“Get up, blockhead; I need you to fend them off!” Luna shouted from the tower.
Anvil groaned and rose to all fours, spitting mud out of his mouth as he did so. He felt scarred with cuts and bruises, and wanted nothing better than to crawl into a dark place and go to sleep. Preferably someplace dry, with plenty of ale at hoof.
But… he was honour-bound to obey his princess. After the Night Festival, the rebels had decided to simply assault the palace, and Anvil and Hammer had been hard pressed to keep them at bay. Or, rather, he was having a difficult time. Glancing upwards, he could see his friend flying back and forth, bashing aside any pegasus who attempted to enter through a window or balcony. Hammer didn’t even seem to be tiring from the exertion. And from her tower, Luna was merrily tossing out lightning bolts at any who dared to come close. He, on the other hoof, was tasked with defending the lower portions of the palace from attack, and had endured quite a pounding from wave after wave of angry pegasi.
More loyalists were approaching, and Anvil spread his wings to take flight. He flapped – once, twice, but nothing happened. He felt so very heavy. He tried again – harder, this time, but the result was the same. His hooves barely lifted from the mud they were caked in.
“Lazy pony, I told you to move!” Luna yelled once more. “Don’t fail me now!”
Anvil gritted his teeth and poured all his remaining strength into getting himself out of the mire that he was in. The mud was ridiculously thick and heavy and sticky, and his wings were having no effect on providing any lift whatsoever. After muttering a frustrated expletive, he looked over to see what the matter was – and felt his jaw drop. His wings were gone, and only a pair of nubs was visible on his back.
“Well, look at that, a pegasus without wings!” a voice hooted from above.
Looking up, Anvil saw the loyalists flying in slow, lazy circles around him. Other snide remarks were made, in addition to one about the dubiousness of his parentage, and the lot of them began to laugh. Some even gathered clumps of thunderclouds and began to stomp some rain down on him. He tried to run away, but found that he was still stuck in the mud.
“Well, that is unfortunate,” Luna said. She was right next to him.
He gaped at her. “Ah… your highness, something’s wrong. It’s – ”
She rolled her eyes as she cut off his words. “Congratulations, you are now an Earth pony, and I’ll have no such ponies in the Guard. You are released from my service.”
“What? But how – ”
She scowled and waved a dismissing hoof at him. “Off with you, now.”
There was a sickeningly squelchy sound at his hooves, and Anvil realised that he was sinking into the ground. He struggled with all his might, shifting his weight from one hoof to another in an attempt to free at least one of them, but to no avail – the mud was relentless. When he was up to his neck, he tried to utter a tacit plea for help, but only succeeded in letting sludge pour down his throat. He began to choke.
Anvil gasped, and awoke to darkness. Or, at least, that was what he initially thought. As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he realised that he was back in the bed of the guest chamber that he’d vacated sometime before. Silver moonlight was pouring in from the balcony and windows, and a statue was standing right next to his bed.
“Bad dreams?” Hammer queried.
“Of a sort,” Anvil confirmed, after thumping a hoof on his head to ensure that he wasn’t still dreaming. Not one of his brightest ideas, though – there was still a dull ache in his skull. Another thought occurred to him, and he hastily checked for the presence of his wings. Thankfully, they were still there; safe and sound, and he breathed a sigh of relief.
“How long?” he asked.
“A night and half again,” his friend replied.
“Only?” He recalled that his injuries were more than simple bruises. He flung off his blanket and gave his body a cursory examination. He then flexed and stretched his limbs and muscles, but found little to complain about apart from a few slightly sore spots and a minor headache. Luna’s healing spell had truly worked wonders on him – he would have expected to have taken weeks to recover, even with his altered body.
“You can thank Luna when we see her,” Hammer stated. “She had been visiting you every few hours, whenever she found the time.”
Anvil remembered the Night Festival, and suddenly sat bolt upright. “What have I missed?”
“Later,” the big pegasus said. “Sleep some more – Luna’s orders.”
Anvil squared his shoulders and put on a petulant face. “Oh, but I feel fine, really. I would hate to keep her waiting on account of my sleep.”
“I could break a leg for you, if that would ease the guilt.”
“You’re almost as bad as the healers, you know,” Anvil moped. “Nopony trusts a patient, not even if he’s the Champion of the Night Guard.” He put on his best woeful face.
Hammer was thoroughly unmoved. “My heart bleeds for you,” he said flatly. Then, making his way towards the door he added, “Luna left for the villages a few hours before this silver moon. She should be back by the time you are ready.”
“Nothing you can tell me, at all?”
His friend shook his head. “It will only keep you up. Now, if you would excuse me, I have to send my condolences to the princess.”
“You’re back on your hooves.”
Anvil snorted and grudgingly lay back down on the pillows. Even after Hammer had left, he still felt inclined to be a little rebellious. But that was before he started snuggling back into the blanket – the warm softness started lulling him away… Horse apples, I really shouldn’t be getting used to this. Reluctantly and in spite of himself, he began to drift off.
Some hours later, Anvil, Hammer and several royal pages were standing watch on one of the grand balconies, awaiting Luna’s return from her visit to the outlying settlements. It was chilly on the balcony – even through his newly replaced Night Guard armour – the breeze had a distinct bite to it, their breath fogged easily, and once or twice he thought he saw some snowflakes drifting in the wind. And down in the courtyard below, the trees rustled with the wind’s passing, and some of them were beginning to shed their leaves. Bucketsful at a time, it seemed. Far too early for that.
As they waited, he busied himself with digesting the news on events that had transpired whilst he was incapacitated. According to Hammer, once Luna had deigned to join the fight herself, the loyalists were quickly routed, and quite a few of them had been taken prisoner. Amongst those tossed into the dungeon was the rogue pegasus that had knocked him out, and a few other former guards. Unfortunately, none of them appeared to be high-ranking loyalists, and as one they had all refused to yield any knowledge of loyalist hideouts – even with the looming threat of Luna’s anger. If what some of the Night Guards said was true, the moon princess had been substantially less than gentle with her magic in subduing her attackers. Sprained wings and limbs were aplenty, as well as lightning-scorched hides and manes and tails. Somepony even had broken bones – although it was unclear whether it was because of a physical blow or a magical one – the victim had been quite unforthcoming with the details.
Before long, Anvil spotted Luna gliding towards the palace at a leisurely pace, silhouetted against the looming blue moon. All seemed well for a moment, but as she drew nearer, it became apparent that things hadn’t gone very well for her visit. She was silent when she landed, and Anvil noticed that there was frost on the leading edges of her feathers just as she folded her wings.
“Greetings, Your Highness, I trust your journey went well?” one of the pages said.
Luna didn’t seem to hear. In fact, she appeared not to have taken notice of them at all – she wordlessly strode past them without even sparing a glance. Her eyes stared straight ahead, towards the room’s exit, and she made no effort to undo the massive bar that locked it. The double doors glowed blue, and shuddered for a second before the bar cracked and splintered. She then simply barged through the now unlocked doors, trampling over the mangled remains of the bar. Anvil and Hammer exchanged looks and quickly trotted after her, and behind them followed the nervous pages.
They followed her past the royal chambers and the feast hall, through several corridors and down several flights of stairs. Anvil guessed that she was heading for the library, which was her usual haunt since her transformation. Servants along the way made themselves scarce, and in the narrower places, ponies who happened to be in Luna’s intended path made little effort to hide their haste in getting out of her way. Her countenance undoubtedly boded ill for anypony who happened to be an obstruction, whether intentionally or otherwise.
For the most part, nopony said a word, but when they were only a corridor away from the library, one of the royal pages finally found the courage to speak up.
“Your Highness – is there anything we can do to assist you?”
Up till then, Luna had been trotting at a brisk pace with downcast eyes, but at the sound of the page’s voice, she seemed to become more alert. Her neck straightened and she held her chin up once more, and her pace gradually slowed, until she stopped altogether and slowly turned to face them. The page waited patiently – but the sweat beading on his forehead betrayed his discomfort. The silence stretched, but the princess still said nothing, quietly giving each one of them appraising looks. Under that gaze of hers, Anvil felt his own disquietude heightening.
“Yes, I suppose there is something you can do – get out of my sight,” Luna muttered.
“Your Highness?” another page inquired, “There are several matters that require – ”
“Do not make me repeat myself. Away with you!” she snapped. Her pupils were narrowed to slits, her mouth was set in a rather unpleasant downwards curve, and her mane and tail seemed to shift and shimmer with irritation.
The pages immediately stuttered their apologies and hastily backed away, before turning tail and cantering off without looking back. Anvil inclined his head in submission, as did Hammer, and was just about to retreat when the moon princess shook her head and said, “No, wait. You two may stay, if you wish.”
“As you command,” Hammer replied.
Luna snorted. “As you wish; not as I command.” Her expression had already softened somewhat, although the worry lines on her brow were still quite plain for all to see. Then, she seemed to take proper notice of Anvil.
“You look much better tonight,” she said.
Anvil flexed his wings and managed a small grin. “My friend tells me that I have a good caregiver. I owe her much – again.”
Luna remained unsmiling. “Well, it is comforting to know that there is at least something I can manage with any semblance of competence.”
“Ah… Your Highness, what is troubling you?”
She averted her eyes for a moment. “I have been to most of the settlements, and what Hazel Hock has said is true – the farther it is from Everfree, the colder it becomes.” She paused in thought for a moment, then shook her head in disbelief. “It is almost snowing on Equestria’s borders – snowing! It cannot be so soon, not even with night. Something is amiss – this cannot be the fault of my Eternal Night – it cannot be my fault alone!”
“Have you consulted the – ”
Luna promptly cut him off. “The Arcane Academy is no help in this matter. As far as they are concerned, the cold cannot be the work of pegasi or unicorns. And I need no fortune teller to say that many of them believe I am the one to blame – they just dare not say it to my face, the cowards.”
“They were no help at all?” Anvil asked. “Considering how the masters pride themselves on their supposed vast knowledge of magical history…”
“Wild theories and plain nonsense was what I received. Hermit alicorns, unicorn or pegasus prodigies, abominable snowmares… nothing worth listening to. And the more credible ones were highly unlikely.”
Hammer pricked his ears. “What might those have been, Your Highness?”
Luna shook her head and waved a hoof in dismissal. “Never mind – it is not important. I have better things to do than to investigate every old mare’s tale that came out of their mouths. If anything, they were likely just trying to show something for all the time spent in that academy of theirs – or to hide the fact that they so badly wanted to say that I am the one responsible for this unfavourable climate.”
When she was finished, the princess took in a deep breath and sighed heavily. “They also spoke true when they said that the crops were dying – I saw hoarfrost in every field, and not even half of the food grown is remotely edible. There is little time – I must find a way to remedy this, either by counteracting this vile weather with magic, or finding a spell to force trees to produce food regardless of the climate.”
“Perhaps,” Hammer said slowly, “it is time to let it go.”
Luna’s eyes narrowed. “I dislike the direction in which this conversation is heading.”
“The sun would help.”
“I told you – my night is not the cause of this!”
The big pegasus didn’t falter. “That is not in dispute, Your Highness, nor is it the issue. But the fact remains – the sun will help with the cold and the crops, no matter whose fault it is. And the ponies would probably thank you for it.”
“Thank my sister, you mean. The sun is hers, not mine,” the moon princess said sourly. Then, she gave a dry chuckle and added, “Odd that such advice would come from you – what happened to the pony who said it would have been unseemly for me to seek counsel from a guard?”
Hammer kept his eyes level with the alicorn’s. “You raised my position, and thus my responsibilities.”
“For once, I am inclined to agree with him, Your Highness,” Anvil piped up. “Equestria could use the sun’s warmth – even if only for a while.”
Luna shook her head. “No,” she said, and she shook her head again. “No – I will do anything for Equestria, but do not ask that of me. I have stood in the shadow of my sister for ages, receiving only the crumbs of the adoration and love and respect that our subjects blessed her with. Ponies have spent lifetimes basking in the glory of my sister, and shunning my darkness at the same time.” She began to pace. “Can you imagine enduring the fear and unease of an entire generation of ponies? What about ten? – A hundred? To listen to the cries and wails of colts and fillies whenever the lights go out, and to hear their parents hush them by telling stories of friends playing in the summer sun – to see their fears put to rest by the simple lighting of a candle and a promise that the sun would rise with the morn… As if the sun is a cure for the darkness; as if my sister is the cure for my disease.”
Anvil could find nothing to say to that. And his friend was either equally stumped, or he was keeping it to himself. Luna scrunched her eyes shut, as if holding back tears, looked at them miserably, and continued, “I will say this – I will not be the one to light the candle for the crying children. I will not be the one to condemn my own nature. I will not become my sister.”
With each sentence, her voice grew in strength and resolve, and it was with barely suppressed frustration that she cried, “And these loyalists… they flit around spreading fear and dissent – like old mares telling the children tales of monsters in the dark to keep them from staying up late.”
Absent-mindedly, the moon princess grasped a nearby marble statue of a guard pony with her magic, ripped it off its foundations, and brought it hovering at just above her head height. She then looked each of them in the eye and asked, “Do you know what happened when I tried to reassure the farmers that I would do everything in my power to save their livelihoods?”
Her magical aura on the marble statue grew in intensity, and the stone began to shudder and crack.
“They ran from me. The children screamed,” Luna spat.
The statue fractured further and collapsed explosively, and the remnants haphazardly ground together into a mess of jagged marble that was no longer recognisable as a pony. Chips and dust rained to the floor.
“They hid from me in their homes, and the children only screamed louder when I made some light to show them that I was a pony, and that I meant no harm.”
The fragments shuddered, too, and there was the torturous screeching sound of rock being ground and crushed. Fragments that were trapped between larger ones burst into powder, and were then compacted into the hovering mass.
“When I tried to reason with them, the older ones cried ‘Celestia save us!’ and other superstitious drivel.”
The mass of marble fragments compacted even more, until they had all coalesced into a spherical shape. The cracks in its surface retreated and began to fade away, and the entire mass started to shrink as well, grinding and screeching all the way. It was enough to convince Anvil that even rock could scream in agony.
“It was much of the same in every farmstead, and these loyalists are the ones responsible,” Luna intoned, voice suddenly suffused with deadly calm. “They have turned my own subjects against me.” She then let the remains of the statue drop to the floor. It was now a perfect sphere, complete with a glossy, unmarred surface, and it produced a very solid crunch when it hit the floor, which promptly cracked. The dark alicorn eyed it for a moment, then returned her attention to them. “They will not see the sun for a time yet, and they most certainly will not see the wonder of my firelight trees. Once, they might have been given to the ponies of Equestria as a gesture of goodwill, but the loyalists have ensured that it will be seen as an attempt to placate – to pander to the whims of traitors.” Jets of blue smoke blew out from her nostrils. “And I am weary of negotiating with traitors.”
“Err, would it not be best to first – ”
“These traitors call me a tyrant – they do not know the meaning of the word.” Luna levitated the crushed statue once more and rotated it slowly, whilst inspecting it as if it were some precious gem that a jeweller was appraising. She continued, “Well, if they are so convinced that I am one, then perhaps it is time I lived up to their expectations. That little display of ‘violence’ that they saw in the festival was nothing – they have little idea of the restraint I have shown all this time!”
After that last word, she flung the marble sphere off to the side. She had merely turned her head and tilted her horn slightly, without the littlest hint of effort, and yet the solid ball flew as if it was thrown by a giant – it punched a hole clean through several feet of stone wall and flew into the darkness without. Thankfully, the ravine was the only thing on the other side of that wall, and not a place where anypony was likely to be wandering about – otherwise he or she might have had a most unpleasant surprise. Ouch. There was the sound of splintering wood as the ball crushed some trees and a loud splash when it finally bounced into the river.
When Anvil and Hammer said nothing in reply, the moon princess turned her back to them and continued on her way to the library, this time at a much more sedate but deliberate pace. She called out to them, “My research will take some time, and I do not wish to be disturbed. For the time being, you will both be in charge of royal matters – I trust you will know better than to do anything disagreeable or foalish in my absence.”
Attending to royal duties was more tedious than Anvil could ever have imagined. Well, that was not entirely true – he’d stood watch as the princesses themselves carried out their tasks of managing taxes, sealing and maintaining allegiances with noble houses, and listening to the needs of the inhabitants of Equestria. But the difference was that he could always focus on keeping watch instead of actually listening and thinking continuously. This time around, his duty involved listening to a lot of nobles, as well as the mumbled counsel of half a dozen royal advisors. After an hour or so of such tedium, he felt that, were he to be made royalty, he would immediately abdicate without a second thought. On the other hoof, Hammer seemed to take to the task without much complaint – or, at least, none that was visible. He did however seem to be preoccupied with thoughts of his own for most of the time.
When it seemed like the task was never going to end, Anvil was spared from further boredom when one of the Night Guard recruits interrupted an audience by barging into the chamber unannounced. The unicorn seemed somewhat nervous and agitated – he looked quite skittish, and Anvil thought he could see sweat just beneath his helm.
The newcomer bowed his apology to the scandalised duchess present, and briskly saluted Anvil and Hammer. “Apologies for the interruption,” he began, “but there is a matter that needs your immediate attention.” The unicorn then glanced at the others in the chamber and opened his mouth to add something, but seemed to think better of it.
Apparently, Hammer knew a mute request for privacy when he saw one. “Very well,” he said to the guard, then turned to the others and addressed them, “I’m sorry, Duchess Trottingham, but we must continue at another time – unless you would agree to settle the matter with Her Highness’ officials.” “Councillors, if she is so willing, you may listen to her and bring the matter to us when we return.”
So saying, Hammer followed the recruit out of the chambers and into the corridor without. Anvil trotted after them, and once they had shut the doors and the nervous unicorn had ascertained that they were safe from unwanted ears, he advised, “You really should take a moment to settle down before bringing news like that – the house lords get rather nosey and jittery when they are not privy to ill news, and anypony can see that you are less than happy with what you have to tell us. You shouldn’t be sweating like that in this cold.”
The former recruit cleared his throat and replied, “Yes sir.”
“On with it, Cumber,” Hammer said.
At first, Anvil was surprised that the big pegasus was familiar with him, then he recalled that his friend had overseen the training of the recruits. Now that he thought of it, Cumber seemed somewhat more relaxed in Hammer’s presence, although something was obviously still troubling him. The fellow kept shifting his stance, and he didn’t seem to stop sweating.
“It’s Summer Cloud,” Cumber said. “Ripple Dew told me that she has information for you – she’s finally willing to talk.”
“Useful information, I hope,” Hammer replied. “The princess is hardly in a mood for false leads.”
“Err – she said that it was meant for your ears alone.”
“Mine, or Anvil’s?”
“Both of you, sir.”
“Oh?” Hammer’s gaze bored into Cumber’s eyes.
The smaller unicorn bit his lip and added, “Yes, that is all I know. I’m just repeating what I was told.”
Hammer didn’t seem convinced. However, he did say, “That will do; back to your duties, then.”
Cumber saluted and took off with rather more speed than was appropriate. When he was out of earshot, Anvil turned to his friend and inquired, “Quite the interrogator, aren’t you? – was that really necessary? Did he give you trouble in training?”
“Feeble bucks – but that’s not the issue. Something was making him nervous.”
Anvil looked his big friend over and rolled his eyes at that second bit. “Oh, of that, I have no doubt.”
Hammer flicked his tail and shook his head. “No, there is something else – he knows about it, but he is not telling us.”
“Are you certain?”
“We won’t find out by standing here. Time to pay your mare friend a visit.”
Anvil nodded, and they made haste to the dungeon. As they glided on the cold, still air through the corridors, he clarified, “I might add; she’s not a mare friend. Not yet.”
“If you say so.”
The flight down into the dungeon proved uneventful, unless Anvil considered the tension in the air to be something noteworthy – which he did. When Ripple Dew opened the doors for them, he noted that the guard seemed uncharacteristically alert – boredom or casual indifference was usually written on his face instead. Indeed, Hammer and he were actually spared the verbal abuse that was often directed at him whenever he trotted past the cells of the former royal guards, and he highly doubted that it was because of his friend’s presence. Some of the hitherto empty cells had gained occupants since the Night Festival, and he had expected a less than cordial greeting from them as they trotted by. After all, most of the newcomers were swathed in bandages after being gripped and flung around like ragdolls by Luna’s powerful magic. The unluckier ones were sporting scorched, featherless wings as a result of unfriendly encounters with the princess’ lightning bolts.
But regardless, most of the prisoners were strangely silent and attentive – seemingly content to glare at or observe them from the corners of their eyes, as if they were waiting for something to happen. Or perhaps wishing that we would drown in a chamber pot. Inwardly, Anvil wondered if there had been any drastic alterations made to the dungeon’s management that might have produced such a change in their behaviour. He made a mental note to ask Ripple Dew about it later.
When they reached Summer Cloud’s cell, they found the grey unicorn sitting on her haunches expectantly. “Nightmare Moon hasn’t been very reasonable, has she?”
“What do you know of it?” Hammer asked.
Somepony in the next cell snorted, and a new voice muttered, “Enough to tell that she is unlikely to save Equestria anytime soon.”
Anvil started a little, then trotted over to the adjacent cell. His eyebrows shot up when he saw who had spoken. Yellow coat; scruffy, pure white mane; bright green eyes. The rogue pegasus. She was performing cartwheels in the confines of her cell, apparently in the midst of a wing exercise routine. When she caught sight of him standing at the bars, she dropped back onto the floor and blurted, “Oh, it’s you.” She then inspected him, and with a frown, said, “You look quite well for somepony who should be crippled.”
Anvil remembered that aerial feat of hers. It was almost enough to make his bones ache again. “You are an impressive flyer. What’s your name?”
“White Wind. Served under Captain Volley.”
A royal guard. And a former trainee of the Night Guard’s own captain, no less. Her name was unfamiliar, though – she had probably been in the batch of youngsters who had just completed their training prior to Luna’s coup.
“Summer’s told me much about you,” White Wind announced. “And I’m surprised that you aren’t on our side – I would have expected the heroes of Cobbleville to stand up for the ponies of Equestria.”
“You should know that Luna played her own part in saving Cobbleville.” Hammer pointed out. He had also trotted over to White Wind’s cell.
The captive pegasus shrugged. “Except that now she’s the dragon instead of the saviour.”
From her own cell, Summer Cloud added, “The poorest and weakest of Equestria – the ones who need her the most – are not going to receive what they need in time. It won’t be long before the cold and darkness destroys the last of the crops, and then…” there was a slight pause at this point, as if she dreading what she was about to say, “…and then, ponies are going to die. Not trees, not animals. Ponies.”
Anvil was a little torn as to whom he should reply first, but White Wind had apparently picked up on his indecision, for she spread her wings once more and resumed her exercise. As she executed successive barrel rolls whilst remaining stationary in the air, she said, “Don’t mind me. Summer has important words for you, and I’ve taken enough of that time.”
With that settled, they returned to Summer Cloud. “Luna will not let it go that far. Whatever you may have heard, she does still care about ponies,” Anvil said.
“Specifically, she means to care for them her way,” Summer retorted. “Not the way they need, but the way she wants to.” She shook her head, then whispered, “I hope that Celestia can forgive me for saying so, but your Luna is delusional.”
“That’s… quite a strong term.”
“It is apt,” she insisted, staring him straight in the eyes.
As much as Anvil hated to admit it, Summer Cloud’s assertion had some truth in it. Luna was not blind to the reality of the situation, and neither was she evil or delusional, but it had become obvious that she was being very… selective of what she chose to accept. Any solution to Equestria’s troubles that involved either Celestia or the sun was disregarded and completely beyond compromise. It was disturbing to think that she might refuse to resort to those measures until Summer’s prediction came true.
“That’s not what you meant to tell us,” Hammer stated. “There’s a reason you wanted to keep this from the ears of everypony else.”
“You must understand that at least for now, she is not fit to – ”
“Spare us,” the big pegasus interrupted, “What do you propose?”
Summer Cloud seemed genuinely surprised. Anvil suspected that she must have prepared quite the speech in anticipation of resistance from his stoic friend. In fact, he himself had not expected the quickness at which he had asked for her proposal. She blinked once, then twice, then said, “Well, that was – never mind. I would not have thought to convince you so quickly.”
“You haven’t,” Hammer replied. “But something needs to be done, and for the moment I do not care from whom the suggestion comes.”
“Then, I will not waste your time,” the grey mare answered, and she slipped into her teaching demeanour, complete with the slightly speculative tone of voice and light-hearted pacing. “Nightmare Moon – Luna – is not herself at the moment. Unicorns can sometimes experience a phenomenon wherein excessively strong emotions can cause involuntary magical surges and physical transformation. And if the transformation is conducive to further emotional stress, the change can be self-perpetuating.” Here, she paused for breath. “Now, it stands to reason that alicorns can be affected by the same – only on a greater scale.”
“And how are we to change her back?” Hammer asked.
Summer put a hoof to her chin. “In this state, unicorns usually exhaust themselves after a while, but since Luna’s transformation only seems to have made her stronger…” She shook her head. “Regardless – the point is that she is unlikely to recover on her own. Celestia herself was about to restore her, but Luna had anticipated the attempt...”
“The Elements of Harmony,” Anvil concluded.
“One problem,” he pointed out, “Luna hid them away. And as far as I know, she hasn’t told anyone, nor retrieved them from their hiding place.”
“That is where my plan comes in. I know someone who can find them.”
“This pony must be very enlightened,” Anvil said. “Who and where?”
“Better question,” his friend interjected, “How did you come across such an informant? I doubt this pony is a cell mate, and you have never left this place.”
“I met him before I was caught.”
“And why did he not share the knowledge with you?”
The grey mare frowned. “He had his reasons, and he refused to share those with me, either.”
Hammer seemed to think for a moment before replying. “That will do for now. So where is he?”
“He resides in the lower gardens.”
Anvil recalled that Summer had been wandering about the lower gardens sometime before she had been caught. As far as he knew, there was little down there but the river and some trees and marshy vegetation, unless one counted decorative sculptures, but those could hardly provide much in the way of intelligent conversation. Oh, and there was mud – lots of it. Not a likely place for a pony to live in.
“Must be quite the hermit,” he commented.
“Of a sort,” she replied. “But there is something you should know – I will need to cast a spell on you before you can speak to him.”
“Ah… and what sort of spell would that be?”
They grey unicorn rose to all fours and trotted over to the bars. “Come closer. I think you will be familiar with this one.”
“I’ve heard enough,” Hammer stated. He then turned and began to make his way back to the exit, but Anvil put a hoof on his shoulder and whispered, “Wait.”
“Ten seconds,” his friend offered.
“Well… I trust her… and so should you.”
Hammer blinked. “Is that the best you can do?”
“Ten seconds. What were you expecting?” Anvil retorted. He then sighed and pulled him closer to whisper, “She knows better than to lose our trust at a time like this – I doubt she’d want to have the suffering of others on her conscience if we don’t meet this informant on account of some silly spite on her part. Besides, I’ll go first, and you can decide what to do if she really does try some nonsense on me.”
Hammer nodded, and Anvil trotted back to her cell bars. “Now I’m really curious about this friend of yours,” he said, “Why in the world would your spell be needed to speak to him?”
“He’s not a friend, and he… doesn’t speak.” That was the only explanation she offered before she cast the spell on him.
The wave of nausea was familiar this time, but it only lasted a moment, and the display of lights in his head was tolerably in one ‘corner’ of his mind, instead of all over the place and ‘blinding’ his thoughts like the last two times. He swayed a little, but managed to stay on his hooves and gave Hammer a reassuring grin. When it was the big pegasus’ turn, Anvil was slightly annoyed that his friend showed no sign of discomfort apart from a creased brow, a few rapid blinks and a quick shake of the head. Considering the fact that he had experienced the spell one time more than his friend, it was almost unfair that Hammer seemed to be more used to it than he. He flicked his tail and decided that the thought was not worth pursuing.
“The empathy spell would last only for an hour or two – so it would be best if you went down there immediately. And when you acquire the Elements, you will have to bring them back to me,” Summer advised. “I had studied a reasonable amount of their history as a novice, and I believe that I know enough to provide them with a catalyst spell to begin Luna’s restoration.”
“You seem well prepared,” Hammer commented.
She shrugged. “There is little else to do in this place.”
“Fair enough, but that doesn’t explain how you know so much about what has been happening outside.” The big pegasus then approached her as closely as the bars allowed and added, “And Ripple Dew is under strict orders not to converse with prisoners.”
The unicorn’s eyes widened. “Well, he – he is not the only one in here. The servants do speak amongst themselves when they come to clean up the place…”
“We can worry about servant gossip another time,” Anvil piped up. “For now, I think we have far more interesting things to do.”
His companion seemed inclined to disagree, but dropped the subject anyhow. With that settled, they turned and began to make their way back to the exit. But as they trotted off, Anvil slipped a glance at Summer Cloud from the corner of his eye and spotted her letting loose a little sigh of relief. At first, he thought that she might have been hiding something, but then decided that perhaps she was just plain nervous, since her plan very much amounted to all of them committing treason in Luna’s eyes.
When he stopped at the dungeon’s entrance to ask Ripple Dew about the lack of verbal abuse from the prisoners, the veteran simply chuckled and said, “Hah, they grew weary of it – makes the mouth dry, you see.”
If the chill of the air in the palace was considered uncomfortable, then the dampness from the river and the little waterfalls coming off the cliff simply made the flight into the lower gardens a bleak affair. Droplets of chilly water had formed and clung to Anvil’s wings, and he could feel the wetness slowly seeping into his coat. He’d have quite a time drying off his armour later, lest the metal rust into uselessness.
The lower gardens were often enshrouded in a nearly perpetual fog, and the pale blue light from the glow-worm lanterns that were strapped to their saddles only succeeded in penetrating it slightly – moonlight was practically non-existent down here. Old stone benches and water fountains dotted the area, as a reminder of olden days when the river was young and had not yet carved its way into the gardens. Since then, thick clumps of reeds had grown into the rivulets that had encroached into the garden from the main river. Shrubs and small trees grew on the bits of elevated soil or gravel that were safe from running water, with their trunks and roots mostly covered in a thick layer of crisp, bristly green moss. Frogs sang in the darkness, and somewhere in the fog, beyond the reach of the lamplight, there was the sound of something splashing around in the river.
With a few powerful strokes of their wings, they were able to temporarily clear away a fair portion of the fog – just enough spot the entrance to the cave that Summer Cloud had mentioned. It was a triangular crack in the base of the cliff wall, just about high and wide enough to admit an alicorn with folded wings. They entered it one at a time, with Anvil bringing up the rear, and when he spared a moment to look back outside, the fog had swallowed the garden up once more.
“Somepony must really like his privacy. I doubt he gets many visitors,” Anvil murmured. Beyond the fact that her informant lived here, Summer had refused to volunteer any more details and simply told them that they would know why when they finally saw him.
Hammer grunted his assent.
The inside of the cave was as much as anypony could expect – excessively damp, with a slight reek that reminded one of marsh mud, and a generous helping of grit and filth on the walls. A short tunnel led deeper into the cliff, and it was roughly the same size as the entrance. Strangely enough, the tunnel had a fairly even floor of carved rock, which suggested that it was meant to be accessed by ponies, although it was beyond Anvil why those who made it hadn’t bothered to make the place a little more accommodating whilst they were at it. He inspected the floor closely, and saw that there were three sets of hoofprints in the grime on the floor – one belonging to his companion, and the other two, probably to Summer Cloud when she had first come and gone. When one of his wings brushed against the wall and came away smeared, he quietly groused to himself. Small wonder she needed a bath.
The end of the tunnel opened up into a circular cavern – one large enough for thirty or so ponies to comfortably fit in, and high enough to accommodate a decently sized tree. They no longer needed to walk in single file, and so they stood side by side as they inspected the cave’s interior.
Mushrooms were growing everywhere, and in the centre of the cavern stood a filthy stone object that showed signs of a recent attempt to get it cleaned – there were patterns of remnant grime on its surface where hooves had scraped it all away, in addition to the random hoofprints on the ground at its base. It looked strangely familiar at first, until Anvil realised what it actually was. A long, flexible body. Mismatched appendages. Draconic tail. Stone.
“Well… he’s not a pony,” Anvil declared.