• Published 3rd May 2014
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Eclipse - 8686



A recurring nightmare convinces Luna that, since her return, she has never regained her sister's complete trust. And at the forthcoming Festival of the Eclipse, she decides to make amends with a bold gesture: she removes the moon from the sky.

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Chapter X

–––Chapter X–––

It was unlikely that the river would have held the same perilous lure for either sister. Its hold was most potent when it inspired feelings of insecurity and despair, and after their trip through Tartarus, those feelings simply did not exist within them. Trust. Confidence. Love. All of these and more had replaced any feelings of guilt or anguish that might tempt either princess to find futile salvation within the waters of the Styx.

However, there was no sense in taking unnecessary risks, and so with heads bowed, eyes closed, both sisters remained in the same embrace that had successfully seen them traverse the river on their earlier journey.

The crossing seemed quicker on the return leg, and with a scrape and a thud the ferry once more found firm purchase on the pebble-beach from which they had first departed.

"My, my, how sweet. I hope I am not interrupting anything." The voice was familiar, and arrogant.

Opening their eyes, they saw the ruby-red dragon lying on his belly, not far in front of the edge of the boulder-field. The sky was still overcast and by the light overhead it seemed to be near evening, though it was now much warmer than it had been when they'd left.

The two sisters disembarked from the ferry – Celestia made a point of thanking Charon although he offered no reaction whatsoever – and he and the boat silently drifted back into the fog and vanished. Then they looked up at Valkyrie.

"Did you succeed?" he asked impatiently, no further greeting offered.

"We did," said Luna.

"You recovered the moon? It is back among the heavens?"

"We recovered the moon. It is in my possession, though has not yet been returned to the sky."

Valkyrie's eyes narrowed, confused. "What do you mean? In your possession? How?"

Opening her saddlebag, Luna carefully extracted the moon. It was already subtly larger and noticeably heavier than when she had brought it down from the sky, but she was still able to lift it with her hooves with relative ease and she presented it for his consideration.

Valkyrie's face was a picture. At first he was unable to comprehend what he was seeing. Then he turned suddenly angry. "What are you playing at?! What happens if it is damaged? Or lost?!"

"If you believe you are capable of damaging it you are welcome to try," said Luna with authority and confidence. "As for being lost, the moon is in my keeping. I am its guardian. Its warden. Its protector and its guide," she gave a sidelong glance at her sister who returned a smile. "It will not be lost while I remain alive."

"It will not be lost if you return it to the sky where it belongs!" argued Valkyrie with a temper. "Why have you not done so?"

"The moon needs to be re-set into the sky at the same point from which it was removed. That is to say, above Canterlot in Equestria," explained Luna. "Otherwise the sky will not accept it."

"What? Why not? Are you saying the sky is picky?" cried Valkyrie, unsuccessfully trying to restrain his incredulity.

Luna looked thoughtful as she searched for an appropriate explanation. "Imagine the sky as a complete jigsaw puzzle, and the moon as the piece I removed. That piece will only fit back in one place."

Valkyrie wore a skeptical look, but accepted the explanation by virtue of having no choice but to. He was never going to understand such things fully. "You are making things very difficult for me," he said almost under his breath.

"Why are you here, Valkyrie?" asked Celestia suspiciously. "Did Ragnarok send you to escort us? Or...are you here for another reason?"

Valkyrie looked to Celestia now. "Another reason."

Celestia's stance became wary and her suspicious frown deepened. Valkyrie's annoyance rose. "Do not give me that look, Celestia. We are meant to be building trust, or have you forgotten?" Then he looked Celestia in the eye and his face fell away to a softer expression. Possibly even something approaching sensitivity. "Ragnarok is gravely injured."

Celestia couldn't stop a small gasp. She opened her mouth but Valkyrie forestalled her, explanation already on hand. "The night after I left you on this shore, our land – and the world at large – was rocked with ferocious storms and earthquakes. Ragnarok – astonishingly – got off his backside, and helped to save Baldur from a cave-in in his lair. However, in doing so the entire cliff-face collapsed onto him. He has not yet woken, nor is there any guarantee he will."

"Who is in charge now?" asked Luna, Celestia still coming to terms with the news.

"No-one," said Valkyrie. "We wait for him to recover. If he does not...it may take years before a new king is named. Our kings can live a very long time. We take care to get it right."

"You still haven't answered my sister's question," Luna pointed out. "Why are you here?"

Valkyrie let out an annoyed growl and glared at Luna. He was starting to wonder that himself. Ponies! If they would stop interrupting and shut up for a second he would tell them!

He drew a long breath. "Since our meeting, your power over the sun and the moon has, in a very short time, become common knowledge among dragons once again. Partly due to the recent behaviour of the heavens, and partly due to me. Everything I overheard Ragnarok say to you; everything we talked of on the way to the Styx, I have told to all who would listen. They deserved to know the truth of the world...and if a healthy respect for you were to be fostered as well, so be it. Unfortunately, circumstances have been unkind.

"First Ragnarok was injured. Then the morning afterwards the sun rose as normal and has not set since. That was near to three days ago." It was Luna's turn to gasp and Celestia looked very surprised indeed. But Valkyrie wasn't about to give either a chance to start wittering on again, and he continued without breaking stride. "Instead of respected, you are incompetent at best, and malicious at worst. You lost the moon, causing storms and quakes which nearly killed our king. Now it seems you have lost control of the sun too." Valkyrie gave a toothy grin at Celestia and Luna. "A week of bad weather and the last thousand-plus years of your good work is forgotten, apparently."

He fixed his attention on Celestia for a moment. "Ragnarok always referred to you as his enemy. Thus, it's believed that he would want vengeance upon you both. The things he would supposedly wish done to you are...very unpleasant." Valkyrie shook his head in subtle disbelief. "There are also moves to attack the new princess in Equestria, to punish her mishandling of the sun."

"Twilight?" gasped Luna. "But how do they know of her?"

"Because I told them, do you not listen!" Valkyrie hissed through clenched teeth. Then he calmed himself with a deep breath. "By the time I learned that what I'd said was being used to justify war, all was hyperbole and hysteria, and my urges for restraint went ignored. When I realised it was useless trying to talk sense, I came here to wait for your return.

"You deserved to be warned, and I wanted to confirm you had returned the moon to the sky. Had you done so," – he shot another annoyed look at Luna – "I could begin to undo this delirium and perhaps stop a ludicrous conflict. But that isn't the case, so now I'm forced to..." he closed his eyes, "...help you." He looked back at Luna and in a tone that made it clear he could not quite believe what he was saying, "I am going to have to get you safely to Canterlot. And in as short a time as possible."

Celestia looked up at Valkyrie, a measure of respect in her eyes. "Every dragon in your lands wants to see us punished...but you wish to help us?"

Valkyrie looked at her. "Believe me, Celestia, I am not getting a warm fuzzy feeling from it! But Ragnarok wouldn't want vengeance on you. The sun not setting has prevented three nights of devastation. And you..." he gave Luna a hard stare, which then softened a little. "...are not incompetent, and certainly not malicious. Alas, this is knowledge only I seem to possess, and I am not listened to! So I am forced to act." He looked seriously at Luna once more. "Banishing the moon was a foolish mistake. But a mistake nonetheless, and one that can be corrected. No-one needs to suffer further. But unless the moon is returned and the sun behaves, lives are going to be pointlessly lost! I won't have those on my conscience, and I will not see you or your people harmed because mine are ignorant and afraid."

There was a moment of quiet contemplation. Then Luna looked at Celestia. "What were your words, sister? 'Not cruel, heartless, or blind to the suffering of others'?"

Celestia nodded and looked up at Valkyrie. "You will make a great king, one day."

Valkyrie had to replace his annoyed expression with one of shock. Then his aggravated frown returned and the status quo resumed. "Ragnarok still lives, Celestia. If you say such a thing again, I will have you tried for treason. Now can we please stop wasting time?"

Valkyrie lowered his neck and spread his wings, allowing the two sisters to climb onto his back. Even so... "One or both of you has put on a great deal of weight since last we spoke."

"It is the weight of the moon," explained Luna. "You aren't as attuned to the magic I've used as we are. You may perceive it as slightly closer to its true weight."

"I'm sure."

"Can you still fly?" asked Celestia.

Valkyrie didn't respond, but simply beat his wings powerfully and leaped into the air. Then they were bound for the sky and in short order sailing over the boulder field once again. A few minutes later and the boulders gave way to the myriad ancient canyons as colour returned to the land and the clouds overhead began to break up, giving them a look at the real sky for the first time in days.

The sun was just approaching the horizon and the sky in the west was a beautiful gold fading to crimson.

"You say the sun will not set?" asked Luna. "Then what becomes of it?"

"See for yourself," Valkyrie responded.

Minutes later the sun met the horizon and stopped, unwilling to descend any further. Then, after a few moments it began rolling around it. Slowly traversing the horizon from left to right, it followed the contours of the furthest mountains they could see, ascending and descending the slopes at a constant pace as though stuck fast to them.

"The sun will follow the horizon to its eastern-most point tomorrow morning," explained Valkyrie. "Then it'll rise as normal. But this is as dark as it gets."

Luna watched, still quite captivated at the sun's dance along the horizon. Then she looked anxiously at Celestia. "If not raising the moon caused such violent storms, what effect will not setting the sun have?"

Celestia simply looked blankly back. "I have no idea. It isn't something I've ever done. Or even thought of doing."

"The world is getting warmer," Valkyrie chimed in. "Since the heat from the sun cannot be lost at night, it is retained and added to day by day." Craning his neck awkwardly in flight, Valkyrie just about managed to look at the two ponies upon his back. "Your 'Princess Twilight Sparkle' has, I think, done well. But she is in a bind now. Soon she will have to choose between watching the world burn to ash, or setting the sun and seeing it tear itself apart. Luckily, that is a choice that will now not need to be made."

Luna nodded, but noticed that Celestia still wore that same blank look as she seemed to gaze at nothing six inches in front of her. Without saying anything she reached out and placed a forehoof on Celestia's and looked worriedly into her eyes.

"I...it's..." Celestia started, and then started again. "Ragnarok..."

"Tia, I'm so sorry. On the moon, I called him an arrogant dragon..." said Luna, guiltily.

"Believe me," Valkyrie called, "He would think that a compliment."

Celestia still couldn't seem to find an expression. "I'd...like to see him."

"No." Valkyrie's response was resolute. Then he craned his neck awkwardly again to make a moment's eye-contact. "I am sorry, Celestia. I don't refuse out of spite. But Ragnarok is guarded by many loyal dragons, all of whom believe he would now want you both dead."

"Are you alright?" asked Luna.

Celestia took a breath and had to wipe some moisture away from her eye. "It's just...Ragnarok is one of very few left who still remembers the old world. To think that all that he knows...that all the memories we share might be lost...I would miss him greatly."

"Reach Canterlot, return the moon, save the world, prevent a war," Valkyrie piped up dispassionately. "Those should be your concerns, Princess. But after you have done all that...if you wish I will take you to him."

Celestia nodded reluctantly. Valkyrie was right. There were more important matters at hoof.

A moment passed before Luna called to Valkyrie once more. "You intend to fly direct across your land with us on your back?" she queried. "Are we not a little...conspicuous?"

Valkyrie gave a low, throaty grumble. "Where would you like me to hide you? My pockets?" He shook his head in despair. "We will fly high enough that you won't be seen from the ground. That's all I can do. If we are accosted..." he once more craned his head, fixing Luna with an angry stare. "Let me do the talking."

The canyons fell away behind them, the ancient dry rivers giving way to the desert once more. They sailed high over the featureless landscape in the permanent sunset as it cast gorgeous patterns and colours on the desert floor, as though it were a giant canvas. Here though, the increased heat from three days of constant sunshine was sweltering, and their only relief was the rush of wind granted by Valkyrie's swift pace through the air.

After nearly half an hour, Valkyrie pointed out Ragnarok's lair as it slipped by far below them. And even as they watched, a group of three dragons flew in low formation from the direction of the volcano towards the north, their course arrow-straight and with a sense of determination about them.

"What's this?" mused Valkyrie to himself, but the answer struck him even as Celestia vocalised it.

"They are headed for Equestria."

"They mean to attack," concluded Luna.

"Good luck to them," said Valkyrie in tones of sarcasm. "Ragnarok could not take your country with an army. What chance do they think they have?"

"An attack on Canterlot could be devastating if it is unprepared!" rebuked Luna. "Can you get us there first?"

Valkyrie's annoyed scowl was wasted on this occasion, as neither pony could see his face. "Not with the weight of what feels increasingly like half a mountain on my back," he griped.

"Then we have to stop them here," said Luna, determinedly.

"Have I not explained this clearly? You are both being hunted! If we confront them now then at best we will waste valuable time. At worst...do I really need to tell you what they would do to you?" Valkyrie beat his wings harder, trying to quicken his pace. "I'm not keen on seeing your city attacked, but what is important is getting the sky back under control as soon as possible! And you are the only ones who can do so."

"I will not stand idly by and allow an attack on Equestria to happen!" intoned Luna. "Sister, you are with me in this are you not?"

Celestia remained quiet for a moment, then returned Luna's gaze. "Luna, if we stop those dragons we may delay an attack on Canterlot...but we may never be able to return the moon. I believe you know what my opinion would be. But this has always been your mission, and this is your decision." Luna looked shocked for a moment at Celestia's noncommittal reaction, until she said quietly, "And I trust you to make the right one," with a smile.

Luna gave a determined grin. "We have to stop them, Valkyrie."

Valkyrie had to stifle an exasperated shout. Ponies! How had he gotten himself mixed up with such irrational creatures? "You realise that may be the last decision you make?"

"It is mine to make. And I will stop those dragons with or without your help." From beside her, Celestia smiled supportively.

Valkyrie snorted. "Well, it has been nice knowing you." What was that? It was supposed to sound sarcastic, but...sincerity? Really? Ugh. What was wrong with him? He angled his wings and began descending towards the desert floor, his speed increasing and closing on the formation of dragons flying at a quick clip ahead of and beneath him. Valkyrie approached the leader from above and behind, swooping low over him, diagonally across his flight path, almost close enough to clip the leader's head with the tip of his tail. Then he quickly descended the rest of the way to the desert floor, landing and skidding directly in front of their path, and turning to regard them with a determined scowl.

The three dragons landed in front of Valkyrie, even as Celestia and Luna floated to the desert floor and Valkyrie drew himself up to his full height. The leader of the dragons Luna recognised as the royal-blue dragon who had been with Valkyrie during their capture days prior – he had been the one who had pressed his claw to the back of her head. She rubbed her neck subconsciously but lost none of her defiant gaze. The other two she did not recognise.

"I was about to ask you what you thought you were playing at, Valkyrie, but I see it's obvious. Though, no-one likes a show-off." The blue dragon looked at Celestia and Luna on the ground, both stood just in front of Valkyrie. "We've been looking for them for days, but you? Capturing them twice in a week? Impressive. Shame we won't be ransoming them this time either," he smirked.

"I haven't captured them, Baldur. I am helping them. And I am putting a stop to your attack."

Baldur nearly choked in surprise. Then his voice turned loud and angry. "Have you gone mad, Valkyrie, or just soft?" He pointed an accusatory claw at the two sisters. "It is their fault our king lies dying! There must be retribution. Hand them over!"

"No, Baldur!" Valkyrie's own voice rose to a shout, his rage building impatiently. "I am escorting them to their capital city so that they can return the moon to the sky and end this ridiculousness that has gripped the world and everyone I know! No-one needs to be hurt. Just give me a day and I can put everything right!"

"You can put everything right?!" shouted Baldur incredulously. "Can you heal the king? Or fix my home? No! You cannot! Instead, you would rather smuggle those responsible out of our land. You are treading dangerously close to treason," Baldur growled.

"Treason?!" Valkyrie yelled back. "You dare speak to me of treason?! I took my orders from the king directly. He placed these two into my care and bade they not be harmed! From whom did the order to hunt them come? No, if you want to talk treason; you are about to raid into Equestrian lands in direct breach of Ragnarok's decree. What is that if not treason?!"

"Ragnarok is–"

"Still alive!" Valkyrie interrupted. "And while he draws breath his laws will be respected!"

Baldur's expression darkened and his scowl became dangerous. "We are not raiding. We are going to war."

"Only the king can declare war!" cried Valkyrie in exasperation. "You are breaking the law one way or the other!"

"We must retaliate! We cannot let our enemies cause near-death and destruction and escape unpunished!"

"They are not our enemies!"

"Ragnarok has always referred to them as such," retorted Baldur smugly.

"And when I brought them to him, he let them go! Do you not pay attention?! Baldur, they have the moon! If you want the storms to stop and the sun to set, you have to stop this lunacy and let them get on with it! Why is this so hard to get through your thick skull?!"

"No, Valkyrie. They have caused havoc with the world. They have committed crimes against us. There will be redress in kind!"

"Listen to yourself, Baldur! Is this what you want? A war with ponies? With them?" Valkyrie gestured at the two tiny ponies stood at his feet.

Baldur dutifully looked at the two ponies and, just for a moment, his resolve seemed to falter. Then his determined frown returned. "It is not a question of what I want."

"Believe me, it is not what Ragnarok wants either! When he wakes up and finds you defied his orders, unilaterally declared war and doomed the world to end, do you think he will be pleased? No! He will have your head. I have been saying this for days!"

"What Ragnarok would want is impossible to know. Yet strangely, you seem to have all the answers!"

Valkyrie threw his arms in the air, completely exasperated. It was like talking to a brick wall! Then he fixed Baldur with a very level glare. "You know what, Baldur? Let's go ask him!" He looked at Celestia beneath him. "You may get your wish to see him after all."

–––

Landing heavily at the entrance to Ragnarok's lair, Valkyrie allowed Luna and Celestia to disembark. Baldur landed next to him, though his two associates remained in the air, circling the volcano. They were met at the entrance by a slightly shorter white-scaled dragon that Luna had caught only a glimpse of on their first visit. When he saw Celestia and Luna his face became surprised as he addressed a still-furious Valkyrie.

"You caught them again then? Terrible business really. Do you intend to carry out the execution yourself?"

"You as well, Aesir?!" Valkyrie cried in challenge. "Suddenly execution is the default punishment, is it? Tell me, what actual law have they broken which demands it?!" he yelled, pushing roughly past him and guiding Celestia and Luna into the winding cave tunnel that led to Ragnarok's chamber.

"You...you cannot take them in there!" objected Aesir.

Valkyrie looked back with barely contained rage, fixing Aesir with a dangerous glare. "Three days ago I brought these two ponies here in chains, and Ragnarok decided they should leave as guests under my protection. Now I bring them here as guests under my protection and suddenly this is in some way forbidden?!"

Aesir and Baldur simply exchanged looks at the cave entrance, then glanced back at Valkyrie. Valkyrie looked back impatiently. "Aren't you coming?" Not waiting for a reply, he continued walking towards Ragnarok's lair.

The passageway to Ragnarok's lair curved twice, first left, then right in a wide 'S' before ultimately ending in a ninety-degree left-turn that immediately led into the chamber itself. Guiding Celestia and Luna before him, Valkyrie led them along the winding passageway towards the same chamber he had brought them to under much different circumstances several days previously.

"Do you have a plan?" asked Celestia quietly.

"Wake Ragnarok up," replied Valkyrie. "Though, I'd be lying if I said I was confident. I don't suppose you know any magic spells to wake a comatose dragon?"

"It is not a subject I have studied in any great depth," admitted Luna.

Valkyrie gave a frustrated growl to himself, then looked at Celestia and spoke in a low voice. "If I fail in this, you will likely have to flee. Should that be the case, I will do all I can to give you time...but you will not have much."

Celestia returned his gaze for a moment, then nodded in solemn understanding.

They reached the end of the passageway, turned the left-hand corner, and entered Ragnarok's chamber.

Upon his great throne, Ragnarok half-sat, half-lay, slumped over and limp. His eyes were closed and a great gash ran down his face from forehead to jaw. The second horn atop his head was now broken halfway along its length, most of the spikes on his back were snapped or bent, and he breathed ever-so shallowly and always with a constant, concerning wheezing, as though every inhalation was an effort.

Valkyrie strode boldly into the chamber, his blood still up and anger foremost in his mind. The cave was filled with half a dozen other dragons, all stood in respectful repose, but he was met by the short, emerald-green dragon who had also been with him upon his first meeting with Celestia and Luna. "Valkyrie? You brought them back here? Are you going to–?"

Valkyrie looked dangerously into his eyes. He took a breath as though to say something, then at the last second seemed to change his mind. "You know, I don't have time to keep explaining myself." He pushed past him and fixed his gaze on the sleeping king on his throne, advancing on him quickly. "Wake up, you belligerent old fool!" He reached the throne and without missing a beat, gave Ragnarok a full open-palmed slap to the face with his right claw, to many gasps from around the chamber. "I have had to deal with a great many brain-dead dragons recently. I will not have it from you too. Wake up!" Another slap connected solidly, even as Baldur and several other dragons advanced on him. "Do you know what has been happening while you relax there? Your subjects have been flouting your decrees! They have declared war without your say so! And they have been threatening to execute guests that you ordered protected! Do you find this acceptable? Would you rather take a nap while your authority is ridiculed? Or are you going to wake–!"

Even as he prepared a third slap, his wrist was seized by a large, bronze-scaled claw with surprising strength and speed. On the throne before him, Ragnarok cracked his eyes – eye actually, for his left eye was swollen shut, or worse – and with difficulty, focussed for a moment. When he spoke, his voice was cracked, hoarse and weak, but still clear. "So eager to tell me what my subjects have been doing?" he sneered accusingly. "What have you been doing, Valkyrie?"

A series of gasps echoed around the chamber from every dragon present. Valkyrie, his wrist still seized in Ragnarok's grip, knelt before the throne and looked his king in the eye. "Building trust."

Suddenly Ragnarok's eye focussed a little more and he gave a smile. Not a grin or a smirk or a wicked, wry rictus. An actual smile. "Could it be? Have you finally stopped being as foolish as you look?"

"I am certainly getting a sense of what it's like to be surrounded by fools," Valkyrie started under his breath, for Ragnarok's ears only. Then he continued in his normal tone. "My Lord, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna have returned from Tartarus with the moon. They are on their way to Canterlot to return it to the heavens and put right all that has gone wrong. Baldur and your other subjects believe instead you wish a war with Equestria, and to see Princess's Celestia and Luna punished for causing injury to you and the world with their malice and negligence. And unless you do something, they are going to assume you want them executed for their crimes."

Ragnarok nodded slowly, releasing Valkyrie's arm. Considering his head injury, and Valkyrie's abridged explanation, he was up to speed quite quickly. "Baldur? Get over here!" His voice was terribly weak, but no less authoritative, and it still carried in the chamber. The blue dragon approached the throne and knelt. "You want me to declare war on Equestria? You must justify it. What has Princess Twilight Sparkle done to harm us?"

"She has not set the sun for three days," began Baldur confidently.

"I see. And how many lives have been lost in consequence?"

"Uh...none, my Lord."

"Oh? How much damage has this caused?"

"Uh...none. But if it is allowed to continue–"

"That was not the question, nor is it relevant!" His voice croaked and nearly broke with the strain of trying to shout. "I will not take lives based on 'ifs' and 'buts.' Send an emissary if you must, but there will be no war, do you understand?"

"Yes, my Lord."

"Good. What are the charges against Princess Celestia?"

"She...well...she is your enemy!"

Ragnarok paused, clearly waiting for more. "Is that it?"

"My Lord...you do not want your enemy...?" Baldur trailed off, unsure how to finish that sentence.

"Princess Celestia is to be treated with the utmost courtesy. If I hear any complaints from her on any subject while she is a guest in my kingdom then heads will roll. Clear?"

Baldur gulped and nodded quickly, all too aware how wrong he had been up until this point. His subdued, embarrassed expression was matched by every other dragon in the room. Except Valkyrie who was managing a mixture of relief and smugness.

"And Princess Luna..." Ragnarok half-asked, half-stated. Baldur opened his mouth, ready to launch into dialogue, but Ragnarok simply cut him off in bored, patient strains. "Don't bother, I already know. Princess Luna, you removed the moon from the sky, causing storms which injured me and destroyed Baldur's home. Do you deny this?"

Luna looked up, not quite prepared for the question. She glanced at her sister, who gave her a reassuring look. "No. I don't deny it."

"Princess Luna. Where have you been for the last three days?"

Slightly hesitantly, Luna began a summarised account of their ordeals. The crossing of the Styx and nearly falling prey to its siren-like waters. Being accosted by a tribe of Cyclops' within an infinite forest. Flying over an endless ocean while a constant whirlpool threatened to drown them. Being attacked and chased relentlessly by crow-monsters. Forced to do battle with the sea-monster, Scylla. An exhausting ascent up the steepest, highest mountain slope ever conceived. Journeying to the moon, confronting her own, stale hatred and returning to Tartarus. Now forced to shoulder an ever-increasing weight until able return it to the sky and right all the wrong she knew she'd caused.

Ragnarok nodded sagely. Then he looked fixedly at Baldur, still knelt before him. "Look at her, Baldur. Look her in the eye. Tell me: do you believe she deserves to die because your cave collapsed?"

Luna met Baldur's gaze and could not keep a guilty look from her face. As soon as Baldur made eye-contact, it was clear he could give only one answer. "No, my Lord."

Ragnarok nodded once more, and now looked back to Luna. "You have a great responsibility, Princess. And such recklessness as you have shown should not go unpunished," he said, bringing up a weak forearm and scratching his chin theatrically as though deep in thought. "Ah. I have it. Since you saw fit to banish the moon, your punishment will be that you shall be banished to the moon. A thousand years should do it..." He looked at her with a sharp-toothed grin. "But we'll call it time already served, I think."

Ragnarok looked levelly at Baldur. "In case it is not obvious, Baldur, let me spell it out. To all of you! Equestria as a whole is not to be punished for the mistakes of one individual, no matter how grave. And I have decided that Princess Luna has suffered enough for the harm she has caused me and my lands. No war. No excecution. Leave...the ponies...alone! Now get out. All of you."

As one every dragon in the room, save Valkyrie, shuffled in bewildered fashion towards the entrance and departed from the chamber. As soon as the last of them was gone, Ragnarok slumped heavily, his eye half-lidded, his head falling backwards, and his body wracked with fatigue. When he spoke, his voice was but a ghost of even the hoarse intonation he had used before. "Celestia?"

Extending her wings, Celestia flew from the ground and alighted upon one of the great arms of his throne, closer to his head. "I'm here."

"Is Valkyrie telling the truth? Is there trust between you?"

"The foundations are there," said Celestia, smiling but unable to keep a tear from her eye. "And I would say they are strong ones upon which to build."

"More than I ever managed," said Ragnarok, his voice a whisper now. "Valkyrie, do not make my error. Do not make an enemy of her. Of them. They can be so much more."

Valkyrie nodded solemnly, but it was Celestia who spoke again, tears flowing freely and choking back sobs. "Ragnarok, please. I'm not–"

"...not my enemy," he whispered, a sharp smile in his mouth. With great effort he pulled his head forward to look once more at Celestia. "I know. Kings do not have friends, Celestia. Dragons certainly don't. But were I neither of those things...I'd have thought it nice if we were friends." His head fell limply back against the throne with a dull thud. "Now go, quickly. And send Aesir back in here, lest they believe you have done me in and this whole mess starts again...without me to bail you out, Valkyrie."

It was one of the most difficult things Celestia had had to do in recent memory. But, with a tearful expression she flew to Ragnarok's neck, gave him a gentle nuzzle, and then returned to the floor with her sister. Then all three of them were heading for the exit as Ragnarok's breathing turned to soft wheezes once more.

Outside, Valkyrie curtly nodded for Aesir to make his way back in, even as Baldur approached him.

"Is he...?"

"No," replied Valkyrie, "But if you have anything else to say to him, get back in there now."

"Val, I–I'm sorry. I..." he trailed off.

"It's not me you should be apologising to," retorted Valkyrie, annoyed. Then he watched with just a hint of smug satisfaction as Baldur bent low and gave slow, deliberate apologies to the two ponies at his feet, which were accepted with far more grace than he would have offered in their place. Still, Baldur would not be living that down for a while. Then the blue-scaled dragon was making his way back into the cave too, leaving Valkyrie outside with the two Princess ponies.

Celestia only gazed at the floor, the power of speech temporarily lost to her it seemed. As eager as he was to be away, he accepted that it was an inopportune time to disturb her. Then Luna raised her head towards him and, using what must have been some kind of sisterly sixth-sense, asked the question that was no doubt on Celestia's mind but which she was unable to voice.

"Is he...I mean will he be...?"

Valkyrie scowled down at her. "You wish me to predict the future now?" There was a tiny flinch from Celestia, even as Luna gave her a comforting look. Valkyrie raised his head to the sky and let out a long breath through clenched teeth. Sensitivity was not a skill in which he was well practiced. He looked down at them both and tried again. "I do not know. His injuries are grave – they could still kill him. But, I think more probably, he will deep-sleep until his body is healed. Though it may be years...or decades...before he wakes again. And that is if he does not expire from age in the meantime. He is old now." Then he flashed a grin. "But...he is the most belligerent dragon I have ever met. I'm certain that Death is dreading the prospect of coming for him. He will want to put it off for as long as possible."

Celestia remained unmoving and mute beneath him, her gaze trained on the ground. Luna looked thoughtful for a moment, then met his eyes again. "Deep-sleep?"

Valkyrie nodded. Then Luna approached her sister and put a foreleg over her shoulders. She spoke such that he could hardly hear her, saying softly, "Perhaps he will dream, Tia." Luna gave Celestia a warm smile, and in the same moment Celestia's head raised in surprise. She met her sister's gaze, found some understanding there that was lost on him, and gave her sister a happy hug and a nuzzle into her neck.

The display of affection continued for several agonising seconds, during which the temptation to tap his foot, yawn, or fidget restlessly to indicate his impatience was unbearable. But...just this once...he bore it out. There was something about this moment that, for some reason, he was loathe to interrupt. Eventually the hug ended, and Celestia and Luna looked back up towards him with expressions that were clear indicators of their readiness to proceed with their mission.

Then without further ado, he bent low, inviting Celestia and Luna to climb aboard. Even as he did so he noticed that Luna's saddlebag was bulging more than it had been earlier, and...yes...the weight had increased yet again.

With considerable effort Valkyrie beat his wings and climbed ponderously skyward, heading for Equestria, the two princesses – and the moon – in tow.