• 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 21: The Nightmare's Shadow

Chapter 21:

The Nightmare's Shadow

Nine Days Later-

“Yeesh,” Rainbow said with a note of awe. “Twilight wasn't kidding when she said this place was huge.”

Canterlot Castle was known as the Crown Jewel of Equestria for many reasons. Aside from being the home of the Princesses, it was the largest and oldest building in all of Canterlot, the resting place for countless artifacts, relics and archives, the seat of government for the entire country, and a marvel of modern and magical architecture. The Equestrian national flag waved proudly from the tops of the spotless walls, and the golden spires stood tall and proud as they shone in the midday sun. A massive moat and drawbridge guarded the main entrance, where a pair of stern-faced Royal Guards stood in stoic silence as they policed the traffic passing through. Spike, Rainbow, Rarity, Fluttershy, and their six guards walked among the passersby, the three mare’s gazes drawn upward as they beheld the massive castle.

“It's not as bad as it looks.” Tastar watched as a lily pad floated lazily beneath the drawbridge. “The Castle Suites are on the first floor, and the layout's really straightforward. The upper levels are a different story, though I doubt you'll be going up into those.”

“We can probably arrange a tour if you're curious, though,” Megnii said.

The last week and a half had passed without incident. Fluttershy and Rainbow had met up once a day in the Sunken Grove to practice their respective powers, and they'd had no trouble working together thanks to their sisterly bond. Rainbow used her Inspiration and Courage powers to give Fluttershy the motivation to master her powers, and the drive to push past her misgivings. As a result, Fluttershy was not only able to control her Telepathy, she'd also discovered that she could reduce the radius of her Aura of Kindness to only a few feet around her. The downside was that the Aura's effects were more concentrated in the smaller space, but it was still an improvement. Neither of them had managed to use their Stage Three powers yet, although they weren't worried, as there were still two months before the Stasis spell ended.

“A tour would be fantastic!” Rarity said as she admired her reflection in the moat below. “Are there really six ballrooms? Is the sculpture garden as grand as they say it is? Is it true that Princess Celestia keeps the Heavenstone from the Pre-Discordian Era in the Royal Vaults? Ooh, do you think you could get us in to see the Royal Art Collection? They say it has pieces by foreign artists from Antelese to Dromardia!”

Nopony had seen much of Rarity over the last week. The girls dropped by her boutique at random times to check on her, but they'd found her asleep each time. Rainbow had finally caught her awake the previous day, and discovered she'd been feeling under the weather, but was better now. The signs of her improved health were apparent—her coat sported a soft sheen, the locks of her mane and tail bounced with each step, and she looked around excitedly as she chattered away like a giddy schoolfilly. She'd somehow found the time to finish her dresses as well, which were in a special suitcase carried by Elo along with a small mountain of others.

Grovi chuckled as he gathered his thoughts. “Seven, yes, that's only a rumor, and you'd have to ask the Princess herself, as only she can allow admission.”

Rarity pouted her lips. “I suppose I'll have to ask when we speak with her. When do you think we'll be granted an audience?”

“Right away, if there aren't any other petitioners.” Spike was lounging on Fluttershy's back, smiling as he took in the sight of his former home. He'd been told about everything that was going on, and had taken it all in stride. He'd come along at Fluttershy's request, as she felt bad that he'd been left alone at the library while Twilight was away. Her aura didn't seem to be affecting him much, something they attributed to his young age, but also made them suspect Spike wore his heart on his sleeve most of the time.

“I vote for that!” Rainbow waggled her tongue at one stoic-faced guard as she passed. “Answers now, everything else later.”

“You don't even want to drop off our bags?” Rarity asked.

Rainbow glanced once at her own lightly packed saddlebags, then over at Rarity's considerable load of luggage. She raised an eyebrow and looked over at Esra and Tastar.

“You guys mind finding out where we're staying and taking our things there?”

Esra was about to give a typical retort before he was interrupted by Tastar. “There's no reason why we couldn't. We're back in the palace, after all.”

“I haven't gone through years of training just so I could be somepony's butler,” Esra snapped.

“Good thing, too.” Tastar snickered. “You'd look terrible in a tux.”

A mischievous grin formed on Rainbow's face as she glanced back at Fluttershy, who stood in the back of the group with Megnii and Spesci.

“It'd be really kind of you to do that for us,” Rainbow said.

Esra gave a sharp intake of breath as he caught where Rainbow was looking.

“You wouldn't dare.”

“You're right, I wouldn't.” Rainbow took off her saddlebags and tossed them to Tastar. “It'd be hilarious, though.”

A small smile formed on Esra's lips. He and Rainbow had achieved greater camaraderie when continued exposure to Fluttershy's aura had caused them both to loosen up. They'd never be great friends, but they were able to carry on a conversation now, and even lightly teased each other about their shared stubborn tendencies. It wasn't surprising Tastar got along with both of them, as his easygoing attitude was something both of them were drawn to.

Rarity turned to Elo, whose horn was a glowing with a dull orange as he focused on carrying all of her bags. “Would you be all right with that as well? I wouldn't want you to have to stand there holding all of this the entire time.”

Elo grunted in affirmation. “I wouldn't want that, either. Sir Spike knows where the Castle Suites are, so he can show you where to go afterwards.”

“Yep!” Spike chirped from behind them. “Just leave it to me! You okay with that too, Fluttershy?”

“Um, yes. I'd like that,” Fluttershy said. She took off her saddlebags and handed them to Spesci, who was carrying her other bag of luggage. “I just hope she doesn't put us to the front of the line or anything. Everypony that comes to see her has to have a good reason, after all.”

Rainbow snorted as they walked through the portcullis gate. “I hope she does.”

“Patience, darling,” The darkness masked Rarity's features, and nopony saw her pupils turn briefly into slits that shone with a cool silver light. “Patience.”

The air became thick with the heady scent of chrysanthemums as they entered the main courtyard. A long, narrow cobblestone path led straight ahead to a set of carpeted stairs, which ended in a set of double doors forty feet tall that were open wide to allow admittance. Chest-high hedges lined the path, and intricate sculptures of heroes past were dotted pell-mell about the grounds. A large fountain in the center of the courtyard held statues of Princess Celestia and Luna mid-flight as they guided the sun and the moon through the sky.

The group walked through the courtyard and into the castle proper. They now stood in an antechamber with an ornate golden chandelier and dozens of pristine stained glass windows that portrayed images of great moments in pony history. The colored light that filtered through these gave the room a mystical ambience, and the odd silence of the room made the girls feel like they'd entered a dream. The path split into three, and the Echoes went down the leftmost path while Spike motioned them to another, much larger hallway to their right.

“See you in a bit!” Megnii called out with a wave. He disappeared down the corridor with the others.

The floors turned to marble as they continued down the massive hallway. Countless tapestries and pictures adorned the walls, depicting Equestria's scenic vistas, maps of the country, and events of renown. They passed by ponies of all three species, guards in both gold and ebony armor, and even a few non-pony species, the most interesting of which was a quadruped twice their size with wrinkled gray skin, enormous floppy ears, and a long, dextrous trunk out where his nose should be. The creature paid them no mind as he walked past them with fluid grace.

“Was that... an Elafont?” Rainbow whispered soon as they were out of earshot.

“Ambassador Loxo of the Zhevra Flatlands,” Spike confirmed. “I didn't know he was visiting again.”

Fluttershy stood stock still as she watched the ambassador's retreating form. “He's so... so...”

“Alien?” Rarity offered.

Fluttershy hid her face. “Gentle.”

Spike followed her gaze. “He doesn't visit often, and he doesn't speak to anypony other than the Princess. Twilight said it was because of their culture or something, but I forget the exact reason.”

The four of them continued on, and a few minutes later they stood in front of a desk before a large set of stairs. An aged unicorn mare with a puckered face stood at the desk, squinting at a stack of papers before her through a pair of rimmed bifocals.

“Princess Celestia isn't accepting any petitioners today,” the mare said without looking up at them. “You can redirect your queries to—”

“What?!” Rainbow said. “Why not?!”

“She has an appointment with a trio of very important clients,” the mare replied. “They should be arriving any—”

The mare looked up at Rainbow, spotted her mane, glanced down at her cutie mark, then slowly lowered the stack of papers as she ran a hoof down her face.

“Rainbow Dash, I presume.”

“The one and only,” Rainbow Dash replied with a puff of her chest. “Seriously. I checked the census.”

The mare chuckled, but stopped as she spotted Spike sitting on Fluttershy's back. Her eyes narrowed as her tone developed an edge.

“Why didn't you have them check in at the front desk?! You know how things work around here!”

A blush crept up on Spike's cheeks. “Heh, sorry, Notary. Forgot about that...”

Notary sighed, then pulled out a thick scheduling book. “I suppose Twilight never needed to make an appointment.” She scratched out a set of names with her quill and looked up at the three of them with softer eyes. “It's good to see you, Spike. The Princess set aside the entire afternoon for all of you. Go on in.”

They thanked Notary and walked up the stairs, exchanging looks between themselves.

“The entire afternoon?” Fluttershy echoed.

“Guess she really does have an explanation,” Rainbow said with a shrug.

“You see?” Rarity took a moment to adjust her mane as they passed a window. “And you were worried over nothing!”

The three of them came up to the top of the stairs and now saw that the red carpet continued down the hall, along with sets of grooved pillars that stretched up to join the arched ceiling. They walked down half the hall's length before stopping before a set of closed violet doors with a beautiful painting of Celestia and Luna, circling around the planet in perfect harmony.

Rainbow took a deep breath as the four of them stood before the entrance to the throne room. “Hey, Rarity?”

Rarity looked over to Rainbow. “Hmm?”

“One of your powers is Foresight, right?” Rainbow jerked her head at the door. “Have you seen what's going to happen in there?”

Rarity shook her head. “It seems to only show me things that pertain to acts of generosity. I'm sure there's a way to direct what I can see, but I haven't figured out how yet.”

Rainbow clucked her tongue. “Guess we'll just have to find out the old-fashioned way.” She looked back at Fluttershy. “Ready?”

Fluttershy's eyes craned up to the top of the doors, then back down at the shining golden handles. She gulped once before replying in a shaky voice.

“A-As I'll ever be.”

Rainbow knocked, and the doors soundlessly swung open to reveal a haven of immaculate tranquility. The marble floor reflected the noonday light as it filtered through the stained glass windows on both sides, filling the room with prismatic hallowed hues. Deep violet tapestries hung about the walls, and flowers of every conceivable type hung from the pillars along the room in shallow, golden bowls that filled the room with a heavenly scent. The ruby red carpet ended at the golden throne itself, upon which sat Princess Celestia, ageless co-ruler of Equestria, beautiful beyond words and larger than life itself. She was alone, and the reason why became immediately apparent as a potent wave of magic washed over them.

The three of them instantly recoiled as tried to back away, but found that their limbs wouldn't move of their own accord. Instead, they found themselves walking forward, entering the throne room as the doors closing behind them with a thundering boom.

“Welcome, my little ponies.” Celestia's voice was like honey, melting away all inhibitions and trepidations. “I've been expecting you.”

Rainbow tried to shake her head clear, but only made herself dizzy as she looked upon the Princess. Her face, her coat, her mane, her regalia, everything was perfect, otherworldly, exuding an aura of serenity and love. She didn't remember their last encounter being so intense, but remembering anything right now was difficult, as it felt like a gentle, soothing light was shining in her mind that made everything fuzzy.

“U-Um,” Rainbow began. “Your... your Highness, we've come... to talk about... the... Elements...”

Celestia gave them all warm smile. “I know you've many questions, and I'll be happy to answer them all. I owe all of you an enormous debt, and the least I can do is give you a proper explanation for my silence.”

The fuzziness and warmth in their minds grew with Celestia's every word. The three of them were paralyzed, helpless in the grip of the spell, and their bodies actied on their own as they continued to cross the throne room. Rainbow was more resistant, able to continue speaking and lagging behind the others a bit, but even her will was crumbling away.

“Why,” Rainbow managed. “Why didn't... you tell us... about all this... yourself?”

“I couldn't,” Celestia replied softly. “A lot of things happened when you became the avatars of the Elements, some of which put you in great danger. I had to keep you away until I figured out what to do.”

The three of them approached the throne with slack-jawed looks of wonder. No longer was Celestia their ruler, she was their benevolent goddess, sent to nurture, protect and watch over them forever. She was their mother, giver of life to all of ponykind, the very sun incarnate that shone down on them from the heavens on high. Nothing could harm them while in her presence, and they each felt an instinctual urge to nuzzle her legs and snuggle under her wings like yearlings.

Rainbow was still fighting against the magic, but her resolve was weakening by the second. “What... danger?”

“Hush,” Celestia crooned. She rose from her seat, and walked down the golden dais to stand before them. “You don't need to worry about that. All you need to do—”

Celestia's horn flared, and dozens of shining golden chains formed around Rarity. They snaked around her body and tightened with a snap, lifting her up into the air and shoving her into the very center of the throne room.

“—is sleep while I perform an exorcism.”

Rainbow, Fluttershy and Spike finally lost consciousness from Celestia's magic, and a golden aura lifted them up and out of the room by way of a door behind the throne. Celestia flew up to her captive, who made no effort to struggle against the chains. The warmth and benevolence in Celestia's face was gone. No evidence was there of the loving ruler who an instant ago was promising safety and traquility. All that was left was power—pure, raw, and seething, the burning majesty of the sun laid bare as she spoke in a hard, dispassionate voice.

“So, you were in Rarity.”

Cetus smirked, and Rarity's eyes shifted into cat-like slits. “Was it that obvious? And here I thought I was being the perfect little actress.”

Celestia scoffed. “You think that's the first time I've used that spell? You should've been drawn to me like a moth to a flame, and your gaze was wandering all over the room.”

“You always were rather boring to listen to.” Cetus yawned. “I suppose I'll have to try harder to pay attention next time.”

“There won't be a next time.” The chains around Cetus tightened. “You're trapped, and you don't have the jump on me like you did at the Summer Sun Celebration.”

Cetus let loose a grim cackle, a disturbing sound coming from Rarity's voice. “You thought I needed Nightmare Moon's help to defeat you? She's an insect compared to what I've become!”

Celestia's horn glowed in response. A mercurial blob of silver fluid appeared between them, elongating and stretching into a wicked, glowing hook. Cetus' amusement vanished upon seeing the instrument, but she betrayed no indication of worry or fear.

“I'm going to enjoy ripping you out of her,” Celestia promised. “It'll be like a warmup for when I rip the real Nightmare Moon out of Luna. Before I'm done, you're going to wish she'd never stuck your foul essence into the Element of Magic all those years ago.”

Cetus lowered her chin. “Did you think I'd come here without a plan? You thought I'd just strut in here and let you capture me without any protest? My dear, foalish, ignorant Celestia, you're the one who's trapped, and now that I have you're right where I want you, I'm going to take your body for my own!”

The chains imprisoning Cetus shattered, and a wave of darkness erupted from her body that coiled around her like a shroud. She landed lightly on the ground as her horn flared, and there was a loud click that resonated through the throne room.

“You see?!” Cetus gestured to the darkness surrounding her. “Even with all I've done to it, this body can't contain even a fourth of my power, but it's still more than enough to deal with you!”

Celestia paid no heed to the dimensional lock as she cast another spell, a narrow white ray that struck Cetus square in the chest. It rippled across her like waves on a pond before fading away.

Cetus made a derisive noise. “You call that an Antimagic Ray?!” She aimed at Celestia, gathering her own magic as she did. There was a low hum as the air was sucked in around her.

“THIS is an Antimagic Ray!”

A beam twice as wide as a pony erupted from Cetus, speeding toward Celestia with terrifying speed. She tried to dodge, but her flank was grazed by the spell. She winced as she felt her protective wards flicker and die out. The beam phased through the ceiling, but didn't cause physical harm to the building.

Cetus continued her assault, shaping her magic into a horrific sea monster with mismatched eyes and a finned tail. It roared once before flying at Celestia, who'd just landed on the ground. The construct reached out with its wicked talons before being consumed by a wall of blazing fire. Cetus blinked at the sudden heat, and Celestia calmly stepped through the inferno, wielding a shining longsword bathed in white flame.

“Ho, ho, ho!” Cetus wrinkled her brow. “Is that Nova? I haven't seen that in—“

Celestia swung Nova, creating another pillar of flame that sped towards Cetus. She nimbly dodged out of the way, the flames dissipating against the throne room doors. Celestia created pillar after pillar with deft swings of her enchanted blade, the temperature of the room rising as she continued her attacks.

“You might want to be more careful!” Cetus sang as she dodged. “How would you explain Rarity's demise to her family? I don't think Twilight would be very happy to discover that her mentor turned one of her best friends into a charred corpse!”

Celestia said nothing as she pressured Cetus, the glistening silver hook hidden behind her back as she crept closer.

“Just watching you swing that thing around is bring back so many fond memories!” Cetus taunted. “How long has it been since you've taken a life? Years? Decades? Centuries? The war? Do you even it have it in you anymore?”

“I doubt it,” Celestia replied coolly, “but you're not really alive now, are you? You're nothing more than a collection of copied memories, gorged on ill-begotten magic and barely even filling the requisites for self-awareness. I'd be inclined to pity you if the desire to incinerate you wasn't so strong.”

“So bloodthirsty!” Cetus concentrated her dark magic in front of her, causing Nova's flames to dissipate before they struck her. “You weren't this savage when you fought the real Nightmare Moon! Is it because you've realized what I must've done to Rarity to take over her body?”

“Not just that.” Celestia was only twenty feet away now, trying to keep Cetus distracted while she got in range. “I had to keep the Elements sequestered away in the old palace because of you. You killed a dozen researchers, drove an Arch-Magus to insanity, shattered the lives of two innocent colts, almost unleashed hell itself on the world, and made me use the best soldiers I have to keep it at bay. I had to keep the Bearers ignorant for fear that you'd hold them and all of Ponyville hostage, and I hate it when I have to do things like that. All in all, you've been a far greater thorn in my side than Nightmare Moon ever was, and as much hatred as I have for that abomination, it's safe to say that I hate her Echo far, far more.”

A wicked gleam appeared in Cetus's eyes as she watched Celestia approach. “You flatter me, darling. The ruler of Equestria's found time to notice little old me? This is like a dream come true! It must've taken a lot of time and effort to discover all of my efforts... in fact, going through so much has probably left you feeling exhausted!”

A foul mist emanated out from Cetus, hitting Celestia full in the face. Her entire body suddenly felt like it was made of lead, and the silver hook fell to the ground as Celestia fought to stay on her hooves. She kept Nova raised as she counteracted the effects, but Cetus took advantage of the opening, raising her hoof and firing a blueish-white ray. Celestia cried out as the magic lanced through her, stealing away all the warmth of her body and enveloping her in a frozen prison.

Cetus laughed again, relishing Celestia's expression of pain as she was trapped in the ice. She waited a few seconds, waiting for Celestia to break out, but nothing happened. Cetus tapped her hoof on the floor as she fixed her mane, finally speaking out a moment later.

“Stop playing possum. I haven't forgotten about the resilience of alicorns, or their legendary regenerative powers. Are you hoping I'll come close enough for you to use that little hook of yours?”

Celestia blinked, and the ice exploded like glass. Cetus rolled her half-lidded eyes, but then recoiled as Celestia's features faded into painfully bright light.

“Gah!” Cetus staggered back. “Resorting to your old tactics, I see!”

She tried to shield her eyes, but as she did, something sharp swiped through her mane. Cetus shrieked as Celestia's hook impaled itself in her essence, forcefully prying her out and away from Rarity's body.

“NO!”

Cetus’ eyes flashed with silver light, and a spiked dagger appeared out of thin air. She grabbed it and slashed her mane, freeing herself of the effulgent epuration. She staggered back, gasping for breath as she re-secured her hold on Rarity.

Celestia was still shining like the sun as she gritted her teeth and tried again. Cetus was ready this time though, and blasted Celestia back with a wall of force. She landed on the throne, lowering her horn for another spell.

“I think I've had enough.” The darkness around Cetus flickered, and there was a tingling in the air. “As much as I'd like to keep playing with you, I've a schedule to keep.”

Cetus surged forth in a blur, closing the distance to Celestia and shooting her point-blank with a jet-black ray. Celestia screamed as she reared and fell off the throne, writhing and gagging as her skin and blood vessels ruptured at various points on her body, covering her with gore that spread outward to constrict her with a sickening splurch. A short time later, Celestia was held pinned to the ground by her own animated wounds as she convulsed under a many-layered mass of bloody adhesive tissue.

Cetus curled her lip as she watched her spell take hold. “Such a messy spell, but a necessary one. I can't have you moving about while perform such a delicate procedure, after all.”

Celestia gurgled in response. Whatever Cetus had blasted her with was still ravaging her body, and her healing abilities weren't able to keep up with it.

Cetus stepped down from the throne to stand before Celestia. “I suspect you've known what I was planning from the beginning, but your pathetic consideration for Luna and these new Bearers stopped you from taking drastic action. Sending your little Zodiac Knights almost worked, but they didn't know what to look for, and you couldn't tell them as it would've been game over if I'd been inside Fluttershy or Applejack. Your benevolence and laughable fear of being seen as a tyrant is what caused you to lose, and while you played a good game, a creature as soft as you will never stand a chance against the likes of me!”

The tingling in the air rose as the temperature in the room fell. The sun outside disappeared behind a cloud, and the room dimmed to a featureless gray. The silver light in Cetus's draconic eyes slowly seeped out, and her stolen body radiated with shining power as the Element of Generosity fully awakened.

“Did you know Rarity gets a kick out of cruel irony?” Cetus' breath came out in a fine mist as her voice echoed throughout the throne room. “I had to dig deep into her subconscious to unearth that particular nugget. It gave me a positively delicious idea though—one I'm sure she'd appreciate.”

A blood-red cord of ghostly energy appeared in the center of Cetus's chest. It coiled around her once, snapping about like a whip before it hovered above Celestia like a viper about to strike. Celestia knew what Cetus intended, but was too wounded to mount any kind of defense. A dark grin formed on Cetus's face as she struck Celestia with the Soul Tether, their eyes rolling in the back of her heads as they vied for dominance. Ghostly outlines appeared around both of them as the tug of war continued back and forth.

The battle continued for almost a full minute before Celestia finally lost due to her body being continually broken down by Cetus' spell. She screamed, and with a mighty yank, Cetus pulled Celestia's golden lifeforce out of her body to hover in between them. Her body went limp, but her lifeforce was animate as it kicked and squirmed in Cetus's grip.

“Immortality's such a convenient thing, isn't it?” Cetus examined Celestia with an envious eye. “Your body and lifeforce will endure even while being apart, and they'll just get pulled right back together if left to their own devices. I can't have that, so I'm afraid I'm going to have to send you away... permanently.”

The darkness around Cetus thickened, and the stained glass windows in the throne room cracked as the magic in the room increased again. The carpet had long been burnt away, the flowers in the room had withered and died, and thin trickles of blood now fell out of Cetus' nose and eyes as she readied a spell of colossal proportions.

“The reserves I acquired from the Elements are more than enough to do this,” Cetus said as she spat out a globule of blood. “I'm just not sure if this body can take it. It's a chance I'll have to take though, and if Rarity dies, well... I guess I'll have to find a new vessel for Nightmare Moon, now won't I?”

Celestia stopped her squirming as she froze, her eyes widening in horror. She slowly looked down at Cetus, who was beaming with vindictive glee.

“Oh yes,” Cetus said. “I'm not just taking your body because it'll house all my magic. I need all the Bearers alive, and Rarity needs a little help to keep going right now. Problem is, she’s going to wake up sooner or later, and she'll be able to kick me out when she does. My bumbling predecessor is just the patsy I need to keep her under my sway, and without her the other Bearers can't use their little light show on the Gate of Tartarus! Eternal Night is nigh! The Army of Darkness shall remake this world in my image, and I want the knowledge that you've failed in complete and utter totality to be the last thing going through your mind as I give you a taste of your own medicine! I do confess, though, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the matter. So what say you, Tia? Do you have any last words?”​

Celestia's face had turned into a stoic mask. She tried her hardest not to betray any emotion, but even still, the edges of lips twitched, almost as if she was trying her hardest not to smile.

“Well played, Harmony. Well played.”

Cetus cocked her head, but hadn't planned on listening to whatever Celestia had to say, anyways. The air howled around them, and the windows shattered to a million pieces as they finally gave into the immense magical pressure. Celestia's lifeforce coalesced into a sphere, and the last thing she heard was Cetus' maniacal laughter as her vision faded to white.

“Farewell, Princess Celestia!”

Celestia's lifeforce rocketed out of Canterlot Castle with a sound like cannonfire as Cetus completed the spell. It sailed out of the atmosphere in seconds, blasting away from the planet itself and disappearing from the sight of all.

“Urgh.”

Rainbow awoke to her cheek resting on cold, smooth stone. Her body was sore like she'd been tossed around in a windstorm, and her head was spinning like a top. She hadn't felt like this since Applejack's twenty-first birthday party, and wasn't eager to repeat the experience. Groaning, Rainbow gingerly sat up and she opened her eyes.

Rainbow's tomcoltish nature didn't stop her from recognizing that she was in a powder room, albeit a rather large and fancy one. A long counter made of quartz stood to the side with expensive vanity and hygiene products, along with a lavatory and a full length mirror. There were two doorways leading out of the room, one of which had noises and moving shadows coming from outside.

What had happened? The last thing she remembered was standing before Princess Celestia, who'd looked like a super-powerful mother-goddess... thing, and she'd told them they were in danger? It was hard to remember. Then there was a sound like the rustling of chains, and everything had gone black.

Rainbow suddenly realized she wasn't alone. Fluttershy was snoring softly as she lay completely splayed out on the floor, and Spike was curled into a ball as he used one of Fluttershy's wings like a blanket.

“Hey!” Rainbow winced as her own voice sounded unnaturally loud. “Wake up! Now's not the time for snoozing!”

Fluttershy cracked open an eye, then moaned as she hid her face behind her mane.

“Why does it feel like I've been drinking lilac wine,” she murmured. “I haven't had any since Hearth's Warming!”

“I think the Princess did something to us,” Rainbow replied, trying not to raise her voice. “Not sure how we got in here, though.”

Spike said nothing, shuffling closer to Fluttershy as he hid his head closer under her wing. Rainbow felt a twinge of sympathy for him, as she realized he was experiencing what was akin to his first hangover.

“Where's 'here'?” Fluttershy asked as she slowly massaged her temples. “And what was all that noise?”

Rainbow turned to the door. It'd sounded like there was a tornado on the other side, but now it had gone strangely quiet. She unsteadily made her way to the door and pressed her ear to it. With her currently sensitive hearing, she was able to make out a scraping sound like something heavy being dragged, then a swishing like the spreading of a tablecloth.

“What the...” Rainbow opened the door, and her jaw dropped as she beheld the ruined throne room. The windows were shattered, glass was everywhere, and the air smelled like a mix of burning fabric and chlorine. Cetus stood alone in the throne room as she looked up at the sun in the sky, still enveloped in darkness as tears of blood wept out from her shining eyes.

Rainbow's chest tightened as she beheld Cetus, and her voice cracked as she stammered out her inquiry.

“R-Rarity?”

Cetus slowly turned to look at Rainbow, eying her with disinterest. However, her eyebrows raised upon seeing the room beyond. She spoke in a dark, chilling voice that echoed with power.

“Is that a powder room?”

Rainbow's woozy mind did a somersault as it tried to process the query. She put a hoof on the wall to steadily herself, and managed a small nod.

“Oh, good.” The darkness around Cetus vanished, and the light left her eyes as she walked forward. “I daresay I could stand to freshen up.”

Cetus walked right passed Rainbow and into the powder room, paying no one any mind as she turned on one of the faucets and began to calmly clean herself. Rainbow's knees were weak as she looked once at the ravaged throne room, then back at Cetus.

“Rarity,” Rainbow said, “W-Why're you covered in b-blood?”

Cetus made a short laugh out her nose, but then gasped as she saw her ruined mane in the mirror. She stamped a hoof on the floor as she examined the damage.

“Would you look at what she made me do! This'll take months to grow back out, and short manes are NOT going to be in style this winter!”

“Rarity?!” Fluttershy squeaked as she edged away from her. “W-What's wrong with your eyes?”

Cetus ignored the question as she patted herself dry with a towel, watching the blood swirl down the drain. She grabbed a bottle of styling gel, but then reconsidered.

“I suppose I'll have to settle for looking less than astounding for now,” Cetus muttered. She gave her ruined mane one last perfunctory glance before turning her attention to Rainbow, Fluttershy and Spike.

“Tempting, but I doubt there's time. Although maybe—”

Cetus stiffened as her horn flickered. A sly smile appeared on her face as she turned and looked out the door.

“Perhaps I shouldn't whet my appetite so soon. After all, I've got much bigger fish to fry.” There was a ripping sound as Cetus dispelled the dimensional lock.

“Rarity, what happened to you?!” Rainbow demanded. “What's going on?! Where's Princess Celestia?”

Cetus winked in reply. She vanished with a crack and a flash, leaving the three of them behind.

“That's the last of it,” Grovi said as he helped Elo carry the last of Rarity's suitcases into her circular guest room. A plush, white rug covered the floor, a simple chandelier hung from the ceiling, and a large, four-poster bed with magenta curtains stood by the wall.

“Phew,” Elo said as he wiped his brow. “I'm glad you talked her into cutting down on how much she brought.”

“You'd think she was moving her entire boutique up here,” Grovi mused. The pile of luggage took up an entire quarter of the room. “Does she really need all of this for just a week?”

“Who knows,” Elo said with a shrug. “I haven't paid attention to—”

The two of them were interrupted as a tingling sensation shot up their horns from the gathering of a massive spell.

Elo flinched, then turned to Grovi. “What was that?

Grovi closed his eyes, searching for over a minute before he finally spoke. “It's a Banishment spell, but there's something else woven into it, something I haven't felt since—”

He fell on his haunches. Few others would recognize something so well hidden among the intricacies of the spell, but thirty years of magical study had given him an eye for detail. It also helped that he remembered the last time this magic was used, although that'd been with a slight deviation. He really, really didn't want to be right, but if he was, then Princess Celestia...

Elo stared at his friend. “What is it? What's happened?!”

Grovi clenched his teeth. “I think—”

“Elo! Grovi!”

Megnii and Tastar appeared at the entrance of the room with their weapons strapped to their backs. “There's been an explosion in the throne room!”

Elo's eyes widened. One of his suitcases flew open as he retrieved his rapier. “Go get the others! I'll head there now!”

“I'll come with you,” Grovi said, getting back to his hooves.

“No,” Elo said. “There's a chance Rarity or one of the others could come looking for us, and you're better off staying out of sight. You should stay and channel your spells from here.”

Grovi pursed his lips, but nodded. He placed his usual enchantments on their blades before watching them run out the door.

The minutes ticked by in silence as Grovi focused on his spell. He'd never been a fan of sitting back and supporting the rest of them like this, but his spells had saved all of them countless times, and none of them thought any less of him for it. He'd never been much of a fighter anyway, and while it was possible that Rarity or one of the others could come to the suites looking for them, it was highly doubtf—

“Grovi!”

Rarity staggered into the room, her expression downcast as she fell to her knees. “Thank Celestia I found you!”

“Rarity?!” Grovi blinked several times before rushing over to her. “Are you all right?”

Cetus looked up, revealing her reptilian eyes.

“Just fine.”

The door slammed shut, and Cetus's dark aura lifted Grovi up into the air, covering his horn and wrapping around his throat. His enchantment spell faded away as his magic was cut off. He could still breathe, but found he couldn't talk as he there was a numbness around into his vocal chords.

“That was too easy.” Cetus dusted herself off as she got to her hooves. “I suppose it would've been asking too much for you to put up a fight. Not that I'm surprised, you did tell me that Virgo lost every contest or argument he ever had with Crystal Song.”

Grovi's hindlegs kicked at the air as he tried to free himself, but he may as well have been trying to stop the planet from spinning. He stared at Cetus with increasing shock as he put the pieces together.

“You consider yourself to be a scholar, yes?” Cetus circled around Grovi like a shark sizing up its prey. “I'd like to test a theory of sorts, and I require the unique abilities of one such as yourself. As I understand it, we Echoes feed on magic, and can store a significant amount of it away for later use. We can reside in any receptacle of magic, be it a living being or a magical item, but an Echo is neither of these. So... what happens when an Echo tries to possess another Echo?”

Grovi's attempts to free himself became more and more frenzied as the panic sank in. He tried to cry out, to cast magic, to do something, but all his attempts proved fruitless.

“My theory is that a power struggle will ensue.” Cetus stopped her circling, and reached up to gently caress the side of Grovi's face. “The result of which being that the weaker Echo will be absorbed—no, devoured by the stronger. All of the knowledge, experiences and talents of the two are merged, and the dominant personality emerges as the stronger entity.”

Beads of sweat were forming on Grovi's brow. His heart was hammering as he flailed about, fighting his hardest to escape, but all he did was tire himself out.

Cetus laughed, then increased her hold to paralyze him completely. She drew closer to him, their faces now just inches apart as he looked into her cruel, cold eyes. Cetus smiled, and Grovi watched in horror as her incisors elongated into a pair of sharp, glittering fangs.

“Do you think you can beat me?” Cetus whispered. “Can you overpower the Echo of your ancient foe? I, who have stolen the power of the Elements of Harmony for my own, taken control of one the Bearers, defeated Celestia herself, and now stand at the precipice of godhood so that I may bring about Eternal Night?! TELL ME, LITTLE ECHO, DO YOU THINK YOU HAVE IT IN YOU?!”

Grovi gulped.

“Yeah,” Cetus said. “Me neither.”

The darkness crept out again from Cetus, wrapping both her and Grovi together in a seamless cocoon. She closed the distance between them, and their lips met as she pulled him into a deep, forceful kiss. Grovi valiantly tried to fight back, but he was completely overwhelmed by the will of the dominant Echo. Cetus pulled away to look at Grovi through half-lidded eyes, only to let loose a predatory hiss as she sank her fangs deep into his neck. She tasted his blood along with his essence, and now that it was hers to take, she ripped him out of Horizon through the transdimensional anchor in his chest. A gray outline separated from Grovi to merge with Cetus, and he let out one final, agonizing wail as his body shuddered, lost cohesion, and dissolved into dust.

Cetus had a moment of disorientation as their personalities merged, Grovi's knowledge, memories and mannerisms joining with her own, the majority of which being repressed as Cetus's traits rose forth. The two of them were now one a short while later, and Cetus released the cocoon, the only thing left of Grovi being the small golden sphere that had connected him to Horizon. It fell to the ground with a thud, glinting softly in the light of the chandelier above.

Cetus opened her eyes and checked herself. It seemed that her theory had been correct. Not only did she still feel like herself, but she had all the experiences and talents of Grovi, and the past memories of Virgo. She now knew the complete layout of the palace, had an intimate understanding of enchantment spells, and... to her irritation, a Manehatten accent. Fortunately, she also knew how to hide it, and she smiled to herself as she sifted through the new memories for a particular piece of information.

Cetus had one more task to complete before she could claim her prize, and she knew she had to move fast. She could already hear guards shouting as they ran past her door, and it wouldn't be long before she'd lose her chance.

“Time for a little reunion,” Cetus said. She teleported away with a crack.

“I already told you, I don't remember!”

Rainbow was sitting on a bed in the infirmary with Fluttershy as they were examined by a gaggle of fussy doctors and stuffy Magi. Spike had passed out again, and the doctors had taken him to a separate room to be examined, saying something about 'feedback from the Princess's font.' The doctors and magi were now grilling Rainbow and Fluttershy, which was understandable considering they were the only ones who might have knowledge of the Princess's whereabouts, but Rainbow wasn't handling the situation well.

A short, bright orange unicorn mare with a stubby horn spoke in an infuriatingly calm manner as she asked Rainbow the same question she'd already asked five times.

“So you went into the throne room, spoke to Princess Celestia, there was a sound like chains, and then...”

The Element of Loyalty flared as Rainbow finally snapped, the temperature rising around her as her pupils filled with light.

“Argh! The more time you waste fussing over us, the less likely we're gonna figure out where the Princess is! Why're you wasting so much time? You want to find her, don't you?!”

The Magus flinched as she was caught in Rainbow's stare. She straightened to her full height, coming up to Rainbow's chin as she replied in an emphatic tone.

“Of course I do, but there's a very strong chance that something's modified your memories! We have to be completely sure that your minds haven't been tampered with, or we could miss something that could lead to us finding the Princess!”

Rainbow.

Rainbow jerked, and looked over at Fluttershy, whose eyes were glowing with a gentle pink light. Her mental voice was like a lullaby that played through her mind.

These ponies know things we don't understand, and they've been trained to deal with situations like this. They're worried about us, and there are hundreds of guards looking for Celestia as we speak. There's not much we could do that's not being done already.

Rainbow bit her lip as the words hit home. She looked at the unicorn in front of her, then back at Fluttershy, who was getting strange looks from the doctors around her.

Getting a little more comfortable reading other ponies minds, eh?

Fluttershy giggled. More like your Courage power has a wide radius.

Rainbow calmed down and let the Magus do her work, continuing her silent conversation with Fluttershy. Can you feel the Princess anywhere?

Fluttershy took a moment to reply, as she was answering questions about why her eyes were glowing. I don't know what her mind feels like, although it shouldn't be hard to pick her out amongst everypony else. She's either unconscious, or not in the castle anymore.

What about Rarity? Rainbow held out a hoof as a new doctor checked her pulse. Can you feel her anywhere?

Fluttershy hesitated. I-I...

Rainbow stopped and looked over at Fluttershy. What's wrong?

Fluttershy shivered. I don't think that was Rarity.

“You're all right!”

They looked up to see all of their guards, save for Grovi. The five of them occupied what little room there was left, and the doctors began to voice indignant protests at the intrusion before Elo silenced them with the word 'bodyguards'.

Rainbow rolled her eyes. “I suppose you've heard what happened.”

Elo looked all around, noticing that the room was missing an occupant. “Where's Rarity?”

Rainbow slumped as she looked down at her bed, speaking in a soft murmur. “I'm not sure.”

“Not sure?” Elo repeated. “What do you—”

All five of the Echoes yelled out at once, falling to their knees and clutching their heads. Their outlines flickered, and everypony in the room caught a glimpse of their true forms. The doctors panicked and ran out of the room, and the Magi gasped as they realized what the guards really were.

“Echoes!” One of the Magi hissed. He lowered his horn, and the air shimmered as all five of them became enveloped in a bright green cage of pure force.

“Hey!” Rainbow jumped off the bed, but wobbled as her wooziness returned. She sat back down, trying to keep her lunch in one place.

“Um, mister Magus, sir?” Fluttershy called out to the offending unicorn. “Those guards are our friends. You don't need to imprison them like that.”

The unicorn turned to her, and his expression immediately softened. “You don't understand what these things are, madam. They're—“

“—our friends,” Fluttershy insisted, looking the unicorn dead in the eye, then at all the other tentative Magi. “The Princess made them, and they're not bad ponies.”

The unicorn's gaze shifted between back and forth between Fluttershy and the Echoes. Finally, he nodded, and released his spell.

“Grovi....” Elo managed as he got to his hooves. “No...”

“Don't do anything rash, Elo!” Esra said, still rubbing his head. “We don't know what's going on!”

“What happened?” Rainbow asked.

Tastar turned to her, his eyes and expression somber. “Grovi's... gone.”

Fluttershy's hoof flew to her mouth.

“What do you mean, gone?” Rainbow demanded. “You mean he's not in the castle?”

“He means he's not bonded to Horizon anymore.” Elo got to his hooves and made his way for the door. “I need to go—”

Esra stepped in front of him, barring his way out of the room. “You're not going anywhere. You know as well as I what forcibly removed from Horizon means!”

A dark look appeared in Elo's eyes. “Get out of my way, Esra.”

“Separating is the worst thing we can do right now.” Megnii slowly approached Elo from the side. “I know it's hard, but it's going to be harder to maintain the stability of the barrier if we lose you t—“

“SHUT UP!” Elo whirled on him, his blade halfway out of his sheath. “So help me Megnii, say another word and I'll run you through!”

“Killing Megnii won't bring Grovi back,” Tastar said quietly from behind Elo. “Not that any of us are alive to begin with.”

Elo screamed and drew his rapier to swing at Tastar, but as he did, Esra chopped him in the back of the neck.

Elo's eyes dimmed. “Grovi...” He fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes, his rapier clattering to the ground beside him.

Rainbow stood open-mouthed as she watched the scene unfold.

“Whoa...”

“Don't hold it against him,” Tastar said, motioning to Elo. “Ponies get irrational when they lose someone close to them.”

Fluttershy's eyes were watering as she tried to hold back her sobs. “What's g-going to happen n-now?”

Esra looked up at her. “Princess Celestia was in the process of introducing Princess Luna back into authority and reverting the kingdom back into a diarchy. She wasn't doing much yet, but Luna still holds the title of Princess, and by all rights is a ruler of Equestria. With Celestia gone, all executive decisions will now made by her.”

“Wait,” Rainbow said. “Princess Luna's in charge of the entire country now?! Is she even up for that yet?”

“Probably not,” Esra admitted. “Not like she has much of a choice, though.”

“We should go to her,” Rainbow said. “She might be in danger! Whatever it was that got Celestia might go for her next!”

Rainbow decided not to voice her suspicions that 'it' might be involved with Rarity somehow.

“She's in better hooves than you think,” Spesci said.

They all turned to him. “Why do you say that?” Tastar asked.

“I heard some guards shouting as we ran past.” A faint smile played on Spesci's lips. “Captain Shining Armor is with her.”