“And there we have it,” Luna said, new cocktail in tow.
Twilight had been crying for half an hour now. She had no idea the lengths to which Shining had already gone to protect her. He even had a few tears in his eyes, though she suspected they were just from seeing her cry. She sat up and punched him lightly in the shoulder. “You are crazy!”
“Runs in the family, little miss Smartypants.” He chuckled and gave her a light noogie.
“Thank you, Shining.” She flopped down onto him and threw her hooves around his neck. “Thank you so, so much.”
“Please don’t, Twily,” he whispered back. “I still failed you. I still failed Canterlot.”
She clung to him, squeezing him as tight as she could. “I don’t buy that. I’m alive, and Celestia is still princess. Both of those things are only true because of you.”
“She is correct, nephew.” Luna sipped her maretini. “Wallowing in regret isn’t becoming of you.”
“Luna, be nice.” Twilight rubbed her brother’s shoulder. “Don’t you realize how hard this has to be on him?”
Luna lifted a hoof up to her chest, eyes wide, then dropped down into an apologetic bow. “Forgive me, Prince. It is sometimes easy to forget that just because I have suffered greatly in my life, it does not mean other pony’s hardships do not wound the mind and soul.”
He shook his head. “I’m not in a position to be forgiving you of anything, Highness.”
“No! Shiny!” Twilight grabbed his head with her hooves and made him look at her. “You’re never like this! As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always fought for what you thought was right, no matter the consequences! Don’t give up now! Cadence will help you! We can win this!”
He slunk farther down to the ground, letting his weight pull him out of his sister’s grip. “Twily… You don’t get it. They’ve been after me for ages. I just don’t have any rabbits left to pull out of my hat.”
“Then join me!” she yelled in his face. “I’ll accept you into my honor guard. Spike’s not even in the military, and he’s in it! They can’t turn stop you from joining me!”
“Absolutely out of the question!” Luna slammed her empty maretini glass on the bartop. “I forbid it, and Tia will as well!”
The blood drained from Twilight’s face. “What? But why!? That doesn’t make any sense!”
“It makes perfect sense,” Shining replied.
Twilight’s ears went flat against her head. “Shiny?”
Her brother sighed. “Think about it, Twily. Even if they take away my crown, I’m still married to Cadence. No matter what the Council would like, in the public eye, I’m royalty.
“Now, suppose something bad happened. One of us dying would be a tragedy. What would happen if somepony managed to succeed in killing the both of us?”
Luna replied first. “Only Cadence and Blueblood would be left to stand in the way of these conspirators. And do not be fooled by his recent bravado. Blueblood is a spineless worm. On top of that, there would be ever more powerful shouts about my sister’s ‘ineffective leadership’ and ‘inability to keep ponies safe.’ It would be a catastrophic, politically fatal loss; one that would even be far worse than the airship accident that took the lives of Cadence and Blueblood’s parents.”
“And if we’re physically together in an unsecured area,” Shining continued, “then we’re a target that may be too tempting to pass up. While we’re in Canterlot, it’s no issue, but until you finish your ascension, Twily, we need to avoid being in the same place at the same time. It’s just too big a risk.”
Twilight whimpered a little, resting her chin on his foreleg. “I’m so sorry. I failed…”
“Not your fault, Twily, although I appreciate the sentiment.”
Luna turned away from them, staring out the window. “There is one other reason, but it is not something I expect you to accept. We told you that ascension is always an eventful time. We are not exaggerating. Each alicorn we talked to had a similarly dramatic tale during the conquering of their summits. It is very important that you face these challenges yourself. Should you allow Shining to take them on for you, you may find yourself underprepared for whatever ascension decides to test you with. Even if you don’t accept the idea of having a destiny, you will be tested, and you will need every ounce of power and experience you can get.”
Luna craned her neck back towards them. “Twilight Sparkle, the Rites of Ascension are yours and yours alone to endure. Anypony else that tries will be ground to dust by the gears of fate.”
“I don’t like the idea of fate, honestly,” Twilight mumbled. “I like being able to decide my own destiny.”
“Then brace yourself, young one,” Luna warned. “For we are in dangerous times, and very soon, many eyes will be watching to see what you do.”
“Right now, what I want to do is figure out a way to stop this insanity!” Twilight grabbed her head, trying to massage away her headache. “My brother is the best soldier in the entire army! What in Tartarus are we doing throwing that away?”
“I wish I could say something to comfort you.” Luna lay down next to them. “This is my sister’s arena. Sometimes I feel I am just another piece on the board to her, and the chess player rarely talks to her pieces. If I had insight to share, I would do so gladly.”
“Honestly, it’s not even getting fired or stripped of my crown that bothers me the most.” Shining shifted his body a little and gave Twilight a small hug. “It’s also not what they did and said to fire me. It’s how badly this is going to shackle my hooves. Even if I stay a prince, every option I’ll have to continue my investigation on who’s behind this will have to go through the Council, and I’m pretty sure they’ll try to stop me or slow me down just on the basis of who I am. And if I lose my crown, all I get to do is sit on my hooves and wait for something to happen. I was so close to figuring something out… And then all this kicked into high gear, and I fell behind.”
Twilight hugged him as hard as she could. “You’ve been watching over me for a long time now, Shiny. It’s time I returned the favor and showed them just who they’re messing with when they hurt my big brother.”
“Spoken well, ascendant.” Luna smiled. “We’ll make you a princess yet.”
“I appreciate it, Twily.” He smiled a little in turn, giving her another hug. “But I’m the one with the cutie mark for wanting to protect. In all honesty, I’d give up my crown right now if it meant I could continue my investigation. I’d even spit-shine it for the Council if it meant having the ability to protect you, to protect everypony again.”
Luna’s head jerked up, her eyes wide. “Dost thou mean that? You would honestly give up almost everything you have just to keep looking into these ‘Robber Barons?’”
“In a heartbeat.” He exhaled. “And yes, I truly mean that.”
“Shining didn’t even go to a normal high school.” Twilight leaned herself into him a little. “He went to Canterlot Military Academy, got early college credits, a physics degree at age twenty, was fast-tracked into the officer ranks… All so he could join the Guard as soon as possible.”
“So I’ve heard. The question is, Shining Armor, just how badly do you want to keep going?”
The siblings looked at each other before looking back at the Princess.
Twilight raised an eyebrow. “You sound like you’ve thought of something, but you don’t want to share it that easily.”
Luna looked away. “I’ve… thought of the option once or twice before. Until Shining said those words, I dismissed it. But if he’s truly that willing to do what’s necessary, then yes, there is a way. It will allow him to keep his crown and, in a manner, allow him to continue his investigation. There is, however, a price to be paid.”
Shining stood up, meeting the princess face to face. “Your Highness, the last I checked, your Night Guard was full.”
The Night Guard! Twilight’s eyes widened. It’s so simple… If he could join them, all disciplinary actions are reserved for Luna herself! But wait, he said it’s full…
“Fifty soldiers, including your newest one,” Shining continued. “That’s the maximum allowed under your compact with the Council, and for that matter, they aren’t supposed to do anything other than protect you, not conduct investigations.”
And there’s that, too…
Luna smirked, looking at him from the corner of her eye. “Come now, Shining Armor. You led the Royal Guard Intelligence Service for sixteen years. Did you not suspect at all that I do not consider myself bound by the Council’s wishes?”
“Hmph,” he grunted. “I did suspect. And some of our intel was a little too easy to get. But Princess Celestia said to trust you, so I directed my operatives to stay away. It’s a little disconcerting to hear, though. If I had caught you, even on accident, that would be it. You’d lose whatever authority you had left, and Celestia’s reputation would be ruined by extension.”
Her smirk grew to a grin, and her head lowered a bit closer to his level. “Please, Captain. I train my guards better than that. That’s no longer the question, however. Now, we must ask: can you be that subtle?”
“No, that’s not the question,” Shining countered. “The question is: do I even want to join your Guard? And more importantly, who would you fire? Your Guard is full.”
“Not quite.” Luna stretched out a wing. “I have forty-nine in my Guard.”
“Your payroll showed fifty,” Shining argued. “I saw it myself!”
“Heh heh. Oh, I know.” Her horn lit up, and one of the doors to the outside hall opened. “Pulsar, would you please come here?”
“Pulsar?” Twilight asked, tilting her head. “Who’s Pulsar?”
A moment later a dark grey-coated unicorn stallion marched through the door, dropping deep into a bow. “You called, Your Highness?”
Twilight eyed him up and down. He’s… surprisingly short. Like, as short as me short. Wait, did he just say “Your Highness?”
“Indeed I did.” Luna bowed slightly in return. “You may rise, my sénéchal.”
Twilight’s jaw dropped open. Princess Luna has a sénéchal!? I thought she just winged everything!
Shining raised an eyebrow. “He called you ‘Highness’…”
Luna’s smirk returned. “Indeed. Though he is on my payroll within the Night Guard, he is legally a civilian. He’s never had to take the Night Guard oath.”
“Make no mistake,” Pulsar said, standing up and looking fairly strong for such a short stallion. “I am loyal to Her Highness as much as the Guard is. But no, I am not her protector. If anything, she is mine.”
“But if there’s no oath…” Shining started.
“Then he’s not legally part of the Guard,” Twilight finished. Although you could have fooled me. He’s wearing light armor with a Night Guard glamor spell, and those eyes look every bit as fierce as a guardspony.
“Precisely. He only appears as though he is in my Guard to keep him safe. There is one spot left, Prince. I offer you the ability to continue your investigation in absolute secret, even as Twilight will undoubtedly be conducting hers. She, the public face of Celestia and justice, and you, the unseen hoof working behind the scenes.”
Shining took in a deep breath. “I am uncertain, Your Highness.”
“You have every reason to be,” Pulsar said, a stray hair from his copper-colored mane dropping in front of his face. “This is not a decision to take lightly.”
Luna raised an eyebrow. “True, but Prince, did you not say you would pay most any price to continue your work?”
“It’s not that,” Shining replied. “One thing hasn’t changed. If we get caught, it’s still over. Everything.”
“If we do nothing, it’s all over anyway,” Twilight grumbled. “We’re in a downward spiral as it is. I say go for it, Shining. We aren’t going to win this without knowing who we’re fighting. I saw what Luna’s Guard is capable of during my training. I still don’t understand how they hide like they do. If there are any ponies that can pull this off, it’s them.”
Luna spread her wing out and pointed its feathers at Twilight. “Thy sister speaks truth, Prince. Art thou willing to join me?”
Twilight followed her brother’s eyes as they scanned the room, giving her a rare glimpse of the sheer speed of his thoughts. Years back, when she still lived in Canterlot, he was one of the few ponies that could follow her technical speech flawlessly. Everypony said that she was the prodigy, but that always felt like selling Shining short.
“I’ve come this far,” he finally said. “It’d be a shame to start over again in the ranks, but I cannot let fear or pride get in the way for a chance to save Equestria. I’ll do it. I’ll join your Guard—if you’ll have me. I know I’m not like your normal candidates.”
Luna nodded. “I understand, and I accept you, but you’ve made one critical flaw in your reasoning.”
Shining blinked. “What flaw?”
“In a bit.” Luna turned to her sénéchal with a smirk. “Would you please have the pegasi guards standing outside go and get something from my storage area? It’s a large chest labeled ‘H.P.A. 0047.’”
Pulsar took a step back in shock. “‘H.P.A. 0’— That’s…” He froze and turned to look at Shining, his piercing eyes looking like they were pondering something. Slowly, he turned back towards his employer but kept glancing at Shining. “Very well, Your Majesty. I will comply.”
“It’s not as if you had a choice in the matter,” Luna chuckled. “Still, tell them to be quick. No, that is not strong enough. The tide of souls be at your hooves! As soon as that box is touched, I have no doubt somepony will think to inform my sister.”
Pulsar sprinted out the door without another word, slamming it behind him.
“Well, I’m stumped. What’s ‘H.P.A. 0047?’” Twilight asked, scratching her head.
“Got me.” Shining shrugged. “There’s a mountain of stuff in that storage compartment. I’m pretty sure if you removed something, the rest would fall out like an avalanche.”
Luna waved a dismissive hoof. “They can clean it up later. Right now, I need that chest, and if we are to do this, we must do so quickly. I have no idea exactly how my sister will react, but I shan’t think it will be well. I know this possibility must have occurred to her, but she never mentioned it to me, which tells me she did not wish it to happen.”
Twilight recoiled as if she’d been kicked. “Then should we do this? What if she has other plans?”
“Then she should have shared them with me!” Luna growled.
Twilight lowered her head down and flattened her ears. “Sorry…”
“I do not mean to take out my frustrations on you, ascendant, but I have too long not been a true princess, locked away in this gilded cage! My sister promised me upon my return such would never happen! I shall not tolerate it any further! If I must be outcast or lose my nation, if I must fail, then I shall do it as an alicorn with my head held high and my spirit fighting, not cowering in front of ponies who are but foals to me!”
Shining laughed a bit. “I suppose that’s something I can get behind. I am sick and tired of playing nice for appearance’s sake. After that grilling, I want to return the favor.”
Twilight put a hoof on his shoulder. “You did, at least to Bismare, but I get what you mean, and I understand it. I kind of want to buck Bismare right in the stomach for saying those things about earth ponies.”
“That’s the alicorn instinct,” Luna replied. “We are alicorns of all of our ponies, not just unicorns. Although I’m afraid she’s built enough experience in the Council to prevent even such an outburst from damaging her overall standing. She’s still going to be the third highest-ranked pony in the Council.”
Twilight furrowed her brow. “How in the world did somepony like that climb so high?”
“Don’t underestimate her,” Shining said, half-whispering in Twilight’s ear. “The rest of the Germane noble houses wet themselves in fear when she so much as glances at them. She’s smart, rich beyond reason, and vicious.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not one of the Germane nobles.” Twilight grumbled, folding her forelegs.
Luna dropped her head down next to Twilight’s. “Just so you know, ascendant, once the secret of your ascendancy is out, you can respond to statements like that with the words ‘and mortal,’ especially if the pony is bragging about themselves. Some of these high-and-mighty ponies get wonderfully terrified faces when you remind them that in a couple hundred years, you will be here, and they will not.”
Twilight rolled her eyes. Not what I want to think about right now. “You mentioned a flaw in Shining’s reasoning?”
Luna looked over at the door, and the hairs on Twilight’s back stood up on end for a moment. “A few more seconds…”
The doors blasted open and two Night Guard pegasi carrying a large, heavy-looking black chest like something out of a horror tale. It had a large, light blue gem on the side that appeared to be a very elaborate magical lock and silver trimmings along the edges.
“Finally!” Luna tapped a place on the ground. “Put it down over here, and go back to the doors. Do your best to stall anypony that tries to get in, even my sister!”
The two dropped it at her hooves and soared back outside, slamming the doors shut.
“‘Stall’ them?” Twilight asked.
Luna sat down in front of the chest and lit her horn, sending arcs of magic into the gem. “If my sister finds out I pulled this out of storage, she’ll send a dozen Day Guard to clear out my mere two guards if she must. They’ll be no match for so many, but if they talk and stall, they may be more productive.” She looked over to her. “Maybe.”
“Okay, that’s it.” Shining barked. “You’ve dragged this out enough now, Highness. What did you mean when you said there’s a flaw in my logic?”
Luna smiled, gazing at her work. “Shining, there was a time when my Guard was known by a phrase that would be best translated as ‘The Moonlight Brigade.’ They patrolled my night, yes, but they were not the terrifying face of a would-be usurper princess. They were feared by my enemies not because the whispers said they made ponies vanish, but rather because they found evil and brought it into the bright light of the Full Moon. Those with wickedness in their hearts would have to worry each night as they crawled into the bed if this would be the evening they awoke to find all their terrible secrets laid bare to the world.”
Her hoof slammed into the side of the chest. “Yet now I am forced to sit here on my rump like one of these so-called nobles? No! No more! I started a rebellion over less! Yet I will not now nor ever again wage war on my sister for what are not her own faults. No, this time will be different. I shall not wage war on my sister but on her enemies. I will no longer stand by idle while Celestia fights her battles alone! As she protects me in the Court, so shall I protect her in the field of battle even if she rejects my help!”
The gem flashed white, and Twilight had to shield her eyes. When the light subsided, the top of the chest had vanished completely. Inside was a jet-black set of armor covered in a thin layer of dust.
Luna reached in and picked up the helmet with her hooves and presented it to Shining. “It’s time once again for these mortal demons to gaze into the shadows and forevermore and under every phase of my beacon wonder, ‘what lurks there!’”
“What is this?” He asked, taking the helmet in his own hooves.
Luna leaned in. “The start of a new era, and the return of an old one.”
Twilight blew the dust off the helmet, clearing the air with a hoof and gazing into the armor’s glossy surface. “This is not an acolyte’s armor.”
Shining moved the helmet around as to put it on but stopped. “Not an acolyte… then what?”
Luna blew away the rest of the dust, revealing a subtle purple sheen on its surface. “I am not so foolish as to take a general and ask him to be a private again. This, Prince, is the armor of a High Cardinal of the Night Guard. I do not ask you to merely join my Guard. I ask you to lead them.”
“Lead them? Highness…” Shining put down the helmet. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I am not a pony that’s… Well, what I mean to say is that I rather doubt I’m going to fit in… with…”
“What you are trying to say is that my Night Guard is some collection of blackguard rabble and filth that will no doubt have zero respect for you?” Luna knelt down to him, narrowing her eyes as the light in the room began to fade away. “Leave that to me.”
The sounds of hoofsteps started to build outside the door, growing in number and intensity.
Luna’s horn flared to life, projecting a shield spell over the doors. “The time for a decision has come, Prince. If you do not join me now, it is highly probable you will not be able to. If that is what I think it is, my sister will try to bar you from this if we do not act.”
“Shining,” Twilight put her hoof on his side. “I know you. You helped raise me. If you don’t take this opportunity, you’ll regret it. You shouldn’t be on the sidelines when Equestria is at stake. It isn’t right. And more importantly, I need your help.”
That was it. Twilight watched as her brother’s eyes changed along with his thoughts. Gone was the trepidation, the nervousness and uncertainty. In its place was his unique determination and caring concern for his family.
He reached out and lifted the helmet with his hooves. “Sovereign…” He turned it around, closing his eyes, and slowly lowered it onto his head. A dark purple aura grew from underneath it, pulsing faster and faster as the helmet made contact. A whirlwind of magic rushed out of it, growling and roaring as it enveloped the stallion in a dark hue.
His coat shifted color, from a white on par with Celestia to a deep gray. The color drained from his mane and tail, and the blackened, fuse-like strands left over lit and burned with a smoldering purple glow at the end of the hairs. His hooves started smoking, embers taking and burning away the blue in them until they were pitch black. Spikes of energy jutted out from the helmet in a line down the middle, a barrier-like field linking each one to form a Night Guard crest.
The whirlwind intensified, and Twilight had to shield her eyes with a hoof before her magic sight took over. One by one, she could see the other pieces of armor vanish and reappear on her brother, covering him from horn to hoof.
When the final piece secured itself, the magic ceased. A ethereal cloak on Shining’s back slowly formed into being, obscuring most of his body but fading to a smoky transparency near the floor.
Twilight jumped back a little. The voice came from Shining, but, that was not his voice.
“Sovereign…” His eyes opened, irises burning like melted gold, their feline pupils focused with predatory rage. “I will guard your night!”
Luna’s wings flared open to their fullest, and her body began to glow.
“Luna! Luna open this door right now!” Cracking, intense pounding came from the doors, damaging even the shield put up to reinforce them.
“Um, guys…” Twilight said, lifting a hoof.
Luna’s body shined ever brighter, accompanied by a gust of wind as she returned to her true, unsealed form. She towered over the stallion, who knelt down to the ground.
“Luna, dammit, I know you’re in there!” More hits came, making the shield’s cracks look like a spiderweb, doubling in number again and again.
The Princess of the Night placed her hoof on his back. “I welcome you into my Night Guard. In accordance with our laws, I strip you of your very name. No longer art thou Shining Armor. Rise, Obsidian Armor, High Cardinal of the Night Guard and Hero of the Moon.”
A small smile creased Obsidian Armor’s lips as the shield shattered and the doors flew open.
“Luna, Sister, don’t you dare—!” Celestia stopped, frozen still, eyes darting around the scene in front of her.
Luna turned to her sibling, a Cheshire’s grin growing on her face. Her eyes glimmered with mischievous glory, and her gait striding up to Celestia was smoother than polished ice.
The two sisters locked stares at each other. Each had been alive for longer than any mortal pony’s memory. Each had seen and conquered countless horrors, risen to challenges the likes of which even Twilight could only imagine. Their very presences felt larger than life not only to her, but to ponies around the world. Hundreds of lifetimes of feelings, rivalry, and sisterhood were being laid bare in this single moment of pure, unrivaled honesty as Luna spoke first.
“Too late!” And then the “Nightmare” blew a giant raspberry at the Diarch of the Sun.
Obsidian Armor, the newly minted leader of the Night Guard, was completely flummoxed. His new role was taken on in a remarkably abrupt manner, yet that was fine. Battlefield training and experience demanded he be adaptable. However, there were certain things in life that, no matter what reasonable amount of training and planning one had, simply could not be addressed in a way that felt anywhere near confident and correct.
Seeing his new ‘Sovereign,’ Princess Luna, clad in her rarely-seen true form, shake her rump in her sister’s face was one of these things.
“Luna…” Celestia said through a facehoof.
“What’s wrong, Tia?” Her voice was cheerful and fluttered like a song, but its innate qualities made her sound utterly sinister, even if the visual accompanied by the voice was thoroughly and resolutely ridiculous. “Angry I stole him away from you?”
“Sister, I cannot believe you. Do you not trust me?”
Luna froze mid-shake and tilted her head while looking backwards. “Trust you?” She turned around to face her older sister, nearly at eye level given her larger form. “I ponder, Sister, whatever made you think trust was an issue between us?”
Celestia’s mane flared up and blew like it was in a hurricane, and her halo-like aura from the Empyreal Hall returned. “The fate of Equestria is at stake, and you pick now to have this argument?! Lunacea Umbra Astralis, what in the Heavens were you thinking!?”
Luna’s mane matched her sister’s, bathing the room in stars and mist. “I was thinking that maybe, just maybe, for once my sister of ten thousand years would have shared her plans with me! Since she didn’t, I had to act on my own, again!”
Celestia stomped her hoof, cracking the marble tile. “You want to know about my plans! Fine! Here’s an update, Sister: You may have just cost us everything!”
“Me?!” Luna reared up on her hind legs. “And what about you, Sister? You were the one in charge this past half-century while things collapsed around your fetlocks! I come back to you to find my idea of the Representative Council in place, true, but it’s a corrupt mockery of its ideals! And instead of using my talents and inspiration to help, you let those foals shackle me! I will not stand by and do nothing while you fail, Sister!”
“If that is how you feel, dear sister,” She paused as she made her way around Luna and towards Twilight, who put down her ears. “Then take him. And you two can be the ones to tell the Council.”
The warm, familiar light of Celestia’s teleportation spell began to overtake both the Princess and the Grand Mage.
“I wash my hooves of this.”