"…it… she is really in there? Sealed inside this… vault?"
"Yes, Lulu. I promise that as soon as you lock this door, you need never suffer another day without sleep. Nightmare Moon will be sealed for eternity, in a place that nopony but you and I are aware of."
A harsh sound met Celestia's ears as she watched her little sister awkwardly scuff her diamond-clad hoof upon the aged stone floor. Piercing echoes rang out through the underground room, enveloping the two ponies in an ocean of screeching sound that broke the momentary silence. The younger alicorn flinched, her wings rising in a startled gesture as she closed her eyes in response to the sound. The elder merely stood calmly, a wry smile upon her face as she watched the pony she had missed for so long fidget. Celestia knew well the things that Luna must have been feeling as she visibly tensed, doing her best to rally. After all, the Sun Princess was feeling similar emotions. She was just much more adept at hiding them.
"…dearest Lulu," Celestia began, "I offer the honor to you for several reasons." The ivory alicorn bent low, giving her best reassuring nuzzle to the trembling mare before her. "Chief among them…Nightmare Moon… our… mother… you were the one that she used to attempt her vengeance, and you were made to suffer unfairly. It is only just that you have the satisfaction of ensuring that she never returns."
The speech was met with a faint sniffle, and the blinking back of several tears. "D-do you… not also wish to play a part in this? I-I… I remember that you told me that she… she swore to… to kill you, Tia, f-for… for what you and Discord did." Luna cleared her throat, and did her best to look Celestia in the eyes from her position lower to the ground. "You suffered by her hoof as well. She targeted you much more than I when she and Discord were still in power, a-and… I know some of the things that she did to you. Tia… it is only fair that you have the satisfaction of sealing her away as well."
Yes, Celestia, lie to her. Lie to your own sister, as you lied to me. As you lied to your mother. You do not suffer nearly enough guilt for my liking at the moment. Now that little Luna is back, you need something else to blame yourself for. Tell her that you do not wish to feel the catharsis of revenge. Tell her that you have moved on, that you are fine. Continue wearing your mask, Princess, as you have done for hundreds of years. Crumble beneath the surface while your shell remains pristine.
Celestia shook her head and closed her eyes, feeling the sting of every one of Discord's words. He knew her inclinations so well after being inside of the monarch's head for so long and watching her every thought with perverse glee. Daily rule required skirting the truth on occasion to keep her subjects happy, but an outright lie was something that the alicorn loathed. The pressure on the inside of her skull increased steadily as she ground her teeth, doing her best to resist the influence of her enemy.
Give in. You know it would be easier to tell her what she wants to hear, that her sister is perfect. You put on a flawless image for everypony else. Do you really wish to stress her on the first day after her return? Lie. You do not wish to have a lock of your own upon the ward because you do not feel any ill will for your late mother. Say it.
The air between the two alicorns hung silent as Celestia opened her eyes, mulling over her options. To lie once again to her little sister, while maintaining her composure and reassuring the fragile mare, or to speak the full truth and expose what she could not admit to anypony else?
"Sister… Nightmare Moon stole a thousand years from us both. I have not felt alive for a single day since I was forced to banish you, and as much as I would like to exact my personal revenge… as much as I still cannot forgive her for what she has done to both of us… the true unfairness would be denying you from being her official end. Do not forget that she used you, and the more emotion you put into the magic, the stronger the lock will be. You are one action away from being able to start a new life, and I will do everything in my power to make your innocence known. Please, finish it."
Luna nodded, and moved to embrace necks with the larger pony. "Thank you, Tia. I… do need this, after all that she has stolen from me, but… before I seal her, I must know… can you really not forgive her?"
Celestia paused, and lowered her eyes to the floor. "…I… ever since your return, I have been feeling… the grudge against her return. However, my feelings will fade in time, as they did during your absence. I am not perfect, Lulu, and I will admit that my heart is burdened with ill will toward the mare that was once our mother." Celestia looked up, and locked eyes with Luna to emphasize her point. "With you here, I will have somepony who can understand that is willing to listen. I will deal with my own demons in time, Lulu. It will certainly be enough pleasure for me at the moment to watch you seal off yours."
Oh, this is no fun at all. Don't even tell me that you're going to drop your streak of depression now that you reunited with your sister. If I am seriously going to have to deal with an attempted recovery from the brink of insanity from you, I will merely have to step up my efforts. Enjoy your little victory, Celestia, and remember that it is mine as well. In sealing off your dearest mother, you are permanently removing the only other being even close to my level of power. Once I am free, you and I are going to have a reckoning.
Celestia allowed herself a small smirk at the mental frustration that Discord had shared with her. Knowing that her happiness brought him anger only served to bolster her own emotions, and her smirk turned into a full smile as she watched Luna step toward the shimmering golden seal of magic hanging suspended in the air.
Luna's expression stood in stark contrast to Celestia's, and she let her tears fall freely as she stopped in front of her sister's magical barrier. The lone window high upon the opposite wall reflected moonlight perfectly onto the helmet beyond the ward, causing eerie beams of light to dance across the walls of the small chamber. Another sob echoed off of the tight walls, and was soon choked back as a warm hoof came to rest atop Luna's shoulder, while a large white wing wrapped over her back.
"I am here for you. This should be an uplifting and bright moment for us both, but try to draw your elation not from her suffering, but the knowledge that you are seconds from being truly free."
With a determined stomp, Luna leaned forward and placed her horn into the center of the ward, smiling through her tears as the golden aura began to glow brighter.
" I now do what Celestia was forced to so long ago. You have caused us both great pain, and your continued presence upon Equestria would only bring harm to all those around you. For your brutality, for all of your crimes against myself and Celestia, and for the good of all… I must lock you away. Goodbye… Mother."
With a brilliant flash of light, Luna moved her head backward and closed her eyes. A rushing of magical wind swirled in the place of the seal, and both alicorns stepped backward, away from the display. As the explosion of light ceased, an ornate stone door took the place of the vault's opening with a loud noise of emphasized finality. The magical glyph appeared scoured into the stone, and pulsed with cerulean energy that seemed to emanate from the single keyhole where Luna's horn had been. With a final dull hum, the pulsing faded, and Nightmare Moon was successfully sealed.
"It… it is over! Tia, we have won!"
Luna jumped at her sister, smiling happily as yet more tears fell to the floor below. Celestia caught her with a hoof and embraced the smaller alicorn tightly, smiling as she spun her sister back to the floor.
"Yes, Lulu. It is finally over." Celestia pulled her sister into a tighter embrace and closed her eyes, relishing the natural coldness of Luna's coat against her cheek.
"Sister, I am home! Nightmare Moon is safely sealed, Discord is encased in stone, and you and I are reunited! We can finally focus upon peaceful rule and making up for lost time! There are no major threats that remain!"
Celestia continued to nuzzle the smaller pony, and in the moment, focused her mind only upon the mare most important to her.
"You are correct. Nothing can stand in our way, Lulu. We have all the time in the world to live peacefully now, together."
…I knew you would lie. Or perhaps you are just forgetting something?
As her magenta eyes opened, a single tear slid through the fur upon Celestia's cheek, trailing downward to land in the midnight blue coat of her little sister.
"…how many, Tia? H-how many… were killed in the resulting floods?"
Celestia shifted uncomfortably upon her plush velvet pillow, avoiding eye contact with the injured alicorn before her. The uncomfortable topic was bound to come up sooner or later, and now that it had, neither mare was quite sure what to say. Luna's insistence upon knowing brought neither party any comfort, but the awkward silence seemed almost worse.
"…nearly… two hundred, with another fifty or so missing." Celestia watched with trepidation as Luna shifted slightly, expression unreadable. "…the burden of those lives is not yours to bear, Sister. The fault lies with Discord alone. You… did what you h-"
"Can we be sure of that, Celestia?"
The question came out as a quiet, tentative inquiry, the normally muted tone of the speaker even softer than usual. "What if… there was another way? One that would have come to me had I given the situation more thought? Perhaps I acted too brashly in my decision to use my responsibility as a weapon…"
Celestia rose from her seated position and made her way to the side of the bed. Her own unease did little to assuage Luna's guilt, but still she extended a hoof to rest upon her sister's shoulder.
"Luna… please, listen to me. Though any loss of life in warfare is tragic, it… is almost inevitable."
Luna leaned up from her propped-up position, her voice cracking as she nearly sobbed her words. "That is irrelevant, Tia! The dead in this case did not volunteer their lives! They were families and foals blindsided by a calamity that I produced, not soldiers willing to fight for a cause! I-I… I do not know how I will ever sleep again, knowing that my selfishness cost so many ponies everything!"
"Lulu, stop. Just… stop." Celestia shook her head, eyes closed and welling up despite her efforts to maintain her composure. Her naked hooves rested gingerly atop Luna's trembling body, doing all that they could to bring some measure of comfort to the mare. "I do not like it either, but you did not act selfishly. From what you told me, you had no idea how far out to sea you were or just how moving the moon so quickly would affect things."
Luna threw a hoof out to the side, clearly exasperated at her sister's attempts to rationalize the situation with her. "Ignorance is no excuse! I should have thought my actions through! How many families are now broken because of me?"
"I do not know. I just… do not know." Celestia opened her eyes, and let forth a heavy sigh. "Lulu… when this is all over, we will do something for the affected families, and construct a monument in their memory." Luna opened her mouth to object, but the snow-white hoof raised before her incited her back to silence. "You cannot be thinking like this right now. That is the best that we can do, especially with Discord still at large. The fact that you survived is what is important at the moment. As much as it tears my heart to pieces to let collateral damage stand… thus is the harsh reality of rule. We both know that. Please do not make this any more difficult than it already is, for either of us. You cannot afford to stress yourself right now, as it will only slow your recovery."
Luna sighed as well, and flopped heavily back into her pillows. "Tia, I… know that you are right, about the need to sideline all other concerns, but how can you say that my life is the most important? Who are we to judge the value of a pony's life, alicorn or otherwise?"
Celestia licked her lips, somewhat unsettled by the dry copper taste that met her senses. How long had it been since she had left Luna's side to go and drink? Or for that matter, sleep?
"It is a disturbingly easy judgment to make, in this case. You may well be the only pony on this earth that Discord cannot rifle through the mind of as though it were a filing cabinet. No matter how the coming confrontation plays out, there is a very good chance that the fate of Equestria's rule will depend solely upon you."
"What was that about not stressing myself, Tia?" Luna asked with a wry smile. "Though you may be correct, I… honestly do not see how I can face him, especially in this condition. I believe I can walk, but my movements will be slowed. Are we truly planning to take the fight to him shortly?"
"We are not planning anything, at the moment." Celestia had to catch herself before the laugh escaped her lips. Hearing the words in her own voice, coupled with Luna's expression in response, was almost enough to drive the Sun Princess to maniacal laughter, but she barely managed to refrain. "Given the nature of whom we are dealing with, I think it may be best to wait for the opportune moment to take action, and improvise as we go."
Luna nodded slowly, and furrowed her brow as she considered the situation. "I suppose I can see the sense in that approach. I can safely admit, though, that I would have never expected to hear such words from y-"
"Princess Luna! Princess Celestia! We require your assistance immediately!"
Both alicorns turned their attention to the door, where a unicorn and pegasus both stood gasping for breath. Rarity trotted into the room, her eyes shimmering, and Sol kept his place directly behind her, one hoof resting atop the sword secured at his side.
"Generosity? Miss… Rarity, is it? What seems to be the problem?" Luna leaned forward in bed, extremely anxious at the worried tone of the unicorn's voice.
Rarity gave a quick nod to confirm her name, and turned the action into a hurried bow. Her disheveled mane, slick with sweat, brushed across the floor as she stooped low, and amethyst strands clung tightly to her shivering face as she raised it once again.
"Rainbow Dash is unconscious in the hallway! She will not wake, from physical contact or magic! She's breathing quite hard, and is extremely cold to the touch! None of us have any idea what is going on, and we don't know if we should move her! Please, Princess Celestia, come and look her over! It may be Discord doing this to her!"
Celestia rose immediately, eyes narrowed and wings flared. She trotted straight to the doorway, and upon hearing the noise of shifting blankets behind her, whirled around to face her sister. Luna was sitting halfway out of bed with a single back leg upon the floor, clutching her hip with a spare hoof. She slowly touched her other foot to the floor, but found any further progress blocked by a shimmering golden wall.
"No. You need to rest, Lulu. You are in no condition to engage him, and from that description, it is very clear that he is involved. Sleep, and I will return as soon as the situation is taken care of."
Luna rolled her eyes and climbed back into bed, thoroughly unamused. Celestia spared the time for a quick nuzzle as the younger sister pulled the blankets back up over herself and released a snort of irritation.
"If you need me, send for me. I do not wish to see you get injured, Celestia. This could be the end."
Celestia nodded her agreement, and walked over to rejoin the trembling unicorn and unreadable pegasus. "Yes, Sister, it very well may be. I am prepared to do what I must, if it comes to that." With a look down at Rarity, Celestia spoke once again. "Bring me to her. We can reverse this, but we are going to need to engage Discord directly. There is no telling what we are about to encounter, so steel yourselves, and let us go."
Rarity whimpered in response as she nodded, desperately fighting to contain herself. She galloped out of the room at full tilt, the two ivory ponies right behind her, and the midnight blue alicorn left behind in the bed. Luna sighed and closed her eyes, hoping against hope that somehow, everything would work out.
Please, let Tia be safe. Let all of them be safe. Far too many have already been lost in this senseless war, and I cannot even bear the thought of losing Celestia…
As Luna looked about the room, no sound save for the beeping of her heart monitor served as a response.
What seems to be the problem, Dashie? Are you getting tired? Perhaps you should stop, and let me catch up? It would be so much easier for you. At this rate, all that you will accomplish is making sure that you die exhausted.
Rainbow Dash continued to flap as hard as she could, moving as quickly as her wings could carry her through the darkness. The swirling, colored fog would have been beautiful in any other context, but the pegasus found herself cursing its effectiveness at obscuring her surroundings. Yet another overlarge spider leg shot out of the darkness, searching for its prey and narrowly missing as Rainbow jerked herself to the side in a quick motion. Rivulets of sweat poured down her face as she coughed out a dry wheeze, her body starting to fail her. With a determined grunt, she pushed even harder, her wing muscles burning in protest as she flew still faster from her pursuer.
Oh, Loyalty. Do you not realize that I have done nothing to you yet? You have managed to tire yourself out rather nicely, and if you keep this up, you're going to injure your wings. It would suit my purposes nicely, as having to actively try to catch my prey really isn't my thing…
"Leave me the hell alone! Just… let me out of here! I haven't even done anything to you! Go away!"
And miss my private show with the self-proclaimed greatest flier in all of Equestria? Do you know what I paid for these tickets, my dear?
Rainbow continued her desperate flight, swerving yet again to avoid a hairy, jointed limb accompanied by an echoing scream. The logistics of the dive were overcalculated, and the pegasus plummeted out of the sky and onto the rippling floor below with a surprised gasp. She tumbled end over end, each rotation matched by a grunt of frustration and pain, before landing to sit in complete darkness as the colored fog around her cleared.
Finally wise up and decide to take a rest? A decision that I can personally endorse, little pegasus. After all, the fun is just beginning, and I want you to have some energy left to put up a fight once I cease playing with you.
"S-shut up!" Rainbow sat upon her haunches, panting hard as she ran a hoof through her matted mane. "This isn't a game, and you're seriously freaking me out! Since when do you try to kill ponies? Is that what you're even doing? Y-you're… you're coming after me to… to…"
Yes, and this is nothing new. I thought that my little reintroduction to Equestria would be a bit more… lighthearted and fun, to ease the populace in before things got... interesting. You saw for yourself just how much it irritated your precious Princess, my multicolored mare. She was so annoyed because she has seen what I can really do, and her annoyance was born from fear…
"Fear?" Rainbow stood, flaring her wings as she spat her words with as much venom as she could muster. "Princess Celestia doesn't fear anything! You mess with her, and you mess with me, Discord. I might not be able to take you down alone, but that won't stop me from trying! Besides, my friends will come for me!"
Will they, now? You seem so sure…
"They will! Once one of my friends notices I'm gone, they'll get Princess Celestia, and then you're really in trouble!"
A dark chuckle, coming from every direction at once, overpowered the silence in an all-encompassing blanket of sound.
Well, in that case, I suppose I should stop playing with my food, hm? Your vaunted ruler wouldn't approve, anyway. She was always such a prude…
Discord dropped from places unknown, his massive, hairy body blocking off the space in front of Rainbow Dash like an impenetrable wall. Her mouth dropped open as she beheld the unfamiliar form, watching his spindly limbs twitch and abdomen bounce to a silent rhythm. The pegasus screamed at the top of her lungs, and turned to begin running away as quickly as she could.
Twilight Sparkle remained hunched over Rainbow Dash's body, watching silently as her friend twitched and panted, eyes still closed. For all of her learning, nothing that she had read matched the frightening sight before her, and she found herself becoming more and more confused as she ran her good hoof across the pegasus' stomach. The skin was cold to the touch, almost to the point where contact was uncomfortable. Twilight shifted a bit, doing her best not to fall over onto her broken limb as she pushed her bangs out of her face, staring intently at Rainbow's quivering chest.
"My student! Have we arrived in time? What is her status?"
A breathless Celestia trotted up to the unicorn, offering a quick nuzzle before staring impatiently and awaiting an answer. The faintest smile graced Twilight's lips at the unexpected encounter with her mentor, but the seriousness of the situation soon caught up and served as a gateway to a grimace.
"I-I don't know, Princess Celestia. I've… never seen anything like this before. It's like she's… dreaming, but awake. It almost seems like she's hallucinating… is it D-"
"Discord. Yes." Celestia nodded curtly, her eyes flicking from Twilight to the suffering pegasus. "This is absolutely his work, and she is likely fighting for her life as we speak."
Rarity leaned in close, sitting down right next to Celestia as the princess pulled back Rainbow's eyelids. The pupils were dilated, and if not for the ragged breathing, the pegasus would have looked long dead.
"You are sure of this? There is no other explanation? C-can't there be any other possibility?" Rarity pushed her mane back out of her face, putting as much hope into her words as she could muster. "How do you know that he's involved just from looking?"
"Because he has done this to me, as well. More than once."
Celestia suddenly found all eyes on her, and quickly closed her own. "It is not pleasant. The things that he can do in dreams… if Rainbow Dash is being put through anything close to what I have experienced, we cannot waste any more time."
The shifting of metal plates grinding against each other rang out as Sol kneeled down beside Rarity, offering the terrified mare a wing for comfort. He kept his stern gaze upon the unconscious pony below him, and spoke in an even and cautious tone.
"Are you able to send us in there? To assist her? Surely if you and I can join in the fight, Discord can be pushed into backing out of her head?"
"I can, Sol." Celestia rose to stand, and heaved a sigh. "It is… forbidden magic, but we have no other option. I can get us in, as well as out. Twilight, you will stay here."
Twilight sniffled, but did nothing to protest the order. "Yes, Princess. I-I just… how is he even doing this? How can he be everywhere at once, knowing when and where to strike?"
Celestia opened her mouth to answer, but soon left it hanging. Realization swept over her, and her eyes widened. "What did you just say?"
Twilight blinked, her head moving backwards reflexively as she arched a brow. "I… Princess? That… I asked how he could possibly be doing this? How he can be everywhere at once?"
Celestia immediately thought back, and Discord's voice played once again in her mind. Memories of their conversation following her bath flooded her mind, and she found herself smiling wide as the pieces fell into place while the words replayed in her thoughts.
I can see your every action, because I choose to. I may not be able to be everywhere at once, but I can shadow you, and have done so for quite some time.
"That's it! This is our opportunity!" Celestia spun to face Sol, and everypony around her stared oddly at her sudden shift in mood. "Sol! Are you carrying parchment and a quill?"
Sol raised a brow, and popped open his saddlebags to retrieve the requested items. "Always, Your Highness. But… why? Surely, we should not be delaying our rescue efforts any longer?"
Celestia straightened the paper out in midair, and positioned the tip of the quill to the upper left of the paper. "Rarity, you are able to read magical runes?" The unicorn nodded slowly, clearly at a loss to explain her princess' strange behavior. "Then your rescue efforts with Sol begin now. I will not be participating."
A network of sticky webbing shot forth from the darkness, and Rainbow Dash skidded to a stop mere inches from the forming deathtrap. She moved her eyes skyward, watching in shock as the material extended around her into a cylindrical prison. With her escape route completely sealed, she turned slowly, shivering, and beheld the creature before her.
A massive, two-story spider's body, thick with orange and black fur, hung suspended from a line of thread, its limbs gesticulating in the air as it slowly swayed back and forth. An ashen-colored neck rose from where the spider's face would normally be, instead giving rise to Discord's own head, complete with eight gleaming red and yellow eyes. The blackened curved fangs protruding from his mouth glimmered with venom, the corrosive substance hissing as it dripped to the floor below and began to steam. Slowly, the abomination lowered itself to a horizontal orientation, coming to rest atop a web of strings not far above its prey.
Rainbow Dash fought back a scream, watching as Discord's limbs twitched in anticipation of her next attempt to flee. The two stared each other down, neither willing to make the first move.
"Well, well, well, little pegasus." Discord craned his neck forward, smiling as the network of webbing formed a closed ceiling to prevent escape from the large arena. "Would you like to try to escape, or will you submit like a good little fly? I've already caught seven others, and there's room for one more..."
With a shake of his limbs, deep red portals formed at the tips of his legs. Suspended upon strings, eyeless versions of each of Rainbow's friends, as well as both princesses, hung limply from seven of Discord's legs. Upon seeing the ponies hanging, threads wrapped tightly around their broken necks in the form of nooses, Rainbow began to cry and closed her eyes.
"T-this isn't real. None of this is real! It can't be! J-just stop! Leave me alone!"
"Problem, Rainbow Dash? Don't you want to see your friends? How about Fluttershy? Look at how lovely she looks today…"
The threads around the Fluttershy homunculus' neck tightened, and the imitation pony screamed in response as the color began to leave her pale face. Rainbow's eyes flew open, her fur standing on end as she dropped into a fighting stance with wings held high.
"You leave her alone! Never touch Fluttershy in front of me! Not even a fake, creepy version of her!"
The unoccupied limb extended forth, its clawed tip flexing outward to reach for the fuming pony's face. "Care to join her? Perhaps you could assist her from closer proximity…"
Rainbow extended her hoof and batted the large claw away, quickly shaking it off and shivering in disgust at the contact immediately afterward. "Cut the bullshit, Discord!" With a rough snort, Rainbow leapt forward, planting a hoof into the hybrid's throat before taking off for the webbed ceiling. "If you want me, come and get me! Your freaky tricks won't work against me!"
A round of screams shook Rainbow's resolve as the seven ponies below were dropped, flailing as they fell through the rippling floor and into the abyss. She looked back over her shoulder to see Discord climbing one of the walls, moving much faster than she had anticipated he would be able to.
"Very well. About time that you were ready to play."
"More than you know, jerkass." Rainbow narrowed her eyes, and flew straight for Discord's face, hoof extended and ready for impact.
"What? Princess, you're the best shot we have at fighting him off! If Rainbow is really in trouble, she needs you!"
Twilight Sparkle shifted, placing a hoof into Celestia's side both for stability and to get the alicorn's attention. Celestia continued writing upon the parchment, eyes briefly shifting to her pleading student as she did so. The quill continued scratching away magically as she finally turned to face the whimpering unicorn with a shake of her head.
"My Faithful Student, you must understand. Discord has made a fatal mistake in going after Rainbow Dash, one that he is not yet aware of. He told me himself that he is incapable of seeing all things at once, and can only focus upon his current target. He is not omniscient, and despite being able to read minds and invade our thoughts, if he is engaged in Rainbow Dash's nightmare, he is absolutely oblivious to the waking world for the duration. We need to take advantage of this, and therefore, draw out Rainbow's struggle as long as possible so that we may work without him knowing."
Sol stepped forward to interject, completely taken aback by Celestia's words. "My Princess! Surely you would not risk this poor mare's life on a desperate gamble? What can we possibly do before he manages to kill her that would make any sort of difference?"
Rarity repositioned herself as well, looking up to Celestia with a pained expression. "Do you… have some sort of plan? If… if you can do something meaningful in the amount of time that we could hold him off for, then… I agree that we should take advantage of this."
"Rarity!" Twilight stumbled upon her hooves, limping over to the blushing speaker. "How can you say that? We're playing with Rainbow's life at this point! We can't afford to take a risk like that!"
"My Student, without taking this gamble, we may have already lost. Please, trust in my judgment. Several lives have already been lost, and anything that we can do to prevent the deaths of more innocents must be pursued for the greater good."
"They… what? What is going on? Why don't I know any of this!"
Celestia shook her head, clearly uncomfortable at the prospect of hiding yet more information from her student. "I will explain as soon as we have a moment to breathe. Twilight, I am making some very, very difficult decisions, some of which I cannot detail. I ask that you trust in me as you always have, even if this seems wrong. I do not like it either, but I can assure you, Rainbow will survive so long as you let me work quickly."
Celestia finished writing and handed the scroll to Rarity, who regarded the script with extreme confusion.
"My little pony, how adept are you at learning new spells? That will allow you exit the nightmare realm, once things start getting dicey. The three of you stand no actual chance against Discord, especially if he decides to stop playing around and begins actually trying to injure you. Do your best to engage him in meaningless conversation, and keep yourselves safe. Take no more risks than necessary. Get in, make sure Rainbow is alright, stall Discord for as long as you can while I work, and get out. Can you handle this?"
Rarity's dark blue eyes stopped reading the lines of the scroll, and she closed them briefly before giving a firm nod and handing the item to the pegasus beside her. "Yes. I'll do my best, and get us out as soon as things get out of control. Good luck, Princess." Rarity moved to nuzzle Twilight, who looked at her curiously. "Please, Darling, do not be angry with her. I don't like this and neither does she, but she is right. Even if we don't know fully what is going on, she does, and with Equestria at stake… we have no other option. I'll bring Rainbow back. I promise."
Twilight gave an uncomfortable nod, and returned the nuzzle with a sigh. "You have to. You just… have to. Good luck, you two."
Sol nodded his agreement as well, and gave Twilight an encouraging pat on the back with his hoof. "As much as I hate to admit it… they're right. I'll watch over your friends, and bring them back safely. You have my word."
Twilight nodded and stepped back as Celestia's horn began to glow with a deep, black aura. She touched the protrusion to Rainbow's side, and closed her eyes as she slowed her breathing to focus upon the spell. "Rarity, Sol, touch Rainbow's body, and prepare yourselves. Once I send you through, you're on your own."
Both ponies obliged, kneeling low and touching their hooves to Rainbow's shaking body as the pulsations from Celestia's horn enveloped them both. With a final pulse, Celestia's eyes opened, revealing deep, black, colorless orbs, and the unicorn and pegasus fell to the floor, unconscious. Cold fear shot through Celestia's body like a wave of ice, and she blinked rapidly, eyes returning to normal. Twilight only stared, unable to speak.
"Twilight… I am sorry that I must do so many questionable things in front of you as of late, but I promise you, this is all necessary. The realities of rule are harsh, and I wished never to expose you to some of my more… unsavory decisions."
"It's alright, Princess. I just…" Twilight looked to the floor, unsure of what to say. "…why do you know how to do that?"
Celestia turned away and folded in her wings as she dipped her head slightly in an apologetic gesture. "My past… is not as clean as some would have you believe. I have made many mistakes, my student, and my biggest was ever trusting Discord. He is the one who showed me how to invade the minds of others, though I have only done it but once before."
Twilight nodded hesitantly, her brows furrowed. "I… see." She rose slowly from her place upon the floor, and hobbled to Celestia's side, nuzzling the alicorn's leg as best she could without falling over. "Princess, no matter what you've had to hide from everypony, you're still the best ruler that Equestria could ever ask for, and I still have faith in you. Is there anything I can do while you're… doing whatever it is that you plan to while you're gone?"
"Yes. I need for you to hold still."
Celestia turned and touched her horn to Twilight's broken limb, earning a startled jump from the smaller pony. With a quick golden glow and snapping sound, tendrils of shimmering magic swirled around the purple foreleg, setting it back into place. A comforting rush of feeling surged through the limb, and Twilight began to unwrap the dressings around it, before being stopped by a snow-white hoof resting upon her other leg.
"No. I am sorry, Twilight. Your leg is healed, but you must tell nopony. Pretend that it is still broken, and go find a contingent of guards to watch over your friends here as they sleep. I need for you to return to bed, and act as if you have no knowledge of this incident."
Twilight tilted her head, but her eyes quickly lit up with understanding. "Wait. You… you could have done this before, but didn't want Discord to know? You… you were keeping me out of the fight intentionally? I thought that quick-healing magic was just a myth!"
Celestia gave a light laugh, and offered Twilight a final nuzzle. "It is… controlled information. Something that I need to reconsider after all of this blows over. I did indeed allow you to recover naturally in order to spare you from this conflict, but as things are now… I may need your help. Your magic is powerful, my student, and with everypony, Discord included, thinking that you are still sidelined, you can function as a trump card. I hate to use you like this, but… we need to stack the odds in our favor as much as possible."
Twilight shook her head and sighed. "You're not using me. I want to help, and even if you can't explain, and it's… frustrating, this plan is brilliant. I'll do my best when the time comes, and play my role until then. Now… go." The unicorn smirked, and gave her mentor a light nudge with the side of her head. "What else are you planning to do?"
Celestia smiled and began trotting down the hallway, turning her head back as her horn began to glow. "I have two more cards to add to my hoof. You will find out in time." With a quick golden flash, Celestia disappeared from the hallway, leaving behind only small yellow sparks in her wake.
Sol and Rarity blinked into existence, landing hard upon the transparent ground as a frustrated scream reached their ears.
Rarity galloped forward, lighting her horn to prepare a magical net as her friend spiraled down out of the air. The pegasus impacted the green bubble and sunk into it before slowing to a surprised stop, after which she spun and smiled.
"Rarity? And… a guard? You guys are here to help? Sweet!"
"Yes, Miss Rarity and I are h-" Sol's eyes widened as he looked upward and caught sight of Discord for the first time, watching as he slowly descended from the webbed ceiling upon a thick thread. "Oh… sweet Celestia… Rarity, you might want to look up…"
The unicorn obliged, and immediately screamed. Discord sneered in response, and suddenly laughed at the group of ponies huddling together beneath him.
"What is this? Celestia sent more toys? I hope that they are more breakable than this rather resilient m-"
Another scream from Rarity cut off the words, and Discord allowed himself an amused chuckle at the sudden interruption.
"We need to leave! We need to get back, immediately! T-there's just no way th-"
"No." Sol drew his sword from its sheath, and placed it firmly into his mouth as he looked up at the transformed draconequus. With some difficulty, he spoke around the blade, eyes locked onto Discord's own. "Remember our mission. We're here for a reason, and we won't be leaving until we do all that we can to fulfill our objective."
"But he's a tarantula!" Rarity thrust her hoof into the air, pointing directly to Discord's twitching limbs as he smiled down at her. "Look at him! I… I can't…"
"Rarity, calm down." Rainbow put a bloody hoof out to touch Rarity, but quickly thought better of it, and instead sheepishly dropped it to the ground. "He's only managed to nick me with his claws so far, and believe me, he's been actively trying to catch me for the past half hour or so. We've got this!"
"You are indeed faster than I gave you credit for, little Rainbow. But eventually, you're going to slip up, and one of your two little friends appears to be permanently grounded. My chances of catching a pony tonight just skyrocketed. I believe it's time to capitalize on that advantage."
Discord dropped from his line, limbs spread and mouth open as he aimed directly for the cluster of ponies below him. Sol flipped the blade between his teeth and darted to the side, galloping hard to create some room between himself and his opponent as Discord adjusted his flight path to follow.
"So much for stalling him. Everypony scatter! Avoid direct conflict if you can!"
Rarity and Rainbow both ran in opposite directions as Discord fell, reaching out an arm to claw at the fleeing girls. Rarity barely managed to jump over it as she prepared a spell, and Rainbow took to the air and began to circle the giant arachnid.
"Here we go again! Keep him busy, guys!" With a quick hoofmotion to clear her sweaty mane out of her face, she dived again, aiming a kick for the back of Discord's head. "YEEHA!"
Luna continued to stare at the ceiling, lost in thought among the silence. Sleep had eluded her ever since her conversation with Celestia, despite her complete exhaustion. Time slowed to a crawl as her glassy eyes searched the tiles above, no goal in mind other than to occupy herself with something more than just thoughts of guilt as she lay alone atop the cold bed.
This is why I cannot do as Sister does. How she has managed to rule for so long in my absence without suffering a complete breakdown, I will never understand. Knowing her, she blames herself for every difficult situation, and now, this entire mess… Oh, Tia, how I wish I could do more to comfort you…
The silence was broken by a rush of wind and echoing spark shower as Celestia appeared within a magical flash. She coughed and sputtered as her hooves clattered to the floor, buckling at the knees in a moment of sudden weakness. The lack of sleep and stress of the situation began to catch up with her, and use of such demanding magic took an unexpected toll upon her aching body.
"Tia! You're back!"
Luna threw off the covers and jumped to the floor, completely ignoring the pain in her flank as she wrapped her hooves around Celestia's neck. "Did you stop him? Are they all safe?"
Celestia continued to pant and swallowed dryly as she returned the hug with a single hoof, leaning into it with her full body weight. "No. Nopony is safe right now, so we need to speak quickly." Celestia pulled back and raised her hoof in anticipation of Luna's protest. "No, Lulu. I need you to listen to me. There is no time for debate."
Luna closed her mouth and listened, dropping to sit upon her haunches with a wince as she did so. "Go ahead. I trust you."
"Thank you, Sister. I cannot stop to explain, as there is still one more thing that I must do before I can go back to check on the Bearers." Celestia coughed suddenly, and fell further downward to her knees and into Luna's waiting embrace.
"I will be fine. We just… need to act quickly. As I was saying... Discord is unaware of our current activities, and so I need to speak with you before he can eavesdrop on us once again." The sisters locked eyes, and the importance of the coming words sunk in with an unspoken understanding. "I have an idea. A very, very dangerous idea, along with a plan. However, knowing Discord, the likelihood of it falling through is high. He cannot read your thoughts, Sister, and so… I am requesting that you attempt to come up with something as well. You are an enigma to him, and having you work parallel to me, we can easily double our odds. If you do have an idea as to how we can deal with him, do not tell me, or anypony else. In fact, when the final confrontation begins, I do not wish for you to come along, at first. Even if you can think of nothing, just show up midway into the fight and catch him off-guard. If I do not know what you are thinking, then he has no chance of knowing, either."
Luna hiked a brow, and helped Celestia to resume standing on her own with a gentle nudge. "You… want me to work separately from you?"
Celestia nodded and smiled, pleased that her sister had understood so quickly. "Exactly. Divide and conquer. He will never see it coming. Do your best to come up with a plan, and we will reconvene whenever it is most advantageous. Now, return to bed, Lulu. There is no telling when you may need to be at your best."
Luna found her eyes rolling skyward as she climbed back under the warm covers and made a show out of settling down into the mattress. "Yes, Celestia. I will make sure to get some rest, so long as you promise me that you will, too, after… whatever it is that you plan to do." Luna finished the statement by twirling her hoof out in front of her, earning a smile from Celestia.
"I promise. Once this situation is taken care of, I will rest. But first… I must make a trip to Ponyville."
"Ponyville? But… actually, do not tell me."
Celestia nodded, and her horn once again began to glimmer with magic. "I will return soon, provided I don't pass out upon arrival. Sleep well, Lulu."
"Stay awake, Tia." Luna grinned, and watched as Celestia vanished in a whirl of color. With another flop backward into her cluster of pillows, she began staring at the ceiling once again, all hope of sleep banished from her worried mind.
"Oh, for the love of- Rainbow Dash, be careful! You're already bleeding enough as it is!"
Rarity ducked under a swinging limb, freezing up in disgust as the protruding hairs brushed across her face. She countered by bucking upwards at the joint, only to receive a laugh in response.
"Little dressmaker, why are you even here? Do you seriously think you can make a difference against me?"
"I'm here to keep you distracted! Is it working?"
Rainbow Dash flew down as if on cue, delivering a hard kick to the back of Discord's head. The chimera rolled all of his eyes at once, and extended a limb to pin the pegasus against one of the walls with little effort as he turned his head to face her.
"I tire of this. Your pathetic attacks are nothing more than an annoyance, and this ceases to be amusing any longer. When I become bored, toys start getting broken."
Discord's massive body spun, his spindly legs shifting around and knocking into a surprised Rarity. The mare found herself tumbling to the floor, only to be caught by Sol's waiting forelegs and pushed back to a standing position.
"Get up. He's serious, now. Here." Sol bent his neck down, slicing the saddlebags off of his side in one clean motion as he mumbled around the blade. "Take the scroll, and work on getting us out of here. I'll free her, and you teleport us to safety."
Before Rarity had time to object, Sol sprang into action, flying low to the ground to weave between Discord's legs. As he reached the limb holding Rainbow Dash to the wall, he jerked his head in a quick motion, severing the entire leg with a clean cut, only to find himself pinned to the floor by another with a heavy downward impact.
"Idiotic, overconfident foal. But to be Celestia's personal pet, I suppose you would have to be."
Sol lifted his eyes to see Rainbow still stuck to the wall by the natural properties of the web, struggling desperately to free herself from the confining strands. He shook his head and tried to nick his blade against the limb holding him, only to find the pressure increasing by the second.
"Oh-ho-ho no, you're not going anywhere. Given that my favorite rainbow flier is hung up on something at the moment, I think I'll turn my attention to you instead…"
"Rarity!" Sol bellowed. "The spell! Now!"
The trio of ponies began to glow in a deep blue light, but the aura quickly faded, accompanied by a strained gasp from the casting mare.
"Rarity? What's wrong?"
"I… hold on!" Rarity closed her eyes and redoubled her efforts, pouring all of her magical strength into the casting. Each pony began to glow brightly once again and pulsed with magical power, only for the spell to fail after several seconds.
The pressure upon Sol's back lifted immediately, and he looked up to see Discord scurrying toward the panicking unicorn as quickly as he could go, fangs primed and eyes full of malice. Sol leapt up from the floor and flew at full speed after him, yelling as loudly as he was able.
"WHAT'S WRONG? WHY ISN'T IT WORKING?"
"IT'S… IT'S TOO DIFFICULT FOR ME! I-I CAN'T TELEPORT ALL THREE OF US AT ONCE!" Rarity screamed.
Sol cursed under his breath, and soon found Rainbow Dash at his side, flying lopsided and covered in sticky strands of trailing webbing.
"Don't let him get to her! We need to figure a way out of here, and Rarity isn't made for fighting!"
Sol nodded, entirely too aware of the desperation of their predicament. "I have a plan! Do what you do best!"
"Kick him in the back of the head?"
Rainbow gave a firm nod and sped off to her project as Sol dived low after the shuffling spider. With a quick spin to orient the handle perpendicular to his jaw, he thrust his head sideways, impaling the blade into Discord's abdomen with as much force as he could.
Discord faltered slightly, and spun his neck only to receive a kick in the face courtesy of Rainbow Dash. The enraged monster bit at the air behind her, barely missing as she danced just out of his range, glowing once again with a third magical attempt from Rarity.
Sol ripped the blade up and outward, deepening the wound as best he could before once again taking to the air. He flew right past Rainbow, swerving out of the way and giving her an encouraging nod as Discord swiped at them both, missing by mere inches as Sol landed beside the sweating unicorn upon the ground. With a final strain, she opened her eyes, and looked to be on the verge of tears.
"I can't! I'm so sorry! I can feel it almost working, but it's… it's just too much!"
Sol narrowed his eyes and looked back behind him, watching with interest as Rainbow evaded Discord's attempts to catch her once again. "Get her out of here. You two go, and I'll keep him occupied for as long as I am able."
Rarity blinked in shock, completely unprepared for the command. "That's… no! We're not leaving you here!"
"Do it. That's an order, from Celestia's guard captain himself. Get going, and I'll… figure something out. If I die here, then it will be buying my Princess time to save this entire country, and that's more than enough for me. You were the only one sensible enough to see the necessity of Celestia's plan, so you should understand why it's essential for you to do this, as well. Either we all die, or at least two of us get out. Now move!"
Rarity choked back a sob and closed her eyes, focusing completely upon her spell. With a sudden flash, the two mares disappeared into thin air, leaving behind blue outlines of themselves as the only evidence of ever having been there at all.
Sol closed his eyes and slowly turned, ready to meet the towering monster behind him. He shifted his blade and bit down upon its hilt once again, making sure of his grip before lowering his body in preparation to spring forward. With a final snort, his eyes flew open and he steeled himself for the threat to come.
Discord took his time lowering all of his limbs back to the ground, sneering and letting translucent poison drip from his mouth as he began to walk slowly toward the pegasus. A strange bubbling began around the base of his missing limb, and slowly but surely, another began to emerge, twitching violently toward the floor as he began to speak.
"Solaris. Born to a noble father, son of a common street whore. Abandoned to those very streets in a cover-up, and taken in under Celestia's wing. You requested to join the military branch upon coming of age, and worked your way up from ground zero all the way to the top of the command line. Unfortunate that all of your efforts amount to nothing, now."
"You certainly know quite a bit about me, demon." Sol spat the words with disdain, pawing at the nothingness below as the spider took his time advancing.
"As if I haven't watched you from the moment that Celestia took you in. It would be folly to ignore one so close to the mare standing in my way, wouldn't you think?"
Sol breathed in sharply, mind racing to try to discern the best angle of attack. "You certainly seem intelligent, ancient one."
"Unfortunate that I cannot say the same for you. Leaving yourself here all alone? Surely you at least partially understand how outmatched you are?"
"I do." Sol flicked his tail and flared his wings, tensing his leg muscles as he prepared to lift off.
"Dying for a cause is not noble, colt, it is foolish. You become useless to your princess, and therefore, betray her. This is not a storybook for the common pony, where the aged stallion makes a final stand, sacrificing himself to save the rest of his traveling party. You have erred, and now, I will enact your punishment."
Discord lunged as Sol primed his blade and responded in kind, gasping with surprise as the sword was knocked out of his teeth and straight to the ground by one of Discord's many limbs. The stallion moved sideways to retrieve it, and immediately felt himself pulled backward, intense pain shooting through his left wing as he was dragged through the air.
Discord's fangs were sunk deep into the stallion's wing, and blood mixed with clear venom atop the wound in a gleaming pool. Sol jerked forward, doing his best to dislodge the limb from his enemy's grip, and tumbled sideways along the ground as the creature released him. He scrambled to get to his hooves, but fell sideways to the floor, breathing hard as his damaged wing began to spasm uncontrollably.
"It is over. In minutes, you will die, alone in this darkness. You have failed, and nopony will remember you in a matter of years. You will be replaced, just another guard that was killed in action as sacrifice for his useless ruler. Even if Celestia somehow finds a way to remove me, your story ends now, and I see not a single pony here for you in return for all that you have done for them. Where is your princess now, you overgrown foal?"
Sol coughed, watching as the bite wound at the tip of his wing throbbed. The skin around the missing feathers began to blacken, and the necrosis spread slowly, working its way down the wing in a spreading trail of decay.
"Wherever… she needs to be…" The stallion dragged himself along the floor, and finally managed to get back on his hooves as his vision began to blur. "Say what you will. I'm not dead yet, and... I won't stand for you insults to her... while I can still move..."
"Oh? And what do you plan to do, little soldier? How will you spend your final few breaths?"
"Doing only… what I have always done." Sol drew in a sharp breath, and wheezed as he exhaled, blowing strands of his mane from in front of his eyes. "Fighting... in Celestia's name."
With a quick burst of adrenaline, Sol galloped to his blade and wrenched it out of the ground, spinning it sideways as he turned back toward his enemy. Discord put his front legs in the air and moved to close the distance between them, and Sol jumped up, flapping hard to propel himself back and away from the assault before landing. The damaged wing sent him moving unevenly through the air, and he landed hard, noticing the spreading blackness had reached halfway down his feathered limb. With a desperate cry, he twisted his neck back, slicing straight through the bone and severing the dying wing from his body in a shower of crimson blood.
The black and white appendage sailed through the air, falling in time with the blade from his mouth as Sol bit down hard to suppress a scream. A pained noise escaped his lips, followed by several shuddering gasps as he began to bleed from his back. Discord howled with laughter, barely able to contain himself as he watched the pegasus clutch at the bloody stump where his wing had once been as he kneeled low to the cold floor.
"You utter waste! Now, your death will only be more painful as you bleed out! The poison would have killed you much more quickly, and now, you are unable even to flee. What were you thinking?"
Sol continued coughing, and felt bile rise in the back of his throat as he watched his severed wing twitch upon the ground. The limb turned almost completely black and stopped moving within seconds, and the pain intensified as Sol ground his teeth more to suppress the oncoming tears. With a shaky hoof, he reached for his sword, replacing it in his mouth as he stood once again, intending to do as much damage as he could before he fell unconscious. The blackness overtaking his vision was suddenly interrupted by a brilliant flash of gold and scarlet, and the burning sensation in his wing doubled in force, nearly causing him to fall completely to the ground as he dropped once again to his knees, biting the grip of his weapon as hard as he could. With a pained scream, he looked back to see that his wing had been cauterized with magical flame, and upon turning once again to face Discord, found his view blocked by the form of a massive white alicorn.
"Discord. Your crimes are unforgivable, and I am through standing idly by while you destroy everything precious to me out of spite. Our reckoning will be soon, very soon, and it will be at a time of my choosing. You may have had a small victory this day, but you will not evade the coming storm."
Discord bent low in a mocking bow, tipping his head to the princess while he lowered his eyes and replied with a grin. "Why not engage me right now, little Tia? Are you scared to face me alone, or are you planning something? Because if you're planning something… I'll soon know."
Celestia snorted and stomped her hoof, horn ablaze with swimming embers. "Perhaps. But my primary concern at the moment is getting Sol to safety. Until next we meet, traitorous snake."
With a practiced motion, Celestia whipped her mane and sent forth a nova of flame, igniting the entire cage of webbing around her. The strands were quick to burn, and several fell down in front of Discord, dangling close to his form and distracting him from all else. Another gout of flame burst forth from Celestia's horn, engulfing Discord entirely as he flailed in surprise at the unexpected assault. Celestia made no show out of her attack, and instead turned to pick up her fallen comrade with a swirl of magic before charging her horn to cast once again.
"Farewell, Discord. I will look forward to our next encounter. One of us will not be leaving alive." With a final flash, Celestia and Sol began to vanish, both watching as Discord reverted to his normal body within the flames. The draconequus reached out a burning claw to grab at the fleeing pair, but by the time he could touch them, only a faint golden outline of the two remained.
"What happened? W-why is his… Princess?"
Celestia blinked as she lifted herself off of the carpeted floor, and brought a hoof up to her head as the waking world came back into focus. She cracked her neck as she shakily got to her hooves, and immediately looked over to the speaker, finding a worried-looking saffron pegasus standing in front of her.
"Fluttershy? What are… you…"
Fluttershy watched with surprise as Celestia's eyes rolled back and she fell to the floor, unconscious from her exhaustion.
"O-oh my... somepony, help!"
Credits go to Cadenceofrain.