• Published 24th Jul 2012
  • 3,762 Views, 145 Comments

Darkened Shores - Silver Flare

An adventure that takes the Mane 6 around the world to face the what destroyed the alicorn homeland.

  • ...

25: Into the Fire

The world went away for a little bit, and Twilight felt an odd sensation, as though she wasn't alone inside her own head. As strange as her week had been, Twilight really thought she should have been getting used to the feeling.

What do you cherish most? She thought she heard. Her mind drifted gently back to the life she'd lived. The family she missed more than she'd ever said out loud. But mostly she thought about the friends she'd made. Spike and Dash and AJ and Pinkie and Rarity and Fluttershy. Those faces honestly meant everything to her.

Twilight felt something shift, as though the world had fallen out from under her.

Then she plunged into cold water. Twilight surfaced, stifling a scream. The fire had returned in her chest as the salt water made every exposed nerve in her wound burn and sting horribly. She flung her mane out of her eyes and looked for something to pull herself onto. There was something floating in front of her so Twilight put her hooves on it before noticing that it was Celestia's limp body and she yelped and fell backwards with a little splash.

Twilight began to cry then, a small and undignified set of sobs that had as much to do with shock and physical pain and helplessness as it did with sorrow. Twilight felt another sensation though, deeper than the exquisite pain of her injury. Twilight felt a thrumming core of raw power. Celestia's power. She had somehow passed on her immortal strength to her student, and Twilight could not find the beginning nor the end of her grief. It was far, far too large. So she just tried her best to hold Celestia's head above water, but with her own movements and the red haze of pain across her vision and her sobbing, Twilight couldn't tell if her mentor was breathing or not.

Then Teryn appeared, hovering above the ocean and glaring down his muzzle at her. He was clearly surprised and displeased to find her still alive. As Twilight gasped and cried and tried to tread water as best she could while cradling Celestia's head protectively in her arms, she also just stared at the black tendril of energy that congealed out of thin air and stretched towards her.

In haste, Twilight put up a thick shield, the power flowing through her horn. But the oily-looking tendril simply laid itself across part of the violet dome and squeezed, cracking the shield easily and then oozing through the opening it had made. Twilight hoped that the end would be swift, but really she was in too much pain to care one way or another. She almost felt disappointed when the dark coil stopped an inch from her nose, and the god of death turned to look across the water.

A silent ring of rainbow colors expanded upwards from a point in the west, and a small, blue speck on the horizon resolved itself into the form of a pegasus. Rainbow Dash sped just above the water with dizzying speed, closing the distance between herself and the dark creature threatening Twilight with the red jewel at her throat aglow. The wake of her passing kicked up an impressive white spume of water that arced high into the air behind her.

Teryn frowned and lifted a hoof towards Twilight's friend. No! Not her, me! KILL ME!!! Twilight tried to gasp out a challenge, but she couldn't possibly have yelled loudly enough to make a difference. She gathered energy for a spell instead, but she noticed a faint shimmer in the air behind Teryn's head and it broke her concentration. It looked a little bit like the distortion caused by a veil.

As Rainbow Dash, her face twisted into a snarl, arrowed towards the dark alicorn, a changeling appeared out of thin air just behind Teryn holding a small stone knife which it plunged between the creature's shoulder blades. Teryn reared back in pain, and just at that moment Dash extended her front hooves and hit Teryn in the chest with a resounding crunch and all three of them were gone. Twilight turned to look in time to see all three of them impact the shore. Dash! Without a second thought, she teleported herself and the body of her mentor in that direction.

They appeared on the sand, and Twilight felt a moment of surprise at how easy the spell had been to cast. She was used to working hard and exerting herself to get anything done magically, and the lack of strain put her a bit off-balance. For that matter, shouldn't I be dead? She wondered frantically. Maybe it was Celestia's immortal power urging her heart on when it should have stopped. And why isn't she moving?!?

For a helpless moment, Twilight just tried in vain to arrange Celestia's limbs into something more comfortable. But the alicorn refused to help. She wouldn't even breathe for herself. Twilight's eyes misted over in frustration. But when she spotted movement out of the corner of her eye, she turned and flung herself away from her own helplessness. The dark alicorn, the changeling and Dash were lying in the sand and she stumbled towards them, unsure who she was more frantic and powerless to help. She stumbled badly, and fell. Okay. Twilight conceded to herself. Maybe I'm off-balance from blood loss, or something.

Twilight's vision blurred again, and when it cleared Teryn was back in the air, snapping the stone dagger in half with his hooves. He threw the pieces into the sand and made a clawing gesture towards the pegasus and the changeling. They were still dazed, and at Teryn's gesture the twining shadows of the cursed land began to creep out onto the sand, reaching for the pair.

There was no time. And the Element of Magic had been destroyed. But, just like in the hive forever ago, Twilight reached out with her senses anyways, hoping against hope to link the distant Elements of Harmony together.

Once again, it was easy. Easier than it should have been. Celestia had been trying to tell her this all along, hadn't she? She didn't need the crown she'd worn for so long. Perhaps she never did. The Element of Magic was a part of her, and she lived and breathed it through every fiber of her being. The light from Twilight's horn condensed itself into a shimmering amethyst star, and when she blinked, her eyes became flat disks of light.

The Elements had been reunited. Despite the Vigil's distance, she felt as though all of her friends were there by her side. No, they were actually there, physically, hovering next to her in perfect formation. She felt their sorrow, their love, their support and the strength they shared with one another. They eased her pain, refusing to let her shoulder it all alone. Far more impressively, Twilight let them. She leaned upon her friends and trusted them to bear her up, like she should have from the beginning. With a thought, Fluttershy took a portion of the power they shared and threaded it through the six of them, restoring their physical selves. The small hole in Twilight's chest closed, and between one heartbeat and the next she was whole, her pulse steady once again.

Surrounded by her friends Twilight lifted into the air, her form shedding every known color of light. There was no elation this time. Too much had been lost, sacrificed on this mad journey to confront the disease spread across this side of the world. It was with a heavy heart that Twilight unleashed their power, surrounding the insane alicorn with a tidal wave of energy. He was too dangerous to allow him freedom. Perhaps, encased in stone, he would be unable to harm another soul ever again.

But something was wrong. Something was off. An unfamiliar feeling of resistance interrupted Twilight's thoughts. Darkness gathered, and with a deep cry that shook the shore from one horizon to the other, Teryn shattered Twilight's spell before it could take hold. Harmonic energy exploded outward, flooding her senses with a haze of white noise. When the magic had dispersed, Twilight was shocked to find her opponent hovering before her, the air around him crackling with dark energy. Enough dark energy to resist the combined might of the Elements of Harmony, it would seem.

Of course. Twilight could see it all, as clear as words on a page. The shadows of these cursed lands were alive; not self-aware, no, but certainly alive. They were living embodiments of old rage, loss, despite, bitterness and scorn. And it was old, ancient beyond knowing. Old enough to make the ocean and the sky and the bedrock deep below seem positively young. Of course this was the well where Teryn's seemingly boundless magic sprang from. The entire corrupted continent was fuel for his dark energy.

Now the six of them had the power to cleanse it. They could grasp the magical ties which bound the darkness to the rocks and plants and creatures of this land, and they could sever them. These six ponies understood health and harmony, and they could use that understanding to root out the corruption dwelling here and wash it away in a cascade of light. With the Elements by her side, Twilight reached towards the Darkness.

Teryn mirrored the gesture and the fabric of existence twisted a little, preventing Twilight from touching the seething mass of shadows. Then the sky darkened as he called down a beam of light, focusing the sun's might entirely upon the purple unicorn. Despite the power coursing through her, Twilight's fur began to singe. So, with another thought, Twilight reached for the water at her side, levitating a massive blob of cold ocean towards herself. She plunged into the perfectly-shaped orb, cooling herself as she used the water to bend and refract the light towards her enemy. Instantly, smoke began to rise from his form, and the skies lightened as he stopped his attack.

This had to end now. Twilight unleashed a direct attack, hoping to force her way past Teryn's defenses to undo the corruption in his soul. He met the might of the Elements squarely with his own power, unafraid to pit himself against the river of magic arcing towards him. For a moment, the conflict scoured sand from the beach and vaporized the very air as the two powers met. But the impasse did not last long. The boiling darkness overtook the rainbow of light and six ponies were struck to the ground.

The connection between the Elements severed and their power vanished, leaving Twilight collapsed upon hot, uneven bedrock. Ocean water steamed a little as it swirled up around her hooves and drained away. Emptiness replaced the connection she'd shared with her friends, leaving her feeling hollow and abandoned. The Elements. . . They failed. . . As the dark immortal hovered into view, Twilight involuntarily tried to scramble backward, getting nowhere.

His mouth opened. “You are dangerous in your way.” He said, his voice muffled and distant. Was that a complement? “Trust me. I can give you a better death than the one which awaits us all.” He lifted his hoof towards her, a gesture which might have been an offer of aid from anyone else.

Twilight plucked at the fur around her neck, holding up a small silver trinket in her hoof like an offering. It was a small wrench, amateur jewelry made with love for a unicorn who was now buried on an island along desolate shores. A trinket Twilight had stolen while overcome with the need to understand the death she still felt somehow responsible for. And she held it up before this avatar of the void like an accusation, a symbol for everything she had lost on this journey.

A trinket made from a shard of turbine blade which even now rested at the bottom of the sea. And Twilight had been mentally preparing her spell since the moment the Elements had failed. When a small, perfect disk of energy appeared over the necklace, she was once again surprised by the ease with which the magic came to her. As jagged black bolts of lightning shot down Teryn's fetlock, he snarled in rage as he grasped too late Twilight's final ploy. His energy struck her spell, tearing open a portal to the depths of the ocean.

Twilight had been scientifically aware of the change in pressure associated with water depth, but she was entirely ignorant of just how deep the unexplored sea was. From Twilight's portal erupted a geyser so violent it seemed itself a cataclysm. A white column of force replaced the hovering alicorn, the water spuming instantly to spray and mist around the edges. Teryn had, surprisingly, held for a moment against the incredible force, but the moving water eroded his hold on his magic and flung him far into the blackness of the land beyond the shore.

Even behind the portal, Twilight felt like she was breathing straight seawater. The instant mist soaked her tail to crest, and the roar drowned out all other possible sounds. But she didn't dare close the gate yet. Teryn was too strong. He would return in moments and finish them all. Harmony had failed, and Twilight knew nothing stronger in all the world. Her little trick with the portal had only bought her time.

Then it began to dawn upon her, the knowledge of what she must do slowly washing over her gasping, shivering body, adding to her chills. She glanced guiltily at her five friends, still sprawled along the beach behind her. She wondered what they would say if they could read her mind now. Princess Luna's advice or warning echoed back through her thoughts. ”Our sister, she blamed the Darkness for our dalliance with the essence of nightmare. She. . . she is yet mistaken on that score.” Of course. There was a much greater source of power right at her hooves, and the doorway to it had been deep inside her all along.

There was no external corruption involved. Luna's descent a thousand years ago had only required that she give in to her darker emotions. No wonder Princess Celestia had worked so hard to preserve her student from facing this eventual truth. But the potential cost stole her breath further, leaving her gasping on her knees. If Twilight gave in to the darkness inside her, even if she could prevail. . . might her friends have to stand against her one day?

It doesn't matter. She realized. I would die for my friends. And I guess that means I would give up my soul for them too.

Twilight took a moment to relax her mind, to lower the defenses she'd put up inside herself so long ago she'd forgotten they were there. From the moment she'd earned her cutie mark by losing control of her magic and nearly killing everyone in the room with her, including her parents, Twilight had been terrified of herself. Her obsession with study and her compulsory attention to details was easily understood. But for this moment, she let that go. She let everything go.

Twilight searched within herself for a mote of rage. She didn't have to look far. She found a wellspring of righteous anger alongside rivers of grief and loss. And beneath that she found bitterness. And beneath that? Ah, there it is.


Twilight's brow furrowed, and darkness began to coalesce in her eyes. Without an ounce of reservation, she walked up to the shifting, hungry shadows crowding against the shore and stepped into them.

Space distorted, twisting and untwisting and producing the form of a drenched earth-toned alicorn. He looked around calmly, studying the stretch of beach before him. The gate and its massive jet of water was a little distracting, so he clawed the portal out of existence with a curt gesture. As the roar died and the last drops of ocean settled, Teryn took in the swath of land which had been scrubbed clean of his master's curse. Scrubbed clean and now speckled with a variety of strange sea creatures, some wriggling and gasping, others already dead.

He frowned. This was a negligible speck taken from the power base he drew from, but it was still unacceptable. Celestia's little filly had proven more resourceful than he'd anticipated. More resourceful than she had been, certainly. He scanned the world before him, but he could no longer sense Twilight Sparkle.

Over there was the cluster of unconscious ponies who wielded the Elements, but they were scarcely a real threat even when they were alert. Then there was the pesky changeling, cowering now behind a flimsy veil. It was injured, and, knowing what to look for, Teryn wouldn't be fooled again. The smudge of its weak magic was easy to spot now. This was clearly Chrysalis's play. He'd been expecting better from her, actually. Such a disappointment.

But the unicorn. The purple one. Where had she gone? He couldn't taste her magic anywhere. Perhaps she fled for her life. Teryn smiled a little. It wouldn't be like one of his sister's pupils to exercise such prudence and wisdom.

Considering wisdom and the severe lack of it, Teryn pondered the whirring craft his sisters had traveled on. It was, even now, limping its way through the air towards the shore, as though it sought to rescue whomever was left. This was good. Little Twilight was not using it to try and escape after all. Perhaps she was attempting to pilot the airship into him, hoping to kill him that way. That would be amusing.

Instead of killing anyone, he walked over to his sister's body to ponder her passing for a moment. He studied Celestia's broken form, her white coat damp and speckled with sand. Her mane and tail no longer flowing on ethereal breezes, it appeared as simple strands of pastel hair. It was a look that suited her so much better than the royal princess thing she had going on for so long.

Death also suited her, he thought. This restful state was so much more preferable to the icon of righteousness she'd tried so hard to become. Using her immortality and power to conquer a nation of ponies, and then brainwashing and molding them into parodies of themselves, unable to act out of perfectly normal emotions like anger and jealousy and pain? Her idea of harmony was a sham, and it was finally at an end. Not that it would matter in a few weeks.

He would spend more time pondering her death later. There were other lives to end. He blinked through space towards the discarded ponies, appearing next to the white one. The only other unicorn in their little group. He lifted her up into the air by her horn, allowing her to dangle uselessly from his grip. She blinked awake, moaning dazedly as her eyes tried to focus. He reached for the gem at her throat.

“I will tear you apart.”

Twilight's voice, menacing but soft, only stopped his hoof because it was unexpected. He hadn't felt her approach. Turning, he regarded the source of the sound. Standing within the edge of the curse was a black mare, tendrils of shadow curling lovingly about her form. Her long, purple mane wafted gently, evoking the beautiful colors that bear witness to the death of each day. The air about her buzzed with power, and the ground deformed at her hooves.

Teryn was late to realize his mistake. He had counted on being connected to the Darkness, that he might draw his power from it. He'd only suspected his sister Luna of having the courage to touch this kind of magic, and she had eventually fled from its seductive embrace in fear for her soul. And now Celestia's innocent little protege. . .

It mattered little now. Teryn dropped the white unicorn unceremoniously to the beach and sized up the distance between himself and the land, wondering how swiftly he could tap back into its power.

Rarity felt weak. She hardly had the strength to cry out at the beastly alicorn who had been menacing her friends. Which was a legitimate tragedy, as Rarity prided herself in having a singular and convincing distress scream. Several of them, actually. And this seemed the perfect opportunity to debut her latest, if she could simply draw an adequate breath.

Yet the brute was no longer even looking at her. She followed his gaze inland and. . . Oh. Oh my, no. Is. . . is that Nightmare Moon? A truly dramatic scream was more than called for, if she could just find her voice. What was their old foe doing here, so far from Equestria? And she appeared smaller than rarity remembered, not that her memories of that harried night were without flaw, but. . .

Before Rarity could register the movement, the two horrible creatures had clashed right before her, trading blows both magical and physical not three paces from where she sprawled. Ringing impacts filled her ears and detonations played havoc with her poor mane. Rarity scrabbled backwards through the sand, finding the first body she came across and shaking it. “Applejack,” She rasped, her throat clearly suffering some sort of malfunction. Not that it mattered. She wouldn't even be able to hear herself over the sounds of combat. She stilled her breathing and drew in a proper breath for a simply bloodcurdling shriek.

Bodies stirred around her, but Rarity had gone quite still. Between flashes of utter darkness and flecks of light like horrible fireworks, she had caught a glimpse of fiercely intelligent violet eyes. And there, an achingly familiar cutie mark. . . .Twilight?

Her scream died in her throat.

For Twilight, the sensation of power was incredible. Indescribable. It was absolutely liberating; the simultaneous freedom from the emotional restraints she'd forced herself to labor under her whole life, coupled with the fulfillment of her life's work to be effective, to be capable of great things. Here, on this side of the world, simply giving in to the rage and pain she'd been suffering under for so long made her unstoppable. It was a visceral thrill that charged every corner of Twilight's body with a primal ecstasy.

Finally, she had the strength to make her choices really matter. Finally, she had the strength to stand against those who might hurt her and take away those she loved. Celestia had been afraid of this power, and maybe she was right to be. Twilight knew she would never truly be the same again. This much magic, this much freedom, was instantly addicting. No more fear. No more hesitation. No more worry that she couldn't defend those she loved. No more suffering for those who didn't deserve it.

And she would be able to bring that suffering where it was deserved.

Twilight moved like lightning and struck like a wrecking ball. Had the ancient alicorn been left with the opportunity to conjoin once again with the Dark, their battle might have been long and glorious. As it was, Twilight felt cheated. She had armed herself for war and found herself stepping on a dragonfly. Her connection with the Darkness allowed her the chance to deny Teryn that same power, and she denied him with extreme prejudice. She demolished his constructs, shrugged off his spells, flattened him to the ground and lashed him there with thick, icy tentacles of power. He was left gasping and weak, just as he had left her.

Twilight grasped his head with her magic. Just his head. A simple telekinesis spell. His calm acceptance impressed her. He didn't cry out or plead. He didn't demean himself in any way. He simply kept his eyes locked on hers and set his neck muscles against the twist of her magic.

Twilight heard voices, voices of friends pleading with her. Begging her to stop. That it didn't have to end this way. Rainbow Dash appeared at her side, unable to stand easily but still trying to talk Twilight down from what she had to do. Are you insane? She thought. He would murder us all in a heartbeat! In a flash, Twilight's rage leapt like wildfire from her enemy to her friends. Don't they understand what I had to give up to save us here today!?! I'm doing this for THEM!!! Because I can't stand to let anything happen to THEM! Are they BLIND?

Twilight forced her focus back to the real problem. She had an almost all-powerful murderer trapped before her hooves, and it seemed as though her friends wanted her to spare his life. But Twilight knew full well they couldn't afford that. And it seemed like nopony else was willing to get their hooves dirty. Maybe they'll understand one day. Twilight steadied her will and twisted, and there was a sound like the snapping of green, living wood. Then it was over.

It may have been the sound of Fluttershy crying that finally drew Twilight's attention, and she turned her head. Her friends had clustered around one another for support, giving her a wide berth. Twilight felt a moment of confusion. “You know I had to. Why are you all. . .” She let her voice trail off because it didn't sound quite right. It sounded hollow. She looked down, noticing for the first time the sleek black of her coat.

This was no surprise. Of course her friends would see her as some sort of evil nightmare. Even though they had been there with her when the Elements had been overpowered. They had shared her anguish. They must have known what her choices were. They had to understand, they simply had to.

Fluttershy was inconsolable, sobbing heavily. Pinkie did her best to hold her, murmuring soft words while she rocked back and forth. Twilight reached forward a comforting hoof but Rainbow Dash placed herself protectively between her and her friends and glared a challenge from under her spiked mane. Twilight's small, surprised hurt warred for a moment with a giddy realization that she could probably out-race Dash if she needed to. There was just so much power here.

“Twilight. . .” Applejack looked as though she could really use a nice, broad hat to take off her head and fiddle with. “If'n you're in there, y'all can come out now. We miss ya, filly.”

“It's still me.” The odd hollow reverberation in her voice made it sound like a lie. “I'm still me.” She wanted to explain that the pale ones were still crawling about in the Dark, and it was only the presence of her power that kept them at bay, but a deep whirring drew her attention behind her. Aether's Vigil touched down gently on the beach, kicking up plumes of sand. From a couple of pony-lengths up, a beak peeked out from over broken shards of glass.

It was Kelbrri. “Hey, I think they'rrre okay!” She called back over her shoulder. Then she did a bit of a double-take, shielding her eyes from the sun. “Twilight? Is that you?”

Twilight nodded, wondering why it wasn't obvious. Did she really look so different? She wished she had a mirror.

“And you found the changeling!” Kelbrri continued.

It was Twilight's turn to double-take, as she hadn't seen the insect crawl into their midst, dragging itself through the sand and collapsing. Rainbow Dash's face brightened considerably. “Hey, you're the one who helped me tag-team that big ugly and save Twi's hide, right? Where'd you come from?”

The changeling smiled, although it was mostly in its eyes. It's voice buzzed as it spoke. “Yeah. We make a pretty good team, Dasher.”

Rainbow's eyes grew wide. “Pin Feather?”

Out of the corner of her eye, Twilight glimpsed a magenta blob falling to the sand next to her. Sun Shade picked herself up on three hooves and limped forward. She was carrying something in her teeth, but Twilight couldn't quite see what it was.

“Sun Shade?” Pinkie's voice sounded tiny.

Dash reached out a hoof. “Easy there, don't. . .” But the earth pony shoved Dash away with her good arm.

She stopped before the changeling. Trembling, she pulled the hammer out of her mouth and lifted it into the air. “Where is he?” She asked.

The changeling hesitated, glancing around nervously. He held up a pocked and shiny leg in a warding gesture, as though he expected any answer he gave to provoke violence.

“What have you done with him?!?”

The changeling cringed. “He's. . . he's not. . . The gryphon you know as Pin Feather, he died. A. . .”

Sun Shade brought the hammer down with a cry, but the impact ended against a sky-blue hoof. Rainbow had put herself in the way, defending the changeling in the blink of an eye.

Shade's features twisted in incomprehension. Twilight's magic intervened, hoisting Sun Shade into the air. “Stop this.” She commanded. “Let him speak.”

The changeling trembled, but he continued bravely. “He died a long time ago. He was sickly, small. Had been since birth. He died in a hospital, from respiratory complications. We pulled the switch there. His parents never knew he. . . that he ever died.” At some point, Sun Shade had begun shaking her head in denial. Yet the buzzing voice droned on. “I have been Pin Feather ever since. You. . . you never knew the first one. It was always me.”

“No.” The word was barely understandable, twisted as it was by Shade's crying. “No no no no no, you can't be. You can't be.”

Twilight dragged Shade closer to her, to look her in the eye. “Don't you get it?” She asked, “The changelings were never our enemy in this. Chrysalis needed us to succeed, or else the Darkness would have endangered her and her children, too. Pin Feather here was sent to ensure we would win. That we would survive. Right?”

The changeling nodded.

“That makes no sense.” Rarity said. “Why then would they nab the Elements and drag them into a smelly hive and entrap us all? That left me feeling somewhat antagonistic, wouldn't you say?”

Applejack had an answer. “Well, maybe um, Cinder or whatever was actin' on his own? Maybe the Queen had different plans?”

Twilight shook her head no while the changeling answered. “Being waylaid was part of the plan.” He buzzed. “Our glorious Queen Chrysalis knew that both Luna and Celestia would be needed to confront this evil. So she laid plans to delay our departure until Luna could hear of the train accident and rush to her sister's aid.”

There was more. Twilight could tell there was more. But another question had formed in her mind, dislodging the first. “Where is Princess Luna?”

Another body landed beside her. “She is on boarrrd.” Kelbrri said very carefully. “She lives, but she does not do well.” The gryphon clacked her beak softly, her eyes locked upon the hovering earth pony. “Would you please put my friend down?”

Twilight noticed that she still held Sun Shade in the grip of her magic. And the pony was crying, unable to come to grips with any of it. For just a tiny moment, for just an eensy speck of time, Twilight felt the urge to shake the defenseless pony in frustration. She wanted to force Sun Shade to accept the truth, as difficult as it may be. But a larger part of her knew she was wrong to feel this way. Twilight's own rationality was leaving no room for the emotional reactions of others. Of course Sun Shade would be upset. It was okay. Twilight tried to remind herself that it wasn't her place to change the minds and wills of others.

With a sigh, she set the pony down. Kelbrri plucked the hammer out of Shade's good hoof and draped a comforting arm over the shaking mare.

Twilight's heart went out to her, and for the first time she felt the urge to let go of the power she held. Rainbow Dash, seeing no further threat from Shade, began eying the awful shadows of the shore. “Maybe we shouldn't, like, hang ar. . .” The entire group vanished as Twilight teleported them all onto the bridge above.

She turned her back on the airship and walked away down the beach, coming to a stop in front of Celestia's body. The rising tide had begun to play with the alicorn's tail, and Twilight felt a hard lump forming low in her throat. Maybe it's better this way. She thought semi-hysterically. She never had to see what I've become, what I'm capable of. The thought of Celestia's disappointment was too much, and Twilight lost her self-control.

Twilight had brought Celestia's body aboard the Vigil, but she didn't remember doing it. Her friends had found her on the pocked and slushy upper flight deck, looking like herself again. She'd been curled between Celestia's front hooves, nuzzled beneath the weight of her head and neck. For hours she wouldn't let anyone move her. Twilight didn't remember much of that, either. But her friends never left her alone. Spike curled up next to her at some point, wrapping his scaly arms about her. Someone tried to bring her food, possibly Rarity, but despite her ravenous hunger she couldn't bring herself to care. She just lay still and did her best to keep breathing through the pain while her eyes streamed tears into the fur on her cheeks.

The life Twilight knew was gone. Her mentor, her studies, her innocence, all of it. This world? She didn't know this world at all.

Ponies and gryphons came and went, paying their respects beneath the heat of the afternoon sun. She may have slept, she may not have, it was difficult to tell through the haze of her exhaustion. But as the sun dipped towards the horizon, moving aside for the onset of twilight, a ringing set of hoof-falls in an irregular cadence caught the unicorn's attention. She turned her head a little, careful not to dislodge or disrupt Spike sleeping beside her. Nearby, Applejack stirred as well, her straw-yellow mane catching the last vestiges of sunlight as she opened her eyes.

Princess Luna limped into view, her peytral and hoof-shods showing the deep gouges and scars her physical self no longer bore. Yet her stride betrayed some deeper affliction, and she dragged one wing uselessly. She avoided looking towards Twilight or her sister, choosing instead to limp towards the nose of the ship, stopping at the very edge of the massive chunk her brother had torn out of it.

She stood, and she stared at the tiny piece of sun that hadn't yet set behind the horizon. Her horn began to glow with a gentle light. Minutes passed before Twilight realized the princess had stopped the sun from setting completely, leaving the last orange rays of this fateful day glinting off of the ship's many grievous wounds.

A few minutes more, and it occurred to Twilight. Luna was grieving, in her way. She did not want to end the day and raise the moon. This day was the last day she'd had family alive beside her. For a while Twilight forgot her own pain to marvel at the depth of Luna's. She'd been reunited with her sister for a pair of short years, only to lose her completely.

In a flash Twilight caught her mistake. Luna hadn't lost one sibling. . . She'd lost two. It didn't matter that Teryn had been breathtakingly dangerous and deeply disturbed; he'd been family once. And Twilight had executed him. It hadn't even been a difficult decision. A fresh stab of self-loathing joined the deep pain in her chest. She stared at her trembling hooves until they became violet blurs in her vision. She wondered if she'd ever be able to look in a mirror again. An orange hoof joined hers, sharing the moment, and Twilight buried her face against the rough wood beneath her.

Time became vague and meaningless for awhile, so Twilight was surprised when the light vanished, and the pale face of the moon finally rose into the velvet of dusk. Luna stared a while longer at the place in the sky where the sun had once been, then she turned with heavy tread towards the cluster of bodies.

Twilight watched her approach with wide eyes, unable to find the strength or conviction to speak. At first, Luna didn't speak either. Her cyan eyes shone in the moonlight. Twilight had expected to see grief, anger, pain, any of those things. She had not expected to see confusion or awe alongside the loss. Twilight shifted, noticing for the first time that something had changed. The soft, yielding fur she'd been curled against had hardened. The head that had rested atop her back no longer moved or shifted with her. Twilight wiggled free from the space where she'd lain.

Celestia's body had turned completely to stone. The statue of the regal alicorn looked restful, as though she hadn't been struck from the sky by dark magic and instead had curled up for a little nap around the space where a small pony would fit perfectly. Spike had blinked awake when Twilight had moved, and now his tired green eyes scrunched with incomprehension as he noticed the stone arm he was curled upon.

Luna placed a hoof on Twilight's shoulder, nodding somberly at the power she could feel in that contact. She spoke for the first time, her voice hoarse. “The gift. The sun's immortal power. It shines within thee.” There was no warmth in Luna's voice, but there was no accusation either, no blame. There was simply no warmth to be found anywhere within the desolation she must have felt. “Nurture this gift, young Twilight. Care for it. As my sister cared for thee.” The corners of Luna's eyes softened the slightest bit. “As I shall care for thee.”

“We all will.” Applejack added softly, joining them. “Care for thee. For you, I mean. We're. . . just glad you're back with us, sugarcube.” Spike agreed with her by waddling up and clasping his claws around Twilight's leg.

Pinkie Pie appeared in the hatchway, wearing her packs. Her gloomy expression brightened a shade when she noticed everyone standing together. In a pair of bounds Pinkie closed the distance between them. But instead of tackling, Pinkie stopped and offered Twilight a serious hug, giving her the room to refuse it. Wordless was generally the last adjective used to describe Pinkie Pie, but she stood and offered and hoped in silence.

Twilight accepted, leaning in without dislodging Spike. Applejack leaned in to her from the other side, and Twilight made a decision. She would try her best in this new, slightly colder world. She would live, and she would not waste Celestia's gift. She still had Spike to look out for. She still had her friends to look out for. Celestia would not have wanted her to give up, ever. When Pinkie reached into her pack and withdrew a pile of fresh daisies, Twilight took them gratefully. She ate, and they were perhaps the most delicious things she'd ever had in her entire life.

Princess Luna nodded her approval. “Tis well and prudent to regain thy strength. We. . . our task is not yet complete. This curse, it cannot be allowed to persist.”

Twilight's mouth was still full, but Pinkie spoke for her. “We can fix it.” Pinkie's mane had regained much of its bounce. “With the Elements of Harmony, we can clean up all of this goopy black evil stuff.” Twilight nodded her agreement.

“Well,” Applejack clarified, “At least we think we can. Boastin' before the deed is done is bad luck, I say.”

Luna nodded. “We had hoped the combined Elements might be the key. However, the danger is not past. The black heart of this curse still exists.”

“Right.” Applejack agreed. “Um, Vapor, or something?”

“Varkur.” Pinkie said seriously.

Twilight shook her head, swallowing. “That's not the name your. . . that Teryn used for it.”

Luna conceded with a nod. “He named the devourer of our homeland 'Yami.' Hmm, the very word leaves a foul taste in our mouth. Yet 'tis the first thing we truly know about this creature.”

“We have to find it, don't we?” Twilight asked. “We have to stop whatever it's doing. And soon.”

Princess Luna turned a haunted gaze to the landmass below. “Yes. We do.”

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