She was burning cold... or was it freezing hot? She honestly couldn't tell through the pain singing through every nerve of her body from hooves to horn. Strange as it was, it did sound like some sort of ethereal dirge, calling her magic out of her, slowly pulling the life force from her as it spiraled through her horn and into the artifact before her.
Princess Celestia, Steward of the Sun, Bringer of Light, and Ruler of Equestria had been trapped in some energy field after touching her horn to the crystal globe known as 'The Scales of the Maker' in some moldy old ritual book that her erstwhile advisor and friend the Doctor had found in her library. She didn't want to, but the thing sang to her, seductively, blocking out all her other senses until the moment of contact.
Now here she was, trapped in this sheath of blue and gold energy, the same shades that the royal sister's horns glowed when in use. She couldn't move. She couldn't speak, her mouth frozen in a silent scream... but she could see, and she could hear, and her heart froze in her chest as the long-dead body of her brother rose from its sarcophagus, smiled slowly and cruelly, and spoke these words:
"Hello, Doctor. It's been a long time... a very long time, indeed. How have you been?"
The voice wasn't Tartarus'. It didn't even belong to his sinister alter-ego, Perdition Blaze. Rather, there was a hollow, discordant note to it, as if it were one voice speaking for many, with echoes of the others in the pitch and timbre and inflection.
The Time Lord circled the sarcophagus and frozen princess slowly, eyes fixed on the reanimated corpse-horse before him as his ears flicked in a mixture of alarm and curiosity, and his eyes hardened with anger as the undead Blaze's appearance began to mend, even as Celestia's started to deteriorate, her mane and tail losing their tricolor quality and resuming their natural pastel pink shade; that they also resumed their natural uncontrollable frizz only added insult to injury. "I've been better. I've survived worse. Just another day in the life," drawled the Doctor in a low, slightly mocking tone, "How does it feel to be inhabiting a corpse?"
Dried and cracked lips peeled back from teeth in a rictus smile as they regenerated, Blaze replying amiably, "About as well as you might expect. It's also a bit crowded in here, but fortunately I'm a persuasive sort... much like yourself, I must say. But then, if you knew who I was, you could've guessed that yourself." He gestured down at the coffin and smirked faintly. "Pardon my manners in not getting up. This body is still a little stiff from stasis, and the lady there's still got some life force to nibble on. I can't even really see much right now, but I think my eyesight is improving. To quote one of those silly human movies, I see a big light blur instead of a big dark blur. Even so, I know who you are, and where you are."
"And just who are you, hmm? I mean, sure, you're the dominant personality, but there's got to be others. Do you hold committee meetings to determine who gets to move the arms and legs? Inquiry panels when you have to go to the bathroom?" Snorting softly, the Doctor snarked, "It's a wonder you can accomplish anything at all."
Leaning over the lip of the casket, the dark alicorn gestured the Doctor closer. "Why don't you come closer and take a look? I promise you, no harm will come to you. Time Scout's honor."
Muttering that there were no such things as Time Scouts, the Doctor stepped closer, looking into the undead alicorn's eyes.
No, thought Celestia, as she watched helplessly, barely able to focus through the pain of the artifact draining her magic, her very life's essence, away. Don't look into the eyes that cannot see, Doctor. Don't look!
As the Doctor looked closer into the black alicorn's eyes, his face started to contort with a dawning horror. Softly, he whispered, "No. It can't be."
"Oh, yes," purred Blaze, "It can be so. It is so. By quantum mechanics themselves, by observing it, you have just made it so much quieter in here now."
"'Were dead.' That's the proper verb tense you're looking for Doctor. I was dead, and now I'm not. Or maybe I never was? It's not like you could've been entirely certain that the explosion killed me. It's not all that surprising if you think about it, considering how often you've cheated death yourself, how frequently you've flaunted justice. MY justice." Giving the Time Lord another one of those horrible smirks as the cataracts began to fade from his eyes, the alicorn started laughing softly to himself, "How ironic it is that you should be the one to witness my resurrection."
As the alicorn's eyes cleared, their appearance somehow closely mirroring the Doctor's own, he said in a level tone, "Now, Doctor. Tell me who I am. I want to hear you say it."
In a voice just barely above a whisper, the Doctor replied, "Hello, Valeyard."
The Valeyard smiled as he sat up a little, leaning forward over the lip of the coffin with his hooves crossed conversationally. "Hello, Doctor! Glad to see you're still as sharp as ever. Now!" he said, his tone and inflection and speech pattern sounding like a distorted version of the Doctor's own, and his mannerisms much like the Doctor's only devoid of any shred of compassion or empathy. "Normally I would play all sorts of intricate mind games to toy with you and your companions until your tiny little minds imploded from the sheer agony of it all, but we're short on time if I'm going to bring the rest back from that wretched little resort spot on the moon that Miss Pretty Pretty Princess here banished them to." Banging on the lid of the sarcophagus to illustrate his point, he continued, "Once that's done, we gather the rest of what we need, push the 'reset' button on this pitiful and pathetic excuse for a reality, and bring back just enough of existence that we can monitor, manipulate, and mandate over a magnificently empty multiverse, and then, Doctor..." Valeyard slipped his counterpart a sly wink, "Then we Time Lords will finally be safe, and worthy of the name."
"What's the point of being a god if you're just going to destroy everything? That's madness! That's Dalek thinking!" The Doctor pleaded.
The charcoal-black alicorn chuckled darkly, "Doctor, you do not understand. We do not want to destroy the universe any longer. The Daleks are gone, we have no need to! No, my little Time Lord... we want to remake it. No one will be left to threaten us," he purred, "No one will be left to challenge us, and if we do permit life to evolve again, it will evolve to serve us. We shall be as gods."
"Not any god I'd ever want to serve," muttered Bastion from Celestia's side as he watched the two Time Lords banter. The princess took comfort in his presence, even without being able to reply in kind or even thank him for his consideration. It's getting cold, she thought as she realized she could barely feel her hooves underneath her any longer.
"Hold on a tick," said the Doctor, jumping topics. "You said that by observing your presence in Tartarus' corpse that I made it so much quieter in there. Are you saying that the universe is suddenly..." He paled a little. "In flux?"
The Valeyard smiled nastily, and replied, "I don't know, Doctor. Am I? You truly haven't figured it out yet, have you?" As the princess' features started to thin down, he rose from the casket and stretched, joints popping. "Then I guess you really are still not quite as smart as you think. Let's make that your first test then, shall we? Well, second. Well, okay, third. You see, first, you have to survive, and then you have to get past me..." He turned and sounded a neighing cry toward the stairwell to the crypts below, a haunting sound that was answered in kind, "And my little undead ponies." Stamping a hoof on the floor, his black face brightened. "Oh, and yes, you'll probably have to get the princess out of that energy field before it eats her alive. So, fourth, then."
"Oh, that's the easy one!" crowed the Doctor, pacing back and forth as he clicked switches on his screwdriver with his tongue. "The globe is obviously some sort of parasympathetic artron converter, tuned to specific frequencies, those of the Princess and her sister, which in turn resemble the frequency patterns of the sun and the moon, but it only activates when both frequencies combined strike its surface."
Nodding and smiling despite himself, the Valeyard lightly clopped his forehooves together. "Very good, Doctor. Now, share with the class how you intend to break the field, if you can't even touch or affect the artifact."
"Same way as you do with any runaway power converter: You cut off the source. Bastion, GRAB HER!" With that, he aimed his screwdriver above the stained glass window behind which the sun and moon lowered toward the horizon together and triggered it, causing a shower of debris to fall in front of it, cutting off just enough of the light from outside that the Scales of the Maker flickered and went dark. At the Doctor's shouted command, Bastion nudged himself underneath the dazed princess with a muttered, "Pardon, Mum," and bolted for the door, carrying her on his back.
Laughing, the Valeyard cried, "Very good! Very good indeed, Doctor! Now, how do you plan to defeat me?"
Scowling at his dark counterpart, the chestnut earth pony remarked, "One word: Polarity." He thrust his screwdriver at the artifact on the pedestal, which began to glow again, this time fastening its field around the dark alicorn.
"No!" shouted the Valeyard as his features began to wither and decay. He stared pop-eyed as his muscles shrank, becoming naught but thin cords under his skin. His coat and mane fell out, dissolving into ash as his skin thinned and grayed to look like ancient parchment before cracking, his voice gurgling out one last cry before his bones settled to the floor. The empty eyesockets of the now quite dead alicorn flickered with violet un-light before winking out.
"And now, to make sure that no one, nowhere, and at no other time uses this again," snarled the Doctor as howls sounded from below, "FEEDBACK!" He triggered the screwdriver a third time. The globe began to hum discordantly and glow with an unhealthy light, cracks appearing in its surface as he trotted over to Bastion and the princess, who waited for him in the hall.
"Quick, Celestia! We need to teleport out of here, now!" said the Time Lord with a note of panic in his voice.
"Doctor," replied the princess, staring at him wide-eyed, "I can't! I can't feel my magic, not one spark of it!"
"I see," mused the Doctor, "I see. Then with all due respect, Princess, Captain, I really think we should RUN!"
The trio raced through the corridors of the old palace, chunks of brick and mortar falling all around them as the ruins shook to their very foundation. It was a testament to the original builders that anything remained standing at all. Charging out into the courtyard, they galloped toward the bridge across the chasm surrounding the castle as it began to crumble, stone by stone.
"GO GO GO!" Shouted the Doctor as they neared the far end of the collapsing span, the Time Lord leading the way and face-planting in the shrubbery across the chasm. Behind him, Celestia and Bastion skidded to a halt as the last few stones between themselves and safety fell into the yawning abyss below. Celestia flapped her wings uselessly; the magical drain from the artifact seemed to have robbed her of flight.
"Princess, please forgive me. I mean no disrespect when I do this." As Celestia shouted a wordless exclamation of confusion, Bastion whirled on his front hooves and bucked the alicorn as hard as he could across the gap, rump-over-teakettle. The Doctor had only just gotten to his hooves when he received a faceful of screaming white winged unicorn, collapsing back into the bushes underneath her, hooves flailing.
"As lovely as it is to observe, could you please get your backside off my chest?"
"Certainly. And let us never speak of this again."
"Agreed. Where's Bastion?"
"Right here," came a voice from above. The guard captain gestured with head toward his wings. "Forgot about these, did you?"
As the earth pony and alicorn stood, the latter shakily, they grinned up at him. "We made it!" exclaimed the princess, while the Doctor just stared at the castle in the distance. "Doctor?"
KA-BOOM! The artifact within the castle finally gave way, blowing the roof clear off the old chapel, casting stones and other debris into the air.
Debris that, with an inequine howl, sprouted wings and arrowed down toward the trio.
"You seem to say that a lot," huffed Bastion as they dashed into the cover of the trees, long shadows cast everywhere as the sun and moon separated, the former setting slowly, as if waiting for something.
"I do a lot of running," replied the Doctor. Glancing at the haggard-looking princess, he asked, "Celestia, can you lower the sun?"
"Not without resting, and certainly not without stopping. I can't even feel my horn right now, Doctor!"
"Blast! It'll have to do." He glanced back at the undead alicorns gaining on them, and craned his neck for his screwdriver, chomping down on it to let out another of those discordant buzzes.
"What are you doing?" shouted Bastion over the din, taking to the air to slap hooves over his ears.
"Calling for backup!" The forest seemed to grow darker around them, and from behind, they heard a sibilant hissing noise followed by the clatter of bones upon bones as the zombie ponies behind them suddenly lost their skin and muscle, stripped to the bone.
Seeing as they were no longer under pursuit, the trio stopped, catching their breath. Another soft hiss sounded through the forest, and one of the skeletons rose to its hooves, surrounded in a skin made of shadows. With eerily silent hoofsteps, it trotted over to them and waited, seeming to watch them curiously.
As the Doctor regained his wind, he looked up at the shadow-pony. "Lonely God," it hissed, "You have done well. The Empty Ones in our forests are gone." It turned its head to face Celestia. "You are not Empty, Lightbringer... but your heart is. Beware what you fill it with."
Celestia stared for a long moment, then asked, "What do you mean?" The equine void did not deign to answer, instead turning back to the Doctor.
"You are not done, Lonely God. Empty Ones will return, and in greater number, though their number shall be one. You must defeat them, each in turn."
Blinking in confusion and concern, the Time Lord asked, "How long do I have?"
"You have a thousand years to destroy the Empty Ones," hissed the pony made of shadow, "Or to survive, we will feed upon all." With that, the shadows dissipated, leaving the bones of the alicorn to drop to the forest floor.
Some time later, as the disheveled, haggard trio emerged from the forest near the Apple family farm, Celestia murmured, "Doctor, what did that thing mean? Fill my heart with what?"
"I'm not sure. The Vashta Nerada tend to be single-minded and cryptic like that. How are you feeling?"
Giving the Time Lord a wan smile, she replied, "I feel like my rump was pulled out through my horn." Turning her eye to Bastion, she asked the same question of him.
"I'll be fine until you don't need me to be fine any more, Your Majesty," replied the guard captain. "It's in the job description." Looking ahead, he spied several figures on the path before them, gathered around the TARDIS. "We've got company."
As they drew near, the shapes were revealed to be B.A. Apple and the remainder of Celestia's guard contingent. The latter snapped to attention, forming up around the princess as if made of clockwork, while the farm pony whistled low between his teeth, and asked, "You lot all right? I mean, Yer Majesticness, are ye an' your group well?" He sketched a salute and dropped to one knee before his sovereign.
Smiling, Celestia murmured, "Rise, Black Amish Apple. We thank you for your service, both past and current." Her smile turning into a wry smirk, "And we are as well as can be expected, considering the circumstances."
Looking a bit perplexed, B.A. asked, "An' if'n ye don't mind, what circumstances were those, Yer Worshipfulness?"
The Doctor cut in, "Well, we confronted an evil mastermind, got chased by a bunch of undead ponies, and oh yes, blew up part of an old castle." Celestia nodded, while Bastion muttered, "That was mostly his doing."
Rocking back on his hooves a bit, the farmer whistled again. "That explosion in the distances were yer doin'?" Shaking his head and grinning ruefully, "I pity the fools who mess with thee, ser Doctor." Glancing at the sun, he continued, "If'n ye need a place t'rest before headin' back to Canterlot, my home is open t'ye an' yers, Yer Highness. 'Tis the least we can do for ye pullin' our manes out of the fire back there."
Nodding to the rustic stallion, the princess replied wearily, "That would be most excellent, Sergeant." Noticing his look of surprise, she winked. "And yes, I do remember the soldier who held off a dozen ponies during the famine food riots some years ago."
B.A. stammered and flushed as he started to lead them toward the simple ranch house tucked into the corner of an apple orchard. Celestia, however, paused as she noticed the Doctor not following her. "Doctor, aren't you coming with us?"
The Time Lord paused, TARDIS key in mouth, and shook his head. "I need to... take a peek forward, and see if I can find the rest of the ponies we need. Plus, I want to check in on You-Know-Who and see if the bother down here affected her any."
Giving him a disappointed look, the princess trotted over and hugged him with her forehooves. "You have Our undying gratitude, as always... but you had best come back quick." Celestia smiled as she leaned down near the Doctor's ear and whispered, "Next time, you bring a saddle, I'll bring a riding crop, and I'll show you just how far royal gratitude can go."
At this, the Doctor blinked at her helplessly for a moment, his mouth working silently as he blushed furiously, ears laid back against his skull. "Right. I'll. Um. Yes. Ah. That would be. Interesting? Um. Why don't I just? Ah. Get in the timey-wimey-shippy thing and go do my business, wot?"
The guards and the farmer could only stare as the sound of their monarch's laughter echoed over the grinding, wheezing noise of a departing blue box.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I am currently in the process of revising and correcting this story, including some splitting and expansion of "Through a Mirror Darkly" into two parts. The updated and revised edition can be found on FIMFiction under the same title and username, although I will publish the ending here as well. Eventually I will put the updated version here, but FFN's mechanism for replacing chapters wholesale is... cumbersome.