• 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 V

–––Chapter V–––

Soaring through the air on the back of a giant dragon was something neither sister had experienced before. It wasn't unpleasant, and thanks to Valkyrie's broad wings they were borne across the remainder of the desert in half the time it would otherwise have taken them.

Beneath them the bleached rocky ground gave way to a series of craggy canyons through which ancient rivers must once have flowed. As they were carried further, the canyons became shallower until ultimately the terrain became much flatter and more nondescript. The colour appeared to just drain from the landscape, turning it grey and lifeless. In the end they found themselves sailing over what appeared to be nothing more than an immense flat tract of grey rubble. Boulders the size of carts were strewn everywhere and stretched as far as the eye could see. Overhead even the sky had turned grey and overcast, blotting out the sun, and it was as though all joy and cheer had simply been leeched from the world around them.

Valkyrie began to descend, aiming for a tiny clearing in the huge boulder field and alighting gently upon the ground. He dipped his neck to allow his passengers to disembark, but it had not escaped the notice of either of the sisters that there was no river in their immediate vicinity.

"Is something wrong?" queried Celestia, floating gently to the stoney ground.

"Why are we stopping?" asked Luna at almost the same time.

Valkyrie looked annoyed. "My instructions were to deliver you to the banks of the Styx. By rights I have only to take you to the river and leave you there." He looked to the sky and drew a deep, nasal breath. "But...I am...grateful" – he said it through clenched teeth – "that you did not seek to have me punished. So, if you are intent on reaching Tartarus, I will take you straight to the crossing point rather than leave you to search hopelessly for it." He looked back down at them. "I don't know the river well enough to find it from the air. Only by following landmarks on the ground." He nodded towards one particular, unremarkable direction. "This way."

They began to walk through the boulder field, two ponies escorted by a huge dragon making for quite the odd spectacle. The awkward silence was broken only by the sound of hooves and claws upon stone; loose rocks and boulders shifting and scraping on the ground beneath the weight of the three travellers. A couple of times their direction faltered as Valkyrie's memory seemed to fail him, but they always found themselves back on track within a few minutes.

"Sister?" asked Luna hesitantly after a while. "Ragnarok spoke of the world growing restless. He said I had repeated your mistake; that it would lead to suffering...?"

Celestia looked back into her sister's concerned eyes, then faced forward once more. "A thousand years ago, after I banished you...I could not bear to look at the moon. For nearly a week, I chose not to raise it." She shook her head slightly. "In the nights that followed, the world was battered by increasingly powerful storms. The oceans boiled and tidal waves pounded the coasts. On the third night, earthquakes began. Minor at first, but by the fifth night, powerful enough to fell buildings.

"I didn't make the connection, but on the sixth night, on instinct as much as anything, I raised the moon. And there was no storm. No earthquake. Only a peaceful night." She looked back at Luna. "The sun, the moon and the earth. They are three equal parts of a greater whole. I believe the earth missed its sister, and was not happy."

"And now it is beginning again," said Luna morosely. "You said you had no secrets from me, Tia. Why did you not tell me? If I had known this I would never have..." she trailed off, guilt in her eyes and unable to look at Celestia any more.

"I know you wouldn't," said Celestia kindly. "Truly, Luna, I never kept this from you deliberately. It is something I have not even thought about for eight hundred years. I never expected it to happen again."

Luna was silent for a moment, then raised her head with a determined frown. "It...makes no difference," she said haughtily. "I am already committed to returning the moon as soon as possible." But her eyes retained that look of guilt.

From ahead of them, Valkyrie gave a low, contemplative hum but said nothing else. They walked on in silence for several minutes more, each large rock they had to negotiate beginning to look more identical than the last.

"It is all true then?" Valkyrie asked after a while, breaking the monotonous quiet. "The legend of the Mare in the Moon? The fables of a powerful Equestrian warrior commanding the day and the night?"

Celestia and Luna looked at each other and, by unspoken agreement, decided that Celestia should answer. "I wouldn't call myself a warrior. But yes, it's true."

Valkyrie seemed to consider this for a moment. Then, "You claim to wield such fantastic power, but you did not prevent me from taking you prisoner?"

"Escape was possible," admitted Celestia. "But it would likely have necessitated significant harm to you. That wasn't acceptable to me, given the alternative."

Valkyrie looked back at her with one eye. "I suppose I should be grateful for this, too?"

"I would be if I were you," said Luna in a low, but still audible voice.

Another low, considerate hum from the dragon preceded several more minutes of silence as they walked on. Eventually Valkyrie spoke again.

"Ragnarok is the oldest dragon still living. He is belligerent, ill-tempered, lazy, and greedy above all." He glanced back at Celestia once more, "And I have never seen him show such respect to anyone." He paused, rolling his jaw. "Respect for your power would be understandable, but it is more than that, I think. You command his admiration too. How? How does a small, frilly pony princess like you gain such reverence?"

Celestia frowned. She was about to respond with a cutting remark, until she saw Luna staring at her with curiosity. She wanted to know the answer too. "We talk from time to time," she admitted. "Truly, there is little more to it than that."

"We are talking now, yet somehow I fail to hold you in such high esteem. Either I am missing something, or the king is a fool."

Beneath her faultless composure, Celestia found that Valkyrie's arrogance was beginning to grate. "If you wish to know why he shows me respect, perhaps he is the one you should be asking," she replied in a cool tone.

The dragon looked down at her once more, this time with a sly grin. "Come now, Celestia. We are supposed to be building trust after all."

Luna shot Valkyrie a glare of daggers, but she then looked back at Celestia with the same inquisitive expression.

Celestia sighed. "The Six Hour War," she began, more for Luna's benefit than Valkyrie's. "My Royal Guard had already driven the dragons into a frenzied chaos. They were fleeing in their droves by the time I reached him, fast asleep. I was prepared to do what was necessary to protect Equestria...but not while he slept.

"I woke him to the roars of panic from his retreating forces, his camp burning and lightning strobing the sky. He saw me and knew already it was over, his army beaten before it fought. I challenged him to tell me what it was about my little ponies that invited such hatred. I demanded to know why he wanted to bring pain and suffering to us, when all we wanted was tolerance and peace. And the first thing I saw in his eyes, when he knew he was at my mercy...was relief."

Celestia became aware that their party had slowed and now stopped in its tracks. Both Valkyrie and Luna were looking at her with varying degrees of incredulity, but neither appeared prepared to interrupt. Taking a breath, she was forced to continue. "Perhaps he believed I was going to end his life anyway, but he bluntly confessed that he was trying to live up to the expectations of his subjects. He had no explicit desire to hurt or destroy. In fact it weighed on him. I found he was not cruel, heartless or blind to the suffering of others, but that he could tell no other dragon of this. In a way, I was the only one he could tell. That was the beginning of our conversation."

Celestia looked at Valkyrie. "To him, I was a way to reconcile his duty with his conscience." She looked at Luna. "To me...he was someone to talk to at a time when I had no-one. It wasn't an exaggeration saying we talked about everything. We both had a great deal to get off our chests." She looked back up at Valkyrie. "I won't call him an enemy, and he won't call me a friend. Take from that what you will."

Valkyrie looked at her for several moments longer, and then without making reply began once more to lead them through the field of rocks. Luna began to follow, but gave her a smile and a nod in doing so.

Predictably, it was a few minutes before Valkyrie spoke again. "The king is a fool," he said as though reaching a conclusion. "But oddly enough, a clever one. He uses his respect for your power as a disguise for his compassion."

"You believe that is an undesirable trait? Compassion?" asked Celestia.

"Of course," snorted Valkyrie.

Luna looked annoyed. "It was our compassion that prevented your king from punishing you."

"What is this if not a punishment?" grumbled Valkyrie. "It is certainly not a reward."

Celestia thought a moment. Then, "Suppose when you found us we were badly injured and succumbing to thirst, our saddlebags laden with jewels. What would your reaction be?"

Valkyrie looked suspiciously at Celestia. He narrowed his eyes. "You are trying to trick me."

"Not at all. I am simply posing a question. We are supposed to be building trust after all," she said with a hidden grin.

Still unconvinced, but unable to quite see where the trick was, Valkyrie answered. "I would not need to waste time trying to ransom you, would I?" he said, as though it were obvious. "I would simply take you to your border and expect your jewels in return."

"Really?" asked Celestia with faux surprise. "You would not just take our jewels and leave us to die in the desert? The profit for you would be the same..."

Valkyrie thought for a moment, his eyes narrowing further. "You are trying to get me to admit that, all things being equal, I would choose to help you rather than watch you suffer."

"You've already admitted that," Celestia pointed out. "I'm trying to get you to realise why."

Valkyrie stopped and slowly turned, lowering his head and staring hard into Celestia's eyes. Then Luna's. Then back to Celestia. His mouth broke into a wicked, sharp-toothed smile and he gave a low, approving hum. Then he drew himself back up and continued to lead them on once more. "The king is very clever," he said still smiling. "I can see why he enjoys talking to you."

After a few more minutes of walking, the rocks surrounding them became noticeably smaller and smaller, until they stopped completely. The boulder field ended abruptly, a stark line giving way to a wide pebble-beach covered with smooth, round, grey stones. The beach sloped very gently toward a river, though not much of the water could be seen, shrouded as it was by a thick fog which seemed without end. Just short of the waterline stood an ancient-looking mid-height wooden post, slanted at a slight angle and half-rotten. From a nail near the top of the post, suspended from an equally old-looking leather strap, hung a simple curved horn fashioned from white bone.

"This is the crossing point," said Valkyrie. He looked down at the two ponies. "If I were you I would go quickly now or wait until morning. I would not risk crossing at night."

The two sisters looked towards the river. It barely seemed to flow at all, from what they could see. The thick fog was persistent and unnatural – almost ethereal – and reduced visibility to almost zero over the water. Even had they known exactly how wide the river was it would be impossible not to get disoriented in the grey void, so simply flying across was out of the question.

Approaching the horn, Celestia took it in her magic and brought it to her lips. It made a low, bassy rumble that seemed disproportionately loud and caused the air all around them to vibrate. Replacing the horn, Celestia was joined by Luna at the water's edge and together they stared into the fog, looking for any sign of movement.

"I will take my leave," said Valkyrie. "This has been an...interesting day. Perhaps we will meet again, but for now...I suppose I wish you both good luck." With that the dragon took to the air, broad wings beating heavily. He arrowed skywards, and was gone.

"I don't know what to make of him," said Luna, her gaze following him into the sky. "Is he on our side, or not?"

"I think he is on his own side. But...I think he is also trying to find a way to avoid being our opponents. That is a start." She looked out at the river, then at Luna. "Once we are on the water, there will be no going back. It will be dangerous from here on. Are you sure you're ready to do this?"

Luna looked back and had to steel herself to reply. "I am ready." She could not imagine having to do this alone.

They both looked back out into the river, where a dark patch had appeared in the fog. It gradually came closer, becoming more distinct until it had a form. A boat of some kind, helmed by a hooded and cloaked figure. It emerged from the fog bank and reached the shore, the hull scraping loudly on the pebble-beach as it came to rest.

It was not a large craft. Constructed of black timbers that creaked constantly and which looked very old indeed, it was little more than five meters in length and with a beam of about two. A single short mast rose from the centre of the hull, but from it hung only the dirty rags of what must once have been a sail. And stood motionless at the bow, a vaguely pony-shaped figure hidden beneath a thick black and tattered hooded cloak that completely concealed its head and face. Charon himself.

Celestia and Luna approached the ferry, causing the ferrypony to slowly raise an upturned, bony foreleg adorned with neither flesh nor muscle. Digging in her saddlebag, Celestia found the Bit she had brought for just this moment and carefully placed the gold coin into Charon's waiting hoof. Accepting the payment, his foreleg descended and returned to within the folds of the cloak. Charon moved away from the bow to the middle of the ferry and stood next to the mast, facing across the water.

Celestia and Luna quickly embarked, and no sooner had they done so than the ferry was moving. Charon had no paddle or oar, and there was no sail to catch the non-existent wind, yet still the ferry left the shore and began its voyage into the river.

Celestia headed for what was now the front of the boat and frowned fixedly out into the fog, though she could see nothing more than a few feet away. With little else to look at, Luna found her gaze drawn towards the river upon which they now floated. It seemed unnaturally still, rippling only very softly and the boat somehow seemed to cast no wake in it at all.

"Do not touch the surface, Luna. Don't disturb it, whatever you do," came Celestia's voice from the bow, still looking determinedly forward.

Luna nodded absently, but the water had captured her attention now. She sat in the centre of the boat and craned her neck over the side. It was okay, she could look without touching it. She just wanted to get a little closer because it looked like...yes...there was colour in it. She hadn't been able to see it before, but she could now. Every ripple in the water was of a slightly different colour. They mingled and combined in such a pleasing pattern and then...well...it looked like there were shapes among the colours. She needed to dip her head a bit nearer to see them clearly but there were definitely shapes there too. And as she got a little nearer still, the shapes resolved into faces. Actual faces of ponies, reflected in the surface of the water.

"Tia! There are faces in the water. Faces of ponies in the water..."

From the bow, Celestia glanced back at her. "It isn't water, Luna." She spoke with a hard edge, as though she were trying very hard to keep herself under control.

Luna tried to look up, but couldn't quite bring herself to drag her attention away. Not water? "Then what is it?"

"Tears," Celestia said, still looking intently into the fog. "Every tear that has ever been shed finds its way to the Styx. The faces you are seeing are of those that cried them."

Tears? She was floating on a river of tears? The faces...she had to get a bit closer but...she could see now...they were all sad. So sad. Wait...she could see...Celestia? Her sister was in the water! Right there. And also there. And over there too! Suddenly she could see Celestia's face reflected in the surface far more frequently than any other.

"Tia! I see you! You're in the water!"

"I've cried more than my share of tears, Luna," came the reply, terse and punctual. "You must stop looking at it. Luna?"

Tia...my sister...in the water...she looks so sad. Why is she sad? Why is she always crying? She shouldn't be crying. Don't cry, Tia. Please. It's okay. I...I'm right here. I'll make you happy again. I'll make you happy. You'll never have to cry again, Tia. I promise. I'll always be with you. Please...just be happy...

"Luna, no!"

There was a sudden, soft impact and Luna felt a horrible ripping sensation in her consciousness as her gaze was torn from the water. She toppled over backwards and to the side, coming to rest on her back, face-up in the stern of the boat with Celestia stood over her. Her head felt muzzy and dull. She was sure she had been about to do something very important, but couldn't recall what it was.

"Luna? Are you alright?"

Tia? Of course! She tried to scramble to her hooves, suddenly desperate to get to the water...to get to her sister, but her sister held her down. "No! Please! I have to help you! I...I have to make you happy!"

"It's okay, Luna, I’m here," Celestia said softly, slowly pulling her up and drawing her straight into a gentle hug. "You do make me happy. So, so happy," she whispered.

Luna hugged her sister back, and both added to the number of tears in the Styx.

"Please, Luna," said Celestia, giving her a squeeze, "Keep your eyes closed. Don't look at the river. If you go in...you will drown. Promise me."

"I promise," said Luna, scrunching her eyes shut. She held her sister tight. Her real sister. Not that fake sister from the water. Celestia hugged her back just as hard, keeping her own eyes shut too. She dared not risk even a glance at the river. With all of the pain and suffering she was sure she'd caused Luna, she would feel compelled to dive right in. She would do anything to be given the chance to make amends.

The two sisters sat in each other's embrace for what seemed like hours, completely unable to tell if they were even still moving. It began to dawn on Luna that it might all be a cruel snare. Marooned on a fog-bound boat in the middle of a river you dare not look at; forced to keep your eyes closed forever or succumb to a watery grave. It felt like the perfect trap, and she began to feel fear creeping.

At long last though there was a scraping noise, and beneath them the hull of the boat vibrated as it grounded itself upon the new shore.

Celestia and Luna released each other, and without dallying, disembarked onto solid ground to much relief.

"Are you alright?" asked Celestia.

"I'm fine," replied Luna automatically. "Let us–"

"Luna..." Celestia placed a hoof on her shoulder and looked into her eyes. "Are you alright?" she asked again softly, gently.

"I–I'm okay," Luna managed. Strangely enough, more tears seemed to be threatening to appear. She blinked them away with a quick sniffle and a smile at her older sister. "Thank you, Tia. If you hadn't...thank you."

Celestia smiled back, and they both turned to survey the scene before them.

After so long in the fog bank, and longer still with their eyes shut, it was nice to be able to see anything again. But it was a shame that they had to be looking at Tartarus.

They found themselves on the dirt shore of a large island, encircled on all sides by the Styx as though it were a moat. One could follow the shoreline of the river and come full circle in just shy of a day, yet if one followed the shore of the bank from which they had departed, the river would be almost straight and without end in either direction. That was but one of the strange properties of the place. The air felt different somehow, as though thicker and tainted with something that threatened to choke but never quite did. The sky was heavy with grey clouds and held a strange red tint in places. The beach sloped gradually upwards until, about a hundred meters from the shore, a great wall of irregular blackened stone thrust vertically from the earth, reaching so high as to disappear into the clouds above. The imposing, terrible wall followed the same contour of the shoreline all the way around the perimeter of the island, and had but one feature. Stood immediately up the beach from their landing point, a great arched opening as tall as a castle and as wide as a courtyard, beyond which was a faint, ominous red glow. Next to the gate was a sight which would fill any unwary traveller to this shore with horror and dread, but which Celestia and Luna were very happy to see indeed.

Cerberus.

The giant, black three-headed dog lay next to the imposing gate, two of his heads sound asleep while the third, the right-most, was awake and alert, constantly looking for danger. As soon as he saw the two ponies approaching, his ears perked, his mouth opened and he began panting happily. Right Head gave Centre Head a forceful nudge, sending Centre Head ping-ponging into Left Head. Centre and Left both jarred awake and immediately began growling angrily at Right.

Until Right pointed out the two ponies now stood before them. Then they perked up happily too.

"Hello old friend," said Celestia. "How have you been?"

Luna smiled up at the contented canine. Unfortunately, both she and Celestia were stood slightly too close, and without warning Centre Head and Right Head both leaned down and, with huge slobbering tongues, granted both a substantial friendly lick, to much spluttering and coughing from the beleaguered princesses.

"That...was...unnecessary..." glowered Luna. From the corner of her eye she caught Celestia's expression; the corners of her mouth starting to crease. "Don't you dare!" But it was no good. Celestia burst out laughing. It was the first real laughter Luna could recall hearing in days, and it proved infectious. They found themselves laughing together at how ridiculous the other looked, dishevelled and covered in dog-slime. Eventually the laughter ran its course and they began to dry themselves off. Their happy smiles remained though.

"It's been a long day," decided Celestia. "I suggest we need a break before we venture inside, and I don't think Cerberus will mind the company. I assume that it will be easier to find the moon at night in any event."

Luna nodded at that. It was probably the only thing that would be easier to find at night, and she was under no illusions. It wouldn't be a case of walking in, looking up and, oh, there's the moon. Tartarus was said to be infinite, but somehow not all in the same place nor at the same time, and all under a vast array of different skies, the moon could be in any one of which.

Luna looked disapprovingly at Celestia. "Before you begin playing with the dog, dear sister, you have a letter to write. You have friends back home that will have been worried sick about you for the whole day."

Celestia looked back. "Us, Luna. Worried about us." Then she smiled. "But you're right. Twilight needs to know we're safe before she does something silly, like send out search-and-rescue." She retrieved a small blank piece of parchment from her saddlebag, along with a pencil, and found a low flat rock nearby upon which she could rest. Then, with a mischievous expression, she began to write.

"Tia? I know that look. What are you doing?"

"Just getting my own back a little bit," replied Celestia with a small smirk.

Walking up behind her sister, Luna looked over her withers to the paper on which she wrote. The first three words were, 'Dear Princess Twilight...'