• Published 14th Feb 2019
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Cadence of the Crystal Empire - Coyote de La Mancha

Two ancient evils from the Age of Chaos. The lost princess they desire. And between them, stands Celestia. Alone.

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5: Wake.

Celestia navigated the streets with care. Below the loose-woven canopy she had seen before, there was a complex, maze-like structure spun throughout the village.

In some places, a thick cottony strand might wind its way across and around a building or lamp pole, joining and supporting countless others, thick as mariner lines and tough as steel. In others, the silk had been woven into a plane, wide as a bedsheet. Sometimes the webbing blocked paths. Other times, it guided one path into another. On occasion, a large oval shape could be seen embedded in the thick overhead mass covering a two-story building, or hanging from the canopy above: a pony who had given in too soon, and had to be saved for later.

Celestia never needed to stoop or bend her head as she made her way. The silken ropes and walls were meant to guide, not obstruct. She could see the webbing was created with care, continually added to and altered across the years the Crimson Queen had been feeding. Lovingly tended to, to better control the movements and lives of the ponies who lived in Voe Valley. Keeping them apart, keeping them locked in routine, even as every day she’d walked among and climbed above them. Feeding on their hearts while cloaked in illusion, guiding them to the end she had devised.

Yet, Celestia stepped carefully. For, while doubtless some of the ponies had collapsed in their homes, many more lay on the streets. Mares, stallions, even some older foals. A few glanced briefly in her direction as she passed by, something vaguely akin to interest flickering across their eyes. Most, however, did not.

Upon entering the village, Celestia had tried to help the first ponies she’d seen. She’d cast a spell of purification, to excise any venom that might have kept them paralyzed. She’d tried infusing them with additional life force. She’d even risked a healing spell, hoping there was some injury, knowing even as she did that her efforts were in vain.

For there was nothing physically wrong with any of the ponies there. They were all completely capable of movement. They just didn’t see any point. They simply waited, all of them. Hearts emptied, souls all but drained, without even the will to wonder why. In the end, whether from thirst, hunger, or some roving beast, Celestia knew that eventually death would find them all. And when it did, they would simply let it happen. They had no reason to do otherwise.

And so, Celestia forced herself to remain focused on her surroundings, and on the task at hoof. So far as she knew, there was no way to heal the kind of spiritual damage the monsters had done to these ponies. Much as it hurt to acknowledge it, the fact remained that she was too late to save them, though of course she would try just the same. But her first priority had to be dealing with with the monsters that had done this, keeping them from spreading their deadly effect further.

In time, she wound her way through the village, emerging from the other side of its cottony prison. Then, she stopped, seeing the gleaming figure waiting in the distance.

Her foe, it seemed, had found her first.

Celestia advanced quickly, eager to have as much distance as possible between the village ponies and the battle that was about to begin. She knew who she beheld, of course. She remembered him all too well.

Standing more upright than any diamond dog or minotaur, her foe was clad in silver armor so well-formed in its imitation of muscle and sinew it seemed almost a part of him. At the same time, its brilliant reflections only enhanced the fathomless void that lurked behind his helm’s closed visor.

Upon his back was a pair of swords; one perhaps a meter long, the other nearly his own height. On his left arm, a flat, rectangular shield in which she could see her frowning visage perfectly. Behind him, more woods, now silent as a yawning grave. Before him, a village of soulless victims.

The Knight of Mirrors.

For an instant, Celestia thought of avoiding him entirely. It would be an unexpected move, and might allow her to neutralize his mother more quickly. But he was too dangerous, to herself and the village, to leave behind her.

Before, it had been Luna who had brought him low. Now, it would have to be her. Celestia steeled herself, remembering what little her sister had told her of their battle, so long ago.

Even in magic, he was more warrior than mage, Luna had said. And his webs were not like those of his dam, but of the mind. He sought to destroy me through refraction, and twisted reflections. He had a powerful mind. But I was the wiser.

So, combat magic and strategy. The first part was promising; the second, less so. And a mentalist of some kind, as well. Now that she faced the monster herself, Celestia silently wished she had pressed Luna for more detail. But her sister had seemed reluctant to speak of the battle. And Celestia had always assumed there would always be time later on.

The monarch pushed the thought away. Luna had made his defeat sound easy. Hopefully, it would be.

“Celestia,” the Knight of Mirrors said. “Princess Celestia, as thy pawns call thee now.” He nodded, as if they were knights at tourney. “Ill met.”

She nodded as well, calculating, studying him even as she was studied by him. “Ill met indeed, Sir Knight.”

“Hast enjoyed our hospitality thus far, fair lady?”

“It was informative,” she said carefully.

“A trifle. ‘Tis thee who lies upon my platter now.”

“And I never sensed you, all this time,” She acknowledged. “You’ve gotten good at hiding, I’ll grant you that. Draining them slowly, were you? You’d never done that before, though it did let you feed undetected these last few years. I might never have even found you, if I hadn’t specifically looked. Tell me, did it thrill you, taking their spirits away, one drop at a time?”

“Nay. No more than a gourmet thrills at a meal of paltry courses. Weakened were we, ere we first emerged from our stony prisons. But patience gave us time, an’ with time came our strength again.”

Her eyes and wings flared, and the wind blew wild from behind her. “You dare to call this strength?”

“The wolf is e’er stronger than its prey.”

“Oh, yes,” she sneered. “Wolves. Remind me, what was it you were called before there were noble titles?”

“Whatever my prey feared most.”

She saw her own smirk in his breastplate and his shield. “No, I recall better than that. Even among the herds we met, you and your mother were not always unknown. ‘Red Wolf,’ wasn’t that what they called her? And you, what was it again…?”

“Sooth, we had few names,” he replied, unperturbed. “Most times was I the Reflecting Pool, betimes the Shade that Speaks. Mother was the Red Wolf, or the Wolf of Heart’s Blood. Yet our names were few, e’en then.” Something in that blackness might have smiled. “For few, indeed, e’er ‘scaped us to tell the tale. And now, in this new age thee an’ thine have written, we each need but one.”

“But how did you escape your confinement in the first place?” she demanded. “The Elements—”

His laugh interrupted her, echoing as though he were an empty bell of steel.

“The Elements of Harmony have been burned and broken, e’en as the ties to thine own flesh an’ blood were betrayed and discarded ages agone! Their powers forever lost to the world, their enchantments thereby subside.”

His voice fell to a hungry growl as he continued, “An’ in that subsiding, a young soul came near. One with such light and purity that what was left of our jail crumbled before the onslaught of our hungers.

“We are only the first to set ourselves free, I think. Perhaps not e’en that.”

He gestured to the dying behind her, saying, “Look around thee. See what thou an’ thy hubris have engraved into earth, stone an’ flesh. See thou thy world, an’ all thou might e’er love or treasure.”

Then, he brought his focus back to Celestia. She started, feeling for the first time the sheer power of his presence.

“Look well,” he intoned, “An’ looking, know’st this: that I am the end of it.”

For the barest moments, she almost believed him. Then:


Her horn shone with the radiance of the sun as its rays fired out from her in a wide cone of golden light.

Her foe, of course, simply laughed, his armor reflecting all her scintillating power into the area around them.

But Celestia had been observing the Knight of Mirrors carefully as they had talked. And she had seen, among other things, that when he spoke his helm moved, ever so slightly. Thus, beyond that metal skin was a physical form. A form, by all appearances, which craved the impenetrable darkness within his helm.

Except that in Celestia’s experience, no darkness was impenetrable.

Even as the Knight began laughing, Celestia focused all her power into the cone of sunlight she emitted… and then quickly tightened all its intensity into a narrow beam of white light and white heat, perfectly aimed through her enemy’s visor.

Contact only lasted a split-second, of course. He immediately snapped back his head in pain, staggering. Still, the high-pitched screech he let forth was very satisfying. It was nothing like a mammilian throat would make, more like the sound of steel claws carving through iron. But it was proof that the Knight could feel pain. And anything that could be hurt, she knew, could be defeated.

Yet, the Knight of Mirrors only moved back a few steps, falling expertly into a fighting stance, shield up, one-handed sword at the ready. He would not be taken unawares again.

He held his sword up before his shield in brief, silent salute.

She nodded, wings flared.

Then, they both leaped into battle.

Celestia flew into the air, sending a bolt of sunfire against her foe.

The Knight’s response was instant, his shield parrying the beam with a speed she hadn’t expected. Her attack reflected perfectly off its surface, arcing towards the village.

Moving even faster now, she cast again, creating an emerald disc strong enough to completely block her own power. The solar flame struck the disc and dispersed.

But now she was on the defensive, and the Knight of Mirrors pressed his advantage. The Knight caught the sun’s rays on his shield, twisting their reflections to his will and sending them back again. Daggers of yellow light shot forth, slicing through the air like arrows. Celestia dove earthward again, even as the daggers changed course to follow her down.

As she descended, Celestia cast a net from her horn, green as ivy and bright as the promise of spring. It flew to and over the Knight, expanding as it did, drinking in the sun-daggers and becoming stronger from their light.

Yet even before the net fell over him, the Knight sliced his sword across in a sideways-motion, the blade wavering as if cutting through water, the net parting and dissolving before it even touched his blade. Celestia heard the rush of refracted wind coming for her, and could almost see the wide, ever-expanding arc of hardened air he had sent towards her and the village behind her.

Even for Celestia, there was not enough time to protect both herself and the ponies of Voe Valley.

Racing against the very wind, she enlarged and strengthened the disc she had created before, turning it into a dome. The dome almost immediately extended down into the earth, becoming a sphere, protecting the ponies within from any attack either above or below.

She heard the wind blade clash against her defenses, shattering into an angry gale across the width of the emerald shield, even as it cut deep into her own flesh and bone, driving her to her knees.

The Knight of Mirrors spoke, a cruel smile in his echoing voice.

“First blood is mine.”

Celestia glared at him, her horn flashing. Suddenly, the Knight was suspended in the air, surrounded in a sphere of gold.

The princess spat blood as she rose to her hooves again, feeling her severed ribs grind against one another, her barrel drenched a terrible red around and below her wound. With the merest thought, Celestia caused the golden orb to convulse inward slightly.

“Surrender,” she said.

Instead of replying, the Knight of Mirrors simply gripped his sword with both hands, driving its point down into the mystic shield surrounding him.

With a start, Celestia felt his energies racing along her own like electricity through a copper wire, following her sympathetic connection with the shield she had created, back towards her own mind.

Celestia instantly broke the connection, and the Knight landed easily on the soft turf beneath him.

Immediately, he struck the ground with his sword, a path of silvery shards thrusting up from the ground in a trail towards her.

Celestia took to the air, even as the shards exploded, sending mirrored shrapnel in all directions.

The Knight had just enough time to register that he had lost track of his foe in the blast when he felt himself struck from behind. With a sound like a giant brass gong, Celestia’s kick sent him hurtling and tumbling through the air. He barely kept hold of his blade and shield, his back striking the emerald dome an instant later with enough force to shatter his great sword in its sheath.

“You are well named, Sir Knight,” she said.

He rose, and inclined his head. “Princess,” he said. There was no mockery in his tone now.

She, of course, was already casting. Suddenly, the very stone beneath him was rising to encase him, to crush him if need be.

With a speed and strength Celestia hadn’t thought possible, the Knight of Mirrors leaped out of his still-forming prison, hurtling towards her across the vast distance with his sword’s thrust aimed for her heart.

Yet, her eyes narrowed as he arced towards her. She had taken his measure. The Knight of Mirrors indeed relied upon reflection and refraction, on the strength he had stolen, and on how quickly he could employ his power.

Well, then. It was time to teach her enemy the meaning of speed.

The wings of Princess Celestia flared out, a blazing corona of light as she vanished from view, even as the Knight was surrounded by a tornado of pale-colored wind.

He was struck seven times before he hit the ground.

Nineteen more as he strove to rise to his feet, ricocheting in all directions, his battered armor continuing to dent and buckle.

Then he was airborne, careening from impact to impact, faster and faster, greater speed becoming greater and greater force. Thirty strikes. Fifty. A hundred. A thousand. There was no spell that could match such speed. No magic that could be woven in time to catch such rapidity.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, the torrent of blows stopped.

For the barest of instants, the combatants stared at one another.

He, in armor no longer gleaming but badly dented, smoking, and charred, holding his sword outward in a horizontal thrust.

She, covered in her own blood, gasping for breath, her enemy’s blade plunged deep into her right lung.

Then, both of them fell back to earth.

The Knight of Mirrors pulled himself to his feet with difficulty, leaning on his sword to do it. He staggered almost drunkenly, his breath labored, forcing himself to where his foe lay.

Princess Celestia managed to raise her head at the sound of his approach. The sharpened tips of her ribs had pierced several of her vitals when she’d fallen, and one of her lungs was rapidly filling with blood. The barest of movements flared with new pain, assuring her that, yes, her wings were both broken as well.

She gritted her teeth. Ever since becoming an alicorn, she had been recovering from wounds at a phenomenal rate. And given time, she could magically enhance the process even further.

But as the Knight of Mirrors approached, with cracked shield and scorched armor, it didn’t look like she was going to get that chance.

She struggled, cursing her damaged body. She tried to get onto her hooves again. Couldn’t.

He stood before her, obviously exhausted and injured himself, and nodded to her again.

“For all my mockery, I apologize,” he said. “Thou wast truly a worthy foe. Yea, the greatest I have e’er faced.”

With difficulty, he managed a bow. “Never have I understood the desire for trophies, ‘til now.”

While she looked up at him, her eyes blazing with fury, he raised his sword to catch the sun’s rays.

“I shall hang thy head in a place of honour,” he said. “Thy fame shall live forever, e’en though thou shalt not.”

He brought his weapon down, knowing the battle was won.

Yet, even injured, Princess Celestia was able to whip her head to the side, blocking with her horn with such force that his blade shattered into a hundred fragments, sending him staggering back again.

“Do your worst, monster,” she panted. “I’ll never yield! Not to you, not to anypony else!” She gasped for breath, blood running freely from her mouth, her nose, her open wound. “I’ll never stop fighting! Never!”

The Knight of Mirrors’ shoulders seemed to suddenly sag. “Oh, fuck my uncle,” he said.

Celestia blinked. “…What?”

But her foe just shook his head, dropping his sword hilt, tossing away his shield. “I am just so done with this romantic bullshit.”

Celestia struggled to get back to her hooves. For whatever reason, the Knight was lowering his defenses, and this was a perfect opportunity to strike… but she fell again to her knees with a gasp. She could defend herself, but not yet attack. Meanwhile, the Knight had pulled something from his belt.

“Here,” he said.

Looking up, she saw he was holding a rectangular card in his hand, showing it to her as if it were some magical talisman.

But it had no glyphs or runes of any sort. Instead, embossed upon its white surface in crisp, black letters were the words:

Janus Knight

Oneirology Retrieval

At a loss, she looked up again at her enemy. But his armour was shifting, falling away into beads of light. Below it was revealed a green-skinned biped with silvery hair and mustache, both neatly trimmed. He wore close-fitting garments of white, with boots and a belt with many pouches.

A uniform, she thought. He’s a human, wearing a uniform. But… how? Did he somehow come in through one of Star Swirl’s mirrors? Is that possible? No, it’s some kind of technician’s suit, like in a hospital…

Wait, how do I know that?

“Just try to relax,” he said. His expression was tired, but kind. “There are subliminal images on the card designed to start the memory process, but you’ve still got a lot to work through. Because holy crap,” he shook his head with a rueful smile, “You were a tough one.”

She shook her own head violently, trying to clear it. So many memories were suddenly assailing her mind. “A tough... what?”

“Client,” he answered. “Look, don’t try to fight it, you’ll just disorient yourself. You’ve been trapped in this fantasy for a long time. Strongest one I’ve ever seen. It’s no shock you’re still having a hard time. But that’s okay, we’ll get through this.”

She stared at him, suddenly uncertain. “We?”

He nodded. “That’s right. You see, plenty of people have imaginary lives they’ll play in, even half live in. A lot of kids do, sure… but some adults do, too. It’s how they cope with the dreariness of their day-to-day lives. Sometimes, it’s how they escape trauma, or guilt. Regardless, a lot of them use magical thinking, or imagine having some other kind of power they don’t have in real life, or fantasize about the kinds of relationships their own lives can’t give them. And most of the time, it’s harmless.

“But every once in a while, somebody falls in.”

She blinked. “Do… do they?”

“You know they do,” he said gently.

He reached down to her, clasped her hands in his own. He pulled her to her feet. She stared down at herself in confusion, at her wrinkled hands and feet and the limbs that supported them, at her pale, ancient, nude form.

“But…” She managed. “But… I’m an alicorn.”

“No, ma’am,” he said softly. “You’re as human as I am. As everyone is.”

“No… no, I’m a princess…” She felt nauseous, two sets of memories clashing with one another. Her legs buckled, and he helped her gently return to her knees before she fell.

“I raise the sun every morning,” she whispered, staring at her shaking hands. “I lower it at night. This can’t be. I’m Celestia, chosen ruler of ponykind! I’m…”

“Your name is Cindy List,” he corrected her, standing again. “You were a teacher at the Canterlot School for Gifted Children. You never married, you have no children. But…” he took a breath, and then said, “You had a sister.”

She looked up at him, blinked back tears. “Luna.”

“Lucy,” he corrected her. “Luna was her character. You used to play together, as children. You were a unicorn, she was a pegasus. You had adventures, saved worlds, built and safeguarded civilizations. But then, there was the accident.”

“I remember now,” she choked.

“You were dropping her off at school, before heading on to college.”

“We’d had a fight, that damned boyfriend of hers…”

He nodded. “She opened the vehicle door, and ran out into the street.”

Cindy covered her face, her shoulders wracked with sobs.

“The driver that hit her got a prison sentence,” he said, crouching next to her. “But that didn’t help Lucy. After three days, the doctors pronounced her coma as irreversible, though her pregnancy was still viable.” He put a hand on her trembling shoulder. “You blamed yourself for her condition, for everything that had happened. And, you retreated further into fantasy.

“Several times a week, you visited Lucy in the hospital. You sang to her, read to her. Told her stories. When she gave birth to your nephew, still in a coma, you were there. You helped arrange for family to adopt the child. You finished school, got your degree. Dedicated yourself to teaching and helping children. To all appearances, you were engaged in post-traumatic growth. Everybody thought you were coping.

“But in reality… you were falling.

“It took several years. But eventually, the fantasy became stronger than the reality. You’ve been trapped here ever since, a prisoner of your own guilt. Forever waiting for a Nightmare Moon who will never come, waiting to face and make amends to a sister who will never wake up.”

He stood, pressing a stud on his wrist. “Doctor Chandra? I’ve got her. I think we should be able to start the waking process pretty soon, without risk of shock. Would you have everyone get prepped, please?”

She looked up at him, eyes devoid of hope. “Waking process?”

He nodded. “You’ve been in a pseudo-comatose state for years. Modern medicine allows us to monitor the dream state, even access it to a limited degree. But trying to force you awake could have caused you severe trauma, maybe irreversibly. So, meeting you within the terms of your fantasy - and getting you to see the truth from within it - was the only safe way to bring you home.

“And, now, we’re just about there.” He looked down into her eyes. “Lucy passed on, years ago. You’re beyond the working age now, and your nephew’s too busy with his own kids to take you in. After all, with the atrophy from so many years in a pseudo-coma, there’s no way you won’t stay bedridden. But we can put you up in the Assisted Living wing. We’ll take good care of you, for however long you’ve got left.”

He extended his hand to her. “Come on, Cindy. You’re an adult. You know that every fantasy comes to an end. Every dream dies.”

He smiled.

“It’s time to wake up.”

She lowered her head.

Then, she looked up at him from beneath her brows with hard, determined eyes. Her legs thrust her forward with all her might, ramming her horn through his damaged breastplate and into something hard and yielding behind it.

Even as the Knight of Mirrors screamed, the very sound setting her teeth on edge, she poured all her remaining strength into her horn and through it, channeling all the light and heat of the sun itself into her foe. His scream became more high-pitched, as golden sunfire burst out from his armor along every seam. Then there was a roar of conflagration, and he was torn apart from within, the entire area engulfed in a great explosion of white-hot flame.

Smoke obscured everything for several moments. But, slowly, the wind wafted the smoke away. Celestia lay in the crater she had made, weakened from the exertion, but alive and continuing to gradually heal. All around her lay the remains of the Knight of Mirrors. Fragments of blackened chitin, some twisted scraps of charred metal. Here and there a misshapen insectoid limb, too many and too varied in shape and size for any normal arachnid.

And still, she could feel the strands of psychic webbing he had woven within her mind, slowly falling away from around her soul.

“Bastard,” she wheezed through gritted teeth. “You… bastard. Ugh.”

Shuddering, she crawled up to the crater’s edge. After a more few minutes, she forced herself to stand, however unsteadily.

In the distance, a bird began to sing.

Then, slowly, but gaining more surety with every step, Celestia set off after the Crimson Queen.