Iron Quill landed with the harsh impact of dust and blowing sand. The incredible force of Celestia’s magic washed over and around him for a few more seconds, charring at his mane and burning at his eyes. Is this the end? The Tyrant has beaten us. Now I die for choosing the wrong side.
But he didn’t die. Alicorns were capable of terrible things, and he’d heard all the stories about the artifacts kept securely in the Castle of the Two Sisters. That was why they had to seize it so badly. That was why the consequences of failure were so high.
After a few seconds, the magic had all burned away to sparks, and Quill finally sat up. He had made a small crater on a gray desert, from the look of it. Dry powder spread around him in all directions, so dry it was uncomfortably rough on his bat wings. He rose, shaking them as clean as he could and taking in his surroundings.
The sky overhead was black, without even a hint of blue. His bat eyes adjusted quickly, and many stars came into view. But no moon—just the stars. The sunlight was relatively bright, though it felt strange on his skin.
Quill was surrounded by army ponies, landed almost in the ranks they’d been marching in. The supply tent’s poles and canvas were strewn around him, and his logs were scattered in the air. No wind blew to take the papers away. “Silver Needle!” he yelled, looking around for his first aid. “Silver Needle, where are you?”
“Here, sir?” said Second Lieutenant Silver Needle from not far away. He turned to see her emerge from the fallen tent, a unicorn wearing the white apron of a clerk. She rose, taking a few steps over to him—and she bounced. She curved through the air in his direction in a wide arc, scattering dust and sand. “What kind of spell is that?” he asked. “I don’t think this is the time. We’ve just been—”
“It’s not a spell, Colonel Quill! I was just trying to get over there!” she squealed as she went past, landing wrong on one hoof and tumbling. She landed past him, though without any apparent injury. “Sorry, sir.”
Quill raised an eyebrow, then jumped himself. He kept his wings folded, yet… he drifted. The earth beneath only seemed to hold him loosely. “No need for an apology, Silver. Just get the crew in order and…” He looked behind him, to the master stockpile.
It was every bit the nightmare he feared. Shelves turned over, barrels of wheat and barley and bales of straw scattered madly. “Moon and stars, what a nightmare. See to the wounded, and… deal with this.”
He bent down, offering a hoof to the fallen unicorn. She was young, too young to be part of a war.
But the Lunar Rebellion needed every willing hoof, even those that weren’t ready. Quill might not have fought in ages, but he could claim the best minds for himself. See that they weren’t wasted in the bloody machine.
“Aye, sir. But what of you?”
He looked away, towards the front of the formation. Where the princess had fought her terrible battle, and the Midnight Guard’s banners still flew proudly. “I’m going to find out what’s going on.”
The rest of his crew were assembling—aside from Silver Needle, they were all laborers of various kinds, young mares and stallions he had snatched as recruits from combat squads in exchange for extra rations. They were a dozen in all. With twice the brains as the rest of the army.
“From her?” whispered Swift Wing, his latest page. “Good luck, master.”
“Stay alive,” he said, shaking the dust from his wings again and taking off.
It was incredible—flying took barely a flap of effort and he was up. Instead of constantly fighting against the ground, he only had to occasionally pay it a little respect, flapping every second or two as he passed over the camp. Most of the soldiers were slower to recover than his inventory had been. The powerful wards around the armory and other supplies had probably shielded him from the worst of Celestia’s magic.
There were thousands of ponies in the dirt. They came from all over Equestria, farmers and blacksmiths and serfs of all kinds. While Celestia’s castles were filled with the elite, her sister had seen the suffering of the ordinary stallion and taken pity. They had all answered her call.
But now many of those brave ponies were lying in the dirt, pierced by white-shafted arrows or charred by magic. He didn’t want to guess at the casualties, but he knew they were devastating. Bad enough that Nightmare Moon herself had emerged to face their attackers. Each company had its own banner, sewn to represent the little villages and towns they’d joined from. They might be stupid louts the whole army over, but they were his brothers and sisters in arms.
And now we’re here. Now that he looked up, he could see that there was a moon after all. It looked strange in the sky, and it wasn’t casting the comfortable gray light he knew. It was so blue, so green… why was everything so wrong?
Something shimmered in the air above him, higher than he dared to fly. Iron Quill knew a shield spell when he saw one, and he kept well away. This bubble is gigantic. Had Nightmare Moon managed to protect the entire army?
He didn’t make it to the center of the formation before the Voidseekers stopped him. They were bats like himself, with black armor and black wraps underneath. Even he knew almost nothing about the sacred sect, except that once they joined no non-bat would ever see their faces again, and they would fight only by night.
They were also terrifying, just as much as the one they served. “Are you Colonel Iron Quill?” asked one—a stallion he was fairly sure, though he didn’t know the name.
“Y-yes,” he answered, slowing to a stop in the air and saluting with one wing. “The Moon shines forever.”
“Yes, yes.” The stallion waved his own wing dismissively. “Come with us. She asked for you.”
“Me?” Nightmare Moon was like a raging storm on the battlefield, but she had nearly zero interest for the day-to-day of how her army was run. When they attacked, they always tried to gather as many valuables as possible. That was about the extent that she helped him keep her army marching. “Why?”
When they turned to fly away, he followed without waiting for an answer. He hadn’t really expected one—the Voidseekers said almost nothing to outsiders.
They passed over the center of the formation, where the medical relief ponies were even now going through the most battered and beaten groups. My job is hard, but at least I don’t have to explain to their mothers why they won’t be coming home.
Then they were past the army completely, and into more of the gray wasteland. There were many little impacts, even where no ponies had landed. Bits of rock and stone were scattered everywhere, apparently thrown here by the force of Celestia’s spell. Except… the soil continued ahead of them, with openings of various sizes. Some were so deep he couldn’t see the bottom in the too-harsh sunlight.
They were flying up a slope now. A pony sat at the top, looking down into the darkness. Her mane radiated up into the air behind her, like a burning storm. Her horn glowed so brightly blue that even the sunlight seemed pale. She was casting a spell, a spell so powerful that getting close made him feel it. It moved through him, too.
The Voidseekers landed on the ground maybe twenty meters from her, at the base of a slope. He followed. The same one that had spoken to him gestured up the slope toward her.
“So that’s it? I thought maybe I’d be talking to General Stalwart Shield, or maybe General Night Stalker. I’m not important enough for this.”
He pointed again without answering. Iron Quill saluted in response, as stiff and angry as he could. Then he started walking.
Not walking as he’d known it before, each step was a kind of bounce, threatening to take him off his stride. He would have to be careful—where his princess sat there was a ridge, looking down into an impact crater of incredible size. Maybe the place she’d landed?
“G-great Princess of the Moon…” Iron Quill called, when he was close. He had only stood this close to her once before, when she’d taken away his feathers and given him the night. “It is my honor to stand before you.” He lowered himself to the ground, eyes in the dust. “I am at your service, as in all things.”
There was a long silence. He nearly stood up, confused as to whether she’d heard him at all. But then she spoke. Nightmare Moon had lost all her venom. Her voice was… weary, defeated. If she had spoken like this when she came to his monastery, Quill would’ve kept copying scrolls and never even thought her name.
“You are… Iron Quill,” she said. “Is that right?”
“Rise out of the dust,” she commanded, tapping the ground on the edge of the ridge beside her with a hoof. “You will come and stand beside me.”
He obeyed. As he stepped up to the side of the ridge, he could see what Nightmare Moon had been looking at. A bleak expanse of shady ground, stretching away from them. Various craters broke the surface, just as frequently as the ones surrounding them. It seemed to continue on forever.
He probably should’ve kept his mouth shut. That was the smart thing in the presence of one so great. But curiosity was what got him here in the first place. “What did she do to us?”
Nightmare Moon turned her eyes on him. Those slits seemed to narrow, seeing him for the first time. Then she looked away. “My traitor of a sister… has banished us from Equestria. Look closer, child of the night. You know where we are.”
He looked. It took him a few more seconds—the green and blue sphere in the sky, the dark spots in front of them, the gray soil. His eyes went wide. “P-Princess. We can’t be…”
“We are,” she said. “Welcome to the Moon, Quill. You and every other pony who fought for me. It will be your grave.”
“W-what?” He stiffened, glancing back towards the army. Up here on the slope, he could see them moving. Many were dead, but thousands more were still alive. They were rising up from the dirt, lifting up their banners, righting their war machines. “We aren’t defeated, Princess! I’m no warrior, but I can see your army is prepared to fight. If we call for General Stalwart Shield—”
She draped a wing over his shoulder, holding firm enough that he couldn’t move. “Stalwart Shield is dead,” she said. “Night Stalker too. And whoever else you are thinking of. I do not know how, but their bow mares somehow knew our officers even though you wore no markings. My army’s chain of command has been decimated. Do you know how much danger we’re in? How precarious our survival, even now?”
He shook his head.
“Let me enlighten you,” Nightmare Moon said, lifting one hoof and pointing up. “You stand inside a bubble two kilometers across. It contains the entire army, every pony who stood on our side of the siege, living and dead. As we sit together, the whole of my power holds this thin film and all it contains against the stone. Do you know what waits outside it?”
“I, uh…” He looked out. He couldn’t see the edge of the bubble—at a guess, Nightmare Moon was probably in the exact center. “This is a barren land,” he said. “The sun is high, and the soil seems desolate. Even our earth ponies may have trouble—”
Nightmare Moon silenced him with a glare that could’ve melted rock. “There is nothing outside my spell, child. Nothing but hard vacuum, as merciless as my traitor of a sister. Do you know… of course you don’t. The thing you’re breathing now, that you’ve always taken as endless and inexhaustible… is not.
“My magic contains it, for now. But that power will run out. I can feel it even now, a weakness beginning… when it overtakes me, the bubble will burst. The air I’m holding will escape into the void. You will all die in agony.”
Quill’s mind struggled to even comprehend what he was being told. What did it even mean to have land without air? No wind, no clouds… why would that kill them? And more importantly… why had she called for him of all ponies? Quill felt a sudden chill pass through his spine, unconnected to the blackness overhead. “And why tell me, Princess? What am I to do to serve you?”
“You are the highest-ranking survivor,” she said. “You must lead my army now.” She let go with her wing, though even this small movement seemed an effort for her. Her eyes went unfocused again, and her horn continued to glow.
Iron Quill did not dare contradict the princess directly. But perhaps there was a tactful way he could point out the flaws with her decision. “I haven’t held a sword in my life, Princess,” he lied. An old, famliar lie. One they shared. “My promotion was… a courtesy. I only know how to manage.”
The single eye looking in his direction narrowed, but this time she didn’t even bend down. “That should be no trouble for us here. Do you see an army to fight? Open your eyes and see the doom that comes for you. I cannot move from this place, cannot divert my attention to anything save the spell that preserves your lives. I believe I can give you… three days. Measure them by hourglass, as there will be no sunrise and no sunset during all this time. The light will endure.”
His eyes widened. He barely even understood the problem, and the thousands of lives of the army depended on him? “What should I do, Princess?”
She shook her head. “I wish so badly to bring us back to Equestria and have my revenge. My sister… dared to use the Elements against me. Their magic took us away. But I cannot turn my power to that, or else my army would be lost to the void.” She met his eyes, growing stern. “I grant you the service of Penumbra, my eldest Voidseeker. She will be your mantle of authority.”
A pony settled in beside him, moving so quietly that he hadn’t even heard her approach. She wore the same black armor as the other Voidseekers, with only her eyes visible from inside her helmet. She dropped something on the ground behind him. It was a bloody iron band—the general’s diadem, worn as a symbol of authority. Stalwart Shield had been wearing it last time he saw it.
“Take the diadem on your ears, Iron Quill. My revenge depends on you. Your survival depends on you.”
Had he imagined it, or did Penumbra turn away and snicker as she said it. He tensed, but then turned aside, taking the crown and dusting it with a wing. He settled it on his head, blood and all. “I will try, Princess.”
“No!” Her voice boomed through the bubble, lifting dust from the hill and causing the distant hum of sound to fall silent. The Royal Canterlot voice was always loud, but to a bat it was excruciating. “You will succeed! Our revenge is deserved, we cannot fail. Is that clear?”
He saluted, as crisply as he could. Not very, compared to the last pony who had worn this iron crown. “Completely, Princess!”
She waved a dismissive wing, turning away from him. “Then go to it. When you have solved it, find me here. On my life, you have three days. Use them well.”
Three days to understand the unknowable, then do the impossible. How hard could it be?