“...I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long...”
Luna, Princess of the Night, Mover of the Moon, Sentinel of the Dreamlands, Marshall of the Night Watch, Co-Regent of Equestria, once Bearer of the Elements of Harmony, and the bearer of several other titles besides, shifted on her reclining couch to take a quiet sip of crystal berry wine. It had been quite some time since she had last used a drinking straw; the novelty amused her.
She could levitate the glass, of course, but levitation, along with most direct applications of Unicorn magic, would produce a noise, however slight, and as she was attending a poetry reading... it would be uncouth.
Besides, it was a fine drinking straw indeed. It was made of glass; she felt through her teeth that crisp hardness which modern ‘plastics’ could not achieve. Versatile as those new materials were, Luna favoured glass and ceramics, particularly for tableware. She could swear plastics left a faint aftertaste, whereas glass was pure.
Furthermore, the glass was hoof-blown. The ponies of the Crystal Empire were adapting to this modern era into which they had been abruptly thrust at a commendable pace, but mass-manufacture was not something they were in great haste to adopt. They were much divided in opinion concerning this and a good number of technologies, as each new innovation had its drawbacks as well as its advantages.
Naturally, they could not stay in the past forever, but having had no time to adapt gradually to the world’s changes, they found themselves constantly wrong-hoofed. Luna could relate to the feeling perfectly, for she was in the same situation herself. It was one of the reasons why she so loved visiting the Crystal Empire when, as now, her duties permitted it: it was pleasing to be around ponies who understood. Most were a little too much in awe of her to discuss any subject with her openly, but in the dreamlands, their souls sang out clear and unconcealed. Modernisation was a potent and commonly occurring theme in the dreams of the Crystal Ponies, inspiring both dreams and nightmares, and they wrestled with this theme in their daily lives as well.
Tonight’s recital dealt with another recurring theme in the dreams of the Crystal Empire’s populace, though this one inspired only nightmares: Sombra. The mere mention of that name was enough to make any Crystal Pony shudder, so powerful was the smoking hoofprint the foul fiend had left on their collective psyche. Every last stallion, mare, and foal in the Empire bore scars from his cruel reign, but they were beginning to come to terms with them: what they had at first kept locked inside, where Luna alone could see, they were learning to share. Luna was glad of it. Nothing good came out of repression and denial; she had seen this borne out far too many times in dreams, she had seen it in her own life, and she had seen it in—
No, nothing good came out of it. To keep one’s suffering to oneself meant to suffer alone, but a burden shared was a burden eased. Could this be part of the Magic of Friendship? she wondered, struck by the sudden thought. She formulated a mental note to consult Princess Twilight Sparkle on the issue—
Tree of Harmony
Sun & Moon lean ‘gainst each other
The Star bears witness
—before turning her mind more fully towards the recital.
“This too I know—and wise it were
If each could know the same—
That every prison ponies build
Is built of crystallisèd shame
And bound with bars lest They should see
How mares their sisters maim.”
The gathering was typical of its kind, held in a broad shadowed room with deep booths and soft furnishings to muffle sound—everything to reduce environmental distractions and provide privacy, for while the Crystal Ponies came to these gatherings to share their common pain, they also came to have the privacy to relive it, and to cry. The voice of the reciter, standing on the stage, carried to every booth, but each booth was fitted with a heavy curtain which could cut it off, if any of the ponies within found herself in need of a respite, or the privacy to weep. There was a system of flags to signal the staff, particularly if a pony found herself overcome and needed to quit the room entirely. And no pony came here alone. None save Luna, at least, but in her case, the memory of Sombra’s reign did not dredge up trauma. Rather, it was....
“With bars they blur the gracious Moon,
And blind the goodly Sun:
And they do well to hide their—”
Luna’s attention sharply focused, her ears swivelling forwards as she flicked her eyes quickly about to cover the room. There had been a shift in the atmosphere, and she found a lot more attention was now focused on her: the ponies in the nearby booths—as a Princess, she had been granted a booth with a commanding view—were stealing furtive glances at her, while attempting to conceal their scrutiny. A sense of nervous unease pervaded the room, and she could find no cause for—
Oh, but of course: “the gracious Moon,” “the goodly Sun”.... A reference to herself and her sister. Allusions to themselves were not uncommon in art, but the poem’s composer—one Wilde Words, who was conspicuously not looking at her as he recited—doubtless did not expect one of his allusions to be in attendance at the poem’s first public recital! The Crystal Ponies merely feared causing offence.
Luna acknowledged the gesture with a gracious bow of her head, and the tension in the room dissipated immediately, a susurrus of relief rippling through the crowd before they turned their attention fully back to the reciter, where it belonged. Luna felt some relief herself: in the Crystal Empire her style of etiquette was not mortifyingly out of date, and she was glad to have been able to communicate her appreciation clearly—the delicate reference had genuinely pleased her, not the least because it depicted her on equal footing with her sister, something which still happened rarely in Equestria.
That was the other thing she liked about the Crystal Empire: its denizens had never known Nightmare Moon. To them, she was Equestria’s Princess of the Night, who along with her sister had ever kept the balance of Day and Night, and had come in their hour of direst need, wielding the Elements of Harmony—the mightiest magic known to ponykind—to break the shackles Sombra had forced upon them.
Although what exactly transpired during The Vanishing, as Celestia came to name it, was lost to the Crystal Ponies, Luna and Celestia’s attempted act of deliverance had left a kind of impression in their minds, and the Royal Sisters had the status of mystical heroes in the Empire’s collective memory, in addition to their usual reputation.
Luna was well aware—it went without without saying, really—that every living creature that walked, flew, slithered, or swam beneath the sky owed a great debt to her and her sister for maintaining the saraband of Moon and Sun along the stream of stars, and the sisters did much else besides to benefit ponies of Equestria day to day, and yet, all these acts were.... Those that were not subtle were ritual, and the routine of those rituals had robbed them of mystique....
And so it was pleasant, occasionally, to receive the sort of appreciation she found in the Crystal Empire. There was a time, long ago, when it had been all she thought she wanted. How bitter an irony it was, then, that in this particular case it was so woefully underserved.
Sombra... that blighted name engendered fear in the Crystal Ponies, but for Luna and her sister Celestia, it inspired only shame, and regret. Were they blind that they did not see the rise of the Shadow in the North? Granted, Equestria was smaller then, the Empire far off and ensconced behind the Crystal Mountains, but that was a poor excuse: as Alicorns, they could bridge great distances with a wink—the Crystal Mountains were no insurmountable barrier. And were the Empire’s citizens not ponies too? Could they not at least have scried regularly upon this place? And in dreams—in dreams all ponies were close-by. Luna might have looked in once in a while... they feared diplomatic complications, and so had left the isolationistic Crystal Empire alone, but there were not even any diplomatic channels in place! Perhaps the Crystal Ponies had shared the Royal Sisters’ complacency. Whatever the reasons, when Sombra fell upon the Empire, Equestria had no warning.
It was Luna who noticed the first changes, in the dreamlands. Pleasant dreams dimmed and faltered, while nightmares gained in intensity. She had thought it a temporary thing at first, attempted to hold back the tide on her own... when she finally admitted it was larger than herself, and slunk to her sister to advise her of the matter, disharmony had been breaking out in the waking world for some time. Should she have called upon her sister sooner? That doubt always surfaced when she looked back upon these events. She had thought the break-down in her relationship with her sister had come after their failure with the Crystal Empire, but perhaps it was more than mere sibling rivalry that had prompted her to attempt to remedy the situation herself; perhaps they had subtly been growing apart for some time prior.
Be that as it may, by the time the sisters had consulted with one another, the situation was dire. They had known the Crystal Empire to be protected by powerful magic, but they had not had an inkling of just how potent and far-reaching its effects could be until their own lands, so far to the South, found themselves deprived of it. Neigh, more than deprived: the Crystal Empire cast the manifestation of its wellbeing far and wide, and under Sombra’s reign... ‘wellbeing’ was no longer the appropriate word, for nothing was ‘well’ in his land—Luna had seen enough of the blight he lay upon the Empire through the dreams of its inhabitants to know that much.
And so they had come. Two ponies against an Empire—but two Alicorns, girded with the Elements of Harmony, the power that had made their dominion unassailable, against a nation of withered ponies shaking in their chains—they had come. They had never previously visited the Empire, so a direct teleport was out of the question; instead they jumped to the then-Northernmost borderlands of Equestria and proceeded via line-of-sight winking into the less charted North before riding the winds over the steep sides of the Crystal Mountains.
The land beyond the mountains… nothing could have prepared them for the sight of it; it was literally a vision out of nightmare, for Luna had seen the Empire through the tortured dreams of the Crystal Ponies, but she had thought the warped and disturbing landscapes that had paraded through those dreams to be exaggerations, frightful reflections of reality distorted by suffering and terror. She had been wrong; the visions had not the slightest exaggeration. The very land itself had warped into something twisted and abhorrent.
They dared not fly too high into the miasma of despair that writhed over the Crystal Empire, and travel on foot through that Tartarean landscape was a daunting prospect, but the Pole Star knew the North well, and its soft song guided Luna along safe paths, into the heart of the capital.
Thus did they steal through the shroud of Sombra’s reign like two thieves in the night, and shiver it with a mighty blast of rainbow light. Did Sombra even understand what happened? He screamed once, as his very form dissolved in the flood of power that washed over him, but it seemed more a cry of rage or surprise than actual fear. And then... he was gone, a coiling shadow trapped beneath the Arctic ice—and the Empire gone with him, the sisters’ victory turned to ash.
“Lord and land are one.” It was an old pony’s tale, a superstition which Luna and her sister had not found credible, until Sombra gave it proof. Whatever else could be said of him, Sombra had been a magical genius. The Empire’s magic, which she and her sister had so foolishly ignored, he had mastered to an undreamed of degree—a shame that he only thought to corrupt and co-opt to his own twisted ends. How had he, an outsider, managed to tie himself to that power so completely that a threat to him was also a threat to the entire Crystal Empire? And had he planned such an outcome?
She had read Twilight Sparkle’s—now Princess Twilight’s—report on the recovery of the Crystal Heart: Sombra had been enamoured of sadistic traps, seeming to delight in predicting another pony’s response to any given challenge, and then laying a snare to trip her up when she acted. This well matched the impression of him Luna had gleaned from the Crystal Ponies’ dreams, a thousand years ago. Had it been a final snare, a means to cheat his vanquishers? Or had he only meant to hold the Empire hostage, his link to it shielding him from reprisal?
Were that the case, it had not worked, for the sisters wasted no breath in speaking to him. What was it, with the evil ones, that they always needed to talk, to gloat and to taunt? Luna had done it herself, as Nightmare Moon. Loneliness, perhaps? It had been lonely, in the Moon, though she had been far too wrapped in rage to think of it that way at the time. Interacting with other ponies, even from such a domineering stance, had been... something she had missed. Perhaps all who do evil are lonely, she thought, locked up alone inside their minds, without bonds of friendship to keep them connected to others. Perhaps the evil they do is the only way they have of reaching out....
At any rate, Sombra was dispersed, and the Crystal Empire had gone with him. It had been a shock to both Luna and her sister. It weighed on both of them, but never did they discuss it openly. Celestia had believed the Empire would return, yet Luna had not had the same confidence. Though she could not have them herself, Luna could sense when her sister dreamed the true-dreams, the dreams that were prophecy—and she knew none had come to Celestia in the wake of The Vanishing. It was a leap of faith, one Luna had not been willing to make. Had her sister been wiser, or had she needed to believe, to assuage her guilt?
Celestia had clung to faith when the Empire returned, as well: Luna had been champing at the bit to rush North and undo their error—she knew she could have finished Sombra, or at least contained him, for she was the Princess of the Night, and no stranger to shadows—but her sister had insisted in making assay of her admittedly promising student. While Twilight Sparkle and her friends had succeeded in restoring the Empire and dispersing the Shadow in the North, from her report, Sombra had come frightfully close to regaining his old estate. Ultimately the world had not only regained the Empire, but in time also gained a new Princess, so Luna could hardly complain, and yet... had they fallen but a trifling short that day!
Luna shook her head, bemused. Her sister had not been prone to such gambles in the previous era. What had happened?
Her right ear twitched as it caught a distant sound, and she cocked her head reflexively to catch it. Truth be told, it was no sound at all, that was simply how her mind interpreted the stimulus. Many ponies were surprised to learn that the Princess of Dreams never dreamed herself. Oh, she had, once, when she was a filly, and fillihood for her and her sister had lasted over six centuries, so slow were they to mature. Even then, she had always been a lucid dreamer—had been surprised to find that her sister, and most other ponies besides, could not control their dreams—but when she and her sister first attempted to move the Moon and Sun, when their Cutie Marks appeared and she was chosen by the Night, she unlocked a door in her dreams that she had never before known how to open, passed out of her own dreamscape into the wider dreamlands, and never fully returned. She no longer slept because a part of her mind was always dreaming, though it was the dreams of other ponies that she saw. She needed to rest her body at times, to recover from exertion, but it was not the same thing.
She liked to say that she had three hooves in one world and one in the other, and which world was which was a simple matter of shifting weight. At present, she shifted her weight away from the waking world and stood more firmly in the dreamlands. The room around her dimmed, its colours and sounds fading to a soft background awareness, while the world of dreams came into clear focus. Fittingly, the realms of dream looked much like a starry night: the personal dreamscape of every sleeping being spread before her, all around her, as a great ocean composed of discrete points of light. And like the stars, those distant lights sang. Again, that was only a metaphor; perhaps Luna’s mind interpreted it as such—or perhaps it was the closest language could come to expressing what she experienced. She had tried to explain it to her sister once, via dream-shaping, but it had only resulted in confusion on Celestia’s part, and frustration on her own.
And yet, stars or dreams, they sang. Each had its own voice, and those voices merged and flowed together into a susurrant harmony. Luna ever listened for those voices that stood out from the multitude, those strains that grew melodious and strong from bright, inspiring dreams, rising out of the swell… and those strains that fell into jumbled discord, tangled in nightmare. The strain her soul had just caught was but the first few disquieting notes of a nightmare taking shape, but they were of a cadence and timbre that she knew all too well, leaving no doubt as to their provenance.
Looking out over the dreamlands, there was one dreamscape that stood out starkly from the dreams of little ponies. Far off—and yet close by, as distance was fluid in the Dreamlands, Luna could see it clearly: whilst the dreams of lesser beings shimmered and twinkled like little stars drifting through the night, this mind shone like a blazing sun, casting its radiance far and wide, and the lesser dreamscapes that drifted into its orbit grew warm and bright from its influence.
Her sister, Celestia, the Princess of the Sun.
Even in her sleep, Celestia inspired all around her; she always had. Seeing her sister like this, Luna could understand how their subjects had preferred her sister over herself. Celestia had a bearing, and a presence, that illuminated every pony, dissipated their doubts and fears, made them unfurl and stretch themselves to their utmost, like flowers reaching for the Sun. Luna, on the other hoof, was the dark that swam between the stars, often hidden, moving out of sight; she was intimately familiar with the world's shadows, knew the secrets that ponies kept from others— Luna could see how she might have been... misunderstood. And most ponies were, in the end, creatures of the Day.
When she had been younger, the favouritism her sister enjoyed had upset her, and the resentment it engendered had festered and led her into evil, into pain and sorrow and that not merely for herself, but for—
She shook her head to clear her thoughts: the past should be a foundation, not a cage.
She had made her peace with it. She did not mind being the watchmare of the night, the eyes in the dark. Perhaps it was for the best that most ponies did not know how much she did for them. Let her somber wings be her subjects’ shelter, and keep the night soft, and its terrors at bay. It was satisfying work, even if few ponies saw it. Celestia, for her part, involved Luna in diurnal functions far more than she had in the previous era, which kept the Princess of the Night in the sight of all their little ponies. Besides, she had been shown that true friends were better than fawning admirers, and she was learning to make those, as well.
It was not one of their subjects who needed to be sheltered tonight, however: the dissonance she had caught resonated from Celestia’s own dreamscape. Still subtle and faint, these were but the first notes of disquiet, but the pattern was well-entrenched, and Luna knew how to recognise it. She gave a pitying shake of her head: her sister was going to have the dream again.
Shifting her awareness back into the waking world, she quickly evaluated her options. She had time enough: while other ponies’ dreams flitted by with mercurial quickness, Celestia’s unfolded at a glacial pace—Luna had long thought it a side-effect of her sister’s immortality, but as she herself no longer dreamed, and the newer Alicorns were not born Alicorns, and were yet unconfirmed in their longevity, it was little more than a supposition.
At any rate, she did not need to act immediately, and that was for the best: phasing into full dream-trance in the middle of the poetry recital could be seen as rude, even deliberately insulting. At the very least, it would be eerie, for her eyes glowed while dreamshaping, and would likely disrupt the proceedings. That said, she could not afford to tarry overlong, either, for the horizon of Celestia’s dreamscape was no gentle soap bubble that she might pass through on a whim. Following Luna's Banishment, her sister had, through stern discipline and carefully wrought enchantment, fortified her mind against unexpected intrusion; would-be dream invaders faced a brutal and daunting psychic gauntlet. Luna could run that gauntlet—she had both the dream-shaping skill and the intimate knowledge of her sister required to do so—but even she needed time and care to pass unscathed.
She could draw the curtain to obtain privacy, but that might provoke comment or speculation, for she had not come here to exorcise personal demons the way the Crystal Ponies had, and Luna loathed loose rumours. Besides, what was spoken of a Princess was ultimately spoken of her realm: appearances were of grave import to those who wore a crown.
The present poem had gone on for some time now; there could not be much left to recite. Luna resolved to wait until the poet took his bow before excusing herself, citing affairs of state. It would even be true: in many ways, her sister was the state.
A surprise awaited Luna just beyond the velvet-padded double doors of the recital hall, in the form of a small grey-and-yellow blur hurtling towards her. In the space of a wink, she instinctively teleported out of its path, materialising at the far end of the vestibule whilst simultaneously snatching up the darting shape with her levitation, arresting its motion and plucking it back before it could careen through the doors and disturb the ponies in the recital hall.
“Infamy! This is an outrage!” The maître d’hôtel, coat purpling with wrath, all but pounced on the trapped projectile, fuming and vociferating. “How dare you, Miss?! Have you no comprehension of the significance of—”
Luna teleported the projectile—or rather, the pony—to her side, interrupting him. “We doubt very much that she does. No harm has been done, and ignorance is not malice, so find it in yourself to forgive. We shall mind this pony.” She used the Royal We to emphasise her status: she had time, but not for this. Without awaiting a reply, the Princess of the Night willed the building’s front doors open and strode out into the street, towing the pony who had nearly barrelled into her in her wake.
“They wouldn’t let me in to see you,” drawled the little grey mare. She had an odd way of speaking, fairly slow. Her golden eyes were askew; Luna thought she was likely half-witted. That would explain her speech pattern, at least.
“No, they would not. A ceremony of sorts is taking place within that building, one of great importance to the Crystal Ponies. It would not do to disturb it.”
This was the second time tonight that this pony had encountered—and nearly collided with—Luna. She had spoken briefly with her on the previous instance; seeing her again triggered the memory association she had formed.
Her mind recalled the Palace of the Royal Sisters, in which she has lived so long and knew like the capsule of her own hoof, though it would be harder to pick her way through the tumbled-down ruins it had become: she remembered it in its prime.
First, the bridge over the ravine, something rising from the mist-filled depths—
Bubbles most tender
Gold orbs présage myopy
Mist-grey wings & hooves
Next, upon the path to the palace—
Many missives scattered
Hung upon a crystal tree
A well-worn satchel
Her name was Derpy Hooves—the first word of that name was unknown to Luna, which had forced her to sound it out—and she was a delivery mare based in Ponyville who was often entrusted with long-range deliveries. Luna would clearly remember her, and her appearance, a week, a month, or a thousand years hence. Some philosophers defined the span of a pony’s life as lasting as long as she was remembered; if they were correct, then to be known to the Princess of the Night was to live forever.
“You wished to see me, Derpy Hooves?”
“Yeah, I had a letter to deliver to Prince Shining Armour from his sister, Princess Twilight Sparkle. It took me awhile to find the palace—thanks for the directions, by the way—”
Princess Twilight was still newly come to her crown, and felt self-conscious about using the elite governmental courier service for personal correspondence, even to her brother, himself a prince and co-ruler of the Crystal Empire. It was endearing, in its own way. The poor filly was so proper about everything.
“—only when I got there, he’d gotten another letter, and he wanted to see you, so I said I knew where you were and I’d bring you right away. He sent some other ponies with me, ponies who knew what was going on, but I think they got lost along the way.” Derpy nodded sagely. “It happens.”
“Did you fly directly here to bring me this news?” Luna felt she could deduce precisely what had happened to Derpy’s escort.
“I sure did: Prince Shining said it was urgent! Only when I got here, I was all alone.” Derpy shrugged, puzzled.
“Crystal Ponies cannot fly over city blocks, Derpy Hooves.”
“This is urgent, yes? And Prince Shining Armour was at the palace when you left? How long ago was this?”
Derpy’s brows furrowed in concentration as she laboured to keep the questions straight. “Yes, and yes, and a few minutes, I guess. I had to wait a while for you to come out.”
“Very well. I thank you for your service; I shall go there at once.” She hesitated a moment. “Derpy Hooves... have we met before today? Normally I can remember ponies unfailingly, but while I have no true recollection of you, there is something... distantly familiar about you.”
Derpy crinkled her muzzle oddly, and her gaze—insofar as Luna could read it—seemed to grow evasive. “...I was in Ponyville on Nightmare Night, when you visited,” she ventured at last. “Did you see me then?”
A face in the crowd? Her mis-aligned eyes might have registered on a subconscious level, and yet... this feels like something else, something more remote....
She shook her head. She certainly didn’t have time for this and besides, her recollection was nigh-infallible since she’d mastered the Art of Memory, a little after the founding of Equestria. She could clearly recall every pony she had met since then… she must have glimpsed her in the crowd, in Ponyville. There could be no other explanation. She made a mental note to walk through Derpy’s dreams when time allowed.
“Possibly,” she said, concluding her inquiry. “Farewell, Derpy Hooves. Give my regards to Princess Twilight Sparkle when next you see her.”
“Take care!” Derpy called after her, waving, as Luna swiftly gained altitude, climbing into the night sky. The moment she cleared the rooftops and the majestic spire of the imperial palace came into view, she teleported, and was lost to Derpy’s sight.
From a distant view in miniature, the palace leapt suddenly to full scale, looming far over Luna and eclipsing much of the spectacular aurora that coruscated across the breadth of the night sky. Luna threw back her head and gave a long, piercing cry, and yet none of the guards and functionaries moving about the palace started at it, or even noticed it passing through them, for it was pitched far too high for ponies to hear—excepting a select few.
In the sheltering shadows beneath a vaulting overhang high up on the tower, three forms, nearly invisible in the darkness, stirred in response to her summons. As one, they released their perch and dropped into the moonlight, unfurling membranous wings to catch the night winds and drift down towards their mistress in a loose circular formation.
Luna, from whose eyes the Night hid nothing, saw them clearly as they descended: coats in greys and blues, royal guard armour lacquered darkly and retooled to represent the Night Watch, great long tufted ears and amber eyes, pupils slit vertically like a cat’s. Bat ponies. Her ponies.
While the rest of ponykind forgot Princess Luna and Nightmare Moon over her thousand-year exile, the bat ponies had remembered. They had learned of her prophecised return as well, passing that prophecy down from parent to foal, generation after generation, for one long millennium, such that when the day of the thousandth Summer Sun Celebration failed to dawn, when the moon lost the shadow on its face, they had understood, and they had come. Young and old, from near and far, to Canterlot they had come, in a great pilgrimage. Their appearance—and perhaps, their ties to the Night—had kept most of them on the edges of settled territories, and it had taken them days to cross the distances separating them from the capital, but they had all embarked on the long flight, congregating into larger and larger flocks as they closed with their objective. They gathered in such numbers that their sudden appearance darkened the skies over Canterlot and caused widespread panic... but Luna had been moved to tears to find herself thus remembered.
They had not even known what they would find—princess, mad goddess, or simply a fresh grave—but they had come anyway, in honour of a bond placed on them by distant forebears... and in the hopes of seeing something of themselves at the seat of power in the land.
Alicorns were the ideal rulers of Equestria. This was not because of their greater magical potence nor even the long lives that Luna and her sister, at least, enjoyed; it was simply a matter of symbolism. Equestria was founded by the unison of the three major tribes of ponies: the Unicorns, the Pegasus Ponies, and the Earth Ponies. This founding happened once the three tribes learned that they could be far more together than they could ever be apart, and this harmony between ponies of all kinds was one of the nation’s highest ideals. Who better to lead them than ponies who embodied each of the three tribes in a single pony?
And yet... could the bat ponies see themselves in their leaders?
Luna had modified her own ear canals and nasal passageways, reshaping them to be able to hear and produce the ultrasonic registers of the bat ponies, but she had wanted to affect an external resemblance as well. She could not transmute her wings without renouncing her ties to the Pegasus tribe, but her eyes—that would have been ideal. Or at least her ears, if the slit-pupils proved too intimidating for diplomatic functions. Her sister, however, had advised against it.
“The memory of Nightmare Moon has recently been revived,” she had argued. “Such changes would only recall a figure of terror in the minds of our subjects, and make your re-integration more difficult. Wait a generation or two, sister. Wait until those who saw Nightmare Moon, who witnessed the vanishing of the Mare in the Moon, have all moved on, and then work what changes you will. Rather than associating one of their princesses with Nightmare Moon, our subjects will instead associate the bat ponies, whom many do fear unjustly, with a trusted and beloved princess. Have patience, and you will do your bat pony subjects the greater service, and the greater honour, in the long run.”
Celestia was a shrewd politician, and Luna could hear the wisdom in her words, but what of the bat ponies of this generation? The ones who had answered the ancient call of duty placed upon them? Were they not owed some thanks? And Luna had lost a thousand years already; she did not wish to be patient.
And so as a compromise, she had made herself able to join in the bat ponies’ high-pitched speech, and taught herself how to see with sound. She had also sought to involve herself more in the affairs of the ‘night tribe’ as her powers returned, taking over the Night Watch, the division of the Pony Protection Platoons composed entirely of bat ponies, which for a thousand years had nobly served Equestria from the shadows, ranging through the wild places in the dark of night, the time of monsters, to head off threats so that the innocent ponies of the daylight need never know what slunk and crept so close to their homes and families whilst they slept.
Luna’s honour guard tonight was composed of three of the Night Watch’s numbers: Twelfth Stroke and Nightfall, a pair of solidly built stallions from the Combat Corps, experienced in monster hunting; and a mare named Witching Hour, far lighter in build than her compatriots but more agile and alert—she was of particular value to the Night Watch’s Rangers by dint of her unique Special Talent: a sensitivity to magical auras and creatures, a style of second sight that extended even to her echolocation.
Luna chirped a quick command to follow and banked her flight to the lower observation balcony. Shining Armour would likely be awaiting her there; it was easy to reach from both within and without the place structure.
“Prince Shining Armour summons us,” she called to the guards positioned just inside the palace, who were starting forth even as she touched down, her honour guard perching on the balcony behind her. “Fetch him swiftly if he is not here!”
“I’m here, Princess,” Shining Armour’s familiar timbre answered from within the building. He quickly stepped out into the moonlight. “I’m glad that messenger mare got through to you: she lost the ponies I sent with her pretty quickly, and I wasn’t sure—”
“Forgive my brusqueness, Prince Shining Armour,” interrupted the Princess of the Night, “but we are both under some urgency, I feel. Why did you summon me?”
“We’ve had some alarming messages from a signalling tower on the very edge of the Empire’s North-Eastern border—”
The signalling towers were a most recent addition to the empire, instituted by the Prince and Princess on the Equestrian model: a network of tall watchtowers, each positioned within sight of at least one other, so that warnings of emergencies might quickly be sent from tower to tower, using spotlights by night or heliographs by day, beaming reports where they might do the most good. Luna and Celestia had devised the system together, long ago, and it had proven invaluable for the defense of the land, enabling the two sisters to mobilise in response to crises in mere minutes, even from great distances, and teleport over to deal with upheavals swiftly and decisively.
In many ways, the signalling network was even more important to the Pony Protection Platoons, as the Conveyers’ Cadre had never enjoyed great numbers: ‘winkers’, Unicorns whose Special Talent enabled them to cast teleportation spells, were rare, and thus mostly reserved for the rapid deployment of strike teams or the deep insertion of special forces units. The rest of the PPP divisions were constrained to cross the intervening space that stood between their barracks and their mission objectives—with portable signalling tools, they could query the towers and receive updates on the positions of other units to better co-ordinate their movements.
Celestia had even grander aspirations for the signalling network, expanding it to serve the general public by relaying civilian messages as well, but Luna feared the titanic increase in signal quantity would compromise the rapid response time the system had always enjoyed….
“—The tower had reported some higher than usual seismic activity earlier today, but given the volcanic activity beyond the Greenthaw Glacier, that wasn’t an uncommon report. Less than half an hour ago, however, they flashed amber, signalling a potential forest fire breaking out in the Winterward Woods, but even then, it wasn’t a concern—“
Not much of a concern, no. The Winterward Woods were wild, the way the Everfree Forest was; in there, the land lived by its own laws, and needed no pony’s care. In primeval times, a single such forest had stretched across much of the continent, but as ponies and other species had learned to tame the land, the wildwood had retreated, then broken up into separate enclaves, isolated from one another by stretches of settled territories. There were few wildwoods left in the present day.
The Winterward Woods were something of an enigma, however, as they grew within the warming aegis of the Crystal Heart: the Crystal Heart’s magic was born from the Crystal Ponies’ love, and so had nothing in common with the resident magic of the wildwood… how then had the Winterward Woods thrived North of the mountains, above the permafrost, before the Crystal Ponies had come to give it the warmth it needed to survive?
Nonetheless, the forest was fairly isolated from the rest of the Crystal Empire, its encroaching held back by a steep retaining ridge which kept the forest confined to a broad valley, hedged in on all other sides by the arctic cold.
A fire in the forest could never climb the cliffs, and the Heart’s Breath—the fluctuating air current produced by the Crystal Heart’s emanations, which regulated the Crystal Empire’s weather in the stead of Pegasus Ponies—always blew away from the Crystal Heart, so smoke would not be a problem, either. As for the Winterward Woods themselves, they had weathered countless fires over the millennia; without ponies to clear out accumulating dry brush, the cycle of fire and regrowth was inevitable.
“—They were simply keeping an eye out for future developments, when suddenly, they flashed crimson, signalling ‘monster’ and ‘extreme threat’, and... we’ve gotten nothing since.”
“The tower went dark?” asked Luna.
“The tower burst into flames,” answered Shining Armour, soberly.
“How long ago was this?”
Shining Armour glanced at a Crystal Pony who was standing a little ways back from him. The cyan mare’s eyes unfocused briefly and her lips twitched, as though subvocalising. In spite of the sudden serious turn in the conversation, nostalgia brought a faint smile to Luna’s own lips at the sight of her. Of course, she thought. The Crystal Empire would still have them.
She was a Cadence Keeper: a member of a venerable profession the origins of which reached back to long before the founding of Equestria.
Prior to Luna and Celestia's taking upon themselves the task of moving the Moon and Sun through the sky, it had been the duty of the Unicorn tribe to keep the ‘Heavenly Dancers’ moving. But that duty had been a weighty burden, for moving the Moon and Sun realigned the magic of Earth and Sky. To Alicorns like Luna and her sister, this was beneficial, as they existed at the fulcrum where those energies are balanced, and not only was the act of moving the Dancers made far easier, being at the centre of the resultant energetic flux actually strengthened their already considerable magical might. But to mere Unicorns... they were straining against the currents of the world, and had no way to recoup the dire expenditure of personal energy required.
As such, the Moon and Sun did not, in those times, glide gracefully across the sky, but rather were lurched a span of forty-five degrees along the arc of their trajectory at each of the eight Celestial Offices maintained by the Unicorns, who were unable to continuously impart motion to them. Most ponies based their reckoning of time on the Offices, such that friends might schedule to assemble ‘from None’ or ‘before Vespers’, but some needed a more precise understanding, chief amongst them being the Unicorns tasked with keeping the Moon and Sun moving at the correct times to allow the others to have any sense of time at all.
Thus were the Cadence Keepers born. Typically drawn from the pool of ponies with a musical Talent, they trained hard to develop an ironclad sense of rhythm—cadence—which allowed them to recite songs and sagas at a pace so precise that they could accurately measure the passage of time with the stanzas. The Celestial Offices of old had been kept regular by Cadence Keepers intoning hymns selected such that their combined length matched the desired interval between the movements of the Moon and Sun—each day of the year requiring a different combination of hymns, to match the ordering of the seasons. Beyond their necessity to the Unicorns’ duty, Cadence Keepers had been invaluable for their ability to keep accurate time from any given starting point. Luna closely observed the base of the pony’s tail—sure enough, the slight, yet precisely regular back-and-forth twitch that betrayed the Cadence Keeper was plain to see.
“Seven minutes, forty-two seconds,” declared the Crystal Pony, sharply tapping the ground with a forehoof, once, to mark the exact time.
Less than a heartbeat to calculate, thought Luna. She’s skilled, even among Cadence Keepers. The Princess of the Night felt a soft pang as she realised that this pony likely represented the Crystal Empire’s last generation of her profession. More accurate, flexible and precise than any hourglass or water clock, her kind had been indispensable in the days before Luna’s Banishment, but since then mechanical timepieces had been invented and perfected, and a proud, ancient tradition requiring great focus and dedication—indeed, a lifelong commitment on the part of the pony who entered it—had been made obsolete by a hoof-full of small metal gears and a wound spring.
The world must evolve; all things grow stagnant without change. This had never troubled Luna previously, but having been absent for so long... so many of the things which had seemed essential to her world had been lost in the interim. And tonight, she did not even have the time to mourn them.
“We clearly have a rapidly evolving situation here,” rejoined Prince Shining Armour. “Runners have been dispatched from the nearest tower, and every lookout in range is pointing a spyglass at the ridge, but we’ve had no word back yet, and since Princess Cadance is away on diplomatic negotiations, you and your escort are probably the only ponies in the empire right now combining emergency-response training, wings, and teleportation, so….”
Luna’s lips pulled into a taut, thin line. He was right, of course. There was a clear and present threat, and the signallers in the stricken tower, if they yet lived, might be in grave danger, and this from an unknown source—a large dragon could immolate a tower with a single breath, but most monstrous creatures had their own, specific signalling codes. That the tower signalled only ‘monster’ meant they had met with something they had not even known how to name. How could they or any relief forces deal with it adequately? And this was the Night Watch’s function.
Her sister was having the dream again.
“We shall investigate forthwith,” replied Luna, after only a moment’s hesitation.