zemblani, a sociopath working for a mysterious 'Cetus', discovered this, and used it as a way to weaken Nightmare Moon's prison so that she could break free some time later.

“ At the same time, she also tried to free Nightmare Moon's army which has been imprisoned in Tartarus for the last one-thousand years due to being cursed with insanity, bloodlust, and immortality thanks to Princess Luna accidentally overloading the Element of Loyalty at the start of the War of the Sun and Moon and making the effects of Undying Loyalty permanent. Tartarus was sealed by a powerful spell that utilized the Symbols of the Elements, and Zemblani tried to break it open by fusing together a Prism Veil and a Drain Sphere on a two-year old unicorn named Horizon, using his innocence as a conduit to channel the magic and overload the Gate. She succeeded, but the barrier was unstable due to the arrival of the twelve of you and Princess Celestia, and so after dispatching Zemblani, the twelve of you merged with Horizon to stabilize his barrier, keep his body from falling apart, and use up the excess magic that the barrier had absorbed.

“However, twenty years later the barrier is out of magic, Horizon will die if you leave him, Nightmare Moon's army will break free without Horizon's barrier to block the Gate, and the only thing that can restore him is the Elements of Harmony. BUT, the power of the Elements has been partially distributed into myself and my friends due to Nightmare Moon shattering their original vessels when I partially activated them, and there are complications that have arisen as a result but you haven't told me what they are yet. Bottom line—you need me and my friends to go to Tartarus so we can use the Elements on Horizon, but there's ANOTHER, completely separate, unknown problem that's prevented Celestia from telling us all about this herself. So in lieu of this, she sent all of you incognito to monitor us until we figured it out on our own, at which time she's trusted the twelve of you to convince us... or in my case, blackmail into trusting that there's a good reason why she can't just tell us about all of this herself. Does that sound about right?”

Blair, Piro and Ace sat silently as Twilight as she accurately summarized everything they'd just told her in the last few hours. Ace yawned and rested his head on a hoof. “Yeah, pretty much.”

Twilight rubbed her temples. “That's... insane. I don't think I'd believe it if I hadn't just seen it with my own eyes.”

“The truth is often times stranger than fiction,” Piro said with a lopsided smirk. “I've spent enough time around nutcases like Blair here to realize that by now.”

“Piro...” Blair began.

Piro's face fell as he heard the unsure note in Blair's voice. He bit his lip and looked away. “I'm over it. I was angry and still thought I was Scorpio. You don't need to justify why Libra did what he did. I'm not even sure I care anymore.”

Twilight saw through that lie in a heartbeat, but decided to let it go as there was a more pressing line of questions she wanted to pursue.

“Who's Cetus?”

“Good question,” Ace said with a tap of his hoof. “Let Princess Celestia know if you find out.”

Twilight wrinkled her brow. “You never found out?”

“They covered their tracks well.” Blair stared at the back of Piro's head for a while longer before turning his attention to Twilight. “Princess Celestia conducted an investigation to figure out how Zemblani found out about the Zodiac Ritual, but nothing she found indicated she'd been receiving any kind of outside help. We know that Cetus had to have knowledge of the War of the Sun and Moon, and the Elements of Harmony, but that doesn't give us any leads.”

“The number of ponies alive today who know of the truth behind the War of the Sun and Moon and anything specific about the Elements themselves is a short list,” Piro said. “So short that Celestia didn't have anywhere to start looking.”

“That's another thing.” Twilight scratched her cheek. “Those were the powers of the Elements Zemblani was using, weren't they? How the hay did she get those?”

“No clue.” Piro traced his hoof along the seat. “Zemblani claimed it was a gift from her master, but that'd imply Cetus had some kind of control over the Elements. They were kept locked in a secure vault in Old Canterlot Castle since the war, and Celestia checked on them once a year before you and your friends found them. Not sure why she kept them in the ruins, but that's not really my business. All we know is that there was no evidence of the vault being disturbed in any way, so however Zemblani got the powers that she used that night, it wasn't from coming in contact with the Elements.”

“Curious,” Twilight said.

“Aggravating is more like it.” Ace released his magic, and the glow around the door faded. “I don't like sitting around knowing the pony responsible for freeing Nightmare Moon's army is still out there.”

Twilight briefly considered asking about Cancer, but Blair and Piro's fervent warnings hinted that it was a touchy subject, and while Ace seemed normal enough, she doubted he'd be comfortable with talking about time spent in forced servitude. Griffins were amicable enough in the present day, but one thousand years ago they were a savage race. If even half the things Twilight had read about them from that time period were true, she could understand why he preferred not to bring it up.

“Has Cetus made any moves since?” Twilight asked.

Blair shook his head. “I doubt they will now that Celestia's looking for them. Besides, even if they did have control over the Elements, it's lost now that half their power's been transferred to you and your friends.”

Twilight felt a weight in her chest as a thought struck her. “Do you think this has anything to do with the Princess's hesitation to tell me and my friends about all this?”

“Maybe,” Blair admitted. “Not sure how or why, though. It could very well be a hundred other reasons, too. The Princess just asked me to trust her, and I do. It's hard to say or speculate anything when it comes to her motivations.”

“A lifetime measured with an infinity symbol will do that,” Piro remarked.

Twilight didn't like this. There were holes here, and it bothered her that Blair and the others seemed content on not trying to fill them. She supposed that they figured Celestia was going to look into it and give them further orders, as that was what their entire job entailed anyway. Sure, the Princess probably had a good reason for not telling her that she and her friends had inherited the powers of the Elements, but for her to not mention anything about this Cetus character? That didn't make any sense. Was it because she didn't want to get her and her friends involved with such a dangerous situation, or was there a deeper, more complicated reason?

Twilight crossed her forehooves. “What happened to Horizon's brother?”

“Celestia put him in witness protection after he recovered,” Piro replied. “I don't know where he is now, I imagine he was placed in a foster home somewhere. He'd be an adult now though, so he could be anywhere. Celestia didn't tell us the specifics of his relocation for safety purposes, and I didn't see him again after we parted ways at the hospital.”

“We never even learned his name,” Blair said. “That's probably for the best though. Horizon was too young, so he doesn't remember it, either.”

“About that,” Twilight said, turning to him. “You said you had a conversation with Horizon two nights ago. How? Has he recovered from the accident?”

“Um, well...” Blair closed his mouth and licked his teeth. “Yes and no. It's more accurate to say that the most intact fragment of his consciousness has morphed into a separate entity. I call him Ophiuchus. He's self-aware and can see through all our perspectives, but he's very weak physically, and he rarely talks to any of us.”

Twilight raised her eyebrows. “Do you think he'd want to talk to me?”

Blair considered for a moment. “It's not a matter of whether he'd want to or not. It takes a lot out of him just to appear in our dreams, and I don't think he's capable of controlling any of us. He would've done it by now if he was strong enough for that, and it's not like we could, or even would try to stop him.”

“It's his body after all,” Piro pointed out. “We're just the current tenants.”

'Attention, passengers,' a voice came over the intercom. 'We will be arriving at Neighagra Falls in five minutes. Departing passengers, please gather your belongings and wait until the train has come to a complete stop at the station.'

Twilight tilted her head from side to side as the announcement ended. She hadn't actually expected she'd get to talk with Horizon, as she was surprised he was even alive in any form at all. A part of her was curious to hear what he had to say, but she doubted she'd get much information out of him that she didn't already know.

“Does Shining know about all of this, by the way?”

“Of course,” Blair said. “He was informed when he was promoted to Captain. He's our commanding officer after all, so it's only right that he should know.”

Twilight flattened her ears. “I think I'll have a little chat with him later...”

“Don't be too hard on him,” Piro said, noting the edge in Twilight's voice. “He's under orders to keep this quiet just like we were.”

“Even though we technically outrank him.” Ace snickered. “Poor Ras, stuck as a Private and can't do anything about it.”

“You're overestimating how much he cares.” Blair tried to hide his smirk. “You forget, Aquarius was shanghaied as it was. To quote him directly, 'As long as I get three square meals and have a warm place to sleep at night, I don't need hooves to count the amount of bucks I give about rank.'”

All three of the Echoes laughed.

Twilight looked out the window, seeing that they were entering the outskirts of the town. “So Shining really did assign you to me?”

Blair nodded. “Under Princess Celestia's recommendation, yes.”

“Why?” Twilight sized him up. “I know you're a Battlemage, but how does that translate to being the prime candidate for training me in using the Element of Magic?”

He sighed and lowered his eyes. “It doesn't.”

“So what, then?” Twilight “Seriously, come on. Turning off that brain thing wasn't hard at all. Is this about my font?”

Piro spoke up. “Partially, but that's more why I convinced you to leave Ponyville. You won't hurt anypony in the rare chance you have a Flare while we're out in the boonies.”

Twilight's eyes turned hard. “I dedicated ten years of my life to learning control so that would never happen again. Does the Princess think so little of me that she had to send you three to foalsit me like I'm some kind of loose cannon? I'm fully aware that with my font the way it is I could wipe everything within a three-mile radius off the map! Why do you think I've tried so hard to keep a lid on it?!”

“And therein lies the problem,” Piro said with an odd note of calm. “You're confusing 'control' with 'repression.' In the former, you master the power. In the latter, the power masters you. The evidence is written all over your face, Twilight—you're afraid of yourself. You know that if you make a single mistake, that if you slip up even once, it'll cause serious damage and maybe even hurt the ponies you know and love. We're trying to give you an environment where you can figure this out so that you don't just keep trying to bottle it up until it explodes.”

Twilight ground her teeth. She didn't want to admit it, but she knew he was right. She'd confided in Piro a few times about her font, so he knew that her trepidation was more like a deep rooted fear she'd been harboring for years. She'd had nightmares, horrible, terrible dreams about losing control, seeing white and then finding herself standing in the center of a smoking crater where Canterlot or Ponyville used to be. Celestia had reassured her constantly that such a thing would never happen, but the dreams still resurged, and each one rekindled the fiery terror in her heart. 'Cutting loose' was something she'd never even considered doing, and even now that Blair, Piro, and Ace were trying to give her the ideal scenario and location do it, she wasn't sure that she could.

The train whistle sounded, signaling the train’s approach to the station. Twilight ignored Piro and continued to address Blair. “Then if that's not the whole reason, what is it? Tell me, Knight-Grandmaster Blair of the Order of the Zodiac, what possible skills or experience do you have that makes you so well qualified? Why were you sent by my brother and my mentor to be with me at all times?”

“Because, Twilight.” Blair folded his hooves as he stared into her vivid lavender eyes. “I'm not the only one with an addiction.”