Celestia spied Luna as she walked into her throne room talking to one of her Royal guards. The sun was setting, sending soft orange and red shades onto the walls and bathing the room in gentle colors. She gave her head a quick jerk to the side when her sister noticed her entrance, and they walked casually into her room.
“My, I can see you’re taking quite a liking to that pegasus, my sweet little sister.” Celestia chuckled. Luna blushed.
“Starbuck is quite a pegasus, big sister.” She smiled to herself. “I’d like to ask you to transfer him to my own personal guard. I am sure he would not mind the change of coat.”
“Or the new company,” she smiled back. The doorframe to Celestia’s room passed overhead as they made their way to the mirror. “He’s yours. I’ll tell him when I get back. Now,” her horn started to glow slightly, causing the mirror next to her to flash to life, “I have something to show you.” Stars appeared across the mirror and streaked as she moved it’s view around in the sky far above the world. Luna looked on in genuine interest; she had abandoned the use of her magic mirror when the night had only revealed darkness wherever ponies were sleeping, so this ability had become fresh in her mind again after its long absence.
The view turned to face the moon, aglow in its early rise, and centered on a small silhouette. From this distance it looked like a small prickly object, and only uglier as the view came closer and closer: two pockmarked orbs, full of little lights and rectangular holes and thin pointy spikes and scratches and burn marks and what she could only guess was red lettering, were bridged by a metal latticework that surrounded a smaller shaft that solidly connected them, with orbs and boxes and drooping wires scattered about its length.
This horror was a blot upon her beautiful moon.
“I found it this morning. This is the thing that the creatures of Rough Space use to travel the great distances between worlds, sister. This is what the Batarian was calling his ‘ship.’ And there are more of his friends inside it.”
Luna looked at her in disbelief. “They have remained? What possesses them to stay so close?”
“I don’t know, Luna. Whatever the reason, it probably isn’t in our best interests. You’re going to need to wake up Dusk and go ask them.” She closed her eyes in a grin. “I sure hope they’re friendly!”
Luna’s eyes widened at the mention of Dusk. How many years had it been? Her time on the moon was fleeting compared age of that name. After a second, the fond memories of Dusk came flooding back to her; a torrent of sights and sounds of the adventures they had experienced together.
“I have already selected a group of friends to power her, Luna. They’re waiting for you to show them down to the storage area.”
“And a compliment of Pegasi?”
“I’ve already made arrangements for your ‘Vigil Nocte’ to be reestablished. They’ll be waiting for you.”
Twilight Sparkle trotted quickly to Carousel Boutique, Spike bouncing along on her back, grinning ahead eagerly. The white and purple pony was found inside humming in front of her sewing machine, the walls lined with dresses on pony models in varying stages of completion. Several objects floated in the air around her surrounded with a light blue aura. Her focus wasn’t broken when Twilight’s entry rung the bell at her door.
“Um, hello?” Twilight asked, unsure if she should be interrupting.
“Oh! Twilight, Spike!” Rarity blinked. “I didn’t hear you enter. How long have you been standing there? I’m so sorry to keep you waiting.”
“Oh, we just got here.”
“H-hey Rarity,” Spike waved at her, a dreamy look in his eyes.
“Hello, dear,” Rarity replied, completely ignoring the longing looks.
“So, are you…” Twilight looked about the room, “…busy?”
“Why, yes actually. I’m afraid I’m behind on a couple orders.” She returned to her sewing for a moment to finish a stitch in the fabric, then looked over her glasses to see Twilight still looking at her. “Oh, I’m sorry, did you need something?”
“Yes, I need you to come with me over to the library. I have something to tell everypony and it’s...kind of important.”
“Well, I always have time for my friends, Twilight. What is it? Some news?” She started to put away the objects she had suspended back into various cubbies and drawers throughout the shop.
“It’s, uh, complicated. I had hoped to explain it all when the others get there.” Twilight turned to leave.
“Others? Who else is coming?” Rarity asked, trotting quickly over to her side.
“Well, I saw Applejack earlier and she said she’d come,” Twilight turned to face Rarity when they both were outside. “And Rainbow Dash too, but she’s getting Fluttershy. All that’s left is-“
“Hey!” Pinkie Pie’s nose pressed up against Twilight’s, sending her head back a few inches in surprise. “Hi Twilight! I saw Applejack and Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy all going to the library earlier, so I thought I’d find you and see what’s going on? Are you having a party? Is it somepony’s birthday and I just forgot? I usually don’t forget anypony’s birthday, except for sometimes my own, like that one time I-”
“Pinkie Pie!” Twilight interrupted, “I was just going to go looking for you. I need you to come with me to the library too. I’m not having a party, just an, um, get-together.” She laughed hesitantly at Pinkie Pie’s stare.
“Okey-dokey-lokey! Sounds like fun! We could make it a party anyway! Look, I even brought some streamers and other party stuff!” She reached behind her and pulled out some party whistles from out of nowhere, unfurling them among a rain of confetti.
“I’m not sure that would work, Pinkie. This isn’t a party, I just need to talk to you all. Really.”
“Oh dear, I hope it’s not bad news.” Rarity put a hoof up to her chest. “It’s not bad news, is it Twilight? That would just make my day simply awful.”
“Okay, I think everypony’s here,” Spike said, fetching the book Celestia had sent from Twilight’s bed. The ponies had finished gathering around the book in the center of the library, giving both Twilight and the book quizzical looks.
Twilight sighed, both nervous and sad at the prospect of the task ahead. A wise pony had once said: “The pony that increases in knowledge, thusly increases in sorrow.” At first she had thought little of it, that it couldn’t be that bad, but now she knew all too well. There were things that were better forgotten. But the Princess herself had charged her with telling her friends about this, about the history of Equestria forgotten to all the but the oldest of dragons and the immortal Rulers of Equestria. Where should she start? The origins of Equestria? The Unfortunate Enemies? The Great War? She doubted any of the ponies with her could even grasp the very idea of war, much less that ponies had any hoof in it.
Another thought occurred to her: how would each of them receive this? Being ponies, the Blessing of The Sisters was on each and every one of them, herself included. She hadn’t succumbed to the ideas presented in the book, and she had grown up reading books on (what she thought at the time) every conceivable subject, and she was fine. Antisocial, but fine. Fluttershy worried her. The sensitive pony would probably cry her eyes out. What about Rainbow Dash? She knew the blue pony was very competitive, almost aggressive, but nothing tragic had come from it; would the ideas of-
“Twilight!” Spike called, poking her shoulder. She shook her head.
“Uh, Twi? You ok?” Applejack asked.
“Yeah,” Rainbow Dash interjected, “What’s this book you gotta tell us about? Are we gonna have to sit through a lecture?” She crossed her forelegs, hovering just above the floor.
Twilight took a deep breath. She had to do it, the Princess had told her to. It was now or never, she told herself.
“Well girls,” she started, “Princess Celestia sent me this book a few days ago and she said that I would need to tell all of you about it.”
Rainbow Dash groaned. “You asked us over here to listen to a book report?”
“No,” Twilight quickly responded, shaking her head, “Well, not really. I just have to-“
Spike’s burp interrupted her. A letter bound with red ribbon and bearing Celestia’s seal floated among sparkles in the air.
“Oh, a letter from Princess Celestia!” Spike instantly grabbed it out of the air and opened it, her previous train of thought completely gone.
“Dear Twilight, my most yadda yadda…” he began, reading ahead silently, “You and your friends are hereby summoned to Canterlot, and are to leave as soon as possible!”
“Canterlot?” Rarity squealed in delight. “My my my, what for?”
“Ooh! I love guessing games!” Pinkie Pie shouted, bouncing up and down on her hooves. “Is it a party? A Royal Party?”
“Aw yeah, a trip to Canterlot! The Wonderbolts are having an air show there in two days!” Rainbow Dash pulled in one of her fore-hooves. “I’ll be-I mean, we’ll be able to go see them!” Pinkie was still bouncing up and down beneath her making guesses.
“Now hold on there, Pinkie. He hadn’t said what the invitation is about.” Applejack put a hoof on Pinkie Pie’s chest, keeping her on the ground. “Go ahead, Spike.”
“Hmm…” Spike eyes narrowed, “It doesn’t say. Just that transportation will be provided at-“
A loud knock sounded on the door, startling them. Twilight walked over and opened it with her horn to see two white, gold-covered pegasus ponies. “Oh, um, hello sirs.”
“Miss Sparkle,” the one on the right addressed her, recognizing her instantly. Twilight wished she could do the same for the guardsponies, but they all looked the same to her. “We are here to give you and your friends transport to Canterlot, immediately.”
“We have provided a chariot to bring your friends without wings,” the other said.
“The Princess has told us to prepare for four. Is this correct?” The first one asked.
“Yes, that’s correct,” she replied, unsure which one she should answer. She supposed that Spike could just sit on her back in the chariot.
“We are prepared to leave whenever you are ready, Miss Sparkle,” the second one answered.
“Um, excuse me sirs, but you’ll have to give me and my friends and few minutes to prepare.” She turned and looked at her friends, the same faces of wonder and excitement that they wore when they arrived now had a different reason. She sighed; she hadn’t been able to tell them yet. She had no idea how to summarize it in the few minutes they did have, and most of them needed to make some preparations for their responsibilities here. Time had run out for her, and the Princess would be so very disappointed. “Well, are any of you ready to go to Canterlot? I’m sure that there are some things you have to take care of first.”
“Oh, darling, nothing says importance like getting behind on orders because of Royal Business,” Rarity said, all smiles, “I can make time in my schedule.”
“Big Macintosh can take care of the farm for a day or two,” Applejack said.
“I always have time for the Wonderbolts!” Rainbow Dash did a flip in the air, “I mean, uh, the Princess.”
Pinkie Pie gasped, then sped out the door and between the guards without a word. Twilight looked at Fluttershy, who simply nodded.
“Well, I guess that’s everyone who’s going,” Twilight told the two guards. “I think a couple of us need to pack first.”
The guards turned and trotted back to the chariot parked near the library where two more waited, already in the harness of the chariot.
“Twilight, I simply must get my best clothes to go see the Princess,” Rarity told her, “I just have to run back to my shop and-“
“There! All packed!” Pinkie Pie shouted, reappearing next to them. A pair of saddlebags dropped from her mouth on the ground in front of them. Applejack’s and Rarity’s saddlebags, fully-packed. “I wanted to go right now, so I just stopped at Rarity’s and Applejack’s house to get their saddlebags on the way so we wouldn’t have to wait! Look, they’re all full of the stuff they need, plus I have my own too, see?”
Twilight raised an eyebrow at the pink pony. “Pinkie, Carousel Boutique and the Apple Family Farm aren’t on the way to Sugarcube corner.”
“Ah, thanks Pinkie Pie!” Applejack walked over and picked up her saddlebags, setting them on her back. Rarity opened her bags, picking out a scarf and some stylish wind goggles before donning them too.
Twilight put her face to her hoof; she knew better than to ask how she did it.
Starbuck’s eyes stung a little. The dye still burned on his coat, and rubbing his eyes only brought him tears. He trotted down the marble and gold corridors of Celestia’s castle to the armory and felt pride when the ponies that passed him left their eyes on him a little too long—it had been quite a long time since anypony had seen wings of purple that close to black, save Nightmare Moon, and he was among the first in a thousand years.
He made an effort not to smile at anypony. It was easy as a guard to be stone-faced all the time, but here, deep within the Palace and off-duty, the absence of warm greetings between the members came off as sullen, even pouty. A toothless, closed-mouth smile in return would let the others know he was in pain, then they’d ask what was wrong, and he’d have to open his mouth.
Mason was already waiting for him at the chow hall, wearing his gleaming light-purple Knightmare Armor. The curves of his flowing plates ended in accentuated points. His helmet helped keep his mane, which looked like a purple and blue wing of a bat, standing upright, and the metal swept into points at the end of his snout. The sides of his ornate purple shoes joined together along a tall edge at the front, and at his chest dark purple, nearly black, swept forward from the base of his wings to join at a clasp that looked like a light blue iris with a slit pupil.
Which was also the most noticeable alteration: Mason’s eyes were a dark gold and had the same slits for pupils.
The line of ponies extended past him around the walls of the room, chatting amongst themselves and the ponies already standing at the tables nearby. Every now and then he’d notice one of the groups stop talking for a moment to look at him and Mason, who was motioning him over to the head of the line.
“Starbuck!” Mason called, “Glad to see you could make it in time for dinner, thought the operations might take a little longer than expected. Mouth still sore?”
Starbuck had seen him last only this morning, but the success of today’s operations on him were as plain as day, and he showed no discomfort from either the alterations nor the looks his open mouth garnered in the crowded room. Starbuck’s head still throbbed from the recent changes and he didn’t want to risk cutting his tongue again, so he simply nodded.
“Well, that’ll pass with time. You’d better get used to using your mouth more, Knightmare!” He turned and walked into the doors leading into the kitchen, a quick tilt of his head telling Starbuck to follow. They passed through many chef ponies who blustered and neighed at the strangers’ blundering walks; while they had learned to move through the kitchen with ease, Starbuck and Mason blundered between the cramped counters, ovens, and vats nearly knocking over several trays of food and a few pots of soup. Mason’s armor didn’t make it any easier on them, but they reached the trot-in refrigerator without incident. A purple unicorn pony with a large chef’s hat met them with a queasy look.
“Mason, I presume?”
“That’s right. Me and Starbuck here need a couple plates of dinner. Extra rare, please, and hold the steaming,” Mason replied confidently, ignoring or oblivious to the scrunching brow of the pony in front of him. A couple slow nods and the chef disappeared into the fridge for a moment, while Mason led Starbuck over to the a folding table near the back of the kitchen the chefs used as a break area. They each sat down on either side and, beyond the view of so many ponies, Starbuck allowed himself to open his mouth to ask the questions pressing on him.
“Is this some kind of special food for us?” he asked.
“Yes,” Mason answered as if he had been waiting for Starbuck ask, “and tomorrow’s special order will the the last one served to you in a kitchen, if I have anything to say about it.”
“What do you mean? And what’s ‘Rare’? Some kind of weird spice or sauce?” He hadn’t ever heard of something like that, even living within the palace with the nobles and the Princesses’ with their exotic meals of strange flowers, vegetables, and grasses imported from all corners of Equestria—-but then, the life of a guardspony didn’t really involve regular meals of gourmet cooking.
“Ha!” Mason guffawed, “Spice! That’s pretty good, Starbuck.” He paused for a moment, brining a hoof up to his chin. “Those new teeth probably hurt your mouth, don’t they? Bet’cha cut your tongue on them a few times already.”
Starbuck nodded in agreement.
“Do you know why you got that operation?”
“Well, I suppose I-“
“Ah, the food is ready!” Mason interrupted, turning to look at the plate floating near to his table. Starbuck turned to look for his chef, and spotted the unicorn’s glowing purple horn on the farthest side of the room, one hoof over his nose. Strange, he thought, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a chef pony make something that stank before--maybe it’s the extra Rare on my food.
He turned back to inspect his plate, and his own nose shared its opinion with the chef who left as soon as the plates hit the table. His head pulled back a little at the sight, then up to Mason, his own mouth agape to ask questions with a lost voice.
“Eat! You’re a Knightmare now, you’ll eat like one!” Mason barked at him, pointing a hoof at the disgusting dish.
Starbuck looked down at his plate again, his mouth still hanging open. An identical meal sat on the plate opposite him, in front of Mason, who stared at him.
“Is…is this what I think it is?” Starbuck managed to ask.
“Yes. Now stop talking and start eating! I know you’re hungry, they don’t let you eat or drink for a long time before operations, and lemme tell ya’ that the stuff on this plate and another one just like it is the only thing you’re gonna eat today.”
Lemon Hearts was nervous as she followed the Princess of the Night through the ancient underground corridors. Behind her five of her friends trotted on in silence; their day had been long already before they had been voluntold to help Luna. The permanent illumination of the warmly lit, cream-colored halls had thrown their sleep schedules out of order, and they could see the small dark circles under their eyes in the brass-covered pillars that extended from floor to ceiling and hugged the walls down every corridor. Luna, however, stood in stark contrast; light didn’t quite reflect off her dark blue coat, but rather fell against it and drowned. She maintained the same shade regardless of shadows or light, and Lemon wondered if she would turn invisible in the dark. If darkness existed anywhere in this labyrinth of halls. She hadn’t spied any windows or markings of any sort in their descent into the mountain, and had lost track of the time entirely. Behind them all followed several Knightmares: ponies in the Night Guard dedicated to protecting Luna. Reflections of the halls glinted off their brightly polished armor, and underneath were their coats of an unnatural gray. Swirling arcs were engraved above their eyes on their helmets, flowing up to meet the bat-wing manes on top. They had seemed nice enough, but then again, most of the Royal Guards didn’t talk much when on duty.
After such a long walk, they stopped abruptly in front of a large, ornate door in the side of the hallway. The dimensions of the passage had been slightly expanding since the turn so far back, but she hadn’t noticed it until now. Silver filigree twisted and curled at its edges against flawless obsidian, and she estimated that perhaps ten ponies would have to stand on each others’ backs to touch the top. Luna’s horn glowed as she operated a small lever at normal pony height. The door opened with a hiss, letting out a small breeze past her and her friends; her ears felt the decrease in pressure in the hall, like going up too fast in a balloon.
“My dear ponies,” Luna smiled, “please enter.” She gestured with a hoof to the door, and the three of them obeyed. Now the walls were a light purple, or maybe blue, with sweeping curves carved in the stone for doors and windows. Luna continued to lead them deeper and deeper into what Lemon was sure was Luna’s private wing of the castle. As they trotted, lights began to flicker on here and there from out of the dim light of the corridors, filling the halls with soft illumination.
The room they stopped in had a short pillar in the center, with smaller ones surrounding it. A large throne with a crescent moon for its back sat on the opposite side. It reminded her of the small outdoor theater seating she had helped create back home. A large dome of a ceiling topped it off, and every surface had certain parts made of black stone; the podiums were topped with a slate of it, the inside of the dome was inset with it, and on the throne the armrests were covered in it. The floor stepped down surrounding the pillar in the center like an angular bowl; Lemon was reminded of a small outdoor theater they had once made back home.
“Wow...” Lemon’s voice faded. “What is this place?”
“Thou stands before the Center of Command,” Luna started proudly, “it shall serve to control the entirety of my Sky Palace. But first, we must awaken it. Please, come hither.”
“A-awaken it?” Roseluck started. Luna led them up around the pillar at the bottom, where she sat down on her haunches in front of it.
“Gather and join thine hooves,” Luna commanded, “Now, close thine eyes and dwell on thoughts of thy friends, thy sweet memories of companions and good times had by all.”
It seemed like an odd thing to do, but they did as they were told. Lemon looked around, across the top of the stump of a column, before she closed her eyes at her friends with her: Bumblesweet, Roseluck, Cherry Spices, Lillyblossom, and Sugar Grape. A fuzzy feeling crept into her after a moment. These were the friends she had grown up with at the edge of Manehatten, her best friends that had been with her through thick and thin, who remained her friends even when she had been cold or uncaring or made mistakes. She began to remember the things they had been through together, the fond memories of their adventures, their sleepovers, tea parties, and everything else about them that made her feel increasingly warm inside.
Light flashed beyond her eyelids, and she opened her eyes in time to see Luna’s horn glow, firing a small spell into the point at the center of the dome overhead. Her friends’ smiles turned upward to watch the fizzles and sparks of the spell’s aftereffects that sprinkled down around them. Lemon looked around the room, and she could see small motes of light begin to sparkle on top of the podiums in sharply-defined shapes of Equestrian runes.
“Good evening, Princess Luna. It’s been a long time,” Lemon heard a sweet voice behind her say. It didn’t sound like any of her friends, and as far as she knew, they were alone in here. She turned back to find its source and saw it in the middle of them all.
Between them stood what appeared to be a unicorn comprised entirely of magic light: her form looked semisolid, as if glass with a deep blue tint; only her green eyes (that which they could see) looked like anypony else’s; and light reflected and shimmered off of glitter that danced around inside her, beneath her skin. Lemon spied the sign of a sunset on her flank, colored deep red.
“Dusk!” Luna shouted happily as the crystal pony jumped down to hug her, “So, very, very long!” She seemed solid enough.
“I guess I should be thankful I can’t count that high, Luna,” Dusk smiled. She looked over Luna’s shoulder to the other ponies in the room. “Hello! Who are you?”
“Dusk, these are the ponies we used to wake you. Their friendship brought you forth from your eternal slumber!” Luna was all smiles at this point, a marked difference from her usual demeanor.
“What are you?” Cherry Spices asked bluntly, “Why do you look so different?”
“Heh, it has been a long time Luna. That’s a good thing, I guess.” She looked at Cherry and the rest of the group as she spoke, “My name is Dusk, and I’m the pilot of this Sky Palace.”