“Since I won, I’ll be taking my reward.”
Luna felt a shiver radiating upward from the base of her spine. Centuries of divine strength and experience fled from her in the wake of those forward words from her chosen favorite. Although she felt the warmth of the other pony’s breath, she couldn’t find her own. The other mare’s lips came close enough that Luna’s own tingled with electricity in anticipation of that touch, and nervous butterflies danced in the goddess’s stomach. A first kiss never lost the magic inherent to those paired emotions, even after so many centuries. The lunar mare would never allow so perfect a moment to be ruined by fear or doubt, however. She would meet those descending lips with all the eagerness her favorite deserved. There would be no doubt that she had earned the reward she cla—
A gale of shrieking pain tore through Luna’s mind. The shockwave of psychic agony banished all reason and comprehension from her. She tore herself, thrashing, from her favorite’s blissful dream. Anger and confusion sent bolts of sympathetic lightning crashing across the sky of the perpetually beshadowed dreamscape. A litany of curses from the goddess was cut short when her addled mind recognized the origin of that tortured scream.
Without further thought, she flung herself out of that twilight realm of dreams and spirit, snapping back to her resting body in Canterlot with desperate, almost painful haste. She allowed herself only a moment to get her bearings as her eyes shot open into the waking world. It normally took some time to readjust to the differing rules and ways of thinking between the two dimensions. Time was a luxury the alicorn could not afford, yet she found uncoordinated limbs tangled in a wrapping of warm, extravagant bedsheets. They were some priceless diplomatic gift or another from the sheikhs of Saddle Arabia.
Luna’s horn lit with pale blue magic as she called upon the slumbering power of the night. Darkness gathered lovingly around her, shielding her in a cocoon of featureless blackness. The mare rested for no more than a single breath in the embrace of her surrounding aspect, before she allowed it to explode outward as a thousand blades of razor-edged darkness. Her regal bed was shredded to splinters and tatters of cloth. Donated pegasus feathers from the pillows and mattress exploded in every direction to fill the air, dancing in sourceless eddies and whorls, the lingering magic within them following some unseen guide. Sunlight poured in through the remains of her curtains, glinting off the falling shards of glass that were once the windows of her bedroom. She could hear the alarmed shouts of the guards in the hall as her chamber doors burst outward in pieces. Luna paid no attention to them. Freed from the bed and covers, she flung herself through the ruined window, wings spreading almost as an afterthought to catch air beneath them.
Luna’s mental call was a nearly tangible hammerblow of psychic force. The few dreamers sleeping their way through the Canterlot afternoon surely must have bolted awake in confusion. Those ponies nearest to her, within her tower, were likely clutching their heads in their hooves in a bout of seemingly sourceless agony.
The alicorn’s mind searched in a panic for her sister’s familiar presence, but it was nowhere to be found. The idea was chilling, but it turned out to be a moot point. Smoke was pouring upward from the walled courtyard at the south end of the grounds. The air around that whole wing of the palace was filled with dust and debris. Luna marveled that she had slept through whatever had happened. Yet it wasn’t terribly surprising, when she considered it; not only had she followed Celestia’s urging in enspelling a shield to soundproof her bed, but she had pulled her mind far away from her body and insulated it in the dream of another pony. A very diverting dream, one that had included sound, movement, and violence of its own to block out the intrusions of the waking world. Still, a reasonable explanation did little to remove the bitter sting of again being absent as Canterlot descended into chaos.
The Princess of the Night wasted no more precious half-seconds in thought or terror. Exhaustive, careful consideration was more fitting of her sister’s temperament, not her own. She dove toward that courtyard, much as her dream body had leapt from an imagined version of Cloudsdale not too long ago. Mortal eyes were useless in all that dust and smoke, but though her divinity was muddled by the oppressive glare of Celestia’s sun overhead, her powers were still more than potent enough for the simple task of enhancing her awareness.
The courtyard was a swirling vortex of wild magic. Base elemental energies flashed about as lightning and fire, interspersed with roaming enchantments and transmutative bursts. Luna expected to feel a dozen unicorns at the center of it all, but instead there was just one: Twilight Sparkle. An egg of impenetrable, solid magic sat at the molten center of the yard. It didn’t feel so different from Twilight’s spellwork, but nor was it exactly the same. The similarity alone was enough of a clue to name it as Shining Armor’s magic. Traces of Celestia’s magic were so heavy in the air that Luna could feel it as an unpleasant, tingling sensation along her coat as it warred with her own opposing nature. Her sister had clearly done battle here. Had Chrysalis attacked again? There was none of the sickly-sweetness of changeling magic, but it might have simply been hidden by the fog of daytime’s power clouding Luna’s senses.
Her grasp of the situation became clearer as she neared the ground at that breakneck speed. With all that ambient magic, it was difficult to make out smaller presences. There were a few clusters of life around the edges of the yard. No doubt those yet unknown enemies were cowering from Twilight’s magical onslaught.
Celestia must have been within Shining Armor’s peerless barrier, beyond her senses and ability to contact. She was probably railing at the poor stallion for doing his duty by defending her. Her guards had been rather overprotective since her defeat at Chrysalis’s hooves. Luna knew that it chafed her sister badly, but she couldn’t help but take a certain joy in imagining the look on Celestia’s face as she was forced to watch while her student and her little sister routed her enemies for her.
Luna flared her wings to slow her descent after she dropped below the level of the yard’s walls. Her horn glowed as her magic crafted a screen to turn aside the suppressive magic that was pouring out of Twilight in such impressive torrents; there was no need to take any chances. Even as she made her preparations, Luna’s heart swelled with pride at her friend’s display. She would be hard-pressed to match it herself, but match it she would! And what a pair they would make, with fierce magic to make the world tremble! It would be a proper remembrance of older times, when enemies were savage, the world was bitterly deadly, and all she had to count on was Celestia at her side. Her words were raised in the royal voice, coloured with the joy of the coming battle. “FEAR NOT, TWILIGHT SPARKLE. THE BATTLE IS JOINED! LET OUR ENEMIES QUA—”
The alicorn’s call to battle ended with a sudden, strangled sound as the Voice blew away enough of the smoke around her friend to see with mortal eyes. The reason for Twilight’s fury suddenly became clear: the lavender mare was balanced in the air atop an upwelling fountain of magic, hovering protectively over Luna’s sister... her broken, burned sister. She hadn’t seen Celestia with her deeper senses because the solar pony’s presence had been either ended with her death or brought so low by injury that Twilight’s display had hidden it. The dark princess folded her wings and dropped the last two dozen hoofspans like a rock.
Luna heavily struck the ground on all four legs near the prone alicorn. Stone, weakened by intense heat, cracked and shattered underhoof. Immediately, sizzling bolts of uncontrolled magic slammed against her defenses. The unexpected strength of the errant projectiles drove her back a step, forcing her to stubbornly brace her legs to avoid being pushed away from the injured mare. She grit her teeth and fed more power into her screening spells, allowing them to better deflect and decompose the incoming magic.
Though she found that she couldn’t blame the filly in the slightest for her indiscriminate, berserk display, given the feelings she so obviously harbored for Celestia, Luna couldn’t spare the attention to calm or comfort her. The dark alicorn lay a bare hoof upon the scalded redness of her pale counterpart’s chest. The contact allowed her to more easily extend her awareness in that direction, through the wild cacophony of unfocused unicorn magic. Relief poured through Luna, like a swallow of cool water to a mare dying in the desert. She felt a spark of life still struggling within Celestia, in a fluttering heartbeat and the rapid, short breaths of somepony near death.
Some kind of enchantment had been placed upon the solar mare. Delicate threads of familiar magenta magic seemed to be trying to touch her sister’s searing essence. Sparkle was no doubt trying to strengthen her mentor’s connection to her sun, to give her the energy to survive. It was a daring, ingenious idea, but one doomed to failure. A unicorn couldn’t interact with alicorn magic any more than a pegasus could touch an earth pony’s. Though Twilight’s latest research had surprising implications, for the moment the three pony tribes’ magic existed together only within its goddesses.
However, Luna had admittedly been shown startling contradictions to that formerly immutable law in the last few years.
The lunar mare poured magic into her wings and flared them protectively around Celestia, enspelled feathers shearing through the enchantment like a steel blade slicing through a spider’s web. She knew her sister’s nature far better than her student did. While she did an alicorn’s work, let Celestia’s apprentice focus on smashing her enemies to dust!
Luna gathered the day-weakened powers of the night to herself, dispersing her and her sister into a midnight blue mist. She weaved her now-amorphous form around Twilight’s continuing attack and flowed toward Celestia’s tower. The guards and the spells spun around the tower would keep any threats at bay while she worked the uncertain task of saving the fading embers of life within Equestria’s elder goddess.
* * *
The air around Celestia’s tower rippled and distorted as Luna approached. The warding enchantments recognized her and parted in her path, which they most certainly wouldn’t have done for others trying to enter incorporeally. She poured herself and her sister through the tiny cracks in the balcony door and surged toward the center of the room. That midnight blue mist swirled around the sun goddess’s alicorn-sized bed, gathering once more into two distinct shapes. Luna quickly placed Celestia upon the sheets, while the conscious princess appeared on clear ground. It wasn’t a graceful rematerialization; in her haste, Luna fell several inches to the floor, hooves clattering upon the tile as she stumbled.
The guards perpetually stationed outside of Celestia’s door had presumably heard the racket, for the door tentatively opened and a rather nervous looking, white-coated member of the Royal Guard peered in. It was to their credit that they had stayed at their assigned post during the commotion outside. Ponies often had too much curiosity and too little sense of duty. Luna, however, was hardly in the mood to congratulate them.
“Celestia has been gravely injured,” she snapped. “If thou and thy companion in arms care for your princess at all, you will ensure that none disturb us while we save Her.” It was all too easy for Luna to slip into her Middle Equestrian style of royal speech, given the circumstances. She had been trying to curb the habit, against Celestia’s urgings, when she wasn’t in her most official mode. “This work is beyond pony medicine, and we shall be too deep within our magic to suffer gawkers and well-wishers.”
There was a brief moment of hesitation from the guard. Luna could guess why; there was some lingering suspicion, within most ponies, regarding her own motives. She could almost look behind the stallion’s eyes, at how he was weighing the chance that she was the Nightmare again, and that she had done this to her own sister. Normally, she would have been deeply hurt, but at that moment, Luna couldn’t spare the thought to care. She turned back to Celestia and ignited her horn, beginning to weave her spells.
She heard the door close behind her and was thankful for it. The suspicions of the guard would undoubtedly grow if he had stayed to watch what was to come. Threads of inky shadow impinged upon reality all around the bed in an ominous display as Luna called upon the deepest powers of the dark. The sun burning nearly at its height above weakened her works, but she dared not hurry the day along to make way for night. It would strengthen her own magic, but would sap the dying Celestia in turn, and as tenuous as her sister’s grip was, she couldn’t withstand that loss. Into the surrounding darkness the alicorn wove silvery moonlight and the pale starlight-matter of the deeper realms.
Luna was, after all, the Goddess of All the Night. The night was the time of spirits, when all the ghostly things of the world played. Her aspect gave her power over such things, just as Celestia’s connection to the forge of matter that was her sun gave her mastery over the material. With that power, the darker alicorn created a net to hold fast the soul of her sister to her dying flesh. Celestia would protest the use of such magic, if she were able. She had always argued that the soul of any pony was a sacred thing, to be held inviolate. Luna would happily take the scolding, if it meant that Celestia would be there to deliver it.
* * *
The Princess of the Moon didn’t often have to deal with real, physical exhaustion. She had a full measure of earth pony endurance, the ample energy of a pegasus, and an immortal’s constitution besides. Weeks of spending the morning engaged in lengthy discussions with Twilight instead of sleeping had added up to little more than a mild sense of discomfort. It was a testament to her current exertions that, at the moment, every inch of her body ached, and her knees trembled with fatigue. Her reservoir of magic had long since been exhausted. With her moon buried below the horizon, its strength reaching her as but a weak trickle, her own vitality was the only source of power available to her.
There was little point in considering alternatives to spending the stuff of her own life, for there were few unicorns who could provide the strength necessary to make a difference. Twilight Sparkle could, if she still lived, and perhaps her brother, if he could be spared from fighting whatever vile enemy had struck down the embodied sun. Maybe a precious few of the professors from Celestia’s school or the university. The rare archmagi worth the name within the the ranks of the Royal Guard or the Equestrian Army were likely either not in the city, or had talents too focused upon causing harm to lend their magic to healing and preservation. In any case, it would take hours, perhaps days, to properly formulate an array that would allow ordinary unicorns to work in concert with Luna’s exotic spells.
Luna took a few minutes to rest before the next round of spellcraft meant to lend Celestia some measure of vitality. The dark princess was lathered with sweat and her battered counterpart’s blood. Alicorns weren’t invincible, by any measure, but at times, even Luna could be tricked into believing it was so. She had felt the kiss of sword, spear and spell more times than she could count, in wars unnumbered. She’d laughed off injuries that would have been the death of a dozen lesser ponies. She could scarcely imagine how much punishment the now-ancient Sun herself could endure. But immortality had very practical limits. Burns were nearly impossible for magic to heal, even when considering the remarkable recuperative powers of the transcended pony form; the stuff of life was simply too altered by the fire to be reused. Luna hadn’t had the luxury of pondering how a being like Celestia, so aligned with flame, could burn. Instead she’d had to do the gruesome work, playing the butcher to clear the way for her sister’s body to begin to rebuild itself. That was when her entrapping spell had been at its most strained. Celestia hadn’t survived the shock of the treatment, but nor had she been allowed to die.
Luna knew well that most modern ponies wouldn’t have the stomach to do what needed to be done. She didn’t spare a moment fretting over the nauseating, metallic smell of blood on her coat. For her, the ancient times made nearly the whole of her unimprisoned life. In that bygone era peace and harmony had been a rare thing indeed, and death had been all too common. Though Celestia might be more removed, both existent alicorns were no strangers to blood and carnage.
Of course, there were three alicorns now. The thought still caught Luna by surprise, on occasion. The Royal Sisters had ruled alone for so long that it could be difficult to think otherwise, even after several years. Cadance might be able to help. The dark goddess found her thoughts drifting to earlier events, in keeping with that fool’s hope.
* * *
The Realm of Dreams. Several hours previous.
The Hour of Sweet Dreams. To some, it was simply “the Sweet Hour”. Before Luna’s banishment, that is what ponies had called the brightest time of midday. It was the time when ponies took shelter from the heat and napped away early morning exertions before returning to their toils. It had been the moon mare’s very favorite hour of the day or night, and though the tradition had faded over the centuries, that was still the case. It was the time when Luna could be closest to her subjects, the time when both they and she could walk together in the Realm of Dreams, a place of mind and spirit that served as a strange reflection of the material world.
Luna floated high over the mountain of obsidian glass that Canterlot perched upon. The city’s buildings were a gently glowing collection of soft pastel shades, all fey blues, greens, and pinks. Within them slept a scattered starscape of pony minds, each one a pinpoint of glimmering light, in contrast to the blank, starless sky above.
From such heights, Luna was faced with one inescapable truth. Compared to her time, ponies were simply improved. Where their sleeping minds had once felt like clouds of gentle, drowsy fog, there were now those brilliant stars. It was a thing of the greatest wonder and the deepest magic. Celestia had preached to her of the many advances, those social, magical, and technological. She spoke of peace and unity amongst the tribes and with those outside of Equestria. Luna had found that, as usual, her sister missed the point with her intellectualization.
The souls of ponykind shine!
Oh, she had no illusions that her subjects were perfect. A few weeks amongst hostile, petty nobility had her seething and ranting at her sister for letting proper fear of the crown fade. She remained distinctly unconvinced by Celestia’s counterarguments on that topic, in fact. An afternoon with the so-called prince, Blueblood, had provided a revolting bulwark against Celestia’s reasoning. Foals were still as cruel as ever, proving well enough that the most basic nature of ponies remained the same. Grown ponies could be indifferent, or even mean-spirited. Stallions and mares still fought their endless games of dominance amongst themselves. If anything, ponykind had regressed somewhat when it came to surrendering to the instincts inherited from their ancient, panicky prey ancestors. Modern ponies were downright soft and easily spooked. That, at least, Luna could accept as an unavoidable consequence of peace and safety, which was far better than the alternative.
However, even given those flaws, ponies had grown in so many ways. The tribes mixed freely. The ponies that comprised them were intelligent, enlightened, empathetic, and on the whole, benevolent.
Harmonious, to put it simply. Our ancient dream, now over a thousand glorious years in the working.
When the horror of the Nightmare had stalked once more upon the fields of Equestria, after her long exile, she had made a fatal, if understandable error. She had never believed that the Elements of Harmony could be used by anypony other than Celestia, simply because that had most certainly been the case before she was cast upon the moon. Yet, it had come to pass that fragile, short-lived, mortal ponies had taken up the holy talismans of the divine, and smote a dark goddess upon the stones of her own palace. Five young mares, common and unexceptional at first glance, who could add to their number only a single brilliant magus, had mastered the High Virtues and done what even the Goddess of the Day could not: they had freed her from madness.
Luna had since learned that the Bearers of the Elements were far more remarkable than they appeared on the surface. That much was not surprising, after seeing them take up the Elements in the first place. The most startling thing of all was slowly coming to realize that, while exceptional, the Bearers were not unique. One could likely find new Bearers without even leaving the town of Ponyville, ponies who would need only to forge bonds of love and friendship with the others to allow at least some degree of use of the Elements.
Ponyville. That was where her current favorite slept. It was tempting, but Luna had made it a habit to delay her gratifications. Every time she triumphed over her base desires, even in small ways, she could count it as proof that the Nightmare was kept at bay.
Canterlot was often a poor place for her to alight during the daytime hours. Aside from the earth ponies and the occasional unicorn tending a few of the vineyards around the lower slopes of the sunny mountain, there weren’t many farmers. With Ponyville acting as a firebreak for the Everfree’s unregulated weather, and the whole rest of Equestria shielding the capital from other fronts, there were few civilian pegasi to be found who upheld the Sweet Hour. Nor was Canterlot so metropolitan as Manehatten, with its boisterous nightlife. In truth, Luna had been finding herself in that sprawling coastal city at night far more often than she should have, for that very reason. She had even been considering officially moving the Court of the Moon there, despite that meaning she would be away from her sister more often than she’d like.
The dark alicorn felt an irrational rush of shame. 'Did I miss anything?' She would have spat in self-derision at that quotation of her own words, if she had taken the time to form a proper body in the dreamscape of Equestria. Celestia has been all but flagellating Herself for Her defeat at Chrysalis’s hooves, but at least She had been there to stand up and fight for Her subjects! Where were thou, Luna?
She could forgive herself for spending so many nights in Manehatten. It was important for her subjects to see her walk amongst them again, as a princess, as she’d always wanted, rather than as a spectre from their frightful feast day. She certainly felt guilty about not being there when Celestia woke in the mornings. Her beloved sister, however, had changed much since their youth. She had become patient, wise, and forgiving. There was no bitterness in her sun-blessed heart when their shared breakfast had ceased. She had been lovingly teasing, of course, when Luna had returned at sunset instead, the first few times. Since then, Celestia had been unfailingly supportive.
What was unforgivable was abandoning my duties, to go foalishly flitting away to Manehatten to indulge in decadence and celebration while Canterlot was under known threat! Her poor temper was like a rolling clap of thunder across the dreamscape. In its wake, dreams fouled and grew dark. One of our subjects bats her eyelashes, and I go eagerly like a called dog, leaving Sister to fight alone!
The alicorn noticed the gloom that had formed around her with sudden shock. It was so easy to let her mind wander in the dreamscape. She was this realm’s Mistress, and it answered to her whims. However, she wasn’t entirely immune to its effects. Dreaming was a time of emotional release, when secret desires and joys, and hidden and shameful thoughts bubbled to the surface. A nightmare for a normal pony was like a tiny storm in the gentle light of the realm. The dark thoughts of a Goddess of Dreams could stretch across large sections of Equestria. In Canterlot and Ponyville, her subjects whimpered in their sleep.
In dismay, the alicorn’s awareness darted about, moving through the ghostly outlines of the intangible buildings. In each she placed a figurative hoof upon the far more solid, sleeping minds, imparting a blessing of peace and warmth, turning dreams toward pleasant ends. The time of her madness, before her banishment, wasn’t just a time of literal darkness. There was no escape for her ponies even in sleep. The horror there had been worse than in the waking world. She would not darken her subjects’ spirits again.
The formless cloud of her astral presence paused in surprise as it sped through Canterlot, and found brightness where she had expected more nightmares. The dreamers nearer the palace, the night servants and guards, were like candles clustered around a torch. Confusion became understanding. Luna’s spirit coiled around that brightest, purifying light. It radiated gentle warmth and caring and, as it turned out, more than a little amorous heat.
And what do we have here? The moon goddess’s dark mood vanished in a flood of mirth. Is our lovely little Cadance sleeping off a satisfyingly taxing lunchtime visit from her husband?
If Luna had a body here, it would be giggling with fillyish glee. Well, surely there’s no harm if we were to take a small peek? A princess must be allowed a few vices.
Sinking into a pony’s dream was an effortless affair. Exiting one could be a bit more difficult, but hardly a strain for the Goddess of the Night. As it turned out, with Cadance’s napping mind, it was rather the opposite. Melting into that light was like trying to walk against a hurricane. Her awareness was slapped away. She found herself spinning through the starlight-solid shapes of Dream-Canterlot, until she forced herself to create a dream body, just for the solidity it offered.
The familiar weight of wings and limbs helped to orient her, and she stopped tumbling about.
“THOU UNGRATEFUL WENCH!” the angered deity trumpeted at that slumbering luminance at the heart of the palace as she hovered, wings flared in fury. “THOU DARE TO STRIKE A GODDESS?”
Luna dropped several feet with a shriek that was rather at odds with her bellowing, the stars of her mane scattering in all directions, her eyes wide with shock. Something had nibbled at her withers, after nosing through her misty mane. She spun around in the air as she flailed her wings, even though there wasn’t technically any air in the dreamscape for them to beat against. In this place, intent mattered far more than form.
There was a giggling presence in the air behind her. It was a wispy shape of gathered pink starlight, no more tangible than the spectral buildings. The voice was familiar enough to Luna.
“Now, now, Princess,” Cadance said, voice trying to be accusatory through her laughter, “you deserve it for trying to spy on me.”
“W-WE WERE DOING NO SUCH THING!” Luna stammered. She considered letting her dream body fade back toward that formless state, just to rid herself of the heat rising in her cheeks and atop her muzzle. She tried to seem casual, and grasped for a new subject. “Thine empathy is beginning to strengthen thee in the realms of mind and spirit. Thou art growing in solidity and awareness.” The flustered mare blinked as the young alicorn’s outline vanished. Did she lose that conscious thread, or did she move els— “GAH!”
“If you’re craving something solid, Princess, you’ll just have to try to seduce Shiny yourself. No vicarious test runs,” Cadance’s voice whispered huskily in her ear. Luna could swear she could even feel hot breath tickling it. Her wings flared and she spun around to face the budding demigoddess’s new position.
The elder alicorn just stared at her young counterpart, aghast. She didn’t trust herself not to descend into further stammering if she spoke. Surely she didn’t just suggest...
When the ethereal shape of Cadance vanished again, Luna braced herself, if just to keep from leaping about like the spooked foal. It would be unseemly, given her recent, unflattering ruminations about modern pony bravery. Sure enough, she felt the phantom presence of the youngest alicorn tenderly drape itself across her back. Luna just grit her teeth and stoically looked straight ahead.
“Oh! Silly me. I’ve heard the rumors from Manehatten. They say that our Princess of the Moon prefers a more gentle, dare I say, feminine touch?” Luna’s eyes widened in embarrassed horror. Even worse, her fur frizzed in alarm, from withers to dock, when she felt a hoof trailing lovingly along her flank. “Well, since you interrupted a very nice dream, it would be only fitting if you—”
Thunder boomed across the dreamscape in a rolling detonation. Wings beat as the elder goddess flung herself skyward once more. She seemed to grow in size until she looked like she could knock over the spires of Canterlot with an errant hoof. In fact, one of those massive hooves leveled itself toward Cadance to point accusingly. “THOU... THOU WANTON TRICKSTER!” The outraged alicorn’s voice put that earlier thunder to shame. The entire ethereal city seemed to tremble. “THOU ART TRYING TO DISCOMFORT US ON PURPOSE! WE SWEAR THAT THOU ART SIMPLY CELESTIA DYED PINK! WE THINK WE PREFERRED THEE AS AN EVIL IMPOSTER! SHE WAS LESS MALIGN!”
To make matters worse for Luna, Cadance’s only response was more gleeful laughter. If this had been reality, the pink princess would have been plummeting out of the air, holding her sides. Luna growled in reply. She stretched out her will and plucked Cadance out of the sky like a pegasus foal’s doll. She could swear she saw the ephemeral demigoddess wave a hoof at her as she was tossed back into the glow of her own dream at speeds that would make Rainbow Dash die of envy.
The passing thought of the prism-maned pony snapped Luna out of her fury. Cursed succubus. She hath made us forget our earlier indiscretions.
Luna spun in the air and plunged through the eternal twilight toward distant Ponyville.
* * *
The dark alicorn’s cheeks were still warm with embarrassment when she shook herself out of the memory. She tried to rekindle some of the righteous anger she had felt toward her ‘niece’, as any fire lit under her weary spirits would have been helpful, but she quickly found the effort to be fruitless. It was all but impossible to stay mad at that mare. She might still be painfully young, but she was practically an avatar of the better part of the pony soul. As she grew, she would be an irreplaceable boon to her subjects.
Unfortunately, what Luna needed wasn’t a pony with a cheerful temperament, but one with a great deal of the right kind of power.
More and more, she instinctively reaches out to comfort those in distress. Clearly, it has begun to happen even as she sleeps. That was no surprise. One afternoon, Celestia had amused herself by matching several of her bureaucrats’ glowing reports about their apparently effective anti-crime initiatives to Cadance’s travel itinerary. She might be progressing, but her connection to the realm of the spirit is still tenuous when compared to mine own. She may be grown, but as an alicorn, she’s still just a foal.
“And she is not at all tempting,” Luna stated out loud, matter-of-factly. Strangely, it did nothing to lessen the heat in her cheeks, nor the remembered tingle at her withers.
And were there actually rumors?
Luna roughly shook her head, as if to physically dislodge those thoughts. Fatigue was leading her mind down strange paths. There was a time for whimsy, and it wasn’t when the very heart of one’s life lie dying. She gathered her hooves under her and reignited her horn, turning herself back to the work of trying to coax Celestia’s strength back into her scorched flesh.
Besides, the burdensome task helped to keep her mind safely away from the other entity with powers that seemed akin to her own, the one she had encountered not long after meeting Cadance in that ethereal realm.
* * *
The Realm of Dreams. Several hours previous.
Central Ponyville was all but empty of sleepers, unlike the surrounding farms. Those she had visited already, to soothe the disturbed dreams she found therein. Rarity had remained in Canterlot in the weeks following the wedding, and was not one to nap during the afternoon, in any case. Luna counted that as a shame, for the purposes of her current outing. The unicorn had wonderful dreams. They were tales filled with romance and high drama, where mares were beautiful and cunning, and stallions were bold and charming. If the true Court were anything like that pony’s dreams, Luna would never consider leaving Canterlot.
With both unicorn Elements visiting the royal city, the only other Bearer to look in on in the center of Ponyville was—
Were it not for Cadance’s earlier shocks steeling her nerves, Luna would have jumped or manifested a layer of armor to protect herself. As it was, the moon princess couldn’t quite help but twitch. A very normal pink pony, seemingly as corporeal as the realm’s mistress herself, waved from the door of the only solid building in Ponyville’s dreamscape, perhaps the only one in all of Equestria. The bakery wasn’t some transparent outline of soft light. It stood out with stark pinks and yellows and browns, a glaring imposition into this wispier reality. The very idea was almost as frightening as the pink party pony herself.
“Greetings, Pinkie Pie.” Luna forced normalcy into her tone, fighting against the reflex to slip into the Canterlot Voice to bolster her courage. It had been far easier to deal with the pony when she’d been so foalishly dressed as a chicken. That had made it possible for the alicorn to forget she was dealing with the most existentially terrifying being in Equestria. Luna crafted a friendly expression, with some effort, and trotted forward. Her hooves actually made an audible ‘clop’ when they struck the wood of the building’s floor, without her going through the trouble of producing the effect herself. The alicorn shivered. What made it all the more disturbing was that the pink pony didn’t make a similar sound as she bounced along in that energetic way of hers.
“What are you doing here in Ponyville? If I’d known you were coming, I’d have thrown a party! Celestia let us throw a super-neat tea party the last time she was here for a visit. And it turned into an even neater Kidnapped-Bird Search Party after!” Pinkie Pie bounced clear over the vanguard of ranks of colourful artillery. There were dozens of those cannons, lined up in row after row. They shouldn’t have logically fit into the room. The impossible geometry was actually a comfort to the alicorn; it was something she would expect from this realm. Distance and size were more nebulous concepts here. “The Cakes told me I can’t use my Party Cannon in here anymore, but if you give me ten, no, five minutes, I’ll put up some streamers and blow up some balloons and get out one of the emergency cakes I baked this morning and—”
Luna watched the babbling continue on with stark disbelief. She’d have credited it to a property of this realm if she hadn’t seen the pony perform similar breathless monologues in person. Still, did she not realize that she wasn’t in the waking world? Perhaps she saw no difference? Certainly she seemed to treat the idea of reality as a vague suggestion. Luna had tried to speak to Twilight Sparkle about it, but the mare seemed to be intent upon not thinking about the issue, which seemed to be quite a reversal of her inquisitive nature. All of Ponyville seemed to share the sentiment, in fact. Her sister had shown prudent concern, similar to her own, yet had been quick to reassure her that there was no strange sorcery or malign magic warping the minds of the citizens of Ponyville, or keeping them from noticing the oddity. It had just somehow become normal for them, if such a thing was possible.
The moon goddess blinked as her train of thought was interrupted by a small cupcake being shoved under her muzzle. The party pony was giving her an expectant look. It was the only clue that Luna had as to the topic of the stream of ignored blather that had preceded the offering. Taking the confection in the grasp of her magic seemed to satisfy the filly, which spared Luna the fearful need to have Pinkie repeat herself. She couldn’t bring herself to actually taste it, of course. She was sure that if she bit into it, it would be cloyingly sweet and likely strawberry flavored, judging by the colour. Indeed, it was probably delicious. Food in the dreamscape never, ever had a flavor. It wasn’t real, and the chemistries of taste and smell were too complicated for lesser beings to concentrate upon while they slept. Worse yet, Luna didn’t even want to ponder the implications if she woke up feeling physically full from eating it.
“A-ah, my thanks to thee, Pinkie Pie! I’m sure we shall savor it on our travels.” Luna disliked the lie of it, but what else was there to do? “We were simply passing through, and thought to briefly visit. All is well in fair Ponyville?”
The puffy-maned pony cheerfully bounced in place. Luna looked on in horrified fascination, trying to figure out how she kept her body so perfectly level as she did so. Being an earth pony certainly allowed for a great deal of strength and deftness, but the agility, frantic energy and sheer defiance of such ideas as mass and momentum were more suited to a pegasus. Luna found herself looking for scars on the pony’s side that would account for lost wings, as the confirmed earth pony began to reply. “Oh, that was super-duper nice of you, Princess,” Pinkie gushed, “but nothing bad ever happens in Ponyville!”
Luna was about to retort, but Pinkie beat her to it, sitting down on her haunches and raising a hoof to her chin in a pondering gesture. “Well, except for evil snooty princess attacks." Luna cringed. "Ursa Minors visiting. Parasprites eating everything. Stampedes. Diamond dogs ponynapping fashion ponies. Giant dragons. Giant dragon smoke clouds. Timber wolves and stuff coming from the Everfree. Cerberuses. Cerberi? Spells going all wrong. Potion mishaps. Poison mishaps. Baking mishaps. Meanie griffons being big jerky jerks...”
A raised hoof silenced the filly. “Yes, well, we take it none of those events are happening now?” Pinkie shook her head, and seemed about to continue, but Luna didn’t give her the chance. “Then we must take our leave. Royal duties and... so on. Farewell, Pinkie Pie!”
“Okie dokie loki!” Pinkie Pie waved a hoof, and Luna beat a hasty retreat. She levitated the cupcake up onto the roof of the house, just to keep that solid matter from spreading to the rest of the dreamscape. Who knew what the long-term effects of that would be? Likely nothing good.
Luna took wing and put some distance between herself and the bakery before she was able to breathe easy. She knew it was unfair and unworthy of her. Pinkie Pie was sweet and endearingly foalish. No doubt she had a beautiful heart; she wouldn’t embody one of the Elements otherwise. Certainly she was beloved in her community, and both Celestia and Cadance seemed to quite adore her. However, she unnerved Luna to no end, even moreso here, where there was no mistaking that she wasn’t a normal pony.
Still, Luna had to admit that it would be nearly impossible to find an Element of Laughter even half so suited to the role as Pinkie Pie.
It might not be as difficult as replacing the Element of Magic, of course. Twilight possessed a unique blend of necessary qualifications. She managed to subsume her ego enough to act as the moderating nucleus of the group of Bearers, and still had the will to attain a singular, exceptional mastery over a kind of pony magic—unicorn, in her case. That gave her the experience to direct the energies of the Elements on behalf of the group. Having earned such strength tended to breed a personality that was at odds with Magic’s other requirement. Certainly Rainbow Dash and Applejack had the same skill with their respective tribe’s magic, and their willfulness would make them excellent leaders. Yet, Magic wasn’t necessarily a leader. Magic was love and togetherness, not duty. Magic was the glue that bound the whole with mutual care, not obligation. Dutifulness had a different Virtue: Loyalty.
Loyalty. Luna’s thoughts all but sang that word.
* * *
Luna blinked. Somepony was talking to her.
She’d allowed her mind to drift as she maintained her hold upon Celestia’s soul. At least it had been easy to reach the conclusion that Pinkie Pie could offer no help, and doubly so. She didn’t have a horn, for one, and she couldn’t be trusted with anything serious, for the other. She was off in Ponyville, in any case. By the time she got to Canterlot, things would be decided already, one way or the other.
Luna hadn’t even noticed when the gold-armored guard from earlier had entered the room. Fortunately, she had spared the strength for a small enchantment to clean her coat some time ago. Celestia was always adamant that certain concessions must be made to proper appearance, since their subjects relied so heavily upon their rulers. Seeing the former Nightmare soaked in the blood of Equestria’s beloved-unto-worship sun princess would shatter the calm of anypony.
The lunar mare, with a small motion of her head, cut off the guard, who was saying something about a crowd forming outside the door. “We don’t wish to hear of it. None are to enter, unless it is Twilight Sparkle or the other Elements. We need quiet. Or dost thou think it easy to hold a goddess within this world?”
Luna pointed to the door with one unshod hoof. It took a startling amount of effort to so much as raise her leg. “Out with thee. Do thine duty. We shall call out if we require assistance.”
The alicorn waited for the stallion to leave the room before she settled down onto the ground with a drained sigh. She propped her head up by resting her chin atop the edge of the bed. Keeping her horn ignited to feed her spell, she allowed her mind to drift to more pleasant memories. They helped to keep the discomfort of her dwindling vitality at bay.
* * *
Several hours previous.
“Way to go, Rainbow Crash!”
The taunt came from a burly, brown, not terribly bright-looking stallion. The jeers were picked up by several others standing atop clouds at the sidelines of the practice field near Cloudsdale.
The lean blue pegasus pushed her mane from her eyes. That once rainbow-hued and roguishly unkempt mane was now red and matted with blood. Rainbow Dash dug her hooves into the cloud beneath her and pushed herself up on trembling limbs. She didn’t even get halfway toward standing before her legs gave out again, and she fell back down with a puff of scattering vapor.
“Geez... Dash...” Spitfire, resplendent in her Wonderbolts uniform, landed near the wounded Element Bearer with a few powerful beats of her wings. She kindly offered a hoof to help the other mare to her own.
Dash couldn’t seem to meet her idol’s eyes. “Guess... guess I messed up pretty bad, huh?”
“I’m sorry, Dash. Really, I am. I thought you were way better than this. You’ve got the speed, kid, no doubt.” Spitfire slowly drew away once Dash seemed steadier, and then she too turned her face away. “Listen... it takes more than speed to be a Wonderbolt. Maybe you don’t have it. I—.” The Wonderbolt captain couldn’t seem to find the proper words. She turned and spread her wings. “I’ll see you around, Dash, okay?” Another beat of her wings, and she took off, to return to where the rest of the team had settled themselves, presumably to judge the other prospective candidates.
With Spitfire gone, what little courage Dash had left seemed to fail. Her wings drooped, her head sunk low, and her ears pinned back. Her eyes glistened, even if she was clearly trying her hardest to avoid making a display of it. She turned her head, looking toward her friends with a sense of dread. Fluttershy sat on a nearby cloud; the others were crowded in the basket of a hot air balloon. Not one of them met her eyes. They all wore embarrassed or disappointed looks. Pinkie Pie was wailing and spouting a positively unnatural amount of tears. Without the will to stand, the once-proud pegasus collapsed back onto the cloud. Her barrel heaved with quiet sobs.
A hoof settled under Rainbow’s muzzle, delicately tilting it upward. The pegasus blinked away her tears, only for her eyes to be filled instead with miserable horror. Just when she thought it couldn’t get any worse, it turned out that a princess was there to see her shame.
Luna smiled down at the filly. “We have never seen such foolishness as this.” Dash cringed at what she took as an insult. Royalty or not, Luna probably would have received a hoof to the muzzle on any other day. Today, however, she got to continue uninterrupted. She was even allowed to gently brush tears away from Loyalty’s cheeks with dark, downy feathers. “Celestia’s Wonderbolts turning away Equestria’s savior and unquestionably greatest flyer? Such absurdity.”
“I... I bucked up.” The younger mare firmly shook her head, turning it it away from those soft feathers as she squeezed her eyes shut. “They gave me a chance, and I feathered it all up.”
The alicorn shook her head in turn. “We thought better of thee, Rainbow Dash!” she admonished. “Art thou the sort to let one small error ruin thine dreams? Thou hast laid low Equestria’s greatest enemies with thine fearsome strength. Dark gods lie broken beneath thy hooves. The greatest magic in the history of the pegasus tribe rests in thy wings alone. The loyal fires of thine heart serve as one of the keys to the most holy weapon in all the world. Stand proudly upon thy hooves! Spread thy wings! Thou canst be felled by no foe, least of all thyself!”
Dash blinked as her battered mind tried to absorb such copious, if puzzlingly worded, praise. Heat rose at the base of her muzzle in a blush. “Uh... I guess I’m still pretty awesome?” she ventured, voice scratchy. She did force herself to stand, if slowly. She even lifted her wings, which practically dragged in the clouds. The pegasus’s voice was still uncertain. “But, Princess, all I ever wanted was to join the Wonderbolts.”
Luna dismissively waved a hoof in the Wonderbolts' direction. Her great wings arched outward, and with powerful strokes, carried her into the air, to hover in front of the smaller pegasus. “Any who would reject thee are too foolish to deserve thee!” she bellowed in the full fury of the Canterlot Voice, in the direction of the judges’ booth. Clouds rippled and evaporated in its path, leaving only empty air. The alicorn moderated her tone once her point was made. She looked down upon the bearer of Loyalty. “Thou believeth that thou must be tested to earn thy place, despite thy heroic works? Very well. We shall oblige thee. We shall honor the offer we made in our darkest hour. Thou shalt lead our elite Shadowbolts. A new sisterhood with your strength and your fire. Thou need only to prove thyself as the foremost of pegasi by catching a goddess!”
Before Dash could object, or even think, Luna spun and dove through the clouds. The air rippled before her as her pegasus magic forced its compliance, making it thin in front of her, and thicken underwing. She spared a glance behind her a few seconds into the speed-gaining dive, and noted—with no small satisfaction—a blue speck in the distance, leaving a brilliant rainbow trail behind it as it arrowed after her. The alicorn turned her gaze forward again, a wild grin on her muzzle as she redoubled the rhythm of her wingbeats, forcing herself more quickly into that suicide dive.
Rainbow Dash may be the world’s fastest pegasus, but I am an alicorn! Let nopony ever say that the Goddess of the Night was easy prey!
Luna’s wings ached with the strain when she finally pulled out of her dive, fearfully close to the treetops. A trailing blast of wind from her wake shook branches and rustled leaves in the forest around her, forcing birds in hidden nests to scatter in a panic, chirping their protests. The alicorn laughed aloud from the sheer joy of mad flight as she dropped further, toward a glittering ribbon cutting through the wood. The open space of a winding river let her fly below the treeline, despite her great wingspan. She dared to get so near to the ground, in an attempt to evade her pursuer, that the tips of her outermost primaries cut short-lived silver furrows through the water below.
The Wonderbolt had been right about one thing: there was more to being a premier pegasus than speed alone. There was agility, cunning, boldness, and keen si—
The tumble when Rainbow Dash slammed into Luna’s side should have broken bones and left both ponies bloodied. It was dizzying even in a dream. The world spun violently. Tall grass rustled as the joined pair rolled end over end along the river’s edge. No bones broke, no skin tore. Luna wouldn’t allow such a petty inconvenience to spoil this pleasant fantasy, not after she had spent so long salvaging it. Even the blood that had previously matted Dash's mane was missing. Small details tended to vanish when not focused on by the dreamer.
Luna angled her wings to provide the drag necessary for her to end up atop the smaller pegasus, as was only proper. She was a princess, after all. It was obviously far from Dash’s first time sparring and roughhousing, however. A kick of powerful legs, a deft twist of her body and a wordless shout propelled the pair further back. Azure hooves pressed down upon Luna’s chest. She could suddenly feel grass along her back, and against her wings.
There was a quiet moment of truce, both parties panting and taking stock of things. Dark eyes met bright ones. That small gesture seemed to empower the pegasus. Her wings flared out wide, and her lips curled into a triumphant smirk. “I. Win.”
Luna swallowed, in a rare moment of nervousness. Exactly how an immortal moon goddess could feel helpless, she wasn’t entirely sure. She didn’t exactly hate the sensation. The pegasus was such an intriguing mare, always swinging wildly between fragility and startling boldness. The dream world only brought those qualities to the fore, and that was where Luna knew Dash best, where she was her truest self. The alicorn slowly nodded her head. “Yes. So it seems to us. We... yield.”
“Since I won...” the pegasus answered, her voice lowering ever so slightly. Her muzzle dipped closer. The alicorn below her all but froze. Her own wings itched to flare at her sides like the pegasus’s did, but she dared not move. This was brash even for Loyalty. But then, pegasi weren’t well known for subtlety, and unleashed in dreams, they were bolder still. The flyer was close enough that Luna could feel the warmth of breath against her lips when Dash spoke again, “... I’ll be taking my reward.” Dash’s head drew closer. The prone alicorn’s lips tingled with electricity at the anticipation of the touch.
The memory of pain came instead.
* * *
Luna allowed herself the luxury of a soft sigh. It was almost too much effort to gather extra air in her lungs to allow for it. The straining against her spell was beginning to ebb now. Celestia’s immense spirit had begun to settle, tentatively taking hold of her physical body as it regained the strength needed to house the metaphysical vastness of the sun.
The alicorn’s gaze shifted to the far side of the room. The light creeping in through the windows was orange, as it had been for hours now. The sunset had stalled in place, without Celestia to finish the last of the daily cycle. The fiery colour shining down upon the burnt and broken form of Celestia was a disturbing image. A tiny portion of Luna’s power was diverted to pulling the room’s curtains shut, to extinguish that ominous light.
It had started out as such a wonderful day. She had spent time with Twilight Sparkle, and perchance helped her to overcome another hurdle in the practical use of the Magic of Friendship. She had wheedled the promise of a revealed secret from her sister. Cadance had surprised her yet again, with the blossoming of the powers that defined her purpose. There was, of course, Rainbow Dash, and that kiss that almost was.
Luna closed her eyes, reveling in the gloom brought by those drawn curtains. She tried to pretend that the sun had set, and that it was instead the birth of a new night, with all the renewing promise that implied.