• 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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6: As the World Falls Down.

Celestia frowned as Star Swirl approached. Glancing at her sister, she saw Luna’s eyes mirroring her own concern. It had been months since she or her sister had heard from the old unicorn. First their student, then later their mentor, he had always been a pony of confidence and might, growing with time into the fullness of his power and wisdom.

Yet, now he seemed… diminished. The years no longer seemed to empower him, but rather lay upon his shoulders as a regrettable burden.

They had been preparing tea for the three of them in the north garden of their castle. The sun was only just set, the moon yet to rise, and Star Swirl had sent a missive asking to see the two sisters at dusk. Of course they had agreed at once; it had been too long since they’d seen their old friend.

Celestia rose, approaching him with an uncertain gentleness. “Star Swirl? Whatever is the matter?”

“Please,” Luna added, rising as well, “How can we aid thee?”

Star Swirl only looked at them both with eyes tired and filled with regret. “I asked you here this evening, so that I might say goodbye.”

“What?” the sisters exclaimed together. They exchanged a glance of astonishment before rushing to him.

“No!” exclaimed Celestia.

“Whatever distresses thee, we can help!” Luna added.

But looking down, Star Swirl slowly shook his head, no.

“Have you not heard?” he asked sadly. “Of Stygian? Of the enchantment he cast?” He would not look at them, only said, “Of the price he paid for my failure, as a magician and as his friend?”

“Of course we have,” Luna exclaimed. “And we mourn his passing, and everything that led to it. But, his death was his mistake, not thine!”

“Please, old friend. Thou cannot hold thyself responsible for such a decision,” Celestia added. “Though it pains me to say it, Stygian made his own choice, however much it grieves us all.”

But Star Swirl only gave a humorless, dry chuckle. “Thus speak too quickly the ideals of youth,” he said.

Celestia frowned in sorrow, and Luna gave an expression of heartbreak as they both approached.

“Oh, Star Swirl,” Luna sighed. “We saw thee enter thy studies as a young foal. We mentored thee, watched thee grow.”

“Yet, when didst thou become so much older than we?” Celestia added sadly.

Star Swirl’s voice was soft as he said, “One mistake at a time, my dears.”

Then, he sighed. “In any case. Though he made his choice alone, I cannot refute my deeds which drove him to such aloneness. Nor, indeed, can my fellow Pillars. And thus, we are sundered. In truth, that fellowship lay broken well before Stygian’s Lament was even cast. It only took such lengths for us to see it.”

There were several moments of silence. Then, quietly, Luna asked, “Where wilt thou go?”

“I know not. I know only that I cannot stay. It is a terrible thing that I have done. That I led the Pillars to do. Everything in the world that Stygian loved now speaks his name to me, begging for a forgiveness that he cannot hear. And thus, they accuse me – and rightly so – with a voice I cannot silence. Even the stars have lost their wonder.” He glanced towards the castle, adding, “I have many mirrors. I need but one.”

With difficulty, Celestia asked, “Wilt thou return to us, someday?”

At last, the old unicorn raised his head, his face betraying a sad smile. “I don’t know,” he said. “But if I can, I will.”

With a rustling of wings the sisters embraced him fiercely. After the briefest hesitation, he returned the embrace. Star Swirl had never been one for hugs, even with them, even as a foal. But he could hardly deny them now.

When they separated at last, he looked at them fondly. “Sentimental, as always,” he gave a sad smile. “Perhaps that was the one lesson I should have learned better from you both, so long ago. But in any case,” he added a little briskly, “there is tea cooling, and a beautiful evening to share before I depart. And a final lesson, if you will indulge me one last time.”

The sisters sat with him, Luna’s deep blue magic surrounding the teapot as she poured. “Of course,” she said.

“Very good. I cannot say for certain that my researching this was wisdom or folly on my part. I left off my final project to create it, and now I shall never…” he shook himself. “But regardless, I wanted to share with you what I had found, though it cost me dear. You may find ways to build on this last bit of research, turn it into something useful. Navigating dreams, perhaps. Finding shape shifters. Putting ghosts to rest.” He shrugged. “Who knows.”

Celestia and Luna exchanged a puzzled look, then looked back to him again. “What is it?” Luna asked.

“A truth spell. A powerful one, as such things go.” He sighed again. “Admittedly basic in its construction. Easy to build on. And a costly one, as well. Not that it requires much strength to cast per se. But it doesn’t just detect lies and illusions, it destroys them utterly.”

While Luna blanched, Celestia only looked puzzled. “But, isn’t that a good thing?”

Star Swirl shook his head as he took a sip, saying, “Believe me, some illusions are worth keeping.” He looked away, then went on, “I therefore advise you strongly: use it as a basis of further research. But please, never share it, or cast it yourselves.”

“But…”

Star Swirl sighed as he held up a hoof to forestall Celestia’s protests. “Remember that magic is often its own price, my dear. I cast the spell only once, hoping to find answers regarding Stygian’s fate. And in that much, I was more than successful.

“But I’m still not certain if it was worth what I paid.”


Bloody and aching, Celestia stood at the cavern entrance. Her head was lowered and ready for battle, her wounds only marginally healed. But she dared not risk her final enemy fleeing, to hide again and continue her feeding elsewhere. No matter the cost, the Crimson Queen’s threat would end today.

“No!” the monster hissed from the high ceiling above. “It’s not possible! Where is he?!?”

Celestia’s eyes were hard as she looked up at the monster, stepping into the cave. “Which part?”

The Crimson Queen dropped down to the floor, her nine legs rhythmically dancing as she circled the alicorn. Only the floor was clear from her snow-colored strands, thick and dangerous. They formed a great dome above the combatants, with occasional sheets of cobwebbing hanging down like curtains.

“Pony suckling,” the Queen snarled. “You can’t have killed the Knight of Mirrors! He told me how weakened your spirit had become! How could you even fight, without hope?!?”

“Because in a sense, that’s all I was doing for centuries,” Celestia replied, also circling, wings half-unfurled. “I only recently found hope again. I didn’t even know I had, until today.”

Her mouth formed the thinnest of smiles. “My hope is young. And small. And she is brilliant in her wonder.”

Then Celestia’s eyes narrowed again. “And there is no way I’ll stop fighting for her. Not ever. Especially against the likes of you.”

“But even so, you can’t have escaped his web,” the Queen insisted, scores of eyes staring with hate. “You have no power of the mind…!”

“I’m not my sister, that’s true.” Celestia admitted as they continued their mutual orbit. “I can’t see thoughts, or walk into dreams. And the Knight’s false memories were expertly crafted, reaching back to childhood, even as he played his role to perfection.

“But my true memories are more precise than any counterfeit, and I can remember being born.”

The princess shook her head slightly. “He was a powerful foe, and my heart still aches from what he did. But in the end, he never really had a chance.”

Still circling, the Queen raised her front legs up, their bladed tips glowing a deadly green.

“Neither do you,” said Celestia.

Slowly, the tips lowered again.

“I’m giving you this one opportunity. Just surrender.” Celestia met the Queen’s many-eyed stare with her own. “Let me take you back alive. I’d rather have you imprisoned than dead.”

The Crimson Queen’s many eyes narrowed as she stopped. “No,” she said. “Never again. Death first.”

The Princess simply nodded, her expression grim. “So be it.”


There was no preparation for battle. No salute or pretense of gentility.

The Crimson Queen began with a blast of ice, breathed out from her misshapen mouths in a cone of frozen death. Celestia simply teleported across the cavern to evade the blast… then stopped, her eyes wide, staring behind herself with a gasp.

The cave was not as wide as it had seemed. Her tail was caught, phased into the very rock of the cavern wall. Either luck or her foe’s intentions had saved her from entombing herself in stone... but not from surrounding herself in the arachnid’s webbing. Every part of her was entangled: her mane, her wings, her coat. Every motion only caught her in her enemy’s trap further.

And she had seen none of it. Not even a hint.

Meanwhile, she could feel the web draining her of love, her heart feeding her enemy’s strength. She could hear the Crimson Queen’s shriek of victory as the monster closed in on her with an eerie grace, salivating as she did.

Closing her eyes, Celestia called upon her own, innate power. There was a ripple of heat, and the webbing surrounding her burst into flame, its fire quickly going out as it shriveled. Her own fire, of course, remained. She was free, now, the stone behind her having broken and split from her power.

But the cavern and the Queen were gone, as was the web she’d spun. Celestia stood alone, a torch in an abyss of endless darkness, illuminating nothing. Still, the pull upon her soul had stopped. Great was the power of the Crimson Queen, but even she could not feed upon a heart of flame. And certainly, even unseen, she would dare not strike physically against a being of living sunfire.

Celestia looked around herself with eyes that burned. In this form, she had soared through the darkness of space, and even entered the sun itself. Scarcely daring to move, she focused her will to a razor’s keenness, seeking out the falsehood surrounding her.

And found… nothing.

Her illusions were never this powerful before! Celestia thought. I can’t dispel them, I can’t see through them! She’s more powerful than ever, but how is that possible in such a short time--

No, Celestia realized. No, she’s not. She’s drawing on another source of power, almost certainly hidden in her web.

But what?

And then, suddenly, Celestia understood.

Of course. Not what. Who.

That changed everything. This was no longer a simple battle, it was also a rescue.

I can do this, Celestia thought. Even with her newfound power source. I can take her down and free her prisoner at the same time.

The smart tactic would be to just out-maneuver me. Take her time, trick me into defeating myself. So, I’ve got to make her use her magic rashly. Keep her off-balance, keep her angry, Keep her spending her power.

Rockhoof always said that an angry fighter was a losing fighter. Hopefully, he was right.

“I can see the concern in your eyes,” the Crimson Queen purred. “The fear.”

“I’ve never been afraid of bugs,” Celestia said casually, looking all around her. The abyss was gone, but so was any sense of flooring or direction. Stars, planets and their moons orbited lazily around her as she drifted through space. None of it was real, off course. But where was she? Where was the Queen? Were they still in the cavern? On a cliff side? If Celestia flared her power, hoping to burn her enemy, would her captive burn as well?

“Liar.” The Crimson Queen’s voice was a venomous whisper echoing from all directions. “Oh, you may not fear for yourself. But we both know now I’m too strong for you, and you fear for what will happen after your death. Still, there’s no need. I have no intention of killing you.”

“Oh,” Celestia said as she circled cautiously. She had to stay wary. For all she knew, even her own flames might be an illusion now. “Of course. After how easily I handled you before, I suppose you’ll want to hear me scream. Your kind usually does.”

Celestia’s horn glowed a light blue as she forced her will against the Crimson Queen’s illusions, even as she searched for any flaw that she could use to unravel their effects upon her mind. She found none. Her horn still ablaze, she cast a spell to destroy every illusion around her. Frowning, she did so again, putting all her power behind the spell.

Nothing.

“Will you scream, little pony?” the Crimson Queen asked.

Celestia forced herself to shrug, hating herself a little as she spoke. “Your son certainly did.”

The Queen did not reply in words. Celestia found herself suddenly flesh again, in a crystal-lined cavern. She was surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites, black fire bursting coldly from the ground as acid rained down upon her in curtains, eating her mouth, skin, and eyes. Gasping through clenched teeth, Celestia desperately tried to dispel the illusion again. This time, she could feel the overwhelming force of the illusion righting itself against her as her flesh was eaten away from her bones. Her eyes were gone, her senses destroyed save for her pain, her organs dissolving away.

Well, she thought vaguely, that certainly worked.

Then, she was on a white beach, gasping and whole. Brilliant green water gently lapped on the sands nearby, its brine stinging a thousand wounds.

“The release of death is not for you,” the Queen whispered. “After all, with Discord and your sister both gone, I know it is your power alone that maintains the heavens.

“Therefore… I will subdue you.”

With a grunt of pain, Celestia found herself in a northern tundra, the wind whipping thousands of ice fragments into her skin. She gave another blue flash of magic, and again the illusion remained. She could smell the storm on the wind, smell her own blood. How much was illusion? How much was real? How much of the damage she took was from her own mind? It was impossible to know. She could also feel herself weakening, her energy levels depleting far more rapidly than they should have.

I’m in her web again, she thought. Impossible! Unless… the drain itself is another illusion?

But she dismissed the thought immediately. No. She wouldn’t expect me to be able to sense such things. I couldn’t before. That much, at least, must be real. Which means she’s trying to end this quickly. However she forced me to shift forms, it must have exhausted her.

Indeed, Celestia could also hear the hunger in the Queen’s voice as she went on, “You will remain in my web, paralyzed, encased in my power so that I may draw upon your own. I will rule the sun and moon for all time, until and unless I find the way to devour your magic completely. Then, and only then, shall you be allowed to die.

“Until then, you will live. A half-awake meal entombed in my larder, to punish and feed from again and again. Forever.”

Celestia shuddered, still pressing with her mind and magic against the arachnid’s creations. Several times, she could feel the Queen’s illusions re-assert themselves against her, feel her foe faltering, then drawing more and more on her captive.

That’s right, she thought. Keep spending that power. Prove your superiority. Overwhelm me. Crush me. Spare no expense. There is more to magic than simple power. And this time, of the two of us I am the more experienced.

“You should have yielded yourself to the Knight of Mirrors,” the arachnid’s voice gloated. Celestia was somewhere deep undersea now, water bursting her lungs, the pressure crushing her from all directions as her horn still flared a brilliant, desperate blue. Something from the abyss below was rising towards her, massive, the size of a palace, its many spined tentacles eager to rend and tear.

It looked at Celestia with the Crimson Queen’s eyes. “Your fate would have been the same, but you would never have known,” the monster said. “It would have been kinder. Instead, now you will fall to me.”

Celestia swallowed. This was the creature’s finishing move. It was now, or never at all.

“No,” she said. “I won’t.”

And, reaching into the last of her magical reserves, Celestia cast the truth spell that Star Swirl had taught her, so many years ago.

It was, as he had said, simple. And, also as he had said, it required an astonishingly low level of strength for what it did. Which was just as well, since Celestia had almost no strength left. Blending it with her own fiery energy was a simple matter as well, lending the spell a physical effect. But Celestia had misunderstood the spell’s true power, despite Star Swirl’s warning.

For, by its very nature, truth must start from within.

Her target had been her surroundings. The cavern, the Crimson Queen, the Queen’s webbing and all within it. But against her will, Celestia felt the spell plunge down through her horn, through her brain and into her mind, into her heart and then into her very soul. It was merciless, and, once begun, could not be stopped. Terror gripped her anew as she fell into her memories, helpless before the onslaught of her own magic. It seized onto the furnace of her soul, amplifying itself in her flame, even as time around her ground to a halt.


She had been half-prepared to face what she had always hated to admit, even to herself: that as Luna had continued to grow into her power, Celestia had come to fear her, even as she had always loved her. That fear was something Luna had to have known, had to have seen growing throughout their lives. And yes, Celestia’s fear had surely helped lead her baby sister into the isolation and despair that had, in turn, led to Nightmare Moon’s creation. It was merely one more reason Celestia had blamed herself for her dearest one’s transformation, as the centuries had slowly passed by.

Yet, both Luna and Celestia, across their long lives together, had somehow gradually become their magic. Even while remaining ponies, they had evolved, more and more, into what they had made themselves to be.

So, what was Nightmare Moon, truly? Luna had taken on a similar form many times, in battle and in war. She was a creature of shadow and dream, after all, even as Celestia was a mare of light and day. To one such as Luna, a living guide through the mind’s symbolic realities and labyrinthine metaphors, was such a transformation truly a change at all?

How could it be?

When the dust had settled after Luna’s banishment, and she’d stood surrounded by the Elements’ burnt-out remains, Celestia had also stood at a crossroads. She could have stopped trying, simply become aloof, cold and distant. And she would have become so, in all possible ways: a white stone-like figure to worship and obey.

It certainly would have been easier. It would have hurt her less, even while hurting everypony else more. Yielding to her despair and allowing it to cocoon her in a safe numbness, free from doubt, worry, or thought. She could have stopped growing, stopped trying to live, and simply been. Falling asleep, in a very real sense, inside the porcelain armor of her own despair.

Would she, then, have stopped being Celestia?

In some ways, yes. But even in that half-slumber, she would never have become somepony else, for all that she would have also not been her whole self. And ultimately, the choice had been hers and hers alone.

In the epicenter of Star Swirl’s final enchantment, Celestia gasped, feeling her heart truly break.

For the truth was, no matter what Celestia’s mistakes had been towards her sibling – and she saw them all now, more painfully, scathingly clear than ever before – Luna was not her baby sister. She hadn’t been, in fact, for a very long time. Luna was a grown mare, and had made her own choices.

The sadness Luna had battled against all her life might have devoured her at last, but it was her sadness just the same. The decisions she’d made had been influenced heavily by the divide between the two sisters, true. But they were still her decisions, and hers alone. Neither innocent nor pure, she was not a helpless victim in any sense.

And she never had been.

Did you really expect me to sit idly by, while they all basked in your precious light?!?

She had never been transformed by Celestia’s neglect and blindness. Nor had she fallen prey to any outside force.

There can only be one princess in Equestria! And that princess… will be ME!

THIS

Luna? I am… Nightmare Moon!

WAS

I have but one royal duty, now… to destroy you!

LUNA

The cavern filled with a blinding silver-gold light. Celestia screamed in agony as the truth spell tore its way out from her heart like a supernova, blazing through everything around her. The Crimson Queen’s illusions shattered into nothingness, even as the webbing that filled the cavern shriveled and was burned away along with the remaining darkness.

Behind her illusions, the Crimson Queen had been industrious indeed. Yes, Celestia’s heart had been untouchable while she’d maintained her fiery form. But, having painstakingly bound Celestia in layer upon layer of enchanted webbing, the Crimson Queen had finally been able to ground out enough of Celestia’s magic to force her back into her flesh-and-blood self. The arachnid had been hanging above the alicorn mere seconds away from sinking her fangs into Celestia’s throat. Her forelegs held the cocoon secure on all sides, droplets of venom gently staining its silk as her compound mandibles worked in anticipation.

Now, she was thrown against a far wall, the force of Celestia’s gambit severing and tearing away the flow of her stolen power. What little magic remained to her she spent surrounding herself in a greenish shield before impact, partially shattering the stone behind her even as she weathered out the storm of light and truth.

Celestia, meanwhile, saw the thick orb of web that had held her motionless to the floor burning away, freeing her from the prison she had not been able to see or feel. She rose to her hooves again, no longer strong enough to take her sunfire form, but more determined than ever to see her enemy fall.

Bluebottle, son of Mira Pisaurina and village reject, woke as he fell from his disintegrating hammock with a startled cry, his location revealed at last.

But it was Mi Amore Cadenza, daughter to Princess Radiant Hope and rightful Heir to the Crystal Empire, who pulled herself to her hooves, disoriented and shaking.

The Crimson Queen screamed as she stumbled towards the filly. “No! Give me back my son!”

In a burst of light Celestia was suddenly there, between them. Head lowered, panting, yet with her horn dangerously aglow. “She was never your son!”

Mi Amore stared past the alicorn at the huge arachnid in confusion. “Mother? No,” she blinked, “No, that’s…” She shook her head violently, trying to clear it. “That’s not right…”

“Murderer! I’ll kill you!” the Queen screeched, her forelegs glowing with sickly green fire. “I’ll eat you alive, you murdering twist!”

Celestia’s horn blazed. “Then you’ve left me little choice!”

Both women were horribly weakened by their wounds, their strengths all but spent. Yet they lurched at one another with a fury born from sheer desperation. The Queen’s bladed legs slashed downwards at her enemy, injuring a wing, even as Celestia buffeted her with the other. A kick from an ivory forehoof closed a few of the Crimson Queen’s eyes.

Celestia parried another strike from those terrible blades with her horn, the Queen immediately lunging at her throat with her compound mouths, her many poisoned mandibles working furiously. They exchanged their blows, stumbled apart, then lunged at one another again, each determined with the last of her strength to bring her enemy down.

“Stop!”

It was a near thing, each combatant pulling away at the last second from the pink filly who had leaped between them. So great was their exhaustion that each had to stagger back for a moment, to avoid striking her. Meanwhile, Mi Amore stood between them, facing down Celestia in defiance, wings protectively unfurled.

“Foolish hatchling!” the Queen hissed. “Get out of the way!”

“Mi Amore, move!” Celestia cried. “She’s too dangerous!”

But the young princess shook her head wildly. “No! I won’t let you do this!” She looked over her shoulder into the many eyes of the Crimson Queen, adding softly, “Either of you.”

The Crimson Queen slowly lowered her forelegs, their terrible glow receding, her many eyes staring in astonishment. “What?”

Princess Cadenza faced Celestia once more, her eyes beginning to glow a brilliant blue. “I said no! No more!”

For a moment, Celestia frowned, and the Queen’s eyes blazed with victory. Each knew, in that instant, that the Lost Princess had sided with the very one who had been using her for so long.

And they were, each of them, very, very wrong.

“I said no more!” The filly cried again. The azure glow of her magic suddenly filled the chamber: a tangible, living, breathing force pressing into and through both her elders, forcing them back.

“No more hate! No more lies!”

The Crimson Queen reared up, stretching her limbs skyward, laughing and screaming all at once. This! This was what she had always craved, always been denied! The power of it was blinding, deafening, ecstatic and terrible, searing away her soul’s shadows with an agony that paled in comparison to its glory.

“No more hopelessness!” Mi Amore screamed. “No more fear! No more death!”

Celestia shielded her face against the foal’s brilliance, then looked away. She had looked into the heart of the sun many times, but this was a different light. And though it caused her eyes no pain, its purity was more than she could bear.

“No more!”

The Crimson Queen could feel herself burning from the very power she had sought for so long. She did not care. She would have paid such a price a thousand times over, for such rapture. She was blazing in the fire of a soul stronger than her own, burning, dying, even as that same fire strove to make her whole, to keep her hearts beating, to embrace her and make her into something greater than she was and could never be.

“NO MORE!”

Celestia could feel her wounds healing, her exhaustion gone, her heart and mind lighter and clearer, freer from shadow than they had been in a thousand years. She could sense the ponies of the village, as the light of Mi Amore’s heart flooded the valley and beyond. It enveloped them, dissolving away the webbed strands that surrounded them, waking them, sending them blinking, staggering to their hooves, breathing in the young princess’ magic in wonder.

“NO MORE!!”

And then, for Princess Mi Amore, the world fell away in a flash of light and astonishment.


It was reminiscent, in a sense, of her menarche, even as it was also like when she’d gotten her cutie mark. Yet, it was unlike them both; more complete, more all-encompassing. She was in a strange void that had no coldness, no warmth, no fullness or absence… a universe that was herself, somehow, even as it crashed against and through her, soul, body, and mind.

Images assailed her of her past. Life in the palace. Life in the cave. Some of them her memories, others as if seen by someone else. She was filled with a strange pain that somehow didn’t quite hurt, as her mind drifted back to when her mother had tried to describe giving birth to her, when she was a little filly.

Yes, a presence said gently. You are giving birth to yourself.

Yet, there was no sound, how could she hear anything? No light, how was she seeing? And everything was so overwhelming, so powerful! Terrified, Mi Amore began to panic, feeling all the possibilities of her transformation twisting around her in her fear. She was drowning in an ocean of herself, what might have been and yet could be. And with that fear, the ocean grew angry, its tides tearing at her within and without.

Mi Amore, listen to me. It’s alright, the voiceless voice said. You don’t need to be afraid. I’m here for you. I went through this, and so did Luna. I’m here for you. You’re going to be alright.

Princess Celestia? she thought.

Yes. Remember what Radiant Hope taught you. Remember the Crystal Heart. This is another magic, and while it’s both deep and powerful, it’s also one you started. Don’t try to fight it. Move with it, as it moves through you. Allow yourself to be more of who you are, and who you could be. Allow yourself to Become.

But, I don’t understand!

In truth, neither do I.

Mi Amore could see Princess Celestia near her now, the older mare’s smile loaning her new confidence.

But I’ll be here with you, dear one, every step of the way. I promise.

Intangibly, Mi Amore nodded. She relaxed, feeding herself into her transformation. Her spirit concaved into itself like a lens, focusing her into herself, even as her true self exploded outward like a newborn star.

And yet, even as she was being reborn, she felt a third presence, as well. Mi Amore could see the tethers that had pulled the Crimson Queen into this strange place-without-a-place, the bonds forged between them across the years through their constant energy exchange. Through magic… and through something else, as well.

Ignoring Celestia’s pleas of caution, Mi Amore sent her awareness across the bonds of love that existed between herself and the spider-like creature nearby.

And so, now it ends, the monster sighed. I think, in my heart, I must have wanted you to be found. How else can I explain my greatest enemy coming to my door, braving me in my own haven? I could have devoured you, ended you, a thousand times over. Not as profitable in terms of power, perhaps. But it would have been safer. Wiser. Yet, somehow, I never did.

Desperately, Mi Amore reached out to her across their link.

No! she cried. It doesn’t have to be like this! Look at me, look at what I’m doing! You could do this, too! Whatever your life was before, you could become something new, become what you should have always been, what you could have been if things had been different--!

But Mira seemed to turn her gaze away from her. At least, she seemed to be partly Mira. Parts of her were the Crimson Queen, as well. But all of her was dying.

No, child of my heart. You gave me love. And for a little while, you helped me pretend that I was more than I am. I was even happy, sometimes. But you cannot give me life, as well. I see that now. And I am so tired, too tired to become something I am not.

Mi Amore reached out to her, tried to bring her closer. Please! I can save you!

No, you can’t. I am too old. It is too late.

But--!

Please, dear heart. Mira’s words were a gentle caress. I can’t. Please. Just, remember me as I might have been… and let it happen.


Mi Amore reappeared in the cavern, Princess Celestia beside her, her ordeal completed. Celestia started to smile, then stopped. Mi Amore only looked at her with eyes full of tears, then over to the corpse of the creature she had called ‘Mother’ for the last four years of her life, its battered and singed body half-metamorphed into a pupa-like shape, its legs slowly curling under it.

Celestia looked down at the foal before her. “I’m sorry,” she said.

Mi Amore stepped to her, and Celestia hugged her tightly.

For a moment, the cave was silent.

Then, there was a slow, wet, scraping sound from the corpse of the Crimson Queen. Both alicorns looked over from their embrace, only to freeze in sheer horror.

Part of the pupal casing was sloughing off from the arachnid’s corpse, coalescing itself as it detached. The incomplete mass of limbs and chitin pulled and drew into itself the Queen’s few still-living organs, mewing, struggling to survive. The one remaining heart, its three chambers pulsing unevenly in its own ichorous glow. A lung, glistening blue and grey. A few other crippled organs, their purposes unguessed-at.

The thing fell onto the stone floor, finally shedding itself free from the once-living carcass even as it finished sucking into itself the few intact vitals that remained. It staggered drunkenly on its four remaining legs as its carapace sealed around it, insect-like wings pulling themselves free from its dripping caul of gore. It was a mockery of an alicorn foal, smaller than Mi Amore, jagged and incomplete, its long blue mane matted and slick against its face and throat. And when it opened its eyes at last, it looked upon them both with a mad hatred.

“You,” it rasped.

Celestia stepped in front of Mi Amore, and addressed the thing. “Creature, you are plainly not the Crimson Queen. We have no quarrel with you—”

The thing’s laughter was wet and foul.

“Oh, no,” it hissed through a mouthful of fangs. “You have no quarrel with me. You slew her child, shattered her ambitions, took away all she had built and longed for. And then, not satisfied with merely destroying her, you made her love you for it!”

It took in a rattling breath, then went on, “And then, even as she reeled from your final blow, you dragged her through the revelation of all she might have been and could never be, murdering her in the process.

“No, why indeed should you have quarrel with the chrysalis that remains, when you still have the bones of a queen to dance upon!”

The thing’s eyes narrowed as it looked upon the exhausted pair, then focused exclusively upon Mi Amore. The young princess shrank behind Celestia as the thing spat the last of its birthing ichor from its mouth.

“I will destroy everything you hold dear,” it vowed, green eyes burning into the terrified young mare. “I will turn everything you love against you. I will take away every heart’s dream you have ever known. And only then, only when all love is lost and all hope is gone from your soul… I will feel the life drain out of you!”

Princess Celestia sent forth an arc of golden fire, but the creature gave a wing-assisted leap upwards, avoiding the blast. Immediately, Celestia sent another spell, emerald tendrils of spiraling energy at her foe, hoping to contain it. But the thing had apparently inherited at least some of the Crimson Queen’s cunning. It crouched against the wall for the barest of instants before leaping over their heads, evading the spell in a barrel roll and flying on its new cicada wings into the forest, vanishing completely.

Celestia was already in motion, wings unfurled, determined to end this once and for all, when Princess Cadenza threw her arms around the older mare’s neck. “No, please!”

“I have to go now! It can’t have gotten far, I can burn the woods around us, force it to reveal itself—”

But the terrified filly only clung to her tighter. “Stop, listen to yourself! What are you saying?!?”

“That thing has to be destroyed!”

“That’s a foal! A foal we helped create!”

Celestia paused. Looking down, she saw, not an ally in a battle against ancient forces of evil, nor a newly-rescued heir to a missing empire. Instead, she saw a young mare, maybe all of thirteen. A foal on the cusp of adulthood who had just lost her home and everypony she held dear for the second time in her life, looking up at her with pleading eyes.

“Please,” Mi Amore said. “I know she’s dangerous. I know she hates me. But I’m going to have enemies. I always will.” Slowly, she slid down the older mare’s barrel, even as Celestia caught her in her arms, folding her wings about her.

“Please,” the filly wept. “Can’t the killing… stop?”

Gently, Celestia kissed Mi Amore’s forehead, above her newly-formed horn. “Yes,” she said. “You’re right. Forgive me.” She hugged her tighter. “And, thank you.”

The child said nothing, only snuggled closer, still crying. Celestia sighed, looking out into the wild woods beyond the cave. It probably it wouldn’t have worked anyway, she thought. And even if it would have, is that what I’ve become? A panicked slayer of the newly-created? A blind ravager of the green? An eager destroyer of life for the ‘greater good?’

She looked down at the exhausted filly-almost-mare in her arms, already dropping off from sheer exhaustion. She could feel her heart aching for the child. Shaking her head in resignation, she sighed.

Oh, Celestia, you greatest of all fools, she thought. And you had the gall to question Abacus’s choices. You truly never do learn, do you? She looked out again, this time towards the far horizon. Plainly, Mi Amore would need a new home again. And who could she count on to take her in? Indeed, who had her mother intended?

Additionally, the new alicorn not only needed guidance and support, she needed training. Star Swirl was gone centuries ago, journeying through one of his damned mirrors. Luna was still in exile. That left exactly one ‘expert’ on alicorns, if there could even be such a thing.

No, she thought. No more apprentices! Twilight is bad enough, and hopefully I won’t doom the poor girl like I did Sunset. She looked down at the bundle of mane and feathers in her arms. I’ll enroll you in school, and take you on as a special student for the training you’ll need in your new magic. That’s all.

Again, her heart ached.

I can’t, she thought firmly to herself. I can’t, it’s completely out of the question! She deserves somepony competent, somepony who can adopt her, take her in, be her family…

But who? Her shoulders sagged slightly. Luna would have been her mother’s first choice, but she’s gone. And I’ve seen now, how many con artists there are in the world. Who would take in a lost princess from a forgotten empire, without any ulterior motives? Then finish bringing her up, see to her day-to-day needs, help her with her lessons, make certain she eats enough…?

In her sleep, Mi Amore stirred slightly.

Celestia sighed, defeated.

Well, you can’t just be my ward, that much is certain. She made a sour face. I may not have Luna’s wisdom, but I can at least learn that much from my mistakes. But you’re certainly not becoming my daughter. Even if the memories of losing two mothers weren’t in the way, nopony deserves that fate.

She looked out at the horizon again, slowly, gently bringing the sun below the skyline.

I should have seen you coming, she thought. You and Twilight both. And Sunset, before that. But, somehow, I never did. It’s as if Discord is still kicking events into play from his stony prison, chuckling at my confusion.

Of course, she knew very well that the draconequus had nothing to do with the situation. Such things were simply part of life, chaos in its endless dance with pattern. It was easy to forget that fact sometimes, locked away in her marble palace.

But every now and then, life had a way of reminding her.

Alright then, child. I guess if it pleases you, you’ll be staying with me for a few years. And if it doesn’t, I’ll help you find a place that will. To her mild surprise, Celestia found herself hoping very much that the filly would want to stay.

But not as a daughter, she thought firmly. And not as a ward. We’ll find something in-between.

She took a few moments, putting the finishing touches on the sunset, allowing a nice dusk to settle in. It would be a while yet, before she would bring up the moon.

Then, she looked down at the filly curled up in her arms. And, uncertainly at first, Celestia began to sing.

Author's Note:

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The sundering of the Pillars’ fellowship, along with the spell known as Stygian’s Lament, is explained in a later story in the Sunset Rising timeline called Reunions and Laments.