• Published 6th Jul 2019
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CRISIS: Equestria - GanonFLCL



The Elements of Harmony find themselves transported to a world full of evil and darkness. On the journey home they make new friends, as well as new enemies in the form of evil counterparts to themselves.

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CRISIS: Equestria - Chapter Thirty-seven

CRISIS: Equestria

Chapter Thirty-seven: Implementation

Flathoof snapped awake for what was probably the third time in the past hour. The bed in his chamber wasn't exactly uncomfortable, just different; he was used to an uncomfortable bed, but that wasn't the problem. He actually had to admit that the zebras, at least the ones living in and near the palace, knew what comfort was. He’d never slept in such a comfortable bed in his entire life. It was just unfamiliar.

"Ugh... maybe I just need some air," he muttered, rising from the bed.

He donned the fur coat the zebras had provided for him and headed out into the hall, making for the veranda on the northern side of the palace; they’d visited it earlier that evening when Sir Zircon gave them a tour, and he had to admit the view was breathtaking. He’d never seen the moons of Equestria before, and from what Zircon said, they were their brightest and loveliest here in Zeb’ra’den. He was careful to take quiet, planned steps, as he was still getting used to walking with a new limb and the metal made awfully loud thunks every time it hit the floor.

After a short walk through the halls, he reached the entrance to the veranda, but as he stepped through the marbled archway out into the open, he noticed that he wasn’t alone. Briarthorn, to his surprise, seemed to be having similar trouble sleeping, and practically draped himself over the railing as he looked up into the night sky, with all its infinite stars. At first, Flathoof thought it better to just leave Briarthorn be, but the pegasus had already noticed him.

“Hey, there, Captain Flathoof,” Briarthorn said, dipping his head and giving him a small smile.

“Captain Briarthorn,” Flathoof replied, finding a strange comfort in being addressed by his title—former title, at any rate—again. He approached the pegasus and situated himself at his side, though he did keep just out of wing’s reach; he wasn’t in the mood for Briarthorn’s touchy-feelyness right now.

They stood in silence for a moment until Briarthorn clicked his tongue. “So, what’s keeping you up, beefcake?”

Flathoof shrugged. “Nothing special, really. This place is just so… different, and unfamiliar. I dunno…”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Briarthorn said with a frown. “But there has to be more than that for you to abandon your beauty sleep. Heh, not that you need it much,” he added with a wink.

Flathoof grunted. “No, that’s pretty much it. Had the same problem back in Hope’s Point, and at the checkpoint back in the Wastelands. I guess I just don’t feel comfortable when I’m not sleeping in my own bed.”

Briarthorn paused for a moment, itching his ear with a wingtip, then sighed. “All joking aside, I appreciate what you did. If I haven’t said ‘thanks’ enough, just let me say it again: thank you. My baby was everything to me, and losing her, well… thank you for being there when I needed somepony there with me.” He eyed Flathoof’s leg and shook his head. “I just wish we could find out how we made it out of that. I was all ready to go down with the ship, like a good Captain should. I was hoping Twily might have had something to do with it.”

Flathoof shrugged. “All we need to know is that we did. We’re alive, and we’ve reunited with all of our friends; I may be down a leg, and you may be out a ship, but we’re alive. All things considered, we’ve got it pretty good, wouldn’t you say?”

Briarthorn frowned. “I suppose. But then why can’t we sleep, huh?”

“Like I said: I’m not comfortable unless I’m sleeping in my own bed.”

“I’m the opposite: I’m more than comfortable sleeping in somepony else’s bed.”

“Yes, I noticed. I don’t think the doctors appreciated that very much. And since I know you’re going to ask,” Flathoof added, cutting Briarthorn off before he could speak, “no, that does not mean that maybe I should try sleeping in your bed instead.”

Briarthorn pursed his lips. “Am I really that predictable?”

“Yes.”

Briarthorn huffed, and reached into his pocket for the bottle of pills the Newhaven doctors had given him, as well as a tiny flask. He popped one in his mouth and took a small swig from the flask to wash the pill down, letting out a deep breath as he did so. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Huh?”

“I’m sorry I keep trying to mack on you, beefcake. I know that it probably annoys you. You wouldn’t be the first.”

Flathoof rubbed the back of his head. “Hey now, listen, I’m not annoyed by it… er, not anymore, at least,” he said. “At first, yeah, I was a little offput by how… forward you could be. But you know what, we’ve been through enough that I can look past it and see that as much of a horndog you are, you’re not a bad pony. Even if you are a shameless horndog with an alcohol problem.”

“Heh, I appreciate that.” Briarthorn sighed. “I promise not to mack on you anymore, though. Not too much, at least, ‘cause hey, I can’t help myself sometimes, and you’re primetime, y’know what I mean? But I have a little rule that I keep for myself, which is not to do that—much—with ponies I consider to be my honest-to-goodness friends. So the question is: can I call you my friend?”

Flathoof smiled, and offered Briarthorn his hoof—his real hoof, not the metal one. “I’d be proud to be called your friend, Captain.”

“Thank you, Captain.” Briarthorn smiled and accepted the hoofshake. “Besides, my other rule that I try to keep for myself is not to do that with somepony that’s clearly interested in somepony else.” He paused and shook his head. “Well, that’s not precisely true, let me rephrase that: I won’t do that to somepony that’s clearly interested in some other pony, but I have no qualms about pursuing both ponies for a little ménage à trois. So anyway, that’s why I won’t try to mack on you… not unless a certain other somepony is also present and able to be macked upon. After all, you two are an item now, right?”

Flathoof stayed quiet for a minute, then sighed. “It’s just… the big day is here. The whole purpose for me coming on this little ‘vacation’ in the first place is about to be fulfilled. Just a few hours away until… until it’s all over.”

“And you’re upset because you only just now got things all sorted with her, is that it?”

“Well… yeah… something like that.” Flathoof slumped against the railing and took a deep breath. “It’s just… I think this might be it. She might just be the mare, the one. But then… she’s from another world entirely. Not just another social class or some other culture, but from an actual other planet. And she’s leaving for home in a few hours. I want to be with her, I really do, but… but in order for me to do that, I’d have to leave my world. All my friends and family.” He grunted. “Stars, my family. If I leave, I won’t even be able to give most of them a proper goodbye. Lockwood’s the only one here… and I don’t feel right leaving him, either. I’d have to leave all that behind to go with her, and… I just don’t know if I can…”

He sighed and stood up straight again. “Sorry if I went off on a ramble, there. I don’t usually… talk about these sorts of things.”

Briarthorn sniffed, and rubbed an eye with his wing. “We’re taking hits from the same bottle, bud. And you know what? You just helped me make up my mind about something.” He, too, stood up straight and turned his full attention to Flathoof. “Mind if I ask you for a favor?”

Flathoof raised an eyebrow. “Uh… sure?”

“Good, because I’m gonna need some serious moral support for this.” His mouth twisted into a tight scowl as he turned towards the exit to the veranda. “I’m gonna do something I should’ve done a long time ago, and I’m gonna need you there to make sure I survive this little ordeal.”

“Survive? Uh… wh-what exactly am I helping you do? This isn’t anything dangerous, is it?”

“Could be. Depends,” Briarthorn replied with a shrug. “I’m gonna give Her Majesty a little piece of my mind.”

Flathoof's eyes widened. "Really now? This, I gotta see."

Flathoof followed Briarthorn back into the palace halls, making their way towards the guest chambers at a quick pace. They came to the door for the Dignitary Suite, which was all by itself on this particular hall.

Briarthorn took a deep breath, and knocked. "Here goes..."

The door opened only a moment later, but to their surprise, it was Twilight who opened it. Briarthorn opened his mouth to speak, but she quickly gestured for him to stay quiet before letting them enter. Briarthorn shook his head, bewildered, but followed after her; Flathoof did the same. As they came into the room proper, they saw Blackburn laying astride a sleeping Lockwood on a luxurious bed big enough to hold ten ponies, running a hoof through his mane and preening the feathers on his good wing. She looked happy.

Blackburn raised her head to look at her visitors, casting her gaze primarily at Briarthorn, and when she did, her happiness seemed to melt away into sorrow. She silently arose from her spot, kissing Lockwood's ear as she did, and approached the two stallions. She gave Flathoof a cursory glance, but did not seem surprised to see him. She gestured for the trio to follow her, and they made for the eastern veranda, which overlooked the majority of the city and gave a clear view of the Beacon. Everypony took a seat on the benches near the fountain, arranged such that Briarthorn and Blackburn faced one another. He stared at her with an uncomfortable intensity. Flathoof and Twilight exchanged a nervous look, waiting for the two pegasi to speak.

After a solid minute of silence, Blackburn finally spoke up. “Well, Briar?” she asked, her voice quiet.

The reaction was instant. “Oh, am I allowed to speak?” Briarthorn said through clenched teeth.

Blackburn stared at the floor. “Of course.”

“Your subject thanks you,” Briarthorn growled.

Blackburn winced. “Not ‘friend’ anymore, Briar?”

"You tell me.”

“You... you are my friend."

Briarthorn sneered, and repeated himself. “Your subject thanks you.”

Twilight glanced nervously between the two of them. “Uh... your Majesty, I don’t understand. Why did you come to get me?”

Blackburn continued to look at Briarthorn plaintively, but answered nonetheless. Her voice was strained. “Twilight Sparkle, please remain where you are. Events will become clear.”

“Will they? Forgive us if we’re not you, Blackburn.” Briarthorn spat. “Forgive us for wanting to make our decisions ourselves, for wanting to know the truth, for wanting to know what schemes you've got cooked up.”

Blackburn closed her eyes and put her hooves to her head. “Deserve this. Can’t avoid it, so must endure it,” she muttered to herself.

Flathoof put his hoof on Briarthorn's shoulder. "Briarthorn, I know you asked me here for support, but all I'm seeing is you getting snippy with Her Majesty here, and frankly I'm still not sure exactly why."

Briarthorn sighed. “You remember the medical exam we had after we made it to Newhaven? Remember how they treated me compared to you?”

Flathoof nodded. “Yeah, a little. The doctors put you on way more stuff than me, and I had to have a limb amputated and replaced. They said you were sick.”

"Well, that's one way of putting it. 'Sick.' Yes, sick, let's go with that."

Twilight swallowed uncomfortably and tapped her hooves together. “About that, Briarthorn, um... it’s an issue of your body’s reaction to the Diffusion-”

Briarthorn scowled; Twilight stopped mid-sentence, taken aback by the look. “I know all that, Twily. Everypony knows about Diffusion Sickness. Me more than most. I am sorry if I seem a bit upset, but you see, before the doctors told me, I had no idea it was life-threatening.”

Twilight stared at the floor. “I know. You collapsed on the Thunder, and Blackburn said not to tell you...” She deflated at Briarthorn's sudden look of dismay. "I’m so sorry," she said, barely above a whisper.

Flathoof looked at Blackburn, shaking his head in disbelief. “How could you do something like that? How could you decide that Briarthorn shouldn't be in charge of his own medical issues?”

Blackburn gave Flathoof a short glance before turning back to the floor. “Just... didn’t want it to hurt.”

“Me, or you?” Briarthorn grunted.

“Both. But... always knew it would be... inevitable."

Flathoof balked. “Inevitable?”

Blackburn gave him an appraising look through her guilt. “Was initially confused, seeing you with Briar at doorway. Understandable now: he sees you as trustworthy. Likely bonding experience from surviving the crash of the Thunder. Would not be surprised if he even agreed to stop coital requests. Personally, am forever grateful to you. Seeing resolve of future brother-in-law is heartening.”

Briarthorn leaned his head back, earning a look of worry from Twilight. He gave a weak laugh. “Nice deflecting. Masterful. You always understand everything, Blackburn. You always did. Your whole family was always good when it came to plans. Maybe that’s why your line went the royalty route.”

He turned his head in Twilight’s direction, bringing their faces close as he stage-whispered to her: “Yet, my family was just as important. We had just as much clout in getting Hope’s Point going, way back then. We mentioned that, right? It was my grandfather that helped work out the shield technology for the Diffusion systems and the city-wide force field. When they figured out the one, they figured out the others. With that kind of influence, I could’ve been ‘King Briarthorn’, were my relatives so inclined." He gave Blackburn a coy grin. "Hell, for a while, I thought I was on my way to the throne, anyway.”

Flathoof's jaw dropped, and he shot Blackburn a look. “You and... him?

Blackburn frowned and looked away. “That was a long time ago. Different ponies, then, both of us. Maybe things would be different...”

Briarthorn rolled his eyes. “Look, I’m not mad about that, not really, because it was a lie." He waved a hoof in Flathoof's direction. "I wasn’t ever really on my way to the throne, because she never really thought it would work." He turned back to Blackburn. "She never did, because I guess she always assumed I was doomed. Doomed like my father and his father before him. I’ve never been anything but a tool. A pathetic, pain-crazed drunk with a useful family legacy,”

Blackburn sighed. “Briar... I did truly treasure our time. You made being the princess of Hope’s Point tolerable. You were daring, fast, fun... but, when you got your cutie mark, and the Diffusion tests confirmed it..." She gulped. “I remembered the stories. Your grandfather died a lunatic, rambling about beauty and wonder: his brain, completely deteriorated. Your father died standing up in the hangar: his heart just stopped. What could I-”

“You could respect me.”

“I did. You were the only one who stayed with me through the years, aside from Gadget and Crossfire. You were the only pilot I let work alone. The only one who I let get away with the worst of the worst-”

“Because you resigned me to my 'fate'!Briarthorn snapped. She fell silent. "You, with all your plans, resigned me to my death, so you gave me every vice I could imagine, and got me hooked on so much toxicity that it wasn’t a matter of my willpower, anymore, Blackburn. You drank with me. You competed with me! You wanted me to drink. So, I drank. You drew a happy, ignorant cloud over me so that you wouldn’t feel bad when I died. You wanted to make sure that I indulged in excess so it would be my own fault. So nopony would feel bad. So you wouldn’t feel bad.”

“But... then Blackburn was wrong?" Twilight asked. "She said it would make you upset that your lifestyle would have to change.”

Briarthorn laughed, though it was cold. “Of course I would be, at first! No one wants to go through rehab. At first. No, that was a lie by omission. I know it’s a lie, because Blackburn really is that smart. She is smart enough to find a way to let me die and her suffer the least amount of guilt. No, Twily, see: it wouldn’t be me that would be upset that my lifestyle changed. It would be her.

"You planned all of this," he said, addressing Blackburn directly. "You saw what you thought was the future, and in your infinite wisdom, you decided that I would suffer more if I knew just how bad my future was getting. How fast I was dying. You took away my choice in the matter. You wanted me an addict, so you made me an addict. To drink; to sex; to Hope’s Point; to you.”

Blackburn stared at him, her lip quivering. “You are still my friend, Briarthorn, and I still care for you.”

Briarthorn turned to Flathoof and Twilight. “Do you see her denying anything?”

They shook their heads.

“I still care for you,” Blackburn whispered. " You are... a dear friend. A brother. And I love you as such."

“Interesting phrasing, like I’d still be hopeful to tap that.” Briarthorn sighed, and turned back to Blackburn. “You still love me, huh? Well, sure, I love you too, but you’re marrying Lockwood, and I’m happy for you. I know you’re happier that way. Your love for him runs way stronger than your love for me... it's a different kind of love. Lockwood challenged you from the start, made you think, made you work. I learned way too late that that was what you wanted. I'm not jealous, mind, just... disappointed. You never really let me have a chance.

"But now our past is ultimately irrelevant! Your scheme fell through when the Thunder exploded. But... and here's what bothers me: you know you were wrong, and you obviously regret what happened, but... you don't seem upset. You were already prepared. You already knew that I was going to do this thing I’m doing. You know I want one last answer.”

Blackburn nodded and took a deep breath, and her voice recovered its typical assuredness. “Expected you to approach. Last night before new friends leave. Insomnia mounting, coupled with pain from injuries. Would consider this last real opportunity to talk with me before my duties kept you from me. I would be too busy.”

Briarthorn clicked his tongue. "It’s almost unfair, y'know. You still have all the answers. So, let's hear it: what are you going to do to fix this? ‘Cause this little problem we have here has been going on for a while, and nothing’s really… changed…”

Blackburn's mouth curled in a small smile, and she glanced at Twilight. “Twilight Sparkle is my answer.”

Twilight turned red as the two stallions shifted their gazes to her. "Wh-what?!” she yelped. “What do I have to do with this?”

Blackburn stood and spoke to Twilight, he voice and poise as regal as possible, even dropping her terseness: “As Queen of Hope's Point, I have but one humble request for you, Twilight Sparkle: when you and your friends depart, please, take my dearest Captain Briarthorn with you. Allow him to live the rest of his days in the peace and tranquility of your world, where nopony can hurt him... least of all, me.”

Briarthorn arched an eyebrow. “Are you for real, Queenie? Pushing your problem onto somepony else like that?”

“If that is how you interpret the gesture, then yes. Her world is more peaceful than ours. More pleasant. Your life there would be far less taxing. Maybe their healers would even be able to cure you.” Blackburn sighed. “But if you do not wish to-”

Briarthorn raised a hoof, drawing her silence, but then was still for a long moment, staring at Blackburn until even she looked uncomfortable. Finally, he blinked, and shook his head. “No, no... I see it. It’s.. this… this is a good plan. I wish I’d thought of it.” Briarthorn turned to Twilight. “Well? Her Majesty asked you a question, Twily.”

Twilight paused in thought for a long moment, biting her lip and pressing her hooves together nervously. When she came to her decision, she stood and bowed her head. “I would be honored to accept your envoy, Your Majesty.”

Briarthorn blinked, a small grin slowly crawling across his face. “You're sure about this, Twily? Think about what you’re doing: hosting an exchange student for life. I’m not exactly easy to handle, either. Lots of responsibility.”

Twilight’s pose faltered, and she tilted her head at Briarthorn to give him an incredulous look. “What am I supposed to say? 'No, Briarthorn, you're gonna stay here, tough luck’?”

Briarthorn laughed, and turned to Blackburn. He knelt, bowing his head low as he took the queen’s hoof, and kissed it. “I humbly request to resign from your service, my Queen.”

Blackburn’s voice remained distant, and her face was sad. “Your service is recognized, Captain Briarthorn of Hope’s Point, and you are hereby honorably discharged.”

Briarthorn turned, bowing before Twilight and taking her hoof, and he kissed it with gusto. "As for you, my Lady Twily, I am in your service until the end of my days, however long that may be." He kissed her hoof a few more times, moving up her pastern to her fetlock.

Twilight turned red. "Ah... o-of course. Er-"

Suddenly, the sky grew dark.

"Eh? What happened to the light?" Flathoof murmured.

"The Beacon," Blackburn said, pointing in the tower's direction. The Beacon had lost all of its light, standing now as just a tall, silver tower with only the light of the moon to reveal it.

Twilight gasped. "Oh no! Tick Tock!"

As she rushed for the door, Blackburn reached out a hoof to stop her. "Hold, Twilight Sparkle. This is Zebra territory. Their traditions and rules must be observed. Would be best to inform Sir Zircon."

Twilight frowned. "B-but... oh, alright. I'm sure he'd let us come along, anyway. His room is this way," she said, heading left down the hallway.

Briarthorn coughed. "Call it a hunch, but... I think, perhaps, maybe, it might be quicker to head for dear Lady Rarity's chambers instead."

"What? Rarity? Why?"

He grinned. "Oh... no reason. Just a hunch. So come on, we've gotta help ol' Tickity out, what're we all standing around for?" He cantered off to the right down the hallway.

Flathoof waited until Briarthorn was out of earshot, then shook his head. "Are you two sure you're doing the right thing, sending him off to another world like this?"

"Our world can't give him what he needs. Even in Utopia, he would not be happy," Blackburn said.

Twilight nodded. "And if it makes him happy coming with us, I'd be happy to have him along. Now come on, we've gotta find Sir Zircon."

Flathoof hummed, then sighed and followed after the others, though his thoughts weren't entirely focused on finding Sir Zircon or Tick Tock's wellbeing. He was thinking about somepony, though; the question was, was she thinking about him? Would she be as accepting of him if he said he wanted to do what Briarthorn was doing? Was that even something to consider? It was a lot to take in; too much for now, in fact. He pushed those thoughts aside. They could wait until later.

***

Tick Tock eyed the alicorn stallion with a sense of dread, mystified by his identity and intention. He carried himself with an abundance of pride, and his very form permeated the courtyard with an aura of pure power. He inspected the statue of the former Warden Silvertongue with great interest, studying its features like one looking in a mirror; Tick Tock couldn’t deny the astounding similarity between them, but was certain they couldn’t be the same pony. The only difference was that the statue wore a simple monocle over his left eye, while the alicorn’s left eye had been replaced with a glowing orb of an unidentifiable substance. She wasn’t sure what, exactly, the substance was, but the magical energy flowing from it felt distinctly familiar, even without her Timekeeper. She shifted her gaze back and forth between him and the body of the assassin, which stood stiff at attention by his side; without a head, the body looked awkward posing in such a fashion. Still, she could not let her guard down, lest the assassin, or this new visitor, get the better of her.

“The zebras possess a fine grasp of the classical arts, do they not?” the alicorn asked. He turned his head slightly to glance at Tick Tock, and gave her a small smile as he gestured to her portal structure. “I must commend you, too, Miss Tock, for your own talent. I am impressed by your craftwork; it displays an incredible grasp for the art of constructing a functional portal focal point. I would expect nothing less from a Chronomancer of such stature.”

Tick Tock froze. “Y-you know my name?”

The alicorn’s smile widened, his unnaturally perfect teeth gleaming like the sun. “Of course I do. I make it a habit to discern everything I can about individuals of a certain interest to me, and you Chronomancers are always of great interest. I have personally known two of your predecessors, as a point of fact, though that was in days long past; regretfully, I’ve known none in more recent years, but there was a time where I had more ample opportunity to pursue such interests.”

“Milord, if I may ask… what are you doing here?” the assassin’s head said. Tick Tock jumped at the voice; she had forgotten he was right there next to her. “Not that I do not appreciate your company, but you can understand my confusion. How did you even-”

The alicorn scowled and turned his gaze upon the assassin. “That information is not relevant to you, Shadowstep. I would appreciate you not interrupting my conversation with Miss Tock, if you would be so kind.”

Shadowstep? Well, at least I finally know the bloody maniac’s name.

“But milord, I don’t understand what’s going on. Why can’t I control my body? You said-”

“I did make claim that such a thing would be within your power, correct, but I am afraid that my wishes take precedence over yours in this situation, otherwise you would very much be able to manipulate your body. You see, it is my magicks that allow your body to function in the first place; your body obeys me, for now, and will until I otherwise see fit. I repeat myself: stay silent, that I may converse with Miss Tock in peace. It is well within my power to force you, so be glad I am simply requesting this of you.”

“I don’t really see how you and I can have any sort of peaceful conversation,” Tick Tock said, carefully inching her way towards the nearest pillar so she had something to hide behind in case things went south, “seeing as you sent this bleedin’ psycho to murder me. Multiple times, I might add. On that matter, I don’t even know your name, while you seem to be fully aware of mine. I didn’t think you would, since your pet assassin never used it; he just called me by my title and that’s it. I try to make it a habit to know the ponies I’m talking to.”

“What good is his name to you, Chronomancer, when you’re just going to be dead soon?” Shadowstep snarled. He glanced over at the alicorn. “Please, milord, let me finish my work here and murder this little miscreant. I promise I won’t get sidetracked or distracted this time; I’ll just slit her throat and be done with it.”

“It confounds me, Shadowstep, that you are displaying an astounding lack of professionalism at present. I thought I had taught you better,” the alicorn snorted. He turned his attention back to Tick Tock and nodded politely. “I am certain I require no proper introduction, at any rate, Miss Tock. I have seen you comparing myself to this statue,” he added, patting the statue’s shoulder. “You are no slouch in your observations, and as such you can surely discern the resemblance.”

Tick Tock gulped. “So it’s true, then? You’re this... SIlvertongue? The former Warden of Harmonia, current Warden of Nihila?”

He bowed. “One and the same. Though there are a number of inaccuracies in that statement, due to some recent changes in circumstances.”

“But… that would make you-”

“One thousand years old as of today, correct.” Silvertongue smiled and brushed his jacket, adjusted his medals, and straightened his tie. “Truth be told, I feel much younger than that. It is a fine birthday gift I have received, to be able to return to lands in which I was born and raised. I have missed the southern world deeply; the joy I feel in my heart shines like the sun. And oh, how I have missed the sun and its warm embrace. I rather wish I had the time to wait for sunrise.” He coughed. “But I digress. Where were we?”

“We weren’t anywhere,” Tick Tock said, raising her sword. “You can talk as flowery as you like, but it’s all rubbish to me. I know what you’ve done in the past, and I know what you’ve been trying to do to me lately. If you think I trust anything you say while you’ve still got this bloody assassin trying to kill me-”

“I am wounded by your harsh words, Miss Tock,” Silvertongue said with a frown. “Here I would have thought you more astute than some paranoid conspiracy theorist. If your termination was my intent, my dear, your death would have long since passed and been forgotten. That you still draw breath to this moment should show a great deal of restraint in that regard.”

The assassin hemmed and hawed. “M-milord! What are you saying? You specifically sent me to kill her-”

Silvertongue scowled at the assassin, silencing him. “Shadowstep’s initial assignment was to terminate you, Miss Tock, I will not deny that, and if that is the source of your distrust then I cannot blame you. After your initial meeting with him, however… the situation became altered in such a fashion that your death was no longer a priority; had he succeeded in his subsequent attempt, it might not have been a positive outcome. I came into some knowledge that I found quite interesting indeed, and I simply needed the time to put all the pieces into place. Shadowstep’s encounters with you motivated you to usher the Elements of Harmony from my city with all due haste, and to elect traveling upon a quicker, more dangerous route, which would allow me the time I required.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t understand a bloody thing you just said,” Tick Tock grunted. “Besides, how would taking a faster route give you more time? You’ve it backwards, mate.”

“I don’t expect you to understand, for you lack context and hard data. As to your question, you forget that, as Nihila’s Warden, my dominion over the lands of north is absolute; I merely needed to initiate a minor earthquake spell in the general vicinity of the Redblade Mountains to trigger a catastrophic event and that your group would survive. I ensured that you followed the course of my choosing in the manner of my choosing; every choice you made was one I’d already made for you.”

Tick Tock sneered. “Well that explains my calculations being totally broken.”

“Quite. You will also note that once my dear assassin was afflicted with this garish curse of undeath, his subsequent encounters with you turned out in your favor, despite him having numerous additional advantages over you. Were it not for me, you would have a met a bloody end many times over.” Silvertongue turned to Shadowstep and cracked a small grin. “Had I left him in complete control of his body when he first reawakened, it would have happened in the Blood Mire. Had I not ordered him to withdraw for but a moment after pursuing your party for days, it would have happened at the elevator leading to Hope’s Point. Had I not given him specific directives to disable Hope’s Point’s shield, board your royal friend’s airship, and disable it, it would have happened at any point during your stay in the city; granted, his technique in disabling the shield and your ship were a mite excessive, but no harm done.”

Tick Tock scowled. “Tell that to the ponies that died in that attack on Hope’s Point.”

“Regrettable, yes, but necessary to ensure the success of my endeavors. Every death wrought by my hooves is calculated, and the weight of my sins is a mountain upon my shoulders.” Silvertongue shook his head. “Every action Shadowstep took presented the illusion that you and your friends were in some mortal peril. You never really were. I required you to remain alive, such that you may construct this portal for me. Granted, I could have managed the task myself at some point in the future—my patience is limitless—but why delay for tomorrow what can be accomplished today?”

Shadowstep balked. “Wh-what?! Milord, why? Why would you assign me a task specifically to fail?”

“Shadowstep, you did not fail in your task in the slightest. In fact, you accomplished it with astounding success. I am here, and the portal has been constructed, has it not? Your task from the outset of granting you your curse was to infiltrate the Elements of Harmony and disable the Beacon, that I may safely enter the southern realm without incident, for you see, the Beacon would reject my presence what with my ascension. Your attack aboard their ship was merely to delay them long enough for me to complete the research and development of my new powers.”

“Well… well surely, now that I’ve completed that task, I can kill the Chronomancer, right? Please, milord… please, grant me this wish…”

Tick Tock put her guard up and readied herself.

Silvertongue glanced in her direction. “Miss Tock, you may lower your weapon- rather, my weapon. Your usage of my old sword, while admirable, is no longer necessary.” With a brief flash of his horn, the sword in Tick Tock’s magical hold disintegrated. “I will repeat, hopefully for the last time: I wish no ill-tidings upon you. It is true that I only required you remain alive long enough to construct this portal for me, but if I intended to kill you now, you would exist in the same state as that blade is.”

“R-right,” Tick Tock gulped. “Still, forgive me if I don’t feel safe with your pet around, especially since he wants me dead, even if you claim you don’t.”

“You’re damn right I want you dead!” Shadowstep snapped. “If I’d killed you in the first place, none of this ever would’ve happened to me! I might not feel pain or exhaustion, but every fiber of my being feels wrong. It feels wrong to be a rotting, trotting corpse, to have an insatiable hunger for flesh that eats at the back of my mind like a festering parasite. I am an abomination because of you! You deserve nothing less than the same fate!”

“You deserve every damn bloody bit of suffering you get for what you tried to do to me, and for what you did to Flathhoof’s friend, and for causing the deaths of Gadget and Crossfire!” Tick Tock snapped back. “I’m sure we’re not the only victims, either, so you deserve what you’ve got for what you’ve done to everypony you’ve ever killed in cold blood. Now you’re just as much of a monster on the outside as the inside.”

Silvertongue sighed. “Miss Tock, if my assassin’s continued existence troubles you such that you and I cannot have a cordial conversation, allow me to provide a solution.” He turned to Shadowstep and frowned. “Shadowstep, my loyal servant, you have served your purpose, but now I have no further use for you.”

Shadowstep’s eyes widened. “What? W-wait, milord-”

“Ah, but I promised you a reward, did I not? I claimed I would remove the curse of undeath from you. My word is my bond, Shadowstep, and so I shall cleanse you of this curse… and grant you the sweet release of true death at last. Your suffering is at an end, and you may rest in piece.”

“No!”

A bright blast of red light vaporized Shadowstep’s head. His body remained at attention, completely dominated not at all affected by its owner’s destruction.

Tick Tock stared at the scorched marble where the assassin’s head had once been, bewildered, terrified, and relieved. “You… you killed him? Just like that?”

“I released him,” Silvertongue corrected. “His description of his condition was not an exaggeration, and your belief that he deserved the suffering he experienced is not misplaced. However, he was my servant, and he performed his task admirably. Death for him releases him from his suffering, and should, I hope, provide you with the sense of security you so require. A positive outcome for all involved.”

Tick Tock shook her head. “I… I don’t… I’m so confused right now.” She stared at Silvertongue, desperately trying to understand what was happening, but nothing made any sense. “You say you still want me alive… why? You have the power the destroy me utterly, and you know that it is my job to prevent you from doing whatever you’re planning on doing with that portal. So why let me live?”

Silvertongue smirked. “So eager for death, are you, that you would question my generosity? I am well aware of your bravado, Miss Tock, but this seems misplaced.”

“Eager for answers. If your word is your bond and you say you want to keep me alive, then I’ll hold you to it for now. So, what are you planning?”

“You’ll understand in due time, Miss Tock. For now, I have business to attend to, though such a task is trivial for the power I now possess.” He turned his back to Tick Tock, and commanded Shadowstep’s body to stand before him. With a flourish of magic, he shredded the assassin’s body into a shower of gore, then arranged the visceral remains into a circular pattern on the floor; Tick Tock had to hold her nose to prevent heaving at the sudden influx of the putrid stench of rotting flesh and bile. “Thus, I would enjoy a conversation partner in the meantime, and I have some specific questions I wish to ask you. Seeing as I have not had the pleasure of a Chronomancer for company in many ages, this should prove enlightening.”

Tick Tock did not recognize the pattern he had created with Shadowstep’s blood in the least, though some of the runic markings along the edges looked familiar, almost gryphon-like. “Do you really think I’d even consider telling you anything useful?” she asked. “You’re crazy if you think I’m going to help you-"

“I do not require your assistance, Miss Tock,” he said with a grin. “I am well aware of all the mechanics of every task I have set before me. I merely wish for… a chat, if you will. It has been centuries since I have been able to partake in idle conversation with another individual. Nothing so droll as, ‘how do you like the weather?’, for we are in Zeb’ra’den and any creature would gladly go on at length about the bone-chilling cold, save perhaps the zebras themselves. However, what if I were to ask what your view of perfection is? What is ‘perfect’, to you?”

She raised an eyebrow. In all her wildest imaginings, she never thought she’d be invited to partake in a philosophical discussion with an alicorn, or with a Warden—former Warden, to be exact—of Harmonia. While part of her brain wanted her to answer and cater to his whim, to partake in this discussion, the other, more job-oriented part told her that this “idle conversation” was a distraction. He was up to something.

She’d humor him, though, in her own way, to try and figure out what he was doing. “Perfection is the highest degree of excellence. That is its very definition.”

He smiled. “And a dismally sterile definition it is,” he said, shaking his head. He paced about the courtyard, flexing his wings every few steps. “It looks at the ideal with such a positive spin that one cannot help but see the flaw in it; ironic, in that the definition of perfection is in itself imperfect. Perfection can be more succinctly defined as ‘without flaw’, for even if something is at the highest degree of excellence, is it not possible for it to still retain some manner of flaw in it? A perfect spell still drains its user of some magic and is therefore limited by its user; were it perfect, it would be limitless regardless of who casts the spell.

“In addition, by its current definition, perfection can easily be tainted by the misinformed opinions of others. What I might consider to be the perfect meal might to another be an affront upon their tongue, akin to poison. Considering my healthy diet of magmaberries, I hold no doubt that I am not mistaken in having such a belief.

“If something, be it an object or an idea, is perfect, then no single creature should be able to claim it has any possible flaw in it, regardless of their mental state, their religious or philosophical beliefs, their upbringing, their morals and values, their gender, race, or creed, or any other such factor. Would you not agree?”

Tick Tock snorted. “When you put it that way, I suppose you have a point.”

Silvertongue smiled. "Ah! It feels good to partake in such conversation again. Not since the gryphon's have I been able to debate and discuss the complexities of our universe."

Tick Tock scrunched up her nose. “Now, fair’s fair: I answered your question, so perhaps you can answer one of mine? If you wish to have a conversation and not just bloody talk at me.”

“Certainly, my dear. ‘Fair’s fair’, as you put it.”

“How did you become an alicorn?”

He laughed, but did not cease his activities; his magic seemed to be carrying on completely of its own accord, despite him not even paying any mind to it, as he was entirely focused on Tick Tock and had been for the last several minutes. “Ah, I do suppose that bears explanation, doesn’t it? Well, you’ll discover the secret soon enough as to how I managed such a feat, but that wasn’t really-”

There came a loud commotion from the courtyard gate. A cadre of zebra soldiers had arrived, and they streamed into the courtyard like a swarm of bees, weapons at the ready. Not a one looked anything but perplexed at the situation that lay before them: an alicorn—to the zebras, a god—that bore a striking resemblance to the statue of the revered former Warden of Harmonia; their sacred Beacon, once a pillar of light that could be seen for miles around, now dimmed and dull; and the Chronomancer, a respected figure in their culture, in a state of curious duress and irritation.

“Ah, it would seem we have company,” Silvertongue said. He glanced about the crowd of zebras, humming to himself in thought. “The common zebra soldier is not granted right to speak in rhyming meter, if I am not mistaken, only in plain rhyme. Is any amongst you of noble standing? As a proper showing of respect, I must address he who has the highest rank in his meter.”

One soldier stepped forward, and the others around him cleared out to give him room to stand and speak. He displayed his grand runesword with an intimidating flourish. Tick Tock recognized Sir Zircon immediately once the surrounding soldiers had moved out of his way, though she noted that he didn’t look like he’d been on duty before arriving: his armor was missing, leaving him in only regular clothes, and his mane was disheveled and out of place. He looked utterly displeased to be here, as though he'd been interrupted from something important.

“T’would be me, curious stranger,” said Zircon.

“Dost thou mean us any danger?

For if thou dost, then guard thyself,

lest thee find thyself in poor health.”

Silvertongue smiled, though he seemed more amused than gratified. “Ah, eight syllables in no particular sort of true poetic meter, though I did notice an attempt. It would seem as though centuries of interaction with ponies has dulled the zebras’ art for poetry. In my time, zebras holding your rank—minor Lords—spoke in perfect iambic tetrameter. Like so.” He cleared his throat.

“My good Sir knight, thy fear can rest.

My goals are pure; be not distressed.

If thou hast doubt, let me be clear:

I mean no harm or danger here,

for under this, thy Light of Morn,

an oath by me to all was sworn,

and so all know my name, I trust,

for here, it lies, upon my bust.”

And with a small grin, he added, “I might be mildly rusty, what with the lack of practice.”

Zircon gawked at him, mouth slightly agape, his eyes shifting back and forth between Silvertongue and the statue beside him. The other soldiers murmured and rumbled amongst themselves, putting the same pieces together that Tick Tock had. After a moment, Zircon lifted a hoof, and the whispers stopped. He stepped forward several steps, until he was a mere runesword’s length away.

Then, to Tick Tock’s surprise, he bowed down, sword at his side; the other soldiers followed suit in unison. “Methinks ‘tis some fantastic dream

to meet one of such high esteem.

And though I know not why or how,

it pleases me to see you now.”

Silvertongue bowed his head in respect. “Forgive me, good Sir knight, if I do not continue in meter, for as mentioned I am out of practice, and in mixed company it is only polite to address all parties as clearly and concisely as possible. As holder of the superior social standing, I feel I must make things comfortable for my honored associate, Miss Tock, who has no knowledge of poetry as far as I am aware.”

“I’ll recite a bloody poem for you, if you’d like. I’m just having trouble finding a fitting rhyme for ‘wanker’,” Tick Tock grunted.

Zircon made to speak, rising to his hooves, but Silvertongue eased him off with a small gesture of his hoof. “Worry not, Sir knight, for Miss Tock has every right to speak with me in such a crude manner. I am afraid I’ve made her life a living Hell for these past few weeks, and hold no grudge against any disrespect she shows.”

Zircon nodded, and returned to the formation of soldiers to stand at attention.

Tick Tock watched the display with disgust and curiosity. “How is it that you have such pull with the zebras, eh? Last I read, you’re the one that proper well crushed them before the civil war down here.”

“And if there’s one thing the zebras respect, it is a capable, superior warrior. That’s why they aligned themselves with Utopia during the civil war, not with the renegades that went off to form Pandemonium,” Silvertongue said, sneering a little at the last words. “I did not truly appreciate the rewards of such treatment until I required construction of the southern Beacon on the south pole, right here in this spot. It pleases me to see that even after centuries, the zebras still hold true to their reverence, not for my own sake but because I appreciate that sort of honest commitment.”

“What would happen then, I wonder, if they found out what really happened up north, hmm?”

Silvertongue laughed. “If you refer to the gryphons, I daresay they might decide I deserve a medal and a parade. The zebras celebrated for days when the gryphons departed to the northern lands; they’ve always been at odds with one another due to their beliefs, which take like fire takes to water. At any rate,” he continued, “my first task is complete, so if you would all permit me a moment, I have something… wondrous to show you.”

He lit his horn brightly again, and a ring of flames sprung up around the blood-drenched runic circle. Tick Tock could feel a powerful energy flow forth from the ring, accompanied by a strong gravitational pull. It was not unlike the effects of a Void portal, but she knew it wasn’t Void magic; she could recognize that, but this felt alien to her. His magic covered the circle with a dome-shaped barrier that reinforced itself with layer after layer of energy. When at last this was done, he cleared his throat.

“Le sang est l'essence de notre vie

La magie, notre raison d'exister

Leur réunion libérera des conflits

Notre monde qui en a tant enduré

Par la Lumière, nous aidons ceux que nous aimons

Par les Ténèbres, nous vainquons toute appréhension

Ensemble, elles sont un pouvoir sans fin

Qui changera un mal en un bien!

Apparais, Alicorne, et réponds de tes péchés!”

An incredible explosive force rang out from within the barrier, still loud and powerful enough to shake the earth and deafen the ears of all around the courtyard, cracking pillars, knocking some of the zebra soldiers off-balance, and completely shattering the statue of Silvertongue. Tick Tock remained upright, but only just, and she was glad that Silvertongue had put a barrier in place; had he not, the blast might have been lethal. A cloud of glittering golden smoke was left in the wake of the explosion, shining like diamonds in sand catching a glimpse of the sun. When the smoke cleared and the barrier was lowered, the zebras and Tick Tock let out a collective gasp.

Another alicorn now stood at the center of where the runic circle had been. She was slightly shorter than Silvertongue himself, and much less robust; thin and elegant, a swan in both figure and color, for her coat was of the purest white Tick Tock had ever seen, with a sheen so bright that it resembled the light of the moon. Her mane and tail gleamed with golden, starry luster, and they flowed and wreathed around her, a gorgeous, silken gown fit for a queen. A small tiara made of pure crystal rested upon her head, adorned with an extravagant collection of gems that changed color as they caught the light—Prism Stars, so rounded and pure that they could not be natural. A matching necklace hung from her neck, with matching bracelets on each leg just above the hoof. She was otherwise nude, allowing her graceful, luxurious figure to be on full display, an object of purity and innocence. Her horn was long and had a rounded tip, worthy of the envy of any unicorn; her wingspan was considerable, easily outstripping even the most well endowed pegasus. Upon her flank, her cutie mark: a golden halo bound by elongated silver wings, each shining with the brightness of a star.

This new alicorn stood and stared at Silvertongue with a sullen frown, and as Tick Tock watched her she could not help but feel as miserable and confused as the alicorn looked.

“My Lady Harmonia,” Silvertongue said, bowing his head low to the floor and spreading his wings in salute. “Words cannot express the elation I feel in seeing you again. Forgive me for extracting you from the Dreaming so abruptly; were there another method, I would have utilized it, but this is the only manner in which you and I may converse, sad to say.” When he rose and looked into her eyes, he, too, grew sad, his smile melting into a frown. “Are you not pleased to see me?”

“I know not if I should be... my dearest Warden,” Harmonia said, turning from him to look up at the dimmed Beacon. “I had thought thee lost to me for a great many years, and I yearned to see thee again, for thou art a treasure within my soul. Thine actions in days long past brought elation and unity to many a pony who needed guidance and love, and with thee at my side, I was able to watch the ponies in my care know peace and hope. I could not bear to part with thee, but I knew thou wouldst serve the greater good of ponies everywhere if I did. While I could not support thy war efforts, I trusted thee to go forth with good cause.

“But after thy return and second departure… you constructed a veil beyond which I could not see for all my trying. For ages, I knew not of thy fate, and feared thee perished or worse, but… I have heard tale of thine actions beyond the veil.” She turned back to Silvertongue, her eyes dark with anguish. “I sent thee beyond the veil, and my belief was that thou wouldst bring the same joy and laughter to the ponies of the north that thou didst here. But thou didst not… thou didst not…”

Silvertongue’s frown only deepened, and his golden eye dimmed to a subtle, sorrowful flicker. “My Lady, surely you can see that every action I have taken, I have taken in the name of balance and perfection. It is your ideal that the ponies of the world be able to live in harmony with one another… and that was the task I set out to accomplish. And I succeeded. The ponies of this land live together as one, and they know no sickness, or war, or hunger, or sorrow. Death is treated as another part of life, and the ponies here fear it not. While the zebras and ponies have occasional disputes, they are able to put aside their differences and live together in peace.

“Up north, it is quite the opposite. The ponies there are well acquainted with all of these ‘negative’ concepts, and they have come to accept them as a normal part of their everyday lives. They do not fear death, for they are prepared to face it every day. They know corruption, and hatred, and destruction, but they do not falter before them, no matter how they disapprove. They survive, and they survive together. And while it took time for the technology to develop, eventually, they sought out the ponies of your realm, not to make war, but to interact together and enjoy their bounty. But they still returned home, after a time, because despite all the terrible things there, it was still home.”

Harmonia paused, and shook her head. “Thy words… holdeth some truth, I must admit. I have witnessed many a visitor to these lands from the north, and while the taint of foul magicks lingered upon their souls, they did not seem to be in anguish; while those held within my bounty are ignorant of the horrors of life, those from the north seemed to be emboldened by those same horrors. But, I know not the fate of the surely countless ponies that do not visit these lands, and from the information I have been granted, I fear for their lives and their souls. I hear tales that foals perish in the streets, hungry and alone; that mothers and fathers draw their last breaths in their sleep, their lives taken by force; that young colts and fillies venture out to visit my realm, but never arrive, having been devoured by the terrors wrought by the Dark magicks of the very land around them.

“Even if thy words, sweet as ever, hold some truth to them, I fear that thou art neglecting to reveal information that may sully thy words and tarnish their delicious fragrance into some foul odor. It brings me comfort to hear thy voice and taste thy words upon the air again, but I fear their intent.” Harmonia frowned, her sorrow and regret palpable in the air. “I have learned of… a great atrocity thou hast committed, that because of thine actions, the gryphon's are no more, wiped clean from this earth like a stain. Please, my Warden, tell me that these words are untrue.”

Harmonia’s words made Silvertongue’s entire posture slip, and for the brief moment before he recovered, he appeared as a young colt being scolded by his mother. “My Lady, do you imply that I am… lying to you? To you, my Lady, the one who groomed me into the stallion I am today, who taught me everything I know about benevolence? While I anticipated these inquiries, I did not expect them to be posed in such a... wounding fashion.”

He stood for a long moment, then took a deep breath and sighed. “A sacrifice was required to appease Nihila, lest she oppose my construction of the Beacons and seek vengeance against you, my Lady. If I allowed her to continue, this entire continent would be bathed in blood; I convinced her to pursue a different target. As the gryphons had been opposed to her attempts to conquer the north by allying with me against her, she sought vengeance against them, instead, and crafted a lethal plague with which to efficiently carry out her genocide. As I was ‘serving’ as her Warden at the time, it was my task to ensure her plan’s success, and thus I am directly responsible.”

Harmonia's dismay wafted through the air, drowning the rest of the courtyard in a dim fog. “No… my Warden, no…”

Several of the zebras began to whisper and rumble amongst themselves.

“Did he say ‘Nihila’?”

“He can’t have served under her.”

“Nihila asked him to destroy the gryphons?”

“Are they truly gone?”

“Why would he answer to Nihila?”

Only Zircon remained silent, watching events unfold with profound interest.

“Be that as it may,” Silvertongue continued, “said sacrifice took many generations to bear fruit, and for many a year I had thought it to be in vain; none regret that choice more than I, and it weighs heavy upon my heart. But after many centuries of ‘service’, I have accomplished the task I set out to do long, long ago: I have extinguished Nihila’s essence. She lives no more.”

This time, it was Harmonia’s turn to be shocked; the sorrow washed from her eyes, replaced by a bright lucidity. “Thou hast… destroyed my counterpart?”

“Do not act so surprised, my Lady. You can clearly see that I have… changed, since we last spoke. I destroyed her and took her essence for myself, that her power may be used in a manner which I see more fitting. You knew from the very beginning that the entire reason I left for the north was to unseat Nihila from her position of power; this just happens to be the method I chose.”

Harmonia shook her head in disbelief at first, then seemed to accept it, hanging her head in despair. “Yes… of course. Thou hast ascended, that much is plain for all to see. Thine aura glows with an inverse power rivaling mine own. But I do not believe that thou hast truly destroyed her… not completely.”

Silvertongue smiled. “True. Her ‘life’ may have ended, and the majority of her essence may now reside within me, but I know that alicorns cannot truly be destroyed. Even now, she waits within the Dreaming, biding her time before she regenerates enough strength to make some feeble attempt at reclaiming her essence from me.” He shook his head. “I do not plan on allowing that to occur.”

“Why hast thou done this, my Warden? No… my Warden no longer, thou hast made that apparent. Why hast thou ascended and become opposed to me… Silvertongue?”

Silvertongue smirked. “Opposed? My Lady, I do not wish to oppose you. I wish for us to unite as one, to bring balance and perfection the likes of which have never been seen before. No more conflict, no more hatred, no more disease or famine, no more suffering, no more death. Just bliss, peace, life, and love. That… is all that I desire. For our world. For every creature. For us.” He reached out his hoof and grasped hers, bringing it to rest upon his heart. “We need not be opposed to maintain our world’s balance between the forces of magic. We can coexist together. Our bond shall forge a new era in this world, and all we need to do is build it.”

Harmonia stared into his eyes. “Such a world… t’would be a wonderful place. One where all the little creatures, big and small, could live in harmony. Such a world I have seen in my dreams.” She frowned and shook her head. “But… such a world is a fantasy, Silvertongue. We both know that no matter how peaceful and bright a pony’s life might be, even the brightest star contains but a speck of darkness. Should that darkness fester and grow, even within the heart of one, this blissful world would come to an end, and I would have little in ways to counteract it.”

Silvertongue drew her closer, until their lips were but a hair’s breadth apart. “That is where I come in, my Lady. With Nihila’s essence at my beck and call, I have complete and utter control over the darkness within the hearts of mortals. Nihila twisted and cultivated that darkness to grow so that she may oppose you. I will syphon it: take it from them and absorb it into myself, that I may maintain my essence and maintain the harmonious world these creatures live in.”

“Thy wish is to… drain the darkness from the hearts of mortals… that they may all live in peace…” Harmonia remained silent for a long while, then drew her hoof away, letting it fall like a leaf, and pulled away from him entirely. “I… cannot agree to such an arrangement.”

Silvertongue stood in shock and fumbled for words. “What? But… it is in your nature to embrace the peace and bliss I propose. Why… why would you oppose it?”

“Whilst mine essence urges me to seek and nurture harmony amongst ponies, my counterpart included, it is not in my nature to directly influence others, only to guide and to advise. Thy proposal is that we make our world into one of pure harmony and bliss… but that would require that we force ponies, against their will, to submit to our… thy whims.”

“You would need not do any such thing. The responsibility would be my own, and as the representative of darkness, it would be within my nature to do so.” He reached for her hoof. “My Lady, please-”

Harmonia flinched away. “Even if the darkness within these mortals is so terrible, I would rather they live as they are, than to force them to live as I’d prefer. I cannot agree to such an arrangement. 'Tis my nature.”

Silvertongue frowned, and his lip quivered. “My Lady… you do not approve? I have spent centuries culturing this plan, to forge an ideal world by your side not as opposed counterparts, but as bonded partners. We would build our world together so that all would live in perfect harmony and peace, the ideal world you strive for, and… you do not approve?

“No. I do not.”

Silvertongue remained silent for a long, long moment, his mouth curled in a pained frown, his eyes squeezed shut. When his eyes opened , his golden one flashed, bright as the sun, and he scowled and lit up his horn. “I see now that my own bias has blinded me, my Lady. I had hoped you would join me at my side and make our world the one we both desire… but if you wish to oppose me, so be it.”

Another loud noise interrupted him, a loud whoosh like a small jet flying by. Instead of a jet, however, a pegasus landed in the courtyard right next to Tick Tock. She recognized his silky purple cloak and hood immediately by the markings on it, those of the Harmony Guard, specifically that of the Warden to Harmonia himself. Mémoire had arrived, on schedule to the second; Tick Tock was glad that for once, somepony knew how to be punctual.

“You will stop zis at once!” Mémoire shouted, brandishing a rapier upon his hoof and pointing it at Silvertongue. “I know what is going on ‘ere, and you will go no furzer!”

Tick Tock couldn’t help but feel less than impressed, or safe for that matter, considering that he was threatening Silvertongue, an alicorn, with a puny weapon that looked positively flaccid compared to all the hefty weapons that the zebra soldiers were carrying and pointing at him. In the back of her mind, he couldn’t help but think that everypony—and everyzebra—present was just a few words away from getting into a sword-swinging contest, in all aspects of the idea.

Zircon was the first to speak, quickly bringing his runesword to bear to face the newcomer to the congregation. “Hold, knave! Let me make one thing clear:

thy presence is not welcome here!

Thou shalt leave this place with due haste,

lest my blade make thee into paste.”

Mémoire sneered in Zircon’s direction. “Fool, I ‘ave no quarrel wiz you or your soldiers. Zis stallion before you, ‘e is not to be trusted. I am ‘ere to stop ‘im from doing somezing terrible. I must protect Lady ‘armonia!”

“Ah, I see!” Silvertongue laughed, though he did not dim his horn. “You must be Lady Harmonia’s new ‘Warden’. I recognize the Harmony Guard crest upon your cloak, now. It would certainly explain how you are aware of the situation at hoof.”

“Oui, I ‘ave been privvy to zee entire conversation. I ‘eard everyzing, saw everyzing. I will not allow zis to continue. You will not imperil Lady ‘armonia, zis I swear!”

“A charming fellow, that you are, and were I of the jealous sort, I would be quite envious that my Lady has chosen such a young, virile colt to serve in my place. I know you are not my first replacement, though.” He turned to Harmonia, a cruel smirk across his lips. “How many Wardens have you appointed since me, my Lady? How many have enjoyed your warm embrace? Four? Ten? Twenty? Even Nihila knew I was a paragon of a stallion; she leapt at the opportunity to claim me for her own.”

“You are no longer ‘armonia’s Warden, Silvertongue,” Mémoire snapped. “She ‘as said it ‘erself.”

Silvertongue scowled. “Lady Harmonia, if you would. You can posture yourself as unprofessionally as you please in referring to me without any sort of proper title, but do not disrespect your ‘station’, as it were. Not in my presence, not ever. If you wish to pretend to be a true Warden, then act as such, otherwise cease this farce and fly elsewhere. We have no need of a foolish colt here, deluded by sweet nothings in his ear that truly meant nothing.”

“This colt hath no respect to share,

for Harmonia, Goddess fair,” Zircon said.

He hoisted his sword up in his tail, looking all but ready to use it as intended on Mémoire.

“‘Tis why our kind holds no concern

for his role, which he did not earn.”

“Foolish zebra!” Mémoire shouted. “Do you not know what ‘e is going to do? Can you not see what ‘e is planning? We are on zee same side, ‘ere! We must protect Lady ‘armonia!”

Tick Tock flustered. “Sir Zircon, really, are you so blinded by idolization that you can’t see that your bloody ‘hero’ here is not what he seems to be? You heard Harmonia say that she doesn’t approve of what he’s doing, and you’re really going to side with him?”

Zircon paused, his sword lowering just a little, and glanced sideways at Silvertongue.

“‘Tis true, his words hath worried me,

but his plan, I cannot foresee.”

“What more of his plan do you need to hear? He’s planning on destroying the world as we know it and remaking it the way he thinks is best.”

“And ‘e is planning to do to Lady 'armonia what ‘e did to Nihila!” Mémoire said. “We cannot allow zis!”

“Enough of this prattling,” Silvertongue huffed. He turned to Tick Tock, his face contorted in such anger that she feared for her life. “Miss Tock, I never had a chance to answer your question properly. While you are certainly aware by now that I destroyed Nihila’s body and ascended by absorbing her essence, you are not aware of how such a feat was accomplished. Allow me to demonstrate!” He lit up his horn a bright red.

“Non!” Mémoire shouted. He bolted at Silvertongue, rapier at ready, with such speed that Tick Tock barely saw him move.

But Silvertongue, without even turning to look or aim, fired a fearsome blast of magic at the Warden to Harmonia. There was a split second of light and the sound of burning and screaming; then, there was nothing. Where Mémoire had once been, now there was just a pile of ash and a wisp of smoke; what was left of his rapier fell with a clang to the cobblestone exposed under the melted snow.

“Holy shite!” Tick Tock blurted.

“My Warden!” Harmonia shrieked. She turned to Silvertongue in horror. “What hast thou done?!”

“My Lady Harmonia fair,

please, feeleth not any despair.”

Zircon said, hefting his massive runesword in Silvertongue’s direction and bringing it up to guard himself.

“I am Zircon, Knight of Black Flame,

and-”

Silvertongue blasted him with the same burst of magic he’d used on Mémoire. Zircon’s blade absorbed almost the entirety of the blast, and was disintegrated for its troubles; the explosive force of his runesword’s destruction sent Zircon himself flying all the way into the outer courtyard wall, where he crumbled in a heap with a barely audible grunt.

“Sir Zircon has fallen!” The other zebras drew their weapons in response. “Charge! For Zeb’ra’den!” shouted a number of them.

And charge they did, though they did not make it far before a wall of light washed over the lot of them. Where once were dozens of zebra soldiers, now there was nothing more than scorched stone, melted snow, and charred bits of metal that had escaped the blast.

Tick Tock slowly backed away; SIlvertongue did not look in her direction, but merely continued with his work, lighting his horn a bright red. She wasn’t sure if she should be thankful or terrified that he did not consider a threat. Probably both.

“Silvertongue… why?” Harmonia murmured. Tears welled in her eyes, her lip quivered, and her voice caught in the back of her throat. “Why art thou-”

Silvertongue snorted. “You claim to uphold the ideals of harmony and balance, to desire nothing more than for all ponies under your veil to be happy and carefree. That cannot happen if you lack the ambition to ensure it. Ponies are by their very nature unable to live in total bliss and peace. There will always be conflict. Even in the Utopia I built from nothing for you, ponies only achieved near-perfection; they still bicker and argue; they still grow older and die. If you want ponies everywhere to live in blissful ignorance of the evils of life, you must make them. Not through war or by law, but by molding their very essence, removing their ability to comprehend such things. Only then can life be perfect, for only then are no flaws that can be perceived. You lack that conviction, and you always have. So now, I will take your power, and I will accomplish with it what you refuse to do yourself.

“Alicorne, voici ton heure dernière,” he said, his voice loud and booming,

“Face à ma force, tu finiras par fléchir

J'entends à présent l'ultime Lumière

Dans les Ténèbres, je t'enverrai dépérir

Ton enveloppe physique, pour l'éternité

De sang et de magie sera dépossédée!”

The moment he completed his incantation—for that was the only thing Tick Tock could call it—Silvertongue’s horn’s glow shifted from a dark, menacing red to a brilliant, pure gold, and a lance of shining magic struck Harmonia in the chest. She screamed, her voice like that of a million foals writhing in agony. Though she struggled and writhed under the assault, eventually she succumbed and collapsed to her knees. The conflicting scent of sulfur and sugar filled the air. The air throughout the courtyard crackled with energy, shattering marble columns and tearing the foundation of defunct Beacon to shreds. All the snow in the courtyard melted, and within seconds, thousands upon thousands of flowers sprouted, bloomed, and died. Equestria’s two moons dimmed, as though their light had been syphoned away, and storm clouds blanketed the sky, blotting out the rapidly diminishing stars. A glow surrounded Harmonia’s body, and the light from it flowed freely into Silvertongue’s horn.

With a loud bang, the glow surrounding Harmonia vanished. Purple smoke, remnants of a magical blast, smouldered upon the side of Silvertongue’s neck, and he turned to face the source, his good eye alight with anger, his golden eye shining brighter than the sun, illuminating the courtyard in place of the vanishing moonlight. “It would seem as though I have more guests of honor,” he said with a scowl. “Uninvited guests, to be sure.”

“Whatever you’re doing, whoever-you-are, it’s going to stop right now,” said Twilight Sparkle. She and the other Elements of Harmony had arrived in the courtyard, standing tall and ready within Twilight’s protective barrier; Tick Tock had never seen the six of them looking quite so impressive, and marveled at what a little rest and food could do. Behind them, Flathoof, Lockwood, Queen Blackburn, Briarthorn, and Shroud had also come along, but they kept their distance.

“Twilight!” Tick Tock shouted, scrambling to close the distance between herself and the only thing in the entire courtyard that might be able to protect her. “About bloody time you showed up! What took you? Did I need to send a written invitation?”

“Sir Zircon told us to wait in our chambers and let him and his squad handle the disturbance here,” Twilight explained. “We got tired of waiting. We were worried about you, and it’s been a while since Sir Zircon and the others left.” She looked around the courtyard, puzzled. “What’s going on here? Where are all the zebras? Who is this-”

A groan nearby drew their attention.

“Sir Zircon!” Rarity shouted. She hurried from the barrier to the wall where Zircon had collapsed, and knelt at his side, hoisting the bloodied zebra’s head into her lap. “Oh, darling, speak to me! Please!”

Zircon could only cough, but he smiled at Rarity and took her hoof in his. Twilight, in the meantime, extended her shield to encompass them as well.

Rarity scowled, and turned to face Silvertongue. “What have you done to him you-” She paused a moment, flustered. “You… monster? Everypony else is seeing what I am seeing, yes? Is that an alicorn stallion there? He looks... familiar.”

“And well he should, because he’s not just any alicorn stallion, Rarity,” Tick Tock grunted. She turned to the Silvertongue and sneered. “This here is that bloody Silvertongue fellow you lot tried to warn Harmonia and her Warden about. The same one from that memory vision the old gryphon showed you.”

“What? Impossible,” Twilight said. “That would make him centuries old. Probably close to a full thousand, if all the dates are correct.”

“One thousand years old today, as a point of fact,” Silvertongue said, turning his attention fully upon them. He lit up his horn, placing a barrier around himself and the portal structure. “I take it that you have studied a great deal about my exploits, Miss Sparkle. I should feel flattered, but your tone certainly doesn’t not inspire such a feeling.”

“You certainly don’t look that old,” Rarity said. “If anything, you’re dreamier now than you were in the visions we saw.” She saw Applejack and Rainbow give her disapproving glances. “I said that out loud, didn’t I?”

“It would seem that nopony here is aware that one of the perks of being a Warden is exceedingly unnatural longevity, should the alicorn in question desire to keep you as their Warden for an extended period.” Silvertongue smiled. “It amuses me that, even though he possesses not my gift, Elder Gilderoy has managed to extend his life as well. Likely through gryphon-made bionics. A pity he must rely on such outdated technomagicks. How is that old bird?”

“Y’all got a lot o’ nerve,” Applejack spat, “askin’ how he is after y’all betrayed ‘n’ killed off his entire race just ‘cause somepony told ya to. Don’t you act like you care one bit about him.”

“On the contrary, I care very much for Elder Gilderoy. He and were close acquaintances, you know? Were I able to access his sanctuary I would gladly pay him a visit, maybe update his technomagicks. I assure you, you are mistaken about the complex inner workings of events depicted in Elder Gilderoy’s memories, which were surely tainted by his unfortunate and misinformed bias, but I don’t suppose you have any interest in listening to my side of the story.” Silvertongue shrugged and brushed off his dress suit. “At any rate, this certainly has been the most eventful birthday I’ve partaken in in centuries. Hence, I do not appreciate a congregation of ‘party crashers’, as one would say.”

“Ooh, it’s your birthday?” Pinkie gasped. She took a deep breath. “♫Happy Birthday to-”

“Pinkie,” Rainbow interrupted. “Bad guy. Remember?”

Pinkie blushed. “Oh. Right.” She shook her head, and her expression whiplashed from excited to stern. “You! You didn’t invite us to your party! Also, you killed a bunch of innocent gryphons, and probably a bunch of ponies, too! Those are way more important! That makes you a bad guy, and in case you don’t know who we are, we don’t like bad guys! We kick bad guys’ butts!”

“Yeah! I don’t know if you know this, but where we’re from, we’ve stopped all sorts of world-conquering nutjobs just like you.” Rainbow boxed her hooves as they crackled with lightning. “Bring it on, chump. This may not be our planet, but you’re crazy if you think we’re gonna just let you take it over.”

“I’m pretty sure he bloody well knows who you lot are,” Tick Tock said. “He knows who I am, because that assassin that’s been after me was working for him. It doesn’t take a genius to know that everything that psycho knew, so does he.”

“Even without Shadowstep’s involvement, I would have been made well aware of the true identities of Miss Dash and her associates in due time,” Silvertongue said. “He merely hastened the process in which I was able to acquire it, and most of the credit for the research belongs to you, Miss Tock. Don’t sell yourself short, my dear.”

“What have you done to Harmonia?” Twilight demanded, increasing her horn’s glow and reinforcing her barrier, ready for Silvertongue’s attack. “Where are the other zebras? Where’s Warden Mémoire?”

“As to the latter, that fool is dead, and deservedly so for his attempts to assault a being with power that surpasses his at such an exponential level. As are the other zebras, for much the same reasons; only that one, over there”—he pointed at Zircon—“survived, due to his runesword absorbing the majority of the blast. A lucky one, in that his respect towards myself and Harmonia was such that I felt no need exert further effort and end his life. As for Harmonia, I had been in the process of absorbing her essence, much as I had done with Nihila’s, until you lot so rudely interrupted.”

Pinkie gasped. “Wait… you’re the one Nihila is seeking revenge on? You’re why she tried to take over Red?”

Silvertongue looked genuinely puzzled. “I beg your pardon? Your words themselves do not confuse me, so much as the fact that you are somehow aware-” He paused, and smiled. “Ah. I see. A cunning plan, indeed. Subtle. Creative. I am flattered that her attempt at vengeance utilized a scheme with so many layers. Clever mare. A pity it fell apart.”

“Okay, now I’m the one that’s confused,” Rainbow said. “How do you know what we’re talking about?”

“I think it’s pretty obvious now,” Twilight said, narrowing her eyes. Again, she brightened her horn’s glow and reinforced her barrier; everything Silvertongue said made her more hesitant to let down her guard. “Listen to the way he talks, Rainbow. Remind you of anypony?”

Rainbow paused, then brightened in realization. “Wait… wait, no, that… that can’t be right. Can it? I mean, how? Why? What does that have anything to do with him taking over the world?”

“Your head is a flurry of questions, Miss Dash, and you think too small,” Silvertongue said. He chuckled. “I believe you will receive your answers in due time. However, I must regretfully inform everypony that I have new matters to attend to. If you’ll give me but a moment.”

“Not so fast!” Twilight shouted. “You think we’re going to just let you do whatever it is you think you’re doing?”

Silvertongue smiled. “Yes, I do believe you will. If not by polite tact, then by force.”

He ignited his horn and dropped his shield, firing a blast of glowing red magic directly at Twilight’s barrier. The blast struck with such explosive force that it flattened several of the courtyard’s decorative columns and shook the very foundation of the Beacon, causing it to shudder and groan. The first layer of Twilight’s protective shield shattered like glass, bits of magical energy falling to the floor and evaporating into mist.

“Hmm… it would seem as though you are well-versed in protective shielding,” Silvertongue said with a cheeky grin. “Impressive.”

“Get him, girls!” Twilight shouted.

Rainbow rocketed out of the protective bubble, pulling a large chunk with her that surrounded her in a miniature shield of her own. Applejack followed suit, protected now by a thick layer of marble and a magical shield; Pinkie did so as well, now clad in her tight blue spandex with gold trim and a bright red helmet.

“Most impressive,” Silvertongue commented as the trio approached him.

He lit up his horn and blasted all three at once with beams of light. All three were knocked flying back into Twilight’s barrier, cracking through the second layer of protection and shattering their own individual shields as well. In a panic, the three of them hurried back into the relative safety of Twilight’s barrier.

"Okay, uh... change of plans," Rainbow muttered. "Goldilocks here packs a punch."

Silvertongue adjusted his tie. "If we're quite through with these time-wasting shenanigans, I have important work to do."

He ignited his horn, and with a simple, disinterested look, he fired a burst of energy at the Eternal Eye resting within Tick Tock’s portal construct. The light from the blast spread out across the structure’s frame, reaching out and grasping onto the edges bit by bit, like a spider web. As the last streams of light filled the structure, a fierce rumble shook the courtyard, and an honest-to-goodness portal opened within the confines of the construct, granting a view of the endless, enigmatic, and beautiful abyss beyond.

Tick Tock gasped. “Wh-what?" she sputtered. "Y-you just opened a-a-a bloody portal, mate! You c-can’t do that, not.... not without p-p-proper knowledge of how they work. How did you-” Silvertongue turned, and pulled from his pocket a tiny silver pocket watch; Tick Tock paled. “M-my Timekeeper! You- how- but-”

“There is an astounding amount of information within this little device, far more than anypony could hope to grasp in a lifetime,” Silvertongue said, opening the watch and twisting the dial. “Luckily, my ascended state of being gives me a certain level of omnipotence, and I was able to divulge all I needed. Its capabilities are seemingly endless, and they reflect the power and creativity of the wielder to such a degree that in my hooves there is no limit to what I can accomplish.”

He stepped towards the portal, adjusting dials as he went, then turned back to Tick Tock. “Now then, Miss Tock, I believe you wanted an answer for why I left you alive, correct? It’s because only a Chronomancer can truly appreciate the magnitude of what I am setting out to do. I know you will want to stop me, and I eagerly await your attempt, for all it will do is confirm my theories. So, before I depart, I wish to say that I have taken a certain interest in what this device calls… ‘Equestria Prime’.”

“No! No no no! You psycho, you can’t-” She turned to Twilight and the others. “Quick, we have to stop him!”

Twilight nodded and lit up her horn. “On it.”

Silvertongue tapped his head. “Oh, and because I must ensure I have time to to prepare myself for the inevitable pursuit—again, you appreciate my actions and would naturally oppose them—I require a certain amount of distraction, such that my pursuers are not nipping at my hooves, so to speak.” He tilted his head just slightly, and smiled. “Though I did not expect the opportunity that has presented itself to do so. This will do nicely, a much better solution than I'd anticipated. Hello, Shroud.”

Shroud jumped, and pointed at herself. “Are… are you talking to me?”

“That I am, and it brings me great delight to be in your presence again. Welcome back.”

Shroud froze up, and her eyes shined with a bright green glow. She lit her horn and fired at Twilight; Blackburn moved and took the blast in the chest. Though it left no physical marks, Blackburn still reeled from the blast and tumbled to the floor. Flathoof and Briarthorn quickly flanked Shroud and brought her to the ground before she could fire another blast at anypony else. She went down without much struggle.

“BB!” Lockwood shouted, at her side before she could hit the ground. “BB! Are you okay?”

She gurgled in response, blood trickling from her mouth.

While the others frantically tried to see to Blackburn and ensure that Shroud was subdued, Tick Tock bolted after SIlvertongue as he entered the portal. As soon as he disappeared through to the other side, though, the portal shrunk. “No!” Tick Tock exclaimed, leaping through the air in an attempt to reach the closing tear. It snapped shut just as she reached it, and she slammed into the surrounding construct instead. She let loose a string of obscenities so vulgar, so vile, that everypony present was rendered speechless, and silence hung in the air of the courtyard like a thick mist.

The silence broke with a flash and a pop as six more mares joined the congregation. "Ah, it appears as though we have arrived with some degree of punctuality," Starlight said, elated. "They have not yet departed for their homeworld. Most splendid timing."

"Great, now what?" Rainbow grunted. She and Applejack took point in front of the others. "Who invited these jerks?"

"Haven't y'all had your fill yet?" Applejack huffed. "We've got enough to deal with, here. We don't need more o' this evil clone horseapples."

The six new arrivals glanced about at the scene, curious and confused. "Uh... what happened here? Look like a warzone," Havocwing murmured.

"Your father happened," Twilight said, stepping alongside Rainbow and Applejack. "Kinda convenient that you bunch show up just now."

"F-father?! He was here?!" Starlight exclaimed. "Where is he?"

"He vanished through a portal just a minute ago, after killing dozens of zebras, Harmonia's Warden, Harmonia herself, nearly killing our friends Blackburn and Zircon, and he certainly would have tried to kill us if he hasn't been in such a hurry."

"Yeah, so forgive us if we ain't too glad ta see y'all," Applejack added.

"Zircon? That sounds-" Insipid gasped, then effectively destroyed what was left of the silence with a high-pitched wail. “Zirky! Oh no! My boyfriend!” she shouted. In a blur of silver, gold, and black, she was at Zircon’s side, embracing him with such fervor that she knocked Rarity aside. “You’re hurt! Somepony, like, help! Red! Get over here!”

“Boyfriend?” Velvet said, quirking an eyebrow. “Wait, what? You have a boyfriend?”

“Yeah, and he’s totally hurt! Please, you gotta help!”

Rarity grunted, but kept her distance. “He is not her boyfriend. He would say so himself if he were not injured, and I am certain that she isn’t helping his condition any by being in such close proximity. He needs help.”

“So does my BB!” Lockwood shouted, his face contorted in pain as he tried to absorb her own. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her!”

"His what?" Havocwing asked. She frowned when she saw him crouched over another mare. "Oh..."

“Nopony here knows any proper Restomancy,” Twilight said. “We need to get them to the zebra healers immediately. Come on-"

“There’s no time!” Tick Tock snapped. “We need to reopen this portal immediately! Everything else can wait-"

"Tick Tock, whatever it is Silvertongue is up to, it can wait until we make sure our friends are alive and well." She turned to Harmonia and frowned. "But without Harmonia..." She turned to Briarthorn. "Briarthorn, you're the fastest flier here other than Rainbow. Can you go let the healers know what's going on while we try to settle things out here?"

"Of course! I'll be back in two shakes of my tail," Briarthorn said with a salute before rocketing off.

“Red, you can help them both, at least until some real healers get herr,” Grayscale suggested, nudging her sister forward. "Might help our cause, too."

"Yeah, good idea, Gray," Havocwing agreed. She slapped Velvet on the shoulder. "Go on, use that... thing you do. Just try not to gross anypony out this time."

"Why should we trust that you're going to help, hmm?" Rarity asked. "This could be a trick."

"If it's a trick, he's not going to last long anyway, not looking like that. What have you got to lose by letting us help?"

“Okay, look,” Velvet huffed, “I’m all for trying to get all buddy-buddy with everypony now, but seriously, somepony needs to explain to me what the buck is going on that Insipid has a boyfriend while I can’t even find a guy just for some casual, raunchy-”

Grayscaled grunted. “Red, help first, ask questions later.”

Velvet rolled her eyes and trotted over. “Fine, fine. Move over everypony, the doctor is in.” She grumbled to herself as she approached Zircon , and slid her blood tendrils along his wounds, which began healing rapidly. She clicked her tongue. “Dammit, figures that Insipid snagged a total hottie, too. And a zebra. Hey, is what they say about zebras true?” she asked, looking at Rarity. "I hear they've got huge-"

Rarity turned red and coughed. “I… I h-haven’t the foggiest what you mean. Shouldn't you be focused on helping?”

Applejack gasped, jabbing a hoof in Insipid’s direction. “Wait a sec- that hat! That’s my hat!”

Insipid paused to glance upward at the hat on her head. “Oh. Right, it is.” With a casual effort, she tossed the hat back to Applejack; it landed in the melted snow at her hooves. “Here you go. Now, I have to get back to, like, panicking over my dying boyfriend.” And she did just that.

Applejack took her hat up in her hooves and checked it all over for damage. Satisfied, she replaced it on her head, then grunted. “What gives? What’re y’all doin’ here, anyhow? And actin' all... helpful.”

"Yeah, last time they were acting all buddy-buddy like this they were just trying to butter us up for... whatever it was they had planned," Rainbow added.

Tick Tock spat in the snow. “You bloody well know why they’re here. They’re in cahoots with that rotten Silvertongue fellow, and have been all along. They’re here to distract us from chasing after him, and they're doing a bang up job right now.”

“I would advise you to cease the utilization of derogatory language directed at our father,” Starlight said. “Our intended purpose here is amicable and we bear none of you any ill will, but invectives visited upon our father will be met with harsh response.”

“And threatening our friend will be met with equally harsh response, Starlight,” Twilight said. “Why are you all here, if not to antagonize us?”

Starlight and her sisters shared brief glances with one another. “We are here to… well, we had hoped you and your companions could assist us in ameliorating some concerns of ours. However, in light of recent events, I have doubt that any of you would be willing to offer assistance.”

“Wait, you want our help?” Rainbow asked. “After all you’ve done to us?”

“That is correct, Rainbow Dash,” Starlight said with a bow. “Though considering that our father’s relation to us seems to be an unfortunate additional blemish upon our trustworthiness, I express little hope that you would deign to grant us that assistance. Seeing as he, too, would also hold the information we seek, that he has departed brings us no joy.”

A groan from the body of Harmonia drew the attention of the collective group. “Now I see… the connection. Thou art… Silvertongue’s progeny…”

“Harmonia!” Twilight shouted, rushing to the fallen alicorn’s side. “Thank goodness you’re still alive.”

“I am... not long for this... mortal realm, my dear,” Harmonia breathed. “My former Warden’s... incantation was too great... for this body to bear. He hath stolen... most of my essence... and with it... my power.”

Starlight raised an eyebrow. "That voice... were you the one that communicated with us in that dream state?"

Harmonia nodded. "That I am. It pleases me... to see that my words... have inspired thee... to change thy ways..."

"What are you two talking about?" Twilight asked.

"After our prior encounter, Sparkle, my sisters and I underwent an... ordeal," Starlight said. "Harmonia has just confirmed her involvement, though I know not the capacity."

Twilight rubbed her chin. "She... helped you?"

"Yeah, seems that way," Grayscale said. "Don't know why or how, though."

"Thy souls were tainted... tainted by the essence of my counterpart, Nihila," Harmonia explained. "When her essence rebelled... against thy rejection of her philosophy... I stepped in to... protect thee. In doing so... Nihila's essence... no longer shall... influence thy thoughts."

Tick Tock trotted over. “Forgive me if I sound brash, my Lady Harmonia, but we must hurry after your former Warden. We need to catch him before he arrives at his intended destination. This is a lot to ask, but we need that portal opened.”

“I am afraid… I can no longer… assist thee in thy task… Chronomancer.” Harmonia coughed. “This mortal body… lacks the strength…”

Twilight shook her head. “That's alright, it can wait. Our priority should be to help you and our friends-”

“You don’t get it, Twilight!” Tick Tock snapped. “Silvertongue said he left me alive because he knew I would appreciate his words. I know where he is headed, and whatever his plan is, nothing good can come of his arrival there. Chronomancer guidelines assert that the protection of Equestria Prime comes at the highest possible priority, absolutely no exceptions. Whatever is happening here and now can wait, because then and there is more important.”

“What could possible be more important than our friends living or dying?”

“The entirety of reality living or dying.”

A silence filled the courtyard.

Twilight blinked. “What?”

“It would take too long to explain, but if Silvertongue reaches Equestria Prime, anything he does there could have drastic effects on any and all Equestrias everywhere. Mine, yours, every single Equestria is in danger. We have to go after him, and we have to do it now.” Tick Tock took a deep breath. “Luckily, I am well versed in how to open the portal, I was only lacking in the power capacity to open one.”

“All the more reason to help Harmonia, then. She was our only source of the kind of power you need-”

“Not anymore. I certainly hoped I could still count on her assistance, but another option has presented itself.” Tick Tock turned to Starlight. “Your presence may or may not have been intended as a distraction, Starlight, but you seem to insist you have good intentions. So, time to prove it: you have the power and the ability to do the same as your father, to open a portal. Your magical strength alone isn’t enough, but your control over Void magicks will give us some leeway. Prove you can be trusted, if you're so keen on that idea."

“Hold on, you’re asking her to help you chase down and stop her father?”

Starlight quirked an eyebrow. “What portion of her proposal perplexed you, Sparkle? It sounded perfectly coherent to me.”

“So are you in, or not?” Tick Tock asked.

Starlight turned to her sisters, and nodded. “There is no discernable reason for why I would not acquiesce to your request, Chronomancer. My sisters and I have already come to an agreement amongst ourselves that, in our seeking of answers to our questions about our existence, we would see to it that the Elements of Harmony would not view us as adversaries. Thus, assisting you in this endeavor should endear us to them. And, should it not, our father, too, would surely possess the answers we seek, and this would allow us to seek him out in pursuit of these answers. It is truly of no benefit to us in any manner of speaking to deny you your request for assistance.”

“A simple ‘yes’ would have sufficed.” Tick Tock shook her head. “Now, opening the portal is easy, if one knows how to do so. You don’t, I do, so I’m going to direct your magical flow with my own.” She stood behind Starlight, and pointed the other unicorn towards the portal. “Whenever you’re ready-”

“Hold on, you’re going to trust them, just like that?” Rainbow interjected.

Tick Tock glared at Rainbow. “As I said, my priority right now is catching Silvertongue before he reaches Equestria Prime. As I cannot relay a message to any of my counterparts in the Equestrias further down the line he must travel, I need to pursue him myself, at any cost. If Starlight chooses to betray me now or later, it is of no consequence; she is my only source of transportation at present, so loathe though I am to trust her after our history, I have no choice. Besides, she benefits from catching her father, too, so all the more reason for her to assist me.”

“But-”

“If you do not wish to assist me, Rainbow Dash, then sit down and keep your bloody trap shut,” Tick Tock grunted. “You’d be a fool not to go along with this, as Starlight’s power is now your only source of transportation home. We have to burrow through the Void to reach your realm first, anyway, as that is the route Silvertongue must take-”

“Wait, Silvertongue is heading to our world?” Twilight interjected.

“It will be his first stop on the route through the Equestrias between this world and Equestria Prime, yes. He started in Equestria-V, and so must burrow through the Void to reach Equestria-IV—your world—followed by Equestria-III and so forth until he reaches Equestria Prime. Now, if nopony has anything to add, Starlight and I need to get to work.”

Twilight turned to her friends, then back to Tick Tock. “How can we help?”

Tick Tock turned her attention back to Starlight. “I’ll let you know if we need any, Twilight. Now then, Starlight? Channel your magic at full force directly at the Eternal Eye at the center of the construct,” she said, pointing at the portal structure. "No holding back."

“Affirmative,” Starlight said. She lit up her horn and, with a mighty roar, fired a stream of magic at the gemstone. The energy wave spasmed, pulsing and vibrating in the air, until at last it steadied itself and sustained the form of a continuous, focused beam of light.

Tick Tock lit up her own horn and channeled her magic through Starlight's beam. The gemstone at the construct's center flashed and rippled outwards with energy, but the light did not quite reach the structure's outer ring. The energy feedback was such that her head felt like it was on fire; was this how it felt to be as strong as Twilight was?

She grumbled to herself, despite the headache. “Blast it all.”

“What manner of conundrum has beset you, Chronomancer?”

“Suffice to say, even a unicorn of your stature and control over the Void doesn't possess enough magic to open a portal alone. While normally I’d enjoy saying you’re not as powerful as you think you are… this is not one of those times I wish you were just a showboating braggart. Bloody brilliant.”

Starlight grunted. “Impossible. My power is insurmountable-”

“Maybe for a unicorn, but I guess we need the strength of an alicorn after all. Dammit!”

“Hold on!” Havocwing interjected. “Sis, remember when we helped pops resist Nihila’s magic way back? Together, we were able to hold up against the exact thing we need here: the power of an alicorn. Right? I’m right, aren’t I?”

Starlight beamed. “I do recall this event. Come then, join me sisters!”

Red Velvet grunted and stood from her spot near Lockwood and Blackburn. "Sorry, kiddo, I gotta go help over there, now. I don't think I'm helping much over here anyway. Whatever got your mare here, got her but good."

Lockwood shook his head. "You did what you could... but I suppose the zebra healers will have to help, now..."

Tick Tock watched as Starlight’s sisters congregated around Starlight, embracing her tightly. She wasn't sure how, but this made Starlight’s magic more potent, nearly doubling in power, as though supercharged by an extra source. The beam expanded and rippled through the air, generating waves of heat and air and turning the cold courtyard into a blistering summer's day. The strain on her own horn and head increased with it, tenfold if not more, until it felt like somepony was drilling a spike into her skull.

Still, though, she had no choice but to slump in defeat; the rippling light still didn't quite reach the edges. “While that was a substantial increase, we’re still only about sixty percent there. We need more power.”

“This sounds like a job for us, then,” Twilight said with a smile. She lit up her horn.

“Hold on, Twilight!” Tick Tock flustered. “This is pure Void energy we’re working with, here. Remember?”

“Which is why I’m going to redirect my magic through you, first, so that you can transfer it safely to Starlight. Like a chain, of sorts.” Twilight turned to her friends, and beckoned them over. “Come on, everypony. We may not have the actual Elements with us, but we sure and heck can show these ponies that what really makes up their power is what’s inside of us. Let’s go!”

“Right behind ya, Twilight,” Applejack said, locking hooves with her friend.

“Yeah, okay… if we’re all gonna jump on this train, might as well be at full speed,” Rainbow agreed, doing the same.

Rarity, Pinkie, and Fluttershy joined in as well, and with them at her side, Twilight channeled a powerful beam of magic that joined with Tick Tock’s horn, igniting it in a beacon of light.

“B-bloody hell. This... this might just do the trick.” She transferred the magic directly into Starlight, and the energy beam being fired at the Eternal Eye nearly tripled in size. A moment later, she cried out in pain, and the beam spasmed about, scorching the ground and tearing apart the marble columns nearby. Every fiber of her being felt like it was being torn apart. "I... I can't hold this much power in check! There's too much for me to control!"

"What can we do?" Twilight asked, ducking as an errant stream of magic whizzed by her head.

"I need... I need some sort of grounding mechanism." Tick Tock turned to Flathoof. "Oy! Flathoof! I've got a job for you!"

Flathoof glanced down at the unconscious figure of Shroud beneath him. "Well, okay, I suppose. What can I do, though?" he asked as he approached, dodging stray bolts of magic.

"Alicorns control their power by balancing it through the powers of all three pony races: unicorns, earth ponies, and pegasi. I'm just a unicorn, but if I use an earth pony and a pegasus as grounds, I can safely channel the energy." She grabbed his good hoof in hers; instantly, the strain on her body decreased immensely. "You're the only other earth pony here."

Flathoof took a deep breath as the surge of magic filled him. "Whoa, uh... okay, that feels weird."

"Bear with it, mate. Now, I just need a-"

"Pegasus?" Lockwood grunted as he sidled up alongside Tick Tock, offering his hoof. "I don't think anything I'm doing is helping Blackburn... so I may as well see this through."

"Right." She took his hoof in hers, and the strain on her body vanished completely. “Yes! Ha ha! That’s more than enough! Okay, now I just need to make some quick adjustments…”

The beam distended, expanded, mutated, shrunk, dimmed, changed color, and all around transmogrified itself until, with a loud crack, it struck just the right frequency and a portal opened. The beam dissipated immediately after, leaving everypony to stand, exhausted and awestruck at the results of their work.

“We… we did it!” Twilight exclaimed. “We opened the portal!”

“Outstanding,” Starlight agreed. She turned to her sisters, then to Twilight and the others. “Well then, shall we depart?”

"Yes, we shall," Tick Tock agreed. She turned to Flathoof and Lockwood. "You two should do what you can to help the others. We've got this covered from here on out."

"Good idea," Flathoof agreed. "You be careful, okay? All of you... be careful," he added, giving a long look at Applejack.

The remaining mares—Twilight and her friends, Starlight and her sisters, and Tick Tock—charged forward and entered the portal, disappearing into the abyss beyond. The portal snapped shut behind them.

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