The moon gleamed bright over Canterlot. All over the city lights were going out as ponies bedded down for the night. Even Canterlot Castle, the heart of the capital, was entering its slumber. Servants and staff finished their tasks and made their way to their quarters, accompanied by the weary Solar Guard. Soon, none would be up and about save for the Lunar Guard, who plied their lonely trade as the city slept.
Well, almost none. A pony sat alone in the Great Hall, contemplating the stained glass windows that portrayed the different legendary saviors of Equestria over the ages. There were many to see, but the mare seemed in no rush.
She was a unicorn, magenta-coated with a silver mane and tail and piercing ruby-red eyes. Ponies might have called her ‘petite,’ if not for the obvious physical strength and conditioning of her body. ‘Lean’ or ‘fit’ would have been better modifiers. She was blessed with fine-boned, symmetrical features which likely earned her many an admiring glance from passing stallions.
Still, only a fool would have taken liberties with her. She was clad in a harness of steel grey armor, polished to the point of appearing silver and trimmed with barding of red and gold. A heavy sabre hung at her side, its hilt an elaborate weaving of silver and gold carved to a myriad of patterns; a red double tassel hung from the pommel. She wore the bars of a Captain of the EUP Guard, and the six campaign ribbons and dozen commendations that decorated her armor spoke volumes to her qualifications. It was fitting that she be so accomplished. After all, few ponies had earned the right to wear the armor of a Captain of the EUP Guard. Fewer still bore the barding of a member of the Royal Expeditionary Force.
A cup of herbal tea sat on the tiles at her feet as she gazed up at the window of Shining Armor and Cadence, an artistic representation of the moment when the Captain of the Royal Guard and his wife had performed their shield spell, purging the capital of the Changeling menace. It’s a rather beautiful scene, she mused, lifting her tea in a silvery magical grip to take a sip. A pity I was too busy digging through the rubble to see the real thing. She raised a hoof up to touch a dent on her armor that she’d ordered the smith not to beat out; a reminder of how close she’d come to taking the brunt of the collapsing ceiling during the invasion. If Spearhead hadn’t pushed me out of the way…
“Rather late to be viewing the gallery isn’t it, Captain Sabre?” asked a female voice from the far end of hall, the speaker having entered from the passage behind the throne.
The soldier smiled, her eyes flicking to see the newcomer: a cream-coated unicorn mare with brown mane, black glasses, and a pen and inkwell for a Cutie Mark. “Captain Sabre?” she echoed in a clear alto. “Raven, we’ve known each other since Uni. Whatever happened to ‘Argent?’”
Raven Inkwell, personal secretary to Celestia, crossed the distance between them, holding a teacup of her own. “She disappears whenever we’re both on duty.” The mare yawned. “And even if we’re off duty, we’re still in the palace, and I’m in the habit of erring on the side of formality.”
Argent chuckled. “The joys of serving at Their Royal Majesties’ pleasure, eh? Are your courtly manners so well and truly stuck in, then, that they cannot let you relax even for an evening? Hardly breaking the upper-crust Canterlot stereotype.”
“You’re one to talk about stereotypes,” snorted Raven as she sat next to her college friend. “You’ve lived on the border the last ten years; yet your accent’s still thicker than mine.”
“It is not!” protested Argent.
Raven cocked an eyebrow. “Have you met Rarity Belle?”
“The Element of Generosity? After the siege, yes. Briefly.” Argent’s brow furrowed. “Why? What has she got to do with anything?”
The secretary shrugged. “I simply wanted a point of comparison. You see, your accent is so thick you make her sound like a bloody Appleoosan.”
Argent’s jaw flapped open in mock outrage, but she couldn’t suppress a chortle of amusement. “Well, I never! Such words from a dear friend!” Raven smirked as Argent’s outburst proved her point for her. The captain gave dry smile. “Hmph. I suppose you’ve got me there, Raven.” She took a sip of her tea. “Though that’s hardly a fair comparison. Rarity’s not even from here.”
“She could have fooled me,” replied the secretary, sipping her own drink. The two sat in silence for a moment before Raven spoke up again. “May I inquire about your sudden interest in art?”
“Am I not allowed to appreciate beauty?” countered Argent.
“Of course you are. I just wonder at the hour.”
The soldier pursed her lips. “Well, it’s rather simple, really.” She gestured with a hoof to the Hall of Heroes. To the empty hall. “How often can one get this level of privacy in such a place?”
“Ah,” blinked Raven. The secretary rose and collected her cup. “I apologize for intruding. I’ll leave you to your viewing—
“Oh, do sit down, dear,” Argent admonished her. “I didn’t intend that as a passive request for you to leave. I simply meant that during the day there are crowds.” Raven appeared unconvinced, so the guard rapped her hoof against the tiles next to her. “Sit. I insist. I enjoy having somepony cultured to talk to after the season I’ve had.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Raven sat back down. “Trouble with the troops?”
Argent rolled her eyes. “Oh, don’t even get me started! Three months hiking through jungles to hunt down insurrectionists for the Zebrican King, followed by a month in the sweltering heat protecting trade caravans in Saddle Arabia, and now a trip to Canterlot to test potential recruits for the REF…all with the roughest bunch of wise-cracking, boisterous, rowdy, unwashed, and generally uncivilized stallions the Force has to offer! I swear, it’s as though the Brigadier conspired to fill my company with every ruffian in the army just to annoy me.”
Raven giggled, holding a hoof over her mouth. “You don’t approve of their manners then?”
“Manners? What manners?” demanded Argent. “Manners are a foreign concept to these reprobates!” In a more muted tone she added, “I mean, they’re bloody good fighters and I’ll gut the first fool that tries to take my company away from me,” her volume returned with her exaggerated ire, “but would it kill them to wash up before eating without a direct order once in a blue moon?!” Raven snorted into her teacup, and Argent was hard-pressed to maintain a properly cross face as she criticized her soldiers’ antics. “Barely twenty of them here with me they still manage to give me a headache with all their barracking and carousing! They seem bound and determined to drink the combined Solar and Lunar Guards under the table!”
The secretary did her best to look concerned and sympathetic. Her snickering didn’t help. “What about your First Sergeant? Doesn’t he keep them in line?”
Argent snorted. “Brick’s the worst of the lot! He’d probably try to drink them under the table even if it were just him.” With a mutter she added, “And it’d serve the Shiny Boys right for challenging him.” The secretary’s amusement veered towards an unladylike guffaw, but Argent continued undeterred. “And, as if that weren’t enough, I fear they’re conspiring to make it worse on me!”
“How so?” managed Raven through her levity.
“Well, they seem bound and determined to recruit more of their disreputable ilk from amongst the Solar and Lunar Guards,” replied Argent glumly. “Each of the soldiers to stand out so far has been just as rough and tumble as the rest of my rabble. At this rate I’ll be going back with forty miscreants instead of twenty.” She shook her head with a sigh. “I just needed some peace, quiet, and culture away from it all. One can only watch sweaty stallions crashing through an obstacle course for so long before it becomes tiresome.”
Raven gave her a sly smile. “Is that so?”
Argent shot the secretary a reproving look, but couldn’t keep a small smile off her face. “Bite your tongue, Miss Inkwell. That’s highly inappropriate behavior you’re suggesting. A lady does not ogle.”
Her friend looked wounded by the suggestion. “Ogle, Argent? Certainly not! But,” she winked, “admire, perhaps?” The soldier narrowed her eyes. Raven harrumphed. “Oh, come now, Argent. I’m not suggesting anything untoward! I’m simply asking if you’ve ever noticed an attractive stallion under your command.”
Rolling her eyes, Argent responded with a dry laugh. “Well of course I’ve noticed, Raven. I’m professional, not dead.” More soberly she added, “But a mare ought to master her passions, and an officer doubly so.”
Raven held up her forehooves in mock surrender. “No need to get so defensive, dear. I know you’d never do anything like that. I’m just teasing you, for Celestia’s sake.”
“Oh, don’t worry, dear. I know you are,” Argent assured her. Then she smirked. “Though it’d hardly matter if you weren’t. I’m entirely out of their league.”
Taking another sip of her tea, Argent willed the stress of the last four months to leave her body as she sat before the artistic majesty of the windows, chatting with her friend. “I truly am glad to be here, though,” she admitted with a sigh. “I hate to leave the field, but…” she swirled the tea in her magical grasp, willing her thoughts not to drift back to the wars, “I think I needed this time away. Time to let myself recharge. Time away from the battlefield,” she sighed and let her shoulders fall slack. “Time to just relax in peace with no catastrophes looming overhead. Time to sit quietly with a friend looking at a window without any crises knocking at the door.”
The secretary nodded in understanding, and both mares took long draughts of their tea, enjoying the stillness of the Great Hall.
They likely would have enjoyed it for much longer had the wall behind them not exploded in a cacophony of shattered glass and masonry. Raven screamed in terror as the shrapnel flew in all directions, missing the both of them only because of the reflexive shield that the veteran soldier threw up. Raven’s terrified eyes darted to her friend, but Argent’s face betrayed no fear. Only annoyance.
“Bloody Tartarus. I should have known better than to tempt Fate,” she muttered as she rose and turned, her magical grip yanking her saber free. “Alright, you ruffian, I do hope you have a jolly good reason for ruining a perfectly good—,” her breath caught in her throat as she saw their assailant. “Oh,” she exclaimed under her breath. “Oh my.”
Standing there panting in the recently gaping hole in the wall was a stallion. A unicorn, to be precise. His coat was tan with a smoky grey tinge, and his mane was an inky black, but something told Argent these weren’t the stallion’s natural colors. It might be the fact that his eyes are green, red, reptilian, and leaking purple smoke, she mused. Or perhaps it’s the tendrils of oozing blackness that swirl around him like the limbs of a kraken. The stallion locked its unnatural eyes at her and hissed, his forked tongue flicking like that of a serpent between his…fangs. Well, that can’t be a good sign. “Hello there,” she said as cordially as she could muster. The stallion hissed again as the doors banged open and two Lunar Guards sprinted in, weapons readied. With a flick of her saber, Argent bade them wait, and hoped that their obedience overrode their instincts. “And who might you be?”
The stallion’s tongue flicked in and out a few times before he gave a serpentine response. “Greeetinngssssss Celesssssstiann,” he hissed.
Argent was no fool. She recognized the stallion’s appearance from the images she’d seen of the most recent villain to be toppled by the Elements of Harmony and their compatriots: King Sombra. But Sombra is dead. So who is this pretender? “Not quite what I asked, old chap. I asked who you were, you see.”
His chuckled seemed to bubble from beneath a lake of noxious ooze. “I do nooot stoop to teeelllll yoouu, Celessssstiannn.”
“Not terribly neighborly of you,” replied Argent with a huff.
Raven trembled beside her. “A-Argent, w-what are you—"
“Now, now, dear, don’t be alarmed,” Argent reassured her. “This fellow here is just lost. He seems to be rather interested in Celestia, though.” The captain shot her a pointed glance. “Why don’t you go fetch her?”
The secretary stood shakily for a moment, then darted off to the passage behind the throne. The intruder’s eyes followed her, unblinking, but Argent stepped forward to reclaim his attention, waving the Lunar Guards into formation around her as she did, silently praying that they weren’t green recruits. As she advanced, she focused on her blade, envisioning its structure in her mind before drawing the essence of that structure out from the blade. Responding to her command, four shimmering white mana sabers split off from her sword and hovered around her, trailing tendrils of silvery magic that danced in the air.
It was enough to grab the intruder’s attention. The dark mage turned his malevolent gaze back to her, and she fought the urge to shudder. “Sssshhhe goesss to fetch Celesssssstia, yeeesssssss?”
Argent kept her voice dismissive. “She goes to inform the Princess of an unwanted guest, yes. It’s up to Her Royal Highness whether or not to receive you, of course. You understand, I trust?” Though I certainly don’t. What is he? I don’t recall the reports saying that Sombra sounded like a snake.
Leering at her, he replied, “Yesssss, I do, Celessssstiann. And I sssshhalll make her sssssssee your corpsssess and weep before I ssssslay herrr.”
One of the soldiers, the spear-toting earth pony to her right, snorted. “Bold talk for a Sombran pretender, eh, Ironhide?”
The other stallion, a unicorn, nodded. “Bold talk indeed, Oaken. And we don’t take kindly to such talk here.” He brandished a longsword and shield, and seemed so keen to use them that for a moment Argent thought that he would charge then and there. But her fear was baseless. He was waiting for her command, as was Oaken. Not amateurs, then. Jolly good.
The intruder gave a cackling laugh. “A Ssssommbrann you call meee? Perhapsssss, boy, but perhapssss not. Sssssombraa wassss one of mmany….and not the firsssst.”
Argent’s blades lowered for the attack and she tensed. “And just what do you mean by that, pray tell?”
Baring his fangs, he hissed, “Wwhhy tell, when I can sssshhow?” His horn glowed red and the black tentacles shot forward, accompanied by an inequine shriek.
Celestia set a slow pace as she wandered the halls of the castle. It was much later than she preferred to be up and about, but sleep had eluded her. More than that, her exhaustion had as well. Generally, by this point in the evening, she was so wearied by the day’s events that it was all she could do not to rush to the seclusion of her chambers for a good night’s rest. But tonight she was moved by a strange energy; one she could not explain. She felt as though she had to be awake. That something demanded her notice. But, for the life of me, I can’t imagine what, mused the solar diarch as she walked.
Beside her trotted four veteran Lunar Guards, two to each side. Ordinarily, she would not have desired an escort, nor needed one, but the same quiet urging that had driven her from her chambers had bade her gesture for the quartet of soldiers to accompany her when she’d spotted them on patrol. After engaging in a little polite small talk, asking after their families and such, the party had lapsed into silence. If the guards thought the events of the evening odd, they did not say. But for her part, Celestia found her mind occupied with little else. For she recognized the gentle prodding that had sent her forth from her room that night, subtle though it was. It was the same nudge that had led her to linger nearby during Twilight’s entrance examination. The same nudge that had suggested that she look more closely at Sunset Shimmer’s … unofficial research. The same nudge that had prompted her to offer the Apple family a plot of land so close to Canterlot. Throughout the years, this nudge, this push, had guided her to find wisdom, clarity, and direction in many a troubling time. And she trusted it.
But that did not keep her from wondering.
Just what does Providence have in store for me today, I wonder?
As it happened, she did not need to wait much longer for an answer, for at that moment Raven burst forth from a side passage, terror stamped on her features as she ran pell-mell down the hall. “Intruders!” she cried, her voice somewhere between a shriek and an exhausted gasp. “Intruders!”
Instantly, the guards took a defensive stance around the princess, shields and spears facing outwards. As the princess hastened to meet her aide, their protective sphere expanded enough to surround both mares. Raven collapsed sobbing into her ruler’s side. “Raven, what has happened?” demanded Celestia, horrified to see her assistant in such a state. “Who is attacking, my little pony?”
“S- S- So- Soh-,” stammered the frightened mare.
Celestia stroked Raven’s mane, tilting the mare’s head up so that their eyes met. “Deep breaths, Raven,” she said gently. “Just tell me what happened.”
“S- Som- Sombra!”
The alicorn’s blood ran cold. “Sombra?” she repeated, her voice dipping.
Raven sobbed into her chest and nodded mutely.
Celestia rose, pulling the mare up with her as her mind raced. Sombra was dead. Of that she was certain. His form had been utterly obliterated by the Crystal Heart. But the Shadow King, for all his malevolence, had been simply a powerful unicorn who had dabbled in magics that he should have known better than to touch. In the end, he was no more than a mighty fool, for the Darkness had not originated with him. Which means…
“Corporal Thrash, Corporal Cutter, please conduct Miss Inkwell to the infirmary and set her under heavy guard. Sergeant Stein, Lance Corporal Tine, put the castle on high alert and bring a Pacification Squad to the Great Hall immediately.”
Corporals Thrash and Cutter immediately obeyed, taking hold of Raven and speeding her off to safety. Stein and Tine, however, hesitated a brief moment. “Of course, Your Highness, only,” Celestia’s eye fell upon the sergeant and he swallowed. “If I may ask, Your Highness, what will you be doing?”
Flexing her wings and powering her horn, Celestia spared but a moment to answer. “Containing the situation.” Before they could ask what she meant, she vanished in a burst of light.
“Ironhide, down!” shouted Argent. The night trooper left off hacking at one of the tentacles and ducked. It was not a moment too soon, as another dark tendril shaped itself into a spear and thrust with unnatural speed through the space his head had just occupied, shaving a few strands from his plume.
“Too slow, ugly! Yipe!” Ironhide’s taunt swiftly turned to a yelp of dismay as he jumped back to avoid the limb he’d been fighting earlier, which had morphed into a maul and attempted to crush him.
“Iron, you idiot!” bellowed Oaken, who was holding his spear like a quarterstaff as he fended off three tentacles on his own. “Save the taunts for when we’re winning!”
The Sombran’s chuckles echoed through the hall as he pushed the two stallions back. His mirth was short-lived, however, as Argent took advantage of his distraction to hack down two of his infernal limbs with her steel saber and fling her mana blades at his skull. He barely managed to raise a shield to protect himself, and her silvery constructs pinned themselves like darts against his inky black barrier. She dismissed the constructs before he could break them and inflict her with magical backlash.
“Clossssse, Celesssstiann,” he taunted, his severed tentacles reforming themselves. “But not closssse enough!”
“A pity, to be sure,” she replied, fresh mana sabers snapping into existence and menacing the tentacles. “I was quite ready to be done with your prattling. Still, if at first you don’t succeed…” her blades sped forward and hacked at the writing mass, Argent charging in close behind. “On me!” she ordered sharply.
The two Lunars shifted inwards and charged behind the captain as she cut a path through to the shadowy stallion. It was a risky move to charge like this, Argent knew, but her options were limited. Oaken and Ironhide were capable fighters, but the unicorn’s single blade could only cut through the tentacles so fast, and Oaken’s spear was even less effective against them. Their best chance was to engage the caster directly, but to get close they needed her.
Sweat broke out on her brow as she flung her blades into a frenzy, slicing through tentacles like a lawnmower as she galloped straight for the Sombran. The Lunar Guards tucked in close behind her, dealing with anything her sabers missed.
The sudden attack caught the intruder off-guard. He frowned and took a step back, concentrating his tentacles on striking towards the center. Argent gave a mirthless grin and responded by bringing her four mana blades together in a spinning propeller of carnage, holding her steel saber in close to ward off anything that slipped past. The tactic was brutally effective, reducing the oncoming strikes to shreds before they could get close. But, unfortunately, they made it difficult to see what the enemy stallion was doing. “Watch the flanks!” she ordered, anticipating a counterattack.
What she did not anticipate was where it came from.
Oaken felt it before she did, perhaps because he was an earth pony, and was already lunging at Argent by the time she noticed the shaking beneath her hooves. “Below!” he shouted as he shoulder-checked her out of the way.
The tentacle burst through the floor in the shape of a clawed talon, shattering Oaken’s armor and spearing into him as it bore him high into the air to smash against the ceiling. The stallion gave an anguished cry as he hit. “Oaken!” shouted Ironhide, momentarily losing his concentration. He failed to notice the four tentacles that had slipped around Argent’s blades to the left.
“Left flank cover!” she ordered, breaking off two of her swords to intercept the attack. She succeeded in cutting two of the tentacles, but the others hit their target. Ironhide reacted to her warming and managed to block one with his shield, but the remaining attack sliced at his head, cutting a considerable gouge into his cheek.
“Buck!” he snarled, hacking at the offending appendages with his longsword.
Argent tried to help him, but she had her hooves full keeping back the frontal attacks, and as she adjusted to the change in tactics the intruder made his move. The tentacle that had pinned Oaken to the ceiling retracted with lightning speed along a twisting course that managed to elude Argent’s sabers, and she watched helplessly as the earth pony was dragged to the dark magician’s side.
As soon as Oaken was beyond the reach of his comrades, the tentacles retracted, hovering defensively around their master as he pulled his captive close. Snarling, Argent and Ironhide advanced, but the stallion leered back at them and drew an ornate serrated dagger, pointing it at Oaken’s throat. “Ah, ah, aaaah,” the Sombran chided them.“Mussstn’t do anything hassssty…”
Oaken writhed in his captor’s grip, but even with all his strength he couldn’t break free. The Sombran’s attack had so thoroughly shattered his armor that the glamor enchantment had been broken, revealing a brown-coated stallion with a darker brown mane and blue eyes. He showed no fear, instead glaring daggers at the dark caster. “Get bucked, Sombran!” he spat.
His captor responded by pressing the blade tighter against his throat. “Sssssssssssh, little Celesssstiannn. Mussstn’t be hasssty.”
“Coward!” shouted Ironhide, grinding his teeth in helpless rage. “Let him go and face us like a stallion instead of a—
Argent cut him off, placing a hoof against his chest and shooting him a warning look before returning her attention to the Sombran. “What do you want, cultist?”
With a fanged grin he answered, “Why, to sssssend a messsssage tooo Celesssstiaa, of coursssse.”
“Captain,” gritted Oaken, “I don’t care if you have to kill me, but put this Sombra-loving dreg’s head on a bucking spike—
He was cut off by the press of the blade, which broke the skin enough to draw blood. “Sssssssssh,” repeated the cultist. “Your elderssss and betterssss aarre talking.”
“If you wanted to send a message,” observed Argent with a bitter glance around the shattered room, “there were certainly better ways of doing it.”
“Neeeed her attenssssshun.”
Whatever Argent was about to say was cut off by a new voice. “And you have it,” announced Celestia. Their collective gaze was drawn to the hole in the wall, where the diarch’s arrival was heralded by a day-like glow that grew in intensity until Celestia rose like a star in the night sky, framed by the broken masonry.
Behind her, several squads of guards were forming up around the princess. Most were Lunar Guards, but there were a handful of Solars and even two of Argent’s soldiers, who had apparently seen the commotion and moved to investigate. Some trained bows and crossbows on the interloper while others hefted spears for an aerial charge, but none moved without Celestia’s word. And, at the moment, she was busy conversing with the captor.
“You wanted to send me a message, stranger, and I am here,” declared the diarch calmly. “Release my soldier and I’ll allow you to deliver it.”
The Sombran cackled. “You ttthhink you caaan dictate termssss to meeee, Celessssstia?”
Celestia cocked an eyebrow. “I think that you overestimate your position, my friend. I know what power you wield. It is not the first time I have tasted its foulness. You are dangerous, I’ll grant you that.” Her eyes narrowed. “But Sombra was many times more powerful than you, and I defeated him.”
“You diiid nooot kill himmm,” taunted the stallion.
To Argent’s shock, Celestia actually laughed. “No, but I did annihilate his corporeal form and force him to become the very Shadows he had embraced just to save his life. And, in the end, what did his power earn him but a miserable death?” Her gaze became pitying. “Don’t do this, my little pony. Whatever you have been promised, it’s not worth the price. There is a better way. It’s not too late for you.”
“Pleading with mmmee, Celessstia?” he hissed. “How pattthetic!”
“I’m not pleading for me, young stallion,” she corrected. “I’m pleading for you. I’m trying to save your life.” Her voice wavered for an instant. “I’m trying to save your soul.”
Argent blinked. Princess, what are you—
“My ssssoul, Celesssstia? Ha! That’sssss rich!” sneered the mystery stallion. “I am a Ssssshade, Celesssstia! We dictate our own fffate!” Celestia recoiled, and the cultist laughed. “Doessss the name ssssurprissse you, Sssssun Queen? Did you tthink ussss desssstroyed all thossssse yearsssss ago? We rissse now, Celesssstia! We sssshall not be sssssstopped!” His hoof tensed on the knife. “Thisssss sssslave of yoursss sssshall be the firsssst of many!” He pointed the knife at Celestia. “He sssha—
Argent yelped in shock as there was a brilliant flash of light, a cry choked short, and the overpowering smell of ash and brimstone. The soldier blinked away the temporary blindness, rubbing instinctively at her eyes. When her vision returned, she saw Celestia entering through the hole in the wall, making her way over to Oaken, who was slumped on the floor staring in shock at the charred ground where the cultist used to be. Argent blinked again, though her vision had returned.
“Sweet Stars above, she immolated him!” exclaimed Ironhide in a stunned whisper.
“Indeed she did,” replied Argent. She shook off her stupor and hastened forward to greet the princess and check on her subordinate, Ironhide close behind.
The Great Hall was filled with guards by now, both the pegasi from outside and what looked to be a Pacification Squad that must have entered during the final confrontation. By the time Argent and Ironhide reached Oaken and Princess Celestia, the diarch had already helped ease Oaken into a more comfortable position while the medics dashed over. “I apologize if you were scorched by the proximity, Private Oaken” Celestia was saying as she used her magic to ease the stallion’s pain. “I could not risk failing to kill him in the first strike.”
You call that a mere strike? marveled Argent.
“D-don’t mention it, Your Highness,” stammered Oaken. “Thank you. I, well, I didn’t think I was going to make it.”
“Oh, I’m sure that Captain Argent and Private Ironhide here would have found a solution,” the Princess assured him as the medics began treating Oaken’s wounds. Celestia turned her attention to Ironhide, frowning as she saw the rather nasty gash on his cheek. “You should have that seen to, soldier.”
Ironhide saluted. “Just a scratch, Princess. They don’t call me ‘Ironhide’ for nothing.”
She gave a dry smile. “All the same, have it seen to. That’s an order.” Turning to Argent she said, “I commend your quick actions, Captain, though I would expect nothing less. Please tell me what transpired; Raven was rather too terrified to tell me much.”
Argent had plenty of her own questions, but she did as she was ordered and related the full story of the attack. Occasionally Celestia would ask for clarification, often on what seemed a rather innocuous statement, but for the most part she remained silent. When Argent finished, she expected Celestia to speak, but instead the diarch simply sat in silence, staring into the distance as though she were waiting for something. Argent was not one to pry, but tonight’s events had taxed her usual patience. “Er, Princess,” she began gingerly. “If I may ask…”
“What is it, Argent?” asked Celestia, not unkindly.
“Who…or rather what was that stallion? If you don’t mind me saying, Your Highness, it seemed as though you knew.”
Celestia gave a pensive nod. “I suppose I do, Argent. Or, at least, I suspect. The Shades were an old enemy of mine and Luna’s. A cult of Dark Magic users. One of the last foes we buried together.” She sighed and shut her eyes. “I had hoped that they’d stay buried.” For a long moment she was silent, and Argent was about to ask for further clarification when Celestia spoke again. “My sister is due to return from her business in Manehatten within the hour, is that correct?”
“Yes, Princess,” supplied one of the Lunar Guards.
“When she arrives, inform her that I wish to see her in the Shrine of the Source.” Rising to her hooves, she began to walk away. She paused a moment, half turning to look back at Argent. “I am aware that you have questions, Captain. But there are matters I must consider before I tell you what I know. See to it that the city is secured, but do so quietly. We do not wish to start a panic when the true nature and extent of our threat has yet to reveal itself.”
Argent saluted. “It will be done, Your Highness.”
“Good,” nodded Celestia. “And, Argent?” The princess fixed Argent with a one-eyed stare. “See to it that nopony knows of what has transpired tonight. Everypony here is sworn to secrecy until I or my sister explicitly order otherwise.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” Without another word, Celestia left. Argent stared after her for a time, trying, and failing to understand what was happening. It irked her. Unknowns and mysteries were inevitable in warfare, but this felt…different somehow. We’ve faced plenty of cultist types before. What has the Princess so riled about this one? And why isn’t she saying?
Beside her, Private Ironhide cleared his throat. “Permission to speak freely, ma’am.”
I suppose you’ve earned that much tonight, soldier. “Granted.”
“That was…odd, right?”
Argent couldn’t help but give a little chuckle at that. “‘Odd’ you say, Private? Well, I suppose that’s technically true, but a bit of an understatement, don’t you think?” Her gaze drifted to the fire-blacked floor. “I think that ‘disturbing’ might be more appropriate.”
The Shrine of the Source, Canterlot Castle
While capable of housing several thousand, the Shrine was empty that night, leaving Celestia alone with her own thoughts as she pondered the night’s events. Moonlight drifted through the stained glass windows, casting images of the Creation upon the tiled floor where the alabaster alicorn sat. She stared up into the high arched ceiling of the Shrine as though she could see through the stonework into the heavens beyond. “Are they truly to return after so many years?” she asked, her voice scarcely a whisper. “I so dearly hope that it shall only be one or two fools at a time who dabble in such power, as it has been for centuries. But if it is not…if the Shades truly are to return…” her muzzle dipped to the floor, “how can we fight such widespread evil again?”
“The same as we have always fought them, sister,” observed Luna from behind her. The lunar diarch walked forward to sit beside her sister amidst the patterned light of the Creation. “Together. Our little ponies have faced such monsters before.”
Celestia shook her head. “It was different then, Luna. Wars were common. Dark practitioners were well-known, as were the dangers they posed. But today…” she sighed. “Our little ponies have become accustomed to peace. They are unused to being on guard against attacks. And vigilance is a difficult habit to maintain throughout the centuries when enemies are few and distant.” She shut her eyes. “I’m just worried for them, that’s all.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. “For the pain this will cause them.”
Luna wrapped a hoof and wing around her sister’s shoulder. “Celestia, when I was…lost…did not the Creator provide a means of saving me?”
With a reluctant half-laugh, Celestia nodded, wiping at her tears. “Yes.”
“And will not the Source of Harmony provide whatever is needed to face this threat, whatever form it may take.”
Celestia nodded. “Of course.”
“Then have faith, Tia,” Luna urged. “Providence guides us; Harmony shall prevail; as it always has…”
“…and as it always shall,” finished Celestia. She took a deep breath. “You’re right, Lu. We shall endure. We shall protect our ponies.” The white alicorn chuckled. “I just wonder what strange form our Providential help will take this time.”
The cobalt alicorn shrugged. “Who can say? But there is one thing I don’t doubt.”
“What’s that?” asked her sister.
Luna regarded her gravely. “Whatever it is, it will be memorable.”