"Don't worry, Fluttershy, we'll think of something. Deep breaths, okay?" Pinkie Pie nudged the yellow pegasus and was greeted by a pale face and distant eyes. The pink pony repeated herself by puffing up her cheeks.
Fluttershy huffed loudly, her belly rising from and returning to the regal red rug in bouts. The carpet, which Pinkie found to be rather soft and bouncy, ran wall to wall in both directions. Where the flooring ended, the stone took over, its smooth purple paint adding a simple, yet authoritative feel. The far wall was broken up by a trio of tall, arch shaped windows, the mid-afternoon light providing a stark contrast to the demoralized ponies.
"You okay there yourself, sugarcube?" exhaustion laced Applejack's voice.
"Yea, of course!" the pink pony replied, stealing a glance at the other earth pony. She was slumped over, chin and forehooves resting on her hat, pinning it to the heavy oaken table. The majority of the room's rather generous space was taken up by the rectangle, the farm pony looking quite insignificant by comparison. Elaborately carved edges ran the perimeter, astral symbols making the table feel more 'princessy' to Pinkie.
"Really? You look a little shaky to me," Dash popped her head over Applejack's shoulder as she paced by. Her tourmalines burned with restlessness. Even though she appeared to be taking things the best on the outside, Pinkie Pie knew the pegasus well enough to see she had been affected almost as much as Fluttershy. Helplessness and a mare of action like Rainbow never combine well.
Looking from one dejected face to the next, Pinkie's thoughts turned to Twilight. To see her kind, studious friend twisted into something with such monstrous tendencies hurt more than anything she had ever felt. But no matter what happened, the pink pony refused to give up on the unicorn. The real Twilight was still in there, she just knew it. They just needed to fix her. If they could fix her. No, they had to fix her, because otherwise... Pinkie pushed the doubt from her mind. Until then, she knew her friends needed her cheer more than ever, so she forced a smile and nodded.
"Eheheheh, yeppers! Totally fine! Really! Just a little nervous, that's all!"
"Nervous? You?" Rarity asked, raising an eyebrow. Although she had fixed up her mane, the morning's events had still left her covered in grime, her tail looking unusually disheveled. She stood at the far end of the table, seemingly unable to decided whether she wanted to stare out the window or across the room.
"Yea! Because of the princesses and stuff!"
Before anypony could raise any further objections, the heavy door creaked open. Princess Luna slipped into the room, the door swinging shut with a dull thud.
"Sorry for making you wait."
"It's fine, Princess, we'd just really like to know what's going on," Applejack glanced up from her hat.
The moon princess nodded, "I understand it must be hard, but be patient a little longer. Tia has some things she would like to say. She should be along shortly."
"Tia? Why do you call her that?" Pinkie tilted her head, hoping for a story. Because she liked stories, especially if they were about itty bitty little fillies.
"It's just what I've always called her. Even before I could speak her name, Tia has been everything to me. She is the only pony to really understand me. If only Twilight wasn't her student. Then things wouldn't be so... complicated."
Everypony gaped. Fluttershy started sobbing again. Pinkie took a step back, recalling the coldness the moon princess had shown. Her face went pale as she realized the alicorn had been serious about everything she said. 'At least you would be deprived of a powerful body,' the words echoed, as though Twilight was an outfit that could be thrown out to take it away from whomever 'you' was.
"Hey! That's... you... you can't..." Pinkie sputtered, fighting back tears of her own.
Dash finished the sentence, "We can't give up on her."
"I'm sorry if I sound cruel, but the choice is Twilight or Equestria and next time I cannot hold back, even for Tia."
"Perhaps you are thinking a little too black and white, my dear sister."
Pinkie jumped along with Princess Luna. She looked over at the door. Princess Celestia's head was poking through, her face stoic once more.
"Gah, Tia! How long have you been standing there?" the moon princess' cheeks flushed.
"I just arrived."
"Do we get to find out what the hay is going on now?" Rainbow asked, impatiently flicking her tail.
"Yes. But for you to fully understand, I must start from the beginning. Have a seat, my little ponies. The tale is a long one."
Each pony shuffled up to the table and sat down, Dash joining Applejack on her side and Pinkie sitting opposite to them. She was flanked by Fluttershy on her left and Rarity her right. They watched expectantly as the princesses took a shared seat at the head of the table.
"We don't know where it came from," the white alicorn began. "We don't even know its real name, if it has one. Over time we have simply come to refer to it as Nameless. The first speculated sighting was about two thousand years ago."
"Speculated? You mean to tell us even you don't know?" Rarity asked, eyebrow raised.
"Yes," the sun princess spoke slowly, as though still sorting out her details. "At first, there was a minor outburst of violence in a small town known for its more unsavoury occupants. Nopony saw this as particularly out of the ordinary and in fact, the nature of the town made determining the difference all but impossible. Eventually some of those ponies left, heading for larger cities."
Princess Celestia's horn flashed and a three dimensional map shimmered into existence in the middle of the table. Pinkie leaned forward, trying to find a familiar contour. After a few moments of failing, she realized she could not recognize anything. She was not an expert by any means, but still knew her basic geography. Finally giving up, she glanced at her friends. Each of them wore the same vacant stare. The pink pony guessed old Equestria must have just been that different. Another glint from the alicorn's horn and the map was moving, growing larger, rushing toward some location. Finally it settled upon a small mountain city.
"We started to take notice after the bandit ponies were brought to justice," she continued. "The watch captain of the then budding Canterlot, the one to bring them down, succumbed to her vices. Thing is, she was very straight arrow and a popular face among the community. Such a change in character raised some eyebrows. Eventually she was stopped by one of her deputies, but he too lost his way. This went on for some time, the city's law enforcement falling into total disarray, as nopony wanted to be the next victim of 'the curse.'"
"Wait a second. A curse? Is that how this thing works?" Rainbow asked loudly, brow furrowed.
"No, it's simply what the ponies at the time thought."
"Then how?" anxiety was building in Dash's voice.
"You will know in good time."
"Settle down, Rainbow," Applejack placed a hoof on the pegasus' shoulder. "She said she'd tell us."
The city on the map caught fire, or pretend magical fire anyway. The flames looked so real, Pinkie's eyes swayed in their sockets as she became lost for a moment.
"We were forced to send the royal guard to restore peace," the fire extinguished. "When one of the guard turned against us, we knew something was truly and terribly wrong. We interviewed witnesses and searched the homes of the previously afflicted. The few incidents where the slayings were seen first hoof, there were always reports of a strange purple-blue mist wafting away."
The map vanished and this time the moon princess' horn glowed, an ominous cloud taking its place. The cloud swirled, its blues and purples entwining, dancing away, then entwining again. Yet, the mist did not actually move, as though waiting for something.
The two sisters exchanged looks, ending with Princess Celestia nodding and the younger princess picking up the story, "I finally had an opportunity to see the mist for myself when a squad of guards caught up to the traitor. I was on the approach when they took him down, giving me a clear view of the Nameless. It appeared to dissipate at first. But when our soldiers turned their back, it came from the brush. It seemed to flow into the back of his neck, with no need for orifice of any kind. I ordered the stallion quarantined, but after weeks of observation, he seemed to be perfectly normal."
A white pegasus stallion, full golden royal armour on his back, shimmered onto the table. He looked around, turning as he went. When his back was exposed, the purple-blue cloud descended upon him, entering him in exactly the way Princess Luna described. Pinkie tilted her head. That was just plain weird. On second thought, something just flowing straight into somepony's neck was incredibly of creepy, even "bucked up," as she had once heard Dash say. A quick glance around revealed similar confusion from Applejack and Rainbow Dash and horrified stares from Rarity and Fluttershy. Noticing the yellow pegasus was shrinking under the table, Pinkie Pie nudged her, flashing a reassuring smile.
"However, as soon as he was out, he went on a rampage. He broke into the academy and started slaying students. Before he could do too much damage, he was stopped by one of our more talented unicorns, which still left us with a problem. When we took her into custody, she too exhibited the same dormant behaviour. Tia and I attempted many different exorcism spells. None of them seemed to work. Holding the student indefinitely was beginning to cause unrest, not only among the citizenry, but ourselves, for you see, she also happened to be one of our teaching assistants."
Princess Celestia's horn glowed and a minty green unicorn mare with a fiery red mane and tail appeared opposite the guard stallion. The unicorn lowered her head, pointing her horn at the guard. A dazzling beam of red and orange energy shot forth from the mare's horn, striking the stallion dead center. He faded away into nothingness, leaving the purple-blue cloud where he had stood. The cloud lunged forward, utter surprise washing over the mare as the mist became a part of her. Pinkie frowned. She could see where the story was going and she did not like it one bit. Another look at her friends told her they had clued in as well. Fluttershy in particular looked like she was going to be sick.
The moon princess continued, "Finally we decided that we would have to let her go. We trailed her and I vowed to be the one to fight should things come to that. She was maiming innocents at random when we had our first confrontation. The Nameless mocked us for our ineffectiveness as it started to lay waste to the commercial district. I was forced to kill the student. Tia brought forth a truly devastating amount of power when the mist emerged, but nothing she used seemed to harm it. Desperate to solve things then and there, I tried any and every spell that came to mind. Luckily, certain debilitating type spells were able to take hold, allowing me to prepare a seal spell."
The unicorn fell over and faded away too, once more leaving behind the cloud. However, as the cloud attempted to float away, a strange yellow symbol appeared on the table and it was sucked into the middle. Pinkie Pie leaned forward to get a better view of the lines.
"But that was not the last we would see of the Nameless. It was somehow able to make a habit of luring unsuspecting ponies into breaking it free."
Another unicorn, one with a light brown coat and a darker mane, materialized on the table, curiously approaching the circular glyph. The symbol cracked and shattered like glass, the mist leaping out and into the pony with such suddenness that Pinkie drew back. A short 'meep!' sounded from her left and the others let out audible gasps.
"It became bolder as it realized it was nigh invulnerable, toying with us by possessing random ponies and using them as throwaway bodies. It committed outrageous atrocities that seemed designed to get our attention. Finally we were able to lure it away from the cities, to a cave near a quiet town called Nickerton. Once it was sealed, we set about turning the cavern into a vault of sorts. To deter overly curious ponies, we started a rumour that the contents were cursed. However, we knew even that wouldn't work as a long term solution."
After a sideways glance from her sister, Princess Celestia spoke, "We set our best researchers to the task of finding a weapon that could finally finish off that monster. We toiled for decades before we finally reached a breakthrough. The Elements of Harmony were theorized. Using a complex series of magical glyphs, the attack would target corruption and only corruption, leaving the possessed unharmed and destroying the Nameless. But our work wasn't finished. The glyphs required a strong magical catalyst through which ponies could channel their magic. The problem was not just any gem could sustain the requisite power long enough for the attack to be used."
"Thus began our long search for a rare gemstone rumoured to form in the deepest depths of the soil. Nearly a century passed before our miners finally found something promising. Six powerful gems were unearthed near our borders. Little did we know, the Diamond Empire would try to stake a claim in our findings."
Six gems, one each of red, pink, orange, green, blue and purple, appeared in the air. The jewels' uneven, rock covered forms rotated slowly as they drifted aimlessly.
"Wait, Diamond Empire?" Rarity cut in. "As in Diamond Dogs?"
"Correct," the elder princess answered. "Their empire was even larger than Equestria before it collapsed."
The white unicorn shuddered, a disgusted look crossing her face.
Princess Luna resumed the tale, "War broke out as the Elements neared completion. The dogs began to try to sneak soldiers behind our lines by targeting Nickerton. We could spare little to aid them and they were slowly becoming overwhelmed. Out of foolish desperation, a stallion named Shining Light sought 'the cursed weapon,' as it was now called, from Nameless' prison. It broke out and possessed not only him, but a weaker colt, as well. Despite our best efforts, the confusion of the war made them nearly untrackable."
A muscular white unicorn stallion with a blonde mane and a unicorn colt with a deep blue coat and black mane appeared. At first they looked as friendly as anypony, but after a few moments their eyes narrowed. Pinkie continued to watch with curiosity.
"Shining Light and his companion used their new found power to harry the dogs. They eventually lucked out and caught the Diamond Dog leaders in an attack. I guess in the end, Nameless did help us win the war. However, this was offset by the carnage caused when the two ponies tried to return to Equestria. They were totally gone at that point, following the same pattern of violence as Nameless' other victims. They eventually came into conflict with Shining Light's old commanding officer, Misty Tide. She won, but in doing so, sealed her own fate."
"Misty? Hey, Twilight's ghost pony was called Misty, too!" Pinkie flapped her forehooves excitedly.
"Misty..." Princess Celestia stared out the window. Her horn glowed faintly, an image of a tall unicorn mare, her sea blue mane curling ever so slightly as it hung about her grey coat. A serious, scholarly expression, not unlike the one Twilight often wore, sat on her face.
"Who is she anyway? Twilight talked about her like she was somepony special," Applejack asked.
"Tia," the moon princess nudged her sister.
"Sorry," the white alicorn shook her head. "She was a talented unicorn, being both a brilliant strategist and a skilled mage. Although compared to her classmates, her raw power was actually fairly modest. However, her resourcefulness and determination made accepting her into the officer program an easy decision."
Luna picked up again, "She was among a group of ten. Although I taught her once or twice, as a unicorn, she was being trained in advanced magicks, which was Tia's domain. The small size of the classes tended to make things more personal. So when Misty was turned against us, Tia could not bring herself to fight one of her proteges. After learning of Misty's misdeeds along the border, I took up the Elements, seeking to put an end to everything. We battled it out in Nickerton, resulting in some unfortunate, but necessary collateral damage. I was able to land a solid blow with the Elements, but something went wrong. They left me drained and Misty dead. As I lost consciousness, I thought I had at least finished off Nameless. Oh, how wrong I was."
Princess Celestia's eyes darkened, "Forgive me, Luna, I was weak. If only I'd been there..."
"I've already told you, what's done is done," the younger princess paused to lean up against the older alicorn. "It began to speak to me. Slowly. In whispers. Subtly it turned my thoughts against my sister. A mere ounce of jealousy given life in a moment of weakness became a raging fire. I... I lashed out..."
Princess Luna closed her eyes and bowed her head. Her sister nuzzled up against her.
After a moment, the sun princess looked up again, "It was my turn to take up the Elements. To fight against Luna. To my dismay, I was also unable to make proper use of them. Thankfully, I only left her wounded. But to leave Nameless free and in control of alicorn magic would be foolish. For the first time I... I sealed somepony away with Nameless."
Pinkie and the other ponies shifted uncomfortably. The pink pony's heart ached for Princess Celestia. She felt like galloping up, hugging both princesses and bawling her eyes out. Of course, Rarity would probably complain about how inappropriate she was acting and the princesses might not appreciate that either. So she settled for a sympathetic look.
After a deep breath the sun princess continued, "I knew it was only a matter of time before she recovered. The seal would be no match for the full power of an alicorn. But to ensure no pony released her prematurely, I sent her to a place far from any civilization."
The silence hung thick in the air. Nopony needed any explanation.
"I frantically set about researching the Elements, trying to figure out why they weren't working as theorized. After a decade poring over every glyph, every calculation, every step in the manufacturing process... we found that the Elements were sensitive to the emotions of the user. In order to have the desired effect, the user had to be in perfect harmony with herself."
"Um, excuse me," Fluttershy paused when everypony looked at her. "But if you couldn't do it, how did it work for us?"
"It is easy for turmoil to throw off the emotional balance of a single being. And alicorns are no exception. But multiple ponies from a group of highly compatible friends? Your strengths and weaknesses complement each other perfectly. Together you were able to unleash the true power of the Elements and free Luna."
Princess Celestia glanced at her sister.
"My imprisonment with Nameless was not a total waste either. I know how it works. It feeds a pony's base desires, using it as an excuse to slowly, subtly change her personality. At the same time, it is slowly consuming the true pony. Absorbing her personality, her memories... her life, effectively."
"Wait, wait, wait," Rainbow planted her forehooves on the table and leaned forward. "This is happening to Twilight?"
"Yes," the moon princess answered, her gaze unwavering.
"Right now?" Dash was a half step away from all the way up.
"Then what are we waiting for? We have to get out there and save her before she... before she..." the pegasus shook her head. "We just have to go help her, okay?"
"No," Princess Celestia's voice was firm. "We cannot rush into this. Twilight is going to become powerful and she will do so quickly. We must have a plan, else we invite disaster."
"Tia, is she truly so threatening?"
"I don't know, but... Even though I have been unable to measure her true potential, she is beyond any unicorn I have ever known. Nameless' presence will only enhance that power, presenting a level of risk that means I cannot and will not take this matter lightly."
"Then we must end this quickly," the moon princess spoke with the same coldness Pinkie remembered from the throne room.
The pink pony refused to give up. She would not budge, even for a princess, objecting loudly, "Wait, there has to be some other way! There just has to be!"
"Yea!" Rainbow chimed in. "We're still talking about Twilight, here. She's not our enemy."
Princess Luna looked up at her sister. They exchanged a couple glances, ending with the moon princess finally sighing and closing her eyes.
"The risk is extremely high and I'm not even sure it will work, so I can't say I recommend it..."
"Tell us! Anything is better than just 'sit back and watch Twi die!'" Applejack pleaded.
"Very well... When I became Nightmare Moon, Nameless took control and I was lost in my own mind. But every so often a ray of light would appear, bringing me back. Whether or not I could control myself was always unpredictable and usually didn't end in my favour. Anyway, the most important thing is that that ray only seemed to appear when I encountered Tia."
"Wait," the orange pony paused to think. "Back in Everfree, when Twi was going nuts and I told her it was me, she backed off. This the same thing?"
"I can't say for certain, but sounds like it. Which is good, because this whole plan hinges on that. Now perhaps if the five of you get to her soon enough, she could suppress it."
"And then?" Rarity leaned in.
"Then I guess we try the Elements and hope there's still enough Twilight left intact to be compatible with each of you."
A grim silence fell over the room.
Twilight lay in a collapsed heap on the floor, her horn barely even illuminating her face. With a groan, she pushed herself to a sitting position. Or rather, imagined herself in that sitting position, as she knew her body held her mind, not the other way around. And yet she had felt the ground beneath her hooves, the hairs of her coat shifting as she moved. To know one thing and have her mind assume the opposite anyway was a truly bizarre feeling.
But the fatigue, that was real. She had wandered the unending darkness for what seemed like hours. No matter where she went, everything was the same. Still, she did her best not to lose hope. And so she walked and walked and walked until her mind's eye collapsed, leaving her sprawled out on the supposed floor of her mind.
"Looks like somepony could use a nap."
Twilight started, but feeling as sluggish as she was, made no effort to move. She simply turned her head toward the phantom pony, fixing it with an exhausted glare.
"What do you want?"
"Well, I'm embarrassed to admit this," the ethereal pony flourished dramatically, although its voice remained hollow. "But I'd forgotten just how fragile you silly ponies are. This body needs time to regenerate and I'm bored."
"Not my problem," the lavender pony turned her head forward.
"Oh, I know," the pony thing was suddenly in front of her. "But you are a seeker of knowledge, are you not?"
Feeling her curiosity stir, Twilight looked up, raising an eyebrow.
"Since I'm feeling nice, I thought I'd oblige you," the phantom pony spoke almost melodically, which, when combined with the distortion of its voice produced a sort of sickening, knowing drone that made the unicorn's skin crawl.
Before she could object, her eyes were lost in the image of a pony. An earth pony filly, to be exact. She lay on her side, something resembling a serene expression on her face. She could almost be mistaken for sleeping. Almost. But the longer Twilight stared, eyes drawn to her motionless side, the more obvious the real situation became.
The unicorn wanted to reach out, but she was gone. She was replaced by a tan coated stallion, eyes and mouth wide with shock. There was a deep, disfigured hole in his chest, which looked to have been cauterized by magic. He was covered head to hoof in black soot. As she gave him another once over, horror struck her. He was a unicorn. The shattered nub was barely visible through his singed bangs and fragments of various sizes lay strewn across the ground.
A severed wing, its purple plumage ruffled and caked in blood. The owner was nowhere to be found. Twilight's stomach began to churn.
The leg of a mare, twisted in the wrong direction, awkwardly pointing skyward.
A royal guard, pinned to the wall by his helmet.
A motionless colt, head buried under heavy stone. A battered mare, guts spilling onto the floor. A filly's disembodied head, milky whites leering back.
The visions grew faster and more gruesome with each passing second. The visions soon became a blur. Twilight could hardly remember what had come a second ago, yet the sickness in her stomach lingered. What she had seen, no matter how briefly, could not be unseen.
Her cheeks became warm and wet as she cried out, "Stop it! Stop it!"
But the images continued unabated.
After an eternity, the visions finally stopped. The unicorn felt numb. She gasped for breath. Her eyes were locked wide, tears streaming down as she shivered uncontrollably.
"Why? The answer is simple, my dear Twilight Sparkle," the pony thing's voice was barely audible to her. "You wanted to know about your precious Misty. These are all of the ponies she slaughtered."
The unicorn continued to shake, haunted by everything at once.
"Oh, but it looks like you could use a little break. We'll pick it up again next time," the phantom pony lowered itself to the ground, a sinister smile forming as it brought its eyes level with Twilight's. "Pleasant dreams."