"Pathetic, disgusting foal."
The harsh noises to follow grated on Celestia's ears, and the automatic wince in reaction to the poor stallion's cries of pain was unavoidable. Again and again the sound of diamond glass thumping into flesh resounded throughout the throne room, and the alicorn girl found herself closing her eyes in response. Had her mother been watching, there would have been hell to pay. Thankfully, she was too occupied with her newest prey to notice.
"This again? So predictable," came the voice from beside the shuddering mare. She half-heartedly looked up at her father-in-law, who sat with one leg crossed atop the other and his chin resting in his eagle's claw. "Even I can safely say that this has gotten somewhat… old."
A final snapping noise caused both alicorn and draconequus to flinch, and one of the two to turn away in disgust. It was over. The muted screams and cries for mercy were no more, the only remaining evidence that the advisor had ever been there being a twisted mass of bleeding flesh. With heaves of effort, the disheveled black mare turned back to her two observers, eyes full of murderous intent. Celestia shook her head and moved behind the throne, watching through the pink strands of her mane as her mother approached the stone seat before her.
"Weak, deluded colts, every last one of them. You and I have all of the power, Discord. Why is this puppet council even necessary? They're beginning to bore me. If another cries out against my decisions again, they will meet a similar fate as this wretched waste of flesh."
Celestia's insides froze over at the laugh that her mother received in response. How many times had she heard that unsettling sound in response to an atrocity? Her cheeks dampened as she caught sight of the fallen pony upon the bloodstained carpet, and she tried desperately to fight back the tears. Nothing worked, save hiding her face behind her mane as she so often did. The pastel pink curtain did little to comfort her as she walked to the other side of the throne and watched the exchange with fearful interest. Something in the air seemed different, and Celestia's gut feelings were rarely inaccurate. She stopped moving and rested her side into the stone seat, closing her eyes and listening as the hybrid creature began to speak.
"My dearest Nightmare, don't you see? Without a pristine public face for the government, we couldn't get away with nearly as much debauchery and corruption as we do now. Our rule has been unchallenged not just due to our power, but also in part because of our network of puppets."
A second laugh rang clearly off of the stone walls, though it was much different from the first. The sharp, cacophonous melody held an arrogant air and feminine tone. Celestia closed her eyes once again and lowered herself to the ground, placing her hooves over her ears to drown out the noise. After several seconds of the piercing noise, she finally dared to lower her naked hooves back to the cold stone, and paused to listen to her mother's words. At first, nothing came, and she almost wondered if something had happened. Celestia rose from her prone position and trotted out from around the chair to get a better vantage point, and found Discord out of his throne with Nightmare Moon leaning up into his face, teeth bared and wings spread as far as they could go.
"You lie," she began. "Nopony can challenge us, no matter their numbers. What we do does not matter, and any foalish enough to make an attempt on the throne would be obliterated in seconds. What is your ulterior motive? Why do you object now, after so much bloodshed and thievery?"
The chimera was quick to reply, clearly having thought the situation through before. "Because, my love, ponies are starting to question. We have been in power barely a year, and the commoners are dangerously close to discovering the truth about your former mate. Suspicions are high, and I've told you once before, we need time for the Elements to collect as much energy as possible before we can drop the façade and stop working behind the scenes. Believe me, I would like for nothing more than to go wild on this land and reform it in my image, but the time is not yet right. Patience, my dearest Nightmare. We will soon have our victory secured."
"Our victory was secured the moment that the previous king breathed his last! This is pointless!" The wild snap of Nightmare Moon's neck to the side caused her mane of stars to whip violently around her shoulders, partially obscuring her snarling features from view. "I refuse to pretend that this ignorant body of commoners has any say in what we do! And as for reshaping this world," she spat, "be careful what words you use, Discord. It is not just your image, but mine as well."
"But of course." The light inclination of his head was all too quick, and his choice to close his eyes struck Celestia as odd. So many times before had this happened, and each time it did, it foretold of a lie or twisted intentions. The girl tensed and froze as Discord opened his golden eyes, their red irises locking directly onto her magenta ones with an unreadable and unblinking focus. His face was strangely calm as he spoke again, and Celestia's heart nearly stopped at the words.
"You seem quite obsessed with my speech lately, my love. Are you worried that I am not honest? I can assure you, I have been nothing but."
As he circled, his eyes never left Celestia, and hers remained trained upon him. Those last words were the signal. This was it. This was the beginning of the end, what she had chosen to ensure that Luna would be nowhere near. She watched in disbelief as the events unfolded before her, just as Discord had said that they would. Her cheeks became cold again as more tears spilled from her eyes, but in a moment, none of that would matter. She was almost free, if only he could rile her as he intended…
"Honest? Do not make me laugh, you lying snake." The acidic tone was not unfamiliar to either of the two others present for her words. Both knew what was coming, but only one knew the final outcome.
"For far too long have I followed your lead and let you string me along in your idiotic charade. This is unnecessary, and you know it! Either you dissolve this group of ingrates immediately, or I will take the throne for myself! You promised eternal night, and I have yet to see it due to this collection of foals sitting in their decorated chairs! End it!"
The moment had arrived, and Celestia sprang into action. Her part of the plan needed to be executed, and with carefully chosen words, she stepped from behind the throne and began to speak in a shaking voice.
"M-mother? Please… consider what he has to say. If… you bring about your beautiful gift now… everypony will panic. You have been planning for this carefully all along, a-and… the ponies are starting to trust you more. Please, listen to Discord, and give them more time to convince the public of the benefits to your rule."
Celestia immediately lowered her wings and neck in a submissive gesture as the larger pony approached her with haste. Nightmare Moon towered over her daughter, casting a deep shadow over the ivory coat of the smaller mare as Celestia descended to the floor, whimpering. With her dominance established, she began to speak with the same venomous tone as before.
"You, too? You have always been the more outspoken and insufferable daughter, thinking that you can incite change with your silver tongue. The both of you disgust me, and if this continues, I will be rid of you. If you speak again out of turn, daughter, I will send you to the gallows. Is that clear, you traitorous worm?"
"Yes, Mother. Forgive me."
Nightmare Moon snorted, and brought her hoof down inches from the smaller mare's face. Tiny droplets of blood jumped from the glassy material to Celestia's snout, but she dared not move for fear of incurring her mother's wrath.
"Good girl. Now… clearly, you two have been conspiring to delay my goals. Explain yourself, quickly, lest my next stomp find its target."
Celestia opened her mouth to speak, but a male tone from close proximity drowned out her quavering voice. She looked up to find Discord standing directly behind her mother, in a place that he would have been unable to reach without her distraction.
"I suggest that you leave little Tia alone. She has no part in this clash of interests, and is merely expressing her opinion. Don't you wish to hear what your own daughter has to say?"
Celestia rose as the Queen of Night spun to face her lover, and readied herself to attack. Thoughts of her betrayal raced through her mind, as did those of overwhelming guilt and her deceased father. She was convinced that this was the only way, and that Discord would keep his word to her. Nightmare Moon needed to be removed, quickly and quietly, and it would take both of them to subdue her without dealing a fatal blow. Celestia mouthed a quiet 'forgive me', hoping that her father would understand her actions. There was no more time to consider the prospect, as Discord nodded for her to make her move while Nightmare Moon was ranting angrily. The time was now. The end of all of the killings, the fighting, and the torture had arrived. Discord would be the sole ruler, and save Equestria from her mother's madness. With a final quick breath, Celestia dashed forward to begin the plan.
Nightmare Moon reared back in anger, and Celestia jumped in response to wrap a hoof around her exposed neck. Her mother's armor cut into her flesh as the larger pony shook her entire body, screaming in rage at the unexpected assault. Celestia's muscles burned with effort as she twisted hard, forcing the abomination that was once her mother to the ground with all of her might. The flapping wings and panicked biting into her fur slowed the process, but she managed to force Nightmare Moon to the floor with Discord's help. The ebony mare thrashed wildly, knocking Celestia from atop her as she tried to stand once again. Thin wires wrapped themselves around her flesh and forced her back to the ground, screaming in agony at the pain brought on by the harsh strings cutting into her fur.
"You traitors! I knew it! You cannot stand against me alone, and so you collaborate to kill me! I will not allow it! Release me!"
Celestia climbed back atop the struggling mare, remembering Discord's words. He was unable to explain his weakness, but had claimed that he could not hold Nightmare Moon alone. She would need to be pinned down while he worked, and his usual trick of strings would not suffice to contain the raging goddess for long. Celestia pinned down her mother's wings with her hooves, and did her best to reassure the crazed mare that soon, everything would be fixed under Discord's reign.
"Mother! We are not trying to kill you, please! Just… calm down! You have lost sight of everything you once stood for, and we just want to help! Stay still! Discord can fix everything!"
A wicked glint flashed across Discord's eyes, and it was followed quickly with a malicious grin. "She's right, my dear. I can."
A wet, squelching noise of flesh being pierced was met with a surprised gasp and followed shortly by a gurgle. The sudden noise caused Celestia to pause, and she immediately noticed that Nightmare Moon had stopped bucking into her side, and her wings had fallen limp with the sound. As Celestia crawled farther up her mother's side, her eyes widened in horror at the sight before her.
A portrait of gold, red, and black took the place of her mother's neck, and she watched in shock as Discord dug his talons further into Nightmare Moon's throat while the stunned pony gasped for air. Her efforts came out as shuddering gasps, and her entire body began to twitch as she sputtered, fighting desperately to form words.
"Y-you… will not… be free… of my reign… so easily. I… refuse to die… like this…"
"Oh? And what are you going to do about it, my love?" Discord spat the last word with as much disdain as possible, adding a chuckle for good measure. Celestia was too surprised to make any noise, and found her mouth opening and closing as yet more tears fell into the coat of the fallen pony below her. The sight was such a shock that all Celestia could do was stare on as the morbid scene played out, completely transfixed by the sight of her dying mother.
Nightmare Moon convulsed again, and choked out a ragged breath as Discord removed his talons in an upward ripping motion before flicked the blood off of the tips. The wound was massive, stretching from almost the base of her gullet to just below the chin. The crimson pool oozing forth from the wound could only spell oncoming death for the ambushed mare, and for precious seconds, nopony said a word.
"What did you do? WHAT DID YOU DO! D-DISCORD! YOU…"
Crimson orbs met magenta again, and the laugh and sneer returned in full force. Discord rose from his squatting position and began to advance on Celestia, grinning madly as she continued to yell at him while retreating.
"YOU SAID THAT WE COULD FIX THIS! YOU SAID THAT YOU COULD RESTORE HER FROM MADNESS! YOU SAID THAT ONCE YOU ROSE TO POWER, THE MURDERS WOULD STOP! Y-YOU…"
Celestia's panicked voice was cut off as she found stained eagle talons wrapped around her muzzle. Discord's hot breath played across her lips as he leaned in close, offering her a cold, calculating stare as he did so.
As he opened his mouth, Celestia's eyes were drawn to the spot behind him, where Nightmare Moon was slowly beginning to rise, still gasping for air. Upon hearing the shuffling noise, Discord turned as well, just in time to catch the brilliant purple glow surrounding the betrayed mare.
"I will… return. This… isn't over. And when… I do…" A sick gurgling sound interrupted the words, and Nightmare Moon feel to her knees in front of the pair before her. With the last energy she could afford to spare, the ebony mare raised her head and looked Discord straight in the eyes as she spoke. "…you're both dead."
Alicorn and draconequus both covered their eyes as a brilliant purple flash bathed the room in colored light. Upon looking back at the scene, Celestia found nothing visible other than Nightmare Moon's white silhouette against the pulsating darkness enshrouding her, and seconds after the spell had been cast, all was quiet, save for the clattering of diamond against the stone floor.
Nightmare Moon's helmet, the only trace left of her, rolled forward and stopped against Celestia's hoof. She quickly backed away in surprise, and Discord bent low to scoop it up into his lion paw before examining it with curiosity. Despite his calm demeanor, the chimera found himself jumping in surprise as a voice flooded his head, and he turned to catch Celestia shrinking back in a submissive bow as well, clearly hearing the same thing.
You cannot erase me, foals. Whosoever dons this armor shall become my vessel, and carry me back into this wretched world. Once I find a new body, I will stake my rightful claim as ruler, and remove you both before anything else. Remember me and despair, for from this night forth, you will never rest easy. I will be just over the horizon, waiting for a pony gullible enough to become my pawn. It is only a matter of time, and time is something that we three can afford. And you, Discord. You shall be the first to die.
Discord smirked and lifted the helmet to inspect it more closely, clearly amused by the unexpected turn of events. Seemingly having found what he was looking for, he brought the helm to his mouth and spoke directly into the central gem above the brow.
"I'll look forward to it."
After a gentle kiss, he sent the armor sailing through the air and into the far wall, where it impacted the stonework and bounced down to the floor. The helm rolled to a stop, and with its halted motion, the room was silent. Finally, Celestia spoke.
"We… we cannot destroy it, can we?"
The response was expected, but Celestia still found the shaking of Discord's head to be disheartening. Somehow, she knew that he was being honest, and that her mother would continue to be a threat despite her brush with death.
"You… this entire arrangement to dethrone her… all of your promises… they were lies. H-how could you do this, Discord? You were my father's closest friend, and you alone stepped up to rule after his murder by my mother. You were there to take charge when no one else would, and despite your questionable methods, I supported you… you said you could save her… you said… that the madness would stop…"
"Repeating it won't make it any more true, dear. And I did save her!" He pointed his claw to the floor, where the helmet rested serenely in the eerie moonlight. "Look, she's completely safe as a piece of headgear! Isn't that delightful?"
Celestia's face twisted into a sneer in response to his laugh, and she scuffed her hoof upon the floor, ready to charge. Discord laughed even harder, and went so far as to fall to the floor in mirth.
"And you! You think YOU can stop ME? I may not have been able to stand up to her, but I can absolutely take care of you." Discord stood and extended his claw in a threatening gesture, coupled with a serious and confident look. "I suggest you stand down, little Tia. You've always been a smart one, and you should know when you've encountered a battle that you just cannot win. You'll have your chance, one day, but tonight is not the night I lose the crown. Go back to your room and comfort little Luna. She must be worried sick over your absence."
"I'm not worried… n-not anymore. But… Tia… what is going on? Where is Mother? I-I heard noises of a struggle…"
As her little sister walked into the throne room, completely unaware of the situation, Celestia felt a pull in her chest, urging her to take action. She quickly trotted over to the smaller alicorn and steered her away from the blood-soaked carpet, eyes on Discord the entire time. Celestia shook her head at the draconequus, and he lowered his claw and put on a false smile, watching with great interest as the sisters moved to the far side of the room.
Celestia bent down to Luna's level, and brushed the azure strands of hair out of the girl's eyes with a hoof. The shimmering curiosity in Luna's expression broke Celestia's heart even more, but she knew what had to be done. She could not afford to risk Luna getting hurt or lashing out against Discord upon hearing the truth, and she knew that if they played along, Luna would be spared for the time being. And so, Celestia opened her mouth, and in her most reassuring tone, did the one thing that she had sworn never to do: lie.
Celestia shot upright in her bed, panting hard as she returned to the waking world. The dream had felt so real, and it had been of a scenario of which she had not thought of for centuries. So much time had passed since then, and the alicorn found herself burying her face into her hooves to try to clear her mind of the imagery. A sliver of moonlight peeked through the window and rapidly spread out across the cold stone floor, much faster than could be considered normal. Such a curious sight had only been seen once before in the history of Equestria, and the phenomenon caught Celestia's full attention.
A cold wind swirled through the room as the window upon the far wall flew open, allowing the essence of the icy night to breach the castle walls. The bitter cold was all-consuming, and only served to drive Celestia out of bed more quickly as she tossed the blankets from atop herself and descended from the lavish bed. Though the cold began to envelop her entire body, certain sections of her muzzle felt as though they had frozen over completely, and the sensation drew a shiver from the confused alicorn. With a horrified gasp, she looked down her muzzle, watching with fear as traces of crimson caught the rising moonlight. Her mother's blood, splattered across her snout in the shape of a claw, still clung to her face, seeping into her fur and spreading the unsettling coldness down into her skin like daggers of ice.
With a horrified scream, Celestia lost her balance and scrabbled her hooves along the stone, falling to the floor as she closed her eyes and breathed heavily. The chilling night air whistling through the window was joined by another sound as she panted, a sound that Celestia had hoped she would never have to hear again. Though the chuckle resonated off of the walls around her, she knew that the sound of laughter was one that she alone was privy to, and one that counted among the last things she wanted to hear at the moment. As her eyes snapped open in surprise, she noticed that the blood was gone, and the laugh steadily increased in volume as her breathing gradually slowed in kind.
Enjoy… my gift, dear Celestia? I… certainly enjoyed… giving it. I even… got Luna… a little something. She… did not seem… to enjoy it, though…
Another gust joined the first as Celestia rose from the floor and flapped her wings in a furious motion. The gesture was accompanied by a snarl, and she found her face heating with absolute rage at the words of the traitor that were riding the wind. With a powerful magic blast, she slammed the window shut and locked it, before storming out of her room and into the royal private study.
What did you do? Answer me! If you so much as touched her, I will hunt you down, Discord! I have had enough of your games, and harming Twilight was the last straw! I am beyond diplomacy at this point, and our struggle has become much more personal. Show yourself, you cowardly, wicked snake!
All at once, a series of cacophonous slamming noises rang throughout the room, and Celestia spun wildly to locate the origin. Every single window in the study flew open, smashing repeatedly against the stonework in a nearly deafening cascade of sound. A low growl rose from Celestia's throat, and she became steadily angrier as the noise level increased. How many centuries had this been going on? How much more torture would need to be endured before peace was even a farfetched hope? The alicorn found that she didn't know, and let out an anguished scream of sheer rage as she stomped into the lush carpet with all of her might.
A golden bubble of magic expanded out from her horn, instantly bringing to rest the rattling windows and ushering in complete calm. All was silent, save for Celestia herself, whose haggard breathing came out in raspy wheezes of effort. The nights of little sleep were finally catching up to her, and a blur of color began to form at the edges of her vision as she poured all of her effort into the spell. With a final strain, the magical bubble pushing against all walls of the room burst, and she fell to her knees, still gasping for breath as she thought furiously at her adversary.
FACE ME! STOP HIDING AND FIGHT! I HAVE HAD MORE THAN ENOUGH! THIS CEASES TO BE A TRIVIAL ANNOYANCE NOW THAT LUNA AND TWILIGHT ARE INVOLVED, AND WE NEED TO END THIS! DISCORD!
For once, the expected response was not initiated with a laugh. Tortured breathing to match Celestia's own sleepless exertion resounded in her skull briefly, followed by the expected male tone in a slightly lower volume than usual.
For once… I agree with you, dear Celestia. We will… bring an end to this, soon enough. All bets are off, as of now. Luna… actually did quite a number on me tonight… I'll be recovering for maybe even a few hours more. An impressive amount of damage, I must say. Go and sleep, Celestia. I want you at your prime when we dance the final steps of this private ball.
Celestia closed her eyes and listened to the words, all attention focused on what would soon become her prey. Her breathing slowed and she collected her thoughts, lest the only creature to have earned her hate come bursting into the room for a backhanded surprise attack. For several seconds, all was silent, but the quietude was quickly ended by the sound of the door to the hallway being flung open.
Celestia spun around, eyes locked upon the intruder and horn ablaze. A soft glow from the doorway barely allowed for the outline of a pegasus to be seen against the darkness, and Celestia continued to glare until the pony identified themselves. The intruder froze, his hooves digging into the carpet as he skidded to a halt and stared up at his enraged princess with worried eyes. The hard lines etched into her face by the twilight brought fear into his heart, and caused the alicorn to look more fierce than the old guard had ever remembered seeing her. Slowly, her features softened, and her horn lost its magical aura as her expression returned to its normal style and the malice left her eyes.
"…Sol? Has anything else happened in the palace since we last spoke? Is… he here? Where is Luna, and what he done to her?"
The breathless pony nodded, finally regaining a bit of his usual stoic composure. "Your Majesty, that's why I am here. Princess Luna has just returned, a-"
"Returned? But… what is going on?" Celestia asked with a shake of her head.
Sol shifted uneasily upon his hooves, his short mane falling into his face as he did so. The old stallion's furrowed brow and desperate expression added so much time to his already battle-worn features, and Celestia found the sight somewhat unsettling.
"She… we don't know. Two of my unit received her coming in low from… apparently some kind of battle. I suspect Discord's involvement. Everypony present also noted that the moon descended close to the earth about a half hour before her return just now, and several smaller towns near the borders of the sea are reporting major flooding. None of this makes sense, but your sister is wounded, and in the infirmary."
The words were trailed immediately by the sound of golden shoes clicking upon stone, and Sol turned in kind to follow his Princess out into the hallway. The two wasted no time as Celestia picked her pace up into a canter, and then a full-on gallop. Sol ran right alongside her, neither daring to speak a word. Whirlwinds of color passed their eyes as they ran, tapestries and stonework blending in an undefined portrait of speed. Both banked hard around an arcing corridor, their shoes digging into the lavish carpet and causing it to bunch up as it was dragged near to the wall. Had the situation been any different, Celestia would have laughed, but instead, she took off running, Sol right behind her.
After several minutes of hard running, the awkward pair arrived at the entrance to the infirmary and dashed through the doors. Celestia continued to gallop at full speed, confident that Luna was somewhere at the far end of the room, where several ponies in white outfits had gathered. As she ran, she spared a glance into the room where Twilight was previously being held, and found nothing behind the glass of the door. Satisfied that her student had been moved to safety at some point in the night, she strained to pick up her pace, and flared her wings to announce her presence.
The congregation of ponies all turned and began to move to the sides upon noticing the Princess, but soon found their movement assisted by a gentle golden nudge. With the crowd parted, Celestia kept her pace as she aimed for the door and redirected her magic to throw it open before running inside and sliding to a stop just in front of the patient within.
Upon the bed, unmoving atop the matted sheets, was Princess Luna. The deep blue alicorn was unconscious, but Celestia allowed herself a sigh as she noted the gentle rising and falling of the smaller mare's chest. The Sun Princess gently trotted to the bedside and sat heavily upon the cold floor, her eyes welling up as she did so. With an exasperated sigh that turned quickly into a sob, she turned to one of the few ponies around the bed, and spoke.
"…how is she? Where was she injured?"
The doctor standing next to the heart monitor looked up from his clipboard, and offered a small bow before responding to the inquiry. "Your Highness, her vitals are stable, but Princess Luna lost quite a bit of blood. The wounds are all to her right flank, and look like… claw marks, to be honest. Like a griffon… only bigger…"
Celestia's expression immediately soured, and she dipped her head in a polite thanks for the information. Even with the knowledge that Luna would pull through, the implications left her unsettled.
Discord. Lulu, if he touched you in any way more than a slash… I will never allow myself to rest again…
"Doctor, is there anything else that can, or needs to be done to her? Is there anything else you can do to alleviate the pain?"
The doctor shook his head solemnly, and adjusted his glasses as the rest of the ponies in the room secured the various tubes running to the slumbering alicorn before exiting the room to leave the Princesses alone.
"I'm afraid not, Princess. We've done everything we could to ensure a speedy recovery, and it looks like she may heal in as little as days. I'll keep watch over her through the night, but I humbly suggest that you move some guards to this area of the castle as a precaution."
"That will not be necessary. Please, take the night off. I will stay with Luna." Celestia returned the quick nod that she received before the pony left the room, and she followed him, content to leave the sleeping princess alone for a few seconds. Fortunately, she found the pony she was looking for waiting just outside the door, with a strained look of anticipation and uncertainty clear across his face.
"Sol, I wish for you to take the night off as well. Alert my adviser of the flooding situation, and have him request the Wonderbolts to send aid to the affected towns. It is time that they served their original purpose once again in this time of need. After that, please, go and rest, for we are going to need all of our strength combined for the coming fight. It may not be tomorrow, but then again… it may be. This situation must be taken seriously, and I need you at your best. You are the most capable soldier I have, and your experience will be invaluable against Discord when the time comes."
Sol opened his mouth to object, but thought better of it upon receiving a stern look. With a firm nod, he began to turn and leave, but halted his movement to ask a final question.
"Princess… is this… really it? We're about to take the fight to… Discord? The ancient Spirit of Chaos that, with all due respect… yourself and Princess Luna allegedly barely managed to overthrow millennia ago?"
Celestia's face twisted into a grim smile, and for a moment, Sol appeared worried that he had offended her. The tension was cut with a loaded sigh, and Celestia shook her head with a light, nonsensical laugh.
"Yes, Sol. We are going to fight, and we are going to end this, one way or another. I will be completely honest with you, I do not have a plan, but… given our enemy… that may be the best approach."
Sol titled his head and blinked rapidly, clearly lost by his charge's words. "Your Majesty? I do not understand."
Celestia turned and began to slowly walk back toward Luna's room, pulling the door open with a light shimmer of magic as she went. As she stepped through the doorway, she looked back to her personal bodyguard, and spoke softly.
"Neither do I, my friend. Neither do I."
The door closed with a soft creak, and the veteran pegasus was left to stand alone in the hallway, lost among his thoughts.
Black slowly faded to a deep red, and finally a mixture of yellow and crimson behind the eyelids of the sleeping unicorn. As the sun continued to rise and brighten the dark shades permitting her to sleep, Twilight Sparkle slowly opened her eyes with a muted groan, only to find her vision blocked by a patch of sky blue leaning into her field of vision.
"GUYS! SHE'S AWAKE! HURRY UP AND GET OVER HERE, TWILIGHT IS WAKING UP!"
The minor discomfort brought on by the creeping sunlight was immediately replaced with sharp pain as a smaller body climbed up the covers and impacted Twilight's exposed chest. With a shuddering gasp, she leaned forward to find a pair of tear-filled, bright green eyes staring up into her own.
"TWILIGHT! I was so worried when Rarity got your letter and please don't be mad at her I made her let me come I just couldn't stay at the library knowing you got hurt and I just…!"
Spike launched himself further up his big-sister-in-spirit and wrapped his tiny arms around her neck, crying softly as she stared down at him in disbelief. The baby dragon was the absolute last thing that Twilight had expected to see that morning, and the situation brought happiness, confusion, and a hint of anger to her mind immediately.
"Rarity," she began, "I told you specifically not to let Spike see the letter or come to Canterlot! It's too dangerous! This is serious! Spike was supposed to stay with Fluttershy while we sorted this whole mess out! Do you realize how much potential danger you've just put him in by bringing him here?"
Rarity shifted uncomfortably from her spot at the foot of the bed, her bright blue eyes wandering away from Twilight as she did so. The alabaster unicorn began to open her mouth, but was interrupted by yet another friend that Twilight had not been expecting to see.
"W-well… you see… um… it's not entirely Rarity's fault, Twilight. I-I'm here too, s-so… Spike is staying with me…"
Twilight shifted slightly to better sit up in her bed, wrapping a hoof around Spike's trembling form as she did so. She glared over to the source of the voice, and found Fluttershy smiling weakly from behind the overhead curtain surrounding the bed.
"Fluttershy? You're here, too? Oh, don't even tell me that Pinkie and Applejack both insisted on coming! I left specific instructions as to who should come to Canterlot and who should stay, and apparently everypony just decided to ignore them! We can't just have everypony come here! Ponyville could be in danger too, you know!"
Twilight's statement was met with a snort, and she looked to the opposite side of the bed to find Rainbow Dash hovering just over the rail.
"Settle down, Egghead. It's just me, Rarity, Fluttershy, and Spike. You might not have asked for the last two, but they came anyway to help. You should be happy that we're all here, especially if this is as serious as you say it is!"
Spike pulled back and regarded Twilight with a serious glare, followed by a sniffle. "She's right, Twilight. You shouldn't be angry, especially at Fluttershy. I was the one that pushed for both of us to come along, after Rarity let me see the letter. Aren't you happy to see me?"
A noise somewhere between a whine and a sigh escaped Twilight as she leaned forward and wrapped both forelegs around the diminutive dragon. "Yes, Spike, I'm happy to see you. But that doesn't change the fact that you being here is dangerous, and a liability. I don't want anything to happen to you, so… please. I want you and Fluttershy to go back to Ponyville, and just wait this out. I'll send updates nightly, I promise."
Spike unwrapped himself from the hug almost immediately, and rocked backward to sit atop Twilight's chest, arms crossed and glare in full effect. "And I don't want anything to happen to you. I'm staying, Twilight. I might not be able to help much, and I'll try to stay out of the way, but… you're my family. You and Celestia both. I'm not just going to sit in Ponyville and worry this entire time when the two most important ponies in my life are off fighting Discord!"
"Well, you don't have to worry about Twi going off to fight, kid."
All ponies present turned to regard Rainbow Dash as she spoke, still hovering over the bedrail with her forelegs crossed over her chest. "Didn't you say your leg got broken? It hasn't healed already, has it? That would just be crazy!" The pegasus punctuated her statement by twirling a hoof around her ear, earning a light chuckle from Rarity. Fluttershy silently trotted over to Twilight's side and began inspecting the bandages as the fashionista began to speak.
"Mm, Darling, I do have to agree. You need to be resting, not fighting. Rainbow and I will support Princess Celestia, while you, Spike, and Fluttershy remain in the castle. I may not be much of a fighter, but I can at least provide backup magic in your stead."
At Rarity's words, Fluttershy looked back in surprise. The thought of her closest friend on the front lines rattled the saffron pegasus, and she found herself lightly draping Twilight's limb back across the unicorn's chest to focus her attention on Rarity instead.
"R-rarity… y-you're… surely you don't mean… you're not really going t-to… to fight? W-what if… what if you get hurt? You're a dress maker, not a fighter! I-I… I know that you're capable with magic, b-but…"
Rainbow Dash landed and Twilight scooted back, propping herself up with a pillow so that she could see the entire room as Rarity trotted over to Fluttershy and offered an affectionate nuzzle. Everypony's attention was drawn to the two friends, and they waited with curiosity as to what would be said.
"Darling… I'll go where I am needed. I would prefer to stay in the castle with you and Spike, but… if Princess Celestia wants or needs me, I will get my hooves dirty. You all mean the world to me, and Discord is threatening all of Equestria at this point. I promise that I will not put myself in needless danger."
Twilight nodded her approval, and put her good hoof out to draw attention to herself as she started speaking. "This isn't a normal situation, girls. This is a serious, possible end of the world scenario if Discord is as powerful as the Princess says he is, a-"
Rainbow Dash interrupted the would-be speech with a loud yawn, and fluffed her wings slightly before letting them rest back at her sides. "Look, I know this is serious and whatnot, but we can figure this out as we go. We don't have to lay down rules and stuff, or at least, I don't. It's pretty early for me, so I'm gonna go and get some food to try to wake myself up. Anypony else want anything?"
All present shook their heads. Rainbow Dash shrugged her wings and blew her mane out of her face in response. "Alright. Back in a few, girls! If I don't get back in like fifteen minutes… Discord got me." Rainbow reared back on her hind legs and made spooky motions with her front hooves, puckering her face in an imitation of a storyteller. Nopony laughed, and she fell back to her the floor in disappointment with a sharp thud.
"Rainbow… that isn't funny. You don't even want to see what he did to my side, let alone my leg. Go and come back, and be careful."
Rainbow blinked and hiked a brow at Twilight's accusatory tone, slightly unsettled. "Whoa… I… alright. I was just… playin' around. I'll be back as soon as I can." With that, Rainbow trotted out of the room, and into the hallway, heading for the dining hall.
Geeze, I really didn't think that was all that bad. I mean, I know Twi got hurt… but can't they take a little joke?
My delightful little pegasus, I'm afraid that they cannot. It's a hard lesson to learn, but one that I'm very familiar with…
A scraping sound of hooves upon stone filled the hall as Rainbow jumped into the air defensively, her entire body shaking as her eyes shrunk to nearly just the pupil.
"What? Who was that? W-who's there!"
Oh, stop spinning in circles, "Dashie." I'm in your mind, not the hallway.
"W-well get out! I don't want anypony in my mind! Who are you? Come into this hallway, and I'll fix your wagon!" Rainbow hopped up onto her back legs, still shaking, and threw a few punches at the air while turning. No sign of anypony was visible, and she slowly threw one final punch, followed by a muted whimper.
How quickly we forgot! Do you not remember this voice? Surely your friends have warned you of my return?
"D-d-discord?" The question came out as a terrified squeak more than a statement, and Rainbow immediately dropped back to her hooves. With a snort, she flicked her tail and narrowed her eyes, still on the lookout for any signs of physical trouble.
"I'm not scared of you! Really!"
Oh? Perhaps you should be. Let me fill you in on one of Celestia's teachings, one of the few that I agree with: eliminate the biggest threat before all others. You're the only mare out of Twilight's friends that seems somewhat capable of fending for herself, and so, I think I'll choose to play with you first. Are you ready to begin our game, oh polychromatic one?
"NO!" Rainbow Dash's eyes widened as she bit her lip. The gravity of the situation was quickly sinking in, and her usual display of bravado was all but gone. Even so, she did her best to be strong, and with a snort, changed her mind.
"Yes! I-I'll… get through this somehow! I owe you for Cloudsdale anyway! Bring it on!"
As you wish, my dear.
As quickly as the thought ended, Rainbow's eyes rolled back, and she fell to the floor, unconscious.
"Ugh… w-where… am I…?"
Rainbow Dash slowly got to her hooves, pushing down into the nothingness below her as she slowly rose. Her heart leapt as she noted that all around her, floor and ceiling included, was darkness, with only hints of multicolor fog giving any sense of space. Hesitantly, she took a step forward, watching as the invisible floor rippled like the surface of water beneath her touch.
"H-hello? Is anypony there?"
Of course. I'm right here, waiting for you. Are you ready to begin?
Rainbow closed her eyes, her competitive nature and primal fear fighting with each other beneath the surface.
If this is as big of a deal as Twi says it is… and if there's a chance that I'm seriously about to die… I'm going to go down fighting. That's what Spitfire would do, and that's what I'm going to do. Rainbow Dash style!
"Bring it on, you mismatched… thing!"
Rainbow flared her wings and steadily walked forward, a confident sneer upon her face and butterflies in her stomach.
Tell me, young one. What is it that you fear? Share something with me, and perhaps I'll consider letting you go. It would be so much fun to use it against you later…
"R-really?" Rainbow blushed furiously as her ears perked up. She mentally chided herself for sounding so eager, and did her best to sink back into her usual confrontational tone. "I mean… psh. Whatever."
The pegasus furrowed her brows, mulling over the situation in her head before giving her answer.
Well, if I do tell him something and he lets me go, I might have my friends with me when he uses it. If I don't tell him anything, the fight is on now, and… that might not be the best idea. I could lie…
My dear, perhaps I should make it clear that I can read your thoughts and emotions, and that lying to me will get you absolutely nowhere.
…horseapples. Truth it is, then…
"U-um… I'm… I… don't like spiders. At all."
How interesting… well, you told me something, little Rainbow. Allow me to tell you something in return.
Rainbow lifted her head and folded her wings in. She cocked her head to the side in interest, and heaved a loaded sigh as she closed her eyes in preparation for Discord's words.
"Oh yeah? What's that?"
As Rainbow opened her eyes and looked forward into the darkness, her breath caught in her throat and her heart momentarily stopped. Her shivering started again, and she watched with baited breath as a gigantic, orange and black striped foreleg, covered in bristly fur, extended forward from the darkness.
Credits go to Cadenceofrain.