• Published 21st Jul 2014
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Journey with a Batpony - Gulheru



Twilight Sparkle, the Princess of Friendship, wishes to bring the greatest magic of all to the lands of batponies. Will she succeed in her mission in this distant and dangerous land?

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Chapter I – The Chessboard Is Set

: knock knock :

A slow, subtle knock resounded lightly down and up a marble corridor of the Canterlot Castle, disturbing the soft silence of the evening. The Sun had already gone down and the majority of the palace servants had departed to their homes. And yet, from behind the ornate door of the Royal Office, a trot responded to the noise and then a crack appeared in the passage with a silent squeak. In it came into view a grey muzzle and a corresponding in color horn, which was piercing through a meticulously combed mane, one that seemed to have begun turning itself from jet black to grey, possibly to match the rest of the pony. The unicorn looked outside with a frigid stare, as a reflection of light flickered in his monocle, through which he checked for the perpetrator who was trying to gain entry at the late hour. When he spoke, his voice was so calm it was almost cold.

“Yes? How may I help you?”

The moment his eyes met hers, his expression changed into a respectful one.

“Ah, Your Highness! It is an honour to see you here, Princess Twilight,” the unicorn exclaimed his greeting in a high societal accent, but alongside a discernible, Trottingham inflection. He bowed his head with respect before the lavender mare and gestured subtly, inviting the youngest of the Equestrian rulers inside.

Twilight smiled politely. “Thank you,” she replied, carefully entering the chamber, looking left and right with interest. She had never before been to Princess Luna’s office, which made her pretty excited to finally witness the Royal Sister's workplace. But before Twilight could begin exploring the room thoroughly, she heard the stallion locking the door behind her and address her in his official, courtly demeanor.

“How might the Royal Office be of service to you tonight, Your Highness?”

Twilight faced the unicorn, giving him a curious look. The monocle, a formal, slate grey tailcoat and a vest over a perfectly aligned white shirt, even a bow tie of corresponding hue. As far as she could tell, this pony was wearing much richer than most of the royal servants, quite assuredly a sign of his position. He might have even been a close, personal advisor.

She tried to match his tone. “I wish to have an audience with Princess Luna. It is a an important matter of foreign affairs,” she declared, staring right into the stallion's silver eyes.

His lips formed into a most polite grin. “I might be of immediate assistance, Your Highness, I have the honour of advising Her Majesty in such affairs quite recurrently. Might I inquire for more details?”

There was a note in the stallion’s voice that made this proposition nothing short of alluring. Twilight was pretty certain that he served not only as an aide to the Royal Sister when it came to the official business of state. She could deduce that the pony in front of her was also acting as the eyes and ears of the Princess.

“I would rather converse with Princess Luna first,” she emphasized. “Is she present already?” Her gaze was clashing with his.

The unicorn’s face remained completely unchanged, brandishing the expression of the most polite stallion ever to live, but something glinted in his silver eyes. The soft, helpful tone of his voice turned into a firm, stoic timbre.

“Her Majesty, Lady of the Night, is on the terrace, where she is finishing raising the Moon. Would your wish be to be allowed to see Her Majesty immediately?”

Twilight knew from the way that the aide formed his sentence that disturbing Princess Luna at the time was something unwanted and inappropriate. And so she shook her head.

“No, no. I can wait until she is finished,” she assured, to which the stallion nodded gracefully and his mouth fashioned a more inviting, cordial smile.

“Very well, Your Highness. Might I propose some tea in the meantime?” he offered, pointing at an atramentous, porcelain tea set, prepared on the Princess' desk.

“That is awfully nice of you, but it shall not be necessary, thank you,” Twilight declined with courtesy. “May I wait here, until the Princess concludes her duty?”

The stallion immediately lit up his horn with a silvery aura and began sliding the smaller of the two, masterfully-crafted, ornamented chairs away from the desk.

“Why, naturally, Your Highness,” his voice was filled with unparalleled decorum. “Please, would you kindly have a seat...?”

Twilight raised her hoof solemnly, as she spotted something that immediately caught her full attention. “Actually, might I look around the office a bit?” she inquired.

The advisor cocked an eyebrow. He reached for his monocle and realigned it with care. The flicker of light in it almost hid a spark of professional distrust which had lit up his eyes.

Twilight noticed this sudden change of atmosphere. She continued her thought, pointing at a glass cabinet filled with a set of remarkably mismatching items that caught her eye in this solemn, august chamber.

“I see a lot of peculiar artifacts on display here," she explained, taking a few steps towards the said display, "they seem rather intriguing.” She faced the advisor, hoping that he understood her intentions well. And it seemed that he, indeed, did, as his stare became calm once more and a shade of a smirk ornamented his expression.

“Oh! Of course, Your Highness, feel free to examine the collection," he exclaimed, inviting her to satisfy her curiosity. "Now, I beg your forgiveness, I am obliged to return to my duties. Unlike the rest of our nation, the Royal Office never sleeps.” He bowed his head respectfully and, upon receiving an approving look from Twilight, approached one of the many bookshelves that the room possessed. All of those were stocked with tomes treating about Equestrian law and court precedents. The stallion grabbed a notepad that was lying on one of the shelves and began checking, marking and realigning the collection, a task he clearly had been occupied with before she came in.

Twilight, before focusing on the cabinet that caught her attention, felt like examining the entirety of the chamber first. The interiors of the Royal Castle were always considered ornate and had an aura of authority about them, being especially bedazzling to ponies who had the opportunity of seeing them for the first time. It was true, majority of this effect was due to the stature of the Royal Alicorns, but even that wasn't taking away from their exquisite decorations and truly marvelous work of pony artisans.

“Might I ask," she queried of the stallion suddenly, "was this office prepared in advance for Princess Luna, or was the look of it influenced by her after she made her return?”

The unicorn stopped making notes and turned his head, another perfect smile adorning his face.

“Would you mean the furniture and hues, Your Highness? Why, this office was meticulously restored to look exactly like Princess Luna’s office before the banishment of Nightmare Moon," the stallion explained with eagerness. "Her Royal Majesty, Princess Celestia, took care of this personally," he added before returning to his task.

Twilight raised her brows, astonished. She knew how much Princess Celestia missed her sister, but it was surprising that she would want this place to look exactly like it must have looked back in the old Castle of the Royal Sisters. This could explain the dark wood used everywhere, as well as additions of silver ornaments, creating marvelous star designs. On top of that, the white stone of the castle interiors was turned into jet black marble and the dark, deep, royal blue was the dominating color. And yet, amongst this space devoted to the Night, there were a couple of items contrasting with both the nature of this place and with the atmosphere of mundane, yet necessary, legal professionalism. And all of those were locked in a cabinet made of decorated glass in the far corner of the room.

What lured Twilight’s gaze first was a one-of-a-kind flower necklace, made out of white and red roses and carefully placed on a blue-grey pillow.

“Excuse me, are those the flowers that Princess Luna received in Ponyville? That does not seem likely.”

The advisor, who had managed to recommence his task but a moment before, put down one of the volumes and another graceful expression presented itself on his face.

“Why of course. Her Majesty has been keeping this lei here since then, it is magically preserved. And, if I might speak my mind, I am quite surprised that she decided to keep it, Your Highness," he finished his sentence with a warm tone, then austerely turned around, his kind look vanishing like a candle blown out by a cold gust.

Twilight pondered about this necklace for a bit, not taking any notice of the advisor's facial expression. She never would have thought that it would make such an impact on the Princess that she would decide to keep it. And yet this wasn't the only fascinating souvenir stored on the royal display. Just beside the flowers lied a rubber spider, one of those normally used to decorate houses for the Nightmare Night. On the shelf below them, supported on a little wooden stand, rested a hoof-sized discus out of solid granite, engraved with a set of sharply looking runes.

“Pardon me again, is this a gift from the Griffin Kingdoms?” Twilight sought the unicorn's attention once more.

She could swear that a little shudder went down his spine, but when he turned once more, pressing his notepad to his vest, he granted the mare with a smile worth a thousand bits straight.

“Yes, Your Highness, it is,” he spoke with a timbre of a pony who had just achieved inner harmony despite the annoying tempest all around him.

“I knew it, I was right!" Twilight exclaimed, grinning. "Are the markings supposed to grant the gifted good fortune and bravery in trouble?” she inquired, hoping to be correct once again.

“Yes, that is quite right, Your Highness," the stallion confirmed her suspicions with yet another sentence sipping utter calm. "I am positively sure that you would be able to discern a lot of those objects without the aid of my humble," he paused for a moment, then accentuated the following expression profoundly, "quite-obviously-busy-right-now person.” He then returned to his yet again disrupted work, not bothering to see Twilight's reaction to his words. His horn shined more brightly, as he recommenced scribbling notes and taking slow, deep breaths, like in some sort of a meditation exercise.

Twilight was too captivated with the collection to pay any more attention to him. She went back to admiring the display with engrossment filling her eyes. She spotted a significant amount of smaller gifts, either from Equestrian cities, or the most influential noble houses. Trinkets, medals or pieces of more local craftsmanship. Not far from those lay an ornate, dark bridle, ornamented with threads that looked like pure silversilk, normally a part of the traditional Saddle Arabian dress.

Twilight opened her mouth to ask about it, when she heard the stallion’s raised voice.

“Yes! It is a gift from the Princes of Saddle Arabia and, indeed, the damask is real. As well as, yes, the silversilk. Why, I would say one could buy half of Ponyville for this particular bridle, Your Highness.”

The aide didn't even bother with turning around. He just vehemently exclaimed the answers to all the questions Twilight formed in her mind while still being busy with the bookshelf. She looked at him with consternation as he continued his work like nothing happened. Why did he get so upset out of a sudden?

But, this matter aside, Twilight concluded that all of those items were signs of respect and admiration for the Alicorn of the Night.

Well, maybe with the exception of the rubber spider, but it was likely of sentimental value to Princess Luna if it was kept here.

Yet, out of this whole collection of various gifts seeking to get the viewers’ attention, there was one souvenir that Twilight focused on in the end. It was locked in a small, transparent lock box placed slightly away from the other items, in a place of honor, if she could guess.

It was a crescent, maybe the size of a petite writing quill, lying on a piece of black material. It appeared chiseled out of some sort of cream-white, slightly reflective mineral. The surface looked polished to the extreme and the edges seemed so sharpened, they would have been able to painfully cut anypony who would try to hold the crescent in a wrong way. No doubt it was the work of a particularly skilled craftspony, or maybe even a guild of them. The most peculiar fact about this artifact, however, was that the surface of the lock box was enveloped in magic. Twilight could feel the delicate aura of a containment spell.

She heard a voice right behind her, which caused her to jump a little.

“I see you have taken notice of this extraordinary piece of craftsmanship, Your Highness.”

The grey unicorn somehow had gotten just behind her even though she never heard him approaching. She regained her composure quickly, yet she stared at the stallion with a dose of irritation over his, increasingly weird for her, antics.

“Why, yes. Could you tell me why it is magically sealed?” she inquired sternly.

“I can even show you, Princess,” he replied with a smug look on his muzzle.

The unicorn took his time opening the cabinet and lifting the lock box with his magic. He went with it to the other side of the room, where, as Twilight noticed now, a small table was set, along with a chessboard. The stallion carefully moved the board, not to disrupt any of the pieces resting on it, as a highly competitive game was in progress.

Twilight couldn’t help but ask. “Does Princess Luna enjoy chess?”

He chuckled, taking a key out of the vest he was wearing and giving the chess an evaluating look, like he had a grandeur scheme in his mind.

“Oh, very much, Your Highness. Her Royal Majesty is a most cunning opponent," he declared with a hint of humor in his voice. He was about to open the box and Twilight took a sudden step back. He looked at her, perplexed by such reaction.

She gazed at him with great caution. “Is it safe to open it just like that?”

The stallion only smirked at her wariness. “Relatively, Your Highness," he replied with a glint in his silver irises. "Please, feel free to examine the stone.” He raised the lid with his hoof at a steady, slow pace.

Twilight inspected the crescent with her stare first, then, not seeing anything unusual, reached for it with her magic.

Nothing occurred.

“What...?” a puzzled question escaped her. She tried again, this time using a bit more force. Her horn was shimmering brightly, and yet only a faint aura enveloped the mineral. She finally managed to lift it and make it levitate right in front of her eyes. However, the disparity between the amount of willpower she had to use and the effect she achieved was as blatant as the look of astonishment on the advisor’s muzzle. He even had to catch his monocle, which attempted a daring escape from its usual place. When the unicorn spoke a few seconds later, he was really trying to sound dignified, but his amazement ruined the attempt.

“Remarkable..." He was switching gazes between the stone and the mare's horn. "I was sure you would not manage to even move it, let alone lift it... Your Highness, yes, Your Highness,” he added, abashed by his sudden loss of composure.

Twilight, in the meantime, was twirling the stone before her eyes, deeply concerned.

“First of all, what is this made of?" She could not hide her astonishment. "I've read about minerals with magical properties, but such an arcane-dampening effect is incredible!”

The stallion coughed, trying to regain his calm manner of speaking.

“The natives call this ‘luneeit’. It is a rare ore found in the Tramplevanian Alps, Princess," he began explaining serenely. He presented his hoof, and Twilight put the crescent on it, as holding it with magic was becoming more and more strenuous. “It has incredible properties of disrupting the flow of concentrated magic in the immediate vicinity, by hampering or downright forbidding the creation of organized, magical ley lines. Even in such minute, insubstantial amounts, this mineral is enough to hinder spell-casting.”

To add value to his words, he offered the crescent for Twilight to hold. Upon taking it in her hoof, she discovered that it was no heavier than a regular rock of such size and maybe even lighter. She turned the stone in her hooves, careful not to cut herself with its sharp edges.

"Astonishing..." she uttered. Concentrating her gaze and mind, she probed the area around, trying to focus on the natural presence of magical energy. To her surprise, the raw flow of arcane currents was indeed bending and arching, like trying to avoid the little stone in her hoof. This would explain why she had such trouble weaving her spell around the mineral.

While Twilight focused on the crescent, the advisor continued in a serious tone.

“This particular shard of the ore is a one of a kind craft, specifically made and granted to Her Majesty. The natives of Tramplevanian Alps believe this mineral to be a sacred gift from their goddess,” he paused at this revelation, clearly hoping to spark Twilight's interest.

Instead, she could feel her gaze growing stern and focused. “So it is a sacrificial offering from the noctrali to the Immaculate Moon," she said to herself.

The unicorn cocked an eyebrow in response. “Precisely, Your Highness. I was not aware that batpony culture is familiar to you."

He offered the lockbox to Twilight and she carefully placed the crescent on the black material. Yet her gaze was escaping somewhere to the left.

“I... had opportunities to converse with a noctral, yes," she declared, to which the stallion didn't respond, only staring inquisitively at her.

Not for long, however, as he suddenly straightened his stance and then bowed deeply towards the side of the chamber, where a translucent, cerulean curtain was screening the passage towards the terrace.

“Your Royal Majesty...”

Twilight turned around to spot that Princess Luna, the Alicorn of the Night, ventured into the room in all her nocturnal glory and splendor. She filled the office with her charismatic, somewhat intimidating presence. Despite her statue and demeanor, however, she gave Twilight a warm, welcoming look, smiling widely at her.

Yet the Princess did address her advisor first, with her calm, royal tone. “I see we have a guest tonight, Moonwarden."

He assumed a perfect pose, before exclaiming in a profound, official manner. “Princess Twilight Sparkle, the Alicorn of Friendship, Your Majesty. She seeks an opportunity of conversing with you, my lady." The stallion stepped back with yet another deep bow, prepared to grant the two royals all the room they desired.

Princess Luna granted him a smile, one that Twilight could describe as majestic and yet friendly.

“Thank you, my servant, that shall be enough," the alicorn declared and the stallion straightened up, ready to return to his tasks. Before he did so, however, the Royal Sister inquired. "Have you finished the indexing?”

Moonwarden did not reply at first, only looking askance at Twilight next to him. He turned around slowly and tranquilly, letting out a, quite symbolic, long sigh.

“I was about to...” he declared, putting the lockbox back to the cabinet and returning to his bookshelf, accompanied by Princess Luna's non-solemn, amused look. She did not follow him with her gaze for too long, though, instead focusing on Twilight.

“A pleasure to see you here, Twilight Sparkle. Did you await me for long?"

"Oh, no, I came in but a couple of minutes ago!" Twilight assured with a convivial smile. "Besides, your aide was keeping me company," she explained, staring at the grey pony, who, for the umpteenth time trying to focus on his assignment, looked back and nodded with a courteous expression.

Luna glanced at Moonwarden with a spark in her cyan eyes. "I see. I hope my servant behaved properly while you were waiting for me, Twilight Sparkle?" she inquired while keeping her focused gaze on the unicorn, who huffed back from his workplace, his muzzle brandishing the expression of outrage.

"Any statements saying otherwise shall be treated by me as slander and I shall take legal actions against them," he declared boldly, his stare kept on Twilight. "I have the arsenal right here." He pointed at the bookshelf and, to strengthen his words, made a few of the tomes he was working on float suddenly. They moved behind him and began forming a flying barricade of sorts, shielding him from the rest of the room and further interaction.

This induced Luna to cover her mouth and snicker faintly. Twilight, on the other hoof, decided to comment.

"A bookfort? I often create them myself when I am doing research," she pointed out, somewhat mockingly, as the stallion's actions were eccentric at best. And weird at worst.

An irked look from between the tomes "Equestrian Legal Theories" and "Vicarious Liability" was the only response she received before the advisor's fortress took its shape and confined him from the rest of the chamber with a large thump sound of tomes landing on the floor and clamping together.

Princess Luna rolled her eyes and sighed profoundly.

"Do not worry about him, he is a bit... idiosyncratic," she exclaimed slightly louder. "So, what can I do for you, Twilight Sparkle?” she queried, gesturing an invitation to sit together down by the ornate desk.

Twilight followed the Royal Sister and sat down, breathing in deeply, as nerves began to take hold of her.

"As the Princess of Friendship," she started, "I have chosen the task of bringing this incredible magic to all of Equestria. To show all of ponies how much they can gain, if they are willing to accept it and live by its code. But, I kept thinking..." She took another breath, hoping to calm herself down enough to present her case. "Equestria is not the only place that needs to learn how powerful Friendship really is. There are many other countries and lands, a lot of them exotic and foreign. We are not in any right to keep the knowledge about this magic to ourselves, as it is a gift only appreciated and fully understood when shared. As such, all of the World could benefit from the great gift that the magic of Friendship is."

Princess Luna kept an expression of stoic curiosity on her muzzle throughout everything Twilight was saying. She but nodded respectfully to what had been said so far.

"You are making a sound point, Twilight Sparkle," she finally judged, straightening herself on the ornate chair. "And you desired to meet me precisely to discuss this topic, is that correct? Why?" Now there was a huge note of interest in her voice.

Twilight gathered her entire conviction. "For a long time now I've had an invitation to visit one of those distant realms I mentioned. And now, I determine, is the perfect time." She inhaled deeply, knowing that was, indeed, the moment for her. "I want to visit the batponies. I want to go to Noctraliya."

***

A highly excited mare’s voice echoed in the mess hall with its sharp, foreign sound. The rolling consonants bounced of the high ceiling and the colorful vowels danced around the few candles on the walls, the only sources of light in the vast chamber.

Four, five, five and five! He won again, you’re screwing me!

The company of Nightguards laughed wholeheartedly when the female batpony fluttered above the table, wanting to check precisely whether the devious dice were not trying to trick her eyes. When she finally sat down her brown mane brushed the wooden surface delicately.

One of the other players, a muscular, dark-coated stallion sitting right next to her, leaned back in his chair with a smug smile.

I am not, although I might have my plans for today, my dear Darkpine,” he declared, giving the mare a somewhat salacious look. She replied with a half-appalled, half-amused gaze while another one of the competitors let out a long, irritated sigh and flicked back his dark grey forelock.

We are really, really, not interested in your plans, Rockdusk,” he expressed himself in an anguished tone, causing the bulky stallion to laugh jovially. Darkpine in the meantime brought a fanged grin up on her muzzle and then looked seductively into her indecent companion's eyes.

As opposed to Deep Mist, I am interested, very much," she assured with a wink. "I have a patrol shift in half an hour, so your... ‘proposition’ might give me something to think about.

The disapproving Deep Mist shook his head over this ridiculous conversation and just pointed at the table. “Is nopony paying any attention to the fact that Midnight Wind is completely destroying us right now?” he asked with reproach.

Midnight couldn’t help but smile mischievously. The Goddess bestowed him with luck tonight, indeed! He grabbed a copious amount of bits and dragged them towards himself, making quite the noise.

The rest of the noctrali present in the mess hall were staring occasionally at the four players, while keeping busy with helping themselves to the vast amount of oranges, apples and grapes lined on the tables. However, Midnight’s win streak was causing a significant part of the gathered Nightguardians to observe the game rather than enjoy the meal.

Rockdusk turned his attention, although with some difficulty, from the mare giving him a flirtatious look.

It’s not like you've just lost your whole pay, friend!” he spoke towards Deep Mist. Darkpine, in the meantime, flapped her leathery wings, agitated.

Who cares, these coins are a joke!" she shouted with annoyance. She grabbed a bit and, using one of her fangs, made a hole straight through it, proving her point. "You see? Never mind that it’s gold, it’s not even clear! Such a cheap excuse for proper craft would earn a caretaker a month in the lower mines!" She tossed the coin through the whole chamber, hitting the opposite wall. A couple of dim laughs accompanied the travel of the gold projectile.

Meanwhile, Midnight grabbed his cobalt blue mane and tied it behind his head with a dark grey, woolen strip, forcing the hair to flow neatly down the back of his neck.

"Darkpine is right," he concurred calmly. "But let's play once more and then get ready for work. Rockdusk and I are doing weapons check-up in twenty."

The big stallion tossed a hoofful of bits on the table nonchalantly. “Waste of time. All of them shall be gleaming and sharpened, as ordered," he declared, stretching his neck. "If they are ever going to rust, it will be because of lack of use, not lack of care!"

Deep Mist threw his share forward and sighed deeply. "They weren't too useful the last time we had a chance of putting them to work, you know..."

And, like that, the good mood of the group was gone, extinguished like a small candle in the middle of a storm.

"May our blood stop flowing..." Midnight cursed under his breath, looking blankly into space. "Shame upon us."

Darkpine added her amount of bits to the pile without any conviction, then looked at Deep Mist with concern written all over her muzzle.

"How is Firmshade?" she asked in a faint, saddened tone.

The inquired stallion just shrugged, not even bothering to stare up at the rest of his friends. "The healer said he might not be able to fly again." There was melancholy in his voice. "His wing was completely crushed when the Red Fiend stomped on it."

The mare hissed silently at this reply and closed her eyes in an expression of profound sorrow. Not a moment later Rockdusk slammed his hoof down on the table, sending the dice and coins all over the place to the scare of Midnight and his other comrades.

"He stood up to the danger as every one of us always should!" he roared, causing a large part of the mess hall to turn towards the table in the corner. "His sacrifice brought us the honor of forgiveness for our failure in battle!"

Darkpine managed to catch some of the bits as they were rolling off the wooden surface.

"Is it a failure when the enemy is towering above us and taking our strength with a mere flash of his power?” she asked, rhetorically, keeping her eyes down. “I mean, what was there to do?"

Midnight inhaled. He raised his head high, staring upwards.

"Fight till the end. Like the Nightguard of old," he declared with a focused gaze, hoping to look past the ceiling at the countless stars on the dark sky. Towards Silverheaven. Towards the Goddess. "Like when the Eclipse began..."

Darkpine's eyes shined more brightly. "Like the Nightguard of old..." she repeated, akin to an echo. "Yes... I respect those words. For the Immaculate Moon."

The entire group lowered their heads and closed their eyes, and even a few other batponies, upon hearing the sacred name of their Goddess, did the same. A couple seconds of silence later, the mare swept the air with her hoof, like she was trying to cut something invisible in half.

"Alright, can we talk about something a bit more cheerful before we get going? I'd rather not think about this anymore," she declared and Deep Mist stared at her cynically, realigning the bits in the middle of the table so that they would form a nice pile, ready and waiting to be grabbed.

"As long as it is not about you and Rockdusk going at one another," he exclaimed sardonically, "be my sunscorched guest."

Midnight chuckled, while Darkpine, with her partner giving her another smug look, bared her fangs in a smile.

"You are not going to tell me, Deep Mist," she whispered, leaning over the table, "that you don't like some blood-warming conversations and gossips from time to time."

"Funny you mention gossips, because I have heard an intriguing one lately," the stallion replied with a grin of his own.

The mare quickly supported her front legs on the table and rested her chin on them, immediately captivated and excited. "Oh! Come on, share!" She looked like a little filly, hoping to hear something wonderfully scandalous.

Deep Mist took his time, however, putting the dice into a wooden cup in a steady pace.

"Well," he finally continued in a scheming tone, "I have heard that there might be a certain... something... happening between a certain Nightguardian and a certain local—" he paused for theatrical effect, during which the intrigued mare leaned forward nearly enough to fall flat on the table “—Princess.

Darkpine let out a dramatic gasp, while Rockdusk tipped himself forward to hear better.

At the same time, Midnight felt his coat stand on end and cold shivers of irritation travelling up his spine.

Deep Mist continued, giving the cup a good jiggle, a spark in his eyes.

"And the best part? This Nightguardian is sitting at our table." To add weight to his words, he put the cup forcefully on the surface, causing a loud protest from the dice trapped inside. Following the stallion’s gaze, Darkpine and Rockdusk turned towards Midnight.

He had summoned a highly annoyed expression on his muzzle. "And who would spread such nonsense?" he asked, tension mounting in his voice against his will.

"Who knows and who cares?" Deep Mist replied, smiling smugly. "I just know about some semi-secret meetings after moonrise."

Darkpine, becoming the archetype of bewilderment, bounced in her chair in excitement.

"With a local Princess?! A sunpony?!" her tone was louder than even she had wanted it to be. "You rascal! It is that lavender one, isn't it? Dusk Sparkle, or something?" she inquired, trying to pinpoint the name.

Midnight sighed with annoyance. “It’s not Dusk Sparkle, it’s Twilight Sparkle,” he clarified and Darkpine grinned mockingly in response.

You tell me, you philanderer,” she said, jabbing him lightly in the foreleg.

He exhaled once more and began rubbing his temple, trying to calm down. This was not really a topic that should have been even considered in public. "Never mind. There is no 'something' happening," he declared resignedly. "She wanted to do interviews with me about our race, because I happened to have been in Ponyville. I acquired the Honored Covenant's permission to talk with her and I did. That's all," he accentuated, hoping such an explanation would be enough for his friends. "Not to mention she is the one that was involved in bringing the Eclipse’s end. It was a repayment. We owe her much more."

Rockdusk was still leaned forward, with curiosity and worry filling his eyes. "Nevertheless, are you sure there is nothing between you two?" he asked, cautiously. "I mean, you got pretty tense. And you still are."

Midnight huffed, pointing with reproach at his grey-maned old friend. "I just got annoyed at Deep Mist. Why would one help such a ridiculous gossip spread?" He gave his companion a scornful look, but the accused batpony's smile was only getting wider and wider.

"I don't know if it’s such a ridiculous hearsay after all, you know," the culprit shrugged, trying to look as innocent as possible. "And I have learned she has a palace of her own now, no? Will she soon invite you over for another 'interview'? Or however you two are calling this fling..."

Midnight didn’t respond to this blatant mockery at first. This was not the time, nor the place, nor the topic to discuss. He obliviously checked whether the strip around his mane was holding it tightly and would not undo itself in case of seeing some action.

"I advise you not to go any further with this, Deep Mist," he said finally, with a grim tone. In contradiction with it, Darkpine giggled like a little filly, not hearing, or perhaps not caring for that note in his voice.

"True or not, Midnight Wind – with a Princess, their Lord? That would be something of an accomplishment," she judged, wishing to give Midnight another jab, but the stallion granted her a look as calm as death and similarly unsettling. It was enough to make the mare swallow rather loudly, while Rockdusk moved warily back with his chair, trying not to provoke any reactions.

Deep Mist, however, seemed to have overlooked that Midnight was on the verge of bursting.

"Oh, you know our friend here, Darkpine. He always knows from where the wind is blowing..." he said with a big, derisive smile ornamenting his face. Then he raised the cup to see the results of the toss finally. "... or, in this case, where the wind is being blow—"

This sentence never stood a chance of being finished. In the blink of an eye, Midnight rammed his hoof into Deep Mist’s muzzle. It spawned a truly brutal sound and sent the mouthy warrior off the chair and down on the floor. Darkpine and Rockdusk were staring awed at what happened before the former laughed hysterically.

You did not just do that!

Deep Mist, shaking his head to get rid of the shock, got up quickly and, without saying a word, leaped right at Midnight, sending them both into a furious brawl on the stone floor. The rest of the Nightguards gathered in the hall, spotting some action in the corner, quickly moved to see what the commotion was about. They formed a circle, alongside Darkpine and Rockdusk, around the punching and kicking fighters and began encouraging them with screams and hoof-stomping.

Get his eye, come on!

From the left, punch from the left!

Bite his ear off, they always do that!

The two stallions were rolling on the floor, Midnight doing his best to outmaneuver and strike as hard as it was possible.

The fight would have lasted for longer and possibly get more impressive, if not for the doors of the hall opening. The entire chamber petrified when Ardent Fang, the Nightguard’s Commander, crossed the threshold.

***

Princess Luna was thinking extensively. Twilight could tell it. She was making her feel a bit uneasy with her stoic expression, after all. Even though there was really no reason to feel worried. The Alicorn of the Night might have been intimidating for some, but Twilight knew well that her manner was merely a trained façade and the Princess was in fact caring and really friendly. However, that was a fact easy to forget sometimes.

A lot of times, actually.

The Royal Sister finally spoke, her tone sounding serious and official. “You present your case judiciously, Twilight Sparkle. But are you absolutely certain that the state of facts presented to you is valid?”

Twilight took a deep breath, trying to stay calm.

“Yes, I am certain," she declared. "Midnight Wind, the batpony I have managed to interview, mentioned clearly that Noctraliya has trouble maintaining any food surplus. I believe Equestria could help them greatly with our resources... as long as the Covenant, which makes decisions in cases of that magnitude, can be convinced to sign a trade agreement,” Twilight clarified as Princess Luna leaned back in her chair, with a thoughtful look in her eyes.

“And their invitation not only provides you with a chance of proving to batponies the value of cooperation with Equestria, but an opportunity to show them what they can learn from us," the Royal Sister concluded to which the other mare nodded zealously.

“Precisely. Their Lords are distrustful and keen on protecting their heritage without any foreign influences. But I believe I can change the way they think about us. I only need a chance, and I see this chance right now," there was a surprising, even for Twilight, amount of conviction in her own voice, which seemed to have made Luna lock herself in thought for a while longer.

And this time, Twilight's expression was thoroughly betraying her worry. She realized that that was the crucial moment in which she would know for sure whether her plan would come with the Princess' approval, or would she have to continue without it. After all, the Alicorn of the Night was considered a goddess by the noctrali, so how could Twilight undertake any actions without consulting them with her?

... what if she would have to act against Princess Luna? Would she have the courage to do something like that? And, more importantly, what would Princess Celestia have said to this?!

Fortunately for Twilight, Princess Luna didn't expose her to tension for too long.

“I am glad you came with this to me, Twilight Sparkle. I was, myself, looking for an opportunity to bring my children closer to Equestria," the Royal Sister declared, standing up from her seat. "And now you have presented me with a way of doing so. As such, you shall have my aid and blessing," she made a promise, smiling with benediction at Twilight.

Who could barely contain the excitement over those news.

“Oh, thank you, Princess, thank you!" she stood up in an instant, her voice full of joy. "I won’t let you down!”

Princess Luna smiled broadly at the enthusiasm that Twilight could not have hidden. “I know you won’t fail me, Twilight Sparkle," she said, circling the desk and placing her hoof on Twilight's shoulder. "You have never failed any of us before, no matter the task,” she exclaimed, and Twilight simultaneously blushed at those words and felt them adding weight to Luna's hoof.

“Pardon my impatience," she asked, "but when will I be able to begin the journey?”

“As soon as preparations are made," the Royal Sister assured her. "A couple of days, no longer.”

Twilight grinned happily and with undying eagerness. Giving the Princess a bow of her head, and repeating "thank you" at least a dozen times, she left the room, closing the doors with impetus. The joyful echo of her exit was bouncing for a while amongst the castle corridors.

A few seconds after the sounds of Twilight’s rapid exit had died out, Luna switched her attention to the impenetrable fortress of legal tomes that had been erected without permission in her personal domain.

“You can drop the act now, Moonwarden," she ordered with a mixture of authority and mirth. "And stop grinning, it is almost audible all the way here.”

The bastion of books deconstructed itself on a whim and all of its bricks went back to their rightful places, revealing the grey unicorn behind them. He was smiling as mockingly as it was possible.

“My lady,” he began, his voice polite, but with a tone of self-righteous confidence to it, "easily-annoyed, eccentric and... 'idiosyncratic' professionals are rarely taken seriously and perceived as a threat. And, might I point out, my part was stellar.” His expression was an emotionless mask with but a faint smile adorning it. " 'Idiosyncratic', what a fantastic word to use!" he declared and chuckled silently, causing Luna to sigh.

"I still think a 'bookfort' was an exaggeration, Moonwarden," she judged, although with a warm timbre to her words. She then beckoned her faithful advisor to come with her. He complied without a word, following after her like a silent, serene shade, a smug expression plastered on his face.

Luna inquired, spotting his satisfaction. “Is your performance the reason for your glee?”

He shook his head lightly, lifting the cerulean curtain screening the passage to the terrace with his silver aura, allowing her to gracefully pass underneath.

“No, my lady," he finally declined, passing under the fabric and letting it fall down freely. "I merely find the Princess cute and adorable,” he declared, putting an audible emphasis on the adjectives.

This caused Luna to stop in half-trot, which in return almost ended up with Moonwarden bumping into her. He took a dignified step back and put his head down, flustered over this near-collision. Meanwhile, Luna was staring at him, completely perplexed.

“‘Adorable’? ‘Cute’? Are you unwell, Moonwarden?" she inquired with a note of worry in her voice. "You never use words like that seriously.”

He simply nodded, without any trace of emotion. “And I have not used them seriously yet again, my lady," he assured, only now allowing a smirk to dance on his lips. "She is cutely naïve and adorably excitable.”

Luna stared at him for a moment longer, before finally letting out an amused sigh. She continued trotting towards the terrace, making her way outside, to the overlook suspended above the rest of the Royal Castle. The cold wind of the night brushed her hair, which twisted and turned like a royal, blue nebula, with stars trapped amongst the resplendent sapphire. She turned her cyan eyes towards the pure moonlight, enchanting and captivating, and she could tell that her regalia shined imposingly.

“When exactly did you begin reading her mind?” she asked of Moonwarden. Upon not receiving a response immediately, she turned, seeing the stallion staring at her firmly without even a blink. “I have asked you something, my servant.”

When he ultimately realized that she was referring to him he coughed, regaining his usual, tranquil composure and trotting closer to her. “A while before you entered the chamber, my lady," he declared, meeting her gaze as if nothing had occurred. "I had to carefully assess the amount of applicable force. I know Princess Twilight would spot any more complex and focused magical usage in the room. Her prowess makes her a difficult target to approach and inquest,” he passed his professional opinion, but the only reply he received was a mischievous smile.

“And here I thought you always gloat nopony can detect your intrusions, Moonwarden," Luna spoke in a teasing tone. "You claim that you are the best," she goaded him to which he simply shook his head, smirking.

“With due respect, my lady," he replied, amused, "you are grossly mistaken.”

"Am I now?" Luna raised her eyebrow. "Do you dare insinuate that I can be mistaken?" she inquired of him coldly, but she knew her eyes betrayed her good humor.

"That is often the role of an Advisor, yes, my lady," Moonwarden responded and chuckled at this game they were playing. "Or a jester," he added with a sudden grimace, "but I allow myself to believe I am not but a court fool."

"I can see you in a vibrant costume, prancing around the place," Luna stated, letting a small giggle escape her lips as her servant shuddered at the thought. "And you would still surely claim to be the best harlequin," she pointed out.

“As I said," Moonwarden took his turn of clarifying, "you are mistaken, Your Majesty. I never claim to be the best," he paused, causing Luna to stare at him with interest over his sudden and improbable modesty. "I am the best," the stallion declared, staring into the distance with a vainglorious gaze.

Luna raised her brow, the corners of her mouth twitching. “How are you so certain?”

Moonwarden glanced at her with his silver eyes full of satisfaction. “I am in your service, am I not?”

He bowed his head loyally, as she granted him a warm smile.

"Well played. So what did you manage to discern, Moonwarden?” she inquired, staring over the landscape.

He shrugged, his expression unimpressed. “Aside from the fact that her arcane abilities are astounding and stupefying, nothing too extraordinary, my lady. She is driven, focused, she believes that she can succeed in her mission. Her motives are, in accordance, duty and feeling of responsibility. I have sensed a note of a more personal attachment to her quest, but I did not possess enough time to discern it," he explained thoroughly.

Luna pondered deeply at those revelations, resting one of her forelegs on the marble railing of the terrace and sternly looking over the lands of Equestria, shrouded in the night.

“She shall become an apt ruler one day," she declared in a thoughtful mood. "She simply needs experience. And if this journey can give her anything, it is experience in abundance.”

“Quite, my lady,” Moonwarden concurred, looking upwards, towards the starlit sky. “Might I have a question, my lady?” he spoke up and she nodded approvingly, still taking in the peaceful, nocturnal landscape. “Why did you not mention to Princess Twilight the recent... ‘situation’ in Maretonia?” he inquired, emphasizing the expression he used.

Luna didn't respond at first, her gaze growing focused, although she was not looking at anything in particular. She finally let out a long sigh and gazed at the unicorn, with her eyes cold and stoic.

“Refer to me the crisis in Maretonia, Moonwarden,” she ordered.

He cleared his throat silently. “If that is your wish, my lady," he acknowledged and took a calm breath. "According to the information provided to us by the Duchy, a group of batponies, posing as a neutral and independent trade mission, was in fact undertaking reconnaissance tasks. The information gathered included those on: Maretonian defensive tactics, number of active duty soldiers, training, possibility of drafting additional recruits and time until full mobilization in case of an attack," he pointed out all the pieces of intelligence. "Aside from that: nature and basis of local economy, infrastructural details, from heavy industry to agriculture. The group had left Maretonia before their purpose was discovered, for only two months later did the local government puzzle out their real mission," he concluded his report, giving Luna a curious stare, but her expression was unstirred.

“And what explanation did we give to the Maretonian delegation during the last summit?” she suddenly asked.

“Allow me to quote, my lady: 'Batponies are a naturally curious and distrusting species, for centuries in voluntary isolationism from the rest of Equestria. Their actions are nothing more than an unorthodox way of learning about other countries in the domain. While these trespasses might appear as clearly adversarial and would be considered troubling under normal circumstances, they are harmless, as conducted for non-hostile intents'," he repeated, word for word, the answer given to the Duke.

Luna shook her head slowly, looking once more into the distance.

“I cannot fathom they have believed in this rubbish," her voice was filled with disdain and a measure of disappointment. However, Moonwarden let out an amused chuckle, taking off his monocle and cleaning it with a little handkerchief.

“I have to remind you, my lady, that it was you that I have just now quoted.”

Luna smiled blankly, her lips smirking nearly involuntarily.

“Oh, yes, that is correct. It was pretty atrocious, was it not?” she queried him and he nodded with an expression of sadly objective criticism, putting on the monocle.

“I am afraid so, my lady," he admitted, "although I would not consider this explanation ‘rubbish’. It was merely a ‘farfetched, utterly unbelievable, forged to convince only the most gullible of ponies, lie’,” he clarified with a serious look on his muzzle and a mocking gaze, which caused Luna to snicker.

“Well said," she commended him. "And yet they believed in this explanation.”

Moonwarden gazed at her with a spark to his eyes. "Yes, my lady. I took the liberty of... assuring that they do.” His gaze lit up with silver aura for a second before he continued. “Although, this incredible explanation was not that inconceivable. After all, it was you who delivered it to them. And, might I add, your credibility is unquestionable, my lady.”

Luna began slowly pacing the terrace, being followed attentively by Moonwarden’s eyes.

“And what was the real assessment of the situation that you provided us with?” she pursued the topic further.

His expression became utterly serious. “I was involved in similar missions in my younger years and I have to mark this as a typical case of espionage," he stated, his eyes locked on the striding mare. "Usually a harbinger of a military action, be it a complex, multi-staged sabotage and disruption, or a straight-up assault, my lady,” the stallion paused, raising his hoof. “But, as you might have observed, there was neither.”

Luna nodded, agreeing, then turned to walk back inside, Moonwarden quickly joining her, resembling her loyal, grey shadow.

“That makes me even more worried, Moonwarden,” she finally said, her voice perturbed.

“Agreed, it is concerning," he complied, nodding slowly. "However, what made me most intrigued, my lady, is that, during my work on this case, I had to conclude that the mission was undertaken by a group of highly skilled, possibly hoof-picked agents. The way they conducted their research was painstakingly precise. Such level of professionalism is rare. I, personally, know only three Equestrian operatives with enough experience to match it,” he paused briefly, letting the words resound in the silence. “And yet, the Maretonians figured it out.”

Luna looked quizzically at her servant, while he lifted the transparent curtain.

“What do you mean to say, Moonwarden?" she inquired. "That they wanted to be discovered?”

“Yes, my lady, it seems so," he replied, rubbing his chin. "Unless it was a 'bummer of epic proportions'," he added somewhat mockingly, "but I resent this possibility.”

“Give me theories. Why would they want notoriety?” Luna pressed him to continue, now that such an intriguing concept was brought up.

Moonwarden frowned and then began listing the possible explanations. “Disruption of Maretonian politics, screening another action, like an economical or scientific larceny, assessing Noctraliya’s strength and speed of reactions in comparison... or just a good old show of power and resourcefulness, to name a few,” he finished, giving Luna an intrigued look.

She approached the chessboard in the corner and seemingly began examining the state of the game, her brow furrowed.

“Now that we have reviewed all of this, do you know the answer to your question?” she suddenly asked him, inviting him to join her.

Moonwarden took his place on the other side of the board. “I believe I do, my lady, and I applaud you for keeping Princess Twilight uninformed for so long," there were praise and respect in his voice. "She would be shocked and worried about those findings. She would have thought negatively about batponies even before really having a chance of meeting them as a nation. And, if I might speculate, you want her to visit Noctraliya with a clear mind, capable of forming objective opinions about them.”

Luna nodded at his assumptions, staring down at the set of crystal blue pieces that she was leading into battle. Her losses were minimal so far and she would consider herself having the initiative in this conflict.

“For too long were my children ostracized by rumors and misunderstandings," she said with sadness. "And now, one, very special pony has a chance of changing the fate of the entire race with her actions.”

Moonwarden brought up a cynical smirk on his muzzle while glancing at the black marble forces he was the commander of. Luna was certain that he considered his losses insubstantial and he believed having the tactical advantage right now.

“Princess Twilight does have a seasonal destiny rewriting habit, yes," he remarked, his words oozing irony and sarcasm. "And yet...” his tone changed abruptly.

“Yes?” Luna's voice betrayed concern as her advisor was staring intensely right into her eyes.

“Considering the recent events in conjunction with the ways of batponies,” he paused and the silence in the office became nothing but eerie and mischievous, “you are aware, my lady, that you are putting Princess Twilight in considerable danger?”

Luna sighed deeply. She put her hoof on the crystal queen.

“If we care about something... no cost is too great,” she exclaimed and the words that came from her mouth reverberated with distress as she slowly moved the piece. “Check.”

Moonwarden examined the board with an evaluating look.

The queen straight past his lines, avoiding many perils on the way, until she was in clear striking distance of his king. However, on this square, she was threatened by exactly seven, no, eight dark agents of his. Some were prepared to stop her by tossing themselves in front of her path. Some, eager to dispose of her in a most gruesome fashion.

But something else than his visibly advantageous position caught the unicorn’s attention. He was unable to discern what were his lady's plans of riposting his next move. There were no pieces covering the endangered queen, there was no foothold to be gained by this maneuver, there was no tactical advantage in this unambiguous sacrifice.

There was nothing.

A shiver went down his spine as he looked up and saw the grief that darkened the Princess' cyan gaze.

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