• 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 IV – Orders in the Shades

Twilight breathed in the cold air of the night. It filled her with refreshing strength as she felt it playfully sting her nostrils. This sensation wasn't new to her, as she not once nor twice spent time on the balcony of her late library, gazing at the star-filled sky, observing constellations and nebulae.

This time, however, the gentle breeze made her realize that this, slightly frigid, temperature shall be her close companion for some time.

Would she really mind, though? No, Twilight was for a long time mentally preparing herself for this venture and she knew what was going to be a great part of it. She was more than aware that she would eventually begin to miss the sunlight and warmth of noon. Yet to achieve results, she must have also been willing to take the toils. In this case, it was to experience the nocturnal aspect of batpony life. Which meant taking on the cold nights to their full extent.

Speaking of the noctrali, Midnight and Deep Mist turned out to be two particularly strong and dependable fliers. The chariot was covering a surprising amount of distance and yet Twilight could barely feel the motion. She could only see faraway, fading lights of hamlets, amongst the landscape illuminated by the Moon, quickly passing underneath them. The Canterlot Peak was becoming smaller and smaller behind them, as much as Twilight could actually spot it on the distant, dark horizon. However, more than behind, she was actually staring forward, eager to witness the distant ranges of Tramplevanian Alps.

As her, naturally accustomed to but daylight, eyes were not going to help her too much, she leaned forward from her seat.

“Midnight, will we be able to see the mountains soon?” she queried rather loudly, her voice cutting above the wind howling in her ears.

“In a couple of hours, Princess. You can see them clearly from Hollow Shades,” he replied without glancing back at her.

Upon hearing those words, Deep Mist’s ears perked. “Bid to vere?” he asked something of the other batpony.

Tac, tu mozn Ambyit vid z Umberi,” Midnight replied, to which the other stallion let out a “ha” kind of sound, an exhale, like in agreement.

Twilight realized that she had just experienced the first of many great challenges before her in this quest she had decided to undertake – the language barrier. Midnight told her some basics after the first interview, but basics weren't enough in the slightest. Batpony speech seemed similar to Equestrian from the grammatical perspective, but the pronunciation and vocabulary sounded very harsh and complicated for Twilight's ears. Sharp consonants, melodious vowels, not to mention a very different inflection and accentuation.

She was sincerely hoping that she would have somepony assigned to her as a translator in Noctraliya.

She would not mind for it to be Midnight, actually, as she was certain he would try his best at helping her in the matter. From time to time, she could spot him glancing at her, when he thought she wasn't watching. His gaze was a mixture of worry and... she could not tell what. For certain, he wished for this travel of hers to be comfortable and smooth. Twilight would not mind sitting down with him after their arrival at the outpost in Hollow Shades. They had a lot of catching up to do.

While she was still locked in her deliberations, she heard Deep Mist ask something, although she nearly missed it amongst the wind.

Kwid ipe nazwe tu ‘Maednoc’? To bid obraze...” he began, and Midnight turned to him in the blink of an eye, his irides with fierce glints in them.

Tacit, durnu! Ipe bide sapia, ipe moznae uai rozumt.

His eyes moved towards Twilight for a split second, before he gazed forward again, spotting she was staring in his direction.

Even without his reaction, she could tell that the two were talking about her. As to why exactly, and what they were actually saying? That was harder for her to discern. Singular words were always easier to understand, but sentences in a language one but began to study were never going to give away their meaning.

The tone of Midnight’s voice and his sudden reaction were not making Twilight too comfortable... Was something wrong? She was going to ask him after the landing.

In the moonlit landscape, Twilight spotted the outskirts of Eastern Woods. This sprawling thicket was a lot less wild and untamed in comparison to the Everfree Forest, but it was still deemed rather dangerous to cross, as it was all too easy to lose one’s way in the vast woodland. A number of lumberyards, however, was exploiting this natural source of fine timber. In the dark of the night, Twilight could see little lights of the huts in the midst of the greenery, like lanterns or will-o-wisps pointing the way towards the main Equestrian settlement in the area – Hollow Shades.

Knaze, are you comfortable?” Twilight heard Deep Mist’s sudden question. “I hope we are not flying too fast for your liking.”

“No, not at all,” she responded, speaking loud enough to be heard. “I am amazed by your speed. I never thought our journey will be quite this rapid!”

Midnight laughed wholeheartedly at her words of praise.

“This is quite slow in comparison to what we can normally do!” he bragged, his voice full of confidence.

It caused Deep Mist’s elated sigh. “Here we go again... Just like his Rodine...” he said in a disappointed tone.

Twilight felt perplexed. “Like his Family? What do you mean, Deep Mist?”

“You see, Twilight,” Midnight decided to get ahead of his comrade, “our society, divided into Families, has certain... stereotypes about batponies from different peaks.”

“My Family,” the other stallion continued, disregarding the interruption he suffered, “is, as you might have heard, Knaze, considered devious and untrustworthy.” He chuckled ironically and looked with a critical gaze to the other Nightguardian. “Maednoc Wentr believes himself superior to others.”

“Guilty as charged,” the accused pony admitted with a thoughtful, dramatic expression. “At least we are not out of touch with reality, like the Sunfalls, would you not say, Deep Mist?”

Twilight heard an imitation of high societal, Equestrian accent in his voice as he barred his fangs mockingly.

“Indeed,” the other batpony responded in kind. “Nor are we brutish like the Fangs.” He nodded profoundly and with utmost seriousness, although the corners of his mouth began to twitch.

“Not mud-covered like the Dusks.” Midnight continued, himself trying to keep a straight face.

Deep Mist responded on the verge of bursting...

“Nor closed-minded like the Shades.”

... and Midnight stared at him with an expression of borderline hysterics.

“And the Crescents?”

“And the Crescents are wimps!” both stallions shouted loudly, falling into laughter.

They continued to chuckle for a good minute, which caused the whole chariot to shake a bit, like it was sharing in their joy. Twilight, on the other hoof, could barely understand what had just taken place. Her face was betraying that and when the batponies looked back and witnessed her perplexed appearance, their laughter was rejuvenated. Midnight finally wiped a tear from his eye and decided to explain what had transpired to her.

“I told you, Twilight,” he said before coughing deeply, removing the remnants of his fit from his voice, “that the different Families tend to argue and rival, but we are still one community, all of us.”

Deep Mist nodded at this statement. “What you heard, Knaze, is an old set of stereotypes that nearly everypony in Noctraliya knows,” the batpony concluded and stared to the starry sky, checking if they remained on course.

“I have to say,” Twilight’s tone was full of concern, “some of those seem... hurting. Is it not considered insulting to keep around such an unkind convention?”

Midnight shook his head quite profoundly, his helmet hitting the top of his cuirass with a little clang.

“We do not scream that into each other’s faces. It is, as you said, a ‘convention’,” he clarified. “But it plays nicely with each of the Family’s specialties.”

“That it does, Maednoc Wentr is right,” Deep Mist concurred. “Iaa Rodine is known for our subterfuge, Maednoc Wentra for their love of history and tradition, thinking themselves superior.” He gave another long look to the other batpony.

“The Shades are builders and miners, while Dusks tend to the land. Sunfalls deal with faith and customs and justice, while Crescents create art. And Fangs are always training for war,” Midnight counted all of the remaining Families. “Of course, we’re not all the same caste in a Rodine, as I told you before, Twilight. Not even the Lords. But it seems that our society became naturally specialized in this way...” he concluded and Deep Mist agreed with yet another “ha” sound escaping his mouth.

“How fascinating. I do remember you explaining this, but I had no idea this phenomenon is going so far.” Twilight rubbed her chin. “Although, you did mention the Library belonging to your Family as being well known, for example.”

Deep Mist reacted first to those words.

“Ah, Maednoca Tabulre. True, it holds many old, priceless documents.” He looked towards his comrade, who could not help but have only satisfaction written all over his muzzle. “As much as we might find Rodine Maednoc as… what’s that term? Ha- Hau-“ he stuttered.

“Do you mean ‘haughty’?” Twilight came to his aid.

“Yes, that. Thank you, Knaze. We might find them haughty, but we respect their knowledge and their service. Preserving our history is a revered task.”

“And we, in return, respect the Mists' expertise in their... ‘chicanery’, even if we are slow to trust them,” Midnight joined in, looking particularly proud about using a fancy-sounding, Equestrian term. “I think this is exactly how we make it work, Twilight.”

She contemplated this extraordinary level of social cooperation with an expression of grave engrossment.

“A mixture of tolerance and criticism, you say?”

“Exactly...” Deep Mist agreed. “We are all, in the end, children of Neskaza Lunee...” he said the name of the Goddess with veneration and the two stallions lowered their heads for a moment. After a minute-long silence, Midnight turned to Twilight once more.

“Could... you tell me,” he began, but his tone was unsure and careful, “what is the Goddess like? Not as a deity, but...?” he was clearly not certain how to finish his sentence.

Deep Mist’s ears twitched at those words. He stared back, interest painted in his bright irises.

Twilight needed a moment to answer. She was not that close with Princess Luna to really witness her in everyday, or maybe “everynight”, situations, but her latest discussion with the “Immaculate Moon”, gave her a few ideas about what kind of mare Luna was.

“She is very careful with her words and emotions...” she began, trying to convey her knowledge in a proper way. “She has her secrets, that’s for sure, but I know she cares deeply for all the ponies. Especially for you, noctrali. She hopes that my visit brings you closer to Equestria...” It was the best answer Twilight could come up with at the moment.

The two batponies stared at one another with quizzical expressions. The yellow of their eyes reflected the starlight, as they were both having a silent conversation lacking words. Finally, Midnight stared behind him and met his gaze with Twilight’s.

“Thank you, Twilight Sparkle,” he said with a very bleak, emotionless tone.

They would not speak again until their landing in Hollow Shades.

***

The town, surrounded on all sides with the vast, thick forest brought back memories to Twilight. She recalled old pictures from history books she used to read while taking short breaks in her magical studies. The hamlet’s architecture, as much as she could discern from flying above it, looked completely unchanged over the last two hundred or so years, utilizing wood of different kinds, marked with symbolism of luck and prosperity. Such accents were once common in the eastern part of Equestria, where ponies of different professions were attempting to find their place in the wilds, finally taming vast expanses for the usage of farming and herding.

Hollow Shades, however, decided to specialize in providing the nation with timber of various sorts. Their fixation seemed to have made them stop the passage of time itself. There was something incredibly enchanting about this little place suspended in the past.

The outpost of the Nightguard turned out to be placed on a glade just outside of the town. Based on the top of a little hill, it possessed a firm palisade alongside a semi-deep moat, and was visibly done by the hooves of batponies rather than local populace. The only building present was a hexagonal, short tower, made mostly out of whole logs rather than planks, with a flat top to provide a good place for landing. Twilight could spot a couple of little lanterns marking it.

To be fair, this was a... particularly small landing place.

Not to say dangerously small.

“Welcome to Proznyi Umberi, Knaze,” Deep Mist exclaimed as the two batponies began the descending maneuver.

“You mean to land on this?!” Twilight raised both her hoof and voice. “There’s not enough room!”

“Maybe for Equestrians, but not for us!” Midnight shouted back, with his voice filled to the brim with mettle.

“Waaaaaaait!

Twilight’s objection fell on deaf ears as the two batponies suddenly caused the chariot to lose altitude. The warriors resembled two predatory birds, diving at their prey. As it happened, Twilight did feel like the said prey, clinging to her seat. As the ground and the tower were approaching with greater haste than it was necessary, she recalled that this was exactly the maneuver she witnessed when Princess Luna arrived at Ponyville during that memorable Nightmare Night celebration.

Midnight and Deep Mist leveled out the flight just in time. They extended their wings, spreading them widely, which caused the air resistance to slow the movement of the chariot. It touched the top of the tower quite smoothly, Twilight could barely feel the impact. The two batponies planted their hooves in the wooden surface with a loud, metallic thud of their hoofshoes. After they came to a full stop, they looked at each other and smiled smugly, clearly satisfied with their performance. Both when it came to the flight and its conclusion.

Twilight, on the other hoof, had to gulp rather loudly to calm herself down. Her panicked reaction might have been overdone, but, frankly, she wasn’t quite used to such a stunt-packed approach to travelling. Even then, she had to admire this aerial display.

“Seems we are on time,” Midnight turned to their royal passenger, seemingly overlooking the fact that she was a bit paler than normal and had some droplets of sweat ornamenting her forehead. He nodded to Deep Mist and extended his hoof towards him. “Benu opes!

The other batpony grinned and hit the back of Midnight’s steel claws with his own blades, sending a clashing echo through the woodland. He was about to reply when the group heard a voice from the edge of the tower.

Tac! Good work indeed, guardians. How about you greet your officer first, hmmm? Show our guest how we do things?”

The voice ornamented with irony and brass belonged to a light-grey batpony mare, wearing a full set of Nightguard armor alongside a cloak not unlike the one used by Ardent Fang, albeit shorter and less elaborate. Her bright yellow irises were literally beaming with spirit as she trotted closer to the newly arrived group.

Midnight and Deep Mist immediately saluted the newcomer as Twilight made her way out of the chariot, somewhat thankful to be back on the ground. She made her way towards the mare. The batpony bowed her head a little, causing her rusty-hued mane to shift, before she greeted the Princess with a jovial, sharp smile.

“Good to meet you, Knaze!” she declared. Then, she suddenly approached and embraced Twilight in a warm, friendly, tight hug. It felt surprisingly honest. And, literally, breathtaking.

“It’s—“ Twilight tried her best to speak up, being constricted in this affectionate wrap. “It’s nice to meet you too, centur...?"

To Twilight’s surprise, however, after finally ceasing the tries of suffocating her, the batpony giggled, trying to hide it behind her hoof and yet failing miserably.

“I’m definitely not a stallion, Knaze!” she finally responded. “I am not a centur, I am a 'centure'. Sunfall Ordain, captain of this outpost. We are glad to be your accommodation for today.” She stepped back a little and saluted, her grin emanating with sincere excitement.

“Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to—“ Twilight tried to apologize, only to be cut off by being grabbed by one of the hooves and led away from her entourage.

“No worries, Knaze. It’s brave of you to try speak our tongue!” Sunfall Ordain assured, still grinning broadly. “We never before had a Knaze around, I hope our outpost won’t be too... simple for your standards,” she concluded with a slightly worried gaze.

“Oh, don’t worry about that, Captain,” Twilight replied, waving her hoof. “I do not need a royal bed, just a place to lay my head down for the day.”

Sunfall Ordain appeared relieved by those news, as she exhaled deeply and her expression relaxed. She turned to the two warriors who were still staying in position of attention.

“Grab Knazeyi bags. Motai!” she barked an order.

The stallions saluted quickly and proceeded, but the batpony mare did not seem to care about them any longer. She began leading Twilight down a wooden staircase, her full attention focused on her.

“We have a little supper prepared for you, Knaze. Nopony shall find noctrali lacking hospitality!” she exclaimed with a note of pride and excitation.

“I doubt anypony would contest that,” Twilight assured politely, finding it somewhat difficult to keep up with this font of endless energy that the batpony appeared to be.

“Let them try!” the fanged mare shouted confidently and laughed. “We, Nocferratani, can take on any challenge.”

Twilight smiled at those words. They were boastful and ostentatious, but the way Sunfall Ordain was expressing herself, it appeared like she truly believed in those. Was it excessive training, or just her way of being?

Descending down this quite simple construction, Twilight could not feel impressed by the size of this outpost. One mere tower and a makeshift defense line? That was not too reassuring. At the same time this was but a small station, not a representative, meant to impose and threaten, bastion like the citadel of the Nightguard near Canterlot.

“Allow me to ask,” she started and the batpony immediately turned her head, “how many warriors are stationed here currently?”

“Right now, Knaze, ten, me included. We are merely an ‘outpost’ for now,” Sunfall Ordain answered eagerly.

“Do you all fit in this tower?”

“Oh, no, Knaze!” the batpony denied. “This is only the landing place for us and the equipment transports. You’ll see for yourself!”

The grey mare was constantly grinning as the two slowly continued down, all the way to the ground level. But the staircase did not stop there. Instead of wood, the steps were now carved into the stone, as the stairwell drilled itself into the rock. Small candles, placed in little niches in the walls were the only source of light and the way down reminded Twilight about the nearly endless set of stairs she encountered in the Crystal Castle while confronting King Sombra. This place was equally eerie and mysterious. And, which was most annoying, barely illuminated.

Sunfall Ordain glanced back suddenly and inquired. “Can you see well enough, Knaze? I understand this lack of proper light might be quite straining for you.” There was a note of worry in her tone.

“I am... managing,” Twilight assured, although she could really use some actual luminosity, rather than near complete darkness ornamented with faint flames here and there. The last thirty seconds she was moving ridiculously carefully, trying to visualize the stairs in her mind before taking a step. She was successful at avoiding tumbling down the stairwell in a quite un-Princess-like fashion for the moment.

“We are nearly at the bottom, I assure you, Knaze,” the captain guaranteed, slowing down and granting Twilight time to venture down a few steps more.

The sound of metal and heavy breathing announced Midnight and Deep Mist, as they both appeared right when the two mares reached the bottom of the stairs, carrying with them the alicorn’s belongings.

“I feel forced to ask,” the former batpony began, inhaling deeply, “whether you have packed any unnecessary luggage in here, Honored Princess. This weighs a lot more than it looks.”

Sunfall Ordain rolled her bright eyes at him as Twilight bit her lip. She recalled that, yes, the Shrinking Spell was making items, like rich tomes, lose their size, but the weight remained unchanged.

“Stop whining, wampir! Do your work!” the officer shouted loudly enough for the echo to take her voice bouncing all over the place.

Speaking of which, Twilight's eyes were slowly, slowly getting used to the near total darkness. She could now understand what the Captain meant by her words. The wooden tower above the ground was nothing in comparison to the rest of the outpost, hidden from plain sight. Three corridors, carved in solid rock, were leading from the stairwell in different directions, each of it long enough that Twilight could not spot the end of those.

Which, she had to be fair, did not indicate anything, as she could barely see her companions, let alone the passageways.

“I see...” she began, as her mind added the word “barely” to the sentence, “what you meant by your words, Captain. Are all Nightguard outposts done in such a way?”

“Whenever we can use a natural cave system, yes, definitely,” Sunfall Ordain pointed out. “If there are any caverns at all, we conjoin them into a complex with tunnels. Such a way of building makes our stations well defensible. And it makes us feel at home, Knaze.”

“Another question, then – do you really see perfectly in such dark?” Twilight’s brain finally forced her to inquire about this, hoping that the Captain would realize the semi-hidden meaning.

“Why, yes, Knaze. Each of those candles works like a proper torch for us!” she declared confidently. “But we could provide more light, if you would wish...”

“I think I can aid myself a tad bit,” Twilight replied and focused a few strands of present, magical energy to surround her horn. It began glowing faintly and timidly, providing the much needed support, though she didn’t wish to blind her companions in any way.

Regardless of the care, however, her art still spawned an immediate reaction.

Sunfall Ordain stared at her with a gaze that combined worry and a little bit of spurn. Deep Mist let out a faint, almost inaudible hiss, while Midnight, after escaping with his gaze, simply stared forward, ready to carry the luggage onward without any fuss. Twilight could not comprehend what caused such a change of atmosphere. Her Illumination Spell was clearly not bright enough to make the batponies worry about their eyesight!

After a few seconds of tensed silence, the Captain proceeded with leading the group down one of the corridors. But her voice lost a lot of its enthusiasm.

“I have prepared my own quarters for you, Knaze. They are right nearby,” she mentioned with but a passing echo of her joyous tone. “Wampiri, triu bram na dekstr.

Midnight and Deep Mist saluted without a word and turned into a corridor on the right, while Sunfall continued walking down the current passage.

“Again, allow me to welcome you in our little outpost, Knaze.”

The batpony opened a set of wooden doors she approached and beckoned Twilight to enter, trying to smile.

Twilight crossed the threshold to a natural cavern that was spacious enough to have a long, solid table placed across it. This chamber was illuminated by a set of candles suspended in a metal chandelier in the middle of the room, making it needless for Twilight to keep up the spell. As she entered the hall, she heard the scraping of chairs against the stone floor. She witnessed a set of bright, reflective eyes focus on her, with vertical pupils piercing her through. The batpony regiment saluted her profoundly and properly, their expressions fierce, as the sound of Nightguard armor filled the room with its metallic cacophony.

Twilight decided to greet her hosts appropriately. As a... rehearsal for her meeting with the Covenant.

“Neskaza Lunee welae tuyiu noc illum,” she greeted the noctrali with a confident, royal tone. Although, inside, she was slightly worried – did she remember to use the correct pronoun?

The gathered Nightguardians lowered their heads and then looked at one another with awed expressions, before one of them raised his hoof in the air and shouted a loud and energetic “Ha!”. Soon the whole room erupted in this expression and even Sunfall Ordain let out a happy shout.

“Rejoice, wampiri!” she yelled with rekindled enthusiasm. “Our guest invokes our Goddess’ holy name!”

The company shouted in unison and then the batponies converged on Twilight, wishing to introduce themselves. The mare began exchanging bows and even gentle hugs, as the greeting she received was more than cordial. She tried her best to remember all the names: Rockslide, Stillfang, Dusk Blade, Larchleaf… From what the alicorn recalled, those names meant that both the noble batpony houses and the lesser ones had their members within the elite unit.

After the initial welcome, alongside the whole garrison, Twilight sat down at the table, being led to a place of honor at the top of it. In the meantime, Deep Mist and Midnight entered the hall. Upon witnessing the level of fraternization in the chamber, they chuckled loudly and exchanged greetings with their brethren, receiving a couple of shouts and hoofbumps involving the claws. Midnight managed to somehow steal the closest place to Twilight’s left, which did involve pushing through the gathered crowd and a couple of friendly and less-friendly shoves. When he took his seat, glancing at the once again overjoyed Sunfall Ordain sitting across from him, he turned to Twilight with an amazed look.

“What did you do to them?”

“Nothing, I swear!” Twilight said and laughed. “I just greeted them properly, as you taught me.”

Impredu, vere impredu...” he uttered and grinned at her, removing his helmet and letting his tied cobalt mane flow down one side of his neck. For some reason, he really resembled a legendary vampire now, one a pony could meet in a castle in the swamps, in a long cloak, playing pipe organs and drinking blood from an ornate goblet. Twilight knew well that he was Midnight, not a vampire.

Well, there was still that thing about batponies and sucking blood...

Before the train of Twilight’s thoughts could take her too far, Sunfall Ordain’s voice filled the chamber.

“Bring the fruit and drink! We celebrate to our guest’s health and well-being,” she exclaimed and a couple of batponies left their seats to fetch everything to the table. “We hope that you shall share in our traditional beverage, Knaze!” the captain turned to Twilight with a wide smile.

“If she can take it!” one of the local Nightguardians, a mare whose name Twilight recalled as Cranberry, shouted daringly. She crossed her forelegs behind her head on which her spiky, maroon mane resembled wild brambles.

“Traditional? Oh, definitely!” Twilight assured, not willing to back down. She naturally suspected that it was something of a goad. She did not wish to insult anypony by declining, so she decided to accept the challenge, whatever it might have been.

To be fair, if she did not know better already, she would have presumed that “traditional beverage” meant blood.

Midnight turned towards her with an expression that betrayed some measure of concern. “Are you certain, Princess? I have to warn you th—“

“Hey, let Knaze try!” Deep Mist interrupted him with a loud shout and a slight jab to the foreleg. “Let us see how well soleerani can hold their liquor!”

The gathered batponies nodded with some unquestionably mocking looks on their muzzles. Midnight slowly looked at his comrade, who raised his hooves in an expression proclaiming his complete innocence. As of Twilight, she was mostly intrigued by the expression that Deep Mist weaved into his sentence.

A set of quite simple, metal cups were placed in front of everypony by the noctrali that went to bring the refreshments. Then each of it got filled with a liquid that looked like water with a very slight tint of orange. Twilight raised her makeshift “chalice” and took a sniff of the drink. It smelled of fruit, but the scent of it was... harsh. Fermented.

Seeing her careful approach, one of the gathered warriors shouted.

“Let us show our guest how she should do it! Hwale!” he toasted on top of his lungs, his dark violet mane flowing back as he raised his cup fervently.

Hwale!”

The whole room stood up, drinks raised high and spirits lifted even higher. Midnight let out a loud, taunting shout and, alongside his comrades, emptied the cup in one go.

What occurred after the gathered had finished drinking depended heavily on each and every one of them. Deep Mist exhaled deeply through a clenched throat, Sunfall Ordain shouted with a high pitched voice, that, with proper training, would be enough to shatter glass. One of the other batponies, whose name Twilight remembered as Crescent Steel, slammed his cup on the table so hard he nearly toppled it, causing a measure of amused protests.

Whatever this drink was, it surely had a kick to it.

The company shared a hearty laugh, with a couple of more shouts added to the mix, then they all turned their attention to Twilight. She gave a glance towards Midnight, who had just finished shaking his head assiduously, like trying to fight some sort of seizure attack. He looked back at her with a faint smile on his muzzle and gave her a reassuring nod. Twilight could not deny that it granted her a lot of confidence.

As it happened, confidence alone was not to be enough to tackle such a beverage.

She raised the cup high, with the room focused on her. She stared at the batponies and began drinking. She took a small sip at first, but even such an insubstantial amount became a challenge. What she drank resembled less water, more a burning, infernal conflagration. She was almost certain she scalded her throat with the first gulp. The taste of it was a meld of hot spices and oranges that somepony took and lit aflame, then somehow converted into liquid form. And, speaking of such conversions, Twilight’s eyes began changing into liquid form themselves. The sheer potency of the brew filled them to the brim with tears.

Faced with so many challenges at once, the only response Twilight could muster was a coughing fit, causing her to sit down on the chair immediately and nearly drop the cup down.

It wasn't the cup’s destiny to be the one to land on the floor, however.

As the entire chamber, witnessing Twilight’s struggle, erupted into borderline hysterics, Sunfall Ordain laughed mirthfully enough to fall back with her chair.

The feast did not last for too long, nor was it a particularly refined one, taking more the form of a celebratory meal, rather than a welcoming party. There were oranges and apples and pears on the table, quenching the thirst and hunger of the batponies. The Captain also made sure that Equestrian food was present for Twilight to enjoy. Once the alicorn was done with coughing her lungs out, that is.

The mare had an opportunity to observe her hosts during the meal. From witnessing Midnight eating before, she knew what to expect from the company and wasn't disappointed. It seemed that the batponies possessed a quite firm wild side to their nature. The fruit were disappearing rapidly, sucked dry and devoured by the garrison, all of this causing occasional squirts of juice to pass across the table and peels to fly around, as the gathered did not bother to keep up any more dignified appearances. And it did not seem to be a case of bad-manners. They simply enjoyed their food enough not to care for looking courtly while doing so.

Sunfall Ordain, who was herself consuming quite the amount of oranges, finally let out a satisfied exhale. There were droplets of juice going down her chin as she cleared her lips with her tongue.

“Good harvest, Knaze!” she declared with joy, giving Twilight a gaze of a content predator. “And a good occasion to celebrate, having such a guest around. But I presume you must be exhausted after the long flight. And you still have a journey ahead of you.”

“I am not that tired, Captain, but yes, tomorrow we have to continue,” Twilight replied, nodding.

“I shan't keep you any longer then, Knaze. My quarters are at your disposal. Guardians,” the centure turned to Deep Mist and Midnight, “escort our guest. Then you two can catch some shut-eye in our dormitories.”

The two batponies stood up and Twilight left her seat as well, with a grateful smile. She might have not wanted to go to sleep quite yet, but she did wish to talk with Midnight a little bit before that. The whole garrison respectfully gave her a salute.

The moment the door to the mess hall closed behind Twilight and her entourage, she could hear the firm and vigorous voice of Sunfall Ordain granting orders to the remaining inside batponies. Whatever she was saying, it sounded as fierce as a trained officer could make it sound.

“Is such a level of strictness,” the mare inquired her escort after a moment, when the shouts became a bit quieter, “something normal within the Nightguard?”

“To an extent, yes,” Midnight replied, stretching his neck to stare behind, like worried that the Captain was going to burst out of the room in a second. “We are the most elite force Noctraliya has to offer and that does not come from slacking. Of course, we are allowed some personal freedom, but the moment an order is given, everything else becomes irrelevant.”

“Everything, tac...” Deep Mist agreed, putting an audible emphasis on his first word and Twilight could swear that a little shudder went through Midnight. “But also,” he continued, “the local garniz is rather busy lately, which might explain the… ‘volume’ of the centure.”

“Busy with what?” Twilight asked curiously.

“Charting the province, Knaze,” the warrior answered her. “I talked with them during the meal, they are planning new wiari through the forest, to aid in the lumber transport.”

“Oh, that’s very kind of the Nightguard, to help the local populace like that!” Twilight admitted with a smile. Midnight glanced for a heartbeat at his companion before speaking up.

“We simply do our duty, nothing more.” There was a cold vibe to his words.

As the group approached Twilight’s temporal quarters, she asked the batponies once more. “Shall we have to leave immediately after sunset?”

Deep Mist thought for a moment, staring up at the rock ceiling.

“It would be better, there is still a significant distance to the Ambyit. But I can check if centure has calume reports,” he offered eagerly. “We don’t want to fly right into a snowstorm...”

“Good idea, I doubt Ekwestriya sends their weather patrols so far east,” Midnight joined in. “We shall allow ourselves to wake you up in advance, Princess,” he declared and both the batponies saluted her, the metallic echo venturing down the corridor.

“Thank you both,” the mare said, then, seeing that they were departing, asked suddenly. “Would you mind staying a bit longer, Midnight? I’d like to talk with you.”

The stallion stopped abruptly and raised an eyebrow at this request.

“Very well, Twilight,” he said with a calm tone. Meanwhile, Deep Mist let out a sound combining a theatrical cough, a nasal snort, and a cynical exhale, then proceeded down the corridor like nothing happened.

Sunfall Ordain’s office turned out to be a moderately spacious chamber entirely carved in the rock, illuminated by two candles in a small candelabrum. A plain desk, a little bookshelf stacked with scrolls, a table with two chairs, a wardrobe and a bed with just enough size to accommodate Twilight. Everything here was done with wood and appeared really simple, austere even. Maybe except an additional set of quilts prepared on the bed, clearly to make it at least a little more cozy for the guest.

“Pretty... frugal,” Twilight could not stop a commentary escaping her.

Midnight nodded with a huge dosage of understanding.

Centure is ascetic in this way, I have heard. Then again, Rodine Soleeced never did put much value in material goods.” He approached the table and placed his jagged helmet on it. “At least she gave you some more comforters,” he joked and chuckled, sitting down.

“Oh, I am not worried about my comfort,” Twilight assured, shaking her head. “I found out that I can sleep in many places, like still sitting, with my head resting on the desk.” She joined the batpony at the table.

“During one of your long nights of study, I presume?” the stallion inquired somewhat mockingly, yet his eyes were warm.

“How did you know?” She giggled before silence fell upon the room for a good minute, filled with her and the batpony staring around and occasionally crossing their gazes. “So...” she tried to start a conversation, “we finally have a chance to talk. What have you been up to since our last meet-up?”

“Busy. Always busy,” his voice was emotionless, almost cold. “Who knew being assigned leadership can be such a pain in the neck...” He faked laughter, as his eyes escaped somewhere to the side. “But I know you had your hooves full too. With the Rubearu Diabl.”

“Tirek...” Twilight let out a long sigh. “I do not think I faced a greater challenge in my life, Midnight.”

“I heard stories about the clash. And the outcome... I am sorry about your home, Twilight. You must have lost a lot...” The batpony stared right at her, wishing to comfort her at least with his words.

“Thank you.” Twilight nodded wistfully. “It was... hard to see Golden Oak gone...” A tear appeared in one of her eyes. “It meant a lot to me. Held many moments I treasure as memories...”

The little droplet began flowing down her cheek. Before Twilight spotted it, Midnight was already near her, lowering his head to the level of her muzzle. He took off one of his clawed hoofshoes and gently, slowly, wiped the tear away, before it had a chance to fall on the stone floor.

“We have a saying, Twilight... Memna i wita. Remember and live. Always hold your memories close to you but move on and never lose hope.” The stallion’s tone was calm and caring, as he sat on the floor in front of her. His hoof remained touching her face for a split second longer than needed before he let go. “Besides, noctrali believe that in the Argentee, under the Goddess’ gaze, we shall have everything aplenty,” he said, smiling faintly.

Twilight gazed at him with gratitude. She felt her cheeks beginning to burn slightly when she realized how carefully he touched her. It was but a gesture of consolation and yet her muzzle felt like it was being set on fire even more potently than after that dreadful batpony liquor.

“That... is a good vision of afterlife to have, yes,” she finally commented on his words. “And I am not going to lose hope. Thank you, Midnight...” She smiled at him, witnessing his gentle, fanged grin. There was something stirring behind his saffron eyes, but she could not tell what exactly.

The stallion stood up and took his place across from her once more. “Seems we have a tendency to help one another in sad moments,” he declared, his face betraying that he thought about some recent event.

“You take, you give?” Twilight quoted the batponies' saying and Midnight shook his head grinning. “Might I ask a favor of you?”

“Naturally, Twilight. What would you have me do?”

“I’ve made some observations today and I feel investigative,” she started, standing up and heading to pick up the scroll with notes she prepared, as well as a quill from her bag. “Would you mind resolving my doubts?”

“Not at all – as I recall, I was doing so from the start of our relationship,” he declared.

Twilight stopped in mid-trot. What did he just say?

“P-pardon?” she inquired, wishing to quickly assure herself that she heard him right.

“Oh, kirwe!” Midnight covered his mouth so fiercely he literally slapped himself. “I did not mean that, I meant, you know, since we know one another!”

Twilight stared at him for a second, before giggling uncontrollably. The panic in his eyes made this moment thoroughly comical.

“It’s alright, Midnight, I know what you wanted to say. It’s just a funny mistake to make,” she declared, sitting down, still laughing at the fact that she was now in front of a quite perturbed stallion.

“I’m sorry,” he finally spurted out, looking down. Twilight could swear he was desperately trying to hide his vexation.

“It’s fine, Midnight,” she said, grinning. “Well, in this case, my first question shall be about this expletive you just shouted.”

The batpony smiled finally, although his eyes betrayed the remnants of his fluster. “Well, it literally means ‘batshit’. It is a general expression of being displeased.”

“In Equestrian this would mean ‘crazy’,” Twilight pointed out.

“Yes, so I have learned. It’s just a relic from Eldu Noctraliyar, but still used by us,” he said, trying to make himself more comfortable on the chair.

“What about ‘soleerani’?”

Midnight ceased his motions, focusing his gaze on her. He exhaled deeply before speaking up.

“The same, a relic... The word means non-batpony ponies, no matter the race. It’s... well, some of us use it as an... insult.”

Twilight, who was about to scribble down the meaning of the word, stopped herself abruptly.

“... a racial insult?” she inquired to which the stallion nodded slowly.

“And religious, as it also means those that do not hold Neskaza Lunee... in the highest esteem, as is right and just,” he explained with reluctance, and yet with a note of zealous pride.

Twilight did not feel like contesting his revelations right now, but what she heard filled her with... caution. If such was the convention in Noctraliya, who knew how deeply it ran? Just like those stereotypes about different Families.

“Was this what you were talking about on the way here, Midnight?” she suddenly asked. “I heard Deep Mist mentioning something quite...” She looked for a word for a second. “Unpleasantly.”

“Oh?” The batpony pondered for a moment. “Oh, I know what you mean! No, he was just pointing out that you call me simply ‘Midnight’ and not ‘Midnight Wind’, as it is proper. I mentioned to you that it is perceived as insulting, he was simply curious,” the stallion explained, reaching up to his neck and checking if his hair was still tied properly.

“Ah, I understand. You reacted quite nervously though,” Twilight pointed out, staring with interest at the stallion’s motion. She was wandering if it was a Nightguard regulation concerning manes – to have them tied somehow if they were longer, as she did not recall the batpony doing anything like this before. Or was this but something he picked up currently to, clearly, calm himself down?

“I just thought he was too blunt in his words. And I suspected you to find out the meaning on your own, Twilight,” he replied, tightening the strip holding his hair together. “You are a very intelligent mare after all.”

At the compliment, Twilight felt her muzzle lighting up in a blush. She coughed a bit, which caused the batpony to laugh out of a sudden.

“What’s so funny?”

“I have just remembered your struggle at the meal,” he answered, grinning widely.

Twilight raised her hoof in protest. “Hey, I had no idea what I was dealing with!” she replied, making a face. “What was this drink, actually? Processed liquid lava?”

Midnight burst into further laughter at her comparison.

“It burns, doesn't it? We call it gozalke. It can actually be translated to ‘water that burns’ and it is supposed to, harshly. It is made from oranges and various, local for our lands, spices and we use it as a celebratory drink, for special occasions.”

“It’s potent, I’ll give it that. But why make such a brew? And why for important occasions only?” Twilight inquired with mounting interest. What twisted mind came to the idea that a beverage good enough to melt throats and set tongues aflame shall be perfect for festivities?

“It’s an old tradition,” the batpony said with a huge dosage of respect. “I know it must have been horrendously foul to you, as you are unused to such a liquor, but think about it for a second, return back to you drinking it. Do you recall the aftertaste?”

That was an odd question to ask, but Twilight went with it. She closed her eyes and smacked her lips slowly. Aside from the surprising amount of coughing, she... did remember a kind of sweet bouquet to the “gozalke” that remained after the burning went away. A brilliant mixture of fruit and spices, many of which Twilight was sure she had never before experienced. Midnight had a point, she suddenly realized. It was like her throat was being severely judged at the start, without mercy or respite, but then received a blessing of...

“I get it...” Twilight’s eyes widened as she looked back at the stallion. “The drink itself... it’s a metaphor. First the judgment, then salvation. Like in your belief about Afterlife.” She found the tone of her voice far more than surprised.

Midnight but nodded with joy written all over his muzzle, and so she continued. “I never thought that one can find a transcendental metaphor in a drink!”

The batpony chuckled merrily, bowing his head a tiny bit. “Welcome to our world! Enjoy your stay!”

“I have a feeling I shall immensely, yes." It was Twilight’s turn to giggle as Midnight gave her a weird look. "No, I am not a drunkard!” she assured him. She looked down at her scroll to put down what she had just learned, however she stopped herself just before grabbing the quill with magic.

She stared at Midnight with a tensed expression. “Now, tell me, please... Do you mind me using magic?”

“Mind you?” the stallion inquired back, with a perplexed expression. “What do you mean?”

“Back in the corridor,” Twilight began, although uncertainty became blatant in her voice, “when I conjured light for myself, I saw how the Captain reacted. I heard Deep Mist... hissing even. Does your species... have something against Equestrian magic?”

“Nothing escapes you, does it, Twilight?” The batpony sighed profoundly before putting his hooves on the table and supporting himself on those a bit, like he wished to make a stern point and at the same time show his reluctance. “I am not a priest but a simple warrior. I am only taught that your magic is... wrong, that’s all.”

“Wrong? What do you mean by ‘wrong’?” Twilight could not hide the fact that those words were something of an... affront to her. Batponies viewed magic as something repulsive? Why didn't he tell her before?!

“Please, Twilight, don’t ask me. I am but a humble servant of the Immaculate Moon...” he paused, as it was customary, “I do not dabble in m—“ he stuttered for a second, trying to find the correct, Equestrian word, “me-ta-phy-si-cal explanations,” he concluded slowly.

Twilight pouted at such an answer. It was clear to her that Midnight was hiding something and he wished not to reveal anything more than he had done already. She was not too pleased by it. At the same time, a part of her mind was trying to calmly remind her that he was also trying to be polite and not sadden her. And that she could well understand. She looked down at her scroll and grabbed the quill in her hoof, rather than with her magical aura.

“So you interview me in paper form now?” Midnight asked after a moment of nearly complete silence, when the only sound remaining was Twilight writing notes down.

“You know, our recordings did perish,” she said with a tone of bittersweet humor to her voice.

“It is a shame. Well, we shall redo those,” the batpony offered suddenly. “Unless you have them memorized completely...” Midnight gazed at her with suspicion mixed in with amusement and Twilight dismissed his stare with a wave of her hoof and an exhale.

“No! Why would you presume I did?” she asked, smiling and trying to, somehow, change the subject.

Truth was, she recalled nearly every word, every laugh and every pause. She listened to those tapes many, many times, trying to remember all the details about Noctraliya and batponies. She could almost tell the exact times when the questions were asked, how long the answer was, how often was she correct in her assumptions and how many times was she wrong and surprised about the information she gathered. She often put the tapes on even when not particularly having anything more to add to her notes on the subject. She simply listened to them all.

Well... all but one.

“I ‘presume’ to know you well enough, Twilight...” The batpony’s voice brought her back to the real world. Midnight grinned broadly, exposing his sharp fangs to their full extent. “But, as you can see, your visit to my homeland shall grant you more insight than the interviews. Even so, I am up for some rerecording,” he finished, checking a strap on his clawed hoofshoe.

Twilight bit her lip. “Even the one about the bloodlust...?”

Her soft question caught him by surprise. His expression was a bit... tensed, as he froze with one of his hooves fiddling with his weapon.

Twilight immediately regretted her curiosity getting the best of her. That one moment of the last recording imprinted itself in her mind firmly enough, she did not have listen to it ever again. Midnight’s words branded her thoughts thoroughly. And the said batpony was right now staring at her with a piercing gaze, with his mouth slightly agape.

“I...” he wished to finally say something, after the silence became palpable. “I was stupid, that’s all. Making a joke...” he commented, finishing his task with a set of nervous motions.

“A joke?”

“Yes... You know, Twilight, to finish the interview with something... shocking. Make it more interesting for the listeners,” he stated, trying to show enthusiasm, yet his eyes were looking somewhere past her.

Twilight knew well that he was lying. Seems he was not good at it, maybe even worse than she was. “I told you I was going to keep this recording private,” she pointed out, trying to catch his gaze with her own stare.

Midnight turned his head to the side and bit his lip, seeing how well and quickly his deception was discovered.

She resumed in the meantime. “I just... I just want to know what you meant by your words...”

“Indeed? You are simply curious?” He finally glanced at her, his quick turn making his cobalt mane fall on the other side of his neck. “Is this why you left my house in such a hurry back then? Curiosity made you run away?”

There was a tone of... not accusation, more like disappointment in his voice. Twilight moved back a bit with her chair. She could well remember what occurred that night. It all came back to her right at that moment and the memory of Midnight’s gentle voice echoed in her mind.

“Hmmm... No, this is not the cause then...”

“... the cause of what...?” She recalled her question, as he began approaching her with a glint to his gaze that made her body shiver in a strange sensation.

“Me wondering... what is the taste of your blood...” he finally expressed himself, standing right in front of her, staring at her intently. With his muzzle slightly opened and his breath shallow and short.

Twilight recalled turning off the tape with surprising haste, then quickly packing her recorder and thanking him, trying to avoid his gaze as best as she could, as he stood in his place petrified, constantly looking after her. She well remembered her mumbling about: “Having to get back home”, “Spike getting worried”, as well as some other, clearly fake excuses. She opened the door and nearly galloped back to the Library, leaving Midnight standing on the threshold of his place, with a shaken expression and one of his forelegs stretched after her, like he was hoping to stop her from going away.

Finally returning to the present, Twilight lowered her head. “I... didn't know how to react... You said that the... ‘red desire’...” Those words became really hard for her to say out of a sudden. “... that it only happens when a batpony feels a deep connection to—“

“I know what I said, Twilight,” Midnight interrupted her rather harshly. “Deep connection to ‘another noctral’. Now, is there anything more you need, or are we done for the day?”

Twilight could not believe how cold his voice became. It was like she was not talking with a friend, but only a... warrior assigned to do his task. His words were... They hurt her a bit. Did she... offend him somehow? What was even going on?

“I... no, that would be all...” she declared apologetically.

“Then may the Immaculate Moon...” he paused to lower his head, “send blessed dreams your way.”

After grabbing his helmet from the table and saluting, causing the room to be filled with a set of metallic rustles, Midnight slowly approached the doorway. He grabbed the doorknob, being constantly observed by Twilight, not unlike how he followed her with his gaze that last time. But just before the batpony exited, he quickly turned his head towards her.

“Twilight... I...”

He tried to say something. His muzzle twitched uncontrollably as he blinked a couple of times. Ultimately failing to express himself, he simply exhaled deeply and left, an irked expression blatant on his face.

The doors closed shut behind him and the echo of his hoofsteps began slowly vanishing in the distance.

Twilight sat in the empty room, blankly staring at the doorway, like expecting the batpony to come back in a moment.

Wanting him to come back.

He didn't.

***

Deep Mist finished the small letter and once more checked the contents of the report, skimming quickly through the few sentences.

To: Honored Lord Azure of Family Mist

Honored Lord,

the Princess is on the way. She fits the granted description. She beams with optimism, conviction and hope for a new opening between the realm of the Judging Sun and our domain. She picks her words carefully and tries her best to appear friendly and cordial, but she is observant, curious, inquisitive. She has an eye for detail and likely takes notes of all her findings. The ordered caution seems to be entirely justified, Honored Lord.

Observations will be continued, according to the granted specifications.

He smiled widely. He put the symbol of a curved dagger underneath the text and then sealed the parchment with a petite black seal. With a real, short weapon he took from the backpack, he left a little stab mark on the wax.

He was going to send this first thing tomorrow evening.

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