• Published 27th Feb 2015
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Dark Sun - ScreamingDoom



Twilight must delve into Celestia's past to save the future of Equestria.

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12 A Sacrifice of Honor

Touring the myriad disparate communities that had sprung up in the decades since the initial diaspora was fascinating for Celestia. Luna would often be her guide through the many places ponies now called home, having visited the majority of them herself before.

She still continued her research into the Spell that had caused all this, of course, but that research took a backseat to exploring the new world that had bloomed in the wake of pony hooves. It was exhilarating and liberating.

From the bustling, cosmopolitan cities of the earth ponies, to the austere castle-keeps of unicorn lords and ladies, to the drifting, mobile cloud cities of pegasi, the two sisters traveled, occasionally rendering some small aid or taking home trinkets and gifts from their fellow ponies. Much to Celestia's relief, few ponies took umbrage at the alicorn sister's presence in their communities; it would seem that even those places founded by Silverhoof's followers did not bear a grudge against herself or Luna.

To Celestia's surprise, there was one city that Luna had never set hoof in: the Unicornia capitol of Ivory Spire. This fact was revealed just a scant three years after Queen Geode's coronation as word arrived that, at last, King Silverhoof was dead. At the request of the Queen, the two alicorns were requested to attend the state funeral.

"Must we go?" Luna asked her sister uncomfortably.

Celestia was surprised by the question, "I think it would do well to honor this request. Queen Geode is a fine pony and you were elsewhere when Stardancer passed. All of our old friends are passing beyond the veil, Luna. We should say goodbye to them when we are able."

"Silverhoof was no friend of mine or yours," Luna replied with a vindictive that took Celestia back, "He took the stars, moon, and sun from us."

Celestia knew her sister was still upset by that fact, but it nonetheless surprised her how raw the wound remained decades later. "Yes, he did," Celestia allowed, "And be shattered our community." Luna's ears flattened back against her skull, a frown forming on her face. "But," Celestia continued, "Without that, would we have so many fine pony communities? His motives and actions might have been suspect, but the result has been a rich tapestry weaved of pony lives! Surely you'd like to see the glittering spires and limestone edifices of Ivory Spires again, if nothing else, dear sister?"

Luna shifted uneasily in place, her eyes casting down to the ground in mild embarrassment. "I have... never actually seen them," she replied hesitantly, "Knowing as I did that place being the center of Silverhoof's power, I avoided entering the environs."

Celestia blinked once then flashed a wide grin. "All the more reason for you to come!" she exclaimed, wrapping a wing comfortingly around her sister, "You have shown me most of the wonders our little ponies have created in the world. Let me show you the one I know."

Luna paused for a long time, but reluctantly bowed her head and agreed.

***

The ride to the palace was uneventful, the pair of alicorns again escorted by a herald and two unicorns in a golden coach. It was a different herald this time; Clarion Call had apparently ascended to the head of his family and now his third daughter, Trumpet Blast, was sent for them. To Celestia's relief, Trumpet Blast (while still quite chatty) did not seem as interested as her father had been in politics. The trip to the capitol of Unicornia was a pleasant ride filled with idle chatter about nothing in particular.

Ivory Spire had changed a lot in the three years since Celestia had last visited. The wooden palisade was gone, replaced with brickwork walls sealed covered in white plaster. The streets leading up to the more affluent areas, too, had been paved with brick. Still, this part of the city retained its somewhat disorganized charm, with a host of different building styles and types set along the spidery, confusing web of streets.

It never ceased to amaze Celestia how much her little ponies could change so quickly if they had a mind to. Luna had told her that Manehatten had completely changed its layout and makeup no less than three times since she had first visited; Celestia had yet to see such drastic alterations herself, but she did not doubt it possible, especially with the natural industriousness of earth-ponies.

As Celestia's mind turned to her hornless, wingless brethren, the white alicorn took note of the earth-ponies present in the glittering unicorn city; there seemed to be even more than previously, but they were ever more regulated to the areas around the walls. It was a detail that caused her to frown slightly.

Still, as the carriage ventured into the mid-heights of the city, Celestia couldn't help but smile. As much as the city had changed around the outer walls, here things were much more stable. The shops had changed and some of the buildings were taller and more ornate, but the crawling, baffling mess of streets started to become more organized and straighter.

The inner wall hadn't changed at all, it seemed, as far as Celestia could tell. Neither had the upper-class buildings beyond it. The further one approached to the palace, the more orderly and static the city seemed to become.

Except when it came to the Academy and the Palace proper.

Both of those buildings had changed dramatically. A whole other keep -- larger than the original -- had been added to the palace, tall enough to overshadow its twin below. Four more additional spires jutted out from the corners of the keep, larger curved edifices than what had come before. In addition, a section of the wall had been removed and Celestia could see crafts-ponies and work-ponies extending it as well as what looked like an expansive military training yard beyond.

Likewise, as they passed by the large iron gates of the Academy, Celestia noticed that several more buildings had been added to the campus. The central, domed structure still remained the largest by far, but numerous smaller buildings had sprung up along organized, curving paths cutting through the immaculately curated grounds. Several tall towers capped with pointed, mushroom-like roofs dotted the landscape of the Academy, the darkened windows occasionally brightening or flashing inexplicably. The Academy also seemed much more dynamic than she remembered it; rather than the occasional, austere researcher or academic wandering into or out of the gates, now entire herds of ponies -- ranging in age from the ancient to barely into fillyhood -- wandered along the paths, chatting and laughing and occasionally arguing.

"This city is certainly... grand," Luna reluctantly admitted as she watched the streets tumble by.

"Oh it is, it is!" cheered Trumpet Blast, her shortly cropped pink mane jangling around her as she gestured to to the windows, "I daresay it's the grandest city in all of the world! All those other unicorn cities are just pale imitations of Ivory Spire."

Luna grunted noncommittally before asking, "And what of non-unicorn cities?"

"I'm sure they have their charms," Trumpet Blast replied diplomatically. Luna grunted again.

Soon enough, the carriage was ushered through the gates of the palace and stopped at the entrance to the smaller keep that Celestia remembered. Stepping out of the carriage and ascending the steps, both she and Luna were soon greeted by none other than Queen Geode herself.

"Celestia!" the Queen exclaimed happily, moving forward and embracing the white unicorn, nuzzling her cheek, "It is so good to see you."

Celestia laughed and returned the hug gladly, "And you, my friend! I see you've made some improvements to your city. Your letters mentioned that you planned on doing so, but I never expected what I saw on the way. Especially the changes to the Academy and palace itself!"

Trilling, easy laughter bubbled up from the unicorn, "You are the one who suggested I not do things by half-measures." Queen Geode smiled beatifically, "And I trust the changes meet with your approval, Grand Elder Celestia?"

"Oho, I'm 'Grand Elder' now?" Celestia asked rhetorically with an amused smirk, "When will I stop acquiring ever more bizarre and unflattering titles?" The alicorn sighed dramatically before looking around, "As for the changes, I must admit I like them." Her expression darkened slightly, "Well. Except for the expanded martial field."

"An unfortunate necessity of ruling a queendom, I'm afraid," Queen Geode replied with a wan smile, "We have to be able to defend ourselves. Regardless! I'm far more proud of the outer wall and paving the streets for the Lower Trellis. And the Academy, of course."

Celestia glanced over her shoulder, in the direction of the Academy, "I saw on the way. Quite expansive changes. And it seems far more lively than it was when I last visited."

Queen Geode smiled brightly again, "Indeed. I opened up applications and scholarships for anypony with the talent to attend. I think mother would have approved. Father had always insisted that only the children of noble families should have access to such higher learning." The Queen's face fell and her brows furrowed at the sudden reminder of the reason why Celestia had returned. Quickly, Geode shook her head and instead focused on Luna who had been watching the exchange silently, "Ah! And you must be Elder Luna." Queen Geode bowed her head reverently to the dark alicorn, "A distinct honor to meet you, Elder. I am Queen Geode of Unicornia."

Luna watched the unicorn warily, but offered a tentative smile of her own, "The honor is mine. My sister has told me of you." She paused then offered somewhat awkwardly, "Also, accept my condolences on the passing of your father."

If Queen Geode noticed the awkward nature of the sentiment, she betrayed no hint of it, instead bowing reverently. "Thank you, Honored Elder Luna." She rose, then, and took a step back from the two alicorns, "Please, come with me. I know you must be tired after your long journey. I will have my attendants guide you to the quarters I have prepared while you are my guests. After you have had a chance to relax and freshen up, I have arranged a hearty meal. We can talk more then."

***

Left in the capable hooves of the attendant -- who, Celestia noted, was actually an earth-pony -- the two alicorn sisters were led through the back of the smaller keep into the larger. A long hallway led to twin half-spiral staircases at the end, the walls polished marble and the floor covered with rich red carpeting. As they walked through, Celestia noted two large portraits hung up on the left side of the hall. She slowed to a stop to examine them closely

One was of Stardancer, in her younger days. She sat at a desk, surrounded by arcane instruments and texts, glancing at the viewer with an expectant expression on her features, her hoof holding a quill over a piece of parchment filled with magical symbols and formula. She wore a circlet of green jade and a flowing blue gown that nicely complimented her coat color. A brass plaque underneath stated: "Queen Stardancer, First Queen of Unicornia."

The second was of Silverhoof. Here, he was depicted as being somewhat older, perhaps middle-aged, but not the decrepit, pitiable creature that Celestia had seen on her last visit. Here, the white unicorn was seated atop his golden throne, glaring imperiously down at the viewer, his head lifted just slightly to give him a commanding air. Over his head and around the top edge of the throne was a melding of a star-field, the moon, and the sun. An ornate golden crown sat on his head, with a red cape with white edging set about his shoulders. Held aloft by magic radiating from his horn was a golden scepter with a large red gem set at the top. The brass plaque read: "King Silverhoof, First King of Unicornia."

"Queen Geode had these commissioned in honor of her parents passing," the earth-pony attendant said as the two alicorns paused to look at the paintings, "I suspect she, too, will grace this hall one day."

Luna's snout curled in mild distaste at Silverhoof's painting, but said nothing. Celestia was also silent, though stared for a long moment at Stardancer's portrait. "Sleep well, old friend," she murmured quietly before they resumed their trek into the keep.

***

The suites that Celestia and Luna had been granted were, indeed, quite luxurious. In their travels, the pair of the sisters had slept in everything from barns with barely enough hay to make an improvised mattress to ornate castle keeps, but even by those latter standards what they were in was lavish. Rich hardwood carved with reliefs covered in gold leaf covered the walls, the marble floors polished to a mirror shine, gems had been set in the ceiling of the bedrooms to give the impression of a starry night. There were two bathrooms as well, both with flowing water coming from silver faucets of both hot and cold varieties and large inset tubs, almost deep and large enough for the average pony to swim, albeit briefly. Wide windows covered in silk blinds opened up onto a veranda that gave a breathtaking view of the tiered city sloping down the mountain. The beds were huge, comfy things, four poster and lined with purple silks and sheets of white satin.

It was quite a place to relax for a few hours before dinner.

When the attendant came to retrieve them for the meal, the pair of alicorns were guided down to a surprisingly cozy dining room. The roof was high arched and set with magical chandeliers that glittered with a gentle light from the inset enchanted gemstones. A long rectangular table -- enough to seat at least eight ponies -- dominated the center of the room, with a sideboard off behind the leading edge of the table. Only four places were set, facing each other, though with a bewilderingly large amount of utensils made of polished silver.

Queen Geode greeted the two alicorns with a wide smile and beside her was a youngish, butter-yellow stallion with a red mane. He was tall and thin, almost gangly, and possessed of a nervous energy that caused him to constantly shift and fidget in place. His cutie mark was an open book crossed with a shooting star, rainbow streaks flying from the star in an arc.

"Welcome, Honored Elders," Queen Geode said, still smiling broadly, "I hope you don't mind the somewhat smaller dining room. It's somewhat of a faux pas for me to entertain ponies of your station in such a place, but I rather detest those formal dinners. We'll have plenty of time for them after the funeral." Her face fell at that, but she quickly shook her head and looked towards the squirming stallion, "Allow me to introduce Astral Tome, my magical adviser and--" the Queen hesitated briefly, a blush appearing on her features, "--my consort."

Both Luna and Celestia blinked at that, the yellow unicorn stallion smiling sheepishly. "Um, h-hello there," he said, raising a hoof and waving before hesitating and frowning. He looked away and started muttering to himself, "No, no, no. You have to be more respectful than that to an Elder! Think, Tome, think! What would be appropriate..."

"I think that's fine enough," Celestia remarked with an easy smile, "And good to meet you, too, Astral Tome."

For his own part, Astral Tome jolted slightly on being addressed, staring with his mouth slightly ajar in awe. His expression suddenly changed to one of sheepishness again. "Oh, right. I said that out loud, didn't I? Sorry. For a moment there, I thought you might be able to read my mind."

Celestia couldn't resist. She grinned widely and winked at the nervous stallion, "Oh, but I can, Astral Tome! And that's a very flattering thing of you to think, but I'm old enough to be your grandmother. Besides, I think the Queen would be rather cross with you."

"I... uh... what?!" Astral Tome sputtered in confused panic, "But I wasn't-- I didn't--!"

For her own part, the Queen in question watched the interplay with amusement before speaking. "Oh, I don't know, Elder Celestia," Geode said in mock thoughtfulness, "With any other mare I might object, but for you? I think I'd make an exception."

Astral Tome's jaw fell in astonishment and he let out a strangulated croak, face flushed.

"Oh, that's very kind of you, Queen Geode," Celestia responded, grinning broadly, "Actually, I wouldn't mind if you joined in. Share and share alike!"

An incomprehensible gibber was the response from the stallion. Silence fell for a brief second before both Celestia and Queen Geode erupted in hearty laughter, leaving the still stunned stallion to gawk at the pair of mares. Through the guffaws, Celestia managed to beam brightly and wink at the stallion, "Gotcha." Astral Tome still looked perplexed.

"I think they do jest with you, Astral Tome," Luna said by way of explanation, a small amused smile on her features as well.

"Huh?" Astral Tome asked, looking towards Luna and blinking. Another beat passed before the yellow stallion let out a string of weak laughter himself, a sheepish smile gracing his features. "Oh. Oh! Y-yes, yes of course. Okay, yes, that makes sense. A joke. Whew."

"Oh, you're so fun to tease, Tomey dear," Queen Geode said to the still rather nervous stallion, nudging him lightly, "But come, we should eat! As good as a bit of laughter is, I am quite a bit peckish."

***

The meal was exquisite and the courses kept coming. Servant ponies kept bringing in dish after dish to the four diners, as well as exotic wines from all over the land. Celestia found herself eying the sideboard filled with a myriad example of promising desserts -- including a particularly scrumptious looking cake.

The conversation was also pleasant, light and chatty without seemingly meaningless. Celestia noticed with a smile that the wary unhappiness that had been Luna's mood since before they even left for Ivory Spire had elevated somewhat as her sister relaxed in the company of Queen Geode and her consort. Whatever she imagined Silverhoof's home to be, this was apparently not it.

Sadly, the pleasant atmosphere and conversation came to an abrupt end with a loud shout and a crash from outside. All four ponies froze and looked to the door. The sound of stomping hooves resonated as they approached. Celestia was about to get up and investigate when Geode sighed and put her head in her hooves, "Oh, not again."

Celestia had barely opened her mouth to speak when the door burst open, a light purple pegasus stallion with a wild, almost white mane framing the egress. Four ponies -- two unicorn guards, resplendent in golden armor, their horns glowing and a mix of their magic pulled tight around the pegasus, and two earth-ponies each wrapped around a hind leg -- held onto the interloper, trying to drag him back out. "Queen Geode!" the pegasus stallion boomed, "This is intolerable! How long is a duly appointed ambassador of Pegasopolis to be made to wait?!"

"Sir... the Queen is in conference..." one the guards gritted out between her teeth, still pulling with all her telekinetic might on the stallion to no avail, "She cannot be disturbed!"

Queen Geode sighed in exasperation and waved a hoof at the four ponies, "Release him." Reluctantly, all four did so, the earth-pony servants moving back outside the room, though the two guards remained close by. The Queen looked over at the light purple pegasus and intoned rather placidly, "As I told you, Ambassador Swift Wing, Unicornia has taken your request under advisement and is currently debating the merits of intervention."

"A month!" the pegasus -- Swift Wing, apparently, and an ambassador no less -- cried out in stentorian volume, making the walls of the small dining room shake and the crystal chandeliers above tremble and tinkle, "You have be 'debating' this issue for a full month! Enough, Queen Geode! I demand an answer!"

With visible effort, Queen Geode kept herself calm, though the thin line her lips pressed revealed her internal consternation. "What you propose will put many unicorns at risk. It must be carefully considered--"

"Considered?!" Swift Wing thundered, standing up straighter with offended sensibilities, "Your 'consideration' does not amount to much, Queen Geode. When you are supposed to be considering our proposal, where do I find you? Having a lovely little cozy meal. Hardly the intense debate you so love to use as a delay." He sniffed and motioned over to Celestia and Luna, "And these ponies! What do they have to do with... with..." Swift Wing's voice faltered and gradually died, the pegasus freezing in place. With ratcheted slowness, his head slowly swiveled to regard the two alicorns, eyes widening as if seeing them for the first time. In an instant, his wings flared with surprise before suddenly folding in on themselves and the pegasus standing at attention, saluting.

"H-Honored Elder!" Swift Wing said in surprise, his eyes flickering between Luna and Celestia, "Honored Elders! Forgive the interruption, I didn't know--"

Luna glowered authoritatively at Swift Wing, "That much is obvious." Swift Wing winced, but his stiff military posture became even stiffer at the slight admonishment.

"As I said, Ambassador Swift Wing," Geode said, her voice still a practiced calm, but now there was a small smirk in place of the tight line on her mouth, "Your proposal is under consideration." The Pegasopolis ambassador frowned, but otherwise remained ramrod straight in salute and silent.

"What proposal?" Celestia asked, curious.

Queen Geode squirmed uneasily in her seat, idly poking a morsel of food with a telekinetically motivated fork before sighing heavily. "There has been a... problem near the earth-pony frontier, where Pegasopolis claims sovereignty," she explained, "I had hoped to delay dealing with the issue until after the funeral, but..."

"So you admit to purposeful delay!" Swift Wing accused, his posture relaxing.

"We do have a state funeral to attend to," Queen Geode snapped, her patience finally breaking. She recovered quickly, however, schooling her features into an impassive mask, "My father is dead, Ambassador. The king. I'm sure you can understand how that might preoccupy affairs of state."

Swift Wing sniffed derisively, "The affairs of unicorn royalty are not of concern or interest to Pegasopolis, Your Highness, only the extent of your military aid."

Before Geode could retort, Celestia spoke up again, "I still haven't heard an explanation as to what this crisis is supposed to be?"

Uncomfortable silence reigned for several moments before a voice spoke. "Dragons," Astral Tome finally said, his previous laconic lapse at the interruption broken, "There are dragons causing trouble in the area."

"Dragons," Luna hissed, her eyes growing hard and mouth twisting into a frown.

"One dragon," Swift Wing corrected, his eyes flickering to Luna briefly, "Though a powerful and ancient one. That is why we have sent an official request for unicorn military support. While the legions of Pegasopolis are up to the task of taking down this drake, it would be easier and safer for all involved with some skilled magical backup."

Luna's eyes narrowed at the pegasus ambassador, "And why did you not send for me or my sister? If the need is truly as grave as you say, surely it would've been prudent to seek our aid."

"I am not privy to the reasoning of the Euphorate," Swift Wing replied, but quickly amended when Luna's eyes narrowed further at him, "Though if I had to guess, I would assume you either could not be found or the matter was considered unworthy of your attention."

"Unworthy of us, but worthy of the military intervention of Unicornia?" Celestia asked pointedly.

Swift Wing hesitated before responding. "As I said, I am not privy to the reasoning of the Euphorate of Pegasopolis."

"Well, we know now," Celestia mused, looking towards her sister, "I think it seems only right that we look into this matter, don't you agree?"

"It is as you say, dear sister," Luna stated with a curt nod.

"That... isn't necessary, is it?" Queen Geode said tentatively, "Surely you two are far too busy with your own affairs to intervene in such an internal matter?"

Celestia smiled beatifically, "We are never too busy to help our little ponies." The sentiment was echoed by Luna with a curt nod.

Queen Geode glanced between the two alicorns and let out another sigh, her eyes lowering to her plate and the abandoned, half-eaten foodstuffs there. "It was not my intention to have your visit, grim as it is, marred further by the vagrancies of state," she said softly, "But if you both are intent on going... I can delay the funeral for a few days." She looked up, "And I will send a company of my finest battlemages. Pegasopolis will have its support."

This brought a grim, satisfied smile to Swift Wing.

"Very well," Luna stated, her earlier relaxation gone replaced now with hard, forceful authority, "We will march on the morrow, at first light."

"Tomorrow!" Queen Geode exclaimed in surprise, "That... that's too soon! I need time to prepare--"

"Tomorrow, at dawn," Luna repeated, and her tone would brook no argument.

Queen Geode stared at the dark alicorn for a moment before turning pleading eyes to Celestia then turned them downcast. "Very well. Tomorrow."

***

"Good luck to you, Elder Celestia," Queen Geode stated, giving the larger pony a tight hug as Luna oversaw the march of the mages and the accompanying logistics crews. It had been a surprisingly fast and smooth mobilization, considering the sudden nature of the order. Truthfully, Celestia had been privately skeptical that the Queen would deliver on her promise to be ready by the dawn. Luna knew much more about military matters overall, but Celestia knew logistics. Luna was far too used to the always-ready battle practices of the pegasi; the winged ponies were always ready to fly out at moment's notice. It was difficult to arrange such an undertaking in just a few hours for unicorns or earth-ponies; Celestia had been expecting to have to wait at least another day before moving out (likely much to Luna's annoyance).

"You needn't worry," Celestia replied, hugging the Queen back, her large wings wrapping around the smaller mare, "Luna has dealt with dragons before and, in addition to your mages, we will have an army of pegasi at our back. We will defeat this monster."

Queen Geode was silent, her eyes downcast. Celestia frowned slightly, pulling back from the embrace and peering at the unicorn monarch with knitted brows. "Geode?" she asked softly, not bothering with her title, "What's wrong? What is it?"

A long pause ensued, Queen Geode's eyes still downcast. "There have been... rumors," she intoned softly, reluctantly, "Dark whispers that... that it isn't a dragon raiding the earth-pony communities." She looked up, worry and doubt plain on her features, "It is Pegasopolis itself performing the raids."

Celestia was taken slightly aback by the suggestion. "Surely you don't believe such rumors?"

Again, Queen Geode hesitated. "I'm not sure," she finally said, "It... doesn't seem likely. If the Pegasopolians themselves are raiding those earth-pony communities that they are charged to protect, why would they come to Unicornia for aid? One would think that they would want to keep the area isolated, to keep their secret. And yet... the rumors remain and I can not help but feel there is an element of truth to them. They are too consistent, too persistent to be mere idle gossip." She sighed heavily. "It's why I tried to delay sending military aid. I wanted a chance to try and confirm the truth of the matter. But now my hoof has been forced."

The realization that Celestia and her sister had been the political fulcrum on which this military adventure turned hit her like a lightening bolt. By insisting on looking into the problem, the 'honored elders' would shame Queen Geode among her peers if she failed to answer the call. The Queen had written in her letters about the trying nature of keeping power-hungry nobles from undermining her position. Why hadn't Celestia seen it before? It was too late now to do anything about it. The white alicorn winced.

"Oh. I'm sorry, Geode," Celestia said, frowning, "I... I didn't think about..."

"It's all right," Queen Geode replied with a wry smile, "As you saw, the Ambassador was being quite insistent. As it was, I couldn't delay much longer anyway and retain my honor. And in this, there wouldn't be much of a choice." Her eyes turned to watch the unicorn battlemages march through the portcullis that demarcated the walls of the palace.

Celestia's eyes widened in realization. "That is why you were able to mobilize so quickly! You already had everything prepared."

Queen Geode nodded and sighed again, "I knew I would have to send troops soon. If I have to send them anyway, then I should send them as quickly as possible. A delay at that stage would be just as politically damaging as not sending any at all." She frowned faintly, "Although, I had hoped to rally the levy vassal troops of my fiefs. Unfortunately, I didn't expect to be marching until after the funeral, so none of that was in place in time. You will have to make due with a hundred battlemages under my personal authority. I could send regular ground troops as well, but they'd be slaughtered by a dragon, if there is one."

"It will be enough," Celestia murmured quietly, still disturbed by how such a spur-of-the-moment on her part decision had altered the political landscape for her friend. She gave one last hug to the Queen of Unicornia and smiled, "We will return in a few days."

***

A long, hard march followed as the army moved inexorably towards the edge of pony-explored land and the unicorn battlemages linked up with armies led by four of the Pegasolopis Euphorate themselves.

It was a sight to behold.

Four thousand, one hundred soldiers plus the associated logistical and support staff marched and flew across the gently rolling hills of the countryside. Celestia wasn't sure there had ever been so grand a military presence before this. It also strangely put her mind at ease; surely the pegasi would not have gone to this much trouble if the threat were not real.

"The dragon lies here," Euphor-Commander Quick Kicker said, pointing to a valley on a map spread out on a table in the command tent, "Just another three miles distance away." The valley in question was visible from camp and there was a tell-tale stream of black smoke drifting up from the direction.

A white male unicorn with a neatly cropped, dark blue mane gazed over the topographical map, running a hoof down one side of the valley. "The walls are steep," he said, "And unusually curved to make both sides an overhang. It will be difficult to get a good angle to rain spells down on the beast."

The dark grey, red maned Kicker Commander canted her head to one side, "What do you propose, Captain Star Gazer?"

The military unicorn squinted at the map thoughtfully. "We can split our battlemages between both entrances to the valley and create a crossfire. We'll give up the elevated ground, but that would be of limited use against a dragon anyway. With the unusual geographical features here, I think that would be the most tactically sound. The biggest problem is the approach. We'll be vulnerable and out in the open when marching and our shield spells can't be brought to bear on a unit-level until our positions are set up."

"We can provide a screen and distraction until your forces can be in place," another pegasi with a bright blue coat and wavy, forest green mane replied, "Our main concern is bottling up the beast in the valley until your crossfire can hit. If it breaks through and takes to the air, we'll be in for a much worse fight."

Celestia and Luna sat on slightly elevated chairs, presiding over the meeting. Luna watched with intensity, nodding in approval as the pegsai and unicorn leaders discussed strategy and tactics for the upcoming battle. For her own part, Celestia listened, but much of the jargon and finer points went over her head. Instead, she found herself staring at the map.

"Excuse me," she suddenly spoke up, the conversation around the meeting table suddenly stopping as all eyes turned towards the white alicorn. "Those three markings there," Celestia motioned with a hoof to the map at an area just south to the dragon valley, "Those are earth-pony villages, yes?"

"They are," Euphor-Commander Kicker confirmed.

"Have they been evacuated?"

A silence descended over the tent for a moment. "No," Kicker responded after a while, "There hasn't been time and to do so would mean risking the dragon being alerted to our presence." The Euphor-Commander paused briefly then added, "They are in minimal danger, Honored Elder. They are far enough away that, while they may see and hear the battle, they will not be harmed. In addition, we will endeavor to keep the dragon occupied away from the villages. If they possess even a modicum of intelligence, they will keep well away from the fight."

Celestia frowned faintly. "Why are the villages there at all?" she wondered aloud, "If they're within view of the dragon's lair, surely they would've left of their own accord by now?"

The four members of the pegasus Ephorate glanced uneasily at each other before Quick Kicker responded. "Earth-ponies are stubborn," she explained, "They sometimes refuse even the most obvious and clear warnings."

The frown on Celestia's face deepened, "Even in the face of destruction? And speaking of that, why hasn't the dragon destroyed those towns in its own territory?"

"None of us are privy to the thoughts of dragons, Honored Elder," Quick Kicker replied dryly, "But we will be certain to ask the drake should there be opportunity in the battle."

Celestia quieted then and the meeting continued, but her frown persisted. She continued to stare at the map and the three little impossible villages right in the heart of a dragon's territory.

It just didn't make any sense.

***

Celestia and Luna flew with the pegasi into the valley. She watched the unicorns as they marched through the grass below, their army suddenly splitting in twain and going in opposite directions like water around a rock. She focused her eyes on the black cloud that drifted up from the valley, though her thoughts remained troubled.

It was a dragon. It had to be.

But the strangely intact villages nearby and the rumors Geode had told her about niggled on her mind. Nothing felt quite right. Something was terribly, terribly wrong about this whole situation. Celestia looked over at her sister.

Luna looked to be in her element, her face hard and set, she watched the movements of the pegasi and the unicorns below with a keen tactical eye.

Celestia again turned her attention to the valley, slowly getting closer as the massive army approached. Celestia squinted, peering into the shadowed area in the valley, trying to see the dragon.

And there it was. A green and purple monstrosity. It was huge. Titanic, even; it was the biggest dragon Celestia had ever read about, much less seen. Even in the shadow of the overhanging valley, the purple scales covering its back were sparkling with iridescent shimmers. The scales of its belly were a bright, jade green, and it had matching spears of green all along its massive back and tail, two massive green wings folded on its sides. Despite it's size, it didn't seem to have a bulk to match; it was thin and lithe, more snakelike than lizard, despite the large limbs with wickedly sharp black claws. Its narrow neck and head were down, curled around itself with puffs of black smoke occasionally venting from its nostrils. For a moment, Celestia thought it asleep, but then she noticed the slitted, amber eyes, very much open and alert.

It must see the mass of pegasi in the sky, even if it didn't see the ponies marching through the grass. And yet, it appeared unperturbed by the sight; not angry or annoyed at the noise or approaching army, or afraid, or even amused. It just seemed to be watching with placid interest. A mad idea seized Celestia's mind.

"I want to talk to it," she said.

This earned a double-take from both Luna and Euphor-Commander Quick Kicker.

"Sister, surely you jest!" Luna exclaimed, "That is a dragon! A dragon that has hurt ponies! We are poised to begin battle! Now is not a time for parley with a beast!"

"Please, Luna," Celestia implored her dark sister, "I'm not much of a military mare, but I can talk. Let me try. If I can just convince it to leave, maybe we can resolve this without bloodshed."

Luna seemed conflicted, but Euphor-Commander Quick Kicker wasn't. "I categorically refuse to allow you to speak with that monster!" she shouted, frowning, "We are here to destroy it, not engage it in idle prattle!"

Luna frowned deeply at Quick Kicker and responded sharply with harsh admonishment. "Watch your tongue, Commander! Neither my sister nor I are some young recruit barely out of flight training. You will address my sister with the same respect you show me, is that clear?"

Quick Kicker stiffened and gave a stark salute to Luna. "Y-yes, Elder Luna," she hastily said, worrying her lower lip, "I meant no disrespect. My words were carried only by my deep concern for the Honored Elder if she engaged in such a folly of an enterprise."

This mollified Luna somewhat, who nodded before turning back to Celestia. "I must agree with the Commander, dear sister," she said somewhat reluctantly, "It is too dangerous for you to attempt to speak with the creature." Her eyes narrowed as she turned towards the still seemingly unconcerned dragon some distance away, "You don't know these monsters as I do, Tia. They are vicious, greedy, sadistic creatures with no thoughts in their heads but their own wealth and lusts. They ought to be exterminated to the last."

Celestia shifted away in the air from her sister, her brows furrowing even as her eyes widened at the... well, there was no other way to describe it... hateful words Luna spoke. "Everypon-- everyone should have a chance to prove they are not the monsters others see them as," Celestia said softly, "I am not easily broken, Luna. If I raise the dragon's ire or fail in my negotiations, I will fall back and we can commence the battle. But this is a chance, Luna. A chance to end this without fighting. Any lives that have been lost previously can't be given back, but at least we can stop new ones from being taken. Please, Luna."

Luna mulled the proposal over again silently. Again, Quick Kicker intervened, "Elder Luna, I must object in the strongest way possible to this action."

After a moment, Luna reached a decision. "My sister will not go to speak to the dragon."

Euphor-Commander Quick Kicker sighed in relief.

"We will both go," Luna continued with a nod, "I will accompany her. In the meantime, order the army to stand down, but be on alert. There is to be no attack until I return."

"W-what?!" Quick Kicker stated in shock, "Honored Elder Luna, this is most irregular! The beast is unaware now, if we strike hard before it has a chance to gather itself--"

"I have made my decision, Commander," Luna said sharply, "You will comply with my orders!"

Again, Quick Kicker stiffened in mid-air and saluted, "Yes, Honored Elder."

Luna peered at the Eupor-Commander for a moment then nodded with satisfaction. "Come, sister," she said, "Let us parley."

***

Four sets of hooves set cautiously on the sparse, shady grass covered by the overhanging valley. Up close, the dragon looked even larger; Celestia could see one of the fangs of the beast was longer than she was! A moment of doubt as to the wisdom of this decision entered her mind, but she dismissed it with an effort. She had to try. Luna stood nearby, her eyes narrowed in suspicion, body like a coiled spring and ready to move at a moment's notice.

Celestia approached, stopping a respectful distance away from the dragon. She opened her mouth to speak, but found herself lacking words to say. After a moment's consternation, the white alicorn cleared her throat and said: "Lovely day, isn't it?" She winced. Not probably the best opening line for trying to get a dragon to leave.

The dragon's scaled, purple lips curled backwards revealing more rows of large, razor-sharp pointed teeth and Celestia felt her pulse quicken. It took her a moment to realize that the action was a smile, not a bearing of fangs. "I suppose so," the dragon replied, a voice feminine, but echoing with ancient power as it rumbled from her lips.

Awkward silence reigned for a few more moments, the dragon seemingly content to wait for Celestia to speak. Again, the alicorn cleared her throat. "My name is Celestia. May I ask yours?"

The dragon rumbled in her throat. "You may call me 'Caldera'."

"Caldera, right," Celestia said with a nod. She cleared her throat a third time, "Well, Caldera. It seems there is a bit of a problem here."

"Oh?" Caldera asked curiously, lifting her head slightly and tilting it.

"We have come to ask you to please vacate the valley," Celestia stated as politely as she could, "And to stop raiding all communities. Please."

The amber slitted eyes of the dragon peered intensely at Celestia and the alicorn shifted uneasily in place. It reminded her uncomfortably of when she would examine some interesting sample in her laboratory.

"I will not vacate the valley," the dragon finally said, "And I have not raided any community in thousands of years."

Celestia blinked. "If you have not raided any of the towns or villages around here, why won't you leave the valley?"

Caldera tilted her head first one way and then the other, peering at Celestia as if unsure what to make of her. "I... have a contract," she said after a moment, "And I do not break my contracts."

"Contract?" Celestia frowned, "With whom? And what about?"

"I will answer the second question first, young one," Caldera said and Celestia couldn't help but be bemused by the label -- she was over a hundred years old now, and yet she really was the young one compared to this ancient drake, "It is a contract for protection. In exchange for protection, I get treasure. It is that simple. As for who the contract is with..." The dragon's voice faded off as she lifted her head and peered towards where the three villages lie, just barely visible dots on the horizon.

"You lie!" Luna exclaimed, her wings flaring out and eyes glowing with pure, white moonlight, "Those villages could not possibly have the wealth to make a dragon your size interested!"

For the first time, Caldera focused on Luna, her scaled lips curling downwards into a frown as her amber slitted eyes narrowed. "I am no liar, dark alicorn," she rumbled in offense, "And it is not material wealth I receive from the villages. They provide me with more... ephemeral treasure."

The glow in Luna's eyes slowly faded, and her wings tucked back against her body, though the suspicious, wary expression remained. "Such as?"

"Knowledge, for one," Caldera said simply, "I am old and my horde is large. More gold or jewels would not avail me much. But knowledge and wisdom! Ah, that is a treasure worth my attention." Her gaze turned wistful for a moment, "Even as a young dragon, I preferred knowledge to gold."

"Where is your horde?" Celestia asked curiously, glancing around the valley walls. Everything she had read about dragons (which was, admittedly, very sparse) had mentioned that they keep their hordes close at claw; there was no indication that anything was here.

Caldera's eyes narrowed and her head reared up threateningly. Celestia let out a gasp and took a stumbling step backwards. "My horde is safe, little pony," the she-dragon growled, "Safe in a place no pony or any other creature will get to it... and survive." Her lips curled into a humorless smile, "Understood, young one?"

"U-understood," Celestia stammered out, "I only was wondering as it isn't here, that's all."

Caldera stared at Celestia for a moment before lowering her head again. "Very well. Forgive my outburst."

"What possible knowledge could some farm ponies on the frontier have that so interests you?" Luna asked, distrust and skepticism plain in her voice.

The ground trembled lightly from the rumbling chuckle that rolled from the massive drake. "Oh, you'd be surprised what simple farm ponies know," Caldera responded, "I was. But knowledge is only one of the things I receive for my protection. Another is... friendship." This last was spoken as if the great wyrm could not believe it herself.

Luna narrowed her eyes further. "Dragons do not have friends."

"Normally, you are correct," Caldera allowed, looking at the dark alicorn, "We dragons are a mostly solitary species. We speak, obviously, and some even build... but we do not have a society as you understand it. When I was approached with the notion, I had thought to dismiss it. Now, though...? A treasure that is virtually non-existent with my kind? The value of that is... beyond calculation."

Luna still looked skeptical, but remained quiet for the moment.

Celestia hesitated. There was one question she now needed to ask. A question she wasn't sure she wanted the answer to. She asked anyway. "What are you protecting those villages from?"

"All kinds of things, really," Caldera replied, "The odd monster, brigands..." She turned to look at the sky where the pegasus army flew, "... and those you came with. Primarily them, actually."

"What?!" Luna exclaimed in alarm, wings flaring out again.

"I am no liar," Caldera stated again though Luna hadn't repeated the accusation, "As I understand it, there was a bad harvest one year and the earth-ponies did not have the normal reparations to spare. They offered what they could to the pegasi, but not everything promised. The pegasi... took offense and started simply taking what they wanted. When one village resisted... well, that is why there are three villages in this valley, instead of four." She peered owlishly at the two alicorns, "This year has also proven to be a bad harvest. So they sought me out."

Taking a moment to get over her shock at the dragon's statement, Celestia asked, "If all that is true, why haven't you attacked yet?"

"The terms of my contract are quite explicit," Caldera stated matter-of-factly, "I am not to fight unless either personally threatened or if the villages or any of the ponies therein are. When the winged ones came to demand the yearly tribute, I repulsed them. I tried to be as gentle as possible; I don't think any were killed or even maimed. Just a few toasty feathers."

Luna stalked up to the titanic wyrm, glaring at her, "My little ponies would never do what you suggest! They protect these villages, they don't raid them!"

Caldera stared back at Luna, one massive eye lowering to peer directly at the alicorn's face. "Are you certain," she rumbled, but it was soft (or as soft as the giant dragon could make it), "Are you absolutely certain?"

"Y-yes," Luna replied, though her voice now sounded less than sure, "Their honor would demand they protect these ponies."

Caldera said nothing for a long time before finally turning away. "There all the honor lies."

Confusion replaced offense in Luna's countenance, "What does that mean?"

"It is a line from a very old story," Caldera replied slowly, "A story about an honorable being who believed the same of the rest of their kind. This Honorable One discovered that there is honor and then there is honor." Seeing the uncomprehending look in Luna's eyes, Caldera elaborated, "There was a civil war over a matter of honor. At the end of the final battle, this Honorable One discovered they were the only survivor of their people. All around them, in the piles of bodies and drenched in death and suffering, there... there all the honor lies."

Luna was stunned silent.

"If cannot convince you of the facts of the matter," Caldera continued, "Then ask the ponies of the three villages. Or return to your army and attack. Whichever would most satisfy your honor, young one." Caldera shifted and lowered her head to the ground, her huge eyes sliding closed.

***

"She has to be lying. She has to be!" Luna paced back and forth a short distance from the valley. The sun was just beginning to set now, casting an orange glow over the land, shadows lengthening and deepening.

"We asked the in the villages," Celestia said softly, "They all said the same thing: they have been attacked by the pegasi and they are under contract with the dragon for her protection."

"She could be threatening them to stick to this story about a contract!" Luna retorted.

"Then we can ask the Euphors here if there is any truth to it," Celestia suggested.

"The questioning alone would be an affront to their honor," Luna groused, scowling, "That I -- or anyone! -- would question their comportment in this way would be an insult of the highest order!" She frowned as an even greater -- and uncomfortable -- problem reared its head to her, "And... they could simply lie if asked."

Celestia grimaced. "So we attack?"

"We can't!" Luna cried, throwing her hooves up, "If she is right... if my little ponies have, indeed, abandoned their honor-bound task to protect these earth-pony villages and turned into a band of raiders..." She shook her head and turned a haunted look to her sister, "Oh, Tia. What are we to do? These doubts play on my mind and we cannot attack in good conscience, but to besmirch the honor of the pegasi and accuse them would break their trust in me! Dear sister, advice me! What am I to do?"

Celestia frowned, gnawing on her lower lip. She didn't have a simple answer.

Attack, the Voice said suddenly, Attack and you will earn the loyalty of all of Pegasopolis. In addition, Queen Geode will be in your debt for removing a troublesome political problem.

Celestia blinked. "But what if it's true?" she whispered to herself, "What if they really were sending raids to the earth-ponies?"

Irrelevant, the Voice stated coldly, The lives or livelihoods of a few small villages is not worth the entirety of Pegasopolis. Even if true, these villages have sealed their own fate by resisting the order brought by the pegasi. If, instead, you give cause with these villages, it will encourage rebellion in others. Other villages will make deals with unsavory things for protection from the pegasi, some of whom will no doubt be malevolent. The chaos will spread like plague across the frontier, the disorder will mount. Kill the dragon, bring these usurping villages under hoof. Order must be maintained.

Celestia frowned even deeper. It... made sense, didn't it? A small... sacrifice needed to secure a greater prize, a greater victory, a greater... harmony. A sacrifice of ponies to the coming battle. A sacrifice of villages to Pegasopolis. A sacrifice of honor. A sacrifice of truth for an easier fiction, if a truth there was to the accusations. It was the right thing. The logical thing. The pragmatic thing.

Celestia's face hardened. No.

"No," she said, resolute, "No, we don't just ignore this. We take our concerns to the Euphorate and lay them bare. Truth has to come before political expediency, Luna, or our little ponies will be forever looking over their shoulders for the knife in the back. If we become complicit in this -- if we give up truth -- then how many small sacrifices must be made to maintain the lie? How many ponies, how many villages, how many deeds would need to be destroyed or covered to keep this secret? Not just now, but forever. If they truly are ponies of honor -- if they are truly loyal to you, to themselves, and to the ideas they claim to embody -- then they will understand and forgive."

Luna stared at her sister for a long moment before smiling and nodding. "You are right, dear sister," she said, her earlier uncertainty and torment gone, "We will go and confront the Euphorate." Her eyes narrowed, "And the heavens help them if I discover these things to be true."

***

Luna and Celestia flew back to the still waiting pegasus army. Most of the pegasi had retired to either the ground to to makeshift cloud bivouacs and the battlemages below had also set their tents. Euphor-Commander Quick Kicker flew up to greet the pair of alicorns, her movements pensive but her face stoic.

"Elders," she said by way of greeting, bowing her head slightly.

Celestia realized that she must suspect that she and Luna knew -- from here, they no doubt saw their figures head towards the villages.

"Commander Quick Kicker," Luna stated authoritatively, "We have received some troubling reports."

"Do the words of a dragon hold such sway with you, Elder Luna?" she asked cautiously.

"They do not," Luna replied flatly, "The words of the ponies in the villages nearby, however, do. They accuse Pegasopolis of some grave crimes."

Quick Kicker's mouth pressed into a thin line, her brow furrowing. "Do they?"

Silence fell over the three as the last rays of the sun fell away and the moon began to rise up, sending its pale light over the land, the stars winking down from above. "Is there any truth to it?" Luna finally asked once the silence stretched into minutes.

"Without knowing the precise nature of these crimes, I am unable to say," Quick Kicker replied evenly.

Luna's jaw set. "Very well, I will be plain: did the Euphorate of Pegasopolis approve raids against those three villages?"

Again, Quick Kicker was silent for a long time. When she finally spoke, her voice was soft and eyes downcast. "The Euphorate of Pegasopolis approved no raids."

Relief and hope began to flood over Luna's features, but Celestia could see the lies that were not lies in the statement given. "Did the Euphorate of Pegasopolis approve of any military action against those villages, either now or previously?"

Here, Quick Kicker did not reply, her lips tightly sealing. Luna noticed and she frowned deeply. "Answer the question, Commander."

"Honored Elder," the dark pegasi said tightly to Luna, though her eyes remained staring at Celestia, "I am not under any obligation to explain military decisions to civilians outside the normal chain of command."

"Outside the-- I was given the title 'Honored Elder' by your ancestors! By my friend and your Great Leader himself Azure Charger! By your very ancestor, Sky Kicker! You will not sully their memories by your dishonor! Answer the question!" Luna roared, "Her questions are my questions for the duration!"

Quick Kicker stiffened in mid-air, her body going mostly rigid other than her wings, raising a foreleg in salute, "Yes, Elder Luna! There were some military actions taken against those villages in the past." Her eyes flickered back and forth before she quickly followed up, "But they were military actions. Not raids!"

Luna's body quaked with rage, causing Quick Kicker to swallow nervously, but the dark alicorn took a deep breath and calmed herself. "Very well. My sister and I will investigate these claims more thoroughly. Have all your units return to Cloudsdale. I and my sister will follow shortly."

"But--"

"Immediately, Euphor!" Luna commanded.

Quick Kicker hesitated then nodded before turning and moving amongst the army.

***

After seeing the somewhat confused battlemage company off back to Ivory Spire, Luna and Celestia left for Cloudsdale.

Luna had been there many times, but Celestia only once and briefly during their tours of the pony settlements. The cloud city was certainly the most expansive and populace of the cloud cities inhabited by pegasi, truly worthy of being the capitol of Pegasopolis. Ionic and Corinthian columns made of cloudstuff made more solid than the ephemeral natural clouds by pegasus hooves held up great halls, houses, and lightening forges. The whole city was awash in white, as one would expect, with the only color being banners for the various Great Clans of the Pegasi.

What was so surprising for Celestia was how easy it was to gather evidence. Luna and she interviewed hundreds of pegasi, some who knew nothing, some who were reluctant to talk, and yet many more who reported their orders with matter-of-fact transparency. There were even some who gleefully told of their attacks on the villages.

It took Celestia several dozen to finally realize why these ponies were so willing to divulge information: they well and truly believed they did nothing wrong. They were following lawful orders given by their superiors and that was that. It was orderly and efficient.

It was horrific.

Eventually, there could be little doubt. Pegasopolis had attacked and stolen food and sundries from the very ponies they had sworn to protect. Luna called a closed meeting of the Euphorate.

But this was not just a meeting.

It was a court-martial.

The five pegasi who made up the military council of the Euphorate that led the nation of Pegasopolis filed solemnly into the grand cloud amphitheater that served as their house for debate. Four Celestia recognized -- they had been in the tent planning strategy for the attack on the dragon -- but the last was new. A large, bulky yellow stallion with striped off-white and blue hair, he had remained behind in Cloudsdale while the others had lead the armies.

Celestia sat in one of the stands of the amphitheater, behind her sister and facing the five ponies. Luna stood in the center of the room, staring imperiously at the ponies.

The five ponies settled before Luna, sitting down on the cloud but nonetheless at attention.

Luna continued staring in silence for a long, long while. Eventually she spoke. "I would know one thing: why?"

The five ponies looked at each other before Quick Kicker stood and moved forward, apparently the spokespony of the group. "The earth-ponies were hiding supplies from us. We required more."

Luna's eyes narrowed, "More lies?"

"We have never lied," Quick Kicker said, stiffening slightly.

"But you didn't volunteer this important information," Luna replied, "I was told that neither I nor my sister could be found to assist. That is a lie, isn't it? You never sent word at all."

"We never sent word," Quick Kicker confirmed stiffly, "But whoever told you that was either mistaken or didn't know and conjectured. Had you asked us directly, we would have answered."

"Semantic wordplay is beneath you," Luna stated flatly.

"And condescending moralizing is beneath yours, Honored Elder," Quick Kicker replied, her voice laden with venom, "We protect ponies. You are the one who convinced our ancestors to do just that, are you not? But that protection comes with a price. We cannot afford to keep these earth-pony rabble safe without the food they bring!" Quick Kicker jabbed a hoof in the direction of the ground, "They broke this contract first, Elder Luna! They didn't abide by the rules in place. We merely enforced them."

"You conducted raids and destroyed a defenseless village!"

"We kept the natural order! Nopony was hurt badly in that village -- we took pains to make sure of that. We merely destroyed those precious items they hold so dear! An example had to be made!" Quick Kicker was trembling with anger and took a moment to calm herself before continuing. "You don't know these earth-ponies like we do, Elder Luna. They are greedy and secretive and concern themselves with the acquisition of trinkets. They have no honor. They are beneath us pegasi in more ways than just the one. They are beneath the unicorn as well. They belong scrabbling in the mud while we are vaunted into the sky itself!"

"Enough!" Luna exclaimed, her wings flaring outwards and her eyes aglow with moonlight, "Your words are nothing more than mere rationalization for your dishonor! You knew it in your heart to be wrong, that is why you did not attempt to contact me or inform me of what happened once the battle was to commence!" The glow in her eyes faded and she shook her head sadly, her wings folding against her body again. "I am so disappointed."

The pegasi shifted uneasily.

"For your crimes," Luna began, "I sentence you all to exile. Once, there was the Long Patrol, a group of pegasi and myself who scoured the countryside for threats and exploration. The Long Patrol will live again, and you five will accompany me until such time as I determine that you have served enough time or done enough brave, honorable deeds to make up for your... indiscretions. Naturally, you must all resign from any position of authority within Pegasopolis to accompany me." She looked imperiously at the five ponies, "Unless, of course, one of you wishes to challenge me?"

None of the pegasi did.

***

Celestia hugged her sister goodbye. "How long will you be gone?" she asked.

"A few years," Luna said hesitantly, "Perhaps a decade. They are good ponies, Celestia, I know it. I just need to remind them of that." She bowed her head, worried expression marring her features, "The hurt done to those earth-ponies on their orders cannot be undone, but perhaps some good can come from the tragedy regardless. Once that is done, I will return."

Celestia sighed and nodded, "All right. I'll... continue to visit our little ponies elsewhere."

"See it done," Luna stated with a nod, before hesitating. "I... will be taking the Long Patrol back to Caldera first. Not to harm her, of course," the dark alicorn stated quickly, "But to... thank her. I had misjudged her from the start and I should apologize. I can hardly ask the new Long Patrol to turn over a new leaf if I am not able to do so myself."

Celestia smiled gently and nodded, "Sounds good. I think... I think I'll also visit her, from time to time."

"I'm sure she'll appreciate that," Luna said with a smile.

***

Celestia returned to Ivory Spire alone and this time without escort. She circled the palace in a slow arc, letting the guards on the walls easily see her presence there, before spiraling down to a landing outside the main gate.

She only waited a few minutes before allowed entry, both Queen Geode and her consort Astral Tome coming out to greet her. The queen embraced the alicorn tightly, "I'm glad you've returned. But it's strange... my battlemages inform me that no war was wrought against the dragon and that you sent them home without them firing a shot. Some were quite confused and cross."

"The problem has been solved, I think," Celestia responded with a smile, "Though, I'm afraid it means that my sister will not be attending the funeral. She now has other duties for the foreseeable future."

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," Queen Geode said softly. She paused then looked towards Astral Tome briefly before turning back to the white alicorn, "There is another matter."

Celestia grimaced, "Oh no, not more dragons?"

Queen Geode let out a trilling cascade of laughter, shaking her head, "No, my friend. This is not an affair of state. Well, actually, I suppose it is, but it is a happy one." Geode smiled beatifically, "I am with child."

Celestia's eyes widened and she pulled back from the Queen of Unicornia, looking her up and down. Astral Tome smiled sheepishly and rubbed the back of his head with a hoof. "Congratulations!" Celestia exclaimed, honestly happy for the couple.

"And... we would like you to be the godmother," Queen Geode said, her voice hesitant.

Celestia blinked once before a gentle smile rose on her features, "It would be my honor."

Author's Note:

Hey everyone!

Sorry this chapter is both a bit longer and a bit later than usual. RL has been conspiring against me.

I'm not sure how well this chapter came out, honestly. I got the information I wanted out, but I still cut out some scenes to try and make the length a little better. Hopefully it still flows nicely.

As always, thanks for reading!