• Published 28th Sep 2012
  • 2,960 Views, 158 Comments

Repercussions - GaryOak



None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe that they are free.

  • ...
22
 158
 2,960

Chapter XII - Inferno

Chapter XII
Inferno
===============

A calm evening breeze rolled through Princess Luna's blue mane. She'd forgotten the simple joy of peaceful nights, closing her eyes and allowing herself to immerse herself in tranquil beauty. Breathing in the cool evening air, she basked in the pale moonlight illuminating the dark sky. She'd spent the past few months like this, away from it all. She was unsure of how long it would be before she fully re-acclimated to the world around her, but she did know she was in dire need of this solitude.

Observing the slumbering kingdom provided her with a sort of cleansing – cleansing she was in dire need of to truly heal the pain of her banishment. When she wandered about the uninhabited parts of Equestria, her mind always drifted back to the distant past; her time as Nightmare Moon was merely a painful blur. She never knew how she had lost her way. Her memory of events grew ever more hazy the closer it drew to her transformation, remaining obscure even as she sat perched atop a pillar in the Old Kingdom in the heart of the Everfree Forest.

Her pondering always yielded the same result: why? She feared she would never be able to answer the question had which tormented her since her return. She continued to cling to the hope that, perhaps one day, these late wanderings would give her the answer she sought. Her body gave a shiver which had nothing to do with the coolness around her. Breathing deeply, she tried to find her inner peace, and perhaps doze off, yearning for the simpler, more innocent times of centuries gone by.

She would give anything to transport herself to back then, to undo her mistakes. Today, the mere thought of becoming Queen of Equestria, of commanding night eternal, sickened her. She'd gladly trade her crown to restore her simple relationship with Celestia – and even Cosmo. Cosmo before he had fallen. Before he –

Her peaceful trance was abruptly shattered by an explosion, its shock waves reaching her even this far away from its epicenter. Her eyes shot open and her jaw dropped as she felt a torrent of magic unlike any she had felt before. She felt the explosion a split second before it occurred, and when it did, it was incomprehensible. The black, star-spangled sky flashed with every colour in the spectrum. The display had scarcely begun when she realized what must have been happening; anything as far as the eye could see was thrown into unnatural light from the wild torrent of magic high above Canterlot Castle.

As much as she tried to deny it and not face the terrible truth, the source of that power was undeniable, even after over a millennium. Her face fell as a chill swept through her body. The Princess's mind began to race, with thoughts each more horrifying than the last. Her coat was now matted with cold sweat, and her heart beat like a war drum as an inescapable surge of dread threatened to drown her. Trying to clear her mind, she closed her eyes and concentrated all of her mental abilities on Canterlot, trying to see what was happening with her mind's eye.

She froze and her eyes shot open again as if she'd been stung, as a crescendo of fear, anger, regret, guilt, and sorrow hit her gut all at once. She only saw one thing for a split second before her concentration was broken, but it was all she needed to see – the image burned into her brain with a branding iron. It was an all-too-familiar visage: a grey face, blazing orange eyes, and a mane she thought she'd never see again. The face wore an expression that sent a shiver down her spine.

“Brother... you live... but... how is it possible?” she asked herself as she took flight. Luna gulped, knowing what she must do.

* * *

He sat by the head of a large rectangular table. It and its chairs were the only furnishings upon the vast room's polished marble floors. Ten others sat around it, yawning and staring blankly into space.

“What is the meaning of this?” demanded Prince Blueblood, banging the table with a hoof, a few hairs in his disheveled mane falling out of place. “I was right in the middle of my beauty sleep.”

“We were hoping that you could inform us, sire,” said a white unicorn stallion in a flowing red robe. “That dreadful explosion had scarcely woken half the castle when the summons came. I must say, the guard who summoned me looked quite strange. Poor chap must've been given quite a start by that bang, like the rest of us.”

“Do you think they're connected?” yawned the only pegasus in the group, who wore a sky blue vest emblazoned with a winged sun emblem. “I mean, all of us are here, aren't we?”

“Of course they're connected,” snapped Blueblood, loudly enough to silence the others, who had started bickering amongst themselves. “What kind of question is that? What I want to know is what caused it. Surely it must be severe enough for Aunt Celestia to summon us so quickly.”

The double doors at the head of the room swung open, not revealing Princess Celestia, as all of them expected, but a very different pony. All of them stared at him, speechless. He was an alicorn. They gawked not only at his impressive wingspan and horn, but his burnished gold crown, set with a ruby and obsidian trim, made their jaws collectively drop. The unknown alicorn strutted purposefully toward the table, his matching hoofguards clacking loudly upon the marble, planted himself in the seat that belonged to the Princess, and folded his wings.

The alicorn allowed himself a smirk, his eyes falling upon each of the nobleponies in turn before he broke the silence. “So good of all of you to have made it on such short notice. I must apologize for the crude method of my summons, but until the entirety of the Royal Guard serves me and me alone, drones who are mere slaves to my will must suffice.” A spark of glee was visible in his eyes for a brief moment when he noticed his voice sent a rippling chill throughout the room.

“W-who are you?” stuttered a burly earth pony with a bushy mustache.

“I am the true ruler of this kingdom,” said King Cosmo matter-of-factly. “I have called you here tonight to let it be known that I, King Cosmo, have returned at long last to sit atop my throne once more.”

“'King'?” said Bastion Yorsets, the headmaster of Celestia's magic school. The tones of his crisp traditional Canterlot accent – which brought a smile to Cosmo's face – were not tinged with fear or defiance, but wonder. “Forgive me, but I have never known of a King to have ruled Equestria.”

Cosmo's eyes rested upon Bastion for a moment. “Of course you have not. This kingdom was mine once, long ago. My sisters sat at my sides, and I began to shape perfection – a utopia! But I was betrayed. While I was in the midst of carrying out perhaps my most noble crusade, they attacked. Ever since, the vile usurpers roamed free, while I lay forgotten, but not broken.”

He gave a mirthless laugh. “They thought I was dead, and made haste to erase my name from history, as if I had never existed. I have spent many long years biding my time. Now, the time of waiting has ended. Now, my reign shall begin anew.”

The King's words sent the table into a frantic clamour of ponies talking amongst themselves, trying to comprehend his words. Nearly a full minute had passed before Prince Blueblood cleared his throat. “There is no King. There was no King. I don't know who you are, but I advise you to leave before my Aunt Celestia arrives.”

Cosmo's eyes flashed dangerously. “I am King! I have ruled these lands long before you were born. I will not be spoken to that way by an inferior such as you. My traitorous younger sister, Celestia, is dead.” He paused, allowing his words to sink in. Any hushed conversation had given way to silence. “A fate shared by those who are disloyal.”

Blueblood placed both of his front hooves on the table and stood up in his seat, glaring at Cosmo. “You – you killed my aunt! You'll pay! I will never serve you!”

Cosmo's expression remained unchanged, but his eyes were kindled and fixed on Blueblood. “The remainder of the royal family is to be purged; I will brook no repeat of Celestia and Luna's transgressions. Your death will serve as an example.”

“G-guards! GUARDS!” Blueblood's eyes widened as he felt his heart gripped with fear. King Cosmo's horn emitted a corkscrew of light and dark blue, orange, and red energy which engulfed Blueblood, raising him ten feet into the air. Cosmo lunged at the helpless Blueblood.

Crying out, Blueblood found himself unable to move a muscle as Cosmo approached him with blinding speed. The King's horn met the Prince's neck, decapitating him in one swift stroke. His severed head landed on the centre of the table with a dull thunk while Cosmo hurled his lifeless body against the wall.

Cosmo flew back to his seat, landing as if nothing had happened. He regarded each of the trembling nobleponies with the same cursory, baleful glare. “By my will, a new regime shall be implemented. Whether or not you live to see it is your own prerogative. Repeat after me: long live the King!”

“Long live the King!” echoed everypony at the table, their eyes looking anywhere except the head of Prince Blueblood.

* * *

A large gathering of ponies stood in the courtyard of Canterlot Castle, gazing up at the balcony that Princess Celestia used to address her subjects. Not since the union of Princess Cadence and Shining Armour had it been utilized, which had been many months prior. The citizens of Canterlot had been summoned, but for what purpose, they did not know.

The castle doors at the ground level opened, and a dark unicorn with an aura that seemed to radiate pure malice marched through the doorway. Her eyes, open abnormally wide, were possessed by a strange white glow that gave onlookers the chills. At her back, a column of Canterlot soldiers armed with spears and pikes marched in time with her. The crowd gazed in disbelief as the army of Canterlot mobilized – a sight they had never expected to see in their wildest dreams. They gawked as they watched the soldiers marching past on the road beside them. To their surprise, a great number of the soldiers' faces wore the same expressions of fear they did.

When the fifty-odd soldiers had left the castle grounds, the portcullis slammed shut behind them as the tramping of their hooves upon the stone faded into the distance. Now imprisoned within the courtyard, the crowd found its attention drawn to the balcony, where an alicorn they'd never seen before stood. They had no idea who he was, but his distinct eyes, mane, and ruby-studded golden crown and regalia told them he was important – and quite possibly deadly. They began murmuring amongst themselves at his appearance.

The mysterious alicorn unfurled his wings, revealing the mark of a sun and crescent moon overshadowed by a light blue blazing comet, before addressing them in a booming voice. “Greetings, my loyal subjects! I am King Cosmo. I come to you in the wake of recent events to issue a call to reason. For centuries, you have been ruled by a false Princess. She tried to destroy everything I had accomplished when this kingdom was forged so long ago, and even attempted to assassinate me. It is time to open your eyes to the truth and to cast aside Celestia's lies and serve your true King. The tides of war are soon upon upon us, and we must strike against my other traitorous sibling.”

The King paused to give the crowd a moment to process what he had just said. They were shivering now, Cosmo's words making them feel as if they were in a waking nightmare. “My sister, Celestia, is no more. Whatever semblance of authority and power she once possessed is a phantom... A memory. With Celestia's demise, the rest of my family will turn against us. Anypony caught pledging loyalty to Luna will be executed for your protection. The impurities of Equestria have thrived for too long under Celestia's guidance. I am here to correct her mistakes. Permanently. Once the last vestiges of their influence have been swept away, this kingdom will be transformed into a perfect utopia!”

The crowd was stunned, silenced with disbelief as they gawked up at Cosmo, who continued his speech. “The time has come, my subjects, to rally to a new banner. My banner – the true banner of Equestria!” Cosmo's horn lit up and fired a cascade of multicoloured sparks at the standard that hung below the balcony. In a flash of light, the emblem of Princess Celestia was replaced with one that resembled the mark of King Cosmo. “Already, the upper echelon of Canterlot is beginning to implement my new regime. The half-century of the army you saw marching past not a few minutes ago is headed for Ponyville, a town of traitors. Its destruction will ensure that within my kingdom, we shall forge an indivisible whole, capitulating only to a single throne. And from that throne... I shall watch over you. From this day forward, let nopony serve a false Princess. Let no traitors conspire against this new beginning. And let nopony aid the rebellion which seeks to bar my way. For when the sun rises on the morrow, it shall bring with it the dawn of the age of King Cosmo!”

Once he finished speaking, he was gone and the portcullis behind the crowd reopened. They stood there, rendered speechless by what had just transpired. The silence was broken by a dull thud. A blue earth pony filly bravely wandered over to the source of the noise and began to cry. The crowd gathered around her to determine the source of the distress and to console the poor filly. No words were spoken as they discovered what it was. Clutched in the filly's hooves was the crushed crown of Princess Celestia.

* * *

Thoughts whizzed through Luna's mind like a meteor shower as she strode quickly and purposefully through the Everfree Forest, away from Ponyville. How could Cosmo really be back? Was there any chance her sister managed to survive, despite the throbbing pain in Luna's heart telling her otherwise? How in Equestria was she to mount any form of counteroffensive against a foe as powerful as her brother – especially without Celestia's aid?

“Princess, can ya please explain why we're followin' you to who knows where, already?” demanded Applejack, cutting into her thoughts. She trotted alongside Fluttershy, Rarity, and Pinkie, who were a few strides behind the tall alicorn.

“Very well,” said Luna, the other ponies' ears perking up. “My sister and I have an older brother.”

The ponies were so shocked by this revelation that none of them even questioned her. “Yes,” she continued coldly. “Long ago, when we defeated Discord, we did it with the help of our older brother, King Cosmo. Originally, he was meant to rule Equestria itself, while Celestia and I oversaw the sun and the moon. But it was not to be, for as our older brother discovered his talent for mind control, he succumbed to madness wrought from his own power.”

“Did... did you say mind control?” asked Pinkie with great difficulty, her eyes brimming with unbidden tears.

Luna stopped in her tracks and looked at Pinkie with widening eyes. “Yes... yes I did, Pinkie Pie. With his radical ideals and his talent for manipulating the minds of others, he sought to rule Equestria through fear and tyranny – with an iron hoof. Anypony that did not share his ideals was swiftly put to death, or worse. Long ago, my sister and I combined our efforts to overthrow him and liberate Equestria... or so we thought.”

“I – I was mind controlled once,” sobbed Pinkie, a small puddle of tears gathering at her hooves. “He – he made me kill Dashie!”

“Rainbow Dash, dead?” said Luna sharply. “I was planning to visit her after escorting the rest of you to safety. This bodes most ill for us all.”

“This ain't right!” called Applejack over the sound of Pinkie bawling and Fluttershy cradling her in her hooves, like she would an injured animal. “We was told the story of King Cosmo just yesterday. The story said he was a good king, and that he was murdered by you two Princesses – begging yer pardon – to take the throne for yourselves! Twilight herself told us.”

Princess Luna failed to suppress a shudder. “That reminds me... where is Twilight Sparkle? She was not at her library when I checked earlier this evening.”

“Twilight went to Canterlot with her friend Greyhoof to... ah...” Rarity stuttered halfway through her explanation, attempting to be as tactful as possible. “Speak with Princess Celestia about the murders and that dreadful Ursa attack that have plagued Ponyville over the past few days.”

A sharp intake of breath came from Luna. “Oh no... Tell me, what did this Greyhoof look like?”

“He was a unicorn,” said Applejack. “His horn was kinda huge.”

Fluttershy looked up from the ground, where she was letting Pinkie cry into her shoulder. “His mane was a little messy, short and green. His coat was grey.”

Rarity rubbed her muzzle with a hoof. “His magic was quite extraordinary. Perhaps not up to Twilight's standard, but it far exceeded that of the average unicorn. Oh, and he wore this dingy old cloak.”

“His eyes, what about his eyes?” pressed Luna.

“They were orange,” said Applejack.

Luna exhaled slowly, knowing the answer to her next question before she asked it. “Did – did they seem to be always burning? With a strange sort of inner fire?”

Applejack, Rarity, and Fluttershy all nodded.

“It is as I feared,” said Luna, struggling to keep her voice from trembling. “The pony you called Greyhoof... is none other than King Cosmo himself. Everything that happened in Ponyville was his doing, I am sure of it. My sister is also dead, and I fear that Twilight Sparkle may be as well.”

* * *

The road from Canterlot Castle to Ponyville shook from the slow, methodical tramp of over fifty sets of hooves. The long column of Canterlot soldiers marched behind Miasma, her eyes fixed upon the town in the distance. Dust rose up from the road, as if it were a cloud of death surrounding the small army. The pebbles danced as the rhythmic hoofsteps stirred them. Miasma surveyed Ponyville in a way that would revolt her former self.

Her lord, the King Cosmo, had only one concern: the Elements of Harmony. Miasma knew that with Rainbow Dash out of the way, the Element of Loyalty was rendered useless, but he wasn't willing to take any chances, and neither was she. Miasma allowed herself a mirthless laugh. It was brilliant, really; using Pinkie Pie to kill Rainbow Dash, a wielder of an Element of Harmony, one of the biggest threats to the rule of the King. As she marched, she marveled at Cosmo's ingenuity – how he had so thoroughly deceived all of them into believing somepony as good and pure as Celestia could be evil.

The solemn march continued as the soldiers wordlessly obeyed their new King, knowing full well that anything else would result in their swift deaths at either his hooves or one of his servants'. Miasma seemed all too willing to kill anypony who so much as looked at her funny. One look at those eyes, those cold, merciless eyes, told them that death would greet anypony who stood against the will of the King. They did not know what their task was, only that they were heading for Ponyville. As the town drew closer, they could almost feel what terrible deeds they were about to perform. A heavy sense of foreboding fell over the column as it marched on through the dead of night.

About half an hour later, the small army with Miasma at its head halted outside the first house in Ponyville. Miasma exploded the wooden door in a shower of splinters with her magic. After a few seconds had passed, a bleary-eyed yellow pony staggered into her vision.

“Who – who are you?” she asked.

“Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Applejack, Rarity. Where are they?” demanded Miasma, her lantern-like eyes shining into the confused mare's face.

“I-I-I don't know!” stuttered the mare. “They should be –” her eyes bulged when she noticed Miasma's cutie mark. “Twilight? Is that you?”

Miasma's horn crackled with pink sparks. “Where are they?”

“Their homes!” cried the mare, crawling backward into her house.

“Good,” said Miasma. She turned to one of the soldiers. “Burn it.”

“My lady?” asked the astounded soldier.

“Did I stutter?” spat Miasma venomously. “Burn this house down. Immediately.”

The soldier hesitated, which proved a fatal mistake. Miasma lashed out at him, enveloping the helmet on his head with magic. The sound of shrieking metal and splitting bone filled the air as it crumpled inward, crushing his skull. She lifted the soldier's now lifeless corpse and tossed it into the small pony dwelling. A malefic grin spread across her face as her horn glowed again for a half second before the house was suddenly ablaze with a roaring flame, smoke billowing upward.

“Know this,” Miasma shouted at the column of Canterlot soldiers. “Anypony who fails to carry out my orders without question also fails to carry out the orders of the King. Disobedience is punishable by death. Not only yours, but that of your entire family. Do I make myself clear?”

“Clear, my lady!” roared the soldiers, absolute fear instilled within them. “Long live the King!”

They split up and moved in small squads to different houses, interrogating the citizens and burning them alive in their homes afterward. As a large portion of the outskirts of Ponyville were covered in flames, Miasma approached Sugarcube Corner.

“What's happening?” shouted Mrs. Cake, emerging from the bakery's entrance. “Why is the town on fire?”

Miasma pulled Mrs. Cake toward her by the neck, levitating her in the air. “Where is Pinkie Pie?” she demanded. “Speak.”

“I don't know,” gasped Mrs. Cake. “She went to bed in her room like normal, but when I went looking for her a minute ago, she was gone!”

Miasma spat on the ground. “She knew, somehow...” She spun around and dropped Mrs. Cake in the flames, leaving Sugarcube Corner. A ring of fire surrounded it as Miasma left the property, ignoring the anguished screams as the flames engulfed the building.

Next, Miasma's gaze settled on the library. She strode toward it slowly and purposefully, taking note of the fire spreading throughout the town. The stars above were no longer visible; smoke made it difficult to see. Her face remained emotionless as she drew nearer to her former home, her eyes shining like fog lights in the smog. When she reached it, the door swung open of its own accord. In the doorway stood Spike.

“Twilight? What happened to you?” asked Spike, scratching his head. “Uh, that's probably not important right now. Anyway, why are these soldiers burning down Ponyville? You've gotta stop 'em!”

Miasma narrowed her eyes at him. “Where are they?”

“Who?”

“Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Applejack, and Luna. Where are they hiding?”

“I don't know what you're talking about,” said Spike, taking an involuntary step back. “Twilight, what's going on?”

“I am no longer the pony you once called Twilight Sparkle,” said Miasma. “I am Miasma, the weapon of King Cosmo. Now, step aside, whelp. You're hiding something from me.”

Spike threw his arms at his sides, spreading them wide. “Twilight, please, stop this! This isn't who you are! Remember your friends?”

“No,” said Miasma, grasping Spike with her magic and lifting him a few inches into the air, “I don't,” she finished, flinging him into a nearby burning building.

Miasma spat on the ground, and her horn shimmered once more. One second, the library stood as it always had, and the next, the entire structure was ablaze. She slowly walked away from it, her expression unchanging.

As Ponyville turned to ashes before their eyes, those fortunate enough to live in the houses on the village's other side gathered in the town square.

“Everypony, remain calm!” called the Mayor in a shrill voice, but the panic it contained began to spread infectiously throughout the crowd.

The villagers frantically talked amongst themselves, none knowing what was going on. Hysteria continued to spread through the crowd as quickly as the flames that were hungrily devouring the surrounding buildings. Miasma lead her soldiers into the square, staring daggers at the Mayor.

“What is the meaning of this?” asked the Mayor, addressing Miasma, her voice laden with despair. “What in the name of Celestia is going on? Why are these soldiers burning my town? Stop this at once! The Princess will be informed of this!”

“Celestia no longer has any authority,” said Miasma casually. “Or the ability to breathe.”

Only the sound of crackling flames followed Miasma's words.

“What are you talking about?” shouted the Mayor, summoning every ounce of courage she possessed.

“Equestria is under a new rule,” said Miasma. “I must know – where are Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, and Applejack?”

“I don't know. Nopony has seen them,” grunted the Mayor.

“As I suspected. Luna has clearly spirited them away already. That means you are now worthless to me,” sneered Miasma.

The Mayor took a surprisingly aggressive step forward. “I've said it once, and I'll say it again. Put out these fires and call off your soldiers!”

“You are in no position to give me orders,” snipped Miasma. “I only answer to the great King Cosmo. Celestia's regime has been swept away. I am performing cleanup duty for his majesty.”

“You're insane,” said the Mayor.

“Don't think your crimes against the crown have been forgotten,” said Miasma. “The King does not forget, nor does he forgive. He specifically gave me an order for your execution, here and now.”

“I've never met this King Cosmo,” quailed the Mayor, understanding what Miasma's meant. “I've never –”

“But you did,” Miasma interrupted. “You had the gall to detain him in the clock tower. Now, you will pay the price for such treason.”

As the Mayor opened her mouth to offer a rebuttal, Miasma's horn glowed, and the Mayor found herself encircled by the same light. She was lifted high into the air, so high that she almost disappeared from sight. Miasma howled with laughter as the Mayor came rocketing back down to earth, looking just like a meteor, heading straight for the clock tower. She impacted with it in a bright orange explosion, the tower bursting into flame and a shower of smoldering lumber. The citizens of Ponyville screamed in alarm and began to scatter.

“Do not let them escape,” commanded Miasma in a flat tone, nonchalantly snapping a fleeing filly's neck with her magic.

At her command, the soldiers charged forward, killing anypony they saw. Miasma continued advancing toward the untouched parts of Ponyville, using her magic to fan the flames. She muttered a curse when she reached the southern edge of town. None of her prime targets were found. She would have to report this failure to the King. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a familiar orange pegasus filly with a purple mane atop a scooter, zipping toward the Everfree Forest at top speed.

“Thought you could escape, did you?” she scoffed, firing a burst of magic at the scooter. The blast found its mark, causing the scooter to explode, and sending Scootaloo sailing through the air until she landed forcefully in the nearby field.

Miasma spat on the ground and turned around, issuing a loud command for her soldiers to fall back into rank and return with her to Canterlot. While she hadn't succeeded in her primary objective, she had carried out the order of making an example of Ponyville to the letter. Soon, all of Equestria would know full well what happened to anypony who dared oppose King Cosmo.

When the sun rose the next day, the town of Ponyville was no more.

* * *

Princess Luna was not the only alicorn who bore witness to the explosion that heralded King Cosmo's return to power. As she stood atop a high balcony in the northern city of Stalliongrad, Princess Cadence's jaw dropped as the horrific light show played out, far to the south. Tears streamed down her face, as she felt as if her heart had been ripped out, but she could not explain why.

“Dear, are you alright?” asked Shining Armour, approaching her from the bedchamber.

“That explosion – it came from Canterlot,” said Cadence, continuing to stare at the fading energy in the sky.

His eyes also transfixed on the wild magic, he didn't notice the full extent of his wife's distress. “What do you think it means?”

Cadence turned to him, and he gasped when he saw her tear-sodden face. “I don't know, but it's bad. We can't just sit here; we have to do something.”

“Yes, but what?” said Shining Armour, holding out a hoof, which Princess Cadence gratefully clung to. “Galloping headlong into something could be dangerous, and unwise.”

Beginning to regain her composure, Cadence wiped her eyes and stopped leaning on Shining Armour's hoof, shooting him a steely glare. “No. We need to go at once. Princess Celestia could be in danger. You know as well as I that what we saw was powerful magic. How many ponies do you know of who possess such power?”

“All the more reason to take a step back and assess the situation,” pleaded Shining Armour. “At the very least, we should inform the Crystal Empire of what's happened. Us going in alone isn't the answer. Who knows what's waiting for us at the source of that magic, if what you say is true?”

Cadence shook her head. “You didn't feel what I felt. There's no time. We can't afford to wait that long. You know as well as I it would take weeks to bring an army to Canterlot.”

Shining Armour's face scrunched. “But, dear –”

“I'm sorry.” Cadence's expression abruptly softened, transforming from iron resolve to sorrowful distress in a heartbeat. “Princess Celestia – no – all of Equestria is in danger. I can't explain why, but I can feel it. Wake the guards and tell them to ready our carriage. Please.”

Shining Armour sighed with resignation. “I trust you. Be at the carriage in ten minutes. If we hurry, we can reach Canterlot by morning.”

* * *

As Luna, Fluttershy, Applejack, Rarity, and Pinkie headed deeper into the Everfree Forest, Fluttershy jumped as she noticed a bright, flickering orange light coming from Ponyville.

“Oh my... what's that?” she gasped, pointing a hoof toward it. “It's not time for the sun to come up, is it?”

The others stopped in their tracks and followed Fluttershy's gaze. Luna closed her eyes and shuddered.

“What's happening?” cried Rarity.

“What I was saving all of you from,” whispered Luna sorrowfully.

Applejack gazed worriedly at Princess Luna. “What? What is it? What's goin' on?” she asked, her voice hollow.

“King Cosmo came to Ponyville, looking for you. The Elements of Harmony are the only thing he fears,” said Luna in a monotone. “I am afraid he – he is burning Ponyville.”

Applejack buried her face in her hat, sobbing profusely. “Ponyville... all of it...” she choked, her words muffled. “No. Ponyville ain't on fire. It just can't be true!”

Luna raised a hoof, tilting Applejack's hat upward. She met her watery green eyes. Channeling as much empathy and regret as she could from her stare alone, Luna nodded slowly.

“My Boutique!” wailed Rarity. “Everything I've ever had – my life's work – all gone up in flames?”

Fluttershy stood frozen in place, unable to even react to what had happened. It was all too much for her; everything and everypony she knew and loved were lost in the inferno.

Pinkie's head hung so low that her muzzle nearly touched the ground. “Sugarcube Corner?” she asked simply. “Why... why would Cosmo do this?” sniffed Pinkie as the realization that she would never throw a party at the bakery again sank in.

“There is no doubt left in my mind,” said Luna through gritted teeth. “It is exactly as it was over a thousand years ago. Any town that opposed Cosmo's will would be razed without hesitation. Sometimes, he would level a village if he deemed that it would make a good example. If I didn't arrive when I did, all of you would be dead. Now, make haste to the home of the zebra, Zecora. While it may be a great risk, I shall investigate. We must know where we stand against my brother.”

“No, I won't!” cried Applejack. “I don't care about old what's-his-name. I'm goin' back to save Ponyville and that's that! You get the Princess, and we'll hold the fort until ya get back!”

Luna bit her lip so hard, it started bleeding. “No, Applejack, that is not an option,” she said at last.

“And just why not?”

“I fear that... my sister, Princess Celestia is... dead.”

“Dead?” echoed everypony, unwilling to believe what they heard.

“N-no...” said Pinkie, staring into space.

“It can't be true,” said Fluttershy, shaking her head rapidly. “It can't. Princess Celestia? Gone?”

Rarity collapsed on top of Pinkie and began to wail.

“I can't explain it,” said Luna, her words barely audible over Rarity's cries, “but something deep inside of me knows what has come to pass. Even though I never witnessed it myself, I felt it, like a part of me had died along with her. We shared a special bond, and when she was murdered, that bond was severed. There is no other explanation. Cosmo would not have emerged from over a millennium of hiding to commit such a foul act if my sister lived. Now go. There is no time to waste. Await my return.”

When Luna was out of sight, Fluttershy began wordlessly trudging toward Zecora's house. The others soon followed in her hoofsteps, unbidden. When they finally reached their destination, the door swung open before any of them could knock.

“Four ponies from the town of Ponyville,” said Zecora, her voice lacking its usual rhythmic cheer. “By the looks on your faces, you bring tidings most ill.” She stepped aside, allowing the ponies entry. The four of them collapsed on the floor once inside, the sleep deprivation and the evening's trauma taking their toll.

“Gone,” whispered Rarity. “Ponyville is... gone...”

Knock, knock, knock!

“What is this at my door, another guest?” asked Zecora in astonishment. “The Ponyville survivors... did you bring the rest?” She opened the door.

In the frame of the doorway stood Scootaloo, now sporting a score of cuts and scrapes, her mane tousled and tangled with foliage. “Guys, there's something you need to know!”

* * *

Three stallions, a unicorn, pegasus, and earth pony, kneeled in the devastated east tower of Canterlot Castle. The rays of sunlight gleaming through the shattered window showcased the extent of the destruction which resulted from the previous night's conflict. The three quivered as King Cosmo paced in front of them, the orange part of his mane shining in the sunlight. None of them dared make a move. They had too recently witnessed his ire to risk incurring it again.

“Today is the dawn of a new era,” announced King Cosmo, his burning gaze falling on each of the cowering stallions in turn. “An era which you will help usher in.” He came to a stop in front of the bright blue-maned pegasus, there was a hole in his sky blue vest where the winged sun emblem used to be. “You are the captain of Canterlot's air force, are you not?”

“Yes, my King,” he replied, averting his eyes. “The pegasi here are independent from those in Cloudsdale. Though it has not seen combat in centuries.”

“Good. I see that my meddlesome sisters did not abolish all of my decrees,” said Cosmo, producing a small scroll from behind him and dropping it at the hooves of the pegasus. “You are to mobilize and conscript every able-bodied pegasus in Canterlot. The unit is to be renamed the Comets. This scroll contains your orders as well as specifications for the air force's uniforms and practices. See to it that they are carried out to the letter... 'Captain Comet.'”

The newly appointed Captain rose and offered the King a formal bow, followed by a salute before he grabbed the scroll and flew out of the window. Cosmo then turned to the large mustached earth pony. “You, mud pony.”

“Y-yes, sire?”

“The scroll you are about to be given outlines many of the changes that are to be implemented over the next few days,” said Cosmo, placing a second scroll at the earth pony's hooves. “First, this room is to be restored to its former splendor. Do you know the true purpose of it?”

“No, my lord,” said the earth pony apologetically.

“Pathetic and mindless,” spat the King in disgust. “Though I shouldn't be surprised. Allow me to educate you. This was once the throne room, during the golden age of my rule. It is to be refurbished immediately. The rest of the construction is to begin tonight. The instructions within this scroll are simple enough that a mind such as yours can comprehend them. Now go. Get out of my sight!”

Wordlessly, the earth pony grabbed the scroll and shuffled backward with as much dignity as he could manage, doing his best to ignore Cosmo's sneering face as he departed. “Pathetic,” said Cosmo, turning his muzzle up and pointing it at the ceiling. “Their dumb brute strength and the ease of ensuring their unquestioning obedience is the only reason the mud ponies weren't purged like the zebras.”

“And where do my duties lie, my liege?” asked Bastion Yorsets, apparently unshaken by the King's tirade.

Bringing forth a final scroll, King Cosmo's eyes began to glitter with a sort of cruel glee. “Perhaps the most important task of all lies with you, Bastion. Unicorns were always the greatest of my subjects. I trust that you are capable of carrying on their legacy.”

“Of course, my King. I live to serve.”

“In addition to your role in the revival of the army of Canterlot and the purification of the castle, you are to bring me your three greatest pupils.” Cosmo unfurled his wings as he strode toward the window. “I have a use for them.”

Rising to his full height, Bastion unraveled the scroll and scanned it from top to bottom. “I have a few promising students in mind. I shall see to it at once.” He rolled the scroll back up and left Cosmo alone in the east tower, shutting the doors behind him.

Cosmo gazed to the north, his eyes fixating on a point in the sky. “Soon,” he said, an almost savage grin twisting his face. “The impurities of Equestria will be cleansed and a truly worthy kingdom shall be forged. Once the Elements have been subdued and my family destroyed, the whole world will be remade... in my image!”