"Okay, are ya really sure about this?" Applebloom asked Sweetie Belle for the third time in fifteen minutes.
"Pretty sure." The unicorn filly answered "I asked Rarity, who asked Twilight, who asked Moondancer, who sent us the instructions to perform this ritual. Apparently it was created by Princess Luna centuries ago as a way to allow ponies to dreamwalk even if they don't have any ability in that kind of magic."
"And that's another thing." Scootaloo said "Why can't Princess Luna help with this? Dreams are part of her deal, aren't they?"
"Miss Cornflower petitioned Princess Luna, but she is apparently too busy with something." Sweetie Belle answered patiently "She told us this herself, were you not paying attention?"
"Honestly no." Scootaloo admitted "I was kinda distracted by how awesome her house is."
"I can understand that." Sweetie Belle allowed.
Because it really was a cool house. Cornflower lived in a remodeled observatory, which was appropriate, considering her astronomy cutie mark. It had a system of mirrors in place that covered all of the walls and were set up in such a way that one could see the sky even from the inside by looking at them. The ground was painted with star charts, forming a beautiful configuration, and there was a model of their corner of the universe floating in the main room, a model in scale that moved by magic, spells that the unicorn refreshed every day.
Staying inside that house was like living in an astronomy book.
"Ah understand all that too, Ah just..." Applebloom tried to put her feelings in words "Ah just feel like we might be in a little over our heads." She indicated the surrounding situation.
They were standing next to the bed where Cornflower was currently sleeping, in the middle of a complex series of diagrams with strange materials scattered around in precise intervals, things like the hair of a squirrel (Fluttershy had helped with that one) and a cube of wax with a very precise shape and weight (Rarity had helped with that one) along with other things, none of them really rare or dangerous, but certainly an odd assortment, all in all.
And why were they trying to use a ritual to walk into the dreams of an unicorn astronomer? Because of the reputation they had garnered in the previous months.
After having gained their cutie marks, the three fillies went around trying to help other ponies with their cutie marks. Some of them were ponies even younger that needed help to find their cutie marks, but most of what they did actually had to do with ponies who were having trouble with their cutie marks (they even managed to help Diamond Tiara and thus make friends with her) and frequently they ended up helping adults who were rather well-connected.
Because of that, eventually word about them spread, and the three ended up traveling frequently to do those jobs, and they were in fact jobs, because the fillies were actually being paid for them, though the prices were very negotiable. Cornflower was their most recent client, and it wasn't a long way to go, since her house was on the outskirts of Canterlot, however, her situation was particularly unique in the (admitely limited) experience of the Crusaders.
Her story was that recently she had been getting nightmares she could never quite remember but which left her with a feeling of dread when she woke up. Initially this had nothing to do with her cutie mark, but eventually things changed. Instead of just a feeling of dread, she felt drained and depressed, and worst of all, with less enthusiasm for space. Everything always cleared up in an hour or two, but the time was slowly growing longer.
Of course, she had tried to get Luna's help with that, but the princess was too busy. However, when she mentioned the part about her loss of enthusiasm for what her cutie mark was about to one of her friends, the friend thought that sounded like some of the things the Crusaders dealt with. Cornflower thought it was worth a shot and decided to call them.
And they quickly saw that their usual techniques would simply not work, since everything seemed to revolve around those nightmares. So eventually they decided to try the current solution, literally walk inside the dreams of Cornflower to see what was actually going on.
Applebloom sighed as she put on the finishing touches on the preparations for the ritual and started double-checking everything to make sure nothing was out of place. Considering both Twilight and Rarity know about this, I'm sure it can't really be dangerous...
Finally, everything was done, and Applebloom stepped on the central rune as Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle moved beside her, and pushed a little bit of magic into it from her hooves.
The room glowed faintly and then the formation circles they had prepared started emitting a kind of light mist that was contained within them. Inside the mist, the crusaders looked to the outside and noticed that the world out of the mist started seeming more and more faded and unreal, as if a dream. All the sounds of Canterlot, that were so constant it was difficulty to notice them slowly faded away into silence, ironically making them more noticeable for their absence.
Eventually, everything from the outside, all the sights and sounds, disappeared completely from their awareness. But instead of that leaving just darkness, something else seemed to have filled the gap. There was a sort of bubbly, uncertain feeling in the air that the three could feel on their coats. There was also a low sound that was difficult to identify, but seemed to have the cadence of a song. Finally, the mist around them started to thicken and coalesce into ephemeral shapes that got more and more elaborate with time.
And then, Cornflower seemed to shift somehow. They felt like she was looming over them, even though they could see quite clearly that she was still sleeping in the bed, immobile.
And suddenly, both her and the bed disappeared.
After that, the mist started to grow fainter, not due to receding, but because it slowly started to to spread in all directions while only having a limited amount of it. Soon, there was no more mist, and the surroundings started to brighten slowly, as if the light of the sun was breaking through a cloud that vanished little by little, having previously blocked all light.
And yet, different from what usually happened in reality, the sun shining through actually made the stars visible instead of wiping them out, as if there weren't truly stars in the sky, but much closer and smaller objects that were reflecting the light of the sun. The result was a starry sky in the middle of the day.
And the place they were in was also illuminated by the "sun" (despite the presence of the light, the actual sun didn't seem to appear at all in the sky), and it was instantly familiar to the crusaders, because they had seen it that same day. They were in Canterlot... more or less. It was kind of a weird, dreamlike version of Canterlot with lots of buildings and streets that didn't really fit together at all and which seemed to follow similar lines to the constellations showing in the sky.
"So this is Cornflower's dream." Applebloom said, looking around "So far there doesn't seem ta be anything strange, but Ah'm sure we'll find something."
The other two agreed with her assessment and the three started walking around and exploring, until Scootaloo realized something:
"Wait, if this is a dream, doesn't that mean I can fly right now?!"
Sweetie nodded at her "According to the instructions of the ritual, we can actually do anything we can imagine in the world of dreams, but there was a warning not to try anything too crazy or you could get a bad headache once you woke up."
"Okay, I'm going then!" Scootaloo said, then she focused, jumped, flapped her wings... And fell back into the floor "Wait, what gives?!" She said, getting back on her feet "That didn't work at all!" She accused.
"Really?" Sweetie Belle was surprised "Because the documents were pretty clear about it."
Deciding to test it herself, Sweetie Belle started trying to make a harp appear out of thin air, resulting in absolutely nothing happening "Huh, that's really weird."
"Maybe it has something ta do with whatever is going on with Cornflower?" Applebloom suggested.
"Maybe..." Sweetie Belle said hesitatingly.
And it was at that point that the situation suddenly changed. The sky seemed to split open and two figures emerged from thin air as if from deep water and started fighting each other while flying. It took a few seconds for the fillies to be able to recognize the figures, but when they did, they were astonished.
The first of them was actually Princess Luna, wearing some extremely heavy and powerful-looking armor while the other was... something weird.
It had approximately the same body shape and size of Luna and also seemed to be an alicorn mare. But that thing didn't seem to be a real being at all, mostly because its body was somehow wispy and ethereal, like a magical construct, its colors were also similar to Luna's but somewhat glowier and when the fight approached the crusaders, they could see that the face of the thing looked more like a parody of a pony's face, being all sharp lines and circles that created an unsettling sketchy effect.
The crusaders could only watch as the fight progressed, and they saw very clearly the moment where Princess Luna noticed them. She blinked and very obviously started fighting even harder, trying to drag the battle farther away from the fillies.
And she had success in that, because the pseudo alicorn didn't give any signs of even noticing their presence, much less actually trying to go against them. But most importantly, Luna was obviously stronger than her opponent. The difference wasn't very large, but it was noticeable after a minute of combat that the creature was being forced more and more into the defensive.
Eventually, Luna managed to catch her opponent in a restraining spell consisting of silver chains that it could not break in time before the Princess was able to charge and fire her finishing move:
"Lunar Style: Moonlight Ray!" She shouted, and created a disc of light that spun and fired a powerful beam of silver magic.
That beam of magic completely engulfed the creature and covered it up for several seconds. When it faded, the only thing left of the opponent was a bit of smoke that quickly faded away. Luna kept watching it for a few seconds, as if trying to make sure her opponent wasn't going to suddenly come back and attack, and then she flew over to the Crusaders.
"What are you three doing here?" She asked.
"We're doing our job!" Applebloom took the lead in announcing. Then she explained the events to the princess.
"I see..." Luna said "It all makes sense now..."
"Then, what is going on, Princess?" Sweetie Belle asked.
Luna sighed "That thing you just saw me fight is called the Tantabus. It is a creature that should never have existed."
She stopped for a moment, gathering her thoughts.
"I suppose I should start at the beginning. You three know that I have spent the last century under the thrall of Sombra, don't you?" They nodded "Of course, due to the rules of the mind control, I couldn't directly go against his orders, but I could still choose to interpret them in the ways that caused the least amount of damage."
She sighed again "Of course, it wasn't as easy as that makes it sound. I was under the thrall of the dark magic during this time and with only the barest glimmer of control over my actions. So in order to do so, I created the Tantabus, a mental construct that would give suggestions to my subconscious about doing good acts by giving excuses to it, like not using all my power against some heroes because I needed to keep energy in reserve in case Sombra gave me a new order. Things like that. And over time it became pretty elaborate."
She looked up "Then I was freed by the Knights, and I thought that the Tantabus had simply disappeared, given that I couldn't find it in my mindscape and its purpose was complete. But that was a mistake. I should have investigated the situation more." Luna looked at the three "What actually happened was that the Tantabus merged with the remnants of Sombra's mind control spell and my dark magic. It managed to gain sentience and escape to hide inside the dreamscape."
She stopped for a moment before continuing her story "Recently, I discovered its existence and tried to deal with it. However, the Tantabus is crafty, it used a special spell to make its existence faint outside the dreamscape, so I can only remember it exists when I'm in the dreamscape. The same way, even if I inform somepony about it in their dreams, they would forget as soon as they wake up, so I can't just call for help."
"But..." Sweetie Belle remembered something "Weren't you refusing Cornflower because you were busy?"
"Yes." Luna agreed "But the only thing I knew during my awake time was that I had important business in the dream world, and sadly not understanding everything about the dream world when you're awake is actually something common, dream magic is a difficult and mysterious field, and that would not have made me suspicious at all." She nodded slightly "Going back to the story, I have been spending the last few weeks trying to deal with the Tantabus, but it keeps reappearing no matter what I do, and it is slowly getting stronger. Your story made everything make sense, it must be using destiny magic to steal energy from Cornflower in her dreams to restore itself and get stronger. Knowing this, I can deal with it permanently." She looked at the children gravely "It is going to come back soon, so you have to leave, the ritual has a special method for leaving the dreamscape, use it."
The three fillies briefly looked like they wanted to argue, but it was a direct order from the princess, so they sighed and focused... But nothing happened.
"It's not working." Applebloom said, confused.
Luna put a hoof to her forehead "Of course, how could I have missed this...? Tantabus is using a spell to force normal rules into the dream world to prevent me from simply using my superior imagination to unmake it. This must be interfering with some of the functions of the ritual... Wait a moment."
Luna did a few small scan spells on the three for a few seconds and then sighed in relief "Okay... The protections to keep you from getting hurt in reality are still there, so you can stay, but be careful, you never know what the Tantabus will try to do." Having said that, she flew into the sky.
The crusaders didn't have to wait long, only half a minute passed before Tantabus reappeared like a flame being lit. Luna had already prepared for its return, so she didn't waste any time before using a spell.
"Dream Magic: Dream Lock." She declared, and sent a pulse of magic that spread outward and passed through the entire dream world of Cornflower. Then she advanced at her opponent to return to their earlier fight.
At the beginning, there didn't seem to be any noticeable difference from the first time they fought, despite the spell Luna had used. However, it soon became clear that "something" had changed. Tantabus was fighting with a lot more desperation than before, as if aware that this time losing meant death.
The fight was brutal, with both combatants alternating between blasting their opponent with powerful explosive spells and hitting them with nasty combinations of physical attacks that rang even louder than the explosions. The sheer side effects of the battle were causing more and more destruction in the dream city, and Luna was slowly getting the upper hand.
But of course things could not be as easy as all that. At a certain point, the Tantabus managed to get Luna to back up for a bit by using an omnidirectional blast of magic, and then it charged and cast a spell that caused the mindscape itself to tremble.
Initially, the spell didn't seem to do anything else, but when Princess Luna flew over to resume their fight, it was pretty clear that the character of the struggle had changed. The Tantabus was now hitting much harder and forming her spells much faster, and it wasn't long before Luna was the one who found herself on the defensive.
The crusaders watched with concern as Luna seemed to struggle more and more in the fight.
"We have to do something!" Scootaloo declared "We must help princess Luna somehow!"
"But what can we do?" Sweetie Belle asked, her voice sad "How can we help in this situation?"
"Ah don't know." Applebloom said, stomping the ground in frustration.
To the surprise of not only her, but the other two fillies, her stomp resulted in the ground shaking and a large fissure appearing.
The three were unable to find any words to react to that, so Sweetie Belle didn't say anything as she used a normal telekinesis spell... And managed to easily raise an entire carriage into the air.
They stopped to consider the implications, and then grinned at each other.
Princess Luna recognized that she was currently in a difficult position. The Tantabus had given up on stealth and was using its full power against her. That meant that, combined with the disturbances the battle was causing on the dreamscape, Luna could be certain that she would be getting reinforcements from the dream guard section of her guards soon.
However, she was still in a difficult position due to two facts. The first was that the Tantabus using its full power was really remarkably powerful, enough to make Luna have to fight seriously just to buy time until the arrival of the reinforcements. And the second fact was the certainty Luna had that Tantabus would try to escape through any gaps the reinforcements tried to use to get in, and as such she needed to be prepared to prevent its escape, which really was pushing her concentration and magic to the limit.
As such, Luna was remarkably surprised when the Tantabus was hit by a carriage that was flying through the air.
She got even more surprised when she saw that it was the fillies who were responsible for it, which became obvious when Scootaloo flapped a wing and created a huge wave of wind that shot towards the Tantabus.
The creature used a barrier spell to block the wind, and the other two were already preparing the next attack. Applebloom stomped on the ground to break the foundations of one of the houses, which was then subsequently thrown at Tantabus by Sweetie Belle's telekinesis.
Tantabus was about to try and shoot a spell at the three, but while Luna was confused by the situation, she would not let the fillies be harmed if she could help it. So, the princess shoot a hasty light force spell at her opponent to get its attention.
Tantabus blocked the attacks from both sides with a spherical barrier, then shot a grenade spell at Luna before turning and shooting a powerful beam of energy at the three fillies. Scootaloo was the one to respond to that, managing to manifest an amazingly powerful lightning bolt in an instant, and throwing it at the enemy attack.
The two attacks exploded against one another, and Luna smothered the grenade spell with a darkness sphere, before flying at Tantabus with wing blade spells at the ready. Slashing at the Tantabus dozens of times per second (which would make her wings really sore later) she managed to occupy it enough to keep the fillies out of danger for a few seconds, which they used in an... unusual way.
Sweetie Belle had ripped the section of street where they had been out of the ground and was now using her telekinesis to move it at the Tantabus with the three riding on that improvised transport.
For Luna, the remaining minute that the battle lasted was a combination of surrealness and urgency. It was surreal to see the three fillies do things which should be far beyond their ability and surprise the Tantabus at every turn, but the urgency of making sure they would not get hurt was also pressing.
Of course, the very nature of the ritual would protect them, but she wouldn't simply rely on that, specially considering that the Tantabus seemed to have the same knowledge of magic as her.
It turned out that her fears were unfounded. Tantabus was simply trying to damage their astral forms enough to force them out of the dreamscape, which would not cause anything bad to happen to them. And also, the three fillies showed themselves to be astonishingly good at avoiding injury.
Applebloom was capable of crossing her own forelegs and blocking spells that would destroy houses while only receiving scratches in return. Scootaloo kept hindering the Tantabus with multiple small hurricanes and wind blasts. And Sweetie Belle's control of their transport was good enough to make extreme high-speed dodges (and she was apparently keeping herself and the other two glued on the platform).
And you couldn't forget about their attacking abilities either. Scootaloo was throwing around lightning like it was going out of style, Sweetie Belle was using her telekinesis to hinder the Tantabus' movements at critical moments, and Applebloom could throw punches that were so powerful the enemy had to really focus on defending.
Of course, they weren't actually causing much damage to the Tantabus. Their powers were significant, but untrained fillies simply did not have the skill to get through the defenses of the enemy. Most of their success was in protecting themselves and hindering the Tantabus enough for Luna to be able to prepare her spells.
And that was enough.
"Lunar Magic: Annihilation Ray!" Luna cast, when the Tantabus overextended itself trying to retaliate to a combination of a punch from Applebloom and a bolt of lightning from Scootaloo.
Her ray of energy engulfed the opponent, and Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo helped by using their respective abilities to keep the Tantabus from managing to escape from the effect radius of the spell. Luna poured a lot of magic into it, to make it certain that her enemy wouldn't be able to escape anymore.
And when the spell was over, there was no trace left of the monster.
Luna raised her head to thank the three fillies but they had already disappeared.,the death of Tantabus negating the spell that was keeping their return mechanism from working.
The princess decided to talk to them later, and started looking over to start fixing the damage to the dreamscape.
The crusaders were surprised to wake up on the floor of Cornflower's house. They were even more surprised to note that it was already day at that point, but it soon became clear that they had fallen asleep after leaving the mindscape, which made everything make sense.
Soon after, Cornflower herself woke up, and thanked them, since she was feeling okay for the first time in many mornings. She asked about what had happened, and they informed her of the basics: That Luna's job was related to her problem, and the three had helped her with it.
There were some thing to do after that. Mostly telling her to introduce any possible new cases to them, as well as settling the matter of payment (Applebloom had turned out to be the one who was good at those kinds of things) but soon the three had left, and decided to walk a little bit through the nearby park to think about what had happened.
"That was really awesome!" Was Scootaloo's opinion.
"I agree, even though this is not really the kind of job we usually do." Applebloom said.
"I just wonder why we were able to do those things in the dream world..." Sweetie Belle said.
"Maybe the ritual we used interfered with the magic of the Tantabus?" Applebloom guessed.
"Or maybe we can actually do all that normally." Scootaloo joked.
"Yeah." Applebloom grinned "I could just stomp like this-"
Her statement was suddenly stopped when her stomp made the ground shake and caused a fissure to appear. The three fillies looked around for a moment, looked at each other and looked at Applebloom's hoof for a few seconds.
"We need to talk to Princess Luna." Applebloom stated.