The Quiet Place

by Aynine

First published

Twilight fights against sinister manipulations, struggling to overcome a deep-seated darkness within. As she battles to preserve everything she cares about, she will sacrifice anything necessary to succeed. But the price of victory may be herself.

Twilight lives a comfortable, expected life with the security of being surrounded by her mentors and friends. As she grows into a model unicorn, a dangerous being takes hold of the volatile Brood and drives them to war, breaking a long period of peace. After years of preparation for a higher order, Twilight is chosen to ascend beyond that of a typical sorcerer in a mysterious plan to counter the impending conflict.

During her dark, trying mission Twilight will discover a caged soul and unknowingly set them free, gradually acquiring an affinity for the darkness as a result. As she struggles within deepening conflict, she must push on and fight for what she believes in. With manipulation, deceit, and betrayal storming around, will she be able to contain herself and protect those she loves, or will she succumb to the creeping darkness and abandon everything she stands for?

*Warning: Comments may contain spoilers.*

Prologue: A Devil's Game

View Online

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Prologue: A Devil's Game

Blood and ash rained down over dirt tinted by the glow of a rapidly setting sun. A scarlet alicorn with a misty orange mane and a fierce gaze stood peering at a small group of unicorns quaking in fear, a dark grin spreading across his face. When the various debris of a short, brutal battle, more akin to a slaughter, had finally cascaded to the ground, the alicorn slowly began the short walk towards the survivors, his gait proud and confident.

"None of you can deny me my blood right. No matter how much you loathe me, I am royalty, and I will not tolerate your disobedience." The alicorn frowned as he reached the small party that remained of the rebelling forces. He loomed over them as they sank into the ground, one wetting himself in fear of the alicorn's sheer proximity. The survirors' fear only urged him to laugh, but he stifled it down to a mocking chuckle. "I have no time for you whelps. I am feeling generous today, and as such I shall allow you to live under one condition..." He turned around and took in a deep breath. "That I will never see your miserable faces again," he said in a heavy tone.

Before he could finish his words, the cowering ponies took off with their newly found freedom, driven by the overwhelming fear to cling to their lives. They ran until their chests ached with pain, but none ever daring to look back. The alicorn tilted his head up to the now-twilight sky and extended his wings. He leaped high into the air and paused to hover for a moment, closing his eyes and swaying his forelegs out. The sun dipped below the horizon as the moon rose behind him, a monolith of solemn beauty that cast the world in majestic shades of dark blue. The night brought a rolling breeze to sweep the lingering heat from the land, and he frowned as the chill pierced his coat. He landed with a soft pat onto the dirt, enjoying his moment of grace and absolute serenity.

"How noble of you to let those still loyal to the true crown flee with their lives. I did not think you could bear any compassion, let alone the thought at all."

The alicorn turned around and found a robed earth pony standing and observing him, his hood billowing slightly over his eyes and the darkness of the night masking his face. "Fear breeding respect is superior to that of compassion. I care not for their false loyalties. They need only know they forfeit their lives should they commit treason against my crown."

"I see no crown upon your head." The earth pony held a hoof out to his side. In a small flash of white, a beautiful and brilliant white staff appeared in his grasp, gleaming ominously in the moonlight. "I cannot allow her world to crumble under your rule."

"Staves are merely conduits--amplifiers--for magic. What could one without the capability of magic use it for?" The alicorn eyed the earth pony incredulously. His mane began to churn in the air and the edges ignited into a small, living blaze. He continued to observe, careful of how much he spoke.

The earth pony snorted. "One as naive as you could not possibly understand the meaning of magic. It is limitless; It is everywhere; It exists within all. Killing our beloved goddess only proves it..." He let go of the staff and it floated above his head, two streams of power flowing into the spire from the base.

"You're a non-magical earth pony, how can you possibly control magic?" spat the alicorn, stepping back into a cautious stance.

"I'll finish what she would not. Your execution is at hoof, ignoble prince."

The earth pony clapped his forehooves together and a sphere of chaotic, blue energy formed around him. Bolts of electricity crackled and surged across its surface while it expanded around him, and then the scarlet alicorn. The staff dropped down and planted itself into the ground and began shining with the same dark blue tint as lightning crawled up and down the shaft, sparking and spitting outward. When the sphere reached its maximum size, it began to slowly shrink down, the ground incinerating to blackened dirt in its destructive wake.

"What is this!?" The alicorn reached a hoof out to the edge of the sphere. When it receded past the edge of his hoof he yelped in pain and pulled it back. He twisted his hoof before his eyes, the flesh and coat seared and blistered. "Thorn magic,"--he set his hoof lightly on the ground--"Do you really believe that this will kill me?" Despite his heavy tone, his voice only carried an irritated tone.

The earth pony straightened his posture and took the staff into his grasp. Energy coursed through it, and he turned around and pressed the spire to the edge of the sphere. More power was siphoned from him and into the deadly thorn magic.

"Answer me, damn it!" fumed the alicorn. His horn ignited and a flame erupted inside of the sphere. Pouring substantial power into it, he blasted it towards the earth pony.

Sensing the incoming danger, the earth pony placed a hoof in its direction without looking and a barrier formed. The fires failed to penetrate it and the alicorn growled as his anger began to rise. "Speak your peace, king, for tonight is the last night you shall draw breath with the free," growled the earth pony.

"Your insolence shall be your death, you oblivious fool!"

The alicorn slammed his forehooves onto the ground, two streams of magma erupted forth before him and tided towards his foe. The staff appeared between them and flashed blue, freezing the magma before it could cross the halfway point, finally crumbling as brittle pieces of icy tephra after thawing. Running out of space, the two ponies continued inching closer and closer to each other, the impending doom constricting what freedom in the prison they now shared.

As time ticked away, they continued to trade numerous, lesser spell casts, but the alicorn failed to show any sign of ending the fight quickly. The earth pony suffered several grievous wounds with the alicorn only showing exhaustion from his magic usage and the pain from his injured hoof. Soon the sphere shrank to the size of a small room, and the time before it became too small was soon to run out, both ponies forced to stand only a few yards apart.

"You know I will survive this. You merely delay the inevitable," spat the alicorn with hidden desperation.

"Your trembling cannot lie," taunted the earth pony, his eyes trailing down to his foe's injured hoof. It continued to rest lightly on the ground without his weight on it.

The alicorn's expression shifted to scorn and he charged in a desperate attempt to throw his foe into the sphere's edge first. The earth pony caught him and dug his hind hooves into the ground as they pummeled one another. Locked in physical combat, the alicorn attempted to mix magic with his blows, but every telekinetic grasp on the earth pony's body he attempted was quickly fought off by his odd but extraordinarily powerful magic. As the sphere shrank down around them, the staff appeared between them.

"May your prison be your penance," whispered the earth pony as they paused.

The staff rotated ninety degrees and impaled the alicorn in the stomach. He roared as the earth pony kicked him out of the sphere. Energy ripped and shredded his form, the pain disrupting any control over his body and magic. You'll never stop me! I wouldn't let her, and I won't let you!

The earth pony, nearing his own sealed fate, clapped his hooves together. The staff returned before him, covered in a layer of blood and its victim missing. Pressing a hoof to the spire, he closed his eyes, a few tears running down his cheek. In a brilliant flash of white, his form distorted and blurred, then flowed into the staff. I'm sorry.

Outside of the sphere a crowd of ponies had gathered in the distance to witness the end of the alicorn, prepared to hail the hero who would stand against him. When the spell shrank down, it exploded in a fury of unstable energy that burned a dark crater into the earth. The ponies shielded their eyes and cried out as the light drove back the darkness for a moment, then blinked fervently as they were light night blind. Ground zero had blackened to an unrecognizable blandness, but a single object remained untouched in the aftermath.

A young, white filly alicorn with a pink mane dashed into the crater to retrieve what appeared to be a staff. "No, don't!" cried another squeaky voice from outside behind her.

Ignoring the voice, the white filly bent down to investigate what had remained of the short battle. Lying in the blackened, steaming dirt was a white, shining staff with a prismatic gem quietly floating in the open grasp of the spire. She leaned in close and gazed into the gem, entranced by its surreal depth. "It's so beautiful..." she murmured in awe, her jaw hanging open.

Chapter 1: Season of Wishes

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The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 1: Season of Wishes

Firecrackers whistled and danced across the ground in vibrant displays of sparks and pops. Fillies and foals ran around, zipping back and forth between them, laughing and giggling as they went about their innocent games. Older ponies cheered and clapped in joyous banter at the party, each tiny explosion lighting up their faces through the night. Bottle rockets screeched to life in the cool air and exploded into beautiful arrays of light that sparkled in the sky briefly before cascading and disappearing into a fading smoke. It was a farewell party for the one and only Rainbow Dash, soon to leave and join the Wonderbolts in Canterlot.

"Hey, Dashie! Are you liking the party?" Pinkie Pie chirped as she approached the chromatic pegasus from behind.

Dash stood on a hill overlooking the majority of the jolly crowd engaging in activities. She smiled in happiness, and in reminiscence. Pinkie Pie managed to take away a lingering sadness for a moment with the grand gesture, and all of it seemed like any other sweet memory. Dash turned around and suddenly hugged her long time friend from Ponyville, closing her eyes. Images from all of their past adventures with each other and their friends played across her mind like a photo album of her life.

"I'm loving it, Pinkie Pie. I was going to miss all of you when I left for the Wonderbolts, but I can always come and visit any time when we're not practicing or doing shows." She relinquished the embrace and turned around to view the fireworks again, and Pinkie stepped up beside her. "I'll get to see Twilight some more, too. I wonder how she's doing up in Canterlot." Her eyes trailed away to the capitol city far in the distance, shining like a tiny star. "She's so busy with her new studies... She rarely visits anymore."

"It's too bad she can't make the party," lamented Pinkie with a glum look to the city.

Dash nudged her gently. "Hey, don't worry. I'll tell her all about it," she said, shooting the party pony a reassuring smile. She did her best to fight back the disappointment for Pinkie, but her heart still ached. "I'm sure she's busy doing something important."

Pinkie brightened up and returned the gesture. "Yeah, you're probably right."

Suddenly, a flash of light bloomed briefly down below and the crowd began shouting and hollering in response. They spread out and in the center stood Twilight Sparkle, Princess Celestia, and Princess Luna. The majestic presence of the princesses immediately caused bowing and abashed curtsies from their subjects.

"At ease, everypony," commanded Luna with a gentle voice and hoof. On cue, everyone rose and greeted them, but Twilight trotted off to Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash as soon as she spotted them on the hill.

"Is that..." Pinkie mumbled while squinting to her. "Hey, Twilight!" she cheered as the unicorn neared them. She fidgeted in place until she came close enough to hug. "Oh, I've missed you so much. You don't visit enough. You need to visit more. I thought you weren't even coming! How did you manage to get both princesses to come with you?" The barrage of questions brought the party pony back into good spirits.

Twilight returned the hug, gently patting her on the back and cracking a smile. "I know, I know. I've just been busy with all of my studies. Celestia and Luna are tutoring me to become an archmage, but I get to spend so much time with them now. I asked them if they would come, but I didn't tell you because I wanted it to be a surprise." She relinquished the embrace and turned to look at the princesses below. "It's so nice to get to talk to Princess Celestia all the time."

"Hey, you better not forget about us," teased Dash.

Pinkie giggled and turned around. "Hey, everypony!" she sang before even finishing her pivot. Prompted by the party pony's words, the others turned to see who she was talking to. Behind them approached Rarity, Applejack, and Fluttershy. Pinkie met them halfway and exchanged the usual, exuberant hugging. The party had caused her to become a bit emotional, even if she wouldn't admit it out loud.

"Well howdy, Twi. We heard you weren't gonna be makin' it to Rainbow's farewell party." Applejack gave a toothy smile and waved before moving to stand beside her athletic rival, playfully jabbing her in the ribs.

"Really now, Twilight. This is quite a surprise, but to bring both princesses here to a going away party for Rainbow Dash? I must say, even I couldn't dream of pulling off something quite as..." She peered past them and observed the rulers exchanging greetings with the others below. The image reminded her of the Grand Galloping Gala and how Celestia had been too busy to even talk to Twilight. "Ostentatious."

The purple unicorn giggled and rolled her eyes. "Oh, Rarity. It's really not that big of a deal. I asked them to come, but it's not like they had to."

Fluttershy stepped a bit closer to the edge to view the princesses. "Princess Luna seems to be doing better with her voice now," she noted.

"Every now and then she still yells at somepony accidentally." Twilight chuckled before continuing, "I didn't think the royal guards would actually jump when that happened."

Dash stuck out her tongue and groaned. "Those guys are so boring. What's the point of standing around like statues and never talking?" She sat down and folded her forelegs across her chest in defiance of their dull career choice.

"You'd be surprised, RD. Those guys are pretty tough. Big Mac probably woulda joined 'em knowing how he is, but I'm glad he stuck with the family." Applejack took off her hat and sat down next to the pegasus. "Heck, you might even be one some day yourself. Yah never know." Dash offered a look of disgust and the farmer gave a hearty laugh before patting her on the back.

Dash rolled her eyes and huffed. "Yeah right," she mumbled sarcastically. Her mood suddenly shifted as the Wonderbolts team flew in and dropped to the grounds below. The crowd was roused into a slew of cheers once more. "I still can't believe it. I'm finally going to be one of the Wonderbolts!" She let loose a high pitched squeal of delight while clasping her face.

"Now settle down there, sugarcube. Yah've got some partyin' to do before you up and leave us to go off to Canterlot," reminded Applejack.

"Yeah, Dashie. This is going to be the biggest party ever! It's so big, we had to move it out here instead of inside Sugarcube Corner cause everypony wants to say goodbye!" Pinkie gushed. She continued to fidget, beginning to wear divots into the grass.

Fluttershy offered a timid smile and raised her head. "Oh, and Scootaloo really wants to talk to you. She should be around here, too."

Dash pursed her lips and looked to the ground pensively. "Ah, I forgot. My bad...."

"Well, go on Rainbow. The party isn't going anywhere any time soon," encouraged Twilight. Dash nodded to her and bowed to the others. "I'm going to go talk to the princesses." With that, the purple unicorn disappeared in a white flash, opting to skip the jog back.

Dash nodded before leaping down from the hill and gliding gracefully to the crowd below. All of her friends from Ponyville and Cloudsdale had shown up, save for her griffon friend, Gilda. Now the Wonderbolts, Twilight, and even the princess had shown up; however, she focused only on finding her biggest personal fan. As she maneuvered through the crowd, she avoided the royalty and the Wonderbolts' attention carefully, slinking between ponies and keeping her head as low as she could.

An orange blur moved past her and she suddenly found herself being tugged off to the side. "Hey, wait," she protested. The words were ignored and Scootaloo pulled her out of the crowd and towards the outskirts of the nearby forest. Once behind the first large tree, she faced the young pegasus who had her forelegs crossed and a deep scowl carved into her features. "H-Hey, Scootaloo. What's up?" Dash asked casually in a vain attempt to mask her awkwardness and nervousness.

Scootaloo stamped a hoof and threw her forelegs into the air. "What do you mean what's up!?"

Dash reached out to her, but Scootaloo quickly stepped back and turned away. "Hey, what's wrong?" asked Dash gently. She tried to make the words sound confused, but they seemed more like the whine of an injured animal.

"You're leaving tonight. I can't believe you! You didn't even talk to me," retorted the orange pegasus.

Dash turned her head to glimpse the party while speaking. "Look, I was going to-"

"Liar!" Scootaloo whipped back to the older pegasus and charged her. She managed to push Dash into the tree and punch her softly. "Liar. Liar. LIAR!" she shrieked out before breaking into defeated sobs.

Dash relaxed and slid to the ground with the younger pegasus resigning herself to her rampant emotions. The older pegasus cradled her in a loving hug and let her cry it out into her chest. "Hey now... I'm not leaving forever. I've been chasing my dream for a long time, and now I've finally caught it."

Scootaloo stopped for a moment and raised her head to meet Dash's eyes. She had only cried for a few minutes, but her eyes had already reddened and her cheeks puffed up. Her breaths came in small huffs and sniffles as she tried to speak as clearly as she could. "What... What about... my dreams?" she managed in an unsteady voice.

Dash gazed into her eyes for a long while before tilting her head back to the tree tops and the night sky. She gently stroked Scootaloo's purple mane as she spoke softly. "Are you sure those are really the dreams you want to chase?"

"What... do you mean?"

Dash turned back to her and smiled, her eyes watering slightly. "You always want to be like me. I've always wanted to join the Wonderbolts. Are your dreams still the same?" she asked.

The filly turned her head away briefly. "I... don't know..."

Dash pulled her face back up towards hers. "Just try to be happy for me. Maybe some day we can both be in the Wonderbolts together." She offered the younger pegasus a warm smile. Scootaloo returned it as her mood began to reverse.

"I think that's what I'll do," she said, snuggling under Dash's chin.

"Why don't we get back to the party? The Wonderbolts are here so you can talk to them."

"The only one I want to talk to is right here. Can we stay here like this, please just for a little while longer?"

Rainbow Dash smiled and looked out to the party. "Yeah. I can stay here all night if you want," she whispered.

***

In a flash of light, Twilight appeared in the middle of the crowd again. She garnered some looks of shock and awe before everyone settled back into the usual festivities. Games, dining, and friendly chatter all resumed as normal.

"I thought you would want to spend more time with your friends," spoke Celestia as soon as Twilight got her bearings straight.

"Indeed, Twilight. You do not need to spend your friend's departing festivity with only us," chimed in Luna, her eyes laden with mild confusion and curiosity.

Twilight glanced around and scanned the crowd with a disappointed look. "Hey, where's Spike? He would never miss one of Pinkie Pie's parties, let alone Rainbow Dash's going away party."

The sisters exchanged the same look of uncertainty. "I don't know, Twilight. Perhaps he got caught up in some unfinished business at the library," suggested the sun princess.

"We did not request or assign any tasks to him that would risk ruining his record of punctuality," answered Luna.

"I'll ask Rarity." Twilight vanished into a light again, this time with no effect upon the crowd. A few minutes later she reappeared with Spike beside her. "Found him!" she sang in glee. The princesses smiled at the sudden arrival of a new guest.

Spike had definitely grown over the years. From head to toe he matched Twilight's height, and he had also gained a bit more girth about him. He was no longer the stubby, adorable whelp on the outside.

It took the dragon a moment to realize what had just happened. "Hey, Twilight. What's the big idea, huh?" he asked quickly. He carried a somewhat disgruntled look, but the moment the unicorn grinned, it faded away with a chuckle.

"Oh, Spike. You can take the day off from your duties. Besides, Rarity is here."

At those words, the young dragon whirled his head as if to look in all directions at once. "Speaking of Rarity, where is everyone else?" asked the dragon. In another flash of light, they disappeared.

"Perhaps she could at least inform us beforehoof of when she intends to teleport away," said Luna, rolling her eyes.

Celestia snickered softly before replying. "Come now. How many ponies do you know that can teleport?" Luna sighed and rolled her eyes again. One last flash, much larger than any before it, occurred before them. When they could see clearly again, Spike, Rarity, Applejack, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie all appeared with a panting Twilight.

"Come on, everypony! It's KA-RA-OKE TIME~!" sang Pinkie Pie at the top of her lungs. Cheering ensued and the party pony began heading towards a pre-erected stage, complete with a curtain and preparation area behind it. "Follow me!" she commanded with a sudden, determined look. She led a substantial chunk of the partygoers off to participate in the activity.

"Hey, is Rainbow Dash still gone?" asked Fluttershy.

Applejack raised a hoof above her brow and scanned the distance now that they had been given more breathing room. She spotted the cyan pegasus on a return trip from the forest edge with Scootaloo beside her. "There she is. I reckon she's done clearin' the air with her biggest fan." Applejack chuckled and continued to watch them.

The two pegasi playfully shoved each other back and forth, laughing and smiling as if there had never been a moment of sadness between them. Reaching the rest of their friends at the party, they maintained their happy demeanor, but suppressed their laughter in time to talk.

"Hey, guys," greeted Dash. She glanced off to the stage where Pinkie Pie had already begun singing. "I see Pinkie's already started the real party."

"Hey, Rainbow Dash," began Twilight. "This party is for you, you know."

The pegasus scratched the back of her head and looked away with a sheepish grin. "Yeah. Being famous can be such a pain sometimes."

Scootaloo jabbed her in the ribs and she coughed and choked out a few laughs. "Come on. You were gonna introduce me to the Wonderbolts, remember?" she nagged.

Dash turned to her, "Yeah, yeah." Glancing back to Twilight, she shook her head. "You guys better enjoy yourself at my party for me!" With that, the pair wandered off towards the crowd by the stage, their friends chasing them giggles. The Wonderbolts had gathered to perform a group karaoke themselves, taking turns singing lines off key and slurring when they didn't know the lines.

"Well, I reckon we oughta go and enjoy ourselves, too." Applejack nodded and started off towards the stage. Everyone but Twilight and the princesses followed after her.

"Is something the matter, Twilight?" asked Celestia, concern etched into her face.

Twilight smiled and moved closer to the sun princess. She stood up and gave her a big hug, snuggling into the princess's white fur. "Nope. Everything's just perfect," she muttered, grinning. She gave the same hug to Luna, and when she decided to return the gesture, Twilight found herself slung over the moon princess's shoulder and receiving pats on the back as well.

"We are glad that you are happy, Twilight," she beamed. Setting the dizzy unicorn back on the ground, she pointed off to the stage and they all began heading there together.

Before they could reach the edge of the crowd, a familiar unicorn quickly stepped in front of Twilight. Startled by the other pony's sudden appearance, Twilight reeled back and fell to her back with a startled cry. She immediately recognized who it was, and unnamed emotions welled within her atop the familiarity and nostalgia.

"Well, well, well. If it isn't Twilight Sparkle," observed The Great and Powerful Trixie.

"Trixie? I... I didn't expect to see you here." Twilight gulped back in her breath and watched as the magician looked down upon her with harsh, judging eyes. However, she soon took in the fact that both princesses stood just behind the downed unicorn, each one casting an expectant gaze upon her.

Trixie's eyes widened and she quickly dropped to the ground in a deep bow. "P-Princess C-Celestia and Princess L-Luna," she stammered. "Forgive m-me for my behavior." Her words left her throat faster than her cape could settle on the ground behind her, much to Twilight's surprise.

"That is quite alright... Trixie, was it? Are you a friend of my wonderful protégé?" inquired Celestia. Trixie snapped her head up in surprise. Twilight sat up and looked at her expectantly, wondering how the magician might answer that question in the presence of their rulers—and her personal mentors.

Beads of sweat formed beneath the magician's hat as her eyes shifted between Twilight and Celestia over and over again. "Uhh..." she started. "Why... Why we're old friends," she lied, adding a forced grin and desperately trying to hide her sudden anxiety. "We met during one of my magic shows. We've known each other for years," she added, putting up her best poker face. Twilight crinkled her brow and clamped her eyes shut in disbelief, but the princesses couldn't see her expression.

Celestia warmed up to a smile. "Oh, how nice. I don't recall Twilight mentioning you in particular in her letters, though."

"She was the basis of one of my friendship reports," corrected the faithful student, restoring her composure and playing along with a bit more truth to back up the ruse.

Before either princess could speak Trixie cut in. "Y-yes! I was with her when she wrote it." The magician grinned with fake pride as the act continued to work on the sun princess.

Luna cocked her head to the side and shot her an unimpressed, almost accusing look. "Really? Which one was it then? I have read them all for myself and I know for a fact that you were not mentioned by name in any of them."

Trixie forced a smile that struggled not to collapse into a guilty wince. She looked to Twilight, pure pleas of help glazing her eyes. The purple unicorn sighed and caved. "It was the one about being afraid of showing off and hiding a part of who I was," she began. Then she cut to quoting the letter directly. "My friends helped me realize that it's okay to be proud of your talents and that there's a time and a place to show off... especially when standing up for your friends." The magician collapsed to sitting in relief and could only nod enthusiastically in agreement.

"Ah, yes. That was a great letter indeed. I am so glad to know that my student made a new friend that day and that you both wrote that letter together," beamed Celestia.

Twilight offered a nervous laugh. "So, Trixie. Umm... How've you been... since... uh, the last time we saw each other?"

The magician was now at ease and she let her eyes wander away as she explained. "Oh, I've been doing great. My magic shows are starting to get famous again. It was hard overcoming the incident with the Ursa Minor, but I managed. What about you, Twilight? I've missed you so much," she added, throwing up a less forced smile.

Twilight used every ounce of her willpower from spilling everything to Celestia right there, if only to prevent herself from setting the record straight at the magician's expense. "Well, I've moved back to Canterlot and I'm studying under both Celestia and Luna. I'm going to become an Archmage," she announced with legitimate joy, clasping and rubbing her forehooves together.

Trixie's right eye twitched for a moment while she held her smile and processed the information. "That's... wonderful!" she cheered reluctantly after the pause.

"Oh, it seems you two have quite a lot of catching up to do. Well, don't let us hold you up," Celestia chimed in. "We're going to join in the karaoke, too. A little fun can't hurt."

Twilight nodded and watched as they wandered away and left her with the boastful magician. It was Trixie's turn to rub her hooves together and she chortled in delight.

"So, you're the prized student of Princess Celestia? The famed hero? I never thought it would be you of all unicorns." She stood up and brushed herself off before walking in a slow, predatory circle around Twilight. "That explains a lot, though. After those two brats brought the Ursa Minor into town, my reputation and my career were ruined!" she ground out in a hushed voice. "Everything I worked so hard for!"

"Trixie, I'm really sorry about that, but—"

"Now I've lied to the faces of both of the princesses. If they enjoy my show then my reputation will be completely restored—no, even better than before! You're going to help me through this, Sparkle. Got it?" The magician came to a stop in front of Twilight and offered a hoof to both seal the deal and help her up.

"And why should I help you? Why shouldn't I just go tell her right now that you lied, huh?" threatened Twilight while staring at the hoof.

"You wouldn't dare..."

"Try me." Twilight gave her sour look.

Trixie looked back and forth to make sure no one else was watching or eavesdropping on their conversation. She crouched down in front of Twilight and leaned in close, lowering the volume of her voice. "Look, will you please help me? It's those two colts' faults that all of this even happened in the first place!"

Twilight narrowed her eyes. "You were exaggerating your accomplishments. That was your fault. You led them to believe you could stop an Ursa Major," she retorted.

Trixie glanced around again before whispering. "What will it take for you to help me through this party's show tonight?"

Twilight pondered the question for a moment. I've got Trixie wrapped around my hoof... What could I ask for that would benefit both of us? she wondered.

Trixie tapped a hoof on the ground impatiently. "Well? I've got a magic show coming up and I don't want to get booed off the stage before I get there."

Twilight put up a sly grin, and Trixie's ears folded back. "Since we're old friends, I want you to apologize to all of Ponyville for being such a braggart..."

"Are you serious?" Trixie loosed a groan of disgust.

"And aside from your magic show, you'll be spending the party tonight with me and the princesses."

Twilight could've sworn she felt the sheer horror emanating from Trixie in that moment. The magician took the brim of her starry hat and pulled it over her eyes, rotating it back and forth while cringing, grimacing, and gritting her teeth as she weighed her options. After several more movements conveying her dire straits, she reset the hat with her magic.

Trixie groaned again. "Alright, fine! We've got a deal, but you'd better not double cross me, Twilight."

Twilight beamed. "Yay. We're going to have so much fun... friend."

"This is going to be miserable," grumbled Trixie.

Twilight got up and took the magician by a hoof. The touch caused them both to hesitate and look away from one another briefly. Twilight made a sound and Trixie responded by rolling her eyes before they walked to the stage together. Several ponies, led by Pinkie Pie, bowed after finishing a karaoke cover and Princess Luna took to the stage.

"Uh oh..." started Twilight.

"What?" asked Trixie.

"Look, you might want to cover your ears," suggested Twilight as she did so herself.

"What are you—"

Before the magician had time to gather more information, Luna's voice blasted through the speakers on and around the stage. The volume came out in a rush of wind and Trixie's hat took to the skies. Too shocked to grab it herself, Twilight seized it with her magic and returned it to the stunned magician. Trixie clenched her teeth while experiencing the overload in audio stimuli.

"EXIT LIGHT! ENTER NI-IGHT~!" sang, or perhaps bellowed, Luna. Despite the initial shock, the crowd cheered, danced, head banged and sang along to the best of their ability.

When the stream of excess sound ended, Luna received mass applause, cheering, and whistling. Trixie turned to Twilight, her mouth still hanging open and her mane disheveled. "What... How... Is she...?" The magician fumbled with which question to ask first.

Twilight giggled before answering. "Yes. She rarely gets to use the royal Canterlot voice now. It used to be tradition for her to always speak that loudly to her subjects." She watched as Trixie collected herself, starting with the realignment of her jaw.

Pinkie Pie took the mic and thanked Luna for her high volume performance and pointed a hoof towards Trixie and Twilight. "And now for a special guest: The Great and Powerful Trixie!" The crowd's energy seemed to die almost instantly as they recalled the magician's history. Murmurs and whispers took over while a few boos managed to make their way above the other sounds. "Oh come on, you guys. The Ursa Minor thing was such a long time ago," reminded the party pony.

"You're coming with me," declared Trixie abruptly. She snatched one of Twilight's hooves and pulled her up to the stage before she could say anything.

"Hey, this wasn't part of the deal," protested Twilight after coming to a stop on stage. Trixie ignored her and immediately took up the microphone with her magic. A heavy silence fell upon the crowd as they awaited her opening speech.

Trixie sized them up before gulping heavily. "Hello again, Ponyville," she started, adjusting her loose cape collar nervously. "I know the last time I performed here I... exaggerated my accomplishments, and that caused some... problems." A few heckling words escaped the crowd, but it quickly died back to silence when Trixie paused and allowed them to belittle her freely. "I'm very, deeply sorry about that," she continued. She cast the crowd a sympathetic look before turning to Twilight beside her. The purple unicorn returned a nod and a warming, reassuring smile.

Trixie smiled faintly and cleared her throat. "Tonight, I'll be giving you the grandest show ever. I've improved a lot, and my good friend Twilight here is going to help me make it all up to you," she announced in a sing-song voice.

"What!?" cried Spike over the crowd as he jumped and shook a fist, but the gentle hoof of Rarity resting on his shoulder pacified him immediately.

Twilight shot him a sour look before taking the microphone from Trixie. "Yes, I'll be assisting her tonight. Let's all give Rainbow Dash the best farewell show we can!" she cheered out. The crowd moved into an uproar with the pegasi in the air shifting about in anticipation. Rainbow Dash floated the closest with Scootaloo and the other Wonderbolts hovering beside her.

The stage darkened and whispers began of what the show could be like with Twilight's assistance. An aurora of blue light gave vision of Trixie alone, the microphone and Twilight having vanished from the stage. With her horn glowing, she formed a wisp of blue light in front of her. A purple flash to her right revealed Twilight and she formed a wisp of purple of her own.

"Follow my lead," whispered Trixie.

Twilight nodded and closed her eyes, both mares standing up and using their hooves for control. Trixie raised an eyebrow before sending her wisp to the right with a hoof. It left a magnificent trail of light twinkling and cascading down behind it. Twilight followed suit, using her hoof and mimicking the magician's movements in the opposite direction while in perfect synchronization. The crowd cheered softly, voicing their varying degrees of delight.

The lights began swirling around the magical duo before separating and exploding into another display of lights and sparkles, but the starting orb remaining intact. The orbs swirled around them again before erupting into many more. The lights dissolved into a mist that flowed out into the audience. They gave awed and fascinated murmurs, and the mist quickly turned into a thick fog. The magicians disappeared into as it expanded, seeping back onto the stage. In a flash, rays of light bounced in between the audience members and cycled between them, illuminating their delighted faces and changing vectors periodically. The marvelous laser show caused some to step back in fright of the sudden beams, and others to eagerly place a hoof into them in wonder.

The laser show in the crowd continued for several more minutes before they faded all at once. The stage lighting returned and the two mares appeared, each in a deep bow. "Wow, Trixie. You've sure learned a lot since you were last here," Twilight said as she came out of the bow. She opened her eyes only to be met with an indignant scowl from the magician.

"What was that?" she asked snappily, but hushed enough that the audience couldn't hear.

Twilight tilted her head sideways. "What do you mean?"

"That... thing you did. Whatever it was. How did you follow my performance so perfectly?" The tone of frustration died down to one of mere annoyance, and the magician tugged at her cape to alleviate the feeling.

"Oh, that. If I concentrate hard enough, I can follow your magic. It's something I learned from Luna. I can teach you how to do it if you'd like," offered Twilight. She extended a hoof, but Trixie glared at it.

"The Great and Powerful Trixie does not need any help from the likes of you." The magician took the hoof and brought them into another bow for the crowd. "I shall learn on my own."

Twilight came out of the second bow and shrugged. "If you change your mind, all you have to do is ask." She smiled and waved to the crowd, mimicking Trixie's leading movements again. The magician let a frown slip briefly as Twilight followed all of her cheering movements as accurately as her performance.

"Alright. Everypony give it up for Twilight Sparkle for her gracious assistance," Trixie shouted. She prodded the purple unicorn off the stage as soon as her cheers had ended. "The show must go on, and I will join you as soon as it's over," she said.

"I'll hold you to it," said Twilight, sticking out her tongue playfully. Trixie blinked a few times, but said nothing. With that, Twilight departed the area and returned to the sides of royal sisters.

"That was a wonderful display, Twilight," said Celestia.

"Indeed. You managed to focus and let your senses guide you completely. Congratulations on your mastery over that skill." Luna beamed her pride and threw a foreleg around Twilight. "Such a glorious celebration to coincide with, for our student carries a bright future," she declared louder than intended.

Twilight blushed as the crowd turned to her and gave a light clap. She peered beyond them and to the flustered magician being ignored on stage. "Come on everypony. This party is for Rainbow Dash," she reminded, pointing back to the stage.

"Yeah!" cheered Dash while raising a newly acquired mug of cider. She carried a light blush while floating beside the other Wonderbolts and Scootaloo.

Trixie took the cue and began weaving more displays with her magic. After half an hour of her intricate spellwork, she paused and took a breather, dimming the lights for a moment. "Now for the grand finale!" she announced suddenly, rekindling the crowd's anticipation of her show.

"Celestia?"

"Yes, Twilight?"

Twilight watched as Trixie continued her greatest efforts, building a vivid masterpiece of magical lights. "Trixie wasn't actually a friend..." she confessed.

"Oh? Is something the matter?" The princess rested her neck over Twilight's and watched the magician thoughtfully with her.

Twilight fidgeted and scraped a hoof on the ground. "Well... She wasn't there when I wrote that letter. We lied."

Celestia pulled back and gave her student a puzzled look. "We lied? What do you mean, Twilight?"

Twilight chewed on her bottom lip before summoning the nerve to answer. "I hope that, if I help restore her reputation as a magician here tonight, that she'll become a true friend."

The princess held the look of deep thought for a few more seconds before melting into a smile. "Oh, Twilight. That's wonderful and I hope she does become a friend."

"Can you forgive me—us, for lying?" asked Twilight. Her eyes moistened as she gazed at the sun princess anxiously.

Celestia pulled her into a hug and turned her head back to the stage. "I forgive you," she whispered. Luna observed them in silence, her expression remaining stoic.

They watched as Trixie created beautiful displays of lights, explosions, and sounds. She didn't limit her finale to the stage and many lights appeared and absorbed the audience into the performance. The ambient light died down and Trixie clasped her hooves together. A small blue orb appeared between them and she slowly raised it into the air with her right hoof. Lights on the ground spiraled outward around her like flaming trails.

"Watch, in awe, as The Great and Powerful Trixie performs the most spectacular feat of magic ever witnessed by pony eyes!"

The orb swelled into an enormous size and emitted a powerful blue shade upon the audience. Trixie grinned with anticipation as the masterpiece neared completion. The flames on the ground were pulled up into the orb and the magician held a massive, flaming blue sphere above her head. With a spark from her horn, she threw the sphere at the audience.

Many cried out in panic while others simply gazed into the magical creation with awe. It crashed into the ground and detonated with a soft boom, and many smaller, weaker explosions followed after. Waves of light spilled out and flowed over a greater area, and a few members of the audience fainted from the shock while most watched everything happening, marveling at such a bizarre and extravagant display of lights. The blue shades soon shifted back into the natural night as the explosions ceased.

Trixie stared out into the crowd, stiff as there was no applause. Forcing a smile, she adjusted her cloak by the gem that fastened it to her neck, beads of sweat forming beneath her hat. Twilight began a slow clap with glee, listening as it evolved into an uproar of cheers and drumming of hooves. She beamed to Trixie and their eyes locked for a moment. The magician smiled back, nodding before slipping into a chain of bows.

"That was awesome! Best magic show ever!" cried Dash.

"Th-thank you, everypony," replied Trixie with a tone that threatened to waver further. She reveled in the attention and glory, bowing and waving back. Afterwards, she returned the stage to a dumbstruck Pinkie Pie and wandered over to Twilight.

"Wow, Trixie. That was magnificent. It's much better than your old fireworks."

"Only the best," she replied while raising her nose and placing a hoof to her chest. "The Great and Powerful Trixie settles for nothing less."

"That was a most wonderful performance, Trixie." Celestia turned to Twilight. "Well, it's getting late for me. I must be going now," she announced. She turned to her sister who was watching Trixie intently. "Luna, are you going to stay here?"

The moon princess's eyes wandered around for a bit before falling back to Celestia. "I think I shall tarry for a while longer. Twilight and I do not get to enjoy as many events together as I would like."

Celestia glanced between them before nodding. "Very well. I hope you two have fun."

"Goodnight, Celestia," said Twilight.

"May your dreams welcome you, dear sister." Luna smiled and waved as Celestia flew off towards Canterlot. When she left visual range, the remaining princess turned to her student. "What would you like to do now, Twilight?"

"How about we join the others and play some games," she suggested. Twilight stepped forward and grabbed Trixie by a hoof, dragging her along with Luna following after.

"H-hey. I don't have to play, too, do I?" she asked while stumbling to keep up with Twilight's enthusiastic pace.

"Yes, you do. Now come on, it'll be fun!" she reassured.

***

A lone knight lay on a hill, quietly overlooking the glowing lights from the party down in the distance before her. She sighed and shook herself to adjust the magnificent armor she wore, but it failed to make her any more comfortable than she already was. Polished steel plating covered vital parts all over her body, her wings free to move between gaps in the back of a breastplate. She wore a visor-less helmet with two wings extending back and upward from beside the ears; the breastplate carried the symbol of Luna's cutie mark on the front; bracers covered her forehooves while sollerets protected the rear ones. Lastly, a small heater shield rested on her back, a baldric with a broadsword sleeping in its sheathe just beneath.

As Princess Celestia came into view, the knight snapped up and to attention with a disciplined salute. "Good evening, Your Majesty. Did you have fun at the party?"

"You know you don't have to stand watch from so far away. Why don't you go and enjoy the party yourself?" Her eyes looked over the knight thoughtfully, drinking in her reaction.

The knight looked down at the ground for help. "I, um... Well, you see..." she said while fumbling around for words. She bit her lip as inner conflict culminated into a lack of coherent thought.

"Don't keep it a secret forever. Just go," urged Celestia.

"B-but we're leaving," protested the knight. Her mouth crinkled, desperately laying into the excuse for salvation.

"You will be assigned to me for anything that involves her until you speak your mind to her," ruled the princess.

"But—!" The knight glimpsed the party behind Celestia, the sight and its honored patron compelling her to go, but a lack of confidence pushed her to maintain the great distance from it.

The princess offered a faint smile. "You will thank me on the day that you finally lay these fears to rest." She turned and looked off towards the party. "I'm assigning you to my sister's detail tonight."

"But, Your Majesty..." whined the knight with a subtle groan, dancing around direct complaints to the order, "that's unnecessary." The knight knew what she meant, but there was nothing she could do or say to change the princess's mind.

Celestia sighed and looked up to the night sky briefly. "I leave the distance at which you wish to carry out your duties entirely up to you. Just... promise me that you'll act soon."

"Thank you"—the knight bowed graciously—"I promise," she vowed, unsure of herself. "What about you, Your Majesty? Who is taking my place?"

"Don't worry. There are other knights to take your place. Have a good night." The princess smiled and the knight bowed again. She flapped her wings and began soaring back towards Canterlot. The knight breathed out in relief and laid back down. She stared out to the party and summed up a regretful smile.

It's not as pretty as you, she thought.

Chapter 2: Battle Royale

View Online

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 2: Battle Royale

Uproarious laughter spilled into the air, much to the chagrin of Trixie. Twilight had dragged her from the stage area to play one of Pinkie Pie's favorite games: pin the tail on the pony. Despite the magician's confident belief that she would easily win such a trivial game, all she had managed to accomplish so far was to collide face first into the wall of the booth the target had been plastered onto. Her horn dug into the wood slightly and she had randomly placed the tail far enough to the side that she would've hit an invisible friend of the target pony instead.

"It was a good first try," reassured Twilight from behind her, suppressing her own laughter. It was an uphill battle with seeing that particular unicorn humiliated in good fun.

Trixie removed the blindfold and turned around to glare at the other unicorn, a hoof delicately rubbing by her horn. "I will win this game before the night is over!" she declared. Her words failed to add any sort of seriousness to the situation as more ponies keeled over in laughter, Rainbow Dash clutching her stomach as she howled. "What?" she barked, oblivious to the hilarity.

Twilight moved to her and took the blindfold, a genuinely happy grin stretching her face. "Oh, I'm sure you will."

"What's that supposed to mean?" retorted Trixie. She walked away from the target grumbling and Pinkie Pie stepped into place a few yards from it, another tail readied in her mouth. Twilight wrapped the blindfold over her eyes and spun her around. The party pony pivoted and twisted in an odd manner, but managed to keep herself balanced despite the dizzying rotations. She paused for a few seconds and aimed her head in random directions before moving slowly towards the target. Pinkie leaned her head forward and gently placed the tail almost perfectly on the target's rump. "How the hay did you do that?" cried Trixie.

Pinkie unwrapped the blindfold and beamed at her successful placing before turning to face the magician. "Pin the tail on the pony is one of my favorite games. I play it at all of my parties," she said proudly.

Before Trixie could say anything else, Princess Luna stepped up. "It is my turn," she announced. She took a tail into her mouth with the assistance of magic, and Twilight put the blindfold on her before spinning her around. Luna's starry mane twirled through the air and it gave a misty visual about the princess briefly. Stopping, she immediately staggered a few steps towards the target and pressed her face against it, nearly toppling forward into the wall.

"Very good, Luna!" cheered Twilight. The princess had placed the mark too high on the rump, but still closer than anyone else besides Pinkie. "Who's next?"

"My turn!" Rainbow Dash flew over the rest of the ponies and landed at the starting position, striking a confident pose. "I've got this. Watch and learn, Trixie." The magician stuck out her tongue and folded her forelegs across her chest. Snickering, Dash took the tail in her mouth and prepared herself. After she was finished being spun, she propelled herself towards the target far faster than any other competitor.

There was a small crunch as the pegasus hit the wall, and then slowly slid to the ground against it. "Hahaha, oh yeah! You sure showed me!" said Trixie between breaks of laughter with the rest of the contenders laughing with her.

Twilight hoisted Dash up with magic and set her on the ground out of the way. "You really shouldn't... umm... rush?" She seemed to question her own way of describing it rather than what had actually happened.

"Ow..." whined Dash, holding a hoof to her muzzle. She gently massaged it while glaring at the magician.

"Hey, at least you got pretty close," encouraged Scootaloo. She pointed to the target and Dash had managed to beat most players, though Luna was still closer.

"At least I beat Trixie." Dash stuck out her tongue at the magician before the next player stepped up.

"Allow me to show you how to properly pin the tail, Rainbow Dash," interjected Rarity. Trixie rolled her eyes as Twilight wrapped the blindfold over fashionista's eyes and placed the tail in her mouth.

Rarity was spun around and nearly fell several times before slowing to a stop. She gave a few more unintentional gyrations, and wavered with unsteady footing, finally managing to right herself without falling. She took several steps forward, wobbling unceremoniously from side to side, before leaning into the open air and falling face first onto the ground. Rarity groaned as Trixie fell to the ground and burst into laughter, leading the audience right back into the peals of joy.

"Oh, you certainly showed her!" the magician mocked. Rarity growled and contemplated hurling something at Trixie's laughing face until Twilight helped her up. "Thank you, dear. At least somepony knows some courteous sportsmanship." She shot Trixie a sour look before rejoining the rest of the ponies on the sidelines.

"Now now, ladies. There'll be no fighting here tonight." Twilight glanced between the dissonant unicorns. They huffed and turned away from each other. Shaking her head, she scanned the crowd. "Anypony else want a turn?"

A short silence followed before a waving hoof could be seen from the back. "I do, I do," chanted the owner. The crowd parted and a grey pegasus with a blonde mane and tail stepped up, a warm smile on her face. "I love this game."

"Alright, here you go, Derpy." Twilight passed her the tail and proceeded to spin her around several times.

The grey pegasus wobbled as she rotated, threatening to fall over, but she stopped instantly, her muzzle perfectly aimed at the target. She giggled and carefully stepped forward. Her movements were lined with heavy swaying, but she stepped up to the target and placed it between Pinkie's and Luna's marks, barely taking first place. "Did I win?" she asked in response to a sudden bout of cheering, slowly removing the blindfold.

"What!?" blurted Trixie. "How can you ponies be so good at this game? It makes no sense."

"Oh settle down, Trixie. It's just a game for fun," Twilight said soothingly. To her disbelief, Trixie simply rolled her eyes.

"Fine, fine..." Her eyes locked with Twilight's momentarily, a knowing look in them, before she ripped them away and looked elsewhere.

What was that? Twilight thought to herself.

The magician's complaints ultimately faded away completely and Rainbow Dash stepped up to the winner. "Wow, Derpy. I didn't know you had such a great sense balance and direction." She snatched her right foreleg and stood up, raising it into the air. "Our new 'Pin the Tail On the Pony' champion!"

The crowd offered claps and woos as Pinkie investigated the winning mark carefully. "Wow. She actually beat me. You're really good at this game, Derpy."

The grey pegasus blushed. "Aw, you guys. I just got lucky. It was nothing..."

"Ah come on, Derpy. Nopony ever beats Pinkie Pie at her favorite games," reminded Dash.

She gazed into the cyan pegasus's eyes and lost herself for a moment. "If you say so..." she muttered absentmindedly.

Twilight grabbed Trixie and pulled her back to the stage. "Hey, what do you want?" Trixie asked as they stopped.

"N-Nothing..." started Twilight, looking down and rubbing one foreleg with the other. "I was just wondering what you're going to be doing from now on. You know, now that your magic career is going to be back on track."

Trixie eyed her curiously and grabbed the brim of her hat, pulling it slightly down over her eyes as she idly examined the Element of Magic. "What do you care what I do and where I go after tonight?"

Twilight bit her lip, but still could not bring herself to face Trixie. "I was just wondering is all..."

The magician looked back over to the crowd playing games. A heavy silence fell between them while she watched the game start over again. Each of Twilight's friends happily joked about each other's failures and praised their successes, none bitter or jealous of another. She smiled faintly, obscured slightly by the shade cast by her hat and the night overhead.

"If you must know, I'm going to be centralizing my acts in Canterlot. It's the best place to perform and gain fame for a magician like me. There are always grand shows to do and the capitol would give me the greatest opportunities and access." She continued to watch the ponies take their turns, her faint smile fading away.

"Oh, okay." Twilight couldn't think of anything else to say. She wanted to say anything to keep the awkward silence away, but nothing came to mind as she kept her gaze averted. Say something, you dummy!

"Aren't you going to be living in the Canterlot castle?" Trixie looked back to the other unicorn, her own curiosity highlighting her eyes.

Twilight finally brought her eyes to Trixie's. "Yes, as a student of the princesses, but-"

"Hmph. Living the high life mooching off of royalty, are we?"

Twilight's cheeks suddenly flushed and burned. "I am not mooching off of the princesses! I've worked very hard to get to where I am," she responded indignantly.

"Oh, really? You're her famed protégé, hoofpicked right from the start. Did you ever even try to challenge yourself?" Trixie's own cheeks burned while staring at the other unicorn.

Twilight stomped her left hoof. "I challenge myself every chance I get in my studies. What about you, huh?"--she pointed her right hoof accusingly at Trixie--"Have you ever even tried to be nice and make friends, or is that too much of a challenge?"

The magician seemed taken aback at first, but quickly bared her teeth. "Of course I have. I... They..." Staring into Twilight's eyes, she lost the fuel for her frustration. Suddenly, everything seemed so regretful to her. When the crowd to the side began to take notice of their argument, she quickly pulled her hat down and turned to the back of the stage. "Perhaps this is a conversation best finished in private."

Twilight looked at her friends and nodded her head casually. They resumed their games and she pulled the magician behind the stage's curtain. It was darker behind it, but it gave a calming feeling to both mares. "I know you're better than this, Trixie. You are better than other unicorns, but you flaunt your talent and you don't try to become a better pony."

Trixie pulled away from her. "You know nothing of me. You're just a royal pet who receives all the training of one."

"Really? Is that what you think?" Twilight moved closer, forcing Trixie to turn around with a hoof. "You never even thought to ask about me. All you've done is assumed things. Why not get to know me first?" She calmed down as she went on, and Trixie felt herself soothed by the other unicorn's voice while outside of the limelight. Despite all of the friction between them, this was the first time she felt truly comfortable around her.

Trixie attempted to look her in the eye, but faltered and glanced to the back of the curtain instead. "I just... I..."

"What is it, Trixie? What's wrong?" she asked.

The magician blushed fiercely, but there wasn't enough lighting behind the curtain to see it, only the high moon's pale glow adding its majestic tint to the darkness. Part of her wanted to run, but part of her wanted to stay--no part of her wanting to act.

"You," she replied suddenly.

She turned, and in a single, fluid motion, leaned forward and brought her lips to Twilight's, closing her eyes. Her chest felt like it would burst, her heartbeat abruptly pounding into a quick rhythm. She found herself unconsciously leaning further into the other mare's space. Her hat fell off and revealed tears rolling down her cheeks from clenched eyes in the moonlight. She poured all of her soul into that unexpected action, letting herself be free in the moment.

Twilight leaned back slightly as their kiss deepened. Her mind deadlocked and the world slipped away with every attempt she made to grasp it. Shocked at first, she soon closed her eyes and leaned into the kiss and moaned, gently wrapping her forelegs around Trixie and pulling her closer.

They broke apart gasping, Trixie doing her best to suppress the noises, and Twilight releasing the embrace. The magician turned away, fearing to look at Twilight for no discernable reason. She snatched up her hat with a quick motion and bolted off of the back of the stage and into the night.

"Trixie, wait!" cried Twilight. She began to run after her, but a puff of smoke consumed the magician after only a few steps. When the smoke cleared, the magician had completely vanished into the darkness. Twilight desperately scanned it, but she couldn't tell which direction she had run. She fell to her haunches and pressed a hoof to her lips, a furious blush unknowingly covering her face. What... was that? she wondered. After a long moment of staring off to where Trixie had vanished, she let out a long, drawn out and pained sigh. She finally perfected her disappearing act... She didn't know how long she'd sat there alone in the darkness, but she heard hoofsteps approaching after a while.

"Hey, Twi, are you and Trixie still back here?" Applejack poked her head through the curtain and into the darkness, peering in as her eyes adjusted. She couldn't make out any of the unicorn's features in the dark, but she could see her body shuddering slightly. "What're yah doin' back here? Some'a the other folks wanna see another round of Trixie's magic if she's up for it."

Twilight shook her head and turned to meet her friend's wondering eyes. She ran a hoof across her face, then rubbed the back of her head casually. "Oh, she had to leave. She has to get some rest and prepare for more shows. Sorry."

Applejack shrugged and motioned for her friend to follow. "Aw. That's too bad. C'mon and join us for some more games. We're doin' some apple bobbin' and I thought yah might want in." Twilight stared through her, rather than at her, for a moment before snapping back to reality, noticing Applejack had closed the gap between them. "Are you really alright, sugarcube?" the farm pony added in a whisper

"I... uh..." Twilight managed between her mind's shifting explanations. "I'd just like to be alone for a little while, if that's okay."

The earth pony looked her over with sympathy. "Alright. Yah let me know if you need anythin', anythin' at all."

"I will..." Applejack moved to step through the curtains, casting one last concerned look to her friend before she disappeared through them. Twilight slumped back to the floor and covered her head with her hooves, allowing her mane to blanket her eyes. "Why... wouldn't you just talk to me, Trixie? We can at least be friends... or maybe... or maybe... I don't know..."

The farm pony returned to her friends just in time to see Rainbow Dash dunk her head in for an apple. Scootaloo and Derpy stood next to her, each eager for their own turns. The cyan pegasus reeled out of the water with an apple locked into her teeth. "Ay, Abbleack. Warez Wilight?"

"Oh, really. Must you speak with your mouth full?" Rarity said with a wry look. She groaned as Dash chomped down on a large bite and caught it in a hoof, making sure to noisily chew it. "I know you're enjoying this," she added, rolling her eyes and threatening to crack a grin.

Derpy stepped up and dunked her head in deep enough to reach the bottom. Threatening to fall in, she immersed herself up to her waist before popping back out with a particularly enormous apple clutched in her teeth. She stood up and let the apple fall into her hoof. "Did I win?" she asked innocently.

Rainbow Dash's jaw hung open as she marveled at how the fellow pegasus managed to acquire such a large fruit solely with the use of her mouth. "Derpy, you really gotta stop one-upping me or the Wonderbolts might take you instead!"

"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that, Rainbow Dash." She smiled and began eating the apple.

"Why's that?" pressed Dash.

"Why's what?" returned Derpy absentmindedly.

Before Rainbow Dash could question her further, Princess Luna moved up for a turn. "Allow me to indulge myself in this game for an apple." Luna dunked her head in, her mane spreading out over the top of the water and obscuring it with a starry pattern until she pulled out with an apple, also larger than Dash's. As she pulled away, her magical mane pulled off of the top of the water, completely dry and unaffected. "It seems the grey one has outdone even I." She cast a surprised glance to the winner.

Derpy beamed while Dash let out an exasperated groan. "How am I supposed to earn some cred if you guys keep beating me?" They laughed and she offered a disgruntled look before caving and joining in on their merry expression.

"Yeah, Rainbow Dash. We're sorry, but we think Princess Luna and Derpy Hooves would make better additions to the Wonderbolts than you," chimed in Spitfire teasingly. She patted the newest member on the head and the laughter only grew in volume. Dash flushed and looked around nervously for a moment.

As the laughter died down, Luna glanced in several directions. "Wherever did Twilight go?"

"Ah, she just wanted some alone time." Applejack motioned off toward the darkened stage curtains.

Luna nodded to her and moved towards the stage. "I shall see if she is ready to join for some more fun." Twilight wants some alone time on a night like this? What could be the matter?

The princess of the night stepped through the curtains without checking and immediately found the younger mare in a sorrowed heap on the floor. "Twilight?" she asked hesitantly, softly. "Is something the matter?" The unicorn on the floor raised her head with tears in her puffy eyes. Luna sat down and pulled her into an embrace. "Tell me, Twilight. You are always welcome to speak to me, no matter what."

The unicorn sniffled several times before she could enunciate anything coherent. "I-I think I'm"--she huffed and wiped her face again--"...in love." Her eyes burned as more tears streamed down her cheeks with the unsteady confirmation, her body shuddering. The final interaction of the night played over in her mind, a haunting memory of 'what if' lining the imagery.

Luna's brows lowered at first, but then her expression softened. "Dear Twilight, are you really in love now? With whom do you hold such a powerful affection for?"

"Trixie," she answered all too quickly. "She kissed me, but before we could talk, she just... ran away. Was it... my fault? I didn't think I did anything wrong..." She peeked up to Luna's sympathetic face in hopes of finding an answer from just her expression.

"Of course not. I know in my heart that there is nothing you could have done wrong, Twilight."

"Then, does she still hate me? Why did she kiss me? Why did she run away? Why can't we just be friends, or...?"

Luna grabbed Twilight and sat her up in front of her and smiled. She flinched beneath the mighty, yet gentle touch of the alicorn. "Twilight. I have lived for thousands of years and have witnessed love blossom and fade within the hearts of many. With these millennia of wisdom, I can only tell you that love makes ponies do unusual, unpredictable things that cannot always be comprehended. Everything they do expresses something in relation to their love or their true inner feelings." Twilight continued to stare at her with mild confusion.

"If she loves me, then why did she run away? I just..."

Luna gently pressed a hoof to Twilight's mouth. "Perhaps she is fearful of your love--or her own. Maybe she is not ready for it."

"But... she kissed me..."

"I believe she has shared one of the deepest parts of her soul with you. As I said, she might not have come to terms with her feelings yet."

Twilight looked to the floor for answers, the wood planks offering her no wisdom or comfort in the situation. After several minutes of silence, she huffed one last time and wiped her eyes. Rising to her hooves, she smiled weakly. "Thank you, Luna. I'll give it some time and talk to her in Canterlot."

"I am always here for you, Twilight. If you truly love this mare, I shall support you and encourage you to chase after her heart... despite my own initial reservations."

Genuinely shocked by the response, Twilight blinked a few times. "What? You don't like her? She's a very talented unicorn, though. She can be nice, too!" she insisted quickly.

Luna chuckled and ran a hoof over the purple mare's head. "Oh, Twilight. My sister will always trust in your motives if she sees you lie. While I played along, you are a terrible actor. I know that it was not your idea to lie, but I was curious of the implications."

Twilight blushed as she realized just how deep the princess's wonder went with that statement. "I... uhh... I didn't think of that at the time."

Luna chuckled and pulled her into a hug. "Not consciously, for that I am sure."

Twilight's blush only grew. Her cheeks burned in embarrassment, but she smiled sheepishly anyway. "Thank you, Luna."

"Let us rejoin the others. I believe the Wonderbolts intend to inebriate Rainbow Dash as a sort of initiation ceremony." Twilight giggled at the thought of Rainbow Dash getting drunk with her idols and Luna smiled as the unicorn's sadness melted away completely. They left the back of the stage and returned to the others. Chanting could be overheard as they neared a table of alcohol surrounded by ponies.

"Chug, chug, chug, chug!" they all repeated merrily.

Rainbow Dash was downing an unusually large mug of a frothy beverage. She managed to reach the end and slam it on the table, a mildly distant look of euphoria and triumph taking hold of her features. "What now!?" she shouted, pointing a taunting hoof at Spitfire.

"Oh, you think you're gonna challenge me?" she retorted.

"You betcha. C'mon hot shot. Can you beat that?"

Spitfire frowned, but she appeared to have already been consuming alcohol before the unofficial drinking contest started. "You're on!"

Applejack grinned and refilled their mugs. As soon as they were given a signal they began chugging down the next mug. Spitfire stopped halfway and Rainbow Dash managed to finish the second mug in a single gulp. Slamming the mug on the table again, she raised both forelegs into the air and cheered. She began dropping herself back down to the table to impart a victory speech. Twilight couldn't quite decipher what she tried to open with, but Dash's supporting hoof missed the table and her jaw slammed onto it hard before she rolled off and onto the ground. Spitfire fell onto her back howling with laughter, and the rest of the crowd immediately joined in at the hilarious action.

Derpy cringed and picked Dash up and set her on her back. "Was that really a good idea?"

"Don't worry, she's fiiiine," Spitfire said, rolling her eyes. "Every Wonderbolt gets tricked into drinking until they pass out." The fiery pegasus stood up and patted herself down before sipping casually on what remained of her drink. "She's going to wake up pretty hungover, buuuuuut her first show isn't for a few days. She'll be good by then."

"Wow, I didn't even know she drank," remarked Scootaloo. She peered into the bottom of the empty mug then took it to sample the last few drops. She made a funny face and frowned before setting the mug down. "Blegh. How can anypony drink this stuff? It's so weird."

Spitfire chuckled and put a hoof on her shoulder. "It's an acquired taste."

"Now fer a real drinkin' contest. Anypony think they can drink me under the table?" challenged Applejack.

"Eeyup," said Big Mac, stepping forward.

Applejack cringed. "Awright, anypony think they can drink mah brother under the table?"

To Twilight's surprise, Princess Luna stepped up with an unusual look of subtle excitement. "I challenge thee, Big Macintosh."

Applejack opened up a new keg and refilled their mugs. Setting them down, she rubbed her hooves together in an uncanny anticipation. "Awright. Big Macintosh versus Princess Luna! On your mark..." The two looked into each others eyes. "Get set." Big Mac a fiercely stoic stare while Luna held a smug, but subdued expression. "GO!"

Both ponies took their mugs and downed them with little effort. The next round began as quickly and they continued their drinks for ten minutes, as fast as Applejack could keep them filled, before the effects began to hinder their capacities.

"Thou art a formidable opponent." Luna frowned as Big Mac swayed slightly, but didn't seem to falter much more. "We are ready for another round!" The mugs were refilled on command and they began drinking them sip by sip. After finishing them, both ponies threatened to topple over similarly to Rainbow Dash's graceless fall. Twilight moved to support Luna, but she pushed out a hoof to ward her away. "We shall not be defeated!"

"But princess, I don't think-"

"Silence. We must prove ourselves triumphant." The princess's archaic dialect had taken over, but thankfully she seemed too drunk to put any effort into shouting with the royal Canterlot voice. Twilight watched as Applejack filled their mugs one last time and then handed one to her.

"Ee..." Big Mac paused, staring apprehensively at the murky liquid.

"What's wrong, Big Mac? Are you gonna let the pwetty widdle pwincess win?" taunted Applejack.

His apprehensions vanished and he glanced up at Luna. The princess had already begun sipping on her mug and he attempted to chug his. Big Mac managed to finish his before her. Rather than slamming the mug on the table, he gently set it down and turned to walk away. His first step caused his foreleg to buckle and he hit the ground, already passed out. Luna finished her mug sip by sip and grinned.

Applejack's jaw appeared as if it might unhinge and hit the floor as she looked at her brother in disbelief. "I don't believe it! Somepony actually drank mah brother under the table!"

"Hah-ha!" Luna reached for Twilight, drawing her the rest of the way with her magic, and picked her up, twirling around. The latter dropped her own now-empty mug. "We are the victor, Twilight! We are triumphant!" They spun around and around until Luna fell backwards and dropped them both. Twilight landed on her unsteady hooves and caught the princess in her magic.

"Uh, I don't know what Celestia is going to think about this..."

"We are too drunk to care!" Luna beamed in drunken bliss, but her inebriation had left her in no shape to walk.

Twilight set Luna graciously upon her own back, her legs dangling over hers, and smiled, and forced up a smile as the additional weight began to wear into her. "Hey, Pinkie. I think I should get her to bed. Tell Spike that I'll be spending the night at the library." The party pony nodded and Twilight walked beyond the clearing and into the night, slow, steady steps leading her down the road.

Luna occasionally offered incoherent murmurs and thanks, but her mane constantly shifted into Twilight's face. "Luna, do you mind? I'm trying to see where I'm going."

"But it's funnn," the princess whined amusingly. She moved her obscuring mane out of the way and Twilight almost fell trying to stop when Derpy appeared floating just in front of her. She skid to a stop, her legs wobbling, but she managed to keep steady.

"Wow, you can carry her while flying? I didn't know you were so strong, Derpy."

The pegasus put on a shy smile and rubbed the back of her head. "Oh, she's really not that heavy. Anyway, I'm going to drop her off in Canterlot. I can pass a message along to Princess Celestia while I'm there if you'd like."

Twilight craned her neck around to glimpse the drunk princess drooling on her back. "Yeahhhhh. Tell her Luna is spending the night with me in Ponyville." Her eyes wandered up to the clear night sky, stars flickering proudly beside beaming constellations in their majestic arrangements. Her gaze flowed down the road and out of the city, landing on illuminated city of Canterlot. "Can you tell her to get me a schedule of all of Trixie's magic shows, too?"

"Sure, no problem, Twilight. Have a good night." Derpy chuckled as her eyes shifted to Luna.

"Too late," chimed in the princess with a goofy grin. Neither of the burdened mares could hide their laughter as they parted ways.

Twilight walked on to the library and reached a hoof out to knock on the front door, but hesitated. What am I doing? She inwardly scolded herself and pushed the door open, stepping into the darkness within. Operating on memory, she moved to the stairs and ascended up to her bedroom, finding her old bed still made with her favorite starry blanket. Plopping Luna down, she opened a nearby closet and found a telescope still resting inside. She quickly reassembled it and stepped out onto the balcony and placed it in the center, adjusting it as she prepared to use it. Peering into it, she pointed it to no direction in particular, occasionally rubbing her sore shoulders. This has been an interesting night...

***

Derpy soared through the night, periodically closing her eyes and breathing in the cool air. Despite the athletic and inebriated pegasus resting on her back, she continued to fly at a brisk pace. Dash shifted and mumbled in her sleep every now and then. Aided by the euphoria from the alcohol, she dreamt of herself flying and performing tricks with the Wonderbolts, drinking in the fame and splendor.

At least now I can keep an eye on you. I owe you that much, thought Derpy.

The pair managed to make it all the way to the base of Canterlot, but Derpy was too exhausted to make the final vertical ascent to the city itself. Sweaty and panting, she found an idle nightshift carriage at the mountain's base to catch a ride. She trudged over to them, catching her breath and straightening herself as she neared.

"Oh, had a bit too much fun tonight?" asked a rather young looking colt. Derpy couldn't make him out very well in the dark, but he had a short, dark mane and monochrome coat.

Derpy craned her neck to look at Dash's sleeping face and blushed furiously in the darkness. "Uh..."

"Hey!" An older stallion smacked him on the backside of his head as he came into view. "Such questions are rude, especially to a senior officer! Show some respect!" He had a gruff mustache and the ends seemed to flutter with the emphasis in his scolding breaths.

"I'm sorry, miss..." The colt rubbed the back of his head with a pained look.

"Forgive my new co-worker. Welcome back to Canterlot, Commander Hooves."

Derpy bowed her head graciously. "It's no problem at all. Thank you." She gave another glance to Dash. "She had all the fun. I'm just the designated flyer tonight." Throwing up another grin, she quickly ducked into the carriage.

Whispers were exchanged between the colt and the stallion, but Derpy ignored them and laid Dash across her lap. She chuckled when the colt loosed a small yelp of pain, likely due to being smacked in the head again. Soon the carriage rumbled forward and took to the skies, ascending the Canterlot mountain in a long-winded spiral.

She glanced down to Dash, gently stroking her chromatic mane, then gazed out of the window next to her thoughtfully. You're lucky, Rainbow. Everything is right where you want it to be right now... but maybe there's something more. Something you haven't seen yet.

The carriage shook slightly as it touched down onto a paved road. "We're here," called the stallion.

Derpy blinked as she registered the Canterlot architecture, and snatched up Rainbow Dash before stepping out into the streets. Despite that the buildings were still illuminated by the pale glows of street lamps and the occasional neon sign, the vibrant white scheme of Canterlot's alabaster concrete was dulled by the night. Even in the late hours ponies still shuffled through the main streets with a subtle energy to them. Derpy took in a deep breath of the crisp city air. "Thanks, guys."

She walked down the streets, shooting listless look through every window and at every sign, but stopped when she caught sight of a familiar unicorn crossing the street ahead. The magician...? Derpy observed her, noting the magician's head hung low, and walking so slowly that others were passing her and offering looks of concern. "Hey, Trixie!" she called out just loud enough for her target to hear.

The magician's head shot up. "Who is that..." she mumbled. She turned to see Derpy walking towards her, and failed to immediately recognize her, but she noticed Rainbow Dash laid out on her back. "What are you two doing here? What do you want?"

"I'm dropping Rainbow Dash off at her hotel. The Wonderbolts ended up getting her a bit too drunk. Do you know where they're staying? I forgot to ask before I left."

Trixie frowned, shooting her an incredulous look. "You're just here to spy on me for Twilight, aren't you?" she hissed.

"No...?" Derpy wasn't sure if her own inflection was one of confusion or curiosity. "Did something happen?"

Trixie paused and looked them both over before sighing. "It's none of your business." Without looking, she pointed down the street she was walking. "The Wonderbolts are staying at the Starlight Grand Hotel ahead."

"What about you?"

Trixie harrumphed and continued along the same path ahead of her. "I will not divulge the location of my dwelling to you. You're probably keeping tabs on me." She turned herself and prepared to continue walking.

Derpy rolled her eyes. "Twilight already is. I was just asking is all. You don't have to be so defensive."

The initial words seemed to invoke some form of bubbly curiosity in the magician. She snapped herself back to Derpy and closed the distance between them. "R-really?" she asked so suddenly Derpy stepped back instinctively.

"I thought you hated her or something."

Trixie turned away and looked across the city to one of the Canterlot castle's observatory towers. "I never hated her... I just..." She turned back to look Derpy in the eyes, a pained look of regret casting on the unicorn's features. "I don't know. She's Princess Celestia's protégé. I was so jealous of her magic back in Ponyville. I've worked so hard to get to where I am, but she's always had a head start."

Derpy stepped closer and placed a hoof on the magician's shoulder, offering a reassuring smile. "She's always making new friends. Maybe you're just not ready to open yourself up. It...," she hesitated and glanced to Rainbow Dash, "takes time... I know all about what it's like."

"Do you... Do you really think we could be together--I mean friends?" she corrected herself quickly. "I like her, but I have a reputation to keep and her upbringing just makes me so mad." Despite Trixie's intent, her words came out with an adorable, frustrated inflection instead of one with genuine jealousy.

"You can't wait forever. You'll never know if she feels the same way unless you talk to her."

"What about you? Have you asked her?" said Trixie while pointing at Rainbow Dash.

Derpy blushed furiously, her jaw fluttering open while she attempted to find a response. "I... uh... No," she confessed, lowering her head in defeat. "I know what you're going through, though." Trixie stared at Dash's sleeping face before letting out a small snort. "...What?" Derpy responded confusedly.

"I kissed Twilight."

"What?" repeated Derpy.

"I kissed her and I just... I ran away like a coward." Trixie looked away, the markings of a wistful smile on her face.

"At least she knows. Relationships take time. Rainbow Dash thinks I'm still a klutz..." Derpy put a hoof to her chin before chuckling. "Well, I guess I still am, but that goes for anypony."

Trixie tilted her head towards the hotel and sighed. "If Twilight did ask, I'm staying there as well. She would just find out eventually anyway." Her face flushed and she shook her head suddenly. "Sh-she doesn't get my room number, okay?"

Derpy giggled and nodded. "I wasn't going to ask. You two can talk when you're ready, but I don't think she's the type to give up."

"Thanks." Trixie reached up and pulled the brim of her hat a bit lower. "I'm going to the bar. Good luck with your..." Her eyes trailed from Derpy's face to Rainbow Dash, now drooling onto the grey mare's back in her drunken sleep. "...Romantic pursuits."

The trio continued to the hotel in silence and split at the lobby. Derpy gained the location of Rainbow Dash's room from the clerk and propped her up outside the door. She gently smacked the Wonderbolt a few times to wake her up, finding slight amusement that she could sleep so soundly given her energetic nature. "Hey... Hey, wake up!"

Dash shook her head a few times before opening her bloodshot eyes and wiping her mouth of saliva on instinct. "Wha... what? Where am I?" She blinked a few times, still groggy and lost. "Derpy?"

"Hey. I brought you to your hotel. You seemed a bit too drunk to go anywhere on your own."

"You could've just brought me home... Wait a minute." Dash stood up quickly, but shakily, and whipped her head around. "You flew me all the way to Canterlot? Whoa..." She collapsed back down with Derpy catching her before she could hit the floor, her head suddenly swimming. "I didn't know you were so strong, Derpy." They stared into each other's eyes with Derpy blushing and Dash's face flushed from the alcohol.

N-Now or never...!

Derpy leaned in and pressed her lips to the other mare's. Dash put up a shocked look that quickly faded into her eyes narrowing and finally closing. Derpy could taste remnants of the alcohol in her mouth and gave a soft moan as their tongues touched. Her cheeks burned, her tongue dancing inside of the other mare's mouth. Her heart drowned out all other sounds around as it pounded inside her chest, and after a few moments, she finally relented and pulled away, panting heavily.

"Derpy... have you always...?" Dash opened her eyes fully again and put a hoof to her mouth. A powerful blush overtook the color of her face in tandem with the alcohol's effects. Red clashing with cyan, Derpy procured Dash's room key and fumbled with it.

She hastily opened the door, picking up the other mare and carrying her in. To her surprise, it was a penthouse quality suite, completely furnished with every luxury the hotel could afford. Time was running out and she quickly set Dash onto one of the large cough in the entertainment area and darted back towards the door.

"W-wait. Where are you going?" Dash called while attempting to rise from the couch and face her.

Derpy turned around and smiled, tears glistening in her eyes. "I only kissed you... because I know you won't remember it tomorrow." With that, she closed the door behind her and left the drunken pegasus alone.

Dash slid back onto the couch and attempted to collect her thoughts. She replayed the events in her mind's drunken haze over for several minutes, but it only came as joyful memories she couldn't quite make sense of. Unable to truly understand what had just occurred, she closed her eyes and fell asleep, a happy hoof still resting on her lips.

Chapter 3: Icy Allure

View Online

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 3: Icy Allure

-One Year, Two Months Later-

A single pin crashed inaudibly to the floor, embodying Twilight's overflow of disappointment. Above it, a massive ball of pins and needles were held together in the air within the tight confines of a multilayered purple aura. They occasionally shifted within themselves, but no more had managed to slip free and join the first on the floor. Twilight clenched her teeth while her horn glowed, the purple aura around the ball rippling all over with precision and skilled magic, the aura's layers wrapping over and in itself, constantly shifting around the ball.

"Very good, Twilight. You're almost there," cheered Celestia softly.

The unicorn glanced to her, her heart fluttering at the praise, but the momentary lapse in concentration became a critical error. Her magical grasp faltered and hundreds of pins began falling to the floor. She didn't blink and prepared to shield herself from the potential spray of danger, but the crash to the floor never came.

The princess had taken the ball of pins in her own magic, catching each pin in its own aura. "As you know, it is far easier to project a field over a group, rather than to assert control over many individual objects at once."

"I'm sorry, Celestia," Twilight panted, "It's just so exhausting to hold each pin separately." She collapsed to the floor huffing, hanging her head at the behest of fatigue. Sweat had matted strands of her mane to her face and neck, and she gazed through her mane at the single pin that had escaped from her magic and made it to the floor. "Do archmages really need to do this?"

Celestia released the ball of pins into a bowl on a nearby table and collected the single pin from the floor to hold in front of Twilight. "Acute control of magic is very important. Unicorns are not permitted to learn and use greater magic without first demonstrating absolute control over their current magic. The potential for destruction is... catastrophic."

Twilight gazed at the pin in wonder. "Has a unicorn ever caused such a disaster?"

Celestia turned to gaze out of a window. The sun was beginning to crest the horizon and set. Soon it would be time to exchange it with the moon. The moon... The thought brought back a harrowing memory and she twisted her lips into a guilty frown. She set the pin on the table beside the bowl.

"Yes," she answered simply. "Archmages are few and far. Frankly, we don't need many of them. They offer council and can be sent to assist anywhere in the world. It could be anything from cleaning up natural disasters to fending off wild animal assaults..." She trailed off, closing her eyes.

"But?"

"Never mind it, Twilight. They are a truly helpful force. The rigorous tests we put them through are to ensure that they never lose control of their own magic." Twilight stared back at her curiously. "As I recall, one little pony in particular lost control of theirs at a very young age."

"Yeah... About that..." Twilight let out a nervous laugh while Celestia leaned down to nuzzle her.

"It's alright. It happens and it is best to coach young and latently powerful unicorns so that it doesn't happen when their magical powers grow with age and practice." Celestia returned the pin to the bowl and moved to loom over it. "A single unicorn in an ocean of them has the potential for Archmage status, but even that one, single unicorn must contend with the entire pool of elite candidates from all around Equestria to stand as one of the distinguished Archmagi."

Twilight absorbed the words and then moved to the window. Celestia followed her movements with her eyes and smiled. "Eager to see another of her magic shows I presume," she said with a hint of glee.

The unicorn turned around with a light blush. "Is it that obvious?"

Celestia cast her a warm smile. "Must you ask? You're not very good at hiding your feelings from me, you know. You've been at this for little over a year now, though. Do you believe she will come around?"

Twilight bit her lower lip and let her eyes dart across the floor. "Maybe," was all she could come up with. It was a rare instance where her mind's logic could not come to a decision over the difficult feelings within her heart. She looked up at Celestia, hope glimmering within her violet eyes.

Celestia continued to smile, and looked out past the window as the purple twilight from the setting sun began to cast over the city, the lack of light tinting the tops of the buildings. "Go on. I must lower the sun anyway. You've more than earned the night off."

Twilight grinned. "Thank you, Celestia." She teleported out of the room and left the princess alone. A small whirl of dust pulled upwards, before swirling outward and settling where the unicorn vanished.

Celestia sighed and looked regretfully at the single pin her student had dropped. A single mistake...

***

In a white flash, Twilight appeared on the outer steps of the Canterlot castle's main entrance. She took a deep breath before holding her head up high and glancing up to the coming darkness. She cantered down the steps with ease and made her way into the city, guards and nobleponies curtsying her as they passed. As she walked, the light in the sky faded, disappearing as Luna raised the moon and everything was cast in its majestic tint. The younger, more trendy ponies wandered through the early evening with giddy energy; they prepared to enter clubs, seek out parties, or just spend a night in the city wandering about in innocent mischief.

Twilight moved through the bustling streets, evading other busy ponies in a hurry to their destinations. As time pressed on, she glanced around for a clock, her gait becoming more and more impatient. Trixie's magic show was soon to begin and she had a front row ticket she refused to squander. She wanted to teleport all the way to the show, but her exercises of the day had worn out her magic, but the ponies at her destination would frown upon her disruptive entrance. Finding a clock, she furled her brow in disdain and broke into a gallop. She managed to dash between other townsponies without incident as she took off, and she raced away before they could throw comments of irritation her way. Corner after corner she continued on, her eyes scanning signs as they flew by. She skidded to a halt as she came to her destination at last.

She looked up to see the bright, flashily designed sign. Starlight Grand Hotel. Twilight paused and adjusted her mane fastidiously, trying to fix her sweat-matted mane. Her heart sank when it appeared in its standard glory, her efforts to pretty herself up ending in vain when all she had managed was her usual style. Dropping to all four, she took in a deep breath and followed a red carpet, her hoofsteps becoming muting as they touched down onto it, and moved through large doors. They were framed with a golden metal to look fancier; the style was popular among all of the high class hotels and restaurants.

The door closed behind her with a low thump and she peered around the lobby. The red carpet stretched all the way to the front desk before spreading out down the adjacent halls. To her right was a small den-like area furnished with beige carpeting that bore symmetrical shapes alternating in a pattern. Top quality, yet generically designed furniture with red cushioning sat arranged around a coffee table in the center. Her eyes fell to a pony sitting alone and listlessly flipping through a magazine.

"...Derpy? What are you doing here?" she blurted out.

The pegasus dropped the magazine on the table and looked up. Fastened around her neck was a chain that held a small sapphire pendant. "Twilight? I didn't expect to see you here."

The unicorn moved closer and took a seat, a renewed smile on her face. "I could say the same to you. I'm here for the magic show. What about you?"

Derpy contemplated what to say in that moment, but settled on the truth. "I'm taking Rainbow Dash to see it."

"Rainbow Dash?" Twilight loosed a chortle, but silenced it when the pegasus maintained her expression "I didn't think she'd want to see any of Trixie's magic shows."

Derpy took on a glum look and sighed. "Yeah... It took a lot of persuading," she said as she slipped a hoof beneath the chain and held the pendant aloft. "This is what it takes to take her somewhere... magical. Even if she liked Trixie's show at her farewell party, she'd still rather go somewhere else."

Twilight giggled and leaned in to inspect the pendant. Upon a closer look, she realized it was a platinum chain with the sapphire boasting a flawless emerald cut. For a moment, she found the sparkling colors within to be captivating and nostalgic. "Wow..." she managed at last. "How did you afford one of these? I didn't know you had that kind of money as a mail mare."

Derpy let it rest back on her chest and put up a proud smile. "Oh, I just save up my bits for something special every now and then."

"Yeah, but Derpy. That must've cost a fortune. That looks like something Rarity would wear for a special occasion."

The pegasus gulped. "Eh, it's fine. Just splurging for somepony special is all." She studied Twilight's face as she took the words in. "Trixie never disappoints. Who knows, maybe the show will turn into a nice party." Derpy shrugged. "Rainbow likes to party."

"Sounds like Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie should go to these more often," muttered Twilight as she glanced up to a large glass chandelier.

"Oh, I think there's something else-"

The couch flipped forward and Derpy leaped from it over the coffee table, rolling and taking a combat stance on the opposite couch beside Twilight. Her eyes scanned the previous couch in focus until a certain cyan pegasus burst out laughing from behind it. Many of the other ponies walking about the lobby stopped to observe the scene with confusion, some offering frowns and rolling their eyes before moving on.

"Haha, you didn't see that coming," howled Rainbow Dash before she flipped the couch back over.

Derpy slid down onto the couch in relief and blushed. "H-Hi, Rainbow Dash."

"Hey. So, I don't go to a lot of magic shows, but a promise is a promise." Rainbow Dash's eyes wandered over to Twilight. "Whoa, hey Twilight. What're you doing here?" Dash stepped over and offered a hoof to help Derpy to standing.

The grey pegasus stared at it thoughtfully before accepting. "She's here for the magic show, too."

Dash peered at the unicorn skeptically. "Twilight, you could probably be the best magician in all of Equestria. I didn't think you came to these anymore."

"I'm meeting somepony special," she replied.

Dash raised an eyebrow. "Oh yeah? Who is it?"

"It's a surprise," she said with a devious grin.

Dash rolled her eyes. "Alright, let's go." She took the lead and exited the lobby to the left of the front desk.

They walked down a couple of large corridors that bore the same fancy decor as the rest of the hotel, passing by many of the hotel staff shuffling about. Eventually they opened up into a large showroom that hosted comfortable, yet private tables with walls just high enough for the booths that a pony couldn't quite see over while sitting. Several leafy plants adorned the tops of the walls to further add to the privacy vibe in the room. The booths themselves were arranged with a slight terrace near the back. Guests could see the magic show, but could not see the others attending. Twilight cocked her head as the lights were already dimmed in advance.

Some of the booths had already been filled by eager ponies awaiting the magic show. Twilight procured her ticket and gave it to a pony standing at the door. Derpy and Dash followed until the Wonderbolt couldn't resist the urge to speak.

"Sheesh, Twilight. I didn't know you had a front row ticket. The Wonderbolts get free tickets, but they're off to the side."

Twilight froze and turned around to force a smile. "Oh, Princess Celestia got me the ticket. Anyway, you two have fun." She nervously scurried ahead before she could be interrogated further.

The unicorn found her seat at the center of the front. It had a bird's eye view of the stage and Trixie would be doomed to see her throughout the entire display. More ponies filed into the room until every booth was filled, except hers. Twilight sat alone, as she had planned, eagerly waiting for it to start. A colt waiter in a fancy vest wandered by and set down a couple wine glasses and a bottle of expensive champagne. "Somepony sure has the VIP deal," he tantalized before walking away.

Twilight poured herself a few glasses and downed them as a pony stepped onto stage and talked through the list of tonight's acts. Barring Trixie's name, she ignored the rest of them. The flavor of the champagne overtook every taste in her mouth with an almost metallic, tangy flavor. After the champagne, she began to feel herself relax and loosen up, the apprehension of making an appearance at another one of Trixie's shows washing away.

To her delight, the show began only a few minutes later, along with the incoming tipsy euphoria from the alcohol. The room darkened and the stage lit up with a dark blue light as Trixie stepped through the curtain and up to the center of the stage with her signature magician's hat and cape, the familiar turquoise gem binding the cape at the neck. Twilight could've sworn she heard Rainbow Dash groaning from across the room at that point.

"The Great and Powerful Trix--ah!" she squealed upon glimpsing Twilight. She choked on the air in her throat briefly before forcing a smirk over her shock to resurrect her stage entrance again. Twilight shot her a sweet smile before pouring herself another glass.

Ugh! What is she doing here? brooded Trixie.

The show began with a fog sweeping down the darkened curtain behind the magician. It flowed down, over the stage, then to the floor and throughout the audience. Twilight looked around as the guests whispered among themselves in anticipation for the great show. Trixie tugged on the brim of her hat and the mist swirled around and expanded in volume. She pushed a hoof into it and it blasted over the crowd in a light breeze, filling the room with a smoky haze that cleared into simple wisps around the room.

She smiled and began a laser light show similar to the one she had done in Ponyville. The smoke allowed every laser to be seen as a bar of light shooting and ricocheting around through the smoke. Various colors danced through the air, vanishing and reappearing anew as a different color with a new vector. The lights multiplied into a distracting show and Trixie took the time to step off of the stage while no one would be fixated on her.

The magician approached Twilight's booth and sat down, quickly scooting close. "What are you doing here!?" she growled in a hushed voice.

Twilight levitated the bottle of champagne and poured the second glass for Trixie and slid it to her. "Having a drink and enjoying a good magic show. Why don't you share one with me?" Her euphoric, goofy grin only fueled the magician's annoyance at her presence.

"Just leave me alone, you spoiled brat!" she spat, nearly raising her voice loud enough for other ponies to hear.

Twilight grabbed her wine glass manually and tilted her head down. "I am not a spoiled brat." She lifted it, took a sip, then sat it down firmly before glaring at Trixie. "Are you mad that you kissed me back then, hm?"

The magician gasped before leaning closer, her own glare deepening. "That was a one time thing. It will never happen again," she rebuked.

"Oh?" blurted out Twilight automatically. She leaned closer and attempted to plant a kiss on Trixie's lips, but the magician gently pushed her back.

"You're drunk. Get out of here and leave me alone. I never want to see you again..." Trixie paused and looked at the bubbly champagne in the glass for a moment. She fought back tears, but ultimately huffed and departed the booth, returning to the stage. She breathed in deeply, the distracting laser show wearing away at her magic.

The light show stopped and all of the fog pulled back to the stage in a ball before Trixie. She bowed, and upon standing up again, found Twilight sipping more champagne and grinning to her. Truxue swayed a hoof outward and the ball of fog vanished. The purple unicorn smiled and waved goofily again, much to Trixie's chagrin. Leave, she mouthed to her with a heated look.

Twilight shook her head with the inebriated smile remaining, furthering the magician's ire. Unable to do more, Trixie continued with her performance. She threw her hooves to the sides, wisps of smoke splashing and expanding where she aimed, and more lights began appearing. A magical blue fire ignited before the magician that soon erupted into a tornado of light. The blue glow flickered onto the faces of the audience and forced the shadows to dance along the walls, a weak draft sweeping the room. The crowd saw focus on her face, but only Twilight recognized it as an unconscious scowl.

The purple unicorn clapped excitedly. "Oh, this one is fun," she cheered while throwing her hooves into the air. "Go, Trixie!"

Trixie could no longer control herself. The flame spiraled outward before splashing onto the stage and giving it a burning look. She grit her teeth together while glaring at Twilight. Suddenly, she broke into a devious smile. The flames soaked into the wood and vanished as the botched spell ended. Trixie dropped into a bow as unexpected cheering and applause began, and she drank in the appreciation. Rising again, she leaped off of the stage and took her seat at Twilight's booth again.

The glass of champagne that had been poured for her remained in its place, still bubbling. She took it in her grasp, tilted her head back, and closed her eyes. In one gulp she downed it and set the glass back on the table. Twilight gave her a dumbfounded look before Trixie returned a fierce glance. "I've got more shows to do. Good... night, Twilight Sparkle." Her first words came low, but sincere; however, she said her name with a grumble. A glint of regret and pain flickered in her eyes briefly, but she stood up and left without another word.

Twilight sat there staring blankly where Trixie had left until Rainbow Dash and Derpy came and took a seat with her.

"Hey, Twilight." Dash waved a foreleg in front of her face. "Twiiiiliiiight. You home?"

The unicorn snapped back to reality and smiled as she caught sight of the pendant around Dash's neck glinting in what little light there was. "Didja guyz like tha magic show?" she asked with a bit too much glee for comfort. The alcohol's effects had hit her in full force now, and her slurring only made Dash roll her eyes.

"Alright. I'm taking you home, you're too drunk..."

Twilight snagged the bottle with her magic and poured another glass. "No, no, no, no! Just another glass. And then we can go, 'kay?" Dash reached for the glass, but Twilight's magic pulled it away and she managed to drink it quickly, but falling short of Trixie's speed. "O-K! We can go!" she announced happily. She scooted out of the booth behind Dash. After taking two steps, she lost her balance and fell forward into Derpy's awaiting hooves.

"Yep, definitely gonna need some help," said Dash, holding a hoof to her face.

Derpy stood in front her giggling all the while supporting the drunken unicorn. "We'll take you back to the castle."

Twilight cast them a whimsical smile before shakily righting herself. "I'll be fine. Just a little... guidance 'd be appreshiated, ya know?"

Rainbow Dash hoisted the drunken unicorn onto her back, laying her perpendicular, and moved to leave the hotel with Derpy. They received looks of bewilderment and disapproving glances as they walked out. It wasn't long before Twilight passed out to the rough motions of her carrier's gait.

"Hey, Rainbow Dash, I've been meaning to ask you something..." started Derpy with a nervous tone.

"Sure, what's up?" came the eager reply.

"Well..." Derpy looked to the cobblestone streets for help. "I..." she brought her golden eyes up to match the anticipating stare of Dash's magenta. "I... I..." she tried.

Suddenly a voice broke the moment. "There you are," cut in Princess Luna. She stepped up to Rainbow Dash, ignoring the others, and knelt down to look Twilight's unconscious form in the face. "Hey, hey," she echoed into the unicorn while prodding her.

Twilight stirred and shifted, a tendril of drool running along her muzzle. "...Huh? What?" she mumbled.

Dash leaned back and allowed the unicorn to slide off and into a standing position, shivering as the warmth from Twilight's body faded. "Wake up, Element of Alcoholism. Princess Luna is here."

Twilight stared at her blankly before wiping her mouth and turning to Luna. Suddenly, she burst into laughter. "Haha, I get it now!"

Derpy smiled softly while Dash groaned and smacked herself in the forehead with another hoof, chuckling behind it.

"Come now. Inebriated or not, you and I are taking a walk through the night, Twilight." Luna whipped her head in the direction they were to go and they began walking off. The princess had to slow her eager pace as Twilight wobbled and occasionally stopped to catch her balance. Reluctantly, Luna slowed and walked beside her for support as the unicorn leaned against.

"Well, I guess that solves that." Dash turned from watching them leave to meet Derpy's eyes again. "Wanna catch a movie or something?"

The grey pegasus's heart beat heavily in joy. A light blush coated her face, but the darkness of the night helped mask it. "Yeah... sure. That sounds good."

Dash took the lead and they began walking down one of the main streets. Light posts of an unusually elegant craft lined the sidewalks of the more luxurious areas of Canterlot, illuminating their way. Their pale yellow glows offered a calming, yet upbeat effect to the evening atmosphere. The night was still young and many ponies continued about in a rush of energy. Derpy took comfort in the commotion being a distraction from her demeanor, and she began to daydream.

"So, what'd you want to see?" Dash said to interrupt Derpy's romantic fantasies.

"Oh, umm..." Derpy paused and put a hoof up to her chin. "How about a romantic movie?"

Dash visibly gagged at the idea. "How about an action movie? Explosions and magic and stuff."

Derpy giggled and looked off in the direction of the castle. "Oh, I see enough action. Come on, you might like it."

Sighing in defeat, Rainbow Dash continued the lead to a nearby movie theater. To Derpy's delight, a showing of a new and popular romantic comedy was about to begin. They paid for their tickets and Dash splurged for drinks and popcorn, Derpy's magnificent pendant a gentle reminder her she should pay for them. They took their seats in the second row to the massive screen as the lights dimmed and faded. While the ads scrolled by, the grey pegasus continued to hide her blush in the darkness of the theater.

Dash ran a hoof over the necklace and smiled. She turned to Derpy, and in a hushed voice whispered, "Thank you for the necklace. I'm never going to take it off."

The love struck pegasus nearly fell from her seat at the praise. "D-Don't mention it... I'm glad you l-like it," she stammered.

Dash threw a foreleg around her neck and pulled her into an awkward, yet playful embrace. Derpy found her head resting in the crook of the other mare's neck. "You're one of the few ponies who could get me to watch some sappy love story, you know that?" She loosed a chuckle and gave Derpy's head a gentle noogie.

Derpy offered a weak laugh in response. "I kinda like the sappy love stories..."

Dash glanced to Derpy, cocking her head and raising an eyebrow. "Really? I didn't think you'd be into this kind of stuff. I thought you liked comedy or something."

"I like a good love story, too..." The movie began and Derpy sat up to get comfortable. Her face burned and tingled at the same time, and she forced herself to avoid eye contact with Rainbow Dash as much as she could.

They sat in silence as they watched, Derpy forcing herself not to scoot up in anticipation. The protagonist of the film was a young pegasus colt. Madly in love with his foalhood best friend, a unicorn mare, he struggled to confess his feelings for her. Derpy sympathized with the character, lamenting her own lack of courage in the same situation. As the colt gathered advice and found himself in amusing situations, he managed to finally confess his love for his friend at the climax, albeit awkwardly for humor.

The film ended after an hour and a half, and Dash downed the last of her beverage. They stood up and stretched before the cyan pegasus smiled. "Alright, I'll admit it. That was pretty good... for a sappy love story."

"I'm glad you liked it. It's one of my favorites," chirped Derpy.

Dash paused and arched a brow again. "Wait a minute. You've seen it already?"

Derpy quickly held her forehooves over her mouth and sheepishly smiled. The embarrassment coiled into the pit of her stomach as butterflies, and she threatened to faint at any moment.

"Well... I guess I could watch it again with a special somepony."

The air in Derpy's throat froze in suspense of Dash potentially connecting the dots, and she stared at her in silence as the lights came back on.

"It's getting late. Let's get out of here."

Derpy nodded and breathed out subtly. Oh my, Celestia! That was close.

Departing the theater, they stepped back into the streets and began heading towards Dash's hotel. Derpy stared at the ground while they walked in silence, though awkwardly for the grey pegasus. They reached the lobby and looked around, noticing most of the night goers had disappeared now.

"Alright, Derpy. I'll see you later. I've gotta get some sleep for a show tomorrow." Dash took a stop then stopped and turned her head. "Hey, if you get some free time, you should come and visit. I know Ponyville is kind of a long ways away, but I can get you VIP tickets," she added with a wink.

Derpy grinned sheepishly, nearly reigniting her blush. "Oh, yeah. I'll try to come by if I can. Maybe I can find a carriage."

Dash nodded and waved goodbye. The lonely mare sighed hollowly and trudged out of the hotel. Almost... She tilted her head up to the night sky and took in a deep breath. Coiling down, she leaped into the air at high speeds, the flaps of her wings effortlessly propelling her through the crisp air. She soared around aimlessly for a few minutes before gliding off in the direction of the castle. Almost... her voice echoed in her mind.

***

Twilight shuffled along beside Luna through the empty streets, drunkenly bobbing her head back and forth in a free-spirited manner. The lights from the street lamps and the occasional colorful neon club signs bloomed in her vision like fireworks. Everything appeared even more amazing until she looked at the moon. She paused and sat down to stare at the white orb, now devoid of the surface markings of Nightmare Moon and her occupancy of the lunar prison. For a moment, she felt as if the moon was all there was in the sky, illuminating everything in the endless black.

Luna walked ahead several paces before realizing the unicorn had stopped. She turned and observed Twilight before following the unicorn's gaze up to the moon. Twilight seemed fixated on it, ignoring others that walked on by. Even loud noises failed to distract her from its glory and beauty.

"What was it like..." Twilight started. Her eyes glazed in imagination, yet with a hint of sorrow. "...as Nightmare Moon, alone for a thousand years...? If you... don't mind me asking."

Luna gave Twilight a hard stare, but it eventually softened a moment later. "If it were anypony else, I would not share the answer to such a question. However..." she moved to sit next to the unicorn and gaze up at the moon herself. "I have lived for millennia and experienced more than you can fathom, even in the time before my banishing." She paused and regarded her memories for a moment, a glum look appearing briefly. "The mind is yours to command, and with magic and the eventual siphoning of the stars, we--err, I, was able to cope. Though I must admit, I do not recall much of my time there. Perhaps that is for the best."

Luna's phrasing piqued Twilight's interest and she stood up. "You can transform into the Nightmare Moon, right?"

"I do not see how simple illusion magic is--"

"You said 'we' first. I thought you were Nightmare Moon when... you know..." she trailed off as Luna frowned.

Luna rose and placed a hoof out. "No more of this conversation. I do not wish to dwell on my dark past. For now, let us just be friends, merry in a night on the town, alright?"

Twilight cast a defeated look to the ground. There was no budging the princess on the subject now, but she nodded respectfully anyway. "Alright. Where do you want to go?"

"Let us take a walk to the park." Luna took the lead again with Twilight shuffling behind her, wobbling between every few steps to catch her balance. The drunken mare continued walking, occasionally throwing giggles and constantly beaming her delight with everything, forgetting the conversation she had initiated only moments ago.

They passed a bickering white unicorn and grey earth pony outside of a theater. Her eyes cast over them: a refined earth pony with a neatly groomed black mane and an adorable bowtie. The unicorn had a bleached white coat with dark shades and a messy two-toned neon blue mane. Despite attempting to eavesdrop as they passed by, she was unable to discern what they were arguing about.

After half an hour of momentary interests and walking, the pair arrived on the northern side of Canterlot to a quaint park. Twilight didn't even realize they had taken a long and scenic route to get there. A few couples meandered through the pathways giggling and enjoying the quiet evening away from the city, muttering whispers of in-jokes and flirts to one another. Luna dashed ahead to a swing set and quickly began to gain hang time in the air. Twilight made it to the swing beside her and sat in it, just watching the alicorn through the drunken haze.

"I didn't know you liked to swing," mumbled Twilight.

"Of course, I..."--she whooshed by--"like to have fun!" she finished swinging past again.

Twilight lazily threw her hind legs back and forth to gain altitude. As she continued picking up speed, the pair began to synchronize unintentionally. After reaching peak height, Luna leaped off and landed as far as she could without her wings. She landed gracefully and coiled down into a crouch before rising as if nothing had ever happened.

"Come now, Twilight. See how far you can jump," the princess called to her with an excited huff.

Determined but lacking in judgment, Twilight leaped from the swing courageously. She soared through the air and landed on her hind legs, falling down to all four and crouching to disperse the energy... or at least that's what she imagined she would do.

The unicorn shrieked and flailed from the moment she let go of the swing, and fell face first into the earth. She hit the ground and slid slightly forward, a small rim of dirt forming a crater around her face. Luna dashed over, trying not to laugh and remain composed. She lifted the dazed unicorn to a sitting position and winced. Twilight's face was covered in dirt with a few scrapes, but otherwise alright.

"I underestimated how much you drank. Forgive me... for that," managed Luna before bursting out into laughter and falling on her back.

Twilight stood up tall and looked at the moon. "It's so pretty," she mumbled, reaching a hoof up to it.

Luna glanced away and took on a glum look. "About my banishment," she started to gain Twilight's attention. The unicorn looked at her with mild eagerness while rubbing dirt from her face and mane. "I don't recall all of it. It's as if... Nightmare Moon was a different pony. I do not entirely understand what happened to me... or us. Everything is all just... blank. Strange, isn't it?"

Twilight turned to glimpse the moon again. She opened her mouth to speak, but instead fell to the ground heaving, and vomited.

"Somepony is going to be hung over tomorrow..." said Luna, planting a forehoof to her head and cringing as the putrid smell found its way to her nostrils.

Chapter 4: Mirrors of Ascension

View Online

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 4: Mirrors of Ascension

-Six Months Later-

"Hey, are you good to perform today? You managed to play off yesterday, but you crashed pretty hard out there," asked a yellow pegasus mare, concern etched into her face. She wore a fiery, slicked back orange and red mane. The rest of her body could not be seen beneath the veil of her blue, lightning-streaked uniform but her identity was not hidden.

Rainbow Dash sat on the locker room bench hunched over and leaning onto her hind legs. She refused to turn around, choosing instead to distract herself with tugs on her own uniform in places already snug. "I'm fine, Spitfire. Really. It wasn't that bad," she returned. Extending and retracting her wings for a demonstration, the cyan pegasus stood up and added a short stretch. "I'll be ready in a minute." Her face cast looks of managed pain and agony to the silent lockers before her.

Spitfire continued to lay a stern gaze upon Dash's wings, but finally sighed and relented. "Alright, Rainbow. I just don't want you overdoing it." The Wonderbolt captain left the locker room, passing the newest member, Scootaloo, as she headed outside.

"Heya, Rainbow Dash!" she chirped, only for her sunny disposition to fade slightly at the sight of her idol's brooding demeanor.

The tough facade of the older pegasus softened immediately at the familiar voice, and she turned around and put up a grin. "Hey, kid." Her wings folded back down quickly, still sore from the accident prior. She did her best to hide the pain using a forced sigh. When Scootaloo hadn't shifted her eyes to them, relief washed over her.

"So, how're the wings? You hit the ground pretty hard. What happened out there?" Scootaloo asked quickly.

An aggravated huff threatened to make its way out, but Dash pushed subdued her frustration for the time being. "Look. I'm fine. I just finished telling Spitfire the same thing. Today's show is going to be just as awesome as any other Wonderbolts show." She stepped over the bench and put a hoof on her shoulder. The orange filly had grown into a mare and the lack of a height difference seemed out of place to Dash now.

"If it were anypony else, I'd say you should sit this one out, but... you're the one and only Rainbow Dash." The cyan pegasus closed her eyes and beamed in confidence. "But you also hit the ground like a wet bag of cement." Dash's expression crumbled immediately and her brow twitched. Scootaloo was right. The truth brought doubts that chipped away at her resolve briefly.

"I'm fine!" she reiterated a bit too loudly. Rubbing a hoof on her head, she met Scootaloo's frown with an incredulous stare. "Look, I'll prove it to you today. We'll do our usual routine and I'll perform my Sonic Rainboom without any problems. I just need a little more altitude to make it work is all."

"Okay, but the moment you start to hurt, or you don't think you can do it, you stop and signal us, alright?" Scootaloo's expression turned to pure worry as she looked Dash up and down with her own doubts.

"I promise," Dash said while displaying her best poker face.

Scootaloo rolled her eyes and left, leaving the injured pegasus alone for the final few minutes before the show. Oh, man. What am I going to do? This really hurts. I shouldn't fly today, but I've got so many fans counting on me. I can't just let them down, she thought in haste. Her own worries and stress boiled into frustration and she punched one of the lockers as hard as she could. The door dented and she retracted her hoof, rubbing it vigorously while lost in thought. A throbbing pain took over, but it distracted her from the pain in her wings briefly. Alright, I've got this. I can do this. With a few deep breaths, she regained her confidence. Yeah, I can handle this.

She left the locker room and stepped into the bright light of the sun lighting up the open sky stadium. Cloudsdale always had clear skies for a Wonderbolts show, but the dark locker room had left her eyes dilated and the radiance of the afternoon became too much and shielded her eyes. The cheerful rays poured into her face and she squinted until her eyes adjusted. She pulled down her flight goggles and everything dampened into a more comfortable tone.

The rising roar of cheering filled the stadium, growing louder as she moved closer and closer. Her teammates had already taken to the skies and she was the last to join them. She coiled down, preparing to leap into flight, but a few starting beats of her wings elicited a dull groan and a pained tear into her goggles. Her jaw clenched and soon they numbed slightly to the repeated agony permeating through them. Sharp breaths were all she could manage while rising to the rest of the team and hovering with them.

"Alright, Rainbow Dash. This is your last chance to sit this one out. You can just apologize to your fans and say you'll make it up to them next time," said Soarin with open concern.

"I'm not sitting this one out, you guys. I just need some extra altitude for the Sonic Rainboom this time. I won't be able to go as fast as I normally can," she replied coolly. She did her best not to let her tone slip under the frustration, or the pain.

A horn blared out from below and it was time to start the show. The Wonderbolts blasted into full bore, spinning and twirling, leaving smoke trails and zigzagging between clouds. It quickly became apparent that Dash could not keep her word when she gradually trailed behind more and more as the show went on. During one of the breaks between tricks, Spitfire was the first to speak out as Dash struggled to catch up.

"Rainbow Dash stop this. It's over. You can't go on like this or you're going to end up in the hospital," she warned sternly.

Dash whipped a hoof outward. "I can perform just fine," she snapped. "Just watch me."

She flew away from the pack and they all watched in worry and disbelief as she climbed in altitude. Hovering high above the sky stadium now, she descended into a sharp dive with the help of gravity to bolster her speed. With hooves forward and mane and tail leaving her signature rainbow trail, she stormed downward to the astonishing speeds necessary for her signature trick. Her face stretched back as the wind ripped by all around her, pushing the goggles into her face.

Just a little more...! she encouraged herself.

*BOOM*

The massive wave of prismatic light exploded into a ring with the thunderous boom blaring out in her wake just above the stadium. The fans and other Wonderbolts watched the beautiful nova of light in equal awe; however, a chaotic rainbow trail surged by the Wonderbolts soon after. The audience had been too distracted to even notice the pegasus continuing to speed downward below the stadium.

"She can't stop!" shrieked Scootaloo, pointing a hoof down below.

Dash continued at high speeds in a dead drop to the ground. Her wings had long since given up resisting, too sore and bruised to fight the free fall, and she began to spiral out of control. Am I going to die? she wondered. Tears welled up behind her goggles as a rush of memories overwhelmed her, a sense of regret filling her along with them.

The Wonderbolts raced after her, but they weren't gaining in speed on their teammate. Despite Dash being the fastest among them they gave it their all. "We're not going to make it..." shouted Sptifire over the wind resistance.

A white light surged past them suddenly, splitting the team apart and threatening to knock them all off course. "What the hay was that?" one member cried. They stopped and watched as it easily surpassed the falling pegasus's speed. The light trail seemed to slow and match her speed before expanding and enveloping her completely. The light twirled for a moment then stabilized as it neared the ground..

The white light crashed into the earth before darting away into a nearby tree line and vanishing altogether, never slowing in its turn. The rest of the Wonderbolts dropped to the ground to find Dash laying in a small crater, each one in awe. Dash was laying face down on her chest, her wings protruding out twisted and mangled, both being completely broken now. Scootaloo grimaced and tried not to cry or heave as bloody bones stuck out through some of the feathers.

The injured pegasus was unconscious, but still alive. "I'll go get the medics," announced Soarin before he blasted off back to the stadium.

The two mares knelt down and inspected her closely, taking care not to disturb or adjust her position.

"You're an idiot. You could've died!" scolded Spitfire with a crestfallen look, slamming both hooves in the ground. She stroked Dash's head while waiting for the medics, shuddering and unable to look at the pegasus.

"She's gonna be alright... right?" Scootaloo watched the slow rise and fall of her idol's chest earnestly. Her face carried distraught, uncertainty burning into her.

"Yeah, she'll be fine," Spitfire muttered, hints of doubt and relief in her voice at the same time.

***

Princess Celestia rested comfortably on a plump red pillow, watching the show with subtle interest. The shuffling of clouds behind her invoked an automatic response; she already knew who her visitor was. "Will she be alright?" she asked without turning.

An armored pegasus stepped up beside her and peered over the edge of the cloud platform to the stadium below. "She'll be fine, but I think she'll have learned her lesson this time. I'm glad I was here..."

Celestia stood up and moved to share her viewpoint. "Oh? And why is that?"

"I saved her life, but now she'll pay more attention to her limits." She turned and looked up to the princess with an almost guilty expression. "You didn't say she had to be unharmed."

Celestia cast the armored pegasus a disbelieving, yet understanding look. "Well, I didn't give you any instructions, just that she will be alright in the end. How bad are her injuries?"

Their gazes returned to the stadium where medics were beginning to fly down with a stretcher and recover Rainbow Dash. "I let her wings absorb most of the impact without letting her risk permanent damage. I'm trying to recruit her and this wake up call should help with her recklessness."

"And you felt such crippling injuries were necessary?"

The knight cast the clouds below her a pained look, but she tilted her head back up and nodded. "I wanted to make sure this worked on the first try. It's... hard to do this to her, but it's for her own good."

Celestia returned to her pillow and sat back down. "How did you know she would endanger her own life like this?" Her eyes scanned the crowd around as the Wonderbolts and medics returned with the mangled pegasus on a stretcher and hauled her out of sight. For a moment, gasps signaled a silence, and then to cheering as Spitfire announced that Dash would be alright.

"I didn't. I just knew... I guess."

The princess chuckled and smiled. "From now on, please try to keep her safe from avoidable harm. At least until the time comes."

The pegasus rubbed at the back of her helmet and looked away in a vain attempt to hide a blush. "Oh, well, you know how I am about her."

"Bring her some books," Celestia added suddenly. Her expression remained warm and unchanging to the now confused knight.

"What?" asked the pegasus as she gawked Celestia. "Rainbow Dash doesn't like reading... Does she?"

"She does enjoy reading. Since she will no doubt be spending an extended period of time in the hospital and inactive while recovering, you should bring her some books to read while she heals."

"Oh. Thank you for the advice, Princess," the pegasus chirped. She turned and began to flap her wings to leave.

"Oh, and one more thing..." said Celestia.

The pegasus stopped and turned, eagerly, to face the princess. "Yes, your majesty?"

"Today you are hereby placed on suspension of primary duties without pay until..." Tears welled up in the pegasus's eyes and her mouth hung open in disbelief. "...the pegasus that has been injured as a direct result of your negligence has fully recovered." The pegasus fell to her haunches and smiled through teary eyes. "At which point, you will return to active duty and have such a mark stricken from your record. During your modified duty, you are to become the guardian and primary caregiver to said pegasus."

"Th-Thank you, Princess," she squeaked.

Celestia smiled warmly to her. "Now, go. You are... not fit for my service right now."

***

Rainbow Dash opened her eyes into tiny slits. An annoying, repetitious beep sang into the air, though it came more as a grating blare to her. A grey blanket had been draped over her and the bed she found herself in was slightly raised for her comfort. Colorful cards covered a nightstand beside her while balloons and other Get Well gifts were placed around the room. She slowly sat up and opened her eyes fully. The excruciating pain involved in the simple task forced a yelp out of her. She winced and crumbled back down to the pillows in defeat, but even the soft, puffy pillows she lay on felt like battering rams to her sensitive, splinted wings.

The room was painted white with pale green curtains over the windows to further compliment its blandness. She had been attached to the most state of the art medical equipment, though, and that provided most of the culture to the room's lack of artistic love. A light green hospital gown had been fastened over her and she found more bandages, bruises, and casts than she would have liked, but everything seemed to still be attached.

A mirror on the wall to her right allowed her to see her face, but she grimaced at her image. The reflection threw back a badly bruised complexion: both eyes blackened, several head wrappings, and a neck brace for good measure. She definitely looked the part of someone who had hit the ground at phenomenal speeds and lost the fight. To her surprise, and relief, she still had all of her teeth and no broken facial bones. To the left of the mirror were large windows with the curtains pulled back to shed in a bright noon ray of light. A nightstand was positioned directly next to the left side of the bed, and on the left wall a counter ran its length with a chair pushed against it.

"Now don't yah look mighty awful." The words took her interest immediately and she looked to the door. "And y'all know I can't lie," added Applejack before chuckling.

"H-Hey..." managed Dash hoarsely. Her voice cut itself off as she found her throat to be too dry to speak. Applejack moved to the counter and grabbed a pitcher of water left behind for her. She poured some water into a cup for the injured pegasus, but Dash gazed at it with a yearning.

The thin stream of liquid seemed more like a waterfall from the mythical fountain of youth than a simple pitcher of filtered water to her. When Applejack brought it to her, she had to place both hooves on it to raise it to her mouth. They'd both been bandaged and too shaky to confidently grasp the cup with just one. "Thanks, AJ."

"No problem. Now, yah mind tellin' me just what yah did to yourself?" she asked while examining the flier's injuries with disbelief.

"I crashed. ...Again," she grumbled. The pegasus rolled her eyes away and tried to avoid Applejack's concerned stare.

"Well, that ain't what Scootaloo told me. They said yah should've died from a fall like that--that you were saved by some kinda white light or somethin'. Care to explain that and why yah were so reckless?"

"I..." She stopped and thought about it. White light? But nothing came to her mind, only a haze of the performance came from her memory, reminding her no better than a memory of a blurry horizon. Everything after the Sonic Rainboom came as a blank. "I don't... remember anything. Maybe it was Princess Celestia."

"Nope. I checked. She didn't even move. Maybe she somehow knew yah'd be safe, though." Applejack's eyes became distant for a moment as she imagined something.

A knock on the door followed by a small cough brought the attention away from the subject. An armored pegasus knight stood in the doorway fully clad in intricate armor, a dark blue undergarment filling the gaps between the plating. A tight baldric holding a sheathed sword had been fastidiously wrapped around the breastplate. The armored pegasus wore a helmet with the grated visor down.

"Well, I guess that's mah cue to leave, sugarcube. I'll let the others know you'll be alright, but you had best take it easy for a while. Fame ain't worth dyin' over yah know." With the parting wisdom, Applejack waved goodbye to her friend, then bowed to the armored knight and slipped out the door.

The knight leaned out into the hallway and watched Applejack until she turned down a branching corridor and disappeared. The knight fully stepped into the room and closed the door behind them with care before straightening their posture.

"Do I... know you?" Dash asked while narrowing her eyes suspiciously and folding her forelegs across her chest.

The knight chuckled. Though it was muffled by the helmet, the laugh was recognizably feminine. Removing the helmet, it was revealed as an unexpected, yet familiar face to the pegasus laying in bed. Dash couldn't keep her mouth from launching open. "D-Derpy!?"

"H-heya, Rainbow Dash," she greeted awkwardly. She blushed and rubbed the back of her head with a free hoof, all the while trying to ready herself for what came next.

"W-What are you doing here? And what are you doing wearing all that armor. And is that a real sword?" The questions came one after the other, all bearing equal confusion in their asking tone. The knight chuckled at a few of them while Dash failed to truly convey her disbelief.

Derpy held out an authoritative hoof to silence Dash and let her speak. She gave a small smile and cleared her throat. "Well, for starters, I kinda saved you."

Dash guffawed at first, but quickly cast her an irritated look. "So you were the white light Applejack was talking about? Yeah, right." The injured pegasus rolled her eyes.

"Yes, I was," Derpy replied simplistically.

"If you saved me then why the heck did you let me crash into the ground!?" Dash attempted to flail her forelegs, but the moment she tried to move them quickly, they revolted with throbbing vibes of agony. She clenched her jaw shut and winced slightly, doing her best to try and hide the pain, but it only served to fuel her frustration.

"Because I only made sure you didn't die or suffer too many lasting injuries." Rainbow Dash froze at the confirmation that she nearly killed herself. Her eyes fell to the floor and all of her anger subsided in that instant. "Yes, Rainbow Dash. You almost died that day." Derpy let out a slow, unsteady sigh.

"But... But if you caught up to me, why didn't you just save me completely? How did even you catch up to me? The other Wonderbolts couldn't even do it."

Derpy set her helmet on the counter and pulled the chair up to the bed. Moving closer, she sat down and gazed into Dash's eyes softly. "I want to recruit you," she replied, dodging the first question.

"...Recruit me? To be what? Some boring old guard?" Dash paused before pointing a bandaged, accusing hoof at her. "Hey! Why didn't you save me from... from... from this!" she screeched, motioning to all of her crippling injuries.

"Because you're so reckless and prideful. You show off and try to get as much attention as possible, not thinking about anyone but yourself. I wanted to teach you some humiliation and modesty. It's not always about you. There are other ponies in the Wonderbolts, and you're supposed to be working together as a team. You should never trade your life for something as shallow as being famous," she chastised.

Dash huffed defiantly. "Oh, yeah? And why would I want to become some guard over being a Wonderbolt, huh?"

Derpy rolled her eyes and sighed again, this time with her own frustration. "Well, you would have to go through training to be a basic soldier before you could become a Celestial Knight."

Dash raised an eyebrow to the unusual rank and title. "Celestial Knight? What's that?" she asked skeptically, but with piqued curiosity.

"That is the highest, most prestigious position in the Equestrian Royal Army. You work directly under the princesses. I guess it's kinda like special ops but with more free time and better benefits. They pay... well, the benefits are really good."

"I'm in the Wonderbolts--my dream come true. Why would I want to leave them and become a Celestial Knight?" Dash cocked her head, fully confident no words could break her belief that there was no greater achievement for her.

Derpy gently snatched one of Dash's hooves into her own and leaned closer, a gasp escaping Dash from surprise at the delicate touch. "I thought you might like it since you like being a hero. You're also a thrill seeker... Maybe it can mean something to you, or just..." She leaned in ever closer, a powerful blush unknowingly painting itself upon her cheeks. When Rainbow Dash leaned back, Derpy stood up and wrapped a foreleg slyly around her neck brace. "...Mean something for me," Derpy murmured softly.

She leaned in and closed her eyes, planting her lips on Dash's before she could speak. Her heart felt as if it would give out at any moment while she leaned further into the other pegasus. Dash's eyes went wide and darted to the door, but she soon relaxed, returning the kiss and blushing furiously as she closed her eyes. In that moment, she could not name a reason as to why Derpy would kiss her, only knowing that they were alone, and it was happening. What...? Does this...? Half coherent questions about the kiss flowed into her mind, but slipped away in the same instant. She hopelessly tried to rationalize everything, but all her mind rounded back to was the bliss.

Derpy broke the kiss and pulled away, gasping for air as quietly as she could. Dash wasn't nearly as subtle, taking noisy breaths while holding one bandaged hoof to her chest and the other to her lips. They turned away from one another, the burning of their hot blushes still overriding the color of their faces. Neither dared to look the other in the eye, and each attempted to hold onto the lingering bliss within the awkward silence that had followed.

Derpy broke the silence. "I-I heard you l-like reading... s-so I brought you a b-book. You should've t-told me... or something." Without making eye contact, Derpy reached beneath her shield and procured a large novel and set it down on the nightstand beside the bed.

Dash remained looking the other way, even avoiding eye contact with her battered reflection in the mirror. "T-thanks... Derpy. I'm sorry I never told you..."

Derpy turned to leave, but caught the other pegasus's face in the mirror. Despite the bruising and bandages, she still smiled sheepishly and admired it. Dash caught the knight looking into the mirror. The momentary eye contact prompted the knight to redouble the speed of gathering her things and heading for the door. As she swung it open for an escape from the awkwardness, Princess Celestia appeared on the other side preparing to knock. Derpy yelped and fell to her haunches, dropping her helmet and creating a startling cacophony.

"And where are you going my faithful knight?" she asked casually, ignoring the clatter of the helmet and looking past to the blushing Rainbow Dash. Derpy sputtered out a jumble of words that had no connection to each other before Celestia cut her off with a hoof. "Why don't you go grab some food? I hear the muffins are exquisite." The love-struck knight quickly nodded and snatched up her helmet before dashing out of the room past her, her face only having grown redder by her gracelessness in the encounter.

"Good morning, Rainbow Dash," Celestia greeted the pegasus. "I see the young knight has brought you an excellent novel to read."

The pegasus had still been daydreaming about the kiss, still lost in the bliss of that moment. She snapped back as her brain processed Celestia's words. "Princess... When I get better, can I... Is the royal guard recruiting?" she asked, still letting her reflection cast back the same love-struck look.

Celestia looked over her for a long while before replying. "What about the Wonderbolts?"

Dash turned to her, still maintaining her goofy expression. "I think they'll understand if I tell them why I'd want to leave. M-Maybe there's something more for me... Something bigger."

Celestia took the seat beside the bed and raised an eyebrow to her. Her form seemed to tower over the bedridden pegasus, but her serene presence made her sooth Dash's rampant emotions. "Oh? And what reason might that be?"

"I..." she turned and looked up the princess. "I think I'm in love with Derpy." The fire of her blush only rekindled as she confessed, threatening to override the tint of her dark bruises. "Princess, what exactly is a Celestial Knight?"

The princess chuckled briefly as she realized Derpy's approach. "A Celestial Knight is a pony whom dedicates service solely to the commands of the crown. They usually do it for a greater servitude, but it also require a much stronger tie to life."

"A much stronger tie to life? What do you mean?" Dash murmured confusedly.

"A bond of love... but not necessarily one of romance, is what is most common," stated the princess simply.

"Wait a minute... Derpy is trying to recruit me because she loves me?" she blurted to herself.

"I cannot speak for miss Hooves's intentions, as to whether or not she is recruiting you out of love or not. Perhaps you can ask her yourself. I must warn you though, love does not have intentions so easily understood."

Upon sensing the knight's clanging hooves emanating from the hallway, she stood up and moved towards the door. She turned and gave the injured pegasus a sidelong glance. "You cannot become a Celestial Knight without a strong bond to life. Ask yourself: Is Derpy Hooves that bond?" She opened the door with her magic and stepped past Derpy as she returned with a bag of muffins hanging from her mouth.

Rainbow Dash cast a thoughtful look at both Celestia's words and Derpy's returning presence. "Hey, Derpy."

"Yes, Rainbow Dash?" She replied more enthusiastically than she intended, sheepishly rubbing the back of her helmet and smiling.

"Uhh..." Dash started, lightly rubbing the back of her head as well. "My hooves kinda hurt too much to hold a book up right now. Can you... Can you read it to me?"

The knight set the bag of muffins over the cards on the nightstand and grinned. "I'd love to."

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"Twilight..." came a distant, sing-song murmur. "Twiiiiliiiight..." it echoed again, this time louder and closer. The word continued to repeat and grow in volume, until it became an overwhelming sound of disdain. Twilight moaned for it to stop, but it only continued to repeat in its tone, becoming clearer and clearer with each utterance.

With a growl, the purple unicorn shot up from her bed. "What!?" Wide, bloodshot eyes with crinkles beneath them darted around the room, evidence of a sleepless night--and irritation--displaying through them. Those same eyes immediately softened at the recognition of both the voice and its owner simultaneously.

"Ah-hem!" Princess Luna cleared her throat and the unicorn sank down into the comfortable pools silky sheets and blankets, sheepish, guilty flush taking hold of her face. "I did not think one such as yourself would dare sleep in on such a glorious day as this one."

Twilight glanced at an alarm clock resting on the nightstand beside her bed. 6:00 a.m. Luna woke me up this early!? She loosed a discontented groan and crawled back into the welcoming depths of her covers. "Oh, Luna," she moaned, "Why did you wake me up so early? The ceremony isn't even until noon."

The princess moved closer to the bed and prodded Twilight's buried form. "Come now. I'd think you would be wide awake by now, even practicing a heartfelt speech for the ceremony. You are being given a well earned title. It has only been a few short years and you are being promoted to an archmage. This is by far the fastest that anypony has ever been accepted. You should be honored, proud."

The bed covers magically pulled themselves further over the unicorn's head and she groaned again. With a defeated sigh, she pushed it all down and glanced at Luna through half-lidded and incredulous eyes. "Is Celestia awake at least?" Luna nodded. Twilight glanced at the alarm clock again. 6:03 a.m. "Alright, alright. I'll get up. Just let me wake up and grab some things first."

The princess nodded again and moved to leave. "I shall see you at breakfast," she said before departing the unicorn's chambers.

Hopping out of bed, Twilight wandered over to a vanity mirror resting atop a large armoire. Her horn began glowing and a staff, cloak, and brush immediately floated to her. The cloak was a plain dark blue with a black lining along the edges. Her staff slid beneath it and fastened to her torso, the spire poking out beside her head. The brush raked itself through her tangled bedmane and tail until it appeared as a finely groomed masterpiece. Maybe I should change my style, she thought, pondering at its straightness.

She left her chambers and wandered through the halls at a sluggish pace, her fatigue from the night reflecting strongly in her lazy strides. She tried to put up a cheerful disposition, but she still didn't even feel awake, yet. Nonetheless, guards and servants greeted her with the respect she earned as the good-natured royal protégé. The red carpeted corridors seemed to stretch on as long roads to everywhere in the universe.

After several minutes of walking and several pauses to loose loud, uncharacteristic yawns, the unicorn made it to the enormous dining hall. Upon entrance, more ponies waved and offered their sunny curtsies. The princesses were already seated side by side at one of the large banquet tables, and she took a seat opposite of them and half-forced a smile to them.

"Good morning, Twilight," Celestia greeted first. "I trust you slept well in preparation for today." Despite the words, she could see the signs that what her student had gone through could hardly have been labeled sleep. "Hmm, I suppose not."

"I'll be fine. I just... need some breakfast... and coffee. It's just a little hard keeping up with Trixie and Rainbow sometimes," she confessed.

Luna raised her eyebrows and offered a sympathetic expression. "Perhaps you should move on. Maybe she will never fully reciprocate your feelings again."

The words stung Twilight; the grim possibility she always ignored. She glanced down at the table anxiously. A white cloth, perfect and clean, covered it completely, a shield to anything that would dare mar the table. Her eyes sank into the innocent color until an idea hit her. "She will be at the ceremony. That's when I'll tell her." Celestia offered her a questioning look. Before she could speak, a chef approached and sat down food for the trio. "Yeah. It'll be perfect. She's always big on showing off in front of crowds."

"Do you think it is wise to corner her into such an extreme situation?" Luna said as several leafy vegetables floated up to her mouth.

"Well, she doesn't have to come," replied Twilight while rolling her eyes. "But I just know she'll be there. She won't miss the chance to try and put me down in front of all of my peers."

Celestia finished a bite of her own food and propped her head up on her left hoof. She stared at Twilight and the two locked their eyes for a moment. "Can I fully trust you will handle the situation with grace, no matter the outcome?"

"Yes. I promise you it will be fine."

"Even if faced with reject?"

Twilight hesitated for a moment. She gave a defeated, "Yes," before giving a reluctant nod.

Returning her head to eat, Celestia cracked a smile. "Very well. I look forward to it either way. I hope that everything works out in your favor."

"Oh, speaking of the ceremony. What of her taking her own pupil once she has received her title at the end of it?" chimed in Luna.

Twilight shot her a confused look. "Me, take on my own student?" Her eyes soon expanded as if she had just been star struck. The prospect of teaching another unicorn much as she had been taught was exciting, though she had doubts as to finding a particular unicorn who could fill the apprentice position.

Celestia finished a bite of food and answered. "Indeed. While it's not a requirement, archmagi are highly encouraged to take on their own apprentice. They are typically wise beyond their years and have much to teach and share."

"Wow... My very own student. It'll be just like you and I!" She continued to daydream about the mystery unicorn she may soon be teaching while Celestia blushed and nodded.

"Did you have any particular unicorn in mind?" asked Luna.

Twilight took in a large mouthful of food and pondered the question. She chewed and bounced around a few acquaintances in her head, but only one really seemed to stick. "Well, Trixie would be perfect. She's the most talented unicorn I know. She has a lot of potential, but..." She rolled her eyes and sighed. "She's just so full of herself sometimes. I'm not sure she'd like the idea."

"Well, it is different from your personal business," started Celestia. "Perhaps she would be interested in seeking the opportunity. Archmage apprentice positions are few and far. Many unicorns will leap at the opportunity to be taught by one, especially one who had been tutored directly by Luna and I." The sun princess motioned for a servant and they placed a set of glasses and a wine bottle on the table.

Twilight stared at the dark bottle and frowned. "I don't really want to teach anypony else... And wine with breakfast?"

Luna smiled. "Come now, Twilight. You shall celebrate the day away--barring getting drunk before the ceremony itself of course." Despite her reservations, Twilight was parched and didn't want to disappoint her by asking for something else. She took her glass and downed it in one gulp. "If Trixie declines, who else would you take on as a student?" Luna asked the moment she finished.

"Hmm... Rarity is happy with what she does and she doesn't have the capacity for magic that I do. There's that one unicorn I know. I think her name was Colgate. She seemed like she might be interested." Twilight glanced to the ceiling while pondering memories of the unicorn to gauge the choice. Both princesses exchanged blank looks before meeting the unicorn's eyes again. "I don't know. I'll think about it."

"Think carefully. There is, however, no restriction on who you choose or how many. Just try not to bite off more than you can chew." Celestia finished her food and stood up. "Well, I have some duties that I must attend to this morning. I shall see you at the ceremony, my faithful student, for how much longer that may be." She winked to her before leaving.

Twilight nodded and rose. She poured herself another glass of wine and downed it again. Luna eyed her cautiously until the glass was set back on the table. "Alright, I'll see you later, too, Luna."

"Where are you going?"

"I've got some things to do as well. I'll see you at the ceremony."

Luna nodded. "Do not tarry in your free time. Noon sharp, Twilight Sparkle," she called as the unicorn trotted out of the dining hall.

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Twilight arrived at her own ceremony just on time, the guests having already arrived and engaged in idle banter. She carried a slightly worried look, constantly glancing around the crowd during the speeches of her peers and superiors. All of the royal magi council made an appearance, each one an archmage themselves. They offered her praise, and they offered her critique, but none of their words had immediate impact upon the newest addition to their order. When the speeches came to an end, her friends moved out from the crowd and offered their own words of congratulations.

The first to speak was Rainbow Dash. The pegasus stood in the armor of the royal guard, but bearing insignias the standard guards did not wear. A sheathed broadsword and heater shield rested on her back, and Scootaloo stood beside her with a perky expression. "Hey, big congrats, Twilight. We knew you could do it." The royal soldier offered a hoofshake at the end. Scootaloo smiled and offered her own congratulations before wandering off to find the other Cutie Mark Crusaders.

"Oh, my! And everypony is going to know that I'm close friends with an archmage!" squealed Rarity. She disappeared into a daydream for a moment before coughing and collecting herself. "You're the true Element of Magic, Twilight. Always wear your title proud, and never forget about us."

"Thanks, everyone. But-"

"Wow, another archmage? You don't see those every day." Twilight had glanced to Rarity as she spoke, but the familiar voice came from behind Dash.

"D-Derpy!? Where did you come from?" she sputtered. To everyone's surprise, the grey pegasus appeared beside the knighted one with a grin. Twilight had scanned the crowd endlessly and never once spotted the grey pegasus among them.

"Oh, you know. I was just around," she said casually, rolling her eyes and subtly leaning closer to Dash.

"Well, thank you for coming, Derpy." Twilight grinned and cast a glance to the way of her royal mentors, but she froze as another voice cut into that moment.

"Really now, they let a unicorn like you become an archmage? My, my how the standards have sunk so low in these quaint times," snapped Trixie sarcastically. The unexpected guest held a wine glass with her magic, taking a sip at the end of her sentence. She was met with gasps and glares all around her, but she held her muzzle high and ignored them as a silence overtook the crowd. The princesses and magi council said nothing and, instead, observed Twilight more closely.

Twilight turned around to face the unicorn who loathed her presence and scholastic upbringing, and put up a smile. Despite the harsh tone and words, she was completely unfazed by the verbal attack. She took one of Trixie's hooves in her own, earning a shocked look from the magically inferior unicorn, and felt herself fill with glee.

"Ah, Trixie. I'm so glad you're here! I just knew you would come," blurted Twilight with a bit more cheerfulness than intended.

Trixie blinked a couple times, unable to believe what she had just heard. Twilight was expecting her to show up? It seemed too far fetched to be true. She huffed and decided to find out Twilight's motives in the most superior manner she could muster.

"So, is the 'Archmage' Twilight Sparkle finally realizing that 'The Great and Powerful' Trixie is truly her better?" she snorted, taking another sip from her wine glass and raising her muzzle to stare down at her again.

"Um... Trixie..." trailed off Twilight, doing her best not to laugh... or cringe.

"What, then?" she snapped indignantly. "Well? Out with it already!" she added with a an impatient stamp of a hoof, leveling with Twilight but cocking her head.

By now all of Twilight's friends and the guests of the ceremony had formed a large circle around the two unicorns. They were the center of attention, but given enough room to move about. Trixie took as much of the space as she could to ensure her presence appeared as grand as possible while Twilight simply remained near her position for the ceremony.

"Well..." she started, rolling her eyes to Celestia. "Now that I'm an archmage I'm supposed to take on an apprentice of my own. And I've given it a lot of thought, but there's only one unicorn I want to be my apprentice and that's... Well... I want you to become my apprentice, Trixie. That's why I was hoping you would show up here today at my inauguration," she explained sheepishly, turning her head away slightly to hide a threatening blush.

Trixie's pride--and her dropped wine glass--shattered to the words while the crowd began whispering amongst themselves. The showmare drowned herself in thoughts, her face blanking to process. Thoughts of repercussions came; thoughts of her fame; thoughts of her reputation; thoughts of the other mare's ulterior motives; thoughts of the gesture being interpreted beyond simple honors. Twilight was asking her to become her own student, her own protégé. That meant Trixie could be viewed as a weaker unicorn--an inferior pony.

The nerve of that mare! How dare she! was all that played over in her mind.

Trixie's rage boiled over and she suddenly closed the distance to Twilight. "You think that I, The Great and Powerful Trixie, would ever become your student?!" she fumed.

Twilight shrank back, crushed that the idea, an honor on Trixie's part, was rejected outright. It seemed hard to swallow that Trixie still had her head in the clouds, especially at Twilight's own ceremony promoting her to an archmage; a ceremony observed and sanctioned by the magi council and the princesses. She blinked and took in a deep breath silently, caught off guard by the other unicorn's prideful reaction.

Twilight looked away briefly. "Well... Yeah. It's obvious you have a great talent for magic and you could learn so much from me." Her eyes returned to meet Trixie's, but the magician's still held the same anger within. "Please... think it over," she pleaded with a slightly forced, yet sincere smile.

"How insulting! To think the likes of you would ever pass me over for the title of archmage, and then you would rub it in my face by asking me to become your... your subordinate! Who do you think you are?" Trixie said, pointing an accusing hoof to the new archmage.

In the same instant she pointed her hoof, Twilight teleported behind her and latched onto her. Trixie gasped, failing to even notice Twilight had vanished before her eyes until the other unicorn's grip tightened.

"You need to calm down, Trixie," whispered Twilight with urgency. Trixie's newfound plight of humiliation sank in. Her face reddened as the crowd began chuckling earnestly.

Her face burned as ponies in the crowd laughed quietly amongst themselves. Their laughs sought to mock her. They didn't take her seriously. Trixie violently shrugged off Twilight's grasp and jumped forward, spinning back to face her. She seethed with anger and indignity as Twilight stared at her empathically. With all of her hatred fueling her, she fired the biggest blast of magic she could from her horn. It ripped through the air towards Twilight only to be completely dispelled by Twilight's own magic, coupled with her hoof batting through it. The spell fizzled and vanished in a tiny puff of smoke.

"Please calm down, Trixie. This is supposed to be a great day for me and I only want to make it better by taking on my own student," said Twilight as politely as possible. "If you refuse then you can just leave," she added loud and curt, shooting the magician a hard stare and pointing a hoof to the entrance.

Trixie stared at her, dumbfounded by her own lack of magical power. It wasn't just blocked by a magical barrier or countered with another spell. Twilight had completely dispelled it without so much as a scratch on her. She collapsed to the floor, her resolve now crushed by the truly superior unicorn's display.

She's always been stronger...Damn it... She punched a hoof into the floor. I always knew it... I just didn't... want to admit it... she thought to herself regretfully. Her eyes glued to the floor, a heavy shame forcing her away from eye contact with others.

She tried not to cry, not to bawl out her frustrations. She thought it made her look weak and helpless, especially in front of a crowd of Twilight's peers. Among them were the unicorns who made the decision to appoint Twilight as an archmage, the very ones she had hoped to some day join in their prestige and glory.

She looked up with teary eyes to all of the expectant ponies in the room. Celestia and Luna were standing tall by their throne, observing the entire situation within the confines of stoic grace. Somehow, Celestia's usual, but accidentally intimidating, stare did nothing to her where it would've destroyed the will of any other pony on her situation. The most anguishing eyes of all were those of Twilight's as she slowly walked up to her. They seemed like the eyes of pity raining from a bettered soul, or the eyes of authority handing down a judgment too cruel to bear. Twilight knelt down in front of her and whispered.

"I know it's hard to accept that there's something more when being the best is all you've ever known. Please, reconsider becoming my student," she whispered as she lifted Trixie back to her hooves. "I know you're not exactly fond of me, so I understand if you don't want to accept."

"I... I'm sorry I made such a scene at your ceremony, Twilight. Please... please forgive me for..." She paused and looked at the floor, taking in a deep breath as memories rushed back. "...Everything," she finished with a moment of eye contact. She lowered her head in shame once more and sighed. Her silvery mane fell over one side of her face and obscured her eyes.

Twilight tilted her head back up with a gentle hoof. "That's quite alright, Trixie. I forgive you. Now, please just enjoy yourself as my personal guest if you want to stay, alright?" she said in a soothing tone.

Trixie's expression warmed, and Twilight smiled to her as she let go of her hoof. "I would like that very much," she replied as she wiped her eyes quickly and sniffled several times. "Oh, and Twilight?"

"Yes, Trixie? What is it?"

"I accept your offer. Please... teach me." Trixie couldn't quite grin, but within her, a warmth welled up and pushed the sadness and regret away. Something the other mare said or did triggered a fleeting sense of comfort. She calmed and rubbed her face, a look of happy content scattered weakly upon her features.

Twilight turned to the crowd of ponies. "From this day forward, Trixie Lulamoon is my apprentice!" she announced, beaming to the princess in particular. They exchanged looks and smiled back, with the magician fainting, her face flushed.

Chapter 5: Singularity Catalyst

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The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 5: Singularity Catalyst

A scroll unfurled onto the desk in front of Celestia. It was the last one for the day before it was time to lower the sun, and hopefully afterwards she could settle in for some personal rest and relaxation. Why does the Council need my approval to dispatch an archmage for assistance? She maneuvered her hooves up to her temples and began lightly massaging them as her eyes skimmed across the dull parchment.

Yes... yes... yes... Done. Really now, there's nothing the archmagi need to wait around for. Her horn glowed for a moment as her signature was hastily scribbled along the bottom with a worn quill. She rolled the scroll up and watched as it disappeared in a green plume of fire and smoke. I sure feel tired today, she noted. She sighed and stood up, stretching her frame, the soft pops of her joints bringing a sense of relief to her. After a few contented moans and a yawn, she wandered over to a private balcony and glanced out across the serene capitol of Equestria, Canterlot. A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth while she watched the tired sun sink below the horizon, mirroring her own feeling in that moment.

A sudden streak of white raced past her vision. She quickly stepped back, blinking, and threw her head in every direction. "What was that?" she blurted. Unable to locate the origin or the destination of the light, she rubbed her eyes wearily. When she opened them, multiple, silent streams of white energy whirled around before her. She took several more steps back and her horn began to shine. "What is the meaning of this!?" she called out with heated breath.

The array of white streams coalesced into an orb that burst in a flash of light upon absorbing all of them. When the princess's vision returned, a milky white alicorn appeared and stepped down onto the balcony. Celestia gasped and took on a defensive stance. "Who are you!?" She scanned the new being for any identifying details, but every part of her was wispy white that seemed closer to the effect of an illusory spell. Her mane floated and shifted as a lively, colorless mass. Unlike her own, this alicorn's mane seemed to ignore gravity's binding influence at all times.

The foreign alicorn took one last step forward then straightened their stance. "You have dark days ahead of you, Princess Celestia. I come bearing a gift: a warning."

Celestia froze. A warning? Of what?

"Hear me out." The alicorn spoke softly with a slight intoning to her voice. Her eyes gazed into Celestia's with subtle boredom.

"I'm... listening." The princess's horn continued to glow with cautious energy, and her stance relaxed; however, she refused to let her guard down in the presence of the other being.

The foreign alicorn turned to look over the city before speaking. "I envy this stable peace you preside over. My time was far more... chaotic."

"Your time? Are you another princess--another ruler?"

"I am Astra. My peers enjoyed titling me Soothsayer, rather than a queen or princess like yours do." Astra refaced the princess and opened her eyes more. Celestia couldn't tell if she cast away her boredom or was simply hurrying the conversation along. "In a few years time, the Brood will declare a war upon Equestria. I expect them to show no qualm to your vanguard and attack you directly."

Celestia breathed in sharply. "You really think there will be a war with the dragons? I doubt such a thing will come to pass. Regardless, I'm sure it could be avoided. The Brood are peaceful, if prideful."

"Make no mistake, Princess Celestia. There will be a war. But it is one that you will end swiftly, bypassing the mass of unnecessary bloodshed and tragedy of a prolonged one." Astra shook her head and took another step closer to the princess. "Ascend another to that of an alicorn. I am sure your sister, Princess Luna, will understand and oblige if you convince her." Astra's eyes narrowed briefly. "Who you choose matters not, but the blade of the Rites may fall both ways. Slay the dragons' king, Render, and remove this from the Brood. Call it whatever you will; it's of dormant, potential danger outside your grasp."

Despite the constitution of the one before her, a piece of parchment appeared detailing a book and its appearance. Celestia took it with her magic, skimming it quickly and tucking it away. The entire situation made her anxious, fearful of the prophecy Astra spoke of, but she could not be sure if what she heralded could be untrue. What would she have to lose by trusting her? "An alicorn could just as easily die were they to fight too many dragons at once. Sending one alone to kill their king is suicide against their royal guard, let alone Render himself."

Astra's features softened back to boredom. "Whomever you choose shall succeed--I will make sure of it. I suggest you begin choosing and preparing who you deem worthy soon. Someone you trust; someone loyal to your ideas. I advise you not to speak of this meeting."

The former ruler turned and began stepping towards the edge of the balcony. Celestia's body leaped after her by instinct. "Wait!" she cried, but it was too late. The moment Astra reached the edge, she shrank into the orb of light and it scattered to the wind. The princess skidded to the railing, a look of pure dread on her face as she scanned the world around her for the lights. How did she know what has been going on with the Brood? I haven't even spoken to Luna! But more importantly... Celestia's eyes focused back to the horizon in front of her, the sinking sun now becoming an unsettling visual. How did she come to me?

As she mulled over what just happened, she found herself watching the sun vanish behind the horizon instead of acting on the information immediately. The purple twilight spilled over the capitol city of Canterlot, casting its advice as she held her breath. Twilight Sparkle? Would she... really be willing to do something like this?

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"This discussion is over, Princesses. Take your pet reptile and leave," a large, red dragon said before spitting and chuckling, his eyes laying mirthfully upon Spike.

"Enough, General Aurelius. We are leaving now, Princess Celestia." The words came from the largest dragon present, the king of the Brood, Render. His azure eyes appeared as deceptively docile orbs, lost in the dark form of his black, behemoth body. He turned and waved a wing for the others in his company to follow.

Luna's eye twitched. She glared as the last of Dragon King Render and his counsel departed their rendezvous location. Negotiations to maintain peace had become embittered arguments with no progress or amicable end in sight. Her horn began to ignite, unable to release the burning in her heart and face. As she took an angry step forward, Celestia pressed a hoof to her chest. "Don't," was all she had to say for the dark princess to reassess her thoughts. With a heavy growl, Luna managed to peel herself away and depart the scene with the rest of the counsel representing Equestria.

"What're we going to tell everyone?" interjected Spike with a defeated tone. He let a wing droop the ground before retracting it. The young dragon had grown them through his natural process instead of skipping them through his greed-fueled spurt.

"Nothing for now. I will tell them the truth in time, and there is no need to raise any alarm yet," said Celestia calmly. She looked up to a mountainous horizon to her side and glimpsed the sun setting, a distant memory flowing into her thoughts. "Go on ahead, Spike. I'll tell Twilight myself. Luna and I must discuss some things." The young dragon nodded in acknowledgement and continued walking on with the other ponies representing Equestria. There were robed ponies documenting everything, the head of the Royal Court of Magi present, and several armored guards.

One guard stood out in particular, but Spike couldn't quite place why they seemed familiar. They were decorated in a unique armor, but it wasn't uncommon for any royal soldiers ranking officer and above to have their armor personalized in some way. A unicorn knight? he wondered. When they turned to him with their helmet visor down, he cast away his wonder. Whatever. Shining Armor is a unicorn.

The princesses watched until their entourage had left earshot. "I was sure that little wretch would attack us this time. So smug is that whelp, Aurelius. I despise him," said Luna sharply.

"They wouldn't dare attack us. Together, they couldn't battle and hope for a meaningful victory. Don't worry yourself over it, Luna." Celestia breathed out and faced her sister thoughtfully. "However, we cannot keep this up forever. If negotiations do not pan out soon, they will attack us in time."

Luna stomped a hoof. "For what? Land? Resources? They are not starved of such things! The dragons were so peaceful only a few years ago. What has changed since then? It's as if they've devolved over a millennia to my time." She cringed at her own words, recalling the state of the Brood before Nightmare Moon, and shuddered.

With a sigh, Celestia removed her tiara and massaged her temples. "It's not as if they were never a volatile race to begin with, but..."

"But?" Luna leaped into the air as the last of the sun vanished behind the mountains. She spread her wings and the moon crept over the opposite horizon. She landed with a small puff of dirt and threw a look towards Draconis, the capitol of the Brood.

"But, as you said, they seem as if they've devolved. Before you returned, there were no hostilities and I would've even called Render a good friend of mine."

"Would've..." echoed Luna sadly. "I wonder if he even remembers me."

Celestia replaced her tiara and put a hoof on her sister's shoulder. "Hatred in stride, sister. Perhaps there is something going on with the dragons we don't know."

"We could help. We're supposed to be allies. Friends, even!" She paused as she looked into Celestia's sympathetic look and exhaled slowly. "What do we do if there's a war coming? I am not fearful of defeat, but rather, the casualties. They would be catastrophic..."

"I know, but I have a plan should that come to pass." Celestia breathed in and offered a pleading look to her sister, her eyes begging her to understand. "The Rites of the Alicorn."

Luna gasped sharply and blinked, whipping her head to reassure herself no one else was within earshot of their conversation. "The Rites? Who? Why?" she demanded in quick succession. "They are extremely dangerous. Not even-"

"I am aware of their potential for disaster, Luna. You don't need to remind me of what could happen," responded Celestia defensively.

Luna cast a pained look away briefly. "Forgive me, sister. But there could be only one unicorn for such a trial, though."

"Then we share the same thought, but still we must watch her. She has only just become an archmage."

"And an archmage is the perfect status for this. The Rites are never used for one so young. She would be susceptible to the violent addiction to power. And..."

Celestia raised an eyebrow, "And?"

Luna breathed out and looked to the ground again. "The psychological trauma. The war. The immortality. She will be forced to..." Luna swallowed hard and looked away from her sister, but Celestia pulled her face back to hers.

"To watch as everyone mortal she loves dies around her for as long as she choose to live beyond them."

Luna said nothing for a long while, choosing only to breathe as quietly as she could. "She may break."

"And she may not with friends at her side to remind her of who she is, and what she is fighting for. I would never allow her to go through this with us standing by her side and watching from the distance." Celestia clasped Luna's face. "Never again will I lose a loved one to the vortex of dark feelings."

Luna's eyes welled up and she smiled. "Perhaps there is one that never came back," she whispered. The hooves on her face retracted and she wiped her eyes.

"What do you mean?" said Celestia with concern.

"Nothing. I am... merely being nostalgic."

Luna sniffled and began the trek to catch up with Spike. They caught up with the young dragon and counsel only a few minutes up the road. He walked at the back, meandering and occasionally scraping a foot through the dirt to leave his troubled mark.

"I'm sorry, Spike. I don't wish for any conflict with the Brood," said Celestia.

Spike huffed and stopped his walk. Turning around, he looked to the ground and sighed, then up to match the princess' eyes. "What happened? We--They--used to be so reasonable. It's like the ages of peace you kept with them mean nothing now, but I don't get it." He paused and put a claw to his head and grimaced, scraping it down his scales. Tilting his head back, he shouted, "Nothing changed."

Celestia sighed. "You're right. I... don't fully understand myself." Her eyes rolled to the dark horizon again. Her nerves half expected something to appear, despite nothing around. She glanced to Luna and laid her anxiety to rest. "Lets get home. There is nothing more we can do here."

Spike snatched a rock from the edge of the path and threw it into the distance. It clacked against other stones and tumbled into the darkness. "I'm glad I stayed with you ponies. I'm sick of the Brood's dumb pride."

Celestia nodded and put a hoof on the dragon's shoulder. His rose above hers, but he relaxed and glanced at her. "I promise you that I will do everything in my power to keep the peace." Her heart ached as Spike gave his sincere thanks, the pain of a dagger twisting into her stomach. But she smiled to him anyway.

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Dust whirled around and blasted away as Twilight appeared in a flash of light. Her dark blue cloak fluttered as the wind around faded to stillness. She scanned the surroundings and smirked, satisfied her teleportation had placed her in the right location, fell to her knees as the tax on her magic hit her. She caught her breath and stood back up, refocusing herself on the task before her. She had come to a small village on the outskirts of Equestrian territory that had requested help. Twilight unfurled a scroll, double checking its orders. Hm. They didn't say what they needed.

She began a slow walk, taking in the wonderful scenery of a luscious, verdant forest. The village ahead of her had erected a wooden fence three times her full standing height, and with no gaps in the thick planks to peek through. Her ears picked up the tweeting of birds, and she found herself pausing to turn and view the forest once more. I bet Fluttershy would really like it here.

Suddenly, a scream rang through the air and broke her thoughts. A load thump and crash followed shortly after. She turned up and pulled a green staff from beneath her cloak and began rushing forward. "Where are you!?" She bolted towards the fence and teleported before colliding into it. Appearing on the other side, a wild, astral animal came into view in front of her, matching the size of the buildings.

Howling and thrashing about was a starry scorpion easily twenty times her size. She gasped as the citizens of the panicked village scrambled away. The beast had crushed a building, and many more behind it in its warpath. Debris collapsed onto a few unlucky bystanders, and she refocused herself as the scorpion prepared to finish them. Twilight's horn began to ignite with an icy blue glow. She rushed forward and mouthed an incantation as she neared the scorpion. A bolt of ice erupted from the spire of her staff and spiraled through the air. It crashed into the scorpion's pincers and rapidly froze them over.

She teleported beneath the pincers. Taking notice, the scorpion reeled back its massive stinger. In another flash Twilight vanished with the victims, and the stinger crashed into the ground with tremendous force, blasting broken pieces lumber away and sending the ground scattering in clods. As it thrashed about in the rubble, the scorpion's pincers began to thaw and it opened them again, snapping each angrily. Twilight laid the victims down beside a distant building and flashed away. She reappeared before the foe and gave one last scan of her surroundings. Her eyes didn't register anyone else in left in the vicinity of the scorpion.

The spire of her staff began to glow and she grunted, raising the staff into the air and gathering magic into its spire. Atop the spire was a gem that collected the energy and shifted to white. Spinning around, a torrent of arcane frost whirled around her and surged above. She stroked the staff downwards and aimed at the scorpion, a thin white stream trailing the position of the gem. The scorpion began charging her, smashing through any debris that dare hinder its rampage. When it neared the unicorn, it opened both pincers and lunged forward for a kill.

Twilight vanished in a spark of light and reappeared in the pincers' dead zone, the ball of frost vibrating and distorting in her hooves. She took a step and forced the ball into the scorpion's face. Teleporting away, she reappeared at a safe distance and sparked her horn one last time. The orb of frost exploded into a torrent around the scorpion that whirled up and into the air. Ice several feet thick formed an outer layer as the body of the beast discolored to a light blue, the cracking sound of the scorpion's body freezing over.

When the spell ended, a ring of frost coated the ground around the beast and pieces of nearby debris froze equally in the wake of the spell. Twilight teleported atop the scorpion's frozen head and sheathed her staff, peering around from the vantage point. Ponies that ran in fear began to cautiously make their way back into the village, their curious eyes taking in the destruction and then coming to a rest upon the pony that saved them. Twilight ran her wrist across her forehead and wiped sweat away, not realizing she had been using so much magic. The cool air emanating from the ice seeped into her, cooling and relaxing her body, and she resisted the urge to plop down and lounge on it.

"Who requested the assistance of an archmage?" she called down to the crowd gathering below.

"I did," returned a light blue colt with a dust-brown mane.

Rather than teleport, Twilight leaped from the top and dropped to the ground. It was a soft landing, but her body faltered briefly; she wasn't sure how many more spells, even minor, she could cast before she would collapse. As she rose up from the ground to greet the colt, her legs wobbled briefly before she managed to right her pose. "I am Twilight Sparkle, an archmage--"

"Wow, you're Twilight Sparkle!?"

Twilight turned to see who asked, but was abruptly mobbed by the crowd instead. Ponies barraged her with questions and wanted autographs or pictures taken, some shoving their items into her face. She blushed at the unexpected, overwhelming burst of attention. "Everypony, please!" she protested. After a few more attempts at trying to quell the enthusiasm of her 'fans', she teleported onto one of the pincers. When did I become famous?

"Settle down," boomed the colt. The crowd immediately died down with a few disappointed 'aww's ringing through the air simultaneously. "As you were saying, Archmage."

"I am Twilight Sparkle,"--she started, eyeing the crowd warily--"an archmage affiliated with the Royal Court of Magi. You requested the assistance of one, but didn't specify what you needed help with exactly." She tapped a hoof on the icy beast beneath her. "Is this what you needed help with?"

"Yes. We've been having problems with this damned creature for weeks. It just keeps attacking and raiding a few food stores before leaving, destroying everything in its path." He rubbed the right side of his head and watched as a young filly kicked the frozen beast.

"Is it dead?" the filly asked innocently.

Twilight fixated on that word. Dead. It left a bitter pang in her mind. "Not quite. Sometimes we relocate the beasts, but..."

"Can't you just kill it for us, please?" begged the filly that kicked the ice. She offered puppy dog eyes and Twilight found herself questioning the idea.

"Only if that's what you want," she replied while turning back to face the colt. He nodded slowly. "Alright. Everypony please stand back." The crowd did as they were told and moved back hesitantly, some choosing to leave altogether. Twilight dropped to the ground and pressed a hoof to the frozen face. She closed her eyes and focused her magic. A reflection ran across the ice quickly. When she finished, she reproduced her staff and tapped the spire to the scorpion's head. The ice responded with a high pitched clink and she exhaled slowly. Here goes nothing...

Taking the staff in both hooves, she raised it up and slammed it onto the head with all of her might, leaping backwards when the high pitched ringing began. Cracks spread outward from the spire's impact point and snaked through and around the ice like honeycomb. The entire block of ice--scorpion included--burst into pieces. It sang a cacophony of breaking glass, and some ponies covered their ears and winced. Twilight viewed the display in slow motion as the shards cascaded to the ground. One of the core shards of the scorpion landed in front of her hooves. She looked down and examined the piece. It was red. Blood, she noted silently.

"Thank you so much, Miss Sparkle," cut in the colt. Twilight turned to respond, but nothing came to mind. "We'll clean up the mess ourselves. You've done the hard part. Tell the princesses we can't thank them enough for your help."

"No... problem," she muttered. Her mind was helpless to find anything more to say. Attempting to refocus herself, she sheathed her staff and began walking away, her head hung low and letting her bangs obscure her eyes. Cheers followed her out of the village, but she ignored them. She could hear the sounds of other ponies beginning to clean up the debris and remains of the beast, but she couldn't even find the motivation to offer help regardless.

When she returned to the forest, she sighed and teleported. Flash after flash of scenery scrolled over her eyes as she made her way back to Canterlot. Each one required a breath or two, then four or five, and finally waiting several minutes. She teleported one final time and appeared in a familiar setting.

She stumbled forward before landing on her chest coughing and huffing, nearly taking in gulps of dirt. Her body ached and refused to comply with her mind's urging to continue on. Weighted by weakness, she lay in the sun. It's only the early afternoon, she guessed by looking up at the sun's position. A loud thump echoed in the distance and she smiled. "Hey, Applejack!" she called out.

"What the hay?" The farm pony stopped mid-kick and let her hind hooves tap the tree. She whipped her head around until she caught the source of the voice. Twilight lay on her back covered in dirt matted to her by sweat. The unicorn's mane clung to her face like sticky tendrils, her chest rising and falling in large beats. "Twilight? I didn't know you were comin' by today." She dashed over and looked her friend over before pulling her to standing. "What happened to yah?"

The unicorn shook herself off and did her best to wipe the dirt away, but it still lined her features. "Nothing. Just a really long trip out to a village for an archmage task." She exhaled and groaned simultaneously, loosing some of her pent up fatigue and discontent with the situation.

"You look like a mess. Why don't yah come get some lunch and clean yourself up?" Applejack offered a smile to seal the deal, but Twilight shook her head.

"I'm sorry, AJ. I need to report back to the princesses or the Court. I'll take an apple, though." As quickly as she spoke, Applejack dashed back to the tree she intended to kick earlier. Baskets half full of her signature fruit sat on the other side waiting to collect more. She returned with four apples and a grin. "Take a few extra for the road, alright?" Rolling her eyes and smiling, Twilight took them with her magic, quickly chomping down on one. The other three slid under her cloak and out of sight. "Where do yah hide everything under there anyway?"

Twilight stopped eating and blinked a few times. As she opened her mouth to speak, another pony began calling her name. "Twilight! TWILIGHT! TWIIIILIIIIGHT!" Turning around to face the calling prompted a tackle from another friend. Twilight hit the dirt and groaned. "Oh my Celestia, it really is you!"

"Hey there, Pinkie Pie." Twilight coughed and frowned, having found herself back on the dirt. She lifted Pinkie off of her with her magic and stood up. Grabbing the edges of her cloak, she groaned as it peeled away, the apples having been smashed into it and against her. She shook it violently and frowned as the pieces fell off and left a damp spot.

"Wow, wow. You really did come to visit. I knew it! When did she get here, Applejack, huh huh?" The farm pony shrugged while Twilight attempted to speak. "We should throw a welcome home party. Or maybe a welcome back party." Pinkie put a hoof to her chin and looked up the sky for help.

"Sorry Pinkie, but I don't have time for any of that. I need to get home."

Pinkie threw a foreleg around her neck and beamed. "Silly Twilight, Ponyville is your home."

"Listen, is Trixie around? I might as well pick her up while I'm here."

Applejack scratched at the back of her head. "She ain't exactly the friendliest pony. I think Spike is the only one who keeps tabs on her, what with your guys' arrangement and all."

"Not really. He's our ambassador to the Brood. Celestia likes having one of their own appear for meetings or negotiations. She thinks it reminds them of peace." She turned around and glimpsed Canterlot before letting her eyes trail to Ponyville. The sun's radiance lit up both locations. Did it really have to be so hot today?

"I'll walk you to the library. There's so much to catch up on." Pinkie began skipping ahead without time to respond.

"I'll see you later, Applejack." Twilight waved as she trotted after.

"Take care, Twi. And tell Rainbow Dash she's overdue for a visit as well if yah see her!"

Twilight nodded and caught up to Pinkie's skipping stride. Amazement always filled her head with just how loquacious Pinkie could be. They discussed parties, each others activities, Rainbow Dash's job, her job, their friends. Every topic was covered save for one. "Are you and Trixie together? I mean, she's been living here for like a year and a half now." The question caught her off guard.

I never told anyone, but Spike and the princesses. "Wh-what do you mean?" She forced a smile.

"Oh, Twilight. There's nothing to be ashamed of for loving another mare like her!" Pinkie threw a foreleg around the unicorn's neck. Twilight flinched and attempted to duck under it, but Pinkie pulled her into an awkward, walking hug. "Now c'mon. Spill the beans. How did you woo her before and after your archmage ceremony, huh?" Pinkie put a hoof up to her mouth in anticipation.

Blushing, and knowing Pinkie would chase her until the ends of Equestria to get her answer, she sighed and glanced around quickly. "It's..." She paused and contemplated her words, still shuffling along with Pinkie latched onto her and leaning close. The party pony seemed to lean closer with the word. "...really hard to talk with you leaning on me."

"Oops..." Pinkie righted herself and switched to bouncing steps alongside her friend. She managed to remain balanced while still leaning in for whispers.

"It only just happened. We... haven't really talked about it." Twilight scratched at the back of her head. "...How did you even find out?"

Pinkie pulled away and began hopping circles around the unicorn. "You're bad at hiding it, that's how," she said in a sing-song fashion. "But not Dashie. Ooooh, she's good." Mid hop, Pinkie brought a hoof to her chin and glanced around, half-expecting the pegasus to make an appearance.

"Rainbow Dash has a special somepony?"

"That's what I said!" Pinkie landed and froze with a blank expression for a few seconds.

"What is i--"

"Shhh!" She paused and looked herself over, then around the sky. "Darn."

"What?"

"Nothing."

She hopped onward and left Twilight frowning. "Trying to predict your Pinkie Sense before it actually predicts anything else?" She received a bubbly glance before sighing and following after. The trail was dustier than she remembered, with small cracks in the road and a stray tumbleweed crunching as it bounced past her to the push of an afternoon breeze. "I remember Ponyville's roads looking a bit nicer. Is everything alright here?"

Pinkie's bouncing steps settled to a comfortable pace and she looked from side to side as she kept on walking. Twilight followed her looks around and took in the surroundings. The conditions of the roads had worsened in the middle of the town and even less ponies were out and about. "It's nothing, Twilight. It's just been really hot. And..." Her eyes trailed over to her friend with a sympathetic look.

"What, what is it?" demanded Twilight with worry.

"Everypony thinks that archmages mean something bad is coming when they show up. They're probably hiding."

Eyes widened and mouth agape, Twilight had to shake her head as to what she just heard. "Afraid of me? That's ridiculous. Archmages help ponies. Trixie is my apprentice. What about her?"

Pinkie rolled her eyes and began to beam once again. "Well, duh! She's not an archmage, yet. But think about it Twilight. She's your apprentice and you're an archmage, suddenly here on an unannounced visit. How does that look?"

Twilight let her eyes fall to the dirt road in defeat. "I guess I see your point." Her head snapped up suddenly as she stopped and whirled back around, prompting her companion to do the same.

"What, what is it?"

"How the hay did anypony know I was even here already? I teleported to Sweet Apple Acres on my way back to Canterlot." Pinkie coughed obviously into a hoof and offered a sheepish smile. "You've got to be kidding me..."

"Nope. I think I have a new Pinkie Sense combo just for you." Twilight applied a hoof to her face and dragged it down, stretching her features. The party pony doubled over in laughter as Twilight groaned out her frustrations. The Pinkie Sense just couldn't be understood. Rolling her own eyes, she smiled herself.

"I-- When-- Forget it. Let's just go."

On the outskirts of Ponyville, her old home away from home had grown slightly in size, but still maintained its overall sleepy-yet-friendly aesthetic. Owlowicious perched himself atop the sign above the door while he slept. The interestingly named library helper murmured a few 'whos' in his sleep, but remained unmoving. Twilight chuckled as she reached for the door with a hoof.

"W-wait," shouted Pinkie before jumping to the side and covering her head.

Twilight turned around to see what the fuss was about and immediately sparked her horn for what little magic she had left. It was too late and she was too weak. The door to the library blasted open with an eruption of magic and knocked her down. Owlowiscious yelped and frantically flew away. Following the door were several singed books with one still openly burning.

Twilight groaned and began shoving the door off of her. "Ohhh.... What the heck was that?" She winced and pressed a hoof to her head upon clearing herself and sitting up, trying to blink and groan out the ringing in her head. Pinkie dashed over and helped her to a standing position and their eyes fell upon the apprentice. "Trixie!"

The unicorn inside stood wide eyed, looking out the doorway in shock and disbelief. Her entire coat had been darkened by the explosion with grey smoke leaking from the library's doorway. Trixie loosed a cough that led into a fit of them. She was wearing her magician's garb, but the cloak had a few shreds, holes, and burns detailing it now.

"Sounds like we just missed the party," remarked Pinkie with a sheepish grin.

Twilight glared at her briefly before aiming her disappointment at her apprentice. "My... faithful student, what exactly were you doing, hmm?" she started, with slow steps towards the scuffed entranceway.

"Ooooh, somepony's in trouuuuble!" sang Pinkie.

The archmage ignored her, instead letting her mind laugh inwardly as Trixie began to sweat and look around for an excuse--or an escape. "Well, you see, Twi--err--Master, I was just running a little experiment and--"

"A little experiment?" shouted Twilight while entering the library and swinging a hoof to the damage. "This is coming out of your allowance!"

"Oh, come on, Twilight!" Trixie stepped forward before stumbling over some books and right into the forelegs of her master. Her face flushed as Pinkie Pie bounced in behind, completely unscathed and unfazed by the magical disaster.

"I'm here to return a book." Both unicorns watched in disbelief as Pinkie pulled a book from her mane and placed it on a now-dirty shelf. "Okie dokie. I'll just leave you two alone." As quickly as she entered she had gone.

"Does she--?"

Twilight grumbled. "Yes." Glancing around at the disaster that was the library, she stood Trixie up and placed a hoof to her chin. "Clean this up. I'm supposed to be on my way to Canterlot to give a report to Celestia."

"I'm sure I can help with that," came a familiar voice. Twilight's features brightened as she whirled around to see her former assistant at the entrance carrying a backpack and eyeing the door.

"Spike!" She dashed to the dragon and hugged him, the dragon now being tall enough to reasonably do so from a standing position. He returned the hug before following the unicorn back into the library. "Whoa..." he muttered as all of it came into view. "Is Trixie experimenting again?"

"Yes," replied Twilight, rolling her eyes. Trixie folded her forelegs across her chest until Twilight shot her a glare. Trixie forced a smile and grabbed a nearby duster, broom, and the first set of books to reshelf with her magic. "Don't worry, it's taken care of."

"So, need me to send a letter before I go?"

Twilight raised an eyebrow to his chosen words. "'Before you go'? Are you leaving?"

Spike looked away and said nothing for a long while. When Twilight opened her mouth to speak, he held a hand up to ward away her questions. "I'm going to be spending a lot of time in Draconis. The dragons are... well," he turned back to meet Twilight's wondering eyes, "they're jerks. Princess Celestia thinks everything might get out of control. She's sending me there to try and keep relations, but..." He trailed off and sat down sighing.

"But what?" she pressed on worriedly. Trixie let her magic continue and stepped closer to listen in on the conversation.

"I don't think it's going to work. I'm a dragon, and I've spent enough time around my own kind to know that they're not going to back down any time soon. They've been unbearable and even implied going to war!" The young dragon pounded the floor and grimaced. Twilight lifted his chin up with a hoof and smiled.

"I know you can do this. Peace will remain. Why wouldn't it? The Brood hasn't been hostile in forever. I'm sure it'll all work itself out."

Spike touched her hoof and smiled. "Thanks, Twilight. That really helps. Now, about that letter." The dragon produced a quill from his backpack.

Twilight stepped back and nodded. "Dear Princess Celestia," she started, then coughed into a hoof and turned to glimpse her apprentice before continuing. "The matter regarding the Seta Forest village has been resolved. An astral scorpion, scorpio, was disposed of permanently at the request of the pony who petitioned for aid. As of welcome convenience, Spike is sending this letter to you now while I attend to some," she cleared her throat loudly and glanced at her apprentice. Trixie bit her lip under the scrutiny of her master's gaze. "Unexpected business in Ponyville. I shall return to Canterlot before long."

The dragon finished scribbling out the message and breathed a green flame through the parchment. The trio watched as it disintegrated and flowed out the door. Twilight stood up and unfastened her cloak, letting it fall into a pile on the floor. The green staff stood across her back in a simple baldric. "I should've requested some vacation time."

Spike chuckled before moving between the shelves, his eyes skimming each book title. "Well, your archmage duties aren't that demanding."

"Have you met Chancellor Leo? I'm not the only archmage in the court. It seems like I get a lot more assignments than the rest of them. Maybe it's because I'm Celestia's protégé."

"Yeah, but you're also the better than any of them will ever be. Leo is just a grumpy codger," chimed in Trixie.

"Trixie!"

"What? It's not like you weren't think the same thing!" The protesting unicorn shrugged and took a look at her cleaning. The duster managed to remove most of the surface dust and ash, but she occasionally sneezed as the excess still saturated the air.

"Ok, maybe you're right." Twilight stuck her tongue out at her.

Spike snatched several books from the shelves and stuffed them into his backpack. "Trixie is right. You shouldn't sell yourself short. You're still tutored by the princesses, and," he turned around and began making his way towards the door, "you're the best librarian I'll ever know." He stuck his tongue out at Trixie, too. The magician whipped around and crossed her forelegs, raising one hoof up at him before turning her back to both of them.

Twilight gave a hearty laugh and moved to give the dragon a hug. She latched onto him and closed her eyes. "You be safe up there, alright? And you better not forget to write."

"I promise, Twilight." He wrapped an arm and wing around her before they split. "And you two promise me you'll take care of each other." The two mares nodded quickly. With a smile and a wave, he dashed out the door. Twilight watched his tail slide along the floor, but the end remained in sight as he paused. She could hear him burping up Celestia's response. "Here, this is for you." He ran back into the library and handed her the letter. "Ok, I've really got to go now."

Twilight unfurled the letter and began reading it. Trixie halted her focus and moved beside her to see it. Twilight's heart sank as Trixie beamed. "Finally, we get to spend some more time together!" squealed the magician.

"I'm still mad at you." Twilight shot her a half-serious look before letting it fade. "I need a vacation..." she repeated aloud.

"You and me both." Trixie pulled Twilight's face to hers and kissed her deeply. When they parted, Twilight gagged and turned to spit, the flavor of ash still lingering on her apprentice's lips. Wiping her own, Trixie offered an embarrassed grin to Twilight's frown. "S-sorry."

The archmage's features warmed into a smile and she unfastened the staff and let it clatter to the floor behind her. "We've got until tomorrow. Let's clean this--and you--up and then we can relax."

Chapter 6: Into The Looking Glass

View Online

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 6: Into the Looking Glass

Large raindrops thudded against the glass panes of the window repeatedly, their assault momentarily blurring out the view of the world outside. The sounds didn't bother the lone observer staring blankly out into the heavy downpour. Twilight paid no attention to what was actually occurring in front of her, instead choosing to use it to distract her vision while her mind wandered. Hundreds of thoughts flowed through her head, most subconsciously, but one in particular bothered her in the immediate moment.

"I'm sure he's fine," chimed in Trixie. "He's a dragon. He can handle himself."

The reassuring words did nothing to quell the worry hanging over Twilight's mind. She sighed and pulled herself away, forcing away the feelings in her heart in favor of the logic and certainty her mind attempted to cast. Even still, the feeling would remain in some form until she received more news. "He's still a young dragon. It's already been a few months since he last sent a letter, Trixie. I mean, I know he's probably fine, but what if-"

"What if what?" interrupted Trixie as she closed the gap between them. Twilight cast the floor a sad look. "Why don't you study, or research something that could help... or maybe we could go out?" Twilight looked up and back to the window before turning to Trixie with an incredulous look. "Hey, the rain is always romantic..." came the innocent reply.

"I guess Rarity was starting to rub off on you." Twilight brushed past Trixie and made her way to a personal bookshelf. Since achieving her archmage status, assisting the princesses directly, and taking on an apprentice, she was given a lavishly furnished chamber within the castle. Included were a princess-sized bed, a personal balcony, a small study and various other comforts. All of that, and free access to any part of the castle at any time. "Hmm..." she mumbled to herself.

Trixie's ears perked up as she whirled back to her master. "I know that sound. You're on to something."

"Maybe..." Twilight ran a hoof over several book spines as she skimmed their titles. After going over a shelf, her magic pulled each one she had selected free and laid them out across her desk, some springing open. "It might not work for Spike, but it could be useful later."

With her interests piqued, Trixie moved over to the desk and began browsing over the chosen subject matter. "What, exactly?"

Twilight turned from the bookshelf and displayed a toothy grin. "A way to teleport longer distances using less magic." Quills, ink, and parchment levitated from the desk and began laying out on the floor. The books on the desk levitated and floated passed her eyes with specific sections opened up.

"You know, I really don't know how you can read like that..."

"Shush! I know this will work." The quills dipped into the ink and began working in tandem to draw something out. Occasionally, Twilight would glance over one of her books to make sure there wasn't any critical mistakes in her telekinetic guidance.

Trixie stared intently at the parchment until one neared completion. Her eyes widened as she realized what it was. Smacking the quill away and taking up the paper, she held it up to her master. "Runes? How can you adapt a rune to specific magic? How can you even use this to help you? Spike is all the way in Draconis. Are you going to just mail one to him?"

The questions, particularly the one regarding its practicality for the purpose she implied, caused the archmage to burst into laughter. "No, no, no, Trixe. This will still have plenty of other uses."

"I can see how it would make you lazy if you place them everywhere." Trixie flipped the parchment back around and held it in front of her, rotating it in an attempt to discern which angle it was meant to display. "How do these work anyway?"

The parchment was tugged out of her hooves with Twilight's magic and laid back out to be finished in greater detail. "Silly, Trixie. They act as beacons or receptors for your magic. You create them to respond to a specific magic, like a frequency." The books all snapped shut simultaneously with a dull boom and shelved themselves. Twilight didn't even turn around as they ordered themselves perfectly.

"So... What else can you do with them?"

"I'm glad you asked!" Twilight conveyed her glee through a toothy grin, but it faded as quickly as it came. "Hold on, I'm going to need larger parchment and some more books to continue my research. Let's go to the library." Dashing out of her chambers, Twilight ran into Rainbow Dash around the corner knocking them both to the ground in a heap of tangled ponies.

Laughter rang from behind as Trixie appeared with a vain attempt at covering her mouth and suppressing it. "Maybe teleporting is safer!" she mocked innocently.

Dash stood up first, rubbing her head with an eye closed and advancing towards Trixie. She extended a foreleg and slipped it under the collar of Trixie's cape, yanking firmly to lead her on. "I'm here for you, actually. Princess Celestia want us," she said with the all the sweetness an annoyed growl could convey.

"Hey, let go!" Trixe attempted to smack the hoof away, but she was tossed onto the knight's back unceremoniously.

"Since I can't teleport, and it could be dangerous for you to go alone, I'm going to carry you to Princess Celestia." The unicorn caught her bearings before jumping from Dash's back. The knight whirled around, frowning at Trixie and standing up.

Trixie returned with a glare and shook out her cape. "What is the meaning of this?" She folded her forelegs across her chest and tapped a hoof on the marble floor.

"I've been assigned to be your escort. We're traveling to the borderlands to scout out an area for an outpost. Now, I really don't feel like waiting for you to take your sweet time, so we leave in ten minutes."

“Why don’t I come along?” Twilight asked in a vain attempt to bring back the cheery calm. The two stubborn mares harrumphed and turned away from each other. Twilight let out an aggravated sigh. “I’m going to see if she needs me, if only to keep the peace between you two.” As she moved past the pair, she shot each one a disappointed look.

“Lead the way, escort.” Trixie stuck out her tongue as Dash rolled her eyes and trotted to catch up, Trixie trailing just behind her.

The clacking of their hooves echoed mournfully to the silent tension that Twilight found herself caught in. Each step made the hairs on the back of her neck prick, and every time the knight and the magician crossed glances, she nibbled on her lip. These two better not try to hurt each other. They rounded several corners and walked down as many corridors before stopping just outside of the throne room. The massive, ornate doors were cracked open with a bright light pouring out into the darker hallway.

Dash brushed past the unicorns and paused just before stepping into the golden light. She adjusted her baldric fastidiously and smoothed out her mane as best she could. Twilight opened her mouth to question the unusual care for vanity, but Dash marched into the room before she could find the best words.

“Huh. I never expected that from her,” remarked Trixie, her eyes having picked up on the same out of character habit.

“She’s probably just trying to look more presentable after your scuffle.” Twilight found that harder to believe now that she had said it. Dash almost always looked like she had spent the day flying around at high speeds, even if she hadn't. How do pegasi keep their manes smooth with all their flying? she wondered.

Trixie slid past her and into the room, making sure to slow down and brush her tail along Twilight’s muzzle seductively. “Better... hurry up,” she teased, licking her lips.

Twilight blushed hard as she watched her move beyond the doors. After shaking her head, she made her best effort to collect herself before entering. She squinted to the magnificent radiance of the throne room's chandeliers and stained glass windows. It wasn’t night, but the heavy rain gave the skies a gloomy overcast and brought out the light within the room. Anyone could’ve mistaken it for the early evening from inside the throne’s contrasting brightness.

Dash knelt on the red carpet before Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and another knight Twilight wasn’t familiar with. They were standing and clad in similar armor as other higher ranking officers. It was just as polished and clean, but no other unique features compared to any other knight beyond a dark blue baldric. However, this knight possessed something most others didn’t: a tower shield. The knight in question was a pegasus as well with clothed wings furled tightly at their side, but they wore a standard casque with its grated visor pulled down.

The oddity of the knight lied in the fact that tower shields were notoriously heavy and bulky. Where a pegasus could easily maneuver and counter utilizing a buckler or heater shield, tower shields were too heavy to move swiftly or fly at high speeds. I’ll look into that later.

Twilight entered into the conversation a bit late, catching the tail end of the mission. “And so you will be going to help scout and secure the area and make sure Miss Lulamoon is safe during this,” said Princess Celestia. Her eyes caught Twilight joining them. “Oh, Archmage. I didn’t know you were going to join us.”

“Hello, Celestia. I just wanted to know if there was anything I could do to help.”

Celestia shook her head softly. “Not this time, Twilight. These two are simply scouting a location before the workers and soldiers come in.”

“But the Borderlands can be dangerous, Princess. I’d really like to go.” Twilight caught herself sounding more desperate than intended. She bit her tongue. “I’m sorry. But perhaps an archmage would be a safe addition to the mission.”

Celestia chuckled lightly before tilting her head the knight beside her. “I assure you, Twilight. There is no need and they will be fine. Knight-Captain Dash is more than adequate.”

“Don’t worry, Twi. I’ve got this.” Dash turned and smiled. “I’ll make sure she comes back in one piece.”

“Actually”--Trixie coughed--”it’ll be the other way around.” She smirked and lifted her muzzle higher.

Yeah... I’m sure.” Dash looked at her disbelievingly and turned to walk away, but the other knight coughed. Dash turned to them, then to Trixie and Twilight. “Go pack. I'm already ready to go.”

Twilight nodded and led Trixie out of the throne and back to their chambers. She couldn’t help but wonder about the knight. They seemed familiar, but their entire body was covered in either armor, an undergarment, or both.

“Hey... Hey!” Twilight snapped her head up to Trixie’s voice. “You’re spacing out on me.” She hadn't realized she was standing around while Trixie was gathering her things.

“Oh, I’m sorry," she started. "Did you know who that was?”

Trixie raised an eyebrow. “Princess Celestia, or Rainbow Dash?” she countered jokingly.

Twilight shook her head. “No, the other knight in there.”

Trixie shrugged and began moving about the room, her horn glowing and placing things in a small saddlebag, small enough to hide beneath her cloak. “Who knows? I barely know anypony’s name around here, let alone the name of some mysterious high ranking knight. If they’re assigned to be my escort, I’ll learn their name. Until then,” she stopped and took in a breath, “I think I’d just like to focus on other things.” A simple, blue staff floated over to her and stood up.

Twilight looked at the silent weapon, worry flickering in her eyes. “It’s not too late to ask Celestia to have me come along.”

Trixie unfastened her cloak and set it on the bed. The top drawer of a large oak dresser opened and a dark purple cloak floated out and landed in her hooves. “You’re worrying over nothing again, Twilight. An archmage’s apprentice and a knight-captain should be more than a match for anything out there.”

“But-”

Trixie whirled around putting on the cloak, snatching her staff, and pressing a hoof softly to Twilight’s mouth in a single, fluid motion. Twilight blinked in surprise and forced herself not to flinch beneath the surprisingly soft touch. “You worry too much,” Trixie whispered before closing her eyes and leaning in to replace her hoof with her lips.

Twilight relaxed and leaned in to kiss her back. Her heart calmed to her lover stroking her mane with the same gentle hoof. “I’ll be fine," she soothed. "Just work on your teleportation research while I’m gone, okay?” Twilight nodded and watched as Trixie put on the saddlebag and moved to the door. She stopped and waggled her tail. “Well, aren’t you going to walk me out?”

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“Princess,” started an armored unicorn knight, “Why would you choose Commander Hooves to succeed me in our order?” The knight turned their head to the side, and removed their helmet revealing a blue and white mane, its colors evenly divided over a lighter blue coat. “Am I not good enough anymore?”

Celestia frowned and another knight appeared stepping out of the shadow of the throne. “It’s not about that, Colgate,” said the other knight. They stood up and removed their own helmet before taking off their shield and setting it down beside them. Derpy offered a sympathetic look to the unicorn.

“Is it because I’m not trying to recruit anyone for our order like you? Is it because...” Colgate’s voice began to quaver as she stepped closer to the throne. “Is it because I’m not a pegasus?” Celestia opened her mouth to speak, but Colgate continued her advance. “Because if that’s the case, then why even recruit me?”

In a flash of white Derpy appeared in front of Colgate and placed a hoof on her shoulder. “We are always a part of this order. Where we stand in rank or race doesn't matter.”

Colgate stood up and smacked the hoof away. “Then why are you the Paladin and always by Her Majesty’s side if we’re equal?”

Derpy opened her mouth to speak, but Celestia spoke instead. “This is not a matter of trust or power. Paladin Derpy Hooves is merely in constant communication as to Knight-Captain Rainbow Dash’s progress. While she is the Element of Loyalty--an aspect I do not doubt--I must still know of her temperament.”

A heavy sigh followed on Colgate’s part as the tension in the room eased. She stared at the dancing shadows near the windows of the room. Lightning sparked the sky to life and peaked the light for a moment, followed by a boom of thunder and the shadows returning again. “I’m sorry for not trusting you when I’ve sworn to. But ‘Paladin’?”

“It is a title for the brightest knight,” Celestia replied plainly. Derpy turned to face her. She cocked her head slightly, almost too slight to see. “Do you feel you are a more guiding light?” Colgate opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. “That is the title. Paladin is merely an honorific. Where and what it embodies beyond that is wholly within the bearer’s will,” she finished with a nod to both knights.

“Colgate. I don’t care if you surpass me by miles, or vice versa. You’ll always be my friend and equal.” Derpy offered a warm smile to her words.

The words soothed the unicorn and she stepped forward and gave Derpy a hug. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I doubted you. Maybe I'm just... jealous.”

Patting her on the back, Derpy let loose a breath of relief. “You’re still my superior in experience.”

“Will that be all, Commander Minuette?” With a content nod, Colgate separated herself and turned to leave. Derpy returned back to the throne in a flash and replaced her helmet and shield. “I think enough time has passed for you to depart the castle and watch over Knight-Captain Dash.”

“Are you sure this mission is a good idea for a test? She doesn’t wield a holy sword and Trixie isn’t even an archmage. They will probably encounter at least one dragon in the borderlands.”

“This is where the will of the Paladin shapes the title. I know you’ll figure it out.” Celestia and Derpy exchanged nods before the knight disappeared in a trail of light extending out of the throne room. A shocked guard entered the throne room just after with a look of total disbelief etched onto his face.

“P-Princess! Did you see that?!”

Celestia shook her head, suppressing a chuckle.

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The trip to the borderlands was an excruciating journey. Jungles and marshlands paved the way of the direction they were traveling, and many adventurers had befallen the perils of wild beasts and the extremes that the elements could provide in the past. A knight-captain and archmage's apprentice were more than a match for any dangers, and equally as prepared for the journey, or as much as they had hoped to be.

Rainbow Dash’s athleticism and physical training made the journey on the land a comfortable, scenic tour of the wilds, though the humidity gave her a longing for the skies, soaring and keeping herself cooled. She refused to carry Trixie, citing her armor and Trixie’s own weight as being too much for even her mighty wings to carry, emphasizing the magician in that regard. The jestful words earned her a singed tail from Trixie. Afterwards, she would only glower back at the knight’s sincere attempts at reconciliation.

Trixie’s body had not adapted to the rigors of the environment, faring little better than a lazy tourist. While not particularly out of shape, she was not one to take long walks without being beside her master. Every branch and root of the first dense thicket reached for her legs or clawed at her face. Occasionally she would trip over them and earn a laugh from her escort, much to her chagrin. After getting tangled, she muttered a curse and threatened to burn down the forest on top of Rainbow Dash if she did not begin bushwhacking the path.

The laughter died down in the knight’s throat and she wiped her eyes of welling tears. “You’re a real riot, Trixie. But really, you just need to get out more.” The voice was full of life yet ingrained into Trixie’s mind like nails on a chalkboard. Every word out of the knight just aggravated her more.

“Either you carry me this instant or cut the path before us,” she growled, “or I stay right here and you finish this little mission by yourself.” She fell to her haunches and folded her forelegs across her chest, giving a harrumph and offering only the side of her face.

Dash shook her head and put up a front of feigned terror. “Oh, no! Vicious pony-eating weeds from the jungles!" She adjusted her voice to that of a mock hero. "Fear not, fair Trixie, for I shall save you!” Brandishing her broadsword, Dash exaggerated her march to the front and began wildly chopping the entangled foliage out of the way. After clearing several yards ahead, she turned and rolled her eyes. “Hurry up, they might grow back!” she called back innocently.

Rising to the challenge of tolerating Rainbow Dash’s presence further, Trixie trudged on behind her, gnashing her teeth. The broadsword effortlessly sliced through the thicket and they advanced to a misty swamp. Trixie’s first steps caused her forehooves to sink unexpectedly into the mud. It wasn’t until she was falling face first into the muck that she realized Dash was hovering in the air in front of her and ready to burst into laughter once more.

With a panicked squeal cut short and a spray of mud, Dash nearly lost control of her wings and fell in herself. Trixie peeled herself out of the muck and glared death at the knight. She reached up in a vain attempt to grab her out of the air manually. When Dash pulled away, her horn ignited into a fierce glow and dragged the pegasus only inches above the muck and to her face. “You will carry me to the outpost location. You will not utter another mocking word. And you will find me a cloud to bathe with. Do you understand?” she growled.

Dash’s giddiness faded even before she began to nod. It didn’t matter, though, as Trixie plunged the pegasus into the muck completely. She brought Dash's head back out to witness her humiliation, and ensure she didn't suffocate. Trixie didn’t even crack a smile to the sweet revenge, but she grinned inwardly to herself. Dash pulled herself free of the muck and shook her wings clean enough to fly. Grumbling and muttering words at the magician that even Twilight would take offense to, she found a lonely cloud above the swamp.

She paused in the air and peered around at the surroundings. “Whoa...” she mumbled. The expanse of the marsh beyond the thicket was much bigger than the maps she studied had suggested. Darkness began to overtake the horizon, the stormy gloom receding to its sweeping presence. It was going to be a cold night if they remained in the swamp or marshes, but there was little in the way of cover to stave off any chilling night winds. Shaking her head, she guided the cloud back to where she and Trixie had their jabs at each other. The magician stood on a solid path beside the muck with an impatient frown on her face.

“That took you long enough,” she shouted.

“Yeah, yeah. Put a sock in it.” Dash turned and bucked the cloud into raining. Trixie took the time to remove her cloak and individually clean every garment and belonging with her magic. Once she finished cleaning, she rung them out and put them back on, though the slightly damp clothing clung to her form.

Dash struggled with removing the grime from the insides of her plate armor. She thanked her lucky stars she chose not to wear a helmet for this trip. Once she finished, she lifted off and grabbed Trixie’s torso.

“H-hey, what are you doing? Let go of me. I'm still drenched and I'll freeze in the air.”

“Too bad. We’re flying now unless you want to freeze to death in the winds out here. It’s going to be night soon.”

Trixie sighed in defeat. “You better not drop me.”

“I’m still considering it.”

***

Burning chars of wood crackled and popped, occasionally spitting a hot ember from the fire at the ponies staring absently into it. Trixie found herself shivering next to Rainbow Dash, each sharing her cloak and the pegasus her wings. Dash’s teeth chattered and her armor was useless against the biting cold of the night winds. Even after carrying the unicorn ahead for several more miles, she succumbed to the additional weight in the middle of nowhere. The skinny, sparse trees that crawled from the depths of the marshlands were a poor excuse for shelter, and she was forced to dig down a small hovel for them to share.

Dash held her hooves to the tiny flame they called a campfire. Its warmth barely fought back the cold to heat the edge of her hooves, but it was enough. Her armor rattled to her shivers, the weak clanging a constant reminder that she could’ve ignored her pride and prepared better. “C-c-can’t y-you... y-you know. M-make a big-g-ger f-f-fire or s-s-something?” she stammered with the chattering of her teeth. Her chilled face and lips barely let her get the words out even with great effort.

Trixie twisted her neck to see around them into the darkness. There was nothing but the unmoving shadows and a light mist to fill the void-like dark. Her skin crawled as she imagined what could come from the shadows, even if it were merely harmless sounds or critters. “If I m-make a bigger f-fire, it m-might at-tract m-more at-at-atten.... dragons,” she forced herself to say, struggling with her words. "I th-thought something m-might be f-following us."

Dash pulled her hooves and hugged herself once more. “I’ll t-take m-my chances w-with th-the dragons.”

With a cautious eye to the darkness, Trixie nodded and sparked her horn. The flame plumed into a ferocious inferno before settling into a warming bonfire. It took several minutes for their chills to leave them, and several more to cast away their shivers altogether, but Dash found herself thanking the magician for her natural gifts.

“Did you know,” Trixie started while gazing into the fire, “unicorns develop affinities for certain elemental fields of magic?” Her head tilted to Dash with an expectant look.

“Yeah. Supposedly ponies can be blessed to resist certain elements, sometimes making them weaker to another.”

Trixie removed her staff and set it in front of her before the fire. The dancing flames lit up its dull blue design with an orange tint. “Supposedly every pony has a natural affinity for at least one element. What’s yours?”

The question took Dash by surprise. She paused for a long while, debating whether to answer that or not. She turned her head away and looked into the night. “Pegasi have a natural affinity for lightning, I think. Why?”

“My natural magical affinity is lightning, primary to water and more arcane focuses. But Twilight seems to have an affinity for everything.” Her tone slipped into regret, at least as far as Dash could tell.

“So? She’s the Element of Magic. She’s supposed to be the very spirit of magic itself, or something.” Her head turned back to Trixie, studying her face. A deep longing held fast to the unicorn’s features.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her use all of the elements. Fire encompasses all flame; Nature is life and tuning into it; Water covers ice and the atmospheric aspects; Lightning can be created, but utilized naturally; Arcane focuses the mind and remains neutral.”

“Thanks for the magic lesson, Trixie, but what does this have to do with our affinities?”

Trixie turned back to him, her confident expression returning. “An archmage must learn to use them all to an expert level. But I’ve heard there’s also cosmic magic--what Celestia and Luna use--and dark and light elements. Have you ever seen Twilight use the latter two?”

Without blinking or pausing to answer, Dash gave a casual, “No.” She shook her head. “I’m sure she knows how to use them, or has studied them. You’re asking a pegasus about obscure magic stuff, you know.”

Trixie gave an empty chuckle. “Yeah. Maybe it’s all just above my level.” She shrugged and sighed, then rubbed her eyes. The night and travel began bearing down on her in full force. With a loud yawn, she laid down beside her staff. “I’m going to get some sleep. I don’t think we’ll need a lookout afterall.”

The idea of a lookout put her at ease, though. She forced her eyes shut to prevent her creeping anxiety from keeping her awake. The fear of what could be in the darkness of the borderlands clawed at the inside of her eyelids. It took a half an hour before the calm of sleep overtook her.

Dash remained awake, sitting up and staring into the fire, not ready to succumb to the loving embrace of sleep just yet. She wondered to herself about Trixie’s information. Dark magic. Like Nightmare Moon? Does that make Celestia light and Luna dark? It’s just an element, right? She rubbed at the back of her neck and stretched. A crack of a branch came from the darkness behind and startled her. In a rising whirlwind of finesse, she snatched up her blade and shield and took on a defensive stance.

“Is somepony there?” she called out into the dark just low enough not to wake Trixie. Her eyes strained into the creeping black of the night, unblinking. Her nerves began to kick into overdrive. The beating of her heart became an intense drum, droning on louder and louder, faster and faster. To her relief, a lizard scampered by the fire and off elsewhere into the night. Dash wiped cold sweat from her forehead and replaced her armaments. She turned to sit down, but the ground rumbled and quaked suddenly.

The knight spun around, this time failing to pick up her shield. She met the receiving end of a massive hand, claws raking through parts of her armor and sending her flying into the darkness. A gust of air following the swipe blew out the fire and scattered ash into the air where Trixie was sleeping. “Look what we have here. Silly little ponies wandering where they don't belong. What are you doing here, so far out of the safety of your lands?”

Dash hit the ground and skid several more yards, the soft ground preventing additional harm on impact. Her body ached, and she instinctively placed a hoof to her head. Pain pounded against the inside of her skull, and she could feel blood running down the side of her head. She staggered forward several steps before realizing she was unarmed. Frantically glancing into the darkness, she was unable to focus through the black surrounding her. Every shadow lurched at her, every throb of pain made the image more difficult to process. Dread set in as she couldn't even focus enough to find the massive shape of the dragon somewhere in front of her.

“Trixie, wake up!” she screamed. Bad idea. The dragon began trampling his way towards her. I can hide. He can’t see me in the dark, she reassured herself. She leaped to the side and dropped to the ground, her legs happily obliging to no longer support her weight. If her heart was pounding before, it drummed and threatened to drown out the sounds of reality. She concentrated in a determined attempt to regain visual focus or control of her nerves. Her body and torso rejected all effort with a backlash of spiking pain, and she hung her head, her chest heaving in breaths of cold air.

“Come here, little knight,” taunted the dragon. His deep voice drilled into Dash's mind. She wanted more than anything to beat his face in, to put him down. “Hiding in the dark like a scared little rat, are we?” He trudged past where Dash lay still. Sweat began to trickle down her face as she focused on the beating of her heart to keep herself still. Tilting his head back, the dragon loosed a massive plume of fire from his mouth. It burned into the air for a moment, lighting up everything in the vicinity. “There you are.”

Shit. Dash forced her body to obey her, adrenaline trumping pain briefly, to rise and beat her wings. She pushed with all of her might to fly back and retrieve her armaments; to grab Trixie and escape into the black skies. What she imagined as record breaking speed through effort and sheer willpower only resulted in flying speed that would make only Fluttershy proud. The dragon whirled around and whipped his tail into her back, sending her speeding back towards the camp. She slammed into the ground near the smothered fire and began losing consciousness. “Trixie run... He's... too... strong,” she murmured before all faded to black.

The unicorn stared in silent horror from her spot away from the camp. Her escort’s battered form of steel and flesh lay in a heap several yards in front of her. She was crouched down, her stuff clutched tightly in her hooves beneath her. The dragon stomped its way to the defeated knight and blew a triumphant flame to illuminate his victory. “So frail. Do they really think they can win a war against us?” He chuckled, the low rumbles of his voice filling the air with a sickening dread.

Trixie’s heart raced, her face pouring cold sweat. What do I do? I can’t slay a full grown soldier dragon! Even an Ursa Major would struggle to hold their own against one. She looked around frantically for something, anything, to help her cause. Nothing but the shadows stared back at her. The dragon lowered himself and opened his mouth, preparing for the execution.

“Get away from her!” Two bolts of frost crashed into his side and forced him to side step to regain balance. “You’re going have to get through me first!” When the dragon turned to face her with an angry expression, her heart sank. Suddenly her resolve faltered beneath the glare's tide of true despair. Her horn and staff spire shined to life and she poured all of her magic into a barrage of icy attacks.

“Damn unicorn,” grumbled the dragon. The barrage sprayed into him freezing scales and flesh, and halting his advance.

Freeze, freeze, freeze, damn you! Trixie’s horn dimmed and she ran out of magic. Damn, if only I had some sleep I could probably scare him off. Making her last stand, Trixie aimed the staff at the dragon. She began mouthing an incantation. A cold blue light flourished around her and she finished her spell. “Eat this!” The spire burst a trail of frost at the dragon’s chest and the force of the cast sent her flying backwards. Exhaustion overtook her immediately and she failed to stay awake long enough to see the result of efforts.

***

I hope I make it. I shouldn’t have been so careless! Derpy sped through the darkness as a glowing figure in the night. She raced onwards with her sword pointed in front of her, a white needle piercing its way through the black. She rushed up in time to see a frost spell strike a dragon in the chest. It crystallized over the crest of his underside and he winced before clawing off the surface layer. Her eyes scanned the darkness and immediately noticed the unharmed Trixie below. However, she soon looked across to the critical form of Rainbow Dash.

“Another little snack coming right to me,” said the dragon sharply. “You ponies don’t know how to pick your fights wisely.”

A royal soldier, out here? Damn!

Derpy dropped down to the ground and brandished her tower shield. The dragon roared and breathed a massive flame towards her. Her head shot up at the unexpected change of tactics. Her form flashed away briefly and she appeared in front of Trixie’s body. She removed her left foreleg from the enarmes and planted the shield into the ground, standing protectively over the unicorn and bracing against the wall of metal. The backside was reinforced with a resistant cushion to reduce impact and resist temperature change. The dragon flame flowed into the shield and spread around them like a parted burning river. Sweat trickled down her face as the heat dispersed when the flame ended.

“What the--”

The dragon’s words were cut short when Derpy appeared again, shield and all, to slice off one of his arms. He roared in pain before she skidded to control and propelled herself towards the other. He attempted to raise his other arm away from the incoming attack, but it was cut through just the same. His cry of pain only grew louder and angrier. A tail swipe came from Derpy’s left and she raised the shield. The entire force of the blow was absorbed and she countered by slicing the end of the tail off.

Utterly outmatched and fatally wounded, the dragon fell over to his side with a grunt. “M-mercy,” he begged with pure fear in his eyes. Derpy unequipped her shield and swung her sword through the air to remove the blood attached. The dragon trembled beneath her look. Her eyes were hidden behind the bars of her helmet’s visor, but he could still feel the gaze that would soon decree a final judgement. “P-please!”

Derpy disappeared into the darkness for a moment and returned with Rainbow Dash’s sword. “I'm sorry it came to this... Rest peacefully in the stars,” she whispered. The dragon's eyes widened in terror and he loosed a screech as the blade was plunged into his neck gingerly, sawing halfway through, and then being left protruding from the large wound. The thick bones remained intact and the blade was dug in deep enough to ensure a deathblow.

Derpy sighed and shook herself in an attempt to remove excess blood from her body. A drawn out yawn followed a mournful sigh. She set about to restart the small fire that had been going earlier, doing her best to increase its size with the scarce materials nearby. She undressed Rainbow Dash and tended to her wounds with care. Every time the cyan pegasus winced beneath her delicate touch she tried not to flinch herself, from empathy or fear of waking her. Afterwards, she placed her shield near her and laid Trixie out on the opposite side of the fire. Satisfied with her work, she glanced at the dead dragon. Peaceful...

She loosed another yawn and glanced up to the sky. Only a few, large stars glittered on the black canvas and did nothing to quell its consuming maw. Flapping her wings, she lifted off and scouted from the air for several minutes before finding a small hill nearby. It was better than nothing for keeping a close eye on the camp, but it would be hours soon and she’d have to return to her cautious distance. I promise I won’t let that happen again. I’m sorry, Rainbow Dash. The mist of the marsh thickened over the next few hours and she decided it would safe to take the time to rest before dawn.

------------------------------------------------------

“Mission accomplished, Princess,” said Derpy as she saluted Princess Celestia.

“Was there any trouble?” she asked with a hint of deliberation. “Knight-Captain Dash appeared to be quite injured upon her return.”

Derpy swallowed hard and glanced around. They were alone in a conference room with the door shut, but the thought that anyone could be listening still bothered her. A large rectangular table sat in the middle with maps and documents scattered across it. With a solemn nod, she tilted open her visor. “I was careless and I didn’t get to her in time,” she started. “She wasn’t injured too badly and I did what I could for first aid, but there was no way to know a royal soldier from the Brood would be near there!” Celestia blinked at the sudden outburst and Derpy caught herself. “I’m... sorry,” she said lowering her head.

“I know that you never mean her to come to harm. You are the best chance she has and I know you’re trying hard to get her there quickly. Please don’t be afraid to take a step back.”

“I... know. I just want to be there with her when she crosses this finish line, with me right by her side every step of the way.” There was a moment of pause before she collected her thoughts. “I won’t let either of you down.”

“I know you won’t. Please do not do more than you are capable of. Celestial Knights-to-be are guided by many, not just one.” Celestia stepped closer and sighed when Derpy didn’t react to her words. She placed a soothing hoof on the pegasus’s shoulder. “You don’t need to do this to show you love her.”

“But!” she protested, if only to try. Anything she could say to counter the statement died in her throat. After a moment, she nodded and smiled. “Thanks, Princess. You’re right.”

“You’ve been working hard and I need you elsewhere soon. Let the archmagi take over for now on long distance missions.”

“Alright, but what about Commander Minuette and Punch?”

Celestia pursed her lips and looked over to a book open on the table. “Luna cannot give her blessing often. Twilight Sparkle is beginning trials for teleportation runes. If these prove useful, she can watch over her when you cannot.” Derpy glanced to the same book briefly. She opened her mouth to speak but was briskly cut off. “Colgate can go for short distance, but I don’t want to tie her up with this. She does not bear the same... subtlety that you do.”

“I understand.” Derpy shut her visor and saluted. “I trust all of you, Your Majesty.” She snatched up the book and slipped it beneath her tower shield. “I’ll study this and do my best.”

Celestia smiled and nodded slowly. “I know you will. It’s nice to have help in making a better world for Equestria--for all.”

Derpy nodded and opened the door. A waft of cool air swept into the room. “I’m glad I can be a part of it.” With that, she was gone and the door closed quietly behind her.

Celestia’s eyelids lowered and she exhaled heavily. Sometimes I wonder about all of this. Her eyes trailed over to one of the maps spread out upon the table. She gave a thoughtful examination of a red cross marking the borderlands where the mission had just been conducted. She lay her hoof upon the mark of the new outpost, staring intently at the line marking the border to the Brood's lands. Are the Rites really the best option...?

Chapter 7: The World Alive

View Online

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 7: The World Alive

The deft movements of two mares ruffled foliage that sought to ensnare would-be adventurers. Focused hoofsteps pattered as they made their way through the dense wilds, careful to avoid overgrown roots and obstacles littering the path they took. A cloak forever fluttered behind a unicorn as they lead swiftly in front of a pegasus knight. A pair of violet eyes holding determination shared equally a passion for their task--and a mutual distaste for the presence of the other in their company--cut through the evening tint of dark. Even the wildlife knew well enough to steer clear of their beholder, and the sounds of such were seldom heard.

"You could at least try to keep up. I was sure you always boasted of being the best athlete, on top of flier, in all of Equestria at some point or another," sneered the unicorn that led the way.

"This coming from the Great and Powerful Trixie? Puh-lease. I'm only tagging along as a safety precaution this time," retorted her pegasus companion.

Trixie stopped and adjusted her hat in an intrepid manner before turning to her companion with a scowl of annoyance. The pegasus only returned an incredulous look, furthering her ire. She stomped over to her and raised her nose high while maintaining eye contact with her.

"And only an escort is all you could ever hope to be. You achieved your foalish dream of flying for show and fame, and then you threw it away for the royal guard. Then, in your infinite lack of foresight and wisdom, threw away a Captain's rank for this lazy position of... of... 'Celestial Knight'. And yet, here you are, merely an escort to that of a superior unicorn, even a year later."

The knight glowered menacingly, biting back the urge to hit the high and mighty unicorn out of her conceit. Despite her feelings, the anger of the insulting words subsided and she ignored her impulses. She tugged at her baldric and adjusted her sword and shield before marching past the unicorn, extending a huff as she broke eye contact.

"Let's just go this over with," she stated simplistically, hiding her agitation.

Trixie trotted in front of her before slowing to a comfortable pace to lead by. In her effort to walk as proudly as her body would allow, she stripped over a rock. Loosing a sudden squeal, she stumbled forward several steps before falling to the ground, unable to regain her equilibrium. Frustrated by her companion's presence already, she was met with laughter at her clumsiness.

"You know, you really should watch where you're going," Rainbow Dash added at the end of a snort.

In response, Trixie's horn shimmered, conjuring a tiny storm cloud in the open air that blasted the knight's flank with a small bolt of electricity. Dash leaped at the quick, nostalgic burn and whirled around to inspect the damage. With the balancing humility restored, Trixie was the one with chuckles of joy as Dash gaped at her singed tail.

"You're going to pay for that!"

"Oh, really now? You weren’t in any position to do anything the last time," she muttered, rolling her eyes.

------------------------------------------------------

The blue glow of magic-borne flames lit up the faces of Twilight and Celestia, two braziers placed opposite of one another; a cerulean orb laid in the grasp of a pedestal between the flames, casting images of the knight and magician to the watchers. Twilight made a mental note of how much it seemed like a dream sequence as she observed silently, the images appearing with a cloudy blur over them. She glanced around into the darkness to find a notepad for a loose thought, squinting until the particular one came into view. The area around them had been littered with books, a few stray notepads strewn about in a particular order.

Mild amusement founded itself on their faces as they spied upon the two during their quest in the forest. Celestia glanced up to see Twilight’s head as a dark blur, her mane obscuring her face while she pulled away to find the notepad. She returned her gaze to the glass orb, but the scribbling of a quill could be heard over the quiet fires in the braziers. "My faithful student, I commend you for this idea, but are you sure they will be alright?" inquired the sun princess as she looked up again to the one across from her.

Twilight shook her head and deepened her gaze with thoughtfulness. "Maybe not, but if we're all going to be working together and seeing each other more often... It's a perfect teamwork exercise, don't you think?"

Celestia pondered the idea for a bit, contemplating the potential for disastrous results. Her faithful knight and her faithful student's faithful student, both with a distaste for the other's presence around Twilight, were directly put into danger. She was conflicted at remaining idle in the situation and fidgeted uncomfortably.

"I trust that you are capable of intervening should the need arise--when it does."

Twilight hadn't looked up from the orb, constantly observing the task as often as possible while the quill continued to jot notes in the darkness. She levitated the quill to another piece of parchment laying next to her as she spoke. Faint sounds of the writing played behind her voice as the feather danced in a diligent syntax. "Trixie doesn't know it yet, but a magical rune is weaved into the lining inside of her cloak. If she ever winds up in danger, I can teleport to it from long distances without exhausting too much magic. They'll be fine," she finished, smiling proudly.

The assurance that Twilight had planned in advance for the great danger, or petty quarrels, of her beloved came as a welcome relief to the princess. As the party of two came to a resting point in the forest, they chose to turn in for the night beneath the canopy of the trees. When they yawned, the scrying orb elicited one from each of its observers.

"Perhaps it is time that we went to bed as well. The moon is already rising high and Luna is probably covering the royal duties now. I'll see you in the morning, Twilight."

The unicorn nodded in affirmation and the glassy orb ended its seamless streaming, returning to clear. With her horn glowing with a sudden light, she extinguished the two braziers and illuminated the room herself. Weary eyes received rubs of comfort before blinking a few times and glancing over the array of materials around her scrying area.

Her body protested prioritizing tidying up over the incentive of sleep, even if it was as simple as using her magic for a few more moments. She wanted to use it for something else before she allowed herself to rest. "I'll clean this up tomorrow. If you see Princess Luna before you go to sleep, tell her I said, 'Hi.'"

Celestia gave a warm smile and nod before departing the chambers. "Goodnight to you, too."

Twilight removed her own cloak and set it upon a hook. When the door closed in her mentor's wake, she moved to a nightstand beside her bed, and made sure to lock the door with her telekinesis. Casting a cautious glance to the door, she pulled open the top drawer and reached inside to the back. A small book with a red snake tongue's bookmark peeking from the top, taunting anyone to read it, was pulled free. Twilight levitated it before her and opened it, snatching her previous quill again to write down something for her eyes only.

'Trixie has become increasingly agitated by Rainbow Dash's new position. They both spend a lot of time with and around me, but I fear she is jealous of Rainbow's presence. This exercise only continues to reinforce the idea behind my scheme. I’m wondering if both of them aren’t just homesick rivals now. I was sure of their feelings before, but observing my student and my friend continuing to fight has led me to question whether or not I need to be absolutely sure.'

Twilight paused the writing, turning around to ensure the door was locked again. She sighed and slipped into bed, continuing to write and dwell on her theories. Her body already began relaxing and made it difficult to maintain focus on logging her thoughts.

'No, I remember now. Rainbow was about to go to Ponyville before I asked Princess Celestia to insist that she stayed for this one mission before she left. Does she know it was me? My observations have not given way to any idea as such, but I do wonder. I don't think she’s shallow but... Nonetheless, I must know if those two are going to be a risk to one another. Oh, things wouldn’t be so complicated if they could just let the past go. Their egos are so inflated...'

The words groaned in the final sentence as she considered dictating the writing. The book snapped shut, devouring the quill and bookmark together. She sighed and tucked it into the back of the drawer in the nightstand. She peered back over the mess of her studies and scrying once more, then to the door, her night vision outlining everything. She yawned and, with her task complete, she rolled over and let sleep take her from reality.

***

Guileful hooves carefully maneuvered across the floors of the ornate castle corridors. Each step alarmed the stealthy owner to caution, but she showed little more than taking each step with intense focus. Determination smeared itself over Luna's dark face as she moved in as much silence as she could muster, her form still maintaining a regal grace to match her subdued gait. Arriving at Twilight's chambers, she wandered beyond and checked all of the connecting corridors. No guards had patrolled through, or perhaps they had already made a round and she merely lucked out.

Suppressing a harrumph, the moon princess dissolved into a starry, smoky cloud and seeped beneath the door and into the dim chambers. Perfect night vision removed the necessity of light in the darkness and she could glean out every object in abstract detail. Moving carefully through the mess of books, parchment, and quills, Luna stepped towards the bed. She stopped and loomed over the sleeping form of Twilight for a moment; her eyes studied the unicorn's body, staring intently at the rise and fall of her chest in calmed rhythm. Casting away her fixation, her starry mane enveloped her horn to hide the glow of magic opening her nightstand. She held her breath as the dark blue formed over the nightstand.

With the speed of a decrepit tortoise, the drawer opened and the contents removed themselves and shuffled about in the air in silence. Twilight's hidden diary was brought to the front and she confirmed its authenticity upon a closer examination. Her heart sank and her mane procured a book and quill of its own, dispensing beside the diary. With the other contents of the drawer still floating around, she opened the diary to the latest entries. With a sigh in her mind, the latest entry of the diary was copied into the magic-borne book quickly, the soft scribbling compelling Luna to constantly watch Twilight's body for fear she may stir and awaken.

Twilight shifted and moaned in her sleep ending the writing and increasing the heart rate of the moon princess. Luna's eyes locked onto the unicorn without moving any fiber of her being or letting any of the objects shift in her magic. Twilight rolled to her side and away from of the edge of the bed on Luna's side. The princess breathed out in silent relief and finished the copying in haste. Her mane swallowed the book and quill and she placed everything back in the drawer, careful to make it appear as though it were never disturbed, and then allowing her mane to move back to its natural resting and out of its ridiculous shape to conceal her horn.

Luna crept back across the room, dodging tomes once more. She made it to the door with the absence of noise. Smirking pride in the darkness at her stealth skills, she dissolved into her cloud and flowed under the door again, appearing on the other side in relief. She turned to creep away, proud of the task accomplished in utter secrecy.

"That was quick," came Celestia’s voice from a very close proximity.

The younger sister nearly jumped out of her skin as her heart skipped a beat and she stumbled against the wall, avoiding unnecessary sounds and barely suppressing a startled squeal. With a few hyperventilated breaths and a free hoof to her chest, she collected herself and restored her composure, a few strands of her mane still frazzled to mark the instance of her alarm.

"Do not do that!" she scolded her sister in hushed irritation. The sun princess merely giggled in delight at scaring the incarnate of darkness herself.

"Forgive me. I couldn't let that opportunity pass. Now, do you have it?"

Luna nodded and her mane produced the notebook for her sister. She nodded and flipped to the latest entries, perusing the contents. A small chuckle left her as she finished reading and closed it.

"Quite the thinker. Her foresight and desire to get along with everyone are good traits. I believe she will be ready to begin helping us before too long," remarked Celestia.

Luna cautiously raised an eyebrow. "Do you not think her relationship will complicate or damage your vision for her?"

Celestia shook her head in response. "No. I think it will only bolster her resolve and confidence. Though, I honestly never expected you to add any guidance to her love. Now why did you do that?" Celestia added with a spreading grin.

Luna blushed, but forced her face to remain even. "I simply commented on what I felt was right since Twilight had not pushed for it yet. Why, should I not have?" she asked defensively.

"It's... fine, and a wonderful bonus to her nonetheless." Celestia smiled as she mulled it over.

Luna huffed and led the way back to Celestia's royal chambers. "Do you believe her complaints are justified? I do not feel as though Knight-Captain Dash and Ms. Lulamoon would jeopardize their positions, nor endanger themselves intentionally." She gave a doubtful look to Celestia, unsure of that herself.

"I believe the trial she has setup will answer and solve this for us. Rainbow Dash has never liked Trixie, but I think she's curious if Rainbow Dash is jealous that Trixie is stealing much her attention now."

"Is Rainbow Dash jealous of that?" asked Luna, raising an eyebrow.

"I don’t think so. She simply dislikes Trixie being around her friend--that somepony she dislikes is her friend's lover. Twilight has a very forgiving and open heart, but I fear it may lead her into trouble some day," replied Celestia with a sigh.

"Will you ever be truthful with her as to your intentions of this very time, when she does not know?" asked Luna suddenly, forcefully. There was a tone of disgust lining her voice.

Celestia stopped and narrowed her eyes to her. "Do not be coy Luna. Speak whatever is on your mind," she said sharply.

Luna quickly cut in front of her and brought her face closer to Celestia's. "You are using her for something she may not be capable of handling. I do not think she will be fine with what you plan to have her do."

"And that is exactly why we are keeping a close watch. I don't intend to throw her to the wolves. I am surprised you are doubting yourself now. When the time comes, she will be ready. Trust me and trust her, Luna. It will be the best for all of Equestria."

Luna backed down from the argument and continued walking ahead, but her thoughts still stormed in her mind. Celestia hesitated when following, the guilt of her actions holding her back. She kept her head lowered while Luna raised hers in haughty disapproval.

"I don't want to do this anymore than you do, but having her as a proxy is truly for the best."

"Tell me then, does she know where our information comes from?" pressed the moon princess. “This is a dangerous gamble--one that is not in our favor.”

"No, and I know. She will never learn of our source directly from us I hope. I cannot afford to lose her trust. Not now." Her heart twisted. May these secrets be our salvation...

"She will find out eventually. What will she think then, knowing her trust has been abused?"

Celestia shook her head again, her eyes watering. "Hopefully... she will only find out when it has all come to pass. If not, I will endure the justly consequences," she said, adding a grimace. The thought was petrifying. All of her trust and love for Twilight would be painfully rejected if she uncovered the truth too soon. Even so, knowing at all would surely send ripples of tension through their bond.

"I pray that she understands, but I will still carry doubts of my own," said Luna, undertones of apathy lining her words. She straightened up and moved through a branching corridor. "Goodnight, sister," her voiced echoed through the darkness as she melded with the darkness where there was no light.

Celestia sighed and retired to her chambers for the rest of the evening. She opened her door, no creaks from the perfectly oiled hinge to alert any staff to her presence. She waited until it closed behind her before moving to lay in front of the fireplace, opening the notebook and reviewing the copied entry. After looking it over she flipped back to the first page.

'I'm starting this journal for my thoughts this day. Today, I have become an Archmage for Princess Celestia. I'm so happy, but there's so much more! Trixie came and tried to crash the ceremony and the party. That unicorn never learned her lesson after all, but she’s so predictable. However, I managed to convince her to let me take her on as an apprentice with the encouragement of the princesses. I get to be her mentor! Me! I'm so excited, but I’m so nervous! I always try to think of how Princess Celestia taught me.'

Celestia smiled, but stifled her regrets of having Twilight in Canterlot. She loved spending time with her, but knew that sending her a bit more abroad with her friends would be much better for her growth. Her eyes read on, carefully tracing Twilight's documented thoughts and course of planning. Every emotion the lines offered were more insight to the unicorn’s well-being and methodology.

'I think I will start her on concepts or magic theory, something easy. She has a lot of potential with her magic, but no discipline. That just won’t do. I wonder how well she takes to any newer ideas. It's going to be hard crushing her overconfidence in her abilities, though. I can't think of any other way she will learn without experiencing her failures first hoof. I don't know what she did immediately after the Ursa Minor incident in Ponyville, but I hope her travels have helped open her mind.'

Celestia scanned through several more entries, chuckling slightly as the details of what she could not always be around for flourished in her mind.

'Oh boy. I got an earful from my friends after the Archmage ceremony, but this is going to be much worse. Rainbow Dash left the Wonderbolts today! Her lifelong dream of flying with the best and performing with them and she just left. She hasn’t even been with them all that long. Now she's joining the royal guard instead. Princess Celestia thinks she will make a strong leader and knight some day. I groaned at the notion or her being around Trixie more. I need to figure out a way to get those two to get along or I'm never going to hear the end of their bickering.'

"And figure it out you have. No matter how this ends, I think they will get along just fine if you’re there to remind them what truly matters." She neared the most recent entries, drinking in the bittersweet reminiscence.

'Alright, I can't play mediator anymore. Rainbow Dash has been inducted into a military rank I didn't even know about: Celestial Knight. She is now directly commanded by the princesses for more extreme tasks, but at the same time, has more free time when she's not out conducting missions. It's apparently a great honor, but now she stays in Canterlot even more... and fights with Trixie just as much. I've got a plan to make sure that they get along. With Princess Celestia's help, I know I can make this work.'

The sun princess laughed out loud at recalling Twilight's original approach. An odd and extreme idea, but her student still came off as meek to her. She closed the diary, and pushed away her guilt, hiding the diary in the back of a desk drawer. She looked up to the mantel to see a picture of her and Twilight together when she was just a filly entering her School of Gifted Unicorns. The picture reflected back a sad smile by light of the flickering fireplace.

"Luna understands, and I know you shall in time. But even then... could you ever... forgive me?"

***

Twilight awoke to the sounds of some of her books being shuffled around. She sat up and caught several of them being stored back into her personal shelf. Blurry, lingering images of a dream already forgotten meshed poorly with the unprocessed reality before her. Leaping out of bed, she nearly bumped into the source of the commotion without looking away from the shelves. She failed to untangle herself from her sheets and blankets and fell down, quickly rising back up to cover her clumsiness.

"Oh. Good morning, Twilight. I hope you don't mind, but I thought I'd clean up for you before you began scrying again," Celestia greeted. She was putting all of the unneeded materials away while reorganizing what she did need.

The unicorn rubbed her eyes and loosed a loud yawn. "Oh, it's just you Celestia. Thank you," she muttered, smacking her lips. Her bed covers levitated back to the massive slab of comfort she called her mattress and immediately reorganized themselves.

"Do you wish to dine with Luna and I this morning?" she asked as the final book slid squarely into place.

Twilight nodded and snatched her signature cloak from a rack, choosing not to don the hood while in the presence of her mentor. Her staff levitated behind and fastened to her back over it. It signified her status as an archmage even if she didn't require it for anything. “Let me just freshen up first.” She disappeared into a bathroom for several minutes and returned with a more kempt appearance, her mane straightened and her face washed.

They exited the room and headed down the main corridors. Twilight did her best to reciprocate the greetings of the castle staff. She took the time of the walk to fully awaken and take in the day. They arrived at the throne room, the large, ornate doors now familiar to her, and strolled in.

Princess Luna rested idly at the helm of the room. Her eyes were glazed with boredom as she seemed distant in the moment. She stared blankly at the red carpet stretching to her, almost as if she might fall asleep at any moment. As the hoofsteps of new guests crept into the room, she glanced up to see who it was. Her expression brightened immediately at the presence of Celestia and Twilight. The pair exchanged several words out of earshot before Twilight approached her. Celestia departed the room without saying anything more.

"Good morning, Luna," chirped the unicorn.

"Good morning to you as well, Twilight." Her voice came all too happily now that there was another pony to talk to. The morning peace sometimes made her feel lonely.

"I didn't think we would find you here so early... or is it late?" Twilight looked around the room. The two guards normally stationed in the throne weren’t there. Must be patrolling, she thought.

"I am allotted much free time, both thanks to my sister, and bureaucratic ponies such as the Royal Council of Magi--like yourself--to bring equilibrium to the duties of our esteemed government. I am free to do whatever I please, but they may always contact me should the need arise."

"Oh, please, Princess. You know I’m rarely involved with that stuff," she said while rolling her eyes. "I much prefer you or Celestia sending me off to do whatever she needs." Luna admired Twilight's devotion to them, longing to have as much admiration towards her from the rest of their subjects.

"Are you comfortable sending Trixie off in a similar manner?" Luna asked casually.

The question caught Twilight off guard. She chewed her lower lip with a reminder of her apprehensions about letting her beloved be so far away, previously risking going out of reach of her protective reach in common circumstances."...No, but I’ve finally managed to solve that problem to some degree," she said with a confident inflection.

"Ah, yes. Your research into runes and glyphs that would allow you to teleport to marked locations with greater ease. A most impressive pursuit and investment." The moon princess gushed pride at the unicorn's ingenuity.

Twilight beamed her own pride at the achievement and personal problem solving. "I didn't like letting her go off by herself into danger. I could watch her from really far away, but I couldn't teleport far enough and still have a lot of magic left if she ever got into trouble."

Luna turned her eyes to the door with a subtle wonderment in them. "Is she... the only one who possesses such a rune?"

There was a long pause before a reply. "No... There are others," responded Twilight. Her tone slipped into the distance. She seemed sad or regretful, but Luna was unable to tell which or why.

"Do you inscribe the ponies, or a belonging oft kept with them?" She returned her gaze to her friend.

"I don't...!" Twilight's response came a bit sudden, bringing a blush with it, and she had nothing to add to it.

"Are they not an invasion of one's privacy?"

"Err..." Twilight’s blushed deepened at the implications. "They're attached to objects or garments, never the ponies themselves. Trixie's cloak, Rainbow Dash's..." she trailed off biting her lip and scratching at the floor.

"Oh? Like a piece of armor, or perhaps her shield?"

"Her... left wing." She turned her head to the floor, embarrassed with her own overcautious decision.

"So then you do inscribe ponies."

"She never carries any one thing all the time. We work together occasionally and this way I can always keep an eye on her, too," she protested quickly with a mild groan.

"Do not worry, Twilight. Your secret shall be safe with me," Luna whispered, and added a wink and smile.

"I know, it's just... a little embarrassing though."

"I am not judging you. I understand your desire to keep your friends safe and nearby. I am very fond of your residence in Canterlot's castle at the same time," smiled Luna. "You freed me and have always been there to talk to and guide me in these current times; a true friend within every sense of the idea."

"Aww, thank you, Luna. If you don't mind me asking, but how do you deal with...” She paused, shifting her eyes to the door and back then back to Luna’s expectant gaze. “Immortality and having mortal friends?" The question took the princess back. She gaped at Twilight momentarily before articulating a response slowly. "Ah, I'm sorry, Luna!"

"No... you are not at fault with your question, Twilight." Luna's gaze became distant again. "It is... not easy. Celestia and I treasure our friendships, no matter how fleeting they may seem to us. It is painful to live forever and watch your friends die. It never becomes easy, and it never should." Her face became sullen and she looked to the floor and recalled friends of the past for a moment. She looked up to face the unicorn with a new determination. "It is important that you hang onto those friendships no matter what happens. They are what make life worth living, Twilight, even if we outlive them. Never forget that."

"I won't forget, I promise," she said quietly with a smile.

Luna melted under that smile. A pony truly kind and honest with her; a friendship she wanted to last forever. The pit of her stomach turned into a well of guilt. "I do not believe you will," she replied. Her voice barely kept from wavering but Twilight took no notice of it.

Princess Celestia returned to announce breakfast had been prepared. The pair hungry ponies at the throne moved to follow her to the dining hall. The table had been set with a usual grand array of food, ranging from fruits to vegetables. Though not engorging themselves, they ate their fill. Once finished, it was time for Twilight to return to the scrying.

"Hmm. Do you think they will be successful?" asked Luna.

"Which part? Becoming friends or finishing the task?" replied Twilight in a half-joking manner.

"Hmm... Both. May I join you in observing them this time?"

Twilight shot her a wondering look before it shifted into acceptance. "Of course you can, Luna."

They returned to Twilight's chambers, and despite Celestia having cleaned up much of it, the required scrying materials still gave a messy vibe to the area. The braziers were prepared and the glassy orb remained inert on its pedestal. Twilight rubbed her hooves together and quickly set about to darkening the room and lighting the braziers. The room took on its shadowy, blue tone and the unicorn moved over to the orb with an eager look on her face. The two princesses sat opposite of her and peered in as the magic set the stage for observation.

***

"It's been, like, a day now. How deep into this forsaken forest is the Ursa Major?" complained Trixie.

Dash grumbled loudly in annoyance. Trixie had been complaining all morning about the journey through the forest. From Rainbow Dash not carrying her and flying to how much she missed the royal furnishings to sleep on. If there was something she didn't like, she had something to say about it.

"...And please cut more of the brush out of the way. A rose bush almost frayed my cloak back there."

Dash had had it with the unicorn. "WILL YOU PLEASE JUST SHUT UP!?" she bellowed out of annoyance.

Trixie stared back as if she didn't understand her before sneering and saying, "No."

Dash turned around and stomped closer. "All you have done is complain! Why are you even here? Why am I even here?" she questioned out loud.

"Honestly, do you think that I want to be here with you anymore than I want to be out here roaming around aimlessly in this forsaken forest?" yelled back the magician.

"Then why don't you just LEAVE? If it wasn’t for Twilight-!"

Before the knight could finish, a massive paw crashed down onto her with two of the claws digging into her wings, the force blasting debris everywhere. Trixie yelped and reeled backwards while Dash reached out a weak hoof helplessly to Trixie. The magician charged up a blast of invisible force, knocking the paw away. Dash quickly clambered up and drew her broadsword and shield, clenching her teeth to combat the pain. The bear swiped at them both and the knight flew above to avoid it.

Trixie shielded herself but was knocked backwards, the sheer power behind the attack breaking her defensive magic. The Ursa Major's raw power completely exceeded her estimations. She skidded across the forest floor and hit the base of a tree. Winded and bleeding from the back of her head, she shakily stood up and forced air back into her lungs. Dash stole its attention by slashing the paw and circling back around. The Ursa roared and pulled back quickly before angrily charging forward again.

Dash gasped as Trixie neared recovery. She would be unable to focus herself enough or dodge the charge in time. Trixie grabbed her staff and prepared to do whatever she could to survive. As the bear rampaged on, her shaky vision jumped at her, and her horn shined brightly through the lack of focus. In a fearsome tackle, the Ursa crashed into the ground flowing debris and dust into her face. She hadn't gotten a single spell off, but the bear had stopped only a few meters from her.

"Are... you... alright?" asked Dash in low grunts as she struggled to hold the bear's muzzle back. She was standing with her chest pressed against its lower jaw and her front hooves spread out in an attempt to catch as much of it as possible. The broadsword she carried had fallen from her bracing hooves, glinting where the shade of the trees couldn’t cover it. A canine cut through Dash’s helmet, grazing her head and resulting in a slow blood trickle down her face. The knight's eyes were fierce and focused on the beast before her.

Trixie had never seen her demonstrate just how physically strong she was. A few inches of struggling ensued before Dash whirled around and in a single, swift motion, snatched the sword from the ground and slashed a vertical cut into the snout, sending the massive beast reeling back. She slid backwards from the force while the Ursa coiled onto its hind legs, whining in pain.

"Wow, you're a lot stronger than I thought... Is this what a Celestial Knight is really like?" mumbled Trixie in astonishment.

"Snap out of it! This is a real battle. Pay attention or we’re going to die!" returned the knight swiftly.

The bear roared again and swung back with blood dripping from its jowls. Trixie powered up, and a large storm abruptly formed overhead, a heavy rain soon following it and turning the dirt ground to mud. Dash could be heard groaning as the rain, thunder, and lightning started. Booms of thunder reverberated through the air while the Ursa remained unfazed by the display. Trixie took her staff and raised it high and lightning cascaded upon the Ursa's frame, searing flesh with every lick. The Ursa howled and blindly raged forward. Prepared this time, Trixie erected a much more powerful barrier. The bear swiped at it with colossal force that shook the ground on impact, but the barrier held fast.

Dash flew to the underside and sliced at the stomach, attempting a quick disembowelment. It ultimately failed when the frame was too massive to cut to anything vital. She became bathed in blood from the strikes nonetheless. The bear spun around and bat her out of the air as she made her way back into the open sky. The knight slammed into a distant tree beyond her view and became silent.

"Damn it, this is bad!" cursed Trixie. The lightning storm ceased and a flame whirled around her and spiraled up to the staff. It burst forth into a rotating inferno. The Ursa attempted to side step it, but the flame coursed its way back to it and ignited it. The beast howled and rolled around, the flames quickly dissipated in the smothering and the rain.

The beast’s fortitude proved to be stronger and it remained standing on all fours, roaring and launching into a charge again. Trixie fired several blasts of energy at its face, but it continued its blind charge. Out of options, she put all of her energy into another barrier. The Ursa Major crashed into it with its full weight behind it, the ground heaving. The spell shattered in a blast of light and the bear's body smashed the unicorn into the ground. As it rose and stepped back, Trixie was revealed once more, bloody and unconscious.

"Twilight, I believe it is time you assisted them," chimed in Celestia with urgency.

"Not, yet..." she muttered in response, her eyes deeply focused on the situation below.

"But Twilight, surely they could die if you do not help them now," interjected Luna with open worry.

The unicorn looked up with confidence shining in her eyes. "I promise you they will not die. Rainbow Dash has a little more fight in her. I want to see what happens..."

Her assumption was tested as the bear slammed down its right paw for the deathblow. The Celestial Knight moved with incredible celerity to Trixie and protected her from the attack; the finishing strike intended for the magician was met with the tip of the knight's sword along with Dash's shoulder and other hoof to reinforce the defense. The bear squealed at the puncture wound and to its hind quarters while shaking the paw frantically. Blood was splashed onto the trees painting the leaves with thick splotches of crimson.

Dash appeared missing her helmet and shield, blood from the beast and herself layering over her cyan coat. The bear unleashed a shrill battle cry before slamming both paws down in a follow up. Dash dropped the blade and used only her hooves to shield herself. The ground shuddered on impact, ground zero filling with an unnatural explosion of dirt and debris that saturated the open space. When the dust settled, Dash was standing over Trixie holding back the bear's paws. Surprised, the Ursa Major unintentionally relaxed the attack.

Seizing the opportunity, the knight forced the paw away and picked up her broadsword. Her movements were too dulled to move gracefully and the Ursa followed up with a second double swipe. She attempted to block with the sword again, but the next attack broke her stance. Her sword fell to the ground and she was left huddled over Trixie, the bear beating her into the ground. It struck her back twice more and the knight finally collapsed in defeat, her remarkable endurance and strength having failed her. The bear leaned low and howled triumphantly, craning its neck outward with its head tilting back. In a final stroke to end the lives of the ponies on the ground, it pulled back for assurance its foes would be vanquished this.

This is it... I'm gonna die... Twilight, Rainbow... I'm sorry... thought Trixie as her blurry vision caught the outlines of incoming death. Dash was laying across her alive, but unconscious. Trixie's own injuries prevented her from any powerful magic. It was the end of the line. She held out a weak hoof as if to ward death away or plea for it to stop.

The paws crashed into the ground with tremendous force, the forest trembling again in its wake. A slew of mud from the storm tided outwards briefly. A faint light preceded the flying debris, and Twilight appeared with both Dash and Trixie laid out beside each other on the ground. She stood in front of them to face the Ursa Major with her horn glowing brightly. Her eyes could barely peak out from beneath the brim of her hood, but they carried a dark look. The bear swung around in a wide, sweeping arc as it twisted its body. Twilight created a translucent wall beside the mares on the ground, preventing the strike from ever connecting. The Ursa's paw was quickly pulled back at the unexpected block, the barrier stopping all force and only crackling slightly. The Ursa charged forward in an effort to kill all three of them with its weight.

The ground swirled and dirt and mud waved outwards from Twilight. Her staff moved into the air, encased in a purple aura, and stamped the ground. A nova of ice and wind ringed out from her position and struck the bear in the face, freezing the ground in a coat of ice. Blinded by the spell, the Ursa stumbled backwards, pawing at its face and yelping in pain. Before it could regain proper footing, Twilight shifted to a bipedal stance and she took the staff into her forehooves.

"Mjollnir!" she called out over the anguished cries of the beast.

A bolt of lightning half the size of the Ursa Major tore down from the heavens and raked the Ursa's back. The yelp that followed could've shattered windows through sheer volume; Trixie could almost feel the pain in the horrifying cry as it reverberated throughout the forest. Her vision had failed her now and she was left with a subconscious grasp of the world. Twilight as the Ursa fell to the ground in defeat. She moved closer and peered into the eyes, forcing herself to breath through her mouth and avoid the scent of its burning flesh. Harsh breaths could be heard from the bear that slowed down as it finally slipped into unconsciousness.

Twilight's staff replaced itself upon her back as she walked over to Dash's sword. She picked it up and inspected it, running a careful hoof along the straight edge. She slashed a few times before carrying it to the Ursa Major. Climbing up to its head, she made sure to cast her back to her fallen comrades. Raising the hilt above her head, she took deep breaths in preparation for what she was about to do.

"Stop... I'll do it..." croaked Dash from behind. Twilight snapped up and turned around to glimpse the fallen knight creeping up from behind, blood matting down her face and back in a heavy sheet. With labored breaths and staggered jerks for steps, the knight continued forcing herself through the pain of injuries. Her breastplate had been broken and dented in several places with two of her bracers missing. Twilight reluctantly levitated the blade to her. As Dash took it in her grasp, she muttered, "Mission complete," before collapsing back down to the mud and dropping it.

Twilight dropped down and retrieved the sword, rolling the pegasus onto her back. "Rest up, Rainbow. It's over now," she cooed. She leaped back atop the head and took several deep breaths again. A loud clack of the blade hitting the bear's skull filled the air several times. The final sound Trixie could hear was the audible crack of Twilight breaking the skull. The blade punctured through and ended the bear's life. The unicorn grimaced at the blood that splattered on herself, taking more breaths to calm her nerves. She wiped the blade off on her dark cloak and tucked it away. The rain began to pour heavier and she looked up to the overcast sky. A quick nod to the princess ensured the deed was done and she moved to teleport her friends back.

"I believe the time is soon..." commented Celestia with a mournful tone.

Luna's lids lowered at the notion. "I will prepare the weapons. They will need their time to recover anyway."

"They will have it. I will dispatch a squad to dispose of the Ursa Major’s body. Taking life--any life--is always... regretful." Celestia removed her crown with her magic and massaged her temples before replacing it.

Luna paused for a moment. "Do you truly feel Twilight is ready for such a thing?"

The sun princess faced her with hollow look. "No one is ever truly ready... I know only that she is willing. Slaying a rabid beast is dry on the heart... but a being with a visible soul is not." Luna silently acknowledged the words and left.

Twilight teleported in, the flicker of a rune appeared on the carpet briefly, and set her cloak upon a rack. It was dampened by water and blood, dripping lightly to the floor. She held out Dash's sword before the princess, allowing her to inspect it closely.

"This needs to be sharpened or tempered again," she said. "It doesn't seem fit for a Celestial Knight." The blade rotated slowly for observation. Scratches and nicks lined it, but the worst of its condition was that the blade was bent slightly at the hilt.

"I will have it replaced with something better very soon. All Celestial Knights are given a unique sword to wield when they are ready to operate independent of others." Celestia took the sword into her own magic. "I suppose you don't need to debrief me. May I ask why you waited so long to intervene?"

Twilight loosed an exasperated sigh before chewing on her bottom lip. Her eyes shifted back and forth before locking with Celestia's expectant gaze. "I guess I could've helped sooner, but I wanted to know how strong Rainbow Dash was. I've never seen another Celestial Knight before. Waiting also let me know how that their values are more important than their petty squabbles. After all, it's the values like friendship that count." She grinned sheepishly and rubbed the back of her head with mild embarrassment glowing upon her cheeks. Celestia gave a thoughtful look, appearing more like an uncertain wince.

"I understand. I must prepare some things, though. There are no pressing matters right now, so why don't you relax and see to your friends' recovery?" Twilight looked to the side and the princess hesitated in moving on. "Was there something else?"

"No... I'm just surprised by how strong Rainbow Dash really is. I guess the way Luna spoke earlier meant something else..."

A confused, "What?" filled the air briefly. "Oh, that. You are correct. Perhaps you should inform your friends of your plan all along. I don't think they'll be too pleased if it comes out later, rather than sooner." With that, Celestia left.

Twilight cleaned up her scrying setup and made her way to the castle infirmary. She found the mares laying in beds side by side with nurses and doctors scurrying about to tend to their grievous wounds. Despite being cleaned up, they were both bruised in various places with each bearing casts and a neck brace. Dash had far more casts and bandages than Trixie, though.

"Oh good, you're both awake," Twilight said with some relief. She received groans and some eye focus in response. "Now, let me have your attention, please. I orchestrated that entire mission, save for the actual part of dispatching the Ursa Major. Trixie and I could've done that without you and you could've just gone home, Rainbow."

"WHAT!?" snapped the knight in response. She attempted to sit up, but her muscles were no longer aided by adrenaline to combat the debilitating pain. Instead, she loosed a pained, angry groan and sank back into her pillow, a deep scowl replacing her groggy expression.

"What the hay? Why? You almost got us killed! That Ursa Major was ridiculously strong!" Trixie's voice reflected her feelings of betrayal, but she paused for an explanation.

Twilight closed her eyes and cleared her throat into a hoof. "I did it so that you would work together. Rainbow, you have been constantly fighting with her since she first became my apprentice." The knight rolled her eyes, only for them to return under the scrutiny of Twilight's frown.

"And you, Trixie, haven't made it any easier either. I set this up so that you two would work together, and, with nothing short of a miracle, become friends. Princess Celestia helped me with this." Twilight paused for questions.

"Ok, so...? We completed the mission. We're not exactly best friends..." started Dash.

"Twilight, just because we fight, doesn't mean we hate each other and won't work together... I merely enjoy antagonizing Rainbow Dash," snickered Trixie, casting a smug glance to the pegasus.

"So we could've avoided this whole thing if we didn't argue?" Dash uttered in complete disbelief.

"Not exactly. I'm glad you two worked with the other's well being in mind. I would just like you two to be friends all the time--not just when in danger." The injured ponies slumped further into their pillows in defeat while Twilight grinned happily. "You're both my friends... and if you're both going to be around me then you better get along!" The last sentence came out in a strangely dark, sing-song fashion.

"Alright, I am definitely going home when I can move, but not before I kick your flank," grumbled Dash.

"You had better make this up to me, Twilight!" cried Trixie, though her words came out more in a grinding fashion. “You better!”

Twilight wandered out of the room smiling. Well, that probably could've gone much better.

Chapter 8: The Deafening Fate

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The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 8: The Deafening Fate

Twilight stood quietly by the edge of one of the Canterlot castle's many balconies, her face enjoying the warmth of the late morning sun. She stared down below, observing the city's landscape with occasional wistful glances towards Ponyville far off into the distance below. Nothing but the vague blotches of the buildings could be made out, save for the large tree library and town hall standing above the others. As the minutes ticked away, she caught herself looking towards the quaint town more and more. I really should go... She closed her eyes as a cool wind flowed over the balcony, ruffling her cloak as it held fast beneath her staff. It chilled her cheeks and she tugged at the edge of her cowl instinctively.

"Twilight Sparkle." The voice of a colt cut through her moment of peace and she stifled a gasp, choosing to take in quick breath instead. She was too engrossed in thought to realize he had already approached her. "You have been summoned by Her Majesties, Princesses Celestia and Luna." His voice quavered as Twilight turned her head slightly to glimpse him. Only one eye peeked out from beneath the brim of her cowl, and he flinched as she focused in on him, a stoic expression casting to him. "If you'll come with me," he said, then bowed quickly.

As he raised his head up, he leaned backwards slightly when he noticed Twilight was still staring at him. "Well, are you going to lead the way?" she asked casually. He flinched again and turned on his hind hooves, almost losing his balance. Twilight followed after him, throwing her eyes over the countless castle decorations she had seen so many times before. Eventually, she passed a portrait of Starswirl the Bearded and came to the realization of the colt's behavior. "Are you afraid of me?" she asked just loud enough for him to hear.

The colt skipped a step and nearly fell, stumbling several meters and regaining his balance gracelessly. "O-Of course not," he stammered, forcing a smile and trying to keep his head lower than hers. "Why would I be afraid of you, Lady Archmage Sparkle?"

Twilight blinked several times and lowered herself to study him, revealing her entire face. "I heard a rumor that archmagi are feared because they present as bad omens, and usually mean something unsettling has been going on. The princess probably just has a mission for me to go help another settlement. Don't worry."

The words seemed to relax the colt and he nodded calmly. "I'm sorry. Some of the other magi are a bit... pushy," he whispered. "Please don't tell them I said that," he added quickly.

Twilight giggled and nodded. "I won't." As they continued to the throne, Twilight took notice of a decreased number of staff the closer they got to the throne. I wonder what's going on, she thought.

The large, ornate doors to the throne were already wide open when they arrived. The colt bowed and departed down another corridor to elsewhere within the castle. Two guards were stationed on each side of the door with two more opposite of them, their eyes trailing over to her as Twilight neared. "They await you inside, milady," said one, barely casting a side glance to her.

She made her way inside to find Celestia, Luna, Rainbow Dash, and a few of the magi Council gathered near the throne. The radiant room seemed to flash its brilliance momentarily and a gust flowed past her. She held down her hood and cocked an eyebrow, scanning the empty space behind her. Weird. Shrugging, she stepped closer and observed the group. They were talking amongst themselves, but too far to eavesdrop on what they were discussing.

"Ah, Archmage Twilight Sparkle. I'm glad you were available," Celestia greeted. She nodded and swirled a hoof in the air as she refocused back on the other magi. "I trust that everything shall be taken care of accordingly." The group nodded back to her. "Then Luna and I must busy myself with another duty for much of the afternoon. Please defer yourself to Chancellor Leo or Commander Minuette should you need anything. Give us the throne, please."

The magi didn't even look up to Twilight as they filed past her on their way out, each keeping their heads level beneath their cowls in thought. All but one had departed at Celestia's command, and when they were out of sight the guards closed the doors. Twilight looked up to the throne to see the last magi remaining. A stallion with a sandy beige muzzle poking out beneath the cowl of a grey cloak stood motionless, following the gaze of the others. A golden chain looped through the corner of a large tome that hung from his neck and dangled in front of his chest.

Despite never having seen this particular pony, something about him felt familiar to her. She attempted to feel out his magical presence much in the same way of preparing to mimic another unicorn's magical actions, but she could feel no presence; nothing about him indicated he could be an archmage of the Council. Then, as she withdrew her attempts of identifying him, he shook his form and she realized that the familiar feeling was emanating from the tome. Pure magic? What is in that book?

"Twilight," started Celestia, snapping the unicorn's attention back to her, "I have some grim news in regards to the Brood." She cast a sidelong glance towards Luna who nodded back.

"Spike?" exclaimed Twilight, her heart rate increasing. She didn't realize she was at the bottom steps of the throne until her eyes caught Celestia's extended hoof to ease her.

"No. Spike is fine. You need not worry about that, Twilight," Luna replied softly.

Twilight exhaled in relief and rubbed at her chest, the beating of her heart slowing back to a normal pace. "I'm sorry. What's going on with the Brood? I rarely hear about them, so I've always just assumed everything is fine with them."

The princesses exchanged blank looks before Celestia took a step forward. "I'm afraid,"--Celestia cleared her throat--"that within a few years' time, we will be going to war with them."

Twilight blinked a few times as the information began to sink in. "Wh-what!?" she croaked. She shook her head violently and took a step back. "No. Spike couldn't have failed us. I refuse to believe that we'll be going to war until I talk to him."

"Spike won't be participating in their war. I will have him withdraw from his position in Draconis before this war comes to pass. I'm sorry, Twilight, but I can only keep it at bay for the time being. This is not something I can stop, and it will happen." The princess closed her eyes and grimaced.

Twilight threw her cowl back and tugged at her collar, stepping back from the throne. The loose binding that held it together now felt like a noose prepared to end her at the gallows. "So... So now what? I'm an archmage, what... what do you want me to do? How can I help stop this? There has to be a way..." She looked to the floor for answers, a long silence hanging over the air, but no words of enlightenment filled it. When she looked up, Rainbow Dash was forcing herself to look away. The cloaked pony continued to remain idle, and Luna stepped up beside her sister and whispered something Twilight couldn't hear.

"You will ascend," Celestia declared cryptically.

"...Ascend? What do you mean?" Twilight moved back to the bottom steps of the throne and stared up to Celestia, expectantly.

"You will become an alicorn," chimed in Luna. "We have-"

Twilight gaped at her. "Become an alicorn!?" she echoed. Luna nodded, compounding the sudden haze of confusion Twilight had become lost in. Alicorns, she thought, can't be created... can they? Her thirst for knowledge began to win the battle against her disbelief and she found herself motivated by curiosity and intrigue. "Is that... really possible?"

"Indeed, Twilight. We have watched you for years," Luna said, shooting her sister an unreadable look, "and have decided that you, above all others, are the prime candidate to bestow such a power to--the Element of Magic incarnate. That is, should you accept such a divine blessing."

"I..." Twilight found it difficult to articulate any response. Her head began to swim with ideas, with questions, with desire. She sat down, now unsure of her own thought process. The scarlet carpet of the throne room felt as if it stretched on into infinity. Despite her dry throat becoming dry, a moment of pause allowed her to force out words once she took hold of her mind once more. "Why make me an alicorn? What will that do?" she asked hoarsely.

"It will grant you greater power and resilience," Twilight's head snapped to the cloaked pony, "the natural ability to fly, and immortality." He had tilted his head enough to glimpse her, and he spoke with a practiced, polite voice, uncharacteristic of a pony of his questionable status. "Alicorns have a much greater capacity for magic, as well as a stronger alignment with the elements. You will have access to abilities that unicorns do not."

"But I'm just one unicorn. If we're going to war with the Brood, how much will making me an alicorn even help?" Twilight tugged at her cloak collar again, still loose.

"We have carefully constructed a plan to avert the tragedy and bloodshed of a full scale war when they do finally attack our kingdom. This plan requires at least two ponies of your caliber," Celestia answered, her tone becoming wistful. She nodded towards Rainbow Dash before focusing back on Twilight.

"Celestia," Twilight started slowly, "just what are you asking me to do?" She raised an eyebrow with her widening eyes, and shifted her gaze between the counsel before her.

"What I'm about to ask of you is the impossible. To ascend; to kill in the name of duty; to bear the weight of our entire kingdom's hopes," she replied while narrowing her eyes. She looked up to the ceiling briefly, then brought her head down, her eyes darting to the robed pony quickly, then back to Twilight.

Twilight's eyes widened further, and she wanted to throw off her cloak, the collar continuing to feel as if it were choking her. "Y-you... want me to kill... dragons--Spike's own race?" The carpeted steps before her seemed to stretch to the heavens now, her head swimming once more beneath the gravity of the words.

"Yes," replied Celestia simply. "But it isn't just that. You are going to kill the dragon king, Render."

Twilight caught a gasp in her throat and looked to the scarlet carpet. Blood...

"Twi, they've already briefed me on most of this stuff--except for some of the crazier details. This isn't going to be easy, but if Princess Celestia is right about the war, this really is the best chance we have," interjected Dash with some reassuring hope. It did nothing to ease her friend's queasy feeling about the entire situation.

"Why... why me? Why this? Why tell me all of this now of all times?" she asked with forced calm. Luna opened her mouth to speak, but the robed pony moved beside Celestia and coughed.

"Unicorns everywhere would leap at the opportunity of ascension. Why must a wisdom-seeker such as yourself question the circumstance before indulging your own curiosity at such an idea?" he stated, barely moving his head when speaking. Twilight stared at him, unable to come up with an answer.

"Twilight, your magical potential rivals that of the most powerful archmages to ever live--even so young; however, you are still weaker than us," Luna said casually. "You must walk among us in power, or you risk dying because we did not take the extra step. This is not a decision we have come to lightly. You have been meticulously monitored for years in advance." Luna cast her a sympathetic look, but Twilight paid no mind to the sudden revelation that she lacked privacy.

Become an alicorn... The idea itself seemed even more fictitious than the tales of Nightmare Moon's rebellion when she was reading through the old history books as a student. Twilight stared forward to the carpeted steps blankly, her head filling with images and ideas to go along with what had already been stated. Even with her imagination, it was still surreal. "I trust you, Celestia," she said after a long silence. "How does this work?"

The robed pony stepped forward and the chain around him unlocked. The tome bound to it silently slipped off and moved before Twilight. The subtle feeling of magic from the book hadn't become any clearer to her with its new proximity. It sprang open to a page depicting the transformation of a unicorn into an alicorn, complete with archaic text and pictures. She could read some of it, but parts of it were not immediately decipherable.

"As has been said, you will become an alicorn through a sacred ritual known as the 'Rites of the Alicorn', and spend the time before this war training and studying in arts beyond that which you normally would." His voice sounded almost intoned, but his words entranced her. "You will not, however, be completing the aforementioned tasks with Commander Dash. We wish for her to utilize her speed to steal documents pertaining to the Brood's plans for war, and then return to us as you assassinate the king."

"Assassinating," the word rolled off Twilight's tongue with unfamiliarity, "the king now won't prevent the war?"

"A preemptive attack on the Brood would only incite hostilities within their nation were it to be done now," Celestia said softly. "Assassinating Render after the war begins would cripple their morale and they would lose the will to fight having seen their king laid to rest so quickly and easily in his own kingdom. Hopefully," she said with a rising tone, "they will surrender or cease this foolish conflict altogether."

"Your mission could cost both of you your lives. Equestria will be depending on you and not the likes of a capable army outright," said the robed pony. His dull tone seemed more like the narrator of a documentary than a pony explaining a dire.

"I don't know if I could kill a dragon. Spike would never..." Twilight trailed off, the opinion of her childhood dragon assistant and friend hinging upon her impending acceptance.

The princesses pursed their lips and Rainbow Dash let loose an empathic sigh, but the robed pony continued unfazed. "The Rites will imbue you with the power to slay dragons, and we will guide you in controlling your new powers. You will be trained to fight, survive, and hide yourselves. Normally, it would take an entire contingent of soldiers to bring down a single, adult dragon, but you will become strong enough to fell many by yourself, and your friend more than one. Your ability will be equal to that of a legendary Dragon Slayer, a title that is rare among even amongst the mightiest ponies in history."

"Please, Twilight. Be absolutely sure before you accept something like this," Celestia pleaded, her eyes filled with solemn desperation. Her heart weighed heavily with guilt, but already knew Twilight would never say no to an opportunity like this. A small part of her wished she would decline the monumental task, even if it meant they could be together for eternity--and cost the lives of many of her subjects.

Twilight mulled over the situation for several minutes longer, losing herself in the passing of time. More years of dedicated study, a greater power; war. The thought of killing other sentient beings was harrowing, let alone for the good of her kingdom. She bit her lip, unsure if she could ever live up to her oath. But... it had been Celestia that asked her. With a glance into Celestia's eyes one last time, she closed her own. With a deep breath, she readjusted the collar of her cloak and tightened it back to a normal position.

"If I am to wind up immortal because of this transformation, and more... I have a request. Please come to me Celestia," commanded Twilight with a motioning hoof.

Celestia quickly strode to her side and hesitated before lowering her head. Twilight opened her eyes and motioned to come even closer, then whispered into her ear. Celestia's face flushed, and she gave Twilight a surprised but thoughtful look.

"If that is your request, then so be it. Please, let us both survive this conflict. I’m sure that’s not your only wish and we will accommodate your every need as everything progresses," remarked Celestia with a pained smile before hugging Twilight and nuzzling her. "I promise you, Twilight... If you really want that."

"Since we're starting today, where do we begin?" asked Twilight, looking at the robed pony intently. A devious smile began to tug at the corners of his mouth.

Twilight eyed him suspiciously for a long while, still loosely pondering his origins. Suddenly, the magical book snapped shut and returned to his side, binding itself under no visible sources of magic. Celestia motioned for everyone's company and they exited the throne room, Twilight following at the back of the party. Her heart began to beat faster as she was led down stairs and through corridors into parts of the castle unfamiliar to her. She had wandered through the royal halls for most of her life, but nothing about these lower levels could be found in her memory.

After walking until she had lost their exact location in the new area, they arrived before a small chamber deep within the castle. The chamber door had been adorned with old etchings of the alicorns, but they weren't depictions of Celestia or Luna. Their cutie marks and color combinations differed slightly between them, with a blank unicorn standing between them. As she studied each of them, a trickle of sweat rolled down the side of her head. They're not the only alicorns to do this?

"Wait outside, Rainbow Dash," Celestia said before goading open the doors with her magic, a grinding creak echoing down the hall as they parted. The knight saluted and leaned against one of the walls.

Entering the chamber, Twilight examined the new surroundings immediately. The walls were illuminated by the princesses' horns as they led the way, light revealing they were decorated with murals of more alicorns and odd magic, much like the ones of the Mare in the Moon tale. She felt a powerful magical presence permeating through the stone around her. The presence felt inert, but it brought with it a sense of creeping dread. She could hear her heartbeat thudding against her chest now.

In the center sat a small, flat altar beneath an overhead window. Sunlight poured through over the altar and became lost in the glow of the horns. Where is this window located? Twilight wondered while attempting to determine where they were again. The princesses moved to stand on opposite sides of each other while the robed pony moved to loom directly over the altar. He motioned forward and Twilight laid down upon it, swallowing hard as the cool stone caused her to flinch. As the princesses' horns began shining with more power, the chamber doors grinded shut and sealed themselves. The sound startled Twilight and it took all of her willpower not to leap from the altar.

"Celestia... Is this really going to be alright?" Twilight asked anxiously. She peered up to the window, then back around to the dark edges of the room. She craned her neck around as the magic between the alicorns expanded. The presence of dread within the room had intensified into a pressure that sank into her; a feeling of claustrophobia began setting in on her nerves.

"Yes, Twilight. I'm afraid it will not be comfortable, though. Please endure this, it will not be long," she muttered with a regretful tone. Her eyes watered as she avoided an accurate description of what the unicorn was about to experience.

Twilight laid her head flat as both princesses began to channel their magic into her. The window above became a solid black, and now the only light in the room was emitted from the horns of the regal sisters. Their magic flowed directly into Twilight’s body, fighting back the gloom with a furious glow of intermixed blue and orange. The robed pony began reciting an incantation in a language she couldn't understand, and her heart sank beneath the feelings of dread and unfamiliarity. Anxiety soon crippled her with fear and her body refused to move, petrified. Though the words uttered were foreign, the chant entranced her, and soon she began to feel the power of the celestial magic sweep throughout her body.

It felt energizing at first, but another feeling overtook it several moments later: pain. Twilight screeched out in horror as she wrenched her body in an attempt to quell the agony in some way. She barreled onto her stomach and gripped the edge of the altar with her forehooves, eyes clenched shut, teeth bared. The pain grew in intensity and she wanted to scream more, but her voice refused to oblige in that moment. As it peaked, ethereal wings ripped free from Twilight's back, her image distorting under the veil of the magic. Her voice suddenly freed itself, and she screamed as loud as her lungs could afford. Her mind filled itself with thoughts to distract her from the tearing, burning sensation of the new appendages, tears trickling down her eyes. Outside, Rainbow Dash jumped and winced as the harrowing cry pierced the thick stone doors and echoed down the empty corridor.

The pain slowly started to subside and the sensations of the magic began to warm and numb the pain in her back and wings. The feeling was almost pleasuring and she found herself relaxing and calming to it. After several more moments, she slipped into unconsciousness while the magic continued to course throughout her being, changing her.

***

Twilight awoke much later in the comfort of her own bed, a burning, sore sensation where her wings now appeared furled up and carefully wrapped in bandages. Standing before her were the robed pony and Princess Celestia, both watching her intently. She looked to her nightstand to see sunlight shining upon gauze and half-used containers of ointment covering it.

She sat up and winced, the pain eliciting a groan from her, and she rubbed her eyes clear of the blurry images from a dream already vanishing from memory. "When... How long was I asleep?" She followed up with a large yawn, the sound failing to faze her audience.

"The toll upon your body is great, and your body and mind have spent two weeks recovering from the process," answered Celestia first.

"You have successfully become an alicorn, Archmage Sparkle," informed the robed pony. "Congratulations."

Twilight choked briefly as she attempted to speak, only to find herself with a dry throat. Celestia readily levitated a glass of water to her and she downed it in one gulp. "The ritual can fail? What happens if it does?"

"It is possible to die from it. Though, it is extremely rare. Only those who have not attained the capacity of an archmage risk dying," said the robed pony casually. Twilight swallowed hard at being uninformed of that detail. "You are far above the necessary requirements, Twilight Sparkle," he added to quell her sinking heart. "You will require an extended period to rest, and you will be unable to use your magic to any significant degree. Take this period to acquaint yourself with your wings, and use all of the time you need to familiarize yourself with your body again," he added. Twilight gave him a confused look and he motioned to a large mirror.

Gritting her teeth as she climbed out of bed, Twilight moved to stand in front of the tall mirror with her wings slowly unfurling out. Each step, and her wings most of all, had felt extremely foreign. They didn't feel like they belonged to her, but rather, she felt like she was moving someone else's body entirely. The mirror reflected back the image of her coat, the natural purple having acquired an underlying, majestic boost in depth. It appeared more vibrant without losing its base color. After several moments, the noted detail seemed normal and lost among her appearance unless she focused on it.

Drifting at the ends, her mane and tail had begun to gain the floating property of the princess'. The color faintly rippled within and throughout itself. She blinked a few times before glancing twice to the robed pony. He was now shorter than her where he previously stood at the same height before the transformation. He coughed and motioned to her wings. She slowly stretched them out and attempted bending them, though they were much too sore to flap. Maybe I can race Rainbow Dash now, she thought, snickering at the idea.

"Do not attempt to use any of your new powers and simply rest," echoed the robed pony again.

Princess Luna entered the room as he finished speaking, her dark form lightening in the sunshine. "Ah, Twilight, it is good to see you've awoken. I know you must be eager and have many inquiries. Please be at ease for the time being, though. Speak your mind of any questions you may have of your ascension," she said as she moved to avoid the window light.

"Are you and Celestia both alicorns from these Rites?" she asked quickly. The sisters exchanged glances, prompting Twilight to flush, feeling abashed of the question.

"No, we are both natural," started Luna. "The ritual of ascension you have undergone is not the first and was created as a contingency for a back-up ruler in case of a conflict where an alicorn ruler, like ourselves, may perish. In other words, should Celestia and I fall, you would take our place and lead Equestria onward," she added casually.

Twilight curled her bottom lip and chewed on it while mulling the prospect of ruling. "Luna, I-I don't mean to sound u-ungrateful or anything, but"--she swallowed hard--"I'm not leadership material. I don’t want to r-rule Equestria," she stammered quickly.

Celestia chuckled and shook her head. "We have given you this power to prevent the fall of our kingdom--of us, I hope. These gifts can be taken away." She examined Twilight thoroughly before adding, "I don't think that's what you would want, though."

Twilight nodded. "I don't know what I'll think after all of this, but I'm going to do whatever it takes to succeed, Celestia. So, what does this new transformation mean for me?" she asked.

"You will be capable of erasing most of your presence at night, and blend in with the world in a more perfect method. At the same time, the sunlight can be used to increase your regeneration, both physically and magically. You have gained strong, permanent wings and your latent magical ability should have increased significantly. Eventually, telepathy with one of us is possible. Through training, you will become strong enough to end the war with the dragons in a controlled manner," Luna answered, a hint of eagerness laced in her voice.

"What about Rainbow Dash? What's her part in all of this if I'm the one that's becoming stronger?" Twilight glanced around, taking note of the knight's lack of presence.

Coughing into a hoof, Celestia answered. "She will undergo conditioning to assist you. Her role will be minor in comparison to yours, but she is not to be underestimated either. I'm hoping that she can retrieve the Brood's military plans and return in haste. The assassination is more crucial, however. That is why our blessing is necessary. A pegasus cannot become an alicorn like a unicorn, as they do not possess any magic to build upon already."

"That is the outline of the mission," intoned the robed pony, "and we will provide all of the details later. For now, you can prepare yourself mentally. The journey to the Imperial City of Draconis itself will be long, as traveling on the ground is more difficult to detect." Twilight began to wish Pinkie Pie would be the one to speak for him, the lack of enthusiasm in his voice seemingly dragging out everything he said.

"I've never been to Draconis. I heard the city is beautiful," said Twilight.

"The method of infiltration is left to you, Twilight Sparkle. Do not tarry to sightsee. You have the gift of teleportation, so your escape should not be an issue. But be warned, you are far from invincible. Do not allow your powers to go to your head," he added in the same, flat tone.

Twilight pawed at the floor to help her get through the explanations. "I understand. I'll learn my new limits in time, but are we really just going to complete this mission through study and training? Will anything else be provided to help us?"

The robed pony finally showed signs of life when he cracked a grin. "I am glad that you asked. You will be provided with the Holy Wand of Telos,"--Twilight loosed a loud gasp and straightened her posture--"a mythril artifact that you will utilize and bond with," he finished, his voice rising with an inflection.

"N-no way. That thing is real? I've only heard of it in legends!" Twilight blurted as she remembered its tale only in passing.

A powerful and enigmatic wizard, long before the alicorn sisters' rule, was heralded in ancient texts and stories as a hero. He had done great things in his time and helped the world. When he passed on suddenly, he left behind his mythical staff. It was said to hold the greatest magical capabilities and live much like its master did. Both him and his weapon are believed to be forever lost, circulating as only a myth.

Luna blinked several times and turned to Celestia sharply, her mane whipping with the movement. "Sister, are you absolutely sure we should give her such an artifact?"

"Have faith in Twilight. I trust her fully, and I would trust no other beyond this conversation to wield it. We must bolster her strength in any way we can," replied Celestia with a confident, soothing smile. "The mythical weapon of Telos. Indestructible, its shape can be manipulated into many forms. It rests in the natural state of a staff more powerful than any other, and it is capable of acting to the user's will. Yes, Twilight, the very one. You are to inherit it," she added softly.

Twilight stared at her, wide eyed, imagining what it looked like, what she could do, showing it off. But most of all, the thought that she could even confirm that it existed, let alone wield it, suddenly converted her into a well of excitement. Oh my gosh, oh my gosh! I get to wield it! Me! She began to grin and fidget in anticipation.

The chamber doors swung open silently, a draft of air sweeping through the room. Rainbow Dash entered clad in her unique knight's armor. The polished metal shined just bright enough to stand out, with intricate carvings across the breastplate and winged helm. Fastened to her back were a longsword and heater shield, equally as cared for. "Heya, Twi. I just heard you woke up, and everything went well. How're you feeling?" she asked in a cheerful tone.

With a groan she nodded to the knight. "Aside from my back and wings, I feel pretty good. It looks like we'll be training together for this. Have you told all of our friends?"

"No," she said with a defeated look. "We'll get to see them between our training, but..." she trailed off, looking up to the princesses.

"You cannot reveal this to anyone until after this is all over," Celestia finished sternly.

Twilight looked at the floor again, suddenly feeling isolated. "I understand, but how exactly can I hide... these?" she asked, looking back up and spreading her wings again.

With a silent, subtle movement, the robed pony procured a strange piece of black cloth from one of his sleeves. The color seemed to shift around and conform to the patterns of light that shined through the room. Twilight found herself gazing at it, its contrast to the surroundings becoming less apparent the longer she studied it.

"This piece of cloth is known as duskweave. It can absorb and reflect light, and perfectly shape itself to your body. This will be how you hide your wings. I'm sure you can fabricate an explanation as to the rest of your appearance changes. Everypony in the castle is sworn to secrecy and most will never even know of what you have become. You don't need to worry about your transformation leaving these halls. Should the dragons catch wind of our plan, and your existence as an alicorn, this plan could fail before it starts." His voice took on a heavy tone as he spoke on.

"I know," she replied. The mood became sullen at the sudden call for absolute secrecy. Lying to her friends wouldn't be too hard, but there was one pony in particular she couldn't lie to--one she wouldn't lie to.

"Lord Devon, may we begin the process of attunement now, or shall we wait until she has recovered more?" asked Celestia. Twilight shot them a confused look.

"It is of no tax to the new wielder. The quicker she becomes attuned, the quicker she can master its abilities," replied the robed pony, Devon, casually.

"Attuned?" asked Twilight, tilting her head to one side.

"Indeed. You must become attuned to Telos, and the duskweave, so to speak," he replied, tossing the mysterious piece of cloth to Twilight. "Put this on," he commanded.

Twilight furled her wings back up, bracing herself in pain, and unfolded the cloth with her magic. It was more than it appeared, seeming to fold into itself. After putting it on, it fit snug and secure to her form like a second skin, stretching as it needed to. It enshrouded her body allowing only her head, neck, tail, and her hooves to peak out when she was wearing all of it. She failed to notice one of its unusual effects.

"It's very comfortable, but I'm getting a strange feeling from it."

"Give it a moment longer," Devon encouraged.

The colors of the shroud shifted before becoming purple to match her coat. It gave an unusual sensation, as if her skin was faintly itchy. After a moment, her covered body matched her mane and tail again, appearing as though she had nothing covering her at all. The cloth over her wings hid them and made it appear as if nothing had ever been there. She looked like her typical unicorn self. Whoa, she thought, I'll need to research this.

"You will be able to blend in nearly to the point of invisibility in the veil of night, as Luna mentioned, though it requires this garment. You will be almost impossible to track, but close proximity and your magic could still allow you to be sensed and discovered, of course. Here, imagine your wings extending," he instructed.

Twilight focused on her new wings, the first thought being the distracting pain, and soon she reflexively spread them outward. "Huh?" she blurted out. Her wings had moved seamlessly through the cloth. She glanced at her body and they appeared natural and unhindered, no evidence of the duskweave restricting them at all.

"Do not be alarmed. It is merely a function of the cloth for your convenience. You will be unable to accidentally tear it. At your will your wings can unfurl and slip through the material, as can your mane and tail."

She spread and folded her wings several times, watching them in awe as they seemed to vanish from her back each time they came to rest at her side. How the hay is this possible? I really need to study this now.

"Now, for Telos itself," started Devon. "You may call to it by the name Telos when initially willing it. Commander Dash, if you will," he said, bowing to her.

Dash stepped outside for a moment and returned with an object wrapped in a white cloth. She unraveled it slowly, and Devon motioned to it with a hoof. As soon as the wrapping was undone, a large, platinum staff floated free, hovering just above the floor between everyone. It gleamed in the sunlight like a decorative showpiece, flawless creation and beautiful design reflecting back from their eyes. Affixed to the spire were pieces of metal that slowly floated around what appeared to be a prismatic crystal, sparkling with a single color briefly. Lavender. Twilight felt compelled to move closer to the staff as she gazed into the gem.

Devon cleared his throat and started, "Now, as you work to become its-"

"Come to me, Telos," Twilight commanded, entranced.

The staff immediately moved to the new alicorn, perching itself over her back without magical application, but not resting against her body. Twilight moved around the room and twisted and turned, but the staff remained inert on her back, always mimicking her movements seamlessly. With each stance she attempted the staff moved in a way that didn't impede or restrict her body.

"Unbelievable!" exclaimed Devon, his first real display of unrestrained emotion. A small grin appeared upon his face. "I never thought it would move to her so readily. Princess Celestia, what do you make of this?"

"It would seem by its own accord that Telos has chosen its new master. Twilight is a physical embodiment of magic, so it's only fitting," she said, smiling.

"Aside from the pain, I just realized I've been feeling really amazing since the Rites, as if I've become supercharged, but now..." muttered Twilight. She began to laugh out loud, shocking the others in the room. "This is... this is... hahaha... this exhilaration! This energy!" she rambled to herself, a sweeping force levitating her mane.

"*Ahem!*" alerted Luna loudly, snapping her out of her magical high.

Twilight cleared herself of the power intoxication the artifact brought. It felt like a second horn, but instead amplifying the feelings of magic coursing throughout her being.

"I-I'm... sorry," she apologized, reaching her normal calm. "I've never felt such a rush of... feeling before," she said sheepishly. “It feels alive, like it's a part of me, but still separate.” She found the feeling the staff invoked difficult to articulate.

"I assure you, it's not the first time such a thing has happened," consoled Celestia.

"Indeed, I suppose it is not," added Devon. "The staff is now, in a way, soul bound to you. Please, give its shapeshifting abilities a try. Will it into another form," he encouraged.

Twilight thought for a moment. Dragonslayer, she thought into it. The staff quietly morphed into a gigantic greatsword larger than even a weapon of Celestia’s large frame would seem capable of wielding. It remained as light as the idle state and retained its signature platinum shine on the blade. With another thought, it returned back into its staff form.

"Never forget its abilities and continue to train yourself to use it independently. Imprint your soul into it and you will link together allowing it to move seamlessly in tandem with your thoughts. As long as it is with you, your magic will be amplified by it," Devon explained.

"Be at ease for now, Twilight. There are many trials and tribulations ahead of you. Perhaps you may visit your friends in Ponyville tomorrow if you are feeling up to it," suggested Luna, casting a warming smile.

"Thank you, but I think I'll just spend some time in the courtyard for now. I have a lot to think about," she mused.

"Call upon us if you have any more questions," added Celestia.

Everyone began to file out of the room, and Rainbow Dash followed Twilight to the main royal courtyard. Twilight sat on the grass in the warmth of the sun and Telos floated from her back and stood in front of her. The magical pieces of the spire continued to quietly gyrate around it.

Dash broke the silence with a heavy sigh. "We can't even tell our friends about any of this," she said softly. "But... It's for their own protection, and when we go see them tomorrow you've gotta hide your new wings and we have to lie to them about what's really happening,” she lamented. “...This is gonna suck," she added, at last relaxing to her usual, candid demeanor.

"Yes but maybe--some day--they will understand and thank us. Some will call us heroes. Still, I have something else on my mind," replied Twilight, glancing up to the open sky.

"That promise must mean a lot, huh?" asked Dash.

"Just for right now, you could say it’s something like that," Twilight responded without looking away.

------------------------------------------------------

Twilight and Rainbow Dash returned to Ponyville after a week of rest, eager to join their friends for some relaxation. Twilight had opted to take extra time to recover from the ritual, finding herself drained even after the first few days. The pair had previously visited as often as they could, but now the capacity for honesty amongst them had been diminished. Despite the secrecy, they didn't need to lie unless they were asked about any of their new work, but they both loathed the idea of it.

They flew silently to Ponyville, landing off in the distance beyond sight where Twilight could be seen in the air. Her control over her duskweave hadn't yet culminated to using it without requiring great focus, losing the illusion properties once distracted; however, hiding her wings had become second nature in the short amount of time she had the garment.

Dash joined her in casual but proud attire. She wore a small, red sash adorned with some of her honors while Twilight brought Telos and wore her traditional sorceress's cloak over the duskweave. They aimed to appear as normal as possible to their friends, taking care to avoid the unwanted questions. The usual cheerful atmosphere of Ponyville seemed to be subdued to them as they entered the town.

"Oh-my-Celestia! Dashie and Twilight are back!" cried Pinkie Pie as they entered the town square on hoof, Rarity trailing just after the party pony. Pinkie dived at Dash, the knight catching her in a big hug and twirling around gracefully as she squeezed her tight.

"It's good to see you, too, Pinkie Pie," exclaimed Dash, relinquishing the embrace and giving her a welcoming smile.

"Oh, how lovely it is to see you again, Twilight. I hear you’re quite the busy archmage in the royal court these days. Why don't you tell me all about it," Rarity chimed in as she approached her friends.

Twilight offered a nervous laugh. Well, I don't have to tell her everything, she thought. "Well, the princesses have given me much to be thankful for, namely their wisdom. And even though I'm a member of the Royal Court of Magi, that's really a bit of a stretch most days. Celestia usually assigns me missions herself, so I don’t interact with the other archmagi too much. Enough about that, though. I’m here to visit all of my friends," she explained, removing her cowl and beaming.

Rarity's eyes followed the design of the cloak up and down, her eyebrows bowing slightly as she scanned it. "Really now, Twilight. I could spruce that old thing up for you, add a little more flair to it," she said, pointing at the cloak's lack of detail among the cowl and around the royal crest.

Twilight looked at it for a moment, imagining all of the potential designs. Her mind wandered back to the invisible rune within Trixie's cloak. "I think that'd be great. I guess it could use some decorating," she said while giggling and ruffling an edge of it.

Twilight glanced around and noticed that they were the only two friends ready to greet them. The town's liveliness failed to wane with the presence of an archmage this time, and ponies began to make their way over to them, but none of their immediate friends were among them.

"Hey, Rarity, where is everypony else? I sent word to Applejack we would be coming, but even she isn't here," asked Dash as she glanced around, frowning in disappointment.

By now, many of the ponies out and about in the square had begun to gather around them. Pinkie Pie had cleared the misconceptions of the archmagi since her initial visit after becoming one, and they were now revered among the residents. Though from Canterlot and Cloudsdale respectively, they were widely accepted as residents of the happy earth pony town as well.

"Hello, everypony," Twilight greeted to the crowd. "It's just a personal visit, so I hope you don't mind." She bowed down graciously, but quickly pulled herself back up when she realized her height difference might become more noticeable. The crowd all waved and greeted, some shaking their hooves out of respect or fan affection.

"Where are Applejack and Fluttershy? They should've been here by now." Twilight peered through the crowd again, hoping they were just stuck waiting by the edge of the crowd.

"They're waiting for you two at Sugarcube Corner, silly. Where else?" said Pinkie.

Dash chuckled and placed a hoof on her head. "Hah, I should've known you'd throw a party for us."

"Come dears. Let us join them," added Rarity as she led the way to the happy bakery.

Inside were all of their friends with what was to originally be a surprise party. The place had already been decorated despite Dash and Twilight's record travel time from Canterlot, to which they were glad no one had bothered to question. Games were already being played with happy music blaring up from the background. Even karaoke was setup with an enthusiastic colt singing his off-key rendition of a famous pop song.

"Well, if it ain't our old pals. Heya there Rainbow, Twi," started Applejack, throwing the latter a playful jab to the ribs. Twilight winced and shuddered slightly, doing her best not to show that she was still painfully sensitive.

With a quick, distracting cough, she returned the jab. "It's good to see you too, AJ. How are Apple Bloom and the Sweet Apple Acres?" she asked.

"Well, yah know it’s been alright, even since Granny Smith passed on--bless her soul. Apple Bloom is growin’ up to be mighty strong like her big sis. She's out playin' with the Cutie Mark Crusaders. She's got that spirit, yah know," she said. "Big Mac's still the same old Big Mac. Stallion of few words." Applejack rolled her eyes at reminiscing about her brother's lack of loquacity.

"I'm glad you're doing fine. What about you, Fluttershy?" Twilight asked next, turning to the pegasus and almost flinching her.

"Oh, me? Um, I run the local animal shelter now. Really, it's so wonderful taking care of all the cute little critters there. It's always so peaceful and fun," she said, gushing in her soft tone.

Twilight and Dash exchanged glances, both sharing the same pained thought. She's going to be devastated... Animals and forestry would not last long beneath the flame of an overzealous dragon's breath.

"So Rarity, how's your business doing these days?" asked Dash to keep the conversation going.

"Oh, it's been stellar. I've expanded further and my designs are very popular. My name is now a house design to ask for in Canterlot!" She clasped her face in her hooves, trying not to squeal. "It's almost too good to be true," she added with subdued glee, daydreaming of the fame outside of Ponyville.

"What about you, Pinkie?"

"Oh c'mon, you girls know me! Same old, Pinkie Pie. You I'm never gonna change!" she chirped.

I hope... thought Dash, maintaining a matching grin to Pinkie's endless cheerfulness.

Rarity coughed and began in a hushed voice, "You know, Twilight, your apprentice has been patiently awaiting your next reunion. Perhaps you should speak to her once she arrives herself."

Twilight smacked her head and groaned. "Ohhhh, I completely forgot. I've been so busy lately and she hasn't even come back Canterlot since her last assignment. I'm so sorry, I'll bring her with me when we go back. She’s going to be so upset with me...”

"Oh, my. Speak of the mare now," said Rarity, pointing to the door and giggling.

"Master Sparkle!" cried Trixie in an excited voice as she charged to Twilight. The magician leaped the last stretch of distance, tackling her. Twilight loosed a sharp groan, this time unable to hide the sudden burst of pain.

"A hello would've been just fine my faithful student," she grinded out as she rubbed at a hidden wing. Trixie rose to her hooves first and helped her master to her own.

"I'm sorry, but it's been so long. I've missed you oh so much," she said, lowering her voice as she spoke, and squeezing more pain into Twilight with an affectionate hug.

"I'm sorry for being away. We have lot to discuss, but all of that is for later. Now... let... me... go... please,” she squeaked before her student relinquished her mighty embrace. “Let's just enjoy ourselves today," she added with a gasp of air, and smiling towards some dancing ponies. She discarded her cloak and placed it upon a nearby rack, pausing to breathe out in relief.

"Oooh... I'd love to dance with you," Trixie whispered into her ear, moving to nibble on the end as she finished.

Twilight blushed hard, quickly looking around to see her friends encouraging and cheering the magician's flirty behavior on. "A-Alright, Trixie. I'm on a bit of a vacation, so let’s party as hard as we can," replied Twilight with a bashful grin. Pinkie Pie jumped and cheered in delight at the idea.

"Alright!" Trixie quickly pulled Twilight to the dance floor, and the alicorn was forced to leave her staff and garment with Dash. "I heard you're going to be training again. Please take it easy and don't overdo it," she said, "or involve Rainbow Dash and I in some kind of social experiment again," she added in a serious tone with a frown.

Twilight offered her an embarrassed laugh. "Is my Great and Powerful student concerned for me?" she asked playfully, steering the subject away from anything that might dampen the mood.

"Yes," she replied with a pout. "I really do worry about you, you know..." she added with a concerned look.

"I know," whispered Twilight, leaning closer, "and I worry about you, too," she added, leaning in for a kiss.

The magician closed her eyes and returned the kiss. This doesn't make up for the Everfree Forest. You still owe me for that, she thought, a sly smirk spreading as the two parted lips and joined hooves.

Chapter 9: Legacy of Grace

View Online

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 9: Legacy of Grace

Books danced in the air within the cocoon of Trixie's distinct blue telekinetic aura. She waved her hooves in a comical, emphatic manner while recounting her actions during the lonely down time in Ponyville. The apprentice enjoyed continuing her magic shows as a hobby now, rather than as a career path. Twilight smiled and nodded, enjoying the spirit of the display, always happy to assist her when they were together. As the night developed, she found herself ready to slip into the serious discussion she needed, even if Trixie's antics brought never-ending waves of pride and joy.

Trixie moved and shuffled her props around quickly and excitedly, unable to suppress her enthusiasm around her master. "...And then it was like,"--she clacked two of the books together--"and that was my grand finale!" she finished, and having all of the books spring open and flutter their pages simultaneously.

Twilight gave a cheerful clap, but inwardly cringed at the lack of care given to the reading material used. "Your magic shows are always the best, Trixie, and seem to grow in skill and elegance every time you do them. I'm happy you enjoy being such a devoted member of Ponyville's community now. I don't think it'll be that long before you're inducted into the royal court as an archmage yourself," replied Twilight while adding a boastful grin.

Trixie's ears perked up and her heart skipped a beat to the idea. Her stage name was still the more popular moniker for her, but Archmage sounded just as good for a new one. The weight of the title came bearing down upon her as she recalled how much more powerful and wise Twilight was when she received hers. The bitter memories that flowed back seemed like a silly anecdote to her now.

Drawing in a deep breath to collect herself, Trixie sat down and blushed while staring at her master. "Do... Do you really think I could?" she asked in wonder.

Twilight snatched the magician in her magic and pulled her into a hug, adding a gentle noogie with it. "Of course I do! You're my student and my recommendation has a lot of pull in the royal court. I know it won't be that long before you're ready, if you're not already," she said.

"Ohhh, I can't wait! Then I could be with you even more," Trixie squealed, daydreaming at the thought. "Wait," she said, stopping and blinking. She looked up to Twilight with curious eyes. "Won't I have to take on my own student?"

Twilight snickered and released her embrace. "Actually, no. It's completely optional. Celestia suggested I should do it and I thought it'd be a great opportunity to see you again, and..." Twilight blushed. "Well, you know. It couldn't have gone much better than I'd hoped."

Trixie giggled, then the shine of Telos caught her attention and she craned her neck to view the object. "Hey, you've been carrying that thing around for a while now. Is that a new staff?" she asked while pointing to it.

"This? Oh..." Twilight trailed off. This isn't too important to the mission, and I want... Hmm, why not? she thought.

"Trixie, allow me to introduce you--this is... Telos," she said as the staff moved to her and slowly rotated for a full inspection.

The magician's expression immediately lit up as she noticed Twilight's horn not emitting any magic. That design, the way it moves! All of the books she was levitating snapped shut and fell into a messy stack on a nearby table. "N-no way! That’s the Holy Wand of Telos? It’s actually real?" she cried in awe. "Oh my gosh, I can't believe my master is the master of Telos!" she continued to gush.

"Yes, it is. It's a gift for my... um... uh..." Twilight's eyes darted around the room as she attempted to come up with a reasonable explanation, "status," she finished with a doubtful sigh. "Perhaps some day it could even be yours," she mused aloud. The staff immediately transformed into a wand and sprinkled magical dust on top of Trixie that trickled down and disappeared in a small poof. Trixie squealed in delight at the demonstration nodding to her cutie mark. Telos resumed its inert appearance when it finished.

"Wow, that's amazing! What else can it do? I've only heard stories about it. Well, there are only stories to hear about it." Twilight found the magician to be overwhelmingly adorable to watch when she was excited about something, and she enjoyed the extra attention she now received, a playful smirk running across her lips.

"The wielder can will it into many forms and it will move on its own, without the help of magic, but it takes a lot of focus. That's enough for now, though," she said. "I have to bring up a more serious topic," she added. Her voice became much lower, hanging in the air just above a whisper. "Trixie, I know you will keep a secret for me, or for the good of all of Equestria. As such, I have asked Celestia and Luna for permission to reveal to you what is going to happen over the next few years," she explained, her words bringing a heavy atmosphere into the room. Trixie began to fidget, nervous at the sudden change in her master's demeanor.

Twilight stood up and Telos swiftly returned to her back. Her eyes closed, following with it a frightening calm. She opened her wings slowly through the melded duskweave. Trixie's eyes widened and she gasped, words escaping beyond her thoughts. She could only stare as the large wings spread from seemingly nowhere and expanded to match the wingspan of the princesses. Twilight turned to stare sadly at the stack of books on the table before continuing.

"In the next few years, the dragons are expected to declare war and attempt to overtake Equestria. I have... ascended into an alicorn and have been tasked, along with Rainbow Dash, to help stop this war as quickly as possible in a surgical strike. Telos was given to me to help with this, and I will be spending those next few years with Rainbow training in Canterlot. What I have shown you--my new body, my weapon--none of it, along with what I have said tonight, is to ever leave this conversation. Do you understand?" Twilight asked with a forced, hushed voice, turning to gaze into Trixie's shocked eyes.

The magician scanned her master's body several times during the long silence, processing all that she had just learned. "I... I... understand," she said finally, a meek voice being all she could muster.

Twilight's ears folded back and she placed a hoof on the magician's shoulder. "I know that this is so much to tell you all at once and I'm sorry for that. All of this was laid on me only just recently, and I'm still recovering from the ascension process. I came to visit my friends in Ponyville as well as to relax and finish resting up. However, I want you to come with me back to Canterlot permanently. I want you by my side through all of this..." she said, her tone almost begging the magician.

"Of course I'll come with you," exclaimed Trixie without a second thought. "Who do you think you're asking?"

"Please, Trixie, think this over. It's not going to be easy, and you can leave at any time you feel overwhelmed by any of it," whispered Twilight, moving closer to her.

Trixie could feel her breath on her face, and suddenly looked up with a confused expression. "Hey, did you get taller?" she asked while attempting to release some of the tension in the air.

"Yes, it’s from the transformation," Twilight answered swiftly.

There was long pause of silence as both mares thought. Twilight eyed Trixie up and down as she waited for an answer. Trixie stared into her eyes, already knowing what her heart wanted. Nothing would hold her back.

"I will follow you to the end of the world, Twilight Sparkle," she whispered back, a grin forming on her lips.

Twilight embraced Trixie once more and returned the gesture. "Friendship may be magic, but I’m sure love is something else entirely," she whispered into her ear through a smile. She wrapped her wings around her before Trixie nuzzled into the crook of her neck.

"I think just magic is good enough for me."

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"Ah, you've returned, my faithful knight," greeted Celestia to the arrival of Rainbow Dash, a powerful gale flowing into the castle behind her as she landed in a central corridor.

Dash nodded and saluted. "Thank you Princess, and thank you again for letting us have some time off to visit friends and family. It was nice to get to spend some time with them, especially with Scootaloo," she responded.

Twilight flashed into the castle several minutes later holding Trixie as she stood on her hind legs. Setting her down gently, she returned to a casual stance and her cloak dropped down to cover most her body again. The height difference between them was slightly more noticeable as Twilight bore a proud stance.

"Sorry, we're late, Celestia. I've brought along another companion to join us, as I've requested as well," she said. Dash cocked an eyebrow to her.

"But I thought you said-"

"Casual appearance, Rainbow," the archmage interrupted.

"Don't worry about it. You've succeeded in convincing your protégé to come along after all, I see," said Celestia as she examined Trixie carefully. The magician brought her cape and hat and smiled back meekly, trying to maintain a worthy composure.

"H-Hello, Your Majesty," she said nervously, fastidiously adjusting her hat to perfection.

Celestia chuckled. "At ease, young apprentice. There is no need for formalities here. For example, has our new Princess, Twilight Sparkle, briefed you as to what is to come?” she asked teasingly.

Trixie snorted and Twilight gasped and blushed. "Uh, Celestia. I sort of left that stuff out..." she said in a hushed voice.

"Wait, so you're a princess now?" blurted out Trixie confusedly.

Twilight waved her forelegs in protest to the notion. "Shhh. No. Well... Technically yes, but still no. It's just because I'm an... alicorn now," she whispered. "And this mission is important, so they want to give me all of the privileges of one."

Trixie couldn't contain herself again and giggled. "Oh, so my master is that much more amazing," she teased, clasping her face with her front hooves and leaning against the faux princess.

Celestia cleared her throat loudly to get the attention of all three. "Yes, well. Twilight. While your training will exceed Trixie's maximum potential, you have all of the wisdom to train her in your hoofsteps as an archmage. She will follow along as best she can with you and Knight Dash. Come, Lord Devon is awaiting you three in the courtyard." The sun princess motioned for them to follow.

“Hey, who’s Lord Devon?” whispered Trixie, holding a foreleg to one side of her mouth as she spoke.

Twilight loosed an aggravated groan. “I’ll let you know if I ever find that out myself." Trixie raised an eyebrow as she followed along, replying with a confused, "What?"

The trio strode through the castle to a more privatized courtyard within. It wasn't something often seen in a typical tour, most of its usage coming from officials and noble scholars wishing for a place for private study or peaceful meditation. The stone path cut to an open area with well-tended grass. As they arrived, Celestia bowed and departed to attend to her regal duties, chuckling to herself as she left them with the mysterious Devon. He stood as still as a statue with his back to them, enshrouded from head to hoof with a sandy robe, and the magical book chained once more to his side.

"Greetings. Shall we begin?" he asked without turning.

Dash rolled her eyes and Trixie raised an eyebrow when Twilight bowed. "Yes, Lord Devon. We're ready," Twilight said respectfully, straightening her posture.

Devon turned to speak to them directly this time. "Very well then. You will practice wielding Telos as you would any other staff. I want you to utilize it to exhaust yourself and understand the drain of the Great Magic you will use. Below Canterlot and to the north are empty fields. Flash freeze the land and then defrost it without damaging the plant life. Teleport there and begin at once. I will watch over you and intervene should you lose control your abilities." His voice seemed faintly concerned as his eyes shifted between the three ponies.

"As for Apprentice Lulamoon and Commander Dash, they will remain here in the meantime and meditate in this courtyard," he stated.

With another bow Twilight vanished within a small flash of light. Dash's face reflected her disappointment while Trixie showed a bit more enthusiasm, and a tinge of confusion.

The pegasus loosed a loud groan. "Really? Meditation? C'mon, that's so boring! What else could I possibly want to spend my afternoon doing?" Dash blurted sarcastically, earning a glare from Devon.

"Um, ok. But what exactly are we meditating on?" asked Trixie. "Unicorns usually have a focal point when meditating."

Devon's expression shifted to a small smile. "Indeed they do. Focus on expansion and nature. You are to feel and synchronize with the world around you, and find a calm within that. Trixie, your magic will allow you to directly interact with the natural world around you. Gather in the energy within the life here. It will be an unusual experience, but I will know when you have accomplished this when the grass begins to react. Lie down," he said while motioning with a hoof.

Dash folded her forelegs across her chest while Trixie laid down on the soft grass, shuffling into comfort and closing her eyes. She let her mind wander freely to distracting thoughts, slowly tuning out the rest of the world in that moment. She could feel nothing new or different at first, until she began focusing on the warmth of the sun upon her body. Soon she began to feel... Green? Huh? she wondered. Suddenly, she was overwhelmed by the sensations of many things at once. She could feel the grass around her bending to every tiny sweep of wind or draft, or the heat upon all of them receiving the sun's radiance at once. Every new feeling that joined came with the same intensity as the last. The feelings soon began to suffocate her mind and she broke the meditation with a start, jumping and gasping for air.

Devon smirked at her. "You truly are an archmage's apprentice. It usually takes much longer for unicorns to interact with the nature around them," he said, motioning to a few newly blooming flowers around her.

"That... was... incredible," panted Trixie. She looked around in awe and noticed the flowers that began to poke through the grass were perfectly encircling her. That nature-lover Fluttershy would really envy something like this.

"Keep at it. In time, you will learn to sense more than just the grass around you. This is an ability that takes years for most to fully develop, but it also increases your magical capacity and spell focus. Find that attunement to nature and maintain its calm, and do not lose yourself to the feelings of everything. Control them, understand them, but do not attempt to breathe life into the world," he said with a cautious inflection.

"I made the flowers bloom, didn't I? Why shouldn't I try to grow a garden or something?"

Devon's eyes lowered and he began in a heavier tone. "Look again." He motioned to the flowers having receded back into the earth. "Creation or restoration of life is not something that can be forced. In theory, it is possible, but the amount of magic necessary is implausibly irresponsible at best, catastrophically dangerous at worst."

"And I have to do the same thing as her? She said that was for unicorns," chimed Dash disdainfully.

"Your meditation goal is for a similar calm. You are brash and hotheaded, yet you are a great flier, better than many seen in a long time-"

"Wait a minute! Just how old are you?" interrupted the knight, crossing her forelegs across her chest.

"That is irrelevant," replied Devon impatiently. "Now, lie down and focus yourself. I want you to build upon your instincts. For example, imagine yourself flying within your mind. The crisp air against your face, the wind beneath your wings. You will learn to maneuver with skill and precision, even under extreme stress. But this is still training of the mind," he explained with slight doubt.

"Fine, fine," Dash grumbled, pushing her hooves outward. She laid down and closed her eyes, her search to find her inner calm beginning without a real sense of direction. This is going to be such a pain, she thought to herself.

After settling into the grass and getting comfortable, she began to daydream. Her mind wandered to blissful memories, like achieving her fillyhood dream of flying with the Wonderbolts, only she wasn't a filly anymore. Eventually, Celestia herself picked her to serve the kingdom as an elite soldier, with some help from her friends. She began to imagine flying at high speeds, performing all of her tricks and signature Sonic Rainboom. Lastly, she imagined flying around trees and racing through a forest, snaking between every trunk she could at high speeds with someone she cherished more than anything else in the world. Try to keep up! they teased.

"Hey... hey! Wake up! This isn't a time for napping, it's for meditating!" barked Devon as he smacked Dash awake.

The pegasus shook her head and batted the hoof away, groaning and rubbing the side of her face. "But I was meditating! What the hay, man!?" she yelled back, wiping drool from her mouth.

"I'll be assisting you this time since it's significantly more difficult for pegasi to meditate on a whim," he said before placing his hooves on her forehead. "Lie down and try to relax once more."

She laid back down while he sat beside her, his hooves remaining in place. He began to channel magic through her, a quiet buzz moving through her head, and she went silent with the calm that washed over her. Everything seemed as if it were engulfed in darkness, but every part of her body felt as free in it as she did when she took to the open skies. After a few moments of wandering, the world opened up to a new light and atmosphere. She had gained perfect control over the vividness of her imagination.

------------------------------------------------------

A large flash of light boomed in the northern fields below Canterlot, a gust of air sweeping the grass outward from its point of origin. Twilight appeared and stepped away from the transfer point, exhaling loudly, then taking in a deep breath of the fresh air. Telos orbited her as she strode further towards a center distance between Canterlot's mountain and the far edge of the empty field. The white staff shined in contrast to the alicorn's dark, ominous attire, and her lonely presence itself stood out of place among the sea of green. Flash freezing is easy enough. But thawing without damaging the flora... It can't be that hard... Twilight gulped, peering around. Can it?

Twilight's horn began with a furious glow, and Telos raised above the ground in front of her. The gem within the spire began to emit a deep blue and the force of the energy it channeled ruffled her cloak. The grass bent to an invisible stream of wind as the energy culminated into a spell.

Telos came slamming down to the ground. "SHIVA!" called out Twilight, and the ground froze instantly from beneath the staff, spreading outward in an expanding nova that coated all of the earth around. The spell cut through the surface and penetrated into the ground creating an icy permafrost. Twilight glanced around to the now-stilled fields in awe. So this is the power of Telos. It looks like I went overboard. She walked around slowly, the frozen grass crunching and breaking in the wake of distracted hoofsteps. A vague picture of a pony;s head had been lightly imprinted into the frost by the spell itself. The sudden freezing brought forth a drastic temperature change and the alicorn found herself shivering as a wandering gust swept through. She pulled her cloak down and against the wind, her teeth beginning to chatter.

How do I defrost this without destroying the land? Celestia could do that with the sun and enough time... Hmm. That gives me an idea...

She stopped and Telos rose much higher than before, remaining at the epicenter of where the frost began. With a thought, it began to glow orange and the temperature around rapidly escalated to a sweltering heat. The ice quickly began to melt, but the frozen plants were wilting the moment the layer of ice vanished. Come on... Lower the heat... she thought, shifting her efforts into gating the powerful amplification of Telos with delicate precision. The plants stopped wilting as the ice melted away from them. Success! she cheered inwardly, unknowingly beaming. The field returned with only mild loss of plant life. She breathed out in relief as the staff went silent and returned to her back.

Clapping rang up from behind the alicorn and she jumped, turning around quickly to see who could've arrived at the field without her knowledge. "Most impressive. You possess an extreme aptitude for magic, but your goal was to flash freeze it, and then flash thaw it," Devon said with a placid expression and even tone.

"I didn't even sense you," remarked Twilight in disbelief. "You're quite skilled for somepony I've never met... or heard of. Tell me, just who are you exactly?"

"Who I am is of no concern to you. I am to train you for your impending mission and nothing more." Devon coughed and adjusted the chain around his neck. "It seems you have a grasp on your new powers already, however weak it may be. An impressive shift in control to go along with manipulating the climate of a large area temporarily. Such work would not be so easily possible without Telos or your alicorn traits. Come, your student also has a high aptitude for nature as well." Devon motioned for her with a hoof and smiled.

Twilight stepped closer to him and teleported them both back to the private courtyard in Canterlot. The flash of light failed to startle the two ponies lying on the grass. Dash and Trixie were idly meditating when they returned. They each opened their eyes to calmly greet them.

"Well that was fast," said Dash with genuine surprise.

"That's a pretty interesting compliment coming from you," mocked Twilight, earning raspberries from the knight.

"Yeah, I have a feeling I'm going to be saying it a lot..." Dash mused aloud.

"Hey, Twilight! I never knew there was this magic where you could feel nature and communicate with it all around you," said Trixie, still mystified by her experiences. Twilight's brow arched as she studied her apprentice's face.

"Communication with nature is a rarely developed skill and most unicorns are never able to perform anything beyond a simple touch," explained Devon.

"Am I right to assume I will learn it as well?" asked Twilight.

Devon nodded and pointed next to Trixie. "Yes, yes. Go and join your apprentice. With her having a head start, I wonder who will be able to utilize it first," he pondered.

Twilight pursed her bottom lip before laying next to Trixie. Dash stood up and backed away to watch. Twilight's body emanated a faint green aura and the flowers from Trixie's interaction began to flourish once more beside ones surrounding Twilight herself.

"There are... 327 guards, 72 faculty--excluding us, and of course, the princesses," she said with her eyes closed. "I can feel... so much," she added with awe. The drain on her magic reserves was staggering. Scrying all of the castle personnel at once on her first attempt took excessive amounts of effort.

"Wow~! You never told me about any of this, Twilight," exclaimed Trixie, breaking her concentration.

Twilight opened her eyes and began panting, a few droplets of sweat running down the side of her face. "That's... the first time... I've ever done... anything like this," she managed confusedly between large breaths of air.

"I believe Telos and your alicorn traits are to thank for that. It would seem they've given you an alignment with the natural world." Devon smiled as he studied the grass. "It would also appear that we can skip that part of your training--for now."

"Can we take a break? I'd like to stretch my wings a bit, and maybe race Rainbow Dash," asked Twilight. Dash's ears immediately perked up to the idea, and she smirked.

Standing up and placing her forehooves to her hips, the pegasus stared at the alicorn with pride. "You think you can beat the Rainbow Dash in a race?" Twilight laughed and Trixie snorted.

"What better way to test them out than a race? But first, you must disguise yourself to the prying eyes of the world," said Devon. "We can't have a new alicorn suddenly appearing from Canterlot."

With a nod, Twilight's body color began to shift into a white, complete with a mark from the royal guard. The duskweave finished the transformation with the help of her magic and she appeared as a bleached pegasus, complete with a blue mane and tail. The new lightness of her horn would be difficult to see in the distance during the day, effectively becoming invisible.

"Let's go, Rainbow." Telos, watch over my student, she thought. The staff laid down beside Trixie as her master took to the air, her large white wings appearing as angelic as Celestia's.

"Alright, first one to Ponyville and back wins," yelled Dash as she accelerated up and away.

With a deep breath, Twilight raced after her, her wings beating hard to catch up. Flying at maximum speed felt unusual, but she was surprised she could initially keep up with Dash's restrained speed. The frequent flier caught her in a glance and sped up, though, and the alicorn began trailing behind several hundred yards by the time the pegasus reached Ponyville. Dash was taking the race as serious as any other and pushing her limits with her armor on. Twilight began to draft her as best as she could, but on the return trip, she ultimately fell too far behind to make any use of the technique.

The knight landed hard and skidded along an outdoor stone path at the castle. "Aww, yeah! Still the best flier in all of Equestria," she declared triumphantly, striking a pose.

Twilight dropped in behind her, panting and wiping sweat from her brow. "Even with your armor on you're still much faster than me with just a cloak." She took in deep breaths and exhaled slowly, closing her eyes and sucking in the cool air through her nose. "Thank you, Rainbow," she said as she shrugged a little. Her wings furled back up and disappeared within her coat as it returned to its vibrant purple.

They returned to the courtyard to find Trixie had continued meditating again, a few more flowers blooming in the ring around her. Several sweat drops ran down her face, but she kept her shut tight.

"Telos can amplify any user's magic, if you allow it. It seems that your student has tapped into its latent abilities somewhat," Devon said to Twilight.

"I feel... some of them. The ponies in the castle, just like Twilight did. This is... unbelievable," breathed the unicorn in astonishment. Telos boosted her abilities like a generator into accomplishing a much weaker sense of the world around her. Without the natural talent and new traits her master possessed, she could do no more.

Twilight laid down and began to feel out the world again. She was able to do so, even without Telos's assistance, but the feeling was fainter. She could sense everything as small glimmers within her mind, each radiating dependent on how powerful their presence was. Unicorns appeared much brighter than earth ponies and pegasi, with the princesses shining as bright as her first attempt; however, the drain on her magic without the help of Telos forced her to stop.

"Your magical capacity is far beyond that of any normal unicorn now. Do not feel so surprised when it runs dry, though," said Devon. "Here," he said, disconnecting the chain around his neck and taking the book in his hooves. "Some homework for you and your apprentice." He passed the book to Twilight who took it in her magic. "I'm sure two ponies such as yourselves will enjoy the knowledge within. Study it well and you will accomplish many great things. Let us retire for today. I believe you have made much progress for a single session already."

Twilight stared at the book, as if it was the gateway to a new dimension of magical enlightenment. An absentminded hoof slid across the cover, its perfect creation and enigmatic presence inciting feelings of wonder and awe. Devon stepped to her and placed a hoof over the cover, snapping the alicorn out of her trance. "Knowledge is power, Twilight Sparkle, Trixie Lulamoon. Do not abuse it." The alicorn and unicorn exchanged nervous glances.

The trio of students split up for the rest of the day, the knight resigning herself to other obligations while the magical ponies returned to their chambers. Twilight's luxurious room had been outfitted with everything the princesses had. Trixie insisted that she share a room with Twilight, despite being offered a quality one for herself as an archmage's apprentice previously. Celestia was kind enough to oblige and upgraded Twilight's to accommodate the additional unicorn's preferences and needs.

The door to the chambers silently swung open to a meticulously organized room. Eager to study the mysterious tome, both mares plopped onto the bed and began scanning through its contents as soon as they were settled in. Trixie lazily tossed her hat and cape onto the floor, much to Twilight's chagrin, and she magically hung all of their garments onto a rack.

They poured their focus into the pages, quickly finding interest in the varied topics. The cover read, Gifts of the Cosmos, and delved into unusual and advanced levels of magic, some neither had ever even heard of before. Concepts like theories of natural interaction, Holy magic, alicorn powers and traits, and spell combinations were the first to be noticed. It was the codex for any master mage to study through and through. Twilight marveled at what the book might actually contain, ready to learn.

"Wow, we're really going to be learning all of this stuff?" asked Trixie in disbelief.

"Maybe not all, but I'm definitely interested in the Holy magic. The power to heal..." she mumbled aloud.

"What about your teleportation ability? You're the only unicorn--now an alicorn--that I know of that could. Is there any information on that?" asked Trixie, her eyes trailing from the book, and then down Twilight's body.

"I don't know if that's something that can be taught. I don’t see it mentioned anywhere in here, and Devon made it sound like it was a rare innate skill. It's not going to be very helpful, though. I can’t teleport anywhere far that I haven’t already been to. The mission is going to take us to the Brood’s territory and we’ll be hoofing it. I've never seen it and a picture won't work," replied Twilight, slightly agitated at the sudden limitations of her gift.

Telos propped up beside the bed and provided light for them to read. The book's concepts and theses presented were difficult to understand at first, but they continued to read further along. Twilight started to absorb the fundamentals while Trixie attempted to understand them by bouncing questions off of Twilight. The cosmic magicks Celestia and Luna used to control the sun and moon were mentioned, though it said the ability was natural and could not be taught through any normal means. Normal means, huh? Does that mean it's still possible? With this book, I bet anything here is possible.

The better part of the night was spent perusing the Holy magic section. Twilight resolved to study it as hard as she could, the abilities themselves requiring copious amounts of magic to utilize. Unfortunately for her, she needed to understand the ability to combine elements seamlessly to realize the usage of them. The two mares spent the night studying and giving first attempts at the basics--or in their case, master-level techniques. Neither could come close to achieving any of the goals during the first night.

------------------------------------------------------

"Arise, young ladies, for it is the morning," said Luna to the sleeping mares with a cheerful tone.

Twilight fell asleep drooling on the book with Trixie laying over, and drooling on, her. Telos was idle across the bed beside them, no longer emitting any light. The voice cut through their dreams and they began to stir and awaken. With some yawning and moan-filled stretching, the pair of mares opened their eyes to Luna pulling back the curtains, glorious sunlight washing over the room. The new light was quickly deemed unwelcome by the refreshed eyes, and they groaned and raised their hooves over their faces.

"Oh, man. I haven't studied until I've crashed in months," Twilight muttered as she wiped her mouth.

Trixie took a bit longer to respond, standing and swaying as she yawned several more times. "That's," she started while magically reaching for a mane brush, "a pretty cool book. I guess we owe Devon one." She seized the brush as it wobbled in the air and pulled it to her, but Twilight's magic overtook it, prying it from her grasp and she set to brushing her mane and tail first, the magician frowning as she was forced to wait her turn.

"Come. Breakfast has already been prepared. There is also a matter that requires Apprentice Lulamoon's attention. I believe she will be most intrigued," said Luna as she wandered out of the room.

The pair exchanged confused glances. Trixie snatched the brush from Twilight's magic with her hoof and groomed herself manually, fearing the alicorn might steal it again were she to let go. "I need to look my best, you know. You have all the credit and respect." She stuck her tongue out at Twilight, but the alicorn only giggled and kissed her on the cheek.

As they departed their chambers, Twilight slid the book beneath her cloak and straightened it. Telos moved to perch on her back once she finished. Trixie donned a more typical archmage's cloak instead of her usual, starry magician's garb. When Twilight gave her a surprised look, she stared back and offered an indignant, "What?"

The alicorn shook her head and stretched her wings before leaving. The trip to the dining hall was filled with laughter and playful shoving between the mares. When they arrived just outside of the hall, they straightened and recomposed themselves before entering, Trixie resisting the urge to make her better half falter in the process.

They arrived at the breakfast table to find Rainbow Dash, Devon and the princesses already dining on one end. Breakfast itself was uneventful, the party eating from the usual array of top quality delicacies, but Twilight noticed that Devon did not eat anything at all. She attempted to offer him food, to which he passed upon and said he wasn't hungry. Afterwards, he would follow up with furthering small talk among them.

Celestia stood up and cleared her throat, wiping her mouth with a napkin. "I'd like all of you to accompany me to the throne room today. There is something I'd like to discuss with your apprentice there," she said while looking at Twilight. Trixie began to fidget uncomfortably when Celestia's unreadable gaze fell upon her.

"What is it?" asked Twilight, casting a quick glance to her apprentice.

Celestia shook her head. "We will discuss it in the throne room only," she repeated with the same tone.

The princesses took the lead to the throne with Devon following directly behind. Twilight, Trixie, and Dash trailed behind, with the magician threatening to hyperventilate. "What do you think is happening?" she asked in a hushed voice to the others.

"I don't know, Trixie. Is there something you've done that would make you worry?" whispered back Twilight. The question brought a small sense of ease to her as she thought it through.

"Well, no--"

"Hey, are you two going to screw around all day?" Dash interrupted, a motioning hoof the throne doors hooking their attention. The princesses had already gone in, and Dash shook her head before following after, the sound of her armor punctuating her impatience.

"Trixie, if you haven't done anything you should worry about, you'll be fine. I'm sure it's nothing bad," consoled Twilight.

The magician nodded. "You're right. It's probably just nothing," she said, adding a nervous laugh to the end of it. As the mares entered the throne, they saw the magi council and Dash lined up near the throne, all watching Trixie as she entered. Twilight resisted the urge to crack a grin while Trixie resisted the urge to bolt for the door in a sudden, unfamiliar bout of stage fright.

"Trixie," started Celestia, straightening her stance to look as regal as possible. "The Magi Council, Luna and I feel as though you are ready to bear the title,"--Trixie gave a vain attempt at suppressing a squeal of delight--"of Archmage, though your ceremony must be put on hold for the time being." The magician's sunny expression cracked slightly, but she was still overwhelmed with a grin. "As you know, this isn't a decision that is made lightly and requires an eighty percent vote, as well as the approval of Princess Luna and I. To help this along, you have also come with Archmage Twilight Sparkle's highest recommendation, and despite being her apprentice, we trust her evaluation is unbiased and fair, and that holds significant merit."

Twilight beamed her congratulations to Trixie, but the magician still wasn't quite ready to speak. “From this day forward, I may proudly endow you with the title of Archmage... should you accept that is," Celestia said, her last words coming out in a casual teasing manner.

Trixie stared at her shaking hooves, unable to believe what she heard. I'm being promoted... she thought, to my master's level! She whirled around and latched on to Twilight, squeezing her as tight as she could and picking her up off the floor, though threatening to fall backwards from her new weight.

"Hey, put me down," Twilight protested as she was twirled around and ignored at the same time.

"Well, Apprentice Lulamoon?" interrupted Luna. "You must verbally accept before you can officially be recorded as an archmage."

"I-I accept, Your M-Majesty," she stammered, releasing her master and kneeling down as graciously as she could in a single motion. Her body still trembled and she was ready to collapse from the shock.

Celestia nodded and smiled warmly. "Then I hereby declare you 'Archmage' Trixie Lulamoon." Applause filled the air from the counsel, and Twilight playfully tugged Trixie's cowl down over her face. "You will need to acquire a staff of your own now," added Celestia, "as all archmagi are to bear one."

“Congrats, Trix!” chimed in Dash with a smirk, trotting down to roughly pat the newest archmage on the back.

Trixie leaned close and whispered, "If you call me Trix again, I will end you." Dash stuck her tongue out, earning an aggravated glare from the magician.

"We're all very proud of you, Trixie," chimed in Luna, if only to prevent the two mares from beating each other down in the throne room.

"Not to worry. I've already gotten her a staff," said Twilight in response to Celestia, ignoring the hushed disagreement. She turned to Trixie and met her now-piqued expression. "It's nothing like mine, but it served me well and will do just fine for you."

Twilight vanished for a moment and left her former apprentice confused. Upon reappearing seconds later, she was holding out her gift. The staff was wrapped in a black cloth with Trixie’s cutie mark embroidered into the middle. Trixie immediately levitated it into her own hooves, one of them distractedly running itself over the cutie mark. As she set to unwrapping it, she gasped and her eyes lit up as a metallic green staff began to come into view. It was similar in design to Telos's idle state, though it lacked many details of the artifact, and its spire did not bear any pieces that magically gyrated around it. She squealed in delight and hugged her master, the staff becoming sandwiched between them.

"Thank you, Twilight!"

"Now what kind of mentor would I be if I never got you anything, especially your very own staff on your inauguration as an Archmage?" Trixie pulled away and shot her an incredulous look.

"Did you know about this, or did you just have that staff prepared in case?"

Twilight rolled her eyes and beamed innocently, adding, "Just in case."

"Archmage Lulamoon," interjected Luna. "You will continue pursuing your current studies and we will hold a ceremony for you in due time. We have great expectations of you, so do not hesitate in furthering yourself beyond what you are now."

Celestia nodded. "Indeed. Now, why don’t you three go and celebrate a bit on your own? Take the day off to enjoy these moments."

Dash gave a hoof pump. "Aww, yeah!" she added, and the trio of mares trotted out of the throne, eager to party the day away.

Leaving the castle, Trixie was a huge ball of energy, constantly dancing around, hugging her gift, and excitedly recounting the of the events that had just transpired, despite her friends having been in the same room watching the entire time. As they wandered about the city discussing where they would celebrate, Twilight left the decision to the newest archmage.

"Anywhere I want?" asked Trixie, a sly smirk spreading across her face.

"Anywhere you want," echoed Twilight while following Trixie's glance.

"To the city plaza," she announced with comical determination as she pointed a hoof in a seemingly random directly.

Twilight arched a brow. "Really? You've just been given the highest and most prestigious position a combat-active unicorn can achieve and your idea of a celebration is a magic show you host?" Dash rolled her eyes and tried not to laugh.

Trixie gave an intentionally overdone whine. "But Twiiiliiiight. We can drink to celebrate afterwards, I promise," she said with the whine still lining her voice.

Twilight snorted and shook her head. "Alright, I can't wait to see what you can do now, though. You better not disappoint." She cracked a grin and quickly rubbed Trixie's head, ruffling her mane. The magician grumbled and straightened it before leading them onward.

They made their way to central Canterlot where the largest crowd of ponies would be moving about at any given time of the day. To Twilight's surprise, the area was lacking in space due to the sheer amount of ponies there were there so early in the day. Trixie took to a large fountain's edge and began barking and boasting her skills, her preceding reputation drawing in many that were already familiar with her name. Dash visibly gagged and all eyes settled onto Trixie. She smirked and began her show, her own eyes focusing on Twilight every chance she could confidently peel herself from a practiced display.

Each movement of her hooves weaved more intricately a vivid display of her magician's abilities, her showmareship forever unmatched and the help of her new staff amplified the potential within her work. Fireworks had become a thing of the past, and her new shows were composed of breathtaking creations of light, spectral imagery, and visual distortion. Twilight smiled through the entire show, occasionally winking in an attempt to throw the magician off her game. As the show began to wind down, the crowd broke into an uproar of cheers, whistles, and praise. A random fan even shouted a marriage proposal to which Twilight nervously laughed off when Dash broke into a fit of laughter.

Trixie bowed several times and left the fountain's edge to rejoin her friends. The party of three settled on a nearby bar to more appropriately celebrate away their free day. It didn't take long before Trixie attempted to flaunt her new title in an effort to acquire free drinks, but the bartender refused, citing that she had to pay "like any other privileged citizen," much to the magician's chagrin.

"Ya know... It's not entirely fair of you guys to drink in front of me, what with me being the Captain of the Royal Guard and all," said Dash sarcastically aloud.

Twilight scoffed and smacked a hoof lightly to her forehead. "Given that you're a Celestial Knight, and not a Captain anymore, you've already forfeited your captain's responsibilities to another pony when you accepted your promotion. That, and you're drinking anyway, you silly filly. I don't think there's anything unfair about it at all," Twilight countered before downing a shot of cider.

"That's-! But..." pouted Dash, her ears drooping as she took a gulp of a particularly frothy beverage of choice.

"Oh, lighten up, Rainbow. I'm only joking. You're a pretty lazy knight that tries to bend the rules anyway," Twilight added before taking another shot.

"You're not helping..." the knight added again with a downcast look.

The trio continued drinking into the evening before they finally decided they'd had enough. As they staggered across the streets of Canterlot towards the castle, slurring and joking about, they were hustled along by an occasional city guard, eager to dump the drunken ponies on someone else's watch lest they need to clean up a mess of vomit. The constant stumbles and occasional word salad made them an amusing spectacle for ponies out taking an evening stroll.

"Yah know..." began Twilight aloud. "That Devon iz a shtrange one. I think he'z hidin’ somethiiiiin’," she slurred, wobbling back and forth with each precarious step.

"Well... his timing is most... untimely," was all Trixie could contribute, her inebriation hindering her vocabulary. "I sound like Rarity," she added with a giggle.

"Whatever. C'mon, let's get back home before one of you passes out out here. We'll find out who he is eventually," said Dash, demonstrating a better grasp of her liquor.

Despite Twilight's heavy intoxication, she still couldn't help but dwell on the strangeness of the pony known as Lord Devon. Something about him felt vaguely familiar now, yet there were no clues as to who he was before the day of his first appearance. She pursed her lips and reminisced on his presence as a magic user. Empty, she thought.

She cast a hazy glance up to the moon, its white beauty full and charming. "You better keep look'n!" she shouted to it, earning more surprised and confused stares from the ponies nearby. She wasn't sure if Luna could use it to observe or not, but her drunken mind wanted to amuse the moon princess if she could.

------------------------------------------------------

"Dear sister, why did we not present Trixie Lulamoon with an archmage's ceremony? All of the appropriate counsel were summoned, even if its grandeur was not of Twilight Sparkle's or any other mage's own ceremony," said Luna, her eyes laying incredulously over her sister's. She paced slowly around Celestia's chambers, spending as much time with her eyes upon her as she could. A quaint blaze was dancing in the fireplace nearby, the only other source of light besides Celestia's horn illuminating a piece of parchment she was writing upon.

"Don't worry, Luna. Just her promotion is enough for now. I want them to feel at ease, and I don't need the extra paperwork of signing off on things she would normally require permission to access." Celestia sighed when Luna's expression remained unchanged. "There is no need for a full ceremony, but I do plan to give her one when I feel its secrecy no longer matters. Give it time," she added while continuing absentminded writing.

Luna stopped pacing and stood adjacent to her sister, staring at her back. "Will you be informing Twilight of who Lord Devon truly is?"

Celestia turned to speak to her sister, the dark mare's mane shifting ominously over her eyes every few seconds. "No. It's..." She hesitated for a moment. "It's not important. And I don't want to disappoint her." Luna appeared satisfied and moved to take a seat upon a rug drawn in front of the fireplace, Celestia returning to her writing.

"That old tome was a nice touch. Was that your subtle method of apologizing to her in advance for keeping his identity from her?" Luna asked, staring into the fire. The burning logs within crackled and occasionally spat embers among themselves.

"Something like that, I suppose. Again, I don't want to disappoint her, but it's unavoidable. When she finally learns she will understand, I hope."

"I would like to think he was an old friend of ours. Are you alright with passing such a noble legacy on, even at the risk of its dangerous potential?" Luna turned back and met Celestia's thoughtful look. The magic-grasped quill on the note ceased as their eyes met.

"Don't worry, Luna. It's in capable, trustworthy hooves. She will need it, especially if she's to battle the Brood's royal guard. I'm afraid she might not be able to accomplish the assassination without it." Celestia's heart sank beneath her own, brutal truth. There was a long silence between the two, and the sun princess wanted to look away from her sister, but the penetrating eyes of the dark mare hungered for more answers.

"Are you--we--to teach or forbid her of the usage of her other ascension? Even before she was an alicorn, she possessed the power, and the danger. I fear she will not be able to control it..." Luna looked back to the fire, the burning flames reminding yet calming her of a distant memory.

Celestia sighed as she quickly finished the last of her writing. Magically rolling up the scroll and stashing it within her desk, she rose and moved to face her sister.

"Luna, I understand your fears, but you must have more faith in Twilight," she began with a soft voice. "I will personally ensure she knows how to use it and control it, should the need ever arise. I know it's overwhelming even for the strongest and most level-headed unicorns. We will never forget how the Moon Lord succumbed to such terrible power. I believe in Twilight. Please believe in her as well."

"Alright, sister. Thank you, but I will be assisting you with that part of her training." She loosed a quiet yawn and smiled. "I look forward to teaching her of how to utilize the moon, and you the radiance of the sun."

Celestia let her eyes roam to the fire as her sister rose and began to head for the door. "Do you think this is the right path?" she asked suddenly. Luna froze and turned around, her sister prying herself from the fire to meet her eyes once more. "Was it wrong to lay this upon Twilight in our stead? It is... not the first time we have done this, but this is... the one time I wish we did not."

Luna stared at her blankly for a long while, formulating her answer from opinions, experience, and her moral compass. She tilted her head up to the ceiling and sighed. "I am here for her regardless of the path she now walks. Perhaps fate will guide us, or perhaps she will write a better destiny than even we can dare foresee. That," she said, tilting her back to her sister, "is my faith in her," she finished earnestly.

Celestia smiled, a tear welling in her right eye. "Thank you," she whispered before Luna left, the door closing quietly in her wake. Thank you.

Chapter 10: Dissonance in the Heart

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The Quiet Place
By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 10: Dissonance in the Heart

The sound of chirping birds lashed into the dreaming mind of Twilight, prompting her to awaken with a grouchy look. As the realm of loose fantasy faded into the sharpness of reality, she sat up and scratched at the back of her head. The birds continued their songs, but as she shifted into the land of the alert, she found it much easier to bear, especially when a comfortable breeze swept through the room. She glanced to her left to see the balcony door wide open, her better half wearing her cloak without the cowl idly sitting in the morning daylight. Her cloak swept beneath the wind and she tilted her head back, rising to a standing position.

Yawning with the ferocity of an angry beaver, Twilight crawled out of bed to meet the other mare on the balcony. As she quietly stepped up beside her, her eyes still half-lidded, she took in the breathtaking scenery, complimented by the high sun. "It's a beautiful day for your ceremony, Trixie," she said while opening her adjusting eyes more and admiring Canterlot's sophisticated architecture from the vantage point.

Trixie dropped down to sitting once more and leaned her head into the crook of Twilight's neck, the action being reciprocated by the slightly taller alicorn. Twilight spread her right wing over the magician and smiled to nothing in particular. "Canterlot is beautiful," echoed Trixie before turning Twilight. "But I think it pales in comparison to you."

Twilight's smile expanded and she took in the scent of Trixie in a deep breath, the smell raising her spirits as nostalgia of every moment together flickered by in faint images. "It's days like these that I forget why we've worked so hard training these past few years."

Trixie pulled away and shot Twilight a sarcastic look. "The alicorn's trying is Trixie's half-flanking," she joked. She kissed Twilight on the cheek and went back inside. The alicorn remained on the balcony for a minute longer, quickly concealing her wings within the duskweave as a patrolling pegasus guard passed by not far below her. "Come on," Trixie called from the bed. "We've got a little... time to ourselves," she added seductively, waggling her tail to enhance the invitation.

Twilight chuckled as she made her way back to the bed. Despite her disheveled mane and tail, she remained as sexy to Trixie as she always had. "Oooh. Frisky in the morning, eh?" Twilight closed the balcony door behind her and drew the curtains over the windows. "Are we going to be late to the ceremony?" she asked innocently.

Trixie pulled the alicorn down to the bed on top of her and grinned, leaning up to her mouth. "I hope so," she whispered before planting a kiss on her lips.

***

THUMP, THUMP, THUMP, THUMP

Rainbow Dash furiously pounded on the thick oak door to Twilight and Trixie's chambers, her armor lightly echoing behind the knocks. "Hey! Hey! Are you guys even up yet? The ceremony is in an hour!" she shouted at the door. Passing castle staff offered her looks ranging from sympathy to annoyance at her lack of subtlety, but the pegasus ignored them, intent on ensuring they arrived on time. After a few more knocks, she called one more time, "I'm coming back in thirty minutes."

A sudden gust of air flowed through the castle ruffling manes, tails, clothes, and tapestries hanging along the walls or from high ceilings. "They're probably celebrating. You know... in their own way." Dash spun around on her hind hooves in surprise, but her expression brightened immediately at recognition of the voice.

"H-hey, Derpy! You startled me," she blurted unsteadily. The grey pegasus was casually leaning against the opposite wall in all of her armor, nonchalantly looking at the edge of her right hoof. She wasn't wearing a helmet, but her tower shield was resting evenly on her back and hiding her sword. It wasn't until Dash had begun moving towards her that she looked up.

"You don't really think they're--" Dash cut herself off when Derpy gave her a disbelieving stare. "You know what, never mind."

Derpy quickly glanced down the corridors, ensuring that there was no one within earshot. She moved away from the wall and stepped up to Rainbow Dash to whisper in her ear. "You know..." she started in a seductive voice, prompting the cyan pegasus to blush hard. "We could do the same kind of... celebrating back in my room."

Dash lost all composure and began to sputter non-answers incoherently. Derpy circled by her again, brushing her tail up against Dash's face. "I-I... d-don't know," she squeaked out, her blush deepening as a servant walked by. The grey pegasus circled the knight a few more times, wooing her into submission when another pegasus stormed into the corridor. Both knights paused, with Dash threatening to pass out, her cheeks bearing most of the blood in her body at that moment.

"Paladin Hooves. Your presence is required by Her Majesty, Celestia, immediately," the pegasus announced, a younger stallion bearing standard armor. He procured a scroll from his breastplate and handed it to Derpy. She quickly unfurled and scanned it, then crumpled it up and tucked it away.

Derpy loosed a long, aggravated sigh and rolled her eyes. She turned to her charmed victim and giggled. "Hey, Dashie. It looks like I'm needed for something right now. We can, you know, celebrate when I get back," she cooed, adding a wink.

As soon as the stallion turned to leave, a rush of wind flowed through the corridor once more, ruining his balance and threatening to crash him into a wall. "The hay was that?" he asked aloud, looking around and seeing that it was just Rainbow Dash in the corridor before shrugging and flying away.

Dash continued swaying until the creak of Twilight's door pulled her back into focus. She whirled around and instinctively threw up a practiced salute, her face still reddened by Derpy's antics. When the alicorn burst out laughing, Dash frowned and dropped her hoof. "Nice blush, Rainbow. I guess you weren't the only one having some fun," Twilight teased.

The pegasus gagged and glared at her. "As if. You guys better not be late to the ceremony."

Trixie poked her head out of the door below Twilight's, also breaking into laughter at the knight's lack of composure or usual tough demeanor. "Late to my own ceremony? Dashie, you really shouldn't be giving advice. It looks like you are the one trying to find an excuse to be late to my ceremony," she added in.

Dash huffed and flew away, "Yeah, whatever," echoing down the hall behind her as she disappeared.

The two mares in the doorway way fell into a giggling heap, Twilight atop Trixie. "Did you see the look on her face?" Trixie said first. "She's totally got the hots for somepony."

"I wonder who," mused Twilight.

***

Twilight entered the throne room wearing a new dark blue cloak, Telos silently idling beneath it. She breathed in relief at being punctual to Trixie's archmage ceremony, the last minute personal activity threatening to make her and Trixie both tardy. The room was lit gloriously by the sun's radiance and the ceremony summoned a proper attendance this time. Most of the officials and upper class ponies had little to no affiliation with Trixie, but felt obligated to make an appearance anyway.

Trixie stood just inside the throne with her own cloak on, nervously pawing at the red carpet while casual discussions filled the air around her. Her eyes occasionally shifted up to glance at the princesses at the throne beneath her cowl, their attention pulled to a few guards and other archmagi near them. Her heart began to race each time they glimpsed her. "Ohhh... hurry up, Twilight," she muttered nervously to herself.

"Yeah, she better hurry up," echoed Twilight teasingly, and prompting the magician to turn and hug her. "I wouldn't miss this for the world, Trixie."

"Thank you." Trixie wanted to snuggle into her master's neck, but the pending ceremony kept her desires at bay. "They're about to begin. I don't have a speech prepared or anything. What should I do? What should I say?"

Twilight smiled and pulled her cowl off. "You should relax. Share your experiences and wisdom. That's what I did." She winked and Trixie eased up for a moment.

"You're right. This is just stage fright," Trixie assured herself. "I've done this a hundred times before."

Twilight patted her on the head. "That's the spirit."

Luna cleared her throat loudly and bellowed. "Your attention, everypony. We will now begin the inauguration ceremony for Trixie Lulamoon." At the reverberation of her voice, all discussion ceased to a few lingering murmurs and whispers among the audience.

The opening speeches from those who felt obligated to give one came off as generic, with Chancellor Leo's sounding particularly rehearsed. Twilight stood to the side, leaving Trixie as the last one standing on the pony-lined carpet. The magician bit her lip, inwardly groaning at the sheer amount of time it took for all of them to offer words of congratulations and praise, or just how many times the same thing could be reworded between the upper-class ponies. The archmages took turns offering a bite of wisdom, until it was Twilight's turn.

The hidden alicorn moved to stand at the throne between the princesses, clearing her throat and casting a faint smile to the crowd. "I remember the day Princess Celestia accepted me as her very own protégé," she began, turning to glimpse her face. "I was only a filly who hadn't even gotten her cutie mark yet, but lost control of my magic. Celestia saw the potential within me and trained me, always reminding me that the same potential could be in any unicorn, even any one of you here."

The crowd shifted with a few intrigued whispers being exchanged by some of the unicorns, a better show of interest than any of the previous speeches. Trixie perked up as she reveled in the words. "The unicorn you see before you was not one who would initially seem like they'd have had such a potential in the them,"--Trixie frowned--"but I could see it. The potential to shape our own destiny exists within us all, regardless of race." Twilight cast a glance to both princesses, and a sidelong one to the quiet Devon.

"I have never experienced as much joy in teaching and learning than with my own apprentice, watching her learn, watching her grow. She showed me the same passion for knowledge, and after today, will now be an official Archmage herself." The crowd began an applause, some on the floor, some clapping their forehooves. "She is a shining example of the potential within us all." As she bowed, the applause grew louder and there was a cheering that erupted with it.

"A truly wonderful speech, Twilight," whispered Celestia.

"May your words forever kindle that spark, Twilight," added Luna.

Twilight blushed and lightly pawed at her cheek. "Thanks, you two. I'm going to go congratulate her myself." The princesses nodded and Twilight took two steps before a distant roar spilled into the throne. The entire audience fell to absolute silence, all eyes darting to the door with an intense fear. "No..." muttered Twilight. "Please..." Her heart thumped inside of her chest as they waited, all praying that such a sound was the mere work of a prankster having snuck into the castle.

After an agonizing moment of silence, some of the ponies began to relax and whisper amongst themselves, the ones on the throne continued to watch the entrance. A pegasus guard clambered in and tripped, falling unceremoniously beside Trixie. As quickly as he hit the floor he had risen back to standing, a swift salute following. "P-Princesses!" he trilled. "Dragons! They're attacking the city!"

Twilight closed her eyes, Trixie looking to her, and Rainbow Dash shrugging her armor. "Damn..." Dash muttered. "I was really hoping it wouldn't be today."

Celestia stepped forward and stomped a hoof, the sound magically amplified through her now-shining horn. "Everypony, follow evacuation procedure at once," she boomed. "The Brood has initiated war upon Equestria. Canterlot is now officially a war zone."

Luna bared her teeth in anger as she watched the ponies swarm out with the assistance of guards hustling them down the proper corridors. When the throne emptied, only Twilight, Trixie, Rainbow Dash, Devon, the princesses, and seven archmagi remained. Devon stepped up beside Celestia and tugged back his cowl slightly. "It is time."

"We can never repay what you for what you have done for us, Telos," said Celestia in a softer tone. Twilight, Trixie, and Dash loosed a confused, "What?" in unison.

"May that spark be your salvation," he said aloud before vanishing and flowing into Twilight's staff. The hidden alicorn took a step back in surprise.

"That was Telos? Then--!?"

"There is no time, Twilight. You must leave at once, before they arrive. They will be coming for Luna and I." Celestia put a hoof to her head, the gravity of the situation now bearing down upon her. "He was only a memory left within the staff, much of his knowledge intact. Nothing more." Twilight's heart continued to accelerate. "GO!" shouted Celestia louder than intended.

Twilight didn't flinch and her heart began to slow back down. "I'm... sorry," she apologized suddenly. "We'll get out in the chaos."

"Good luck, Twilight," Luna added as Rainbow Dash and Trixie gathered beside her.

The princesses stepped further away and Twilight began her group teleportation. An alchemic rune formed beneath them. As the blinding flash shifted them into another location, Twilight cast one last glance to Celestia. Never forget, she thought.

I won't. Celestia's voice played clearly through her head as if she were speaking directly to her.

After they vanished in a flash, Celestia magically removed her crown and rubbed her temples, resetting it and taking on a determined expression. "I hope this works."

Luna placed a gentle hoof to her sister's shoulder and gave a reassuring nod. "Remain faithful, sister."

Everything we've prepared for is finally happening, just as predicted. Go now, Twilight. You now bear everyone's burden. Forgive me for asking you to do this... Celestia prayed silently.

"We had not originally planned for Trixie's aid. Do you think we should have asked her to remain here in Canterlot's defense?" Luna asked, her tone laced with doubt.

Celestia shook her head, her eyes remaining on the throne's entrance. "She became too involved the moment Twilight opened up to her. Were the Brood to find out she was linked to her, they would not hesitate to break her." She unleashed a slow sigh and met Luna's gaze. "Twilight would never allow them to harm her."

Luna looked to the floor for a moment, hesitating with her next words. "Her ascension. When she was first given Telos. I cannot allay my fears of her befalling the greed hidden within power."

Celestia snorted, prompting Luna to look at her with confusion. "I would've thought by now that she'd have proven you wrong without a shadow of a doubt."

"The Moon Lord stains my conscious. You are right to trust her. It is too late to doubt her now."

"And we learned to take precautions. I am not afraid of her." Celestia shrugged her body and straightened her stance. "They're here."

The entrance to the throne room crashed open, the brick and debris spilling dusty clouds into the room. As the dust settled, the forms of three dragons appeared, cautiously eyeing the party before them. A red dragon larger than the others wore a chain, with two lieutenants, a blue and green, to his sides. The seven archmagi began coordinating spells and barriers between them while the princesses readied their magic.

"Allow us, Your Majesties," one of them said. "We will make short work of these three."

Celestia recognized the dragon leading the charge. "General Aurelius..." she seethed. "You would be the one to lead the attack on me."

Luna began to fidget, her rage barely contained as her horn began charging. "You would dare assault the crowns yourself? You underestimate us far too much."

Aurelius chuckled, a deep, rolling rumble of a laugh. "Too long has it been since we last clashed with words alone. You think I would not personally come to end your rule? I thought you knew me better than that." He gave a toothy grin and took a step forward. "We know how easily gods can fall with the right tools..."

"We shall see," retorted Celestia. "Magi!"

The seven unicorns took on an offensive formation, each of their channeling culminating into a powerful combination spell. Immediately, the blue dragon lieutenant to Aurelius's left, was struck down by a powerful burst of energy. The wall beside him shattered from the force, and he gave a final wail before his body fell in a slump against its remains. The other dragon gave a nervous glance to the corpse while Aurelius paid it no heed, his eyes focused only on the princesses.

The second lieutenant, a green dragon, charged the magi, his brute strength easily crashing through the barriers. With a mighty swipe, his claw crushed two of the magi into the floor, their bodies becoming limp. The other five seized their brethren's sacrifice as an opportunity and began to channel a freezing spell. The dragon thrashed and resisted, managing to incapacitate one more archmage before succumbing to the arcane frost. As the dragon's blood froze and his body turned to ice, one mage forcefully ripped a piece of the wall out and propelled it into the dragon's body. The crystalline form shattered, a magnificent display of shards cascading to the floor, the boom of broken glass reverberating throughout the throne room.

Aurelius grinned, raising his body slightly, but keeping his left claw on the ground. "My, my how powerful the archmagi have become. This generation of spellcasters is much stronger than the last," he observed aloud with feigned boredom. "That's not to say they won't amuse me... for what remains of their borrowed lives," he bellowed. The walls trembled with his words, but his voice failed to faze the ones standing defiantly before him.

Aurelius reeled back slightly while drawing in a great breath, then fell forward onto both hands and unleashed a rancid flame towards the throne. The archmagi moved to the center of the room and repelled the breath with an icy gale that spread it to the walls and ceiling. The frost and smoke obscured their view momentarily and Aurelius dove through the dispersing magic, propelling himself with his wings. His right claw reached forward and slammed down, missing as the four remaining mages split apart to dodge. He retracted his arm and his claw raked the floor, the red carpet shredding and the stone crumbling beneath his power.

The mages had begun to regroup, a pair already channeling a spell, but the other two were too far apart. Aurelius seized the advantage and snatched the nearest mage before he could act. He muttered a curse and the dragon crushed him in his cruel grip, an agonized scream filling the hall before he relinquished him. The princesses watched as the body hit the floor, the billowing of his robes and the thud being the only sounds following the cry.

"I will stand idle no longer!" bellowed Luna. Celestia's eyes narrowed, but she held her composure.

"Hold your magic, princess," returned one of the mages. Luna stared at him, then grimaced. "Should we fall, your magic should be sufficient in defeating him." Celestia nodded, her own disdain for the thought coloring her face.

Aurelius paused his assault and studied the three magi remaining. The pair of mages finished their spell and a powerful jolt of lightning rained down from the ceiling, striking the dragon on his back and charring his scales. He loosed a roar and staggered back several steps, a grin spreading on his face. The two magi left no room for a reprisal and hurled a flurry of bolts at the dragon. Their blasts filled the distance between them with smoke, and after expending a noticeable portion of magic, ceased the barrage.

When the smoke dispersed, Aurelius merely laughed, his body unscathed from the assault. The magi stared in disbelief as he recovered his lost ground without effort. "Truly more powerful than the previous ones. I must say, your knights are far more durable, though."

Aurelius charged the pair of magi that burned him, beating his wings and gaining momentum. They attempted to dodge, but their efforts came too late. The dragon slammed into the floor with all of his might, crushing one into the floor, and the wave of rubble from the impact burying the other. He raised himself up, wiping the smear of blood from his chest, and studied the final archmage with caution.

"A lone mage to stand before the might of all that is the Brood. How bold you are," he started, "yet, your bones shall break all the same," he finished with a subtle, sadistic glee.

The mage produced his staff and his horn began glowing a brilliant yellow. "You will regret this day, dragon!" he yelled back with all of his fury.

Aurelius chuckled and lowered himself down. "There isn't even a shred of terror in this one's entire being," he remarked as he let his eyes wander to the princesses, then back to the mage. "I commend your conviction," he finished in a heavy voice.

With the last of the archmage's energy, he summoned the same lightning bolt from before. The flash of light from the power blinded him momentarily. It touched down to the dragon's back again, aiming for the same spot, but it fizzled and vanished. No smoke appeared, a sign that it never reached its target.

"What the--!?" The mage stared, his wide-eyed, shocked expression glued to the dragon's arrogant grin. "There's no way you could've dispelled that!"

"Your magic is not strong enough to break this," Aurelius said. He grabbed his chain and rotated it around his neck, the large links banging together in a symphony of dread. Attached to the opposite side was an engraved stone bearing a strange glyph.

Luna stamped her hoof and shook her head. "A null-magic rune! Where did you get one?" she boomed.

"A truly wondrous artifact, but they are not without great sacrifice," Aurelius said casually. His gaze settled onto Luna and he grinned. "But you would know all about that, wouldn't you, Nightmare Moon?" he asked, punctuating the name with the shaking of his chain.

Luna lurched backwards, her mind flooding with memories she sought to forget. "How dare you," she snarled.

Aurelius began a slow march towards the throne. "Meek little princess of darkness... It's time I returned you to your former glory. But first I will crush all of your hopes." The last archmage barred his path again, his labored breath and weak horn glow announcing his fatigue. "Remove yourself from my sight, insect," Aurelius growled. He bat the archmage against the wall without any magical resistance, rendering him unconscious.

Aurelius put himself within range of the princesses. He loosed a large flame upon the throne and thrust his right claw forward. The flames obscured his view, but his strike connected with one of the alicorns. The force of his attack demolished the throne and the end of the rug ignited and began to burn its way back towards to the entrance.

After all of the flames cleared, he was struck in the back by a bolt of magic from Celestia. It burned, but the spells of the archmagi had been significantly more powerful. "Did you think I was so weak that you could attack me directly?" The princess was carrying her sister upon her back, a gash on her side bleeding moderately.

"Yes," Aurelius replied matter of fact. "However, I did not expect you to be this weak," his tone filled with genuine surprise. "It doesn't matter. Your sister is more than willing to sacrifice herself in your stead. It would seem that she never harbored the millennium of hatred I thought she would. Let us extract whatever little there may be, shall we?"

Aurelius slipped his thumb under the chain and rotated it another ninety degrees. A black gem came into view, appearing as a spec in his ruby red body. Dark smoke swirled from within the gem and Celestia's spine bristled as his hand grasped it. She gasped as she realized what was about to happen.

"Return to your true grace, Nightmare Moon," the dragon beckoned to Luna. He tore the gem from his chain and tossed it towards the princesses.

"NO!" Celestia cried, her eyes widening in terror. Luna slipped from her back and she began to form a barrier with all of her magic. The gem hit the floor and shattered, the black smoke flowing free into a sweeping fog. Celestia finished her barrier, but to no avail. The smoke flowed through it and past her, swirling around Luna.

She stared in horror, tears welling in her eyes as Luna was lifted from the floor, every part of her body darkening and reflecting the corruption of Nightmare Moon. The wound in her side closed, and as soon as her transformation was complete, the smoke vanished.

"L-Luna..." muttered Celestia, taking a step towards her, tear drops falling freely to the floor.

Nightmare Moon groggily opened her eyes. She glanced around in confusion before they settled on Celestia before her and Aurelius behind her by the ruined throne. Her sinister disposition began to return and she laughed. It soon grew into a cackle, an expression of pure joy marking all of her features.

"What luck!" she started. "My old friend, Aurelius, and my dear sister, Celestia. What a grand reunion for me!" she cried the moment she could collect herself. She clapped against the floor, further conveying her happiness.

The dragon began chuckling in tandem with the corrupted moon goddess, while Celestia pivoted to him, anger in her eyes and voice. "Aurelius! What have you done with my sister!?" she bellowed.

The dragon broke the laugh and pulled a piece of charred scales from his back and tossed it aside. "Forget your sister, Luna. Nightmare Moon is here to remind you of the darkness that truly is," he cooed.

Nightmare Moon broke back into a fit of giggles as she walked in a predatory circle around Celestia, her eyes openly mocking her. The light outside began to fade away and Celestia realized that the moon was overtaking the sun already, forcibly. The princess fought it, but she found herself drained and powerless against it. With every ounce of energy she poured into her efforts, the moon just seemed that much more overpowering. Her heart sank at the realization that eternal night was riding the coattails of the war.

"I'm afraid you won't be banishing me this time, sister," Nightmare Moon said softly, a feigned sympathy in her voice. Celestia growled and scowled at the evil Id. "Oh sister, don't be so hostile. We're family!"

"You are no sister of mine," retorted Celestia. She finished her words, but her blood froze in her veins, Nightmare Moon grinning as her expression panicked. I can't... feel the sun at all... Her mind and heart began racing over what had just happened, unable to come up with a logical explanation for any of it.

"Are you just now realizing it?" Nightmare Moon ducked down to look up at Celestia in a ridiculing way, rising back up as she spoke. "You cannot end this darkness so long as I draw breath. A small courtesy with the help of that nifty gemstone that was used to resurrect me," Nightmare Moon said into Celestia's ear. She continued pacing herself in a taunting circle around Celestia. "Don't worry, sister. Your pretty little sun is safely tucked away, forever. Why don't you accept the beautiful night as a consolation prize from the Brood on my behalf?"

Celestia stared out of one of the windows, her rage dying with the light of the sun. Eventide took over and she sighed, staring at the ground, lonely tears continuing to rain down. This... was never supposed to happen...

"Do not look so sad, sister," consoled Nightmare Moon. "You won't stop me with the Elements of Harmony a third time, though. I will make sure of that. In fact, I will allow them to live if you remain obedient and sit idly by and watch your world crumble to dust." She turned to Aurelius who met her eyes with curiosity. "I get to personally keep the Element of Magic for myself, as a contingency... and a pet." The dragon nodded.

Celestia's anger returned at the mention of Twilight. She wanted to strike Nightmare Moon, burn Aurelius with a spell, or anything to relieve herself of the overwhelming ire welling within her. She clenched her teeth until her jaw began to ache, and calmed herself beneath the veil of logic. I can't risk compromising Twilight, she reminded herself. "I... relent," she said in a solemn voice.

"What's that?" asked Nightmare Moon with feigned confusion.

"I said, 'I relent,'" she repeated disdainfully.

Nightmare Moon grinned. "I'm glad you've come around, sister. Now, let's fix up this dreadful place," she said looking around. "Dear sister, why do you get to have all of the fun?" she remarked while browsing the ruin left in Aurelius's wake.

------------------------------------------------------

A white light flashed beyond the castle walls, too small to steal the attention of a roaming dragon. The trio of heroes appeared just beyond the castle walls in an empty street. Dragons paid it no mind as it was too distant from any strategic point of attack, choosing to do battle with ponies instead. The ponies were instantly met with the roars of dragons, equally matched by the screams of terror and agony of the resisting soldiers, and bold civilians. The haunting cries of the ones already meeting the end of their fate pierced through their hearts, a guilt-laden knife to remind them what they fought for.

Trixie and Rainbow Dash looked to Twilight. She met their hollowed expressions with a nod and began creeping along the wall of the nearest building. She peeked around the first street and bit her lower lip. Several earth ponies and pegasi were fighting a one-sided battle against a green dragon. He toyed with them briefly, then snapped a pegasus out of the air, the crunch and gnash of his bones ending the others' will to fight. She grimaced as he laughed, and motioned for them to dash across the street while he was too distracted to notice.

They moved along several more corridors, making their way to the edge of the city between the castle wall and the buildings nearest it. When they made it to one of the final streets, they began a mad dash down the path, praying it remained devoid of anything to slow them, or remind them. As the buildings ran by them in a blurry smear, Twilight couldn't help but take in the ones in front of her. Some burned down on top of themselves while others were mere piles of rubble, a few door frames standing as monoliths of what had once been.

An average sized black dragon stormed over the cliff and into the city, slamming suddenly in front of the trio. Twilight skidded to a halt, blinking wide as she weighed her options. "What have we here?" the dragon asked. "Soldiers trying to desert their own capitol. How shameful. My, don't you look delicious," he added with a lick of his lips.

Twilight's body tensed and her cloak began to billow suddenly. Raising her staff, she glared at the dragon with his sealed fate reflecting in her eyes. Telos... "Mjollnir!" she cried. An enormous bolt of lighting clawed its way down from the sunny heavens and raked down the dragon's back for a few brief seconds. His eyes widened as it burned into him, his body too quickly damaged to leave a deathly wail. His body slumped to the ground, already lifeless.

"Twilight..." muttered Trixie as the alicorn refused to turn and look at them.

"Come on," said Twilight. "We have to get out of here before we end up fighting too many. I just hope they didn't notice that."

"Are you really just an Archmage?" Trixie asked with cautious awe.

Twilight forced herself from continuing to run further forward, finally turning to look at her friends. "Right now, I'm just a weapon to help end this war. I don't want you to look at me any differently than before, but... you're going to see me do things that I never want you to see," she said sadly. "But, I hope you'll always love me the same." Twilight put up a weak smile before motioning for them to follow.

They pressed on, huffing and puffing as the sun beat into them. Twilight and Trixie weren't used to sprinting long distances and the toll began to settle in. They heaved in their breaths, what little they offered for sustaining their speed, and prayed. Twilight grit her teeth when four dragons dropped down, barring their path once more. She cursed her choice of spells for disposing of the black dragon. A green, blue, and two red dragons studied them like vultures studying helpless prey, their confidence showing in their expressions.

"Dash, take the green, Trixie the blue. I'll get the two red."

Rainbow Dash ran several steps and leaped into flight, her hooves deftly brandishing an odd black longsword with a faded, smoky green design running up the blade. The green dragon took the challenge and launched into the air to begin the duel. Despite the added weight of her equipment, she maneuvered between his attacks and reprisals with ease. The dragon resorted to a putrid, burning breath as a quick end and she pushed produced her shield and flew through it, the designs melting away beneath the heat.

She breached the flames and barreled sideways while passing the dragon. A wide side swing with her spin's force added in sliced off the left wing, and she flew at a downward angle behind him while he fell to the ground. The disoriented beast roared and clawed at the air in a pointless attempt at catching the pegasus. She sighed and flew away, turning around and accelerating to high speeds. She held her sword forward, ducking beneath a final swipe, and sliced the dragon's head clean off. Blood splashed onto her face and spilled into the road, a large pool forming from the sheer amount. She wiped stray blots of blood off of her face as she watched her friends in their battles, silently debating whether to help.

Trixie began to demonstrate her new magical combat prowess as the blue dragon singled her out. She moved further back down the road to duel and the dragon flew up and blew a large, misty breath of frost her way. She manipulated a piece of the street into a wall in front of her, effectively blocking it. The frost breath coated the wall in a crystalline ice. Her horn shined brightly as she manually levitated her own staff. I hope this isn't too flashy... She conjured a storm cloud as quickly as possible to strike a wing. It appeared for several seconds and licked at one of the wings three times.

The cloud dispersed as quickly as it had appeared, and the dragon plummeted back to the ground. He groaned and began to charge her, ignoring everything else going on around him as a new rage took hold of his senses. Trixie leaped onto the wall and held her staff at the dragon, her lips moving in silence. As he neared, he pulled an arm back, prepared for the kill. As he stopped to push his weight into the attack, a summoning circle formed in front of him, his eyes widening in a start, and his will faltered. A meteor ripped forth and crashed into his face with tremendous force, the collision sending a ripple throughout the dragon's body. The size of the matter muffled his roar and he fell backwards, no longer moving. Trixie stood over his body, hesitating to ensure his death.

She glanced to Twilight as she took the air with the two red dragons. "I'd do anything for you..." she muttered, her hooves shaking as her staff returned to them. She clutched it tighter and closed her eyes, an icicle forming in front of her. I'm sorry. It impaled the dragon's neck, spurts of blood running into the streets. A shock ran through her and an image of Spike muddled her vision briefly. She stared at the draining blood for a moment, then pried herself away to look back to Twilight.

Twilight resolved not to expend any additional magic if she could help it. She knew their battle would likely attract reinforcements if they waited too much longer. With her thoughts, she willed Telos into a greatsword again and moved it into her hooves. She swung with all of her might as she passed by one of the dragons, the blade easily rending its stomach open. It roared in pain; an anguished cry that quickly lost volume as he fell to the ground, his guts escaping through the wound. As he hit the ground, he clutched his stomach, but it was already too late. A moment later his life faded from the world.

The second dragon immediately raised its guard, choosing to keep Twilight at as much of a distance as possible. He breathed at her and clawed with as much reach as he could. Twilight wasn't as fast or skilled as Rainbow Dash at flying, but a few minutes in the air with the dragons made her size advantage apparent. The large forms of the dragons made it difficult for them to hit her if she was careful; however, the constant sprays of breath made closing the distance difficult on her part.

As another breath began to flow towards her, she surrounded herself in an aura of cold and grunted as she flew into the inferno. Her blue-tinted form disappeared until she breached the flames unscathed, the dragon attempting to pull back in fear. The unexpected tactic proved to be fatal and she impaled the dragon with Telos. He refused to fall and swiped at Twilight. She narrowly avoided being struck out of the air and pulled away. The dragon howled, a cry that was mimicked by the hundreds more in the city.

Blood dripped from the wound he clutched, and Twilight began charging him again with all of the speed she could. Her horn shined and a gust of wind gave her a burst of speed for the last stretch of distance. She twirled and changed her trajectory to avoid an incoming swipe, closing the distance and striking at the neck. She loosed a battle cry and sawed through in a spray of blood. The sword cut through the bone and she watched as the head and body hit the ground with heavy thumps. She landed ahead of the violent conflict and wiped her face and Telos off on the end of her cloak while Trixie and Dash caught up to her position.

"Let's go," she said solemnly, Telos returning to its idle form and perching.

Wow, Twilight. That was amazing, thought Trixie, her eyes glued to Twilight during the last of the gallop to escape Canterlot's battlefield.

When they reached the edge, Twilight moved them into a building and teleported them below. She coughed and heaved, struggling with the drain of teleporting long distances with more than Trixie. As she reached the bottom, she closed her eyes and sucked in breaths of fresh air, and the rays of the sun to regenerate her magic. Suddenly the sunlight began to fade and she shrieked in surprise when the moon appeared with an early night.

"It... can't be..." she mumbled, stepping towards the moon. She fell to her knees, wide-eyed and threatening to cry, still fixated on the celestial object with disbelief. "N-no. That couldn't have happened." She struggled to breathe, the moon's presence inciting a feeling of dread and despair. "No... no, no, no..."

Dash cast a defeated look to the ground, and Trixie took it upon herself to get the answer. "What's going on Twilight? Why is it night already?" she asked in an unsteady tone.

Twilight wiped her eyes and looked at her. "I... don't know exactly. But Luna would never raise the moon when the sun is supposed to be out. This is bad..."

"Everything will be fine," chimed in Dash with some reassurance, but her voice betrayed her. The same fear lingered in her words, even if she couldn't hear it.

Twilight nodded and stood up, pulling her cowl down tight. "It's going to be cold for a while," she said in a steady tone. Celestia... what's happening? Her heart sank when there was no reply. She shivered involuntarily, not because of the cold, but because of the sudden loneliness. If Celestia couldn't answer, there was something happening beyond the original expectations.

The trio made their way to the Everfree Forest in subdued silence, save for a few suggestions or comments about what they should do at that point. As they passed Ponyville, and Fluttershy's cottage, Twilight lamented over what might happen to her friends there. I hope all of you are safe. I'll try to make everything better, she promised.

They wandered through the eerie night, careful of the areas containing the hazardous flower, Poison Joke, always eyeing each of the stocky, reaching branches of the trees with wary eyes. Every shifting shadow threatened to evoke a reaction, and animals leaping between bushes in fright caused the knight to brandish her sword more than once. After a while they caught sight of Zecora's hut and stopped to discuss whether or not to involve her.

"She could help us," argued Rainbow Dash.

"What if we need supplies? We didn't exactly get to pack when we left," reminded Trixie.

Both mares stared Twilight expectantly while she studied their faces. She cast a glance at Zecora's hut before concluding with a flat, "No."

Rainbow Dash and Trixie cried "What?" in unison.

"Dragons are known for carrying gold and gems. While none of the dragons in the siege force in Canterlot had anything, I'm sure we'll come across some out here. I've got some money on me if we pass a town, but we are not going to attract attention or involve anyone we don't have to," she explained sternly.

The other two nodded, though reluctantly. They walked deeper into the forest until they could no longer see Zecora's hut. Twilight yawned and they decided they would camp out there in the mean time. She dug a hoof into the dirt and closed her eyes, a light green aura overtaking her form. She pulled Telos into her grasp and began to sense through the forest. She could detect Zecora's glimmering aura, but nothing else stood out as a sentient presence. Safe, she thought.

Twilight opened her eyes and planted Telos in the ground in front of a tree. She wrapped herself in her cloak and laid down beside it. "I'm sure we're all a little bit exhausted. While I don't want to waste time, we don't want to run into anything at half strength, either."

Rainbow Dash removed her helmet and stretched. Her multi-colored mane was matted against her head and neck, a blurry smear of colors in the dark. "I'm surprised you can fight a dragon like that, Twilight," she remarked while eyeing Telos.

"We're small compared to them, so they have a hard time hitting us. Plus I have magic on my side. They're also arrogant." She stopped herself when Dash raised her brows. "Thanks," she added quickly. "You're much better with a sword, though. What is that anyway?"

"Oh this?" Dash brandished the blade and put the tip to the ground. The longsword appeared thinner than most standard knight swords, and the cross-guard stood up to her navel. "Princess Luna gave it to me. It's called Nightfall and it's supposed to be strong enough to cut through anything," she said excitedly. "Well, that's what she said anyway. What about you, Trixie? Is your staff anything special?"

Trixie found herself gazing at Telos, the platinum-finished artifact laying in stark contrast to the darkness of the Everfree Forest. The appearance of its whole creation struck her as odd, its form reflecting flawless perfection and a holy purity. Even after coming up with reasons for its oddness, she concluded it was simply a feeling caused by the night. "This thing?" she asked, pulling her staff from her back and standing it up. The metallic, dark green finish reflected the moonlight, brightening its appearance in the open. "This isn't anything special," she said while letting her eyes trail to Twilight. She snickered when the bundled alicorn shot her a disbelieving look.

"I personally had that forged from my old staff after they gave me Telos. I call it Mystic Sage in honor of Telos." Twilight smiled, and ran a hoof over Telos, the wonder of who he really was filling her mind.

"So... Does it do any cool tricks?" Trixie forced a curious expression when Twilight repeated her disbelieving look.

"You can cast powerful spells without an incantation, almost like my Mjollnir before. You only need to visualize it and say the name to use greater bursts of magic. I don't need to do it with Telos since it's linked to my thoughts, but your staff is more powerful than most," she explained proudly.

"Oh, yeah. I bet," Trixie replied sarcastically.

"Trixie!" Twilight sat up and folded her forelegs across her chest, a frown evident on her face in the darkness. When the magician broke into a fit of giggles, she relaxed. "You're such a jerk," she added playfully while laying back down.

"Anything at your expense, Twilight."

Rainbow Dash replaced her helmet and laid facing away from the others. Trixie wrapped herself in her cloak and snuggled next to Twilight, a content smile on her lips as she quickly fell asleep. Twilight stared at her face for a while, a silent promise in her heart, and an anxiety that would never cease. The forced night was unsettling and she could no longer keep track of time. I'll fix this. I can do this, she encouraged herself.

She closed her eyes after gazing at the moon for a while longer, the white sphere always calming her. She focused her thoughts, all of her effort into reforming her mental link with sun princess. Celestia, are you there?

There was an anguishing silence that followed as the seconds ticked away. Yes, Twilight. I am here, she replied.

This darkness... What happened?

Celestia delayed her response in hopes of trying to rationalize it herself, but she could not come up with a better way to explain it. I knew the Brood would have to take Canterlot for this mission to work, but... She trailed off, her own thoughts becoming unsteady. But not something like this. The distress reflected in their communication as clearly as conversation, the princess rattled by the experience in the throne.

What? Twilight pressed. What happened!?

The leader of the siege was General Aurelius, a particularly spiteful and dangerous red dragon. He is the second in command of the Brood's army. He has resurrected Nightmare Moon within my sister somehow. She holds me hostage, forced to live comfortably while everyone suffers around me. Celestia paused for a moment leaving Twilight's heart to pick up a worried pace again. Nightmare Moon has sealed my power to raise the sun. I am sorry, but you cannot use its power to regenerate. This is a double edge for the Brood, though. The moon amplifies your magic, and you will be very difficult, if not impossible, to track.

Twilight bit her lip, her eyes shooting open and up to the moon. Suddenly, it felt as if she was being watched by it. A chill ran up her spine as she suddenly felt isolated and alone again. I'm sorry about Luna. We'll get her back, I promise.

I know, Twilight. Please be careful. The bodies of five dragons were found on the edge of Canterlot and they haven't found anypony they deem responsible. They're on high alert now. Watch your backs...

Don't worry about us, Celestia. We're resting in the Everfree Forest and we have the night on our side. I will make sure Rainbow Dash and Trixie finish this mission, even if I can't.

Don't ever think like that, Twilight! scolded Celestia, her motherly voice filling her head like a thunderous roar. She flinched, suddenly regretting her choice of words. You are more than strong enough, even capable of laying siege to Draconis yourself, I'd imagine. But I don't want unnecessary bloodshed; I don't want you to sacrifice yourself for Equestria. I'm sorry for making this so difficult, but please... don't say such things. The princess's upset tone cut into Twilight's heart like a jagged razor.

You don't have to apologize, Celestia. I'm sorry, and you're right. It's just... more than I thought it would've been. Maybe I could've prepared more if I knew who Devon was, though. Trixie murmured in her sleep and pulled herself closer to Twilight. Twilight opened her eyes and stared at her, dwelling on questions buried by the past.

I believe you learned all his memory could offer. I need to rest, and I'm sure you're tired as well. I will be fine. Aurelius has no plans to make me a martyr in this war--only a spectator. However... Celestia hesitated. Nightmare Moon is very intent on... capturing you. Be careful, she echoed.

Twilight sighed and wrapped a foreleg around Trixie, rolling over and resting her head against hers. I'm sure she holds a grudge for when we used the Elements of Harmony to purify her. That was so long ago...

I will let you know if anything else comes up. Rest easy, Twilight.

Don't forget our promise, Twilight added suddenly.

I promise. I won't. Celestia's voice faded away and Twilight was left with her own thoughts again.

She could hear Rainbow Dash shift in her sleep behind her, realization that she was without her special somepony digging into her. She had to leave them behind... With a final thought, Telos quietly dug itself further into the ground, only the spire showing above the top of the grass, and its glow became very faint. It acted as a magical alarm, jolting her awake should anyone wander too closely to them during their sleep. It wasn't much, but it was safety Twilight could finally fall asleep to.

------------------------------------------------------

"Let us... play, big sister..." Nightmare Moon cooed. She materialized herself in Celestia's chambers, the princess fast asleep on her bed in an exhausted heap. She stepped to the bed and loomed over the quiet form, her eyes watching the rise and fall of her chest with each breath. Celestia's regalia lay scattered on a nightstand and the floor, her eyeliner smeared slightly by tears. A toothy grin spread upon Nightmare's face as her horn began to shine. "How about a little game?" Celestia's form darkened and the grin on her face stretched a little more.

***

Celestia found herself walking through Canterlot in her dream, her hoofsteps echoing more than they should. But the city itself appeared different, haunted. The skies appeared to be driven by a crimson tone, and a dark tint muddled everything her eyes fell upon. As she cautiously walked deeper into the city, an overwhelming sense of sorrow clawed its way into her heart, the feeling growing in intensity as she neared the central plaza. She turned the last corner onto a main street in her sorrowful march, and the sight that took hold of her vision filled her with the desire to scream. Bodies. Hundreds of bodies lined the streets, their blood painting the walls in smears of murder and anguish, the blood pooling near the bodies and layering the stone streets.

The grip of sorrow upon her heart became too much to bear with the vivid imagery and tears began to drip from her eyes. A misty haze clouded her vision briefly until she reached the central plaza, the large fountain had become a corrupted monument. She broke down crying, a single phrase forcing its way into every coherent thought her mind could muster. I'm sorry.

Nightmare Moon stood just in front of the fountain grinning ear to ear, her maniacal laugh filling the silence where the running of the fountain could not. Corpses were floating in its bed, with several more slung over the rim in a careless heap. It was not water that ran through the fountain, but the deep red of blood. The haze in her vision ended as soon as her eyes fell to the main event.

Celestia wailed. "NO!" Her body lurched forward with all of its might, desperately trying to make it to Nightmare Moon. Before the dark god of the dreams knelt Twilight Sparkle, a distressed, yet accusing, look on her face. She was bound, her horn unable to produce magic, and Celestia suddenly found herself frozen mere meters away, her own magic failing.

Nightmare Moon gave a sadistic laugh as a large executioner's axe formed above Twilight, the weapon held aloft by a weak magical grasp. I'm sorry. Her body ached, the feeling of Nightmare Moon's intent permeating throughout her. The head of the axe came swinging down, Nightmare Moon tilting her head back and laughing in pure delight. I'm sorry. The cut was clean, without sound, and the head landed on the stone with a quiet thud, rolling to the princesses hooves.

Celestia dropped down and picked it up, turning it over and viewing the last moment of horror forever etched into Twilight's face. The sorrow shattered her heart and she broke down crying, cradling it and apologizing to her over and over. "I'm sorry," she whispered again and again. "I'm sorry." Teardrops fell upon the face, quickly disappearing into the purple coat.

Nightmare Moon ceased her fit of joy and stepped over to Celestia, her eyes illuminated by the sight before her.

"Every dream a nightmare. Every breath in anguish. That is your existence now." Celestia looked up and glowered at her, her eyes red and puffy, still flowing with tears. "These are not nightmares, dear sister. They are dreams! My gift to you!" Nightmare whispered excitedly.

Hatred took hold of Celestia. The burning, primal fury of all of her anger, all of her might, all of the pent up wrath and frustration she held onto. It all culminated into a rage that needed to be freed--that would break free. "You... you MONSTER!" she roared. She leaped up, letting Twilight's head fall from her and roll away, and attempted to strangle Nightmare Moon.

Her hooves stopped mere inches away, the Id before her unfazed and grinning once more. Celestia could not move her body, all of her muscles frozen but those within her face. Nightmare Moon laughed again, in her face this time, the sickening roll of joy that haunted her in reality now haunted her dreams. She struggled, her mind and body fighting as one to resist the force that bound her, but it was no use. She languished in her fury-driven resistance. Nightmare Moon ruled her dreams now.

The Id leaned close, letting her nose brush the top of Celestia's ear, their eyes meeting and sharing conflicting emotions. "You're going to enjoy these... sweet dreams over and over... and over again," she whispered.

Celestia gnashed her teeth, the rage submitting to despair and she began to cry with her eyes open again. It became difficult to see Nightmare's taunting expression through the watery blurs, but she knew she was still there, still smiling. The dream began to fade into pure darkness, a new one forming where the previous played out before her; a new creation forged with the idea of breaking the princess in mind. Celestia experienced them one by one, the same soul crushing anguish and painful emotions bringing her mind to its knees. She was forced to witness murder and destruction, friends slaughtered and accusing, all with precise, realistic detail.

The nightmares continued for a few more hours before Nightmare Moon grew bored of the maddening torment. She returned to reality, letting the rattled mind of the princess trickle back into a normal state. She stared at Celestia's wracked body. The princess had thrashed, cried, and sweat in the bed during the dreams. Nightmare Moon observed the damage of her fantasies intently. It filled her with hollow feeling, one that wasn't like her. She frowned and shook her head, her misty mane swirling briefly in tandem.

She loosed a sharp, discontented huff and moved to Celestia's private balcony. Her eyes drank in the destruction of Canterlot. The battles had ceased, but a few fires remained to consume unfortunate buildings in their path. Dragons patrolled the air and streets rallying survivors and finishing off any resistance that remained. She took in a deep breath, a small smile forming at the ends of her mouth, and took to the air.

She roamed the air around the castle for a bit, always keeping an eye out for the destruction, before eventually landing on a statue of a pony in the courtyard. She unknowingly sighed and peered up to the moon. All she had wanted, including total control over Celestia was within her grasp. She licked her lips and ran a hoof over the neck of the statue. "Foolish sister. There are no heroes in the world. Only those less willing to show the evil inside." Her eyes trailed back up to Celestia's balcony. "Watch me break your favorite prize. You will see her evil," she muttered. "I will show you what you don't want to see."

Chapter 11: The Joker & The Thief

View Online

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 11: The Joker & The Thief

Twilight shifted awake to the crackle and sputter, the embers of a small fire fleeing from the heat. The faint aroma of a mediocre breakfast slipped into her nostrils, further rousing her from the depths of a worried sleep. Her stomach growled and she opened her eyes, the grim darkness a welcome to her unadjusted vision. She sat up with a start, a look of panic taking hold of her face. Her eyes darted back and forth before settling upon the campfire nearby. She opened her mouth, but the scolding she had prepared vanished as she realized the fire emitted nothing more than a few tendrils of smoke and a small glow.

She gave a breath of relief when memory reminded her her comrades knew how to remain stealthy when camping out. They stared at her with mild confusion until she yawned and began to relax. A slow rubbing of her eyes removed lingering elements of sleep and she settled into her well adjusted night vision, peering around through the woods. The familiar apprehension of the forced darkness returned and she glanced up to the sky, the moon hanging in place like an ornament or a trophy for show. Her eyes scanned the sky, a mental note already marked in her mind of a striking detail missing: stars. The night was devoid of detail, save for a few wandering sheets of cirrus clouds.

"Mmm... Smells good. I guess that's breakfast," she mumbled discontentedly aloud. She shifted her gaze to bits of foliage roasting over a rock nearby. There wasn't much, but they had gathered a few berries and additional leaves to fill their stomachs. Twilight couldn't help but yearn for the lavish buffets the princesses had spoiled her with in the past several years. She took her share and bit down, a mild look of her disapproval blurred into the night. The food was bland, carrying with it the hint of burning wood as she ate.

"Man, this is going to be rough unless we just happen to find a vegetarian dragon," Dash moaned. There was a pause as Trixie and Twilight exchanged glances and snorted. Dash herself cracked a smile in the darkness towards as them she caught on. "Heh, a vegetarian dragon."

"Yeah, but I don't plan on starving," said Twilight. "Maybe we can catch a scouting party the next time we're hungry. Who knows, maybe we'll find this mythical vegetarian dragon." They broke into a fit of laughter for a few moments, eventually fading back to quiet smiles, all staring into the fire. "Were there any scouting parties while I was asleep?"

Rainbow Dash's eyes trailed off towards the direction of Ponyville. She raised a steady hoof, her expression straightening. "There were a few way over there, but they didn't come to the forest. Do you think they're on to us?" she asked as she brought her eyes back to the fire in front of them.

"I doubt it," replied Twilight. "But if they're looking at all, then they must think we're a threat after all. We need to get going. We'll leave as soon as--" She stopped herself suddenly.

Overhead, the silhouette of a dragon consumed all light upon them, its mammoth form erasing all with shadow as it passed over briefly. Their hearts skipped a beat as they waited for his listless flight to lead him further away. Twilight considered shooting him down, but any sure-kill spell would immediately light the sky and alert reinforcements. She swallowed hard when she could resume speaking.

"--we're done eating," she finished in a hushed voice. She brushed a hoof across her forehead to clear a trickle of sweat. "Let's hope there aren't many more patrols headed this way."

Breakfast concluded shortly after and they continued their low profile hike through the Everfree Forest. Rainbow Dash and Twilight found a distant sense of nostalgia trekking through the familiar wilds once more. Rarely did they visit it for pleasure, and most of their past encounters with it had been significant, particularly that of Twilight's first night in Ponyville leading her and her new friends to it. They descended the rocky cliffs without instance, and passed the river, the duo taking note of absent flamboyant serpent they'd encountered so many years before.

The party was led by Rainbow Dash until they reached the bridge to the former castle of the royal sisters. The pegasus pulled a leg up to take another step, but hesitated. "What's wrong?" asked Twilight.

Dash turned her head and shivered. "It's just... memories..." she muttered, finally putting her hoof down and taking the next step forward.

"Memories? You've been to this place before?" Trixie asked. Rainbow Dash didn't answer and continued leading the way to the entrance in silence.

Twilight took the lead after crossing and stopped in front of the ancient ruin's doors, surprise lining her eyes that their rotted construction still held together over a millennia later through the weathering. The same memories that wanted to drive Rainbow Dash away slipped into her mind. They had conquered all of Nightmare Moon's challenges. Together, she thought. The feelings were strange; she felt both compelled to move forward, and to flee, and she eyed the doors cautiously. The castle stood as a bittersweet reminder of Luna's fall from grace. Twilight tensed for a moment as she studied them. But even she was redeemed.

"Do you think there's anything here?" asked Trixie. She studied the crumbling walls skeptically. "This place looks like it hasn't been used in ages."

Twilight pushed open one of the doors, the rotted wood and rusty hinges giving an anguished creak to the gentle force. "I don't know... I want to check something out, though." She cast a determined look to Trixie and disappeared inside without a sound. Rainbow Dash and Trixie followed closing the door behind them. Trixie breathed out in relief when it didn't fall over on top of them afterwards.

Twilight slowly stepped forward and took in the surroundings. A vague sense of familiarity rang out from every piece of the stonework to her and Rainbow Dash, but the magician found herself treading new ground. She eyed the moonlit stone carefully, the light giving it an apprehensive feeling. There was no ceiling, no form of cover to shield them from searching eyes should a dragon patrol near again. Dust muddled the rays of moonlight and more filled it as the doors closed with a faint breeze rustling loose dust.

The alicorn moved forward, the glint on the ends of her peeking staff blending into the light, and constantly threw her head back and forth. Several pieces of discolored glass lay in a pile against one wall, a colorful memory of the past now lost. Against the opposite wall lay the decayed, rotted pieces to a wooden chair.

"So... what are supposed to be looking for?" Dash asked suddenly, her nerves periodically compelling her to check her six.

Twilight's heartbeat grew into a pounding at the words, the anxiety lining every one of her movements with caution. "I don't know. Anything. Maybe we can find something to use against Nightmare Moon later if the Elements can't be gathered." She paused and sniffed the air quietly. Something isn't right, she thought. She threw her head towards Dash, but her cowl hid her eyes behind a black blur. "It's worth checking out, right?"

She didn't want to admit it, but the talking eased the her mind. They continued onward, but every sound not belonging to her or her friends caused her to freeze or flinch, even a stray breeze making its tired sweep through the old ruins elicited a reaction. They moved through a deeper part of the ruins and the stonework improved slightly. Where walls once built with pride now stood in shambles with climbing moss and creeping vines overtaking them.

They made it to the room where the Elements were previously housed. The arms of the odd monument constructed to display their previous forms had broken off and crumbled. Twilight swallowed hard as her anxiety began to rise further as they walked through the room.

"Creepy..." mumbled Trixie as she took a moment to stare at the monument.

Dash gave it a disbelieving look and they moved to a final staircase. Twilight hesitated before moving, raising a hoof and staring up the steps with caution. The feeling of anxiety intensified and she forced herself to keep going before she was questioned. She reached the top and the anxiety within her shifted for a moment, the feeling now as if it had layered upon itself. What is going on?

"Wait here," she commanded with a hoarse voice. She moved to the center of the room, a place she once stood facing Nightmare Moon alone, against all odds. She closed her eyes and imagined the dark alicorn's smug look fixated on her. She began to focus and scan the room with Telos springing to life and dancing around her in an entertaining manner. The vibe in the room gave off the feeling of faint magic--old magic, but the presence suddenly encroached upon her. The magic wasn't Nightmare Moon's or the princesses.

"Something... isn't right," she said aloud. Anxiety turned to fear and her eyes shot open, Telos returning to her back in a second. "We have to leave," she added abruptly. When the other two mares looked at her with confusion, she yelled. "NOW!"

A black mist seeped over the walls and windows, and filled the stairway. It swirled and began to close in on them. Dash leaped into flight and Twilight telekinetically pulled Trixie to her, grabbing the startled magician and taking to the sky. Her large wings beat the still air hard, and they barely managed to escape from the room. The mist coalesced into something and reached several yards into the air in an attempt to grab at them, but its failure caused it to flatten and dissipate back to nothingness in a matter of seconds.

The trio landed outside far beyond the ruins, back in the safety of the dark forest's canopy. Twilight set Trixie down and forcefully wiped her brow and kicked up a piece of dirt.

"Hey, Twi. What the hay was that?" Dash asked as she eyed the now-distant ruins nervously. The stone walls seemed like a prison she had just escaped from, her chest tightening as she gazed at it. She took an instinctive step away from it.

Twilight looked to the ground, her eyes darting between invisible calculations and theories inlaid into the grass. "A problem," she concluded. "I don't think Nightmare Moon could've beaten us here, but she can move quickly. Or maybe she just left behind a trap after we defeated her the first time. None of that seems probable, though." She swallowed hard, her imagination and fears getting the best of her. She looked up and to the darkness at the edge of her vision. "It was some kind of alarm. We need to get out of here, quickly and quietly." She led them onward at a quicker pace than before, her ears constantly bending and straining to hear any sounds that didn't belong in the forest.

"So, just what was that place back there?" Trixie asked while staring at Twilight's cloaked flank.

"That was once the ancient castle of the royal pony sisters. It was the place where Nightmare Moon first surfaced within Luna and rebelled; where Celestia herself had used the original Elements of Harmony to banish her to the moon." Twilight stopped walking and glanced up the moon, the surface devoid of the Mare in the Moon markings. She took in a deep breath and frowned slightly "That was over a thousand years ago." She continued walking again, her head hanging lower than before.

"I remember the stories you told me about Nightmare Moon and Princess Luna, but you never told me about the Elements or where all of that happened."

"Applejack, the Element of Honesty. Rarity, the Element of Generosity. Fluttershy, Kindness. Pinkie Pie, Laughter. Rainbow Dash, Loyalty." The knight shrugged her armor between a skip and tilted her head at the mention of her name to better listen. "And I'm... the Element of Magic. We are living representations of them now."

"Wow... Isn't Magic the most powerful?"

"Yes." Twilight cast a glance to the shadowy ground. The most powerful... but I can't do anything more, even now.

The rest of the hike through the Everfree Forest was conducted in an empty silence. No one had wanted to continue the conversation, but Trixie was left pondering Twilight's status again. The alicorn never boasted her legendary accomplishments and rarely mentioned them unless they pertained to a subject they were discussing. Suddenly, she felt small in comparison to her once again.

The party neared the edge of the forest, the trees ending their thick canopy abruptly to a few stones before the landscape dipped into a wide valley. They took one last look at the ruins behind them. They were only tiny slivers of moonlit grey in the great distance they had traveled, and they all shared the same sense of dread at the new feature they beheld. A pair of dragons were circling them, searching. Twilight bit her lip and a pang of relief hit her briefly.

"Are the dragons really at her command?" Twilight mused to herself.

"Is Luna working with the Brood to usurp Celestia?" asked Trixie in response.

Twilight and Rainbow Dash both shot her an incredulous frown. "No, not Luna," the alicorn answered. "It's Nightmare Moon. Luna would never betray her sister... willingly." Twilight's voice became unsteady for a moment, the self reminder that Luna was no longer herself looming over her thoughts.

"But what about Celestia? What are we going to do about Luna?"

Twilight sighed. "One problem at a time, Trixie. Let's take care of Dragon King Render first." Twilight froze for a moment. Did I just... speak about killing him so easily? She shuddered and shook her head, then looked down to the valley. The wide open space was sparse of trees and rocks, but a small dirt path split it in two. Most of the valley was shrouded in darkness, the walls blocking the moon and casting the only cover. A chill ran up Twilight's spine as she studied it from the cover of the forest. "Dash, go scout ahead. I don't like this place." She squinted in hopes to see more detail, but the blur only sharpened to smear with the few trees poking up as different shades of the blur. "Be careful, and come right back if you see anything out of the ordinary,” she added earnestly.

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes and muttered. “Don’t worry mom, I’ll look both ways when I cross the street.” She took off without catching Twilight’s frown, but she swore she could feel it.

The knight kept low to the ground as she soared over the sloping, shadow-stricken landscape. It was nearly as dark as the forest; the moon seemed unable to peek over one of the seemingly raised sides, and the shadows swallowed her in apprehension. Dash nearly crashed into a rock as it slipped out of the darkness mere seconds before a collision. She made two passes to be sure that she could spot nothing. After landing, she shuddered, and readjusted her helmet. “That place is creepy. I scouted it the best I can, but I wouldn’t let your guard down. I can’t see much in the dark.”

The other mares nodded and Twilight instinctively shifted Telos on her back. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this. I’ll cross and do a magical sweep. If I make it across, I’ll signal you to grab Trixie and fly over.”

Dash shrugged and her and Trixie pulled back to the forest treeline. Twilight began a cautious trek through the valley, occasionally tugging her dark cowl lower. There was no cover in the valley beyond the veil of the night. Anyone, or anything, could spot her if she wandered too close, and Dash’s aerial reconnaissance wouldn’t trigger any traps on the ground. Trixie and Dash watched her outline blur and fade into the black, until only a subtle ripple made its way across the shadow canvas of the distance.

Twilight stepped passed the rock that Rainbow Dash nearly hit and stopped. Something’s here! The ground rumbled and several figures began pulling themselves from the earth. The scouts at the ruins abruptly ended their patrols and began heading towards the valley. Twilight moved Telos beneath her and tugged at the end of her cloak. She leaped off of the dragon and quietly vanished into the night as a dark smear. Dragons...

“What should we do?” Trixie asked in a hushed voice. “There’s too many for us to fight.”

“Keep your head down! Wait until Twilight’s signal,” commanded Dash, pulling Trixie behind a tree and to the ground behind some bushes.

The two mares swallowed hard, their chests thumping in tandem to the heavy ambience of the scouts passing overhead. Their shadows swallowed up the ponies in blackness before relinquishing it back to the natural darkness. They peered out from behind the tree and strained their eyes to find Twilight in the array of confused dragons, but even the beasts down searching for her were wandering about and combing the valley in an effort to find a trace of her.

"Report, Captain," ordered one of the scouts from the ruins. His voice was sharp, a tinge of impatience punctuating his words.

The captain of the valley cell glanced around in confusion for a moment, then straightened himself as he met his superior's stare. "There... There was someone here just a moment ago. They walked over me, I'm sure of it. And another, a flyer. They made a low pass through here, I think."

The scout gave him a hard, disbelieving look. "And, can anyone else verify this?" he asked to the rest of the group.

The others exchanged nervous glances, none offering themselves to the scrutiny of backing their captain's story. One even shrugged while another shook his head, in lazy disagreement, or fear. "What? You cannot--"

"Do not make this a fool's errand, lest you wish to answer to General Aurelius," the scout cautioned in an angry tone. The pair of scouts turned to fly back in the direction of the ruins. "Get back to your duties," the lead scout added curtly with a sidelong glance.

The captain stared after them for a moment, yearning for something. In an instant he whirled his head around and barked, "Find them!" As he lifted himself up fully in preparation to fly, Twilight's dark blue cloak slid from his back and fell to the ground in a billowy dance. He lowered himself and snatched it from the ground, dangling it before him in his claws. I knew it. How could a pony just disappear into the night? he wondered. He peered around, but could not separate one shadow from the next.

The dragons began dispersing and taking to the air as Twilight reached the other side with a small smirk tugging at the corners of her mouth. She stepped carefully, unsure of her sneaking skills, while moving as swiftly over grass and rocks as quickly as she could. The terrain on the other side of the valley sloped up and into a rocky, sandy path. She found a large boulder, one large enough to conceal a being larger than herself, among a collection of them. She exhaled deeply, grinning beneath the veil of her tugged up duskweave. Her violet eyes pierced the darkness with determination. Telos slid out from beneath her and she disappeared in a flash.

"Do you think she made it?" whispered Trixie to Dash.

A hoof tapped the magician on the shoulder and she flinched, afraid to turn around. Her imagination ran wild until Twilight's voice came quietly. "Don't speak. Just gather with me." She led them back into the forest thirty meters and behind several trees before teleporting them to the other side of the boulder.

Twilight's companions looked dizzy after reappearing on the other side. "Hey, Twi. That flash is a little bright in this darkness, you know?" Dash started. She rubbed at her eyes and blinked them back to adjusting. "Do you think they'll find us?"

"I left my cloak behind," replied Twilight, her voice muffled only slightly by the duskweave. "We need to get out of here before they start looking over here."

"Wow, Twilight. You're almost invisible. Is that a spell or just the duskweave?" asked Trixie.

The alicorn nodded. "It can absorb and refract light around me."

Trixie arched a brow. "But it's dark. There isn't any light." She could've sworn Twilight snorted, but her eyes were no indication of her disposition at that moment.

The alicorn motioned up to the moon, muttering, "There is always light in the darkness."

Telos reaffixed itself upon Twilight's back and they continued at a brisk trot into the lands beyond the valley. Twilight slid the duskweave down from her muzzle and it reformed flawlessly onto her body as a second skin once more. As they trekked through a flatland area beyond, she bit her lip, constantly glancing over her shoulder. Trixie inwardly groaned, wishing she would stop, her own nerves wanting to scare her each time the alicorn looked away. She fidgeted occasionally when she snapped her view over her shoulder too quickly, sure danger might be there that time.

"We're really exposed out here, Twilight. Any dragon with good night vision will see us moving," Dash started, her eyes watching the distance in front of them. "Shouldn't we put up an illusion or something?"

Twilight shook her head. "I don't like it either, but I don't want to waste any magic. I'm getting hungry and we don't have anything. I'm saving my strength in case we do get caught." She sighed when their stomachs growled. "Still..." She paused for a moment, standing up and swinging her forelegs outward. "I've never been beyond the Everfree Forest before," she said in a breathy, awed manner.

Trixie and Dash exchanged blank looks. "I have," they said in unison, but Dash continued, "but not this way."

Twilight frowned. "For a moment, I forgot we're supposed to be careful." She glanced over her shoulder again, smiling this time. "Let's hurry. I'm starving," she said, groaning out the last word. "If they haven't come out of the valley now, I don't think they'll ever broaden the search in time to find us."

As they continued onward, Twilight continued to periodically glance over her shoulder, though more subtly than before. I wish I could've kept my cloak. Only an archmage wears a cloak, and if they find the mark... She pursed her lips, forcing herself to look ahead. Her nerves betrayed her and she looked up to the moon again. Nightmare Moon...

***

Back in the valley, the captain ordered the dragons to expand their search, though much too late. The darkness hindered their search as much as it helped enshroud their actions, and he clutched the cloak in his grip with a heavy dismay. After watching over his cell a while longer, he took off back to Canterlot, a frustrated and disappointed rhythm weaved into the beating of his wings. He grimaced at the thought of facing General Aurelius with nothing to show but a unicorn's traveling garment.

It was an hour before he returned to the Canterlot castle, his resolve faltering just after reaching the city. He forced himself to land on the front steps, wishing it did not require so much effort. He followed a path of calculated destruction through the castle walls. Ponies and dragons moved about attempting to repair and restructure the building to accommodate their larger forms. Occasionally a death threat would sail towards a pony slacking off or not moving quickly enough. Most would snap right back to work, the fear of being devoured driving them, and some would shout back curses, earning a swift smack.

He stopped outside of the throne room and swallowed, hard. As he entered, he found Nightmare Moon staring outside of one of the ruined windows, Princess Celestia beside her without any regalia, and Aurelius laying near the throne. All of their eyes connected to him the moment he lumbered into the room. None of their expressions told him what they thought and his mouth suddenly felt dry.

"My lord, General Aurelius," he offered, the larger dragon raising his head in interest. "It would appear that Her Majesty, Moon, was correct in implementing the magical trap in the Everfree Forest."

The dark alicorn turned to face him completely, her eyes narrowing upon him slightly. "Go on," she said invitingly.

He swallowed again before continuing his report, Nightmare's sharp eyes matching only Aurelius's in intimidation. "Someone visited those ruins. Where we laid in the valley, someone passed through only a short while after the scouts arrived at the ruins."

"Oh?" muttered Aurelius. "And what makes you sure they were not simply adventurers?" he asked, his heavy voice adding weight to the atmosphere bearing on the captain.

The captain reflexively lowered his head, but kept it high enough to maintain eye contact with his superiors. "Because of this," he said as he produced the dark blue cloak. "That fell from my body after we sprang our trap, but we were unable to find the unicorn whom I believe it belongs to." His tone shifted from confident to apologetic halfway through his sentence. He dropped the cloak on the ground before Nightmare Moon then stepped back, shying away from her gaze.

Nightmare Moon lifted the cloak up and spun it around, a faint crest of Luna designed into the underside. She frowned for a moment, but it was replaced as quickly by a grin. She put it on and froze with an unreadable expression.

Aurelius studied the dark alicorn in her new attire. "Hmm... Princess Celestia." He glanced to the princess, and she returned his look with a placid expression. "Do you care to explain why the cloak of an archmage would be so far from their home? I did not think I miscounted earlier." The dragon maintained an even look as he spoke.

Nightmare Moon moved to Celestia and bent her neck down to look up at her in a teasing manner. "Oh, sister. Do tell. You know I hate,"--she suddenly straightened herself in front of her--"being lied to," she finished angrily, but her face maintained the grin.

Celestia met her eyes with the same placid expression, her eyes revealing nothing but a slight confusion. "The robes and cloaks that the archmagi choose to wear are solely of their own volition. That cloak could belong to anypony," she said plainly.

Nightmare Moon's grin shifted into a disdainful frown. "Do you think me a foal, sister? Four of your precious Elements of Harmony have already been captured. Where might the other two be at, hmm?" she asked quickly, the question chaining to what Celestia hid behind a well practiced mask.

The princess shook her head. "I don't know. We merely communicate through letters, but I know not where she currently resides. I would not tell you, even if I did," she replied calmly, her eyes catching a sharp look from the Id.

"You're lying!" Nightmare snarled. "I know you and your faithful student are in constant communication--the accursed Element of Magic!" The Id grunted and growled her frustration out. She threw the cloak from her back in a spark of her horn. "How... embarrassing," she said, suddenly calm once more.

Celestia regarded her carefully, but refused to look at the cloak. Not now... she thought to herself. "I am not lying, Nightmare Moon. As I told you, that could be anypony's cloak. And, it has been some time since I last spoke with my student." She stared into Nightmare Moon's sharp eyes, her own still completely calm. For a moment, she wondered if Nightmare Moon would ever consider a word she spoke as truth.

The Id narrowed her eyes examining, rather than condemning, Celestia, and huffed. "We will find out soon enough, won't we?" She glowered at the princess and turned to the idling red dragon. "Expand the search at once, Aurelius," she commanded in a flat tone.

Aurelius chuckled, but it came out more as a heaving rumble. A grin split his face for a moment, but he stood up and shrugged his body. "Mistress Moon, you are overreacting. It is probably nothing. Lay your paranoia to rest."

Nightmare shifted her eyes between Celestia and Aurelius in disbelief several times, then she moved to gaze out the window and to the moon again. With an exasperated sigh, she let her eyes fall to the city. "Fine. You're probably right and it's just some thrill seeking explorer." She whirled back around to face the dragon again. "But someone visited those ruins. They are... sentimental to me and I am going to investigate them myself," she added.

"Merely your paranoia, Mistress. It is not the first wandering visitor, nor will it be the last. Those ruins lay unguarded in the middle of a forest few dare tread. Calm yourself." The dragon's voice hit a pacifying note for a moment and Nightmare went silent for a while. She glanced to the captain, his head still lowered and she frowned.

"I will personally investigate them myself." She turned to Aurelius and sneered. "Funny how our dispositions have been reversed, is it not?" Her form dispersed into a starry mist and flowed out of the room in a gust of air. The captain bowed and Aurelius nodded allowing him to leave.

"Your sister," Aurelius started, studying the princess' face as she turned to him with an irritated stare. "She won't find anything... will she?" he asked, doubt and wonder in his tone simultaneously.

Celestia half rolled her eyes and sighed. "She is not my sister. I don't know what Nightmare Moon expects to find. Those ruins have been abandoned to the Everfree Forest for centuries. Only adventurers ever visit them now."

Aurelius laid back down and grunted, but for what, Celestia couldn't tell. "She is merely paranoid, having reentered the world in such a chaotic state. We will find the Elements of Harmony in due time, but they are no priority of ours."

Celestia raised her eyebrows, suddenly piqued by the Brood's agenda. "Oh, and why is that?" she asked, taking a reluctant step closer to the dragon.

Aurelius didn't move as he spoke, his rumbling voice driving any point he made for him. "Nightmare Moon simply keeps you in check, and the forced darkness demoralizes your races. I will not hesitate to get rid of her should she become... disobedient."

Celestia scowled at him, but her chest tightened suddenly. "A staggered night is of no hindrance to us."

Aurelius studied her face, the princess still clinging to the idea of her sister's soul being pure. "Your world falls beneath the Brood's rule now. You are to sit here comfortably and watch all that you sought to maintain burn away. Your words are now hollow, puppet princess."

Celestia stared at him contemptuously for a while, then spun on her hooves and walked out of the throne room, shaken by his nickname. That bastard... I will never be anyone's puppet, nor will Nightmare Moon be yours!

"Wander where you wish, princess. Your magic may as well be sealed." Aurelius's voiced chased her through the halls, an echoing reminder that she was truly bound to herself now.

Aurelius moved over to gaze out of one of the shattered windows, his eyes falling blankly over the razed city. Several fires flickered in the distance off blackened rooftops, most charred buildings protruding as scars upon the white city. Ashes swept the streets with messy grey streaks and painted buildings in their path.

"And what will your subjects think when they see you still live above them, princess? Will they rebel? Will they slander your name? Or..." His gaze shifted to the broken throne. "Or will they decide they no longer have need of you, a frail ruler left alone? I wonder..."

------------------------------------------------------

Trixie groaned as she stubbed her hoof on a rock, the seventh on the rough mountain path they now walked. Each time she stumbled, she glared at Rainbow Dash and her expected grin, but each time she stumbled, her eyes would shift as quickly to Twilight. The alicorn continued to watch the surrounding areas and behind them with subtle looks, and even during their breaks would position herself facing paths they'd taken. It had been a few hours since they left the valley, and no dragon had moved much beyond it in their search. She sighed and grumbled, her stomach growling to match her disdain for her lover's excessive caution.

"Can't we just cast an illusion on ourselves and have Rainbow fly us over this thing?" she asked, almost whining her question out. She hit another rock, a frustrated groan following and hanging in the air even louder this time.

"No," replied Twilght flatly, turning herself to face the magician. When Trixie met her eyes with a sour look, she offered a sympathetic one. "I'm sorry, Trixie, but I'm not risking it. I've got a bad feeling as it is and I'd like to stay under the radar without the help of magic as much as possible."

"But we wouldn't be using that much magic if we just hide ourselves for a few minutes to make it over," Trixie argued.

Rainbow Dash stood up and pushed her forehooves out. "Whoa, whoa. I can't fly that fast with all my armor and your fat flank, Trixie."

The magician glowered at her. She hit another rock and gnashed her teeth, poising herself to blast the path clear if not for Twilight. Suddenly realizing a golden opportunity for alleviating her frustrations, she took the most recent rock she kicked in her magic and propelled it at the knight's flank. However, before it could make contact, it was captured in Twilight's more powerful magical aura.

"I don't like any of this either. I really don't, but we're on a mission. I'm worried about Canterlot--about Celestia. We've got Nightmare Moon and the Brood's armies to deal with, and we haven't even made it halfway to Draconis. You two have fought dragons before. You know exactly how draining it is to fight one. Imagine if we ran into some out here. With the Brood's armies flooding into Equestria, they could be anywhere in the night. I can fight the royal guard, but I can't regenerate myself quickly without the sun."

Twilight's companions exchanged apologetic glances as she went on. "I... don't like this," she muttered again.

Rainbow Dash took the lead again, though there were no more words exchanged between them. They continued rounding the mountain path at a brisk pace, even as it narrowed and forced them into a straight line. Dragons periodically moved about in the distance and they would slow their pace and add additional care to each step.

After another half hour passed and they arrived on the opposite side of the mountain, the path beginning to slope down and meander back to the even ground. Trixie gave a breath of relief when it was much clearer going down on that side than coming up on the other. But each of them stared in some form of awe from the vantage point they now had. Dash smacked her head, a sound of disgust escaping her throat.

"There's dragons everywhere!" she cried, an accusing hoof pointing down in the direction they were headed.

The land had become a bit less barren than before, with a few splotches of greenery to add life on the canvas of dull prairie lands. But the knight was right. For every few square miles of terrain they could see there was a patrolling member of the Brood to sweep through it.

Twilight took in the picture before her, but didn't convey any sign of what she was thinking. She pointed to the closest town to them, but from their point, they could see several dragons were occupying it. "We'll rest there. I'm pretty sure we're all a bit hungry."

"But that one has the most dragons occupying," Trixie protested. "Are we going to hide with the rest of the ponies there or fight them?"

Twilight put a hoof to her chin and contemplated the idea for a while. "We'll remove them from the town if it comes to it. Maybe we can trade some dragon hide for food," she joked. The other two mares looked at her with genuine surprise. Twilight wasn't sure what they were thinking given the darkness. "We'll figure something out," she finished hastily and moved past them.

As they made their way down the mountains, Trixie and Rainbow Dash held back to whisper to each other while their leader was distracted with the coming situations. Trixie pulled her cowl down and Dash shrugged her armor.

"We need to watch what we say," Dash whispered to Trixie.

The magician raised an eyebrow and turned her head enough to catch her in the corner of one eye. "What do you mean?"

"Twilight doesn't like all of this fighting. I know we haven't said much about it, but she's under a lot of stress right now."

Trixie fixated back onto Twilight. The alicorn's focus was to the front, and she seemed to pay no mind to their hushed voices. "I'll try to support her more," she murmured.

Dash nodded. "It's not as hard for me, but she has it the worst."

Trixie snapped her head to the side. "What about you?"

"I... I have somepony waiting for me," she answered dejectedly while looking at the ground. "I'll be fine."

"Hurry up, you two," called Twilight. She had moved much further than when they spoke, standing at the bottom of the path and at the entrance to the flatter lands. "I've studied their behavior and I don't think they'll attack us."

They moved as a unit across the prairie lands, keeping their heads low and their gaits subdued. Twilight prayed they would not notice Telos in the night, even as she ensured it was not shining in the darkness. The platinum finished creation appeared as a dull silver, only slightly darker than Dash's armor, and shifted into a generic looking pole. Her duskweave shifted colors and she took on a black coat with a grey mane and tail, a quill and parchment replacing her multi-star cutie mark. Hopefully, she thought, that'll be enough.

They reached the town without instance, though Trixie and Dash eyed their surroundings warily. The town itself was of similar size to Ponyville, minus stray houses and the Apple family farm on the outskirts. However, the town had a large fence erected around most of it, likely due to stray animals, Twilight figured. The front gate was left open, a couple militia ponies guarding and watching it. Twilight wished she still had her cloak as she passed them. Maybe I should've changed my appearance to something else.

After walking down the main street, a dragon at the first junction caught sight of the newest arrivals. He lumbered over to them, his large form filling most of the dirty street. On-looking townsponies stared in caution while others dashed into the nearest building, many looking wide-eyed out of the windows to watch.

"Give me your names, or you shall be detained," the dragon ordered quickly, his breath rustling up loose dust into the trio's faces.

Twilight studied him for a moment, her form stiffening as she considered how to react. My wings... I can't tell him who I am.

"Your names. I will not ask again," the dragon grit impatiently. His thick tail swept the ground behind him and left a fan shaped indent in the street.

"What if I ain't got a name?" shouted Rainbow Dash. As quickly as the words left her mouth, she took the heater shield from her back and slung it like disc at the dragon. The shield spun and sailed through the air, one of the corners striking him between the eyes.

The dragon reeled back into a sitting position, clutching his head. The shield clattered to the ground and he didn't say anything immediately. Gasps and squeaks filled the air as more civilian ponies scrambled into the nearby buildings, only a few brave--or bold, no one could be sure--ponies remained outside. Trixie produced her staff, and Twilight shifted Telos back to its idle state, but retained her illusion--both mares carrying surprised expressions.

A trickle of blood ran down the dragon's snout and he bared his teeth. "You'll pay for that," he seethed. Three additional dragons moved in behind the first, each prepared to fight. "It appears we have some rather courageous rebels. Let's put them in their proper place," he said, then picked up Dash's shield and crushed it in one of his hands.

"Oh, yeah? If you think you can beat a Celestial Knight," Dash shouted as she rushed forward. In a fluid motion, she brandished Nightfall into both hooves, the dark blade gleaming for a moment in the moonlight as it moved. "Then bring it on!"

The dragon frowned before unleashing his flame breath into the streets. Dash skidded on the street and then sprang into flight. Twilight took to the air after her, her large, violet wings appearing as if they ripped from the night itself. There were a few stray gasps as the color difference with the rest of her body was revealed. "Trixie, take care of that!" she called down.

The magician nodded and produced her staff, taking it into her hooves. With spire and horn shining in unison, she threw a hoof forward at the flames. Translucent walls of light encased the flame and locked together, smothering it in the middle of the street. She grit her teeth and swayed her hoof away, the walls vanishing quickly after. A wide span of blackened dirt remained where the flame had once been. Ugh, dragon fire is so powerful, she thought.

"Trixie, place an illusion and barrier around this area. We can't let this get out of control!" came the magician's next set of orders from Twilight. She took in a large breath and put on a determined expression.

"Got it!" Trixie dug Mystic Sage into the ground and leaned back in the air, her horn shining much brighter now. The staff spire flashed, and her cowl fell off while a stream of wind flowed around her. The air flickered briefly and more translucent walls surrounded a greater area around their combat zone. The drain hit her like a truck and she lost her stance immediately, slumping onto her staff. Gritting her teeth, the walls shifted from translucent light to a dark blue tint.

"Keep it up, Trixie," Twilight added.

Easy for you to say.

Rainbow Dash propelled herself towards the dragon she hit with her shield. They climbed into the sky, above the tops of the buildings, and began their aerial combat. She continued to hurl taunts at him, provoking him into attacking in anger. The dragon clawed and snapped at her, his teeth smashing together with dangerous might. She evaded his attacks deftly, stroking a reprisal with Nightfall during each dodge. After several non-fatal wounds, the dragon swiped with both claws.

The knight propelled herself to the side, but too focused on the claws, she missed the incoming tail. Seeing it too late, she was forced into a desperate parry attempt. Holding her sword at an angle, the tail smashed into her, the colossal force sending her streaming into a rooftop, a cratered mess where she crashed. The dragon grinned down at the wounded knight, satisfied. Winded, Dash scrambled back up and forced air back into her lungs. "Not bad," she heaved. "For a dragon!"

She spat blood to her side and rocketed forward, barely slowed by her injuries. The dragon, surprised, attempted to repeat his tactic, but she barreled over the tail the second time. As she spun, she closed the distance and flipped herself sideways adding the force of her gyrations into an awkward, wide vertical cut into the wing. She managed to rend most of it outwards before a defensive attack forced her away again.

The tattered flesh bled into the air and billowed like a ripped sheet. Try as the dragon might, his wing would no longer allow him to remain airborne. He clutched his wing and plummeted to the ground, landing with a boom near a few of his idling comrades. Dash began gaining more altitude while the dragon roared in pain and anger. She fully righted herself and braced Nightfall against her chest as she began a dive bomb.

This is gonna be close! As she picked up speed, it became difficult to maintain her trajectory; her vision blurred and she couldn't be sure she was descending on her target in the warped darkness. Laying into instinct, she began to spin herself, spiraling downwards as a menacing drill.

"You're going to kill yourself!" shouted Twilight. Telos moved from her back and aimed towards the dragon. "You're lucky..." she muttered as the knight neared her target. He attempted to flee down the street and avoid the deathblow, but Dash had already gained too much speed and distance. In an instant she drilled through his neck in a messy surge of blade and flesh. "--That I'm the Element of Magic!" cried Twilight. A sudden burst of air blasted the knight sideways, a mere meter from hitting the ground.

Dash spun out of control for a moment before jamming Nightfall into the ground and righting herself, speeding along the ground with a thin indent into the street. "Thanks for the save, Twi!"

Twilight unleashed an exasperated breath of relief, wiping a sprinkle of sweat from her brow. That could've gone better. Her eyes wandered to the walls of the illusion. It remained intact, but she pursed her lips when her eyes fell to Trixie. The magician was sweating profusely and using Mystic Sage to keep herself standing, parts of her cloak damp and clinging to her form. The glow of her horn shined brightly in the night, but its glow was beginning to dim from a typical shine. I'll try to hurry, Trixie.

Telos flipped through the air as it made its way back to Twilight, her duel with the leader beginning. The dragon, black and larger in size than the others, closed the distance and swiped down, his powerful claw quaking the earth as it stamped in a tracing crater. She evaded and willed Telos into a greatsword once more. She leaped into the air with a following sweep from the other claw. I can't hold back this time. "Trixie, can you hold the illusion against magic?" she shouted over her shoulder. "I can't use my magic if it's going to break."

The magician nodded and forced her fatigued body to raise Mystic Sage overhead. She mouthed a word and her horn shined brighter for a moment, the light flowing into the staff's spire. The illusion walls within sparkled and reinforced, the outer walls showing no change to the city's outward peaceful appearance. Trixie's hooves fell low and she slumped against the staff once more, barely able to keep herself standing whilst propped against it. "It's.... It's done," she panted, unsure of Twilight could hear her. The spell continued to strain her greatly, even when the walls weren't stressed.

The moment Trixie had finished, Telos left Twilight's hooves and reverted into a staff again. She skipped several strides backwards and pointed the spire to the leader. As the dragon attempted to move in, the spire shined and a burst of arcane power ripped forth and blasted him in the face. He reeled backwards to his haunches so hard that he slid backwards.

"Wh-who are you!?" he asked through a claw covering his face. The scales sizzled and more blood trickled down from his snout. This is the power of an alicorn? Is she a princess? The dragon dropped down and poised himself for combat once more. The wound he could not hide displayed blackened scales and flesh, but he showed no signs of weakness from his injury.

The dragon approached Twilight more cautiously the second time, his eyes fixated upon the spire of Telos. Its movements were sporadic and inconsistent, and he began to fear another spell the closer he got. Twilight shivered slightly, wind suddenly brushing her form as air swirled around in front of her. She applied herself and concentrated, the staff freezing its dance. The wind picked up into a tornado and ripped dirt and gravel into it becoming a dark, shearing twister.

The tornado carved a deep, wide groove into the street as it moved towards the dragon. He backed up and attempted to fly, desperate beats of his wings taking over his priorities. The harder he tried to fly the more the tornado pulled him in. "I'm the one that's going to show you..." Twilight muttered as she watched. The power of the tornado picked up, and chunks of nearby buildings began to break and flow into it. Entire walls were snapped off of the nearest ones. Damn... Too strong...

The dragon sank all four claws into the ground and attempted to hold on. His right wing was pulled outward and frayed by the debris while the rest of his body was lacerated, his scales wearing down against the dirt and gravel. The tornado expanded and engulfed his entire form in the dark brown dirt, and his wailing roar could faintly be heard over the howling winds. Twilight maintained the spell for another minute before ending it in an instant and having Telos return to her back. The debris and sediment all settled upon the dragon's bloodied form, some scattering in a dusty ring around him.

Twilight walked towards him and exhaled in relief when she found he was still conscious. "Tell the others to stand down and I will spare their lives," she said as she moved closer. "I don't want to kill you."

The dragon, despite all of his injuries, loosed a rumbling guffaw. "You cannot possibly believe you can stop us with your worn down little party," he retorted.

"Fine then. I'll ask again after I expel your doubt."

Twilight took to the air, the air beneath her wings pushing some of the sediment off of the dragon as she gained altitude. The dragons that remained were hurling themselves at the barrier walls, scratching and punching it. Trixie cringed with each charge, but the barriers held against their terror-driven efforts. Come on, Twilight... I can't... hold this... much longer! she thought, her voice unwilling to work to her will.

Twilight quickly reached the other two dragons. They turned and glimpsed her, their eyes widening in fright. Before they could make one final, desperate attempt to break the barrier, she blasted them with a sheet of electricity. The bolts ran along their bodies briefly before dispersing and fading. The dragons exchanged confused glances before suddenly slamming into each other and dropping to the ground in a quaking impact next to their leader. The shockwave filled the streets with dust for a few moments and blew most of it off of their leader.

Twilight landed on top of the leader's snout and lowered her head to meet one of his eyes with a serious gaze. She threw a hoof to her side and the dragons were engulfed in her violet aura and levitated closer, their forms compressed together in a lopsided sphere. "Tell them to surrender or I will execute all of you." A pang of guilt echoed throughout her, but she refused to show it.

The ball of dragons settled back to the ground and the duo became rattled. They thrashed and rolled themselves several feet in a circle while begging for mercy and the life saving command they would be compelled to follow.

Rainbow Dash dropped down on the ground in front of the leader and sheathed her sword, a worried look striking her features. "But, Twilight, they've already seen us. If we let them go, what's stopping them from giving us up?"

Twilight stared at Rainbow Dash for a moment, her face hard as she contemplated what to do. "I'll just... make sure they can't speak."

The dragon leader's eyes widened and he quickly blurted, "Alright! We will surrender and submit, so long as you honor your words." He relaxed when Twilight nodded. He breathed in relief, afraid she intended to remove their tongues if his response was delayed any longer.

Twilight smiled and the balled up dragons began to beg for freedom. "Hmm..." She turned toward the ball and stomped her right hoof abruptly, the leader wincing as she did so. "Silence!" An invisible wave of force passed through them and all sounds they uttered had ceased. Their eyes stared at her, pleading for mercy, fear of what may come reflecting in them. Holding a hoof in their direction, she sparked her magic and their bond tightened.

"Where do you receive your orders from?" Twilight asked as she turned back to face the leader.

"And why would I tell you, whom we are at the mercy of, where our orders come from? What is to stop you from killing us after I tell you?"

Telos moved from Twilight's back and hung above a large, open wound. The platinum staff radiated a subtle warmth as the dragon leader stared at it. In an instant, it was pulled away and perched upon Twilight's back, its shine dimming away. "Nothing," she replied with a neutral voice. "Can't dragons be honorable?"

"What... the hell... are you talking about?" he responded confusedly.

Twilight stared into his eyes more intensely than before. Telos whipped itself and snapped the blood from it before returning back to her. "From what I know of dragons, you're typically prideful. I'd like to think that pride could mean you're willing to honor a promise."

"So what? Even if I tell you, you cannot stop the Brood's invasion. There are many dragons who give orders to different contingents and cells. Why do you try so hard to beat us back with just this?" he asked while throwing a weak hand to the lot before him.

Twilight followed it with her eyes. Rainbow Dash looked at her expectantly, and Trixie was in an exhausted stagger approaching from further back, panting as she held the lower parts of Mystic Sage's shaft to keep herself from falling onto the blackened street. Residents of the town began to funnel out of the buildings, cautiously eyeing them and the dragons while creeping along the sides to get closer. Twilight loosed a long sigh and returned her eyes to the dragon's.

"Just moments ago you were willing to sacrifice yourselves for your cause. What difference does it make to you if I let you live and we fail further on? Please just tell me where your orders come from. Tell me where I can find your superior and I will let all three of you go," she asked in a more pleading tone, leaning gently forward with her words.

The dragon turned his head slightly and examined his remaining companions. The ball rolled a few inches as they squirmed, but they both looked to him for help. He gave a low sigh and focused back on Twilight. "About sixteen miles to the northeast lies a jungle. Within lives a small dragon that relays our orders. If you are truly going to spare us, will you allow us to go free?"

Twilight nodded and smiled. "I promise. You have my word. For now, rest up. You'll need your strength for later." She turned her head and noticed more awestruck ponies had filtered into the sides of the streets and crept further closer. "I'm really glad you surrendered, but... do you really believe in this war?" she whispered to him. Before he could answer, she turned and leaped down to the ground, leaving him with his own confused thoughts.

Trixie staggered up to Rainbow Dash, her staff being used as a poor crutch to aid her fatigued body. She had threatened to topple over with every step of her struggling stride. Twilight leaped to her as she reached the knight, the magician's legs finally giving out. Trixie was caught slumping over the alicorn's back.

"I... I did it, Twilight. I bet you're proud... of me," she rasped before releasing Mystic Sage and losing consciousness.

Twilight caught them in her magic and lifted the magician onto her back and slipped the staff beneath them, her wings vanishing into her altered coat. "Thank you, Trixie," she whispered. "I truly am. You've earned a rest." She looked up to meet the expectant and stunned crowd. She spent a moment contemplating how to address them, but ultimately settled on allowing them to ask first.

A colt lost in the crowd piped up with the first question. "What's happening with the dragons?" he hollered nervously.

"Don't worry about them. They can't speak, and they can't move." She swayed her head back and forth over the crowd as an awkward silence fell. "Is there anywhere we can stay and rest?" she asked.

A young pegasus colt stepped out of the crowd and pulled her towards a nearby building, Rainbow Dash trotting just behind. Twilight studied the way the pegasus moved as she was hustled along. Somepony who's not very worried... she observed. They entered what she figured was a hotel, an intimidated receptionist eyeing them suspiciously as they entered. The pegasus moved ahead of her and spoke to the receptionist in a hushed voice for a few moments before motioning them to follow.

They were led upstairs to a room at the front of the building with a four-paned window to view the street. After thanking the pegasus for their hospitality, she pushed Rainbow Dash inside and closed the door quietly behind her. The room offered two beds, a bathroom to their left, and a small table with two chairs in a corner by the only window. A bare dresser sat against the wall at the feet of the beds. Twilight plopped Trixie onto the closest bed while Dash took the one nearest the window.

The knight sat down slowly and stared at the floor for a moment. "I know what you're thinking, Rainbow, but the less bloodshed, the better," Twilight said quickly.

Dash whipped her head to her in surprise, but it faded as quickly as it had surfaced. "Don't you think it's too risky to let them go? I know you don't like the alternative, but they know too much about us. I don't like it as much as the next pony, but..." She sighed and grit her teeth. "Please tell me you have a plan besides trying reverse psychology."

Twilight nodded slowly. "Right now, all they have is a story about an unknown alicorn and a pegasus knight that defeated them with the support of a powerful unicorn. They failed to occupy a town with no real military power and were gravely injured. What dragon would ever believe that?"

Dash hung her head doubtfully after removing her helmet and setting it beside her on the bed. "Fine, but this is probably just going to make things harder in Draconis." She took a few heaving breaths before scooting to the end of the bed and turning to fully face Twilight. "Do you think saving them will help us later?" she asked. She began removing more pieces of armor, grunting, gnashing her teeth, and wincing in her attempts.

"I don't know, but I hope it helps. You never know if an enemy could become tomorrow's friend, or some kind of ally, though. No matter what happens in Draconis, it has to end this war. I just... I just wish..." Twilight let loose a frustrated groan. Dash paused and looked at her sympathetically. The alicorn recomposed herself and sat on the bed next to Trixie. "I just wish there was another way..." she trailed off. She stood up and moved to the window, staring blankly at the street below.

"I know, Twi. I just don't want anything to come back and bite us in the flank when the time comes."

"Me neither," Twilight muttered as she shifted her gaze down the street. The townsponies had begun to form a mob in front of the injured dragon leader, a few slinging rocks at him. "I'll be right ba--." Twilight disappeared in a flash before she finished speaking.

The startling flash at the other end compelled the mob of townsponies back from the dragons. Twilight appeared between them and the leader, her face and eyes hard on the frightened mob. Telos moved and swept the area back and forth further sending the mob back. She turned to the injured captain and looked at him just as evenly. With a burst of light from her horn, the area around the three dragons flashed, and in an instant, a barrier was placed around them.

"This will hold until we need to leave. A promise is a promise." She spun around as the crowd began talking amongst themselves with sharp tones and hushed voices. She frowned and Telos returned to her. "They can't do anything to you now, and I need them alive. They will go free whether you want them to or not, but my magic binds them for now. This is more important than any of us." Her words quelled the boiling emotions for the time being and she vanished in another flash.

She opened her eyes to the renewed shadows of the bare inn room. Rainbow Dash was struggling with removing her breastplate, the last piece of her plate mail still equipped. Her eyes were clamped shut and she grit her teeth. With a sharp grunt, she managed to remove the last of its bindings, but collapsed to the bed afterwards with a whimper. Twilight rolled her eyes and moved to the bed. Her gaze softened when she could see the color of bruises bleeding her coat a different shade, blending her torso into the darkness of the room.

"You were hit pretty hard out there. Let me help you," she offered earnestly.

"Come on, Twilight. It's nothing a little nap can't fix." Dash attempted to sit up and forced a weak smile onto her face, but Twilight scowled.

"Really, Rainbow? You got hit by a fully grown dragon. You could have some internal bleeding and broken ribs." The knight's smile withered away and Twilight gently pushed her back down onto the bed. The knight coughed, wincing once more, and wiped a small bit of blood from the corner of her mouth.

"Twilight, really. You don't have to--"

"Shh." Twilight placed her hooves just over Dash's torso, and her horn started with a soft glow. White light emanated from beneath her hooves and washed over the knight's torso in pulsing waves. Twilight closed her eyes for a few minutes and Dash's pain slipped away. She could breath in fully again and relax with the pain gone. Twilight finished and nodded, then moved to the other bed and laid down beside Trixie.

"...Thanks, Twilight," Dash whispered, her eyes on the ceiling with a slight burn on her cheeks. "I'll take better care of myself." She closed her eyes and a memory cut through her peaceful thoughts.

You need to take better care of yourself, Rainbow Dash! teased Derpy.

I'm sorry. I promise.

Twilight rubbed her temples, muttering in reply, "Get some rest." She closed her own eyes and laid in silence for a moment. I haven't used that much magic outside of training. I can't afford to fight like that in a town again if we run into too many... She sighed inwardly. I can't hold back anymore.

The faint glow of Twilight's horn illuminated the dark room, nearly overtaking the moonlight pouring in through the lone window. She focused, her mind searching through a darkness only she could navigate. Celestia... Are you there? There was a long silence as she waited for a reply. Only the rising beats of her heart and her breathing became audible beneath the veil of concentration. Celestia?

Yes, Twilight. I'm here, came the clear voice of the princess.

Twilight breathed in relief and smiled automatically. We've freed a town from a party of dragons, sparing three. They reluctantly gave us useful information in exchange for their lives. She paused, biting her lip and wondering if that was the right way to describe it. What's the situation at home? she asked quickly.

Celestia's sigh filled her mind momentarily. A dragon brought your cloak to Nightmare Moon. Twilight's heart sank. Aurelius dismissed it, but Nightmare Moon suspects something. She is hunting you, Twilight. The other four Elements have already been captured.

Twilight's heart began to race again. That's bad. Without the Elements--

I know, Twilight. I trust you will figure something out.

Celestia's words did nothing to alleviate her sudden anxiety, and she could only imagine what the corrupted alicorn had in mind for her were she to catch her. She opened her eyes and squinted in the dark to see Trixie. The magician's mouth hung open with a tendril of drool running onto her pillow. Her cowl was pulled back and Twilight stroked her silvery mane.

It's strange, though, started Celestia. Aurelius intends to keep the Elements around to remove Nightmare Moon if they cannot control her.

I don't like that... They could banish Luna along with her again.

I know, Twilight. There was another long pause, and Twilight could think of nothing more to say. Be careful. Nightmare Moon has gone to the old ruins to investigate herself. I pray that she does not pick up your trail.

Me, too. For now, we're still beneath the Brood's radar. I'll deal with Nightmare Moon when the time comes.

Get some rest, Twilight.

I will. Twilight breathed in deeply for a moment, her hoof continuing to stroke Trixie's mane. The magician mumbled and giggled in her sleep occasionally, but Twilight couldn't bring herself to smile. She stood up and moved to the window, peering out, not at the dragons, but up to the moon. Nightmare Moon will find us. There's no way she can't track my magic. She turned her head to view both Rainbow Dash and Trixie, their sleeping forms bolstering her resolve. I'll protect both of you. No matter what... I promise I'll protect you.

She moved back to her bed and laid down, pulling Trixie close. She leaned to her ear and whispered, "I promise I'll always protect you."

Chapter 12: Whispers in the Dark

View Online

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 12: Whispers in the Dark

An ominous, black mist filled the air before a reliquary, the ruins marking its own defeat in times long forgotten; Nightmare Moon breathed in deep as she solidified in front of the ancient castle that housed the once-depleted Elements of Harmony. She gazed fearlessly at the dense Everfree Forest behind her, then hesitantly to the ruins in front of her. A tinge of anxiety crept over her as she gazed upon it. With another deep breath, she stepped forward and into a realm of fear she had never considered immersing herself in again. Haunting memories of falling twice in the same place lingered in the back of her mind, images of a time when her arrogance repeatedly led to her undoing flickered in place of faded murals over the dark walls.

Nightmare found it difficult to believe she could fear this place at all, her status reflecting her as darkness incarnate. Apprehension loomed behind every corner, every stone casting an unnatural shadow out of place. Tch! I have nothing to fear. The shadows engulfed her, calming, yet creating the apprehension. And yet... She stepped out of the darkness and into a spot where the roof had eroded away centuries before. Moonlight spilled in through the opening, its pale glow tinting everything it laid upon with a majestic aura. She paused and looked up at the moon, its unmarked surface reminding her of freedom, but also of the anguishing imprisonment of the past. She shuddered beneath its beauty.

She continued her investigation, quietly moving through the halls. The muffled clop of her careful hoofsteps were all that dared to fill the wide corridors with more than faint ambiance. She occasionally lost herself to the memories of the ruins; her body knowing where to go when her mind could not find direction, and guiding her to a destination unknowingly. She reached a grand flight of stairs and paused, her turquoise eyes peering into the darkness of the climbing corridor. The blackness gave a momentary sense of comfort again. She exhaled sharply and took the first step up.

She ascended the stairs to the next floor and into the room where the Elements had been housed. She snickered at the construction that once held them succumbing to ruin, but it vanished when an image of Twilight's face burrowed its way into her memory. I broke them, and she still recreated them and used them against me. That damn unicorn... As she slowly walked through the room, she threw her eyes over every inch of the floor and walls to ensure there was nothing to miss. Satisfied by the time she reached the next doorway, she threw one last blank glance to the broken pedestal arm before moving to the next flight of stairs.

Arriving in the final room, where Twilight Sparkle had bested her with the Elements, she chose to remain at the entrance for a while. She scanned the room with caution, then her eyes darted to the raised stone floor where she twice stood proud, moments before the Elements of Harmony banished her over a millennium ago, and later purged her from Luna. As she strained herself to hear, the soft thumping of her heartbeat added to the ambience of a weak wind, and once more she feared the Elements suddenly appearing to seal her again.

After another minute, she snorted and began to move to the center of the room. Perhaps Aurelius is right. I am merely paranoid. There is nothing to fear, she assured herself.

With her fears finally expelled, she gave a weak smile as she began to channel magic through the room. Her horn gave a sickly purple glow as dark waves of light rippled throughout the room. "Well now... Somepony was most certainly here," she said aloud. "How... nostalgic."

Her ears began twitching and she recognized the faint traces of weak magic. She unconsciously shook her head, and as she was about to abandon her search, her eyes shot open, a familiar feeling embedded within the magic. Her face contorted in anger and she stomped her forehooves, her magic ending with the boom of her hooves. "You would lie, sister," she bellowed at the empty space, her voice reverberating.

"Your precious student is up to something," she grated in a much lower, gruff voice. "I'm going to find her, and I'm going to find out what your scheme is... and I'm going to get my revenge on your little pet." Her body blurred and faded into the starry mist of her mane. Rather than return to Canterlot and interrogate Celestia, she resolved to find Twilight immediately. You will pay for this, Celestia.

Her etheral form flowed up a wall and out of a window, creeping along the outer wall and down to the forest floor. She appeared as a misty blue snake slithering through the dark shrubs, a bizarre presence between the gloomy trees. The forest's typically intimidating wildlife fled from Nightmare's path as she coursed through towards a valley in the distance. All sounds from the forest dwellers ceased within half a mile of her presence, and did not immediately return once she had passed.

The forest trees broke away into the wide valley, sloping down to a sparse area with a single dirt path splitting it in half. Casting away her misty form, she gazed at it with contempt. She pressed forward and examined the surroundings as she slowly walked along the path. No traces of magic beyond the forest. Where did you go? Her head swayed between the sides of the valley, her eyes unhindered by the dark, but for all that she saw, there were no signs of anyone but the dragons having been there recently.

She snorted as she reached the center, an indent in the path marking where the unfortunate captain had laid. She stopped and stared at it for a moment. Pathetic. They couldn't even catch a single unicorn.

The dragons had long since abandoned the valley, their trap no longer useful and their search bearing no fruit. As she stepped into the indent, she froze, her eyes widening in delight. Where Twilight's cloak had been recovered, a trace amount of magic still lingered. Her eyes darted through the area in hopes of finding another visible source, but she settled on closing them and focusing. She wandered around the vicinity looking for more traces, but where the cloak rested was the only place in the valley she could sense it. Frowning, she kicked up dirt in frustration.

"You're a clever unicorn, Twilight Sparkle. I'll give you that. I don't know how you've managed to conceal your magical trail, but you will not escape me!" she threatened the empty valley. "Hmm..." she mumbled as her eyes followed the path to the other end of the valley. And where would you be going?

She began walking towards the lands in the expanse beyond the valley, the lack of any other direction to go compelling her. Each step was goaded by the curiosity of what lay beyond. Her curiosity drew her to the other end, but the sparse landscape offered nothing for a scheming unicorn, as far as she could see.

A unicorn cannot simply erase their magical presence from me, she thought. Grumbling, she maneuvered between an array of boulders, nearly prepared to give up in her pursuit. She slumped against one and looked up to the night sky. It wilted her frustrations; it reminded her that one of her own hidden dreams had come true. After a while of stargazing, her eyes fell to the ground as she started to pick herself up. But something caught her attention. Hoofprints?

A grin quickly pulled her features up and she followed them with her eyes into the distance. They were very faint, but they were there. She followed them back around the boulder and closed her eyes where they began. Twilight's magical presence lingered in the area and she began to release a breathy laugh.

"Ah-hah! I'll learn how you passed that valley without leaving a magical trail sooner than I thought. Now, little unicorn, just where are you going?" she asked to no one in particular as she peered into the direction the hoofprints led to. "And this time, we'll see just how powerful you truly are when your friends aren't there to save you."

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Twilight awoke with a start before her body was reminded of the comfort of a cozy bed and the security she was afforded. She rubbed her eyes and yawned, scanning the bland hotel room for her companions, dismayed they were not there. Hopping off the bed, she stretched and felt her magical reserves restored. The weakness, and sometimes malaise, associated with magic exhaustion tended to leave her cranky or agitated.

She found a note resting on the dresser, and a plate of breakfast. She quickly read the note as she downed the meal. Rather than crumple it up and throw it away, she disintegrated it and watched the ashes fall and vanish into the air. The others had already awakened and left to eat breakfast, though the night's embrace still robbed the world of natural light. She collected Telos and headed downstairs to find them. In the lobby, the receptionist pointed towards the captive dragons outside without a word. As Twilight stepped out into the lamp-lit streets, she garnered unreadable looks and several ponies even began following her. Rainbow Dash and Trixie sat before the leader of the dragons and sipped on coffee. They occasionally hustled ponies along or away from them to ensure they remained undisturbed.

"Good morning, Twilight, or whatever time it is," greeted Dash, her eyes rolling as she recalled the predicament of the sun.

"Did you sleep well, Twilight? We didn't want to wake you." Trixie blew over her mug of coffee while looking at the alicorn thoughtfully.

Twilight stretched and yawned again. Blinking, her eyes trailed up to the dragons. "Much better than sleeping on the grass."

Trixie followed her look and turned to glimpse the dragons. The pair, having been magnetically bonded, had since separated apart, but were still pulled close together. They laid idly by their leader, whom was still slumped into his awkward laying position, his wounds having closed during the period of rest. "What should we do with them?" she asked.

"We'll release them soon enough," replied Twilight.

A colt spoke up from behind, prompting all six of them to focus on him. "You can't do that!" he shouted nervously. "You've already killed one of them. They'll only bring more when they come back after you're gone!"

Twilight tilted her head to glimpse the dragon. "Don't worry. They won't be coming back. Right, captain?" she asked, shooting him a flat stare.

The dragon cleared his throat noisily before speaking and grunted as he returned to a natural sitting position. His comrades sat up with him, watching his lead. "Among the Brood death is all that awaits those who commit treason. What will you have us do to escape that of a traitor's fate?" he asked.

Twilight put a hoof to her chin and paused to think about it. Pride is a double edge, she thought. "You'll have to lie to them. If anyone asks, tell them you followed a lead of tracking down some mysterious ponies after you sent a scout and they failed to return. Since this town doesn't have a means to defend itself, you left your post, confident you could reoccupy it once you were done." She looked up to him. "Will that be enough?"

"I suppose, with a bit of luck. However, my comrade over there,"--he pointed a ravaged hand towards the beheaded dragon corpse off to the side--"what of him?"

Twilight and company turned their heads to glimpse it, all grimacing in unison. "Do the Brood have any burial ceremonies for their dead?" she asked with a wavering voice.

The captain raised a brow. "You would honor our dead?"

Twilight nodded quickly. "We shouldn't allow ourselves to forget who we are because of this war..." she muttered distantly, but loud enough for him to hear. Trixie and Dash stared at her, each uncomfortable of the meaning.

"Indeed. The dead of our race are laid to rest in sacred burial grounds. However..." The dragon trailed off and looked to his comrades. "If we are to make this arrangement work, we must burn the body to the bones. The corpse will surely cause us both trouble." Twilight's eyes widened and her gaze on the dragon shifted into hesitant worry. Swallowing, she opened her mouth to speak, but the dragon raised a hand to silence her. "We will do it. He is no friend of mine, but his life will be honored just the same."

"I'm... sorry it came to this." Twilight pointed a hoof to the pair of dragons beside the captain, and with a flash of her horn, undid the rest of their binding. "I just want peace again," she added sadly.

The captain studied her carefully. "The messenger at the outpost. Tell him that Captain Garr sent you to deliver the report in his stead, and that we have already departed." Garr stood up and lumbered over to his fallen comrade. After a moment of silence, he hoisted the body onto his back, nodding to the pair to retrieve the head. Garr turned back to Twilight and gave her a thoughtful look. "Were you left at my mercy, stranded in the same predicament, I may not have spared you. Your potential... It is something to admire, and fear. Thank you."

Twilight gave a solemn nod that followed with a faint smile. "Hopefully this will be over soon. I hope the Brood will share the same ideals as the rest of Equestria again."

"Perhaps we will meet again under a more favorable circumstance, pony. Maybe even as allies." Garr chuckled as he began to beat his wings. The rolling waves of dust emanating from his powerful beats swept the streets and he soon took off into night. His comrades quickly flew after, eager to leave.

"Maybe even as friends..." Twilight whispered to herself while watching them ascend into the darkness. She turned away and used a wide field of telekinesis to replace the debris of her tornado back, hiding the traces of the decisive battle. After several moments of Dash and Trixie watching in awe, the street appeared as if it had only been eroded by many years of use. "It's time to leave. We don't have a lot of time," she announced.

"Hold on." The voice of a stallion came up from behind her and the trio turned to face him. An older pony, he quickly identified himself as the mayor, with an aide standing by his side ready to help. "Thank you, heroes, for all that you have done for the town and I. Before you go, at least tell us your names," he said in a soft, almost pleading voice.

Twilight regarded his words before sighing. "I'm sorry, but we can't tell you who we are. Not right now. You will know soon enough, I promise," she replied.

"Won't you stay a while longer? You drove the dragons away, and stopped them from hurting anypony. The least we can do is extend our hospitality." He stared at the alicorn expectantly, almost guiltily.

"I'm sorry, but we can't. We just don't have the time." Her eyes trailed up to the immovable moon for a moment, then back down to the stallion. "Do you even know what's going on?"

The stallion pursed his lips and looked away. "We can only guess, what with the extended night and the dragons suddenly attacking and declaring us under the rule of the Brood." A crowd of ponies had gathered up behind as they conversed, each lured by the truth.

Twilight grimaced and continued. "Canterlot has been attacked, and the princesses captured. Judging by your reaction," she said, noting the stallion's horrified expression, "information has been disrupted as well."

The stallion hung his head as the crowd behind him was filled with gasps and quick whispers. "Then it is as I feared. I first recognized the armor of a royal soldier, and I wondered why one had wandered to our peaceful town after we were occupied," he said while pointing to Rainbow Dash. "Were you sent to help us?"

Twilight shook her head. "I'm sorry, but we weren't. We needed to rest, and took a substantial risk coming here, let alone liberating your town."

"I see..." There was a pause as he contemplated his luck. "Thank you."

Twilight nodded and rubbed at the back of her neck. "While we're grateful for your offer, everypony needs to forget we were ever here. Our mission can't be compromised," she said softly.

"I understand." He turned and faced his citizens with a glum expression. "You heard her. It's the least we can do in exchange for what they've done for us." The crowd murmured and nodded, none wishing for the outcome, but all in silent acknowledgement. Returning his focus to the trio, he sighed. "These ponies are good folk. You have my word that none of them will speak of you," he said, adding a bow.

"Thank you, mayor, for everything. We have to get going now. This will be over when dawn comes again, I hope. A new day to look forward to." She blinked slowly and began to turn. "Good luck."

They departed the town and marched beyond, a subdued emotion locked in their gait as they pushed on into the everlasting night. The prairie lands offered nothing to alleviate a rising boredom, but the constant caution drowned out the desire for entertainment. In the distance a dragon's roar could occasionally be heard, causing the trio's hearts to sink briefly and scan the horizon for the location. Dash's hoof would slip to her sword's hilt, while Telos would wobble and threaten to leap into action.

It took them the better part of a day to trek to the forest at their unenthusiastic pace, but when they arrived, Twilight scanned the edge before stepping through the tree line. It was an entangled wilderness, a jungle of rampant wildlife. Even in the night, the sounds of animals and insects sang melodies of their reign over the domain. Twilight turned to face Trixie and Dash, a careful look weighing down upon the knight.

"From here on out, we need to hide our identity. Even if the townsponies keep us a secret, we can't risk being identified."

She aimed her horn at Rainbow Dash and a stream of magic traveled to her, striking her and spreading over her body. Her usual, bright cyan coat was engulfed by a soft light and faded into a sullen grey. Her signature prismatic mane and tail were faded into as many shades of grey to match her coat. Further adding to the illusion, the sheen of her armor decayed to a dull silver. The illusion added one final touch of ruffling the knight's already messy mane. To Twilight and Trixie, it appeared as if Rainbow Dash's appearance had aged fifty years, or she'd fallen into a cement mixer.

"Whoa," exclaimed Trixie as she studied Dash's monochromatic look. "Am I going to have to look like that too?" she whined as she ran a protective hoof through her silvery mane.

"That won't be necessary, Trixie. You're not one of the Elements of Harmony, so they probably aren't even looking for you. To them, you are just another unicorn traveling with us. I, uhh... know how demeaning that sounds..." trailed off Twilight, feeling guilty of her tongue.

Trixie frowned, but it quickly flipped into a smile. "Oh, don't worry. As long as you know how Great and Powerful I am, I could care less about anypony else," she said, proudly flipping her mane out of her face.

Twilight's duskweave began to shift and took on an abyssal look. Her coat faded to a charcoal black, and her cutie mark was even replaced with a quill laying over an open book. The idea of a non-magical mark felt foreign, but she silently reassured herself it would convey the correct message. She used her magic to change her mane to a lighter grey than Rainbow Dash's.

"Uhh... Twilight?" The alicorn turned to the knight with expectant confusion. "You look like an assassin. Shouldn't you look like a scaredy pony?" asked Dash, eyeing her up and down with doubt.

"I need to look reliable, but difficult to spot. What better disguise than to look like a librarian with a dark coat?" she said, punctuating her words with a smirk. "Come on, let's not waste anymore time here. If this delivery takes any longer, this cover might not work. Garr is counting on us to make sure they don't get caught for treason and it might also give us the perfect pass to Draconis, if we're lucky," she added as Telos pushed aside some brush and they entered further into the entangled thicket of the jungle.

The wilds were absent of silence as sounds from animals and creatures of the jungle blared from every direction around them. As Trixie and Dash carefully followed behind Twilight, they continued to avert their eyes from the path they made to watch their surroundings. Any minute it seemed like an animal could attack, even if the sounds came from docile creatures. Telos's spire radiated a bright white light to aid Twilight's advance, but the light itself was unable to beat back the rampaging plant life. The thickness of the flora briefly became too much for her to handle, and she called on Rainbow Dash to take the lead, the knight expending little effort to hack open a clear path again.

After hiking for several hours into the depths of the jungle, the distance traveled dampened by the dense flora, they finally arrived at a small clearing, or at least small in contrast to the sprawling jungle. In the center sat a large hut of sorts with a thin chimney loosing a wispy stream of smoke. The hut was primitive in construction, expected of a hastily made military outpost, but it came with several pieces of tapestry and hides that suggested a more artistic origin. An inviting glow ran out from beneath a tapestry that marked the entrance. They approached cautiously, with Twilight's staff returning to a simplistic pole and Dash tucking her sword uncomfortably beneath her breastplate.

"And who would dare tread through a dangerous jungle inhabited by a dragon?" came a deep, draconic voice. The voice was not as deep as any of the dragons they had encountered so far, but it was intimidating nonetheless.

"Um, excuse me, but are you the Draconis messenger for this area?" Twilight asked in a soft voice. She bit her lip as she waited for the dragon's reaction.

"Answer the question," the voice ordered impatiently.

"Uh... um... a Captain Garr sent me to give a report in his place," added Twilight quickly. Her head swayed to glimpse Dash and Trixie, both looking to her for guidance.

"That old windbag sent you?" The dragon exited the hut and into the night, the orange glow sweeping at his feet. He stood up, but his form was significantly smaller than most dragons, standing at roughly half the mass of most fully grown members of the Brood. He examined the three before him with an air of annoyance about him. "Well? what is his report, pony? Quickly, before I consider devouring you," he snapped, licking his lips and lowering his head to better examine them.

"Uh..." Twilight hesitated, both in preparation for defending herself should his patience run out, and to contemplate how to kill him without repercussions. "He sent a subordinate to follow a lead regarding suspicious individuals in the area. However, the subordinate didn't return, and he decided to go find him. Our town," she said, throwing a hoof behind her to Trixie and Dash, "can't resist the Brood, so he thought it would be fine to just come back after he looked for the other dragon."

As she explained the dragon seemed to loom over them like a tall shadow, and she sank backwards, anxious that he wouldn't allow her to finish. After the report, there was a silence as the dragon regarded them. His back was illuminated by the hut's firelight and gave him an orange outline, but his face was blurred by the darkness.

The dragon placed a hand to his chin, mumbling idly in thought and turning his head to a random direction in the forest. He kept the ponies in the corner of his eye, even as he contemplated to himself. "I can't say I'm surprised he would use ponies to deliver a message in his place, though to part with his name to you..." The dragon grunted, almost enthusiastically, before lowering himself again. A lick of wind rushed away from him and caused Twilight's back fur to bristle. "This location is not of great importance, so I shall allow you to deliver your message to King Render." The dragon's mouth spread into a toothy grin.

"You want us to deliver his report to the dragon king?" Trixie blurted nervously. Twilight shot her an even look as the dragon chuckled.

"Of course. You can at least manage that, right? Draconis isn't far--for a dragon anyway--but we enjoy watching you ponies squirm in our presence. Having you deliver his report to our king sounds like quite the entertainment. Just don't anger him or you may end up dead before you can pass it on."

The dragon chuckled more while the trio exchanged mixed expressions. Inwardly, they groaned to each other. Twilight tilted her head down and quietly breathed in in relief. It won't be long now. I'll have to kill their king, Twilight thought. She swallowed as she glanced up to the laughing dragon. The entire Brood will be affected by this, though. What about Spike and Garr? An image of Celestia flashed into her mind, and with it brought a fear, a fear of the sorrow of losing her in the same way. Assassination...

She bit her lip, and the memories of Celestia's vain attempt at redeeming her sister twice on her own rekindled a sense of longing. I'm sorry, Celestia. She caught herself being watched by everyone around her and she cleared her throat and nodded blindly, hoping she blended back into the situation without a cause for concern.

"Scurry away, ponies. If you intend to still be breathing by the time you deliver your report, I suggest you had better be punctual. After all, our kind is at war with yours." The dragon grunted once more before lumbering back into his hut, disappearing behind the tapestry and into the orange glow.

All three breathed out in relief and began walking beyond the hut with Dash taking the lead again. They walked a quick mile in silence before conversation had broken out again. "This forest gives me the creeps," Dash said first.

"I've got a bad feeling about this place, Twilight," added Trixie, nervous.

The alicorn rolled her eyes as she met their hasty glances to her with acknowledgement, but her own eyes wandered to the reaching shadows and grasping entanglement of flora. A sudden apprehension bit into her nerves, and she felt compelled to agree. "I don't like it either, but this jungle gives us good cover, and we've already got a way into Draconis without starting a fight."

"Yeah, but Twilight," Dash protested, "this place really gives me the creeps." She slashed through a plant barring their path and there was a hesitation in her steps as she moved forward. Her head turned to look behind her, thoughts of subtle worry snaking through her mind as she pressed forward at the same time.

"We're just going to have to put up with it. It's our best option and you know it."

"Fine..." The knight sighed in defeat rather than grumbling. She continued cutting the path onward, muttering an occasional curse when the flora proved to be persistent. Twilight's light illuminated the way, but the shadows it cast moved as they did, and she would nervously jump if they moved too quickly.

They hiked through the jungle for hours, taking turns to wield Nightfall and cut the way. The knight's sword leg tired, and Trixie and Twilight would have to switch often, neither too accustomed to the physical endurance of swinging a sword. Rainbow Dash would fly just above the treetops and reset their bearings, in case they wandered off track without realizing it. A yawn slipped into the air after a long while, having erupted unceremoniously from the knight. She looked at her friends and offered a confused, "What?"

"We'll stop and rest here," Twilight said as she halted and sat down. Trixie sat next to her and rested her head into the crook of her neck.

Dash lifted herself above the treetops briefly to scan the area. "This place looks pretty empty," she remarked before setting herself down. She unfastened her baldric and laid it against a tree she had designated as her temporary bed.

A chilling breeze combed the tops of the trees suddenly. "It seems the closer we get to Draconis the less secure it is," said Twilight as she shuddered. The wind picked up and all three mares stood up simultaneously.

A black dragon slammed down on top of a tree in front of them, smashing it to the ground with a loud crack of the thick trunk snapping. He scanned them quickly and the corners of his mouth pulled into a smirk. "Well, what do we have here? I thought I heard tiny voices. Now, what might ponies be doing wandering so close to the Brood's territory?" he asked tantalizingly. "Well?" he added impatiently when they did not immediately answer.

Trixie blinked in surprise a few times. "W-we're just on our way to D-Draconis to deliver a report to K-King Render," she stammered. Her fear was only half-feigned as she watched him. The fear of her near-death experience at the hands of a dragon still lingered over the years, a nervousness always brought by their presence. Twilight placed a hoof on her and she calmed.

"Give me the report," the dragon ordered.

Twilight nudged Trixie away, while both her and Rainbow Dash both looked to Twilight. He's not going to let us go, Twilight thought as she gauged his murderous intent. The dragon took a step forward, his head lowering, and focused on the alicorn. Her black coat faded her into the night, but her eyes still shone enough to constantly reveal her position. She took a few steps forward and into the moonlight spilling between her and the dragon, Telos shifting into its staff form and springing to life. The spire aimed at the dragon and sparkled blue.

"And what do you plan to do with your little toy?" the dragon asked.

"Ether Strike," muttered Twilight as soon as he finished speaking.

The jungle lit up in a brilliant blue as a thick beam erupted from the staff, a slight buzzing emitted with it. It appeared only for a couple seconds, burning a perfect hole through the dragon. His eyes went wide, and he attempted to move a hand instinctively to shield himself, but his hand burned away instantly. As the beam vanished, he could be seen through, and his eyes shakily made their way between his wound and the alicorn, widened in disbelief.

"Wh-what!?" he croaked out as his blood spilled out onto the jungle floor. His body lifelessly toppled forward with a thump.

Twilight fell to her haunches and Telos went dark, clattering to the ground in front of her without a sheen. She held a hoof to her chest as her hyperventilating could be heard now that her target had been vanquished. Trixie rushed to her side and helped her back to standing while Twilight tried to relax herself. "Are you okay?" Trixie asked.

"I'll... be... fine," she said between gasps of air. "That... took... a lot... of magic..." After a moment, Telos returned to her back, and she dragged the dragon's corpse between the trees with her telekinesis. She wiped a rim of sweat from her head, and looked at her mystified comrades.

"Twilight, are you sure you're okay?" asked Dash with concern. It was difficult to see in the dark, but her voice carried her intent.

"I had to put a lot of power into that spell. I just need... to rest a little... is all."

The alicorn moved to the back of the dragon and lifted the tree he had crushed back up, then drove it into the stomp. She closed her eyes, her breathing slowing to almost normal, and placed both forehooves on the trunk. Green waves of light permeated over where the trunk had been split. After several moments, it appeared to have healed and kneaded itself back together, though it leaned over the dragon's corpse slightly. Her breathing had quickened again, and she paused for a moment. "This will at least... make it harder for any aerial patrols to spot us."

Dash prodded the dragon with a foreleg, confirming his death. Twilight shivered and wiped her brow again. "It's going to be cold. His body will still be warm, so we should sleep next to it."

"Uh..." Trixie glanced to the blood running along the ground on one side, her own face seeming to drain of it.

"It's that or freeze," concluded Twilight. She took her place against the tail with Trixie quick to be by her side. Dash laid on the opposite side to Trixie. "It seems the dragons are more loyal and dangerous the closer we get to Draconis. I don't know if we'll be able to keep ourselves hidden if this happens again. We need to be ready for anything."

"Don't worry, Twi. We're in this together," Dash said, shooting her a confident smirk.

"To the end of the world, Twilight," echoed Trixie with a reassuring smile.

Twilight sighed and rolled to her side, Telos moving in front of them and burying itself into the ground, a soft white glow emanating from the spire. "Thank you both for coming. I don't know if I could've done this alone." Trixie began massaging her back with gentle hooves, a quiet moan escaping her beloved's lips. Maybe it would've been easier alone... I don't know if I could've made it, though... she lamented. Her breathing slowed and her body relaxed completely.

The dragon's final moment flashed into her mind, and an image of Spike shaking his head with it. Every kill was getting easier, but each was a brick to her conscious; each brick made herself harder to carry, harder to believe in. Celestia... Maybe you were wrong. Maybe Luna was right. Maybe... Her worried thoughts scattered to nothingness as sleep overtook her.

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Nightmare Moon cracked a toothy grin as she began approaching the lower slope of a mountain. She galloped up the mountain with itchy eagerness, even though she could barely sense Twilight's lingering presence. Even at a quick pace, the rough trail failed to slow or impede her, her steps carefully missing each rock without so much as a cautious glance to the ground. She scaled the mountain up to a cliff face that overlooked the next area, and she stopped, the scent she was following lingering there in a slightly stronger form. Oh, aren't you the clever one, she mused while looking out into the night.

She stayed for a moment to observe them before mumbling to herself. "Dragons are such trite beings." Taking a breath, she turned around and stared at the blank cliff face. With a small smirk, her mane lashed at it, engraving a sharp crescent moon. She chuckled and continued down the path, her pace hastened as she fixated on Twilight's magical trail once more. She followed it all the way to the nearest town in the expanse below, throwing her head back and forth to the sparse surroundings. As she neared the entrance to the town, she arched a brow.

No dragons, huh? Well, Twilight Sparkle, you're sneakier than I ever would've guessed. She took a few more steps to the entrance and peered past the two militia ponies. She failed to notice them trembling with fear as they laid eyes upon her. Oh my, it has been quite a while since I've made an impression. How do I want to play this? Spectacularly, casually, magically? she wondered. She took an eager step forward as she settled on her method.

She took her steps with enthusiasm while she watched the ponies of the town flee from her presence. Some shouted her name, others simply called out to run, but all of them made her feel all the happier that her status remained intact while she was dormant. The scent of Twilight's magic intensified on the main road, and she froze for a moment. Her eyes widened and her heart rate picked up, but her grin remained unchanging. Oh, my. Aren't you the extraordinary little unicorn now? She glanced around to the ponies brave enough to linger, meeting each look of hatred and fear with her own of outward glee.

"Why, if it isn't some of my sister, Celestia's, loyal subjects. Come now, don't be shy." She began walking towards a frightened colt unlucky enough to be caught in the street. He attempted to flee, but his legs buckled and he crashed onto his back, petrified as Nightmare moved and loomed over. "Oh, don't you want to know what it's like to spend a millennium banished to the Moon all alone?" she tantalized.

The colt whimpered as her mane began to expand, a thick, dark mist expanding over him and engulfing him in a misty cocoon. He yelped as the last of him was consumed and Nightmare Moon stared at it expectantly. The mist suddenly receded back into her mane, and she threw her head back, wild with laughter. The colt had wet himself, and he threw his head frantically in every direction. When his eyes settled back on Nightmare Moon, he blinked several times and she leaned closer.

Chuckling, Nightmare's mane lurched towards him and caressed his cheek. "Oh, pitiful worm. I'm not here to hurt you. I'm just having some fun while I look for..." She paused and pulled away, turning towards the direction of Twilight's magical scent on the main road briefly, "somepony in particular to hurt. Perhaps you've seen her?" The colt shook his head quickly. Nightmare leaned in close and her grin slipped away into a blank look. "Boo!" she yelled suddenly, her grin returning and eyes widening.

The colt screamed and dashed away without looking back. Nightmare cackled as she watched him run down the street and disappear between a set of buildings. On-looking townsponies stared at her in shock, none able to believe the Id's bizarre mercy. She wiped a joyful tear from her eye with her mane and continued following Twilight's trail. She froze again as she picked up something else. She's traveling with another archmage? Such a ridiculous order... You should know our rule is absolute, Celestia, she thought with disdain for the sun princess's ideals.

The main road through the town opened into a plaza area. It was empty, all ponies having abandoned it the moment Nightmare Moon had arrived. She walked to the center and Twilight's lingering scent became intoxicating briefly. I think I shall make her my jester. Nightmare smiled and nodded unconsciously in agreement with herself. The scent brought a powerful nostalgia, and she closed her eyes to memories of battling Celestia in the past. She breathed in deep through her nostrils and exhaled with a joyous squeak at the end. "What a prize you have left me, dear sister. Oh how this brings back the exhilaration of our quarrels." She smiled again, faintly, as she opened her eyes and continued following the trail, paying no mind to the confused onlookers eager to see her leave.

Rather than hasten her travel as a sentient mist, she trotted casually through the prairie lands on the opposite side of the town. Hot on Twilight's trail, she felt compelled to take her time, and she wandered through the open night at a brisk pace, even with the hatred for her constantly coaxing each step to be faster than the last. The cool air only served to bristle her spine in anticipation as she followed the magic scent to a jungle. You're a clever pony, Twilight Sparkle. I did not think you could travel my night so quietly. It doesn't matter, though. I shall have my revenge upon you and Celestia soon enough.

There was a hesitation as she stared into the jungle, her eyes peering in but succeeding in discerning nothing more than that it contained wildlife. She shook her head stepped through, her tall, slender form easily maneuvering through the dense plants. Twilight's magic trail had grown feint, intensifying slightly at the edge of the jungle, and then fading to almost nothing afterwards, but it lined a fresh cut path through the flora. The expanse of wilderness was silent as she pressed through, no sounds from animals daring to greet her. Even the animals know to fear me, she thought gleefully.

After only a couple hours, she reached a large clearing in the jungle, a hut situated in the center. The warm glow of a fire spilled out of the entranceway, seemingly inviting her. She moved to it with piqued interest, abandoning her hunt for a moment.

"Identify your--" A small dragon hastily exited the hut, a look of astonishment on his face as Nightmare Moon came into view. He chuckled and closed the distance between them. "Well, well, well. Such a sinister presence you bring. None of the Brood thought Lord Aurelius could succeed in bringing you back. What brings you to me, she who is exalted among us, the mistress of the night, Nightmare Moon?"

"I bear no allegiance to the Brood, let alone Aurelius," the alicorn snapped. The dragon stared at her with confusion. "We are merely allied, and nothing more. Now, I am searching for a pony--a purple unicorn. I believe they passed through here not long ago."

The dragon scratched at his chin while eyeing her. "A purple unicorn, no. I don't know how long ago it was, but two unicorns and a pegasus passed through. Haggard looking bunch. They are delivering a report on a Brood captain's behalf. I sent them on to Draconis. I'm sure King Render, or another dragon will eat them and take the report. Why does it matter to you, mistress?"

Nightmare Moon frowned as she stared at him, an annoyed expression filling her features, though it could not be revealed in the darkness. "I have a personal vendetta to settle with the one I am hunting, and it just so happens to be Celestia's protégé."

"Forgive me, mistress, for I have not seen the ones you are looking for. I hope what little information I have provided helps."

Nightmare smiled suddenly and glanced up to the sky. She began walking past the dragon, a new spring in her steps. "Oh, I believe it has. Thank you for participating in this great hunt." The dragon nodded confusedly and stepped back into his hut and out of sight. Each step Nightmare took seemed quicker than the last, and she was suddenly eager to catch up to Twilight.

She broke into a full speed run, but after several more strides, she dematerialized into her mist and flowed through the jungle with renewed vigor. Let's have some fun before I make you mine, Twilight Sparkle. Let's see just how strong you are now without the Elements of Harmony to save you. Her thoughts only fueled her eagerness and the mist surged after the trail. The magical scent began to intensify, lingering magic amplifying the feeling as the shadowed carcass of a dragon came into view.

She returned to her natural form and slowed to approach carefully, a large grin splitting her face. I've found you~! A soft white glow emanated from an object near the tail, and as she neared it, a blinding flash erupted from it. She attempted to shield her eyes, reeling backwards and holding a foreleg over them, but it took her a moment to recover her vision from the light.

"Nightmare Moon!?" came a shocked voice. Twilight appeared behind her with the staff floating beside her, awe and fear marking her face, her mouth agape.

"I've finally caught you, Twilight Sparkle. Oh how I've longed to see you again, Element of Magic. I hope you've prepared yourself. You get the privilege of kneeling before me in my eternal night." She clapped her hooves, beaming with delight.

Twlight's back bristled and she trembled slightly, forcing herself to stare at the Id evenly. She allowed her natural coat color to return, but her hue in the darkness barely shifted and her wings remained hidden. I... I have to stop her! Her eyes remained locked with Nightmare Moon's own, her blood freezing over as terror seeped into her. I can't kill her... Celestia... forgive me... The air stood still, but Twilight felt as if she was growing colder, the Id pulling the heat from her body with just her sharp, malicious eyes.

Nightmare Moon took a step forward. "Don't be shy!" she cooed. "I only want to play with you again." She began laughing as she took another step. "Maybe you can spend a thousand years on the moon all alone. Or maybe a thousand years as my pet. How does that sound?"

Twilight stood up and pointed an accusing hoof at Nightmare Moon. "Your night ends here, Nightmare Moon! I don't need the Elements of Harmony to stop you!" she retorted with forced determination. She prayed that the Id could not see her hind legs trembling in the darkness.

"Oh? But your friends are the Elements of Harmony, so you don't need them as well?"

The question caught Twilight off guard, and her mouth went dry. Try as she might, there was nothing she could say to spoil Nightmare Moon's mood. I can't hold back this time. I'm sorry it came to this, Celestia. I'm sorry, Luna. She braced herself for a cosmic duel. She forced air into her lungs and dropped down to all fours, Telos hovering alight beside her. Maybe... Maybe I can free Luna!

Chapter 13: The Fallen Angel

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The Quiet Place
By: Aynine
[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 13: The Fallen Angel

Twilight's skin crawled, her heart racing as every nerve in her body cried out for her to run, but she couldn't. There was no escaping Nightmare Moon now, and she stared at her, her violet eyes locked into the sharp turquoise, and all she could think about was what she had to do. There was a fire buried within their eyes--hers of the will to protect, the Id's of the will to break. But even as she battled away her worry, her fear of faltering, her fear of being unable to save Luna or protect her friends, it was there, always there in a tiny ember that lined her actions. I can't fail! And then she forced her instinct to run out of her mind, an adrenaline rush reminding her there was no avoiding this fight.

"You little devil, I'll tell you what. If you win, I'll relinquish the eternal night and allow Celestia to raise your precious sun again." Nightmare Moon snorted at her own words, the mere thought of her losing being a joke all in itself. "But... if I win, you will become my gracious servant," her almost jovial tone reversed to a stern one as she went on, "and always remain by my side in this everlasting darkness among the dragons. They can be quite boring." Nightmare Moon finished with a large smirk to her sentence. Her eyes were laced with taunting malice, or a sinister affection. As if you could ever beat me alone.

Twilight hadn't moved an inch, even at the goading of her fear, and remained petrified, not out of fright, but in defiance of Nightmare Moon. Any sign that she was scared would only mean the Id could be winning. Without the Elements of Harmony to purge Nightmare Moon from Luna she couldn't hold back her powers for anyone. Telos faded and slipped into the shadows, two thumps on the heads of the sleeping ponies quickly roused them awake.

"Get out of here!" Twilight shouted into the darkness behind Nightmare, her eyes wide and fixated on the location of Trixie and Dash.

The knight was first to shuffle awake, rubbing her head with one hoof, and her eyes with the other. Half-yawning, she opened her mouth to speak. "What the hay, Twi? What gives?" she started, standing up and allowing her eyes to absorb the moonlight.

Trixie followed suit, still rubbing her head gently. "Twilight, what's going on?" The pair's eyes picked up Nightmare's misty mane waving ominously in the air before them.

"You!" cried Dash, snatching her sword. She ripped the weapon from the sheathe and took on an offensive stance immediately. "Twilight, we're not going to leave you here to fight her alone," she argued.

"Who is that, Twilight?" Trixie glanced between the two alicorns nervously, until her eyes settled on the Id's cutie mark, and she snatched up her staff an instant. Nightmare turned her head enough to shoot the unicorn a sidelong glance, and as their eyes met, she became overwhelmed with a sense of dread. Nightmare's astral mane shifted in the air, not unlike Celestia's, but its movements and flow were confident and spiteful.

Twilight straightened and stood up, Telos returning into her hooves. She had no choice but to wield it directly now; a sense of power surged through her as it fell into her grasp. Directly utilizing a staff was considered a last resort among unicorn magi, even in dire circumstances. She needed full control over the magic amplification, even if it meant risking catastrophic destruction through her completely unrestrained spells.

"Get out of here, NOW! Continue to Draconis without me. I might not be able to finish this mission with you after all. Don't wait for me." Her hooves trembled, a few tears loosing onto her hooves. The pain of regret only made her grip the staff tighter, her hooves clenching until they became sore. "Just... go," she added, letting her bangs mask her tears.

Trixie took a step forward. "No, Twilight! You're coming with us! We need each other now more than ever!" she begged with all of her heart, her panic suddenly mixing with desperation.

Twilight snapped her head up, her tears glistening in the moonlight. "Damn it, Trixie, listen to me! This isn't a fight either of you can handle. Just don't get into any battles and finish Rainbow's half of the mission. If you stay within a mile of this area... I can't guarantee I won't hurt you."

"No, Twilight. I'm staying!" Trixie shouted back.

In two flashes of the spire, Twilight had raised and slammed Telos into the ground. "Don't make this... any harder... than it has to be." Trembling, she wiped her eyes and raised her head to look at Trixie one last time, her irises shining in the darkness like the Id's. "I love you, Trixie. Now please... go," she added weakly, her look softening.

Trixie could no longer hold back tears of her own and they ran down her cheeks freely, spilling onto the dark ground. "I love you, too, Twilight..." she murmured.

Rainbow Dash attempted to pull Trixie away, but she remained in place. The magician watched as Twilight removed her gaze from her and a faint purple aura formed around her. Nightmare turned away and watched as Dash latched onto Trixie's body and pried her from the ground, taking off backwards and soon vanishing into the skies. The knight's illusion faded as she departed.

"Touching, and how noble of you to remain behind and sacrifice your heart and soul to save them and all of Equestria. Perhaps if they watch from the distance, they'll get to see just how right you are," Nightmare mocked, a rush of excitement filling her.

Twilight stamped a hoof. "It's just you and me, Nightmare Moon. I won't let you hurt any of my friends or stop our mission," she retorted.

"Oh, hohoho! There is so much evil in my past, and now you, the oh-so-holy savior, stand before me with blood on your hooves. Tell me, Twilight Sparkle, do you have it in you to kill Princess Luna for the good of Equestria if need be?"

Twilight took a step backwards and clenched her teeth, a renewed spite clouding her head. "You bastard... I only need to disable you until the Elements of Harmony are gathered again. But I think I can purge you from Luna myself."

Nightmare's eyes lit up and she took a step forward out of the darkness, the moonlight splitting her body at a sharp angle. "Cocky, are we? Really now, do you think you are strong enough to do that and join your friends?" she countered, smirking.

Twilight stared back with contempt, pulling the staff into both hooves again. "Don't tempt me, Luna."

Nightmare frowned. "Enough of your prattle, foal. I am most certainly not your precious Princess Luna. I am the darkness, and I will make you my trophy," she replied, the ground around her beginning to rumble. "If you give up now, I'll make sure everything is painless. I promise."

"Nightmare Moon, you're nothing but a bad dream. In the name of the Princesses, I will purge you, just a bitter shell, from Luna!" Twilight declared, slamming Telos into the ground once more.

Nightmare was the first attack, her horn shining with a fierce blue aura as she called upon her magic. A tree uprooted from nearby and propelled towards Twilight. She bat it away with Telos, a telekinetic pulse from the spire diverting it past her. Nightmare smirked before ripping many more out and attempting to drive them into her. Telos's spire shined brilliantly and a gale of wind swirled around Twilight before surging sharply upwards and shattering the trunks to peces. The chips of wood rained down upon them, and Telos shifted into a red glow as Twilight recited an incantation for a more powerful spell.

"Drown in the blood of the Phoenixes, and may nothing but ashes of life remain!" she cried out.

In an instant, the jungle was engulfed in a rampaging inferno. The fires latched onto every piece of flora that could be seen, and ignited it in a bright red and orange display, even the corpse of the dragon was ignited and added to the blaze. Nightmare attempted to fly away, but the flames seemed to come to life, reaching up to her and touching a wing before returning to the ground. The flames quickly spread over her body and she crashed back to the earth, dropping and rolling as she became nothing more than a flailing, screaming mass of flames.

Her cries died down as her mane expanded and weaved itself around her to smother them. She slowly rose back up her hooves as the flames vanished and her body steamed, a rage hidden behind an exasperated, pained expression, and panted heavily. Her misty mane had diminished in size slightly and several pieces of armor had melted, some fusing to her body. She stood up and placed a hoof under the edge of her chest piece, and then screamed as she violently ripped it off, bloody, exposed flesh illuminated in the firelight, and she discarded the armor with a disappointed toss to the side.

The skies began to rain down the ashes of the vanishing jungle. Twilight's spell left nothing around them but blackened earth and cinders, but she paid the destruction of her catastrophic spell no mind. Both alicorns glowered at each other, Nightmare showing her fangs as she made no attempt to hide her contempt.

Drying out the immediate atmosphere so I can't use the water... You're clever. This is getting interesting... "I... will make... you suffer... for that!" Nightmare grinded out. "Why don't you have a taste of my darkness?" she bellowed, her horn flaring with a dark glow. A dark light split the earth before her and surged towards its target.

Twilight's body instinctively lurched backwards, but the light lanced her in the chest and spread through her body. Telos attempted to block it, but it was too late. She clenched her teeth and growled through the pain, her nerves feeling as if they'd been burned by the energy that surged throughout her. She landed off balance and spread her wings to pivot before unleashing a counter attack. Nightmare's eyes widened as she watched her.

"Mjollnir!" Twilight called out with a dry throat as she landed with little grace, her hind legs nearly buckling as she returned to a normal stance.

The mighty lightning bolt climbed down from the heavens and consumed Nightmare within a brilliant yellow shine for its momentous duration. Everything was bathed in that yellow glow for a brief few seconds. The area the bolt had struck cratered slightly, but Nightmare stood panting as a dark blue barrier around her faded away and displayed her body, unscathed by the spell.

Nightmare chuckled, almost incoherently, for a few seconds. "Back in the Everfree Forest years ago... I never would've imagined you could ever hold a candle to me. Now look at you. I'm almost as proud of you as my sister is." She straightened herself and regarded Twilight with a frown. "...Almost." Her expression darkened and her horn began shining again. "To think you would ever become an alicorn! I will make Celestia pay dearly for making you, an insult to our race!" she raged.

The ground beneath Twilight suddenly quaked and tore apart as a dark hand erupted forth and caught her in its grasp. Its grip tightened and attempted to squeeze the life out of her. She yelped in agony, but the hand was unable to fully crush her against a passive force engulfing her. Instead, it dragged her down into the ground and it closed again as she disappeared.

Nightmare stared to where Twilight had been pulled down with expectant eyes, almost leaning as she waited. The ground trembled and an arcane blast erupted from beneath Nightmare. She leaped and propelled herself backwards with her wings, narrowly avoiding the spell. Twilight flew out of the new fissure with several new cuts on her body, and a large contusion wrapping around her chest. She landed on the opposite side of the fissure, Telos firm in her grasp, and the faint purple aura still glowing around her, but she groaned and placed a hoof softly to her chest.

"Isn't this fun, Twilight?" Nightmare asked as she gently patted a burnt wing.

"You're enjoying yourself too much." Twilight spat blood to her side and tensed, running her hoof over the bruise around her torso. She winced at how sensitive it was, even with her duskweave and modified body resisting the injury.

Nightmare brought an armored hoof to her mouth and snickered, the melted metal glimmering in the firelight. "I can see it in your eyes. You revel cutting loose like this,"--she swung a hoof to the inferno consuming the jungle--"creating destruction as much as I. It excites us!"

Twilight's eyes widened briefly before settling into a contemptuous stare. "Don't compare me to you. Is causing others to suffer all you care about?"

Nightmare opened her mouth to speak, but she suddenly shuddered and placed a hoof to her head. The helmet was cracked, with the edges and detail having melted to dullness. "I..." An image of an alicorn pierced her mind. She couldn't make out the details, but she was suddenly filled with a yearning. She groaned and shook her head quickly. "Enough of your pointless judgements!"

The air around Telos swirled and powerful winds soon picked up around Twilight. She aimed the spire to the ground and a maelstrom ripped forth, prompting her to construct a barrier and expend more magic controlling it. As the windstorm grew into a tornado, it continued to expand and tear up the ground, carving sharp indents where it touched the earth in a matter of seconds. Nightmare bared her teeth and attempted to gain distance, but the winds began vacuuming her slender form into it. Her large wings battled the tornado's suction, and she managed to keep her distance as ashes from the ground and air were absorbed.

The tornado took on a sickly opaque grey color as more and more ashes were pulled in. Nightmare struggled to keep away, even attempting to counter it with her own magical wind, but the twister prevailed and engulfed her. It teetered back and forth, side-winding for a moment as it ravaged the ground further. Twilight panted and pressed a hoof to her head, moaning as a pang of pain rapped on her skull. The tornado ended in an instant and all that it contained was dispersed into several rings where it had been, Nightmare's lacerated form resting in the center.

Nightmare grunted and shook herself of loose dirt and ash, grinding her teeth as she leveled her gaze on Twilight. "It seems like you're getting exhausted already. Heh... Maybe I overestimated just how strong you are." She took in a deep breath and slowed her heart rate, despite all of the wounds on her body--burns, cuts, bruises, gashes--she was able to collect herself. "Let's see how durable my new toy is."

The ground quaked as she finished speaking, a black void forming beneath her. Twilight looked to the sky as it began to precipitate, but the droplets that rained down on them were not water. They were black, almost oily, and tinted the ground as they soaked in. They hit their bodies and slid off without leaving much more than a damp streak. Twilight tightened her grip on Telos and poised herself for another spell, but she wasn't sure what Nightmare was planning yet.

The Id chuckled as a dark meteor slid into view in the sky, ending the strange rain as it plummeted towards Twilight. Twilight spun Telos as she whirled around, settling herself with the spire aimed at the meteor upon returning to face it. A blast of invisible force escaped the spire and hit the meteor, the form rippling where it was impacted before it shattered. As she prepared to focus back on Nightmare Moon, more meteors slid out of the night sky and into the firelight.

She gasped as a few turned into many, and soon an entire swarm of them were approaching from the nightly heavens. Her mouth hung open as she analyzed which she could evade and which she would be forced to use magic against. She turned to glimpse Nightmare, but the Id had vanished into raging flames to watch as she recovered. To Twilight's dismay, the meteors began changing course and homing in on her. She broke into a run, utilizing her wings for bursts of speed to narrowly evade some of the meteors. They slammed into the ground, but crumbled to small rocks shortly after serving their purpose.

The first assault proved easy to dodge, but every barrage that followed tracked her movements better than the last. Damn it. She's going to wear us both out. After two more barrages, she was unable to evade any more of them, and raised Telos, firing blasts of magic at any that would hit her. Bolt after bolt shattered the approaching meteors, filling the sky with their debris on top of the ashes. She cleared the way through the waves, but one final meteor appeared. Twilight growled as its entirety became visible. It was too large to dash out of the way with the improved homing, and she fired a blast of force at it. The meteor was unaffected and she frowned at it.

I'm alone, this shouldn't-- Twilight attempted to teleport, but her eyes went wide as nothing happened. Damn it! Bracing for impact, she raised Telos again and formed several barriers, layering them over herself one after the other.

Nightmare reappeared as the meteor hit the ground, the quake that followed forcing her to take flight. The sound was deafening, the earth heaving and breaking beneath the impact. After a moment, Nightmare landed atop the meteor and tilted her head back, snorting. "Oh, my. Was that too much? I'd hate to have broken my new toy so soon." The meteor shook before shattering to pieces, a startled Nightmare leaping into flight again. "Well, well, well..."

The pieces crumbled and vanished into the air, and the infernos consuming the jungle around ceased as the last of the pieces disappeared, the area once again reclaimed by the chilling darkness. Twilight crawled out of the crater on her knees, her duskweave ripped in many places, and blood running down her head. She spread her wings and flew away from it to gain more distance, landing on stable ground. Her legs threatened to buckle, but she jammed Telos into the ground to remain steady, placing a hoof on her head and moaning.

Nightmare landed opposite of her a cautious distance between them, her eyes holding a contemptuous glare for the new alicorn. "You're more than a typical alicorn... What are you? No unicorn in all of Equestria could stand against me alone, but you... What are you...?"

"Surrender, Nightmare Moon. I don't care if it's to me, or if you retreat now and do it later, but you know how this ends. I don't want to hurt you or Luna anymore." Twilight panted, turning her head away to wince as another pain spike rammed into her skull like a carriage hitting a stone wall. She clutched her head with both forehooves briefly, her staff ringed in her forelegs. "I don't care what you do with your position, but just... don't hurt anyone anymore..."

Nightmare laughed as she disregarded her words. "Do you really think I'll just give up, run away because a little foal like you hurt me? I've waited too many centuries for what is rightfully mine! To think I would walk away now, when I can break you, is absurd! Don't mock me because you're standing in a place no pony has reached in a thousand years," she yelled. "You are the one who should give up."

Twilight gave her a look of disgust. "Don't you even know who you are!? You and Luna are nothing alike! I don't know how something like you could ever exist inside Luna." Nightmare blinked, at a loss for words to counter with. She looked away for a moment before Twilight went on. "I don't know how you came back from Luna after we redeemed her." I'm sorry, Luna, but this might be the only way.

Telos's spire pierced the dark skies as it shined blue over the fiery orange. Nightmare threw her head in every direction as the air suddenly became humid again, the humidity quickly turning into a damp chill hanging in the air. A few seconds passed as the cold set in and it began to snow. Winds suddenly whipped through the area, and in a matter of minutes a full blizzard was created, burying the scarred land in sheets of powdery snow.

"You can command the weather?" Nightmare blurted in surprise. Her slender form was quickly blanketed along with the lands by the rapidly thickening snow.

"Give up peacefully, Nightmare Moon, and I won't finish this spell."

The alicorns stared at each other, each with a different determination and loathsome thought in their eyes. The snow built up and rose to their haunches as a minute ticked away, the cold numbing their brutal wounds. Nightmare's expression shifted into a sneer. "Hardly."

Twilight lowered her Telos and cast the snow a look of regret. "Fine then. Don't say I never offered you a peaceful solution..."

Her horn flashed and the blizzard intensified, the winds shepherding the snow in thick, rolling smears that reduced visibility to nothing. The temperature was bearable before, but now Nightmare's body began to chill and slow, the blizzard sapping her natural heat from her. She squinted and strained her eyes to find Twilight, but all that returned were the howling gales and ferocious frost.

"This cold snap.... will not... freeze... me!" Nightmare's roars withered with each word until she was left breathless, a burning sensation scraping the inside of her lungs. She shivered, and she began to numb on the outside. She wasn't sure if her teeth were chattering, but all feeling was slipping away in the moment.

Twilight heard her drowned roars as a distant cry as she dug into the snow, a weak barrier warding off the contact with the frost, but it did little to fight back the cold. Nightmare's presence was fading, and she sensed one last spark of magic that fizzled and vanished. Did it work? The blizzard faded over the course of half a minute, the winds stopping and the snow becoming no more than a light sprinkling. Twilight canceled her barrier and stood up, her head poking out of the snow to glance around.

Lingering breezes bit into her face with icy fangs, some carrying a few flakes to accentuate her eyes with white. The sky was a mess of grey as stray snow danced above. She squinted through the cold and caught sight of Nightmare, entrapped in a thick case of ice. Twilight trudged through the frost and reached her, staring into her sharp, stilled eyes. The cold was beginning to dull her own movements, and a shiver jolted precious heat back into her, but she remained fixated on Nightmare's eyes. Like a dragon's... she noted.

A sudden feeling of sorrow washed over her as she stared into the eyes, her imagination answering questions of Luna's past for her. "I'm sorry that it had to be the cold that trapped you. I'm sorry, Luna, but it's over now, and I'll bring you back soon. I promise." She placed a hoof up to Nightmare's face and glanced away.

"Don't speak as if you know me!" The muffled words of Nightmare Moon snapped her eyes back up to her frozen face. Twilight leaped backwards, startled that the Id could survive the blizzard. "I will never succumb to the cold again! Never!" A burst of energy shattered the prison of ice and Twilight raised a foreleg to shield her eyes from the spray of ice.

The energy didn't dissipate and surged on to Twilight, striking her in the chest before she could react. The impact sent her sailing backwards, her chilled wings unable to provide necessary stability, and she fell back into the depths of the snow. She yelped and clutched the wound, a steaming burn mark on her chest overlaying the bruise, and wiped a line of blood running down her jaw. She clenched her teeth and rolled onto her back, Telos resting on her stomach, and held her hooves over her chest. The pain faded as the wound closed beneath the healing light emanating from her hooves.

Maybe I can't win... Celestia, help me!

"Crawl. Crawl like the pathetic worm you truly are from, me, the almighty bird," Nightmare seethed. Her mane whipped violently at the snow, blasting large scoops into the air on one side while she conjured flames to burn through the other.

Twilight tunneled through the bottom layers, taking care not to give away her position. Wait... Maybe if I just weaken her more... She continued tunneling behind Nightmare as the flames threatened to melt away her cover on top of her, and a desperate idea formed in her mind. This is my only chance to purge her. Now or never! She leaped out of the snow, her frost covered body fighting back the numbing cold through adrenaline. Nightmare spun on her heels in surprise and was met with the spire of Telos shining brilliantly, aimed at her.

"Celestial Star!" Twilight cried, and a magical rune spread out onto the dampened ground beneath Nightmare.

The Id reflexively glanced up to the sky as white lances of energy surged down from the dark heavens, each illuminating a bit of the sky in its path. Nightmare smirked and began flying between them. She attempted to destroy one with her own magic, but it merely knocked it off course, a great flash and explosion quaking the ground even from where it had landed in the distance. She quickly found herself cornered by the same trap she used on Twilight, only the lances became too fast to dodge. "I have plenty of magic left, but I doubt you can keep this up on me!"

"Meteor Storm!"

Twilight constructed a barrier over herself as meteors, smaller in mass than the powerful stars hailing down, began barraging on top of Nightmare like artillery. The Id's face contorted in anger as she was left with only one way out. She began making her advance on Twilight when a star and meteor, each too large to share the glory of crushing her, took over the sky above. Too much! She broke down into her mist and managed to slip herself closer to Twilight, but the other alicorn shielded herself as the star and meteor collided on top of both of them.

The earth resisted the forces rippling through the land for a moment, but the top layers of dirt were torn asunder as the shockwave ruffled land like a light cloth. Powerful vibrations penetrated Twilight's barrier and she fell onto her stomach as everything settled once more. A thick haze created by cascading dirt made it difficult to see as her barrier faded, and she wheezed, gasping in the dirty air, and the drain of her magic was beginning to physically impact her.

Nightmare had been blasted slightly away, but she remained in full control of herself. The Id pulled her cracked helm off and removed the loose shackling of a broken bracer, tossing it aside with ire.

Twilight forced herself into a gallop towards Nightmare, her heart beginning to drum as the other alicorn still appeared unhindered by her grievous wounds and magic fatigue. This is all I can do... I hope it's enough--it has to be enough!

"You damned witch!" Nightmare growled. Seeing Twilight's horn beginning to glow as she neared, she prepared a spell of her own.

"Kyrie Eleison!" cried Twilight as she skid to a halt a ten yards from Nightmare.

"You won't defeat me! Black Hole!" Nightmare countered, throwing an aiming hoof at Twilight.

Their spells did not clash, and instead, were aimed directly at the areas they both resided. Twilight's spell summoned a great white light beneath Nightmare Moon, too bright to peer into. She turned her head away and squinted as the light burned away the darkness and consumed Nightmare with it. As it expanded outward from its targeting point, the dark figure seemed to vanish completely into it, her screams of agony and rage the only evidence she was caught within.

Twilight was left with no time to observe, and Nightmare Moon's final spell manifested next to her. A black void appeared, distorting the world around it, and began pulling her and parts of the ravaged earth into it. "What... is... this!?" she choked out as her body twisted and distorted, captured and quickly whirling in an unnatural animation and becoming devoured by the void. She attempted to scream, a scream containing the pain of every nerve and cell in her body being crushed and compacted into nothingness, but no sound escaped her throat, no amount of effort could force her cry from her lungs. Her heart felt as if it stopped as her chest clinched and the spell seemed to vacuum life from her.

Telos clattered to the ground where Twilight had stood as the rest of her body was pulled into the void. The light from her own spell was unable to reach the void, and it consumed any that dared to reach for it. Nightmare continued to burn for the duration of the exorcising light. As the white subsided so did her black hole, and it deposited Twilight's mangled form and the devoured earth back onto the ground where it had been summoned.

The purple alicorn whimpered as she could feel herself capable of breathing again, but could not fathom the mechanics of the spell nor her inability to process the overwhelming pain it had created. All of her bones felt brittle, and she shakily rose to her hooves, fearful they might crumble to dust with any pressure applied to them. Her ears rang like she'd been inside a bell as it was beaten with an equally large bell. Blood ran down her muzzle starting from nose, and she clamped her left eye shut as she attempted to realign her senses with reality. She kept her right eye open, but the image was blurred and the world jumped at her as the throbbing of a migraine made itself apparent through the rest of her pain.

"I can't... believe it..." She coughed, a splat of blood landing on the dirt in front of her. Her legs trembled as she maintained a feeble stance.

Nightmare stared at her from where she stood, her own legs trembling as blood dripped from the previous burn on her chest. She extended her wings onto the ground and lowered her head, gasping for air. Blood covered her body in patches, and one of her wings had half of the feathers burned away. Her mane and tail had receded into small splotches of the mist it once was, now lacking the distinct starry pattern living within.

She attempted to take a step forward, only to fall and barrel over to her side and clutch her chest with one foreleg, attempting to use the other to rise again to a bipedal stance. She heaved in a breath, grunting as she made it to back standing, but shakily on all fours. Her steps had changed direction and she staggered towards the nearest tree that witnessed their battle.

"Where... are you... going?" called Twilight, attempting to follow her with an equally frail gait.

Nightmare Moon made it to the tree and plopped onto the ground at its base, scooting up and leaning back against it. Twilight's eyes widened as she took in the Id's expression. It was not one of her typical complacency or anger, but an earnest smile, her eyes glazed as they ran from the purple alicorn up to the moon showing through the grey haze from the blizzard hanging high in the sky. She snorted, but then it evolved into a chortle.

"I don't know what's happening to me... But you..." She slipped into incoherent laughter, and Twilight couldn't understand some of her words. "I don't think... I will ever... forget you," she added in a rasp. She winced as pain surged across the burn on her chest. She took in another sharp breath and it passed.

Twilight could only stare in disbelief at the sudden shift in demeanor, her eyes still widened with awe and curiosity. She maintained a distance from the Id, cautious that she may still have an ace up her sleeve.

Nightmare's glee faded and they stared at each other in a strange silence for a while. "Luna was right..." she blurted suddenly.

"What?"

"There is..." Nightmare winced and clutched her head with both forehooves. "Something... more to this. Ohh... my head," she groaned.

Twilight collapsed on the ground at the edge of a crater, her legs no longer willing to support her. She held out a forehoof behind her and Telos moved into her weak grasp. She used it to help her stand back up, and Nightmare snorted again.

"So... You have Luna's memories?" asked Twilight in wonder. Nightmare shook her head, but then gave a small nod afterwards. "Then if she was right about you two... Maybe... some day... we can be friends... or... or something."

"Don't... make me... laugh..." Nightmare grit, fighting the urge to break into a fit of laughter again. "I could kill you right now, and you want to be friends? Hahaha... pathetic."

"I might know you better than you think." Twilight moved a hoof to her face and wiped the blood off in quick rubs.

"Shut up. You know nothing about me. Didn't you just hear me? I can kill you where you stand." Nightmare attempted to scream, but all she could manage was a slightly elevated tone.

"Oh, yeah? And at what cost, huh? Neither of us have any magic left and you know it," retorted Twilight in a breathless voice.

Nightmare stared at her as she contemplated the situation. She cringed, and then turned away to grimace in defeat. But... She craned her neck to peer at the disastrous battlefield, taking in all of the scars the two of them had left upon the land. Her eyes trailed up to the hazy grey sky above, the moon barely distinct from the mask. There was nothing left of the jungle from beyond the tree she laid against, the treeline opening into an area of craters, ash, and cinders.

Twilight's body slid into the crater and she rested her head on the edge, making sure not to have her vision leave the Id. The tax of her final spell still seemed to pull more energy out of her, and she began to feel the agitation of having none at all. "This is a draw," she said after a while of silence.

"Hmph." Nightmare turned her nose up at her. "I hate to admit it, but you're right." She took a deep, heaving breath, exasperated by her injures, and slowly rose back to her hooves. She clutched her head and collapsed back to the ground, grasping her head tighter and moaning briefly. "Uhn... I..." She collected herself and managed to stand up a second time, albeit slower. "Do not fear the Brood, Twilight. I have no allegiance to them and they will never know that you survived this battle. They will only have the scars of the land to see," she said softly, swaying a hoof to the lands.

Twilight's ears perked up and her eyes widened. "Why... why are you telling me this?" she croaked.

Nightmare looked through her, as far as Twilight could tell, as she continued on. "Your mission is leading you to Draconis, is it not?"

"H-how did you know!?" Twilight blurted in panic.

Nightmare chuckled, but it came as a raspy, cough-laden laugh. "Be wary of the Dragon King, Render. I..." She put a hoof to her head and paused for a moment, looking away in confusion. "You're brave. The only reason you could be heading out this far is to reach Draconis, the capitol city of the Brood. What you do once you get there..." She snorted, but immediately regretted it and followed with a pained cough. "Heh. That is... my hope..."

Twilight shivered as a cold breeze swept the open area. Her spine bristled, but she remained fixated on the wounded mare of darkness, her eyes still wide with disbelief. "Why... are you telling me this?" she repeated softly.

"I..." Nightmare looked away again. "I don't remember." She shook her head, slowly at first, then more rapidly before speaking again. "Just... Go to Draconis. I think you will find something there that should help you."

Twilight crawled out of the crater and made a vain attempt at standing again. When she could not, she worried that Nightmare may have enough physical strength left to finish her off. "Are you having a change of heart?" she asked to keep her talking.

There was a long silence as Nightmare only stared with an unreadable expression. "Perhaps some day you will understand everything about me," she mused aloud, clamping one eye as blood ran into it. "Go now. I imagine my sister is counting on you."

"...Thank you?" Twilight said unsure. As Nightmare rose up, she turned to stagger into the forest, limping with every step. A surge of determination suddenly sparked Twilight into a standing position and the adrenaline it brought dulled the pain enough for her to lean forward with an outstretched hoof. "W-wait!" she cried. "I don't understand how you and Luna work, but why don't you help us stop the Brood if you're not working with them? Why not help me save Equestria from their rule? I don't know about the night, but please!" She winced and fell back to the ground, one foreleg clutching her chest and another propping her up as she quivered in pain. Telos fell to the ground in front of her with no glow in the spire.

"What, and spoil the fun?" Nightmare unleashed a long breath through her nose and turned to gaze up at the moon, the grey haze clearing enough to see its details clearly. "You and Celestia are both right and wrong at the same time. I am not Luna, nor am I truly her sister. I'm... something else," she riddled. "Perhaps you can set things right this time, but I can't help you."

"What do you mean?"

Nightmare turned her body towards the jungle, but kept her head tilted to keep the other alicorn in view. "The city of the dragons carries a great deception. When next we meet, you may carry a truth that would bury this pointless war. For now, this is all I can do for us both." She lowered her head and resumed her march into the jungle. "Maybe we can be friends, too," she muttered before blurring into the black shadows.

Twilight stared after her, wide-eyed, and her mouth agape. What was that? she thought, completely vexed. Taking a bracing breath, she lifted herself back up and manually collected Telos from the ground. She attempted her quest to regroup with her comrades, but the first few steps proved to be too much and she ultimately fell back into one of the many craters on the battlefield. There was no magic left within her, and she released the silent Telos from her grasp. It hurts so much. Am I... going to die? she wondered as she slid to the bottom. Celestia... can you... hear me?

Twilight? Where are you? Is everything alright!? Celestia replied in panic.

I did my best... I'm sorry, but I couldn't stop Nightmare Moon. There's something... about this war. She said... She said it's a lie...

Twilight!? Twilight! What's going on? Are you alright? Please, answer me! Celestia pleaded into her mind.

Twilight grimaced to herself as she could no longer maintain the mental link. She unfurled her wings and did her best to encase herself in them. The chill of her snowstorm lingered in the air, and the crater offered little reprieve from the sleepy night breezes. She grunted, then crawled back towards the jungle. A thin blood trail followed her from the crater, and after several more shrieks of pain, she reached the edge and buried herself in the flora. I thought... I thought I could do this, but now... Oh, Luna... I'm sorry... I wasn't strong enough... she lamented, her final thoughts before slipping unconscious.

------------------------------------------------------

Nightmare Moon staggered through the jungle, each step growing more reluctant to incite the pain of her injuries than the last. Every stone and adventurous root sought to trip her, but each time she tripped she clenched her teeth, regained her balance and pushed on. Not... here... Not yet... She couldn't tell how long she'd forced herself to walk, but the jungle eventually opened back up the messenger dragon's clearing, and the pain had spoken to her of an arduous journey. A satisfied grin parted her lips as she opened her eyes fully, her turquoise shining in the darkness.

"I... have... returned," she called out as casually as she could.

The ground vibrated as the dragon answered the summons and moved to greet her. He peeked out behind the tapestry, the orange glow spilling into the night, and peered around. His eyes fell upon the bloody and frail alicorn, and he dashed to her as she began to fall. "Mistress Moon! What happened to you?" he asked quickly.

"I fell down some stairs," she joked, but her body couldn't emphasize it with laughter. She wheezed as she fell into the dragon's awaiting grasp.

"Your injuries are grave, Mistress," he remarked, astonished, as he studied the wounds the best he could in the darkness. The dried blood and gashes across her form were the only true indicator of her dire state. "I will get you to Draconis immediately."

Nightmare involuntarily coughed before she could protest, wincing and growling away the pain. "You will do no such thing," she snapped. "You will return me to Canterlot at once!" The intensity of her final order proved to take all of the power she had left in her voice. "Tell Aurelius nothing is left... only the ashes... of... an... enemy," she trailed off.

"Mistress?" The dragon attempted to gently shake her awake, but to no avail. He brought her up to his ear and listened for her breath. Damn it! Why must you have me travel so far? You risk death, Mistress. Aurelius will have my head if you die... Gnashing his teeth, he carefully cradled her in both hands and took off, the fevered rhythm in his wings rustling the tapestry to his hut in his wake.

As he gained altitude for the long haul to Canterlot, he caught the wake of Nightmare Moon's duel in the corner of his eye, instantly snapping his head to fully glimpse what he could. The massive section of the forest was no more and the fires of Twilight's had left a blackened scar on the ground where they had battled, like a miasma of sorrow. "By Render... what did you fight, Mistress?" he asked aloud, not expecting the unconscious alicorn to respond anyway.

He swallowed and focused on the flight home, flying as fast as he could. His small form made his efforts double that of the larger of his kin, and his wings ached before he'd reached the valley before the Everfree Forest. He sped past others of his kind, most paying him no mind while others offered him a confused glance his way. He reached the Canterlot mountain, cringing as he made the sharp ascent without the assistance of a draft, and huffing in relief as he reached the city itself. His body cried for reprieve, but he forced himself to fly the last stretch and he hit the street before the castle and skid to a halt on his chest near the main walk.

Aurelius lay in the courtyard as the thump of the messenger's body hitting the street piqued his interest. He yawned and shook his body as he rose and moved to the front of the castle. He arched a brow as the panting dragon came into view. "What are you doing in Canterlot?" he asked casually, approaching and offering a hand to help him to his feet.

He ignored the helping hand and stood up with the assistance of his aching wings. "My lord... It is her," he said, opening his hands and revealing the safe, but dire form of the alicorn, "Mistress Moon."

"Explain yourself..." Aurelius growled, his eyes narrowing suddenly.

The smaller dragon shook his head quickly. "This is not my doing, I assure you! She wandered into my dwelling gravely injured. I wanted to take her to Draconis, but she refused and insisted I take her back to Canterlot instead. Forgive me, my lord."

Aurelius regarded the messenger slowly. "How did she come to be in such a state?"

"I don't know. She only muttered that all that was left of her enemy were ashes."

"Hmph. Leave her with me. I will see to it that Princess Celestia tends to the mistress's wounds. You have earned a rest before you return home, messenger." The smaller dragon nodded, carefully setting Nightmare Moon down, and began to walk towards the castle courtyard with haggard steps, but Aurelius held out a wing to stop him. He turned his head parallel with the messenger's and leaned close. "Are you absolutely sure there is nothing else you know about this?" he whispered. The messenger froze, but then nodded curtly and scrambled away, worried the alicorn's grievous state might be blamed on him.

Once the messenger was gone, Aurelius took Nightmare's body into a large hand and walked through the castle towards Celestia's chambers. Well, well, well... It seems you found yourself trouble after all. Who did you encounter that was so powerful? he wondered to himself. Arriving at the thick oak doors, the sun carving denoting Celestia's chamber, he gave a swift knock.

"What do you want?" Celestia growled from the other side. When she received no reply, she opened the door with her magic, a scowl heavy on her face, but her expression soon crumbled to worry and fright. "Luna!" she cried, bolting out of the room as Aurelius carefully laid Nightmare upon the marble floor. "What did you do to her!?" Celestia glowered death at the dragon as she looked over Nightmare's injuries.

"This is not my doing, Celestia. However... perhaps you might know who exactly could have done this."

"How should I know? You're the one that has me detained," the princess snapped back.

"Hmph. It does not matter who did this," muttered Aurelius as he turned to walk away. Celestia glared at his back as he left, a burning ire in her eyes. When she could no longer see him or hear his footsteps, she levitated Nightmare into her room, slamming the door behind her.

Aurelius chuckled to himself as he walked through the quiet halls, most of the servants shying away from the main corridors to avoid the patrolling dragons. Yours is a cruel circumstance, Celestia. Your own sister, in a state you loathe so, and yet, an enemy you must heal. If Nightmare Moon dies, so shall Luna. He returned the courtyard to find the messenger dragon fast asleep against the castle walls. Aurelius took his place in the center and gazed up to the moon.

I will investigate this once Render has arrived. What being could possess the power to stand against Nightmare Moon so evenly? I pray I am not too late. His eyes canvassed the sky, and he was intrigued by it. There was something different, but he could not place it. Shrugging himself, he lowered his head into a comfortable position and abandoned the thoughts in favor of rest.

***

Celestia pulled Nightmare Moon to the rug in front of her fireplace, her heart racing as she focused on her magic, setting to work as quickly as possible. The blood on Nightmare's body had long dried, but open wounds continued to gush small streams that were absorbed by the rug. Celestia laid her upon her side delicately, and loomed over her with her horn glowing. I had hoped it wouldn't have come to this, Twilight, but I knew that she would find you eventually. Placing her hooves over Nightmare's torso, waves of light spread over it, but at a great strain to the princess's magic. The critical injuries took a significant amount of time to mend, but the free flow of the blood lessened, and eventually ceased altogether. She took one of her sheets and ripped it into ribbons, quickly bandaging her injuries and making a makeshift tourniquet for one of her legs.

Celestia exhaled in relief as her triage came to an end, and wiped sweat from her brow. She levitated the Id to her bed and tucked her into it. She stared at her, no longer with contempt, but with pure worry. Instinctively, she leaned forward and kissed her on the head, but quickly pulled away and blinked. Why did I...? She pulled herself away and moved to her private balcony, lit by the moonlight, pushing the thoughts away. Sighing, she glanced up to the sky with an unmasked weariness.

She gasped and shot Nightmare's resting form a surprised look, then returned to gazing at the sky with a renewed vigor. What in the world? She closed her eyes and concentrated. Twilight, are you there? she asked. She waited, minutes ticking away, but they were lost to the expectant silence. Please, Twilight, she pleaded in vain.

She returned to the inside of her chamber, the weariness returning to her, and stood over the rug she had placed Nightmare upon. Her eyes fixated on the splotches of blood that would soon become stains, but she only gave it a stoic look. After a few moments, she snatched it with her magic and crumpled it up, quickly throwing it into her fireplace. She watched the fire consume it, shriveling it until it burned away into ashes. Luna...

The memories of her first descent into Nightmare Moon slipped into her mind over the flames. What happened? How did it all go wrong...? Her chest tightened as she was reminded of the horror of being forced to banish her sister, her mind hinging on the thought that it may become necessary once again. Tears welled in her eyes as the worry of Twilight's unknown status held itself firmly in the front of her mind. Please be alright, Twilight. If anything happened to you... I could never forgive myself.

Nightmare murmured in her sleep, and Celestia turned to gaze at her, the rise and fall of her chest bringing the comfort of a peaceful repose. Sighing, she moved to stand before a tall mirror, a crestfallen look still carved into her features. Her eyes were accentuated by dark circles, and her usually kempt mane frazzled at the ends. She removed her crown and sat it upon the fireplace mantel and laid down before the fire, staring into it as sleep weighed heavily upon her eyelids. What did you mean Twilight? What did who say? Nightmare Moon? She gave a slight huff of discontent at the situation and further being helpless in it.

There was no perceivable time when she finally drifted to sleep, lulled to peace by the hypnotic dancing of the flames in her fireplace. She slipped into a dream, a sweet dream of spending time with Twilight. The activities of playing with her, reading together, and even a enjoying a simple cup of tea in the courtyard with Luna flooded her. Everything felt right for a fleeting moment.

But the blissful dream carried a powerful longing, and for every smile she'd put on the unicorn's face, her own was forever unable to match the unicorn's innocence. There was an agony that feeling brought, one she could not resist or dampen. Her mind languished in that feeling. After a few more memories of the persisting feeling, it suddenly vanished, and everything became right again. There was no way to tell why, but she found herself not caring to question, instead, losing herself in the memories.

In the final memory, Spike, Twilight, Trixie, Luna, and herself were together for a night of stargazing. Each one carried a happy smile, each of their spirits lifted by Luna's lessons of the constellations and her intricate work. It was one of her fondest memories since her sister's status had been restored, but also when she felt as if she was surrounded by a true family. The emotional surge intoxicated her, but in the moment that she had awoken, it was gone, like a puzzle without all of the pieces. She didn't open her eyes, still protesting against the awakening of her body, but reality took hold, and with it returned the distress that she had wished to forever forget.

Chapter 14: Bloodline Limit

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The Quiet Place
By: Aynine
[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 14: Bloodline Limit

A lonely wind meandered through the desolated land, sweeping and carrying sheets of ash and bringing a nightly chill as it combed the ground. Loose debris bounced and rolled across the dirt at the coaxing of the wind, and the trees of the new forest edge rustled slightly to its rhythm. Twilight stirred, her mind still stranded within a subconscious state. A large leaf slipped from one of the trees above and sailed down, landing atop the end of her muzzle, and she finally opened her groggy eyes to the darkness.

"Ohh..." she moaned as the pain of brutal injuries refreshed her memory as to where she was, and how she got there. "Nightmare Moon... Are you there?" she asked the wilderness. Oh, that's right... She recalled the dark alicorn leaving her with riddles, but also leaving her alive. She wanted to question what she'd meant, but there was no telling where she was now, or if she had even survived her own injuries. Twilight stood up, groaning as her stiff and sore muscles protested, more leaves slipping from her body, and held up a hoof to inspect it. "I'm still alive..." she said, almost in awe of the fact.

She attempted to stand on her hind legs, but she winced and fell to the tree's trunk for support. Putting her back against it, she slid down to a sitting position and placed her hooves to her chest. A white glow emanated from them, and her horn gave a weak glow with it. As she felt the tension from her pain release, her eyes trailed down to where she had been laying. There was a smear of dried blood there, and on her chest, and she fixated on them. She didn't know how long she stared at it, but she'd failed to immediately notice when her wounds had been mended.

Her forehooves fell to her sides, and she exhaled a deep breath. What did Nightmare mean? She looked up to the jungle canopy for help, rays of moonlight poking between the large leaves. Lifting herself to standing again, she garnered a feeling of malaise, and her eyes scoured the moonlit landscape for Telos. The white glint of the staff spire stood out in the moonlight along her bloody trail. I must not have been out long. It doesn't look like anyone else has been here. She took slow, steady steps to the staff, but she found that she could will it back to her once she got close enough.

Her telekinesis felt weak--loose--but she was able to return to the jungle and tear down some of the leaves for a quick breakfast. She snatched extra and tucked them into her duskweave. Every now and then it would give a light itch and she'd adjust Telos so the spire could scratch it. Satisfied she was prepared for the journey to reunite with her friends, she set off, still at a slow pace. Her malaise dulled her desire to move at all, but she continued on, each step one less than she needed to take before.

Her magic continued recovering, but she feared encountering a dragon. If she used too much more, she would be rendered sick until a full, uninterrupted recovery. Unicorns that were forced to use every last bit of their magic were typically rendered bedridden for several days. She shivered as she recalled the last time that had happened. Please no more dragons. As the trek to Draconis continued, she grew bored, her prayer for no additional dragons being answered, but also at the cost of nothing to keep her occupied. Her mind wandered back to Nightmare Moon again. What did you mean...? Ugh. Why didn't you just tell me!

She estimated she'd been walking for two hours when she began to feel better, comparable to having just awoken from a long sleep on a normal day. Her body still felt stiff, but the malaise had gone away. Telos levitated before Twilight, and she paused her walk and stared at it. Celestia... are you there?

There was a squeak of relief that filled Twilight's head before a rush of words. Thank the sun you're alright! What happened, Twilight? Celestia attempted to collect herself, but her chest felt like it would burst at hearing Twilight's voice.

I... need to find Trixie and Rainbow Dash.

You're not with them anymore? Celestia asked confusedly.

Twilight grimaced and began moving on with her slow pace again. I told them to go on without me after...

Nightmare Moon? Celestia finished.

Twilight nearly tripped as she heard her. How did you know?

Celestia sighed, and rubbed her temples. She was brought to me hours ago, badly injured. Did... did you do that?

Twilight nodded automatically to herself. I tried to free Luna, but I... I wasn't strong enough. I was afraid I killed her... Twilight trailed off and there was a pause of silence, each hesitating to say anything more.

What did you mean by 'She said it was a lie,'? You said that before we lost contact hours ago.

Twilight squeaked and glanced up to the sky, scanning constellations and the moon to try and determine a time, but the cosmos offered no definitive answer to her. Hours!? How long was I unconscious?

Nightmare Moon was brought to me over six hours ago, Twilight. What happened?

We used almost all of our magic in our fight. I passed out after she left, but... She implied there's something more to this war. I don't know what's going on yet. I have to find Rainbow Dash and Trixie. Twilight attempted to quicken her pace to a light jog, but her body fought back with aches and a lingering stiffness that lessened her back to walk in only a few strides. She groaned as she became stricken with the need to catch her breath. Celestia, do you know what Nightmare could be talking about?

I'm sorry, Twilight. I don't know anything more than you do. Have you looked at the sky?

Twilight stopped and glanced up in confusion. Of course.

Look again...

What are you talking about? The adventuring alicorn stopped and focused, her mouth slipping open as it dawned on her what was happening. But... But, that's impossible!

The canvas of the night sky had been completely painted with stars and constellations, each blooming and twinkling in the dark blue and black sea of space. Twilight stared, turning and following them as far as she could see. "Wow..." she muttered. The elegant craft of the cosmos matched Luna's in passion and skill, all perfectly placed in such a way that they were not overshadowed by the moon. Did Nightmare Moon really do this? Or maybe it's Luna.

I don't know, Twilight. I'll ask her when she awakens, but she is still Nightmare Moon.

I need to go, Celestia, said Twilight after she nearly tripped and fell again, her eyes still glued to the sky and ignoring the path she walked.

Alright. I'll contact you again as soon as I learn anything else. And, Twilight...

Yes?

Please be careful.

Twilight sighed and stopped walking. She twisted her head around to glimpse her wings as she unfurled them and held them out full. There were a few patches of feathers missing, but compared to Nightmare's, they were pristine. She gave them a test flap, slowly making the motions for flight. They were still stiff and sore like the rest of her body. Her eyes scanned the horizons for any wandering dragons, and after laying her fears to rest, galloped and leaped into flight.

The cool air slid through the bare parts on her wings and elicited a wince from her, an icy sting marking each featherless spot distinctly. She attempted to shift her duskweave into black again, but the tears left her with slits and gaps where her natural purple coat slipped through. She groaned at the inconvenience and prayed that her description hadn't been released. As she gained altitude, the temperature of the air rose enough to remove the sting in her wings, and she relaxed as she soared and glided over the landscape.

It had been a while since she'd been unconscious, and she studied the landscape, squinting and peering down to the darkened terrain in hopes of catching sight of Rainbow or Trixie's brighter coats. She swooped down and glided closer, but nothing stood out against the darkness or shone uncharacteristically bright beneath the moonlight. Damn. Where are you?

After searching around a large span of land for an hour, she encountered a mountain on the plotted course to Draconis. It appeared to be a waypoint between the surrounding regions as it connected multiple flatlands divided by other mountainous terrain. There was an empty canyon to her left, and an area that stretched beyond where she could see to her right. The base of the mountain featured a small cave, but more than large enough for several ponies to enter. She descended down to the ground and surveyed the area, taking note that it had been a long time since any travelers had come through.

There were no markers, and nothing of interest beyond the cave itself. Rough paths were carved along the mountain, but they lacked any maintenance, and some appeared defunct and forgotten. Twilight sighed and coiled down to leap back into flight once more, but something in the cave entrance caught her eye and she turned back to it, approaching cautiously. Telos levitated in front of her and began to glow and illuminate the darkness. Scribbled on the stone was a fresh image of Celestia's cutie mark, oft attributed to her solar empire. Twilight breathed in in relief as she ran a hoof over it, smearing the details.

She stepped further into the cave, finding it dank and empty. As she walked further in, Telos's light became brighter, forcing back the darkness and revealing everything inside. Creatures and insects of the cave fled from the sudden light, bats and lizards vanishing beyond the glow back into dark crevices and the shadows ahead. Twilight shuddered as she waited for the vicinity to clear. Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the sudden brightness, and she pressed on when she could see clearly.

The path in the caves was relatively flat, but it meandered through the mountain in the darkness, and several side paths followed their own way into the unknown. Twilight's cautious pace left her wondering just how far she'd traveled, or how long. Time seemed to crawl as she strained her eyes to find any hint of where her comrades had gone, the clop of her hooves being the only sound to play against the ambiance. To her delight, a single cyan feather rested along the main path; however, several more paths branched out directly beyond it. She groaned and set herself to analyzing just which one they might've taken.

Formulas played in her mind to calculate the probability of the feather indicating which path was correct based on its proximity to the entrance. She bucked one of the walls when a gust flowed through and carried the feather out of position. Ugh. Really? she grumbled silently, snatching the feather and disintegrating it with a small flame from Telos.

"Trixie, Rainbow Dash! Are you there!" she called down each path. She listened as her voice echoed through and through, but returned no signs of life from anyone other than herself. She shouted several more times just to be sure, but each returned the same lull of ambiance that the first set did. She was ready to buck another wall in frustration, but a faint rumble reverberated through out the cave. Her ears folded and twisted as she strained herself to hear its point of origin.

She couldn't determine which path it had come from, or what part of the mountain, but it renewed her spirit. Taking Telos into her hooves, she raised it as the spire began pulsing a white glow that grew stronger in vibrancy is it gained distance from the floor. "Haaah!" Twilight slammed the base into the ground and a wave of pure white light boomed outward from her and flowed down each path, including the one she had been walking along.

Her breathing quickened for a moment and she sat down to catch her breath, waiting for a response. Telos went silent and Twilight idled in the darkness until she could hear the sound of hoofsteps. She rose to her hooves and moved off to the side of the rightmost path, a light pushing the darkness in her room back. Hushed voices sounded just around the corner and she took her staff into her hooves, crouching down and preparing herself for any combat.

The shine of another light source entered the cave, and the light caused Twilight's vision to bloom too much to make out what was in front of her. Blindly leaping, she tackled the source, and another form with it. "Hey!" In a moment, her vision recovered to find a blade at her neck and two confused ponies looming over her. "T...Twilight!?"

The blade was put away, and the alicorn found herself lifted back to her hooves by Rainbow Dash, and immediately squeezed by Trixie. "Thank Celestia you're alive!" she cried into her, sudden tears streaming down her eyes. "We... We thought you were dead."

Twilight returned the tight embrace, nuzzling into the unicorn's neck and breathing in her scent, her chest feeling as if it would burst. It was difficult to breathe in that embrace, but it was not because she was being held too tight. "I'm so glad you're alright," she whispered, her own tears soaking into the unicorn's silvery mane. They held each other for a minute before Dash coughed into a hoof to get their attention.

"I don't mean to interrupt you two, but we need to keep going. We sat around for hours hoping you'd make it."

Twilight nodded to her and held Trixie back. "I missed you." She leaned close and kissed Trixie leaving the unicorn blushing before nodding to Dash. "Which way?"

The knight smiled. "Good to have you back, Twi. Are you sure you're okay, though?" she said, her eyes absorbing what the alicorn's image. Her mane was hardly kempt with frazzled strands and cowlicks throughout, but the tattered state of her duskweave worried her most.

"Yeah. A little weak, but I'll be fine."

Dash took the lead and they moved at a brisk pace down the tunnel they had come from before. "Say, Twi. Did you really defeat Nightmare Moon by yourself?" The knight tilted her head to glimpse her.

Twilight's eyes took on a hollow look. "No..."

Dash stopped and gaped at disbelievingly. "Then... what the hay happened?"

Twilight brushed her way past the knight and took the lead as she explained. "We fought to a draw. I tried to purge her from Luna, but I wasn't strong enough. Before she left she said some... things." Her companions traded perplexed glances before focusing back on her. "She said she wasn't allied with the Brood at all, and said she would tell them that we were dead."

"Wh-what!?" Dash and Trixie blurted in unison.

Twilight stopped walking and put a hoof to her chin, deep in thought. "I don't think Nightmare Moon is as evil as we thought." She mulled the idea of Nightmare being an additional soul atop Luna's.

"You don't really believe that do you?" Dash said. "Nightmare Moon is just Luna's corrupted alter ego... right?" She ran a nervous hoof to her sword's hilt, shuddering as she imagined the Id's sharp eyes cutting into her soul again.

"I don't know. At this point, I'm willing to believe anything is possible. She told me to find a truth in Draconis, that it 'would bury this pointless war,' she said. I'm worried, though..."

Dash's hoof tensed on her blade's hilt briefly. "Do you think she could be lying? I don't trust her. I mean, she's tried to kill us before."

Twilight's expression became glum again. "I don't know. I want to believe her, but... we won't know anything until we get to Draconis."

Trixie stepped up to her and patted her on on her shoulder. "Don't worry, Twilight. We'll figure this all out."

Twilight nodded and extended a wing over her, pulling the unicorn closer and nuzzling her. "Thank you."

Trixie blinked and stepped away, grabbing the wing and inspecting it. "Are you really okay?" she said while motioning to the missing patches of feathers. Her hoof moved too close and touched one of the spots, and Twilight furled it back up immediately, wincing. "I-I'm sorry!"

"I'll be fine. I'm sure I'll be healed by the time we reach Draconis." She extended her wings and stretched, attempting to support her words with a demonstration. Trixie stared at her with worry etched into her face, but sighed and seemed satisfied. "As long as the dragons don't know any gravity spells..." Twilight added, grumbling. Her wings slipped back into her duskweave and vanished into the purple coat of her body. Trixie gave her an odd look at the mention of gravity spells.

Telos shined and kept the way illuminated, filling as much of the tunnel as possible with light, without being too hard on the party's eyes. Twilight took comfort in the artificial light. The everlasting darkness of Nightmare Moon's reign always made her uncomfortable, even when surrounded by her friends. Her mind thought back to the moments before the Id departed the battlefield, the entire situation seeming surreal with Nightmare's mercy.

Nightmare had unknowingly made her feel secure for a moment, if confused. When the Id had departed into the forest, she could've sworn she'd heard her say something she never expected, but she quickly pushed the idea out of her mind, citing the Id's precedent for madness and teasing. The trio continued through the tunnels in silence, save for a few complaints about their current setting. Their demeanors lit up as natural moonlight appeared at the end of the tunnel to pave the way back into the open.

Telos dimmed back to its idle state as they stepped out into the world. Trixie coughed and stuck out her tongue, breathing in the fresh air. "I never thought I'd be so happy to be outside in the dark again," she muttered.

The trio's eyes took in the mountainous lands before them with a hint of wonder and anxiousness. The other side of the mountain boasted a jagged landscape that appeared to have been maimed, rather than shaped naturally. There were a couple hotspots in the distance, but any tephra and magma that helped shape the earth had long since cooled into the harsh environment they now laid eyes upon. Waves of heat emanated from them, drying the party's eyes and forcing them to squint as the heat sprayed their faces. Dragons favored the excessive heat of volcanic areas, and they each exchanged disappointed looks as the paths through the area wound between the hotspots.

Dash snorted as she gazed at one of them. "Woo, smokin' place the dragons got here," she joked. She quickly adjusted the snugness of her breastplate as the heightened temperatures overtook the chill of the mountain tunnels and night air.

"Really now, could the Brood live any further out of the way?" Trixie asked in annoyance. The luxury of flight was a high tax to a unicorn's magic, and she lacked the illustrious ability to teleport that Twilight had.

"The dragons typically don't interact with the rest of the world. Spike was the first one I ever met, and hatching his egg was my entrance exam into Celestia's magic school. There was one near Ponyville a long time ago that slept there. We had to get him to leave. But... I've never really met any others before Garr..." Twilight's conscious sent a pang of guilt throughout her as the memories of the ones she had slain flickered into her mind briefly.

"Oh, yeah. I remember that one by Ponyville. Fluttershy was the one that got him to leave. She's so fierce when she's angry. She was like, 'Leave. You're upsetting all of the animals!' or if that doesn't work,"--she stretched her eyes wide with her hooves, "'The stare!'" she finished in an intentionally ghastly voice.

Twilight snickered. "Yeah. I guess we surprise each other sometimes by just how strong we really are. Still, she's always so nice. I hope... she's okay right now." Twilight shook her head and Telos returned to her back. "Alright, we need to keep going."

"Let's go," chimed Dash, her own prayers going out to her shy friend.

The mangled landscape was surprisingly easy to traverse, the trio found, but they grew nervous as the paths they took wound themselves between several hotspots. Occasionally, they would spurt a wave of heat, or a spew a small blast of magma into the air that cooled into rocks as it cascaded back to the ground. Dragons could be seen and heard from from the depths of the night, but they weren't spotted, or they were and they were ignored. Twilight prayed that it was merely their deal with Garr and the messenger dragon being honored.

The uneventful lull of their journey through the dragon's lands put them on edge, and each roar nearby caused Dash to brandish Nightfall, only to sheathe it a moment later when it was determined that the roar was not a battle cry. Their path eventually led them to rounding a massive canyon wall, the high peaks warding off the prying eyes of any being that could not fly. "This must be one of the walls to Draconis," Twilight concluded.

They walked on for several more hours before they reached what appeared to be a massive gate tunneling into the canyon. Giant, iron doors barred their path, the black metal and beautiful engravings depicting the Brood's symbols and crests over the ages marking their pride in their legendary crafts. However, sheets of rust covered the once-colorful decorations, and there were no discernable mechanisms for opening the gates. The longer the trio stared, the more they seemed to loom over them.

"It looks like they haven't been opened in thousands of years," commented Twilight in wonder.

"Honestly. What do fliers like the dragons need a gate for anyway?" asked Trixie, tilting her head further back as her eyes climbed the heights of the construction. She squinted, but was unable to tell if she could see the top or the canyon was casting a shadow over them.

"There was a time when the Brood interacted with the world. There are legends of their great city, and their race's architecture and treasures." She sighed. "That was a long time ago. Nopony has seen the inside of the Imperial City of Dragons since before Celestia and Luna defeated Discord. At least, nopony has lived to tell about it. This could be a trap..."

Dash stepped up to the gate and knocked one of her armored hooves against it. The density of the metal made the expected ringing down to a low, dull tinking sound. "Geez. There's only one pony I know could that even dent this." She turned around and studied Twilight's face, the alicorn still lost in her imagination of what lie behind the doors. "Hey, Twi, are you gonna try to open them?"

The alicorn shot her a very bothered look. "Of course not! Can you imagine how loud that would be? Opening these would attract too much attention." She turned and pointed off in the direction they had come from, the empty path not particularly inviting. "We'll backtrack and climb the canyon wall."

Dash groaned. "More walking? C'mon Twilight. Look how steep the canyon walls are. There's no way Trixie can climb that by herself."

Twilight nodded as she followed them with her eyes. There were no points where it would be easy to ascend it manually. "Alright, but don't fly too far from the ground. I'm betting the messenger never thought we'd make it this far."

Dash gave an energetic salute. "Alright. Let's get this over with." She took the lead and soared down the pathway before them.

Twilight and Trixie exchanged glances before the alicorn picked her up and began flying after the knight. They were slower, and Twilight's sore wings protested the additional weight, but she said nothing as they flew after the knight. They traveled back a couple miles before ascending the wall. Dash was already at the top in a prone position and observing the city. Twilight set Trixie down and landed with a heave, panting and wiping her brow of sweat. Both mares crouched down beside the knight and marveled at the city.

"Whoa..." mumbled Dash at the same time Trixie muttered, "Beautiful."

Twilight stared in silent awe as she tried to view as much of the city as possible, her jaw threatening to unhinge. For as far as she could see, the city seemed to have its own horizon that simply blurred and continued further than her eyes could believe. Though the veil of night was strong outside of the canyon, large torches and brilliant constructions illuminated the city's interior. She swallowed as she could see hundreds and hundreds of dragons walking the marble streets as dark specs, or soaring through the skies as dark smears.

From their vantage point they could not decipher the city's layout, and there were no specific landmarks to tell the buildings apart. Each building boasted an intricate exterior, finely detailed with rare and magnificent materials such as gold and silver. Dash stood up and groaned as they finished enjoying the city's brilliant image.

"You have got to be kidding me. This place is huge! We're never going to find any archives." She slapped a hoof to her face and slid it down, comically stretching her features briefly. Afterwards, she picked up a rock and slung it down the canyon wall, watching as it chipped and clattered its way down to the flat land below.

"It might not be that bad," reassured Twilight. "I need to get to the keep, but I can help you look around a bit. I just hope," she swallowed, "that they aren't in the keep."

"Oh man. We're so screwed if they are. Think of how many dragons are here. This is their capitol!" the knight complained.

"Are you scared?" Trixie teased. "As long as we stick together, we'll be fine," she said as she stood up. She shook her head and straightened her mane, then adjusted her staff so that it would be as concealed as possible beneath her dark cloak.

"As long as we tell any dragons that stop us that it was Captain Garr that sent us to deliver a message, we should be fine, alright?" Twilight rose to her hooves and Dash nodded doubtfully. "I know you're here for any documents they might have on their plans for the war, but I'm changing that priority."

"Huh? What do you mean?" asked Trixie.

Twilight took on a more serious expression and gazed past the pair and into the city. "I want you to look for any information on Nightmare Moon, anything at all. Whether it's now, when we first defeated her, or when she rebelled over a thousand years ago."

Dash obscured her view to the city and gave her a hard stare. "Why should we bother with Nightmare Moon? We should be stopping this war for Equestria."

Twilight closed her eyes and took a deep breath. I have to know. When she opened them again, her irises shined slightly through the darkness. "No matter what was going to happen on this mission, at least one half was meant to succeed. I'm supposed to assassinate King Render, and I will see that through, but I need to know if what Nightmare Moon said was true."

"How can you even trust her!?" Dash snapped. "She's tried to kill you twice. For all you know, she's lying!"

Twilight stared at her back with an empathic expression. "Please, Rainbow... I will hold off the royal guard if need be. There's something wrong with this war. I know you think it, too."

"Twilight, if you can assassinate Render, then we can complete both of our missions and go home. Why don't--"

"I might not survive," Twilight interrupted with a flat tone. She cast her eyes to the ground and went silent.

"What do you mean?" Trixie asked, stepping closer to her. "We're going home together, Twilight."

Twilight turned to look at her, her sad violet eyes meeting worried lavender ones. "I can hold off the royal guard and kill Render, but... I might not have enough magic left to escape."

Twilight couldn't tell how quickly Trixie's hoof was raised and slapped her, but the pain ripped her thoughts back to reality. "How can you think like that!? No! I won't let you throw your life away," Trixie shouted into her face. She'd begun to tear up. "I won't let you..."

Tears welled in Twilight's eyes and she lurched forward and pulled Trixie into an embrace. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to worry you." She stroked Trixie's mane, and soon the magician began to calm down.

"If you die... I'll make sure everyone knows who the better pony is!" chided the unicorn.

Twilight cracked a smile and pulled away. "I promise we'll go home together. No matter what." Her words eased the magician back into a normal mood. "We should get going. Everyone is counting on us."

The other mares nodded and began their descent down the canyon wall. Twilight sighed and turned to glimpse the vast expanse behind them. The mountains of the dragon's lands obscured her view of the forests and plains beyond, a smoky haze rising from the hotspots, but she allowed her imagination to remind her of the beauty of all that lay behind that veil. Her eyes trailed up to the sky above, the twinkling stars and bright constellations filling the sky around the moon soothing her. I believe you, Nightmare Moon.

She coiled down to leap over the canyon's side, but she hesitated, her eyes following Trixie's descent. She turned and quickly scratched a magic circle into the ground. There was a purple flash from her horn and the circle glowed for a moment, then became nothing more than an engraving. Please don't let it come to this. With that, she followed after her comrades down the slope, sliding in an almost heroic stance until she reached the bottom.

The trio dusted themselves off and began walking slowly through the city. From close up, the constructions appeared even more magnificent than their imaginations had led them to believe from the vantage point. Marble, gold, platinum, silver, masterfully shaped stone of various types--all culminated into a glorious city that even textbooks could never capture, even in speculation. Their jaws hung open as their eyes glazed with delight at the beauty.

It wasn't long before they were spotted, and several dragons immediately surrounded them. As the denizens approached, they each attempted to hide their weapons. Dash tucked her blade into her breastplate, Trixie adjusting her cloak, and Twilight forcing Telos to shrink and tuck itself into Trixie's cloak, much to her chagrin. "Hey!" she protested in a hushed whisper. Twilight held a hoof to her mouth and shot her a serious look.

"What's this... Ponies in Draconis?" one red dragon asked in disbelief.

"This war just seems to get stranger and stranger," added another with the shake of his head.

The first one grunted and eyed them, lowering his head and opening his mouth to show his teeth. "Now, why have you come to Draconis, hm? Coming here to die, perhaps?"

"Captain Garr sent us to deliver a report to King Render," Twilight replied as she bowed. Trixie and Dash quickly followed her lead and gave a gracious bow, holding their heads low until after Twilight had raised hers.

The second dragon mumbled something, but Twilight couldn't hear him. The first one spoke up afterwards. "Hmph. Garr, huh? Enjoy Draconis... while you can." The draconic flash mob quickly dispersed away, and several more dragons had gathered behind them to see the commotion. The trio of ponies breathed out in relief, and Twilight collected Telos before leading them on.

They made their way to a primary causeway splitting the city as far as they could see, the road wider than eight of Canterlot's main streets combined. The stone road featured impeccable creation, flawed only by the natural wear of the colossal dragons walking upon it each day. More intricate designs had been added into the surfaces; tiny lines and carvings forming pictures in the stone that seemed too small for a dragon to create. Twilight continued to study everything she could with her eyes, further fueled by the fact that she was one of the few ponies to ever see the inside of the magnificent city.

Occasionally, a dragon would stop them and interrogate them as to why they were there. They were mystified by how Garr's name warded off further investigation into their presence, and most would give a quick harrumph and be off. Several stopped them to ask for the time, appearing nervous and confused by the endless night. The trio cast them a sympathetic look before shrugging, to which they would hang their heads mournfully and keep going, the beleaguered dragons appearing more confused than before their encounter. Even some of the Brood don't know why it's eternal night? wondered Twilight as she would watch them leave.

They walked for what felt like several hours, the massive buildings seeming to crawl past them, before they reached a much larger open area. The causeway broke into a large stony waypoint that connected multiple paths. Directly ahead led to a massive keep, and the branching paths connected to other nearby buildings. A black and a red dragon stood guard at the keep, but the other buildings showed no signs of external protection. Twilight squinted and made out one of the buildings to the right featuring a sign depicting a quill and parchment. Dragons write in their culture? She yearned to go in, her thirst for knowledge almost aching her mind to know what lay inside.

"I guess... this is it," Twilight muttered as she spun around. Trixie gave her a hard look and she quickly coughed into a hoof. "If a battle breaks out, you need to leave the city during the chaos. I'm going to try to make this as quick and quiet as possible." Dash nodded, but Trixie only stared at her.

"We're going home, together, Twilight." Trixie stepped closer and gave her a final hug. Twilight snuggled into her and sighed. When they relinquished each other, she sighed again and cast a sad look to the keep before returning her eyes to Trixie.

"Together," she echoed. She waved and began walking towards the keep.

Trixie stayed an extra minute to watch her go, a distant regret lining her eyes. Dash nudged her back to the mission and she reluctantly followed her towards the archival building. "I'm worried. I don't want her to go alone," she muttered to Dash.

The knight adjusted her breastplate, Nightfall's sheathe uncomfortably pressing into her chest, and sighed. "I don't like it either, but we both know she's the only one who can do it." They stepped up to the building's massive wooden doors and cast a quick glance behind them to see if any dragons were watching. Most were going about their business, or too far away to see or care. Dash put both hooves on one of the doors and pushed with all of her might, heaving and grunting.

Trixie giggled as she watched her struggle to part them enough for them to enter, let alone at all. "I could use my magic you know."

Dash snapped her head to her and glared. "Then why don't you!?"

"Because. It's funnier when you try." She continued giggling as she slipped past her and into the building. Dash groaned again and threw one last cautious glance to the city before following after her and the doors closing behind.

Where the front doors appeared massive, the entranceway was a large area with a beautiful, symmetrical marble floor. Several torches lit the interior, but they seemed to draw a significant amount of natural light from the windows normally. As a result, the interior appeared bathed in a darkened tint where the torches did not reach or fully illuminate. They were met with a powerful, almost grating, wall of sound shortly after entering. They jumped at the racket that echoed throughout the large lobby, and found the source to be a white dragon, fast asleep and snoring over a huge desk before them. The pair exchanged nervous glances before tip-hoofing past him. He snorted briefly in his sleep, causing the pair to freeze and their hearts to sink to the pit of their stomachs, but the dragon rolled his head over and settled back to snoring.

They breathed silently in relief before moving beyond the lobby and into a great hall boasting novella of all shapes and sizes. Trixie muttered an awed, "Whoa," as her eyes followed the gargantuan bookshelves to the ceiling. "Twilight would love this place, but it's going to take forever to look through everything. Look at how big these bookshelves are!" she complained in a hushed voice.

Dash groaned and put a hoof to her face. "Look around. They wouldn't leave important stuff in the open."

Trixie branched out and followed down the next parallel aisle over. She walked slowly, throwing her head back and forth to scan book titles and look for signs to guide her. She arched a brow as some of the books on the lower shelves seemed recognizable. Why do the Brood have so many books about Equestria? That's strange...

"Trixie, I think I found something."

The magician galloped down the rest of the aisle and returned to the first aisle to see a portion of the archives sealed behind a giant gate. She reached out and ran a hoof over the overlapping pattern of metal, and cast a doubtful look to Dash. "How are we going to get through these without waking the dragon at the lobby?"

"Use your magic. I might be able to break it with my sword, but that'll make too much noise."

Trixie rolled her eyes. "Typical Rainbow. Asking a unicorn for help." She stuck her tongue out and received a sour look before glancing over her shoulder back down the aisle. It seemed to stretch into infinity with how deep into the building they were, but the shadowy aisles only offered her silence. "Maybe I can melt it." She pulled Mystic Sage from her cloak and held it to the gate, a burst of magic running through the spire. It turned red and a section big enough to climb through melted into a puddle of liquid metal before hardening to the floor. She slipped her staff back under her cloak and attempted to fan the smell away with a hoof.

"C'mon, let's hurry before old snoozy wakes up and finds us." Dash hustled her through and they entered. The archives behind the gate were dark with a blue tint, but they boasted the same climbing bookcases, however, they were completely empty.

A chill wafted through the archives and flowed out the way they came, causing both to shiver, but Trixie swallowed and shot Dash a hollow look. "This... this can't be right..."

"Wh-what?"

Trixie threw her head in all directions before tugging her cloak around her body better and shrinking into it. "I don't like this. We've all studied the Brood before this mission, right?" Dash nodded slowly. "There's an overwhelming feeling of dread coming from this place--from magic. I've never heard of dragons using magic, though. Could somepony have betrayed the princesses?"

Dash grimaced and looked on down the dark aisle. "I hope not, but we've never run into any dragons capable of using magic. Let's check this area out then get the heck out of here. This place gives me the creeps."

They pair continued down the aisle at a slower pace than before. The archives were devoid of sound beyond their hoofsteps, and the further they went in, the more the sense of dread filled Trixie, and the more the echoes haunted them. Paranoia began to set in and she constantly glanced around or stopped to listen for something. "What?" Dash would ask in a panicky tone. The knight couldn't see or hear anything out of the ordinary. After walking for several more minutes, they reached the back wall of the sealed archives and a large table sat against it.

Dozens of tomes lay sprawled open across it and on the floor, with sheets of undecipherable notes and diagrams. Trixie dashed ahead and began investigating the materials. "This... this can't be!"

"What, Trixie? You're scaring me now!" The knight stood up and placed a hoof upon Nightfall's hilt and turned to watch the main aisle.

Trixie levitated several books and a diagram closer and motioned for Dash to view them. "Look." Dash leaned in close, squinting to see. When her expression lit up, Trixie shivered. "This looks like one of Twilight's beta runes. And look--" She snatched another diagram and held it over the rest. "These are concepts of an ancient magic used for summoning golems."

"So, what does this have to do with anything? We haven't fought any golems or magical dragons."

Trixie shook her head and levitated one last sheet in front of her. It had a variety of notes and miniature magic circles scribbled on it, but there was something she recognized, and it gave her a sense of horror. Gasping, she snatched the sheet and scanned it a few more times, blinking, unable to fathom its authenticity. Her hooves shook as she grasped it, and her eyes trailed away to Trixie's. "I can't believe it... Nightmare Moon isn't... she isn't Luna after all."

"This is bad. But if she wasn't lying to Twilight, then what did she mean?" Trixie relinquished all of the items from her magic and turned to the table, sweeping it with her eyes. There was an open book she hadn't viewed yet, overlapped by several other sheets, and she quickly snatched it and flipped through the pages. "Whoever did this... this must be all of their notes. It looks like it has most of the same information, but after tests."

Another chilling draft swept through the archives again, the sense of dread it brought was powerful enough that Dash could feel it. "We need to get out of here Trixie!"

"Wait, we need to---! Hey!"

Dash grabbed Trixie as she finished tucking the book away. She beat her wings hard and pushed herself to fly as fast as she could. The bookshelves slid by in a blue blur, and they reached the gate. They gasped as it appeared completely untouched, almost new, and the metal that had cooled on the floor was missing. Not wasting time, she dropped Trixie and brandished Nightfall, making several two-hoofed strokes to cut through the bars. Each strike made a symphony of metallic sounds that reverberated throughout the archives, but they broke through. She deftly slipped the blade back into its sheathe and picked Trixie up again, pushing herself to make up for lost time.

As they soared through the archives, another draft swept through them, chilling them to their cores. Dash nearly lost control as she felt herself freezing for only a few seconds. When it passed, she grunted and her wings ached from the additional weight. They reached the front lobby, zooming through, but both casting a fearful look at the front desk. The dragon that had been sleeping was missing. There was no time to wonder where he had gone as the doors came into view. She lowered her head and raised a shoulder, and with a battle cry slammed through one of them, bursting the door open with a heave of the hinges. Trixie groaned as the impact sent a shockwave through her body. They spotted Twilight sitting idly at the edge of the marble waypoint and raced across the waypoint towards her.

***

Twilight approached the towering keep with light, nervous steps, her gait not being forcefully diminished this time. The two guards studied her, but made no indication that they were bothered by her presence, and she moved passed them without a fuss. She entered the first room, or area based on the sheer size, and glanced around. The ceiling seemed to reach for the heavens, but faded into a black darkness. She stopped and allowed her eyes to follow the path onward. Large braziers featuring quiet flames lit the halls and corridors, though they appeared more like bonfires to her. The interior appeared to be mostly comprised of dark stone, with the same intricate marble floors as the rest of the city. Burnished gold trim carved to great detail lined most of the floors and ceiling decorations, and tapestries of dragons and crests hung in proud display out of the way, or over the walls.

She gulped as the number of dragons inside was quickly becoming staggering. Members of the Brood wandered the halls, the royal guard clad in minimalistic armor, but all of varying scale color and size. There were no white dragons, she noted, and they all offered only minimal attention to her. Nobles in the dragon culture? she wondered as she continued walking on. Her theory was further cemented as the deeper she went within the keep, the more attention she received.

Members of the Brood hurled insults, taunts, and tantalizing comments her way, but a few offered sympathetic apologies to the plight of Equestria. She ignored the derogatory comments and pondered the apologies. Some dragons sympathize with Equestria? Maybe this war won't be as hard to end as I thought. There was a quick moment between the passing Brood that she was alone, and she used the moment to pause and take a few deep breaths. It wasn't long before she reached the throne room, the amount of dragons increasing as she neared it, and entered with her heart rate increasing. More and more wore armor to signify their status as the royal guard, and Twilight's anxiety began to climb as their eyes fell to her with a dark silence.

The throne room was massive and circular, with numerous members of the royal guard standing. The silence as became overwhelming as she entered, as if she had just interrupted an important personal conversation. Before her, with his back turned, stood the gargantuan dragon king, Render. As she stopped in the center of the room, he turned his head to glimpse her, and then his entire body. He rose up, nearly to the ceiling when standing fully on his legs, but coiled back down to better see her and swept his tail out to rest beside him in a crescent. The room suddenly grew hot, and she found herself cotton mouthed as he crept closer until he was only a couple meters away.

"My, my. What a bold pony you are, to dare waltz into these sanctimonious halls of the Brood. Now tell me, why have you risked life and limb to tread through the perils and dangers of our lands to a place your kind would only call a graveyard?" His deep, heavy voice suffocated the atmosphere and his breath ruffled her mane, but to her relief, it did not carry a foul scent.

"I-I'm f-from a town..." The dryness in her mouth made articulating anything difficult. Render cocked his head sarcastically and a few of the royal guard chuckled. She cast them nervous glances before focusing back on the king. "I'm from a town far away in the prairie lands. I'm here to deliver a report on a messenger's behalf."

Render frowned, but continued watching her intently. "Speak quickly, equine, and choose your next words very carefully. The merit for which you draw breath does not exist here." He extended a claw beside Twilight, then dragged it back beside her. The grinding, almost squealing, sound it made caused her to jump and cover her ears, wincing as it reverberated through the throne room. When he finished, she glanced nervously to the indent in the floor.

"Captain Garr first sent me!" she said quickly, and the tension in the room relaxed as Render cocked his head again and said nothing. "He was commanding the dragons stationed in my town. He heard a rumor of a really powerful unicorn spotted nearby, and sent one of his soldiers to investigate, but they didn't return. Garr and the other two dragons went to go find him, and wanted me to deliver that information to a messenger dragon nearby. But the messenger wanted us to deliver it to you instead." She fidgeted a bit nervously as Render's expression became unreadable. "My town doesn't have any militia, so he could probably come back and occupy it again without any resistance."

Most of the royal guard began laughing, a couple howling out the hilarity, but it was lost on Twilight. Render loomed over her with a faint grin gracing his face, and she wondered if he was about to attack. To him, she was merely a bite-sized morsel to be devoured at any moment, either out of pity, or boredom. Twilight shrank back into the floor as the laughing faded away. "Wh-what's so funny?"

"Garr has not returned, and may have gotten himself killed. Indeed, a powerful unicorn is being searched for, and perhaps he may have met his end to..." He shot his comrades a quickly crumbling look. "A mere unicorn." The royal guard began laughing with renewed vigor.

Twilight gave him a confused look. They think we're really that weak? "My report is done. Can I go now?" Her words silenced the laughter, and Render regarded her with a smile on his face.

"Your race amuses us with your capacity for fear. I imagine most would have refused to travel to Draconis to seek out an audience with me, yet, here you are." He chuckled and looked away for a few seconds, then looked at Twilight with a softer stare. "I shall allow you to roam free for the time being, and return to your pathetic town. Should you happen to encounter Captain Garr, and he is still alive, tell him to return directly to me." Twilight nodded slowly. "Now, run along, little pony."

Twilight wanted to run from the room, or teleport, anything to get away. The royal guard roared with laughter again as she walked out, and a smug look graced Render's face. She walked on down the halls, relieved once she had left earshot. None of the dragons in the keep paid her any mind on the trip out, and she seemed to be nothing more than a trophy or a jester to them, as far as she could tell.

Her eyes listlessly scanned everything as it passed by again, but her thoughts wandered to the situation she just escaped. Too many... I don't think I can kill them all by myself, even if... Damn it. I hope Trixie and Rainbow found something. She made it back outside without any trouble, and stopped between the pair of dragons guarding the front gate.

"Be careful, pony. Normally, you would already be dead," warned the red.

"I don't believe it. King Render is allowing you to live?" muttered the black.

She glanced up to them with a blank look before moving on, choosing to ignore their words altogether. The marble waypoint came as a welcome relief and she moved to stand near the beginning of it from where they had entered. She sat down and held a hoof to her chest, hoping it would help calm her racing heart. The royal guard had left her nerves shot, and she wanted to relax in safety again.

There was a burst of movement in the distance, and her head shot up to see the archive building's right door open and hanging onto a single hinge. Dash was flying towards her carrying Trixie, a panicked look etched into both of their faces. The knight set Trixie down and skidded to a stop, panting before the alicorn.

"What happened?" blurted Twilight, glimpsing the keep guards from the corner of her eyes. They appeared not to have noticed, or cared, for the time being.

"Twi...light. We... triggered... some... kind of... alarm..." Trixie managed between hyperventilating puffs of air. She took a deep breath and loosed her next words all at once. "We need to get out of here. Now!"

"Whoa, slow down, Trixie. Are you sure? I delivered the report to Render, and none of the dragons reacted." She cast another sidelong glance to the keep guards, but they remained idling, still.

Trixie nodded quickly. "Yes, I'm sure! Something's not right here, Twilight."

"C'mon Twilight, we need to get out of here right now," Dash said. "Did you take out the king?"

Twilight shook her head. "No, I couldn't. There were too many of the royal guard with him. Maybe I could..." She shook her head again. "No. Did you find anything about Nightmare Moon?"

The pair exchanged grim looks and nodded to her. Trixie produced a book and passed it to the alicorn. "Take a look at this." Twilight flipped through the pages, her eyes glazing with fear and awe as Trixie continued. "That was a notebook I found containing information about runes and ancient magic, but it was in a sealed part of the archives. Twilight, this is stuff you've been working on, but look--" Trixie stepped beside her and used her magic to flip to a specific page near the middle. "Here's a part about summoning golems, and,"--she flipped to a page closer to the end--"homunculi. That would be forbidden magic if it could ever work."

Twilight's hooves trembled as she held the book, her eyes widening further. "This... this can't be..." She flipped to the last few pages and hastily scanned them. "Do you know what this means?" she asked rhetorically. "Nightmare Moon is... We need to get this to Celestia. We can worry about Render later. This could mean there's a traitor among the archmagi, but I don't know anypony strong enough to use magic like this besides the princesses. This notebook dates back to before I became an alicorn, almost to before I became an archmage."

Trixie's expression hollowed, and Dash pulled Nightfall's sheath from her breastplate, strapping the baldric back around the outside of her armor. "Twilight, this information will get us killed. We need to get out of here! You can study the book later."

"No, just give me a little more time," she protested, holding a hoof out to ward off further ushering. The others nervously glanced around as she further read into the notebook. She slammed a hoof on the waypoint floor and grimaced. "Damn it... The only signature is 'A' and that could be anyone. She's a weapon, but she isn't fighting by her own volition. When we thought we purged her from Luna, we only sealed her inside of her. If this A character is a dragon, then he must be in Canterlot!" Twilight stuffed to book into Trixie's cloak and turned. "We need to get the Elements of Harmony together and try to remove her from Luna. Maybe we can redeem her in exchange for her freedom. Let's go."

"Finally," muttered Dash.

They began galloping down the causeway when a faint whistling sang through the air. Trixie turned her head, and for a few seconds, time slowed. As she turned to glimpse behind them, her eyes settled onto Twilight as a massive two-pronged lance pierced her body, shattering the marble causeway where she stood. The force of the impact and the subsequent spray of stone blasted her and Dash away, two screams filling the air.

The alicorn screamed until her lungs had emptied and begun to refill with blood, and her body attempted to quiver at the pain's compelling, but the lance prevented her from moving. Telos clattered silently to the ground with blood splattered onto it and the broken ground around her.

"TWILIGHT!" Trixie and Dash cried in unison, both recovering and rushing to her side.

"Fools. Did you really think I would allow you leave Draconis alive? Your friends have meddled in places they don't belong, and I know what you're after," roared Render from atop the keep, and despite the distance, his voiced carried down to them. Among the ramparts and the rooftops were members of the royal guard, all watching silently. He leaped off and began a descent, the others following him.

Twilight coughed blood onto the ground in front of her, and found her lower half paralyzed. She couldn't twist her neck much, and the pain was rapidly overloading her senses. Trixie dash to her face as she began to articulate something. "T-Trixie... c-complete the... m-mission. Stop A and this war. The... Elements..."

"Twilight," Trixie bawled, "N-no! You can't die! Not now!"

The alicorn heaved and coughed another slew of blood onto the ground. "T-Trixie... promise me..." The unicorn nodded, tears streaming down her face. "S-save... Night... mare... M-Moon..."

"I... promise."

"Here... take... T-Telos..." The staff sprang to life and moved to perch itself on Trixie's back, but she didn't pay it any mind. Twilight reached out a bloody, trembling hoof and placed onto her forehead, droplets landing on the unicorn's muzzle. "I... l-love... y-you..." A white light engulfed all three of them briefly, and when it faded, Twilight was alone. She strained her neck with the last of her strength and glimpsed the moon and the night. I'm sorry, everyone. Final images of Nightmare Moon, Trixie, Rainbow Dash, Luna, and Celestia flickered briefly before everything went numb.

***

Trixie blinked tears out of her eyes in surprise and she glanced around, finding the knight just as stunned beside her. They appeared atop the canyon wall on the outskirts of the city. Trixie fell to her knees and Telos moved from her back to float in the air above her.

"H-how... How could you...!? Twilight... how could you do this to us!? We were supposed to go home together!" she cried. Each word she uttered was punctuated with a blow to the ground, but it did nothing to dampen the pain, and her tears poured freely onto the ground.

Dash cast the city a crestfallen look, tears welling silently in her own eyes. She turned and pulled Trixie into a tight embrace, and the unicorn broke down completely.

"Why... why did she lie to me--to us? Why... why... why, why, why, why," Trixie continued to blubber, her further attempts to speak losing enunciation and coherency.

Dash began to shake and tremble as the fangs of sorrow sank into her. "I don't know, Trixie... I don't know," she said as steadily as she could before she lost control of herself.

Chapter 15: The Ethereal Divide

View Online

The Quiet Place
By: Aynine
[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 15: The Ethereal Divide

There was a short moment of silence, ended abruptly by the movements of King Render as he lumbered towards Twilight's exsanguinating corpse. His heavy steps caused the pool of blood beneath the skewered alicorn to tremble and ripple, even tide as he neared. The massive lance kept her body poised upright with her limbs dangling limply to the ground, her body impaled just above the stomach. As Render took the final steps to reach the lance, droplets spilled from the metal and splashed into the pool, and he paused for a moment as he tightened his grip on the handle of the weapon.

He turned his head away as he heaved and torqued the lance from the ground and whipped it in a sharp motion, Twilight's body slipping from the prong and splattering to the ground in a bloody heap. Her blood ran freely along the marble waypoint, filling each line and detail of the intricate engravings. Render turned and began to walk away, shaking his head. "Such a pitiless creature. This is a weapon of the cosmos, a gift from an astral ruler eons long past. Imbued with arcane arts I cannot fathom, it seals the magic of anything it impales. You surrendered your fate the moment you entered this city." He sighed, almost regretfully as he continued on. "Your kingdom will be razed, and you will be forgotten."

Twilight's blood began to form green glyphs over the stone, even above where it ran into the fractured stone. Render kept his back turned and swayed the lance out. "Scour the city for her companions. One is a pegasus and they could be anywhere. Make sure they do not leave the city alive." Everyone froze as an overwhelming sensation of dread weighed down upon them like a quilt, and Render instinctively shuddered.

NO! I WON'T LET IT END HERE!

Particles of light suddenly appeared in the air around the waypoint, continuing to appear even beyond it. They slowly cascaded towards the ground and lit up the cityscape, casting an eerie tint to Twilight's blood. The dragons shifted uneasily and scanned the night sky for a potential source, but it offered no answer. The particles grew thicker and thicker, and as they reached the ground, flowed across it and towards the alicorn's corpse, gaining speed as they neared.

I WON'T BREAK OUR PROMISES!

The ground began trembling, but Twilight's blood stopped flowing freely out across the stone. The pools and puddles shrank, running along the designs and seeping back into her corpse. Render turned and observed the supernatural event with caution and awe. The trembling grew into quaking, growing in magnitude, and all of the blood on the stone had receded back into the alicorn's body leaving only red stains on the marble to mark where it had ran to before. The dread in the air shifted into a chill, and each dragon shared a sudden, worried expression with one another.

THIS IS GOING TO BE... FUN...

The cascading light finished flowing into Twilight's body, and after a moment of silence, erupted in an intense pillar of light, engulfing her and illuminating the sky and ground around her. Pure energy surged to the heavens beyond the veil of darkness, and the broken slabs and rocks of the waypoint lifted into the air and swirled around the alicorn's body. Twilight began to lift into the air, her deathly wound now closed.

Maybe we can be friends, too... Nightmare's voice echoed in her mind, her final parting words she couldn't be sure she heard, now clear to her. She opened her eyes at the beckoning of recognition, their hue shifting from violet to scarlet, and the pillar of light exploded with concussive force, and revealed a different appearance for the alicorn.

Hovering before them now was an astral being no dragon dared to give a name. Twilight's coat had become snow white with a translucent effect; she appeared ethereal, with a faint tint of red about the effect. Her cutie mark appeared with traits of both princesses, her star imposed into Celestia's sun, with both resting on an inverted splotch the same as Luna's. Licking at the air, her mane took on a living property, constantly shifting and moving as a mass of different shades of purple. Lastly, her wings had grown to the size of Celestia's, extending into the air and amplifying her presence.

Friends... The word echoed throughout her head, foreign and unfamiliar within the sound of Nightmare's voice. Twilight raised her wings and gave a dark look to the royal guard and Render, energy and invisible forces swirling around her in a small storm. The word began as a whisper, growing in sound until it was as if it were whispered directly into her ear. She focused in on it, and the judgments carried behind her eyes deepened her expression into a hard stare at the ranks of the dragons.

"I promise you..." she whispered to herself.

The fury of energy around her intensified and shattered a large section of the waypoint, the following debris spraying outward before the energy around the alicorn stabilized into an unusual aura. It almost undulated as it shifted a slight distorting effect around her, occasionally blurring limbs or details for a fraction of a second. The royal guard had slipped into cautious stances, and Render took a step back into their ranks, his grip on the lance tightening once more.

"The world you seek..." started Twilight, her eyes dancing across the line of dragons. "It's filled with hatred wrought by pride." She pointed up to the sky, but didn't glance to it. "The darkness is a testament to your misguided goals. It is not I who will be forgotten, but you--your dark reign will end, and no one will want to remember it." She landed atop an upright slab of the broken waypoint and took in a deep breath. "I am the cosmos, and you will be washed away in the dreams of the stars."

"You insolent little whelp! Tell me your name so that I may make sure it's never uttered again," boomed Render, poising the lance for battle.

Twilight stared at him, listlessly. "Name? You need know no more than that I am the combined wills of the Sun and the Moon." She snapped up suddenly and turned to face towards the entrance of Draconis, the black horizon beckoning her. In a flash of light, she was gone.

***

Trixie and Dash crouched on the ledge, straining and squinting their eyes to try and peer into the distance in hopes of witnessing the battle to come. They were each left in awed silence by a sudden burst of light that erupted from the city, but could see little more than the tops of buildings illuminated briefly before they ran back into the darkness beyond what could be seen. The magician's heart ached, yearning for the hope her imagination had led her to. Twilight will be fine.

A light bloomed in front of them and Twilight appeared, startling both with her strange new form. Both mares leaped up, but the alicorn swiftly raised a hoof to silence any questions in advance. "I'm sorry, but you need to leave. I will make sure they can't follow you, and I'll stop Render here and now." Twilight attempted to maintain a stoic expression, but it slipped slightly; she winced as Trixie's suddenly brightening expression crumbled back to despair just as quickly.

"Twilight, no! Please! Don't leave us again!" the magician pleaded.

Twilight turned her head away, fighting back the hot tears welling in her eyes that threatened to spill freely. "I'm sorry... but this is goodbye," she responded with a wavering voice.

"Wait!" Trixie leaped forward and attempted to grab her, but another flash blinded her, consuming both her and the silent knight. She held up her forelegs instinctively and groaned as she suddenly became disoriented. When the light faded and their eyes adjusted to the darkness again, they realized they were back at the entrance to the cave where they had reunited before. Trixie collapsed to the rocky ground in the veil of darkness, wailing her pain into the night. "Twilight!"

Dash carried a crestfallen look, but forced herself to move forward and not cry, the simple motion sapping all of her effort. She latched onto Trixie and pulled her into a tight embrace, the magician's shuddering and blubbering cries pouring into her chest. "We... We can't... do anything to... help her now. We... we have to get back to... to Canterlot." The knight couldn't keep her tone steady as every nerve in her body struggled to keep her from succumbing to the grief as the magician had, and her wails only made it harder.

Trixie shoved Dash away and stared at her with contempt, tears streaming down her puffed up cheeks. "How... How can you just leave her behind like that!? After all she's done for us--our friend... my... How can you say that!?" She glowered at the knight, an undirected rage within her ready to rampage free.

Dash lowered her head, allowing her mane to obscure her already shadowed face. She shuddered and clenched a hoof. "You think this is easy for me!?" she bellowed, snapping her head up and throwing a foreleg to the air beside her. "I just watched one of my best friends condemn themselves to death for our sake! Don't you dare think that I don't get it!" The knight tensed beneath the weight of her inner turmoil, unknowingly crying herself.

Trixie blubbered more incoherent words as she collapsed back to the ground, and Dash closed the distance again. She placed a hoof on Trixie's shoulder, but she shook it away. Attempting to grab her again, Trixie blasted her back with a burst of magic, scorching the end of her tail as she leaped backwards. "Don't touch me," she growled. "I'm not leaving." She turned towards the cave and began to walk unsteadily towards the entrance.

Dash hung her head in defeat. "I'm sorry, Twilight." As Trixie turned around in surprise, her face was met with the knight's armored hoof. Everything went black as she fell to the ground, unconscious.

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Twilight reappeared with another flash at the waypoint. The dragons had encroached slightly on her position, still wary of her appearance and demonstration of resurrection. Landing on an upright slab again, she rose up on her hind legs, extending her wings wide, and raised her forelegs up. Her horn shined as a cylindrical barrier of light rose up around the waypoint and beyond, trapping all of the royal guard and King Render within.

Tremors rippled through the ground before stone slabs and chunks dislodged and levitated. Twilight swayed her forehooves forward and they moved at high velocity, striking two red dragons with titanic force. Their frames rippled at the impact, and the stone shattered before they fell over, no one sure if they were still alive. The other royal guards raised their arms and wings, some becoming terrified at the telekinetic overload, others becoming fueled by the rage at seeing their comrades fall.

Render aimed the lance at her, a scowl sharpening his eyes. "Kill her!" he roared as he reeled back the lance. Using his left hand and his wings to balance him, he threw it with all of his might, the weapon developing a high speed rotation as it left his grip.

Twilight's new surge of power proved difficult to gate, and the aura that cloaked her body made her feel sluggish, almost tired as she moved. Her body resisted the will to leap to the side or fly, and she held a hoof outward instead. A barrier formed instantly before the moment the lance impacted her; the lance drilled into the magic shell and created a sparking, crackling noise as it sheered into it. The inertia continued to drive the weapon into her barrier, and tendrils of light ripped away in its wake, lashing at the ground and burning marks into it. After a moment longer, Twilight tensed and the lance fell to the ground as the inertia had depleted. She took a moment to catch a few gulps of air before focusing her gaze back upon the royal guard.

Her eyes listlessly decreed an unspoken judgement, and she aimed a hoof at them once more, her horn still shining with magic at the ready. Confidence crested the corners of her mouth. "You shall drown within the sea of time," she declared.

The dragons clambered to the edge of the barrier and watched cautiously as Twilight closed her eyes, tilting her head back and taking a deep breath in through her nose. Water droplets formed in the air by the hundreds, quickly multiplying. For a brief moment, it appeared as if time had stopped in the middle of a heavy rain, but in a few seconds, they rushed to coalesce into a large sphere. The water rippled and wobbled, and Twilight floated the sphere down to the center of the waypoint, quickly stepping to it and pressing a hoof gently to its surface.

"What are you doing!?" shouted Render. "Attack her!" The dragons royal guard remained frozen in cautious awe, all watching the alicorn with varying degrees of fear.

Steam arose from the surface of the sphere, its color lightening, and tendrils snaked their way into the sky and cooled away into the night. The sphere undulated, but maintained its shape, the steam and tint the only visible indication of any change to it. The liquid began to lift away, and the first line of the royal guard began advancing, a couple bold dragons leading the initiative. The corners of Twilight's mouth pulled up into a devious look, and the sphere burst. Her eyes glazed with pride as the liquid splashed against the scales of her foes, clinging as it had become more viscous. The agonizing roars of the frontline bounced off of the walls of the barrier and filled the arena for a few moments as scales melted and flesh seared.

It feels so good to cut loose like this. This must be how Nightmare feels all the time! --Argh, what was what? Twilight shuddered as strange feelings conflicted with her expected ones. For a moment, she felt delight in their roars, as if the pain was sung ever so sweetly to her, but then afraid as it all rushed away. She shook her head nervously and eyed the wounded warily. I have to focus! The wounded dragons fell to the ground and rolled on the stone until they cooled. It was only a few seconds before they scrambled back to their feet and fell back into the ranks of the rest of their comrades.

"Consider that a warning," she announced with a steadied voice. Her words echoed out in front of her, but there was little reaction to the commanding intent they held within themselves. "Surrender now to the crown of Equestria and there will be no more bloodshed." The barrier faded away and revealed the rest of Draconis to them again, as well as non-combative dragons watching from a distance, each observing the event with uncertain fear. Twilight cast the onlookers a knowing stare briefly.

She could hear whispers slipping their way from the ranks, and after a few more minutes, several took to the air and flew away, none daring to look back. "You cowards will be executed!" bellowed Render to them, but his once loyal subjects offered him no more respect than their backs as they took flight from the battlefield.

The remaining dragons of the royal guard regrouped into a tighter formation, malevolence in their eyes as they stared at Twilight. But for every bit of anger in them, there was shifting expression in the alicorn's. For some moments, she would gaze at them with nothing, and for others, there was a hint of wanton desire in them.

"You underestimate us, fool. You are nothing but another delusional pony who think the Brood weak. I have buried your kind more times than I can count, and whether you're a mage slaying alicorn will make no difference." Render took two steps and leaped into the air. "Kill her now!" The rest of the royal guard filled the night overhead, and Twilight closed her eyes and tapped a hoof lightly to the waypoint. The barrier reformed again, accommodating the expanded aerial battlefield.

The swarm overhead began to fill up the sky with their multicolored scale coats, shifting and spitting bursts of fire down on the ground. They landed in tiny spots and created small, napalm-like fires on the stone. Twilight watched them closely until, all at once, they breathed together a tremendous firestorm down upon her. She twirled, pushing both hooves out to her sides as the flames spiraled downward into the waypoint.

Her horn shimmered and the flames engulfed her and burned away her duskweave, slamming into the stone and quickly flowing into it. The royal guard ceased fire and watched in shock as all of it vanished, including the earlier flames. Twilight's mouth tugged up into a faint smile as the ground rumbled before all of the flames burst forth from the stone and passed around her, to the sky. To the surprise of King Render, the flames that flowed back out from the stone had become black.

The swarm scattered as the flames assaulted the air, catching, igniting, and engulfing entire dragons. A tiny spec of fire touched one fleeing dragon's tail, and in only a few seconds, it erupted into a black blaze that consumed him. His wails of pain died shortly after as his skeletal frame fell to the ground, shattering to ash on the waypoint. Every dragon caught in the flames crashed from the sky in a black blaze, their skeletons all remaining until the moment before it touched the ground. The roars and cries lasted only a few seconds, and then all ceased simultaneously as all targets had ceased to exist.

Twilight stumbled backwards several steps and dropped to one knee, one hoof pressed to her left eye, and the other to her chest. She heaved and tensed, pain spikes running through her mind and a suddenly racing heart pounding against her chest. Heh... I'm not used to using this much magic. She coughed a few times and returned to an outwardly comfortable state. Shaking her head, she muttered, "What was that?"

In her moment of weakness, the royal guard regrouped and began to dive bomb her, vicious, massive claws poised to strike. As the first set to strike her reached out with vengeful intent, she held out a hoof, stopping them in their entirety only inches away from her. The second wave scattered, and Render swooped past and retrieved his lance. A purple aura locked the movements of those caught, and she tilted her head to meet their astonished looks with an apathetic one. "A gift from your matron of the night. Black Hole."

Render and the other dragons not caught by the telekinesis fled away. A dark vortex formed just above the ones caught and twisted reality, pulling everything into its distorting void. She released her telekinesis and watched as they attempted to claw, fly, or latch onto the stone waypoint. She stepped backwards, once again with a light smirk striking her face. One by one, it pulled in the victims, ripping loose stone from the waypoint with it. They beat their wings in desperation, but the gravitational pull was too strong, even for the might of a dragon.

Twilight surrounded herself in a barrier and watched as they disappeared into the void. For a moment, there was a peaceful silence. The flaps of dragon wings overhead and her own heart beat were all that she could hear. After that moment, the vortex's distortion reversed and began to deposit the victims back onto the stone. Bodies of dragons heaped into a pile beneath it, but Twilight could only see one still moving, groaning and whimpering in agony.

"Do you really want to keep this game going, King Render?"

"You bastard..." Render glared into the scarlet eyes, but for all their exotic beauty, he could only see what they lacked. "Those eyes..." he muttered. They lacked compassion.

Twilight held her forehooves out and a ball of crackling energy formed before. It spit ripples of energy outward and around it occasionally, crackling lightly like static, but she stared into it, noting an odd splendor in its light. It became brighter, and she squinted while she held it before her. Turning to the sky, she pushed it up, and with a spark of her horn, it exploded into an array of lightning with a tremendous crack. Each bolt split and overlapped one another, racing at targets everywhere as it branched out. Dragons roared as they were struck, most simply descending at the pain of a singed or charred wing, but one did fall, sailing to the ground and landing in an unconscious heap.

Why... isn't it working!? The strikes chained around, but the power diminished with each hit until the last target only flinched in surprise. I... can't control it... Twilight slouched and pressed a hoof over her eye again as her head throbbed. Her powers felt endless, as if she could feel magic in everything and channel a hundred more great spells, but she was suffering from entropy beneath the overwhelming surge of power. "It's over, Render. The royal guard falls here." She straightened herself, but kept the hoof over her eye, holding her free one directly skywards. I can't stop now! "Kyrie Eleison!"

White light devoured all empty space, pushing back the blackness of the night around and all other color with it. It climbed into the air, engulfing the royal guard in the sky, those it touched quickly vanishing into its brilliance. Some of the dragons managed to escape, along with King Render, but everything else vanished into the white. An almost hissing sound sang with it, and those that were free of it shielded their eyes as it receded and faded away only a few seconds later.

When he could see again, Render's eyes widened as his forces lay unmoving, littered across the ravaged waypoint like bodies scattered over a graveyard ready to be buried. Twilight trembled and fell to her haunches, once again struggling to catch her breath. Render began a sharp descent towards her, preying on the unexpected weakness in the alicorn. As he neared, he swung the lance in a powerful strike. Twilight sprang up, panting, and evaded it. The lance dug into the stone, breaking it on impact and then raking a wide scar just beside Twilight.

Twilight's horn shined, and she reached a hoof outward to him as he passed by. She attempted to grasp him with her telekinesis, but he proved too resistant and all she managed was to dull his movements briefly before he broke away to the sky again. She remained panting, with her hoof still firmly planted over her eye, and watched him with an unreadable expression. Sweat ran down the sides of her face bringing with it strands of her mane to mat against it. "The blood of the Brood makes you resistant to magic, but you're a lot more resistant than any others. Maybe that's why you're the king."

Render glared at her from skies as he circled her in the air, his lance firm in his grasp and readied. "I will not let you suppress the Brood. This world is rightfully ours, and I'm taking it from your kind... by force." He aimed his free hand to her and the remaining royal guard began to descend upon her.

Twilight stepped back and loosed bolts of light from her shining horn. Each bolt pierced the incoming dragons in their wings, causing them to spiral out of control and crash land. They slid past her or fell beyond reasonable range, and she focused on controlling her blasts until she could use a minimum amount of magic in disabling them. The final guard was struck at the top of his wings, the small burn sheering his entire wing to the strain of a few beats. He roared as he lost control and spiraled head first into the stone, quickly losing consciousness.

"The royal guard is... no more. You can't... stop my friends now," she said breathlessly. She dropped to her haunches again, a hoof readied at her chest, and the ethereal property of her body began to wane. She shifted and became clearer and clearer as the precious seconds of her repose ticked away.

"They've served their purpose." Render pulled the lance back, using his left arm to balance himself and steady his aim. "YOU'RE WEAK PREY NOW!" He threw the lance with all of his might, the menacing gyrations beginning as it rolled free from his grasp. The whistling sound sang into the air as it surged towards the alicorn.

Twilight stood up and placed both hooves towards the lance. As her horn ignited with a furious light, her ethereal property faded completely and a barrier formed as the lance reached her. She spread her wings as it impacted, and the ground trembled, the lance drilling into her barrier again. Her body tensed, and the pain spike in her head returned in greater force. She clamped her left eye in response and pushed against the edge of the barrier as she poured increasing amounts of magic into it. Unconsciously, her wings bowed in front of her at the impact point. With a symphony of sounds like breaking glass, the barrier shattered and the lance impaled her once more, but the rotations ceased.

But Twilight didn't flinch as the cool metal slid into her body, breaking bones and piercing organs. Render gasped and his eyes widened as the alicorn staggered forward a few steps, blood running out of her mouth and down her body. "How can you--"

"This uprising from the Brood ends here," Twilight said in a cold voice strained by the blood in her mouth. Her scarlet eyes shined in the dark, instilling the dragon king with a sense of doom.

The alicorn coughed several times, a slew of blood chasing each to the stone. Her horn remained shining, and the lance slowly slid out, her body distorting where it had struck and limiting blood flow from the wound. It flipped around and aimed at Render, and she put one hoof over the wound, and used the other to aim it. The barrier surrounding the battlefield vanished as she took aim. "Don't blink."

Render whirled around and attempted to fly higher into the night, but the lance rocketed away from the alicorn. In two beats of his wings, the lance closed the distance and impaled him with both prongs into his back, piercing through to his chest. A pained groan attempted to escape his throat, but he found himself unable to force it out. His wings lost their strength and he fell backwards to the edge of the waypoint, spiraling before slamming into the stone and rolling onto his belly. He opened his eyes, his head swimming, and watched helplessly as the alicorn staggered towards him with a hard look on her face.

Her horn's furious shine was replaced with a weak white one, and a sickly light, almost too faint to see, echoed out from the hoof held over her wound. A thick river of blood ran behind her from where she had been impaled, meandering as a grim path. As she neared Render's face, her coat returned to its natural violet, and her mane's living effect faded with it soon after. The light from her horn and beneath her hoof faded as she stopped in front of him. Blood continued to run out of her wound in a small trickle, but she appeared to be stable for now, or at least as far as she would allow the dragon to see.

"I'm sorry about all of this bloodshed. It never should've come to this, but you and I both knew what would happen if you challenged the princesses." She coughed more blood into a waiting hoof, and the rampant emotions and instability in her feelings vanished as her eyes reverted back to purple. She paused to glance at the blood on her hoof, but she weakly shook it away.

Render turned his head and coughed, blood splattering onto the stone beside him in spotty patterns. He took a few wheezing breaths, but remained stationary. He chuckled before speaking. "I never thought that someone like you or that damned sun princess would stop me. ...So, what now, now that you've killed me and much of the royal guard?"

"With you dead, the rest of the Brood should surrender and we can go back to the peace from before."

The king eyed Twilight's wound, his eyes following the trail back and calculating the blood loss. "Neither of us will live to see such a day... it seems, " he struggled with a raspy voice.

There was a look of sympathy etched into Twilight's face for a moment, but she turned away, returning with a more regretful look when she faced the dragon king again. "I can't die yet. My friends... I have too many promises... I won't break them... Maybe we could've... been friends... in another life..." Twilight dropped down to all fours, but her legs trembled beneath her weight.

Render chuckled, again a raspy sound that almost whistled in the air, as his condition continued to deteriorate. "Perhaps you are right, but this life... will not be the one. Your race is difficult for the Brood to comprehend, but... you have always intrigued me to understand you."

Twilight snorted. "We ponies could say the same about the Brood." She shuddered as a few more coughs battled their way to freedom, but she managed to suppress them and loose a groan instead. The metallic taste of her blood made its way into her mouth and she held a hoof to her chest, pain from the wound erupting from seemingly nothing before.

"I wish to know the name of the one who intrigues me most, the one who shall take my life, before I am to die. Honor me with that, at the least." Render pushed a weak hand forward, but it stopped after only a meter when his dug in. He could raise it no more.

Twilight stared at it, the chill and drowsiness of her blood less setting in, and stretched a foreleg to touch it. "My name... is Twilight... Sparkle... Let's be friends..." she muttered, her mouth twisting up into a weak smile.

"I am Render..." He trailed off and muttered something else she couldn't quite hear. "It is nice to make... a new friend, even so close to death." Render smiled, or at least Twilight thought he did. "Earlier... you did not name yourself. Might I ask why?"

Twilight raised an eyebrow at the question. "I... don't know. I can't control that form very well. I..." She turned her head away and spoke distantly. "I lose myself."

"I... see."

"Render, why did you start this war?" asked Twilight as she returned her gaze to the dragon king.

Render's eyes tilted up to the night sky before he chose to answer. "It almost feels as if... I'm waking from a dream. This war is... not mine. It is General Aurelius's. My memory is hazy. I remember... peace not so long ago. That dragon's sharp tongue convinced us to go to war... to take back Equestria as it was once ours." Render loosed a few hacking coughs, aiming the blood spatter away from the alicorn. "I don't know why. Perhaps it was jealousy... but I'm afraid my memory is too obscured."

Twilight's eyes were wide, but her vision began to darken. "I... see..." she muttered in response, her mind racing to piece everything together in what little time remained. "Who is Aurelius?"

Render snorted and wheezed at the same time. "Heh. He is more enigma than dragon. Our race is recorded... for all those that are part of the Brood... but his origins are unknown to us. Perhaps I will find the answer... in the afterlife... I will tell you... if I ever find out... but it is my time. Goodbye, my... friend..."

Render's eyes closed slowly, and Twilight could've sworn he was smiling in the moment that they did. She called out to him, "R-Render!?" Forcing herself to rise through the pain of her injury, she clenched her teeth and adrenaline brought her to standing. She lurched forward and put her forehooves on his snout, shaking it with what little strength she could muster. "Render! Wake up, Render! ... No.... no, no, no, no! Please, Render! Wake up!"

She pushed even harder, but a sharp pain shot through her chest and she was forced to cough again. Loosing a pained groan, she fell to the ground against the dragon's snout and began to heal herself again. The light that emanated from her hoof was faint, but it worked nonetheless to mend her catastrophic injury just a bit more. "Please, Render... please wake up," she pleaded in a voice barely above a whisper. "Don't leave me... alone... please..."

Tears began to stream down her eyes as the adrenaline faded, her surge of energy wilting her into a puddle of sorrow and encroaching despair. She flinched as a warmth touched her flank and back, and she turned her head, blurting the king's name once more. Her eyes fell to the stone as his blood drained onto it and ran against her. She clambered away and watched as it slowly pooled outward from his body, but she only shuddered. I did this... A breeze swept the waypoint, erasing the warmth in the blood and freezing her where it painted her coat.

"No... Why is this happening? It wasn't supposed to be... this hard..." She slammed a hoof weakly to the stone and glanced up to the sky.

Her barrier had obscured her view of the night, but now that it was gone and the night no longer lit by the ferocity of her magic, everything in the black backdrop shone clearly. The stars and constellations stood out in stark contrast to their beauty before, appearing much like Luna's masterpiece on a clear winter night. Her mouth hung open, and for a moment, her tears ceased, only to return as the crafter's name and image slid back into her mind. Nightmare Moon... I'll come for you... I promise.

Her eyes fell to Render, trailing back to the expanding pool of blood. Her own fur matted to her body where hers ran, and his touched. Crouched on her hind knees, she took in as large a breath as she could. She threw her head back and screamed with her last breath; a scream that carried the pain of every life she had taken, every scar on her soul, and every piece of her humanity she had felt she lost in the sorrow and regret. When her requiem finished spilling into the air, she fell to the stone and laid there as Render's blood slowly approached her again.

I did it Celestia... I promised... You... promised me... she thought. However, there was no magic left in her to communicate with the princess. I just want... everything... I just want... it all... to end... As the dragon's blood reached her, a chill ran through her body, the crimson liquid no longer bearing the warmth of life. She succumbed to darkness as the chill began spreading throughout the rest of her body.

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The icy chill of the air hitting Dash's face did little more than force her to squint as she pushed her endurance to the limits. The knight held Trixie's forelegs around her neck while balancing her and attempting to race back towards Canterlot. One of Trixie's eyes had swollen, and she hoped that the swelling went down before she had awoken to find it. I'm sorry, Trixie, but I won't let you go back and die if she fails... The knight allowed her head to hang mournfully to the landscape for a moment, but refused to cry. The air stung at her eyes, but she shook her head and resumed focus on the journey ahead.

It wasn't long before the additional weight of her armor and the unicorn's body strained her wings beyond their limits. Damn... Maybe I can make it to Canterlot with her, but I'll be too tired to fight... Cold sweat glistened as it ran down her face and clumped her mane together in thick strands that billowed back. The chill of the night only made it more difficult to keep herself empowered by the surge of adrenaline, and her pauses in wing beats to soar grew in number as she pressed on. No. I can't be useless when we get back to Canterlot. I need my strength.

She couldn't tell how long she had been flying, but her wings threatened to give out as they neared the forest where Twilight remained behind to duel Nightmare Moon. As the bare patch in the forest came into view, her mouth hung open as an awed, "Whoa," escaped her lips. With fatigue bearing down, she resolved to take a break, swooping down to the forest's new tree line. Carefully propping Trixie against one of the thick tree trunks within the canopy's cover, she turned and slowly stepped into the ravaged battlefield.

"Twilight... Just how strong are you...?" she muttered, her eyes glazed in awe as they drank in the destruction. There was a hint of fear in her eyes as she committed the details to memory.

Spots of black soot marked where trees had once stood, burned all the way into the ground upon themselves, roots and all. She turned back to the tree line to glimpse the frayed and blackened edge of the leaves. The verdant green no longer shone in the moonlight, instead made dull and sickly by the thick sheet of ash resting upon it, masking its life in grime. Returning her eyes to the battlefield, she continued to wander throughout in a trance.

Craters, grooves, and more ash were all that could be found of the once serene forest. There were a few patches of snow in some of the craters, as well as a couple lingering pieces of burnt bark, but no life. She attempted to grab one to inspect it, but it crumbled to dust as she touched it. She closed her eyes and imagined what a battle between two alicorns would be like. What was it like for Celestia and Nightmare Moon? All we did was use the Elements of Harmony... A chill ran down her spine as she opened her eyes, suddenly afraid of what her imagination might conjure up.

Spinning on her heels, she began to gallop back to check on Trixie, but she froze as her eyes landed on something on the ground. Blood. She leaned down and reached out a hoof to touch it, but instantly pulled it back, shuddering as she stepped around it. You seemed fine... pretended like nothing really happened...

She reached Trixie, finding the unicorn to still be peacefully sleeping. She hoisted her up and moved them deeper into the forest, fearful of being exposed to any dragons that shared her curiosity. Laying Trixie beneath another tree, she moved to sit on the opposite side of an adjacent one, out of view but within earshot of the unicorn.

She's dead... There's no way... How am I going to tell everyone... what she did for us? How am I...? Her eyes darted to the side, and she twisted her neck slightly to look in the direction of Trixie. She shuddered and pulled her hind legs up to her, tears flowing freely from her eyes.

"Everything... everything you taught us about friendship--that we could do anything if we stuck together... and you threw it away..." Her shudders turned to trembling and she lost the will to hold herself together briefly. Suddenly standing, she screamed, no longer afraid of who might hear. "YOU DIDN'T HAVE TO DO THIS ALONE, TWILIGHT! WE'RE YOUR FRIENDS!"

She collapsed back down to the tree, sliding against it. "You didn't have to fight alone," she sobbed, turning to punch the trunk. "You didn't... have to fight alone..." She cried and blubbered to herself, her eyes periodically darting to Trixie as the pain spilled out of her in pleas and sobs.

When she finished mourning, she dried her eyes with a hoof and stood up, approaching Trixie. She stood over her, studying the rise and fall of her chest and her peaceful eyes. I lost a friend, but you... lost so much more... I'll protect you, just like she would've wanted... She moved to lay against a tree opposite of her, to watch over her as a sentinel. As she relaxed once more, she removed Nightfall from its sheath and stabbed it into the ground in front of her. I promise to protect you, Trixie. No matter what... She drifted to sleep with one hoof resting on the hilt of her sword.

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Celestia jumped at the sound of the one in her bed stirring. She ripped her gaze from the stars above her balcony to watch as Nightmare Moon shifted and moaned. The soreness of her body prompted her to groan instead, and she automatically held a foreleg over her chest while using the other to sit up. I'm in a bed? She yawned and used her hooves to rub her eyes of sleep. Pausing, she snorted before her eyes wandered to the side of the bed to find Celestia watching her with a worried look.

Nightmare frowned as their eyes locked, but neither wanted to say anything. She pulled back the covers to find herself covered in bandages with dried blood peeking through. Opening her mouth to speak, she turned to Celestia, but didn't need to ask to know the answer. She loosed a quiet, "Hmph," before attempting to walk on her own. Putting weight on her legs, she growled as pain set in, and Celestia lunged to support her. The Id turned her head away after steadying herself until the princess stepped back.

As memory returned, she eyed the bandages carefully, taking note of the great deal of care in their application. I wonder if that alicorn has it in her, she thought as an image of Twilight's face pierced her mind briefly.

"Is Luna's shadow awake now?" Celestia asked with slight distaste, her disposition returning to normal.

Nightmare turned and scowled at her. "I have a name, you know, and it is not Luna, dear sister," she retorted.

"You are no sister of mine. You're just a monster, infesting her like a parasite," Celestia snapped back.

Nightmare turned and stepped close, placing her face within inches, ignoring the fiery pain that raced up her limbs. "How dare you! You know nothing about me! It must be nice to sit here pretty for a thousand years while we rot on the Moon because of what you did! Maybe if you'd spent a little more time trying to understand--!" Nightmare cut herself off and stepped away as the princess stared at her, wide-eyed and confused, her mouth agape. Nightmare moved to the fireplace and stood in front of it, gazing into it and taking comfort in the heat it gave. The wood spit and crackled quietly, but the heat and dancing flames gave off an almost hypnotic pleasure.

Celestia watched Nightmare as she hung her head, her starry mane slowly reappearing and expanding to its normal size again. She thought back to the time before when Luna had rebelled, but all she could think of was how hard it was to banish her sister, and how afraid of Nightmare Moon she once was. Are they... not the same mare? With a sudden surge of concern, she stepped beside her and raised Nightmare's head with a hoof.

"If... If you're truly not the darker part of Luna's soul... then help me understand who, or what, you truly are." She forced a caring look on her face, as she moved her hoof gently to Nightmare's shoulder.

The Id eyed the hoof pensively. "Your student... Twilight was it? She might be able to..." She pulled away and returned herself to staring into the fire. "The next time we see her, you will understand then."

Celestia blinked a few times, unsure of how to react or proceed. The Nightmare Moon she had known over a millennia ago was very different from the nearly passive one before her. Even in her wisdom and experience, she could not be sure if the Id was attempting to deceive her or not. With the war with the Brood placing her at the top of Equestria's rule, the mare she had known would not have been so disinterested in her new position of power.

"What are you afraid of, Lu--Nightmare?" Celestia asked, putting all of her effort into making her voice as welcoming as possible.

"I am not afraid. Wh-what are you talking about?" Nightmare turned to face the princess, forcing up a hard expression.

Celestia stepped closer and wrapped her forelegs around Nightmare. The Id eyed them cautiously, but did not push them away as Celestia pulled her into an embrace, Nightmare's body quivering as they tightened around her. The Id closed her eyes as Celestia laid her head beside hers, and after a moment, returned the hug. Celestia's warmth poured into her, overwhelming her pain and suppressing a deep, inner sorrow. For the first time in her life, she felt truly safe and wanted, wrapped in the act of compassion.

Abruptly, Nightmare pushed Celestia away and stood up, turning towards the door and refusing to face her. The princess stepped up and attempted to approach, reaching out to her, but Nightmare took a step forward. "I-I'm leaving now. Your hospitality is... a-appreciated," she stammered quietly before departing in a rush, closing the door behind her.

Celestia watched as she left, awestruck by everything that had just transpired. Was that Luna... or was Nightmare Moon just...? The normally malevolent Nightmare Moon appeared vulnerable. The princess hung her head in confused defeat. Maybe Twilight knows... Focusing, she sat before the fire and closed her eyes.

Twilight, are you there? she asked with her thoughts. The silence bothered her, and she called out to her a few more times before giving up. The younger alicorn's lack of communication left her worried of the worst case scenario. Please be safe...

She opened her eyes and gazed into the flames with a glum disposition, further left confused by memories of Luna's younger, but happier self. It wasn't long before the memories dancing in the fireplace shifted to Nightmare Moon, the princess contemplating what to do. Are you Luna, or somepony else, Nightmare?

***

Nightmare strode through the castle as comfortably as she could, but her gait expressed the strain she hid from her injuries, each step a chore of its own. The clopping of her bare hooves against the marble echoed down the halls, but there were no signs of life beyond the dragon patrols outside. The servants must be avoiding me again, she thought with a hint of sadness. Maybe if... She paused and shook her head, continuing to make her way to the outside.

A few more strides and she gave up trying to hide her pain, choosing to wince and limp to limit her pain. With her pace slowed, she found an interest in the castle's decorations. Only torches lit the corridors, most placed conveniently before a tapestry or one of the murals that climbed down the walls. One particular mural caught her eye, one depicting Celestia and Luna flying in a circle opposite of one another. On Luna's side, it was blue with the moon, speckled with stars to signify the bringing of the night; on Celestia's side, it was a creamy white with a faded yellow sun to signify the bringing of dawn and day once more, forever in an endless cycle of balance. Harmony.

Nightmare gave the mural a faint, sad smile and placed a hoof to it. If only... She retracted her hoof and turned her head to keep walking when a tapestry caught her eye, one with an all too familiar depiction. She stepped to it as quickly as she could and whipped her head in every direction to see if anyone was watching her. When the corridors returned only slow dancing shadows from the torch flames, she breathed out in content.

She focused back on the tapestry in front of her, studying its colors carefully, then its details. Woven with exquisite skill was the beginning of Luna's descent into her madness, and the beginning of her rebellion against Celestia. Becoming me... mouthed Nightmare as she grimaced at it. She had taken pride in her power and all that she felt she controlled, but now it all felt pointless, as if it never meant anything in the first place. She continued walking on, hanging her head and solemnly ignoring the rest of the decorations, both for fear that they were happy memories, or scenes of her subjugation in the past.

She made her way to the castle's royal courtyard, frowning as she found the grass and pieces of shrubbery to have been ravaged in the siege. To her surprise, the side courtyard and the statue garden were completely untouched, save for a few indents in the pathway by hurried dragons in the initial siege. She walked along the path, avoiding pieces of the castle that had chipped or broken off and fallen below, and found a large tree, hanging its shadow and further darkening the ground beneath it.

She settled in beneath it, laying just so her eyes peeked out to the open night above, the cloudless sky giving way to the stars and the moon. A star raced across the sky and over the horizon briefly, and her expression softened with a light smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. She reached a hoof up to the sky, and the moon shifted ever so slightly into view. It radiated a clear white, shining down brilliantly and bathing the land in its odd, pale glow. She spread her wings on the ground beside her, wincing as the damaged one resisted the effort.

She took a deep breath and exhaled, her thoughts slipping back to Twilight. The unnatural alicorn's final spell caused her to writhe in agony, but with the pain, it also brought a sense of freedom. She pulled a hoof closer and turned it over before her, intrigued by the memories of the feeling. A spell that was not meant to kill, yet so powerful... Please hurry, Twilight, she thought as her eyes wandered back the stars above. I'm waiting for you...

Chapter 16: Call of the Condemned

View Online

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 16: Call of the Condemned

Rainbow Dash stirred in her slumber, the transition back to consciousness being goaded along by the return of bitter memories. She opened her eyes, welcoming the darkness for them, but shivered as the chill returned. The forest was too quiet for her comfort, the trauma and uneasiness of the previous events lingering as haunting images played on the dark ground before her. She rubbed her eyes wearily and sat up, beginning to focus and readjust to the world she now understood once more. She could not tell how long she had been asleep, but her body felt restored, and little more than the stiffness of a good sleep hindered her rise to standing.

Her eyes landed sharply on the tree trunk Trixie had been left to rest under, and she promptly reached for her sword when the magician was not there. As her hoof rested atop the pommel, she caught Trixie in the corner of her eye, sitting just before a patch of light slipping between the canopy leaves. Laying before her were both Mystic Sage and Telos overlapping in a cross, her eyes empty as she stared at them with her head hung low and hidden in her cowl.

Dash paused and watched from the distance, unsure of how to approach the grief-sick magician. The usually bright, platinum sheen of Telos was no longer there, instead lit by the pale glow of the moonlight; its gem was inert and little more than a clear colored diamond. Dash quietly pulled Nightfall from the ground and sheathed it, slowly approaching Trixie from behind. The magician didn't react to her presence, even as she moved to sit closer to her. With a quieted sigh, she resolved to start a conversation.

"Hey," she started weakly, slowly, "We should probably get going." Her eyes fixated on the side of Trixie's mane, waiting, hoping that she would face her with more than despair, and less than anger.

The magician remained staring at the staves, her eyes frozen upon their details. There was a long silence before she spoke, and her words came in a defeated tone. "This... This is all that's left of her," she muttered.

Dash grimaced, the magician having unintentionally reignited the sorrow within her as well. She swallowed hard and pushed the feelings away after much mental effort on her part. Her gaze shifted from Trixie to Telos, and she forced herself to keep it there as she spoke. "I know, Trixie, and I'm sorry... But we need to keep going, or... or her sacrifice will have been for nothing." When she finished, she hung her head solemnly, letting her eyes dart away into the darkness.

Her head snapped up when she could hear the magician turning to her, and she locked with her dark violet eyes. She was taken aback by the glower she was given, and a hoof instinctively readied itself to brandish Nightfall if necessary. Dash swallowed and hoped Trixie couldn't see it.

"Her... sacrifice...?" Trixie muttered as she rose to standing. "So, we forget what she's done and leave her to the dragons... to what? Become a snack to them!?" Her features contorted in rage, further exacerbated by her pain. Dash took a step back as Trixie took a step closer to her, her glower evening to a heavy stare. "I'm going back for her body. Equestria can wait for all I care."

"Trixie, the dragons have probably already taken it!" Dash shouted back, her own inner turmoil surfacing. "We need to go help our friends back home. When we win this war, then we can go back and get it from them, I promise!" She attempted physical contact, but the magician stepped back and Telos sprang to life, swatting Dash's extending hoof away.

The staff floated before Trixie at a downward angle, poised to strike again if necessary. "Don't you touch me! I'm going, and I'm not going back to Canterlot without her body. Don't try to stop me... not that you ever could." Trixie turned and began to walk away, snatching Mystic Sage with her magic and slipping it beneath her cloak as Telos perched over it.

"Trixie, stop! Please don't do this! What about Canterlot and the princesses?"

The magician paused and turned her head one last time, a loathing gleam in her eyes. "I don't care."

Dash watched in unrestrained shock as she walked away, the patches of moonlight illuminating and shadowing her path until she moved beyond the forest's edge fully into its light. "I... I can't let you do this!" she shouted suddenly, surprised by her own boldness.

Trixie stopped again, and the knight's heart sank. "If you think you can stop me, then go ahead and try." She continued to walk onward into the darkness without casting a glance back.

Dash removed her hoof from Nightfall's hilt and hung her head in defeat. I'll come back for you later, Trixie, if you don't make it on your own. She swallowed, fearful of the magician's powers, even without the amplification from Telos. Please bring Twilight home. She shook her head and leaped into flight, the cool night air slipping beneath her wings as the branches and leaves grazed her, the wind washing away the lingering anxiety of her conversation with Trixie.

***

The magician walked without silence, her emotions constantly leading her back into fits of sobs and questions without sensible answers. Tears ran down her face now that she was alone, and the pain of Twilight's memory bit into her heart with searing fangs. Her eyes burned, and she could no longer maintain a steady gait, occasionally pausing to wipe her eyes and sputter more thoughts aloud or stumble over nothing.

Why... why, why, why why why why... WHY!? she thought over and over, no longer wishing to vent, and instead clenching her teeth until her jaw began to ache. You died right in front of me, but... then what? You came back to life just to make sure we couldn't help you--just to watch you die all over again? She wiped more tears as she continued walking on, an image of Twilight's impaled body and her weak, bliss-stricken eyes as she imparted Telos to her. At the thought, the staff moved before her, pulsing a soft glow from the spire almost as if it could sense her pain. She stared at into the spire gem, no longer caring where she was going, if it was leading anywhere at all.

The staff returned to her back in an instant, and the light burn in her eyes over the sudden darkness was filled with Twilight's blood on the waypoint stone. Why... The question ingrained itself into her mind, echoing and repeating still more as the alicorn's bizarre transformation moments after her death flooded into the sequence of trauma. She gave up questioning what could not be answered, wiping her eyes one last time before giving everything in front of her a hollow gaze.

The night and her grief distorted her perception of time, and her body felt exhausted even before she had begun the trek from the forest battlefield; she lifted her head periodically to scan the surroundings, and found that she had arrived at the mountain again. She changed her course and began to ascend the rough pathway around it and back into the heart of the Brood's fiery lands, no longer cautious of the dragons. The loneliness of her walk was eased by the comforting night above.

Her legs had grown achy by the time she had reached the igneous dragon's lands, but the pain was numbed as her will forced her on. The hot spots were a welcome light in the darkness, and the chill of the night could not be found beyond the mountain. She tread the fastest path between the hot spots, unafraid of being burned--or even killed--but the heat and the jets of flames that occasionally thundered out somehow soothed her. As she reached the canyon wall to Draconis once more, her legs cried in agony of the long journey, the muscles and soles of her hooves begging for a rest. Still, she tensed herself and pushed on to the city gate through the natural wall.

She stood in front of it, glaring at the black metal as if offended by it, and defiant of what it stood for. Telos floated before her, and she reached to take Mystic Sage into her hooves, slowly raising it as streams of energy collected from the air around its spire. "Get... out... of... MY WAY!" she roared, her horn igniting as the spires of both staves hummed and glowed.

The earth trembled and revolted against the sudden forces, quaking and growling out their resistance. The quakes grew in power until the black metal doors heaved, rust and creeping rock breaking and raining down from the shadowed tops. Trixie bared her teeth and strained as they began to part, screeching a horrific grinding sound as they slowly peeled open towards her. When they had finally finished opening, enough space for two adult dragons to enter side by side, she collapsed down, Telos returning to her back, and panted as her muscles welcomed the rest.

Waiting on the other side of the doors were several dragons, dumbfounded that the ancient gates had been opened at all, let alone by a lone unicorn. As Trixie panted, her cloak rested over her like a blanket and she shrank into it for a moment to catch her breath. As she rose back to her hooves, she slipped her staff beneath her cloak and wiped her brow of sweat, then glanced at the dragons. As her violet eyes fell upon them, they froze in fear and confusion as her first steps to enter the city were taken.

They could only stare as she walked past them down the center of the main causeway, shooting them icy glares at even the smallest of movements. Trixie's cloak fluttered eminently in her wake, and the dragons crumbled down and slinked out of sight when they were sure she would not give them a second thought. More dragons lined the causeway and the buildings to its sides at varying distances, some cautiously hovering in the air, all watching her silently.

When the numbers became daunting, she gave herself a small blue aura to amplify her presence, unsure whether they might attack. I dare you... As she neared the waypoint, she glanced over her shoulder to see dragons slowly creeping behind her, but all with curious expressions and keeping themselves at a great distance from her. She focused back ahead in time to find the remnants of Twilight's battle.

Bloodstains, ashes, and two-thirds of the waypoint had been torn asunder, and a lone dragon body lay impaled by the same spear that Render had used on the opposite side. Her eyes shot to the area where Twilight had been impaled the first time, but all that marked its place were broken slabs of stone lightly stained by her blood. She shivered as she examined it from where she stood, but shook away her apprehension and moved closer to it. The regret of not helping her returned and her expression hollowed. Maybe if we hurried back. Maybe I could've broken the barrier and saved you. Maybe...

She crouched down and pushed aside some of the smaller rocks until she reached the earth below, but there were no signs of blood in the earth. But... she bled out right here. How...? She stood up and glanced around to the dragons observing. None had dared move any closer than the outskirts of her vision, and all carried the same curious look, but Trixie recognized their expressions as something else entirely. Fear. They're afraid of me?

She turned and continued to walk slowly across the waypoint, noting that there were no other corpses of slain dragons to match the numerous bloodstains and ashes littering the area. She stopped before the massive black dragon laying dead before her and gasped as she recognized him, the monolithic lance standing quietly at an angle. She swallowed as she processed his gargantuan form up close, then swallowed again as she noticed blood splatter beside him and a trail of blood in front, pooling just in front of his snout. Twilight... you really did it... You killed the dragon king.

Telos moved unintentionally to prod the dragon's snout, but his rigid body did not react to it, and it quickly perched itself upon Trixie's back again. Wing flaps and light steps caused her ear to twitch, and she whirled around to catch the watching dragons creeping up on her, but still with only curiosity masquerading as fear marking their faces. "Where is the alicorn that was here?" she called out to them. Some traded looks of confusion, but none that she could see looked prepared to speak, with the front line slinking further back again. She glared and called out again, in a more curt voice. "Where is she!?"

The low rumble of an older dragon's voice cut through the ranks of the onlookers. "I have her body," it said, the deep voice identifying as male, but also one that was familiar to the magician. Her eyes widened as a path parted between the dragons and the owner of the voice stepped through with an interested look on his face.

"G-Garr?" she blurted in surprise. "What are--" Catching herself, she straightened the collar of her cloak and suppressed her delight at finding a familiar face in the heart of hostile territory. She couldn't tell if the dragon captain was grinning, but she knew he felt similar relief at finding her. "Why are you here, Captain Garr?" she asked in a flat tone.

The dragon captain's eyes darted past her briefly, but focused back on the magician just as quickly. "King Render has fallen, and much of the royal guard have been slain. With General Aurelius acting of his own accord, the Brood require a new ruler, and your friend has lifted the veil of deceit from my race. I am to be the king of the Brood by rites of succession."

Trixie's eyes narrowed on him. "So..." she started.

"Yes, little one. Your comrade is to both thank and blame for this turn of events."

Trixie hung her eyes to the ravaged waypoint, but the tension in the air relaxed. It did little to ease her discomfort, standing where her master had just slaughtered many dragons in their capitol, but she refused to back down from her original mission. She snapped her head up and carried a renewed look of determination. "Where is Archmage Twilight Sparkle?"

Garr hesitated to answer as Telos sprang to life and levitated beside Trixie, but the magician made no other indication she would attack just yet. "Come with me, little one. There is more to discuss."

He beckoned to her before lumbering towards her. She tensed as he moved past her, then followed behind with a light step, constantly shooting her eyes to what the dragons might refer to as their civilians. Even though they weren't part of the combative forces, she shuddered to imagine how strong they still were. Beats of large wings began circulating and Trixie's heart began to drum until she saw that the onlookers had begun to disperse, rather than follow. Celestia, help me. I could die at any minute here...

Garr casually slipped through the front gates of the massive keep, the doorway easily accommodating his form. Trixie paused and glanced around, noting the quiet to be apprehensive. She took a deep breath and followed reluctantly after, cantering just to keep up with Garr's casual stride.

The interior jumped at her with its extravagant finishes of gold and marble, and the vibrant tapestries of events she did not know. Several other dragons moved about, but all carried a solemn air about them, whether it was by their reluctant steps or their apathetic exchanges with each other. Some threw her contemptuous or inspired looks, and she worried for her safety once more. As they moved deeper into the keep, the other dragons began curtsying Garr, and giving her wondering looks. She maintained a distance of several of her strides from the new dragon king, eyeing him intently.

Garr led them down a branching corridor instead of leading the magician to the throne room. The massive halls guided them to a personal chamber where a huge table with food was awaiting. Trixie stared in disbelief as Garr stepped around to the other side and swayed a hand to the buffet, but it was comprised mostly of meat. "You must be tired and hungry after everything that you have endured. Take a moment to eat and rest while you are here."

Trixie shot him a disbelieving look, but he paid it no mind as he dug into the food. She reluctantly approached the table and found garnishes and vegetables lined up on the edges, but she had to jump to see them and levitate them down to her. The sound of Garr's eating was all she could hear against the surge of her own thoughts. What am I doing here? I need to find Twilight, she reminded herself. She swallowed a bite as Garr chomped down onto another large piece of meat. "Where is Twilight?" she asked pointedly.

Garr stopped eating and stared at her, and she quickly grew uncomfortable under the silence of his eyes as they shifted between the food in his grasp and her. "I'm afraid I couldn't stop them," he muttered distantly, increasing Trixie's anxiousness.

"Stop who--What!?"

"The royal chefs. You see... ponies are a delicacy among my kind," he explained, watching as the blood rapidly drained from Trixie's face, "and they took your friend's body and prepared it. I believe this is a part of it. It certainly tastes like pony..." He twisted the meat in his grasp over as he spoke.

Trixie stared at him, wide eyed and with her jaw open and quivering. "Y-you... wh-what!?" she shrieked, her stomach beginning to churn and her hind legs losing strength. She collapsed to the floor as her heart pounded in her chest and Telos began to hum and increase its radiance.

Suddenly, Garr burst into laughter, a deep, rolling wave that filled the chamber, and Trixie shakily stood up in surprise, a sense relief beginning to wash away her sudden nausea. "What's... so... funny?" she ground out in a hoarse voice.

Garr used the back of one hand to wipe his eyes and the other to wipe his mouth. "You should've seen the look on your face, little one," he said before loosing more chuckles.

Trixie glared death at him. "Tell me where Twilight's body is, or so help me Celestia I will kill you with my bare hooves!"

Garr held up both hands and shook his head. "There is no need for that. Come with me." He snatched one last morsel, at least for a dragon, from the feast and motioned for the magician to follow.

Trixie kept her eyes glued to him with a sour look, but the dragon king never glanced to her a second time. They walked further down the corridor that connected to the previous chamber and entered another one at the end of the hall. On the far end of the chamber were gigantic, plush pillows of various vibrant colors, lined with a golden rope decoration that tied into a knot in each corner. She squinted, but all she could make out were the colors standing out against the room's decor in the orange glow of more burning braziers.

"Your friend's fortitude is beyond anything we have ever seen," remarked Garr as he stopped and moved a hand towards the pillows, "and there was little we could do to assist her healing."

As Trixie stepped closer to the pile of pillows, the form of a bandaged pony began to sharpen from a blur upon a purple pillow. Her eyes widened and her steps became lighter and quicker with Telos returning to silence. Is it...!? She found herself hesitating the nearer she got as her heart fluttered, and she stopped with one hoof ready to take another step.

Garr moved past her and lowered himself, gently nudging the bandaged pony with one of his large hands. "It is time to awaken, cosmic one. I believe you are needed."

The pony moaned and stirred, slowly moving and opening her eyes. Trixie remained in place, her readied hoof unmoving as she stared ahead in disbelief. A loud moan followed as the pony shakily stood up on the pillow and attempted to balance, but their eyes locked with Trixie's after a few seconds, and the unicorn's heart felt as if it would explode out of her chest. "T...Twilight!" she choked out.

"...T-Trixie?" she said slowly, leaning forward and blinking several times until her vision sharpened to normal clarity. The magician dashed to her and leaped up to the pillow in an attempt to embrace her, but Twilight side stepped and let her land beside her.

Garr coughed. "Regardless of your healing capabilities, you must rest easy. I don't know if--"

"...Garr? Is that you, too? Where... am I?" Twilight gave him a groggy, surprised look, and quickly glanced around. "The Palace of the Dragons," she muttered to herself in astonishment. She quickly shook her head and composed herself. "I'll be fine," she added calmly but cautiously. She glanced at her bandages and took in the sight of dried blood staining through most of them, but aside from the great aching emanating from the bandaged wounds she felt no other injury. She turned to Trixie as the magician stood up to face her with a relieved look.

Trixie reached a hoof to her face and Twilight rested one of her own over it as she returned her gaze, glistening tears welling in the magician's eyes. "I thought... I thought you were... never coming back this time..." she squeaked as the tears rolled freely down her cheeks. Twilight smiled and opened her mouth to speak, but the words she had planned to articulate never came out. Trixie swiftly smacked her with the hoof resting on her face and left the alicorn stunned for a few seconds. "Don't you ever do that to me again!"

Didn't see that coming... There was a reluctance in the way Twilight returned her focus back to Trixie, but she smiled again and hugged her. "I'm sorry... I just... I..." She leaned into her, and the magician returned the hug with a stronger embrace, much to Twilight's chagrin. "I'm sorry." Twilight strained her eyes to look around over the magician's shoulder, and her brow arched as she could not find what she was looking for. "Trixie, where is Rainbow Dash?"

The magician relinquished her embrace and threw up a glum expression. "She went back to Canterlot. She wanted to help the fight there first."

Twilight nodded and gave her a thoughtful look. "Thanks for coming back for me, but I wouldn't think any less of you if you didn't."

Garr coughed again. "I do not wish to cut your reunion short, but I must divert your attention to the matters at hand."

Twilight sighed and rubbed one side of her head in thought. "What about the Brood, though? After what I did..." She grimaced, and Trixie put a hoof on her shoulder, but she pulled herself away and refused to make eye contact, obscuring her eyes with her mane until Garr spoke again.

"Let me worry about the Brood."

"I need to get back to Canterlot," Twilight said quickly. "Your king--Render, he was corrupted in some way. I don't know exactly how, but I need to find Aurelius. I think-"

"You know?" Garr interrupted suddenly. Twilight stared at him suspiciously for a moment. The dragon choked on a few words before stringing together a coherent follow up. "General Aurelius... is the one who instigated this war."

"But how? King Render said the dragons had no intention of ever fighting before him. How could one dragon influence the entire Brood to go to war with Equestria after hundreds and hundreds of years of peace?"

Garr shook his head and put a hand to it. "I don't know. He convinced our council and King Render over the course of several years, but he orchestrated most of our plans, all the way down to excluding me from the primary siege forces."

Twilight raised an eyebrow, but said nothing for a moment. "Why didn't anyone speak out against him, or try to stop them?"

"Few did, and I was his only true opposition, but Render and the council would not see reason. They followed Aurelius's every word, and there was nothing I could do. They had never considered war until his proposition, but he led them on like a carrot on a stick." Garr seemed to stare through Twilight as he spoke, and she shivered as her imagination absorbed his words.

"Do you really think Aurelius is behind all of this?"

"There's no way to know for sure, but he is behind the idea of this war--masquerading its purpose behind pride. I would like to know more myself, but it seems much of what remains of the Brood here in Draconis are regaining their senses. I don't know how."

Twilight shook her head. "I don't have time to look into that. I need to get back to Canterlot," she reminded quickly. "Can you get us there?"

"I will take you nowhere until you eat and I have gathered a force to accompany us. Aurelius is commanding the siege forces, and he may cite mutiny and treason and attack me. I must-"

Twilight's expression hardened as she cut him off. "I don't want to... but I'll kill them if I have to." Trixie's eyes widened as she stared at her from the side.

Garr sighed and nodded slowly, reluctantly. "I may need to do the same if my kin will not see reason this time. I fear Aurelius may have already brainwashed them with his silvered tongue."

Twilight brought her hooves before her and stared at them pensively, and Trixie fixated on her face with worry. "My magic might be too powerful to control if a large fight breaks out between the allied dragons and Aurelius's forces. When I tap into all of my power..." She looked up and shook her head. "It's too dangerous for you and your kin."

Garr shook his head and held a hand up. "That is a risk they will be made aware of before we depart. Aurelius must be put down, no matter the cost." He sighed and paused for a moment, then chuckled. "Had you not killed the royal guard singlehandedly, I would not have so hastily decided this course of action." Twilight gave him an even stare as she waited for him to continue, but Garr shook his head again. "I don't know how the rest of the Brood will react to these events when this is all over. Keep that in mind. Eat, and I will await you outside when you are ready to depart."

Twilight watched him leave, regarding everything that had happened. It's not my fault...

"Twi..." started Trixie as she shook the alicorn's shoulder gently. Twilight snapped out of her thoughts and looked to the magician with a surprised look. "I'm really worried about you. You haven't been yourself lately."

Hesitation glinted in Twilight's eyes as she gazed into Trixie's worried ones, the violet irises reflecting back a delicateness. "I'm sorry, Trixie. I just have a lot on my mind. I... can't stop thinking about everything that's happened... This war. The Brood. Everything I've... done..." She shuddered, or shivered; she could not be sure as the gruesome images of the dragons she slew played through her head.

"Come on, let's talk while we walk." Trixie led the way towards the dining hall, but she subdued her strides, Twilight absentmindedly matching her intentionally sluggish pace. "You died, Twilight. Rainbow and I both watched you. But here you are, alive and... well," she finished while her eyes catalogued the bandages over the alicorn.

Twilight stopped and winced openly to the floor, her teeth standing out oddly against the dark decor. "I... did die, Trixie," she muttered, turning her head up to face Trixie again.

"Then how did you come back to life? You told us you were going to sacrifice yourself to stop the royal guard... H-how, Twilight?" Trixie's voice shook and she trembled as she took a step closer and placed a hoof on Twilight's shoulder again. The alicorn turned her head away and took the hoof in one of her own, bringing it up to her face and rubbing her cheek with it.

"I gambled my life and it paid off. It's something... someone like me can do, but reviving one's self is..." she trailed off as she closed her eyes and held Trixie's hoof to her cheek. "I don't want to talk about it anymore. I'm just happy that it worked and you're here with me now."

"Don't you ever-!"

"I promise, Trixie. I don't think it can be done again." Twilight released the hoof and leaned to the magician, kissing her softly on the lips. "I love you."

Trixie gave her a frustrated look before muttering, "You better," and trotting ahead with an unseen smile on her lips. Twilight chuckled and followed after her into the dining hall.

The magician levitated food down from the table to them, and the only sounds that filled the air were the hum of their magic and the chewing of their food. Twilight devoured as much as she could before loosing a loud, contented sigh. "I feel so much better."

"Are you sure you're up to fighting again? Rainbow and I are more than capable enough while you recover from your fight with..." Trixie trailed off and pursed her lips.

Twilight ran a hoof through and ruffled the magician's silvery mane. "Thank you for concern Trixie, but I'm alright. Now," she said as she motioned to the main corridor, "Canterlot is still waiting for us."

Trixie nodded, quickly smoothing her mane back out, and followed after. As they walked out of the castle, the weak tremors of antsy dragons echoed through the ground. Twilight squinted as several dragons came into view with Garr's back to the magical pair. He was muttering and moving his arms about, but she could not make out what he was saying immediately.

Garr pivoted and nodded to them as they neared. "We are ready to depart if you are, Twilight."

"Give me a moment." Twilight turned to Trixie and pressed a hoof to her chest. With a grunt, light and an invisible force flourished around them briefly. When it ended, Telos moved and perched itself on Twilight's back. "One more thing."

The alicorn galloped past the idling dragons and towards the ravaged waypoint. The small party followed after her and halted as Twilight stopped in front of King Render's body. She knelt down and placed a hoof on the end of his snout. "I'm sorry for this... and everything else. I'll try to make this right."

She stood up and took several steps backwards before Telos moved in front of her. The staff blurred as it began to vibrate, and waves of light and air echoed out from it. A white glow took hold of the lance and, in one quick jerk, ripped it free. Little blood coated the prongs with most of Render's having drained out onto the stone and dried already. She gave one last solemn look to the dead king's face. So peaceful... she noted.

"Take this," she said as the lance levitated to Garr. "Maybe it can help us." Garr nodded before reluctantly taking it. "Let's go."

"Aurelius will pay for his crimes and the anarchy he has caused our race, even if it must cost me my life." The other dragons gave Garr a wing salute and breathed flames into the air. Twilight and Trixie watched as the flames grew into a large plume before dissipating into the night.

The pair of ponies climbed aboard Garr's back and he nodded to the other dragons before leaping into flight. Trixie's cloak flapped lively in the night sky, but Twilight found herself tuning out the world around her on the aerial journey, the rush of cool air piercing her bandages and sinking into her skin quickly becoming lost to the depths of her thoughts.

Nightmare Moon... What are you... Who are you?

"Twilight? What's wrong?"

The alicorn gave a start as Trixie nudged her back to reality with a gentle hoof again. She shivered as the sense of cold overwhelmed her body. With an orange flicker from her horn, the feeling faded. "I'm sorry. I'm just thinking."

"About what?"

"Nightmare Moon is too much for Rainbow Dash to handle, and if Aurelius is as powerful as I think he is, she has no chance against the two of them together."

Trixie's eyes widened. "Are you saying she flew back to her own death?"

Twilight turned to the magician with a hard look. "I don't know. Rainbow is tough. I think she'll be fine regardless." Despite the reassuring, she cast a worried look the skies ahead. Nightmare Moon held back against me because I held back against her. Would she still show another Element of Harmony mercy?

She closed her eyes and the world slipped away once more. Celestia, are you there? The silence that followed her first attempt at communication always raised her anxiousness. It was a feeling she could never get used to, not in this circumstance. Please, Celestia...

Twilight!? The alicorn jumped as Celestia's voice filled her head loud and clear, but her eyes remained closed, locked in her concentration. Is that really you?

Yes, Celestia. What's wrong? Has Rainbow Dash returned yet?

Twilight, the other Elements have all been captured! I overheard Aurelius discussing with another dragon what to do with Nightmare Moon. I think he might try to use them and banish her and Luna again!

Twilight's heart sank into the pit of her stomach and she found herself breathing quicker and experiencing pangs of nausea. Th-that can't be... Can he really use the Elements against her?

I don't know. I've never seen a dragon use such powerful magic before. There's no telling what he can do. Please, Twilight, be careful. You're the last one he needs to try.

Twilight's focus began to wane and she articulated her responses as she sent them. "Hold on, Celestia! We're on our way. Nightmare Moon isn't a part of Aurelius's plan. I won't let him banish her!" Trixie shot her a surprised look, but the alicorn kept her eyes closed. "Celestia? Celestia!" Twilight's eyes shot open, a fierce glare to the dark skies ahead, and the rush of wind quickly dried them out. She furiously unraveled her bandages and discarded them to the night behind them, her coat tinted by the dried blood but without any wounds where the bandages had covered. "Garr, pick up the pace!"

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Hair whipped at her neck and back as Dash sped back towards Canterlot, a surge of adrenaline empowering her wings. The chill of the night air was never felt as the heat from her exertion kept her warm. Her chest burned. Her wings burned. Her determination burned. Trixie's defiance echoed in her mind as guilt edged its way into her stomach, but she clamped her teeth together and forced the feeling to be overwhelmed by her desire to make it back to the capitol.

Trees bent and danced in the wake of her flight, and loose debris jumped to reach the tops. I can't afford to get caught now. Damn it, Trixie! I need your help now more than I'll ever admit. She made a sharp maneuver and began an ascent, climbing altitude until she found herself squinting through the misty cirrus clouds high in the night. She closed her eyes and jerked herself into a quick few spins as she breached them. For a moment the world stilled as her eyes locked with the full moon, unobscured by any clouds at all, and a feeling of weightlessness overtook her in the few seconds she drifted before peeling her gaze away and flying above the clouds.

The minutes ticked away, but she exhaled a breath of relief when the Canterlot mountain came into view in the far distance. Her wings continued to burn and she slowed when dragons began to dot the cityscape in her vision. A dragon was perched above the entrance to the castle, and she brandished Nightfall and braced the hilt tight against her chest. Here goes nothing. She snapped her wings back into a fevered beat and began a steady descent towards the lone sentinel.

A whistling carried in the air and she reeled her right shoulder back, pushing her left forward, before jerking herself into a spin. Her form blurred into black and blue with a multicolored stream behind her. The dragon turned to catch sight of her as she reached full speed and his eyes widened in fright. There was no roar as the knight ripped through his wing, and then his chest in a bloody mess of flesh and giblets. Nightfall struck a piece of the castle and chipped it off before Dash broke the spin and curved into a smooth flight again, but she slowed as the world continued to spin for her.

As the dragon's body and remains plummeted to the ground, other members of the Brood had become aware of the killing and the knight responsible. Dash stopped and took in the flocking dragon soldiers with a calculating glare. The red dragon general, Aurelius, lumbered into view from the side courtyard path, the gold chain around his neck jingling as he gave an unreadable look to the slew of blood and guts on the front steps and splattered on the walls and columns. He cracked a smile as he positioned himself to face the knight.

"All Celestial Knights are vetted as dragon slayers, but to think you could kill one so easily... I must admit, I know little about your order, but your position as such is justly earned."

Dash threw her head back and forth, then whipped Nightfall to remove as much of the blood from her as she could. She spit to her side and wiped her eyes and glowered at him. The corners of Aurelius's mouth tugged into a smug look, but he showed no signs he would move.

"Are you the one in charge here?" Dash asked forcedly. "'Cause if you are, then I'll just beat your hide and end this now." The dragons of the crowd shifted, and growling murmurs and body movements played into the ambiance. "What, you want a piece of me, too? I'll take you all on!" she shouted to them.

Aurelius slipped a finger beneath the chain around his neck and jostled the links for a moment, but his eyes remained locked to the hovering knight. "I suppose you shall be ample entertainment. You will make a fine example of what happens to the bold while I await a pony more important than you."

Raising Nightfall, Dash began to charge towards the red dragon. "I'll show you entertainment!"

In the span of a few seconds, Aurelius extended his wings and launched into the air with only a few, powerful beats of his wings. Dash gasped as the dragon surprised her with the sudden burst of speed, moving faster than any dragon she had ever seen. Aurelius raised his left fist as he reached her and slammed into her chest. Her vision blurred as the air in her lungs was forced out, her wings losing feeling to the sudden pain and shock permeating throughout her body. Nightfall slipped from her grasp as she spiraled down in a feathery disaster. She hit the ground with a pained groan, her sword impaling upright into the grass of one of the courtyards just a few meters before her.

Dash whimpered and clutched her stomach where her now-dented armor dug into her. She curled up, both forelegs clutching against her chest as she attempted to gather breath in her lungs and control over all of her body once more. It hurts... It hurts, it hurts, it hurts! Aurelius landed slowly, the ground heaving as he set all fours down, Nightfall marking the spot between him and the knight. Dash managed to pry her broken breastplate off after several weak attempts, slipping into a fit of coughs as the compression released. She heaved and made an attempt to crawl towards the standing sword. Breathe... Breathe!

The green of the blade cut through the darkness of the night and Aurelius found himself drawn to its mysterious glow. Abruptly, he pulled himself back into sitting on his hind legs. "What!?" he blurted. "No... it couldn't be..." he muttered to himself. He brought his face closer to the blade again, his red eyes reflecting off of the illuminating green. Dash managed to breathe normally again and she stood up and staggered towards the sword, but Aurelius snatched it up and held it between two fingers. "Where... Where did you get this sword?" he growled, anger beginning to fill him.

"Like I'd ever tell you!" Dash shouted back in a hoarse voice. She leaped into flight and snatched the blade from his hand. She whirled around in an attempt to slash his hand, but she was met with his tail crashing into her side. She braced herself and was grounded with the throb of more coming bruises. What the heck is this dragon made of? She landed with a skid, stabbing Nightfall into the ground to slow her slide and rising into a combat stance as she stopped. Her stance faltered for an instant, but she gnashed her teeth and reinforced it.

"You do not even know what that sword is for," Aurelius growled.

Dash gave him a deadly glare, but it waned as her vision began to blur. She shook her head and it remedied most of her difficulty seeing. She glanced at the dragons watching her, but they all maintained a stony outward appearance, none displaying more than a light smile, if there was one to be seen in the night. Ending the moment of repose, she lurched forward and leaped into flight, twisting and beginning a corkscrew again.

She poured all of her effort into her gyrations, spinning herself around and around once more. Aurelius raised his arms in time to block the knight's assault, and Nightfall twisted into his flesh, ripping and tearing it but ultimately only drilling half of the blade's length into his left arm. Dash squealed in surprise as the blade came to a stop, her eyes wide as they noted the lack of blood to spill from the wound. She hung from the hilt, suspending herself where her wings were too exhausted to lift her, and Aurelius gave her a dark frown. I... can't win... Her heart began to race in the lull of silence that followed the end of her attack. Come on, move! she mentally shouted to her body.

The free arm of the dragon quickly moved and took hold of her, and she relinquished her grasp on Nightfall as the dragon's grip around her tightened. The crunch of what remained of her armor was lost beneath the agonized scream that tore from the knight's throat. Dash wailed as she could feel bones crack and joints pop before being released to fall to the ground, her armor falling free in the air and clattering around her on the soft grass.

Aurelius plucked Nightfall from his arm and gazed at it for a moment before slipping it beneath a wing and out of view. Dash writhed and whimpered for several moments, the pain of her traumatized bones overwhelming her nerves. But slowly, she forced herself to stand, and remained shaky until she could glare at Aurelius again.

The dragon sighed. "Surrender and submit, Element of Loyalty, and you shall be harmed no further."

The knight could only keep her right eye open through the haze of darkness before her, blood flowing freely over the left and painting her cyan face in red. She could no longer see more than a smear of colors across a messy outline of the dragon. Her head was swimming, but she managed to keep her thoughts in order. "Up yours, dragon."

"Then so be it. You will be put in your proper place."

Aurelius raised his right hand high into the air before bringing it down with all of his might in a fist. Dash's body refused to move any more, and she clamped her eye as the fist swung down. The ground where the knight stood cratered under the colossal force, and debris sprayed in every direction. Dash's last wail of pain was cut short by the loss of consciousness. The dragon retracted his hand and inspected the form of the broken knight. "Your willpower was admirable," he muttered as he loomed over the crater. Turning his head, he called in the direction of the castle entrance, "I know you are there, Mistress Moon. Take this one and bring her to Celestia."

A cloud of blue, starry mist flowed out from the main entrance, running along the ground in a stream before coalescing into Nightmare Moon's corporeal form near Dash's body. She wore no armor, or her decorative neckpiece, but she focused only on the knight. Her mane shifted around her face, hiding a grimace she held for the sight before her. In a few seconds, it expanded and consumed the body, and with it her grim expression. She turned and began to walk back to the castle.

"The princess will ensure she does not succumb to her injuries," the dragon reminded her.

Nightmare nodded absentmindedly, never glancing to Aurelius. She entered the castle and trudged up the stairs and down the lonely corridors. It would be in my best interest to let you die, but at the same time, you're my best chance if left alive. A wispy tendril of her mane slipped into view, and she gazed at it. No. My only chance.

She stopped before Celestia's chamber door, closing her eyes and sighing. Her hoof rapped at the door, but before she gave time for anyone to answer, she forced it open with her magic and stepped through, the well oiled hinges failing to alarm the ponies within of her sudden appearance. The surprised eyes of the other Elements and Celestia fell to her as she gave them a blank look.

Nightmare's wispy mane formed into a bubble before her, producing the mangled form Rainbow Dash and gently laying her onto the floor. The other ponies loosed horrified shrieks as blood ran along the floor from open wounds. They hurled insults her way, but she ignored them all as she stepped closer to Celestia, the princess's dark gaze matching Nightmare's blank one. In the moment their eyes locked, the others became silent, frightened and awed at the same time.

Nightmare spoke first, a subdued tone for the sake of keeping the tension in the room down. "I promise you... This was not my doing." She ripped her eyes away and back to the form of the knight. "Please, Celestia. Take care of her. I pray Twilight Sparkle has..." She caught the words in her mouth and shook her head. "Please, Celestia." Before anything else could be uttered, she dematerialized into the starry mist and flowed out of the room, the door shutting behind her just as quietly.

The princess rose and stepped to loom over the knight. Without a word, she began to heal her. Applejack spoke up as everyone watched intently. "Your majesty, just what is goin' on?"

"Even I don't fully understand," Celestia mused sadly.

Nightmare moved about the castle aimlessly for a long while, but stopped and reformed herself as she passed by a window near one of the side courtyards. Her ears twitched and adjusted, straining to hear the voices that emanated from the courtyard.

"Are you sure, my lord?" said one she did not recognize.

"She has changed. I will not allow her to be a potentially disastrous element in my plan. The mistress will remain imprisoned once more, and the hope that her fate will be reversed will keep Celestia in check."

She gasped as she recognized Aurelius's voice. She attempted to move, but her body froze with dread, the thought of her only benefactor betraying her. I am alone... She turned and began to slowly walk towards Celestia's chambers. Maybe...

***

Twilight rose to stand as Garr soared towards the castle. She frowned at the ravaged cityscape, but she breathed deep, thankful that not much more appeared to have been destroyed since she was last there. Repairs had already begun and everything appeared quiet from the distance above in the night. The dragon king swooped down and landed on a street near the entrance, the ground trembling at the sudden force of his weight.

The ponies leaped from his back and stretched as the dragons set down further from the castle. Twilight turned and opened her mouth to speak, but a fireball struck the ground in front of her causing her to leap back with a startled cry. Telos moved in front of her as a guardian, and Trixie whirled around and took her staff into her hooves, prepared to battle the new foe.

"Come now, Twilight. That wouldn't have hit you. I wouldn't want to hurt somepony I would want to call a friend, would I?" cooed Nightmare. Twilight's eyes narrowed in confusion at the Id. Nightmare wore no armor, not even any piece of regalia bearing the symbol of the moon. "You know, this could be the last time we have fun together." Nightmare's eyes were puffy, but dry, and Twilight opened her mouth to speak once more, but she was interrupted as Aurelius lumbered to the front of the castle, the chain around his neck jingling with heavy clinks. The dragon general loomed over the Id, a smirk pulling at one corner of his mouth.

"Aurelius..." Garr seethed.

"Well, well, well. If it isn't the precious captain. You never cease to be a thorn in my side." Aurelius's eyes shifted over to Twilight, the alicorn shooting back a deadly glare, and then to her staff, however he could not see her wings in the dark. That little witch and her knight... No matter, this speeds up my plan. "It seems you have slain King Render. I can't say that is what I originally had planned, but it doesn't matter. You're little more than a tool to be used and cast aside when no longer needed."

"You were the one manipulating the Brood all along... The evidence we found and Render's dying words to me--Nightmare Moon wasn't Luna's corrupted mind. You created her as a homunculus!"

Aurelius moved a hand up to his chain, slipping a digit beneath the links and rattling it. "I must admit, I'm impressed. I would not expect a unicorn to figure that out, but you are an archmage, the Element of Magic, and Celestia's noble protégé after all. Still..." He's smug look faded and was replaced with a dark stare. "You are merely a tool for beings your greater, and another stepping stone for me."

Nightmare turned her head to the side and her mane obscured her face. "So, how does this play out?" she muttered under her breath, her expression becoming fragile.

"Surrender, Aurelius, or I will kill you," Twilight declared, pointing a hoof to the red dragon and Telos moving above her and tilting so its spire aimed with her.

"Oh how I will enjoy seeing you try, foolish Element of Magic. You are not worthy of your title or your power. Heed me,"--the dragon pointed his left hand at Twilight--"and know that your gifted powers are mine to command."

Nightmare returned her gaze to face Twilight, the alicorn's mouth hanging agape and Trixie standing at her side with a vexed expression to match. "So, you truly betray me after everything that... has happened." Tears ran down her cheeks and dripped to the ground, but all she gave was a pained laugh.

Aurelius rotated the chain around his neck until the rune dangled in front of his chest. "You are little more than the title of your birth. Did you think me a fool that I would allow you to roam free with the influence you have had over you? You would betray me the same if given the chance."

Nightmare turned up to him, her tears now glossing her eyes and distorting her face, but she carried an angry expression. "In the first breath that I could," she growled.

Aurelius gave her a cautious look before turning back to Twilight and Trixie. "Ponies are not the only ones that may wield magic." He placed a hand on the ground, and a quick flash left behind the other Elements, each dazed from the experience. The others were unharmed, but the wounded Dash stirred from her slumber. Bandages wrapped her body neatly, including one that muffled the groans escaping her mouth.

"Y-you bastard!" Twilight cried, her eyes widening at the sight of her friend's horrible state.

Celestia galloped out of the castle at full speed, leaping and descending the front steps in a single jump. "Aurelius! I will not let you take my sister from me again!" she bellowed, hitting the street with a clack and sliding. Her horn crackled with power at the ready, but it faded as her eyes took in everyone in front of her.

"All of you are nothing more than puppets, but I shall claim you as mine." Aurelius raised the rune and forces began to draw the five Elements near him together. Dash awoke as she was lifted into the air, all five giving cries of confusion and fright.

As the necklaces of the other Elements appeared, so did Twilight's tiara. She attempted to remove it manually, but it was too late and wouldn't budge. It erupted forth its light, mixing in with others into a stream of prismatic energy. The energy spiraled upwards before aiming and shooting towards Nightmare. The Id grimaced and closed her eyes as it neared.

"NO!" cried Twilight and Celestia in unison, each leaping into the light as it crashed into Nightmare.

The Elements of Harmony exploded into a blinding whiteness, pushing back the darkness and consuming the alicorns in its power. The colored energy whirled around and surged skyward, blasting into the night and fading into the darkness as the white light at the impact point receded back into the darkness. Rising from the impact site were three alicorns, but not the same three that had just been there moments ago.

Aurelius gave a surprised look at them. "It seems such a mysterious power cannot be predicted so easily, but this is far more than that." The dragon chuckled as he stepped backwards, distancing himself. "Far more indeed."

Chapter 17: Twin Dream I: Overture of Lights

View Online

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 17: Twin Dream I: Overture of Lights

Celestia moaned and rose back to her hooves, the Elements of Harmony's power dazing her in its brilliant light. The world began to return to focus, and she groggily squinted as the forms of two others came into her immediate view. The dark crescent moon cutie mark of her sister came as a blur, but she recognized it. Her heart began to pound, overjoyed at her sister's return. She approached slowly, her vision still adjusting to the darkness after the bloom of light. "Luna...? Is that... Is that really you?" she asked while leaning down.

As she neared, another voice called out to her from behind her. "Ohh... Where am I? Sister, is that you?"

Celestia's legs froze, her eyes widening in horror, and she slowly raised her head and turned, her eyes widening further as they further adjusted. Luna approached her, a smile rapidly spreading on her face, but it stopped halfway and the night princess gazed past her in shock, petrified. Celestia followed her gaze to the form of the last alicorn. It can't be... N-Nightmare Moon?

"I'm... I'm still here?" the Id murmured confusedly, patting herself down and shakily rising to her hooves. She opened her mouth to address the princesses, but a pang of pain throbbed in her head and she collapsed back to the ground, both hooves clutching it, and her misty mane stilling.

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I feel... warm, Twilight thought to herself, eyes closed. She could feel the heat of what she guessed was the sun laying upon her form, herself resting on the cushion of soft grass. It feels so... perfect. She opened her eyes cautiously to the light, but there were no unpleasant sensations as the world came to her clear and sharp. Rising up, she glanced around in confusion to find a light source, but there were none she could discern. The light illuminated the meadow she now found herself, but like that light, it was simply there.

Where am I? Off in the distance an elevated tree came into view, casting a cool, honeycombed shadow to the grass beneath it, and she felt herself drawn to it. Another quick glance around revealed nothing else of interest in the vicinity. She took steps through the tall meadow, a gentle breeze swaying the flowers and grass, and stepped out of it and into the tree's cool shadow. Where are my wings? She inspected her body and shuddered, then examined the tree with sensations of awe and confusion filling her. They conflicted with a feeling of anxiety; the feeling was small, faint, but it was there with the others she felt. She backed away as the anxiety began to grow, her heart pounding. No! She turned to run as the anxiety overwhelmed.

"Hello," a voice chirped. "What's your name?"

Twilight froze, and the feelings vanished all at once. She pivoted on her hind hooves and arched a brow at the owner of the voice. There was a small filly before her, black coated and with purple splotch on her mark surrounding a light blue crescent moon, a large, intrigued smile on her face. The filly invoked familiarity within her, but as to what and why, she could not place.

Twilight knelt down to the filly's eye level and returned the smile. "My name is Twilight Sparkle. What's your name, little filly?"

The filly giggled and ran in a circle around her before coming to a stop. "What's my name? You're so silly, Twilight. Everypony knows who I am," she replied in an innocent, cheerful voice.

Twilight rose back up in an instant, shocked and confused once more. She took a step back as the anxiety returned, and the filly dashed into the depths of the meadow. "Hey, I'm serious! What's your name?" she called out, but there was no answer, no signs of life moving within the meadow. Her heart sank, and she cast a worried look to the distance as her mind worked to rationalize what she just encountered.

"Nightmare Moon is the name I have been given, a name I have suffered beneath and identified with for as long as I can remember."

The voice amplified the anxiety into apprehension, and Twilight loosed a startled cry before whirling around. She stood face to face with the Id, the dark alicorn's sharp, draconic eyes piercing into her own; however, there was a comfort in those eyes this time. There was no fear, no contempt, no hatred, no indifference. Just comfort.

"W-was that... you?" Twilight asked, motioning to the meadow behind her where the filly had vanished.

Yes. Nightmare did not move, or speak, and continued to stare. Twilight's mouth hung open with her eyes wide as the answer filled her mind, but the Id's expression remained placid.

Twilight turned to look at the meadow, but the world had changed in the instance she blinked to it. Gone were the cheerful flowers and grass, and in their place were the monotonous and endless dunes of sand and craters. No longer was an indeterminable source brightening the lands, but a lonely darkness casting its shadowy tint over the solemn grey. The lands gave her a hollow feeling, and she shivered as chills ran through her body. She turned to speak to Nightmare, but she was gone, and instead, a castle further behind where the tree had stood now took their places.

As her eyes took in the plain exterior of the castle a sense of sorrow wash over her, stacking onto the chill. What is this place? she wondered. She turned, her eyes following the landscape into the darkness of the sky, trailing across stars and constellations until it fell on something else, something horrifying. She yelped as she could see the Earth, her eyes locking onto it and her mouth hanging open. She blinked, but each time it was still there in the sky, radiating against the blackness of space.

"That's right. This is the moon," Nightmare's voice came from behind her. "For a thousand years, every day and every night, I watched the world change under Celestia's lone rule, and my hatred for her freedom only grew. For a thousand years all I wanted was my own world, my own life." There was a silence that came between them, but the unicorn did not turn around, still awed by the view. "Feel what I have felt, Twilight."

Twilight collapsed as the sorrow she felt intensified into an emotion that tore the breath from her lungs. She felt sick, the sudden rush of emotions not her own filling her head and chest, scattering her thoughts. She clamped her eyes shut to the ground as she processed them, each one filing and becoming identifiable behind the next, and she huffed as tears hit the ground. "This... This is what it was like for you?" she whispered as she raised her teary eyes to Nightmare.

Nightmare stared back to her blankly, muttering only a simplistic, "Yes."

"Why... Why are you showing me all of this? How can we even be on the moon?"

Nightmare frowned and looked to the Earth, Twilight following her gaze to the vibrant object. "Where do you think you are, the only place where one could cope with a thousand years of solitude?"

Twilight stared at the planet, her mind and heart clearing of the crippling emotional turmoil, and the answer came to her as a distant thought. "This is... your mind?" she said, unsure. Another feeling washed into her for an instance, but just as quickly it had disappeared. Deja vu?

Nightmare snorted and snickered. "Perhaps this is our mind now, Twilight Sparkle."

Twilight blinked, confusion painting her face. "Our mind? What do you mean?"

The world ran into the darkness again and she was left in the blackness beside the Id. Twilight tensed as the blackness was replaced with what appeared to be the main royal courtyard of the Canterlot castle. She scanned the surroundings, and it was indeed the Canterlot castle's, but it was different. The landscaping was different, from the style the hedges and shrubbery had been trimmed to the very grass and layout of the area.

Twilight stepped out onto the grass, glancing at every bit of scenic detail and drinking in the surroundings. Why am I here? she thought, attempting to speak. There was no answer, and she could not find Nightmare when she glanced back, or anywhere. In the distance she could see several gardeners and landscapers working on the hedges, but one particular pony nearby caught her eye. Princess Celestia! she attempted to call out, to no avail, and she reached out a hoof to touch her. She reeled back in fright as her hoof slipped through the princess, failing to elicit any reaction at all. What is this? What's going on? The soft crunch of the grass interrupted her confusion, and she whirled around in time to see Princess Luna come to a stop behind Celestia.

"Good afternoon, dear sister. The radiance of thy sun is most lovely today," Luna greeted in a cheerful tone.

She was much smaller in stature than the one Twilight knew, and her mane lacked the astral, starry property. She appeared much like she had when she was purged by the Elements of Harmony the first time. Twilight glanced to Celestia as she turned and smiled, and she gasped as she realized the sun princess's mane was only pink. This is the past! Her thoughts exploded into more questions, but all fell to silence as Celestia spoke.

"Oh, Luna. Thou knowest thy moon dances in the stars of eventide whilst my radiant sun weeps for such beautiful friends during the lonesome day."

Luna gave a downcast look to the grass and huffed. "The beauty of my moon is but for naught more than my own pride. My subjects slumber from dusk til dawn, and there art no pony awake by the eve of twilight to enjoy the beauty of the forthcoming night."

Celestia's expression softened and she approached Luna, offering her a reassuring smile and placing a soothing hoof to her shoulder. "Now, now, Luna. Such a number of our subjects indeed enjoy the breathtaking beauty and unparalleled grace of thy nights."

Luna pouted, grumbling to the ground. "My subjects wouldst appreciate my night more if it were to outlast their slumbering, so that they may always see it."

"'Twas the Winter Solstice not enough to satisfy thy desire? There art places in Equestria where the nights far outlast my days." Celestia shot her sister a concerned look when she did not react positively. "Luna," she started, drawing the name out sympathetically. "There art ponies who seek out thy night and thy night alone, choosing to slumber throughout the day, no matter how long my day lasts."

The moon princess's eyes widened. "Truly, thou would not dare deceive me with thy words?"

Celestia chuckled and embraced her sister warmly. "I would not dare, Luna. When thy moon is full, the unicorns bask in its light, empowering their magic and aiding them in their magical focus. Navigators of the great seas use your stars to guide them upon long voyages. Astrologers use your stars to interpret aspects of their lives, finding meaning in their masterful arrangement and design."

"We... We did not know," muttered Luna in awe. "Still, Celestia. Our subjects favor the day much greater than my night. We simply... wish they favored the night as much as thy sun. Thy sun is but a star in the sky, yet its radiant glory overtakes all of the rest when it brings the day."

Celestia giggled and nuzzled into her sister before pulling away. "I understand thy frustrations, sister. Nevertheless, the night dost not go unnoticed in the wayward cycle of light and dark. Indeed, give it time. Some ponies know not the wonder of the night where the ones who truly understand its marvel appreciate it exactly for what it is. The sun is taken for granted by those who favor the night, and even those who would favor the day."

"We understand. However, we shalt one day convince everypony of the true wonder of the night, and thy sun shalt pale in its glory. One day," she assured with a spreading grin, hopeful and confident.

Celestia chuckled and looked up to the sky. "Perhaps there will come a time when the moon and the night are loved equally to the sun and the day. We shalt raise the sun every day and lower it every evening, for there will always be ponies who appreciate it, and there shalt always be those who do not."

"We had not thought of it like that before." Luna brought a hoof to her chin and stared at the ground.

"We do not continue our cycle for the sake of recognition, my dear sister. We appreciate the love and admiration we receive, but we do this out of our own love and duty to our subjects. Be proud, Luna. We can do something nopony else can." Celestia lowered her eyes to Luna and smiled. She hugged her sister tight and muttered something Twilight could not hear, even with her proximity.

The unicorn stared in disbelief, trying to fathom how the young princess before her had been the engine for the nightmare she had become. It can't be...

"Luna did not become me," interjected Nightmare as she appeared sitting beside Twilight. "I was forced to become her, to corrupt her and poison the bond between her and Celestia."

"But how? How could that even be possible?"

There was a pause as Nightmare stared at the sisters, a look of disgust in her eyes as she recalled a different memory. "Aurelius is an enigmatic dragon, but he has his own malicious plans. I know little of him, and he is my creator, but he was meant to have died long ago. The royal sisters had bested him in times long past, and he fell as another number in a sea of countless foes before him." Twilight continued to stare at her, wide-eyed and confused, and the scene around them stilled. "Exploiting the eventual darkness in Luna's heart, I warped her mind and body, twisting her into what you see me as. That is my form, but I was created to replace her. I am... a fake." Nightmare's mane obscured her face as she grimaced, glancing away.

"I don't believe that," Twilight said flatly.

Nightmare gasped and tilted her head to eye the unicorn doubtfully. "Oh? Then what do you believe?" Her expression evened and she refaced the princesses embracing one another, frozen in time in their warm moment.

Twilight stood up and moved between them, giving Nightmare a determined look. "You might've ended up with Luna's memories and feelings, but you--you are your own pony. But still..." She trailed off, glancing away pensively. "You did become jealous of Luna, didn't you?"

Nightmare opened her mouth, but hesitated as Twilight looked back to her with a hard stare. She looked beyond the unicorn, casting a regretful look to the embracing sisters. She sighed and nodded. "I... was--no, I am. I have never had any form of companionship. Within her, I was merely there. Whether she acknowledged me or not, I do not know. You could never understand what it's like... to be nothing more than a tool created for the sole purpose of being used and manipulated, then cast aside like a piece of garbage when your creator no longer thinks you're useful." Her eyes welled with hot tears, but she blinked them back and she turned her back to Twilight.

The unicorn gasped at her words, and something in her heart shifted. She couldn't place what it was, but she could breathe easier, as if a weight had been lifted from her chest. She reached a hoof out to Nightmare, but stopped before she touched her and pulled it back. "You didn't have to be alone," she offered.

Nightmare snapped back to her, tears running down her cheeks. "I had no choice! I had no control over my own will! What could I have done!?" she screamed, her eyes clenched shut.

Twilight gave the ground a guilty look as Nightmare caught her breath in sniffled huffs, a silence growing between them. "So... Aurelius," delicately.

"Yes," the Id answered solemnly as she wiped her tears.

A hoof reached out and touched Nightmare this time. "You don't deserve this. You don't deserve to be alone. Aurelius will pay for what he's done." The Id only stared back in disbelief, and tears continued to stream down her cheeks. "When Celestia... When she banished you to the moon... what happened to Luna?" asked Twilight softly.

Nightmare sniffled a few more times and wiped her eyes again. "I... don't know for certain. A millennium of solitude... I don't--no, I can't remember how we coped. Perhaps it was my mind, my existence that lay dormant while Luna was forced to endure that time alone."

"Luna remembers some things, and she was aware of what you did while you were in control. She doesn't know the truth, but she wonders. You were the one in control when... we freed her with the Elements of Harmony."

Nightmare closed her eyes. "I remember. The Summer Sun Celebration, the summer solstice. The longest day of the thousandth year. Our banishment became a holiday, and our escape became a prophecy. Tch. What of it now, Twilight?"

"I won't let this be your fate. I won't let Equestria forever see you as the evil you were forced to be. If you can forget the past and all of the hardships you've had to endure, then maybe I can convince the princesses to let you be free. And I will make sure everyone knows what Aurelius has--what he has made you do."

Nightmare gaped at the unicorn, but her eyes reflected a sturdy doubt. "That is merely a dream so long as Aurelius draws breath," she reminded.

"I will stop him. No. We'll stop him... together." Twilight extended a hoof to her and smiled. "Please, let me help you."

The Id choked on her breath as the flow of tears began once more. She took the hoof in both of hers and cried into it. Twilight softened her expression to a smile and scooted close enough to bring Nightmare's head to her chest. There was hope now, someone who understood her plight. Thank you, Twilight. When we first met I never thought you would be the one to uncover the truth. Thank you...

"I need to know more about Aurelius. Please, is there anything you can tell me about him?"

Nightmare sat up and wiped her eyes for the last time, putting up a doubtful expression. "I'm sorry. There really isn't much I know about him." She paused and stared blankly at the ground for a moment. "Though... I can't believe he is still alive after all this time. I was created over a thousand years ago, well before an adult dragon should have died of natural cause at this point."

"Is there anything else?"

"He's unusual, and he can command magic. The gold chain around his neck bears a null-magic rune. They're extraordinarily rare and powerful artifacts, but I believe they can serve other purposes. Don't underestimate him." There was a flicker of disorientation in Nightmare's eyes, and after a moment she shook her head and opened her mouth to speak.

"What? What is it?"

"Hmm... dragon, dragon, dragon... dragon..." Twilight leaned forward slightly, as if trying to better hear an answer from the Id's mind. "Aurelius was something else in another time, but,"--she held a hoof out to Twilight--"I don't know what. I'm sorry, but that is all I know."

Twilight slumped back in defeat, mulling over the information she now had. "So, this null-magic rune can serve other purposes. What does it do exactly? I've read about them, but never seen one to study."

"I suppose you could say it functions like your staff, or our horns. It's similar to a conduit or a focal point for magic, but it can do things that a common unicorn can't. I'm afraid I can't give specifics." Nightmare sighed and rubbed the back of her head.

Twilight's eyes wandered all over the scenery and she stood up and began to investigate the surroundings. "Well, we still need to get out of here first."

The Id snorted. "Twilight. You aren't here. This is us," she corrected.

Twilight turned to her and cocked her head, but as she opened her mouth to speak, a realization cut off any words she had prepared. I feel sick. The world twisted and distorted, the details pulling away into a vortex of black. And then there was everything she could believe was real again.

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"Luna...? Is that... Is that really you?" Celestia called out as her vision returned from the bloom of light. The smear of darkness began to detail itself as she took each unsteady step towards the dark form.

"Ohh... Where am I?" groaned Luna. The moon princess placed her right hoof firm on the ground, but her left faltered to find it as nausea swept through her. I do not feel well. What has happened to me? "Sister?" She peered past Celestia and to whom she was approaching.

Celestia turned and looked down, her night vision returning in full. "H-How is this possible!?" she muttered as she took a step back.

"I'm... I'm still here? My head..." the Id groaned.

The onlookers gaped in silence as Nightmare rose to stand, one forehoof still pressed to her head. She met the princesses eyes with a start and the silence that was cast between them suffocated the atmosphere. Even Aurelius remained silent in the shadows beside the castle. Luna shuddered, but she continued to tremble as she stared the incarnate of her evil disposition in the eyes. Nightmare winced and clutched her head briefly before raising her eyes back to Celestia.

"Where is she..." Celestia growled as she took a step toward Nightmare.

"Wha-"

"Where is she?" the sun princess bellowed again. "Where is Twilight Sparkle!?" Her horn ignited with a furious light that pushed back the darkness and revealed Nightmare's body, her armor absent over her black body.

I'm right here, Celestia!

Nightmare froze, her mouth open with a response she never articulated. That's not my voice...

Tell her the truth.

She recognized the voice as Twilight's, but it did little to alleviate her confusion. "Twilight?"

I don't know what's going on, but Celestia will kill you if you don't convince her!

"Yes, Twilight." The sun princess took another step and the glow from her horn grew brighter. "This is your last chance, Nightmare Moon."

"S-Stop!" Nightmare raised her hooves up as if to ease the princess' anger down. "She's here, with me. I don't know what's going on, but I can hear her thoughts. You have to believe me!"

"You're lying!" boomed Luna as she stepped beside Celestia, her horn taking on an equal glow to her sister's. "Now that we're separated, there's nothing to stop you from trying to buy your freedom. You would sooner run a knife through our backs than side with us!"

Nightmare shook her head quickly. "No, please! Maybe I can prove it!"

The princesses glared at her, and Celestia spoke in a deadly tone. "You have thirty seconds to prove you're not lying."

Twilight, what is something only you and Celestia would know? Anything she trusted only to you.

There was a lull between her panicked thoughts for a few seconds and Celestia's eyes narrowed as the seconds ticked away. Ask her if she remembers our promise, and if she'll keep it no matter what.

A promise? That will be enough?

Just do it.

"She wants to know if you remember your promise to her, that you'll keep it no matter what."

In the instant the words spilled into the air, Celestia's horn darkened and her lips quivered. Luna's horn followed suit and she shot the Id a cautious look. "There is no way she could know unless Twilight told her herself."

"T-Twilight?" Celestia asked as her eyes watered. "How could this happen?"

Nightmare shook her head. "We don't know, but it seems that, though I've been separated from Princess Luna, I am now united with Twilight."

Before anyone else could speak, a loud clap came from Aurelius. "My, my. This is fascinating, isn't it? I have traded one enemy for another, but I will crush all of you the same. Let's make this night truly eternal for you, Princess Celestia." The title rolled off of his tongue venomously as he slinked further into the shadows.

We need to stop him. Garr can deal with the other dragons, but my friends need to get out of here.

What should I do?

Let Celestia raise the sun. Tell Trixie to free the other Elements and Garr to prevent the other dragons from interfering.

"Celestia. Twilight says to raise the sun. You should be able to now."

The sun princess blinked before closing her eyes. After a moment of pause, she leaped into the air and spread her wings, the darkness in the skies becoming pushed back by a purple twilight, and then an orange glow. In a matter of minutes, the sun would be over the horizon. "It is done," she said with a breathy heave, and she fell to her knees.

Aurelius turned to watch as the sunrise began. "Hmph. It seems you have chosen borrowed time, Mistress. You have long outlived your purpose. I will put you down, as I would have done eons ago, but you should thank Celestia for prolonging your life by jailing you on the moon."

Nightmare's anger surfaced and her face contorted in rage. "I have my freedom now, Aurelius, and I will tear out your throat even if it's the last free choice I get to make," she snarled. Her heart skipped a beat. Free... I'm free, aren't I?

Yes, Nightmare. Now let's go.

Aurelius growled. "You insolent brat. You have forgotten your place. I created you, and I will destroy you!"

Nightmare turned and called out to the magician. "Quickly, Trixie. Free the other Elements and get out of here!"

"I will not allow you to run amok!" Aurelius charged the Id, but he was hit with several blasts of yellow energy.

"You will pay for your transgressions, Aurelius!" The sun breached the horizon and spilled its golden rays onto the lands, and all of the creatures, dragons and ponies alike, shielded their eyes as the light burned away the shadows. All but Celestia. She charged a large blast as Aurelius attempted to advance again, and loosed it into his chest. The dragon grunted and dug his claws into the ground as it pushed him back. Luna stepped to her side and nodded.

Trixie leaped down from Garr with Telos and Mystic Sage in her tow. She dashed to the elements while the princesses continued to block Aurelius. Every time the dragon took a step, they blasted him back. The magician made her way to Dash first, quickly looking her over and then shaking her awake.

"Rainbow, wake up. You and the other Elements need to get out of here, now!"

The knight winced and groaned as she sat up. "Man, I never thought I'd be glad to see you, Trix."

"If you call me that again I will cut out your tongue."

Fluttershy grabbed Applejack while Rainbow Dash hoisted Pinkie Pie and Rarity, each hanging onto the other. She grunted loudly as she took to the air and headed towards Garr.

"You're not going anywhere. I still have a use for you," called Aurelius.

The dragon broke through the princess' counter assault without stopping or coming to harm, but Trixie turned and raised Mystic Sage with Telos rising above it. "Mjollnir!" The colossal streak of lightning brightened the already sun lit landscape as it reached down from the heavens. Aurelius halted his charge and raised his wings above him in defense. The bolt unleashed a mighty crack as it struck his wings, but when the momentary magic ended, he was barely scathed.

"Stronger than the last, but still too weak," the dragon muttered before charging again.

He skid to a halt as Celestia barred his path once more. Raising a claw, he swung down with great force, smashing the ground where the sun princess stood, but she evaded and dashed by, her hoof gently tapping his claw as she passed it. Aurelius spun, sweeping his front with his left arm and his rear with his tail. Celestia tapped his arm has he rotated, and his tail as she lifted off into the air, dropping down behind it and racing around him, a yellow mark in place of each spot she touched.

As they danced in combat, she placed more and more marks across his body until she was forced to retreat from a second tail swipe. Her horn ignited with a yellow-orange glow and the marks began to expand and grow in vibrancy. Aurelius lunged for her, but he found himself stopping as the marks began to burn, searing his flesh off. He growled and slinked backwards, attempting to brush them off in panic.

Scraps of smoking flesh were ripped from the bones they once rested upon as the spell came to an end, a putrid stench saturating the air. The ponies present tensed as it brought with it pangs of nausea. "And here I thought I was growing fond of this particular coil," he said before tearing a large piece of scale and skin from his face. "Funny how immortality is cruel to you, Celestia, yet, so full of life for me."

"Cruel to me? You are no god, Aurelius. You can't be immortal."

The princess' lower jaw hung open, quivering as the dragon peeled and stripped away more flesh, down to the bones in some parts. A grin took hold of Aurelius's face, what was left of it, as he maintained his gaze with Celestia while picking himself apart.

"No," began Nightmare. "The other dragons of this generation don't know where you came from, but... You can't possibly be..."

"Oh, are you just now realizing it? I am surprised that you are only figuring this out now."

"Nightmare Moon. What is he saying?" Celestia asked in confusion.

The Id turned to her with a solemn look. "This dragon--Aurelius. He is... undead," she croaked.

Celestia's eyes widened and she took an instinctive step back, the others gasping in response. She dropped down in front of Trixie, unable to pry her gaze away from the dragon. He ripped a piece of the scales on his chest away and decaying flesh beneath was revealed. Blackened, sickly flesh.

"Y-you are a vile monster!" bellowed Luna as she took a frightened step back.

"Whatever you have become, I will remove you from this world as you so rightly deserve!" added Celestia, her hooves unknowingly trembling.

"No princess of the sun and light. We are much more alike than you wish to think. I will add you to my collection of puppets in this war as well. An undead puppet." The dragon snickered and stood up, spreading his now magic-ravaged wings.

"H-How do we kill him?" Trixie asked nervously. But there was no reply before Aurelius spoke again.

"Yes," hissed the dragon. "How do you kill something that has transcended death and walks among the living once more?" After a silence, he reeled himself back. "Perhaps you need to understand what it's like to know the answer to that." Despite his form, he took in an audible breath and fell onto his hands, loosing a putrid green cloud across the ground before him.

By reflex, the alicorns leaped into flight while the rest of the onlookers in the back pulled out of range. Trixie was left alone as the cloud of noxious air engulfed her. The magician formed a barrier, but the cloud corroded it in seconds and seeped through. She coughed, taking in more of the contaminated air and furthering her symptom into a fit. Her vision blurred and she collapsed, the independent Telos crashing silently to the ground a few seconds later. She rolled onto her back, and with one last wheezing breath of air, called out. "Twilight... help... me..."

Everyone stared in horror as they watched. DO SOMETHING! Twilight's voice filled the Id's mind like a wall of sound, echoing.

I can't fly in there and grab her, or sweep in as a mist. I will become poisoned before I can get out safely again. What would you have me do?

There was a silence that followed, but it was overtaken by the pounding of Nightmare's heart as she awaited an answer from the soul within her.

Teleport to her! came the boom of thought.

I can't-

But I can! M-maybe we can merge our minds, and I can teach you. We share the same body, so you should be able to teleport. The words came hastily, but confident.

How? Nightmare's heart beat faster as Trixie stopped moving and her image blurred into the sickly cloud.

Relax and focus on it.

Before Nightmare could question the idea any further, she closed her eyes and slowed her breathing. She focused on her sense of sound, the flaps of her wings, then the sound from the other princesses and dragons. And then it was gone. There was only silence.

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Where am I? Twilight found herself moving through darkness, the feelings of sorrow and apprehension once more instilled within her. The cold. The dark. She shivered to herself and clamped her eyes. And then she was no longer moving.

"H-Hello?" she called out as her eyes opened, adjusting to the new light, a melancholy grey. The heavy tapping of a thick downpour filled her ears, and she found she was standing before a cathedral; the rooftops and their stone guardians had long worn away with age, and rampant growths of nature climbed the eroding walls. Her eyes wandered around to her sides and rear, to more buildings, most ruined with age and neglect. "Is anyone out there?" She stared into several of the windows in the buildings, but shuddered when there was nothing but the apprehension to comfort her. She scampered up to the cathedral, huddling against the old doors, their locks rusted and appearing as if they would snap were they ever used again.

The rain did not calm her, and instead, the chill of the water seeped into her coat as she watched it. Shivering, she turned and faced the weathered doors. With a bracing breath she held, she pushed open one with a heave. To her surprise, it gave way with a loud, squealing creak, and she slipped in and shut it behind her. The boom of the closing door made her jump, but she silenced a startled cry in her throat and took a breath. She took a moment to take in the view in front of her.

Grime obscured the stained glass windows, overtaking the images they once held, and all of the benches were smashed and pushed into the forward corners, some into piles of rotted wood. The floor was bare, with a coat of dust fading the surface of dark stone. Down the aisle and where the altar podium would be was a dark filly, huddled down and shuddering to the rhythm of faint weeps. Nightmare Moon...? As Twilight approached, her hoofsteps echoed off of the walls, but the filly did not react, continuing to remain huddled.

The weeping grew louder as Twilight neared, and she stepped up beside her and knelt down. The filly bore Nightmare's cutie mark and alicorn traits, and Twilight took a deep breath as she thought over her approach. She peered past the filly and to the floor; the filly had been crying over a photograph. Twilight attempted to lean closer to see it, but the filly turned and slid it away with a hoof.

"Hey, it's alright," she began soothingly. "What's wrong? You can tell me."

Between sniffles, she got a reply. "It's... it's not my fault. But it's not... it's not her fault either..." She made a sorrowed sound before turning to face Twilight, her sharp, draconic eyes no longer appearing with the confidence and empowered look the real Nightmare always had. Twilight found herself saddened as she stared into them. "What am I?"

The question rattled Twilight as she gazed back, her expression ranging from surprise to anxious. I... don't know, she thought to herself. "Can I see that?" she said, dodging the question and indicating to the photograph.

"All I see is... what they want to see. It's never me... Why won't they see me!" the filly shrieked, sliding the photo over to her. She quickly turned away and broke down into huddled sobs again.

Twilight reached a hoof to her, but she hesitated, and instead picked up the picture. She flipped it over, and it was blank. Black. As she stared at it, it expanded and swallowed her, pulling her out of the cathedral. Consumed by darkness, Twilight cried out, but found she no longer had her voice. What's going on!? In an instant, she was inside another castle. She threw her head around quickly, taking in the interior. She moved to see out of one of the stained glass windows, the canopy of a dark forest appearing on the other side. Wait a minute. Isn't this the-

"It ends here, Nightmare Moon!"

Twilight jumped and turned to see Celestia with a pink mane and clad in armor similar to Nightmare Moon's. The Id appeared at the end of the room opposite of her, wearing her usual regalia, but with her back to the sun princess.

Princess Celestia! she attempted to call, but her voice was still gone. Surrounding the princess were five jewels, and it dawned on Twilight where she was and what was taking place. Don't! Please!

"Oh, does it, Celestia? Would you truly bring yourself to defeat me, your own sister? I am here to provide our subjects with the gift that our dear Luna so desires to share. Tell me," she said, turning around, "why would you rob her of such a thing?"

Celestia's face contorted into a deadly scowl. "The night shall always be there. Neither the sun nor the moon is to reign eternally. Relinquish my sister at once, you monster!"

"Do you hate me, sister?" Nightmare asked as she charged.

Celestia's horn began to glow brilliantly, overtaking the rest of the lights in the room. The Elements activated and joined into the glow before melding together in the light and surging towards Nightmare. The Id found herself immobilized and struggled to break free.

"What is this!? Your petty trinkets cannot stop the likes of me!" Nightmare's eyes whited out as magic surged up her horn, but it fizzled shortly after.

Celestia stepped to her, a mournful sorrow taking over her gait. "Forgive me, little sister. I know not of any other way," she apologized as tears spilled from her. "There shall come a time, one thousand years from now, when we will meet again. It is then that I hope to have found the strength to save you."

The light bloomed and Twilight shielded her eyes as it filled the room. When it was gone, Celestia lay where she stood, sobbing loudly into the floor. She shook her head quickly and stood up, moving to one of the windows. She pushed it open and leaped out, taking flight and rising up to the roof of the castle. Twilight was whisked away, moving through and after where she was forced to watch beside the princess. She followed Celestia's gaze up to the moon and watched as a small twinkle of light crashed into it, and an imprint of Nightmare's head engrave itself upon the surface.

Celestia laid down and wailed into her hooves once more. "Why did it have to be like this?" she choked out in a break from her sobbing. "How did you end up like this, Luna? We were supposed to rule together." She punctuated her cries with a blow to the roof, but it did nothing to ease her. "We were supposed to always be... together."

Twilight found herself crying as she watched helplessly. So that's how it really happened. I'm so sorry, Celestia. The princess suddenly rose, her eyes clamped shut, and leaped skyward. Her wings spread and the moon was replaced with the sun in a matter of minutes. With daylight restored, she chose not to land and flew into the distance, never looking back towards the castle. Twilight wiped her face and hung her head as everything was pulled away. When she looked up again she was in the cathedral.

The filly was beside her again, but not actively crying. Her puffy eyes were still wet and glazed with tears, and she stared at the unicorn expectantly. Twilight glanced back to the photo in her hoof and frowned. With a breath, she flipped it over and placed it back on the floor, sliding it in front of the filly.

"Thank you for helping me understand. I'm sorry about everything, but I will always know who you truly are. Let me be your friend." Twilight pulled the filly into an embrace, snuggling into her and filling her with warmth.

The filly gave a start. "You want to be my f-friend? Really?"

Twilight released her and nodded. "Really." She felt a shift in the atmosphere briefly, but she could not tell what it was.

"But... I'm just a fake!"

Twilight blinked as the memories stung her and she turned away. "Shh... No you're not. You're not Luna, but you still have to find out who-" She choked on her breath as she turned to find the real Nightmare Moon staring back at her. "-You really are," she finished. The Id had been given someone else's life to live, and the happy memories were all she clung to. Memories with the one she was forced to betray. "You're free, Nightmare."

"How do I atone for the sins I was created for?"

Twilight extended a hoof to her and she stared at it. "By doing whatever we can. You're not alone anymore."

Nightmare hesitated, and Twilight's heart skipped a beat as a thought pierced her mind. Nightmare considered resigning herself to Aurelius again. It would be easier than... redemption.

The hoof Twilight extended was brought to Nightmare's face, forcing them to face one another. "No! Don't ever think like that. You're my friend, and I will help you. I'm here for you, I will always be here for you."

Nightmare's expression faltered into pain, and she broke down into sobs a moment later, accepting the hoof and holding against her face. "Thank you... Thank you so much."

Twilight scooted closer and pulled her into an embrace. "Always," she whispered.

Now, show me... you.

The unicorn opened her eyes and Nightmare was gone. She looked around quickly and everything began to grow brighter. She squinted, and then shut and shielded her eyes with her forelegs as it became too bright. When she opened the again, the cathedral was restored, and sun poured in through the vibrant stained glass windows, no longer obscured by grime. They depicted patterns in all but the large one behind the stage and at the back. The final window reflected back her and Nightmare embracing one another.

Twilight's eyes went wide and darted to the floor where the photograph was. She flipped it over and caught the image of Aurelius's face before it burned away. Standing up, she stopped as she could no longer hear the rain. In the silence, a new thought entered her mind. Glancing up, she smiled at the stained glass of the two of them together. "Can you tell me... if I still feel the same?"

Chapter 18: Twin Dream II: Glass Prison

View Online

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 18: Twin Dream II: Glass Prison

I'm... drifting... Nightmare's body gave her the illusion of movement, but when she opened her eyes, all that returned was black. A sudden uncertainty hit her, and when she opened her eyes with a start, she was met with the vision of Ponyville. What? How did I end up here? She blinked several times to reassure herself this was not just a brief image. She rotated her head to glimpse her surroundings before walking forward when nothing stood out. Why would I be here?

There were residents of the town out wandering the streets, but none paid her any mind, either ignoring her or choosing not to care. No stares, no glances of contempt, no screaming or yelling, or any ponies fleeing at the mere sight of her. She paused and swallowed, the lack of reaction from them made her anxious. If this is supposed to be real, why do they not fear me? Why am I here?

She walked on, continuing to throw wary glances to ponies passing her or looking her way, even if not directly at her. As she reached the town's central plaza she spotted a lavender unicorn leaning over the edge of a large, triple-terraced fountain. She was alone at the monument and paying no mind to anything but the water before her. "Is that you, Twilight?" she asked hesitantly. She moved to stand beside her, confirming her identity and finally gaining a sense of relief.

"Good morning, Nightmare Moon. How are you today?" Twilight responded cheerfully. The unicorn was casually dipping a hoof into the water, watching as the ripples echoed out from the impact point.

Nightmare's ears perked at the mention of her name, and she threw her head in every direction to the townsponies going about their business. Her fears were laid to rest when none even glanced her way. "I-I am fine..." she replied nervously. She stared at the water as the unicorn continued to repeat the dipping process in a lazy daze, the waving ripples catching her eyes.

Twilight looked up from the fountain and caught Nightmare's stare. "You're always so stressed out these days. Why don't you come to the library with me and relax? We could have some fun with Trixie and Spike if you're up for it."

The invitation instilled a sudden shyness within the Id. "I-I wouldn't want to impose or anything..." she mumbled while looking away to the ground. Why... do I feel this way?

Twilight splashed some water on her and giggled as Nightmare gave a start to the cool water. "Nonsense, Nightmare. You're coming with me. I promise you'll feel better," the unicorn insisted. She snatched one of Nightmare's hooves and dragged her along, the Id stumbling and trying to come up with a reasonable protest.

Nightmare blurted out several trivial excuses, finding her sudden modesty odd, but ultimately relented. The more she was dragged along the less she felt compelled to resist the unicorn. The townsponies never offered more than a quick glance her way, their gazes never lingering or carrying the judgements she continued to expect. When the pair reached the tree library Nightmare found herself shedding the anxiety in favor of curiosity of what was to come.

The door opened swiftly with Trixie and Spike appearing on the other side. "Hey, Twilight," she greeted. Her eyes darted to Nightmare and, rather than convey surprise or contempt, they lit up, a smile brightening the magician's face. "Oh, hello Nightmare Moon. I didn't know you were coming today."

Today? Nightmare opened her mouth to speak, but Twilight caught her off.

"Yes. She'll be playing with us this afternoon. What about you, Spike. Want to join us?"

"Of course, Twilight. What did you have in mind?"

Twilight put a hoof to her chin, giving a low hum to aide her thoughts. As she came to a decision, her eyes rolled from Spike to Trixie, then to the confused Nightmare. "How about hide and seek?" Trixie and Spike voiced their agreeance while Nightmare just gave her an awkward smile, her ears folding back.

The Id's nerves resisted comfort; resisted the sanctuary of safety emanating from the lavender unicorn's tone. Her smile... Nightmare fixated on Twilight as she beamed to her, awaiting a response, but for all that Nightmare tried, it didn't feel right to her. "Sure..." she muttered uncomfortably.

"Alright, you three. Go hide and I'll count to thirty," she said as she turned around and closed her eyes.

The chant of consecutive numbers came in an almost sing-song voice as Nightmare raised her first hoof to turn, but as she rotated herself the world was pulled away. Her eyes widened as the void overtook her and dread filled her chest. NO! her mind screeched in terror. The feeling was too familiar. The same sense of being alone on the moon implanted itselfs into her and she wrenched her mind in fright. Twilight's counting began to quiet as her voice grew distant. Nightmare whirled around and pleaded. DON'T LET ME GO, PLEASE! In the instant she next blinked, the unicorn was gone and all was silent. N-no! Please, no! she begged as she succumbed to despair.

Light split the darkness like an oncoming train in the night, and Nightmare shielded her eyes as everything bloomed and whited out. She groaned and opened her eyes, slowly, but shut them abruptly. Please... Please no... Opening them again, she gave a defeated whimper as she found herself on the moon. The monotonous grey surface incited memories she would have preferred never remembering.

She gazed out across the expanse of blandness before turning to see the castle she had constructed for herself. A queen in my own mind, she thought regretfully. She forced herself towards the castle, afraid of the sorrow, but curious of the vision's meaning, hoping that she might warp away from it at any moment. Her heart sank as she entered the hollow castle, and it took her a moment to reassure herself that it was an illusion before she would move.

She moved into a corridor with light spilling in from the windows on one side. Cautiously stepping to the first one, she gazed out to the source of light. Her expression crumbled as despair took hold once more. I hate it... I hate it. I hate it! "I hate it!" she screamed, her voice echoing down the corridor and fading.

"I created you." Nightmare's head snapped up, tears glistening in the light of the Earth's radiance. "I used you." Aurelius's voice spoke into her head and she tensed, her body beginning to tremble. "You were nothing more than a tool, meant to be thrown away when you had served your purpose." The voice snickered before fading.

"No!" Nightmare shouted back.

"You are not my sister!" cut in Celestia. Nightmare threw her head to the end of the dark corridor, but the voice continued to speak clearly into her mind. "You're nothing more than a parasite corrupting Luna!"

"N-no, I'm-!"

"Thou hath destroyed my life, forced my sister's hoof to banish us because of thine vile existence!" Luna's voice was the last, thundering in her mind as it drowned out anything else. "Thou should never have existed in the first place," her voice growled.

"I'm... s-sorry." Nightmare shut her eyes and clasped her ears as the voices continued again in turn with their spiteful words. Her efforts did nothing to lower their volume or shut them out, and she broke down sobbing. "I'm sorry... I'm so sorry..." An image flickered in her mind and she opened her eyes again. "Twilight, where are you! I need you. Please... Please help me..."

"I'm right here." Nightmare twisted her neck, her hooves falling from her ears, and in that moment, all was silent as her eyes locked with the unicorn's. Twilight stared at her, a soft smile casting from her. "It's alright. I'm here now," she cooed as she closed the distance and pulled Nightmare into a comforting embrace. She ran a hoof gently through the Id's starry mane, successfully calming her shuddering cries down to sniffles.

"Y-you won't leave me... will you? Y-you'll never leave, right?"

Twilight lowered her head and whispered, "I will never leave you. I promise."

Nightmare felt the world shift and her eyes opened to another confusing darkness. It warped and she blinked, finding herself in a familiar yet safe place. "Sixteen... seventeen... eighteen..." She breathed out in relief as she recognized the unicorn's counting voice. As she calmed she closed her eyes and focused on the voice, every number bolstering her sense of security knowing that the other mare was nearby and the world was bright. "Ready or not, here I come!" The sing-song finish prepared her for the hunt, her eyes opening and following the sounds of the unicorn's hoofsteps.

There was a surprised yet joyous cry when Trixie was found outside on the balcony. A few jovial giggles and words were exchanged before Twilight had moved on to find Spike somewhere in another room, the same noises repeating in reversed order. Several minutes passed before hoofsteps neared Nightmare's dark hiding spot. It was only now that she realized that she was under the lavender unicorn's bed. The starry quilt draped over the edges of the bed blocked out most of the light, and she tensed as the hoofsteps stopped before the side in front of her.

She held her breath as the side in front of her was pulled away, half expecting some bizarre entity of the dream world to peek under the bed, but she exhaled in relief when Twilight's grinning face appeared instead. "Found you!" she cheered to the scrunched alicorn.

Nightmare had forgotten about the game in that moment as relief permeated through her being. "You've always been a clever pony, Twilight," she said after a moment's pause, a smile creeping at the corners of her mouth.

"Yes, but you were hidden the longest, though. But," Twilight said, stretching a hoof to Nightmare, "you can't hide from me forever."

The Id stared at the hoof in contemplation while blinking. She dwelled on the unicorn's words. I can't... hide from you. The words had struck a nerve of indifference and subtle fear with her. As Nightmare reached for the hoof the world was pulled away, warping into darkness. In the span of a blink, she was sitting up and facing Twilight, the other mare appearing as an alicorn to her.

"I'm afraid." Nightmare blinked and studied Twilight, the lavender alicorn's form standing out against the blackness. She was bright against it, but everything around was a void.

"It is I who should be afraid. I have never shared..." Nightmare trailed off and glanced away, losing her nerve to speak.

"No," interrupted Twilight as she turned Nightmare's face back to her. "I'm not afraid of you. I'm afraid of... what will happen. After all we've seen. I'm afraid we might..."

Nightmare shook her head and placed a hoof over the unicorn's. "Your world... The game... That... fountain. We're-"

"Alike?" Twilight finished. A silence hung between them for a moment as they both silently acknowledged it. "We've both... had to hide parts of ourselves, but you... you've had to hide so much more."

"And you found... it—me." Nightmare paused again as confusion bore itself into her mind. She blinked back to attention as Twilight eyed her worriedly. "Why did my memories come forth if... if..." She stared through the other mare for a moment. Twilight scooted closer and placed a comforting hoof to the Id's shoulder, with some success. The height difference between the two of them was unusual, but Nightmare felt intimidated by Twilight's wealth of confidence and reassurement.

"We're two sides of the same coin now. You feel it... don't you—everything that I have?" Twilight paused and pursed her lips before smiling. "I feel... you."

Nightmare stared at her, sudden guilt welling inside her. "Yes, you have. But..."

"But?"

She ran through the memories of her past, the grim images no longer burying her in sorrow. As Twilight stared at her expectantly, Nightmare closed her eyes and sighed. "You have helped me with my pain, and I will always be grateful for that, but..." There was another pause and moment of hesitation as she opened and closed her mouth. "I cannot help you with... with what will be ours," she finished, turning her head away.

"I can handle it."

Nightmare returned her gaze to her and narrowed her eyes. "Are you absolutely sure you can?"

"I..." Twilight looked away with doubt weighing heavily on her features. She retracted her hoof as she mulled over the question.

Her hesitation frightened Nightmare. Doubt was the final divide, and the last thing her fears hinged on before she could unite with her. The noble alicorn was bravely fighting the external war while ignoring the internal one as it slowly chipped away at her. Will you break? Nightmare suddenly smiled and reached out for her, startling Twilight from her thoughts and bringing her attention back. "You don't feel the same when you asked, but... I will always be here for you, as you will for me. To me, that is enough. Perhaps it will be enough for you."

Twilight lowered her gaze to the floor of the void. "It's hard... to be sure anymore, but you... you have helped me more than they will ever know. I have to be strong for everyone, no matter what. It's just... so hard right now."

"Twilight,"—Nightmare used both forehooves to bring the other mare's face to hers—"it is my turn to help you. Let me return that feeling to you, as you have to me." She pulled Twilight into an embrace and they both closed their eyes.

The world shifted again, and for a moment Nightmare could feel nothing, her body numbing and her mind losing focus. One last thought pierced her mind before she regained control of herself. We don't have to hide anymore.

——————————————————

Nightmare shielded her eyes to the powerful rays of sunlight flooding the world. She stifled a surprised gasp as she met Celestia's gaze, realizing no time had passed during the dream state. Twilight's life flooded into her mind, and she became disoriented for a moment. Memories, knowledge, experience. She choked on a breath as it was swept away by a thought not her own.

Save her. Twilight's voice echoed in her mind, clearing the storm of information.

"Are you Twilight Sparkle... or Nightmare Moon?" asked Celestia as she regarded the Id carefully.

Nightmare glanced up to her and muttered, "I am... me." She vanished in a flash of light, appearing in the thick of the toxic cloud. She held her breath, her chest tensing as she squinted her eyes to find Trixie. The cloud was a haze that bathed everything in a dark green tint, but she spotted the outline of the magician laying on her back. She dashed over to her and scooped her into her forelegs. As she crouched down, a burst of energy tore through the haze before impacting where the magician lay.

"So, Nightmare Moon. You have subdued the soul of one of Princess Celestia's dearest. My, this feels familiar, does it not?" Aurelius peered into the toxic cloud, the burst of energy hastening its dispersion, and growled as he could not see either target.

"You're wrong, Aurelius," Nightmare called from behind the undead dragon. She leered at him as Telos floated between them, Trixie laid out upon her back. "She subdued me."

The dragon chuckled. "It seems our views differ... Your new trick won't help you." He began to suck in more air, but Telos animated to life, the spire emitting a white light while the shaft darkened to a shiny black.

"Celestia, I'm changing the battlefield." Before the princess could question her, Nightmare brought the staff down, the spire bursting with a flash of white on impact.

When the light faded, Trixie, Luna, Garr, and the other five Elements found themselves in the plaza of Ponyville exchanging confused glances with one another. Trixie lay on the ground before them and began to stir awake. "Twilight..." she murmured softly.

Dash crouched down and helped her sit up, the magician loosing several hacking coughs and rubbing her eyes. "Hey, take it easy. Nightmare Moon separated us. We're safe in Ponyville now."

The magician immediately ignored her fatigue. Jumping up, she started, "Where are they!? We need to help them!" She collapsed back down, clutching her head as dizziness disrupted her focus.

"At ease, archmage," commanded Luna. "You could be suffering ill effects from Aurelius's attack." The princess moved and looked her over, her horn emitting a low glow as she did so.

"I'm fine!" Trixie croaked, batting one of the princess's hooves away. "Twilight is fighting alone again. We have to help her!"

Luna frowned. "My sister is with her now, but there is no telling how weak she is."

"Weak?" Trixie sat back up without any help this time. "What do you mean?"

"We are still not at our full strength after the Rites. She is worse for wear than I, but she will not stand by and watch Twilight fight alone."

Dash unleashed a growl of frustration. "What can we even do? You've seen how strong her magic is. It's just like when she teleported us away when she fought Nightmare Moon the first time. She destroyed the forest. We could get caught in the crossfire."

"Knight Dash is correct. We could be a hindrance if she intends to use all of her power," said Luna.

Trixie straightened, her face contorting in anger. "Fine!" she bellowed. "All of you can stay, but I'm going! Garr, take me back to them." The Elements gave regretful looks and talked amongst themselves as Trixie boarded the dragon king's back.

Luna leaped up beside her. "I shall join the fray. I will not allow my sister to do battle without me by her side, however..." she trailed off.

"What?"

The princess shook her head. "Aiding Nightmare Moon... Never could I have dreamt of such a thing." She took a deep breath before shaking her head again. "Garr, take us to the fields north of Canterlot. That is where they will fight, away from the vicinity of others."

"By your command, princess."

"Wait!" Garr's wings froze to the sound of Dash's voice. "We're coming, too! We might not be able to fight, but you'll need the Elements if Nightmare Moon betrays us," she said, indicating to her necklace.

Luna nodded. "Fine, but you must keep your distance."

The others climbed onto the dragon's back, and Dash shuffled up to stand between Luna and Trixie. "Do you think Nightmare Moon is really on our side?"

Trixie only stared at her in silence, but Luna answered. "I do not know where her intentions and loyalties now lie, but I trust Twilight's judgement. Nightmare Moon is an ally... for now." Luna tapped a hoof on Garr and the dragon took off. She gazed ahead to their destination as the others talked among themselves, but she ignored their discussion in favor of her own thoughts. Nightmare Moon... an ally. I pray that she has not corrupted you as she once did me. The princess shuddered as an image of the Id with a sadistic expression surfaced from memory.

——————————————————

Aurelius frowned, not in anger, but in disappointment as his eyes fell to the only ponies that appeared with him. The wind-swept fields north of Canterlot were spacious and desolate, the lands having gone unblemished since Twilight's first practice with Telos years before. "A fitting place," he started, turning to absorb the scenery, "to make a grave for ones such as yourselves," he finished as he turned back to Nightmare and Celestia.

The Id scowled. Telos floated beside her, drifting just above her head. "You died once before, but this time we'll make sure you stay that way." Her mane latched onto the staff and began to swallow it, the dark weapon disappearing into the starry abyss. The starry mane returned to its natural curvy shape, continuing to flow in the air, but the staff did not poke out. There is nothing to hold us back now.

Be careful.

Nightmare nodded unconsciously to Twilight. Thank you.

"I do not wish to waste any more time. Equestria's kingdom will belong to me before sundown."

"We'll see about that, Aurelius," muttered Celestia.

The dragon pushed his hands forward. Water erupted beneath the ponies, catching the princess off guard. Celestia was swallowed as Nightmare shielded herself. The liquid twisted and tided before spiraling and raising up. Nightmare began charging up energy as the water reversed its flow and began to grind Celestia into the ground with the force of its current.

Unleashing the charge, Nightmare dropped her barrier and blasted the water away, the excess liquid flooding the lands and rapidly converting it into a marsh. Nightmare lifted Celestia to her hooves, the latter coughing up water as the Id looked over scrapes and gashes on one side of her.

"Thank you," she said, "but they're only scratches." Nightmare gave her a wary look before focusing her attention back to Aurelius.

The undead dragon summoned more water, and Celestia focused the sun's rays upon herself in a focused ray of light. As the water swelled, Aurelius brought the torrent down upon the princess, driving all of its power into her. The sun ray consumed her form in its light and the water evaporated, boiling into steam as it tried to sweep her away. When the brunt of the attack had been nullified, the ray dimmed and faded leaving only blackened earth beneath the princess and steam rising around her. Her wounds had vanished.

Nightmare threw a hoof towards Aurelius and a spiraling inferno sprang from the ground and engulfed him, igniting his rotted flesh. Celestia took flight and the sun shifted slightly. Empowered by her celestial object, she gathered energy in her horn before unleashing a burst of solar energy into the attack. The fires shifted to yellow and plumed higher as he was struck. After a few moments, the flames died down and the princess landed, her legs nearly buckling as she hit the ground panting.

"It is... finished..." she said between breaths. She watched as the fires burned the ground and scraps of flesh to ashes. Sucking in a triumphant breath, a smirk tugged at the corners of her mouth.

Look out! cried Twilight.

Nightmare spread her wings as a claw pierced the earth, blasting her away and taking Celestia into its grasp. Aurelius climbed out shortly after, breaking the land and revealing his form to be burned further to just his skeletal frame. His presence brought with it the putrid scent of burning flesh, but neither pony had time to gag.

"I must admit," he said as his charred tongue ran across what remained of his lips, "that it took quite a lot to fool Nightmare. But you..."

"How did you—!?" The princess's eyes went wide as Aurelius tightened his grip, her bones and joints popping beneath the extreme pressure. Celestia threw her head back and screamed.

"How fragile you are. It would seem I was right that you cannot detect magic as you once could only a few years ago." Before he could squeeze her to death, his claw was severed in a nova of light. "What!?"

Celestia fell to ground whimpering, but wriggled herself free, panting as sweat dripped from her face. Nightmare appeared beside her with concern etched onto her face. "Are you alright, Celestia?"

The princess shot her one eye from beneath the veil of her prismatic mane. "I cannot fight... any longer. I must retreat. I'm sorry," she said in a breathy voice.

"You have done more than enough, Celestia. I know that you are still weak." There was a moment of hesitation before Nightmare spoke again. "I have a last request, though, one that Twilight has already accepted." The princess gave Nightmare a sharp look, but nodded slowly. "If we are to die here then we wish for you to tell all of the world that it was she who slew Aurelius, and that she killed me as well."

The princess's eyes widened as she raised her head to look the Id in her eyes completely. After a moment, her look softened and she closed her eyes and nodded again. "It will be done, but only if it comes to that." She began beating her wings and turned, muttering under her breath as she flew away. "Please don't die, Nightmare Moon."

Aurelius picked up his claw and held it back to his arm. A light appeared between them and they fused back together. He gave it a few flexes to test its function before his gaze fell back to Nightmare Moon, a frown reaching his eyes as he fixated on the staff floating beside her. "Even now Telos taunts me still," he growled.

Nightmare whirled around and resumed a fierce disposition, the spire on Telos shining brighter to match. "My soul has burned—ached—for the chance to kill you," she said, her words dripping with malice.

Aurelius chuckled and cocked his head. "How noble of you. The myth, the monster spoken of through the ages as fairy tails to scare children, is now a hero willing to lay down her life for those who once loathed her very existence. Tell me,"—the dragon dug his claws into the ground—"just how did free yourself from my dominion?"

Nightmare scowled at him, but it shifted to a haughty glare. "Your power, as you call it, is flawed. When Twilight and I clashed before she reached Draconis... Well," Nightmare snorted, "that's when everything became quite different for me. My will could not be fully freed because of my proximity to you, but I have doubts as to whether that was the only reason."

For a long while Aurelius said nothing, only blinking and remaining still. "Hmph. To think Princess Celestia and Princess Luna were able to create such an enigma and keep it from the rest of the world... I never would have guessed they would unite and use the Rites. It has been far too long since I have last seen them used, afterall."

Nightmare's brow arched. "...Last seen them?"

The dragon chuckled, a devious smirk pulling back his burnt face. "Yes... Gods can be forged from desires of any breadth. Even puppets such as yourself. But I wonder... Do you even know of your true own origins?"

Nightmare opened her mouth to speak, but Twilight's voice cut into her mind and muted her thoughts. He's trying to trick you into lowering your guard. Don't listen to him!

A light appeared in the dragon's mouth before he plunged his claws deeper into the earth. Telos moved between them as Aurelius unleashed another toxic breath. Nightmare's eyes widened as it swept the land, wilting and killing the grass immediately. The staff flashed and emitted a constant force of air outward and forwards, clearing a safe path. Nightmare dashed through the safe zone and planted her hooves to Aurelius's chest before he could free his anchoring claws. With a battle cry, Nightmare blasted him free, burning more layers of his flesh from his rib cage. He flipped backwards and rolled into a prone position, using a claw to prevent himself from sliding any further.

***

Garr touched down at a cautious distance from the battle, the sun princess soon joining them. The group unloaded from the dragon king's back and formed a line to observe. Luna met with her sister and took note of her battle fatigue. Before she could get a status report Trixie magically pried the giant lance from Garr's hand and dashed to the battle.

"Stay yourself, Trixie!" Luna called in vain. "We do not know what we are up against!"

Celestia tugged at the end of her sister's mane to grab her attention. "Let her go. There is nothing we can say that will stop her." She loosed a sigh and laid down, her eyes reflecting an unusual tiredness as they fell onto Nightmare.

"Sister, are you truly alright?"

"I'll be fine, Luna," she replied without shifting her gaze. "The sun will replenish me with time, but I... I just need to catch my breath."

"If you are injured, I will not leave your side."

Celestia frowned and brought her eyes to her sister's worried gaze. "Luna, I will be fine. Nightmare Moon may need your help."

The moon princess's eyes shifted to Nightmare, then to the ground as anxiety slipped into her. "I don't know... if I should."

"Luna, it's time to let go of the past. You don't have to forgive her right now. She was just as much of a pawn as you were, but we need her," Celestia offered soothingly.

"It is not easy to forget the feeling," she said as a shudder shook her form, "of losing control and being enslaved to such..." She trailed off before giving Celestia a hard stare. "Sister, can you forgive her?"

Celestia's eyes moved back to Nightmare, and she tried her hardest to find any ill will in looking upon her. With a sigh she muttered, "I have no choice, Luna."

***

Trixie continued running as fast as her adrenaline-charged body would let her. As she neared the battlefield, the two combatants exchanged energy blasts with one another forming craters in the marsh and splattering mud everywhere.

Aurelius blocked an attack with a wing and prepared to counter. Suddenly, a heavy downfall of snow had begun with large flakes cascading slowly to the ground. In a matter of minutes the clear sunny weather had been replaced with a howling blizzard, the cold drying out the mud and the winds carving grooves into the softened land before it was buried. The snow quickly piled over and whited out the landscape with Trixie forming a small barrier over herself and digging into the lower layers to avoid the frostbite from the wind.

As the blizzard grew, Nightmare lost visibility of Aurelius as the grey haze of snow drowned out the backdrop and darkened everything. Need... to get... warm... Her body started to go numb and her wings began to freeze over as the cold lowered her core temperature. Heat... heat... BURN!

An inferno burst from her body, engulfing her and pushing back the blizzard and melting the snow. The storm ended with the evaporated snow turning to steam around her and the sun illuminating the battlefield once again. Nightmare fell to her knees and Aurelius took control of the earth. The ground near him pulled itself up into a landslide and tided towards Nightmare. She blasted part of the attack away and attempted to shield herself, but it crashed into her and dried, rooting her place. The dragon charged and pulled back an arm before crashing it into the Id for a haymaker, his colossal weight behind the attack.

Nightmare, look out! cried Twilight.

Trixie discarded the lance and bolted towards Nightmare. Aurelius reeled back his arm again, preparing for another haymaker, but the magician had managed to reach Nightmare first. Leaping between them, she summoned as much magic as she could into a barrier. The dragon's claw carried magic in it as it struck the barrier, shattering it and striking the magician. Trixie could hear her own bones break as she was knocked backwards, her cloak fluttering loudly as she sailed through the air. Nightmare regained her bearings and unleashed a burst of energy, forcing Aurelius back, before teleporting to Trixie's landing point.

The dragon fell to a knee and clutched his chest, gingerly running a clawed digit over his grevious wound. "They just all line up to die for you, the victim from the past. I don't believe I will ever understand why they would want to save something like you," he muttered.

Nightmare trembled as she knelt down beside the magician. "Why... why did you save me? I'm just... just a..."

Trixie chuckled before wincing and coughing up blood. "I was saving both of you. If you die, so does she. And she would be... disappointed if... you died." She succumbed to another fit of coughs, more blood spilling onto herself and the grass.

Nightmare attempted to heal her, focusing herself with every bit of effort she could muster. The white light that emanated from her hooves cascaded over the magician's body in thick waves. "Just hold on."

Trixie shook her head slowly. "That was too much, even for me. Please promise me that... that you'll always protect Twilight... and... and tell her... never to... give up."

Nightmare's eyes widened as Trixie closed hers. Tears ran freely down the Id's cheeks and spilled onto Trixie's chest, her mind roaring with a maelstrom of thoughts. Some of the thoughts came in the form of Twilight's voice, but then all went silent. She stopped her attempts to heal Trixie and moved a hoof to close her eyes. Nightmare's vision distorted and she began to tremble uncontrollably.

"You know the price of war, Nightmare. Death is the merciful end compared to the fate that will always await you," Aurelius said.

Hope died within the alicorn as something welled up inside her, something explosive rushing to the surface. She grinded her teeth as her senses faded away.

HURT....PAIN....AGONY....REVENGE....RAGE....TEAR....TORMENT.... ANGER....SHRED...RIP...BLEED...SAVE HER....I FAILED....TRY....SLASH.... PLEASE....HOW DID THIS HAPPEN....REVENGE....EVISCERATE....REND

I'M GOING TO KILL YOU

CUT....BURN....SUFFER....I'LL MAKE HIM PAY....DIE....MONSTER....WHY....RIP... SHEAR....VIOLENCE....HATRED....DEATH....MURDER....JUSTICE....IT ISN'T RIGHT.....BREAK....BLAME....TERROR....IRE....SCREAM....SHATTER....RIP

A purple aura shone over Nightmare's body before expanding into a rippling flame around her. Her black coat lightened into a dark purple and the crescent moon of her cutie mark morphed into the star pattern of Twilight's. Her starry mane was replaced with the other alicorn's three-colored stripes, each stripe separating at the end and dancing in the air individually.

Laughter filled the air, a sinister laugh that carried with it pure joy, and the alicorn rose up and turned. Her eyes were no longer the sharp, draconic of Nightmare's, but the wide, natural violet orbs of Twilight's. She put a hoof over her mouth in an attempt to stifle her laughter, and after a moment of giggling into it it finally subsided.

"Oh, wow... hehe... It's just too funny. I mean, c'mon, I just got the joke," she started, animating her words with her hooves. "It's like, 'I can't believe this is me and not me at the same time.' Like, 'this is how it's supposed to be.'" She brought a hoof back up to her mouth as laughter stole her voice again and she used her other hoof to wipe tears away.

"We have to do something," cried Dash as she turned to Celestia.

"You and I are in no condition to help her. There is no telling what Twilight will do right now. She has both Nightmare Moon and her own powers at her disposal, and the sun is a wellspring of energy for her. If we join the fight now we could be killed in the crossfire."

Dash beat a hoof into the ground as tears glistened in her eyes. "Damn it! She's only like this 'cause of you," she roared. "And now look! Trixie's dead!"

"Watch your tongue," Luna boomed, stepping between them. "Twilight and Trixie volunteered for their duty and knew full well what could happen."

"More like you used her! She would never say no to you, Princess Celestia," growled Dash as she leaned around Luna and pointed at the sun princess.

Celestia gave Dash an unreadable stare. "I make decisions every day that affect the lives of the ponies I lead. It is ponies like you, Twilight, and Trixie that make them easier and save lives. This could have very well played out differently, but I have no regrets for my decision."

Dash glared at her for a while longer before loosing a huff and moving to stand with the other Elements again, wiping her face briskly.

"Sister, I must assist Twilight Sparkle now."

Celestia shook her head. "No. Assess Twilight's condition first. I don't know what she'll do, and her unpredictability makes her dangerous." Luna gave her sister a surprised look before they redirected their gazes to Twilight.

Aurelius took an uncomfortable step back as he eyed the alicorn in front of him cautiously. "You speak in riddles. Have you gone mad?" He lowered himself into a defensive stance poised to retaliate.

"Afraid?" Twilight ran a hoof against her chin. "Of me being crazy? That's a little funny coming from you."

Twilight closed the distance between them with a slow march, her body blithely swaying from side to side as if she might stumble and fall. Telos appeared beside her in a flash, dancing in a sporadic rhythm to match her movements. The light in the spire flickered through many colors and she stopped to watch it, suddenly finding interest in it.

"Isn't this such a neat toy? Telos leaves behind such nice presents."

Aurelius's eyes widened and he snapped at her words. "Telos gave that staff to you?"

Twilight moved her eyes to him before adjusting her face to match. "Who else? The staff is named Telos after him, you know. I betcha you want one, too," she finished in a sing-song voice.

"Where is he!?" seethed the dragon, throwing his head in every direction and taking another cautious step back. "I was sure I killed him."

"Aw, you and Telos don't play nice?" Twilight whined. Twilight's cheery voice was lowered as she began to talk to the staff, the weapon dancing around her in an entertaining rhythm. "That's okay. We can have just as much fun!"

"Where is Nightmare Moon? What have you done with her?"

Twilight continued to fixate on the staff as Aurelius gnashed his teeth in anger. After a moment, she rolled them to him, black circles ringing them. "She was holding me back. I killed her," she said in a serious tone. In the same instant her disposition returned to jovial and she added, "But enough about that. Let's have some fun!"

Aurelius raised his claws, the rush of movement splattering bits of mud everywhere. With a mighty heave he slammed them into the ground, his chain rattling around his neck from the impact. The earth shuddered as a wave of mud and stone came to life and surged towards Twilight.

Splitting a wide grin, the archmage rose to standing, twirling around and raising her hooves. Telos flipped spire down and a swirl of water formed, propelling outward as a sudden, conjured wave. Before it closed half of the distance to Aurelius, it halted and rapidly spun into a cyclone, expanding vertically and absorbing the dragon's attack. It drilled into the ground before exploding, dispersing more water and spraying the dragon with debris and forcing him to shield his face with a wing.

In a flash, Twilight appeared behind him with Telos in both forehooves. She raised it high overhead before loosing a battle cry and striking his tail. Aurelius half expected his tail to be blown off, but the archmage had not added any magic or spells to the attack. He whirled around in a sweep with his left claw, but she was gone by the time he completed his turn.

Twilight reappeared atop his head, hanging hers down to try and glimpse his eyes. "Isn't it even more fun when your food plays with you back?" The dragon reached for her, but she vanished once more, reappearing in the distance before him.

"I have had enough of your games. You only delay your and your princess' deaths, and their succession."

Twilight snickered. "Who cares about that stuff? This is much more fun!" She released Telos and it floated in front of her, laying horizontal and spinning. After a moment a tornado formed with the staff as the center, the funnel reaching high into the sky. It gathered power and began ripping up the ground, pulling mud and rocks into and changing its color to brown. "Let's see what we can do," she muttered to herself, her voice lost to the howl of the cyclone.

Aurelius took in a deep breath, anchoring himself with his claws again, and unleashed a magical flame at the storm. To his surprise, it absorbed it and added its power to the attack. Twilight took a breath and blew her own flame into it, combining them. She added an additional spell as she held out her hoof, a black orb forming above it and floating into the cyclone's center; it was absorbed, dyeing the creation black and giving it the power of Nightmare's gravity magic.

Twilight collapsed for a moment, panting, but held a satisfied look as the cyclone moved towards Aurelius. The dragon attempted to back away, but the gravitational pull was too great. When Twilight caught her breath she stood up and renewed her disposition. "And now for the finishing touch."

Before Aurelius could react, the spellstorm closed the distance to him in a few seconds, trapping him with its gravitational pull and eroding his form. He roared as it tore through rotted flesh and obliterated a few bones. The chain around his neck snapped and the rune dissolved. Instantly, the spell came to an end with all of the sediment and debris dropping onto the ground around him. Twilight stared at him for a moment, blinking. The dragon instinctively reached for his neck, glowering when he realized the rune was gone.

"Such power from the likes of you? This is insanity."

Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but she froze, wide-eyed, as Nightmare's voice overtook her thoughts. Twilight Sparkle!

The alicorn groaned. "Shut up..."

Stop this at once! I am here, and I will not give up on you.

"I said, 'Shut up!'" Twilight staggered backwards, her hooves clasping her head, and Telos fell to the ground beside her losing its light. "Get out of my head." Her mane shifted about as she turned and whipped herself about. Finally, she collapsed to the ground murmuring to herself.

I promised Trixie that I would always protect you.

Twilight froze, tears welling in her eyes. Promised. The word cleared her mind of scattered thoughts and feelings. Promise. She teleported to Trixie's body and crouched down. "It's... it's... not... fair! I tried... I did my best... I did everything I could! And I still... I still couldn't save..." Her vision blurred, and she punched the ground beside the magician, shuddering.

I am so sorry, Twilight.

"I'm sorry, Nightmare, Trixie. I failed." Twilight ran a hoof through the magician's mane. There were splotches of blood and mud, but all she could see was her face unblemished, aided by imagination. She leaned down and kissed her lips, her breaths sharp and disjointed. As tears fell onto Trixie's face, Twilight mouthed her last thought to her. I love you, and goodbye.

Aurelius regained enough strength to move and, seizing the opportunity to strike, he propelled himself towards the alicorn. His shredded wings gave him what little boost of speed they could offer, and he slammed his fists into them. He could not feel their bodies crush beneath his attack; Twilight had already vanished with Trixie's body.

"Take care of her," she said to her friends, appearing before them. Trixie's body floated in her magical aura, and she gently set her down and laid her out peacefully. No one dared speak a word as Twilight's gaze fell hollowly onto her body. With a sigh, she turned and disappeared in another flash of light.

"Luna, please go to her now. I will continue to gather my strength." Celestia watched as her sister took flight and headed for the battlefield.

"I do not like sitting idly by while a comrade battles in my stead," said Garr.

Celestia turned to him with her unreadable look. "I understand, but this is no longer your fight."

Garr's expression shifted into uncomfortable disbelief. "What makes you say that? Aurelius is the very reason why this war began, and why my king is dead. He is a member of the Brood who has manipulated and betrayed us. Why should I stand by and watch?"

Celestia's eyes wandered to Twilight's friends, all of them having gathered around Trixie to mourn. After listening to some of their tearful goodbyes, she glanced back to Garr. "I'm starting to doubt that Aurelius is a dragon at all."

"What!?"

"I'm not sure, yet, but he seems to have a personal hatred for Telos, who went missing thousands of years ago." She stood up and glanced to the ground in thought. "Wait a minute... No... It couldn't be," she muttered as she looked up the battle.

***

Luna landed beside Twilight as she regained her composure. Telos came back to life and floated beside her, and her mane's wild movement calmed to a natural flow. The archmage continued to hang her head and allow her mane to obscure her face. "Are you alright, Twilight?"

"I'll... be fine."

I'm here for you, Nightmare's voice echoed in her mind.

Twilight sighed and raised her head. I will not break my promise to you.

What of your's and Celestia's promise?

Twilight ignored her and spoke to the princess, instead the other mare's expression deepening with concern as the silence between them had grown. "I have a plan, Luna. Can you and Celestia raise the moon and sun together? I need both of them."

Luna gawked at her. Never in her or her sister's reign had both celestial objects ruled the sky simultaneously. She thought it over for a moment before nodding. "It will not be easy and it will take some time. You must hold Aurelius off during that period." She turned to walk away, but stopped and glanced back to the archmage. "Twilight. We are staking everything on you."

"It wouldn't be the first time," Twilight muttered bitterly under her breath.

The princess cast her a regretful look before flying away. Her mind catalogued the potential of utilizing both the sun and the moon, but she could not be sure of Twilight's plan. As she touched down beside Celestia she still carried a worried expression.

"What is it, Luna?"

"She," she started, hesitating for a moment, "wishes to have us raise both the sun and the moon."

Celestia's eyes widened immediately. "What could she possibly-?" The sun princess cut herself off and shook her head. "I'm afraid Aurelius may not be who we thought he was."

"Oh? And just who might he truly be?"

Celestia lowered her brow in thought and magically readjusted her tiara. "His necromancy, and his knowledge of things that even some of our highest counsel are not privy to... I believe he may be a former ruler from Equestria's history."

The others gasped at the idea and Luna tensed, but her sister remained steady. "Who... Who could be alive after all of this time? Who before us? Who would dare go against our—your—peaceful rule, sister?"

"Aurelius... is the name of Soothsayer Astra's brother."

Luna choked on a breath as she whipped her head back to the undead dragon. "It... cannot be!" she said as her composure crumbled.

"It seems his powers are limited, but there is no telling what he is capable of, even now." Celestia took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as she allowed herself to relax. "I believe in Twilight."

"She will not lose," muttered Luna as she cast a glance to Trixie's body. "She has lost too much already." As she returned her eyes to the battle they came to a rest upon Aurelius. Soothsayer Astra's brother. Impossible.

Chapter 19: Eye of the Storm

View Online

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 19: Eye of the Storm

"Sister, the sun may be too much of a tax upon you. Please, allow me to control both the sun and the moon in your stead," urged Luna.

Celestia gave her an annoyed look. "I've already told you Luna, I will be fine. The sun is a constant—" The princess broke into a fit of coughs as her legs folded under her. She crashed to the soft grass and caught her breath after a moment of focused breathing.

Luna hung a doubtful stare over her sister. "You are beyond your capacity for the moment. I shall begin moving the moon into position. If you will not leave your duty to me then at least allow me to finish preparing before you."

"Fine, but I am doing this Luna, even if it's the last thing I can do." Celestia shifted uncomfortably as the others watched them in silence. She grunted to clear her chest, but it did little to relieve her weakness; the constant feeling of breathlessness and muscle fatigue bothered her. What is going on? Why is it taking so long for the sun to regenerate me? She poured more efforts into her breathing and shifted her gaze to the battlefield.

***

Twilight's dark, astral mane stilled for a moment as questions ran through her mind. Questions of her status, Nightmare's status, everything that had happened. But for the moment, something else held her thoughts. "I've been wondering for a while now," she started, her mane snapping to Telos and devouring it into its magical abyss. A part of her mane floated into her view and she examined it. "Why do you hate Telos so much? Not very many ponies know who he was, and even the archmagi have very little information about him," she finished, resetting her mane and rolling her eyes to the undead dragon.

Aurelius grunted. "That is none of your concern," he replied curtly.

Keep asking, said Nightmare. Celestia will need more time to reposition the sun. Maybe we can keep him talking.

Twilight closed her eyes and took a deep breath through her nose, releasing it slowly out of her mouth. Celestia isn't the only one. I'm still recovering from the spells I used earlier.

"So, it would seem you are sane once more," said Aurelius.

"So, who exactly was Telos, huh? You seem to know more about him than I do, and I have his staff."

"His name is not yours to use so casually," the dragon growled. He lunged forward and pivoted, sweeping a fully extended claw in a wide arc. The earth rose up behind it and tided towards the alicorn.

Twilight's mane expanded into a bubble, shielding herself preemptively, but Aurelius lunged again. His claw connected with the barrier and the wave of earth bolstered his attack. As her barrier shattered, she vaulted backwards, narrowly evading a third sweeping strike, but Aurelius pivoted a final time and brought his tail speeding into her. She cried out as it impacted her chest and sent her sailing backwards. She hit the ground hard, tumbling a few more meters before sliding to a stop.

As she lifted herself from the ground, coughing all the while, Aurelius advanced, his stomps quaking the earth. Raising both hands, the dragon brought them down for a kill, but Twilight dashed into the dead zone of the attack and stopped beneath his chest. She prepared to unleash a spell but a green glint caught her eye. It was the blade of Dash's sword Nightfall impaled beneath Aurelius's left wing. The dragon backpedaled in two huge steps and attempted to snap at Twilight. She teleported beneath his left side and held a hoof, aiming her telekinesis.

I can't grab it!? The sword didn't move or react to her magic, and she felt as if her magic was being drawn into it. She teleported away before Aurelius could attack her again.

"I know what you're after, you little devil," he said. "That pitiful knight has no idea what she was wielding." The dragon furled up his wing and frowned. "And neither shall you know what it truly is."

We need more time, reminded Nightmare.

I know, I know, but what else can we do? I'll be out of magic soon if I keep staying on the offensive. Twilight glanced to the ground in thought. I've got an idea. Before Nightmare could process the dominant soul's thoughts, Twilight reproduced Telos from her mane and floated it in front of her. The spire exploded in a blinding light, and Aurelius shielded his eyes for its duration.

"I-impossible!" he roared when he opened them again. Standing before him was the real Telos, unfazed and staring back at him. Aurelius trembled for a moment, half laughing to himself, half muttering. "I am going to tear you apart, Telos!" he bellowed as he charged. Strengthened by his rage, he slammed his right claw down as hard as his body would allow, cratering the ground and threatening to break his own arm. When the dust settled, he retracted his arm to find the ancient sage still staring back at him, only one eye peeking out from beneath his hood and completely untouched.

"Arrogance will blind you so long as you hold onto it," said the sage.

Twilight watched from a cautious distance behind. I can't believe it's working, she thought to herself.

"Do not mock me!" Aurelius bellowed. "You, who hide behind fakes, should not dare speak down to me, you pathetic pawn!" The ground trembled with his rage, but Telos continued with his staring.

Aurelius thrashed about, striking where he stood with his tail and his claws until there was nothing more than a ravaged piece of land devoid of grass. His eyes, his face, his robe, his name. Everything about Telos incited a fury within him. When he ended his tantrum he scanned the area, satisfied for the moment while the dust settled. However, his satisfaction soon twisted into disbelief as his eyes fell to a particular mound of dirt.

"H-how... How can you still live? You helped take everything from me, and I claimed your life in return. But how? How are you still alive!?" he roared.

Standing atop the land was Twilight with Telos, the staff, affixed to her back, and Telos the pony beside her. "I thought you could use the reunion," she taunted. Why does he hate Telos so much?

I don't know. I have never heard him mention anything about him until now. Nightmare's confusion seeped into Twilight for a moment, and the dominant soul shook herself to alleviate the feeling.

Maybe he'll tell us. Twilight prepared to speak, but her eyes caught a shift in the light as the sun moved. Finally. The change was subtle, but the sun had moved from its expected position as the moon prepared to creep over the horizon behind it. Twilight took a deep breath of relief knowing that she still had magic left.

It's not over, yet. Don't let your guard done, reminded Nightmare swiftly. We need to keep him distracted.

"That's enough of that," said Twilight.

Telos glanced to her before muttering, "So it would seem." His image blurred before dissolving and flowing into the spire of the staff.

Aurelius froze as he observed the sage's form disperse. "M-merely an... illusion?" he muttered. It seemed as if a great weight had been lifted from his decayed body and he straightened himself as he snickered. He stretched his ravaged wings, a grin stretching his face to match, and Twilight maintained an even gaze back to him.

We can keep going, encouraged Nightmare. I didn't know you could create an illusion of Telos from the staff, but now what do you have planned with the sun and the moon?

A self-satisfied vibe was transmitted to Nightmare as Twilight began to respond. I plan to purify him. I'm going to use the real Holy.

An audible scoff echoed in Twilight's thoughts as the Id struggled to believe her. Do you not already control holy magic? You are capable of healing yourself and others.

Twilight inwardly shook her head. It's an all-magic. Technically, Holy is just one spell, but used with varying levels of power. Low grades of it can heal minor injuries, and more magic can be used to mend bones in rare cases. I used the strongest amount I could on you in our duel, and that was with the help of the moon, my alicorn power, and all of the years I had trained.

There was a lull between them before Nightmare responded. I understand now, but will it be enough, even with the sun and the moon to strengthen you?

I don't know, but I will make sure this works. No matter what.

Despite the distinction between their minds Twilight could feel Nightmare's apprehension. She countered with her own confidence, nullifying the negative feeling; it was a strange sensation to have each other's emotions overridden by the other, but at the same it was an almost familiar, natural feeling. One could feel what the other was if they invited the emotions in. Twilight was unsure if Nightmare was unable to block hers, or if she was constantly accepting anything she felt.

It will be fine, I promise, Twilight reassured one last time.

You promise so easily. The thought had already transferred before Nightmare could stop it, and she immediately regretted it. She could feel the bite into Twilight's heart as it mirrored over to her. I'm sorry, I didn't mean... to...

"Have you fallen asleep," asked Aurelius, "or are you out of cards to play now that your little illusion is over?" Twilight shot him an unreadable look again as she pondered what to do next.

Are you going for the sword again? asked Nightmare.

He seems to be keeping it away from me. Maybe it's amplifying his powers, but it seems to drain the magic of my telekinesis when I try to grab it.

Not wasting any time, Twilight teleported beneath the dragon again. As Aurelius tilted his head down and prepared to react, the alicorn unleashed a burst of energy, blasting him in the chest and sending him off balance. He beat his wings to prevent the recoil from toppling him backwards, and Twilight took flight during his recovery. She bolted for the sword in his wing, wrapping both hooves around the hilt. With a heave, she wrenched it and sliced his wing down before flying away.

Aurelius growled. "You will return that at once." Twilight was surprised when he did not react vehemently. He relaxed and watched her as she studied the weapon. "Tell me, Twilight Sparkle. Do you play chess?" the dragon asked suddenly.

Be careful, he might have something planned!

Twilight shot him a cautious look. "Why, is this a game? Or did you plan ahead knowing what could happen?"

Aurelius loosed a rumbling chuckle as he furled his wings back up, the left one's leathery folds swaying in the wind. "I must admit I could never have foreseen something like you, but I see your true potential. Your weak willed princesses can only see a fraction of it. Why don't you join me?" He stretched out his hand, but didn't smile. Twilight's eyes widened as she realized he was serious. "Together we could rule Equestria, the Brood, and accomplish so much more." His eyes drifted away from her as his mind wandered.

Twilight glowered at him. "No... I would never join you! You manipulated the Brood and Equestria into war with each other and who knows how many have died because of you!" Her voice lowered from a shout to a deadly growl. "I will kill you for everything you've done."

"Hm. I thought not, but one can hope. You have been given immortality, and I will take your life before even your natural lifespan is up."

"Why would you want to rule forever?" countered the alicorn. "Immortality is a double edge," she added, running a hoof along Nightfall's blade.

"Tell me, Twilight Sparkle, do you believe in fate? Perhaps destiny?"

For a moment, she ignored the dragon's questions and attempted to sense Nightfall's power. As she concentrated she could feel the blade nullifying her magic again. It doesn't do anything? She frowned and slid the sword beneath her cloak. The moon was now visible and she began to gather energy in her horn. "I don't care about fate or destiny. My life and my decisions belong to me." Telos moved before her and its spire shined brightly, the earth quaking to life.

Aurelius snorted. "I wonder if your mind would crumble if you knew the truth," he muttered to himself.

Twilight's mane shifted into a billowing flame of three shades, her body lightening to white. "I don't know who you are, and I don't care, but this is the end for you."

"Who I am?" the dragon said, chuckling again. "I am a true ruler of Equestria—a rightful heir to the throne. The seat of power belongs to me so long as I draw breath." He raised his claws and four flares of energy appeared around, a red barrier quickly forming around him and between the flares. "I will be the king that I should have."

The sister princesses stood side by side as they gazed out across the battlefield. The Rites had siphoned most of their natural energy reserves, but they had managed to push themselves in spite of it. Celestia fell to her knees in exhaustion.

"Sister, are you alright?" Luna asked, forcing herself to divide her focus.

"I will be fine. I just... need a... moment." Celestia's consciousness faded away a moment later.

Luna gnashed her teeth and redoubled her efforts, maintaining the sun's position while finalizing the moon's. Her power waned as the moon aligned. "Twilight," she bellowed, "It is done. The rest is all up to you! Do not fail!" She fell to her knees, the last of her power and focus dedicated to maintaining the celestial objects' positions.

Twilight removed Nightfall from her cloak and stabbed it into the ground. With her right hoof she grasped Render's magical lance in the distance and quickly moved it in front of her beside Telos. I won't let your death be in vain, Trixie.

The dragon's interest had been piqued. "What do you plan to do with that?" he asked quickly.

Twilight glowered death at him. "I'm going to fulfill Telos's legacy and kill you. Unlike him, I won't fail."

Aurelius threw his had back and laughed. "Such insolence," he barked. "Well, then. Show me your resolve! Show me the power of the one who will kill me!"

Twilight leaped into flight, quickly rising above the dragon and taking light from both celestial objects. The dragon completed his barrier and poured more and more power into it. As the alicorn gathered energy his eyes finally caught the oddity in the light on the ground. He threw a glance behind him, but his eyes widened and he found himself turning in disbelief and awe.

"Impossible," he muttered, staring at the moon. As he rotated back to Twilight he was met with the flicker of the lance surging towards him. He loosed a choking breath as the prongs sank into his neck and chest, and he stumbled backwards. His powerful barrier had already vanished.

"Take one last look at my face, Aurelius," Twilight called down to him. "Because I don't want you forget who killed you."

"You fool... This doesn't... end with..." he choked out.

The energy in Twilght's horn erupted into a burst of light that drowned out the rest of the world. Her small body cast a massive shadow over the ground as everything began to white out. Telos appeared between them near the dragon, a loud hum emanating from it. The staff melded into the light as it emitted its own from the gem in the spire.

"HOLY!" Twilight boomed, forcing the words out with all of the air in her lungs.

Aurelius made an attempt to grasp the lance, but he watched in horror as his hand dissolved before reaching the shaft, and the mythril shaft of Telos fractured and vanished into the whiteness. He unleashed a roar, but it was lost just as quickly in the blaring hum of the spell.

The radiance of the light consumed Twilight's form before further expanding and consuming the entirety of their battlefield. When the light faded Twilight had an aura around her for a moment; it faded away as the moon began to shift back into its rightful position. Her wings numbed and she descended rapidly to the ground, her white coat fading to black and her mane losing its burning property. She slowed her descent with magic as she reached the ground. Despite her attempts to make the landing soft, her legs faltered as the fatigue from the grand spell set in and she collapsed.

Don't push yourself too hard. You need to rest, said Nightmare.

Twilight grunted and, gnashing her teeth, forced herself back to standing. I'm fine.

The alicorn glanced around the field and gasped. All of the damage that it had sustained during the battle with Aurelius had been completely healed. It appeared as if the field had never been disturbed. So this is the power of Holy? muttered Nightmare in awe.

A wind swept the fields, and Twilight drew in a deep breath before walking shakily towards the lance that now marked Aurelius's grave. She moved to where she would be just underneath the dragon's head and stared up to it. The weapon had been ruined by the energy. Flakes of rust peeled away and some fell freely into the grass around it.

"It's over Nightmare Moon. You're free from him now," said Twilight aloud to her.

Thank you, Twilight Sparkle—for everything you have done for me. However, I am without a body of my own, and we may be stuck together...

"I'll find a way to give you your own body," she said quickly. "I don't care how long... it takes. I..." Tears welled in her eyes as she fell to her knees. "I... promise you," she muttered, breaking down. She bawled into her hooves as images of Trixie filled her mind. "I promise..."

Nightmare said nothing. She could say nothing. Vibes of comfort transferred from her soul to Twilight's, but it made no difference to the alicorn and she continued to cry out loud to herself.

After several minutes passed she wiped her face and eyes. "I-I'm sorry. I just... I need some time to mourn. Please."

You don't need to apologize to me, Twilight. I understand, replied Nightmare softly. Take all the time you need.

A glint in the grass caught the alicorn's eye and she scrubbed her forehooves through the blades until she captured the glinting object. The gem from Telos's spire? she thought, holding it up to her eyes. "How did it survive the spell?" she wondered aloud. Her exhaustion sapped her ability to think. Seeking true rest over answers, she slipped the gem beneath her cloak and rose back up.

She marched towards the edge of the battlefield where her friends observed, but she stumbled halfway and fell to the ground, giving in to her tired body. The toll of the spell had drained her of even physical strength. She grumbled to herself. The sickness of an absolute magic purge would soon render her bedridden again, and the unpleasant irritability and agitation would follow it. Even if the sun restored her the effects would still occur.

The party of observers moved to her, and Luna nudged her sister to waken. Celestia opened her eyes as Twilight was surrounded by her friends. She stood up and prepared to move, but Luna placed a hoof on her shoulder and shook her head. "Nay, sister. Rest," she whispered.

"You were amazing, Twilight," exclaimed Dash. "What was that bright light?" Twilight didn't make eye contact and the knight awkwardly maintained a smile as she slipped past the archmage and retrieved Nightfall.

Fluttershy looked over the archmage's body quickly. "You're not even injured?" she asked, half to herself.

"I'm fine. Thanks, everyone."

Garr's rumbling voice came next. "You have cleared the Brood of Aurelius's treachery, and executed him as the traitor he is. I will ensure that all dragons will know the name of the hero who freed us. Thank you, Archmage Twilight Sparkle."

As Twilight opened her mouth everyone fell silent. "What about all of the dragons I killed?" she snapped. "What about the ones who thought they were fighting for their brethren—their king?" Her face scrunched into a bitter scowl and she stared at the ground.

"Luna, promise me," started Celestia, earning a questioning gaze from her sister, "that you will not intervene no matter what happens next?" She fixated on Twilight as she stood, and the archmage met her gaze with contempt in her eyes.

"Sister, what are you—"

Twilight abruptly walked away from her friends as they tried to reassure her from guilt. Celestia forced herself to maintain an even look as Twilight's pace increased. As the archmage neared she rose up on her hind legs while she ran at full speed, anger driving her. Reeling back her right hoof, Twilight swung a haymaker at the sun princess, striking her jaw. Celestia groaned as she was sent toppling backwards.

Luna gave a start as the others loosed cries of surprise and fright. "Have you lost your mind, Twilight?" shrieked Luna at the same time as Dash cried, "What are you doing?"

Twilight straddled Celestia and continued planting blow after blow into her face with both hooves. Each hit was punctuated with a distressed grunt, not from Celestia, but from Twilight. She pounded her until her body gave out again and she fell to her side, trembling and whimpering to herself. Garr and the other Elements watched in silent horror as they gazed at Celestia.

The princess's face was covered in bruises; both cheeks were cut and swollen and both of her eyes had been blackened. She shakily reached out to the smaller alicorn, but Twilight pulled herself away.

"Don't.... touch me!"

"Twilight, I'm sorry for all of this... I'm so... so sorry," Celestia blubbered as tears ran down her swollen cheeks. Despite the pain she forced a remorseful expression up.

The archmage only cried quietly to herself in the silence that followed, her friends forced to watch with sorrow etched onto their faces. Only Dash knew all of what she had been through among them, and she couldn't bring herself to stare.

Twilight finally stood up after several minutes, wiping her face and sniffling with her back to her friends before she could compose herself. "I want all of you to know exactly what's happened," she said.

Are you sure about this? asked Nightmare.

Twilight stepped back and put more distance between her and her friends. Luna dashed to her sister's side, and Twilight cast a sidelong glance to them. The black circles around her eyes had not yet faded and her glance appeared even more contemptuous to the princesses.

"Aurelius had infiltrated the Brood's hierarchy a few years ago. Tensions between Equestria and the Draconic empire, the Brood, rose until the borders between our lands became hostile territory." She turned around to face her friends and Garr, all silent. "Aurelius manipulated their council and king into instigating war, and he was the one who created Nightmare Moon, using her to corrupt Princess Luna and use her against Princess Celestia once before. That's why she appeared again when he took Canterlot.

"Rainbow Dash and I were tasked with stopping this war. We were supposed to do this by infiltrating Draconis, stealing their war plans, and having me assassinate the dragon king, Render." Her friends loosed gasps, and Dash hung her head in shame. "And part of this,"—she turned around and extended her wings—"required me to become an alicorn. I was also given the legendary mythril staff, Telos."

"But, if it was just you an' Rainbow, how did Trixie get mixed up in all of it?" asked Applejack.

Twilight choked on a breath, forcing away her sorrow as she thought of the magician. She furled her wings up and turned back around, regret etched onto her face. "I asked Trixie to join me. That was my decision... and that decision... cost her her life..." she trailed off. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trembling in regret, anger, and shame.

Dash stepped closer and said soothingly, "C'mon, Twi. It's not your fault." The knight attempted to move closer, but she backed off when the archmage opened her eyes and glared at her.

"She's gone because of me and I... have to live with that." She took another deep breath to prevent from breaking down and crying before continuing. "Before we reached Draconis we encountered Nightmare Moon. I stayed behind to fight her so that Trixie and Rainbow could make it the rest of the way there... and because I was afraid I would hurt them in our fight. Somehow, my magic loosened Aurelius's control over her."

Thank you for that.

"After that battle I regrouped with Rainbow and Trixie before continuing on to the city. We parted ways for our mission there, but they had to leave without me when I was trapped there," she lied. "I.... killed most of the royal guard and completed my mission to assassinate King Render." She clamped her eyes and trembled as tears ran down her cheeks. Images of bloody and charred dragons from the massacre surfaced from memory.

"Twilight," began Rarity, "do you and Nightmare Moon—?"

"We share the same body now," replied the archmage quietly. Her friends gasped, but could say nothing else to the new information. "We can share some of our thoughts, but I don't know about anything else. It's also why I look like this."

Rarity spoke again. "What will you do, Twilight? Surely you don't intend to share the same body with her forever."

Twilight shrugged and sighed. "I don't know. I'll find a way to give her her own body eventually, but for now this is how it has to be."

"Should we regard Nightmare Moon's presence within you as a latent threat?" asked Luna, a bitter glare holding her eyes.

Twilight gave her a sharp look before responding flatly, "No."

Luna appeared as if she had more to say, but Celestia sat up and cleared her throat. "It has been a trying time for all of us yet there is still more I need to discuss with Twilight. The rest of you may return to the castle and rest."

Garr nodded and shook his form, extending his wings. "I must return to Draconis. After all that has happened there is much explaining and rebuilding to be done. I will arrange for the burial of all who fell in the confusion of the war. By now whatever generals remain should be receiving withdrawal orders. We shall speak soon, princesses." He bowed before turning and lifting off, the grass rustling violently in his wake.

Twilight moved to her friends, Luna moving to stand with them, and a large alchemy circle formed beneath the group. In a flash of light they were gone. After several seconds Twilight reappeared alone.

"Who was your source for the coming war with the Brood?" she immediately interrogated. "It was Spike, wasn't it?"

"Twilight—"

"Where is he?" she roared, stamping a hoof.

Celestia didn't flinch and maintained an even gaze, even as Twilight's anger had surfaced. "He is safe. He was always safe, hidden away in Ponyville before the war even began." She brought a hoof up to her face and gently massaged her jaw. "Twilight, can you assure me that you are fully in control of Nightmare Moon?"

Twilight's eyes widened as her anger boiled over again. "After everything I've been through, everything I've done for you, you suddenly can't trust me anymore!?" she screamed. "How dare you!"

The princess discarded her calm composure. She took on a combat stance and shot a heated look back to her former student. "Then calm yourself at once!" she shouted. "Prove to me that you can handle yourself—that you can handle her! I don't want to detain you, but if you lose control and hurt someone then I will not hesitate to seal you somewhere where you won't be a danger to anyone else! I am the ruler of an entire nation, and I must put the safety of my subjects first!"

"You ungrateful bitch..." Twilight seethed. She gnashed her teeth and unleashed a howl of rage and frustration. "You lied to me from the very beginning! I can never trust you again, and now you're threatening me with this!?" She huffed for a moment to catch her breath and shook her head. "If you're going to treat me like a rabid animal then we are through, Princess Celestia," she snarled, emphasizing her mentor's title.

She is right, Twilight. You would do the same if you were in her position, said Nightmare in an attempt to pacify the archmage.

After a minute of silent thinking Twilight groaned in frustration again. Nightmare was right, but she didn't want to admit it, and that just frustrated her more. She took a deep breath and allowed her anger to wash away for the time being.

"I... I need time to mourn," she said in a calm tone, and Celestia visibly relaxed in response. Twilight laid a hollow gaze over Trixie's body. "I need to bury her. I need to..."

"I am truly sorry about her loss, Twilight."

"Save it, princess. After today I will no longer complete any assignments under the Archmagi without Luna's personal approval."

Celestia watched in regretful silence as Twilight moved to Trixie's body. The archmage trembled as she crouched down and pulled the magician to her chest. Her mind flooded with all of the memories they had made together, and what little time they had shared. "I will never forget you," she whispered as she squeezed her eyes shut and rested her head upon hers. "I love you."

"I love you, too."

Twilight flinched, her eyes shooting open; her heart skipped a beat, and she could not immediately form a response. Nightmare's surprise was audible in her head, and Celestia mirrored her with a startled gasp. The archmage scrambled away and stared at the magician. Trixie coughed several times before opening her eyes and slowly sitting up on her own, the mud and blood from the battle having disappeared from her body.

"T-Trixie!? But... H-how!?" cried Twilight as she stood up and moved to her with a drowsy and confused look in her eyes.

Trixie stretched and adjusted her cloak before answering. "What are you talking about? What happened? Where's Aurelius?" she asked as her alertness returned. Concern became more evident in her voice with each question that she asked. Twilight's mouth hung open for a moment, unsure of where to begin, but Trixie spoke again. "Why do you look like... Nightmare Moon?" she asked while motioning to all of the archmage's drastic changes in appearance.

Twilight pursed her lips and turned away. Celestia shook away her awe and stepped closer. "Could Holy have done this?" she chimed in. "In all of the centuries, the millennia that I have ruled, no one has ever been resurrected with magic."

"Trixie, you really don't remember anything at all?" Twilight asked.

The magician half-closed her eyes attempting to coax her memory to return. "Aurelius... Nightmare Moon was about to get hit. I... Did I block it?" she asked after a moment of hesitation.

Twilight stared at her worriedly, afraid that her mind might have been damaged. "Trixie you shielded us from him... That attack killed you. I... I watched you die!" She threw a hoof over her mouth and trembled as the anguish of her sacrifice returned. She remained like that for a while, taking deep breaths until her nerves calmed once more. "I watched you... die..."

Trixie stared at her in shock, her mouth agape. Twilight could not bring herself to look at her in that moment. "But I'm fine, see!?" she insisted, patting herself down. "I-I'm not dead."

Twilight nodded slowly. "Are you alright? I... It's just so hard to believe that... that you're alive again." She moved closer and placed a hoof to Trixie's face. "It's like a dream."

Trixie placed one of her hooves over Twilight's as her eyes watered. "I'm here, Twilight," she cooed. "You never answered me before, though."

"What?"

"Why do you look like Nightmare Moon?"

Twilight's heart sank as the Id's voice began in her mind. Just tell her. She trusts you, and she will accept it, even if she doesn't understand.

Twilight nodded, both to Trixie and Nightmare. "We share the same body now. Her soul is in me." Trixie's eyes widened, but Twilight moved her hoof over the magician's mouth before she could interrupt. "It's not like Luna. We... can communicate, and I've tapped into her power. I guess this change reflects that," she finished as she glanced to her own darkened foreleg. Trixie gazed at her mane, its almost spectral look engrossing her.

"Let us return to Canterlot. I'm sure your friends will be overjoyed about this miracle," chimed in Celestia again.

Twilight gave her a hard look that Trixie could not see before standing and picking the magician up. Despite her exhausted state, she found the other mare to be lighter than before. Nightmare's strength? she wondered to herself. "I'll see you back in Canterlot, princess." She teleported away in a flash of light.

Celestia gave a downcast look to the grass where she stood. "I will find a way to mend our bond. I swear it, Twilight," she muttered to herself. Sighing, she coiled down in preparation for flight.

"Were you the one to unleash the full power of Holy, Princess Celestia?"

The voice cut through the air like a sword and the princess froze, her chest tightening as she turned around. "I don't believe it..." she muttered, her eyes widening.

***

Twilight appeared in the throne room just inches off of the floor, the distance giving her ample time for a graceful landing. As she touched down her legs buckled beneath her and Trixie landed on her hind hooves as the alicorn crashed to the hard floor. Her head spun and she clamped her eyes shut. She focused on breathing and the coolness of the marble she now rested on.

"Are you alright?" Trixie shrieked the question as she crouched down to her. "Please take it easy. If you used up all of your magic against Aurelius then you need to rest."

She is right, Twilight. You need to rest now more than ever, echoed Nightmare.

"No, I'm fine. And I don't need to yet. I can still—"

"Who are you talking to?" asked Trixie as she helped the alicorn back to standing.

"I, err," she took a breath and scratched her head, "I was talking to Nightmare. Sorry about that." The magician maintained a perplexed stare.

Can we... switch places? asked the Id timidly.

I don't know. I don't remember how I did it before. It just... happened. Twilight shuddered as she recalled some of the rage she felt when Trixie had died.

She closed her eyes and concentrated, however she couldn't be sure of what she was to focus on. She tried clearing her mind and then picturing Nightmare and then reproducing the feeling of the Id being the dominant soul. It gave her an odd sensation and she couldn't feel pain or injury if her body was wounded, but it was almost as if Nightmare had held her in a soft embrace; always there, but not.

"T-Twilight...?" asked the magician, taking a cautious step back.

"No. I am Nightmare Moon," replied the Id as she looked her form over. Her coat had lost what little purple pigment it had and her eyes converted into her sharp turquoise. After a moment, the features of Twilight's mane faded and shifted into the blue, starry mist of the dark counterpart.

"But... how? I thought you... uhh..." Trixie pawed at her face and looked abashed for a moment. "I thought you only possessed ponies, like you did with Princess Luna."

Nightmare blinked and put a hoof to her chin. "With Luna I never had a choice, but Twilight and I have a much different connection." Her eyes fell back to Trixie who gave her an uncomfortable stare. For a moment, Nightmare became indifferent to the situation and regarded her in a way she couldn't be sure.

"Are you okay?" asked Trixie, abandoning her discomfort.

Nightmare blinked hard and shook her head. "I'm fine. It's just..." She took a breath and gazed into Trixie's eyes. "I have received most of Twilight's memories. You and I are strangers to each other, but seeing you invokes her familiarity with you in me. I'm still processing everything that has happened to us." She paused and tried to articulate a better explanation, but ultimately failed and loosed an exasperated sigh. "I'm sure she could explain it better than I."

Unexpectedly, Trixie chortled. "Maybe one of the princesses can explain it to me, as well as what happened to me." She pulled up one of her hooves and marveled at it, trying her best to recall her death. "I don't remember anything. I just... woke up and there Twilight was crying over me."

"Can I ask you something?" Nightmare turned away when Trixie nodded, and she allowed her mane to obscure her face, using it to grimace privately. "Are you bothered by me?" she asked.

Trixie arched a brow to her. "I trust Twilight, and if she trusts you then... Why are you asking? Should I be?"

Nightmare opened her mouth to speak, but the thundering sound of armored hoofsteps rang up from the throne room doors. In minutes, the room had been filled by soldiers of the royal guard, some clad in blackened and soot covered pieces of armor, and all brandishing some form of weaponry. Filing into the outer rim were a few unicorn magi, but Nightmare relaxed when none bore any signature garments of archmagi.

"Nightmare Moon," shouted one of the mages, "You are hereby ordered to surrender to her majesties, Princesses Celestia and Luna, for war crimes against the nation of Equestria and her kingdom. Surrender now or we will use lethal force to detain you!"

"Wait!" cried Trixie, positioning herself in front of Nightmare to face the soldiers. Sweat ran down the sides of her head as pegasus soldiers occupied the air to further surround the pair.

Now would be a great time to switch places again, Twilight! urged Nightmare. There was no response. Twilight? Twilight! Her heart raced into a panicked beat as the other soul didn't respond. She poised herself to use what little magic remained between them to teleport away if she could. To her surprise, Trixie formed a barrier around them.

"She's innocent!" the magician yelled. "The princesses will pardon her. Just wait for them!" she pleaded further. The soldiers ignored her words and began an assault on the barrier with their weaponry. The front line struck at it then pulled back for the next wave of soldiers to attack it. "Don't worry, Nightmare. I can hold out until one of the princesses arrives."

"That may be..." Nightmare suddenly became dizzy and staggered around inside the barrier. She took a few sharp breaths falling to the floor. "Too long for me," she muttered as she panted. "What's happening... to me?" I can't lose focus. Just a little bit longer...

Worry filled Trixie as a crack formed in her barrier and the soldiers moved to focus their attacks on it. She concentrated her magic on repairing it, but her focus was broken as a familiar pegasus bolted into the room and dropped down in front of it, blocking the strike of a halberd with one of her bracers.

"What the hay is going on here?" shouted Dash.

The soldiers immediately disengaged and pulled back, all lowering into kneels or bows. One of the more decorated soldiers stepped up and gave a quick salute before speaking. "Commander Dash," he began, "We have the criminal Nightmare Moon cornered and we are attempting to detain her."

Dash turned and looked through the barrier, the blue tint of Trixie's magic making it difficult to see all of the details of those inside. "Stand down, captain," she said.

"But, ma'am!"

"That's an order," Dash barked as she moved her face closer to his. "Is that going to be a problem, captain?"

He quickly shook his head and saluted once more. "No, ma'am." Pivoting on his hind legs, he called to the rest of the soldiers in the room, "You heard her. Stand down and return to your previous assignments. Commander Dash can take it from here." The rest of the soldiers gave salutes and filed out of the throne room, some of them and the mages shooting her wary glances before departing.

Dash turned around as the barrier faded and she grinned. "Looks like I got here just in time. You two look like manure," she teased.

Trixie flipped her mane to the other side of her face and stuck her nose in the air. "Are you always this slow?" she said, earning a sour look from the knight.

Dash prepared a response for her, but it was immediately forgotten as the rest of their friends and princess Luna entered the room. "Hey, where's Princess Celestia?"

Nightmare answered. "Twilight... intentionally left her behind."

"And she wasn't back before me?" Dash wondered.

"Perhaps she is taking her time to decompress and mull over the situation. A great many things have happened to her—to all of us, recently," said Luna as she stepped closer. Despite her words, her eyes focused only on Nightmare, and the Id quickly became uncomfortable beneath her gaze. She walked past and took a seat at the throne. "All of you should be taking a rest. See to it that your eye is tended to soon, Knight Dash."

"Nah, I kinda like this. Battle scars make me look fierce!" She grinned, but Luna frowned and the knight immediately erased her expression and shrank into herself. "I will take care of it right away, your majesty." She bowed and turned to head for the doors when a blast of light stunned her for a moment.

Celestia appeared with a robed pony beside her. Dash, Trixie, Luna, and Nightmare—with the aid of Twilight's memories—gawked at the newcomer, but the rest of their friends exchanged wondering glances.

The sun princess gave defeated look to them. "Astra's brother may still live," she announced. She cast a glance to the robed pony who gave a short nod of affirmation.

"The former alicorn prince now has his original body, and so shall his magic no longer be shackled," added the robed pony. "I am afraid that I have failed in my final task."

Chapter 20: Eyes of Six Worlds

View Online

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 20: Eyes of Six Worlds

Nightmare's head spun, the world threatening to topple around her, and she clamped her eyes and mouth shut as nausea made her stomach churn. "Help me," she muttered, or perhaps thought; she couldn't be sure of her surroundings, or whether or not she was still conscious at all. In an instant, she was no longer feeling queasy or dizzy, but she felt hot, feverish. What—? She could feel herself again, but it was not quite her. Twilight? The feeling of control was too distant, but it was there just out of reach.

Her mouth hung open as she stared around to the carnage of a burning Canterlot. Flames climbed from the rooftops as dragons criss-crossed in the sky, cries of ponies and the Brood competing in symphonies. Twilight paid no attention to it as it fell to white noise, and her eyes trailed down to her hooves. They trembled as she looked at them for a moment, fear and disgust welling within her. It wasn't until Twilight focused on what was just beyond them that Nightmare could understand the moment. The eye of a dragon, or a dying dragon to be precise. His life faded quickly as the power of Twilight's Mjollnir had burned into him, his eye closing slowly. And then thoughts from the archmage flooded her mind in fragments.

***

I would do it; I would do it for them. I couldn't let them down. Her promise--no, my promise would make it right... for me. Even if I let it all go, even if everyone else let it go, she would never forget. Would I be letting her suffer? Would she be in more pain than me?

I stared into the dying eyes of that dragon with ones that could only know. He gazed at me, and sometimes I wonder if he was asking my soul for its secrets. It was only for an instant, just a few seconds, but sometimes I remember that moment over and over. Those eyes... Sometimes she has those same eyes. She will remind me, and yet allow me to forget at the same time. She is a reminder of how high I was... and how far I fell...

I don't want you to know, but you already do. You will always know, every time you look at me. You will see my pain, but you will never let me go. Others look at me with pride and envy. The ones I have wronged steal my security with eyes full of contempt, hatred, and animosity. But you—with absolute understanding—you see me for what I am: scared. Alone. The knowing observer.

I cannot share the conflicted void of that promise, but I will not burden everyone else with my sins. Not as you have done with me. You will atone with me. It's the only way. Look at me now, Celestia.

***

"Nightmare Moon, are you alright?" Trixie asked with concern, one hoof on the Id's shoulder.

In a rush of feeling, Nightmare was back to reality, and she took in mouthfuls of air as the others watched her uneasily. Her nausea and dizziness returned in full force, and she stared at Trixie's mouth as she continued talking. She couldn't focus on what the magician was saying, the sickness too overwhelming to concentrate. Twilight, what is happening to me—us?

Just as she was bracing herself to vomit, the robed pony swiftly moved to her and placed a hoof to her head. Her eyes widened and, in a few seconds, all of the ill feelings subsided, a pulse of magic unlike any other she had felt swept throughout her. She blinked in surprise and stared at him as she became comfortable. "Th-thank you," she rasped. "What did—"

"Unbelievable," he muttered to himself, "Two souls within in a single vessel. Could this mean...? No. This magic is... familiar. Lady Celestia, what is this one's status?"

"There is much to debrief you on, Telos, but there is just as much for you to explain to us. Why don't you start by explaining how you are still alive, thousands of years after you went missing?" She walked past everyone and stood at the steps to the throne, her eyes shifting between Nightmare and Telos.

"But of course, Your Majesty," he said, sizing up his audience. He stepped off to the side to better view them all at once. "Greetings, everyone. I am Oracle Telos, or rather, The Oracle, or so I was once called in the past." He carefully gauged the reactions of those in the room. "I see that some of you recognize me," he finished, his eyes shifting between Trixie, Dash and the princesses.

Luna moved to stand by her sister. "Telos. How do you still live?" she reminded.

"It would seem my staff was used, the fragments of my memory. I never thought much of myself as a teacher," he said, chuckling, "but ponies needed to be prepared in the absence of the queen and her younger brother in the event that the throne would be vacant, or fall into the hooves of those whom would do harm to our kingdom."

"Telos, at least elaborate on the situation with Aurelius," urged Celestia, her tone becoming impatient.

"That is for another time, Lady Celestia. It is of no immediate concern, I assure you. I shall fully explain all that you desire to know in due time. I have not eaten in eons, so that is where I shall begin." He turned to leave, but a hoof caught his robe.

"Tell me, why does Aurelius hate you so much?" Nightmare demanded weakly.

Telos stared at her for a while before sighing and allowing his eyes to wander to the nearest stained glass window. "He murdered my... someone very dear to me."

"That doesn't answer my question." The Id was met with an indifferent glance, and there was a long pause of silence before Telos continued. He removed his hood briefly and quickly tugged it back on, the others gasping in surprise.

"As you can see, I am neither unicorn nor alicorn, and therefore, I should be incapable of using magic as potent as one. The bond Aurelius and I share is one of blood and jealousy. In our time, Aurelius was the lord of the sun and ruled alongside his elder sister Astra, the ruler of the moon." He stopped and clasped his forehooves together, slowly pulling them apart. A white orb of faded light appeared and swelled until most of the throne room was consumed. He closed his eyes and details filled out the space within the orb. "This is Prince Aurelius during his reign."

The alicorn prince appeared a moment later, standing just under Luna's height in stature. His body was a deep crimson and his mane a subdued, almost fiery mass. His cutie mark depicted a partial solar eclipse, with half of the sun orange and the other half a charcoal grey.

"That's a strange cutie mark," observed Trixie..

"More like a brand of fate. The prince can control the sun and moon harmoniously, seamlessly."

Celestia chimed in. "Luna and I can both control the sun and moon. How is Aurelius any different?"

"Aurelius could not control the moon at first and practiced for years before he could. It will be a great deal of time before he can utilize his cosmic powers again." He paused and took a deep breath. "I suppose while I am still here I can answer your question about how we are both still alive." He clapped and opened his eyes, his memory vanishing.

"After the demise of Lady Astra, I sealed Aurelius in my staff to prevent him from rising to power in place of his sister. I used my body as the final seal and my staff as his prison. The only magic strong enough to break his prison was magic strong enough to stand against him. Magic as powerful as my own."

"But Aurelius has been around as an undead dragon this entire time," said Trixie.

Telos's eyes widened, but Nightmare spoke before he could. "So the memory fragments in your staff were to train a pony to kill him if he was ever freed."

"I said battle, not defeat."

"Twilight already killed Aurelius when she used Holy against him," the Id continued. "All of us watched him die."

"I don't know who you watched die, but it is impossible that it was the same Prince Aurelius that I once sealed away. There is no way he could have escaped my prison with his body and powers. As it stands, Aurelius will become more powerful than all of you once he regains all of his strength. But the most surprising thing of all is how weak your princesses are." The others gasped and Nightmare, Trixe, and Dash shot them questioning looks. "Yes, I know just how powerful you are not, princesses, and I would like to know why."

"We used the Rites to ascend Twilight Sparkle into an alicorn," replied Celestia, regret lining her voice.

Telos choked on a breath and adjusted his robe. "You have made a grave mistake, your majesties. With both of you at your peak power Aurelius would likely die trying to seize the throne with force. Unless... No, I will need more time to think on it."

"The decision was made years prior to knowing who Aurelius was or what he was capable of. What is done is done, and we need to focus on what is happening now."

"You," said Telos as he turned to Nightmare. "Where is the one who used Holy, this Twilight Sparkle?"

"She and I share the same body," she replied.

He raised an eyebrow. "The other soul? Then who are you?"

"I was formerly a weapon created and used by Aurelius. I am Nightmare Moon. Twilight attempted to save me from banishment when Aurelius tried to use the Elements of Harmony against me. While I was purged from Luna, I was transferred into Twilight instead," she explained. She hung her head for a moment.

Telos scratched at his chin and mumbled to himself as he stared to one of the windows again. After a moment, he turned to speak to everyone. "I don't know what these Elements of Harmony are, and I'm afraid I don't know any magic that can help you. The effects of whatever magic that caused your predicament may be permanent. If that is so then I am sorry."

"Twilight will find a way to separate us," Nightmare responded confidently.

"Your unique situation has piqued my interest, and I will lend a hoof where I can. After all that has happened I will need some time to think."

"Telos, we are not finished, yet," said Celestia. There was a sternness in both her voice and the way she looked at him, but he only offered her a half-interested glance.

"There will be time for that later, Lady Celestia. You should be gathering your strength and recuperating after all that has occurred. I shall be in your lovely city, though I'm sure you will have me monitored." He headed for the throne room doors. "I imagine much has changed in the world in since I last walked it."

Dash flew between him and the doors and brandished Nightfall. "Hey, the princess isn't done talking to you. We need to prepare for when Aurelius attacks again, and you're the only pony who seems to know what's going on."

"As I said, there is time for that. He will not besiege your kingdom until he is confidently strong enough to do so. Now, put that toy away and—" Telos's eyes fell to the black and green blade and his gaze darkened. "That... does not belong to you."

In an instant, a light blue glow enveloped the sword, tugging it away from the knight. "What the—!?" Dash blurted as the sword jerked. She maintained her iron grip on the hilt, and was lifted into the air before being thrown backwards into the throne doors. As she slammed into them, she released the sword as sailed backwards through the doorway, the onlookers giving cries and shouts in reaction. The sword levitated to Telos and slid into his robe.

He turned to face the throne. "I grow tired of repeating myself. There is time and rather than pestering me you should make use of it preparing your forces for the next attack. Now, I am leaving and I do not wish to be disturbed any further, Lady Celestia." He turned to Nightmare. "I will to speak with Twilight Sparkle when she is able." Telos shook his head and wandered towards the door, stopping to glance at Dash and shake his head again before departing. She glared death at him, but he was already moving down the corridor.

"What a jerk," muttered Trixie under her breath.

Celestia frowned. "There is nothing else we can do for now. He is not wrong, and we must gather our strength, but I cannot force him to ally with us. I will maintain order and the rest of you should take this time to recover." She leaned to Luna and whispered something. The moon princess nodded and walked out, stopping to say something to the knight as she picked herself up off of the door.

Nightmare murmured something as she fell to her forehooves and vomited on the floor. The others loosed sounds of disgust and worry as she finished and glanced up. They glimmered in her eyes as colorful smears, and she wiped her mouth before finally collapsing to the floor.

"Nightmare!" cried Trixie as she rushed to her side. "What's wrong?" She held out her hooves and mimicked the motion of Twilight's healing magic. "I-I can't use healing magic," she reminded herself, panicking. Celestia glided down the stairs and lowered her head to inspect the Id's form. Her breathing was shallow and labored, trickles of sweat running down the sides of her face. "Can't you do something, princess?"

Celestia's mouth twisted with regret. "I'm afraid I don't know. Her situation is unprecedented." She took Nightmare's body into her magic and started towards the door, several servants having gathered to see what all of the commotion had been. "You," she called to one, "come with me. You will be tending to Nightmare Moon." The servant trembled for a moment before giving a shaky nod. "And you. Tell Chancellor Leo to gather those of the Council currently present. It is of utmost importance." The second servant bowed and departed in a hurry, while the first trotted nervously beside the princess.

The trio entered Twilight and Trixie's chambers, laying the Id across the bed. The servant left the room and returned with a bowl of water and a washcloth a moment later, soaking and laying it over Nightmare's head. She moaned in her sleep as the cool cloth touched her, but she relaxed soon after.

"What do you think is happening to her?" asked Trixie.

Celestia shook her head, removing her tiara and massaging her temples. "I don't know, but it worries me. Perhaps it's a side effect of her fusion with Nightmare Moon. The only other pony that such a thing has happened to is Luna, but she refuses to speak about it."

"Maybe she'll talk about it now if it might be what's making them sick," bargained the magician.

"I'm afraid it's not the same, Trixie. Luna was possessed by Nightmare, not sharing her body with her. I will have the archmagi prioritize research on finding a way to heal her, but there is little we can do right now. Stay with her and let me know if there's any change." The magician stared at Nightmare with crestfallen eyes before nodding slowly. "Don't lose hope. Twilight is strong."

Celestia left the room, closing the door quietly behind her. She took a deep breath, unleashing a large sigh as she started walking again. Please, Twilight. Don't end up like Luna did. I know you believe in Nightmare, but I cannot allow... No. I won't give up hope, either.

***

It wasn't until Celestia bumped into a robed pony before she realized she had reached the royal court. "My apologies, I didn't—"

"Your Majesty," greeted the robed pony as he bowed, "the present Council members have been assembled and are ready for you. I was just on my way to inform you."

"Chancellor Leo... I'm sorry. You've already summoned them?"

"Of course, Your Majesty. I received your order only an hour ago," he replied, puzzled.

Celestia blinked and rubbed the side of her head. "Ah, forgive me. It has been a trying day. Let us begin at once."

They entered the court, the large room featuring a high ceiling and two large desks that half-circled to one another, gaps in between for ponies to walk through. On the far end of the room was a raised seat for a judge, and overhead the room was illuminated by the light of a large chandelier. Less than half of the seats at the desk had been filled, and two fully armored knights were present among the ponies from the various government branches. The princess braced herself inwardly as Leo moved to the far seat, herself to the center of the room.

She looked at several of the vacant seats with hidden pain. Dead. Some were for the warriors and archmagi that had died during the course of the war. She forced herself not to look at them, and instead to stare into the eyes of those she was speaking to and forget for a moment those who had died.

"Your Majesty, why have you summoned us so urgently?" started Leo.

"The undead dragon, Aurelius, was not vanquished by Twilight's spell," she began. There was an uproar of hushed whispers and the exchange confused glances, but it quieted down to silence after a moment. "That same Aurelius is Prince Aurelius, a ruler from many generations before Princess Luna and myself." The whispers threatened to start again, but Celestia's look became more severe.

"Y-Your Majesty," started Leo again, "how could any being survive such power? Archmage Sparkle's power far exceeded even my own in my prime. What evidence do you have that Aurelius still lives?"

Celestia released a short, heavy breath. "From the one who sealed him, Oracle Telos."

"What!?"

"How can this be!"

Gasps roared out and grew into unrestrained voices carrying questions, confusion and disbelief in all of them. Order maintained itself, however, and soon they fell to quiet again.

"Telos is among us, but for the time being refuses to cooperate," explained the princess. "He assures us that Aurelius cannot attack Canterlot any time soon, and while I have my doubts, I have no other choice but to trust in his word."

"Your Majesty," chimed in one of the armored knights. "What do you want us to do now that our previous mission is complete?"

"Until we receive more information you are to remain here. If Telos is wrong and Aurelius attacks I want to have as many of our forces at the ready as possible. I will not wait idly while a threat is just beyond our doors."

"As you wish, Your Majesty." The two knights saluted, standing up and leaving.

"It will take some time to gather the rest of the council. You are waiting for Telos to join us, correct?"

"Yes. He knows more about Aurelius than any of us. I believe he'll come around in time."

Leo's expression brightened as the remaining council members stood up. "It would be an honor to meet him, and perhaps we can even catalogue his exploits. Aside from his staff, Telos's legacy was thought to have been lost. To find out that he is still alive... remarkable."

"Priorities, Chancellor. I shall be retiring for the evening. Defer any matters to Princess Luna."

"As you wish, Your Majesty." Leo bowed as the princess departed before the rest of the council members.

Celestia carried herself with disappointment, walking slowly towards her chambers. Her head had begun to throb the further through the halls she moved. By the time she reached the doors to her chamber her head pounded. She opened the door and paused, staring into the dimly lit dwelling for a moment, and the crackle of her fireplace was a welcome ambiance. She closed the door behind her and laid out on the rug before the fire, staring into the dancing flames as she thought upon Telos's words.

The only magic strong enough to break his prison was magic strong enough to stand against him.

Her eyes slid from the fire to a picture on the mantle, a picture of herself and a Twilight when she was a filly. It had been taken after her graduation from magic school, and they were both grinning from ear to ear. The picture levitated down and sat in front of the princess, the fire lighting up the photo even more.

You have made a critical mistake.

Tears fell onto the glass in the frame, blurring the smiles in the picture, and Celestia removed her tiara and laid it on the rug beside the frame. Closing her eyes, she rubbed her temples before pulling the picture against her chest. "A mistake I'll regret forever. I'm sorry, Twilight. One day, this will all be over. I promise. I... promised you." Her eyes flashed open only to close again a moment later. A promise is a promise. I will not take back my word.

***

There was a wall of sound in the pub, radiating from the other customers, but Telos drowned it out with loud thoughts. He stared into his mug, the murky liquid reflecting back a distorted image of his own downcast expression. Weak, he thought. I was nothing before you. You gave me the strength, and here I am, continuing to fail you, my love. Forgive me. He took a deep breath and finished the last of his drink before placing an unusual coin on the bar counter.

"S-sir, this is far too much for... anything I could even offer," remarked the barkeeper as he inspected the coin.

Telos gave him a blank look. "A moment of respite from my solemn duties is a priceless thing. Spend your fortune wisely," he said as he turned and walked out of the pub.

He paused just outside as the ponies of Canterlot moved about the streets. The ponies were clad in odd jackets and dresses, and some wore jewelry or carried trinkets such as watches. It was all odd. The culture shock from Celestia's and Luna's current era had begun to wear away at him, and he felt out of place as they would look upon him with confusion and hidden disapproval. His robes did not resemble those of the esteemed archmagi.

The orange and purple of the coming eventide spilled into the sky and he looked to the horizon where the moon would be rising. Hurry yourself, Twilight Sparkle. Fate will come for us whether you are prepared or not. He started walking toward the northern parts of the city, and by the time he reached a park the moon was already in the sky. He glanced up to it and snorted, then burst out with a short laugh, startling nearby ponies in the quiet park.

"My apologies. I was experiencing a moment of nostalgia," he said while bowing.

"Does the beauty of my moon," came a voice from behind, "remind you of her?" finished Luna as she stepped out from the shadow of a tree.

Telos frowned as he gave her a sidelong glance. "I thought I was clear that I only wished to speak with Twilight Sparkle."

"And you shall. However, she is still recovering from all of the trials of Aurelius. I hope that you will make an exception for me." The princess sat down beside him on the grass and stared up to the moon, a wistful happiness touching only her eyes.

The sage rubbed his eyes gingerly and looked up to the moon. "I wish to make an exception for everyone, but she is the only one that requires my immediate attention."

"Oh?" Luna turned to him with a surprised look. "You will not even make time for my sister, who has had more knowledge of the situation than even myself? I pray that you are not gambling with stubbornness."

Telos held up a hoof and glared at the princess of the night. "It is none of your business," he took a breath, "however, I suppose it is not of any importance. Your sister bears a striking resemblance to someone important... too striking." Luna looked at him with thoughtful surprise, but he continued without acknowledging it. "She is a reminder of a life that I have lost, of what I can no longer have. My being here is, in itself, a reminder that I have failed in my own mission to preserve her legacy."

"And whom might you be referring to?"

"Astra, or rather, Queen Astra."

Luna's eyes widened. "Queen? Equestria was ruled under an absolute monarchy in your time?"

"Indeed, Your Majesty."

"My sister called her Soothsayer Astra. Why is that?"

Telos's eyes took on a regretful look. "Astra was a queen in status, but her chosen title was that of Soothsayer. It was a title given to her by her subjects. They say she could pacify any anger, any conflict, with mere diplomacy. I did not see it much for myself as her title was given before I met her. She was serene and soft spoken, and I do not doubt she could stymie any anger with her very presence." He glanced up to the moon again and smiled. "She was... perfect."

Luna opened her mouth, but hesitated as Telos disappeared into his memories for a moment. "May I ask... How did Lady Astra die?"

Telos allowed his eyes to fall to the ground and he sighed. "That is a story for another time, Your Majesty. I wish to enjoy my peace for as long as I can. The final days of my former life were nothing but turmoil. Do what you can to hurry Twilight Sparkle's recovery so that we may begin salvaging her."

Luna stood up and took a few steps in the direction of the castle, but stopped and cast a glance to the moon, then to Telos's back.

"Tell Princess Celestia that we can speak tomorrow."

Luna nodded. She chose not to fly, instead walking back to the castle, dwelling on her thoughts. What are you holding back, Telos? Why are you afraid to trust us? Nay. Why are you so interested in Twilight? It wasn't long before she returned to the castle. Celestia was long to bed by then, and she was tiring herself; however, she moved towards Twilight's chambers.

She entered with only the quiet moan of the door hinge giving way to her presence. The room was dark, lit only by the dancing flame of lanterns positioned on the nightstands on each side of the bed. Her mane illuminated the immediate area around her head and flank, but the light did not travel. She found Trixie laying in the bed beside Nightmare, holding one the sick mare's hooves in her own. The magician raised her head as Nightmare murmured something in her sleep and took notice of the princess entering.

"Princess Luna?" Trixie asked in a whisper. "What are you doing here?"

"I came to check on the two of you before I retire to my chambers."

Nightmare moaned and smacked her lips a few times before opening her eyes. "Honestly, I never would've thought you would care about what happened to me."

Luna tapped a hoof to her head as she let her gaze wander into the darkness. "Trixie, will you leave us alone for a moment?" The magician nodded and left the room, closing the door behind her. Luna watched it, waiting until she could hear her hoofsteps no more. "Our past... can never be forgotten. However," she turned her head back to the Id, "I trust Twilight completely, and she trusts you. I have seen with my own eyes what you have done since the two of you have been bound to one another."

"But?" asked Nightmare.

"I will not allow my personal feelings to impede Twilight."

Nightmare suppressed a dry cough, and she levitated a cup of water to her. Drinking it quickly, she chuckled as she the dryness vanished. "So, just like that? You can forgive me for everything I have done, everything that I forced you to do? I had once betrayed everything you stood for, slain your own subjects, and tried to murder your sister. As a result of my actions you were banished for a thousand years and virtually every subject you now rule over had forgotten who you were before Twilight purged me from you. You cannot tell me you don't feel animosity for any of our past, no matter how little it matters to those around us in the present."

Luna stared at her in silence, forcing herself to only cast indifference to the Id. The past still bothered her, but it was easy to forget when Twilight vehemently defended Nightmare against all of the atrocities she had committed when she possessed Luna.

"I didn't think so."

"Are you not linked to Twilight in everything now?" asked Luna quickly.

Nightmare stared at her incredulously. "Yes. Our... bond is absolute. For now."

"Then I do not need to be reassured beyond her words," said Luna as she turned and headed for the door.

"W-wait," called Nightmare. Luna turned to find the Id extending a weak, shaky hoof, and she gave Nightmare a wondering look. "Th-thank you."

"I want you to know that I never doubted her belief in you," added the princess as she moved towards the door again.

"Luna, one more thing." The princess looked to Nightmare again and found her staring away to one of the windows. She couldn't be sure, but she thought that she might be crying. "I'm sorry... for all of the pain that I've caused you. I... never wanted to hurt anyone. I never wanted... any of it."

"Do not mistake my love and respect for Twilight as my forgiveness." Luna up to the dark ceiling and remained silent for a while. "I know, as have I always known, carrying the burden of knowing your remorse and your guilt for over a thousand years."

Nightmare threw her head back to the door, but Luna was already gone.

***

The princess of the night walked the darkened halls of the castle alone, the shadows of the braziers and lanterns dancing along the walls keeping her entertained. She allowed herself to wander, loosely heading towards her own chambers. The Element bearers were all asleep now in guest bedrooms, and there was no one she could speak freely with at that hour. The tapping of someone else's hooves made her focus, and she rounded a corner expecting to see a night guard patrolling.

"I am surprised that you have chosen to return here of your own volition so soon," she said.

"I have preparations to make," said Telos quickly. "How fares Twilight Sparkle?"

Luna shook her head and sighed. "It is too soon to know. For now, Nightmare Moon remains dominant but weak."

"It will be too late if we do not act in haste. I cannot be sure of exactly when Aurelius will return if I laze away in the city. In the mean time, I will work with this Nightmare Moon, but I find her lack of confidence without Twilight Sparkle to be unnerving."

"It is understandable given all that Twilight has done for her. She will not speak of it to anyone, but her loyalty to the mare that saved her is undying."

Telos scratched at his chin before reaching into his robe. "I will need to create another one of these if I am to salvage her situation." He produced a dull, colorless gem.

"And what is that?" asked Luna as she stared at the gem.

"This is a gift from your predecessor, Astra. I like to call it a Philosopher's Stone, though this is merely the empty shell of one," he explained.

"An interesting choice of name for a gem," the princess mused.

"I assure you it is nothing of the sort that alchemists speak of. Simply, it's a magical vessel for great power." He placed the gem back into his robe and scratched his chin again. "Tell me, Princess Luna, did my staff... live?"

"What?"

"Did my staff move of its own free will, without the aid of an external magic source?" The sage leaned in excitement as Luna raised a brow.

"Indeed. Your staff was bound to Twilight, and it moved to her will," she answered.

Telos's eyes lit up with pride. "Splendid! My hypothesis has been proven to be correct then."

"What hypothesis?"

The sage collected himself and focused back on the princess. "Sealing a powerful magical being into one of these gems and using it as the catalyst of a staff would allow it to be linked to its wielder. I couldn't experiment as there were no ponies who would willingly sacrifice themselves for it. I'm not so sure I could conduct any even if there were."

"Such an experiment would require great magical prowess. How are you capable of wielding magic as an earth pony?" asked Luna, her curiosity rising.

"A story for another time, Your Majesty. You will have your answers in due time. For now, I would like to spend some time in the royal library."

Luna regarded him with a trace of awe. "You are an enigmatic pony. It is of no mystery why the archmagi are fascinated with you." Luna led the way to the royal library. The pair stopped just outside of the grand oak doors, and she prepared to ask one last question, her curiosity getting the better of her. "Telos, who's soul did you use in the philosopher's stone for your staff?" she asked, unsure she even wanted to know.

"Souls," the sage corrected. "The ones sealed and used for the catalysts were that of mine and Aurelius."

Luna's eyes widened and she stared at him. She couldn't tell if it was only surprise, or if there was fear in her mind as well. "If the gem of your staff remains intact and only the shaft broke, how were you both released of your prison?"

"The gem of my staff is still intact?" He marveled at the idea by shook his head to clear his rampant thoughts. "An extraordinary feat, though the reason is simple. The magic that Princess Celestia says slew Aurelius purged us of the stone itself." He opened the door but stopped before proceeding into the library. "Holy is a magic that is out of even my reach. I do not believe that you and your sister could create it by yourselves without something else. For an alicorn of the Rites to use it... I am both intrigued and afraid. It is not power a juvenile alicorn should be capable of, or ever use." Luna stared at him as he held a look of deep thought for a moment, but he finally disappeared into the library a moment later.

She stared after him in direful silence, her mind running scenarios she didn't want to think about. I pray that Twilight knows of herself. You are right, Telos, but you do not know her as her friends do. You cannot see her for who she prides herself to be. She trudged towards her chambers, dark scenarios continuing to play through her mind, and darker still, her imagination trying to make them believable. Most of all, I pray that you are not wrong, Nightmare Moon.

Chapter 21: White Lies

View Online

The Quiet Place

By: Aynine

[Disclaimer: I own nothing of the MLP franchise and all rights are reserved by Hasbro and the respective parties involved.]

Chapter 21: White Lies

Celestia moaned in her sleep, tossing and turning uncomfortably between consciousness and a dream. After a moment of wrestling with her blankets, she uncoiled and stretched on her bed before opening her eyes to the natural light flooding her room. She yelped and nearly fell off of the opposite side of her bed at what she had seen. Collecting herself, she rolled back over to find her sister, still there staring at her with a scarcely amused face. Placing a hoof to her head, Celestia groaned. "Luna? What are you doing in here? You startled me," she said in a breathy voice.

The moon princess half-frowned as she watched her sister slowly climb out of bed, ignoring the elder's chagrin. "You are holding back information regarding Telos, are you not? I do not wish to be left in the dark again." When Celestia gave her a funny look, Luna glanced away, abashed, and muttered, "So to speak."

Celestia gathered her regalia, but hesitated a moment before placing her tiara, staring into her dressing mirror to the other princess. "What do you mean, Luna?" she asked as she slowly rotated her tiara in front of her eyes.

"How did we come to possess his staff? I do not recall how we obtained such an artifact, even looking back to the time before my corruption."

"I... don't know. It's been resting in our vaults for as long as I can remember. Perhaps it's an heirloom passed down through the ages by archivists and historians. The bits of information about Telos and the staff have been retold over the centuries, and I'm afraid that's all that I know." Celestia placed her tiara and moved towards her balcony, opening the windows to the landing. A warm breeze swept into the room and she turned her head back and smiled. "Telos will probably have an explanation," she offered.

"You speak as if you are already old friends," said Luna, stifled frustration in her voice. She let a frown slip before composing herself back to an even disposition.

Celestia frowned. "I'm befriending him, Luna. I want him as an ally and a friend, and you should want the same. He's more likely to confide in us if he feels we're trustworthy."

"Trustworthy..." muttered Luna. She rolled her eyes at her sister in absent thought, but annoyance had begun to paint her face. "How did you make the connection of Aurelius and Astra?"

"Just a guess." Celestia hung her head and released an exasperated sigh. "Luna, you have been interrogating me since I awoke. What is bothering you?"

"Just a guess?" Luna harrumphed. Her eyes narrowed and she opened her mouth to speak, but when she did it was not the accusing voice Celestia had expected. "Hurry along, dear sister. Breakfast has already been prepared, and the royal court shall be soon after. Telos will be making his appearance today." The princess of the night quickly turned and left. Celestia stared after for a moment longer, her gaze softening.

Oh, Luna...

***

Nightmare sat uncomfortably, finding it difficulty to not fidget under the stares she received at the breakfast table. Twilight's friends sat to her right on opposite side of the lengthy table, and most of them had already engaged in small talk. Sometimes it was too low for her to hear, but Rainbow Dash would speak up and lead it on with a story, relieving her of any whispers against her. However, it did little to affect her overall feeling, and she felt a pang of sympathy for the knight as she watched her occasionally paw at her bandaged eye.

Sitting across from her was Spike, a dragon whom she had only seen once when he was small, and beside herself sat Trixie, looking almost as uncomfortable as the Id felt. The magician constantly glanced between her hooves, Dash, and the entryway to the dining hall, but never to Nightmare. To her left, sitting a seat away from Spike, was Telos. The sage had a book laid out in front of him, focusing deep on what it had to offer. He paid little attention to the others, occasionally muttering his thoughts quietly to himself.

Nightmare's discomfort peaked as she met the glowers of Spike. The young dragon was now as large as she was and she worried he might become aggressive if they sat in silence too much longer. Relief washed over her as Luna entered and all eyes shifted to her.

"Greetings, everyone," she said as she took a seat on the end by the other Element bearers. "I hope we have not kept you waiting too long. Princess Celestia shall be here momentarily." She took a seat on the end to Nightmare's right and raised a hoof, prompting three waiting servants to roll carts over and distribute food.

Nightmare forced herself to eat under the hateful eyes of Spike; it was all she could do to ease her feelings of guilt. Please answer me, Twilight. The dragon chewed on a piece of meat with angry bites, rarely taking his eyes off of her.

A few minutes passed before Celestia entered. She took her seat opposite of Luna on Telos's end. Silence swept the room as the sun princess tapped a spoon to a glass. Clearing her throat, she began, "Much has happened in such a short time, and the war with the Brood has caused great confusion." Her eyes flowed over everyone present, stopping on Nightmare a second longer than anyone else. "I believe it's time I answered some of your questions."

"You're damn right," shouted Spike, the scraping of his chair backing his voice as he stood up. "Why don't you start by explaining why she's here!" He directed an accusing finger to Nightmare.

"Watch your tone, Spike!" Luna admonished swiftly.

Nightmare held a guilty look before Celestia spoke up again. "I understand your anger, Spike, but please calm down. Nightmare Moon is not the evil pony you remember," she soothed.

"Then where's Twilight?" the dragon continued.

"Twilight and I... we share the same body," Nightmare said. She swallowed as Spike shifted his angry stare to her, but his expression eased slightly when Trixie chimed in with, "It's true."

The dragon snorted and rolled his eyes. "Yeah, and I'm the dragon king."

"She is telling the truth, Spike," added Celestia.

Nightmare watched the anger in the dragon wash away, his expression shifting to confusion, and then to a disbelieving stare on the Id again. She wanted to get away from his eyes. They were the same eyes as hers, the same as Aurelius's. Please, Twilight, she pleaded again.

"She... she's taken over Twilight now?" His voice sounded genuinely hurt as he continued to stare. "How," he choked out, "How is everyone okay with this?"

"Unlike Lady Luna, Nightmare does not possess her. They share the same body in something of a symbiotic bond," interjected Telos.

Spike turned to the sage while wearing defensive expression. "Who are you?"

"Lady Celestia, perhaps beginning with Twilight Sparkle's predicament was not the best place to start."

The sun princess nodded. "Let me start from the beginning, Spike." She cleared her throat as the dragon nodded his agreement and sat back down. "I suppose it could be said that this war began earlier than the Brood's invasion. As you all know, Spike is our royal liaison to the Brood. He caught wind of them planning an attack to take over Equestria, starting with the siege of Canterlot. It was then that I asked if he would spy for us and he agreed. As the war drew closer, he fled Draconis and took to hiding so as not to be persecuted or condemned as a traitor during the conflict. Soon after that we planned a counter attack to end the war."

"Is that when you transformed Twilight into an alicorn?" asked Trixie. The princess nodded, and Nightmare found herself rubbing one of her wings; a shard of Twilight's memory from the ascension process almost made them ache.

"Yes. In order to carry out this plan, Luna and I ascended her into an alicorn. Celestial Knight Rainbow Dash was tasked to be her partner, somepony whom she could have absolute trust and faith in. When Twilight agreed to the ascension and the mission, there were some," Celestia hesitated before adding in an almost distasteful tone, "requests that she made. Among them was the inclusion of Trixie Lulamoon, then an archmage apprentice."

"You never wanted me on that mission, did you, Princess?"

Celestia shook her head. "I'm afraid not. You had very limited experience fighting dragons at the time. However, I honored Twilight's wishes and you were added at her discretion."

Nightmare stared at the magician, but she didn't blink or move; Trixie's violet eyes remained on the sun princess. Nightmare recalled faint images of the night Twilight had briefed her on everything, even recalling traces of the emotions she felt during it. Twilight was anxious and afraid, but Nightmare was unable to discern why, the emotions being vague clues. Celestia went on, and she pushed the memories to the back of her mind.

"The mission objectives were,"—Dash coughed, her eyes wide, and subtly ran a hoof across her neck while shaking her head to the princess, finishing with a nod towards Spike—"to assassinate the king of the Brood, Render..."

"What!?" The dragon slammed a fist on the table and was standing before Nightmare could turn her head to him, his chair clattering loudly to the floor.

Celestia calmly finished, "And steal their war plans."

"Is King Render dead?" seethed the dragon. A heavy silence fell over the room when Celestia nodded, and Spike planted a hand over his eyes, tilting his head back and groaning. After a few moments, he muttered something only to himself. The dragon picked up his chair and quietly sat down, a fierce look in his eyes, but when he spoke again it was in a subdued tone. "Was Twilight the one who... Was she the one killed him?"

"Yes," started Celestia, "But please don't blame Twilight for—"

"Blame Aurelius," chimed in Telos simply.

"General Aurelius? King Render's top general and right hand. Why him?" Spike asked, genuinely confused.

"The one in the same, ambassador. Aurelius is no dragon," reaffirmed the sage.

"What do you mean Aurelius isn't a dragon?" He turned to Celestia. "What does he mean?"

"Spike. Aurelius was using a dragon's form to hide within the Brood, rising in the ranks to obtain power and influence. His body was that of a decayed dragon, sustained by his magic, but it was ultimately destroyed by Twilight at the end of the war. The true Aurelius is a former alicorn prince, and a previous ruler of Equestria."

The dragon stared blankly at her for a moment. The corners of his mouth twitched and he frowned. "That's not funny, Princess."

Telos stood up and shook his head. "It is not a joke. This is the true Aurelius, the prince of Equestria millennia before the world you know today." Clasping his hooves together, he closed his eyes and slowly parted them, spreading his forelegs apart and forming a translucent sphere of light around the table. In the center of the table was a small image of a crimson coated alicorn, his mane a slicked back stream of dark red. "As your princess has told you, he merely assumed the form of a dragon. His vessel was undead, sustained by immense magic to retain the resistance and fortitude of a typical dragon, and all for the sake of his illusion. He was faster and more powerful than most dragons, but his magical ability was no greater than even a novice mage."

There were whispers among the others, worried words dancing just out of earshot, but Nightmare tried not to strain herself to listen to them. Spike stared in wonder as the image slowly rotated, then back to Telos. "Who are you?" he asked again.

"I am Oracle Telos, and I was to be Prince Aurelius's eternal jailer. I am here before you now as Aurelius's true body was released from the prison of my staff. Now, please allow Princess Celestia to finish." Spike nodded and fell to silence again, visibly uncomfortable.

"Commander Rainbow Dash debriefed me of all that had occurred once the mission was complete. She and Archmage Lulamoon discovered evidence in the form of research notes that Nightmare Moon was created by Aurelius as a tool of war over a thousand years prior."

Nightmare looked away and grimaced, both at not knowing, and at being little more than a tool that had been used to ruin Luna's life for years. Her pain subsided as she clung to Twilight's forgiveness, her kindness and compassion for her in spite of all that she had done in her life. She snapped back to reality as Celestia continued her explanation.

"During the final battle with the dragon form of Aurelius, he forcefully activated the Elements of Harmony, attempting to harness their power to banish Nightmare Moon and Luna to the moon as I had done in the past." Nightmare could hear a pained breath as the sun princess continued. "As of now, they have been locked away to prevent such an event from occurring. Twilight and I attempted to disrupt the spell by placing ourselves within it, but we only partially succeeded. When the light cleared, we had succeeded in preventing Luna's banishment. However, Nightmare had taken Twilight's place."

"And that is why I'm here now instead of Twilight," added Nightmare absently, surprised that she had spoken at all. "During the battle with Aurelius we were able to switch places, but... I haven't been able to speak to her since returning to Canterlot. I'm sorry..."

Spike clenched his fists, staring at them for a while. Tears welled in his eyes and he held them shut. After a moment of deep thought, he relaxed and wiped his face. "I will never trust you as long as you're possessing Twilight."

"But I'm not—"

"Shut up!" roared Spike, pointing an accusing finger at her again. "You kidnapped Princess Celestia and tried to kill her the last time I saw you. Nothing is ever going to change that!"

"Enough of your petty quarrels," Telos said in wry frustration. "The past is not the present. There is still hope for Twilight Sparkle even if she is unable to resurface on her own. However, that is something that we can discuss another time. For now, I wish to finish dining in peace."

"Wait, I have a question." Trixie raised a hoof as she stared at Telos.

The sage rolled his eyes and sighed. "One more question for now. After that, will you please allow me to finish eating?"

"When the three of us were in Draconis, something... happened. I..." Trixie's mouth opened and closed a few times as she searched for the words. Nightmare stared at her, blurry images of what the magician was referring to coming to mind, but most of it returned as a blank. "Rainbow and I, we... We watched Twilight die," she finished. She swallowed as Telos gave her a surprised look.

The others gasped and Nightmare closed her eyes. Luna gazed at Celestia, but the sun princess only diverted her attention to Telos. The sage's eyes widened and he started to turn towards the sun princess, but he stopped halfway.

"How did she come back to life?" Trixie added.

"Another that could use all of Holy?" Telos glanced between Celestia and Luna, their hard, unreadable expressions offering no clues. "No. I thought not. Such power is... beyond our grasp, even at our peak. Hmph. The miracle of resurrection is not a power that should exist in our realm, Lady Celestia. How might such a miracle occur in this time, when even the strongest magical beings in Equestria sit at this very table with me, each writhing in their own weakness?"

Luna's face contorted in indignant anger, but Celestia remained placid. "I gave Twilight more of my power than Luna did. Perhaps that helped her more than we know, but I cannot say for certain what happened in Draconis. We have only Archmage Lulamoon and Knight Dash's testimonies. Whatever the cause, I'm grateful that she didn't die."

Telos maintained a thoughtful stare on the sun princess for a long while. Eventually, he pried his eyes away and grumbled. "Let us finish eating."

***

Breakfast concluded in uncomfortable silence, the clinking forks against plates the only sounds between everyone. Even the servants hustled to complete any requests and tasks in the room as quickly as possible before hurrying away. Nightmare wondered if it would be like that during the council court. The dining party split afterwards with Spike leaving on his own, deciding he wanted to be alone for a while. Dash and Trixie had to remain for the court while their friends left the castle for the day.

"The real Telos is a jerk," grumbled Dash in a hushed voice, leaning close to Trixie. "Somepony needs to pull that stick out of his plot."

"They need to do it soon or it's going to poke out your other eye," teased Trixie.

Dash frowned and rubbed the bandage gently. "Ha-ha, Trixie."

Nightmare trailed behind them, half listening to them, half distracted by her own thoughts. She wanted to laugh, to have an optimistic outlook on the situation, but for every unanswered call to Twilight she felt herself becoming more isolated. Empty. She tried again, always knowing it would fail, but always hoping that this would be the time she would finally answer. Wake up, Twilight. Please, wake up. I need you... Only the silence of her own mind persisted.

Nightmare wobbled for a few steps as nausea flooded her stomach once more. The feeling was a welcome relief; she no longer suffered from the headaches and overwhelming memories, but the sickness was a sign that Twilight was still there, still weakening her. Still alive, she thought, hopeful.

The doors of the court swung open with short creak, and the sweep of air brought her back to reality. Peering ahead, she could see the various counsel already seated at the half-circle tables. Several seats had been left vacant for Trixie, Dash and herself. The echoing of their hoofsteps on the marble floor were all that could be heard until they sat down. Nightmare allowed her eyes to wander to the walls where large, intricate tapestries carried the banner of the kingdom, the cutie marks of the princesses. Before the princesses took their seats, the eyes of the counsel drifted to her, and suddenly she wished the nausea was all she had to worry about.

Trixie and Dash sat opposite of each other at the separate tables while Telos moved to the center of the room, eyeing up the counsel members. The princesses watched him from their seats at the judge's positions, and the magician beckoned Nightmare to sit by her.

"So, you are Oracle Telos," began Archmage Leo, sitting at the far end of Trixie's table. He stood up and continued, "I am Chancellor Leo, presiding over the Royal Court of the Archmagi. Allow me the honor of welcoming you to the Canterlot castle. It wasn't long ago that we believed you to have died thousands of years ago, yet here you are standing before us today."

Telos tugged softly at the hood of his robe. "I imagine your history books bear more questions than answers regarding me." He took large breath and sighed. He glanced up and down the remaining archmagi, then back to Leo.

"Indeed. You come from a time when history was not well recorded, and what little we do know is vague and far from detailed. However much we have it is perhaps best to learn from you as to what happened."

"Very well. I suppose your history at least records that I vanished some time after the death of Queen Astra. I was there when her younger brother, Prince Aurelius, murdered her."

Shocked gasps and whispers rumbled through the tables. Nightmare couldn't help but sit in silence, meeting the glance of Trixie as neither had anything to add. However, Leo remained placid on his seat while the voices danced just under eavesdropping volume.

"When you say you vanished, what do you mean?" the chancellor asked.

Telos brushed a hoof against his face. "I imagine that's what it seemed like to the world. I created the prison that held Aurelius, researching and building what I like to call a Philosopher's Stone. It doubled as the spire of my staff. I carried it with me during the time I hunted him, and it was only meant to be broken by a pony who could potentially kill him. This is what Prince Aurelius should look like, after his blood pact with the Brood."

Telos closed his eyes and clasped his hooves. The room darkened to his channeling, and a blue sphere formed with him between the tables, bathing everything and everyone in its eerie glow. It expanded, the edges becoming transparent, and the image of Prince Aurelius formed before him in a ghostly blur. The prince's image sharpened, his crimson coat untouched by the blue glow of the rest of the spell, but neither casting its red shade to the room.

"The Dragon Prince, the Prince of Blood." Telos crinkled his nose, sneering. "Titles and nicknames do not properly convey how greatly he does not deserve the right to live."

Nightmare swallowed as she stared at the image, the prince slowly rotating for all to see. It was hard for her to believe that the undead dragon could be the same being, but the more she stared at his image the more she began to believe it.

"Telos, you told us that Aurelius was not an immediate threat. Can you elaborate on that?" asked Celestia.

The sage opened his eyes and nodded. "His timeless prison has weathered his powers over the ages and they will not restore immediately. We must capitalize on this advantage and gather our forces. I do not know how long it will take, but he will recover before too long. I am also weakened, but not to the degree as Aurelius."

"You had previously implied," started Luna, "that he was also capable of moving the cosmos to his will, the sun, and perhaps the moon as well. Is this true?"

The moon princess's eyes rested on Telos with a heavy gaze, a knowing gaze. A judging gaze, thought Nightmare, cautiously.

The sage stared back in silence for a moment. Nightmare could see the reluctance to answer in his demeanor. With a shivering shrug Telos closed his eyes and weaved his hooves along an invisible pattern. "It was shared with me that the pinnacle of his power could be... catastrophic."

The spherical field of Telos's memory spell expanded until the entirety of the room was within its space. The prince appeared at the nearest end between the tables by the door. Sprawling down the distance towards Telos and the judges' seats lay a city. Its construction was archaic, but the stone constructions stood fast, hardly looking worn based on the image. The sage swirled his hooves, continuing to weave them in an invisible pattern. Clouds formed, and then sunlight, filling out the scene with more details. And then the sage went still, opening his eyes with a dark look.

Rays of light pierced the clouds, incinerating buildings and scorching the earth. Worried murmurs floated between the magi while the knights stared in glum silence. Nightmare watched in quiet guilt as the city was erased piece by piece, rolling infernos consuming the surface in the wake of the rays. Hazy memories of destroying homes and assaulting Celestia's kingdom in the past surfaced from Nightmare's memory. She pushed them away, reminding herself of Twilight's forgiveness to aid her.

"I know only of that incident, but as you can see,"—Telos pivoted and pointed a hoof to the far end; the prince fell his knees, coughing, before collapsing completely—"such power is dually dangerous to oneself. I do not believe he is capable of performing such a feat again, but I do not want you to underestimate his capability."

"He is mad if he believes that murdering his sister will allow him to still succeed to the throne after all of this time," Celestia growled.

"His hubris will allow him to desire nothing less, Your Majesty. He has betrayed his flesh and blood, slaughtered his own subjects, and sold his soul to the dragons. All of it... for power. Arrogance is his greatest weakness, one he has made no attempt to rid himself of, it seems."

"We shall be ready for his assault when the time comes," said Luna. A pen wrapped itself in the blue glow of her magic and absently wrote on a piece of parchment before her without her looking at it. "Equestria's rule will remain as it has, and we will not underestimate Aurelius again. We may need to involve our allies in this battle."

Telos's nose wrinkled briefly. "My powers should return before his, but we must seal or kill him before he regains all of his own. Twilight Sparkle and Nightmare Moon's symbiotic power would be a great boon, and I intend to try my hoof at fixing their dilemma." He pointed a hoof to the Id before turning to glimpse her.

"Fixing? What can you do?" she asked, eagerly and fearfully, desperate hope dancing in her voice.

"That will be explained in due time, but this is a priority. Princesses, if you will excuse me, I wish to end this briefing and begin immediately on that task."

Celestia nodded reluctantly at the same time as Luna said, "Keep me informed of your progress." Nightmare and Trixie rose as Telos headed for the door.

"Wait," said Leo, "there is still much we should discuss."

Telos stopped and cocked his head to him, his forehead and mane hidden by his cowl. "Forgive me, Chancellor, but we cannot afford to waste time until all is said and done."

"I'm sorry, Chancellor," chimed Celestia, "but the matters of Twilight and Aurelius must be put first."

The chancellor gave a heavy breath as he watched the trio depart out of the court, hushed discussion chasing them until out of ear shot. Nightmare and Trixie followed on the sage's hooves to the throne room, each of their minds boiling with questions. He led them to the center of the room. Nightmare turned in a circle, surveying the room and noting its lack of guards.

Telos turned to Trixie as a circular glow began on the floor around him and Nightmare. "I fear that what my task entails is beyond even your great capability, Lady Lulamoon. For your safety, you should remain here until I have finished."

"You are not leaving me behind!" retorted the magician as she leaped into the light. It shined brighter and consumed the trio briefly.

Nightmare shielded her eyes momentarily as her vision whitened. When the light faded, it was dark. Her eyes rapidly adjusting, she quickly scanned the area, establishing it as a dim stone corridor with no windows or external light sources to illuminate it, and an ornate door at the end of it. A few small torches lit the other corridors, but their sparse placement offered little light in the one they were in. The air was chilly, and the torches did not share any heat with those that might wander their light.

"Where are we?" she asked. Weak memories of pain and magic surfaced in her mind, but they were fragmented as if nearly forgotten, or perhaps, intentionally forgotten. Twilight's memories, she thought, shivering.

"There lies a hidden chamber within the depths of the Canterlot castle. There are not many whom know of its existence, and even less who know its purpose. From what I gather from this time period, null-magic runes are very rare, an almost priceless artifact. This chamber," he explained, motioning towards the door, "is constructed entirely with them for the sole purpose of containment. In my time they were called magic crypts."

"Magic crypts?" Trixie muttered nervously. "W-why do they call them that?"

Telos snorted. "When the materials for null-magic runes were more plentiful, these chambers acted as prisons for rogue alicorns and powerful unicorns. Sometimes, they were even executed in them in secret were they deemed to dangerous to live."

The magician's eyes widened as they moved towards the door. "The princesses would never..."

"This is where her ascension took place," interrupted Nightmare as she moved towards the door, studying it in the dark. She felt drawn to it somehow, the faint memories continuing to dance just out of her reach.

"Very observant," he remarked. "Only a place such as this could the Rites have been invoked in absolute secrecy. Magic cannot pass through such a concentration of runes, and neither can it be detected, both inside and out."

Trixie shivered before moving to stand beside the sage. "Are you going to use it to reverse Twilight's ascension?" she asked.

Nightmare and Telos glanced to her. Even in the dark Nightmare could see the doubt in the magician's eyes. She pawed at the floor before wondering aloud. "Is that even possible?"

"I do not know if it is, nor would I even try if I could. I know very little of the Rites and their function. As it stands," he turned to Nightmare, "the combined magical potential of both Twilight Sparkle and your own magic will be necessary for a sound victory. Your princesses should never have ascended a unicorn with the Rites to begin with, and Aurelius never should have created a homunculus, but we cannot dwell on mistakes of the past that were never in our control."

Nightmare glowered at him in the dark, but he stepped past her before he could see her indignity in the darkness. I am not a mistake.

"Would it be possible to make me an alicorn? Would that help?" Trixie asked. She adjusted her cloak nervously when Telos stopped and turned to her, his face blurring into a void under the additional shadow of his cowl.

"Possible? Yes. Would it help? No. No... it would not. It requires two alicorns to sacrifice great power as a tribute to create an artificial one. They suffer a long period of unnatural weakness, one in which they cannot circumvent or accelerate the recovery of. You would need to wait for your princesses to fully regain their natural powers and then obtain their consent. However, becoming an alicorn is much like being born again. Your magic is of a different vein and caliber, and it is not inherently controlled the same as when you were a unicorn. You would need to relearn how to feel, so to speak."

Trixie's brow scrunched as she watched him stand in front of the chamber doors. "Twilight went through all of that? I never knew," she mumbled to herself.

The sage swayed a hoof and the doors made a loud creak. Nightmare watched as they parted, stone grinding against stone as they whined and opened. Twilight's memory filled the darkness of the chamber for Nightmare, and she recalled the light of Celestia and Luna's horns illuminating it as they led her inside. Telos turned to her and beckoned, stepping inside. Nightmare and Trixie ignited magic from their horns, lighting the chamber as they followed him.

Nightmare gave a sharp breath as she entered the chamber, and Trixie squeaked as she stepped up beside her. The chill the room gave slipped right into her bones. It was almost as if it was an unending coldness laying over her nerves. They exchanged sheepish looks before moving towards opposite sides of the chamber. Trixie studied the murals with interest while Nightmare listlessly glanced at them, gathering a sense of familiarity as they passed by quickly.

"Lie down, Nightmare," ordered Telos while motioning to the altar.

Nightmare turned her head towards the stone altar; a shiver of worry ran up her spine as Twilight's memory reminded her of how cold it was to the touch. As she gazed at it, more memories funneled into her thoughts. She glanced up to the ceiling, recalling that there was once a window there, but now there only appeared to be more stone. Twilight's feelings of pleasure overwhelmed the ones of discomfort, and she found herself laying out across the altar, her wings draping over the sides, mirroring Twilight's actions of the memory. She ignored the cold of the stone, but tensed as the memories of pain flowed to the surface of her mind. She clamped her eyes for a moment as Telos moved to loom over her, the room almost too dark for even her to see his shadow to cast any noticeable shade upon her.

"You should wait outside until the spells are complete," Telos said as he looked at Trixie.

"I am not leaving," she reminded.

Nightmare's head spun for a moment, the murals whirling around the room as streaks of color. Then it all stilled. Magic? she thought, her eyes following what murals she could see from her position. No. I'm... afraid? Why am I afraid? There's nothing... Her heart sank and her limbs shriveled closer to her, dread enshrouding her.

Telos's eyes flowed back to Nightmare and he sighed. "Be at ease, Nightmare Moon. You are no doubt beginning to feel the anxiety caused by this room. Unicorns crawl in their own skin when they are brought here. The runes that form the basis of the crypts interfere with your abi