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AUTHOR’S NOTE:

 

                When I began writing this story, season one had not yet finished, so Luna did not have a canon personality at the time.  As such, I came up with my own characterization for our favorite lunar princess, and although it may not exactly jive with her canon self as it is now, attempting to “correct” her personality at that late stage of writing to fit canon Luna would have destroyed much of the significance and plot of the story as I had planned it, and would almost certainly have demanded a complete rewrite from the very beginning.  Rather, I hope that you can enjoy her role in this story as much as I have enjoyed writing for her for what it is.

                In addition, it may be important to note that certain events of significance to Equestrian History, i.e. the introduction of Discord, had also not occurred until a very late stage in the writing, and are therefore not featured in this work for reasons similar to that stated above.

                Rather than change the story to maintain a strict adherence to the canon of the show and thereby create a product that was messy, confusing, and unenjoyable to me as a writer, I thought it better to simply continue writing as I always have, and allow the story to stand on its own for what it is.  Thank you for your readership, and I hope that you have as much fun reading this story as I did writing it!

 

-Viktor Lionheart

Also, this is my first fanfic ever, so I would greatly appreciate any feedback you could give me to help me improve my writing.  Thank you all for your time!

-Viktor Lionheart

Skyfall

Concept and writing by Viktor Lionheart

Chapter 1:  The Visitor.

               

    Applejack awoke to the sound of metal clanging against the floor of the kitchen below.

    “Oh Angel, are you alright?  You must be more careful!  You’ll hurt yourself trying to do that.”

       It was the voice of Fluttershy, who had evidently decided to wake up early again to prepare breakfast.  Applejack groaned as she forced herself out of bed and plodded heavily down the stairs, wincing slightly at the stiffness in her shoulders as they worked clumsily around each other on her way down.  Upon entering the kitchen, she saw what had caused the ruckus.

    Fluttershy was busying herself about the floor where several half-cooked pancakes had recently landed while a rather disgruntled Angel was trying desperately to remove a substantial amount of batter from his fur.  The little white rabbit always seemed to be a font of energy, never being one to stand still for any length of time, especially when he was helping Fluttershy with her chores, and it seemed that in his gusto he had been a bit too enthusiastic in his attempt at flipping the pancakes.

    The scene would have been much more amusing if Applejack were not already so accustomed to being awakened in this way.  With a heavy sigh, she repeated the familiar mantra she seemed to find herself uttering every morning these days.

    “Fluttershah, how many times do Ah have to tell you?  Yer mah guest.  Ah’d be more’n  happy to make breakfast for y’all.”

    Right on cue, her pegasus friend replied with her typical infuriating politeness.

    “Oh, no I couldn’t have that.  It’s the least I could do after everything you’ve done for Angel and I.  Don’t worry, we’ll have this cleaned up in no time.”

    Applejack opened her mouth to offer a retort, but decided that it was pointless and simply sighed, shaking her head.  She never could argue with Fluttershy.  Instead, she spent a few minutes helping her friend clean up before beginning the familiar routine of her morning chores.

    The yellow and pink pegasus had moved in a few days ago after the most recent “earthshake,” as the ponies had come to call them, had damaged her cottage.  While repairs were underway, Sweet Apple Acres was the only place big enough to accommodate Fluttershy and all of her animals.  Granted, it meant that the Apple family had to be a bit more vigilant than usual to prevent the animals from eating the crops, but Applejack was happy to be able to help Fluttershy in any way she could.

    The day was looking to be an especially busy one for the Apple family.  The Summer Sun Celebration was tomorrow, and this meant a prime opportunity to sell their wares.  This year was a bit special, however, as they would be donating half of the proceeds to help the ponies whose homes had been destroyed in the earthshakes.  Applejack had recruited the help of her close friends for the occasion, but Fluttershy was still finishing breakfast, and Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pie wouldn’t be along for several hours.  Twilight, meanwhile, would be unable to help, as she was away to Manehatten to oversee preparations for the Celebration.

    After Applejack had readied the applecarts, fed the chickens, awakened Applebloom, and milked the cows with Big Macintosh, she and her brother returned to the kitchen, whereupon they were immediately greeted with the enticing smell of fresh pancakes and maple syrup.  For a while the three Apple siblings, Fluttershy, and Angel enjoyed their breakfast in silence, all of them still too groggy to be much for conversation, when a sound came at the door.  It wasn’t as much a knock as it was a single, deafening impact that would have caused Fluttershy to come dangerously close to hitting the stratosphere had the ceiling not painfully interrupted her sudden ascent.

    Applejack hurried to the door.  Upon opening it, her vision was filled with a rather noisy mass of pink fluff.

    “HIYEEE!”  Pinkie Pie squealed, a little too loudly for this early in the morning.

    There was now a large, suspiciously Pinkie-shaped dent in the door.  Fortunately,

for some reason, Pinkie had been wearing a hard hat that was the same vibrant shade of fuschia as her unruly mane.  Applejack simply stared at her friend for a moment, dimly wondering at Pinkie’s sheer cranial fortitude, before offering a response.

    She shook her head, donning a friendly smile.

    “Uh…mornin’, Pink.  What’s with the hard hat?”

    Pinkie Pie bounced inside with her usual amount of energy.

    “Well, duh.  I just came from Fluttershy’s cottage!  Mr. Cobble says it’s all fixed for her to move back in, so I decided to come over early to tell everypony the good news!.”

    Applejack’s mind unfocused just long enough to picture Pinkie handling power tools.  Mercifully, the image only lingered for an instant before being quickly swept away by the sound of Fluttershy’s voice.

    “Oh, how wonderful!” Fluttershy chimed, gingerly rubbing her head.  “Angel and I were beginning to get homesick.”

    Applejack shook away her thoughts of potential Pinkie-related mayhem, happy to welcome her energetic friend.  

    “Well whah dontcha join us fer breakfast?  There’s plenny to go around.”

    “Thanks!”

    In a single motion, Pinkie bounced into a chair and immediately buried her face in food.  As the sun began to climb into the sky outside, the group of friends sat in silence as Pinkie babbled happily away about this and that, and one of them would interject with a knowing grunt or nod whenever she paused to inhale more of her breakfast.  Even when they were fully awake, the ponies often found themselves baffled by the unpredictable machinations that dictated the path of Pinkie’s train of thought.  Her energy however, was as infectious as ever, and they soon could not help but share some of her enthusiasm as they rose from their seats to face the day’s work.

      After the ponies had finished with their meal, they set about the daunting task of harvesting the southern apple field.  At about noon, Rainbow Dash and Rarity could be seen walking along the long dirt road to the orchard and soon joined in with the rest of them, Rarity plucking great spreads of fruit with a graceful wave of her horn, and Rainbow speeding by each line of trees one by one, the terrific gale of her wake shaking even the most stubborn apples from their lofty perches.  Even with the five of them, along with Big Macintosh and Applebloom, harvesting the apples took most of the day, and they worked long into the night preparing pies, candied apples, and all manner of appletastic  treats.

    At long last, at about three o’clock in the morning, all was ready for the Celebration.  The ponies had loaded their delicious cargo onto the train that Applejack would be taking to Manehatten and now gathered on the boarding platform to bid their friend farewell, an exhausted Applebloom soundly asleep on Big Macintosh’s back.  The young pony seemed even smaller than usual as she rose and fell with the breathing of her older brother, like a tiny yellow ship in a vast sea of red.  Applejack blinked sleepily, making no attempt to stifle an enormous yawn.  She reached behind her, tightening the clasp on her saddlebag before turning to address her friends.

    “Thank yeh kindly fer helpin’ us harvest these here apples.  I dunno whut we woulda done if it hadn’t been for y’all.”

    Rarity smiled back, waving a hoof dramatically in front of her face as thought to dismiss the idea.

    “But of course, darling.  We wouldn’t dream of having you do all of that on your own, especially when it’s for such a good cause.  Although...are you quite sure you can handle everything on your own when you get to the city?  I’d be more than happy to-“

    “Naw, thanks, Rarity.”  She blinked slowly, her jaw working wearily about as though preparing for another yawn.  “You guys have done enough.  ‘Sides, yeh got plenny o’ work here to keep ya’ll busy.  I’ll do jes’ fine by muhself.”

    Fluttershy frowned.  “I hope we made enough…what if you run out of food?”

    “I know, right?  I don’t know how anypony could resist buying a dozen of each of those things!”

    Pinkie rubbed her stomach enthusiastically, her tongue dancing eagerly across her lips in search of any leftover crumbs from the goods she had the taken the liberty of “quality testing.”

    “Well, then I wish you the best of luck in your business endeavor.  Please, do be sure to drop by the moment you return – I want to hear all about it!”

    As the words left her lips, each of the other ponies offered similar tidings of good fortune before a sudden noise like a bandsaw made them all jump.  Rainbow Dash was sprawled unceremoniously across a nearby tree branch and had begun to snore loudly.

    Rarity glared indignantly at the unconscious pony and shook her head in disgust.

    “…But I think its time we all got some rest.  We’ve all got quite a lot of work ahead of us if we’re to do our part in helping the refugees in Ponyville tomorrow.”

   

    To emphasize the point, she used her magic to shake the branches of Rainbow’s tree, knocking the slumbering pegasus to the ground with a heavy thud.  Brushing the leaves from her mane, Rainbow took a moment to utter a few choice words under her breath before saying goodbye to Applejack and taking off in the direction of her cloudy home.  All of the other ponies did not hesitate to follow suit, each of them eagerly anticipating a soft bed of their own.

     After saying goodbye to her friends, Fluttershy quietly gathered her things, giving an affectionate nuzzle to Angel’s sleeping body where he lay atop her back, and trotted out of the kitchen door, shivering slightly as the chilly night air washed over her tired form.  Despite Big Macintosh’s offer to allow her to spend another night at the farm, Fluttershy insisted on returning home with Angel, saying that she would be by in the morning to pick up all of her animals.  With a final, weary farewell, she turned her back on the Apple Family Farm and began plodding slowly down the road, dreamily enjoying the sounds of night life and the faint aroma of cinnamon pie crust that still lingered in her mane.

    The journey was not far, though it seemed to Fluttershy an eternity had passed before she finally saw the familiar lights of her cottage in the distance, warmly beckoning her to the soft blankets that awaited her upstairs.  She had put Angel to bed with the rest of her animals and was about to do the same for herself when she noticed the silhouette of a tiny figure standing at the edge of the Forest through her window.

    Her first instinct told her to hide, but it was overridden by the sudden realization that she recognized the figure as that of one of her close friends.  Cautiously, she double checked through her window to make certain of what she was seeing, then ran outside and walked toward the figure until she was within shouting distance.

    “S…Spike?  Is that you?”

    He did not respond.  Perhaps he had not heard her.

    “Um…Spike?”  She edged closer to the baby dragon.  “What are you doing out here all by yourself?”  I thought you were supposed to be in Canterlot with the Princess.”

    Again, there was no response.  He may as well be made of…oh no…

    Fluttershy bolted toward Spike, fear quickening her steps.

    “Oh…Oh thank goodness, you’re alright.  I thought maybe that awful cockatr…wait…who…?”

    Before her stood a baby dragon, by all appearances the same age as Spike, but the resemblance to her friend stopped at that.  His scales as well as his spines were of deepest emerald green, polished to the point that Fluttershy could see her own dim reflection in the moonlight.  The eyes that seemed to stare past the pegasus before him were of a brilliant silver – white, his snout pointed and sharp, unlike the cute, round face of her youthful friend.  For a while, the two simply sat in silence until Fluttershy’s curiosity prompted her to speak.

    “Oh my!  I never thought I would meet another baby dragon.  Do you know Spike?  He’ lives here in Ponyville.  Are you hungry?  What’s your name?  Are you lost?"

     Fluttershy’s excitement was clear in her voice as she rapidly fired one question after another at the newcomer.  When he did not answer, something that should have been rather obvious from the beginning dawned on the yellow pony.

    “…Where’s your mother?”  she said slowly, looking around for any sign of an adult dragon with a faint sinking feeling.

    “…ot…ere…”

    The presence of the unfamiliar voice had caught her somewhat by surprise.  She directed her gaze once more to the little dragon below, noticing that he suddenly seemed distinctly agitated, though for what reason she could not discern.

    “Um…sorry, what did you say?  I didn’t quite hear you.”

    “…not…there.  Where are they?”

    The dragon’s eyes were unfocused, darting about with no apparent purpose in their movement, as though he were not even aware of her presence.  The creature looked around at nothing in particular, then stumbled slightly in a small circle, apparently having some difficulty keeping his balance.  His voice was very weak, barely above a whisper.

    It occurred to Fluttershy that he may be delirious.  Immediately, her motherly instinct kicked into gear.

    “Oh dear, I must get you inside right away.  You must be starving!”

    In one swift motion, she moved to scoop the dragon up in her hooves when he did something that nearly sent her flying backwards in shock.  Without warning, he jumped out of her reach with alarming speed.  Suddenly, his eyes snapped into focus and glared piercingly in her direction, his tiny feet flying apart in a wide aggressive stance.

    It was then that she noticed that this dragon had wings, rather wide for his small size, which he now displayed to the effect of making himself appear much larger than he actually was.  He spoke once more, but this time, his voice was clear and sharp, with more than a hint of hostility.

    “You!  Who are you!? Explain yourself!”

    Fluttershy recoiled violently at the outburst.  Without hesitating to capitalize on his advantage, the tiny dragon stepped toward her.

    “Did your mother not teach you to speak when spoken to?  Obey! Tell me your name!”

    As quickly as it had come, Fluttershy’s natural confidence in dealing with creatures had vanished at his sudden and inexplicable change in behavior.  The little dragon’s words did not suit the childishly cracking voice of the tiny body that spoke them.  Instead, he spoke with all the confidence and command of a grown dragon, and it was making Fluttershy much too frightened to be able to speak in return.  

    He moved to take another step toward her when he paused mid-step, sniffing the air.  Suddenly, the dragon stumbled backward.  As his eyes stretched wide with what appeared to be shock, he stared at Fluttershy for a few moments before speaking again.

    “I…I can smell it…but its not where it’ supposed to…”

    The dragon glanced behind him into the heart of the Everfree Forest, then looked down at his own body, as if realizing where he was for the first time.  Finally, he cast an appraising eye upon the shivering pegasus mare, who was now partially hidden behind a bush several feet away.  When he spoke again, his tone was no longer hostile, but carried a note of surprised fascination.

    “…That’s interesting…I suppose I should have considered that…”  he muttered to himself, absently patting the front of his body, as though he were looking for something but couldn’t quite remember what it was.  For several seconds, he continued to whisper rapidly beneath his breath, occasionally glancing in Fluttershy’s direction as he searched in vain for whatever it was he was looking for.

    After a few moments in which the dragon seemed to be lost in deep thought,  Fluttershy spoke again.  She suddenly wanted nothing more than to be safe in her home behind a locked and sturdy door.

    “I…I’m sorry.  I-I-I-I’ll just …I-I’ll just go….”

    She took off as quickly as she could manage in the direction of her home, but before she could fly more than a few feet, the dragon called to her.

    “No, wait!  Please!  I’m sorry that I frightened you…please, don’t leave…”  

    This time, his voice had lost all of its former hostility and had taken on a tone of genuine desperation.  Fluttershy hovered uncertainly, staring at the young dragon (by far the moodiest dragon she had ever met, she thought to herself).

    “Please, I didn’t…didn’t mean to shout…”  

    His eyes wavered, shifting in and out of focus.  

    “I have to… have to get back…before…”.  

    He stumbled as he tried to turn back toward the Everfree Forest, the formerly intimidating figure reduced to a bumbling baby once more.  

    “Where is it?  I just…I need…”

    The young dragon managed a few more unsteady steps before collapsing, unconscious, to the ground.  All of her fear washed away by a sudden flood of concern, Fluttershy swooped down to get a closer look as a single, feeble moan escaped his lips before he fell completely silent.

    He was completely immobile.  Fluttershy felt a sickening lump form in her throat when she noticed what was wrong.

    “Oh no!  Oh my goodness, oh my goodness he’s not breathing! What do I do?!”

    Once again, the familiar doubtless sense of nurturing purpose took over as she scooped up the baby dragon, searching frantically for any sign of the baby’s parents.  She screamed into the darkness. screamed as loudly as she could, screamed for anyone to help.  But no one came.

    In a panic, she remembered the CPR training she had received as a volunteer at Ponyville Urgent Care.  As she began the first compressions, Angel burst out of the cottage and was at her side in a flash.  At first, he hesitated, his gaze shooting nervously back and forth between Fluttershy and the stranger she was trying desperately to revive.  Fluttershy had only to look into his eyes for a moment to convey the urgency of the situation.  Immediately, Angel moved to race toward Ponyville but stopped short knowing that he would never make it in time.  As he whirled about to face Futtershy again, a peculiar pattern in the earth caught his eye – a trail of tiny footprints leading back to the edge of the treeline.  Without hesitation, Angel bolted along the path into the Forest.

    “ANGEL, WAIT!”

    But he had already been swallowed by the wall of trees.  Several tense moments passed.  All was silent.  There were only the sounds of Fluttershy’s frantic efforts to revive the dragon, punctuated by an occasional sob.  She knew there was not much time left before….

WHACK

    Fluttershy shook her head to clear the stars from her vision.  Something small and hard had hit her between the eyes, and now hung limply off the tip of her muzzle.  Trying with some effort to focus her eyes in the half- light, she saw that it appeared to be a pendant, ornamented with a single, oddly shaped black gem.  The stone was…strangely, mesmerizing; in the depthless heart of the gem shone a tiny, almost nonexistent point of light.  Despite the pounding of her heart, some small part of herself could not help but pause in wonder as she gazed into its inky center, but her torpor only lasted for a moment before a blur of motion in front of her caught her attention.  She looked up to see Angel, who, judging by his stance, had just hurled the object at her head, and was now gesturing frantically toward the dragon.

    The pegasus looked down at the tiny form beneath her, her mind whipping painfully back into reality.  As she bent down to continue resuscitating the dragon, his body heaved violently, his eyes shooting open.  Immediately, they found the pendant and just as quickly jumped upward to meet Fluttershy’s anxious face in an urgent, wordless plea.  He gestured weakly, reaching toward it with a tiny scaled hand, but was unable to manage anything more than a pained gasp to communicate his intent.  Whether by motherly intuition or some deeply buried instinct, Fluttershy kneeled to bring the pendant down within his grasp.  He leaned forward, grunting with exertion, and his tiny claw began to close as he found the end of the pendant’s chain.

    In an instant, all that she knew had vanished around her.

    Complete and utter oblivion.  A yellow pegasus with a pink mane sat alone in the nothingness, dimly aware that something was wrong – very, very wrong.  Who was she?  She couldn’t remember.  Where was she?  She didn’t know.  And yet…she was not afraid.  It felt peaceful in some strange way that she could not understand, as if she had just awakened from a terrible nightmare and was just now truly aware of her surroundings for the first time.  She basked in the eerie tranquility of the feeling with no grasp of how long she sat in this way.  From every direction at once, a single word echoed endlessly.

    “Fluttershy…Fluttershy…Fluttershy…”

    It occurred to her that this must be her name.  It sounded foreign to her, but she somehow knew it to be so, knew that it could not possibly be anything else.  With this epiphany, other words began to dance through her consciousness in rapid succession, all of them warmly familiar, yet somehow alien. Before long, a series of images joined the ethereal parade.  She saw a white pony with a flowing mane of royal purple.  Her name was… Ror…no…Rarity.  Then, an image of a sky blue pegasus with a multicolored mane.  “Rainbow Dash.” She soundlessly mouthed each syllable as the words flowed through her thoughts like foam carried on a river’s surface.  And more…other ponies whom she knew, whose names filled her with a strangely detached nostalgia.  She frowned, trying to grasp the significance of those familiar outlines.  They whispered to her, offering words of kindness, their voices weaving together in a blanket of creeping warmth.

    More images, less familiar this time – a grey Alicorn with a beautiful pale mane of white and blue…a castle, a castle wreathed in flame.  The images increased in speed, faster, faster, faster.  Ponies, thousands of them, beneath a black sky.  Chains that seemed to stretch forever.  Raining fire.  Screaming faces.  So many faces screaming.  The images flew by in a constant, blinding blur, so fast that it hurt.  All of the words, all of the voices she heard blended together in a piercing whine that cut to her very core.  The voices screamed within her mind, all fighting desperately to be heard at once.

    In an instant, her former blissful calm was replaced by a sudden, all - consuming terror.  Above the light and the noise a single voice boomed…a voice that she knew, though she could not remember how.   It terrified her.  Over and over, louder and louder, it repeated her name.

    “Fluttershy…Fluttershy…Futtershy…”

    Fluttershy screamed in the swirling horror that engulfed her, but the sound was obliterated by the wall of noise.  The voice grew louder and louder still.  It was laughing now, so loudly that Fluttershy felt her head would surely burst.  She slammed her hooves into her ears, yelling at the top of her lungs, hoping to drown that awful voice beneath her own screams, but it simply grew louder, more manic, great peals of terrifying laughter arcing across her awareness like so many bolts of lightning.

    Then, as suddenly as it had all started, all was silent again.  The voice that she heard next floated numbly through the haze that still gripped her by the last confused threads of dawning consciousness.  It mumbled incoherently for several moments before finally snapping violently into focus.

    An anxious white blob danced chaotically before her eyes as she blinked rapidly in the sudden flood of light that assaulted her retinas.

    “Fluttershy!  Oh thank goodness you’re awake!  What happened?! Are you alright?  Please, speak to me!”

    Fluttershy sat bolt upright, and immediately regretted the decision.  Her vision swam, filled with the face of her friend Rarity, her stomach convulsing painfully in a serious of fantastic knots as she fought the urge to vomit.  She felt cold, and was keenly aware of a throbbing pain in her temples.  Her breath coming in short, frantic gasps, the white unicorn turned to a rainbow – maned pony beside her.

    “Don’t just stand there, bring her some water! Oh my goodness, how did this happen?! Pinkie, get a doctor, now!”


AUTHOR’S NOTE:

 

                When I began writing this story, season one had not yet finished, so Luna did not have a canon personality at the time.  As such, I came up with my own characterization for our favorite lunar princess, and although it may not exactly jive with her canon self as it is now, attempting to “correct” her personality at that late stage of writing to fit canon Luna would have destroyed much of the significance and plot of the story as I had planned it, and would almost certainly have demanded a complete rewrite from the very beginning.  Rather, I hope that you can enjoy her role in this story as much as I have enjoyed writing for her for what it is.

                In addition, it may be important to note that certain events of significance to Equestrian History, i.e. the introduction of Discord, had also not occurred until a very late stage in the writing, and are therefore not featured in this work for reasons similar to that stated above.

                Rather than change the story to maintain a strict adherence to the canon of the show and thereby create a product that was messy, confusing, and unenjoyable to me as a writer, I thought it better to simply continue writing as I always have, and allow the story to stand on its own for what it is.  Thank you for your readership, and I hope that you have as much fun reading this story as I did writing it!

 

-Viktor Lionheart

Skyfall

 

Concept and Writing by Viktor Lionheart

 

Chapter 2 :  Shadows of the Past

 

    On a balcony in the castle at the capital city of Canterlot, a lone pony sat watching the sunrise.  Princess Luna yawned, not yet fully conscious after her recent slumber, and stretched her wings luxuriously.  A gentle summer breeze tousled her hair and played across the soft purple feathers of her wings.  It felt wonderful.  The sunrise was her favorite part of each day, especially on mornings like this when the brilliant orange sphere of the sun rose though the wisps of deep purple clouds like a giant egg sitting warmly in its nest, casting a calming amber glow over everything it touched.  It had become the first part of her morning ritual - she always made sure to awaken early enough to enjoy it in all its splendor, and to give her enough time to bask for a bit before she had to prepare for the day’s duties.

   

    Granted, this may not have always been the case, but to feel the gentle caress of the newborn rays, the reassuring warmth of that ever-shining light – she had forgotten how beautiful it was after being away for so long, and even after the years that had passed since her return, it never ceased to fill her with a reassuring sense of home.

    Just as she was blinking away the last vestiges of sleep, a knock came at the door to her bedroom, shortly followed by a voice.  

    “Luna, dear, are you awake?”

    The voice carried the same comfort and warmth as that of a familiar hearth after a long day’s work, but also possessed an unmistakeable air of poise and authority.  Luna turned in mid – yawn to welcome the owner of that familiar voice into her quarters.  

    “Good morning, sis!”  Luna said brightly

    In the now open doorway stood princess Celestia, as resplendent as ever, despite the obvious signs of fatigue that lined her face.  Her horn was glowing, casting a dim light across a brightly colored box which bobbed lazily in the air beside her.  Luna’s eyes opened wide the moment they found the package.

    Celestia chuckled softly to herself and carefully set the object down before her little sister.  As she did so, she settled somewhat heavily next to her sister and made a rather unsuccessful attempt at stifling a yawn of her own.  With a weary, if happy sigh, she embraced Luna with a single ivory wing and rested her chin ever so gently on her head, inhaling the scent of her lavender mane.  

    She had been away for most of the night to Hoofington to deal with an Ursa Minor who had apparently decided that the city hall would make a fine chew toy, and the weight of her journey was just now making itself apparent as she found herself blinking away the persistent call of blissful sleep.  This had been the latest in a long string of events that had required the Princess’s attention over the past few weeks – the parasprite infestation in Phillydelphia, the wendigo uprising near Stalliongrad, and the preparation for tomorrow’s Summer Sun Celebration in Manehatten, to name a few.  Luna had lent a helping hoof whenever she could, but, young as she was, she still was not ready to assist in many of the weightier royal duties, and was often left to looking after Canterlot while her sister was away on business.  

   

    Celestia sighed heavily before she spoke.

    “I trust you and Hussar had no trouble while I was away?"

    Luna rolled her eyes.  

    “Aside from the usual, no.  I swear, I can’t be alone for a moment without him and half the castle bursting in on me, armed and ready to attack my would – be kidnapper.”

    Celestia gave a knowing smile.  “It’s only because he cares for your safety.  He’s a bit overzealous, yes, but his heart is in the right place.”

    Luna pouted playfully, basking in the warmth of her sister’s wing.  Suddenly, she remembered what had happened only a short time after Celestia had departed on the previous night.

    “Oh, I almost forgot!  A message from Ponyville arrived for you just after you left.  It said that another of those earthshakes had toppled several buildings on the edge of the town.  Nopony was hurt, but I sent a few of the guards to aid in the reconstruction.”

    Luna turned to her sister to find an intense frown upon her face.  Alarmed at her inexplicable change in demeanor, she began to fidget.

    “Oh no! D-did I do something wrong?”  she stammered uncertainly, searching her sister’s face for some evidence as to what had upset her.  

    "I'm sorry I didn't say anything right away, I thought you would already be too busy with what you were doing..."

    Celestia’s eyes seemed to slide back into focus.  When she spoke, it was as though she had temporarily forgotten that Luna was there.  She shook her head, looking down at her little sister in surprise.

    “What?…Oh, no, no, not at all.  That was the right thing to do...” Her voice trailed off absently.

    Celestia sighed again, her frown giving way to a gentle smile.  She took a moment to gather her thoughts before speaking.

    “I’m simply worried about the citizens of Ponyville.  The royal researchers have been working day and night, but we still haven’t determined the cause of the earthshakes, only that they seen to be coming from the Everfree Forest.”

    Somehow, Luna wasn’t convinced that that was all that was bothering her big sister.  Perhaps it was simply a side – effect of her apparent fatigue, but there was something strange in Celestia’s eyes that Luna had never seen before.  Just for a moment she had looked completely and utterly exhausted, much more so than she had a moment before, as if Luna could see the weight of every one of Celestia’s long years of rulership on her shoulders.  But, more than that, her sister’s eyes shone with…Luna wasn’t sure what, but it sent a niggling sense of worry crawling up her spine.   She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could ask, her sister spoke once more, all traces of her former mood gone as quickly as they had come.

    “Oh, well.  I’m sure it’s nothing too serious.” Celestia smiled, nudging the temporarily forgotten gift toward Luna.  “Besides, there is something far more important to think about at the moment.  I think you’re really going to like this.”

    Her train of thought suddenly derailed by the proximity of the brightly colored box before her, Luna excitedly tore into the package.  Inside, carefully wrapped in a blanket of deep blue silk, was a small but rather thick book, its pages tattered and yellowed with age.  Its dark, blank cover stared back at an intrigued but confused Princess Luna as she blinked slowly, eagerly examining the entire area of the tome.  As she carefully opened the book to its first page, she read aloud the simple inscription it bore.

    “For my daughters, that they may dance forever in the light”

    The moment that the words had left her lips, her eyes came to rest on the elegantly slanting signature below, and immediately went wide with shock as her head jerked up toward Celestia’s smiling face.

    “This…” Luna stammered “This was…”

    Celestia nodded.  “Yes, Luna, it belonged to mother.  And now, I want you to have it.”

    Luna was speechless.  She ran one hoof across the smooth surface of the spine, inhaling the heavy, faintly nostalgic scent of the aged paper.  She remembered nothing of their parents – All she knew was that they had died when she was very young and the tiny amount that she had learned on the rare occasion that Celestia spoke of them.  Instead, her big sister had always been like a mother to her.  Now, as she gazed into the dark, heavy cover of her mother’s book, she felt as though she were touching a part of her past that she had always felt, but never truly known.

    For several seconds, she remained lost in thought until she was dragged back into reality at the sound of her sister’s voice.  

    “I’ve kept this book with me since I was a filly, and it has helped me throughout the years more times than I can count.  It was mother’s journal.  In it she kept all of her teachings on the ways in which we, as the future rulers of Equestria could maintain peace and harmony amongst our people.  Many, many years ago, when you were just a foal, she gave this to me and instructed me to pass it on to you when the time was right.”

    Luna remained silent for a few moments as she processed the significance of what her sister had said.  She was overjoyed, but also a bit stunned at the suddenness of the gift.

    “But…but why now?”

    “You’re old enough now to be able to learn quite a lot from her lessons.  Besides…” Celestia winked. “I’m going to need your help over the coming months, if things continue with the way they’ve been go-“

    Celestia’s breath caught in her throat as her sister lunged forward to hug her.

    “Oh thank you, sis!  I can’t wait to read it!  I promise I’ll make you proud!” Luna squeaked.  In that moment, there was nothing in the world that could have made her happier than what her sister had just said.

    Celestia chuckled at her sister’s sudden affection, returning the embrace.  They remained that way until the moment was broken by a loud yawn.

    “Oh my, excuse me.  I think perhaps its time I went to bed.  If you need anything, Luna, Hussar is just outside.  Good -*yawn* goodnight.”

    But Luna was already too engrossed in the book to utter more than an idle “G’nigh…”

    Celestia lingered for a moment, happily watching her little sister as she read.  Even now, her excitement was clearly evident in her eyes as they began darting across the first few lines of slanting text, her hoof hanging in anticipation to flip to the next page.  Without another word, Celestia nodded to herself, heading toward the door to Luna’s bedroom.

    Hussar, the captain of the castle guard, snapped to attention as Celestia passed him on her way out and did not relax until long after she was out of sight.

    To the Princess’s tired limbs, the journey back to her own bedroom felt miles longer than it actually was, and as the heavy wooden doors to her chambers came into view, she could feel her exhaustion creeping upon her with pronounced enthusiasm.  Wearily, she magicked them open, plodding stiffly across the velveteen carpeting as she made her way to the balcony at the far end of the room.  

   

    Nudging the opulently painted glass doors aside, she turned to face the distant, vast green expanse that was the Everfree Forest.  There, as she gazed into the heart of the forest amongst the sea of trees, she could just make out the ruined form of her ancient home.  The feeling that poked at her thoughts as she looked upon the jagged silhouette of crumbling walls and ancient towers was something not altogether unpleasant, though it tasted of the faintest bitter pangs of regret, mingled with a longing sense of loss, as though it were a part of a dream that she could never quite remember.  The life she had known within those walls, so many years ago, was another life entirely, and some distant part of herself wondered briefly at how much she had changed since the days of her youth, or indeed, whether she had changed at all.  

    She shook her head, silently admonishing herself for thinking such silly, depressing thoughts as she took a deep, greedy draught of the dewy morning air.

    Her thoughts turned to her mother, to the days of her youth, and to the memory of times long ago, forgotten perhaps by the world around her, but never by herself.  The wind blew gently through her shimmering mane as she closed her eyes, and, ever so softly, began to sing, just as she did every year on the eve of the Summer Sun Celebration.

    “Oh fair, oh green, oh vast land of mine

No more shall you shiver in darkness and fear

For the tyrant king is gone to his sleep

And at last, at last, the smoke has cleared

    Oh fair, oh green, oh vast land of mine

No more shall your children be bound in gloom

The Queen and her daughters our victory assured

It shines in the arc of the sun and the moon

    Gone are the days of fire and blood

Silent the voice that shattered the sky

Broken the shadow that haunted our dreams

Blind are the eyes that burned on high

    Oh fair, oh green, oh vast land of mine

Forever in Harmony together we shine.”

    As if to punctuate the last notes of her song, the wind gusted across the distant forest toward the castle, carrying with it the invigorating scent of pine.  Celestia enjoyed the sensation for a moment before turning sleepily back to her bedroom, already savoring the thought of wrapping herself in a mountain of blankets and settling in to a long-awaited sleep.  

   

    She left the balcony and doused the lamps around her room, leaving the glass doors open wide to allow the damp, earthy scent of early Summer to permeate the chamber.  Unbeknownst to the Princess as she made her way to bed, past the trees, atop the crumbling walls of the ruined palace, a lone figure gazed silently toward the her retreating form before disappearing among the treetops an elegant wispy trail of silver light shining silently in his wake.  

    Celestia removed her crown and slid beneath the blankets of her luxurious bed, sighing exhaustively as she tucked her wings around her body in a makeshift cocoon.  In the same moment that her head touched the easily yielding bulge of cloth, her eyelids fell shut as though they had suddenly turned to lead, and the rhythm of her breathing slowed as her mind almost instantly began to drift blissfully off to oblivion.

    In the next instant, her blissful repose was shattered as every trace of fatigue, every thought of rest, every source of comfort was ripped cruelly asunder by the sound of a familiar voice.

    It took several seconds for Celestia’s brain to properly register why her heart was suddenly pounding in her chest, and why every instinct suddenly screamed for her to jump to her feet.  The voice was definitely, paralyzingly familiar, and not in any way that would have pleased her in any capacity.  The familiarity the accompanied the cold, regal drawl of that voice was something entirely dreadful and altogether perverse, and as it broke the clammy silence of her bedroom, it cut through her body with all the fury of a winter gale.

    “You still haven’t told her, have you?”

    The words hung in the air like a fog, choking any response that she struggled to offer.  Her thoughts tumbled feebly over one another in a panicked mess, a single coherent word jumping over and over again to the fore front of her mind.  

    Impossible…this was impossible…

    The voice continued, speaking more quickly and this time with a deliberate edge of mock innocence.  

    “What’s wrong? Aren’t you happy to see me again after making such a fuss while I was away?  It’s not as though you have a right to complain after what you did.”  The last three words were accented with a tone of biting accusation.  

    “You…no…not again.”  

    Celestia could barely speak as she came to terms with what she was hearing.  She had hoped, she had prayed, that she would never hear that voice again, that she would never be haunted by the memory of its words, even through all that she had experienced in her long years of life, she had wanted only to forget the sound of that terrible, horrible voice.

    The voice laughed, and the sound tore into Celestia’s heart.  It made her want to die.  

    “Please…”  Celestia pleaded, aqueezing her eyes shut, willing the voice to disappear and knowing full well that it was utterly in vain.

      “Please, no… I’m sorry…I’m so, so sorry…”

    As she turned her gaze toward the source of that familiar voice, she was met with two burning green eyes…The eyes of Nightmare Moon.


Skyfall

Concept and writing by Viktor Lionheart

    “Well, the burns aren’t too bad.  Mostly first degree, though it will take some time for your fur to grow back.”  

    Dr. Grey pushed his glasses up with one hoof – a nervous habit of his – and eyed the pegasus before him with concern.  Fluttershy sat quietly on the old couch in her living room as she waited for the doctor to continue his examination.

    “Can you tell me anything about what happened?”

    “I’m afraid I don’t know wha – ouch.”  

    Fluttershy winced as the bandages chafed against her wounds.  

    “…don’t know what happened.  The last thing I remember, I was saying goodbye to Applejack at the train station.”  

    Fluttershy turned to look at the other inhabitants of her living room.  Rainbow Dash wore a sour expression on her face and was fidgeting in mid – air, obviously anxious to teach who or whatever had done this to her friend a lesson.  Rarity was busying herself in the kitchen with a pot of Fluttershy’s favorite tea, and Pinkie was…

    “Uh…Pinkie?  Are you alright?”  Fluttershy arced an eyebrow.

    For no apparent reason, Pinkie was smiling, or at least, she appeared to be, judging by her eyes.  It was a bit difficult to tell since her lips had become severely puckered and twitched slightly in a frantic series of tiny convulsions.  Meanwhile, both of her ears twirled crazily about like little pink propellers.  The overall impression was that of a large, pink bird that was trying desperately to swallow its own face.  

    With an audible pop, Pinkie’s features returned to normal and the sound of her infectious giggling filled the room.

    “Of course, silly!”

    She hummed merrily to herself, beaming widely as though Fluttershy had said something terribly funny, but the joke seemed to be lost on everypony else in the room.  Rainbow Dash, in particular, wasn’t amused.

    “What the hay are you so happy about?  Can’t you see what’s going on here?!  That jerk who did this is still out there and there’s no way of knowing when or where he’ll strike next!”

    Rarity’s disapproving tone floated in from the kitchen.

    “I fail to see what you hope to accomplish by shouting about it.  I, for one am simply relieved that we found Fluttershy before anything more dreadful happened to her.”

    “Me too!  If my Pinkie sense hadn’t told me you might be in trouble, you could have been out there forever!”

    Once again, Fluttershy found herself cocking an eyebrow in Pinkie's direction.  

    “Oh…well thank you, Pinkie, everypony…was that what you were doing just now?”

    Pinkied tilted her head to one side, her mouth drooping in a puzzled frown.  

    “Huh?”

    “That twitchy thing with your ears – was that what you felt?”

    “Oh, that.”  She smiled again.  “Naw, that’s something new.  Dunno what it means yet, but whatever it is, I’m just glad you’re safe!”

    Fluttershy waited, but it soon became clear that Pinkie wasn’t going to explain herself further, apparently fully satisfied with her vague response.

    “Here you are, darling, drink up!”  Rarity placed a cup of tea on the table before the couch on which Fluttershy lay.  Dr. Grey got to his feet, adjusting his glasses again.

    “It is indeed fortunate you’ve got such a good group of friends to look after you.”

    He sighed, turning to dig through his bags.

    “Unfortunately, until your memory returns, we don’t have any way of knowing who or what caused this.  The only other lead we have in the meantime is this.”

 

    The tall, slate-colored unicorn produced a small lump of metal from his saddlebag.  

    “Pinkie tells me you were holding this when they found you outside.  Can you tell me anything about it?  Where it came from, perhaps?”

    In the center of the oddly shaped chunk of silver metal was a small, black jewel.  It appeared to be some sort of pendant.  Fluttershy took the strange bauble, turning it over and over in her hooves.  No matter which way it turned, she noticed, it never quite seemed to catch the light.

    “Sorry…I’m afraid I’ve never seen this before in my life, Dr. Grey.  I have no idea where it came from.  You…you said I was holding it?”

    He nodded.  

    “I’ve seen and treated magically inflicted burns before.  There are many cases of artifacts or trinkets that, for purposes of mischief or protection, have been adorned with spells.  I thought perhaps that this pendant had contributed to your burns or even your apparent memory loss, but as far as I can tell there are no traces of magic about it.  Either its magic has already been depleted, or it's just an ordinary gem.”

    Fluttershy looped the pendant’s chain around one hoof and lifted it so that the gem hung spinning before her face.  

    “It’s kind of pretty…”

    Rarity blanched.

    “Oh darling, that tacky thing?  You must be worse than I thought!”

    “Well…”  Dr. Grey began re-packing his saddlebags.  “I’m afraid I must be off for the time being – I’ve an appointment with one Miss Scootaloo.  Apparently she had a rather nasty disagreement with a certain bramble patch on her way to school.”  

    “She’ll be okay, though right?”

    Dr. Grey nodded without turning to face Rainbow.

    "Doubtlessly.  A few scratches and bruises to be sure, but I've visited the little filly frequently enough to know that she'll be right as rain in a matter of minutes."

    Dash loosed an exasperated sigh, shaking her head vigorously.

    "No, doc, I mean Fluttershy.  Fluttershy's gonna be alright, yeah?"

    “Ah, yes.  She’ll be just fine, thanks to you.  And I doubt that our attacker will be returning.”

    “What makes you say that?  You saw what he did to her – what if he wants to finish the job!?.”

    “Rainbow!”  Rarity huffed indignantly in the pegasus mare’s direction.  “That’s hardly the sort of talk Fluttershy needs to hear right now.  She’s been through enough already!”

    Without pausing for breath, Rainbow rounded on her, wavering anxiously in midair.

    “There’s no point sugar-coating something like this!  If it’s gonna happen again, we need to be ready.”

    She turned back to face the doctor and repeated her question.

    “How can we know she’ll be safe?  Shouldn’t somepony stay here with her?”

    Dr. Grey took a deep breath, blinking calmly as he responded in his typical slow, stiff drawl.

    “That’s entirely up to Fluttershy.  Honestly, if the attacker had wanted to harm her further, nothing could have stopped him from doing so.  Besides, it’s clear to me that she wasn’t left for dead – her wounds may cover a large area, but they’re actually far less serious than the bandages make them look.  In fact, All things considered, we have no evidence to suggest that she was attacked in the first place.  Not that I intend to mitigate the gravity of what you must be feeling right now…”  He gave a quick nod in Fluttershy’s direction.  “…But this could simply have been some sort of accident.”

    Rainbow didn’t look particularly satisfied with his reasoning, but she chose not to argue.  Instead, she and the rest simply watched in silence as the doctor packed his things into his saddlebags and arranged a series of small, brightly colored bottles on the table in the center of the room.  

    During the entire exchange, Fluttershy had simply sat in silence on her couch, by all appearances completely oblivious to everything that was happening around her.  The gem still hung from one outstretched hoof, dangling mesmerically before her eyes as she stared intently into its depths, searching for something, anything within its smooth, dull surface.  

    It felt to her as though there was something, something ever so small but nevertheless distinctly there, just beyond her vision, as though it were staring back from a place she could not see.  

    Having finished gathering his equipment, Dr. Grey turned to face his patient on the couch.  He paused for a moment, cocking an eyebrow, then reached slowly for the lazily swinging gem.

    “NO!”

    Dr. Grey blinked in surprise.  Fluttershy sat frozen for a moment, then blushed, embarrassed at how loudly she had spoken.  

    “I...Oh, my...I-I-I’m sorry…I Just…"

    She coughed, clearing her throat.

   

    "...I just thought that I should have my friend Twilight look at it as soon as possible.  She knows more about magic than anypony…no offense, doctor.”  Fluttershy grinned sheepishly.  

    Dr. Grey simply stared at her for a few seconds, then shrugged, adjusting his glasses as he did so.

    “…None taken...I’ve heard quite a lot about your friend.  She’s the pony who vanquished he Ursa Minor a couple of years back, right?  It certainly couldn’t hurt to have somepony like that take a look.”  

    Turning stiffly about, he moved to the door.  

    “In the meantime, lots of rest and daily application of the salve I gave you should have you up and about in three or four days at most.  

    “Th-Three or four days?" she sputtered, nearly dropping the pendant in her alarm.  "But...But I can’t possibly…”

    “Don’t worry, Miss Shy…”  He waved a hoof lazily through the air.  “I’ve been told that your dragon friend – Spike, was it? – would be more than happy to help you care for your animals.”

    Dragon….dragon…for some reason that particular word stuck in her mind.

    “If that is all, I’ll leave you in the care of your friends.  If you should remember anything, anything at all, please let me know immediately.”  

    Donning his hat and with a curt nod to the room in general, Dr. Grey was on his way, his tall, lean body casting a long shadow in the light of the sunset.  

    As the last of the doctor’s words faded from her thoughts and the door to her cottage swung softly shut, Fluttershy released a heavy sigh, taking a long draught of the tea that Rarity had placed on the table before her.  She remained silent for a few moments, her eyes looking past her teacup into the floor.  Something tugged at the edge of her thoughts, something she couldn’t quite remember that had leapt to her attention at something the doctor had said, then just as quickly vanished before she could grasp it.  

    It wasn’t until she felt Rarity’s weight pressing into the cushion beside her that she realized that each of her friends were staring at her in concern.

    “Are you feeling alright, darling?  Is there anything we can get for you?”

    She shook her head, suddenly embarrassed.

    “Oh, no…really, I’m fine.”

    “You sure?”  Rainbow zoomed over to the side of the couch.  “Just say the word.  I could go and get one of Twilight’s books to keep you occupied.  Or some food maybe?"

    “Ooh!  Ooh!  I know!  I’ll run over to Sugarcube Corner!   There’s some fresh baked Carrot Cake that I made this morning still in the display!”

    Fluttershy blushed, her eyes darting nervously from face to face.  She suddenly was feeling somewhat claustrophobic.

    “N-n…N-n-no, thank you, really I’m just-“

    “Don’t worry, Fluttershy.  You can count on us.  We’re here for you.”

   

    “Anything you need, dear, we’ll make sure you get better as soon as you can.”

   

    Pinkie had already made it to the door and was just now stepping outside.  For a moment, Fluttershy hesitated, and had been about to respond when she felt her words being softly swept away by the tingling beginnings of an enormous yawn.  She blinked sleepily, looking around to each of her friends as the earthy scent of her tea seemed to flood her mind like a fog.  

    “Ac…”  Another loud yawn.  “Actually, girls, I think I just want to get some rest, if that’s okay…”

    Pinkie stopped in mid-skip, drifting slowly down to the ground like a deflated balloon and looking somewhat disappointed as she did so.

    “Thank you all so much for your help.  You girls can go, if you’d like.  I’m sure the ponies in town need you much more than little old me.”

    Rarity gasped, looking at her as though the very idea was absurd.

    “Nonsense, darling!  We can’t just leave you all alone after something like this!”

    Rainbow Dash growled,   “Exactly.  And don’t you worry, Fluttershy, I’ll find the jerk who did this and teach him a lesson he won’t soon forget.  Ooh when I get my hooves on that punk…”  She didn’t finish the sentence, but the gesture she was making left little to the imagination.

    Pinkie put her two cents in, but her exact words were lost to the others as she had resumed her spastic puckering.  Nonetheless, her concern was apparent in her eyes as she and the others stared in her direction.  

    Donning her most convincing smile, she waved one hoof in the air, stifling another yawn.

    “No really, I’m fine.  After all, I’ve got Angel here with me.”  Fluttershy smiled down at the sleeping form of her long – eared companion.  “And besides…all of my animal friends got back from Sweet Apple Acres earlier today – they’ll be more than enough to keep me company and watch over me.  You’ve all got important work to do in town.”

    Nopony spoke, but neither did any of them seem too convinced.

    “You girls go.  I just wouldn’t feel right if I hogged all of you when there are other ponies in need.”

    Rarity pouted.  “Ohhh…very well, if you insist.  But promise me that if you need anything for any reason, you’ll let us know, won’t you?”

    Fluttershy nodded, smiling despite the pain in her chest. “I promise”

    “You sure you don’t need a body - guard?  At least lemme take that creepy necklace thing with me – I don’t like the look of it.”  Rainbow Dash eyed the pendant suspiciously.

    “No, I think I’d rather keep it for now, if that’s okay.  Twilight will be back tomorrow, and in the meantime, it might help me remember what happened.”

    “Hmph…fine.  But Imma take a quick look around outside before I leave.”  In a prismatic blur, rainbow Dash shot out into the darkening sky.  

    Rarity lingered for a moment, staring pointedly into Fluttershy's eyes.

    "And remember, darling, at the first sign of trouble, just send Angel shooting our way and we'll be here faster than you can say "Darjeeling.""

    With that, the other two followed behind Rainbow at a somewhat slower pace, Pinkie puckering all the way, until the door finally closed behind them with a soft click.  

    The cottage was now eerily silent, save for the lively crackling of Fluttershy’s fireplace.  She sat for a while, blowing on the tea and enjoying the earthy aroma of her favorite blend, but couldn’t quite bring herself to drink it.  Some tiny shadow of a thought tugged at the edges of her consciousness – something that the doctor had said still bothered her, but try as she might, she couldn’t seem to concentrate hard enough to bring it into focus.

    “Dragon…”  She whispered to herself, sending ripples across the smooth crimson surface of the tea.  “Dragon…”

    “YOU! WHO ARE YOU? EXPLAIN YOURSELF!”

    The worlds cleaved through her consciousness like a razor.  The teacup shattered on the floor, staining the carpet with its contents.

    “YOU! WHO ARE YOU? EXPLAIN YOURSELF!”

    She clasped her head in her hooves, writhing in agony.  The voice boomed within her  mind, careening off of the inside of her skull with explosive force.  In her spasms, both Angel and the pendant were knocked to the floor.  Angel’s face contorted in anger at the rude awakening, but his expression was quickly replaced with one of shock at the apparent suffering of his mistress.  He tugged at her hooves, trying desperately to discern what was wrong.  

    Fluttershy was vaguely aware of a faint pressure on one of her legs, but it was all but obliterated by the combined pain of her burns and the merciless booming in her head.  She felt fear, she felt despair, but she also felt rage.  Invigorating, terrifying, passionate, depthless rage, at nothing and everything.

    “SHUT UP!”  She bellowed.  “SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP!”

    All was silent.

    Angel stared slack-jawed at the pegasus, his eyes filled with confusion and hurt.  

    Fluttershy panted, shuddering from the recent emotional surge.  She opened her eyes slowly, and saw Angel standing in a puddle on the carpet below.  She wanted desperately to apologize to him, but the shock of what she had just experienced rendered her speechless.  She reached each of her hooves to her head, massaging her still aching temples in slow, circular movements.

    She remembered everything – meeting the dragon, trying to revive him, and the pendant…

    Her eyes slid to the dull gem lying amongst the jagged pieces of the former teacup.  Fluttershy blinked, and once more she was at the edge of the Everfree Forest, standing over the breathless form of the baby dragon.  He had grasped the gem, and in a flash of light, she had felt a strange warmth wash over her.  The stared at each other in heavy silence for what seemed like an eternity, and Fluttershy watched as the life drained out of those brilliant silver eyes.  For a moment, his lifeless body had remained still before it burst suddenly into flame, vanishing in an instant.  Caught off-guard by the dragon’s transformation, she had been burned and subsequently collapsed.  

    As the realization began to sink in, she felt her stomach constrict violently in a spasm of grief.  She choked before finally finding her voice.

    “No…I couldn’t save him…Oh Celestia, no…”

    All traces of his confusion swept away by her sudden sadness, Angel quickly jumped up to comfort her, patting her gently on the hoof.  His eyes eagerly searched her face for any sign of what was troubling her, for any hint of what had caused to act so strangely, but she was too consumed by her emotion to respond as the tears began to flow.  

    “But you did save me.”

    Flutershy’s sobs ceased abruptly.  In an instant, any lingering traces of exhaustion vanished as her mind sprang to full alert at the intrusion of a paralyzingly familiar voice.

    Nearly knocking Angel from her lap once more, she whipped painfully about, searching for the voice’s source

Silence greeted her in every direction.  She sputtered weakly, wondering if she had simply imagined it.

    “Wha…?”

    “It’s all right, Fluttershy…I’m right here”

    The voice came from within her mind, and yet, she felt her gaze being pulled toward the pendant once again.  For several seconds, she simply stared at it in horror, as though expecting it to suddenly grow legs and scuttle up the side of the couch.  Nervously, she reached to pick it up.  

    “Please don’t be afraid.  I’m not going to hurt you.”  

    The voice grew somewhat louder as she gazed into the black heart of the pendant, but did not rise above a gentle whisper.  She flinched slightly as the sound of its words seemed to echo off of the inside of her skull.  She knew that voice, but… but this was impossible…

    “You…you can’t be…is this…some sort of magic?” Fluttershy stammered, half-afraid that she was going mad.  It was the voice of the baby dragon, she was sure of it, but it was not angry, nor was it pleading for help.  Now, it resonated with a reassuring kindness.

    Angel cocked an eyebrow at Fluttershy, wondering who in Equestria she was talking to.

    “Yes, Fluttershy, a magic more ancient than any of your generation would know.  That is why your doctor friend failed to recognize it.”  

    The voice was soothing, almost hypnotic. It’s words did not seem to make much sense in and of themselves, but it spoke in more than simple phrases.  As the voice resonated within her mind, it seemed to weave a thread of emotions as well, as though she were not simply hearing it speak but hearing it feel as well.  The sensation was bizarre, and it was not at all something that Fluttershy was prepared to cope with.  She balked at the speed with which this was happening, her mind instinctively focusing on the first question that came to mind, her lips nonetheless tumbling over each other as they tried to ask several things at once.

    “But…how?  What…where are you?  Why can I hear you…why can I hear you in my head?"

    “Please, do not be alarmed.  It can be a very jarring experience, I know, though I must admit I’ve never seen it from your perspective before.”

    As calm as the voice was, Fluttershy could not bring herself to find any comfort in it.  She was beginning to panic.

    “Breathe.  Come on Fluttershy, just breathe, breathe with me.  You can feel my intentions, I know you can.  You can sense that I’m not going to hurt you.  Just…breathe…”

    She wanted to scream.  Her entire body shuddered with each breath as Angel bounced anxiously away on her lap, chittering desperately up at her.  She felt distinctly violated, hearing an alien yet familiar voice inside her head, and though some part of her wanted to trust it, she was far too afraid to listen to her gut at the moment.

    “…Hang on, this might be a bit…”

    As suddenly as her episode had begun, she felt all of her fear being instantly swept away as her living room seemed to evaporate around her.  Without understanding how she had arrived there, she found herself outside, lying by the edge of the Everfree Forest, while just above her…

    She gasped, utterly shocked by what she was seeing.  There, outlined by the dim radiance of the stars in the deep purple sky above, she saw…herself.  The silver chain of the pendant hung about her neck as her other self looked tearfully down upon her, her mouth silently forming a series of frantic words, as though she were begging for something.  It was as though she existed outside of her own body -  her consciousness hung limp and weightless from the hooves of the other Fluttershy, and as she watched, she felt a peculiar surge of energy bubbling within her gut.  

    It began as a sharp tingling sensation, almost painful, but slowly seemed to grow and change, filling her with warmth.  The black stone in the pendant’s center glinted in the moonlight, swinging tantalizingly before her face as she saw one tiny, emerald - scaled claw rise shakily from somewhere off to her right, grasping weakly at the misshapen bauble.  As the tiny fingers began to close over the gem’s surface, it became clear – she was happy.  Happy beyond words, and filled with a hope that she thought she would never feel again.  As the little green claw finally took hold, the vision faded, and she found herself sitting once more in her living room, breathing heavily as Angel stared pleadingly up from his spot on her lap.

    Instinctively, she raised a hoof to wipe her cheek.  When she drew it away, she was surprised to see that her fur sparkled gently with a large quantity of what appeared to be tears.  They were no longer tears of sadness – somehow she knew this to be true.  Rather, she knew they could be nothing other than tears of…

    “Joy?  I…what?”

    “Joy, yes.  Joy that you cannot imagine – or, perhaps you can.  Sorry about that, not giving you any warning I mean, but I had to show you what I felt when you rescued me.  It was the only way I could think of to calm you down.”

    Fluttershy simply blinked.  Angel was squeaking now as loudly as he could, but she lacked the strength to pay him any heed.  She just drooped there, her entire body numb from shock.

    “That…that was what you…”

    “Breathe, Fluttershy…just try to relax and concentrate on what I showed you…”

    This time, without hesitation, she obeyed.  For felt like the first time in a very long time, she took a long, shaky breath, and immediately felt her heart begin to slow.  Several more times she repeated this rhythm, breathing in great volumes of the chilly night air that wafted in through her open window and exhaling through her mouth.  

    Soothed somewhat that she had begun to relax, Angel ceased his ludicrous dance, but his expression lost none of its anxiety.  He poked at her with one tiny snow – white paw, squeaking softly.

    As Fluttershy opened her eyes, her hoof automatically rose to stroke Angel’s long, white ears.  The sensation of his fur against hers was pleasant, but she was far too preoccupied to focus on that for the time being.  She took one last, steeling breath, and attempted to collect her thoughts, the voice remaining mercifully silent as she did so.

    "The dragon..." she thought.  "…The dragon that I met last night died and now he’s speaking to me from inside my head…

    The thought sent a momentary chill running up her spine, but she suppressed it, stroking Angel’s head a bit more roughly.  Slowly, she forced herself to remember what she had felt moments ago, what she had seen through his eyes as she had cradled him in her hooves.

    She still was far from being calm, but her nerves had cooled enough to allow her to begin to come to a semblance of terms with her situation and to voice the question that leapt foremost to her mind.

    “You…that was you last night when I-”

    “Yes.”  said the voice, its tone slow and deliberate, but not patronizing.  “That was when you saved me.”

    “Then…then how?”

    “I will explain everything in time, but first I need you to relax and allow yourself to sense what you already know.  I mean you no harm.”

    She paused, swallowing hard.  Giving Angel one final pat on the head, she placed each hoof at her side, bracing herself against the couch.

    “Are you ready?”

    Not yet sure if she could trust herself to speak, she nodded slowly, holding her breath.

    “I’m sure this is extremely unsettling for you, so I’ll let you ask the questions as they come.  Just be sure to ask one at a time, and we’ll both get through this as easily as possible.  If it helps, bear in mind that this experience isn’t exactly comfortable for me, either.”

    She ran over its words several times in her head, somewhat surprised at the thought that the voice was having difficulty adjusting to this…whatever the hay was happening to her.  It sounded so calm and confident as it spoke, she almost felt ashamed of how she had reacted.  But such thoughts could wait – she needed answers if she was going to make sure that she wasn’t going completely insane.

    “Okay…breathing…breathing…”

    Without hearing his muffled squeak of protest, she pressed Angel’s fluffy body tightly against her chest, taking comfort in his warmth.  As she sensed his frantic heartbeat against hers, she found the words to begin.

    “…Are you dead?”

    Without warning, the voice chuckled.

    “An ironic first choice.  Yes and no. I suppose that depends on what you mean by “dead.””

    She remained silent, staring straight ahead.

    “…Sorry.  No, I’m not dead, at least, my mind is still alive.  My body did perish however – I’m afraid that’s how you were burned.”

    She paused, trying to process what he had just said.

    “I am sorry about that, by the wa-"

    “How are you talking to me?”

    “Ah, that.  I told you, didn't I? It’s magic.”

    “Don’t lie.  Dr. Grey said-“

    “Dr. Grey would have no way of identifying this brand of magic unless he spent many years in extensive study.  No offense to him – it’s not a matter of intelligence, but simply one of ignorance.”

    A few hairs still stood on end on the back of Fluttershy’s neck, but as she listened to the young dragon’s voice, she could not help but begin to feel calmed by its smooth, reassuring confidence.  The fact that its words were spoken in the voice of a child still unnerved her somewhat¸ but she did feel more than a bit relieved that the dragon was still alive, at least in a manner of speaking.

    “So…did I do it?  Did I save you?”

    The voice sighed, as though sharing in her relief.

    “Yes, you did.  In truth, I would have most certainly died if you had not found me when you did.”

    “But then…what did you do?  What did you do to me…I mean us…I-I mean...me?”

    “Don’t be afraid.  As I said, there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this.  You see, the form you encountered was a temporary shape at best – it could not have been maintained any longer regardless of the circumstances.  But, had it not been for you, I would not have been able to preserve my consciousness in this manner.  You saved me, Fluttershy” the voice repeated.

    “But…so…” Fluttershy began uncertainly, trying with some difficulty to wrap her head around all of this.  “You said that your mind survived, but how?  Are you…inside the pendant?”

    When he replied, there was a distinct note of hesitation in his voice.

    “Not exactly…It seems that a part of me was transferred directly into your consciousness.  But fret not…”  the voice said, as if in response to Fluttershy’s apparent revulsion at the idea.  “I have no influence over you or your actions.  Besides, it is only a matter of time before I am strong enough to break free…"

    He paused.

   

    "Heh.  Sorry, poor choice of words.  That is, before I am strong enough to regain my original form.  In the meantime, I wish to use what power I have to reward you for your kindness in trying to help me.”  

    As the last of his words began to fade, Fluttershy felt a familiar warmth wash over her body – the same warmth that she had felt just after he had touched the gem by the Forest.  She shivered slightly as the heat seemed to intensify for a moment before leaving with a peculiar tingling sensation that seemed to linger around her bandages before disappearing entirely.

    “There now, isn’t that better?”

    “Isn’t what…?”  

    Suddenly, Fluttershy realized that she was no longer in any pain.  In fact, she felt better than she had in quite a long time.  Slowly, she released the frantically struggling Angel from her grasp, bending down to remove her bandages.  Dumbfounded, she stared down at what had once been burned flesh, but was now perfectly healthy.  Even her fur had grown back.  

    Imediately upon his release, Angel bounded to the floor where he fumed in a raucous tantrum for all of a second before he, too, was struck silent by what he witnessed.  He sat with his jaw on the ground, rubbing his eyes in a desperate attempt to make sense of what he was seeing.  One of them had gone crazy, he thought, but now he wasn’t sure who.

    “How did...how is this possible?”  she sputtered, experimentally poking at various spots on her chest in search of any trace of pain from what had once been bare, burned flesh.

   

    “The same way that I am able to speak to you.  The magic that binds my consciousness to yours allows me to sense your pain, and, to a certain extent, to mend it.”

    “Your…consciousness?  Then…that voice…was that you?  The one who was so… angry?”  Fluttershy felt a tinge of fear at the memory of the emotional outburst she had felt.  “What…what were you so angry about?”

    “Ah, yes…that…this may take some time to explain in full.  Before I begin, it may behoove you to explain what is happening to your rabbit friend before he begins frothing at the mouth.”

    “Huh?”  

    Fluttershy glanced down at the floor.  Angel was eyeing her with a mix of fear and concern, and had developed a spastic twitch in his left ear.  The poor little rabbit’s whiskers stuck out at odd angles, and though he could not speak, he looked as though he were seconds away from a complete nervous breakdown.

    “Oh my goodness, Angel, I’m so sorry!”  

    With a suddenness of motion that made the rabbit leap backwards in alarm, Fluttershy moved to scoop him up in her hooves.  After several seconds during which he eyed her hooves as though theye were about to explode, he only reluctantly assented, still twitching feebly.  

    “Oh dear…how to explain…”

    She swallowed, stroking the rabbit’s head.  Nodding to herself, she held him at a distance and fixed him with as calm a stare as she could manage.

    “It’s…um…you see, I…It’s the dragon we met last night.  I…I know it sounds strange but I can hear him.  He used some sort of magic to…to put himself into this pendant…but it looks like it messed up and a part of him…is …um…inside…my head.”

    The thought sounded absurd to her even as she said it.  Angel simply blinked, his ear giving one more pitiful flop before drooping lifelessly to his side.  

    “I don’t really get it either, but…but…” Fluttershy swallowed, forcing a smile. “He’s still alive!  He’s the one who healed me!  Isn’t that wonderful?”

    Angel eyed Fluttershy’s body, inspecting her for the ugly wounds that he had seen only moments ago.  Suddenly, he jumped up to her shoulder, peering into her left ear, as if searching for the dragon who had supposedly lodged himself inside his mistress’s head.  

    Fluttershy swatted at her shoulder, giggling gently as his whiskers tickled the inside of her ear.

    “Angel stop it! That tickles!”  

    But Angel only continued his inspection with increased vigor.  He darted all over the pegasus, searching in her ears, her eyes, even her mouth for any sign of ailment.  Finally, he came to the pendant, and, with a sour look, attempted to yank it from her grasp.

    “Wha…Angel what are you – ouch, that hurts!”

    He simply tugged harder, ignoring her plea.

    “Hey…stop it!  Stop pulling so hard!”

    She reached forward to swat him away, but he nimbly dodged her hoof, jumping beside her on the couch and yanking the pendant along with him.

    "Why in Equestria is he acting so strangely?" she thought.  "Wasn’t he trying to save that dragon too?  He should be happy…"

    “Angel, it’s alright!  I feel perfectly fine, there’s no need to panic, if you’d just listen…”

    Angel glanced briefly up to her face before vigorously shaking his head, resuming his endeavor to pry the pendant from its chain.

    Without completely understanding why, she was rapidly losing patience with his antics.  She glared down at her little friend, speaking with as much authority as she could muster.

    “Angel, I said STOP!  You’re acting silly!  

    Angel yanked harder.

    “ANGEL, STOP IT RIGHT NOW!"  

    Fluttershy heaved on the pendant’s chain, sending the tiny white rabbit flying behind the couch.  She deftly swung the chain over head, glaring down at her friend as he tumbled to a halt against the far wall.

    Angel simply stared, all traces of his former furor gone.  He couldn’t believe it.  His mistress had never treated him like that before, nor could he remember a time that she had looked at him as she was doing now.  

    For several seconds, Fluttershy stared furiously down at him without a word, too angry to speak.  It wasn’t until she realized what she had done that her expression suddenly defrosted.

    “Oh, Angel…I’m so…”  she stuttered, searching for the right words.  

    “Sorry…I’m so, so so-“

    But she had no time to finish.  Without a second glance, Angel bolted from the room and hid in the tiny house that Fluttershy had built for him, slamming the door with surprising force.

    “…Why?”  she whispered, staring down at her hooves and the pendant that hung between them.

    “Why did I do that?”  

    As she spoke, her lip began to quiver threateningly.  

    “I’ve never done anything like that, not to anyone.”

    “Don’t let it worry you.”  

    The voice gave her a start as it floated through her thoughts, its presence suddenly alarming after having been absent for the past few moments.

    “You’ve been through a lot and he was acting a bit silly.  I must apologize…even under the best of circumstances the binding process can be a bit…draining to the bindee.  I’m sure you must be feeling it as well.”  

    “Oh…Oh, I feel awful…I’d better apolo…”

    “…I don’t think that would be wise.”

    “What?  But I…he was only trying to-”

    “No.”

    “But…”

    The voice sighed.

    “How will he learn to listen to you if you are not more forceful?  I know that you are a kind soul, Fluttershy – it is because of that very kindness that I still live.”  

    Fluttershy gazed uncertainly at the tiny rabbit-house.

    “But if you are too kind, you will invite others to take advantage of you.  I’m sure I’m not the first to tell you this.”  

    She fidgeted for a moment, then finally ran to the door of Angel’s home.

    “Fluttershy, n-“

    “Angel, I’m so sorry!  Please, please forgive me!  I should never have treated you like that!  Please come out!”

    The door opened.

    “Oh thank-

    WHACK

    A half – eaten carrot bounced off of Fluttershy’s muzzle onto the floor.  

    “Wha…I…”  Fluttershy stuttered, her lip trembling.  Her eyes darted first from the tiny door to the gnawed remains of the carrot and back again.

    “Well…Well FINE!  STAY in there for all I care!  I care for you and feed you every day, I make sure you get lots of exercise and try to make you happy, but if you think for one SECOND that I’m going to let myself be taken for granted, you’ve got another think coming, mister!”

    Fluttershy panted, her chest heaving wildly with the sudden rush of emotion.  She felt angry, but also…relieved, as though a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.  It felt good, even as the persistent pangs of guilt called to her from the door of Angel’s home.  

    A knowing “tsk-tsk” sound echoed in her mind.

    “I tried to warn you.  Kindness is a wonderful thing, but too much and it can become quite harmful, to all parties involved.  Now, why don’t you leave him to his tantrum and make yourself comfortable, I’m afraid my story is rather lengthy.”

    Fluttershy walked back to the couch, still annoyed.  The dragon was right – she was angry for letting herself be manipulated like that.  With a huff, she plunked down on the couch and snatched up her teacup, but didn’t take a sip.  She simply sat there, trying to think of some way to change the subject.

    The dragon…come to think of it…

    “What’s your name?”  She was surprised at the realization that she hadn’t known it thus far.

    Once again, the voice chuckled softly in her head.

    “Yes, always a good place to start.  My name is Acheron, Prince of the Emerald Keep.”

    Fluttershy’s jaw dropped, her wings stiffening suddenly at her sides.  

    “Y…Y-Y-You’re a p-prince??”

    She straightened involuntarily in her seat.

    Acheron laughed, a full-bodied guffaw this time.  The sound was pleasing to Fluttershy, the sort of laugh that made one want to laugh right along with it.  

    “Relax, Fluttershy, there’s hardly any call for such niceties.  I haven’t been a proper prince for some time.”

    “What?  I…what do you mean?”

    “Well, I’m afraid there was a rebellion in my kingdom, quite some time ago – long before you were even born.”

    “But-“

    “But I’m just a baby?”  Acheron chuckled again, and this time, Fluttershy giggled a bit it response.  She wasn’t sure why, but she was starting to like this dragon.  Perhaps it was his voice, or the gentle warmth of his presence in her mind, but she was beginning to get the strange feeling that she had known someone like him for many years.  

    “As I said, that form was temporary.  An accident, really.”  

    “Accident?  How could something like that be an…accident?”

    “It’s a bit of a long story, and a large part of it has to do with the same magic that allowed me to bind myself to you.  You see, a dear friend of mine was…tempted by a power beyond both our understanding.”

    There was a pregnant pause as the voice fell silent and Fluttershy eagerly waited for him to continue.

    “How can I explain it so that you can understand…”

    Acheron hummed to himself for a moment, searching for the right words.

    “It may be simplest, if not strictly accurate, to start with what you already know.  I assume you are familiar with a magic known as the Elements of Harmony?"

    Fluttershy perked up.  “Oh, yes!  Actually, I…well, it’s nothing really…”

    “Go on.  If we’re going to be sharing space for a while, we may as well get to know each other.”

    She hesitated for a moment, her eyes darting about the room as if to avoid Acheron’s invisible gaze.

    “Well, I…um…I’m actually…the bearer of the Element of Kindness…”  

    She blushed as she spoke, her voice trailing off absently.  Acheron loosed a single sharp, barking laugh in response.

    “Well that certainly explains a lot. When I found you, or…I suppose I should say, when you found me, I could sense the power of the Elements within you, though I could not be sure which Element you held.  I apologize for my bizarre behavior at the time – I was quite a bit out of sorts due to my…condition.”

    “Well, to be honest…I…was a little frightened, when you yelled at me, I mean, but when you collapsed…I-I was just so worried, I-I didn’t know…I couldn’t just leave you there.”

    “I can see why the Element of Kindness selected you to be its bearer, Fluttershy, And may I say, I am quite honored to be in your presence."

    “O-oh, I…It’s, um, I mean…i-i-it’s n-n-nothing, I was just…I mean anypony would’ve…”

    Her cheeks reddened to the point that her coat appeared to be a deep shade of orange, her hooves working rapidly over and under each other as she fidgeted on her couch, suddenly unsure what to do with herself.

    “Anyway…” Acheron cleared his throat, for lack of a better word, to punctuate the merciful return to topic.  

    “I suppose to be a decent houseguest, as it were, it’s only proper that I tell you a bit about myself.”  

    “Well, I-I mean, you don’t have to if…”

    “Nonsense.  I wouldn’t dream of imposing on you so heavily as a complete stranger.  And besides, I’m not just doing this because I want to learn more about you, as well.  I’ll tell you all you’d like to know, but I’ll respect your privacy if you so wish.”

    She paused for a moment, her mouth hanging open in preparation for another round of polite protest, but chose not to respond.  It may be impolite to pry, she thought, but she really did want to know more about the little dragon, especially seeing as how he was a prince, of all things.

    “Okay…if that’s what you’d like.”

    “In that case, I’ll begin.  Just stop me if you have any questions, alright?”

    He coughed, and she thought she could feel him settling in for a long speech.  When he began, he spoke slowly and clearly, as though reciting a historical passage from one of Twilight’s books.

    “I told you that my friend is responsible in part for my impromptu arrival on your doorstep, but the entire reality of the situation is quite a bit more complicated, and for that I must apologize in advance.  The powers that tempted my friend were cut from the same source as your Elements of Harmony well over a thousand years ago.  You see, He was a powerful pony, next in line for the throne of a neighboring kingdom.  He and I studied the mysteries of magic throughout the world in our youth, and through our research we learned of a source of magic greater than any other in existence.  When he learned of this magic - the "Element of Dominion" as we called it - he became obsessed with its power and what it would bring to his kingdom.  One day, he simply disappeared, and did not resurface for several years.  When he did, I was the first of my kind to see him.”

    The fire sputtered in the fireplace, and darkness had fallen outside, but Fluttershy was too engrossed in the story to notice.

    “He came to me one night as I flew over the gardens of my home in the Emerald Keep, perched on a distant cloud.  He was changed from when I had seen him last, no longer the same small pony I had known.  His body was tall, lean, and powerful, and he now had a sharp horn sprouting from his forehead as well as a pair of broad, feathered wings.  He spoke to me, accusing me of betraying him, of hiding the element from him.  I tried to tell him that I knew nothing of what he spoke, but he was mad – he would not or could not hear me.  Supposedly, the treasure he sought was held deep within the Emerald Keep itself, hidden away to keep it safe.  He was convinced that I had known, that I had hidden it deliberately to prevent him from gaining power.  He attacked, and I defended myself.  After our years of separation, I had grown into an adult dragon worthy of my office as prince, but even I had difficulty keeping up with him.  We fought for hours, driving deeper and deeper into the castle – my brethren could not come near us such was the ferocity of our battle.  At last, my strength failed me, and he burst past me to the place where the last piece of the Element lay hidden.  His power, his fury was…incredible to behold.  My kingdom burned around me as he and his armies marched through the cities of my kind.”

    “My goodness…I never knew there even was a kingdom of the dragons…”  

    Fluttershy sat in awe of what she was hearing.  

    “How could…How could your friend do something like that?  I…I’ve never known anypony to be so cruel…”

    “He told me before his disappearance that his intentions were pure, but in hindsight, he was always the ambitious sort.   I should have seen it coming.  At least I can say that I did not completely fail in my efforts to stop him.  That’s how I ended up here.  The pendant you now wear is…was an artifact of great importance to my people.  I knew that its power was my only hope in defeating him.  I used the last of my strength to retrieve the pendant from my father’s vault and confront my friend one final time.  The power in this pendant allows one to permanently seal the magic within another by combining it with magic’s opposite – Entropy.”

    “En…Entorpie?” Fluttershy struggled with the unfamiliar word, staring down at the pendant.

    “Entropy.  You see, the word “magic” is a bit of a misnomer.  There are actually several types of magic, though the two most prominent varieties are Entropy, and Order - the variety embodied by the Elements of Harmony.  I attempted to use the pendant to stop him, but I’m afraid I lacked the strength and the knowledge to control it.  The spell backfired, sealing not only his power but my own as well, reducing me to the form of a baby.  For many centuries I slept, aware to some vague extent of the happenings around my resting place, but unable to act.  Though I do not know what caused them, it was not until one of the recent earthquakes-“

    “Earth…quakes?”

    “Yes…is that not what you call them?”

    “We call them “earthshakes.”  At least, that’s the name my friend Twilight came up with.  Nothing like them has ever happened in Equestria before, not that I know about, anyway.”

    “Yes, well, they were somewhat commonplace in my time.  Anyway, one of the earthquakes must have broken the seal on my tomb, allowing me to escape, which is when I found you.  As for scaring you, I’m terribly sorry.  I was rather frightened, myself, and seeing as how the last ponies I had met were trying to kill me…”

    “Oh, there's no need to apologize.  I understand completely.”

    “You’re too kind.  The anger you felt before was my fault as well.  You see, I had not expected to become bonded to your consciousness to such an…intimate extent.  I had thought that this was some sort of trickery on your part, but when I felt your sadness, your grief for me, I knew that you meant me no harm.”

    “So…you can feel what I feel?”

    “And vice versa, I’m afraid.  But fear not, I vow to respect your privacy and, of course, I expect you to give me the same courtesy.”

    Fluttershy swallowed.  Acheron seemed pleasant enough, but she wasn’t sure she liked the idea of sharing her emotions with someone she had just met, and a small part of herself still hadn't managed to get past the fact that she had an individual of royalty living in her head.

    “I know it’s not an ideal situation, but I’m afraid that that’s the hand we’ve been dealt.”

    Fluttershy nodded, though she still felt uneasy.  She decided to change the subject.

    “What was his name, if you don’t mind me asking?”

    “To whom are you referring?”

    “Your friend…what was his name?”

    “Ah yes, I forgot…he was called Chronus.”

    “Chronus?  I’ve never heard of anypony like that.  In fact, I’ve never heard of any of this, not the war or the dragons, not even this…Dominion thing.”

    Acheron sighed, and Fluttershy thought she detected a heavy note of sadness in his voice.

    “I was afraid of that.  If I might be so bold, might I ask who the current ruler of Equestria is?”

    She blinked, momentarily surprised at the fact that he didn’t know before admonishing herself for forgetting that Acheron had been asleep for the past few centuries.

    “The royal sisters, Princesses Celestia and Luna of Canterlot.  They’ve…well, at least, Celestia has watched over Equestria for the past thousand years...It's a little complicated..."

    At the mention of the Princess’ names, she thought she could feel something stiffen slightly in the back of her mind.  When Acheron spoke again, there was a subtle edge to his voice.

    “Hmmm…I’m afraid I’m not familiar with those names, though either way I can’t blame them for hiding a memory so painful for both our peoples.”

    “…You mean the war?”

    “Yes.  And no.  Chronus’s power, sealed as it is, is a terrible force indeed, and I would have erased all traces of it myself if I had had the chance.”

    Another heavy sigh, resonating from deep within her thoughts.

    “It seems there is much I need to tell you, and much more that I need to know.  I’m afraid that not all of what I have to say is going to be pleasant to hear.  I’m very sorry, Fluttershy, more sorry than you could ever know, but I’m going to need to ask for your help once again.”

    “I…what?”  she sputtered.  Something in Acheron’s voice was making her uneasy again, and she squirmed inwardly as her thoughts raced with shades of what sort of “unpleasantness” he intended to deliver.

    “How can I…I mean, what can I do to help you?  Do you need me to tell my friend Twilight about you?  I’m sure that she could think of so-”

    “No, Fluttershy.  I need your help, because you are the only one who knows about me, and it needs to stay that way if what I fear is happening is actually true."

    “Fear?  What are you-”

    “I know it sounds bizarre, but I need you to trust me, Fluttershy.  No one else can know that I’m here, because I’m the only one who can stop the power of Dominion from ever being used again.  You didn’t just save me, Fluttershy, and despite what you might think, I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that by your actions, you may just have saved everypony in this world.”


AUTHOR’S NOTE:

 

                When I began writing this story, season one had not yet finished, so Luna did not have a canon personality at the time.  As such, I came up with my own characterization for our favorite lunar princess, and although it may not exactly jive with her canon self as it is now, attempting to “correct” her personality at that late stage of writing to fit canon Luna would have destroyed much of the significance and plot of the story as I had planned it, and would almost certainly have demanded a complete rewrite from the very beginning.  Rather, I hope that you can enjoy her role in this story as much as I have enjoyed writing for her for what it is.

                In addition, it may be important to note that certain events of significance to Equestrian History, i.e. the introduction of Discord, had also not occurred until a very late stage in the writing, and are therefore not featured in this work for reasons similar to that stated above.

                Rather than change the story to maintain a strict adherence to the canon of the show and thereby create a product that was messy, confusing, and unenjoyable to me as a writer, I thought it better to simply continue writing as I always have, and allow the story to stand on its own for what it is.  Thank you for your readership, and I hope that you have as much fun reading this story as I did writing it!

 

-Viktor Lionheart

Skyfall

Concept and Writing by Viktor Lionheart

Chapter 4 :  Regret

                   

     Celestia commanded her limbs to move but they refused to obey.  No amount of effort could tear her away from the infernal gaze of those hateful eyes.  

    Nightmare Moon grinned, poised elegantly at the far end of the room with only the meager light of the early morning sun framing her features.  Even in the half-darkness, her eyes appeared to glow of their own pale green light as their pupils contracted tightly, searching hungrily over her prey.

    “I missed you…” she whispered, the frigid loathing that coated her words hanging like icicles from her breath.   Her lips barely parted as she spoke, and beneath her voice Celestia thought could hear just the faintest deadly hiss, like that of a snake poised to strike.

    Finally, Celestia seemed to find the will to move.  Her body automatically slid from beneath her blankets, her hooves meeting the carpet without a sound.  She exhaled slowly, her lungs prematurely pinching off the stream of air in her struggle to remain calm, causing a thin, shaky note to whistle through the air as the breath passed her lips.

    She loosed a nervous laugh, her lips curling into a hint of a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.

    “Dreaming…”  The sound of her voice was barely audible, and yet carried a touch more confidence than her first response had.  “…This is a dream, and I am going back to bed.”

    Despite her words, she did not move a muscle.  Whether she hadn’t been convinced by her own weakly delivered attempt at persuasion or if she simply couldn’t force herself to move any further, she remained rooted to the spot, unblinking.

    Seeing that she would have to be the one to carry the conversation, the younger alicorn cantered delicately to her sister’s side.  Celestia didn’t move even as she closed the distance to naught but a few inches, fixing her dazzling green eyes with her own determined glare.

    She sniffed loudly, taking a long draft of the aroma of Celestia’s mane.  Her eyes fluttered for a moment as she appeared to revel in its scent before she drew her muzzle to meet that of her elder sister, gazing intently into her eyes at point blank range.

    “Well, aren’t we the big, grown-up girl?  You weren’t so calm the last time…or so quiet.  I wonder just how much you’ve really changed?”

    “One warning…” Celestia’s tone was dead calm, almost bored, her confidence now returning after the initial shock.  “I’ve had a long day, and I do not intend to lose any more rest on some silly apparition.”

    “Always so careless with your words, sister.  Or perhaps you’ve forgotten that there’s a difference between dreams and nightmares.”

    Nightmare’s grin remained, unwavering at the tip of her snout.  Celestia simply stared for a few moments before conceding a curt “Very funny,” regaining her confidence and turning sharply about with a haughty snort.  

    “Do you think that she will thank you?”

    She froze, genuinely irritated this time.  What she had said about having a long day was true, and she was not in any sort of mood to deal with her subconscious giving her guilt trips, not right now.

    Even if she knew that it was right.

    She whipped back about with the intention of telling this particularly annoying figment of her imagination off with a wave of her horn when she stopped cold, her mouth dropping silently open in surprise.

    Twilight Sparkle gazed calmly back, though in her features lurked a faintly sinister edge, as though there was no mirth behind the small smile that played across her lips.  The fact that her most faithful student was staring at her at eye level rather than from one or two feet below her visage did not immediately register in Celestia’s mind.  At the moment her attention was too muddied by simple surprise and utter exhaustion to process that particular oddity.  

    “Dear Princess Celestia…”  murmured Twilight, in perfect mimicry of the young mare’s voice.  “…being a good friend means being able to keep a secret, but you should never be afraid to share your true feelings with a good friend.”

     The moment that it had finished speaking, the face that looked like Twilight changed, elongating and darkening until Nightmare Moon’s hungry grin greeted her once more.

    Celestia’s expression did an odd spasm, so small that nearly anypony could have easily missed it had that pony not been the one who was currently staring her straight in the face.  She said nothing, forcing herself not to betray her emotions, but in doing so she prevented herself from mustering the strength to turn away again.  

    Nightmare Moon simply pressed closer, forcing Celestia to lean back.  Her words had struck a nerve, and she knew it.

    “Wise words from a young mind, don’t you think?”

    “Stop it.”  Celestia whispered her tone suddenly dire.  She scowled, her mind jumping nervously between anger and shame.  Her fatigue was getting to her, she told herself.  This was to be expected, but she could deal with this decision when she had the strength to do so, not now when she felt about ready to collapse.

      “I don’t have to explain myself to you.  You aren’t my sister.  She will know when it is time for her to know, and no sooner.”

      This time, Nightmare abandoned any pretense of happiness.  She scowled, and the fur on the back of her neck bristled with rage.

        “Selfish little brat, aren’t you?  But that’s what I’ve come to expect by now.  You can be so cruel, Celestia.”

        “Silence!” Celestia bellowed.  Had the command been uttered by anypony else, it would have sounded pretentious, but she had injected so much command and authority into that word that even an Ursa Major would likely not have hesitated to obey.

    “I have not spent the last few centuries sitting on my hooves, nor have I neglected the reality of Luna’s involvement in this,” she rumbled, her voice quaking slightly despite her best efforts to maintain her confidence.  “I have always done nothing but act in her best-“

    “LIAR!”  

    Faster than she could react, an ebon blur impacted on Celestia’s jaw with a resounding crunch.  Immediately, the Princess staggered, the edges of her vision sparkling with a flurry of red stars as the pain from the blow blasted her thoughts apart.

    The sudden absence of her rational inner voice left a sizeable void, and that space was immediately occupied by what could only be described as panic.  A flurry of individual thoughts flew at one another, colliding explosively as they all muscled to be the first to have its implications realized.  In the end, perhaps out of instinct, Celestia’s mind settled into a state of numbed shock, her eyes staring blindly into the carpet.

    She spat, her throat convulsing painfully as she turned slowly to face the being that had struck her.  Nightmare Moon, her teeth bared in something between a smile and a grimace, stood panting over her. She was clearly exhilarated as she examined the small splash of vibrant scarlet liquid staining the tip of her still raised hoof.

    “Y…Y-y-y-you’re…”  Celestia stammered, all of her self- confidence and resolve instantly vanishing.  The entire façade of her bravery collapsed violently about her as she pushed herself away, her hooves clumsily fumbling beneath her.

    The mad cackle that boomed from mere inches before her was deafening, but even if it had been little more than a whisper on the wind, it would have torn into Celestia’s heart with the same degree of savagery as it did in that moment.

    Sure, enough, a small trickle of blood dripped from just under the right side of her vision, spattering silently on the magnificent carpet below.          

   “…you’re real…”

  Nightmare sighed, taking care to emphasize her disdain with each syllable.

  “Even after all this time you’re still such a disappointment… I’d waited so many years to hear your voice, and now you don’t even have the decency to scream. “  Her grin widened grotesquely.  “You will scream for me, won’t you?  Just like you did on that night-“

  “STOP IT!”  Celestia shuddered with a mixture of fear and rage, all of her senses snapping suddenly and violently into focus.  “Why, Luna…Why?  I was so happy…so happy to see you again…I missed you…I cried every night for years after…after I-“

  “I HAVE HAD ENOUGH OF YOUR LIES!”  

   Once again, the fog of reddish stars clouded her vision as the second blow connected with her chest.  Celestia heaved backward, all of the air being knocked from her lungs with a pathetic squeak.  Nightmare didn’t bother to approach, but simply stared in utter disgust as her elder sister clawed at her throat for breath.

   “You know as well as I do that you’ve never seen Luna as an equal.  She’s always just been a tool to you.  Even now you’re simply trying to use her to justify your own cowardice!”

   Celestia stuggled just to breathe.  Her hooves flailed blindly for a bit before finally finding the ground, forcing herself off of her back.  With an agonized rasp, her lungs finally began to heed her commands, and she doubled over, coughing with her head between her forelegs.

   “Always acting in her best interest…as if your weakness wasn’t revolting enough; your stupidity is utterly astounding.”

   “Luna…Luna please, don’t make me do this again…” Celestia begged between each cough, her words coming in a series of pained gasps.  “I love you, little sister…I never wanted to banish you, I hated myself for it the moment I had done it!   Please…we were meant to rule toge-”

    “You really never learn, do you?” Nightmare snorted, pawing the ground.  Her voice took on a high-pitched mocking tone.  “It’s always “Luna, Luna, Luna” with you.  I’m not Luna, not anymore.”  She stepped closer to her elder sister, quickly closing the distance.  “And do you know why?” She knelt down to whisper in Celestia’s ear.  “Because Luna is dead.  Luna died when her big sister failed her.”

   “Stop it…” Celestia whispered, her voice now a low growl, her sister’s enormous green eyes filling her vision.

   “You.  Killed.  Her.” Nightmare sang, her warm breath hissing in her sister’s ear.  “And in doing so, you made me, big sister.”

   Like a child, Celestia shook her head vigorously, squeezing her eyes shut. “Not again…not again…not again…” she whispered to herself, over and over.

   “You made me what I am, not once but twice, Celestia.  YOU MADE ME!!”

   “I said STOP IT!”  

   What was left of the shaky grasp she had on her wits shattered.  In a blind despair, Celestia lunged at her sister, hoping to tackle her to the ground, but her hooves met only air.

   Silence.  Celestia panted, a mixture of tears and semi-coagulated blood dripping from her face.  Immediately upon sensing that her attack had failed, her horn sparked menacingly, every muscle in her body tensing in preparation to defend herself.  She whipped about, searching in vain for the source of her torment.  But there was no one there.  She was completely and utterly alone.  

   “Where are you?!  Stop playing games!!  Just STOP IT!!” she sobbed, her magic upturning tables and tearing the drapes from their hangings, searching every shadow for some trace of those horrible green eyes, but to no avail.  She bolted to the window, throwing wide the glass doors as she scanned the sky for any sign of her sister, squinting in the light of the morning sun as it climbed above the horizon.  Not even a single solitary bird could be seen flying within the sea of cloudless violet-blue.

   Even as she turned quickly about to face her bedroom once more, her heart had begun to slow somewhat.  She had not fallen asleep – that much she knew – and what she had seen was most definitely not a dream, but that didn’t change the fact that her bedroom was completely empty save for a single very flustered and distressed matriarch.

   “Princess!?  Your Majesty, are you alright? What’s wrong!?”

   The words were accompanied by a loud banging that nearly caused the Princess to magically detonate the door from whence it came before she suddenly realized whom the voice belonged to.  She allowed herself to breathe and waited several seconds for her heart to leave her throat just as the banging suddenly ceased.

   “Bastion, break down this door, now!”

   Acting quickly, Celestia opened the door, causing the guard pony named Bastion to stumble past her in his effort to break into her chamber.  Immediately, her senses were assaulted by a very loud and brash streak of furry white noise.

   “Princess, you’re bleeding!”  Hussar shouted, practically screaming in her face.  In a single movement, the Captain dashed past his princess, raring to attack her assailant.  His charge ended rather anticlimactically when he saw that she was alone.  

    “P-p-prince-“

   “Hussar, stand down.”  Her tone was stern and her speech clipped.   She was in absolutely no mood to deal with Hussar right now, or anything else that wasn’t the single driving thought that boomed within her mind.

   “Where is Luna?  Have you seen her?” she asked to the group at large.  Hussar had arrived with a tail of four pegasus guards, and she turned frantically about as she spoke, searching each face in turn for an answer.

   Hussar was more than a bit confused at the complete lack of conflict that greeted him in every direction.  He simply gawked at her for a moment before remembering himself, not daring to keep Celestia waiting when she was clearly in such a dire mood.

    “I…well…we passed her on patrol when we heard shouting coming from your chambers.”  He stammered, stiffening as if to inject more certainty into his words.  “She was reading in the courtyard.”  

   “You’re sure?!”  She rounded on him, speaking just a little too loudly, but she was far beyond the capacity to care by this point.  “You’re absolutely sure that you saw her before you came to me?”

   Hussar didn’t move, but simply stared directly into her eyes.  His years of faithful service as the Princess’s personal attendant and advisor had gotten him past the almost instinctive urge that all guards possessed to avoid making eye contact with his superiors, though he knew even without seeing the fear in her eyes or noticing her attempt to disguise the miniscule tremor in her voice with sheer volume to know that something had disturbed her.  Deeply.

   “I’m certain, Milady.  She was quite peaceful,” he replied, keeping his tone even so as not to alarm her further.

     Celestia looked away, her eyes darting rapidly back and forth as their sight became lost in the depth of her thoughts.  Hussar had never seen his Mistress this upset before, and it only took a moment of distressed agitation before he snapped into full-alert.  He nodded sharply to the guards in his entourage, silently ordering them to move forward.

    “Princess, we must tend to your wou-“

    She ignored him, taking off at full speed as he sputtered indignantly up at her, already far below.  Without a word, he and his subordinates took flight, launching almost simultaneously after her as she sped over the terrace wall and down to the courtyard below.

    This didn’t make sense, she thought.  As she found her eyes drawn to the walkways on either side of the courtyard’s ornate perimeter, every instinct screamed that everypony should be running around in a panic, but not a hint of chaos or destruction disturbed the quiet flow of the castle’s staff.  Even Hussar had seemed abnormally ignorant, as though he somehow had not heard Nightmare Moon’s voice from within her chambers, despite the fact that he could not have been very far away.  

    As she passed over the gilded terrace that separated the two halves of the eastern courtyard, her eyes scanned the greenery below for several panicked minutes before they finally found a wispy trail of deep blue poking out from beneath a lone tree.  Without a moment’s hesitation, she dived straight for the ground, her wings snapping to her sides as she fell like a bullet from the sky.  

    When she connected with the cool grass, she stumbled slightly in her earnest, charging forward until the bench upon which her younger sister sat came into full view.

    “LUNA!”

    The blue alicorn flinched with enough force to send her book soaring high into the branches of her tree, noisily disrupting a pair of birds that had been nesting directly above her.  

    “Wha…? Oh, sis, you scared-“

    Before her book could even touch the ground, any words she might have uttered were lost as she suddenly found herself smothered by her elder sister’s chest.  Celestia embraced her sister tighter than she ever had before, smelling her hair, praying that it was real, that her sister was really there with her.  Luna spat and struggled to get the taste of fur out of her mouth, but Celestia just squeezed her tighter, murmuring softly and rapidly under her breath.  The sight of Luna sitting safe and sound had been like a miracle cure for the aching hole where her heart used to be, and she had absolutely no intention of letting go of that feeling, not when she could feel Luna’s heart beating in rhythm with her own.  

    At the same time, Hussar and his group of guards landed soundlessly behind her.  They began to rush forward, but none managed to travel more than a single step before they were stopped by a single warning hoof from their Captain.  Hussar didn’t need to say anything, nor did he need to look them in the eye to command their unquestioning and immediate obedience.  Perhaps they could sense it through his seasoned composure, but they got the message that this was not a moment in which they should interfere.

    “Fiffter, whut va heckfa oo fooing?”  Luna’s words were barely audible. “A cann breeve!”

     If Luna wasn’t confused enough, Celestia laughed.  Not the normal, graceful, tittering chuckle to which she was accustomed, but a full-bodied, tearful guffaw.  She laughed for what felt like hours, the rapid contractions of her chest repeatedly punching her little sister in the face until she managed to wrest herself from Celestia’s grasp, panting heavily and half-certain that her elder sister had completely lost her mind.

    After everything she had seen in the past few minutes, the warmth of her sister’s fur, the sight of Luna, just her Luna and not some grinning monster, had allowed Celestia to begin to calm down.  She sighed away the last waves of laughter, wiping the tears from her eyes with one forehoof.

    “Honestly, sis…” Luna panted, still struggling to catch her breath. “…if I thought you were going to attack me like some sort of madmare, I would have asked Hussar to post a few dozen guards around the courtyard benches.  Unless you’ve just got some really good news, I’m going to have to stop you from ever staying out that late again.“

    Celestia didn’t bother responding to her sister’s annoyed remark.  She simply smiled, then coughed, trying with something less than her usual effortless dignity to recover herself and make it appear as though she hadn’t had a nervous breakdown.  At this, some small part of her mind reminded her that she still had no way to account for what had happened in her bedroom, and that she wasn’t entirely sure that she felt completely in control of her faculties, but for the moment, none of that mattered.  Luna was Luna, and she was safe.

    It was then that she noticed that a portion of Luna’s mane was stained with blood.

    “Oh my-” she gasped, immediately losing hold of every happy thought as she sprang forward, examining every inch of her sister’s body for the source of the blood. “What in Equestria happened to you?  Where was Hussar?”  She snorted angrily, casting a wrathful glance behind her .  “He’s supposed to be protecting you!”

    “Sister, what are you…!”  Luna inhaled sharply as she got a good look at her sister’s face for the first time. “How did your face and get all bloody?  And your hooves!”

    Luna’s words didn’t register right away.  It wasn’t until Celestia noticed that Luna appeared to be completely unharmed that she finally seemed to process what her sister had said.

    “My...hooves?”  Celestia looked down.  Both of her front hooves, especially the left, were stained with blood.  On closer inspection, she noticed that a torn clump of fur and what looked to be a scrap of the underlying skin was stuck not to the part of her hoof with which she had wiped her cheek, but to the bottom of the left hoof.  

    “How…?”  She looked up to see a frightened Luna staring back at her.  She faltered, and that little part of her mind that had whispered to her before suddenly seemed louder than anything else in the courtyard.

    She knew how she had gotten hurt, but…Luna was right here.  Then that…

    The realization struck her like a hammer-blow.  Perhaps Luna noticed the color draining from her face as she stared once more at the bottom of her bloodied hoof, or perhaps it was merely instinct, but she quickly trotted forward to lift Celestia’s somewhat frazzled mane out of her eyes.  

    The moment that she found Luna’s pale aquamarine eyes staring directly into hers from inches away, her mind snapped jarringly back into reality.  She hesitated, at war with herself as to whether she should tell her the truth or attempt to cover with something less potentially traumatizing.  

    “Oh…I…Well…”  She faked a small laugh, desperately searching for an excuse.  It sounded more than a bit absurd, even to her, but she had already made up her mind.  Besides, she wanted to have some time to think about it on her own before she frightened Luna any more than she already had with her silliness.  

    “I was in such a hurry that I’m afraid I tripped getting out of bed.  I guess it must have happened when I hit my nightstand on the way down.”  Celestia replied without a hint of doubt.  

    It was immediately apparent that Luna was not convinced.  She cocked an eyebrow, still wearing an expression of deep concern.

    Celestia inhaled deeply to regain her composure.  

    “I’m sorry, little sister…I must have given you an awful fright.”  She wiped her hooves on the grass, then wet them with her tongue to begin cleaning the mess she had made of her sibling’s mane.  “I had an awful dream, and…I…I just needed to make sure you were safe. “  

    Sensing that his time had come, Hussar cut in with a polite clearing of his throat.

    “It’s alright Hussar, stand down.  This was all just a big misunderstanding.”

    “Milady?  If you’ll forgive my impertinence…you seem a bit out of sorts.  Are you quite sure-“

    “I’m fine, really, and I appreciate your concern, but there’s no cause for alarm.”

    “But who were you shouting at?”  He stepped forward, an element of genuine concern just barely detectable through the practiced impartiality of his tone.  “And your wound-“

    “-Is superficial and little else than the result of a bit of clumsy silliness on my part.”  She said with a tone that was not unkind, but which clearly indicated that the matter was closed.  “Just a bad dream, nothing more.”

    At first, Hussar simply stared at her, his face stony and unreadable, but it only took a few silent seconds before he nodded, retreating respectfully to stand among his comrades.

    Having finished cleaning her blood from Luna’s fur, Celestia sighed, shaking her head.  Luna still stared at her as though Celestia had suddenly sprouted a second head, but for the moment didn’t bother to ask what in Equestria had made her sister fly off the handle like that.  Instead, she and everypony else simply remained silent while Celestia collected herself.  

    Rising to her hooves, she inhaled sharply, and almost instantly seemed to reclaim all of the grace and poise to which her guards were accustomed.  It was a show, more than anything else, and Luna was the only one who saw it fully for what it was.  Celestia was not alright; something had happened, and she was simply doing her best not to allow it to discourage her charges.  Despite her own confusion, she simply chose to keep her questions to herself for the time being out of respect for that sentiment.

    Celestia breathed a soft chuckle, her lips parting in a gentle, if somewhat tired grin.  She tossed her mane, as though attempting to distract attention away from her face.

    “It looks like you were right after all, Hussar.  Perhaps I have been stretching myself a bit too thin as of late.  I’m terribly sorry for frightening all of you over something so silly.”  

    She smiled, deftly addressing her most trusted guardian without a hint of her former mood.  

    “Speaking of which, I could say the same for you, Hussar.  I’m sorry for suggesting that you were remiss in your duties in any way.  Please, get some rest, and that’s an order.  Besides…” she turned back to face Luna.  “I’d like some time alone with my sister.”

    He didn’t move at first, eyeing the Princess with a single raised eyebrow.  An entire conversation seemed to pass between the two as they stared briefly into each other’s eyes; Hussar’s long years of service had familiarized him enough with Celestia for him to be able to read her to such an extent that the ability was exceeded only by Luna herself, and so even he was not completely fooled by her show of confidence.  However, he was loyal enough to know his place, and to know that he would not hesitate to serve his Mistress in any capacity when the time came that she would need him.  With a blink and a nod that asked, not ordered, his lady to be mindful of her health, he bowed deeply, and each of his guards mimicked his gesture.

    The team of pegasi launched soundlessly from the earth and, with a crisp aerial salute, Hussar dismissed his troops and immediately turned toward what was most certainly not the barracks, despite Celestia’s “order.”  Celestia watched them go, maintaining her smile until at last the last pair of ivory wings faded from sight.  Even after they were gone, she remained staring at the sky, her mind slowly drifting back to the reality of the situation and the fact that she was about to have one hay of a time explaining herself for that little display.

    Luna had waited patiently until now, but she wasn’t about to put off pointing out her sister’s condition any longer for the sake of keeping up appearances.

    “Celly, are you…

    “I’m sorry for frightening you.  I can’t imagine how awful I must look…” she chuckled weakly, still not turning to face her.  Something in her tone told Luna that she was trying to avoid the subject.

    “…Yes, I know, you said that…”  Slowly, Luna picked herself up and trotted to her sister’s side, pausing for a moment to blow some of her now disheveled mane out of her eyes.  At first, Celestia said nothing, aware of the courtyard around her with only half of her mind.  The other half was off in her bedroom, playing what had happened in the past few minutes on a loop like a broken record.

    “Hey, Celly, are you…alright?”  Luna asked lamely, leaning gently against her sister’s shoulder.  She reached one probing hoof forward, placing it gently upon her Celestia’s own before looking up into her face with genuine concern.    

     Celestia took a moment to respond.  When she did, she blinked slowly, smiling down at her little sister but not quite looking directly at her, her eyes staring somewhere past her head into the dirt.

    “Of course I am, Lu-

    “I mean it.”  Luna’s expression was suddenly serious.  “You’ve been acting strange for a while now.  I thought maybe you were just stressed or tired from running all over Equestria every day…”  She swung around so that she and her sister were face to face, looking directly into Celestia’s eyes.  “But this is the first time I’ve seen you this upset in…in a really long time.  What’s wrong?”

    Celestia sighed rather loudly, giving her sister’s forehead an affectionate nuzzle.

    “This is what I was afraid of.  I’m sorry for losing control…there’s really nothing wrong, I’m honestly just tired and I had a bit of a disturbing dream.”

    “That’s not it.”  Luna said flatly, shaking her head.  “Something really must have gotten to you for you to act like that.  If it’s a dream, that might be part of it, but dreams happen for a reason, Celly.  You should know that better than anypony.”  

     She took a single step back, speaking in a voice not quite demanding, but nonetheless expectant.  

    “Something else is going on, isn’t it?  Something’s really bothering you.”

    Celestia opened her mouth to speak, but no words came.  She turned away; Luna’s persistent gaze was making her uncomfortable.  

    “Don’t be silly, Luna.  I’m just tired, that’s a-”

    “Celly.”

    She had not raised her voice, but the single word carried all of the shame-inducing and unspoken authority of a mother’s disapproving glare.  With a reluctant jerk that caused part of her flowing mane to fall over her face, she turned back to meet Luna’s gaze.  Her sister’s expression was stern, but not angry.  Nopony else, not even Faithful Hussar would have dared to speak to Celestia in such a way, but Luna knew better.  That sharp perception and fearless honesty was something that Celestia deeply respected about her little sister, even if she was presently finding that particular trait somewhat difficult to appreciate.    

    “Tell me the truth.”  She said evenly.

    With that, whatever was left of Celestia’s emotional reserve went spiraling down the drain.  In an instant, she felt the fatigue of her ordeal fall upon her like a leaden cloak, and her smile disappeared altogether.  Her shoulders sagged, and even her mane seemed to lose some of its shimmer.  Breathing a  heavy sigh, she stared at her little sister with world-weary eyes and a strange, sad smile that Luna couldn’t quite place.

    There it was, Luna thought.  There was the same look she had seen just before Celly had given her their mother’s journal.  It took a moment to recognize the strange, misty glimmer she had seen in those eyes before, but once she knew, all of her pretended authority slipped easily away.  It was more than a bit jarring to see her sister so suddenly deflated, especially with having just seen her run the emotional gambit from panic to insane glee, but grief was not something for which she had been prepared.

    Without a word, Celestia lay upon the grass, motioning with one wing for her sister to join her at her side.  Luna immediately conceded, sidling up beside her until their shoulders touched, her sister’s ivory wing extending around her body and squeezing her gently in a brief hug.  When Celestia spoke, her voice was but a tiny whisper, just barely above the rustling of the grass from the cool morning breeze that rolled across the courtyard from one of its windowed balconies.

    “Are you happy?” she muttered.

    The question had caught Luna completely off-guard.  She spent several seconds searching her sister’s face, half wondering if it had been some sort of joke.  Having failed to deduce anything from her sister’s blank expression, she chuckled nervously, and almost immediately regretted the decision when Celestia did not share in her response.

    “What kind of question is that?” she asked, coughing quietly in a feeble attempt to cover for her misstep.

    “An important one.”  Celestia turned the graceful curve of her head to face her sister, her expression serious.  This time, her manner and tone had taken on a definite earnest edge, almost as though she were admonishing Luna for treating the question so lightly.

    “Are you happy?”  She repeated in the same unnervingly direct voice.

    “I…yes?”  She laughed again, out of reflex more than anything else.  “Yes, Celly, of course I am.  I mean, I’d be happier if I knew why my sister was having some sort of nervous breakdown and if I didn’t have to worry about her totally losing it and tackling me whenever she has a nightmare.”

    Despite her best efforts, Luna’s attempts at humor didn’t seem to be working.  

    “…Yes, Celly, I’m happy.  I’ve got you.” She whispered, giving her sister a gentle nudge in the side with her own azure wing.

    For some reason, that didn’t seem to be what she wanted to hear; Celestia’s wing seemed to stiffen slightly as Luna said it.  Whether she sensed that Luna was aware of her reaction or if it was unrelated, Luna wasn’t sure, but Celestia lowered her neck to the grass so that her face lay next to her sister’s head, sighing wearily.

    “You’ve been sighing like that a lot lately, too.”  Luna whispered, though she wasn’t sure why; at some point the scene seemed to have taken on something akin to the silent gloom of a cemetery, and she felt as though speaking any more loudly would be somehow disrespectful.  Her sister’s head lay inches away, her shimmering mane fluttering softly in the breeze, flooding Luna’s nostrils with a scent not unlike the daffodils in the courtyard.

    “I guess I could ask you the same question, but I think I already know the answer.  You don’t usually get all mopey like this unless Hussar gets to the new recruits before you can mess with them.”

    Without warning, Celestia loosed a snorting laugh, the warmth of her voice suddenly dispelling the gloomy haze that had settled upon them.  The sound was a welcome one to Luna’s ears, and she smiled, glad to have finally cheered her up, if only a little.  Celestia’s fondness for mischief was no secret among the more experienced of the castle staff, but (as she always adamantly insisted) her efforts were only intended to inject what she saw as a vital sense of humor into each of her subjects’ lives.  A bit of harmless fun here or there was important, even if it did give the good Captain the occasional headache.

    “He does have a tendency to be an incorrigible stick-in-the-mud, doesn’t he?…Bless him.”

    “That’s more like it.”  Luna laughed, honestly this time.  “C’mon, Celly, tell me what’s going on.”

    Another sigh, though far lighter than the ones that preceded it.  It seemed more like a self-steeling gesture than one of defeat.

    “Yes, mom.”  Celestia chuckled, retracting her wing.  Luna blushed slightly and opened her mouth to offer a retort, but she chose instead to simply grin, thankful in a way for the friendly jab.

    For several seconds, Celestia just seemed to stare off into the distance, the gentle smile that had graced her lips slowly fading until nothing but a far-away look in her eyes betrayed her thoughts.  

    “It’s not fair, is it?” she breathed, the words escaping her lips in a breath that felt like it had sat at the bottom of her lungs for years.

    Luna blinked in surprise.  “What do you mean?”

    “It’s not fair.”  Celestia repeated, her tone somewhat heavier.  “It just isn’t fair, not to you, not to anypony.”

     Slowly, she turned her neck so that one gleaming violet eye stared at her little sister from beneath her flowing mane.

      “I…don’t think I ever told you how sorry I was, Luna.”

    “Celly?” Luna’s expression had softened.  That same look had returned to her sister’s eyes, and it was disturbing her all over again.

    “Luna, I was wrong.”  Celestia’s voice had suddenly taken on a tone of urgency as she jerked upright, leaping to her hooves and bearing anxiously down on her sister.  Her head swayed this way and that as her jaw worked in silence for several seconds, her tongue trying to find the words to untangle the knot in her chest.

    “I…I never should have tried to use the power of Harmony that night, but it’s so much worse than just that.   I never should have treated you as I did to drive you to such a state as…as…”  Her words came like a flood, and with them all of her grief, all of her guilt, all that she had held within her behind a wall of smiling silence for one thousand years past came bursting forth.

    “Luna, I’m sorry…sorry that I banished you, sorry that you had to go through all of those years alone.  I’m so…”

    Luna shot to her hooves, her eyes frantically darting all over her sister’s anguished face in alarm.  The suddenness of everything her sister was saying was coming too fast for her to process.  She was absolutely stunned as she saw the tears begin to flow.  She had known that her sister felt guilty about what had happened, but she had no idea why Celestia was suddenly so distraught over something that they hadn’t really talked about for almost two years.

    “It isn’t fair…” Celestia repeated “…that you had to go through all of that because of me.  That you had to feel such hate and loneliness and rage because I failed to ease your pain. “  Her shoulders shuddered as fat, hot tears rolled down her muzzle.”  “I…I failed you.  I failed Equestria that day in depriving it of one of its rulers.  I fai-”

    Celestia fell silent as the last bit of air was suddenly squeezed from her lungs.  Her little sister wrapped her in a crushing embrace, silencing her sorrowful confession in mid-thought.  She simply sat there, unable to move or speak as the tears still came, running down her neck to splash onto Luna’s face.  A blissful eternity passed in silence between them, and in that moment, just for that moment, some part of Celestia felt truly happy.  Without hesitation, without fully comprehending what her sister was going through or what had caused it, Luna was fully and utterly prepared to be there to share in her pain.  They needed no words to communicate it, only the rhythm of their hearts as they beat in earnest against one another, reaching out through the meaningless and intangible walls of unfeeling flesh to be together in spite of everything else.  

    Together…the thought floated unbidden across her thoughts, leaving a faint yet inescapable pang in its wake.  

    She had no idea of how much time passed before she was jarred to attention by a sharp pain on the right side of her face.  Luna had slapped her, though not hard enough to leave a bruise.  As she stared at her elder sister with that same motherly glare, her voice was nonetheless kind, albeit with a hint of caring chagrin.

    “First things first, don’t you ever hide something like this from me or anypony again.”  Luna whispered.  “How can I help you, not just as a princess, but as your sister, if you never talk about what’s bothering you?”  She sidled nearer to her sister until she was close enough to touch Celestia’s slippered hoof, smiling gently.  “I had no idea you were beating yourself up so much about this.  Why didn’t you say anything earlier?”

    Celestia simply stared, still somewhat stunned that she had been struck.  She could say nothing, and ultimately resorted to looking away in shame.

    “Sorry…I didn’t mean to hit you so hard…” said Luna, reaching out a hoof to caress the spot where she had made contact.  “I just…please, Celly, don’t keep me in the dark about stuff like this, okay?  Where did all of this come from, anyway?  The last time we talked about it…”

    “…Was a long time ago, I know, but I’ve never really said it.  Celestia nodded to herself, regaining her voice.  She swallowed to clear her throat, still not meeting Luna’s gaze. “I don’t know if I ever made it clear to you just how I much I regretted what I did…”

    “Celly…Is that what your dream was about?”

    To Luna, Celestia seemed strangely distant again for a moment, but it was quickly gone.

    “Yes…I dreamt about that night,” she lied.  “I was so upset when I woke up…I just had to see you and make sure you were safe.”

    Luna paused before responding.  As well as she knew her sister, there were rare times that she couldn’t quite read what she was thinking.  This seemed to occur somewhat more frequently since she had returned from her banishment, she thought, and perhaps even more so over the past few weeks, but the most that she had ever been able to glean from her sister at those times was that she was “fine” or “just tired.”  At the moment, that same frustratingly distant tug at the edge of her thoughts told her that there was something that Celestia wasn’t telling her.  

    Her train of thought didn’t last for long though, before being broken by Celestia’s nervous laughter.

    “What a mess…heh…I’m supposed to be the big sister, not you…I ‘m such an idiot.”

Luna frowned, scowling playfully.

    “Well whining about it isn’t going to help.   Besides, the great thing about being a big sister is that you’ve always got your little sis to rely on.”

    No response.  That same, strangely sad smile flickered across Celestia’s lips for an instant before she looked away again, her expression blank.

    Once again, Luna found herself silently kicking herself for her poorly placed attempt at lightening the mood.  The young Princess was at a frustrating loss for words, and it was making her feel more than a bit uncomfortable.  She hated to see her sister so upset, but what she hated even more was that she knew that somehow, she just wasn’t able to find the words that Celestia needed to hear.  

    “Hey, come on, Celestia, I didn’t mean it.  I mean, if you’re really that upset, I could be the big sis for a whi-“

    “I don’t have any right.”  Celestia spat, her tone suddenly much angrier than was appropriate.

     Luna paused for a moment, her plans disrupted by her sister’s violent and inexplicable change in mood.

    “I…Celly?”

    “What sort of Princess has a complete emotional hissy fit because of some silly nightmare?” Celestia laughed, but the sound was not at all natural.  The laughter was that of one at the end of their rope, humorless and hollow.

    “And even worse, what kind of hypocrite am I to ask so much of you?”

    Luna was taken aback by her sister’s words as Celestia stared into her eyes.  But she knew that that anger wasn’t directed specifically at her, nor was Celestia looking directly at her but at the grass behind her head.

    “What right do I have when I lack even the strength to ask for your forgiveness?”

    “My…forgiveness?”  Luna stammered.  Depsite herself, Luna was beginning to get the impression that she had completely misgauged here sister’s mood, and it rendered her rational mind unable to do little more than dumbly repeat whatever thought had just crossed her

    “None, Luna.  That’s the answer, that’s always been the answer.  I have no right to rely on you for anything.”

    With a stomp of her hoof, the air seemed to freeze around them, and not a sound save for the chittering of a cloud of birds that had been disturbed by Celestia’s angered gesture broke the heavy silence.  Neither pony spoke, nor could Celestia meet her sister’s wandering gaze as it searched her face.  She just stood there, panting and staring into the ground as though she wished it would disappear.

    Luna simply stared.  Some part of herself couldn’t help but be hurt by her sister’s words despite the fact that she knew that that had not been her intent.  But she ignored it almost instantly, taking the brief pause in her sister’s rant to collect herself and reassess the situation.

    She chose not to speak until she was absolutely sure that she could convey with words what her heart knew to be true.  Without a word, she trotted to Celestia’s side and place her head just beneath her sister’s chin, extending one blue-feathered wing to rest upon Celestia’s back.  Though her sister did not reciprocate the gesture, neither did she pull away, and so Luna began to whisper as she closed her eyes, willing each and every word to take hold.

    “I haven’t forgotten what you told me two years ago, nor do I think I will ever forget, even if you have…”  she murmured, leaning gently on her sister’s shoulder.  “Weren’t you the one who kept telling me that I needed to stop asking you for forgiveness and forgive myself?  And let’s make something clear.  Nightmare Moon…”  

    Luna paused.  That name still caused her stomach to turn at the memory of what she had become, if only for a short time.  

    “Nightmare Moon was a creation of my own jealousy.  I wanted the night to last forever because I thought that maybe then everypony would learn to appreciate it as much as the day; maybe then I could have the same love and respect as you.  But I was wrong.  I already had all of that.  It was my fault for being jealous and for allowing myself to use my magic in such a way.  I was the one who made a mistake, Celly.  You just did what you had to do, and honestly, I’m glad that you did.”

     “W-what?”  Celestia sputtered, jerking away to gawk at her little sister in surprise.

    Luna did not budge from her position, keeping her tone steady.  She fully meant every word.

     “If you hadn’t stopped me, I would have stayed being someone I hate.”  

    “But…But I failed.  I tried to use the power of Harmony to help you yet I couldn‘t.  I-I lost control, and you suffered for it.”  Celestia stammered like a young foal.  She couldn’t believe what she was hearing, and so out of reflex she found herself stubbornly trying to justify her own guilt.

    “If you hadn’t tried, I never would have forgiven you.” Luna said matter-of-factly.

    “But…a thousand years…I cost you one th-“

    Luna snorted angrily, stomping the ground, her features fixed in a look of disgust.

    “Do I have to hit you again?”

    Luna didn’t raise a hoof, but her expression told Celestia that she wouldn’t hesitate to fulfill the threat.  

    “Honestly, if you weren’t being an idiot before, you certainly are now.”

    Silence.  They stood apart, and yet the emptiness between them may as well have not existed.  Their minds were one, their eyes silently conveying the ebb and flow of their emotions clearly evident to one another as they allowed the silence to speak for them, saying what words never could.  Then, in exactly the wrong manner Luna had intended to handle the situation, she laughed.

    She couldn’t help it, even as Celestia goggled at her as though she had just suggested that they turn the entirety of Canterlot into a massive pile of swiss cheese, Luna simply laughed all the harder.  It wasn’t long before Celestia looked downright put out, scowling as though she were about to scream and opening her mouth to do so an instant before bursting into her own fit of laughter despite herself.  She didn’t even understand why they were laughing, but that didn’t matter.  Perhaps it was just instinct, but it suddenly made perfect sense to laugh, as though reacting in any other way would have been completely absurd.

    “Y-you…should have s-seen your face!”  Luna gasped in between bouts.  “I don’t think I’ve seen you look that indignant since Prince Blueblood called the palace “tawdry and quaint!”” she mimicked the Prince’s voice perfectly, right down to the pompous accent.

    “Well what would you expect?”  puffed Celestia, catching on in an instant.  “From one of the Baltimare Bluebloods?  One can hardly expect a woman to appreciate such fine tastes!”

    The words had barely left her mouth before they were both consumed by another riotous giggle fit.  The conversation that had taken place moments before had been all but dissolved by their shared mirth.  None of that mattered, not the tears or the guilt; only the fact that they were sisters remained.  They reveled in the feeling for a while, welcoming the change of pace for as long it could endure before at last, the final titterings of mirthful joy faded to nothing and the silence greeted them once more.

    It was not tense, this time, nor was it heavy in any way.  The quietude that descended welcomed them like an old friend, and it was welcome in return.  For a time, it was all they needed as they warmly embraced.

     In that silence, a thought occurred to Luna.  She considered her sister carefully before speaking.  

    “Can I show you something?”

    “What?”

    “Here, follow me.”  With a flash of blue light and a sound like a wave dying on the shore, Luna transformed herself into a sparkling cloud of azure mist.  She flew high into the air, where she waited, hovering, for her sister to follow.  Celestia hesitated for a moment, then changed as well, into a sphere of amber light.  The two rose high above the courtyard of the castle, and higher still, Celestia tailing close behind her younger sister’s cloud.  Up she rose with her elder sister chasing her all the way, above the clouds, higher and higher, until the castle was but a tiny speck on the world below.  Still higher they rose, until finally, Luna stopped, returning to her original form.  With a pop that seemed to dissolve instantly in the endless blackness around them, Celestia followed suit.  

    Far below, in a fluid mosaic of green and blue, spun the vast land of Equestria.   Luna looked at her sister, her expression blank.  

    “What is pain?”  She asked simply, without any trace of emotion in her tone.  It was an honest question, asked directly and without hesitation.

    Celestia’s brow furrowed in confusion.  “What?”  Her voice seemed disproportionately loud in the silence of their altitude.

    “Pain is frightening.  Pain is painful.  Pain is inevitable.  But above all…” Luna paused to allow the familiarity of the words to sink in.

    In perfect unsion, the sisters spoke the words of their mother as they had been written in her journal so long ago.  

    “Pain means that you’re alive.”

    Celestia smiled, gazing in awe at her little sister.  Not so little, anymore, she thought.

    Luna continued.  “When we feel pain, or acknowledge the risk of feeling pain for whatever reason, we are presented with an opportunity.  Should we choose to take it, that pain can be molded into something beautiful.  Should we choose to ignore it, we doom ourselves to dwell forever in regret, though perhaps in a different form than what would be risked otherwise.  Love is beautiful because it exists despite the pain that is inherent in it, yet also because to truly love, be it another being or a particular cause, is to say that one is willing to endure that inevitable pain for another.  All of the sacrifices, all of the failures, all of the tears we shed, when endured for the sake of a noble, if temporary, victory, become turned upon themselves and instead enliven the joy of that victory a thousand times over.  Likewise, if one looks upon their pain, their failures as just that and nothing more, they will know nothing of joy until their last wasted breath.”

    As she finished her speech, she paused for a moment, allowing the last of her words to fill the emptiness.  Neither sister reacted immediately, as each was too busy reflected upon what those words meant for each of them.  Though they did not share it openly, the thought crossed both of their minds that it seemed rather fitting that the globe below did not intrude upon the silence, as though it, too had been affected by the memory of an ancient pain and was finally grateful to have someone with whom it could share it.

    “You’re quite a quick read.”  Celestia murmured, immersed in a sea of nostalgia at the sound of her mother’s words.

    “And you’re quite forgetful, so it seems.”  Luna shot back playfully.  

    Luna turned away, gazing down at their home, their kingdom.  “Mother's view may sound a bit...fatalistic, but I believe that the principal of what she what saying is worth thinking about.  Mistakes are a part of life.  I knew it before - it’s what I learned when I finally began to forgive myself for my mistake. But I think mother captured the meaning of that fact far better than I ever could.  Neither of us is perfect, but that should never mean that we cannot learn from our failures.”

    She drifted closer to her elder sister, her body making not a hint of sound as it slid effortlessly through the vacuum.  They did not require their wings to stay aloft; here, a bubble of pulsing magic separated them from the icy nothingness and the gravity of their world.

    “We both made mistakes on that night, though until today I think I only understood what that had cost me, never what it had meant for you.”

    Celestia shifted uncomfortably.  Despite herself, she found her gaze wandering through the darkness until at last it rested upon the silver arc of the moon, half obscured by the planet’s shadow.  She could see its craggy surface so clearly here, each and every pockmark and crater like a great ugly blister burning across its pale skin.

    As if sensing her thoughts, Luna swept around so that her head obscured Celestia’ view.  With a gentle nudge of her hoof and a faint pop as the fields of their magic collided, Luna gently redirected Celestia’s gaze to the planet below.

    “Look at this world, Celly, at how beautiful it is.  No matter what happened in the past, there are millions of ponies down there who love us, and whom we love in return.  You said it yourself, every time I had a nightmare about that night, every time I came to you for comfort, you forgave me because you loved me.”  She drifted closer to Celestia, close enough to whisper into her ear.  “And if we can repay their love by keeping this world safe, then what happened back then doesn’t matter.”    

    No longer did the walls of their magic isolate them from one another.  Luna floated through the endless night with her sister by her side, basking in her warmth as she rested her head across Celestia’s shoulder’s.

    “Please, big sister.  I’ve already forgiven you.  I did the moment that Twilight and her friends released me from the shell of darkness in which I had bound myself.  Now you just have to forgive yourself.  Think of them” She gestured to the world below.  “They need you.  Isn’t it a blessing that we can help to protect their happiness? Their future?  What would it all mean if you simply gave up on the faith they’ve placed in you?  That I‘ve placed in you?”

    Celestia smiled the tiniest of smiles, thinking of the many young colts and fillies far below - the heralds of the days to come.  She was blessed, it was true, to have had such a wonderful sister, so wise and compassionate despite her troubled past.

    “Luna…thank you.  I think I’ll be able to rest much more easily from now on.”

    Luna beamed, smiling from ear to ear.  She did not respond save for offering an affectionate nudge, and leaned against her as they watched the world silently turn.  She had said all that needed speaking; the peaceful silence of Equestria below spoke for the rest of her sentiments as it spun ever onward, never turning back.

    Celestia said nothing, staring blankly down at her kingdom, the faint nagging threads of guilt still tugging persistently away even through this moment of bliss.  Though her sister did not notice, Celestia’s jaw worked silently back and forth, as though trying to decide whether it should, or even could form the terrible truth that screamed within her mind.  The infinite blackness of space suddenly seemed suffocating to her, and she could not help but shiver slightly as she wrapped one wing tightly around her little sister’s body.  Luna welcomed the gesture, pressing into her sister’s side, a happy sigh escaping her lips as she felt Celestia’s warmth surround her.

    Celetia still smiled, but somehow the expression had taken on a note of unspeakable sadness, and for the moment, Celestia was thankful that Luna could not see her face.

    “Luna…”  she thought.  “Luna, thank you.  Thank you…but, there are some things you simply cannot understand.  I can’t tell you what is coming…it would only make what I…what we will have to do even harder.  Soon, I may have to leave you all alone again, all because I wasn’t able to save them. I wasn’t able to stop the evil I feel stirring once more, after so many years…”  

    She shivered again, and Luna responded by placing her own wing over Celestia’s front, apparently thinking she was cold.  Celestia’s thoughts suddenly seemed to skip a beat at Luna’s touch; half of her was thankful for her sister’s ignorance, and yet the other half positively shuddered with the urge to spill everything in one heady rush, as though she would surely burst if she remained silent.  But remain silent she did, and though it did not utter a sound to betray her, Equestria stared into her heart like an enormous, probing eye.  

    Though speaking with her sister had calmed her, it had also confirmed her deepest fears.  She sighed, quietly hoping that her thoughts could not be heard in the deafening silence around them as they shouted away inside her head.

    “What will it mean, indeed?“  she whispered, inhaling the scent of Luna’s mane.  “What will it mean…”

=====================================================================

    As the last amber shards of lingering sunlight retreated beneath the horizon and the first chorus of nocturnal insects began their song, the tiered belltowers rang their familiar lilting tune to herald the onset of evening in the city of Canterlot.  As the lamps were lit throughout the city and the thrum of life slowed slightly in its unending rhythm, the castle seemed somehow separated on its perch on the mountainside, illuminated only by the torches on its walls and the gently glowing beacon atop the arcane library’s single tower.  Elsewhere in the castle, torches were extinguished, Luna lay herself to sleep with her mother’s journal lying open on the nightstand beside her bed, and tired murmurs echoed in the empty halls as the night guard relieved the day shift of duty.

    Celestia lay once more in her bed, having just awakened from a deep, if fitful, sleep that had been far too long in waiting, anticipating the ritual preparation she would soon undergo for the Celebration in Manehatten.  It was never something that she particularly enjoyed; not a trace of doubt existed in her mind that the majority of her day would be spent pandering to brown-nosers and reporters alike, and recent events had left her in no mood to deal with that ordeal.  She touched the wound on her cheek with a single hoof, her mind tingling with the last misty traces of a dream she could not remember, but which had nonetheless left her distinctly restless.  Or perhaps it was just her nerves, whispered a tiny voice in the corner of her mind, though the rest of her didn’t seem to find it particularly convincing.  She would have to cover the wound so as not to alarm her citizens, she thought, releasing a sigh that shook slightly in the silence of her bedroom.

    Celestia sat upright, tossing her blankets aside.  She knew she could not lay there any longer, nor could she exactly muster the strength to get out of bed.  Instead, she stared into the eyes of the only other being in the room.  She had sensed it for a while now, but out of sheer strength of will she had forced herself not to acknowledge its presence, and thankfully it had done the same.  Nothing was going to stop it now, however, and it knew it as it glared murderously from the shadows.

    “You were so close there.  She practically begged you to spill the beans, and yet when it really mattered, you just couldn’t bring yourself to trust her.  You know she’ll hate you for this, don’t you?”  Nightmare Moon hissed.

    “You’re not real.  I don’t have to listen to anything you say.”  Celestia replied in a monotone.

    “Not real eh?  Then how do you explain this?” The black mare reached for the now scabbed wound on Celestia’s left cheek, but her hoof was swatted away before she could touch her.  Nightmare merely chuckled at her sister’s reaction, causing Celestia to flinch slightly, despite herself.

    “This…“  Celestia began, gingerly touching the scab with one hoof.  “…I did this to myself because I thought I deserved it.  I let you taint the memory of Luna that I held so dear during her banishment.”  She glared at the thing before her, the thing that pretended to be her sister.  “You died when Luna came back to me.  You’re not real” she repeated evenly.

    Nightmare scowled for a moment, but the expression quickly dissolved once more into a hungry grin.  She seemed to regard Celestia with intense curiosity, as though attempting to gauge her reaction before whispering in a low voice, her tone deathly serious.

    “Funny you should say that, about me being dead.  It seems to me that a lot of ponies you get involved with tend to end up that way.”

    Suddenly, the figure of Nightmare Moon twisted and warped.  With a faint gurgling sound that reminded Celestia of something slimy and not remotely pleasant to look at, it shrank to the form of a young pony with a blonde mane and white fur.  She had no cutie mark.  

    “You promised…”  The child’s voice trembled.  “You said you’d come back for me…for my friends.”

     Celestia stared down at the tiny foal’s emaciated figure, her eyes dead and cold.  A lump solidified in her throat, and she suddenly found herself fighting the urge to vomit.

    “Where’s mommy?”  The child asked, her voice more insistent this time.  “Where’s my mommy?  You said I could see mommy!  Where is she?!”

    “Go…away…”  Celestia struggled with each syllable, glaring in horror at the filly as it advanced on her.  “You’re dead.  You‘ve been dead for over a thousand years.”

    “I want mommy!  MOMMY, MOMMY, where are you?! I WANT MY MOMMY!!” The filly was crying now, stamping on the carpet with its tiny hooves with such force that Celestia was sure that the bones in the child’s skinny legs would shatter at any moment.

    “Shut up.” Celestia growled.  “Just shut up.”

    “WHERE’S MY MOMMY?!  YOU PROMISED I COULD SEE HER WHERE IS SHE?!”  

    “SHE’S DEAD! THEY’RE ALL DEAD!”  Celestia screamed into the weeping child’s face, her nostrils flaring wildly, tears flowing from eyes wide with grief.  “YOU’LL NEVER GET TO SEE HER AGAIN BECAUSE I WATCHED HER DIE!”

    The filly dissolved with the same sickening burp, elongating into the form of a tall yellow alicorn with a black mane.  The mare immediately lunged forward and continued to advance, nearly causing Celestia to fall out of her bed in alarm.

     “And yet you did nothing to stop it.  How dare you lie to a child like that.  You promise her the world and then leave her to die alone in the dust.  Is that how you plan to leave my Luna?  Is she so worthless to you?”

    “Don‘t you dare…” With an enormous effort, she tore her gaze away, fighting to keep her voice from breaking and to tell herself that it wasn’t real, but the sight of the apparition alone was already almost too much for her to bear.  “I couldn’t…you know there was nothing I could do…”  Celestia sobbed.

    “Coward!  How long are you going to hide behind your excuses?!  Have ten centuries of shame not been enough for you?”  Her tone dripped with disgust, falling from her lips like a string of heinous slurs.

    “I’m warning you…” Celestia hissed, still not meeting the alicorn’s eyes.  “Back off. Now.”

    “Or what?!” The yellow alicorn sneered.  “You really are just a disappointment.  If only you had died instead of me, maybe Luna wouldn’t have to suffer any mo-”

    She stopped, unable to speak, as Celestia had lunged forward, piercing her throat with her horn.  No blood issued from the gaping wound.  Instead, the alicorn simply gawked in silence for several seconds before the color faded from her brilliant yellow eyes and her body evaporated soundlessly on the spot.

    Celestia shuddered with each breath, suddenly exhausted from the sheer force of will that her maneuver had demanded.  “My mother…my mother would never wish such a thing…” she hissed, her eyes scanning the darkness for any other shadow that might dare to leap forward to challenge her.  But the room was silent; not a trace of movement disturbed the suddenly oppressive stillness of her surroundings.

    In the sudden absence of sound, her mother’s…no, Luna’s words echoed in her mind.  “What would it all mean if you simply gave up on the faith they’ve placed in you?  That I‘ve placed in you? If we can repay their love by keeping this world safe, then what happened back then doesn’t matter.”

    With a mental slap to knock her still shuddering emotional state back into line, Celestia marched to her balcony; she had had enough.  She knew that if the worst should happen, what she must eventually do could not be changed, but she would be damned if she let it hurt Luna any more than it had to.  

    The night air hit her like a blast of icy water as her magic threw open the glass doors the separated her balcony from the bedroom proper.  Despite the fact that it was the middle of Summer, the castle’s location caused it to be almost constantly exposed to high-velocity winds on the mountain’s Eastern side, which was ideal for pegasi deployment and maneuvering , though somewhat less so for stargazing.  But such frivolous pursuits could not be farther from her mind at the moment. She shivered slightly, thankful at least to have something to brace her for what she was about to do.  

    Silently, she lifted off from her balcony in a single beat of her wings, gliding on the breeze until Luna’s window came into view.  She alighted on the railing of Luna’s balcony, using her magic to open the glass doors.  Luna was fast asleep, one wing stretched unceremoniously  over the top of her blankets, and as the night air rolled into her bedroom it sent her azure feathers a flutter, causing her to shiver slightly.  Celestia stared for a moment before reminding herself to close the window, swallowing hard as she stepped down from her perch and walked around the foot of her little sister’s bed.

    Sandwiched between two luxuriously fluffed pillows of deepest violet, a tuft of blue mane stuck out in front of Luna’s peacefully sleeping face, fluttering slightly with the gentle rise and fall of her chest.  It seemed a sin to wake her when she seemed so peaceful, especially with such news as this. But Celestia’s resolve was set.  She knew that if she did not act now, she would likely be unable to muster the strength to do it again.

    She bent down to nuzzle her sister awake, when yet another familiar voice stopped her in her tracks.

    “Let her sleep, little one.”  It was a male voice this time, deep and with a certain delicacy of tone that seemed somehow detached from whatever it happened to be saying.  She flinched upon the sound’s sudden intrusion before identifying it, her expression hardening as her gaze rose to meet the speaker’s pale, ice-blue eyes.

    “You were going to tell her what you’re planning, correct?”  It was not a question.  The speaker’s face clearly stated that he fully knew what she had intended to do. “I can see it in your eyes, Celestia.  Even after all of this time, you cannot lie to me.”

    Celestia ground her teeth, focusing on keeping her voice down despite her anger.  

    “I thought I told you to leave me alone.”

    The owner of the voice seemed somewhat taken aback.  “You know I can’t do that, not now.  We both know you may only get one chance to save her.  To save everypony.”

    She rolled her eyes, fixing the voice’s owner with a indignant glare.  “Oh, so we’ve had a change of heart now, have we?”

    He was completely unfazed by her accusation, speaking slowly and evenly. “If she knows about your decision, she will only fight it.  Do you want our sacrifice to be in vain?”

    “I refuse to keep her in the dark any longer…” she hissed.  “…she deserves to know.  I can’t do this to her, not again…”

    “…mm…da…d…”  It was Luna; she had begun to toss about in her sleep.  The topmost pillow fell from her face as her brow darted up and down in a spastic jig, one hoof reaching outward as though searching for something.

    “Shhh-shhh-shhh” Without hesitation, the grey, pale-maned alicorn to whom Celestia had been speaking cooed in Luna’s ear.  “It’s alright, honey…go back to sleep.”  Slowly, and as gently as a mother hen setting upon her eggs, he placed a loving kiss on her forehead.  As his muzzle came close to Luna’s fur, it seemed to shimmer slightly, dissolving before it could actually make contact.  Nonetheless, the moment that he would have touched her, Luna calmed, her breathing slowed, and she was peaceful once more.  

    “Bless her.  She may not remember what I look like, but she still knows my voice…“  he smiled, staring affectionately down at the young Princess’s slumbering form.

    Celestia was speechless.  She could only stare in shock as the alicorn’s shimmering presence turned slowly to face her as it drifted over Luna’s bed and began to advance.

    “You…you…no.  S-s-stop it.” She stammered, stumbling over herself as she backpedaled toward the door.  “This isn’t real. You‘re just another hallucination.”

    “Did you think I had forgotten?  That I haven’t watched over you all of these years?”  The alicorn whispered, his hooves propelling him forward without ever making contact with the floor.  It was eerie, the manner in which her moved without making any sound or visible effort, completely unlike the visions before.

    “You’ve grown so old in my absence…and so wise…” he smiled, his face cracking with an intricate network of fine wrinkles.

    “S…Stay back”.  “You can’t be real.  You died.  I saw you die.”

    “Yes, Celestia, I died.  For you - both of you - so very long ago.  But now, at long last, I can finally help you both, at least to some degree.”  He stopped, inches from Celestia’s face.  Slowly, He lifted a single hoof toward his daughter.

    “Please…no more…why won’t you just go away…” Celestia did not try to deflect her father’s hoof.  She couldn’t even cry anymore; she was simply too exhausted to do anything but allow the shimmering appendage to creep closer.

    For an unreachable, timeless moment, her father’s hoof hovered before Celestia’s bowed head, before finally, gently, descending to caress her cheek.  The hoof did not make contact, passing instead through the flesh, unable to touch it directly.  But it didn’t need to; immediately, without understanding how or why, she knew that this was real.  What was left of Celestia’s emotional reserve exploded in a dizzying cacophony of joy, nostalgia, confusion, and sorrow at the her father‘s half-touch.

    “You…you’re really here…you’re really…”

    “Yes, Celestia, it’s me.  I’m here.”

    Celestia simply slumped against the wall, her will utterly spent.  She tried again and again to direct the fragments of her scattered consciousness into a coherent thought, to ask the obvious question than screamed in the drained void of her mind, yet was unreachable by her tongue.  All she could manage was a few feeble squeaks.  A single, final tear trickled down her muzzle as she looked up into the face of her father, glowing with a radiance rivalling the most glorious of sunsets.  The two gazed at each other, and boundless time evaporated about them.  Celestia was a child once more, remembering the feeling of her father’s heartbeat next to her head as she drifted down to sleep.  She wished the moment could last forever, but in an instant she was back in Luna’s bedroom, staring at the ghost of the alicorn before her with the sickening weight of grim significance growing rapidly in her mind.  As if he knew what Celestia had realized, her father’s own expression grew dark.

    “You know what this means then?  You know how I must have come to be here?”  he whispered, swallowing hard.

    Celestia nodded, mustering the strength to speak the words she had known would one day come. The words that meant that everything she loved would now hang in the balance. The words that spelled the end of Equestria as she knew it.  

    “He’s here.”


AUTHOR’S NOTE:

 

                When I began writing this story, season one had not yet finished, so Luna did not have a canon personality at the time.  As such, I came up with my own characterization for our favorite lunar princess, and although it may not exactly jive with her canon self as it is now, attempting to “correct” her personality at that late stage of writing to fit canon Luna would have destroyed much of the significance and plot of the story as I had planned it, and would almost certainly have demanded a complete rewrite from the very beginning.  Rather, I hope that you can enjoy her role in this story as much as I have enjoyed writing for her for what it is.

                In addition, it may be important to note that certain events of significance to Equestrian History, i.e. the introduction of Discord, had also not occurred until a very late stage in the writing, and are therefore not featured in this work for reasons similar to that stated above.

                Rather than change the story to maintain a strict adherence to the canon of the show and thereby create a product that was messy, confusing, and unenjoyable to me as a writer, I thought it better to simply continue writing as I always have, and allow the story to stand on its own for what it is.  Thank you for your readership, and I hope that you have as much fun reading this story as I did writing it!

 

-Viktor Lionheart

Skyfall

Concept and Writing by Viktor Lionheart

Chapter 5: Quietus

     

     For what felt like the millionth time, Fluttershy tugged her comforter up beneath her chin, rolling somewhat clumsily onto her side.  As her face sank into her pillow, her soft groan of anxiety became muffled by its plush embrace.  It was no use, she thought as she involuntarily fluttered her free wing, kicking at the foot of her bed; she simply couldn’t get comfortable.

    But it wasn’t that simple, she knew.  Nothing about her bed had changed, at least nothing physically.  The only difference was that instead of having just one occupant…

    She immediately slapped herself mentally, but was unable to quash the niggling unease as well as the mortified blush that had flashed into being as that thought faded.  Mercifully, Acheron remained silent, and indeed seemed utterly oblivious to her discomfort.  It was a bizarre sensation, to say the least, knowing that he was there, fully aware of every aspect of her surroundings and yet she had no manner of gauging his presence aside from his occasional vocal interjection.  At the moment, she found herself almost wishing that he would say something, but he had remained passively silent for the past several hours.  The result was that she couldn’t help but feel that he had somehow changed position, or had otherwise disappeared, filling her with a peculiarly mixed concoction of worry and a distantly realized dread.

    “Hello?”  She whispered hesitantly, her voice shaking near the end as she was startled by the volume of her own speech in the silence of her bedroom.  Naturally, there was no response, but she could not seem to shake the feeling that she was being watched.

    She shivered slightly, tugging harder on the blankets as she lifted herself wearily from the mattress to survey the room.  Not a single sign of motion broke the stiff serenity of her surroundings, every creature safely asleep in their homes and every plant and hanging in its place.  The only source of light filtered through the rather small window off to her left, painting the tiny porcelain figurines that decorated her mantle in a ghostly silver light that seemed to make their beady painted eyes follow her intently.

    “Stop it, Fluttershy, you’re just being silly.”  She whispered.  This time, she didn’t expect anypony to answer her; the sound was purely for her own comfort.  “What would Rainbow say if she saw you shivering in the dark like a little foal?”

    In the back of her mind, something stirred.

    “Hello?”  She said again, this time a bit more loudly.  Slowly, she felt it rouse briefly again, but then drift back into silence.  

    Was he…sleeping?

    She wondered briefly at that; she supposed it made sense, and that definitely explained why she hadn’t heard from him, but the idea of a creature that didn’t even have a proper form sleeping within her mind was something definitely new.  It even seemed slightly ironic, but at the moment she was a bit too tired to be able to latch onto that particular train of thought.

    She sighed, suddenly so relieved that she at least knew where Acheron was and that he was still alive that she was surprised at how much his absence had bothered her.  Strange, when only a few hours ago she had wished intensely for him to disappear, if only for a short time.  Her lips twitched into an embarrassed pout as she remembered herself coming to terms with his constant presence in a rather more intimate way than she had previously considered when the time had come to tend to certain…necessary functions.  To his credit, he was quite the gentleman, and remained utterly silent throughout, though it still sent a mortified shudder down her spine at the thought of it.  

    The addition of a new tenant in her home hadn’t exactly been as simple a transition as she had initially hoped.   It wasn’t that she resented his presence; she was overjoyed that she had been able to save his life, and he certainly seemed to be a kind and knowledgeable soul.  In many ways he even reminded her of Spike, though she had had to remind herself rather often that Acheron was actually much older than he had first appeared.  Whether that was a testament to Spike’s maturity, she didn’t know, but even in the very brief time that they had spent together, she felt that she had come to know him as a friend and genuinely enjoyed his company.  However, after their lengthy talks, the feeling that he was, in fact, intruding upon her daily life had grown steadily stronger, helped in no small part by the ordeal of the past afternoon.  She tried to tell herself that it wasn’t his fault and that the situation was only temporary, but even she couldn’t convince herself completely that this wasn’t bothering her at least a little.

    Still, some small part of her couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed at his current silence as she flopped noisily back down onto her mattress, her wings spread wide on either side of her.  On the side of her nightstand, a tiny sparkle of silver, just barely illuminated by the edge of the slice of moonlight by her side, caught her attention.  With an airy sigh, she reached forward and looped the pendant’s chain around her hoof as she had already done countless times that night, staring deeply into its ebon center.

    She toyed for a moment with the idea of waking him (assuming she even knew how) out of nothing else than a desire to find something to occupy her fevered mind, but ultimately resorted to releasing yet another haggard sigh and tossing her blankets to the side where they fell in a heap.  She still wasn’t entirely sure she understood how she felt about his presence, not to mention the sudden and rather blunt manner in which he had entered her life.  And try as she might, she couldn’t quite grasp what exactly all of this meant for him either, nor was it exactly comforting that he had forbad her from telling anypony else about him.  A part of her wanted desperately to talk to Twilight about this.  Perhaps she was simply being hopeful, but it seemed somehow to be just the sort of thing with which she would be able to help.  Or at least Rarity or Applejack… As close as she was with Rainbow, she doubted that Dash would be able to understand how awkward this was for her, especially since he had been the one who hurt her, albeit unwillingly.  And telling Pinkie was right out of the question.  Knowing her, she would probably try to throw the little dragon a “Welcome to Ponyville” party.  

    She shuddered suddenly as that thought dawned in her mind.  Oh hey Pinkie, I’ve got this little dragon who lives in my head and talks to me but only I can hear him…

    “That’s AMAZING!”  she said to no one in particular, perfectly mimicking Pinkie’s voice, though with a significant reduction in general volume.  “We can have a big super-duper giganto-hugic party just for him and we can play pin the tail on the pony and eat cake and dance and sing and well I guess you would have to play for him and eat for him and dance for him and sing for him and *GASP* OMIGOSH!  It’ll be like having two super-best-friends-forever-and-ever in one!  Two friends in one for two times the fun!  Oh there’s a dragon in her head but at least he isn’t dead so that’s okay with Pinkie Piiiiiiiiiiie…”

    She paused, her mouth still hanging open in the sort of impossibly wide grin only Pinkie seemed to pull off with any consistency.  It lingered only for an instant before it drooped pathetically into a weary frown, the faint sigh that escaped her lips giving her the effect of a deflating yellow and pink balloon.

    “That was an awful thing to say…shame on you, Fluttershy, for talking that way about one of your best friends…”

    Despite the sourness of her mood, it did little to stop a small voice in the back of her mind from reminding her of the fact that she was now sitting in an empty room talking to herself.  As if today hadn’t been strange enough, now she was really starting to feel like she was going crazy.

    With a frustrated grunt, she swung the chain around her neck and slid somewhat clumsily off of her bed, wincing a bit as her hooves collided with the aged wood of her cottage floor with a rather loud clunk.  She was going to need some sort of help if she was going to squeeze any amount of sleep into the few remaining hours before dawn, and right now a cup of relaxing jasmine tea seemed like the perfect way to calm her nerves.

    She trudged downstairs, trying her best to make as little noise as possible but her weariness added an extra fifty or so pounds to each hoof as they caused the steps beneath her to groan in protest.  With a mighty yawn, she stumbled into the kitchen and began poking around the topmost cupboard for the proper ingredients.  Spotting a small bag of jasmine leaves, she reached forward with one hoof, only to send an adjacent china teacup tumbling earthward where it detonated in a shrill tinkling crash.

    “Horseapples!”  she cursed, before immediately slapping a hoof to her mouth, blushing furiously.  For several moments she simply gazed at the teacup’s shattered remains before slumping to the floor with a defeated pout.  With a heavy thud, she allowed he head to fall back against the polished wooden panes of her cupboards and sat there for the next few minutes, not even bothering to clean up her mess.

    What am I doing?

    Was she being selfish?  She had tried so hard to keep her mind away from Acheron’s presence, and especially to forget what they had talked about until they could continue tomorrow, after she had gotten some “well-earned rest,” as the dragon had put it.  But it was only making it harder to think about anything else.  She needed somepony to talk to, even if they couldn’t help her, if what Acheron said was true…She was scared, plain and simple, and absolutely certain that all of this was leagues out of her depth.

    Twilight could help.  If she could just wait until tomorrow, Twilight might even be able to find some way to make it so that everypony else could hear him too, or maybe even hasten his recovery so that the both of them could be out of this situation as soon as possible.  And Twilight might be the only one who would think about this logically, and figure out a solution that she couldn’t see from her own fatigued and frightened perspective.  

    But…no, she couldn’t just betray Acheron’s wishes like that, could she?  Especially if this was so important, and she really had no right to succumb to her own discomfort if he was in the same position, yet-

    “Can’t sleep?”

    She started violently, her body scooting itself upward so that her head collided painfully with the lip of the counter just above her crown.  With a soft yelp, she clapped her hooves over the offended spot, sucking her bottom lip in earnest.

    “Owwwwch…”

    From somewhere around the base of the throbbing ache, he spoke again.

    “Oh dear…I’ve gone and inured you again, haven’t I?”

    His voice was as sharp and calm as ever, as though he had not been slumbering, yet there was a genuine bow of concern in his tone.  

    “Are you alright?  I’m terribly-“

    “I’m fine just…just please don’t talk for a second.”  She winced as she rose to her hooves, gingerly rubbing her head.  After several seconds, the pain began to fade and she felt that it would be safe for Acheron to speak without it feeling as though her skull was about to rupture.  

    “Okay…I’m alright…”

    “Are you sure?  I can heal it for you if-“

    “No, no really, it’s fine…sorry…”

    For several moments, there was no response, then a heavy sigh.

    “For what are you apologizing?”

    She opened her mouth to apologize again out of instinct, but paused before the sound could pass her lips.

    “I…was apologizing for, um…snapping at you like that.  I, um, I-I didn’t mean to be so rude;

y-you just startled me.  A-and…for waking you up.”

    Once again, he was silent as he considered her answer.  She didn’t care for that too much; it was starting to make her feel vaguely guilty.  She could almost feel his reaction as he immediately picked up on her discomfort.

    “…and what else?” he said softly.  His tone was not accusing, nor even remotely hostile.  Rather, it was direct and flat, as though he already suspected what the answer would be, and was perfectly accepting of it.

    “I…um…” she began, but her voice trailed off absently.  Out of an instinctual need for distraction, she jerked mechanically forward to begin cleaning up the pieces of broken teacup, but his voice cut the motion short before she could even touch them.

    “...I can sense your longing for their comfort, Fluttershy.  I would feel it even if it were half this strong.”

    She froze in mid-movement, still bent awkwardly forward on one forehoof as she stared into the center of the blossom of broken glass.  When she didn’t answer, he sighed again, a lighter gesture than the one that preceded it, and one with a mote of comfortingly shared fatigue.

    “There is no need to be ashamed.  I’d think you foolish if you weren’t at least slightly wary of my motives, much less of everything that I’ve told you.  That’s why you’re still awake, yes?”

    His matter-of fact candor was not condescending, though it left no doubt that there was no point trying to hide it, not that she really believed she would be able to keep her feelings hidden from him for long anyway.  Abandoning the teacup, she leaned back against the cupboard, taking care to avoid the edge of the counter this time.

    “…sorry…”

    There was a brief silence as she felt a small spark of ire rush across her mind.  Starting slightly at the realization that she had somehow annoyed him, she began to speak impulsively.

    “I-i-it’s really no trouble, I mean, you staying here and all,” she sputtered, not sure exactly how to begin.  “A-and I, um…It’s not that I don’t like you, I just-“

    He said nothing, but she could feel his nudge to encourage her to get to the point.

    “I really…um, well, that is, if you wouldn’t mind…”

    “Stop.”

    She paused, her mouth still hanging partly open.  The command had caught her off-guard with it’s powerfully direct simplicity.  She simply stared at the floor for a moment before swallowing hard to steel herself.

    “…I-“

    “If you’re going to bring this up again, I must say that I’d rather not waste time waffling.  Don’t ask for something like this if you’re not even sure that you want it, much less if you’re ashamed to ask for it.  If you’re not going to take the situation seriously, then you have no right to take command.”

“…Well, I really do think that it’s impor-“

    “Apparently not important enough.”    

    She winced slightly.  This time there had been a faintly biting curtness to his tone that greatly magnified her guilt.  A small wrinkle appeared on her forehead as her eyebrows pushed together and her front hooves met, moving over and under one another in a nervous circle.  

    “Is that all you wanted?  If so, I should like to return to my rest.”

    She could almost feel the exaggerated yawn in the back of her mind.  Suddenly, she found herself annoyed by his subtly condescending dismissal.

    “That’s not fair…”  she whispered, staring into the floor.

    “I agree,” he countered, not missing a beat.  “Perhaps the next time you awaken me in the middle of the night it won’t be to needlessly apologize.  I already told you that there was no need to be ashamed, and I do not enjoy repeating myse-”

   

    “That’s not what I meant,” she said, a little more loudly.

“Oh?  Do tell.”

    At first her mind almost instinctively defaulted to the rote submission state with which it was so accustomed and had already prepared several tempting excuses to procrastinate tending to the issue.  But before she succumbed, something that sounded remarkably similar to the voice of one Rainbow-maned pegasus prompted her to stand her ground.  She puffed out her chest, taking a deep breath as her jaw set itself firmly into position to properly deliver her rebuttal.

   

    “You didn’t even let me ask what I wanted.”  She said, nodding sharply.

    “You forget the nature of our connection.  I already know what you want.”

    “Then…then you also know why I want it.”  

    He paused for a moment as he seemed to consider that.  When his response finally came, it was a bit less abrupt and carried an odd little laugh that she couldn’t quite place.

    “Heh…Indeed.  But that’s hardly the issue here.”

    She blinked slowly.  “What?  No, I mean-“

    “I know.  Do you-“

    “Stop!” She brought one hoof to her temple, rubbing it gently.  “Please just stop doing that, alright?”

    “Stop doing what?”

    “Stop interrupting me.  I know that you can feel what I feel, but if you’re not gonna let me finish my sentences, this is gonna get really confusing, not to mention you’re being just plain rude.  And I’m just too tired to deal with that right now.”

    She planted each of her front hooves firmly on the ground, staring determinedly at some invisible point off into the darkness.

    “Just let me say what I have to say, and then we can have a proper discussion.”  

    Surprised as she was at the determination in her own voice, she was filled with a newfound confidence that told her to stand her ground.  Acheron, too, seemed to appreciate her change in demeanor, and remained respectfully silent for a moment to confirm that she had finished speaking.

    “…That’s better.  As you wish, then.  You were saying?” he asked politely.

   

    She relaxed slightly, glad that at least he would be willing to listen for the time being.

    “I… think I need to tell my friends about you,”  she stated, keeping her tone level.

    Once again, he paused before offering a reply, but the wait yielded not a hint of committal from the little dragon.

    “…I gathered as much…and I stand by what I said earlier.”

    She had expected that.

    “…I…” she hesitated but only slightly, forcing herself to ignore the impulse to fidget.  “Um, I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss my half of the situation like that.  And besides that…well, Rainbow says that I shouldn’t be afraid to do what I know is right, no matter what.  Even if…even if I don’t have your permission.”

    “Your friend is wise.  And I am glad that you don’t feel that you require my permission, but in keeping with the theme of fairness I think that I am still entitled to a civilized debate on the issue.”

    She nodded, eager to oblige if for no other reason than to confirm to herself that this was what she needed to do.  

    “I’m not saying that what we talked about isn’t important or that I don’t trust you, I just really think that my friends would be able to help us.  And besides that, I know that it may not be fair for me to complain, but I can’t do this alone…I just…can’t.”

    “You’re afraid.  It’s only natural, but in case you haven’t noticed, you’re not exactly alone.  I can help you.”

    She shook her head vigorously.  “No.  I mean…yes, um, that’s part of it, but it’s not that simple.  I’m scared that I’m biting off more than I can chew, but more importantly I just know that we’ll both be better off with as many ponies helping us as possible.”

    “We’ve been over this,” he explained patiently.  “This isn’t about me Fluttershy, nor is it about

you.  I thought you said that you understood that.  The fact that I am alive cannot reach the public in any way.  How can we be sure that they will not betray us?”

    “My friends would never do that.”  The response came immediately and without forethought.  It had been a simple retort, but the genuine faith in her tone silenced any doubt.

    He paused for a moment, weighing her answer.  Whether he simply wasn’t feeling anything strongly about the point or was just very good at keeping a lid on his emotions, Fluttershy wasn’t sure, but she was finding it very difficult to read him as she waited.

    “You really are so trusting of them, Fluttershy…I wonder if you’ll come to regret that.”  

    A small chill ran down her spine at the sound of his words.  He had not injected any trace of feeling into the bluntly cryptic statement, yet somehow that cold fact had given it the same icy twang of a threat.  He allowed that thought to sit in her mind for a few moments before adding evidence to his claim.

     “Angel was less than cooperative.”  He stated calmly.

    It may have been her exhaustion speaking, but Fluttershy found herself distinctly annoyed by his tactlessness.  The fact that she could not immediately summon a counterpoint to that argument did not help much.

    “…You’re the one who said you would think me foolish if I didn’t immediately accept that you were telling the truth.  Besides, Angel didn’t hear the full story,” she whispered, managing with some effort to keep her tone even.  “And in a way, he had a right to be angry.   I did hurt him, even if it was an accident.  I’ll have to make that up to him and explain things properly, but that won’t happen with my other friends.  They won’t break a promise to keep a secret, especially one as important as this.”

    “Perhaps not willingly, but those who would abuse Chronus’s power are likely clever enough to use your friends to their advantage, as well.  I don’t want to take that risk.”

    “They wouldn’t get the chance.  My friends and I are the bearers of the Elements of Harmony, in case you forgot.  As long as we’re together, we can do anything with that power.  I’m sure that we could get rid of this thing in a flash.”  She lifted the pendant before her eyes as she spoke, giving it a hard glare.

    “Absolutely not.  I already told you that that would be far too risky, and would more than likely make things far worse.  That thing absorbs magic like a starving beast, and would drain the essence of anyone or anything trying to destroy it in a heartbeat.”

    This was not going well.  His reluctance had been expected after their previous discussion, but his

continued stubbornness was quickly and effectively chipping away at her resolve and replacing it with an itchy impatience.  She decided to change tack for the moment.

    She took a shaky breath, he lips tightening slightly.  “Then what about the Princesses?  Surely they

can help us.”

    “The faith that you place in your rulers seems to outweigh the faith they place in you and your

friends.  Remember that they kept the war hidden from you.”

    “I’m sure they had their reasons.  You, yourself said it was a painful memory.”

    “And it will be a painful reality if they fail us.”

    She rolled her eyes.  “The Princesses have been around for more than a thousand years, or at least

Princess Celestia has. She might be the only one alive who knows anything about what happened to you, and she’s certainly wise enough not to be tempted by power.”

    “Even if that were true, what of her sister?  You told me that Luna had been led astray before.”

    This time, it took her a moment longer to answer.

   

    “That would never happen again.  I…I admit, I was scared of her at first, but she was always kind to me whenever I saw her after that… She regrets what she did, more than anything else.  She promised me that she would die before repeating that mistake.”

    “And I promise you that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Do you think she thought that what she was doing was wrong when she did it?  And besides, we have no way of knowing who might be listening in.  If we told the Princesses about the Stone and I, it could very well alert those who may be searching for me.”

    She frowned, scowling at the floor. Her tone had steadily grown more exasperated over the past few moments and it was just now graduating to full-blown irritated, but she didn’t particularly care at this point; her fatigue and general frustration had put her on edge, and she did not feel that Acheron was being particularly fair.

    “I’m only trying to help.  My friends can make this easier on the both of us, and would almost certainly be able to find some way to dispose of Chronus’s power safely.”

    “Or, they could lead us right into the hands of those who would destroy us and them, as well.”

    It was affecting him, too.  Fluttershy could sense his own frustration mingling with hers.

    “And who is that, exactly?  You’ve never been very specific about it.”

    “I haven’t exactly been cogent for the past thousand plus years, Fluttershy.  Forgive me if I don’t stay abreast of current events.  Events which are only happening because I made a sacrifice that I do not intend to allow go in vain.”

    “That’s all the more reason to get as much help as we can!  You always say that you need to destroy this terrible power, but you seem to have no idea how to do it!”  

    “That will come in time.  Right now, the most important thing that we can do is lie low and gather information.  Perhaps after we are absolutely certain that we can safely disclose my presence and the nature of the Stone, then we can ask for help.  Doing so beforehand is just reckless.”

    “Speaking of time, what happens when you get your body back, huh?  Do you expect me to just lie to them until then and expect them to forgive me when I can finally tell the truth?  I can’t do that to them!”

    “You must if you truly care for them.  And if they truly cared for you, then you would have no reason to doubt that they would forgive you.”

    “All I’ve got to go on is your word.  First you tell me that it’s okay to mistrust you, but you keep insisting that if I don’t, terrible things will happen!  And you certainly don’t seem to want to trust anypony else!  I’m beginning to think you might just be paranoid.”

    “I do not need to hear that from someone like you.”  Without warning, his voice had deepened angrily.  The very floor beneath her seemed to shake briefly with the barely restrained fury of his tone.

“I have witnessed the deaths of my own loved ones by the hoof of that monster, and I simply did not want to risk the possibility of your dear friends sharing in that fate.  You’re welcome.”  

    Under normal circumstances, Fluttershy would have clammed up behind an impregnable wall of submissive quietude beneath the anger in his normally calm voice, but some part of his wrath seemed to seep into her own thoughts, magnifying her frustration.

    “Someone like me? Well it seems we’re both being a little selfish now, aren’t we?  I haven’t exactly been nasty to you so far.  In fact I find it rather hard to ignore your needs seeing as how you ended up inside my head.  And how did that happen?  Oh that’s right, it’s because you botched not one, but two spells,” she hissed loudly, completely forgetting that she was in a house full of sleeping woodland creatures.

    “You know nothing of magic.  You know nothing of the horrors it can create.”

    “And you know nothing of my friends!  I’ve done nothing but try to help, which is far more than I can say for you.  All you’ve done so far is shoot down my ideas and invade my privacy!”

   

    “And sulking is supposed to help how, exactly?”

    Something snapped.  With sudden ferocity, Fluttershy stomped as hard as she could on the floor of her kitchen, summoning a faint cascade of tinkling chimes from the glassware throughout the room.

    “ Well I’m sorry if I haven’t exactly been a perfect host!  Maybe I’ll just stay quiet and let you make all of the decisions, just like a good little puppet!  Sorry, are you too warm?  Do you want me to move closer to the window?  Never mind little old me; anything to please you, master!”

    In an instant, she felt Acheron finally lose control.  His rage ballooned within her mind, fighting savagely with her own as he began to offer his heated retort, but it never came.  What happened next was little more than a cacophony or confused sensory blurs.

    Acheron’s voice rose in an angry bellow as a shape in the darkness stirred.  It had been creeping closer ever since Fluttershy had entered the kitchen, and had just come within pouncing distance as her row with the dragon had started.  Neither of the two had noticed its presence, and as it lunged Fluttershy could do little more than scream in shock.  The thing collided painfully with the side of her face, knocking her off balance with surprising force.

    Fluttershy slammed into the floor, and immediately became aware of a mighty constricting sensation around the base of her neck.  She couldn’t breathe.  She couldn’t think.  All the while, the thing from the shadows continued to heave on the pendant around her neck, strangling her in its frantic abandon.  

    She coughed weakly as a haze of blackness began to creep across the edges of her vision.  In a panicked clarity, she flailed her hooves and batted her wings at her assailant, but to no avail.  It seemed to dodge every blow with effortless agility, and as she continued to struggle, she felt her movements weakening, becoming steadily more sluggish.  Some part of her knew that she didn’t have much time left before she was completely unconscious, or worse.

    “…An…g…An…gel!”  she croaked, reaching desperately in the general direction of the little rabbit’s hut, but she could not seem to make it out in the darkness.

    Angel did not come.  Slowly, she felt the last of her strength leaving her limbs as exhaustion began to consume her.  Visions of her friends flashed before her mind beneath a steady rumbling that seemed to come from some place deep behind her eyes.  Acheron was yelling something, but she couldn’t hear him.  As the meager light began to fade, she felt strangely calm, and her limbs fell to the floor as the darkness embraced her.

    Outside Fluttershy’s cottage, the scene was eerily serene.  The only sounds to break the silence were the soft babbling of the creek beneath the tiny bridge and the occasional peep from its nocturnal inhabitants.

    One small frog sat on its pad, enjoying the sleepy peace of its home, and took a deep breath to prepare for its next bout of song.  But before it could begin, a sudden flash of light caught the breath in its throat and sent it leaping into the water.  With one wary eye, it peered above the water’s surface in the direction of the little mound that served as its caretaker’s home, and squinted as a brilliant greenish light pierced the night as it issued from each of the structure’s windows.  It lingered for several seconds before slowly fading, leaving a polarized shadow in its wake.

    Not a sound nor breath of movement stirred the night.  All was silent.


AUTHOR’S NOTE:

 

                The next chapter as linked on the EqD page has not yet been updated!  Got to the Fimfiction page to see the real chapter  when it is finished!

Skyfall

Concept and Writing by Viktor Lionheart

Chapter 6: Code White

        

     The scenery seemed to pass by in a steady, unremarkable blur.  From somewhere deep in the back of the train car, the sounds of muffled hoofsteps on the rich carpet and the tinkling of glassware from the kitchen beyond floated through her thoughts, mingling to climax in a steady drone which she only partially acknowledged.  

    Far from her little window, the summer sky had aged to a faint, earthy green as the setting sun began to sink toward the horizon.  Long shadows stretched from the distant trees, and seemed to tickle her nose as their shapes danced across the glass.  She blinked, paying no attention to the beauty of the landscape beyond, her mind instead out of habit running that morning’s schedule as it had transpired on a tired loop.  It wasn’t that she expected to gain anything from her review or to discover some heretofore overlooked misstep.  Rather, it was just a nervous reflex, a subconscious effort of distraction, and it was making it all but impossible to drift into the blissful sleep for which she yearned.

    Twilight Sparkle sat with her head lolling gently, the faint aroma of spiced tea wreathing the entire compartment in soothing, sleepy warmth.  Each time her eyes were just about to close, her cheek would come into contact with the cool glass of the car window, and the jolting vibrations of the train’s passage over the rough iron rails below would snap her back to cogency.

    She sighed, drawing another concerned look from her blonde-maned cabin mate, but neither of them spoke.  Much of the past hour had passed in this way, with one of them occasionally trying to bring up some bit of casual small talk, but they invariably resorted to the same exchange of noncommittal grunts and the same subsequent silence.  Neither of them was feeling particularly cheery, and that was in no small part due to the letter that the pair had received from Spike just after their departure.  But for the most part, the two friends were simply exhausted, and didn’t have the energy to try distracting themselves from their thoughts.  Instead, they had both resorted to trying to relax, and deciding on their next move when they arrived back home in Ponyville.

    At least, that had been the plan.  Twilight could not seem to stay asleep for more than a few seconds at a time, and Applejack felt far too pent – up and claustrophobic to sit still.  For the fifteenth time that afternoon, the orange mare reached into the overhead luggage rack and began inspecting the hefty chest of bits that constituted her proceeds from her sales of the previous evening.  The contents of the chest had not changed in any way, she knew, but the stagnant silence of the compartment compelled her to do something with her hooves, even if it was just a temporary distraction.

    “It’s already getting dark…”  Twilight grumbled, pushing herself away from the window.  She stared resolutely into the bottom of her still full cup of tea, but made no motion to drink it.

    Applejack looked up from her work as one hoof continued to organize the collection of twinkling bits into several neat piles.  She blinked sleepily at the darkening sky, and then turned to frown in her friend’s direction.

    “Golly, is it that late?  Big Mac’s gonna give me an earful fer shore.  Ah shoulda been back hours ago.”

    Twilight sighed once more, lying back until her head connected with the polished oak panels of the compartment wall with a soft thud.

    “Well, we would have been back sooner if we hadn’t been held up for four hours.”

    Applejack simply shrugged, turning back to her work.

    “It cain’t be helped, shug.  We weren’t th’ only ponies who had to wait.”

    Twilight frowned, her horn sparkling faintly as a bubble of purplish mist enveloped her teacup and carried it into the air before her lips.  It hung there for a moment, bobbing gently, before she set it back down again.

    “She could have at least said something.  I had everything under control.  I did have everything under control, right?”

    Applejack cocked an eyebrow.

    “Are you askin’?  Or are you tellin’?”

    Twilight’s frown deepened slightly.

    “Well, if I missed something that warranted a full search like that, then I’d imagine it was a pretty egregious oversight.”

    “Well did ya?”

    “Did I what?”

    “Did ya miss sumthin’?”

    Twilight stared at Applejack in silence for a few seconds, but she could not quite place her friend’s blank expression.

    “I don’t see how I could have.”  She stated, shaking her head.  “I took special precautions by recruiting as many delegates as I could find.  So long as everypony did as they were told…”

    Applejack raised one hoof to silence her, shaking her head.

    “Twi, relax.  I only meant that I know you never coulda missed somethin’ like that.”  Applejack looked up just long enough to give her a stern, but not unfriendly look.  “You were stressin’ about this like I ain’t never seen you stress before.  Heck, you even planned out the exact location of every popcorn stand by their operator’s sales record for the past three years six months in advance.  The Princess wouldn’t have asked ya tuh do sumthin’ this big if she didn’t trust ya.”

    Turning back to her pile of bits, she moved the counted stacks into the chest on the floor and moved on to sorting the still formidable remainder on the table before her.  She was just about to reach into the center of the pile when she blinked as a thought seemed to occur to her.  

    “Whut, you think the Princess doesn’t trust you or sumthin’?” she asked incredulously.

    Twilight chuckled softly, but there was a vaguely false quality to it.

    “It’s not so much that.  I’m just worried that…”

    “Worried.  If Ah had a nicker fer every time I heard that word from you...”  Applejack flashed a tired grin.  “Ah’ll say it again.  What makes ya think that search had anythin’ tuh do with you?”

    Twilight pouted involuntarily.  Though she knew that her friend was just as right as she had been an hour ago, she still felt a little put out at being dismissed so easily.

    “…Sorry, shug…”  Applejack muttered, suddenly embarrassed.  “Ah didn’t mean to treat ya like a foal.  I just don’t want ya tuh git all worked up over nuthin’, that’s all.”  

    “You don’t think it’s weird that everypony’s luggage wasn’t searched when they arrived as well?”

    “Ah think it’s a bit strange, yeah, but nuthin’ worth losin’ sleep over.  Ah mean, they didn’t find nothin’ dangerous, right?”

    “Maybe.  But I still don’t like it.  I thought that the Princess would let me know if something was amiss, you know?”  Twilight said, toying with her teacup again.

    “This wasn’t yer fault, Twi.”

    “I know that.”  She countered, a little too quickly.  “But don’t you think something felt…off?”

    Applejack abandoned her piles of bits, leaning back against the bench on her side of the compartment.  She stretched, resting the back of her head on her forehooves as she lounged somewhat awkwardly on her backside.

     “Well, now that ya mention it, the Princess…she did seem kinda…I dunno…”

    “Distracted?”

    “That’s the one.  Not that I can blame her fer not stickin’ around to say hello, but doesn’t she usually at least stay to watch the festivities?”

    Twilight loosed a heavy sigh, scratching her head with one hoof.  “Typically, yes.  But she barely said anything before she disappeared.  Though to be fair, I was kinda preoccupied, too.”

    She jumped slightly at a sudden snort from her hatted friend.

    “Ah’ll say.  Whut was it you said tuh that fry dealer that made him cry like that?”

    Twilight blushed, shooting Applejack an annoyed glare.

    “It’s not my fault if nopony but me is familiar with the proper and legal method of positioning food – related business outlets in accordance with the mandates of Manehatten law as dictated under paragraph…”

    Her jaw hung pompously open, ready to continue her lecture, but Applejack’s mirthful stare silenced her.

    “…okay yeah, maybe I was a little harsh…”  She admitted, gazing once more into the bottom of her teacup.  

    “Don’t pay it no mind, sugarcube.  That’s a lotta responsibility the Princess is placin’ on yer shoulders.  I’d think ya weren’t pony if the stress didn’t get to ya just a little.”

    “…Thanks, AJ.”  Twilight breathed, though she didn’t seem entirely convinced.  “Still…I wish I knew why…”

    This time it was Applejack who sighed.

    “How many times do I gotta tell ya to quit yer frettin’?  I’m shore the Princess had a good reason to have our bags inspected.  Even if it does mean we have to get home a little late.”

    “I know, I know”  she breathed, finally pushing the teacup away.  “I just wish it hadn’t taken so long.  That was worse than the time they had to search everypony’s luggage after Pinkie brought an entire suitcase of “industrial grade high-output” party-poppers on our trip to Canterlot last year.”

    Applejack shuddered slightly.

    “Ah can still hear the screamin’.   Rarity wouldn’t let up for nearly a month about how her mane would never grow back.”

    She stretched with a grimace, rending the air with a series of loud cracks and pops before replacing the chest of bits in the overhead rack.

    “Still, it’s over with now and they didn’t find nothin’ worth worryin’ over.”  Out of nowhere, Applejack shot her a wry grin.  “Why, are ya worried everypony’s gonna blame this on you?”  

    Twilight gave her a puzzled frown, too tired to pick up on the hint.

    “What do you mean?  Why would they blame…”

    Her eyes shot wide as the meaning of Applejack’s jab sunk in.  

    “Why would you say that?  Did somepony say something?  “That’s not fair!”  She jumped to her hooves, nearly upsetting the table as she launched into her practiced stress-pace.  “I didn’t know about the luggage check until the last second!  I had nothing to do with-“

   

    Applejack cut her off with a sudden snort of mirth.

    “Heavens tuh Betsy, girl, that was a joke!  Sheesh, did anypony ever tell you that you worry too much?”

    Twilight simply blinked.

    “Twi, fer Pete’s sake, jes’ relax.  Everythin’ went fine, Ah Promise.”

    Twilight loosed a sigh of relief, slumping back down into her seat.  

    “I certainly hope so.  I’ve never had to organize something like that for such a big city before.”

    “Well, Ah reckon yeh did a bang-up job, regardless.”  Applejack shifted onto her back, placing her hat on the table between the twin benches that lined either side of the compartment.  Reaching behind her, she prodded at the arm of the bench for a few moments as if to fluff it, and then laid her head to rest against it before turning her gaze toward the darkening sky.

    “All Ah know is I done counted that money at least a dozen times now, and it hasn’t once had the decency to change it up.  Maybe it’s time Ah got some rest like I planned in the first place.”

    “You’re not worried?”  The question had come a bit more quickly than Twilight had intended.  It took Applejack a moment to answer, and when she did, her expression was blank.

    “Worried or no, t’aint gonna help nopony to sit here and fuss about it.  Ah reckon it’ll all make more sense when you’ve gotten some sleep.  You must be twice as tuckered out as Ah am.”

    “…I am pretty tired, but…I just…”   She leaned forward, resting her head on her hooves.  

    For several moments, neither of them spoke.  Slowly, Applejack opened one eye and gazed in silence at the brooding unicorn.  It hovered there for a time until one orange-coated hoof reached forward to make contact with that of her lavender friend.

    “Seriously, Twi…” She muttered, a bit more softly.  “Ah’m shore she’s jes’ fine.  A few hours delay ain’t gonna make any difference.  Ain’t nothing we can do fer her here, so you might as well put it outta yer mind as best ya can.”

    Twilight didn’t look convinced, though her hopeful grin showed that she appreciated her friend’s words.  Even though she hadn’t directly said it, Fluttershy’s condition had been worrying her ever since they had received Spike’s dragongram (Spike’s idea.  Twilight still wasn’t sure that she liked the term.).  Rarity’s polished vernacular made an inspired attempt at assuaging her immediate panic through the unfeeling paper, but it helped little, especially since Twilight’s overactive mind had been left to stew for well over an hour on their return trip.  To be fair, she knew that her imagination had probably blown the extent of her friend’s injuries grossly out of proportion, and Applejack’s patience did help to calm her somewhat, but she still felt guilty that she had not been there to help when it had happened.

    “We’re almost home, shug…”  Applejack mumbled through a rather loud and lengthy yawn.  “Jes’ sit tight for a little longer and Ah promise everythin’ will be alright.”

    “Mmhm.”  Twilight yawned in response, reluctantly stretching out on her own bench.  It was not a very comfortable resting place, but the long hours of waiting and worrying had already taken their toll.  She closed her eyes, basking in the earthy warmth of the summer heat.

    “Let’s try to git some rest while we can.  Knowin’ Fluttershah, she’ll feel right guilty if she finds out how much you’ve been fussin’ over her.”

    Twilight opened one eye, looking over to her friend.  Applejack didn’t’ look back, but she could tell that the orange mare was just as worried as she was, even if she wouldn’t show it.  

    “Thanks, AJ.”  She whispered, closing her eyes once more.

============================================================================

    “Oh, come on.”  Twilight groaned as they plodded forward for a few meager inches before sitting heavily back down on the rough grip-cloth that covered the floor of the station landing.  

    Twilight tapped her hoof impatiently, her jaw twitching oddly as she suppressed yet another mighty yawn.  The orange mare beside her seemed to share her sentiments, if not her outright fatigue, and issued a heavy sigh as the portly stallion in front of them took a single step forward before settling once more into place.  As she stared at his corpulent backside, she couldn’t shake the impression that she was standing behind a small yet impassable boulder, and for all intents and purposes he may as well have been such an obstacle, if the past twenty minutes had been any indication.

    “Now, don’t git yerself all worked up, shug.  Fluttershah’s jes’ fine; Rarity said that Pinkie checked up on ‘er this mornin’, remember?.”

    Funnily enough, she didn’t seem entirely relieved, either.  The orange Earth pony typically contained herself a bit more successfully in times of stress than her studious friend, but even she hadn’t been able to keep a touch of uncertainty and something that sounded remarkably like ire from her tone.

    “Well, she’ll die of old age before we can get to her if this line keeps up the way it’s been going…”  Twilight spat.

    Applejack gave her that same silent look that she used when one of her friends had said something that they didn’t really mean.  One eyebrow climbed high onto the top of her forehead while the other burrowed accusingly into the leaf-green iris below, perfectly complementing her knowing frown.

    “…S-Sorry…”  Twilight breathed through another yawn, this time unable to restrain it.  “I just hadn’t exactly planned on having to wait in line with half of Ponyville before getting off the darn train!”

    She raised one hoof to gesture at the crowd at large, shouting at no one in particular as she did so.  They stood at the far end of one of several long lines of ponies that each extended before a pair of royal guards.  The line moved forward at a snail’s pace as, one by one, the guards stopped each pony and thoroughly searched their luggage.

    This was the second time they’d been held up on their return journey.  Some of the other ponies in line shared her sentiment and voiced it for all to hear, though most, Twilight included, were more concerned about why the guards were there in the first place.  

    “Honesty, what’s all the fuss about?  Why would they need to search everypony’s luggage twice?” Twilight huffed, pawing the ground in frustration.  “And why do I know nothing about any of this?”

    “Calm down!”  Applejack snapped.  For a moment, she glared in her friend’s direction, then sighed heavily, hanging her head.

    “Guh…sorry, shug, Ah didn’t mean to bite yer head off…” She rubbed the back of her neck with one hoof before tugging on her applecart, pulling it up behind her to make room for the ponies behind and being careful not to disturb its meager remaining contents.

     “You got a point though…” She cocked an eyebrow, leaning to get a glimpse of the front of the line. “They look like they’re bein’ real particular ‘bout their searchin’.  You shore the Princess didn’t mention anythin’ ‘bout this ‘fore we left?”

    Twilight shook her head, adopting a frustrated frown.  “Not a word.  Like I said, she disappeared right after raising the sun this morning.”

    Applejack simply scowled at the back of the portly stallion for several seconds before snorting irritably.  

    “Well whatever it is, I’m shore the Princess has a good reason for all this…”  Applejack sighed, tugging her nearly empty applecart a few steps forward before sitting dejectedly back down behind the bulky wall of grey fur in front of them.          

    “I know yer worried, hon.  I am too, but we ain’t got nothin’ to gain from causin’ a ruckus.  Best just to sit tight and ask what all the hoo-hah’s about when we get the chance.”

    Twilight’s expression darkened, though she knew her friend was right.  As much as her imagination ran wild with countless horrible scenarios concerning her friend’s condition, her logical mind forced her to acknowledge that Fluttershy was stable for the time being, and in good company.  If they could just be patient until they could see somepony they knew…

    It was then that a thought occurred to her that made her stand on her hind hooves to scan the crowd.

    “Hey, wasn’t Rarity supposed to meet us here?”

    Applejack’s ears perked up before she began to mimic her friend’s behavior.

    “Now you mention it…she’s not one to be late.  Where the hay is that girl?”

    She had scarcely uttered her last words when the ivory mare’s posh voice rose in a shrill huff somewhere off to her left.

    “My good sir! If I am forced to remind you one more time to keep your hooves to yourself, then I will demonstrate directly to your unkempt visage just how irksome an unfriendly hoof can be!”

    Applejack’s ears perked up and her rear legs involuntarily tensed.  She knew that tone; Rarity was about to smack somepony.  At the same time, Twilight’s head swiveled in the direction of the commotion just as the crowd began to clumsily part before the tide of noise.

    “Get out of my way!  Remove yourself from my presence this instant!”

    “Miss, I must ask that you do not-“

    It was a deep, masculine voice, but despite his obvious earnest and his stern, tempered tone, Rarity did not seem willing to listen to a word he had to say.

    “That is Lady Rarity to you!  If you had any manners at all, you would know how to address a lady!”

    With a pompous harrumph, Rarity’s slender snout parted the line before her like a blade through butter.  Ignoring the irritated mutterings of those she passed, she flipped her tail in such a way as to smack at the face of the very annoyed royal guard that followed in her wake.

    “Miss, if you refuse to comply, I shall be forced to-“

    “Lady!”

    Smack

    “Miss, Stop that this insta-“

    “Disgraceful.  Is this how the guards are trained these days?”

    Smack

    “You…you just hit a member of the royal guard! Miss, this is you last warning!”

     “And this is yours!  A gentleman does not-“

    The white unicorn stopped with her mouth open in mid-lashing as she caught sight of her two friends not five feet away.  In an instant, Rarity demonstrated her unnerving ability to pull an emotional one-eighty and abandoned her previous disgust in favor of her most charming smile.

    “Twilight, darling!  And Applejack!  I’m so happy to-“

    “LADY RARITY!”

    The volume of the guard’s voice was so severe that it even caused Rarity to lose her composure for a moment.  Immediately, he caught himself, blushing angrily as he cleared his throat.  Twilight simply stared onward in a stupor; she was still a bit too tired to be able to process what exactly was happening.

    “Lady Rarity…”  The guard repeated a bit more quietly, drawing closer in a vain effort to hide his words from the sizeable crowd of onlookers that the two had picked in their passing.  “You are placing us all in incredible danger. If you had bothered to listen to even a single word of what I had-“

    But Rarity pounced on him before he could finish.

    “Oh please.  If it’s really so important, why didn’t you just call her to the front of-“

    “Listen to me, you stupid woman…“

    Whether she simply sensed the approaching explosion or was just frightened into action by the murderous glare that flashed across Rarity’s expression, Twilight wasn’t sure, but Applejack immediately jumped between the two, adopting an aggressive stance.

    “HO there!  You best watch yer attitude, else somepony's gonna say sumthin’ she regrets…” She warned.  

    The guard simply glared at her, but Rarity nodded impetuously from behind the orange mare.

    “That’s what I’ve been-“

    “Ah wasn’t just talkin’ to yer friend here, shug.”  Applejack cocked her head to shoot a warning glare behind her, much to Rarity’s surprise.  Applejack, too was tired from a long trip with little else to do than worry, and she was in no mood for Rarity’s dramatics, however justified or unjustified they may be.

    She turned back to face the guard, softening her expression somewhat.

    “Ah’m mighty sorry ‘bout her, sir.  She can be a might…heh...stubborn.”

    Rarity moved as though to protest, but was silenced by another firm look from Applejack.

    “Now…” she breathed, taking a moment to steady herself.  “If’n Ah heard y’all right, you said we was all in danger?”

    “What’s wrong?”  Twilight hopped forward, jostling Applejack aside with surprising force.  

     “What kind of danger?  Does it have to do with Flutter-”

    “Twi.  Not now-”

    “That’s it, isn’t it!?”  Several of the surrounding ponies were now staring at the unicorn with concern, whispering nervously amongst themselves.

    “Did she say danger?”

    “Why are we being held here?”

    “What is wrong with that mare?”

    Twilight ignored them.  She lunged forward, forcing the guard to backpedal by several steps. She hadn’t exactly had the capacity to tidy herself up by much after awakening to yet another endless line of obstacles, and the expression on the guard’s face clearly indicated that he half-expected this deranged-looking mare to assault him at any second.

     “Why is everypony being held up in line?”  

    “Twi.”

    “You’re looking for something, aren’t you!?  Did you identify Fluttershy’s attacker?”

    “Twi.”

    “But-“

    “Heavens tuh Murgatroid, girl, let ‘im talk!”

    Twilight opened her mouth to continue spewing question as they came to her mind, but the desperation in Applejack’s voice caused her to snap it shut again.  

    “What is wrong with you two?”  Applejack barked, stamping the ground with both forehooves as she glared first at Twilight, then at Rarity.  “Honestly, here we finally have somepony who might know a thing or two ‘bout whut’s goin’ on here and you won’t quit yer yappin’ long enough tuh hear ‘im out!”

    Twilight simply blinked at first, her jaw hanging open in silent protest.  As she whirled about, looking at each pony in the crowd in turn, it was the still-frozen look of taut alarm on the guard’s face that snapped her back to reality.  She hung her head, silently scolding herself and trying to force herself to calm down.

    Applejack’s right.  Keep it together, Twilight… she thought.  Rarity would be far more upset if this had anything to do with Fluttershy.  Don’t go jumping to conclusions.

    For several moments, Applejack continued to glare at each of the two unicorns in turn, then turned her caustic gaze to the crowd.  Soon, all of the onlookers turned sullenly away with many an awkward cough and a shrugging of shoulders.

    Satisfied that they would not be interrupted again, Applejack turned back to face the guard.  She nodded silently, prompting him to speak.  With a small cough and a deep breath, the guard seemed to regain his composure and spoke in a low, quiet monotone.

    “Thank you, Miss.”  He nodded at Applejack, glancing askance at the unicorns behind her.  “As I was trying to say, I was ordered to command Miss Twilight Sparkle’s attention as discreetly as possible upon her return to Ponyville.”

    With a tiny gesture of his wing, he hinted at a small bulge about the size of a scroll in his left saddlebag.  

    “I must ask that you follow me immediately, Miss Sparkle.”

    Twilight blinked. Before she could answer, Rarity stepped between them, puffing herself up like a large, disgruntled bird.

    “Not so fast, my good sir.  You still haven’t told me why you need to see her.  And In case you were unaware, her dear friend recently had a frightful encounter in which she was seriously injured.  I think that under the circumstances-“

    “Miss…” The guard caught himself, sighing heavily.  “Lady Rarity…” he hissed, making only a half-hearted attempt at disguising his sarcasm.  “You must trust me when I say that this matter takes priority.  Princess Celestia herself ordered me to ensure that Twilight Sparkle was informed of…the matter at hoof…the moment that she returned to Ponyville.”

    “What?”  Twilight sputtered, her eyes darting between the guard’s face and his saddlebag.  “That’s…that can’t be right.”

    “Those were the Princess’s exact words, Miss Sparkle.  We cannot delay.”

    “Why?  What’s wrong?”  She was doing her best to keep her voice steady, but it still trembled slightly nonetheless.  “Why are you-“

    “I’m sorry, Miss Sparkle, but I cannot say any more than I already have at present.  We’re too exposed here.”

    Without another word, he stepped away, clearing a small space in the adjacent line with a wave of his hoof. He paused for a moment, gazing expectantly behind him as he waited for her to follow.

    “One Master Spike is waiting at the landing entrance to receive you.  I will take you to him.”

    “Spike’s here?”  Twilight asked, cocking an eyebrow at Rarity.  The white unicorn merely stared at her for a second before comprehension dawned in her crystal-blue eyes.  She blushed, chuckling sheepishly.

    “Oh, didn’t I say?  He arrived this morning on the train before you, dear, which was just before we contacted you.  He’s been waiting with me at the gate…that is, until your train arrived.  And I’m sorry I couldn’t be here to greet you as I promised.  As you can see, I was a bit…delayed.”  She shot an icy glance in the guard’s direction which he thoroughly ignored.

    “Never mind that.”  Twilight shook her head, suddenly concerned at the apparent gravity of the situation that the guard’s secrecy had conveyed.  “What’s this about?  Did Spike say anything to you?”

    She shook her head.  “Not a thing.  All I’ve been able to gather from this one,” she gestured lazily in the guard’s direction.  “…was that he needed to see you for a very important reason.  Something about a message.”

    “That is correct.”  The guard nodded curtly.  “Time is of the essence, Miss Sparkle.  I assure you, this will not take long, and as soon as we are finished, you may go to see your friend.”  Once again, the exchange between the guard and the group of mares was beginning to draw attention, and he was clearly very anxious to leave.  He took one step farther away from the group, gesturing pointedly with his muzzle.

    Twilight didn’t budge, one eyebrow still arced high on her forehead as she looked between Rarity and the guard.  Applejack stepped closer, looking the guard over as though she smelled something that she couldn’t quite put her hoof on.

    “Ah don’t get it.  If the Princess needed to speak to Twilight so badly, why didn’t she jes’ say sumthin’ at th’ Celebration?  She could’ve easily-“

    “I am not at liberty to say.”  The guard’s curt response cut her off with a rather biting finality.

    Twilight paused for a moment, eying the guard with an appraising eye.  Whether he really didn’t know why the Princess was being so secretive or he had simply been ordered to say nothing more on the matter, she couldn’t tell, but the hardened set of his jaw and the faint spark of desperation in his eyes did tell her that something was bothering him.  Whatever was going on, he clearly knew something that she didn’t, and that something was making a highly trained member of the Canterlot Royal Guard nervous.  That was never a good sign.

    She opened her mouth to say something, but simply ended up closing it again as she worked her jaw back and forth in thought.  After a few seconds, she sighed, shaking her head.  It was clear that the guard took his duty far too seriously to be reasoned with at the moment, so that left her with only one remaining course of action.

    “Guh…fine.  If it’ll get me out of this line, I’ll go.  But I do need to see my friend as soon as possible.”

    The guard seemed to relax slightly, stepping further away to clear a space for Twilight to follow.

    “Miss Fluttershy is fine, I assure you.  A guard has been assigned to her home and is there looking after her as we speak.”

    “That’s…encouraging…” she replied with something less than enthusiasm.  “So…wait, you know about-“

    “I am fully aware of her condition, Miss Sparkle, which is all the more reason to deliver the Princess’s message as I intended.  I think you will agree when you know more.”

    “…if you say so…”  she whispered, suddenly even more concerned.  Whatever this was, it didn’t seem likely that it would be good news.  “…come on, girls, we better see what this is about.”

    She stepped out of line, moving toward the small gap that the guard had formed.  After only a moment’s hesitation, the two friends behind her exchanged a quick glance and silently followed suit.

    Immediately, the guard leapt between them, snorting heatedly.

    “What do you think you’re doing?”

    Applejack simply blinked, confused at the sudden aggression.

    “Whut now?  Don’t tell me ya done gone an’ changed yer mind after all that bluster.”

    “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean”  he replied evenly.  “As I said, I was to command Twilight Sparkle’s attention when she returned to Ponyville.”

    “Are…are you saying that we cannot accompany her?”  Rarity huffed.

    “The Princess mentioned only Miss Sparkle when she gave me my mission.  You are not entitled to any information until such a time as she sees fit-“

    “Hang on…”  Twilight cut him off with a wave of her hoof.  “The Princess trusts my friends as much as she trusts me.  I’m sure that it’s alright-“

    The guard rolled his eyes, his patience clearly at an end.  

    “I cannot speak for the Princess, Miss Sparkle, and neither, with all due respect, can you.  They will not leave the premises until they have been processed.”

    The word “processed” seemed to take a few moments to sink in.  When it did, Applejack scowled so fiercely, Twilight could have sworn she saw the guard flinch just slightly despite himself.

    “Whut?  Ah went through this riggamarole once, already!  You cain’t seriously expect us to wait in this here line when our friend’s been injured!  We’ve been delayed long enough as it is!”

    “Your luggage has not been searched.  All passengers are to be-“

    “How dare you!”  Rarity stomped forward, matching the guard’s wrathful glare.  “Are you suggesting that my friend here has something to hide?  Are you even aware to whom you are speaking?”

    “Bearer of the Element of Honesty or not, she is not excepted from the laws of Equestria, nor are you or anypony else.  You will both subject to the proper searching of-“

    “Oh, is that right?”  Twilight blinked innocently.  She knew that this guard was just doing his job, but his gruff nature was grating on her nerves, and she had just about gotten sick of waiting to get things done.

    “Then in that case, I had better wait in line here with everypony else!”  she chirped, darting back into place.

    The guard looked as though he was about to swallow his tongue.

    “Miss Sparkle, I-“

    “Oh will you make up your mind?”  Rarity quipped, instantly catching on.  “Either we all go or no one goes.  Your choice.”

    “She’s right.  I wouldn’t want to break the law, especially if I felt like I was getting special treatment or something.  I’m sure the message can wait until my saddlebags have been properly searched.”

    The reddish hue that painted the guard’s face was deep enough to match the tint of the few withering apples that still remained on Applejack’s cart.  For several seconds his opened and closed his mouth in silent fury, then loosed a heavy, grunting sigh, squeezing his eyes shut.  Before he spoke again, he took a moment to carefully examine both Rarity and Applejack, eyeing them each warily as if deciding how to best incapacitate them if they should become dangerous.

    “Hurry up…”  he grunted, trotting forward without another glance behind him.

    Unable to hide a little personal satisfaction from her relieved grin, Twilight cantered after him with her friends in tow.  The members of the surrounding crowd did not seem particularly pleased that a group of three mares was being escorted like celebrities to the front of the line, but the group paid them no heed.

    As they walked, Rarity attempted to fill them both in as quickly as possible on what had happened while they were gone, and what exactly Fluttershy had been going through.  The letter that she had had Spike send had been thorough, but it still left some questions unanswered, not the least of which being how she had been found.  It did not take long, though, with the guard leading the way, to reach the head of the line, and as they neared it, Twilight spied a tiny purple-scaled hand waving frantically in their direction.  It would surface for little more than an instant before dropping back out of view, but the cracking voice to which it was attached left no question as to whom the hand belonged.

   

    At last, the final line of ponies parted before them and the instant that Twilight had stepped out from the wall of bodies, something small and warm collided with her chest.  

    “Spike!”  she gave the dragon a friendly hug.  

    “Hey guys!  What took you?”  the young dragon beamed.  

    Rarity opened her mouth to respond, but was silenced by an annoyed glare from their escort.  Immediately, the guard walked to speak in hushed tones with another guard that had apparently been waiting with Spike at the station entrance.  Twilight eyed them warily for a moment, but could decipher nothing from their rapidly moving lips.

    She started slightly, having momentarily forgotten why Spike was there.

    “Sorry about the wait, Spike.”  Twilight grinned sheepishly as she glanced in her friend’s direction.  “How were things in Canterlot?”

    She only tried half-heartedly to hide the concern in her voice.  Nonetheless, Spike seemed completely unbothered by her distress.

    “Oh, the usual stuff.”  He dismissed the question with a nonchalant wave of his hand.  “You know, welfare reports, cataloging artifacts, that sort of thing.”  Either he wasn’t concerned or, more than likely, it hadn’t occurred to him that something was wrong.  Spike was a matchless assistant, but he had always been a bit oblivious.  

    “Oh, and Spitfire taught me some new moves.”

    “That’s great, shug!”  Applejack trotted to his side, rubbing one huff in an affectionate tousle of his spines.  “Jes’ make sure ya tell me ‘fore ya go showin’ off tuh RD” she grinned. “Ah cain’t get enough o’ that face she makes whenever she hears yer getting’ personal lessons from her idol.”

    Spike had grown up a bit over the past two years.  He was just now passing through the first awkward stages of adolescence, and his tiny wings had come in just after his eleventh birthday.  They were still a bit ungainly, but he flew well enough for his age.  His frequent trips to Canterlot had afforded him the opportunity of working with some of the most talented fliers in Equestria, after all.

    Twilight sighed impatiently, pushing Applejack away.  

    “No…I mean, that’s great, Spike, but I meant “how were things with the Princess,” specifically.  I was told she had a message for me?”

Comprehension dawned in Spike’s round green eyes.  “Oh, yeah!”  

    He made to reach into the small satchel that he carried on his back before pausing and looking to the guard that had escorted them.

    “Whoops.  I gave it to you, didn’t I?”

    The guard took a few more seconds to finish whatever it was he was saying before turning back to face the group.  His comrade nodded silently, snapping a crisp salute before running off toward the town proper.

    “Indeed” he nodded.  “You’ve done well, Master Spike, but we can take it from here.”

    An odd little grin cracked Spike’s lips for just a second.  

    “As you wish, sir Bastion.”  Spike bowed deeply, speaking with an overly pompous air that drew several confused looks from the surrounding ponies.  “Shall I escort you anon?”

    The guard named Bastion cocked an eyebrow.  “That…won’t be necessary…thank you.”

    He stepped away, trotting out through the archway that served as the entrance to the station boarding platform.  With a flick of his muzzle, he gestured toward the town and waited silently, watching each of them in turn.

    Spike simply shrugged.

    “Fun guy, dontcha think?”  He said to no one in particular.

    “Spike…” Twilight whispered, leaning in close to her dragon friend.  “You don’t know anything about what’s in that message, do you?”

    “Huh?  Oh no, sorry.”  He shook his head.  “I tried to read it before you got here, but every time I did, that guy practically had a fit.  All I know is it’s a white ribbon message.  Must be pretty important.”

    He paused, eyeing her warily.

    “Hey, Twi, you alright?  You look awful.”

    “Spike!”   Rarity scowled.  “It is ungentlemanly to speak to a lady in such a way.”  She glanced at Twilight’s mane.  Almost immediately, her front hooves began to twitch slightly, as though she were barely resisting the urge to tidy every wayward strand.

    “I’m just worried, that’s all” he protested.  “You guys look like you’ve barely slept.”

    “It’s alright, Rarity”  Twilight sighed.  “We’re just exhausted; it’s been a long couple of days.”

    “We cannot delay for any longer, Miss Spar-“

    “YES, I KNOW, thank you, captain obvious!”  she snapped, panting heavily.  

    Spike simply blinked at her with a vague expression of something between shock and concern.

    “I guess so…Remind me not to tell you that I haven’t gotten around to re-shelving the historical figures section of the library yet.”

    Applejack nudged Twilight gently with her muzzle.

    “Come on shug, we better get moving.  We don’t wanna attract any more attention  here.”  

    She sighed, taking a moment to steady herself.

    “I don’t think he’s gonna let you guys come with me…”  Twilight muttered apologetically.  “I guess Fluttershy will have to wait.  Again.”

    “Don’t let it worry ya none, shug.  Rarity, Spike and Ah will go and see her while you finish up whatever it is you and colonel stick-in-the-mud have gotta do.”

    “Alright…in that case, here…” Twilight reached into her saddlebags, resurfacing with a small purse of bits ensconced in a bubble of purple mist.  With a wave of her horn, she placed a small pile of bits in Spike’s hand, and withdrew the rest into the bag once more

.  

    “Go to Sugarcube Corner and pick up some of Fluttershy’s favorite cakes - she likes the pineapple ones - and wait for me at her cottage.  Tell her I’m really sorry and that I’ll be there as soon as I can.”  

    “Don’t worry, Darling, I’m sure Fluttershy will understand.  It’s not your fault that Princess Celestia assigned such a brute as her mailcolt.”

    “Thanks, guys” Twilight said as she trotted after the guard, who still stood silently waiting at the gate.  The moment that she drew near, he cantered ahead, his head swiveling this way and that to make sure that they were not being followed.  With a wave and a wish of good luck, she saw her friends off and resigned herself reluctantly to the task at hoof.

    The center of Ponyville was not far from the station, and so it did not take more than a few minutes of silent walking before the familiar silhouette of her favorite tree came into view.  At present, it looked a little worse for wear, having apparently lost some of its lower branches in the recent earthshakes, but it would always look like home to her.  Despite her general frustration with her situation, she couldn’t help but feel slightly warmed at seeing it once again after being away for the past two weeks.

    As they trotted up to the aged wooden door, Bastion paused, extending one ivory wing to block her path.  With a low grunt, he took off high into the air, circling the tree and surveying the area for several moments before landing once more, nodding to no one in particular.

    “Apologies, Miss Sparkle.  I had to ensure that the perimeter was secure.”

    “Thanks” she spat, not caring to disguise her impatience.  “Where’s the letter?”

    Without a word, he opened his saddlebag with one wing, withdrawing a long scroll bound at the center with a plain white ribbon.  As it floated into the grasp of her magic, she couldn’t help but stare at it in wonder for a moment.  The Princess had familiarized her with the color-based hierarchy of royal scrolls, but never before had she seen a white ribbon attached to one of her mentor’s letters.

    “Are you alright, Miss-“

    “Yes, thank you” she muttered, pushing past him.  With a steadying breath, she trotted through the door, taking care to close the door as quietly as she could before drawing a small, rickety stool from the desk across the room.  She plunked down heavily on its surface, much to the stool’s creaking chagrin, and unfurled the letter.  All the while, Bastion stood watch outside, occasionally glancing in through the window.

    The paper was the same thick, faintly perfumed gauge which typically housed the Princess’s missives, though even at a glance, she could tell that its contents were anything but pleasant.  Princess Celestia’s leisurely, slanting scrawl had a peculiarly hardened edge, as though she had pressing a bit too deeply into the paper when she wrote.  But before she could even begin reading, her eyes were drawn to a vaguely disturbing image located in the center of the paper.

    Twilight held the paper at a distance to get a better view of the image.  The picture was expertly drawn, though it showed no evidence of artistic flair or stylization.  It was a single, asymmetrical, dark gem attached to a long chain, like a pendant, with no apparent decoration save for a few crudely carved notches around the base of the gem.  It was a striking object, somehow both elegant and ugly all at once.  She stared at it for a few moments, memorizing its every detail, before continuing.

My faithful student, Twilight Sparkle,

    I apologize for the confusing nature in which circumstance has forced me to contact you.  You must be wondering why I could not simply speak to you in person at the Celebration.  Such is the nature of the news I bear that it mandates that the information contained herein remains between the two of us, and the two of us alone.  You may remember my lessons, however brief, on the different varieties of magic that exist throughout Equestria.  The most prominent variety is that which flows through the Elements of Harmony.  However, contrary to what you have been taught, this magic was not always the most powerful magic known to pony kind.  Long ago, in the time before my rule, there existed other forms just as, if not more powerful than the Elements.  I do not wish to alarm you, Twilight, but I have reason to believe that an artifact of such power has recently appeared in Equestria and is more than likely to be associated with the recent spree of disasters occurring throughout the land.  The one in question, if my memory serves me correctly, looks something like the image below.

    “More powerful than…”  Her voice trailed off absently as her vision hung briefly on the image of the peculiar pendant once more.  Her eyes moved ever faster as her academic mind thrilled with a mixed sensation of fear and archaic curiosity.

    This is an object of tremendous power, and it was sealed away long ago for that reason.  If this were to fall into the wrong hooves, the results could be disastrous.  As such, I must devote every effort to finding it as soon as possible to mitigate any potential damage.  I cannot know for sure where this object is located, but I have reason to suspect that it is somewhere in the vicinity of the Everfree Forest.  If you should, at any point, become aware of this object’s presence, notify me immediately.  DO NOT attempt to handle it or analyze it in any way, and DO NOT allow anypony else to come into contact with it if avoidable.  

    I am deeply sorry for involving you in this, Twilight, but it is of the utmost importance that this situation be handled delicately.  If it is known that such a power exists, I fear others will either panic or try to seek it for themselves.  You may post copies of this picture and tell others that it is missing, but treat it as a strictly non-magical royal family heirloom that has been stolen by an unknown thief.  This will maintain consistency with the story being provided to the public by my guards around Equestria at this very moment.  You must share the truth with none aside from the other Element Bearers.  If somepony should find it before you, please inform the nearest guards of the situation so that they may observe the pony or ponies in question under the pretense of providing protection against the aforementioned thief.  

    Also, a warning:  If one of the Element Bearers does accidentally come into contact with the object, they are to come with you to Canterlot immediately.  It is imperative that you do not delay in this case, for the magic contained within the gem is by its nature at odds with the magic of the Elements.  I have no way of knowing what would happen if two forces of such power were brought together, but I assure you that it would not be good.

    I apologize in advance for my presumptuousness, but I have instructed Bastion to escort you on your investigation.  He is an able soldier and he is more than capable of assisting you.

    I understand that all of this is very sudden and warrants further explanation.  Please, at your earliest convenience, gather your friends and come to Canterlot so that I may speak to you privately.

    Twilight exhaled, not realizing that she had held her breath as she read the last parts of the letter.  She read the letter again more slowly, then a third time to make sure she had read it correctly.  Something was wrong.  Aside from the obvious, Twilight had the feeling that the Princess was hiding something.  She had said “if memory serves me correctly,” meaning that the princess had seen the artifact before, and up close at that, judging by the detail of her illustration.  But, what had happened the first time it had been sealed away?  Why was this the first time she had heard of such an object?  

    She groaned, letting the paper fall to the floor as she held her head in her hooves.  As if her day hadn’t been troublesome enough as it was, now she had a pounding headache to contend with.  

    “Miss Sparkle?!”

    Twilight nearly hit the ceiling at the sound of Bastion’s muffled voice.  She tumbled from the stool, cursing loudly as it shot out from under her, slamming into a nearby bookshelf and jarring several of its topmost tomes from their roost.

    The door flew open, slamming against the library wall with deafening force.  In seconds, Bastion was standing over her, extending a hoof to help her up.

    “Miss Sparkle, are you alri-“

    “ARE YOU INSANE?!”  She snapped, smacking his hoof aside and glaring at him from her position on the floor.  “You nearly killed me!”

    The guard backpedaled frantically as she leapt to her feet.

    “A…apologies, Miss, I-I just saw that you-”

    “MOVE.”

    She was beyond caring about staying on pleasant terms with her new companion at this point.  She shoved past him, making for the door as quickly as she could.  

    She remained stonily silent as she bolted out the door, running as fast as her legs would carry in toward the edge of town.  None of it made much sense, but she reasoned that there wasn‘t much point in worrying about what exactly Celestia had meant when she said that that object was more powerful than the Elements of Harmony; it would have to wait until she could meet Celestia in person.  

    Without another word, Bastion followed quickly behind her.  She scowled when she heard his hoofsteps, but did not turn back to face him.

    “So let me get this straight.”  She hissed, her brain working furiously.  “You already knew that Fluttershy had found this…thing…and you were gonna wait until I read your precious letter before you let me see her?”

    Bastion blinked in surprise for a moment before he answered.

    “You agree that this matter takes priority then-“

    “Priority over what, exactly?!”  She skidded to a halt, whirling angrily about.  He only just barely managed to stop before slamming into her, and as a result he was just inches away when she began screaming in his face.

    “You mean to tell me that you knew what kind of danger she was in, and you just sat by and watched while you waited for me to get back?”

    "That's not what happ-"

    "Why didn't I know about this sooner?  If I had been able to be here in the first place, then-"

    "The Princess did not want to alarm you while you had other duties to worry about" he said evenly.  "It was her wish that everything proceed as normal until it was necessary for you to-"

    "And another thing!"  She spat, ignoring his efforts to keep the conversation calm.  "If you already found this thing, why the hay are you still searching everypony's luggage?  We could have been here hours ag-"

    “MISS SPARKLE!”

    Despite her ire, the force of Bastion’s voice hit her like a sledgehammer.  He scowled deeply, though this was not the impotent frustration that he had displayed at the station.  This time, he was truly angry.

    “Do not dare to think that you know how to better handle this situation than a mare who has watched over this land for more than ten of your lifetimes” he rumbled, his voice low and deathly quiet.

   

    “And do not dare to think that I, as one of the forsworn guardians of Equestria, would ever willingly put one of Princess Celestia’s subjects in danger.  Is that clear?”

    Twilight said nothing, but simply scowled at the ground.  Bastion simply glared at her for a time until he seemed to remember himself, coughing awkwardly as he tried with what grace he could muster to resume his military impartiality.

    “Apologies, Miss Sparkle.  I did not intend to…lose my temper” he muttered.  “I should have been more thorough in my previous explanation with regards to my awareness of Miss Fluttershy’s condition.”

    Much to Twilight’s surprise, he bowed deeply, getting down on both forehooves as he prostrated himself before her.

    “Please forgive me for my oversight.  I should have explained that Miss Fluttershy is perfectly safe and that we have the…object in question under careful observation.  There is no immediate danger, I promise you”  he said, his words muffled somewhat as he was speaking into the ground.  “We were simply ordered to make you aware of the situation before bringing you into contact with the object in the case that we should locate it before you.  The Princess is being very careful to minimize potential fallout.”

    “Oh…well…that’s, um…that’s a little different, then…” Twilight stuttered.  They had not made it past the center of Ponyville just yet, and the guard’s behavior was drawing quite a few wry stares that were making her uncomfortable.

    "That is why we are still searching, and that is why you and your friend were held up in line.  Until we confirm that the object in question is the genuine article, we cannot afford to be careless.  Do you understand?"

    Suddenly, she felt horrible, like a child being reprimanded by their father.  She looked away, idly pawing at the ground with her hoof.

"...Y-yes...You're right.  I-I'm sorry..."    

    “Then you agree that it would have been foolish to allow you to proceed without understanding the danger?”

    “Yes, yes I do.  I’m sorry, okay?  I shouldn't have yelled at you.  Just…just stop doing that.”

   

    “Do you accept my apology?”

    From somewhere off to her right, a husky female voice called out.

    “WHOO!  Go get ‘em, Twilight!”

    Shut up Vinyl.

    “Yes, yes, of course!  Just get up, already!”

     Bastion said nothing, but immediately obeyed.  Without so much as a nod in her direction, he sped off in the direction of the shabby dirt road that led to Fluttershy’s cottage.  After only a moment’s hesitation, she stomped off after him, blushing furiously.

    This is going to be a long night, she thought.

    As the two ponies sped away from the library and disappeared from view, a lonely figure sat on his porch, watching them with amused curiosity.  He smiled to himself, getting up from his seat with a satisfied groan and ambling leisurely back inside his home.  As he walked, he whistled merrily to no one in particular.  Though he wouldn’t have said it out loud, he was feeling a lot better than he had in quite a long time.

   

    This is going to be a perfect night, he thought.

Next time on Skyfall: Chapter 7: Revelation


AUTHOR’S NOTE:

 

                When I began writing this story, season one had not yet finished, so Luna did not have a canon personality at the time.  As such, I came up with my own characterization for our favorite lunar princess, and although it may not exactly jive with her canon self as it is now, attempting to “correct” her personality at that late stage of writing to fit canon Luna would have destroyed much of the significance and plot of the story as I had planned it, and would almost certainly have demanded a complete rewrite from the very beginning.  Rather, I hope that you can enjoy her role in this story as much as I have enjoyed writing for her for what it is.

                In addition, it may be important to note that certain events of significance to Equestrian History, i.e. the introduction of Discord, had also not occurred until a very late stage in the writing, and are therefore not featured in this work for reasons similar to that stated above.

                Rather than change the story to maintain a strict adherence to the canon of the show and thereby create a product that was messy, confusing, and unenjoyable to me as a writer, I thought it better to simply continue writing as I always have, and allow the story to stand on its own for what it is.  Thank you for your readership, and I hope that you have as much fun reading this story as I did writing it!

 

-Viktor Lionheart

Skyfall

Concept and Writing by Viktor Lionheart

Chapter 8: Dreams

        Outside the elegantly curved walls of the Ivory Citadel, evening was bathing the

land in an amber glow with the last lingering rays of the setting sun.  One by one, the walls sprung to life with a thousand tiny lights as the lanterns were lit throughout the castle in preparation for the night watch.  Deep in the structure’s heart, a small coven of the social elite gathered around a long table, exchanging obligatory tidbits of small talk to pass the time as they waited for the purpose of their gathering to assert itself.  The last fingers of warm sunlight disappeared over the edge of the glass ceiling, leaving only the cold illumination of the lanterns as it reflected throughout the chamber‘s dark, polished walls.  The massive conference hall was the height of opulence, its enormous marble columns covered over every inch of their circumference with beautifully carved murals, each telling a different story as it wound its way skyward.  But the thoughts of each of the occupants were concerned with other matters of a somewhat less palatable nature.  There was much work to be done, and no easy way to go about doing it.  

        As the echoes of idle chatter gradually subsided, a silent tension descended upon the occupants of the conference hall, settling somewhere between hope and fear.  At one end of the table, seated beside the head chair, sat a young white alicorn with a beautiful swirling mane of many colors.  She suppressed a sigh, swallowing instead to clear her thoughts.  This was not the first time she had been to one of her mother’s sessions, but they never failed to make her uneasy – she often wondered whether she could really comprehend the ramifications of what they would be discussing or whether she even had a right to be involved in discussing it in the first place.  Judging by their expressions, many of the other occupants shared Celestia’s unspoken sentiment to some degree.  Despite her reservations, she found strength in her mother’s logic – like it or no, they had been presented with a very difficult and very sensitive situation, and it was their responsibility to handle it as best they could.  None of them had chosen this, but they could still choose, this time as a whole, what came next for their world.  

        Perhaps out of the same uneasiness, it was princess Luna who first broke the silence with her whimpering.

“Shhh-shh-shh-”  Celestia gently rocked her infant sister in her hooves as she whispered a tuneless lullaby.  One of the delegates eyed the tiny alicorn disapprovingly from his seat at the far end of the table, but said nothing.  She knew it wasn’t exactly appropriate for a child to be present at such an occasion, but she and her mother insisted that, as a princess, she deserved to be there as much as any of the rest of them. She had just had her third birthday a short time ago, and the queen believed that it was time for her to start becoming accustomed to the duties of the life ahead of her.  Luna clutched tightly to a wisp of Celestia’s mane, her face buried in her elder sister’s chest.  She was very shy, even for her age, and she didn’t seem too fond of being around so many people at once.

“Now then, If we are all ready to begin, I shall hereby call to order the four-hundred-and- twenty-third conclave of the Unified Equestrian Court of Harmony.”

                

        With a resounding thud, Queen Aurora rapped her hoof against the polished marble surface of the table.  The voice with which she spoke was not altogether harsh, but carried a tangible, self-assured authority that seemed to almost immediately earn the respect of whomever happened to hear it.  Some may have called her tone arrogant, though those who knew her knew that the authority with which she spoke was well-deserved.  However, she only asserted that authority here when it was absolutely necessary.  Her crown never followed her into this room, for here, they were all equals, working toward the same goal.

        “Is there any urgent business to be presented before the Council?”  Aurora paused, scanning the room.  “Seeing none, I shall proceed with old business.  First on the docket –as we discussed last month, article four, section two of the UECH pegasi relocation effort was to be amended for the purpose of redefining construction standards for the new weather-factory design.  Brother Vesper, would you like to report?”

A tall, silver-maned pony stood, flexing his wings as he bowed in the queen‘s direction.  “Thank, you, Sister Aurora.”  He cleared his throat, producing a thick sheaf of paper from his saddlebag.  “Structural analysis of the new recommendations reveals higher than predicted stability, even under outlying wind velocity test conditions.  There are some minor design changes recommended by the weather division to further bolster the structures’ stability, as well as some promising new designs for future residential projects.”  

As he spoke, he pushed several papers in the Queen’s direction, then busied himself with distributing copies to each of the other delegates.  When he had finished, Aurora read aloud the single word written in bold print atop the stack of blueprints before her.

“Cloudsdale.”

“We are confident that with the new designs, we shall be able to endeavor upon more ambitious construction projects such as the one detailed in the plans I have just given to all of you.  This project will provide homes for several hundred thousand residents upon its completion, and will also be able to supply much-needed work through its weather factories and other suggested facilities.”

“Excellent.  I shall review these after we adjourn and submit my advice to you via teleshard.  In the meantime, please send all information regarding costs and time scale to me at your earliest convenience.”

Vesper nodded, retaking his seat.  

“I hereby declare the matter of amending article four, section two of the UECH pegasi relocation effort tabled until further review.”

Another rap of her hoof.

“Next order of - yes, Brother Argos?  Do you have something to say?”

At the far end of the room, one of the delegates had risen from his chair to indicate that he wished to be recognized.  One enormous, scaly claw clutched a small, glowing gem that hung at the end of a resplendent emerald chain about his neck.

“Thank you, Sister Aurora.  I apologize for the interruption.”  As he spoke, the dragon named Argos drew himself to his full height, his golden – scaled head nearly scraping the ceiling of the hall, even being as high as it was to be able to accommodate the other delegates of his persuasion.  His gravelly, baritone voice boomed throughout the chamber, small wisps of black smoke issuing from his nostrils with each breath.

“I have just received word that the other draconic delegates are just now passing over the Great Forest.  They send their apologies for their tardiness, and promise to bring encouraging news from the draconic reconstruction front.”

“Very well.  Thank you, Brother Argos.”  With a nod, Aurora summoned one of the guards from the edges of the hall to her side.  For a moment, they exchanged whispers, after which the guard gave a crisp salute and marched out of the colossal marble archway to the hall outside.

“As I was saying, next order of business.  At the conclave before last, Sister Odyssa of the Draconic High Council put forth the motion that…”

She was cut off by a sudden sound like a siren.  Without warning, princess Luna’s persistent cries filled the conference hall, earning another nasty glance, this time from several of the other delegates.  Celestia redoubled her efforts to quiet her little sister while her mother continued.

“…concerning the zoning laws assigned in accordance with article three, section  eleven…”

Luna simply wailed louder, despite the whispering of her elder sister.  Aurora sighed, gesturing to the nursemaid at her side who was always present for just this sort of occasion.   Immediately, the somewhat portly mare swooped down upon Celestia to take Luna from the conference hall.  The moment her teeth touched the little princess‘s blankets, however. Luna let out a shriek that caused the mare to clap her hooves over her ears, despite herself.  The nursemaid tried again and again to soothe the wailing child, but she simply cried louder and louder, struggling frantically to reach toward Celestia.

“Sister Aurora, if I may suggest-”

“I am aware of the situation, thank you.”  Aurora snapped a curt reply at the delegate who had risen in response to Luna’s outburst.  She had had that particular conversation with that particular delegate on more than one occasion, and she was not in the mood to have it again.  She nodded pointedly at the nursemaid.

“Grace, if you would.”

In a fitful rush, the nursemaid snatched Luna up in her teeth and hurried toward the archway.  

“I apologize for the interruption.  As I was saying, in accordance with article-”

Before Grace could make it more than halfway to the exit, she loosed a shriek of her own as she was blinded by a flash of light.  As she tried desperately to rub the sight back into her eyes, a series of gasps struck the air, mingling with Luna’s cries.  Celestia stared down in shock at the lump of cloth that had rematerialized in her lap.  Princess Luna squirmed to free herself from her blanket, reaching blindly for her sister, a few sparkles of light still issuing from the tiny bud of her horn.   All of the delegates, even the normally meticulously composed Queen stared at the infant in disbelief.  

“Did she just…?”

“How in the world…”

A chorus of similar whispers echoed softly between the delegates for a few moments before Aurora finally remembered herself.  Swallowing hard, she attempted to resume her customary mask of cold impartiality, but was unable to completely hide a small sparkle of motherly pride in her eyes as she spoke.

“My goodness…Grace, are you alright?”

The nursemaid stood slack-jawed and wide-eyed, her gaze darting back and forth between Celestia and the end of her own muzzle, as if trying to decide whether she had done something wrong.  She shook herself, offering a weak nod to indicate that she was unharmed.

“It seems she desires to remain with you, Celestia.  I’m sorry to ask, but would you mind tending to her for a bit?  I promise to fill you in later.”

        It took a moment for her to respond.  Still somewhat numb from disbelief, Celestia simply nodded, carrying her sister past a dumbfounded Grace toward the hall’s massive entrance.  As she walked, Luna’s wails subsided somewhat, but still sounded loud and clear in the conference hall until she was well down the neighboring hallway.  

        

        In a way, she was glad to be rid of that stuffy hall and all of its even stuffier inhabitants - she never would have admitted it to anyone but her closest friends, but she hated these long, drawn-out discussions.  It always seemed to her that everyone had a different way of handling each situation, and they were all bent on proving that their view was the best and only option, and how blind or stupid everyone else was for not seeing it their way.  More often than not an issue would become so inextricably quagmired within itself that all discussion turned to whether they should even have been discussing it in the first place.  She accepted and respected the fact that dealing with such difficulties was one of her duties as a princess, but that didn’t mean she had to like it.  It was perhaps this that she admired most about her mother - despite any adversity or stupidity or other such obstacles, Aurora always maintained a cool, patient disposition, asserting her authority only when necessary to such an effect as to get the others back on track when things got too chaotic.  She often mused to herself that without her mother, little would ever get done around here.    

        At long last, when Celestia was back in her bedroom, Luna began to calm down.  Gently, she set herself down on the soft velvet cushion that served as her bed and magically rocked her sister in the air.  Eventually, the toddler’s cries gave way to a steady stream of semicoherent babbling, and finally peaceful snoring, one hoof planted firmly between her lips.  Celestia stared at her little sister in wonder.  She had teleported.  To her knowledge, only a small few of the most talented unicorns had managed the same feat, and more often than not, especially for those with somewhat less experience, it ended in rather gruesome failure.  And yet, this tiny little filly had performed a perfect teleport, not just on herself, but on the blankets around her, as well.  The little princess slept, completely unaware of the significance of what she had just done.  Celestia smiled, affectionately nuzzling the soft wisps of  sapphire mane out of her baby sister‘s eyes.  Her mother was right - Luna was truly a gifted child, and she was proud to have her as her sister.

“What in Equestria had you so upset, hm?  You made quite a lot of noise for such a little thing.”

“Well you’d cry too, if you had such a dullard for a big sister.”

Celestia leapt to her feet.  It took a moment for her to realize that the voice had not come from Luna, but from somewhere behind her.  Almost immediately, her expression of shock dissolved into one of knowing mischief.

“How did you get in here?”

From behind the luxurious lace curtains surrounding Celestia’s bay window, a tiny, blonde-maned filly emerged wearing a look of deep self-satisfaction.  

“Oh please, don’t insult me.  No locked door stands a ghost of a chance against Frankie the Prankster!”

Celestia glared at the filly with mock umbridge, speaking in an exaggerated imitation of her mother’s stern, official tone.

“You should know better than to enter a princess’s quarters without her permission.  I trust you are aware of the penalty for such an intrusion?”

The pony named Frankie swooned, thrusting her forelegs forward in desperation.

“No! Please, anything but that!  Throw me in a dungeon, banish me to the Great Forest!  Just please, please  don’t talk me to death with all of your boring official princessy stuff!”

For a moment the two simply stared at each other before simultaneously bursting into a fit of giggles.  Frankie, or Francesca, as she hated to be called, was one of Celestia’s closest friends, despite their sizeable age difference.  The two had known each other for years, and as a result, Celestia had become quite accustomed to her friend’s mischievously precocious disposition.  Her reputation for her ability to sneak past the most attentive of  guards, turn up in places where she was not supposed to be, and cause a general ruckus wherever she went earned her the moniker Frankie the Prankster, or just Prankie for short.  Francesca was the only daughter of one of the noble mares in the High Council, so not being able to get out much was one thing that she and Celestia had in common.   Whenever she could, which was at least once a month, Frankie would accompany her mother to the Citadel so that she could visit and play with Celestia in her scant free time.  Celestia had been told that Frankie’s mother condoned their time together mostly out of the hope that some of her decorum and etiquette would rub off on her daughter, but to be honest, she found Frankie’s reckless adventurousness refreshing, even if it was a bit alarming at times.

“So what, you finally wised up and ditched those stiffs in the meeting?”

“Hardly.  As much as I might complain, I do enjoy being able to help my mother in her duties, you know.  No, Luna was very upset about something, so mother had me take her out of the meeting.”

“I thought there was supposed to be a nurse for that?”

“There was, only Luna had other things in mind.”

Celestia walked back over to where her sister lay nestled in her blankets on the velvet cushion, beaming with pride.

“She teleported.  She teleported right out of the nurse’s mouth into my lap.”

Frankie’s smug grin disappeared.  “Get out.”

“It’s the truth.”  Celestia chuckled to herself.  “I couldn’t believe it at first, but one moment, she was on her way out in Grace’s teeth, and the next, she was back in my lap again.“  You should have seen the look on her face…”  With some effort, Celestia attempted to reenact the nursemaid’s flustered response, much to the delight of her filly friend.  The two shared another laugh at the poor mare’s expense before they were interrupted by an unexpected voice.

“Now, now, it isn’t proper for a princess to revel in such petty amusement, much less to laugh at another‘s misfortune.”

Immediately, their laughter gave way to guilty quietude as they gazed into the disapproving, translucent eyes of Celestia‘s father, who had suddenly appeared in the now open doorway to Celestia’s room.  

“… but if her reaction was anything like the face you just made, I doubt even I could have helped myself if I had been there.”  

His stern expression melting into a crooked smirk, Chronus laughed, a loud, boisterous, barking laugh.  The two relaxed slightly, though his sudden appearance had put Celestia a bit on edge. Since he didn’t technically have feet, his movements were always silent and this often had the effect of surprising anyone with whom he initiated a conversation.  Although her father was not known for his sense of humor, he did allow himself to take some pleasure in this.  On occasion, when whimsy struck him the right way, he would indulge himself with some tired joke such as “You look like you’ve seen a ghost!” before returning to his typical businesslike demeanor.

“Forgive me, girls, I didn’t mean to surprise you.  I merely wanted to find out what all the fuss was about.”

His eyes finally finding the tiny bundle in the center of the room, Chronus drifted over to Luna’s side.

“Was what you were saying true?  Did she really teleport?”

“Yes, father.  I don’t know how, but she did it.  I guess she must have been really upset about something, but whatever it was, she seems to be over it now.”

“Amazing…simply amazing.”  Chronus beamed down at his daughter.  “I knew she was special, but this…”

Celestia felt a strange finger of guilt stab at the corners of her mind.  She wasn’t quite sure from whence it had come, but it prodded persistently at her conscience the whole while that Chronus gazed down at her little sister.  Perhaps it was a slight tinge of youthful jealousy ay the fact that Luna had always been the subject of her father’s praise almost since the moment of her birth a little over three years ago.  Ever since then, strange things had happened around her.  If she got upset, or sometimes while she slept, objects would levitate around her bedroom or smash themselves into walls.  On one occasion, Celestia had seen her soundly napping sister floating down a hallway on a bubble of magic, completely unaware of her transported state.  She ignored the feeling, kneeling once more beside the baby princess.

“You’re back early.  I thought you were supposed to be in the Dragonlands until tomorrow?”

“The construction of the new embassy was proceeding ahead of schedule, so my presence was no longer required.  And speaking of where certain ponies are supposed to be…”  He turned to face Frankie, his features tightening slightly.  “Miss Francesca, I do believe you’re now a little over an hour late for your lessons?”

Francesca scowled, kicking the floor with one hoof.  Whenever she traveled with her mother, she was also typically accompanied by a tutor and a small group of her friends among the children of the other pony delegates.  All of their families lived near each other, so it was only natural that they traveled together as well.  While the delegates went about their business, their children would stay with their tutor, the renowned Professor Lionel Brarian, for lessons on history, etiquette, political procedure and the like.  Francesca was well - known for her habit of skipping out of class whenever she could, much to the chagrin of both her mother and the good Professor.

“Lessons, schmessons.  All we do there is sit in little cramped chairs and stare at dusty old books for hours and hours.  It‘s sooooo boooring!”

“Perhaps you would find the books somewhat more engaging if you bothered to read them rather than simply staring at them.  I trust you’ll hurry to Master Brarian at once?“

Frankie muttered something under her breath, but even she knew better than to refuse a request made by Celestia’s father.  She nodded glumly, promising Celestia that she would drop by as soon as she was done, and plodded dejectedly out of the room with an intense scowl on her face.

“Speaking of lessons, I trust your own studies have been progressing well despite the mischief of your friends?”

A note of excitement crept into Celestia’s features.  She rushed over to a stack of thick notebooks on the table by her window.  

“I finished all the ones you gave me, and I thought I’d look through some of Starshine’s theories on molecular reconstitution as a follow-up.  Watch this!”  

Filled with the prideful excitement of a child who’s learned a new trick, Celestia turned to her window, concentrating hard on the huge stone statue of her uncle Relius that watched over the gardens below from its perch on the garden archway.  With a spark and a sound like thunder, the statue flashed a brilliant shade of pink before turning into solid gold.  Celestia beamed proudly - she had been practicing on smaller objects and was quickly becoming adept at the skill.

Chronus’s eyebrows rose almost imperceptibly above a slight frown.

“Very nice, little one.”  He conceded, with a less-than-enthusiastic tone.  “It seems you’ve learned much.”  A little too quickly, he added,  “Have you attempted any of the spells detailed in Borovitch‘s research?”

Celestia stared at her father for a moment in silence before remembering to hide her disappointment.  What had she been thinking?  She shouldn’t have expected to impress him after what her little sister had just accomplished.  Her excitement dissipated, she answered honestly in a monotone.

“I started reading the first volume, but I’m afraid I haven’t read enough yet to understand it very well. I can transport objects, but I can‘t teleport just yet…”

Chronus nodded to himself, as if he knew what she had been about to say.  “I see.  Well then, I suggest you waste no time in reading further while your friend is in class.  Best not to fall behind.”  

He offered what he seemed to think was a comforting grin, but it only made Celestia feel a pang of shameful anger, just for a moment.  

“I’m so happy to see you both doing so well.  However, I’m afraid duty calls me away again for the moment - I’d best get to the conference hall before they finish without me.  Study well, little one.”  Chronus turned, his horn glowing faintly as he closed the door behind him, leaving Celestia alone with her sister.

        Celestia turned to her window, gazing down upon the sparkling golden statue of Relius.  She scowled, her horn sparking with light.  With a loud crack, the statue returned to stone, wobbling slightly on its pedestal as it settled back into place.  She plodded over to her bed, thumping down somewhat heavily next to her sister.  Luna whimpered softly, and Celestia magicked her into the air once again, rocking her gently to and fro.

Slowly, Luna’s enormous eyes fluttered open, her hooves stretching outward in exertion from the tiny yawn that escaped her lips.  

“Cewsstia…”  Luna smiled, repeating her sister’s name as she began playfully tugging at her  mane.  “Cewsstia…”

In an instant, all of Celestia’s bitterness evaporated.  She chided herself for allowing herself to feel such jealousy.  Her baby sister was to her the single most important thing in this world, and gazing into those brilliant blue-green eyes of hers reminded her of just how lucky she was to have her.  

        Luna giggled softly, the happy rambling and sputtering of youth music to Celestia’s ears.  Nonetheless, being in her bedroom was suddenly making her feel claustrophobic, and she was certainly in no mood to study at the moment.  She rose to her feet, hurrying out the door with Luna bouncing along on her back.  

        The damp, refreshing scent of Spring greeted her as it wafted up to the walkway overlooking the courtyard below, just outside the door to her tower.  Celestia strolled leisurely along with no particular destination in mind.  She knew well enough that what she was looking for would reveal itself when it was ready.  She ambled about the castle, enjoying the sights and sounds of her resplendent home and the surrounding gardens, until she at last found herself sitting on a balcony at the top of one of the highest towers.  The room to which it was attached was small and disused, the rough equivalent of an attic.  Bits of broken porcelain, the last fragments of ancient and faded tapestries, and the smell of dust filled the chamber, all forgotten by time and left here for the fulfillment of some petty sentiment or for lack of a better place to store it.  Something about the remote location and the aged feeling of the chamber and its contents comforted Celestia - perhaps it was that here, nothing ever changed, or if it did, it did so imperceptibly slowly.  Perhaps it was that being surrounded by the fragments of somepony else’s memories cast some shadow of the happy meaning they once carried onto her.  It didn’t matter - this was her secret, special place, and she always seemed to end up here whenever she had a lot on her mind.  Luna seemed to like it here too - the two had spent many a sunset watching the moon rise, and Celestia would always point to the brilliant silver orb in the sky, saying “That’s your moon, Luna.  That’s what you were named for.  Isn’t it beautiful?” at which Luna would giggle excitedly, reaching toward the sky as though she could touch it. Sighing contentedly, she set Luna down on the ground beside her to allow her to toddle about to her pleasure.

Behind a faded portrait of an ancient, gray-haired mare, the something Celestia had been looking for finally decided that it was ready.

In a flash of gold, it leapt from its hiding place to wrap itself tightly around the back of Celestia’s neck, digging one appendage resolutely into a specific spot right behind her ear.

Having momentarily forgotten her original intention in setting out, Celestia was unprepared for her attacker’s strike.  She whipped back and forth, struggling to pry the creature from her mane, giggling riotously the entire time.

“Gah! Stop, stop it!  I hate it when you do that!”

Finally, the creature released its grip, cackling victoriously to itself.

“I know.  That’s what makes it so much fun!”

Prankie bowed deeply with the air of a famous magician, beaming with her ever-present smirk.  She was obviously quite proud of herself for her successful strike.  Having known Celestia as long as she had, she had developed the skill to aim with sniper-like precision at Celestia’s most ticklish spots.         Celestia had known full well that when Frankie had left her bedroom, she had no intention of returning to class.  Sure enough, she had been followed until she let her guard down, and that precise moment had been when her tiny friend appeared.

“So what did old Groanus want this time?”

Celestia allowed herself a smirk at her friend’s remark.

“The usual.  Don’t get me wrong - he’s my dad, and I love him, but sometimes he just makes me crazy.  It’s always study, study, study with him, but no matter how hard I try, it just never seems to be enough.”

“Aw, what does he know?  He‘s just fulla hot air.”  She blinked thoughtfully.  “Heck, he is hot air. What‘s the use of keeping yourself cooped up with some boring old book written by some guy whose name ya can‘t even pronounce?  I‘ll betcha none a‘ those guys would know fun if it bit ‘em in the a-”

”That’s enough, Frankie.  Not that I don’t agree, but I’m afraid I must draw the line at the use of such language.”  

\

Frankie just shrugged, hopping forward to look over the edge of the balcony.

“It‘s so pretty from up here”

Celestia smiled.  Her friend was right - from their perch in the tower, the entirety of her home stretched in every direction like the petals of an enormous pale flower.  Even atop the battlements, there were hardly any jagged edges - everywhere she looked the architecture bulged with smooth, gentle curvature that caught the light in just such a way that it seemed to make the castle glow with a radiance all its own.  The Ivory Citadel was unrivaled as a fortress, but it was also perhaps the most beautiful structure she had ever seen, even aside from the Emerald Keep with all of its brooding grandeur.

Frankie lingered for a grand total of eight seconds - by the standards of her attention span, that was quite a feat - before finally becoming bored and turning back to face Celestia.  She pouted, stamping the ground to draw her friend’s attention.

“Whadda you wanna do?  Any fresh meat to play with?”

She was, of course, referring to the new recruits that had been the target of their last escapade.  They were still finding chickens in the barracks every so often.  Some of them had even been kept as pets, much to the chagrin of their superior officers.

Celestia smiled thoughtfully.  “Fresh meat, no, but I do believe there’s still plenty of fun to be had with the old meat, too.”

Frankie grinned, lowering herself to the ground on her forelegs like a playful dog.

“Awesome!  I’ve been planning something great for a while now - you’re gonna lov-”

The end of her sentence was drowned out by a sound like an avalanche. The tower quaked beneath them, sending the cracked remains of an ancient vase to shatter on the stone floor of the tiny room.  Far below, where once shone the beautiful glass ceiling of the conference hall, a smoking, jagged hole now gaped like the mouth of an enormous beast, its long black tongue snaking greedily into the sky above.  Within its maw, a faint orange glow crackled to life, illuminating the shards of the shattered ceiling against the rapidly darkening sky.  Celestia simply gaped at the sudden blossom of smoke for several moments, unable to register what had just happened.  Suddenly, Frankie spoke, her voice no longer full of her perpetual mischievous vigor, but heavy with a knowing dread.

“What…what was that?!  Is that…?’

From all around them, a chorus of angry and fearful murmurs bubbled up from the castle as guards poured from every direction toward the source of the blast.  It hit them both at the same time, but only Frankie found the wherewithal to scream.

“Mommy?!  That’s the conference hall!  Mommy’s in there!”

Celestia looked on in horror.  Her mother was there too, and dad…Luna dove under her sister, her cries echoing deafeningly in the tiny room.  Without a word, Celestia tightened Luna’s blankets around her, fastening her sister securely to her back, and the two ponies bolted down the stairs, leaping off of the third floor landing in the direction of the remains of the conference hall.  As they ran, Celestia looked about frantically for some indication of what was happening, but all she could see was the cascading throng of guards, armed and clad in golden armor, each emblazoned with the seal of the conjoined sun and moon that waved from every banner in the Citadel.  Finally, Amidst the sea of glinting steel and the cacophony of shouts, a pony bearing the silver shoulder bars of an officer spotted them.  He rushed across the hall to the princess’s side, panting heavily.  Celestia and Frankie wasted no time in voicing their concerns.  

“Lieutenant!  What’s happened?  What’s going on?!”

“Mommy! Is mommy okay?!”

The two spoke in unison, but the guard barely gave them time to finish.

“I don’t know, princess - there’s been an explosion.  You can leave this to us - we need to get you to the vault now.  Linebeck!  Herdier!  Get your men over here!”  

Gesturing frantically as he bellowed at a small group of guards, he began pressing Celestia bodily toward the stairs.  

“What are you doing?!  Unhoof me at once!  I must get to my parents!”

Celestia summoned as much authority into those words as she could muster, but it did nothing to discourage the Lietenant’s determination to get her down those stairs.  She struggled to no avail - he was surprisingly strong, despite his relatively small stature.

“Do you hear me?  I order you to stop!”

“Mommy!  Where is she!? Lemme through!”

Frankie was positively hysterical now, flailing at the guard that held her.  With a sudden jerk, she slammed a tiny hoof into the guard’s face, causing him to drop her in surprise.  The instant her feet hit the floor, she bolted into the throng, effortlessly ducking under the horde of guards as she made her way toward the conference hall.

“Frankie?! Frankie, NO!”

Without thinking, Celestia wrenched free of the group of guards around her, Luna still bound tightly to her back by her blankets.  She knew there was only one place she could be going, and she knew it would be far too dangerous for her to go alone - she took off, soaring over the heads of the guards toward the conference hall, frantically scanning the crowd below for any sign of her friend’s shock of yellow mane.  No sign of her - just a sea of panicked faces.  Finally, Celestia spotted her friend’s tail between a pair of guards and pulled, just as another tremendous crash boomed throughout the castle.  The sound was much closer, much louder now.  Out of nowhere, she felt a frightening tug at the edge of her consciousness, telling her to turn around.  The princess reacted just in time.  Behind her, where she and Frankie had just been hovering, the hallway erupted in a cascade of molten brilliance, the cries of the guards caught in its path silenced before leaving their throats.  In the space of a second, at least thirty guards had been vaporized by the blazing wave of death that now painted the hallway black and orange with the last smoldering streaks of flame that covered the floor, the walls - the entire hall, vast as it was, still shimmered and burned with blistering heat.  

“Retreat!”

“Pull back!”

The tide of flesh and steel instantly changed direction beneath her, flowing now down the long marble stairway to the hall below.  

“Princess!  There’s no time!  You must come with us now!”

Celestia faltered a bit in midair, still shaken from her brush with death, but only hesitated for a moment before bolting back toward the lieutenant and his entourage.  Immediately, the reality of the situation reasserted itself in her mind with the force of a stampeding elephant.  Cold logic muscled all other thoughts out of her mind - There was nothing she could do for her parents right now, and Luna’s safety had to take priority.  She forced herself onward, anything to get Luna and Frankie away from those flames.  Together, they rushed down the stairs toward the bottom of the castle, the guards behind them hastily rallying to form a perimeter around the smoking remains of the hall beyond.

Luna’s screams echoed amid the chaos as the little princess clutched to her sister for dear life.  All around them, the sounds of angered shouts, clashing steel, panicked cries, and crackling waste mingled into a steady rumble, but above it all, so loud it nearly shattered their eardrums even from its considerable distance, Celestia heard a tremendous, bellowing roar - a sound she knew all too well, a sound she had prayed never to hear again.  It was a battle-cry, the song of war that each dragon sang just before he plunged into the breach.  It was a song of death, of hatred, of rage…

But none of that was what frightened Celestia, for she knew the deeper meaning of that song’s blood - soaked history.  As it slowly dawned on her that she was in fact fleeing for her life, she remembered the true meaning of that ancient ululation with vital terror.

It was a song of victory.

================================================================

        Fluttershy hummed a merry tune to herself as she strolled through her garden, stopping here and there to select a flower to add to the basket hung around her neck.  It was a lovely spring day, the last faint traces of a recent storm giving way to a cascade of warm, soothing sunlight.  She loved this sort of day more than any other, when the sun shone reflected like a thousand tiny diamonds in the still damp grass, and the rich, earthy aroma of plant life permeated the air.  She always thought the world seemed so fresh and clean after a good rain.  

        As she walked, a pair of hummingbirds darted across her path in a twirling dance, circling around and about each other as they flew.  She simply sat and watched them for a few moments, admiring the effortless grace with which they hovered to and fro.  She hummed a little more loudly, and the two tiny birds began to twirl about her in rhythm with her song.  She smiled to herself, trotting to the next flower patch with a spring in her step.  It was her single greatest joy in life to be able to share such a connection with the creatures around her home.  She never saw her duties in tending to all of her animals as work - to her, each and every one of them was a close and special friend, and she brimmed with happiness each time she heard a grateful chitter or happy squeak at her gestures.

        For several minutes, Fluttershy bounced happily among the sea of vibrant colors, surrounded by the sounds of her animal friends.  Her basket now nearly full of some of the most beautiful flowers her garden had to offer, Fluttershy had decided that it was time to head back toward her home when something in the corner of her vision caught her attention.  She turned, and gasped.  There, on a small, grassy knoll, stood Angel, holding the most beautiful flower she had ever seen.  Its petals were enormous, curled about each other in an elegant silver spiral bloom.  The tiny white rabbit waved energetically, gesturing proudly toward his prize.

“Oh Angel, its simply lovely! Wherever did you find it?”

        She bounded toward her companion, imagining how beautiful the bouquet would be with this new addition.  Angel bounced happily back and forth on his hind legs as he waited for his mistress to come near.  Strange, Fluttershy thought, she was running as fast as she could, but Angel still seemed so far away…farther than he had when she first saw him there.  She tried to run faster.  Angel ceased his bouncing, now tapping his foot impatiently.  He was still so far away - had she really misjudged the distance by that much?  Fluttershy ran and ran, rapidly running out of breath, but no matter how fast she moved, Angel remained fixed in his position on his tiny hill.  Angel was getting annoyed now, stamping his foot more insistently and poking at his paw as though he were wearing a watch.  

        Fluttershy panted - she couldn’t help it.  Her strength left her, her pace slowing, but Angel was still as far or farther than he had ever been.  Something else was strange, too - the sun no longer shone in a cloudless sky, but was rapidly becoming obscured by

Dark, heavy clouds.  She would have to get them both inside before it started raining again.  Nonetheless, Angel’s distant hill remained illuminated by some unseen source.  

“Angel…I’m sorry…just…just let me….catch my breath…”

        Fluttershy stumbled forward.  She suddenly felt weak.  She hadn’t thought she had been running for that long, but she now wanted nothing more than to collapse on the spot.  Slowly, she struggled to move forward across the vast expanse between them.

Angel let out an exasperated squeak.  It was then that Fluttershy first noticed it - she could just make it out in the bright light that enveloped the tiny white rabbit.

The flower was moving.

        Slowly, its brilliant silver spiral began to unfold itself, the stem curling and uncurling in Angel’s mouth.  For some reason, perhaps out of his agitation, Angel did not seem to notice.

        Fluttershy tried to warn him, but she had not the spare breath to do little more than whisper.  Suddenly, the flower didn’t look so beautiful.  Something about the slow, purposeful way in which it seemed to be moving frightened her.

        The flower continued to twist about, its spiral now almost completely unfurled.  As the petals separated, tiny green rootlets began to wind their way out from the flower’s center like the feelers of some predatory insect.  The petals no longer shined as they once had, but began to shrivel and brown, wilting away one by one.

        Fluttershy was certain now - there was something very wrong with that flower.  She desperately wanted to warn him, to say anything to get him to notice the flower‘s movement, but her body refused to allow her the energy to speak.  She couldn’t even force herself to move forward anymore.  Each of her hooves felt as though it were made of solid lead.

        The flower’s movements quickened.  Finally Angel seemed to notice what was happening, but it was too late.  Like a snake leaping to strike at its prey, each of the green rootlets lunged forward, wrapping themselves tightly around Angel’s face.  Through the thick mesh of vines that now enveloped his head, Fluttershy could hear Angel’s terrified squeaks.  The stem changed quickly now, too - it grew longer and longer, wrapping itself in great circles around Angel’s body, binding his paws, preventing him from struggling as it began to suffocate him with horrifying efficiency.  Crimson thorns erupted across the surface of the stem, stabbing into Angel’s flesh.  Fluttershy heard the muffled shriek of his agony as he twitched in the steadily tightening web of the flower’s embrace.

        Finally, Fluttershy found the energy to scream, to run.  She bolted toward Angel, shouting his name over and over again, running faster than she ever had before.  At long last, she seemed to be gaining ground.  The distance between her and her suffocating rabbit seemed to evaporate under her hooves as she lifted off the ground, flying now at full speed.  Tighter and tighter, the flower wound all around him, its thorns digging deeper and deeper.  Angel’s cries began to weaken.

        Several things happened at once.  The flower’s movements suddenly ceased, the entire length of its stem fading to a dry, cracked brown before falling away from its prey in a dead husk.  Fluttershy arrived just above Angel, panting heavily, desperately searching his body for some sign of life.  Everywhere she looked, his once pristine white fur was torn and marred with the long, bloody trails left by the thorns.  His eyes searched about blindly, his chest rising and falling weakly with each shuddering breath.  

“Oh, Angel no! NO!”

She scooped him up in her hooves, looking desperately around for any sign of another presence, for anyone at all who could help.  She was alone.  All around her the once bright, grassy field was now enveloped in a thick, dark haze.  Angel sputtered as his tiny, shuddering paw reached toward her face.

“Angel hang on, just hang on!  It’ll be alright, I promise, everything will be alright!”

Slowly, Angel’s milky eyes turned to lock with Fluttershy’s pleading gaze,  As he stared at her, Fluttershy noticed that he seemed to be muttering the same sound over and over again beneath his breath, but she couldn‘t make sense of what he was trying to tell her.  

“Angel, don’t try to talk.  Please just stay with me!”

        Despite her words, Fluttershy leaned closer to her friend in a desperate attempt to understand him, fat, hot tears rolling down her cheeks.  There was nothing she could do, no one she could call upon to help.  Angel was dying, and she knew it.  She lay her head against his tiny chest, willing him to live with all her heart.  That was when she heard it.

Murderer”

Fluttershy recoiled, staring silently down at Angel’s motionless body.  His eyes were still fixed with hers, but as he gazed at her, they shone not with the last desperate struggles of encroaching death, but with sheer, blistering hatred.

Murderer

One tiny paw pointed accusingly at the end of her snout.  Angel’s voice was loud and clear now, repeating the same word, again and again, louder and louder.

Murderer, murderer, murderer…”

Fluttershy stared downward in speechless horror.  In all the years she had known him she had never witnessed such anger in his eyes.

“Angel…Angel, no, I…I didn’t do this…I could never do anything to hurt you…why would you say something like that?”

Murderer.

“Angel, stop it!  Why are you saying that!?  This…this isn’t my fault!  I tried to warn you, I tried so hard, but I couldn’t-”

“MURDERER!”

This time, a chorus of other voices joined in with Angel’s ghastly chant.  Fluttershy whirled about - in every direction, creatures of all shapes and sizes, all of her little animal friends, slowly emerged from the murk.  Each set of eyes was like a heated dagger aimed directly at her heart.  Their voices were so loud - they wouldn’t stop.  They just kept repeating it endlessly, inching closer with every iteration.

“My friends…no, no, no!  This is all wrong!  I didn’t do this! Why?!  Why won’t you believe me?!  Please, help me save him!  Please!”

No change.  Closer and closer, louder and louder.

“Don’t just stand there! He needs you! I need you!  I didn’t do this!  Why won’t you listen?!  Please!  I DIDN’T DO THIS!”

        Angel’s chanting suddenly stopped, but it did nothing to discourage the relentless advance of the wall of animals.  Fluttershy turned back toward her companion to find a new horror before her.  Angel’s body began to crack and crumble, like clay that’s been left out in the sun.  As he slowly fell apart, his eyes lost none of the vital loathing they carried toward his mistress, his murderer.  Fluttershy squeaked in panic, trying desperately to pick up all of Angel’s pieces, but the more she struggled, the more he simply fell through her hooves.  At long last, the final traces of his body collapsed into dust, drifting lazily to the ground below.  Fluttershy had little time to register the despair she felt before she became aware of a sharp pain stabbing at her sides, her ears, all around her.  The pair of hummingbirds swarmed about her head like a cloud of enraged bees, the other creatures nearly upon her now.  As they came close, they too began to fall to pieces around her.  Great chunks of fur and flesh cracked and melted away, and yet the shambling horde did not slow in the least as it moved mercilessly toward its prey.  As they crumbled, the creatures fell upon her from all directions, burying her body in their dust.  She tried to scream, but the dust choked her lungs.  Suddenly, she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t lift her limbs.  They were so heavy - wave after wave of choking death heaped itself upon her, up around her throat, her mouth…

“MURDERER, MURDERER, MURDERER…”

        Slowly, she felt herself dissolving, fading away amidst the fathomless layers of dust.  She was drowning in death, her body numb, her mind unable to do anything but wish for the end to come, for some release to this nightmare.  As her eyes darkened under the mounting pile, she saw the last wan light of the sun peeking through the clouds above.  Through the gloom, it looked to her like a great eye, an enormous, silver eye, gazing down upon her, unblinking, unwavering, judging her, sentencing her to her doom as a God would look upon an insect.  She felt the dust flow into her mouth, through her nostrils, her ears, even her eyes.  It poured into her, worming within her like a sea of maggots, chittering and biting, burning white hot along every inch of the inside of her body.  They refused to let her die - she could feel their will, their hatred stabbing from within…

        

MURDERER, MURDERER, MURDERER…”

        With a shriek, Fluttershy awoke, scratching frantically over every part of her body her hooves could reach, trying to claw away the things that crawled within her skin.  But they were gone.  There was no Angel, no creatures, no giant silver eye, no dust.  Just cold, smooth stone upon which sat one very terrified yellow pegasus.  She struggled to catch her breath, still not entirely sure of what she had just experienced.

“…a…a dream?”

        Cold.  She suddenly became aware that wherever she, was, it was freezing, and she clutched herself, rubbing her forelegs as she tried to make sense of her emotions.  She cast about in the darkness, fearfully searching for any sign of the wall of eyes that had surrounded her moments ago.  Unsympathetic silence greeted her in every direction.  

        It was too dark to see more than a few feet in any direction, but judging by the way the sound of her panting echoed in the dark, she was in an enclosed space, and a rather large one at that.  She also noticed that the floor upon which she sat appeared to be smooth and polished, so she knew that she was probably not in a cave or other such natural structure.  

        She shuddered, half from cold, half from exhaustion, her breath escaping her in great wisps of steam.  The clouds of breath sparkled slightly as the microscopic water droplets within it caught the light of some unknown source high above.  Wincing a bit as she craned her neck stiffly upward, she could just make out the shining points of a small group of stars through a tiny hole in the darkness high above her.  

        She closed her eyes, thinking hard.  Angel’s faced painted the inside of her eyelids, that same hateful glare burned into her vision.  Her body was no longer being invaded by the sea of dust, and some small, distant part of her registered relief at the silence, but the rest of her suddenly longed for something, anything, some sign of life to fend off the crushing emptiness she felt.  Slowly, she laid herself down on the stone below, staring at nothing.  

        All at once, it hit her.  The chamber exploded with the sound of Fluttershy’s sobs.  Her mouth hung open in a pathetic, silent scream, tears pouring down her muzzle.  She pounded the floor with her hooves, simply too exhausted to do anything but wail in futility at the weight she felt squeezing mercilessly in her chest.  She understood no part of it - her rational mind balked and recoiled as the memories of all that had happened to her over the past few hours blazed through her consciousness with stinging clarity, wordlessly wondering why, why, why.  What had she done?  How had this happened?  How could it be real?  Angel was dead…dead.  She saw herself, sitting on her couch at home, in the circle of guards in the conference hall, attacking Pinkie as she rushed to her aid, strapped to the bed as Dr. Grey smashed Angel to pieces.  In a waking nightmare, she witnessed the rage that had burned within her as seen through the eyes of those she had hurt, transforming her into something terrifying, some warped, sickening monster that was nonetheless undeniably her.  Over and over she told herself it wasn’t real, it couldn’t be real - she never could have done any of those things.  But no matter how she flailed at the memories that tore through her like the claws of some sadistic beast, they remained, coldly, cruelly, victoriously marching onward in an endless loop.  Like an infant, she cried and cried, hoping against hope that the rest of the world would drown away beneath the flood of tears, her hooves grasping at the dark for some source of comfort, some piece of home to let her know she was not alone.

In the shadows, something reached back.

        She didn’t properly register what she was doing at first.  It was not until she noticed the tiny creature’s warm breath on her neck that her sobs began to fade, and she began to feel the weight of its body as she pressed it against her chest.  It didn’t matter what or who it was that she held in her hooves - it was alive, and she sensed that it needed her just as much as she needed it.  For several minutes, the two simply clutched each other, Fluttershy keeping her eyes tightly shut to soak in the creature’s reassuring warmth, the feeble yet empowering rhythm of its heartbeat against hers.  She stopped sobbing, then stopped sniffling, and finally, slowly, she opened her eyes to see who it was that she was holding.

        Two brilliant orange orbs greeted her, so bright in the darkness that she did not at first see the body to which they were attached.  The creature was small and youthful in appearance, but what exactly the creature was, Fluttershy could not say - she had never seen any animal like it before, even on her occasional forays into the Everfree Forest.  It had a long, slender neck and a pointed, angular face, its snout ending in a narrow, somewhat droopy tuft of whiskers.  Its four limbs looked far too long and thin to be able to support its weight, and forced the creature to arrange itself somewhat awkwardly even as it leaned against her.  The ears, too, were disproportionately endowed, two enormous winglike extensions, drooping down on either side of its bald head.  Its tiny wings clutched tightly to either side of its frame, quivering slightly.  The tail was perhaps the most bizarre, it was rather short, and it ended in a shocking tuft of soft, fine hairs that were the same vibrant shade of orange as the creature’s eyes.  To Fluttershy, it looked as though somepony had tried to combine a giraffe with a greyhound, and perhaps some sort of waterfowl, but hadn’t exactly taken adequate care to make sure it was well put together.  It gazed pathetically up at her for a moment, then averted its eyes, suddenly pulling away to sit at the edge of the faint pool of light issuing from the opening far above.  

“…s….sorry…”

Fluttershy gasped.  She was surprised enough at the creature’s appearance, but the fact that it could speak caused her to wonder briefly if she was still dreaming.

The creature sputtered weakly for a few moments, as though trying to say several things at once and deciding not to finish halfway through.  Finally, it locked eyes briefly with Fluttershy again and simply repeated its apology.

“…sorry…”

Fluttershy felt her sadness slowly being swept away by a distantly familiar warmth, growing within her as she gazed at the tiny beast.  The creature just seemed so…pathetic in every meaning of the word.  Something about the way it held itself suggested that it expected to be attacked by the pegasus before it at any moment, and yet it couldn’t stop glancing at Fluttershy as though it were pleading for her help.  She could not have forced herself to be frightened of such an animal - everything about it cried out for the comfort of another.  Slowly, the emptiness within her seemed to fade slightly as she forced herself to speak.

“Hey…it’s okay.  You don’t have to be scared.  I’m not going to hurt you.”

The creature retreated farther into the shadows, its eyes glinting in the starlight.  It offered no response save for its persistent whimpering.  The habitual greeting that she employed whenever she met a new animal asserted itself, its automatic familiarity lulling Fluttershy gently back into her comfort zone.

“I promise, little guy, I just want to be your friend.  My name is Fluttershy.  Can you tell me yours?”

The creature’s eyes widened suddenly, its tiny form lurching backward at the sound of her words.  It’s mouth hung open as it struggled to find its voice.

“That’s okay, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.  But, um, if you want, that is, if you don’t mind…I-I wouldn’t mind holding you for a little while longer.  It’s pretty cold in here - you must be freezing.”

The offer was not entirely unselfish.  She didn’t understand why or how, but holding that little creature had somehow made her feel safe, or at least slightly less afraid.  Right now, Fluttershy needed someone, anyone, just so that she wouldn’t be alone with her memories.  It seemed to relax slightly, its enormous eyes searching Fluttershy’s face for a moment before turning to stare resolutely at the floor, its skinny limbs quaking absurdly beneath it.  Finally, without warning, it bolted  toward Fluttershy, leaping into her hooves.

Fluttershy chuckled reflexively.  The sound echoed coldly in the dark, but it relaxed her a bit nonetheless.  At the same time it felt odd - somehow, as soon as the laughter had left her lips, she had felt vaguely ashamed.  She tried to ignore the feeling, focusing instead on tending to the strange newcomer.

“There now, it’s okay…”  She affectionately brushed the creature’s fur as it quivered in her grasp.  She looked up again to the stars, speaking half to it and half to herself.

“It’s all…going to be okay…”

“…U…U-Unum…”

Fluttershy glanced down at the source of the voice.

“What?”

The creature slowly lifted its gaze to look into Fluttershy’s eyes.  It seemed to have lost some of its nervousness, if only to be replaced by a heavy sadness that made its eyes sparkle in the dim starlight.

“U…Unum…”

Fluttershy’s face clouded with confusion for a few moments before she finally understood.

“Oh!  I think I get it…That’s your name, right?”

The creature named Unum nodded, repeating itself a bit more confidently, almost as though trying to convince itself that it was correct.

“Unum.”

Fluttershy smiled.  “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Unum.  I’m sorry if I frightened y-”

“No!”

Fluttershy blinked in surprise.  Unum’s mood had suddenly and inexplicably changed into something like determination.  Noticing her reaction, it regressed slightly, repeating itself a bit more quietly.

“No, F…F-Fluttershy.  You don’t have to be sorry.  You haven’t done anything wrong…”

She fixed the little creature with a puzzled gaze.  This…thing was becoming odder by the second, she thought.  Perhaps it was just the creature‘s choice of words, or the resolved tone in which it had spoken them, but somehow, she sensed that Unum…knew her, though she was sure she would have remembered meeting something like him…or her, whichever it was.  At any rate, it seemed to be warming up to her - that was by far the most it had spoken to her in the past few minutes.  She had been about to ask what in Equestria was troubling it when she was startled into silence by another voice.

“Friends already, are you?”

Unum recoiled violently at the sound, its eyes falling to rest fixedly on the floor.

“W-W-W-Who’s there?!  W-Where are you?”  Fluttershy scanned the darkness in vain.  The voice had not sounded particularly harsh, but she didn’t much like the idea of someone or something that chose to speak without revealing itself.

“Sorry about that.  Did I scare you?”  Slowly, a tall, slender shape melted into existence at the edge of the light.  

Before Fluttershy stood a pony that…wasn’t exactly a pony.  Its body structure was similar to that of an average colt, and yet it was far too skinny to be considered healthy by any stretch of the term.  In fact, it appeared to Fluttershy more like a skeleton than anything else, which did little to ease her apprehension.  However, her attention did not linger for long on the appearance of this additional strange newcomer, for on its back, soundly asleep, was a comfortingly familiar shape.

“Spike?!  Spike!”

“Shhh…”  the skeleton-pony hissed, placing one emaciated hoof over the thin protuberances that served as its lips.  

“He’s only just fallen asleep.  The little fellow was up all day waiting for you to wake up.”  Slowly, it lowered Spike’s slumbering body to rest next to Fluttershy on the floor.  As it moved farther into the light, Fluttershy got a better look at the skeleton-creature.  It’s body was almost completely hairless save for the tuft of greasy brown hair that served as its mane, covered instead with faintly glimmering scales, similar to those of a fish.  It’s eyes appeared enormous atop its slight frame, and shined a thin, watery blue beneath their heavy lids.  Despite the creature’s frightening appearance, Fluttershy found herself calmed somewhat when she looked into those eyes.  Those were not the eyes of a monster - they seemed to carry the weight of countless ages, at once kind and powerful.  Somehow, looking into those ancient eyes, she felt she could trust this creature.  Finally, Fluttershy began to relax again, thankful for the appearance of a familiar face.  

As she looked down at Spike’s peacefully snoozing body, the reality of the situation began to assert itself through the haze of emotion that had enveloped Fluttershy until now.  She gazed once more at her surroundings, or at least at what little of them she could see.  A flood of questions sprang to her mind, and she voiced the most demanding of these first as she turned to face the new creature beside her.

“Um, if you don’t mid me asking, who are you?  Can you tell me where I am?”

The newest creature’s face was completely expressionless, but its voice carried a reassuring warmth, as though it were smiling.

“Who…”  It tapped its chin thoughtfully.  “As for who I am, I suppose you could call me an ally for the time being, though that may sound a bit presumptuous on my part.  If a name is what you seek, you may call me whatever you see fit - I‘ve never had much use for names in the past.  As for where you are, I believe this was once the Gallery.”

“…Gallery?”  

“Yes, Gallery.  This was once part of a structure known as the Emerald Keep.”

Fluttershy leapt backward.  Every hair on her body stood on end as a wave of fear coursed through her.  Suddenly, every inch of the darkness around her seemed full with a nest of unknown horrors just waiting to pounce.  

“You idiot!  You’ve scared her!”

With sudden vigor, Unum shot back into Fluttershy’s hooves, gently stroking one hoof  with a long appendage in an effort to calm her.  For an instant, Fluttershy tried to resist, but her efforts were quieted by a single look from those brilliant orange eyes.  

Fluttershy quaked with terror, trying with all of her strength to remain calm.   The Emerald Keep…Acheron must have brought her here, but why?  Who were these creatures?  Why was Spike here?  What was that fiend planning?  Her friends…

With sickening velocity, her mind reeled with the images of the myriad of horrific fates that could await her friends in his twisted hands.  

Suddenly, she felt an adamantine resolve flowing into her from some unknown source.  She glared at the skeleton-pony, searching it for any evidence of a threat.  

Oddly enough, the skeleton-pony seemed embarrassed.  

“Oh my…I’m sorry, that was rather crass of me, wasn’t it?  I apologize…I’m afraid I’ve never been known for my tact, despite my best intentions.  I assure you Fluttershy, I have no intention of harming you or your friend.”

Fluttershy wasn’t convinced.  Whether it was the tugging persistence of her overwhelming guilt, the fear of Acheron’s treachery, concern for her friends, or the last wrathful instinct of a cornered animal, she felt a strength bubbling within her the likes of which she hadn’t felt for quite some time - the same strength she had felt when she had saved her friends from the dragon on the mountain years ago.  The creatures before her were just that - creatures, and she knew better than anypony how to handle creatures.  She spoke in a low, even tone, determined to take command of the situation.

“You know Acheron, don‘t you?  And don‘t you even think about lying to me, mister.”

Slowly, she advanced on the skeleton-pony, her eyes trained on its like the crosshairs of a rifle.  “You know about the Emerald keep, which means you know about Acheron.  Why am I here?!  What did you do with my friends?!  You’d better tell me now or I’ll…I’lll…”

In the end, se opted not to finish her sentence, choosing instead to stomp her hoof pointedly on the ground, drawing herself to her full height.

The skeleton-pony blinked, its features flexing almost imperceptibly into something akin to an expression of surprise.  Its perception of the pegasus before it had been turned on its head in the space of a second.   Where once had sat a terrified, meek, completely unthreatening little mare now stood an imposing matriarch, brimming with intimidating authority.  Under the heated gaze of those suddenly steely eyes, it had the fleeting impression of a child who has done something bad and was about to be reprimanded by its very disappointed mother.  For a few moments, it stared blankly at Fluttershy, transfixed by the change it had just witnessed.

“My goodness…that is truly impressive…I mean it - I’ve rarely seen such strength, especially considering all you‘ve been through…”

Fluttershy faltered slightly, just for an instant.  Even aside from its outlandish appearance, this pseudo-pony was unsettlingly bizarre.  Its speech, its posture…everything about it seemed strangely detached from its surroundings.

“What are you talking about?  Answer me!  Where are my frie-”

“They’re alright!  They’re all fine, I promise!”

Fluttershy looked down in surprise.  It had been Unum who cut her off.  The little creature stared incredulously at the skeleton-pony, reprimanding it with its eyes.  Shaking its head in condescending disbelief, it turned back to face Fluttershy, speaking more slowly.

“Please, you must believe me, They’re all unharmed.  Only you and Spike were brought here.  The others were all left just as you remember them in the hospital.”

Fluttershy backed away from Unum, half-shrouding herself in darkness in the process.  Slowly, she felt her resolve ebbing away under a tide of bewilderment.

“How do you know that?  How do you know Acheron?”

Unum opened its mouth to speak, but was interrupted by the skeleton-pony.

“I wonder whether you‘d believe us if we told you.”

Fluttershy glared at the creature with renewed vigor.  “I knew it…you do know him!  Start talking!”  

The creature blinked slowly, deftly maintaining its frustratingly aloof demeanor despite the fury of Fluttershy‘s gaze.

.

“Well?!  What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Forgive me for answering a question with a question, but what exactly do you intend to do if we are, in fact, allies of Acheron?”

“I…what?!”  Fluttershy struggled to hold onto what was left of her rapidly waning confidence.  The creature’s eyes were not so quite so kind as they had been a few moments ago, but now radiated with a cold indifference.  “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, mister, I’m going to get very upset with you, and you don‘t want that to happen!”  Fluttershy stomped the ground again, though the gesture now seemed somewhat anticlimactic.  For some reason, her stare seemed to have absolutely no effect on the creature, and it was causing her to lose ground quickly.

Unum gazed pleadingly at its significantly larger counterpart.  “P-P-Please…s-s-stop playing games…just tell her-”

“Tell her what, Unum?”  The skeleton-pony emphasized the last word as though it were the punchline of some cruel joke.  Unum’s meek plea was immediately silenced by the creature’s harsh tone.  “That’s what I thought.  Unless you have any further objections, I will do this my way.”

“What…what are you talking about?  What aren’t you telling me?”  Despite her best efforts, a note of fear was beginning to creep back into her voice.

The creature casually glanced back up at Fluttershy, inhaling deeply before it continued.  

“Let’s assume the worst.  Let’s say we are a part of Acheron’s plan, and you are our prisoner.  What will you do?  Go.”

Fluttershy simply stared.  She had no idea whatsoever how to react - no matter how hard she tried, she could not read anything from the creature’s blank, unwavering expression.

“Surely you have something in mind?  Or was all of that bravado I just saw mere bluster?”

The creature’s hairless eyebrow twitched tightly upward.  “Let’s review the facts, shall we?  Your friend, Angel, is dead, yes?”

All that was left of Fluttershy’s tenuous grasp of the situation vanished instantly.  It was as though someone had struck out her knees - she collapsed to the floor upon hearing Angel’s name.

“A…An…gel…h-h-how?”  How in Equestria did it know about that?

The skeleton-pony advanced, its face still an unreadable mask.  “How does that make you feel?  Say it.  Angel is dead.  Go on, say it.”

“I…I-I…s…stop…stop it…”

The memory of Angel’s loathing gaze pulsed painfully within her.  Fresh tears began to bead in the corner of her eyes.  She clapped her hooves over her ears, shaking her head violently from side to side, trying desperately to shake the gaze of those horribly familiar eyes.

“Do you feel nothing?  Was all of that strength you just mustered merely a façade?  Are you really so weak that you can summon no defense for your friends?”

“Stop…please…I didn’t…I couldn’t do it…it’s not…my fault…”  Fluttershy could barely speak through her sobs.  She was beginning to hyperventilate.  Why?  Why was this creature doing this?  Was this…her punishment?”

“Angel.  Is.  Dead.  Say it.”  Despite its expressionless front, the creature’s voice had suddenly become strikingly intense, almost angry.

“No!  No, no, no…Stopistopitstopitsto-”   Her eyes fell upon Spike, still fast asleep.  All of her friends…what was going to happen to them?  

“Is this all that you’re really capable of?  I suppose you’re going to let his death go in vain, then.”  It was speaking more forcefully now, mocking her, provoking her, needling her when she was at her most vulnerable.

Unum gazed fearfully at the creature, shaking its head slowly.  “Please, don’t do this…she’s already suffered so-”

“What will you do?  We are working with Acheron, Angel is dead, and your friends are all in mortal danger, and all you can do is sit there and cry.  Is that really it?”

Fluttershy simply whimpered, curling into a tight ball on the cold stone floor, wishing with all her might to just disappear.

The skeleton-pony advanced again, looming directly over her, his voice now booming throughout the chamber with cold intensity.  

Pathetic.  Your friends need you and you’re too wrapped up in feeling sorry for yourself to act.”

The creature slammed his hoof into the ground, inches from Fluttershy’s face, drawing its head down to her level, boring into her with those pale, cold eyes.

“Is that really it?  Is running from the truth all you can manage?  I should think the lives of your friends would matter a bit more to you than that, but then, if this selfish display is really how you act after losing Angel, after losing someone who was supposedly your very best friend, it seems that isn‘t so, is it?!”

Fluttershy cried into the darkness that assaulted her from within her own tightly clenched eyelids, trying desperately to drown out the voice that stabbed into her already bleeding heart with all the grace of a rusty knife.

The skeleton pony stomped as hard as he could on either side of Fluttershy’s face, now bellowing at the top of his lungs at point-blank range.

“IS THAT REALLY IT?!  WHAT WILL YOU DO?!”

Finally, without warning, Fluttershy felt truly angry.  It scared her at first, but her fear was quickly swept away by a warmth she thought had left her for good.  For an instant, however brief, she saw the smiling faces of her friends flash across her vision - it was just enough to give her the strength to act.  She was tired of games, tired of lies, tired of feeling helpless - she needed to know where her friends were.  She needed to know they were safe.  

Fluttershy‘s sobs ceased abruptly as she slowly uncurled herself to face the creature standing over her.  

“I don’t know if I can do anything...  I’ve hurt my friends…I’ve hurt all of them, but they didn’t leave…”  The warmth within her grew, pulsing slightly like the heartbeat of a newborn animal.  She saw her friends sitting all around her hospital bed, remembered Pinkie’s smile, even through her wounds, remembered Rainbow’s tearful confession of guilt.  Why?  Why had they not left her?  Why had they not hated her?  She could have killed them, all of them, and yet they stayed with her.  Why?

“They…even after all I’ve done…”  She saw Angel, crumbling to pieces on the table across from her bed.  Angel had known…Angel had tried to save her, and she…she had killed him… she had killed her best friend…the others didn’t know…if they ever found out…Slowly, the heartbeat grew stronger, faster, her thoughts moving more quickly, more purposefully.  She would never be able to face her friends again - she knew that they could never forgive her…but if she was here, then…Acheron’s voice flashed through her memory.

“To what lengths would your friends go to rescue you should they become aware you were in mortal danger?”

“They would try…they would try to save me…all of them.”  Fluttershy’s eyes wandered aimlessly about, blind for the emotional quagmire that struggled to unknot itself within her heart.  She raged at herself with a fury she had never before experienced, the heat of her passion mingling with the steadily building pulse to climax in a drumbeat, a steady, pounding, relentless drumbeat that drove her forward to the conclusion she knew was right.  She squeezed her eyes shut, consumed by the force of that beautiful, terrifying rhythm.  Slowly, one, then two, and finally a steady stream of tears began to pour down her face.  It was clear.  Nothing else mattered.  Her eyes opened once again, burning with a brilliance that dwarfed that of the morning sun in all its fiery grandeur, the object of their focus as nothing but an ant under a magnifying glass.  

This time, the skeleton-pony actually backpedaled at the fury it witnessed in those eyes.  From that tiny little Pegasus girl emanated a power unlike any it had felt before.  As a small semblance of a grin spread slowly across its features, it knew that it had accomplished its goal.

“They won’t forgive me…they can’t, and I don’t blame them.  But I will not.  I repeat, I will NOT let you hurt them.”  She stepped forward victoriously, the drumbeat now a thunderous roar that cascaded through her consciousness with wave after wave of power.  This was not the power she had felt in the conference hall, but something far greater…it was not fueled by hate, or rage, or greed…Her friends were the most important thing to her in this world, and even if they never wanted to see her again, she would always love each and every one of them with every fiber of her being.

“You can hurt me, you can taunt me, you can kill me if you want…but you will not lay a hoof on my friends while I draw breath.”  Even as she spoke the words, Fluttershy registered some vague tinge of surprise at the fact that she heard them spoken in her own voice.

Both Unum and the skeleton-creature gazed onward in utter awe.  Slowly, a sharp, staccato rhythm began to echo throughout the chamber.

The skeleton-creature was clapping, his hooves banging against the floor in a steady rhythm.  Its eyes once again shone with a knowing kindness, positively beaming at Fluttershy with something that could only be construed as pride.  

“That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.  I must say, Fluttershy, you are truly an inspiration.  I think perhaps, you may just be able to help us get out of this place.”

Fluttershy didn’t budge.  For once, no tiny shadow of fear plucked at her resolve - nothing would move her now.  

“Don’t you dare patronize me.  Tell me what you’re planning right now.”

The skeleton-creature nodded solemnly.  “As you wish.  The truth then.”

He stepped backward, staring pointedly at Unum.  Slowly, the tiny creature moved away from Fluttershy to stand in the center of the circle of light, directly beneath its taller superior.

“Unum, was it?  Why don’t you tell the good lady your, or should I say our, real name?  Explain to her why you lied.”

Unum gazed pathetically at the floor.  It swallowed hard, taking several steadying breaths as it mustered the tremendous effort needed to overcome its very apparent apprehension.  Finally it spoke, measuring out each word in a slow, unsteady tone.

“I’m sorry, Fluttershy…more than you can possibly know, I’m sorry for everything we have done to you and to your friends.  Everything that has happened has been our doing, albeit indirectly.  Please, whether you can forgive us or not, know that the two of us, at least, never wished for any of this to happen, and that we vow to do all in our power to rectify what the others have done.”

With a final, steeling breath, the tiny animal prepared itself for the oncoming storm.

“I…we…do not simply know Acheron as you would understand it.  In a way…

It paused, searching for the right words.  

“…We are Acheron.”

================================================================

        Chaos.  Celestia ran and ran, fleeing from the roars of battle that echoed all around her.  Even she did not know for how long they ran - all that mattered was that they get to the vault - there they would be safe.  There they could form a plan.  As they darted through the endless halls, leaping over piles of smoldering wreckage, ducking this way and that to avoid the terrors that bellowed after them at every turn, the lieutenant shouted orders to the group in general, orders that Celestia only half-heard, her body automatically reacting to every syllable.  The Ivory Citadel shuddered from its very foundation with each distant explosion, driving them ever onward, ever downward.

At long last, past a final length of the countless identical hallways through which they had passed, a long marble staircase appeared in the distance, beckoning them to their salvation.

Their pace quickened with each step, the appearance of their one hope for survival breathing new life into their aching limbs, when suddenly…

        Whipping about, Celestia staggered back as the wall behind her exploded, sending shards of stone flying in every direction with deadly force.  Through the hole where the wall once was tumbled a gigantic, writhing mass of teeth and scales.  Two dragons lashed at each other with their spines, their claws, their tails, at anything they could reach.  Barely ducking beneath a mighty swing of one dragon’s tail, Celestia and her entourage of guards dove to cover just as the tail collided with one of the hall’s columns, sending it crumbling to the floor.  Taking advantage of his opponent’s missed strike, the second dragon, his golden scales glinting in the lantern light, struck a devastating blow to the other’s jaw, connecting with a thunderous crack as the bones therein shattered.  The gold dragon leapt forward, roaring in a frenzied rage, his teeth sinking deep into the second dragon’s throat, sending great splashes of hot, crimson vitality in every direction.  Slowly, his victim’s movements weakened, then ceased altogether.  

Argos extracted his teeth from his attacker’s throat, wiping the gore from his chin with an enormous claw.  His breathing became labored as the battle-heat left him, and he now clutched at a patch on his hind leg where a large swath of scales had been torn away.  He cursed loudly, limping toward the stairs, wincing with each step.

“Brother Argos?”

Argos spun about toward the source of the voice, his teeth bared in an angry growl, his powerful legs leaping apart into a defensive stance.  

  Celestia jumped back in fear - she had no idea what to expect after everything she had seen in the past few moments.  

“Ce…Celestia?”  Argos blinked, his magnificent golden eyes focusing on the little creature before him. Suddenly his face contorted in an odd spasm as a series of staggeringly different emotions burst through his mind in rapid progression.  At first he smiled, then scowled in deep thought, then shook his head, finally settling on a look of nervous relief.

“Oh Celestia, by the heavens, thank goodness I found you!  We have to move now.  I’ll explain-”  He paused, his eyes locked on the terrified filly who was firmly attached to Celestia’s back beside a similarly-disposed Luna.

“Who-”

“She’s the daughter of one of the delegates - Sister Augusta.  Do you know if they made it to the vault?”

At the mention of delegates, Argos’s eyes darkened suddenly, flicking back and forth between the princess and her charges.  He cleared his throat nervously, refocusing on Celestia’s question.

“I don’t know.  It happened so fast…”  he shook his great head, his shoulders sagging somewhat. He looked at her with eyes drawn deep with sorrow. “…I don’t know how to tell you this, Celestia…we’ve been betrayed.”

“Be…Betrayed? What do you me-”

An explosion shook the castle from somewhere not far away.  A sudden flash of light…

DOWN!”  

With almost crushing force, Argos’ colossal wing closed around Celestia, pressing her against the ground just as a white-hot lance of energy ripped through the air where she had just been standing.  Argos howled in agony as the blast sliced through the fleshy membrane of his wing, leaving a red, smoldering hole.  No blood issued from the wound - it had been almost instantly cauterized by the heat of the attack.  

Through the circle of light that shone through the hole in Argos’s wing, Celestia saw an immense shadow looming behind a curtain of tenebrous smoke.  Near the middle of the shadow, a hole in the smoke was just closing where it had been blasted apart.  Within that hole, just for an instant, Celestia had seen a tremendous crimson maw, still glowing from the bolt of molten death it had just hurled in their direction.

“No time!  Move!”

  In a single, blindingly swift motion, Celestia was overcome with vertigo.  Argos deposited the princess and her escort roughly on his back and, with a single beat of his mighty wings, he took off, soaring down the stairs to the chamber below.

Behind them echoed a roar of purest rage, followed by a sound like an oncoming storm.  The other dragon was chasing them.  There, at the end of the enormous space that unfolded at the bottom of the stairs, stood a colossal set of steel doors.  The entire chamber was at odds with the rest of the Citadel - here, no trace of artistry, no inkling of excess, not one iota of frivolity made itself apparent.  Everything around them sparkled dimly with the dull fluorescence of rough granite.  The chamber rushed past them with alarming speed - Argos seemed to be struggling to remain airborne, and he was having difficulty controlling his velocity.  The roars grew closer.

Celestia squinted against the blinding flash that leapt past them, impacting on the far wall with a mighty splash of heat on charred metal.  Volley after volley of fiery brilliance rained upon them from the rear, Argos doing his best to avoid them, but his energy had already been all but spent.  His reactions slowed, his already perilously low altitude dropping even further with each beat of his wings.

“Lieutenant!  Hold them steady!”  Celestia cried, thrusting a whimpering Luna toward the guard pony beside her, then doing the same with Frankie.  

Her hooves now free, Celestia swallowed hard, turning to face the raging beast behind them.  Through the haze of billowing smoke that poured from its nostrils, Celestia locked eyes with a mountain of an animal, by far the largest dragon she had ever seen.  Under normal circumstances, such a juggernaut would have appeared slow and clumsy, but the terrifying velocity and deftness of grace with which he followed after them belied his great size.  With each beat of his wings, Celestia was blasted with a wave of stinging hot air mingled with a scent akin to burning rubber, great bands of steely sinew propelling him powerfully forward, ever faster, ever closer.  She swatted aside her fear, thinking of the two terrified children behind her, and concentrated.

Slowly, a pinkish light began to envelop her horn as she charged the spell.  With all the force she could muster, she poured herself into the magic, aiming directly between the dragon’s eyes - she would only have one shot at this.  The dragon’s jagged maw opened once more, his colossal lungs inflating with a sound like grating stone on steel, the flame jets beneath his tongue dilating in preparation for the final volley.

Suddenly, Celestia was blind.  The spell she had been charging sputtered and dissipated as she cast about in a panic for any indication of what had happened.  Before she knew what had hit her, Celestia was flying through the air, vaguely aware of a stabbing pain in her temples.  She could hear nothing save for a high-pitched ringing, all sounds drowning before they could reach her ears as though she were submerged in water.  With a sickening crack that she could feel, but not hear, she skidded to a halt just before the enormous steel doors to the vault.  Her entire world was pain.  All she could do was writhe on the floor, all rational thought blasted asunder by the agony that stabbed within her left foreleg like countless shards of glass.  Celestia struggled to move, her body screaming in protest.  Luna…where was Luna?!  Frankie?!

With a sharp crack, Celestia’s hearing returned, just in time to be nearly shattered again by the roar that erupted from some indiscernible distance.  Behind her, through the adrenaline - clouded haze that obscured her vision, a great, smoldering pile of wreckage loomed where their pursuer had been only moments ago, a gigantic crimson claw peeking out from beneath a mountain of shattered stone.  Argos lay on his side, roaring in agony as he attempted in vain to stem the flow of blood that issued from the shattered remains of his tail.

Only two ponies remained from her entourage of guards - The pegasus named Linebeck was shouting something to her as he motioned to the guard next to him from his position near the doors, and the pony she recognized as Herdier limped slowly toward where she lay.  All that remained of the others were four shapeless, blackened lumps that were indistinguishable from the char in which they lay around the floor of the chamber.  

Slowly, Celestia became aware of a faint tugging sensation on her mane.  Craning her neck painfully backward, she saw both Frankie and Luna doing their utmost to drag her broken body toward the door.  Her heart leapt at the sight of them, her eyes lingering for only a moment before jumping up to focus on the doors behind them, so close now.  With newfound energy, Celestia struggled to her feet, ignoring the pangs from her leg.  Linebeck’s voice snapped into focus as she found herself standing among the wreckage.

He was cursing at the top of his lungs, an endless stream of semi-coherent, strangled shouts interspersed with the names of the guards who had until recently been alive and well.  He yanked again and again on the door with all his might, and yet they refused to yield so much as an inch for all his furor.  As quickly as she could, Celestia hobbled over to him, gently pushing him aside as she focused with some difficulty on opening the magical lock that held them shut.  A single thought drove her forward through the pain, through the numbing terror that still surged through her like a tide of ice.

Safe.  I must keep them safe.

With a heavy click that  sounded to Celestia like a chorus of angels, the mighty doors began to slowly swing open.  Immediately, she pushed the children inside, then told the two guards to follow suit, Linebeck nearly stumbling over himself in a panic.

She turned about as another ear-splitting roar shook the cavernous chamber.  Argos still writhed in agony, clutching blindly at his tail.  

“Argos!  Argos, don’t worry, I’m coming!”

At the sound of her voice, Argos’s struggling seemed to ease momentarily, his eyes blinking rapidly to clear the pain-induced haze from his vision.  He shuddered as he tried desperately to focus on the tiny, white form approaching him, his breath coming in weak, rapid bursts.

“Argos, don’t try to move!  We’re almost there!  We’re almost-”

She was cut off by the sound of a thunderous growl, coming from the far end of the chamber.  To her horror, the giant crimson-scaled claw that poked out from the pile of wreckage began to twitch.  

“STAY BACK!”

Argos had finally found his voice, snapped to attention by the realization of what had made that sound.  His eyes cleared, and he gazed imploringly at the young princess, trying to urge her backward as he fought for the breath to speak again.

“GO!  Leave…leave me…I’ll hol-…hold him off…”

Celestia froze, glancing fearfully back and forth between the eyes of her savior and the rapidly crumbling pile of rubble behind him.  Her pulse pounded in her temples, screaming at her to make a decision, but her body refused to obey.

Argos gritted his teeth, a small trickle of blood now issuing from his mouth as he forced himself into a semblance of an upright position.  In the light of the flames behind them, something hanging at the end of the dragon’s beautiful emerald necklace sparkled like a tiny star.  He clutched the object, panting heavily.  Behind him, a cascade of stone fell away to reveal an enormous, shredded wing.

“Argos, please, don’t move!  I can get you out of here, I just…I need to..”  Even as she spoke, she knew there was nothing she could do.  The look in his eyes told her that he did not have much time left.

“Take it!  Take…take it and…go!”

With all the strength her could muster, he tore the object from his necklace and flung it toward the doors of the vault, where it disappeared amongst the shadows between them.

“Destroy…the Stones…they’re after…the Stones.”

“What?  What do you m-”

Suddenly, a great pile of granite burst from the mountain to reveal a roaring mass of teeth, followed by a pair of eyes that burned with mindless hunger.

GO!”

Finally, Celestia’s wings found the will to open.  Closing her eyes, she took off toward the vault, willing herself not to look back, forcing herself not to think about what was about to happen to the brave dragon behind her.

Just before she reached the far end of the chamber, Celestia’s eyes popped open, her will failing at last.  Glancing behind her, the last thing she saw as the doors swung slowly shut were the beautiful golden orbs of Argos’s eyes, staring directly into hers.  He choked, a spout of blood trickling from between his fangs, and drew himself shakily to his feet as his agressor closed in for the kill.  With a mighty effort, he inhaled, inflating his lungs to the fullest, and aimed himself at the doors of the vault.    

A mighty crash as the doors’ colossal inner bolts fell back into place, and then a strange, warm glow, coming from the doors themselves.  Linebeck and Herdier leapt away from the doors as they began to radiate an intense heat.  Finally, after a few tense, adrenaline-fueled moments, all was silence, and the heat from the doors seemed to fade.

Celestia struggled to catch her breath, wincing as the pain surged through her for a second time.  Safe…they were safe…

“Princess, are you hurt?!”  Herdier searched her body with frantic eyes, lingering on the foreleg she held gingerly in the air.

Luna huddled under her sister, gazing upward with enormous, concerned eyes.  Slowly, as Celestia began to gather what remained of her wits, she attempted to put pressure on her leg.  She was rewarded with yet another wave of excruciating pain.  There was no doubt about it - it was broken, and quite badly.  

“I’m - gah - I’m fine.”  Celestia lied, panting as she struggled to hide her discomfort.  “Luna!  Luna, don’t move!”

She scanned her little sister’s body for any wounds, any sign of injury, but to her surprise, the filly was completely untouched.  Not even a single mote of soot marred her resplendent purple coat.  Celestia simply gazed at her sister in wonder.  How?  How had she avoided injury?  They had been right next to that blast…

And Frankie…the princess’s heart leapt into her throat once more as she realized that Frankie was nowhere to be seen.

“Mommy?!  Mommy, stop hiding!  Where are you?!”

Behind them, a small crowd of ponies huddled fearfully in the corner of the room, the children of the delegates standing in a tiny cluster at its center.  Frankie hopped about, searching every inch of the group for any sign of her mother, but to no avail.  With a sinking dread, Celestia realized that that not one of the faces in the cluster of ponies belonged to any of the delegates, nor did any of them belong to her mother or father.  There should have been many more ponies here by now, which could only mean one thing…

Mom!  Where’s my mommy?!”

“Frankie -ungk - hah…Frankie…come here…come here.  Let me see you.”

Immediately, all of the children ran forward, all insistently asking whether Celestia had seen any sign of their parents.  Professor Brarian rushed forward to quiet them, but his soothing ululations were lost in the din.  Frankie merely shouted louder, determined to be heard.

“MOMMY, STOP HIDING!  COME OUT HERE RIGHT NOW!”

It was no use - no matter how Celestia called to her, the child was completely hysterical.  Almost as though her panic was an airborne pathogen, it seemed to spread through the other children with terrific speed, their noise becoming nearly unbearable as each tiny voice struggled to make itself stand out over the others.  As quickly as she could, Celestia shuffled over to her tiny friend, extending a wing to caress her shoulder.

Frankie turned about slowly, her eyes drowning in tears.  

“Where’s mom…where’s my mother?!”  The child sputtered, clinging to Celestia’s good leg with wide, empty eyes.  Despite Frankie’s panicked state, Celestia could see that she, too, was physically unharmed.  It didn’t make sense - judging by their proximity to the blast, both Frankie and Luna should have gotten just as injured, if not more so.  She shook herself inwardly, trying desperately to calm down as much as she could - it didn’t matter how they were safe, so long as they were.

“EVERYPONY QUIET, NOW!”  At the sound of Celestia’s voice, the cacophony died instantly, giving way to a tide of pleading, anxious stares.  The princess panted heavily, wincing from the exertion of shouting as loudly as she had.

“Linebeck!  Are you alright?”

The young, shivering guard pony tensed slightly, surprised at being addressed by his name, and nodded.

“Herdier? What about you?”

The second guard nodded solemnly, his eyes still lingering on the doors.

“Both of you, tend to the others.  Make sure they’re alright and find out what you can about the delegates.”

“Frankie.  Frankie, look at me.”  Gingerly, Celestia knelt to bring her face level with the weeping child. “Look at me, Frankie.”

Reluctantly, the child obeyed, struggling to squelch her sobs.  Though she said nothing, her eyes begged Celestia as only a child could do - she begged her to help, without knowing how she possibly could, imploring her to offer some shred of comfort as though Celestia was her last hope in the world.

“All of you, listen very carefully.“  She gazed silently for a moment at the children, hoping to instill some modicum of confidence in each of them with her eyes.  “I don’t know how, or why, or what exactly is happening, but I can promise you, all of you, that you are all perfectly safe here.”  

She inhaled deeply.  No use hiding the truth, she told herself.  “I’m sorry, truly I am, but I don’t know where your parents are.  However...”  Celestia spoke quickly, once again silencing the wave of voices that had momentarily threatened to overwhelm her.  “Do not fear.  I will find them and bring them back here to you, I promise.”

From across the chamber, Herdier’s head snapped around to goggle at the princess.

What?!  Princess, you can’t be-”

Herdier’s outburst was almost immediately silenced by the sound of a muffled roar just outside.  There was a brief pause, then a deafening chorus of screams as something incredibly heavy impacted on the other side of the door with all its considerable might.  

“The doors!  Get away from the doors!”  But Celestia’s voice was but a tiny drop in a vast sea of noise.

Like the beat of a war drum, the invisible beast rammed itself against the door again and again, shaking a great rain of dust from the ceiling of the vault, yet the doors gave no sign of flexing in the slightest.  Finally, with one almighty crash, the chamber shuddered, the beast roared again, and then all was silent.

“Is it gone?!”

“I wanna go home!”

“Mommy!”

Celestia struggled to keep her injured leg aloft as the children surged around her, all trying desperately to cling to her at once.  

“Quiet!  Everypony, be quiet, please!”

No response.  She tried again and again to make herself heard, but the dragon’s failed attack had pushed them all beyond the capability of reasoning.  Raw instinct mandated that they cling immediately to the nearest available authority figure - namely, her - and she was powerless against the panic that held them in its grasp.

Suddenly, as Celestia found herself being backed into a corner, she and the tide of children stopped moving.  All around them, a familiar, warm, blindingly bright light.  In an instant, that strange, soothing light seemed to have swept away the childrens’ fear to replace it with silent awe.  Slowly, as the light began to fade, growing dimmer and dimmer, the wordless cries of a single, tiny voice drifted into their awareness until once again, the were surrounded by the dull shine of the reinforced steel walls of the vault.

Little princess Luna sat by herself in the corner, having been pushed aside by the tide of children, wailing piteously, a soft white glow still emanating from her horn.  Celestia stood dumbstruck, staring in awe at her little sister for the second time that day as recognition dawned on her.  That was the same light, she thought.  That was the very same light that she had seen just before they had been blasted off of Argos’s back.  Could Luna have possibly…?”

Without making the conscious decision to move, Celesia’s body walked automatically forward, as well as it could, to her little sister’s side.  Luna spun about, clutching tightly to her big sister’s mane, still weeping at the top of her lungs as Celestia bent down to nuzzle the little princess, cooing softly.  After a few moments Luna finally began to calm, though for the time being she refused to relinquish her grasp on her sister’s mane.

For the first time, Celestia became aware of the otherwise perfect silence of the vault.  She gazed about her at the children,  all of whom were now too engrossed in the little purple pony beneath her to remember their recent terror.  She capitalized on the opportunity, clearing her throat.

“Linebeck!  Herdier!  Help me with the doors!”

The guards exchanged a puzzled glance before rushing in unison to the princess’s side where they stood watching her anxiously for any indication of what she intended to do.  Celestia closed her eyes, reaching out with her magic, carefully exploring with a myriad of tiny fingers of magic that probed every inch of the doors before her.  She examined every nook, every cranny, every bolt and tumbler, searching for the evidence to support her hypothesis.  Satisfied, she backed away from the doors, asking the pair of guards to attempt to push them open.

After only a moment’s hesitation and a commanding glance from the princess, the guards obeyed, pushing with all of their strength, causing a few frightened gasps from the crowd behind them.  However, any fears were quickly quieted as it became apparent that no matter how they struggled, the guards would not be able to force them open.

“Linebeck, Herdier, that’s enough, thank you.”

The pair of guards collapsed, exhausted, to the floor.  Celestia turned about triumphantly, drawing herself into an authoritative stance as she prepared to speak to her subjects.

“Friends, children, all of you, I ask that you please listen very carefully to what I am about to say.  The castle is under attack, though I cannot yet say for sure the identity of our assailants or their purpose in coming here.  Nonetheless, all of us that are here today are safe, and for this blessing, for our very lives, we owe a heavy debt to one brave soul who was willing to sacrifice himself to ensure our safety.  It is with a heavy heart that I say that the dragon we know as Brother Argos is dead, killed in battle as he carried us here.  The loss that we all feel at his passing will ache for years to come, but know this - he died bravely, and he died happily, protecting those he loved.  Because of him, the danger has passed for now, and it is our duty to ensure that his sacrifice does not go in vain.  These doors…”  Celestia pointed to the monolithic doors behind her.  “…Will never open again because Argos, in his final moments, used the last of his strength to fuse the hinges, sealing them shut now and forever.  I can assure you that no manner of beast could force its way through those doors now, and that all of us are perfectly safe.  In the meantime, I need all of you to proceed into the tunnels beyond and make your way out of the citadel.”

As she finished her speech, Celestia glided over to the far wall, touching her horn to the smooth metal.  Instantly, the wall dissolved into thin air, revealing a secret passageway beyond.

“That said, I will now go to retrieve those that are not yet among us.  I-”

“But princess, your wound!  Surely we would be better suited for such a task!?”

Herdier had recovered himself, staring incredulously up at her.  Celestia met his eyes with a calm, cool gaze - She had made the decision before they had even arrived at the vault, before they had met with Argos, that if the others were not at the vault when she arrived, then she would go after them herself.  Now, especially after what Argos had said…

“Destroy…the Stones…they’re after…the Stones.”

While she had not recognized the dragon that had chased them, she knew that Argos’s cryptic warning could only mean one thing.  The draconic delegates had betrayed them, and they were trying to get to the Stones, for which purpose she already knew, though she dared not admit it to herself.  With a sinking dread, Celestia also knew that this meant that her parents were stuck in the center of all of this, and that they were even now in mortal danger, if they were still alive.  She needed to save the other delegates, but she also needed to make sure her parents were safe.

“Even if I did let you do this, how would you leave this place?  Through those doors, perhaps?

Herdier sputtered, searching desperately about for some excuse.

“…But…then…how will you…?”

“The answer is clear.  First and foremost, it is my duty as princess to do all in my power to protect my subjects, regardless of what that may mean for my personal safety.  However, I am also the only one of us who can leave this room through the way in which we came.”

Celestia swallowed hard, trying to convince herself that she could do what she knew she must.

“I will teleport to the others.  I will teleport outside the vault and I vow to you, all of you, that I shall not return until I have done all in my power to return your loved ones safely to you.”

A faint pressure on her leg.  Celestia looked down.  Frankie gazed imploringly up at her, clearly terrified at the thought of being left alone, but even more afraid of what may be happening to her mother at this very moment.  

“Promise?  You promise you’ll come back?”

Celestia knelt to face the child, speaking more softly.

“I promise, Frankie, I’ll come back for you, for all of you.”

“And mommy?  You’ll bring mommy back, too?”

Celestia’s eyes darkened for just an instant as she hesitated to answer.  Finally, she smiled, affectionately nuzzling Frankie’s forehead.

“Yes, Frankie, don’t be afraid.  I promise that you’ll see your mother again.”

Behind her, Celestia suddenly became aware of a soft ringing sound.  Turning slowly about, a small glinting object lay half-obscured in the shadows, pulsing with a gentle hum.  As she walked over to Argos’s discarded teleshard, she heard it -

It was her mother’s voice, and she was screaming.

================================================================

Twilight wrinkled her nose.  The cottage smelled dank and foul, the faint traces of animal droppings punctuating the air.  The scene was oddly chilling - there was no evidence of a struggle, all of the furniture and odds and ends that Fluttershy kept about her living room completely undisturbed, but somehow, Twilight felt as though she was being watched.

Suddenly it hit her - it was deathly silent.  No peaceful snores, no quiet tittering of the myriad of tiny animals that usually inhabited the room could be heard.  As far as she could tell, the cottage was entirely empty.

“Spike!?  Spike?!

A note of panic crept into her voice as she began searching frantically for any sign of her friend.

“Spike, where are you?!  Answer me!”

Soon, the air rang with the calls of Twilight and her friends as they fanned out across the cottage’s living space.  It was not a particularly large house, nor were there many rooms to search, so it was not long before-

“Twi!  Everypony, up here!  Ya need tuh see this!”

Applejack’s muffled cry came from directly above them, in Fluttershy’s bedroom.  Immediately, the three remaining ponies abandoned their search and ran upstairs.

“Applejack?!  Applejack!  What is it, what did you find?”

Applejack was silent, facing away from them toward Fluttershy’s bed.  As she slowly stepped aside, they saw that she was reading what appeared to be a piece of tattered paper.  Applejack’s expression was grim as her eyes scanned the last few lines of hastily scribbled text.  The moment that she had finished, Twilight magicked the paper out of her hooves and began to read it aloud to the group.

Back in the Mendwell memorial Hospital, Pinkie stared into the darkness, shivering slightly in the cold of the nearly empty hospital room.  Thought it did not happen often, this was one of the few occasions that actually got past Pinkie’s normally unflappable good mood.  She was afraid.

“heh…haha…

One of the three guards that sat around her bed forgot himself momentarily, shooting a puzzled look in her direction before crisply snapping back to attention.

It was no use - without the laughter of her friends, her own attempts seemed pitiful and cold.  She thought of her friends, hoping against hope that they were safe, that they would find out what happened to Fluttershy.  She sighed heavily, telling herself over and over that they would find her safe and sound, that everything would be alright, hoping that at some point it would actually begin to sink in.

Out of nowhere, Pinkie felt a strange twinge in her left ear.  Slowly, the ear began to spin about, gradually gaining speed before it was joined in its spastic twirling by the other ear.  The strange, itchy twinge spread to her muzzle, her lips folding in on themselves involuntarily as she began to pucker.  This wasn’t like the last time - her ears twirled furiously, her lips scrunching so much that it began to hurt.  With sudden, invigorating, terrifying clarity, her pinkie sense climaxed in a single, blindingly clear idea, almost as though it were a vision.  

“Miss?  Miss Pie, are you alright?”

The guard that had glanced at her before now abandoned all pretense of impartiality, searching her with eyes full of concern.

Pinkie struggled to speak, but her spastically convulsing face allowed her little more than a panicked mumble.

“Don’t just stand there!  Corporal, go and get a doctor!  Sergeant, help me with-”

Danger!”  Pinkie gasped for breath, tears suddenly spouting from her eyes.  One thought screamed in her mind, and she struggled to make the guards understand the direness of the situation.

“Something’s wrong!  They’re are all in terrible danger!  I need to get to them now!”

Twilight wrapped the paper tightly around itself and tucked it into place between the ever-present books in her saddlebag.  For a moment, the ponies simply stood there, immobilized in the heavy silence, before each of them, in almost perfect unison, lifted their gaze from the floor to lock with each other in grim determination.  Without a word, they all dashed out of the cottage, none of them harboring even the slightest shadow of doubt as to what they would need to do.  Fluttershy was in trouble, and she needed them - that was all that mattered as they pounded on into the night, away from the empty cottage, away from everything they knew as safe and warm.

In the darkness, hidden away from the ethereal radiance of the full moon, the springs began to tighten.  The grand trap that had been laid so many centuries ago trembled with anticipation like a tremendous, hungering beast as its prey drew ever closer to its final fate.  

A madman hid in the shadows, anticipating the advent of his revenge, silently spinning wild fantasies in his empire of solitude.  A group of friends hurried blindly onward, never knowing whether what awaited them at the end of their journey would spell their salvation or their doom, only aware that they must push on, whatever the cost.  A troubled girl struggled against the chains that pulled her inexorably toward the price of her love, nonetheless knowing that only one thing could save everything she cared about.  A fallen angel stood locked in combat with a demon of her own creation, trying to convince herself that she deserved to win the battle before her.

In that timeless darkness, there echoed a sound - at once a song of triumph, of death, of fiercest passion, of deepest sorrow.  The beast laughed to itself as all of the pieces took their final places, oblivious yet ready to fulfill the plan of the master player.

On that night, all the creatures of Equestria slept, just as they would on any other day, dreaming peaceful dreams, sighing contented sighs, completely unaware of what the morning would bring, of how extraordinary tonight actually was.  For tonight, the song of their lives was building toward its final crescendo, all of its components falling together at long last.  Tonight, the future of all life in Equestria would be decided by the few, the tormented, the brave, the mad, the lost, and the weak.  Tonight, the world would change.

As the creatures of Equestria slept, the sun marched ever onward toward the dawn, wondering to itself what sort of world would be revealed by the touch of its morning light.

Next: Chapter 9:  Checkmate


AUTHOR’S NOTE:

 

                When I began writing this story, season one had not yet finished, so Luna did not have a canon personality at the time.  As such, I came up with my own characterization for our favorite lunar princess, and although it may not exactly jive with her canon self as it is now, attempting to “correct” her personality at that late stage of writing to fit canon Luna would have destroyed much of the significance and plot of the story as I had planned it, and would almost certainly have demanded a complete rewrite from the very beginning.  Rather, I hope that you can enjoy her role in this story as much as I have enjoyed writing for her for what it is.

                In addition, it may be important to note that certain events of significance to Equestrian History, i.e. the introduction of Discord, had also not occurred until a very late stage in the writing, and are therefore not featured in this work for reasons similar to that stated above.

                Rather than change the story to maintain a strict adherence to the canon of the show and thereby create a product that was messy, confusing, and unenjoyable to me as a writer, I thought it better to simply continue writing as I always have, and allow the story to stand on its own for what it is.  Thank you for your readership, and I hope that you have as much fun reading this story as I did writing it!

 

-Viktor Lionheart

Skyfall

Concept and Writing by Viktor Lionheart

Chapter 9:  Checkmate (Part 1)

        Luna gaped in a speechless stupor at the pair of guards blocking her path.  The pounding dread that had blazed within her just moments before sputtered slightly from the shock of what she had just heard before suddenly reasserting itself in a bewildered rage.

“What do you mean, No?!  I told you to move, and that is an order!”

The pair of pegasi glared coldly back, both of them utterly indifferent to the princess’s desperation.  In a deep monotone, his voice carrying all the warmth of a scientist examining the formless occupant of a petri dish, the guard on the left repeated himself.

“Negative.  We are under orders not to allow anypony to see the princess.”  With a heavy finality, his eyes fell to meet directly with Luna’s incredulous gaze.  “That includes you, your highness.”  As he spoke those last words, she thought she saw his lip curl almost imperceptibly into something akin to a derisive grin.

Recovering herself, Luna snorted angrily, drawing herself to her full height, which unfortunately was still at least half a foot shorter than either of the rather sturdily-built guards.  

“Is that so?  And from whom did this order come, might I ask?  I refuse to believe my sister-“

“By royal decree of His Majesty the King, none shall pass.”

For a second time, Luna was struck speechless by the sheer absurdity of what she was hearing.  

“Balderdash!  My father would have no reason to forbid me from seeing my sister at a time like this, and even if he did, I couldn’t care less about it.  I demand that you allow me to see my sister immediately, or have you forgotten that my father is not the only pony wearing a crown around here?”

Neither pegasus budged so much as an inch, never blinking, never breaking the icy glare with which they fixed her.  Luna was positively seething now, the mixture of fear and desperation within her melding into a reckless abandon that muscled aside all other thought.  

So much blood…her vision flashed with brief, yet razor-sharp images of her sister’s cruelly mutilated body, her stomach turning at the weight of the incomprehensible shadow that could have compelled her sister to do such things to herself.  One thought alone pounded within her, and if these guards were going to stand in her way, then they were nothing but an obstacle – an obstacle she would overcome at all costs.  She knew that if there was but a single truth in this world, it was that her sister needed her, and she needed her now.

“Right.  If that’s how it’s going to be, then I’ll give you one more chance.  I’m going to count to three, and if the two of you have not vanished from my sight before I am finished, then so help me, I am going to watch as I make you retrieve your teeth from the floor.”

No response.  Luna snorted once more, lowering herself to the ground, inhaling deeply.

“One”

A faint azure light began to envelop her horn as she pawed at the ground, preparing to charge, her eyes trained dead center on the left guard’s breastplate.  Neither guard showed any sign of wavering in the slightest, standing resolutely in her path as though she were nothing more than a vaguely annoying insect.

“Two”

The light of Luna’s horn intensified, casting long, shimmering shadows on everything in the hall.  The air around her crackled and buzzed like a cloud of electrified bees.  This was it – she knew that neither of the guards was going to move, so she would simply have to move them herself.  With a final, deep breath, Luna shifted her weight backward in preparation to launch herself at them with all of her strength.  Slowly, she bared her teeth, grinding in grim determination.

THREE!!”

In a violet blur, Luna rocketed straight toward the guard on the left, roaring at the top of her lungs.  The entire length of her horn shone like a lance of pure brimstone, flying straight and true toward the pegasus’s chest.  Every fiber of Luna’s will propelled her forward, closer, closer, all the while the guard simply stood there, calmly glaring directly into her eyes, completely unfazed.  In slow motion, she watched the guard’s face grow larger, so close now, saw the light of her horn reflected in his armor, in his unfeeling eyes.  The heat from her attack made the air sparkle and waver all around them as her horn came within inches of his breastplate and finally, suddenly, stopped.  

She panted, half from exhaustion and half from shock.  Her horn still glowed ferociously, radiating an intense heat, causing tiny beads of sweat to appear on the guard’s face just inches above as he glared disapprovingly down at her.  He didn’t need to grin, didn’t need to say anything – she could feel the smugness coming off of him in waves like a sickening odor.  She stared directly into the pegasus’s chest, willing herself to push forward, to do something, but her body refused to respond, shaking defiantly with the furious yet utterly impotent will of an enraged child.

Luna screamed, wrenching herself away from the guard to discharge her spell into a nearby wall with a resounding crack.  As she stood, panting with her back to the pair of silent, stony-faced guards, she stared directly into the center of the charred, smoking hole that the bolt of magic had left in the polished surface of the wall, the unmovable eyes of the guard still burned into her vision, now hovering in the middle of the crater.  Her body shuddered violently as her will collapsed upon itself beneath a sudden wave of nausea.  She turned, trying desperately to muster some semblance of resolve into the gaze she directed at the pair of pegasi, her horn sparking weakly like a broken wire.  She tried to focus, tried to direct her magic in such a way so as to lift the guards bodily from their posts in order to grant her passage, but no matter how she tried, the flow of magic within her seemed to leak away, spiraling far beyond her reach.

She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to quiet the maelstrom that had erupted within her stomach as she backed away from the doors to the castle’s infirmary.  Try as she might, every time she opened them she was instantly rewarded with a fresh turn of her stomach – somehow, looking at those guards made her sick.  She had to get away.  She had to get away from those guards, away from this sudden sickening emptiness, away from the cold, metallic scent of scorched air.

She walked as quickly as her unsteady legs would carry her, ignoring the piercing glares she could still feel boring into the back of her head.  After what seemed like ages, the young princess rounded a corner, leaning heavily on the wall beside her for support.  Even in blindness, she could still feel the world spinning around her.  For several moments, she simply stood there, breathing in slow, deep breaths until at least she felt it safe to open her eyes.

It had felt the same.  Luna shuddered slightly at the thought – for just a moment, right before her horn had been about to make contact with the guard’s chest, she had seen a face emerge from somewhere buried deep in her memory, a face that she hadn’t seen in a great many years, a face that nonetheless still evoked a paralyzing terror within her.  That face, so often painted with a wide, comforting smile…

She shook her head vigorously, trying to collect herself.  It was just a memory, nothing more – just a remnant of an ancient past, she told herself, trying to push that smiling face out of her thoughts as she struggled to regain her grasp of the situation.  Her sister…she needed to find a way to see Celestia, and she would have to do it without confronting the guards if she wanted to avoid another episode like that.  

Luna set herself down on one of the many decorative benches that lined the halls of the castle, trying to force herself to calm down and think about the situation rationally.  The fog of anger and nausea now fading, she slowly began to become aware of a very different sensation that had lingered undetected behind the veil of her turbulent emotions until now.  Every part of her body shook with a guilt – ridden fear that sprang straight from her core.  She had never, never seen her sister lose it like that.  She had always seemed so strong, always managed somehow to see the bright side in everything – it was all but impossible to believe that this wasn’t really happening, that her sister wasn’t lying in a hospital bed bleeding profusely from a series of wounds she had inflicted upon herself, that it was all just an awful nightmare.  

Nightmare…her thoughts lingered on that last word - even back then, so many years ago, Celestia had always been somepony she looked up to for her incredible fortitude and perseverance, and yet, seeing her lying there in the remains of her shattered bedroom…no, even before that, just before she had given her their mother’s journal, and again when she confessed her guilt in the courtyard…Luna finally understood what she had really been seeing in Celestia’s eyes each night.  Her sister, after so many years of silent torture, after quietly suffering under the reign of some invisible beast, after so many generations of bearing the weight of an enormous, secret shadow, had finally broken.  For whatever reason, Celestia had finally given up hope.

“No,” she thought.  “That can’t happen.  I won’t let that happen to her.”

Luna swallowed hard, her brain systematically laying out the orientation of the hospital wing with regard to the rest of the castle.  The windows would be useless – all of them were barred and likely guarded, just as the door was, and the only other entrance to the infirmary was one floor down, but that would also be guarded just as well, if what the guards had told her was true.  If she couldn’t get inside through traditional means, she knew that that left her with only one option.  She would have to teleport inside and hope that none of the guards were nearby wherever she happened to appear.  Fortunately for her, she reasoned, where there was a hospital, there was a janitorial staff and where there was a janitorial staff, there were broom closets, which under the worst of conditions were seldom watched by even the most attentive guards.  From there, she hoped, she would be able to sneak in with relative ease and find an opportunity to see her sister.

Something else was bothering her – there was no reason she could think of for her father to have forbad her from seeing Celestia, and no reason to account for the guards’ behavior, not just because they had disobeyed a direct order, but also because her father was not supposed to have any real authority over them or anypony else anymore.  Now, more than ever, she was sure that something terrible was being deliberately hidden from her and that somehow, the return of her father was at the center of all of it.  But she couldn’t worry about that now, she told herself.  Her purpose set, she turned toward the wall, facing in the general direction of the infirmary, and squeezed her eyes shut, concentrating with all her might.  Just one, she thought - she would just need to remember the exact location of a single closet and she would be set.

Suddenly, it was crystal clear – the room unfolded itself before her mind’s eye as though it had only been yesterday that she had seen it from her own hospital bed.  She concentrated on the door across from her bed as she had seen it two years ago, past the nurses, into the hallway beyond.  She distinctly remembered that whenever one of her doctors had entered her room, she could just make out a plain, narrow wooden door across the hall adjacent to a faded, barely legible sign of the same telltale neon yellow that indicated the presence of cleaning supplies.  That would do it.

The air seemed to thicken about her as she focused all of her energy into the image of that tiny door, praying that there would be room enough behind it for her to fit.  Slowly, she regathered the scattered threads of magic within her, pouring them into the tip of her horn, filling it with light.  Her mane shimmered and blew about her face as the chilly evening air began to press in on her from every direction with tremendous pressure, squeezing her into the space between spaces.  Finally, with an almighty pop, The princess disappeared, the air of the now empty hall rushing in to occupy the space that she had until just recently filled.

===================================================================================

For what seemed like the millionth time, Twilight’s eyes nervously scanned the contents of her saddlebags to make sure that she hadn’t forgotten anything.  Maps of every county from Whitetail Wood to her partial sketches of the Everfree Forest, rope, candles…she mentally checked off each item as windows and latches all around the library clicked shut as they were surrounded with a soft purple glow.

“We’ll need food…must be some left in the kitchen…SPI-“

She stopped before his name could leave her lips, the last whisper of air escaping her lungs with a feeble choking sound.  For a few moments, she stared at nothing, some small part of herself imagining that she could hear the energetic patter of tiny dragon feet scurrying toward her as she gazed listlessly about, hoping in vain that her friend would come bursting from some unseen corner of the room.  

Empty.  Not a sound stirred the heavy quietude of her library – even Owlicious sat silently on his perch by the door, anxiously cocking his head as though asking if she were alright.  Her eyes lingered for a few seconds on the little padded basket that had served as Spike’s bed for as long as they had lived in Ponyville before she forced herself to look away.

The words from Fluttershy’s note floated through her thoughts once again, against her will.  She tried to shake them, tried to force herself to think of something, anything else, but the memory of that haunting text rang as clear as day.

He isn’t gone.  I’m sorry, girls, but I don’t think I can ever see you again.  No matter how I fight him, I feel like I just keep slipping away, like he’s consuming me from the inside.  I’ve already hurt too many innocent ponies because of him, and I’m too afraid to think of what he might make me do if you tried to follow me.  I’m going away, far away, as far as I can before I fade away completely, and If I can, I’m going to make sure that nopony will ever be hurt by him again.  Please, if you really care about me, just stay away.

“It’s fine…”  She told herself, only half speaking to her owl friend, shaking aside with some effort the nauseating dread that gnawed at her stomach.  “Fluttershy would never do anything to hurt Spike…It’s all going to be fine…”

As her limbs carried her automatically toward the door to the library’s cramped kitchenette, she was keenly aware of the sound of each footstep, the soft creaking of her overloaded saddlebags, even the sound of her own breathing put her on edge in the unfeeling silence.  It seemed so eerie that nopony was running around in a panic, no alarm had been raised – It was utterly at odds with what had happened that morning, and she couldn’t help but feel that it was merely the calm before the oncoming storm.  

The hospital – just a few hours ago, she had been fast asleep in Fluttershy’s room, with all of her friends around her, her mind a muddled mess of confused emotions.  She had been happy – happy that Fluttershy was safe, that Acheron could not do anything more to harm her while they were there by her side, yet at the same time, she could not help but feel a sense of mixed betrayal and fear after everything Celestia had told them, after she had lied.

And what she had found when she awoke…no amount of time could erase the memory of that atrocity, could calm the base revulsion it evoked within her whenever she tried to tell herself that it could not be true.  She remembered it so clearly –

Her eyes shot open only to be blinded by the bright, jittery light of the full moon as it filtered through the blinds of the far window.  It took a few moments for her other senses to kick into gear, and another second or so for her to register the strange, high-pitched sound that seemed to come from everywhere at once, though she was unable to interpret it as anything more than meaningless noise.  All around her, she dimly recognized the startled forms of her friends stirring to life just as she was.

Suddenly, everything snapped into focus as her heart leapt instinctively into her throat at the recognition of the sound that was still echoing in the outside hall.  Somepony was screaming.

She jumped to her feet and immediately fell flat on her face, her legs still numb and rubbery from the position in which she had been sleeping on the floor.  At the same time, Rainbow Dash fluttered clumsily out from under her blanket, tossing it away as all of them, in perfect unison, directed their vision toward Fluttershy’s bed, expecting to find her writhing in agony.  To their horror, the bed was completely empty, its dressings tossed aside to reveal a bare mattress still dotted with a few stray yellow feathers.  It was Pinkie who was the first to voice what they were all thinking.

“Where’s Fluttershy?!”

The thought was blasted away in almost the same instant that it escaped her lips as another blood-curdling scream tore through the air.  In mere seconds, all except Pinkie darted to the door.  Rainbow got there first, wrenching it open as she muscled past them into the hall outside, the scream redoubling in volume as they came within sight of its source.

The hall was dark save for the slanting beams of moonlight that splashed across the walls across from a single window and the soft glow of the dimmed lamps, but there was light enough to see what was happening.  A few meters down the hall to their right, a single nurse stood surrounded by a small group of ponies clad in the white smocks of the hospital night shift  who were dragging her bodily away from the door to the mare’s bathroom.  She was completely hysterical, blindly flailing at the nurses that held her as they each struggled in vain to calm her down.  Though they could not see what had caused the commotion, they immediately became aware of a foul, strangely sweet stench issuing from the bathroom’s doorway as its plain wooden door swung lazily back and forth on its hinges, casting long, angled shards of cold neon light across the lobby floor.  Without a word, Rainbow bounded forward, leaping over the heads of the crowd of ponies, kicking the door aside to see what had caused the ruckus.  Twilight had rushed forward to join her when the expression on Rainbow’s face caused her to stop cold.

Despite the swarm of questions that buzzed within her dizzily anxious mind, she could muster no voice to speak them.  Instead, she watched in silence as Rainbow’s jaw worked dumbly up and down before he door swung slowly shut again and she turned back toward the others, her eyes looking coldly past them to the back of the hall as though she had suddenly forgotten that they were even there.  Immediately, every one of them began to rush forward, roughing their way past the small crowd.

She had only barely registered the halting hoof Rainbow had placed on Rarity’s shoulder as she brushed past them to the head of the group, opening the door once again with a wild flick of her horn.  As she turned to face the bathroom, her stomach dropped like an anchor, knocking the breath out of her on its way down.

Blood.  She had never seen so much of it in all of her life – it lay in great spreads, spattered and smeared all across the floor in every direction, the trail ending somewhere beneath one of the closed stalls.  As she gazed in horror at the ghastly scene before her, her eyes traced the path of blood to the bottom of the stall door, where she could see a single hoof hanging limply, the twisted remains of the unmistakable golden greaves of the royal guard dangling from its broken clasp, laced with bits of torn cloth.  She found herself unable to tear her eyes away from the steady drip of crimson fluid that still issued from the single hoof, her mind reeling with half-realized images of what was left of the body to which it was attached.  All around the stalls, and even in the hallway outside the door, several familiar yellow feathers littered the floor, most of them stained almost completely black with half-dried blood.  The screams continued, punctuated with intermittent sobs, but she could barely even hear them anymore, her attention dominated by the tide of gore.  

“Twilight, what is it?  Is it Fluttershy?  What’s wrong?!  Rainbow, get your hooves off me!”

But Rainbow gave no indication that she had even heard Rarity’s request.  Twilight slumped to the floor, the scene she had just witnessed flashing by over and over, each excruciating detail leaping to her mind’s eye as her academic mind almost instinctively began trying to make sense of the horrible truth that her emotional self struggled to circumvent.  Those feathers, the bandages that lay soaking in the guard’s blood– they had belonged to Fluttershy.  There was no denying it - At some point during the night, Fluttershy had gotten out of her bed and gone into that bathroom, which means she would have had to get past the guards outside her room.  

 At long last, the screams subsided, giving way to a stream of whimpering sobs as the unfortunate nurse buried her face in her hooves.  After much raucous protest, Rarity finally managed to muscle past Rainbow and throw open the door once more.   The moment she had done so, she froze, a faint gurgling sound coming from deep within her throat as her tail twitched in a series of odd spasms, her legs slowly giving out until she lay next to Twilight on the floor.  Each of them in turn turned to each other with the intention of offering some word of comfort, some iota of reassurance, but the weight of the air in their lungs seemed too great to allow them to speak.  The most that each one could do was stare on in silence, just as Rainbow had done, all except Twilight, whose gaze remained fixed upon the last scarlet fingers of dried blood that jutted out from beneath the bathroom door.  Even when the deep masculine voice of the middle-aged pony behind her cut authoritatively through the air, not a single one of the group of friends could find the strength to react.

“What’s happened?!  Who was screaming?!”

In a heated bluster, Dr. Dorian Mendwell materialized out of nowhere with a trio of armored guards, pushing the crowd of ponies aside as he struggled to reach the nurse.  He was just passing the door to the bathroom when he too was struck motionless by the scene within.  For a few moments, he simply stared, his breath stuck fast in his throat, until he finally mustered the strength to stagger forward.  Immediately, two of the guards thrust forward a hoof to stop him, but they were swatted impatiently aside in the same moment.  Swallowing hard, he stepped as carefully as he could around the still wet pools of blood to the door of the stall, and, with a single hesitant gesture, swung it open.  Although only he could actually see the extent of the horror that lay before him, all of the others who now watched him in silent apprehension could see it in the reflection of his eyes as the color drained slowly from his face.  Without a word, he gently closed the stall door, turning automatically about as he walked back into the hallway, his hooves leaving splotchy crimson marks on the floor behind him.  

The guards exchanged a brief, silent glance before one of them marched behind the doctor to stand before the door, blocking anypony else from entering the room again and nudging Twilight gently aside as he did so.  Another walked briskly over to the nurse who lay between the doctors who had dragged her thence, and the third, who, judging by his decorations, was the highest ranking officer, stepped past his subordinate to investigate the scene for himself.  Dorian’s shoulders trembled slightly, though his face remained fixed in a mask of unreadable numbness.  Before he could speak, Rainbow found her voice, urged into action by the sight of an authority figure.

“Is it…where…where is she?”

Dorian blinked stupidly, unable to comprehend.  It took Rainbow a few frustrated moments to realize that he had no idea what she was talking about.  She had been just about to explain when suddenly, he inhaled sharply as the realization dawned on him.

“Those guards…by Celestia…Fluttershy!”

He shoved past Rainbow in a blur, straight toward the door to room 411, but stopped dead at the sound of Rarity’s voice.

“She’s gone!  She wasn’t in her bed when we woke up!”

He hesitated for a moment before bolting to the door and peeking inside to see if what she had said was true.  

“Hey, wait!  What’s all the-“

Pinkie’s frantic voice trailed off in a muffled mumble as the door swung closed and he turned to face them again, his eyes darting nervously about the hall, leaping from face to face without actually focusing on any of them.  He ran one shaky hoof through his mane, fiddling spastically with his glasses on the way back before swallowing hard, his face suddenly tightening into a determined scowl.

“Doctor Aegis, get Nurse Cross cleaned up and get her out of here.  Doctor Hermes, If you would-“

“We can take care of that, sir.  More importantly, you need to tell me what happened, and why the blood of two of my men is all over your floor.”

Though his face gave no sign of the force of his emotion, it was very evident by his tone that the guard who had spoken was doing his level best not to lose his temper as he emerged from the bathroom.  The barking authority with which he spoke was enough to jog the others out of their collective stupor as they all turned somewhat hesitantly to face him.  Dorian looked up in surprise, as though he had temporarily forgotten the guard’s presence before collecting himself again.

“Yes, of course…”  He steadied himself, speaking with the automatic confidence that accompanied his trade.  His words flowed as though he were making a diagnosis, stiffly outlining the facts as he formed a plan.  

“A patient is missing, and those guards have been murdered…we need to secure the hospital immediately.  “

“It’s her isn’t it?  She’s the one?”

“I believe so, yes.  I don’t know how or when, but she seems to have escaped sometime during the ni-“

Before he could finish, the head guard whirled about to address his subordinates.

“Ace, after you get the lady out of here I need you to report back here and begin interrogating every doctor that worked with the patient.  Constantine, contact Second Lieutenant Blitz and have him send as many spare men as he can muster.  I want a perimeter up immediately – nopony allowed in or out until we find the perp.  We’re looking for a yellow pegasus with a pink mane, no cutie mark.  Detain her on sight by any means necessary.  You are authorized to use lethal force if-“

The word lethal seemed to snap them all to attention like the crack of a whip.

“Whoa, whoa, hold yer horses!”  

Applejack stomped her hoof on the ground, causing both the doctor and the group of guards to spin about in alarm to face her.  In the sudden silence, she hesitated for a moment, surprised at how loudly the sound seemed to echo through the hall, before she collected herself once more and continued in a low, even tone, determined to take command of the situation.  

“Slow down there.  Will somepony tell the rest of us whut in the hay is goin’ on here?  Whut’s this talk about Fluttershah murderin’ somepony?   Yeh can’t seriously be suggestin’ that Fluttershah’s responsible for this?”

“Are you suggesting that she isn’t?”  The head guard had muscled past Dorian and now glared challengingly down his muzzled into Applejack’s eyes.  The suddenness of his proximity seemed to shake some of the confidence from her, though it did nothing to deter the rainbow-colored blur that appeared by her side.

Back…OFF …”

Rainbow spoke through gritted teeth.  Some of the pigment had begun to return to her features, and a heated reddish glow pooled in her cheeks as she fought visibly to control herself.  The guard snorted in something like disgust in Rainbow’s direction, his scowl unwavering as he casually dismissed her with a flick of his eyes, returning to his interrogative stare toward the small orange pony before him.  He opened his mouth to speak again when Rainbow cut him off.

        “You looking for a beating?  If you know something about this, you’d better tell us pronto.  I’m not taking any more bull from the princess or her tin soldiers.”

        Her voice shook with each word, but as she spoke the guard stonily refused to acknowledge her existence.  One final time, he began to address Applejack before she cocked one hoof against her side in preparation to launch a punch straight at the guard’s head.  It was a mistake.

In a single swift motion, the guard swept her other leg from beneath her, causing her to drop to the ground with a painful crack as he pinned her in place.  A string of curses that would embarrass a sailor pony erupted from her mouth before he slammed her jaws together with a single hoof and brought his head down to her level, her brilliant magenta eyes radiating an intense hatred that seemed only to provoke him further.  Instinctively, Applejack sprang forward but was immediately halted by a warning glare from the other two guards as they assumed offensive positions.

        “Shut up and listen hard,” He said in a coarse, clipped tone.  “Two of my men are dead, and at least a dozen more are cooped up in here since your little friend went ballistic.  I’ve heard what you and your friends have said about her, and about how she was just the sweetest little pony that you ever could know, but that girl just took out some of the finest of the royal guards by herself without so much as a thought as to who they were or what they had to say about it.  What in hell makes you think I give a damn about her safety?”

                Rainbow flailed feebly under the weight of his hooves, but as strong as she was, the guard’s mighty grip showed no signs of breaking.  The muffled trace of some foul utterance escaped her tightly clenched teeth as she struggled to speak.  

The guard’s sudden display of violence seemed to have momentarily reawakened some of Rarity’s typical pompous inner fire.  Shaking aside the numbing shock that still nonetheless kept her rooted to her spot on the floor, she puffed herself to as full a height as she could manage, glaring indignantly downward at the two of them.

        “You…How DARE you!  IS this how a member of the royal guard treats their charges!?  Release her this insta-“

        “Can it, girly.  I’ll deal with you when I’m done with her, unless you’d prefer to be restrained.”

        “…I…Listen here, you brutish little-“

        “We gave her a chance when we put her in here with all the other patients, and that was only because Princess Celestia insisted that we do so, but it is clear to me that this Fluttershy is a very serious threat to everypony around her and therefore you are obligated by law to tell me everything you know about her condition and why she would have done this.  She is dangerous and she must be neutralized.”

        Applejack leapt in front of Rarity before she could offer what looked to be the beginnings of a rather scathing retort.  

“Let ‘er go!  You’ve got it all wrong, there’s no way Fluttershah ever coulda done this!  She’s probably alone and terrified right now, if you’d only help us-“

        “Step away, miss!  You are all going to be detained for questioning in due time, as soon as we know exactly what happ-“

        “Guys?!  What’s going on out there?!  Somepony throw me a bone here!!”

        “Get off of her immediately or this girly going to put you in a world of pain!”

“Yer wastin’ time!  If yeh’d jes’ listen-“

 In an instant, the tides of angrily surging voices crashed together as everypony tried to make themselves heard at once.  Somewhere in the din, the guard’s hold on Rainbow shifted and she immediately capitalized on his mistake.  With dizzying speed, she toppled him and began pounding viciously away at any part of him she could reach as his two subordinates rushed forward and grabbed her under her flailing forelegs, slamming her against the wall with enough force to rattle the nearby windows.  All the while, Pinkie’s desperate shouts could be heard from inside her hospital room and Dorian darted impotently about pleading at the top of his lungs for an end to the violence, but the sound dissolved beneath the onslaught of angry voices.  

        It happened so quickly that she could not fully understand the reasoning behind the sudden rush of anger that prompted her to act.  In a dizzying blur, Twilight found herself on her feet with the sound of her own bellowing voice ringing in her ears.  

SHUT UP!”

Whether it was the sound of her voice or the brilliant violet pulse of energy that shook the hall as it erupted from her horn, she wasn’t sure, but it accomplished what she had needed it to do.  In the space of a second, everypony fell silent.  Scrambling angrily to his feet, the head guard wiped a trickle of blood from his lip and shot a caustic glare in her direction, but said nothing, momentarily stunned by the burst of magic.  As the light gradually began to fade from the hall, Twilight panted through her nostrils, looking at each of the guards in turn.

“Everypony needs to calm down, now.  If we’re going to accomplish anything, we need to stop screaming at each other and focus.”

“Miss, I suggest that you-“

“No, I’ll do the talking, thanks.”  

With a flick of her horn, the guard’s jaws snapped comically shut, and whatever had constituted the rest of his sentence was lost in a stream of indignant mumbles.

“Let’s get one thing straight - we need to consider all of the facts before somepony else gets hurt.”

Applejack’s eyes shot wide, her brow furrowing furiously as she gawked incredulously at her friend.

“Twi?  Ye can’t seriously be-“

Not now, Applejack.”

Her mouth hung open in a silent gasp, her eyes darting rapidly between Twilight and the rest of her friends, but Applejack fell silent.  Something about her friend’s tone was frightening enough to stifle any protest.  It wasn’t exactly angry, but it belied a barely controlled panic that told her not to interfere.

Twilight’s entire body shook with each breath.  She had rarely ever felt anything like this before, and the sheer terrifying force of the feeling threatened to overwhelm her.  Her logical mind clung desperately to whatever it could grasp to prevent her from losing control completely.  Her voice relayed her thoughts in a stiff jagged rhythm as she reviewed them one by one in her head.

“Fact – two guards are dead, and Fluttershy is missing.  Fact – Fluttershy was in no condition to be up and about on her own, and certainly would not pose any threat to a pair of trained guards-“

One of the guards swiveled his head in her direction, still pinning Rainbow firmly to the wall with an outstretched hoof.

“Then how do you explain those feathers on the floor?  It doesn’t take a genius to-“

Fact – I…I know Fluttershy could not have done this because I personally helped to rid her of the magic that was making her so violent.”

There was a brief pause after the words left her lips, and something in her posture seemed to waver slightly as soon as she finished speaking.

“Ask the Princess – she can…”  Another moment of nearly imperceptible hesitation.  “She can vouch for me.”

“Then who-”

She grunted impatiently.

“Don’t be stupid.  The Princess must have told you just as much if not more about her condition than she told us, which means you know that she might not be the only dangerous-“

MISS!  Do not presume for an instant that you are in any position to tell us how to do our duty!  I must ask you to calm yourself and think about this rationally before you go spouting ideas that do nothing but frighten everypony!”

The sudden volume spike in the guard’s voice had caught her off-guard.  For some reason, the guard’s demeanor had suddenly taken on an oddly frantic edge, just for a moment, as though he were very keen to prevent her from saying anything further.  She faltered, and the magic that bound the head guard’s lips dissipated.  He immediately fixed her with an authoritative glare and spoke in a slow, dire tone.

“Watch it, Miss Sparkle.  You have no right to disclose classified information to the public.  I could arrest you now on that charge alone.”

“…C…Classified…?”


Dorian! Don’t just stand there, get everypony out!  This is a crime scene.”


The elderly unicorn gave an odd yelp as he leapt to attention, then busied himself with shooing away the crowd of doctors, who nonetheless took only a single step before thoroughly ignoring his pleas, too fascinated by the scene that was unfolding between the guards and this rather odd purple unicorn.


Twilight blinked as the realization set in.  Suddenly her features contorted into an angry scowl.


“Oh don’t you dare tell me that that’s what this is about.  Is it really that simple?  How can you use her like that?”


“Twi, what are you-“


“I said NOT NOW!”


“Miss Sparkle, you need to take your own advice and calm down.  I assure you, we as royal guards are taking every possibility into consideration.”  Though the guard’s glare lost none of its fire, his tone had taken on the trappings of one who was trying to calm a very distraught and irrational mental patient.  


“Liar!  I won’t let you turn her into a scapego-“


Which means,” He continued, undeterred by the fury of her tone.  “That we need to consider that Fluttershy is still dangerous – a possibility that you seem unable to cope with.”


“Oh don’t give me that.  You’re not Listening!  I told you, she isn’t-“


“And I’m telling you, that I have a duty to perform, and that means doing whatever I must to protect the ponies of Equestria.  A search party will be dispatched, and your friend will be found, at which time she will be detained and, if necessary, dealt with.”


“But-“


“And another thing.  You were right - the Princess did fill us in on the situation, which makes me wonder just how far I can trust any of you, especially after this little display.  How do I know that none of you have been compromised?  You are all going to come with me.  You and your friends are under arrest for attempted assault on a royal guard as well as for suspicion of conspiring with the fugiti-“


As he spoke, he moved toward her raising a single hoof, but before he could finish his sentence, the wind was knocked from his lungs as the force of Twilight’s spell sent him skidding into the wall with a heavy thud.  In the same instant, the other two guards abandoned their positions by the wall and turned to charge in her direction, and almost as quickly collapsed to the ground as a well-aimed kick from Rainbow blasted them out of consciousness.  


For a few moments, all eyes darted nervously between the two mares as they stared at each other with expressions halfway between fear and exhilaration.  Dorian simply stood there with his jaw on the floor, paralyzed by what he was seeing.  In the silence that followed, Twilight could see an odd sense of surprised respect in Rainbow’s eyes, and she was more than a bit alarmed at herself for the severity of her actions, but she had little time to dwell on her emotions before the head guard began struggling to his feet, a long, pained moan escaping his lips.  Capitalizing on the rush before it could fade, she immediately pinned him to the ground with a vibrant purple bubble of magic and stepped toward him, doing her best to meet his gaze without blinking.  


“You little fool…what do you think-“


Quiet.”  


Without lifting her gaze from the guard at her feet, she addressed her friends.


“Applejack, go and tell Pinkie what’s happening.  Rarity, Rainbow, grab our things and get ready to leave now.”


No one moved.  Rarity simply goggled at her in shock.


“T…Twili-?”


“I have a plan, but here’s no time.  Just trust me.”


“Twi…Rainbow, you guys spit yer bit or sumthin’?  You…you just…”


Twilight snorted impatiently.  The burst of emotion that had prompted her to act was already beginning to fade, and she needed them to listen to her before she lost the strength to continue.  But more importantly, she thought, every moment that they spent standing around was another moment that Fluttershy was in danger.


“She needs our help, right?  Right.”


“But-“


“Go!  NOW!”


“You heard her!  Let’s go!”


Rainbow’s voice had caught her somewhat by surprise, but she was nonetheless thankful for her support as it seemed to convince the others to start moving as her feathered friend darted between them and through the door.  After a moment’s hesitation in which they exchanged a quick glance, the others hurried down the hall after her to Pinkie’s room.  The guard stared upward in fuming silence, every muscle straining in vain against the magic that bound him.  


“Attacking a member of the royal guard, interfering with officers in the line of duty, aiding a fugitive-“


“I said quiet.”  


With an almost imperceptible nod of her head, she fastened the guard’s jaws tightly shut once more, drawing a deep breath as she ran over the plan, for lack of a better word, in her head.  The shaky confidence that rooted her to the ground wavered somewhat as the careful, almost obsessively prudent part of herself screamed in protest of everything that she was doing.  She fully expected Princess Celestia to come bursting around the corner in a rage, and she could almost hear her voice scolding her for her actions, berating her for being so childishly reckless in allowing herself to lose her temper at a time like this.


Princess Celestia…no, she thought, that was wrong.  Everything about this was wrong.  Fluttershy wouldn’t…she couldn’t…The images of the bathroom flashed by once more, the blood-soaked feathers, the dangling hoof.  And in the conference hall, as well…over and over she tried to deny the facts that began to connect to a single point, to suppress the possibility that she was too terrified to put into coherent thought.


She glared at the guard, willing herself to speak, but the words would not come.  In their place, the remnants of his own words drifted through her memory.  


You are authorized to use lethal force if-“


NO!”


The guard’s expression of intense loathing flickered momentarily into something akin to alarm as everypony took a single synchronized step away from the pair of ponies.  A flurry of nervous glances were exchanged among a tittering of panicked whispers, each and every pony too afraid to approach what appeared to be a mare at the end of her wits.  As she stared into his steely eyes, she was keenly aware of their reactions, but she had made up her mind – she knew what she had to do.


“No,” she repeated, a bit more softly.  “I’m going to say this once, and whether you believe me or not, it’s the truth, so listen up.  Fluttershy did not do this.  The only thing of which my friend is guilty is trying to face this…whatever is happening to her by herself, and the really terrible thing is that it’s not even her fault that she was put into that position.  But nothing, nothing is going to stop me now from doing everything I can to help her, least of all you.”


The guard made an odd grunting noise, as though her were laughing.


“There has to be a reasonable explanation for this, but it isn’t what you’re thinking.  You think she’s a killer…you think she would do this because you don’t understand what she’s going through…how could you understand?”  


As she spoke, she felt a tiny lump poking at her throat.  Suddenly, for some reason she could not understand, her cheeks felt hot, and she was finding it difficult to keep from blinking.


“We’re her closest friends in the world, and even we can’t fully understand it.  I know that it seems to you that she’s done some terrible things, and that a lot of ponies have been hurt as the result of her actions, but if  you’re going to hunt her down without giving her the chance that she deserves…i-if I have to f-fight you to help her...”


She trailed off, unable to finish, though her point was clear.  The guard’s face was an unreadable stony mask, and for several seconds the two stared into each other’s eyes in silence.  Twilight found herself swallowing hard in an effort to remove the lump as it seemed to grow in size, but it refused to budge.  When she spoke again, her tone had softened, and she pleaded with every fiber of her being that her desperation would convince him of the truth.


“Please…I’m begging you…help us.  Help her.  I understand if you don’t want any more of your men to put themselves at risk, and I’m not asking for that.  I’m just asking you to let us find her in peace.  We might be the only ones who can actually stop this from…from getting any worse.”


The light from her horn faded, and the guard inhaled sharply as he found himself once again in possession of his faculties.  He worked his jaw stiffly back and forth for a moment as he rose to his feet, but instead of offering any words of compromise or sign of agreement, he simply stared silently back, the same blank, impenetrable expression on his face.  She scowled, if for no other reason than to force herself to remain confident, to maintain the high ground for as long as possible.  When the guard refused to respond, she spoke again.


“I…my friend and I shouldn’t have done that, I know, and I’m sorry – we’ll be happy to pay the price for our actions when this is over – we were just concerned for our frie-“


“You’re not going to change your mind, are you?  No matter what I say, you’re going to try to find her on your own?”  


She paused for a moment, surprised at the change in his tone.  He no longer sounded angry, though neither did he exude any evidence of complacency.  The stony gaze with which he fixed her remained unchanged as he waited for her answer.  


“…That’s right.  I don’t want to fight you, but if you try to stop me, then I will.  Maybe you’re right…maybe Fluttershy…”  She trailed off, choking on her own voice, blinking rapidly to clear the strange, filmy haze from her vision.  Something cool and wet splashed across her cheek.


“Even if she is still being manipulated, the Fluttershy I know at least deserves the chance to be saved, and if that’s still possible, then I know that we’re the only ones who can do it.”  


He took a deep breath, nodding as if he had already known what she were going to say, never breaking eye contact, not even to blink.  He seemed to study her, taking everything in without moving a muscle.  The two stared at each other for several seconds in heavy silence with Twilight doing her best not to allow any sign of weakness seep into her features.  Despite the niggling fear that still poked at her resolve, she had meant what she said – she tensed, preparing to defend herself if the guard should attempt to strike, but what the guard did next nonetheless caught her completely off-guard.  


Without warning, a small grin cracked the guard’s features, and vanished almost instantly.  For the first time in several minutes, he blinked, and seemed to relax slightly, though his posture still retained something of the telltale stiffness that his military training had instilled.  


“Then let me ask something of you in return.  You said yourself that you were one of her best friends, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to lead us to where she’s hiding.”


Twilight’s heart began to leap into her throat in excitement, but stopped about halfway there as the thought occurred to her.


“Not so fast.  What are you going to do when you find her?”


“…We’ll assess the situation as it presents itself.  You’ll be given the chance to talk to her, but if she shows even the slightest sign of aggression, we will not hesitate to strike.”


“NO!  I won’t let you hurt her!”  Her words tumbled out in a single anguished breath – in the same moment she had been excited at the sign of progress and almost as quickly her hopes had been dashed.


“Then you can at least explain to me what it is you expect to do.  She didn’t just kill my men, she tore them apart.  And if I remember correctly, she physically assaulted another of your friends, as well.  ”


“But that was before we - “


“Before you saved her?  Regardless of what you might say my men are still quite dead.  If that’s your brand of salvation, then I’d say it isn’t worth much.”


“I can’t explain this, that’s what I’m telling you…I don’t know any more about this than you do, only that there is no way this could be her doing!  Please, wherever she is, she’s in terrible dange-“


“Wherever she is, everypony is in danger.  If you’re truly concerned about her, then you’ll allow us to do our job in bringing her to justice.”


Bringing her to…You’re not listening!  Please, we have to leave now!”


With a sound that made everypony around them jump, the door to Pinkie’s room burst open and Rainbow’s head poked out into the hallway, swiveling in her direction.  


“We’re good to go!  But Pinkie’s still-”


“Miss Sparkle, I‘m afraid I must insist that you comply.  Resist, and I will have no choice but to-“


“No!  You know what?  That’s it, we’re done.  Try and stop us if you want, but we’re leaving.”


As soon as the words had left her lips, something changed in the atmosphere of the hall that made her hair stand on end.  It took a fraction of a second for her to register that his eyes were no longer focused on her, but seemed to be looking past her at a point down the hall, and another second or so for the thought to sink in as she watched the head guard give a tiny, jerking nod.  In that instant, time seemed to slow to a crawl as she became intensely aware of her surroundings.  Sluggishly, her eyes found their way to Rainbow’s face, and to the single silent word that her lips seemed to be forming.


DUCK


She could almost smell the scent of singed hair as the bolt of magic shot past the space where her head had just been and impacted not a second later on the head guard’s face.  He didn’t even have the time to make a sound before he crumpled to the floor, unconscious.  In a surge of adrenaline-fueled clarity, she caught herself on her two right hooves, pivoting in a single swift motion to face the pair of  guards that had appeared just outside the exit to the fourth floor stairwell.  The unicorn that had fired the spell cursed under her breath, aiming once more as her horn began to crackle with another angry burst of energy and her pegasus companion charged forward.  In the same moment, Rainbow shot past her, slamming into the guard’s chest to send the spell flying harmlessly into the nearby wall.  Without a moment’s hesitation, Twilight focused a blast of magic at the center of the pegasus’s chest plate, knocking his unconscious body airborne as her friend struggled about on the ground with her own guard  until, with a flick of her horn, Twilight bound the unicorn’s limbs to the side of its body, leaving her in a helpless heap on the floor.  


Bedlam.  Like a cork bursting from a bottle under too much pressure, the air was rent with the cacophonic panic of the dozen or so ponies that had gathered in the hall as each of them immediately began running in every direction.  The sound was enough to set Twilight into a momentary state of blind aggression as her horn began to crackle with the beginnings of another spell before she realized what it was they were all running from.  As she watched the tail of the elderly Dr. Dorian vanish down the adjacent hall, she stood frozen to the floor for a moment before something on the floor by her hooves caught her eye. Sure enough, the teleshard that served as the centerpiece of the head guard’s breastplate glowed with a barely visible light – he must have activated it at some point during their conversation without her noticing, which meant that that unicorn would only be the first of many.  The reality of the situation snapped her wits back into focus, and the still only-half formed plan that had been bouncing around the inside of her mind jumped to life.


She turned toward Rainbow only to whip painfully around again as her friend shot by, already one step ahead of her.  Without another word, she looked down at the pile of guards at her feet and focused.  With a small pop, the teleshard in the center of each of the four incapacitated guards’ breastplates broke free of its bindings and drifted into place beside her head, held aloft in a sphere of purple light as she bolted back toward room 411 and slipped inside just as the door was swinging shut and a new blast of sound greeted her already ringing ears.  Immediately, the fearfully angry voices of her other three friends assaulted her from every side, each of them demanding to know what had happened.


“Twi, whut’s goin’ on here? Rainbow, whut did you do?”


“What happened?  Where is that guard you were talking to?”


Thankfully, Rainbow spared her the effort of trying to explain as she focused on magicking all of their bags into a small pile in the center of the room.


“Doesn’t matter – we need to leave now.”


Rarity stomped about in a bewildered huff.  


“But what’s going on?!  You haven’t explained-“


“Shut up and move!”


She silenced any other protests that Rarity may have had in store by darting behind her and forcibly pushing her toward the door.  She had gone about three feet when she stopped abruptly, her head shooting upward as a single barking voice made itself heard over the din from outside.  


“Clear a path!  Please, everypony calm down and STAY PUT!  You’re obstructing officers in the line of-“


They were close, too close for them to be able to escape through the hall or any of the stairways without a fight.  


Horsefeathers!  Now what?!”


Nopony moved, Rainbow’s head whipping about with dizzying velocity as she scanned in vain for an alternative exit until her eyes, as well as those of everypony else in the room fell silently upon Twilight.  It only took a second for her to decide what they would have to do, but in that same instant she also knew that it would be impossible.  Almost as though it were staged, she and her four friends all turned in perfect unison toward the hospital bed at the far side of the room.


Pinkie gazed quietly back, wearing an oddly restrained expression on her face, as though she were deep in thought.  That was the first time, she thought – that was the first time she had ever seen Pinkie look like that, and she wasn’t altogether sure how to interpret it.  Come to think of it, Pinkie hadn’t said a word since they had entered and the usually excitable mare’s silence was a bit jarring.  The expression only lingered for a moment however, until Pinkie’s eyebrow arced comically upward in a guise of mock innocence.  


“Pinkie, did Applejack-“


“Yeah, she told me,”  She said matter-of-factly.  It was more than a bit bizarre to hear that tone spoken in Pinkie’s voice, but at the moment it didn’t weigh heavily on Twilight’s mind.


“Then you know what we have to-“


Duh.”


Twilight waited for an explanation, but Pinkie didn’t respond, her expression still unnervingly aloof.  


“But-“


“Don’t worry about it –I’ve already picked out a color scheme and a menu.”


This time Twilight couldn’t help but stare at her friend in utter bewilderment.  In all of the excitement she wondered briefly if she had misheard her, or if Pinkie really understood the situation.  


        “You…what?  Pinkie, this-”


        “Well somepony’s gotta be here to make everything ready, right?  Planning something like this isn’t easy, y’know-“


        “Pink, whut in tarnation ‘re you talkin’ abou-“


        “Fluttershy’s homecoming, of course!  If anypony can throw a party to cheer somepony up, that pony is Pinkie!”


        “But what about-“


The sound of pounding hooves from outside, just a few meters down the hall.  Instinctively, Rainbow threw all of her weight against the door just as it shook with a mighty impact.


        “Open this door in the name of the law!  Resist and your punishment will only be harder!”


        After only a moment’s hesitation in which Rainbow glared imploringly in her direction, Applejack ran over to assist her.


        “Whut the hay did you do?  Whatever it was, they sound pretty dern sore ‘bout it.”


        Rainbow didn’t answer, growling with exertion with each mighty blow to the door at her back.  Twilight glanced frantically between Pinkie and the door, at a loss for what to do.


“Pinkie…” she whispered, her tone urgent, but she couldn’t seem to find the words to explain.  She knew that there was no way it would work – they couldn’t take Pinkie with them in her condition.


        “Pinkie, I’m sorry…“


        “Then in that case, I’ll have to cheer you up too!”  She smiled.  “But a party’s not a party without the guest of honor.  I’ll get everything set up here.  But you guys hafta Pinkie Pie swear that you’ll bring her back, okay?”


        For a moment that seemed to stretch for a very long time, Twilight stared into her friend’s eyes as her one good forehoof squashed an invisible cupcake into her eye.  Pinkie’s smile…whenever she had needed somepony to lean on, whenever any of them had been upset or afraid, Pinkie was always there in her own capacity, even if it was a bit bizarre at times, with that same friendly smile to let them know that everything was going to be alright.  Even when they too afraid to ask for help, Pinkie always knew exactly what they needed.  But this time, there was something different – just the faintest trace, she thought.  Just the faintest trace of her previous expression still lingered in Pinkie’s eyes, and it was enough to let her know that Pinkie fully understood what it was she was asking, and that she was forgiven.  She nodded in Pinkie’s direction, silently mimicking her gesture and promising to return with their friend safe and sound.  


        She turned to face the others, yelling above the angered shouts of the guards.  


        “Alright guys, listen up! Everypony over by the door, now!


        Despite the obvious confusion that still painted her face, Rarity obediently trotted over to the door with Twilight.  The door gave an alarming, high-pitched groan as the wood began to splinter.  


        “I’m going to try to teleport us outside!  Everypony grab on!”


        They obeyed.  Each of them squeezed their eyes shut as Twilight took a long, deep breath and poured her magic into the tip of her horn.  As the tiny ball of light began to grow, time seemed to slow to a crawl all around them, and the racket outside faded to nothing as the air was sucked from the room.  In that final moment, Twilight cast one more reluctant glance toward the hospital bed, holding her breath as the spell began to envelop the group of friends.  Pinkie still smiled brilliantly back, and as the fingers of the void closed in around them with the sound of a wave washing over the shore, it was the last image of the hospital that lingered in her mind.


From there onward, everything had seemed to happen so quickly that it barely seemed to be real.  The memories blurred together and skipped in places, like the fragments of a dream.  They had arrived unceremoniously at the bottom of the hill leading up to the hospital, and had taken the liberty of borrowing one of the golden chariots of the royal guard.  With the help of Rainbow’s strength and her own magic, they had made directly for Ponyville with a single goal in mind: to get to Fluttershy’s cottage.  It was the only place they could think of to begin searching, and even if they didn’t find anything, Spike would be able to send a letter to Celestia explaining their side of the story, and hopefully recruit her help in the process.  In the meantime, she had used her stolen teleshard with a bit of impromptu magically-assisted voice acting in mimicry of Princess Celestia herself to issue a top-priority order that all guards stationed in Ponyville immediately abandon their posts and assist in stopping a hydra rampage near Whitetail Wood.  She knew it was only a matter of time before the guards at the hospital guessed at where they would be heading and sorted out the confusion, but she hoped at least that her little diversion would buy them enough time to do what they needed to and that, given the circumstances, the Princess would forgive her indiscretion.


Almost immediately after their departure, Applejack and Rarity had insisted that she explain everything that had transpired, and while neither of them seemed too pleased that they were now on the run from the law, they seemed to agree that it had been their only option, given the circumstances.  At least, that’s what she kept telling herself.  At the moment, she thought as she tossed one final package of hay biscuits into her bags before fastening the clasp, she had more important things to worry about.  Even with the message she had sent ahead to the Ponyville guards, it wouldn’t be long before the library and everypony else’s homes were swarming with police.  


She ignored the impulse to triple-check her bags, running over the plan in her head.  After leaving Fluttershy’s cottage, they had all agreed to grab whatever they could as quickly as possible and meet by the edge of Sweet Apple Acres within the hour.  The farm probably would have had enough supplies for all of them put together, but Twilight had insisted that going anywhere without some of her maps would spell disaster.  There was no telling what condition Fluttershy was in, so they would have to reach her as soon as possible.  If anything were to happen to any of them before they could meet, they were to use the stolen teleshards to communicate, as Twilight had showed them.  


Hoping that she hadn’t missed anything important, she tiptoed to the door as quietly as she could and reached toward the latch.


“Attention, transgressor!  This is First Sergeant Shrike of the Royal Ponyville Dispatch!  The building is surrounded.  You will come out immediately and without protest or we will take you by force.  You have until the count of five!”


The guard’s voice nearly made her fall over herself in alarm.  In a silent frenzy, she fought to control the rapid pounding of her heart as the library’s stale, dusty air seemed suddenly to tear at her lungs with each ragged breath.  Clumsily, she fumbled with the latch of the library’s front door, drawing it shut as she backed away.


“One!”


She cursed under her breath, scanning around the ground floor of her home in search of an escape, but she knew it was useless.  She railed against herself for taking so long, for trying to be so thorough in her preparation.  Now she would never be able to reach Fluttershy or Spike…


“Two!”


Taking a deep breath, she ran to the second floor, making no effort to hide the sound of her footsteps against the aged wood as she raced to the balcony.  Her horn cast a faint, jittery light around the glass doors to the balcony as she threw them violently open, skidding to a stop at the polished curve of the railing.  As she looked down at the circle of guards below, her heart skipped a beat at the realization that something was very wrong with what she was seeing.


“Three!”


On the ground below was a circle of at least fifteen guards, all of which were facing away from the base of her tree.  Just as the guard named Shrike had said, the building was completely surrounded, but it was not her building.  Instead, they had all gathered around a small, square-shaped home across the street that was marked with a single hanging sign just outside the front porch.


“…Mendwell Family Clinic, Dr. Grey Mendwell, M.D.”  She read aloud to herself, squinting to make out the slanting text that wound around a plain red cross in an elegant ellipse.  


While her heart still raced furiously in her chest, her mind had begun to calm a bit from the realization that she was not in immediate danger, and the presence of a familiar name sent its well-worn cogs into motion.  Grey Mendwell, she thought…Dr. Grey Mendwell…”


In the same moment that she realized the significance of the name, the very pony to which it belonged came trotting anxiously out of his door and stopped dead in his tracks.  For several seconds, he stared at the group of guards in bewilderment, and the guards stared stonily back.  He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could so much as utter a single word, the guards were upon him, shackling his hooves and muzzle in a single swift motion.  


Twilight watched, utterly nonplussed as the wave of glinting armor enveloped the doctor.  Even as she watched one of the guards land a mighty blow that put an abrupt end to his struggling, she could muster no defense for him, her rational mind coldly reminding her just how close she was.  Just moments ago, she had been absolutely certain that she’d be spending a very long time in a jail cell, and now her would-be captors were assaulting an innocent physician practically on her doorstep, though for the life of her, she couldn’t comprehend why.


Innocent…that word stuck stubbornly in her mind, as though it didn’t quite belong, as though she was missing something obvious, but the rest of her was a bit too preoccupied with her recent brush to be able to focus on the idea for more than a moment.  Without a second glance, she felt herself running, down the stairs, out of the back door of the library, across Ponyville Common, dodging behind houses and bushes as fast as her hooves could carry her.  The world flashed by, each and every shadow like an enemy waiting to pounce as she willed herself to move faster.  She prayed that everypony would be waiting for her at Sweet Apple Acres, prayed that she wasn’t as helplessly powerless as she felt, but above all, she prayed that Spike and Fluttershy were safe.  


“I’m coming, guys…I’m coming…”

===================================================================================

Luna cursed under her breath.  Her ears standing erect like twin twirling sentries, listening as hard as they could for any sign that somepony had heard the commotion.  Several tense moments passed with her ignoring the freezing wetness she felt creeping up her left foreleg and the stench of rancid mop water as she blindly watched the back of the narrow door, expecting it to swing open at any moment to reveal a set of cold, glaring eyes.  But no one came.  No sound could be heard, save for the steady drip, drip, drip, of some unseen leak in a pipe somewhere above her head and the muffled thumping of her heart from its position in the top of her throat.  

After several more moments of anxious waiting, she felt it safe to attempt to remove the bucket from her hoof, wincing slightly as the faint light that issued from her horn illuminated its murky, foul-smelling contents.  Slowly, carefully, Luna pushed aside the remnants of the cascade of cleaning fluid bottles and other detritus that she had knocked about upon her rather unceremonious entrance, making sure that her path would be clear if she should need to quickly duck back inside.  With a deep, steadying breath, she nudged the door until it was just wide enough for her to see a through a tiny sliver of half-light into the hallway beyond.  As far as she could tell, it was completely empty, though if someone had heard her, that wouldn’t last long.  As quietly as she could manage, she tiptoed out into the hallway and stopped, her eyes locked on the door set into the opposite wall.  

Emblazoned in the center of the wooden door across the hall was an image of a small cobalt blue star.  This part of the castle’s hospital wing, Luna remembered, was specifically devoted to the care of members of the royal family and distinguished guests.  As a result, the rooms in this part of the infirmary were not used nearly as often as the others, but were nonetheless meticulously maintained at all times to be ready for any emergency.  

This room in particular had special meaning for the princess – for quite some time after her return, she had spent her days behind its familiar wooden frame.  As she stood alone in the heavy darkness of the empty hall, the sight of the door stirred to life memories of those days marked with the terrible endless nightmares she had hoped to have long forgotten, but which haunted her still on cold lonely nights such as this.  Memories of her sister during those days, as well, flooded her with a sense of creeping nostalgia, but she shook aside the feeling.  Her sister needed her now, just as she had needed her sister two years ago.  Luna pressed her ear to the door, holding her breath as she listened for any sign of movement.  

Not a sound.  Turning away, she began to creep down the hallway toward the nearby nexus.  Here the hallway split off in four directions with one suite at the end of each arm, the fourth arm continuing around a far-off corner to the more traditional rooms beyond.  Something was distinctly amiss – no matter where she turned, Luna saw not a single illuminated lantern, spotted not a single guard, detected no whisper of movement.  She had expected at least one of the suites to be swarming with activity, but as far as she could tell, the entire area was completely deserted.  The deep-seated dread that murmured within her stirred slightly.

She had just been about to continue down the hallway toward the hospital proper when she became aware of a soft, distant rhythm echoing just above her the level of her breath.  She stopped dead, listening hard, every muscle standing ready to run for cover.

Clip-clop, clip-clop

The guard’s measured footsteps echoed hollowly from down the hall as he steadily approached the entrance to the royal suite.

Luna’s heart leapt back into her throat as she dashed back down the hall toward her closet, her eyes locked on its brilliantly polished handle.  As she came to an abrupt halt, nearly colliding with the door, she gripped the handle with her teeth and pulled.  To her horror, the door offered no response save for the muffled rattle of its locking mechanism, which had apparently dropped back into place the moment she had closed it.  For an instant, she tried to muster the will to teleport back inside, but promptly dismissed the idea, realizing that the closet would probably be the first place he would look. She cursed under her breath, searching about in a panic for an escape route.  

“...tus report on…up to for the…as possible”

The faintly familiar rumbling of a distant voice began to mingle with the sound of footsteps, but Luna was far too preoccupied to listen to it was saying.  The footsteps were getting closer, almost about to pass the corner of the nexus where Luna had just stood.  As she cast about in the darkness, her eyes fell upon her one remaining hope for salvation.  Without a moment’s hesitation, she leapt for the blue-starred door in the opposite wall, and to her relief, it swung silently open before her just as the guard’s head appeared down the hall.

As quietly as she could she magicked the door shut behind her without turning around, scanning the inky blackness of the suite for a place to hide.

“…old them to ref…andled delicately…”

A second voice now, also vaguely familiar.  Some distant part of her registered surprise at the sound, though for the time being she couldn’t grasp why.  There, illuminated by the thin bars of moonlight shining through the large bay window on the far side of the room, was a large display case containing a variety of decorative knickknacks.  The sound of footsteps now echoed mere feet away from the door to the suite as Luna picked out a single object in the center of all of the others – a small, sapphire-blue vase covered with an elegant portrait of the moon hanging over a forest on a summer night.  With a deep breath, she transformed into a wisp of sparkling purple mist and dove into the vase’s open mouth just as the door swung open.

For a few moments, the voices fell silent as Luna heard the guard walk slowly around the room, pausing here and there for a few seconds each time then moving on to another part of the suite.  If she had had eyes, she would have been squeezing them shut in silent prayer that the guard wouldn’t investigate the display case.  Finally, her fears were assuaged as the guard came to a final stop somewhere in the center of the room and began to speak.

“All clear, Your Highness.”

Your Highness?  Who was he talking t-

“Fine.  Thank you, lieutenant”

In an instant, comprehension dawned on the princess.  She had been surprised at the sound of a second voice because she had only heard one set of approaching footsteps.  Sure enough, she recognized the latest speaker’s voice as that of her father, and the voice of the guard to which he spoke belonged to one of Hussar’s men, though for the time being, the pony’s name escaped her.

“First things first…”  Chronus paused, inhaling deeply before speaking in a thin, clipped tone.

“…How is she?”

The guard cleared his throat before he spoke again.  He dared not hesitate to answer a direct question from his superior, though when he spoke, Luna thought she detected a faint tremor in his voice.

“Stable, your highness.  When we brought her to the infirmary she appeared to be completely delusional.  All of her wounds appear to be self-inflicted.  Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing what brought on this…episode.”

Chronus remained stonily silent as Luna strained to hear every word, jolted to attention by the mention of her sister.

“Your Highness?  If I may be so bold, do you know something about what may have caused this?”  Despite the automatic formality of his speech, Luna could sense that he was genuinely concerned.

Without a sound, something changed in the atmosphere in the room.  Though she could not see his face, Luna felt a sudden wave of cold wash over her from her father’s general direction.  Apparently, the guard felt it too, as was indicated by his stuttered apology.

“I…F-Forgive me, my lord…t’was not my place to ask.”

“…No, lieutenant, you have a right to be concerned.”  Chronus sighed, his tone softening somewhat.  “I was afraid of this…apparently you were not aware, but my daughter has been quite…troubled for some time, though as of late it seems to have finally come to a head.”

“My Lord?”

“I cannot say what exactly is the cause of her torment, though I have a theory.  Can you tell me exactly what she was doing before this happened?”

The guard paused, surprised at the question.  

“I…I believe she was with Princess Luna, my Lord.”

Something in Luna’s stomach flipped, though for the time being, she was too intent on listening to give it much thought.

“Hm…Just as I thought.  That’s why I told the others not to allow her inside just yet, at least not until I’ve spoken with Celestia directly.”

“I…I’m afraid I don’t quite understand, My Lord.”

Chronus snorted in exasperation, though his frustration did not seem to be directed at anyone in particular.

“Celestia is, of course, very concerned with her sister’s well-being, but in light of the current situation, I fear that her concern has grown to the point of obsession, so much so that I had as of late become worried that it would cause her to come under more stress than she could handle.  Let me make one thing perfectly clear – you are never to speak of this to anypony else aside from the other officers, but I believe that Celestia blames herself for the Nightmare Moon incident.  It is my belief that the return of Acheron, in conjunction with the responsibility she feels for Princess Luna has caused her to suffer a breakdown of sorts.”

“Your highness…forgive me, I knew nothing of this…”

“It was not your burden to bear, lieutenant.  I only regret that I was unable to prevent it.  For the time being, it is vital to the recovery of Celestia’s psyche that Luna is not allowed to speak with her until I have had the chance to try to rectify this situation.”

The guard did not respond.  For a few tense moments, the two simply stood in awkward silence, leaving Luna with little to do aside from attempting to untangle the painful knot that had suddenly formed in her stomach.  After what seemed like an eternity, she heard the clink of the lieutenant’s armor as he snapped to attention.  Shaking aside the weight of the recent exchange with what grace he could muster, he decided to change the subject.

“Ahem…Majesty, about my report…”

“Hm?  Oh yes, go on, lieutenant.  You mentioned something about that pegasus girl, yes?”

Oddly enough, the guard seemed hesitant as he cleared his throat.  

“Uh…yes, your highness.  I’m afraid I’ve just been informed of some very distressing news.  The pegasus known as Fluttershy is…she’s…well, she’s gone, sir.”

For a single moment that seemed to stretch on forever, Luna felt a mounting dread pool somewhere in the base of her throat, as though about she were about to witness the breaking of a tidal wave.  Suddenly, her tiny vase shook with the force of her father’s voice as it exploded in anger.

“Gone?  GONE?!  What do you mean, gone?!  Where were the guards?!”

Chronus’s voice had lost all of its typical cool reservation and now shook with fearful rage.  Even without being able to see his face, Luna found herself struck with a paralyzing awe at the force of his fury.  The guard spoke quickly, clearly anxious to weather the storm as soon as possible.

“Forgive me, Majesty, but there is no sign of her or where she’s gone as of yet.  Somehow, she seems to have killed the guards that were posted by her room and vanished in the ni-“

Chronus cut him off.

“And the Bearers?  What about them?”

“Gone as well, your highness.  They fled after her before they could be restrained for questioning.  First Sergeant Jet tried to stop them, but he was overpow-“

“No…no, no NO!  DAMN that conniving little…”

Chronus’s voice cut off suddenly.  Every muscle in Luna’s body tensed, bracing for the next wave, but it never came.  After a few moments, she could hear the sound of heavy breathing as her father fought to control himself, muttering angrily.  

“Idiots, the lot of them.  They’re walking right into a trap, don’t they see that?.”

“H-…However, Highness, I do have some encouraging news.”

Do you now?  It had better be extremely so.”

“There is one mare among them still in the Mendwell Memorial Hospital – the Bearer of the Element of Laughter.”

A long pause, followed by a heavy, frustrated sigh.

“I see.  Has she told you anything yet?

“There was one bit of information that may prove useful.  Apparently the mare was present shortly after Fluttershy found the Entropy Stone.  According to her, she witnessed one Dr. Grey Mendwell – a unicorn from Ponyville – handling the Stone before giving it to Fluttershy.  I’ve already taken the liberty of dispatching a sortie to bring him in.”

“Hm…I knew it.  Then it may be possible that either this doctor or Fluttershy’s escape is intended as a decoy, or even worse, both of them may be real.  Dammit…find him and detain him, now.  We cannot afford to let this situation get any more out of control, not with that lunatic on the loose…our lives depend on it.”

 “Should we relocate her, milord?  She would probably be safer here.”

He paused, apparently deep in thought.

“…no…no, keep her where she is, but triple the guard on her room.  I want her to be kept under close observation at all times.  If she should attempt to flee, allow her to escape, but follow her.  Right now she is our only chance at locating the others.”

There was no verbal reply, but Luna thought she heard the clatter of metal on metal as the guard snapped a salute.

“...I want constant reports not only on Miss Pie’s condition, but on that of my daughter, as well.  Inform me the moment that she awakens.  In the meantime, I must investigate what has been done to the Entropy Stone so that I can determine how to dispose of it safely.”

“And what about Princess Luna, sir?  She will almost certainly try to-“

“Yes, I know that, thank you.”  Chronus snapped.  “From what Celestia has told me, she won’t be content to just sit and wait - it’s only a matter of time before she gets inside. I want a patrol up here now.  Post as many guards as you can spare at every door, every window.  It is imperative that she is not allowed to see Celestia in her current condition.  She’s fragile enough as it is – any sort of unwanted variable could put everything in further jeopardy.”

“Forgive my asking, milord, but what shall we tell her?”

“Just tell her that I didn’t want her to see her sister in that condition, and that she needs time and isolation above all else at the moment.  She’s become a danger not only to herself, but to others, and I cannot have Luna speaking with her until I have had the opportunity to try to calm her down.”

Luna squirmed absently.  Somehow, the way in which her father had said that last sentence had seemed…more annoyed than concerned.  Chronus sighed once more, his growing frustration readily apparent in his normally calmly restrained voice.  

“I shall have to speak with Luna as soon as possible, as well…I will dispatch a search party and prepare the necessary countermeasures around Celestia’s room, though should you become aware of her presence before they find her you are to detain her by any means necessary and notify me immediately.”

He exhaled, grunting deeply.

“So little time and so very much to be done…that stubborn fool is going to destroy everything we’ve worked for no matter how many times it kills him.  This is getting to be a real nuisance.”

Silence.  Luna waited, pressing herself closer to the wall of the vase to try and hear what had caused the lull in the conversation, but no hint of sound rewarded her for her efforts until at last she heard something that nearly made her heart stop.

“I trust that you will make it perfectly clear that not a single word of this is to reach the public until the proper time which I, and only I, will determine?”

Luna recoiled violently, nearly upsetting the vase in her surprise, fighting to maintain the focus necessary to sustain her spell.  Her father’s voice had sounded from just inches away on the outside of the display case.  As she forced herself to calm down, she cursed herself for her carelessness in forgetting the silent nature of her father’s movements.  

“Of course, your Highness.  Although…what is to be done about the sun?  Surely the princess cannot be expected to raise it in her condition.”

“I’m afraid that Luna must bear that burden for the time being.  I will discuss that much with her when she chooses to present herself.  In the meantime, however, my efforts are better spent elsewhere.  Do you understand everything I’ve told you?”

“Affirmative, my lord.”

“Good.  If that is all, lieutenant, you are dismissed.  You are to stand guard here until I send somepony to relieve you, is that clear?”

No verbal reply could be heard from within the room, but a few moments later, the door creaked open as the guard walked stiffly out into the hall, and then all was silent once more.  

Luna waited.  No sound at all, not even the usual chorus of night life that usually floated up from the gardens below could be heard from her little porcelain prison.  Finally, as quickly as she dared, she poked one tiny tendril of sparkling mist above the mouth of the vase.  

Empty.  Though she could not hear the sound of the guard’s footsteps carrying him back down the hall, it was clear that she had not been detected, and that she was now alone once more.  Keeping out of the moonlight, she wafted up and out of the display case toward the door.  Slowly, she slid her misty form under the crack of the door to look into the hall outside.

Down the hall to her right, she could just see the tip of her father’s tail disappearing around the corner, and above her towered the sturdy form of Hussar’s second lieutenant.  He did not follow after her father, but instead lifted a single hoof to touch the star-shaped gem that served as the centerpiece of his breastplate.  With a soft glow, the teleshard hummed to life and he began to speak.

“Second Lieutenant Blitz, third floor, hospital wing, royal suite.  Mason, report in.”

With a faint electrical crackle, a tinny male voice emitted from the gem on Blitz’s chest.

“Mason here, sir.  Your orders?”

“Get ten of Hussar’s men up here ASAP.  We’re on Luna duty.”

“Sir?”

“His Majesty tells me that she will likely try to infiltrate the hospital to speak with Princess Celestia.  Your orders are to do whatever is necessary to make sure that doesn’t happen.  I’ll tell you more when you arrive.”

Through the thin, crackling sound feed of the teleshard, Luna heard the snap of a salute.

“Sir!”

“And one more thing.  I have orders to assign any spare guards to the Mendwell Memorial Hospital with the task of keeping tabs on the Bearer of Laughter.  She is not to be detained, only observed and followed if the need should arise, with reports directly to the king on the hour.  You are to inform first sergeant Krieg to take as many from his division as he can spare to tend to it posthaste, and to inform me as soon as he arrives.”

“Right away sir.  We’re on our way.”

“Very good.  Second Lieutenant Blitz out.”

With that, the gem’s glow faded, and Blitz inhaled deeply, widening his stance to stand at attention before the door.  It was obvious that he had absolutely no intention of moving until the others arrived.

Luna retreated, her heart plummeting as she resumed her normal form in the darkest corner of the room, far away from the door and what stood on the other side.  She stared at the back of the door, a flood of scattered, half-formed thoughts flitting through her mind and leaving before she could grasp them.  

She was trapped.

===================================================================================

Celestia felt her body go numb as the sound pierced the shaky calm that she had forced upon herself, a wordless dread cutting straight to her core as she struggled to step toward the tiny twinkling gem that screamed with the voice of her mother.  As it filtered through the tinny sound feed of the teleshard, the voice was coldly distorted, almost like the screech of grinding metal, yet she was sure beyond a shadow of a doubt of who it was that was making it.  All around her, the occupants of the vault were deathly silent, each pair of anxious eyes locked on their princess.  As Celestia limped slowly forward, she had just bent down to pick up the teleshard when the sound suddenly changed.

The song of clashing steel rang briefly throughout the chamber before it was swallowed by a crescendo of bellowing roars.  Half-heard voices struggled to make themselves known above the din, shouting words that she couldn’t quite make out – not that she needed to; their intent was perfectly clear.  The noise did not last long - with a final, anticlimactic pop that nonetheless left Celestia with a gnawing hole in the pit of her stomach, the tiny stone fell silent once more, and its meager light faded to nothing.  In a single stiff motion, she plucked the object from the floor and magically trimmed the length of the chain so that it would fit her neck, fusing the clasp into place as she did so.

For a few moments, Celestia stood with her back to the crowd of still anxiously waiting ponies.  She swallowed hard, her mind refocusing on what she knew she had to do as the silence began to dissipate in a sussurus of whispered fears.  Her chest puffed confidently outward in a show of reinforced determination, the princess whirled about to face her subjects.  As she silently scanned the crowd, each concerned pony fell silent once more, waiting for her to speak, to offer them some shred of reassurance.  She replied with a single word, her lips barely parting as she spoke.

“Go.”

Without a sound, every one of them obeyed, shuffling slowly away toward the entrance to the tunnel.  Frankie clung closely to the other children, and just before she disappeared into the shadows, she cast one more tearful glance over her shoulder in Celestia’s direction, though Celestia made no response.  Her eyes were closed, her chest rising and falling powerfully with each measured breath as she once again reached into the font of magic deep within herself.

You can do this.  You have to do this.

One panicked finger of her consciousness poked at the gem that hung around her neck on what was left of Argos’s emerald chain, at the sounds that she had heard just seconds before.  It was just as she had feared – her parents were in mortal danger at this very moment.  She mentally slapped herself, swatting the thoughts away, telling herself that she couldn’t worry about it – that everything would be fine if she could just focus hard enough to do this.

Slowly, the threads of magic began to dance to life as she unconsciously held her breath.  The pounding of her heart and the pangs of her shattered limb naught  but meaningless noise as she poured every ounce of her willpower into drawing the threads together, weaving them about herself in a gossamer web.  She held a single thought in her mind, repeating the names of her mother and father over and over again, willing herself to be by their side, regardless of the horrors that were sure to await her thence.  As she concentrated, she began to feel the cold, stale air of her vault press in around her from all directions, enveloping her body in an invisible cocoon, tightening around her chest and throat as though she were being slowly submerged.  The threads trembled slightly, twitching about as she strained to maintain the shell of magic, the blanket of pressure growing steadily tighter, steadily more constricting.  Just a bit more…everything was riding on her – if she could just bend the magic a bit farther…

Before she could fully comprehend what had changed, the pressure that had imprisoned her body evaporated completely, and with it, so did the pain of her leg, the pounding of her heart, even the weight of her horn.  In fact, as far as she could tell, she didn’t even have a proper shape any more.  She seemed to float in a howling void, dragged along by the net she had woven from her magic.  In an instant of terrifying comprehension, the net constricted violently – she felt herself dissipating, dissolving amidst the intangible chaos as she no longer had a physical form to contain her consciousness and she fought to maintain herself.  The void was powerful – it tore at her from every side, mindlessly consuming any shred of energy it could reach, violently attempting to repel the invader that had suddenly and inexplicably appeared within it.  Even without a body, she felt every blow as though it were a heavy weight upon her back, and she found exhaustion creeping upon her with alarming velocity.  Just a little further, she told herself.  You’re almost there…

Sure enough, as suddenly as she had felt the void materialize around her, it was gone, and the deafening silence of its ethereal plane was blasted out of existence beneath the return of the stabbing pain of her broken limb and the sound of a guttural, animalistic roar not twenty meters above her head.  In a fit of adrenaline and fear, she found herself groping about blindly in the dark, her three good hooves connecting with the floor in a flurry of wet splacks.  Despite the terrifying proximity of the battle cries all around her, she was completely blind, and wondered briefly if she had somehow lost her eyesight until she became aware of a warm, spongy substance brushing coarsely across the tip of her horn.  Her mind reeled with bewilderment at the sudden and utterly drastic change in her surroundings as she struggled to calm down.

What the hay are you doing?  Get it together, Celestia, you did it.  You actually teleported – don’t let it fall apart nowyou just need to focus

The smell of it assaulted her nostrils.  Every sense save for the sight of her eyes seemed to attack her mind with bestial fury – her ears rang in protest, her stomach turned at the stench, the pain in her leg seemed to have redoubled in ferocity, even the air tasted foul with the pungent, strangely sweet odor of burning…something that seemed to surround her.  As calmly as she could manage she ignored the sounds of battle exploding above her head and began to feel for an exit, keeping her body as low to the ground as possible with her injured leg.

In every direction, the same rough, spongy substance greeted her probing hooves, falling around her like the walls of an enclosed dome.  Her mind recovering somewhat at the realization that she was, at least, covered for the time being, she allowed a small trickle of magic to stream into her horn, casting a wan pinkish light on the identity of her prison.  As she gazed at the wall of what looked like thick, poorly maintained leather, her heart did a peculiar flop as she noticed what appeared to be an intricate, if chaotic network of bluish lines, like the forks of a river, which seemed to run throughout the breadth of the material wherever she looked.   It seemed to her that it could be little more than a wall of…flesh.  She felt the thought bubbling in the base of her throat, trying with some effort to suppress that wave of nausea that accompanied it, her imagination running wild with the grotesque possibilities that her fleshy prison presented.  As she continued to search for an exit, her pulse quickening, she prayed that she had not somehow ended up in someone’s stomach.

Celestia’s brain dimly registered that the sounds of battle had shifted somewhat away from her, wherever she was, as she heard a thunderous voice booming above the din.

DAMMIT TO HELL!  They’ve cut us off again!”

Charge it now!  Get ready to fire on my command!”

Despite the deep rumbling that accompanied the second voice as it passed through the scaly maw from whence it came, Celestia recognized that it had the distinct edgy, yet graceful resonance of a female dragon, though whose it was specifically, she had no idea.  She turned toward the source of the sound, and immediately stumbled upon something that made her heart leap into her throat with a peculiar surge of simultaneous relief and terror.

A single long, slender, yet sturdy band of bone-like material bisected the section of flesh that she now faced, and it took only a moment for her to recognize it as the primary strut of a colossal wing.  True, she no longer needed to worry that she was about to have a close encounter with the less pleasant end of a dragon’s digestive system, but the fact that it was clearly a dead dragon’s wing, and that the voice that barked commands from somewhere in front of her belonged to a live dragon told her that she was not far from the front lines, and about as far as possible from safety.

Despite the noise, she moved as quietly as she could, wincing slightly as she plodded toward the end of the strut through the dark liquid that began to creep up her hooves, staining her fur.  There, at the end of the strut, a single, hooked claw lay embedded in the floor, pulling the membrane of the wing down around her.  With a slow, purposeful flick of her horn, she enveloped the claw in a bubble of magic and gently removed it from the small crater it had left in the stone below.  With a faint crack, the tip of the claw dislodged itself and she found herself blinking in the sudden light that poured through the opening as the wing lifted slowly away.

Almost immediately, she regretted the decision.  The moment her vision had cleared, she was met with a warped reflection of her own face, her features ludicrously distorted in the bulging orange globe of the gigantic eye that stared directly back.  But her panic vanished nearly in the same instant it had come, for as she looked on at the bizarrely proportioned princess before her, she saw that the eye was dull and lifeless, no longer bearing the sight it once had.  Her body still half-hidden beneath the creature’s wing, she scanned the length of its great head, her eyes lingering momentarily on the jagged, streaming stump where its neck should have been.  All around the wound, long stretches of scales had been blasted away, its once magnificent armor soiled by what appeared to be char.

“Ready to fire, Mistress!”

The voice had come from a point about thirty meters to her front, and as she peeked around the dead dragon’s snout, she saw what appeared to be an enormous, shimmering, semitransparent wall, in front of which stood a trio of dragons.  One of them, the smallest of the three and evidently the one who had just spoken, was holding something in his claws, though from her angle on the ground she could not clearly see what the object was, only that it appeared to be glowing with a faint greenish light.

The faintly glowing object was not the only curious item that caught her eye.  On the back of the largest dragon lay a small crystalline cylinder, held in place by four thick iron bands that extended from each corner of the cylinder’s metal housing and met somewhere around its bearer’s midsection.   The device seemed strangely small compared to the hulking mass of sapphire scales to which it was attached – she estimated that it was about the size of a small saddle, and thought that it looked more than a little absurd for such a tiny thing to be held by such powerful bonds.

Her eyes lingered for a moment on the center of the object, automatically squinting to try to make sense of the strange little cylinder.  For some reason, she couldn’t quite seem to focus on the object’s center – every time she tried to resolve what she was seeing into a discernible shape, it seemed to slip away, to change, to slide just out of focus once more.  From somewhere in the back of her mind, from a source she couldn’t quite identify, the thought occurred to her that it was some sort of container.

The dragon to which the container was attached, a female with scales of a beautiful metallic sapphire, quickly poked her head around the corner of the column behind which she stood, glancing through the shimmering haze for an instant before retreating once more.  From beyond the wall of magic, she heard the voices of what sounded like a group of the palace guards, though what they were saying, she couldn’t make out.

With a sudden pang of recognition, Celestia’s attention shifted abruptly away from the cylinder to focus on the dragon’s face.   She knew that dragon – she was Sister Odyssa, one of the draconic delegates, though she had never seen her two subordinates before.  Now that she looked at her surroundings, the distinct absence of decoration of the surrounding walls was familiar, as well – this was the Sanctum, or the entrance to it, where the Stones were kept locked away.  As she gazed up at that familiar face, she remembered Argos’s words, and finally fully understood what he had meant.  She bristled at the thought, suppressing the urge to charge forward as she forced herself to be patient, telling herself that she was in no position to act on impulse.  Odyssa had never seemed to care much for her mother or for any of the members of their family, for that matter – she had always seemed to be the one to lead the battle in every effort to tilt the compromises her mother had worked so hard to balance, but Celestia had never expected her to directly betray them.  Now, as she gazed into those pale blue eyes, sparkling with ferocious intellect, Odyssa raised one elegant sapphire claw, the corners of her mouth twitching into the tiniest of grins.

In the space of a single second that seemed to stretch on forever, Celestia realized what was about to happen and ducked for cover just as Odyssa’s claw began to swing downward.

FIRE!

In an instant, the noise of the chamber seemed to evaporate, bathing everything around her in an eerie silence.  Even as the wave of condensed air blasted her off her feet, and the searing emerald light washed over her, no sound reached her ears.  As she flew through the air, she caught one fleeting glimpse of the dragons behind her.  The object that the smallest dragon had been holding looked like a small, asymmetrical black gem, and from its center erupted a convulsing spout of energy that almost seemed to pour through the air like a liquid.  In the center of the shimmering wall, where the spout had made contact, an enormous glowing ring grew rapidly outward, like a piece of paper burning from the middle.  The blast tore through the wall as though it were nothing but air, and splashed beyond its target in a spray of spiraling effervescence, colliding with the walls, the floor, whipping across the hall in a ferocious display of raw, unfathomable power.  The silence refused to yield as she reflexively opened her wings and landed somewhat painfully on the other side of the corpse’s wing, her head snapping about to witness the mesmerizing explosion of energy.  Her mind buzzed feebly, as though caught in a dreamy haze, barely able to comprehend as she watched every piece of matter that the liquid touched melt away into a shapeless black goop, sputtering angrily as it spilled across the floor of the chamber.

As her hearing gradually began to return in a muffled cacophony of senseless mumbles, several things happened at once.  The light began to fade from the peculiar black stone, and as the last of the fluid fury faded from the air, the small dragon suddenly lurched backward, the space between his shoulderblades ballooning grotesquely outward before bursting in a colossal spout of scarlet, the tattered flesh of his wings falling pathetically to the floor.  With a resounding impact, his mighty body slammed into the far wall, the small black gem clattering across the stone toward her hiding place as the strength left his claws.  At the same time, she heard a voice, loud and clear above the others, a voice that she recognized, a voice that suddenly sent her heart soaring with new hope.

Aurora bellowed to her unseen guardians from beyond Celestia’s vision, her voice echoing down the hall that had until recently been protected by the wall of magic.

“Steady, now!  Resume your positions!”

As the small dragon’s sundered body crumpled to the floor, the gaping cavern that Aurora’s spell had left in his chest still smoldering, Odyssa cursed at the top of her lungs, whipping her long, powerful neck around the corner in a flash of gnashing teeth.  In a single, terrifyingly swift motion, her great sapphire maw erupted in a cascade of molten fury, the entire hallway flashing with a brilliant amber glow as the jet of flame arced beyond Celestia’s view and exploded with a sound like thunder.  Immediately after her volley, Odyssa ducked back behind her column, barely dodging a lance of silver light that crackled through the air where her head had just been, then inhaled deeply to continue her attack.  But before the flame could leave her scaly lips, it was detonated by some unseen force, enveloping her head in a smoking orange bloom.

Odyssa roared in wounded rage, clutching at her eyes with one claw and raking the nearby wall with the other.  As the great screeching rumble of her agony shook the hall with its fury, Celestia saw what had caused  the explosion – directly in front of the space where Odyssa had attempted to aim her attack was another pulsing, if somewhat less vibrant wall of magical energy.  Alarmed at his superior’s injury, the second dragon leapt forward to her aid.

“Mistress!  Are you-“

 

Opening one streaming eye, Odyssa smashed her tail into the other dragon’s stomach, sending her subordinate to crash against the wall as he was narrowly missed by another blazing silver lance.

BACK, YOU IDIOT!  CHARGE IT AGAIN!”

Behind them, down the hall from whence her mother’s voice had come, Celestia thought she heard the sound of something incredibly heavy sliding slowly across the floor before it came to a stop with a mighty clunk, like an enormous tumbler falling into place.  The sound seemed only to agitate Odyssa further, drawing another wrathful cry from the female dragon’s titanic lungs as her tail lashed angrily against the wall, cutting a great jagged scar in the soft marble.  Blinking away the last of her pain, she glared at her partner, her eyes blazing furiously under the fresh layer of tears that still coated them.

In a flash of panicked clarity, Celestia knew that she had to get that stone away from them at any cost, but as she charged forward to see where it had landed, Odyssa’s subordinate spun clumsily about, his narrow green eyes searching the ground near her position.  Celestia crouched beneath the dripping snout of her inanimate guardian, spying through the jagged frame of its teeth as the smaller dragon grunted, holding his stomach as he stumbled toward her to snatch up the peculiar black gem.  Instinctively, her horn sparked to life as a bubble of magic reached toward the peculiar bauble, but as she tried to close it around the object, she felt herself unable to grasp it.  As she felt the magic within herself waver slightly, the object seemed to radiate an aura that repelled her will.  No matter how she strained as the dragon thundered closer, her magic danced and slipped away as though the object simply didn’t exist.  Slowly, the dragon’s lumbering form came to a halt as he reached one thick, powerful limb to scoop it from the floor.

In that instant, her body acted of its own accord before her mind could even complete the conscious impulse to move.  With a single mighty beat of her wings, she bolted from cover, aiming a blast of brilliant amber light directly between the dragon’s eyes as she dove for the gem at his feet.  The agonized roar accompanied the clatter of claws on stone as the ground exploded where her feet had just been, the creature’s massive claws tearing blindly at its attacker.

All that happened next she felt through a filmy haze – she took off, flying away from the battle as quickly as she could, and not a moment later heard the confused, enraged cry of the dragons behind her.  Immediately, a colossal gout of flame arced across her vision, blinding her with its radiance as it detonated harmlessly on the far wall, its heat nonetheless violent enough to flood her nostrils with the scent of scorched hair.  Though she could not feel the mighty pounding of their feet on the dull stone below, the very air seemed to shudder with each impact, the sound thundering furiously toward her, alarmingly close and drawing ever nearer with each step.  She strained, pouring every ounce of willpower she could muster into each wingbeat, ignoring as best she could the searing pain that spread across her chest.

Then, as suddenly as he flight had begun, she came to a violent halt as she felt her body consumed with a numbing vertigo.

She faltered in midair, the sudden loss of velocity hitting her like a punch to the gut.  Her wings fluttered feebly at her sides, completely useless as the ground rushed up to meet her.  With the last of her strength, she enveloped herself in a sphere of magic, concentrating with all her might to slow her descent before, with a resounding thud, her broken body connected with the smooth, cold stone below.  But, even as she lay, her mind tearing fearfully away, in an utter panic over the sudden loss of her faculties, she felt no pain, even as she became aware of the quaking prelude of the dragon’s presence.  Her entire body was numb, as though it wasn’t even there, yet despite her paralyzed state, her ears and eyes still seemed to work, and the words that drifted slowly into her consciousness came with a rush of comprehension.

It was Odyssa’s voice, and the words with which she spoke seemed to creep into her body like a seeping poison.  It bound her limbs to her sides, silenced the cry that struggled to escape from her motionless lips, and pinned her to the stone.  She knew those words, though never in her life had she seen them used in such a way.  It was old magic, the magic that she had learned before the end of the war, before everything had changed, the original magic shared between dragon and ponykind, and as she knew the power that bound her, she knew that there was nothing she could do to fight it.

“Bring her to me…”

Having ceased her ominous chant, Odyssa addressed her subordinate.  Celestia could not look around to see the source of the great shadow that fell across her body and the gem that lay just beyond her reach, not that she could even try to grasp it if she tried.  She had to fight simply to breathe as the single emerald claw lifted her effortlessly into the air and transported her back in the direction which she had come.  In mere seconds, she was back at the front lines, and as the claw lifted her skyward, the acrid smell of burning tar washed over her as she  gazed into the massive blue orbs of Odyssa’s eyes from across the archway.  Once again, through the noise of strangled grunts and barked orders, a heavy grating sound, followed by an ominous impact echoed through the hall.

Without a word, a sickening grin spread slowly across Odyssa’s face, and with it, she drew herself into a confident, authoritative posture.  Though the binding lyrics no longer reached her ears, she still lay helpless against the creature’s will as it raised one long, pointed claw to her side.  She felt the pressure of the claw as it pressed gently into her wing, and as it did so, she became aware that it hurt.  Her body was no longer numb, but neither would it obey her commands, and as the claw raked across her ribs, her mind shuddered at the trace of raw power it could sense in that one digit alone.  In an odd moment of nostalgia, she remembered her father’s words – the magic of the word was powerful, but it could only be maintained as long as the caster did not break visual contact with its target.  True enough, the gaze of those heartless blue eyes felt to her like mighty weights binding her in place, holding her as fast as any cell or shackle she had ever known.  The claw of her subordinate dug painfully into her side as it traced its way to the limb that was now bent at an odd angle from her fall.  Then, with a purposeful, flicking gesture, he struck.

She heard screaming, but she could not identify, much less care about from whence it came for the thought-devouring agony that consumed her.  For what seem like an eternity, the single claw of her captor pressed mercilessly down on her shattered limb, grinding it against his palm with enough force to cause excruciating pain without actually rendering the limb beyond the usefulness of torture.   The world around her vanished, nothing existing save the pain that tore at the inside of her mind.  At long last, the screaming ceased, if from nothing other than sheer exhaustion as the pressure subsided.  Though his claw had ended its cruel endeavor, the pain in her leg still burned  as vividly as though it were on fire, and, curiously enough, thought some small finger of her rational mind, her throat ached as though from overexertion.  She panted, her breath coming in short, ragged gasps, trying to blink away the tears that flooded her vision.  In the fading haze of pain, it took her several seconds to realize that the hall around her had, in fact, fallen completely silent.

She wanted desperately to look around, to see what had happened, but her body still refused to obey.  Instead, she was forced to lay helpless as Odyssa’s booming voice punched through the silence, instantly commanding her attention with its presence.

“Everypony away from the door, now.”

Silence.  The sudden stillness of the air was utterly at odds with the acrid smell of battle that still floated through the hall.  For a few seconds, neither of her captors moved, until Odyssa’s massive claw flicked in the direction of her subordinate.

Once again, she was blasted out of cogency on another wave of mind-splitting pain.  This time she knew, as she felt the noise tearing at her throat, that it was she who was screaming, screaming for the pain to stop, for some release as the claw needled impassively back and forth between the shards of bone in her leg.  But this time, the pain only lasted for a fraction of the time of the previous round, and as the claw lifted away, through the scrambled panic of her thoughts, she thought she heard movement somewhere off to her right on the ground below and, speaking above it, a familiar voice.

“Celestia?!  You…Let her go, let her go this instant or I’ll-”

“Shut up, your Highness.”

Without applying pressure, the claw moved back into position, and as it did so, Odyssa allowed her features to twist into an expression that said that she had been waiting to deliver that particular line for quite some time.

“You’re not exactly in a position to make demands.  I, on the other hand, assume that I don’t need to explain to you what’s going to happen here if you don’t do exactly as I say.”

As if to confirm the point, she felt a sudden sense of vertigo as she was carried around the corner of the archway and lowered nearly to the ground.  As the field of her vision spun dizzily around, she could see, standing among a small group of bloodied and battle-worn guards, her mother, staring back at her with an expression of incomprehensible horror on her face.    If she could have moved at all, Celestia probably would have matched her expression, for the once regal yellow coat of her mother had been blackened by the fluid that still oozed from the torn remains of one ragged wing.  She struggled against her invisible bonds, trying with all of what little strength she had left to force her lips to comply as they slipped feebly around each other like a pair of fish.  Her throat bubbled with the half formed plea that screamed within her mind, but nonetheless escaped her useless lips as nothing more than senseless dribbling.

                   

“So, if you don’t want that to happen, you’ll be a good little girl and stay out of our way.”

Her mother stared silently into her eyes, her mouth hanging open in silent shock.  In that moment, she felt like nothing more than a terrified little girl – seeing her mother like that, a pony to whom had always looked upward for her fortitude, was enough to send the hope she had felt not minutes ago at the sound of her voice spiraling back to oblivion.

                   

Perhaps out of instinct, the loss of hope triggered a sudden urgency of purpose within her as she remembered what exactly all of this meant to her.  She remembered Argos’s words, remembered Frankie, and most of all, she remembered Luna, and what would most certainly happen to her if she failed.  Once again, she focused all of her will into trying to move her lips, trying to convey in any way possible that she would rather die here than allow that future to pass.  With a slow, twitching reluctance, she felt her face begin to contort awkwardly into the beginnings of a single word, and with that word, a tiny whisper of air wormed its way up and out of her throat before exhaustion consumed her.

                   

“…Fight…

The word was barely above the sound of her breath, but she knew her mother had heard it by the sudden, if slight change in her posture.  Her eyes flicked coldly between Odyssa and her daughter’s limp form as she tried to establish some sort semblance of control.

“…Why…Why, Odyssa?!  Why are you doing this?  We were so close to actually-“

“Oh, please spare me.  I’ve heard enough of your voice to last me twenty lifetimes, you know that?  Besides, Aurora, you have no one to blame for all of this but yourself.”

As she spoke, Odyssa gestured casually to her subordinate, and he obediently lifted Celestia  away, out of the sight of her mother.  Once again, she felt the rush of vertigo, then a plummeting dread as Odyss’a blazing sapphire eyes came into view.  They were much closer now, so close that she could see every imperfection in each mammoth iris as Odyssa continued to glare directly at her, even as she addressed her mother.

“I do and always will despise you and your kin for what you did to my people, Aurora.  If that were my only reason for doing this, then I would not hesitate to crush the life from your child right now.  There is little in this world that I would love more than to grind her bones to dust between my toes as you watched, but at the moment a higher calling has presented itself, and for that you should be thankful.”

                   

“Odyssa, please – it doesn’t have to be like this.  If revenge is what you want, then you are welcome to it.  Take my life if you must, but leave it at that – don’t make this into another war.  Our peoples can still live in peace if-”

“Silence!”  Celestia felt her breath catch in her throat as the dooming claw leapt back into position, but thankfully did actually not touch her wounded limb.

“What you and yours would call peace tastes of little else than shame for my people.  Peace is exactly what I hope to achieve after this day is through, be it a peace unsullied by the hooves of ponykind.”

She smiled, her eyes now searching over her prisoner’s body in something like admiration, as though she were a prospector examining a particularly large nugget.  A soft chuckle escaped her scaly lips, and as it washed over Celestia’s body, the princess felt herself gag on the dragon’s rancid breath.

                   

“Although…I can’t help but be a little impressed at the spirit your offspring seem to possess.  And so thoughtful, too.  You know, I had hoped that she would stay put in the vault – would have made it so easy to finish them both off at once, but she’s gone and made my job even easier for me.”

                   

As soon as the words had left Odyssa’s lips, Celestia felt them sink into her stomach like an icy fist, the world suddenly closing in from all directions as though she were drowning.  Aurora blinked, the color draining from her face.

                   

“Th…the vault?  You don’t…no…oh, please NO!

                   

Odyssa’s smile widened, a small trickle of acrid black smoke trickling through the glistening display of teeth as she chuckled to herself.  The was no mirth in such a sound – it was an expression of profound sadistic glee that was reflected even more clearly in the hateful glitter of her magnificent azure eyes.

                         

        “Your daughter, following in the family tradition of betrayal and murder, single-hoofedly ushering in the dawn of the new draconic empire.  You must be so proud.”

           

        Time seemed to slow to an excruciating crawl as each word cruelly hastened the dawning significance of what Odyssa had said before.  Celestia’s waking mind seethed with activity, desperately trying to muster any trace of movement in her useless limbs, instinctively battling the crippling, inescapable futility of her condition, but all in vain.  When her mother broke the silence, it was as though she were hearing her own thoughts being spoken for her in a different voice.

“What have you done?! Luna…what did you do to my Lu-

                   

“Unless I’m mistaken, you’ll have Celestia here to thank for that, as well.  Carried her straight to the vault, just as we planned, though I can’t say we expected her to survive the journey.  But it all worked out in the end, hm?  In fact, if we listen in right now, I think we might just be able to catch a glimpse of the action.”

As she spoke, one elegant claw curved slowly upward.  With the last of her words still lingering in the eerily silent air, the tension was shattered momentarily by a sound like a swarm of angry bees.  The teleshard that hung around Odyssa’s massive neck began to glow, and as it did, the tinny, electrical crackling of its sound feed dissolved into coherent speech.

The voice that broke through the air with its gravelly resonance was unmistakably that of a dragon.

“Belos here, Mistress.  Shall we begin?”

Celestia didn’t need to see Odyssa’s grin widen grotesquely to be certain that she didn’t like the grim satisfaction that had accompanied the voice, nor did she need to hear the sound that came next to know that her worst fears were confirmed.

“The children first, I think.  Not enough meat to be worth eating, anyway.”

It began as a confused whisper, barely audible above the buzz of the teleshard, before it exploded suddenly into a steady, piercing screech, the screams of uncountable voices blending together in one deafening roar.  Celestia’s mouth stretched feebly open, as did that of her mother,but if there was any sound that left them it was immediately drowned by the raging death that poured through the hall from the tiny glowing gem.  The sound lasted only a matter of seconds, but the silence that followed, punctuated by the soft crackling of unseen flames, was far worse.  In that silence, not even Odyssa made a sound, clearly savoring each moment of agony in those around her feet.

For a single, blazing instant, every piece of Celestia’s consciousness screamed with the fearless rush of determination to react, but she may as well have been made of stone, her limbs simply refusing to acknowledge her will.  Then, as suddenly as it had come, it was gone, and with it all feeling, all traces of her remaining willpower, anything that could be considered a conscious thought died on the spot.  It wasn’t real – the idea floated through the haze of her mind, her chest heaving weakly in rhythm with her frantic heart.  She seemed to choke on that silence, flashes of her sister’s tiny form sparking wordlessly across her vision.  Every beat of her heart resounded within her body like the laughter after a cruel joke, the very fact of her own existence, helpless as she was, felt suddenly and utterly revolting.  If she had had the strength, she would have vomited in response to the overwhelming nausea that wrenched her stomach about in her gut, but in her stupor she could not manage more than a single, silent tear that splashed soundlessly across the scaly hand below.

“…Lu…na…”

Her sister’s name seemed to hang in the air forever.  Even after she had said it, her lips clumsily formed the same word over and over again, in an endless loop.

The crowd of ponies below were silent, as well - every shocked, tearful face turned hopelessly upward at the tiny light that had carried the sound of murder to their ears.  Then, in that, moment, the silence was shattered by the anquished cry of a single voice.

“FRANCESCA!!!!”

In a sudden burst of movement, a single well-dressed unicorn mare bolted across the hall toward one of Odyssa’s mighty hind legs.  She moved with dizzying speed, her horn sparking ferociously before her as ran full tilt into the dragon’s claw.  The horn sank effortlessly into Odyssa’s flesh, sending an angry splash of burnt scales arcing in every direction from the center of the wound, but her attack was nonetheless too weak to draw anything more than an annoyed grunt from her victim, who did not even blink as she continued to glare down at Celestia’s limp body.

“You BITCH!!!  YOU KILLED HER!  YOU KILLED MY BA-“

The end of her sentence was lost in the sickening crunch of her ribcage being shattered by the casual flick of Odyssa’s claw, as though she were shooing away a particularly annoying insect.  Augusta’s body flew soundlessly through the air of the hall, an expression of anguished shock frozen on her face, before her body impacted on the wall with a dull thud and slid heavily to the floor.  She was dead before she hit the ground, a tiny bloom of scarlet already issuing from her still open mouth.

“That’s quite enough of that, thank you.”

The sound of Odyssa’s voice sounded horribly wrong to everypony in the room, carrying all the perversity of a graverobber intruding upon a freshly dug tomb, spitting on the dead before they had even begun to rot.  Nopony moved, every one of them too shaken by what they had just heard to do little more than stare helplessly upward at the owner of that awful voice.

“Now, I trust I don’t need to explain what will happen to the other half of the vault’s population if you try anything stupid, nor do I need to tell you that I’ve just done your daughter the favor of making her an only child.”

For several seconds, Aurora’s face was cold.  Not a trace of emotion permeated the iron mask of her features, but by the shaking of her limbs and the size of the lump that traveled down her throat as she swallowed it was evident that she was doing all she could to contain herself.  When she spoke, her eyes were as dull and dead as those of a plaster doll, and her voice cracked as it slid dryly across her tongue.

“What…what…”

She swallowed again, unable to continue, her mouth hanging pathetically open as the tears began to flow.  Odyssa’s tone softened somewhat as she spoke for her, her features twisting into a cruel facade of understanding mercy.

“I’ll make a deal with you – out of respect for the noble, if short-sighted will of my kin who served in your court.  Allow us to do what we came here for without a fuss, and I’ll consider letting your remaining daughter live.”

Aurora stared silently back, her jaw working dumbly up and down before her eyes slowly fell to rest on her daughter’s face.  Celestia stared impassively back, her own eyes looking past her mother into the nothingness beyond.  Gradually, every set of eyes in the hall came to turn to their Queen, and for once in their lives, they saw that she had no idea what to do.

At long last, Aurora’s jaws snapped shut, as though jogged to attention by the tide of pleading stares as she looked wearily around at her subjects, then once more upon her daughter.  Without moving her mouth, she fixed her daughter with a gaze that spoke more clearly than words ever could.

                   

I’m Sorry…

She nodded, stepping aside as though each of her limbs were weighted with lead.

“…Open the doors…let…let them through…”

                   

Though her voice was barely above a whisper, it carried an exhausted, despairing finality that seemed to seep into every single pony in the hall.  Immediately, several voices rose in protest, but all were silenced by a single tearful glance from their ruler.

                   

“Please…if nothing else, let my daughter live…please”

As if to drive the point home, the dragon’s claw rose once more to  Celestia’s side, though this time the princess offered no sign of reaction.  The only sign that she was still alive was the almost imperceptible rise and fall of her chest with each feeble breath.  Finally, without a word, the guards surrounding  her mother moved aside, resuming their positions by the door.

                   

Just as the sound of the colossal door’s third and final tumbler had begun to echo through the hall, several things happened at once.

                   

A brilliant bloom of blinding silver light erupted from the rear of the hall, behind the crowd of ponies, behind the dragons, so bright that every shadow in the hall was consumed by its presence.  As the light permeated the massive chamber, Celestia felt her body prickling with a peculiar warmth.  It seemed to flow through every part of her body, and with it came a sudden rush of energy, as though her entire body had fallen asleep and her circulation had only just now been restored.  Despite the crippling loss that still weighed on her mind, she found herself turning her eyes instinctively toward the light, drawn by its warmth.

                   

In the same moment, the heavy, scaly lids of Odyssa’s eyes fluttered weakly, then fell slowly closed, the light too much for her damaged retinas to bear.  Everyone, dragon and pony alike, turned in silent surprise to face the source of the light as it flowed around them, and at the same time, a single bolt of the same silvery radiance shot past them into the center of the crowd.

                   

As the jet of light brushed past her body, its warmth seemed to kick-start her heart.  She blinked rapidly, her eyes struggling to adjust to the polarizing wake as the light came to a halt and gradually began to fade.  There, standing in the center of the crowd of ponies, stood the elegant shimmering form of her father.  He stared up her with an expression of grim determination, his lips opening thinly to utter a single commanding word.

                   

Move.

It took her several seconds for her to realize that the crippling weight that had seemed to envelop her body beneath the gaze of Odyssa’s unyielding eyes had all but evaporated.  She looked dumbly around as Odyssa swore furiously, rubbing her eyes with a single great claw, the other dragon turning to face her, momentarily forgetting himself out of his bewilderment.  Before she could take it all in, another wave of heat, this one far more intense, whipped past her body, and as it flashed across her vision, the hall shook with the fury of the roar that exploded just above her head.

Without warning, the ground beneath her hooves gave way, and she found herself falling to the floor.  Instinctively, her wings shot outward to catch her, and she glided safely down to the floor just as another blast of heat arced over her head to detonate behind her.  When she looked upward, she was met with a sight that filled her with a bizzarely mixed sense of terror and awe.

Queen Aurora’s horn still sparked menacingly from her last volley as the dragon that had held her daughter fell thunderously to the ground, a great mound of scarlet erupting from the hole in his throat.  The expression on her mother’s face was unlike anything that Celestia had ever seen – any trace of fatigue or pain had vanished beneath the smoldering glare with which she tracked her target.  Her face showed no evidence of emotion, rather, in her eyes burned a hatred and sense of purpose that would dwarf the sun in its wrathful brilliance.  She did not even glance at her daughter as the blasts of magical energy ripped through the dragon’s flesh, sending great sprays of blood splashing across the walls before she turned to Odyssa.

With a speed that defied her considerable bulk, Odyssa ducked behind the corner of the hallway beyond, shaking the walls with an enraged roar.  Without pausing for breath, Aurora peppered the wall with blast after blast of silver magic.  All around them, a synchronized cry of hope surged through the crowd of ponies as they cheered for their queen.

Everything had happened so quickly that Celestia had momentarily forgotten herself in the confusion, but the crushing hopelessness that had ached within her seconds before was slowly returning.  In the same instant that the guard behind her began issuing orders to continue opening the doors, as if he had read her thoughts, her father turned to speak to her, his tone low and urgent.

“Luna is safe, I promise.  Are you alright?”

The words didn’t properly register when she heard them.  She blinked stupidly, her throat spasming weakly at the mention of Luna’s name as it finally began to sink in.

“Did you…what?  I-”

The hallway shook with another mighty roar.  Odyssa’s head reared the corner and erupted in a cascade of orange flame.  Celestia ducked reflexively, giving a tiny yelp at the pain in her foreleg, but the attack never reached her.  Opening one eye, she saw that it had splashed harmlessly across a shimmering transparent shield of magical energy as it poured from the tip of her mother’s horn.  Aurora glanced behind her, speaking quickly.

“What did you say?”

“I said Luna is safe, but-”

Aurora looked around, just for a second, an expression of soaring hope lining her features.

“Are you sure?!  How-“

“There’s no time! We have to move!”

As if on cue, the hallway beyond began to glow with an ominous greenish light.  Celestia’s heart leapt with glee as her mind finally processed her father’s words.  The realization seemed to erase the pain from her broken limb, breathing new, vivid life into her exhausted body.  Her mind screamed with questions, but the look on her father’s face told her that now was not the time.  The words echoed through her mind over and over again…Luna is safe…Luna is safe…

“Aurora, I-“

She nodded, turning back to face the rear of the hall, widening her stance as she did so.

“Fine then!  You know what must be done!”

Her father nodded, then whipped around with alarming speed, coming to an abrupt halt before the huge Sanctum doors.  He glanced over his shoulder in Celestia’s direction.

Come on! I’ll explain on the way!”

She froze.  The glee that had surged within her for but a moment suddenly gave way to a paralyzing indecision as she glanced between her mother and father.  The light from Odyssa’s gem grew brighter, now accompanied by an angry hiss.

“GO! KEEP OUR CHILDREN SAFE!”

“No!  I can fight!”

She whirled about, addressing her father, but before she could speak again, she was drawn back around again by the sound of her mother’s voice.  It was not the same urgent tone of a leader on the front lines of battle, nor was it the logical, impartial drawl of the just matriarch she had come to respect – this was the voice of her mother, the voice that comforted her when they were alone, the voice that she heard speaking within herself whenever she needed to be told that everything was going to be alright.

Celestia.”

Celestia looked into her mother’s eyes.  For just an instant, time seemed to freeze, and that image of her mother, standing tall and proud, despite her wounds, despite the dooming blast that would fall upon them at any moment, etched itself into her memory.  She opened her mouth to say something, anything, but no words would come.  Instead, for one final time, her mother turned to face her, her eyes shining brightly as, ever so gently, she smiled.

Celestia smiled back, a feeling of warmth returning to her cheeks for what felt the first time in a very long time before, with a sudden jerk that knocked the air from her lungs, a sphere of light from her mother’s horn sent her flying past her father and the doors beyond.

Before she could comprehend what had happened, her father’s elegant form glided through the crack between the massive pair of doors just as they were drawn forcibly shut with a crash that shook a shower of dust from the ceiling above.  Just as the final tumbler fell into place, she was frozen to the spot by the splash of vibrant emerald light that poured through the crack beneath the doors with the same eerie silence she had heard before.  In that silence, her father paused, looking over his shoulder with an unreadable expression on his face as he stared into the door.

When the light faded, Celestia waited, her ears straining.  The voice of her father assaulted her from the rear, but it was nothing but meaningless noise to her as she struggled to comprehend what had just happened.  When the roars of battle resumed on the other side of the wall of steel, try as she might, she could not make out the sound of her mother’s voice.

“NO!  NO, DON’T YOU DARE!”

She darted forward, ignoring her father’s pleas.  With her one good hoof, she fumbled clumsily against the polished steel, probing with her magic to try to find a way to move the massive tumblers that separated her from her mother.

“LET ME THROUGH!  LET ME-“

CELESTIA!”

Though she could not sense the hoof that he placed on her shoulder, she could feel the force of his gaze even as she refused to face him.  She fell silent, staring hopelessly into the back of the door before her, her thoughts jumping dizzily about without any coherent direction.

When his voice broke the muffled cacophony once more, the name he spoke snapped her back to attention.

                   

“Luna.  If nothing else, think of Luna.”

She whirled about, gazing silently into her father’s eyes.  The pale blue orbs that gazed back were as calm and unreadable as ever.  Whether it was the quiet resolve that she saw in those eyes, or the mention of her sister’s name, she wasn’t sure, but something in that moment reminded her of her purpose, reminded her of the hope she had felt when she had heard that her sister was safe.

“We have to move.  Follow me.”

With newfound resolve, she swallowed the last of her indecision and rushed after her father down the tall, cavernous corridor, the muffled sounds of battle disappearing almost immediately as they left the doors far behind them.  Celestia glided along the ground with an occasional beat of her mighty wings to keep pace with her father as he slid silently forward with a speed that seemed eerily at odds with his apparent lack of effort.  The dull thump of her wings against the stale air that permeated the corridor seemed to vanish almost in the same instant that it came into being, as though it were being swallowed by the sheer size of the hall, though the sensation of dread that it sent into her gut only vaguely registered through the frantic tones of her father’s words as he began speaking with urgent velocity.

“I can’t say how or why, but the dra-“

“They’re here for the Stones, right?  For him?”

Chronus’s forward momentum sputtered momentarily as he looked about in surprise at his daughter.  His eyes lingered only for a few seconds before he continued.

“Yes.  So you’re aware of what-“

“Destroy them before they get in.”

As the words left her mouth, she felt her resolve returning, the memory of all that had happened in the past few hours rushing through her thoughts with blinding speed.  In an instant, from some source that she could not identify she felt a power bursting into bloom within her tired body – her limbs trembled with the strength of the will that propelled her ever faster past the rows of marble columns that blurred together on either side.  Luna, and Mom, she thought - everything rested on her if they were going to be safe.

Without knowing how far she had flown, or for how much longer her body could endure before it collapsed around her, she found herself flying faster than she had ever flown before, her father suddenly struggling to keep up on the ground below.  The chamber stretched onward for what seemed like miles beneath a curtain of inky darkness.  As they flew, great lanterns on either side would burst to life, illuminating one section of the hall just as they reached the edge of the darkness again and another wave of light washed over them.  Both of them were silent despite the questions that burned within them – all of them could wait.  For now, the only thing that mattered was that they reach the end of the corridor before-

Despite its considerable distance, the sound was loud enough to cause them both to falter slightly as they ran.  They dared not look away from their goal from an instant, even as the screaming steel fell away beneath the storm of noise and heat that thundered after them, still far away but approaching with alarming haste.

Still the rapid blooms of lanternlight spilled across Celestia’s vision only to reveal one plain, unyielding spread of stone after another.  Still the wall of darkness jumped ever farther away from her, cruelly taunting her as she began to feel fatigue creep upon her once more.  Over and over, the unseen beast behind rampaged blindly after them, unleashing another blast of thought-devouring wrath that shook a hail of dust from the lofty ceiling above.     Without any warning aside from the sudden scalding wave of heat that splashed across her rear, a colossal jet of flame soared between them into the darkness beyond, and as it arced through the murk, the light from its impact illuminated…something.  It was not something Celestia could readily identify in the flash that had revealed it for a fraction of a second, but it told her all that she needed to know to overcome her exhaustion – they had made it.

In an ivory blur, Celestia arced sharply downward, her hooves meeting the ground with a resounding crack as the last pair of lanterns cast their thin, wavering light across the structure she had seen in the light from Odyssa’s attack.  As the strange new form came into view, she could not help but pause for a moment to gawk in wonder at its looming, asymmetrical presence.

The structure consisted of five small orbs, each marked with a unique symbol resembling a gem. Each of these orbs was suspended at varying angles around a central obelisk, at the top of which rested a sixth, unmarked orb, much larger than the other five.

She swallowed, widening her stance, and opened her mouth as she turned to face her father, though no words came to pass her lips.   With every shuddering impact of her heart against her ribs, the creature behind them screamed ever closer, just moments away now.  Her father was shouting something, his teeth flashing wildly in the lantern light, but his voice never reached her.  The stale, clammy air of the corridor seemed to freeze about her as everything snapped blindingly into focus – a single everlasting moment in which her eyes drifted slowly toward the center of the central orb and came to rest somewhere within.  In that moment, she had the sudden, though unshakable impression that the smooth bulge of stone was a great unblinking eye, looking straight back at her.  Without understanding how or why, the stone was something altogether captivating, something utterly perverse, at once jarringly alien and undeniably familiar.  In that moment, she found herself frozen by the sight of that wondrous, horrible thing, transfixed by its invisible gaze as the first threads of magic began to gather about her horn.

And then that moment was shattered.

Before Celestia could blink, before she could form the spell that would destroy the structure before her, the chamber was illuminated by a polarizing wave of emerald light.  No sound accompanied the wave of gut-wrenching force that knocked her hooves from beneath her, nor the quaking f the chamber itself as the light poured over the towering structure, bathing it in a cloud of shimmering fog.  The light filled her vision, growing brighter and brighter until its radiance outmatched even the pain of her broken limb, searing the inside of her skull like a tide of flame.  In the roaring silence, just before the light began to fade, a voice, a terrifyingly familiar voice reached her ears with the first rumbles of pealing laughter.

Celestia sat bolt upright and immediately became aware of an intense, throbbing pain that seemed to cover every inch of her body.  The light was still there, all around her, so bright, blinding her painfully as she blinked to clear the strange filmy haze from her vision.  Something tugged at the edge of her consciousness…a strangely cool sensation that covered her shuddering form, accompanied by a muffled scraping sound.  The chilly air raked at the inside of her lungs as she fought for breath,  tossing about blind against the peculiar weight that seemed to hold  hooves to her sides, a single thought screaming within her mind.

DAD!  Where are you?! DAD!!  We have to stop him!  We have to-

Silence.  Without warning, the pit of her stomach gave out, washing her with a sense of numbing vertigo.  She had the sudden, distinct impression that something was very wrong, though the vital terror that still resounded with every beat of her frantic heart prevented her from determining what it was.  As the light began to fade, the realization that she was not where she had been standing a moment ago began to sink slowly into her adrenaline-flooded brain.

At long last, the fog began to clear, and as it did, her other senses slowly sorted themselves out, her mind still darting about at full alert.  She blinked rapidly, ignoring the burning of her eyes as she examined her surroundings.  She was in a bedroom, though it was not her own – in fact it looked more like a hospital room than anything else.  The steady beep beep beep of the monitor apparatus beside her head gradually prodded its way into her awareness as she looked down at her body and gasped.

There was more bandage visible than exposed fur, and what she could see of her bindings were soaked in a dark red liquid.  All over the front of her body, stinging daggers of pain lanced across her chest and legs as she turned about to examine the extent of the damage, her mind still struggling feebly to comprehend what she was seeing.  The blankets that covered her lower half felt warm and heavy, and she was surprised to see that she seemed to be sitting in a puddle of sweat.

She tried to move, to raise her hooves, but was rewarded with nothing but additional pain.  Looking down, she could see that both hooves were bound tightly to the sides of the bed by heavy leather restraints.  Raising her head to look at her surroundings once more, the last threads of reality finally fell into place across her dimly reawakening mind.

She remembered that she had been in her bedroom, and had been talking to…somepony.   Yes that was it…

“Luna…”  she whispered, the word escaping her lungs like so much air being let from a balloon.  She and Luna had been arguing, and then…

Once more she gazed down at her bandaged form, scanning the length of  one particularly long streak of red that arced along her side, almost reaching back to her flank.

“How…I…Did I…do this?”

It had been a dream, she thought…everything was fine – she had just had a nightm-

“Wait…wait, no, everything is not fine.  Where is-“

She had intended to say “Where is Luna,” but as the first half of the question left her lips, it made her suddenly and keenly aware of something that was clearly and unnervingly odd about her surroundings.  She was in a hospital bed, and wounded, that much made sense – but what didn’t make sense was that she was alone.  No sign of the typical bustling groups of doctor or nurse ponies that she would have expected to see in the hospital wing made itself apparent.  Not even a single one of the ubiquitous royal guards could be seen standing by the doors or around her bed.  For some reason, she had been left completely unattended.

Or so she thought.

The noise from the corner of the room, quiet as it was, blasted into Celestia’s thoughts like the sound of a gunshot, immediately sending her heart racing anew.  It was the same muffled scraping sound that she had heard before, though only now did she pay it any real attention.  It sounded to her almost as though something heavy was being dragged along the floor, and it seemed to be coming from the far corner of the room, near one of the other beds that was obscured by the large hanging curtain beside her own bed.

“Who’s there?  Show yourself!”

She did her best to put as much authority into those words as she could manage, but in her current state she could not help but allow a tiny trickle of fear to seep into her tone.

No response.  The sound continued for a few seconds, the came to an abrupt end, punctuated by a soft thud and a tiny grunt.  In the silence that followed, Celestia had the sudden, very intense impression that she was being watched.

“Did you hear me?!  I demand that you-“

But the end of her sentence never broke the air as the curtain was lifted slowly away and she locked eyes with the pony that appeared beneath them.

=====================================================================

Dr. Grey Mendwell sat alone in a tiny, dimly lit room, tapping his hoof impatiently.  Despite his typically calm, collected demeanor, the situation in which he presently found himself left him more than a bit agitated, and somewhat less than complacent.  For the umpteenth time, his eyes nervously scanned the solid concrete walls all around him, the soft reverberations of another heavy sigh echoing coldly from every direction as he waited.

                   

Stay calm, Grey, just keep it together.

Lacking a free hoof to adjust them, he shook his head, trying to reseat the bent frame of his glasses on a higher point on his muzzle, ignoring the persistent throbbing in his temples.  The middle-aged pony knew without a doubt that something was seriously wrong, and it was not simply because he had been shaken awake in this cramped cell by a pair of royal guards with no memory whatsoever of everything that had happened since he had left Fluttershy’s cottage.  As far as he could remember, he had been just about to unlock his front door to get ready for his appointment with the filly named Scootaloo when he had suddenly awakened here, in excruciating pain, without his omnipresent saddlebag, and with both of his forelegs shackled behind his back.

They wouldn’t have brought you here without a good reason.  I’m sure the princess knows what she’s doing.  Everything will be fine…she’ll explain what happened and everything will be fine…

Just as he was about to release another unsteady sigh, the heavy iron door across from him creaked to life.  As the door swung slowly open, its neglected hinges groaning in protest, first one, then another, then a third and a fourth guard all filed into the room in a stiff, synchronized march.  Grey tensed slightly, expecting to be graced with the presence of royalty at any moment as the guards took up positions at each corner of the room, each pair of eyes trained upon the tall slate-coated unicorn like those of a bird of prey on the hunt.

Curiously enough, all was silent.  Once the guards had stopped moving, no clip-clop of approaching hooves, no fanfare of royal trumpets, no sound whatsoever made itself heard aside from the echoed whispers of Grey’s barely controlled breathing.  He resumed his rapid hoof-tapping, his apprehension steadily mounting.  The guards of the royal family had always been known for being cold and aloof as part of conducting their sacred duty, but this time, something seemed strangely off about them, as if there really wasn’t anything at all beneath the flawlessly polished armor that glinted coldly in the wavering light of the single, low lantern that illuminated the room.

           

        Slowly, soundlessly, a fifth and final figure slid into view as it rounded the corner beyond the door to his tiny cell, and as it did so, Grey felt all of the warmth within him drain instantly away as though he had been suddenly immersed in a tub full of ice.  He had never before seen the magnificently groomed alicorn that now towered over him, his pale blue eyes glaring down at him with the crushing force of countless ages, glowing faintly in the lanternlight.  Grey simply stared, his mind at once filled with paralyzing awe and helpless terror as it struggled to make sense of this inexplicably translucent newcomer and the unspoken authority with which he carried himself, despite his lack of actually making contact with the ground.  As he gawked up the mysterious, captivating alicorn, its lips slowly parted from their intense scowl to speak.

           

        “So you’re the only one left, is that correct?  Or do you intend on wasting more of my time?”

Grey sputtered incoherently; alarmed by the implication that he had already done something wrong despite his absolute unawareness as to how he had arrived here.  The tone with which the alicorn spoke suited his body perfectly, resonating with an almost ruthlessly self-assured authority.  This was not the sort of voice that asked questions – it was the sort that made demands, and whose demands were always met.  The alicorn scowled again, making no effort to hide his disdain.

                   

“Just what exactly do you think you can do?  Haven’t you had your fill of punishment by now?  Or perhaps you would prefer that I find some new way to dissuade you?”

                   

Just for an instant, Grey thought he saw the faintest trace of a manic grin flash through the alicorn’s eyes.

                   

What the hay?!  Is…Is he threatening me?!

Grey struggled to comprehend, to speak, but the gaze of the alicorn’s eyes held him like an iron vice.  A string of nonsensical half-words bubbled from his trembling lips before finally finding a single word at the center of all of his bewilderment.

                   

“W…w-w-what?!”

The alicorn dismissed his feeble response with an angry snort, though his expression this time remained icily contained.  He simply stared down at the terrified little unicorn for a few moments before opening his mouth to speak again.

                   

“That’s rather a good question, isn’t it?”

                   

What the hell?!  What is this?!

                   

The alicorn averted his gaze, his eyes darting absently back and forth as he began pacing, for lack of a better word, around the rickety stool upon which Grey sat.

“What exactly can I do to you that has not already been done?  I’ll give you this: your tenacity, if nothing else, is truly admirable.  But I assure you, as I have proven time and time again, where there is a will, there is a way, and there will always be something more I can take from you if you should threaten me again.”

                   

With sudden ferocity, he rounded on Grey, his face just inches from the unicorn’s muzzle, his words rumbling with white-hot intensity.

                   

“So I will say this once, and I suggest that you forget all of your idiotic little fantasies long enough at least to listen.  What have you done?”

                   

Grey nearly chuckled at the absurdity of what was happening to him.  Was this some kind of crazy dream?  He shook his head in speechless disbelief, abandoning all hope of trying to understand any of what was happening.

                   

The alicorn scrutinized him for a short time, searching his eyes, though for what he was searching, Grey couldn’t fathom.  Finally, he stepped away, gesturing curtly to one of the guards behind him.

In a sudden moment of clarity, Grey remembered himself, trying desperately to regain a semblance of a calm composure.  Surely this was all just some big misunderstanding, and if he simply explained that he had absolutely no idea what-

                   

Without any notion of how he had ended up there, Grey found himself on the floor, tasting blood, and acutely aware of a stabbing pain pounding in the right side of his head.  Before he had time to try to regain his bearings, he felt one foreleg being pulled painfully upward above the small of his back, pinning him in place.  As he struggled to comprehend the sudden onset of violence, his mouth acted of its own accord, blurting out the fragments of thought as they flooded through his mind on a tide of adrenaline.

                   

“W-w-what…what is this?!  Who are you?!”  He winced as the guard at his back tightened his grip.  “Where is the princess?!  Y-you can’t just-“

                   

He was silenced as another terrific blow caught him just above the bridge of his muzzle, knocking his glasses away to clatter to some far corner of the room.  Grey spat, a single bloodied tooth clattering across the floor as he coughed from the foul metallic tang that coated his tongue.  The guard that had struck him now fastened his teeth around the nape of his neck, dragging him to his feet, making no effort to make the transition the least bit comfortable.  The room spun about him as his vision once again became filled with the coldly blazing eyes of the strange alicorn.

                   

“How much exactly do you know about unicorns?”

Grey simply stared in horror at his blurry aggressor, too afraid to speak lest he incur further punishment.

                   

“I’m guessing that your knowledge is rather limited, so I’m going to speak slowly to make sure you can understand.”

                   

“P-p-please, I-I-I don’t know what you want.  Just tell me what you want and I’ll help-“

                   

“A unicorn’s horn is a fascinating bit of anatomy.  It is not composed of bone as the lay observer may assume, but is instead made of concentrated magic in solid form – specifically, the species of magic known as Order.  But I trust that I don’t need to explain what that means.”

                   

“W-what?! W-what are you-“

The alicorn ignored him, continuing in a steady, icy drawl as though lecturing a particularly slow student.

                   

“The horn, as you might imagine, is connected directly to the unicorn’s central nervous system by way of the brain, and it is for this reason that the unicorn is able to control magic much more easily than any other life form.  In this way, the horn acts as a sort of buffer, if you will, between the unicorn’s consciousness and the raw power of the magic contained therein.  Therefore, it is also for this reason that the horn represents a unicorn’s single greatest vulnerable point.”

                   

As if to punctuate the alicorn’s last words, one of the guards took hold of Grey’s horn while the other two that held him in place wrestled him back toward his tiny stool.  For a brief moment he struggled against their grasp, but each of them alone was far stronger than he, their hooves like iron shackles dragging him mercilessly behind them.  There was nothing he could do as they forced him into a squatting position, his horn laid flat across the surface of the stool as the fourth guard moved slowly closer.

                   

“Tragically, there are those among the unicorn race who have lost their horns by one way or another, but regardless of the cause of injury, they all tell a remarkably similar story.  Can you guess why that is?”

                   

The fourth guard paused, retrieving a long, blunted object from his belt.  Grey couldn’t see the guard or what he was holding very well from the awkward position in which his head was oriented, much less without the aid of his glasses, but he was certain that it frightened him.

                   “They each say that losing their horn was by far the single most painful experience they have ever had to endure, and that no matter how many years passed, the pain never really left them completely.  Some of the more colorful descriptions liken the experience to being boiled alive from the inside - not that they would have any frame of reference, of course.  Although, if you think about it, such a notion is not so far-fetched as it may seem.  After all, it is the horn that focuses a unicorn’s magic.”

                   

Struck speechless by sheer terror, Grey’s body spasmed weakly as the heavy object in the fourth guard’s teeth slammed into the surface of the stool mere centimeters from the tip of his horn.

“I wonder…What do you think might happen if all of that magic was suddenly released, allowed to run free within your body without anything at all to control it?  I imagine the result would be…fascinating to say the least.  I’ve never seen it up close, myself, and I must admit I’m quite curious as to the exact nature of the reaction.”

The alicorn lowered his head so that his eyes were level with Grey’s.  Sure enough, a tiny sparkle of excitement was apparent in the alicorn’s gaze as he continued to drawl onward in the same lifeless tone.

“Not to mention, it would be interesting to see just exactly how closely linked you are with the specimen you’ve so kindly provided to me.”

A hint of a smile, devoid of any warmth or comforting thought.  It was a cruel thing, glinting like the blade of a dagger.  Grey was transfixed, wanting desperately to escape from its deathly grasp but unable to manage anything more than a feeble twitch.

“No…Celestia, please no…”

“It’ll be just like it was before, old friend, won’t it?  Just the two of us, studying the wonders of magic together…”

The guard raised his head, bracing a single hoof against the stool, and swung downward with all of his might.

I’LL TALK!”

A sound like a gunshot.  Grey waited for the end to come, for the icy hand of death to swallow him in its grasp, but there he lay, his heart still pounding with ferocious vitality, the terror that gripped him no less real than it was moments before.  Slowly, the guard retrieved the weapon from where it had landed just beside the tip of his horn, so close he could feel the brush of the rough metal as it was lifted away.  He knew that the guard had had every intention of smashing his horn to bits, and had only changed the instrument’s course at the last second upon hearing his outburst.  His struggled frantically to control his breathing, thanking his lucky stars for the guard’s sharp reflexes.

I’ll tell you everything you want to know…please, for the love of everything under the sky, I’lll talk!”

The Alicorn blinked, his expression of manic curiosity drooping somewhat as he shot a visibly disappointed glance at the guard beside him.  Grey’s eyes shot about in every direction, trying desperately to locate some shred of comfort in any of the half-faces he could see from his position.  Almost as if he sensed his thoughts, the alicorn lowered his head once more.

“You were saying?”

Grey sputtered as a fresh wave of terror hit him.  He suddenly realized that he still had no idea what these ponies wanted from him.

“I-I-I-I s-s-swear, I swear to you, I don’t know who you are or why I’m here…just tell me what you want and I’ll help you.  N-N-Nopony needs to get hurt-“

The guard moved closer, once again lifting the mallet into position, but the alicorn raised a hoof to stop him.  The strange, translucent pony stared blankly into Grey’s eyes for several excruciating moments before speaking again.

“Perhaps you weren’t listening.  I’ve already told you what I want.”

“W…w-w-what?”

The alicorn let out an exasperated sigh.  “As delightfully ironic as this is, I haven’t the patience for games.  You should be thankful, really – given enough time I wouldn’t even need you, but out of the kindness of my heart I’ve decided to give you the chance to redeem yourself for your crimes.”

Although Grey couldn’t clearly resolve the expression on the alicorn’s face, his tone indicated that kindness in any form could not be farther from his mind at the moment.

“C-C-Crimes?  I-I don’t…I’ve never committed a crime in my life, I promise you!  How can I convince you that I have no idea what you’re talking ab-“

“What.  Have.  You.  Done?  It’s a question, and a very simple one at that.”

“D-Done?!  Done with what?!  To whom?!  I…I haven’t done anything!”

The alicorn’s mouth twitched slightly, as though he were trying to suppress a chuckle, before settling back into a stony frown.

“You give yourself too little credit.  If that were true, I’d have no use for you, and you would most certainly not be alive to tell me so.”

Slowly, he raised one translucent hoof to signal the guard to strike.  Grey’s mind stumbled over itself in a panic, his voice churning out every thought that came to his mind, desperately hoping that the string of words would mean something that could stop the guard as he lifted his weapon back into position.

“I-I-I don’t even know how I got here, I don’t!  I was in Ponyville with a pony called Fluttershy, I treated her wounds, you can ask her for yourself!  After that I don’t remember anything, please!  I…I…”

Grey stopped speaking as he became aware of a distinct, though to him, an incomprehensible shift in the atmosphere about him.  Perhaps it was that the guard looming over him had staggered slightly, or that the alicorn’s hoof had yet to drop, remaining suspended in midair like the blade of a guillotine, but his spirit leapt with the hope that something he had just said had hit home.

For a few moments, all was silent until the alicorn spoke again, his icy voice now colored with a hint of surprise.

“Fluttershy, you say.  Is that so?”

The guard remained in his position above Grey’s head, never taking his eyes off of his target as the alicorn lowered his hoof, leaning gently forward.

“No memory of how you got here, hm?  Well isn’t that convenient.”

Grey groped frantically at the one faint light that had suddenly appeared in the haze of confusion that enveloped him.

“I swear on all that is holy, it’s true!  I don’ remember anything after leaving Fluttershy’s cottage!  Nothing at all!  Just ask her and she’ll confirm everything I’ve told you!”

The alicorn snorted, turning slightly as he began to tap his chin in thought, muttering to himself all the while.

“Yes, that would be the case, unless… but no memory at all…that’s interesting.”

Grey waited, the small spark of hope he had held for but a moment at the change of pace now sputtering slowly out of existence.  He squinted at the suddenly pensive alicorn, trying desperately to resolve his features to glean some hint of the fate that he was contemplating for him.  His efforts went in vain, for as the figure before him continued to mutter under his breath, he seemed to have almost completely forgotten that Grey was even there.  Regardless, not one of the guards budged so much as an inch as they patiently awaited their master’s attention.  More out of a reflexive desire to break the unbearable silence than out of the belief that it would actually improve his situation, Grey resumed his pleas.

Please, I promise you, I’ve never broken a law in all of my years…please, just let me go, and I’ll do whatever you ask to prove that I’m telling the truth.  I-“

“Quiet.”

Grey’s voice left him with a faint, choked squeak reminiscent of the sound of air being released from an underinflated balloon.  Something had visibly changed in the alicorn’s composure, as though he were somehow agitated.  Without warning, he lunged straight at Grey, his muzzle coming to rest a hair’s width from Grey’s terrified eyes.  Grey could almost feel the alicorn’s hot breath washing over him as he anxiously awaited some indication as to his intent, but the pale gaze of those eyes was as unreadable as polished stone.  Finally, the alicorn let out a sigh, his dazzlingly white teeth poking out from beneath his thin lips in a half-grin.

“That’s very interesting.  “Perhaps you’re not so useless after all, hm?”

He rose, turning to face the door, all traces of his momentary agitation now gone as he walked purposefully out of the cell.  Just as he was passing through the heavy steel frame of the doorway, he looked back over his shoulder, directly into Grey’s eyes.

“Unfortunately, there is something that requires my immediate attention at the moment, and I’m afraid I must take my leave.  However, before I depart, I want to make something perfectly clear: the truth will not save your life, but it may just make what’s left of it a little more comfortable.  On that note, for the time being, I’m going to leave you with some food for thought.”

Grey’s heart leapt into his throat, his last shred of hope vanishing instantly,  the alicorn’s words ringing coldly in his ears as he struggled to comprehend what they meant, struggled to escape from their crushing, inescapable truth.  The guard inhaled deeply, bracing himself against the stool once more.  With sudden, paralyzing clarity, he realized what was about to happen to him and exactly how powerless he was to stop it.  As his oppressor began to disappear from view from behind the door, Grey’s terror-stricken voice filled the tiny chamber once more.

“No!  Wait, please!  I swear I don’t know!  I don’t know anyth-“

At a lazy gesture from his superior, the guard brought his head sharply downward.  This time, his aim was true.

=====================================================================

The light of the full moon shined serenely down upon the stark silhouette of the Mendwell Memorial Hospital, the high, squared facets of its architecture casting long, jagged shadows on the ground below.  The air was still, broken only by the sounds of the creatures stirring in the bushes that lined the steep incline arcing up to the hospital’s front gate.  Even as the city of Canterlot bustled away at the bottom of the hospital’s lofty perch, no sign of turmoil, no breath of activity save for the small cluster of guards patrolling the building’s perimeter betrayed the riot that had erupted within its pristine halls.

On the fourth floor, past the long rows of hospital rooms, a small patrol of guards marched in silence, their eyes carefully scanning every shadow for any sign of movement.  One guard walked at the head of the group, his armor bearing the insignia of his rank as first sergeant, and as yet another cold splash of moonlight fell glittering off of his armor, he suppressed the urge to yawn.  Ever since the commotion several hours ago, the hospital had been eerily silent, and despite the professional seriousness that his training had instilled, he found himself a bit agitated.  When he had been called from the castle at the “urgent need of additional guards,” as second lieutenant Blitz had put it, he had frankly expected something other than simple patrol duty.  However, the thought did not linger for more than a few seconds before it was swept sternly aside as he chided himself for losing focus, his pace involuntarily quickening slightly as he began scanning the darkness with renewed vigor.  

A part of him was relieved that the hospital was as quiet as it was, though he could not help but feel as though it was just a little bit too quiet.  Something wasn’t right – his instincts told him that much, though he couldn’t quite put his hoof on it.  Try as he might, he could not shake the niggling feeling that his presence here was nothing but a waste of time while the real danger was lurking somewhere else, waiting for an opening, though where and what that opening might be, he hadn’t the slightest idea.

Fortunately, he did not have to wait for much longer before his restlessness was knocked abruptly from his thoughts.  He had been just about to round the corner of the hall when a sound from one of the rooms several meters to his rear commanded his attention.

Though he could not interpret what it was they were saying, his ears immediately identified the source of the sound as a cacophony of urgent voices came bubbling through the hall from behind the door of room 411.  Without a word, he spun smoothly about and made for the door, ordering his subordinates to remain behind with a quick flick of his hoof.  The moment that his muzzle made contact with the narrow wooden panels, he was blasted with the voice of what sounded like a hyperactive squirrel.

Pinkie Pie positively bounced on her hospital bed, the trappings of her wounded forelimb creaking with frightening ferocity as it swung crazily back and forth in its sling.  But she ignored the stabbing pain that lanced up her leg as she tried to bring her breathing under control and to find the words to make the guards understand.  All the while, the guard who had spoken last simply stared at her in stern bewilderment while his subordinates gazed uncertainly between the two of them and the first sergeant.

“Why is everypony just standing around?  My friends are in big trouble and you’re just gonna sit there?!”

           

        For a brief moment, the first sergeant hesitated, his eyes darting from face to flustered face as he attempted to assess the cause of the confusion.  Pinkie babbled in a ceaseless string of words that spilled so rapidly from her lips that he was finding it completely impossible to try to follow what it was that she was so desperate to communicate.

                   As the others guards turned hopelessly about to face him, Pinkie finally seemed to notice his presence.

“You!  Mister guard sir guy, c’mere!  You gotta help me out here – I’ve been trying to tell these guys but they just won’t listen to reason!”

                   

He blinked, a small part of his mind lingering vaguely on the name that she had chosen for him before he realized that every pair of eyes in the room was resting expectantly on him.  Recovering himself, he nodded stiffly to his comrades, immediately taking charge.

“Cruzer, move aside.  I’ll handle this.”

                   

As he approached the bed, he gestured to the guard to his left, who snapped a hasty salute before trotting briskly out through the door and down the hall.  In the same motion, he reached one hoof upward to touch the small, star-shaped gem in his breastplate.  The moment his hoof made contact, the tiny stone began to glow with a soft bluish light that cast an oddly ominous shadow on the upper half of his face as he opened his mouth to speak again.

                   

“Miss Pie, can you-“

Pinkie cut him off in almost the same moment that he had begun to speak.

“Where is he going?”

“He…He’s gone to fetch the doctor, Miss Pie – he’ll be back any mo-“

“NO!  I don’t need a doctor, my friends are the ones in trouble!  I gotta warn them!”

With a swiftness that barely allowed the guard to leap out of reach in time, Pinkie lunged forward, her teeth snapping shut with a resounding crack over the spot where his teleshard had just been.  Immediately, the other two guards stepped a safe distance away from the bed.

“Hey!  Gimme that!”

“W-What do you think you’re doing?!  Please just calm down – the doctor will be here soo-“

“Why is that thing all glowy?  Can they hear me?  Twilight! Everypony! It’s Pi-“

“MISS PIE!”

The sudden volume of the guard’s voice was enough to momentarily shake her out of her frantic struggling.  He glared at her not in anger, but in a cold, seasoned authority that quickly and effectively took command of the situation.

“First and foremost, I need you to calm down, and tell me exactly what in Equestria you’re talking about.  I can’t do anything to help you until I understand what’s got you so upset.”

Pinkie simply blinked, as though she couldn’t comprehend why the guard wasn’t panicking.

“Upset?  I’m a whole lot more than upset, I’m downright hystericable!  I’ll say it again: my friends are gonna be in super big trouble any second now, and they have no way of knowing about it unless you let me talk to them!”

The guard maintained an even tone, patiently ignoring his crippling and utter lack of comprehension as to what had sent this excitable young mare flying out of her wits.

“What do you mean, trouble?  How could you possibly know something like that?  You need to slow down and expla-“

She shook her head, her voice squeaking with excitement.

“Aren’t you listening?!  It doesn’t matter how I know I just-“

Please, Miss Pie, for both our sakes.  If what you say is true, I need you to tell me as calmly as possible so that I can relay the message to my superiors.”

Pinkie goggled at him for a few seconds longer until finally the message began to sink in.  She took a long, deep breath, holding it until her heart began to slow in the fevered jig that it danced in her chest.  As felt the adrenaline ebbing away, she squeezed her eyes shut, focusing as hard as she could on the feeling that had been so clear just moments ago, hoping that she had been wrong.

“Okay…okay…calm Pinkie.  Caaaaaaaaalm Pinkie…”

The trio of guards waited in silence.  When she opened her eyes, the first sergeant nodded in her direction, as though asking if she were alright.

“There, see? Calm now.  Now are you ready to listen to me?”

Again, the guard nodded without speaking, moving slightly closer so that she would be within the teleshard’s range, but still just out of reach.  Pinkie inhaled, her chest swelling ludicrously just before the words began to flow like a riptide from her mouth.

“Okay look, I can’t explain how or why, but sometimes I just know things before they happen.  I know you might not understand – Twilight didn’t get it at all when I first told her about it, and it took one doozy of a doozy to get her to believe me.  But I don’t happen to have a hydra or a swamp full of frogs at the moment, so I just gotta ask you to trust me on this!”

                   

The first sergeant simply blinked, his lips parting slightly in bewilderment.  All of the hope that he was finally going to get some semblance of rationality from her had completely vanished as he tried to process what she had said.  He and his subordinates exchanged an uncertain glance.

                   

“H…Hydra?  Miss Pie, what are you ta-“

“Anyway, it’s something that I’ve always been able to do, and something I’ve never been able to explain.  And it’s telling me right now that my friends are all going to be in really big trouble in a really big way really really soon!  I can’t say what that trouble is or where it’s gonna happen, but when it does, it’s gonna be super mega mondo bad bad bad!  You gotta let me contact them!”

                   

“Whoa, whoa, there miss, slow down.  What was that about a hydra?  And…and did you say… a swamp?”

                   

“Full of frogs.  And mud.  Lotsa mud, yup.”

Pinkie nodded vigorously as she spoke, then fell silent, gazing expectantly into the guard’s eyes.  When it became clear that neither he nor his comrades were about to respond, she stomped the foot of her bed in frustration, rounding on each of them in turn with bared teeth.

“What are you staring at?!  What about what I’ve told you isn’t clear?  Okay look, it’s simple-“

“Miss Pie?  Falchion, what seems to be the trouble here?”

The wheezy rasping of the elderly pony’s voice made the trio of guards jump slightly with the suddenness of its appearance, though their apprehension was quickly replaced by a sigh of relief.  Thankful for the presence of another voice, the first sergeant immediately abandoned any hope of trying to understand Pinkie’s rambling and turned to face the newcomer.  Standing in the now open doorway was the familiar, stooped outline of Dr. Dorian Mendwell with the guard named Cruzer standing close behind.  As he walked briskly into the room to come to a stop by the end of her bed, Pinkie noticed that several strands of his previously meticulous mane still stuck out at odd angles from the rest, as though he still hadn’t quite recovered from the commotion that had occurred several hours ago.

“Oh, doctor, thank goodness you’re here.  I’m not sure what’s got her so upset – I think she’s delirious.  She was going on about something with a hydra and a swamp…”

“No, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong!”  She swatted aside the doctor’s probing hoof as he reached forward to test her temperature.  “There is no hydra, and – well I mean there was, and it was in a swamp, but that was, like, forty episodes ago!  My friends are in danger right now!  Or…or they will be…I…”

She grunted, squeezing her eyes shut once more, but the feeling was already fading.  In the same moment, everypony save for the doctor began speaking at once but were immediately silenced by  a single wave of the elderly pony’s hoof.  He cleared his throat, fixing Pinkie with a stern, practiced stare.

“Please Miss Pie, I understand that you’re upset, but I can’t help you until you calm down.  Start from the beginning.  Slowly.”

The guard to Pinkie’s left spoke up before she could offer a response.

“It started as some kind of fit or seizure or something.  Just her face though – She was laughing at first, and then out of nowhere her face started convulsing and the next thing we knew, she started insisting that she need to warn her “friends,” though the nature of the alleged danger is still a mystery.”

“I see.  Is this true, Miss Pie?”

“Well yes, but I can expla-“

“Cruzer, fetch nurse Stitch, if you would.  She should be just down the hall in the staff lounge.”

                   

The guard that still lingered in the open doorway gave a quick nod and marched outside, his footsteps echoing loudly in the still night air even as he made his way down the hall.

“No, you don’t understand, I’m fine, there’s no need to-“”

“Miss Pie, you may feel fine now, but this is not something to be taken lightly.  If what you experienced was indeed some sort of seizure, then we’re going to need to run some tests.”

Pinkie paused for a moment, suppressing the urge to yell.  She had the distinct impression that everypony was trying to keep her from talking, and it was making her more than a bit frustrated with the situation.

“I’m not having seizures, and I’m not sick, if you’d just list-“

Especially if you were seeing things.  Now tell me, what exactly is all of this about a swamp full of hydras?  Are you absolutely sure you weren’t dreaming?”

She gave an exasperated sigh, slamming her head backwards against the headboard of her bed.

“For the last time, there is no swamp.  Why is everypony so stuck in the swamp? When I-”

“Then what-“

“HOLY HORSERADISH, would you can it let me talk for a second?!”

Despite himself, Dr. Dorian jumped at the sudden volume of Pinkie’s voice.  Before he could utter another word, Pinkie capitalized on her advantage, this time taking special care to speak as slowly as she could manage in her condition.

                   

“If anypony in this room is sick it’s all of you with one bad case of obliviotitis!  I swear, if you’re gonna ask me questions, you gotta lemme get a word in edgewise!  Or sideways!  Any which way, I don’t care!  At least listen to what I have to say!”

                   

“M-Miss P-“

In a single, blindingly swift motion, Pinkie grabbed Dorian’s stethoscope in her teeth and snapped the receiver into place over his mouth.  As he sputtered clumsily through his makeshift gag, she immediately silenced any would-be protest from the guards with a caustic glare in their direction.

“Okay, look, we’ve wasted enough time as it is, so I’ll put it to you real simple like.  Lessee, how would Twilight say it?  She’s always been good at explaining stuff…”

She scratched her chin with her one good hoof, staring into her blankets for a moment before donning her most serious expression and speaking in what was apparently her idea of an accurate impression of her friend.

“Pinkie Sense: Noun: An unexplainable phenomenon demonstrated only in the species Pinkius pieicus, common name Pinkamena Diane Pie, by which various events are predicted before said events actually transpire.  Each event is consistently preceded by a unique yet very particular spasm of the body of said species, each of which may or may not be limited to singular or multiple body parts.  For instance, spontaneous  ear flop, followed by knee twitch and finally eye flutter indicates the imminent danger of injury via opening doors, whereas ear flop, followed by eye flutter then knee twitch would precede the appearance of an aesthetically pleasing hydrologically manifested spectroform (see “Rainbows,” also, “Sonic Rainboom”).  Also, the severity and/or magnitude of the predicted event appears to be directly correlated to the extent of physical pre-action in subject species.”

Pinkie gasped, her lungs tearing hungrily away inside her as she inhaled for the first time during her speech.  She allowed herself a brief moment to collect her wits again before turning expectantly to face the others.

Silence.  For what felt like hours, everypony in the room simply stared blankly in her direction without budging in the slightest.  All of the absolute certainty she had felt that her explanation would make them understand quickly dissipated as her expectant gaze jumped from one dumbfounded face to the other before Dorian’s muffled voice broke the quietude through his stethoscope.

“Fvatt?”

Pinkie wanted to scream, but before she or any of the others could react, their attention was commanded by the intrusion of an unexpected voice.

“Ah, so that explains it.  I was wondering what you meant.”

In perfect unison, all eyes swept across the room to fall upon the hospital room door and the figure that now stood within its open arch.  With a gentle grin that caused the wrinkles on his lined face to stand out in the half-light of the little room, the pegasus guard stared straight at Pinkie, completely ignoring the silent pleas of his comrades as they searched his face in vain for some explanation.

As she watched the figure limp gingerly toward her bed , she was immediately struck by the very strong impression that she had met this pony somewhere before – Pinkie Pie never forgot a face, but it was a bit difficult to tell who this pony was when half of his features, not to mention one wing and a portion of his midsection, were all obscured by heavy bandages. He had gotten about halfway across the room when she noticed that the three other guards had both stiffened noticeably and now each held a single hoof to their forehead in a salute.  When he spoke again, the firm, military cadence of his speech  triggered the emergence of a familiar name from the back of her mind, and she found herself nearly gasping at the fact that she had not recognized him until now.  The moment that the thought registered in her mind, she felt her stomach turn suddenly, her heart leaping in an odd blend of hope and alarm.

“At ease, men.  I’m sure that there’s a very reasonable explanation for all of this, though in her excitement, I think perhaps Miss Pie hasn’t quite gotten the message across in the manner she intended.  No offense, Miss.”

He nodded in her direction, though she had already decided to bite back any protest she might feel at his appearance.  She was just thankful to have somepony who seemed to be on her side for the time being.

“And just what do you think you’re doing out of bed, Hussar-“

“That’s Captain Hussar to you, doctor.”

In an instant, without any warning whatsoever, the guard’s pleasant demeanor had completely vanished.  Where once had lingered the small yet distinct crack of a friendly grin now loomed an icy glare that stopped Dorian’s sentence dead in the water.  He rounded on the doctor, his voice suddenly resounding with a distinctly patronizing edge.

“I’d commend you for your concern, though I doubt the Princess will look with favor upon the fact that you chose to run and hide while several very important suspects fled the scene of the crime, especially after trusting you with a task of such gravity as that of Fluttershy’s well-being.  To be honest, I sincerely doubt that you will have any authority over the patients here for much longer, Dorian.”

As the last words left his mouth, the air in the room seemed to grow distinctly colder, and it was clear to everypony that Hussar was doing them all a great courtesy in controlling his temper.  For several seconds, the only sounds to break the silence were the footfalls of Cruzer and nurse Stitch as they came into view through the open door and shot a perplexed glance in Hussar’s direction.  The nurse pony frowned, opening her mouth to speak, but was quickly silenced by a peculiarly intense glance from doctor Dorian.  Without another word, the elderly doctor sputtered indignantly to himself and stepped reluctantly aside, the nurse quietly joining him in the corner of the room.

The moment that his gaze returned to Pinkie, all of the tension in his features melted easily away, and a hint of a smile played across the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes.  He seemed to brush aside all traces of his former presence with effortless grace, and he once more appeared as nothing more than a gently refined old stallion.

“Before you ask-“ he addressed the group of guards, raising a hoof to quiet them.  “I’m just fine, thank you.  Actually, I wanted to ask Miss Pie a few questions for myself, and it seems that for once my timing was quite fortuitous.  If you will all just listen quietly, I’m certain we can put an end to any confusion.”

The guard to the left of Pinkie’s bed took a single hesitant step forward.

“Sir, with all due respect…Do you know something about this?  You are still recovering, and we are perfectly capable of relaying any inf-“

“If that were true, I would not have needed to intervene, hm?”

It was not a question.  The guard blushed slightly before returning to his place in the corner of the room.

“I may not understand exactly what it is that Miss Pie is talking about, but I’ve been around long enough to know when to shut up and listen hard.”

He cleared his throat just loudly enough to emphasize the point and to make sure that everypony in the room was paying attention, then fixed the fuschia-maned mare with a gaze that was stern but not without a hint of kindness.

“First and foremost, I believe it necessary to clear the air as to the nature of Miss Pie’s peculiar proclivity for prediction.”

He inhaled slowly, giving Pinkie a moment to prepare as her eyes roamed uncertainly across his lined face.

“Are you ready?”

Pinkie remained silent, swallowing in a vain attempt to remove the nervous dryness from her throat before offering a reluctant nod.

“Very well then, I’ll proceed.  This “Pinkie Sense…” That’s what you called it, yes?  It’s not the first time I’ve heard of it.  If I remember correctly, you mentioned it briefly in the castle’s conference hall?  Before Miss Fluttershy’s condition was discovered?”

Pinkie hesitated for a few seconds, still trying to process the significance of the newcomer’s identity.  For a moment, the only thing that she could remember was that same face that had reprimanded the doctor looming downward as he pinned her best friend to the cold stone of the conference hall floor.  She also wasn’t sure she had liked the way in which he had referred to her friends as “suspects,” but for the time being, she thought, she had been given another chance at explaining herself and she wasn’t about to pass it up, not if it meant helping Fluttershy and the others.  

She offered a jerking nod and Hussar glanced briefly to everypony in the room, save for the doctor and the nurse, before continuing.

“I see.  And this has indeed been proven to be a consistent phenomenon?”

Another nod, more quickly this time.  Pinkie wanted desperately to speak, but something told her to just stay quiet and allow the captain to handle the situation in his own way.

“Mmm-Hmm.”

He nodded thoughtfully to himself, as though confirming something.

“Now, just to be absolutely clear, why don’t you tell me everything that happened just before your…”

He paused, searching for the right word.

“Just before you were struck with the notion that your friends were in danger.”

“But sir, how can we kn-“

Without turning to face the guard who had spoken, Hussar’s features suddenly hardened once more, his tone cutting through his subordinate’s sentence with the finality of a guillotine.

“If I remember correctly, I told you to be quiet.  It’s no wonder Miss Pie is in such a state when her own protectors are too incompetent to follow even the most basic of instructions.”

The guard recoiled slightly, his eyes searching the back of his superior’s head in wounded surprise.  He wasn’t the only one – Pinkie, too, found herself taken aback once again by the captain’s apparent ability to change his demeanor so abruptly.  The pony before her, despite the subtly endearing, aged outline of his face, was undeniably one of the most intimidating ponies she had ever met, and she didn’t have to wonder long at how he had attained his office at the Princess’s side.

Once again, with an ease that Pinkie found slightly unnerving, Hussar’s features melted away to reveal a picture of genuine kindness.  He smiled apologetically down at her as spoke.

“Forgive him for his tactlessness, Miss Pie.  I promise that nopony in this room will interrupt you again.”

She frowned, suddenly unsure how to react.

“Go on.  Help us to understand, and I’ll do what I can to help you.”

With a quick glance in the now silent guard’s direction, Pinkie finally began to relax.  Intensely grateful for finally having the opportunity to have another go at explaining herself, she immediately took a deep breath, then stopped short.  For several seconds, her mouth hung absurdly open as everypony around her stared in silent puzzlement.

Slow…She thought.  Just calm down and try to explain this as simply as possible.  Rushing it will just make everypony more confused.

She exhaled, closing her eyes as she prepared her explanation for a final time.

“Okay…I’m gonna try to explain this as best as I can, although…it’s probably gonna sound kinda crazy, but please, you’ve gotta believe that every single word is true.  I know you’re not gonna wanna believe me – nopony did at first - but it’s the absolute, pony-fied, Pinkie positive truth.”

Hussar simply nodded, and the rest looked on with obedient, if somewhat reluctant attention.  When nopony interrupted her, she took another long, deep breath, and began to speak.

 “So, yeah, there’s this…thing that I call my Pinkie sense that I told the captain about a little while ago.  Basically, it’s…a feeling.   But, not just any old feeling - it’s always a very strong one, especially when something big like this is gonna happen.  I’ve never been able to explain it, but it’s never, ever been wrong.  Not even once.  And just a few minutes ago, that feeling was as clear as I have ever felt it before.”

Pinkie paused for a few moments to allow what she had said to sink in.  As far as she could tell, none of them were about to object, but it didn’t look as though any of them aside from Hussar was particularly willing to believe her.

“The…the thing with my face…”  She nodded in Dorian’s direction.  “That happened in the conference hall too, and a couple of times before it, but until now I didn’t know what it meant.”

Without a word, Hussar’s eyebrow arced sharply upward.  He nodded at Pinkie, as though asking for permission to speak.

“Mister captain sir?”

“…Are you referring to the spasm of the ears and lips that I witnessed at the castle?  You’re saying that you had not experienced that particular type of episode in the past?”

She nodded vigorously.

“Yes, sir.  That’s why I didn’t say anything at the time – I still hadn’t learned what that particular combo meant.”

Hussar blinked.

“Forgive me…combo?”

“Oh…sorry, yeah - a “combo” is what I call it when several things happen to my body at once that supposedly predict the future, just like what I said just as you came in about opening doors and rainbows and stuff.”

“…I see…”

Without warning, the captain spun about to face the doctor.

“Is that description consistent with what you witnessed?”

Dorian simply sputtered, too surprised at being abruptly addressed by the pony that had reprimanded him so severely moments before.  With a single hoof, the doctor gestured over Hussar’s shoulder to the guard behind.

“If I may, sir…”

Whipping about, Hussar glared icily into the guard’s eyes, but said nothing.  He swallowed hard before speaking again, staring determinedly into the space above his superior’s head.

“When Miss Pie’s…episode began, her lips did pucker severely and both ears seemed to twirl about of their own accord…sir.”

“Just as I thought.”  For several moments, he was silent, then added as an afterthought,

“Ah…right…to clarify for those of you who were not there at the time…when Miss Pie mentioned her peculiar, if not fascinating ability in the conference hall at the castle, all of her friends seemed to believe in it.  Twilight Sparkle, in particular, stated that this was a real phenomenon, and although it is unexplained, that it has predicted the future before now.  Naturally, given the circumstances, I do believe that this constitutes an important new avenue of investigation.”

His words tumbled out with somewhat careless velocity, as though for some reason he were very keen to move past this point and wasn’t particularly bothered about whether the others had fully understood.  When he turned back to address Pinkie again, his expression was curiously intense.

“And to that end, it is crucial that we learn exactly what these episodes have to tell us.  You’re absolutely certain that you did not have any idea what it meant before now?  Not in the conference hall or even before that?”

She leaned backward slightly, a little surprised at the sudden note of eagerness in his voice.

“N-no…No, when it happened before, I figured I would just have to wait until I found out what it meant.  That’s what I’ve always done when I got a combo that I didn’t know the meaning of.”

Hussar frowned, then took a step away from the side of the bed, as though he had suddenly realized just how close he had been.  For just a moment, Pinkie thought he almost looked…disappointed.

“…No matter.  It would have been fortunate if we could have reacted sooner, but we’ll have to go with what we have.  You said that you sensed a clear and present danger during the last spasm, yes?”

Pinkie nodded excitedly.  Her heart was beginning to pick up speed at the sign of progress, however small it was.

“Can you tell me what that danger is?”

“I…I can’t say specifically…I know, I know that’s not what you wanted to hear, but I can’t help it.  My Pinkie sense only tells me the basics – I almost never know when or where or how the something is gonna happen, I just know it’s gonna happen!”

“What is it?  What’s going to happen?”

“I don’t know!  I just-“

“But you know that it has to do with your friends?  Can you tell me where?  Even a general area?”

Yes, but..”  She squeezed her eyes shut reaching deep inside herself, trying to reclaim the feeling that had been so painfully vivid in her mind for however brief a time.  “No…no, I can’t, I’m sorry, but I just can’t sense anything other than the fact that they’re either in trouble at this very moment, or that they’re about to be sometime very soon.  I wish I could tell you more, but I won’t know anything else until it happens again, and I don’t have any way of knowing when that will happen.”

For several minutes, the room was silent.  As Pinkie finished speaking, Hussar stared intently into her eyes for what felt to her like a very long time before finally breaking away, muttering to himself as he began to pace clumsily back and forth beside the bed.  All the while, every pair of eyes in the room followed his slow, purposeful movements yet not a one of them dared to speak for fear of incurring his wrath again.  Not that he necessarily would have heard them anyway – whatever it was that he was thinking about, it had enraptured him to such an extent that he almost seemed to have forgotten anypony else was there.

Finally, as he turned about to continue his circuit at the end of Pinkie’s bed, he stopped.  Without warning, he seemed to relax a bit, and that same practiced grin cracked his features as he addressed the guards behind him.

“As much as I hate to say it, it may take some time to learn more about this alleged danger, much less to determine what to do about it when we do not even know the suspects’ location at the moment.”

One of the guards that had remained silent until now stepped slowly forward.

“What are you suggesting that we do, sir?”

“Naturally, it is imperative that we notify the Princess of this occurrence and keep Miss Pie under close observation until the next episode occurs.  In the meantime…”

He turned slowly back to face Pinkie, his eyes roaming across her face in what she could only describe as appraisal.  The thought sent a sudden small spike of nausea into her gut, though she wasn’t sure why.

“…I would like to spend some time with Miss Pie in private.”

In almost comically perfect unison, everypony in the room gawked at the captain in disbelief.  Pinkie, too, had been caught off-guard by the suddenness of the captain’s request, and it immediately put her on edge.  Her eyes bored into his, frantically probing for any sign of what the captain intended to do, but she may as well have been staring a rock – not the slightest trace of doubt nor shadow of duplicity could be detected in his calmly self-assured features.  In fact, Hussar seemed to be completely unaware that what he had asked for was anything less than reasonable.

“B-b-but sir…”  The same guard stepped forward again, though this time there was a definite stutter in his speech.  “Y-you know we can’t…I mean, His Majesty ordered-“

 “His Majesty?  What are you on about?  Last I checked, the Princess was the top brass around here.”

“Well, I…regardless, it’s our duty to guard Miss Pie at all times.  She is, for lack of a better word, a national treasure, not to mention a likely target for-“

Hussar turned quickly about, advancing on the young pegasus as he spoke.

“It is your duty to follow the most appropriate course of action as dictated by your commanding officer, and seeing as how His Majesty doesn’t have a hoof to put down, much less the right to do so, that responsibility falls to me.”

The guard swallowed, clumsily backpedaling into the far wall as the captain loomed menacingly over him.  Pinkie simply stared at the two of them, utterly at a loss for words.  The situation was suddenly beginning to get rather confusing again, and she found herself glancing toward the nurse and doctor beside her bed.

“And speaking of rank, the stars on my chest aren’t just there to make me look pretty, son.  The Princess gave me these, just as she trusted me with certain information that is, quite frankly, above your position and, I am beginning to suspect, beyond your intelligence to be able to comprehend.  I believe that Miss Pie is in possession of some information that the Princess wants shared only between her and myself until such a time that she and only she deems you ready to receive it!  Is that clear?!”

The guard simply whimpered, his lips fumbling all of his words as he attempted to counter his superior’s argument.

“But I-“

“Hey…”

Surprised at the sound of her voice, both ponies turned away from each other to gaze expectantly in her direction.  As they did so, Pinkie paused, a bit surprised at having gained their attention so easily, and took a deep breath.  She spoke in as calm and even a voice as she could manage, keeping her eyes trained steadily on the captain.

“First of all, before I tell anypony anything else, I want to make sure that my friends are safe.  Until you lemme contact them, I’m not gonna agree to tell you or any of the other guards anything, no matter what the Princess has to say about it, okay?”

This time, the guard was utterly speechless.  Hussar, as well, remained quiet, regarding Pinkie with something like respect as he stepped forward to meet her.

“With all due respect, Miss Pie, it doesn’t usually make a very good impression on the ponies whom you’re asking for help when you start making demands.”

“And with all due respect to you, mister captain guy, you haven’t said anything about why you were so interested in speaking to me in the first place.  It’s kinda suspicious, dontcha think?”

Hussar blinked, clearly taken aback, then issued a single, barking laugh.

“Is that so?  I thought that much was clear.  I simply wanted to know more about this Pinkie sense of yours.”

Pinkie wasn’t about to be fooled.  They had already wasted far too much time, and she was keener than ever on getting to her friends as soon as possible.  Besides, she had to be sure that the captain wouldn’t attempt to harm them as the guards in the hall had done hours ago during their escape.

“But that’s just part of it, isn’t it?  Why would you wanna talk to me privately?  I’m all for making friends, if that’s what you’re interested in, but somehow I don’t think that’s why you’re here.”

He gave an exasperated sigh.

“Obviously, I cannot discuss that in front of the present company.  The Princess did entrust me with this information, after all – to disobey her would be to betray my duty as captain, you know that.  I just wanted to ask you a few more que-”

“Well what does the Princess have to say about your men attacking my friends?  I can understand that she has reasons to be careful, but I’m never gonna believe that she would ever want any of them to get hurt.  Or have you forgotten that she tried to save Fluttershy?”

“That’s hardly the p-“

“If you think for one second, mister, that I’m gonna let you take advantage of what I know to hurt my friends, then you can forget about it!  I wanna talk to them now, or you won’t get anything else from me.  None of you will – Pinkie’s lips are sealed.”

For several moments, Pinkie and Hussar glared into one another’s eyes, neither of them wavering in the slightest.  All the while, all of the small room’s other occupants simply stared on in silence, too fascinated by the scene unfolding before them to intervene.  Without breaking his gaze, Hussar spoke again, his words carrying a certain air of grace that was not entirely unlike that of a businessman haggling with a particularly stubborn customer.

“…What if I whispered to you what I had to say, and in return for not revealing it to the others, I’ll promise you the use of a teleshard to speak with your friends?  I won’t ask you any questions unless you agree to speak to me, so even if you refuse, you’ll still get to talk to them after you’ve heard me out.”

Pinkie paused before answering, forcing herself to maintain her expression of stony determination.

“Without any guards?”

This time, it was one of the lower-ranking guards who spoke.

“Now don’t be ridiculous, Miss Pi-“

“Certainly.”

The guard whirled about to gaze at his superior, his jaw hanging dangerously close to the floor as it worked dumbly back and forth in shock.

“S…Sir, I-“

Without a word, Hussar shot a glance in his direction that could melt stone.  Immediately, the guard abandoned all efforts of protest and fell obediently silent.

Certainly, miss Pie.”  He repeated, his tone indicating that his decision was not to be contested.

“Although, I’m fairly certain that you’ll be wanting to speak with me privately anyway, once I tell you what I know.”

Pinkie didn’t respond right away as she eyed the captain warily.  Something wasn’t right – despite his intimidating presence, she had the impression that the captain was almost always a very restrained and gentlepony-like individual, and yet for some reason for the past few minutes, she had sensed in him a distinct, if well - hidden agitation that had begun to creep into his actions.  His voice, she thought, had seemed much louder than it needed to be as he addressed his guards, and for some reason he seemed almost desperate to tell her something, something that he didn’t want the other guards to know.  A part of her was afraid of what news could be so grave as to be shared only between herself and the Princess’s most trusted guard, but somehow she couldn’t shake the feeling that there was some other motivation, something else that the captain was hiding.  Nonetheless, as she searched his face for one final time, she could detect no intention of ill will, nor was she eager to pass up the possibility of speaking with her friends, if what Hussar had said was true.  She swallowed, running over his words in her head to make sure that she hadn’t missed anything.

“All right then, it’s a promise, but only if you Pinkie Pie swear on it.”

He blinked.

“I…I’m sorry?”

“Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye!  It’s not much to ask, especially if you really mean what you said.”

For once, Hussar’s confidence seemed to waver slightly as he watched the pink mare gesture absurdly with what appeared to be an invisible cupcake.  After another demonstration on his behalf, he somewhat reluctantly mimicked her movements, reciting her mantra in a dry monotone.

“Alrighty then!  It’s settled!”  Pinkie beamed.  She was finally starting to regain hope at the prospect of speaking with her friends again.

“Sir, this is most-“

“Cruzer, so help me, if I have to tell you to be quiet one more time, I’ll see to it that you’re scrubbing the private’s barracks for the rest of your days!”

Cruzer’s mouth snapped shut, his eyes darting to his hooves.

“Besides…”

Hussar swept his gaze lazily about, challenging anypony else in the room to interrupt him again.

“Miss Pie, as you put it, is regarded as a national treasure, not only by our people, but by the Princess, as well.  If the Princess has that much faith in Miss Pie, then so do I, as should you.”

Not a one of them dared to contest him as their eyes all fell to the floor.

“That said, I shall leave it to Miss Pie to decide whether or not my request to have some time alone with her is unreasonable.  I trust that you will respect her decision either way.”

Without another word, Hussar limped over to the side of the bed and gestured for Pinkie to lean closer.  As he came within reach, all eyes in the room jumped to his lips, though none of them could hear what was said as he began to whisper, one hoof suspended in front of his mouth.  For several seconds, the air seemed to hang like a thick fog with the weight of the silence that engulfed them until, without warning, Pinkie’s eyes shot wide with alarm, and her head whipped dizzyingly about to look into Hussar’s face with something like revulsion.  She did not speak, however, and as Hussar gazed stonily back at her, there was something powerful, something almost threatening in his eyes that had not been there moments before.

Having delivered his message, he calmly resumed his place at the foot of the bed, Pinkie numbly following his movements even after he came to a halt and turned once more to face her, his gaze calm and expectant, but not demanding.

Pinkie positively shuddered – an uncountable storm of questions blazed through her thoughts, each more pressing than the last.   She stared at Hussar without actually seeing him, wondering how, how he possibly could have known what he had told her.  The hope that she had felt rising within her moments before sputtered somewhat, and began to creep at the edges with a nameless fear.  He was fully and utterly aware of everything that she was thinking, she knew – and yet he waited as calmly as one might wait for a coach, silently and respectfully remaining still until she was ready to offer her response.

Slowly, she became aware of everypony else in the room as she felt their stares boring into her from all directions.  She suddenly and desperately wanted to be alone, but she knew that there was only one way she was going to have her questions answered and, if what he had said was true, only one way that she was going to be able to see her friends.  She swallowed painfully, the dry lump that had formed in her throat traveling down into her gut where it sat like a great stone.

“…I…I would like to speak with the captain alone…”

Immediately, a chorus of surprised grunts and half-words punched the air, and were just as quickly silenced by a single wave of Hussar’s hoof.  He blinked slowly, speaking in a low, even tone.

“Are you quite sure, Miss Pie?”

“…Yes…yes, definitely.”

As the last words left her lips, Hussar turned triumphantly about, addressing his subordinates as well as the nurse and doctor by his side.

“Well then, I believe the matter is settled.  A deal is a deal, and as such I must ask all of you to leave.”

Silence.  Each of the guards exchanged an uncertain glance.  Despite their captain’s words, it was clear that none of them were eager to abandon their posts, especially when both ponies involved appeared to be acting so strangely.  Nonetheless, an order was an order, and each of them slowly began shuffling to the door, Dorian and Cross close behind.  Hussar waited patiently, sternly watching each pony’s face as they filed past him and out into the hallway beyond.

As the pony bearing the glowing teleshard began to pass, Hussar reached out a single hoof, gesturing pointedly at the gem in his breastplate.

“I take it you were recording everything she said before I entered?”

The guard stammered slightly, surprised at having been addressed again.

“Y-yes sir.  In accordance with-“

“Good work.  I’ll be taking that, thank you.  I’m afraid my own teleshard is under repair with my armor, and Miss Pie will be needing it to communicate with her friends, as promised.”

The guard blinked in confusion.

“But, the record-“

“Will be delivered to the Princess upon its completion.  Besides. since this teleshard already contains part of Miss Pie’s testimony, it only makes sense to include the rest of it on the same medium.  The shard, if you please.”

With some hesitation, the guard reached up to his breastplate, gently plucking the gem from its housing and placing it on the floor before the captain.  When he was finished, Hussar nodded, and the guard proceeded out of the hospital room with the others.  As the last few hairs of Nurse Cross’s auburn tail faded from sight, Hussar walked to the door and drew it gently closed.

In the sudden emptiness of the room, the air felt strangely cold.  Pinkie shivered slightly, never taking her eyes off of Hussar’s face.  For several moments, neither of them spoke, nor did Hussar turn to face her, his attention dominated by the narrow wooden door.

“…Are you-“

Ssh!

Without looking in her direction, he raised one hoof sharply into the air, using the other to brace himself against the door as he pressed one ear upon its solid wooden frame.  For what felt like an eternity, Pinkie sat in fuming silence, her tongue dancing furiously about the inside of her mouth as she forced herself not to speak.  Every instinct had her at full alert, watching the captain for any sign of treachery, but neither did she dare to disobey him.  He knew something, something that she had to confirm for herself at any cost.

At long last, Hussar seemed to relax a bit, leaning away from the door, sweeping up the still glowing gem in his teeth, and limping over to Pinkie’s bed, though he maintained a small distance between them as he came to a halt.  He seemed to collect himself for a moment, casually tossing the now inactive teleshard to the foot of Pinkie’s bed, then fixed her with a stern, impenetrable stare.  There it was, Pinkie thought – there was what he had been hiding.  The captain’s posture as well as the look on his face no longer reflected the stern, fiercely loyal military official that she had expected, but rather hinted at somepony far more subtle and calculating.  Whether this was simply another, more rarely seen side of the captain, she wasn’t sure, but she was certain that it frightened her.  Without completely understanding how, even looking at this pony was somewhat difficult, but she wasn’t about to let it stop her.

Pinkie couldn’t wait any longer.  Her words shot out of her mouth with the velocity of so many bullets.

“What did you mean?  Are you sure?”

He nodded solemnly, his words slipping smoothly out from between his lips like the hissing of a snake.

“Then I can trust you, can I?  It would be very…unpleasant if the others knew.”

“No.  Not before you explain what it was you said.  I mean it, tell me right now, or I’ll-“

Suddenly, Pinkie froze.  Her mouth hung silently open, her lips still forming the next word as she had intended to say it, but struggle as she might, no amount of force could will them to complete the motion, nor could she begin to muster the breath that would have given it sound.  Immediately, she found herself consumed with a vital terror as her mind cast feebly about, trying to force even the smallest trace of movement in her limbs, her ears.  The realization dawned on her with frightening velocity – she was completely paralyzed.  All she could do was breathe, and even that felt as though it was taking almost all of her concentration to accomplish.

                   

If Hussar was aware of her condition to any extent, he gave no sign of recognition.  Instead, as she stared in horror at his stony face, she noticed that his lips were moving almost imperceptibly in a steady rhythm, uttering the same series of soundless words over and over again.

                   

She wanted desperately to ask what he was doing, to scream for help, but her body refused to respond.  She could feel his gaze binding every part of her body like a colossal weight, invisible yet inexorably crushing the will from her with its cold fury.

                   

As his lips gradually came to a stop, the smallest trace of a smile crept into being.  This was not the same friendly, welcoming grin that she had seen before, she thought.  This was more like the toothy grin of a shark, eyeing its prey before the kill.  As he began to speak in the same silken, razor-edged drawl that she had heard a moment before, he never blinked, but stared directly into her eyes with powerful intensity.

                   

“Well then, Miss Pie, I’m afraid we’ll have to do this the hard way.  But first…”

With sudden eagerness, he moved to Pinkie’s side, and although the wanted desperately to pull away, she was powerless to do anything more than watch.  Without the slightest hint of grace or gentility, he firmly placed one hoof upon her chest, resting the other just above her forehead.  

“This might hurt a bit.”

Without warning, Pinkie felt a sudden warmth spreading from the tips of his hooves, seeping gradually through the bandages to the flesh beneath.  The heat intensified quickly, growing hotter, spreading deeper, until she could feel its warmth tickling at the inside of her ribs, dripping into the space behind her eyes like a soothing mist.  For a moment, despite herself, she began to relax, then that moment was shattered as her head exploded in a fit of stabbing pain.  Her chest too, felt as though it were being pierced with hot lead, and though the pain only lasted for a few seconds, it sent her thoughts spiraling dizzily beyond any sense of rationality.  She screamed inwardly, her limp body still refusing to obey as she struggled to fight the weight of his hooves upon her chest.  But no sooner had the pain faded than she could feel him lifting them slowly away, and the fog of terror began to clear as her eyes swiveled around to stare in Hussar’s direction.

The captain was as calm as ever, and did not appear to be the least bit concerned about the fact that he was terrifying her nearly beyond her wits.  Instead, he sighed absently to himself as he drew away from the bed, and waited.

Pinkie’s mind seethed with activity, jumping back and forth between the captain and herself.

What did he do?  What did he just do to m-

Pinkie Blinked.  Slowly, in dumb shock, her eyes fell first upon her bandaged limb, then down to her chest, and finally up to the peak of her vision, though she could only make out the very edge of the bandage that covered her forehead.

“Sorry about that – mending burns and flesh wounds is one thing, but bones can be a bit trickier.”

Bone…did he just…heal me?

For several seconds the two simply stared at each other in silence before Hussar’s harsh, unfeeling voice hissed into being once more.

“I’m going to be honest with you, Pinkie – I don’t have a lot of time, so this is going to be just a little bit messy.”

He paused, as though waiting for some acknowledgement, and though Pinkie would have called for help if she had the strength, she was powerless beneath his gaze.

“First, I’m not really old, faithful captain Hussar, though I think that much should be obvious by now.  At any rate, that’s not what I want you to worry about.  It may comfort you to know that what I said was indeed true.  Fluttershy is safe and sound in a hidden place far from here.  Your friends are safe as well, though if your…ability has anything to say about it, I cannot say how long that will last.”

He took a single step forward, glaring down his muzzle.

  “That also means that I meant it when I told you what would happen if you should choose to squander this opportunity.  I don’t want to have to warn you again.”

Opportunity?  What is he-

Second…”  His words tumbled out quickly, as though he were suddenly in a rush to say everything he had to say and did not particularly care how much sense it made.

“You’re right – there is a significant amount of danger approaching, far more than you could possibly imagine, and it’s not just your friends who will be subject to it.  If I were you, I would lie low and keep quiet.”

Pinkie’s mind reeled, trying desperately to process everything that was happening to her.  In mere moments, everything around her had accelerated far beyond her control.

“Third.  I wouldn’t rely on the royal guards for anything at this point – I cannot stress that enough.  This may not make sense right now, but it has become more and more apparent that they can no longer be trusted.  On any normal day, those guards would never have hesitated to obey a direct order from their captain, much less believe that some wrinkled old ghost had more power than the Princess they had served for their entire lives.  There is power at work here the likes of which you have never seen, and if you are not careful it will be the end of you.”

Pinkie fought with every ounce of her will to speak, to force her lips to yield even the slightest bit to communicate any of the questions that burned in her head, but her body hung about her like so much dead weight, completely oblivious to her desperation.  As though he sensed what she was thinking, he moved quickly to the side of her bed, snatching up the teleshard and, in the same motion, extracting what appeared to be a thin, poorly folded bit of paper form between his bandages.

“As I said, time is of the essence, so I took the liberty of planning your journey for you.  They’ll be out of range now, but you can use that teleshard to find your friends if they have not already arrived at the location on that map.  That said, before I go, I’m sure you have a million questions for me, so I will answer them as best I can.”

Immediately, her heart soared, though it was not enough to overcome the gnawing fear that still gripped the base of her throat.  It was true that this pony’s actions had her in a state of utter bewilderment, and every instinct told her that he was a dangerous individual, but for the moment, for reasons she couldn’t begin to comprehend, he did at least seem to be…helping her.

She waited for the clammy, incorporeal shackles that bound her to dissolve, yet she could not sense the faintest change in her condition as Hussar moved calmly to the center of the room, still staring unblinkingly into her eyes.

“Who?”  He recited, speaking for her with a faint note of mockery in his voice.  “That much should not be difficult to work out, but that’s hardly the most pressing issue at the moment.”

“How?  Again, not something you need to worry about.  Your efforts are better used in saving your friends.”

He swallowed, and for just an instant, a hint of a shadow flitted across his features.

“Why?  Perhaps the most important question of all, though you’re a clever girl, Miss Pie, despite what others might say – you’ll work out the details of it eventually.  If it helps, you can think of this as a thank – you” for telling the guards about the good doctor and for Fluttershy’s timely, if somewhat clumsy assistance.   Either way, take comfort in the fact that if I had ever truly wanted to kill you or your friends, you would already be dead.”          

“Finally, what?  What are you supposed to do?  I’ll leave that up to you.  You’ll probably have noticed by now that all of your wounds have been healed, and that you now have the means necessary to aid your friends in saving Fluttershy.  Whether you can trust me or not is moot, because I think we both know what you’re going to do next.”

Having finished his speech, Hussar took a long, deep breath, relaxing a bit yet never for an instant breaking the icy glare that held her in place.  For several moments, he simply stared at her in silence as she struggled to make sense of everything that he had told her.  Slowly, her eyes slid downward from his face to fall upon the tiny star-shaped gem and the crumpled bit of paper that lay by her side.  

Did he say…a map?  But…

“Whatever your decision may be, I suggest you make it quickly.  I’m afraid I’ll have to borrow the captain’s body for just a bit longer – still have a few loose ends to tie up here before the finale.  However…”

For the first time since he had begun to speak, he blinked.  The instant that his eyes fell closed, breaking his stare, Pinkie found her lungs stinging as the cold air of the hospital room rushed eagerly inward.  In the same moment, a distinct tingling sensation ran all across her body, settling somewhere around the pit of her stomach.  Experimentally, she tried to raise one hoof and nearly smacked herself in the face as it shot obediently upward.  Immediately, she opened her mouth to speak but was silenced before any sound could pass her lips.

“A promise is a promise, Pinkie, remember that.  If you betray me – if you try to stop me now after I’ve been so generous, I promise you that everything you have ever loved will burn.”

Though he made no sign of movement, Pinkie only had to look into his eyes for an instant to know that he fully meant every word.  With a tremendous effort, she slowly closed her mouth, and stared first at him, then at the two items he had left by her bedside.  As if daring her to act, he simply refused to move, waiting patiently in the center of the room.  

Keeping her eyes locked on the captain, she reached carefully downward with her bandaged hoof, and this time found no pain in the motion.  What he had said was true – her broken bones had apparently healed, and with a certain amount of surprise she admitted that she hadn’t felt this…healthy in quite some time.  As though looking for some trace of the power that had mended her wounds, she ran her gaze all along the length of each hoof, bandaged and bare, then onto her chest and finally to the blankets below.  There by her side were a set of tools that could not be more perfectly suited to finding her friends, though through the niggling fingers of relief, she could barely acknowledge that any of this was really happening.  It simply didn’t make sense – when Hussar…no, when Acheron had spoken to her minutes ago, she had begun to realize who he was, though she hadn’t fully accepted his identity until he had threatened her again.  Once more, his words floated piercingly through her thoughts.

Fluttershy didn’t kill anypony, and I can prove it, seeing as how it was me who did it – right before I took her from this very room.  I assume you already believed that to some extent, and she is in fact, safe and sound, although I will personally see to it that her condition takes a drastic turn for the worse if you don’t shut up and cooperate. One word about this to anypony else, and you can say goodbye to your little group of friends.

She had believed every word of it, and yet here he was helping her to escape.  She groaned inwardly, suppressing the urge to scratch her head in an effort to drive away the headache she could already feel advancing upon her.  She couldn’t believe that this was anything other than a trap, but…

“The window’s right there – there’s a drainpipe that should suffice to transport you to the ground.  I’d say it’s a might safer than the front door.”

Pinkie hesitated, scrutinizing every wrinkle on the pegasus’s lined face for any hint of what he was thinking.

“…No.  Not until you-“

With a flick of his hoof, the window across the room burst open, blasting them both with a gust of freezing night air.  At the same time, the teleshard and map flew across the room of their own accord and shot spiraling out of the window.

“No! Wait, I-“

Instinctively, she leapt from her bed to run after them, stumbling over her blankets and falling flat on her face on the cold tile floor.

“Go now or die here.  I kept you alive this long out of the sheer goodness of my heart, but I have no use for indecisive brats.”

“Sir?!  Sir what’s wrong?  What was that noise?”

The voice of the guard in the adjacent hallway cut into Pinkie’s train of thought like a hot knife, sending her scrambling back into an upright position.  Hussar glanced once more in her direction before-

“Help!  The Suspect is escaping! Get in here now!”

As he spoke, he gave another casual flick of his hoof, and the door seemed to shimmer for a moment with a soft greenish light.  Not a second later, a heavy impact shook the narrow wooden frame as the guard on the other side threw all of his weight against it.

“What the…why-?”

Staring straight into Pinkie’s eyes, Hussar raised a single hoof and, with all of the force he could muster, smashed it into the side of his own face.  He grunted in pain, a great mound of black and blue already forming beneath his eye as he bellowed at the top of his lungs.

“What’s taking so long?!  I can’t hold her!”

“The…the door!  It won’t open!”

Another mighty impact.  All around the room, paintings and fixtures shuddered as the guard threw himself against the door again and again, all the while Hussar sat staring calmly into Pinkie’s eyes  even as a small trickle of scarlet fluid began to issue from his bruised lip.

“Now or never, Pinkie.  Your choice.”

Even as her gut screamed in protest, She knew what she had to do.  She had no way of knowing if what Acheron had said was true, much less how he came to be here or why he seemed to be helping her, but out of nowhere, she had gotten the chance to help her friends, and, more importantly, she could help them find Fluttershy faster than they ever could on their own.  Even if it meant falling into a trap…

The sight of Fluttershy’s scarred, emaciated body lying in the bed across the room flickered into her thoughts, and it was all she needed to prompt her to act.  Without another look in Hussar’s direction, she bolted for the window, leaping outside and swinging about to slide onto the drainpipe in a single elegant motion.  Whether it was the freedom of her healed limb or the suddenness of her decision to act, she wasn’t sure, but she felt fully and suddenly alive.  It seemed almost shameful to her that she had been sitting alone in her hospital room while her friends put themselves in danger.  As she slid effortlessly down the length of pipe, the ground rushing up to meet her as the wind howled through her ears, she found her heart pounding with a determination greater than any she had ever felt before.  She would find her friends, and she would find Fluttershy, and together they could all return home safely.

The thought echoed again and again within her mind as she ran, snatching up the map and teleshard where they had fallen at the edge of the hill, nimbly darting behind one of the hospital’s many decorative topiaries, carefully watching as a patrol of five guards drew near, all of them oblivious to the commotion above.  The moment they had passed, she shot like a pink – tailed rocket from her hiding place, sprinting through the bushes and into the park beyond, far from the reach of the lights or the guards’ searching eyes.

She could not be sure that she wasn’t playing right into Acheron’s hands, but not now, not ever again, would she ever allow herself to sit by and watch as her friends suffered.  Acheron or no, she knew what she had always known, deep inside the very bottom of her heart.

As long as she was with her friends, she could do anything.


Skyfall

Concept and Writing by Viktor Lionheart

Chapter 10: Lunar Cycle

The last echoes of the conversation she had just overheard whispered in the corners of her consciousness as she tried to make sense of her emotions.  She suddenly felt afraid – all of the drive, all of the doubtless purpose in her actions up to this moment seemed to sputter and fade, leaving nothing but a helpless silence within her.  Images of her sister flashed before her mind – over and over, the same sequence of tired, empty eyes, of insincere smiles, of half-hidden sighs, all the while the words of her father still rang in her ears.

“…I fear that her concern has grown to the point of obsession, so much so that I had as of late become worried that it would cause her to come under more stress than she could handle…”

Celly...was that why you were so upset with dad?  Were you two talking about…me?

“…It is my belief that the return of Acheron, in conjunction with the responsibility she feels for Princess Luna has caused her to suffer a breakdown of sorts…”

Suddenly Luna felt sick.  She doubled over, bracing against the nearby wall, one hoof on her stomach as she fought to stay calm.  Once again, her vision was filled with the image of her sister, surrounded by the wreckage of her bedroom, drenched in her own blood.  But before that…she remembered the wound on Celestia’s cheek when she had appeared in the courtyard, just after she had given her the journal.

The weight of the realization struck like a hammer-blow to the back of her neck.  Luna felt all of the strength drain out of her limbs as she cast dizzily about for something on which she could steady herself.  Celestia’s words, too, now began to dance through her thoughts, crystal clear despite the haze of nausea through which she floated.

“…I’m sorry that I hurt you.  I was only doing what I had to.  Maybe someday you can understand that…”

A wordless despair gripped the princess from the base of her throat as the cascade of memories began to blur, the tide of her emotions crashing together and shattering again into a thousand icy daggers, each and every one pointing accusingly inward.

Could it be…you weren’t hiding anything?  Was all of this because I thought you were lying to me?

Everything suddenly seemed to be happening so fast, Luna felt herself falling, falling, as though caught in a dream, the entire world spiraling out of control all around her.  Her wings brushed against something cool and soft.  Instinctively, she grabbed for it, breathing in short, uneven gasps.

Is this…my fault?

Silence.  The parade of images and its company of voices ceased in their march, the churning of her stomach lurched to a halt, and the only sound that permeated the suite’s stale air was the reedy whispering of her breath as a single, tiny tear rolled down her cheek.  Why?  What could have made Celestia do that to herself?  She had suspected that Celestia hadn’t yet forgiven herself for what had happened so long ago, but something like this...

She thought of the endless nights she had spent on the moon; it had been almost like a dream.   Though she had looked down upon the planet below and watched the pattern of life as it flowed across its surface, the passage of time had been something always just beyond her grasp.  Although some part of her knew of the length of her imprisonment, she had watched the ages tick by through a blurred lens, unable to fully appreciate the weight of each day, of each year, of each century as they marched slowly onward.  And yet Celestia had been fully, excruciatingly aware of each and every moment of those thousand long years, all alone, outliving everyone and everything she cared about.  The thought had occurred to her before, though it had almost always been dismissed, as up until the past couple of nights, her sister had seemed so…happy.

She cursed herself for her selfishness.  How could she have dared to think that she could begin to comprehend what her sister had been going through?  Of course Celestia would be protective of her in light of the clear and present danger that threatened their kingdom.  After all, aside from their father, she was the only family she had left, her only constant friend.

Idiot, idiot, idiot!  Why did you yell at her like that?  She was just trying to protect you!

Luna sat in the shadows, her face buried in the softness of the something on which she leaned with all of her weight.  As she drew a deep, shuddering breath, a faintly familiar scent flooded her nostrils, and with it came the warmly reassuring touch of a dearly held memory, a memory which had lost none of its clarity in the years since its passing.

The memory seemed to wash over her like a wave of soothing warmth, the dusty yet calming touch of nostalgia enveloping her mind.  It came suddenly and without warming, as though in response to her pain, and as it flooded her thoughts, she felt the tugging threads of agony slipping away until they were nothing but a steady murmur in the back of her mind.  Slowly, as she opened her eyes, it was as though she were lying once more in that very hospital room, just over two years ago, every detail of the scene that surrounded her as vivid and clear as the night that she had witnessed it.

The hospital room in the royal suite stretched before her, bathed in the amber glow of sunset.  This night in particular stood out among many others that had been spent in this room, bound to her bed by illness during the weeks after her return from the moon.  This night, she remembered, took place  approximately two weeks after she had been saved by Twilight and her friends in the ruins of her ancient home.  Due to the length of her imprisonment and the circumstances surrounding her return two weeks ago, Luna had collapsed almost immediately after she had left Ponyville, effectively drained of nearly all of her magical power and very seriously ill as a result.  Over the past two weeks, Luna had spent her days in her hospital bed, visited daily by the army of doctors and nurses that constituted the hospital staff, along with their assortment of therapeutic salves and oils, all specially designed to facilitate the return of her magic, though the process was slow and delicate nonetheless.  On this particular night, she found herself watching the sunset as she always did, waiting with something less than enthusiasm for a very specific arrival.

Princess Luna yawned, stretching with a series of satisfying cracks and pops as she allowed herself to bask in the feeling of contented drowsiness that washed over her as the last fingers of the setting sun disappeared over her windowsill.  She closed her eyes, savoring each ray of caressing warmth, willing them to linger for but a few moments more before disappearing beneath the veil of newborn stars that sparkled weakly in the darkening sky.  Somehow, she couldn’t help but feel a tinge  of sadness coloring the edges of her thoughts as she smiled to herself, shifting slightly to move closer to the bowl of her favorite soup that sat steaming on her nightstand.  As she inhaled the faintly spicy aroma of the deep orange liquid, her thoughts turned to the door at the far end of the room and, more specifically, whom she expected to see walking through its open archway at any moment.

One by one, the creatures of the night began their ritual of song, and Luna found herself drawing the blankets up around her head to drown out the noise.  Wincing a bit from the effort, she focused on the window past the foot of her bed, bathing its shutters in a faint azure light, her horn crackling weakly as the magic reached out toward its targets and slowly drew them together.  A soft click and the shutters locked shut, bathing the room in silence once more just as the faint patterings of distant footsteps began to echo in the outer hall.  With a start, Luna set down her bowl of soup and arranged herself on the bed so that it would appear as though she were already sleeping, turning away from the door to bury her face in her pillow just as the door creaked to life and the visitor entered her bedroom.

“Excuse me, Majesty, may I – ah…”

With the sound of the vaguely familiar male voice that drifted toward her from the far side of the room, every muscle in Luna’s body suddenly relaxed.  She exhaled, somewhat surprised to find just how tense she had been until that moment, and turned about to face him.  There in the now open doorway stood a somewhat more than middle-aged, sturdily built pegasus bearing the golden insignia of the captain of the castle guard.  His body still shone with the crisp contour of muscles honed from years of military training, though she could just see the first betraying flecks of grey dotting the edge of his mane.  As she gazed at his stern, lined face she remembered that he was called Hussar, and that he had been assigned as her personal caretaker for the duration of her recovery.  Recovering from his momentary falter, Hussar snapped back to attention, staring out of practiced courtesy at an invisible point fixed about a foot above her head as he addressed her again.

“Apologies, milady.  If I had known you were-“

Luna sighed to cut him off.  “Don’t worry about it, Hussar, I wasn’t asleep.  What were you saying.?”

Hussar cleared his throat before speaking again.

“Ah, yes…Princess Celestia requested that I inform you that she will be a bit late this evening.  Regrettably, a situation in Trottingham has need of her attention for the time being, though she instructed me to assure you that she will be here before long.”

“I see…thank you, Hussar.  Was there anything else?”

“Ah…nothing in particular, your highness, although…”  He cleared his throat rather loudly, shifting his weight slightly from one hoof to the other and back again.  Odd, Luna thought – Hussar was typically formal to a fault around her and her sister, yet for some reason he seemed a bit nervous tonight.

“If you should need anything, the princess instruc…I mean…that is to say, I would be happy to stay here until Princess Celestia arrives…should you desire…company.”

           

        It wasn’t that he found the idea particularly distasteful, Luna knew – Hussar simply didn’t seem to be very skilled when it came to social interaction.  He doubtlessly would have blown on her soup to cool it for her if she had asked, but his loyalty and experience served him little when it came to conducting himself on anything other than a professional basis.  She allowed herself a small smile at his  obvious ineptitude.

“No, thank you Hussar, I’m alright.  Besides, I wouldn’t want to bore you – I fear that I’m not exactly an adept conversationalist.”

                   

Though he showed no obvious sign of relief, his posture almost reflexively reasserted itself into its normal meticulously maintained composition.

“As you wish, milady.  Nonetheless, should you need anything at all, I shall be just outsi-”

                   

“Actually, Hussar, I think that you should get some rest, yourself.”

The voice came without warning, and as it floated through the open doorway, Luna immediately felt a wave of nausea course through her body.  Seconds later, the elegant curve of Princess Celestia’s muzzle poked through the door and smiled gently at the flustered expression on Hussar’s face.

                   

“P-P-P-Princess!  I thought-“

                   

“Trottingham can do without me for the time being.  The dispatch I sent their way should be more than adequate to settle the issue.”

                   

As she watched her sister step inside, Luna’s expression hardened just for an instant before she remembered herself, smiling weakly as her sister turned to face her.

                   

“Besides, I decided that there are far more important things for me to see to here.”  Celestia smiled, casting a hinting glance in Luna’s direction.  Hussar worked his jaw in silence for a few moments, his gaze darting uncertainly between the royal sisters.

                   

“Honestly Hussar, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I insist.  You’ve earned some rest.  Off you go then.”

                   

With a gentle nod toward the door, Celestia dismissed him, though he did not immediately respond.  It took several more seconds for him to decide what to do with himself, and judging by his expression, he only reluctantly assented to Celestia’s request.  He coughed, clearing his throat a little too loudly, then bowed deeply to each of them in turn, snapping a crisp, if somewhat unnecessary salute before marching briskly outside.  The moment that his tail disappeared from view, Luna heard the door click shut with a wave from her sister’s horn, and she found herself staring directly into Celestia’s eyes.

                   

Despite herself, Luna looked away, absently tugging her blankets up beneath her chin, releasing a faint, unsteady sigh as she tried to pretend that she didn’t currently feel as though she were about to be sick.  As Celestia walked slowly over to settle beside her bed, she seemed completely unaware of her condition, and the cheerful energy in her voice vaguely reminded Luna of the happy excitement of the voice of a child at play with a close friend.  Indeed, she had been amused at first at her sister’s conduct upon her return, but it was quickly beginning to grow tiresome, and she presently felt in no sort of mood to be with Celestia at the moment.  She tried to ignore the feeling, her mouth twitching feebly at the corners as she tried to smile.

                   

“I hope he hasn’t been pestering you too much.  He’s an unmatchable role model for the other guards, but sometimes I’m afraid he takes his duty a bit too seriously.”

                   

No response.  Celestia paused for a moment before continuing, her tone unchanged.

                   

“How are you feeling?  Nurse Dewfeather tells me that you’ve been improving steadily, but you’re still having-”

                   

“You didn’t have to stop what you were doing to come and see me, you know.”

                   

The words left a faintly bitter taste in Luna’s mouth, and she had said them with a tone a little less kind than she had intended.  She glanced at her sister, her eyes only lingering for an instant before she added,

 “I’m fine.  Th-thanks…”

Immediately after the words left her lips, she turned ever so slightly away, her eyes staring determinedly at anything that wasn’t her sister.  Celestia blinked, her smile fading somewhat.  She swallowed, leaning closer to the bed.

“I’m glad.  I know it must be a terrible bore being stuck in here all day with nopony but the doctors to keep you company.”

She sighed, a sound that carried with it a small but unmistakable whisper of sadness, her serene smile nonetheless lingering on her lips as she bent her neck to reach into the small saddlebag at her side.  When she emerged, a stack of books bearing the stiff, unremarkable covers that were the hallmark of the academic works of which Luna was so fond hung from her teeth on a length of string.  She deposited it gently upon Luna’s bedside table beside the still full bowl of soup, removing the hefty pile of finished tomes as she did so, her gaze hanging for a moment on the steaming bowl as she cleared her throat.

“I’m happy to see that your appetite for reading hasn’t diminished.  Honestly, I’m always amazed at how quickly you go through these.  If you’d like, I could have somepony bring up the rest of Carbuncle’s works?  I know how you enjoyed his musings on the theoretical metaphysics of the void.”

After a short delay, Luna’s voice replied in a tired monotone, her words listlessly drooping out of her mouth as though she were only half aware of what she was saying.

“…Yeah, that’d be great…thanks.”

“Good.  In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy something a bit more…fanciful for a change.”

As she spoke, she carefully untied the bow atop the stack of books and selected the topmost volume from the rest, picking it up with her teeth and placing it gingerly on the pillow beside her sister’s head.  Luna’s eyes still wandered aimlessly about the room, reluctant to linger on anything for more than a few seconds, and determined not to turn anywhere in the direction of her sister, but as she felt the object’s weight sinking into her pillow, she found herself drawn to it.

The book was small, much thinner than the others that her sister had brought with her, but this was not what immediately singled out this particular book out in her mind.  The instant that her gaze fell across its cover, she felt a small twinge in her throat, suppressing the urge to gasp as the image on its familiar, if faded exterior swam across the sea of her memories, sinking deep into the years of her childhood.

Between the elegant golden curves of the archway that framed the scene below, a single, beautifully drawn willow tree stood over a tiny red squirrel and a young unicorn who sat by the side of a river, her hooves dipping in the water.  Through the cracking paint and the faded pastel colors, the image still shone clear as day, just as she had seen it so very many years ago.  Slowly, carefully, Luna lifted the book between her hooves, inhaling the scent of its aged paper, gently caressing the smiling face of the horned mare as the memories of the countless imaginary adventures in which she had seen that same pony live floated through her thoughts.

“Clementine and the Willow Gate…”

With a fond chuckle that sounded deep in her throat with the blissful, untouchable warmth of a happy memory, Celestia shifted her weight onto the side of Luna’s bed, gazing fondly down at the little book in her sister’s hooves.

“This was…when I was a filly…”

“Do you remember?  You used to love these stories.  When you were little, there were many nights when you would absolutely refuse to go to sleep without hearing a story about Clementine and her adventures in the world of Willowrun.”

Completely forgetting the tension that had troubled her not seconds ago, Luna found herself transfixed by the peculiar little book.  Her hooves moved automatically, parting the rough yellow paper to the page that she had read countless times in her youth, the beginning of her favorite chapter.  Without a word, her eyes scanned the first lines of text, her mouth silently forming each word out of memory – even if she hadn’t had the page in front of her, her eyes had seen these words so many times before that by now she knew them all by heart.

On a very ordinary day, in the very ordinary little town of Pinegrove, there so happened one very ordinary little pony upon the most wondrous and extraordinary of all wondrous and extraordinary things…

“At first glance, it didn’t look to be a particularly special little tree, and it certainly wasn’t pretty enough to bother having a picnic under, thought the little pony, but as she looked upon its cracked and drooping branches, she couldn’t help but notice that it was in fact, a very peculiar tree indeed.”

Without warning, the giddy tittering of childish laughter escaped Luna’s lips, and was almost immediately silenced as she slapped a hoof over her mouth.  Celestia’s smile widened as she finished reading those last few words, uttering a tiny chuckle of her own as she leaned closer to her sister.

“I know that you probably already know all of these stories by heart, but I thought maybe they might cheer you up, hm?  In fact, I think that’s the first time I’ve heard you really laugh since the celebration in Ponyville”

In an instant, all of the discomfort that had gripped Luna’s stomach returned, and she suddenly felt very keen to distance herself from the smell of her sister’s mane.  She stiffened, shifting automatically away from Celestia’s warmth, her hooves fumbling slightly with the book.

Celestia’s smile disappeared.

“Luna?  What’s wrong?”

She did not respond.  As quickly as it had come, the simple, absolute happiness that she had felt a moment before had vanished completely, leaving naught but a hungering emptiness within her.  She suddenly and desperately wanted to be alone.

“Luna?  Please, tell me, are you alright?  Do you feel sick?”

Luna snorted loudly in an exasperated half-laugh.  For the first time that night, she turned to face her sister and stared directly into her eyes without hesitation, if only for a few seconds. It started in something like anger – not at her sister; she couldn’t quite tell where it came from or whom it was directed at, if anypony, but she could sense that her sister hadn’t made her angry.  Instead, when she looked into her sister’s beautiful, gentle violet eyes, her heart quickly and violently swung downward into a crushing and all-consuming guilt.  Her chin shuddered faintly as she forced herself to look away, her mind casting about in a barely controlled frenzy for some excuse to cover for her behavior.

“S-sick?  No…No I’m fine.  Just fine.”

Even if she had not spoken the words herself, she knew only a fool would have believed them for the audible tremor in her voice.  Celestia scanned her little sister’s features with a look suddenly full of concern, finally abandoning all pretense of ignorance.

“Luna…I’m sorry, was it something I said?  I didn’t mean to-“

“Look, I told you I’m fine.  Besides, who said anything about me needing to be cheered up?  You always ask me how I am and I tell you the truth, it’s that simple.  I’m fine”

That two-word mantra kept repeating itself in her mind but no matter how many times she thought it, it didn’t seem any less false.  Unsurprisingly, her sister didn’t seem convinced, either.

“Luna-“

“Thanks.  Thank you, for the book I mean.  It’s great, all great.  Everything’s great.”

The anger was back again, returning with rapid ferocity, and as it came it only seemed to magnify her guilt.  Why couldn’t Celestia understand?  Why did she always have to stick her muzzle in other ponies’ business?  Why couldn’t she just leave her alone?

Alone.

The word suddenly ballooned within her thoughts, obliterating all but its own looming presence, crushing down on her like a mighty weight upon her shoulders.  Any moment now the dam would burst, and she couldn’t bear the thought of having Celestia see her like that, not after…after…

Stop it, she yelled inwardly at herself.  You have no right, no right…

“Luna, please.  It’s alright, you can tell me what’s bothering you.”

“Bothering?” Luna squeaked.  Her voice was high and unnatural. “Who’s bothered?  I was just fine before you came in.”

Idiot!  Why the hay did you say that?!  Take it ba-

“It’s the nightmares again, isn’t it? Please, Luna, you must believe me when I say that you were forgiv-“

“I’m not having any nightmares

The voice with which she spoke surprised even herself with its quaking fury.  She glanced spastically in her sister’s direction, wanting simultaneously to apologize and scream in her face, but no words would come.

“Don’t lie Luna, please – I know that you’re hurting.  Nurse Dewfeather’s told me about how you toss and turn every night.  Sometimes you even wake up screaming and can’t fall asleep again.”

“I don’t…I don’t know what you’re talking about…”

Luna was panting heavily now, biting her lip to force back the tears.

“I’m sorry Luna, I know that a part of you at least must be angry with me – please, please help me to understand so that I can help you!”

“How many times do I have to say it?  There’s nothing to understand, I just need some more time to-“

“If you would just talk about what you’re feeli-“

“I DON’T NEED TO TALK ABOUT ANYTHING!”

Celestia reared back, her mouth hanging open in wounded surprise as Luna finally lost control.  She screamed at her sister, the tears streaming from her eyes even as she tried in vain to pretend that they weren’t there.

“I DON’T need help, I DON’T have any trouble sleeping, and I certainly DON’T need to be told that I’m forgiven by YOU!”

                   

In the same instant that the last few words had left her mouth, she regretted them with powerful intensity.  That was not at all the way that she had intended to say it, but at the moment she was far too angry to be able to focus, and her rational mind retreated beneath the din as she sank like a child into a rancorous sulk.  She whipped away from her sister, drawing her blankets upward with such force of motion that most of them landed not on her back but off of the other side of the bed, though she made no effort to correct them.

“Why don’t you just GO!  If you’re just going to do nothing but worry over me all day then I don’t need your company and I don’t want it!  There’s no reason for the people of Trottingham to suffer when I feel perfectly FINE!

Silence.  With every fiber of her being, Luna wished that she hadn’t just shouted at her sister at the top of her lungs, wished that she hadn’t just spoiled her sister’s gift with such a childish display.  She railed against herself, willing herself to disappear beneath her blankets.  Yet try as she might, the gaze of Celestia’s eyes still bored mercilessly into the back of her head and the pain that seemed to echo through her body as though she were nothing but an empty shell was as inescapable as ever.

For what felt like hours, neither pony moved until, with a much softer tone, Luna spoke again.  As she whimpered into her blanket, the choked muffle of her words was barely audible in the deafening silence.

“S…s-s-sorry…”

Several more seconds of excruciating quietude.

“I-I’m s-sorry I yelled at you…I know you’re just…just…”

She heard her sister take one step closer to the bed and flinched.

“Luna…”

“Please…please just….just go…just go.”

Celestia didn’t immediately respond.  Slowly, the sound of her footsteps punched the air as she plodded toward the bed.  Luna didn’t dare to respond, even as Celestia’s shadow fell across her face, and she felt the affectionate, if brief nudge of her muzzle brush across her fur.  She simply stared resolutely into her pillow as she heard her sister walk toward the door before stopping to speak once more.

“Luna, if nothing else, know this.  I love you, little sister.  Nothing will ever change that.

No response.  Luna simply pulled her blankets closer, ignoring the longing ache in her gut.

“I’ll…”  She cleared her throat, and Luna thought she could feel her sister’s uncertain smile from across the room.  “I’ll just have Dewfeather drop by in a little while, okay?  If at any point you need anything…or if you ever do need to talk, you know that you can come to me, don’t you?”

Silence.  A heavy sigh drifted through the air to Luna’s ears and seemed to hang there like a clammy fog.

“…I’m sorry to have upset you, little sister…please just try to get some rest.  Goodnight, Luna.”

Luna waited as she heard the soft padding of her sister’s hooves turning about on the carpet, holding her breath as the rumbling groan of the heavy wooden door pierced the air.    

She dared not move until the last, barely audible click of the door’s latch reached her ears. The moment she was alone, she finally allowed the tears to flow freely.  In an instant, she felt utterly exhausted, her chest heaving weakly as she wept soundlessly into her pillow.

Why?  Why can’t she just mind her own-

She knew that this wasn’t Celestia’s fault, knew that she had just behaved like an ungrateful child in front of her sister after Celestia had so dutifully worked to satisfy her every need, not just this night, but every night for the past two weeks.  A part of her wanted to throw aside her blankets and run after her into the hall, but even if she had the strength to do so, something in her gut would not allow it.  It wasn’t pride that held her, but rather a profound and heavy shame, a shame that had no distinct form, cruelly vivid yet hauntingly apart.  It was as though a voice whispered from the corners of her mind, growing louder whenever she pictured the face of her sister, taunting her, admonishing her for a crime she didn’t dare to remember.

She clamped her hooves together around her head, squeezing the edges of her pillow against her ears so powerfully that it hurt.  No words, no thoughts came to comfort her as she hiccupped pathetically into the soft, welcoming warmth that enveloped her face in darkness.  The light that leaked through her blankets from the still brightly burning lamps around her room assaulted her senses like a creeping stench.  She wanted to sink into her mattress, to run away from the light, from the castle, from her sister’s smiling face, to somehow disappear from the world, but the limp, dismal weight of her body anchored her against the frantic tides of fancy to which her mind fought to escape.

The moment that her sister had left, all of the tension in her body had seemed to instantly take its toll.  Every part of her felt suddenly heavy, pinning her in place as her exhaustion finally began to cloud the jittery spasms of her train of thought.  Out of instinct more than anything else, the first dim murmurs of deep sleep called to her, drawing her away from her bedroom, away from the cruel reality of her existence.  She welcomed it without thought, without hesitation, throwing herself upon its inky embrace.

One by one, the traces of the world around her seemed to fade easily away.  She felt the flow of tears slow at first to a trickle, then stop, and soon could not even remember why she had been crying.  Her body, so heavy as it had been mere seconds ago, seemed to melt away, leaving nothing but a vague sense of vertigo as though she were falling, drifting down to the depths of the abyss like a feather on a Summer breeze.  As she fell ever farther, the last thoughts of guilt slipping out of being, even the warmth of her luxurious bed seemed as nothing but the shadow of a memory.  What was left of Princess Luna breathed, a sound that seemed to come from outside herself, and surrendered to the alien bliss that accepted her without question or concern, surrounding her shapeless consciousness, dripping into the spaces between her thoughts until there was nothing but the infinite darkness.

And in that darkness, something stirred.  In much the same way that a single seed begins its journey of growth with the first tiny, blindly reaching threads of life, its progress imperceptible but no less real, a new reality began to bloom into being around the sleeping Princess.

Slowly, as though she were emerging from a pool of water, a faintly familiar image began to swim to life before her eyes.  It was a brilliant Summer day, and the invigorating scent of pine flowed from everywhere at once as a pair of ponies walked leisurely along a forest path, each carrying a basket of various assorted treats.  Here and there, one of them would stop as one small creature or another came running up to investigate, and select a treat from their basket, placing it at the creature’s feet before returning happily on their way.  Yet, despite the distinctly soothing nature of the scene, Luna felt dimly aware of a growing dread, whispering deep in some dark corner of her consciousness.  A single thought flickered into existence and vanished just as quickly before she could fully grasp what it meant.

This is how it always starts.

She watched herself with an odd, unreachable sense of déjà vu, as though she were an invisible observer, completely apart yet somehow connected to the scene that unfolded below.  The young Princess Luna, no more than seven years old, scurried happily along beside her elder sister, smiling from ear to ear as she watched another small squirrel chitter up at her from the bushes to her right before running eagerly up to her hooves.  Celestia, too, smiled broadly, though she was busy watching her little sister, a tiny sparkle of pride shining in her eyes.  As gently as the excited youngster could, Luna plopped a small pile of treats at the squirrel’s feet, at which he immediately began running joyful circles around her hooves.

Celestia laughed, watching the little creature scurry about.

“It seems you’ve made a friend.”

With all of the infectious energy of a small child, Luna giggled to herself as the animal’s bushy tail tickled her tiny body.  She crouched to bring her face down to the little creature’s level as it dove headfirst into the pile, chittering excitedly all the while.

“Poppy…I’ll call you Poppy!”

The squirrel squeaked loudly, and the little princess took it to mean that it was pleased with its new name, though in reality it was more likely because its mouth was full of tasty treats.  She had seen squirrels before – there were a great many of them in the royal gardens, though they were almost always too skittish to get close.  This was the first time she had ever been able to see such an animal up close.  Celestia looked as though she were about to protest for just a moment, but simply shook her head, deciding to indulge the filly, at least for now.

With a stab of nostalgia, Luna remembered the woods through which she watched herself play.  When she was little, she and Celestia loved to play in the courtyards and the gardens, but Celestia had told her that “a growing princess’s world should never be limited to the castle grounds,” as she put it, and had decided to take her outside by herself, without her typical entourage of guards.  The forest and its creatures were something strange and new from the sights and sounds of the castle, and it filled the little princess with a sense of unparalleled wonder.

The strange, inexplicable whisper of dread seemed to intensify slightly as the sound of rapidly approaching hooves began to echo throughout the patch of woods from somewhere along the path behind the sisters, as though she knew what would happen as soon as It arrived.

As Celestia turned about to face the newcomer (Luna being too distracted by her squirrel friend to pay much attention to anything else), she scowled momentarily, upset to have been disturbed while spending what little free time she had with her sister, but her chagrin was quickly swept away by what she saw.  Down the path, a single unicorn guard came hurrying toward them with an expression of dire concern on her face.  As the sound approached, Luna’s squirrel leapt backward, startled by the sudden noise, and bolted for the bushes, hastily gathering up its prize as it did so.  Without a moment’s hesitation, Luna dove after her friend just as the approaching guard came into view.  As the mare skidded to a halt, she turned immediately to what she thought was the only other living being in her immediate vicinity.

“Princess Celestia!”  The guard snapped a salute, waiting to be recognized before speaking.  Celestia simply nodded, prompting her to continue.

“Thank you, Milady.”  The guard mare dropped her hoof, inhaling deeply.  “My apologies for disturbing you at a time like this, but I’m afraid a matter has arisen that demands your immediate attention.”

“What’s happened?  Was somepony hurt?”

“I’m not exactly sure of the details, milady, but we’ve received word that an accident in Cloudsdale has caused a massive explosion at the primary weather factory.  Until repairs are completed, the entire area between Ponyville and Phillydelphia will either be…out weath…erating…ed avail...”

The young Princess Luna ran through the tall grass away from the path, and the gaze of the elder Luna shifted away from the guard to follow herself, the voices of the guard and her sister growing rapidly fainter as she ran ever farther into the wilderness, the squirrel bouncing along not far ahead with its cheeks full of treats.

No…go back…don’t follow him…please, just go back…

Once again, the thought was swept instantly away as though it had never existed, yet some trace of it echoed persistently from an unseen source, like the beat of an invisible drum, slowly getting louder and louder.  Somehow, Luna knew that something terrible was about to happen, but no matter how she tried, she could do nothing to warn the little filly below of the impending danger.

The younger Luna giggled to herself as she ran, the frantic dodging of the squirrel before her nothing more than a game to play with her new friend.  Far behind her, the pair of ponies continued their conversation, completely oblivious of her absence as the little princess chased her playmate, completely unaware of how much time had passed or how far she wandered, until at last she stumbled over a rock, falling flat on her face.  The squirrel bounded out of sight, the sound of its excited chittering immediately swallowed up by the rustling of the grass as it passed through.

“Poppy?!  No, Poppy, wait!  Where are you going?”

Luna scrambled to her feet, ignoring the pain in her knees, and stumbled forward just as a sudden, sickening shriek pierced the air several meters ahead, causing her to stop dead once more.  The child waited, her tiny ears straining to hear any sign of her little friend, but there was only silence.

“P-Poppy?  Are you okay?  Poppy!”

Don’t follow him any more…just go back, go back and it’ll all be fine…

The little princess ignored the plea of her elder self, thrusting herself through the wall of grass with all of her tiny might only to stop short for a third and final time, her breath catching painfully in her throat.

There lay Poppy, caught between the jaws of a fox, his tiny body completely motionless as it sagged limply over his attacker’s glinting teeth.

As she watched with eyes spread wide in shock, the fox placed its prize on the ground and lazily turned its gaze to her, licking its bloody lips in grim satisfaction.  For several moments, the two simply stared at each other until Luna’s eyes fell once more to the ragged form of her little friend.  Without a sound, the tears began to flow.

“P-P-Poppy?”

The fox cocked its head, sniffing the air.  It regarded the filly with curiosity, but did not approach, nor did it back away when she staggered toward the squirrel’s limp body in disbelief.  It was no use – no matter how she pleaded or poked the little squirrel would move no more.  

Poppy was dead.

“Y-you…you…”

Luna stomped on the ground with all of the puny force she could muster, causing the animal to tense slightly, baring its teeth in a low growl.

“Y-y-you…Stupid doggie!

Luna glared at the creature without the faintest trace of fear in her eyes, her words shaking with sorrowful rage.  She stepped away from Poppy’s body, screaming at the top of her lungs as the tears streamed down her face.

 “Stupid, bad doggie!  Why did you do that?  Why did you hurt my Poppy?!”

The fox faltered for a moment, surprised at the ferocity of the noises that the little thing before it produced despite its size, but it quickly recovered itself, growling ferociously as it glared down its muzzle directly into Luna’s tearful eyes.

BAD doggie!  Bad, bad bad!

 As though on cue, the little princess’s horn sparked to life as the last few words left her lips.  Suddenly, the animal’s posture crumpled.  Though it could not understand the brilliant azure light that now erupted from the creature before it, it was completely and utterly terrified, and no longer had any intention of fighting.

It’s happening again…please, no…

“You hurt my friend…I’m gonna punish you for what you did!”

The light intensified, and the fox began to slowly back away, its tail shaking between its legs.  All around them, the air crackled and buzzed as though electrified, the long blades of grass blowing outward in all directions.  With each breath, each word, the light grew brighter, bathing the princess, the fox, and the squirrel’s dead body in nearly blistering heat.  With a final, piercing whine, the light collapsed upon itself, collecting in a tiny white-hot point at the tip of her horn.

“I’m gonna make you PAY!”

Celestia stopped in midsentence as she was struck with the sudden and clear sense that something was terribly wrong.  She raised a hoof to silence the guard, spinning quickly about, her eyes frantically scanning the ground at her feet.

“Luna?  Where-“

She whirled about again to face her.

“Did you see her?  Where did she go?”

The guard simply blinked in surprise, eyeing the Princess with concern.

“Her?  Milady, who are you talking about?  There’s no one here but-“

Once again, the silencing hoof shot upward as the sound of a child’s anguished cries drifted through the forest to Celestia’s ears.  Though she could not make out what it was saying, it did not take more than an instant for Celestia to recognize the speaker.  Without another word, she immediately turned toward the source of the sound.

Before she could take a single step, she found the breath being knocked from her by the shock wave of a massive explosion straight ahead.  She staggered for a moment, struggling to regain her bearings as a sudden rush of motherly instinct blasted all other thought out of her mind.

Without a moment’s hesitation, the princess bolted directly into the heart of the ball of crimson smoke that billowed out of the depths of the woods, her lungs contracting painfully as she tried to find the voice to call Luna’s name.  The guard called after her, but the sound was immediately drowned out beneath a tide of adrenaline as Celestia surged forward toward the source of the explosion.  The space that had separated them disappeared in seconds beneath the movements of Celestia’s long, powerful limbs as she bounded over a final tuft of grass before skidding to a halt.

There on the ground below, was her younger sister, wailing at the top of her lungs with the limp body of a dead squirrel stretched across her hooves, and the charred body of…something.  What had once been an orderly assembly of fur and flesh was now a twisted, bubbling horror, still twitching feebly as it smoldered in the crater that the blast had left beneath it.  

The body had not so much been blasted apart as it had been warped nearly beyond recognition.  Its limbs stuck out at impossible angles at the end of what appeared to be something akin to tentacles, and the gaping maw of its skull had been twisted into a grotesque, perpetual grin at the center of the mass of torched flesh.  The trees too, were changed – enormous, oozing thorns had erupted along each blackened trunk, and the limbs of each had warped and wound around each other in a series of fantastic knots.  All around them, the forest roared as vast spreads of canopy and grass alike burst into flame, the little Princess Luna wailing all the while.

Celestia said nothing.  She simply stared in horror at her little sister and what she had done, the forest burning away in all directions.  As Luna watched, the scene seemed to shimmer before her, the cries of her younger self mingling with the sounds of fire and fleeing wildlife in a low rumble.  Slowly, the colors of the forest drained away, and the world fell silent, the image fading out of existence in a blurred mass of grey and black.

Before Luna had the time to think upon what she had just witnessed, the image changed again.  The mess of greys and blacks began to intensify, forming shadows and shapes, and a slow trickle of deep blue filtered into the mix.  Once again, she had the impression of looking through a shimmering haze as she saw herself anew, far from the forest or the roar of destruction.  The Luna she saw before her now was much older than the filly she had seen moments ago, nearly as old as she was now, though…something was odd.  Slowly, as she drifted through the half-resolved memory of her youth, a number of familiar remnants seemed to arrange themselves around her, gradually forming a coherent picture.  Yes, that was it – with a sudden spark of clarity, she realized what was missing.

The Luna that stood below, just under sixteen years old, wore a heavy coat made of pristine white material that squeaked slightly as its folds rubbed together with each subtle movement of its wearer.  All around, ponies dressed in the same strange garments paced silently between a series of tables spaced very closely together throughout the length of the chamber below.  It was not a particularly large chamber, but it appeared to be a laboratory, and as the last few wisps of obscurity faded away to reveal the long spreads of scientific equipment, Luna’s attention was drawn not to them, but to the flank of her younger self.

She was a blank-flank.  In all of her years, she had never been graced with the identity of her cutie mark as so many others had long before her, and it was something of a shameful secret, known only to herself, her sister, and a select few of her most trusted guards.  Not that she could see anything under the thick fabric of the lab coat she saw herself wearing, but somehow she distinctly remembered her habit of covering her flank with clothing at all times to fend off unwanted comments.

Yes…this must be it…this is the day…but…why am I so afraid?

Young Princess Luna pored over a vat of bubbling orange liquid, her horn glowing faintly as various pieces of scientific equipment whizzed through the air around her, each periodically stopping here and there to autonomously take measurements on a dozen different experiments in progress across the entire length of the laboratory.  This must have been during her time as assistant director of the magical science division at the Citadel, she thought to herself.  Over the years, she and her team of assistants had spent many long nights crowded into this laboratory as they worked toward a greater understanding of the laws of magic that flowed throughout their world.  It was her home, her haven – it was here that she had always felt most at ease.  Here, she had helped her people from behind the scenes by developing spells for terraforming and seasonal shifting, medical treatments for many of the strange magical maladies that had cropped up during the years following the Shattering, and countless other magical solutions to the problems of everyday life.  She remembered, too, the experiment over which she saw herself working on the table below; it had been she, herself, who had developed and then refined the process of manufacturing artificial rainbows, which had since become something of a staple in pegasus cloud construction.

For several moments, no one moved or made a sound until one of these ponies reached for a clipboard at the far end of his table and the tinkling of glassware broke the stiff, silent rhythm of his work as a beaker of fine white powder was knocked to the floor in his haste.  Instinctively, he reached for it, but before he could stop it from shattering on the concrete below, it suddenly ceased in its descent and floated back up into his hooves, bathed in a faint azure light.  Without turning to face him, Luna spoke in a stern, clipped tone.

“I appreciate your enthusiasm, Erlenmyer, but please try to contain yourself.  Those components may be derived from trees, but those beakers certainly don’t grow on them, if you take my meaning.”

The pony named Erlenmyer blushed, stuttering nervously.

“Y-Y-Yes, Milady…sorry Milady…”

Above them on the staircase leading down into the laboratory proper, a single loud, raspy bark of laughter echoed across the room.  Luna continued about her work as though she had heard nothing, though she did allow a small smirk to grace her lips at the familiar sound.

“Running a tight ship, as always.  Good…good…”

With an occasional creak and pop from his aged joints, an elderly unicorn hobbled slowly down the stairs, guided by the helping hoof of a scrawny, much more youthful pegasus clad in the golden armor of the Citadel guard.  As she watched from her incorporeal perch somewhere in the ceiling of the chamber, Princess Luna recognized the pair of ponies.  The elderly stallion was Professor Watson Crick, her teacher and mentor throughout the years of her youth.  Ever since she had first discovered the power of her magical abilities, she had practically lived between the library and the lab, Professor Watson guiding her every foray into the world of magic.  She had been told many times of her sheer talent for the magical arts, and Celestia believed that the professor would be able to help her learn to control and focus her abilities into a productive outlet.  Although, in truth, Luna had learned all nearly that he had been able to teach her in less than half the time it had taken him to learn it; she was brilliant, and he had only been familiar with the more archaic forms of magic prior to the Shattering.  Now, his role was much closer to that of a peer in the realm of magical study, though Luna still felt the need to treat him with a certain degree of respect.

The other, much younger pony in golden armor was another constant companion of hers and was named Fawkes.  As she thought hazily back upon her times with the scrawny colt, she realized that he was the closest thing she had ever really had to a friend during those years.  During what little time she had that wasn’t occupied by reading or labwork, Fawkes would accompany her and even played with her in her days as a child.  She could remember many a night when Fawkes would faithfully wait upon her every need or whim while her sister was busy with royal business.  He was one of the only ponies with whom she had shared the secret of her cutie marklessness, and the only one aside from her sister with whom she felt comfortable discussing the matter.

Luna addressed the newcomers without turning away from her work.

“I’m sorry, professor, but it seems we’re a bit behind schedule.  I’m running the numbers on batch seventeen, compound six again with a bit more heat on 8% reduced solutions of each primary.  Too much overlap in the banding pattern…”

Luna’s words trailed off absently into a stream of quiet muttering, her eyes dancing rapidly among the objects in the spread of equipment on her table.

“No kidding?”  The elderly pony grunted as he steadied himself on the final step of the staircase.

“Thank you, Fawkes.  Heh, leave it to you to find fault in perfection.”

This time, Luna couldn’t help but turn around to look incredulously in his direction.  Though she tried to hide it, she blushed slightly at his compliment, however circuitously delivered it had been.

“Perfection?  I should be offended.  As a scientist, I know no such boundary as the construct of “perfection.”  You’re the one who taught me that.”

He chuckled again, his voice like the dusty crackling of aged paper.  The sound was a fondly familiar one for the Princess, and filled her with a childlike sense of admiration.

“Well, as a scientist, you should also know that there is always an exception to the rule.  But I digress…I didn’t come down here just to praise you, my dear.“

“I should hope not. You sounded like a fireworks display coming down those stairs just now.” Luna jabbed, her eyes betraying a hint of a jocular grin as she turned back to her work.

The professor frowned slightly, adopted a look of mock chagrin.

“I’d ask you if you’d ever heard of respecting your elders, but that would require conceding to the implication that I’m old.  Maybe these joints of mine don’t work so well as they used to, but my brain’s still sharp enough to remember what’s important. Speaking of which, aren’t you forgetting something?”

At her mentor’s words, Luna stiffened slightly, more alarmed than she would care to admit at the possibility that some aspect of her work was lacking. Luna cocked an eyebrow, scratching her chin in thought as she swept the room with her eyes, glancing from table to table for any sign of inefficiency.

“…Forget?  Solutions triple checked for concentration accuracy…heat adjustment every two minutes…no, no I don’t believe so.  I’ve checked everything myself – it’s all-“

“With all due respect, Milady, the…celebration?”

Luna breathed a sigh of relief, rolling her eyes as she turned her head to address Fawkes.

“How many times?  I’ll be there, I just need another few-“

Please, milady, Princess Celestia’s waiting – everypony’s waiting…” he pleaded, his eyes darting nervously back and forth as though he were whispering a secret that he was concerned somepony might overhear. “They’ve all gathered outside the castle to see you.  It doesn’t look good, keeping that many ponies-.”

“Oh please.  We both know it’s just going to be a few reporters and the usual assembly of locals and my sister’s friends.  Hardly a crowd worth bothering over.”

Even if the other ponies would never admit it, they knew that on any other day she probably would have been right.  Despite Celestia’s best efforts, Luna remembered that her younger self saw the process of making friends as little more than a distraction from her valuable work.  She never bothered attending any sort of social event unless forced to do so upon the insistence of her sister, and as a result had become somewhat alienated from her peers.  Not that she minded at the time; to her, Fawkes was the perfect companion, assisting her when she needed help and not nagging her for attention when she didn’t.

At the moment, the young pegasus seemed at a loss for words, his eyes darting between the princess and the professor as though he were asking for permission to speak again.

“I…it’s…”

Mercifully, the old unicorn cut in, clearing his throat roughly and adopting a roguish grin.

“What the boy means to say is that you might be a bit surprised at how many ponies wanted to see your coronation.”

That last word took a moment to sink in.  Luna opened her mouth to offer a retort when it hit her, causing her to falter slightly as she temporarily forgot the liquid bubbling away before her. She turned slowly about, fixing the pair with a puzzled frown.

“Co…coro…just what are you getting at?  It’s just another birthday, nothing special.”

Watson smirked mischievously, an expression she found somewhat striking.  Her mentor was not without a sense of humor, however dry it was, but neither did he often take to smiling like a boy with a secret as he did now.

“If you’re so curious, why don’t you see for yourself?  Fawkes, kindly take her upstairs, will you?”

Luna didn’t budge.  She simply stood there, staring at each of the two ponies in turn, waiting in vain for an explanation.

“Go on, lass, and be quick about it.  I’ll see to things here while you’re away.”

“You’re serious.  What could-“

“And you’re late. Get a move on before poor Fawkes has a heart attack!”

Fawkes looked as though he was about to huff indignantly in the unicorn’s direction, but then seemed to half-heartedly agree with his sentiment, gesturing behind him with a nod of his head. For a few more seconds, Luna continued to scrutinize each of them in turn before finally conceding with another grandiose roll of her eyes, irritably snapping her safety goggles down over muzzle to hang about her neck.

“…Oh very well.  Let’s get this over with, then…honestly, I don’t see the point in these silly things anyway.”

Impatiently, she shook her head, pushing past them as she plodded hurriedly up the stairs and out of the laboratory with Fawkes running close behind.  In her opinion, her time was better spent doing research rather than wasting it on pomp and circumstance like the birthday parties her sister insisted on throwing for her every year.  She suspected that this whole “coronation” business had merely been some bit of skullduggery on Celestia’s part to get her to show up on time for once, though some part of her couldn’t help but feel a bit curious nonetheless as she trotted ever upward toward the castle grounds.

Is this when…?  Then why do I feel so…sad?

After what seemed like an eternity to her anxious mind, Luna felt the soft warmth of the Summer sun shining down upon her as it bled across a cloudless sky, painting everything it touched with a soft amber glow as it sank slowly below the horizon.  No doubt the castle pegasi had arranged for that just for this occasion.        As if on cue, a pair of these pegasi clad in brilliantly polished parade armor bolted straight toward her the moment she had stepped outside.  Without a word, each bowed his head, extending a hoof to point toward the magnificent marble archway leading out of the northern garden and into the area of the public grounds known as the Promenade.  It was little more than an enormous, empty circle of stone bereft of the ubiquitous opulence of the Citadel proper, but it was this place where Princess Celestia delivered the majority of her public proclamations, and where Luna had reluctantly spent much of each birthday in years past.

With a defeated sigh, Luna resigned herself to falling into step between them, Fawkes silently leading the group, as she marched toward the distant sound of excitedly chattering voices, mentally preparing herself for the same gauntlet of questions the reporters always threw at her.  Thankfully, the burden on her was minimal – Celestia had always been more adept at what she referred to as “pony skills,” and it was therefore her duty to do most of the talking.  As assistant director of the magical science division, the most Luna ever had to say was what she planned to work on next and how happy she was to be able to serve her people in such a capacity.

As she approached the Promenade, she gradually became aware of the sheer volume of the rumble of voices from just beyond the archway.  Odd, she thought – by the sound of it, there seemed to be quite a few voices.  Far more than she had expected, at any rate.  With a vague sense of dread, she had just begun wondering to herself just what her sister was up to when she suddenly found herself frozen in place by the spectacle before her.

Everywhere she looked, not a single square inch of bare tile was visible beneath the ocean of ponies that extended in every direction, filling the entirety of the circle and beyond, their chattering now escalating into a dull roar as their Princess came into view.  Despite herself, Luna found herself standing with her jaw hanging dangerously close to the ground – she simply couldn’t believe how many ponies had managed to cram themselves into such a space, even as large as it was.  Sure enough, standing tall above all of their heads and wearing an expression that belayed an almost criminal degree of self-satisfaction, Princess Celestia beckoned for Luna to join her on the raised platform in the center of the crowd.  As the guards on either side pressed her gently forward, her limbs moved her automatically toward her sister through the tide of excited faces.  With a sudden, plummeting dread, she became keenly aware that she was still wearing her lab coat and safety goggles.

“Fillies and Gentlecolts, I wish to thank all of you for coming here today to share this very special day with us!  I give you…Princess Luna!”

As Celestia finished speaking, the crowd erupted in a cacophony of cheers, the ground beneath them shaking with the rhythmic pounding of uncountable hooves.  Luna simply froze – the cheering, the sea of smiling faces, the sheer magnitude of the occasion overwhelmed her.  This was not the same run-of-the-mill meet-and-greet to which she was accustomed – something else was going on here, something big, and whatever it was, Luna was certain it made her extremely uncomfortable.

Sister dearest…” Luna smiled a bit too broadly as she whispered in Celestia’s ear, waving stiffly to the crowd all the while.  “Have I missed something?  Or am I suffering some sort of mass hallucination?”

Celestia stood elegantly smiling at the crowd as she turned her head ever so slightly to the left to whisper in return.

“Happy birthday.”

“What is this?”  Luna hissed.  “Why didn’t you tell me there would be this many ponies here?  I look awful.“

“If you had planned to shown up on time, perhaps you would have prioritized more appropriately for the occasion.  Besides, everypony seems to think you look just fine.”

“But I-“

With a single, deft motion, Celestia silenced both her sister and the crowd around them.  All eyes were trained on the royal sisters, waiting anxiously for one of them to speak.

Luna looked about with a start as she felt Celestia’s wing nudge her pointedly in the side.

“Oh, I, um…th…th-th-thank you, all of you, for coming here to share my birthday celebration with me!  I…I must say I am…surprised to see how many of you there are.”  She smiled weakly, then added, “But…but I am delighted that all of you could attend!”

Celestia nodded, and the crowd burst into another bout of joyous revelry for a brief moment before Celestia bade them fall quiet once more.  Luna blushed, trying desperately to resist the urge to tidy her mane as her sister began to speak, her voice full of a confidence and presence that had been somewhat lacking in her own impromptu address.

“This day, as does every birthday, stands not just as another marker in the endless passage of time, but serves as an important reminder to each and every one of us of just how special the day of our birth truly is.  A birthday is a day of new beginnings.  A birthday reminds us of who we once were, of who we are, and of who we someday hope to become.  With the passing of each year, we remember those whom we hold dear, those whom we have lost, and most importantly, we remember how each of those individuals have guided us along the path of life toward a brighter future.  That is why tonight, on the night of my sister’s sixteenth birthday, I have asked all of you to join us that we way make this night a shining new memory to look back upon in future years.  In a few moments, I will ask you to join with me as we launch ourselves headlong into a bright new era of peace and prosperity for our people.”

As she spoke, her horn began to glow, and the last lingering rays of the setting sun disappeared beneath the horizon, bathing the Citadel and the crowd of ponies in darkness.  From the shadows to her right, Luna heard her sister’s voice once more, though this time it was much softer, and aimed directly at her.

“Luna, I want to give you something, but before I do, I must ask you to relax.”

Instinctively, Luna did the exact opposite.  Every muscle in her body tensed painfully as she tried desperately to read her sister’s face through the curtain of inky blackness that enveloped them.

“W-what?  How can you expect-“

 “Just breathe.  It’s okay, you’ll do just fine, I’m sure of it.”

“Do just fine?  Do what just fine?  What are you-“

Luna was beginning to panic.  She had never liked these things to begin with, but the sheer abnormality of the sequence of events so far had placed her far from her comfort zone.  Her older self  remembered the feeling clear as day as she watched herself try to remain calm – it was utterly at odds with the smooth, logical ease that had always accompanied her in her laboratory.

“Breathe.  Just breathe…”

Reluctantly, Luna forced herself to comply.  Squeezing her eyes shut, she took a long, deep breath and held it.  Almost immediately, she felt her heart beginning to slow, and her mind sliding back into some semblance of focus.  As she reopened her eyes, she could see the dim outlines of the countless figures all around her, each and every starlit face fixed steadily on her.

“Luna, for your birthday present…I’m giving you the moon.”

For a moment, words failed her.  She simply stared at the outline of her sister’s face before finally finding her voice.

What?!

“For as long as I have ruled our fair kingdom, I have held the responsibility of raising the sun and the moon on my own to begin and end each and every day.  It is a weighty duty, and I think, perhaps, too heavy for just one pony to bear.  I would be honored, little sister, if you would help me to rule our land by sharing that burden with me.”

What was left of luna’s grasp of the situation sputtered out of existence under the weight of those words.

“You’re old enough now to be able to serve our people in a fuller capacity, not that your previous contributions have not been anything less than revolutionary in improving the quality of life for our citizens.  I’m asking you, Luna, raise the moon this night, and every night forever after, and let us rule Equestria together, as it was always meant to be.  Let this night shine forever as the night that Equestria witnessed your rebirth as its second eternal guardian.”

“You…”  Luna turned slowly about, taking in the suddenly ludicrous scene in which she found herself.  All around her each face smiled warmly up at her.  Not a one showed any sign of impatience, nor any trace of doubt.  They all knew.  They all knew what she was supposed to do, and it terrified her.

“Are you asking me to…but I can’t!

“Yes, Luna, yes you can.  I’ve told you before – you’ve got more raw magical talent than any other pony I’ve ever seen, but more importantly than that, you’re my sister.  I know that you can do this.”

Luna was starting to lose control again as the task that lay before her began to sink in.  Her breath came in short gasps as she started whirling about in a panic, searching for some means of escape.

“No…no no! how could you do this to me?!  I can’t raise the moon!  I could never, I…I don’t even have my cutie-“

“Luna, look at me.”

“I…I’m just a scientist!  I’m not even that good! I can’t…can’t possibly-“

Look at me.”

Whether by the force of the gaze with which her elder sister fixed her, or by the realization that there was no way she was going to get out of this, Luna wasn’t sure, but she stopped cold, her eyes locked with Celestia’s.  For a moment, the sea of expectant faces vanished; nothing existed save the pair of sisters below the starry sky.

“Luna, I’m asking for your help because I know that together, we can accomplish so much more for our people than I ever could alone.  I’m asking for your help because I know what you’re capable of.”

Luna couldn’t speak – she simply stared into her sister’s eyes, fighting back mortified tears.  Without a word, Celestia embraced her sister, holding her head close to her heart.  Somehow, the steady, gentle pulse seemed to calm her.  For a few moments neither sister moved, caught in the timeless warmth that held them both before Celestia finally pushed their bodies apart.

“I’m asking for your help because above all, I believe in you, little sister.”

Silence.  As she looked up into her sister’s face, she saw not the cold, impartial mask of rulership, but the face of a pony to whom she had looked up for as long as she could remember, a face that had always been there with a gentle smile or comforting thought whenever she needed one, a face that to her, represented everything that she hoped to someday become, but had never truly believed she ever could.  Now, as she looked into that familiar face, it was suddenly somehow all she needed.

Her fear was gone, but neither had it been replaced by anything remotely reassuring.  Luna stared up into the fathomless depths of the night sky, feeling like the tiniest of insects standing before a mountain of darkness.

This moment…everything changes in this moment.

With a deep, steadying breath, she closed her eyes, reaching slowly outward with her magic.  The darkness seemed to stretch forever in every direction, but there, glowing in the endless night…a pulse, so tiny it was barely there at all.  Her consciousness seemed to drift toward it, around it, reaching out to caress it as though it were a newborn animal, a tiny little flame of life so delicate that the slightest breeze could shatter it forever.  As she drew the threads of her magic around the little pulsing light, she could feel its warmth flowing within herself, feel it grow, shining brighter and brighter.  It felt distinctly solid now, no longer quite so fragile as it had been when she had first reached toward it.  Slowly, steadily, the light grew and grew until it finally resolved itself into an enormous, silver sphere, shimmering among a sea of stars.

Somewhere, deep inside herself, she felt something stir.  It began as a murmur, like the ripple of a single drop of water on the surface of a tranquil lake.  Gently, as the ripples bounced around the corners of her mind, rebounding upon themselves again and again, they began to grow, the surface of the lake trembling like the skin of a drum.  Under the light of the silver orb, she saw the myriad threads of magic within her twisting, flowing, weaving in and around each other in fantastic patterns, and right in the center, the ripples of energy that seemed to direct them in their eerily familiar dance.  She felt something in that moment that she had never felt before, like an immense pressure pushing upward from the deepest part of her consciousness, a massive force that had lay just beyond her grasp until just now.  It whispered to her in wordless song, calling her toward it, crushing down upon her with the enormity of its existence, and yet touching that font of power filled her with an exhilarating sense of freedom, as though her body were suddenly weightless, as though the world around her suddenly made sense just as it did in her laboratory.  She saw the magic that flowed not only within herself, but within the crowd of ponies around her and beyond – it was a dance of life, as old as time itself yet somehow strange and new – all of the pieces seemed to fall into place, a colossal, fluid mosaic of life and at their center, the shining, sparkling sphere.

It was the moon; her moon.  The memory of those words danced in and out of her thoughts only half-formed, the discarded lullaby of a small child.  She could feel it, as though it were a part of her, as though it were inside her.  Without knowing how or why, she saw it rising, rising, the weight of the massive hunk of rock gliding effortlessly upward as though it were full of nothing but air.  As she watched it rise higher and higher, she suddenly became aware of a sound echoing in the darkness.  Such a strange sound, she thought, so loud, so vast, and yet she could not determine from whence it came.  All at once the sound closed in around her, filling her with a strange, detached sense of relief, though for the life of her, she could not comprehend why.

The cheering hit her like a tidal wave.  There, shining like a brilliant silver eye in the night sky, the full moon bathed the castle grounds in its ethereal radiance.  For a moment, Luna simply stared into the center of the sphere, her ears throbbing in protest at the noise as she struggled to comprehend what had just happened when something warm fell across her back.  With one magnificent ivory wing, Celestia embraced her sister, gazing down at her with eyes overflowing with pride.

I did it…I actually…Did you see me Celly?  I did it!

“I’m so proud of you, Luna,” she whispered, smiling gently.  “I knew you could do it.”

“I…I actually did it…”

She stared into the throng at nothing in particular, the waves of joyous sound washing about her as though she were caught in a dream, undeniably there, but somehow detached.  For several moments, Luna simply waited in a numb haze before she finally realized that they were all cheering for her.

Luuuuna! Luuuuna! Luuuuna!”  over and over, the crowd chanted her name, swaying side to side in rhythm with the pounding of their hooves.

Without warning, Luna burst into a fit of riotous laughter.  All of her tension, all of her anxiety evaporated in an instant beneath the cascade of giggles.  She wasn’t even really sure why she was laughing, but no matter how she tried to stop it, it just kept coming.  She laughed and laughed until her lungs were sore, and still the crowd around her cheered as loudly as ever.  As she watched her younger self shuddering with each wave of revelry, she felt the same infectious joy creeping into the edges of her consciousness, as though she were the one standing on that platform, reliving that wonderful night.

This had been the single happiest night of her life.

“Fillies and Gentlecolts, Thank you!  Thank you all for sharing this night with my sister and I!  With your help, I know that the two of us can create an even brighter future for Equestria and all of its inhabitants!  Thank you all!”

With the last of Celestia’s words, the roars of stomping hooves only instensified.  At the same time, as the waves of laughter finally ceased, something else caught Luna’s attention.  It began as a tingling warmth somewhere around her midsection, then slowly seemed to condense itself into a small patch of heat on either side.  She wondered only half-heartedly at the peculiar sensation, still too engrossed by the excitement of the crowd as the warmth slowly intensified, until finally it demanded her full attention.  As she turned her head to look back upon her body, she found her eyes drawn to the part of her labcoat that covered her flank, and her breath caught painfully in her throat.

Almost immediately, Luna wanted nothing more than to be away from the crowd.  She was no longer afraid of the sea of ponies, nor did she feel any need to return to her work in the laboratory; If she was correct, this was something far more important, far more urgent.

She whirled about, gazing pleadingly at her elder sister, her wings twitching with something between excitement and shock.  Celestia’s smile faltered somewhat as she locked eyes with her little sister, a faint trace of concern flickering through her features.  Without breaking the constant formal composure with which she presented herself before the crowd, she bent her head downward slightly to whisper in Luna’s direction.

“Is something wrong?  Are you feeling al-“

Luna was too excited to let her finish.

“Celly, it’s time, It’s time!  I think it’s finally happened!”

This time, Celestia couldn’t help but frown in puzzlement at her little sister’s behavior.

“Time?  Time for wh-“

As she spoke, ponies bearing the telltale assortment of scrolls, quills, and the eager abandon indicative of the reporter’s guild came bustling forcefully in their direction, each of them shouting questions at the top of their lungs.  Without a word, Luna fixed her with a look of frantic exasperation, twitching her head almost imperceptibly in the direction of her rear end.  For a few moments, Celestia simply stared blankly back until a spark of comprehension leapt into her eyes.  Without hesitation, she raised her hoof to silence the crowd, clearing her throat as she did so.

“If I might make one small request, I would like all of you to please move inside to the great hall, where you will find that our chefs have provided an exquisite meal for all of you.  Please, eat, drink, and be merry to your heart’s content.  Luna and I will join you shortly, and we will be more than happy to answer any questions at that time.  Thank you again!”

The instant that she had finished speaking, Celestia gestured curtly to the guards around their platform, who immediately began clearing a path for them to make their exit.  As they walked slowly out of the circle of the Promenade, Luna struggled to maintain some semblance of formality, her eyes locked on the archway that led into the northern gardens.  Immediately upon leaving the view of the crowd of ponies as they marched into the Great Hall, Luna broke into a run with Celestia close behind, the somewhat puzzled guards remaining by the gate at a single commanding glance from their superior.  In a frenzy, the little princess ducked behind a wall and, fixing her teeth around one shoulder of her labcoat, tore it away from her body with all of her might.

                   

Before the discarded cloth could even touch the ground, a gasp escaped Celestia’s lips as she gazed down upon her little sister’s flank.  Immediately, Luna whipped about to see it for her herself, her neck wrenching painfully from the sheer velocity of the motion.

                   

There, on Luna’s once blank, purple-coated flank, lay the elegant silver edge of the crescent moon afloat in an inky pool of darkness, still sparkling softly before her eyes.  Even as she saw it, Luna couldn’t believe it – after sixteen long years, she finally had earned her cutie mark.

                   

I remember this…Celly was so proud of me

But before the memory could sink in, once again Luna saw the image begin to shimmer and fade before her.  All of the light seemed to drain away, the scene growing darker and darker until the only visible shape was the crescent moon on Luna’s flank, glimmering faintly before it too faded from existence.  As her vision darkened, she felt the memories of what she had witnessed slipping away, falling through the fingers of her consciousness like sand through an hourglass.

For several moments, Luna seemed to float numbly through the sea of silence that surrounded her, unable to fully comprehend how she had gotten there, until a tiny sound in the distance seemed to draw her slowly toward it.  Almost imperceptibly, the sound grew steadily in volume and her eyes began to resolve a variety of shapes in the darkness, unrecognizable at first, but as she watched they began to change and blend together into complete, logical forms.  It was a bird, she realized – a birdsong that she knew, though she could not remember why.  The lilting tune of its merry chirping floated about her as she looked upon the new scene that had unfolded not from the same bird’s eye perspective as before, but in a first-person view.  Though she had no control over the body she seemed to be inhabiting, she could feel it moving stiffly forward, and could clearly sense the turbulent flow of its tangled emotions as it scowled at the floor.

She walked alone in an enormous, gilded hall, surrounded by columns that towered high above her into the darkness, beyond the reach of the long, slanted beams of moonlight that painted her face.  The only sounds to break the heavy silence were the hollow echo of her footsteps, strangely magnified by the enormity of the hall, and the last muffled traces of the bird’s melody as she passed beyond the entrance to the Eastern Gardens on the way to her tower.  She remembered now – her room in the Citadel had a large balcony overlooking those gardens.  Every evening, as the gardens’ nocturnal inhabitants began to stir and the creatures of the day lay themselves to rest, that particular bird – Celestia had said it was a phoenix – would sing one last tune before it, too retired for the night.  She had always loved to listen to its song – it was always just a little different, yet tonight she sensed that her younger self wanted nothing more than for it to stop.  

As quickly as she could without breaking into a full run, the younger Luna stomped up the spiral staircase to her bedroom, slamming the door behind her with a flick of her horn.  In the same movement, she summoned a cacophony of crashes and bangs as the windows all around her room were drawn forcefully shut, drowning out all noise from the creatures outside.  In silent fury, she paced back and forth across the resplendent violet carpeting, working her jaw back and forth in slow, grinding movements.  In all of her seventeen years, she could not remember a time when she had been more infuriated, more humiliated…and, she sensed, more ashamed.  The feeling was blisteringly clear, though for some reason, Luna could not seem to remember what in Equestria had made her so upset.  She did not have long to linger on the thought however, as her attention was suddenly commanded by a severe flash of amber light from the corner of her room.

Princess Celestia folded her wings stiffly about herself as the light from her recent rematerialization faded, all the while glaring sternly down her muzzle into her little sister’s eyes.

Celly?  What’s wrong?  Why do you look so mad?

It was Luna who spoke first.

“You certainly took your time getting he-“

“Not.  Another.  Word.”

Despite her own anger, the overpowering authority with which her sister had spoken to her caused her to bite back the rest of sarcastic remark.  For a few moments, neither pony spoke, each glaring into the other’s eyes until she finally averted her gaze.  Luna was thankful that her younger self had done so – even if she could not remember why she felt so ashamed, seeing her older sister look at her like that multiplied the feeling ten hundred fold.

“You will speak only when I have finished, is that clear?”

Without turning to meet her gaze, Luna felt herself nod, albeit hesitantly.

“First, I want to make it clear that I understand what it was you were trying to do, and that I can appreciate that sentiment.  However, that does not change the fact that due to your carelessness, several ponies very nearly met their deaths tonight.  Can you understand that?”

Luna whipped her head upward to offer her retort.

“I was only trying to-“

LUNA!  Just answer the question.”

Once again, the two sisters’ eyes met in silence for a few moments before Luna turned shamefully away.

Yes.”

Satisfied, Celestia’s features softened somewhat, though her tone lost none of its matriarchal fury.

“That said, I have to ask - what were you thinking?  You know how hard all of our subjects must work each day – how could you expect them to be able to do what you asked of them without endangering themselves and others?”

Luna began to answer, but was immediately silenced by a warning glance from her sister.

“We’re just lucky that their injuries are not serious.  Nonetheless, I am very disappointed in you, young lady.  What do you have to say for yourself?”

“…Look, I’m sorry, alright?  I just wanted…”

“Don’t you dare take that tone with me.  If you’re not going to take this seri-“

“I am, Celestia, if you’d just-”

I told you not to interrupt!”

Her mouth still hanging open in silent protest, Luna seethed at the sound of her sister’s voice, but dared not muster another attempt to interrupt her.  Slowly, as she cowered before her sister, the fragments of memory began to collect themselves, drawn together by the sheer force of her emotion.  She remembered it now; why she had felt so ashamed of herself and why Celestia was so angry with her.  Her younger self had recently developed a spell that would, in theory, give ponies the energy to work or play or carry out whatever business they needed to during the night – a spell that would ultimately replace the need for sleep.  However, in her eagerness to prove that it was a success and earn the praise of her sister, she had tested it on a group of construction workers that were working to renovate part of the Citadel’s inner wall, and as a result, several of the workers had overworked themselves to the point that a single error in judgement had caused an accident in which most of the crew had been injured.  Thankfully, Celestia had noticed the work going on upon her return from some late-night business in the new settlement of Stalliongrad and had been able to intervene before anypony else was hurt.  Naturally, she was furious with Luna, not only for testing an unfinished spell on their subjects without her knowledge, but for neglecting to properly oversee the work to prevent such an accident from occurring.  As her sister continued her lecture, Luna resigned herself to weathering the storm and attempting to explain herself when Celestia was a bit calmer.

“I will hear your side of the story in due time, but for the moment I want you to take that time to think about what you’ve done.  This is exactly why I told you to consult with me before making any decisions involving the welfare of our subjects.  If I hadn’t found out when I did, who knows what could have happened? This isn’t the first time, either.  Its stunts like these that make me wonder whether you’re really ready to accept your responsibility as Princess.”

“Well, maybe somepony should think about whom they’ve asked for help before they go being all picky about how they go about it.”

The words had come without warning, like a shot in the dark, and Luna regretted them almost the instant they had left her lips.  For a moment, Celestia was too shocked to speak, the adamantine scowl that had painted her face faltering noticeably before reasserting itself to match the angered glare with which her younger sister now fixed her.

“How dare yo-“

But something inside Luna had snapped; no matter how she had tried to help her sister over the past year, it had never seemed to be good enough.  Every time Luna had tried to implement a new regime for the improvement of their subjects’ daily lives – allocating additional hours to work rather than sleep, suggesting an overhaul of the approved educational system for a more intense curriculum, and lowering the minimum age at which ponies could legally be employed, among others – she had been shot down at every turn with some canned excuse concerning the importance of relaxation and revelry or the lessons that children learn while at play rather than those they learn in the classroom.  This wasn’t the first time she had spoken with her sister about it; it all sounded so wasteful to her.  If their people’s happiness was truly so important, was it not vital to maximize the productivity of their land?  So much time was wasted daydreaming or mucking about in the dirt, all while a fascinating world of magic and its relationship with nature went to waste around them despite the fact that it could teach them so much more about themselves if only they bothered to look for it.  She was sick of trying her hardest only to be dismissed, sick of being sent to her room like a child, and sick of her sister’s preachy holier-than thou attitude when all she had ever wanted was to help, just as she had been asked to do in the first place.  Luna advanced on her sister, finding a shaky new courage in the wake of her last remark that urged her to push her advantage while it lasted.

“Stop!  Do you have any idea, any idea how much of a hypocrite you’re being right now?  As if you’ve never made any mistakes before.  I worked harder than anypony to get my spells to work, I’ve always worked as hard as I could to develop magic that would help our people.  This was just one mistake – if I can just refine the spell, then-“

Absolutely not!  I appreciate that you’ve made extraordinary contributions to the welfare of our people, but ponies need the time to sleep each night so that they can recover from the day’s work.  What you’re talking about just isn’t natural!  ”

“Oh please, “natural?!”  Really?!  This coming from the pony that raises the sun every day.  Or have you forgotten that you single hoof-edly control the entirety of Equestrian agriculture, not to mention their primary source of heat, and-”

Watch it, Luna.  I didn’t choose that burden, and I’m not about to take it as lightly as you seem to be.”

“Oh sure, you didn’t choose it, but you’re not in any hurry to lighten the load, either, are you?  I’ve been trying to do things like this so that ponies wouldn’t need to rely so much on sunlight.  What would happen if, for some reason, you couldn’t raise the sun one day?”

“Young lady, that is quite-“

“STOP CALLING ME THAT!”

Immediately, Celestia launched herself forward, stomping one hoof as loudly as she could as she loomed over her little sister in silent fury.  But Luna wasn’t going to let it stop her, not this time – she didn’t falter for a moment as she stepped slowly, pointedly forward, meeting her sister’s gaze without wavering in the slightest.

“Luna, I’m warn-“

“You just love to hear yourself talk, don’t you?  I’m not just a kid anymore, and I’m not gonna let you silence me just because you don’t like what I have to say!”

LUN-“

“I’ve done nothing but try to make you happy ever since you asked for my help!  But every time I try to show you what I can do, it’s never good enough!  When will I be good enough to help you?  When?!”

ENOUGH!”

“NO! I-“

But she never got the chance to finish what she was going to say, for as the words left her lips, she was struck silent by a stinging pain across the right side of her face.  Celestia stood with one hoof still held high, panting heavily as Luna stared at the floor in shock.  As Celestia gently lowered her hoof to the floor, it was all Luna could do to stop herself from breaking into tears.  When Celestia spoke, it was with a voice much softer than the icy monotone she had until recently employed.

“Luna, I’m sorry.  I’m sorry I had to do that, but there is something you need to understand.  I asked for your help in ruling Equestria, that much is true, but that does not give you the right to make such weighty decisions on your own.  What I meant for us was to rule together – to each have an equal part in every decision to better serve our people.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate your efforts – I do, I mean that, and I know how hard you’re working, but it takes a certain amount of experience to be able to understand exactly what it is our people need from us, and at what point we overstep our bounds and begin meddling in affairs that are not ours in which to interfere.”

Luna didn’t respond – she simply glared at the same point on the carpet below as though willing it to burst into flame.

“Perhaps I misled you when I asked for your help, and for that, I apologize.  Or, perhaps I was wrong to have asked for so much – you’re still too young to understand just what our people-“

 “Shut up.”

For a moment, Celestia didn’t bother to reprimand her sister.  Though Luna could not see her sister’s face, she sensed a slight lull in her anger as she spoke again.

“…Luna, I’m sorry that I struck you, but can you understand why I’m angry?  Can you-“

“I said shut up.”

Without warning, Luna’s head shot upward and in her eyes Celestia saw a wrath she had never before witnessed.  As Luna watched from her seat within the body of her younger self, she could see, just for an instant, that same hateful glare reflected in the face of her sister, and for that single, crystalline moment, she was utterly terrified of what she saw.

No…no, not again!  Stop it!  Don’t talk to her like that…she’s just trying to help…

 Before Celestia could properly respond, Luna began her attack anew, each and every word quaking with wounded rage.

“So you lied to me, is that it?  Just who exactly do you think you are?”

Recovering herself, Celestia shot another warning glance in Luna’s direction but to no avail.  With renewed vigor, Luna launched herself once more into the fray.

“Who are you to determine what our people need?  Who are you to dictate what amounts to a fair balance of power?  As far as I can tell, all you’ve done is deny me my efforts just so you can preserve what you seem to think is right.  Tell me, Celestia, how exactly is that equal?”

“Luna, please, do not delude yourself for a moment that I I consider myself superior to you in any way.  Your unique insight was exactly-“

“Yeah, I guessed that much, thanks.  That’s just the problem, isn’t it?  You’re jealous.”

“W-…What?!”

“Don’t try to deny it.  Everything was fine before you asked me to help – I could work on whatever I saw fit in the lab, and you never said anything to stop me, but now suddenly everything I do is a problem.”

“Luna, you’re behaving like a child.  There is nothing personal about this, and the fact that you would even try to make it into-“

“Oh please.  Face it!  You’re so used to everypony praising and adoring you for raising the sun every day that when you saw how happy everypony was at my birthday last year you felt threatened!  You said it yourself; my developments have revolutionized our society!  Without me, our people would be decades behind where we are now.”

Luna stomped at the ground, advancing on her sister as she yelled at the top of her lungs.

“But it goes even farther than that!  You’ve told me for as long as I can remember that I was the most magically talented pony you’d ever seen.  Even more than you!”

As she screamed, her voice rising higher and higher, tears began to form in the corner of her eyes.

“I could be so much more!  When I raised the moon, I realized that for the first time in my life!  I can do so much more for our people than you ever could, and that terrifies you!”

Luna!  I-“

“How can you ask me to go back to locking myself away in the lab for who knows how long?  How can you ask me to do that, when I know now that there’s so much more that I’m capable of!  How, when all I’ve ever wanted…all I’ve ever wanted to do was help you, and now I finally feel like I can!”

As suddenly as it had begun, Luna’s tirade came to an abrupt halt, a few shining droplets trickling slowly down each cheek.  For several moments, the sisters stared at each other, each a bit surprised in their own right at what had been said.  Finally, Luna tore her gaze away, biting her lip in an effort to fight back the tears as she stared resolutely into the far wall.

The windows rattled gently as a bitter evening gale whistled through the trees of the garden below, and a single, muffled cry could be heard above the wind as the phoenix warbled the last note of its song before turning in to sleep.  Luna suddenly felt cold.  She longed to turn her head about and apologize to her sister, to say something, but her younger self refused to comply.  Try as she might, she could not tear her vision away from the unfeeling stone of her bedroom wall.  When the voice of her sister broke the silence at last, the sound seemed to cut to her core, crushing the will from her in an instant.

“…It seems that there is much that we need to talk about…”

Though she could not see her sister, Luna felt a single comforting hoof touch her shoulder.  She wanted desperately to reach out her own hoof to greet it, but in the same instant that it had made contact, she felt her younger self pull forcefully away, stubbornly maintaining her cruel silence.

For a moment, Celestia’s hoof lingered in midair, then dropped to the ground as she uttered a heavy sigh.

“Perhaps we both need some time to calm down.  If you’d like, I could have some of your favorite tea brought up to you in a few minutes, and maybe we can talk things over when you’ve finished?”

No response.  Luna heard the sound of her sister’s footsteps as she walked somewhat hesitantly toward the door.

“…Luna, I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you or made you feel like you’re not helping me by what you’ve been doing, but…but that doesn’t change the fact that there are still some things you must learn to be able to prevent such mistakes from happening in the future.  For the time being…I think its best if I suspend your authority, at least until we’ve had a chance to talk about what’s really going on here.”

Almost immediately, the field of Luna’s vision whipped about with such force that she felt her head would surely come tumbling from her shoulders as she stared into the eyes of her elder sister once more.  The sadness she saw within them shook her somewhat, but it wasn’t enough to quell the sudden surge of anger she felt boiling in her gut.  For a single, excruciating moment, time seemed to stand still as she yearned to answer Celestia’s silent apology in kind, until it was unceremoniously shattered by a deafening crash.

As the light faded from her horn, Luna stared in horror at the back of the door that her younger self had just slammed in Celestia’s face.

I’m sorry…sis, can you hear me?  I’m-

IDIOT!  That pompous, self-righteous-“

Please just open the door, it’s not too late, you can still-

“FINE!  DO YOU HEAR ME?!  JUST HIDE BEHIND YOUR AUTHORITY LIKE YOU ALWAYS DO!  COWARD!”

Even as she felt herself say those hurtful words, she sensed the profound shame from whence they had sprung needling away deep within herself.  She was angry, angrier than she had ever been in all of her life, but the force of her fury was naught but a method of distracting herself from how she really felt.

In a wordless bluster, Luna stomped about her room in rapid, irregular circles, panting wildly as she struggled to find some outlet for her anguish.  A myriad of half - formed words rampaged through her thoughts, each beginning only to abandon itself in search of some new, fouler utterance to besmirch the face of her sister.

Though no wind blew outside the walls of her bedroom, the windows all around her began to rattle as they shuddered in their frames.  Luna struggled to maintain her focus, to muster some shred of willpower that would force her out of the door and back to her sister, but she was utterly helpless as she felt herself being swallowed by the sheer force of her younger self’s emotion, the tinkling of porcelain and glass joining in the rattling cacophony.  All around her, odds and ends throughout her room began to titter and dance as though a quake were shaking the room, though the room itself remained perfectly still.

“Why?!  Why can’t she understand?!  I just-“

A crash as a tiny glass orb that had until recently occupied a place on her nightstand came tumbling to the floor.  The moment that it hit, shards of sparkling brilliance exploded outward in every direction as the magic that had been contained within sparked out of existence in a blaze of colors.

Hypocrite!  Self-centered, powermongering…

The end of her sentence was lost as another mighty crashed echoed throughout the room.  This time, a crystal vase that had housed a selection of her favorite flowers from the royal gardens was smashed to oblivion, scattering its contents far from the bookcase on which it had stood.  But the noise only served to agitate her further.  Louder and louder, the windows shuddered almost to the point of breaking, all the while Luna quaked in silent rage, hot, fat tears streaming down her face.  A faint light began to glow from the tip of her horn, growing rapidly brighter until it cast long, shimmering shadows on everything in the room, reflecting off of the piles of broken glass in a cascade of twinkling points.  The light and the noise seemed to blend together in a raging blur, assaulting her from all sides until with a final, guttural roar, it evaporated in an instant, the light collapsing in upon itself in a single, blinding point.

The next thing Luna heard was a piercing whine that drowned out all but the pounding of her own heart.  In a moment of terrifying clarity, she realized the power of the magic that stood ready to erupt from within her, and suddenly found herself fighting with every ounce of her willpower to bring it under control.  Like a bomb about to explode, the light at the tip of her horn sputtered and flared, great sparks of white-hot energy crackling outward in every direction.  The force of the spell, formless as it was, felt impossibly powerful, far greater even than the power she had felt on the night that she had raised the moon.  All of her anger, all of her shame vanished in an instant in the wake of the clear and present danger that threatened to overwhelm her, whispering to her, urging her to let it run free.

It was as though a voice were calling to her, a voice at once familiar and bizarre.  It spoke in wordless phrases, needling away at her resolve as she fought to maintain her focus.  It seemed to flow like the melody of a song, its lyrics not as words but a cocktail of emotional surges, splashing across her consciousness in great swaths of vivid color.  The sensation began to mingle with her terror, not diminishing it in any way but rather, reshaping it, transforming it into an exhilarating, intoxicating rush of sheer adrenaline.  Her older self remembered the feeling, the deep, dark power that had called to her on that night; as scared as she was, it felt…wonderful.  Slowly, the sound intensified, increasing in pitch until her ears throbbed in protest.  She was scared, so scared, and yet she could not help but bask in the eerie euphoria of the rush of power that she felt coursing through every inch of her body.  It writhed against her will, screaming to be set free, and as it overtook her, a single image, clear as day, bloomed into being before her mind’s eye.

It was a door, a single, colossal steel door, bereft of any sort of decoration or trace of frivolity.  Its broad, severe shape pressed into the fabric of her memories, stirring to life words spoken by her sister many years ago, telling her of what was hidden by that massive metal frame.  Behind that door, she could hear it – that was the source of the voice.  Something behind that door was calling to her, begging her for her help, and somehow she knew that only she could be the one to answer its call.  If only she could reach out and open it, if only she could tap into the source of that power…

Just as it always had whenever she had needed it, the logical, scientific mind that had guided her throughout her years of study kicked into gear.  She remembered her lessons, counting as steadily as she could, mentally listing off the five species of magical force and each of their various derivations, then the applications of each as she had worked with them, and so on, her breath coming in short, pained gasps, the light still crackling furiously as it struggled to release itself.  Slowly, the words of her mentor, Dr. Crick, began to float through her consciousness, telling her to feel the magic, to let it flow rather than attempt to direct it with brute force.  And feel she did – as carefully as she could, she drew the writhing threads of magic back within herself, slowly dismantling the spell piece by piece until at last the light began to fade, and she felt her strength gradually begin to return.

As the last traces of radiance faded from the room, all was quiet.  The windows had ceased in their chaotic dance, the remnants of the cascade of broken glass lay still where they had fallen across the floor, and though her heart raced furiously in her chest, Luna finally felt herself begin to calm.   She forced herself to breathe in long, slow draughts, half afraid to open her eyes, feeling the flow of magic within herself to make sure that she was in control again.  The only trace of her outburst that remained was the lingering image of the door, hanging in her thoughts for just a moment before it, too faded into nothingness.

“What the hay…”  She grunted, keeping her eyes tightly shut as she tried half-heartedly to recover the image of the door, to recapture some shred of the power that still tingled at the edges of her awareness.  “What in the hay was that?”

Without fully comprehending why, she was utterly fascinated.  This was not the first time her magic had reacted to her emotions, but it had always been just her magic – whatever it was she had seen, whatever it was she had heard, it was something different, something outside herself and yet undeniably, alarmingly similar.  And that wasn’t all; she had seen that door before, many times, in fact.  It lay deep within the Citadel, in an enormous underground hall.  Her sister had called it the “Sanctum,” and she had told her that it was never, ever to be opened under any circumstances.  When she had asked why, Celestia had simply said that there are powers in this world beyond our understanding, powers that nopony was ever meant to control, and that that door protected us from what that power might make us become.  That had been back when she was a filly - after years of working in her laboratory, the door had just become another of the Citadel’s many antiquated oddities and had faded from the scope of her curiosity in favor of her studies into the arcane arts.  Now, as she dwelled upon its ominous silhouette, the memories came flooding back, and the academic within herself screamed to know what secrets it held.  But she suppressed it – something felt wrong, though she couldn’t seem to put her hoof on it.  She was angry, she was tired, and the logical part of her mind told her that she was not in any state to be able to trust her impulses.  It was something she could investigate later, if she did at all.

As she opened her eyes, the silence seemed to press in on her from all directions.  She scanned the room, cursing to herself as her eyes fell upon the spread of jagged glass around her feet, the once meticulous arrangement of elegant purple blossoms now lying tattered and wet on the floor below.  Her anger had subsided, but in its place it had left nothing but an empty hole, the recent exchange with her sister running on a loop in the back of her mind.  For a few moments, she simply sat staring at the floor until her mind instinctively resigned itself to attending to the opportunity for some distraction.

With a casual flick of her horn, she whisked every speck of glass from the carpet into the dustbin by her bed, and had been just about to tend to the soaked portion of carpet when a sudden sound from the far side of the room sent her heart rocketing back into her throat.

  “Princess Luna?  May I come in?”

The owner of the voice knocked once more, the echo of his hoof against the heavy mahogany door sounding like the crack of a gun with each solid impact.  

“…Milady, is everything alright?  Princess Celestia requested that I bring you some tea.  If you’re not busy, it would be best to drink it while it’s still hot.”

Right…the tea.  She inhaled deeply, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment longer to steady herself.  As she settled back into a semblance of quietude, she cleared her throat and prepared to address her visitor.

“Yes…yes, thank you, Fawkes.  You may enter.”

With a mighty groan from the aged wood, the door swung slowly open to reveal the scrawny form of the pegasus named Fawkes, who was carrying a tray bearing an elegant silver teapot in its center set next to a single equally well-crafted cup.  As he stepped into her bedroom, he gingerly set the tray down upon a small table before turning to face her with something of a concerned expression on his face.  His eyes first came to rest upon the young Princess, then darted quickly around the room, settling on the flowers, the dustbin, and back to the princess once more.  As he did so, Luna felt herself reflexively attempt to assume the traditional air of impartial propriety, but if the look on his face was any indication, the pegasus wasn’t about to buy it.

Fawkes?  He shouldn’t be here…why is he…?

“…Milady, if I may be so bold, are you…feeling alright?” Fawkes’s mouth twitched sheepishly, as though he were aware of how lame the question sounded.   He grinned hesitantly, trying to approach the situation lightly.  “Not that I’m against…ahem…redecorating, it’s just that Princess Celestia seemed a bit…distraught…”

“Well maybe she should just mind her own damn business.”

The instant that the words had left her lips, she wished they hadn’t.  At first, Fawkes simply stood there, his eyes wide with surprise, his mouth moving dumbly up and down in silent protest until he finally remembered himself and snapped to attention.

“A…apologies, Milady, I didn’t mean to-” he stammered, immediately abandoning any traces of familiarity.

Luna sighed to cut him off, shaking her head in exasperation.  She suddenly felt rather tired.

“No…no, I’m sorry, Fawkes.  You’ve done nothing wrong…” she trailed off, furrowing her brow and placing one hoof over the bridge of her muzzle.  She let it linger there for a moment or two, then dragged it slowly down the side of her face, releasing a defeated sigh as she did so.  

“…I’ve just had a long day, that’s all.  Please, come inside.”

Fawkes cocked an eyebrow, eyeing her pensively for several seconds as though he didn’t quite believe it were that simple, but thankfully, he didn’t press the issue.  Instead, he silently resigned himself to pouring a stream of scarlet liquid from the teapot before pulling up a cushion on which she could sit.  He coughed slightly as he pushed the little silver cup in her direction, not quite willing to meet her eyes.  When she took the cup, he moved to stand halfway between the table and the door, apparently not quite sure what to do with himself and ultimately deciding to strike a professional pose and to stare determinedly off into the distance, waiting for her eventual command.

The hair on the back of her neck tingled slightly in the awkward silence as she stalled by taking a long, slow sip, biting back the urge to gag as the still scalding liquid poured down her throat.  After testing her tongue on the inside of her mouth to make sure she could speak clearly, she broke the silence, her words tumbling out a bit more quickly than she had intended.

“Fawkes, can I ask you a question?”

He nodded, a nervous grin splitting his features.

“Anything, Milady.”

She hesitated for a moment before continuing, testing the question several times in her mind to see just exactly how absurd it was going to sound.

“How did you get your cutie mark?”

“…I…Milady?”

Luna didn’t respond at first.  She simply stared at him, her expression expectant but not demanding.  Fawkes paused, not entirely sure how to react to such a personal question from his superior, but neither did her dare to keep his lady waiting.  He coughed loudly, attempting to muscle past the restrained formality that had been ingrained in him as a part of his training.

“I..um, well…”

He turned to stare at his own flank.  There, ensconced between a pair of willow branches gleamed a single, silver shield.  As he gazed at it, it seemed to fill him with a newfound confidence.  When he began speaking again, his voice carried a sense of fond nostalgia, his smile returning, a bit less nervous this time.

“Well…it was when I was about nine years old at that year’s summer sun celebration in Trottingham – that’s where I grew up.  Princess Celestia hadn’t raised the sun yet, so all of the night’s festivities were still in full swing.  I was there with my little sister…but…um, if you don’t mind me asking, milady, why do you ask?”

Luna blinked slowly, trying with some effort not to break her expression of polite curiosity.

“I’m just curious that’s all.  It’s…it’s relevant to my research.  And please, Fawkes, though I appreciate the thought, you’ve known me long enough to know that you needn’t dwell on formality in my presence.”

“…As you wish, Mil-“

She cocked an eyebrow.

“…Luna.”  A slow grin spread across his face before he continued.  She recognized that grin – that was the real Fawkes, the pegasus she had come to know as a friend.  Out of respect, Fawkes was almost always rigidly formal around her or Celestia, but whenever he and Luna were alone, or if Luna seemed to have a lot on her mind, it was much easier for him to relax and be himself.  After serving as her personal caretaker for so many years, Fawkes was somepony she felt comfortable with, and who always seemed to know how to cheer her up when Celestia wasn’t around.  As he spoke, Luna felt some of her tension melting away, and was thankful to have some pleasant company to distract her from her troubles.

“As I was saying, I was there with my sister – it was her first time there.  My father was busy with his shop, so he had given us some money to enjoy the celebration.  He said it was my duty – he told me that he was counting on me to watch over her and make sure she was safe.”

He chuckled gently, momentarily caught up in the memory.

“Anyway, she was so excited that she ran ahead of me.  I lost sight of her, just for a second, but evidently that was more than enough time for her to get herself into trouble.  When I found her, a group of young colts had stolen her money and were playing keep – away with it behind one of the stalls.  When I saw how upset she was, it knocked the fear right out of me.  I ran right up to them and demanded that they return her money.”

Luna couldn’t help but frown slightly in admiration.  She nodded, anxious to hear the rest of the story.

“…’course, they didn’t like that very much.  I did what I could, but small as I was I couldn’t fight them.  They knocked me to the ground and started kicking me over and over again while my little sister watched.  I had felt so sure, so confident that I had been doing the right thing when I tried to help my sister, but I was utterly helpless as they beat me to a pulp.  I had just about given up when I heard a whole bunch of ponies coming from behind us and the kicking suddenly stopped.  When I opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was the golden armor of the palace guard.  I guess we’d made such a fuss that they had heard the commotion and rushed to our aid.  My sister explained the situation and they returned our money, and the colts were taken away to be disciplined.  That was when it happened - as the guards helped me to my feet, my sister started yelling about something and pointed to my flank.  When I looked, there it was.  I didn’t know at first how it had gotten there or what it meant, but something I had done on that night had earned me my cutie mark.”

“So…it was because you protected your sister?  Because you stood up to those colts, even though you knew the odds were against you?”

“Well, I guess you could say that, but for me it goes deeper.  I didn’t know what to make of what I saw.  I think I was more angry than anything else.”

“Angry?”  She blinked in surprise.  The word had caught her completely off-guard – she simply couldn’t imagine anypony being unhappy about getting their cutie mark.

“Why in Equestria would you be angry?”

“I was angry because for all of my bravado, I could do nothing to help my sister when she needed me.  It was like a kick in the teeth, getting a shield for a cutie mark when I felt like nothing more than a punching bag.”

“But…I don’t understand…you weren’t happy at all?”

“Not at first, no.  What happened after that was what changed my mind.  I was too upset to say much of anything to the guards, so after they returned our money I grabbed my sister and started to take her right back to my father’s shop.  It was then that I heard a voice that would change my life.”

Luna’s eyes were wide with anticipation.  What had begun as idle curiosity was now reborn as full-fledged fascination.

“A voice?  Whose?”

“Princess Celestia.”

It was as though she had been slapped in the face.  Immediately upon hearing her sister’s name, Luna’s mood plummeted back into a sour rancor, but Fawkes seemed to be too wrapped up in his story to notice.  She felt her face spasm into an intense scowl, just for an instant, as he continued to speak.

“She asked me if my sister and I were alright.  I told her I was fine, but she didn’t seem to buy it.  I kept telling her that we didn’t need any more help, but no matter how many times I said it, she insisted on escorting us back to the shop.  Of course, my father was more than a bit surprised to see her with us, and he asked me if anything was wrong.  I told him what had happened, how I had failed to protect her, and how sorry I was for being such a poor excuse for an older brother.  But, to my surprise, Princess Celestia vouched for me.  She praised me for my bravery, and told my father that my little sister would always be safe in my care.  I just couldn’t believe it – here I thought I was having the worst day of my life and the Princess was making me sound like some sort of hero.  I tried to tell her she was wrong but-“

Feh.  Good Luck with that.

“Did you say something?”

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