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As Luna followed the guard out of her room, she felt slightly guilty at how pleased she was for an excuse to delay night court. No one could blame her, though; this was clearly more important. She held that thought firmly in her mind as she walked down the hall.
“Where did you find him?” she asked the guard leading her.
“Near the outskirts of the city,” replied the guard. “We're not sure where he was coming from or going to yet, but we'll find out. It looks like you were right about him. He gave one of the boys a nasty gash when the patrol tried to bring him in.”
“Is the guard alright?” asked Luna, alarmed.
“He'll be fine. He should be getting it sewn up now.”
“What about Midnight Dream?” said Luna.
“The patrol managed to whack him on the- That is, they subdued him. He hasn't woken up yet, so we haven't gotten a chance to question him. Hopefully he'll be coming to right about when we arrive.”
Luna nodded and increased her pace. She wanted to be there when he woke up. If she could see his reaction before he became fully aware of his situation, it might give her some insight.
The Canterlot dungeon was both smaller and cleaner than rumor might suggest. There were only a dozen cells, and while they were hardly luxurious, they were kept neat. Each was surrounded by a powerful spell to keep captive unicorns from using their magic. As usual, most were unoccupied. Luna passed one pony who seemed to in a drunken stupor, and another two who looked like they had gotten in a fight.
At the very back of the dungeon was Midnight Dream's cell. He was still unconscious, as Luna had hoped, and she took the chance to study him. As his name suggested, Midnight Dream was a pitch black unicorn stallion. His hair was greyish-white, and his cutie mark was a ring of seven stars surrounding a double spiral.
The guard who had brought Luna to the dungeon stood back a few paces and waited. Luna shifted impatiently. After a minute, Midnight dream began to stir. Then, without warning, the unconscious pony let out a bloodcurdling shriek.
Luna took a step back in spite of herself. Not that she had never heard a pony scream before, but this one seemed especially disturbing, perhaps since there was no cause for it. Midnight Dream continued shrieking, twitching erratically. Slowly, he seemed to become aware of the world around him, and his screaming morphed into a laugh that made Luna's skin crawl.
“They can see you, you know,” he said abruptly, staring up at Luna, head tilted at an angle. “They can see you, but you can't see them. I can see them, though,” he said with an insane giggle. “Sometimes they talk about you. In between the screams. Sometimes they scream about you in between the talking. What's the difference?”
“Who are they?” Luna found herself asking, against her better judgment.
“NO! No! Wrong question!” said Midnight Dream vehemently. “They are not who. They are not what. You can't see them. How can you know if you can't see them?”
“Did you kill a stallion named Oakwood?” asked Luna, deciding on a more direct approach “A brown earth pony. We found him in the attic of an abandoned shop.”
“They like the screams,” said Midnight, giggling to himself again. “They never heard them before, though. He makes it so they can hear them.” A spasm of rage flashed across his face, then was gone.
Luna decided that was probably the clearest confession she was going to get. “Who is he?” she asked instead.
Midnight opened his mouth, but only a choking sound came out. “He said not to tell,” he said after a few seconds. “He made it so none of us could tell.”
Luna frowned. Could he be under a geas? How in Equestria would somepony know how to perform one, though? As far as Luna knew, the last bits of knowledge relating to mind control spells had been eradicated several hundred years before her exile. Only the unicorn who had placed a geas on a pony could safely remove it; if anypony else tried, even Luna or her sister, it could cause terrible damage to the pony's mind and memories.
Luna sighed. If she was going to get any kind of useful information out of Midnight, she was going to need to try and speak his language. “How do you see them?” she asked after a moment.
“They're on the edge between dreaming and waking,” he said. “Sometimes they come, sometimes they don't. At first I didn't like them, no, no. I didn't like the screams. I tried to make them stop. But you don't make them stop. They make you start!”
“When did you start seeing them?” Luna asked.
“Before. Before, I didn't see them. But then I saw them, and now I can see them.”
Right. No specific questions, she thought. She still had no idea what “they” were supposed to be. Most likely, they existed only in Midnight's mind, but the possibility that he had been put under a geas made another idea occur to Luna. “Did he make you see them?” she asked.
“NO!” shouted Midnight instantly. “NO! THEY BELONGED TO ME FIRST! HE THINKS HE CAN MAKE THEM HIS, BUT THEY'RE MINE!”
Probably not a magically induced hallucination, then, or at least it didn't start as one, thought Luna. It wasn't hard to come to the conclusion that Midnight Dream didn't have the presence of mind to plan elaborate crimes, which meant that the mysterious “he” was the true culprit, and Midnight was just some poor, insane pony that “he” had found easy to manipulate. Now the problem was getting enough out of Midnight to track “him” down. Geas tended to be quite specific, and a creative pony could usually find a way to divulge the forbidden information, but Luna doubted Midnight Dream would be capable of that.
“Why did he tell you to kill the pony?” she asked.
“He makes it so they can hear the screams,” said Midnight rapturously, rage forgotten. “They like the screams. I can hear them getting closer. He says he can bring them close enough to touch,” he said with a shiver.
“And what will happen then?” asked Luna.
“Then, everyone will hear the screams. And then they'll all know why I scream!”
This was getting her nowhere. Luna decided to try a different approach. “Who else can see them, aside from you and him?”
“No one but me sees them,” hissed Midnight. “They all say they can, but no one but me really does. I can tell,” he confided.
“And who else is there, besides you and him?” asked Luna.
“Who knows? It doesn't matter. None of it matters except them. Nothing matters...” He descended into an incoherent stream of murmuring and giggles.
Luna sighed. She turned to the guard behind her, who was doing a good job of pretending not to be disturbed by the pony in the cell. “I don't think I'm going to be able to get anything useful out of him,” she said. “Find somepony with a great deal of patience and have them work on him until he spits out something intelligible. He's the only lead we have for the moment.”
Leaving the dungeon, Luna grudgingly headed for the throne room, out of excuses to delay night court any longer. Before she could reach it, though, she was intercepted by a second guard. “Excuse me, Princess, but a letter from your sister arrived earlier,” he said.
“Excellent. Thank you,” said Luna, taking the proffered scroll and feeling secretly relieved that her sister had been so quick to respond.
My dear sister,
I was greatly worried by your letter. This is the first time in decades that such a thing has happened in Canterlot. The drawings on the floor are also disturbing, if they do in fact depict what you think they do. I have never made any recordings that a pony could use to draw such a thing, so this matter certainly deserves attention. I have only just reached Griffon territory, and the meetings have not yet begun. If you wish, I can delay my mission and return to Canterlot until this matter is resolved. Please let me know immediately if there are any further developments.
Luna frowned. It would take a lot more than this for her to ask her sister to return to Canterlot. I'm ruling now. This is the sort of thing rulers have to deal with sometimes, so I'd better be able to deal with it. “I'll send a response later tonight,” she told the guard, before starting resignedly towards the throne room again.
Surprisingly, there were fewer ponies waiting for her tonight, even though she hadn't heard everypony the night before. Those that were there seemed to huddle together nervously. Luna wondered how quickly rumors of the murder had spread. She made a mental note to assign some ponies to keep tabs on the city gossip, so she could better gauge the mood of her subjects.
Luna settled into her throne with a sigh, before declaring court open. Even with fewer ponies than the night before, it was slow going. She did her best to give each pony her full attention, but she found her mind wandering despite herself. It was hard to stop herself from endlessly puzzling over Midnight Dream's insane ramblings, trying to pick out any scrap of meaning.
She wished Twilight were there. Luna had to admit that the lavender unicorn was better at this sort of thing than she was. Luna had always preferred looking at the larger picture, and picking over details merely irritated her. In that, she was different from her sister, and from Twilight as well. Besides, having the lavender unicorn beside her made night court infinitely more bearable. Maybe it was just because Luna had grown so used to be alone, but everything seemed a bit brighter when Twilight was nearby. Also, her flank's not half bad to look at, either.
Luna blinked. Now where had that thought come from? Not that she couldn't admire a nice flank, but she hadn't seriously thought about another pony that way since well before her exile, and for good reason. She shrugged uncomfortably and shook herself. I suppose a thousand years on the moon will give everything a bit of novelty, she thought, before dismissing the whole line of thought and turning her attention back to the petitioners before her.
The last pony was finally dealt with after what seemed like a small eternity, although looking at the passage of the moon, Luna knew it had only been a couple of hours. She almost found herself wishing she could suppress her own mind, like she had been able to during her long exile, although she quickly perished that thought. Giving a deep breath in relief, she declared court closed and quickly exited the throne room.
Twilight hopped up excitedly as Luna entered her room. “Perfect!” said Twilight. “I just finished making the copy a few minutes ago. Tell me what you think! Oh, how was Midnight Dream, and night court?” she asked hastily.
“Night court was long,” replied Luna. “Remind me not to let you get away so easily next time. Anyhow, if Midnight Dream did commit the murder, he certainly didn't plan it.” She briefly related her conversation with the insane pony to Twilight. “Our top priority needs to be finding out who the mastermind is, and tracking him down.”
Twilight's face fell. “I suppose you don't want to look at this right now, then,” she said, gesturing to the diagram.
“Hm? Oh, of course I do,” said Luna. “It's one of our only clues at the moment. If we can figure out where he got this from, we'll be much closer to finding him.” She sat down beside Twilight, who felt a warm feeling flow through her, both from the praise, and from the blue alicorn's proximity. “You're sure this is all completely accurate?” asked Luna seriously. “Even the smallest detail might give me some insight.”
“I double checked it,” said Twilight, flipping through the notebook where each section of the diagram had been drawn in meticulous detail. “I haven't finished triple checking it, though. I hope that's alright.”
“I'm sure it will be fine,” said Luna, waving her hoof. Then she became silent, gazing at the diagram.
Twilight joined her. She had no idea how the diagram illustrated the mechanics behind the world, but to her, it seemed almost organic, like the illustrations of pony physiology she had seen in some medical textbooks. The lines that Luna had called the Deep Currents seemed almost like veins, pumping blood from the organs of the sun, the moon, the world, and other things Twilight couldn't name. The place called the Breach seemed almost like a wound, or perhaps an old scar that still caused pain from time to time.
“I still don't quite understand how this drawing can be a picture of the world,” said Twilight, hoping for some insight.
Luna glanced up. “Think of it like a rough drawing of a tree,” said Luna. “Anypony who's seen a tree would immediately know what the drawing was of, even if there was almost no detail. The real mechanisms are hugely more complex than this, but all the important parts are here. Although this is less like a drawing, and more like the blueprint of a building.”
Twilight nodded, turning her attention back the diagram. Although she had never seen the mechanisms that the drawing supposedly described, she'd gotten a feel for them as she had copied them from the notebook. Now, as she studied them, she began to notice a few places that seemed at odds with the rest of the drawing.
“What's that?” she asked, pointing to a jagged line crossing one the Deep Currents.
Luna scrutinized the place that Twilight had pointed out. “I'm not sure,” she replied. “As I said before, our knowledge of the mechanisms is quite limited.” She looked closer. “It's odd, though. Most of these symbols, I have no trouble recognizing, even if I don't know what they do. I'm not sure what that is supposed to represent, though.”
Luna stared off into space for several moments, frowning as she focused. Abruptly, she stood. “I'd like to go take a closer look,” she said. “I'll be back in a moment.” Luna stood and walked out to the balcony, and Twilight followed curiously. When she'd gotten outside, she sprang into the air. Her horn glowed for a moment. Then, with a ripple in the air, she vanished.
Twilight lingered on the balcony, unsure of what she should do. She waited a few minutes, but before she could make up her mind, Luna came soaring back into sight from above the palace. She fluttered to a landing beside Twilight, muttering something to herself. She brushed passed Twilight and sat back down before the diagram, still muttering to herself.
“Luna?” asked Twilight. “Is everything alright?”
“Hm? Oh. I've discovered... something. A part of the mechanisms I've never seen before. I'm not surprised. It's very faint. I wouldn't have seen it if I wasn't looking for it. But if my sister and I didn't know about it, how could it be on this diagram?”
“Maybe Celestia discovered it sometime during your exile,” suggested Twilight.
“Possibly, but you'd think she would have said something,” said Luna, still frowning. “I'll have to write her a letter. It would be better if I could actually talk to her, but...” she trailed off.
“Don't you travel to and from the moon every day?” asked Twilight. “Why don't you just go over there using the Deep Currents?”
“You can only exit them at certain points,” said Luna distractedly. “The Griffon Kingdom isn't near any. Come over here a moment, would you?”
Twilight walked over to sit beside her. “What is it?” she asked.
“What made you ask about that part, specifically?” asked Luna, pointing to the troublesome marking.
“I'm not sure. It just looked out of place,” said Twilight.
Luna nodded. “Do you think you can see if there's anything else which looks out of place?” she asked.
“I suppose, although I don't know if I'll be able,” said Twilight uncertainly. “It was just luck, as much as anything else.”
She examined the diagram once again. As far as she could tell, the only difference between the marking that had drawn her attention and the ones surrounding it was that the first seemed slightly jagged, whereas the others were smooth and curved. Shrugging, she began to search for other jagged lines. It didn't take her long to find one; they seemed to be scattered around the drawing at random. However, as she found them and pointed them out, a pattern began to emerge. Each seemed to be oriented towards another, so that they formed a sort of web around the center.
“I need to investigate this immediately,” said Luna when they had finished. “I'll compose a letter to my sister detailing what we've learned,” she said, walking over to her desk and pulling out paper and a quill. “Can you make sure it's delivered? I'll probably be busy for the rest of the night.”
“Of course,” replied Twilight.
“Also,” said Luna, her words punctuated by the scratching of her quill, “there are a few things I would appreciate if you could handle for me. They're in that stack there,” she said, gesturing towards a pile of papers at the edge of her desk.
“It would be my honor,” said Twilight, feeling secretly relieved to finally be getting the kind of work she had actually expected and prepared for.
“Thank you,” said Luna. “I hate to leave you with all the drudgery, but I really do need to figure out what's going on as quickly as possible. Besides,” she said, rolling up the letter and standing, “I'm... I'm actually not very good at this sort of thing.” Luna gave a slightly embarrassed look.
“Well, why do you think I'm here?” asked Twilight cheerfully. “It's my job to take care of things like this, so you can focus on the important things. Believe me, I wouldn't want your job.”
“Funny,” said Luna, “I was going to say the same thing.” She passed the letter to Twilight and started towards the balcony again. A moment later, though, she paused and looked back. “Um, you could stay in my room again tonight, if you like,” she said. “If you think it would, ah, be more convenient.”
Abruptly, Twilight's stomach felt as though all of Fluttershy's animal friends had decided to move in and throw a housewarming party, but she did her best to quash the feeling. “Oh, I, um, I wouldn't want to impose on you like that,” she said, forcing a grin.
“Nonsense,” said Luna cheerfully. “It doesn't make any sense for you to keep walking between here and that tower of yours, does it? Please, consider it a favor to me.”
Twilight started to protest further, but her objection got lost somewhere between her brain and her mouth. Before she could think of anything else to say, Luna was out the door to the balcony and soaring away into the night sky. Twilight stood where she was for several minutes before realizing Luna's letter was still hovering next to her. Shaking herself, she walked to the door to deliver it.
Despite Luna's warning, Twilight found the work the princess had left for her to be quite interesting, and a nice change of pace from investigating brutal murders. The mechanisms that kept the kingdom running might not have been quite as grand as the ones managing the heavens, but they were enough for Twilight.
By the time she had finished with the tasks Luna had set for her, the moon was well past its peak, although dawn was still a couple of hours away. Luna still hadn't returned. Twilight briefly considered walking back to her own room, despite what Luna had said, but quickly decided to stay, telling herself it was because she was tired and didn't feel like making the walk. The blanket she had slept under the night before had been put away, so Twilight made a hesitant search of the room for another one. The first drawer she checked was full of socks. Twilight immediately caught herself wondering what Luna would look like in some of them, and slammed the door before she was tempted to take a closer look. Fortunately, the second drawer held the blankets she was looking for. Pulling one out, she wrapped it around herself and lay down on a pillow.
Twilight awoke feeling refreshed. Luna was once again asleep in her bed, but this time, she'd left out a brush for Twilight. After freshening herself up a bit, she left the room, deciding her first order of business should be to find Shining Armor and see if there had been any new developments. As before, the barracks were a hub of activity. Twilight caught a guard and asked him where she could find her brother.
“He's headed down to the dungeon, Lady Sparkle,” said the guard. “We made another arrest this morning. She'll be arriving soon, and he wants to question her as soon as she gets here.”
Twilight's heart beat slightly faster. “Excellent. Thank you,” she said, before hurrying out. Hopefully whoever they'd grabbed this time would prove more useful than Midnight Dream had.
As she opened the door to the dungeons, it occurred to Twilight that she'd never actually been there before. There was a fairly spacious entry room with two guards standing beside the door that led to the cells themselves. Another guard sat behind a desk, with Shining Armor standing impatiently at his shoulder. He looked up as Twilight entered.
“Oh hey, little sister. What are you doing here?”
“I was looking for you," she said. "I hear you've made an arrest."
“Yeah,” said Shining Armor. “I sent a few guards to ask around, see if anypony had noticed any suspicious behavior in the last couple of weeks. They were especially looking for ponies being recruited for some kind of cult. We got a tip this morning. Some kind of meeting that was supposed to happen behind this tavern. The recruiter didn't show, but we managed to grab the pony he was going to meet.”
“How do you know it was the right pony?” asked Twilight.
“We got a description. Also, she bolted when she saw the guards. Didn't put up a fight, unlike the nutcase back there,” he said, jerking a hoof towards the cells. “Apparently she's a real talker, though. Hope she keeps that up.”
Twilight joined her brother behind the desk. A few minutes later, there were footsteps outside the door, as well as the muffled sound of a rather loud voice. The door opened, and Twilight blinked in surprise as two guards marched in a certain blue unicorn pony.
“This is an outrage! The Great and Powerful Trixie demands that you unhand her this instant! You foals have no idea of the kind of power she commands. The Great and Powerful Trixie shall wreak a just revenge upon your people!” She stopped as she caught sight of Twilight. For a moment, Trixie seemed at a loss for words. Then, she managed a hateful, “You!”
“You know her?” asked Shining Armor in surprise.
“She's a traveling performer,” said Twilight. “She came through Ponyville a year or so ago. She, ah, kind of got herself run out of town.” Twilight noticed that Trixie looked a great deal scruffier than the last time she had seen her, and there was no sign of her elaborate outfit.
“Big surprise,” muttered one of the guards.
“The Great and Powerful Trixie has not forgotten the humiliation you subjected her to,” said Trixie. “But now the tables have turned! Her new allies shall not abandon her. They have more power than you can possibly imagine! Power they shall grant to the Great and Powerful Trixie in exchange for her service!”
“Really,” said Shining Armor, walking around the desk. He gestured to the guards, and they deposited Trixie in a chair against the wall. “And what else would you like to tell us about these new friends of yours?”
“That is for the Great and Powerful Trixie to know, and you not to know,” said Trixie defiantly.
“You really have no idea what you've gotten yourself into, do you?” asked Twilight.
“Of course Trixie does!” retorted Trixie. “The Great and Powerful Trixie knows secrets you couldn't imagine in your wildest dreams!”
“Well then, I suppose we can charge you as an accomplice to murder, since you'll have known all about that,” said Shining Armor.
“You- murder- What?” stammered Trixie. Twilight couldn't help but smirk slightly.
“Left out that little detail, did they?” asked Shining Armor.
“Trixie had no idea that they were the ones who killed that pony! Please, Trixie will tell you everything she knows!” she said desperately.
“Start talking,” said Shining Armor flatly.
“Trixie doesn't actually know that much,” admitted Trixie. “They approached her about two weeks ago. Trixie had been... having a bad turn of luck. One day, a unicorn stallion came to her, and told her that he knew a pony who could teach her powerful magic if she would help him.”
“Can you describe him?” asked Twilight.
“He was orange, with a red mane, and a meteor as his cutie mark. He did not tell Trixie his name. He said it wasn't important. He told Trixie that he served a pony who called himself Dawnbringer. Dawnbringer promised to grant anypony who served him great power, and raise them above all other ponies. He said Dawnbringer needed unicorn ponies, to cast some sort of powerful spell.”
“Did you ever meet this Dawnbringer?” asked Shining Armor.
“Trixie never did. That was what this meeting was going to be. He was going to take Trixie to meet Dawnbringer for the first time.”
“What else did you notice about the pony you talked to?” asked Twilight. “Was there anything odd about him?”
“He did seem slightly strange to Trixie. A bit slow, perhaps. Single minded. He did not understand all of Trixie's questions. He also had a habit of repeating himself.”
Twilight frowned, wishing Luna had told her more about mind control spells, and how to tell if a pony was under them. “Is there anything else you can tell us?” she asked.
“There is one other thing. He kept saying that the time of ascension was coming soon. Trixie does not know what it means.”
Twilight nodded. “I'd better go report all this to the Princess right away,” she said to Shining Armor. “She'll probably want to talk to Trixie herself.”
“Trixie had heard that the Princess was not here,” said Trixie.
“Princess Celestia isn't, no,” said Twilight. “You'll be talking to Princess Luna.”
Trixie went slightly pale. “Princess Luna? But, Trixie has heard that she... that she...” Trixie gulped and didn't finish, apparently too horrified by whatever Luna had supposedly done.
“Well, it's a good thing you been so helpful and cooperative, isn't it?” said Twilight with another slight smirk. With a quick nod to her brother, she left the dungeon.
Luna was still asleep when Twilight returned to her room. Twilight glanced at the sun out the window. It was still a couple more hours until it would be time for Luna to raise the moon, but she would undoubtedly want to hear the lasted development now, rather than when she woke. Besides, why should the Princess lounge around in bed when Twilight was up and slaving at the early hour of (she checked the sun again) five o'clock in the evening? Seizing upon a sudden mischievous impulse, Twilight levitated one of the cushions on the floor and tossed it at the sleeping alicorn.
Twilight had just enough time to wonder where exactly that impulse had come from before she was practically flattened by a retaliatory barrage of pillows and blankets. A moment later, she heard a muffled, “Twilight?”
She stuck her head out of the pile of upholstery she was buried under to find Luna looking at her with some concern. “Forgive me. For a moment, I thought you were my sister,” she said. “I was still half asleep. Otherwise, I wouldn't have retaliated quite so... vigorously.”
“I'm fine,” said Twilight, extracting herself. “You and Celestia have pillow fights?”
Luna actually blushed slightly. “It... has been known to happen on occasion. Anyhow, did you have a reason besides pure vindictiveness for ruining my sleep?”
Twilight shook herself, returning her mind to the matter at hand. “The guards have made another arrest,” she said. “A unicorn mare. Apparently she was in the process of being recruited to some sort of cult.”
“Take me there,” said Luna, immediately dropping her mocking tone. “Tell me the rest on the way.”
Twilight did so. Luna seemed especially interested in her account of the pony's behavior, confirming Twilight's suspicions that he might have been under some sort of compulsion. “It is not a simple thing to manipulate a pony's thoughts,” said Luna. “Effective control requires several exposures, spread out over a fairly long period. A cult would provide the perfect opportunity, with the added benefit of making the victims more receptive.”
Trixie was no longer in the main room of the dungeon when they arrived. “She's been taken to one of the cells,” said the guard behind the desk. “Captain Shining Armor is interrogating her further, to see if he can find out anything else.”
“I'll take over from here,” said Luna. “Would you mind waiting outside?” she said to Twilight. “I'd prefer to talk to him alone.”
“Of course,” said Twilight, taking up position by the door. Luna entered the cell block, and Shining Armor exited a moment later.
“Learn anything else?” asked Twilight, nodding in greeting.
“Not really,” said her brother. “She might know something else of use, but if she does, she probably doesn't realize it. Did she always do that thing where she talks about herself in the third person?”
“I don't think it used to be that bad,” said Twilight. “She only used to do it when she performed.”
“Failure will do that to some ponies,” said Shining Armor.
Twilight nodded. “When this is over, I'll try and find a place for her that doesn't involve joining cults or being an obnoxious loudmouth.”
There was silence for a few minutes. Then, Twilight nearly jumped out of her skin as the most bloodcurdling shriek she had ever heard issued from behind the door leading to the cells. For a wild moment, Twilight thought that Trixie's fears about Luna had been justified. Then, she realize that it was a stallion screaming, not a mare.
“There he goes again,” muttered one of the guards. “He's been doing that off and on since we brought him in. Can't get a word of sense out of him, either,” he said to Twilight and Shining Armor.
“That's Midnight Dream?” asked Twilight with some trepidation.
“Yeah,” said Shining Armor. “There's a pony who could commit murder if I ever saw one. Makes my skin crawl.” A moment later, the screaming abruptly cut off; everypony in the room let out a small sigh of relief. Twilight assumed that Luna had dampened the sound, or possibly just knocked out Midnight Dream. Twilight knew she would have been tempted to do that if she had been in there. In fact, thinking about what that pony had done, she suddenly found herself wanting to go in there and do it anyway, just on principle. An image of the scene in the attic flashed through her mind, and a bubble of fury rose through Twilight
She almost opened the door and went in, before suddenly realizing what she was doing. Remembering what Luna had said about her still being slightly in shock, Twilight took several deep, calming breaths, and thought about it logically. Midnight Dream was their most important link to the real culprit, and besides, he was quite clearly insane. Venting her anger on him would do nothing. Slowly, Twilight's burst of irrational rage subsided. She glanced at her brother, thankful that he hadn't noticed anything.
A little while later, Luna came back out. “Twilight. Shining Armor. I'd like to speak to both of you,” she said. They followed her out into the hall. Once they were out of earshot of the other guards, Luna said, “I'm fairly sure that the pony Trixie talked to was under a form of compulsion. I also took the opportunity to examine Midnight Dream again. It's hard to tell, but I believe a compulsion has also been placed on him. It probably destabilized him even further than he already was.”
“Where would a pony learn something like that?” asked Shining Armor.
“I'm not sure, and that worries me,” said Luna. “It's possible knowledge of such things has been maintained somewhere outside Equestria. There are a few ponies who live outside our borders. One of them might have either preserved the knowledge, or rediscovered it.”
“Could it have been hidden away somewhere here?” asked Shining Armor.
“Possibly, but I doubt it,” replied Luna. “Celestia and I were very thorough about that when we first became the rulers of Equestria. I doubt anypony could have rediscovered it here without my sister finding out.” She sighed. “There seem to be a lot of things that it should be impossible for this Dawnbringer to know. Remember, don't mention mind control to anyone. There are enough rumors flying about as it is.”
“Of course not,” said Shining Armor. “With your permission, there are a few things I need to see to.”
“Certainly. Dismissed, Captain,” said Luna. She set off back towards her room, with Twilight following. After a moment, she said, “By the way, did you manage to get through that stack of documents I left for you last night?”
“I did,” said Twilight. “It wasn't as bad as you said it would be, actually.”
“Good,” said Luna. “There are a few I'd like to look through before court. And don't think you'll get out of coming to court with me tonight. I need somepony to make it a little more bearable.”
“I don't mind, as long as you do the talking,” said Twilight. “Too many ponies for my taste.”
The few things turned out to consist of Twilight explaining what she had done last night, since Luna had apparently been already supposed to know that. Twilight was strongly reminded of a filly who had forgotten to do her homework, although she refrained from saying so. A few hours and a large stack of papers later, it was time to go to court.
When they got to the throne room, Twilight took up her accustomed place by Luna's side. She also managed to keep herself from jumping when Luna declared the court open. The doors opened, and the crowd of ponies spilled in.
The usual litany of squabbles and complaints proceeded, with Twilight occasionally giving a quiet bit of advice to Luna, and Luna occasionally muttering a sarcastic comment to Twilight in between petitioners. It was a comfortable routine, and Twilight let herself relax into it.
Around half an hour into court, a pony stepped forward who Twilight recognized. It was Paperstack, the bureaucrat who had been reprimanded for trying to embezzle money from the royal treasury two days previous. Twilight narrowed her eyes, wondering where he had found the gumption to come to court again so soon. “Speak,” snapped Luna sharply.
“Your Highness,” he began in a pompous voice. “A matter of the utmost urgency has come to my attention. I have received information of an incident on the edge of the Everfree Forest, and I believe it may have a connection to the recent... troubles here.” Twilight leaned forward, wary. The last time he had appeared before the court, he had attempted to deceive with a bland and rambling speech. His manner of speaking this time was entirely different.
“And what incident would that be?” asked Luna tartly.
“It seems that an earth pony was accosted by a large gang of ponies, wearing cloaks and hoods. They dragged him away, but the attack was witnessed by a pegasus who I happen to know. He flew immediately to the capital, and not knowing anyone else, he reported the attack to me. I, of course, came here to tell your Highness in person.” He gave a small bow.
“Master Paperstack. Not two days you stood in this very room and attempted to deceive us, as though we were a foal who knew no better. Now you stand here spouting this outlandish tale. Tell us, why should we believe a single word you say?”
Paperstack seemed completely floored. “Well – ah – I just – This is – is a matter of national security! I had to report it as soon as possible. I apologize if my, ah, my previous actions have – have offended you, but please, your Highness, this information is too important for that to cloud your judgment!”
Twilight looked on curiously as the pony sweated and stammered. Why hadn't he simply reported the issue to the guards? Or, if it was a fabrication, as seemed likely, why had he come at all? It was almost as if he'd forgotten about the previous incident entirely. In fact, it was almost as if he were an entirely different pony.
A sudden hunch gripped Twilight. Without asking permission, she stood. Her horn glowed lavender, and a beam of light shot out of it and impacted the pony standing before the throne. There was a burst of green fire, and a changeling sprawled where the gray unicorn had stood a moment ago. He tried to rise into the air, but was instantly tackled by a pair of night guards. The courtroom erupted in pandemonium.
“LEAVE US! NOW!” boomed Luna, and there was a brief stampede for the door. Luna approached the pinned changeling, followed closely by Twilight. “So,” she began. “This is an interesting time for you to appear. Has your queen, perhaps, heard of our recent troubles? Did she think that this distraction might make an opportune time for a bit of revenge? Well, I'm afraid she has gravely miscalculated.”
“No. Please,” rasped the changeling in fear. “The Queen isn't here. I don't know where she is. The hive is still scattered from our defeat. I'm alone.”
“You're alone,” repeated Luna scornfully. “You expect me to believe that you took the place of a bureaucrat and came to my court entirely on your own initiative?”
“A pony sent me,” said the changeling. “He'd discovered what I was. He said if I did as he asked, he could protect me, but if I didn't, he would expose me.”
“Dawnbringer,” muttered Luna. “Describe him,” she commanded.
“All I can tell you is that he's a unicorn, with golden eyes,” said the changeling. “He used a spell that obscured his appearance.”
“And why did he tell you to deceive me?” asked Luna.
“He wanted you gone from the capital,” replied the changeling. “I don't know why.”
“What about the pony you replaced?” piped in Twilight. “What happened to him?”
“They took him. I don't know what they did with him. Please, I don't know anything else.”
Luna grimaced. “Throw him in with the others,” she told the guards. She pointed the other pair of guards, standing by the doorway. “You, call a full alert. A pony named Paperstack has been abducted. I want him found, and I want him found soon. Make sure everyone knows exactly what will happen if we fail. You, go wake the captain. I'll need his help. Now move, all of you!”
The guards saluted and scurried from the room. “How did you know?” said Luna, turning to Twilight.
“Just a hunch,” she said. “I've dealt with changelings before. I know the signs. I wonder why he sent a changeling, though, instead of just using mind control again?”
“A compulsion spell would have left a pony too simpleminded to deceive anyone. Not that the changeling did a particularly good job, either. It's our good fortune that he didn't know about Paperstack.” Luna grimaced. “Also, he may have wanted the captive. You know what's likely to happen if we don't find him quickly.”
“I've actually been trying not to think about that,” said Twilight grimly. “How are we going to find him in time?”
Luna grimaced again and didn't respond. “Come with me to the barracks,” she said after a moment. “I'll want your help to organize the search with Shining Armor.” Twilight nodded and followed her, fear crawling through her. If Luna didn't know if they could save the pony, what hope was there?
The barracks was writhing like a kicked anthill. Both night guards and day guards were hurriedly strapping on armor and picking up weapons. “Has Captain Shining Armor arrived yet?” asked Luna as they entered.
“No, princess,” said a guard. “He should be here momentarily, though.” He was proven correct a minute later as Shining Armor arrived.
“I've already heard the situation,” he said as he approached. “What are your orders, Princess?”
“Send half of your pegasus guards and one third of your unicorns out immediately,” said Luna. “They are to search for any unusual activity. Focus attention on abandoned buildings, and other places a large gathering of ponies could remain undisturbed.”
“What if they've already left the city?” asked Twilight.
“Doubtful. They were trying to get me to leave, which suggests they're still here.”
“I'll see to it,” said Shining Armor, running off and shouting orders.
“What are you going to do with the rest?” asked Twilight.
“I'll keep a contingent here with me,” said Luna. “When we find them, I want to take them with overwhelming force. In the mean time, I want you to look at a map. Search for any likely spot, where we can send patrols.”
“I can do that,” said Twilight, heading for the captain's office.
Twilight cleared the map on the table. Although she'd never really been one to go out on the town, she had lived in Canterlot for most of her life, and had a decent idea of the city's layout. She quickly marked the most obvious spots to search, then began a more thorough examination, looking for any buildings that were isolated or removed from their neighbors.
Luna and Shining Armor joined her after a few minutes. “I've marked the first search areas,” said Twilight. “I'll need your help, though. You know the city better than I do.”
“Sure,” said Shining Armor. “Get a patrol to these areas right away,” he said to a guard by the door, before joining Twilight beside the table.
“Luna?” asked Twilight after a moment. “Why would Dawnbringer want you out of the city in the first place? If the changeling hadn't come to court, no one would have even realized Paperstack was missing.”
“I've been thinking about that,” said Luna, “and I can't come up with an answer. There's obviously more to his plan than simply abducting a single pony.”
“Well, if we stop him first, it won't matter,” said Twilight determinedly.
The next hour passed tensely. Twilight and Shining Armor did their best to ferret out likely hiding spots, but no successful reports came in. Eventually, a guard entered the command room. “Princess?” he said hesitantly.
“What is it? Have you found something?” asked Luna.
“No, Princess. It's Midnight Dream. He's... He's acting strangely.”
“Stranger than usual?” asked Luna sardonically.
“Well, that's the thing,” said the guard. “He's coherent. Talking absolutely normally. And... He's demanding to see you, Princess.”
Luna sighed. “I'd better go see what this is about. Send a runner immediately if you find anything,” she said. “Don't worry, Twilight. I'll be back soon.”
Luna followed the guard down to the dungeon. She didn't want to be absent at such a critical time, but searching for Paperstack traditionally seemed hopeless. Any additional information she could squeeze out of Midnight Dream might prove critical.
The guards in the dungeon were on edge. None of them liked being stuck on normal duty while their comrades were out searching the streets. Luna gave them a brief nod as she entered the cell block. Trixie was sleeping fitfully, and the changeling was huddled in a corner. Midnight Dream, however, standing calmly in his cell, idly tapping his back hoof.
“Good evening, Princess Luna,” he said as she approached. “I thought it was high time we had a little talk, considering recent developments.”
Luna looked at his eyes, confirming her suspicions. Where before his eyes had been dark red, they were now a bright gold color. Possession, she thought darkly. There hasn't been a unicorn with the ability to do that for at least eighteen centuries. Dawnbringer is even more dangerous than I thought. “You are the one who calls himself Dawnbringer, are you not?” she said out loud.
“Very astute. I expected no less,” said the possessed pony. “A most ironic name, but I have grown to like it. Also somewhat fitting, considering our current circumstance.”
“What have you done with Paperstack?” demanded Luna.
“Now, you don't really expect me to answer that, do you?” said Dawnbringer. “I've been having a discussion with our little gray friend. An unfortunate choice for me. Next time, I shall be more thorough in my research before I attempt to infiltrate your court.” He gave her a small bow. “However, I am quite amused at the lengths you will go to just to save a poor excuse for a thief. You're much better off without him, you know.”
“Do you imagine you're serving justice to the unpunished wicked, then?” asked Luna scornfully.
“Oh, certainly not. I have no illusions about what I am,” said Dawnbringer. “You of all ponies should understand me. After all, did you not once also try to reshape the world in your image?”
Disturbing half memories bubbled to the surface of Luna's mind at Dawnbringer's words, but she forced them back down. “Perhaps you could take a lesson from how that story ended,” she suggested.
“I have,” said Dawnbringer. “In fact, I've studied the story of Nightmare Moon quite carefully. Your failing, it seems to me, was that you gave your enemies far too much of a sporting chance. I do not intend to take my victory for granted.”
“Your victory?” asked Luna. “And what, exactly, do you hope to accomplish by murdering innocent ponies?”
“You'll see soon enough. I wouldn't want to ruin the surprise.”
Luna gave a barking laugh. “I hope for your sake you have something very good in store. You've blown your cover in a most spectacular fashion. This little game of yours is finished.”
“No,” said Dawnbringer. “This game is only just beginning. I do hope you will continue to be a worthy opponent, though. Good challenges are so hard to come by. Now, I'm afraid I must ask you to excuse me. I have enjoyed our little chat, but I believe I've kept you distracted for quite long enough. Until next time.”
Midnight Dream collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. Luna cursed and turned away. The possession had probably stripped him of whatever sanity he had left, cutting one of their only links to Dawnbringer. A nice side effect of our little conversation, she thought. What was his real purpose, though?
Luna started to walk back down the cell block, but then paused. Something was niggling at the edge of her consciousness, like an itch. She suddenly realized it had been there for several minutes, but she had been so focused on Dawnbringer, she hadn't noticed. Luna closed her eyes, and looked around with her higher sense. And she saw.
Fear like she hadn't known for centuries stabbed through her. Gathering her magic, she teleported straight to the office in the barracks. Her aim was off, which was to be expected for such a long teleport, but decorum meant nothing right now. Brushing aside the table she had knocked over, she burst through the door into the command center.
“Luna! What's happened?” said Twilight fearfully.
“Gather every guard still here, and lead them to...” She looked around with her higher senses again, “This point,” she said, jabbing a large house near the center of Canterlot. “Tell them to be prepared for anything. I'm going on ahead. There may still be time to stop this.”
“Stop what? What's going on?” asked Twilight, but Luna was already vanishing with a ripple in the air.
She reappeared in the sky above Canterlot. The night was still deceptively peaceful. There was no sign yet of the horror brewing beneath the surface of the world. It gave Luna a slight hope; there was still time to stop the breach from fully opening. She dove towards the center of the metaphysical disturbance.
There was another ripple in the air, similar to Luna's own power, but much more intense. In the center of Canterlot, the world began to twist and writhe. Then, with a noise like a window pane the size of the sky shattering, it tore open. The backlash sent even Luna flying, forcing her to conjure a shield to protect herself. She looked down, and saw an ugly gash in reality. Beyond, eldritch patterns shimmered and twisted, flickering in impossible colors.
And through the rift came a legion of nightmares. As they crossed over into the world, they were forced to take on material forms. There were winged monstrosities, and massive, hulking beasts, and darting shapes with flashing claws, and a hundred other horrors with no name.
And they screamed, and the city screamed with them.