Chapter 5: The Price of Victory
Twilight’s family clustered tightly around her as she walked with Celestia up to the castle. They were walking fairly slowly---she and Celestia were both very tired from adventuring all day. For a long time, they said nothing; they just slowly walked up the steps into the palace, through the main hall, toward the audience chamber.
Servants and ladies-in-waiting were scurrying here and there, trying to make sure everything that needed to happen would happen---their Princess had to be comfortable, the meals had to be ready, all the generals and nobles had to be informed and greeted made ready for. Just being around all that hustle and bustle and having to have her mind process it all was making Twilight all the more tired; even though she didn’t have to lift a hoof to do any of the work, she felt as tired as if she had to do all of it, herself. She noted that the adventuring throughout the day had taken its toll on her, and probably on her friends, too. But then again, they had liberated three cities and destroyed a core deep in the woods. Maybe, just maybe, they could afford several hours of rest so that she and her friends could get some sleep.
On the other hand, maybe it was more like they couldn’t afford to not take several hours off to sleep. After all, only the Elements of Harmony can destroy cores, and if the bearers of those elements aren’t in good shape, the Elements won’t work.
Twilight’s thoughts were interrupted as she heard Cadence, who was walking between herself and Celestia, say, “Aunt Tia, I’ve never seen you this angry, before. What’s wrong?”
Twilight remembered how angry Celestia had been at the top of Cloudsdale and found, to her horror, that she was glad for once that she couldn’t see Celestia’s face. ...Twilight tried not to be so horrified---partly because some small corner of her heart told her it wasn’t really wrong to not want to see Celestia angry, but mostly because she was too tired for any more horror.
Celestia answered softly, “I’m sorry, Cadence, it’s just that...I’m finally putting things together in my mind about what’s really going on. I just remembered a dream I had when I was a young mare that I tried so hard to forget---and I succeeded a little too well. There’s a lot to tell---please, wait to hear it until the nobles and the palace guard are assembled; it’s a painful story, and I’d rather not tell it twice.”
Twilight looked ahead and saw a huge pile of pillows and a few blankets stacked up where the throne would normally be. Thank goodness the castle’s staff had realized that Celestia and her friends needed to rest, and had planned accordingly! Celestia lay down on the pillows, and Twilight took off her sweater, pulled a blanket over her shoulders, and sat down next to Celesta just as she finished weaving the radar spell again. Celestia beckoned her to snuggle up to her side, and Twilight did---something in her mind objected, something made her feel like it was disrespectful, but Twilight knew better than to listen to that part of her mind. Celestia whispered to her, “We don’t do this often enough, Twilight.” Twilight silently nuzzled her back in agreement, but she was a little too tired to answer.
There were already a few nobles and generals sitting down in a semicircle in the audience chamber, but the seats weren’t all full---it would still be some time before the meeting could start. The food Celestia had ordered was ready, though, and she took the time she had to eat quickly before she had to speak.
Twilight ate at a slower pace; the servant who had brought the tray out to her had to keep holding it up with his horn magic, since the pillows didn’t give them a place to set the tray down. Twilight was so tired that she could hardly do more than pick at her food; she’d gotten so used to being hungry over the course of the day that she almost didn’t feel like eating, anymore. But she kept forcing herself to keep biting, keep chewing, and keep swallowing. She knew she’d need her strength---whether she’d need it in the morning, or in the next hour.
As soon as she was done, she switched out with Rarity, rested her spirit orb on the pillows under Celestia’s blanket, and tried to get herself into the entranced state she’d been in for a few hours in Everfree. Perhaps she succeeded for a little while; she was only half-aware of the remaining nobles and generals filing into the room, of Celestia clearing her throat, apologizing for not getting up to speak, and telling the story of how she and Twilight and Twilight’s friends had beaten back the cores, the corruption, the elementals---how Celestia’s secrets had been revealed, how Satallion now knew her weaknesses, and how all of Cloudsdale had forgiven her in a heartbeat for using pegasi for weather control. She added what she knew of the weaknesses of the corruption, how it was easy to detect, the tactics that had worked, and how Satallion wasn’t actually able to give his thralls direct commands remotely. It was all information Twilight already knew. But when Celestia said, “And I am finally beginning to see a bigger picture,” Twilight couldn’t stay asleep; she had to wake up and listen to this---it was something she didn’t already know.
“When I was a young mare---shortly after Nightmare Moon took Luna away from me, but before I used the Elements to banish her---I had a dream. A dream that, at the time, I thought was a nightmare and merely a figment of my imagination. But now I realize that it was a real visitation by the personification of everything I have stood against all my life. A creature resembling an alicorn with black fur, two horns and a fiery mane approached me, calling himself Satallion. He told me that, when a pony who has lived in hate perishes, their hatred lives on and consumes their soul. That hatred wanders about in darkness and void until it combines with the hatred of other souls, and the longer ponykind exists, the more souls combine. Eventually, this mass of hatred developed a will and identity of its own, and this alicorn-shaped demon I saw in my dream claimed to be that amalgamated hate.”
The Princess was getting more and more upset as she told this story. “He told me that Nightmare Moon was using the power of hate, and that the only way I could overcome her was to use the power of hate, as well. He promised me that, if I would cast a spell to bring him into the material plane, he would give me all the power I needed to defeat her and more. I asked him why he wanted to enter the material plane, and he told me...” The Princess trailed off and swallowed hard. Twilight braced herself for what would follow: she knew it would be disturbing. “He told me that he wanted to seed the living with hate so he could consume their souls. He said that he was beginning to get hungry, because fewer and fewer ponies were perishing with hate in their hearts.”
Pinkie, who had scarfed down her dinner in one impossibly large gulp, interrupted: “Is that because you’d been ruling as Princess for a while, by then?”
Celestia looked at Pinkie for a moment, then a look of dawning realization spread across her face. Her face, which had been darkened by terror, guilt, rage, and horror for so long, brightened with awe as she realized something amazing, something wonderful---something big. She whispered, “Yes...yes, Luna and I had been ruling for twenty-three years when this happened. If he was telling the truth, then...”
Pinkie happily, and with childlike ignorance, continued, “If he was telling the truth, then just by being around, you were always reminding all the ponies to live in harmony and not to get mad at each other or act all mean like they did when those Windigoes were everywhere, so they could go to pony heaven instead of to him!”
Celestia slowly looked down at Pinkie with an unreadable expression. She was in some kind of shock. Again. Twilight thought about why, and realized that Celestia had just been hit with the realization of just how good for all ponykind she really was. She always strived to be the best Princess she could be, and that was partly out of a relentless pursuit of self-improvement, and partly out of duty to her people. But never once had it occurred to her that, just by being a constant reminder of goodness, just by being something and someone that all of ponykind could unite under, she had been changing the destiny of a whole race for the better! The thought of that amount of sheer goodness---stemming from Celestia just being who she was, no less---was staggering.
Then it hit Twilight that she was one of the closest friends of the Princess: she was helping to make her life happier---the life of a being whose very existence had changed the destiny of ponykind forever for the better! Twilight suddenly felt like everything around her was far more amazing than she’d ever realized, like the very floors she walked on were made of gold, the sky above her was one giant sapphire, and she herself---though she didn’t always feel like it or act like it---was an angel in the presence of the gods.
It was a heady, overwhelming feeling for Twilight. And Twilight guessed Celestia felt the same way. It was surprising that Pinkie didn’t feel the same awe and shock of the sheer hugeness of the implications of what they were discussing: the eternities of millions, probably billions of ponies were changed from horror and agony to bliss and love, all because of this one mare’s faithfulness! But then again, Twilight realized, this was the blessing of being able to look at things simply: to Pinkie, this was good. That was all she thought, and it was all she needed to think as far as she was concerned. Pinkie was able to simply rejoice in that goodness, or in any other goodness, whatever its magnitude---and that was more than enough for her.
For a few minutes, Twilight dwelt on these thoughts of goodness, immensity, and simplicity. But as wonderful as it all was, there was more to be discussed in that meeting. Celestia and she were thinking as one, it seemed, but Celestia took a moment to nuzzle Pinkie and said, “...Thank you for pointing that out, Pinkie---I needed something to cheer me up after thinking about that nightmare, but...I must continue.
“If Satallion was telling the truth, then his whole purpose is to consume ponykind with his corruption. The corruption’s real purpose is to force the souls of whoever perishes while under his influence into becoming food for him. His goal isn’t political conquest, or even to build an army; those are merely accidental to his true purpose: it’s to turn all of Equestria into a farm of hate---a farm that breeds only spiteful souls for him to consume.”
Twilight shuddered at the thought; this was as awful as the Princess had seemed wonderful moments ago. What felt like a jeweled sky above her and a golden land around her suddenly became a dark, bleak wasteland. She could tell from the reactions of the council that they were just as horrified as she was.
“What makes it even worse,” Celestia continued, “Was that Nightmare Moon was a part of his plan to do this all along.” Celestia slowly became angrier and angrier as she explained the horrific puzzle she had finally solved: “He somehow corrupted Luna into becoming Nightmare Moon, and he put an impossible decision in front of me: either summon him to the land of the living, or feel the pain of losing my sister for a thousand years!” Celestia began to lose her composure. “There is no curse, no insult equal to the task of denouncing his evil! He always gives his enemies difficult choices; I watched him do it to my student, and he did it to me, too! He made me banish Luna to the moon for a thousand years---he stole away from me my sister, the dearest thing to my heart and the only other alicorn who will live forever to keep me company through my eternal vigil over ponykind! She was like my other half; we did EVERYTHING together, and he took her AWAY FROM ME!!” Celestia stopped and tried to compose herself.
Hearing the Princess’s voice grow angrier and angrier was absolutely bone-chilling to Twilight. She tried to remind herself that Celestia wasn’t angry at her, she was angry at a cruel demon with horrible, horrible plans for everything Twilight had ever loved. When Twilight thought about it, she realized that anypony who doesn’t get angry at him has something wrong with her! Of course Celestia is angry at him! But Celestia’s anger still terrified Twilight, and her fear absolutely refused to disappear in a puff of logic. Twilight barely managed to avoid screaming or whimpering; in her heart, she was clinging on for dear life to the knowledge that she loved the Princess and the Princess loved her.
Luna spoke up quietly: “Sister...the fault is also mine; I entertained the whisperings of resentment he sent to my mind---”
Celestia interrupted, her tone much softer, “I forgave you for that a thousand years ago, Luna.”
Twilight felt more than a little relieved to hear the Princess’s normal, caring tones, and it was heartwarming to know that Celestia has always wanted healing between her and her sister---if she knew what Twilight was feeling, she’d want healing there, too, and Twilight knew it. But the fear still lingered inside Twilight, like smoke from an extinguished fire.
After a few more moments of silence, Shining Armor stepped forward. “Princess, this is the direst threat to our land that anyone on this council has ever heard of, let alone faced. We need to find and destroy this Satallion demon, but given what you’ve told us, my troops will never be able to stand up to this evil unless the Spell of Unity is placed on them. Give the word, and we’ll gather together every able-bodied wizard to cast that spell on our army; we can have a hundred teams to search every part of Equestria for this menace! We can round up volunteers from the populace if we have to---”
“Search parties won’t be necessary, Captain,” Celestia interrupted. “If he’s still anywhere in Equestria, then the radar spell will find him. If he has one weakness, it’s that he and his machinations are easily detectable with the radar’s magic.”
“I still think we should have the Spell of Unity placed on our army; once we know where he is, we’ll need it to be able to fight him and bring him down.”
Celestia shook her head. “Only the Elements of Harmony have been able to destroy his cores; it’s a foregone conclusion that nothing less will be able to either destroy or banish Satallion himself. Once we know where he is, I and the bearers of the Elements of Harmony will need to set out immediately to destroy him.”
“Princess, please---I don’t think that’s a good idea at all. Don’t get me wrong; I have every confidence in Twilight and her friends. They’ve saved Equestria from threats that all the might of the military couldn’t stand up to, and they’ve done it more than once. But they’re exhausted; my troops are fresh and ready to serve our nation.
“Please, Princess, give our army a chance to hold him off! I can assemble a team of the fastest pegasi, the strongest earth ponies, the most powerful unicorns---even if they can’t stop him outright, they can at least keep him busy or slow him down long enough for you to rest! Then you can face him after you’ve rested---by then, we might even have the intelligence to make sure the whole fight is on your terms when you do face him!”
Celestia shook her head again. “Tempting as it is, that plan doesn’t make sense. What would your army do if they found him planting a new core? They wouldn’t have any means of destroying it or slowing down his conquest of new lands. I’d love to leave this in your hooves and get a good night’s rest---for myself, and for my six friends. But the fact is, the army wouldn’t even be able to slow him down.”
At that moment, the radar came back. Twilight’s mother---who Twilight had forgotten was present---walked up to it, as did a number of other expert wizards. They examined the radar, and Twilight’s mother gasped. “The negative energy this spell picked up is off the charts, your highness! Nothing short of the Elements of Harmony could possibly counter it!”
Celestia looked at the radar, and noted aloud, “He’s in the northern wastes, far from civilization.” She sighed sadly. “We need to end this war against him quickly; his influence can spread exponentially---there is no choice; we must go and face him now.
She turned to Captain Shining Armor and, while he was still inhaling to protest, she said, “I know you want to go with us, but you cannot---we can’t risk you falling into his hooves again. Besides, if our attack fails---well, let me put it this way: Satallion isn’t the only one who can make elaborate plans to subvert his enemies.”
She turned to the assembled nobles and generals. “Have all of Equestria, from Los Pegasos to Baltimare, gather up all their harvests and food stockpiles and move into Canterlot---this is an evacuation.” She turned to Shining Armor. “Once they’re inside, set up a forcefield around Canterlot to keep him out. And take every precaution that he doesn’t find a way to sneak in during the evacuation.” She turned to Luna. “If we fail and perish in our attempt to destroy him, then the Elements of Harmony will revert back to you---you will be their sole wielder; you must use them to destroy Satallion! He will ultimately have to attack Canterlot for his plans to come to fruition---evacuating the population here forces him into a bottleneck, and he won’t know that you have the Elements. When he comes here, you can destroy him!”
Luna’s face went pale at the thought. “Don’t talk like that! Tia, you’ll come back alive!”
Celestia looked at Twilight’s spirit orb with a warm smile, then at Cadence, then back at Luna, then she seemed to stare off at something in the distance that wasn’t quite present---she shut her eyes in rapture, and sighed happily. “Nopony who has ever lived in all of Equestria has more to live for than me, Luna. I have every intention of coming back to you and Equestria alive. But I need to take precautions for any and every possibility.”
Luna rushed up to Celestia and buried her face in her shoulder, sobbing. “Please...don’t leave me to rule alone forever!”
Celestia nuzzled her back. “One way or another, you won’t be alone, Luna. You’ll have the fealty of every pony in Equestria, and if worse comes to worse, you can do what I did---pick a pupil from my School for Gifted Unicorns once a generation, and you will always have somepony close to your heart. It’s how I kept my heart from growing cold over the last thousand years.”
“But I am a thousand miles away from the hearts of our people, and cannot even understand them!”
“The deck was also stacked against me when you---when Nightmare Moon was banished to the moon, and I was alone to rule Equestria. Granted, I had Aunt Platinum and Starswirl to teach me what was necessary to rule a kingdom, but I had a lot to learn, and a lot of mistakes to make. But I worked through those mistakes, learned from them, and I grew into the Princess I am today, and I know you’re capable of doing the same. Besides, even if some of the people harbor suspicion in their hearts, you will win them back when you wield the Elements to destroy Satallion.”
Luna sobbed, then answered, “You will destroy Satallion and come back to me alive; let them all be suspicious of me until the day they die!”
Celestia hesitated for a moment. Apparently, she decided to take Luna’s words as a sign of her love and devotion; she smiled and said, “Very well. Keep these precautions in place, but there is one last thing: make sure the baths are ready for us...when we get back. It’s been a long, hard, sweaty adventure, and I’m looking forward to a nice, hot bath before bed.”
Luna nodded vehemently. “It’ll be ready for you to wade right in; there’ll be a dozen servants to scrub every inch of you clean as a whistle---you won’t have to raise a hoof!”
“Then I’ll want to be ready to go in the moment I come back.” Celestia slipped her gold crown, her necklace, and her shoes off, and laid them on the pillows. “If I take them off now, then I won’t have to bother after the battle.”
Luna nodded vigorously.
Twilight looked at Celestia without the jewels on, and somehow, she looked different...her fur was white and featureless, her hair looked a little bit messier, though still enchantedly waving with the colors of the dawn. She looked almost like a normal pony, only taller.
Celestia looked at the jewels she’d laid aside, and added, “Luna---if I don’t come back, I want you to wear them.”
“You will come back!” Luna insisted.
Celestia continued, “And if I don’t come back, I want you to take the title of Queen. I...I made the decision not take that title a thousand years ago. Aunt Platinum almost begged me to, but I knew that, if I did, I’d be elevating myself above you---you’ d be a princess and I’d be Queen. I didn’t want to give you any reason to be jealous when you finally came back and the prophecy came true, so I kept the title of Princess all these years. But if there is only one of us, then there’s no reason not to take the title of Queen. And you deserve it; you were always the better-behaved of the two of us. Sometimes, it seemed like you only ever got into trouble because I dragged you along...” Celestia’s sentence trailed off. “...Actually...I’ve spent the last thousand years trying to be more like you.”
Luna stayed silent, looking up into Celestia’s eyes. “Come back!” she finally sobbed.
It dawned on Twilight that the thought of Celestia disappearing from her life forever was as terrifying to Luna as the thought of her being angry was to Twilight---it was nearly soul-splitting terror to them, enough to make them refuse to believe things, or keep them from ceasing to think about things. Twilight began to wonder whether everypony there was somehow crazy in one way or another...but even if they were all crazy, the fact that they cared about each other was enough to hold each pony’s mind together in one piece. And it would be enough to keep them together as a team, too.
Celestia kissed her sister and whispered, “I’ll come back.” The two of them sat for one last moment, holding each other. They sat in silence, each knowing that it could be the last time they’d be together.
Twilight noted it could be the same with her and her parents, so she switched out and rested her head on her parents’ shoulders. Cadence and Shining Armor joined the moment, and walked up to her as well, resting their heads on Twilight’s shoulders.
Twilight whispered, “If...anything happens to me, make sure Spike has a home. And tell him I’m sorry I couldn’t see him again, or even send him a letter to tell him I’m all right---it’s just been too hectic...fighting...all day!”
Twilight’s mother nodded. “We’ll make sure he has a place to stay. He’ll be all right.”
Shining Armor whispered, “Take care of the Princess for me, sis.”
“I will,” she sniffled back.
Finally, Twilight sensed that it was time for her to face the abyss. She wasn’t afraid of that, anymore: after seeing Celestia angry, she felt like this demon would be nothing in the comparison. She took a step back toward the Princess, and her family backed away from her. She turned to Celestia, and she, too, was ready to let go and face Satallion.
Twilight swallowed hard, and asked her friends, still in spirit form, “Everypony ready?”
Rainbow Dash shouted, “We’re ready for anything this demon has to throw at us!”
“We’ll find a way to beat him, one way or another,” Rarity pointed out. “Even if we don’t survive our first attempt, all that will happen is a sunstone will get consumed, and we’ll be able to try again!”
Celestia froze for a moment, lost in thought. She stamped her hoof in frustration and snarled to herself, “Why didn’t I order every sunstone in the palace brought here…?!”
Shining Armor shouted, “I’ll collect them personally if it---”
“Enough, Captain. I know you hate feeling useless in this crisis, but I assure you that you’re far from useless. And there’s no time; we must depart now.”
Shining Armor nodded. “But if there’s anything we can do for you---even the smallest thing---please, let us know.”
“Don’t worry, we will,” Celestia said. She took one final look at Luna, sighed sadly, then looked to the council and said, “You all have your orders. Dismissed!” With that, she disappeared in a flash.
They reappeared in a wasteland that appeared to be full of lava and steam. Twilight felt like the shock of going from the frosty cold of Canterlot to the boiling heat of this volcanic caldera was awful---that, and the sheer stench of sulfur from the lava made her wonder whether she was in hell, or in a sewer. “What is this?” Twilight screamed.
Celestia herself sneezed the stench out of her nostrils. “All this must be the work of Satallion’s magic; there isn’t a volcano anywhere near Equestria!”
Twilight shuddered, despite the heat. “At least he did this in the wilderness; imagine if he’d done this someplace where ponies lived! ...Wait a minute: why didn’t he do this someplace where ponies lived?”
Something clicked in Celestia’s mind. “Maybe he isn’t nearly as powerful as he’d like us to believe! If he tried this anywhere near civilization, we’d throw everything we had at him to stop him. If chose to change the landscape here as opposed to near a town specifically to avoid that, then that means our military might actually have a chance against him!”
“Ya reckon we should we summon the army after all?” Applejack asked.
Celestia shook her head. “It’s still not worth the risk. He could have some other reason for creating a volcano here that we haven’t thought of, yet.”
“Where is he?” Twilight asked, trying to look around everywhere, even up, to see if she could spot anything that looked like a black alicorn.
Celestia’s nose wrinkled. “I can sense his general presence north of us, but there’s no telling what we’ll find if we teleport there directly. There may be no solid ground, and it would be exactly like him to trick us into teleporting into a lake of fire. No---we’re going to have to walk or fly there.”
Celestia switched back into spirit form, and Twilight began looking for ways to travel north. She looked at a bridge over a pool of lava, and shouted to her friends, “Listen---I know that in movies or books, if one of the characters is close to lava, they’re okay if they don’t touch the lava. But it’s not like that in real life; lava makes the air dangerously hot, too, so if we go anywhere near or above the lava, we’re going to have to make it very quick---and we should hold our breath, too.”
Rainbow Dash switched out, held her breath, and zoomed over the bridge to the other side---and found that the valley below them was seething with elementals.
“Of course,” Twilight grumbled, switching out. She did her best to dodge as dark arrows came flying at her, and she fired back as best she could. “He might know we’re here,” Twilight thought aloud.
“He might’ve sensed the radar,” Celestia thought aloud. “We may need to proceed with caution.”
Rarity switched out and hurled ice crystals at the elementals. “I’d better use these up while I still can; it’s not cold enough for these to stay solid, anymore!” she thought aloud. Sure enough, the elementals she hit were frozen, and the rest of them began shooting the icy prisons to free the trapped ones. That took pressure off of Twilight and let her shoot the distracted elementals. Rarity had to switch out to freeze more of them several times before the field was cleared of elementals, but they cleared it.
Breathing heavily, Twilight croaked, “Rainbow Dash, get us there as fast as you can!”
“Right!” she shouted back, switching out and flying as quickly as she could to the north.
“How far do we need to go?” Applejack asked.
“It’ll be less than four miles,” Celestia answered. “Keep your eyes open; he could have any number of traps waiting for us.”
Twilight looked into the distance and down at the ground---the more she thought about it, the more she thought that an ambush of some kind was the perfect way for Satallion to respond to their presence. It would have to be something they wouldn’t expect, something dastardly. But that’s just it; they were expecting an ambush. How could he surprise them if they were expecting to be surprised? ...Twilight tried to think back to every book she’d read where a brilliant tactician tried to take an enemy by surprise, and she began to see a pattern as her tired brain unearthed example after example from her memory: the way you surprise someone who’s expecting a surprise is to find a way to surprise them that they didn’t expect. Then Twilight realized that they were looking straight ahead and down, expecting to see an army of elementals or some ponies still under his thrall at wherever it was that the radar had found him. But they weren’t looking to the sides or above them or behind them!
Twilight swung her spirit orb behind Rainbow Dash’s back to see if she could spot any enemies closing in from behind, and made a mental note to speak up about what she’d just thought, so that her friends and Celestia could look to the sides or sky. With seven pairs of eyes between them, they’d be sure to spot any threat long before it would be a problem---
Her thoughts were interrupted at the sight of a violet-eyed griffon charging them from behind, talons poised to shred Rainbow Dash’s wings as soon as she was close enough! “BEHIND US!” Twilight screamed. “It’s Gilda!”
Rainbow Dash peeled off to the side in a dizzying, unpredictable series of barrel rolls and loop-de-loops. She landed in a large open area near the shore of a lava lake and snorted up at Gilda.
“You spotted me?” Gilda asked. “Aww---and I was thinking you weren’t gonna make this fun!” Gilda began gesturing at the air, and clouds of volcanic ash began swirling and flashing lightning at them. Celestia tried to stifle a whimper. “Whassa matter, scared of a little lightning?” she taunted Celestia.
Rainbow Dash charged at her through the air, screaming, “NO ONE DOES THAT TO THE PRINCESS!!!”
“Rainbow Dash, stop!” Twilight shouted.
“She’s tryin’ ta make ya act without thinkin’!” Applejack shouted.
Rainbow Dash apparently took that advice to heart, because she suddenly stopped, launched a tornado at Gilda, and veered back to the ground. And it wasn’t a moment too soon, either: a dark ballista bolt went flying up at the place where Dash had been flying towards seconds ago! They looked, at it had come from Trixie.
Rainbow Dash swallowed hard. Twilight shared the sentiment.
“The Great and Powerful Trixie is willing to accept your surrender now!” Trixie bellowed.
“Accept this!” Rarity shouted back, hurling ice at Trixie. Trixie launched the ice back at Rarity with a burst of magic, and Rarity was just quick enough to dodge away.
Gilda charged them, while Trixie remained at a safe distance and hurled assorted blasts of magic at them. Rarity tried hurling ice at Gilda, and it looked like it had worked, as it locked Gilda’s talon in ice---but then she just began using the ice’s hard surface as a fist weapon, and struck Rarity a telling blow across the face!
Rarity screamed, and Applejack switched out. She kicked Gilda solidly in the belly, and hurled her lasso up at Gilda, securely snaring her neck. Applejack did her best to dodge out of the way of Trixie’s magic, and yanked Gilda down out of the sky with all her might. Gilda landed in a heap on the rocky ground, and Twilight switched out and blasted Gilda with as many arrows as she could, all while dodging this way and that to keep Trixie from hitting her.
Trying to buy them more time, Twilight shouted, “Pinkie, party cannon!”
Gilda groaned. She started to say “Not this agai---” but the fly paper had covered her mouth, too.
“Rarity, more ice!” Twilight added, and Rarity switched out and covered Gilda in as much ice as she could. That was it: Gilda was completely immobilized.
They turned their attention to Trixie, who was now charging at them, surrounded by an aura of magic. Rarity tried hurling ice at Trixie, but the ice shattered before it could touch her. Pinkie switched out and jumped over Trixie, trying to hit her with her party cannon, but the fly paper just burned to ashes against her forcefield. Trixie slammed into Gilda and shattered most of her bonds, then cast some kind of shield around Gilda while she began pounding at the ice and fly strips with her magic to break Gilda out.
“Fluttershy!” Twilight shouted. Fluttershy switched out and sent a flock of bats flying at Trixie and Gilda, and Trixie immediately began swatting at the bats. Twilight switched out and tried to fire arrows at Trixie, but the shield blocked the arrows. Twilight snorted, and began to wonder whether Satallion had anticipated everything that she and her friends would be able to do, and had a countermeasure for everything---then she realized that couldn’t be the case, because Gilda had been completely immobilized: that wouldn’t have happened if Satallion had been able to see everything coming.
Twilight decided something else might be worth a try: “Applejack!” she shouted. Applejack switched out, flung her lasso around Trixie’s tail, and pulled as hard as she could, yanking Trixie clean off her feet and sending her tumbling to the rocky ground. Trixie seemed to be in a daze, and Twilight quickly switched out and fired as many arrows as she could at Trixie.
Trixie came to her senses before Twilight could finish, and just as she did, Gilda broke the last of her bonds and took off. Twilight snorted to herself as she realized she should’ve had Pinkie or Rarity immobilize Trixie while they had the chance, and now that they know what their tricks are, it’ll be harder to beat them---they’ll have learned! But then again, Twilight realized, Gilda already knew about the party cannon and Rarity’s crystal prisons, and those had worked against her: they could dodge, but that didn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t ever get hit.
Still, it was two against one, and that wasn’t good.
Gilda and Trixie seemed to switch tactics: both of them began firing magic on them from afar: Gilda from high above, and Trixie from far away on the ground. Twilight did her best to dodge, but shouted for Rainbow Dash to switch out and dodge for her, since she was more agile. While Rainbow was flying left, right, up, and down to stay away from the dark spears and waves that were flying at them, Twilight tried to think---would could they do to distract Gilda or Trixie enough to get an opening? It’s true that Trixie and Gilda had more of their minds working than most corrupted creatures; they could learn from their mistakes. But some corruption-behaviors were still in place; the drive to spread the corruption was still strong. So maybe if Fluttershy sent more uncorrupted bats...? “Fluttershy!” Twilight shouted, and Fluttershy knew what to do: she sent as many bats as she could at Gilda and Trixie, and sure enough, they were distracted. Twilight whispered for Rainbow Dash to blast Gilda with a tornado while she was busy, and she did---once again, Gilda spun toward the ground and was too dizzy to react. Rarity and Pinkie quickly immobilized her again, and Twilight began firing arrow after arrow into Gilda.
Trixie reacted as expected, charging them to try to stop them from uncorrupting Gilda, and Twilight shouted for Fluttershy to send bats at Trixie to distract her. While she was distracted, Applejack again stunned her with her lasso, and Rarity and Pinkie immobilized her, too. Twilight fired arrow after arrow into Gilda to uncorrupt her, then began uncorrupting Trixie, too. Pinkie and Rarity had to switch out and refresh the fly strips and ice, but they managed to remove the corruption from them both.
Celestia didn’t switch out, but she spoke up and commanded loudly, “All right, you two---answers, now!! Where is Satallion?”
Twilight felt like her blood froze when she heard Celestia shout. But she knew it was directed at Gilda and Trixie, so she did her best not to show it.
“We don’t know!” Gilda snarled back. “He was here a few minutes ago; when he sensed your radar, he moved on!”
“Where?!!” Celestia demanded. She said it with such force that Twilight shuddered. She pretended she was sneezing the sulfurous stench of the lava out of her nose to hide her terror.
Trixie answered, “He was moving east, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t change direction as soon as he was out of sight.”
There was a pause as Celestia thought of the next question to ask. Meanwhile, Twilight tried to think of something else besides her fear; she knew she should be angry at Trixie and Gilda, too. They were troublemakers, but she’d never have suspected they go as far as treason! Twilight started getting mad at them, herself, and that righteous anger was a refreshing departure from her fear. Indulging her rage, she demanded: “Why in Equestria are you both siding with him?! Do you even know what he’s doing to Equestria?!”
“I’ll tell you what he’s doing: he’s getting rid of all things namby-pamby!” Gilda sneered.
Rainbow Dash switched out and shouted at Gilda, “You think friendship and caring about your family is namby-pamby?! The only other way to live is to be alone and never care about anyone and never have anyone care about you. Is that really how you want to live?!”
Gilda seemed to say “Is that really how you want to live?” back at Rainbow Dash through her nose.
Rainbow Dash bucked Gilda toward the lava lake, and she began rolling towards the slope---she didn’t roll down it, but she was close enough to feel the heat.
“Hey!” she shouted. “That’s roasting hot! What’re you trying to do?!!”
“Nothing you didn’t try to do to us just now!” Pinkie shot back.
“You---you’d do that to your old friend??!!” Gilda gasped.
Rainbow Dash was visibly shaken by that question---Twilight could tell that Gilda was trying to use Rainbow Dash’s own loyalty against her. But Rainbow was sharp enough to see what Gilda was trying to do, too, and answered, “Helping a demon attack Equestria kinda disqualifies you from being one of my friends---no...it completely disqualifies you.” Rainbow Dash chuckled. “Besides, isn’t playing the ‘friend’ card a just a little namby-pamby?”
Gilda said nothing.
Celestia continued, “By helping Satallion, you’ve both committed a dire act of treason that could destroy Equestria. I could have your heads for this! And don’t think I’m so soft that I wouldn’t dare; just ask DisQord how prepared I am to mete out dire punishments for dire crimes. So...tell me everything you know. You’d be well-advised not to hold anything back or make any attempt to betray us, because if the information you give us leads us into a trap, even if we should perish in that trap, the Spell of Unity will revive us. Then I will know that you were trying to work against us, and I assure you: I will have plenty of opportunity to come back and make you pay dearly for your treachery.”
Trixie swallowed hard. “He said he has several backup plans for capturing you, and even now, he has elementals on their way here, just in case we fail to eliminate you.”
“Then talk faster,” Celestia firmly insisted. “How long have you been working for Satallion?”
“...Two months, now,” Trixie answered. “He had me collect gems from anyplace in Equestria I could, and bring them here.”
“He said those gems were needed to create cores and elementals.”
Twilight gasped. “That was why he had special plans for Canterlot! The whole time we were there, we saw hints that he had something special planned. Well, he wanted the crystal caves beneath Canterlot so he could use the gems there to make more cores!”
“Where is he creating them?” Celestia demanded.
“The only place I know of is on the far west side of this caldera. That’s the only place he had me deliver the gems, and I haven’t seen them moved from there. He’s got piles and piles of gems, and he’s been funneling his magic into them. But the cores aren’t ready to be placed, yet---it takes time for them to mature to the point where they’re protected from regular magic. They’ll keep the corruption working in a city just fine as they are, but in a few more days, they’ll be immune to anything short of the Elements of Harmony!”
Celestia began weighing in her mind whether this was a trap or not. “Are they guarded?”
“Satallion would be a fool to leave these unfinished cores unguarded---and you already know by now that he is no fool. He had a number of elementals there last time I saw, but he could have more by now. Especially now that he knows you’re here.”
Twilight thought aloud, “We should go and destroy those cores. He knows when and where we use the radar, so if we rely on the radar, he’ll be playing cat-and-mouse with us all day, just like he did with Nightmare Moon in Canterlot. Acting on our own initiative will mean that we’re making him do things, instead!”
“What if it’s a trap?” Fluttershy whimpered.
“Then the Spell of Unity will revive us,” Rarity answered, “And it’ll only---” Rarity stopped herself before she said it’ll only cost a sunstone: they didn’t want Gilda and Trixie to know that. So she continued: “It’ll only prove to us what we already suspect!”
“We cain’t just leave Trixie and Gilda here,” Applejack pointed out. “What if Satallion re-corrupts ‘em and sends ‘em after us again?”
Twilight pondered the question of what to do with them for a moment. Normally, she’d take them prisoner in a situation like this, but there was no prison to put them in or palace guards to hand them over to. And Applejack was right: leaving them there, bound and frozen in ice, wasn’t an option: Satallion would easily be able to send them after them again as soon as the ice melted. But they had, at least apparently, been cooperative: dropping them into the lava couldn’t be the right thing to do.
...Was there some creative third option? She’d thought of one when Satallion had her parents up to the ledge; she’d thought of one (albeit a drastic one) when they couldn’t find the Cloudsdale core...was there a drastic solution here? ...What if Trixie and Gilda were somehow made so that they weren’t any good to anypony? ...Twilight remembered the time when DisQord had removed her and Rarity’s horns, and Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash’s wings. What if they could do something similar here...? “Princess, do you know a spell that will take away Trixie’s horn and Gilda’s wings?”
Trixie gasped, and Rarity gasped, too. This was never used as punishment!
“No! PLEASE!!!” Trixie begged. “Not my horn! I’m nothing with my magic!”
Celestia popped into physical form and glared down at Trixie with a look at would’ve made Twilight’s blood run cold if she had been in physical form. “Then you shall become nothing as a consequence for betraying Equestria!” With a single burst of magic, Trixie’s horn disappeared. “And don’t even think you have a right to complain about this! It was your own decision to fight for Satallion, and to face us here, where we have so few options available to us, that left us with the choice of either removing your horn or dropping you into the lava. You forced our hoof. Now, you can either run back to Canterlot and turn yourself in to the royal guards of Equestria, or consider yourself banished. Either way, if I ever hear that you do anything to harm Equestria again, you will pay for it with your life!”
Trixie could only cower and whimper before the enraged Princess. Twilight felt like she wanted to join her, and did her best to stay silent.
Celestia turned to Gilda, but only saw a puddle of quickly-evaporating water and shredded fly strips.
Rainbow Dash facehoofed. “The heat from the lava must’ve melted the ice! She escaped while we weren’t looking!”
Twilight groaned and tried to shake off her terror; she remembered that she’d thought of this before. She spoke up: “While we were flying here, I realized we should always be looking in all directions to try to spot danger before it gets us, but...but I never said anything! If I’d just said something, then one of us would’ve seen that she was getting away!”
“Now Satallion’s gonna know what we’re planning with those cores!” Rainbow Dash thought aloud. “We’ve gotta get there now! Before he can send more troops there!”
Celestia switched back to spirit form, and Rainbow Dash bolted to the west, flying as fast as she could. This time, the rest of them were looking in all directions, even up and down, to try to spot danger before it happened. There were elementals coming after them, but they were far too slow to catch up with Rainbow Dash.
They were coming up on a pit that absolutely crackled with dark magic. Magical structures that looked like cores, only smaller, were being grown like trees in an orchard. A lot of them looked almost as big as the cores they had destroyed in Everfree and Ponyville; others looked so small, they could’ve been elementals.
“Land over by the big ones,” Twilight thought aloud. “We should destroy those, first.”
The core farm was seething with elementals, and they charged at Rainbow Dash as she landed. She hurled a tornado at the elementals, buying Rarity enough time to throw out the last of her ice crystals to freeze a few in place and keep them distracted.
Twilight switched out and fired arrows as quickly as she could at the nearest core. The core started to look unstable, then shrank out of existence and collapsed into a mess of scattered gems. Twilight smiled. “Let’s destroy all of these!” Twilight switched out with Rarity and let her re-freeze a few more elementals in rock, and then she began blasting the next core, and the next one. After she had destroyed several cores, they saw bolts of magic fly down at them from above: Gilda was back, and just as powerful as ever. For a moment, Twilight asked herself how she could possibly fight Gilda and all these elementals. But then Twilight decided that she didn’t have to: there were so many heartstones scattered across the valley that she could easily and quickly heal herself of whatever Gilda threw at her. It would be painful, but Twilight could outright ignore Gilda and focus on destroying the cores.
Twilight did exactly that---but beyond that, the entire rest of the battle was a complete blur; Twilight was dodging this way and that way, never more than hoof’s reach from a heartstone, always in pain, always scrambling to get a heartstone, always firing at the next core, always moving, always fighting, her mind racing, a blur of adrenaline. Before she realized what had happened, she had destroyed the last core, Gilda’s rain of magic had stopped, and she had healed the last of her wounds with another heartstone.
Twilight had a hard time shaking off the adrenaline rush and coming back to her senses; the next thing she knew, she was in spirit form, and Rarity had frozen Gilda in a ruby prison. Celestia was shouting angrily at Gilda, and for a moment, Twilight was terrified that Celestia was mad at her, again. She saw the horrific memories replay in her mind of Celestia screaming at her at the top of Cloudsdale, and she just couldn’t get it out of her head. She was so terrified, very little of the meaning behind Celestia’s words filtered through her mind; all she heard “banish”, “only reason I’m letting you live”, and “I might as well give DisQord a lollipop”. It slowly clicked in Twilight’s mind that Celestia was screaming at Gilda, not at her, but it wasn’t easy for Twilight to calm herself down---she felt like she was living in a nightmare, and it was so hard for her to concentrate; she was so tired, so frightened, so guilty, so very much in fight-or-flight mode that it was nigh unto impossible for her to think!
All this was interrupted when she heard Celestia ask, “Are you all right, Twilight?”
Twilight yelped in fright.
Celestia gasped. “Twilight---please, say something!”
“I...I...” Twilight couldn’t think of how to put her terror into words.
“Please, tell me you’re all right, Twilight! Now is the worst time for us to be losing ourselves!”
Twilight struggled to think.
“Are you still in pain, Twilight?” Rarity asked. She brandished a large array of heart-gems. “Now that you’ve destroyed those cores, there are enough gems here to heal a hundred of you!”
“I...I’m not hurt,” Twilight answered, finally able to form a sentence.
“Are you with us?” Celestia asked.
“Yes...yes, I’m with you,” Twilight answered, her brain beginning to un-cramp. She tried very hard to reason about why she was feeling so awful, and suddenly, it hit her: Celestia screaming at her may well have scarred her for life. Celestia’s anger was to Twilight what rain was to Celestia: a trigger for terrible, terrible fear. And Twilight knew she might never get over this fear. It was an awful thought that Celestia, a source of comfort, joy, and pride for her, something so staggeringly wonderful---had suddenly become a source of terror for her.
It was too sickening to keep thinking about; Twilight needed to keep her thoughts focused on the present---she had to reconnect with reality, with her friends. What were they doing? ...They were trying to find and destroy Satallion. They came here because they wanted to do damage to his plans and force him to react to something they were doing. They did damage his plans, but he was nowhere to be seen. So she tried to put forward the most intelligent question she could think of: “What do we do now?”
Applejack pointed out, “As soon as Twilight destroyed the last core, the elementals all disappeared. I guess they must depend on the cores as much as the corruption does.”
“Ah-ha-ha!” Rarity laughed. “Satallion’s lost all his thugs; he’s weak, now!”
Fluttershy said, “So...can we all go home and let the big, strong palace guards stop him?”
Celestia weighed the question. “There’s still no telling just how powerful Satallion himself is. Keep in mind: destroying the cores did not stop the volcanism in these wastes, so it must be a result of his magic that isn’t related directly to the corruption. Granted, we now know the arrows of light can destroy incomplete cores, so any one of the more powerful unicorns in Shining Armor’s guard or the Canterlot Magical Research Institute will likely be able to set Satallion back if the Spell of Unity is cast on them.
“But then again, we have almost no intelligence about Satallion himself. It’s altogether likely that we won’t be able to destroy him without the Elements of Harmony---in which case, the army could only hope to slow him down or, at most, capture him.
“I’d like to propose a compromise: if we do not win our battle against him, and if the Spell of Unity revives us, then we go back to Canterlot, give Shining Armor all the information we have---including all the information we get from our fight with Satallion---and then, we rest for the night. We can try again to find and destroy him once we are fresh and rested.”
“I like that plan,” Rainbow Dash said. “I dunno about you guys, but I feel like I could take up hibernating!”
They all giggled. Pinkie added, “This is weird, but...once we beat Satallion...I’d rather sleep than party!”
“That don’t sound right! We need to get you to a doctor!” Applejack joked. They all laughed, even Twilight.
A wave of comfort swept over Twilight as she began to forget her anxiety: she was with her friends. They cared about each other, a lot. She felt stronger by their side---strong enough to find the courage within her to set her fears aside, and strong enough for this one, final fight before she could finally rest from this long, hard day.
“Should we send out the radar?” Rarity asked.
Celestia shook her head. “No need. I can sense his general location, just as I could sense the cores. He can run, but he can’t hide!”
Rainbow Dash switched out, crouched for a sprint, and pawed the ground. “Just tell me where, and we’re there!”
“He’s at the center, near the volcano,” Celestia answered, going back into her spirit form. Rainbow Dash flew there as fast as she could, with everyone keeping alert to see if they could spot him---and they saw a fiery, dark alicorn flying away from the volcano. “It’s him!” Celestia shouted. “After him!”
Rainbow Dash was easily faster than this demon, but as soon as he saw them, he began breaking the earth behind him and sending streaks of lava flashing up at them. Rainbow dodged left and right and never took a hit from the magma, but she could feel the heat every time.
“We’ve gotta slow him down,” Rainbow Dash shouted. “And I can’t get close enough to use a tornado! And I don’t think Flutershy’s bats will be able to get near him, either!”
“Then we switch tactics!” Celestia declared, and popped into physical form, herself. She soared with all her might, beating the burning air with her huge, mighty wings, and firing blast after blast of her terrible magic down at Satallion. But as she was doing this, the magic of the Spell of Unity began to crackle and destabilize. “Uh-oh,” Celestia gulped.
“What’s going on??!” Flutteshy gasped.
“I’m not sure; I feel like the Spell of Unity is going into some less stable, more powerful form---some of your abilities have become mine; I can already feel myself flying faster. I’m not sure what else this might mean, but we must keep fighting!”
Celestia charged at Satallion and fired blast after blast of magic at him. A few blasts connected, but all he did was send more lava back at them and make it harder and harder to get near him. In fact, one chunk of lava smacked Celestia’s leg, both burning it and cracking bones from the sheer impact. Celestia screamed, and tried to focus enough to stay aloft.
“Princess!!” Rarity shouted. “Rainbow Dash, land on her back and let me switch out and try to heal her!”
Rainbow Dash did as she was told, and Rarity switched out, clutching the Princess’s back. Before Rarity could open her satchel, they saw huge, fiery boulders flying at them. Trying to think fast through the pain, Celestia blasted the boulders with her magic, and they exploded into a shower of gems. Celestia flew through the field of gems, and to her astonishment, her leg was completely healed.
“That---that must’ve happened because of your gem-talents merging with my power,” Celestia thought aloud. “I’m not sure what all my abilities are with the Spell of Unity in this state, but this is definitely making me more powerful---it’s exactly what we need to take him down! But how can we get close to him when he keeps sending lava up at us?”
“Ooo! Ooo!” Pinkie shouted. “Let me, let me! My Pinkie-sense can help predict where the lava’s going to be!”
Pinkie switched out, and sure enough: Celestia could sense where the lava and boulders were going to be before they were there. She easily navigated Satallion’s attacks and got close to him without him even realizing what was happening. “Twilight!” she whispered. “I’ve seen your magic do things that shouldn’t be possible, and I want our next attack to be the most effective attack it can be. If the effect of you being in physical form conforms to the pattern that Pinkie, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash did, then we will be able to destroy him easily! Switch out with Pinkie!”
Twilight did as she was told, and the blasts that Celestia rained down on Satallion looked twice as big as they were before. It took him by surprise, and nearly shredded his wings before he forced them to back away by sending a wave of flying elementals at them. And Celestia had to back away; it was an enormous flock of elementals, but for some reason, the elementals didn’t chase Celestia when she backed away. They swarmed around Satallion, as if they were trying to protect him. Celestia fired bolt after bolt at the elementals, but she could only destroy one elemental at a time, and it seemed like every elemental that was destroyed was immediately replaced with another.
“This won’t work!” Celestia shouted. “Quickly, everypony, think! What was the best way to clear out a crowd?!”
“M...my animals could lure corrupted ponies away when I sent them away,” Fluttershy hesitatingly half-said, half-muttered. “But I don’t know what’ll happen if I switch out now!”
“What do we have to lose?” Twilight asked.
Fluttershy obediently switched out, and to everyone’s surprise, Celestia was now sending out volleys of magical blasts in a spread instead of one-by-one. Each volley destroyed dozens, maybe even hundreds, of the swarming elementals. Before long, the swarm was gone, and Twilight switched out to unleash the full brunt of their magical might against the demon.
Satallion reacted creatively: instead of sending molten rocks up at them, he sent solid boulders flying at Celestia. She did her best to dodge, but the boulders were coming in thick and heavy---she had to back off. “Applejack!” she shouted. “You’re the strong one; let’s see what effect your magic has!”
Applejack obediently switched out, but said, “Beg yer pardon, highness, but I don’t have any magic!”
“Yes, you do: everypony does. It’s just less obvious with earth ponies.” She fired magical blasts at the boulders, and the physical force behind those blasts was incredible: the boulders shattered and flew into each other. For a moment, Twilight wondered if the boulders would rain down on Satallion himself and crush him, but she saw that the boulders were actually going through him as though he weren’t even there. His nature as a spirit-being was showing pretty clearly.
Without the swarm of boulders, Satallion was once again unprotected, so Twilight switched out, and Celestia again blasted Satallion with all the might she could muster, aiming for his wings to slow him down and ground him. Satallion again began sending up waves of lava, but between Rainbow Dash’s speed and Pinkie’s sense, they were easily able to navigate the fray and get close to Satallion again.
“He’s recycling his tricks!” Twilight shouted. “He’s running out of ideas, and is just trying whatever he can to slow us down!”
“Or...maybe that’s what he wants us to think!” Fluttershy whimpered.
“Only one way to find out:” Rainbow Dash answered. “Finish him!”
They kept blasting him, his elementals, and his boulders, and within minutes, Satallion could no longer fly. He was crumpled on the ground, panting, not moving at all.
Celestia landed in front of him, and they all got a good look at the demon---who only Celestia had seen before. His fur was pitch black, and almost looked metallic or mineral. Twilight couldn’t decide whether his mane looked more like a slowly-burning lick of flame, or a river of lava. He had two twisted horns sticking up from his forehead, and his cutie marked looked like a heart being broken by a three-pronged spear. On the whole, he looked as demonic as Celestia looked angelic.
Celestia glared at the demon, trying to decide whether to risk using the Elements of Harmony or not. He seemed to regain his senses and looked up at Celestia with a sneer that filled Twilight with righteous rage.
“So,” he began---and Twilight could tell with that word alone that this was the source of the corruption---this was the voice she had heard echo through the voices of the Cakes, Rainbow Dash, and Nightmare Moon while they were corrupted. “Here you stand, Tia, the very image of what you have become.”
Celestia didn’t answer; she only glared at him.
“Look at you, supporting that mortal on your back! That’s all you do: you waste your eternal life serving these mortals! They think they serve you by bringing you food, drink, and scrolls when you call for them and doing what you say. But you and I know better: ruling without magical mind control is nothing but a chore! A chore you take on yourself---and for what?! You squander every second of your eternal life, ruling over ponies who perish after such a short span of time! Everypony you’ve ever known, bar these few, have already turned to dust! And soon, very soon, these few will perish, as well---whether I decide to speed them on their way or not. It’s a wonder the very one on your back doesn’t rot into potting soil even as we speak!”
Twilight heard a soft splattering noise, and saw that Satallion’s cutting words had actually extracted a tear from Celestia’s eyes---not that the stench of sulfur was helping any.
Celestia grew angry, but Twilight was angry, too, so it only half-scared her, this time. Celestia softly, but angrily, answered, “That is why I cherish the time I do have with her. I cherish it now, and I will continue to cherish it long after it is finished: I will never forget her or her friends as long as I live; even if I live to be a million, two million, a billion years old or more, I will remember them forever! And...I know this much: in the end...they will never be food for you!”
Satallion chuckled darkly, and Twilight hoped that would be the last time she ever needed to hear that vile laughter. “So...the truth comes out. After everything I’ve seen in this land of the living, I think I finally understand this thing you call ‘love’. And now that I understand it, I pity you, Celestia.”
“Hate often masquerades as pity!” Celestia spat.
Satallion ignored her words, and continued: “Unlike me, you are an incomplete being. You need mortals like her to make your pathetic, miserable life bearable!”
Celestia snorted, which was something that Twilight never thought she’d see her do. Twilight’s blood suddenly ran cold with two realizations: first, she realized that Celestia’s life had been miserable: everypony she’d known---her mother and father, her aunt, Starswirl---they were all long gone, and she was never going to see them again. And Celestia had mentioned that she always had a protégé in every generation---every protégé she’d had before Twilight was also long gone. And someday, Twilight would get old, breathe her last, and then Celestia would never see her again, either. And yet, knowing that, while she lived, she was providing some comfort to her beloved mentor and Princess, she took comfort in the notion, herself. If it was her destiny to do just enough to keep this wonderful creature sane enough to keep doing what she’s done for all ponykind, then that would be enough for Twilight---she would be content with that place in history.
But that was only one of the two thoughts that occurred to her in that moment, and the other terrified her so much, she wanted to run away: Celestia was about to get angrier than she had ever been before---angrier than she’d been at Gilda and Trixie, angrier than she’d been at the council, and angrier than she had been at Twilight at the top of Cloudsdale. The very thought of it scared Twilight to her core! Twilight clutched Celestia’s shoulders tightly, terrified of what was coming next when Celestia’s rage came to a boil. She let out a small whimper as she heard Celestia draw in breath for her answer, and cowered at the words that would haunt her forever:
“THEY DON’T MAKE MY LIFE BEARABLE!!! THEY MAKE IT WONDERFUL!!!!”
Something was shattered in Twilight---in that moment, Twilight felt a bizarre, liberating clarity sweep through her mind and soul. Somehow, she knew she’d never be afraid of Celestia’s anger again. Twilight would’ve been content with “bearable”, but instead, she made Celestia’s life wonderful! The heady feeling of immensity came into Twilight’s heart again, the same feeling she’d felt when she was in the council chamber and had realized that Celestia, just by being who she was, had been changing the destiny of all ponykind for the better. Once again, she felt like she was an angel in the presence of a god, and she felt like every one of her friends was an angel, too.
And, since they were angels, it was time to destroy the demon. They all surged into material form, and the energy of the Elements of Harmony ran through them and flew into Satallion.
But before the energy of the elements banished him from the land of the living, he let out a roar, and that roar echoed throughout the whole caldera. A wave of glowing smoke swept out of the volcano and raced toward them. The feeling of immensity drained from Twilight immediately, and the crackling glow of the Spell of Unity faded. Suddenly, Twilight felt unbelievably tired---she could barely stand up and keep her eyes open!
She could tell from the grunts and groans of her friends, and even Celestia, that they felt the same exhaustion that had suddenly washed over Twilight.
“The Spell of Unity!” Celestia croaked. “It’s...finished! O...our exhaustion must be a...s-side effect of...!”
Twilight looked at the advancing wall of glowing embers. “And...that’s a pyroclastic flow; I’ve read about them! They travel at almost half the speed of sound, and they’re over a thousand degrees! But...but they’re not supposed to happen from volcanoes that---” Twilight felt like her brain was cramping up as she tried and failed to recall her knowledge of geology, but it felt like a pyroclastic flow from this kind of volcano just plain wasn’t right! But then again, Satallion’s magic was strong enough to change the geology of the northern wastes into a volcanic caldera; it couldn’t take that much more magic to change one type of volcano into another type.
“So we...we won’t get revived from this?” Rarity gulped.
Celestia shook her head sadly. “Oh, Luna---don’t let your mind break from this...people of Equestria, please be patient with her while she learns to live without me...!”
“We can’t give up!” Rainbow Dash shouted, trying her best to fly with her sore wing muscles. “Twilight, can you teleport us out of here, like you did when we were running from those dragons?”
Twilight tried and tried to work her magic, but she couldn’t do more than make her horn sputter a few useless sparks. It was no use: her strength was gone. “I...I can’t do it.”
“We only need to teleport a few miles away to survive!” Rainbow Dash insisted. “Come on! Anything could make the difference!”
Twilight summoned all the magical strength left within her---but it wasn’t enough to complete the spell; she found herself panting, barely keeping herself from collapsing to the ground. “I...I tried...”
The Princess moaned, “My magical power is exhausted, too---I can’t teleport us, either. And I can’t re-cast the Spell of Unity. This...this is the end.”
Twilight tried to collect her thoughts. “Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash...Princess...if you can fly above the flow, you’ll survive. We don’t all have to lose our lives to this; besides, Luna needs you!”
“Ooo, I don’t think I can fly!” Fluttershy moaned.
Celestia looked down at Twilight, trying to think what to say. Twilight found it hard to speak, either; all she could think of was, “While I lived...I know I helped make you happy...and I’m so happy with that...! You...were always gonna outlive me---go! Don’t wait too long!”
Celestia swallowed hard, spread her wings---and found she couldn’t get more than a few feet off the ground! She was too exhausted to fly, and she just couldn’t force herself any higher, no matter how bravely she fought against her fatigue. She landed on her feet, panting. “It’s...it’s no use,” she gasped.
Pinkie was looking sadly around, trying to figure out how best to react. Finally, she said, “Guys...we’re going to pony heaven, now, and...well...I’m sad that I don’t get more time with the cakes, or the twins, or Ponyville. But...at least...none of us have to make the trip to pony heaven alone!”
Applejack nodded. “I’m said I don’t get to live to see Apple Bloom get her cutie mark...but...she’ll live to see it. That’s the important thing. An’...an’ I’m glad I don’t have to die alone.”
The six of them, out of things to say, out of the strength to say it, moved closer together for their last group hug. Celestia stood over them and spread her wings over them, even though she knew it wouldn’t protect them from the searing heat.
After a few moments, Rainbow Dash began sobbing. “I can’t believe it---I can’t look! I can’t believe that...after every brave thing I’ve ever done...underneath it all...I’m a coward!”
Applejack shook her head. “You ain't no coward, Rainbow. A coward is somepony who knows the risks and runs away. You knew this could happen, and you still stuck with us until the end. Even if you never summon up the courage to look at that there lava wave...you’re still the bravest pony I know.”
Rainbow sobbed again, and whispered, “Thanks, Applejack...”
The pyroclastic flow came nearer and nearer...then suddenly disappeared. The lava around them instantly cooled to solid rock. It was as if every trace of Satallion’s magic disappeared all at once.
After a few moments of silence, Celestia snorted again. “He...was bluffing us...he just had to get in one last hit to make us hurt!”
Pinkie whimpered, “Don’t be mad! Now we get to live! I get to see the Cakes and the twins , you get to see Luna, we all get to see Ponyville, Applejack and Rarity get to see...” Pinkie trailed off, too tired to continue.
Celestia smiled. “You’re right. He’s tormented us for the last time.”
Pinkie gasped, whipping her umbrella-hat onto her head, seemingly from nowhere. “Twitchy-tail!!” she screamed.
“Twitchy-tail?” Celestia asked.
The loudest thunderclap Twilight had ever heard exploded overhead. It terrified Twilight with its sheer suddenness, but she knew it had to have made Celestia’s heart stop. Twilight tried to assure herself that it was from one of the ash clouds---after all, volcanic ash was notorious for being full of lightning and thunder.
Twilight looked up from underneath Celestia, and saw a bank of what were unmistakably rain clouds. They surrounded them on all sides, as though they were in the eye of a hurricane---a rapidly-closing eye at that. Twilight tried to understand how this was possible, but all she could think of was that somehow, Satallion must have set this up as a backup plan, in case they succeeded in banishing him and his pyroclastic flow failed. The words echoed through Twilight’s mind: He always does whatever hurts his enemies the most. He must’ve put a lot of effort into a storm this big, and if he’d spent that effort securing his caldera base instead of on petty revenge, then he might’ve actually won.
But none of that mattered, now. The rain was closing in fast, and there was no shelter anywhere! If only there were at least a way to keep Celestia dry---then it clicked in Twilight’s mind: “Our raincoats!” she gasped. Immediately, she and her six friends opened their saddlebags and pulled out the raingear they had stored away. They threw it over her back and made sure every inch of her was covered.
Twilight thought for a moment, then said, “Let’s...get back under her, keep her warm...”
Twilight get back underneath Celestia and snuggled up under Celestia’s chin, then whispered, “Princess...please, say something!”
Celestia let out a squeaking gasp.
With a loud whoosh, the deluge swept over them. Celestia kept gasping and making sobbing noises, even though no tears could come out.
Twilight summoned the strength within her and shouted over the storm, “Please try to hold your mind together, Princess! We’ll---we’ll survive this, and you’ll see Luna again, and...and as soon as we get back to the castle, there’ll be a nice, hot bath, and...and...”
Celestia’s terror wrung Twilight’s heart too much; she couldn’t speak or even think, anymore. She could only weep, knowing that her poor mentor, who deserved so much better, was in so much agony of heart! It was all her friends could do, too---Rainbow Dash seemed to be bawling the loudest.
When Twilight finally ran out of tears, she looked up at Celestia. For a long time, she said nothing, she was just breathing quickly in little gasps.
Twilight tried to force her ragged voice louder than the storm, and begged her mentor, “Please try to take deep breaths!”
Celestia apparently heard her; her breathing became a little deeper, though forced. After a few minutes, her breathing felt a little less forced, and Celestia’s muscles seemed a little more relaxed, but was it because she was less afraid, or getting exhausted? Would Celestia faint in this awful storm? Twilight opened her mouth to ask, but she just couldn’t get the words out. After a little while, she tried again to speak, and found she still couldn’t.
After a few more minutes, Celestia did something Twilight didn’t understand, and it actually scared her: she laughed. Was she going insane with terror?
Twilight tried to make her voice ask if Celestia was all right, but only cracking, half-formed syllables came out, too quiet to be heard clearly in the storm. But they were enough to make Celestia look at Twilight, and she saw Twilight’s horrified, confused expression.
“Twilight,” Celestia gasped, “This...storm...the longer I’m in it...the less afraid I feel. Thanks to you---I’m dry. I’m warm. There’s no laughter at my expense---only crying, and...and the most beautiful sorrow I’ve seen. And this time...I’m so very not alone... It’s not like before...” she trailed off. After a few more minutes, she croaked, “I laughed...because Satallion just healed my last wound. Once I overcome my fear of rain...I’ll be completely free forever!”
Twilight’s jaw dropped, and her face brightened. She wanted to tell Celestia how glad she was that she no longer needed to feel afraid, and how, when they finally get out of this---however they do---she’ll be better than when she went in, in ironic defiance of the demon’s fell intentions. But the words didn’t come out, and Celestia silently told Twilight that it was okay with a soft nuzzle.
There was silence for a long time---silence in their voices, and silence in Twilight’s head. They stood still, slowly regaining a little strength.
After a moment, Pinkie whimpered, “Twilight?”
Twilight came to her senses, and the engines of her mind suddenly restarted, ready to process whatever Pinkie was about to say---assuming it could be processed: this was Pinkie she was thinking about. “Yes?”
“I...need to go to the little filly’s room.”
Rarity, who was curled up underneath Pinkie (it was very cramped), gulped, “That is not what I want to hear from the mare standing above me!”
The silence became awkward as Twilight tried to think of a solution. She noticed a rainhat sitting on the ground next to them, and she used her magic to lift it off the ground, turn it inside-out, and move it under Pinkie’s tail. Pinkie gulped. “Okay...uh...! Close your eyes, everypony!”
Twilight closed her eyes, and tried to hold the hat steady, and not let Rarity’s whimpering break her concentration. “Okay...you can open them, now!” Pinkie said. Twilight opened her eyes and threw the rainhat’s contents out into the storm. The flipped the hat rightside-in and let the rain flush it completely.
After a few more minutes, Rainbow Dash grumbled. “I can’t believe this...we beat Satallion, saved Equestria, and what do we get for it?! We’re stranded in a storm. And I’m still not strong enough to fly up and fix it, either. Even if the Princess isn’t scared, anymore, this is the worst victory EVER!”
“It is a bit of an anticlimax,” Rarity admitted.
“A bit of one? I don’t even know what an anticlimax is, but I know this isn’t a bit of one! It's not a bit of anything!”
“I’m with Rainbow Dash on this one,” Applejack thought aloud. “Is there anything we can do to get outta this without gettin’ soaked?”
“Ooo...we don’t want to get wet when it’s this cold!” Fluttershy whimpered. “We’re barely keeping warm even when we’re all cuddled together like this! Remember what Twilight said about how water draws all the warmth from your body?”
“Don't worry!” Pinkie cut in. “Twilight'll think of something!”
“I...can’t think of anything,” Twilight moaned.
“Don’t beat yourself up about it, Twilight,” Celestia said softly. “We’ll think of something. But...right now...”
“Yes?” Twilight asked, held in suspense by what Celestia was about to ask.
Celestia’s face flushed a little, and she finally said, “I need to use the little filly’s room!”
Twilight’s face went a little red, too, and she again retrieved the rainhat and moved it under Celestia's tail.
“For heaven’s sake, be careful!!!” Rarity squeaked.
Twilight felt the rainhat get full and the flow stop, so she moved the hat away and threw the contents away into the storm. She began letting the rain clean the hat off, but then she heard Celestia whisper, “There’s more.”
Twilight’s face got a lot redder, and she obediently and silently moved the hat back under Celestia’s tail to get the rest of it. After the flow stopped again, she threw it out into the storm, and felt very relieved that the moment was over, and she could finally stop feeling so embarassed. She turned the hat rightside-in to let the rain wash over it again, but then she heard, “There’s more, Twilight.”
Twilight’s face went beet-red at this; she felt like she was about ready to fall over. Or walk out into the storm and bash her head against a rock. But she didn’t do either; she just silently moved the rainhat under Celestia’s tail a third time, and let her fill the hat again. As soon as the flow stopped, Twilight hurled it out into the storm, but before she put the hat down, she looked up at Celestia. Celestia looked back, and her face was beet-red, too.
There was an awkward silence for a few moments... “That’s all,” Celestia finally managed to mouth.
Twilight slowly looked away and cleaned the rainhat off.
After a few more awkward minutes, Twilight heard Celestia say, “You know, Twilight, you’re pretty good at this.”
Twilight felt the red rush back to her face. “Uh...thanks...”
“In fact,” Celestia added, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think your cutie mark should’ve been a hat full of---”
Celestia couldn’t finish the sentence: she burst out laughing, and even though the joke was at Twilight’s expense, she couldn’t help but laugh, too. Her friends all joined in, and they laughed and laughed and laughed until it began to hurt!
Finally, when they couldn't laugh any more, Twilight recalled their time at the donut shop after the Grand Galloping Gala had been ruined, and because the six of them were together, the night felt like the best night ever, even though it had been the worst. Twilight reflected that the Power of Friendship came with a lot of perks: not only could it banish demons and petrify chaos spirits, but it could turn tears to laughter and the worst experiences into the best ones. But she was too tired from adventuring, fighting, worrying, crying, and laughing to say any of this out loud.
After a few more minutes, Pinkie asked, "Say, Princess, do you wanna wipe the royal rump off? I found this parchment, see---"
Suddenly, it clicked in Twilight's mind: "THAT is out way out of this! I took some scrolls along just as we were leaving Rarity's shop! If we send one to Spike, he can let the palace guard know that we're here, and they can come rescue us!"
Twilight hastily scribbled a note on the half-dry parchment Pinkie was holding:
We beat Satallion, but now we're exhaused and stranded in a storm with no shelter. Please, have the palace guard come rescue us!
Love, Twilight Sparkle.
P.S.: Sorry for not telling you sooner that we're okay. This has been the most hectic day---or...night ever!
Twilight rolled the scroll up, and Celestia used what little magic she now had left to send the letter on its way.
After a moment, Rarity asked, "How long do you suppose it'll take for them to come help us?"
"Not long," Twilight thought aloud. "You know how Shining Armor was; desperate to do anything to help. He'll probably send every pegasus in Equestria to take this storm apart once he reads it. I mean, they're all right there in Canterlot, right?"
"I'm just glad that parchment wasn't too wet to use," Celestia sighed.
"Wait a minute...that parchment was wet because of the rain, right Pinkie?" Rainbow Dash asked. "I mean, you didn't...USE it, did you?"
Pinkie gasped. "You think Spike is allergice to---!?"
Twilight laughed. "Nah...not until we TELL him!"
They all burst out laughing again. In fact, they were laughing so hard that it took them a moment to notice that they were now surrounded by heavily cloaked figures on all sides. Twilight gasped when she saw them; their hoods completely covered their faces, and the sight of them was downright creepy. Twilight tried to reason with herself: of course they were wearing heavy cloaks with their hoods up; it's pouring and freezing! Twilight wished she had a nice, thick, warm, waterproofed cloak, herself.
A flash of lightning illuminated the faces of some of the cloaked figures, and she saw gleaming standard-issue Canterlot armor---and her mother's and father's faces! "Mom?! Dad?!"
"Twilight, we have to take precautions and make sure it's really you," her father insisted. "What's the last thing you asked your mother and me to do?"
Twilight had no trouble remembering: "I asked you to make sure Spike has a home if anything happens to me."
Her mother nodded. "And what was the last thing your father and I asked you to do, right before you left?"
Twilight tried to think, but she drew a blank---until she realized it was a trick question. Then she remembered, "You...you and Dad didn't ask me to do anything; Shining Armor asked me to take care of the Princess!"
"It's them!" Twilight's mother shouted. "I can't sense any other magic around; we couldn't be surer!"
Twilight's parents projected a forcefield over them to stop the rain, and one of the guards fired a green beam into the sky, which must've been some kind of signal. Within seconds, Luna, Spike, Shining Armor, and Cadence popped into existence in front of Celestia, along with twenty maids with blankets and towels. A sonic boom screeched overhead as the Wonderbolts tore the storm in half, and an unbelievable number of pegasi were pounding away at the storm clouds, slowing taking them apart.
Luna and Cadence rushed to Celestia and buried their faces in her shoulders, while the maids lifted the dripping raincoats and saddlebags off of Celestia and wrapped her and the six heroes in soft, toasty-warm blankets.
Celestia whispered to Luna, "You didn't lose me, Luna...for a while, I thought you would, but we still have eternity together. I will not leave you."
Spike rushed toward Twilight, and they hugged. "Where in Equestria have you been?!" Spike demanded. "I've been so worried about you!"
"It feels like I've been everywhere!" Twilight groaned.
"I can't believe your crazy brother made me sit in the war room for two hours! It was awful...! As soon as he realized you could send me a scroll to tell us what's going on, he put me on the table in the middle of the room! Everypony was staring at me, waiting for me to cough up a scroll, when they all knew I couldn't control when it would happen! It was boring and creepy and weird all at the same time! Couldn't you have sent it two hours sooner?!"
Pinkie giggled. "What we really should've done is send it before I---"
Applejack grabbed Pinkie's mouth and held it shut. They all laughed, including Spike, until he interrupted the laughter and said, "I don't get it." Then they all laughed again, even harder.
They didn't notice, but while they were laughing, Cadence and Twilight's parents looked at each other and nodded. They aimed their horns at the tip of Celestia's horn, and magical energy arced into her horn: they were restoring her power. After a few seconds, Celestia's hair began waving magically with the colors of the dawn, and she felt her strength return. In triumph, she focused her magic and raised the sun for the first time in over twenty-four hours. They could hear the whooping and cheering of the pegasi above them, but even more dazzling than that was how the light of the sun reflected off the thick downpour and shone a glorious triple rainbow down on them. Celestia looked up at the rainbow and sighed happily. "It's been a long time since I've seen a rainbow like this one..."
It clicked in Twilight's mind that this was what she meant back in Everfree Forest when she looked at the thin, golden rainbow and said "It's been a long time." But Twilight was again too tired to say anything.
They all stood there, staring at the rainbow for a few minutes, until finally, Celestia groaned, "Luna---remember that hot bath you promised us?"
Luna nodded vigorously.
"I think I'll take you up on that offer, now."
Luna cast her teleportation spell, and the next thing they knew, they had splashed into a tub of relaxing, steaming-hot water. ...With the blankets still wrapped around them. And Luna still had her jewels and cloak on. And she accidentally caught Shining Armor up in the teleport, as well. So, he, being a HE, was now in the royal princesses' bath...
His face flushed as he observed, "I...probably shouldn't be in here...I'll step out, now..."
"Right behind you, Captain!" Spike hastily agreed.
Celestia smiled at Luna. "When I said I'd take you up on the offer, I didn't mean for you to make this much haste...!"
The maids silently drew the soaked blankets out of the water, and began scrubbing the Princess and Twilight and her friends of all the sweat and dust and ash and stench that they had accumulated over the long, harrowing night. They finally, FINALLY got to relax after everything they'd been through.
Celestia let out a happy moan, just as Twilight was beginning to doze off. "I just realized that I'm not just bathing in soap and water...I'm bathing in love itself. The people care about me, I care about them...nopony's heart is cold; we are all so very not alone. It's so warm, so clean...it's a wonderful way to spend eternity. Or to spend a lifetime, if that's all you have..."
That's the last thing Twilight remembered from that day; after that, the soothing warmth of the bathwater, the knowledge that they and their loved ones were finally safe, the knowledge that it was FINALLY alright to run out of strength, and the dreadful fatigue of the day lulled Twilight into a deep, dreamless sleep. The maids had to silently lift her out of the water, only towels, and into her bed, and from there, she didn't wake up again for nearly twenty-four hours.
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