The seat rumbles gently beneath me. Sitting across from me are Vinyl Scratch and Rainbow Dash, the latter tapping her two front hooves together and looking anywhere but at me. We're mostly alone in the train car, except for a pair of chatting mares across and two rows down, and a cloaked stallion sitting in the back.

"Let me make sure I understand your ridiculous story." I clasp my hands together. "To start with, Discord first attacked a thousand years ago, but the princesses sealed him into stone using the Elements of Harmony."

Vinyl and Rainbow both nod.

"Then, he broke out a year ago, and Rainbow, Twilight, Pinkie, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Applejack sealed him away again."

Another set of nods.

"You're telling me that the six of you are national heroes who took down a god, and yet you live in the middle of a rural village doing manual labor where nobody even treats you like celebrities."

"It...wasn't exactly our proudest moment." Each word leaving Rainbow's mouth seems to take tremendous effort. "Without Twilight, we would have been under Discord's spell forever, and then who knows what would have happened."

"I don't think anyone saw it happen, either," Vinyl reveals with a shrug. "Discord is supposedly pure chaos, so the town was a total mess. The town hall was floating upside-down, the ground flowed like water, and rivers flowed through the air. That's not to mention what was happening inside everypony's houses. My turntables tried to tie me down with my own cables, like some kind of mad plant!"

"This isn't making your story any easier to believe." I point out with a sigh, leaning back and staring into the cabin ceiling. "When Twilight talked about Discord breaking out a year ago, she said she took care of it. Or more specifically 'we' took care of it. I assumed she was talking about the princesses. That would at least make more sense."

"They would've! If Discord hadn't gone after them first," Rainbow protests immediately. "Though they can't use the Elements of Harmony anymore. That's what Twilight said, anyway."

"Let's talk about that for a moment. These 'Elements of Harmony' you keep talking about. You're not being consistent in what they even are. One moment you're talking about yourselves as if you are the Elements of Harmony. The next, you're talking about them as though they're a physical object."

Rainbow jumps on the chance to change the subject."They're these really cool gems that we wear around our necks, and when we all get together, we can blast away evil with a huge rainbow beam!" She thumps her chest proudly. "My Element is Loyalty, and it looks like my cutie mark, only red!"

I stare at her blankly for a moment before turning to Vinyl. "Vinyl, you explain this. Rainbow's explanation sounded like I asked a ten-year-old to explain a bedtime story."

"Hey! Everything I said was true!" Rainbow protests indignantly.

Vinyl nods. "Sure, I can give it a go. I don't really get it all myself, though. I'm not one of them. So, they're six artifacts that represent the six...well...elements of harmony. Loyalty, Laughter, Kindness, Generosity, Honesty, and Magic. They pick a wielder who embodies that trait, and can only be used by them. Put them all together, and they can do...something. I don't know exactly what it does to evil."

I hold up a hand. "Hold on. So you're trying to tell me that because some gem says so, Rainbow has to be loyal?"

"No, I'm the Element of Loyalty because I'm loyal!" Rainbow corrects me.

"I'm even more confused. Everything that you just said is an abstract, subjective concept. How exactly do these Elements determine their wielder by these?"

"Obviously mine chose me because I'm loyal, duh." Rainbow, of course, has no idea what I'm talking about, but Vinyl is brushing her chin with a hoof, thinking deeply.

"Yeah, but everybody's loyal to something, like money or themselves."

"I think in this case, it's because she's loyal to her friends," Vinyl supplies, still appearing deep in thought. She slaps one of her hooves with another. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure it's friendship that's the key here."

"That seems too convenient to me. The psyche is too convoluted for anything to be able to judge someone like that, magic or not," I say skeptically, causing Vinyl to sigh.

"Ponies can be nice, Seth. What's wrong with having a magical artifact to prove that?" Vinyl retorts, tapping the edge of her seat with a hoof in annoyance.

"You can't prove that. Besides, you said the princesses can't use them anymore, right? There's obviously more to it than 'being a nice pony.' Unless you're trying to tell me they don't possess any of those traits you talked about earlier."

"Of course we're not!"

"Don't be ridiculous." Both Rainbow and Vinyl chastise me at once.

I slap my knee in satisfaction. "Exactly. You see why this makes no sense?"

"I see that you're still as cynical as ever." Vinyl remarks.

"And so what if we don't know how the Elements work? I'm the Element of Loyalty. You trying to say I'm not loyal to my friends? To you?" Rainbow challenges me.

I close my mouth with a snap. "That…could be just a coincidence."

"Uh-huh." A smug smile crosses over Rainbow's face, causing me to groan.

The sound of the train's whistle drowns me out, followed soon by the screeching of the wheels upon the rails. The train lurches and slows, before coming to an eventual stop at our destination.

Canterlot: a white metropolis that hangs from the side of the tallest mountain in Equestria and the seat of its government; I've seen it every day since coming to Ponyville, but I never thought I'd be here myself. Even the train station by itself is extravagant, consisting of a sprawling white and pale blue building dotted with windows through which I can see various luggage loading areas and doorways leading to other train lines.

"Finally! Come on you two, I can't wait to get out there!" Vinyl leaps to her hooves, the excitement returning to her. "Seth, grab your stick and let's get that cart out of here. Rainbow, can you go find a hotel? Preferably one that's cheap!"

"You got it!" Rainbow slides open a window and leaps out of the train through it. The moment she's clear of the window, she spreads her wings and zips off into the skies with a joyous whoop. "Canterlot, woohoo!"

I grab my rifle from my seat and follow after Vinyl, feeling a hint of anticipation myself despite my misgivings.

"So what's the plan from here? Grab a hotel, go get ready for a performance?" I ask as the two of us retrieve the carts from the luggage area. "This is all new to me."

"We've got until Friday night to get ready, but I should greet Mr. Tune tonight and see where I fit into the schedule. The festival lasts all weekend." Vinyl and I push the carts out of the train and onto the platform together. She looks up and around, raising a brow. "Weird, I guess it's not so busy today. Last time I was here the platform was jam-packed."

"The fewer people there are the better." We reach the exit to the train platform, where two unicorn guards are standing. Unlike the silver of the Ponyville guard, these guards wear the polished gold of the Royal Guard. Their eyes narrow as we pass through into the city proper, but they make no attempt to stop us.

Outside the station, the street is paved with a greenish-gray, well-maintained cobblestone. Towering ivory buildings flank us from both sides, each decorated with the same Hearth's Warming decorations as Ponville and tipped with purple tops and golden spires that reach out to the sky like spears. In the distance, the giant mountain peak forms the backdrop of the city, its summits poking through the clouds from which glorious blue waterfalls cascade down into lakes and rivers that wind through the city. Canterlot castle juts out from the side of the mountain above the main city square, around which white and gold vessels suspended by gigantic airships fly through the air to and from landing pads constructed into the mountainside.

"Yooooo, you still in there?" Vinyl waves a hoof in front of my face, her lips curled with amusement.

"This place" The words escape me before I can stop them. No wonder it costs so much for ponies to live here.

"Isn't it? I never get to come here often enough," Vinyl agrees with a smile. "Don't worry, we'll have plenty of time to explore before the festival, so save it for later. We gotta drop this stuff off at the hotel and then go find the bar."

"Right." Together, the two of us resume our march through the city streets. Despite Vinyl's words, I can't keep from looking around. All around us ponies move to and from the different buildings. Some sit at fancy outdoor cafes, while others meet up in the street and converse in uptight-sounding voices. In contrast to Ponyville's residents, every single pony here wears clothes, each ensemble seemingly more fancy than the last.

"Huh. None of them are looking at me at all."

"Since when are you the type that likes attention?" Vinyl questions with a snicker.

"That's not what I mean. When I first got to Ponyville, you lot couldn't stop staring," I point out, my voice colored with suspicion.

"Well, I guess you have a point, but this is also Canterlot. Different species come here all the time," Vinyl suggests. Her eyes flit up to the sky, her eyes lighting up. "Look up there! There's a few griffons right now!"

"Griffons? Seriously?" Unable to help my own curiosity, I look up in time to catch the feathered forms of three quadruped creatures with feline hindquarters and eagle-like heads and wings flying above. My jaw drops. "Holy crap, you aren't kidding. I didn't even know those were a thing."

"Oh yeah, they are. Rainbow was friends with one for a while, but then they had a falling out," Vinyl reveals. "You probably aren't all that unusual out here. Don't think too much of it."

"How many different species live in Equestria, anyway?"

"Let's see. You've got your three types of ponies, and then there's griffons. Those are rare, but you'll usually find them with the pegasi. Sometimes you see a passing minotaur, but that's rarer than seeing a griffon. There's also a zebra living in the Everfree Forest. Then there's all the species that live outside of Equestria, like dragons and deer," Vinyl fills me in as we turn a corner into a residential district, given the number of high-rise buildings and sprawling mansions. "Mom sent pictures of cats and camels over in Saddle Arabia if you want to check those out. There's probably even more I don't know about."

"Good god." I rub my forehead. "That's a lot to take in at once. Also...Saddle Arabia? Really?"

"What's wrong with Saddle Arabia?"

"It just...sounds awfully similar to the name of a country back in my era."

"Not surprising. Humans inspired a lot of modern cultures. Your ruins and such are everywhere if you look hard enough." Vinyl explains.

"That hardly makes me feel any better about it. How do you know so much about all this anyway?"

"Didn't I tell you my mom is an archeologist? I pick up on this stuff whether I want to or not," Vinyl reminds me, tapping her nose. "I've been to a few of her digs before, but it really isn't my scene. Too much dust and scrap, and not enough music."

"Heh, I hear that." Before I can ask where we're going, Rainbow dips out of the sky and executes a showy corkscrew turn before falling in step between us. "There you are. Find a place?"

Rainbow nods and thrusts her hoof to a wide street on our right. "There's a bunch of 'em over by the Sun Memorial! Cheapest one's still pretty pricey, though."

"Obviously. I don't know Canterlot, but I do know cities." I look over to Vinyl. "You took this into account?"

"Things here cost a ton, but also pay a ton. Don't worry, we'll come out on top for sure." Vinyl assures me with a grin. With that, the two of us follow Rainbow towards the hotel she'd chosen. As we walk, I spot a gigantic regal statue of Princess Celestia wrought from marble, gold, and crystal standing atop a plinth in an open plaza at the end of the street. Several other ponies are gathered around the memorial, along with a couple of griffons. The statue looks old but well maintained.

I raise an eyebrow at the sight. "That's awfully vain of her."

"That wasn't commissioned by the princesses," Vinyl interjects, seeing where I'm looking and giving an annoyed stare. "That was built along with the Moon Memorial on the other side of the city to celebrate the city's founding."

"They're really cool! You should see this place when the sun is right above it!" Rainbow adds. She points to the crystal horn that glitters in the afternoon sun "See how her horn is all crystal? When the sun hits it just right, there's rainbows everywhere!"

After a pause to admire the plaza, Rainbow breaks into a trot, pulling us to a relatively modest rectangular building with several spires built into its side. In front of a set of violet double doors, a well-dressed stallion perks up at our approach. His eyes briefly linger on me specifically before he moves to address the whole group. "Looking for a room?" The stallion asks in an accommodating tone.

"You guessed it. I need a room from now until Hearth's Warming Eve," Vinyl expresses.

The stallion nods respectfully, gesturing towards the door. "Of course, ma'am. If you and your companions can follow me inside."

Vinyl nods and glances towards Rainbow and me. "I'll go check us in. Seth, stay here and watch my stuff. Rainbow, can you go find the bar for me while I'm doing that? It's called the Angel Share. If anypony can find it fast, it's you."

Rainbow's chest swells with pride. "I'm on it! I'll be back in a jiffy!" She takes to the sky at a blistering speed, the backblast blowing through my hair and clothes. Satisfied, Vinyl nods and follows the stallion inside, leaving me outside with the two carts. Bereft of anything else to do, I turn my gaze to the cityscape and take in its beauty once more. An odd sense of wanderlust urges me to explore the nooks and crannies of this glorified city of gold and marble. My comments on the residents aside, Canterlot is-.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" a stallion says from my left. I turn to see the same cloaked stallion from the train. Once again a feeling of familiarity falls over me, but I can't quite piece together why. "There's no place quite like it, in my experience."

"I can agree with that." I never felt like this when visiting cities in my era. Every city was the same concrete and gray jungle. Here, every building is practically a work of art. "I can't imagine what it's like to live here."

"It's a blessing, but also a daily reminder of what we of the Royal Guard fight to protect. The world is full of those who wish to take what Equestria has built," the stallion responds solemnly.

My eyes widen with alarm. "You're a royal guard!?" In response, the stallion sheds his cloak and shrinks it to a size small enough to fit into a tiny slot in his now-visible armor.

Recognition hits me all at once, my legs going limp in the presence of the well-armored soldier that single-handedly took down the Scorpio. "C-Commander!? I didn't recognize you at all!"

"Anti-recognition runes. They're stitched into the fabric of the cloak," Stalwart Iron explains. "It wouldn't hold up to a military inspection, but it suffices to keep myself hidden among the general populace."

"Anti-r...that's a thing? Exactly what kinds of things can you do with magic?" I ask, scared at the possibility magic could mess with my head without me knowing it.

"To my knowledge, with enough ingenuity and mana, there appears to be no limit. Stalwart Iron's expression hardens. "I apologize for the abruptness, but I need you to come with me."

A spike of cold adrenaline surges through me, my heartbeat rapidly increasing. "What? Why? Am I under arrest?"

Stalwart Iron shakes his head. "I've come with a summons from Princess Celestia. She wishes to see you at your earliest convenience, and I was directed to show you the way to the castle."

"I…" I cut-off mid-sentence and take a moment to breathe deeply, overly conscious of Stalwart Iron's hard gaze upon me. "Does 'at your earliest convenience' mean right this instant?"

Stalwart Iron confirms with a terse nod. "That's how I would interpret it. The princess's time is extremely valuable, as you can imagine."

"...Do you know what she wants?" I ask hopefully.

"I wouldn't be at liberty to say."

"Of course you wouldn't," I mutter bitterly. "What about my job? The others will wonder where I am."

Stalwart Iron gives me an odd stare. "A summons from the princess supersedes all other obligations. Your friends will be informed of your absence by royal post if need be."

I let out a long defeated exhale. I feel as though I've been manipulated into an inescapable trap of some sort. "There's no saying 'no' here, is there?"

"To my understanding, such a thing would be unprecedented," Stalwart Iron answers. He motions with his head towards the street. "Shall we? It's best not to keep the princess waiting."

"Lead the way, I guess," I say, falling into step beside him. Thankfully, the commander doesn't put me in handcuffs as he takes me past hundreds of brightly colored, well-dressed ponies, different buildings, and attractions of all kinds. We pass everything from nightclubs to clothing shops to corporate buildings. If I make it out of the meeting in one piece, I promise myself that I will come back to fully appreciate it.

As the castle looms closer, Iron directs me down a side street along the westernmost side of the city, bordering the edge of the mountain. A majestic waterfall rushes from the rivers in the upper city past the walkway and down the mountainside, becoming a river that flows through Ponyville.

Finally, we reach a set of golden gates, through which I can see a parade ground filled with guards in full armor running drills with spears and swords.

The guards standing at the gates snap to attention and give a sharp salute when they spot Stalwart Iron, then immediately move to open the gates, which swing open with an unsettling quiet.

"Where are we?" I ask nervously, as I follow the commander into the parade ground.

"These are the barracks of the Canterlot Royal Unicorn First Regiment, where I live when I'm not on duty. The guards have already been informed of the nature of your existence, so I believed it would be better for you to enter the castle via the barracks," Stalwart Iron explains. He notices me eyeing the guards nervously. "Pay them no mind. They will not act against you in any way."

"Are you sure I'm not being arrested?"

"If you were being arrested I would already have you in chains, Seth." Stalwart Iron's deadpan response causes me to shiver. "You have nothing to be concerned about."

"I don't believe you." Despite my immediate rebuttal, Stalwart Iron says nothing more, leading me in silence to the wall dividing the barracks from the castle proper. Set into it is a small violet and gold door that another guard opens as we approach. A few steps later, a terribly familiar feeling washes over me and causes the hairs on my neck to stand up. A subtle pressure falls around me, the air humming with power as though I am moments away from a lightning strike that would split the very earth. Only one individual I know has this kind of presence.

After a short walk beneath a covered walkway flanked by well-kept flowerbeds, we pass through another set of doors into the castle proper. My eyes bug out at the sheer extravagance of this place. The floors are a soft checkered marble of white and black that gleams in the light from the magical lamps that line the walls, above which a lush red carpet stretches out in either direction, my feet sinking into it at least half an inch.

"This way. We're almost there." Stalwart Iron gestures with a hoof. Guards are posted at regular intervals along the hallway, each one a unicorn armed with spears or swords resting on the sides of their armor. Regular ponies pass us as well, some dressed in noble clothing, while others are dressed in what's clearly the pony version of a maid outfit. Stalwart Iron leads me towards a door at the end of the hallway into a small room consisting of little more than a couple of comfortable chairs and sofas arranged around an empty floor. Between the various paintings and luxurious curtains decorating the room, Celestia herself stands in the center of the room. Her aurora-colored mane flows in an unseen breeze, each strand shining with a faint, yet noticeable light. As always, she's possessed of almost otherworldly grace, making me feel small and insignificant.

"Good morning, Seth. It is a pleasure to see you again," Celestia greets me with a smile and a dip of her head "Thank you for bringing him to me, commander. You are dismissed."

Stalwart Iron smartly salutes, closing the door behind him without a word, leaving me alone with the Solar Princess. II should say something, but I can't force the words to come out.

Celestia frowns. "Please, there's no need to be so on edge. This was meant to be an informal meeting. I apologize if I've made you nervous or uncomfortable in any way."

"Y-You…," I manage to force out. "Of course I'm nervous! You sent the damn commander to bring me to you! I still feel like I've been arrested and you're about to put me on trial for something!"

Celestia looks appalled. "Goodness, no. I asked the commander to show you here out of convenience; the both of you were headed in the same direction. I admit I had hoped the two of you might find common ground, given that neither of you is originally from Equestria."

"He has a face like carved stone! I half expected him to knock me out at any given moment!" I say, my voice growing stronger with each word

Celestia clicks her tongue and shakes her head with a rueful smile. "That Stalwart Iron. I did encourage him to try to talk to you. Please, do not take it personally."

"Look, I couldn't care less whether he talks to me or not, I just want to know why you brought me here! Normal people don't get a summons from the leader of a nation!"

"You may relax, Seth. I did not call you here for anything more than a casual meeting. You did receive my letter, did you not?" Celestia inquires. I open my mouth and then close it. I can't exactly tell her that the letter is sitting somewhere in my closet collecting dust. "It has been nearly a month since our last meeting, and I was hoping to have a chance to discuss your experiences in Equestria, as one of its newest residents."

I didn't believe her intentions when I read the letter, and I don't believe them now. "That's it? How do you have time for this? You're the Princess!"

"It seems you have the wrong impression." Celestia maintains a calm expression at my raised brow. "I have many demands on my time to be sure, but the council is not so inadequate that they cannot function in my absence. On the occasion that I need to take some time for myself, I may do so without fear."

"That sounds good and all, but I still don't see why you'd waste said time on me of all people," I say with arms crossed

Celestia nods understandingly. "You fear I may have some ulterior motive. Perhaps an attempt to ask something unreasonable of you?"

"That's...hitting the nail right on the head," I admit with arms still crossed, unsettled at how easily she sees through me.

"You may rest assured that what I told you in my letter was the truth. And only the truth. You are someone unique to this world, one that I have had the privilege of welcoming to Equestria. It only seems right that I ensure you are acclimating properly."

I scowl at the insinuation. "You talk a good game, but I still don't like it. I don't like being held above everyone else because I'm human like it's some hard-won accomplishment."

"Let me correct you on one thing, Seth. I am not holding you above everycreature else because you are human. This is a personal choice that I am making. I extended a welcome to you during our first meeting, and I wish to see it through to the end," Celestia chides me gently.

As sincere as her words sound, nothing she says can shake the feeling of uncertainty and dread settling deep within my breast. "Fine. I can't stop you from doing whatever you want," I say, resigned to the no doubt stressful conversation to come. "So, what exactly do you want me to tell you?"

"I have a couple of questions, but first, I want to take you to one of my favorite spots in Canterlot," Celestia says, walking past me.

"Huh? Why?"

"It is something I believe everycreature in Equestria should see at least once, especially if they are bound to the earth like yourself," Celestia answers with a smile. "Shall we go for a walk, Seth?"

"I'll follow, I guess." I don't think I could say no even if I wanted to.

Celestia beams and opens the door back out into the hallway, enveloping it with her soft golden aura. I follow her out of the door and back into the hallway. If the ponies had been curious before, it's even more noticeable now. Each pony we pass dips their head reverently to the princess, who greets them cordially by name. She greets so many ponies as we pass through the maze of ivory halls that it strikes me as impressive anyone could memorize that many names.

"I hope you are not opposed to a small hike," she says to me with a hint of playfulness in her voice, leading me out the back of the castle onto a mountain path.

"A hike? Where exactly are we going?" I ask, eyeing the path with some small interest.

"This is a walking trail that heads all the way to the top of the mountain. The guards often use it for endurance training, but it also serves as a relaxing escape from the city," Celestia answers. "I do not get a chance to visit it very often, so I suppose I am using you as an excuse to do just that."

"Oh good. I'm ever so glad to be of service." I deadpan, earning a light giggle. The trail is rather thin, with the mountainside rising high on one side and thick pine trees on the other. Birds sing and chirp from the trees, accompanied by the rustling of wildlife in the undergrowth At one point, we cross over a river flowing from a massive thundering waterfall using a stone bridge. The air grows colder and thinner the higher we get, my ears popping painfully as the path continues to spiral upwards.

After about fifteen minutes of walking in silence, we reach a grassy clearing. The left side of the path gives way to a steep cliff that reveals Canterlot out before us in all its splendor. Further beyond, I can see Ponyville in the distance, laid out on the green of the land like a massive toy set. I distinctly make out Sweet Apple Acres, the Town Square, Golden Oaks Library, and even the Everfree Forest innocently sprawled out next to the whole thing.

"What do you think, Seth? Isn't it lovely?" Celestia asks me softly as the two of us gaze out over the gorgeous expanse that is Equestria.

"Y-Yeah…" I say breathlessly. My breath catches in my throat when I notice Celestia moving close to me.

"Do you see those lush green trees up ahead? That is White Tail Woods, beyond which lies the Smokey Mountains, Vanhoover City, and the North Luna Ocean," Celestia directs with a slender white hoof, slowly tracing up the horizon. "If you look further north, you shall see Cloudsdale, one of the largest cities in Equestria and ancestral home of the pegasi."

When my eyes find Cloudsdale, I can't help but exhale sharply in awe. What I thought was simply a large cloud formation reveals itself to be a city made entirely from clouds sculpted into vaguely greek architecture, with rainbows cascading from cloudborne rivers like waterfalls. I've been to high places before in my own time, but never saw anything more than a landscape tainted by development. Never this. Never the untouched magic of nature.

My attention inevitably returns to the fact that I'm here alone with Princess Celestia, and I tone down my emotions to something more contained. "This is nice, I guess. But didn't you have some questions to ask?"

" I wanted to show you the beauty of Equestria in the process," Celestia answers proudly. "But I value your time as well. Shall we talk and eat?"

"Eat?" I repeat in confusion, turning to see Celestia moving towards a plaid quilt stretched across the ground in the middle of the clearing, a straw basket placed in its center. "You brought me up here for a picnic? Seriously?"

"In a manner of speaking. It is common courtesy to provide refreshments to one's guests, is it not?" Celestia responds as she rests on the quilt. "Please, join me. I want you to feel at ease when we converse."

"I...don't think that's happening." I've been trying to repress them, but too many red flags are popping up in my head. "I don't trust this. I don't trust you. Why are you going so far out of your way for me?"

"Seth…" Celestia begins.

I feel the beginnings of a panic attack coming on as I break into a cold sweat. "Stop. No no no no…" I start to pace, desperately fighting the urge to turn and run. "You're the princess. Princesses don't take time out of their day-to-day to have a picnic with me of all people. You have something in mind. You have to. Please come out and say it."

"Seth, take a moment and breathe. I promise that I did not call you here to exploit you." Celestia assures me with a sad frown, watching me with concern. "I know not who has wronged you thus, for you to be so suspicious of me, but I can assure you that I am not that individual."

I freeze in place and stare at her sharply. "What are you talking about?" I demand.

"I told you once before. I can learn a lot about someone from a normal conversation. In this case, you are terribly frightened. Not of me, but what I might do to you in exchange for this kindness," Celestia conjectures.

` At first, my mouth opens and closes like a fish, but then a surge of rage and indignance burns in my chest.. "Don't talk like you know anything about me! You weren't there! You don't know!"

"I was not. But I do not believe I am wrong." Celestia says without budging an inch.

"SHUT UP!" I buckle beneath the weight of her soulful gaze. "The only people who know what happened other than me are dead! Because of you! Because you couldn't stop him until after he ruined everything!"

For a brief moment, regret flashes across Celestia's face before she closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. "I do not know the full story, and I won't pretend to. However, I do know that one does not become as closed off as yourself without due cause. What has been done to you in your past is unforgivable," Celestia states calmly. "But I am not the one who hurt you personally. I want you to remember that."

"So what if you're not!?" I jab a finger at her, my voice as harsh as a whip. "You're the princess of an entire nation with armies at your command! You can do whatever you want, whenever you want, and nobody will dare question it because they worship the ground you walk on! Who could say anything against you when your subjects lash out at anyone who tries!?"

In spite of my rage, I recognize I've said too much. Yet despite my harsh words, Celestia doesn't react as I'd expect. Anyone I know would've given up on me after hearing something like that, but Celestia's kind expression hasn't dimmed in the slightest.

"I think I am beginning to understand. It is not me that you fear. It is the power I wield, and the possibility that I am hiding vile intentions behind a kind exterior," Celestia accurately surmises. "This individual in your past must have been someone of significant influence, for you to project her qualities onto me."

I want to lash out again, but I do my damnedest to reign myself in. "So what? There is nothing you can say to make me think otherwise."

"You are right, of course. So, what do we do from here?" Celestia asks. Before I can answer, she continues. "There are two paths before you that you can take. You can believe what the voice inside of you is saying and distance yourself from me to prevent any chance of being used or exploited again. That is the safe option, but it is also the lonely option."


"Or you can stay, and put your preconceptions to the test. Deep down, I do not think you truly believe that everyone is the same. Perhaps most, but even you had someone with whom you were close, which proves that there indeed are individuals worth knowing. So I ask: how will you ever know if I am one of them without taking a chance?"

"Because I…" I close my mouth. Her argument seems awfully familiar, having been used against me twice now. "I can't."

"Precisely." Celestia nods with satisfaction. "I leave the choice up to you. You may have a seat, or you may leave. You have my word that I will not hinder you in any way if you choose the latter."

A silence falls between us, broken only by the mountain breeze gently passing through. I wonder to myself if I can trust her to keep her word if I did choose to leave right now. Yet I can't keep her words from resounding within my mind. Amaryllis said something similar. So did Rainbow. Neither of them have done me any wrong since doing so, but neither of them are princesses, either.

"You won't hold any of this over my head?" I finally ask.

"I would never dream of it. Kindness is not a weapon to keep others in line. It is to be given freely as a gift." Celestia responds, patting the space next to her.

I let out a disbelieving scoff and sit down on the quilt, causing her to smile warmly. "You certainly make it sound pretty, even if I don't believe that for a second."

"One day, I hope that you shall." Celestia's horn lights up, and the picnic basket opens to reveal an assortment of snacks and drinks. "But for now, let us eat. I have much I wish to ask you."

"I'm sure you do." As I watch Celestia lift sandwiches, platters of fruits and sliced cheese, jugs of water, and an entire double-layered chocolate cake from the otherwise mundane looking bottomless picnic basket and spread it out before us, I note the practiced ease with which she uses magic. There's a sense of grace yet firmness in the way Celestia handles the food that I can't say I've seen in other unicorns, like an ice skater going through the motions. It is as if magic is not a tool but part of who she is.

"In case you have a sweet tooth," Celestia says a little sheepishly, seeing me eye the cake with a raised brow. "Water as well, as I am unfamiliar with your taste in drinks." Celestia unwraps one of the sandwiches and takes a small dainty bite, watching me expectantly.

I hesitantly unwrap one of the sandwiches and try it myself. The taste of sourdough overtakes my mouth, followed by lettuce, spinach, tomato, and goat cheese. It's an odd combination, but it's delicious.

"Do you like it?"

"You're not going to fire whoever made this if I say no, are you?" I remark sardonically as I take another bite.

A smile plays about Celestia's lips. "Of course not. Even I would find it quite difficult to fire myself."

I glance at her in surprise, taking another bite. "You made this?"

"Indeed I did. The royal cooks do fine work, but every now and then I like to try my hoof at it myself. I find baking to be particularly rewarding," a mischievous twinkle enters the princess's eye as she lifts a generous slice of cake, "given that I do not have to share the results with anypony else if I do not wish to." The image of the Solar Princess gorging herself on chocolate cake that she admitted to hoarding is enough to get a chuckle out of me, despite my sour mood.

"I understand much has happened since our last meeting," Celestia comments while taking another bite and pouring herself a cup of water from the jug. "How has life in Ponyville been for you?"

"Apart from the incident in the forest that you already know about, it won't be that interesting for you. For the most part it's been work."

Pleasant surprise colors Celestia's expression. "Oh? You have found employment in Ponyville? I would like to hear more if you feel comfortable sharing."

"Fine, but it's really boring. I'm working on the farms almost every day as my main job."

"Would that happen to be Sweet Apple Acres, by any chance?" Celestia inquires, her interest growing in contrast to my expectations. She smiles as I nod in confirmation. "I hope it has been a pleasant experience. I am quite familiar with the owners."

"It's not the worst job I've ever had, even if it is a bit of a workout. I don't intend to work there forever though—Farm work wasn't what I had in mind for the future." I say, cringing at the thought. "I'm also working as an assistant with a local musician, which translates to more heavy lifting. At least the atmosphere is better."

"Do you fancy yourself as a practitioner of the musical arts?"

"I guess? I'm not exactly making a lot of money to do much 'practitioning'," I reply with a shrug before turning my attention to a particularly appetizing roasted vegetable sandwich.

"Nevertheless, that is a lovely dream to strive for. Having concrete goals would work wonders for your state of mind." Celestia responds with a beaming smile.

I sigh heavily. "You aren't wrong. I had somebody tell me something similar back in Ponyville."

"Is that so? Is this individual somepony you would call a friend?" Celestia puts her plate down and crosses her two front hooves, waiting on my response.

"I...guess?" I regret telling her that almost instantly, given how her smile grows even wider. "Stop that."

"Hm? Stop what?"

"Looking at me like that. With that smug 'I told you so' look."

Celestia's brow wrinkles and her smile dims. "I promise you that any emotion I am feeling is nothing but happiness for your sake," she says, choosing her words carefully. "Your circumstances would be taxing for anycreature, much more for somecreature of your age. I am greatly relieved to hear that you no longer have to face them alone."

"Right…" I say uncomfortably.

"Though, I cannot help but be curious. Would you grace me with the name of your new friend?" Celestia asks.

"...Do I have to?"

"If you feel comfortable of course," she says, picking up her plate and taking another bite of cake.

Her words sound comforting, but I don't think I could get away with keeping it from her. I can only hope telling won't make this more embarrassing than it already feels. "I'm friends with...I mean I'm giving a chance to…her name is...oh for goodness sake, it's Rainbow Dash."

To her credit, Celestia only looks surprised for a moment before she recomposes herself. "That is wonderful. Rainbow Dash is a pony of exceptional character. You shall find a most excellent and loyal friend in her."

"So I keep being told. She's okay, I guess. Extremely stubborn though, with an ego the size of one of those airships over there," I reply, pointing a half-eaten sandwich in the general direction of a collection of blimps listlessly hovering over Canterlot, "but she hasn't done me any wrong."

"Everypony has one or two flaws, but I believe that is part of their charm," Celestia acknowledges with a knowing smile. "Out of curiosity, what made you decide to give her a chance?"

The words stick in my throat. There's no way I can tell her the real reason I began giving her the time of day. The last thing I want is Celestia going nuts on me about my near death. I swallow hard and try again. "It was her almost dying in the forest. I couldn't let that happen."

Celestia pauses, probably expecting something much milder than near death. "You did the right thing, going out there to help her. Her loss would have been devastating, and Equestria as a whole is grateful for your actions." Celestia's smile slowly fades, causing my anxiety to return with a vengeance. "Regardless, I am glad you brought that up. I was also hoping to speak with you regarding that incident. More specifically, I wish to hear about your magic."

"I read your letter, but I don't know what you want me to say, though," I say hesitantly, unsure what her change in demeanor means. "You read the reports. I assume those experts coming from Canterlot were also your doing, so you probably know more than me."

Celestia finishes the last of her meal and sets the remains back in the basket. "Perhaps, but I wish to hear from you. Given your prior testimony, I was under the impression that humans possessed no mana and could perform no magic."

"Did Twilight tell you that?" I ask. Celestia nods. "It's true. Humans never had magic. We had rumors and legends, but that's all they were. Besides, there was no need for humans to discover magic if it did exist, given our technology. So me apparently having magic makes about as much sense to me as it does to you. I don't even remember using it."

Celestia hums in thought. " Can you tell me how the events of that day unfolded from the beginning? There is something important I am trying to determine."

I glance at her in surprise. "You know something about this magic?"

"I cannot be sure, but I have a strong theory. One of the reasons I called you out here was to confirm it for myself," Celestia reveals. "If I am correct, I will tell you everything I know and answer your questions as much as I am able."

"Alright, sure. But like I said, I can't tell you anything you don't already know."

Enticed by the prospect of learning more about what's inside me, I start even before the events of that day, with the first time I felt the strange pressure inside my sternum. I cover Twilight's investigations and how it lashed out at her. I go all the way through my encounter with the Scorpio and continue up until the point that I lost consciousness and woke up in the hospital. All I leave out are the details of my day-to-day and personal matters that she doesn't need to know.

Celestia listens to my tale patiently and attentively, interrupting only to ask for clarification on certain points. At the end of the story, she scrutinizes me closely, her gaze sweeping through me a razor blade. Finally, she lets out a sigh of what seems to be relief.

"Thank you for being forthcoming. Your account of events matches up with what I have heard." Celestia dips her head gratefully. "I am almost completely certain that I am correct, but I require one last thing that will prove my theory beyond a shadow of a doubt."

"What's that?"

"Can you show your magic to me?" Celestia asks, causing me to look at her in shock. "You need not show me any spells. All I require is a simple exertion of magical pressure."

I blink, nonplussed. "I don't know what any of that even means. All your experts told me was how mana travels from my core to the outside world. What is magical pressure?"

"It is a blanket term that refers to the emanation of mana magical creatures naturally or forcefully release. How much mana one passively releases depends on many factors, but the most notable factors include the strength and depth of one's core," Celestia explains, her voice gaining a soft lecturing tone like a professor in class.

"Is that why the air feels so different whenever you're around?"

Celestia nods. "Precisely. My sister and I are of a different breed than other creatures, so our cores emit a great deal more mana than they do. I can suppress my pressure if I so choose, but not for very long."

"If that's passive…" I gulp at the thought. "What does it mean to exert one's pressure?"

"It is the act of using your mana to interact with the outside world, either as a byproduct of a spell, or simply done by itself, forming what is called your magical aura." Celestia's horn glows and the half-empty jug of water on the quilt is engulfed by a golden glow before lifting several inches off of the ground. "What you are seeing is a glimpse of my magical aura."

"How would I do any of that? I can't even tell if I'm emitting mana right now," I reply helplessly.

"Stand up," Celestia orders me gently, doing the same herself. With her magic, she rolls up the quilt, replaces it in the basket, and sets it well out of the way.

I rise to my feet, feeling my body shiver with anticipation. The thought of going to the hospital again terrifies me, but I can't deny that doing actual magic has me a little giddy.

"Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Picture your core as a natural spring, and mana is the water bubbling up from the earth," Celestia begins. I do as directed and follow along with her as best as I can, despite feeling foolish while doing so. "Think of your mana as rivers that flow through your body, nourishing and bringing life to all that it touches. Each pore of your body is the mouth of a river, emptying mana into the endless expanse of the gentle ocean around you."

With both Celestia's dictation and the diagram that Flash Forward showed me, I slowly formulate a vision within my mind. I think of a mountain spring as she told me, but instead of clean, clear waters, my mind almost involuntarily changes the contents of the spring to a vile black.

"All you need to do is guide the flow of the river out of your body manually, like a fleet of ships sailing towards the sea displaces the water before it," Celestia continues, her voice sounding distant and far away.

I grunt uncomfortably. The black water flows with an arctic chill, freezing my body from the inside out. The water picks up speed, going faster and faster till the placid river transforms into a raging rapid that prickles the inside of the skin, crackling like live wires.

My eyes shoot wide as the spring erupts with a tremendous geyser, sending forth a flood of monumental proportions. In a panic, I release the mental image but I feel the flood surging outwards with the force of a tsunami, disregarding my every attempt to regain control. The frigid cold seeps through my entire body down to the extremities, making it harder and harder to think.

Then, the flood reaches the mouth of the river and violently spills out to the ocean.

Never once do Celestia's eyes leave Seth as she guides him. She doesn't miss a thing, from the way he grunts and shifts in discomfort, to his lips trembling with every breath. "Now, simply force the flow out into the ocean."

Trails of wispy violet mana emanate from the corners of Seth's shut eyes. Darkness erupts from the ground and engulfs his body, cracking the earth beneath his feet.

"That will be enough. This tells me all I need to know," Celestia tells Seth calmly, her eyes narrowing at the aura growing larger and more prominent. "If you do not know how to stop the flow, simply halt the flow of ships sailing from the spring to the sea."

Music: Black Rock Shooter - Battle of BRS

Seth made no response, arcs of green electricity running up and down his body or jumping to nearby terrain. His eyes slowly open to reveal deep red pupils in a sea of sickly green.

"Seth, are you hearing me?" Celestia asks, even as her spirits sink. Hearing her, his gaze snaps to her instantly, those eyes proving all too familiar to the Solar Princess. She frowns, concern coloring her expression. Recognition sparks in Seth's eyes, and a low growl escapes his throat. "I told you, I have seen enou—!"

Seth zips forward at Celestia at breakneck speed and slams his fist directly into her snout. A burst of shadow erupts from the point of impact, accompanied by a whip-cracking sound. Celestia gasps, spittle flying from her mouth as she's sent tumbling end over end across the clearing. Her crown falls from her head, skittering across the grass before snagging on a rock near the edge of the cliff.

Celestia spreads her wings and rights herself. Her hooves skid across the grass and tear up the earth. She has no time to think before Seth is on her. The human zips through the air in a zig-zag fashion as he closes the distance.

This time, Celestia is ready. She raises her left leg in time for his fist to collide with it above the fetlock. Seth dashes up and executes a series of punches, staying in one place long enough to strike once before zipping away to attack from a different angle. His speed increases steadily as he circles about her, each punch accompanied by a thunderous boom on impact.

No matter from whence Seth attacks, Celestia turns her body faster than one would think possible for a pony of her size, blocking each attack with her hooves as they come. Seth zips up into the air, twisting and turning his body to gather momentum. Darkness collects in both fists as he brings them downwards in an attempt to strike Celestia's unguarded back.

With a flap of her wings, Celestia leaps backward. Seth's attack crashes into the ground where she had once stood, showering the surrounding area in loose rock and singed blades of grass. Seth lifts his gaze in time to see Celestia's rear hooves aimed at him in a vicious buck. He bolts out of the way with a backflip, then spreads out both hands. Shadow and electricity course from his sternum and down his arms, gathering in the palms of his hands.

"Stop this at once! I am not your enemy!" Celestia calls, turning to face him. A wave of darkness surges from Seth, the grass turning to dust in a circle spreading outward. Celestia exerts her aura at last, the air coming to life with golden-white mana that covers her body like a cloak of sunlight. The darkness washes against her aura like water on rock, doing little more than clouding her vision.

Suddenly, Seth hurtles through the air before slamming both of his feet into the left side of Celestia's barrel like a battering ram. The force knocks her clear off of her hooves and off of the cliff entirely.

Celestia spreads her wings and rights herself in midair, not even a bruise left where she'd been struck. She glances up to see Seth reaching for the rifle slung on his back. Darkness runs through the weapon and transforms it into a black crystalline structure. He grasps it by its stock and twirls it about in one hand before the weapon dissipates and reforms into two smaller guns pointed directly at her.

"Seth, you must fight this! Do not let the magic control you!" Celestia pleads to him. Seth opens fire without hesitation, the sound of gunfire filling the air. Celestia's expression becomes pained, a helpless exclamation escaping her as sharpened bullets of the corrupting magic descend upon her like a swarm of hornets.

With a flap of her wings, Celestia rises into the air, the bullets changing course and following her path. She lowers her horn and reciprocates Seth's assault with a hail of radiant bolts, each three times the size of Seth's bullets. The projectiles collide midair, erupting in a shower of light and dark. The air between them fills with explosions, raining sparks and wisps of mana onto the mountainside below. Switching tactics, Seth fires his weapons at odd angles, only a small portion of them pointed directly at Celestia at all.

The bullets flying past Celestia ricochet, forming a deadly interlocking web around the princess. Each bullet splits into tiny pieces of crystalline shrapnel capable of perforating any ordinary pony beyond recognition. Seth dissolves his pistols and clenches a hand, causing the shrapnel cloud to collapse. Without checking the outcome of the last attack, he kneels down and plants a palm onto the ground.

Celestia's aura ripples outwards like a solar flare, incinerating every single piece of shrapnel and leaving her with nary a scratch. In front of Seth, a crystalline cylinder juts from the ground pointing at Celestia. The construct erupts like a geyser, propelling a crystalline orb the size of a softball. The orb strikes Celestia's aura and detonates in a violent explosion. At the same time, the construct releases arcs of electricity that strike the core of the explosion, attracted to the detonating orb.

Capitalizing on the distraction, Seth dashes above Celestia and hammers his fist down on her back, only to find his attack striking her guard. Celestia's expression remains calm and grim, unmoving despite his efforts. Seth's glowing eyes narrow and he lets out a yell, a deeper voice brimming with malevolence overlapping his own. Celestia's eyes widen with surprise as the force behind Seth's attack spikes, dark power exploding at the point of contact and sending her hurtling down into the plateau.

The moment she hits the ground, Seth spreads out his arms as he falls, causing the crystalline construct still on the plateau to liquefy and flow up to meet him. It forms into two long constructs unfamiliar to Celestia, with multiple barrels on each of them.

Celestia leaps to her hooves as Seth unleashes an array of dark wisps from the now rotating barrels, each one following a curved trajectory before raining down upon the plateau and exploding upon impact. Clouds of dust kick up as a result of the explosion, hiding Celestia from view.

Celestia's aura tears through the clouds, streaking towards Seth like a blazing comet, weaving in and out of the storm of bullets as though they were moving at no more than a snail's pace. At the last second, Seth transforms his weapons into shorter, stubby constructs with two barrels each. Undeterred, Celestia sweeps aside his weapons with a single hoof before strafing to his side, twisting in midair, and bucking him hard in the chest. Seth slams into the plateau and coughs in agony, his ribs audibly cracking. He rolls to the side as Celestia comes with a follow-up attack, using a blast of darkness to propel himself unsteadily to his feet and put some distance between the two of them as he hacks and coughs. Celestia doesn't pursue, instead turning to face him fully. Threads of green electricity trace over his torso like stitches, holding his cracked ribs in place.

Celestia's worst fears are confirmed. Not only is Seth unable to control himself while under the influence of his own magic, but his aura grows stronger and more unstable every passing moment. She gazes at the horizon to Seth's left and lets out a sigh of relief as she spots a subtle midnight-blue distortion in the air that encompasses the entirety of the mountain clearing. Her attention is brought back to Seth when his magical aura spikes in intensity, putting his output from minutes ago to shame. The skin on his face and the tips of his fingers flake away in jagged streaks, revealing a hardened black substance underneath.

"Listen to me. You must remember who you are." Celestia says to him in a firm authoritative voice. "You are Seth Rogers, a human brought to this world by unfortunate circumstances and friend to Rainbow Dash, the Element of Loyalty. You are not King Sombra."

Seth responds by strengthening himself even further, a crater forming beneath his feet as the darkness gouges into the earth. The air thrums and distorts with power, bolts of green lightning raining down from the heavens to strike both him and the earth around him. His hands and fingers seem to tear through their own skin, forming long spindly appendages that taper to sharp points. His hair rises and hangs in the air as though suspended in water, and the skin on his face cracks, the same black substance running across his cheek up to his brow.

Celestia can feel his power dwarfing what he had shown her before by leaps and bounds, easily reaching into the realm of alicorns. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, her expression colored with sorrow. When she opens her eyes, her own aura swells, enveloping her in light so intense it resembles a golden flame.

Music: Nightwish - Storytime

"I had hoped beyond hope that it would not come to this," Celestia emits with grim finality. She moves towards Seth, her light scorching the earth with every step. "If you cannot control your magic on your own, then I am forced to do so for you. I will expel Sombra from your body with the might of the unyielding sun. Prepare yourself."

Seth lifts a hand. Shadow travels down the length of his arm and streams into the air around him, forming six points of darkness that coalesce into long, slim constructs. With a single flick of a finger, the weapons fire focused lasers all at once, each beam centering directly on where Celestia is standing.

Despite his newfound power, nothing could prepare Seth for Celestia's sudden charge. Surging beneath Seth's lasers, Celestia attacks him head-on and delivers a spinning kick with her hind hooves. Seth lifts a hand to block but finds it completely ineffectual as the impact knocks him across the battered plateau and off the edge of the mountain.

Seth rights himself in midair, his aura swirling about him and allowing him to hover. He has no time to collect himself before Celestia catches up and deals a devastating blow to the chest. As Seth tumbles backward through the air, he turns and directs his constructs to fire upon Celestia relentlessly, the six weapons chasing her and raining lasers down upon her to little effect.

The two streak through the air at a rapid pace, forming two trails of light and darkness behind them. Each time they meet, claw meets hoof in an explosion of tremendous proportions and a tumultuous thunderclap loud enough to be heard for miles. Green lightning and lasers rain from the sky around the darkened form of Seth, his body deteriorating with every passing second.

Seth hits the side of the mountain running, Celestia slamming her hooves into the earth behind him. He halts his body and drags the claws on his right hand through the mountainside, channeling his mana into the rock. Sheets of black crystal erupts from each gouge in the mountain, each one growing seemingly without limit and converging on Celestia

Celestia tears through them as though they were fragile glass. Seth's demonic eyes widen and he zips around her on the wall only moments before she obliterates the rocky mountainside where he had just been clinging with another devastating strike. His constructs circle around her and pelt her with lasers, even as Seth forms the two stubby constructs from before with three barrels each.

Seth fires them one after the other at near point-blank range, each blast deflected off Celestia's aura without even slowing her down. She turns to face him and bucks him off the wall down to the plateau, where his back slams into the rock to form another gaping crater.

As Celestia approaches at a blinding speed, Seth dissipates his weapons and sweeps his clawed hands through the earth. Sheets of dark crystal erupt from the cracks left behind and shoot up to meet Celestia. She shatters them easily once more, but the broken shards clump together to form chains that wrap about the unsuspecting princess's outstretched hooves. Seth motions with his claws, causing the chains to yank the princess straight to the surface of the plateau.

Seizing the moment, Seth places himself far away from the pinned princess and uses his left claw to remotely split the six floating constructs into thirty-two similar constructs. The constructs form a tight sphere around the princess while his right claw molds a pool of darkness into the shape of three massive barrels attached to his right arm.

With a flick of his left hand, the constructs surrounding Celestia spread out and fire a blistering array of lasers, each laser meeting with her aura and exploding violently. Despite their prior failure to break past Celestia's aura, Seth continues to fire again and again, channeling more and more mana in an attempt to break past her guard. He brings up his right arm, orienting the large construct onto his target. With a single pull of the trigger, a ballistic projectile fires from the first barrel, trailing black exhaust behind it. The construct rotates, moving the spent barrel away while bringing the second forth to fire a second missile, followed by a third from the final barrel.

The three projectiles crash into Celestia in a billowing explosion of shadow and deadly shrapnel. Not letting up, Seth dissolves the construct on his right arm and then raises both hands to release a two-pronged attack. With his right, Seth forces several elongating pillars of crystal to erupt from the plateau and the mountainside, each elongating and undulating like snakes while homing directly on Celestia's position from above. With his left, Seth gestures upwards, and the barrel of a massive cannon forms from the ground beneath Celestia and releases a tremendous blast of shadow from below.

All of these attacks strike nearly at once and combine to form an incredible explosion so dark and dense it seems to suck the light in. Still feeling resistance underneath the onslaught, Seth opens his mouth, revealing teeth that even now were sharpening and elongating, and roars as he brings his hands together, intensifying the maelstrom of darkness around Celestia and causing it to take the form of a twisting dark tornado ringed with sickly green lightning.

Yet in the core of the tornado, a point of light appears. The light grows brighter, resistant to Seth's every attempt to snuff it out, peeling away the darkness layer by layer until it bursts forth like a blazing ray of sunlight slicing through storm clouds. Seth zips forward at top speed, gathering as much power as possible to his right hand, which he brings down upon Celestia with everything he has, roaring his throat hoarse with exertion.

Seth's momentum halts as though he had run straight into a solid wall. His fist comes to a complete halt a full foot away from Celestia's face, the impact seeming to shatter the air and rend the earth asunder beneath them. Her aura blows away the darkness completely, any trace of shadow in the area replaced entirely by brilliant, glorious light. For the citizens of Canterlot, it looked like there were two suns in the sky, one being considerably closer than the other

Standing before Seth is no longer Celestia, but the blazing corona of the sun itself. Her magical aura is like a solar flare, blossoming up from the ground in a full three-meter radius around her body, burning so hot the surrounding air is forced into a heated updraft. In contrast, Celestia's purple eyes are cold, offering no mercy as she bears the monster's attack. Light streams away from Celestia's cold eyes in ribbons, not a shred of mercy to be found in those purple orbs.

Despite all his accumulated power and skill, Seth staggers backward, at a loss for what to do next. Before he can gather his wits, Celestia lowers her horn and fires a beam of intensely concentrated light. Seth reforms his rifle in an instant and retaliates by pulling the trigger over and over again, but it proves about as effective as spitting into a hurricane. Swallowing each blast of darkness, the beam of light strikes Seth directly in the chest, breaking through his aura, destroying his shirt, and scalding his skin mercilessly.

The light detonates, enveloping him in blinding light. Seth screams in agony but refuses to fall. Even as shreds of destroyed clothing fall to the ground, Seth remains standing, his body scorched and bleeding and his magic doing everything it can to keep him in one stitched piece.

Seth's eyes are as slits, staring at Celestia with pure bestial hatred. The skin on his face tears away further, revealing a seamless and smooth black surface that begins to fuse with his jaw. His muscles bulge and swell, the cracks in his skin extending down his neck and meeting with his blackened forearms. His legs and arms thicken, gradually increase in size, and burst through their skin entirely as even more power bubbles up from within him.

Before he has a chance to do anything, Celestia zooms past him in a bolt of light faster than he can see, striking him in the side with a blazing hoof. The single hit causes Seth's body to jerk back violently, his ribs cracking faster than his magic can stitch him back together. He turns to face her, only for her to instantly make another pass, striking him once again before he can orient himself.

Celestia swoops around him, visible as nothing more than a white flash, assaulting him again and again with destructive punches and kicks while never allowing him a moment to counterattack, or even get his bearings. Each impact causes an explosion of golden light.

Seth jerks about like a puppet on a string, unable to even fall limp under Celestia's assault. His body's transformation slowly ceases as mana is redirected to protect himself even as his defenses are battered away to nothing.

Celestia slams into the ground in front of Seth, the nearby debris vaporizing to nothing. Seth backs away, weakly blasting her with his rifle to no avail. Recognizing how outmatched he is, Seth pivots on his heel and attempts to zip away. Yet Celestia grabs him by his arm and drags him back, lifting a brightly shining hoof to deal one final blow…

Seth turns back to look at her, and for the first time, Celestia notices in his eyes not the burning malevolence reminiscent of King Sombra, but the innocent terror of a young man faced with she who is akin to a magical force of nature. Celestia's eyes widen at the sight. Instead of following through, she falters and instead claps both hooves onto Seth's shoulders and calls out to him.

I wonder what it must feel like to drown. To be suspended in the midst of a crushing flow of nature that wants nothing more than to swallow you up as your body screams for air. To see the surface far above you, so close yet still out of reach of your flailing limbs. To know that your life is at its end as the darkness of consciousness closes in around you, knowing that nothing but death awaits you. I wonder if it feels anything like this.

A dark fog shrouds my mind. I can't see anything. I can't hear anything. I can't feel anything. I am sinking in an endless sea of freezing black, the surface so far away as to be nothing more than a forgotten dream.

A terrible presence lurks beneath me. Somewhere in the darkest shadowy depths. I can't determine what it is, but I feel its gaze fixed on me, its grip like an iron weight dragging me down.

With every passing moment, I sense myself sinking lifelessly deeper into the depths. I feel a primal existential terror that seeps into the very marrow of my being as the presence whispers in low tones for me to give up. To embrace the complete erasure of my very existence…an annulment of all that I am and all that I ever was.

But then something else is there. Beyond the endless black, a single point of light shines at the surface, like the north star shining above the horizon in the dead of night. It calls to me like the insidious presence did, filling me with a powerful longing—a promise of escape from my inescapable fate. The darkness fights back, gripping my heart with its icy claws. I cry out for help, but nothing I say seems to reach the light.

I fight for the light with everything I have. Something hurts. The closer I get to the light, the more it hurts. It fills my mind with the redness of agony. If I falter the pain lessens, but my thoughts grow hazier and less defined. I'm filled with urgency, the fear of losing myself nipping at my heels. I don't know if I'm accomplishing anything. I feel like a paper boat amidst a hurricane atop the ocean black, whipped there and about with terrible wind while sinking into the trough of mountain-sized waves.

But the boat hasn't sunk yet, and neither has my will to survive. The more I struggle, the clearer things become and the more I remember. It hurts like nothing I've ever felt, but the fear of being consumed by the presence below keeps me goingThe light seems to sense me coming as it grows more welcoming and safe, like a mother reaching out for a child.

With one last push, I press for the light with every fiber of my being, forcibly wrenching the dark sea down beneath my heel. With a silent roar, I break past the water's surface and suddenly find myself thrust into the waking world.

The first thing I'm aware of is immense pain. My body burns like fire and my limbs feel as weak as a baby's. The second thing I'm aware of is my legs buckling, but a strong grip on my shoulders stops me from falling. I blink my eyes, recognizing the slender face of Princess Celestia a few inches away from mine through foggy vision tinged with green. She's saying something in a frantic voice, but I can't make out what.

"Princ...?" I say before my throat fills with the taste of iron and I cough up blood.

Celestia inhales sharply and grips me tighter. It's hard for me to understand her with the ringing in my ears. " me! I need…focus on me…everything that you have! Do not let…understand me!? You…stay in control!"

Whatever that darkness was inside me that was trying to consume me, I've held it back for now. The crushing wave of relief that falls over me is so intense I would cry if it didn't hurt so bad.

"Seth…alright? …remember who you are?" Celestia asks, supporting my head with her hoof. My throat feels as though there are daggers in it, so all I can manage is a weak nod.

"Oh, thank goodness!" Celestia gently wraps her forehooves around my neck in a relieved hug, causing me to softly hiss in pain as my ribs throb painfully.

I can't seem to shake the faint film of green that's tinting my vision, nor the black spots that come and go at the edges of my peripheral. I try to wipe my eyes, only to seize up as I catch sight of my destroyed hand and arm.

"Calm down," Celestia says, the relief clearly audible in her voice. "You did it, Seth. You conquered your magic and returned to me. I am so proud of you." Celestia lowers me to the ground gently with magic and presses a hoof gently on my arm.

"Do not speak. You are terribly hurt. I know I am asking too much, but I need you to disperse your aura for me. Simply slow the flow. Can you do that for me?"

I look up at her cluelessly at first, but then some of the fog hanging over my mind thins and I vaguely recall our conversation before I blacked out. Like before, I close my eyes and attempt to visualize the black river, ignoring the pain as best I can. After what feels like minutes or hours I find it, now little more than a trickle that proves easy enough for me to block off.

When I next open my eyes, my vision returns to normal and the shadow covering my body disperses. Relieved, I take a deep breath and instantly regret it, pain wracking my body over the simplest of breaths.

"I am so sorry for the state that you are in." Celestia closes her eyes and exhales deeply. "Worry not, I shall keep my promise. I will tell you everything from the beginning. But first, you must be healed; your injuries are very grave."

Before I can finish formulating my thoughts, Celestia lowers her head to me, her horn lighting up with a gentle glow. Ribbons of golden light issue forth from the tip of her horn and gently wind around my body, stitching together any lacerations and soothing any burns they find. They even enter my body and realign the mess that is my bones, a warm tingling feeling preventing me from feeling any pain. As the healing progresses, I can feel myself growing more and more exhausted, my eyes feeling as heavy as lead.

Despite my every effort to remain awake, I can't stop the wave of fatigue from overwhelming me, the waking world slowly fading away. Accompanying me to sleep is the soothing timbre of Celestia's voice.

"Rest, Seth. I will take care of you. Tomorrow, all shall be revealed."

Author's Note:

Hello everyone, and thanks for making it this far! When writing this chapter, I had to decide how I was going to play it. Ultimately, I arrived at the conclusion that Seth wouldn't just be allowed to chill in Canterlot or meet with anyone else as he did in the original. So this fight had to be pushed up to immediately after he entered Canterlot.

I'm actually rather happy with the way this turned out. Looking back at the original, it was very disjointed and somewhat cringe. Actually, more than somewhat cringe, it was VERY cringe. I think in the og I was trying to channel Ichigo's inner Hollow and it came off...extremely edgy and not at all cool.

This time around, I think I was able to foreshadow the fight well enough that it didn't just come out of nowhere, and render Sethn't (yes, this is the term Vayne and I have been using to refer to crazy Seth ) thankfully taciturn.

Anyhow, I shouldn't have this author's note go on forever. Thanks so much to Vayne Hellslinger for editing this, and thanks again to everyone for reading! Please leave me a comment and let me know what you think!

And, as always, should you want to hang out and chat with other readers or me, come to my discord server by adding me at darkterraform#4122 !