The Night That Never Finds the Day

by MyOwnNameWasTaken

2 — Shadow & Flame

There are many powers in this world, for good and evil. Some are greater than I. Against some I have not yet been measured. But my time is coming.

- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

“Ascension!” cried Luna to her honour guard as she lanced heavenwards without warning. Shining Armour and the other ponies on the balcony staggered back, buffeted by the blast of wind powering her takeoff.

Alicorns were not constrained to flapping their wings to fly: they wielded the mingled magic of Unicorns, Earth Ponies, and Pegasus Ponies, and this allowed for some impressive feats impossible to a member of any of the three tribes. Their Pegasus sense of air currents could guide their Unicorn magic, allowing them to Levitate the air around them and blow it across their wings. This Levitation-born wind-stream was not powerful in itself, but by shaping it with their wing surfaces and drawing on their Pegasus Weather-Working magic, they could magnify its speed and produce staggering lifting force.

‘Magico-Aero-Dynamic Flight’, Starswirl the Bearded had named it, long ago when Luna and Celestia had discovered this technique. Luna had taken an immediate dislike of the term for two reasons each, she felt, sufficient on its own: it combined root-words from two different languages, and abbreviated to ‘M.A.D. Flight’, which was a ridiculous appellation. Celestia had defended the name, however, arguing that it certainly did grant them ‘M.A.D. Speed’; Luna had angrily pointed out that her sister’s claim was founded on circular logic.

It was only now, as the scene resurged unbidden in her mind, that Luna realised her sister had likely only meant it as a pun, intended to lighten her mood. Humour was still a new concept to her, but it was dawning on her that her sister had often spoken in jest when Luna had thought her serious.

“Princess!” Shining Armour was calling to her over the rushing wind. “Troops are mustering at the—”

Luna snapped her wings down hard, breaking her upward momentum and blowing the rest of the sentence away from her ears, which would allow her to claim not-entirely-dishonestly that she had not heard him. She was not about to blindly lead loyal servants of the Empire into unknown danger.

She hung in the air a moment before banking right under gravity’s pull and streaking off again. Behind her, her honour guard had lifted off and was flying hard after her. Once she was a sufficient distance from the tower, she switched to an unpowered glide, allowing the Bat Ponies to catch up.

“Wake-ride on Her Highness!” called Witching Hour as Luna’s escort closed in. “Bent diamond—take flanks! Imminent teleport!” The stallions had not served directly under their Princess before, but the little mare had flown with her a number of times now: Luna found it useful to have a sensitive with her, as it saved her having to rely on sustained scrying spells. Witching Hour was a quick study, and had proven adept at translating the Princess’ intent into modern battle-language.

How complex military organisation had become! Equestria had been mostly defended by citizen militia before the Banishing, acting in support of the mighty warrior-princesses, who teleported in to smite any beings foolish enough to imagine their little ponies might be preyed upon with impunity. But now... the Earth-Unicorn-Pegasus Guard was trained to solve problems on its own, without Alicorn intervention, and as such relied on sophisticated co-ordination between its members. The need to rapidly convey orders and information had birthed a specialised language—something termed a ‘jargon’; itself one of the many new words that had been added the Equestrian lexicon during Luna’s lengthy absence.

The three Bat Ponies slid into formation behind Luna, Twelfth Stroke and Nightfall off to either side, level with her in altitude, with Witching Hour further back and directly behind her, but slightly higher than them, to minimise the obscurement of her forward field of vision. Luna bent the air from her slipstream up under their wings, wrenching gasps of surprise from the two stallions as she reverted to magically powered flight, tilting her trajectory upwards and drawing her escort along as she soared high above the imperial capital.

“What’s your teleport experience?” Witching Hour called to the stallions over the rushing wind. Luna and her escort had arrived at the imperial capital via train this morning; they had not teleported with her yet.

“Over two dozen combat insertions,” answered Twelfth Stroke promptly. After a moment’s thought, he added, “Only ever did the one while in flight, though. Things went south and we hadda evac.” That last sentence had little meaning for Luna, but Witching Hour accepted it.

“I’ve, ah, done the training course,” said Nightfall rather less promptly. “I haven’t had a live jump yet.” He was the youngest of the three, newly graduated from the training programme. The Princess did not rotate the ponies of her honour guard on the basis of skill or experience, but randomly: she wished to become better acquainted with the Night Watch and its ponies; their service record was irrelevant to her. Luna guessed from his tone that he might be feeling overwhelmed. She would have to keep his inexperience in mind during this sally.

“Her Highness’ wake’ll keep you as steady as if you were on solid ground; just stay level with her and you’ll be fine,” Witching Hour reassured the younger stallion as Luna reached what she estimated to be a sufficient height.

Flattening out, Luna maintained her speed, still on a North-Eastern bearing, while she drew moisture from the air and shaped it into a series of lenses formed of perfectly clear ice. She lined up these lenses with her Levitation, pointing them towards her objective.

By morphing the ice layers and varying the distance between them, she bent the visual species—ah, not quite: that paradigm had been proven false in her absence—she bent the sight lines, whatever the current theory as to their composition might be, allowing her to see distant places as though nearby; a physical alternative to scrying which had the advantage of being unaffected by warding spells.

Luna and her sister—more her sister than herself, in truth, as Celestia had always possessed the more scientific mindset—had developed the process in ages past. Celestia had eventually guided artificers to replicate it with ground crystal lenses, leading to the invention of the telescope, but Luna enjoyed dynamically conjuring her own lenses.

Even then, in Equestria ponies no longer needed such a device to teleport to unknown locales. During Luna’s long absence, Celestia and the scholars of the School for Gifted Unicorns she founded had devised a revolutionary technique for long-range teleportation based on mystic geometry: rather than winking between visible locales, the teleporter envisaged an imaginary line drawn though three-dimensional space and shunted herself from one end of that line to the other. This allowed Unicorns to teleport to the far side of a mountain range without being able to see what lay beyond the peaks.

This method was, however, dependent on exacting contour survey maps, so the caster could determine the precise elevation at which to reappear, avoiding both merging with the ground or falling out of the sky. Therefore, the technique was not yet useable in the Crystal Empire, as no maps surveyed to the requisite level of detail existed: the technique had been developed during the Empire’s absence from the world. At any rate, Luna preferred using telescopic high-altitude line-of-sight teleportation; careful calculation had ever been her sister’s forte, not hers.

Luna adjusted the ice lenses to sweep the horizon; it did not take long to find what she sought, as there were no mountains between her and the ridge, and the plume of smoke from the burning tower was clearly outlined against the aurora that danced across the Northern sky. The base of the column of black smoke writhed with red—the tower was a pyre. She winced at the sight, and hoped the tower’s garrison had managed to escape the building in time.

“The tower is sore stricken,” Luna informed her guards. “If there is to be any hope of finding survivors, we must wink at once. I see no obvious threat, but be alert as you search the area.”

“Blind jump!” barked Witching Hour. “Scattershot deploy; chirp-range sweep with high chatter—let’s find some breathers!

“On your mark, Princess,” she directed at Luna in a deferential tone, as the two stallions trimmed their wingspan in preparation for the insertion manoeuvre.

“Mark,” Luna intoned, as her horn flared with new magic. There was a flash of light and they were gone, leaving only the miniature thunderclap of inrushing air and the tinkling of splintering planes of ice.

A mirrored flash and thunderclap leagues away heralded their arrival. Luna placed their rematerialisation point a hundred body lengths inland from the edge of the cliff face on which the tower had been perched. The Bat Ponies immediately split off from the formation, the stallions banking steeply off to the left and right while Witching Hour soared upward for a wider view. They lost speed as soon as they left Luna’s energized slipstream, falling behind her as she streaked straight on to the tower.

Her eyes could see through the Night, but the fire’s light was an alien intrusion into her domain, and its shadows were impenetrable to her. Yet it was not the fire’s shadows that she thought to probe… she was seeking other shadows. The Night had additional associations, which were not often brought up among the general populace, but which Luna now drew upon. Otherworldly light shone through her eyes as she focused on the rapidly approaching tower. In her transformed sight, the raging flames were dim, flickering ghosts, and the tower was but a bluish outline, a rough sketch. She could peer clean through its walls, seeking the one thing that stood out… there. Writhing among the twisted beams was a somber equine shape, diaphanous, little more than a faint shadow cast against the background: a pony-shaped hole. Her sister could glimpse the light within each pony, but Luna could see the emptiness they left behind.

There, another. And another. Luna winced; three so far. She gained altitude just before she passed the flaming ruin, allowing her to gaze down through ghost of the superstructure into the foundation… no, there was nothing there.

She shut her eyes as she shot by the tower and let the magic flow out of them like starry tears, using the radiant heat of the blazing tower as a reference point to guide her as she swept into a gliding turn, winging over the precipitous drop from the cliff face to the valley below as she came about. The magic flux flowed over her face, streaking back under the wind of her flight before melting away into her ethereal mane.

She could hear the ultrasonic calls of her escort as she wheeled around to fly back towards them.

“Sky’s clear; no hostiles, no hazard,” chirped one voice—Witching Hour’s; her voice had a higher pitch, even in the ultrasonic range. “No contacts groundside; proceeding to tower.”

“Left clear so far; there’s a grassfire spreading from the tower on my side, though it doesn’t look like trouble—the wind is pushing it back towards the cliff. I’ll check the edge of the flames.” That was Nightfall: he had banked left.

“Keep your ears open,” Witching Hour cautioned; “the flames will wreck your night-sight!”

“Right field negative; shrubs grasses leading to a ridge of hills,” called Twelfth Stroke. “I’m going to have a look over the ridge, see if there’s anything.”

“Stay aloft,” ordered Witching Hour. “I don’t want anypony dropping off the soundscape.”

“There are three shades in the tower,” Luna called across the field.

“Uh, no copy, Highness.”

“Please repeat, Princess?”

“Triple KIA,” Witching Hour translated, with an edge to her voice. She knew all too well what Luna meant: she could see the shades as well, but unlike Luna, she could not dispel the effect. The Princess had rushed ahead to the tower in part to save her the necessity of scanning it herself.

“Signalling towers have a five-pony complement, so we’ve got two hopefuls yet,” the Bat Pony mare added. “If your sweeps come clean, search for trails and blazes!”

“Contact!” Nightfall chittered excitedly. “Two ponies falling back in front of the grassfire! One’s dragging wounded—moving to assist!”

Neigh, climb!” countermanded Luna immediately, following her order with a sudden burst of speed to clear the grassfire herself, so that the heat distortion caused by the flames would not foul her echolocation. She chirped out a powerful echolocation pulse, aiming in the direction of Nightfall’s voice, and shortly picked out a flyer rising up from the field—there he was.

She teleported, aiming her jump right at him, knowing the distance between them meant that his true position was a little ahead of his image in her soundscape, as he had moved on while the echo of the call made its way back across the field to her. She nonetheless startled him as she materialised a single one of his body lengths behind him.

“Where?” she demanded, but she had spotted the survivors before the word reached his ears. She had come in low, which allowed her to gaze flat across the grasses, and from that angle she easily found her object, lit brightly by the blaze—the survivors. One pony was indeed dragging another with some difficulty. It was a mare, dragging a larger stallion, but the Crystal Ponies were Earth Ponies underneath the shimmering coats, and the strength of the broad Earth was theirs to draw upon whenever they stood on it. If she was having difficulty, then she was either exhausted, or injured herself, if not both.

Luna had marked the shape of the grassfire as she had flown back past the tower. Whatever fearsome blast had engulfed the tower had been just that: a spray of some kind which had not struck with complete precision; part of the stream had arced past the tower on its Western side, igniting the grass in a curving, West-reaching swathe. This had left a stretch of intact grass leading to the tower along the West side of the ridge, but the Heart’s Breath blew in the right direction to drive the flames back into that greenway and incinerate it. Unless she missed her guess, the survivors were struggling to avoid getting caught in the closing net. She needed to quell the flames, and swiftly.

“I shall send you ahead,” she told Nightfall. “Drop before those ponies and shelter them with your wings.”

“ ‘Shelter?’ From what, Highness?”

“From the wind,” Luna replied as she bent space around him. With another pop of inrushing air, the Bat Pony was translated across the field. Luna saw his figure, his dark fur and armour but little brightened by even these flames, drop down to cover the survivors.

Immediately, she streaked forwards, gathering a vortex of turbulence behind her, to land hard right at the edge of the flames. Her wings slashed ahead into the blaze, and the air gathered behind her was thrown before her, focused into two narrow, horizontal waves which scythed across the field, tearing flames and embers loose and casting them over the cliff’s edge beyond. The Princess of the Night folded her wings back against her flanks; of the grassfire nothing was left but smoking, blacked stubble.

“What are your injuries?” demanded Luna one wink later, as she rematerialized over Nightfall and the survivors. Both the Bat Pony and the Crystal mare seemed dazed by her quelling of the flames, but they recovered swiftly. Luna was more concerned for the Crystal stallion, who was clearly unresponsive… and badly burned.

“P-princess!” gasped the Crystal Pony mare. She turned immediately to her fallen compatriot, cradling his head with her fore hooves, and leaning an ear over his mouth. “He’s still breathing! Thank goodness he’s still breathing! I pulled him from the tower—I was out for a walk when the whole thing went up! He was the only one I could get to! I haven’t even had time to look him over, I had to get him out, the fires kept closing in on us, I had to drag him, and he wouldn’t, and he wouldn’t—”

Luna gently yet firmly folded her wing over the unravelling pony and slid her over to Nightfall. “You’ve done all you can do for him; now let me do all I can. This is Nightfall, and he will tend your own injuries.”

And do not allow her turn her gaze back at the tower or her comrade,” she directed over the mare’s head to Nightfall, in the Bat Ponies’ ultrasonic speech. Nightfall gave a quick, short nod of understanding. The Crystal Pony was showing the early stages of shock; he needed to focus her attention elsewhere to allow her to recover.

Luna turned her full attention to the stallion. He was a grim sight. It had been long indeed since she has smelled scorched hair and burnt flesh, but those scents, once known, could never be forgotten. She felt ill. He must have been trapped within the building, near enough to the door for the mare to reach him, but certainly not in the doorframe: the mare who extracted him was herself badly scorched. How long had he been in that blaze?

Would that Derpy Whooves had been able to reach me sooner!

The stallion’s breathing was laboured and wheezing—likely from smoke inhalation—and his heartbeat was bounding and erratic; he was in shock himself. His limbs and the muscles along his barrel spasmed without rhythm, and though his half-lidded eyes showed much white, he was clearly delirious, lacking even the mercy of unconsciousness.

Luna touched the tip of her horn to his forehead and strands of magical flux flowed out of it to gently slither into and around the Crystal Pony’s tortured body and mind. Gradually, he ceased his twitching and grew still, his breathing and heartbeat drawing out and slowing to a healthy pace as he drifted into a dreamless sleep beyond the reach of pain.

“That’s nasty,” hissed a voice at her wing, in an ultrasonic register. Luna looked back in surprise at Witching Hour; so complete had been her focus that she had not heard her land. “Will he live, Highness?”

There was little moisture left around them, but the Heart’s Breath brought fresh night air to them, and from this she condensed a fine coating of dew over the stallion’s burns, to help provide some gentle cooling, before drawing the tent sheeting out of Witching Hour’s pack with her Levitation and, Levitating the stallion in turn, winding the improvised wrapping around his wounds. It was all she had time to do for him at this point. She saw Twelfth Stroke closing in, and gestured for him to watch over the sleeping pony.

Luna turned about to face the mare, whom Nightfall had led back a few paces. “What is your name?” she asked her.

“Jade Lustre, Your Highness.”

“And your fellow signaller?” Luna asked, indicating the sleeping pony behind herself.

“Garnet Gleam—is he…?”

“He will live; I have placed him in a trance, which will allow his body to bend all of its strength to mending his injuries. He will need extensive hospitalisation, but he will live, so put your fears aside and help us understand what has happened here.”

“I don’t really know anything, though! I was on my off-duty shift, and I like to get out of the tower and take a long hike around the perimeter, and I was over a mile out when I heard this horrible, impossible grinding sound, like rocks breaking up or sliding past each other, only it sounded alive, like a roar, and there was a flash through the trees, and a different roar, the roar of flames—I ran as fast as I could, but it took me awhile to even find a way to the tower; there was fire everywhere… I couldn’t get through to them!”

Luna put a hoof on your shoulder to steady her. “But you did get through, and Garnet Gleam will live, thanks to your efforts. You did well, Jade Lustre.” The Crystal Pony nodded once, her dishevelled green locks bouncing. She looked drained, but Luna judged this mare had some strength left in her yet.

She turned to address the ponies under her command.

“Nightfall, do you have a travois in your pack? Assemble it the moment you’ve treated Jade Lustre’s injuries; I wish to move the injured past that ridge of hills on the far side of the field as soon as possible.

“Twelfth Stroke, unpack our signalling kit, fly up and send a report to the signalling network—hopefully the relief runners on their way will see the signal as well. They should be arriving within minutes, at the most.

“Witching Hour, walk with me. I wish to ascertain what truly happened here before we fall back.”

Luna and the Bat Pony scout walked over the scorched, smoking stubble towards the tower while the stallions busied themselves with their gear—the Night Watch always travelled with their full scouting kit, even when acting as an honour guard, and this night had proven them wise for doing this.

“I can’t see much in the way of residual magical traces here, Highness,” admitted Witching Hour, “not even with sound-sight. I’d say this wasn’t the work of a spell. Some magical creature perhaps, like a dragon?”

“Not a dragon,” Luna reminded her. “The signallers had time to send one code, and they did not name their aggressor such. Also, this blast was not made of flame: viewed from on high, it seemed to have come from beneath, struck the tower, and then fallen down onto the grasses beyond, whereas the density of flame inclines it to rise above air, not fall below.”

Witching Hour gave her princess a puzzled look. “Fire has density?”

Luna hesitated. What did they teach in schools nowadays? She desperately needed to catch up with certain fields. “Whatever the cause, flame does rise,” she concluded, “and whatever burned this tower fell. We must ascertain what—”

She halted as her leading hoof came down on pebbly material. Witching Hour pulled up short and prodded at it. There were loose, jagged, pockmarked black pebbles throughout the ruined grass ahead of them, all of them still quite hot to the touch. They made a light, crunching sound as the Bat Pony stirred them up.

“These rocks are on top of the grasses,” Witching Hour observed, with suspicion.

“Unusual seismic activity,” Shining Armour had said, followed by “forest fire.” And now—

“Pumice,” Luna breathed, as a horrible idea rose up in her mind like a serpent poised to strike. Her adjutant did not make the association, but Luna’s tone of voice spoke volumes.

“Twelfth Stroke! Eyes over the edge, now! Stay clear of the wounded!” Witching Hour followed Luna as the Princess of the Night herself took flight, sweeping up and over the edge of the precipice, to view the ravine beyond.

“Contact,” gasped Twelfth Stroke, voice strangled with awe, as he looked Westward along the precipice towards the Greenthaw Glacier and beheld the massive thing lumbering back down the gorge towards their position.

“What—what in Equestria is that?!” exclaimed Witching Hour, pulling up hard as her eyes followed his gaze. What her witch-sight saw as she looked on such a being, even Luna could not guess.

“Heart-of-the-Mountain,” the Princess intoned, her voice flat. “In all my years I have never encountered one, but legend claims that entwined amongst the roots of every mountain an elemental creature of fire sleeps, its heat the mountain’s living heart. When one stirs in its slumber, the earth shakes, and when one fully wakes, and claws its way out from its stony womb, the mountain bursts asunder and the molten rock of the creature’s afterbirth sets the surrounding lands aflame.”

From another world entire seemed the uncanny creature making its way back towards them along the gorge leading away Westwards from where the incinerated tower had perched. The thing was crusted in hissing, popping, cooling rock, in shape mostly serpentine, and the jagged cracks and breaches that continuously opened in its crust to reveal the true Mountain’s Heart, the blazing magma within, gave it the illusion of being covered in shifting scales.

But towards the front, the serpent gave way to the centipede, or something more alien still, for exposed rock beneath the foremost, uplifted part of its neck churned and tore constantly as ever-new tendrils of magma burst forth, limb-like, to support its raised, bloated head above the ground. These improvised appendages were quick to cool and snap beneath the creature’s titanic weight, however, shattering and being swept over, crushed, and reabsorbed by the ponderous body as it slithered on. And the size of it! It did justice to its name.

As the ponies watched, the monster slowed, raising its head yet higher as its writhing, ever-renewing pseudo-limbs grasped at the face of the crag. Ponderously it rose up, scorching the rock clean of moss and lichen as it reached for the top of the cliff face, but the angry sounds of cracking, spitting rock intensified and the rearmost third of its body, near the base of the cliff, broke off from the main, collapsing onto the floor of the ravine, exposing flowing rock that glowed a bright and vicious red. The creature gave a monstrous roar—a sound just as Jade Lustre had described, that of heavy, jagged boulders grinding together—and slid back down the cliff, crashing down into its severed hind section. The rock crust burst asunder, the magma streams merged and flowed together, and the severed pieces of the creature reformed into one body. Laboriously did the beast resume its progress towards them.

“It’s like… like its body is constantly breaking apart,” whispered Witching Hour. Pity, horror, and stark naked awe struggled for dominance in her voice.

“The rock of its body remembers solidity, but the furnace-heat within, as all heat, cannot stand still,” Luna conjectured. “And yet it cannot flow freely, for the more of its inner self it exposes, the more swiftly it will lose that heat which is its life. The beast is outside its world, and here its nature wars with itself!”

“Does that mean it’s in constant pain?” asked Twelfth Stroke. “Because that’s going to put it in one heck of a bad mood….”

Luna pointed a forehoof out across the ravine. Beyond opened the great, wide valley that held the Winterward Wood, hemmed in by the ice-shrouded peaks which stood outside the warming radiance of the Crystal Heart. Not too far off, some of those peaks were obscured by mist.

“That is not mist, but steam,” Luna observed. “The creature must have burst forth there, into the Arctic ice and snow, and slithered between two peaks and down into the valley, there,” she pointed at the edge of the Wood, which was thick with smoke—the forest fire the tower had reported. “The trees would have kindled at its touch, and the smoke raised must have allowed the monster to approach the tower unseen.” The ponies, as one, looked to the rock face beneath the tower and found a vast black scorch mark, identical to the one the beast had left further down the ravine a moment ago.

“It is fleeing the cold,” she concluded, “striving to reach deeper inland!”

“That’ll lead it straight into the Crystal Empire,” gasped Witching Hour. “I’ve seen maps—it’ll set half the Northern farmlands ablaze!

“But it can’t get over the cliff,” countered Twelfth Stroke. “Its body’s not solid enough to reach: we saw it ourselves!”

“Not here, no,” Luna agreed, “and we were fortunate that it chose to explore Westwards first, as that way leads directly into the Greenthaw Glacier. It could never survive a crawl over that! But Eastwards….

HO, JADE LUSTRE,” she called in a booming voice to the ponies they had left on the ground. “Does this cliff maintain a uniform height along its entire length?”

Jade Lustre’s answer came more faintly, but borne by the Heart’s Breath her words reached them: “The height never changes, Princess! However, it gets a lot less steep as you go East. It’s gradual, but after a few miles…”

“Highness, the only maps we have of this part of the Empire are charts surveyed a thousand years ago,” Witching Hour warned. “They’re grossly inaccurate, and there’s no contour information; nor do we know how shallow a slope that thing needs to crawl over the top. But if we assume the worst—”

“We must assume the beast can scale the Eastward slopes and find its way into the Empire’s heartland,” Luna finished for her.

“Is there some way to head it off?” Twelfth Stroke asked quickly. “I know there’s not much we can do, Princess, but you’re an Alicorn. Can you carve a trench, or raise a wall from the rock, or something?”

“Ice might work,” suggested Witching Hour. “If it hates cold, dropping a lot of ice and snow in its path might discourage it, make it turn aside.”

“Those are all excellent suggestions,” Luna judged, “but you are overlooking one crucial detail: if we corral the Mountain’s Heart in this valley, the Winterward Wood will burn entire as it feels around for another means of egress. That forest supplies the Crystal Empire with most of its medicines, many of which are unique to this forest—wildwoods each have their own magic, and cultivating their plants outside their confines is arduous at best.

“The Wood has weathered many a simple forest fire, but that thing will burn every last plant to ash, in an attempt to stay warm. This cannot be allowed to happen.”

Luna took a deep breath; it braced her not at all. “I must hold the living volcano here,” she determined.