• Published 25th May 2017
  • 7,391 Views, 1,086 Comments

Spectrum - Sledge115



Secrets come to light when a human appears, and the Equestrians learn of a world under siege – by none other than themselves. Caught in a web that binds the great and humble alike, can Lyra find what part she’ll play in the fate of three realms?

  • ...
24
 1,086
 7,391

PreviousChapters Next
Act I ~ Chapter Five ~ The Hour Is Darkest Before

Spectrum

The Team

TheIdiot

Jed R
Perhaps I am here, perhaps I am not, or perhaps I never was…

DoctorFluffy
Let’s make the story we thought we were reading, guys.

VoxAdam
Vade Retro, Satanas

Sledge115

RoyalPsycho

TB3

Kizuna Tallis

ProudToBe

Chapter Five
The Hour Is Darkest Before

* * * * *

We’re going to be okay, arent we Papa?
Yes. We are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
That’s right. Because we’re carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.
The Boy and the Man, from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

* * * * *

Hour by hour, the night wore on.

The night itself was good, though. Night was a friend. Night was the domain of Princess Luna. Once, the people of Equestria had feared her corrupted self, for so long that most had even forgotten there’d been a Luna, before there was a Nightmare Moon. Now, well... now, for many, it was a struggle to remember who they had been, until the war made them who they were today. And in all the nights and days to come.

Amethyst Star, gazing upon the New York skyline, had memories which reached far back.

She remembered where she was on the Longest Night of the Summer Sun Festival, when the new Era Harmoniae, hopeful and short-lived, was born. When Luna had made her return as a creature of darkness, but through the actions of six brave mares, was brought back. Not into the light – into grace. Where had that grace gone?

The young jewel-maker had already seen a lot in her life, and only half was by virtue of being the adoptive daughter of Time Turner, Ponyville’s erstwhile timekeeper and self-described ‘Doctor’ of the village calendar.

Strangely, however, when she thought of that day, what she remembered most vividly was not the cold fear as the Sun failed to rise, or the bliss as Princess Celestia invited her people to celebrate the return of her little sister. It was a simple image, of her standing on a Canterlot road next to a mare, barely out of fillyhood, really – though Amethyst looked alike to her in age, she was several years her senior – waving to a most precocious filly, hurrying by without a glance.

… That ‘filly’, of course, had been Twilight. And Amethyst’s companion was Lyra.
Sighing, Amethyst willed herself to no longer stare out the window. Grand as the view might be from Freedom Tower, she had another, different window to peer into. The lens of her microscope, in her study of powdered crystals.

Mere years ago, Equestria’s first great war in centuries had been fought over crystals. Crystals were the secret of so much in this new war. Of weapons, and cures, and artifice. One fighter had even forged them into a chain-mail of concealment. Well, not literal chainmail, actually, more of a flightsuit. And crystal were what made the runes possible. Runes such as the missing Captain Reiner’s.

Amethyst cursed how his vanishing had doubled her family’s responsibilities. She dearly wished she could be spending a night on the town, or at least down at their lab, with Ana right now. Together, they could have worked to fill in the loss of Zecora, pursued their search for answers in the curious case of Verity Carter.

The sounds of gunfire, explosions, the more exotic weapons of the Solar Empire, and spellfire had rung out in the night, but they were winding down, for now. In the midst of their shared confusion, both sides had retreated behind their defenses. Only miles away, beyond the Barrier, still just the faintest glow of sickly pink on the dividing line of a dark horizon. While the other hunkered down and made do with what was left of an untainted Earth.

That made it calm. It did not make it any easier to relax.

~ Boston, USA ~ November 13th 2024 CE ~

Neither, for Ana Bjorgman, did this haircut.

“Sit still a bit,” said Johnny C, the short, stocky man holding scissors to Ana’s locks.

When she’d met him, she thought he’d be sullen and depressive, on account of his seemingly permanent, uneven stubble, scraggly hair, and admission that a frown and thousand-yard stare were ‘kind of his default expression’. She had been wrong.

“Yeah, I know, that’s what they’re always saying in the movies. The ‘watermelon, watermelon’ of barbers and hairdressers. But, trust me, you don’t want to lose part of your left ear like I did,” Johnny C continued.

His tone wasn’t unkind, though he sounded on the verge of snickering.

“You lost part of your ear to…” Ana asked, her voice trailing off.

“Maybe?” Johnny C shrugged. “I mean, Mom told me I was bleeding everywhere during a haircut once, and I’m missing part of, uh… that curly part of my ear. Near the top. I mean, I think that coulda happened? But I’m not sure.”

“Gee, heh,” Ana chuckled nervously. “Been in the wars, have we?”

It wasn’t much of a joke, but hanging around a man like Harwood gave one an appreciation for a particular sense of humour.

“Nah, that was when I was three,” Johnny C said.

Ana just nodded, quietly, wrapping her coat tighter around herself. In spite of the campfire, there was still a chill in the air up here, with gusts of wind blowing in from between the exposed steel frames and broken windows of the former office building.

She looked away from him, to the locks strewn on the floor, her natural strawberry-blonde contrasting with the orange glow of the flames against the vinyl flooring. Although she knew how that was bound to make her feel, she couldn’t help it.

And make her feel it did. Forlorn.

The close to home base, the stricter military requirement became. Despite herself, Ana had to hold back making a comment on her hairdresser’s own trim. It might have been a complimentary comment, but it’d have been painful. He’d been to the Arctic Circle. She had been nowhere near the North in years. And that, presumably, was why they let him wear his hair long.

“Hey, I know how it feels,” Johnny C said. “It was like pulling teeth to get me to cut this, the first time around. Same for Fiddlesticks over there.” He jerked his thumb towards a yellow mare with an inky blue mane.

“S’true,” Fiddlesticks nodded, in her broad Appleloosan drawl. “But, well, when that clay Newfoal grabbed onto it, I had to beg him from shaving hisself bald!”

“Actually, you had to stop me from lighting it on fire,” Johnny C pointed out.

“Oh, Sweet Luna,” Fiddlesticks sighed, “don’t remind me,”

“Bit late for that!” Johnny C sniggered.

“Why would you light your hair on fire?” Ana yelped. Her fingers twitched. This might have been a bad idea. “On purpose!”

Just let it pass,’ the little voice in her head said.It’ll pass, Ana, it’ll pass.

“It was an emergency! And I headbutted a guy while that happened!” Johnny C chuckled. “Now that was a weird day.”

... At least, the confusion over that last part will probably pass…

There was a raven-haired woman leaning by the broken frame of an office cubicle, holding a mug, the other hand in her jeans’ pocket. Ana hadn’t caught her name, yet she stood out in that she wasn’t wearing a uniform, but a cherry-red T-shirt with a white floral pattern. From the picture camera slung around her neck, Ana assumed she was a photographer.

When the woman heard Johnny’s remark, she smirked a little. Putting down her mug, she theatrically twirled herself into a place behind the desk, clutching the top of the frame like a home-owner lifting the blinds on a window.

“We all weirdoes around here,” she crowed, in her best Sam the Eagle impression.

“Y’all go and quiet down a bit,” said a bald, mustached African man so massively built – Ana believed his name was Lorne – she could have easily imagined him with a future in American Football or basketball. His southern drawl was oddly like Fiddlesticks’ Appleoosan, but deeper and broader, with something else mixed into his cadence. “Some of us are tryin’ to keep an eye on the street.”

Left with all this to think over, Ana held her tongue for the next couple of minutes as Johnny C kept up his trimming. Not that this made silence fall over the gathering, on the contrary. They were a rowdy lot, the crowd she’d elected to keep company with tonight, following the end of her shift. Johnny and his musician of a marefriend – if that was what she was – were just the most exuberant.

Hardly surprising, such spiritedness, coming from a penal squad.

But everyone in Ze’ev Squad seemed to have some opinion about the new people who’d come in this week and the week before that, streaming in from Halifax to the North, or Philadelphia to the South. Or the latest innovation put on display by Operation Exodus as a part of its tireless efforts at keeping up morale and promoting the ideal of Equus-Earth co-operation, not just between human and pony, but griffon and Kirin, zebra and buffalo, and more besides. A surprising number of the artistically-minded were present in this group of soldiers.

One topic, however, everyone was carefully avoiding. Politics.

What did the future bode for America and the world, with the upcoming summit to be held between the remaining leaders and the PHL in New York City? Had it been no more than a puppet-show to go ahead with the 2024 electoral process, when the Barrier was literally half a hundred miles away? How much longer could all these fancy alliances and treaties endure, once it came down to sharing the last crusts of bread on a dying planet? And, with a third of the North American continent abandoned in the face of Barrierfall, how would they cope as people were forced closer and closer to the Pacific Ocean?

The other topic wasn’t being avoided, Ana sensed, merely postponed. The question of Captain Alexander Reiner’s mysterious disappearance still echoed in her mind, as clearly as it had all through her endless, silent shift with Frieda.

Speaking of whom, the grey griffon grunted in response to Lorne’s words of caution.

“You know,” Frieda said, “mostly, they don’t come out in the dead of night. Mostly. Superstitions ‘bout old Pony Moonbutt have still got a tight hold on ‘em, no matter what the Tyrant may trundle out.”

“You don’t want to go thinking that,” the raven-haired woman warned her quietly, clutching her mug. “You never know on what night the Sun’ll turns up, for all it’s got not business being there, after the day is done. It’s like Celestia’s made it her life’s work, to ruin all our fun…”

“And all Equestria’s, too,” Frieda rebuked. “What? You think it’s fun getting a concert ‘dispersed as an illegal gathering’ and having totem-proles monitor your every move? Or getting flagged on a ‘nonstandard behaviour list’, or treated as a foreign agitator, simply cos’ you ain’t a pony? Because it’s not.”

‘Too Damn Right,’ someone said.

Ana could’ve easily assumed it was an automated message, but no, it was just the artificial voice of Quiette Shy, a white unicorn mare with a blond mane. She wore a red bandanna with a crudely sewn PHL patch that she wore over her mouth, and her mark was that of a thick, heavy pipe wrench.

As far as Ana knew, the Royal Guards had done something to her with a spear on a so-called “retrieval op” that rendered her mute. ‘For My Own Safety,’ Quiette Shy had said, the last time someone asked. ‘The Dribbling C–’

And then someone had interrupted her.

“If Luna’s still putting the fear of… well, her, in those pansies, blessed be her name.” Frieda took a swig from her hip-flask. “To her health, I says.”

“To her health!”

The group echoed Frieda’s sentiment, raising flasks and bottles to the Moon above. Though it may not have been Princess Luna’s Moon, it was the thought that counted.

“And to Lorne,” said a tall, lanky man with a thick Dutch, no, a thick Afrikaans accent, “For makin’ this fokkin’ siff rotgut!”

He sat against the wall a few feet from Quiette Shy, just next to a large German-built LMG with a reflex sight and foregrip.

Sitting next to him was an earthpony stallion with a red mustache. Aegis, though that wasn’t his real name, looked almost like Quiette Shy, with the same white coat, the same red bandanna with a PHL patch crudely sewn on, except he wore it over his mane, and similar lightly-tinted goggles... but the difference was, he was so massive by pony standards, a short person like Ana or Johnny C could have used him as a steed.

The lanky man downed a bottle that had once held Stella Artois in one gulp, then coughed.

“Fokdammit, Lorne. This is an improvement. And it still tastes like gat!” he laughed.

And Ana wondered where she’d heard that voice before, that thick accent. Hadn’t he been the one that called Newfoals a ‘trash pile of biology’?

“You’d know what that tastes like, Viktor,” Lorne said, though he was smiling. “Wouldn’t you.”

“I would, and it’s still better,” Viktor said, still laughing.

“Does mine taste better?” the massive earthpony asked in his deep, rumbling baritone.

“You know it, bru,” Viktor said. “Finest gat I ever did eat, Aegis, and that! That is some stiff...”

Next to him, Quiette Shy made a series of strangled noises that could have been laughter.

“... stiff competition,” Viktor said, trying not to laugh along with her and failing.“Did… did you cut down on the piss this time, Lorne?”

“For all of you, only the finest ingredients,” Lorne smirked.

The three of them, minus Shy, shared a laugh. Ana wasn’t sure of what they found so funny.

Harwood had told her about Viktor Kraber, the HLF defector they called the ‘Night Surgeon’, a wild-looking, tense fellow with deep-set eyes and prominent cheekbones, with an intensity to his whole bearing and thin, lanky frame that made him look taller than he really was. Towering, is how she would have described it, though she’d met more physically imposing people. Maybe it was the beard.

Now there was a man who could have done with cutting a lot, but a lot, of hair. A scraggly, unkempt thing it was, but like all huge beards, it looked like nothing so much as a furry beast ready to jump out and eat you.

Ana, you are still thinking about the beard, right?

Small wonder a professional doctor such as Harwood didn’t like him much. But Ana knew the extent of Harwood’s cold behaviour regarding Viktor Kraber. Even him coming to her aid on the streets a few hours ago, did not quite ease her own worries about him. He was, indeed, like a cunning wolf on the prowl, and that discomforted her deeply. On an intimate level.

Gratitude could come later, she mused. They were, after all, both someone else’s prey.

“Mind if I sit down here?” asked the raven-haired woman, distracting Ana from her thoughts. The woman gave Ana a Cheshire cat grin. “Make no mistake, everyone’s bonkers up here. But you don’t look half so crude, especially for someone who’s been at war this long.”

“Uh, sure, go ahead,” Ana said, sidling up to give the woman a space. She heard a small ‘snip’ cut the air behind her ear.

“There, almost done,” Johnny C said, moving around to face her. “Now, if we could just take care of those bangs...”

“Oh, no, don’t, don’t,” Ana said, suddenly overcome. “Let me keep them, please,” she added, in a calmer, steadier voice. “I need something to remember. I...” She swallowed. “Well, I don’t know if I’ll get to grow them again.”

Johnny considered her, looking at the scissors, then back at her. Then he nodded, and pocketed them.

“Fair bet, lady,” he said gently. “None of us’ll know if next time, we’ll be staring at our own hide and hair, or at fur patches. And that’s if we’re luck–” He caught himself. “Nah, fuck it. Forget I said anything.”

He noticed she wasn’t looking at him, and had her eyes on the men across the campfire.

“Ah,” Johnny C began. “Don’t you worry, that’s just Viktor. He’s nice enough when you get to know him. Sure, he’s a violent jackass with the bedside manner of a rusty chainsaw...”

Viktor, overhearing this, looked like he was trying not to yell at Johnny C. At which point Aegis put his hoof on Viktor’s knee, and shook his head. The bearded man shrugged, then sighed, looking a bit despondent.

“... and there was that security footage with the…” Johnny C’s voice trailed off. “Look, don’t worry about it.”

“Right,” Ana remarked, but her voice wavered, a little. Absent-mindedly, her hand reached up to her head, to feel the results.

The cold night air brushed against her neck, sending a shiver down her spine. She still had her fuzzy ushanka, at least, and the foresight to bring it with her. And she’d need it to stay warm, for Winter had come to Boston.

“So, let us not forget we’ve all got our recycling duties,” Johnny C commented wistfully. “You’re gonna need something to carry those shavings back to base.” He felt around in his trouser pockets, frowned, and pulled his hand out irritably. “Fuck, I could’ve sworn I had a plastic bag left.”

“You mean a stray d–” Fiddlesticks begun.

“Fiddle, now is not the time for Night Vale references!” Viktor interrupted. “Plus, Oscar took one already.”

He pointed towards a heavyset man who could’ve been fat, muscled, or just big. The man, Oscar Mikkelsen, was wearing in a helmet with an opaque visor, sitting next to the massive earthstallion, who was evidently named Aegis. Oscar had taken his gloves off, revealing a hand that looked either deformed, burned, or both, and was stroking a dog that looked like a labrador or German Shepherd mix.

Oscar waved with his left hand. This one had six fingers.

“What happened to your hand?” the raven-haired woman asked curiously.

“Oh, that?” he said, surveying the six-fingered limb. “Well, you see…”

“No, I meant, how’d you lose the finger on your right hand?”

“What? I was... born this way,” Oscar said.

The woman shrugged. “Stranger things have happened. I see you’re a dog-lover. I had a dog when I was a kid. He used to be a collie until he got ran over.”

“It’s a very good boy,” Viktor added, reaching towards the dog, scratching it behind the ears.

“Girl,” Oscar said, looking away from the woman. “It’s girl.”

Johnny C exhaled, staring at Ana almost sheepishly. “Yeah, guess you’re gonna have to improvise. Sorry ‘bout the inconvenience.” He gestured at her wicker-spun picnic basket, placed a safe way away from the campfire. “I mean, it’s a beauty, that is. Reminds me of an honest antique that Grandma Heald used to own. Hope you don’t mind using it to carry a piece of yourself around in it.”

“Oh, no no no, no fear,” Ana said quickly, feeling her cheeks heat up, and hoping that he wouldn’t notice. “I’ve done just that already, tonight… using it for my guitar, I mean,” she hastened to specify awkwardly. “It’s like, like that’s a piece of me. You get what I’m saying, right?”

While he did raise an eyebrow, he did not seem overly nonplussed. “Sure I do! Fiddlesticks over here would say much the same ‘bout her fiddle.”

“Musicians, eh?” Ana remarked, brightly. “It’s always the instruments.”

“Don’t forget the player, either!”

“Yeah, heh, the player…” she said, trailing off. Absent-mindedly, she traced her fingers on the golden lyre emblem embroidered in her hat. “Can’t have music without the player, obviously.”

“Wish I had my ukulele,” remarked the raven-haired woman. “Trust me, you haven’t lived ‘til you’ve strummed the strings off one, lying in a hammock by torchlight on one of those warm Pacific nights.”

“I’m sure I haven’t,” Ana chuckled, as she put the ushanka back on. Cold winds were rising, their chill cutting even through the campfire. “Didn’t have the time to, ah, stick around when we passed Hawaii. Wish I could have, but a schedule’s a schedule.”

“Then again,” the woman answered, “I never did quite get what made Iceland such a popular tourist destination. If you think it’s freezing tonight, you should the Arctic Circle in the dead of the Winter.”

“I have,” said Johnny C. “The real Arctic Circle. Besides, I’m not the right guy to ask, yeah?

“You’re talking to a guy who routinely forgets to wear jackets in below-freezing temperatures,” Fiddlesticks added.

“Listen, I’m trying to make a point here.”

“Sorry!” Johnny C replied, with a chuckle. “Carry on, carry on.”

The woman nodded gratefully. “And that point is, I’ve been wondering who’s got it the worst, a Polynesian stuck in the North Atlantic, or a Scandinavian in the Pacific. Would you rather it blew hot, or cold?”

“I’m gonna cite, uh, well, Goldilocks?” Ana said hesitantly. “Easy answer. Easiest one, just gotta find that right balance, I guess. I mean, I like it windy, feels great!” she added, even as a gust swept one of her remaining bangs across her face, “But a cup of warm chocolate besides the fireplace, count me in.”

“Amen to that,” Frieda spoke up, and Ana gave her a thumbs up. “When you get the drinking part of it right, ‘course.”

“How do you do it then?” Fiddlesticks asked. “Your beaks are, no offense, not exactly suited for it.”

“It’s a long story,” was Frieda’s only, deadpan reply. “Maybe you could ask Ana over here. She knows the details very well...”

She gave a cheeky wink, aimed straight at Ana. Her cheeks burned.

Don’t even think about it, don’t even think about it, not here, Frieda for goodness–

It was to Ana’s relief that someone else spoke up, sparing her the embarrassment of stumbling over her words out loud.

“‘Goldilocks’,” the raven-haired woman repeated, staring at Ana and shaking her head. “I knew it the moment I clapped eyes on you, you really are like some waif who’s escaped from a European children’s storybook. What in blue blazes are you doing with this rough lot, this suicide squad?”

“First thing that came to mind,” Ana shrugged, shooting an innocent-looking Frieda a quick glare. “The ‘Goldilocks’ reply, I mean, I like stories. And as for the rough lot? It’s been a long trip. Half a way around the world, even. Norway’s… Norway is on the other side now.”

“My home isn’t,” the woman said sympathetically. “But Iceland… is on the other side.” She took a sip of her mug. “Funny, isn’t it? I’d spend my days there, counting the hours until I could leave... but when that nauseating pink wall appeared on the seas, and we all had to scramble, it hit me that I’d never be visiting Iceland again… Of course, that was shortly after the Ambassador died… morale was low all around…”

“What was she like, really?” Frieda asked. “Lyra?”

The woman fingered the lens on her camera, not looking at any of them directly. “What was Lyra really like? How do you describe Lyra Heartstrings?” she mused. “She was… genuine. That’s the best way I can think to say it. Sure, sure, you’re listening to me and thinking, of course I’m saying that, I’m a reporter. But, that’s just it, no matter what a big figure they’ve turned her into, Lyra was always this little green unicorn.”

She knew Ambassador Heartstrings?’ Ana wondered.

“Can’t have music without the player, eh, Ana?” Frieda reiterated, with Fiddlesticks nodding in enthusiastic agreement.

“Yeah...” Ana wistfully replied.

The flames flickered, and danced, for the night was growing colder still.

“We earthponies have a sayin’,” Fiddlesticks commented. “‘Everythin’ in this world’s a cart. Ya just need the right horse’. Same principle. What’s music without a player?” She stared towards the Moon. “That’s what still feels so strange about being here. No magic, ‘least, not the kind you can feel. Critters don’t need earthponies, no pegasus to shepherd clouds, no Sun-Chariot,” she pulled a face. “No Mare in the Moon…”

“You met Luna too, didn’t you, Lacey?” Johnny C suddenly asked the woman sitting next to Ana. “You’re the one who shot those videos of Lyra and Yael welcoming her to Earth.”

She glanced up at him, bewildered. “How’d–”

“Heliotrope,” he said simply. “Yael Ze’ev is my cousin. I’m not part of this… suicide squad, as you put it, anymore than Bjorgman is, but I hang around.”

‘Lacey’ muttered something under her breath. “That Ze’ev… Oh, fine, it seems like you got me over a barrel. Funny, you don’t look much like her.”

“Second cousin, and I’m not half-black,” Johnny C explained.

“Ah, okay, I see. But, look, I don’t like to talk about it much. Because, honestly, who remembers the first half of those videos? I had Heliotrope as my wingman, as it were, and she shot the best footage.”

“Why, though?” Johnny C enquired. “Why didn’t you seek to capitalise on your role in this? It’s what I would do.”

“I didn’t go into journalism for the sensation, haole,” the woman told him. “Way I see it, the truth is out there, and the truth is my shepherd. Lyra believed the same. It’s what guided her towards meeting us.”

“Uh, I’m sorry,” Ana mumbled, drawing a glance from ‘Lacey’, who was right beside her. “Am I missing something here?”

The raven-haired woman smiled apologetically. “I’m the one who should be sorry. It’s me forgetting my manners, not introducing myself.”

“You don’t know, Ana? Given your friendship with Hanne Adler…” Johnny C sounded surprised. “That’s Lacey Sanderson. She’s this big-shot war photographer.”

“Don’t listen to him. My name’s not Lacey,” the woman said. “That’s a pun he’s made about my name ever since I asked him a question about his.”

“Hey, it’s my business...”

“I’m a reporter, Johnny. Everything is my business. At least I actually know what the ‘C’ in my name stands for.”

“Pardon?” said Ana.

“Lay-C,” the woman enunciated, holding up three fingers. “Lacey. My full name is Lani Chase Sanderson.”

The name rang a bell in Ana’s mind. But it was what Johnny had already said that cinched it.

“That video of Princess Luna… that was you?”

“Go on, Lacey,” Johnny C urged Lani. “Tell her the story. It’ll make a good campfire tale.”

“Not sure that’s quite the way I’d put it,” Lani said quietly. “Like I said, I don’t really like to talk about it. And I didn’t get to shoot the juiciest part. Yet, if you insist…” She paused then, taking a moment to stare at the campfire, flames flickering in her eyes. “It still upsets me, you know. It was meant to be a welcoming… it became a tearful goodbye…”

~ Reykjavik, Iceland ~ August 22nd 2021 CE ~

Continental Europe had all but fallen. Britain and Ireland were gone as well, and the Barrier now touched on two more landmasses, Asia and Africa, reaching as far as the Black Sea, Morocco, and the Faroe Islands. The only consolation was that it had slowed down a little, once it hit the Atlantic. Which begged the question of why Ambassador Heartstrings was here, in the all-but-deserted Icelandic capital city’s industrial district, accompanied only by two bodyguards, one of her PHL cohorts from the home country, and a photojournalist.

Acutely aware she was the only one present without military experience, or much of a weapon to speak of, unless you counted her Panasonic AG-AC90A video-camera even Ambassador Heartstrings had come bearing her assault arms Lani kept a careful distance from the rest of this prestigious group, making sure to get them all in the frame.

“You didn’t have to come,” Amethyst Star told Lieutenant Ze’ev.

“I did,” Ze’ev said. She was a tall, biracial Israeli woman, of mocha-coloured skin and thick black hair with light green eyes. “I don’t know what’ll happen here. But I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t keep the Ambassador safe.”

“I’ll be fine,” Lyra Heartstrings said, calm, confident and radiant. “I promise you.”

“If that was true, ma’am, you’d never need bodyguards,” said Korso. “Besides. We’d need extra muscle to keep you and Miss Star out of harm’s reach. Oh, and Miss Sanderson.”

That line warmed Lani a little on the inside. Military people had never made her feel entirely comfortable. So of course, as she never tired of reminding herself, she’d chosen a job that put her in the line of fire, in more than one respect. And this was before the aliens had come knocking.

Although that, at least, was kind of exciting to her.

She was on the fence about Korso, but she sensed that within Ze’ev lay a... pent-up streak. As if the woman might someday snap, or never at all. The Lieutenant had tried to be friendly before, but it hadn’t quite worked.

“Coincidentally,” Amethyst said off-handedly, “This is exactly why I got Heliotrope to tail us.”

Everyone in the group, save for Lani, looked to Amethyst with a start.

“You didn’t tell me you were doing that,” Ze’ev said. “Heliotrope’s supposed to be my department.”

“You didn’t ask,” Amethyst said, still in that off-handed fashion. “Say hi, Heliotrope.”

“Evening, everyone,” Heliotrope said, her voice coming in crackling through their earpieces. “I’m forty metres behind you on a rooftop.”

Lani looked behind her, towards one of the rooftops. But she saw nothing. Heliotrope a purplish-pink, Las Pegasus-born pegasus mare with a blue-green and pink mane had compensated for her bright colouration by designing a unique, made-of-rare-crystal flightsuit with light-bending camouflage, so of course she’d be hard to spot.

“Nah, I’m kiddin’. I’m not that far back,” Heliotrope said.

“Miss Star” Ze’ev said, glaring at the unicorn. “I must confess. I didn’t know about it either. That’s a clear breach of military protocol, right there.”

“It wasn’t her idea,” Lani stepped in. Both Korso and Ze’ev’s eyes turned on her, and for a second, she’d have liked to shrink back. But when you’d spent a childhood around social services, there were things you’d been ironed out for. “Well, not quite. I… took the liberty of asking if I may ‘borrow’ Operative Heliotrope to aid in my work. After all, what’s the good of a pegasus with an invisibility suit, when you can do one better, and have a pegasus with an invisibility suit and recording equipment?”

Ze’ev frowned. “Ugh. Reporters…”

Next to her, Amethyst chuckled to herself.

“Ma’am, it’s a terrible idea to be like that to the people who form our public image,” Korso said. “The media shapes how people think, giving them a quick soundbite. A single bad impression can hurt you beyond measure.”

Now everyone was staring at him, Amethyst included.

“My little sister is a journalism major,” Korso explained.

“Class of 2016?” Lani enquired, genuinely curious. “What a year that was for the press.”

“2017, actually,” Korso said. “She was so mad she wasn’t out there reporting when all that happened.”

“Yeah. It all seemed so… utopian, at the beginning, didn’t it?” Lani sighed wistfully. “Well, my big sister still jokes sometimes that if the aliens hadn’t arrived, our lives would have taken a turn for the worse.” She noticed the gazes this earned her again. “It’s… ah, I guess you have to be part of the family to see the humour in it.”

Ze’ev shook her head, yet didn’t address any of them, evidently deciding she had other fish to fry.

“Are you sure this contact of your is on the level?” Ze’ev asked Heartstrings. His breath formed white clouds in the crisp night air. “Asking me and Lieutenant Korso to come alone, without providing a name, makes me question our faith even in you, Ambassador.”

Heartstrings smirked. “I guess asking you to trust me isn’t going to help, then?” she teased, hooves trotting lightly on the snowy ground. “There’s no need to, anyway. There she is.”

At her casual nod, Ze’ev and Korso spun, the latter directing their gun-mounted flashlights towards… a patch of shadows.

Yet this was not any random darkness created by the bulk of the iron crates stacked in this area. It reflected the light. Ze’ev blinked, hands firmly on her Galil, ready to fire if necessary. On cue, the patch slowly coalesced into the shape of a tall mare, a dark blue in colour, except for her mane, which was pale as powder.

As Lani’s eyes adjusted to the vision, still looking from the zoom-finder, she spotted the horn on the newcomer’s forehead, and the wings on her back…

“Cover the Ambassador!” Ze’ev barked, readying her Galil.

If she hadn’t said it, Korso would have. Just to their left, the man was placing his finger around the trigger on his trusty Remington ACR. albeit slower. More deliberately. As if even he wasn’t certain.

But Heartstrings, cool as a cucumber, stepped forward, placing herself between the figure and her comrades.

“Stand down, friends. She’s the most important ally we could have dreamed of.”

“It’s…!” Korso gasped. The tall Israeli woman was staring at the sight before her, shocked.

“Incredible!” Heliotrope gasped over their earpieces.

“Princess Luna…” Heartstrings tipped forward, employing in a courtly bow she had learnt in her capacity as Ambassador from the earliest of days, well-aware the camera would record her every word and move for posterity, as always. “It is a pleasure, m’lady.”

“Please, Madame Heartstrings, I am but Luna,” the dark alicorn replied, kneeling in turn. “I come before you, stripped of my crown and throne, and were all Equestria to beg me to take up either of them once more, I would say ‘nay’. I present myself to you as a willing exile.”

“On the contrary, I see nothing but true royalty here, Highness,” Heartstrings said, smiling kindly. “I believe that I speak not only for myself, but for the Equestrian Stranded and the great majority of the human race, when I say we are glad to recognise a Princess of Equestria, if she comes in peace.”

“I do, but not in any regal capacity,” Luna said sadly. “I am as I said, an exile. My sister has long embarked on a course of madness, and now that I’ve sought to move against her, to oppose her crimes against humankind, I find myself once more unwelcome in the nation whose founding I witnessed as a foal.”

Someone in the group did not appear to have been listening to the exchange. The focus of Amethyst Star’s gaze was entirely upon the eerie, powdery white of Princess Luna’s flowing hair.

“Oh, Princess!” Amethyst gasped, a hoof flying to her mouth. “What happened to your mane?”

With some small surprise, Luna considered Amethyst. “Miss Star,” she greeted. Her eyes blinked, back to her mane and then back to the company before her. “Ah. Yes. That.” She shook her head. “I expect that you’ll be hearing about it very soon.”

Ze’ev looked the dark alicorn up and down. Despite the bleached condition of her mane, which contrasted so starkly with Luna’s naturally dark colours, the wonder was evident in the woman’s face that she stood in front of one who, in all but size and shade, was Celestia’s double.

And yet no human here felt any threat emanating from the alicorn.

“How did you get here?” Ze’ev asked. “We believed your sister had an iron grip on all the portals bridging your world and ours. After those first few, confused months, the number of refugees from Equus has reduced to a trickle, unless they’re wily enough to get a permit to the Colonies and risk the long, hard trek to sneak across the Barrier…”

Luna smiled, almost triumphantly.

“I flew,” the Princess said simply, giving a friendly flap of her wings. “All across the sea of stars…” Noticing his expression, she tittered. “That was poetic license, Lieutenant. True, it was a long day’s journey into night, ere we reached this island, but we made it.”

“We?”

“I did not come alone,” Luna replied. “In fact, it may be safe to say it’s thanks to my companions that I am here. They and I come to seek asylum, and offer what help we can…” The Night Princess glanced backward. “It’s safe to come out now. everyone!”

And with that, ponies seemed to melt out from the shadows. As if they’d always been there. Each one of them was akin to a pegasus, but not quite. They were dark figures, with bat-like wings, tufted ears, and slitted eyes.

What stood out was that all looked as if they’d been put through the wringer. One was missing their right eye, another was missing a large chunk of their wing, and one pony’s ear had been cleaved in half, almost down to the skull. As a whole, the bat-like ponies all bore signs of having been beaten, stabbed, burned, shot with crossbow bolts…

“Your Night Guard,” Heartstrings breathed, a pained look on her face. “Oh, there are so few left…”

It was then that a new pegasus melted out of the shadows as well, between two startled bat-ponies. There was a shimmer from the rooftops as Heliotrope pushed up her suit’s hood, revealing a look of unbridled horror.

“What did they do to you!” Helotrope shrieked. She was so consumed with emotion, by the looks of it, that she pushed herself off the rooftop, with barely a flap of the wing, to land violently upon the snowy ground amidst them all, still shrieking. “Oh, Sweet Harmony, what did they do!”

“Must’ve been a bad one,” Amethyst said, contemplating the thestrals in aghast fascination.

Lani, however, was looking at the bat-like ponies with something like undisguised glee.

“Vampire ponies?” she asked, turning to Amethyst Star even as, adjusting the zoom, she kept her camera fixed on the eerie crowd milling around Luna. “You’ve got vampire ponies in Equestria? This is awesome!”

“Not vampires,” Amethyst corrected, her mane blowing in the breeze. “They’re thestrals.”

“Worked with a lot of them during the Crystal War,” Heliotrope added, sounding only slightly calmer, but at least no longer as frantic. She was eyeing Luna’s battered entourage in sorrow, and in something like relief. “You can always rely on a thestral to have your back.”

“Heliotrope, is it?” said the Night Guard missing their left eye, who was also afflicted by a wicked-looking scar cork-screwing around one of their hindlegs. “I remember you from the Battle of Vanhoover. Best engineer I could have dreamed of. Do you remember? Our oath as we dropped from the Pride of Vanhoover’s decks behind the Crystal Realm’s lines?”

“To serve to the last,” Heliotrope said, nodding solemnly.

“And the last… it came,” the Night Guard said, and coughed. Not a ‘formal’ cough, more of a ‘cancer-ridden-lung’ cough. The words seemed… strained, somehow. It sounded as if he had taken some internal damage.

“Are you the one in command, sir?” Heartstrings asked.

“I’m the highest-ranking thestral left, Madame Ambassador,” the Night Guard said, dipping his head. “So it would appear to be I am. Sergeant Gibbous, at your service.”

Lani admittedly knew little about the ranks of Luna’s Night Guard – the topic just hadn’t come up – but whatever they had been through, it must be terrible if a Sergeant was the highest-ranking one left among them.

“All gave some to bring our princesses,” Gibbous said, “And some gave all.”

“... I don’t see Albedo,” Heliotrope noted. “Did he…?”

“Albedo didn’t make it,” Gibbous replied, looking down to the ground.

Heliotrope sank to the ground, her wings by her side. “No…”

Ambassador Heartstrings sidled up to the pegasus mare.

“It’ll be alright, Heliotrope. I know it in my heart,” Heartstrings said nuzzling the back of her ear.

Meanwhile, Amethyst Star’s attention was on the lead thestral, however. “Sergeant. I’m sorry for pressing, but what did you mean, when you said ‘Princesses’?”

Princess Luna answered for Gibbous, smiling a genuine smile.

From the corner behind a warehouse, a new equine figure meekly trotted into view. With a gasp, Heartstrings excused herself from Heliotrope, galloping forward to greet the newcomer.

“Cadance! It really is you!”

Lani had to cup a hand to her mouth, in order for her to mask a smile,as the two began some sort of greeting dance, involving a tune about sunshine and ladybugs. This, she reflected, must be the foalsitter Lyra Heartstrings remembered from her childhood, the one who had done the same for Twilight, Moondancer and so many others, whose tumultuous Royal Wedding the little green unicorn had attended as a bridesmaid.

Still, Cadance, a young pink unicorn, was about the same size as Heartstrings in build, if a few years older, but otherwise unremarkable.

Then Lani noticed the unicorn also bore a feature most unlike a unicorn’s. Small, stunted wings upon her slender back. She gave a low whistle that drew Princess Luna’s attention. Just like her, the nocturnal alicorn had been smiling wistfully at seeing two old friends reunite in the snow.

“So, this is Cadance. Is she like you, Your Highness?” Lani enquired, tapping first her forehead, followed by her back.

“An alicorn? No, though we had hopes for a while…” Luna sighed, glancing at her niece.

Cadance spoke up, gentle and calm. “I’m a pegacorn, born with stunted wings. Vestigial traits from another tribe, Aunt Luna explained.”

“Lyra is also one, if I recall,” noted Amethyst. “A unicorn who can walk on clouds… but I digress.”

“Yes,” Luna concurred, and Cadance nodded too. “Princess Cadance herself is my great-great-descendant– long story– and heir to the throne of the Crystal Realm.”

Lani nodded, recalling Heartstrings’ lessons on Equestrian history.

The Crystal Realm, a long and almost-forgotten city-state, had reappeared after a thousand-year ‘absence’ thirteen years prior, by the Equestrian Calendar. With it had come its tyrannical ruler, King Sombra, who quickly re-established his power despite the intervention of the Bearers of Harmony, resulting in a war between Equestria and the Crystal Realm.

Lani had wondered if, after getting Equestria onto a war footing, Queen Celestia had later decided to turn those same forces against Earth.

Something not so different had occurred in her own country, these United States of America, now twenty years ago, almost to the day...

“We had every confidence,” Luna continued, “that the Crystal Realm’s reappearance would be heralded by an Awakening. The transformation of a member of my bloodline into a new alicorn, who’d act as a nexus for the love and unity that flowed from the crystalponies… Cadance seemed a likely candidate, but nothing ever came of it. Looking back now, I realise I should’ve seen this for a sign of a rot, spreading throughout Equestria… A rot which first touched Celestia, and spread to the Element Bearers. And from them, through the veins and lifeblood of the world itself.”

“I had a question about that, actually, Your Highness,” said Amethyst, stepping forward. “It’s the reason I came here tonight– representing my father’s office, you understand.”

“What might that question be, Miss Star?” Luna said curiously.

“I’d like your attention for this, everyone,” Amethyst said. With all eyes turned towards her, including Lani’s perspective, committed to posterity by the camera, she nodded and went on. “From the beginning, I have studied the serum. The longer my studies have worn on, the more I gravitate towards an unsettling conclusion. This serum cannot be mere product of alchemy. No, it is attuned to a deeper force… A malign presence, some entity which may not have just corrupted Equestria, but become part of it.”

Cadance frowned, cocking her head.

“I have my own suspicions, and so does Aunt Luna, but nothing concrete,” said the Crystal Princess. “A presence, dim at first, yet constant. Some say it started with the Crystal War.”

“You mean,” Heartstrings began, “the Dark King is–”

“No, Lyra,” Luna cut her off, quite sharply. “Sombra is dead. Whatever this is, it’s something older than him. And the trouble is, I know not whether it’s acting with Celestia as its unwitting ally… or as its puppet.”

“Whatever could go back that far?” Heartstrings asked in a small voice. “How could we not have noticed?”

“Perhaps it was too weak. Or it didn’t want us to notice. Or both.”

A cough echoed from the rooftops. Heliotrope had resumed her post.

“It built up,” Heliotrope said quietly, though not so quiet they couldn’t hear her over the earpieces.. “Whatever this rot is, it started small. Acclimatised us. Just think, if it’d been before the Changeling Purges, and Celestia had started building warships, or those ‘Celestia’s Spear’ cannons, she’d have to brute-force us all into conflict. And too many of her precious ponies would have died there. But, with all the attitudes she stoked during both wars...”

“Yes…” Heartstrings said remorsefully.

There was guilt in her eyes, which Lani felt herself chillingly surprised to see. Guilt that hinted at a feeling of culpability which ran deeper than Heartstrings let on.

“I don’t like the Changelings anymore than the next pony,” whispered Heartstrings. “Still, during the Crystal War, even as I was learning to cope with what had happened to my mother and father, I hated what was being done to them… probably why I was so eager to leave home for a time, come live here on Earth…”

She closed her eyes, and sighed.

“We’re just as complicit in Celestia’s lies as the others, we who did not tell mankind of our people’s hidden shames…”

Cadance looked at her gently. “You saw what you wanted to see, Lyra.”

“People always do,” sighed Amethyst.

“Didn’t we all,” said Luna, before a pause. “Alas… in those brief, happy days, I was so glad to be home and loved once more, I dared not question things which seemed ‘off’ to me. In the wake of Sombra’s defeat, I suggested we establish Cadance, heir to Radiant Hope, as the Crystal Princess, but by then, relations between myself and Celestia were… soured, and my suggestion met with indifference. Celestia had come to regard herself as rightful holder of the Crystal Throne.”

Lani stared in silence, enraptured. When Luna finished, she finally spoke. “Would you be willing to testify to that, not just to me, but to both worlds?”

“You have the means to do this?”

“Yes,” Lani said, nodding down at her camera.

“As I had hoped,” said Luna. “Yes, we would be glad to spread the truth of Celestia’s madness, along with other secrets that illuminate the depths she has fallen too.”

Before Lansi could ask further, he overheard Heartstrings, who until now had been catching up with Cadance, take on a curious and worried tone.

“Cadance,” Heartstrings asked, “What happened to Shining Armor?”

Turning, Lani was there to spot Cadance’s weak smile collapse into a frown, and he spotted the telltale signs of weariness and exhaustion… Lines around the eyes and mouth that spoke of many a night spent crying into a pillow, where she might as well have been alone…

“That is another matter of which I wish to speak,” added Luna. “Much as how these foul serums compel the love and loyalty of all touched by them, Celestia has violated the will of the entire Imperial Guard, by invoking a Geas.”

“A what?” said Ze’ev.

Amethyst spoke up. “A Geas,” said she, in grim recognition. “All those inducted into the Guard, from back when it was but the Royal Guard, swear an oath of loyalty to Equestria, with one hoof placed upon the Charter of the Guard. This’d mean that…”

“Celestia has enchanted the Charter,” Cadance sniffed, “to make all who swore on it obey her, and reinterpret reality so that it fits their orders no matter what. If she gives them an order, they’ll carry it out. Leap off a cliff, harm children… B-betray their loved ones.”

“No…” Heartstrings breathed, her jaw dropping. “Cadance, surely Shining loved you too much for Celestia to break that!”

“But sadly, it makes sense,” Heliotrope said, always from above. “With everything we saw the Solar Empire do… I knew the Guard. I knew ponies who swore off fighting, but recalled themselves to the war with a smile…”

“And that’s what she did!” snapped Cadance. “My special talent is love, Lyra. I can sense its flow and currents. When Sombra sat upon the Crystal Throne, he incited anger and dark passions, filled his conscript-slaves with a black bile to set them against their fellows, but now…” She shuddered, looking a bit green around the gills. “Now, this flows through Equestria, hiding behind the mask of love, a love that consumes and poisons others, turning us toward Celestia and away from compassion for humanity…”

Cadance swallowed hard and looked up at Lani, Ze’ev and Korso.

For a moment, they saw a flicker in her eyes, a flash like crystalline facets. All of a sudden, it was plain to all assembled, perhaps especially the thestrals who were standing as an honour guard not just for Princess Luna, but for both Princesses, that a great deal of potential lay hidden in this mare, like a pressure-drum waiting to burst.

“These violent passions…” Cadance said morosely, “have violent ends…”

“So, she’s brainwashing her own citizens,” Korso said somberly.

“Yes, and no,” Amethyst said. “It’d be subtler than that, more insidious. Do not underestimate the power of love, humans,” she intoned, in a different voice than she’d used previously, as if a hidden timbre lying below had arisen to reverberation, “for love is a powerful force, and it is most fearsome when twisted to malicious purposes.”

“Is that how the serum gets the Newfoals to obey as well?” Ze’ev asked.

“No.” Luna sounded haunted. “There is a deeper, darker secret to the serum, wherein my sister has courted with magicks most vile.”

Lani shuddered at the way Luna was eyeing them.

“Yes,” Luna said, “On some level, you understand what I’m saying, even if you don’t have the words. I… I didn’t want to believe it when Celestia first promoted the serum. I believed her heart was pure, that she’d found a way to safely bypass the limits of the amniomorphic spell. But she hasn’t changed the foundational principles. The Newfoals, the Barrier, and their obedience are all bound together in the essence of…”

Everyone waited expectantly, but Luna trailed off, ears high and pupils shrinking into pinpricks.

“She’s here!”

The Princess of the Night spun on her hooves, teeth bared in a scream.

“You must leave, now!” Luna cried. “She’s looking for me, and if she finds you, she’ll force this accursed change upon you all!” She thrust a hoof at Lyra, Cadance and Amethyst. “And you! All she’ll have for you is a knowing smile and a show trial before death by petrifaction! This cannot be allowed to happen!”

Muscles tensed, Ze’ev crouched to look her in the eye.

“You’re going to sacrifice yourself, aren’t you?” the Lieutenant said quietly. “Stay behind and draw her attention while we escape.”

“Indeed,” Luna nodded, the tangles of her mane whipping back like silvery threads.

Cadance looked at her, eyes wide. “No, no, Aunt Luna. Not you too. Not with everyone else gone...”

Ambassador Heartstrings shook her head. “We can’t let you do that, Your Highness. Your life and love for our cause are too great to lose.”

Luna flashed them a forlorn little smile. “I am a shadow of my former might, Cadance. It is you that must survive another day. Radiant’s light shines bright within you.” She looked at Lyra. “And there is nothing else you can do, Lyra, except let me give myself up for this cause. Although it may help if you left me that…” she added, pointing towards Lani’s still-recording camera.

“We’ve fought her forces before…” Ze’ev growled, standing proud with Korso by her side. “We’ll fight them now.”

“Don’t fool yourself, Lieutenant. You’ve fought thralls, slaves and the Bearers of Harmony. My sister is none of those!”

So as to illustrate her point, Princess Luna hurtled around in a whirlwind kick, balancing on her forehooves to deliver a powerful buck to a shipping container, sending the entire weighted object flying into the harbour.

“She’s right, you know,” Amethyst Star said wearily. Cadance standing next to her, with her eyes closed in resignation. “We cannot confront her here. The day will come when we make our stand, but tonight is not the night…”

Luna took a deep, sharp breath.

“I have fought time and again for Equestria,” the Princess of the Night whispered, “but Celestia has had a millennium to perfect her skills. It is impossible to fight beings such as we, not without magic of your own, for we cannot be killed by mortal means. Cold of steel and heat of flame neither pierce nor burn us. Celestia and I exist until Equestria itself wills us to die, and the tainted spirit of the land has, thus far, only turned against me... sapping my life and power and strength... Yet, even weak as I am, behold what I can do. Now, run!”

Her hearing still dull, Lani could not hear the familiar sucking ‘push’ of a portal opening. But Princess Luna did, spotting a pink mote of light that danced into being on the dock behind them, rapidly swelling in size and girth.

“RUN!”

Her scream was both physical and near-telepathic, and did not bear refusal.

“Princess!” Gibbous protested, as did many of the other thestrals. Many marveled at their willpower in the face of that shriek. “It is our sworn duty to

“I’d thought the death of so many of our Guards was the last,” Luna panted. “I was wrong. This is the last breath. If you stay to fight the Tyrant, you will die. And then our struggle to escape, our fallen friends’ sacrifices will be all for naught! Go to the PHL, Captain Gibbous. Go to them, and help any way you can! No matter how bad it seems… Do. Not. Give. In!”

“To the last breath,” Gibbous said, saluting with his right foreleg.

“To the last,” Luna said, returning the salute. She turned her gaze to Heartstrings. “Lyra. I regret how short our reunion has been. But I’m proud of you, who have shown true Equestrian spirit in these darkest of days.” She swept a wing in the direction of her fellow Princess. “And take Cadance with you. Let her be your ally. Together, you may unlock a power that can defy my sister… but it is not to be tonight. Now GO! All of you!”

Cadance’s eyes brimmed with tears. “Take care, Auntie.”

Ambassador Heartstrings locked eyes with the Princess of the Night. Her voice was a whisper. “Harmony be with you, Princess Luna.”

Without further ado, Ze’ev and Korso took their positions by the Ambassador’s side, falling into step as Heartstrings and Cadance, with one last, regretful glance at Luna, turned tail and fled. Amethyst took up the rear, her pace swift yet measured, filled with grim purpose.

A fretful Lani was last, taking the awful risk of lagging to film their retreat.

But one pony did not leave.

“I knew my instincts would bear out,” said Lani. “And this is where someone else took up the tale. Or should I say, somepony.” She let her gaze cross over the gathering at the fire. “You all know what happened next.”

“How could I fokkin’ not?” Viktor asked. “Heliotrope told me about it all the time, even after...” His voice trailed off.

“After what?” Lani asked.

“Is that really the most important thing here?” Aegis demanded, sidling up to Viktor.

“Aweh, we’re better off not going into that,” Viktor agreed, laying an arm around the stallion’s broad shoulders.

“Go on…” Ana told her, sleepily, with a smile. “Go on anyway. You had a good thing going.”

Lani returned the smile crookedly. “Alright, Bjorgman. Because you asked me to. After all, what Hawaiian could resist sitting outside before a fire, with a story to tell…”

“We’ve all told the same stories over and over,” Johnny C added. “At least twice.”

Really, ‘Nny?” Fiddlesticks asked.

“Not like we’ve got much else to do,” Johnny C said. “Besides, this sort of thing lets us enjoy ourselves. Brings us together.”

Later, when Heliotrope returned to base, she would come back exhausted, terrified, in desperate need of a stiff drink. And she would have directions for Reiner – directions to a stranded Panasonic video camera low on power.

A flat battery did not diminish the value of the footage contained within, however.

Staying behind as the others beat a retreat, hidden between two containers, Heliotrope had expanded the zoom, earning the lens a jarring closeup of Luna’s tight-set jaw. It didn’t last long, though, as Luna found it an ideal hiding spot. Unceremoniously motioning for Heliotrope to sit still and make herself invisible – literally – Luna allowed the camera to record her as she trotted back into the center of the street, head held high.

Luna did not look back, and why should she? This was madness, for either of them.

And then the image was briefly obscured by a bright flash. What was undetectable to any video camera, but which filled Heliotrope’s nostrils all the way in, was the peculiar scent, not unpleasant yet striking, an aroma of rose and ozone...

What was that?’ Heliotrope wondered, training the camera in the direction of the flash. Strangely, the view was distorted as she turned the lens toward the source of the light. Too blurry, too pixelated to use.

But Heliotrope heard the voice.

“I see I have been betrayed.”

That damn voice! No pony would mistake that voice for anyone else.

“It is you who are the betrayer, sister,” said Luna, planting her hooves firmly on the ground and summoning a speck of magic. “Do you not deny all you have done, all the holy promises and vows you have defiled, the lives and minds you have violated? Your taunts as I disagreed with war after war, asking if I was ‘quite myself’, as if the slightest grievance might be a sign I was becoming Nightmare Moon? The ideals we swore by when we united Equestria? You have betrayed Equestria and its neighbours, you have betrayed me, and most of all, you have betrayed yourself!”

“A mere bagatelle, Luna, necessary for the glory that will be accomplished…” Queen Celestia replied, stepping into view. The light she cast was strange. It pulsed in and out, like a guttering candle. “You mean to fight me?”

And as it pulsed, so too did the strange pixelation on Heliotrope’s camera move in and out, like… like a heartbeat? It made no sense, but it was the first thought that came to Heliotrope’s mind.

“Forever and a day, for our little ponies, and the humans too.”

“Don’t force my hoof against you…” Celestia said sternly. “I would rather not lose you again, my dear sister. But I will not allow you to pervert the destiny of this world.”

Holier than thou till the end,’ Heliotrope thought, disgusted.

“You lost me, Celestia,” Luna replied, smiling wanly through her tears. “When you lost yourself. If there is any of Equestria’s noble ruler left, the one who led our people into a thousand years of peace, then please, let us be sisters again, and bring true light to both these worlds.”

“No, Luna,” the blindingly white alicorn decreed. “I send my Scourge, I send my Sword. There will be no truce, only a final peace, and a perfect dominion that spans two worlds, an empire that will last another thousand years, and beyond.”

“So be it…” Luna wept, rearing back on her hooves. “I love you, Tia.”

She cast her spell. The bolt of light flew straight and true, until, with her own power, Celestia bent the magical shot in an arc, back at her sister.

Luna staggered, and her eyes widened, as if in realisation.

And abruptly, Luna’s mouth froze, mid-scream, as she became stone.

Her own sister!’ Heliotrope thought, frantic. ‘I can’t believe it!’

As the effect swiftly flowed to encompass her whole head, in the final moment, with a swirl of venting magic, Luna’s mane exploded into a gorgeous starfield, billowing for one instant, before it too was frozen.

Then...

“I know you’re there, Heliotrope.”

WHAT!

“Still wearing that outfit you cobbled out of those crystals you swiped from under my nose?” Celestia said softly, and for a moment she sounded like the old Princess Celestia, the one who could be trusted with anything, who knew the value of a kind smile. But it couldn’t be that one was long gone by now. “Come on out, then. I suppose we could use the company. Especially Luna.”

And Heliotrope panicked.

Dropping the camera in her haste, she flew forward, following the trail of the thestrals.

“Fly, Heliotrope, fly,” Celestia called after her. “The next one up, little thieving pegasus, is Lyra Heartstrings. You can tell her that. Tell her my Sword shall fall upon her next.”

As Heliotrope dashed away, the camera tumbled through the air.

Several of those who later studied the recording would insist there was a moment a mere fraction of a second where it showed a strange blur, something that Celestia was wearing above her golden peytral, but it was gone as quickly as it had appeared.

Contrary to what some said, though, it was not the outline of a white ring with a dark centre.

The camera clattered to the ground, landing on a discarded glass bottle in the shadow of a trash can. It landed at an odd angle, and the image fractured worse than ever, but the unmistakeable white silhouette of Celestia could still be discerned. From the back, of course. She ceremoniously marched up to the new statue, her neck bent, as though carrying a weight too great to bear.

Then, just like that, she collapsed against the body of her petrified sister, sobbing.

“And I love you, Little Moon...”

As Celestia looked at the petrified body of her sister, the tears continued to flow.

“Something… must remain,” Celestia said, and stared.

She began to say something. To sing, perhaps. Or recite. A series of indecipherable syllables uttered under her breath, varying in volume and length.

Perhaps it was a memorial of some kind. A last rite. A song. None could say.

“And when you’ve heard that…” Lani said, “Well, you have to wonder. It’s so easy for us, for all of us, to see her as no more than this fire-wielding maniac, her honeyed words belying the horrors she’s rained down on our worlds… turning people into monsters and saying it’s for their own good. But when you’ve heard that…”

The raven-haired woman heaved a deep sigh.

“... What happened to her, man?”

“Couldn’t say,” Fiddlesticks said. “Everyone’s got their pet theory. Champagne Grape said she thought the corruption in Nightmare Moon had to go somewhere, so it went into Celestia. But I heard Soarin’ say he thought Discord corrupted her, ‘cept that don’t feel right. And High Winds said it could’ve been Somnambula the Witch possessing her. Vapour Trail said he’d heard from Sky Stinger that she once saw a weird cloud near Celestia, and that cloud might’ve been Arabus the Cloud Demon and Celestia might have breathed too much of it in.”

“A lot of ponies are convinced she’d have to be possessed, I see,” Lani said.

“What else, then?” Aegis asked. “End up like Vinyl, or Luna forbid, Verity–”

He spoke the names with such bitterness. Although Ana had known what sorts of histories some people had in this squad, hearing Aegis like this was what made her feel most uncomfortable, twice over in connection to the case of Verity Carter. The burly earthpony had been friends with Lieutenant Vinyl Scratch. From what she knew of Vinyl, Ana suspected it must have been like pulling her teeth out to place Aegis on a penal squad.

But although Aegis had originally been a victim of deception, continuing to shelter a notorious HLF criminal like Viktor Kraber, the ‘Night Surgeon’, after uncovering the truth – this only could count as aiding and abetting. Reportedly, Vinyl was uncommonly sympathetic to his motives, that a bond had formed between Viktor and his foals. Separating a family was not a choice Vinyl made lightly, yet whatever could be said about her, she also didn’t want to show special favours. Alas, there was no doubt Aegis missed his children.

Ana didn’t think Aegis perceived it as a betrayal, any more than he did Verity absconding from the PHL’s custody. If anything, he probably envied her. For that, and how through a loophole, it was arranged that for all intents and purposes, Amber and Rivet came to be in her care.

The look on Viktor’s face as he placed his hand in Aegis’ mane, stroking it to comfort him, was so absurdly out-of-place given his reputation, Ana was left momentarily unable to process it.

Fear. Profound, almost fatherly concern. Sadness. And pain.

“Don’t… don’t even joke about that,” Viktor said, but his voice was curiously soft. He also hadn’t used any swear words, and didn’t sound angry, which probably wasn’t a good sign. “We both saw enough that day.”

“Right,” Aegis said, shaking his head. “Yeah. That… that was…” he sighed. “Something.”

Johnny C, Fiddlesticks, Oscar, Quiette Shy, and Lorne had similar downcast looks.

“That Was An Awful Day,” Quiette Shy said, and for a moment her artificial voice box somehow sounded sad. Which, as far as Ana knew, wasn’t possible with that kind of technology.

“What did you see?” Lani asked, confused.

“We’ll get to it someday. The point is... I don’t want to get like her, Viktor,” Aegis continued. “I don’t want to be a stallion who believes that deep down, Celestia was always a warmonger and she was just lying to us. Or that somehow, she was so easily triggered by beings different than her, that she thought this was the most logical option.”

“You won’t,” Viktor said, hugging him close. “I can promise you that. You’re just too… too kind for it.”

“It doesn’t make sense,” Aegis grumbled, not seeming to listen. “None of this whole war, of what this whole Conversion scenario says about Celestia makes any goddamn sense.”

As Aegis said this, he glanced off in no particular direction, away from anyone in the room. As if he was staring at a camera nobody could see.

“What, you see them too?” Viktor asked.

“I dunno, it just… felt appropriate,” Aegis said. “Wait. What ‘them’?”

Viktor smirked. “I could just be fokkin’ with you, but you’ll never know!”

Aegis gently punched – well, tapped, more like – Viktor in the arm with one foreleg, and guffawed a little. “You jerk.”

“This kind of talk isn’t getting us anywhere, is it?” Frieda asked.

“I don’t know,” Johnny said at last, wearily. “What I do know is, we could do with a few songs ourselves around here.”

Quiette Shy nodded. Somehow, that single motion managed to convey a lot of annoyance. “As Long As It’s Not Country, We’re Golden,” she said.

Ana had never quite gotten used to Quiette Shy’s artificial voicebox. It sounded feminine, but was obviously artificial, as she stumbled over words, giving them a strange, echoing quality as they changed in pitch and tone, sometimes.

Fiddlesticks glared at her.

“Who said anything about country?” Ana inquired, tuning her guitar. “Vivian, wherever she is now, would never forgive me for doing country, not after she brought me to band practice.”

“Oh, thank the Lord,” Lorne breathed, sighing in relief. “I can’t take that shit.”

“Aweh, right?” Viktor added.

“Says the white guy,” Lorne said.

“Big fan of Die Antwoord,” Viktor said. “And a lot of other things.”

Fiddlesticks turned the glare towards both of them.

“Don’t worry,” Lorne said, throwing up both his hands. “We still love you. You’re alright.” He elbowed Viktor, who nodded.

“Just let her play,” Aegis said. “The both of you. We’re both on edge, and some music might help us calm down. Even if it’s, I dunno, Dethklok or something.”

Viktor had a big grin on his face when Aegis mentioned that.

The guitar was ready, finely tuned, too. “Now,” Ana declared, “let me sing you this one song Harwood and I share a certain fondness for. Not the only one, but, heh, anyway…”

“Y’all need a backup?” Fiddlesticks asked. “Brought my fiddle and everything.”

“I’m fine, maybe, heh, next time,” Ana said. And she began, with closed eyes.

She opened her eyes again, and saw the immediate effects of bursting into a rather energetic song. The tune was evidently familiar to those surrounding her. A good start, she thought, with bright-eyed amusement. The more, the merrier. Catchy as it was, the opening, iconic riff wasn’t as grand as it should be. She didn’t have drums, nor a stage, but it would have to do.

Shy made a few sickly wheezing noises that could’ve been her trying to hum the tune. Around the mare, several others in the group were pulling their weight for the performance.

Lorne was smirking, slightly, humming along with her and tapping his foot.

“C’mon,” Fiddlesticks said, tapping Oscar’s shoulder. “Hmmmm-mmmm-mmm…

The big man tapped his feet, uncertain, but soon settled into a rhythm. As if in response, the dog in his lap began howling.

Ana felt an energy begin to flow, from the tips of her fingers and her upper arm. It was not an uncommon feeling for her at the guitar, and this song, more than any other, had a knack for bringing it out. Perhaps it had to do with the reminder that, in an old time, Norway, sweet pastoral Norway, had been what Joseph Conrad – never one of her favourite writers, but Harwood loved him – would call ‘one of the dark places of the Earth’.

Even now, all her pony friends agreed their Equestria used to be a good, kind place. How the wheel turns...

Was that strange buzzing sound coming from Shy’s eccentric voicebox?

Ana didn’t let the question slow her. What was slowing was time, as it tended to when she reached this phase. Instinctively, like any musician expecting sparks to go off on the stage, or simply because she so loved making fireworks with Amethyst, her eyes sought out the nearest source of ignition – the campfire.

It was crackling. Red, and white at its heart. A growing white...

And something, impossible as it were, did sweep the fire.

In her mind’s eye, white flame coalesced into figures, truer and denser than any imaginary cloud silhouettes. Not human figures, nor mystical, otherworld creatures, though. Simply beasts that dwelt deep in the heart of her homeland’s unfathomable, sylvic wilderness.

Reindeer.

Never in the same numbers at a given time, their distinct white silhouettes striding in twos or threes across the edges of the fire, hooftips curlicuing back into tips of white flame, scattering the ashes like a prancing deer would sweep through snow...

A dance, alluring, tempting in its charm. She found herself admiring it with a childlike glee, like a young girl witnessing a puppet dance. And in the midst of it, a great stag, towering over the merry revellers, his antlers bowing to touch each and every one of them in blessing...

The sight of him invigourated her, her smile shone brighter still. And then Ana cried out the close of the song, to the cheers of those around the campfire, joyful and gleeful.

“Okay, I can’t– alright, is anyone else seeing this?” Ana finally exclaimed, exhilarated, pausing her riff. Pity, it was only the first verse, but that crackling fire begged explanation.

Yet, as these things go, the lull in the music marked the end of the dance. And the dancers. Like a heart that has stopped beating, she saw the fire had abruptly swollen down, a few mere embers of red flickering in the ashes. Not a trace of white to be found.

Ana, surrounded by confusion in every direction, set aside her guitar. In the sudden gloom, no face could be seen clearly.

“I’m… I’m not the only one who saw that, right?”

“What,” Quiette Shy said, flatly.

“That’s not normal, right?” Oscar asked.

“Certainly isn’t,” Viktor said, staring at the fire with a confused look on his face. “That just happened, right, Aegis?”

“It did indeed happen,” Aegis added with a nod. “Someone should reignite the fire. It’s getting cold up here.”

There was a collective silence as Viktor brought out a lighter and stood, moving to return life to the dying embers of the fire.

“Darnit,” Lani growled, gripping her camera. “Darnit it all! There goes another great shot, missed by a hair’s breadth!”

Johnny C tapped his leg. “It happens,” he said philosophically. “Would you believe this is only the second time I missed taking a picture of supernatural reindeer?”

“You’re kidding me,” Lani said, to many a blink.

“He’s really not,” Fiddlesticks said, patting her maybe-boyfriend’s elbow.

Lani stared at them. A disbelieving stare, but not because she didn’t buy their story. “This whole time, you had that kind of tale up your sleeves,” she whispered, “and you let me take the painful trip down memory lane, about an event everyone present is at least passingly familiar with?”

“Yeah, well, nobody asked,” Johnny C said gruffly. “For your information, that’s one story we haven’t told as often as we’d like.”

“Well,” Lani said, gazing at Viktor while he stoked the campfire, “I feel someone’s gonna be asking you soon.”

“You’re sure?” Johnny C demanded. “I think it’s just going to keep getting delayed. And then I’ll have to rewrite the first chapter after the editing team breaks up.”

“He’s speaking from bitter experience,” Fiddlesticks explained to Lani, who had an eyebrow raised. “He did actually start writing a book about it.”

“Nonetheless. You promise me you’ll both tell me?” Lani asked. “Please?”

Fiddlesticks and Johnny C looked at each other. “Absolutely.”

Frieda tapped her hip-flask. “We’re bound for some entertainment, girl,” she said jocularly. “Just… just don’t take stock of everything they say. They a right pair with tall tales, these two. I mean, really, time-travelling scientists? That’s a bit far out there, even for us...”

“Anyways,” said Johnny C. “It all started with me and Fiddlesticks in a plane. Wanna take it from here, ‘Sticks?”

“Thing is, I hate flying,” Fiddlesticks pipped, as she began the story. “We were flying up to Juneau, to help a friend move into his new home in Fort Wainwright...”

“You know, Ana,” said Johnny C, looking her way. “You should try that beat around Vinyl Scratch sometime. Betcha she’d love it, a bit slower than I’m used to, but it’s still great!”

I’m sure she will,’ Ana thought, smiling brightly. ‘I’m sure…

On a whim, Ana plucked the guitar’s strings, a soft melody to fill the time, something she often played for her and Vivian as the stars filled the night’s sky years ago, before the war. As for the fire, it continued to dance and crackle, well into the night, amidst Winter’s chill.

~ New York City, USA ~ November 13th 2024 CE ~

Many decades earlier on this world, the words had been written, “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness”. Yet that place, it turned out, had been one in which darkness was never allowed to penetrate, no matter how much of a sweet relief, how much privacy it might have provided from the all-embracing, all-seeing eye of tyranny.

As she traipsed from one identical, starkly-lit underground hall to the next, Cheerilee felt she understood what those words meant. The lights were never allowed to go out, down here. Not in the corridors, where the glare of the lamps turned the concrete a pallid shade of grey, and cast a ghostly pallor on wanderers’ faces.

Like Cheerilee’s own, as she, feeling the lack of sleep nip at her hooves, trotted towards a certain wing of the underground complex. The wing which housed those most in need of Lady Cadance’s psychological and spiritual tenderness. Down here, those who sought sleep and respite from the light, would only find it behind closed doors. Up ahead, Cheerilee saw the very door she was searching for, situated at a corner where the corridor turned right in an L-shape. But when she reached it, she stopped dead in her tracks, hesitant.

Instinctively, Cheerilee touched her badge, knowing its shape without looking at it. A Golden Lyre.

Though Lyra had been no Princess of Equestria, she had certainly been the princess of their hearts, by whose acts of boundless generosity, humanity’s salvation had seemed at hand. She had been their pillar, their rock, their guide in the desert. Now she was long gone. The power which Princess Luna had promised Lyra and Cadance would unlock, had not swept in to save the day… So where did that leave her, plain Cheerilee Cherry?

“‘Come in under the shadow of this red rock…’”

Cheerilee’s head jolted sharply towards the right.

She saw Moondancer. The bespectacled mare was seated on a plastic chair at the far end of the corridor, leafing through a copy of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.

“‘And I will show you something different,’” Moondancer continued to read aloud, absorbed by the poem, “‘from either your shadow at morning striding behind you, or your shadow at evening rising to meet you.’”

She paused, contemplating the page, as if pondering whether to skip a line.

“‘They called me the hyacinth girl. Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden, your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not speak, and my eyes failed. I was neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing, looking into the heart of light, the silence.’”

Moondancer lay down the book, looking up at Cheerilee.

“I heard you arrive. Sorry,” she said bashfully. “It’s just… those words Pina spoke at our round-table. I have been unable to get them out of my head. What she said. About how… what did she say? Freedom is to look at your shadow, and to see yourself…”

Cheerilee trotted all the way over to lay a hoof on her shoulder.

“You always were one to overthink, Dancer,” Cheerilee told her gently. “Really, you should learn to accept not every mystery has a key. Pina is a loon. A resourceful loon, yes, but a loon nonetheless.”

Moondancer smiled ruefully. “A teacher telling a student to cool it. Who’d have thought?”

In response, Cheerilee gave the expected chuckle. “Yeah,” she said, “but it has been a long time since we were either.”

“I’d rather you didn’t say that,” Moondancer said sorrowfully. “Wouldn’t it be nice to think that we’re still who we once were, somewhere.”

“Wouldn’t it be?” Cheerilee agreed. She stared behind Moondancer, at the last door along this path. Her heart, already burdened by such thoughts, only grew heavier as it went out to the occupant on the other side. “Thanks for staying on as her chaperone, Moondancer. I know how hard it must on you, with all the extra duties we’ve had lately.”

Breathing low, Moondancer slumped her head against the door. “Bonnie can never be left on her own for long...”

“No, she can’t. What about Vinyl?” Cheerilee said, gesturing back the way she’d came, at that other door she’d hesitated to open. “Is Allie still inside with her?”

“Indeed she is,” Moondancer said, checking her watch. “You made good time. I expect Allie will be out any minute now.”

They didn’t have long to wait. Barely two minutes later, the door opened, facing them, and they saw a lanky, beige-coloured forehoof step out, as the second of the PHL’s “Blue Belles” exited the room, leaving their main Belle to her troubled sleep.

Not that, when she came into view, Allie Way’s demeanour looked its finest. Before closing the iron door, she had to brush two dishevelled strands of her azure mane out of her eyes. And with the door shut, her first action was to press her forehead against, staring downward.

Cheerilee knew she shouldn’t be left to stew. “Evening, Allie.”

Allie blinked their way, spotting both her superiors without surprise. She half-heartedly stood to attention and saluted.

“Commandant Cheerilee,” she said. She lowered her hoof. “Dame Moondancer,” she added, nodding dutifully.

“At ease, Second Lieutenant,” Cheerilee said. “These aren’t the parade grounds, there’s no need to pull rank around here. Don’t forget, not all heroes are on the battlefield.”

“Yeah…” said Allie, eyes darting to the door. “And it makes me shiver to think, what it’d mean for those who lose sight of that.”

“How is Vinyl doing, Allie?” Cheerilee asked, as she went to meet Allie, Moondancer taking the time to put down her book before catching up to them. “I’ve got Cadance’s report on the matter and, I won’t lie to you, it worries me. Only, since you know her better than we do…”

“She hasn’t made the noises in about… an hour, I think,” Allie said. “But… it’s awful.”

Moondancer nodded sadly. “Every night, it’s the same,” she sighed, pulling off her glasses to wipe them. “Her mind keeps going back to that same day. Cadance says she’s done all she can for her.”

Allie was not satisfied by this. “Are you telling me there’s nothing to be done?”

“I’m sorry, Allie,” said Moondancer, replacing her glasses. “But the only thing that can help your cousin is time. Time to heal. Time to rest. Then, maybe, in that time, the strands of her mind will knit themselves back into a more... harmonious pattern. Or as ‘harmonious’ as they ever were, for a hard-partying mare like her.” She chuckled raspily. “You know, my tastes in music always ran more towards Miss Melody’s style… but there is a certain exaltation, isn’t there, to be found in music in its wildest form? I’m sure that in time, I’d have come to enjoy it better, too. Alas, time is something no-one has, on this side of the Barrier.”

But it was Moondancer’s turn to be startled by a voice echoing from the far end.

“Time…” said the voice. “Time be material short-most of ours. Waste anything except time. To see in a grain of sand the world, and in wild flower a Heaven, hold eternity in an hour, and infinity in the palm of your h… of your… your ha…”

It was botched poetry. Cheerilee recognised it because Moondancer had explained it to her, many times before, in quick snatches of respite to share learning. An over-thinker though Lyra’s old classmate was, one of her talents was making sense out of madness...

And in this wing of their headquarters, a semi-official asylum of a world gone mad, none were as insane as the inmate who’d just left her room, the same room Moondancer had tasked herself with watching over.

“Bonnie…” Moondancer said, a note of shame in her voice. “How are you holding up?”

“Will being fine, concordant concern contrasting…”

Cheerilee saw Bonbon was standing in the shadow of her room, away from the unceasing light of the corridor… yet appearing to glow slightly with some inner luminescence. Slowly, the creamy earthpony emerged, her face scrunched up in tortured concentration. Something about her was… wrong, something about how she moved, like a drunken marionette, her legs working against each other, each limb slightly out of sync with the other.

And then there was that thing about her eyes.

All three of the other mares were used to seeing a lazy eye, having lived and worked with Derpy Doo for years. But Bonbon’s condition went deeper than strabismus. Each eye moved independently of the other, focusing on other things… and other times.

Strapped to her side, in a modified bandolier, she was carrying a dusty, slightly battered lyre.

“Is being daymare bad…” Bonbon forced out, jaw muscles struggling to enunciate. “But am fine-amfine-AMFINE!”

Shaking slightly, the mare stopped and stumbled halfway, collapsing against the wall. She began to weep out of her right eye, the left focusing on something only she could see. Without prompting, Moondancer and Allie hurried to help her up.

Cheerilee watched them. So many things, so many people broken. Cheerilee even felt another twinge of sorrow for Diamond Tiara.

Such was the fate of Bonbon, ever since the PHL had rescued her from her execution, moments too late to save Lyra. An emergency crossing of the time-dimensional barrier had brought her back to Earth, yet at the cost of her sanity. Doctor Time Turner had, regretfully, diagnosed her with chronological lobular desync disorder.

“Beware,” Bonbon whispered, in Allie’s general direction, “villainesses do swarm upon us… her black dog, that faithful hound, that attack dog, determinedly disdaining with dissevering Sword, hidden in lies sight plain… see her, see her very well, oh, oh, why can you not see! Smoked with bloody sacrifice atop mountain…”

In other words, she had suffered a temporal stroke. Both halves of her brain evolved in separate time zones. One was always in the present, while the other... wandered.

“Soon...” said Bonbon, contorting her facial muscles into a sad smile. “Hurts, but soon, promising...” Her head turned jerkily, allowing one eye to catch sight of the lyre she carried everywhere, and the small smile grew in its melancholy. “Not me… her and me… gone, neverwhen again.”

Now, as she stared at Moondancer, her left eye glistened with tears, the right narrowing in wrathful indignation.

Slowly, Cheerilee moved to hug Bonbon.

“Oh, Bonnie, I’m so sorry...” she said, but her gaze hardened. “Bonbon, I need you to focus. Listen only to the sound of my voice, you’re here, you’re now, with us... and if you’re seeing something, something important, then you have to tell us what that is...”

The former candymaker’s eyes rolled, one side of her body shaking. She let out a ragged breath and stared straight at Cheerilee.

“Equestria is coming...” said Bonbon, speaking in short, sharp gasps. “Celestia... will... fight.”

Moondancer looked at Cheerilee, then at Bonbon. “Celestia… will fight?” she echoed, pushing up her glasses. “What? On the front lines?”

Unsurprisingly, the first emotion to cross Allie’s face was one of dismay, mouth agape.

Yet, much to Cheerilee’s own surprise, the news left her feeling less fearful than… confused. Because, after all this time, her mind, molded into a tactician’s detachment, was faced with an incongruence. And Bonbon did not look afraid.

“Strange…” Cheerilee whispered, staring back at the other two. “Ever since the Crystal War, the one and only time the Tyrant has put her life on the line, was when she went to deal with her sister in person. They say she didn’t even have the courage to kill Sint Erklass herself. We’ve never been able to confirm those later rumours of her taking to the battlefield.”

“Not… Tyrant…” Bonbon forced out, before Moondancer could say a word. “A Celestia whole and true. As she was. As she is. As she will be. As she…. should have been.”

Cheerilee, Allie and Moondancer shared a glance.

“Dancer?” asked Allie. “What does it all mean?”

“I… don’t know…” Moondancer confessed, in a tight mutter. “Except I’d be very surprised if this were unrelated to the vanishing of Captain Reiner.”

Allie gasped. “Bonbon,” she said, edging in closer to said mare’s haunted face. “Do you… have you seen him? Alexander Reiner? Where is he?”

“Reiner… the substitute,” Bonbon grimaced. “He still stands. He means well by you.”

That appeared to be all they’d be getting out of her, as her eyes rolled to the back of her head and she fell into a faint, to the consternation of the other three.

“By the Golden Lyre…” Allie mumbled.

“Fetch water and a towel,” Moondancer ordered her. “I’ve got supplies in my saddlebags, by the door to her room. Please, hurry.”

“What was that, Dancer?” Cheerilee asked as Allie, who didn’t need to be told twice, hastened off to obey. “One of her visions? How do those even work? We didn’t hear a peep out of her before Alex marched out to that ‘secret meeting’ and, most likely, his death, though I won’t believe he is dead. I won’t! Time Turner keeps going on about mystical guff to do with Bonbon’s condition and how the stars align…”

“Like I said, I am unsure,” Moondancer replied. She glanced at her discarded book. “But now it dawns on me, we may be on the verge of seeing fear in a handful of dust…”

PreviousChapters Next