• Published 3rd May 2014
  • 3,680 Views, 174 Comments

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.

  • ...
4
 174
 3,680

Chapter VII

–––Chapter VII–––

The forest below them had appeared from a distance to be little more than a small square patch of woodland incongruously set into the surrounding landscape. But now that they were over it it had seemed to expand into a massive, sprawling jungle that reached from horizon to horizon. As they flew they saw that entire sections of it lay dead. Blackened, sickly trees mingled with the lush green forest with no apparent cause. The effect was as though sun shining through broken cloud might cast some parts into sunlight, and others into shade. But instead of sun and shadow, life and death were dappled instead. And in a similar manner to the sky, the areas of death and life slowly ebbed and flowed, joined and separated in an eerie dance.

The portion of night sky for which they were aiming was growing larger, and the surrounding fragments of sky were also beginning to darken into twilight and beyond. Whatever passed for night in Tartarus, they were getting closer to it.

There was a sudden, wretched roar from somewhere in the forest beneath them. As though a creature in horrid distress calling desperately for help. Luna stopped, hovering in the air above a dead section of foliage and scanning the trees below as Celestia joined the search at her side.

Suddenly, from a living section of the tree canopy to their left burst a long wooden-handled spear, hurled with great force by something in the forest below. The weapon was aimed squarely for Celestia, who instinctively conjured a protective shield. Luna went one better however, opting to magically pluck the spear from the air before it could even trouble her sister.

The spear was massive. The haft was at least eleven feet long and three inches thick, and finished at the end with a cruelly serrated stone spearhead, clearly designed to inflict as much pain upon its target as possible. At the point the head met the haft, two rear-facing hooks served to ensure that once it had struck its target, it could not be removed without great trauma.

Luna scowled and returned her gaze to the forest below, searching for the creature that would dare try and use such a horrendous device on her sister! She didn't have to look for long.

Emerging from the greenery into the dead section of forest beneath them, strode an angry giant. Its basic structure appeared to be simian in origin – it walked upright upon two legs which ended in feet and not hooves. It had a waist, a torso, and shoulders from which extended disproportionately long, thick arms. The arms culminated in over-large but dextrous-looking five-fingered hands, reaching near-enough the knee. It was hairless, and its skin was a sickly green and of greasy complexion. It stood near to twelve-feet tall, and about its neck hung a crude necklace composed of animal bones. Two short tusks sprouted from its bottom lip, and beneath the bald dome of its skull, in the centre of its forehead, a single, large eye regarded them with ill-disguised rage.

It opened its mouth, issuing forth that same wretched roar that had first captured their attention.

"A Cyclops," Luna spat, her voice tempered with anger. "I had hoped never to see their kind again!" With her magic she snapped the haft of the spear in half, then half again for good measure, and cast the four pieces at random into the forest below. The Cyclops below them continued to bellow impotent rage at the two sisters high above, now dancing from one leg to the other in a furious, but quite frankly comical dance.

The realisation that it was a distraction hit Luna even as she heard Celestia cry out in surprise from her side. Luna looked round to see her sister plummeting to the ground amidst the dead trees beneath her, wings and legs entangled in some large, thick-roped net cast from somewhere unseen. She landed heavily on the forest floor with a crash and a pained shout, but Luna was already on her way, arrowing downwards and avoiding the spindly branches of dead trees as quickly as she dared.

She reached her an instant later. "Tia? Are you okay?" she asked in a voice just short of panic.

"I'm alright. Just winded. Help me with this, would you?" said Celestia, still struggling to untangle herself. As Luna bent to help, it became clear why Celestia was having such difficulty. Quite apart from the fact that the net had managed to hopelessly ensnare one of her wings and two of her legs, it was also coated in some kind of sticky substance, similar to tree-sap. It was not a particularly strong adhesive, but the fact that the net clung to her coat where it touched meant that she could neither incinerate nor flash-freeze the netting without causing severe burns and pain.

Even as Luna began work on the net Celestia's head snapped up. "Luna, careful!"

Looking behind her, Luna saw the Cyclops stalking towards her through the trees, even as the forest around them seemed to change. Dead trees became living ones, lush and green with thick, high branches and a dense canopy that would make a quick escape to the air difficult. As Luna watched, she realised there were now two Cyclops'. More than two. In fact more and more seemed to be emerging from the forest from every direction, surrounding them. Some were tall and thin, others fat. She even saw one with a beard and another with a variety of piercings. There were upwards of a dozen she could see now, each seeming to apparate menacingly from the woods around them, and all carrying some variation on the wicked spear she had earlier destroyed.

They closed in slowly, beginning to roar in triumph as they shuffled toward their prey. Celestia was making progress but still struggling and unable to stand – certainly unable to fly – but it didn't matter. Luna was prepared to do whatever it took to protect her sister.

With a quick glance around she registered the positions of all of the assailants she could see – nineteen by her count – and lit her horn.

Immediately, every single weapon was torn from the hands of every Cyclops, seized in a navy blue aura and hovering just out of arm's reach of all of them. "That is enough!" screamed Luna, her Royal Canterlot Voice brought forth by her sudden, apoplectic anger. "You dare to attack an innocent pony? My sister? To torment her for your own, sick games?"

The Cyclops' all stumbled to a stop in mute confusion, each regarding the levitating weapon in front of itself with something akin to wonderment. That wonderment quickly turned to fear as slowly, steadily, every spear rotated and reversed, the evilly-crafted now tip pointing at the throat of the one who had wielded it. The Cyclops' instinctively began to back away from the dangerous, sharp points, but their collective eyes widened when they realised that no matter how far they reversed, the tip of the spear stayed firmly pointed at their necks. The few that had sense to try and grasp or retrieve their weapons found no success, as no matter how hard they strained, fought or dodged, the spear would not be moved, the tip constantly at their throats and getting closer all the time.

Using a fine degree of control and no small amount of concentration, Luna used the weapons in her power to martial and herd all of the backward-walking Cyclops' together into one dense group, clustered around a thick tree trunk a few meters distant. Each spear was now part of a ring of steel surrounding them. With their backs to the tree they could not retreat further, and with the points of the spears so close, they could not move. They were completely at Luna's mercy.

Scanning around for any stragglers, Luna noted only one. The original Cyclops who had served as their distraction and whose weapon Luna had prematurely cast aside. It was looking around in blatant confusion, unable to process quite what was happening. Then he looked at Luna, saw the light emanating from her horn matched by the aura surrounding the spears and seemed to put two and two together.

Apparently deciding that attack was the best form of attack, the Cyclops dipped its head and charged her. But by now Celestia had freed herself from the net, and, making the most of the opportunity, Luna took it in her magic. Quickly, she wound it tight so that it was more akin to a thick rope and sent it hurtling forward towards the charging monster. The net found the creature's ankle and, coiling around it, immediately arrested its forward momentum, causing the top-heavy beast to topple forwards and crash to the floor with a painful grunt. Then the net-cum-rope was dragging him back towards the tree where his compatriots still waited with looks of fear, to much futile scrabbling in the dirt.

The final Cyclops was hoisted upside down by his ankle, and the rope tied off to a branch. He hung, limply suspended, his head roughly at Luna's own head-height, albeit the rest of his body inverted.

And Luna approached them all now, none of her rage forgotten. "You evil, spiteful creatures! You would harm those who would do none to you! Bent on naught but torturing, maiming and slaughtering ponies, cows and sheep for your twisted amusement! No more!" She brought her head close to the upside-down Cyclops, still flopping limply, and met its single, red eye with a look of fire. "I will be kind," she said, a dangerous tone in her voice, "I will make it quick." Every spear in the circle slowly elevated, the points now inches away from the eyes of their former keepers. "I will ensure you never hurt anyone again!" she seethed. The look of terror on the Cyclops before her – and every other giant in the circle – was acute, and sweat was now pouring off them. "Not with these weapons."

As one, every spear in the circle instantly combusted into a brilliant-white, searing-hot flame, causing brief blindness and panic in the herd of giants. The rope-net untied itself and dropped the inverted Cyclops to the ground, and it landed on its head with a loud thud and a scream of panicked agony. Then it was up and running. They were all running, screaming, bellowing into the woods even as Luna seized the rope-net once more, cracking it like a whip behind them, only serving to drive them faster. The frantic footsteps faded, the monsters gone, and the forest became an eerie quiet.

Luna stood very still, breathing heavily, eyes closed, focussed on calming herself. That had taken a great deal of restraint on her part. More than she thought she'd possessed. A moment later Celestia joined her at her side, and she felt her sister's judgmental gaze on her. Managing to bring herself back under control, she opened her eyes but kept them resolutely forward for several long moments. When her sister's gaze did not falter though, she risked a glance back. Instead of the disappointed expression she was expecting, Celestia had a faint smile on her lips and a look in her eyes that could only be...was it...pride? "You wear a strange expression, sister, for one who has seen their sibling nearly murder a tribe of terrified creatures," said Luna, looking determinedly into the forest once more.

"You wanted to protect me." Celestia was still peering at her with that odd, respectful expression. "The thought of those monsters hurting me made you angry."

Luna looked back at her sister once more and quirked a silent eyebrow. Was Celestia given to stating the obvious now?

Celestia broke her gaze and looked back ahead, still smiling. "I can remember a time when the opposite was true."

Luna blinked and looked back at her sister, her mouth slightly open. She couldn't imagine wanting to see her sister hurt. Couldn't imagine ever wanting to see her in pain...and yet, at the same time, she could remember wanting it. "Tia...please, I don't–"

But Celestia simply looked back kindly. "It's okay, Luna. I know. Thank you."

–––

They flew in silence for another couple of hours or so, until without warning the forest came to an abrupt end. The treeline terminated in a stark line of bluffs which plunged two-hundred feet into an ocean below. To their left and right the sea stretched without end, but the far shore appeared only a mile or so distant, such that it was more a huge strait than a true ocean. On the far coast a huge mountain dominated the landscape, rising and looming above them, the peak thrusting upwards towards the patch of midnight sky that was their eventual goal. The foot of the mountain met the water culminating in a large peninsula of jagged black rock that jutted into the sea, waves crashing and foaming upon it. To their left, in the middle distance, a half-sunken island city lay in ruins equidistant between the two shores, and as they soared from the coast out over the ocean, a great two-hundred meter-wide whirlpool suddenly appeared beneath them, sucking and consuming the sea in a perilous vortex.

Celestia stopped in the air and regarded with suspicion the rocky peninsula on the coast across from them. "I believe that is the Rock of Scylla," she said with after a moment with a tone of resignation.

Luna followed her gaze. The peninsula appeared like nothing unusual, yet caused the hair on the back of her neck to stand on end. "We can go around it. Approach the mountain from another direction."

Celestia shook her head. "I believe we could fly up or down this coast for hours, and no matter how far we travelled the rock would still be waiting on the other side. And we do not have the time to waste."

Luna's face became a mask of determination. "Then let us be on with it."

The sisters soared in tandem out over the open ocean, towards the far shore and the foreboding peninsula. They left the near shore far behind, though curiously not the whirlpool beneath them which seemed to mimic their flight path in the water, staying perfectly beneath, ready to swallow them whole should they suddenly decide to fall from the sky. The vortex generated strange and unpredictable wind patterns in the air above, with which the sisters now had to contend. They were strong, though not dangerously so, but the constant variation in wind speed and direction was taxing, and the ocean – in a similar manner to the forest – seemed to have expanded once they were over it. The mountain on the other side still seemed scarcely a mile away, but the far coast just didn't seem to be getting any closer.

They had been flying for nearly an hour before Luna realised how much the constant battle against the wind currents were taking their toll. Her breathing became suddenly more laboured and she felt the beginnings of cramp at the base of either wing. The far shore did seem ever so slightly closer now, but there was no way of knowing if it really was or if it was Tartarus playing a cruel joke. She could not keep from glancing down at the horrid, churning whirlpool beneath her. Could not keep from picturing what would happen once her wings seized and she plunged helplessly into the maw below. Could not keep the same sense of fear and panic from creeping that she had felt out in the Styx.

Trapped forever flying over an infinite ocean until she inevitably succumbed to exhaustion. Her wings already ached badly – why not just give up now and spare herself more pain?

Luna shook her head roughly and beat her wings harder, trying to work away the still-enlarging knots in her muscles. At this rate, she thought glibly, by the time she got home she was going to have a most unhealthy fear of water.

Celestia must have noticed her shaking her head because she looked at her. "Are you alright?" she asked, her own breathing obviously heavy.

"I need to rest..." said Luna wearily, knowing full well that there simply wasn't anywhere they could. If only she could be free of these cursed winds, but even trying to gain height didn't seem to have any effect on their altitude over the water. The whirlpool was constantly there, two-hundred feet below them.

Patiently waiting.

Then, looking down and to her left, Luna realised that, all of a sudden, the partially sunken city they had seen earlier was closer. Much closer than it should have been. Temptingly close in fact. It could be another trick, but it now appeared far closer than the opposite shore. Luna looked back at Celestia who returned an apprehensive expression, but it was Celestia who altered her course first, aiming for the roughly circular, half-ruined island city that was suddenly almost beneath them.

It was no trick. The island really was right there, even though it should have been miles distant down the strait. They flew into the city, a safe distance from the perimeter and the ferocious whirlpool. The entire groundwork was canted at a slight angle, as though the island it was built upon had tipped and begun to slide into the ocean before being frozen in time. Where intact, the tallest buildings reached perhaps forty or fifty stories tall. Their design was gothic-inspired with large spires and towers thrusting upwards, and every structure seemed to be made from obsidian; the walls gleaming and reflecting darkly.

They alighted in a small plaza surrounded by tall buildings, both quite out of breath. As soon as she touched the ground the ache in Luna's wings turned to pain, and judging from Celestia's reaction her own limbs were faring little better. Still, they were relieved to be on solid – if slightly askew – ground and for the time being they appeared to be safe.

"My wings!" Luna gasped in agony. "I did not expect that to be so difficult." Even flexing them caused her to wince, her breathing still heavy.

"Neither did I," admitted Celestia. She looked at Luna with a worried expression and spoke quietly. "I don't believe this city is a safe place to rest. We may be in more danger here than over the ocean."

Luna looked around, but could see nothing but empty, cold buildings and streets, all built from black glass or crystal. They certainly weren't about to be swallowed by a raging whirlpool. Unless it engulfed the whole island. But aside from being creepy, the city didn't appear to hold any obvious danger.

So why were the hairs on the back of her neck standing on end again?

She saw Celestia nervously scanning the skyline and the tall buildings surrounding them, and became consumed with the thought that, in making their way across this city, they needed to move slowly, and very quietly.

They set off at a walk toward the far side of the city. The island sloped at about a fifteen degree angle from left to right and made walking slightly awkward, but not difficult or uncomfortable. Judging by how large the island-city had appeared from the air, and with a rough knowledge of where they'd landed, it shouldn't take them more than a couple of hours. Although, she'd come the realisation by now that Tartarus had a way of playing fast and loose with distances.

They walked for about twenty minutes before Luna saw the first of them. High above, perched on a ledge on the outside of a tall building, a six-foot tall black shape almost perfectly concealed against the obsidian structure. She could only make out a basic outline, but recognised both bird and griffon-like features. Long sinewy forelimbs adorned with black, scraggly feathers and ending in talons. Hindlegs that were home to their own claws. A bird's head with a sinister crow-like beak, and two lifeless black beady eyes that watched them constantly.

A few minutes later, on a similarly tall building she saw another. And another. "Tia...?"

"I see them." Celestia's voice was no more than a whisper. "They are everywhere. I believe they've been watching us since we landed. Don't look them in the eye and keep close to me."

As they continued to walk in silence over the next hour Luna saw more and more of them. Dozens of birdlike creatures now starting to crowd every building, staring down at their slow passage. Then they weren't just on the high buildings anymore. They appeared on window ledges just above them as they passed below. Then they were in doorways at street level, scarcely twenty feet from them as they passed by. Suddenly everywhere she looked there was one, and Luna had to avert her eyes constantly in order not to meet their gaze. Because every pair of eyes was watching them. The creatures never moved. Never made a sound. Only watched.

And when Luna looked behind her she realised that not only were they watching them, but they were following them too. A gaggle of gangly half-bird creatures dogging their steps through the city blocking the street, always about twenty meters behind whenever she looked round, but always somehow motionless when she did.

Luna felt a chill up her spine. "They don't intend to let us leave."

Celestia performed her own cursory glance around. "No," she agreed. She looked forward once more as they passed beneath four more of the creatures perched on an ornate but partly broken archway, and emerged into a large square.

Directly in their path, no longer hidden in the shadows or concealed by buildings, one of the creatures stood facing them. Still avoiding its gaze, Celestia and Luna made to give it a wide berth to the left, but the creature moved with them, scuttling on taloned feet to once more place itself in their way. It opened its sharp, black beak and gave a menacing crow-like caw at them. Still looking away the two sisters changed their course, trying now to walk to the right, but the creature matched them again, beady eyes still staring. And it was close now.

Scores of others blocked every exit to the square that Luna could see on the ground. And still more were perched high enough on the nearest buildings that any attempt to escape into the air was almost certain to end badly. They were surrounded. Trapped.

"Can you fly?" whispered Celestia urgently.

Luna gave her wings a subtle flex. They still ached badly, but if it was a choice between flight and death, then fly she would. Though for how long she didn't know. "Yes," she whispered back.

"I will hold them here. Fly as hard as you can toward the mountain. Don't stop and don't look back."

"I'm not going to leave you here!" hissed Luna.

"And I'm not planning on staying. Trust me Luna. Please."

"Tia..."

"I'll catch up. Go...now!" Celestia shouted, raising her head and looking squarely at the foul creature. The harpy responded with a series of angry, guttural caws, which were at once answered and echoed by hundreds of others. The voices of every other such monster on every building and in every street gave rise to a great din – the murderous crowing now joined by angry flapping of feathered arms and the stamping of taloned feet.

Luna beat her wings as hard as she could, taking off vertically and heading skyward. The crow-beast in front of them watched her ascent and spread its wings, preparing to pursue.

But Celestia was already moving. Taking advantage of its momentary distraction she charged at full gallop, cannoning into it with a powerful shoulder barge, knocking it completely off its feet and onto its back. Celestia stood over it and wheeled round, even as hundreds of terrible black shapes closed in on her from all sides, Luna's escape completely forgotten in the face of this new threat.

Despite what Celestia had said, Luna couldn't avoid looking back. She watched in horror as they massed against her sister, every one of them flapping and circling, shouting and crowing, snapping and snatching with their claws. Around her their bodies formed a thick, black dome through which nothing could pass without being torn to pieces. And then slowly, horribly, the walls of the dome began to close in.

She couldn't see her sister through the mass of feathers, beaks and claws, and nothing was happening. Something had gone wrong. Celestia was being attacked and every second Luna was flying away was another second those creatures were hurting her! If she didn't act right now, Celestia might...

A blaze of golden light appeared at the centre of the swirling black mass. Above and surrounding the dense flock of creatures a new, golden dome appeared with a flash. A protective spell ordinarily designed to keep attackers out, but in this instance intended to keep them in. The dome filled with the most intense, blinding light and the angry caws turned to painful ones as the harpies lost formation, beginning to collide in mid-air and fall to the ground in confusion.

And with a pop and another flash of golden light, Celestia appeared in the sky next to her. Relief was potent, but fleeting as Celestia shouted, "Fly!" A quick glance back at the city and Luna could see that the creatures were hammering and scratching in a frenzy at the inside of the forcefield, already weakening without Celestia there to sustain it. Flapping her wings furiously and ignoring the pain, she and her sister sprinted for the Rock of Scylla on the far shore.

Perhaps Tartarus was deciding to be kind for once, or perhaps it wanted them to reach the Rock, because the whirlpool did not reappear on this side of the city, and the coast seemed to be getting closer at something similar to a normal pace. The two sisters covered the remaining half-mile over the ocean in a couple of minutes, and were almost to the peninsula when the horrible crowing and cawing rose again from behind them. The noise spurred them on and the two exhausted ponies finally made landfall on the craggy rock jutting out into the sea.

The Rock was roughly triangular in shape, reaching about seventy-five metres into the ocean. It was about fifty metres wide at the base, where it met the mainland before merging into the mountain, and at the opposite end the peninsula curved into a sharp right-facing hook over which a thick steel band appeared to have been clamped. The peninsula was uneven and rocky, but relatively flat; the whole thing stood about ten feet above the water's surface, and the foam from the crashing waves splashed overtop of it regularly making finding a sure footing difficult.

The two sisters turned around to look back over the sea. From the ruined island city a flock of hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of harpies rose into the sky and now swarmed and surged across the water, pursuing them on fresh wings. They would reach them in a minute or so.

Breathing hard, wings drooping, Luna looked up at the monsters defiantly. But they were completely exposed on the rock. There was nowhere to hide, or that was easily defensible. They were too tired to escape in the air, and they had no hope of fighting back such numbers. Even retreating to the slopes of the mountain would scarcely improve their situation. And Celestia seemed to come to the same realisation.

"I'm sorry, Luna. I tried. I thought I could give us more time."

The creatures closed the distance in seconds, swooping down towards them as the two fatigued sisters prepared to fight.

A great gout of water volcanoed from the foaming ocean next to the rock, striking part of the flock and scattering the rest in a directionless craze. The water fell away back to the sea but there remained in its place a great green arm shimmering with scales, at least the height of the Ponyville town hall. At the end of the arm a huge three-fingered claw had seized a dozen of the harpies in its grip. Around the wrist of the limb, a thick, wide metal shackle was clamped, a massive chain extending down and into the water. Then another claw slowly rose from the ocean and gripped the edge of the rock on which the sisters were still standing and backing quickly but carefully away. Slowly the great beast pulled herself upwards and broke the surface.

Scylla.

A sea-monster of gargantuan size and terrible repute. She had a lizard-like head, though her mouth and jaw shared similarities with that of a snake. Her reptilian eyes saw the flock circling her and she roared at it with a terrible scream, displaying row upon row of relatively small but very sharp teeth. Her neck displayed the tell-tale slits of gills and her arms and upper body were similar in shape to that of a dragon. Still half-submerged in the water she grasped the peninsula now with both claws – no regard given to the harpies still trapped in her right palm – and pulled the rest of her body free of the ocean to lie on her Rock.

She had no hind-limbs of any sort. From the waist down her body became serpentine; long and thick before ultimately ending in a splayed, fish-like tail. All in all she was about twice the size of an average dragon and now she reared up, snapping and grasping at the harpy flock around her.

The harpies, now with a new threat to contend with, began harrying and diving at Scylla, using their superior numbers to bully and harass her. But they were completely unable to make a mark on her thick, scaled hide. And when they charged at her in numbers, Scylla simply scooped them out of the air with her massive claws and deposited them, still alive, into her maw, swallowing dozens whole at a time.

It didn't take long before the harpies realised that they were in a losing battle and the remaining flock turned tail and fled chaotically back toward the island city. Scylla screamed after them, her hunger unsatisfied, but the shackle about her right wrist seemed to be anchored at some point just below the steel band at the tip of the peninsula, and the chain gave her only around a hundred metres of movement in any direction, leaving her unable to pursue her meal.

Still only about halfway towards the mainland, and unable to outrun Scylla over the slippery and uneven rock, Celestia and Luna backed slowly away, remaining quiet and hoping very hard that their presence would go unnoticed by the distracted sea-beast.

But it didn't. Scylla turned her eyes on them and, tilting her head, regarded them quizzically at first. Then her hungry expression returned and, dragging her body forwards over the rock, she advanced dangerously on the two ponies. Escape now an unlikely prospect, Luna and Celestia stopped together and stood their ground.

"Remind me, sister," Luna asked, "Is she the one that turns you to stone when she looks at you?"

"No," Celestia replied, planting her hooves. "You are thinking of a Gorgon."

"Oh, good," said Luna, spreading her still-sore wings with some difficulty. "For a moment there I thought we were in trouble."

Scylla struck with lightning speed, her long tail whipping around behind the sisters to cut off their escape to the mainland even as a giant claw made a grab for them.

But the princesses were ready. Aching wings and tired muscles were momentarily forgotten in a surge of adrenaline as both took to the air, retreat not their primary intention. Scylla recoiled in surprise, apparently unprepared that her new quarry might be capable of flight, but began grabbing, whipping and snapping toward them with a terrifying speed not normally associated with a creature of such size.

Celestia and Luna were on the same page in an instant. They dodged and twisted through Scylla's grasp again and again, joining and then separating in an aerial dance designed to dizzy and disorient. Luna found that without even thinking she knew exactly where Celestia was going to be and what she was about to do before it happened. It was intuitive and certain. And it was exhilarating.

And when Scylla's grasping claws and snapping mouth started getting too close for comfort, they began counterattacking. Concussive beams fired accurately and with great force at joints, pressure points and muscles. Blinding flares aimed at the eyes. Showers of sparks exploding with tremendous bangs into the air that served to confuse and distract. Luna and Celestia switched roles effortlessly from attacker to supporter and back again, both princesses taking their shots and acting as decoy and protector in turns. The fight became almost a dance to a beat that only they could hear. It had a rhythm and a pulse, a tempo and choreography that Scylla just couldn't jive to, yet it all flowed on instinct without planning or instruction. It was seamless. Flawless. Perfect. They were as one.

It was a majestic thing to behold, the fight of the alicorns, but not when you were on the receiving end. Scylla quickly grew angry at the whole affair, rage serving to increase her attacks in speed and intensity. But not accuracy. She just couldn't get hold of the damn things! A bang and a golden shower of sparks caught her attention but when she turned her head towards it, there was a sudden hot pain to the gills on the right side of her neck. When she made a grab at the blue horse responsible, another searing pain afflicted her left arm. Then an intense blue-white light filled her vision and for a moment she could see nothing! And it carried on in such relentless fashion. She screamed and began furiously splashing the ocean with her tail, sending great waves of water into the air, hoping to knock the small flying horses into the sea. But they unfairly protected each other with some kind of magic glowing bubbles. Finally, now tired, horribly pained, dizzy, half-blinded by sunspots and deafened by annoying fireworks, she retreated. She slipped from the rock, back into the ocean and submerged, longing for the peace of her undersea cave. They were both too small to make for a satisfying meal anyway.

Seeing Scylla retire beneath the waves, Celestia signalled to Luna to make their own retreat. Wasting no time they both put their backs to the ocean and headed for the mountain.

Touching down on a high ledge a safe distance above and away from the Rock, far out of Scylla's reach, they were finally able to rest with a degree of safety they had not experienced in hours.

Luna alighted first, wings in agony, barely able to stand, but still giddy. What a battle! It had been just like it used to be a thousand years ago! She had re-connected with her sister on a purely instinctive, intuitive level that was only possible when you knew somepony as well as you knew yourself. Complete confidence – complete trust – given and received as they had both worked with one goal, one purpose. It was glorious. It was...

Celestia landed on the outcrop and immediately her legs buckled and she fell to her knees, wincing in pain. She tried desperately to avoid falling further, but she lost her balance, flopping limply onto her side.

"Tia?! Are you alright?" It was only then that Luna noticed a series of half-a-dozen red scratches on her sister's coat, perilously close to her neck, running down her shoulder to her left wing. Marks from the harpies' talons. None had broken the skin, and there was no evidence of infection or poison, but they looked painfully sore indeed.

"I'll be okay," Celestia responded, losing none of her calm, confident composure. "I just need to rest. As do you."

"Tia, you're hurt..."

"They're just scratches," Celestia reassured. Then she cracked a grin. "I can't imagine how they got there. Isn't Tartarus filled only with ancient, decrepit creatures vanquished long ago, none of which we are likely to even see?"

"Tia, please...are you–?"

"I'll be fine, Luna. After all, I have you watching over me, don't I?"

It might have been a lighthearted comment, but Luna took it very seriously indeed. She walked over to her fallen sister and lay close beside her, her own legs glad of the rest. She met Celestia's gaze with a determined expression. "Always."

Celestia rested her head on her hooves as Luna looked back across the ocean. It once more only seemed to be a mile wide, the sunken city of crow-beasts was once again miles distant down the strait, and beyond the sea, tall cliffs were home to a small wooded copse of trees. She could no longer see the wall of Tartarus – it appeared to have vanished. The sky above them now was completely black from horizon to horizon, a thousand foreign, unknowable constellations twinkling above them. It was difficult to make out the distinctions between the sectors of sky now, but they all had one thing in common. None of them contained the moon.

"I felt sure we would be able to see the moon once we'd travelled far enough into the night," Luna lamented. "I don't see it."

"The sky is dark, but this isn't night," said Celestia, as though pointing something out.

It took Luna a few seconds to realise what her sister meant, but then she saw it. The sky overhead was uniformly as black as midnight, but the landscape below was still lit as though it were full day. Light from an unknown, unseen sun even sparkled on the surface of the ocean. Luna looked behind her at the grey mountain towering so high above them it seemed to pierce the sky. She sighed. "We are going to have to reach the peak, aren't we?"

"And I'm certain it is much further away than it looks."

Luna gritted her teeth and angrily scraped a hoof across the ground in front of her. Tears of frustration threatened her eyes. "I am beginning to hate this place."

"Me too," said Celestia, her eyes falling closed. "Though, I do enjoy the company."

Luna looked back at Celestia and couldn't keep a happy smile from her face, nor a tear from her eye. "Rest, sister," she said softly. "I'll be here."

–––

The dream was familiar.

Celestia stood facing Nightmare Moon in the throne room of Canterlot Castle. She on the marble floor, Nightmare Moon stood above her, next to the raised throne. Behind Nightmare Moon the far wall had been destroyed and the moon had risen. But on this occasion the sun had not yielded. Instead the moon and the sun hung together in the heavens, the sky splitting into day and night, but both vying for dominance.

"Luna! I will not fight you. You must lower the moon. It is your duty!"

"Luna? I am...Nightmare Moon! I have but one royal duty now." Nightmare Moon narrowed her eyes. "To destroy you."

"No!" Celestia stamped her hoof, preparing to fight. "I will defeat you and I will save my sister!"

Instead of fighting, Nightmare Moon blinked at something, a surprised expression upon her face. "Oh." Her mouth became a cruel rictus and she gave a low cackle. "Oh, I see." Slowly, non-threateningly, she stepped down from the throne to Celestia's level. She walked to her, placed herself nose to nose with Celestia, and then with an air of smug arrogance, began to walk slowly clockwise around her. "It is such a convenient little fiction for you, isn't it? That you can separate us. Luna; your sweet, innocent sister, and Nightmare Moon; evil creature of the night. You prefer that." Nightmare Moon completed her circuit and stared into Celestia's eyes once more. "But it's not true. I am not some monster that once possessed your sister. I am your sister." She began another, slow circuit.

"You are not Luna! She would never do the kinds of things you would do. And she would never want to hurt me."

"Oh, please keep believing that, Celestia. It will make the look of surprise on your face so much better." Nightmare Moon stopped somewhere behind her, and a very dark voice whispered breathily in her ear. "I'll be seeing you again very soon..."

Then she was gone. Celestia was alone in the Hall. Outside, the sun had lost the battle and the moon dominated the night sky.

"Luna?" There was no reply. "Luna, are you there? If you're there, please..." Her voice echoed in the emptiness. There was no sign of her sister. No sign of anyone, either real or imaginary.

Making use of the new hole in the castle wall, Celestia stepped out of the hall, looked up at the night sky, and concentrated just as Luna had taught her. The constellations above her shifted and changed, the tens of thousands of tiny pin-pricks no longer representing imaginary stars, but the subconscious mind of every pony that was currently asleep in the world. She searched the sky for her sister's star, but couldn't find her anywhere.

And then she found another star, almost as familiar and she broke into an involuntary, happy smile. Concentrating harder she guided herself towards it, the big, bright shining ball now right in front of her. She touched its surface gently, fearing it would pop like a bubble and startle the dreamer awake. But it remained intact. With pure, strained focus, and by pressing oh-so slowly, she managed to penetrate the surface, passing carefully through it as the walls of the dream morphed around her. Finally bringing the last of herself inside she winced as, in spite of her care, the action sent violent ripples through the subconscious, causing the dream to distort, bend and change, but surprisingly not break. She must be in a deep sleep indeed.

Whatever the scene had been before she entered, her intrusion had wiped everything away such that she and Twilight were now alone in an infinite black void. Twilight, facing away from her appeared confused for a moment, then looked around and saw her. She smiled happily, trotted over and sat obediently in front of her. "Hi princess! What are we going to do today?"

"Twilight," Celestia smiled, relieved. "It's good to see you."

"You too!" she beamed. "So, what shall we do first?"

Around them both, the black void gave way to the scene inside the Ponyville Library. That was understandable – it was where she called home after all, though it was the bare shell of an interior with no detail or minutiae. Slightly less understandable was why Twilight seemed to have lost her wings. "Do? What do you mean?"

Twilight looked at her with confusion. "You know, the...things that we normally do together?"

"I have no idea," said Celestia. Then she realised what the problem was. "Twilight, you are dreaming." She smiled.

Twilight's eyes widened as lucidity struck. Several realisations seemed to hit her at the same time, all vying for importance. "Princess? Is it really you? Are you really here?"

"I'm here, Twilight. We're sharing your dream."

"Then, why did my dream disappear?"

"Because dreamwalking is difficult, and I am not very good at it," said Celestia lightheartedly. "I hope you weren't in the middle of something important."

"Oh, no. No, I'm so glad you're here. I've got so much to tell..." Twilight's relieved smile suddenly fell. Then she regarded Celestia with uncharacteristically suspicious eyes. "Wait. How do I know you're really Princess Celestia? Tell me something that only Princess Celestia would know! Oh, wait, no. You could be my imagination. So it's gotta be something that Celestia would know but I wouldn't know. Then how would I know it's true? No, that's not gonna work..."

Celestia rolled her eyes. I am certain that Luna doesn't have to go through this every time. "Twilight, who else would I be?"

"You could be Princess Luna in disguise. This could be a trick!"

Celestia was taken aback with surprise. She suddenly felt strong feelings of paranoia from Twilight. "Why would Luna want to trick you?"

"I'm not falling for that."

"Twilight..." Celestia offered a warm smile, but Twilight's features remained unmoved and the feeling of paranoia didn't abate.

Celestia's brow furrowed in thought. Something that only she and Twilight would know. It was difficult. She couldn't think of anything she would tell Twilight that she wouldn't also share with her sister. Then, inspiration struck and she gave a little smile.

Slowly and calmly approaching and sitting beside her, Celestia draped a wing over her wonderful former student, and began to hum a sweet, melodic ditty. Twilight's eyes widened instantly as she realised that she not only recognised the tune, her mind was already playing the words that went with it...

You've come such a long, long way; And I've watched you, from that very first day...

"Princess Celestia..." she whispered.

Celestia smiled. "Twilight. You can trust that I am really here for you, or you can believe that I am a figment of your imagination. But either way it will help you to talk about it. Please, tell me what's wrong."

Twilight looked up at her uncertainly. Then she took a deep breath and decided to trust.

Celestia listened as Twilight relayed the tales of the atrocious weather, culminating in the events of the storm and earthquake in Canterlot. She went on to describe her theory that the disappearance of the moon was responsible, and then she revealed that she had reason to believe that Luna had done it on purpose. After that her logic took something of a leap towards Luna turning evil and wanting to dominate Equestria, and that was where the feelings of paranoia began. Celestia had to reel her in at that point.

"Twilight..." She met her gaze and gave her a reassuring look. Then she sighed. "Luna did remove the moon deliberately. And it is what's causing the storms. But she didn't know that it would cause such devastation. She feels more guilt than you can imagine and she is doing everything she can to set it right."

Twilight looked up at her in confusion. "But why did she?"

"Because..." She had to pause there. She looked away, trying to find the words, then looked back at Twilight. "Because since Luna returned, I have tried to be both a good ruler to Equestria and a good sister to her. And I have failed, because a small part of me has always feared the day may come again when I will be forced to protect one from the other." She took a breath. "Luna loves me and cares about me very much. So much so that she was willing to do something so drastic as this...to give me some peace of mind."

Twilight nodded. She didn't quite understand, but some explanation was better than none and at least her 'evil Luna' theory now seemed far less likely. Then she looked back up, confusion giving way to concern. "Are you both still okay?" she asked softly.

"We are both fine. We are getting closer to finding the moon. As soon as we have it, I'll write you again."

The library scene around them became a shade lighter and more blurred. "What's happening?" asked Twilight.

"You are starting to wake up," said Celestia soothingly. "I am surprised your dream lasted this long. You must have been very tired indeed." Then she raised an eyebrow. "Twilight? You didn't seem surprised to see me when I entered. Am I...a regular fixture of your dreams?" she asked, already uncertain just how far down this road she wanted to travel.

"Well...yeah," Twilight blushed. "Normally we...y'know...do stuff together." She scratched absently at the ground with a hoof.

"Stuff?" Celestia said automatically, even as alarm bells rang and she wished hard for a way to close her ears to the answer.

"You teach me magic, and it's just like I'm your student again," Twilight's face was redder than ever. "Except we don't usually get very far because you can only teach me spells I already know, so then we normally end up just talking like friends. It's...it's my favourite dream."

Celestia smiled to herself. Luna had been right. Twilight thought of them as friends. Wanted to be friends in her dreams. "I enjoy talking to you, Twilight. If you ever want to talk to me as a friend, you needn't wait until you are asleep to do it." Twilight smiled up in relief and her blush lessened.

"Princess?" Twilight asked, the dream nearly gone now.

"Yes?"

"You're real, right? I mean, this is really you and not my imagination?"

Celestia looked into her eyes. "Twilight," she said. "Have I ever broken a promise to you? Even in a dream?"

"No. Of course not!" said Twilight, apparently offended by the implication that her dream Celestia might be any less honest than the real one.

Celestia smiled and hugged Twilight a little tighter with her wing. "I promise you I'm real."

The dream faded to white and consciousness found them both.

–––

Celestia stirred slowly. Opening her eyes, she saw Luna standing at the edge of the outcrop looking out at the ocean.

"Luna?" asked Celestia, causing her to look round and give a relieved smile. "Have you slept?"

"No," Luna replied, looking back out to sea. "I have been watching for threats."

"Is everything okay?"

"Scylla is basking on her rock and has largely forgotten us. The crow-monsters have not returned. About an hour ago there was a large rock-slide down the mountain."

"A rock-slide?"

"It was easily dealt with." Luna looked at her again. "I didn't want to wake you. How are you feeling?"

"Much better," answered Celestia honestly, sitting up and giving a most satisfying stretch. Her muscles felt refreshed, her legs strong and her wings powerful once more. She thought about not saying anything else, but she had no secrets from her sister. "I had the dream again."

Luna looked worried. She walked over, sat beside her and looked into her eyes. "Will you tell me?"

She did. Explaining what Nightmare Moon had said, how she'd taunted her about being one and the same as Luna herself. "I don't believe it, Luna," she finished.

"Why not? It's true," said Luna morosely. "I don't want it to be, but it is. We're the same." She couldn't take her eyes off the floor.

"You're not the same," said Celestia firmly. "You are my sister, and I will always love you. Nightmare Moon was my enemy because she tried to take you away. And she was beaten! I see nothing of her in you." When Luna didn't make any reply for several long moments, Celestia tried a different subject. "Afterwards I scryed with Twilight...well, barely."

Luna perked up. "How are things back home?"

Celestia realised she hadn't quite thought this one through, but she was committed now. "They are okay, but no better. The city was hit with a powerful storm. Twilight and Spike were injured," – Luna flinched visibly – "but are alright. The castle was badly damaged but the city itself was saved thanks to her..." she paused. "Twilight has worked out that the weather is being caused by the moon's absence. She knows you banished it deliberately."

"She blames me," Luna concluded. "She is right to."

"She is worried about you. I've explained everything to her. No-one blames you, Luna. You made a mistake. And you are doing everything possible to fix it. Nopony could ask for more."

"I just can't seem to stop putting the world at risk, can I?" The sentence sounded ridiculous, and Luna tried to laugh through it but quickly degenerated into a series of pained sobs. "It's all my fault, Tia." She sniffled. "If Tartarus is a prison for ancient monsters then perhaps...perhaps I shouldn't leave."

"Luna, listen to me," Celestia hugged her sister close. "We're going to find the moon and return it to the sky over Equestria. Together." She forced Luna to look her in the eye. "And I'm not leaving Tartarus without my little sister, okay?"

Luna sniffled again and finally managed to regain some composure. She looked up at the mountain, the summit staggeringly high, daring them to climb it. She was committed to retrieving the moon, and they weren't there yet. And she would not leave Equestria in danger, nor her friends in peril. She gritted her teeth. "Then...let's be on with it."

–––

Twilight came to, feeling refreshed and more rested than she had in ages. The struggle to leave the sheets seemed less arduous this morning and she hopped down with a spring in her step, waking Spike who was asleep at the foot of the bed.

Spike sat up and had to try very hard not to immediately flop back down again. Rubbing his eyes he looked at her. "Is it that time already?" He groggily got to his feet, reaching for a quill and piece of parchment. "You still want to send a letter to the Princesses?"

"No need, Spike. I'll explain later. Right now, I have to raise the sun."

"Uh...Twilight...what's going on?" asked Spike suspiciously.

"What? Nothing!"

"You've got that look in your eye. Your 'I've got a crazy-sounding plan that just-might-work' look?"

Twilight stopped for a moment, then looked affrontedly at Spike. "I do not have a look like that!" Spike simply folded his arms and looked patiently at her until she was forced to start speaking again, lest the moment drag into awkwardness. "Okay, Princess Celestia – the actual Princess Celestia – visited me in a dream last night. They still haven't found the moon yet, but she told me it is the fact that it's missing that's causing the storms."

"Um...okay...?"

"So: we need to give the princesses time to find the moon and stop more storms from happening, right? And I've got it! Since the storms only happen at night, all I have to do is–"

"Twilight?"

"–not set the sun!"