• Published 3rd May 2013
  • 13,017 Views, 946 Comments

The Dusk Guard Saga: Rise - Viking ZX

Steel Song is a lot of things. Earth pony. Uncle. Professional bodyguard. Retired. So when he receives a mysterious package from Princess Luna, he's understandably apprehensive. Things are never as they seem in Equestria...

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Training - Chapter 3

Chapter 3

“So you see Your Highness—”

Luna sat back in her throne as the yellow unicorn in front of her continued to speak, only half paying attention to the words. It wasn’t that she didn’t feel that the pony's request wasn’t important—she cared for each and every pony under her and her sister’s reign—but rather that this particular mare had already repeated herself twice over, and from the sound of her words was about to repeat herself a third time.

Luna sighed inwardly. Ordinarily she would have sped things up a bit and simply asked the young mare what her request was, but as she was the last pony on the schedule she didn’t feel a need to rush. She was going to be here for another hour if she kept to the proper timetable. Besides, every time she’d spoken the mare had grown visibly nervous, while letting her speak seemed to put her at ease.

“—so I think that if there was simply something that could be done about the irregularities of the weather over the last few weeks,” the mare was saying. Luna made sure to keep her eyes on the unicorn, nodding occasionally as something she agreed with was mentioned. The mare, Sunflower, was one of the chief landscapers employed by the city and while young clearly had a great love for her work, an observation reinforced by the patch of yellow flowers on her flank. Which, Luna presumed, was why she was in the night court. The last few weeks in Canterlot had been drier than average, due to both the warmer than average summer and an unfortunate mishap at the Cloudsdale weather factory that had shorted production.

As Sunflower continued to discuss the various plots of land that her team was responsible for and the effect that the lack of recent rains was having, Luna gave her a soft smile. Truth be told, Sunflower’s plea for rain was already something that Luna and her sister had been working at solving for a while. An entire team of weather ponies, including several Wonderbolts, had been dispatched to the western coast to corral the natural clouds coming in over the ocean. If all went well, in another day or two Canterlot would hopefully experience a brief if naturally formed and somewhat unpredictable shower.

“—and so your highness, I would like to put in a request that Canterlot receive some rain, even if only a little,” Sunflower was wrapping up now, and Luna brought her attention back to the mare in front of her. “Some of the flowers we’ve cultivated will only last about another week without rain, and many of them were quite difficult to acquire and to cultivate.” She looked up at Luna with wide eyes, “Please, if you can, we need that rain.” Luna felt her heart melt a little as Sunflower finished up her plea. This mare loved her work deeply.

“Sunflower,” Luna said, standing and stepping down from her throne. “You are not the first to be concerned in the last few weeks about the lack of summer rain. But even if you were the only pony to come before me with such a concern, after such a heartfelt plea, I could not say no.” Luna began to walk down the small steps towards Sunflower. The yellow unicorn gave a quick gasp and bowed, looking down at the floor, and Luna smiled. It had taken some time for her to overcome her old habits and reactions. If someone had bowed before her even a few months earlier, her response would have been quite different.

Instead, Luna simply stopped before Sunflower and reached out with one hoof, placing it gently on Sunflower’s shoulder and pulling her gently up. “Do not fear for your work. My sister and I will ensure that Canterlot will soon have rain, even if that means we have to move the clouds ourselves.”

Sunflower looked up, a look of pure glee on her face. “Really? You mean it?”

“Of course,” Luna said. “I swear by the throne of Equestria that you will have your rain, even if I must perform the act myself!” Sunflower cringed and Luna covered her mouth with one hoof. “Our—my mistake,” she said, fighting a blush. To her delight, Sunflower looked at her in surprise for a moment, and then laughed.

“Don’t worry about it, your highness,” she said. “I still mix up seed packets from time to time.”

“Thank you for understanding,” Luna said. She could hear camera’s flickering from the few newsponies in the court audience on either side. Apparently somepony thought that her actions might be newsworthy. Perhaps this time they would use a photo of her smiling rather than the stern look she had become known for. A bit of balance would be nice. “But before you go, I have a request to ask of you,” she asked, looking at Sunflower.

“Re-really?” Sunflower looked up in surprise. “Anything, your highness. What do you need?”

“Simple,” Luna said. “All I ask is that you return to my court sometime and show me where I might find some of these rare plants you mentioned. It has been ...” She paused for a moment as old memories began to flood unbidden into her mind. “A very long time indeed since I have seen a Mooncrown Chrysanthium in full bloom.” She looked down at Sunflower. “Would you be able to do that for me?”

Sunflower’s smile exploded into a grin. “Me? Show—royalty? Flowers? I—I—” She coughed, clearing her throat, her cheeks blushing red with embarrassment at her stammering. “Of course!” she said once her throat had cleared. “I would be honored to show you.”

“Very well then,” Luna said with a small bow. “Continue with your work. My sister and I will make certain there are rains for you soon.”

“Thank you, your highness!” Sunflower said, alternating between bowing and backing up. “Thank you so much!” Her bowing finally stopped, and she turned and almost skipped from the court, her body springing upwards with every step.

“Is there anything else scheduled for the night court tonight?” Luna asked the steward at her side as the door to the court shut with a faint thump.

“Well,” her steward said, levitating a checklist in front of herself with a faint purple glow. “There is another letter from Mr. Will Ward, the lawyer of Golden Spike, that is addressed to the court.”

“Is it any different from the last few letters?” Luna asked, looking down at the grey-blue mare.

The steward gave a faint shake of her head, “I haven’t read it, my lady.” The checklist vanished into her saddlebags, replaced by a sealed scroll bearing a rather pointlessly ornate seal.

“Very well then,” Luna let out a sigh as she took the scroll and broke the seal, unfurling the parchment with a sharp burst of her magic. She could see newsponies watching her out of the corner of her eyes as she made her way up the court towards the royal throne, no doubt searching for some sort of clue as to the contents of the message.

Princess Luna, it grieves me to write this missive— Luna fought the urge to roll her eyes at Will’s words. Perhaps if he attempted even some shred of variance in any of his nightly messages she’d be slightly more inclined to pay attention, but as it was each message had begun with an identical “impassioned plea” for order with the railroads. She quickly scanned through the rest of the message. As usual, it was a request that her and her sister step down and concede control over the Equestrian Rail Service, citing their numerous “failings” over the last few months such as their inability protect the property of travelers, their absolute lack of vision in ordering the laying of the Northern line to the Crystal Mountains, and the loss of public support and profitability as a result of the continued thefts.

Luna almost scowled at the tone used, but resisted the impulse. She was a princess, one of the two royal demigods who ruled over Equestia, and Princess of the Night. It would not do to show her annoyance so easily. She settled instead for maintaining a distasteful look on her face as the message crumpled into a tiny ball under the force of her magic. She looked at the wrinkled paper sphere in front of her and noted that it was less than half the size it would have normally been. Apparently she’d let a bit of her annoyance seep into her magic. She gave her head a small shake for the newsponies and then ceremoniously tossed the message into a nearby trash receptacle. Exactly where it belonged.

Luna let out a quiet breath as she sat back down on the throne, visualizing her tension flowing out with it. From what her sister had told her, Golden Spike was a good pony, simply—she paused to think of a description that wouldn’t be less than flattering. Ambitious. Yes, ambitious. Golden’s father had been a farmer from near Baltimare, and Golden had inherited his father’s penchant for hard work along with his own skill at financial success. In just the last five years the stallion had gone from a simple landowner to partial owner of nearly a dozen business ventures all across Equestria. He was young, impetuous, and now fairly wealthy. He also had a known history of being ruthless in his business dealings, aggressively capitalizing on his portfolio and business skill to work his way into control of various companies.

And now, high on his recent investments in the Badlands, he had quite clearly set his sights on controlling the Equestrian Rail System. The letters, his showing up at the night and day court with several of the other prominent shareholders to draw public attention to what the newspapers had already declared the “Plight of the Railways,” even several carefully timed interviews designed to throw doubt in the public mind about her and her sister's role in the company.

It was never “too much” either. Luna had to admit that Golden Spike had a talent for just laying out the facts in a certain light. It wouldn’t undermine any of the love ponies had for her or her sister, but given time it would make them question exactly why she and her sister had such a tight hold on the ERS. Especially with the northern rail line. The thefts alone could be explained, but neither she nor her sister could explain why it was so vital that they complete the northern line in the next few months. Not without bringing a world of trouble upon their heads. The media attention that it was getting now was worrying enough. If somepony—or worse yet, someone like Ahuizotl—came to a realization of what the northern line was for ...

Luna let out another breath as her steward gave a polite cough. Time to focus on the matter at hoof. She and Celestia had played their hand, there wasn’t much they could do now but see it through and hope.

“Yes, Soft Tone?” she asked. The steward once again had her checklist out, a quill held at the ready.

“Another pony has come to see you, your highness,” Soft Tone said, making a small note on the checklist with her quill. “Name of Lacey Frill. She’s the—” Her eyes darted down at the checklist and then back up. “Director of the Equestrian History wing at the Canterlot Museum.”

“Oh!” Luna’s spirit’s brightened at the name. “I’ve met her before. Show her in, show her in! What does she require?”

“Um,” Soft Tone looked down at her checklist again. “Apparently she found something that belongs to you, I think.”

“Very well,” Luna said, doing her best to constrain the enthusiasm in her voice. “Show her in, please.” Soft Tone nodded and moments later the doors at the end of the court opened, letting in an older pastel green mare with a long flowing mane almost entirely grey. As she made her way down the court’s long floor, newsponies began snapping pictures and taking notes, the scribbling of pencils sounding alongside the muted hoofsteps of Lacey Frill. Several of the newsponies even got up, edging over the low dividing wall to try and get a closer look.

“Princess Luna,” Lacey Frill said with a bow in the style of the ancient Equestrian court. “It is a pleasure to see you again.”

“Rise, Lacey,” Luna said, suppressing a grin. “And thank you for bow. It’s been ... a long time since I have seen such a bow.”

Lacey looked up, her smile framed by her long greyed mane. “I thought you would appreciate the gesture. Since I’m one of the few ponies who makes it my job to remember such things.”

“I still can’t thank you enough for your help in educating me on the history I missed,” Luna said, rising from her throne. “Although I do hope my donation to your department helped convey my thanks.”

Lacey gave a small laugh. “Indeed it did Princess, and again thank you for such a generous donation. And rest assured,” she said with a small shake of her head. “We are well established at the moment, so I am not here to ask for any additional bits.”

“Yes,” Luna said. “My steward mentioned that you found something of mine?”

Lacey tilted her head to one side, ears back. “Well,” she said, a slightly perplexed look crossing her face. “We think so.” She looked up at Luna’s confused expression and hurried to clarify. “A few nights ago we had a—a break in of sorts. Or a break-out, we aren’t exactly certain yet. The Night Guard are still looking into it. Nothing was taken, at least that we know of, although some crated bones were disturbed, but—” Lacey held a hoof to her mouth and cleared her throat. “Anyway, while looking to see if anything was missing we found an old crate. Very old, in fact, if condition of the wood is anything to go by. One that we didn’t have a record number for.” She paused for a moment.

“What was in the crate?” Luna asked, curiosity pulsing through her mind. “Something of mine?”

“Well, we don’t actually know what is or isn’t inside, your highness,” Lacey said. “The writing on the outside, although faded, is a recognizable language of pre-classical Equestria. The writing indicates that the crate was given to a pony named Failsafe. Now, we checked and we have no record of a pony with that name working at—”

Lacey’s voice faded away as memory sparked inside Luna’s mind. Failsafe. She repeated the name over and over again. Something about that name was filling her with a nameless dread. A chilling hollow began to grow in her stomach as her mind floated back, far back, to a time long ago.

Failsafe. Earth pony. Orange Coat. White mane. Cutie mark of a treasure map. He’d had a talent for hiding things where they wouldn’t be found. And she’d given him a box, long ago. She’d told him to hide it, and hide it well.

“—royal seal on the side of the box, although faded—” The normal world came back now, Lacey’s voice still describing a box that Luna remembered all too well. The cold sensation in her stomach swelled, growing into an icy fear that gripped her chest.

“Hold. Say no more,” Luna said. Lacey Frill stopped in surprise at Luna’s command but complied. Luna’s eyes darted over toward the newsponies. Several of them were paying close attention, much closer than she would have liked. She stepped back, head held high. “The Night Court is hereby adjourned!” she declared loudly, her voice booming through the long hall. “Thank you.” She stepped back towards Lacey Frill, ignoring the exclamations of surprise from the patrons of the court.

“Move close,” she said with a look towards Lacey and Soft Tone. They stepped towards her and her horn flared with magic, creating a shimmering blue sphere that surrounded them and cut them off from the night court entirely. Luna gave the spell a final tweak, there was a slight nudge that seemed to push against her everywhere all at once, and then with a faint whisper the bubble vanished, revealing her private study. Lacey let out a small gasp, blinking in surprise at the change of scenery.

“You said that you were unsure of what was or wasn’t inside, correct?” Luna asked, her voice sharp in her ears. Lacey shrank back at the tone.“Why did you use those words?”

“We—well,” she stammered, her face showing equal parts hurt and confusion. “It looks like it was disturbed a few days ago along with everything else when we had the break-in, but—”

“Say no more,” Luna said, turning to face Soft Tone, who was trying to put on an air of calm in the face of what Luna knew was likely alarming behavior. It couldn’t be helped. “Go wake my sister immediately,” Luna said. “Tell her to come with all possible haste. Then call the Captains of each Guard: Royal, Night and Dusk. Tell them to meet my sister and I at the Canterlot Museum. If anypony attempts to stop you, you are acting on my personal authority. Go!” Soft Tone jumped back at her command, nearly dropping her checklist but catching it with a quick burst of magic. Then she spun and galloped out the door, not even bothering to close it.

“We apologize for the rudeness of our—my behavior.” Luna said to Lacey as she shut the door with a quick burst of her magic. “But I am afraid that the news you bear may be ill.”

“But ...” Lacey said, the hurt fading but the confusion still evident in the aged mare’s face. “What ...?”

“We … I know the box of which you speak,” Luna said, sitting back on her haunches on the room's thick carpet. “I am not surprised that it does not have a ...” she paused as she recalled the correct phrase. “A record number for the museum. That box existed long before the museum. Long before Canterlot, in fact.” Part of her saw Lacey sitting down on the floor in front of her, questions etched across her face, but another part of her was seeing a memory, a face from the past.

“Failsafe was an Earth pony I knew who lived a very, very long time ago.” Her voice grew quieter as memories of the brightly smiling pony flashed through her head. His grating voice. His swagger. “He fancied himself as a treasure hunter, but his true talent lay in hiding things so that almost no pony could find them. The box you speak of was given to him by me almost fifteen centuries ago.” Lacey’s eyes grew wide.

“I told him to hide it,” Luna said, her voice growing in volume again. “Hide it for as long as he could. And he did. Not even I or my sister knew where it was hidden. And with other … things that happened, I forgot about it. But now,” she said as her sister appeared in the room with a soft pop, sleep in her eyes but concern on her face. “You have found it. And you may not have been the first.”

Luna raised a hoof as Celestia opened her mouth, stopping her sister before she could speak. “Something I thought long buried has been found, sister.” she said. “Something I do not believe we can allow to again be let out of our sight.”

* * *

"Horseapples,” the armor-clad pony said as she descended from the sky. “How did you beat me here?”

“I quarter in the barracks,” Steel replied as the charcoal-grey Captain of the Night Guard landed in front of him, causing the two Night Guard outside the Museum History Wing’s entrance to snap to even tighter attention. “It’s not far.”

"Yeah,” the mare replied, pulling her helmet from her head and giving her now vibrant orange mane a little shake. “But I was on duty in the Castle. How’d you beat me here? I have wings.” She slapped her helmet back on and her orange mane immediately faded into a soft grey as the helmet’s enchantment took effect.

“I jumped the wall,” Steel said with a shrug. “The steward told me to be here with all possible haste, so it seemed like the best solution.” He tipped his head at the faintly lit wall around the Canterlot Castle grounds. “Then it was just a quick jog here.”

“Huh,” the pegasus said, ruffling her feathers as she looked at the distant wall. “Nice. As the pegasus flies huh?” She turned back to Steel and extended a hoof. “I’m guessing you’re Captain Song of the Dusk Guard then?”

Steel nodded as he shook hooves with her. “And you must be the infamous Captain Star Shot?”

“Infamous?” The captain said with a laugh. “You must have been talking to that pointy head in charge of what he calls the Royal Guard! Infamous.” She scoffed and ruffled her wings again, then looked at him, her expression suddenly deadpan. “Infamous for what?” There was a moment where Steel wondered exactly how serious the question was before the mare burst out in laughter again, and he followed suit.

“I’m just playing with ya’,” she said, wings flapping as she reached an altitude where she could sock him on the shoulder without reaching up. She took a quick look over at the two Night Guard in front of the Museum door and they both snapped rapid salutes, hooves ringing against their helmets. “So, is Princess Luna already inside?”

“And Princess Celestia,” Steel said, noting the look of surprise on the Pegasus' face. Apparently she wasn’t as stoic as most Guard Captains. He’d heard that the Night Guard was a bit more relaxed than the Royal Guard. There were tales of poker games with Princess Luna and a generally more relaxed nature amongst the guardsponies themselves. Perhaps it was an extension of that.

"Well, I don’t see any flashes of light or hear any battle cries,” Star Shot said. “And Lightning and Dust look ... oh. Hang on—” She flashed the two guards by the door her own salute and they both returned to attention. “There we go. Anyway, they look a little stressed, but they aren’t running and shouting either, so I guess we wait?”

“That’s what they told me,” Steel said. Star Shot cocked an eyebrow. “Standing orders from Princess Luna. We’re not to enter the History Wing until they ask for us.”

“Huh,” Star Shot’s face took on a mischievous grin. “I wonder if any of the other wings connect to the History wing?” She looked over at Steel and rolled her eyes at his obvious disapproval. “What? Like you didn’t think of it. What if we needed to go in and couldn’t use the door?”

There was a loud pop from the center of the courtyard accompanied by a bright purple flash. Steel turned to face the source of the flash, shifting his weight to his rear hooves just in case, dropping it just as quickly as the pony in the center of the flash came into view. His mane was disheveled and he looked like he was fighting back a yawn, but there was no mistaking the purple armor and two-toned blue mane of Shining Armor, Captain of the Royal Guard.

“Shining, you point,” Star Shot said from beside Steel. She’d jumped into a combat position just as he had, wings out and body low. Not as lax as she acted, then. “One of these days I‘m going to tackle you down for doing that, just so you’ll stop using it surprise me.”

“You’re one to talk, featherbrain,” Shining said, before catching sight of Steel. “Captain Steel,” he said with a nod of his head. “It's nice to see you again.” Shining stepped towards the duo, his eyes running around the courtyard. “Any idea what’s going on?”

Steel shook his head. “The Princesses are both in the History wing, and our instructions are to stand ready until they ask for us.”

“Oh,” Shining said, still looking around the courtyard. “Do we know what’s going on? It’s not changeling-related, is it?”

“The Night Steward mentioned something about the museum finding something that belonged to Princess Luna,” Star Shot volunteered with a shrug. “So I’d think not. I’m personally hoping it turns out to be something exciting. Anything to keep me away from being on duty with Dry Spell.”

“Yeah, alright then,” Shining said, relaxing slightly. “Well, if its not something huge I’m going to have to make it sound like it is,” he said, trying unsuccessfully to hold back a yawn. “Cadance wasn’t exactly amused to be woken near midnight by a messenger beating down our door. If this isn’t serious, somepony will get an earful. Mainly me.”

“Eh, I could just turn Flare loose in the armory again,” Star Shot suggested. “Manufacture a disaster.”

Shining grimaced. “Does he still play with fire that often?”

“He’s still a private, isn’t he?”

Steel watched as the two talked back and forth for a while, exchanging small talk and generally taking light shots at one another. It was apparently an old hat, as neither of them seemed bothered by the endless parade of friendly insults. Occasionally one of them would ask him a question, but as he wasn’t as clued in on the operations of the Guard, he mostly just sat back and waited, constantly running his eyes around the perimeter of the courtyard.

It wasn’t long at all until he spotted what he’d been looking for. The faint silhouette of pegasus wings standing briefly in view on one of the nearby rooftops, faintly outlined by the moonlight. He gave his head an almost imperceptible nod to the left, and the wings gave two sharp twitches at the tip, first the left, then the right, before sinking out of sight. Steel thought for a moment. Left, then right meant that everypony was now in position. If Hunter followed guidelines, there would be a signal if they spotted anything else.

“You’ve been fairly quiet.” Steel turned towards Shining as the pony addressed him. “Don’t feel like you can’t talk with us. Featherbrain here and I are just old friends.”

“Just thinking about the job,” Steel said, turning his eyes back towards his surroundings, trying to mentally work out where the members of his team would be. They’d left Sky Bolt behind, her lack of experience with subterfuge combined with the long hours she was spending putting the finishing touches on her workshop was more than enough reason for Steel to decide to let her rest. Dawn was also absent, since she’d declined to stay in the barracks until it was finished, and therefore was in her home on the other side of Canterlot.

Shining gave a little laugh at Steel’s response. “Ever focused on the proper duty.” He raised a hoof and stifled another yawn, then adjusted his chest plate. “I can't really blame you, not with how often things happen around here.” He paused for a moment, then rubbed the back of his head with one hoof. “So, I know I met you at that meeting a few days ago, but we never got a chance to be formally introduced. I’m Shining Armor.”

“Steel Song,” Steel said, offering a hoof and taking his eyes off the rooftops. Wherever his team was, he wasn’t having any luck spotting them. “Captain of the new Dusk Guard.”

"How’s that going anyway?” Star Shot asked, leaning forward. “I mean, all of the sudden it was like ‘bam,’ new Guard division with some bodyguard pony in charge of it. That pony being you.” She paused for a second as if her own words were sinking in. “No offense meant. I mean some of my guys have talked about seeing you guys out on the training fields. You guys really have a zebra in your guard?”

“Yes,” Steel said, still occasionally darting his eyes towards the rooftops. “His name’s Sabra.”

“Sounds like one tough pony from what I’ve heard,” Star Shot said, sitting back on her haunches. “So what do you guys do anyway? I mean, Luna told me that you’re a special guard unit, but she’s been a bit light on the details.”

“Well,” Steel said with a smile. In the corner of his eye a set of wings appeared, once again silhouetted on the roof. “If Princess Luna hasn’t said anything past that I should probably follow her lead. All I can say officially is that we exist and we’re only for special purposes, so we shouldn’t be stepping on anypony's hooves. We’re not out to replace anypony, just be there if we’re needed.” The wings twitched, first right, then twice left in quick succession, then right again. Somepony was coming from—another twitch of the wings—inside the building.

“Unless you move some of my lieutenants out of their duty offices so you can make use of them,” Shining said with a small chuckle. “No, no,” he said as Steel opened his mouth to respond. “Only one of them had the lack of sense to complain, and he’s currently regretting the statement. We’re always be happy to lend a hoof to fellow Guard, and until that barracks project of yours is done you’ll need an office.”

“Actually,” Steel said as he turned to face the entrance to the museum. “My office is done now, but the rest of the barracks isn’t.”

“You’ve only got what? Six ponies?” Star Shot said. “A whole barracks just for six of you is pretty extreme don’t ya’ think?”

“It’s more than just a barracks,” Steel said as his eyes caught another twitch of movement. One minute to contact. “Everything that makes up our Guard is going to be stored and kept there. Armory, sleeping space, medical, everything.”

“It’s still a lot of space.”

Steel shrugged. “When it’s done stop by sometime and I’ll have Sky Bolt give you the tour. I’m pretty sure you two will get along just fine.” That or despise one another, he added mentally, although the fact that Star Shot was a Captain of the Guard despite her apparent flippant attitude gave him hope for both Sky Bolt and Nova.

The conversation was cut short as the figure of Princess Celestia appeared through the glass doors of the entryway, her white coat almost shining with an internal light. The front doors lit up with a yellow glow as they swung open, allowing the Princess of the Sun to pass.

“Captain Armor, Captain Star Shot, Captain Song,” Celestia said, addressing them each with a nod of her head. Steel gave the Princess a quick bow as his name was mentioned, noting that the other two captains did so as well. “Please follow me,” the Princess said, turning and striding back through the entryway with a regal grace.

“I am sorry that some of you were roused from your beds,” Celestia said as they walked through the public portions of the Museum, passing displays of ancient Equestrian society. Life-sized wax replicas of famous ponies stared down at them as they went, each dressed in period clothing and stuck in positions of great thought or contemplation. “But the situation is as my sister feared, possibly even worse.” Celestia changed directions, turning away from the main concourse displays towards a large door with a pleasantly colorful sign declaring it “Employees Only.”

“I suppose I should explain what is going on,” Celestia said as they passed through the employee area and started down a flight of stairs. “Earlier this evening the Director of this particular wing of the museum came to the night court to speak with my sister. Apparently they suffered a break-in of some sorts and while cleaning up found an ancient box that belonged to my sister almost fifteen-hundred years ago. A box which had contained a few very valuable magic items. Items which are now missing.”

Celestia reached the bottom of the stairwell and paused by a heavy-set metal door. “These items are … delicate. I will let my sister explain, as she is more recently familiar with them.” The door swung open under the power of her magic and the three ponies filed through it after her.

Steel’s first impression of the room was that it was immensely cavernous. Massive thick steel shelves stretched towards the ceiling some twenty feet above them, laden with row after row of large heavy wooden crates. The shelves stretched out into the distance, almost it seemed to forever, the wide aisles between them lit by the harsh white glow of the magelights above. Hundreds of years of Equestrian history all gathered into one room. Steel took a sniff. It smelled … musty.

Directly ahead of them, Princess Luna sat in the room's lone open space, a single, simple, aged wooden crate sitting open next to her on the floor. Steel could see large, damaged elevator doors behind her, ripped open by some force to lead into what looked like a cargo elevator shaft. Which explained the purpose of the open space: It was a sort of holding area. However, Princess Luna wasn’t looking at the torn apart doors or the wooden crate. Instead her eyes were fixed on two small bits of brown paper she held in her hooves, deep sadness etched on her face. She didn’t even appear to have noticed that anypony else had entered the room.

Celestia gave a polite cough and Luna’s head jerked up. Her eyes were red and her cheeks damp. She blinked a few times, composing herself and setting the two small bits of paper aside, although Steel noticed that she did so with great care.

“Hello, Captains,” Luna said, managing a weak smile. She gave a polite cough and pulled herself up to her full, regal stature. “I apologize for my appearance, this evening has been a trying one for me.” Her eyes darted once more towards the papers and then lit up, as if something about the ancient looking scraps had inspired a fire in her heart.

She stepped forward, waving towards the aged wooden crate at her side. “The crate that sits before you is almost empty save for one item and its accompanying packing materials. My sister and I do not know how it came to be in the possession of the Canterlot National Museum. What we do know is that the last time it was seen—by our recollection—it was given to the care of an earth pony named Failsafe who was instructed to hide it. He complied, and with events that transpired over the next several hundred years, we lost track of it, and thought it lost forever.”

She began to pace around the crate, looking down into its depths. “And yet here it is. Despite having been lost for over a millenium, and being confined to the back of an underground storage in the Canterlot Museum, someone tracked this crate down, broke into the museum, and emptied it of nearly all its contents. Which, given the one item that was left,” she said, pulling a long gem or crystal—Steel wasn’t sure which—from within the crates expanse. “Is even more mystifying.”

She held it in the air, rotating it slowly. It looked to be, by Steel’s estimate, about as long as his foreleg, thin on one end but widening towards the other. It had clearly been cut and polished, although he didn’t know enough about gems or crystals to even hazard a guess as to what type of cut it was. The most peculiar thing about it however, was that it seemed to be glowing with an inner light of it’s own, a faintly purple-pink pulsing that contrasted with the Princesses own blue magic glow.

“There were only four items inside this crate when I sealed it,” Luna said, stepping towards the captains once more. “This crystal was one of them. The only surviving fragment of the legendary Crystal Empire.”

“The what?” The words had come, surprisingly enough, from Shining Armor. “Begging your pardon Princess, but isn’t the Crystal Empire a myth?”

“Only because we have made it so, Shining,” Princess Celestia said, speaking at last. “The Crystal Empire fell, corrupted by fear, enslaved by hate. My sister and I tried to save it, but we failed, and it was removed from time by a spell we could not counter.” She took the floating crystal from her sister, looking at its polished depths. “This was the only fragment of that empire that survived. It is tied to the Empire still, however faintly.”

“Which is why we hid the fragment and all knowledge of the Crystal Empire’s existence,” Luna said. “The Crystal Empire was powerful, as was the evil that overcame it. To unleash one early would have unleashed the other, a fact many followers of fear and darkness were willing to exploit, and would be willing to exploit for centuries afterward. We had to let the seal weaken on its own. But we couldn’t trust that to happen on its own, and so we worked to remove every trace of its existence. Today, there are few who know that the Crystal Empire once truly existed.”

“That’s ...” Shining stepped back, a dazed look on his face. “An entire nation, just erased? But what of them?”

"They are trapped apart from time,” Celestia said. “When the curse finally breaks, it will be for them as if the centuries have never happened.”

“And that will be soon, won’t it?” Steel asked as the events he’d seen in the news started to line up in his head. He looked up at Celestia. “The Crystal Mountains. That’s why you’re building the rail line to the north. You’re preparing for the return of the Crystal Empire, making sure things are ready.”

Celestia nodded, and Steel’s eyes widened. “You’re correct, Captain Song. The laying of the Northern Line is in anticipation of the Empire’s return.”

“So you’re saying, your highness, that you and your sister know when this place is going to come back?” Star Shot asked, leaning forward and gently tapping the crystal with one hoof. Luna frowned and pulled the crystal back.

“Not necessarily,” Celestia said. “My sister and I can only tell that the spell is finally reaching its weakest moments. The Crystal Empire could appear tomorrow, or it could appear years from now. We cannot tell, although having this—” she nodded towards the floating Crystal, “—may make knowing somewhat easier.”

“So if it’s coming back anytime now, what makes this hunk of rock so important?” Star Shot asked.

“Because,” Luna said, carefully setting the crystal down on the floor, or close to it. It simply hung in the air an inch above the ground emitting its strange pulses. “One could break the spell early if they knew where to go—”

“I thought you said that you couldn’t break the enchantment?” Star Shot said.

Luna fixed her with a stern glare. “As I was saying, one could break the spell by going to its nexus and freeing the one who enchanted it to begin with. This piece of the Crystal Empire ...” she said, setting one hoof on the top of the crystal, making it bob slightly. “This piece is connected to the others, even separated in time as they are. Which was why we hid it away in the first place. The followers of the one who cursed the Crystal Empire were trying to find it in order to set him free.”

“Are they still around?” Steel asked. “Could they have been the ones who broke in?”

"Doubtful,” Luna said with a shake of her head. “Had it been them, they surely would have left the keys and taken only this. They would have had no use for the keys.”

“So these ‘keys’ are what was stolen then?” Shining Armor asked.

“Yes,” Luna said. Her horn lit up and the image of three small gems appeared in the air. “These are the keys.” Luna said, floating the images down towards the three guards. “As best as I can remember them.”

Steel looked at the foremost image. It was a large cone, not as large as the crystal had been but wider at the base. There were fuzzy markings along the outside of the cone's shape, likely because Luna couldn’t remember exactly what it looked like. A quick look at the bottom showed that the cone was hollow, with the center space being shaped so that a hoof could use it.

The other two were even less distinct. They looked almost incomplete, and not just because they were fuzzy around the edges. They almost looked like—

“I see it, these two go together don’t they?” Star Shot’s hoof went through one of the images.

“Yes, they do,” Luna said. “If I remember correctly, there was a third piece as well, but we never found it.” The two incomplete pieces vanished, leaving only the large cone-shaped piece.

“What are they keys to?” Shining Armor asked.

“An ancient prison,” Celestia said. “For a very dangerous individual. For now, we must assume that the thief was after these keys. To assume anything less would be foolish.”

“Which,” Luna said. “Raises a multitude of other questions. No one at the museum has admitted knowledge of this crate, and neither I nor my sister knew of its existence. A powerful enchantment designed to subdue any living creature that attempted to open the chest was completely intact.” She looked at the three members of the Guard and Steel subconsciously stiffened. “As of right now, this theft is your highest priority. We cannot let these keys leave Equestria. We are fortunate enough that our thief decided to leave the Crystal Empire fragment behind, but we cannot let the keys out of our sight.”

Luna looked down on the three and Steel could feel the weight of her millenia of existence pressing down on him. “Use what resources you have at your disposal. Find those who are responsible for this theft, and with them, find the keys.”

Author's Note:

Alright, show of hooves. How many of you saw this coming? And how many of you think you know where this is going?

As usual, thanks to my pre-readers who braved those early drafts. Their dedication paid off!

And I'm still trying to fix the indenting problems. I'm still not sure what's causing it, but I'll dig into HTML if I have to ... I had to manually erase and re-enter every one of these. That takes time!