Twilight found herself walking down a long stairway, circling a chasm. Above her was gray, below her misty unknown, around her featureless flat walls. She had no memory of coming to this place, no memory of having chosen to come here.
She stopped, and looked around. Her friends were also walking behind her, strung out over dozens of meters, walking with the same thoughtless plodding step. She waved, and one by one they seemed to wake and see her.
Twilight tried to call to them, but no sound escaped her lips. She tried again, and still nothing.
Frustrated, she waited for the others to come closer and tried to take stock of herself.
Voice didn’t work. She’d established that. She touched the walls and tapped her hooves on the stone stairs beneath her. Improbable, yes, but sturdy. So this was dreaming when Luna wasn’t there to shape it. It certainly felt real.
Pinkie made it to her first and tried to speak as well, but no words came out. She sat down heavily on one of the steps, pointed to her mouth, and looked for all the world like a pouting dog. Twilight suppressed a giggle.
When they were all lined up and close, Twilight shrugged and gestured for them to follow her.
They naturally spread apart a bit, with about a pony’s length between them. The echoes of their hooves bounced around wildly, coming back sounding like distant cannonblasts from the other side of the gulf.
Hours must have passed, but she had no way of telling. More than that, she wasn’t even sure time worked here in a way that she could understand. If she tried to measure it by the cacophony of their steps she would go mad parsing nonsense.
Where was this? Was that a question that still had meaning here? The vague hints she’d found buried in other things suggested that the rules of this place were fundamentally different, but there was still an internal logic. Things made sense. You simply had to sort of tilt your head and squint very hard.
Eventually, the mist began to give way and she saw a flat floor of the same featureless stone. She turned back, opened her mouth, and then internally cursed. If this muteness carried over into Luna’s dream, it was going to become a rather serious problem.
She needn’t have bothered. The others saw it as well and quickened their pace. Still, it took an eternity before they reached the bottom.
She knew what she would see, but Twilight looked up anyway. This void seemed to go on forever up and up until her eyes lost tack of it. The only feature anywhere was the narrow stair, and here at the bottom a door not unlike the one she had walked through to first see Luna in her afflicted state.
She didn’t wait or explain. She just kept marching on. Anything that wasn’t endless stairs.
The small party gathered around the door solemnly, sharing looks. It cheered Twilight to see that the main emotion wasn’t worry but rather bemusement or impatience. They were still with her.
She gestured to herself, and then to the door. Then Rainbow, and then Pinkie and Rarity. Applejack nodded before she even pointed, as if to say, I’ll take the rear. For lack of a better term, they had two dedicated fighters, and she wanted one at each end of the train.
Twilight looked at the door, looking over it. What had she expected? Runes? Some sort of sign? The fragments had spoken of the world beyond the material as a land of confusion and symbolism within symbolism, shaped by the Logos itself, the very fabric of meaning filtered through the film of the collective unconscious interpretations of those who sleep. She had expected obvious signs, things lit up or presented to her as signs.
But now that she reached for the door… weren’t the stairs one, in a way? Was the very nature of things here one large parable?
She door swung open at her touch. There was nothing inside. She could see the rest of the pit beyond and… that was it.
If she could have, she would have growled. What was this? It was nonsense. She stepped through--
And tripped over loose masonry.
She let out a cry of alarm and faceplanted right into mossy, broken stone. Her voice echoed, and Twilight rose in alarm.
The pit, the stairs, her friends--all gone.
She was in a large stony chamber, reclaimed by time and nature. High arches held up a ceiling where moth-bitten banners hung. Some of the wall had collapsed, and through the gap she saw a night sky full of stars.
Twilight rose swiftly and spun. “Applejack? Applejack? Rainbow? Pinkie?” No answers. Her heart hammered in her throat, pounded against her skull. “Fluttershy? Rarity?”
Nothing. She was alone.
Twilight squeezed her eyes shut and took a breath. Then another. Then ano--
That was when Applejack’s signature grunt reverberated much as her own had.
Twilight’s eyes popped open. Applejack was sprawled out in a heap a few strides in front of her, and Twilight was by her side immediately, helping her up.
“Where are the others?” she asked. “Did you all come through with me?”
Applejack shook her head, put a hoof on her head and realized her hat wasn’t there. She pushed past Twilight and located the worn hat next to her. “You vanished, and I ran in after. Don’t know about the others.” She shook the dust off of herself and fixed Twilight with a hard look. “Where are we?”
Twilight shrugged and bit her lip. “I’m… I’m not entirely sure. I think we’re somewhere in Luna’s, uh, mind? That’s probably the best way to put it.”
Applejack grunted and looked around. “Well. We made it at least. The others probably just got dropped here or there. I gather it didn’t drop me on top of you, so stands to reason…” She shrugged.
“It’s possible,” Twilight allowed.
“Better than standin’ here, doin’ nothing.”
Applejack strode ahead of her, and Twilight followed behind. Her tail lashed nervously, her ears were on swivel--she had no idea what to expect. Nightmares? It was certainly possible. How would one even fight nightmares? Would you fight them?
They did a joint sweep of the chamber they had fallen into and found very little. From what Twilight could tell, it had once been a dining room or banquet room of some kind, with a ruined long table crushed underneath the weight of rubble. The walls weren’t simply coming down on their own, she noted as Applejack circled a seperate table with high-backed chairs. This place had been attacked.
As they left and wandered into the hallways, she felt more and more that this wasn’t simply a ruin, but was a battlefield. Torn banners and tapestries, scattered weapons… the skeletons were certainly a hint. Applejack walked around them carefully, reverantly, and Twilight tried to follow in her wake. She grimaced down at the armored remains of a pony and noticed something on the helmet.
“Applejack, wait a bit.” She leaned down and carefully manuevered the helmet off of the skull, trying to disturb the body as little as possible. She brought it up to eye level, and then showed her companion.
“A sun,” Applejack said.
“Not just a sun. It’s a very specific symbol. This was the way that the first followers of the sister wore,” she said, and licked her lips as she fell into the normalcy of lecture. “When they first arrived, before confronting Discord, some ponies rallied to their banners. They’d just landed in Tall Tale, and it was the beginning of the guard.”
“What’s it mean?” Applejack held out a hoof and Twilight passed it over. Applejack spat on it, which Twilight raised her eyebrow at, and then proceeded to polish the front. “Like the design. Sturdy. Simple.”
“A lot of the earliest followers of the sisters were picking up arms and armor as they made their way to the coast,” Twilight said absently. “Some bought them from the smiths in Tall Tail minutes before pledging allegiance.”
“I can respect wantin’ to get to the heart of the matter, without wastin’ time,” Applejack drawled, and then set the helmet back carefully. “Figured they’d like it,” she muttered, and then cleared her throat. “So what’s it mean?”
“Hm? Oh. Oh! Sorry.” Twilight shook her head. “I think we’re in a memory of Luna’s. Some old battle, I think, by the look of things.”
“One long done with, if this poor bastard’s any indication.” Applejack continued on, and whistled a tune. “Figure we don’t need to be all that quiet, am I right?”
Twilight growled to herself. She hated not knowing! “I don’t know. But if we were going to be jumped, we probably would have earlier.”
They continued. Hallways gave way to a another wide chamber, but this one was far more opulent. Or, well. It had been at some point.
Littered among the gold and the trimmings were more bodies. Shields and long broken lances littered the floor. The throne itself had been toppled from its dias, and had broken apart. A large griffon skeleton laid atop it, its claws still clutched around a massive rusted axe.
Applejack whistled appreciatively as she approached. “Strong feller. This is a grisly bit of work, here.”
Twilight nodded as she wandered through the wreck herself. “It’s hard to imagine,” she said. “I mean… I mean we’ve been in danger.” She wasn’t even sure how to express it.
“Quite a bit of danger,” Applejack said and adjusted her hat. They were speaking across a long distance, but their voices carried very well. She was reminded of a family visit to an old ruin, and standing in the skein of the ancient Unicorn theatre. “But you’re thinkin’ of war, I guess.”
“That’s correct. Danger, but never battle. Not exactly. I guess the changeling invasion counts. But that… it was so chaotic and sudden, and we didn’t march anywhere or plan to fight anyone. These ponies… that griffon. Armies don’t pop up out of nowhere. They have to be rallied and commanded. Plans have to be drawn up. Over and over again, ponies have to make the choice to fight.”
Applejack nodded. “They probably think of it like we did, in Canterlot. Act and react, all that.”
“Nice rhyme,” Twilight said softly, and smiled. “But maybe.”
Applejack circled the griffon skeleton and Twilight found herself exploring the large space in silence before she groaned. “I’m not sure we’re going to find them here.”
Applejack trotted out from behind the throne and cocked her head to the side. “Pardon?”
Twilight bit her lip. “I’ve been… thinking. Follow me here for a bit, but if this is Luna’s dream, or her memory… it may not be the only one. If we assume she works like we do, we’re bound to find ourselves hopelessly lost. Dreams change, right? You have several any given night. Luna could do the same, but because we’ve wandered in this dream hasn’t decayed as it normally would.”
Applejack shrugged. “I guess. I mean, I don’t know, but I’m willin’ to go along with it.”
Twilight chuckled. “Let’s just see if we can find something that Luna might be associated with or fixated on here, and--”
At that moment, Applejack walked again in front of the Griffon. Her eyes were on Twilight, but Twilight’s saw past her to the great axe as it moved. She tried to call out, but her eyes must have told the story in full, because Applejack jerked out of the way and avoided it by a hoof’s length.
The skeleton was still rising, dragging the axe along the stones as it did. It’s eyes burned red and its movement was stiff, as if it had just woken.
There was a general rattling, and Twilight didn’t have to look around to know that they were surrounded.
What she didn’t expect was for the new arrivals to attack each other. The rattling of bones gave way to a general clamor as the old armies fought again, tearing each other apart. But the griffon and its axe had eyes only for Applejack, and swung again as the farm mare struggled to keep herself beneath its arc.
Twilight yelled. “Over here! Get out of its range!”
Magic lanced up her horn, formed itself into a powerful spike of power, and arced towards their assailant. Her blow was well aimed, but the magic seemed to do little more than leave black burns on the old bones. The beheamoth did not falter.
Applejack kept light on her hooves, but she was on the defensive and the room was only so long. This might work with living foes, but against the implacable dead who could not be tired out…? Twilight fired off another arcane bolt, but it was about as useless as the first.
She was already charging, keeping steady fire up until she was close enough, and then teleported twice, once to land beside her friend and wrap herself around Applejack, and again to carry them both to the other side of the room.
She let go and called up her magic. Applejack shivered and then crouched into a ready stance. “Have I told you how much I hate doin’ that? It’s cold an’ unnatural!”
“Just teleporting,” Twilight said. “It’s normal as can be. I don’t think I’m going to be able to blast it apart with magic. Ideas?”
The skeletal assailant didn’t take long to find them. It lumbered in their direction, held up momentarily by the battle around it. Twilight watched as a scrum of combatants bowled right into the griffon, and then gulped as the axe destroyed the whole lot in one swipe.
“I could buck that thing to pieces if it’d be still!” Applejack said. They edged back together, steps almost in perfect time. “Hell, all I’d need was a couple of seconds. But my legs only reach so far!”
“I can give you those seconds,” Twilight said. The griffon picked up one of the smaller skeleton warriors and threw him at the ponies, who scattered and let the hapless dead shatter between them. Twilight grabbed the fallen hoofblades off the skeleton in her magic and bore them aloft.
“If’n you think--”
“Start running as soon as you have an opening!” Twilight shouted, cutting her off. The hoofblades soared through the air like arrows, and the griffon brought the flat of his axeblade up to shield his face. They bounced off harmlessly.
But that was all she’d needed. With it’s eyesight obscured, Twilight grabbed several of the fighting skeletons and pushed them into the space between them and the beast, pressing them like an undead wave until the griffon was driven back a step.
It roared, almost startling Twilight into dropping her spell, and then it had shattered more of her pawns before she was even done flinching.
That was when she brought more from behind it, throwing them stones despite their flailing protest.
Applejack had already leapt into action, and closed the distance in a fearsome charge. She let out a roar of her own and as the Griffon picked an ancient armored pony off of its back, Applejack planted her front hooves solidly in front of it and kicked hard against the ground with her back hoof, spinning both hindlegs around and off the ground to deliver a devestating double-hoofed kick directly to its center of mass.
Twilight winced at the cracking noise, but pulled the last of the room’s smaller skeletons into another bunch to give the Griffon more targets for Applejack to put before herself.
She needn’t have bothered. The griffon’s ribcage was shattered fully, and it couldn’t support its own weight. It fell, breaking into pieces. The axe fell, landing on its blade and then falling over to clatter on the stone.
Applejack, still crouched, panted amid the now crumbling dead. Twilight slowly walked towards her, and together they watched the old griffon bones for signs of movement. Nothing, nothing at all--and even after Twilight had counted down from fifteen, just to feel better, it refused to rise.
Applejack whistled. “I’ll be damned.”
“I have a feeling that Luna knew this griffon when he was alive,” Twilight said. “I’m not sure who it could be. An enemy? Some old foe from a thousand years ago?”
“Maybe a friend,” Applejack said, chewing on her lip. “Y’know, some grif she knew way back when. Someone she could rely on, and now he’s sorta guardin’ her sleepin’.” She chuckled. “Not sure how nice it’d be to make your old pal a watchdog, but I guess I could do worse than Winona keepin’ me nightmare free.”
Twilight allowed herself a shaky smile. “I have another feeling that the axe may be our key, if that theory is even sound. Try… No, it has to be both of us. We’ll touch it together, with one hoof on the other just in case.”
Applejack nodded, and they stood side by side, front legs interlocked, and reached out for the axe.
As soon as she touched it, Twilight knew they’d been right. Something--the dream, intertia, something--gutpunched her and she tried to cry out, but it was as if the air had been sucked right out of her lungs. They were falling, the two of them together, and then she lost track of herself.
Until she felt heat. Twilight untangled her leg and tried to open her eyes--when had she closed them?--but Applejack was also trying to struggle free and they succeeded only in causing mutual trouble.
When Twilight opened her eyes, she saw only blinding red and then white, as if she’d been in caves for hours and only now come into the sunlight, but then her vision cleared.
And she found herself on a ruined walkway, under a blackened sky, in the shadow of a volcano. Ash smothered the air, but the ruins were free of smog for now. She tried to stand, but a tremor shook them both and Twilight collapsed again.