"Princess? Princess, can you hear me?"
The sweet, familiar voice echoed through Celestia's skull as her vision was filled with darkened color, a rush of pulsating red and black flooding in as the words repeated yet again. For the first time in she didn't know how long, the alicorn could feel again, and immediately became aware of the sensation of a hoof upon her shoulder. Slowly, her eyes fluttered open, only to be met with a blinding rush of brightness courtesy of the lights inlaid in the white ceiling. Celestia closed her eyes again immediately and brought a hoof up to her forehead, doing her best to chase away the throbbing headache.
"Princess! Don't push yourself! Just… just lie back and adjust to being conscious again. It's been three days."
A series of images flashed behind Celestia's eyelids, sending a chill throughout her entire body as the words reached her ears. Discord, laughing at her as he held Twilight Sparkle in midair upon invisible strings. Luna's worried face as the two spoke of the casualties she had inadvertently caused. Twilight's own look of uncertainty as she told the mare that Rainbow Dash was to be left to suffer. A giant, demonic spider bearing down upon an injured Sol…
Celestia opened one eye, and the fuzzy image of a violet unicorn mere inches from her face slowly came into focus. The pony let her hoof drop back to the pristine hospital floor, and bit her lip as she watched her mentor and close friend start to sit up with a groan.
"Twilight? You said… three days?"
Twilight Sparkle gave a firm nod coupled with a worried look to the floor. "Yes. Three days. Fluttershy said you passed out in front of her, and hit the floor hard. She called for the castle guards, and they brought you here. You've been unconscious ever since. We took turns watching you, and… I sent Fluttershy and Spike home. They weren't happy, but… things are way, way too dangerous for them to be here now."
Celestia nodded and immediately regretted it. A weighty sensation against the inside of her skull made it feel as though she would fall over at any second, and the mare put a hoof into the mattress to stabilize herself from careening out of the bed and onto the floor. The sweaty pony barely maintained balance, and gave a light laugh as her foreleg shook with the effort of holding herself up.
"Princess… you're… are you alright? What… what happened? Rainbow and Rarity filled me in on… on what they saw, but… y-you… and Sol…"
Celestia's stomach lurched at the mention of her trusted guard. Another image flashed through her mind, one of blood and twitching feathers as a severed wing lay atop a colorless void, bleeding slowly as it turned to black.
"Sol!" The alicorn leaned forward, and stared desperately into Twilight's eyes as the mare backed away a bit and leaned her head back in an unsure motion. "Where is he? Is he alright?"
Twilight again looked to the floor, and the sadness in her eyes told Celestia all that she needed to know. "He's… w-well, he's… stable… but… Princess, his wing…"
Her worst fears confirmed, the monarch slowly lowered herself back into the waiting pillows as she released a sigh. "I… had hoped that it might not… carry over. I suppose it was a foolish expectation, all things considered." With a shake of her head, the alabaster pony turned back to look at Twilight. The bandaging was still wrapped tight around her foreleg, and the mare was struggling to balance herself on her remaining hooves. "Have you managed to keep the façade? Nopony else knows?"
"Nopony." Twilight was unable to control her slight grin, and did her best to stifle a small giggle. The mischievousness of her deception brought the unicorn a little rush of satisfaction, though it was not something she was ready to admit. "We can't talk about it though, right? Just in case… he's… you know."
Twilight raised a brow as her mentor displayed a grin of her own, and watched as the alicorn shifted her pillows to prop herself up a bit. Slowly, the princess reached to her waiting crown upon the nightstand and rested it atop her head with a gentle motion. "Actually… we may be safe. I've… taken care of some things. However, it might be best to remain cautious for the time being. Speaking of him, has… anything happened while I was out? Do we know anything of his whereabouts?"
The unicorn sat slowly upon her haunches and shook her head. "No, we… he's been… entirely silent. It's… weird. Very weird. Nopony has heard from him, apparently, but… a few things have happened." Twilight cleared her throat, and immediately went into dictation mode. Celestia couldn't help but laugh a bit, and allowed herself another small sigh as she listened carefully to the goings-on of the past few days.
"Well… as I said, Fluttershy and Spike are back in Ponyville." Twilight grimaced a bit and her ears drooped as she continued to speak. "I… we… had a bit of a fight. After seeing what he… what he did to Sol… Rainbow and I took it upon ourselves to get those two out of the castle. I love them, but… they're not fighters. It took the two of us yelling and finally a carefully-worded talking-to from Rarity to convince them to leave, and… I… I honestly feel terrible. I just want to protect them, but… some harsh words were said…"
Celestia pushed out a breath, and quickly shook her head. "You made the right decision. I'm sure that they will understand, in time. They would… almost be a liability at this point, unfortunately. I will assist you in repairing any damage done to your friendship after all of this is over."
The smaller mare dipped her head, slightly taken aback by the princess' even and direct tone. "I hope you're right… they're… everything to me."
"I know, my student. But… at this point, we need to be thinking about what is best for everypony. Discord is a very real threat, and you saved them from having to witness… or even become a part of… some terrible things."
Twilight swallowed the lump in her throat, and rallied herself to continue the report as Celestia shifted once again. "W-well… there's that, and… Luna is… gone. She left yesterday, and… told me to give you this. She said you would understand."
A dull glow surrounded Twilight's horn, and suddenly, a letter left the nightstand and flew toward Celestia. The princess took the letter in her hoof, and slowly began to read the elegant writing that was clearly that of her sister.
I have a plan. I have done a lot of thinking about our last conversation, and what it means to be responsible for the safety of Equestria. You have always been right, Sister, and so I have reconsidered my stance on the issue. You asked me to think of something, of my own plan, so that we might work in tandem against Discord. I did. I know how we can stop him. Continue onward with your own plan, and I will pursue mine. It will be incredibly risky, and potentially endanger many lives, but I am confident that it can work. I cannot tell you the details, but I need for you to trust me, as I trust you. I still think that we must avoid collateral damage if at all possible, but seeing you unmoving upon the bed for the past few days, I have realized how serious this is. Discord's return is a situation that requires desperate action, and this, along with your own plan, is our best chance. When you awaken and begin the final confrontation, send a magical signal into the air, and I will come to back you up. I am leaving Twilight Sparkle to care for you in my absence, and I pray that when the time comes, you will be able to do what must be done. I love you, Tia. Forgive me.
Celestia let her eyes wander over the words several times, doing her best to make sense of the enigmatic writing. Over and over again, she found herself stuck on the final two words, hastily scrawled and punctuated with a teardrop beside them.
Forgive me. Luna… what are you planning?
"She… said nothing else? Twilight, did you read the letter?"
Twilight shook her head, and quickly moved to stand. "I didn't. I… I didn't want to get involved, if… it's something that I'm not supposed to know."
The letter changed hooves, and Celestia watched as Twilight began to read. The violet mare's face scrunched up in confusion as her eyes moved over the letter, and upon reaching the end, she looked up with a puzzled expression. "…'forgive me'? I… Princess, I'm lost."
"As am I. Luna… has always been somewhat apologetic over unnecessary things, but this time… I get a different vibe from that letter. It worries me greatly. Did she say anything to you of note before she left?" Celestia leaned forward, and took the letter back as Twilight sat down once again.
"She… no, she didn't. A-and… your… forgive me for being so bold, Princess, but… what was your 'previous conversation'? Maybe it holds a clue?"
Celestia sucked in a breath, and brought a hoof up to her temple. To anypony else, the information would be a secret. But to Twilight Sparkle, she would make an exception.
"Luna… she… made a desperate gamble to save you, Twilight. She challenged Discord to open combat, and ended up using the moon itself against him to escape the situation alive. Several ponies living near the sea were killed by the resulting tidal waves, and she has yet to let go of her guilt."
"So… so he's indirectly responsible for that, too…" Twilight cleared her throat, and met Celestia's questioning gaze. "That was the next thing I was going to tell you. Spitfire came to the castle looking for you. Since you were unconscious, she… decided to talk to me, instead. S-she said… that… the total number of casualties from 'the moon incident' was… nearly six hundred ponies… is… is that what she was talking about?"
"Six hundred?" Celestia found herself unable to speak for several moments, but did her best to collect herself and continue. "That is… Discord… he needs to be stopped. We must do anything we can to prevent him from stealing more lives." The alicorn slid out from under the blankets, letting her naked hooves fall to the floor one by one as Twilight rushed to her side.
"Princess! You need to be careful!"
"The time for 'being careful' has long since passed, my student. Now is the time for action. We need to gather everypony and prepare for the final push. This has gone on far too long, and I will not sit idly by while he lurks in the shadows, waiting to strike." Celestia began to walk across the marble floor, her hooves clacking loudly as she made for the doorway. Suddenly, she felt the sensation of a hoof upon her side, and turned to find Twilight, barely managing to stand on two hooves with her third pressed into the alicorn's white fur.
"Princess, please. I-I know that this is important, and I know we have to act soon, but… we need to talk."
Celestia turned to fully face her student, taken aback by the sudden request. With a quiet sigh, the princess sat slowly, letting her backside drop to the cool marble as Twilight walked up to nuzzle her side. "…I… you are right. Twilight… we do need to talk, before I can act. I… believe that we may have the same conversation in mind?"
Celestia leaned down and nudged her head against Twilight's, trying her best to reassure the worried girl. The unicorn looked up and returned the nuzzle, trying and failing to fight back a shiver as she leaned into the much larger pony.
"I… I certainly hope so. Princess… I trust you implicitly, and I always have, but… s-some of the things that have gone on lately… some of the things you've said…"
"…they worry you," Celestia finished. She watched as Twilight slowly nodded, and felt a pull within her heart. Slowly, the princess extended a wing to wrap around her student, pulling the mare close beside her and into a sideways embrace. "I am so sorry that we have not had time to talk recently, and… I can understand your hesitance. All the same, I must thank you for staying loyal to me in these trying times."
"I… yes, of course. I would never turn against you, Princess. I promise." Twilight smiled up at the alicorn, only to be met with an uncertain expression. "…Princess?"
"Twilight… I am not perfect. I am not the flawless being that you believe me to be. Though your support and love for me is touching, I… I would prefer that you think for yourself instead of following me as I continue to do questionable things."
Celestia moved to lie down fully, and Twilight joined her, still wrapped beneath the alicorn's wing. Silence hung over the pair as neither looked at each other, and finally, a sorrowful voice broke the awkwardness.
"Princess… I… I am thinking for myself. I've done a lot of thinking while you were asleep, a-and… nothing has changed. I don't fully understand what's going on or why you're saying some of the things that you're saying, but… I want to understand. I want to help." The girl nestled herself further under the large wing around her back, and continued to press into her mentor's warm side. "You're like a second mother to me, Princess. I'm not just going to abandon you for… things like this. I just… can you try to explain? I'm ready to listen. I know time is running short, but… aren't we safe for now?"
Celestia extended her free wing in a long stretch, and rolled her neck before looking away from her charge. "I… where are Rarity and Rainbow Dash? Are they well?"
Twilight raised a brow, and shifted slightly. "They're alright. Rainbow's left wing is a little sore, and she's covered in slash wounds, but… she's alright. Ever since Spitfire entered the castle, she's been chasing the poor Wonderbolt around day in and day out, though she doesn't seem to mind."
Celestia gave a light laugh, and rolled her eyes skyward. "I can imagine. I'm happy that they seem to be getting along, though. Everypony could use a break from seriousness while we have a little down time. And Rarity?"
"With Sol," the unicorn confirmed. "She and I were taking shifts guarding him while Princess Luna watched over you, but since she left, Rarity has been staying with him full-time while I stayed here."
Moving shadows from beyond the door caught Celestia's attention, and she turned her head as she listened to the words. As quickly as they came, accompanied by hooffalls, they were gone, and she turned back to her student and spoke in a hushed tone. "Then… yes, it would seem that everypony he has been targeting is safe. I believe we can speak, for a time. What is it that you wish to know?"
"W-well," Twilight began, "I… Princess Luna and I spoke briefly about… Discord. Specifically about the Elements. Did he… really create them?"
"I do not know the details, but it certainly seems that way. Luna told me the same thing, and they are no longer to be trusted unless it is absolutely necessary." The alicorn shifted uncomfortably, an act that didn't go unnoticed by her pupil. "We may need to rely on them again, but… I suggest that you keep away from them. They're too dangerous for the common pony."
Twilight scrunched up her face, but nodded all the same. "Alright. I'll… make sure that the girls know before we go… marching into battle… Princess… that's… another thing." Twilight hesitated, and allowed herself to lean her entire body weight into Celestia, hoping for reassurance. "When we… when we fight him… is the goal to… to kill?"
Celestia had known that the question was coming, and couldn't bring herself to meet her student's eyes. For years, she had taught the mare nothing but love, acceptance, and the importance of solving problems through research and being true to oneself. But now, in this most desperate hour, came the time to reveal an uncomfortable truth.
"…yes, Twilight. We aim to kill."
The silence, though expected, weighed heavily upon both mares. Neither was willing to face the other, but both held tightly to their embrace.
"I… was afraid you might say that. Is there really no other way?"
Celestia brought a hoof down upon Twilight's mane, and lightly stroked as she stared ahead at the featureless door. "Twilight… if there was any other way, know that I would endorse it fully. Discord is too dangerous and malicious to be allowed to live, and I do not say that lightly. Never have I called for the death of anypony, but… there is a first time for everything, I suppose. After learning of the deaths that he has already caused in the last week alone, do you still feel unsure that he deserves death?"
Twilight closed her eyes and bit her lip, not wanting to answer. After several moments, she looked up, eyes full of uncertainty. "It… yes, it does. I-I… I don't want to question you, Princess, and I know that he has done… unforgivable things… but… it still doesn't feel right…"
"And what if I told you, my student, that he has been personally antagonizing me for hundreds of years, never allowing me rest except to toy with me, and that in dreams, he has forced himself upon me?"
Twilight lay silent, pressed tight into Celestia's chest and focusing only upon the elder mare's heartbeat. The sound brought her little comfort as she began to cry, no longer sure of anything as the quiet words sunk in. "Y-you… you don't mean…?"
"I do, my student." Celestia leaned down, and lightly brushed away her student's tears. "I can see the uncertainty in your features, even now knowing more about his treachery. That makes you a better mare than I."
The alicorn stood, slowly unwrapping her wing from around Twilight's prone form as she rose. "Everything that I have taught you… I pray that you will remember it. If you are truly loyal to me, and love me as you say… hold on to your beliefs, Twilight. If you can find a way to stop him without bringing about death, then feel free to enact it. As I have said to you on countless nights; always be true to yourself, my student. I wish that I could still hold on to such idealism… but I have fallen too far. He has dragged me to this point of no return. After this is all over… I will abdicate the throne." Celestia sighed, and began to walk for the door as an awestruck Twilight remained upon the floor. "Thinking like this… wishing death upon somepony over a personal vendetta… I am no longer worthy of rule."
The sudden impact caught Celestia by surprise, and she found herself lurching forward with a violet unicorn hanging from her neck by a single foreleg. Twilight buried her face into Celestia's chest, begging her to stop, and choked out her words through a flood of tears.
"You can't! Princess, j-just because… you feel that way, doesn't make you unworthy! Everypony has their exceptions, a-and… as much as I don't like it, I can understand!" Twilight unwrapped her hoof from around the startled alicorn's neck, and slowly lowered herself back to the floor. "You've said that you aren't perfect, a-and… that you're slipping… but… I don't care! You've always been there for me, and I'm always going to be there for you. No matter what that means! I-I'll try to come up with something to stop him without resorting to… to killing him, but if that's all that we can do… I'll support you. You've never lead us astray before, and I would trust you with my life."
Celestia extended a wing to brush away Twilight's tears, and turned back toward the doorway as she spoke softly. "Twilight… I love you as though you were my own. Nothing can ever change that, and your trust in me means the world. Be that as it may… I still don't like this. I still cannot accept what I feel I am becoming. I still think that I have failed, and that I may be making a mistake by holding on to anger and going against what I have preached for so long."
The words brought a warm sensation to Twilight's chest, and she moved in for a final, bold nuzzle before backing away slightly to give the alicorn space. "See? You haven't failed. You're questioning it, too, but… you can see and accept the necessity of what you believe. That makes you more fit to rule than anypony. You're doing what you've always done, Princess- exactly what needs to be done. Even if you've kept some secrets… you know what needs to happen." The mare gave a small smile, and let her words come out in a lighthearted tone. "Always be true to yourself, Princess. Trust your judgment, and you'll be fine. Everypony else does. If you truly believe that this is the answer, then I'll be there with you every step of the way. Secrets or not, and even without knowing everything… you're the greatest pony I've ever known. You're perfect to me."
Celestia felt a bit of moisture at the corners of her eyes, and dipped her head in acknowledgment. "Thank you, Twilight Sparkle. I… needed to hear that. Please, go and find Rainbow Dash, and we shall reconvene shortly. I need to go to my quarters for a time to think through our next move. Very soon, we will begin a direct assault against Discord. Once you find Rainbow Dash, come to my quarters and the three of us can begin to talk of what must be done."
Twilight nodded, and watched as her princess opened the door with a light golden blast of magic. "I'll see you soon, Princess. Together, nopony can stop us. Not even him."
Celestia turned her head briefly, a true smile playing across her lips for the first time since she had awoken. "I pray that you are right. Good luck, Twilight Sparkle. Find Rainbow, and I will construct a plan." The large pony moved through the door, her multicolor tail wisping behind her as she stepped into the hallway. Twilight stood still for several minutes and then followed her mentor's trail, looking for a sky blue pegasus as per the Princess' orders.
A lone pegasus lay still atop a hospital bed, staring longingly out the window on the far wall. A flock of birds flew by, riding the wind to destinations unknown as they maintained formation against the bright blue sky. Three days without the ability to join them, and yet the longing sensation in his chest felt as though it had been there for an eternity.
"Sol… I'm so dreadfully sorry. I can't even imagine how it must feel…"
The pegasus, Sol, turned his head to the other side, rolling slightly on his back to make facing the speaker an easier task.
"No, probably not. I appreciate it all the same, though. And thanks for the food, as always."
"Least I can do for a friend in need, Darling."
Rarity levitated the tray of food over to Sol's bed, taking her usual seat in a plush, velvet-cushioned chair beside him. Sharing meals had become somewhat of a ritual over the past few days, helping both ponies to get their minds off the coming battle. Rarity had found herself interested in the veteran's experiences, and he was all too happy to share them in his current bedridden state. The two had become fast friends, and grew used to spending the day together, where they could set their minds at ease. Sometimes they spoke for hours on end, and other times, both were content to reflect silently. This was not one of those times.
"Hmph… 'in need', huh? I might be missing a wing, but I'm not dead."
"Oh, hush. You know perfectly well what I mean." The fashionista bit into her corn cob, daintily picking at it while maintaining conversation. "Have you always been this stubborn and gloomy?"
"For the most part, yes. I take my job seriously, and don't keep many friends. Easier to focus that way." The pegasus also started into his food, slowly working his way through a helping of mashed potatoes.
Rarity suddenly stopped eating, and allowed her corn to float in front of her, trapped in a blue glow. "Took."
"Pardon?" Sol stopped as well, clearly not following the sudden shift in speech.
"Took your job seriously. Surely you don't mean that you're… going to go right back to fighting after… what happened?"
Sol lowered his tray, expression unreadable as he looked back out the window. Not a single cloud in the sky, and a perfect day. Of course this would happen now, of all times.
"Miss Rarity… with all due respect, yes, I will be going back to fighting, and you're not going to stop me."
Rarity allowed her own food to drop back to the tray, and stared intently at it while she thought. Her unstyled mane hung loosely around her face in deep amethyst strands, blocking her view of the resistant stallion lying next to her. With a sigh, she picked her corn back up, and resumed her meal in quiet.
"…you're… not even going to try?" Sol propped himself up, leaning forward a bit as he flexed his wing out behind him. It had been hours since he had the chance, and the sensation brought him momentary respite from his internal struggle.
"No. Clearly, your mind is made up, and if there's anything I know about you, it's that you're incredibly driven to protect the Princess. I can't fault you for it, but… I wish you would take your own safety into consideration."
The grizzled stallion chuckled, and continued eating right alongside the frustrated mare. "Maybe. Maybe Princess Celestia has told me the same thing before. But I've got a purpose in protecting her, and I'm not about to go back to living an aimless life. Had enough of that as a kid."
Rarity pointed her corn at Sol accusingly, glaring daggers at the prostrate pegasus as he continued to eat, seemingly ignoring her words. "You know that the doctor said you can't leave this bed for another week. Given how things have been going, this may well be over by then."
"Which is exactly why you're," Sol shifted, propping himself up on an elbow, "going to help me get out of here."
"Excuse me?" Rarity blinked, all but abandoning her food at this point. "I don't want you out there fighting. You've done enough for me personally, not to mention the Princess, for several lifetimes. You've sacrificed part of what makes you… well, you, just to allow a mare you barely know to escape a bad situation."
A wry smile graced Sol's features, and Rarity moved her tray aside, preparing for the worst. "…so what you're saying is you owe me, right?"
Sapphire orbs rolled immediately, and Rarity put her face in her hooves. "Sol, why? I just don't understand. You've given everything and more, and now you want to continue? I'm barely holding on in this situation, and I'm not even sure if I can keep to my word and fight for the Princess while I'm in full health, and here you are, missing a wing and wanting to jump onto the battlefield. Just… explain it to me."
Sol continued to eat, raising a brow as he watched Rarity sit, silently staring at him. "Simple. Sometimes, you have to look beyond what's best for you, and do what's best for others. From what you've told me, you should understand that, Little Miss Generosity. Princess Celestia stands for the ponies of Equestria at large. She's in danger, so they're in danger. I'm fighting for her, as well as everypony else. What more of a reason do I need?"
Rarity blinked, shaking her head as she sighed and took her tray back into her hooves. "I suppose sometimes it's the simplest answer that makes the most sense. You're right, Sol. I'll help you get out of here early, but only if you do something for me, as well."
"Oh? And what's that?" Sol extended his wing, unable to contain his happiness at hearing exactly what he wanted.
"Let me cover your back. We work as a team until this is over. You're injured, I'm terrified, but we both want to help. Promise me we can stick together? For your benefit and mine?"
The pegasus stopped chewing, and swallowed slowly while he mulled over the proposal. Finally, with a deep breath, he resigned himself to acceptance and pushed his tray aside. "Hmph. Alright. You're sure you want to fight, still? Even after seeing what can happen?" Sol extended his remaining wing for effect, shifting uncomfortably as the other stub moved involuntarily.
"Yes, I am. Even if I can't do too much direct damage, I can still provide support." The unicorn flipped her hair, smirking as it fell back down to frame her face. "You've been protecting somepony all of your life, Sol. It's time to allow somepony to protect you."
"Can't argue with that." Sol leaned back into his pillows, once again looking out the window at the world beyond the castle walls. "Once you're done, we should get started. We've got a hell of a lot of wires and tubes to take out of me."
"Mm." Rarity sighed and resumed eating, once again content to just sit and think for a while before speaking. "Alright. As soon as you're no longer bedridden, we should find Rainbow, and then seek out Princess Celestia to see how we can help."
"Sounds good to me." Sol let his gaze wander back into the room, where it stopped several feet in front of him. Upon the table up against the opposite wall lay his prized blade, stained with blood and reflecting sunlight from the window. The pegasus narrowed his eyes at the instrument of death, and began to mentally prepare himself for the need to use it again in his Princess' name.
Celestia stepped through the doorway of her private chambers, heaving a sigh as she moved across the cold floor. Walking was still an odd feeling after being bedridden for so long, and the mare found herself moving quite slowly through the darkened room. A glint reflecting the afternoon sun caught her eye, and the alicorn walked toward the source to find her golden necklace and shoes waiting atop a shelf. With a smile, she began to walk over to the items, when a voice made her stop dead in her tracks.
"Oh, don't get dressed, where's the fun in that?"
The sense of dread looming over the princess was numbing, and she found herself shivering involuntarily as she kept her back turned to the intruder. Slowly and purposefully, she raised her jeweled necklace and slipped it down over her head before stepping into her glistening shoes and turning to face the darkness. There, sitting quietly in one of the many plush chairs of the study, was Discord, his head resting in his lion paw as his eagle's claw draped apathetically over the arm rest.
"Welcome back, my dear. It's been so boring without you around. I couldn't even find the drive to torment your little puppets while you slept, Little Tia. I think we need to… discuss our relationship."
"Do not speak to me of puppets, you treacherous snake." Celestia narrowed her eyes, glaring daggers at the reclining draconequus. "It's not like you to sit around and do nothing while you have a clear window of opportunity. Why are you here? What have you been doing in my absence?"
"I could ask you the same thing." Discord's tail began to flick dangerously, the feathery tip dusting along the carpeted floor as he flashed a malicious grin. "I don't know what you've done, but I really must applaud you for your ingenuity. You always were the more intelligent sister, Tia…"
Celestia knew this routine well, and could sense an incoming game of words. Choosing to ignore the irritated hybrid, the alicorn walked over to the far wall, where a giant, stained glass window was allowing multicolored shafts of light to dance across the carpet as they reflected the waning sun. The patterns projected onto the mare as she closed her eyes, deciding to engage her enemy in conversation in order to learn what she could.
"What I've done? Please, Discord, you will have to be more specific than that. I'm not sure to what you are referring."
Discord responded with a chuckle, balling his paw and repositioning his chin atop it. "Oh, Celestia. It's so cute when you try to be clever. We both know where this is going, it's now just a matter of who can control the flow of this little chat." The male rose, clapping his mismatched hands together as he did so. Bursts of light were accompanied by the sound of rushing fire, and the torches around the room sprang to life, dousing out the prismatic rays that Celestia stood beneath. "What you've done. Why can't I hear your thoughts anymore? I've tried for days and days, Celestia, and I'm getting nothing from you. Tell me your newfound secret."
Celestia couldn't help but smile to herself upon hearing the edge to his voice. Usually, he was the one irritating her. It seemed that today, the tables had turned.
"Oh, that? Curious, are you?" the alicorn asked in a lighthearted tone. "I thought you loved guessing games, my friend. Why don't you figure it out for yourself?"
Discord advanced slowly, hands clasped behind his back and tail still flicking in annoyance as he regarded the pony before him. With a snort, he cracked his neck, doing his best to maintain his level of calm. "Hm… so you've learned to be a little devious? I like it."
The princess kept her eyes trained on the window, purposefully ignoring the quiet footsteps behind her. Far below, she could see the city streets of Canterlot, upon which tiny silhouettes went about their daily routines, blissfully unaware of the potential danger in the palace above them. With a sigh, Celestia shook her head and turned, only to find her adversary mere feet away from her, wings flared and fang in full display.
"You've successfully removed the fun from our game, Celestia. I would say the board is about even now, but I'm becoming disenchanted with the idea of toying with you." Discord raised his paw, counting out the events of the past few days as he watched Celestia's expression sour. "I injure your student, Lulu injures me. I take Sol's wing, you set me on fire. Thus far, it's been a fair trade. But now, you've removed my ability to access your mind… I believe I am owed a bit of retaliatory compensation."
"First this is a game, and now the sides need to be evened out?" The pony tilted her head, blinking in mock confusion. "The way that you behave, I would think that you would have no problem with me playing unfairly. Let me make one thing very clear, Discord." Celestia advanced, closing the small distance between herself and the angered hybrid. "This isn't a game, and there are no rules. I can live with what you have done to me, but the second that you touched Twilight Sparkle? This became very, very personal. Roping Luna and Sol into our fight, not to mention the entirely innocent Rainbow Dash, only served to help you dig your own grave even deeper."
Discord snorted as a gold-clad hoof was pushed into his chest. The sensation of the cold metal did nothing to unnerve him, and he leaned in toward Celestia's face with a smirk as she continued to speak mere inches from his own. "You may be the more powerful and cunning of us, but do not underestimate me. Your end is coming, Discord, and it will be swift and unexpected."
Another mirthful laugh escaped the draconequus as he backed up, clearly amused by the mare's threatening words. "Quite unexpected, I'll have to agree. Unexpected that the paragon of order and obsessive control would be so quick to toss out the rule book when frustrated. That's my job, little pony."
"And what is that supposed to mean, you posturing foal?" The words came out with an edge to match Discord's own, accompanied by a narrowing of eyes and a dismissive snort.
"Simple. You cling so desperately to your lofty ideals and vaunted kindness that you cannot even see how blind you truly are. You want to get rid of me out of blatant self-interest, Celestia, not because you care for Equestria. That drive to expunge me from this world is a foolish one altogether, regardless of motive." Discord spiraled his talon outward, gesturing to the world beyond the castle walls. "You cannot even let the weather occur naturally. What hope do you have going up against a force of pure chaos?"
Celestia was silent, her eyes locked upon the floor. Her brow furrowed as she considered his words, doing her best not to let Discord get to her. After several deep breaths, she looked back up, choosing to continue playing his game.
"Perhaps I have embraced the concept of order too heavily in the past. But now… I am a changed mare. After what you have shown me through your selfishness and petty desire for revenge… you would do well not to dismiss my power." Celestia began to circle around him, snuffing the torches around the room with a magical wind as she stepped deliberately around the carpet, eyes narrowed and wings flared. "This is not a question of chaos and order, Discord. Perhaps it once was, before you made this into a personal power struggle. I cannot allow you to rule these people, if that is even what you want. What do you want?"
"That should be obvious, my dear." Discord stood picking his talons in the new darkness, thoroughly bored as he slowly stepped to match Celestia's circling motions. "I want to be entertained."
"SPEAK PLAINLY!" Celestia yelled with a stomp. Her nostrils and wings flared as she breathed hard, stopping her walk to glare at him venomously. "Do you even have motive for all the pain that you have caused me? For everything that you have done to those around me? You claim to want revenge upon me, you claim to want the crown, you claim to want entertainment," Celestia snarled, "and yet your story changes as often as the winds! What is your goal?"
The expected smirk that Celestia received only enraged her further, and her fur stood on end as the predictable reply was spoken. "Perhaps all of that, perhaps none of it. I am an agent of cha-"
"You are nothing!" Celestia charged, horn lowered and glowing with heat as she attempted to gore the creature before her. Discord disappeared in a puff of smoke, moving to places unknown as Celestia turned wildly and continued to yell.
"You are not an agent of chaos, you are a foal! To truly champion entropy would mean to want everything to disassociate and decay, leaving no structure even on a basic level! This is not a battle of black and white concepts, it is clashing ideologies and a case of selfishness against benevolence! You threaten Equestria with your meaningless quest for the crown, and you do not even know what you want! Show yourself!"
A rushing wind caught Celestia's attention as the sound of wingbeats echoed off the walls of the room. She turned sharply, horn still blazing as Discord fluttered down to the floor, his misshapen wings held out to catch the still air as he descended with a grin. "Perhaps. But it's so much fun watching you get so frustrated over such a meaningless concept as motive. I am everything that you are not, and I would argue that the reverse is true as well. I suppose that the clearest answer would be that I want you, Little Tia. You entertain me in a way that your mother never could."
"Do not mention my mother you twisted wretch!" The alicorn shook with rage, dropping into a low stance as she prepared herself to charge yet again. Her horn began to spark with magical fire, threatening to spill over and engulf the room at a moment's notice.
"Temper, temper, my quite large pony." Discord wagged a talon mockingly as he folded in his wings, walking forward to the enraged mare. "Admit to it, Celestia. I fascinate you. I can control you, bending you to my will even without access to your mind. It is so simple, so entertaining. So predictable." Discord balled his talon, aiming it directly for Celestia's face. "Now, come, little girl. Charge at me again, and see what happens."
Celestia closed her eyes, and slowed her breathing as her horn stopped sparking. She folded her wings in delicately, letting no expression show upon her face as she focused only upon calming herself. After several seconds of struggle, she managed to rein in her emotions, fighting back the rising bile in her throat and the pounding sensation in her heart to showcase a forced neutrality.
"No? Oh, this is interesting." Discord raised a brow, and dropped his arm to his side. With a dismissive shrug, he turned, only to find the ornate window standing before him, casting light across his body. He surveyed the glass with interest, trying to decipher some sort of pattern as he spoke. "Tell me, Celestia. What is your motive in all of this?"
The question was left hanging as Celestia thought quietly, refusing to give in to anger again at his mocking tone. Neither party moved, each feeling supremely unnerved. Discord stood staring out at the light, while Celestia kept her eyes to the darkened floor below as she finally found words.
"…balance. Fairness. My motive is to give each and every pony what they deserve, and so, my loathing of you is not unjust. You could never understand, Discord."
The draconequus stood silently, still staring out at the ponies below, barely recognizable behind the fragmented colors of the window. Suddenly, he felt a presence beside him, and turned his head to see Celestia staring down as well.
"Celestia, understanding is not my concern. I do what I want, when it suits me."
"How can you live such a life? You're not an idiot, Discord, but you are a foal. With so much power and potential, how can you be so selfish and resign yourself to that lifestyle? Is it not our responsibility to guide those who might need us?"
A hot outpouring of steam coated the colored glass as Discord snorted, clasping his hands behind his back as he shook his head. "Not my problem. You should know well by now that I don't care for such things, and didn't ask to be saddled with such a responsibility. You limit yourself by holding on to your precious rules, Celestia. You could be so much more if you would just step off the precipice of reason…"
"And you could be so much more if you would let go of your misguided hatred and self-interest. Discord…" Celestia began, "I will not give in to you. As conflicted as I may feel about certain things… I know what is and is not acceptable for the ponies of Equestria, and they are my number one concern, far ahead of myself."
Discord continued to silently stare, his only movement being the sudden flicking of his tail behind him as Celestia stood very still. The protests of her student resonated throughout her mind, and she found the desperate plea for another solution surfacing once again in her thoughts. Slowly, she began to speak, disgusted with herself for even considering what she was about to say.
"If what you truly want is me… if that would satisfy you and stop you from hurting everypony… I would prefer that route to the other obvious solution to curing your madness." The alicorn hesitantly extended a wing to touch lightly upon the draconequus' shoulder, earning no reaction from the contemplative creature. "If you would stop hurting me and everypony else… I would do my best to forgive your past crimes, and be content to serve as your muse. You… do interest me, Discord, in an unhealthy and sickening way that I am hesitant to admit to." Celestia took a deep breath, and decided to gamble with a final offer. "...rule alongside me. Allow me to take the lead, and use your abilities for a worthy cause. It doesn't have to be like this. Please, just… consider making sense?"
"Silly Celestia…" Discord suddenly turned, causing the alicorn to withdraw her wing and back away. The mare immediately had her guard up in reaction to the sudden motion, and stood several feet removed from the window. "Stop hurting you? And everypony else? Your pain is my pleasure, Dear. We cannot coexist. Watching your heart crack has been my favorite pastime for centuries, and we are so near to the moment that it will shatter. There can be no peace between us, and I would not have it any other way."
A sudden numbness found its way into Celestia's chest, and the mare found herself at a loss to explain it. With the last shred of hope for reconciliation gone, only one obvious solution remained.
"…then it appears we are at an impasse. You cannot allow me to live without suffering, and I cannot allow you to continue with your insane machinations."
"It would certainly appear that way, Little Tia." Discord spread his arms and wings, glaring as he smiled maliciously at the determined mare. "The question is… what are you going to do about it?"
"That. Is so. Awesome."
Rainbow Dash pressed her hooves into her cheeks, scrunching up her face and suppressing a fanfilly squeal. The saffron pegasus sitting across from her raised a brow, thoroughly entertained by the reaction of the younger mare to her latest tale. Over the past several days, the two had gotten to know each other quite well, beyond the typical relationship of a celebrity and fan. As Spitfire worked her way through her chocolate milkshake, she shrugged her shoulders and considered the girl's words.
"Eh… yeah, I guess it was pretty awesome. I'm honestly surprised you even knew the Wonderbolts act as a bit of a peace-keeping outfit when we're needed."
"Well, I mean," Rainbow Dash stopped herself briefly, trying her best to regulate her tone and keep her cool, "I'm seriously a huge fan. I practically study you guys in my free time, a-and I don't study!"
"So I've heard." Spitfire grinned and shook her head, letting her wild mane fall about her face messily. "Listen, Dash? Can I just call you Dash?"
"Yes," the light-blue pegasus answered with a high-pitched squeal.
"Honestly, you're a pretty cool mare. I love that you're a fan and all that, but… I've got a lot of respect for you, working for the Princess and such." The elder mare pointed her milkshake at the girl, and gave her a lopsided grin. "I know you're still in fanfilly-shock, but… try to just think of me as a friend? It'll be kinda hard, I guess, but… we're working together now, and you're just as important as me in all of this."
Rainbow sputtered, desperately trying not to look like an idiot in front of her idol as she formed a response. "Wh-… working together? I don't… what are you…?"
"Dash… I'm still in the castle because I want to help. I might not know all of the details, but if what you're telling me about Discord being back is true… I'm staying to help Princess Celestia fight this son of a bitch. Soarin and Fleetfoot are handling the rescue and recovery efforts. I'm here to stay until the big issue gets taken care of."
"RAINBOW DASH! CAPTAIN SPITFIRE!"
The ecstatic mare found her coming reply interrupted by a familiar voice from across the large dining hall, and turned to find a light purple unicorn standing in the doorway. Twilight Sparkle stood upon three hooves, beckoning with her head for the two pegasi to come over to her. Rainbow was the first to fly out of her seat, heading directly for her limping friend with a look of concern.
"Twi? What the hay are you doing down here? You shouldn't be walkin' around with a broken foreleg like that. It's just a bad idea all around."
"Gotta say, the kid's right," Spitfire added as she landed next to Rainbow, tossing her empty milkshake into a nearby trashcan. "Foreleg injuries are pretty nasty. They've benched a few members of my team for weeks on end. What's up, and why aren't you resting?"
Twilight let her eyes wander over to Spitfire, never having seen the pegasus out of uniform before. The sight was quite odd, and she couldn't help but raise a brow at the casual appearance of the mare. "Princess Celestia woke up. She's up in the Royal Chambers collecting herself, but she wants us to come and see her so we can figure out what we're doing and when. Rainbow, you ready?"
"Born ready, Twi. Let's kick some flank!" Rainbow gave an enthusiastic whoop, pumping a hoof into the air as she flew in place.
Spitfire laughed at the display and flicked her tail. "Count me in, too. The Princess is an old friend, and if shit's going down, I want to be a part of it."
Twilight blushed a bit at the language, but nodded her consent all the same. "Thank you, Captain Spitfire. I'm sure your skills in the air will serve us well and be appreciated."
"Totally. You need us to carry you?" the professional flier asked with a tilt of the head.
"No, no, I need to get used to walking around like this. I'm… not about to sit around all day feeling sorry for myself just because my… leg is broken…." Twilight looked to the side, hoping that her lie was convincing. "Well… c'mon, girls, let's go get Rarity and head for the Royal Chambers."
The awkward trio stepped out into the hallway, two mares walking while the youngest flew behind them. The tone of the group immediately became somber, and all three ponies fell silent as they slowly walked toward a desperate and unfortunate reality that none of them would be able to escape. As they rounded a corner and began to ascend a large flight of spiral stairs, Rainbow Dash landed between her two friends and broke the silence.
"…guys? I'm… I'm starting to think about this whole… thing. Like… really think."
"Oh, shut up, Twi. You know what I mean. But… this is like… really bad. You guys aren't… scared?"
Twilight hobbled her way up the steps, getting increasingly frustrated with keeping up the act. "Rainbow… I'm not even going to be fighting, and I'm terrified. It's okay to be scared, and we've got each other. We'll be alright." The unicorn grunted with effort, earning a sympathetic look from Spitfire.
"Well… I'll be honest, I have no idea what the hell I'm getting myself into. I'm just along for the ride and because my experience might be useful. I've never even seen Discord, I just know he's bad news. So… I'm not scared. Just cautious, I guess."
Rainbow nodded, and looped her neck under Twilight's good leg while placing her hoof upon the unicorn's back to help her up the stairs. "Alright… I just… hey, isn't that… what the hay?"
The group made it to the top of the stairs to find two ponies walking toward them from origins unknown. The pair caught sight of the others and quickly began to gallop down the hallway, happy to be reunited with the ones they were looking for.
"Ah, there you all are. Sol and I have been looking for you two! And…" Rarity raised a brow at the third pony, an unfamiliar feeling causing her to pause.
"…Spitfire. You kicked me in the face at the Best Young Fliers Competition while you were flailing around as I tried to save your flank. Good times." Spitfire grinned and offered a hoof, which the blushing unicorn hesitantly accepted.
"Ah… sorry about that. I… wasn't really thinking clearly with that whole… thing… eheh…"
"Psh, don't worry about it. I've had plenty of concussions before, and it's in the past. So what's up? And… Sol, is it? Celestia's personal bodyg- oh sweet shit what happened to your wing?"
Sol gave a grim smile, shaking hooves with the mare before him. "You never were one for tact, Spitfire. It's a long story. Discord is responsible. I'll live."
Twilight rolled her eyes and sighed. "A stallion of many words, as always. Ever since I was a little filly, you've never said much, Sol."
Twilight and Rarity laughed as the group circled up and began heading for the Royal Chambers together, moving as one.
"Uh… guys," Rainbow interjected, "d-do you think the Princess needs more time? I-I mean… should we really be heading there now? What if she's busy?"
"We can't afford a delay. If you want to back out, do so now," Sol replied while shifting his sheathed sword against his side.
"Hay no! I'm just sayin'!" Rainbow put her hooves on her sides indignantly as she flew slowly above the rest of the group. "I'm not scared!"
Everypony below rolled their eyes as they moved for the large golden door in the center of the hallway. Twilight and Sol moved forward first, and the guard nodded to the unicorn as they stood before the portal.
"Yes," Twilight nodded. With a careful motion, she pushed into the door and stepped inside, only to gasp in surprise at the sight before her while the others fell in at her sides. Sol immediately drew his blade and took it in his mouth, adopting a fighting stance as he sighted Discord standing before Celestia, arms and wings spread and a menacing look upon his face. Rainbow and Twilight stepped back in fear, while Rarity stood beside Sol, horn aglow with a light green aura as she stood ready to defend the stallion. Spitfire stood with a hoof tucked under herself, frozen to the spot as she saw the twisted creature for the first time.
"Holy shit," she whispered, before turning to Rainbow. "A-alright, yeah. I'm a little scared."
Princess Celestia turned her head, barely allowing her attention to be drawn from her adversary. "Girls? And Sol? Wonderful timing. I fear that I have not had time to formulate a concrete plan, as somepony dropped in uninvited."
Discord smiled and gave a small bow to the newcomers. "Yes, I tend to do that. Hello, girls, and… ooh, a new arrival. I'm not sure if I recognize you, my dear."
"Spitfire. Charmed." The light yellow pegasus took to the air, eyes locked onto the chimera as he rose from his sarcastic bow.
"Right. Now that we're all friends here… Little Tia and I were having a conversation, and it's very rude to just butt in. I'm afraid I'll have to send you all away." With a quick snap, the draconequus summoned a bright red field of crackling magic, dividing the room and blocking off the group from himself and Celestia. Nopony dared approach it as tiny arcs of white lightning jumped from its surface, and Celestia turned back to face the chuckling male.
The alicorn flared her wings once again and moved to dispel the field, only to find her enemy had moved forward and was clutching her throat with his talons. The sudden contact caught her by surprise, and she felt herself being choked slowly by his overpowering grip as the group of ponies screamed from behind the field.
"How about I kill you right in front of your faithful student? Or perhaps I should kill her in front of you?"
Celestia made a pained noise and kicked out wildly, striking Discord in the chest and causing him to release his grip. She wheezed heavily as she doubled over, horn sparking and anger reaching its boiling point.
"You will do neither!"
"Poor, deluded Little Celestia. Always lashing out at that which she does not understand…" Discord turned and walked away from the alicorn, picking at his talons once again as he showed his back to her. "Useless daughter to a murdered king, accomplice to her mother's slaughter, charlatan and posturer with a winning smile. Luna has obviously abandoned you, as I do not see her standing to fight at your side. Even your little student is about to be lost, and you can do nothing to stop it."
Twilight Sparkle shivered from behind the sparking field of electricity, but stood her ground despite the threat. She slowly slipped her hoof out of the bandaging and lowered it to the floor, letting the sling hang uselessly around her neck as she prepared for the worst and continued to listen to the cocky draconequus.
"It will be oh so much fun to gut her in front of you, watching your face as she screams her last w-"
Celestia didn't give him a chance to finish, and charged at full speed into Discord's back, tackling him with all of her might and thrusting her horn deep into his shoulder, drawing flecks of crimson blood into the air while she screamed.
"YOU WILL NOT TOUCH HER!"
The sound of shattering glass filled the air as the alicorn and abomination flew through the window, their skin being subjected to hundreds of tiny lacerations as they passed through the barrier and into the afternoon sky. Celestia tightened her grip upon Discord, holding him to her with a tether of magical force as they spiraled through the winds, fighting for control as the pair headed for the cobblestone road below at dangerous speed. A bright flash of red shot out from the broken window as Discord's magical field was interrupted, and streaks of rainbow and orange flew down alongside the tumbling alicorn and her prey. Blood continued to flow from Discord's shoulder as he was forced underneath Celestia, the mare glaring furiously and pushing him downward as they fell. Finally, after seconds of struggle, they impacted the ground and skidded to a halt.
Celestia tumbled off of the draconequus, rolling along the stone and quickly getting to her hooves having suffered only superficial cuts and bruises. Discord rose immediately as well, the fur on his left shoulder stained a darker brown as the blood slowly congealed. Rainbow Dash and Spitfire landed in front of Celestia, both dropping into stance and flaring their wings protectively as the hybrid's talons crackled with magic. The townsfolk in the area gasped and screamed in horror at the sight of their bloodstained princess staring down the chimera they had thought was sealed in stone, and several ponies began to run away from the area while a few stood frozen in horror at the sight.
"So, this is it, Celestia? We have our little duel, in the middle of the streets of Canterlot, winner take all?"
Celestia replied by shooting a golden rocket of magic into the air, praying that wherever she was, Luna would see it. Despite having the momentary advantage, she knew well how dangerous Discord truly was, and began to circle around him with her two pegasi to stall for time as Discord returned the gesture.
"It would appear that way. I cannot risk you having the opportunity to take any more lives in your selfish 'game'!" Two ponies ran by Celestia as she spoke, and she quickly realized that their chosen battleground would prove incredibly unfavorable for the safety of innocents. With a quick shiver, she began to back away, hoping to lure the enraged draconequus into a less populated area, only for him to stand his ground and turn to face a cowering colt pressed up against a building.
"How convenient that there are plenty of lives here for the taking, then. It would appear that you have erred, Celestia. This was a very bad place to start a fight…"
The Princess and her pegasi moved forward as one, each flying in a different direction to distract Discord from his innocent prey. As Discord took to the sky to head for Celestia, Rarity and Sol came running out of the castle, the unicorn slinging bolts of green in Discord's direction while Sol walked under the flying beast's shadow in hopes to score a blow if he landed.
"Five against one? This is hardly fair…" Discord commented, landing atop the roof of a nearby home and spreading his wings threateningly. "I suppose I'm just going to have to eliminate one of you quickly to even the odds…"
Celestia landed feet from Discord on the rooftop, horn alight and eyes blazing. As she began to walk toward him, her attention was called to the sky, where a rippling blanket of black clouds was beginning to encroach from the direction of Ponyville. The princess stopped her advance, holding up her hoof to call attention to Spitfire and Rainbow Dash, who also stopped to look up at the strange phenomenon.
"Discord? What foolishness is this?" Celestia looked to her enemy, only to find his eyes locked skyward as well.
"This… is not my doing. Nor is it a natural storm…" The draconequus took to the air, hovering several feet above the rooftop below as the jet-black clouds continued to roll in. All at once, the sky itself faded to black, and a spattering of eerie, twinkling stars washed across the blank canvas of unnatural night. Celestia's heart leapt at the sight, and she suddenly felt extremely unsettled.
Celestia and Discord both descended back to the ground, neither sure what was happening, but both extremely cautious. The two pegasi stayed in the air, eyes trained upon the sky for any signal or explanation. Suddenly, Rainbow flew down next to Celestia and pointed a hoof toward an incoming projectile rocketing across the night sky.
"Princess! Look! I-is that…!"
With a furious scream, the object hit, skidding into the street and ripping up cobblestone as it ground to a halt in front of the surprised ponies. Celestia's jaw dropped as she beheld the sight before her, completely unwilling to believe that it was there.
"L-luna? No… not this…"
"Luna? Hardly," the cold, calculating voice replied. The statement was accompanied by a chilling laugh as the jet-black mare rose to stand at her full height, massive black wings held out to the side and cerulean armor glowing as the moon rose up from behind her. "It would seem that your sister recognized the need for my power in this situation. Hello, Discord." The mare inclined her head in a mocking greeting, while the draconequus froze, completely speechless at the sight of the intimidating alicorn.
"Ah, and it would seem that some of the Bearers are here as well…" The pony snorted, and stomped a diamond-glass clad hoof into the ruined stone beneath her. "How convenient. This should be a nice little three-way struggle." The pony gave another stomp, crushing a rock beneath her hoof and smiling as she watched it splinter. Slowly, she rose her teal, snakelike eyes to meet Celestia's own, and flashed a sadistic grin. "Well, my daughter. Are you ready to begin?"
Before the white alicorn had a chance to reply, Nightmare Moon shot forth, horn lowered and aimed directly for Discord's heart.
Credits go to Cadenceofrain.